Wednesday, 30 November 2011

When the going gets tough

Neville Wran was premier of New South Wales in Australia in the 1980s. A canny old bird. His newly-elected political opponent, the glamorous young Nick Greiner, was doing brilliantly in the polls.

“Let’s see how he does when the blowtorch is applied to the belly.” This was Wran’s acerbic assessment.

That’s the real test of leadership. By comparison, leading when you’re winning is so easy.

Why is it that, when the going gets tough, leaders so often abandon the supportive people-management strategies that served them so well in good times, reverting to fear and blame?

Deep down they must know that, even if it can get results in the short-term, over the long haul it just won’t work.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Maintaining a personal brand

In noting the novelist JG Ballard’s many defects – drunk, liar, humbug, plagiarist, bully, philistine, racist, misogynist – his current biographer, John Baxter, also berates him for being a self-publicist.

Doesn’t sound altogether nice, does he.

But which writers are not self-publicists? Only ones who don’t sell many books, I would guess. My sense is that Charles Dickens provides an excellent role-model in this particular field. Never knowingly undersold.

If we want success in this competitive world, we each have a personal brand to maintain, whatever we do.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

UnConferencing: Un for All and All for Un

While I’ve spoken at dozens of conventional conferences, I’ve always felt that the format – rows of chairs in old-fashioned classroom-style, with “teacher” or a panel of “experts” up front – is quite inadequate, rarely releasing the potential in the room.

So much more can be achieved by radical transformation. I first started experimenting with all this some twenty years ago. Since that time I’ve tried all sorts of different processes and formats, and have evolved a flexible approach that deals with many of the main issues involved in the trad format. Most recently I ran two UnConferences in Manila.

The first was a meeting of the top 350 managers at Nestlé Philippines (one of the largest and most successful companies in the country) and the second at a Brand Renovation masterclass for some 60 senior managers from diverse backgrounds (blogpost 14 November 2011).

A while ago, I wrote another post (31 August 2011) about the first Big City Brainstorm we ran at City University London to launch the Centre for Creativity.

And in January I’ll be running an UnConferencing session within the Association of British Orchestra’s annual conference.

There are a number of important principles involved:

• Communication ceases to be top-down and token Q and A.

• There’s a minimum of presentation and a maximum of dialogue.

• The dialogue (whether brainstorming, problem-solving, debating issues, visioning, planning or whatever) moves from the podium to the body of the room.

• The whole thing needs continuous and skilful facilitation.

• The room can be set up in various ways. I have come to prefer either small circles of chairs or round tables.

• Each circle needs a flip chart, so that ideas/thoughts can be captured immediately.

• It’s important to set up some groundrules for working together. These include the usual stuff – no judgements, anything goes, headline first, speak for yourself and so on.

• I like to work with the maximum of human contact and the minimum of technology, but with groups of 50 or more, the facilitator will need a throat-mike.

• Often, when getting reports back from the floor, I like to have the headlines come up on a big screen at the front – so a skilled “technographer” is needed for this.

Is your organisation still stuck with the teacher/class model? What’s your experience of UnConferencing?

Friday, 25 November 2011

GSK and Dragon’s Den

I’m astounded that the massive drug company GSK is planning to assess and fund innovation projects by using a “Dragon’s Den” style of selection process. There’s said to be £1.1 billion ($1.75 billion) at stake.

I can see that the programme makes for good television.

But is there any evidence at all that this kind of approach produces winners?

At best it strikes me as amateurish. It obviously has the potential to be damaging and demeaning to the R&D scientists involved. And it’s likely to have 100% success in missing any innovation with really major potential.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

A year with Johann Sebastian Bach

This Sunday completes a full year of listening to Bach’s Cantatas.

I’ve been doing that week by week through the church year. I started at Advent Sunday 2010 and have worked my way through Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost and all those Trinity Sundays. We’re back to joyful Advent again on Sunday.

