Co-Working and Serendipity. It’s just like having Tapas with Strangers

Ultracomida Aberystwyth - Quality Tapas, Look almost gone!

Ultracomida Aberystwyth – Quality Tapas, Look almost gone!

This is a post about co-working, however let me start with something I learnt over the weekend, an essential for your etiquette handbook. When asked; “are you visiting Aberystwyth for anything special?”, DO NOT REPLY WITH, “We’re here to bury my Mother in Law’s Ashes”.

It’s a bit of a conversation killer, stuns hotel receptionists into silence and generally leaves everyone feeling uncomfortable, except the gravedigger. He was cool with it (and the payment in cash). If faced with a similar dilemma just make up some random excuse for being in town, it’s the polite British thing to do.

Back to co-working. I was recently trying to explain the idea of co-working to a friend, who understood, but wasn’t completely feeling the love (fully embracing the economic, environmental and social benefits).

They got that it involves spending your working day in a space shared with complete strangers. They understood that it might be cheaper and more convenient for people who operate as small businesses or sole traders, compared to renting an office or working from home/the shed. The benefits for people who move about a lot and need a working space in different locations, at different times were crystal clear.

All these obvious benefits are summarised here, and in this article about Indycube who operate many co-working spaces across Wales. They are great spaces, full of interesting people, I’d recommend spending some time working at one of them.

Where I felt my friend was struggling was around the ‘intangible benefits’, the unplanned things that happen when; you put random strangers together, get them talking, and see what happens. With Mark Hooper, one of the founders of Indycube, we spoke about ‘serendipitous conversations’. Something beneficial that comes out of what appear to be completely accidental and random events. Co-working perfectly creates the environment for the serendipitous conversations to take place.

Ultracomida Aberystwyth - the finest Tapas in West Wales

Ultracomida Aberystwyth – the finest Tapas in West Wales

Why is Co-Working like Tapas? My unconvinced friend totally gets Tapas. They love the bite size pieces of tasty Spanish food and the sociability of it, mixing with friends over a small sherry or spritzer (darling**). So, how about this, a place where you sit and have your tapas at a communal round table with complete strangers.

This is what I did in Aberystwyth on Friday night, in the finest Tapas restaurant I’ve been to since Santiago de Compostela in NW Spain. Ultracomida serves Tapas in the room at the back of the delicatessen. I have written about the challenges of leaving the glorious A470 and getting to Aberystwyth, but it is well worth the expedition on the A44 across the Cambrian Mountains. Basically there are two large round tables that seat about 10 people each, and a bar you can perch against. It’s worth booking a seat at one of the tables and seeing what happens.

Time will tell if had a serendipitous conversation at Ultracomida on Friday, but I did learn a huge amount about some very diverse topics:

  • How to make ice wine,
  • How Italians make coffee and why it is the best in the world,
  • Why accidents have produced some brilliant innovations,
  • Inspector Montalbano and Italian Municipal Architecture,
  • The beneficial properties of Camel Milk, and
  • Monty Python and The Life of Brian*.

Even my wife, who was initially ‘lacking in enthusiasm’, got around to enjoying the conversations (somewhere in the planning I’d forgotten to mention this wasn’t a ‘romantic table for two’ event).

Hopefully my unconvinced friend will make the connection between ‘Tapas with Strangers’ and the benefits of co-working. At the very least we should go to Ultracomida in Aberystwyth and do a bit of action learning. Perhaps Aberystwyth also needs an Indycube next door?

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. Conversation over food is a good way to share knowledge and information. Someone from Spain told me this week that it helped reduce email volume in their organisation.
  2. Co-working is a great way to have serendipitous conversations.
  3. Could mixing Co-working and Tapas be the next big thing?
Yes, I sat next to Judith Iscariot in Ultracomida

Yes, I sat next to Judith Iscariot in Ultracomida

*Ultracomida in Aberystwyth has a Monty Python Life of Brian connection. The actress who played Judith Iscariot, (Sue Jones-Davies) became the Mayor of Aberystwyth 2008-2009, thirty years after the film had been banned for blasphemy in the town. Judith lifted the ban and had the film shown with some of the Pythons in attendance, and I had lunch sat next to her in Ultracomida about 5 years ago. Good story huh!

** Darling…. my unconvinced friend will get this reference.

I have mentioned Indycube before:

The Listening Boss Starter Pack: Speaking Truth to Power Part3.

