Recipes for success?

I should acknowledge that I am indebted to a conversation that I had with John Collins on his blog, Views from the Bridge, for some of the themes I discuss in this article.
Recipe for Success?

Towards the end of a recent article on perseverance I referred to people’s desire to find recipes for success. Here’s what I said:

Sometimes we want to find a magic recipe for success, or – to mix the metaphor – a silver bullet. We want to discover a series of defined steps to take that, if repeated religiously, will guarantee that we get to the desired goal each and every time. That’s why articles entitled “The 5 ways to […]” and “My top tips for […]” are so well-read on the web.

As well as my examples of internet top tips (see any number of articles claiming to tell you how to use twitter successfully to get the idea), this phenomenon is also a major factor behind the enduring popularity of celebrity business books. As far as I can see, these fall into two categories.
1. The Ex-CEO

This is where the extremely successful and well-known Mr Brown (and sadly it is still mostly Mr, rather than Ms Brown), now retired but previously President and CEO of Big Company Inc., writes (or more likely has some one ghost-write) a memoir explaining the secrets of his success. While the book may dwell on their upbringing, education, role models, or character-forming events in their lives, much of the work will probably focus on them just being much smarter, more risk-taking, or having greater insight than the competition (most likely all of these). Of course there may well be some interesting tit-bits amongst the reams of self-aggrandisement, but it is worth questioning just how applicable these might be to your own situation.

Are the things that Mr Brown ascribes his success to really what led to his glittering career? Are there perhaps other factors that are not captured in the memoir, but which, if absent in another organisation, would render implementing Mr Brown’s explicit recommendations valueless? Did Mr Brown’s greatest achievements actually have a big slice of luck attached to them (stumbling upon a market or a product by accident, a major competitor losing their way, events beyond anyone’s control shaping matters and so on)? Would the things that Big Company Inc. did under Mr Brown’s esteemed leadership actually work in another company, in a different market or country and with a distinctive business culture?

Put it this way, if you work in Financial Services, would copying what worked in Retail be a good idea? Alternatively, if two companies are both in Retail, does it make sense for a less successful company to slavishly adopt the strategy of the market leader – wouldn’t it be more sensible if they tried to develop a different strategy in order to differentiate their brand?

Of course there is always value in learning from the mistakes and successes of others, but surely there is a limit to how useful a business memoir can be in forming a business strategy.
2. The Academic Expert

Here Professor Green (probably still male), has a long and distinguished career in academia, reading and deconstructing the memoirs of Mr Brown and his peers, identifying common themes between them, doing primary research and constructing recherché models of business strategy development and execution. If there is a new management fad out there, Professor Green is sure to know about it – in fact it may well be based on an article of his that appeared in HBR.

Well there is certainly some value in trying to tease out commonalities between successful companies, but this is probably a lot harder than it might seem. While there may be some recurring themes, maybe many of our champions of business are one offs, successful for reasons other than their business models or strategies. In fact they may well be as unique as the people who lead them. Maybe there is no equivalent of the standard model of quantum mechanics (to say nothing of a deeper grand unified theory) that underpins business success – perhaps the science of business is different from the more reductionist sciences, such as physics. Maybe there isn’t a formula for business success; perhaps it is more like Darwinian natural selection (I’ll come back to this idea later).

Whichever way you look at it, again there is probably a limit to how much insight you can glean from this type of book.
Other genres

Of course this phenomenon extends into many other areas of human activity. As a youth I can remember only too well poring over cricket manuals in an (ultimately fruitless) attempt to improve my batting or wicket-keeping. My father, at the age of 72, still does the same with golf manuals.

The endless array of cooking books also in the same category and where would we be without the panoply of self-help books such as The Seven Habits of Annoyingly Organised People? All of which goes to show that reliance on recipes for success is a deeply ingrained human trait.
Recipes for success in IT

Having established that people like turning to both “My top tips for […]” and “Mr Brown’s Glittering Career” (available at all good booksellers) how does this aspect of human nature impinge on one of my main areas of endeavour, IT?

Well it has a major impact in my opinion. In fact it is difficult to think of an area of life more obsessed with frameworks, blue-prints, road-maps, procedures, best practices and methodologies (to say nothing of ontologies and taxonomies). All of these are intended to take the risk out of activities – well at least to provide the people following them with the ability to say “well I did what the methodology told me to do”. Of course IT projects and IT development are very complex things and standards of design, coding and behaviour of systems are of paramount importance; but it still seems that IT people have a more visceral relationship with the above-stated areas than would be dictated solely by ticking the necessary boxes.

