As a manager will the ‘cobra effect’ come back to bite you?

“The best way to increase wolves in America, rabbits in Australia, and snakes in India, is to pay a bounty on their scalps. Then every patriot goes to raising them”
— Mark Twain – American author and humourist

As a manager will the Cobra effect come back and bite you?

So, what is the cobra effect?

During the times of British Colonial India in the city of Dehli, government officials were terrified by the large number of venomous cobra snakes in the city and sought to solve the problem.

The solution?

The government offered a bounty for every dead cobra. Initially the strategy was successful as large numbers of snakes were killed. However, some of the enterprising citizens of the city began breeding cobras as a source of income. After a while, the government officials began to realise that there were too many cobra skins being handed in, so the scheme was terminated.

What was the outcome?

The ‘enterprising’ cobra breeders on seeing that their snakes were worthless, set them free. This increased the number of snakes, wriggling, loose, wild and free in the city making the initial problem worse.

In French Colonial Indochina a similar situation occurred in Hanoi. The colonial officials deemed there were too many rats, so a bounty scheme was introduced. Not for dead rats, but for their tails. Before long, the officials noticed the city was full of tail-less rats. The ‘enterprising’ bounty hunters didn’t kill the rats, they just cut off their tails and released them back into the sewers. There they continued to breed which further increased the rat catchers’ income.

In more recent times we have seen another example of the ‘cobra effect’. In the 1980s, the USA provided money, military equipment and support to the Mujahideen insurgents fighting to overthrow the Russian army and the Marxist government in Afghanistan. One of the insurgent leaders was al-Qaeda’s Osama Bin Laden. With the fall of the government, Bin Laden was provided a base from where to plan the 9/11 attacks in 2001. This in turn lead to the US invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent misery and death that continues to this day.

In conclusion what is the ‘cobra effect’?

It’s an anecdote where a problem’s attempted solution only makes it worse through unintended consequences.

As managers how can we take into account the ‘cobra effect’ in our jobs?

It’s important to remember that there is a section of any group of people who have a tendency to take advantage of a solution that tries to effect how people behave, like breeding cobras or cutting off the tail of rats. This may not be intentional, although it often is. They take short-term advantage of the system, even though it may lead to unintended consequences and more complex problems.

In our logistics business we had a major Australian retailer as a customer. They used our services to manage the opening and stocking of their new flagship store. One of the KPIs for retail store managers was sales per square metre. The ‘whiz kids’ at head office deemed that in-store replenishment storage of stock should be negligible as this reduced the sales per square metre. As a result, insufficient space in the new flagship store was allocated to in-store storage. The result was stock could not be replenished in time by store staff, overall sales decreased, and additional staff were employed to manage stock flows into the store. The new store had to be redesigned and modified. We continued to manage an offsite replenishment warehouse of the retailer until the store was reconfigured. Good for our business, but not for the retailer’s shareholders.

How can you prevent the ‘cobra effect’ on your organisation?

It’s easy to have a bright new idea on paper. First order effects are easy to identify, second and further effects require much deeper consideration and are much harder to identify.

When you have a ‘brilliant idea’, I would recommend you get your best and brighest people together and ask them about the possible ‘cobra effects’ before implementing. An idea can be fine-tuned by spending the time as suggested and hopefully any negative impacts will be minimised.

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Who’s managing the meeting?

Meetings

Who’s managing the meeting?

‘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?

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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Do you a have business risk management plan?

16. Example of Risk Matrix V4

Do you a have business risk management plan?

‘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?

A lesson in taking information at face value.

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

Are you chasing field mice or antelopes?

“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.

If it’s not written down, it didn’t happen!

If it’s not written down, it didn’t happen!

“If it is not written down, it does not exist.”

Philippe Kruchten –  Academic and software engineer

If it is not written down it didn’t happen. Now that’s a big statement.

Does this sound absurd?

Is it the truth?

