Wednesday 31 August 2011

Leader interview - Alex Jacobs on goals, performance and listening

Alex was the founding Director of Mango, a UK charity that is the leading international provider of financial management services to NGOs. He has played a leadership role in aid work on the ground as well as in efforts to improve the accountability of aid agencies. His blog,, provides expert commentary on managing the performance of NGOs. Alex is about to take up the position of Director of Programming and Effectiveness for Plan International, the UK's largest aid agency.

1. What is the key to great leadership?

Setting ambitious but realistic goals and knowing - or working out - how to achieve them. Bringing people together behind the shared endeavour, making sure each person's contribution is valued. Living the values you want to encourage in others: commitment, compassion, customer service, listening, considered judgement and an endless desire to understand and improve.

2. What is the secret of motivating a team?

Making sure everyone believes in what you aim to achieve together and knows what is expected of them. Creating personal incentives that are aligned with overall goals. Providing people with the space to get on and do their jobs. Constantly creating opportunities for communication across the team. Celebrating good performance and dealing with poor performance.

3. What is the most important lesson you have learned?

Listen first. As a leader, resisting the temptation to start a conversation by offering advice or jumping to conclusions. Listen carefully to what people have to say and demonstrate that you value their views. Then take a decision, considering what they say but not necessarily bound by it.

4. What are the key ingredients of success in business development?

Develop great products that your clients want and set stretching strategic goals. Recruit people who share your goals and values. Nurture the team. In the charity sector, build alliances and collaboration with others working in your field, not enmity and opposition.

5. What book(s) would you like everyone to read?

The Elements of Styleby Strunk and White. It's a bible of how to write clear English.

Friday 26 August 2011

Leader interview - Phil Sampson on communication, trust and being speedy

I have asked a selection of successful leaders to share their insights on leadership and motivation.

Phil Sampson has learned leadership the hard way as an officer in the Royal Marines for 32 years. He has lead organisations on operations and has been involved in leadership development and coaching as a trainer throughout his career. Now a partner at Sampson Hall, he has delivered to conferences nationally and internationally.  He brings a wealth of leadership experience and some novel leadership perspectives to business along with the Sampson Hall Gordian Model.

1. What is the key to great leadership?

I am a firm believer in empowerment as the speed of life increases. So for me the key is listening in order to gain understanding. For if you know where you are and who you have, you can set out a credible vision for the future that wins buy in and understanding from all your team. After all it is vision that differentiates leaders from managers. Vision cannot be imposed it has to be voluntarily owned by every member of a team as they build their trust in their leader.

“Nothing energises an individual or a company more than clear goals and a grand purpose. Nothing demoralises more than confusion and a lack of content” Tony OReilly, CEO Heinz

2. What is the secret of motivating a team?

For me motivation is about ownership and when it comes to the team, group ownership of the outcome. For if people own something they take pride in it and feel responsible for the delivery of that outcome and therefore they will try their utmost to deliver above expectation. “People who produce good results feel good about themselves” Ken Blanchard said and when a leader enables that they have created an environment of continuous improvement.

“Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work” Aristotle

3. What is the most important lesson you have learned?

Most problems in terms of leadership and followership come about through a lack of clear communication. When boundaries and expectations are not communicated then inevitably something falls short. Trust is key in the dynamics of leadership and if someone is perceived to have let either the leader or the follower down that trust is eroded. If it continues that way the relationship breaks down. I learned early in my career to always gain mutual understanding of expectations and boundaries when contracting an individual to perform a task.

“The biggest problem with the communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished” George Bernard Shaw.

“The best leader is the one who has the sense to surround himself with outstanding people and the self restraint not to meddle with how they do their jobs” Author unknown

4. What are the key ingredients of success in business development?

Modern business is about speed and efficiency for in this information age, if you study paradigm shifts, it is not the big that eat the small but rather the speedy that consume the plodders. The days of authoritarian leadership and tight control are passed. Modern businesses have to trust their people to deliver through empowerment. To do this they have to select, train, develop and talent manage their people and be prepared for the odd mistake. For empowerment is about investment and it is about progress and not maintaining the status quo. Progress is about pushing the boundaries to continually develop because if you don’t someone else will and who gets left behind?

