Bring me my wine: a guide to being French at work and why that’s a good thing.

The modern corporate environment is changing rapidly and whilst we are all scrambling to adapt, there is one nationality who act in a way already suited perfectly to 2018. You might be surprised, but right now, best practice is French.

I have been fortunate to work with a number of French people in my career. I worked for years for a French company, lived there for a couple of years, have a degree in the language and to this day look for the Stade Toulousain scores in the paper (Allez le Stade). This is my disclaimer to say that I’m a massive Francophile and always will be.

I write this so I can be entitled to say how mind blowingly frustrating and time consuming it can be to be involved in a French person heavy team. Every decision is a 20 minute discussion (or what an anglo-saxon would call an argument), every piece of information needs to be backed up with a barrage of verbalised evidence, everything takes ages but that’s okay because they are happy to work all hours and if they disagree with you, they are likely to ignore you anyway. Managing conflict is an emotional rollercoaster with tears, phones being hung up and sulks which can last days (after which all is forgiven and forgotten). But that’s not the whole story, they are also brilliant.

When you break down some of the main skills being required of successful business people in 2018, I’ve come to realise that the future is French. Namely:

·      The ability to adapt to new processes and ways of working.

·      The need to be analytical and thoughtful in looking at problems and information.

·      Playing a role which requires independence and thinking differently.

·      Having the confidence to try and fail.

For a French person, all of this is no problem.

Adherence to structure and process – in the corporate world, what you will find is that most French people have very similar backgrounds. They almost all went to a top business school or at a push, an engineering school. You very rarely encounter a French person with a degree in Geology who now works in consulting (very unlike the Brits). Even more so, they have a very consistent curriculum and learn methodologies which they all follow religiously.

Ask 10 French people to conduct an analysis of a company and you are almost guaranteed to get all of them following the same process to produce documents which look pretty much the same. Over structured you might think? However, I think it represents a respect for following well thought out and reasoned models and structure. A new approach say ‘Design Thinking’ is very easily taken up and applied by French people who then do not cut corners in its application.

Driving change amongst French workers is easy as long as you can show the evidence to support the approach. Where speed is required in delivering projects and change is constantly adding new ways of doing things. You need this ability to adapt and follow.

Questioning and analytical process – entirely in contradiction with the above, whilst French people are great with the process, what comes out of the process is subject to incredible debate and discussion. There is a fundamental ethos to French learning and culture which is to challenge anything and everything with a view towards stimulating debate and discussion. Playing Devils Advocate is a core facet of French life to the point where two French people in complete agreement will naturally allocate one person to disagree just for the fun of it.

One of my favourite colleagues I’ve ever had would typically arrive late to meetings claiming he was astoundingly busy and could only stay for 15 minutes. He would then proceed to argue furiously for at least 45mins after which I would discover he agreed with me all along. I would however, have generated 25 new things to think about, alter slightly or remove completely.

This is exactly what we need in 2018 to challenge ideas, promote discussion and encourage new ways of looking at things. It is an endemic skill to being French which is not the case for many cultures.

Combine the two above and you use the time saved from the process bit to augment the thinking bit. Perfect.

Independence and Rebellion – you will be well aware of the French love of rebellion. This is not just an aspect of their history but a deep rooted ethos. It is also linked to an incredible sense of ‘the people’ e.g. the community and the greater good.

A great example is the one where they tried to introduce wheel clamps into France. Apparently, if you put superglue in the lock of a wheel clamp, it makes it almost impossible to get off without completely destroying the whole apparatus which means you have to completely rebuild it (at considerable cost). When clamps started appearing in France, people would routinely carry superglue in their pockets to put it in the locks of every machine they saw. For the person who owned the car, this meant a huge inconvenience but eventually, the cost of constantly rebuilding the clamps led to France dropping the whole scheme. Individual sacrifice to the benefit of the group. If you tried that in the UK, you’d get a very different outcome.

The application of this at a corporate level is that French people are very aware of the group dynamic, are reluctant to accept leadership without question and importantly, are always looking for things to improve. Can this be frustrating….yes indeed, but there is a perpetual and unquenching enthusiasm to identify and act upon opportunities.

Accept failure and move on – the stereotype would suggest that French people do not lack in confidence but more than anything, the ability to successfully accept failure and move on from it is predicated on confidence that the next go will be better.

Having confidence that you did your best and any failure was down to bad luck, the circumstances or the cosmos is more a mindset than anything else and this is a skill in abundance amongst the French working population. The ‘start-up’ culture is increasingly an objective for almost all businesses so that ability is only going to be of value.

The US is also renowned for not having a confidence problem and the rates of entrepreneurship in that country are extremely high vs most other nations. It’s worth considering who came up with the word though; ‘entrepreneur’. No prizes for guessing.

So what

Diversity always brings value to any business or team and there’s a rapidly changing environment of how you have to approach projects/work, build a new culture and deliver changes to mindset. Each culture has some built in traits and working styles which contribute to creating the way you work and anyone who has worked in different countries will appreciate the differences. With mixed cultural teams, it’s even more pronounced. Learning from each other, blending the strengths inherent in each person and adapting the team to get the best out of everyone is the best you can aim for but…..

Trust me though, if you have the choice and the opportunity to think French. It’s well worth a go.

