Category Archives: Change

Rules of Mindset Part 1

When ‘Brian’s’, our local chippy, served its last cod, chips and mushy peas, the community (well, our house) went into deep shock.  Friday nights queuing out into the street with the rest of the neighbourhood wouldn’t be the same.  The experience of lifting the kids up to admire the photos on the walls of Brian holding huge Carp caught on his holidays in Spain and Ireland, dismissed to folklore.  To make the situation worse, the shop was to become yet another Chinese take away.
Here we have a microcosm of any change process.  In a community of many disparate souls united around their routine of Friday night feasting there was disarray; ‘but this is the way we do it round here’.  Only traditional fish supper will do the job. Our minds are set. 
They are of course set by the ‘us’ under the influence of our family, friends and neighbours.  We talk endlessly of tradition, our way of life.  We tell stories of the good old days when Brian used the Daily Mail to wrap our chips.  How, at one time, you could turn up with a plate and get a Sunday lunch with cabbage.  The stories we told got more outraged and outrageous (I don’t remember the cabbage; I’m sure there was only mushy peas and curry sauce myself, but I went along with it). Pensioners, students, professionals, children, families, even whole streets were as one, steadfastly in support of our mindset.
Mindset rule 1: Mindset is always subjectively created
Mindset rule 2: The creator is the individual themselves
‘Wok this Way’ duly opened.  To start with only the local student population could bring themselves to visit.  However, they were soon joined (the following week in fact) by the rest of us.  The spectacle of the photos was replaced by a state of the art kitchen where the assembled throng queuing in the street could watch through the window, two Chinese Chefs ‘wokking’ away.  Steam, smoke and the occasional flame had us gasping like a crowd on Bonfire night.  Pure theatre – and fine Chow Mien!  A new story; a new Mindset. 

What’s your story?

Last Saturday I challenged my youngest son to accompany me on a 78 mile bike ride through the English Peak District. A clue to the topography is in the name given to the area.  This was to be a long ride up many steep hills, 2,500meters of climb to be precise.  I had initially planned a 60 mile ride but in order to get in the best cafes, it became slightly longer.  ‘It’s only 18 miles more’, I said as he prepared for the off, ‘that’s hardly anything’. As a scientist researching for a doctorate, he pointed out that 18 miles should be described as a ‘significant increase’ rather than ‘hardy anything’.  So, goals change, that’s life.
A bright breezy day greeted us as we set off.  Soon, he was head down into the wind while I tucked in behind.  Youth before wisdom!  That was until he dropped me and I had to struggle into the wind under my own steam. The miles quickly passed, conversation turned to the flaws in my earlier blog on queuing.   Teslar came under scrutiny, as did the exact dates for wassailing!  Where was the mention of queuing theory?  As someone having trouble breathing at the time, we had a rather one sided debate.
Cafes came and went, conversations ranged from deep intellectuality to food; in reality, mostly food. We saved the sting in the tail till near the end, Ewden Valley North side is a monster hill but when this is separating you from a nice cup of tea it was soon overcome.  We had a great day out, all obstacles overcome, and a few laughs on the way.
I know my editor, like many of you will be thinking, ‘where is this going?’  How is this about change? 
Any training is about change.  We invested our time and effort, putting ourselves under stress to effect a physiological change.  This was one of many such rides to prepare ourselves for the Marmotte in July.  We have no illusion that one great ride will be sufficient to bring about the lasting improvement in fitness needed to do a 118 mile race with 5000m of Alpine climbs. 
Our story is not unlike the journey many organisations with whom we work undertake.  Like any major improvement it takes a particular mindset: To achieve our goal what attitudes and behaviours are required?  What skills and competencies do we need to develop and practice?  What support do we need? What rewards signify our progress (cafe stops)?  Most importantly we have to be emotionally engaged otherwise why would we do it? 
So we know where we are going, we understand the magnitude of the challenge, we’re up for it, so let’s have some fun on the way.
What will your story be?

