Asking the right question

“What’s the answer” is a refrain you hear often in business. Huge expectation is placed on getting the answer right. After all it’s the key to: winning the pitch; getting the job; convincing the board. But what if the real trick was not getting the answer right, but asking the right question?

For a world where ambiguity is the norm and emotional intelligence revered above IQ, surely it’s more important to place emphasis on asking the right question. Knowing the ‘right answer’, on the other hand, seems to belong to a bygone era – a world of good and evil, Star Wars and cowboys riding into the sunset.

Regular readers of this blog will know I am a huge fan of the lean start-up movement and the questioning approach it brings to the art of entrepreneurialism. In this school of business, gone is the autocratic, visionary leader who comes up with a brilliant solution and perseveres until his unique foresight is recognised. The lean start-up starts with a ‘minimum viable product’ that it uses to test the market – ask a series of questions and then act on the answers to constantly iterate the product.

But it’s not just in business start-ups that it’s critical to ask the right question. Doing so can advance most careers and build networking capability. It’ll help you engage more with other people, make your dinner parties more interesting and boost social confidence.

So, what makes a good question? Is it brevity? Or is it one where you offer up a couple of potential answers to help the person who has to listen to your question really understand the sort of possible conclusions that you’re thinking of yourself when you posed the question in the first place?

Here’s my perspective on what makes a good question, informed by an earlier phase of my working life spent as a journalist:

  • Keep it brief.
  • Don’t offer your own answer. And don’t fish for the answer you want.
  • Questions that start with How? When? Where? Why? are almost invariably better than those that start with Would? Should?
  • Use a question to find out what you don’t know, not to show off what you do know.
  • Don’t nod all the time. Particularly when you didn’t really understand their answer.
  • If you don’t understand, ask a follow-up question.
  • Don’t be afraid of silence. Give the other person time to think.



The Dispensary of Prosperity

The creative industries need to draw a line. A line around the jobs and businesses that the Government keeps saying are so important to the UK’s future. A line around the conditions for success that make the UK so strong in growing creative industries. A line that stops the short-sighted actions of a few people seeking a fast profit from undermining the basis for that success.

For the last six months a creative hub in Bath called The Dispensary has been my working home. It’s home to a dozen or so creative businesses from a three-man illustration/animation studio to a series of freelance designers, photographers and writers. It was set up by a thriving design agency, Radio, the owners of which are the brains behind The Dispensary. I love working there so much I blogged about it last month as the role model for other creative hubs.

Next week that all comes to an end. Suddenly. The building is being sold out from under the feet of the current tenants. At ten days’ notice. The owners spent months negotiating with the current tenants to buy the building and keep the creative hub. The owners were all set to accept the offer. Then a property developer suggested that he’d pay more. And suddenly the creative community was told it had ten days to vacate. The current tenants weren’t even given a chance to match the offer.

I don’t know the finer details of the sale of the building. And this is not a rant against property developers. The point is that a highly effective creative hub, providing a platform for the business success of up to a dozen businesses, is now being broken up. For all the fine words from Government and local council about supporting the creative industries in the UK, another small spark of growth is being extinguished. I don’t know whether the developer will be turning the building into luxury apartments (which is what I suspect) but what Bath, like so many cities in the UK, needs now is jobs, entrepreneurial activity, the basis for economic growth. Small businesses provide that growth and the creative sector is widely heralded as a UK success story.

This is my story. There are hundreds of identical stories across the UK at the moment. Of small, entrepreneurial businesses being thrown off track by short-term thinking. We’re not looking for public funding or subsidy. We’re not looking for special treatment. We’re looking for an understanding that if the UK is to grow out of recession we need to think about achieving a balance between jobs and property development. We need councils to fight for the kind of balanced city centres that people want to live and work in. We need the wider community to realise that creative industries generate exactly the kind of environment that makes commercial property development successful in many cases. After all, many cities are currently considering exactly how to catalyse the kind of creative hub that The Dispensary had already built, by itself, in Bath.

It’s probably too late to effect a different outcome for The Dispensary. But for Bath and dozens of other UK cities, I hope we can build up a debate about balancing the need for more housing with the need for small company growth. And the creative industries in particular need to stand up and be counted. We need to start drawing a line.

