The “New Normal” Will Not Be Very Normal


Whatever “normal” means, I’m not sure we will be seeing a lot of it in the foreseeable future.

One definition of normal is “that which is most common.” The normal course of action is that which we would take most of the time, in the absence of unusual circumstances. It’s the idea of one size fits all (or at least most). The thing is, there aren’t going to be many questions to which one answer is right most of the time. The answer to most important questions will be a version of “it all depends.” The world will be like a country where no political party commands more than 15% of the vote, or a record shop where no musical genre accounts for more than 10% of sales.

Another definition of normal is “that which is familiar, which we understand and know how to deal with.” There’s going to be even less of that sort of normal around. Industry best practice and standard operating procedures will need to  be treated with extreme caution, for they describe how to operate in a world that no longer exists. Most previously sought-after specialists will be specialists in how things used to be.

So what does it all mean? It means that in the next few years everything  will feel strange and there will be no reliable rules to follow. If anyone talks to you about “back to normal,” be very wary. I would take issue with “back” and I would take issue with “normal.” “to” is probably OK, though.

This Is Not A Recession

WLTM people who remain determined to find the seeds of positive transformation in today’s chaos. Read this, and if makes sense to you, let’s talk. Optimists need to seek each other out in this climate.

It may feel today as if we are living through a recession, or even a depression, but that’s a mistake. It’s vital to understand this because the way to survive a recession – cut back, hunker down, wait for it to pass – will not guarantee a future once the crisis is over. In fact, it will probably guarantee that you won’t have a future once the crisis is over.

This is because what we are facing is not recession but a reconfiguration. Everything has been blown apart, and will be put back together differently. The rules are being changed, and the stakes have been raised. Let’s assume that a CoVid vaccine is launched by next spring, and by this October 2022 we no longer need to organise ourselves to control the spread of infection. Where will your business be then? Will you be just “still there”, exhausted and weakened? Or will you look back and think that, for all the chaos, this present crisis was the catalyst for huge positive change; for transformation? Those are the options; transformation or a marginal existence. The option that doesn’t exist is “back to normal.” Because there will be a new normal, and it won’t feel very normal for a very long time.

This matters not just for your business but for the economy as a whole. If everyone tries to get back to “normal” or, worse, waits for other people to get things back to “normal”, then the prospects are bleak. Anyone who can engage with the fact that everything has changed and adapt to the new will benefit society just as much as they benefit their own business.

Take heart from a conversation I had with a client, the head of a digital marketing agency. He told me: “Most of our competitors have people on furlough and have stopped all business development. We on the other hand have added 15 new clients since the start of the lockdown.”

So what do you need to do? First of all, recognise that you are a startup again.The defining feature of the startup is that nobody knows what will make it successful. The only thing the founders know is that they need to try lots of things, and that success, when it comes, will look very different from what is in the plan. You need to get into, or back into, that mentality. But there is an extra twist. Startups need to handle the troubling thought that “nobody knows anything”, but they have an advantage. It is the advantage of no baggage. You, as an established business, have baggage. It’s all the accumulated knowledge, systems, practices, assumptions and KPIs that have made you successful up to this point.

I have spent a lot of time helping businesses in sticky situations, and have always found that finding the new is much easier than letting go of the old.There are things you can’t see because you are too close to them; as one of my associates put it brilliantly, “you can’t read the label from inside the bottle.” This means that, strangely, you need help from someone who knows less about your business and your industry than you do. To illustrate; on my bookshelf I have the CIA’s operating manual for intelligence analysts. It tells the story of the reunification of Germany. At the end of the 1980s the Soviet Union was collapsing and had announced it would no longer intervene in the affairs of its satellite countries. Unrest was increasing, and the Berlin Wall was about to come down. It was becoming clearer and clearer that the two Germanies would reunite. Clearer and clearer, that is, to everyone except the German specialists in the foreign ministries and intelligence services. Some of them “had to be prodded by their more generalist supervisors to accept the significance of the dramatic changes…”

So beware of specialists at this time. They are specialists in the way things used to be. They have been too close to it for too long.

