Brief is Stonecourt’s range of pre-digested summaries of recent research, best practice, books and articles about growth, pace and delivery. This is our enthusiasm and we want to share it.
Brief is not about us, our work, our opinion, or our tools. Each Brief is a very short distillation of the best recent research, thinking and practice from around the world – because we know you are too busy.
New and updated articles
- Nobody loves the HR team (or finance, legal or comms) – What’s wrong with HQ functions and how do we fix them?
- We must stop meeting like this – A manifesto for better meetings.
- The more experts in a group, the more dysfunctional it will be – Collaboration and how to get it to work at its best.
- Better leadership: learning from the past and the future – Summaries of Ibarra’s Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, and Dive’s Mission Mastery.
Each Brief focuses on a subject – synthesising the work of a wide range of experts and evidence. Some summarise a book, and there are a few case histories. For each Brief there is both a summary version (1 page), and a full version (4 or 5 pages) which also includes the sources we used.
Briefs are organised under seven headings:
- Improving growth and speed
- Accelerating executive team performance
- Making better business-critical decisions
- Metrics and feedback
- Streamlining organisation design
- Improving delivery through culture, mobilisation and engagement
- Managing risk and resilience
For each Brief we have searched out, synthesised and distilled surveys, evidence and material from all the usual sources – and some less predictable ones. These include mainstream consultancies (AT Kearney, Bain, Booz, Deloitte, Hay, McKinsey, Mercer, PwC among others), the well-known business schools (including Harvard, Stanford, London Business School, INSEAD), some best-selling business book gurus (such as Charan, Collins, Hammer and Kotter), articles in the FT and Wall St Journal. We have also learned from more left field and iconoclastic books such as The hour between dog and wolf and Lecturing birds on flying, and a wide range of academics in psychology, neuroscience, economics and other subjects, working everywhere from California to Stockholm, from Mexico City to Tokyo. Other sources include interesting material from YouTube, TED talks, specialist blogs, LinkedIn forums and even Blizzard (a very serious football quarterly in hardcopy or pay-what-you-like download format).
Improving growth and speed
Uncertainty is also an opportunity
That we can learn from recessions to accelerate performance. “I thought about the recession and decided not to take part”. Four research-based themes for sustaining future growth and resilience.
The end of competitive advantage
The end of competitive advantage a book by Columbia professor Rita Gunther McGrath challenges head on Porter’s classic approach to strategy and argues we are now in a world of ‘transient advantage’. Based on research of businesses who sustain annual growth over a decade, this Brief focuses on leadership and organisational characteristics of being an agile fast-moving company.
A sense of urgency
A sense of urgency, John Kotter’s book on why urgency is the most powerful business tool of all. How a leader can behave with urgency, how to spot a false sense of urgency and how to create a true one in your organisation.
Freshly baked clothes
Zara as a case history of fast response, pace and delivery. The multinational fashion retailer with a streamlined business model designed entirely around speed of response – leading to sector-beating profitable growth.
Strategic speed: mobilise people, accelerate execution
Strategic speed: Mobilse people, accelerate execution by Davis, Frechette and Boswell – a book about putting people at the heart of delivering ‘speed to value’ (how long it takes until an initiative or new strategy adds value, not how fast until it is executed). Four essential practices for leaders to streamline, simplify and increase speed across their organisation – and the ‘strategic speedometer’ of people issues.
Redraw your mental map, or fail
Be agile and responsive in the short-term and stay true to long-term goals and purpose. The upside of turbulence, a book by London Business School professor Donald Sull. Based on decades of evidence, a practical recipe for leaders to question plans, try ideas and build an ‘agility loop’ for their organisation – and a culture of continual renewal.
Is your executive team like an Italian family dinner?
Conflict is good: Reckitt Benckiser as a case of sustained growth. The four organisation and leadership drivers behind a decade of sector-beating performance.
