Saturday, March 06, 2010


Nothing is more frustrating and dispiriting than seeking acknowledgement and not getting it. You put yourself out there. You disclose a bout of your pure commitment and excellence for which goes way above the call of duty. And no one, not a soul, blinks.

Blinking is an involuntary response to aid the cleansing and protection of your eyes. On the occassion that something startles us, excites us, arouses something great in us, our eyes grow to take in more of the picture, exposing more of the eye surface for cleaning. Cold and naked our natural defences kick in and we 'blink'.

Blinking, along with enlarging our eyes, raising eyebrows, pupil dilation, and more all play a part of our non-verbal communication. Whilst we may not all be experts in identifying or deconstructing subtle aspects of our body language, we do in fact understand the language. We are all fluent in it. And what's more we understand it even if we can't hear what is being said.

A sea of dry eyes

Convincing an audience that you are worth blinking at when you speak has less to do with the announced action and more to do with the sum of all your actions.

If we expect someone to put on a good show, and they do, it's a good show. Has our state of mind for the performer changed? No.

If we expect someone to be a lousy performer, and they put on a good show our state of mind has changed. Blink and potentially applause.

These both suggest some awkward repercussions which I would resist, and the next few lines will be about varying your performance to elicit blinking, not to suggest you perform lousily or settle for mediocre.

To get someone to blink, you are essentially getting them to recognise something you are doing 'differently'. For example, if you work late nights and weekends all the time, saying that you will do something over the weekend is in no way different. What you are doing is 'normal'. To be appreciated for working overtime, this will need to be 'different'.

How do you create a difference when you yourself find what you do to be normal? Are you going to change to become less normal, bad even? No. And that is far from the suggestion. Instead what you need to do is change what normal is to something that remains a true reflection of who you are, but with room for continued recognition and appreciation.

Again, an implication here to be avoided is not to whine. Constantly seeking recognition. Here you are looking for natural and continually revalidated appreciation.

What you should hope to wanting your search for blinks is a storyline like a movie. It cycles through emotion, and continually rewards. You want others to see you as a valuable asset worth your attention, but with enough of an understanding that they'll be quick to reciprocate. They want to reward you.

To do this you have to be resolute in what makes you a good performer. And make certain that when this is challenged that you speak up about the effect a challenge will have on your performance. Only at the point that another recognises the request and impact do you offer to go further. It is at this point you will see the blink and your job of being appreciated, rewarded.

Friday, November 20, 2009


Performance management is meant to be about getting the best out of employees yet instead the process breeds mediocrity and disillusionment. With this article I hope to expose the way performance is invariably calculated, it's pitfalls and suggest how it can be done differently or more correctly, how it can be done according to the evidence obtained from within the practices of a good society.

Somewhere in the middle

Setting goals is a good thing. We should all want to do this. They help us to focus on those areas of our job role that will most benefit us as individuals, our team, it's manager and ultimately both the customer and the business. It is therefore strange that companies so often make a hash of performance setting and reward.

Invariably most large companies will use a simple measure to budget for performance related bonuses. A bell-curve. Few people are budgeted to receive a very poor performance rating and therefore no bonus, as well as very few are budgeted to do extremely well. The bell-curve is designed for mediocraty, where the majority will fall somewhere in the middle. It is this budgeted measure that now impacts the true value of goal setting.

If you are less than aware of the dark art of performance grading you will have yet to learn about 'consolidation'. This is where your performance rating is then compared against your team mates, right up to comparisions with other team members of different areas making up the same department. Essentially, if the budget states that only 5% of employees are to receive the top end of the bonus scale, then if a department exceeds this quota, you will have to decide who gets into that 5% and who gets pushed back.

What you might not be aware of is that most companies will have a process for exceeding their quota yet it requires paperwork and the strong will of your managers.

In effect, if you do very poorly or extremely well, you could be bumped up or down according to how the business has prepared their budget. And without the strong will of your management team, you are going to be preferably squeezed into the comfort of the middle. It is the middle where most budget resides and the least scrutiny paid.

What does this practice really mean? The weak scrape through and continue to erode the customer experience and business goals. Those that excel are demoted in both recognition and enthusiasm, which in turn will show in how well the customer is treated and business goals achieved.

