Can we learn anything as managers from the 1975 film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail?

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“I am invincible!” said the Black Knight

This British comedy film concerns the legend of King Arthur travelling throughout Britain seeking men to join the Knights of the Round Table in the search for the Holy Grail.  In medieval British legend, the Holy Grail was the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper. Beliefs at the time said it could heal wounds, deliver eternal youth and grant everlasting happiness. Today, it is a term used to describe a goal or object that is elusive and can never be found or achieved.

It is one of my favorite movies which I must admit I have watched at least 10 times and has a cult following. In watching it again last month, I realised that it had some important lessons for us as managers.

  1. The Black Knight. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZmInkxbvlCs)

King Arthur approaches the Black Knight who says: “none shall pass”. Despite pleas to be reasonable King Arthur is forced into a joust, resulting in the Black Knight losing all his limbs in the ensuing sword fight. He refuses all offers by King Arthur to cease the one-sided contest. One of my former business partners refused to accept that a manager was having detrimental effects on morale and profitability, despite being presented with the facts. It was only when the partner went on holidays that we were able to take action and dismiss the manager.

What is the lesson for managers here?

Clearly, the stupidity of the Black Knight resulted in him losing all his limbs. Stubbornness, refusal to face facts, bloody mindedness, denial and continuing poor decision making is not a sound managerial strategy. Managers should be realistic when confronted with facts, however unpalatable.

  1. The Man called Dennis. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-8bqQ-C1PSE).

King Arthur approaches some peasants on the way to a castle on the horizon and mistaken calls one of the peasants an “old woman”. He then makes excuses for not knowing the peasant’s name (Dennis), age (not old he’s 37) or the fact that he was a man.

Can you spot the poor management here?

Managers should make the effort to know their staff. It’s the attention to detail and often the small things that are important and appreciated. I remember witnessing a manager whom the staff had no respect for walking around a warehouse pretending to know their names and be interested. It became a game to get him to call the person the wrong name.

  1. The Rabbit Cave. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TnOdAT6H94s&bpctr=1588724390)

King Arthur and his Knights are directed to a cave by Tim the Enchanter. Inside the cave are the directions to the site of the Holy Grail. The entrance to the cave is littered with bones and is guarded by a killer rabbit. Tim warns the Knights that rabbit is a killer and they ignore his advice. They choose to ignore, they attack, which results in the deaths of several knights.

As managers, what can we learn here?

Why did the Knights attack despite being warned and seeing the bones outside the cave? Because they didn’t listen to advice and ignored the evidence. Often as managers we make these fundamental errors, sometimes because our egos get in the way or we don’t wish to face the facts. When managing a transport business, I remember discounting the option that theft from motor vehicles was occurring in our depot even though the evidence seemed to suggest otherwise. A private investigator proved me wrong

In conclusion, the final lesson is within the film itself. Faced with budget constraints, the use of real horses was deemed prohibitive. Instead the Knights ‘travel’ on invisible horses with the sound of the horses’ hooves clopping coming from the clapping coconuts. The idea came from an old radio technique of  using coconut halves as sound effects for horses. Yes, as managers we should all be prepared to compromise, improvise and find solutions that could be just as suitable and more affordable. In our logistics business we were confronted with excessive waiting costs at a retailers’ distribution centre and could not recoup the costs. After some experimentation initially with shipping containers we negotiated a drop-out system for a van trailer, thereby eliminating waiting time and significantly increasing our returns.

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Is a code of conduct important?

Code of Conduct

‘Don’t violate your own code of values and ethics, but don’t waste energy trying to make other people violate theirs.

Melody Beattie – American self-help author

What is a code of conduct and is it important for a business?

A code of conduct is a set of rules or standards that capture the beliefs and ethics on behavioural expectations in the organisation. There are many types of business codes ranging from financial reporting, conflicts of interest, health and safety, and communication to employment discrimination. A code of conduct sets out a common standard of performance for employees, while respecting the rights of employees and providing a framework for acceptable behaviour.

One of the best examples of a code of conduct is Rotary International’s Four-Way Test for use in professional and personal relationships:

  1. Is it the TRUTH?
  2. Is it FAIR to all concerned?
  3. Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?
  4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

Codes of conduct are linked to corporate or organisational values and the mission statement. A good demonstration of the use of corporate values as a guide for decision-making is this example from one of the transport companies I worked for:

‘If you ask yourself the following five questions and you can answer ‘yes’ to all of them confidently, you should go ahead and make the decision:

  • Will the decision help me exceed customer expectations?
  • Is it respectful to all individuals – customers, suppliers, employees and community residents?
  • Does it further our goal of continuous improvement?
  • Is it in the long-term best financial interests of the company?
  • Can I do it safely and ethically?’

