Author: Shaun Coffey

Climate change has more impact than culture change in organisations

In the organisations I have lead I have steadfastly refused to have any culture change programmes.  I prefer to change what the organisation and its’ people are doing, and as a result the culture changes. Too many efforts aimed at improving organisational performance stumble because they miss this opportunity.

I am sure many readers will have shared the experience of attending a culture change workshop where a “desired culture” is identified and a list of “behaviours” is identified.  Then we all go back to doing the same things in the hope that the culture will change.  Unless new and different activities are introduced the change efforts will be suboptimal.

One aspect of this that is not often spoken about now is the difference between climate and culture in organisations.  Culture tends to be deep and stable (entrenched). Culture is often difficult to access and perceive. Climate, on the other hand, is often easier to perceive and understand – the behaviour, attitudes and feelings that characterise daily life in the organisation. Climate is not only easier to assess, but it also is easier to change.

Climate is the key determinant of performance.  Every action you take, every decision made, will have direct impact on the climate in the organisation.

Neglecting your people, for example, creates a poor climate.  A warm, supportive, co-operative climate where high standards are accepted and expected improves your chances of business success.  Creating a climate where the teams objectives are crystal clear create the grounds on which a healthy culture will develop – one where every employee is totally committed to the company’s goals and works hard to contribute to them.

It goes beyond just asking: Do they work well together as a team?

The important questions for individuals look like this:

·         Is everyone clear about what they’re doing?

·         Do they feel their contribution is recognised?

·         Do they feel they get a hearing?

·         Are they truly valued and honoured by the organisation?

·         Do they have a sense that they belong

Our Navigator Chair Shaun Coffey is an internationally recognised agricultural scientist with a career spanning the management of crown organisations, start up innovation technology companies and more recently his business advisory company. He is a renowned leader and strategist and is an well respected social media commentator.

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There is no place for fear in your governance practice

At Navigator, we place special value on assisting people running businesses to do the right thing and to find the correct decisions for their company or organisation.  Often, to do this effectively, we need to reflect on our own practice.

Have you been in this situation before? You are facing a dilemma and need to make a hard decision. Racing through your mind are all sorts of scenarios and distractions. A decision seems obvious, but something holds you back.  It could be that you’re racked with fear that people won’t like your decision. You might fear looking stupid. We fear that people may feel hurt, or that you might damage a friendship or a working relationship. Will making a decision be seen as me having got it wrong in the past?

So you compromise and make a decision that you think might keep the peace, or please everyone.  Or, worse still, you avoid making a decision at all.

Now, ask yourself this: what would I do if I had no fears?

Prolonged exposure to boardrooms, and listening to the war stories of respected directors, tells me that the above situation is not unheard of in the governance arena. But there can be no place for fear in decision-making for directors. They are charged with making decisions that are in the best interests of the company.  Importantly this requirement includes making decisions in the best interests of the company even if that is not in their own interest.  Directors are expected to make the tough call, and this can often be a daunting and difficult task.   But they cannot avoid their responsibility by ducking the hard decisions.

Perhaps the most valued asset that any director possesses is his or her reputation. Reputation risk is often discussed by directors, and an association with poor decisions and/or practices could damage that reputation. This provides a very strong motive for directors to ensure that they are making sound decisions that are in the best interest of the company. Best interest, of course, now goes beyond narrow interpretations of shareholder value, to ensuring that decisions enable the company to continue to trade in a sustainable manner, and reflect the needs and interests of staff, customers, and the wider community as well as shareholders.

But directors, like all people, are not immune to fear. They, however, may have a heightened responsibility to ensure that fear does not distort good decision-making. If we asked the question, “what would I do if I had no fears?”, then we could remove one major obstacle to the operation of sound judgement.

When you ask “what would I do if I had no fears?” then often the correct decision stares you in the face…your choice becomes clearer.

