A ‘thought shower’ on the history of management bulls*** bingo

Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash



The Chancellor’s joke about Michael Gove’s ‘long, economicky words’ struck a chord with me.


I’m a big fan of innovation and, as we know, innovation is one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration. But, when I hear people innovating on new words, terms and phrases simply to appear smart or be in with the in-crowd, then I lose the will to live.


So does our Chancellor, Philip Hammond, it would appear. As he delivered his Autumn Budget, he also delivered a jibe at Cabinet colleague Michael Gove’s expense when he warned he would be using some “long, economicky” words. This was an apparent reference to the Environment Secretary’s tendency to use them in a way that has led to speculation he’s after the Chancellor’s job. Now it was time for Mr Hammond to “out” Mr Gove and have some fun at the dispatch box.


Get ready to play “bulls*** bingo”


The world of business knows the perils of tortuous jargon all too well and this led an “innovative” form of resistance that our politicians might be well advised to study. Get ready to play “bulls*** bingo”.


So what is it and where does it all come from? And why is there such a need for some among us to create a bingo list of “bulls***” words?


This all stems from management consulting techniques that sprung up in the USA (where else?) from the 1980s onwards.


they wanted their staff, cultures and profits to be so much better


As big companies emerged from the Second World War, they wanted their staff, cultures and, ultimately, profits all to be so much better. Employees needed to be made to feel part of the firm with more accountability and responsibility for getting things right first time.


New words entered the lexicon of business such as “alignment”, “intentionality” and the bold “end-state vision”. And so a whole new era of words began to emerge, created by consultants and money-hungry universities that would peddle these out to senior and middle managers.


Unfortunately, those in senior and middle management scooped up these new terms, internalised them and made damn sure they regurgitated them when speaking to their staff, at conferences and during their appraisals.


designed to awaken employees from their bureaucratic and dull gaze


The vocabulary was putatively designed to awaken employees from their bureaucratic and dull gaze and open their eyes and minds to a new higher stream of consciousness.


A whole new raft of words began to emerge as wordsmiths and consultants smashed them together, creating new terms that now sit in the bulls*** bingo scorecards. By this, I mean it literally got to the stage that employees would score each other on how many bingo words were used during a meeting or conference speech simply to amuse themselves and have some office banter afterwards.


Many of you will recognise these words as some are still in existence and are still used with much aplomb by the management consultancy brigade. Words like “ideation”, “imagineering” and “creaction” all come into being. And yes, I’m guilty of using these myself to be honest.


in came the caramel chai lattes and almond croissants


As this business culture’s new lingo spread, public sector organisations joined in the fun as many of them paid huge sums to consultants to come in and re-invent how they operated. Out went the tea and sannies and in came the caramel chai lattes and almond croissants. It was here that I think the real damage was done, although it did lead to the creation of some of the best bingo words, many of which survive today.


My personal favourites include “braindump”, “drop the ball”, “tailwind”, “thought showers”, “date lake” and “iterative thinking”.


20 hardened detectives sucked in their cheeks


I recall working for a short time in the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in the east end of Glasgow. There was a new detective chief inspector in town and he wanted to make his mark. The first thing he did was institute a register, rather like a class register, where big hairy detectives would have to report for duty to his room and duly sign in.


The register was placed on his desk, so the detectives would have to lean over to sign it. Thus, the detective chief inspector would be able to smell their breath and ascertain if they had been drinking. You can imagine how that went down with Glasgow East End detectives in the 1990s.


He mustered them all together, like new recruits, and started to pontificate about the new policy using bulls*** bingo words. Having established that they were all sober, he then floated a new idea on how to handle murder evidence. As he finished, he stated “Good, then let’s run it up the flagpole and see who salutes it!” This saying is now a classic. I watched as 20 hardened detectives sucked their cheeks in and went red in the face as they tried not to burst out laughing.


So, let’s “revisit” why Mr Gove is purportedly using “economicky” words at the Palace of Westminster. Is he showing that understands his own “core competencies” when it comes to numbers?


Or is he adopting a more “open source” approach to communication with his colleagues? After all, he does not want to end up “firefighting” if he gets it all wrong.


Maybe he is “empowering” his team as he strives for closer “orientation”. Perhaps, he could even create a “dashboard” of “stakeholders” as he develops his new bingo card and the “bandwidth” of his department. And so it could go on as we paint the “big picture”.