Taking a purely rational, factual based view of the way most large companies manage performance, mediocrity is the goal. It is easier and cheaper to budget for. The matter that it actually affects employees, the business and the customer is less of a concern. Such affects do not appear in the budget.

Excellent until proven otherwise

What if the curve was different? What if everyone was expected to excel in achieving the goals they have set? What if no one was expected to do poorly? Does that mean you are aiming for excellence, or are you essentially making it easier for the weak to hide and setting no challenge for those that thrive on being better than their peers?

Whilst I feel the argument is strong, it is only strong because of poor management. And the quality of management is not down to the individual manager, but the structure of teams.

Mandate or motivate?

For a team to be effective it needs to have clear direction and simple processes. Individuals need to work together and support one another. Drive to achieving a business goal needs to be at the core of the team. So what needs to be managed?

Individuals are less likely to need management if everything is clear and their peers are aligned to support them. Therefore management is there only to deal with ambiguity as a result of change. Change in customer behavior, in business goals, and in personal circumstances.

A team, no matter the size, can deal with change providing it is broken down simply. The roles of the individuals are clear and empowerment to succeed is strong. Whether a colleague goes off sick, or the customer's stop buying as much, the team are most likely to respond well to the change provided they are permitted to.

So where does that leave a manager? Well, other than the title, nowhere. What it does open up is the opportunity foe someone to be placed as a leader. Someone who can coach and mentor the team and the individuals to excel. Someone who can act as an ambassador between teams. Someone who will protect and nurture the team.

This is not an outlandish concept that has never been tried. It is in fact the core of society. Management is an invention of man based on monarchies and slavery of past. You don't need to be managed. You get up in the morning, go to work, pay your bills, and so on... all without a manager. You do however have the respect for others who have clarity of thought, share knowledge and show both compassion and drive. It is these people we look to when personally we don't see a solution, when we don't have the answer or when we simply have lost our way. We look to these people as our leaders.

So if you budget for excellence across the company, empower your teams and provide good leadership, how do you monitor performance?

Black on white

Performance is based on 1 single and very simple criterium. Did you achieve the goal? Yes or no.

How do you measure how well that person did at achieving that goal? How do you determine if that goal was met at the sacrifice of another? How do you know that achieving that goal was easy or hard for the individual?

Whilst relevant, these questions are only relevant when the goals are unclear.

"Make money" - is not a goal. It's ambiguous and invokes the questions of measure. "Demonstrate an improved relationship with the customer where they spend more money with us than they have in the past" - is much better. On achieving this goal the detail is inherent.

At this point does it matter of whether the person was working to the best of their ability or not? The goal has been achieved and an incentive applied. But the question is then how do you get people to excel?

Driving towards excellence

Performance ratings based on goals are not going to demonstrate this. To measure someones ability to excel based on meeting goals then becomes undeniably subjective and emotive. No performance measure should be left to this as it will demeritise the whole process to that of a popularity contest.

If you want to recognise excellence, you have to recognise it at it's source. When it happens. In the same way you would also nip bad behavior as soon as it arises. Much like receiving a speeding ticket days after the offence. It's a bit late to be contemplating driving more slowly. As logic would suggest, you don't send out rewards to drivers who kept to the speed limit - that's the point after all, the job at hand. So how would you notice someone who was undeniably courteous and excels in careful driving? Through the recognition of other drivers. Through on the spot reward. A simple wave rewards the driver who courteously allows another in to a busy lane. A thank you at the end of a safe journey from the passengers. It is recognised and rewarded as it happens.

The great thing about recognising excellence as it happens is that it is infectious. Once one person has let someone into a busy lane and received their wave as reward, so does that driver make space at the next intersection and so on. Even casual observers become infected. Drivers behind you begin to let in other cars and so on.

Excellence is everywhere and happens all the time. A manager, particularly one constantly in meetings, will be exposed to less of this happening within their team. It is therefore essential than the guidelines are clear for how rewarding can be done and get everyone doing it.

In summary

- Budget for excellence not mediocrity.
- Set clear achievable goals based on evidence.
- Lead your team don't manage them.
- Give everyone the opportunity to recognise and reward excellence as it happens.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Where would we be today?

