Welcome Constraints

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In the film It Might Get Loud, guitarist Jack White says that technology makes us lazy and laziness is bad for creativity. He is right. My first guitar cost £10, the strings stood about an inch (slight exaggeration but not much) from the neck which made my fingers work much harder to play the instrument than normal. As a result, people tell me that I can bend strings an incredible amount akin to Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd, even though I don’t use particularly a light gauge of strings.

White often uses low-quality instruments to force him to play differently, although the Gretsch he is pictured with above is not one of them!  He says:

“If it takes me three steps to get to the organ, then I’ll put it four steps away. I’ll have to run faster, I’ll have to push myself harder to get to it.”

This is something I completely understand as a musician and a scientist.  Some of the best music I made was written using poor equipment where there had to be some kind of struggle to extract something from it.  I spent a lot of time in the 1980’s and 1990’s chaining reel to reel tape recorders together, reversing and splicing tape to create sounds that had never been heard before.  Admittedly a few of these nobody ever wanted to hear again either!

Contrary to popular opinion, constraints are useful for creativity in all walks of life.  James Dyson would not have invented the Dyson vacuum cleaner if he had not become frustrated at his vacuum cleaner which “did not suck”. Isambard Kingdom Brunel would have not built the Great Western Railway without feeling frustrated that he could not get to Cornwall quickly, and so on.

The Clifton Suspension Bridge - one of the many of IK Brunel's achievements

The Clifton Suspension Bridge – one of the many of IK Brunel’s achievements

It’s important to separate what I call “real constraints” from “imaginary ones”.  A real constraint might be a law of physics, an imaginary one simply an assumption such as a way of doing things that has become a habit or paradigm within an industry. In my own experience, I was partly responsible for developing the world’s first AIDS treatment.  A real constraint was that of time.  We needed to collapse the traditional drug development process time to bring the drug to market as quickly and safely as possible.  At that time Wellcome was renowned for making tablet formulations and this would have been our “paradigm response” to the situation.  In the event, we elected to formulate the product as a capsule, something we were very inexperienced with but which would deliver the quickest route to market. This committed us to a rapid learning programme of work to develop the product. In doing so we eliminated the artificial constraint of “we always do it that way”.

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When we design creative thinking sessions for companies seeking to rethink their strategy, products, services and internal processes, I like to boundary the topic under study with the real constraints that surround it.  These should not be too many – too many constraints tend to stifle ingenious thinking and no constraints tend to produce unfocused creativity.  Some disagree with me on this, saying that creative thinking should be a no holds barred affair.  Long experience in working with people and companies that look for commercial creativity i.e. ideas that have utility suggests that this is wasteful and often does not lead to execution as the ideas developed do not pass the obstacles that are in the way of execution. The theory of constraints is well documented and mostly forgotten by people who think only about the positive side of business improvement.  I wrote recently for Sir Richard Branson on this topic in terms of the internal barriers to innovation and you can read the post at Virgin.

For many years, I’ve used my “fried egg model” to describe the essentials needed to specify a problem or opportunity that is amenable to ingenious thinking.  I was delighted when Charles Handy told me he had thought of something similar for his book “The Empty Raincoat” but later decided it was too fanciful.  The fried egg model requires there to be enough “thinking space” between “the demands or goal” and “the constraints” to provide an arena for productive creativity – “the choices”.  This is why it’s a fried egg and not a boiled one sliced through the middle!  Here is the fried egg I always carry in my bag alongside my computer as I’m sure we all do …

The Fried Egg Model - Demands, Constraints, Choices

The Fried Egg Model – Demands, Constraints, Choices

Andy Wooler offered me this excellent additional example of the use of constraints from the world of music via Arnold Schoenberg’s use of “Serialism”, of which one expression is the twelve-tone technique. We wouldn’t have the magnificent “Rite of Spring” without it. The technique requires that all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are sounded as often as one another whilst preventing the emphasis of any one note. This constraint did not get in the way of exciting music and some thought it was a breath of fresh air. Of course, as it is music, not everyone agrees!

