March 2012

Being told something is generally the consequence of someone else’s desire to bring it to your attention – that there’s a deadline looming that you need to meet, that you need to be aware that a particular activity is forbidden wherever you are, or that your choice of outfit might not be showing you in your best light. Sometimes the information is useful, sometimes it’s inadvertently amusing (I always enjoyed a friend’s office door that had a stern ‘No Tapdancing’ sign on it, in case anyone was about to break into the best Fred and Ginger routine); sometimes, however, it can have effects that we can only assume weren’t intended.

Mark Gould, writing at his Enlightened Tradition blog, provides a personal example to illustrate this point – and an explanation as to why a reminder might not have the intended effect:

I recall reading many years ago about a study which suggested that waiting staff in restaurants tended to break more crockery when they were reminded to take care than when there was no such reminder. As I once washed dishes and made coffee in a wine bar, this made sense to me. There is a lack of trust implicit in a reminder, which might make one doubt one’s abilities and therefore lead to more breakages. An alternative explanation might be that the reminder causes people to concentrate on the wrong thing — a broken plate, rather than a plate conveyed safely to its destination.”


There’s a lot of loose talk about globalisation making the world more similar everywhere you go, erasing local differences and creating a one-size-fits-all international culture. But then there’s a lot of loose talk about both globalisation and culture. A recent news story at the BBC website about a Swiss referendum that saw two-thirds of those voting rejecting an increase in the legal minimum holiday entitlement was also widely picked up elsewhere, presumably because the idea that people might vote not to have longer holidays is just too odd.

As usual, the truth is more complicated. While there are union-backed concerns about the impact of work-related stress, Switzerland is also suffering from a very strong currency that is impacting on national competitiveness and voters decided to give greater weight to the possible impact on the economy of more paid holiday entitlement as a legal requirement. The italics are important too: as a Guardian article on the story pointed out, the current legal minimum may be four weeks but the average actually received is closer to five weeks – the legislation is for a minimum, not a maximum. Career Investing blog may have commented with a simple

Ah, the Swiss.”

But the most Swiss things about the vote to this reader’s mind were:

a) A judgement about the bigger picture rather than a simple ‘longer holidays – yep, I’ll have some of that’

b) That they had a referendum about it.


Life gives us plenty of examples of unintended consequences. As we commented once before, electricity, mechanisation and computerisation freed up immense amounts of our time so that we could all work harder and longer, rather than enjoying our endless leisure time in the eternal sunshine of the pop-science prophesies. Some of us spend more time at the beach than ever before, but there’s a chance we’ll spend a fair chunk of it clutching a laptop and looking for ‘free broadband’ signs in café windows.

Sometimes the impact is so tangential that it would escape most of us, although in the case of George Gruhn, an American musical instrument collector, he no doubt sees the unintended consequence as something of a silver lining (the quote is from Tim Brookes’ enchanting read Guitar: An American Life):

The baby boomers grew up with guitars,” he began, speaking in sentences that got longer and faster, as if history itself were accelerating, “but the baby boomers were different from any generation from Australopithecus to the present in that we grew up from birth onward with antibiotics. No previous generation ever had. Turn-of-the-century life expectancy in the U.S. was about forty-two years, which wasn’t much different from what it was in ancient Greece. As result they had no mid-life crisis and they didn’t have hobbies in mid-life.”

Antibiotics weren’t designed for the benefit of the American luthiery trade, but the increase in middle-aged people with both savings and spare time has meant ‘vintage guitars’ have become hugely prized collectors’ items (if you want to make a vast return, nip back to 1957 and buy the entire stock of a music store – your money will outstrip almost any other investment), and meticulous bearded men who smell of wood shavings can make a comfortable living making arch-lutes in Vermont workshops. The audience for both products had, until recently, not been a demographic that stayed alive long enough for makers or museum curators to survive by courting them.

From an economist’s point of view, this must be pretty much a dream marketing scenario. Items whose age or price, quality and slow hand-made manufacture provide built-in scarcity value and whose marketplace has increased hugely – and will continue to be large until the demographic tide turns. Nor are unintended consequences the preserve of wooly-jumpered hippies strumming away around campfires. As Scott Granneman points out in a Register posting about them:

My British readers at least have one advantage over us Yanks: it appears that so many people in the UK are taking Prozac that the drinking water now contains traces of the drug. Wait a little longer, and security pros in the UK won’t be worrying about unintended consequences: thanks to one that I would have never thought of, they’ll be blissfully unconcerned about them.”

