Expecting Gratitude Sucks

It’s a horrible feeling when you’ve worked your butt off for a client and they give their next project to a competitor. You helped them become successful – and this is how they treat you?

The storyline might go like this:

Act I

You find someone who needs help and because their problem is in your sweet-spot you confidently describe what success looks like. The client is excited to have found someone who understands them. As anticipated, you deliver significant value quickly. It’s true love and the honeymoon begins.

Act II

Once the quick wins are completed, results inevitably slow as you move into a business-as-usual pattern. You continue achieving gains for your client, however they don’t have the same impact as the first big project. The client has many priorities and your meetings become more operational. You have fewer face-to-face meetings with senior executives.


The client talks to a competitor: you are in shock. By the time you meet the key decision-maker, they’ve decided to test a new supplier. They “want to avoid being dependent on a single partner.”  Besides, they like the idea of competition keeping everyone honest. You leave the meeting wanting to fire them as a client.

What to do

This familiar pattern has played out in medieval courts and modern boardrooms. How do you avoid being caught in the ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ trap?

1. Build client relationships on hope rather than gratitude. Maintain a laser focus on your client’s desires and dreams. They must see you as crucial to reaching their desired future – your job is to give them hope. Inspire your client to dream big. If you can’t inspire your client, someone else will.

2. Memorialise your wins. Big mistakes automatically become part of your client’s business mythology. These are the stories they talk about long after the individuals involved have moved on. However, successes take extra effort to become stories that are retold. Constantly look for ways to keep successes alive in your client’s story-telling. Retrospectives and project reviews are a good start. Ad agencies have created an awards industry to stage this for maximum effect. The main job of those trophies in reception are to remind existing clients of their shared success with the agency. This must start from the first project and continue for each piece of completed work.

3. Give clients an active role in the work. Collaboration shouldn’t be limited to your team or industry partnerships. Involve your client in the delivery process and help them understand first-hand the skill and dexterity you bring to the job. Working together is the ideal context for developing high hopes for the next big project.

Keep your client’s faith by connecting their hopes to your work. Relying on past success fails because people naturally look to the future and have a very temporary sense of gratitude – this is normal.

Your client’s gratitude is important, it’s just that you can’t rely on this to build long-term relationships. There is a short period after the delivery of work where your client’s gratitude matters, but you have to remember how this rises and falls.

The Curve of Gratitude

Use this natural flow to pick the best time to talk to your client about future goals. Wait until your team has completed the current project – clients want to see you finish before sitting down and planning the next one. But if you leave it too long you will lose the emotional enthusiasm for the good work you have done.

It would be lovely if clients remembered all the good work you did for them, but that’s not how people function. We are configured to look forwards, not backwards. Our clients’ focus is on the next mountain to climb, rather than past peaks scaled.

Creating Curious Teams

by Lawrence Brock and Laurence Haughton

Does curiosity matter?

Consider Canadian multinational Blackberry, who almost doubled their sales revenue every year between 2003 and 2011.

So what happened in 2012? It wasn’t the arrival of Apple’s iPhone. That was released in 2007.

In 2012 Blackberry’s lack of curiosity caught up with them. Founder, Mike Lazaridis famously said, “Try typing a webkey on a touchscreen on an Apple iPhone, that’s a real challenge.” (Steve Jobs didn’t care. “Your thumbs will get smarter,” he said) Blackberry were overconfident, due to their history of success, that they had no curiosity about the iPhone. Within a few years they were a niche player and today they no longer make phones.

Blackberry isn’t alone — only 60 companies that appeared in the Fortune 500 in 1955 exist today. The average lifespan of a top US corporation has halved over the last 30 years.

Success can turn into a death spiral if you stop asking questions and insist you already know the answers.

There’s a fascinating study, in “Why Leaders Don’t Learn from Success”, where students worked on two decision-making problems. After submitting their solutions to the first problem, the participants were told whether they had succeeded. They were then given time to reflect before starting the second problem. Compared with the people who failed at the first problem, those who had succeeded spent significantly less time reflecting on the strategies they’d used: Those who succeeded on the first task were more likely to fail on the second. They had stopped being curious.

