The Change Conundrum: Why Is Organisational Change So Difficult?

We all want to change. As individuals we want to learn, experience and progress. We all want our businesses and institutions to change too. We want them to adapt to circumstances, to realise new opportunities, to embrace the future. If we can harness our organisation to one inspirational vision of the future; if we can communicate new attitudes and behaviours with compelling clarity, then the collective whole will advance as one. We will together ‘move forward into broad sunlit uplands.’ Simple, isn’t it?

So why is change so difficult? And why is organisational change particularly challenging?

There are many good answers to these questions. Inevitably individuals’ and institutions’ appetites for change are counterbalanced by equal and opposite forces of habit and inertia. Sometimes the vision of change painted by our leaders lacks clarity and distinctiveness. Sometimes it is not pursued with sufficient vigour and passion. And sometimes there are also huge challenges of communication, education and motivation.  

In my experience there is another critical dimension to organisational transformation: How do we determine precisely what should change and what should stay the same? What is the appropriate pace, scale, phasing and direction of change? This for me is the Change Conundrum.

Screen Shot 2016-07-22 at 06.56.50.png

Within any business there are skills, disciplines and crafts that are, if you like, Timeless Verities: competences that are critical to the ongoing success of the enterprise, whatever the competitive or technological context. For a creative business these may be things like great art direction, copywriting, design; a robust strategic function; a rigorous production capability; meticulous relationship management. But there are also Anachronisms: processes, practices and approaches that have fallen out of step with the demands of modern life and commerce. When I first entered advertising, we would request four weeks to develop a press ad and six to script a TV commercial; design was the realm of blades, solvents, paste-ups and mechanicals; virtually everyone had an office and many people smoked in them.

Any progressive business should be seeking to rid itself of anachronistic practices, but it should also be seeking to sustain and develop timeless crafts and skills. The problem is that we can’t readily determine whether some processes and practices are Timeless Verities or Anachronisms. A few examples from my own sector: Should creatives continue to work in teams of two? Should they have an office to aid concentration? Should their department be separate or integrated with the rest of the Agency? Are these the critical ingredients of ongoing creative success or relics of a ‘pastime paradise’? I’ve heard it argued both ways.

Of course, whilst seeking to eradicate Anachronisms, the progressive business is also seeking to embrace new, liberating behaviours and beliefs; to take on new skill-sets and competences; to break out into new emergent space. But one could ask similar questions of our proposed new initiatives. At the outset they all promise Transformational Change. But some of them will inevitably end up representing Blind Alleys. So how do we separate one from the other?

Issues like these are at the heart of any change agenda. A progressive business seeks to identify the perfect balance between Timeless Verities and Transformational Change, eradicating Anachronisms and Blind Alleys along the way.

Over the years I found that the Change Conundrum applies as much to individuals as to skill-sets and processes. I’ve known quite a few colleagues who were dismissed as dinosaurs and deadbeats, only at a later date, and in some pressing crisis, to be celebrated as all-conquering heroes. Similarly people that were once welcomed as industry saviours could, with the passing of time, be exposed as snake-oil salesmen.

Organisational transformation is never simple or straightforward. It is always complex and confusing. Not least because it involves people’s careers and livelihoods. Of course, it’s much easier to position oneself as a radical: to suggest that change should always be root and branch; platforms should always burn; categories should always be killed. Total revolutionaries make the best speeches. But I was generally suspicious of Pol Pot-style purges of traditional crafts. Successful organisational change, at scale, is just more complicated than the rhetoric suggests. The stone that the builders rejected should sometimes become the cornerstone. And vice versa. And that’s the Change Conundrum.

‘What was wrong with me,
Was that I had to see,
All of the changes I put you through.
So now I’m changing for you.
Changing, girl.
Changing for you.’

The Chi-Lites, Changing for You


No. 90

If You Want to Inspire, You Need to be Inspired

Italian Woman  - Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot,  Circa 1870

Italian Woman - Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Circa 1870

In the creative industries we set out to inspire our clients and consumers. We want to prompt them to think, feel and behave differently. But do we expose ourselves often enough to the inspiration of others? Do we seek out stimulus, surround ourselves with craft and creativity? How can we expect to inspire others, if we are not inspired ourselves?

Two exhibitions currently running in London shed light on where the great artists of the past found their inspiration.

Painters’ Paintings

‘The possessing [of] portraits by Titian, Vandyke, Rembrandt, & c., I considered as the best kind of wealth.’
Sir Joshua Reynolds

The National Gallery is hosting an excellent exhibition of paintings owned by painters. We see samples from the personal collections of van Dyck, Reynolds, Degas, Matisse, Freud and more. (Painters’ Paintings runs at the National Gallery until 4 September.)

It’s clear that these artists were themselves passionate about the art of others. Degas collected the works of Ingres and Delacroix whom he had admired and copied as a student. In his later years he also sponsored struggling younger artists like Van Gogh and Gaugin. Lucian Freud was inspired by the strong features and direct style of Corot’s portraiture. Alongside works by Degas, Constable and Auerbach, he kept a small Cezanne painting in his drawing room. He found it ‘erotic and funny’ and reinterpreted it in one of his own pieces.

The  Three Bathers by   Paul Cézanne

The Three Bathers by Paul Cézanne

Matisse was an avid art collector throughout his life. He bought Cezanne’s Three Bathers quite early in his career and had to pay for it in instalments. He later wrote about how much the piece meant to him.

‘This picture has sustained me morally in the critical moments of my venture as an artist. I have drawn from it my faith and my perseverance.’

Matisse also exchanged pictures with his rival Picasso. Theirs was a competitive relationship (‘Picasso shatters forms. I am their servant.’), but also one of mutual admiration. When in his later years Matisse sold off much of his collection, he never released any of his Picassos.