Each one tends to last more or less than twenty minutes, and usually consists of two or three arias linked by recitative. They often start with a complex choral movement and end with a simpler setting of a German chorale. So soloists, chorus and small orchestra are needed. Each was composed based on the designated Bible texts for that Sunday.

Bach wrote several cycles of church cantatas at different stages of his working life, the earliest in 1707 and the last in 1745. That’s some 180 separate compositions. (There are another 70 or so written mostly for secular occasions that I’ll listen to in coming weeks.)

It’s undoubtedly one of the most extraordinary, still mostly neglected, achievements in the history of Western music. Not that Bach was a great innovator. What he did was to explore the potentialities of the kind of music that existed in his lifetime. He was endlessly creative within those limits.

I have a heard a range of different performers, but mostly recordings directed by Pieter Jan Leusink, Philippe Herreweghe, Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt. It’s a collection that I’ve assembled over 35 years.

My pattern has been to listen to one cantata each day, first thing in the morning, before the rest of the house has stirred. And then to have breakfast.

It has been an amazing, life-enhancing journey.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Robert Louis Stevenson and Count Nerli and Ernest Mehew

I had always thought of myself as a writer. But in truth all I had ever done in practice was to write some articles on marketing communications and innovation.

So, when we visited Samoa in pursuit of Robert Louis Stevenson in the mid-1990s, I was standing in the large main room of the house he built there, Vailima, when he appeared over my shoulder.

“This book you’ve been talking about,” he said, “how far have you got with it?”

“Well, to be honest,” I replied, “I haven’t started it”

“But you’ve been talking about it for a long time. Maybe you think it’s not worth doing?”

“No, I do think it’s worth doing.”

“Do you think someone else will write it?” he asked.

“No, if I don’t do it, I don’t think it will ever be done.”

“Well perhaps you’d better get started.”

At the height of his fame, author of Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and much else, Stevenson had died in that house in December 1894 aged just forty-four.

That evening, we retired to Aggie Grey’s Hotel in Apia. I got out a blank sheet of paper and started on the book which I’d been researching and thinking about over several years. It was published some eighteen months later as Robert Louis Stevenson and Count Nerli in Samoa: The Story of a Portrait.

I was cheeky enough to send an early draft to the leading Stevenson scholar in the world, Ernest Mehew. He thought it a worthwhile project and gave me several pages of handwritten notes containing suggestions of all kinds.

Dear Ernest died four weeks ago (on 24 October 2011) at the age of eighty-eight. RIP.

[Above, Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson by GP Nerli, painted in Samoa in 1892, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.]

Friday, 18 November 2011

Daydreaming and Creativity

It seems extraordinary that, when training people in creative thinking, I should need to spend such a large amount of time just getting them to listen to themselves.

For it is in our own thoughts and feelings that new thinking, new ideas, are born.

The problem usually stems from our educational pasts. At school it has always been consistently demanded that we pay attention to the teacher. There, “concentrating” means listening to him or her, not to oneself.

Yet so often what happens is that the teacher has said something interesting that stimulates us to go off on a fascinating internal journey, exploring the implications of what has been said. Yet, to the teacher, this can so easily be interpreted and censured as just not paying attention, “daydreaming”.

But how exciting and valuable daydreaming can be.

As the French poet, Arthur Rimbaud, put it (in a famous letter to Paul Demeny in 1871): “I witness the flowering of my thought: I gaze at it, I listen to it: I set my bow moving: the symphony stirs into life in the depths, or comes leaping on to the stage.”

[J'assiste à l'éclosion de ma pensée : je la regarde, je l'écoute : je lance un coup d'archet : la symphonie fait son remuement dans les profondeurs, ou vient d'un bond sur la scène.]

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Mr Hotchkiss and the stapler

I asked a group of managers in Tokyo to name their personal favourite inventions. We got a diverse range of proposals from them. Then they asked me for mine.

The humble paper staple, together with its stapler, I said. Such a deceptively simple piece of engineering.