Survival depends on an organisation’s ability to be customer obsessed, strategically aligned, quick and adaptable, purpose-driven and highly collaborative. The skill common to all these attributes is curiosity.

Everybody on a team (not just the C suite) needs to be noticing and understanding the sometimes subtle changes in their ecosystem. Curiosity is fundamental to an enquiring mindset.

How do you encourage your staff to be more curious?

There are different kinds of curiosity:

Perceptual — noticing something has changed e.g. “Can I smell smoke?”

Epistemic — directing our interest toward learning e.g. “What could I do to be better?”

Diversive — deciding to shift our attention e.g. “What is happening over there?”

Encourage your team to remain open to new or unexpected possibilities, and guide rather than direct their reports. If they move too quickly to solution mode or dictate how people should work, your managers will stifle curious behaviour. Consider where each member of your management team fits within the curiosity matrix:

The Authority

Is most comfortable being the source of knowledge and providing constant, clear instructions. This manager places a high value on knowing the correct answer and is quick to apportion blame when there is failure. The solution is always clear from the outset to The Authority and the team will remain disengaged.

The Vacillator

Believes in the divine efficiency of hierarchy but accepts the world is ambiguous. The Vacillator wants to appear decisive but changes their mind based on the latest information. Often found with a perfectionist streak, this manager values decisiveness and at the same time, tries to stay open to new possibilities. The result is a very busy manager and a team bouncing off the walls.

The Manipulator

The manager who delegates to their team but retains an iron-grip on the shape of the solution, resulting in their team feeling deceived. The tighter the manager holds on to their detailed vision of success, while also encouraging their team to explore new ideas, the greater the sense of frustration when they find those ideas blocked.

The Explorer

A manager who encourages their team to try different approaches and provides support as needed to ensure their success. This can feel risky but is actually the safest quadrant.

Here are four practical ways to encourage your team’s curiosity skills.

Bake curiosity into your processes

Review all processes and add a questioning stage if one is missing. Ensure all future processes include at least one type of inquiry step, such as identifying risks or information gaps. Project or initiative reviews are another important way to check that the right questions are being asked. Rewrite meeting agendas into a series of questions. Celebrate curiosity — people will remain curious if it is safe to be so.

Reward curious behaviour

Recognise people who ask good questions. Reinforce the importance of taking an open, non-judgmental, inquiring position by rewarding good examples with public recognition. Protect individuals who ask questions as they try to understand. There may be others who don’t want to wait and who shut down the line of inquiry since they believe momentum is more important. Remind them there is no such thing as a dumb question.

Use the scientific method

Since the Middle Ages, the cycle of hypothesis, prediction, testing and questioning has been the gold standard for accelerated learning. How you do this will depend on your organisational culture, however it is important to remember that humility is the foundation quality of the scientific method. “Inquiry regards itself as fallible.”


Inspire your people to keep an open mind. Expose them to different viewpoints and sources of creativity. Challenge them to argue from an opposing view. Be alert to topics or tasks the team finds boring and show them how an inquiring mindset makes everything more interesting.

As you encourage their questioning, watch your own speech — for example your selection of adjectives. Describing someone’s actions as “impulsive” is quite different to saying they are “instinctive”. Words carry judgements whether we mean them to or not. And when the boss speaks, everybody is quick to read between the lines.

Show the importance of identifying assumptions — especially when they are accepted as ‘common knowledge’, ‘best practice’, or ‘the wisdom of experience’. There is nothing inherently wrong with assumptions (they might be correct) but they remain risks until validated.

Get your people comfortable with asking questions. Help them understand that questions are more powerful than statements demonstrating capability.

