Getting back onto the front foot

How are you coping in the current business climate? It can feel very tough. Customers not spending as much. Reducing budgets. Risks to jobs and contracts.

At times like this, the pressure on individuals and teams can become intense. It’s easy to feel on the back foot - reacting to circumstances and not fully in control.

We first started writing about the importance of getting onto the front foot in December 2008. Stepping forward as positively as possible to shape your situation is even more important now than it was then.

Inspired by the learning from our work of the last four years, here are the things we suggest to get you and your team more onto the front foot.


  • Be clear on your priorities. It’s amazing how what start out as your core purposes soon get expanded and added to. More aims and objectives get added. Your offers to customers broaden, as does the base of customers you try to serve. Stop and check – what are our main priorities? What is imperative to us and what is more marginal? What must we achieve over the next 6-12 months? With a clear direction, you know which way is forward!
  • Keep repeating them. Once you’re clear on your priorities, don’t assume everyone else is too. Even in a management team, it is critical to keep restating the direction, re-emphasising what is important. That clarity on where you want to get to will free up time from fire-fighting and discussing distracting issues to allowing you to channel energy and attention onto the things that absolutely have to get done.


  • Invest in what works. It’s much easier to build on things that are already going well or are showing potential than things which are difficult or showing resistance. To get a sense of momentum, put some more resources behind people, teams, products or programmes which are delivering. They will build everyone’s confidence and hopefully spin off ideas for how to succeed in areas that are struggling.
  • Celebrate success. Even in good times, organisations can forget to celebrate what they achieve. Don’t just look forward to the next milestone, deadline or launch. Draw attention to the successes, make a fuss over those who have achieved results and be seen to value things going well rather than getting a reputation for dwelling on mistakes or failures. We all need to feel appreciated.


  • Manage knowledge. One of the things that slows us down is the sense that we are constantly reinventing the wheel. It’s hard to get onto the front foot if you always have to start a project from what seems like scratch – when there are almost certainly colleagues with knowledge to help. There are lots of things you can do quickly and cheaply to tap into the huge well of insight and information in the organisation. Two things to try straight away: a Peer Assist at the start of every bit of work and an After Action Review at the end.
  • Make the most of meetings. People spend a lot of times in meetings. Are they a drain on enthusiasm or a way of getting people moving? Do they create more issues or problems than they solve? How many breakthroughs on critical questions do your meetings generate? Great meetings should be the oil that allows the engine to roar into life. (Read on below for our offer to help with this.)


  • Work / not work. The answer to today’s challenges is not more time spent at work (or working). Finding inspiration for how to get things done more effectively and efficiently needs people with energy and breadth of perspective – and that needs space away from work. More than ever, managing a great team means helping individuals get that balance right.
  • Think – Plan – Do – Reflect. That’s the learning cycle. Regularly getting all the way round and giving enough attention to each stage will give you the insights you need to be confident you can succeed.

Which brings us nicely onto…

Reflecting on reflections

We had this back from Deryck Marley at BT in responding to our Little Book of Big Influence:

“How about doing something on reflections? Are things the way we remember them to be? What is the benefit of reflections, lessons from the past, forget the pain but learn the lesson, did the sun always shine, were the summers always long and hot, etc?

We are reliant on history to shape what we think and what we do going forward, but is that always the right thing to do – do we rely on the past too much to go forward?

What are the great lessons NEVER to be repeated, what don’t we remember that we SHOULD use again?

The Dyson, whilst an innovative product, was, in fact, just a different way of doing the same thing. Should we be looking for completely new ways of doing things, or is the old statement really true that “there is nothing new under the sun”?

We think this links very well to ideas of:

  • ‘unlearning’ those ideas and ways of doing things that crowd out the chance to try new things
  • spotting and avoiding the ungrounded preconceptions that we all have which affect our judgements and decision-making
  • breaking unhelpful habits (personally and organisationally) in the way we think and work.

It’s also a useful prompt to think about how well we all do in moving around the learning cycle, making sure we regularly spend some time on each activity: balancing thinking, planning, doing and reflecting.

Avoiding the Learning Cycle SHort Circuits

That way, we can avoid getting stuck in one place or suffering from the learning short-circuits which prevent us doing better in future.

If you’ve found something we’ve written useful, or have any other feedback for us, do get in touch. We really appreciate it.

Make Meetings Matter


Along with the mountain of emails and madly busy diaries, meetings have a poor reputation in many organisations. Yet harnessing the power of groups is at the heart of making the journey from inspiration to implementation – from having great ideas to getting things done.

Facilitators are increasingly used to help meetings run well, often brought (and bought) in from outside. Now, at a time when the need for effective meetings has never been higher, the resources for professional and independent help can be very tight.