It overcame all the disadvantages of its celebrated predecessor, the paperclip. The great adman, David Ogilvy, exhorted us to abandon the paperclip in favour of the staple in his Confessions of an Advertising Man. I never travel without it.

But who invented it? I’d never known. Well, they told me in Tokyo, in Japan it’s called a Hotchkiss. Was Mr Hotchkiss by any chance the inventor?

Apparently not. He seems merely to have been the importer of the product to the land of the rising sun.

So who did invent it? This is not quite so simple a question as one might expect.

George W McGill patented an early version in the USA in 1866 and continued to develop his product through the 1880s. Meanwhile CH Gould, working in parallel with McGill, took out a patent in England in 1868. Rather like early mobile phones, these initial staplers were bulky and heavy.

The slim and elegant product that we know today was invented by another Englishman, John Munford. He sold it to his employer in the early twentieth century (at a low price) and never has been properly recognised for his work.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Can Manila do a Barcelona?

Last week I gave a masterclass on Brand Renovation for a group of senior managers from diverse backgrounds in Manila. And at the heart of it was a case study on the transformation of Barcelona in the years running up to the 1992 Olympic Games.

I was lucky enough to be consulting for the International Olympic Committee through several Games and later I was able to research the impact and heritage of Olympic cities for this masterclass. I interviewed a range of personalities who had been involved in various capacities, with Barcelona emerging clearly with the “Gold Medal”.

Historically, in the first three-quarters of the twentieth century, that city had been substantially passed by – a sleepy, scruffy, post-industrial conurbation, full of traffic jams.

Under the leadership of its mayor, Pasqual Maragall, a comprehensive new strategy was developed which involved:

the cleaning up of the historic parts of the city, including the wonderful and unique boulevard, Las Ramblas;
the redevelopment of the port area;
the upgrading of the airport and the transformation of the city's main road system;
the building of new sports stadia of various sizes, with the main one earmarked as a major venue for gigs, and home for the city’s second football team, Deportiva Español;
the positioning of Barcelona as a centre for creativity and the arts, with the great architect, Gaudi as the figurehead, plus the artists Picasso and Miró;
a hub for design, fashion and the advertising industry.

At the heart of the strategy, the city competed for and won a whole series of major international events – sporting, entertainment, business, expo and so on. The cherry on the top of the cake was winning the Olympics and the city used that as the lever to get all the urban renewal done.

The consequence of this exciting project has been that Barcelona is no longer a place to be avoided. In fact, for many years now it has become the number one city in Europe for “quality of life”, in the Top 5 for “doing business”, and a Mecca for tourists and (especially) honeymooners.

In post-Olympics research, visitors have described the city as “enchanting”, “exciting”, “cosmopolitan”, “my favourite”, “vibrant” and “oozing style and culture”.

At the masterclass in Manila, we used the Barcelona story as stimulus for thinking creatively together about how their own capital might be similarly transformed – in its own particular way.

So fifty fine minds brainstormed a wide range of possibilities, from which they selected eight ideas as being of particular promise, developing each of them into draft parts of a new strategy for the city.

Hopefully, these will be presented some time soon to the newly-appointed Secretary for Tourism in the Philippines, Ramon Jimenez Jr. There are high hopes for this visionary appointment – unusually Mr Jimenez is regarded as something of a guru in creativity and marketing communications. He was with Saatchi and Saatchi before founding his own creative businesses.

Manila has such enormous potential – if it can be tapped!

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Open Innovation and P&G

It has always puzzled me as to why Procter and Gamble has garnered such kudos from embracing Open Innovation.

For me, it has always gone without saying that openness to the outside world is critically important in the search for powerful new collaborations, new insights, new connections and new ideas. Most of the companies that I have worked with were engaged in Open Innovation long before P&G got themselves into that particular boat.

My assumption is that the concept became attached to them as a result of their then CEO, AG Lafley, and his very public pronouncements on the subject some ten years ago. These were aimed, I’ve always supposed, primarily at his own staff around the world, getting them to change radically their way of thinking and being.