If the answer to any of these questions is ‘no’, then the decision you are about to make is unacceptable.

The values, in the form of a card that could fit into a wallet, were given to all staff so that the values could be referred to when required.

In our logistics business, we had a values statement which was as follows:

‘Customers and employees are our greatest assets. The company is committed to providing the highest level of service by working with its customers in an environment of continuous improvement through the introduction of new technology, superior systems, staff training and development.

Work performance and service quality is enhanced by giving responsibility to supervisors on the shop floor. The flat management structure drives the efficiency and effectiveness of the business. It has enabled the company to react quickly to opportunities and requests from current and potential customers.’

However, the statement did not set out specific values driving organisational behaviour – such as work standards, accountability, being open and fair, or personal interactions and behaviour. It did not summarise what needed to be done – for example, ‘we will celebrate success and encourage initiative’ – and what will not be done – for example, ‘we will not tolerate poor performance or rude and condescending behaviour towards others’.

Why was this important?

Because we did not have these values clearly defined, we could not use it as a basis for managing interpersonal conflict when the business was struggling in one area. The failure to accept responsibility for continuing unacceptable performance by a senior manager  who was in denial, and not having a clear values statement, resulted in an acrimonious and deteriorating situation.  Unfortunately, I did not manage the situation constructively at the time and, out of sheer frustration, I allowed my emotions to override a common sense approach to resolving the situation satisfactorily for the business.

Conflicts within organisations are inevitable. The challenge is to manage conflicts when they arise in a constructive way.

Does your business have a code of conduct?

Does it clearly set out the acceptable standards of behaviour as well as a framework to manage conflict?

For example, does it say ‘we will respect and support each other as individuals and members of the team’ and ‘we will recognise both group and individual results’ and ‘we will not ignore achievements or tolerate poor performance’?

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What is a SWOT?

‘Proper planning and preparation prevents poor performance. ’

Stephen Keague – Irish author

The aim of this section is to explain the benefits of performing a SWOT analysis on your organisation. It is not how to perform a SWOT – which can be found on the internet and in management books – but why SWOTs should be done and who should conduct them to achieve the best outcome.

What is a SWOT analysis?

SWOT is an acronym that stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. A SWOT analysis is an organised list of a business’s greatest strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. It is a planning tool which businesses can use at any time to assess a changing environment and respond proactively.

Here are some important SWOT concepts:

  1. SWOT analysis is part of a business review.
  2. Strengths and weaknesses are generally internal to the business – for example, internal resources and capabilities such as people’s skill levels, business processes and assets.
  3. Opportunities and threats tend to be external to the business – such as the economy, competitors, new technology and suppliers.
  4. Strengths and opportunities are positive to the business.
  5. Threats and weaknesses are normally negative to the business.
  6. The outcome of a SWOT analysis should result in a dynamic action plan, not a static statement.

The major problem with a SWOT is that too often it results in a list of statements for each of the four components. It is not an action plan. This is the challenge for management. Each of the four sections of the quadrant are linked to each other, so a list of actions can be created. These are shown below.

 Figure 6: Four Quadrants of a SWOT

Here are the six questions that should be asked:

  1. Strengths – Weaknesses: What actions can be implemented using the organisation’s strengths to overcome the identified weaknesses?
  2. Opportunities – Threats: What actions resulting from the identified opportunities can be used to overcome or reduce the threats?
  3. Strengths – Opportunities:  What are the actions that can leverage off your organisation’s strengths and take advantage of the identified opportunities?
  4. Strengths – Threats:  Using the organisation’s strengths, what actions can eliminate or reduce threats to your organisation?
  5. Opportunities – Weaknesses: Considering the opportunities, what actions can be taken to overcome the organisation’s weaknesses?
  6. Weaknesses – Threats: What actions are required to overcome the organisation’s weaknesses, to assist in preparing to face threats, both now and in the future?

Action Plans from a SWOT

In answering these questions and forming the resulting actions, plans can be developed which can then become part of the strategic business plan. Performing a SWOT analysis is a vital part of creating a business plan and should be done every 12 months. I recommend conducting a strategy review meeting at least once a year, beginning with a SWOT analysis. In my experience, SWOT sessions should be performed with the management team, preferably with an independent facilitator. The independent facilitator is less likely to have a personal agenda and can impartially manage the discussions. When a new client first meets with me, we normally complete a SWOT session. This session may extend over two to three meetings depending on what is found. This establishes the groundwork for understanding the business and the foundations of a business plan.

