How to decide what’s most important

I frequently work with groups who are trying to answer a simple question: “What should we prioritise?” They are dealing with an uncomfortable reality: they have resources, but not enough to do everything.

Sometimes, they have conflicting data about which option would yield the most benefit; other times, they have no data at all, only opinions. Sometimes, it seems easy to promote an idea that already has some traction, or support by others, while other times, it’s more tempting to attempt a disruptive innovation that is opposed by many.

I’ve met these dilemmas hundreds of times over a decade of work with groups who’ve tried to establish everything from research priorities to population health priorities, from investment priorities to which projects to champion and support. So, what do the really good prioritisers do?

They use six criteria:
1. Evidence: the replicable basis for doing this, including cost-benefit where this is available (arguing benefit of action, against costs of inaction)
2. Impact: the effect upon beneficiaries
3. Reach: the numbers of people who will benefit
4. Effort invested: the degree to which this builds on past / existing partnerships / structures / achievements
5. Readiness: immediate willingness of essential (i.e., powerful) participants to contribute / make required changes
6. Cost: ability to fund the initiative, or move towards the required incentive structure

If I was asked to weight these, I’d offer the following:
– Effort invested and readiness = 35% (The principle here is: “Work with what you’ve got right now” recognising that the main sub-factor is influential power-brokers supporting the option)
– Evidence = 30% (based on the validity and consensus of the evidence)
– Impact and Reach = 20% (I usually combine these)
– Cost = 15% (if this is achievable within current resource settings, that’s a huge lift-off factor)

This gives you potential for a perfect score of 100. Often a simple crowd-sourced rating of each criterion against each proposal is sufficient to draw out a pattern. You can then use this pattern to reach consensus.

How does this work in real life?

I asked local government elected representatives (Councillors) to work out which two or three of some 10 – 12 large scale capital projects (each cost between $5m – $30m) ought to be prioritised and how they should be sequenced. Each project was presented briefly by the executive most knowledgeable about it (on the criteria, of course) and the assumptions were challenged. Next, each Councillor did TWO things: scored each project against each criterion and also ranked each project. The ranking served as a cross-check for the scorings (in my experience, they mostly align, but are a good source of diagnostic questions when they don’t!).

In this case, the client was delighted because they’d reached an impasse with this group who refused to move forward with ANY proposal. Instead they had analysis paralysis (commissioning more reports and business cases) and delved deeper into details, arguing over fine points of each other’s ‘pet projects’. In less than half a day we had a significant breakthrough which meant that this client could rapidly move forward and start executing.

“I can’t do that, I’m afraid”

How do you respond to your customer’s requests?

This is how Qantas dealt with us on Friday.

I was running an all-day meeting at a Qantas meeting room at SYD airport. 12 people. Nice room, looking over the apron. We had the room set up as a large rectangular board table, with me at one end, a credenza right behind me, the monitor above it, flip chart and whiteboard either side. Facing us at the other end of the room was a large (empty) table.

Before morning tea, the lady who served the food came in and bustled around me as I was running the conversation. She was trying to put cups, coffee equipment and plates on the credenza. I asked her to put all of that, and the food, on the big (empty) table at the other end of the room. Her reply, “We can’t do that, sir”.

“Why not?”

“The plates will scratch the table”.


This happened repeatedly through the day . . . every time food was taken away, cups replaced, new food brought, she worked around me standing at the head of the table. We asked repeatedly to change this, and she said, “We can’t do that. I’m sorry”.

Right at the end of the day, the not-to-be-scratched table at the end of the room had not been used. She then proceeded to amaze us further by asking whether we could move the table back into the centre of the room to join the others.

“Why are you asking us to do that?” one of our group queried.

Her response, “Because we’re not allowed to move furniture”.


So, it’s too risky / dangerous / hazardous to move your own furniture, therefore you ask you clients to do it!

Crazy. Does his have anything to do with Qantas’s $2.8b loss?