IMG_2692How about this, something practical to help overcome the ‘speaking truth to power’ problem: The Listening Boss Starter Pack;

  • A picture of General Custer to hang on the wall,
  • A Jesters Hat,
  • A Trojan Horse paper weight / desk ornament, and
  • A Darth Vader Lego Character (we all like a bit of fun).

You receive the ‘listening boss’ starter pack for every job you get that involves some form of power relationship with other people. It’s perfectly ‘scalable’ so will fit in with any circumstance.

For the ‘bottom rung of the ladder’ Team Leader / Supervisor role it can be a photocopy of General Custer in an IKEA Clip Frame. Hit the big time, become a Director and you get a Golden Frame with an Oil Painting of the General, whatever option satisfies your ego. A Plastic Trojan Horse at entry-level or Bronze Statuette for achieving CEO status…….. you get the idea.

This is not as daft as it sounds. There is some reasoning behind this, the background is explained in two previous posts about shooting the messenger and speaking truth to power:

The important role of ‘listeners’ is detailed in a paper by James O’Toole from Santa Clara University, Old and New Tales of Leadership, Organisational Culture and Ethics. The main points I’ve taken from the paper are:

  • Excessive amounts of testosterone leads to a loss of hearing. I think I’ve seen this situation. The more of a ‘strong leader’ and ‘manly’ you become, the less likely you are to listen to what others have to say. I would argue that this isn’t exclusively a male thing, there are a few ‘non listening’ female leaders about.
  • The need to lead. Some leadership models are based around the idea of a single heroic leader, all-knowing and with excellent judgement and decision making skills.  Asking for help, or a second opinion (or listening too much) could be seen as a weakness of leadership if you believe in this model.
  • Over Confidence, Hubris and Ego. Self belief and confidence are a necessary part of leadership, but too much can spill over into believing you are never wrong and hubris; ‘an over estimate of your own abilities’

So Why the Listening Boss Starter Pack?  The point of the starter pack is to remind the people who gain positions of power that they don’t know everything, and they need to listen. It is easy to say this on executive development courses and leadership training, but the starter pack is a daily reminder. Not the perfect answer, but it might help. You can modify the pack to suit specific individuals, but here are my explanations for the generic version:

IMG_2681General George Custer. The US Calvary Officer is most famous for the 1876 defeat (and his death) at the Battle of Little Big Horn. There is a lot of controversy around the leadership role of General Custer in the decisive defeat.

The James O’Toole paper talks about the CEO of a major American company who keeps a portrait of Custer in his office to remind himself  “of the dangers of over estimating his leadership ability”. You might have your own favourite examples you could use?

IMG_2678The Trojan Horse. You probably know the story of the Trojan Horse, which Greek soldiers used to gain entry into the City of Troy. What you might not know is that it was all predicted by the Prophetess Cassandra, and nobody listened to her. The story is a bit more complicated than that (you can read about Cassandra here) but I’m sure you get the point. The purpose of the Trojan Horse is to remind you to listen to the ‘Cassandras’ in your organisation.

IMG_2691The Jesters Hat. This is all about ‘Lear’s Fool’ of Shakespeare fame. In the play King Lear, ‘The Fool’ is the only person that King Lear will allow to criticise him. An act of ‘speaking truth to power’ that the King tolerates and accepts.The idea of ‘wise fools’ is common in many Shakespeare plays and other literature. However there are potential problems with using a single source to listen to the ‘truth’, the Jesters Hat serves as a useful reminder.

IMG_2682Darth Vader. Finally, the Lego Darth Vader serves the purpose of reminding any new boss of the worst boss ever. The Anti-Boss Model; an aggressive, bullying, poor listener who makes some very bad decisions.

You don’t want to be like this, and the Lego Darth Vader figure is there to remind you.

So, Whats the PONT?

  1. Speaking Truth to Power needs to have someone ‘listening’ if it is to have any impact.
  2. Powerful people can be prone to ‘loss of listening’ ability. They need to be aware of this.
  3. There are a few helpful tools in the ‘Listening Boss Starter Pack’ that might help with continued listening

Desire Paths and Helicopter Dog Walking. Where is the User Centred Design?

Public Sector Dog Walking Service?

Public Sector Dog Walking Service?

Hands up who’s seen the picture of the dog being walked using a helicopter?

Apart from being a brilliantly surreal situation, it often gets used as a metaphor to illustrate badly designed services – usually in the public sector.