In over 15 years in our logistics business, we only performed a SWOT session twice. Looking back, this was a major strategic error. We missed out on opportunities and failed to act on some of our weaknesses. There were many reasons for this, including the reluctance to face the brutal facts, less than rigorous discipline by some partners and reluctance to seek professional external advice and assistance. We did, however, compile an annual budget in which our performance was measured each month but, in hindsight, a SWOT with a corresponding business plan would have been more beneficial.

When was the last time you performed a SWOT analysis session with your team?

Were the resulting plans of action completed?

Did they form part of the business plan?

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Who’s managing the meeting?

Meetings

‘Meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything’

John Kenneth Galbraith – Canadian writer and economist

Each December we send out the monthly management blog early, and not on 21st of the month as is the standard. Here is the December blog:

The quotation by Galbraith sums up what many of us experience with meetings. Are meetings of value and do they contribute to improving the operation of a business?

Value is often an intangible concept. The best place to start when deciding whether to hold a meeting is to calculate the cost of holding a meeting. Using a ‘back of an envelope’ style calculation, add up the costs of salaries and their on-costs in time spent at the meeting, preparing for the meeting and following up post-meeting – as well as travel to and from the meeting and other costs, including meals and accommodation. The cost can be frightening.

Once calculated, determine the outcome of the meeting. For example, if the meeting cost $2,000, did the outcome to the business exceed this amount and warrant holding the meeting? This can give you a benchmark on whether the meeting is worth holding. Never hold a meeting which does not have an agenda that will lead to a clear outcome. The purpose of the meeting must be clear.

I was consulting to a business which held a weekly meeting by telephone, attended by state managers and operations supervisors. The agenda never changed. Literally dozens of key performance indicators (KPIs) were tabled by branch, the managers were often late calling in and took calls on their phones, the meeting chair rarely kept to the agenda, and the length of the meeting varied from 30 to 60 minutes. Action points were rarely completed on time. Furthermore, the business was in financial trouble. Clearly, these meetings were symptoms of what was wrong with the business.

What are the lessons to be learnt from this example?

  1. Tailor the meeting agenda to achieve the desired outcome.
  2. Clearly communicate the aim of the meeting.
  3. Set strict starting times and allocate minimal meeting time for the agenda.
  4. Only invite the right people to the meeting.
  5. Turn mobile phones off.

Meetings can take up to 40% of a manager’s working time – and much of this time is lost in idle banter, people being late, and people using meetings to delay decisions and offload their responsibilities. Meetings are a necessary evil in an organisation, however the number of meetings held and the way they are conducted must be managed with discipline. Otherwise, money is wasted, staff become demotivated, people are not held accountable and little is achieved to meet the organisation’s overall goals. For example, one of my partners in our former business – who was responsible for an operation that was performing poorly – would claim in the management meeting that he would implement a plan of action to rectify performance by a set date. Each month we were given the same story and, unsurprisingly, the performance never improved. This not only affected our profitability but also demotivated others and sent a poor message about accountability.

Most people are motivated when they see things being achieved. Meetings can do this, providing there are strict disciplines imposed on behaviour, procedures and actions while also holding people to account. Performance and outcomes must be measured. Some of the most effective meetings are short stand up 15-minute meetings, where information is disseminated, issues discussed, and time-bounded action points with assigned responsibilities are included.

There are three golden rules for conducting a successive and constructive meeting:

  1. The chair should conduct the meeting in a disciplined and professional manner, keep on track and have a clear aim or desired outcome.
  2. All participants must be prepared, be on time, have a positive attitude and be respectful.
  3. At the end of the meeting, the outcome should be confirmed, action points with deadlines agreed and assigned.

Are meetings in your business meeting these criteria?

How can you minimise the time spent in meetings and the number of meetings, while achieving the desired outcomes for the business?

In conclusion, meetings are good indicators of the health of an organisation. The responsibility of managing and conducting meetings is up to you. They can be vehicles for desired and positive outcomes or, conversely, an opportunity to avoid responsibility and waste everybody’s time and money.

On behalf of the 5-Dimensionz team, we wish you and your families the blessings of Christmas and for a prosperous and wonderful 2021. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year 2020 has been very difficult for many people throughout the world.

