“The Okavanga-Kalahari Syndrome”

First appeared in ‘Lifelong Learning’ (U.S.A.)

“There’s a new change management program starting next week,” said the worried voice on the phone, “What can I do?”

“Keep your head down” was my sage advice.

“But this one’s serious.”

“They all are.”

“No; really. This time the H.R. Department is determined to make it happen. I don’t want to change. What can I do?”

“Stay out of the way. It’s the Okavanga-Kalahari syndrome.”

“?”

“There’s a river in Africa that starts in a range of mountains in Namibia known as the Okavanga-KalahariRiver. Everyone knows where it starts — it’s a huge river. It flows into the Kalahari Desert but no one really knows where it finishes. It just sort of fades away.”

“Ah.”

The vast majority of culture change programs go like this. Big start with trumpets, fanfares, senior managers wheeled out… the first events are hugely popular and over-subscribed. Go back in six months time and ask about it. It just sort of disappeared — no-one knew when, or whose decision it was. It just faded into the desert. The Okavanga-Kalahari syndrome.

It’s not always so. There are a number of factors that will help in the success of any culture program:

Number one: do the math. How much will it cost? How much extra will you get out of it? If you can’t get a tangible benefit then forget it. Your employees certainly won’t be bothered unless there’s something in it for them, as individuals. You certainly shouldn’t be bothered unless there’s something in it for you as an organisation. This benefit should be financial. OK it’s difficult to measure. Does that mean you don’t even try?

“It will make people more motivated and corporate” is a reason I’ve frequently heard for running a program.

“Show me the money.” I reply.

“But we can’t express it in financial terms.”

“Try?”

If you can’t get a benefit don’t bother. There must be a benefit in terms of more work produced, more targets met, less sick leave taken. Try to calculate all the “soft” measures. If you can motivate staff to take a real pride in their work, produce quality materials, chase every customer — how much is that worth to you?

Second, attendance on the program cannot be voluntary. You’ve done the sums now make people attend. Make it interesting, that’ll help. Make it rewarding. Take people away from the workplace, spend some money on them, treat them decently. They work for you, treat them as you’d like to be treated. Let them travel first class, stay in a nice hotel, feed them good meals with wine. Build this into the maths. Don’t be tempted to do it on the cheap.

Next, do the politics. And there will be politics. People tend to not like change so if you’re not getting any resistance — it’s because they’ve heard of the Okavanga-Kalahari syndrome and are just keeping their heads down waiting for it to go away. You need to encourage resistance — get it out in the open. At least here you’ll have a chance to address it. If it’s hidden in the shadows you have no chance.

Deal directly with people. Peter Senge describes the levels of alignment staff may have with the vision of the organisation; committed, enrolled, compliant, grudgingly compliant, apathetic or saboteurs. You need to address these saboteurs especially, early on or they will destroy your program with their cynicism. By the way I heard a great definition of a cynic the other day — someone who’s given up but not shut up. There are a number of ways of turning ‘saboteurs’ into stars. One extremely successful method is to get them actively involved in the design of the program. The most successful “Customer care for computer staff” program I’ve seen was designed by the three most vociferous opponents of the program. They were identified very early on and asked to attend the pilot course. They were then invited to rewrite the program in the light of their knowledge and experiences.

In one respect staff can be thought of as sheep. Have you noticed how a flock of sheep move? There are usually a few leaders at the start, a few stragglers at the end and 80% of the flock in the middle. If you can get the first few sheep moving in the right direction along with one or two of the laggards then the flock will head in the right direction. That is as long as you keep them moving. If you stop, there is a tendency for the flock to stop, so build in mini targets, incentives, milestones. Keep the momentum going all the way. Aim for some quick wins to start the sheep moving. These should be tangible, identifiable, public outcomes directly attributable to the program. E.g., “As a result of the Culture Change Program there will be a: simplification of the appraisal system; gym membership subsidy introduced; better meals in the staff canteen; restructuring of the senior management team….”

A lot of the political difficulties will be caused by the silent majority. Address these. Look at the shadow-side of your organisation. Don’t pretend it doesn’t exist. There are many examples of this shadow-side at work in organisations:

I’ve been invited to pre-meeting meetings, pre pre-meeting meetings and even once a pre pre pre-meeting meeting to make sure our tactics were correct before the pre pre-meeting meeting. These activities take time and energy away from the goals of the organisation.

If you ever have to work in a school, on the first day you meet the headmaster, of course, and then you talk to the people with the real power — the caretakers, deputy headmistresses and their like. In many organisations Personal Assistants and secretaries tend to have far more actual power than their position in the hierarchy would suggest. Be nice to them. They will get you that five-minute meeting with the Head of Department if they like you. Don’t pretend these things don’t go on.

Once I worked in an organisation where an administrator who had worked in the office for 35 years had a great deal of influence. If she didn’t like something, things tended to move a lot slower, if at all. Find out who the key players are, cultivate them. Take up smoking if you need to. The smoking room tends to be a great area for finding things out first. People who go there tend to be relaxed, tend to be from a wide range of work areas and seem to have time to think and make connections. Facts like – a computer is being moved and there’s been a recent promotion board – can yield intriguing information — often days before an announcement becomes official.

You must instigate any culture program from the very top and work down. Managers at all levels must buy into the program and sell it down the line. This is frequently a very difficult trick to pull off. Somewhere in the chain there will invariably be managers that “don’t do” training. Talk to them, encourage them, threaten them — whatever works, but you can’t ignore them. Staff see managers not attending, or attending and not changing their behaviour, and the program suddenly loses credibility. “Why should I bother?” You’ll start seeing lots of non-attendees with “too busy to attend” notes from their managers. Leading by example has to start from the top, with top managers rewarded or disciplined immediately. If the credibility of the program goes, you’d just as well forget it straight away and save yourself some money.

There’s a syndrome creeping into modern business now of change overload. Every week there seems to be a new initiative, a new program, a new mission statement. People are getting drained. Any new program needs to be real, well thought out, have tangible benefits and be fully supported by senior management and all departments. There should be people begging to go on it. One interesting approach, based on some psychological studies to do with reactants, involved telling people they couldn’t attend the program. They began clamouring to get on it. They were phoning, emailing, “Why can’t I do it? Put me on the reserve list?” I wouldn’t recommend this manipulative use of psychology but there could be some elements of it you could use; invite people to apply, ask them why they should be included, make attendance a reward rather than a punishment. This will work.

Oh, the reference in the title is from an excellent program concerning change by Scott Simmerman. Two caterpillars are talking (as they do) and they spot a butterfly. They both look up and one caterpillar says to the other “You’ll never get me up in one of those.”

Strategic Change

First appeared in ‘CEO Refresher’ (U.S.A.)

Change, change, change. There seems to be so many change programmes, change initiatives, strategic transformations, right-sizings, administrative reforms, re-engineerings, reorganisations these days that you’d be forgiven for thinking that this had been totally done to death now and there was no way you could cope with any more. Unfortunately not. Change initiatives are not going away – they’re coming thicker and faster than ever.