Written some time ago, 22 July 2004, for another blog. It carries the theme of my last post 'False ceilings' nicely. Enjoy.

Fear of the unknown both intrigues and yet holds back the development of mankind. We are at a number of moral intersections with so many new technologies. Going forward has risks. Risks that we don’t fully understand or can even be sure of. We can speculate, but we can’t be sure. So what do we do?

When da Vinci first invented the flying machine to when the Wright brothers first flew one, do you think they considered the profound affects of their work? Do you think they timidly explored their ideas, or do you think they just did it? When the first seed was first sewn, when the first doctor made his first incision, or when the first injection was first administered… do you think any of these happened with a full understanding of their actions? Mankind has developed from taking risks we don’t fully understand, and at every set-back we’ve improved our understanding and moved forward again. Were we creating irreparable damage, were we furthering mankind?

When Babbage set about inventing the first computer, I somehow doubt he was too worried about potential risks. Once the first valve-operated computer was built, the Americans put it to work to predict the trajectory of a bullet: to build a better weapon, to be a better killer. Today’s computers help us to work out from the wound of a slained victim the trajectory of that bullet: to capture their killer, to build a better defence. A double edged sword full of risk and potential yet we still harness the power of the computer and move forward for the benefit of mankind. The same cannot be said about all technologies.

When NASA first set about exploring the moon we faced risks, not fully understanding them, we did it anyway. We landed on the moon. As long as the risks were contained, NASA kept going. Yet at the first ‘visible’ setback, ‘fear’ shot to the forefront of the public’s mind, leaving the progression of mankind in its wake. We now nervously send people in to space. We cautiously step out in to the new frontier. The space programme has in the last 25-years, only now started to regain ‘some’ momentum with the possibility of Mars being a rich resource for mankind. Our own moon, sitting upon our own doorstep, remains a vastly unexplored entity.

We have seen what can be achieved in less than 25 years. Where would we be today if the momentum of the space programme never died down? Imagine if we faced everything with intrigue and not in trepidation? Where would we be today? Dig up the sceptics of da Vinci’s flying machine and take them on a flight to anywhere in the world. Dig up our sceptics in 100-years from now and take them on a flight to the stars. Apply this to genetic science and nanotechnology. Where would we be today? Where would we be in 25 years?

False ceilings

The sky's the limit. Well, even that sounds a bit restrictive in this day and age. Are there really any true limits? If there was ever a saying that was due for an overhaul in modern culture, this is the one. Yet even if we chose the moon or the stars as limits it wouldn't be long before even these would be deemed as narrow minded.

The question we should ask ourselves about limits: Why do we feel compelled to set them?

In the workplace we rarely focus on the skies, unless you're in the air force, instead we talk about glass ceilings. Arbitrary heights within an organisational structure which we feel are fixed. A point in the hierarchy which we cannot go any further.

A call centre operative has no business bypassing their team leader, let alone the supervisor or floor manager. Heaven forbid that such an individual could compare notes with the CEO.

Bizarrely it works the other way round too. Our own ceilings become the floors for others. A CEO feels compelled to respect the boundaries others have set and has no position to engage with anyone below his or her senior management team.

And happily the call centre operative and the CEO remain forever detached. The true reason for what happens when a call is received is buffeted by hundreds of glass ceilings or floors from the ears of a CEO. As is the true reason a CEO is compelled to drive a particular strategy, distilled and filtered through the layers, to reach the operative in a light and palatable way.

The ceilings appear to serve a purpose. One which prevents the many interacting with the few, and vice-verse. A self protecting mechanism to ensure everyone remains focused on what they are meant to deliver for the organisation. Blissfully unaware of any truth of reason. Time and money are well spent. Each other protected from scrutiny, protecting our own imaginative constructs.

The fact and beauty about glass ceilings is that nobody else can see them but you. And the cold hard truth is that the only reason this is so is because you put them there. And what's more... they aren't real. They are fake.

Looking through the glass, do you notice who is on the other side? What is holding that ceiling in place? If you stood back from it all, would you be able to see how many ceilings you have installed? No one else is to blame.

To break through ceilings, and the skies, past the moon and the stars, we have to recognise them as the self manifested limitations that we pose upon ourselves and make available for others to exploit.