Inspiration Guaranteed

I love working at The Dispensary. It’s a building with desks in it, but please don’t call it an office. I see it as a friend, art gallery, source of inspiration, incubator, place of collaboration. It’s a place of work that I really love going into each day.

Next to me is a science journalist, over there a songwriter then a photographer, across the way a product designer, downstairs an animator, there a graphic designer. It’s all the brainchild of Julie Rands and Peter Whitehead, who Julie calls a “strategic genius” who runs one of Bath’s most successful branding agencies, Radio.  They set out to create, in one of Bath’s riverside Georgian properties, an open-plan working space available exclusively to creative companies.

Rooms drift into one another, as do conversations, ideas and inspiration. There are people on their first start-up drawing on advice from people on their fifth. Collaboration has already moved into business incubation.  Simon Spilsbury, Simon Deshon and Mark Humphries got talking when they were each working independently at The Dispensary. Out of that conversation came The Creative Federation, an animation studio that makes branded content for online, internal comms, live events and broadcast. They produce some simply sublime work that I adore – work that has already been recognised for awards even though the company is less than a year old.

What makes The Dispensary a success is, at its most fundamental, what makes for successful innovation. It’s about putting together interesting creative people from different disciplines with different perspectives. Then stir and stand back to see what happens. It’s a recipe that keeps producing new ideas, fresh thinking and challenge. And it’s a model for the workplace of the future that presents a reason to congregate beyond a diary full of meetings.

Ten ways to boost your own productivity


I recently worked with a senior manager at a large company who reckoned he spent at most half his day being productive. I told him 50% was pretty good – for most the ‘corporate overhead’ could take up a massive 60% – 70% of the day. That’s just a third left for the thing that makes you excited – and for which you draw a salary.

Here’s the list I provided him with, of how to boost your own productivity and concentrate on the things you want or need to. The list is constantly changing asa result of my own experience. My advice – try each one once, but utterly and completely, and you’ll see if it’s worth the effort to change your working style to implement it:

1. Use a task list – personally I use Wunderlist – to note what you have to do. Without one, you burn energy just remembering, or worse still not remembering. With one you can prioritise what you need to get done each day.

2. Then make sure each task is manageable at one sitting – ideally an hour or two, but never more than half a day. You wouldn’t expect a writer to have ‘write book’ on top of his to do list, so why do you think it’s acceptable to have ‘build website’ on yours? Chunk longer tasks so you can make progress in reasonable steps.

3. Refuse any meetings before 10am. Ever. Then start work at 8am. But don’t start with your inbox. Start with that document you have to write, or the thing that will really benefit from concentrated thought. If you have a truly unavoidable meeting at 9am, then block out two hours later that day.

4. Schedule meetings for 30 minutes. Most meetings seem to be scheduled for an hour, but that’s because people’s attention is flitting in and out. At the start of the half-hour meeting demand that no one looks at their smartphones, or pops out to take a call. Explain that the reason you’ve scheduled this for 30 minutes is to allow time for e-mails, time to consider the agenda etc, outside your 30 minutes.

5. Go to your inbox at pre-determined times each day. You know when those should be and how often. I am trying to do mine now in three stints each day – 11am; 1pm; 5pm. Then when you address your inbox, concentrate on it wholeheartedly. Don’t look through it once to see what’s urgent, then a second time to delete some spam, then a third time to start sifting for priority.

6. Use Twitter the same way. You cannot stay attached to the firehose all the time. So go in and ‘sample’ Twitter at certain times of day and then leave it alone for the rest.

7. Stop multi-tasking. Switching from one task to another kills productivity more than smoking a joint would.

8. Eliminate distractions. Particularly from the phone. I am always amazed at how easily people are prepared to allow their valuable concentration to be disrupted because someone calls / texts them.

9. Work in bursts of not more than two hours. Your brain uses up more energy than any other bodily activity. So after two hours take a break, have a snack or a cup of tea, go for a walk for five minutes.

10. Plan for leisure and family time too. If you have to work at weekends, make sure you get away from the family to concentrate on getting it done and then back to the people/things you love.

Addressing ambiguity

Can large businesses innovate? Not ‘are they good at it’, but ‘can they’?