Take a simple service delivery objective – exercising the dog: … improve the dogs; health, wellbeing and social interaction. For the wider community; dog walking will help prevent anti-social behaviour and stimulate the local economy through the purchase of dog treats (sorry, I’ve lapsed into Local Service Delivery Plan speak).

You have the basic components: a dog, a lead, a person to direct the dog and somewhere to walk. What could possibly go wrong?

In the public service ‘example’ we get the introduction of a helicopter (for very good reasons) which is: very expensive, complicated to organise, extremely noisy and probably a bit dangerous.

However, if you think like a dog (try to achieve this try licking parts of your anatomy), it’s not as much fun as meandering around the park sniffing trees, lampposts and other dogs bottoms. Hardly an example of user centred design?

Reality is often stranger than fiction. That example is mildly amusing, but totally ridiculous you might be thinking, not the sort of thing that could ever happen around here…..

Twice this week I’ve been out socialising, when people have told me stories about hugely complicated processes being using to deliver a simple service. All the strangeness of the helicopter dog walking was replaced by the mundane nonsense of bureaucracy gone wrong. Not as exciting to look at, but just as excessive and expensive, and in the one case it had a very negative effect on the person.

The helicopter dog walking image is a good way of illustrating a problem of badly designed services, but unfortunately it can be a bit too abstract for everyone to get the message. If you are sitting in the depths of a bureaucracy there is a fair chance you will miss the big picture. You can easily fail to appreciate what it feels like to be the dog (out sniffing things) and concentrate on procuring a helicopter. But how about this, something most people will have seen, and will probably have contributed to, Desire Paths (Caminitos de deseo).

I will not follow the inconvenient path designed by 'Authority'

I will not follow the inconvenient path designed by ‘Authority’

Desire Paths Basically these are the informal paths that people create around buildings, through parks and across towns. They are the way that people actually prefer to use to move from A to B rather than the route that has been ‘designed’ for them. A tweet from Mike Dixon from the Citizens Advice Bureau alerted me to a group on Flickr that share photographs of Desire Paths. I cannot begin to tell you how pleased I am by this, particularly with the description of why Desire Paths exist: “It’s done against the will of some authority that would have us go in some less convenient way”. There is a great deal in that statement that anyone who designs or delivers services should ponder on.

Here are a few Desire Path gems to whet your appetite:

  • The Flickr Desire Paths Group was created in 2006 and has 472 Member who have shared 634 pictures. Anyone can join (I have).
  • The idea has been around a while. Look at the Spanish video below which features people looking suspiciously like 1950’s Town Planners.
  • Caminitos de deseo is the Spanish version, with Oilfantenpaadjes (elephant paths) being used in the Netherlands. Yes, there is an excellent website full of videos, pictures and commentary.
  • In Finland, the people who run parks are known to head out after fresh snowfall to check where people actually walk, so they can put the paths in those places.
  • In the USA, Yosemite National Park officials looked at the informal paths people used to develop the overall management plan for the park.
  • The Wikipedia article says they are also known as; social trails, goat tracks or bootleg trail
  • Sony apparently waited to see where their employees walked before building footpaths at a site. I’m not sure about this one, my wife claims she’s heard about it from me? If anyone knows about it I’d be delighted to find out the detail.

Caminitos de deseo, here is that cool Spanish Video:

Where is the User Centred Design? When you think about helicopter dog walking and Desire Paths there seems to be a lack of thinking about what service users actually require. From what I hear, and read, the lack of user centred design isn’t restricted to these two areas.

No more helicopter, please

No more helicopter, please

But it’s not all bad news, there are reasons for hope. My experiences of co-production and working with organisations like Working With Not To make the think “there is another way”. There is also plenty of material and expertise available on user centred design, particularly from the digital industries, which has plenty of experts in UX (user experience). More on User Centred Design soon, in the meanwhile I’m off to walk the dog, minus the helicopter.

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. The delivery of straightforward activities can be over-complicated if you don’t think carefully about how services are designed.
  2. Service users know how things work best. Desire Paths are a good illustration of this.
  3. Involving service users in the design of services can bring in valuable ‘lived experience’ to get better result for everyone.

Speaking Truth to Power Pt2. Messengers: Sycophants, Axe Grinders and The Brave

Cassandra. Knew the truth but never listened to.

Cassandra. Knew the truth but never listened to.