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Does your organisation suffer from Komodo Dragon Syndrome?

“Dragons are creatures of legend, but in a world as fantastic as Indonesia, myths become reality. On a small, 22 mile long island among the thousands of Indonesian isles lives the planet’s only living dragon -the Komodo (Varanus komodoensis)”

Extract from Wild Indonesia

In 1910, in eastern Indonesia on the island of Flores a Dutch colonial administrator, Lieutenant J.K.T. van Steyn van Hensbroek received word of a “land crocodile” living on the nearby island of Komodo. Intrigued, he decided to visit Komodo to investigate. He returned with a photo and a skin. The reptile was not a crocodile, but a large monitor lizard. In 1912, it was recognised as new to science and the first formal description of the lizard was published. It became known as the Komodo Dragon, the world’s largest living lizard.

So, what is Komodo Dragon Syndrome?

Komodo dragons are endemic to eastern Indonesia. They are found only on the northern coast of Flores and on three nearby islands including the island of Komodo. The Komodo Dragon can grow to over 3 metres in length and weigh up to 130 kgs. They are territorial, can run at up to 20 kph, are carnivores and have very sensitive forked tongues that sense prey and food, such as rotting flesh kilometres away. With a powerful tail, large claws and serrated teeth they have a fearsome reputation. Their bite is toxic due to the bacteria in their salvia and glands in their mouth produce a venom that prevents blood clotting and leads to unconsciousness.  Known to occasionally eat humans, they predominantly eat deer and pigs, which they ambush and bite, and wait then for them to succumb to their toxic bite.

No, it’s not about a fierce venomous predatory reptile.

The Dutch had been in Indonesia as a colonial power since the early 17th Century with the establishment of the Dutch East India (VOC) Company in 1602. The VOC was one of the world’s first multi-national companies. By 1800 however, due to mismanagement, corruption and fierce competition from the English East India Company, the VOC was bankrupt and was nationalised by the Dutch state.

The Dutch had been in Indonesia for over 300 years and had not found the Komodo Dragon, the world’s largest and most dangerous lizard. Even Lt van Steyn van Hensbroek, the ‘discoverer’ of the Komodo Dragon who was living on the island of Flores where it also lived, went to the island of Komodo to find it.

This defies explanation.

How could such an animal remain ‘undiscovered’ for so long?

This is what I call Komodo Dragon Syndrome, where the management can be so inward looking that something so obvious can be missed.

Perhaps the Dutch colonial administrators were ostrich managers or were so blinded by their colonial superiority and preconceived ideas that they failed to see what was virtually right under their noses.

The message is, to avoid suffering from Komodo Dragon Syndrome, we as managers need to ask questions, be inquisitive and manage by walking around.

Are you being complacent?

Too comfortable in your position, inward looking and missing the obvious?

Perhaps you have Komodo Dragon Syndrome.

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Business plan – why the journey is more important than the destination?

‘A goal without a plan is just a wish.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – French writer and pioneering aviator

What is a business plan?

It is a formal statement of future business goals and a plan for reaching those goals.

In their 2017/18 SME Research Report, Australian financial and business advisory  HLB Mann Judd found a staggering four in five businesses do not have a working business plan. Of those with a business plan, only one in three regularly spends time refining their plan. Similar results were found in the UK  in 2015 in a survey by Barclays Bank. Only 47% of all UK small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) had a formal written business plan.

Should this be of concern?

Yes.

Failing to plan increases the likelihood of failure, whether in business or at a personal or professional level.

What should be in a business plan?

A business plan should commence with a vision, mission and values statement. It should set goals, realistic objectives and attainable targets. These targets should also be stretch targets to challenge management  and include strategies as well as a plan of action.  A business plan is not static. It must be a dynamic living document, providing a mechanism to resolve problems and maintain profitable growth.

What are the benefits of having a dynamic business plan?

Change is inevitable. A dynamic business plan can provide a framework to manage internal change and to  meet the challenges and opportunities of external change. The process of developing a business plan commences with a Strengths Weaknesses Opportunities Threats analysis (SWOT). The SWOT, if performed well, will identify the opportunities and threats to the business and its strengths and weaknesses. My clients tell me the best SWOT sessions should be conducted by an external professional facilitator, who does not necessarily have an intricate knowledge of the business or industry. They are less likely to have internal business agendas or conscious or unconscious biases. The best SWOTs are derived from a well-facilitated process.

How can a business plan fit into the annual running of the business?