So what do you do about it? There’s one tried and trusted option I learnt from a senior manager in the Civil Service; “Keep your head down”. This seemed to work for a while. Statistics suggest that 80% of change initiatives fizzled out within six months. However it’s becoming less and less of an option now as there are fewer people to hide behind. The only thing to do these days seems to be to stay ahead of the change. As a manager you have a slight advantage over your staff, in that you’ll (usually) know what’s about to happen before them. This can be extremely useful, as we’ll see later.

You need to manage it effectively is what you need to do. If you are the initiator you need to make sure it happens. You need to truly understand the benefits of the change and sell them to all the stakeholders – especially your staff. If you aren’t the initiator but are the one that has to make it happen, i.e. a manager, this applies twice as strongly. As a manager in an Organisation you have to get things done you may not necessarily agree with. In fact there will be times, as you know, when you’ve had to do things you definitely don’t want to do. Ah well. What can you do? You take the corporate money at the end of the month so you need to toe the party line now and again. I’m not suggesting for one minute that you have to accept and agree with everything ‘they’ throw at you. On the contrary you have to argue, negotiate, influence, cajole to try to get your ideas implemented. However, if you lose I don’t see a great deal of point going half-heartedly at the decision and ensuring no one wins. (Unsurprisingly this happens a great deal). No, once the battles are over it’s cabinet responsibility and you have to do your best to make it happen.

There’s a nice little four step plan based on some work by Costas Markides I would recommend. I like it because it’s simple and it works. You can also add a variety of your own bits and pieces to it which gives it flexibility and your own feel to it. The stages are;

1. Rational acceptance

2. Emotional acceptance

3. Light 1000 fires

4. Support

Seems straightforward enough. It’s one of the few models I’ve seen that seems to recognise there’s a difference between hearts and minds and you have to appeal in different ways to each aspect. You start with peoples’ minds.

You start by selling them the benefits. You need to do the sums and show them that the end result is an improvement somehow. Either in terms of hard cash, quality of work, standard of living, self improvement or something. If you can’t do this then you’d better be asking yourself some hard questions. Why are you imposing this change then?

Take time to work through this. People, being people, are a lot like you and me. We tend not to like change for many, many reasons – all to do with being vulnerable. They will have vulnerability about losing their job, their self-esteem, their comfortable way of life and many other things you can’t even think of right now. So once you’ve spelt out all the changes, rationally, analytically – drawn maps, used Gantt charts, analysed the costs, looked at all the logical business you need to dig a little deeper.

Try this with your team; at the end of a team meeting, or some occasion where they are all together, ask them a question;

“You have a cake and can make 4 cuts. What are the most pieces you can have? You have 3 minutes to work this out.” There are no tricks.

After a minute and a half stop them. Invariably they’ll be many of them really concentrating and slightly annoyed that you’ve stopped them. Tell them you’ll let them complete it later but for now ask them what would be the most effective way they could have solved this. After a number of ideas you should have a good list. Ask what the most important reason on the list is. I bet it’ll be that they should have worked as a team. In this exercise 99 times out of a 100 people try to complete it on their own. Ask them why they didn’t work as a team. You will get some answers pointed at you – “You didn’t tell us to.” “You said we couldn’t”. Eventually you’ll start getting to the heart of it.

It’s to do with conditioning. People have had 30, 40, 50 years of working on their own. In school if you collaborated it was called cheating. At an interview you’re not allowed to take a friend. You can explain that n this environment it’s OK to help each other. Let them now complete the task and they’ll find they get a much better result (answer below).

In a similar vein you’ve got to deal with each barrier that gets in the way of people changing. These changes may often appear small or silly (“I didn’t know it was OK to work as a team”) but they do stop change happening. Rationally dealing with all these barriers takes time. However, if it’s not done you know what will happen don’t you? The change either wont work or it’ll work but be half-hearted with people still going on about the old days and the old system.

In a Government Office I once worked at I saw a huge red book with hand written details of certain aspect of marriage regulation. Someone was methodically and painstakingly writing twenty or so new entries.

“Some job.” I said “I bet you’ll be glad when the regulation changes and you can just use computers?”

“Oh there’s nothing in the law about this” was the reply, “We just do it.”

“But why? Isn’t the computer system up to it?”

“Oh yes – it’s a print off from the computer I’m using to copy from.”

“So why are you doing it?”

“Because we’ve always done it this way.”

At the same time as winning their rational acceptance for the change you’ll need to start winning their emotional acceptance. Even if people rationally accept the change and you’ve eliminated all the barriers – you’ve still got to win their hearts.

There’s a superb illustration of this by Adams, Hayes and Hopson called the Coping Cycle. It’s to do with the various stages people go through in times of change.

The premise is that we all go through these stages in times of change. Some of the changes we go through take the blink of an eye to go through – others take years, or maybe we never reach internalising.

Getting people through the defence and denial stages is difficult. Many of the people you need to change may well have invested a great deal of time and energy in the old system and here you are coming along and destroying it. Suddenly all the problems with the old system seem to have disappeared. People are finally accepting and using the old system really well. You’ll even notice an increase in efficiency and self-esteem. This, of course, is further ammunition for the “Why do we need to change. Things are working perfectly” and the “change for change’s sake” factions. The old system may well be working better, but it’s because people are now putting more effort into it. Left to their own devices people would stay here forever if they could (huge generalisation I know, but has lots of truth behind it).

There are many stories of people in defence and denial mode, my favourite was from a colleague who was a tax inspector in Wales – He used to go around West Wales inspecting betting shops and ensuring they had paid the correct amount of tax.

One day in 1976 he was working way up the Swansea valley visiting a small village (well more like a wide spot in the road) called Abercwmtoch – a few houses, 2 pubs, a church and a betting office. In the betting office he looks through the tickets and sees all sort of strange things; 2 shilling each way bets, 6d wins, 2/6 yankee. Bearing in mind this is 1976 – 5 years after decimalization, It hasn’t quite reached Abercwmtoch yet.

“Ah that new fangled decimalization” you can hear them saying “It’ll never catch on.”

I wonder if they’ve changed now.

At this stage there’s a lot of anger and blame – people are vulnerable. Eventually once it’s accepted and they have the new system it gets worse;

“It’s different”,

“It doesn’t do what we want”,

“You can’t even run that report we used to run”,

“It’s too slow”,

“It’s too quick”,

“I told you it was rubbish”.

People need more training, more listening to, more involvement. This stage is often referred to as ‘the pits’ – you can’t get any lower. Eventually people start getting used to it and things start working – easier, faster and you start hearing.

“I wish we’d had this last year”,

“You can even run that report we used to run”,

“I told you it was a good idea”,

“Can we have it in red?”

This coping cycle is excellent to help see what stage people are at and then help them through that stage. It’s that old, old thing I know but you’ve got to communicate with people. Tell them consistently what’s happening. Tell them if there’s nothing happening. No communication form the centre = communication on the grapevine. That’s how rumours start.

The next stage involves lighting one thousand fires. This is to do with letting go and empowerment. This is a brave step. It takes a very mature leader, or manager. They have to trust their staff. It’s still the manager’s fault if things go wrong – it’s delegation not abdication, and they have to let the staff take the credit when things go well.

“That’s anarchy” you say.