Businesses want to innovate to make money. So they do what comes naturally – offer their innovators financial rewards. But financial rewards undermine innovation. Not just prove unhelpful, but actually undermine it.

London Business School Professor Lynda Gratton has developed compelling evidence to show how innovation is hindered by extrinsic motivation – the possibility of a pay rise or a promotion, for example – because the individual will focus on how he will be evaluated, usually in direct competition with others: “Creativity is most free-flowing when people are inspired and self-motivated, and enjoying the process itself, rather than under pressure to deliver what someone else wants”, she points out.

So businesses aren’t good at rewarding innovation because they don’t understand the innovator’s motivation. But that alone doesn’t mean that businesses cannot innovate. Lynda Gratton has spent a long time looking at those models of internal competition so beloved by larger organisations, and how encouraging competition can suppress creativity and hinder performance. Gratton states “the best performance is actually proven to come through collaboration. If more than 32% of team members are competitive, collaboration will not work”.

Even if 32% sounds suspiciously precise, the principle is sound. Internal competition (such as competing P&Ls), almost always backed up by direct financial incentives, is consistently trumped by collaboration within and across businesses.

Last month New York Times columnist David Brooks said that businesses were architects of their own doom for promoting competition, arguing “competition has trumped value-creation and the competitive arena undermines innovation”. He pointed out that we shouldn’t be looking to compete – because we should concentrate on defining a niche market – creating and dominating that niche.

So it’s not just failing to understand innovators that large businesses are doing wrong, it’s their continuing reliance on internal competition to drive growth. But isn’t there still hope for businesses, provided they abolish internal competition and try harder to find the right motivational systems?

Here’s where it gets really tough for those larger businesses. They got to be that size by developing advanced systems to address uncertainty and volatility. As changes gathered pace, they deployed a range of traditional management techniques and increasingly algorithms to improve their ability to react to and evolve in a world increasingly marked by uncertainty and volatility. The entire management structure was built to improve the organisation’s ability to deal with uncertainty and volatility. And by being better at coping with these than their competitors, they got to survive and even prosper when uncertainty and volatility seemed to be dominant in a changing world.

But now it’s ambiguity that’s knocking businesses for six. Uncertainty is not knowing which number will come up on the dice. Ambiguity is not knowing how many dice there are, or how many faces on each dice, or even what the numbers mean on each face. Go back to David Brooks’ comments now and “concentrating on defining a niche market, creating and dominating that niche” becomes the new purpose for business. Now larger businesses’ ability to handle uncertainty and volatility don’t count for much. Because while they’re dealing with those threats, innovators are coming along redefining entire business sectors by creating and dominating those niches.

Entrepreneurs seek out ambiguity, because that’s where their agility, lack of corporate overhead and speed off the blocks allows them to spot, create and dominate niches. In a time of intense ambiguity, larger businesses need to get better at managing a portfolio of innovation, allowing their most innovative people to explore and define new niches. That’s going to require not only the HR department to re-examine reward systems, and the COO to re-examine a company structure of competing P&Ls, but also the whole Board to re-examine how the business is measured and the CEO to develop a tolerance or even a taste for ambiguity. We will need to innovate organisational structures and behaviours, reward systems and hierarchies at the same time in order to succeed. And we will need to finally bury the idea that internal competition is valuable.

So what we can we do right now? Let me finish on a pragmatic note – a few learnings from my time as an innovation catalyst in a large creative organisation as well as my time as an entrepreneur:

  • mix it up; move people around physically and organisationally; form and re-form teams with different disciplines; distribute HR and finance throughout the building; put left-brain people and right-brain people next to each other
  • provide official channels (like corporate social media channels such as Yammer) for ideas-sharing and internal communication; and let unofficial channels prosper; understand that some of these initiatives will fail
  • provide space and time and encouragement for groups to come together to think; look for new corporate strategy to come from these impromptu groups
  • implant “innovation catalysts” – events; people; or ideas; or stimulus to think differently
  • encourage different thinking in areas outside your core business focus; innovation often happens in the “white spaces” between what we think we’re supposed to do each day
  • openly celebrate the outputs of all this new thinking; praise the ideas and the innovators; show staff that their thinking is valuable and is contributing to new energy within the company
  • ensure the CEO, CFO and COO are seen to buy in to the approach

Multitasking isn’t working

As demands from work impinge ever more on our family or leisure time, it’s under-standable that we try and fight back by squeezing a bit of our personal “to do list” into the working day. After all if ‘always connected’ means working on a Sunday afternoon, isn’t it only fair that I get to argue with the electricity company on a Monday morning at work?

