All posts by Louise McGregor

I am the founder of Fantail Consultancy, created to help companies, NGOs and individuals improve their online presence. I've worked in digital at the intersection of communications, technology and business for more than a decade. And I'm still crazy about digital.

Just Stop Putting Public Content Behind a Paywall

Just Stop It; annoying internet
Newspapers are struggling to make money online, so paywalls make sense I get it.

But if your whole story is about a couple of tweets then that story does not belong behind a paywall. Here’s what inspired this post.

A story came up on facebook, I clicked on the link and saw this;

From the story description and preview I could find enough keywords to find the story on Yahoo.

I could also find the original tweets;


and then JK Rowling’s genius response which I think is probably what attracted the Telegraph to report it; screen-shot-2016-10-12-at-16-33-25

I do pay for a couple of online subscriptions, where the content is extraordinary, quality, original, researched and well-written. This story is none of those things, it’s a witty aside to the real news. Telegraph did not create the content, it’s not unique to them, they have no ownership rights to it, but feel entitled to put it behind a paywall. Just stop it.

How to Fly a Horse


How to Fly a Horse; The Secret History of Creation and Discovery

Kevin Ashton

Who discovered how to cultivate vanilla?  How did the American Airforce develop jet engines in a matter of months?  Why does Woody Allen (almost always) avoid the Oscars despite almost two dozen nominations?

This book is a collection of lessons about creativity with a myriad of examples – some of which will be familiar and some of which you won’t have heard of.  It begins by attacking the myth of creativity, the very pervasive idea that creativity is the province of a certain type of person, that creativity is a gift, an amazing flash of inspiration.  Instead he posits, with significant evidence, that creative thinking is in everyone’s reach, in fact it’s just thinking. We only get to call it creative when we see the results.

creative thinking

While we’re all possible of thinking, and of generating creative results the outcome, or rather the impact may vary. New ideas aren’t believed, our own cognitive biases make us favour the status quo. It takes the remarkable persistence of someone like Judah Folkman, whose work on blood supply to tumours is now considered a breakthrough. But for more than ten years he pursued what his colleagues considered a “dead end”.

In order to move our opinion away from the status quo we need extraordinary, convincing evidence.

evidence for new ideas

The challenges to creativity and inventiveness grows as organisations grow and compliance becomes more important. But the history of the development of jet engine at Lockheed Martin offers an example of how creative results can be supported within an organisation; it took leadership, a dedicated team in their own environment, a clear goal, freedom to challenge the status quo. They benefitted from an existing culture of “show me”, so an inventor can convince their colleagues by showing their idea works rather than endless discussion. (In another chapter Ashton laments time wasted in meetings with discussion)

The book is worth reading for the histories of inventors and creativity alone, but it goes beyond that in encouraging everyone to practise their creativity, setting out the work needed, and showing the challenges you’ll face. passion fuels creativity

How to Fly a Horse was awarded a “best business book” award earlier this year, however to me the specific applications for business seem less than those for individuals. I would recommend this book for anyone who feels “stuck” in their creativity.


Zombie Project


If you’ve ever been in a project that limps along with extended deadlines, never taking off but never quite failing you may have been on a zombie project. I admit I’d never heard the term until a friend used it in a bit of a rant recently.

Projects are started with the best intentions; a good idea, a business reason, feasibility analysis, management sign off and resources allocated.  Some projects never really take off and make the expected progress, for a multitude of reasons – I’m sure you’ll recognise one or two of these;

  • a change in the business environment affecting the company’s finances or priorities
  • a competitor does something unexpected
  • management support dwindles
  • technology doesn’t work as planned
  • a key stakeholder withdraws
  • legal/regulatory/risk concerns start to slow progress and/or outweigh the project’s potential benefits.
  • competing priorities from other departments/teams

Often the momentum of a project will carry it on through some of these setbacks and it will go on to be successful – even if it’s delayed. Sometimes the delays accumulate and the momentum drops, progress meetings become further apart with much less to report. But the optimism behind the initial idea makes it hard to kill the project and it lives on in a strange half-life – your project just became a zombie.