Nevertheless, having been personally responsible for instigating a thoroughgoing process of standardisation and quality control in a software house (and thereby obtaining an ISO accreditation), it would be churlish of me to argue that that there is no benefit in rigorously applying methodologies in IT.

When it comes to some aspects of project management and to change management in particular, some of the scepticism that I exhibited about celebrity business books returns. It’s not so much that a methodology or even a list of items to tick is not valuable, but that it cannot be an end in itself. The important thing is the thinking that goes into drawing up what you need to do and how you are going to do it, not the method that you use to record these and monitor progress. Sometimes these crucial ingredients get lost. Indeed there does seem to be an entire class of people who focus just on managing lists, rather than the ideas behind them, or the people actually doing the work.
The benefits of a Darwinian approach

Charles Darwin

I raised the idea of a Darwinian approach to business strategy earlier in this article. There do seem to be some crossovers with how we observe businesses in operation. We are familiar with the image of companies competing with each other for limited resources (our wallets, mine being very limited at present). We understand the pressure that organisations are under to come up with better, cheaper, more functional and sexier products (that are now carbon neutral and ethically-sourced as well).

The language of business is suffused by jungle analogies. The adaptation of Tennyson’s “Nature, red in tooth and claw” to capitalism being just one of the most well-known examples. The companies that are best at this game survive and thrive, those that are not fail and are forgotten. Companies in more mature markets are even often referred to as dinosaurs or fossils. The idea of never-ending refinement and progress pushing on is an essential part of business.

However, perhaps this evolutionary approach, so evident at the macro-level can also work on a micro-scale. Maybe, rather than relying on the thoughts of Mr Brown or Professor Green, a better approach would be come up with some ideas of our own, test them, discard the bad ones and nurture the less bad ones. In time, with appropriate development and alteration, the less bad may become good and then even great (hang on, I seem to have found my way back to business books with that phrase!).

To me, such an approach is more likely to result in something novel and valuable. Following a recipe for success can only ever be as good as the recipe itself. Thinking for yourself can transcend these limitations and I would argue that the downside is no greater than attempting to ape someone else’s ideas. In both cases the worst that can happen is only extinction.
Disclaimer – sort of

Of course this article has a degree of self reference. Relying upon your own intellect (hopefully refined and improved by other people’s input) is of course another recipe for success. However I hope it is a less proscriptive one. I recommend giving it a try.

Continue reading about this area in: Synthesis.


This blog is generally focused on topics in business, technology and change; often all three at the same time. However, from time to time, a personal post leaks in. This is one such post… or is it? Read to the end and then I will leave you to make up your own mind about this question.

Over the years I have played many sports. For example, both cricket and rugby union consumed much of my youth. I have also recently got into mountain biking and really enjoy it. However, the activity that I am most engaged in currently is rock climbing, something that I alluded to at the beginning of a blog post yesterday. Rock climbing forms a very broad church and I have taken part in many aspects of it. However, for a number of reasons, I have gravitated to the sub-genre of bouldering over the last few years.

For the uninitiated, bouldering is climbing un-roped, often on actual boulders, but also on small outcrops and generally going no more than 5-6m (15-20 ft) off the ground. You carry around crash-pads (bouldering mats) with you to hopefully take the brunt of any falls. Indeed the idea with bouldering is to fall… to try again… and to fall again. In fact maybe Beckett had bouldering in mind when he wrote:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

The whole point is that, because bouldering is relatively (and I stress the word relatively) safe, you can try to make moves that are at the limit of your ability; moves that would not be terribly sensible to even contemplate making on a longer, higher, roped climb. In fact bouldering climbs are so difficult that they are generally described as “problems”; an apt name that also conveys the fact that sometimes you have to use extreme subtlety and finesse as well as brute strength to get up them.

People often literally spend years attempting to complete a problem, particularly if it represents a new level of climbing for them, or if no one else has climbed the line before. Because of this, such unclimbed lines are often called projects. It’s common to ask a fellow climber about how their current project is progressing. This choice of name perhaps begins to give some indication of why I am sharing my experiences in bouldering with you today.