Also beware of anything that might be described as “industry best practice.” In dealing with recession, the playbook is quite standard, and can produce dramatic improvements. The biggest project of that type I did was a global software business. I had to work quite hard early on to persuade the auditors it was worth £30m, but within two years it had been sold for £200m. What I did was absolutely standard; control costs, manage cash better and wait for the market to recover. That won’t work, though, when the requirement is transformation. Then there is no playbook. I recently completed an engagement with a social media agency which found itself in an over-commoditised business and transformed itself into a high-value marketing consultancy. In that case the ideas came from fields as diverse as behavioural economics, 1970s military strategy and a story about Somali pirates.

So that’s the way it is. The task is not retrenchment but rethinking and reconfiguring. The risks and difficulties are obvious, but just beyond your sight are some huge opportunities.

Did this resonate with you? If so, let’s talk. Maybe you have plans you’d like to discuss, or you’d just like to talk to someone who’s working hard on keeping optimistic. No obligation, no sales pitch for anything.  Email me and we can set something up.

It’s Time To Increase the Background Level of Weirdness

A few years ago, I spent quite a  lot of time speaking to Chief Executive groups. The results were mixed. Some groups really loved my material – there is one group where I was invited back three more times and another where I have been four times. But then there were others who hated it – I usually really enjoy speaking, but there’s one event I remember and think “I’ve had more fun at the dentist.”

What intrigued me was why the reception was so varied when, on all objective criteria, the groups were very, very similar. Same age range, same gender balance, same type and size of business.

It was Martin who provided the answer. Martin had been a member at one of the groups who had really loved my stuff (the one which invited me back three more times), but then left and joined a different group. He recommended me as a speaker there, where my material bombed. I asked him why.

“It’s simple,” he explained. “You ask to people to think, in fact to think differently. Some people are up for that, and others aren’t.”

Yes, it was simple. It all came down to how people responded to a new idea or a new way of looking at an old question. At some groups it was “that’s interesting, tell me more.” At others it was “Urgh!” (or something a little more polite to the same effect). It’s also worth noting that people of either persuasion will tend to self-sort into groups of kindred spirits. If you attend a group and they are the same sort of people as you, you will be more likely to stay. If they are the other sort, you won’t feel comfortable and won’t be back. So groups acquire a particular character.

Now until a few months ago I would have said “no big deal, different strokes for different folks” and avoided groups which didn’t like to take an idea for a walk. Today, however, I take a different view.

Today and for the next couple of years everything has been thrown up in the air. If you think things will return to the way they were,  you are deluding yourself. That means that moving in circles where your ideas aren’t challenged is a luxury you can’t afford. If you haven’t in the past sought out new ideas and new perspectives you need to start doing so, even if it jars. In fact, the fact that it jars is proof that you are getting the stimulus you need. If you have historically sought out new ideas, you need to seek out more, and seek a broader range from stranger places. If it’s not odd, weird or a little uncomfortable it won’t be what you need. The biggest risk today is the unknown knowns, the assumptions we don’t notice we’re taking for granted. 

In the military they say “train hard, fight easy.” There’s an analogy here. You can accept the discomfort of strange new ideas in a private conversation with a helpful person or group of people, or suffer the far greater discomfort of smashing head first into a strange new reality out there.

How to Set Priorities (without it ending in a fight)

In a previous post, I talked about the principle that:

if you have three hours a day and three priorities, you will make good progress. If you have ten hours a day and ten priorities, you will spin your wheels. So you can only afford three.”

That naturally raises the question:

So which three priorities do you choose?

The question is hard, because various things can go wrong:

  • You go through the exercise, and end up with everything as a first priority;
  • You go round and round in circles, never arriving at an answer;
  • It becomes a political process – not what priority, but whose priority?

In all, there are excellent opportunities for consuming huge amounts of time and damaging relationships.

But there are better ways. You need a process that is systematic, guaranteed to reach a conclusion, objective and transparent. The video presents three techniques.

How to Sell to the Paralysed, Paranoid and Anxious

One of my clients ( a marketing consultancy) recently received an email from one of their biggest clients, a version of an email that a lot of people are receiving:

“We’re very sorry, but given current conditions (all our stores are closed) we need to suspend operations with you for two or three months.”