“I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." Thomas Alva Edison

5. What book(s) would you like everyone to read?

Given the theme of empowerment I am going to say Make Your Workplace Great: The 7 Keys to an Emotionally Intelligent Organization by Steven J. Stein.

Thursday 18 August 2011

The London Underground Personality Profiler

Yesterday morning I had a meeting with a company which has developed a very neat personality profiling tool which uses psychological characteristics to understand people's values and attitudes. The tool divides people into 8 categories based on their values, and is potentially a great benefit to marketeers since it adds another layer of insight to conventional behavioural profiling. Categories include Aspirer, Thriver and Belonger. I'll post more about this when the company goes public with its service offering.

In the evening I met up with Sean Brady, an old friend who is now a senior officer in the Royal Marines and an MBA student. In fact Sean is blogging for the FT about his MBA experience. We discussed the Myers Briggs Type Indicator assessments that we have both used (and found that our profiles are very similar), and the role of self-knowledge in motivation, a subject Sean has agreed to guest-blog on here shortly.

In the meantime, I have developed a personality profiling tool of my own. Having lived in London for several years now, I suggest that you can divide people into 4 personality types on the basis of how they behave on the escalators bringing them up from the Tube. Convention dictates that people who wish to stand should stand on the right side so that those in a hurry can walk or run up the steps on the left side.

So, the chart above divides people according to whether they walk or stand, and which side of the escalator they use:

A - walks or runs up the left side of the escalator
B - walks or runs up the right side of an empty escalator so faster As can overtake on the left
C - stands on the right
D - stands on the left, blocking the progress of A and B

I've suggested some percentages based on observation, but I'm looking for names to describe categories A-D - what do you think? And where do you fit in the chart yourself? 

Wednesday 17 August 2011

How a crisis can help a team to bond

This is one of a series of articles on lessons from Commando training.  Here is the full list.

Biscuits Brown
A crisis can make or break a team. In particular, if trust breaks down within the team it can become very difficult to operate. If you are a member of a team that experiences a crisis, it's worth reflecting on some of the ways the team can protect itself from breakdown and turn the crisis into a bonding experience. Certain key factors can help with this process - open communications, patience and loyalty - as I learned early on in training as a Royal Marine.

One last inspection

On the final day of Exercise Tenderfoot, our first experience of "military camping" as trainee Royal Marines, we experienced a crisis. Friday started as usual with an inspection of all our equipment at 0600. In the dawn light a group of 36 young men stood behind groundsheets carefully laid with every item of our personal equipment. Our rifles were stripped down for detailed inspection, our mess tins polished and of course all our clothes were folded to the regulation A4 size and laid out in the same format as everyone else's.

But Friday was to be the last day of the 5 day exercise, and we were looking forward to a chance to recuperate over the weekend. It had been a tough week, but it was nearly over.

Get on the flank

Unfortunately, failing an inspection carried a heavy penalty. If your rifle barrel contained a speck of dust or your toothpaste tube was not evenly squeezed, you would be told by the inspecting Sergeant to "get on the flank". This involved quickly packing away all your equipment and running to the side of the inspection area. Once the inspection was complete, the group on the flank would be taken away for a period of about 45 minutes of "corrective training" - running up and down steep hills with heavy loads and doing uncountable pressups, situps, burpees, squats, leg raises, etc etc. This is known as a "thrashing" and is often accompanied by colourful expressions from the instructors like "I'm going to thrash you til your eyes bleed!"

Obstacle crossing drills

While the unfortunate flankers were being thrashed, those few of us who had passed the inspection were sent off to learn how to conduct a military obstacle crossing. This involves carefully approaching, checking and then crossing the obstacle covertly while protecting each other from attack. We rehearsed this so that when the flankers returned from their thrashing we would be able to show them a demonstration.

