“Friendly Fire” – Investigating the complexity of organisational failure

A standing army is one of the oldest and sustained forms for an organisational solution to a complex need. Actions of thousands of individuals are coordinated in the pursuit of a highly dangerous “mission”. Over the hundreds of years many lessons were hard won – and as easily forgotten. Many civil organisations including businesses look to the military in their search for answers to organisational issues. 

“Friendly Fire” by Scott A. Snook is full of rich learning for anyone who leads or tries to understand organisations. In a unique way he combines individual, group and organisational level analyses to make sense of why on April 14, 1994 two U.S. Air Force F-15 fighters shot down two U.S. Army Black Hawk Helicopters over Northern Iraq. In this friendly fire incident 26 peace keepers were killed. Subsequent investigations could find no single culprit, no one flaw which caused the tragedy. 

Incidents like the one in Iraq have their counterparts in many organisations. Especially if you work in or with high reliability organisations Scott’s book is a must read. Incident investigations nowadays involve large groups of deep subject matter experts trawling through huge volumes of empirical data. More often than not these investigations result in conventional explanations such as “human errors”, equipment failures, lack of experience or training and generic “system” problems like insufficient resources. These answers help to satisfy our desire to regain control after something has fundamentally gone wrong in an otherwise highly reliable organisation. However, many times they do not help to prevent organisations from repeating similar mistakes in the future. 

Scott understands to lay out the complexity of today’s multilevel, multi-task, organisational systems based on a concrete and well-researched example. What he achieves in his investigation – without ever preaching it – is for the reader to realise that organisations are in their essence social systems. Failing to take into account how humans operate individually, in groups and in formal organisations can lead to in-effective and potentially lethal solutions.  

With today’s organisations trying to accomplish their missions in an ever more complex environment “Friendly Fire” is a book, which can help you to save lives. While some believe that accidents are inevitable it is the responsibility of organisational leaders to do everything they can to prevent them. Scott A. Snook’s “Friendly Fire” provides powerful insights on how to do that while refraining to present easy fixes. 

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The power of connections – why adding friends makes sense

The more people you know the better for you. The more you share the better for you. 500+ million people on facebook with an average of 130 friends each. 6,939 tweets per second on Jan 1, 2011. Why are we doing this? What are we getting out of it?

Jessica Hagy put the answer into a nice graph under the heading “This is what web 2.0 means.”Why connections are important

It is ingenious in its simplicity. Posted a while ago you can still find it on her wonderful blog.

It captured the imagination and the criticism of quite a crowd. Many explained once more that the number of people you know is not what counts. After all, you cannot have in-depth relationships with indefinite numbers of people, the ever increasing time spent on maintaining relationships leads to getting nothing done at all, “aggregate quality” is more more important than quantity etc.

So was the graph just another example for the unfounded optimism of a net enthusiast? Is it not true that knowing more people means that you can do more things? This is the basic premise behind the graph: the more “people you know” the more “things you can do”. Is it true or should we stop adding friends on facebook, stop going to conferences and never ever again talk to strangers?

There is actually a scientific foundation for what Jessica Hagy captured in such convincing simplicity. It takes some wind out of the sails of the unbelievers. The “Strength of Weak Ties” theory was first put forward by Marc S. Granovetter in 1973 – way before the internet was even thought of. He claimed that weak ties – relationships with people we have very little interaction with – are actually very important connections. They help us to find jobs, provide access to important knowledge and trigger innovations (Granovetter, 1983). In his study for his Harvard doctoral thesis he found that 24% of interviewed blue collar workers found their jobs through acquaintances they only saw once a year or less. Many of these ties had been forgotten by the individuals and were only reactivated through chance encounters or joined friends.

Sounds familiar? Ever stumbled across a tweet that made you research a bit more and got you thinking differently? Ever reacted to that reminder from facebook to “reconnect” with a friend?