‘Only one person has the right to criticise me. It’s Picasso.’

Of course, not all the artists were collecting paintings for love and inspiration. Some were simply investing in the area they knew best. Others, like Frederick, Lord Leighton, may have been buying great artists to reinforce their own status and prestige. Indeed such was Joshua Reynolds’ sense of being heir to the Grand Masters that he seems to have ‘completed’ one work in his collection one hundred years after it was painted.

Whatever the precise motivation for purchase, these artists lived and worked surrounded by the art that they admired. They could not help but be provoked, encouraged, stimulated and inspired.

Georgiana Houghton’s Spirit Drawings

Georgiana Houghton

Georgiana Houghton

‘In the execution of the drawings my hand has been entirely guided by the spirits, no idea being formed in my own mind as to what was going to be produced.’

In a single room at the Courtauld Gallery, gathered together for the first time in almost 150 years, you can see the work of the Victorian artist, Georgiana Houghton. (The show runs at the Courtauld until 11 September.)

Houghton, born in Las Palmas in 1814, was a committed spiritualist and she didn’t claim her art for herself. Her brightly coloured watercolours were inspired by ‘spirit guides’ whom she encountered at séances in her Paddington home. Initially she channelled deceased family members - her late sister Zilla, a departed uncle - but she subsequently progressed onto the spirits of great artists such as Titian and Correggio.

The reception of the press and public to Houghton’s self-funded and only major exhibition, in 1871, was mixed. Some found her art alien and bewildering. But the News of the World described ‘the brilliance and harmony of the tints’ as like ‘a canvas of Turner’s over which troops of fairies have been meandering, dropping jewels as they went.’ (The arts coverage at the News of the World changed somewhat in subsequent years.)

Whether inspired by a dead relative or a Grand Master, Houghton’s art bears no resemblance to anything you’d expect from a painter of the time. There are richly-wrought spirals and swirls, tangled twisting curls and curves. Reds, golds, greens and purples explode like psychedelic fireworks across the paper. The paintings reminded me a little of the Spirograph I played with as a child. There’s a suggestion of flowers and pearls; sometimes a crown or a monogram; occasionally we see an eye or a face. But for the most part the spirit drawings are abstract. Indeed some have argued that Houghton was the world’s first abstract artist.

In the twenty-first century we may scoff at Georgiana Houghton’s séances and spiritualism. We may regard her approach to her art as eccentric or downright weird. But does her method matter if it took her to genuinely innovative places?

To Inspire You Need to Be Inspired

‘She refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn’t boring.’
Zelda Fitzgerald

The message is simple. Creativity does not exist in a vacuum. It does not flourish in a desert. The creative appetite needs to be sustained by provocation and stimulus, by rivalry and fresh perspectives. It needs to respond to culture, to the revolutionary thinkers of the past and to imaginative visions of the future.

It’s very easy in the hectic world of commercial creativity to get lost in a self-regarding vortex. But the best creatives have a hinterland. I’ve known colleagues who collect punk 45s and vintage ukuleles; who paint and perform poetry; who learn fencing and boogie woogie piano; who enthuse about Christian folk and follies; who carve spoons. It doesn’t have to be art or culture as traditionally defined. It could be graphic novels, dubstep or ashtanga yoga. It could be Pokemon Go for all I care. But it does have to be something. Something you’re passionate about that takes you away from the narrow confines of your day-to-day tasks. Something that inspires you to inspire others.

No 89


Leaders Plan for the Climate We Expect, But They Must Also Manage the Weather We Get

Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth  -  Joseph Mallord William Turner

Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth  - Joseph Mallord William Turner

I was fortunate to spend the best part of my career in my own office. For those that haven’t seen one, an office is ‘a room assigned to a specific person or group of persons in a commercial or industrial organization.’ As a strategist my office afforded me the opportunity to mull things over in silence, to lose myself in documents, to sketch out arguments undisturbed. I could stare out of the window, rearrange my yellow Bic biro collection, pin my ‘70s photos to the wall. I could build high towers of paper to block out prying eyes. I could close the door.

Inevitably in recent years things all went a bit open plan. I found myself sitting at a long wooden table with fellow management types from a range of disciplines. We could pool our problems, share our expertise, exchange sartorial insights.

In my new environment I was struck by the frequency, variety and arbitrariness of the issues and challenges that presented themselves to this management group. Colleagues would arrive, unannounced and under pressure, at our long wooden table. They would bring with them an awkward personnel issue, a legal dispute, an accounting error, an urgent pitch, a revolting Client. Everything seemed to require an immediate response, an instant reaction. I felt as if I had been transported to the heart of air traffic control. And I have to say I found it all rather stressful.

I realized that it takes a very particular type of person to thrive in the topsy-turvy world of management.  

As a strategist I primarily concerned myself with future possibilities and probabilities; with predicting trends and anticipating change. Most things were in the distance, on the horizon, in the long term.  Indeed we strategists often encouraged our Clients and colleagues to think more long-term; to focus on developing their vision and strategy for the future. 

But many of the challenges of leadership are random and surprising. They come out of left field. They are unanticipated, unforeseen, unplanned. They are imminent and very much in the short-term. 

British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was once asked what was most likely to blow governments off course. He replied, ‘Events, dear boy, events.' Macmillan’s own government was brought down in the wake of the Profumo Sex Scandal of 1963. The Secretary of State for War had had a brief relationship with a woman who had also dated a Soviet Naval attaché. ‘Where did that come from?’ Macmillan must have thought.

