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In search of competence…as a business strategy

27 Aug

I jokingly said during the general election earlier this year that I wasn’t so much in search of excellence (a la Tom Peters) from the parties but in search of competence. An old joke that I stole from a voluntary sector leader giving a speech: but like all the best jokes, it has a big grain of truth in it. I was reminded of this, listening to the HBR podcast the other day. The HBR podcast is a mixed bag: quite often it features management consultants who have invented some new thing about big companies in order to sell themselves to the same big companies, who largely trundle on as they did before (recent examples of this genre include “how to survive being labelled a star” (we’ve all been there) and “reduce organisational drag”, both of which are consistently moments away from disappearing up their own fundament). The title of the last episode caught my eye though: “Basic Competence Can Be A Strategy” (link is to the transcript of the podcast). 

It’s an interesting listen/read – largely about management, and how people think they are all above-average, and how many are simply missing the fundamentals. Setting an agenda for meetings, taking actions and following up on them, washing your hands before surgery, taking the time to ensure people understand or know what the plan is…and so on. It reminded me of another book on a similar topic, the Checklist Manifesto (by the wonderful American healthcare writer Atul Gawande) which, as the name would suggest, largely promotes the checklist as a way to ensure things get done: in the right order, and that nothing gets missed. This can apply everywhere – when people call Social Enterprise UK, a list can ensure we don’t miss anything key (do you want to join? Do you want to be signed up to the newsletter? Here are the organisations that can help with x and so forth).

I was also reminded of it by the nonsense that is the NFL GamePass in Europe right now. For the uninitiated, NFL is the organisation that runs American Football in the US; I’m a fan, so I enjoy watching the games. You can do this illegally via streaming, but I have paid for the GamePass app which is  (or has been) a great way of watching and moving between games every Sunday. It’s not a cheap product, but it works really well, and so I’ve been happy to pay for it. I’m also such a fan that, along with some other social enterprise types, I’ve been going to the American Football games in London for about a decade.

In their wisdom, ahead of this season, the powers that be at NFL / NFL UK have decided to licence GamePass to a new European developer / promoter (a new joint venture created by Bruin Sports Capital and WPP). Unfortunately, in their wish to, I assume, squeeze more dollars out of the game, they have managed to create a product that a) has fewer features // b) costs the same // c) doesn’t work for many on the platforms they previously used // d) can’t be paid for in instalments. Additionally, just for fun, they’ve thrown in some major errors on payments (some people want to pay and can’t; some have been charged and aren’t being refunded). And for the cherry on top, there has been no communication from the people who made the decisions.

Setting aside personal irritation, (I’m waiting to see if they can sort it out before putting down any £), this is a great example of how basic competence is key to business. None of this is complicated: if you are changing something that works, give yourself enough time to make sure the replacement works; don’t remove payment options (that actually lose you customers); don’t change key useability of things without letting customers know in advance; and don’t be silent in the face of a barrage of emails, social media and fan forum criticism. And yet, it can be missed in the search for the next big thing, or on what other stakeholders (Investors? New business partners?) think is important. We all have our own equivalents of the new app, or the change to existing systems; & our own examples of taking the eye of the ball of the basics.

The lesson isn’t ‘don’t ever change’, obviously – small improvements and big leaps of new strategy are crucial at different times to businesses growing and staying relevant. But changes bring risks: and where they affect your main customers, they are critical. The lesson for all businesses is to plan well, do the basics, tick the things of the list, and constantly communicate with your customers. They are the heart of your business, and neglecting them is, well, incompetent. 

[image by the wonderful ]


The right blend: Minsky, Pinsky + Alinsky?

27 Apr

gapingvoid_wisdomIt’s very interesting working at both a type of organisation (a membership body / trade association) and also in a sector (social enterprise) that by their very nature tend to be lightning rods for debate, competing ideas, different expectations (from varied audiences). Trade associations and membership bodies obviously have lots of members of different types with different needs and differing thoughts on a whole range of topics and issues – regardless of best efforts, it is difficult to satisfy all of these at the same time, whether it is the CBI, the FSB, NCVO or our smaller selves at Social Enterprise UK. Social enterprise itself is where socialists meet capitalists, where co-operators meet competitors, and charity meets business – which leads to passionate, important debates about profits, ownership, intention, reporting and much more besides.

