Mind your language: when yes means no!

A few weeks back I was in Maastricht, a town synonymous with a 1991 EU treaty I’d point to as the beginning of the movement to take the UK out of the European Union by those on the right of the Conservative Party led by Prime Minister John Major. This observation, from Elisabeth Hill-Scott, a political commentator, struck home:

Major was also able to argue that the Maastricht principle of ‘subsidiarity’ meant that more decisions could be devolved to the national level

I vividly remember the fractuous nature of the ensuing debate resulting in the eventual resignation of Prime Minister Major. I mention that example to emphasise how words (and places) shape our perception and how ambiguity, while useful in getting political treaties over the line can be destructive in a business environment where a second language is the vehicle of communication.

Back to July 2022. We were in Maastricht for my birthday to attend a twice postponed (due to Covid-19) concert by local boy made good Andre Rieu. Each year Andre and his orchestra occupy the town square in July for a series of open air dinner concerts. The audience is diverse, smart and multicultural. The lingua franca is English!

That we chose to travel via Le Shuttle on the day schools broke up for the summer term was poor planning though in mitigation when we originally booked the dates did not coincide. The additional presence of my 94 year old mother added to the sense of anxiety when, arriving on time for check in, we were told departures were being delayed by 3 hours! Our sense of frustration was exacerbated by the blame game that ensued with the UK Home Office castigating the French for the lack of border officials to check passports and the French opining it wasn’t them that changed the European travel rules. The truth, revealed by a Eurotunnel official, they were surprised by the demand and unprepared for the rush.

A gulf in perception

Apart from my wife Ana (who is Portuguese) and mother (who isn’t) we were joined by a Dutch friend Annette who lives and works in Germany and her German friend Gaby. The event was to prove a great backdrop to a series of conversations about perceptions, cultural nuances and miscommunication.

I’ll begin on the evening of the concert. Since my mother is no longer fleet of foot we needed to park as close to the main square as possible. An early arrival ensured we found an off road parking space. With no barriers, cameras or ticket machines, I was intrigued as to how parking fees were collected and non payment avoided. I was told people just come in and pay out of a sense of obligation.

A day later and the five of us are exploring Maastricht and surrounds. We noticed how the people who served us were smart, engaging and seemingly proud of their roles; and how respectful the clients were of them. Throughout our time there, eating or drinking proved to be a collaborative experience where the ‘server’ took pleasure in your pleasure.

There are staff shortages mainly due to Covid not a lack of interest. Being in hospitality is viewed as a career and not looked down on and seen as a retrograde step for those unable to get a real job!

Linguistic & cultural nuances

This got us onto the use of language. Surrounded by 3 people whose linguistic capabilities put mine to shame we discussed how the English tend to thrive on ambiguity (see Treaty of Maastricht interpretation above).

I shared my experience of managing the intergration of Dutch, German, US and English companies; how the word interesting is interpreted as a positive word by non English when it is quite likely to be a way of saying “not on my watch”.

Another word often used by native English speakers that can cause offence is tolerant. When describing how accomodating ‘we’ can be, I said we are tolerant. “You tolerate me?” was the sharp response! As a result I no longer use that phrase.

I first came across the phrase “Goat mouth” while conducting an interview with a President while on a Knowledge Management assignment in the Caribbean.

Slang expression for someone that has the ability to predict future outcomes (particularly unfavorable future outcomes that causes misfortunes)

https://jamaicanpatwah.com/term/Goat-mouth/1574#.YvuQxPHMJeU

Had I understood it at the time it would have put much of the remaining conversation into context. NB it showed the value of capturing (with the interviewees consent) the conversation and having it transcribed!

Finally, going back a decade, I am working on a project to improve collaboration and team working across a global organisation. Having surfaced a number of stories of behaviours and cultural nuances that separate and unite we create a “What makes us tick?” booklet that serves as a critical friend aimed at getting the team to reflect first and speak / write second.

And finally

You might be aware one of my prime interests is Bees Homes who sells beautiful homes.