In the face of unexpected events good leaders retain their cool, their calm and composure. They ‘keep their heads when all about them are losing theirs.’ Leadership requires an ability to prioritise issues, to calibrate them on the basis of their possible impacts. In the midst of crisis leaders must reduce the complex to its essentials; sequence responses; assign roles and responsibilities; design plans and communicate them. They must sustain morale. Above all, leaders have to think and act fast, in the moment. Right here, right now.

‘Stop doing this, start doing that; call x, contact y; get them on board, on side, on the case; call a meeting, form a team, make a plan; this now, that later; find time, make time, buy time. ‘

A critical leadership skill is dealing with the unanticipated present. It’s a skill that, in the course of my career, I grew to respect and admire. Mark Twain once observed that 'Climate is what we expect. Weather is what we get.’ Great leaders plan for the climate we expect. But they can also manage the weather we get.

No. 88



The Horniman Walrus: Times of Transformational Change Require Cross-Generational Expertise


Frederick Horniman was a Victorian tea trader and avid collector of art and artefacts, objects and specimens from all over the world. In 1901 he donated his collection, and the museum that housed it, to London County Council ‘for the instruction and enjoyment’ of Londoners, on condition that it should always be free to enter.

At the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill you’ll find totem poles and textiles, pan pipes and puppets, death masks and a dodo model. There are cabinets of curiosities, dioramas of startled and stuffed wildlife. You can see the remains of a nineteenth century male mermaid, a merman, which is actually a composite of fish, bird and papier mache. The Horniman is truly a place of wonder, a place where science, art and the imagination walk hand-in-hand.

One of the star attractions is an awkward looking stuffed walrus. The huge Horniman Walrus sits rather uncomfortably atop a fibreglass iceberg. When you first encounter him he peers mournfully back at you. He seems stretched and ‘over-stuffed’ and he lacks a walrus's characteristic wrinkles and skin folds. It’s as if he’s had a few too many chai lattes or is perhaps the victim of a bizarre Botox accident.

It transpires that when in the late 1880s the Horniman Walrus’s carcass was brought over to Britain, the local taxidermists had never seen a live walrus. So they just speculated on its natural appearance.

One can imagine the conversation: ‘Dave, this walrus here must have been a phenomenal beast. The boss is very excited about it. Any idea what it should look like?’ ‘No, Pete, just fill him up as best you can. I’m sure that’ll be fine.’

How many of us operating in marketing and communications over the years, working with new technologies and media, have created our own Horniman Walruses?  How often have we endeavored to put a new platform at the heart of our plans without being entirely confident what best to do with it?

During the boom I worked with numerous small businesses that thought they should advertise on TV; and with a large energy company that thought it should be a portal.  There was subsequently a rush to build brand websites that few consumers visited, and to populate them with branded entertainment that few consumers watched. We enthused about Friendster, MySpace and Google+. And our agency senior team once presented our future plans via avatars on Second Life.

So I’m not sure you’d want to ask me, for example, to find an optimal use of Periscope, Snapchat or 360 degree video. I’m well aware that these technologies are current, popular and important. But as a man of a certain age, I’ve not properly experienced them in the wild. I could probably stuff a platform with marketing strategy, expert acronyms and futuristic confidence. But would it end up looking natural?

Inevitably we assume that we’d be better off entrusting our marketing on new platforms to young people who are fluent in applications and algorithms. However, it’s far from easy locating an appropriate and effective role for marketing in new channels.  Often they resist more obvious commercial engagement. We may find that our digital natives are not sufficiently experienced in the art and craft of brand communication to crack the conundrum.

To put it crudely, if you want to stuff a walrus you need both people who know their walruses and people who know their taxidermy.

I’m increasingly of the view that times of transformational change require cross-generational expertise: teams that integrate youthful understanding of new platforms with the marketing wisdom of more mature heads.

We talk a good deal nowadays about creative partnerships: reaching across the divides of channel, technology and specialism. But in this neophile era and industry, maybe we don’t talk enough about collaborations that embrace a spectrum of age and experience.

Perhaps the Horniman Walrus, at the ripe old age of 150 or so, still has something to teach us.


This piece first appeared on Guardian Media and Tech Network on 15 June 2016

No. 87

Screwball!...Preston Sturges, Humility of Purpose and the Rules for Box-Office Appeal

Preston Sturges

Preston Sturges

Screwball comedy had its heyday in the 1930s. It was a film genre characterised by gender and class conflict, farcical situations and mistaken identity. It featured fast, witty dialogue, confident female leads and confused male counterparts. Critics have suggested that audiences needed escapism during the Depression, and the Hollywood studios needed sophisticated verbal sparring to subvert the restrictions of the Hays Code.

Preston Sturges was a master of screwball comedy. Films like ‘The Lady Eve,’ ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ and ‘The Palm Beach Story’ are all nailed-on classics. I think Sturges has a good deal to teach us in the modern era about the spirit of commercial creativity. He was serious about comedy and he poses compelling questions about social responsibility and populism - questions that still resonate today.

‘Don’t you know that the greatest men in the world have told lies and let things be misunderstood if it was useful to them? Didn’t you hear of the campaign promise?’

Claudette Colbert, ‘The Palm Beach Story’

Preston Sturges: The Embodiment of Commercial Creativity

Preston Sturges was born in Chicago in 1889. His parents separated when he was very young and his childhood was divided between periods in the United States with his adopted father, a stockbroker, and travelling around Europe with his bohemian mother. She was a good friend of the legendary dancer Isadora Duncan, and Duncan’s company gave Sturges his first theatrical experience.

Sturges served in the US Army in World War I and worked as a store manager before gaining success as a playwright and then a screenwriter. Ultimately he wanted to direct his own scripts and in 1939 he sold his screenplay for ‘The Great McGinty’ to Paramount for just $1 on condition that he be allowed to direct. 

