Thursday, May 29, 2008

Friend of Simplicity - David Wike

My Friend of Simplicity interview today is with David Wike who lives in Worcestershire here in the English Midlands. I met David a couple of years ago through various Web based connections. I am delighted to say David is the first person from the UK in my Friend of Simplicity series.

David and I regularly exchange opinions and thoughts about business, leadership and management (and football). We have worked together in one of David’s ‘Towards the Perfect Business’ workshops aimed at small and medium sized businesses.

Although we don’t always agree, we always respect each other’s opinion and that’s what it is all about surely.

In fact the only real down side to David is that he supports Liverpool Football Club! … Just joking.

TREVOR: Hi David – tell us a bit about your career.

DAVID: Firstly Trevor, thank you for inviting me to participate, and to join in with the exalted company you keep, including US presidential candidates, UK ex-cabinet ministers and other luminaries. In case anyone is wondering why Trevor’s friends mostly live abroad and have never actually met him, I can reassure you that he is relatively normal - well, apart from … shh!

My working life started in the mid-sixties when I joined the Austin Motor Company, then part of the British Motor Corporation. I trained as an engineer although I spent most of my subsequent motor industry career in product and business planning and even had a couple of years based in the marketing department.

I was the last ever product planning manager for the original, classic Mini and was also product strategy manager for MG sports cars. I am immensely proud to have been involved with two of the most iconic British automotive brands.

Of course, the mid-sixties was a time when Mini Coopers dominated rallying and saloon car racing, so it was inevitable that many of us should get hooked by the motorsports bug. After a year or two of rallying I decided to try my hand at racing and bought a single-seater. This venture was entirely unsuccessful. We took the car to Silverstone for a couple of test sessions. Each time the engine blew up. Undaunted I entered my first race and the same thing happened, so I sold the car and went back to rallying.

On several occasions during my time as Mini product planning manager I got to talk to the legendary John Cooper of Mini Cooper and Formula One fame, and then a few years back I met Paddy Hopkirk whose 1964 Monte Carlo Rally victory was the first big win for a Mini Cooper. Paddy introduced himself thus, “I’m Paddy Hopkirk and I’m very old, but I’m still alive.”!

I have been enormously privileged to meet, and indeed work with, some amazing people over the years. I have also had the luck to drive a great many wonderful (and some not so wonderful) cars … and get paid for it!

TREVOR: I remember from when I was a kid and through to my late 20’s, car production was an enormous part of our UK economy. My Dad worked in the business. Nowadays by comparison we make very few cars in the UK. What went wrong and where do you place the blame?

DAVID: I don’t think that we have enough space here for a complete analysis of the failure of the UK motor industry. Of course, it is not just the car industry; many other large employers have disappeared from the UK economy, whether it be car manufacturing, shipbuilding, steel making, coal mining, they have all gone.

I am not convinced that the majority of people in the UK have woken up to the fact that the mass employers of unskilled or semi-skilled labour have disappeared and that new attitudes and skills are required for the 21st century. As you and I have discussed in the past Trevor, attitude is more important than qualifications. With the right attitude people can re-train and develop the skills required to be successful in a changing environment.

The government is aware of this and is trying to address it, but I am not sure that all of the civil servants involved in implementing new strategies have the flexibility of thinking or grasp of the urgency required to carry them through effectively.

Recently I read a comment that by the time the ‘authorities’ had accepted a new way of doing things and included it in the school curriculum, it was already out of date. I guess it goes back to John O’Leary’s thoughts on managers working from obsolete user manuals.

TREVOR: What were the greatest changes for you in the transition from working in a large organisation to becoming self-employed?

DAVID: I had to do everything myself, there was nobody to talk to and I didn’t get paid as much!

I think that probably reflects the experience of most people making the transition from being one of several thousand to being chairman and chief executive of themselves.

I recently wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece called ‘Bin the Business Plan’. It’s not that I don’t think it important to have a plan, it’s just that a row of numbers in a projected cashflow doesn’t often equate to reality. From what I can see of early stage businesses, they generally run 12 to 24 months behind plan. Part of this is because most of us are eternally optimistic about how quickly things can be made to happen. When you are all departments rolled into one there are never enough hours in the day. But at least the decision making process is simpler!

TREVOR: I know you are a great fan of Ricardo Semler and his fantastic success resulting from having complete faith in front line staff determining their own futures. Why then do so many organisations work in the opposite way to Semler’s ideas?

DAVID: Semler says that senior people from many organisations visit Semco to understand how they work, and then leave with the comment that it is very interesting but would never work in their business. I can well understand why they think that because his approach does seem bonkers at first sight!

I think that some of the things that Semler has done with Semco would be difficult to incorporate into a UK operation. Unfortunately the ever increasing legislative burden faced by UK business makes it much more risky to let the front line or anyone else sort things out for themselves. In addition, quality standards such as ISO 9001 like to see strict adoption of policies and procedures. All of which probably limits the appetite for Semler’s totally democratic (anarchic?) approach.

