The Law of Unintended Consequences

There’s a law in the Netherlands regarding temporary contracts, it says that you cannot have three consecutive temporary contracts with the same employer. The third one should be a permanent contract with all the rights that that entails.

It sounds great in theory.

But the very practical result is that low cost companies simply give two long-term temporary contracts and then don’t renew. However good the performance of the person. This is especially true of call centres and other “low-skilled” work areas.

So rather than protecting workers the law means that many people are now let go, with no redundancy package, into the worst economic climate for finding work in a decade, while the company will recruit new blood and will receive a subsidy to train them.

There’s something wrong there.

Who stays, who goes, who decides.

The news is full of financial woes, failing companies and bailouts. Many of the company recovery plans include layoffs, in the thousands – and representing 5-10% of many companies.

So far the focus has been on the “big picture”, and as the decisions are being made we’re starting to see the effects – on our colleagues. For most it sucks, for a few – a very few – it’s a welcome relief and they can fund a big change.

Who goes?

Who goes?

But how is the decision made?

  1. First in, first out
    It has the advantage of being easy to decide, but may be expensive;
    – long service people will receive higher redundancy packages
    – your company loses valuable experience
    – you may put the company at risk of an age discrimination case
  2. Last in, first out
    Again this is relatively easy to decide, but also has some costs;
    – some of those new people are talents, and you spent time and money hiring them into key positions, presumably because the skills did not exist within the company.
  3. Bottom 10%
    Using the lowest performers based on their recent performance review, it’s seductively simple; but
    – good managers will retrain, change roles or remove the worst performers every year so by removing 10% across the board you may punish efficient (and money making) business units more than inefficient ones.
  4. Who wants to go
    Making those redundant who do want to go has the advantage of removing a lot of personal anguish for both managers and employees however
    – it’s unlikely to be in large enough numbers to meet cost cutting goals (and if it is you may have other, unconsidered problems.
    – if the “volunteers” are in key positions you may struggle to find a replacement internally, or make a case for external recruitment
  5. Anyone the boss doesn’t like
    While I suspect that this is a factor on occasion – perhaps when distinguishing between two otherwise equal candidates for a layoff- it’s not a useful, fair or legal strategy.
  6. Structural
    By analysing the work done in the department/business unit or company, including prioritising tasks you can assess which roles are less critical and make a decision on that. This has the added advantage of removing the analysis of performance or personalities for at least the first steps.

So what is the best answer?

I think a combination; the structual approach to make the high level decisions, possibly inline with any strategy changes that are also required. This will generate a list of positions that need to be removed. Then within each position chose the person who must leave based on a combination of “who wants to go?” and performance analysis.

Short Attention Span

I can’t watch MTV, and my younger colleagues find long movies which rely on story rather than action impossible to watch. So I’d already suspected a shortening of attention span that was due to a “generational” difference rather than aging.

But the newest tools may shrink that even further, and limit the emotional developments of future generations according to an Oxford professor, Lady Greenfield. She points out that our emotional involvement in online entertainment is low, we receive instant gratification, and because everything is reversible we need fear no consequences. Although there are social activities online the sense of anonymity reduces the natural inhibitions that preserve social interactions.

Her presentation has led members of the government to admit that internet regulation is still too limited and doesn’t take broader implications such as the impact on children’s development into account.

But it’s not quite the whole story. For one thing many social networks echo networks in the real world. For example I’ve met and worked with almost all of my LinkedIn colleagues – I choose these criteria for connecting I realise that others are more open.

In one entirely virtual network that I belong to I have ended up meeting some of the people. This has led to some linguistic torture – we tend to date our first meeting to the online event not the “real life event”, and tend to refer to other people in the network as “friends” in discussions with friends in the “real world”. It’s become a strong network, offering support, humour, wise words and occasionally “virtual coaching”. I’ve edited thesis projects for others in the network, and canvassed their opinions on work issues.

Lady Greenfield does acknowledge that legislation isn’t enough, and that the answers lie in education and culture.

I’m somewhat more optimistic, I suspect our human need to connect will beat the potentially isolating effect of technology. It’ll just be faster than I’m used to.

Predicting Success

Looking back at the members of my class at business school it’s not those who were most successful at university who are now most successful in business. Which raises a question; “what was the point of going to business school?”

If business schools are supposed to be fitting us for the business world does that mean they’ve failed? Or did we the products of the school somehow fail.  The skills rewarded by an academic system are not always the skills rewarded in real world business. It’s something also highlighted in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, where he discusses research into the effect of intelligence on success. He finds that there’s a level of “intelligent enough” above which more IQ points don’t have a correlated effect on success. This is what got me thinking.