Stop for a moment and think about this question. “What happens to the people who give bad news, or tell an unwelcome truth to the people in charge?” [PAUSE]

Now think about the question in relation to all of the books you’ve read, all of the films or television shows you’ve seen and all of the stories you’ve ever heard. [PAUSE]

My guess is that for much of what you have read, seen or listened to; these people will have experienced something unpleasant. The previous post about 2500 Years of Shooting the Messenger didn’t end on a high note. In fact, I suggested that ‘shooting the messenger’ was a deeply engrained human activity that has been practiced for 1000’s of years.

In the corporate world, projects that fail due to a ‘failure to speak truth to power’ are just helping to keep an ancient tradition alive. Not my most helpful post. Sorry. I will try to be more helpful here.

The Responsibility of Messengers, Avoid Sycophants and Axe Grinders: If you superficially consider the role of the messenger in speaking truth to power, it is easy to think of the person as completely impartial and an innocent party in the process. This might be the case sometimes, but in reality most situations are much more complicated.

People often have a relationship with the people they need to ‘speak the truth to’. Within organisations the messengers are frequently subordinates in the hierarchy and the ‘version of the truth’ they choose to tell (and how they do it) can have consequences. The consequences can be negative or positive for the messenger, but they will also have an effect on the surrounding culture.

Classic Sycophants and a Cheeky Child  The Emperors New Clothes

Classic Sycophants and a Cheeky Child
The Emperors New Clothes

Sycophants. If messengers are sycophants, this can lead to situations where those in power become conditioned to hearing nothing but good news (and they love it!). You know the type, “I don’t want to hear about problems, just bring me solutions…..” leading to… “only bring me good news…. on a silver platter, with a ribbon”. This might be good for the sycophants, but a bit of a disaster for everyone else.

Imagine the challenge for the person bursting the ‘good news’ bubble. The tale of the Emperors New Clothes and the ‘cheeky child’ who speaks truth to power is well-known. The ‘Cheeky Child’ isn’t however common in lots of organisations, in fact many new starters are advised to; “keep quiet until you learn how things work around here”.


Hades from Disney's Hercules  A serious Axe to Grind with the Olympus bosses

Hades from Disney’s Hercules
A serious Axe to Grind with the Olympus bosses

Axe Grinders. This is tricky. There is a blurry ‘speaking truth to power’ spectrum that covers: pointing out things that have gone wrong, raising serious concerns, being a whistleblower and having and axe to grind.  Although the cause may be totally justifiable, it can end up being seen as deeply personal issue. Something which is linked to settling a score, seeking justice or just ‘getting even’.

Lots of people seem to find something a bit uncomfortable about people with ‘an axe to grind’. The unfortunate consequence can be marginalization by your peers as well as those in charge. If you are trying to speak truth to power, the label of ‘Axe Grinder’ can be a serious disadvantage. It makes it easier for the people in power to dismiss you as a bit of an ‘unhinged complainer’. You may have observed this.

The white paper by James O’Toole from Santa Clara University I mentioned in the last post talks in-depth about the problems of being a Whistleblower, it is well worth reading.

The Brave Messenger. Going back to the James O’Toole paper, ‘Old Tales and New of Leadership, Organizational Culture, and Ethics’, he also offers some very helpful advice on how to be an effective and in my view a Brave Messenger. Before speaking truth to power (and being virtuous) you need to meet the following criteria:

  1. It has to be truthful.
  2. It must do no harm to innocents.
  3. It must not be self-interested (the benefits must go to others, or to the organisation).
  4. It must be the product of moral reflection.
  5. The messenger must be willing to pay the price.
  6. It must not be done out of spite or anger.

There’s not much more to say here, this is very clear advice.

Being an effective messenger that speaks truth to power, and avoids getting shot, is a hard thing to do. You might need to cope with a culture of ‘good news’ created by sycophants and avoid being labeled as an Axe Grinder. Having a checklist (like the one from James O’Toole) to make sure you are doing things for the right reasons, is a good place to start.

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. Messengers have an important role in ‘speaking truth to power’. It is not a passive process without consequences.
  2. Sycophants and a culture of ‘good news only’ ruins it for everyone, and beware of being labeled an Axe Grinder – it makes it easier to be ignored.
  3. Use the James O’Toole checklist for being an effective (and brave) messenger that speaks truth to power.