Great inspiration from ‘Bad Birdwatching’

When Simon Barnes wrote ‘How to be a Bad Birdwatcher’ he produced an excellent introduction to bird watching.  It has also become one of my all time inspirational books.  No, no, bear with me here, let me explain.

As usual I was an hour early for a meeting and was therefore killing time in a bookshop. As I perused the titles, occasionally skimming their contents, I came across an unassuming book with a line drawing of a bird on the front; its title ‘How to be a Bad Birdwatcher’.  I had no interest in birdwatching so only gave it a cursory glance. As I continued to browse, for some reason this dismissive act bothered me and I went back and took it off the shelf for a second time.

A moment of epiphany?  Not quite! I rationalised that having no interest whatsoever in birdwatching I couldn’t justify spending the cover price and left the shop. But, it continued bothering me.

In fact it bothered me for two weeks until one Saturday I made a special trip to a bookshop and purposefully sought out this mysterious tome.  As I left with my copy I couldn’t understand why I felt so compelled to buy this book. 

The upshot is that it is a great book about birdwatching and as I sit here typing this blog I keep glancing out of the window, looking for unusual ornithological passers-by.  This hasn’t changed my life… honestly!

The tenet of the book is that all around us are birds.  How often do we notice them? They’re always there and easy to spot.  The point is how often we fail to notice them.  Most people will go through their day without noticing the birds around them.  This created one of those great analogies. 

Ideas are the same. We are often blind to that great idea which can make our lives, nay, everyone’s lives better.  How often do they flit into view but we don’t notice them? What if like me, you walked with your head up looking for ideas to come into view.  You became like the bad birdwatcher – someone who enjoys observing whatever comes your way.  You never know what inspiration that might bring.

I’ve told this story at many conferences, but it comes with a warning.  For those of you who now rush to buy this life-changing book, it is about birdwatching, that in itself can distract you from spotting ideas.  Hey, a lesser-spotted woodpecker on my bird feeder… sorry, got to go

In search of the truth

It was on a visit to a large organisation that I discovered there are three versions of the same history.  While this didn’t come as a surprise, it was a revelation.  My ‘Road to Damascus’ moment came as I was waiting between meetings in a communal area which served two call-centres.  The only opportunity employees had to make personal calls was during their breaks and they had to leave the office floor so they wouldn’t disturb their colleagues.  I’d settled into a comfortable chair to catch up on some notes, my reflections of leadership throughout the organisation.  As I digested the views of Directors, Senior Managers and Team Leaders, the workforce came and inadvertently gave their verdict.
Version 1          The history we want
‘We are a people business’ effused the Directors.  Here was the ‘Party-line’ postulated by consummate politicians.  They told me what they thought I wanted to hear.  MBA’s and leadership books were regurgitated, often punctuated with quotes and namedropping.  My word, they were a well read group.
Version 2          The history we need
Senior Managers on the other hand described what they thought was happening.  They didn’t try the academic one-upmanship of their seniors.  They did however have data… lots of data; staff surveys, customer surveys, attrition, absence, focus-groups and good news stories.  Evidence was abundant.  Interpretation however was skewed by the need to report how well things were going.
Version 3          His-story
I couldn’t help but catch the conversations people were having with friends and family on their phones.  After all they were only standing one or two metres from where I was sitting.  Their perspective on how they were managed, their aspirations and their engagement with the organisation flowed out, no holds barred.  Language was colourful, animated and indeed, passionate.  In contrast to versions of history given by the Leadership team, comments were mostly negative, many were bored, few felt they were participants. The majority believed their sole contribution was simply to make up the numbers.
As FBI Agent Fox Mulder said whilst investigating the X –Files ‘The truth is out there’. It lies somewhere between these three versions.  You just have to listen hard enough in order to find it.