To finish, here’s that first guitar that taught me the value of constraints – I was hold it was a Hofner Futurama by the insurance salesman that sold it to me for £10.  It was heavily modified with “Brian May” Burns Trisonic pickups which were its crowning glory.  It taught me to be strong!  I eventually managed to buy another one for a similar price although his one was so bad in construction and playing that I had to take a saw to it.  It was 1977 after all – the year of punk!

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Guitar Book Collage

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Peter Cook leads Human Dynamics, offering better Organisation Development, Training and Coaching. He offers keynotes that blend World Class Leadership Thinking with the wisdom of the street via The Academy of Rock – where Business Meets Music. Author of seven books on Business Leadership, acclaimed by Tom Peters, Professors Charles Handy, Adrian Furnham and Harvey Goldsmith CBE. Connect with us on our Linkedin Company Page and join our group The Music of Business where we discuss parallel lessons from Business and Music.

Punk Rock HR – A Manifesto for Better HR Strategy and Practice

I was asked by Steve Browne for a post that summed up my thoughts on how HR can get better.  Steve is Executive Director at La Rosa’s Pizza in the US and is a massive HR and rock music radical.  So here is my post with some background as to why I feel able to comment on such matters for my US cousins.

Having spent many years running the Kent Branch of The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) in the UK, acting as a board member of their Council, working in HR for a Pharmaceutical Company and teaching Strategic HRM at MBA level, I had an extended period to study HR strategy and practice from the viewpoints of my original careers as a scientist and innovation leader. As a result, I wrote a manifesto for HR transformation in a book called “Punk Rock People Management”.  In case you are wondering if this requires HR pros to pogo whilst doing staff appraisals, relax! The “Punk Rock” aspect of the title simply refers to three underlying principles of the punk rock phenomenon that apply to good HR strategy and practice:

SimplicitySimplification in punk was about three chords or even less.  Lou Reed once claimed that anything more than three chords is jazz.  Likewise, good HR and great leaders make the complex compellingly simple. If HR is overly complex it’s no surprise if managers reach for their own versions of policies and procedures.

Keep it simple

BrevityBrevity in punk was exactly what it said on the tin. The Ramones managed to get their message across in just over two minutes and some of Wire’s early recordings coming in at under one minute, compared with the neo classical 20 minute overtures that characterised Prog Rock (Make no mistake, I’m a big Prog Rock fan as well, but we’re not here to discuss musical tastes).  To misquote Albert Einstein good HR keeps things as short as they need to be but no shorter …

Keep it short

AuthenticityAt punk’s core was the idea of telling it like it is. Good HR also keeps things real.  In practice the great HR professional speaks in the language of the business they serve rather than hiding behind HR jargon.  Jargon is a natural feature of all professions, but when it excludes rather than engages it has lost its purpose as a kind of ‘shorthand’.

Keep it real

Authenticity Lou Reed Annie Lennox

I was speaking with Ron Thomas, CEO of Great Place to Work, in the Gulf just recently. We discussed some other qualities that characterise great HR, amongst them:

Understand the business – Good HR professionals align the HR strategy and tactics with the long-term business imperatives.  It’s what I call the “HR Six Pack”:

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The HR Six Pack – not modelled here by Iggy Pop …

Understand the numbers – Business starts with the financials rather than the appraisal process etc. A grip on the numbers gives you the context to make better HR decisions by fact rather than guesswork. HR professionals also need to be data savvy rather than leaving that to the IT or finance professionals.

Understand the context – You’ve got all your HR / Business qualifications right? So why isn’t the CEO wanting to implement the 9 box model, 360 degree appraisals and so on?  Business schools offer an idealized view of how things should be at work, but work rarely works like that. Successful HR professionals understand context and adopt a “best fit” approach, seizing opportunities to make their workplaces great and understanding the nuance of time and timing. This is usually superior than attempting to plug in “best practice” elements without considering the context, rather akin to attempting a kidney transplant without considering the recipient.

For more on subjects such as recruitment, induction, engagement, rewards, appraisal, promotion, innovation, training, conflict, exit and so on pick up a copy of “Punk Rock People Management” or attend one of our Music and Business keynotes or masterclasses.

