Let your brain declutter – and clarity ensues

I’ve not posted for a while. In fact, last month was the first time I’d not posted anything since I started this blog over five years ago.

There are extenuating circumstances.

As some of you will know, I left my CEO job last month, and June was spent finishing off some important tasks as well as handing over to my successor. Along the way I have learned a few important lessons.

In the process of writing up hand over notes, I discovered that some of what I did I did not really need to do myself (directly), and that my delegation skills (which I thought were OK) needed some work.

It’s a bit like moving house. You find all this stuff you’ve kept over the ensuing years, and you really don’t know why you’ve kept it.

Whole drawers of drop files were thrown out. Why was I hoarding all this stuff? I rarely, if ever, opened those drop files, so what were they doing there? An important lesson learned. I also found that I did way too many tasks that really could have been palmed off to someone else. They weren’t all that time consuming, but as I’d initiated them, I’d carried on doing them, and could have hand-balled them way earlier.

I then had a week of catching up with about 18 different people (drank a lot of coffee), that I had been putting off til I had the time to do so. Then we had a family holiday in the sun.

Two weeks on, and I return to my blog, loaded with ideas. It’s amazing how the brain can get creative when you remove all the clutter from your life. All the stuff you do, and take on, because you can, but when you step back, should you really be doing it at all? It makes for a busy life, but is it as productive as it could be?

A week in the sun also helps put things into perspective. After a few days trampling through a national park, lolling on the beach or watching the sun set over a cool beer, your brain tends to do what it does so well – ideas come, and you see things with clarity. Things that annoyed you recede.

Cramming your brain with too much meaningless minutiae reduces its capacity to operate. Ever wonder why you get your best ideas in the car, or on a plane, or even on the toilet? It’s because, without the constant distraction of the bustling office, or emails or social media, the brain can breathe and function. (Life tip – don’t take the smartphone with you into the toilet.)

Paul McCartney kept a notepad by his bed, and often would wake up with a great tune, or the start of a classic song as he nodded off. He’d scribble it down, so he’d capture the thought. These days I use the virtual equivalent Evernote, which is an online app and website where I can capture all my thoughts, notes, drafts and to do lists. I can open it up anytime I think of something, and can access it from anywhere – on the plane, in the departure hall, on the platform. I’ve been making Evernote work overtime these past 2 weeks. It’s my external brain. A hard drive of information I can upload to, and download from, whenever I want.

So, to those of you in full time management and leadership roles, I would urge you to organise your day with some time for emptiness. It’s not wasted time. It will be productive, because only when you declutter your life and brain, does clarity ensue.

Photo: Sunset over Mindil Beach, Darwin ~ 

Minimum Viable Product – just get out there!


In a previous post I lambasted bad project management (and really that means bad project managers) for taking interminable time to get projects done, without recourse to what the customer wants, what the organisation can deliver, yet with massive budget cost and time overruns. [How do these people still keep their jobs? … that’s for another day.]

Maybe it’s because I never had any budget for my IT projects that I naturally went the low cost route, building a simple solution that I thought solved a customer problem, and ‘just got out there’ because, well, I had no other option. It also came naturally to me. It made sense. If the customers didn’t like it, I heard quick enough (no visits, bad feedback) and I was able to mould the product or abandon it to start another. Fail fast, fail often. Once I got onto a winning thing, I’d do more of it. Simple really.

The graphic above has been one going around the social networks and encapsulates this methodology perfectly. Would you really invent a car from the wheels up? Of course not. You’d have no idea what you were doing until it was too late. Cars (and transport) evolved through the natural process of trial and error, from the first cave dweller fashioning a boulder into wheels through to the horse/bullock and cart before the motor vehicle  appeared first about 120 years ago. It was an iterative process, and many designs were abandoned.

And so it is with your IT project. Spent as much time as you can pitching to customers (not investors) solving their problems, and find elegant, cost effective ways to crank out something for them to try. Grow it from there, and you won’t be far wrong. The ways things are going these days, businesses that use product-led waterfall type project management will find they cannot compete anyway – they’ll be too slow, too expensive, too unresponsive and will have to go.

Bad bad project management

Bureaucracy gone mad

I’ve been involved in many, many projects over the last 30 years or so, everything from a few days of elegant efficiency to months of dreary dreadfulness. Project management is both an art and a science, and no one has ‘the’ answer… but I can tell you some things you should NOT do. Oh yes almighty.