Here’s a method you can teach your team, the ‘Count to Three’ rule of conversations:

  1. There are points in a conversation where you can add your own experiences or opinions. Your colleague might say “I could never move to the provinces, I’m a big city person”, and you can immediately think of close friends who moved to a regional town and loved it. But instead, you count ‘one’, and ask “What is it about city living you’d miss most if you moved to a smaller town?”
  2. Your colleague says, “It took me much longer than I expected to find a new job…” While you could sympathise by recounting your own stories of job seeking, you count ‘two’ instead, and ask “Which recruitment companies do you think did the best job?”
  3. Your colleague says “My favourite movie last year was The Florida Project”. Instead of telling them Willem Dafoe is one of your favourite actors, you count “three” and ask, “What did you think of the ending?”

Only after substituting three questions for comments, do you allow yourself the option to contribute an opinion.

Time to Decide

by Lawrence Brock and Laurence Haughton

Decision making is risky. Go too slow and you risk the nearly irreversible costs of delay like missing a big opportunity (see how Apple squandered a 3 year lead with Siri) or looking timid, hesitant and very unleader-like. Go too fast and you risk the cost of wasting time and money by getting it wrong (see Waikato District Health Board finally admits defeat with their SmartHealth venture) or looking impulsive and unreliable (also very unleader-like).

There are good arguments for not moving too fast. Books such as Wait suggest that putting off decisions to the last possible moment, gives us more time to gather and analyse information, and create strategy. In our experience waiting sometimes allows problems to solve themselves. “Don’t just do something… sit there,” has been great advice.

On the other hand, there is a lot to be said for deciding fast. It’s the most powerful prescription for neutralising organisational resistance to change (kaizen blitzkrieg), it’s an awesome competitive advantage (grow fast or die slow) and when you can tell everyone “We blow through speed-bumps” you become irresistibly attractive internally and externally.

So how do you choose? When is it better to go slow, or fast?

Here are four tools for different decision making situations that help:

1. Every decision is a door

This is first because it’s simplest. Jeff Bezos (annual letter to shareholders) imagines each decision is a door.

Door 1: This door locks after you pass through — you can’t reverse the decision if you discover you don’t like what’s on the other side. These decisions should be made methodically, with great deliberation and consultation. They take longer and involve more people.

Door 2: A two-way door lets you back in if you don’t like the consequences. Because you can change your mind, these decisions can be made faster and usually involve fewer people.

However, Bezos argues strongly against ‘one-size fits all’ decision making which he thinks is a significant and all too common brake on organisational speed and inventiveness. This is a good reminder to become comfortable with several models for structuring your decision making.


The Observe — Orient — Decide — Act loop is a decision cycle developed by military strategist John Boyd to improve competitive advantage by deciding faster than your opponent. Boyd used OODA as a combat instructor to take his F-86 fighter from complete disadvantage to complete advantage in forty seconds!

While his model has military origins, it would be a mistake to assume it relies on command and control. (Boyd rebelled against the slow-moving brass again and again.) Modern military doctrine favours bottom-up decision trusting commanders on the scene will appreciate local conditions best, and are competent to make independent decisions consistent with their commander’s intentions.

Note the ‘guide and control’ sub-loop which has echoes of Management by Objectives’ requirement for ‘monitoring and supporting’ teams. The OODA loop method is great for moving fast but be careful not to leave people behind or expect blind obedience.

3. Hypothesis Driven

This is similar to diagnostic decision making used in the health sector. You are presented with a problem or opportunity and start looking for data to diagnose what might be happening. Once you have an evidence-based hypothesis you can begin to consider the most appropriate treatment.

I find this model excellent for dealing with one-to-one situations such as individual coaching or HR issues such as someone getting negative feedback from the rest of the team.

Most people would describe this as how they make decisions, albeit in a slightly more informal manner. However, the strength of this model lies in completing each step before moving on and closing the loop with the follow-up.

