Possibly Impossible

Received wisdom held that it was actually impossible to achieve.  Beyond the reach of human capability. “It just can’t be done”.

Running a sub 4-minute mile was an obsession in the first half of the 20th Century.  By the 1940’s the record for this distance had reached at 4.01 and stayed there for almost 10 years.

Enter Roger Bannister.  A runner who had come fourth at the Olympics in 1952.  He set himself a new challenge – to achieve the impossible.  With his team he planned and prepared with determination, discipline and focus.  In May 1954 he arrived at the Iffley Road race track in Oxford with a single goal in mind.  Using pace setters to get the early lap time right he won the race.  This was before digital time tracking and the race result was announced over the tannoy “The time was three…..” and then the crowd drowned out the rest of the announcement (3.59.4 to save you googling it).

Iffley Road Track

Bannister broke the record as well as people’s perceptions.  What was considered impossible was now possible.  In the hundreds of years before 6th May 1954 no one had achieved it this feat. Now just one person had.  Was he superhuman? No but he was, literally, a trailblazer.

Do you know what?  In the five years after that date a further 21 people broke the 4-minute mile.  Of course, these athletes also had to plan, and work hard at their craft.  But another crucial element was now part of their make-up.  A new outlook. A new belief. These runners now knew it was possible – because it was – it always had been.

You have to believe to succeed.

Flaky Asset Management

When snow flies from the skies and covers our land you can’t walk down the street without tripping over clichés about how the continent copes better with weather extremes.  Like there’s something wrong with us.  Gut gemacht die Auslander or pure practicality?


You know what makes an accountant’s toes curl?  Seeing a meeting room with two projectors.  “Why have we wasted money on assets we don’t need?” And you wouldn’t build your retail floor space big enough for 365 Black Fridays now would you?

So exactly how many redundant gritting trucks do we want depreciating from March to November? For cost saving it is much easier to hold back, bury our heads in the snow, and save gazillions by handing out the occasional shovel.  But then we’d be slipping towards disaster.  Only we do know there will be at least some snow.  And we know when.  It’ll fall just before the clichés.

Every service requires agility to respond to occasional, and difficult situations.  Not everything will go as planned and you’ll need to rely on teams to employ energy and determination and pull out the stops when, for example, the snow hits the fan.

Investing in assets isn’t binary.  A choice between clear thoroughfares or no infrastructure costs?  We need to keep our balance, and both are required.  The same as expecting a football team to score a lot of goals and not let any in.  Snowing or not.

Marginal gains are simply massive

Unintentional outcomes can happen because the numbers aren’t understood. Intuition plays its part but evidence is indisputably better.

The biggest discrepancy I’ve found between enthusiasm and logic is that of pricing.  This has a huge impact on profitability.  Smaller businesses, especially B2B, tend not to control pricing centrally and, horror of horrors, margin is widely misunderstood.  Want to understand? Pull up a chair.

The simple table below shows the three levers that effect profitability.

  • Sales up
  • Costs down
  • Prices up

A 3% change in which of these is better do you suppose?  To the grave disappointment of the sales team, it is pricing which is transformational.

Margin table

You can work it out on your own margins, but sales and cost changes offer similar results.  Price improvements mean that all benefits fall to the bottom line. Two words: Massive difference.

Crucially the reverse happens by giving discounts.  The values come straight out of the business profitability.

Leave emotion at the door and, before you wipe your feet, make sure you’ve understood the numbers.

Fortune favours the fantastic


Do Olympic winter sports come from another universe?  Spectacular abilities of young athletes defy belief (and often gravity), but mask thousands of hours of hard work that precede the 3 minutes of screen time.

Especially noticeable are the fine margins between your standard sensational and a podium place.  High level delivery is no guarantee of a place in history.  And every last moment of performance has to be on point. And you have to be a finisher.

Noticeably it’s the same for sales people.  Much preparatory hard work takes place and vitally, there’s an ability to make it happen when the chips are down. The difference between the good and the great is tiny.

Another feature of Olympic races is how often favourites get wiped out allowing the trailing pack to slide through and claim and unlikely victory.  This simple moral is for any one with ambition.  Show up.

Today’s meme or just the même

It’s strange stuff sleep, and like many things we take it for granted.  Maybe one step back from the bleeding obvious and we’d see things with renewed (but half closed) eyes rationalising it away.  But, to me, even if the ultra-clever, universally unchallenged, dolphins do it – well, it just seems mad.  It’s incredible, for all our energetic, logical, enthusiasm we will all just shut down for a third of each day. Clunk!

Yet praise be! Without it, the hotel groups wouldn’t be investing in preserved goods, dressed up as continental breakfasts, that are impersonating good morning freshness for £8.95.

If we can do the Peter Pan thing by flying, and make ourselves ten years younger, then we must be able to defy evolution, make with the TV, and stop ourselves going on standby.  We could do this through Motivation, Science and Nutrition.  MSN anyone?

But we can’t.  And, although I don’t know this for sure, I don’t think it is a plot by the Forte family or the Dorchester Group’s shareholders.  Quite simply, there are some things that are so deeply ingrained that, Popeye-esque, “We am what we am”.