Opportunities have afforded all of us to be in the positions we are. Whether good or bad. And yet opportunities are not finite. They are in plentiful supply, waiting to be snapped up. Exploitable to those that dare try.

Sadly the reason why we accept false limitations is that we become complacent. Happier where we are. Taking the easy road. Setting up our own barriers to keep ourselves insular. Protected. Defining strategies for keeping ourselves exactly where we already are. Right here. A comfortable place for not just us, but everyone else too.

Why work harder or smarter? Why learn new ways around obstacles? We believe we all have the tenacity and drive to do better. Yet when faced with an equal, your self appointed ceiling's protector, an individual just like you or me, set with their own self-harmonizing strategy, we choose to back down. Why speak up? Why challenge? Why try to remove that ceiling? No one wants their comfy, secure place in the world to be disturbed.

It's easy to see why someone else would protect their own position in your imaginary tower. If you challenge their position in your tower of false ceilings, they too will need to go poking around in their ceiling rich environment. Rather than do this it is much easier to help encourage your own self-doubt and promote your delusion as a reality.

You'll either realise this now and do something about it, or you will console yourself by finding others who have put in the same self-imposed false ceilings to compare notes. You will either break through, or you will snuggle up underneath.

The CEO, protected by their personal assistant. The senior manager protected by their management teams. Middle and junior managers protected by their supervisors and team leaders. The call centre operative protected by their peers. A seemingly endless list of false ceilings or floors that you have chosen to see. False ceilings that if removed expose areas which you feel are full of challenges that you may not cope with. Filled with uncertainty and contempt for your being there.

Ask yourself, who are the ones that make it higher in an organisation? The ones that remain confined by their glass ceilings, or the ones that chose not to see them in the first place?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Leadership for beginners

I often find myself chatting with wannabe leaders who are struggling to be heard. Leadership is such a desirable quality that not achieving it is too hard to bare. Why do some seem to be oozing with leadership from every dimple in their perfectly chisled faces and yet for others it seems so damn hard?

Leadership is hard. Even for the motivatonal gurus we place on pedestals. It takes practice, mistakes, reading, learning, listening and experimenting. It's a skill. And like all skills, you have to work hard to obtain them.

On a recent read of Malcolm Gladwell's new title 'Outliers' he unearths the 10,000 hour rule. This rule explains why professionals at the top of their game, no matter if it is sport, music, business... anything, they achieve their ability through continuous hard work. 10,000 hours of the stuff. Something the gurus have devoted their careers too.

It's not hard to see why we find ourselves struggling to be seen as leaders when so much is needed to become one. Sure, charisma and style go to count towards someone being thought of as a leader. But being a leader requires so much more.

The advice here is not to be to quick to think you're a leader, nor too quick to suppose you'll never be one. Natural leadership fails to exist without nurture. Whilst it might take some of us our entire adult working lives to become one, becoming one is in itself a tremendous experience from which all those around you can benefit.

A little analogy I offer to those that find it so hard:

"The leader is not the shepherd whistling out his orders from afar. A leader is his dog, in amongst all of the sheep, working hard to get the best out of each and every one."

In business you need the shepherd, the manager, to instruct and provide. You also need your flock, you and me, to make the business flourish. And whilst sometimes seemingly too few, you'll find the leaders, keeping the flock together and driving the business forward.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Playful Mice Syndrome

"Whilst the cat's away the mice will play"

This fascinates me. Even as adults we never loose that sense of freedom once our superiors turn their arching backs. Why is that? No doubt there will be a psychological link back to childhood, recalling deep-seeded memories of when teacher would leave the classroom and all objects not screwed down would levitate at speed towards various unprotected heads; or when Mum or Dad weren't watching as you stole a few extra biscuits from the tin or pushed your kid brother in to a patch of nettles... just for fun.

I've grown paranoid of taking holidays or working away from the office due to this childish(?) behavior. It seems that all personal agendas rise to the surface once the boss's back is turned. All inhibitions are lost as if the water cooler magically turned in to a large bottle of vodka and 9-5 turned in to happy hour down at your local.