This would have been a major financial hit for my client,  but we were able to change their client’s mind. We did it using a useful piece of psychological theory. The video explains.

Why It’s So Important – And So Powerful – To Focus

When I worked as a crisis manager, my job was to be successful where others had just failed. I usually found that my predecessor – the person who had just failed and been fired – was better at the job than me  in just about every aspect. Every aspect, that is, except the one that really mattered. What I had was an ability to set priorities, and the necessary level of ruthlessness and deviousness to stick with them in the face of constant calls to get involved in other things.

I formulated the principle that,

if you have three hours a day and three priorities, you will make good progress. If you have ten hours a day and ten priorities, you will spin your wheels. So you can only afford three.”

This principle was purely empirical, derived from my own experience and observations. Recently, I discovered the science behind it. Like most really powerful insights, it’s obvious once you’ve seen it. The video explains.

How to Sell New Things

I meet a lot of people who have brilliant new ideas to sell, and so many of them are frustrated. The video is a short summary of a seminar I did for a group of such people. In a nutshell, you need to offer something new, but also something old.

The Prisoner of Success

I meet a lot of these people. Diligently working away at strategies, with methods, that just don’t work any more. It’s clear to everyone but them that they don’t work any more, so why do they persist?

It’s because what they’re doing isn’t so much wrong, as not right any longer.  It used to work; in fact it is what made them successful, and that’s why it’s so hard to stop doing it. Here are some of the more common “no longer right” strategies and methods:

“Massive action solves any problem” No it doesn’t. If the organisation structure is not fit for purpose or the product is obsolete massive action will, at best, have no effect. More likely, it will be like kicking your car when it won’t start.

“It’s all about the people.” When you only have 5 of them, this is probably true. When you have 500, it isn’t. At that scale, it’s all about the people, the products, the strategy, the organisation structure, the management information systems and some other things I could think of given another few minutes. What is the number of people above which success is no longer “all about” them? Definitely 50, often as small as 15.

“Heroic action by me, the boss, solves all problems”. Not above a certain scale. If a £1m business has a 10%  revenue shortfall, it’s plausible that one person of great ability and energy could find the missing £100,000. If a £10m business has a 10% revenue shortfall, that same person will not be able to find the missing £1m.

Here are two questions worth asking yourself:

  • which, out of your methods and strategies, seem to be working less well than they used to?
  • what, over the last twelve months, has ceased to be true for you?



Change Management: Physics or Psychics?

A lot change  management is framed, implicitly, as physics. There is resistance, which needs to be overcome. Applying force to the situation (urgency, fear of what happens if we don’t change, excitement about what happens if we do) overcomes that  resistance. This is well exemplifed in John Kotter’s work.

This makes perfect sense if you are moving heavy furniture around in your house. The theory however runs into difficulty when we attempt to generalise from objects to people. Change causes fear, which causes resistance. If we try to overcome that resistance with more fear, then we set up a powerful vicious circle. It’s psychology, not physics, that operates here.

Consider a different approach, which works with the grain of human nature, not against it. Most people most of the time don’t like change which they don’t control, and would prefer to keep things as they are.  Here are two examples of the “things need to change so that everything can remain the same” approach.

One was the recently appointed head of an organisation with a lengthy history but which was in complete disarray. Radical change was clearly needed, but he realised that “radical” and “change” were the two words he most needed to avoid. Instead, he did all he needed to do under the banner of “longevity” – what do we need to do to ensure the longevity of the organisation, and the longevity of the careers of the people working there? The result was huge change with minimal resistance.

The second was the CEO who asked the question “how much do we need to grow for the organisation to remain sustainable?” The answer turned out to be (as I am sure he knew from the start) that it needed to double in size while abandoning a part of the business which had been central to its identity for decades. Again, very major change with minor resistance.

The models we use tend to create self-fulfilling prophecies. If we expect change to be a battle then it will be, just as if you go out on a Saturday night looking for a fight you will usually find one. I don’t think that’s what you want, is it? Try a little subtlety instead.