It’s not really. You as the manager, have to set the limits and let the people go. They need to know 2 things – the aim (measurable targets in terms of output, cost, time, etc.) and the parameters (what are they allowed to do / not allowed to do). Then off they go. You’ll be surprised at how much ingenuity, collective wisdom your people have.

The final aspect is support. This is the support you need to give your staff – clear, total and transparent. It’s a matter of trust and acceptance. You know there will be mistakes along the line. How do you deal with those mistakes – do you learn form them or do you punish people with them. You know the answer to that one.

Talking of answers – the cake puzzle. Generally people go through a number of stages in solving this;

Stage 1: 4 equal cuts 8 parts

Stage 2: 4 unequal cuts 10 parts

Stage 3: Then, a light bulb moment and someone realises it’s a cake (a 3 dimensional object) and they make 3 cuts on the surface then a horizontal cut to get 14 parts. They then tend to look snug for a while.

Stage 4: Someone really realises it’s a cake and cuts it in half, puts the one half on top of the other and cuts it again. Then they put the four pieces in a pile and cut through it again and so on – giving 16 pieces in total.

Depending on whether someone has asked about the shape of the cake and you’ve said “a round cake” you can give the stage 5 answer – “any number you like”. If the cake were from a child’s birthday party and the child liked caterpillars (it does happen) and the person baking the cake had baked a sponge body with 20 sugar legs you could cut the cake horizontally and have lots of pieces.

So They Think It’s All Overtime..?

First appeared in ‘Public Servant’ (U.K.)

Working smarter to eliminate a long-hours culture is an essential in the modern workplace. Some managers have yet to gasp that a work-life balance policy means little without practice

Senior managers encourage colleagues and staff to work more effectively (work smarter, not harder) and spend more time at home with their family, pets or hobbies. Yet their actions scream out just the opposite.

People are looked upon favourably at work for being available 80 hours a week. Managers are promoted for showing such dedication and dropping family plans to meet work commitments. Of course, it only seems right that these people are rewarded.

It follows that the others – the nine to fivers – who come in, do a good job and go home, will not get the same rewards. It is only when you stop and think about this that you realise what an unusual situation this is, and what messages are being sent.

People have a contract and are paid to do a job, for a set period. However they are frequently at a disadvantage if they do only that. They are expected to do more. This is not written anywhere – it is just assumed. It is part of the business culture. Imagine if this happened in sport.

In the World Cup, at the end of a 90-minute football match you would see one member of the team still out there playing – and expecting to be paid more. In the same way that 1,500-metres runners could not sustain the pace for an extra lap when they had trained for four laps of the track, people who are geared to working eight hours and then put in an extra two cannot sustain the quality of output.

Occasionally people can produce extra. Some who work long hours do so day after day. They do however become tired and prone to making mistakes. The workplace becomes the only place they know and they can lose perspective. They often come under pressure from home demands and become stressed.

This is well-documented but ignored. There is a short-term mindset that needs such dedicated staff to tackle the latest crisis. Managers believe they will address the problems eventually, but not just yet.

The key to breaking out of this cycle is the behaviour of senior managers. They must set the example. It is not enough to sign an email produced by the HR department urging staff to look at work-life balance, when you are still working 100 hours yourself.

But why are leaders so driven to work ridiculous hours? If you ask them what they want out of life they invariably admit they would like more time with family or for other interests. Somehow they feel they cannot. It is to do with trust and control. There is also a feeling of being indispensable and exceptional. I suggest there is also a macho element to coping with pressure.

This behaviour reinforces the work-life messages to staff. People respond to actions rather than words. Those actions are usually set out in some form of performance management system. In most systems outputs or goals are measured as well as a range of competencies.

The outputs are fairly standard and well defined and will have been set for someone working a standard day and to a particular level of quantity and quality. If you cannot produce in the agreed time to the agreed quality you would fail to meet your objective.

The behaviour required, however, tends to highlight the differences in what is written and what is expected. Most sensible behaviour measures look at how effective people are at producing the outputs. Do they work as part of a team? Or do they steal all the nice work? Other measures have scope for reporting on the way people work – their level of commitment, their willingness to go above and beyond.

Frequently this is seen through the person’s willingness to work outside office hours. Sometimes this can be directly opposed to policy.

It is a nightmare trying to reconcile this and invariably policy is ignored as staff who work late are rewarded. What of the staff who cannot do this, because they have children to collect, parents to care for? Part-time staff tend to suffer a similar fate. They may be disadvantaged, not from any lack of commitment on their part, but from a lack of opportunity.

If people want to work longer hours – so be it. They need not necessarily be rewarded financially. If they enjoy putting in the long hours then work itself may be their reward. If managers want to encourage part-time staff, the first step is to ask what they need. They will have far more practical and creative ideas on how they can demonstrate their effectiveness.

Senior managers need to be role models and to mark out commitment by rewarding staff who do an excellent job in the time available.

Venus and Mars in the interview room

First appeared in ‘Training Zone’ (U.K.)

Could a gung-ho, risk-taking attitude at work be giving men a head start on the career-ladder? A look at how women with a cautious nature may be disadvantaged in the interview process.

I am reluctant to write about one particular issue for trainers: the differences between men and women. I have noticed that in many publications dealing with HR issues one step away from the Politically Correct line and the writer gets savaged (Training ZONE seems less guilty than most I must admit).

However it is this sense of saying the wrong thing that is becoming a real problem in training rooms. It’s not that we (trainers) deliberately try to discriminate – but mistakes happen. I’ve been castigated on a few occasions for not including a woman (or man) when I’ve split training sessions up for group work. There was a time when I was mortified and felt like such a sexist pig for failing to have the right mix. Luckily I’ve become far more comfortable admitting my mistakes.

So, what is this difference? It concerns interviewing and competition in the workplace. Interview training is something I’ve done a fair amount of and it never occurred to me that there could be potential problems for women. (“Why would you – being a man,” I hear.)

“When a senior management role was advertised with a salary of £55,000, there were no women applicants. When the same post was re-advertised with a salary of £35, 000, the advertisers were overwhelmed with applications from women.”

There is always competition in the workplace: If people acknowledge this then it is overt competition and often healthy; If they fail to acknowledge this then it is covert competition and invariably destructive. Individuals will compete to be the most popular, the least popular, the most productive, the least productive etc.

A psychologically interesting example of a potential problem occurred recently when a senior management role was advertised with a salary of £55,000 per annum. There were no women applicants. However, when the same post was re-advertised with a salary of £35,000 per annum the advertisers were overwhelmed with applications from women.

On a more day-to-day level I’ve started thinking about interviewing. There are some differences between men and women. (My disclaimer here – I know this doesn’t apply to everyone and people shouldn’t make assumptions, etc. I’m not saying it’s a good or bad thing – it’s just a thing.)

Men tend to be more aggressive and in a workplace situation this often shows itself as taking more risks than women. This has been established through a number of recent studies. Women tend to choose high probability, low payoff strategies. Men will often rush to a high-risk solution and take a chance in a ‘do or die’ gesture. The implications of this behaviour in assessments may well imply to (more often than not, predominately male) interviewers that the female lacks confidence or competence.