Want to learn more? I recently completed a program offered by the University of Lausanne through Coursera entitled, Unethical Decision-Making in Organisations.  Delivered by Guido Palazzo and Ulrich Hoffrage from the UL Business School, the course covered many topics, including the Enron story and Lehman Brothers collapse.  I would recommend the course to anyone interested in developing their decision making skills. I would particularly recommend it to anybody serving at Board or C-Suite level.

Amongst other things, the Lausanne course has helped me to re-appreciate the operation of fear, and particularly concerns about making decisions that might isolate you in work or social settings. The course also help be put in context the importance that leaders such as Field Marshal Bill Slim and Gen George Patton both applied to the advice “do not take the counsel of your fears”.  And the words of Max DePree: “Leaders stand alone, take the heat, bear the pain, tell the truth.”

High on the list of screens I will now apply to the difficult task of decision-making, especially at board level, will be to regularly ask myself: what would I do if I had no fears.

Our Navigator Chair Shaun Coffey is an internationally recognised agricultural scientist with a career spanning the management of crown organisations, start up innovation technology companies and more recently his business advisory company. He is a renowned leader and strategist and is an well respected social media commentator.

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Recruit “constructive” no-men

Today I was reading an old note book (when I did this by pencil and paper, pre-digital and social media!) and came across this great quote.  A wonderful reminder that you should not surround yourself with “yes-men”, but also that a no-man who is just a no-man is a no-no!  And a reminder that recruiting is perhaps the most important task you will undertake if your business is to be successful!

“I do not wish to hire yes-men.  Yes-men come cheap . . .what we are looking for is what I call constructive no-men.  My own personal rule for very many years has been that anybody is free to criticise me, to criticise the company, to question or argue against anything that we are trying to do – provided they will satisfy the one criterion that they will tell us what I or the company should do differently.”

Source: Harvey-Jones J (1988)  Making it happen.  Fontana, London.  P.89


Our Navigator Chair Shaun Coffey is an internationally recognised agricultural scientist with a career spanning the management of crown organisations, start up innovation technology companies and more recently his business advisory company. He is a renowned leader and strategist and is an well respected social media commentator.

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A note for the CEO: You communicate even when you are not communicating

Here is a little story from one of my favourite leadership practitioners, Max De Pree, that reminds us that what a leader does is important.  I often found  the CEO job a rather lonely life where every move is under someone’s observation.  But rather than letting this develop into a sense of strain or tension, it is important to remember that if your actions reflect your word (or intentions) then you are being authentic and effective.

Esther, my wife, and I have a grand-daughter named Zoe, the Greek word for “life”.  She was born prematurely and weighed one pound, seven ounces, so small that my wedding ring could slide up her arm to her shoulders.  The neonatologist who first examined her told us that she had a 5 to 10 percent chance of living three days.  When Esther and I scrubbed up for our first visit and saw Zoe in her isolette in the neonatal intensive care unit, she had two IVs in her navel, one in her foot, a monitor on each side of her chest, and a respirator tube and a feeding tube in her mouth.

To complicate matters, Zoe’s biological father had jumped ship the month before Zoe was born.  Realising this, a wise and caring nurse named Ruth gave me my instructions.  “For the next several months, at least, you’re the surrogate father.  I want you to come to the hospital every day to visit Zoe, and when you come, I would like you to rub her body and her legs and arms with the tip of your finger.  While you’re caressing her, you should tell her over and over how much you love her, because she has to be able to connect your voice to your touch.”

Ruth was doing exactly the right thing on Zoe’s behalf (and, of course, on my behalf as well), and without realising it she was giving me one of the best possible descriptions of the work of a leader.  At the core of becoming a leader is the need always to connect one’s voice with one’s touch. (my emphasis)

Reference:  De Pree M O (1991)  Leadership Jazz.  Melbourne: Australian Business Library, Information Australia. pp.1-3

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Ministers resigning everywhere? The power of ethical leadership

It’s not just in politics that we have problems – many organisations continue to come unstuck because of the unethical behaviours of leaders and managers.  But is it just at the top that we have problems?