Finally: I did promise to be more helpful in this post so here is the Top Six in my “Popular Culture, Spot the Sycophant, Axe Grinder or Brave Messenger Checklist” 

Please feel free to suggest others I can add. Just think: are these people speaking truth to power as sycophants, axe grinders or brave messengers?

IMG_2487Cassandra. Not Cassandra Trotter in the picture. Cassandra the Prophet  from Greek Mythology who was blessed with knowing the truth about the future but cursed with never being believed by those in power. Daniel Madge reliably informs me that Cassandra Trotter has similar traits to the Ancient Greek Cassandra. The name isn’t a coincidence.

IMG_2483Uriah Heep. From the Charles Dickens novel David Copperfield. A Yes Man.  Heep is known for his ‘cloying humility’, insincerity and obsequiousness. A sycophant in other words.  I’ve heard people being referred to as a ‘bit of a Uriah Heep’. Very unpleasant comparison. Please note: Not to be confused with the 1970s British Heavy Metal band.


IMG_2484Edmund Blackadder.  The Blackadder series of programmes has the lot when it comes to sycophants, shooting the messenger and all sorts of other terrible behaviour. If you want a study in ‘speaking truth to power’ have a look at the Elizabethan episodes where Blackadder is trying to speak the truth to Queen Bess.  The impact of a ‘good news only’ culture created by the sycophants like Lord Melchett makes it a struggle.

IMG_2486Salacious B. Crumb. I’m testing your knowledge of Star Wars minor characters here. Salacious B. Crumb is a Monkey Lizard from the planet of Kowakian, who is employed by Jabba the Hut to make him laugh once a day. Failure to do this will end up with Salacious being eaten by Jabba. A peculiar relationship between a subordinate and the boss.

Hercules, Pain and Panic. Hades from Disney’s Hercules has popped up already. Not a pleasant chap. Pain and Panic are Hades’ sidekicks/employees and perform dastardly deeds at his bidding. Bringing bad news to the boss frequently results in things much worse than just ‘shooting the messenger’. This video sums things up nicely, look out for the line from Hades when he is displeased at the news Pain and Panic give him, “Memo to Me. Remember to maim you after my meeting”.

Private Joker, Full Metal Jacket.  Private Joker is a US Marine Corps ‘Combat correspondent’ for Stars and Stripes during the Vietnam War, featured in the film Full Metal Jacket. The Peace Button scene where Private Joker tries to explain his philosophical concerns about war and the ‘onion thing’ to a Colonel. It is an interesting example of ‘speaking truth to power’. Private Joker is ‘rewarded’ for his message to the Colonel by being sent into the front line, where he might literally get shot.  This clip is well worth watching.

Here are a few additions to the list that have been suggested:

IMG_2491Qu Yuan and Sima Qian. Thanks to Jules Yim for these. Qu Yuan 343 -278 BC was a Chinese Statesman and poet who ended up drowning himself after being exiled by the people in power. Dragon Boat Racing is said to have originated from local people responding to his suicide. Sima Qian (pictured) was a Chinese Historian 145 – 86 BC. His reward for speaking the truth to power was, castration, imprisonment and a life of servitude.


Speaking Truth to Power Part1. 2500 years of Shooting the Messenger

Dilbert by Scott Adams Feb 1990.

Dilbert by Scott Adams Feb 1990.

I was going to start this post with a link to the opening scene from the film Gladiator. You know, the bit where Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe) is waiting pensively for a messenger to return from telling the German Barbarians to surrender. All around his Roman Legions prepare for battle (very dramatic). The messenger does return (but not in good shape) and Maximus commands, in a slightly Aussie accent, “at my signal, unleash hell”.

It’s all very gruesome, so I thought I’d share a less frightening Dilbert Cartoon, even if it does involve Tar and Feathers. I’m sure you get the point though, shooting the messenger or doing other unpleasant things to people who bring bad news or speak truth to power, is a commonly understood concept. This is something that’s still quite widely practiced, even if its done metaphorically nowadays.

The best project management cartoon ever.

The best project management failure cartoon ever, I had to include this.

The Modern World of Project Management. I’ve recently been listening to people, who know a lot about project management, explain some of the reasons why projects fail. These weren’t casual observers, they knew their stuff: Tony Whitehead from UK Cabinet Office Major Projects Authority; Steve Edwards from the Project Management Institute; James Scrimshire from Adaptagility, Ray MacNeil from the Government of Nova Scotia, Kath McGrath from Cwm Taff Health Board, Louise Payne from Wrexham Council and Richard Wilson from Welsh Government.