For up to that point Procter and Gamble had always been one of the most introverted and secretive organisations imaginable. This had enormous benefits in the areas of strategic and operational focus, but had made breakthrough innovation doubly difficult for them.

The switch has certainly made a big difference for the company – but, in truth, it was not before time.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

40 Years On with Fox’s Glacier Mints

Everywhere I went in Manila I was astonished to encounter Fox’s Glacier Mints – made in Indonesia.

And, a while ago at home in England, I noticed a TV commercial on air for the brand. It caught my attention because the campaign is now one of the few survivors from my long and very happy career in the advertising business. One of the greatest aims in advertising is to come up with an idea that is “campaignable” – one that will be constantly adaptable and last for several years.

We were originally awarded the account by Rowntree’s following their acquisition of the brand, I think around 1971. So, rather extraordinarily, the campaign has now lasted, in a somewhat low-key way, across four full decades.

I recall so clearly the internal meeting when the idea first surfaced. Every creative team in the agency had been invited to come up with submissions, so the creative director’s office was packed with writers and art directors and their aspirant ideas.

In the midst of a stream of presentations, the youngest, newest copywriter mumbled his way through a five minute scenario: the bear on the mint (representing management) was verbally assaulted by the fox (an angry trade union leader), who simply could not understand why the bear was in what should be his own rightful place up top of that mint.

The creative director of the day told the young man, rather sarcastically, that five minutes was a ridiculous time-length. What was needed was a 30 second campaign. So we moved straight on to the next submission. It was beginning to look as though we had no real winners among them.

It struck me that the rivalry of the fox and bear could run and run – a really big, relevant, adaptable and simple idea. And I said so.

A bit reluctantly, it seemed to me, but because I pressed him hard, the CD asked the oldest, wisest, most experienced writer in his department to pick up the idea and try to turn it into something more practical. This he did. Went on to several important prizes for creativity. And soon got a better job in another agency.

But who was the brilliant young writer whose original idea it had been? I’m ashamed to say that I don’t remember his name. Anyone know?

Monday, 7 November 2011

José Rizal: pioneer of non-violent revolution

Although I’ve gone to work in Manila on several occasions, it’s really only because I have connected on this current trip with some very interesting Filipinos that I’ve finally come to grips with José Rizal.

Rizal was a very early proponent of non-violent revolution. Born in 1861, he wrote and published two novels – Noli Me Tángere and its sequel El Filibusterismo – which attacked both the Spanish colonists and the grip over the people of the Catholic Church in the Philippines.

While his aim was freedom from oppression, he was clear that there could be bear-traps in the path once that had been achieved. "Why independence,” he asked, “if the slaves of today will be the tyrants of tomorrow?" And, of course, this pit was indeed fallen into by a later generation. His life and work were influential for both Gandhi and Nehru.

He was an extraordinary man – a polymath beyond the boundaries of possibility, it might seem, having expertise in anthropology, architecture, botany, business, cartography, drama, economics, education, engineering, essay-writing, entomology, ethnology, farming, folklore, geography, grammar, history, horticulture, journalism, lexicography, medicine, music, novel-writing, ophthalmology, painting, philosophy, poetry, political theory, psychology, publishing, satire, sculpture, sports, sociology and zoology. Having traveled the world, he amassed twenty-two languages.

Yesterday, amongst much else, I saw some of his sculpture. Very accomplished.

His final poem, written in Spanish shortly before his death, starts

Farewell, my adored Land, region of the sun caressed,
Pearl of the Orient Sea, our Eden lost…

And, celebrating his unwed Irish wife, Josephine Bracken, it ends

Farewell, sweet stranger, my friend, my joy;
Farewell, to all I love. To die is to rest.

Rizal was executed by firing squad in 1896, aged just thirty-five.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Steve Jobs. Saint?

Working this week in Manila with a wonderful group of young Filipino leader/managers, I’ve been asked several times why I have not written about Steve Jobs since his death one month ago.