We’re good at ignoring bad news, and bad at acting on what, to an outsider, might seem obvious. Our initial optimism and emotional investment in the idea make us reluctant to point out when something is not working. In addition failed projects have a way of being penalised when it comes to performance review time.

However zombie projects consume resources, and therefore have a drag on the companies bottom line. Logically companies will want to review their project portfolio and kill any zombie projects. One way to do this is to hold a “zombie amnesty”, where projects are reviewed and if they no longer promise value to the company are killed. In one HBR report a company found 20% of its IT projects fell into this category. For this to be successful you will need;

  • transparent criteria for the assessment of each project, you should ignore sunk costs and look at the cost and benefits from today
  • an independent reviewer or review team, it’s hard to be objective from inside the project
  • a “celebration” of the projects that are closed, you need to communicate the reasons for stopping the projects, and the benefit to the company as part of the no penalty clause and as a way to encourage future zombie killings.

In your assessment you may find some projects that are languishing on the border of the zombie zone but they have potential to provide value. You then have a choice to kill or relaunch.

Don’t relaunch just because there is value, check all the issues that led to the project failing. Change it up, add resources, tighten the governance, get a new – more demanding – executive sponsor. It needs to feel like a new project.

If the project is killed it may be resurrected in a shiny new form in a year or two. Try not to be the person that says “we tried that already”, but examine it as a new project.

I’ve talked about this from a manager’s perspective, but I promise you the people on the zombie projects already know that their work isn’t valuable to the company. If you can edit the projects and focus on the ones that will provide value they’ll thank you for it.

From the perspective of a project team member try to avoid these projects, they’re draining and will never reflect well on you. If it’s unavoidable then be brave enough to call time on the half-dead.


Image: Businessman Zombie  |  Lindsey Turner   |   CC BY 2.0 


Mental Health at Work

Mental Health

Yesterday was International Mental Health Day,  sponsored by the World Health Organisation (WHO).  This year the focus is on psychological first aid, WHO points out that in times of crisis it’s not just physical help that will be needed but also psychological support. I think they’re thinking of people working in the field and addressing the immediate aftermath of a crisis, however we will see people who have encountered crisis in the workplace, we need to learn some of the same skills.

I’ve worked with people who have been dealing with some personal crisis, suffering from “burnout” or who have diagnosed mental illness. I’ve come up with some “rules of engagement” that work for myself.

  • confidentiality
  • listen
  • ask for clarification, but don’t ask for more than the person is willing to share.
  • comfort in; dump out (within the bounds of confidentiality)
  • keep contact even if the person is struggling
  • allow person space for their own thoughts
  • bring the person’s attention back to work
  • be aware of my own limits and don’t be afraid to set boundaries for my own self care (this is hard as it feels selfish)

This is a pretty close match to the UN’s own guidelines, which validated my instincts.

How does this play out?

When you’re a manager and someone in your team is suffering from burnout you have to listen to them. You don’t explain or justify it. You believe them.

When a colleague who has mental health issues confesses to a history of abuse, you don’t tell anyone else – even if it becomes apparent that other people also know.

When a New Arrival in your country starts working with you don’t introduce him to everyone as a refugee – that’s just an immigration label and it invites the question “how did you get here?” Introduce someone by their name and the role they’ll perform. Let him/her talk about how they got here when they’re ready. Which may be never.

There are thousands of new arrivals who will become our colleagues, there are people who already have PTSD, sufferers of depression and other mental illnesses. We may all need psychological support through tough periods in our own lives.

Take the time to think about how you can help, think about how  you would lead your team in supporting someone who was struggling. If you see someone struggling, reach out, invite them for coffee and a chat… and keep the invitation open if they’re not ready right now.

Image: Thoughts  |  Derek Bruff  |  CC BY-NC 2.0

Where Did the Honesty Go?

2016sept_honestyOn Thursday afternoon last week I went to take some money out of an ATM. I had to wait in a queue, but when it came to my turn I saw that the person ahead of me had forgotten to take the cash with him.

I took it, and turned looking for the guy, who had by then crossed the road. I shouted, but my voice was lost in the traffic. I made my transaction and raced after him on my bike. I couldn’t find him and after about 15 minutes I gave up and went home.