The process of selling and buying a property in the UK is convoluted and alien to the majority of the rest of the world. Solicitors / Conveyancers are at the centre of the English process and their interpretation can derail a transaction especially when each has a different take of property & boundary law. When structural surveyors are instructed as they tend to be on older property purchases there is a need for careful interpretation of what their words really mean.

Here’s a true story:

A couple of friends were buying a wonderful but run down property commanding a magnificent view over Friston Forest. When they received the surveyor’s report they questioned whether they should go ahead with the purchase as it contained many comments of concern. Our friends who are practical business people decide to cut throught the caveats and legalese and ask a straight question:

“Are you aware the property has been empty for 4 years? If so would you buy it?”

The response: “No we weren’t. In that case in a heartbeat, all it needs is a little TLC”

Imagine then, selling a historic property to an overseas buyer who works for a parastatal organisation and prone to forensic interpretation of words. The propensity for misunderstanding and mistrust is great and requires the patience of Job. Phrases and words of professionals can be confusing to overseas clients and result in intransigent positions being adopted.

I suggest the English speaking world is privileged but lazy. Few of us speak another language yet we get offended when non native English speakers don’t grasp what we say or mean.

Here’s a mantra I developed many years ago to mitigate this issue. Taken from a post I wrote while helping a new multicultural management team come together:

Perhaps the most revealing was that nobody had English as his or her first language. We adopted this mantra as a way of overcoming potential misunderstanding:

‘I heard you to say…. and I understood you to mean….’

Further we agreed that whenever anyone did not understand a phrase or word they would seek clarification and record it on a white board along with a glossary of terms.

Thanks for reading

Striving for Omotenashi excellence: the value of “Pause & Reflect” sessions

“As a child, I often would go back home to spend my summers in Tokyo with my grandparents. A memory that stays with me are the trips we would take to Kamakura and Hayama. Hotels and ryokans treated every guest like a VIP—no matter if this was the first stay or the 100th stay. The attentive staff was neither pushy nor clingy nor obtrusive. It was a perfect balance. Everything from the first warm greeting to the way meals were prepared and served was an experience, executed smoothly and with such precision it never felt forced or unnatural. Moreover, the hotels had this uncanny sense of knowing what the guests needed. Every time I left, I couldn’t wait to come back again.

The quote (bold emphasis is mine) is taken from a blog post by Mari Yamaguchi, who comes from a Customer Experience Design and Voice of the Customer background, and gives a good illustration of the five basic principles that underpin the Japanese custom of Omotensahi.

  • Greet the customers
  • Be friendly / smile
  • Use appropriate language
  • Be presentable
  • Act appropriately

As business managers / owners I wonder how many of your team aspire to provide that level of service? Is it part of your culture too? Do your clients say, “I couldn’t wait to come back again?”

Are you able to say we have “..an implicit understanding that there are no menial tasks if the result ensures a great experience…”

In search of excellence

It doesn’t matter the size of your business or industry, operational and decision making processes can always be improved. Taking time to reflect in a non judgemental way is an essential part of the technique Knowledge & Information Professionals call Learning Before, During & After.

As a relatively young business (5 years old this month) Bees Homes has set out to provide exceptional customer service and to use it as a market differentiator. A quick glimpse of its current portfolio amplifies the strapline “Selling Beautiful Properties from the Downs to The Weald”!

First impressions count. Since 90% of property sales originate from online searches it’s essential to stand out from the crowd. Great presentation is key to getting a listing noticed and potential buyers interested and willing to pay a premium.

Bees Homes ‘Tailored Marketing’ (part of a trademarked process – 5Hive) is subject to continual improvment and refinement. Core, is the art of presenting the client’s home to its maximum potential. And to achieve that, a wide range of experienced and talented professionals with complimentary skill sets are deployed at the photoshoot along with an array of accessories and artifacts for staging and styling.

Each event is planned with military precision with estimated timings for each phase, the order in which rooms are to be staged and the role to be played by each professional.