In a recent study Fisher and Cox argue that this could well be the underlying reason women, on average, take longer to respond to questions. This can often indicate to interviewers a degree of indecisiveness. In fact they may well need to weigh up all the options. This will be compounded by the fact that women are generally less likely to take guesses than men. Under pressure, perhaps at an interview or in an assessment, men would be more inclined to have a stab at an answer. Women would tend to want to consider the situation and assess the risks. In a real work environment one would suppose these virtues of balance and control would be ideal. In the artificial assessment situation however this failure to respond quickly is often taken as an indicator of lack of confidence.

There is a lot more data behind this and numerous other factors. I feel it is, at the least, interesting and at worse, possibly discriminatory. It’s an area we, certainly I, have never considered before when training interviewees, or interviewees. Maybe I should.

* Reference: Fisher, M., and A. Cox, Gender and programming contests: Mitigating exclusionary practices, Informatics in Education (2006)

Would I Really Want This Person To Work For Me?

First appeared in ‘Manager N.Z.’ (N.Z.)

Behavioural interviewing is based on the belief that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. The best way to gauge if a person is going to perform well in a new job is to look at the way they have performed in their current and previous posts. I agree. How could you not? Especially when you look at the alternatives;

“The stress interview sorts the men out from the boys. Put people in a stressful interview and you’ll see what they’re like in a stressful job”. Oh yes. That’ll work then. Why not pull a gun on them and be done with. There’s a story a friend tells of his stress interview with a major bank.

“What if you had to deal with someone who had raped your sister!” screamed the first interviewer.

“But I haven’t got a sister.”

“Hypothetically” came the retort.

“Well hypothetically I would put this fact out of my mind. I would treat each occasion as objectively as possible not allowing my feelings to impair my judgement. I would make no assumptions. I would attempt to love and respect this person as an individual. I would try to understand where they were coming from. I would treat each situation on its own merits…” You get the point. You ask hypothetical questions you get hypothetical answers. You put people under stress at an interview they react like they would if they were put under stress at an interview. It doesn’t translate to life outside the interview room. Unless the job does involve being shouted at in an interview room – maybe the interviewer was rehearsing a hostage situation? – No it doesn’t work does it? If you want to find out how people perform under stress at work a great line of questioning might be “Can you give me an example of a stressful situation you’ve been involved in at work? Tell me what happened? What did you do?”

Another alternative is the ‘good cop / bad cop’ interview – which is truly bizarre. A person you may have know for the past twenty years turns into Torquemada for twenty-five minutes. What does this interview prove? You tell me. I have no idea unless it’s a spin on the stress interview. I detest it when interviewers put on their “I’m a real interviewer” head and refuse to be themselves, laugh or even smile. I know it’s a serious business but come on….

There’s the casual interview. “Hi – just a chat. Let’s get a coffee and sit over there.” pointing at two strategically placed chairs – set at the prescribed ninety degrees to each other, no armrest, low coffee table. There are benefits to this. I like it when that tone is right, both are relaxed and there’s genuine information being passed between each other. Unfortunately most candidates dislike it intensely. It’s an interview; it’s for a new job, a better job. They want some formality not a chat with a senior executive in immaculately ironed black jeans.

So what can you do? Well if you have to conduct an interview (and I’m not convinced this is the best approach in ninety percent of cases) then do it properly. .

Tell candidates what’s going to happen. Tell them what areas you’ll be discussing. Tell them how long they’ve got. Don’t surprise people. If there’s a position as a System’s Analyst – ask them questions about that. You wouldn’t interview a nanny for your children and ask them questions on thermo-nuclear dynamics would you? Would you? Yet people get asked some odd things? I was asked how I would resolve the miner’s strike when I first applied for a computer programmer’s job. Other stories abound about “killer questions” – “Do fish feel pain?” was a classic some time ago. “If a mother and a baby were drowning and you could only save one, which would you choose” I was asked a very long time ago. With a little more life experience my answer now would seem to be along the following lines;

“Neither”

“Neither – then they’d both die?”

“Good”

“That’s stupid!”

“Well you started it”

Look at the skills required for the job, look at the candidates – match them up. Choose the candidate who’s the best fit. The older I get the easier (some parts of) life gets. I know this is easier said than done. I agree, but it’s a lot easier than playing some convoluted game that only interview panel members know the rules to.

It all starts a long time before the interview. Way before the advert goes out. As soon as there’s a thought about a job being available it begins. Define the job. Spell out the skills needed. Advertise these. Send out application forms that are helpful to this process, please. Ask candidates to supply examples they have gathered of them displaying the skills. Don’t ask for a set of six skills and send a form out that relates to other skills – “It’s our standard form” Personnel will say. Argue. Disagree. Refuse. Send out forms related to the job -it will save you so much grief in the long run.

Evaluate the forms matching the evidence (past behaviours) against the job (current criteria). At the interview you should merely have to fill in the gaps, or build on the examples, or (with any luck) choose between well-qualified candidates. Don’t have a list of questions. This can be staid, ridiculous and downright embarrassing. I was once asked if I knew the “Seven layers of OSI” (it was a buzzword to do with computers at the time).

“I’m sorry Mr Barry but I know nothing about OSI”.

He looked at me. He looked back at his notes “What’s the first layer?”

“I’m really sorry Eric but I honestly have no idea.”

He didn’t even look up “The second layer?”….

Decide who will ask questions about each of the skills required – teamworking maybe or management skills. Then explore those areas, look for examples, ask follow up questions, listen, listen, listen. Don’t show off. Let the interviewee guide you. The examples can come from anywhere as long as they meet the requirements. I once interviewed someone for a managerial post – ideally qualified but could supply no evidence of organisational skills.

“Never get the chance to do it in my job – just get given a set of tasks.”

“In your previous job?”

“No I’m afraid not.”

“Outside work?” I asked desperately.

“Not really, ” he said, “Most of my time is taken up with football.”

“Oh ” I asked – he looked more like Pavarotti that Pele.

“Yes – I’m secretary of the Boys’ teams”.

It transpired that he had to deal with twelve teams of various ages, arrange the fixtures, referees, pitches, kits, corner flags…. No organisational skills indeed!

It’s as simple as that. Then at the end watch out for that final question. Candidates can be too relaxed. They’ve seen the finishing line and anything can happen. Ask something open. Ask if they would like to reconsider some answer they’ve given maybe. Ask if they’ve anything to add. You never know it could bring results. There was a candidate doing reasonably well until that last question. “I’m glad you didn’t ask me anything about equal opportunities”. He started to dig the hole.

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Well I couldn’t never work for a woman again.” he kept digging. “I worked for one once but, you know, they’re different aren’t they. No, never again”.

“Interesting. Would you like to tell us a little more?……..”

Speed of Recovery

First appeared in ‘Better Business (U.K.)

How do you handle complaints in your business? I went to a seminar once where complaints were described as snowflakes. They’re rare, precious and absolutely unique. You cannot buy them. They are the best feedback you’ll ever get. People have taken the time to tell you something you didn’t know about your business, I hope. You should cherish them.

OK. I’d definitely agree with the sentiment. However when I managed a betting office and had a six foot six inch thug demanding money for a bet he had put on too late I didn’t quite see him as a snowflake, or feel very much like cherishing him.