Acknowledgement: “things need to change so that everything can remain the same” is a line from a novel, Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. It’s about a decadent and decaying aristocratic regime threatened by the approaching forces of democracy and revolution, so you may or may find it relevant to your own situation. The quote, however, applies very widely. And it is an excellent novel.

What is a Theory For?

People use theories for two different purposes, one of which is much more helpful than  the other.

The recent death of Clayton Christensen of The Innovator’s Dilemma – “disruptive innovation” – fame reminded me of controversies related to the theory.  The book was hugely successful in the business world, and then came the backlash –  a New Yorker article in 2014 by Harvard historian Jill Lepore questioning its factual basis. Now Prof Lepore is a distinguished historian and what she said was very probably true, but the criticism misses the point. Or at least, it ought to miss the point.

Prof Lepore’s article was entitled “What The Gospel of Innovation Gets Wrong.” And that is the problem. These sorts of theories are not gospels – not big overarching explanations of how everything is supposed to work. The problem with Christensen’s theory, which is not his fault, is that it got stretched too far. In his book (1997) he in fact says that most innovations are not disruptive. By 2014, however, the idea had developed that all significant innovation was disruptive.

If you look to Christensen’s theory as a theory of how all innovation works, or as a way of predicting which innovations will be significant and which will not, or even more as a recipe for creating huge change in a given industry, then it’s not up to the task.

Alternatively, if you look at it as “here are some interesting descriptions of  things which operated through a particular mechanism and produced results that were very good news for some people and very bad news for others, which suggest that you, particularly if you are a long-established incumbent in a market, should keep a careful watch out for similar things in your world which might operate according to similar mechansims and cause you similar grief, ” then I would suggest that the Innovator’s Dilemma is a must-read.

So, what is a theory? Is it a position to defend, or a tool? If the first, then the Lepore-Christensen debate has a point. But if on the other hand a theory is a tool, then it is something we can keep in our mental toolbox and use when necessary. Disruptive innovations may be fundamental in the development of our industry, or they may be irrelevant. It doesn’t matter. We have the tool if we need it.

Using theories as tools not as positions to defend has two huge benefits.

We avoid sterile debates about whether our theory does in fact explain everything. (The fact is, it can’t. The Unified Theory of Everything is still tantalisingly out of reach of even the physicists, but here we are in the realm of social science where it is nowhere in sight).

Using theories as tools means that we can chooose between them. We have not a single view but a toolbox. And the thing about toolboxes is that the more tools they have, the better.

(Acknowledgement: the idea of theories as tools or positions to defend comes from a book, Already Free: Buddhism Meets Psychotherapy On The Path Of Liberation by Bruce Tift. It takes the idea in a different direction altogether, but if the title intrigues you it’s an excellent book).

What Do You Do When You Learn Something New?

I used to do a lot of speaking to groups of Chief Executives. Results were quite mixed – I seemed to be a “Marmite” – love it or hate it – proposition. On one occasion I did a natural controlled trial. I went to one group, then travelled 50 miles to stay overnight and do the same session with a different group. The second group loved it, to the extent of inviting me back three more times (and referring me to another group organiser who to date has invited me four times). The first group, on the  other hand, hated it. I remember presenting to them – I have had more fun at the dentist.

Why was this? The demographics of the two groups were identical – same age group, same job profiles, same types and size of business, but the response was completely different. I got the answer from a man who had heard me speak to one group (who had loved it) and recommended me another group he belonged to (who hated it).

“The thing is, Alastair” he said “you are inviting them to think differently. Some people like that, and others don’t.”

One of my case studies summed it up. This is the case of the software company who struggled to collect money from customers. What should they do? I have presented this case many, many times and everyone always comes up with suggestions related to the credit control staff  – motivate them, incentivise them, offer them bonuses, fire them and replace them…

The answer turns out to have nothing to do with the credit control staff. The problem arose because the late payments were caused by disputes over whether the software performed in accordance with documentation, the quality of consultancy work done, or how invoices related to contracts. All these needed help from other people in the organisation, and those other people just thought they had better things to do than waste time with accountants.

