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Chairs and Spreadsheets

A book review of Rory Sutherland’s book Alchemy

Chairs and spreadsheets,

I started off in university to become and engineer – Left Brain, then I went to school to become a chef – Right Brain. I then went to school to become a master at business administration – Left Brain. I often say that the two most important training days that I undertook was a three-day session taught by an Astronaut from NASA on Root Cause Analysis (RCA) and a three-day course taught by a great duo from Brazil on Design Thinking, (Echos School of Design Thinking). The Design Thinking really reinforced the Root Cause Analysis and both required left and right brain. The most important experience that I had was 11 years of being self-employed, starting at the age of 27 – Right Brain.

Fast forward a few years and I end up as a CEO of a medium sized multinational manufacturing company – Which brain is it? For the last four years I have been working as what can be most accurately described as a business improvement consultant – Which Brain is it? I have colleague that as recently as this week wrote, that I don’t Tick and Flick, indicating Right Brain.

There was a marketing saying that “Nobody Ever got fired for buying IBM”. I have to look at the operations, risk, governance and finances and analyse them within an inch of their lives. You have to mention efficiency, lean, automation, industry 4.0. This is the measure by which someone can say they did a good job. As a business improvement specialist, I can give the client an IBM-like list of recommendations and no one could say a word, but I don’t stop there. I have always thought about the small things that appear inconsequential, but they aren’t – coming from the Right Brain. I have always looked at some degree of X-factor when working with a business. My time with them is usually very limited and I work with about 25 businesses a year, but there is always an X-factor. Until this week I was looking for some sort of seemingly intangible item that makes a difference and now I have a name for it – The Chairs.

I have to interject at this time that I always ask a firm if they have a strategy. Perhaps success in my business life could be measured by finding that the number of SME’s, with a strategy, has quadrupled from about 2.5%, to nearer to 10%. Effective strategy is based on having Corporate held Emotional Intelligence, in that it requires collective self-awareness and relationship awareness. It too requires self-management and relationship management. This cannot be achieved well, without both sides of the brain. The left brain will help to self-manage with policies and procedures. While a business can self-assess, they need to be more than objective, they need to be creatively self-aware so that they do not miss the chairs.

You are all probably familiar with quotes that say, that you are where you are, because of what you have done in life. It is a sort of computing GIGO in reverse: Garbage In, Garbage Out. (I had to punch timeclock style cards in a Fortran computing course, so GIGO was what I mostly did.) This week I was reading the book Alchemy by Rory Sutherland. He mentions a new coffee shop on a busy street. The owners set it up and placed some immovable benches out front. Immovable because if they weren’t, they might end up in a university dorm room or the like. The traffic would indicate that the success of the coffee shop is inevitable, even if it is mediocrely successful, but it closed down. A second owner took over and it failed a second time.

When a third owner took over, she/he replaced the benches with lightweight chairs, tables and a wind break mesh around them. The chairs and tables did not have to cost much, but the time and effort of bringing them in every night and putting them out every morning was an impost on the business. Rory goes on to say the Chairs indicate that the new owners care and will take on extra effort. He calls this ‘signalling’. They perhaps, bought a better coffee machine and better coffee too, because they are driven to take extra effort. (Do you buy Coffee from an independent café that hides the beans or that displays the beans and sells them separately?)

The passer-by on the busy road can now clearly see that the chairs are out and can take extra effort to find a spot to park, because the coffee shop is clearly open. (‘Signalling’). That is not something that was readily apparent with immovable benches. Where Rory lives, and where I live, a coffee shop cannot have a neon light saying ‘Open’.

Rory writes.

“In the unlikely event that either of the failing cafés had decided to appoint a management consultancy to solve their business woes, I doubt that anyone would have suggested changing the furniture; doubtless they would have received a long list of recommendations covering all the left-brain facets of the business – pricing, stock control, staffing levels and so forth. Anything that could be included on a spreadsheet would be analysed, quantified and optimised, in order to increase efficiency. But no one would have mentioned the chairs.”*

My Root Cause Analysis, Design Thinking background and Chef training – Right Brain, tells me that the signalling is logical – Left Brain. I used to look for an X-factor. I try to read, and write in a journal, most days, and when I read the pages about the coffee shop, I wrote “I must remember the Chairs”. I am no longer looking for an X-factor I am looking for the chairs. I am very comfortable with a spread sheet and financial ratios and almost always do a financial analysis of a business – Left Brain, but I have written a book about strategy and a Corporate held Emotional Quotient, Right Brain. So which brain do I bring to my work? I bring both: Chairs and Spreadsheets but I favour the Right Brain.

Alchemy by Rory Sutherland published 2019 is an excellent read. I have given you one small bit from the book, but it is loaded with seemingly illogical but very effective ideas and thought. This book is one of the best books I have read in the past year.

I hope business is good for you.


*Sutherland, Rory, 2019, Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don't Make Sense, WH Allen, Penquin, London

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