I recall that some of the students who turn out to be very successful in business weren’t worrying about being “best” at school, although they’re very competitive now that they’re in business.

students may have a different focus

students may have a different focus

They had a clear purpose, to learn “enough” for the real business world, more than that wasn’t a priority – and to be fair some of them were already running businesses on the side. Or perhaps I should say they were running businesses and studying on the side.

The students who did well in the academic system, have tended to move into larger companies, where the environment is more stable (questionable just at the moment!) where there is an established system in which they can work, where following the “rules” is rewarded.

The whole class was intelligent enough, and knew enough about business to be very successful. Both groups are creative, both are a mixture of introvert and extrovert, both contain groups who are good at maths, and not so good at maths. Both groups want to succeed and both work hard. So what was the differentiator?

An article by Kevin Cashman posted at Change This suggests it’s agility; the ability to accept and respond to change easily that is a predictor of success, certainly a better predictor than intelligence. They describe it as an

“integrative ability” to weave together and make sense of apparently disjointed pieces, crafting novel and innovative solutions. At the same time, we need the self-confidence to make decisions on the spot, even in the absence of compelling, complete data.

Looking back this also makes sense, the more successful students did seem to have a higher ability to handle complex and contradictory information – essential in running your own business. They also had the confidence to decide and didn’t look for some external rule. Or as my former boss used to remind me “it’s easier to apologise occasionally than to ask permission constantly”.


Screen Shot 2014-09-27 at 14.16.56Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book Outliers: The Story of Success investigates the real reasons some people become successful and others remain average.

His first conclusion is that sometimes success is an accident of birth – mostly because it means you reach the right age at the right time to take advantage of opportunity. He cites a range of evidence from hockey recruiters to the great industrialists in the US.

He also shows that success is a matter of hard work; he quotes Daniel Levitin‘s work “The emerging picture … is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything”. Which means I’ll never be a concert pianist, or an Olympian, or a world-class programmer.

It’d be tough to look at success without also looking at failure, and he looks at some aircraft accidents and finds that the cause is sometimes cultural – related to how conversations work with figures of authority. Culture plays a part in failure, and success, particularly related to work ethic.

It turns out to be exactly as your mother told you – some people are born lucky, some people are born talented, but the really really successful people work incredibly hard.


I work in financial services, and my company is going through a tough time, with divestments, cost cutting and redundancies announced already. In talking to colleagues I’ve heard some interesting comments.

This was much more fun when we had money to spend.

Too true. Some of the fun projects I had scheduled (involving developing social media for use within the company) are on hold.

It’s easy to look good when you’ve got a big budget; now’s the time the really smart people shine.

True, I’m taking a hard look for where we can combine budgets to get some results – Marketing and HR have some budget if we co-operate we can still get some stuff done. There are some needs from other parts of the company where we can share technology and content. This has to be good for the company.

If I’m smart enough, I’ll shine.

Personal Vision

I’ve just come back from an excellent training course that focusses on personal leadership. One of the exercises was to come up with a personal vision, that encompasses how you will be and live as a leader in the future.

Sounds easy? It turned out to be very very difficult for me, and somewhat difficult for other people in my group.

Finding  your vision may be difficult

Finding your vision may be difficult

I did come away with pieces of a personal vision – I saw my team as successful in our work, and positive in the relationship we have with each other… but I also saw myself writing more, and frankly I don’t know how that’s going to happen in the short term given current workload and the rather turbulent environment in which I’m working.

I also came away with valuable learning, my 360 feedback showed me that there is a lot I am doing right as a leader (very good for my confidence!), some things to improve. The MBTI II was interesting – especially going into detail about how ‘extrovert’ behaviours might be received by introverts. As a very strong extrovert I learnt some tricks I can use to give others more space to speak in meetings, as one of my group members said “save to draft”.

In fact the group feedback was the most useful session, before it began the course leader talked about how in most cases the feedback would be 70% good – and asked us to receive it with that in mind. My group gave me feedback that was honest, insightful and useful; impressive since we’d only known each other five days.

I got a lot out of the whole week, and got a lot of energy from the classroom environment – the point where I’m now looking at how I can be in that environment more often. Perhaps as a group facilitator rather than a student. I can even see how that would bring the two threads of my personal vision together.

Image Goggles accessory /Narisa Spaulding/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Cult of the Amateur

Screen Shot 2014-09-27 at 13.19.28Or “The Cult of the Amateur: How blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the rest of today’s user-generated media are destroying our economy, our culture, and our values” to give it its full title, by Andrew Keen.