The flankers joined us once they had collected their 24 hour ration packs (boxes containing 3,600 calories of food to keep soldiers well fed in the field), and we gave our demonstration. Then, reunited, we all practiced obstacle crossings and other techniques for the remainder of the morning.

Who's been eating my biscuits?

At lunchtime we returned to the main camp, and those of us who had given the demonstration earlier had the opportunity to collect our ration packs. I was the last to collect mine and noticed that it had been opened, and a packet of brown biscuits had been removed. Foolishly, I said "has anyone seen the biscuits from this ration pack?" Colour Sergeant Richards overheard and boomed "Who has stolen Mr Brabyn's biscuits?"

Brown biscuits (photo above) are not much different from the hard tack issued in Nelson's Navy, so I wasn't very upset that my ration pack was missing a packet of them. Several people immediately offered to share their biscuits with me, and I told C/Sgt Richards that it really wasn't a problem...

But he disagreed. To him it appeared that there was a criminal in our midst. Food is of vital (literally) importance to the soldier, and anyone who tampers with it could cause terrible consequences. He ordered us all to stand in three ranks and then explained that he wanted the culprit to own up. No-one did.


As it began to rain, we were treated to a severe thrashing. Stress positions combined with leopard crawling through sand and gravel opened cuts and scrapes and soon we were all soaked and mostly bleeding. After about 15 minutes, C/Sgt Richards announced that he would return in 10 minutes after we had had the chance to flush out the thief in our midst.

What followed was a combination of painful comedy and game theory. No one would confess. After 10 minutes, the thrashing began again. In a perverse adaptation of the prisoner's dilemma, we each weighed the likely consequences of making a false confession, speculating whether the courage of the confessor would mitigate any punishment, and whether our colleagues would believe we were confessing only for their benefit.

When the next pause came, someone suggested that since no-one would confess openly perhaps they would do it one-to-one. Since my biscuits were the stolen ones, I was chosen as the person to hear this high-speed series of private declarations. 35 people trooped past me whispering that "it wasn't me". After half a dozen had passed, I couldn't stop laughing out of frustration that this trivial biscuit loss had led to an apparently impassable problem and a potentially endless thrashing.

We knew we had finished our training and we also had enough rations to last until the following day, so we faced the prospect of 24 hours of misery unless someone owned up.

The thrashings continued, interspersed with further breaks in which we discussed whether to stand in solidarity or offer a human sacrifice. We stood firm. After a few hours, the training team decided that they had proved their point (or that they wanted to get home) and we ran the 4 miles back to the Commando Training Centre.

Open communications, patience and loyalty

Although we could have offered up a false confessor (recent studies show how easy it is to prompt a false confession), we chose to stick together. We were under a lot of pressure and in some cases pain too, and it was by quickly talking through our options and agreeing that it was better for us all if we pushed through the discomfort and stuck together, we eventually prevailed.

It was a bizarre episode in which a trivial loss resulted in hours of misery, but it came to form part of the lore and narrative of our little group - and it still does today. Ask any of those 36 people about "the biscuits" and they will instantly know what you mean even 16 years on. More importantly, it reassured us all that sticking together, even when we had good cause for distrust, was the best option for the group.

This is one of a series of articles on lessons from Commando training.  Here is the full list.

Monday 15 August 2011

3 lessons from an Atlantic rower: self reliance, positive thinking and LPATBTYFT

In 1991 I worked for 8 months for John Ridgway at his adventure school in Ardmore, close to Cape Wrath in the Highlands of Scotland.

In 1966, John had rowed across the Atlantic in an open boat with Chay Blyth, taking 92 days - a story recounted in his book A Fighting Chance. On his return he set out to create an enclave where people could learn some of the lessons he learned on this and many subsequent adventures.

As an 18 year old fresh out of school and wanting to test myself in a challenging environment, John's enclave was the perfect testing ground. For the princely salary of £5 per week each, a team of 10 instructors led diverse and hardy individuals on canoeing, climbing, hillwalking, sailing, swimming and survival expeditions.