We have to accommodate the fundamentals of our human nature making them work for us, rather than deny they ever exist. Sleep is obvious but there are others.

Here’s one.  2,500 years ago (a mere 100 generations) the political leaders persuaded the Ancient Athenians to vote for war.  When news of the subsequent disaster came back the population “Were indignant with the orators……. as if they [the people] had not themselves decreed it”.  Ring any morning alarms for you? Press snooze it might go away.

In my experience deep down in their DNA basement, people want to be valued – at home or at work is the same.  “Thank you” (not obvious for some) is a good start.  They want to believe their quest has meaning, and it is beneficial to themselves and others.  Linked to like-minded people, they want to be associated with, and to celebrate, success.  And they’ll be prepared to follow those who can paint the future vision, highlight the milestones, hand out cakes, and minimise the risks so they can sleep soundly in their beds.

The wibbly wobbly truth

Who to believe?  Multiple points of information and disinformation in the public domain mean the only certainty is, whatever opinion is voiced, there will be a dissenting voice.

“Oh no there won’t” – See! Cased proven!

This is sadly reminiscent of business reporting.  Too often, individuals want to present the best possible case, or don’t even have enough facts to present a case at all.  Either way they probably shouldn’t describe the circumstances as complete without more details.  But, unfortunately they do.

This is misguided and, to the inexperienced or time constrained manager, it is misleading.  Far better to be open (AKA brutally honest) about shortcomings of the known situation.  Be honest about the details that are missing.


Sales people, those eternal picture painters, could qualify for the prize of biggest culprits.  And, to be honest, if there’s a prize involved they’ll always be in the queue.  That’s why we love them like we do.

A sales manager who, some time ago, worked for me would boil this vagueness down for the simple minded.  Him or me I’m not sure. He’d use the same two numbers to describe every daily and weekly success.  They were (and I paraphrase for the faint hearted) “shitloads” and “sod all”.  Maybe fine for the direction of travel – are we there yet dad?  May be okay to gauge the sales zeitgeist or get the gist of the rainfall in Death Valley.  But not to run a business, or bet your life on.  The only positivity of an approach like this is that it is so broad-brush stroke it can’t possibly be wrong, and if it is wrong you can redecorate tomorrow.

Big up honesty!  Myself I have settled on the informed opinion that there is no such things as “The truth”.  For sure there are facts, but they get picked and chosen according to preference.  This, in turn, creates a montage of the story-teller’s own imagination.  It’s one designed to persuade based on their own starting point. Now this is fine if they’re totally aligned with what the business is trying to achieve.  Evidence that is self-serving, or from the sort of person that starts drinking at breakfast, probably needs to be watered down.

So, understanding why managers need information at all can help their team deliver the right sort of data.  Delivered in the right order, at the right intervals.  Inevitably it’s the manager’s duty to ensure facts and figures received are an actual help.  Tell the team quite specifically what you want to know, and crucially, what is a waste of everyone’s time (and goodwill).  Communicate why and show in simple terms the context of how this will be used in the next stage of the journey. This requires work.  And lo!  Others will see the data the same way you see it.  Could they even present it as information that will be useful?  You’d better believe it.

Grow a pair

As JLD’s excellent podcast ‘Entrepreneurs on Fire’ is fond of reminding us “You are the average of the five people you spend most time with”.  As father of two teenagers that would make 40% of me surly and overly dramatic.  Not a bad guess JLD!

IMG_6914 - Copy

Managers give their team members objectives and responsibility because they want them to do something.  Something, anything.  But please don’t sit and do nothing.  ‘Lemon squeezy’ if the wider business objectives are properly understood.  In these halcyon cases intuition used by the team will invariably be right. Like, they know what to do!

Responsibility to act in the best interests of the company is a gift.  For some team members, racked with doubt, this might be a gift so precious they are reticent to do anything at all.   Because sometimes the culture of the business frowns upon off piste activity.  So people play it safe.  They batten down the hatches.  They use 6 inch nails and a huge claw hammer to do it with.

Even in a benign supportive culture some personal characteristics can run scared of taking the initiative and making things happen.  They just don’t feel comfortable.

What’s to be done?  Well one answer could be to expand their contacts to include connections who specifically can build their confidence, inspire and reassure them.  This also goes for over confident people who need tempering their actions and in danger of two-footedly piling up to their necks at the wrong time.  To whom do your team members turn for reassurance?

Do they have a mentor and do you have a confidante?  They should have both and, of course, some will.  Everyone can benefit from these contacts in their network.  A mentor can give you new ways of seeing things and the resolve to approach things differently.  Whereas a close friend can let you unload and reboot and stop you setting your phasers to stun – or worse.

But acquiring them is not like making an eBay purchase from the collectibles section.  Over time great things come from building the right relationships with people who are happy to help, and are perceptive enough to see the wider picture. These associations need to come from relationships that are reciprocal.  They need to be developed and require nurturing to thrive.

So, go on grow a pair.