As you might expect from the title Andrew Keen is against user-generated content and social media. For him truth should be in the hands of the experts, and reporting is in the hands of journalists. He sees the demise of traditional media, particularly print media and laments its passing.

It’s an anti Web 2.0 rant. He makes a valid point regarding the credibility of bloggers vs news journalists, but ignores that journalists have also been guilty of faking stories and other, unethical behaviour. But beyond that the view is so biased and so limited that it becomes annoying rather than enlightening. There are a number of pencil notations in my copy, next to contradictions in his argument. For example one big complaint is the lack of accountability on the web, yet Reed College also comes under fire for denying admission to a student who had published rude comments about the school.

I agree that there are issues to be solved that most Web 2.0 evangelists ignore, such as the issues of privacy vs anonymity, censorship (necessary to protect children) and intellectual property. But I am more optimistic than Mr. Keen.

My Challenge for 2009

With the global economy in decline, and the financial services more or less freezing the flow of cash that is the lifeblood of small businesses it looks like being a year of challenges for all of us. Looking at my own team (cut by 20%) and my own budget (cut by 20%) and the goals for 2009 (also cut – but not by 20%) we’ll be facing challenges to deliver the quality we’ve built our reputation on. Lucky I have a smart team – we’re starting the year with an open planning session I’m currently working on how to make that as fun and productive as possible – which is pretty much my challenge for the whole year.

I said at the beginning of last year that in my view a great team was one which;

  • delivers on time
  • beats expectations on quality
  • has a strong team spirit

I still believe that, this year we add budgetary pressures, and development needs into the mix. I have a young team, for two of the team it’s their first “real” job. Two others only joined the team this year, so I want all four of them to develop in some way that we agree on. The fifth member of the team is nearing retirement, so I have to balance his needs – and facilitate the transfer of his knowledge.

So my workshop will be about;

  • budget
  • planning goals
  • year planning
  • individual goals (work & development)
  • what do we want to celebrate at the end of the year?

This last is very important, we’re a service team and much of what we do is behind the scenes and often goes unacknowledged. I try very hard to make sure we get recognition throughout the year – it means something to my team members and it helps with discussions with upper management during the year if they’re aware of at least some of what we’ve done.

I’ll be making sure the seniors in my team do some of the presenting, and everyone talks about their own goals. I have to find a fun exercise related to the end of year celebration – I want us to end on a high note.

And we need some jokes, it’s going to be a tough year – it’s important we keep our sense of humour.

Roll on 2009!

Predictions 2009

It’s with some trepidation that I throw a few predictions into the ring for 2009; who could have predicted 2008’s global economic meltdown? Few did although in hindsight the signs were there. Without doubt 2009 is going to be full of challenges for businesses, perhaps especially those in the technology and communications areas.

Web 2.0

There has been a tidal wave of start-ups and social media tools. Without a doubt there will now be a shake out, those with a strong business – producing revenue and growth – will survive. Some will be bought by bigger fish, or merge with others who are providing the same service, others will die. We’ve seen this before.

Start-up money will be harder to come by, particularly in the US and Europe, so new companies are going to have to be cheaper and smarter in how they develop. VCs are likely to want a faster payback and ask more penetrating questions on the business model – not just the technology. We could see start-up money coming out of Asia and NEMA rather than the US.

Big Players

For big companies in the tech space like Microsoft, Google and Yahoo expectations will increase. Microsoft and Google provide a huge range of services to large corporates who are going to want more for the money they have available.

In terms of the services provided directly to customers Google needs to start providing service to the local user or disillusionment will grow – they’re no longer the cool start up and it’s going to get tougher for them.


The technology has advanced, the content had advanced, but so far it’s been early adopters who’ve really benefitted. This is changing,  it’s going mainstream which means that it is generating an advertising opportunity. If this can be linked to location then we can get to micro targeting – and micro searching. Finally I can search for the product I want and get local results.


The web is no longer anonymous. Open standards, services like Sxipper, will develop further to improve authentication on the web. Companies, registration authorities and governments will pressure IP suppliers and other web site suppliers to crack down on cybercrime – forward fee fraud alone made more profit than Disney in 2007. In the past financial services companies have paid up in some cases of cybercrime even when not at fault, but this year they haven’t got any money so I predict a greater fightback from them.

So overall, a shakeout of the proliferation of social media sites and apps – those with a real audience and a revenue stream have the best chance of survival (however good the concept is). Opportunities for real innovation, both from startups and established companies, and bigger demands for companies and customers who are also trying to do more with less in their own fields.  2009 is here;  ready, steady, GO!