We can be equally confident that the developers of Prozac and of prescription antibiotics didn’t have booming guitar sales and a contaminated water supply on their list of aims, objectives or targets, yet both have come about. I’m not sure that attempting to head off these ripples of socio-economic chaos is achievable. At the moment they hatch, all new innovations are the ideas equivalent of frogspawn – lots of energetic wriggling, but not much sense of direction. How are we supposed to guess which will turn out to be the kind of frog that awaits merely the Princess’ kiss and which will become cane toads (introduced to Australia to control pests in sugarcane fields, they have become a major threat to biodiversity in their own right)? Good intentions provide no clue, as John Wilbanks shows when he refers to:

[…] the lovely example of the microwave oven, whose inventor did not intend to be part of the long term destruction of the family meal (negative unintended consequence) or of the long term movement to liberate women (positive unintended consequence). Indeed, he was a guy fixing a radar system who noticed his chocolate had melted, so it’s safe to say he didn’t have much of a social agenda at all.”

The more important point is that things tend not to get un-invented. Having made chicken curry with Bombay potatoes a viable option in 6 minutes or less on full power, the microwave is not about to depart from our lives. It’s too handy, too convenient and it makes great popcorn: what’s not to like? It doesn’t matter how regal a deckchair we park on this sand, the tide isn’t going to retreat at our command. We have to accept the situation and our responsibility for it, as Tim Healey has written:

The violence of television and the pornography of the Internet are not forced on us. The contribution which the automobile makes to a sedentary life can often be rejected. If we become a slave to our telephone or other like media, it is not the telephone which should accept the blame. Discipline is still a virtue, for ourselves and for our children.”

Likewise with any other change, the outcome of which goes beyond anything we originally had in mind. What’s needed is to accept the unintended consequence – unintended does not, after all, mean undesirable – and adapt to it, perhaps backtracking or changing tack where a new problem has arisen.

Trying to live in the world we planned to live in rather than the one we’re in is not a sensible option, let alone a realistic one. While a new idea is usually adopted – at least by those implementing it, if not those having it implemented upon them – with anticipation and expectation of the realising of its possibilities, that doesn’t mean we can turn an eye to downsides. As Panos Mourdoukoutas wrote for Forbes last year in an article called The Unintended Consequences of Outsourcing

Outsourcing’s unintended consequences for companies and industries that adapt it are not confined to the intensification of competition and corporate complacency. They extend to the relations of these companies with one of their partners – labor. If each and every activity of the value chain is gradually farmed out, what binds labor with management and stockholders? If company engineers and marketers who develop new product ideas can sense that their jobs will eventually be farmed out, why should they be loyal to the company? Wouldn’t it be better to part from the company and pursue their own value chain by farming out the development, the manufacturing and so on, to outsourcing companies?”

But deciding on the best way to house train the proverbial cat depends on whether or not it’s already out of the proverbial bag: we can’t undo history, merely deal in the present with its effects. Am I the only one to spot an irony in a quote from a Jaron Lanier interview with The Edge (a long and rambling interview that takes in social media, the disappearance of the middle class, Marx, the Tea Party and Google), which concludes as follows as he reflects on the ‘lost hope’ of a third way of computing based on micro-payments as a leveller of fields:

We’re not going to be able to test tomorrow because we’ve gone down this path so far that it will be a decade’s long project to begin to explore it, but we must find our way back. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a century after Ted Nelson first proposed this thought in 1960 that this is how the Internet should be. It might be a century before we even start to seriously try to do it, but that’s how things go sometimes in history. Sometimes it just takes a while to sort things out.”

Perhaps Lanier is wrong, and not all our current major corporations will be like Wal-Mart which he sees as in danger of squandering its own future as its actions can be seen as impoverishing its own customer base. Perhaps he is as blind to some consequences, yet to emerge, as the rest of us (although his CV and various writings suggest a far-sharper than average eye as well as mind). But I worry about ‘we must find our way back’. By all means change route, reset the navigation aids, trim the sails a little – but surely the direction has to be forward. If we start turning back time, heaven knows what the consequences might be …

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As one of the things that this blog explores is the nature and impact of our relationships, both with each other and with more abstract entities (‘the organisation’, ‘the strategy’ and so on), I was surprised when I searched for one particular word, and found only five references. The word was empathy – the ability to understand the world from someone else’s point of view. (And empathy is about understanding, not pity or admiration: empathy is about comprehension, not comparison.)