How does your organisation deal with customer inconvenience? Do you say “we can’t” or do you say, “Leave it with us; thanks for letting us know!”

What does your organisation care about most?

In all the press coverage of Jeff Bezos’s purchase of the Washington Post, I found this remark about way the Amazon CEO leads his company most revealing: “Of the company’s 452 detailed goals for the [2010] year 360 had an impact on the customer, the word ‘revenue’ was used just eight times, ‘free cash flow’ only four times and ‘net income’, ‘gross profit’, ‘margin’ and operating profit were not mentioned.”

Of all of your detailed goals, how many are focussed on your end-users, your patients, or your clients?

Five hidden codes

I just received a copy of the graphic recording of my talk at the International Conference of the Association of Change Management Professionals in Los Angeles in April.

My talk was entitled “Collective Success: 5 Hidden Codes that are the Reason Groups Really Change and Flourish” and I started by saying that I wasn’t going to talk about change management. Or even about change. But that I was going to try to convince an audience of 400 change professionals that something was even more important: collective success. Collective success is getting different people working together, in new ways, on common objectives.

Why should we care about collective success?
– because most (70%) change initiatives fail
– because most (70-90%) mergers don’t add value
– because unproductive and disengaged employees cost $350b a year (in the USA alone)

Other speakers at the conference reinforced these sorts of themes powerfully:
– Unintended consequences aren’t costed into projects (one $240m project created $300m of lost efficiencies plus $1b of lost customer revenues)
– After decades of research and practice, we still really don’t know how to change people (39% of all employees are resistant to change; 33% believe managers don’t support change in their organisations)
– Exhortations don’t work (unwritten rules are more powerful than written rules)
– Collective intelligence is more social intelligence than the cumulative IQs of the group

I argued that one of the most important keys to collective success is having common systems of values. Not specific values, like love of animals, or a belief in the right to abortion, or that smacking your kids harms them. But having aligned fundamental ideas about five things:
1. the tribe: how important is it for us to feel safe with group traditions and rituals?
2. power: do we believe that our world is ‘dog eat dog’ and therefore, those who dominate get more?
3. authority: do we obey an external authority, and to what degree do we sacrifice individual interests for the value of certainty and order?
4. advantage: what is our conception of progress and how do we believe that individuals or groups can best compete to get ahead?
5. collaboration: do we fundamentally believe in harmony and therefore that we need to work equally and collectively?

2.Codes for success copy

You’ll probably recognise workplaces, businesses and groups that adhere to some of these five systems far more than they adhere to others. This is usually referred to as ‘culture’ and if (a) it’s well suited to the majority and (b) it helps achieve the results sought, then we can say we’ve got aligned values. So, the main question is, however, “What’s the desired cultural code for us, given our desired goals?”

And, what if we DON’T have the right values systems for our desired goals? Have a look at the final slide in my presentation . . .

Let me know if you want to see the whole presentation; drop me a line at and I’ll send you a link. If you want to know more about these hidden codes, they’re the original work of Professor Clare Graves and documented in the book “Spiral Dynamics” (1996) by Don Beck and Chris Cowan.

10 ways to help people help themselves

There is the famous ‘two types of people’ joke that you’ve no doubt heard before: “There are only two types of people: Those who think there are two kinds of people and those who don’t.”

Well, I work with two types of organisations. Those who position themselves as experts, doing something to someone. Think hospitals, prisons, allied health clinics, aged care facilities. Then there are those who want to do something with someone: education programs, social support providers, community justice, disability support. The latter (and increasingly the former) recognise that their results depend on people being less reliant on expert practitioners and more able to do things for themselves: able to manage their own learning, communication, medication, social negotiations.

For years now, I’ve asked my clients about the things they do BEST in helping their people ‘regulate themselves best’. And, I’ve been saving the most common best-practice patterns, so here they are for you – all 10 of them.