The big thing I took from their combined wisdom was, not telling the truth to power contributes to very many project failures.

Paraphrasing some of the discussions, the problem starts with people not being prepared to tell those in power that things aren’t quite going to plan / something isn’t working / it’s all gone horribly wrong!

This ‘over optimistic reporting’ (aka Green Shifting) can have dire consequences. In extreme cases this can be when the person in charge delightedly receives the news that everything is ‘a green light’, and pushes for more progress. The result is driving something that is already a problem over the cliff and into disaster. There are plenty of high-profile examples you can read about on 101 Common Reasons Why Projects Fail, and also learn about interesting terms like ‘Green Shifting’ from a major BBC project failure.

Failure to Speak the Truth to Power. Its been interesting to talk about this phenomenon. Almost everyone recognises it. It’s not just about projects, it happens everywhere (think Mid Staffs Hospital), and it’s not just about large-scale activities.

The Darth Choke…"you failed to allocate me an executive parking space"….

The Vader Choke…”you failed to allocate me an executive parking space”….

It is tempting at this point to think that this is just a problem with the bosses. You know the type, the Darth Vader wannabe.

The image of the ‘Vader Choke’, being applied to a hapless Death Star Employee after some failure is a Star Wars classic. Most people will have encountered, or heard of, their very own organisational Darth Vader (and it’s not restricted to males).

But it’s not  just the fault of the bosses. I’m grateful to Ray MacNeil for pointing out that this is a complex problem that involves more than just the boss. Organisation systems and culture often prevent people speaking truth to power, even if the ultimate boss is willing to listen. This recent example of a whistleblower from the UK Treasury illustrates the point.

Newport Chartist Riots 1839, 22 shootings. Details below.

Newport Chartist Riots 1839, 22 shootings. Details below.

Just how long has this been going on? Well, at least 2500 years. Old Tales of New Leadership, Organisational Culture and Ethics, by James O’Toole from the University of Santa Clara is well worth reading. The article starts with description of the 4th century BC Greek play, Antigone. I won’t spoil it (have a read for yourself), but the challenges of speaking truth to power from 2500 years ago seem very fresh and relevant today. Change the names of the actors, and any of the people I spoke to about project management failures last week would recognise the situation.

So what can you do? The honest  answer? If its been going on 2500 years, I’m probably  not going to give you the solution in this blog…… well not in this post. The article by James O’Toole does contain some very useful material which I will expand on in some future posts. Like: Speaking the Truth to Power Pt2. Messengers; Sycophants, Axe Grinders and The Brave.

In the meantime, if it is any comfort, your project failures that are a result of not speaking the truth to power have a very strong heritage, over 2500 years of it. You are helping to keep ancient traditions alive.

So What’s the PONT?

  1. The failure to speak truth to power, or shooting the messenger, is an age-old problem at least 2500 years old.
  2. The consequences of failing to speak truth to power can be catastrophic.
  3. It’s a complex problem; Leaders, Messengers and the Organisation all contribute, although bosses do have a big part to play in fixing it.

Linked Posts: Agile Project Management.

Picture Sources:

Newport Chartists: My pictures, murals on display at Newport Civic Centre. Wikipedia entry:  More pictures below

Dilbert Cartoon: 

Project Management Failure:  impossible to find a source – its everywhere

Vader Choke: Try Wookiepedia – Star Wars wiki


Newport Chartist Riots 1839, 22 shootings. Details below.

Newport Chartist Riots 1839, 22 shootings.


Corporate Reporting – What can we learn from Fast Food Vendors?

Fried Egg and Chives. Scroll down for more.

Fried Egg and Chives.
Scroll down for more deliciousness

“A picture is worth a thousand words…, “ an idea that is universally recognised, frequently used in business, but not often seen where it might have most impact – Senior Executive/Board meetings.

Descriptive text still dominates most senior level reports, often using ‘corpspeak’; a peculiar form of jargon developed by people like *The Head of Corporate Performance Management Policy Impact Reporting (*I made up the job title, but you know the sort I mean).

If you look at the explanation of, “a picture paints a thousand words” it is difficult to argue against the case for using more pictures. It describes the idea that “a complex idea can be conveyed with just a single still image…..making it possible to absorb large amounts of data quickly….. ” What’s not to like? Imagine a ‘Report to Board’ that contained just pictures of the impact of a decision they had taken. Imagine this happening all the time.