According to Granovetter the reason for the positive impact of weak ties lies in the fact that they act as bridges to distant social networks. The information circulating in these networks would be otherwise inaccessible. Weak ties provide the person with non-redundant information. This includes but is by no means limited to just in time information about job offers.

Later research supported the positive impact of weak ties. As an example Daniel Z. Levin and Rob Cross (2004) found that weak ties contributed positively to project outcomes (efficiency and effectiveness) by providing useful information. In addition, they found that a similar – and at first glance bigger – impact of strong ties is actually mediated by trust. This means that only trusted strong ties had a positive effect. On the other hand, for weak ties the effect was additative – trusted weak ties yielded the most useful knowledge.

What does this all mean? Subscribe to my blog, follow me on Twitter and connect with me on LinkedIn. I might just be that weak tie getting you your next job or nudging you into the right direction closer to your million dollar invention. 🙂

Having more (virtual) acquaintances – more weak ties – means you will have access to more opportunities. You can do more because they provide you with windows into worlds and knowledge that you would otherwise have no access to. You do not need to spend evermore time on maintaining the relationships – trustbuilding interactions once a year might be enough. And you might want to unfriend and stop following people who you do not trust anyway. Their updates might be truly just a distractions with no use for you.


Granovetter, M. S. (1973) ‘The Strength of Weak Ties’, American Journal of Sociology, vol. 78, issue 6, May, pp. 1360-1380.

Granovetter, M. S. (1983) ‘The Strength of Weak Ties: A Network Theory Revisited’, Sociological Theory, vol. 1, pp. 201-233.

Levin, D. Z. and Cross, R. (2004) ‘The Strength of Weak Ties You Can Trust: The Mediating Effect of Trust in Effective Knowledge Transfer’, Management Science, vol. 50, no. 11, November, pp. 1477-1490.

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How to be happy at work – and why that will make you and your company successful

Think about your work – How do you feel?


During the past month, how often did you feel like the two in the picture above? How often did you feel unhappy, drained or bored while working?

And, how often did you feel like in the picture below? How often did your work “make” you feel happy, energised and inspired in the last month?


If you were unhappy more often than happy – it is time for a change. Life is too short for being unhappy in your work. After all, you spend a big chunk of your life, energy, and time on your job – probably more than 8 hours each day. And on top of that: Being unhappy with your work does not help you to be a positive partner, parent, or friend in the rest of the 24 hours.

The power of happiness

The good news is that being happy is not just important for yourself and your family and friends. It is actually very important for whomever you work for. Research apparently shows that happier people are:

  • more creative
  • more productive
  • more likely to attempt new challenges
  • more liked by their peers
  • recruited into better jobs
  • and accruing more money.

( Sonya Lyubomirski, Laura King and Ed Diener: The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success? )

Would you like to have those things happen to you? Would your boss or your customers like that? How then do we become happier with our work? The good news is it is actually rather easy. If you find out what you are passionate about and what you are good at – you can make the right decisions that will lead to “happy work”.

The first step is to do things that you care about. When you do things that you are passionate about and which have meaning for you you will feel happy and actually gain energy. Check on a regular basis: “Do I devote my time to something valuable or do I waste my time on trivial matters?” This will tell you whether you need to change what you do.

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you have not found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.” Steve Jobs

Nobody can tell you what the things are you love doing. Ask yourself: “What is it that I really enjoy doing? What were those moments, in which I  felt like a giant in the last months? What did I do?” Maybe it was an idea you had which made a project easier, helping a colleague with some insights, tweaking a system or process, selling a product or landing a deal with a customer? Or were there some “smaller” things like making a joke which made everyone laugh and put positive energy back into the room?

The second thing is to make sure that you do things that you are actually good at. Ask yourself: “Do I produce top quality or can I not meet my own standards?” When you are good at what you are doing there is a higher chance that you feel good about the work and that you will be rewarded by others. We all know that it feels much better to be able to say after finishing a task: This was high-quality stuff I produced – I am proud of it. One way to find out what you are good at is to ask some of your colleagues and friends.