1. Use strengths: begin with something the person finds easy, and let them know it’s OK to feel a conflicting mix of emotions (happy and anxious at the same time);
2. The best guides are those who’ve been there: Programs taught by professionals get no better outcomes (and are usually more expensive) than those taught by peer instructors;
3. Role models and advisers don’t have to be “real”: virtual social networking shows the same gains as in-person networking on some conditions
4. Sharply reduce mixed messages: Over 50% of people with a serious chronic condition receive more than one diagnosis for the same problem within a one-year period. Create single sources of advice.
5. Move from knowing to doing, fast: create action plans / contracts and stick to them for a while – anything less than six weeks isn’t likely to work.
6. Offer people their own triggers for action: Create mechanisms for self-diagnosis and monitoring with unambiguous triggers points for action (e.g., personal health informatics like glucose monitors)
7. Nobody’s actions need to be perfect: Build in successive approximations, feedback and process improvement supports
8. Start where you’ll succeed easily: There are plenty of areas where self-management (and co-creation of self-monitoring and self-management) have long track records e.g., asthma for teenagers, diabetes and arthritis in older people. Learn about these and apply their principles to your area.
9. It’s not enough to work with the person, work with their contexts: The best success in self-management comes from being around exemplars of success (it’s hard for overweight people to lose weight when their friends are obese, or for prisoners to go straight while in jail);
10. Create ubiquitous messages: People succeed in self-management when they’re surrounded by messages that reinforce their actions. Make sure goals of communities are linked to goals of a health / social service system with connections to prevention / lifestyle modification.

Finally, the most important a-ha realisation in self-regulation is that the person’s condition is not the main issue. The main issue is managing the effects of comorbidity. For example, we know that the self-management skills required whether you have diabetes, schizophrenia or asthma are 80% identical: self-awareness, managing emotional state, calling for help if the condition escalates, getting social support immediately from around you.

Regardless of whether you’re in the business of education, justice, health, human services, aged or disability support or government, ask yourself, “How are we helping people best manage themselves?”

Collaboration? What’s that?

When I first heard that the French writer George Perec wrote an entire novel without using the letter e, I thought it was impossible. After all, it’s even harder in French than it would be in English – and somewhat ironic given that his three syllable name has four e’s in it! I’m convinced it’s similarly impossible to participate in any strategic discussion without using the word ‘collaboration’ or its similar terms: unite, ally, partner, combine, join up, work together.

Today, though, I had an interesting challenge. Three potential partners, each of which are themselves partnerships, of a sum total of more than 60 organisations! And, guess what: they want to collaborate better.

In order to even have this discussion, we had to define what we meant by collaboration. Not because they’re dummies, or because they don’t already collaborate. They do: vigorously, constructive, in varied ways. But there were SO many ways that we needed to narrow down what we meant by collaboration. So I put to the group my simple, three-tiered model. Imagine a triangle made up of three layers:

Level 1. Information sharing: this is the base, where collaborators have some intersecting goals, and largely are concerned with understanding how their work inter-connects (e.g., through mapping, evidence gathering, data analysis, comparing strategies, assessing workforce, benchmarking) and by explicitly building relationships (e.g., simple joint work, advice seeking, collective education & training, forums and conferences, information sessions).

Level 2. Joint planning: this is the middle layer, when collaborators have some shared goals and are interested in helping each other build capacity (e.g., jointly developing education and training, helping each other reorganise workforce and service models, develop common approaches to funding attraction) and conduct joint planning, often on a geographic basis (e.g., agreeing on shared priorities, linking existing planning mechanisms, jointly engaging stakeholders).

Level 3. Virtual organisation: this falls short of a merger or unification at governance levels, but it means that organisations have signed up for sharing resources towards common goals. The ways in which virtualisation might work are many: common methodologies, agreed segmentation of a target audience, common workforce reengineering, shared advocacy platforms, consortia approaches to funding / grants, common processes (both ‘front ends’ like client contact, intake and assessment, and ‘back ends’ like facilities, fleet and finance).