First or Worst: a lesson in risk taking from the Scottish Rugby Team

I was fortunate enough to be in attendance at the weekend when the unfancied Scotland bettered their rugby playing counterparts from the south by 25 points to 13. This is a result worth noting because 1) it’s the first time Scotland have beaten England in 10 years, 2) it was the biggest winning margin for Scotland in 147 years, 3) essentially no-one expected them to win.

Now, rather than talk about the rugby (other than to say it was just great) it’s better to comment on the rich lessons for the corporate world. Namely;

You’d rather be first or worst; there are typically no silver medals in business. If you finish 2nd in a bid or a job interview etc. you are not unfortunately allowed to take a place on the podium beside the winner. In 15 years I have been involved in 57 losing bids each of which has taken long hours of my time and the emotional commitment of a whole team. Of those 57, we’ve finished 2nd about 30 times and on almost each occasion, you have the delight of sitting with the client for them to explain why you were runner up. I liken this to having your boyfriend/girlfriend end it with you over the phone and then shortly after meet up with you to explain why their new partner is better than you.

The Scottish rugby team have long inhabited a world where they come second. They get close to the other team but lose gallantly in the last 10 minutes. This has happened frequently enough so as to enter the lexicon e.g. it looks like we are going to get the contract as long as we don’t do a Scotland.

However, for the past year the team has added a new dimension to how they play noticeable for a much higher amount of risk. Sometimes it goes really well and sometimes it does not. Scotland beat Australia in Sydney and then lost the next game against Fiji, they started this year with an absolute ‘gubbing’ in Wales and then beat England.

In corporate terms, it’s like winning 2 big contracts and getting laughed at by the other two. This is nonetheless better than three second place finishes and a small win.

The application of this idea would perhaps allow you to consider an alternative view of what success looks like. From a customer perspective, being consistently good doesn’t necessarily mean that you get the most sales. You can risk one area to be very good in another. Customers don’t always buy the best product on average, they buy when they like something specific that’s important to them. Think about your partner, I’d be surprised if you love them for being a ‘good all rounder’.

Mercurial, maverick, maestros

One of Scotland’s best players is absolutely brilliant. He also makes mistakes sometimes which make you want to throw things at the television. Some of the time, this is because his brain is faster than everyone else which means people aren’t playing to his level but sometimes, he just makes a complete mess of it.

In the first game of the season, he had a bit of a nightmare which led to a lot of people shouting for his replacement. Fortunately, at the weekend he was the man of the match and was instrumental in Scotland’s win. Were he to have been replaced by someone more solid or dependable, it might be more consistent or predictable but it would have been unlikely to have been enough. When the competition is so good, do you risk being middle of the pack?

However, it’s often how we run performance reviews and assess people. You can be judged more for the depth of your mistakes rather than the heights of your successes. Discussions around promotions are commonly about giving reasons why someone ‘can’t be promoted’ rather than considering taking the risk. You will typically judge someone on their weakest point. I’ve been in sessions where someone who was really excellent was marked down on the basis of her admin as a Project Manager being ‘a bit loose’.

For your own careers, there is always a choice between middle of the road and maverick and all assessment tools in order to cover everybody usually end up forcing you towards the median. This is the difference between Finn Russell (the above mentioned player) being dropped after the first game and allowing Finn Russell to play and then win the game for the team on Saturday.

Even more interestingly, England’s best player (a young rascal called Owen Farrell) is getting a huge amount of criticism for his performance in missing tackles. In defeat, the discussion for England has focussed on what he did wrong. In the next game, does he play to avoid mistakes or does he play how he does best?

The danger of overcoaching; England are a great team with near unlimited resources to try new and innovative things. As an example, they flew the entire team from Georgia to England so that they could practice one aspect of the game in preparation for Scotland. They are hugely skilful, incredibly well trained and professional, and everyone knows exactly what they should be doing. They are in essence like an American football team where your role in the team is to follow orders according to the prepared move (and that’s it).

Scotland are a good team but they are not as good as England. What they were great at, was being flexible to changes. If something worked they did it again, if it didn’t they were quick to change. They had much smaller players than England so they tried to run around them rather than through them. They were a series of independent minds within the team who had the license to be more creative and imaginative than their English equivalents.

You can perhaps see where I am going with this. Scotland were an Agile business up against a large well structured incumbent. Even with the resources and skills, the fundamental culture and approach requires business in 2018 to be able to adapt to changes quickly and to take decisions independently. The coaching of the Scotland team isn’t to train them how to think necessarily, it’s to develop the system which allows the players to put that into practice. L&D needs to be focussed not just on what you do but how you do it, both individually and as a team.

In summary

  • Risks can be good if you can accept you might lose a few.
  • You need the mavericks in your team as much as the solid workers to get the best out the team.
  • You need to enable a culture where people are empowered to take those risks, and to be the mavericks.

Now, Scotland may well lose massively against Ireland in their next game. They might win the World Cup or go out in the first round against Japan. I will however be talking about the game on Saturday for years to come regardless of what happens next.

You can ask yourselves whether people will speak of you in the same way.

PS For any foreign readers, you are welcome to seek the match highlights to see the full glory of victory but here are some equivalents to help you out.