‘The Great McGinty’ was the first film to show the credit 'written and directed by...' followed by one name, and it went on to win the first Academy Award for Writing Original Screenplay. And four of Sturges’s subsequent movies were chosen by the American Film Institute among the 100 funniest American films of all time.

‘You see, Hopsi, you don’t know very much about girls. The best ones aren’t as good as you probably think they are and the bad ones aren’t as bad. Not nearly as bad.’

Barbara Stanwyck to Henry Fonda, ‘The Lady Eve’

Sturges’s creativity was not constrained by his choice of career. Throughout his life he was an avid inventor. In 1920 he designed a kiss-proof lipstick, Red-Red Rouge. With varying degrees of success, he applied for patents for diverse products including a ticker tape machine, a hybrid helicopter-airplane and a hearing aid in the form of a telephone, the ‘Sturgephone.’ He also owned a nightclub on Sunset Strip, The Players, which featured revolving bandstands, tables that moved on tracks and ejector seats for drunks.

Preston Sturges clearly had a restless imagination, a breadth of interests, a fierce determination to succeed, and an ability to move beyond personal and professional setbacks. Above all, he seemed to be able to combine spirited entrepreneurism, business expertise and considerable creative talent. He was the embodiment of commercial creativity.

‘You can’t go around theatres handing out cards saying, ‘It ain’t my fault.’ You go onto the next one.’

Preston Sturges


‘Sullivan’s Travels:’ Humility of Purpose

In 1941 Sturges wrote and directed ‘Sullivan’s Travels.’ Like all his best work the film fizzes with witty wordplay and absurd adventures. But it also contemplates the role of cinema, and comedy in particular, in times of hardship and deprivation.

Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea in Sullivan'sTravels

Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea in Sullivan'sTravels

Joel McCrea plays John Sullivan, a hugely successful Hollywood director who has made his name with lightweight entertainments such as ‘Ants in Your Pants of 1939.’ Sullivan determines that he will next make a more serious movie addressing the social issues of the day. The studio bosses naturally try to persuade their star director to stick to what he knows and to what makes them the most money.

 Sullivan: ‘I want this picture to be a commentary on modern conditions. Stark realism. The problems that confront the average man!’

Studio Boss 1: ‘But with a little sex in it.’

Sullivan: ‘A little. But I don’t want to stress it. I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity.’

Studio Boss 1: ‘But with a little sex in it.’

Sullivan (reluctantly) ‘With a little sex in it.’

Studio Boss 2: ‘How ‘bout a nice musical?’

It’s a conversation we recognise in the communications industry. So often we set out with purity of intent, but are seduced into compromise at every turn. ‘Perhaps just a little more product placement, a slightly more aspirational setting, a shown user? Maybe turn the Bunsen up on the branding? With a little sex in it… ‘

We all believe that creativity should work hand-in-hand with commerce to achieve best results. But so often we deal in a negotiated compromise between the two.

In any case, Sullivan presses on and decides that, before he makes a film which represents such a departure, he needs to do some field research. So he disguises himself as a hobo and sets out on the road. Inevitably our hero has a series of madcap adventures, farcical, far-fetched and forlorn. He has to deal with freight trains, soup kitchens and sleeping rough; hitchhiking, chain gangs and Veronica Lake.

Ultimately he finds himself in a labour camp watching a Disney cartoon. Seeing the joy on the audience’s faces, Sullivan realises that comedy can do more good for the downtrodden than any social realist drama or documentary.

‘There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.’

‘Sullivan’s Travels’ has come to represent a significant touchstone for many comic writers. The serious work that Sullivan had been hoping to film was entitled ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ The Coen Brothers’ 2000 film in that name was making a respectful nod to Sturges.

Sturges himself dedicated ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ ‘To the memory of those who made us laugh.’ And in his autobiography he explained his motivation for writing the movie:

‘After I saw a couple of pictures put out by my fellow comedy directors which seemed to have abandoned the fun in favour of the message, I wrote ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ to satisfy an urge to tell them that they were getting a little too deep-dish; to leave the preaching to the preachers.’

I wonder what Preston Sturges would make of the modern world of marketing and communications; of our earnest commitment to Purpose and Values; and our enthusiasm for award-winning charity campaigns.

Do we sometimes ‘abandon the fun in favour of the message’? Do we occasionally get a little too ‘deep-dish?’ Should we consider ‘leaving the preaching to the preachers?’

I suspect that, while appreciating the good intent, Sturges would urge a greater sense of proportion and humility. Not every brand can address poverty, disease and malnutrition. Not every campaign can climb the mountaintop and make a stand for freedom, feminism and saving the babies. But all brands can make more modest social contributions through transparency, fair trade, fair pricing and good employment practices; through environmental and health responsibility; through paying their taxes and paying something back to the communities that support them.

Above all brands should feel proud if, like Sturges’s screwball comedies, they manage to bring just a little light into ordinary people’s everyday lives.


Preston Sturges’s Eleven Rules for Box-Office Appeal

At one stage in ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ Sullivan discusses with the studio bosses a previous ‘serious’ movie that was unsuccessful at the box-office.

Studio Boss 1: ‘It died in Pittsburgh.’

Studio Boss 2: ‘Like a dog!’

Sullivan: ‘Aw, what do they know in Pittsburgh?’

Studio Boss 2: ‘They know what they like.’

Sullivan: ‘If they knew what they liked, they wouldn’t live in Pittsburgh!’

The harsh verdict of the market is often frustrating to the creative community, and Sturges was certainly alert to the role of Box-Office as the ultimate arbiter of success. In the same year that he shot ‘Sullivan’s Travels,’ he formulated his Eleven Rules for Box-Office Appeal:

‘1. A pretty girl is better than an ugly one.