FINAL COVER

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Peter Cook leads Human Dynamics, offering better Organisation Development, Training and Coaching. He offers keynotes that blend World Class Leadership Thinking with the wisdom of the street via The Academy of Rock – where Business Meets Music. Author of seven books on Business Leadership, acclaimed by Tom Peters, Professors Charles Handy, Adrian Furnham and Harvey Goldsmith CBE. Connect with us on our Linkedin Company Page and join our group The Music of Business where we discuss parallel lessons from Business and Music.

Contact him via peter@humdyn.co.uk

Riding the waves of change

I am a massive fan of Professor Charles Handy’s work, having met him a few times over the years. His work on portfolio careers and change in “The Empty Raincoat” resonated strongly with me when I started my business 20 years ago, in terms of the need to recognise that every business has it’s “Sigmoid Curve”. The important move in personal or business life is to recognise when you are at a point of inflexion and start a new Sigmoid Curve, as shown in this diagram:

We are in an age where a job for life hardly exists any more. Reflecting on my career it turns out that I reinvent myself in 18 year cycles: 18 years in science, leading teams to develop life-saving pharmaceuticals; 18 years teaching MBA’s in academia and; 18+ years starting up and running a business. Around 2008 I foresaw a need to adapt once again, as the recession began. As the end of 2014 approaches, I’m reflecting on some of the results of the decisions I made to make some fundamental changes back in 2008 that are leading me into my “4th age”.

Ain’t no mountain high enough …

To be effective as a consultancy business these days, you need to be a global player due to client requirements around the world. Although we’ve delivered projects across the world using our own networks in the USA and Europe, our partnership with Nadine Hack’s Global Network is a major landmark in our development as a global player and I’m humbled to have been chosen to be in such superb company.

Another important achievement in terms of scope and scale was winning a prize for our work on Leadership from Sir Richard Branson. These events have changed my perceptions as to what we might be capable of achieving in 2015.

Nadine Hack is a world leader in trustworthy behaviour and leadership

Comparing notes on Virgin albums – Meeting Sir Richard Branson

Frustrations and False Starts

Fame doesn’t pay the bills and the year has continued to be “lumpy” business wise, having spent considerable time on client projects which have then not proceeded due to internal or external changes which caused priorities to change.

I’ve also been taken for a ride on a couple of occasions, by people from public sector institutions and quangos, some of whom have asked me to speak at conferences for free in exchange for promises of in-kind benefits which never materialise. I reserve my free time for genuine charities and not such enterprises. A repeated series of “diversions” can kill smaller businesses and I’ve often wanted to invent an “authenticity tester” to separate the sheep from the goats in this respect. However I have not yet invented this gadget :-) Apparently I’m not alone in this desire!!

Has anyone invented this gadget yet?

The lesson here is to find better ways of doing the due diligence on larger projects, although sometimes the client themselves does not know that their own business is also experiencing a point of inflexion when making plans to engage external assistance. As a smaller niche business, sometimes there is little to be done other to dust yourself down and move on, rather like Jake and Elwood in “The Blues Brothers”:

Seeds of growth

That said, many times things work out fine and we’ve also had a series of very enjoyable consultancy and speaking projects in Estonia, Ireland, Romania and Germany in 2014 and promises of others in the USA and elsewhere in 2015. I’ve had equivalent joy in my musical life at The Academy of Rock – interviews with George Clinton, Roberta Flack, John Mayall, AC / DC’s drummer and, recently, joint performances with Patti Russo – Meatloaf’s long term singing partner at Henley Business School, a corporate gig for HP’s annual awards ceremony and an awesome gig in London with Bernie Tormé, guitarist for Ozzy Osbourne and Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan.

With Patti Russo at Henley Business School, Bernie Tormé at London’s Borderline, at the HP awards in Brighton, interviewing George Clinton (Prince’s spiritual Godfather) and discussing HR leadership and the Virgin Way in Romania. Below our interview with Roberta Flack

If your business is to become a true Learning Company, this involves both what Peter Senge calls “learning” and more importantly “unlearning”. So, in pursuing my new pathway as a global consultancy and keynote speaker and performer alongside my role as a business author and facilitator, what have I had to learn and let go of in order to gain momentum for change?

Learning and unlearning to adapt

To do new things, this means letting go of the “familiar”. I’ve had to turn down a few projects this year, which, although they would pay a wage, would have filled my diary, making it impossible to pursue these new directions. Leadership is as much about saying no as it is saying yes to requests.