It would be like the Cleveland Browns scoring 3 touchdowns in the first quarter against the New England Patriots following three Tom Brady fumbles/interceptions

It would be like the Gold Coast Suns beating Richmond at the MCG by 50 points

It would be like Leicester City winning the Premier League (oh wait)

Tony Stark’s guide to innovation; the disappointment of Ironman and why he should sell the project and start mining Bitcoin.

Ironman is a rather well know series of films about a guy (Tony Stark) with a metal suit which flies, has advanced AI and he lives his life like a corporate James Bond. It’s also a cautionary tale about the perils  which follow innovation and about missing opportunities.

If you’ve come from LinkedIn – see below for the extra content

The Ironman suit wasn’t the innovation

The suit looks cool but is essentially some hardware built on the foundation of the real innovation – Tony’s Ark reactor; an almost unlimited, clean and free power source. Its inception came from one of the best drivers for innovation there is – necessity and scarcity. Tony was A) going to die unless he created something and, B) was being forced at gunpoint to build something with bits of spare metal and sticky tape with the only help being one single helper with no relevant skills.

And with his invention came a wave of disruption (quite literally)

What he produced was a device capable of producing enough power to both run himself and a shiny red suit with rocket boosters. His invention was enough to stimulate incredible development by his competitors (enemies) through equivalent products and variations on weapons required to meet the new challenge. Following a period of maturity, his commoditised product spawned a range of suits in a flotilla? Squadron? operated by the US Government.

And then the iteration phase (Ironman suit 6s)

Sadly, improvements to the original Ironman suit have broadly followed a pattern of incremental improvements to the look and feel (shinier with gold bits), the User Interface (the AI robot guy he talks to) and to the self-driving function

With the arrival of a hugely effective competitor (aliens), he is now reliant on a number of partners. These include a guy who is 100 years old with no obvious extra skills (Captain America) and a guy who is really good with a bow and arrow (Hawkeye).

They have a cartel (the Avengers) on planet saving technology which they both protect feverishly and limit its use in the wider world. (it’s the Apple iRonman)


How successful therefore has Tony Starks killer innovation been? It’s essentially boiled down to the Ironman suit and a building which looks nice and lights up. In the 10 years since the invention of Ironman, he has a better version of Ironman, but no new major products. He has fallen into an old corporate quick sand of creating something unique and truly differentiating but then falling back on old glories in improving what exists and not thinking about the future and the next big thing.

Kodak essentially invented cheap photographic film (and then digital cameras got them), Blockbuster ran the rental video world before Netflix.  Microsoft went through a kicking before getting back to partial world dominance. Look today at Tesla (tonnes of debt, Solarcity anyone?, huge targets set and slow to ramp up), Netflix (not making any money, competitors gearing up for a serious fight (Disney). Everyone loves these companies but they need to achieve world domination or they will fail.

1000 posts have praised Elon Musk for planning a $45b pay day when Tesla is worth $650b but in order to do that, Tesla would have to worth more than the current top 10 car companies put together.

 Saving the world, time to leave it to others.

If you take Tony Stark out of the Ironman movies, do you actually lose anything?

Let’s go back to Tony’s main innovation; his Ark Reactor. My suggestion to him, sell-off the Ironman business and sell the AI and power source for the suits. He’ll make a tonne of cash, allow people more suited to saving the planet to take over and he can focus on taking the next step. He already looks like he can’t be bothered with most of it and he never gets on with the real patriotic types.Tony Stark - innovation

He’s committed to Ironman because of nostalgia and because of the control. He is Bill Gates in the early 2000’s clinging on to Microsoft as the world was beginning to overtake him. Like Bill though, Tony is a visionary and great innovator, he just needs something new to solve.

Change the context

The biggest disruption comes when a product changes the context for what we do and how we live our lives. The iPhone was revolutionary because it changed what we do when we were not at a computer. The train was even more revolutionary because it changed our regard for distance.

Tony Stark’s innovation is to allow the possibility of not seeing energy as a cost or an impediment. You always  look at energy/electricity as a cost (both financial and social) which means the objective is consistently to look at how to reduce consumption or find smarter/more efficient ways to produce it. If however energy was a free and unlimited source, what would it allow and what products could he be thinking about building to take advantage of it.

Rather than Ironman he could have started with Bitcoin mining (because it’s so hot right now), with an astounding processing capacity he could be smashing the competition both in the mining and in the blockchain bit.

The energy production industry would cease to exist in its current form almost overnight and after a few years of massive change to the grid and the network. ‘Tony’s MyHome Ark Reactor’ TM could take every home off the grid.

Stark Industries Maglev Hyperloop trans-sonic commuter trains? Ironman brand 3D printer and DIY at home aluminium micro-smelter?

Ironman 4

I am looking forward to the next Ironman sequel showing the creation of a As A Service model for Ironman Tech. The launch of an energy joint venture between Stark Industries and Thor and the creation of a new cryptocurrency (Ironcoin) to fund Bruce Banner fledgling nano-robot pharma start-up.

Tony Stark will have been ousted to lead R&D leaving Pepper Potts to continue to run the company to astounding success.

So what?

Crazy but real

Yes crazy, but there is a basis of fact in the above. There are times where countries are producing more electricity that they need (most days now in Scotland when it’s windy – so most days). Even in coal country Queensland with solar, at some times the spot rate for electricity is under 0 therefore which technically means someone is being paid to consume it. Tesla is pushing batteries to allow people to go off grid. There is a working demo of the hyperloop.

The lesson from the Ironman

  • That innovation is only as good as what it changes and what it allows you to do – in creating something amazing, what it disrupts and what that allows you do is the real transformation
  • The change to your perception is important. By changing the dynamic of how you think about constraints and how you review possibilities, you can try to identify real ideas
  • Keep adding fuel – the points you get for great innovation today lose their value in time, you have to take an innovation and improve it but you have to keep adding things which are new

How to do this

It depends on how you want to define innovation and how you set the context.

1)      It’s about doing something new for you – you find other companies, other academics, other tools which do things and you think about how you can apply that to you.

In a workshop context, you want to discuss things outside in e.g.  ask a question like if Space X ran our finance department, what would they do (interestingly, they are all about vertical integration and cost management). Or everything as a service ……

2)      It’s about doing something new (full stop) – you think about what’s never been done, you ask why, and you think about ‘perhaps if’.

In a workshop context, you select an example of something that’s never been done and work through how it might work. The emphasis is on steering clear of reasons why you can’t. e.g. suggest that you run your internal operations as a ‘gig economy’ or give everyone in the whole company an average salary with only performance bonuses changing.

3)      It’s about changing what something means – distance means time, cost means limit, waiting equals bad. Flip that on its head and work backwards.

In a workshop context, you do some prep to identify big blockers that you have and then you design something which ignores them e.g. if teleporting existed, how would we run our performance management process or as the above didn’t have the cost of electricity, how would be manage sales.

4) It’s about the problem, not the solution – the identification of the real problem takes the time (see design thinking, human centric design etc.). You ignore the solution assuming a few people can crack it and spend the time working out whether it’s the symptom or the disease. We are inefficient because we don’t know what we are doing, because we don’t care enough to ask, because we don’t like our bosses, because they don’t let us take breaks even though we have a pool table and PlayStation which we only play when we aren’t getting paid (solution, everyone gets paid 25% extra during their breaks)

In a workshop context, start anywhere and dig until you get what you are looking for, do this with anyone customers/staff/suppliers. Take the time in advance or set it up in the session, take the time to get to a eureka moment.

Chandler and Monica’s guide to High Performing Teams: every team needs ‘Friends’

There was a time (2006) where team dynamics and personality profiling was all the rage. Every project or team would go through a process of discussing and then planning out what they thought a ‘high performing team’ would look like to them and accordingly, they would have a look at the members of the team and identify what everyone was like and what the team could do to improve individuals and the team.

Over the past decade, this has fallen out of favour for a range of reasons (not in any order and very much according to me).

  1. Everyone wants to think they are a special snowflake and that you can’t ‘define’ who someone is with a few questions (like everything else, probably the ‘fault’ of millennials)
  2. In 2018, the need for much more wide ranging teams from designers to testers; a team in Mumbai and 4 in Edinburgh, Sydney and London, the need for diverse thought and engagement from each part of the project lifecycle. Teams are wider, diverse, and not sat next to each other and more temporary.
  3. At the same time, projects are shorter, budgets are constrained and you need to get people off of their phones long enough to go through the process.

Rather perversely though, these reasons are exactly why trying to understand the people in your team is more important today than ever before. Rather than worrying about the accuracy of the output, I would actually argue that the process of trying to understand what people are like and attempting to identify what’s important (and the gaps), is worth the attempt. Putting some structure around that conversation helps to make it more relevant and effective. Just by doing it, you get some value regardless of the method.

Therefore, I have developed a tool suitable for Buzzfeed millennials and cynical 30-40 somethings who remember the 90’s: The Friends HPT Model.


The secret to a high performing team (kind of) is remarkably similar to that of creating a successful sitcom. You put a range of interesting and varied characters in a series of challenging situations, add some humour, some heightened emotion and a range of annoying and difficult side characters (clients) and off you go. This craft was mastered in the 1990’s by the TV show ‘Friends’ so therefore, stands as the benchmark for assessment.

On your next team meeting, sit your team down with a coffee at Central Perk and do the following.

First, decide which character which member of the team you are.

Monica – competitive, results orientated and highly detailed in both approach and assessment. Broadly risk adverse but will fight to the last to achieve success. Inspires fear and hard work.

Joey – perhaps not the smartest but certainly knows the most people, fiercely loyal and accidentally successful. Doesn’t stick to one thing for long but always has belief. Can charm clients and team mates both and will have some obvious focus on ensuring team well- being ‘how you doing…’

Phoebe – way out on the fringe, has wild ideas ranging from impossible to improbable, is happy to have a go at anything and brings an entirely different perspective. Has an unusually tough streak occasionally if people step out of line. Sees the world in a different way.

Chandler – analytical and thoughtful, sees problems before they happen. Brings humour and fun to all things, sticks to hard tasks when required and supports his team mates. Has an introspective and neurotic outlook. Doesn’t have the client engagement skills of Joey but when a client likes him, they really like him.

Rachel – polished and looks the part, is a complete disaster in an area which is of no interest to her but when she gets something she likes, is unstoppable and successful. Is happy to make big changes if she thinks they are the right thing to do.

Ross – hugely passionate and knowledgeable about his subject. Not the best at making decisions but will stick to it regardless. Keeps a little outside the rest of the group but this brings perspective. Can be pedantic and frustrating

Discuss….. if you have 5 Monicas, what does that mean. Are you missing a Chandler? Does that matter?

Now imagine yourself floating above the ‘Friends’ with a remit to provide feedback to each about how to improve their performance. Consider also how the combinations work and think about the situations which work best for each person.

For example; there’s a client sales meeting for a new opportunity. Who do you send?

  • Phoebe and Joey –  it all likelihood, a chaotic rambling presentation with offbeat and unstructured content. Chandler and Monica – equal parts overpowering and pessimistic

My pick: Ross and Rachel –  Rachel does the talking, Ross is brought in to provide SME material where required. If available Joey to do the follow-up.

Or; there’s a hard deadline and a disastrous state of a current deliverable

  • Joey and Phoebe – might not see the problem and have the desire to see it done. Might decide to escape and hope for the best. Ross and Rachel – might focus too much on the detail or struggle with the stress

My pick: Monica and Chandler – Monica will have the team drilled and focussed (although possibly furious and bored). Chandler once engaged will power through whatever it takes to get it done.

Or any other work situation you can think of.

If you would like a second coffee, you could also think about the following

  • Pick a peripheral character (who might be like one of your clients); how do the Friends deal with them, what are they like and what drives them. How do you approach the situation?
  • What does success look like for each of the characters and the group as a whole?
  • How does each character deal with stress situations? Monica gets obsessed with something specific (cooking, cleaning etc), Rachel runs away? Joey eats Pizza?
  • What would you say to each of the characters to get them interested in something? Is it a bribe, an intellectual interest, a threat?

What does this all mean?

  1. It doesn’t matter if it’s not perfect or if you are a mix of different types; what’s important is the introspection you have on yourself and the team. Ultimately, it is to understand that people are different and to appreciate that what drives them is different. The more you understand, the better you can be as a manager and as a team.
  2. Remove the specifics; it’s easier to talk about ‘types’ or third parties than it is to talk about individuals. You can have a fun conversation about what Chandler might do rather than talking about ‘Jacqui the OD stream lead in your team’. The fact that Jacqui ‘is a total Chandler’ still allows for a disconnect which can support a richer conversation.
  3. Make it fun; as an administrative exercise, you can lose some the value if people see it as a chore. By adding some amusement to the process, people are likely to add more to the conversation (although it is important to say that this isn’t the case for everyone.)


The importance to think about team dynamics and personalities has never gone away even if the tools have slipped out of fashion a bit. Why not consider taking a bit of time in you team to have a conversation; use your ‘Friends’.

PS Here’s the big problem with the above; it requires a reasonably good understanding of the TV Programme ‘Friends’ which isn’t necessarily the case for everyone in your team. Your options then are to allow them time off to review the box set on Netflix, to find a common example otherwise or even better; to select a tool created already by much smarter people than me, often following academic research and considerable effort. Here are some classics for you to Google.

Belbin – the old faithful team dynamics assessment tool.

Myers-Briggs – another classic giving you a personality type and a great lecture behind it. (has a cost implication and ideally someone trained to delivered the lecture and the background) – see also 16PF

Johari Window – great for supporting feedback and for thinking about areas for development

The colours one – super simple identification of type against words that best describe you

There are lots of other examples, including from your own company.

PPS – if you determine that Game of Thrones would be a better example; i.e. everyone wants to kill each other and there’s no trust anywhere. It might be worth considering a wider culture assessment

The 5 star rating Hunger Games – it’s a dystopian fight to the death to survive. (i.e. keeping your Amazon/ Uber/ TripAdvisor rating up)

The Hunger Games is a series of films/books about a consumer driven TV focussed society where people fight to the death in an arena controlled and manipulated by a shadowy organisation where they have little chance of success and there are frequent rule changes. Remove the arbitrary slaughter and Jennifer Lawrence and I think it has eerie parallels with the world of product rating on our favourite websites.

Now, we all live in a world where a rating drives your decision making. The broad idea is that a huge range of customers sharing their opinion and scores helps you to find the best product, the best service and generally forces suppliers to improve what they offer. You look at the reviews (usually out of 5) and then pick accordingly. In reality, what this means is that a bad score means disaster – an Uber driver with a score of 3.5 you assume has dogs in the car and swears whilst he smokes and a TripAdvisor rating of 3.5 is probably an unfinished flea ridden concrete box hotel beside a major motorway.

The trouble is, as with any game where the stakes are high, what starts as a even playing field immediately leads to everyone looking for an advantage through any means possible. Furthermore, in this case the referees have skin in the game. (i.e. Amazon also sells products, Trip Advisor = Expedia).

Accordingly, what started as an experiment in democratised opinion sharing has morphed into a life or death fight for a rating number which doesn’t always get it right and might cost your existence. Here are three companies I volunteer as tribute (Hunger Games reference) to prove my point.

The begging and pleading of a small toy company – imagine you launch a product tomorrow and put it on Amazon. One of your first orders comes in and the customer (an unreasonable man desiring a Christmas present for a one year old) is unhappy that the product isn’t delivered in the promised time. A follow up request for a rating is met with a zero star rating (the man didn’t get the product yet). The score for the product drops to 2 stars and the product is never bought again ever by everyone. What lunatic buys a two star??

The unprincipled monster in this story is me and my rating was met with the following response (paraphrased loosely).

Dear complete bastard, I am a small company and I have 12 children to feed none of which will be able to wear shoes in the harsh winter due your rating destroying my credibility and in course my livelihood.  Please reconsider changing your rating and I will light a candle in your name every Christmas. Here is the link on ______ to change your rating. God bless us everyone.

I received the product, changed the rating to 4 (how could I not). Company is saved. Shoes for everyone.

I’m only exaggerating a little in the above . There is an incredible power of a rating which has led to the rise of a new type of strange personalisation in service. People will actively chase the rating in preference to anything else – e.g. ‘I don’t have my product’ is not seen as urgent until it translates to zero stars. Honourable mentions in this category for Dominos delivery ratings (the manager has to personally phone you if you rate them a poor score) and just about all Uber drivers. (who also know where you live).

The ‘Featured Rating’ con-trick – trendy mattress company – I recently bought a mattress online for which one of the selling points was commentary on the ‘excellent unboxing experience!?’. The mattress was delivered within 24hrs 2 days before Christmas (in a box, there was no lie) and having taken advantage of the 100 day sleep guarantee, we sent it back because the chemical smell after 3 weeks remained overpowering  (as a separate point, if you look at the small print, most mattress companies suggest you air your mattress outside for a day or two before you put it in your house. This does make you wonder what’s in it and what liability they are trying to avoid). Nonetheless, the mattress was taken away quickly no questions asked and a very nice follow-up email was sent thanking us for giving them the chance.

My feedback; 5/5 for service, 1/5 for the product, 3/5 for the ‘unboxing experience’. A few lines saying something similar to the above also went up. A few days later, a line of my feedback went up on their site. ‘amazing customer service and delivery especially just before Christmas…….’ On closer investigation, if you look at the website rating, what you are shown on the first page is their ‘featured ratings’ which are all 5 stars and glowing. In order to see the other ratings, you have to physically click on the stars you want e.g. my 2 star one to see the full version.

We are used to seeing the ratings in chronological order but increasingly, you can see selected comments appearing at the top, Youtube in particular. You can assume it’s not long before you see these monetised. E.g. to pin 5 ratings of your choice at the top, give us $5 a month or even more interestingly, give a $5 to remove a rating. It’s already happening on TripAdvisor.

The ‘feedback is important to us’ squeeze – given the power of the rating, no-one wants a bad score so when the possibility of a good score appears, people will jump on it quickly. The best example is to take a cruise and enter into a world of the American feedback hunters.

Over the years, incentives and rewards have moved away from sales onto service. The complaints over mis-selling in Financial Services or over-zealous salesmen (it’s always men in my experience) have changed the dynamic of salespeople. However, there are obvious rewards for good service built into remuneration so you get the following decision tree; I tried this out in the most service intensive place I’ve ever been; a cruise boat on the Mediterranean.

‘It has been my pleasure to serve you on the boat this week’ – RESPONSE – thank you so much, you’ve been great – FOLLOW UP – ‘feedback is important to us – here is a form that I’d love you to fill in about my performance this week.


‘It has been my pleasure to serve you on the boat this week’ – RESPONSE – yeah, it was fine – FOLLOW UP – ‘please enjoy the rest of your day and safe journey home’

Even more fascinating was the feedback form when we got home. One of the questions asked ‘did our staff ask you directly for positive feedback’. This is clearly an issue that they know about but I could still answer ‘no’. There is an investment in getting the good ratings which means feedback is skewed away from bad to good. You can see this in the general ratings people give, a 3.0 rating is catastrophic and even a 4.0 is starting to feel a bit low.

What does it all mean?

It is now as it has ever been, companies are smart in their marketing and approach to take account of how customers make decisions about their products. What has changed is the platforms behind managing the ratings and the anonymity of response meaning that you will take advice from people you don’t know, will never meet and no doubt have different lives and personalities. The companies themselves are also driving what you respond to and therefore what is considered important. For example, someone has decided the ‘unboxing experience’ is an important to the overall rating as the product itself, a 10 year mattress purchase vs the first 20 seconds. Companies act accordingly.

If you are a consumer, you need to be increasingly wary of looking at scores and look at what comes behind it. You have to run your own analytics strategy to build your own sense of what is good or bad. My approach is to trust no-one who gives a 1 or a 5 and spend my time looking at 3s to look for trends.  If you are a retailer/supplier, you need strategies to play the system and position yourself in the best way. As with anything, you need adapt your behaviour to focus on what is being measured. This might mean pushing on personalised service or keeping a much closer eye on the immediate stage after the sale and to get the timing for the feedback right.

I recently moved countries and had some removal guys round to pack up our furniture. The feedback form was handed to me whilst the three huge guys were stood behind me and every item of glassware and anything fragile still to be taken to the truck.

My feedback – glowing. My furniture – still on a boat in the Indian ocean.

PS I’ll leave you with the best rating piece of gamesmanship I’ve seen. Have a look at this and tell me what rating the Guardian gave the film.Guardian - krays

The Travel Agent for millennials: a lesson in digital customer experience from Europe’s smartest tourist agency

In a recent release from the Rough Guide people, the country voted the most beautiful in the world was the perhaps unexpected Scotland (my home country). Not making the top 20 was Australia (my adopted country) which was subject to some discussion and debate. I myself can vouch for how nice Manly Beach in Sydney is on a Spring morning vs a wet February day in the old country but the heavily young readership of the Rough Guides don’t lie so the title is Scotland’s.

Now it’s not just the pretty pictures that get the job done. It’s worth saluting the people at VisitScotland (who have some serious game) who have the customer experience right in the middle of their thinking. Namely;

–         Focus on creating moments

–         Build an adventure and an experience

–         Be authentic and unique and let people do the work for you

–         Be smart in the engagement

 The Instagram Travel agency

Let’s start with something really clever. In late October, Visit Scotland set up a Instagram Travel Agency in a physical location in London. Believe it or not, Scottish tourism has the biggest Instagram following of anywhere in Europe (which is extraordinary if you think about it) and of that following, the biggest group is from London.

What they did was to create an Instragram wall in a physical shop with a range of photographs from which people picked their favourites and the agents were there to build an itinerary for you based on those picks.

So what?

Here is where knowing your customers is pretty smart. The number one problem for Scottish tourism is the weather. There is no guarantee of good weather at any point of the year so it is always a lottery. Going back to Australia losing out in the top 20, you could reasonably expect Sydney to have better weather on 350 days a year vs Scotland so if you are planning a trip for three weeks, you’d be smarter to pick Oz right?

Not anymore for the Instagram generation. There is an incredible desire to create ‘moments’ which you can record and share. Finding a perfect moment becomes a primary objective to judge the success of your trip. Now, for Scotland this is perfect because in between the rain or the clouds, you will always get a few pictures of astonishing beauty.

It is for this reason that Scotland is Instagram’s biggest fan.

The North Coast 500

I saw recently that a friend on Facebook had completed the ‘North Coast 500’ which I had never heard of. Having looked at the pictures and had a look at the website (which you can too) I discovered that it is in fact a brand new creation of a Scottish ‘Route 66’ in the far north coast (An area which is not renowned for large visitor numbers). It has been created from nothing as an adventure, you can subscribe be a ‘member’ which includes a £250 gold package with free merchandising, offers, a bottle Scottish gin etc, but importantly, a regular update on what is happening and access to a special ‘club’. It has also been simplified beautifully to make it easy to plan. Pre-set itineraries – basic to luxury, different sections; top, bottom, all. Themes; adventure, relax, indulge

It has been created in the way you would create any modern product to sell. ‘This is our most popular package’, ‘simple click to plan your route’, ‘interactive map (Instagram connected)’, ‘Aston Martin driving experience’ (message; it’s a dream for driving and doing it in your 1998 Nissan Micra will be just as good).

Having never been to this area in my 30 years living in Scotland, I am now as an outsider furiously desperate to go.  This is not how you’d typically sell tourism but….increase in numbers 29,000, £9m extra investment which is a big number for a pretty remote and not commonly visited.

It’s an experience, it’s simple to buy and you can be part of a community


For a few years now, Scottish tourism has been desperately pushing a hashtag friendly motto to encourage engagement. #homecoming  #scotspirit  and even changed the name of the tourist board to the twitter friendly  #visitscotland.

Personally, I thought they were trying too hard but I’m wrong. The Instagram following is around 400k and as with any good social media, it is a virtuous circle of the community feeding more pictures which encourages more interest and engagement.

The plan for this year at Scotland’s marquee day Hogmanay (New Year), is to use real people from amongst the 20,000 carrying torches to spell out a giant #scotword with a word to be selected by a vote from the people of Scotland on what ‘makes them proudest to be Scottish’. This will in turn become the next iteration of pushing their Social Media (with a ready made fantastic visual)

The push for authenticity comes from enabling people to push the positive messages about Scotland knowing that Scotland is a country almost designed for Instagram. Each of those pictures is a real and personal view of Scotland and with your typical filter, looks great.

Be authentic and unique and let people do the work for you


Going back to the Travel Agency, Visit Scotland are following a trend in sales and marketing which is to create ‘experience centres’ where the Digital presence is used to drive physical stores. Amazon, Apple etc are already all over this but it shows that it’s applicable everywhere.

There are lots of examples (usually in airports) to push VR or visuals to market tourism but this jump into the sales/service aspect is really fascinating for tourism. Our Celtic cousins in Ireland produced my all-time favourite marketing campaign

Ireland in VR

With the near absolute market penetration of Irish bars globally, they already have experience centres everywhere in the world. It’s perhaps no surprise Scottish tourism numbers lag way behind Ireland’s (around 3m trips vs 9m trips per year – even with UK visitor numbers skewing that a bit). You can have a Guinness in a bar in Manila and it you can pretend you are in Dublin, which gets you thinking…..

The opportunity afforded by social media to build brand awareness and engagement is considerable and the mix of the sales, marketing and service channels will increasingly be smart business for tourism. Scotland can’t overnight build a pub in every city but VR, Instagram etc is a very cost effective way of doing something similar.

So, Scotland can be commended for its approach to customer engagement – numbers this year are up 28% on last year overall and 49% from North America alone which even accounting for the Outlander effect and the £ sterling Brexit Armageddon is pretty good.

Scotland ‘The Most Beautiful Country in the World TM’ – To see why, have a look at the #scotspirit on Instagram or Twitter.

I would stress that I have no connection with VisitScotland other than as proud Scottish person (who does agree that it’s the most beautiful country in the world…. maybe joint with New Zealand, or Canada, possibly France….

Recruitment in 2017: The Digital Diversity Dilemma

Digital is disrupting everything and this includes the recruitment process. Some corporates are going so far as to remove the academic requirements as entry criteria to rely more thoroughly on their own tools to assess talent. What are the unintended consequences though? And how do we find the value amidst the noise?—ey-transforms-its-recruitment-selection-process-for-graduates-undergraduates-and-school-leavers

Back in 2003 when I was applying for one particular graduate role, I had a conversation with the HR lead about psychometric tests where I gave my opinion; 1) that you could learn them and most companies used a small range of suppliers (after a few, my marks were awesome, mostly because I’d seen them before) and 2) they are ignoring a range of skills and abilities that you can’t test with a online paper with some people who fail, who might be great.

Her response at the time was something I hadn’t thought of namely; we get enough applicants so that we could take a random 10%, interview them and get enough quality people for the job. The psychometric tests were there to apply some marginal value to whittling down to a manageable number. Having made it though to the last round myself following 4 tests, 3 interviews and a 3 day assessment centre, I discovered they had a quota of 8 people from the 10 that had made it that far.  This was of scant consolation given my finishing position of 9th.

In the subsequent years, the process I don’t believe has become more personal. There are interviews conducted online using webcams, various assessment centres, interviews and a range of new tests. Digital has enabled much more to be done in the process with less human intervention. From engaging quite closely with the graduate process in particular for a consulting firm, I arrived at the end of the process for the assessment centres and the interviews. Over the years, I’ve not noticed any obvious change in the type of candidate.

Except one.

I think there has been a decrease in graduate candidates from  poorer backgrounds and I have seen a definite trend towards private schooled and very polished graduates. This is no disrespect to some of the excellent grads I’ve worked with but I wonder whether we’d profit from looking at a better social mix.  Now, I don’t want to speak to wider socio-economic trends or education  but as regards just the process itself.

Here are some things to think about;

1)     The digital process – Digital allows for a range of new tests, tools and processes to be delivered/off shored and analysed to bring some analytics to the overall process. This now includes recorded webcam interviews, Skype interviews etc.  The polish which looks good in that process is actually taught in private schools. These kids arrive at University already better prepared for the type of interview process which is increasingly prevalent. I am guilty myself of being impressed by graduates who deliver a nice presentation but even before the grads get to the interview stage, many have been removed from the process. In the early 2000’s there was a trend towards removing dates of birth and photos on CVs to make for a supposedly fairer judgement. The new process essentially doubles down on the original problem by bringing how people look right to the start.

 2)     Academic scores – can actually be a leveller. Your exams are the same for everyone so there is some balance in the scoring. It’s easy to say that exams are not the only thing and that all the extra work is important but the hierarchy of needs for less well-off students is that they spend 25 hrs a week working at a shop and then the rest on their studies.  Is this recognised in the same way as 5 hours of charity work a week would be? For students working every summer full time to save a bit of money vs 3 months on a volunteer charity program in Africa; is there a fair assessment of value? If you remove the scores as a main driver of selection, do you actually make it less fair for some?

 3)     EQ vs IQ –  I’ve written before about the rise of EQ as a core skill vs IQ as the main marker of value. The combination of this plus Digital is why I think companies are looking to remove academics as the gatekeeper of selection. You could essential allow every university student in the country to apply for 1 job if you have enough intelligence and analysis going into the process. A big AI engine could run through the applications and pick out the best people. However, your fit with the culture, your opinions and way of presenting them, and your approach to innovation and creativity are increasingly important. How ready are the tools and the AI to be able to apply those criteria? And even more so, if we are explicitly looking for more diversity of thought. How can that be built into the tool?

 All in all, recruitment faces the same challenges as with anything in Digital Transformation which is to make sure that Digital supports and enables in the first instance and as the technology progresses, you give away more of the qualitative measuring to the AI.

As soon as you measure something, people will find a way to try and game the system. Private schools know that employers like charity work so the pupils are obliged as part of their lives to do charity work (and are assisted in the process). Google constantly change their algorithms not necessary to make them better but because people work out how to get their positioning higher.

The highest position in the search always goes to the people paying the most, the richest not necessarily the best. We need to make sure that’s not the future for recruitment.

PS as a bonus,  if you consider recruitment as a CRM process here’s where it might be going.

No touch recruitment –  AI searches online information Social Media, LinkedIn etc and just selects the candidates without anything process at all. You get an IM on LinkedIn offering you a job on a 3 month probation – it doesn’t work out, no harm no foul.

The High School Draft  – ignore university all together, pick candidates out of high school NBA style, sponsor training for them as university modules across a range of universities and training centres. Get the best candidates before anyone else.