Organisations can create an environment conducive to ethical behaviour.  It all comes down to how people – and I include both employees and clients – perceive the way they are being treated by the organisation and its management.  And the extent to which they can influence what happens.

Three factors come into play.
Purpose:  Use values, hopes, and a clear purpose statement to determine what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.
Professionalism:  By knowing as much as we can about our job and striving to perform effectively we develop an identity with the purpose and pride in ourselves and of our organisation.  Knowing what is at risk can help you resist temptations to behave unethically.
 Perspective: Be reflective in our practice.  Make time to pause and reflect, make yourself aware of what is going on around you. See the big picture and all the impacts.  Respond and adjust, using purpose as your reference point.

Where are we? Stop Planning and Start Navigating.

A business plan is a necessity for any business. It is the result of painstaking thought and analysis, translated into a strategy and action.

Many advisers will tell you, quite rightly, that simply having a plan is not the path to success. They will tell you that to execute your strategy you will need to be continually planning, and taking operational or tactical decisions as you are sure your objective. I’d like to suggest a different way of looking at this.

Everybody in business will tell you that they often encounter barriers, unexpected obstacles and difficulties on the path to their ultimate goal. Having a means to navigate through this environment of uncertainty becomes critical…

Navigation, as commonly understood, requires us to know where we want to go. Often in business however we are more like explorers who have no idea what we will find along the way, or even what it looks like when we get there. We are driven by a vision of the future, and often one we want to create. The most important question on such a journey is often “where are we?”

It’s the navigator’s job to answer that question.

Do you know where you are? Have you defined your purpose adequately, so that at any point on the journey you can determine if you are fit for purpose? Do you have the necessary information to assess the health of your business? Do you have the cash flow to keep going? Have you been filling in the details as you go so that you can test the continued validity of your business plan? Or are you pursuing the journey in the hope that the ship is in shape? Do you know where you are, or are you just assuming that you are where you want to be?

Think of your business journey as a journey of discovery. As a navigator does, you not only chart the course, that you continually scan the horizon and monitor the weather, and make adjustments to sail around the storms or to avoid the rocks and reefs, or to take advantage of favourable winds. Just as the navigator calls for course changes to avoid hazards, and then for re-corrections to come back on track, so too you can manage your businesses.

How good is your information, your understanding, your analysis of experience, and your scanning of the business horizon? Where are you getting your advice?  Who do you turn to for assistance to navigate through the morass?

At any point in the journey that is your business life you must be able to answer the question “where are we?” and then assess whether you are still on track or off course.  And then you can make the informed decisions necessary to keep the business viable.  Execution is strategy.  Navigation enables execution.

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The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to respond.

I don’t know the exact origins but for many years now I have often said to colleagues that we have two eyes, two ears and one mouth, and that is the proportion in which we should use them. The management literature abounds with entreaties for us to listen better, to develop listening skills, to be reactive listeners, and to listen first before speaking. But have we learnt the lesson.

I would like to thank the people at Swish Design for the post from which I have taken my title. Finding it was an OS!M[1].

Yes it is true. Often we are waiting for the gaps, or the breaks, or when we think the speaker has finished (or had enough time) so that we can inject our piece of “communication”. Often we break the sequence of discussion, or inject content of little value, or just say the same thing again. We listen to respond. We build our own ideas, not necessarily creatively building on the ideas of others. Our behaviours are less supportive and more directive. We miss messages, and opportunities. We just fail to listen. Our agenda not theirs.

As Kelly Exeter from Swish Design ( says:

I think any of us who are in client facing roles have experienced this – that thing where we spend most of the conversation formulating our reply to the person we’re speaking to. So much so that we forget to actually listen to them.