But, this is absolutely true. Complaints are the best way of getting an insight into your Organisation. You can’t do it – you’re too close. Your staff rarely do it – they may be too close to the business, too afraid of losing their job or simply couldn’t care less. The two types of people who can do it are new employees and customers. New employees are great. They can see past the ‘we’ve always done it this way’ mentality – well for a while at least.

In an organisation I worked with, in my computer programmer days, a new trainee asked why we kept all the computer reports each day, then moved them the next day, stored them for a week then threw them away.

“Because we do.”

“Do you ever use them?

“Well we could use them if there were a problem.”

“So when was the last time you had a problem?”

“Last week.”

“And did you use them?”

“Of course not. You’d never find anything. We have all the information on screen. It’s so much easier to find.”

It was estimated that this saved at least £20,000 a year in paper, workload, storage etc.

Back to customers and complaints. You know things will go wrong don’t you? As an Organisation with people there will be mistakes. It’s only human. Even without humans there are mistakes. So you know there will be mistakes the trick is not to pretend they don’t happen, but ensure there’s a process for dealing with them. Even more than this ensure that people aren’t afraid to own up to mistakes, accept responsibility, put it right and move on.

It’s also to do with the culture of your Organisation. How do you deal with mistakes in your Organisation? Is it a ‘shame and blame’ culture or a supportive culture?

There’s the story of a top salesman who made a terrible mistake. He’d bought a vast amount of fruit. He thought it would be a bargain but had totally overestimated and his company was left with tons and tons of this rotting fruit. He arrived at his office the following day and started to tidy his papers, clearing his desk. He gets a call from his manager,

“Could you pop up and see me?” she says.

“Of course” he mumbles and slowly makes his way up the stairs to his boss’ office.

As he enters the room he says “Look I know I got it wrong – I’m sorry – I’ve written my letter of resignation – here it is.” and puts a letter on the desk.

His manager looks at the letter, rips it in half, rips it in half again and puts in in the bin.

“You must be joking.” she says smiling “We’ve just spent £20,000 on your training – there’s no way you’re leaving until you’ve made that back for us.”

The worse example of a shame and blame culture I came across was when I was doing some fact-finding on motivation in the Polish Civil service. There was the culture of punishment for mistakes. On one occasion I witnessed a staff meeting set up to announce that one of the employees (who was ordered to stand up at the front throughout the meeting) had failed to meet her target for the third successive month and would be demoted. I’m sure the staff there would be motivated to do well in the short term – fear is a great short term motivator. However, there are 2 huge problems with this; firstly you have to continue this level of fear – even increase it – if it is to have any effect and secondly – in the long term the best people will leave.

What you should be focusing on is resolving the mistake. There’s a really useful tip I learnt a while ago about dealing with mistakes. It’s only two parts; part 1 – apologise and part 2- do everything you can to resolve the problem. Part 1 is about acknowledging the error and apologising. This doesn’t mean saying “sorry” hundreds of time and wringing your hands and sobbing. It means one sincere, honest apology. Part 2 is to do with action. How can we move this on? “What can I do to put this right for you?” would be an excellent place to start. It’s concerned with action and resolving problems rather than dwelling on the problem.

The process should focus on ‘speed of recovery’. Mistakes or customer complaints must be dealt with quickly, efficiently and learnt from. The vast majority of complainants just want things to be right. They don’t complain for fun.

At Ritz-Carlton hotels they have a policy to never lose a customer. Whoever receives a complaint owns it and has to resolve it to the customer’s satisfaction. Then record it. All their staff are allowed to spend up to $2000 without referring to their supervisors to resolve customer problems on the spot.

You can often turn mistakes into real positives as long as you approach it in the right way. There’s the story of the photographic studio that ruined one particular roll of film in developing it. This film was of a wedding. As a result half the photographs didn’t turn out. This was a disaster, obviously. The studio contacted the newly married couple and asked them where they would like to go to retake the photographs. They chose the Bahamas and off they went. They are now the biggest fans of the studio and will recommend them to all their friends.

It wasn’t cheap for the studio, but the alternative must have been worse. One complainant will tell ten others and they will tell ten others and so on. Similarly one case off exceptional customer care will have ten friends telling ten others as happened in the following example;

A customer at a John Lewis department store had a seriously ill child who desperately wanted a toy parrot which they didn’t sell. Two store assistants went shopping in their lunch break to find one without success. Another found one on the internet and ordered and paid for it herself, her colleague bought one in America when she was there on holiday the following week and another employee from another department having heard the story brought her son’s toy parrot in with a great note from her son to the ill child asking him to look after it.

If someone gets a bad meal at your restaurant and don’t tell you about it then you know they’ll tell others. You’ve got to actively encourage complaints. You do this by listening, watching and taking action. In this country people are still quite reticent about complaining. You’ve got to encourage them. Make it non-threatening. Listen to them.

To re-emphasise the simple key to this; when dealing with complaints the philosophy should be to apologise and then put it right. Apologise once – properly and sincerely. Then, find out what you can do to make it right. Then make it right.

You’ll be surprised how effective a marketing tool this can be. If you think of an example in your life of excellent customer care I bet it’ll come from an occasion when something didn’t go well initially.

The Long Silence

First appeared in ‘Marketing N.Z.’ (N.Z.)

On August 1st 2004 I wondered how great the customer care was for New Zealand companies. I had carried out a number of these projects for UK, US, Canada, South Africa and Australia so thought I’d give it a go.

I, very unscientifically, chose the top 25 companies from a web page by typing in “top 100 companies New Zealand” on Google, got the list (www.webrank.biz/top100nz.htm) and started contacting people. These results were from 2002 but I figured this would give me a good idea anyway as it contained a mixture of retail, energy, meat, food, finance, telecom. As I said not the most scientific method – but this isn’t a thesis.

I sent the following email;

“I am writing a customer care article looking at how large Organisations handle complaints. I believe there will always be complaints and that the best Organisations can turn complaints into something positive. I would dearly like some examples from New Zealand of customer complaints you have dealt with effectively to produce a positive result. Obviously I would not want you to infringe on any confidentiality issues with individual customers.

Many thanks

Byron Kalies”

(The article is real by the way and hopefully will be published towards the end of the year.)

The websites were generally extremely good, well developed and most had had a fair amount of time and money spent on them.

Usually it’s fairly straightforward to find a contact email – usually. In a few cases it was impossible. Well the few cases were really one case; Foodstuffs Co-operative. This co-operative boasts that “the collective turnover of the Foodstuffs companies ranks the Organisation as the third biggest business in New Zealand“. The website is excellent. There is even a lesson plan for teachers. Yet they couldn’t supply an email contact address for Wellington and South Island. There was an address (and a name, and a photo) for Auckland. So, I sent the email. Fourteen days later – no reply. I sent a reminder.

On the subject of names I have a particular pet gripe about this. I want to have the name of a person to write to. It’s almost become the law in other customer care contacts, e.g. telephoning; “Hi, Diane here how can I help?”. However of the 25 companies I contacted only 5 supplied a name (Foodstuffs, AGL NZ, FletcherBuildings, Methanex New Zealand and Carter Holt Harvey). Of the other I usually got an email address I could contact, nzcustomer@…. or services@… but not a name. Fonterra supplied lots of names for Investor Relations questions but nothing for customer service. Some of the companies had phone numbers, addresses and fax numbers but not always email addresses. It’s not difficult to supply an email address. Email is my preferred form of communication for this. It suits me and being half way around the world it’s by far the best method, so give me a choice.