There’s a wonderful moment in ‘Yes Minister’ (the 1980s British sitcom) where the civil servants and the Minister are discussing a new hospital. It’s working perfectly, says the bureaucrat, all systems go. Yes, but there are no patients yet, replies the Minister. Agh yes, but that’s not the point, retorts the first, hospitals work so beautifully without all those patients.

In other words, the system becomes the thing.

Beware of this when bravely beginning your next project. There is no such thing as perfection. No one knows what is going to happen. No one has all the information. Uncertainty rules. The system is not the point. The customer is.

Beware the manager who is very good at documentation, systems and processes, and scoping. Beware the initial projections of so many months, and so many tens/hundreds of thousands/millions of dollars. Run away, my friends, run while you’ve still got a life left to live and the will to live it.

For I can tell you there is nothing more soul destroying, nothing that can suck the living essence from you, than an intricately articulated, detailed project of many months. The times I’ve been told “our scoping will provide us with what we need to build” or “this will just work out of the box” or “the project will take x months and cost $y”… all lies I tell you. LIES!

Well, it’s not that these project managers are lying deliberately (although I have known some to, knowingly, to cover themselves and allow enough wiggle room for the ultimate failure that is to come). It’s just that the world is too complex, consumers too massively unpredictable, rivals often invisible, and a hundred other factors that will destroy the best laid plans of the project manager.

No, reverse the cycle. Think back from your consumer (hint: they are the one you earn revenue from), keep them close, talk to them, survey them, feed them (literally – bring them in for a chat and a meal), listen to them, and build them something they actually need, and will pay for. Something that would relieve a real pain point. And do it fast.

Jack or Jane be nimble, be quick. Do it in a month or three (no more than 3 months, ever, promise me), get out there and watch the customers use it, hear their feedback, and let the project evolve in the marketplace. Never be too arrogant to think you know what they want or what will work. Bring them in to the process, and get those document-wielding, scope-developing bureaucratic system builders well away from your organisation. They sound good, but that is all they are… noise.

Do this, and you will live to enjoy new projects, and so will your customers, your staff and ultimately your shareholders.

You learn most when you teach

Teach Learn

In order to teach something, you first have to know it well. More than that, you need to know how to communicate that learning so it becomes the learning of someone else. That is a different plane entirely.

When I was a school teacher, I found my understanding of Economics grew each year as I researched it more, found new ways to get the concepts across, and came across different classrooms with a wide variety of learning styles. Some people learnt most by doing exercises, some by hearing it explained well, some others liked to see it first, or from understanding a logical flow. As a rule of thumb, I found that I had to explain most central concepts in at least three different ways before most “got it“.

The local primary school my children attend has a dynamic new Principal who told me once: “Children learn 80% of what they learn from other children; the trouble is that 80% of it is wrong!” So the trick becomes, teach the children to teach others the right stuff, and in the right way. Collaboration is key. Who sits with who, and how they are arranged is critical to this working. You also need to train the teachers to this new way of learning. It’s amazing to witness it in practice. And yet, when you think about it, it all makes perfect sense.

Once  I switched to business about 15 years ago, I quickly realised that I had to “educate to sell“. Especially as I was in a new industry (internet) and was trying to convince hard-nosed salespeople who had done things one way for many years with great success to change their ways entirely. I had to teach them about the new media and how to use it. I was learning too. Years later, I hired a consultant to go out and ask why our clients used us. He reported back that “They look on you as their ‘interweb’ guru, who explains all this techie stuff they need to know, and keep them up with all the latest.” I suppose the teacher in me never went away.

Education theory already backs this up:

  • we retain 5% of what we hear
  • 10% of what we read
  • 20% of what we see
  • 50% of what we discuss
  • 75% of what we practice (do)
  • 90% of what we teach others

Try teaching someone today; and encourage a culture of teaching and learning in your organisation. You’ll be amazed at the spread of knowledge that results. You’ll learn most yourself. Learning organisations are always the most successful and longest lasting.

A classic: how to get your ideas to spread

Almost unbelievable that this classic TED talk from Seth Godin is 10 years old, but still spine tinglingly good. 17 mins of your time spent well.

You have an idea, a new product, a new way of doing things… how do you get lift off? Simple, says Godin – make it remarkable – something that people will remark about.

Don’t talk to the mass market, talk to the fringes. The masses have too many options, not enough time, and have stopped listening. Who listens? The innovators and  early adopters. Talk to them, and make it easy for them to talk to the rest of the market.

That second bit is now made easier with social media, as the early adopters/innovators are all over social media.