I think the truth is that I have been wrestling internally with a couple of issues.

On the one hand, there’s no doubt that, particularly since his return second time around to the company he founded, Apple’s story has been one of continuous and spectacular success. And he has written and spoken inspiringly.

So what’s the problem?

Well, for one thing it’s clear that the great successes of the company were all built on the innovations of others – from the laptop to the iPad. And all the other blockbusters in between. Picking up other people’s inventions and improving them for the customer is good, but really doesn’t make Jobs comparable with, say, Thomas Edison, who was the founding father of so many of the world-changing innovations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

And then there’s the man who has been described as “Jobs the Tyrant”. Years ago I was told that it was not a good idea for an Apple staffer to get into an elevator with Steve. Apparently there was a good chance that you might emerge unemployed. I guess that story is more emblematic than literally true.

And yet, since then I have continuously heard and read about the tantrums and tirades, the disrespectful ways that colleagues could be treated.

No doubt the upside to all this was a sense within the organisation of what people call “creative tension” - tension which can drive performance. At least in the short run.

Jobs’s biographer, Walter Isaacson, said recently: “In the end, you have to judge him on the outcome.” Right now, the Apple juggernaut rolls on, apparently unstoppable.

Only time will tell what the outcome will be now that he is gone. Will enhancing the innovations of others be sufficient? And how will the climate change in Apple now that he no longer visits the building?

Maybe in future I should include Apple in Brand Renovation masterclasses that I give. For, in my mind, the company is a superb “renovator”, rather than being a real innovator.

By the way, are you coming along on Tuesday in Manila?

Manila Masterclass with Roger Neill, 8 November 2011

Thursday, 3 November 2011

On seeing and not seeing into the future

It’s always a risky business.

In the period before the dissolution of the Soviet Empire, I made several working trips to the various capital cities of Central and Eastern Europe.

Following a trip to Prague early in 1989, I came home and said to whomever would listen, “It’s going to be all over in months. They just need to push at the door”. And the Prague Spring, the Velvet Revolution, happened just a few months later.

A few weeks after Prague, I made my first trip to East Berlin. Through Checkpoint Charlie, for a meeting of the board of directors of the International Advertising Association. After dinner, I went out walking the city with my dear friend, the late Michel Reinarz, communications boss of Nestlé.

All I could see were the telltale signs of an autocratic and repressive regime – policemen with sub-machine guns and German Shepherd dogs, barbed wire, watchtowers, floodlighting, the Wall. The whole kit. And no signs of life evident at all in this great capital city in the late evening.

So I went home and announced to colleagues that, in my opinion, it would be a decade or more before any real change would be possible there, so strong did the grip of the communists appear.

How wrong I was. Thousands started to leave East Germany and demonstrations sprung up – all without the benefit of today’s social networking – most famously in Leipzig. This was led by the chief conductor of the city’s legendary Gewandhaus Orchestra, Kurt Masur. Just like in Prague, it was all over so quickly. And by November the first sections of the wall were demolished.

We can’t always predict the future with any accuracy. But still we have to try – to do the best we can. A problem is that there’s no evidence that politicians, journalists and senior managers are any better at this than the rest of us.

I miss Michel. He was a life-enhancer.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Democracy in Libya?

Since writing about the influence of Gene Sharp’s book, From Dictatorship to Democracy, I’ve been thinking about Libya.

One of Dr Sharp’s core contentions is that it is almost never the best strategy to meet the force of dictators with force. He offers a wide range of non-violent alternatives, all of them proven to be successful.

What he says about the use of violence is twofold:

First that it rarely is successful because the dictator nearly always has much greater firepower at his command.

And second that experience shows that in this situation it is more likely for one dictatorship to be followed by another.

Time will show whether the use of military might in Libya will have led to freedom and democracy. Or whether this aspiration has been fatally compromised.

By the way, Dr Sharp encourages us to download his (shortish) book free.