However, I imagine that the real problem is that it would require a great deal of hard work over many years to change attitudes throughout an organisation and to implement fully a Semco like structure. Having said that, I have come across companies that operate elements of Semler’s philosophy, although I think it is because it makes sense to them rather than because they have read his books.

TREVOR: Tell us about how you are developing your speaking skills, and do you have a few easy tips for those who struggle with public speaking?

DAVID: As you know Trevor, I am a member of a speakers’ club. Our aim is to help people to improve their speaking skills in a supportive environment. Over time members complete assignments covering different aspect of speaking. Each speech is assessed by another club member against set criteria. Although the emphasis is on what one does well, aspects that could be improved are pointed out.

I had made many presentations during my corporate life; nevertheless I have learned a great deal and hopefully improved as a result.


1) Practise, practise, practise, even if it is only giving a speech to the dog.
2) Don’t worry too much about the words, they are only 10% of the message, the rest is down to delivery.
3) Engage the audience by making eye contact (briefly) with every one of them – and keep doing it. To do this swing from the hips – if you swivel your head you’ll look as though you are watching a tennis match and if you just move your eyes you’ll look manic!

TREVOR: What plans do you have to develop your consulting and coaching business?

DAVID: As you have discovered Trevor, you have to get the message ‘out there’, so more writing (maybe I’ll eventually finish the book, which has been stalled around page 70 for rather a long time) and speaking whenever I get the opportunity. And if anyone would like my free monthly business newsletter emailed to them, just let me know.

TREVOR: Finally David – how does it pain you to know that for the 20th consecutive season your beloved Liverpool football team will finish below Manchester United in the Premiership League Table? … Sorry couldn’t resist that one.

DAVID: It would be less painful if you didn’t keep crowing about Manchester United! But then I remind myself that United still haven’t won the English or European championships as many times as Liverpool, and that maybe next season we will come out on top once again!


JOHN O'LEARY said...

Finally, a face to go with the name! Great to get to know you, David. And thanks, Trevor! Nice interview.

I am a raving fan of Ricardo Semler. He gets it about the importance of capitalizing on conflict: “What traditional managers don’t consider is that decisions arising from debate are implemented much more quickly because explanations, alternatives, objections, and uncertainties have already been aired….And that means tolerating and even encouraging dissent.” And about a democratized workforce: “Why do organizations and their leaders cling to a rigid form of command & control that is at odds with the values of personal freedom that they cherish?” Why, indeed?

Mike Gardner said...

I always enjoy David's comments here because he doesn't fawn all over Trevor and constantly tell him how right he is like many others do. ;-) I sometimes detect a bit of the curmudgeon in David's writing, though. And that is a GOOD thing. From one old auto guy to another, "nice to meet you" David.

Trevor Gay said...

Mike - I love it when people 'fawn all over me' and I also love it when ‘old curmudgeoners’ disagree with me. Disagreement and harmony are both essential parts of brilliant communication between us all. I love the banter I have with you and David – you both always keep me on my toes and also keep me grounded! Thanks as always my friend for supporting Simplicity Blog without ‘fawning’ :-)

David Wike said...

Hi John - not sure about the face thing – scared me to death when I saw the size of the picture Trevor had posted!

Mike – I have appointed myself to keep Trevor on the straight and narrow. You should hear what I say to him ‘off stage’! According to my dictionary a curmudgeon is a surly or miserly person – I’m hoping it means something slightly different in the US! But I would cheerfully admit to being a grumpy old man!

Anonymous said...

You background is interesting. It must have been great fun to be involved in the auto industry at the level you were. I am very interested to follow your plans to get into speaking and consulting. I am not familiar with Ricardo Semler, but will check out his work. nice interview.

JOHN O'LEARY said...

David, you and Mike Neiss, my Tom Peters Company colleague, should compare notes sometime on the auto industry. Mike occasionally blogs on the subject at Mike paid his dues in Motown and is a pretty tough critic of GM (who isn't?), tho they APPEAR to be waking up at last. From what I've read recently, they're betting the farm on green tech.

I agree with your skepticism of mainstream business applying Ricardo Semler's model - at least in the near future. There are too many forces and structures (legislated and otherwise) that keep the old system in place. But we can begin to re-imagine a different future thanks to Semler.

I can relate to your writing struggles. I'm 4 years and counting on my business opus!

David Wike said...

A few final thoughts from the grumpy old man:

I was debating the definition of a grumpy old man with a friend. We concluded that one acquires GOM status when one is old enough to realise that the world is run by half-wits and incompetents. In fact pretty much everybody falls into that category … present company excepted!

Let’s face it Mike, there is no way I’m going to fawn over a Manchester United supporter, even on the rare occasion he happens to be right about something!

