My story – how I came to specialise in helping organisations stop driving with the brakes on

If I had to sum up my story in just four words they would be “making things work better”.

My Story - early days

Some of my earliest memories are of being in trouble with my parents for taking things apart to see how they worked. Actually, the trouble wasn’t for me taking them apart. It was being unable to put them back together afterwards…

The vacuum cleaner, a ‘family heirloom’ clock and the old valve radio in the kitchen all suffered this fate. But in my defence, part of making things work better involves understanding how they work today.

Cars were one of my earliest obsessions. From age 7 I helped my dad with (the frequently required) repairs to the family car. I did my first solo engine swap aged 13, on a neighbour’s car. And yes, she did ask me to do it.

My parents bought me an old Morris 1000 car when I was 16. I spent all my spare time over the next year rebuilding it ready for use when I could legally drive (age 17 in UK).

It was no surprise to anyone when I did well at mathematics and physics at school. Or when I went on to study electrical and electronic engineering at university where I graduated with honours.

My first ‘proper job’ after graduating was with British Aerospace (BAe), designing guided missiles. Actually, it was ‘designing parts of subsystems for various things including missiles’ – but that sounds less glamorous. One notable non-military project I worked on was the control system for the UK’s first power-generating wind turbine.

After I left BAe my next position was with the BBC in London, designing (parts of) studios and transmission systems for radio and TV broadcasting.

My story – moving to Cambridge and into Open Innovation

The next phase of my story began in 1983 when I moved to Cambridge (UK) and Cambridge Consultants Ltd (CCL), a world-leading provider of Open Innovation services long before that term became fashionable.

Three graduates from Cambridge University’s Engineering Sciences Tripos founded CCL in 1960 “to solve the problems of British industry”. By the mid-1980’s, CCL was creating commercial advantage for clients all over the world through technology-based innovation.

About me - The Backs - Kings College and Chapel, Cambridge UniversityI was rapidly promoted through various project management and people leadership roles. I saw how the best project teams created much greater value than the sum of their parts. My interest soon shifted from ‘making technology work better’ to ‘making technologists work better’.

CCL was full of very clever scientists, technologists and engineers. Clients definitely came to us for our ‘science smarts’. But they also valued how we engaged with their people.

Projects invariably involved lots of people from different client areas, typically Procurement, R&D, Marketing, Manufacturing and senior management. The key to delivering real commercial advantage lay in the close collaboration, cooperation and alignment between all these people and our people. Consequently, in stark contrast to the “bespectacled boffin” scientist or engineer stereotype, most CCL technologists had highly developed interpersonal skills.

As a result, innovation, engagement and cooperation often improved significantly in the client’s own organisation after working with us. One longstanding client was particularly struck by this improvement. He decided that he wanted to embed it more deeply into the ‘DNA’ of his organisation.

One day he asked me if I would “come and make our people behave more like your people”. Saying “yes” put me on the unique career path I’ve been on ever since…

My story – from Open Innovation to Innovation Leadership

This first project helping a client to improve their organisation’s capacity for innovation leadership was followed by another, and another…

In retrospect, the early efforts were a bit simplistic. Most were attempts to inject and/or graft on key aspects of what worked at CCL. I learned a lot from successes and failures working with many different clients.

Alongside this ‘learning by doing’ I also explored, tested and integrated ideas and insights from:

  • leadership, management, systemic change and organisational learning
  • psychology, philosophy, linguistics and cultural/social anthropology
  • creativity, engagement, coaching, storytelling, negotiation, conflict resolution and dialogue

Gradually this investigation, observation, reflection, experimentation and implementation experience coalesced and crystallised into a new way of seeing client challenges.

I saw that organisations get held back by specific, human misalignments. These misalignments are non-obvious (or they’d get fixed).

Most organisations have more of these misalignments than you could shake a stick at. But only some misalignments create what I now call braking friction. [You can register on the homepage for free access to my 20-minute tutorial video on how to eliminate braking friction].

My growing reputation as the go-to guy for ‘the people side of innovation’ came to the attention of CCL’s parent company, the global management consulting firm Arthur D. Little (ADL). The Head of ADL’s global Technology and Innovation Management (TIM) practice started to champion me and my work.

Most of my TIM colleagues helped ADL clients manage technology as an integral part of their strategy and operations. I focused on helping clients create the mindsets, attitudes and behaviours that enable, embrace and embed innovation as a way of life.

Working with ADL clients throughout Europe, Asia and the US involved working in and between many diverse cultures. This helped to further test, strengthen and refine my ideas, insights and methods.

My story – learning from the world leaders in organisational learning

About me - The organisational learning "Bible"

At this point in my story, I was one of very few people in ADL specialising in creating cultures of innovation and continuous learning. Then, in 1995, ADL merged with Innovation Associates (IA). Whereas my kind of work had been on ADL’s periphery, it was now becoming central to the firm’s future strategy.

IA was the organisational learning consulting firm founded by Dr Peter Senge. As Director of the Centre for Organizational Learning at MIT, Senge had written the ‘bible’ of organisational learning The Fifth Discipline.

A couple of years later, ADL hired a new CEO from Jack Welch’s leadership team at GE who began several new initiatives. One of these – “The ADL Accelerator” – had a new and exciting business model.

ADL would take equity positions in select ‘client’ organisations that were currently undervalued due to driving with the brakes on. We would then help these organisations accelerate their performance improvement to grow the value of ADL’s stake.

I was a founding member of the Accelerator leadership team as Corporate Director responsible for the global team of ADL+IA innovation leadership consultants.

Unfortunately, the Accelerator had not been up and running long before the global technology stocks crash of 2000 forced ADL into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The Accelerator was a casualty of the subsequent retrenchment.

I was going to need to find a new job.

My story – setting up in private practice

By this time, I’d spent 15 years helping clients eliminate braking friction in their organisations, teams and working relationships. And it had become increasingly apparent that this work could not be done through the ‘finders, minders, grinders’ business model of traditional management consulting firms.

As David Maister pointed out more than 20 years ago in his classic text Managing the Professional Services Firm this model is OK for the formulaic, one-size-fits-all work that he calls Procedural. He contrasts this to the Brains & Grey Hair work requiring more experienced practitioners. Eliminating braking friction is not Procedural work. It demands an approach fully tailored to the specific circumstances of each unique client situation.

This was not the only bad news I discovered as a Partner in a global consulting firm. It was also clear that the most effective people to eliminate braking friction were people in the client organisation. And although classical consulting involves client people, it doesn’t allow them to lead the discovery and intervention work themselves.

The upshot of all this is that just moving to another consulting firm would mean having to abandon my specialism, so in March 2001 I set up in private practice instead.

I continue to work with senior executives and their organisations in Europe, Asia and the US helping them to eliminate braking friction in their organisations, teams and working relationships.

For the future, as well as continuing my consulting work, I want to explore using this website and other online channels to support others in mastering the skills to eliminate braking friction in their own organisations. If you would like to be part of this evolving global community of practice, simply register for free on the homepage or contact me with any comments and suggestions.

My story – on a more personal level

My wife Alison and I have been married since 1987 and business partners since 2001. Our son, Alex, is a Technical Director in 3D visual effects with an Oscar-winning CGI firm in London. Our two golden retrievers, Jake and Eddie, help keep us on our toes.