2. A leg is better than an arm.

3. A bedroom is better than a living room.

4. An arrival is better than a departure.

5. A birth is better than a death.

6. A chase is better than a chat.

7. A dog is better than a landscape.

8.  A kitten is better than a dog.

9. A baby is better than a kitten.

10. A kiss is better than a baby.

11. A pratfall is better than anything’

One can imagine that these rules were composed with a mix of knowing expertise and ironic satire. They demonstrate that this great creative brain was not just concerned with grand themes and plotlines. He was well aware of the importance of executional detail.

Sturges’s Rules for Box-Office Appeal seem just as relevant to today’s world of YouTube clips and Instagram pics. Perhaps they serve to remind us that certain aspects of entertainment are timeless and universal. We can always depend on cats, babies, sex and human fallibility...


‘Anyway, men don’t get smarter as they get older. They just lose their hair.’

Claudette Colbert, ‘The Palm Beach Story’

No. 86


Not Hearing, But Listening

'Fossil Shell Lit From Right' By Helen Oh

'Fossil Shell Lit From Right' By Helen Oh

My mother cupped the conch shell to my infant ear. ‘Listen, Jimmy. Listen to the sound of the sea.’ And there it was: a summer breeze blowing from afar; waves crashing onto a distant shore; sunshine, sand and sweet repose. A thing of wonder.

Some years later I came across the scientific explanation of this phenomenon. Sadly shells do not mystically retain the resonance of home. Rather their hard, curved inner surfaces amplify ambient noise to create a sound that one fancies to be the ocean.

In a sense the science didn’t really matter. Through my listening with mother, I’d  learned an invaluable lesson: that when we listen, we interpret, we imagine.  Hearing is passive. It is merely the perception of sound. Listening, by contrast, is an active, conscious choice. It involves processing sound, establishing meaning. Listening is a creative act.

But listening isn’t easy. It requires concentration, focus, effort and attention. It’s a skill to be learned, a craft to be mastered. Listening can be hard work, especially when you’re tired, stressed and have your own predispositions and opinions. And surely it’s harder still in this Age of Distraction.

In business nowadays we’re all told we need to listen more: we need to listen to our Clients, our colleagues, our consumers; we need to listen more in meetings; we’re encouraged to embrace listening initiatives, ‘active listening’.

But how do we become better listeners? How can we learn to listen?

I’m well aware that any number of textbooks, tomes and business books have been written about this topic. But I thought nonetheless I’d offer a few simple observations, from my own experience, on the art of listening at work.


1. Good Listening Begins with Good Questions

Good listeners ask questions rather than give answers.  They enjoy the process of interviewing, the craft of conversation. The quest for truth, insight and original thought can be absorbing, challenging, thrilling.

Ask questions that reveal the interviewee’s point of view rather than your own. Ask both the simple questions and the profound; the big and the small; the straightforward and the lateral. Ask the questions people want answered and the questions no one thought to ask.

Because you’ll only get good answers if you ask good questions.

 2. It’s Not Just About the Questions. It’s About Your Response to the Answers

It’s often been observed that listening doesn’t come naturally to men. We like to project, profess and proclaim our own opinions rather than submit to the opinions of others. More enlightened males have learned the importance of asking questions, but we often stop there.  We confuse asking questions with listening.

Have you ever observed what makes a poor interview in the media? The interviewer poses a series of prepared questions, one after the other. But they’re just processing through a script. There’s no following up of answers, picking up of themes; no pursuing for clarification, connecting of thoughts.

A good listener creates a conversation: a revealing, seamless flow of insights and ideas. It’s not just about the questions you ask; it’s about your response to the answers.

3. Show That You Care

I’ve noticed that in more combative business environments audiences sit poker-faced, projecting an air of scepticism. They are listening, but they’re doing so with passive aggression.

I take the opposite approach. I like to nod in a business meeting. It’s my way of saying: ‘I’m not checking my email or planning my next meeting. I’m here. I’m following you. I’m totally engaged.’

Sometimes I suspect my nodding suggests weakness, compliance, unwitting assent or simple-mindedness. But I don’t really mind. I just like to nod.

4. Distil, Interpret, Project

When I was a child I’d watch a lunchtime politics show with my father. On Weekend World the host Brian Walden had a way of periodically summarising what he’d heard. It demonstrated that he had a grasp of what the politician had been saying, and provided a source of provocation, a springboard for further debate. Sometimes the summaries could be more compelling than the politicians’ own words. They were certainly more concise.

Good interviewers distil and interpret, connect and explore what they’re hearing. They project implications and consequences of what the interviewee is saying. Good listening should create meaning and understanding.

5. Write It Down!

My former boss, Nigel Bogle, spoke in meetings with unrivalled fluency, unparalleled structure. His conversation sparkled with appropriate aphorism and worldly wisdom. And yet I’d occasionally pass his office and see young Strategists sitting comfortably, chatting amiably, enjoying the high-level debate. What a waste! What could they recall beyond a general theme, direction or impression? What can you learn if you don’t write things down?

I like to write what people say. Spoken language contains hidden codes. The choice of words, the particular phrasing, the sentence construction, the logic flow, they all say so much. There are shapes and patterns, themes and narratives. Direct speech always rewards further study.

I’ve written elsewhere that modern Strategists should see themselves more as psychoanalysts than doctors (Not Doctors, But Psychoanalysts). Nowadays in business intuition and emotional intelligence trump command and control; marketing is more about revealing truth than adding value; and brand communication is more about expressing authenticity than creating image. In this context listening is becoming a primary commercial expertise, a differentiating leadership skill.