I know I am not immune to this syndrome, yet since taking on the persona of a cat, with cat-like responsibilities, when the cats disappear, I still remain a cat. It is as if the job of the remaining cats is to increase their cat-like-catness. Defending their clowder and yet still enjoying that increased sense of autonomy.

What I am learning through being the cat, and away, is just how the mice play. Playful might be the intention, especially if caught, but the final result can be downright harmful. In my recent experience, I believe I may have identified the following mouse like playing traits:

Trophy Mouse
This mouse is out for one thing and one thing only. To get a piece of the cat. Preferably a head. Stuffed and mounted. Waiting for the cat to be as distant as necessary so not to be hit by any ricocheted shrapnel. The Trophy Mouse waits for his/her opportunity, takes aim and fires. Whether scatter fire or carefully planned sniper fire, shots can almost appear harmless and yet over time they accumulate and fester, slowly eroding the confidence of other mice in the good nature of the cat.

Whilst there is nothing to really gain from the kill... 'it's the taking part that counts'.

Wannabe Mouse
This mouse can be found everywhere. They are relentless and do not tire of their pursuit. They have one thing on their mind, and one thing only... to be the cat.

It doesn't seem to phase the Wannabe Mouse that they are a mouse, and with their Wannabe Mouse behavior, becoming anything more than a mouse becomes very unlikely. This mouse will continue to seek out a cat like status no matter what realities stand in their way. The quality that is least admirable of this trait of mouse is that they love to take charge of situations, whether the cat is about or not, and when situations do not exist - especially when the cat is away - they'll create one.

Ventriloquist Mouse
Can you see my lips moving? Well of course not, as the cat, I am away. And yet this mouse is able to achieve any personal goal imaginable by throwing the cat's voice. This trick is amazing and would work well if the cat hadn't already said differently before leaving. The Ventriloquist Mouse, whilst entertaining, does end up having to do a lot of lip moving when challenged on the cat's return.

Teflon Mouse
Surprisingly, this mouse is able to shirk any responsibility that comes its way. They really shine in meetings where nothing will stick to them. All decisions, responsibilities and actions will move to the currently unavailable cat (or mouse if necessary). Be prepared for this mouse to always have a good excuse.

Schizo Mouse
Should the cat check in, the mouse will play dead and yet as soon as the cat has gone again, they are right their in the thick of it again. This mouse feeds off any negativity and enjoys every minute to 'stick it to the cat'.

Build a better mouse-catcher
Much like quantum physics - once you observe it, you change the outcome. The mouse has the means to alter the perception when confronted. A misunderstanding. The thing is, you can't change these traits as a cat. Worse still, as a cat you cannot observe these traits directly. So the question is - how do you know that they exist?

Mice at play do fortunately leave a trail. Once a mouse thinks they have succeeded in pulling off a 'play', the mouse has to up the stakes. As if a mouse has managed to steal just a little cheese, the thought of a little more... a little bigger piece... is all too alluring. The easier the 'play' becomes the less thrill a mouse has from achieving it. Soon the mouse, boring of the ease, becomes a little lose tonged. What is fascinating, is that they don't lose their tongue over their own plays, but over the plays of others.

To catch a mouse, you need not set a trap, you need only provide the fodder for these traits to reveal themselves. The challenge then becomes: What do you do once you know which mouse has what traits?

From my point of view - talking about it seems to help. Not by confronting the individual mouse about their individual misdeeds, but talking to the mouse about the whole event and asking how they approached it. It is unlikely that they are going to own up, but by the vary nature that you are discussing the event in a new frame of thought, you actually change the outcome. Almost as if you were able to time-travel and prevent the misdeed from happening in the first place.

This is all well and good for those mice within your next (team) but unfortunately doesn't begin to repair any damages made to those you have no influence over. For this, you have to rely on the guilt of the mouse to rectify. This may not happen immediately, however every time the opportunity presents itself, the mouse will eventually realize that their actions are somehow observable and re-frame their own thinking before attempting to 'play'.