John's vision centres on three qualities he believes enable people to achieve their full potential. He always stressed them to us, and to the 12,000 people who passed through his adventure school. I still think they provide a great guide. They are:
  1. Self Reliance
  2. Positive Thinking
  3. Leaving People And Things Better Than You Find Them
If you have any suggestions that you think should be added to the list please add comments below. I think these attributes are not far from the Four Commando Qualities.

And if you want to enjoy beautiful landscape and outdoor adventures suitable for every level of ability, Ridgeway Adventure is well worth a visit!

Friday 12 August 2011

10 Google top tips for converting visitors into buyers

Following the launch of our new online store at, we've been collecting advice from friends and experts.

Our site has already been featured as a Magento Showcase Store and we're focusing hard on Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and other improvements to the site at the moment.

One key issue for any new e-commerce business is conversion from visitor to customer. Amazingly, according to Google figures, 50% of all online shopping carts are abandoned. 23% of these abandonments occur because merchants require visitors to register before they can checkout. Simply providing large high resolution images of products can increase sales conversions by 14%.

I'm very grateful to Roddy Urquhart of for pointing me to this presentation on maximising conversion from Google. If you don't have an hour and 3 minutes to spare, here are the 10 top tips that Google provides:
  1. Bring me to the right page
  2. Make your homepage useful
  3. Help me navigate your site
  4. Give me the right results when I search
  5. Display groups of products clearly
  6. Give me the product details I need
  7. Make registration optional
  8. Make it easy to buy or enquire
  9. Reassure me
  10. Use the information that your visitors provide to improve your site and service
Needless to say, Google provide valuable case studies in their presentation and additional statistics that illustrate the potential bottom line benefits of each of these measures.

Thursday 11 August 2011

Welcome to This Tribe - equipment for military and outdoor users

I'm delighted to have been a part of the team that has just launched, a new online store that provides high quality equipment for military, security and outdoor enthusiasts.

We're taking a new approach to providing the best equipment for people who depend on their kit in extreme conditions - whether they are tackling snowy peaks or on operations in Afghanistan or anywhere else in the world.

Bringing content and commerce together

This Tribe was born out of a conversation with the founders of ARRSE, the Army Rumour Service. With over 250,000 unique monthly visitors and a clearly defined demographic profile, we quickly realised that we should not only offer ARRSE visitors a social network, but also a dedicated store to purchase the equipment they need. With the addition of equipment reviews and regiments of expert reviewers, This Tribe is starting life with the perfect combination of content and commerce.

Of course we aim to reach out to other customers too. There are plenty of great products for civilian and leisure users, from flasks to head torches and thermal underwear!

Smart stock management

We are focusing on stocking only the best equipment, so we can secure the most suitable kit and the most reasonable prices for our customers. By stocking a limited number of carefully chosen lines, we are able to ensure a high quality service. Since every one of the founders of This Tribe is a former soldier or Royal Marine, we know just how important it is to have the right kit.

Engaging with our customers and incorporating their feedback

We engage with the ARRSE kit reviewers to ensure we can provide the best reviewed equipment, and we're always on the lookout for  ways to improve on the kit we supply. We are already in discussions about a range of equipment modifications to reduce the risks posed by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), extreme temperatures and high altitude. Above all, we aim to engage with our customers and seek their help to identify new equipment and techniques that will improve their safety, comfort and performance.

Please visit the site and have a look around, and we'd love your feedback, either here or on the This Tribe site.

Tuesday 9 August 2011

Perseverance - pursuing your dreams responsibly

How do we know when to give up?

To many, "quit" is a pejorative term. Yet some challenges are insuperable, and while failure may be heroic it is rarely inevitable. I'm going to stray from the Churchillian "Never give up..." to consider the question "Under what circumstances should one consider giving up?" The greatest dilemma facing anyone pursuing a goal is often whether and when to quit. Should you stick to your guns or reach for the white flag?

I'm going to explore that dilemma with a little help from Max Weber, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King and Aung San Suu Kyi, and with poetic contributions from Robert Graves, Rudyard Kipling and Arthur O'Shaughnessy.

