What does your survey data tell you about the morale / mood / ‘tone’ within your business at the minute? Feel you’ve got a good grip on things? All tickety–boo?

Conventional survey data can only ever provide a partial, often sanitized,

Try a little walking around; take the air.

In the spirit of enlarging our understanding of those elusive terms ‘engagement’
and ‘productivity’, a few of us colleagues have been visiting various business
reception areas, breathing it all in. We’ve been experimenting with that beautifully named data collection technique, the ‘sniff test’, and anonymously visiting client and non-client companies across sectors and markets.

It is harder than you might think to sit, watch, and soak up what is (really) going
on: but incredibly informative and rewarding.

Tolstoy’s oft-quoted comment in Anna Karenina ‘all happy families are alike; each
unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ may even apply to companies. It is possible to get a really powerful sense of whether working at that company is a happy experience just by watching and listening.

With enough input to fuel a large-scale drama, certain ‘happy’ indicators struck us
as particularly interesting.

  • A CEO who came to greet an interviewee herself.
    The candidate was visibly pleased and pleasantly surprised.
  • Relaxed and cheerful acknowledgement at reception.
  • People moving faster into the building than out
  • coffee / snack bars / cafes were not uniformly successful – it was the
    people running them and whether they ‘knew’ the ‘customers’ that
  • Overheard between employee team members– ‘is there anything else that
    would help you’?
  • Displays of work and output in reception. Much happier than those where
    the minimalist look dominated.
  • Security guards that smiled and helped.
  • Chatter rather than silence
    Talking in the lift lobbies. (unhappy offices were more like train stations)
  • A sense of ‘being welcomed’ rather than ‘being processed’.
  • Colour and movement.

Try the ‘sniff test’, and be amazed at the strength and clarity of the data you
receive; data that is much more truthful than that found in an annual satisfaction
survey.  To really know what’s going on in your company, stop and sniff the air.
If what you are sensing disappoints, don’t just re-issue the same inadequate and
misleading survey.

You need to know what’s really going on*.

Undertake some genuine enquiry, find out what really matters to people.  Then you’ll see what needs doing, and where.

You’ll soon be picking up that sweet smell of success.

*I also work with a wonderful team who know how to do just this, how to deliver a
swift, actionable, values-based diagnosis.


A Japanese proverb (literally: ‘7 falls, 8 getting up’) extols resilience, and is the title of the incredibly accomplished second book by the young Japanese autistic author Naoki Higashida.


Both this and his previous book, “The Reason I Jump”, are translated and introduced by David Mitchell (‘Cloud Atlas’, ‘The Bone Clocks’, father of an autistic son) who highlights the insights, understanding, and awareness that Naoki shares about the ways in which the intention behind communication can be lost or confounded.  And it made me think of Leadership communication mis-steps that have been discussed with me recently.

No, the parallel is not that Leaders may be autistic.

The parallel is that a gifted autistic writer is so engaged with when and how these mis-steps happen, that his analysis and explanation may also help ….’neurotypicals’.

Two small themes feel very useful.

Naoki analyses how one day instead of saying ‘thank you’ to a carer, he says – and has no control over this – ‘have a good day’. The moment is lost, his meaning is lost, and the possibility of connection is lost. He describes how he and the carer are standing in the hall near a pair of shoes. His mind (again, unbidden and not under his control) connects and references the previous occasion he was standing by these shoes: when it was relevant to use the phrase he had spent a long time learning..…‘have a good day’.

A coachee this week, while ‘neurotypical’, described a similar sort of process.
By trying too hard to….. ‘be a leader’, she had replicated this very dynamic. By referencing an admired, a prototypical, leadership response rather than attending to what was needed by her team member there and then, true connection failed. Naoki cannot re-wire, but we can; we can make the effort to respond to the particularity with which we are faced, and not channel previous, or other people’s, encounters.

Naoki is touching, too, when he describes the damaging effect of criticism. He describes a constant wrestling with an awareness that a mistake has been made. The last thing needed in the whole world is repeated additional criticism from others. Don’t ‘neurotypicals’ feel this too?

Two small reminders in a surprising book packed with insights: deal with the current situation (not a remembered or imagined one) and dial back the criticism. Thank you, Naoki.


One of the many joys of Wimbledon fortnight is the satisfying binary nature of triumphs and defeats. Win or lose. In or out. The rules are clear, the result is clear. It’s genuine satisfaction: everyday life, especially at work, is so frustratingly non-binary.

I wonder whether we admit that quite enough?

During team sessions this week, I’ve seen again a huge reluctance to view situations as…. ambiguous.  This is not an artsy or fluffy view of the world: the notion of ambiguity is – since the work of great scientific thinkers such as Max Planck, Einstein, Niels Bohr – scientific.

Quantum theory opened our minds to a powerful notion – that of wave/ particle duality – it is possible for matter/ energy to behave as a particle in one set of circumstances, and as a wave in a different context.  Neither one thing, nor the other…but possibly both.

In a fantastic linkage between Captain Kirk and real life, news of a successful ‘teleporting’ experiment broke this week.  The principle is called ‘quantum entanglement’ – two particles react as one, even when there is no connection between them.

Would there be different outcomes for ‘change programmes’ if we could experiment with this way of thinking, rather than the mechanistic (and control driven) binary either/ or model? Could some way of acknowledging the mysterious energetic connections between people and their environments lead to success?

We need a new sort of Business School.

It might offer the Planck – Bohr Leadership Programme.


We are in year 25 of the great worldwide ‘let’s all have smartphones and see what happens’ experiment. (If the IBM ‘Simon’ launched in 1992 really was the first)

Carelessly, no experiment design or stopping rules were established; so we are all in the odd position of being simultaneously guinea–pig and researcher.

One trend is becoming very evident to me as the experiment hurtles on and subtly changes our brains and behaviour.  It is this. The adaptation to dealing (amazingly) with the ludicrous amounts of data conveyed via our devices, seems to be at the expense of dealing with a different sort of data: real-life, situational, experiential data.

Recently I’ve been lucky enough to participate in several interesting and creative Leadership Training sessions. I’ve seen this play out in full view.

In numerous different role-play scenarios, the same pattern has emerged.  Words have been taken at rational face value; while signals (data) from body, voice, mood, stance – even if at odds with the language – have been barely registered.

It’s as if the senior, experienced, impressive participants had become used to operating primarily as super-brains. Disembodied. Disconnected.

It’s a phenomenon that could do with a name.

James Joyce’s collection of stories ‘The Dubliners’ was published in 1914. The collection includes a story called ‘A Painful Case’. Joyce described the hero:

“Mr Duffy lived a short distance from his body”