When pursuing larger projects, there is more risk of companies defaulting on their requests. One needs to be resilient, both emotionally and financially to “play with the big boys”. I have my mum to thank for the business principle of “never a borrower or a lender be”, having never had a loan in 20 years of business and have survived the longest and deepest recession in recent times, so I feel well prepared to deal with such things. Nonetheless it is galling to spend months of your time in preparation for projects which get cancelled due to wider strategic changes. I must get better at dusting myself down from such occurrences and, hopefully, minimising them in the first place.

In pursuing a global strategy, I need to develop exceptional collaborative bonds with people who I have not necessarily spent a lot of time working face to face with. This investment in relationships ultimately leads to a return in terms of more significant and rewarding projects. Trust matters much more when you are working at a distance with people and this must be allocated a good amount of time.

Hopes and Fears for 2015

1. I’m looking to develop the relationship as a writer and partner with Virgin.com.

2. I’m also hoping to launch a new groundbreaking book on innovation and creativity that blends world class research with the pragmatism of “what works” in the field.

3. I will continue to develop the Human Dynamics and Academy of Rock brands and networks so that they compete well with the usual suspects.

4. I’m hoping to receive less fake requests for assistance, but one never knows … To be an adaptive organisation, one needs to have a plan and also be nimble and responsive …

To adapt, sometimes one needs to switch the points towards an unknown destination …

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Peter Cook leads Human Dynamics, offering better Organisation Development, Training and Coaching. He offers keynotes that blend World Class Leadership Thinking with the wisdom of the street via The Academy of Rock – where Business Meets Music. Author of seven books on Business Leadership, acclaimed by Tom Peters, Professors Charles Handy, Adrian Furnham and Harvey Goldsmith CBE. Connect with us on our Linkedin Company Page and join our group The Music of Business where we discuss parallel lessons from Business and Music.

Season’s Greetings

Festive greetings. As in previous years, we prefer to give money to charity instead of giving Christmas cards. This year we are giving our main donation to Demelza House Hospice – a charity that helps terminally ill children live out their remaining days in comfort and dignity.  We are combining our donation with the proceeds from the sale of our song written in honour of Prince earlier in the year. There’s still time to buy the song and donate to the cause if you wish: Bandcamp – 18 and over version, Bandcamp – Bleeped version

Demelza Hospice - a worthy cause that rocks

Demelza Hospice – a worthy cause that rocks

We have also made a donation to the Wikimedia Foundation – knowledge is such a valuable asset in our quest to make the world a better place.

In the meantime, here is a piece of music I composed and recorded for Christmas in my basement. The piece is themed around Cats and Snow – enjoy !!  All the very best for 2015 :-)

The School of Hard Rocks

There have been many high points in 2014.  In business terms, the partnership with Nadine Hack’s Global Network is a major landmark in our development as a global consultancy business.  I won a prize for my work from Sir Richard Branson and we’ve enjoyed consultancy projects in Estonia, Ireland, Romania and Germany in 2014.

I’ve had equivalent joy in my musical life at The Academy of Rock – interviews with George Clinton, Roberta Flack, Hawkwind, John Mayall and, recently, performances with Meatloaf’s female singing partner Patti Russo and Bernie Tormé, guitarist for Ozzy Osbourne and Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan at London’s prestigious Borderline venue.  It is to this experience that I turn in this blog to reflect on lessons from “The School of Hard Rocks”.  Here’s a video of our performance of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” to start us off:

There was no time to rehearse for this performance, save for a three minute soundcheck a few hours before we hit the stage. For me this mirrors the situation that many managers face when having to deliver a presentation or performance. What then can we learn from this in terms of transferable lessons from the Borderline to the boardroom?

Learning from The School of Hard Rocks

Over-prepare to be flexible – In my case there was no rehearsal and only about five minutes to find out how the band works as a team before the soundcheck – how it sends signals to each other, who is responsible for shortening / lengthening the song, how leadership passes from one member to another and how we end together etc. I had assumed this might be the case so I took the trouble to attend one of Bernie’s other gigs on the tour to study the musical performance. I’d also used Bernie at one of our corporate team building events so I had some idea of how he “passes the baton” from person to person during a jam, although he is not as demonstrative as Ritchie Blackmore or Prince, so careful attention is needed.