So don’t just hear. Listen.

No. 85


I Kicked a Bin: Losing Your Temper in the Office

Titian’s Cain and Abel/Santa Maria della Salute, Venice

Some years ago I kicked a bin half way across the office. It tumbled gracefully through the air, discarding crumpled balls of A4, sweet wrappers and empty smoothie bottles on the way. Young account managers glanced up nervously from their screens. I knew immediately that I looked a fool. And all the more so when I reflected on what had prompted my outburst.

A courier company had failed to deliver a parcel of polyboarded creative concepts to its destination in San Francisco. I’d just heard that the boards were still sitting in a warehouse outside Heathrow.

It seemed a complete disaster at the time. Deadlines would be missed, Clients would be irate, the account would almost certainly totter. But I quickly realized that the late arrival of my polyboards wasn’t important in the grand, or even the medium-sized, scheme of things. I’d learned the first rule of losing your temper in the office: keep things in proportion.

In my time in the creative industry people have slammed doors, thrown scalpels and sworn to high heaven. They’ve walked out and walked in with breathtaking melodrama and flamboyant gestures. They’ve written admonishing letters, shouted from the desktops and adjourned to the pub. One manager swept his errant employee’s paperwork and personal effects into a black bin liner. It was a traditional way to tell someone they were fired.

Within reason and the bounds of employment law, I think a certain amount of emotion at work is appropriate. Creative people tend to be more impetuous, impassioned, impulsive. The anger shows they care. The musician and punk icon John Lydon has written in his autobiography about the positive power of anger. For Lydon ‘anger is an energy’:

‘Don’t view anger negatively, don’t deny it – use it to be creative.’

John Lydon, Anger Is an Energy: My Life Uncensored

But clearly anger is an energy that is best directed towards worthwhile goals. It’s a precious commodity that should be expended in realizing a great idea, achieving a profitable outcome; in addressing a social injustice or a loyalty betrayed. It shouldn’t be wasted on the trivial or hierarchical; on wardrobe selection or logo size.

The second rule of anger in the office is a more subjective one: only lose your cool if you look cool when doing so.

Righteous indignation suits some people. They’re more charismatic, more romantic, more truly themselves when they’re angry. They erupt like a volcano, roar like a lion. They’re Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, Uma Thurman in Kill Bill; they’re Pete Townshend with a guitar or Beyonce with a baseball bat.

However, I realized in my bin-kicking incident that when I’m angry I look more like Norman Wisdom. My face flushed and arms flapped; my words lost their coherence and a slight lisp revealed itself.

I resolved not to lose my temper in the office again. For the rest of my career I was composed, calm and self possessed. I could be irritated but not incensed by the whims of Clients and the vagaries of my colleagues. I prided myself on my sang-froid.

I suspect in any case that some people have more richly contoured emotional lives than me. Their highs are higher and their lows are lower. Mine is a flatter sentimental landscape, and at work I became an emotional Norfolk.

Yet secretly I yearn to try kicking that bin one more time; to see if this time I can carry it off with a little more cavalier style and hot-blooded passion; to demonstrate that I too can exhibit glorious, incandescent, heartfelt office rage.

First Published: Guardian Media and Tech Network on 26 May 2016


No. 84

Love and Ambition: You Can Only Excel at Work If You Love What You Do

I recently watched a couple of excellent documentaries about two troubled musical geniuses, Janis Joplin and Michael Jackson. Focusing less on the demons that haunted these artists in their personal lives, the films shed light on the character traits that drove them to achieve so much creatively.

I was struck by the fact that both Joplin and Jackson were decidedly ambitious, but that for them ambition was not about material or reputational success; it was about love.

Janis: Little Girl Blue

Janis Lyn Joplin, born in 1943, grew up in a conservative household in Port Arthur, Texas. From the start she was independent minded and rebellious. At an early age she fell in love with the rich blues sound of the likes of Bessie Smith and Big Mama Thornton. It was a love that sustained her through a tough time at school, where she was bullied for her liberal views, her unconventional looks and her refusal to conform to notions of Southern femininity. Often such lonely souls find solace at college. But at the University of Texas Joplin was similarly an outsider. A fraternity house voted her ‘the ugliest man on campus.’ It’s a wretched, heart-rending moment in the film.

‘And each time I tell myself that I think I’ve had enough.
But I’m gonna show you, baby, that a woman can be tough.
I want you to come on, come on, come on, come on and take it.
Take it!
Take another little piece of my heart now, baby.’

Big Brother and the Holding Company, Piece of My Heart (Bert Berns/ Jerry Ragovoy)


Joplin escaped to the burgeoning hippy scene of San Francisco and Haight-Ashbury. There, for the first time, she felt accepted and at home, and she found the confidence and kindred spirits to perform the music she cared for. She had a raw, powerful blues voice that was at once uninhibited and vulnerable.

Sadly the psychedelic community that saved Joplin, also encouraged the addictions that killed her. In 1970, aged just 27, she died of a heroin overdose. She left behind essential recordings like ‘Cry Baby’, ‘Ball ‘n’ Chain’, 'Little Girl Blue' and ‘Piece of My Heart’; timeless anthems to struggle and pride, devotion and loss.

‘I know you’re unhappy. Baby, I know just how you feel.’

 Janis Joplin, Little Girl Blue (Richard Rodgers/ Lorenz Hart)

Janis Joplin was certainly rebellious and uncompromising. But in her letters home she revealed a thoughtful, tender side to her personality.