In writing a business plan, some of the greatest value is derived from the time spent thinking about the business – understanding its background and the external and internal aspects of the business and industry. A SWOT is a good example of this process.

The next step is to write a business plan. There are many different models and templates that can be used to write a business plan, and the choice of model  is a matter of personal and professional choice. In my experience, the best plans result from a team effort – which includes input from key managers and provides greater scope for involvement and commitment. Even as the business owner or CEO, you may not be  the smartest person in the room.

The ongoing  value of a dynamic business plan is in monitoring the plan. I use the model below  which breaks down the plan into 90-day projects, 1-year goals and a 3-year  vision. This is aligned with the annual budget.

 Dynamic Business Plan

The business plan is presented in manageable and achievable bites, like eating an elephant. At monthly management meetings, 90-day projects are monitored to check progress towards the overall vision. Small projects build towards the 1-year goals, which in turn form part of the 3-year vision. The power of this approach is that those involved can measure the progress against the plan and are therefore more committed. At the same time, financial performance is checked against the annual budget. If circumstances change, priorities can be easily adjusted. With our logistics business, our goal was to be recognised as the pre-eminent provider of floor-ready merchandise services for suppliers to major retailers. When the retailers established distribution centres in Asia, we were forced to change our strategy to providing full warehousing services to SMEs.

Remember: business planning – like life – is a journey, not a project.

Do you have a business plan for one year or three years?

 

Do you a have business risk management plan?

16. Example of Risk Matrix V4

‘The kinds of errors that cause plane crashes are invariably errors of teamwork and communication.

 Malcolm Gladwell – Canadian author and journalist

Being in business is a risk, and it is a challenge for businesses to manage that risk. Risk varies from business to business, from industry to industry and from country to country. Every business will have inherent risks. A business that handles cash, for example, is more susceptible to theft than a quarrying business with stockpiles of raw materials.

What is business risk?

It is an event or situation that has a negative effect on your business. This can range from additional costs caused by the risk to situations that threaten the business itself. Risks can never be completely eliminated. However, they can be managed and controlled.

There are two broad types of risk:

  • internal risks that are primarily related to what happens inside the business
  • external risks where events and actions affect the business from the outside.

As business owners and managers, it is our responsibility to manage business risk. For example, workplace safety is a managerial responsibility and a serious incident can have a substantial negative impact on the business.

How can business risks be identified?

  • The first step is identifying all the risks that could potentially negatively affect the business. Discuss these initially with the management team, dividing them into internal and external risks. For example, in a mining company, external risks could include country or sovereign risk, weather risk, exchange rate risk and economic risk. Internal risks could include operational risk, safety, people, customers, events such as power outages and fire, and reputational risks.
  • The second step, after identifying the risks, is to assess each of the risks. In my experience, the most effective method is to develop a risk matrix where severity or consequence is rated against the likelihood of the event occurring. Effective communication and consultation with the management team and other stakeholders will improve the quality of the risk assessment. For example, involve an expert in IT to help assess the risk of data breaches and system breakdowns.

Risk Management Matrix

  • The third step, after assessing and ranking the risks, is to develop a risk management plan. There is an international standard (IEC/ISO 31010for risk management, which covers identification, analysis, evaluation, monitoring and reviewing risk. This process is very detailed and involves other disciplines such as finance, safety and human resources.

The management of risks falls into four main areas:

  1. Avoidance – eliminate the risk. A good example is decommissioning dangerous machinery.
  2. Reduce – actions that mitigate the risk. In warehousing, where the risks of manual handling injuries are high, place limits on carton weights and have regular ‘toolbox’ safety meetings to reinforce the importance of using equipment safely and reporting heavy or awkward stock items.
  3. Share – transfer, insure or outsource. Some obvious examples include insuring against events such as fire and accidents, and outsourcing transport services to a third party who have managerial expertise in this area.
  4. Retain – accept the risk and have a plan to manage it. In transport, this could include improved selection of drivers, driver training and ensuring vehicles are maintained to the highest standard.

The risk management plan should have the identified risks listed in a risk register. It should include the following:

  1. Responses – actions to mitigate the risk
  2. Contingency plan – plan if mitigation strategy fails
  3. Risk rating – severity, likelihood and residual
  4. Trigger – what is likely to trigger the risk occurring
  5. Owner-manager or person responsible.