Now go do it.

The importance of our environment

[tweetmeme source=”ChazGunningham” only_single=false]Despite the lofty title, dear reader, this post is nothing about “the environment”, but is in fact about the environment. Sorry, a puzzling beginning, I grant you, but stick with me.

One of the best things I read on the MBA program, all those years ago, was Amir Bhide’s ‘Bootstrap Finance‘ paper, which argued that far from picking the crack team and spending money on impressive office fit outs, the best start ups were lean and mean, biding their time until they really knew what their business was about. (“Ideas come about from being out there, so just get out there…“). Amazon.com famously used old doors as its first office tables, and when I started a dotcom in the late 1990s, I remember using whatever furniture we could muster for our first office. Later we climbed the dizzying heights of IKEA tables (flat rectangle and 4 screw in legs) which were repainted at least once in funky blues and oranges and lasted us 8 years.

However, having been through a recent office upgrade (moving next door into our fabulous new purpose built 3 storey affair) I can say that the office environment does indeed matter – for current staff, clients, morale, and probably hiring/retaining good staff too. Now the organisation I work for is almost a century old, and has moved at least 4 times and so it is hardly ‘blowing startup cash’ on lavish new premises. In fact, by selling the old building and using that to build the new one, it has not had to raise any money from anywhere to upgrade.

Having been in the new building for a month now, I can say that it has lifted everyone. Open plan takes some getting used to, but you can’t help feel good coming into a sparkly lift and rising up to the top floor which overlooks Subi Oval on one side, and suburban tree/rooftops on the other. Everything is new, shiny, confident and 2012. (The last office was very 1977, and fading fast.)

I remember living opposite a dotcom 10 years who did 98% of their business in the States, yet emblazoned their building with huge branding statements over looking a busy highway. They did not need to advertise to the 30,000 cars that streamed past every day, so I asked their CEO, “why did you do that?”. “To make our staff feel good” he said. Plain and simple. Make them feel good coming to work, make them stay, and tell others how proud they are of the company.

In my ‘spare time’ I am also Chair of the local independent primary school, which my own children attend. The school’s 50 years old and the buildings are tatty. The parents have raised many tens of thousands of dollars to improve the branding, entry way and various grounds projects. Why? For much the same reason. To make the kids feel proud of their school, and the teachers too (and to attract good prospective teachers), and the parents and prospective parents. It’s the same deal.

So, while a start up should certainly not blow its hard earned/borrowed/invested cash on shiny new offices, being able to do so when ready can have certain advantages. After all, you spend a lot of time at work don’t you? Why not make it a nice environment?

Photo: of TBWA Ad agency in New York City
More cool offices here

Making money in a tough market

So, dear reader, as per the last post about my recent trip to Brisbane and my random musings on how similar real estate markets are around the globe, I thought I’d share my notes from Richard Rawlings’ main talk about making money in tough times. It is mainly about selling real estate, but I think there are lessons for all people who are selling in a period of downturn …

Only motivated sellers are coming to market. You don’t actually want to deal with ‘stupid sellers’, because not only do they have unrealistic expectations on the price of their homes, even if you did find a buyer stupid enough to buy the stupid price from the stupid seller, the stupid seller is so stupid they won’t even take the stupid price from the stupid buyer! So work with motivated sellers. You can’t sell a $10 bill for $11, in fact you can’t even sell it for $10, but make it $8 or $9 and you’ll get interest… so get the market going.

Rents are rising fast, naturally enough, as people are finding it difficult, if not impossible to get loans, and prices of houses (although lower than they were) are still quite high.

Despite all this, don’t  be hopeful, be proactive! Don’t worry about the market, worry about your marketing. If you have 15% share of a local market, so what? Go out and get the other 85%.

How can you influence your market share? In 3 ways:

1. What you do (action)
2. Who you are (integrity) and,
3. How you argue your case (persuasion)

If you ask sellers, they will say they judge real estate agents on how high a price they can get and how low you charge – both are bad reasons  for choosing an agent! Higher the price is probably the worst reason to choose, as stats show a well priced property sells quicker (and in the end for a better price) than one that comes on too high, hangs around and gets stale, and then you have to lower it right down to shift it. And as for lower commissions, well if you can’t defend that, how are you going to get the best price for your clients? Don’t get distracted or concerned by low commission agencies – defending your commission requires same skills that will grow your market share.