For example, within the diagnosis formulation step, it is essential not to grasp the first hypothesis so tightly that no other possibility is considered. The inner cycle of formulating a diagnosis and collecting data should be repeated to ensure you have considered multiple options before moving to the solution planning step. And solution planning should consider all the solutions, and evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, before advancing.

4. Design Thinking

Design Thinking may seem a strange process to apply to decision making because it is best known for solving product and service design problems. I find it particularly strong for checking you’re solving the right problem in the most effective manner. This makes it an excellent framework for making decisions when the root cause of a problem has been difficult to establish.

The following description talks about ‘problems’, but it is just as easily applied to ‘opportunities’.

The first half of the process focuses on determining the true nature of the problem. Don’t assume: look at the evidence. Use techniques such as ‘The Five Whys’ to create a proof for your problem definition.

Then develop ideas that might solve the problem. You might start with the question “How might we…?” Or “What is the riskiest assumption…?”

The deliver stage usually involves a series of tests to check if our proposed solutions work. The use of prototypes can mean initially accepting imperfectly formed answers but further iterations will achieve an optimised solution.

This method is a good way of approaching a decision you feel fits Jeff Bezos’ Type 1 door metaphor. You benefit from knowing the core question giving rise to the problem or opportunity, and you discover a proven path to your desired outcome. This can be critical to convincing senior stakeholders or engaging a large cross-functional team in the decision making process.


These are four methods that have worked for me in a variety of settings, but I’m keen to hear about other decision making models that have helped you.

The models I’ve used all make use of:

  • Iteration, each approach has a closed loop structure, encouraging faster moving, self-correcting activities.
  • Data collection and analysis helps avoid cognitive biases and unvalidated assumptions.
  • Generating alternatives forces us to use comparative option-taking which improves the quality and consistency of decision making.

Always review your decisions with the people who have been involved or impacted. Post-match analysis will happen with you or without you. Formally, or informally, your managers, peers and staff will evaluate your decisions and it is in your interests to focus these conversations on the agreed mission objective. There are commonly multiple sets of expectations and the best way of ensuring alignment is to work to an agreed outcome from the outset. You can then use the desired outcome at each step of the process to focus the analysis and measure the final result.

Be careful when helping review other people’s decisions. Daniel Kahneman captures this beautifully in Thinking Fast and Slow, saying: “Because adherence to standard operating procedures is difficult to second-guess, decision makers who expect to have their decisions scrutinized with hindsight are driven to bureaucratic solutions — and to an extreme reluctance to take risks.”(emphasis mine) In other words, when judging the decisions of others, don’t be a Captain Hindsight.

Can We Just Start Please?

by Lawrence Brock and Laurence Haughton

My client wanted to redesign their website. I gave her my overview of the process, we began discussing the first stage of the project. I saw immediately she was frustrated. Then she blurted out, “Why do we have to waste time? We know what’s wrong. Can we just start please?”

It’s not the first time I’ve heard a client pleading to get on with it but I’m hearing more and more… Can’t we just start?

My instinct was to tell her the facts.

Fact 1

Strategies fail half of the time (in website redesign it’s more like 85%)!

Fact 2

They didn’t fail because they were bad strategies, but because the process is screwed up in two out of every three projects.

Fact 3

Those screw ups are known and obvious. Managers skip first steps, they’re unclear, they take short cuts, it’s a lot of ready, fire, aim…
Let me get this right...

But I didn’t say any of that. I put myself in her position. There was enormous time pressure. They had tried to do this redesign already without me. I was called because it hadn’t worked before (which only added to the time pressure). I was supposed to be an expert. I’m sure she thought, “If he doesn’t know how to solve this problem fast… then what good is he?”

I realised it was just like the commercial, she had a big, big headache and she wanted fast acting, strong medicine… not a long diagnostic and an array of tests.

My strategy was to be helpful and say you’re right… you’re right. And then figure out how to marry what was needed for flawless execution with her demand that we start and show progress really really fast.

So here I am, how can I do that?