‘I’ve been looking round and I’ve noticed something. After you’ve reached a certain level of talent, and quite a few have that talent, the deciding factor is ambition, or, as I see it, how much you really need, need to be loved and need to be proud of yourself. And I guess that’s what ambition is. It’s not all a depraved quest for position or money. Maybe it’s for love.’

Janis Joplin, in a letter to her mother, Janis: Little Girl Blue

Joplin’s insight poses questions for everyone working in the field of commercial creativity. How many of us are driven to perform by the desire for status or material success? How many can genuinely claim to do it for love? And can that love sustain us through the hard times and human frailties that life and career have in store for us?

Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall

Michael Jackson in In New York City in 1977 Tom Keller - Getty Images

Michael Jackson in In New York City in 1977 Tom Keller - Getty Images

I grew up in Essex, the home of the British soul boy. We sported floppy wedge haircuts, white socks and cut down loafers; we wore pastel shaded shirts and sleeveless sweaters. We loved to dance. For us Michael Jackson wasn’t about ‘Thriller’ and ‘Bad’ and the ‘King of Pop’. He wasn’t about ‘Dirty Diana’ or ‘Earth Song’. This crossover music was anathema to us.

No. Michael Jackson was the child genius at the heart of the Jackson 5, the exuberant force of nature who belted out ‘ABC’, ‘I Want You Back’ and ‘The Love You Save’; he was the adolescent yearning of ‘Ben’; the dance floor dynamism of The Jacksons and ‘Blame It on the Boogie’. He was the irrepressible insistence of ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’; the sublime sophistication of ‘Rock With You’. Above all, in 1979 he was the author of ‘Off the Wall’, the definitive document of aspiration and optimism, hedonism and longing; of what it was to be young.

Spike Lee’s excellent documentary, ‘Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall’, puts the focus back on the best parts of Jackson’s life; on the soul genius, the dance divinity; on Jackson before the Fall.

In the documentary we see a letter Jackson wrote when he was twenty, setting out his ambition to put his past triumphs behind him and to write a new chapter in entertainment history.

‘MJ will be my new name. No more Michael Jackson. I want a whole new character, a whole new look. I should be a totally different person. People should never think of me as the kid who sang ‘ABC,’ ‘I Want You Back.’ I should be a new incredible actor, singer, dancer, that will shock the world. I will do no interviews. I will be magic. I will be a perfectionist, a researcher, a trainer, a master. I will be better than every great actor roped in one. I must have the most incredible training system. To dig and dig and dig until I find. I will study and look back at the whole world of entertainment and perfect it. Take it steps further from where the greatest left off.’

Michael Jackson, 16 November 1979

There are a number of compelling things about Jackson’s ambition. Firstly, one is struck by its breadth: his aspiration is unconstrained by traditional career categories. Also he believes he can only progress if he frees himself from his own past successes. Ambition must look forward, not back. And yet, at the same time, he commits to being a diligent student of the past successes of others. ‘We often invent the future with fragments from the past.’ (Erwin Panofsky)

We are drawn to the conclusions that Janis Joplin herself made: that creative success is founded on talent, hard work and ambition; and that ultimately you have to love what you do.

Verdine White, the bassist in the phenomenal Earth, Wind and Fire, sums up Jackson’s success thus:

‘You got to put the work in, man. You got to put the time in. And really, man, it’s love that you’re putting in. You know, because people that do this kind of thing, man, we love what we do.’

Verdine White, Earth, Wind and Fire

Love and Ambition at Work

I suppose this all leaves us asking questions about our own ambition.

Do we have the determination to put the hours in? Is our ambition constrained by conventional job definitions and expectations? Do we have the vision and appetite to put our previous successes behind us? Do we at the same time have the dedication to study the successes of others, the history of our craft?

And on a fundamental level, do we love what we do?

I find I personally have a mixed response to these questions. I certainly put the hours in. But I suspect that sometimes I was too nostalgic about past victories; too fond of rose tinted recollection. Yes, I wanted to know more about my craft. But then the pressures of the immediate often prompted me to set aside that key text; to save it for a day that never came.

Did I love my job? Well certainly not all of it. But most of it, yes. I loved learning the art of persuasion and the idiosyncrasies of popular culture; the discipline of distillation and the freedom of the lateral leap; I loved the theatre, the thrill of the chase; tackling the commercial conundrum and being part of a diverse company culture; I loved the optimism of my younger colleagues and the scepticism of my elders. I guess I may not always have loved work, but I did love the work.

And perhaps this is the most important lesson. It would be hard to expect anyone to love everything about their job. So we must find the aspects of work that we do genuinely love and focus our energies on these.

The conclusion is perhaps inevitable. We can only excel at work if we love what we do. And the easiest way to love what we do is to do what we love.

‘So tonight gotta leave that nine-to-five upon the shelf,
And just enjoy yourself.
C’mon and groove, and let the madness in the music get to you.
Life ain’t so bad at all,
If you live it off the wall.’

Michael Jackson, Off the Wall (Rod Temperton)

No. 83

Baitless Fishing: Beware the Seductions of the Quiet Life

‘We’re busy doin’ nothin’
Working the whole day through,
Tryin’ to find lots of things not to do.

We’re busy goin’ nowhere.
Isn’t it just a crime?
We’d like to be unhappy, but
We never do have the time.’

Bing Crosby, Busy Doing Nothing (Johnnie Burke/Jimmy van Heusen)


When I was a kid I used to go fishing at South Weald with my schoolmate Neil. I loved the peace and tranquility; sitting by the water’s edge, chatting about our packed lunches, polo neck sweaters and Prog Rock. But I didn’t like messing around with maggots and removing hooks from gurning roach. I determined secretly to fish without bait, thereby retaining the peace and tranquility but missing out on the muck. For a time this strategy went very well and it worked for the unknowing Neil too: he celebrated landing one fish after another whilst my tally remained resolutely on zero. But eventually Neil tired of the lack of competition and confronted me. When I revealed what I’d been up to, he refused to go fishing with me ever again.