Our short course in facilitation skills gives you the opportunity to increase your own skills in designing and running great meetings and events. The course helps you:

  • develop skills for designing and running your own meetings
  • manage group dynamics and diverse personalities
  • know how to handle difficult questions or awkward participants
  • gain confidence in speaking within a group and delivering your own inputs
  • have ideas to help colleagues with their meetings, as facilitator or participant
  • save money by minimising spend on consultants and improving team productivity
  • reduce the stress associated with overloaded diaries full of poorly designed meetings.

All of this will give you better results from all sorts of meetings that you run or take part in.

The next open course will be in September. You can find details here. We also deliver this course in-house for teams of between 6 and 25 people. Email us at for more details.

Want more good ideas?


Here’s another round-up on some of the free thinking that’s available from the idenk Ideas Digest. You can subscribe for this here. You can now also opt to receive these via Twitter.

What motivates your branding?

If you are a fan of either whisky or the rock band Status Quo, you might have seen that Francis Rossi, the lead guitarist, has bought a stake in the Glen Rossie distillery and taken over as Chairman.

This 200-year old Scottish whisky company now has a new shape bottle and a label shaped like a guitar pick.

In a world where whisky increasingly competes with premium vodka and other top end spirits, profits might be boosted by sales alongside other merchandising at Quo concerts.

Or traditional Glen Rossie drinkers may be put off by the association with the King of Three Chords.

Is it the passion to bring a favourite drink to a new audience that motivates this? To share the personal delight in a much-loved product? Or is it vanity, replacing mental images of rocky glens with those of a ‘geri’ rocker?

How much are branding decisions really about making a connection between the customer and what they are buying? And how much are they personal motivations?

Toyota’s reliable brand

Toyota’s brand took a hit earlier this year. However, in developing nations the company reigns supreme (see this photo from a couple of weeks ago in Sabah, Malaysia).

In Asia and Africa the car maker is dominant everywhere. In these places, you get a sense of why the US manufacturers are so scared of the now largest car company in the world and their most profitable competitor.

The reason Toyota does so well? Reliability. Less need for repairs - less to spend on spare parts.

How reliable do your customers find what you give them?

To target or not to target?

What do you think of targets? Do you have some that you’ve been set or have given to others?

There is a broad school of thought which has grown up recently to criticise the use of targets.

The line of argument goes something like this: Any sort of arbitrary measure like a target results in people focusing only on ’meeting the target’. This then limits the methods they’ll use to improve the organisation (as they’ll only try ones that seem to contribute to the target) and they’ll ignore signals from other places (eg feedback from customers) which may actually be more important than achieving the target.

Based on this, the anti-target school claims that ALL targets will make the system you work in worse as they direct attention and effort to the wrong things and result in unintended bad consequences.

On the other hand, it’s hard to know what you’re trying to achieve (and especially hard to have a team share this view) without some sort of articulation of the goal, objective, etc and a way of measuring progress towards it. What will success look like?

Moreover, clearly athletes benefit from having a target to aim for – “I want to knock 10 seconds off my personal best”.

And the anti-target school seems happy with actions being steered by what customers define as success: things along the line of ”customers want their products to work first time or their appointments to be kept”. Is that some sort of target?

Maybe, as Wittgenstein explored, it’s a matter of language. Perhaps targets have a role but only if we understand what they mean and what the intention behind them is?

A local point of view

Having just come back from working in Borneo, I now see another side to the easy-to-knock palm oil industry. There, people are concerned about development. A palm oil plantation is regarded much like a cultivated valley in the west. The impact on the orangutans is regretted and in some ways ameliorated with local support for sanctuaries. But it is not the primary concern when human material issues are at stake.

EU policies on bio-fuel from palm oil and for the oils used in cooking impact not just on the profits of trans-national corporations but also the livelihoods of peasant farmers (see article).

Complex stuff. Not just about Nestle and Kit Kats.

In Kenya a couple of years ago, the local press also helped me see there are other points of view on:

  1. using corn in the US for bio-fuel. Surely a good thing - but less grain available as food aid in areas where people are starving as a result of drought.
  2. the pros as well as the cons of poor farmers flying green beans and flowers to Europe, including the low energy and pesticides required in their forms of agriculture.

All our points of view are local – so it’s worth travelling to find a different way of looking at things.

What’s your map of the world?

The Ebstorf map has been recreated and is on display.

We know that maps of the globe are always incomplete visions of reality. The different projections of the world owe as much to psychology as geography.

This difference has been picked up playfully time and time again over recent years, often at the expense of the powerful.

How we see the features in our immediate world is often about projections of our hopes and fears onto other possessions, places and people. Schumacher encourages us to question how we make our ‘philosophical maps’.

In what ways could you redraw your assumptions and reveal some blind spots today?

More recent articles:

Ash cloud – what’s your reaction?

Take time to get the picture

The new leper’s bell

Touch it, feel it

Be careful who you lend your brand to


The idenk team

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