Follow the Leader (Make that change)

In the days when Health and Safety allowed kids to race about unsupervised, climb and jump, we played a game called ’follow the leader’.  One person was selected as the leader, the rest follow and copied their actions.  Some were brilliant leaders; they challenged us to push our limits, encouraging us to try something new, different and daring.
I was always an enthusiastic follower until the occasion that one particular leader leapt from the canal bridge to the tow path below, slipped and fell into the cold, mucky water. 
There were lessons learned from the leadership game which are just as useful today:
  1. You don’t need to know where you are going, just what you want to achieve.  Just because we have always been this way doesn’t mean it is the only route.  A new way can be great fun.
  2. Lead by example:  It isn’t an intellectual activity.  You have to show your commitment.  When people trust and follow you, can they look you in the eye, and see that you are emotionally committed to the cause.
  3. Engage people.  Look for ways to let them participate, join in, and influence the journey.
  4. Be aware of emotions.  If you recognise somebody’s emotional state then you can choose the most effective ways of motivating them.  How many times have we found leaders expecting their teams to change before historical baggage has been cleared.
  5. Praise success.  Quick wins and small victories as a team or from individuals encourages everybody to work hard towards the goal.
  6. Challenge to motivate.  You never know what can be achieved unless you try something different.
  7. Support innovators; these are the people who will find the new ways, those routes that others may require encouragement to try but which might take you to new heights.
  8. Encourage a sense of urgency to do something now rather than letting the moment pass.  Momentum is difficult to initiate but once you are on the move it is easier to maintain.
  9. Be prepared to swim.  The adventure sometimes takes unexpected turns.

Custodians of the Rules

The rule makers
If you’ve ever observed kids at play, before too long they start to make up rules. It’s in our nature to control our cultural environment to make it more manageable.  When you use your adult experience to judge these ‘play’ rules they often seem arbitrary, unnecessary and limiting.  To the children they are real, important and they are often forcefully applied.  Child’s play replicates real life. What if we stood back and observed ourselves at work; how many of the rules we have created would seem arbitrary, unnecessary and limiting?
Rules evolve from the need to control.  I look at some of the rules I’m governed by and have no idea where they came from. Why is 30mph the speed limit in a built up area?  Why does the grouse-shooting season start on the 12th August not the 11th?  Why is 9:00 the TV watershed? Why can’t I walk on the grass?
Then there are the workplace rules; you can’t have the internet unless you are a senior manager, you must always sign for the meeting room key, only Directors can use this lift (a rule at a famous football club). Each rigorously enforced but to the casual observer, arbitrary, unnecessary and limiting.  When I ask people to collect examples of the written and unwritten rules from around their own environment it often prompts them to ask, why?
The rulers
Once the rules are established we get custodians of the rules; people who have a stake in maintaining the rules and identify with them.  They become emotionally attached to the prescribed way.  Their function is to continually limit what can happen.  As people start to push the boundaries, new rules are created to stop them.  We find rules prescribing ‘best practice’ which means that any other good practice is not allowed.  A patriarchal mindset prevails. We do it this way because ‘someone’ knows best. We get the official ‘rule police’ who are employed to ensure the rules are followed and the cultural champions who believe it is right for them to protect the rules.
The ruled
Interestingly if you read the above paragraph again from the perspective of your own personal rules it becomes easy to understand why people find it hard to break from the norm.  We even create our own personal set of immutable legislation to which we become emotionally attached – our mindset.
The odds are stacked against making a step change in performance.  The rules are set either formally or informally.  They are governed by others and ourselves.  They are also used as a credible excuse for inertia, so even when we can see that something is not functioning as we want we claim our hands are tied, there can be no more.
This is not a call for anarchy.  Some rules are necessary.  All I’m saying is that there are many rules which have evolved to meet a past circumstance which has long since disappeared. It is conceivable that there is the possibility that changing the rules might enable new opportunities to arise.  Be prepared to change the rules – then I might not have to carry 2 tonnes of equipment up three flights of stairs just on the off-chance a Director might want to use the lift at 7:00 in the morning!