Accelerating executive team performance
We must stop meeting like thisNew
There is more than enough data: most meetings are dreadful. We spend 40% of our time in meetings and yet rate over half as ineffective. Organisations have powerful processes to manage money and people, yet do little to manage their most precious resource – time. We looked at a wide range of evidence and advice to come up with 15 tips for better meetings: a manifesto for better meetings.
Better leadership: learning from the past and the futureNew
Lessons from two books: Hermini Ibarra’s Act Like a Leader and Brian Dive’s Mission Mastery. Ibarra shows how the requirement of leadership is changing rapidly and old ideas don’t work. Dive shares important 19thC thinking and how badly-applied these ideas have been since. We summarise both.
Leading in turbulent times
We are never going back to business as usual. Here is advice influenced by the lessons of Ernest Shackleton’s failed but remarkable 1914 Antarctic expedition (among other sources). with five features of leadership for engaging your people and succeeding in tough and unpredictable times.
Managing your time in turbulent times: mission impossible?
As a leader you have all the assets at your disposal – except time. In tough periods it becomes even more important to focus your time and energy on what really matters – in the areas where you can contribute most. Five practical steps plus tips from some well-known CEOs.
Leadership and emotion
The essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action while reason leads to conclusions Donald Calne, neuroscientist. Effective leadership through emotion and challenge – but steer clear of fear. A summary of the recent neuroscience and psychology.
Learn to be more of a monk?
Staying focused in a world with too many competing demands: the more senior you are the greater the scarcity of time and bandwidth. And the more it matters. We look at recent research and summarise the practical advice on how to manage this.
Who is on your side? Is managing stakeholders the most valuable thing a leadership team can do?
In a world of damaged trust, we are more dependent than ever on the goodwill of others. The better connected the leadership to the rest of the world, the better the team performance. We look at four themes for leaders to think about and act on.
Leading for speed
Speed and agility are key to improving revenue, customer loyalty, market share and speed to market. Six ways to overcome the organisational barriers and build the capability for speed.
Why top teams are so tough to tame – and what to do about it
Why executive teams are uniquely difficult – and often dysfunctional. Five themes for accelerating teamwork and performance, based the best available research.
Mind games: learning from Jose Mourinho about improving team performance
Plus a timely lesson from Alex Ferguson. What business can take from the approach of some football managers to unlock the creative and collaborative power of their teams by pushing much of the routine into habits. Practical tips to apply it in organisations.
Just how good are your leaders?
The Capability Review: an example of organisational assessment from the public sector that everyone can learn from. Summary of the process used to assess and improve organisational capability in UK Government departments with audited, transparent and measurable success.
Leadership in the era of economic uncertainty
Leadership in the era of economic uncertainty: new rules for getting things done in difficult times – a book by Ram Charan. Written almost real time through the unfolding collapse of Wall St in the final months of 2008. Charan’s big thoughts for how leaders can survive a ‘Tsunami’ and emerge smaller but stronger.
Mastermind: How to think like Sherlock Holmes
This book by psychologist Maria Konnikova will probably not help you solve murders but will help you think, focus, remember and make decisions better. We know that Holmes is a detective second to none. But his insights into the human mind rival his feats of criminal justice. In this very readable book, Konnikova shows that Holmes offers an entire way of thinking. He is an ideal model for how we can think better than we usually do, as a matter of course.
Mindfulness – Why is it on the agenda for leaders at Unilever, Google and the House of Commons?
Mindfulness is everywhere – what was once the habit of Buddhists in mountain retreats is now being practiced in well known companies like Google, by CEOs in over 40 breakouts at Davos, in the UK House of Parliament and on the trading floor in investment banks. But is this just the latest fad – or does mindfulness bring something new to how we improve our working life and performance? And what is it?
Teams aren’t what they used to be
Teams are more important than they ever were, and changing fast. Leaders and HR teams are having to tear up the textbook and look at them, and invest in them, in new ways. In today’s unpredictable times, teams can become even more useful and important: they operate in more fluid, complex ways, manage ambiguity better and can use their diversity to reduce the danger of old habits and assumptions.