It wasn’t a small amount, so I contacted the bank via a twitter DM. Based on that discussion I went into a bank branch on Friday to hand in the money. I had to wait. No big deal, I simply read a book, until a very grumpy man began shouting at me (not kidding), I didn’t understand what his problem was but offered to move “Yes move” he shouted. I moved, other customers were as astonished as I was.

It was pretty busy, and the bank staff came to check on what everyone needed as a sort of triage to help people faster. I explained; “Please wait” I was told

I waited.

My turn at the desk came, and it took a phone call and a bit of searching to figure out what to do, apparently this is not a usual situation. I gave them all the info I could, including my own transaction information so that they might be able to track down the poor guy who missed out on his cash.

The bank gave me a small thank you gift in appreciation – super kind of them and certainly not expected.

Now here’s the bit that really struck me. Everyone I encountered was surprised at what I was trying to do. The initial messages on twitter begin with “Wauw” (Dutch for “wow”), the clerk I spoke to reported that the previous customer had heard my statement and commented that “she’s still here having been yelled at trying to do the right thing – we need more people like her”, the clerk herself thanked me and when I said it was what my mother taught me added “we need more mothers like yours”.

Here’s the thing; the money wasn’t mine.

A million years ago I found a watch on a public path, my parents took me to the local police station to hand it in. Some months later the watch hadn’t been claimed and it was returned to the finder – ie; me. I don’t remember what happened to the watch after that, it was a large, man’s watch and not really my style. But the lesson was learnt, if it’s not yours you don’t just take it, you try to get it back to the owner.

So I tried to return the money, and apparently this is so unusual that people are surprised. It’s the honest thing to do. Indeed to me it was the only thing to do.

Does this mean that any of those other people would just have taken the money? Would you have taken it?

Do we really need my mother out there teaching people about being honest and not taking things that aren’t theirs? She’s up for the job I promise you.

When did honesty become so surprising?

Image: Untitled  |  Jane Cockman  |   CC BY-NC 2.0


Sept2016ExternalitiesI did just one university course in economics and learning about externalities was pretty much my favourite thing. Suddenly it explained a bunch of things that are wrong with how consumerism works. I still see externalities behind a number of environmental, business and humanitarian issues. In fact globalisation and our use of digital make things worse rather than better.

A quick definition; an externality is a consequence of an economic activity experienced by someone else. The consequence could be positive or negative.

The most common example of a positive externality is the beekeeper who benefits from the neighbouring orchard. Since both parties need each other this seems closer to a symbiosis in biological terms but for the economists it counts as a positive externality.

A common example of negative externality is rubbish; in the above picture the rubbish has a negative impact on the environment, on any business relying on the environment. However the neither the producer of the containers, the restaurant packaging it’s food, nor the consumer making the purchase and dumping the packaging take responsibility for disposing of the rubbish and the cost of clearing it will probably fall to a government entity.

We, as a society, try to limit externalities by putting rules in place to limit the effect, and by providing services – well placed rubbish bins on a beach for example. All of which is funded by taxpayers. This more or less works on a local level.


On a global level it doesn’t work out so well.

My mobile phone was probably manufactured in China and used components or elements extracted in a dozen other countries. Some research indicates that up to 50% of the pollution from a phone production occurs at the first step. There’s a long and complicated chain of manufacture but I’m pretty sure zero eurocent of the amount I paid for the phone made its way back to the mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo where coltan.  (Oh wait, I paid nothing for my phone.)

Digital World

Our digital world is creating brand new externalities we haven’t thought about.

Yep, the Pokemon craze is laden with externalities, that’s why museums, locations, city councils, traffic controllershealthcare officials and governments are making a fuss.

In the Netherlands one tiny town, Kijkduin, has been somewhat over-run by Pokemon players, they’re trying to get Niantic to change the game to reduce the number of Pokemon in the town, they’ve found the numbers overwhelming, and there’s a risk to a neighbouring nature area. The town has already put up more toilets and rubbish bins to cope with the crowds. The cost of that is an externality. It’s a cost the small town is paying for the consequences of Niantic’s popular game.

If I were organising events in the town with such a large attendance I’d need a permit, there’d be a fee, and I’d be the one paying for security and clean up.