Some companies only supplied a form. Again, give me the choice. The standard of the forms were mixed. Some of the questions left you wondering; “Are you a customer” Meridian Energy (were they planning to be more / less helpful?). Shell offered to send me a copy of their Business Report – thank you. This ranged from the superb Air New Zealand – just the 2 fields – email address box and query box, to the not so good Caltex New Zealand. Caltex had a long form for me to fill in. They even wanted to know my occupation – I’m still wondering what they do with that information. They were redeemed though as they were the only organisation that recognise that UK is actually not a country and that Wales is (I’m Welsh by the way). I forgive them.

Only 3 of the companies sent an automatic immediate reply. I was disappointed. I like to be acknowledged. I really like to know that my message has got through. It costs the company virtually nothing and keeps me happy.

Anyway, I sent the emails, filled in the forms and waited for the replies to flood in. The began trickling in the following day;

One of the very first and very much ‘go away, don’t bother me’ was Alliance Group Ltd – high quality meat products. I’d seen the website and read the statement from the Chief Executive talking of strong commitment to quality and customers, “It is the reason we have always maintained such strong relationships with our business partners and customers within New Zealand and around the world.”. So the reply to my query “We acknowledge your enquiry. We do not wish to participate” was a bit of a blow. I suppose technically I’m not a business partner, but how did they know I’m unlikely to be a customer – being a vegetarian? Lucky guess.

BP (“…dynamically led company that never stands still. In touch with customers”) replied and asked if I’d chosen the wrong website. I replied that I hadn’t. They replied that they’d contact their Media manager and get back to me. Fourteen days later – no reply. I sent a reminder.

AGL sent a nice reply saying that they were Australian and didn’t have examples from New Zealand. “Fine” I replied “that will be great. Fourteen days later – no reply. I sent a reminder.

Woolworth’s had quite a bit about customers on their website and in their Guiding Principles; “You should be responsive to their enquiries and ensure they are not misled when you are providing information”.

They’re response was polite but… “The information you have asked for is sensitive and we are unable to share it outside of the Organisation. Also we do not have the resources.”

Interestingly enough they seemed to have the resources and seemed less coy about sensitivity when they quoted 4 testimonials on their web site; “I cannot express how brilliant this service is (online ordering)” – Kim, Christchurch… “I rang my children in Wellington this morning (Monday night NZ time) and they confirmed that the groceries had arrived. They were absolutely rapt.” – Matthew, London

Meridian Energy (“Meridian Energy is committed to providing you with a quick, courteous and efficient service”) forwarded my enquiry to their Customer Service team. Fourteen days later – no reply. I sent a reminder.

Telecom Corporation of New Zealand (“Providing service and support is what we’re here for. “) forwarded my email to their Customer Resolution team. Fourteen days later – no reply. I sent a reminder.

Fletcher Buildings (“Our business exists to meet the needs of our customers”) suggested I contact some of the companies within the Fletcher Building Group – “why couldn’t you do it for me?” I thought “you know them”.

Methanex (not a great deal about customers on this website) sent me a nice reply but I’d obviously asked the wrong question; “With regard to the community, we have Community Advisory Panels in our areas of operations, and you can find out more about them on our web site”

Shell (From 9 Business Principles… “Principle 9…… Communication …”Shell companies… provide full relevant information about their activities to legitimately interested parties, subject to any overriding considerations of business confidentiality and cost” ). “After consideration we would rather not.” Maybe they decided I’m not a legitimately interested party. Well I’m interested so does that mean I’m illegitimate? Or are they concerned about business confidentiality?

Contact Energy (“How can we help you today?”) wrote a nice email explaining their customer care procedure but “Unfortunately we are not able to provide you with specific examples, as the disclosure of this information would breach the Privacy Act.” Are they concerned with business confidentiality as well? They did, however, promise to send a copy of their complaints brochure. (They also called my ‘Bryon’ – not designed to please people – getting their names wrong).

Mobil Oil (“We pledge to be innovative and responsive”) contacted me with another overview but “I am unable to share specific examples with you.”

The remaining companies haven’t replied yet. I’ve sent reminders;

Food land proved a problem. Firstly I sent the email to a company in Hawaii (I think) and having finally tracked down the Food land from the list (FAL, I hope). I looked at their website (couldn’t find any mention of customers) and sent the email. I’m not hopeful.

Fonder has a superb website. A values poster and lots of great quotes about customers; “Measure a job well done through our customers’ eyes.”, “Communicate with openness and honesty”. I’m waiting.

Air New Zealand (“We strive to deliver a consistently superior standard of customer service”), CHH (“We are always keen to provide the media with any assistance they need to write stories about our company.”), Richmond Food (“Our staff are encouraged to be action-orientated. Innovative and produce quality work”), AFFCO (“emphasis on meeting customer demand is behind the Internationalisation of AFFCO”), PPCS (“Talk of quality is cheap -it’s what really happens which makes the difference”), Caltex Oil (“To our customers… This creed dictates that our customers come first and will receive ultimate worth and value through fast and polite service”), Comalco New Zealand (“We care about people and the world in which we live.”), Genesis Energy (“At Genesis Energy we take pride in our Customer Care team…. We listen. We do.”).

For all of the above; Fourteen days later – no reply. I sent a reminder.

There was one from the 25 that came somewhere close. This was The Warehouse Group (“We aim to keep our customers satisfied.”). Not brilliant but a little better than the others. They explained their way of dealing with customer complaints in a clear, unambiguous way. Nice, simple process. Still no examples though.

I couldn’t believe the top 25 companies in New Zealand were incapable of coming up with one customer care example between them. Maybe it’s because I’m not a customer to them – I’m Welsh, I don’t eat meat, don’t drive a car, don’t use their phones, gas or electricity, use their food stores, use their bricks or wood. Maybe, but I decided I’d ask more companies so I looked at the current list of the top 500 Australian companies in BRW and identified the New Zealand ones.

I sent them the email…..

One week later and some replies;

BP passed it on and then replied with “Hi Byron, I’m sorry but we are unable to help you with this request.”;

Foodstuffs regret that “they are unable to offer any ‘case studies'”;

Richmond gave me a few sentences on general customer care practice then “I’m afraid I cannot provide you with any examples”;

Meridian Energy supplied a nice, specific paragraph on their process then the email of the electricity complaints office;

Fonterra forwarded my email to a subsidary(sic);

AGL apologised and asked for more info as did Telecom, as did Genesis Energy.

I’m still waiting.

Carter Holt Harvey probably got the closest to helping me by explaining the structure and how they handle complaints and offering to help more. I’d had enough by then.

Of the new companies I emailed 8 ignored me totally; SkyCity, AucklandAirport, Fisher and Paykel Healthcare, Nuplex Industries, Repco Corporation, Tower, NZ Oil and Gas and Tenon.