The message is that sometimes (in fact often) when you see a person or group underperforming the reason has nothing to do with them but is to do with the system in which they operate; what information do they have, what power can they exercise, who can they ask for help?  This is contrary to a very basic human bias, and comes as a shock. For some people, it’s a welcome shock; “I see it now, I feel more resourceful, I can solve problems which seemed intractable.” For others, it’s an unwelcome shock. “You are shaking the pillars of belief which support my world. Please stop””

It’s a question of open or closed. Do you know everything you need to know about how the world works, or are you still open to discovering more?



Actionless Action

The time I should have been doing an MBA, I spent studying Taoist philosophy.

It’s a maddening, fascinating collection of elliptically expressed ideas from a bunch of characters who were probably completely fictitious.

That was 33 words that probably drove away 90% of the readers who happened across this. If you are still with me, welcome! Relax – you are among friends.

One of the most interesting Taoist concepts is wu wei – which can be translated as “actionless action”. Achieve everything by doing nothing or, as Lao Tzu says “the sage does nothing, and nothing remains undone.” This is really quite strange and I felt a little silly talking about it, until I realised I knew a master practitioner. In fact, I was married to one.

My wife is Italian. We met while I was working in Italy. When we married and moved to the UK, she got a job as a psychotherapist in a big central London hospital. She was very effective, able to help people who came to her with files two inches thick from previous contacts with a whole range of services. One of her patients, who presented as a homeless woman with a history of suicide attempts, is now a qualified lawyer.

What this has to do with wu wei is that, at the time, Sara didn’t really speak english. Hardly at all. You might think that this would be a handicap in delivering a “talking cure” but it  wasn’t. Somehow, she was able to change the climate around her in a way that made people more resourceful, more able to help themselves, less desperate or suicidal.

There are probably other people like this. Police officers who just need to walk onto the scene for everyone to calm down. Salespeople who sell without selling. Managers who never exercise their authority because people just do what’s expected of them. Experts in conflict resolution who leave everyone wondering what all the fuss was about.

I am left with the tantalising thought that there is a different, more subtle, less stressful way of doing almost anything that involves human beings. And it’s there, right in front of us, hidden in plain sight because it looks like nothing.

Activity Rates

In a conversation  recently I heard the words “activity rate.” This took me all the way back to a conversation I had in Madrid in the mid-90s, and an issue that has come up repeatedly since then.

I was talking to Santi, the Spanish country manager of a big UK medical publisher. He was under pressure from his boss, the Sales and Marketing Director, to up his activity rate; “you have to make sure you spend enough time on the road. Get into all the small towns.”

The problem was, that wasn’t how you sold medical texts in Spain. The way to succeed, and Santi had been very successful, was to understand that in each speciality – gynaecology, cardiology, orthopaedics or whatever – there were two or three opinion leaders. They were the professors who all the other professors in all the other medical schools looked to for guidance. If you wanted to sell your medical books you had to identify the opinion leaders and then concentrate on persuading them to endorse your texts. If they did, then the other professors would follow their lead. But it’s hard to find the time to do this when your boss is pushing you to travel all over Spain trying to meet everyone.

There are different ways of reading this story. It could be about not imposing your local views on how to do a job on other countries where things work differently. It could be about trusting your people to find their own way of getting things done. Or it could be about focussing on results and not methods.

These are all valid perspectives, but I’d like to take another angle. What is the great attraction of activity rates? It seems to me that the attraction, common to all strictly quantitative method, is that they eliminate a leap of faith. You don’t need to trust someone when they tell you that, in their country, things work differently. You don’t need to suspend your disbelief when you see people doing things in ways that seem odd. You don’t need to accept that someone else might know better than you, and that there is no easy way to determine who is right.

I say that focussing on activity rates avoids a leap of faith, but that’s actually wrong. Imposing your strictly quantitative view of the world actually entails a much larger, but hidden leap of faith; that greater objectivity is always better, and that your view of what to measure is the right one. One can  look back through history and see plenty of people who held these views and came to grief because of them. That is easy. What is harder is to accept that maybe, just maybe, we are one of those people.

The Labours of Hercules: New Light on an Old Myth

You know the story – Hercules was set twelve supposedly impossible tasks, with the reward of immortality if he achieved them.