Max Weber

Max Weber wrote in Politics as a Vocation that success in politics depends on Passion and Responsibility. I think that these two qualities are important for us all, whether we are politicians or not, and that they provide the framework for assessing when to persevere and when to decide that the better part of valour is discretion and call it quits.


Passion about a cause or an outcome is the common characteristic of successful people. In fact it's a necessary condition of success (the only alternative is pure luck, like winning the lottery or accidentally discovering a cure for a terrible illness). Passion provides the focus, the mission, the goal sought, and protects and compensates us for the hardships incurred in its pursuit.


Responsibility, particularly in a leader, involves an understanding of the consequences of the passionate pursuit of a goal. These consequences can extend far beyond the group of people choosing to be involved with the endeavour, and a responsible leader considers the interests of all stakeholders, including those without a voice. When leaders do not afford proper weight to the interests of others, their actions can sometime be described with euphemisms like negative externality and collateral damage.

Churchill and 5 days in May 1940

In May 1940, Winston Churchill took over responsibility for the fight against Nazism. He certainly had the passion to commit himself and all the resources at his command - the whole of the British Empire and all its influence with allies - to the task.

But as John Lukacs describes in Five Days in London: May 1940Churchill himself was careful to pick his battles, entering the fray only when the Chamberlain Government was imploding, delaying the Normandy landings to the fury and cost of Russian allies, and recognising that a quick extraction leaving enduring chaos in the Balkans was a worthwhile price to pay for tying up 20 German Divisions (for more on this see Eastern Approaches by Fitzroy Maclean).

Choosing the moment to give up is a vital skill for a leader which is most easily assessed with the benefit of hindsight. Once the outcomes are clear, it's usually easy to see when the time came to quit. The key customer left, the intellectual property was compromised, the vital team member left, essential resources ran out etc.

Was there a more responsible way?

When we look back through history it is straightforward to pick out the people who chose the best course, but as Churchill himself demonstrated when he set out to write the record of the history he had previously played a part in creating, the victor's perspective may not provide the whole picture. Though they had no taste for Nazism, Lord Halifax, RAB Butler and others at the heart of the establishment advocated negotiation with Hitler after the fall of France, and if they had successfully contained Nazi expansion it is at least conceivable that the total global cost of the war might have been lower - or perhaps lower to the British Empire.

While Churchill's passion was remarkable, he accepted some costs - on behalf of others - which with the benefit of hindsight some might argue were irresponsible. For example in the short term, he agreed to send 50,000 Cossacks to almost certain death at the hands of Stalin, and allied policies in the Balkans fueled the fires that still burn there today.

Whatever the cost may be

Debating whether Churchill was a responsible as well as a passionate leader may seem petty. He was recently voted the greatest ever Briton. It's like arguing that the Duke of Wellington was inefficient in defeating Napoleon - it misses the point. The war against Nazism was total, and Churchill explicitly committed everything. On the brink of Operation Sealion, the planned invasion of Britain, he pledged:

We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the new world, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

This is fantastic rhetoric, and it is the product of exceptional times. Few individuals, organisations or modern states face such an existential threat, and few have to contemplate such sacrifice. For most of us, it should be easier to balance passion with responsibility.

A benchmarking exercise

One popular method for assessing performance is benchmarking. By comparing our performance to those of a set of suitable peers, we are able to establish which norms, or averages, we are straying from. This can prove a helpful device for reviewing the performance of a manufacturing process, or an infantry company, or even a personal relationship, but does benchmarking help you decide what price you think it is worth incurring in pursuit of your goals?

Benchmarking is not prescriptive. While we may aim to make our manufacturing process faster than our peers, benchmarking does not tell us how to. It may help us to identify problems and improve our performance to the norm, but it will not lift us above this unless we try something non-standard or take risks others reject.

Thus Churchill's decision to stand alone against Nazism would almost certainly have failed a benchmarking test. Even allied French Generals warned their Prime Minister just before the fall of France that "in three weeks England would have her neck wrung like a chicken".

Martin Luther King 

Another of history's great orators, Martin Luther King faced a similarly implacable foe - embedded civil injustice and racism that had taken root for hundreds of years.