I started a list. I needed answers to these questions:

What is the problem that prompted us to take action?
When we successfully solve the problem, what will be the impact on the organisation?
Who are the most senior people who care about solving this problem?
What criteria will those people use to determine success or failure?
There is large amount of research published on why we set ourselves up to fail. For example in paper entitled “Surprising but True: Half the Decisions in Organizations Fail” the authors note “The motivations to be pragmatic are stronger than the urges to be innovative. This is unfortunate because failure has less to do with the risk of innovation than how design is carried out.” (Emphasis is mine.)

Design is important, because the first step is to design your project approach based on the information you have and the information you know you’ll need to collect.

Albert Einstein was once asked how he would spend his time if he was given a problem upon which his life depended and he had only one hour to solve it. He responded by saying he would spend 30 minutes analysing the problem, 20 minutes planning the solution, and ten minutes executing the solution.

The Importance of Outcomes

Outputs are the “what” we produce, while outcomes are “why” we make the effort. And while they are only experienced after delivery of some work, if we care about success we must find out what those desired outcomes are before we start. (The following diagram is a simplified version of an excellent description on the UK National Audit Office website.)

But I want to look at outcomes because they are at the core of many frustrations.

I have chose three common problems to illustrate how outcomes can be used to refocus an initiative.

“We completed the work on time, within budget and according to the specification but the executive sponsor is still disappointed with the result…”

This question means the delivery team didn’t know what the executive sponsor’s expectations were.

There are often several layers of hierarchy between the executive responsible for the money invested in an initiative and the team delivering it. That team needs two important pieces of information before they start:

Who ultimately decides if this is successful or not?

How will they measure that success?

The answer to the first question provides guidance on who the team should ultimately listen to when making decisions. And knowing how that executive sponsor is going to judge their initiative means the team can stay focused on what really matters.

“This thing is just spinning wheels, the requirements keep changing and new features are constantly being added. The team is starting to lose enthusiasm…” 

The agreed outcome should be your guiding light, not the list of features in a backlog. This is how you keep all the stakeholders aligned despite the distractions of new ideas, new insights or discovered obstacles.

It is important to periodically check with the executive sponsor  that their desired outcome has not changed. I can change and it is best to know this as early as possible so you can regroup appropriately.

But assuming the desired outcome has not changed, the discussion should centre on how the team can achieve the outcome with the available resources and time left. This allows you to have an informed conversation with the executive sponsor if that becomes necessary.

The question moves from, “do we really have to add that new feature?” to “how does this new feature enhance our ability to achieve the desired outcome?”

“This work is so prescriptive. The team doesn’t feel engaged because they don’t see their creative talents being used. All the decisions have already been made…”  

This sentiment indicates a delivery team who have been given the solution without reference to the impact such a solution is expected to have on the organisation.

For example,  the desired outcome might be a higher conversion rate when people contact the call centre. But until you know at what point customers are dropping out and why, it doesn’t make sense to redesign your call centre scripts, or overhaul internal training or compare your marketing and offers with your competitors. Each of these may be part of the solution needed but the point of the exercise is to improve the conversion rate, not to design a better process.

As the medical meme says: “Brilliant surgery. Well done! Shame the patient died.”

The impact, the outcome,  is what is most important.

Capability Gap

The number of business opportunities are increasing rapidly. Technology is enabling new business models, new markets and marketing methods, and making it easier to test new ideas.

Plus, these new ways of working are communicated immediately, globally. We have seen the concept of ‘best practice’ go from being a standard approach to business improvement twenty years ago,  to being a lagging indicator today. (In some cases, it is little more than duplicating the mistakes of others.)

The challenge becomes how to take advantage of this ever enlarging pool of possibilities, because it isn’t possible to keep pace with everything all at once. Training is a critical component but it is too slow as a single response. By the time your organisation has learned the new skill set, there is no competitive edge, by then it is a hygiene factor.

Part of the answer is to change how you work, and to have a system for deciding which opportunities are must be addressed now and which can be left for a later day.

Capability Gap