The lead agent needs to ‘see through the lens’ of the photographer and imagine how an image will look online and in the bespoke coffee table brochure that’s produced for each property.

She/he needs to capture enough of the DNA of the property that the Copywriter and Designer can incorporate it in the brochure. And she/he needs to ensure the client is delighted with both the event and the resulting marketing collateral.

Each of these events throw up learnings that are fed back into operational processes. Here’s how:

Learning after: “Pause & Reflect”

Each Pause & Reflect session is run no more than 2/3 weeks after the event and lasts for a maximum of two hours.

It is led by someone who was not at the event and features those who were.

So many organisations fail to engage with the people who work alongside them. In the above example James (our photographer) was able to input a number of valuable insights and suggestions that will improve the conduct future projects and the result for the client.

As an illustration, a list of 10 enhancements emerged from the latest session all of which have been fed back into Bees Homes Tailored Marketing process. The latest brochure of a very desirable property in Rye reflects a couple.

And finally

Bees Homes is fortunate to be led by Ana Aguilar-Corney who is a qualified Interior Designer and experienced design blogger. Ana is able to use her skills to help the team present a property in a compelling way so that prospective buyers can imagine themselves living there.

Successful businesses draw on a variety of skills and give voice to the people who work alongside them. They are willing to hold up their hands when things don’t work out the way they’d planned but (and this is a differentiator) they are constantly seeking a pathway to excellence through process improvement. Dare I say it, to a culture of Omotenashi?

Be concise, be memorable: why names, images and straplines matter

For the past 20 months, I’ve been wearing a few hats: author; consultant; advisor; and business owner.  Substitute years for months and it would also be an accurate account of how I’ve spent most of the last 20 years.

Describing that to people is often a challenge.

At an event in Dubai, not long after I’d left a full-time role (as a Vice President in a financial services group in the City of London) someone asked me what I did. Expecting the usual answer (Vice President… / Senior Manager….) he was surprised and I hope intrigued when I answered, “I have a portfolio of activities.”  It’s a phrase I’ve used ever since.

I’d thought long and hard about my response to his question. “Who are you with?” is almost a standard opening line at any meeting during a business event. Those that are interested in the reply will ask you to explain what that means.  The majority begin looking over your shoulder for someone else to talk to.

Say what you do, not what you are called

Often when working on a consulting assignment trying to understand how a business works I conduct interviews or run group sessions. I ask people to introduce themselves and describe what they do. The vast majority say, “My name is ….. I am the …” To which I respond, “That’s impressive, now please tell me what you do in a way that an outsider will understand.”

We all hide behind jargon and headlines which today’s 24 x 7 soundbite society promulgates.  How many times have you read a headline and formed an opinion based on that only to discover that the article that follows says something different?

Our challenge is to distil what we do into a phrase, image or name that is concise and memorable, one that makes you smile.

A few months back I ran a Masterclass in Stockholm for Senior Legal Knowledge Management professionals. I invited them to pair up and develop their own concise description of what they did. It proved to be an illuminating session.

Promoting Knowledge Management is much like I used to find selling Corporate Finance services – it’s intangible so harder to explain and hence easier to diss.

Making first impressions count

#FinanceNavigator – Intrigued?

Every couple of weeks I attend a business networking event of one type or another. Participants are encouraged to share their story in a minute or less. The vast majority waste the first 30 seconds describing when they were founded and where their offices are located. Very few put themselves in the shoes of the audience or leave a lasting image or impression. 10% might tell a story.

On Monday I spent a couple of hours with a marketing advisor. Part of the UK Govt’s “Let’s do business’ initiative wherein companies can access business advice we were discussing the messages a young business might use to describe what it does and who it is.

Adopting a persona approach, we mapped words on their online presence (website / Facebook / Google Business) with keywords we thought their target audience might use. We drew on great 5 star Google reviews to see what clients actually said. And we thought long and hard about navigation, images and metaphors.