Many years ago, I was listening to a recording of oral family history. It was claimed by a distant cousin that her father (my great grandfather) met the bushranger Thunderbolt (bushrangers were outlaws and highwaymen) as a young boy. Thunderbolt arrived unexpectedly early one morning on his father’s small land holding in the New England district of NSW. The story goes that Thunderbolt joined them for breakfast and while having breakfast he kept looking nervously out the window. Thanking them for their hospitality he gave them a gold sovereign, mounted his horse and rode off. Not long afterwards some mounted police arrived.  Apparently, this occurred in 1864. When I checked the dates, I found that my great grandfather was not born until 1866 and Thunderbolt was in jail in 1864. Although the event probably happened, it did not happen in 1864.

There is business lesson here that should not be under estimated.

My advice is to write down and record the most important things.

If a legal issue arises, the written word is far more reliable than someone’s recollection. It is important particularly with issues of people management and workplace health and safety.

Let me give you an example.

As a young manager in my mid 20s, I was managing a concrete plant in Canberra. The fleet of owner drivers continuously threatened and intimidated me. It was an unusual situation when looked at through today’s eyes. The drivers were independent businessmen, who owned a concrete truck. This was the same for four other ready-mix concrete companies also operating in Canberra. Despite being businessmen, the owner drivers were all members of a trade union. With the union’s assistance they restricted the number of trucks operating, thereby restricting competition and increasing the rates they could charge.

It was a business cartel restricting competition.  It was not a legally or government sanctioned cartel such as taxi plate licences. The construction industry was booming and the capacity to deliver concrete was restricted, adversely affecting the construction industry. The situation deteriorated to a point where driver’s representative in our business tried to tell us when and to who we could deliver concrete.

This was clearly illegal under the Trade Practices Act. Businesses were not allowed to collude and restrict competition and increase prices. This “arrangement” was adversely affecting our customers. On several occasions I was confronted and threatened. Having some knowledge of the law and knowing that this ‘arrangement’ was probably illegal, when threatened I quoted back that what they were doing was illegal. I then noted it in my work diary.

More than three years after I had left the business, I received a call from the company’s lawyer. The new CEO had decided to use Canberra as a test case to initially overturn the “arrangements” and then use it as a precedent in the state of NSW, to break up the arrangements there. Luckily, I had kept my work diaries and when called as a court witness, was able to quote the times, dates and conversations. The company won the court case and the cartel arrangement that had been supported by the union was quashed.

This outcome demonstrates the importance of recording events, as the diary entries were one of main reasons the court case was won. Too often in business, we are busy and fail to record important events only to find out later, that they should have been. The ready-mix drivers’ case was an important learning experience for me.

Employee issues such as performance management and safety requirements are areas which are important, and discussions and events must be recorded. Our memories cannot be relied upon as we cannot remember dates, times and actual conversations.

The Thunderbolt story illustrates the unreliability of oral history and memory. As managers, writing down important things is not optional. Many of us hate paperwork, however it is an essential part of our job.

What should you as a manager be recording?

Where should you file these records?

Management lessons from the fall of the Berlin Wall…

Management lessons from the fall of the Berlin Wall…

“The Wall will be standing in 50 and even in 100 years”

Erich Honecker – East German head of state, January 19th 1989

Over thirty years ago, the Berlin Wall came down. The Berlin Wall was a guarded concrete barrier that cut off West Berlin from the surrounding Communist State of East Germany. Over 140 kilometres long, it was built in 1961 to prevent East Germans from escaping to West Berlin. From the early 1950s to 1961, nearly 20% of the East German population left the country for West Germany.

On 9th November 1989, with crowds mounting in East Berlin the East German authorities announced the end of travel restrictions and opened up several checkpoints for visits to West Berlin.  Thousands swept through the checkpoints. Soon Berliners from the East and West began dancing on top of the wall and breaking off pieces of the wall. The fall of the Berlin Wall triggered a revolutionary wave that ultimately redrew the map of Europe, bringing down the Iron Curtain and setting millions of people free. Within two years, the Soviet Union and its empire also fell.

For 28 years the wall kept people in, and kept people out, separating and dividing families and friends, dividing Germany and the European continent. Over 5,000 people had escaped over this time and sadly an estimated 200 plus people died trying to escape from East Berlin to West Berlin. No one tried to escape from the West to the East.

My father believed that he would never see the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in his lifetime. I can clearly remember him saying this to us at the family Christmas in 1989. The current thinking at the time was that Communism’s rise was inevitable. Very few ‘experts’ predicted or expected that eventually Communism would collapse, let alone so quickly, and that Russia would lose its status as a world super-power.