Time poor cats
Not all cats will have the affordance of time to wait for this to take place. Unfortunately if faced with this, I think disciplinary procedures need to take precedence. Negative discourse on a team can be phenomenally unsettling, costing many man hours in unnecessary debate that could have been spent being productive. Removing an overly playful mouse is never a bad thing. It may not require an all out removal of the mouse from the organisation, but finding them a better vocation where their objectives are more easily achieved, impacting less people and delivering the most benefit to the business.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Poor morale is like a cancer

It has been a long, long time since I wrote something about morale in the workplace. For one thing, I made the switch from an environment that promoted me to be vocal about the subject, and for another, I am now in a position of crafting that morale for my own team.

I have come back to this space not because I have stumbled across the magic silver bullet to workplace morale, but to again go back to where morale was a problem. Whilst I have moved on, the team I left behind appears to continue to feel the wrath of poor morale. Colleague after colleague has either left or been told to leave. Recently under a wave of 50 completely unnecessary redundancies sold under the practice of 'future-proofing'.

What I have noted from my conversations is that when poor morale finds a crevice to breed, it festers, grows and consumes all others. It has such a grip that it begins to cross teams, departments... entire infrastructures. Rather than looking for the source of the problem that lies in the few, the many have taken the sacrifice. Those that left of their own accord did so with a sense of abandonment. Those that stuck it out and were not afraid to point out where the problem lay were eventually culled. I fear now for those that remain. Are they happy? More so: are their jobs safe?

In my new workplace, I have been given the responsibility of nurturing 10 like-minded individuals in a field I am most passionate about. Whilst the environment is not essentially the best to breed great morale for our chosen profession, I hope I have made good use of the opportunity I have been given to enthuse and keep those I mentor happy and motivated. Feedback from my team suggests that I have done this and their long service hopefully continues to offer confirmation. It is because of this I wonder about my former workplace.

During my time holding this responsibility I have of course met with challenges. One such challenge caused such distress to the team that the full effect was only realized once the troublesome individual had left the team. The extent of their effect on the team made it seem impossible to enthuse anyone about their chosen careers or employer. This single person had such a hold over seemingly few individuals that they were close to destroying not only the team, but the person that was put in place to achieve the exact opposite - me.

It would not be too insensitive to compare the similarities of this one person's effect on the team to that of a cancer. The strain was so hard on the team, that it drained all happiness and enthusiasm from those that were closest in contact. Once the cancer had been cut away, life returned and in abundance.

This particular cancer was contained. Contained within a small team. Isolated. The impact whilst harmful, was manageable. Treatment was swift and the recovery was quick.

My question: If a single individual with no authority to establish their effect on a group wider than their immediate colleagues can bring a team to its knees, what does that mean for a manager with greater influence? At my old workplace, are good cells being sacrificed for the benefit of the bad? Does the virus lie within the people it has now infected, or within the managers that have allowed it to spread?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Are we there yet?

Why technology needs to take 2-steps back to make 3-steps forward.
A slight departure from the human side of morale (unless you're in the field of software architecture).

The proliferation of technology within the workplace should have enabled corporate Britain (America, Asia or from wherever you are reading this) to have achieved far more than it has. This is not to say that without the technology we have we could have reached where we are now, but to ask if we could be further. Are we really reaping the benefits from what we have? The sad answer is no. In this article I hope to explain why.

For the sake of an example we’ll pick on Microsoft’s Excel. One of the most widely adopted business tools across the globe. Most of its users are aware how to open the application and fill in its little boxes. How many truly open up the raw power of the solution? Very few without a doubt! To declare fairness lets assume Pareto’s rule of 80/20, with 80% of Excel’s true capabilities going untouched. This is a dismal prospect for such a commonplace application.

With more specialized applications, applications designed to perform very specific functions for a well defined user group, you would anticipate that the percentage of power in use would be more favorable to the user’s accessibility. After all, this is not a grand tool that can span across the needs of a multitude of user types such as Excel. This is a tool that has been so carefully crafted that it only addresses a single community. The sad reality is that the weighting could even make the great Pareto whimper. Where most people with access to Excel will praise their use of it regardless of their inability to access its potential, specialist applications are prone to complete and utter abandonment.

What is possibly more shocking is that these specialist applications can even go through a series of versions, patches, hot-fixes… continual maintenance and redesign and yet the result can be precisely the same. Zero uptake.