Doing what you are good at will help you to be more often “in the zone” or in the “flow” – a concept developed by Mihály CsĂ­kszentmihályi. The state of “flow” is characterised by such positive things as:

  • Merging of action and awareness with distractions being blocked out, no feelings of anxiety or worry about failure,
  • Distorted sense of time,
  • Positive feeling of accomplishment afterwards.

One of the important conditions to reach the state of flow is that the challenges of the task are balanced with your skills. You must feel confident to be able to do the task in order to reach a state of flow. And more flow means more happiness.

Choices to become more happy and productive

Thus, the sweet spot to aim for is to do things you are good at and passionate about. It is what I call happy work! You could also call it playing but that might not sound serious enough for some. No matter how you call it – you want to be doing things that are in that happy space at the top right corner of the diagram to the right.

However often in our careers, we do things that we are bad at and do not care about. Those are the activities in the lower left corner. You need to find ways to do less of those or to convert them into more meaningful tasks. Doing these things will feel dreadful, it will drain your energy and make you unhappy.

Very interesting are the remaining two quadrants. On the top left there those activities that we are very good at but we do not find much meaning in them. This might be something that was really important to you in the past but is not anymore. Often we end up doing activities in this space because the people around us recognise our strengths and will come asking. Be selective about what you take on. It might help you and others but it will drain you of energy unless you can convert it into something that has meaning to you.

The lower right corner is full of activities, which offer growth opportunities. These are the things that you enjoy doing but you might not have much experience yet. Find a way to do more of them and claim spaces to practice. Yes, it will feel challenging and you will be nervous at times but the sense of achievement will be immense. And over time you have additional activities that give you energy – activities, which make you happy at work.

Start now

Obviously, the activities we are good at and find meaningful change over time. We are always growing. You can grow faster if you make conscious choices about what you do. All humans have a natural tendency to end up in the top right “Happy Work” corner. The feeling of happiness is a good guide towards fulfilling your potential.

If you are not doing enough “happy work” identify today what you want to do more of, what you want to do less of and how you can convert meaningless into meaningful work. Maybe compiling that budget is boring? Can you delegate it? Can you teach someone else to do it? Or maybe you can find a way to present the budget and the new opportunities you would want to pursue in a gripping speech to your team, stakeholders, and your boss?

In the end, both your clients and you yourself want you to do meaningful and high quality work. Don’t let anything get in your way. Your own choices determine what you do and whether you are happy.

“When you find yourself in love with something you’re good at, you never really work again.” Sir Ken Robinson


Some resources on the concept of flow:

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perennial.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1996). Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Collins.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1998). Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement With Everyday Life. New York: Basic Books.

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Why collaboration helps business to survive

In order to achieve anything with others we need a lot… First of all, we need a strong leader with a vision. This leader will through his virtues and charisma create the momentum and “compel” others to work together. The vision needs to be translated by expert managers into approved strategies and plans. Hierarchies and functional specialists need to ensure that the necessary resources – including humans – are deployed according to plan. And we need to measure success at every step, incentivise people, fight corruption…

This is the industrial age way of solving the coordination and distribution problems. Works right? No. It does not.

Industrial age management is very inefficient because so much time, money and energy are lost in non value adding coordination and distribution activities. Coordination and distribution activities do not produce anything, do not service a customer and do not result in new ideas. Industrial age management is hugely expensive with many layers of managers and executives doing exactly nothing but non value adding activities. And it is not effective: A staggering 74% of projects fail (Standish Group’s 1998 report) – not achieving the benefits aimed at according to plan. And worst of all: It actually kills the companies over the long run – wonderfully depicted here: Corporate Lifecycle.

What is happening? Let’s look at the lifecycle of a corporation. We see collaboration increasing in a newly founded organisation (left side of the curve). More and more people collaborate and work with each other to produce material products, services or knowledge. The goals of the organisation are in flux – they emerge from the collaboration itself. Hierarchies while they might exist are not very strong. Coordination and distribution takes place in an almost natural manner based on what emerges as being important.