Having said that most boulder problems are short, some hardy souls also embrace high-ball bouldering which, as the name suggests, takes you a lot further off the ground. The following video shows one of the world’s best climbers, Chris Sharma, bouldering in Bishop, California. It segues to him and another top climber, Ethan Pringle, attempting a high-ball problem that weighs in at around 11-12m (35-40 ft).

Note 1: Ethan issues an expletive under his breath towards the end of the clip. I might well have been tempted to do so myself in similar circumstances, but count yourselves warned.

Note 2: As will be apparent if you try to click on this video, it is sadly no longer available, probably to do with copyright issues. Instead I would recommend that you take a look at the bouldering section of Dead Point Magazine’s site.

Copyright notice. This piece is taken from the DVD King Lines which features Chris Sharma climbing all over the world. The copyright holder is BigUp Productions, a world-renowned and award-winning producer of climbing DVDs.
So what does this have to do with the price of fish?

Please substitute “the price of eggs” if you are in the US

Green Wall Essential (V2). The Buttermilks, Bishop, CA
Green Wall Essential (V2). The Buttermilks, Bishop, CA

I have recently taken to showing the above photograph at the mid-point of my public speaking about business intelligence and change management. Generally I have introduced it with the comment that I wanted to relieve the audience’s boredom by showing them some of my holiday snaps.

As in the above video, this climb is also in Bishop, California, a world-class bouldering venue. The problem is called Green Wall Essential and its grade of difficulty is V2. Without going into enormous detail about the different grading systems for boulder problems, I’ll simply say that V2 is towards the easier end of the spectrum; V15/16 is the hardest that people have climbed.

The reason that I share this image with business/technology audiences is related to the number of times that I tried (and failed) to climb it. Here are some statistics:

  • More than 80 attempts
  • On 4 different days
  • During 2 separate visits to Bishop
  • Spread over 8 months

I mentioned the term project above; Green Wall Essential became my project and my obsession. The above statistics represent more effort than I have ever put into climbing anything else. The quartz monzonite rock is hard and crystalline. It digs into your fingers and peels off your skin leaving the rock stained with your blood (you can see the tape holding the tips of my fingers together in the photograph). Your muscles and tendons ache from trying to push yourself just that little bit harder in order to attain success. You endlessly try different foot holds and body positions. You try to be slow and precise. When that doesn’t work you try to be aggressive and dynamic. When that doesn’t work… and so on and so on.

Now in order to put in that much effort over that much time, and to put up with that much pain and that much failure, you have to really want to do the problem. You have to be persistent, despite set backs. You have to continue to keep a positive mind-set, to believe that you can be successful, even when you have just failed for the 80th time.

In my experience, that is precisely the same mind-set that you need to be successful with major projects, particularly in the business of change management. Hopefully your fingers will bleed less, but it will not be easy. There will be set-backs. Progress may sometimes seem glacially slow, but if you persevere then the goal is worth it.

Sometimes we want to find a magic recipe for success, or – to mix the metaphor – a silver bullet. We want to discover a series of defined steps to take that, if repeated religiously, will guarantee that we get to the desired goal each and every time. That’s why articles entitled “The 5 ways to […]” and “My top tips for […]” are so well-read on the web. My take is that the secret ingredient may be very simple: plain, pig-headed perseverance.

By way of illustrating the benefits of this approach (and closing this article), here I am having achieved my own personal goal on Green Wall Essential… EVENTUALLY!!!

Me a very happy boulderer having completed my project.
Me a very happy boulderer having completed my project.

I wish you luck with your own projects, be these in business intelligence, other areas of IT, change management, or even bouldering. My own “Top tip” – if at first you don’t succeed, persevere.

If I have whetted anyone’s appetite about bouldering, you can take a look at my partner’s bouldering blog, which contains bouldering photos and videos, together with her musings on what motivates her to climb.

Some thoughts on IT-Business Alignment from the Chase Zander IT Director Forum

This Chase Zander seminar, which I earlier previewed on this site, took place yesterday evening in Birmingham. There was a full house of 20 plus IT Directors, CIOs and other senior IT managers who all engaged fully in some very stimulating and lively discussions.

As I previously mentioned, our intention in this meeting was to encourage debate and sharing of experiences and best practice between the delegates. My role was to faciliate the first session, focussed on IT-Business alignment. I started by sharing a few slides with that group that explained the research we had conducted to determine the content of the forum.