Or is it the other way round? Maybe it’s not that work takes any longer than the mythical 40-hour week, it’s that we can’t manage, between 9 and 6, what used to fit into the 40-hour week? What if the very technology that was supposed to make us more productive is in fact killing our productivity?

My question marks are, of course, rhetorical. Regular readers of this blog will know that I have for long been concerned with the negative effects of always-on technologies. By constantly interrupting every activity, whether work, rest or play, we end up concentrating on none of them. We lose the enjoyment of everything, including our all-important work, become irritable and lose the ability to lose ourselves in what we love. By tweeting about the moment we forget to live the moment. By stopping to read an e-mail, we lose our place in the narrative flow of the novel we so wanted to be engrossed in. And then we don’t even reply to the e-mail, leaving that to fester ‘for later’.

I blogged last month about how e-mail harmed productivity more than smoking a joint. And a Vanderbilt University study has shown that when we switch attention from one task to do something else, we increase the time taken to finish the original task by 25%. There goes your chance to get out of the office at 6pm tonight. And so arrives your excuse for doing a bit of holiday research while you’re at work – after all you’re going to be here until 8pm anyway. Except of course that the travel agent’s e-mail in response is providing the very distraction that’s stopping you leaving the office at 6pm in the first place.

It’s becoming increasingly acceptable, it seems, to take your smartphone into meetings and check up on e-mails from time to time. The result? Meetings are half as productive and so take twice as long to achieve anything (whether meetings ever achieve anything is too long a discussion to fit into these brackets).

So much for the problem: How do we break out of the vicious spiral? Well here’s my starter:

  1. Refuse any meetings before 10am. Ever. Start work at 8am. Then don’t start with your inbox, start with that discussion paper you have to write, or the thing that will really benefit from concentrated thought. Try it once and you’ll get the habit. Once in a while you’ll find a client or a colleague is mildly put out that you cannot make the 9am meeting, so try explaining why you have the 10am rule and they might even adopt it themselves. If you have a big team meeting at 9am on a Monday, then block out two hours later that day.
  2. Schedule meetings for 30 minutes. Most meetings seem to be scheduled for an hour, but that’s because people’s attention is flitting in and out. At the start of the half-hour meeting demand that no one looks at their smartphones, or pops out to take a call. Explain that the reason you’ve scheduled this for 30 minutes is to allow time for e-mails, or preparation for the next meeting, or time to consider the agenda, outside your 30 minutes.
  3. Go to your inbox at pre-determined times each day. You know when those should be and how often. I am trying to do mine now in three stints each day. Then when you address your inbox, concentrate on it wholeheartedly. Don’t look through it once to see what’s urgent, then a second time to delete some spam, then a third time to start sifting for priority.
  4. Use Twitter the same way. You cannot stay attached to the firehose all the time. So go in and ‘sample’ Twitter at certain times of day and then leave it alone for the rest.
  5. Make sure you develop rules for your leisure and family time too. If you have to work at weekends, make sure you get away from the family to concentrate on getting it done and then back to the things/people you love. Using social media to conduct a conversation about what you’re watching on TV is one thing (a really enjoyable way of sharing the experience), but trying to read the paper and help with homework and cook? Well, I’ll be back with more views on consuming multiple media in my next post. In the meantime I’m off to concentrate on a good book with no distractions.

Top ten office products facing extinction

If you’re in the office, take a good look around you, because today’s familiar sights won’t be there much longer. USB sticks, blank CDs and scanners will soon be as rare as the office notice board, filing cabinets and paper in-trays. Research from office supplies firm Pixmania Pro caught my eye today listing, in order of extinction, the top ten regular sights in the office that will soon be gone for ever. And there are more than a few of the things currently cluttering up your desk in the list:

1.    Desk phones

2.    USB sticks

3.    Blank CDs

4.    Scanners

5.    Calculators

6.    Filing cabinets

7.    Paper in-trays

8.    The office notice board

9.    Post-It notes

10.    Water coolers

That the desk phone is on the way out, usurped by the all-dominating mobile, is less surprising than the end of the USB stick after such a short reign (as more and more businesses turn to cloud-based services). But I’m keenest to see the end of the office water-cooler – replaced, and not a moment too soon, by a simple filter on the kitchen tap. So, the end of the water cooler moment and the start of the, errr… filter chat?