Making better business-critical decisions
Time alone and time together
Getting your leadership team to make strategic decisions well. Nobel-prize science now proves it – some of the best strategic insights come to you in the shower. Intuition and analysis work together in ‘intelligent memory’. How to break strategic decisions up into practical stages with different approaches for teamwork or individual thinking in each.
Decide and deliver
Decide and deliver, a book from a Bain team. Strong research basis shows how effective approaches to decision-making improve business performance. A decision-making scoreboard (based on a precise Bain-like formula), plus five steps to improve decision-making capabilities in your leadership team and organisation.
Decision-making: how to avoid your leadership team acting like teenagers
A good approach to decisions is 6 times more likely to lead to positive outcomes that just good analysis. What research says gets in the way of good leadership team decision-making and the practical steps to help ensure success.
Harnessing uncertainty to make faster, better decisions
As a leader your time is squeezed – it is not easy making room for better decisions. But in turbulent and uncertain times your organisation will be more open to doing things differently, as survival or success cannot be taken for granted. This is a platform for engaging the team in smarter decisions and better delivery.
Making effective decisions as a senior team: the Bank of England as a best practice example
The simple decision-making process of the Monetary Policy Committee: how a group of powerful clever strong-minded women and men look at a wide array of evidence to make a key strategic decision every month.
Metrics and feedback
The truth is not out there: Big Data, leadership & organisation
Is Big Data about perfect evidence, analysis, expertise or big consulting hype? Or is it about empowerment, the power of collective insight and better speed of response. We look at recently published material and summarise the issues for leaders and organisations.
Smart metrics mean smart decisions
Essential for speed, agility and resilience. How a mix of the right leading indicators – to match your business model and sources of growth – accelerates progress. Six well-researched steps to create smart metrics that help teams deliver.
Streamlining organisation design
Nobody loves the HR team (or finance, or legal, or comms). What’s wrong with group HQ functions, and how do we fix them?New
How many of us ever welcome a meeting set up by the group centre? The number of HQ functions has been growing, and so is their power and influence. But only 10% of companies are happy with the performance of these teams. Are group functions doing everything they can and what is the best way for leaders to help group functions to support the business? What role should the CEO play? We summarise what little research there is.
Cost cutting for growth and resilience
Taking advantage of an era of uncertainty. “Reducing costs without a growth strategy is like driving into a carwash with the convertible top down”. What we can learn from recent recessions about the smart way to cut costs – when you have to. This is all about creating the right leadership focus on the right markets, service lines and customers.
The seven secrets of successful matrix organisations
Making matrix designs work – it’s a challenge receiving lots of attention from leaders, and little from experts. Seven pieces of practical advice to simplify, streamline and improve collaboration.
Getting the right size and design of HQ: bigger may be better?
Despite accepted wisdom that the leaner and meaner the corporate centre the better, recent evidence show high performance companies are more likely to have a stronger (and slightly bigger) HQ. Three roles for an HQ and six steps to establishing the right centre.
Leadership is influence: making informal networks work as well as formal organisation structure
Build capability, collaboration, buy-in and knowledge on issues that matter. Eight best practice tips for successful networks (sometimes called communities of interest) – and how they can go wrong.
Improving delivery through culture, mobilisation and engagement
The more experts in a group, the more dysfunctional it will be: Collaboration and how to get it to work at its bestNew
Getting good players is easy. Getting ‘em to play together is the hard part. Casey Stengel (American Major League Baseball coach)
Experts and collaboration do not go hand in hand. It’s tough. As the world becomes more complex, organisations construct all sorts of ways to divide us into like-minded silos. We have more specialists, each with their own way of working, language and rules. We also need more collaboration to make progress and perform better. With the right set-up, cross-boundary groups reach high levels of co-operation. We look at how to do this.
Grow: by making work more meaningful for employees and customers
Sodexo ‘Quality of Life’ as an example of building a solid, meaningful, emotional core to driving business. Six reasons to learn from Sodexo’s approach.