Being inquisitive, I googled the usual quotation sources, and came up similarly short-handed. (If you have a great quote about empathy, please share them with us.) As the web isn’t the only source of wisdom, I tried a few books – and found that the Oxford Dictionary of 20th Century Quotations doesn’t list it in the index at all. Reminding myself that understanding is something that sometimes needs to unearthed, I kept digging. And was subsequently relieved – if only as a human being – to find that some of the most respected minds (and mouths) in business and management theory had actually something to say on the subject:

  • The number one practical competency for success in life and work is empathy
    (Peter Drucker)
  • When you listen with empathy to another person, you give that person psychological air. And after that vital need is met, you can then focus on influencing or problem solving. This need for psychological air impacts communication in every area of life
    (Steven Covey) (more…)

I never understood the whole ‘talk to the hand’ thing. I’ve learnt a lot of things by using my hands, but never by using them as a way of avoiding doing something more educational: listening. Even if you suspect you’re going to disagree with someone, your counter-argument is going to be stronger if you listen to theirs before you attempt to demolish it. Getting the response “Face? Bovvered?” is actually less annoying when the face belongs to someone whose ears were actually functioning in the preceding seconds. And let’s be honest here: if you want someone’s attention in the future, you’re more likely to get it if you give them yours in the meantime. As the Earl of Chesterfield once observed: “Many a man would rather you heard his story than granted his request.” Neither are the perfect response, but a cold shoulder is warmer than a deaf ear.

Yet how often do we offer a deaf ear even when what we claim to be doing is wanting to hear something? Consider this example from Clay Christensen, Harvard Business School professor:

Before I published The Innovator’s Dilemma, I got a call from Andrew Grove, then the chairman of Intel. He had read one of my early papers about disruptive technology, and he asked if I could talk to his direct reports and explain my research and what it implied for Intel. Excited, I flew to Silicon Valley and showed up at the appointed time, only to have Grove say, “Look, stuff has happened. We have only 10 minutes for you. Tell us what your model of disruption means for Intel.” I said that I couldn’t—that I needed a full 30 minutes to explain the model, because only with it as context would any comments about Intel make sense. Ten minutes into my explanation, Grove interrupted: “Look, I’ve got your model. Just tell us what it means for Intel.”

As the piece goes on to explain, Christensen persists and his audience is able not only to learn but also to do so by drawing their own conclusion – taking the learning on board and processing it rather than merely accepting a line to follow. But, at least in this telling, Andy Grove thought he would still have been doing all the listening he needed to do rather earlier in the process. Let’s hope the story does him an injustice, as it would be more inspiring to learn that a CEO didn’t simply want to be told what to think.

While we tend to realise that speech can be inspirational – perhaps because of our tendency to look for leadership behaviours to aspire to and be inspired by – it’s important to remember that listening can be equally invigorating. In its 2010 Report, Exceeding Expectation: the principles of outstanding leadership (read our coverage), The Work Foundation highlighted listening as one of the defining skills of the outstanding (as opposed to merely good) leader. Here’s one of the anonymised quotes cited in the report:

So I [have] got this guy…. No-one listened to him, you know? He’s a very clever lad and he’s all over the place getting himself educated, but they thought he was lazy. But they didn’t listen you know. And all he wanted, he was bored and they weren’t stimulating him, giving him enough to do and so the worse he did, the less they gave him and it was a downhill slope all the time. I just keep giving him more and more and he’s never let me down.”

The sensation of ‘having a voice’ – ie one that is heard and that helps you feel that you are making a contribution – is one of the most critical factors in engagement and motivation. (The flipside is that ‘banging my head on the wall’ sensation that nearly all of us would have felt less often if the other party had actually been listening.) Give or take the backing music and the dress sense, a dialogue is like a tango: it takes two. For the employee to experience the sense of engagement and motivation, the manager has to listen.

As our anonymised contributor above had realised, the first step in tackling the situation really is listening. There’s a Stephen Covey quote that might be considered the managerial equivalent of ‘mirror, signal, manoeuvre’:

Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

The rush to judgement might be tempting, but listening is the skill required to gather the evidence that enables the conclusion to be leapt to. Nor is listening simply a ‘once only’ activity. As Robin Wright pointed out in an episode of Radio 4’s The Bottom Line series in late 2009, giving feedback is also about listening. When we wrote about that episode at the time, we made the point that feedback is a looping process – ‘Communicating, not broadcasting’ as we titled the piece.