When collaboration is actively limited the company starts to decline or dies. As an example let’s look at the “Founder’s Trap”. It means that the original founder tries to force the people into following his vision and his plan. However, all the people who have joined the organisation as a whole are now much better at finding the right answers and growing the business. Collaboration proves to be the answer not hierarchical decision making. Basically, all dead ends are outcomes of collaboration breaking down or being actively undermined.

Let’s look at the stage of “Aristocracy”: An established group of senior managers has taken control of the flows of information and resources. Collaboration becomes more and more limited. It is controlled according to a few people’s beliefs about what is important. This in turn now leads to failed projects, stagnation, wrong solutions, and overall more and more ineffective practices. The company declines – unless it is able to re-establish collaboration amongst its members.

So what instead? One answer is to stop running our organisations like machines. They are not machines. We need to start to view them as living organisms. After all, organisations are made up of humans – a form of life. How then do other complex organisms and ecosystems solve the problems of coordination and distribution? How are individuals aligned in such systems and how are scarce resources distributed? The video shows some great examples.

A viable alternative to hierarchies and “mechanics” as means to coordinate and distribute is lively collaboration. Running companies as highly complex organisms or ecosystems makes everyone’s job much easier and the company more effective and efficient. Enable people to collaborate and let them work together. Let them solve coordination and distribution problems themselves.

And no. It will certainly not descent into chaos. Life is exactly the opposite of chaos and relies on collaboration to create order and progress. It has proven again and again that collaboration is key to surviving. And, if you start to let people collaborate you might achieve greater things than you could have ever imagined alone.

Why is this now more important then ever? Stay tuned…




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The First 2ndOpinion – And was it helpful?

What is 2nd Opinion? It seemed that often what we need for moving forward in our projects and with our ideas are some insightful questions, a fresh look, a good analysis of the situation, and some joined reflection. This is what the 2ndOpinion ‘experiment’ is about: To provide you with a professional 2nd opinion, one which explores, appreciates what is, confronts with blind spots, unlocks new energies and uncovers additional opportunities.

Aninia was the first one who tried it out. At this point I cannot tell you what her project was about but I can tell you what she said after receiving the 2ndOpinion. Here are two comments from her, which sum up her first reaction: “Wow, first of all thank you very much. What you wrote was very helpful.” and “It is great to exchange these thoughts with someone.”

This is what 2nd Opinion is all about. We will investigate a little bit more and the next 2ndOpinion will become even better. In the meantime – send me your idea, your project and you could be the 2nd person to benefit from this experiment.

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What stands in your way of becoming great?

It is not easy to believe that everyone can achieve what they set out to do. For me it took years, going to new countries and it took the inspirations and challenges of many people around me. Do you think that you do not have enough talent? Do you believe that there are people already out there who are better then you? Do you believe that you need to be realistic? Be careful those thoughts might just make it impossible for you to realise your own greatness.

If you need some inspiration to believe that you can achieve what you want – watch the video below. Will Smith shares his take on the topic. Very impressive, believable and real. Thank you! An example for practise and belief being the key to success instead of talent, luck or other things outside of your own control. We had a little bit of a discussion about that here.

What went throught your mind watching the video? Let us know! Leave a comment.

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Sent the first 2ndOpinion – now excited to get client feedback

The first 2nd Opinion personalised idea feedback has been sent just moments ago. What will the client say? I believe it will make her take the next step in her project and increase her chances for success in the long run! My analytical abilities, empathy, creativity and knowledge have been put on the case. New ideas were generated, questions asked and advice given.

However. It does not matter what I believe, does it? Will she be satisfied? Will she feel like the next step is now easier to take and my intense work was useful? Or will I need to fundamentally change the approach? Is there a critical element that I have missed?

Let’s see what she will come back with…

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