Although not all risks can be eliminated – and some risks are inherent in the industry or business – having a plan, monitoring and reviewing the risks regularly, and updating the plan when required is good practice. The collapse of McAleese Transport  is an example of how poor management of mitigating risks can have severe implications on a business and its employees. In conclusion, the risk management plan should include a crisis management plan.

What are the risks in your business?

Can you categorise the risks easily into consequence and likelihood?

Are they in your risk management plan?

So who were Burke and Wills?

“No expedition has ever started under such favourable circumstances at this”.

Robert O’Hara Burke – leader of Burke & Wills Expedition

Yesterday over 160 years ago, watched by 15,000 cheering people, 19 men, 26 camels, 23 horses and six wagons loaded with 20 tonnes of supplies, including 80 pairs of boots, a cedar-topped oak desk with matching chairs, a bath, rockets, a Chinese gong and six tonnes of firewood, left Royal Park in Melbourne heading north. It was the first expedition in Australia to use camels for transport. This was the start of the famous Burke and Wills expedition. Sponsored by the Royal Society of Victoria the expedition was attempting to be the first to cross Australia, from south to north and return. By the second day at Essendon, only eight kilometres from Melbourne, three of the six wagons had broken down.

It was the best equipped expedition in Australia’s history, sponsored by a Victorian Government, flush with the wealth from the Gold Rush, and the Royal Society of Victoria. It was led by an Irish-born police officer, Robert O’Hara Burke.  Initially the second in command was George Landells, but he left the expedition less than two months later following disputes with Burke, so, William John Wills replaced him. The first night, Burke rode back to Melbourne to see Julia Matthews perform at the Princess Theatre as he was infatuated with her. It is alleged that Burke’s main motivation for leading the expedition was to win Julia’s heart and her mother’s approval. It took the expedition two months to reach Menindee in western New South Wales, even though it took a mail coach just over a week to make the same journey.

Burke, following a questionable army career where alleged gambling debts meant he had to resign his commission, joined the Irish Constabulary. When dissatisfied there, he boarded a ship for Australia. With the Gold Rush in full swing and the resulting chaos, and a shortage of police he managed to secure a position as a Police Inspector. He gained a reputation as an eccentric, a gambler, a risk-taker, and a strict disciplinarian with a “talent” for getting himself lost. Through connections and lobbying Burke somehow got himself appointed as the leader of the expedition. Burke had no knowledge or experience in managing an expedition and had never travelled in the Australian Outback. Wills in contrast, was a surveyor and scientist and was considered by his friends as dependable, rational and intelligent.

By June 1861 over eight months later, nine of the original 19 men had died, including Burke and Wills. When it became apparent that the expedition was in trouble, four separate expeditions went into the Australian interior and not one person lost their life.

So, what went wrong?

It was obviously a well-equipped expedition, backed by a government and a Royal Society.

By the time the expedition reached Cooper’s Creek in central Australia, the outer limit explored by Europeans it was early summer. The sensible action would have been to wait until after summer when the severe desert heat had subsided. However, Burke decided to make for northern Australia with three other men to beat a rival expedition from South Australia, led by John McDouall Stuart. Burke instructed a party to wait behind for three months. In the searing summer heat, the expedition walked up to 30 kilometres a day until they reached the north coast of Australia. By then, the animals and men were exhausted. Instead of spending time recuperating they headed back, not before letting some of the camels go which could have been used as food.

On the return journey, the men became exhausted and began to run out of food. One of the men, Gray died, and they began to eat the remaining camels. By the time they reached the Cooper’s Creek depot over 4 months later, the depot party, who were starting to suffer from scurvy had already left, ironically in the early morning of the day they arrived.  Malnourished and exhausted they were too weak to catch the depot party heading south. The survivors’ meagre supplies soon ran out and despite trading their fishing gear for some fish, they failed to befriend or observe how the local the local aboriginals were able to hunt and gather food. Burke had little respect for the local people and in one incident fired over the heads of some aboriginals who tried to offer them food. Just over two months after arriving at the depot, both Burke and Wills died of starvation. Only King survived. He was taken in by the local Aboriginals.

What management lessons are there for managers in the failure of the Burke and Wills expedition?

Here are three lessons I think we can learn from Burke and Wills.