I looked at their web sites again and found 1 of Tower’s 3 values. I need to quote it in full;

“Our highest commitment is to our Customers (whether consumers or intermediaries) without whom our business would not exist. Customers seek many things from us – performance, service and communications – but what will make us unique is our total commitment to outstanding Service… in the form our customers want.”

I gave them another chance to respond…..

Of the 3 that took the trouble to reply Sky Network TV wrote “Our management has decided not to comply with your request”;

Fisher and Paykel decided they would “focus on our resources coping with work that will return benefits to us. I therefore have to decline your request for case study.”

And Waste Management had the best reason of all “We are a non profit Organisation and we do not get complaints.”

Finally a reply from Selena Batt. A set of customer stories I can use from Genesis Energy (“We listen. We really do”) and restoring my faith in New Zealand customer care.

New Zealand Top 25 companies I contacted;

1. Fonterra Co-operative Group

2. Telecom Corporation of New Zealand

3. Air New Zealand

4. Carter Holt Harvey

5. Foodland (NZ) Holdings

6. Fletcher Buildings

7. Foodstuffs (Auckland)

8. Shell New Zealand Holding Company

9. The Warehouse Group

10. Woolworth’s (New Zealand)

11. Mobil Oil New Zealand

12. BP New Zealand Holdings

13. Foodstuffs (Wellington) Co-Operative

14. Foodstuffs (South Island)

15. Richmond

16. AGL NZ

17. Alliance Group

18. AFFCO Holdings

19. PPCS

20. Meridian Energy

21. Caltex New Zealand

22. Contact Energy

23. Genesis Energy

24. Methanex New Zealand

25. Comalco New Zealand

SkyCity

AucklandAirport

Fisher and Paykel Appliances

Fisher and Paykel Healthcare

Nuplex Industries

Repco Corporation

Sky Network TV

Waste Management NZ

Tower

NZ Oil and Gas

Tenon

Names

First appeared in ‘Succeed’ (South Africa.)

Perhaps the ultimate symbol for a company is the name. This is the focus; it’s what people (hopefully) remember. Would Ben and Jerry’s have been as successful if they’d been Cohen and Greenfield‘s? Would IBM be as world-renowned if they’d stuck with their original title – Computer Tabulating and Recording Company? Ryanair were going to be called Trans Tipperary – not quite as dynamic. Intel could have been named Moore Noyce if Moore and Noyce could have registered the name before a hotel company did. Goldwyn Pictures (Later part of MGM) was named as a combination of Samuel Goldfish and Edgar and Archibald Selwyn. A different combination could have been Fishsel or Selfish. Would Mitel have flourished under the full name of Mike and Terry’s Lawnmowers? Or Psion as Potter Scientific Instruments Or Nothing?

Looking at the film and TV industry it’s hard to imagine John Wayne winning an Oscar as Marion Morrison? Would ‘Dad’s Army’ have been such a huge show if it had kept the title; ‘The Fighting Tigers?’ Would ‘Pretty Woman’ have been such a huge success if it had been marketed under the German title – ‘I’m Rich But I Like Cheap Prostitutes’ – one from the Pan’s People school of interpretation?

Some brand names seem to have chosen wisely – Maxwell House was, thankfully, named after the hotel the meetings were held at rather than the owner (Joel Cheek). KANGOL (the clothing company with a billion dollar turnover) was named after the three materials used to make berets in the Second World War (silK, ANGora and woOL). It could have been far worse

It can get even worse. There is the story of the new Italian executive for PowerGen rushing to impress his bosses and securing copyright on the name Powergen Italia!

Trolleyology – the New Battlefield

First appeared in ‘CIO’ (U.K.)

It started as an idea to explore trolleyology. Not the trolleyology as defined in the United States – “making judgements about people from their shopping”. In the US version it’s become very popular and widely discussed as a means of matching and dating. Would you go out with someone who only bought ‘value’ or ‘standard’ range products?

The trolleyology I was interested in was the psychology of supermarkets. This is an exploration of the way supermarkets seduce customers with their cunning use of music, colour, product positioning etc. I had discovered a number of interesting aspects; For instance did you know that most supermarkets are designed with the entrance on the left to encourage shoppers to walk around the store in a clock-wise direction which feels more comfortable and natural? Or that there’s a company that sells canisters of coffee and bread smells to pump through the air-conditioning. I also found out that aisles had curved ends to make sure the customer’s eye never leaves the produce.

I found that the choice of music could be extremely problematic for supermarket psychologists. Research shows that slow instrumental music means people spend more time in the store. This is usually a good thing and something supermarkets encourage in other ways – lack of windows to block out reality which often makes people unaware of the time. However the willingness to purchase decreases when this type of music is playing. So, it’s a tough decision. One other piece of research showed that when a supermarket played French music more French wine was sold, and when they played German music more German wine was sold.

So, having discovered a fair amount on the various old-fashioned techniques supermarkets use to get the maximum amount of money out of customers I thought I’d look at the new battlefield – the web site.

It was interesting and paralleled three of the main principles of trolleyology. Firstly the experience is designed to be as pleasant and easy as possible – people are more likely to spend money if they’re happy. Secondly people are encouraged to stay online for as long as possible – while they are online they’re more likely to be spending money and finally people are persuaded to buy the products the retailer can make the most money from – often own label products .

I looked at all the major retailers and found very little difference in the ‘tactics’ used. The first screens tend to be the equivalent of the ‘transit zone’ in supermarkets. The transit zone is that ‘dead’ area for selling where the baskets and information is kept. Shoppers need this space to acclimatise to the store. It’s a similar process on the websites. The supermarkets establish their credibility and trust and make it feel safe to shop. One of the key aspects of this is the logo. Logos are interesting. Most sites have a logo that emphasises solidity like TESCO or ASDA. Others adopt a solid minimalist approach combining strength with a modern look e.g. “YOUR M&S”. Others go with that symbolism then add a statement in computer-fashioned handwriting, e.g. Sainsbury “Try something new today”. This aims for the solidity combined with old-fashioned values. The logo design combined with the safe, solid colour scheme is designed to put the shopper at ease and develop a sense of trust.

Colours aren’t just chosen at random here. There’s a great deal of thought and philosophy going on here. In Eastern philosophy colours correspond with the seven energy centres (chakras) of the body and have powerful meanings. Consciously, or subconsciously these tie in neatly with many of the colour schemes. For instance, Morrison’s have a different colour design for each aspect of their website;

For the section on ‘stores and services’ the green colour represents heart and love, ‘special offers’ are yellow representing emotions,

violet represents spirit and vitality for ‘new store openings’,

orange represents endurance for ‘company information’.

The blue that dominates Tesco and other websites represents strength, dignity, calm and trustworthiness. Navy blue in particular is reliable and responsible. It appeals to the older audience and reduces blue pressure. Offers are frequently in red which emotes aggression and is attention grabbing. It can increase the heart rate and blood pressure.

Many stores ‘Christmas’ website areas are in direct contrast to their traditional colour scheme. Waitrose incorporate a great deal of chocolate brown which represents an affinity with nature. Whilst Sainsbury and Marks and Spencer feature a rich red design which in Western culture suggests feelings of sophistication and is meant to be welcoming.