I just hope that maybe now we should get over our use of bingo words and start to talk normally to each other. And perhaps Mr Hammond shouting “house!” on Mr Gove, could be a good start for us all. Managers take note.



A Blockchain mindset

Blockchain, crypto-currency


It’s time for founders and startups to get real when it comes to managing their investors…


I’ve spoken with oodles of investors recently. Before this I spoke with and indeed interrogated a whole raft of startups. What I wanted to get to was the truth about startup founders and their relationships with their investors. What I found was astonishing and needs to be fixed.


something happens once the deal is done and the startup founder is off and running.


Initially when investors speak to startups, the startup founders love the investors. I guess it’s like dating and the startup founder has big puppy-dog eyes. The investors just love this and lap it up. After all, they need to really like and have respect for each other as one is selling equity in its company while one is purchasing that equity at an agreed valuation. A valuation that is generally based in assumptions, comparables, due diligence checks and some bullshit. But, something happens once the deal is done and the startup founder is off and running.


The “long-lasting relationship” becomes a one night stand


For some reason, the investor relations part of the equation falls by the wayside and the founder no longer has puppydog eyes. What should have been a long lasting meaningful relationship in essence becomes a one night stand. And this has to stop.


The Blockchain and all that it encompasses is built on trust. In short, our lack of trust in each other means we need contacts and legals to make things tight. Blockchain creates more certainty in anything that it is applied to. Which is why it is so prevalent in crypto-currency. Blockchain mindset means a cementing of trust that is immutable. All the relevant players on a specific Blockchain all sign up to the trust element. This produces the key and the security code. And this is what is needed in the realms of startup funding. In short, a whole lot more honesty… from all sides of the table.


Founders who have taken in cash need to be open and honest about themselves, the right team, where the business really is and what is keeping them up at night. If this means telling the investor that they are stuck then so be it. Investors on the other hand need to be more willing to understand the founder and where the business is. In most cases you will get bad news or news that does not correlate with the forecast. It is at this time that the founder needs you to enable and not berate or criticise or generally give them a hard time.


If we could develop a Blockchain mindset in our startups and our investors then so many more ventures would succeed.

Altitude sickness: are you prepared to scale?

challenge, scale, altitude, grow


Clint Eastwood starred in the Eiger Sanction many years ago.  It’s a pretty good movie and although not recent, it is worth tracking down.  In the movie, Eastwood is gearing up for a big climb.  One of the biggest – The Eiger. A great deal of the movie focuses on him getting prepared for the climb.  He has to get physically fit.  This involves exercise and lots of running.  He has to re-skill himself in the art of knots and buckles and all things mountaineering.  And finally he has to acclimatise himself as the air at that high altitude is thin and he needs to be able to operate there with his mind and body under stress.  It’s a bit like growing or scaling a business…


doomed from the get go


If UK startup founders don’t prepare to climb the Eiger, then they are doomed from the get go.  If you follow my blog posts you will know I have been banging on about why startups founders are not growing from Corbett to Munro to the Eigers of this world.  It’s short-termism and a lack of understanding what it takes to be fully prepared for what is ahead. The evidence is there to see.  Only a handful of founders are actually making it to next round investments, breakevens or big milestones. There are a number of reasons for this, but let’s focus on a couple.


seasoned investors actually wish startup founders would ask for more cash


A big number, in fact a huge number of startup founders do not understand what burn rate means.  Clint Eastwood did.  That’s why he trained hard to skill up.  It’s so easy to get carried away spending cash, trying new things and hiring in new people, without truly understanding the full monthly costs of these and how they impact the bottom line.  I have witnessed many startup founders who raise a wad of cash – say £150,000 – then have no clear path up the hill.  The have perhaps mugged off a few investors telling them that the cash will last for 18 months. But the reality is that to scale from Corbett to Munro, takes a lot more than they bargained for.  I’ve heard so many times from seasoned investors that they actually wish startup founders would ask for more cash and be more realistic.


founders are actually terrified of what is next and hide in their own areas of strength


Secondly, and perhaps one that many of you may find a little perplexing, is that many founders are actually the reason the startup fails to grow and make it to the Eiger.  Who would have thought it, eh?  The founder is the baddie who actually kills off the trek up the hill half way there.  Why does this happen?  Much of the time it not the business idea or the product that is validated and created.  It’s the founder who cannot keep up.  Keep up with the pace of carnage that is and will take place within the startup as it begins to scale.  Added complexity, new personalities in the team, dealing with investors and lacking that flexible ambidextrous mindset that can move between science, data and analytics to gut feel, instinct and intuition, causes meltdown and an imploding of what could be pretty special.  Many founders are actually terrified of what is next and hide in their own areas of strength to avoid facing the facts that they are not coping or do not want to prepare for the big changes taking place and ahead.