I think many people in business are engaged in Baitless Fishing: keeping our heads down, avoiding conflict, choosing the safe option; never challenging the boss, rarely offering a point of view, always toeing the line. Doing things without getting things done.

Just as it’s a natural human emotion to seek credit, reward and recognition, it’s equally natural to avoid attention and opt for the quiet life.

We can fill our working day with status meetings, updates and catch-ups. We can write lists, file contact reports, adjust Gantt charts. We can attend courses, conferences and multi-disciplinary awaydays. We can meet random people for coffee in the name of networking. We can walk around the office a bit in the name of management. We can jump on a plane and visit some ‘key local markets.’ We can do all of these things without really progressing the Client’s or the Agency’s core agenda.

Of course these activities have some value. They are the stuff of business, the necessary everyday tasks that keep wheels turning and plates spinning. They sustain momentum. But in the digital era momentum may not be enough.

There are two senses of the word inertia. On the one hand it means doing nothing; on the other it means repeating an action or movement over and over again. Nowadays both amount to the same thing. Inertia can be a dominant force in all our lives and we must fight it.

The most common excuse for not tackling the bigger, tougher business decisions is the pressure of the imminent and the immediate. ‘We’ve got to get through this current crisis; see out this week, this day, this meeting.’ ‘We’ve not got the time, the resource or the energy to address the future right now.’

The greatest enemy of the long-term is the short-term. But the short-term and long-term are intimately related. As the Strategist Cathy Reid once observed:

‘The long term is just a series of short terms. You have to decide which short term your long term starts with.’

 Of course, ultimately Baitless Fishing is unsuccessful and unfulfilling. Within a business the metabolism slows, appetite wanes, morale dips; and then the competition outflanks you, the Clients leave you, the numbers condemn you. For the individual, work becomes a job, not a career; an occupation, not a vocation. And, as I learned to my cost, the Baitless Fisherman is always found out.

‘I have wasted time and now doth time waste me.’

 William Shakespeare, Richard II

So we all have to set aside excuses, re-order our priorities and resist the forces of inertia. We must take a deep breath and reach into the seething maggot box of business; bait that hook and cast our line into the deep blue ponds of the future.


This piece originally appeared on on 11 May 2016.

No. 82

Leadership: Are You a Gardener or a Mechanic?

Edward Watson and Mariela Nunez in Infra by Wayne McGregor

Edward Watson and Mariela Nunez in Infra by Wayne McGregor

I recently attended a talk given by the British choreographer, Wayne McGregor, and the Finnish composer and conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen. They’re currently working together on McGregor’s new ballet, Obsidian Tear (Royal Opera House, 28 May- 11 June).

McGregor’s style is angular and sharp; sinuous and curved; fast and physical. Though he has a clear personal vision of what he wants to achieve, he is also a collaborator. He partners variously with musicians, artists and writers; economists, anthropologists and neuroscientists; with anyone in fact that inspires his curiosity. He is also a theorist for whom dance is ‘physical thinking.’ He is as elegant and precise with words as he is with choreography.

‘I’m really passionate about creativity... I believe it can be taught and shared. And I think you can find things out about your own personal physical signature, your own cognitive habits, and use that as a point of departure to misbehave beautifully.’

Wayne McGregor, TEDGlobal 2012

McGregor suggests that ‘choreography is 80% psychology and 20% artistry.’ He likes to operate with and against the tensions that naturally exist between different dancers; to ‘notice and subvert hierarchy.’

‘It is as much about watching and noticing as it is about giving.’

Salonen seems of a similar mentality. In describing his approach to composition he says, ‘I’m more a gardener than a mechanic.’ He doesn’t simply arrange notes on a stave. A piece takes time and reflection. It is worked and reworked, accommodating new meditations and moods along the way.

I was quite struck by the picture of contemporary creative craft that McGregor and Salonen were painting. I liked the impression they gave of psychologically astute creative collaboration and sharing. And the notion of the leader as gardener rather than mechanic is a compelling one.

I think that many businesses today are run by Mechanic Leaders. They treat talent as an anonymous function, an asset, a cost; a resource to be maximised, an investment to be realised, a headcount to be reduced. They see companies as hierarchies, matrixes and ‘org’ charts; as circuit diagrams that are clean, logical and fixed; as ‘international business machines.’

Perhaps because of this perspective Mechanic Leaders have a strong sense of their own power and control, a sense of self worth that justifies to them their handsome remuneration packages.

In the classical music world Esa-Pekka Salonen has spoken out against the tradition of the egotistical, rock star conductor:

‘I hated the image of the omnipotent, God-like fucker who flies his private jet around the world and dates supermodels and so on.’

Esa-Pekka Salonen, FT, 5 December 2014

I’m sure we all recognise this personality type in the business community too.

For the Gardener Leader the talent within an organisation represents infinite potential and limitless possibility. It needs nurturing, encouragement, care and attention. The Gardener Leader is observant of strengths and weaknesses; sensitive to tensions and relationships; eager to experiment and explore. For them leadership is a dialogue rather than a monologue; a partnership rather than an act of authority. Consequently they are less autocratic and arrogant. For the Gardener Leader companies are organic cultures: interdependent, endlessly evolving communities.

Surely in the digital age we need our leaders to be more gardeners than mechanics. Surely we need leaders who can plant and nurture; tend and grow. Modern leadership is not about power; it’s about empowerment. It’s not about controlling; it’s about cultivating.

Surely the Head Gardener reaps the best harvest.

No. 81