My clients told me they were potentially interested in creating a virtual organisation, so over the course of a couple of hours, we explored several implications of this for them:
a) These levels behave just like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: the lower must be satisfied before the higher become priorities. In other words, information sharing must exist in order for joint planning to occur; joint planning has to be in place in order for virtualisation to succeed. You can’t leap from nothing to a virtual organisation (although some try!).
b) Some collaborations falter at the information sharing level, because they never set a strong intention about making it all the way to virtualisation. It’s like a couple who don’t take their first few dates very seriously and then their relationship peters out.
c) Each layer requires different governance arrangements: information sharing requires non-disclosure agreements at most; joint planning requires memoranda of understanding; while virtualisation requires a business case and either a contract or a separate governance body with its own terms of reference.
d) Ultimately, each layer describes greater exchanges of both trust and power. Greater relationship maturity is required of organisations participating at the virtual level. This is why it’s rare for organisations to succeed who just announce they want to form a virtual organisation. They have to ‘learn’ and negotiate their way through experiences that test the trust of individuals and organisations.

Tomorrow, I’m with a governmental group who are . . . . drumroll: wanting to ‘facilitate stronger area-based collaboration and integrated planning’. Something tells me I’ll be drawing this pyramid on a whiteboard again.

When the low-hanging fruit is gone

Yesterday I met with two directors of a very large, some would say famous, organisation that provides essential services to the inner city population of Melbourne. They employ thousands of people and deliver dozens if not hundreds of distinct services, sometimes under trying conditions. And they have a problem common to many of their peers: they start each financial year in the red. Not by much: just one or two per cent. But they spend disproportionate effort trying to bridge this gap with small improvements.

This has worked for years. Managers offer up service improvements piecemeal and, gradually, that little deficit is ironed out. Now, however, two things are happening:
1. the obvious improvements have all been raised, discussed and implemented (the low hanging fruit has been harvested)
2. structural issues in their sector mean that the gap is predicted to widen, from a couple of per cent, to 5% or more.

So, what’s needed? More trees? Taller ladders? The ability to harvest less mature fruit? Pesticides and fertilizers? Genetic modifications?

In my experience, there are three approaches to this dilemma, illustrated in the chart below:
(i) Slow and Steady (the blue line): apply more resources to the problem. Put on more people. Expand floor space. Extend service hours. That’s all fine, but it’s the same ratio of input to output, so the quantum will change but the overall ratio won’t.
(ii) Optimised (the orange line): work out what’s essential and then examine each essential element to ensure each dollar and hour is well spent. This is harder work, and yields better results at first, but eventually the results flatten off (the famous Law of Diminishing Returns).
(iii) Leverage (the green line): identify one or more game-changing features unique to you. These might be technologies (like Google’s search methodologies), capabilities (like Apple’s supply chain management), partnerships (like IBM’s industry alliances) or designs (like Cleveland Clinic’s care models). Each of these positions yourself in a way that’s hard to imitate (or compete with) and fund-holders will find hard to ignore or refuse. Each fundamentally changes the basic economics, or value curve, of the work being performed.

Screen Shot 2013-05-22 at 2.35.17 PM

So, what will I say to my client?

“Demands upon you won’t ever go down. In other words, your demand curve (the grey line) will continue to go up and up. In your case, that curve is expectations against fixed resources. Nor will a linear approach work for you, because you can’t spend more to create more. Thirdly, you’ve already optimised the obvious. So, what’s left? First, I’m guessing you have sacred cows that have resisted or avoided optimisation. Let’s look at those first. Secondly, we need to equip your organisation to find one or more game-changers for you, something you can leverage: a unique technology, a partnership, some capabilities or service designs that help you do better than best practice.”

This is the start of a longer series of discussions, obviously. But the start is to recognise on which of the three curves the activity is going to proceed.

