12 November 2012

That was week ending 9th November 2012

Last week could be described as momentous, given that Barack Obama was elected for a second term as US President and the Chinese continue ponderously through their leadership change process. It is difficult to work out what is going on with this. However it seems pretty certain that one of the blokes in suits will become the new leader of China sometime soon.
This and some other stories from last week prompted me to think about the difference between “knowing what you are there for” and “knowing what you are there to do” and whether this difference matters. The connection is not immediately obvious between this and Presidential election and Chinese change of leadership, but bear with me.

Hurricane heroics

I am grateful for this story from my business partner in Melbourne, Barbara Craven. It concerns a US company called Squarespace who provide cloud based services including running hundreds of thousands of websites for customers. When hurricane Sandy struck their data centre in downtown Manhattan it suffered a total loss of power in spite of multiple levels of back up systems and resources. It took out much of the building services including fuel reserves for back up generators. And yet none of their customers experienced any down time as a result of the power outage!
How did they do it? For three days employees carried fuel manually up 17 flights of stairs to fuel the remaining back up generator. By day four they had installed a pump system to deliver fuel to the generator on the roof. They now have plenty of fuel on site and a further generator connected at street level but they are still not connected to the power grid. Yet the service to customers has never faltered.
This for me this is an example of people who know what they are there for, to serve their customers. So when struck by a disaster of such unprecedented proportions that they could not possibly have planned for it, they quickly worked out what they had to do. So maybe there is a difference and the difference can make a difference.


However a positive rather than negative “purpose” can, I believe, influence results. In the 2008 Presidential election much was made of Obama’s election machine, particularly that part of it that “got the vote out”. In 2012 the Republicans said they would match or even exceed this. However it looks as though they didn’t and that it was a crucial factor in their defeat. From what I have read it wasn’t about money or about the numbers of people involved. The Obama people just seemed to have the more positive sense of purpose which was to get their man elected. Consequently they had a very clear understanding of what they had to do, which was to find every single possible voter who might vote for Obama and make sure they voted. The Republicans on the other hand gave the impression that they were there to stop Obama being elected, rather than to get Romney elected. This showed on the ground in the lack of purpose, drive and resources they put into getting their vote out.

The lone voice

I came across an example of what happens when people are not clear what they are there for when talking last week with a friend of mine who works for a European manufacturer of capital goods. The company has brought in consultants to improve “sales” performance and they have introduced a sales performance management system. This requires everyone in the sales force to log every phone call, e-mail, meeting etc. and to carry out their sales activity in line with performance standards set by the system. Even though my friend has been the top sales person in Europe for most of the past fifteen years, they want him to conform to the new system as well. Their argument being that if he doesn’t do it then no one else will.
The company has also spent €35m “rationalising” its manufacturing facilities. Whilst this has produced cost savings, these have not been used to offer lower prices or even better delivery times to customers. My friend is clear on what he is there for, to sell machines to customers, but others don’t appear to share this view. They think they are there to tell others what to do and to micro manage them into doing it.

Whitehall revolving doors

However I also think you often need time and experience to understand what you are really there for. This is not surprising when most of our education and experience of work has been all about WHAT we must do rather then why we are doing it.
Regular readers of these articles will know that I regularly castigate government for its lack of competence and capability to deliver what the country needs. This week a report from the Better Government Initiative (BGI) will be published highlighting the shortcomings in government which have caused so many policy failures, including record levels of staff replacement in Whitehall.
Did any of us realise that staff turnover in the Treasury over the last two years has been 50% and the average age in the department is now well under 30?  High staff turnover is affecting all departments from the lowest to highest levels. Only 2 of Whitehall’s 16 departments have the same Permanent Secretary as they did two years ago. The Department of Transport is now on its fourth Permanent Secretary since the election. No wonder it screwed up the West Coast Mainline bid.
It seems that no one has given a thought as to whether this indicates a serious problem at the heart of government. With staff turnover at these levels people will hardly have time to figure out what they are there to do, never mind what they are there for.

China Syndrome

Judging by some of the rhetoric from the Chinese leadership last week they know what they are there for - to maintain one party government so as to keep the communist party in power in China. A key component of the strategy to maintain this political status quo is government control of state enterprises that dominate key areas of the economy. Many of these behemoths make huge losses and are a source of much of the corruption in the Chinese economic system.
However the other goal set is to double per capita income by 2020. This is an example of where what you have to do to achieve what you think you are there for is actually an obstacle to achieving your goals. I may be proved wrong, but in the last 100 years autocratic government with state control of the economy has not been a successful formula for delivering sustainable growth in prosperity for its citizens. This is because it favours the relatively few to the detriment of the many and always encourages corrupt practices by the few to maintain their privileges.

It’s all about outcomes

If you can set a clear outcome that both you and your people can relate to and find inspiring, then quite extraordinary things can happen. A positive outcome will nearly always beat a negative outcome. Focusing just on what people are there to do can make it really hard work to make anything happen at all. Even when you have set an outcome people need time and support to work out how they personally can relate to this and consequently what they are really there for. Finally if the outcomes you set are about you having your cake and eating it, this is likely to be self-defeating.

So that was some of the week before this week. We hope you found some of the above thought provoking and useful for you and your business. We trust you had a good weekend and hope you have a great week this week.

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