Given the role of listening in sales – where, at least among the better practitioners, it is seen as common sense that the best way to find out what someone might be interested in buying is to ask them what they want or need and then listen to them – its importance in more metaphorical aspects of selling (managing, supervising, persuading, initiating, leading change) should be equally obvious, though that is not always the case. Listening is not just hearing: it involves paying closer attention, processing what is heard into understanding – and into questions that can be asked to deepen and clarify that understanding.

Asking questions is one way to practice, and one that – like feedback – encourages communication to become a dialogue. If you find yourself merely hearing, remember the words of Igor Stravinsky:

To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.

That open palm that many of us find ourselves talking to – metaphorically or literally – from time to time is meant to silence, but its impact is ultimately to isolate. Not just the person being silenced, but also the person doing the silencing. Listening isn’t just something we do while we’re waiting for our turn to speak – which reducing the notions of dialogue, feedback and understanding to the level of the old joke about ‘How dare you fart in front of my wife?’.

Listening is something we do so that when our turn comes to speak – if speaking is even appropriate – we do so from a better-informed standpoint. And what we say is not simply ‘our turn’, but a fully fledged response. To quote from a fine article in the December 2011 edition of Training Journal:

Quality listening involves us momentarily stepping out of our own frame of reference and into that of another. It involves us acknowledging and affirming another. It requires us to see and experience someone other than ourselves.”

Try the ‘talk to the hand’ routine to often and what you wind up hearing may be little more than the sound of footsteps as they get further and further away. Which isn’t the learning experience it might have been.

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Ah yes, time. Bit of a sticky one. We can’t evade it, escape its ravages or turn it back. It’s only a 30 minute walk from the Thames Barrier to the Greenwich Observatory, but while the former can contain (if not quite literally turn back) the tide, the latter can only mark time. There is a long and fascinating history of the relationship between time and tide.  In inventing reliable marine chronometers, John Harrison – whose story was memorably told in the Dava Sobel novel Longitude – not only reliably measured time, but made safe sea travel possible. Appropriately, his early timepieces are on display in Greenwich too, at the National Maritime Museum. To prove the point that time is inexorable, the first three are still running. So next time you fill in a timesheet, now you know one of the people to thank for the opportunity.

At which point, a confession. It’s not so much that I struggle to embrace the joy of timesheets (although that’s true), but that I struggle to do so when I see how they’re used – not by the people completing them, but by the people collecting and collating them. (And, quite often, not collating them.) The first absurdity is working out how to log all the time you need to spend logging your time. Timesheets impose their own overhead on the productivity they are supposedly monitoring. Every 15 minutes we spend recording our time is 15 minutes lost to a more productive task. It’s enough to spark anyone’s inner Dilbert cartoon (speaking of which …)

My own inner Dilbert duly sparked, a more serious point. Timesheets are, like most other spreadsheets based around recording, simply a historic snapshot. Compiling them doesn’t change anything – except, ironically, to take up more of our time. We’ve argued before that the most important question is ‘Why?’, and timesheets are a prime case.


Adrian Savage’s book, Slow Leadership, was published in 2006, which possibly makes it all the more appropriate to be finally mentioning it now. Some things take time, you know.  Even the blog of the same name, which he wrote as Carmine Coyote, ceased to be back in 2009, yet he appeared in an interview with OfficeArrow seemingly published earlier this week (just this once, I’m questioning the veracity of Google’s additional search tools.) Whatever the truth behind the digital date-stamping, the idea lives on.

The larger, and generally rather loose, Slow Movement can be dated back to the early 1990s in Italy and the origination of the Slow Food Movement. It wasn’t – perhaps appropriately for a country associated with zipping about on scooters as well as glamorous languor – entirely about removing speed and haste from the equation. Embracing elements such as seasonal and local ingredients, sustainability in farming and shopping practices, Slow Food was (and is) about food, taste, flavour and taking the time to appreciate the flavour and the occasion. As the Re:Focus blog commented in another article contesting our contemporary obsession with haste and pace, Go Slow, the value of a home-cooked meal isn’t just the total price of the ingredients:

We can’t make something with love in a microwave.” (more…)

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