Learn to read others – Once on stage, I could not hear myself as Bernie has an old school approach to making sure “everything is up to 11″. A lot of the necessary adjustment has to be done through using your eyes and not your ears in such circumstances. The musical people amongst you will notice there are a couple of moments in the middle of “Fire” when I had misunderstood how many bars we would do in “E” and in “D”. Towards the end, politeness meant that Bernie and myself were unclear on who would take the lead and you can see some “guesswork” going on between me, Bernie and the band. Ah well, not so bad after the three minute soundcheck I guess! :-)

Be nimble, be quick – Bernie only did one number as a soundcheck – it was pretty much the same when I performed at Brands Hatch with “Punk Idol” John Otway a few years’ back and Patti Russo the other week at Henley Business School. In comparison, I recently stood in for an amateur band at a corporate event and they used 30 minutes to run through numbers – this is not what a soundcheck is for – the clue is in the title.

Expect the unexpected – The one thing I failed to prepare for was the need to climb on stage. All seemed well at the soundcheck, but once the venue filled, I was unable to get to the side of the stage where the stairs were. Once I was called to the stage, I proceeded to climb what seemed like a mountain without success, eventually needing to be hauled up by the band in a scene that looked like something from “Spinal Tap”. Ah well it caused some amusement!

BT Peter Borderline

A proud moment – Mr Tormé and me at The Borderline after I clambered to the stage in a shambolic Spinal Tapesque manner!!

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Peter Cook leads Human Dynamics, offering better Organisation Development, Training and Coaching. He offers keynotes that blend World Class Leadership Thinking with the wisdom of the street via The Academy of Rock – where Business Meets Music. Author of seven books on Business Leadership, acclaimed by Tom Peters, Professors Charles Handy, Adrian Furnham and Harvey Goldsmith CBE.

From Competitive Advantage to Collaborative Advantage

The last 100 years of business wisdom in the West has been dominated by the notion of Competitive Advantage, whereby a company or enterprise develops a product or a set of capabilities that confers some kind of unique advantage versus its competitors, ideally over an extended period of time. The concept was championed by Michael Porter via his tomes, “Competitive Advantage” and “The Competitive Advantage of Nations”. Essentially Porter’s theory is Charles Darwin for business people. Here’s an account of our recent evolution from the agrarian through the industrial to the information age.  It is not clear from this infographic whether intelligence has increased …

If Dinosaurs ruled the Earth ...

If Dinosaurs ruled the Earth …

It’s time we moved to the notion of Collaborative Advantage in a joined up world. Innovation is now so complex that it is rare for the capabilities and intelligence required to convert a new idea into a sustainable business, product or service to reside within one individual or discipline. Alongside this, the impact of our actions on the world has become correspondingly greater and we must therefore look to collaboration as a tool if we are to have a chance of making the world a better place.

But, it’s not easy. As with Darwin’s ideas about competition, the human condition tends to place emphasis on looking after number one as a priority, especially when under pressure. So voluntary activity is necessary but not sufficient to achieve the required changes. On the positive side, some companies are taking the lead in setting the conditions where collaboration is seen to be a better option than going it alone:

Unilever are at the forefront of innovation through collaboration, offering incentives for individuals to come up with ingenious ideas. So too are many small entrepreneurial start up businesses, assisted by crowdfunding. It really is possible to be small and global now. I wrote recently about the power of Collaboration for Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Entrepreneur blog. Read the piece here at Collaboration and Crowdfunding.

At a personal level, I was recently invited to give a guest keynote and collaborative musical experience at Henley Business School. Collaborating with people and organisations that you don’t own or control is a completely different animal compared with the traditional organisation model and it requires a completely different type of leadership. I am delighted to be associated with an institution that understands the difference and designs it into their Executive Education programmes.