Mindset is a peculiar phenomenon that is only now being recognised as a key component in the success or failure of any department, organisation or industry.  To be successful a majority of people must have a success mindset.  If we hear words like ‘we’ve always do it like this round here’ or ‘we need a period of stability’ or ‘it’ll never work’ we take these as warning signs that we are dealing with fixed Mindset.
Organisations can spend fortunes on restructuring or reengineering and produce wonderful structural charts that demonstrate massive benefits to the organisation. On implementation however, some of these benefits fail to materialise as they have not attended to the one essential component that will make a difference – the mindset of those responsible for delivering the change.
How many times have we been frustrated by the pace of change, by the reluctance in some to take up new ideas?  Why do people react to new situations in different ways?
For example: how can football supporters from two teams go to the same game and see two different matches? “We won easily” vs. “We was robbed”.    Or the management of your organisation see the latest change initiative delivering a real improvement to the way we work with our customers and some colleagues see it as something that will make it harder to put the customer’s first.
Our view of the world, like a television set, has different controls; brightness, contrast, colour, volume.  All these controls affect the picture we see, the story we tell, they filter, distort, emphasise or minimise different aspects of what is happening around us.  The funny thing is we have our own control stick;  people are responsible for their own settings.  Over time we reinforce our view of the world and the story we want to believe.  This is mindset.
When a mindset becomes established it is very hard to change.  How often do we find departments, teams, families all sharing the same view of the world?  Peer group pressure ensures the status quo is maintained. 
To make a real change, to shift to the next level of productivity, there has to be a change in Mindset.  Alternatively organisations can throw huge amounts of effort, time, money and goodwill into the change process only to find that whilst some things are different (usually processes and structure) fundamentally the same attitudes and behaviours are still prevalent.  The only way for change to be successful is for mindsets to adjust accordingly.  It is the toughest aspect of the change process; it is frustrating and challenging.  But when it starts to happen it is the most inspiring, satisfying and ultimately vital aspect of realising all the ambitions of a change programme. 
(Thanks to Mike Rix for the inspiration)

Don’t look at the tree!

A very wise paragliding instructor once gave me some very sound advice.  He quite simply said ‘Don’t look at the tree’.  The tree in question is on the edge of the landing field right in the centre of Interlaken, Switzerland.  As tourists sit in the surrounding cafes and bars sipping tea or having a beer, soaking in the spectacular surrounding and views of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau, paraglider pilots are trying to land in the field in front of them.  Nothing could be more embarrassing or dangerous than to crash into this tree, which is why you tend to look at it. 
Experience has now taught me that when you look at something as you are about to land, ‘it’ develops some sort of magnetic attraction which causes you to end up in it, on it, or through it.  This is not good if the ‘it’ in question is a bog, pond, hedge, field of wheat or a cow!  These are awkward but not usually life threatening. So don’t look at the tree makes a lot of sense.
When organisations set about their flight to improvement everyone has an overwhelming and natural tendency to start to compile a list of all those things that might go wrong.  The starting point is often to highlight all those ‘trees’ that you might crash into.  Trouble with ‘the board’, ‘the unions’, ‘planning’.  Where is the money coming from?  We won’t have enough time.  Then there is the biggest tree of all, a mighty oak with branches covering your landing zone … ‘they won’t like it’.  ‘They’ are anyone and everyone.
My paragliding instructor didn’t leave me with paranoia of hitting the tree, he is a brilliant instructor and gave an even better piece of advice which was ‘keep your eye on your virtual landing spot at all times’.  There isn’t a big red spot in the middle of the field to aim at so you have to choose a spot on the grass ‘your virtual landing spot’ and aim at that. 
When we start an improvement programme we need to keep our eye on what we want to achieve.  Always have the end goal in sight.  If you do that then there is every chance you will achieve what you want.  If you get distracted and start to look in the direction of your ‘tree’ then that is where your focus is and that’s where you’ll land.
Just to set the record straight I’ve never hit the tree in Interlaken and luckily the cow moved at the last minute but that was close!