Rocky, you are right about playing with cars for a living being fun. In reality 99% of the time was hard grind, meeting tight deadlines, lots of stress and pressure. But afterwards you forget all that and just remember the fun and camaraderie. I guess many jobs are like that but maybe cars are a bit more glamorous than making nuts and bolts or tins of soup. Do read Semler’s ‘Maverick’ and ‘The Seven-Day Weekend’. They are easy reading and a real eye-opener. My reaction was, “Why can’t all businesses be run like that, it makes complete sense.”

Hello again John. I’ll look out for Mike Neiss blogging about the auto industry and maybe join in the debate with a UK perspective.

I was thinking some more about Semler’s way of doing things. I realised that there is another obstacle. Possibly THE obstacle. The Semco way requires the CEO to put his/her ego to one side and to encourage the challenges to their authority that a workplace democracy entails. That probably doesn’t sit too easily with the type of personality required to fight to the top of most large organisations.

There is another, less obvious, obstacle. The front line doesn’t always want to take on more responsibility. If you think about it, from when we are small children we are told what to do by our parents. This continues right through school. Maybe we have a bit more freedom at college or university, but when we start work we are told what to do again. Then some years later along comes a boss with more liberal ideas who tries to set us free to make our own decisions. If we have previously worked in the kind of culture where ‘if it works it was my idea but if it doesn’t it’s your fault’ prevails, we are naturally going to be wary. Indeed, Semler tells of the difficulties he faced at Semco from unions that were suspicious of his motives.

Although my book hasn’t yet been four years in the making, it has been long enough for me to revise my thoughts on what I want to say. When I go back to it I fear that I shall want to start it again. Trevor seems able to hard-wire his brain to the PC and have half a book written by bedtime (although I suspect that he doesn’t ever sleep). The ‘Random Ramblings’ title of my monthly email business newsletter probably gives an indication of my thought processes!

JOHN O'LEARY said...

"The Semco way requires the CEO to put his/her ego to one side and to encourage the challenges to their authority that a workplace democracy entails." Surprisingly I'm finding more and more leaders who are willing to do this. I work in the mining industry a lot where I find a receptive audience for these ideas, AND — if the union allows — a workforce willing to take on more responsibility.

Re the writing (and rewriting) process, as a songwriter I occasionally come back to a song I started 20 or 25 years earlier. I actually have the experience of CO-WRITING it, because I can no longer identify myself with the person who began the song - someone who had different musical (and life) values and tastes. Very strange...

Trevor Gay said...

‘I find a receptive audience for these ideas, AND — if the union allows — a workforce willing to take on more responsibility.’

John – that was ALWAYS my experience as a manager in healthcare – the front line employees KNOW how to do stuff – they just need freedom and ‘permission’

Sounds like schizophrenia would be a positive advantage in the song writing scenario you quote – reminds of me of the old joke about the aspiring CEO who didn’t get a job he applied for. When he was given feedback about the psychometric testing results the counsellor advised him they had discovered schizophrenic tendencies in his results. The disappointed but pragmatic applicant replied
‘Yes but both of us wanted the job’ ….

Forgive me John - hope the Brit humour travels over the pond!!

Joel D Canfield said...

Not directly related to the content of your interview with David, but I love how the comments here always sound like a chat in the pub, jumping from subject to subject, challenging and agreeing and pontificating (in a good way.)

Now, if they just had a really good online pub . . .

David, over here folks actually like their curmudgeons. Andy Rooney has made a career of being one. It's not often used in a pejorative sense, though that definition would make it sound so.

I wear my curmudgeonliness as a badge of honor!

Trevor Gay said...

Hi Joel - the best quality discussions in England occur in the bar at the local pub my friend. Have a virtual pint on me! I love that analogy about Simplicity Blog - thank you - it is a great compliment and you always add quality to the pub discussions!

Mike Gardner said...

David--On being a curmudgeon:

Adj. 1. curmudgeonly - brusque and surly and forbidding; "crusty remarks"; one who holds strong, often contrary opinions and freely expresses same.

Gabe said...

YAHHHH SEMCO! Fantastic that someone else is a fan too. Interestingly, I'm starting to see more trends that the ideas Semler discussed in his book are being revealed in other books. Two that I've recently read that really support his actions are The Starfish and the Spider (all about how loose confederations are beating command and control structures) and Wikinomics (about how collaborative businesses benefit from their open, dare I say, Semler-esque natures).

I really like your guest here. And he's dead on about implementation of Semler's ideas. It really comes down to guts and it seems many companies just don't have it. It's really all about changing paradigms and that's what Semler did. Companies can do it simply by doing it.

David Wike said...

Thank you for your kind comments Gabe. As far as Semlerisation goes, Tom Peters has it about right when he says, “The starting point of all significant change is mindset.”