Some agents rush to social media, and blast all their listings on twitter. That’s like walking up to random people in supermarkets and shouting at them: “Wanna buy this house?!!!” The chances are you will only annoy people. What you want to happen is getting others to talk about YOU on twitter and the like. So, what are you doing that is remarkable? That will go viral on social media. Personal recommendations are what matters now.

Do you hold keys for buyers in case they are locked out? and turn up at 2 in the morning when they have locked themselveas out? Do you water their garden when they are on holiday? These are the things that will WOW your clients, get you talked about, and will win you new business.

It’s not the number of ‘for sale’ signs, it’s speed of sale, sale price vs asking price, number of cancelled sales, inspections, and fewer price reductions that actually matter and should be your yardsticks.

Don’t ask your clients what they want, think what they will LOVE! Be in the business of FUN! Virgin has Indian head massages and is investigating putting pool tables in planes (seriously). They did not ask clients whether they wanted these, the clients had no idea. Just think what will wow them. We didn’t ask mobile phone companies to put cameras in them, have them synch with outlook, install tetris and demand video conferencings … but someone at Apple thought phones could do this, and when we saw it, we loved it. As Henry Ford once said, “if I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said: a faster horse!”

The fundamentals are truth, beauty, humour, attractiveness, integrity – build these into your brand.

What does your service DO for your clients? How does it make them FEEL? The #1 reason for choosing agent is personal recommendation; how well you presented; location of office; … one of the lowest reasons is fees.

You only need to win by a nose to get the business, so go the extra mile.


Inspirational stuff eh? For more on Richard Rawlings, he is speaking at REIWA Learning this week, and also see his web site

LOST TECHNOLOGY: The Banda Machine

Agh the smell of the spirit, the beating click click click of the drum as you turned it, the remnant of wax on your fingers … I come to pay homage to the old Banda machine (as we called it in England). Invented in 1923 and basically not developing much since, destined to be put out to pasture courtesy of the photocopier machine, the good old rolio (as it was called in Australia?) or “ditto” (US) was a feature of pre 1990s schools, churches and libraries, where earnest professionals copied off class room lots of purple typefaced handouts. The printing faded over time, but you could get creative by applying different coloured wax backings – great for Maths or Economics charts or diagrams – and if you kept the originals carefully enough, you could print off more the next time (although they were never quite as good the second or third time around).

I remember coming across this amazing contraption in my first year of teaching, 1986, in a government school in Hertfordshire. It took some getting used to, but you could get the waxed backed paper into a typewriter (agh remember them?!) or carefully write on them (no mistakes allowed, nothing could be erased once the impression on the waxed backing had been made), before carefully inserting the paper into the Banda (get it the right way round, and make sure you have enough of the backed paper in the open slit but not too much) and carefully rolling the drum to produce your copies. Slow, steady rolls, not too fast as the paper would dislodge, too slow and you’d impart too much spirit and splotch your production. The paper often scrunched, your waxed back original could rip, the alcoholic spirit might be too less or too much … this was an art not a science. The cries of anguish could be heard in the main staff room and probably down the hallowed halls. But my departmental budget did not run into photocopying (easier, no original production required, but only black and white), so it was off to the Banda machine to create my handouts.

While I don’t want for those per Internet times again, there was something wonderfully Heath Robinson about the Banda, and creative about what you could do with it. And the smell – oh yes.

BANNED 3: Turning up Late

what time do you call this?!

Well, I am on a roll now; so while I am ranting, may I also suggest that lateness is nothing about bad time management, it’s about respect.

If you respect the people waiting for you to join the meeting, or the clients you are to visit, or someone who has come to see you, and are late, then you demonstrate a simple lack respect for them. You are being rude, and there is no excuse. It’s not about time management, it’s about not respecting the people who are waiting or are made to wait.

So be on time, have respect, make a good impression, turn up early, prepared, looking neat and bright. R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

Photo credit: The Lego Woman

BANNED 2: “Because I didn’t have the time”

I felt better that I got that off my chest yesterday, so here’s another bug bear. “I’m sorry, I didn’t have the time“. No excuse. Ever! You mean you did not prioritise and make time. You thought something else was more important, which may be true, so at least be honest and say that. That’s fine, but don’t bleat “no time”.

I’ve found there is actually ample time to get loads of things done – it comes down to not faffing about on things that are not important, and getting the important stuff done (concentrating on it, no distractions and motivating yourself to get it done well). Prioritising things, keeping it fun, having some time off and getting enough exercise and good food into you so you stay alive and bright.

Not had enough time.” Gimme strength. Along with “never done it like that before“… A pox on both your houses!