So why the fried egg? You might now be wondering about the fried egg picture? It’s actually a model of a fried egg, right down to the false chopped chives. I took the photograph outside a restaurant in Vancouver where the menu was full scale plastic models of the food they offered. You might have mixed views about the models (and some of the food, scroll down to see the full picture collage), but one thing isn’t in doubt, you know exactly what you are going to get….. fried egg with chives!

High Tech meets Traditional Fish and Chips at BIG SAMS

High Tech meets Traditional Fish and Chips at BIG SAMS

BIG SAMS, Pontyclun. This kind of clear and precise communication isn’t limited to cool and cosmopolitan Vancouver. In South Wales we have a few fast food outlets that make the most of pictures to show you exactly what you’ll be getting.

I expect you’ve seen picture menus, but what about 36″ colour TV monitors enticing you with what’s available?

Perfect if you are heading home from the Rugby Club, slightly ‘over refreshed’, and struggling to vocalise your urgent need for Chips, Curry Sauce and Cheese (a Welsh version of Poutine for Canadian readers). Just point at the picture on the screen and problem solved.

But it’s not all good news. This week I encountered one of those ‘posh’ restaurant menus that didn’t make a lot of sense. ‘Burger and chips’ was translated into ‘Burger Normandie’, with a very exotic explanation of the meal.

An parody of a menu - but its not that far off the mark

An parody of a menu – but its not that far off the mark. Link below to the source, worth a look!

The consequence was my kids freaking out over what was served,…. I mean who puts Brie on a burger!

I won’t go on about it, the point I’m trying to get to is that a combination of a text only menu, using unusual words caused quite a lot of confusion.

Is this all deliberate? The fast food picture menu experience compared to the ‘high end’ restaurant text only menu does make me wonder. If your objective is to clearly communicate to your customers, leaving them in no doubt about what they are getting for their money, the pictures win every time. If that’s the case, why don’t you get pictures used higher up the food chain in posh restaurants?

I suspect this might ruffle a few feathers but is this a case of, ‘that’s the way we like it’! Vendors use extravagant words as a disguise to make things sound better than they really are. Also, there are no pictures because, ‘that’s what they do in fast food joints’. All a form of ‘food snobbery’, deliberately used to confuse and exclude the masses?

Just a quick observation here, with so many people nowadays photographing their food, and sharing the pictures on social media, are the days of the text only menu numbered anyway? If you think about it, it’s the foodies who do a lot of this….. it must be a nightmare running a posh restaurant with wi-fi.

So what has this got to do with corporate reporting? I think there are some interesting links here with the world of corporate reporting. At the front line it’s a bit like the fast food vendor; keep it simple so that everyone understands. The higher up the organisation, the more ‘refined’ the reporting.

This week I was lucky enough to see some visual management techniques in action at an aircraft engine maintenance company. Pictures of how things work were everywhere. Ones that really impressed me were collections of continuous improvement actions. Basically a single page with a ‘before and after’ picture and a few text bullet points explaining why the action was taken and the benefits.

In my experience, this type of reporting rarely finds it’s way into reports for senior people. You might get a few graphs or tables, but rarely pictures. I do wonder why? It’s not like the technology is any sort of barrier.

Is there something else going on… a bit like posh restaurant food snobbery towards the pictures used by fast food vendors? Do we have the corporate reporting equivalent of picture snobbery?   ….. “those pictures are fine for the front line workers to manage their performance, but what we need is carefully crafted text….. prepared by an expert skilled in drafting corpspeak”. Ultimately not something that helps with communication and widespread understanding.

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. Pictures are effective at helping people understand complicated ideas and take in a large amount of information.
  2. With modern technology it is possible to make much wider use of pictures in business reporting.
  3. Before this approach becomes more widespread, we might have to overcome the corporate reporting equivalent of ‘posh restaurant snobbery’ towards the fast food vendor picture menus.

Picture Source: via

Note 1. I have posted about the use of graphic recording and minutes previously. These are a great way of capturing complicated ideas and presenting them clearly. More on that and the continuous improvement visual management sheets to follow. Link here:

Note 2. I should also point out, in a previous life, I used to prepare Corporate Performance Monitoring Reports for senior management meetings, written in corpepeak …. Yes I am ashamed of myself.