E-mail hits productivity more than smoking dope

E-mail was supposed to enhance productivity right? Well in fact the daily distractions of e-mails and instant messages cause a greater loss of IQ than smoking marijuana. Constant interruptions reduce productivity and leave people feeling tired and lethargic, according to a TNS Research survey of 1,100 Britons showing:

  • Almost two out of three people check their electronic messages out of office hours and when on holiday
  • Half of all workers respond to an e-mail within 60 minutes of receiving one
  • One in five will break off from a business or social engagement to respond to a message.
  • Three out of 10 people believed answering messages during face-to-face meetings was not only acceptable, but a sign of diligence and efficiency.
But Dr. Glenn Wilson, a psychiatrist at King’s College London University, found the IQ of those who tried to juggle messages and work fell by 10 points — the equivalent to missing a whole night’s sleep and more than double the 4-point fall seen after smoking marijuana.

“This is a very real and widespread phenomenon,” Wilson said. “We have found that this obsession with looking at messages, if unchecked, will damage a worker’s performance by reducing their mental sharpness.”

Note – this is 2005 research but I happened across it today and it reinforces something I have blogged about here in the past. Surely the problem has got even greater in the last seven years? I would be delighted if anyone could point me to further academic research in this area.

TOTs’ businesses are booming

In tough economic times, it’s the TOTs that Britain should be turning to for inspiration and business success. No, not one-year-old toddlers, but one-year-old businesses. In this case TOT stands for Twelve months old, Optimistic and Technologically-minded (no, I don’t like the acronym either, but I do sign up to the thinking).

Henley Business School research into the success of small businesses identified the TOT, a new breed of agile start-up rooted in tech, as having the potential to add at least £360 million to the UK economy in 2012. Henley surveyed 253 start-up business owners (11-16 months old) last October and found that over half of TOTs predict revenues up by 30% or more in the next year. With the average TOT employing four permanent staff, between 40,000 and 70,000 new jobs in 2012 could be created by TOTs.

Henley Business School’s Professor Dominic Swords says: “TOTs have made it through the teething phase and have a different mindset that will challenge traditional businesses. They see opportunities in challenges, showing the benefits of a positive attitude in winning market share and leading a growing business.”

QWERTY is dead! Long live QWERTY!

The death of the QWERTY keyboard seems like a rash prediction. After all it must go down as one of the most successful open standards in history: A Victorian invention that remains the dominant interface for human-computer interaction across the world. But for how much longer? Voice-control and gesture/touch-control have made huge steps forward in the last month alone. And with personal computing being about so much more than the PC or Mac desktop in the next decade, I’m going to stick my neck out (gesture) and quietly suggest (voice) that QWERTY may go the way of the floppy disk, even if it takes a few years.

Apple are betting on voice. Siri, the voice-controlled assistant that comes with the new iPhone 4S, provides a voice-controlled interface for all the apps on your phone. As such, Siri is not itself an app but more fundamental than that – a way of controlling the computer that your smart phone has become. Amazon has gone the same way – it was revealed this week that they’ve quietly acquired speech-recognition start-up Yap to build into the Kindle Fire tablet with which they’re going to compete with the iPad.

Microsoft in the meantime are focusing more on gestures and touch. Their future vision video, just released, builds on their Kinect gesture tracking, which has already revolutionised console-game playing in the home and is now being used as the interface for a far greater range of programmes and apps.

Of course we’re not going to change tomorrow. I am writing this on a QWERTY keyboard. My children are learning touch-typing at school. I wish I had learned such a basic skill at an early age. But I am not sure I am so worried about my children learning it. Had I learned it when I was young, I would have saved myself a huge amount of time in my early days as a journalist. But will QWERTY really be the dominant interface for my children to create the written word? In a computing world increasingly dominated by tablets, smartphones and computing embedded in other devices, and looking at the developments in the last month alone in natural user interfaces, increasingly I doubt it.