But unlike Churchill, Dr King had no empire to call upon, only the power of rhetoric. For him responsible leadership was built on the non-violent ideas of Ghandi. He incorporated the words of the US Constitution and the ideas of Abraham Lincoln into his famous "I have a dream" speech of 1963 in order to make common cause with the values of his oppressors and, like Socrates, gently to point out to them the inconsistency of their own behaviour.

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master

On 3 April 1968, Dr King spoke in Memphis. What he said illustrates the perspective of a man who knows that like Moses he has led his people responsibly through hardship:

I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

He was assassinated the following day.

By the time of Dr King's death, much of his dream was coming true. Though he had called for revolutionary change he was able to do so without irresponsibly exploiting tension or provoking violence. Though he criticised injustice he focused his passion on an outcome that was better for all - in which all would benefit. In so doing he balanced his passion with a responsibility for all stakeholders whose lives would be influenced by his ideas - his dreams.

He was fortunate enough to live in a country that was willing and ready to change. Not everyone is so fortunate.

Goliath and David

Long before Martin Luther King alluded to Moses, Robert Graves revealed the real fate of another Biblical leader, David. When a friend was killed in action at Fricourt in March 1916, Graves wrote:

Once an earlier David took
Smooth pebbles from a brook:
Out between the lines he went
To that one-sided tournament,
A shepherd boy who stood out fine
And young to fight a Philistine
Clad all in brazen mail. He swears
That he's killed lions, he's killed bears,
And those that scorn the God of Zion
Shall perish so like bear or lion.
But . . . the historian of that fight
Had not the heart to tell it right.

Striding within javelin range
Goliath marvels at this strange
Goodly-faced boy so proud of strength.
David's clear eye measures the length;
With hand thrust back, he cramps one knee,
Poises a moment thoughtfully,
And hurls with a long vengeful swing.
The pebble, humming from the sling
Like a wild bee, flies a sure line
For the forehead of the Philistine;
Then . . . but there comes a brazen clink.
And quicker than a man can think
Goliath's shield parries each cast.
Clang! clang! and clang! was David's last.
Scorn blazes in the Giant's eye,
Towering unhurt six cubits high.
Says foolish David, 'Damn your shield!
And damn my sling! but I'll not yield.'

He takes his staff of Mamre oak,
A knotted shepherd-staff that's broke
The skull of many a wolf and fox
Come filching lambs from Jesse's flocks.
Loud laughs Goliath, and that laugh
Can scatter chariots like blown chaff
To rout: but David, calm and brave,
Holds his ground, for God will save.
Steel crosses wood, a flash, and oh!
Shame for Beauty's overthrow!
(God's eyes are dim, His ears are shut.)
One cruel backhand sabre cut --
'I'm hit! I'm killed!' young David cries,
Throws blindly foward, chokes . . . and dies.
And look, spike-helmeted, grey, grim,
Goliath straddles over him.

When a responsible assessment of one's power indicates unbeatable odds, it's time to quit the field - or try adapting your tactics.


If the odds you face are insuperable with the resources at your disposal, there is of course an alternative to accepting defeat. As any student of modern military thinking knows, the question "Is my goal still the right goal?" should always be kept under review, since circumstances can change. As John Maynard Keynes put it "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do sir?"

Have you reviewed your goals recently? What are they?

Alternatively, or in addition, you can adapt the means by which you pursue your goal. While Churchill called on the might of the Empire and its allies, King followed Ghandi's approach of non-violence and turned the oppressors' own values against them, referring to the US Constitution, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and the Bible to establish the justice he sought.

Are you using the right means to achieve your goals?

Relentlessness, persistence and perseverance

There is a hierarchy of tools available to the goal-seeker. They may become relentless, metaphorically banging their heads against a wall until it crumbles. This is impressive to watch and can yield quick results, but is often costly and inefficient. "Relentlessness" is as often used as an insult as a compliment.