All of which poses some questions about what are the best or most successful ways to operate, both individually and organisationally, given that context. This is post-hoc rationalisation, but I think there might be a bit of a blend of things that achieves good results.

1) MINSKY – or the importance of common sense
I was listening to a podcast on the train recently, and it was a programme about an economist called Hyman Minsky (you can listen to the programme here) which discussed how he had largely been forgotten, but rediscovered in the wake of the financial crash – sometime after his death. There is lots of detail out there should you wish to know more about him + his theories (eg this BBC piece), but the crux of it is that he believed that the economic system was inherently unstable and that this could largely be explained by human behaviour at different stages of economic booms. As one economist said about him: “He was much more for getting your hands dirty in the real world. I think Minsky gave us the first sensible overview of capitalism ever, which had warts and all what capitalism is about.

This seems to me (in retrospect) to have been a bit of a thread for me over the last couple of years. First, trying to rely on common sense; second, trying to ensure we are getting our hands dirty rather than relying on assumptions (which has meant a lot more member interaction, and higher quality research); thirdly, being realistic and pragmatic in what can be achieved and what is possible. The mantra has been the oft-repeated ‘under-promise and over-deliver’ – we don’t always succeed on either front, but it’s been underpinning our work and approach.

2) PINSKY – or the importance of (individual) inspiration
Before I got into the disruptive, innovative, paradigm-shifting world of social enterprise (no, me neither), I worked at a small charity that made most of its money from signing publishing deals and selling books. The charity’s founder, an amazing man called Nicholas Albery, had a hundred ideas a day, one of which was about learning poetry by heart – both because it is good for the brain and for the heart, and also because you could be sponsored to do it (learn + recite) and raise money for other causes. This, in turn, led to a book (Poem for the Day) and a follow-up (the creatively-titled Poem for the Day Two) which I co-edited – the royalties still go to charity.

Recently, I found myself diving into some poetry books again, and came across one by Robert Pinsky (himself a pretty inspirational figure) called Samurai Song which speaks to me a bit of resilience, and individual self-reliance: “When I have no means fortune / Is my means. When I have / Nothing, death will be my fortune. // Need is my tactic, detachment / Is my strategy.

I’m not suggesting that everyone should go out and read poetry as part of the working day, but that we all need those beacons of inspiration, either from our past or our present, who give us strength or encouragement to carry on; and who can provide insight that you don’t get in the twelfth meeting of the day or a policy consultation response.

3) ALINSKY – or the importance of community
Of course, if you just hang out on your own reading poetry and being inspired, you’re likely to become insufferable to yourself + others, and even less likely to achieve anything. If there’s one thing that’s important in my job and my organisation, it’s being able to build relationships and work in partnerships and sustain communities of interest.

This is where Saul Alinsky, the godfather of community organising, comes into it. He went through a brief period a couple of years ago when our sector paid attention to his work (largely when Citizens UK’s campaign work started breaking through, and when the government’s community organisers stuff kicked off). But he’s been less talked about recently. I still think his Rules for Radicals bears some reading, even if it is more rooted in direct political activism – after all, despite the pragmatism and realism that’s needed (see 1 above), we are still trying to change things and change the world around us.

I particularly like Rule 10: “The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.” This feels to me entirely right: critique by all means, challenge and bust the myths, point out the imperfections…but have a possible answer or alternative ready too. This seems particularly appropriate for social enterprise, but we still see plenty from all sectors content to criticise without suggesting what they would do differently.

And what is underlying Alinsky is the belief that we are stronger together, as a movement or collective, than we are as individuals and individual organisations. Increasingly, I think all our best work (if most complex and sometimes slowest and most challenging) comes in partnership and through partnership.

That mix: of realism and sense; of inspiration and self-reliance; and of constructive partnerships. That’s the blend I’m aiming for at the moment.