A strapline, Shining a light on property finance with a lighthouse (we live within walking distance of Beach Head Lighthouse one of the UK’s famous landmarks) generated the idea of building on a navigation theme and the idea of using the Finance Navigator Hashtag.

#PropertyMatchmakers was a hashtag evolved for Bees Homes a companion business.

Supported by a smiling winking bee logo and a strapline,: “Taking the sting out of buying and selling property”, it features the concept of matching buyers and sellers rather than merely advertising a property on line and hoping buyers will come.

The bee logo is memorable and portable across gender, ethnicity and generations. The hashtag appears in every social media post. Both companies finish any presentation with, “Here when you need us, not when it suits us” to emphasise that ours is more than a 9-5 business.

Valuing and selling property is a subjective art. Ultimately the ‘right price’ is what someone is willing to pay not what the owner thinks it is.

The skill of the ‘Property Matchmaker’ (realtor or agent) is to find the right buyer, sell them a lifestyle or image they can relate / aspire to, negotiate a price both are happy with and manage the supply chain to completion. It’s often about making correlations.

In a previous post on Collaboration, Working out Loud and Knowledge matchmaking I described the concept of a Knowledge Matchmaker and suggested:

…as a Senior Manager charged with developing new business, my ability to match a need with a solution was prized and rewarded even though the correlation was opaque to my bosses. More often than not the intuition paid off. But does the same apply today in a Knowledge Management environment where logarithms and Artificial Intelligence are making the correlations I used to make?

The idea of making and managing connections and networks came up time and time again albeit called something different during interviews for the KM Cookbook. Where it landed for me was in discussion with a prominent KM’er embarking on a relaunch / rebrand of her organisation’s KM program. They too were seeking a memorable image / strapline / hashtag that could underpin their internal and external communications.

And finally

Knowledge Management is a thread running through my many consultancy assignments, publications, masterclasses and pro bono activities. Underpinning this is the concept of how to describe or illustrate the value a person or team brings to the business.

To illustrate: As advisor to a large reinsurance group I would spend a day per month in their offices in the City coaching different people and teams. I recall a discussion with the compliance team who had a terse relationship with the business who saw them as blockers not enablers. By adopting a business consultancy mindset, it changed the dynamic: people went to ask compliance how best to meet regulations instead of doing it and being told they were wrong.

Here’s what I advise all businesses I work with when they try to present what they do:

  1. Make it concise
  2. Make it memorable
  3. Make it recognisable to those who are listening (or watching)

When I was Managing Partner at Sparknow LLP we ran an exercise for the front line staff of the UK’s Museums & Libraries group. We asked them to be “in the shoes’ of their customers, to imagine what it would be like to be on the other side of the desk. It was uncomfortable and required them to get out of their comfort zone to do so.

The best presenters are those who tell stories that live in the memory. If you can wrap the three must do’s into a story then you are on the way to creating an effective and enduring presence.

Thanks for reading this.

How KM is helping with urban regeneration: engaging with the community

I was never a great fan of cities that had buildings, walls and even trains covered in grafitti.

That was before we acquired a place in Lisbon and saw the dramatic impact Urban or Street Art can have on a community: how it can transform run down and delinquent areas; create a sense of community spirit; and turn it into the #1 city break destination.

What does this have to do with Knowledge Management? Here’s what:

An offer too good to refuse?

A year ago my wife Ana and I were having coffee with our local MP Stephen Lloyd and a prominent local businessman, Keith Ridley. During a wide ranging conversation, triggered by a new business venture (Bees Homes) we’d established 6 months previously, Stephen and Keith asked us to generate a few ideas that might build on the regeneration and investment (circa £400m) taking place in Eastbourne.

As people who’ve been lucky enough to visit many places where Urban Art is a feature we suggested that might be one way of improviing footfall to the town while creating the bohemian cafe type culture typical of mediterranean seaside communities and increasigly seen around the UK. In January we spoke at length to the Municipality of Lisboa to learn from their experience and in October I had breakfast with the head of the art programme in Stockholm. Both gave similar advice: engage with the community first.