So when globalisation and digital collide the potential externalities grow, and right now we don’t seem to have a good way of handling them.
Image: Pollution 2  |  Kim Etherington  |  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

How Dumb are Those Rules?

Law books - company rules

I’m not a fan of bureaucracy, I try to avoid, reduce or eliminate it when it’s in my power to do so. However I’ve also worked for large companies where a certain amount of bureaucracy is inevitable and I’ve worked in regulated industry where the regulation is there there for a reason; to protect the health or the finances of customers.

So when I came across and article that talked about 10 dumb rules that make your best people quit I was initially cheering.  But some of those rules are there for a reason; sometimes the reason is the law and sometimes it’s a real risk and sometimes it’s just that not everyone is honest. So I decided to unpack the rules further think about the reason companies put such rules in place and discuss how there might be a different way to work with such rules.

1. Dumb rules for hiring.

This is a lament about the black hole a resume goes into when you apply for a job. I absolutely agree with this, the process used by many companies is so disrespectful. It is not difficult to make a humane process for handing job applications, whatever the size of your company.

  • Respond to every application; since applications are made online this is an email. It can be a standard email for those who don’t make the shortlist.
  • When people make the shortlist or the short-shortlist and have been unsuccessful at the interview stage send a personal email saying what was missing.
  • Be clear about the decision timeline and stick to it.

My best recruitment experience was one where I did not get the job.  Since then I’ve tried to follow that example – that might be a separate post for a later date.

2. Dumb rules for performance reviews

“Performance reviews are a waste of time. Brilliant and talented people deserve better than being slotted into some bureaucratic five-point scale once a year.” begins the complaint on performance reviews. I agree, but performance reviews aren’t about feedback.

In a large company you need to find a fair way of distributing the rewards, aka pay rises, and the performance review system is what has evolved to fulfil that task. I have written about performance management before and agree that it’s a flawed system; it’s not always fair, and even when people get good reviews they don’t like the process. Some companies are testing other methods, moving away from rigid review and stacked ranking systems. However all companies need to find a fair way to judge the performance of employees.

I think it needs to change. In the meantime managers can improve the process for teams by giving feedback throughout the year, and by being honest about the purpose of the dreaded performance review.

The article ends this subject with “Trust them to produce, and if they are not producing let them go” it’s not that easy under EU law to just let people go, and I think if you’ve hired someone and they are not performing you have a duty to coach for improvements.

One last reason to have a system that attempts to be fair; lawsuits.

3. Dumb rules for onsite attendance.

Agree. With the tools we have available now onsite attendance can be optional in many jobs. I’ve always agreed to work from home agreements for team members. That trust has been more than rewarded; it’s meant that one team member avoided 6 hours of commuting per week, another could extend time with his family in his home country, and a colleague could help a sick relative. I have never seen any decline in work delivery – if anything the team members feel more dedicated.

I have often connected with the team member via some chat app. Not to “check up” on them, but to emulate the office situation and maintain a connection.

This came easily to me, perhaps because I’m used to working online, for many managers new skills might be needed.

4. Dumb rules for approvals

“Do you really want your best workers to spend their time chasing people for rubber-stamp approvals?”

Oh man. This is one of my biggest complaints. At one company I had authority to make spending decisions on items in the tens of thousands but would have to get a 20 euro expense invoice approved before it was re-imbursed. In another I had a team member based in another country – the CEO of that country organisation had to approve her expenses that were being paid from my budget. (He did, and after the first time it was no issue).

This comes down to regulation. If you’re in a publicly listed company accountancy rules come into play and the company has to double, or triple check expenses and spending to ensure there is no fraud. Even though the company knows you’re trustworthy they can’t actually trust you.

Although I understand the need the approval request systems make me grumpy.  my team used to make jokes and take me out for coffee after I’d been filing expense reports. Perhaps the answer is coffee vouchers for every approval request?

5. Dumb rules for time off

“If a dedicated employee doesn’t feel good enough to come to work, what’s the point in making them drag themselves out of bed to get a doctor’s slip?”