  1. Leadership – the lack of sound leadership often leads to failure. Clearly Burke was a brave man, clearly irrational and mentally unfit to lead such an expedition. Moreover, bravery is not an alternative to experience and leadership.
  2. Planning – there is no substitute for sound planning. Right from the start the expedition was poorly planned. It had too much equipment, much of it not needed. Travelling in the Australian Outback in summer with its extreme temperatures was ludicrous. Furthermore, Burke had no bush skills and left a trail of confused orders and wasted equipment. The 20 gallons of lime juice to prevent scurvy was dumped early in the expedition leading to the depot party suffering from scurvy. In contrast explorer John McDouall Stuart, Burke’s rival in crossing Australia was an experienced bushman. He carefully planned and after several exploratory expeditions in previous years, successfully crossed Australia in 1862
  3. Bureaucracy – Governments and bureaucracies do not lead to the most appropriate outcomes. Flush with government money and with issues of egos, arrogance and prestige, the Royal Society selected an expedition leader who was clearly unsuited for the job and who purchased inappropriate equipment. For example, why would you need six tonnes of firewood, a bath and cedar-topped desk?

If you are interested in learning more about the expedition, I recommend the following book:

“The Dig Tree”, by Sarah Murgatroyd 2002

A lesson in taking information at face value.

“Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please”

Mark Twain – American author and humorist

Many years ago we were staying with some distant relatives in the Orkney Islands. Our visit became a lesson in not taking alleged ‘facts’ at face value.

Over a few drinks we were asked: “Have you heard of the island of St Kilda?”

No.

This sparked our interest as at the time we were living in the Melbourne bayside suburb of St Kilda. The local Australian Rules Football club were called ‘the Saints’ with a saint as their emblem.

Was the suburb named after a Christian saint?

No.

St Kilda is a group of wind swept, isolated and now uninhabited islands in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. The main island of Hirta, until 1930 had been inhabited for hundreds of years and was a breeding ground for millions of seabirds, from gannets, puffins to fulmars.

It appears that the word St Kilda is derived from the Norse or Vikings ‘sunt kelda’ meaning ‘sweet well water’ and was not named after a Christian saint. I could guarantee that very few if any St Kilda Football Club supporters would know that there was never a saint called St Kilda.

Our relatives gave us a book to read about the history of St Kilda. It was a fascinating story about a group of islanders who had a hunter gatherer lifestyle. During the summer and spring months the men gathered sea birds, collecting them for feathers for pillows and bedding, and oil to sell to the occasional passing ship.  They clambered up and down the 300 or more metre cliffs in bare feet – assisted by large prehensile toes allowing them to climb on the cliffs more easily.

Was the suburb of St Kilda named after the islands of St Kilda?

Not exactly.

In the 1840s a trading ship called ‘The Lady of St Kilda’ was anchored in Melbourne for many months. The area was referred to locally as ‘The St Kilda foreshore.’ Legend has it, that the then Governor La Trobe named the new village St Kilda.

Not from a Saint, or an island but a ship.

However, the ship had a link to the islands of St Kilda. The owner of the ship, Sir Thomas Dyke Acland named the ship to commemorate a visit to the island of St Kilda by his wife, Lydia, in 1810. Acland had named the vessel in honour of Lady Grange, the wife of a Jacobite Noblemen, who in 1734 who was about to reveal her husband’s treachery. She was imprisoned on St Kilda for 17 years. It is hard to imagine how the noblewoman endured years of living alone in extremely primitive conditions in a stone dwelling with an earthen floor, amongst a small local population who spoke no English (the islanders spoke Gaelic) in the island’s harsh climate and lifestyle.

What are the management lessons from the St Kilda story?

As managers we should never accept things at face value as what are believed to be ‘facts’ may not be true. This could affect how we effectively manage the many situations that arise in the course of our managerial responsibilities. Furthermore, it is important to be curious, do your homework and ask questions.  Looking back on my career, at times I certainly have been guilty of not heeding this advice.

If you would like read a book about the history of St Kilda (not the Australian Rules Football Club), the book below is recommended.

“Island on the Edge of the World: The Story of St. Kilda,” by Charles Maclean

Are you chasing field mice or antelopes?

Lion anetlope

 

“A lion is fully capable of capturing, killing, and eating a field mouse. But it turns out that the energy required to do so exceeds the caloric content of the mouse itself. So a lion that spent its day hunting and eating field mice would slowly starve to death. A lion can’t live on field mice. A lion needs antelope. Antelope are big animals. They take more speed and strength to capture and kill, and once killed, they provide a feast for the lion and her pride. … So ask yourself at the end of the day, ‘Did I spend today chasing mice or hunting antelope?’”

Newt Gingrich – speaker of US House of Representatives

What is Gingrich’s underlying message?

