Outwitting the lovely Ondine, or making the right choices in hard times!

I watched a piece on breakfast television about a small child with something that sounded sinister, Ondine’s Curse.  This is a respiratory disorder that is fatal if untreated as sufferers stop breathing during sleep. It is very rare and the name is a reference to the myth of Ondine, a water nymph who had an unfaithful mortal lover. He swore to her that his every waking breath would be a testimony of his love. He was unfaithful so she cursed him; if he should fall asleep, he would forget to breathe. Eventually, he fell asleep and his breathing stopped. Anyway the story this morning was really about the child being able to be at home for Christmas because someone had invented a ventilator that was small enough for a child’s room!

Ventilators are usually large, cumbersome and difficult to accommodate! So this invention, not only adds to the happiness of a small child and her family, it also reduces the cost of her care to the NHS. No longer will she need expensive hospital resources, even with back up at home from community nursing staff, there will be a saving!

What struck me most was the need to take a long view when reducing costs. Inventing new equipment to reduce costs (and hopefully improve quality) long-term takes time and investment. Also, it requires creativity and teamwork! None of these qualities thrive in hard and uncaring environments. To achieve a climate that can deliver long-term ‘efficiency’ improvements while maintaining (or even improving) quality takes great leadership.

Exam question for December 2010 – do you think your leadership abilities would be up to the challenge? How are you going to maintain/improve them next year?

I would like to wish all readers a very Happy Christmas and a very creative New Year in this time of challenge! I hope you will come back because there will be lots more here next year to help you manage the changes you face!

Alice down the rabbit hole – or customer service and schizophrenia in the downturn!

I’m reading ‘Surviving Change – A Manager’s Guide’ from Harvard Business Press. It advises on managing in the downturn and opens with a discussion of different survival strategies – hard and soft!  In fact, most change is a mixture of the two and the strategy chosen usually reflects the underlying culture of the organisation!   How the mix works is critical because if it is not well managed it can become fraught with conflict and demoralising for people in the organisation; it can lead to a schizophrenic approach to customers.

The ‘hard’ approach to change is usually short-term and about economics  – cut costs and increase cash flow! If a unit, or an employee, cannot demonstrate how they add financial value, out they go with very little ceremony or concern for personal well-being. The change is usually hard driven from the top with little wider engagement.  Often consultants advise the magic inner circle and HR consultants deal with casualties that might cost the organisation.

Soft change focuses on developing the organisation to meet new conditions with high engagement across the piece from the leaders. Employees trust in the informal contract they have with the organisation and work towards its well being.

Sadly experience shows that neither soft or hard approaches work in isolation.  The hard approach works in the short term but with that alone you are usually left with a demoralised and disloyal workforce – your best employees probably left at a rate of knots when you started the change.  The soft approach can take years to embed and the market doesn’t stand still!

Most successful change is a combination of hard (rationalisation well managed) and soft (employee engagement and encouragement to learn new skills).  But if change is a reflection of underlying culture and that has conflicts within it, a change can put the whole organisation out of kilter.  What I’m thinking of here is an organisation that pays lip service to soft but is really hard.  I believe in the downturn this is likely to be an increasing problem, particularly in the service sector.

Clients of service companies, particularly in the UK public sector, like to hear how well the company manages its employees.  A tender panel may take great interest in training and development approaches but, of course, the final decision is usually made on the keenest price.  In the present climate the client is likely to continue to seek cost reductions, which mean lots of change to be managed.  This can lead a company into a kind of schizophrenia.  It flags up all the good things its HR team would like to do but finds itself increasingly having to make hard, and very short-term, decisions.  As a consequence, its own employees and its middle managers in particular, become confused and a little cynical!  In turn this impacts on the service delivered to the client – so the client pushes harder!

What is the answer.? Well maybe it starts with a little more honesty on both sides!   Perhaps clients should start being more realistic about how they expect their service companies to manage for the price they are prepared to pay.  Perhaps the companies should be a little more honest with clients, and  with themselves, about the real costs of delivering ‘cuts’  At the end of the day, a client gets what they pay for and it they want to see services well managed with employees committed to the services they deliver, they need to recognise there will always be a cost even in the downturn!


Last year I suggested we should take regular stock of our lives, just as we go to see the dentist for a regular check up! We all know we should do it!  But many of us don’t!   Most of us would gain from a simple check up once a year!  December is a superb time to take stock both on a professional and a personal level.  We can then begin to  think through our plans for next year and how we are going to make it brilliant! So come with me –  get your pad and pen and follow this link to my guidance on making a start.


On dressing, distressing and the dangers of group think!

I watched the Weakest Link last night.  Anne Robinson was clearly in good form!  I missed most of the opening round but I did see the first departure and that made me wonder.  Dave was voted off mainly, apparently,  for his rather flamboyant shirt and the distraction it caused for others.  He hadn’t got any of the questions wrong.  For me his response to going was confusing!   He had a fairly fixed smile on his face as he commented that no one would be surprised as he was expected to have ago at things and fail.

For me this raises a number of challenging issues:

  • Dressing for the programme/part/job really does make a difference! For this group, certainly how you dressed mattered.  When faced with making a choice, even when all other things were equal, the shirt was the deciding factor.
  • Believing you are going to fail usually means you do! If you don’t see yourself as a success, and don’t have the confidence that flows from that vision, then you begin to behave as if failure has already happened.  The energy level drops  and, guess what, down you fall from your tightrope!
  • Standing out from the crowd is risky!  Choosing to stand out from the crowd is always brave but to some degree it is usually required for real success.  It is risky! You put yourself apart from the group and that can mean they turn on you!  If you are already reconciled to failure this can be very risky indeed!  It is very easy to slip into the role of victim and that can lead to bullying – see the point below!
  • Group think can be damage. I doubt these nice middle class contestants would have commented so publicly on someone’s dress, in a group with different values.  In a group it is very easy for us to take on group values and sometimes even slip into the habit of criticising to the point of bullying and destroying someone else’s confidence.   Do the groups you belong to reflect your own values? As a manager – what steps do you take to monitor the values of the groups you lead and how do you intervene to protect potential victims?

I would be very interested in your views on the issues raised here.  Have you been in a group that regarded you as ‘different’?  What happened and how did you handle it?  Have you found yourself managing a group that developed values different from those you would of chosen? What did you do?

3 Steps to Turning Around Your Performance – Management Tip of the Day – December 1, 2010 – Harvard Business Review

No one likes to be an underperformer. Yet, failing to meet expectations doesn’t have to feel like the end of the world. Follow these three steps to turn your poor performance around:

  1. Accept it and ask for help. Don’t be defensive. If the data shows you are underperforming, accept it and ask for help to get better. Ask others to share insights about how you can improve.
  2. Understand the underlying cause. Do you not have the right skills? Are you uninterested in the work? Whatever it is, get to the bottom of what’s causing you to come up short.
  3. Commit to change. Identify what it is you need to do differently and ask those around you to keep you accountable.

Today’s Management Tip was adapted from “Help! I’m an Underperformer.” by Amy Gallo.

3 Steps to Turning Around Your Performance – Management Tip of the Day – December 1, 2010 – Harvard Business Review.