Full size models of the food thats on offer

Full size models of the food on offer in a Vancouver restaurant

Is annoying your service users a good way to build community action?

Closing a library can upset a lot of people

Closing a library can upset a lot of people

Deliberately setting out to upset and annoy people isn’t an approach I’d routinely recommend, but please stick with me.

Here are three things to think about, and how they might be combined to help to build better communities that can deliver the services they require:

  1. Doing something wrong, and then putting it right, builds stronger brand loyalty.
  2. Closing the local library/hospital/school/park really gets local people annoyed and quite often results in a strong community response (a protest group).
  3. Every community has assets that can be used to help that community.

1. Putting something right to build brand loyalty. This seems to be a well accepted approach in the world of customer services and retail. The basic idea is that if you do something wrong, and then put it right, your customers will be really pleased with you. So pleased with you that they will become much more loyal customers, or ‘raving fans’ as the marketing types like to say. The people who complain are the passionate ones, the ones that care about your product, and the ones you can work with.

There is a fair bit written about this idea in books like ‘A Complaint is a Gift’ and online sources like ‘UP! Your Service’ where Ron Kaufman talks about ‘When Service Goes Wrong, Bounce Back to Improve Customer Loyalty’.

I have heard about this in connection with Dell Computers who apparently resolve 97% of complaints and 40% of those who complained are turned into ‘raving fans’. What sparked my interest in this approach was an anecdote about how British Airways handled customer complaints, unfortunately I cannot find a link to it. If anyone has more detail about it (or it’s just an urban myth rolled out on training courses) I would be very grateful.

Based on what I’ve experienced I don’t think the concept is widely understood or applied in many public services.

2. Closing local public services gets local people annoyed (and upset). I don’t  think I need to expand upon this point very much.


Here is a picture of Margaret Willoughby who chained herself to a bookcase in the protest to save Rhydyfelin Library from closure.

There will be many examples of local groups who have done the similar things to save their, park / hospital / school / day-care centre or any other public service that is facing the axe.

The Rhydyfelin Library Support Group site is with looking at as an example of a highly motivated community getting organised and achieving what it set out to do. Powerful community groups often develop in these situations.

3. Every community has assets. Have a look at this video of Cormac Russell explaining how communities can do incredible things, and why governments need to allow them to do  this. Cormac talks about every community having assets and the importance of working with what a community ‘has’ and can contribute, rather than what it doesn’t have or what public services can provide. The is a lot of helpful information about Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) on the Nurture Development site.

How do these things join up?  Have I made any sense so far? I did ask for you to please stick with me, here is my logic:

  1. Public services are going to be doing things that will annoy service users over the next few years.
  2. Closing some facilities looks inevitable.
  3. Local people will get very annoyed and upset.
  4. Many will organise themselves to fight against the closure.
  5. These are passionate people, people who care – the ones the customer services experts from retail say that you could turn into ‘raving fans’.
  6. Stick with me here – this is the scary bit.
  7. Work with these people to come up with a better solution, they aren’t the enemy.
  8. Have a look at the video from Cormac Russell for ideas how this might work.
  9. At the end you might have a vibrant, engaged community delivering services for itself.

Obviously, setting out to annoy and upset your service users isn’t what most public services would do deliberately. However, if you are going to do unpopular things, you could use the ‘annoyance’ for a positive purpose. Look out for who gets most annoyed. These might just be the people who could help you make things better and the ones you need to work with the most.

Finally, the community group that forms to protest about a closure could have far greater benefit to the community for years to come. They might not end up as ‘raving fans’ of the council / health board, but they will be doing good for the community.

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. People who complain about products or services are worth listening to, carefully, they care.
  2. The ‘complainers’ may have the answers to the problems, or may even help you solve them.
  3. Think about using potentially difficult decisions to identify the ‘complainers’ so that you can work with them, and help develop something that has a long-term benefit.

One last thing, there is a very relevant quote from Margaret J Wheatley, “All change, even large and very powerful change, begins when a few people start talking with one another about something they care about”. I suspect this might have happened at Rhydyfelin Library.

Links:  Copyright, Ron Kaufman. Used with permission.Ron Kaufman is the world’s leading educator and motivator for upgrading customer service and uplifting service culture. He is author of the bestselling “UP! Your Service” books and founder of UP! Your Service. To enjoy more customer service training and service culture articles, visit


Nurture Development