In truth this was an approach we’d been adopting (ours was ‘top down, bottom up’) as we’d recognised that sustainability can only occur if the initiative is “In the community, of the community and for the community”.

We continued to gather support from key stakeholders with the aim of holding an open engagement session before the year was out.  That sesson took place on December 6th, here’s what happened.

Engaging with the community:

I wanted an event that brouight together everyone who might be interersted for a couple of hours of semi formal collaboration. Having spoken to David Gurteen, I adapted the Knowledge Cafe format I’d used some 6 years previously in Lewes when I was gauging interest in setting up a charity to make use of surplus food.

We (Bees Homes) were keen to be seen as catalysts / facilitators but not the driver so we asked Keith if he would share the running of the event with me. And we worked closely with the local community hub The Devonshire Collective who are supported by the local and Borough Councils.  They agreed to host the event and arrange for the publicity.

This is the agenda we all agreed.It’s worth noting 50+, including Stephen Lloyd who that very day had resigned the Lib Dem Whip over the Brexit vote, turned up on a horrible evening.

I especially enjoyed the Ice Breaker session: to see a group of total strangers including many of the town’s dignitaries embrace the opportunity to share thoughts with strangers was rewarding and set the tone for the evening.

Everything went to time, people responded well to our presentation,  the (free) food provided by Heidi of The Crown & Anchor & ‘Naz’of Simply Pattiserie helped to lubricate the discussions and there was an audible buzz by the time Madam Mayor got up to do the farewells.

Outcomes

We asked people to work in tables of 6 arranged cocktail style and write post it notes. Keith summarised at the end of each question.

A snapshot of the responses is alongside.

Our next step is to set up a social media presence and draw on the offers of support to get the first 5 works commissioned.

And finally

What did I (re) learn from this event:

  1. People like a structured approach behind apparant informality
  2. Be clear on what you are expecting people to do and on the expected outcomes
  3. Brief early those who are working alongside you – get their input
  4. People like the opportunity to talk to others early at an event
  5. Food (and wine) help lubricate tongues
  6. It’s important to summarise as you go
  7. Inject humour when you feel its needed
  8. Make sure you acknowledge the contribution of everyone
  9. Find a venue that has enough space to move around – we shifted venue due to numbers
  10. Get to a new venue early and check out the equipment.  When I arrived to check it out I discovered the projectors and TV screens were not compatible with Macbook Pros. In the end we had to find a couple of PC’s and download our presentation from DropBox

the future workplace seen from the streets of London and the importance of conversations

Running a portfolio of activities is great. It has downsides though: The feeling of anxiety about what’s next; or guilt at taking a time out to do pro bono work when I could be responding to a request from a prospective client. And like every business marketing and relationship management has its cost.

But yesterday I decided to take a time out to reflect and think about the closing session at KMUK which I’ve been asked to lead. And this is how I ended up walking the streets.

John Blackwell is someone I met many years back while he was an IBM’er.  His ‘new’ organisation Quora devotes much of their time to help organisations think about the future of work and workspace.  Those who follow what I write will know working environments (space: virtual and physical) is a topic I feel neglected in Knowledge Management strategies and implementation plans.

mobile knowledge cafe in the street?

When John invited me to attend an afternoon session run by Street Wisdom at the Royal Society of Arts as part of his Smartworking Summit I was intrigued as the concept has caught on around the globe and seemed to be a sort of Knowledge Cafe in the street. Here’s what happened:

