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International relationships and Dad jokes

I’ve travelled around the world on business throughout my career.  At my old company Deltec, we had over 30 different nationalities and even more ethnicities. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from establishing relationships with people from other cultures, it’s this; we have far more in common than we have differences.  People love their families and their home; they want their children to do well (while sharing amused bewilderment about teenagers); they want safe, vibrant communities and honest, effective government (everyone complains about the bureaucracy); and they value fair, reliable business partnerships.  Any differences can usually be managed with good manners and tolerance.
On business trips, we often had dinner with new customers and business partners.  If it was an all-male social evening (in those days it usually was), I’d tell an old joke, “What are the magic two words for a happy marriage? ‘Yes, dear.’”  Everywhere, in China, the USA, France, Switzerland, Brazil or Indon…
Recent posts

Hope is key to turnarounds

In a discussion about turmoil and the likelihood of an organisation getting into trouble, I was asked what’s the most important thing to do once you’ve established that there is a mess and figured out what to do about it. My answer was simple: “restore hope“. I could have used other words like confidence or faith or belief or trust. The point is that you need to get the support of many people if the turnaround is going to work, and giving people hope is the first step in the journey to recovery.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not talking about pussy-footing around the harsh realities. You need to be upfront and honest. But you have key constituencies who need to feel hopeful about what you’re doing:
The board: The first people that need to have hope that the business can be turned around. If you can’t convince them, you may need to work with owners to replace them (or give up). Your relationship with the board chair will be crucial.The banks: They need to be certain that you will do an e…

The 3 step strategic plan

Too many so-called strategic plans are full of warm fuzzy platitudes. Get specific! Where are you going (what do you want to achieve and why)?What will it look like when you get there (your market, your offer to that market, your business model, processes, organisation, etc. and why)?How will you get there (what will you do, why and when)?First posted 22 June 2009.

Understanding the Chatham House Rule

A common phrase often used at large meetings is that they're being held "under Chatham House Rules", which some people seem to think is an agreement of complete confidentiality. This isn't so.

As Michael Gregg once politely reminded me, there is only one Rule. Quoting from Chatham House itself:
When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed. Whenever I chair a meeting or conference under the Chatham House Rule, I tell everyone precisely what I mean.
After this meeting, you are free to talk about the ideas you have heard here, but without reference to people or organisations. The Chatham House Rule is  usually invoked by the chairman, the speaker or via the invitation.  Normally it is only a "gentlemen's agreement".  If you need more certainty, either get people to …

Review: Fifty things that made the modern economy

I've long been a fan of journalist and broadcaster Tim Harford (aka. The Undercover Economist). Harford's skill is making economics and related topics understandable/readable/listenable for you and me.  His latest book is Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy, published by Abacus and based on the excellent BBC series of the same name.

As the title implies, Harford tells the reader something of the often-quirky history of 50 important inventions which have had a profound impact on the world today.  These are not "The Top 50" - more like a curated selection among many important developments. Some are obvious, such as the plough and its impact on food production.  Others perhaps less so; for example, copyright and the limited liability company.  And Harford makes no bones about leaving out some of the more obvious, such as the computer, while extolling the significance of Grace Hopper's computer language compiler, and the wonders unleashed by computer software.

Logging off from REANNZ

Yesterday, after 6 years, was my final day as chair of REANNZ (Research & Education Advanced Network New Zealand Limited).  REANNZ has been a fantastic business to be part of.  It is a highly specialised national and international telecommunications company with a very particular technological advantage.  In layman's terms, REANNZ moves heaps and heaps of data very, very fast.  We're talking truly huge data flows - astronomically large files (literally).  Normal telcos are optimised to move lots of small packets of data. REANNZ (like its partner R&E networks around the world) moves data in a different way. A normal network might need to re-transmit 1 out of every 100 or 1000 data packets.  REANNZ has a packet loss rate of 1 in hundreds of millions. That has huge performance implications for large discrete data flows over long distances. What REANNZ moves in an hour can take days or even months on a conventional network.  That means researchers can run experiments much …

Alligators and swamps: 10 rules for change

“When you're up to your arse in alligators, it's sometimes hard to remember that you're here to drain the swamp.”

I’ve had many conversations about making change happen within organisations. There’s so much noise going on (especially if it’s a problematic customer-facing process) that you spend all your time trying to put failures right and don’t have time to fix the root cause (product design, business process, skills, whatever). Likewise you’re pretty much guaranteed a failure if you put people onto the change project who aren’t ultimately responsible for the new process, who aren’t skilled and talented, who can’t make decisions on design and implementation, and who are tied up in doing their day jobs.

Assuming you are addressing the right opportunity/problem (and that's a whole subject on its own), here are 10 rules learned from running or helping several organisations to effect change in difficult circumstances:
The best person to lead a change project is the person…

2018 Year of Engineering

To mark The Year of Engineering, here's  Sydney Padua's envisioning of my personal engineering hero, the one and only Isambard Kingdom Brunel:



If you haven't already read it, check out Sydney Padua's comic novel The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, featuring the founders of computing and other Victorian engineering heroes in all kinds of bonkers derring-do. (T-shirts, coffee mugs, etc. are available from Zazzle).

The UK Government has designated 2018 as The Year of Engineering, and launched a campaign to promote engineering in all its forms as a career.  I still think of myself as a systems engineer; the skills I learnt have been invaluable and widely applicable throughout my career as an executive and director.

In which I talk about life, the universe and everything

Access Granted, the online podcast channel, focuses on NZ tech sector and related themes. They interviewed me recently. We discussed change, tech, research & education, construction, and directorship. We covered a lot of ground. If you've got a spare hour, here's the link: http://www.accessgranted.nz/episodes/2018/1/9/jim-donovan-professional-director-changing-the-world-in-big-ways

Is innovation sufficient?

Governments, business theorists and business media are obsessed with innovation. Vast sums of money are expended on government-sponsored research. Something’s bound to pay off with a ground-breaking new technology that will increase jobs, wealth and foreign-exchange earnings, won’t it? However, innovation is only the start of the process. We’ve got plenty of innovation, and we aren’t short of new businesses either. The problem is creating better, larger businesses that can foot it internationally (with full overseas operations, not just exporting).

The Economist explored the same issue, reporting on those who question the fear of US companies being overwhelmed by technological innovation coming out of India and China.
So does the relative decline of America as a technology powerhouse really amount to a threat to its prosperity? Nonsense, insists Amar Bhidé of Columbia Business School. In “The Venturesome Economy” ... he explains why he thinks this gloomy thesis misunderstands innovation…