As someone who works in User Centered Design I am accustomed to these realities and fight the good fight on behalf of the users I represent. The challenge for most designers in pursuit of user adoption is the legacy and constraints that exist before the fight even begins. If the battlefield is already heavily laden with landmines, then any tactics that involve a straight line across this minefield are instantly ruled out.

A business who has invested in a specific direction is inflexible to the possibility of change.

A technology that has invested in a specific direction is inflexible to the possibility of change.

A user that has invested in a specific direction is inflexible to the possibility of change.

And yet change is inevitable. It’s as if we were all building a never-ending skyscraper together constantly being filled with tenants and after 30 floors up, we realize we need to change 20 of them before we can go up any further. The business is loathed to do so as it creates expense and would affect the tenants that have already moved in to the skyscraper. The technologists are loathed to do so as it means undoing all the hard work done to date. And the users are loathed to do so as they are already challenged enough to be presented with a whole new way of doing things. And all 3 are fearful of the unknown – will it work? After all, when we first built the last 20 floors we were convinced it would work and yet now we’re being told that it didn’t.

Instead of creating expense, undoing hard work, being faced with greater challenge and not being certain it will work we make compromises. After all, compromises are good aren’t they? Everyone is happy in a compromise? The tenants are not going anywhere, or if the did, we’ll find others. The business will be fine. The technologists will be busy and the users – well, they’ll just have to cope.

Why would someone only use 20% of an application? Worse still, why would someone abandon an application entirely? And bigger still – why would a business continue to invest more in to building on top of something with such poor adoption only with the glimmer of hope that the users will become more accustomed to it over time?

Excel is simply the only generalist tool that can manage mathematical equations beyond a calculator or your own noggin, and outside of specialist applications. This makes the tool indispensable. Sure, there are other spreadsheet packages available, and yet the majority of office workers will have become accustomed to Excel over its competitors. If you wish to perform any lengthy mathematical equation then it is imperative that you have grasped the fundamental principles of a spreadsheet and therefore Excel.

When faced with an entirely new application to perform what to a user appears to be very similar calculations the first thing they do is find a workaround. Inevitably that workaround is Excel. And as all users form the business, the business becomes accepting of this resistance to use the new application and will either turn a blind-eye, try to enrich the application further (usually to see how they can incorporate the workaround – Excel) or abandon it entirely. Which one is dependent on cost and pride. And in my experience pride often being the most predominant factor.

So if people are using Excel by almost ‘rule’, then why is so little of its potential used?

When a specialist application is written to aid specific user communities perform complex mathematical equations why do user’s abandon this to revert to the under utilized Excel once again?

What becomes even more bizarre when you delve in to this topic to the depths as I have, you will be in total awe to why a business would buy in a specialist application to perform the functions that Excel could do if it weren’t hidden in the 80% most of us don’t use. The arguments I hear most are around security, stability and integration.

Security? Anyone could access an Excel spreadsheet and know the most crucial elements of our business – our money.

Stability? Excel is unreliable. It crashes all the time.

Integration? Excel is a tool. It’s not a service and won’t work with our other systems.

The answer has to be something that is secure, stable and integrates well with our other systems. Therefore we must build a solution that we control who has access to it, will never fail and can be integrated in with our other system.

Let’s dispel the myths of Excel and then revisit this demand.

Security can be set to a single cell in an Excel spreadsheet, not only to a single worksheet, and to the entire workbook. I challenge anyone to crack an Excel spreadsheet once you have forgotten the password to unlock it.

The only time Excel becomes unreliable is when it is installed on a poor workstation or is asked to do calculations that have not been set-up properly.

The manner in which the data is saved in Excel is the most commonly used format for transferring mathematical data in systems, comma delimited or .CVS and can even be extracted automatically and in a mired of formats including the more pervasive .XML requirement of most modern day systems.

In contrast the security, stability and ability to integrate bespoke or specialist off-the-shelf application is more prone to failure because businesses are loathed to spend money on something that cannot be guaranteed, technologists are loathed to check every connection point during integration and users are loathed of new challenges. And all of this from an application that has been built on the same principles of loathing by the developing team.