Employee Engagement – the “great hoax” or a great idea that is misunderstood?
The world seems to be full of ‘engagement’ experts – all focused on things we can put in place in the organisation, from better surveys, or how to use yammer, to the art of story-telling. A Forbes article called this The engagement racket: a hoax of immense proportions. It is worth stepping back to look at the original compelling research about what enables individual to be more engaged.
A Bigger Prize: the power of collaboration vs the dangers of competition
Margaret Heffernan’s new book on why competition so often delivers the opposite to what we intend, and why collaboration so often delivers better outcomes.
A bias for action: building a delivery culture
Building a delivery culture. Failure of strategy is mainly due to failure to execute effectively. Only 10% of leaders think their organisations do this well. Six common features of cultures strong at execution – all sustained with determination by leaders.
Lost in translation?
“Vision without execution is hallucination” said Edison yet only 15% of companies say they are designed and managed to execute decisions well. Seven practical solutions for turning leadership plans into effective delivery – a look at the best-researched components for success.
Moments of truth
How to move quickly from principles to action. A practical reminder of a well-used route to identify, address and act on those key moments of high emotional energy that determine how your business engages with customers, employees, or any stakeholder.
The hard truth behind the “soft” side of leadership
Why people resist new plans and what we can do about it. What new research in neuroscience tells us about what causes dysfunctional reaction to new events and plans in organisations – and what leaders can do with this insight to create the conditions for successful change.
The second mouse gets the cheese
Why CEOs tell stories to spark change. Is storytelling help or hype? What Hollywood scriptdoctor Robert Mckee – and a range of other research – says about engaging people with compelling stories. Why the approach aligns with the key steps to successfully managing change.
Why won’t they just get it?
How to use emotion and meaning to unlock the brain and engage people. “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Four routes to building emotional response, and four ways to build meaning.
Using culture to merge faster and more successfully
Avoid the reasons most mergers fail. Research shows most mergers do not deliver on promises – and culture is the key factor. Four practical ways to start early and urgently. Getting it wrong leads to 42% of CEOs being sacked following integration.
Nudge: improving health, wealth and happiness – a book just for politicians? A favourite of prime minister Cameron and president Obama from behavioural scientist Thaler and political scientist Sunstein, with a ‘choice architecture’ to improve influence on people’s decision-making. A reminder to some business leaders on the power of feedback, simplified choices and giving people the tools to decide.
Managing risk and resilience
The hour between dog and wolf
The hour between dog and wolf: or risk taking, gut feelings and the biology of boom and bust – a book by John Coates, ex-financial trader and now Cambridge neuroscientist. He describes what happens to our minds and bodies facing risk and pressure – the trouble with men and why women have less volatile hormonal reactions. Lessons for any leader facing tough, unpredictable decisions, with high stakes.
Danger – smart executives at work
Leadership and risk. Is it just banks where smart people make such poor strategic decisions? Or can it happen anywhere? What goes wrong and how to improve approaches to risk by shifting from less reliance on outside approvals towards more personal responsibility.
We can all learn from the collapse of the banks: The lessons from UBS
Flawed top team behaviour, poor use of data, inappropriate reward and the danger of silos. The headlines from a surprisingly transparent and public account from a Swiss bank. A good check list for leaders in all businesses.
How the mighty fall
How the mighty fall – Jim Collins book on the risk of decline facing all large successful organisations from hubris, the undisciplined pursuit of more, and the denial of peril. The five stages of decline described in detail, plus a few points on how to recover.
The resilient organisation
The resilient organisation: a book by Liisa Välikangas – in an unpredictable world we are in greatest danger when we are most successful. Against a less predictable future, business success will not be driven by strategy, planning and a focus on short-term performance, but by a culture of agility, responsiveness and resilience. Avoid ‘fallen eagles’, and build the capability to look for ‘data bombs’, freight trains’ and ‘canaries’.