Persistence is another matter. It suggests a degree of adaptability, a willingness perhaps to tackle the wall with power tools or to look for a ladder. Subtlety plays a greater part and slower results may be won at lower cost.

Finally, perseverance is the willingness to find a way around the wall, or to find one's goal this side of the wall. This approach requires the greatest patience and may eventually yield results at the lowest cost in resources other than time. For those for whom violence is not an option or a preference, this is the most important tool.

Value versus probability

To be responsible a leader must also weigh the risks they may incur for themselves or others in pursuit of their goals. It can help to plot the probability adjusted value of an outcome against the cost of its pursuit. If the probability adjusted value (the value of the outcome discounted by the probability of its achievement) is lower than the cost, it would be reckless and irresponsible to pursue the goal.

Among others, beware of the psychological risk of aiming too high in an unconscious attempt to make failure acceptable. This is an irresponsible form of leadership identified and explored in On The Psychology Of Military Incompetence by Norman F Dixon - a great read even for those with no interest in the military.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi has been the rightful leader of Burma since winning an election in 1989 with 59% of the popular vote. However, since then she has spent nearly 15 years under arrest. She was offered freedom if she left the country but refused. Between 1989 and 1999 when he died, she saw her husband only 5 times, most recently in December 1995. She continues to refuse to leave Burma for fear that she will be prevented from returning, and her family is repeatedly denied visas to visit her. Her two children remain in the UK. The Burmese military Junta continue to hold power.

Why Burma isn't free

Daw Suu is 66 years old. Asked during this year's Reith Lectures why Burma had not become free as quickly as Tunisia or Egypt, she pointed out that in both these countries the army had refrained from firing on protesters. Sadly Burma was different and in 1988, out of sight of Facebook and Twitter, the Burmese army brutally put down the demonstrations for democracy. Since then, Daw Suu has persevered, neither yielding to terror, nor compromising her dream for tactical or personal gain. She is playing a long game. But she dreams of a free Burma. She recently quoted an excerpt from Kipling's The Fairies Siege:

I’d not give way for an Emperor,
I’d hold my road for a King—
To the Triple Crown I would not bow down—
But this is a different thing.
I’ll not fight with the Powers of Air,
Sentry, pass him through!
Drawbridge let fall, ’Tis the Lord of us all,
The Dreamer whose dreams come true!

Assessment of responsibility

For Aung San Suu Kyi, the most responsible course is to maintain the non-violent path of Ghandi and Buddhism and minimise the risk to her movement from the brutal Junta, while bringing the full moral force of her dream to bear using every method at her disposal. Her agility in adapting to the communications revolution and commanding the attention of world media is famous, but it is always tempered by care not to provoke violence. In the face of such brutal treatment her responsible pursuit of a dream is all the more remarkable.

If we were to weigh moral power against violence averted, I suggest Aung San Suu Kyi would be one of the most outstanding leaders of our time. I hope her dream comes true, and I believe it will.

Aung San Suu Kyi's example shows that even without the might of the British Empire, or the support of the US constitution, and when held at gunpoint or under house arrest, there is no need to quit. By all means adjust your goal if circumstances change, and be willing to change your tactics too, but you too need never give up. But remember, quitting your course is the most responsible thing to do if the probability adjusted value of the goal is lower than the cost.

The dreamers of dreams

No benchmarking exercise would have produced a Winston Churchill, a Martin Luther King or an Aung San Suu Kyi. If you wish to live an average life, rising with the tide of human progress, then benchmarking yourself against your peers is the right approach.

But if you have a dream that you can pursue responsibly then persevere. Arthur O'Shaughnessy describes your destiny in his Ode:

We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;—
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.

This post formed the basis of a presentation to the NHS Staff College. I was one of two speakers, following Major General Mungo Melvin who spoke on Strategy.