Click to view the introductory presentation
Click to view the introductory presentation as a PDF

After sharing what in my opinion was a not wholly satisfactory definition of IT-Business alignment, I opened up the floor to a discussion of what IT-Business alignment actually was and why it mattered. We used some of the other slides later in the meeting, but most of the rest of the evening was devoted to interaction between the delegates. Indeed the ensuing conversations were so wide ranging that the theme was also carried over to the second session, hosted by my associate Elliot Limb.

Territory initially covered included the suggestion that IT should be an integral part of the business, rather than a separate entity aligned to it (a theme that I covered in my earlier article Business is from Mars and IT is from Venus, which interestingly I penned after a previous Chase Zander forum, this one focussed on change management). The group also made a strong connection between IT-Business alignment and trust. A count of hands in response to the question “do you feel that you have the 100% unqualified confidence of your CEO?” revealed a mixed response and we tried to learn from the experiences of those who responded positively.

The relationship between IT and change was also debated. Some felt that IT, with its experience of project-based work, was ideally placed to drive change in organisations. Others believed that change should be a business function, with IT sticking to its more traditional role. Different organisations were in different places with respect to this issue – one attendee had indeed seen his current organisation take both approaches in the recent past. It was also agreed that there were different types of change: positive change in reaction to some threat or opportunity and the less positive change for change’s sake that can sometimes affect organisations.

Suggestions for enhancing IT-Business alignment included: being very transparent about IT service level agreements and trends in them; focussing more on relationships with senior managers, the CEO and CFO in particular; better calculating the cost of IT activities (including business resource) and using this to prioritise and even directly charge for IT services; applying marketing techniques to IT; learning to better manage business expectations, taking on more realistic workloads and knowing when to say ‘no’; and paying more attention to business processes, particularly via capability maturity modelling.

It was agreed that it generally took quite some time to establish trust between a CIO and the rest of the senior management team. This might be done by initially sorting out problems on the delivery and support side and, only once confidence had been built up, would the CIO be able to focus more on strategic and high value-added activities. This process was not always aided by the not atypical 3-5 year tenure of CIOs.

Later discussions also touched on whether CIOs would generally expect (or want to) become CEOs and, if not, why was this the case. The perspective of both the delegates and the Chase Zander staff was very interesting on this point. There was a degree of consensus formed around the statement that IT people liked taking on challenging problems, sorting them out and then moving on to the next one. While there was some overlap between this perspective and the role of a CEO in both having their hand on the tiller of an organisation and challenging the management team to meet stretch goals, there was less than a perfect fit. Maybe this factor indicated something of a different mindset in many IT professionals.

In the context of forming better relationships with business managers and IT trying to be less transactional in its dealings with other areas, the question of why there were so few women in senior IT positions also came up. This is a large topic that could spawn an entire forum in its own right.

Overall the meeting was judged to be a success. From my perspective it was also interesting to meet a good cross-section of IT professionals working in different industries and to talk about both what the different challenges that we faced and what we had in common.

Continue reading about this area in: The scope of IT’s responsibility when businesses go bad

Vision vs Pragmatism

The ESA's Herschel infrared space observatory

This time last year, I was a member of a panel on a webinar hosted by Computing and Accountancy Age magazines. This post is not specifically about this webinar, but rather about positions that I regularly found myself taking in response to questions. The questions were along the lines of “Do you think that X or Y is more important in trying to achieve Z?”, my frequent reply was “both”. In fact at one point I recall deprecating my own fence-sitting.

Fence-sitting is not normally seen as the most noble of human activities, it tends to suggest a lack of decisiveness, even timidity. However, when faced with a question as basic as “What is more important for survival, food or water?”, then “both” seems to be the only intellectually credible stance to take. Allowing for the nit-picking point that you will die of thirst quicker than you will starve, over the medium term food and water are equally important. I feel the same about vision and pragmatism in business projects and in business people.

There is nothing that homo sapiens likes more than to pigeonhole his or her fellows. We tend to take a binary approach to people’s skills. Fred is a visionary, but you wouldn’t want him to run a project. Jane is brilliant at the details, but she doesn’t see the big picture. Perhaps we are more comfortable with the idea that the strength of any colleague is automatically balanced by a weakness; it brings them back down to a reasonable level – what the Australians call tall poppy syndrome. Maybe the way that we think about visionary people is also influenced by the connotations of the word, bringing to mind soothsayers, prophets and oracles. All of these historical figures had an other-worldly persona (often literally). They were not like “normal” people. Culturally, those who have visions are seen as a race apart. As Fitzgerald might have said “Let me tell you about the visionary. They are different from you and me.”