[NB – Of course, the more cynical amongst you might just be thinking that I’ve chosen these three because they rhyme (with a nod to my previous poetry days), but you would be wrong. Besides, I could have included Gore Verbinski, David Wallechinsky and Natassja Kinski if it had just been about the rhymes. Next week, a post on William Hague, Martin McCague and Norman MacCaig for Tory cricketing poetry fans]

Social enterprise listening…

2 Mar

listenLast week I was getting the rail miles in – Cardiff, Manchester, Exeter and Cambridge planning, discussing, representing and speaking about social enterprise. Apart from giving me an in-depth knowledge on the exciting topic of “which railway company’s wi-fi is worst?” and checking out which parts of the country are still underwater, it also meant I had the chance to listen to some podcasts I’ve been storing up for a while or which I haven’t got to on the commute. There’s a lot out there (they’ll let anyone have a go these days – see here). So here’s some recommendations from recent listens:

Peter Day‘s programmes are always worth listening to; one recent one on ‘disability in the workplace’ featured John Charles of social enterprise Catering2Order >> download here

– The magazine Monocle has always struck me as the paper equivalent of a Hoxton hipster with an asymmetric haircut, but it’s actually a decent read with interesting content. I recently discovered their Entrepreneurs podcast. Episode 73 (they are now on 124) was on social entrepreneurship, and featured the House of St Barnabas >> download here

– Analysis is always worth a listen, though requires a bit more concentration than some of the frothier radio out there. A recent episode that was more interesting than I thought it might be was ‘The Philosophy of Russell Brand’, looking at the philosophers and thinkers behind the Occupy movement and more >> download here

– While we’re still on Radio 4, the Bottom Line is still a winning format: 3 CEOs / leaders discussing a particular industry or area of business, hosted by Dragon’s Den / Today maestro Evan Davies. It remains an aspiration to get an episode renamed ‘The Triple Bottom Line’, but until that happens, I’ll have to enjoy episodes like the recent one on MBAs or something that I remain unmoved by and sceptical of, the ‘Sharing Economy’ >> download here


– I enjoyed the Freakonomics books, and I enjoy the podcast too – it’s still a bit superficial and I still occasionally find myself ranting at it, but it’s well-produced, takes different approaches to subjects, and gets me thinking. And that’ll do me. Recent episodes have looked the Pope dissing the free-market economy and a conversation about how to Fight Poverty with real evidence >> download here


– Social Good is a podcast from the Chronicle of Philanthropy which looks at social media for the social sector (broadly). It’s not bad, if completely US-focused, for a UK audience – still some good tips + nuggets of practical advice to take away in amongst the mutual congratulation. And occasional stand-out episodes like the recent one on big data >> download here

– Finally, of course, you have the ubiquitous TED talks. To be honest, these vary substantially in quality and level of insight, particularly with the rise of TedX. And I think there is something to recent critiques of boiling everything down to neat soundbites. Arguably you know something has reached peak hype when it gets a talk (for example…). But there’s some gold in them there hills too – recent highlights have included a talk on ‘how to make companies productive in an increasingly complex world‘ (ignore the fact that TED felt the need to add subtitles because the guy has a French accent speaking English!). You should also check out Michael Porter (on business / shared value) and Michael Sandel (on morals / markets) – Sandel wins, IMHO. But I’m a sucker for self-deprecation and unassuming big achievements, so here’s Paul Pholeros on, well, fixing homes to make people healthy:


What the NFL can teach the Premier League about philanthropy

14 Nov

Amongst much else, I’m a big fan of two things: American Football and podcasts. So it should come as no surprise to find out that I listen to a number of podcasts about American Football (aka the National Football League or NFL). My favourite is the Rich Eisen podcast which interviews players, coaches, celebrities and fans to give a good and in-depth all round picture of the NFL in all its glory and madness. A few weeks back, Rich interviewed Namdi Asomugha, who is a cornerback for the Philadelphia Eagles (stick with me, non-NFL lovers) and one of the biggest names in the sport. And I was listening to the interview at the same time as the “Carlos Tevez refusing to play” incident happened in a game between Manchester City and Bayern Munich.