Wednesday 3 August 2011

Effectiveness vs efficiency - why the mission should come first

The relationship between effectiveness and efficiency has always been a rich source of disagreement. I think a helpful distinction is:

Effectiveness - doing the right thing
Efficiency - doing the thing right

A recent auditor's report has found that the Ministry of Defence has lost track of assets worth £6.3bn. It is nearly 200 years since the Duke of Wellington wrote the following message to the British Foreign Office in 1812:


Whilst marching from Portugal to a position which commands the approach to Madrid and the French forces, my officers have been diligently complying with your requests which have been sent by His Majesty’s ship from London to Lisbon and thence by dispatch to our headquarters.

We have enumerated our saddles, bridles, tents and tent poles, and all manner of sundry items for which His Majesty’s Government holds me accountable. I have dispatched reports on the character, wit and spleen of every officer. Each item and every farthing has been accounted for with two regrettable exceptions for which I beg your indulgence.

Unfortunately the sum of one shilling and ninepence remains unaccounted for in one infantry battalion’s petty cash and there has been a hideous confusion as to the number of jars of raspberry jam issued to one cavalry regiment during a sandstorm in western Spain. This reprehensible carelessness may be related to the pressure of circumstance, since we are at war with France, a fact which may come as a bit of a surprise to you gentlemen in Whitehall.

This brings me to my present purpose, which is to request elucidation of my instructions from His Majesty’s Government so that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over these barren plains. I construe that perforce it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below. I shall pursue either with the best of my ability, but I cannot do both:

1.) To train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for the benefit of the accountants and copy-boys in London or, perchance…
2.) To see to it the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain.

Your most obedient servant,

While it is important to ensure that taxpayers' resources are well looked after, the fog of war is always likely to result in some wastage and administrative discrepancies - though £6.3bn is quite a discrepancy! But I suggest that the even more important question is about the overall mission - the desired effect - rather than the flaws in the associated administrative processes.

After all, what use is good book-keeping if you lose the war?

See also Evelyn Waugh's letter to his wife about explosive military mathematics.
The 6th Duke of Wellington was killed in action while serving with No. 2 Commando in 1943.
Thanks to Alex Jacobs of NGO Performance for reminding me of Wellington's letter.

Monday 1 August 2011

Too much explosive - a maths lesson from No. 3 Commando

This is one of a series of articles on lessons from Commando training.  Here is the full list.

This is an excerpt from a letter written by Evelyn Waugh to his wife Laura on 31 May 1942. Waugh was a member of No. 8 Commando. You can find plenty of lessons from Commando training and operations and more besides among the Letters Of Evelyn Waugh.


So No. 3 Cmdo were very anxious to be chums with Lord Glasgow so they offered to blow up an old tree stump for him and he was very grateful and he said don't spoil the plantation of young trees near it because that is the apple of my eye and they said no of course not we can blow a tree down so that it falls on a sixpence and Lord Glasgow said goodness you are clever and he asked them all to luncheon for the great explosion. So Col. Durnford-Slater D.S.O.
said to his subaltern, have you put enough explosive in the tree. Yes sir, 75 lbs. Is that enough? Yes sir I worked it out by mathematics it is exactly right. Well better put a bit more. Very good sir.

And when Col. D. Slater D.S.O. had had his port he sent for the subaltern and said subaltern better put a bit more explosive in that tree. I don't want to disappoint Lord Glasgow. Very good sir.

Then they all went out to see the explosion and Col. D.S. D.S.O. said you will see that tree fall flat at just that angle where it will hurt no young trees and Lord Glasgow said goodness you are clever.

So soon they lit the fuse and waited for the explosion and presently the tree, instead of falling quietly sideways, rose 50 feet into the air taking with it half an acre of soil and the whole of the young plantation.

And the subaltern said Sir I made a mistake, it should have been 7.5 lbs not 75.

Lord Glasgow was so upset he walked in dead silence back to his castle and when they came to the turn of the drive in sight of his castle what should they find but that every pane of glass in the building was broken.

So Lord Glasgow gave a little cry and ran to hide his emotion in the lavatory and there when he pulled the plug the entire ceiling, loosened by the explosion, fell on his head.

This is quite true."

There is of course one very important message for civilians and soldiers alike here: bad maths can do a lot of damage. Check your figures!

This is one of a series of articles on lessons from Commando training.  Here is the full list.