For more on this topic, see Chapter 5 (“Spending differently for different results”) in my book, “We Don’t Need More, We Need Different: working across organisational boundaries to solve 21st century problems”.

What’s your failure policy?

If you’ve met me, you’ll know that I’m an Apple die-hard. I joke that I’m on the ‘all you can eat plan': they have my credit card number and they just ship me their new products as they’re released. That’s not quite true, but right now, my wife Kate, 4yo son Jasper and I between us own 3 desktops, 2 laptops, 2 iPhones, 2 iPads and a couple of old iPods.

But this isn’t a blog post about why I like Apple. It’s a post about what happens when Apple fails. Or, more truthfully, why I like Apple, even when they fail.

Short version of the story: My two-and-a-half year old laptop had persistent, but intermittent flashing on the screen, eventually turning black, requiring a restart. This happened once every day or two. Two trips to the Genius Bar didn’t resolve it, despite them replacing at least 2/3 of the internals. Always very efficient, very pleasant, but I was starting to tire of turning up at a client meeting and seeing that flashing screen. So I told them that this was interfering with my ability to run my business.

Immediately, the response from Tim, a Genius Bar blue-shirt, was: “That’s totally unacceptable to us, if our machines aren’t working for you. We honestly don’t know what’s wrong. But we do now know we can’t solve it. Let me talk to my colleagues and get back to you within 2 hours”.

As promised, he phoned back with the welcome news that they’d replace it. Today I picked it up, learning that:
– they’ve replaced everything I bought with the machine (power supplies etc).
– my replacement is a brand new (2013) machine; my old one was late 2010 (since then, this is the 2nd major upgrade and my new machine is 2.5x faster).
– they’ll refund me the leftover AppleCare warranty I paid for when my old machine was new.
– this new machine is guaranteed for 12 months from today, and I can buy an additional two years if I choose to (which I certainly will!)

Just this morning, I told a client this story and we started talking about her failure policy. We discussed:
– What active steps do you take to find out if you customers are having problems?
– How do you respond to their concerns? Can all your client-facing staff action this?
– What’s your rapid rectification method? Do your people have the authority to fix things straight away?

She agreed this was a valuable discussion and she left to talk further with her leadership team, while I left to setup my new machine – preparing it for a few years of hopefully reliable service.

The truth about organisational culture

It’s often said that organisational culture is “The way things are done around here”. I happen to think that’s a pretty neat summation, but I’ve always wanted to know, “How did things get to be done that way around here?”

One of the best explanations I’ve heard is the old story about a cage containing five monkeys. You may have heard it:

Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana. As soon as he touches the stairs, spray all of the other monkeys with cold water. After a while, another monkey makes an attempt. Provide the same result – spray all the other monkeys with cold water.

Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.

Now, put away the cold water. Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs. To his surprise and horror, all of the other monkeys attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be assaulted.

Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm! Likewise, replace a third original monkey with a new one, then a fourth, then the fifth. Every time the newest monkey takes to the stairs, he is attacked. Most of the monkeys that are beating him have no idea why they are not permitted to climb the stairs or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey. After replacing all the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys have ever been sprayed with cold water.

Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs to try for the banana.

There are a variety of punchlines to this: “And that’s how ‘company policy’ is formed” or “And that’s the start of organisational culture”.

There’s a problem with this though. The story’s not true. That is, it’s an urban myth: it seems plausible enough, but nobody’s ever replicated it. While memes certainly spread, in both animal and human populations, this is a great example of how the story became the issue that the story is designed to illustrate – acceptance and repetition of the behaviour without testing if the initial conditions remain true.

So, we can’t learn from the monkeys in this case, because they never existed. But we can learn from the humans who invent stories, propagate them, and believe them.

What stories exist in your organisation that everyone accepts as true?