What are the three management lessons from the fall of the Berlin Wall?

  1. The power of a vision. On 12th June 1987 US President Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate and demanded “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” His words were largely ignored by the international media. Many so-called foreign policy experts dismissed Reagan’s demand as naïve and sensationalist.

There are few things more powerful for a business than having a clear and concise vision. Amazon’s vision is “To be Earth’s most customer-centric company, where customers can find and discover anything they might want to buy online, and endeavours to offer its customers the lowest possible prices”. Amazon’s current market penetration and size is testament to their vision.

  1. Things can get better rather than worse. The worst-case scenario may not happen, particularly when people put their minds to achieving positive change. Very often we are subjected to negative media stories. We regularly hear people spreading such sentiments inside organisations.

Never under estimate what positive outcomes can be achieved with great leadership and teamwork. Everyday we are subjected to non-positive messages that make us believe our future is not in our hands. Like the East Berliners in 1989, by believing that we can escape from a prison-like environment, whether physical or mental, we can set ourselves free and make positive change.  The dismantling of the Berlin Wall is a reminder of how the seemingly impossible can became the inevitable and if there is the will to make it happen.

  1. Predicting the future is dangerous. Sadly, we tend to lean on so-called ‘experts’ who advise us and write books predicting the future. However, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the associated collapse of Communism caught almost everyone by surprise. We should be sceptical of people who claim they can predict the future.

In the late 1800s The Times predicted that “In 50 years, every street in London will be buried under nine feet of manure”. This became known as the “Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894”.  The invention of the motor transport and Henry Ford’s assembly line production of motorcars at affordable prices changed this ‘expert’ prediction. By 1912, less than 20 years after this prediction there were more cars than horses in London. Furthermore, they were cheaper to own and use than a horse.

What are the 3 concluding messages from the fall of the Berlin Wall?

  • Change is evitable.
  • Things do not remain the same.
  • Whatever you are doing today will not be good enough for the future.

Certainly, the failure of Communism to adapt and change assisted in its downfall. This is the same for organisations. Many of the great corporations of times past no longer exist.

So, what is your business doing to recognise the evitability of change?

What should you be changing so your business not only survives but thrives?

Is an annual budget really all that important?

Is an annual budget really all that important?

“The budget is not just a collection of numbers, but an expression of our values and aspirations”

Jack Lew – US Secretary of the Treasury

Many small businesses (SMEs) do not have annual budgets. In fact, I have come across some multi-million dollar businesses that do not have budgets, including several of my past clients.

What is a business budget?

A business budget is ‘a financial plan and prediction of future revenue and expenditure’. A budget is a goal for the business over the next 12 months.

Why are budgets important?

They serve a goal, or a plan…with 3 main purposes:

  • To forecast income and expenditure, and by extension profitability; (i.e. where are the costs incurred and where does the revenue come from to make a profit)
  • A tool for decision making that establishes a financial framework for the decision-making process, and assists in determining courses of action that can be either planned or unplanned over the year.
  • To monitor and measure business performance, where the actual business performance is measured against the forecast business performance.

In simple terms, all good businesses MUST have an annual budget, otherwise management and staff will not know what is expected of them, or the business.

How should budgets be compiled?

There are two main ways of compiling a budget; top down or bottom up:

  1. Top down is the less rigorous way of setting budgets and is more suitable for very small businesses. Often last years’ results are reviewed, and a percentage is added to revenue and costs for the following year.
  2. Bottom up entails reviewing costs, customers, revenue, sales and other Profit and Loss (P&L) items at a micro-level and determining what can be and what is likely to be achieved next year.

In my experience based on having my own business and on feedback from my clients, bottom up budgeting is the best method. It is important to invest the time in creating a comprehensive and realistic budget as it will be easier to manage and ultimately more effective than top down budgeting.

What are the suggested steps?

  1. Involve the right people, including financial, sales and operational staff. Their involvement will help gain their commitment to meeting the budget.
  2. Ask them for their estimates on sales, production costs or specific projects based on first principles by referring to each line item and customer in the P&L.
  3. Rigorously question each assumption, get agreement and then a commitment from those team members who are responsible for each part of the business. Ask questions such as:
    • Which customers will increase their purchases next year?
    • Where and how can we increase sales?
    • Will we be able to increase prices?
    • How can we reduce our fixed costs?
    • What staff will get pay increases next year?
  4. Use last year’s figures as a guide only, and do not simply make broad estimates from these figures.
  5. Complete the budget and share it with key staff.

