Category: Management learning

Learning to build co-operation between businesses

In bquest we are working with a client to help them develop a long-term ‘strategic relationship’ with a new customer (call it what you will – alliance, partnership, co-operation, collaboration, joint venture, understanding). The client wants the relationship to go beyond a simple seller/buyer relationship (a short-term transactional relationship) to one where both sides expect to work and learn together long-term, sharing some of the risks, for mutual benefit. The relationship might turn out to be a loose one or it might evolve into something more formal and contractual.

The approach we have taken is firstly to get our client into the same room with the intended partner. Face-to-face contact is essential. There have been exchanges of emails and telephone calls beforehand, so the first face-to-face meeting had an agenda of working together on a particular task, in this case the development of a new product. Focusing firstly on a joint task makes it easier for both sides to interact as they are both in their comfort zones.

During the meeting, actually a series of meetings held over two days, we started mixing work on the task with social activities, like having chats over coffee about family and having dinner together, and also with ‘prompt questions’ (from bquest) to elicit:

  1. Shared goals and values. Do both sides share a core set of goals and values? Are there any differences which are deal breakers?
  2. Each party’s vision of their own future, and what their vision of a relationship might look like. Are they more or less in alignment?
  3. Can they get along together. Working on a task gives both sides a common history, itself a powerful aid to a long-term relationship, but can both sides laugh together? A shared humour is so powerful.
  4. Their degree of trust in each other and, importantly, can they grow that trust? Are they prepared to open up, to be transparent?
  5. Practical actions, the concrete next steps to take to progress the task. Relationships work better when there is a common task to achieve and when both sides can see real progress being made.

The above forms a simple framework to measure the potential for a sound long-term relationship. If you can put a tick next to each one, you have the basis for progressing and deepening the relationship.

A sixth need, once both partners agree to progress the relationship, will be to develop:

  1. Some more or less detailed ground rules for managing the relationship and the differences (conflicts) that may emerge as circumstances and actors change. ‘Rules’ may be out on the table or they may be undeclared and only assumed; if assumed, they may need to be checked, and rechecked periodically, to avoid later misunderstandings.

The above model isn’t rocket science. Isn’t this the basis for most strong business (and personal) relationships? But do you use such a model in a conscious way? Do you use prompt questions carefully and purposefully to investigate and confirm that both sides are in agreement about the relationship?

If you are not an expert in asking the right prompt questions, maybe bquest can help you.



What must you learn (and change) to make sure your business doesn’t fail?

We all know the depressing statistics which show that most small businesses fail within a few years of start up. No business has the right to survive and prosper. There is a good argument to suggest we need failures to weed out the inefficient, the sclerotic and the unneeded.

In my experience, failure is more often caused by internal factors over which management have control than external factors over which they don’t. There seems to be much ‘shooting oneself in the foot’.

Here are a few examples of the research into reasons why businesses fail:

and Jim Collins’ interesting book How the mighty fall where he looks at formerly successful companies which failed.

In bquest, we also often see businesses making the same sort of mistakes and, while they may not actually fail, they miss all the opportunities to be more successful; they just seem to bumble along the bottom, their owners seem to tolerate the status quo and accept survival and mediocrity.

In How the mighty fall Collins remembers the advice of his mentor, Stanford professor Bill Lazier: “Don’t try to come up with the right answers; focus on coming up with good questions.” This seems to me to be excellent advice!

So, with some of the problems of current bquest clients in mind, here are a few (perhaps commonsense but definitely not common practice) questions to get you thinking……

  • Which of your customers’ needs or wants are you really satisfying? What other of their needs or wants could you consider satisfying?
  • Are you getting the best price for your product or service? What can you change to get a better price?
  • Are you making a real profit on all your offerings? Are there some things you do that actually lose you money?
  • What are your competitors beginning to do that might capture your customers? What can you do to capture customers from your competitors?
  • Are you getting satisfaction (energy, motivation, pleasure, rewards, work-life balance, sense of purpose, security, reputation, ego, growth, family heritage, stress free, permanence, whatever) from your business? What could you change to really get the most out of your business?

In bquest, we help you ask the right questions.


When do you reflect?

As a developer of managers and key professionals at bquest I like to use the experiential learning cycle of Kolb and of Honey and Mumford as a framework for helping guide the personal development of a person at work. As with all such mental models , it can be useful as a guide to provide structure and a check to identify what is being done and not done in the learning process.

Kolb, Honey and Mumford use the terms ‘review’, reflect’, ‘ponder’ and ‘observe’ to describe one of the the key stages of experiential learning, when you take time out to think about an experience you have had so that you can learn lessons from it. By reflecting, you either reach more or less firm conclusions, new conclusions or revised ones, or you can posit theories about how things work and could work better.