Here’s a win for the European way! I think it takes six weeks absence before a doctor’s note is needed. Absences are monitored, repeat absenteeism is a sign of stress or longer term health issues. But the Dutch system is sensibly generous about this.

6. Dumb rules for frequent flyer miles

The article assumes that this is a reward for work travel, and should accrue to the employee doing the travel. That’s the system I’m used to here, but I have also worked for a government department where we could not legally accept frequent flyer miles. But then no-one could which is annoying but fair. I also know of one company that collates them and reshares them across all employees. Work travel in that company is usually only by senior people and is widely seen as a benefit and the idea that should only accrue to senior managers seems unfair to them.

I’d stick to it as a reward for work travel if I were making the rules, but it’s not a deal breaker in the grand scheme of things.

7. Dumb feedback methods

“I have worked with companies that put complete faith in employee engagement surveys, but frankly I believe they’re a sham.”

Agree. Having worked for a financial services company right through the financial crisis and seen the outcome of annual engagement surveys I noticed that the engagement scores trailed the fall and rise of the share price.

screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-15-10-03Few companies consider the cost of conducting an big scale engagement survey. In a company of 100,000 employees it could be 15-20 full time employee equivalents to complete it (assuming 70% response rate), do you get a commensurate value of improvements?

I’ve worked through the feedback process numerous times, and it becomes so complex and unwieldy that little is really achieved. I think you could do more by talking to people, using smaller targeted surveys, asking for feedback on your sites, and making smaller – more useful – changes.

8. Dumb rules for cell phones

Apparently some companies make staff check their phones in as they enter the company. I haven’t encountered this, although I have been asked not to photograph or record in certain areas of a company. I can understand the need in, for example, the design lab at Apple. But it’s not a rule that shows trust in employees, for most companies it’s overkill.

9. Dumb rules for internet use

I’ve seen Facebook and LinkedIn banned, and in fact blocked from company computers out of a fear of what employees might post. Well it just shifts the problem to out of work hours. A better solution is to talk to employees, make it clear what can and can’t be posted online. Employees can understand that discussing client information, sharing company results early, or dissing their manager might be a problem. Even better give them some good news to share!

10. Dumb probationary rules

Many organizations still have the throwback rule that employees have to be in a position for six months before they can transfer or be promoted”

While I’ve never come across a defined limit I can understand that in general as a manager you want people in the job you hired them for, it’s a pain in the neck to re-hire people all the time. My personal attitude is that if a person wants to move then it’s time for them to move – regardless of my assessment of their abilities or performance. I’m far more likely to recommend someone who has performed well for 18 months, than someone who’s been in the role for 3. But the roles I’ve managed have expertise levels that require a bit of learning. I might feel differently about managing wait staff in a restaurant for example where the skill set is simpler and success is more a question of personality.

I don’t love the bureaucratic rules, but having worked in regulated industries I grudgingly admit that I can usually understand the business need. That makes it possible for me to adapt and find the smartest process that will work for everyone – most of the time. Of course I still get frustrated, but then I take a coffee break and move on to the real work.

Image:  Law books  |  Waikay Lau  |  CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Sponsorship That Makes Sense


What companies choose to sponsor says something about the company’s culture and ambition. Do they focus on sport or arts? Do they go for global events – football, olympics, Formula 1, or choose local events?

In another job I was involved in the assessment of a sports sponsorship, by the time we listed what was available, and eliminated options that were occupied by direct competitors the choice was between three. I think at the global level the decisions are pragmatic and connected to the desired scale.

So what about local sponsorships? Often there’s a direct connection based on the product, as in this case of a man going for the Guinness record on ironing – note the Philips logos in the background. I spotted a local sponsorship recently that got me thinking; the National Railway (Nederlandse Spoorwegen, or NS) sponsors book week in partnership with the Society for the Promotion of Dutch Books (Stichting Collectieve Propaganda van het Nederlandse Boek). It’s a brilliant sponsorship, here’s why.

Connect Company to Sponsor Event

At first trains might not seem to have much to do with books, but millions of people commute by train each day and many of them read. So the connection between taking a train and reading is already in people’s minds, and it’s already a habit. By sponsoring book week NS takes advantage of this existing habit.