  1. Scene setting: David, Chris and Mel, explained what was about to happen over the next 3 hours.  In a pre-session discussion I’d described my ‘doctrine’ of Orchestrated Serendipity and that was used to illustrate what might happen. This is what we did.
  2. AIMG_3579 1wareness: Having assembled in 3 groups of 6 outside of the RSA we were invited to go off on our own for 8 minutes and observe – our choice, what we see and record. I noticed this pile (and someone’s bed) not 100 yards from this lovely peaceful spot.IMG_3580 1
  3. Slow: Back at ‘base’ we were asked to go off again at a very slow pace to see whether what we noticed is different because we have slowed down. My immediate emotion was of being in a bubble as everyone around me hurried about their business. Certainly I was more attuned to ‘things’ and it felt like I do at airports where I often switch off and withdraw in as a way of coping with the vagaries of travel. My 8 minutes over I return to ‘base’.
  4. Patterns: With my new ‘friend’ Mark from Sheffield I set off in search of patterns. This was interesting. As we walked we reflected on how we had already seen things we’d not normally see. We parted, me to Caffe Nero, he to the pub, both to watch.  I noticed: in a cafe people give themselves permission to talk; no one seems to use a paper map anymore, they use their smartphones; buses do come along in threes.
  5. IMG_3582 1Beauty: If the 8 minutes searching for patterns seemed a bit frivolous, 8 minutes looking for beauty (definition: ‘in the eye of the beholder’) was revealing. Literally 400 years from the rubbish and garden, up a twitten off The Stand I came across this magnificent abode which was being shown to a young Asian Student and his father. Amid the hustle and bustle of The Strand here was an oasis (at a price-1 bedroom starting at £895k!) which was aesthetically pleasing.
  6. Burning question: Fired up and ready to go I returned for my last task assignment.  I was to go off for 30 minutes to answer a burning question.  In my case this was to think about how I was going to run the forthcoming closing session at KMUK.
  7. Plenary: All valuable interventions end with a debrief / reflection session. Here we sat in a circle and shared what we’d seen and done. This was a precursor to a more expansive group conversation among two dozen people drawn from HR/Change/Facilities Management functions.

observations from plenary

The plenary session was stimulating: some worked virtually, others from Academia did a combination of home and away.  Here’s what emerged:

  • While virtual working is hugely advantageous to many, not everyone’s personal circumstances or culture fits.  Last week in Hong Kong I realised that with personal space at such a premium work has to take place away from the home. One virtual worker also noted that as a mother the flexibility is essential for her. She did note though that personal contact is essential to make sure a virtual team functions to its optimal level.
  • The grouping of people around a central office or campus is declining.  One view was that the Google and Facebook campus facilities are the last hurrah for this type of environment.
  • The future is about creating community hubs (closer to where people live) that permit drop out/drop in attendance based on a concierge hotel style service.
  • Current contractual arrangements are too restrictive and Zero hour contracts exploitative and not conducive to creating the element of trust needed for a different approach to task management. We discussed the idea of giving staff ‘space cards’ which they can redeem against usage at such approved venues.
  • No one is training us to work in the new way or in virtual teams and the training should begin in schools.
  • Digital was an adjective, now its a noun and with Bring Your Own Devices (BYOD) we are entering an era of extreme customisation of the workplace by the consumer.
  • No one ‘owns’ the topic at a senior level. Like Knowledge Management ways of working and workspace environment is seen as being a horizontal function straddling many disciplines.

my takeaways

  • The next 5 years will see an accelaration in the growth of the generic workspace.
  • ‘No one can speak twice until everyone has spoken once’ was a lovely approach from David Pearl (Founder of Street Wisdom) to ensure everyone in the plenary session got their say.
  • People and conversations matter, in fact they are vital for innovation and knowledge sharing: people share not technology.  I realised halfway through the session how important it is to have the imaginery ‘water cooler’ or coffee station area where you can go to share and be stimulated. By listening to others I was able to craft an agenda which otherwise I might have struggled with.
  • Street Wisdom worked for me when I recognised I had given myself permission to take time to slow down and reflect. It is an effective way of changing mindset and a case of: ‘when you look at things differently, the things you look at change.’
  • And finally, I managed to create a wrap up session for next week’s KMUK event. Watch this space to see what I did and how it went.

one to watch

Re-Imagining Work remains one of my all time favourite videos.  Dave Copin imagines what might be possible if more organisations embraced the empowering potential of technology and encouraged a truly open working culture.  It is a great accompaniment to this discussion and one I use frequently to stimulate a debate.