Setting aside any psychological angle, there are two points to be made here. First, of course people are all different and are endowed with varying abilities. This means that any successful team needs to have a balance of personalities and skill-sets. If you have some one who is purely a visionary on a team, then that is a great strength (most of the time), but orthodoxy suggests that this needs to be balanced by people who have less ethereal skills. So far, so hum-drum.

The second point is a potentially more interesting one. Maybe, contrary to what I have written above, visionaries are not so different from the rest of us. Instead of being skin-clad augurs with wild hair, maybe visionaries are people who can embrace a certain way of thinking when necessary. Maybe vision is something that you can turn on and off. This certainly chimes with most theory about personality types. Something that is often forgotten is that extrovert / introvert is not a binary choice, but a continuum. Also where some one places on this scale on average, may be quite different to where they place at a particular moment. Some one who is 75% introvert on average may be exceptionally extrovert in certain circumstances. Applying the same logic, some one who is not normally visionary, may be so sometimes and vice versa. So instead of the orthodoxy of having a team made up of discrete personality types, maybe we should realise that the behaviour of team members and what they can contribute may change over time.

There is clearly a lot that could be discussed here, I am going to restrict myself to talking about vision and what is often seen as it alter-ego, pragmatism. The question I will consider is “What is more important for a project, vision or pragmatism?”. This is where I return to fence-sitting, my answer is a resounding “both”. Vision is necessary to work out what to do, pragmatism is necessary to do it; a food and water situation. In fact I would argue that the optimum way to run a project is to initially develop a vision of the ideal outcome, ignoring any constraints. Such an approach is often seen as unrealistic and is tagged with unfavourable epithets such as “ivory tower” or “blue sky thinking”. However it is a necessary step. I much prefer the idea of thinking of what could be achieved and then applying constraints of time, funding and appetite for change, than the opposite where any potential progress is immediately ham-strung by such considerations. If vision is used to define a desirable, but potentially unattainable, Utopia and then pragmatism is used to pare this down to what is achievable, then the resulting strategy will retain some of the shape of the original ideas. It is likely to result in an approach that has a central theme, that is coherent and which will offer a platform for further progress. Applying pragmatism first is likely to yield a fragmented programme that is uncertain what issues it is meant to be addressing and, by seeking to do only what is incremental, will inevitably fall short of what could be possible (even given constraints).

Looking at this issue the other way round. If there is not the second-pass of applying pragmatism to the initial vision (even sometimes to the degree that the vision is rejected as unworkable), then failure is all but guaranteed. Pragmatism is the structural engineer finding solutions to the challenges posed by the architect’s design. It is figuring out the “how” after vision has established the “what” and “why”. It is also one of the main attributes that is necessary for governing execution, suggesting as it does a flexible approach and the maxim that “what counts most is what works best”. It is difficult to envisage how anything other than pragmatism would lead to success in these phases of a project. There is however something else to consider here. Something that sustains projects through execution is often the initial vision. This gives the team a sense of what they are doing and why they are doing it. This can be crucial when the inevitable setbacks are faced. Vision may also need to be switched back on when a major obstacle needs to be overcome or a change in direction is required. Rather than thinking of vision and pragmatism being sequential phases, perhaps they are alternating mind-sets that continue to vie for pre-eminence during a project. On average vision has the upper hand early on and pragmatism in the middle and later stages, but at any given point, it maybe desirable for the positions to be reversed.

This is another echo of the earlier comments about personality types and it is to this area that I will return in closing. Certainly projects need both visionaries and pragmatists; however these can often be the same people. I would argue strongly that a number of people are capable of both developing visions and aggressively pruning these to make them realisable, or chopping them into phases with phase B predicated on the success of phase A. Further I think that a make-up that embodies both vision and pragmatism, together with having the ability to flip between them as dictated by circumstances, tends to be the ideal one for managing projects. Certainly having one person who can encompass “what”, “why” and “how” seems efficient, but this holistic view of the process tends to go hand-in-hand with a passion to deliver. This passion is a product part of vision (believing in your own ideas) and part of pragmatism (owning the delivery of these ideas) and a very powerful factor behind successful projects.

Continue reading about ideas related to this area in: Holistic vs Incremental approaches to BI.