Recruiting followers: a lesson from the class room

Any change programme needs followers, those people that will get behind what is happening and give it critical mass.  What makes followers follow?  Do we nurture them or just expect people to leap on our passing band wagon?
Many years ago as a fledgling teacher I was taken under the wing of a very wise experienced colleague, John,  who gave me a few tips on how to win round the toughest Year 10 group that the school had put together.  Some crazy management idea that if you put all the worst behaved kids in one class it would put all the disruptive influence in one place which would help all the other students achieve their potential.  Pity the poor teacher, (me), that had to find ways to enable these young people to find their way to success. 
John’s observation was that in general 20% of the class wanted me to succeed and given slight encouragement would be supportive. 60% would sit on the fence and go with whichever side was in the ascendancy.  Of this group some were more supportive than others and would leave their lofty perch sooner rather than later.  This left what John eloquently described as ‘the greatly troubled’ whose sole objective was the status they achieved through their notoriety.   Let’s face it, these children had very little going on in their lives that could offer them hope of achievement in any other form.
John suggested I start by winning over ‘the supporters’.  Rather than focusing attention on problem students make sure the ones that wanted me to succeed felt valued such that they understood I wanted them to be winners.  Within two lessons this had been achieved and some of the ‘fence sitters’ also decided to join this group.  Bringing the 60% over to my side meant working on them a few at a time.  Plenty of praise to reward good behaviours and giving them opportunity to be successful paid off.  Eventually after a few weeks things had vastly improved, I had a critical mass of followers.  80% were now working well and on my side.  John’s advice was now to divide and rule, pick off ‘the greatly troubled’ one at a time.  It started by paying each special attention, arranging for comments by their head of year about their good behaviour at school assembly. Being praised for doing good in front of 200 of your peers makes it difficult to maintain a ‘hard man’ image. Gradually each was won over until there was one left.  Only Wayne remained resolute in his defiance.
Unfortunately for Wayne I noticed him sitting at the front of one of his classes studiously grappling with some geographical activity.  I immediately sought advice from Mrs Jones the geography teacher, as to what magic she had used to achieve such a remarkable turnaround.  Wayne had apparently had a lapse of concentration in one lesson and forgot to be disruptive, he did just enough work to justify praising his progress.  Wayne never got praise usually, he liked it and next lesson evicted the swats from the front of the class so he could become Mrs Jones’ star pupil.
Not one to deprive Wayne of further success I commented to him that I’d heard how well he was doing in geography, how Mrs Jones had told me about his hard work and indeed ability.  He seemed genuinely flattered.  Before too long he was sitting at the front of my class, my new star pupil.
In all organisations we find supporters, fence sitters and the greatly troubled.  We need them all to become followers.  As John sagely said: ‘where there’s a Wayne, there’s a way’.

Why change the rules?

My Grandfather was a highly skilled cabinet maker.  He worked out of a small workshop from where he produced fine furniture.  His apprenticeship had been long and exacting such that his skills were of the very highest standard.

I was with my father sorting through a trunk which contained some of his tools. As we unwrapped oil soaked cloths to reveal beautiful tenon saws and wooden planes I remarked that my grandfather would have turned in his grave if he could see the power tools that unskilled people like me used these days.  He just laughed and confessed that grandfather’s workshop was as automated as it was possible to get.  He made electric planes, band saws and many other gizmos to make his work easier, faster and better. 

At one time if you drove a motor car you had to have a man walk in front of your vehicle with a flag to warn people and particularly horse riders that you were approaching.

In exams you couldn’t use an electronic calculator but you could do calculations with a slide rule: a wide ruler with a slide-able central bar which when lined up with its numerous scales allowed you to multiply numbers. When used in conjunction with a book of logarithm tables the young mathematician was able to perform amazing computation.  Or not.  Thank heaven these have been confined to the fires of hell!

History is littered with examples of how our lives would be different if people hadn’t challenged the rules, the social norms or (in the case of my grandfather) established practice.

Many people have argued with me that rules are there for a reason.  I accept this up to a point.  What we have to do is be prepared to challenge the rules especially when we can’t find improvements within established practice.  How many laws have been repealed as society moves on and they are no longer appropriate?

There is always a better way.  Achieving it might be painful but transformation can’t happen  if you won’t accept the possibility that the current rules might need to change.