Which in turn prevents us from understanding what their actual problem is …

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[1] Oh Shit! Moment

Ideas have power – if we are prepared to let go of them

Often I find myself reluctant to “let ideas go” for fear that they are ill-formed and may reflect badly on me, or even be shot down (often for legitimate reasons). But Albrecht Durer, a German painter, printmaker, engraver, mathematician, and theorist from Nuremberg in the 1400-1500s reminds us of the value others can add if we let go.

“But I shall let the little I know or have learnt go forth into the day in order that someone better than I may guess the truth, and in his work may prove and rebuke my error. At this I shall rejoice that I was yet the means whereby this truth has come to light.”

How often do we let an idea languish when we have run out of energy and inspiration to develop it fully, or become paralysed by analysis?How often do we let fear of the unknown stop us? How often do we let fear if failure get in the way. How often do we miss a rich discussion drawing on other perspectives and experiences?

What’s wrong with my idea coming back in a better, more effective form?

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Do we take our organisations too seriously? Companies as Carnivals: vintage Tom Peters

I revisited Liberation Management by Tom Peters this week, and was immediately struck by the thought that we have become all too serious, perhaps even precious about our mental models of what organisations should be.

Is this extract from 1992 dated? Is it so different now?

Stories and metaphors are great ways to get a message across. So here is a metaphor from Tom Peters – vintage stuff – fun and vibrant! And probably before it’s time!! Or maybe a time to which we need return?

Read what Peters has to say:

Add up fickle and fashion, the need for bonkers “organisations,” lots of tries and the matchless power of markets, and what do you have? Among other things, a clarion call for a new imagery.

In short, today’s organisational images stink. Not just those that derive from the military (“Kick ass and take names”) and “pyramids” (heavy, steep, immobile), but even the new “network,” “spiderweb,” “Calder mobile.” These modern notions are a mighty step forward, but they still miss the core idea of tomorrow’s surviving corporation: dynamism.

How about company-as-carnival? Consider these attributes of carnivals:
• Parts and wholes. “The State Fair’s next week.” “The circus is coming to town.” An image forms of the day with the kids at the Big Apple Circus last August, or of a trip to Disneyland. That overall image (the whole) is central to our “purchase decision,” yet we largely experience parts – a ride, a concert, a horse show, the booth where you hurl baseballs at wooden milk bottles to win the tacky Kewpie doll.
• The booth. As carnival organiser, you must think booth. The booth is the pearl. Excellence is the booth. (Or not.) A booth requires a champion, an architect, a contractor – and all-important front-line people who staff it for low pay, or as volunteers. Just as one spunky flight attendant can change the entire character of a flight, an energetic person in the booth makes all the difference.
• The “underpark.” Carnivals are about excitement and festivity. But we’ll think twice about coming back if the portable toilets are dirty (or scarce), or if the parking is far away and overpriced. The “underpark” at Disney is the well-oiled, no-nonsense, unheralded, unseen mechanism that permits the surface frenzy to proceed without a glitch.
• Microeconomy. A carnival is the ultimate marketplace. Fickle/”cruel” customers make hundreds of choices each hour: to stop at this booth or event, to skip that one. Carnival chiefs track booth/event attendance as carefully as retailers now track the hour-to-hour sales of each item off the shelf. They engage in a constant process of creation and destruction: removing a booth or act that can’t draw a crowd, refreshing an old favourite, pursuing exciting acts and new ideas.
• Same/different. The carnival boss, like the corporate boss, must address a prickly issue: Customers want “their” carnival the same, and they want it different. They want those clean toilets and their favourite rides/booths from last year. But they won’t keep coming back unless they are regularly surprised by new offerings.
• A moving target. The excitement and frustration of creating/managing/maintaining a carnival is that it won’t stay put. Carnivals have a completely different character from one day to the next. Or one hour to the next – due to weather, different crowds in the afternoon (mostly kids) and evening (mostly grown-ups), etc. Moreover, a carnival’s personality changes when it moves from city to city and, of course, from year to year.
• Low overhead, multi-entrepreneurial. A bare-bones staff of four (a chief, an accountant, a computer ace, an administrative specialist), working out of a dingy, 200-square-foot, low-rent space, may oversee a travelling carnival with 100 booths, 30 rides, 20 special events (which change from town to town), and an annual attendance in the millions. The carnival is the ultimate in “networked” or subcontracted events: Tents, toilets, and acts/booths are the work of entrepreneurs. Yet it all must add up, quirky day after quirky day, to a coherent whole.
• The customer creates his or her own carnival (I call it “customerizing”.) The carnival is a set of opportunities, a canvas on which the customer paints his or her own customised experience. If there are 5,000 customers tonight, they are painting 5,000 substantially different pictures.
• Dynamism. Say “carnival” and you think energy, surprise, buzz, fun. The mark of the carnival – and what makes it most different from a day at most offices – is its dynamism. Dynamism is its signature, the reason we go back. To create and maintain a carnival is never to get any inch away from dynamic imagery. As chief, you must feel the dynamics in your fingertips, be guided by them in every decision.
• Economics is fun! Real economics, that is, not the standard classroom variety. Real economics is about entrepreneurs, births and deaths of products and companies, oddball reasons that a product/service takes off – now, every, or never. The essence of real economics is dynamics, though we teach economics as a static discipline – hence, its “dismal science” moniker.