In conclusion, the compiling of the annual budget is an opportunity to review and understand the business more thoroughly. A budget provides structure for the next 12 months, imposes discipline and holds people accountable for the business’ performance. What resources are required? How many staff are required? What customers are the most profitable? Where can we reduce overheads and still increase sales?

Overall budgets must be realistic and achievable and should also be aspirational and not too easy to achieve. A budget should have ‘stretch targets’, to ensure the business grows. In all my years in business, I have never set a budget where revenue or sales were less than the previous year.

Is success a matter of luck?

Is success a matter of luck?

“Luck is where preparation meets opportunity”

Jack Gibson – legendary Rugby League Coach

Unfortunately, too often these days we hear, that success is due to luck. Whether in the ‘old’ media or social media we hear the same story line – success is a matter of luck.

Is it really the case that success is a matter of luck?

Perhaps all we need to do is visit Zimbabwe and get an appointment with Dr Mulongo , a witch doctor or In’yanga. We could ask that a spell be lifted to initiate number 9 in list of the problems listed above that she claims she can solve, by ‘removing bad lucky’!

As a dare, on a visit to Bulawayo several years ago, I did visit Dr Mulongo and asked her whether she could assist the Wallabies, the Australian Rugby side to win more matches by casting a spell on their opposition. Sadly, since this visit their performance has deteriorated, especially against the All Blacks.

Contrast this approach with the late Jack Gibson, a legendary coach in Australia in Rugby League from the late 1960s to the mid- 1980s. He was known for his economy of words, and his notable and laconic quotes that showed great wisdom and are still referred to today.

Gibson was totally unafraid of relegating ‘big name’ players who did not perform. As the first coach to use computers to evaluate player performance, he introduced new innovations into the sport of Rugby League from other sports, including American football and basketball. He was a great proponent of careful planning and high levels of fitness and effectively changed the game to become more professional. This led to 5 consecutive premierships with 2 clubs.

During my period of over 20 years in business, there were many times where people considered that luck made it successful. However, I do not believe in luck creating success. Like Jack Gibson, I believe that luck is where preparation meets opportunity. You make your own luck through sound leadership, preparation and hard work.

In the early years we were reliant on one of Australia’s largest retailers for over 80% of our business. We worked hard to build a close working relationship with them, focusing on them as a customer and exceeding their expectations. When they changed their distribution model, introduced electronic commerce and forcing suppliers to prepare their merchandise ‘store ready’, that is picked and packed with an electronic invoice for each store, we were ideally positioned to take advantage of this opportunity.

We worked with the retailer converting their suppliers into our customers. Once converted we worked hard at being ‘customer responsive’ and provided high level ‘hands on’ customer service. The business did not look back and many of these customers remained with the business until it was sold over 15 years later.

What are 3 lessons from this story?

  1. You make your own luck. This is done by being prepared, understanding your customers needs and the requirements and changes in the market place. If you are prepared you are in a prime position to take advantages of any opportunities that may arise.

This is how in the above example we were able to take advantage of the change in retailer-supplier relations.

  1. There is no substitute for hard work. As I tell my children, the only place where reward comes before work is in the dictionary Success comes from preparation, working hard, learning from your mistakes and never giving up.

In this example, when 80% of our business was leaving due to the change in the supplier relationship, our hard work with the retailer gave us the opportunity to work with them and convert their suppliers to become our customers.

  1. Focus on the customer. Customers are the lifeblood of any business. Without them you have no business. Focus on their needs, engage with them, meet them regularly, continually seek out their requirements and constantly remind them that you are looking after their interests.

By focusing on the major retailer who was our customer, we developed a constructive working relationship where they were able to recommend our services to their suppliers.

As a business owner or manager, is your style to believe in Dr Mulongo’s witch craft to ‘remove bad lucky’?

Or is your style more like the legendary Rugby League coach Jack Gibson, where careful planning and hard work leads to success?