If you’re looking for a local sponsorship look for something that connects your brand to an existing habit.

Easy to Communicate

screen-shot-2016-09-08-at-09-40-53I understood the connection with one image of a passenger reading, it’s a very easy connection to make.

If you can’t explain the connection in one sentence or with one image it might not be a real connection. If the story around your sponsorship feels forced, you might need to rewrite the story.  There’s more detail (and examples) of sponsorship storytelling in this great article.

Activation with Benefits

The NS activation includes multiple events; book week, children’s book week and national book prizes. At each event there are multiple events, including free travel with a promoted book, an author signing her book on some trips, exchange of children’s book, and there is a book exchange room at the network’s biggest train station (although that station is being rebuilt – I hope the book exchange survives).

The promoted book is one written specifically for book week, and seems to be a commissioned book – the author for next year’s book week (in March/April) is already known (article in Dutch).

Look for ways to activate your sponsorship that get media coverage – in this case the national book prizes – and local interest – the free travel will appeal to Dutch (OK, I’m pushing the Dutch stereotype here!).

The NS sponsorship is great, what more could they do? I didn’t see them activating on social media, and search today doesn’t find any evidence that they used social media to expand their impact, that may be limited by the lead organisation.

Lessons for your local sponsorship;

  1. choose a sponsorship that has an existing connection to your company
  2. develop a simple story that explains the connection; aim for one sentence or one image
  3. activate to appeal to your audience, and use media and social media to promote your activities in a positive way.

I’m planning to join “Boekenweek” next year, and take the train trip with the sponsored book. I’m still slow reading Dutch so I might need to go all the way to Maastricht.

Image:  Nijmegen trio Plan V-SGMm en VIRM  |  Rob Dammers  |  CC BY 2.0 

Cookie Nightmare


Do you know how many cookies are placed on your computer? Does it matter?

The EU directive from 2011 had companies scrambling to find good ways of notifying visitors about the cookies being placed on their computer and giving opt-out measures. There weren’t good tools around and translating the law into technical requirements was a bit of a nightmare. Ironically it led to the company I worked for collecting more information, as we needed to be able show that we’d responded to people’s cookie preferences.

There are three common approaches;

  1. Implicit agreement
    a warning is placed on a website saying that if you proceed with viewing the website you accept cookies from the publisher, this is most common on information or news sites, it seems to be more common on UK sites than Dutch sites, here’s how the Guardian presents their cookie notification, they also offer a detailed explanation of cookies.
    Screen Shot 2016-09-06 at 09.04.38
  2. Forced agreement the site is blurred out or obscured and an overlay forces you to click ‘agree’ to proceed, this is commonly used on Dutch sites, here’s the Dutch newspaper Het Parool, you only have the option to accept.Screen Shot 2016-09-06 at 09.00.53
  3. Pop-up with cookie options
    This is rarer, but some sites give you the option to choose which cookies you would like to install, usually giving you a choice of three levels of cookies. The lowest level is those required for website function, the next level relates to site measurement or personalisation, and the third level is often the advertising cookies. It’s this third level that mean you’ll see ads from the same company every time you open the internet for 30 days, no matter which page you’re on. The advertiser is collecting significant information about your site visits.

I’ve heard from web experts that the number of people adjusting the level of cookies they accept is low, less than 1%, which makes it seem a lot of work to manage cookies for a very small group of people.

However Many people manage their cookies though browser settings, it’s fairly easy to do in Chrome and Firefox,  and I suspect people really concerned about cookies and privacy take such measures.

When the ‘pop up with cookie options’ is used it’s not always clear how to find the cookie options. One of the most common tools used by companies (who often outsource the cookie management) is TRUSTe, which does give visitors control of their cookies but it’s not easy to see how.

When opening a website using TRUSTe you are presented with a pop-up that talks about “Your Choices” but is designed to push you to clicking on “agree and proceed”.  The little link to the right, that doesn’t look like it does anything is actually where you find the choices.

cookies1Here are the three choices you’ll get.

cookies2Required cookies just let the site function in a sensible way, it means the site will “remember” your language preference for example, sometimes the cookie only lasts for the duration of your visit. Functional cookies provide data on your visit and advertising cookies mean your data is going to an advertiser or media buyer – these are the cookies about which there should be the most privacy concerns.