We were blessed to have a guest appearance from Patti Russo, Meatloaf’s long term female singing partner. I’ve been working with Patti to develop the next stage of her career and she kindly agreed to come along as a special guest. Patti is a living, breathing example of someone who has collaborated with some of the biggest egos on Planet Earth. She performs with much of rock’s royalty including Cher, Queen and in the theatre with the LA version of “We Will Rock You”. A magical moment was when we launched into “Dead Ringer for Love” during the live performance part of the evening. The entire audience of leaders stood up to salute her! I was also privileged to do an acoustic “aftershow” with Patti in the bar at Henley, where we performed “You can’t always get what you want” and “I would do anything for love”, which included some great delegate collaboration.

I would do anything for love - with Patti Russo and Masterclass at Henley Business School

I would do anything for love – with Patti Russo and Masterclass at Henley Business School – Click the picture to book Patti for a unique experience

I’m also delighted to have been invited to join a global collaboration with Nadine Hack for a more sustainable business world. Nadine’s contribution to finding joined up solutions to complex world problems is unparalleled and she has started this network to continue and accelerate her work.

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Nadine Hack – Leader of a Global Network for a more sustainable world – click on the picture to find out more

Action Points

  • Competitive Advantage must be matched with Collaborative Advantage
  • Collaboration is easy to say but runs counter to many people’s DNA, so we must work hard at it
  • The internet can facilitate enterprise through collaboration via crowdfunding. See Sir Richard Branson’s articles on Collaboration Virgin.com for more on this
  • Leaders can learn to collaborate if they choose to. Please get in touch with Nadine Hack or myself to discuss collaborative leadership

To finish, here’s a song from Patti that literally sums up idea of being “under pressure”:

This Time, It’s Personnel

Today marks the release of a book of blogs edited by David D’Souza, which has been crowdsourced and which I contributed a chapter to, courtesy of Ian Davidson, who originally connected me to the enterprise. “Humane Resourced” was the first book in the series and this one “This Time, It’s Personnel” builds on the success of volume I. The book is initially available at a bargain price of £2.59 and all proceeds go to charities chosen by the authors, after Amazon have taken their wedge.

This Time It's Personnel - Click to buy the book on Amazon

This Time, It’s Personnel – Click to buy the book on Amazon

This Time, It’s Personnel contains 70 articles featuring many of the leading HR protagonists I have come to know on Twitter, such as Kim Patterson, Ian Pettigrew, Amanda Sterling, Kate Griffiths Lambeth, Ryan Cheyne, Kandy Woodfield, Anne Tynan, Nicola Barber, Simon Arrowsmith, Robert Ordever, Gemma Ruecroft, Malcolm Louth, Jo Dodds, Tim Scott, Perry Timms, Amanda Sterling, Sukh Pabial, Tash Peiterse, David D’Souza himself and Ian Davidson, to name a few.

For my part I’ve written an article for the book again. This time it is a sober analysis of HR Strategy and how that should be connected to the business and tied to behaviour at ground floor level. Last time I wrote of disruptive innovation in HR via the medium of Punk Rock, a notion which I explored with Peter Cheese, CEO of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) the other week. I am myself an FCIPD (Fellow, now Former member), having left the institute because I felt it had become too inward looking and that some HR functions lack focus on the businesses that HR serves. I must say I was impressed with Peter’s input at the event I attended on the subject of recognition the other week and am reconsidering the CIPD as a result.

So grab yourself a copy of the book and help a charity whilst it is just £2.59.

Speaking of Humane Resources, I’m meeting Patti Russo later today – Patti has performed with Meatloaf for 20 years, Cher, Queen, in the Las Vegas production of “We Will Rock You” and many others. I was deeply impressed at how she has handled her dealings with people over this time in the highly pressured and ego ridden environment that is Rock’n’Roll. She is a shining example of ethical HR practice in an industry that is not renowned for such things and I’m proud to be working with her. I know David D’Souza has also faced many challenges ensuring the production of the book, including the death of his mum, but he has quite literally made sure that “the show must go on”. This song by Patti is for him to thank him for his perseverance in adversity:

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Peter Cook leads Human Dynamics, offering better Organisation Development, Training and Coaching. He also offers keynotes that blend World Class Leadership Thinking with the wisdom of the street via The Academy of Rock – where Business Meets Music. Author of seven books on Business Leadership, acclaimed by Tom Peters, Professors Charles Handy, Adrian Furnham and Harvey Goldsmith CBE.