Agreement without power

The most common brief I receive from my clients is something like this: “We want to position ourselves effectively for an uncertain future. And we want to grow – in both scale and influence. But we have some unique dynamics: we don’t have authority over our partners, our funders or even our constituents. We need a way to reach agreement without power.

This has led me to experiment with ways in which non-authoritarian / non-hierarchical groups can make strategic decisions.

A good metaphor is how a plane flies. When you’re inside the plane as a passenger, it’s easy to believe that the plane simply moves up into the sky in a straight line. The plane accelerates, the wheels lift, the fuselage tilts, and shortly the seatbelt sign goes off indicating the plane is nearing cruising altitude. This is like the conventional linear view of decision making: you set an objective, marshall evidence, assemble resources, assign responsibilities. A nice straight line.

Which is all good when you have authority. But what if you don’t? Well, let’s think about what actually happens with a plane. It banks, turns and lifts – in other words, it flies in 3D, not 2D. The exact path is dependent on destination, flight path, surrounding aircraft movements and local weather conditions.

Just like a plane, a group that thinks in three dimensions becomes capable of appropriate maneuverability in light of operating conditions and power dynamics. Pilots use a vast array of navigational aids, such as an artificial horizon, a reference point outside the aircraft. Aircraft have red and green lights on their wingtips to alert surrounding planes of their presence. Non-hierarchical groups also need navigational aids. They need reference points outside their own organisations. Organisations need signalling devices to show not just their range of activity, but also their general direction.

But how should groups of diverse individuals develop these aids, these reference points and signalling devices? In my experiments with groups over ten or more years, I’ve noticed that successful non-hierachical strategic thinking, involves three shifts. Let’s call this, therefore, “3D Thinking”.

Shift 1: Context ➤ understanding
Shift 2: Understanding ➤ debate
Shift 3: Debate ➤ action

Unsuccessful group strategic thinking treats decision making as if it’s linear – as if the plane simply takes off in a straight line. An objective is assigned, the group then agrees on means by which this end can be achieved. Finally, and often somewhat reluctantly, responsibilities are assigned. The alternative, much more successful approach, is as follows.

Shift 1: Context ➤ understanding
This is like a pilot checking feasibility of a journey and understanding the conditions: we want to cross a mountain range for example and need to understand topography, weather conditions. For groups this translates into the principle that people understand the most when they’re aware of the context in which an issue occurs. For example, a group examining crime prevention needs to understand contexts as diverse as geographic hotspots of crime to brain development of children that predispose them to criminal behaviour. This usually involves an open presentation and discussion of frames, concepts, distinctions, terminology, imperatives and potential tipping points. What usually happens here is that people feel overwhelmed and not in control of the issue. This is a good sign, as confusion nearly always precedes clarity, which is the aim of the next stage.

Shift 2: Understanding ➤ debate
Once a group has shared understanding, it’s time to argue, both about destination and flight path. Debate is most productive when people have some shared clarity and a baseline set of assumptions and language. Once that’s occurred, this shift can focus on setting outcomes and intent, discussing pros and cons of options, determining capabilities and resources, exploding myths and recognising interdependencies between players. Specific group debate tools can be used to achieve this.

Shift 3: Debate ➤ action
After constructive disagreement, it’s time to focus on reaching agreement. Some of the 3D thinking the group needs here are the ability to ask the right questions, to pose provocative or even counter-intuitive positions, recognise constraints or boundary conditions (“What if we had to . . . ?”), and pose scenarios and mutually exclusive options (“How would we act if the following were true?”. These explorations then translate into measures of success, coherent ‘investable’ actions, and responsibilities and timeframes.

So, how is the product of 3D thinking more suited to non-authoritarian group decision-making?

Naturally, you end up with actions and responsibilities. But, you also create much more. Firstly, shared positions, principles and common outcomes. Secondly, a nuanced understanding of relationships, interdependencies and connections. These set a group up tremendously well to deal with all weather conditions, the presence of other aircraft (even enemy jets!) and to change course (and even destination) if necessary.