The fifth was to clean the stables of King Augeas. These contained 30,000 cattle and had not been cleaned for 30 years, yet Hercules had 24 hours. Hercules did it, by diverting two rivers through the stables and washing all the dung away.

A recently discovered manuscript, however, adds an interesting detail. While Hercules was working in the rivers, building the dams and cutting the channels that would enable him to achieve his impossible task, he was regularly distracted by passers-by making comments like “Hey Hercules, why are you wasting time in the river? You only have 24 hours – you need to be in those stables shovelling shit.”

OK, I made that last bit up,  but you see the  point. My little fiction illustrates one of the key challenges of the truly creative person. If you want exceptional results you need to use unusual means, and you will need to become good at ignoring people who are convinced that you are doing it “wrong.”  You will also, if you work in any sort of organisation, need to carve out a space which enables you to do apparently “crazy” things in pursuit of the supposedly impossible. Otherwise, you will just spend your days shovelling shit to no avail.

And if you are the boss of a Hercules, you need to give them that space. Interfere with them and you won’t enjoy the fruits of their brilliance. In fact, you won’t probably have them around for that long.

The Strangeness of Sun Tzu

The name of Sun Tzu will be familiar to just about anyone who has studied business strategy. I know one business school academic who told me that it was the only text you needed to read to pass the course.

But yet, if you read Sun Tzu carefully you discover that he is actually quite subversive. Follow his advice and, even if you are successful, you will seem quite strange to most of your colleagues.

For example:  “to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting”, or;

“What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease. Hence his victories bring him neither reputation for wisdom or credit for courage.”

These come quite early in the book. As we move on, the advice becomes less contentious. For example,  “Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.” Very few would disagree with this in principle, even if not everyone observes it in practice.

A careful reading leaves us with an impression of a commander who follows a sound and generally recognised set of strategic precepts but whose principal aim is to avoid the sorts of things – big frontal attacks,  decisive victories, any sort of drama – that win fame and glory.  A commander who, despite their successes, may well appear to be doing very little.

Think back over all the admiring profiles of CEOs that you have read. How many of them were lauded for the battles they did not fight, the competitors they subtly persauded to pack up and go home, or the problems they forestalled?

These people exist – I have been lucky enough to meet a few of them. You probably know some of them too. I’d encourage you to reread Sun Tzu and start to recognise them, and their value.

Very Creative Pricing

Very often I find myself helping clients with pricing. It’s one of the biggest levers to raise profitability.

Usually I’m showing them ways to raise prices, but here in this video is an example that goes one better, changing the transaction from “I pay you” to “you pay me.” It’s also shot on a lovely sunny summer’s day, which might cheer you up if you are watching on the grey November morning that I’m posting it.



What’s Your Super Power? (It’s Probably Not What You Think)

Remember the story of King Arthur? At the start, he’s a nobody. A poor relation tolerated in a noble family, a lowly squire serving the son, Sir Kay. One day when they are staying in London, Kay forgets to take his sword with him and sends Arthur back to the inn for it. The inn is all closed up, but Arthur sees another sword stuck in a stone and brings that instead.

Kay says “that’s not my sword, where did you get it?”

“I found it stuck in a stone,” replies Arthur. “I hope it’s alright.”

Now everyone is down on their knee to Arthur because, as everyone but he knows, the only person who can pull the sword from the stone is the rightful future king of England. Yet to him, pulling the sword out felt like nothing – he just hoped it would be good enough for Kay.

This is often how it is with super powers. I meet many people who can do remarkable things, effortlessly. But it is exactly because they can do them effortlessly that they don’t realise how remarkable they are. With many creative tasks, the better you are at something, the less effort it feels like and the less likely you are to realise that for other people it is very hard, or impossible.

Understanding this apparent contradiction is enormously powerful. There is something you can do, that most people can’t, that can create huge value, with little effort from you. This is the starting point of a very profitable business.

So what is your, or your firm’s, super power? Actually, your chances of answering that question are vanishingly small without some external help. As one of my associates put it brilliantly, “you can’t read the label from inside the bottle.” One of the first things I do with most clients is to help them identify their super powers. From that, many others things flow – better clients, higher fees, less competition. It all starts with understanding your super power.