Asomugha signed a $60m five-year deal in the summer with the Eagles. Which is a huge amount. Almost as huge as the £230,000 a week Carlos Tevez gets (which amounts to around £12m per year, or £60m over five years). That is where the comparison starts to fall apart. Because while Tevez was refusing to play (after all, who would kick a ball around a field for a paltry quarter of a million a week?), I was listening to Asomugha talk about the Asomugha Foundation with intelligence and humility. I recommend taking a look at the site which is notable for a couple of things:

– the impressive set of programmes it runs
– the relative lack of any photos of the famous player behind it; rather, the website focuses on the work, the team, and the impact

And Asomugha is not a solitary example in the NFL. A few weeks later, Eisen was interviewing Adrian Peterson, another massive American Football star (running back for the Minnesota Vikings, since you asked), and he talked about his All Day Foundation, and how he is donating $5000 each time he scores a touchdown; a pledge which is being matched by Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore each time. A couple of weeks back, the entire league supported the ‘Think Pink‘ campaign to raise awareness and funding for breast cancer: see the picture above to demonstrate the lengths to which players got involved. The recent poppy campaign for the British Legion is about as close as the Premier League has ever got; and it’s some way short of making the most of its potential.

Meanwhile, Premier League players do little by comparison. Some clubs have been pioneers in their community work (such as Charlton) but there is limited evidence of the players taking responsibility or showing behaviour suitable for role models: people like David James and Craig Bellamy are largely exceptions. [Carlos Tevez organises an annual charity golf tournament, which presumably raises significantly less than he was fined by Manchester City]  It was excellent to see the (fab) charity Street League supported in the most recent friendly, but there’s so much more that could be done. Manchester City recently put a call out via the sector trade press for two organisations to receive £50,000 each for a year. To put that in context, that’s about a day’s wages per organisation for Tevez. Or Yaya Toure. Indeed, if the entire Manchester City squad donated a day’s wages, I estimate that would be about £250,000 between them. (There was a partially successful attempt to do this in the past: see Footballers dig deep for nurses).

The biggest shame about this is that, particularly in the field of social enterprise, sport and football is a growing activity. Whether it’s FC United, AFC Wimbledon, Clyde or others who’ve benefited from the sterling work of Supporters’ Direct, there are a myriad number of community-based projects to get involved in. How refreshing would it be to see some Premier League footballers support some of these initiatives and invest some of their earnings in something completely in line with their own passion? How can we build the same culture of philanthropy and social action amongst the Premier League footballers so that, as with American footballers, it is expected?

And if they did? Well, maybe a great deal of good would be done, awareness raised, campaigns supported, and impact created. Including impact on the reputation of some of the footballers themselves. Or maybe some of those clubs would even follow in the footsteps of arguably the leading community-owned social enterprise team in the sporting world: the Green Bay Packers. Not only are the Packers the only community-owned team in the NFL, they are also the most successful in the league’s history. As they might say in Wisconsin, “Touchdown”.

Translated, recorded, reported: recent work

16 Jun

I’m in a constant state of “ok, so this freelancing seems to be going OK, but surely at some point it’s going to go quiet….” at the moment, but it’s been full-throttle the last few weeks. Here’s some recent links to some aspects of that work:

– I’m helping UnLtd with their Product Review, which is both inward-facing (can UnLtd add to, amend, improve its services?) and also externally-facing (what do social entrepreneurs need that isn’t currently being provided?). Here’s a write-up of an event that started to answer those questions on the Guardian Social Enterprise Network: Support for social entrepreneurs needs fresh ideas

– I worked with School for Social Entrepreneurs to edit and publish their new impact evaluation report by New Philanthropy Capital (a bit of work I’d commissioned / overseen while I was at SSE); you can check out the exec summary + full report via the SSE website. I’d particularly recommend checking out the additional case studies document, which I think is excellent

– POPse! the pop-up social enterprise think-tank I was a part of has ‘gone dark’, but we are working away on doing an overall publication of some sort; in the meantime, the 100 social enterprise truths I wrote as part of POPse! week continue to gradually make their way round the UK + overseas, featuring most recently in the Society Guardian daily, on the CSI Toronto blog (am a huge fan of what they do) and being translated into French by Simon at Hub Lausanne

– I helped out with the early stages of this introductory guide Social Enterprise Explained (pdf) from the Social Enterprise Coalition, which I think is a really good starting point for anyone.

– Last but by no means least, I was interviewed by the marvellous Nicola Jones at the Social Investment Business as part of their “An Interview With…” podcast series. Here it is: