Archive for the Category organisation in action


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Better than placebo?

How effective ought charities to be? As effective for their service users as, say, medicines produced by major pharmaceutical companies are for their patients?

That seems to be setting the bar quite high. After all, drugs are very expensively researched and carefully manufactured over a long period. They are not allowed anywhere near patients until they have been rigorously tested and found to be effective.

By contrast, charities often run under pressure on a shoestring. Results are demanded early, not at the end of a sustained period of trial and experiment. Funds to measure effectiveness are likely to be add-ons, not core to the business.

While you are pondering whether it is reasonable to expect charities to reach anywhere near the same effectiveness levels as mainstream medicine does, consider this:

Most drugs work in 30 to 50 per cent of people.

That’s right. Most patients don’t actually receive any benefit from the medicines they take. Who says? Dr. Allen Roses, a senior executive of GlaxoSmithKline. Who ought to know.

An excellent blog post from New Philanthropy Capital has just raised this. They are inviting debate. Well worth joining in.



Quick guide: making your job easier

The good people at Know how non profit are soliciting how-to guides. I sort of said I’d do one. But then I thought I could post a quick guide here, and see if they wanted it too. It’s about How to make your job easier, which is also the title of a workshop or seminar I offer.

Make decisions early

Leaving options open can seem like a good idea. Not getting committed too early gives flexibility. Well, perhaps. But only up to a point. Delaying decisions often just turns out to be a drag on your energy and systems. Anything unresolved squats on your psyche, triggering stress and putting a brake on your freewheeling. Think of the practical downside too. If you haven’t, for example, decided whether your conference is going to be in Bristol in September or Birmingham in October, you and your staff are even now missing opportunities to advance whichever one you eventually go for.

And of course, if you delay too long, you risk having to make a rushed decision when whatever it is suddenly becomes urgent. In productivity guru David Allen’s fine phrase, decide what to do when it shows up, not when it blows up.

Gather the low-hanging fruit

That is, go for easily attainable tasks that give you quick wins and a sense of progress. If you can’t see any low-hanging fruit, create it. Break tasks down into the smallest, practical, do-able steps. Sorting out next year’s budget or reshaping your communications strategy can sound formidable, off-putting and energy sapping. So don’t think of it that way. Split such projects into phases, and determine the next steps to take each stage forward. That way you create easy wins that you can tackle even when energy levels and time are low. Make it all low-hanging fruit.

Stop doing things

Because you’ve always done certain things is not a good reason to carry on. In coaching I often ask non-profit managers if they agree that when someone working to full capacity takes on an extra project they must drop an existing one at the same time. Many agree with the principle, but then start saying, “it’s not always practical….. ” Listen to yourselves, people. If it helps, start the opposite of a to-do list—a not-doing-any-more list—to remind yourself of what you’ve given up.

Play to your strengths

Know what you as an individual are good at, and what your staff and colleagues are good at. Then concentrate on improving those skills. Waste as little effort as possible on improving areas of low competence. As the late, great Peter Drucker argued, it takes far more energy and far more work to improve from incompetence to low mediocrity than it takes to improve from first-rate performance to excellence. You cannot build performance on weakness.

Learn to type

If you use a keyboard on a regular basis you should be touch-typing. Really. It is painful to watch highly-paid people searching for keys, constantly backspacing and cursing. The intrinsic challenges of your job are probably hard enough. Do yourself a favour and develop the skills to do the mechanical things quickly, effortlessly and accurately.

If you can’t learn to type, find workarounds wherever possible. Use a digital voice recorder for notes, a touch screen for getting around online. Whatever, get to do it well.  You wouldn’t be impressed with a plumber or joiner who couldn’t handle their basic tools. Why are knowledge workers different?

Find out what kind of timewaster you are

Ask your team to tell you honestly about the ways in which you waste their time. Another wonderfully simple but far-reaching piece of advice from Peter Drucker. ” Effective people have learned to ask systematically and without coyness, ‘What do I do that wastes your time without contributing to your effectiveness?’ To ask such a question, and ask it without being afraid of the truth, is a mark of the effective executive.”

If you can’t do this, don’t despair. On the positive side, you have just identified what the military call a target-rich environment – a whole area of managing for you to productively engage with.

