Before and After. Big and Small

I’m going to take a quick look at the love/hate aspect of work from my time in big corporate land and in micro business world too. Neither are perfect, both have their wonderful highs and frustrating lows, so here goes:


I hated the way there were targets for everything. The trouble with targets is that people game them all the time. Set people a target, hook it up to the reward system and sit back and watch everyone screw the business and the customer and each other. So I loved trying to find pockets of enlightenment where we could experiment with doing the right thing because we believed it mattered, not because we were driven to it. The handy, overlooked thing about big business is that you can often play around and get things done differently. Everyone is watching the targets, so go play in the spaces in between. It helps if you don’t make a fuss about it, just go ahead and lay a few small bets around service improvement and watch some of them grow. Proceed until apprehended. I hated the games people played, and I love to play games.

I hated the way performance reviews were a) historic b) forced c) tied to reward and d) even existed. Good managers communicate with their people often enough that this old fashioned lack of trust has surely run its course, and yet it goes on. Big business learns very slowly sometimes. What I loved about performance reviews was trying to make them as flowing and continuous as possible, because that meant it was all about the conversation. Getting to know people, to understand what they are good at and then to get out of the way long enough to allow them to be good at it is an on-going process. I love that dialogue.


I hate the way everything takes so long. I feel like I’m always waiting for decisions to get made. When I started my own business this used to rile me badly. I wasted ages wondering why people weren’t getting back to me, particularly when the discussion was started by them. And then I got to realising – for the time we are together, our discussion, the idea, the proposal, whatever – it has some immediacy. Then I depart and the often badly organised whirl of work just picks people up again and deposits them who knows where (how often do you hear a colleague exclaim – ‘I don’t know what day it is!’ I don’t know where I’m supposed to be next’). I manage this better now by having more things on the go, and looking for other reasons to be in touch – not about the proposal or the idea, but about work and life in a wider context. I believe these interactions add value to a relationship and that in time, they will come back around. I love the faith I have that this approach will work, and it simultaneously scares the crap out of me too.

Big or small it matters not. Game less, target less, worry less. Talk more, believe more, love more.

A version of this post originally appeared over at CostofWork run by Chris Fields.

Bad behaviour rocks!

Some of you know I run a little group over in LinkedIn land called ‘Is Bad Behaviour Killing Big Business‘. Julia Briggs joined the group just recently and in response to the group title she offered this:

‘Ah, but I love bad behaviour……because for independent consultants and ‘baby’ entrepreneurs like me it gives us huge opportunities.

Every time a recruitment agency hacks off a client or a candidate that’s another reason why my business venture will make it. And as an interim, every time a client does something jawdroppingly ‘stupid’ they needed someone like me to come in and sort it out.

So, I do hope we get to celebrate bad behaviour in this group and turn it into opportunities. For those of you in the IIM group you may have seen what was a spectacularly bad tempered and very dumb thread where members criticised a potential client’s opinion of interims……no thought of engaging with the potential client, or taking on board what he said (feedback is a gift)……and every time this happens I just thank my lucky stars.’

To which Jonathan Wilson replied:

‘So… bad behaviour may be killing big business by inspiring new business. Creative self-destruction where capitalism meets Marxism in Schumpeter’s neo-liberalism. Heady stuff full of opportunities for caring opportunists. Great stuff!’

And Ian Sutherland added:

‘There seems to be something here about conscious and unconscious behaviour. To me Doug’s point is often about bad behaviour being unconscious and then breeding further bad behaviour and indeed vindicating it.

Julia’s optimisim (and I do believe that every challenge presents an opportunity if you have the right mindset) is based on recognising bad behaviour and trying to do something about. Business these days especially big business (and previously successful business) has a huge organisational inertia. My guess is that in 90% of the cases that is just fixing the immediate mess (I’m a manager get me out of here!), but every now and then there will be a real desire to make things different and better.

Being conscious that it is bad behaviour is the start.’

And back to Jonathan again:

‘Very much so, Ian, and it raises interesting questions about the different perspectives of the self-employed (like most of us) and the employed. People express their real values very much more by their actions than by their words and the fit between them says most of all.

I don’t think anyone goes to work to do bad things, or to do things badly, but they will do things and allow things that they do not really believe are good things to do because they want:

to stay employed (for the money or the security or the company)

to avoid conflict or embarrassment with their boss or in front of their peers.

(I know from other research that intelligent, skilled people would rather risk death than embarrassment and have died as a result, taking hundreds more with them)

As businesses get bigger and older (a key transition is with the departure or death of the founders so the firm becomes entirely run by agents) it becomes less clear what they stand for and they lose the guiding light, “What would [the founder] do?”.

When firms become publicly owned the managers simplify (simplisticise?) the aim of the company as being to make money, because money is the most obvious (though often erroneous) abstraction of the concept of value. And because we delegate the management of the owning of shares to other agents (fund managers, insurance companies, pension funds) and they want to show they are doing a good job the focus on money and apparent profit is intensified and made even more short term. One year is a ridiculously short time to assess a company or a strategy, but public companies are made to report and be judged on their financial results every three months. This affects their behaviour quite negatively. When in order to incentivise them, senior managers are given bonuses (just for doing the job) based on that financial performance the perversion becomes destructive.

As you say , Ian, big companies do have immense inertia from their physical presence, established customer base, license to operate and their brand. And so some of their employees, up to and including the CEO, sometimes tend to tend undervalue that and take it for granted, even appearing to believe that they have an eternal right to do what they do. This then leads to the arrogance and complacency that eventually brings them down, but it is usually a long, slow corrosive process leading to an apparently sudden, shocking collapse.’

I love where this conversation is going, so much so I wanted to share it beyond the group. Thanks to Julia, Jonathan and Ian for giving me (and I hope now you) lots of food for thought. I’d love to know what you think about some of the points raised here.