In all the cases I’ve checked the default setting is for advertising cookies.

I changed the setting to allow only required cookies, and got a warning that the submission would take up to a few minutes.


In fact it took less than a minute – this time.

I think some cookies, like those retaining a language preference, on-site tracking or login details, do not cause any significant privacy issues. Others, the advertising cookies, the tracking cookies, are a potential issue. Yet, despite all the good intentions of the EU directive, only one of the cookie options implemented allows you to opt out of those cookies and that’s not always easy to find.

How do you manage cookies as a visitor? I’ve put a poll up on twitter, let me know on the poll, on twitter, or here in the comments.


Header Image; Halloween Sugar Cookies  |  Annie  |  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Game Changer


I’m going to talk about sport. Since I know so little about sport this may be the riskiest thing I’ve done all week.

The dictionary gives the definition as;

  1.  Sports. an athlete, play, etc., that suddenly changes the outcome of game or contest.

2.  a person or thing that dramatically changes the course, strategy,character, etc., of something:

Link To Sports

I tried to think of examples of things from sports that were genuine game changers. I was thinking of the sport itself not an individual game.

Swim Start;

Once upon a time swimmers simply dived in and swam, breaking the surface almost immediately. Now athletes swim dolphin style underwater – which is faster. The rules limit this to 15m in competitive swimming to ensure the athlete’s safety. But records were broken as soon as this technique change came in.


When I first played tennis as a kid, it was with a racket made of wood. Nowadays they’re graphite or graphite blends, with larger heads and synthetic strings. This means the racquet delivers more power and the shock as the ball strikes is dampened by the racquet. It’s an equipment change and a game changer.

The Fosbury Flop;

in 1968 Dick Fosbury won the high jump gold with the technique now used universally in high jump, the trick is that the jumper’s centre of gravity remains below the bar. In an interview he states that he increased his jump height by half a foot (15cm) in a day. As a comparison here’s what the jumps used to look like, with the athletes landing on their feet on the other side. Fosbury’s Flop was only possible once large foam mats were used for athletes to land on.

Applies to Business

The game changers in sports can be a technique change, an equipment change or a combination of both. Business analogies might be a new business model, inventing a new technology, or exploiting a new technology.

New Business Model

Do you remember the early days of the internet when you used the book mark function of your browser because you’d never find a site again? Search engines were starting to appear, and suddenly in the late 90s Google appeared with a brand new way of searching and an effective revenue model – advertising. Without the business model none of the other search engines could ever have won the internet.

New Technology

If my grandfather could see the power of what I carry around in my mobile phone he’d think it was science fiction. Even my parents are occasionally astonished, they grew up with phones that you called the exchange and requested a number then the operator connected the call. The first mobile phones didn’t do much more than call, but along comes the smartphone and everyone wants one (almost everyone). The inventors of the of both sorts of new phones transformed personal communications. Many businesses were built on their inventions.

mobile phone timeline
(Nostalgia moment; that Motorola on the far left was the first mobile phone I ever used).

Exploiting New Technology

Netflix killed Blockbuster and Videoland by streaming videos – we no longer were forced to leave the house to choose a video. But it couldn’t have existed without the ubiquity of televisions, computers and broadband internet. The transformed the home entertainment industry by licencing and streaming high demand content. They’re in the middle of transforming the content development industry by developing award winning shows of their own such as the House of Cards.

The term “game changer” can be fairly applied to all these examples. In each case the industry was transformed or a new industry was created, the change was big, and the impact was broad. Making the change was complex and there were spin off changes that new companies could exploit – particularly for the mobile phones example.

However when I hear “game changer” used in general conversation it’s usually applied to an improvement. As one article put it “Maybe cloud computing is, in fact, a game changer. Your new HR handbook is not”. Instead we can talk about improvement, change, update, advance, upgrade, progress, revision or development.

Lets save the phrase “game changer” for those inventions, developments and improvements that really do change the game.

Images: Jenga  | Antony Mayfield  |  CC BY 2.0

Mobile Phone Timeline | Khedera | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0