My experience is that many managers do not systematically reflect after an experience, good or bad. After an experience, they want to move onto the next experience. They tend to prefer the action stage in the experiential learning cycle, when they feel they are making progress by doing things.

This may be because people tend to become managers because they are valued and so get appointed by their bosses more for the actions they do, which are more easily observed and are therefore more easily associated with getting results. Or, another theory I have about why managers don’t often reflect: as people get older they build a ‘castle’ of experience and knowledge, a castle which helps them deal with all the dangers of life, and they don’t like having to go  and examine or challenge, perhaps even ‘unlearn’ some of that castle.

But, as Kolb, Honey and Mumford so rightly point out, without good quality reflection, a lot of potential learning gets lost. And if you don’t learn from experiences then you risk making the same mistakes.

So, again, when do you reflect?

For me personally, I am not a conscientious reflector. I don’t, for example, take fifteen minutes at the end of each day to write down my thoughts for the day. Nor do I like reflecting after a long and tiring coaching session; I want to let go and empty my brain.

Instead, I find I do reflect well when it is easy (for me) to do so, like when I am driving on a long journey, and when I am in bed and can’t sleep. There is something about those two situations that makes it easy for my brain to ‘review’, ‘reflect’, ‘ponder’ and ‘observe’; in those situations I find I can often reach certain truths or new ways of looking at events.

I now deliberately use those situations as reflection times.

And you?


Learning and development at bquest

Here’s a video interview with David Thompson of bquest. It looks at learning and development in companies, how bquest does it, how it adds real value. I hope you find it interesting and useful!




Change the world or change yourself

It was Leo Tolstoy who said, “everybody thinks of changing humanity, but nobody thinks of changing himself.” (Mahatma Gandhi later said a variant, “You must be the change you want to see in the world”, but this is more about consciously standing out as a role model so that others will eventually come to copy you.)

Why is this a valuable idea in business life? As a development coach I hear all too often otherwise highly competent clients complaining about the problems caused by other people or by the system around them: “I can’t do this because my boss…..”; “If only they would manage their time better….”; Why can’t they be a bit more open to new ideas….”; and so on.

They seem to spend hours analysing the other person and finding solutions the other person could implement. If the other person saw it as a problem. If they were willing to make changes. If they were capable of making changes.

So that’s their situation; what is there for my client to change?

Option 1 – Change the other person. This may be possible if you are their boss (or you have some other power) and you are willing and able to direct or coach them or, like Gandhi, model the required behaviours over time to change their behaviours. Or to sack them and replace them with someone more compliant.
Option 2 – Change the system. You may be in a position to get changes made to the procedures or working environment that govern the other person’s behaviours. But how long will it take you? How much effort?
Option 3 – Change yourself. This is the option which is most likely the one you can implement. You can change your own behaviours so they impact on the other person and causes them change their behaviours. You can change your own behaviours to find a working solution, one that you can implement. You can change your attitude to the situation, for example learning to accept it as just a fact of life, however troublesome. Or you can walk away from it.

This is the line of questioning I follow with clients who complain about others, “What can you change in yourself to change the situation?”


Online learning resources for employee development

I find my clients are now turning to the web more and more for their injections of knowledge. If you are a student of management and business in college or university you have to read academic books and articles to complete the course work, but most practitioners it seems can get enough of the same knowledge they need from online sites.

I think injecting structured knowledge is a good part of the learning process. While I always stress the value of experiential learning I know it can be a messy and painful process. Injecting small chunks of knowledge developed by other people can make your own experiences more purposeful, efficient and effective.

Here are five free knowledge sites I find reliable and practical:

Wikipedia – yes, it has its critics, but you will find descriptions and comments about most things relevant to running a business. Just last week, different bquest clients used Wikipedia to get intitial ideas about ‘lean manufacturing’, ‘pricing’ and ‘conflict management.’ I think Wikipedia can be an excellent starting point to get an overview of a topic – you can then use that starting point to go deeper into areas that are of specific relevance to you. You don’t need to ‘read the book’ from A-Z.

Mindtools – this wonderful site focuses on personal competencies. It presents concepts clearly and simply. If you were just to read the many pages of different management tools they provide you, and applied them to your job, you would have almost everything you need to be an effective manager.

12Manage – this site has short, pertinant descriptions of just about every business concept you need. This is knowledge chunking at its best.

Andrew Gibbons – this site has development tools created or collected over many years by one of the top UK coaches, along with a number of good book summaries. While the materials are obviously attractive to trainers, they can be used by the manager who wants to develop their own  people and many are equally useful for self-development. There is a lot that is free, and the price for the payable materials is worthwhile.

Bookboon – this is a new site to me, but it has a large number of easy-to-read books on many business and personal competency topics.

You have no excuses for not having the knowledge; I hope they help you!