Once you start shopping and get through the initial screen and into the shopping area you’ll find the exciting items first – i.e., at the top left corner of the screen. The first area you come across on the Tesco site is intriguingly labelled . Leaving the introductory screens you’re bombarded by rich reds, images and offers and ‘Christmas’ (standing out in red from the other white labels). Having recovered and perhaps picked up a few bargains its back to the more mundane blues of the groceries shopping.

Firstly there’s the login screen – nice and straightforward. Then there’s another ‘transit zone’. There’s lots of reassuring black text and a photograph of a nice ripe red strawberry. From the top and from the left Christmas again features extremely large. In the top left corner – ‘Everything for Christmas’.

Clicking on this and you’re back to the rich reds and mouth-watering photograph of brie, grapes and a strawberry. There’s a lot of help to sort everything out for you. This is known as ‘clustering’. In a supermarket you would tend to have the pasta section with pasta, of course, pasta sauces, pesto, tomato puree, colanders, everything including the salt you may need for cooking. On special promotions you may even get wine, Italian music, etc…

Click on < Christmas essentials > and you get the clustering (in spades). On the ‘Don’t forget’ list you get 41 items not to forget including toilet tissue, cranberry sauce, Christmas pudding, batteries, turkey foil and Whiskas Pouch Chicken in Jelly. Incidentally there’s an interesting feature on the Christmas pages called the ‘present selector’. You type in who it’s for (for him, for her, for kids)) and how much you love them (under a tenner, £10 -£19, … over £100) and press ENTER. Typing in ‘for her – under £10’ shows you all the options at all the prices. ‘For him – over £100’ gives all the options as well. It panders to the feeling that you’ve had some choice – taken some control. It’s an illusion really.

Back to the . As with the physical supermarket first impressions are vital. In a store it’s fresh fruit and vegetables. Online it’s fresh fruit and vegetables. The first screen has that perfect red strawberry sitting in a bed of text.

Click on and you get a photograph entitled ‘PURE INDULGENCE ‘with some gorgeous looking steak dish (well to some – missed me with this one being a vegetarian). Still, clicking on this image gives you lots of ideas for ‘Scrumptious starters’, ‘Mouth-watering mains’, Delicious desserts’ and ‘ Delightful drinks’. All with extremely attractive meals and designed to assault your taste buds.

Supermarkets are designed so that the essentials are scattered to different locations at the back of the stores. This forces shoppers to walk through the more exciting (higher mark-up) aisles. The basics are available and listed on the left hand side, but are grouped with other items. For example bread is in ; vegetables are in .

Looking at the process of buying and comparing price can be extremely complicated. For instance, looking on the Sainsbury’s site for apples the first three items were;

‘Mr Men organic apples £1.99 / unit (£2.84 / Kg)’

‘Sainsbury Apple and grape bites £0.54 / unit (£0.68 / 100 g)’

‘Sainsbury Apples, basics £0.69 / unit (£0.09 each)’.

It’s nice to see the concept of confusion marketing has extended to this area of the internet already.

I digress. Buying a loaf of bread can’t be too difficult though can it? Clicking on a very interesting sub-menu pops up. It has at the top. Then it seems to be in alphabetical order for a while – , , , etc. However right at the eye-catching bottom of the list, where the reading finishes and the eye lingers, is . It’s a similar pattern for other items in the Fresh Fruit category. Finest* is Tesco’s own quality (and I would guess) their high profit range.

Anyway let’s try to ignore that range and go for boring sliced white bread < Bread- Sliced Loaves> . Another choice appears including < Standard White Bread> and .

Value (25p) sounds really cheap so I choose that one. Clicking on the text to give an image and the picture is of an unloved, squashed, not very nice-looking loaf of bread. Let’s try standard (43p). .No image available. Why is that I wonder? Is standard white bread so rare in Tesco’s they can’t find one to take a photograph of? Unfortunately there’s no information either. I must say the ‘more information’ on all sites I looked at is really mixed. Sometimes, on Tesco, Waitrose especially there’s excellent information on nutritional values, descriptions, etc. Waitrose even recommend what else you should buy to go with your selection – How thoughtful of them. However often there’s no information at all.

Back to the bread. I can’t choose standard as I can’t see what it looks like and it reminds me too much of ‘average’ in school which means anything but average. Also, there may be an American watching and studying my purchases for ‘trolleyology’ purposes.

(choice of 17) is basically brand leaders – Hovis, Kingsmill, Mothers Pride (82 p a loaf or so). Looks good. A nice picture and lots of information on ingredients, storage, usage, nutritional values.

Now for (choice of 3 Tesco products and 5 others). – Hovis (94 p) so it must be better.

Scroll down and find Tesco finest* crusty white bread (82p). Super premium for the price of premium and it’s the finest – Better buy it quick.

So, even though you’re able to buy anything without leaving the comfort of your computer desk chair you’re not safe from the same old tricks and techniques shopkeepers have always used to get you to part with your money. It’s not even any subtler, which, I guess is some relief. Unless it’s so subtle I haven’t spotted it?

It’s About Time or How Would You Like to be Remembered?

First appeared in ‘Family Business’ (U.S.A.)

As a family business owner, you’re usually pressed for time. More often than not, the problems stem from the very reason you decided to set up the business in the first place — to work with your family.

Even though you own the company, you never have time for anything you really want to do. You spend your working hours surrounded by family, but there’s no quality in it — you never seem to talk about anything significant. When you see your children, it’s only to take them somewhere or bring them back.

What can you do about this? In my view, time management training is not the solution. The books are generally dry as dust — suggestions for time logging, impractical hints for dealing with telephone calls, e-mail tips that assume you’re about 12 years old. None of them seem to work.

Instead, try this exercise. Imagine that you’re a guest at your own funeral. One by one, people you love get up and talk about you and your contribution to the world. What do they say? I can bet all the money in my pocket they won’t be wishing you’d spent more time at your desk.

Next, look at the scenario slightly differently. How would you like to be remembered? That’s your starter. Don’t worry if you haven’t got all the answers (or any of them) yet. As long as you’ve started to think about it, you’re on the right track.

The key exercise comes from Stephen Covey. Imagine a bucket. Put three or four big rocks in. Is the bucket full? “No,” you reply. Put some smaller rocks in to fill the gaps. Is it full now? “Not yet.” So add some sand, then some water. Now it’s full.

So what’s the lesson here? It has to do with the order. What would happen if you’d reversed it? Put the water in first, then the sand, then the small rocks. There would be no room for the big rocks. These big rocks are the important things in your life. You must schedule them first. Don’t try to squeeze them in after arranging the water (pointless meetings), sand (unnecessary travel) or small rocks (meetings that take three times as long as needed because no one is properly prepared). Once these things are scheduled, fit the rest of your work around them.

There are lots of hints about time logs, to-do lists, phone calls, meetings, e-mails and paperwork. Have a look at each one — then discount 80% of them. If you’ve heard of them but are still not following them, my guess is you never will. If they are new and intriguing, try them.

But never forget the big picture. Why save ten minutes handling paperwork if you’re only going to spend it trawling through useless e-mails? Remember: You can’t save time; you have only so much of it. You know that. So now, what do you want to be remembered for?