Before it sounds like I am evangelizing the use of Excel, I digress. It is by the mere fact that Excel has penetrated the office environment through it’s attachment to Windows, the operating system for corporate Britain (etc, etc…) and being bundled with Outlook, a package even less understood by its users and yet even more imperative for the access of email, that it is significant enough to express my point. Excel is still a white elephant; an enormous calculator and we would all be lost without it.

If we were able to take our work tools back down to their simplest incarnations we would have a single piece of software; a very bare looking user interface. What do we need? Words and numbers, possibly the odd smattering of images to best represent those words and images. We would needs something that can send those words and numbers to other people who need them to do their job. We would need something to help us work out those complicated sums. From here on in we are adding complexity for its own sake.

It’s easy to see from this simplistic view that Excel fits the bill and yet there’s a lot more it can do, and we don’t use.

To return this to the original question: Are we really reaping the benefits from what we have? The answer remains no. The underlying question of whether or not we could be further along with our technology, the answer is most certainly ‘yes’.

Whilst we are faced with business led, technology driven solutions that invoke challenge on it’s users, all of whom are apathetic to change we will never have the shift that is needed to spur our use of what can be done.

As I typ Microsoft Word intelligently underlines my purposeful misspelling of the word ‘type’ in a red wiggly line. An artificial intelligence that does not recognize the letters I have used, I am prompted to take action and make the change. Right mouse clicking on the word brings up possible options for what Microsoft thinks I might be trying to spell. Extremely useful when, like me, you are hopeless at spelling and yet still not a true reflection of the power Microsoft could build. As you read the first line, you knew exactly what I meant and yet Word did not. It felt it necessary to check with me. Albeit it’s top suggestion was the word ‘type’.

For you and me we sit here apathetically feeling that this red squiggly line is pure wonderment. How did we, the literally challenged, ever survive from the constant embarrassment of our misspellings before the advent of the red squiggly line? And yet although our embarrassment is saved to the privacy of us and our word processor, the embarrassment still remains.

To extend this to a mathematical equation where I wish to work out what the average value of a string of numbers are I would first have to leave Word and open Excel (unless I knew the greater secrets that lay in the depths of Word which would allow me to perform this calculation without leaving my text). I would then have to know where to place each number, then how to create a formula that begins with an equal’s symbol and the word ‘average’, open parenthesis, the cell range, close parenthesis and enter. For me, someone who has spent a lot of time learning the nuances of Excel, quite easy, for most, and absolute mystery. Why can I not simply request the average of the numbers I type here: 10, 20, 11, 22, 12, 22, 10 and have the answer appear instantly as 15?

The technology we have today is advanced enough to learn from what we do and to anticipate what results we require, but the implementation of this fails because of the need to adopt change. We started with a disparate suite of overly complex solutions and we will continue to use them in such a way. To change would require ripping down 20-stories. And even the tenants are not convinced with that idea.

The option is not to rip down 20-stories, but to build another skyscraper, learning from the mistakes of the last one. The ones that do this with an immense amount of ingenuity start completely afresh from the foundations. These are normally guised as vigilantes and their products branded with ‘Web 2.0’ applications (a categorization given to development houses that use the simplest of user-friendly technologies). These vigilantes are inevitably a group of disgruntled employees of previous skyscraper projects and entrepreneurs who are easily enthused with the prospect of making money. Alas, because of this small start-up vigilante anti-establishment movement, corporate Etc, stick with what they know best, even if it hasn’t proven to be completely successful in the past. They have tenants now therefore they must have done something right. And to build a new skyscraper means carrying across what they feel that ‘something right’ was. Those that disagree become the vigilantes - a self-perpetuating and self-fulfilled prophecy.

The technology we have today is phenomenal. It can do vast amounts. It goes unused because of the failings highlighted above. Users can’t find it; don’t know how to use it; don’t know that it even exists. Our way to remedy this is to build more. After all the cost of building a new feature, a new function, a fix, or even a whole new application is relatively cheap compared to ripping down everything that you have achieved so far to start again.

In answer to my own question, we have yet to tap in to the true power of our existing technology and we are further compounding this reality by adding even more to it. In order for any technology to be truly unleashed and for all to adopt its full power (let alone potential) we have to all be accepting of ‘our’ mistakes and consider that the only way forward is through embracing ‘change’ whatever the cost.