Today’s global economic dance is no Strauss waltz. It’s break dancing accompanied by street rap. The effective firm is much more like Carnival in Rio than a pyramid along the Nile. The practical point for the firm’s leaders: Constantly using dynamic imagery, thinking of yourself as running a carnival, and stomping out all forms of static thinking and imagery will help point you toward the right structure and strategy for these woozy times.

Thanks Tom. I wonder what today’s readers think?

Source: Tom Peters (1992) Liberation Management: Necessary Disorganization for the Nanosecond Nineties. (Mine is a well thumbed paperback version from 1996; copies can still be found through Amazon.)

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Six Enemies of Strategic Planning…and six ways to face them

Over the last few months I have had conversations with leaders of large and small organisations that invariably include a sense of dissatisfaction with strategy.

Now strategy development can be a baffling process.  Mostly they say it is not the strategy itself that concerns them, but a perceived lack of results.  But deeper questioning has, in most cases, led to a position where the leaders have all recognised that they are having difficulty in executing their strategy.

For me, this raises a red flag…are we looking at situations where the strategy is effectively faulty?  And, poor strategy is almost impossible to execute.

There are ways this can be addressed and simple frameworks can help.  Roger Kaufman gives some useful hints about what to avoid and how to avoid them.  Six ideas that can be used as tools to check how you are doing!

  1. A focus on means rather than ends.  Overcome this enemy by turning it on its head.  Look at the WHAT and not the HOW.
  2. The failure to recognise the three levels of results:  micro (individual), macro (organisational) and mega (societal).  Overcome this by understanding the distinctions among the three levels and linking them together.
  3. Written objectives that give destination without supplying precise criteria for knowing when you have arrived.  Overcome this enemy by preparing objectives that include measures of success.
  4. Needs that are defined as gaps in resources or methods (means).  Overcome this enemy by defining needs as gaps in results (ends), rather than rushing into premature solutions to ill-defined problems.
  5. A mission that is practical, real world, do-able, and achievable, without being focused on a vision.  Overcome this enemy by defining an ideal vision.
  6. Reliance on plans that are comfortable and acceptable.  Overcome this enemy by pushing out of comfort zones and looking at where you should be, not just where you feel comfortable.

Navigating one’s way through the strategy-execution-outcome continuum is never easy, and it is a moving target because to world outside the organisation is dynamic.  But with a few simple tools is becomes easier to review progress and make necessary adjustments. And avoid being over-planned and under-delivered.

See Kaufman R (1992)  Six steps to strategic success.  Training & Development  46(5):107-112 for further information

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