Certainly, the Pareto Principle or 80/20 rule is implied in this quotation . However, there is another message for managers and business owners here, that is to focus with discipline on the issues that provide the best return for your resources of time, money and expertise. The danger is business failure, as explained by Michael E Gerber in The e-Myth Revisited – Why most small businesses don’t work and what to do about it. This is where a business owner and manager who understands the technical nature of the business but does not understand the business is likely to fail. In summary, they do what they are comfortable in doing and what they know, not what they should be doing.

Jim Collins in his book Good to Great: Why some companies make the leap and others don’t, describes how a ‘culture of discipline’ is evident in successful companies. This begins with disciplined leaders who display empathy, personal humility and intense focus. They do not suffer from ‘I’ strain and rarely appear in the media seeking celebrity. Before purchasing our logistics business, I worked for a privately-owned transport company. In an industry that was known for its larger than life personalities who courted the media, the owner was virtually unknown. He ran a highly successful business which was far more profitable than many of the publicly listed companies in the industry. He was extremely disciplined in strictly adhering to his market niche which enabled higher profits and greater customer service.

In another example of discipline, I managed a large division of a transport business in a large regional centre where the managing director was passionate about truck safety. This involved vehicle journey’s being monitored by on-board computers to prevent speeding, exceeding mandated driving hours and excessive idling as it wastes fuel. If drivers exceeded the speed limit by 5% in a week they were disciplined and if this occurred three times within 12 months the driver was terminated. Like the lion it was targeting the areas that significantly affected the successful operation of the business. Each week the performance of the trucks and drivers was given to me to action. I decided against the advice of my peers to post the results on the drivers‘ notice board.

Did the drivers react negatively to being compared to others as I had been warned would occur?

No.

Instead each week many of the drivers would compare their performance of their vehicles and themselves. Some drivers would personally seek me out to ask if there were problems with their vehicle and why for example their vehicle had appeared to be idling excessively. They became self-disciplined team members who were more accountable and didn’t need to be micro-managed. Fuel economy improved and more importantly our accident record was the best in the business despite having drivers’ company-wide who travelled the most kilometres each week. Within the ‘safety framework’ a culture of freedom and responsibility had developed.

For a business to grow or change in a positive way, the discipline required must be where consistent behaviours align with achieving the organisation’s goals. Note the words – “discipline” and “consistent”. The aim is for consistent productive goal-oriented behaviours to become habits. Habits once formed become entrenched, however they must be right habits and they must align with the organisation’s vision and goals. In the drivers’ example, safety and performance became a habit. With the niche transport company, the discipline was only remaining in its narrow market niche. Both examples required disciplined people acting in a disciplined manner, demonstrating that discipline must start at the top.

Here is another example. I was engaged to undertake a business review by a niche logistics business which had suddenly begun losing money. Determining the prime reason was relatively easy; the business had lost a major customer who had contributed the majority of their previous profits. This was only a symptom of what was wrong. A walk through their numerous warehouses provided some answers. The warehouses were dirty, stock was not in the correct locations and staff were inadequately supervised. Management was focussed on managing day to day crises, were not enforcing operational disciplines, rates had not increased in several years and customer service was inconsistent. Classic chasing field mouse behaviour.

The business review formed the basis of a new business plan. New benchmarks for performance were established and a renewed commitment to improving customer service was implemented. This was underpinned by imposing operational disciplines in the warehouse following consultative meetings with staff. Several managers and supervisors exited the business and a new general manager and senior management team were appointed. In the first year the company made a modest profit. In the second year, profits exceeded expectations, revenue grew through targeted strategic sales in the business’ market niche, prices increased, unprofitable customers were forced from the businesses, a warehouse was closed and new leases with more favourable terms were negotiated. This was a good practical example of what Jim Collins describes in his book, Good to Great: Why some companies make the leap and others don’t; disciplined people – first who; then what, disciplined thought; confronting the brutal facts, and disciplined action; a culture of discipline.

Being a successful business owner, leader and manager requires discipline. Lack of discipline manifests itself physically in examples such as untidy and dirty warehouses, poor telephone manners and uninspiring first impressions.

What are the antelopes you should be hunting in your organisation?

Have you identified the field mice?

Is it clear to others in the business?

Do the antelopes align to your vision, values and goals?

Discipline in the areas of accountability, teamwork, and attention to detail are required. Disciplined leadership is defined by is defined by sound habits, rigour, consistency and routines. A disciplined environment assists in putting both management and employees on their best behaviour leading to improving productivity and profits.