Create a brain-dead task list

It’s getting to the end of the day, after a string of back-to-back meetings. Or you’ve just delivered a challenging presentation, or had a long session with the accountant. You’re zonked, your brain is mush. So what do you do? You pull out the list you always have with you of significant but low-wattage tasks. You could be purging dormant files, transferring dates from your organiser, or ploughing through some routine phone calls. The key is to make sure that your task list is complete in itself – for instance with the names and numbers you need to call. Anything you get done in such unpromising conditions will feel like a bonus, and help recharge your batteries.

Big society, big change…big anger?

Change is coming to the non-profit sector in the UK. There’s widespread uncertainty and anxiety. There is also anger. Could that anger be productive – harnessed to drive the change that the sector needs?

Here’s the veteran management thinker Tom Peters in one of his short video talks. He’s passionate about anger as a source for innovation. Not just as a source, but as the one and only serious source.

If Tom Peters is right, and he is widely regarded as right about a lot of things, how does his advice translate to the situation facing the voluntary sector and social enterprises here? Can anger drive innovation?

Easy as peeling peas

Professional chefs don’t peel and chop an onion, get it sweating in a pan, then scratch their heads and think about preparing garlic, peppers, mushrooms or whatever to go with it.

They know what ingredients and equipment a dish needs. They get them ready before they start. (Or get someone else to do it.) They don’t pause during cooking to squeeze a lemon. The lemon juice is there, ready when they need it.

In a kitchen that preparation is called mise en place. It’s literally “putting in place”.

Why do chefs work like that? Consider, as you read this list, that the principles hold just as well for non-chefs, doing any kind of work.

  • Preparation forces you to think through, carefully, and in advance, what a job entails. That’s a chance to eliminate non-essentials, refine and improve what you do need, and pre-empt mistakes.
  • By doing what can be done ahead of time you’ll be more focused, confident and able to deal with fast-moving events when the heat is on.
  • Being organised means you’ll get the task done faster, neater and with less stress.
  • You’ll create obvious opportunities for delegating discrete parts of the job, involving team members and helping build their skills and understanding.

A valuable spin-off of breaking projects into identifiable and discrete processes is that you can get to enjoy them for their own sake. Instead of being a tiresome chore on the way to your goal, they become a potential source of satisfaction and professional pride.

Here’s one meticulous cook and writer, Peter Hertzmann, growing very lyrical about his Zen-like approach to a task of apparently great tedium. He was assigned to peel some peas. Yep, that’s peeling garden peas, taking off the thicker outer membrane of the pea after they’ve been podded and blanched. (It’s a serious cookery thing.)

The cook that passed the task to me apologized profusely for his actions, but he was happy not to do it himself. It’s not a difficult process. A small nick is made in the skin of each pea with a knife — a bird’s beak knife worked well — and the skin comes off by squeezing the pea slightly. The contents without the skin taste much sweeter than the whole pea with the skin. Your fingers become increasingly gummy and slippery as the starch from the peas coats them, and frequent rinsing only seems to help a little. The main problem is that it takes about two hours to peel a quart of peas. The task can be quite tedious. For some reason, it wasn’t tedious for me. Maybe because I ignored the overall goal of completing the job and instead concentrated on each individual pea. It became important for me to do the best job I could on each individual pea — to get the skin to “pop” with the smallest possible nick of the knife — to get the skin to release its contents gently into the basin the skinned peas were destined for and not to shoot them across the room. As I completed the peeling of each pea, I observed quickly the results of the process and attempted to make minor adjustments so the next pea would be peeled a little better. When I had completed peeling the whole quart, I was actually disappointed to be done. The chef mentioned that I seemed to be very calm.

From a long article on mise en place on  Hertzmann’s website.

Learning to work quickly and efficiently, with care and pride, can transform any mundane job – collating sets of figures, making routine phone calls, proofreading a report, photocopying, purging dormant files, writing minutes…. As long as the task is purposeful and necessary, mastering it can bring satisfaction and reduce stress.

No vibrations

What’s it like working in the new cabinet? Ringless, apparently. Prime minister David Cameron has told members they cannot have their mobile phones and Blackberrys with them during cabinet meetings.

You can see the sense. Though having 25 or so very busy people handing them in somewhere and collecting them afterwards sounds a bit of a palaver. Do they all have lockers? Or write their names on their Blackberrys so they can find them quick?

Or is looking after a cabinet minister’s mobby a task now assigned to eagerly ambitious parliamentary private secretaries?