It’s a big old hill


It’s easy to work with a single spreadsheet that the founder is comfortable with.  It’s easy to micro-manage a small team of two or three as a founder gets started.  But the rules of the game and the toughness of the climb kick in when new altitudes need to be reached as the startup becomes more scale ready.  This is when our UK founders require to take a leaf out of Clint Eastwood’s Eiger sanction preparation.  It’s a big old hill and it takes mindset preparation, teamwork and a willingness to get uncomfortable.


I think we need to be a bit more honest and dare I say it – forthright – in how we mentor and prepare new and existing founders for the Eiger.  Otherwise, we do them no favours when they get altitude sickness.


Startup life lessons from Arsenal football club


Ok, here’s a wee exercise for you. Close your eyes, take a deep breath and tell me the first word that comes to mind when I say “Arsenal football club”.


Now whilst I’ve been a Gooner from a young age, there’s no way I think many of your words are positive in light of current events. Lifeless, gutless, pathetic or embarrassing are all adjectives I’ve heard around London over the last fortnight.


So what has gone wrong at a club with a world class stadium, unlimited finance and a rich and vibrant history?


Profit-itis. The same virus infecting startups all over the country


Arsenal have contracted a virus. Pure and simple. Sadly for the UK, this is the same virus infecting startups all over the country. Profit-itis.


Being a startup is great, you have access to trendy co-working spaces, free beer on tap and all the digital content you could ever desire. You are a trail blazer, you are your own boss and you will set this market alight and write your own legacy. Investors are throwing themselves at you, money is growing on trees and you are the lord of startupland!


your vision begins to narrow


You take on your first £150k investment and something strange happens, your vision begins to narrow, you close your eyes and all you can see is £ signs. Creativity levels slowly begin to drain as voices begin whispering phrases in your ear like “payback period” and “cost reduction”.


You are captain of this ship


Investors want a return on their investment, and rightly so. Their views should be listened to and can often add invaluable advice. However, do not bend over. Do not pander to their every whim and request. It’s their money, yes, but they have invested in your vision. You are captain of this ship but unlike you, they will relentlessly drive for an increased ROI, maximum EBITDA & reduced COGS. No thanks.


they strove to be extraordinary and blow the competition away


The Arsenal team of invincibles had no such problem. They were not content with merely aiming to win the league, they strove to be extraordinary and blow the competition away. They did not want to just win and increase the bottom line, they wanted to win in style. A class above the rest. It’s this relentless drive to always be extraordinary that set them and Wenger apart, to inspire those around them to raise their game and become better.


As soon as you begin to settle for mediocrity, disaster is never far behind


Profititis has the opposite effect. Money becomes an all-consuming driver like a spell cast upon you, leaving you devoid of your lateral thinking and creativity. Turing you into a zombie football club or worse yet, a zombie startup. As soon as you begin to settle for mediocrity, disaster is never far behind.


To avoid Profititis and maintain your long term health, keep the faith in your vision and never shoot for anything less than being truly extraordinary. Growing your vision, mission and team come above all else as long as you are delighting your paying fans along the way. And to those needy investors who demand you sit up and pay them attention, simply ask them to take a look at the dejected figure of a once great Arsene Wenger and his beloved Arsenal football club.


Listen to your customers – don’t get trapped on Fantasy Island

Corkscrew roller coaster


Boss, the plane, the plane!!  Yes it was these immortal words from Herve Villechaize aka Tattoo to Mr Roark on the programme – Fantasy Island – that I always knew would lead to a good story.


At a luxurious, but remote tropical island, the enigmatic Mr Roarke would make the dreams and fantasies of well heeled guests come true.  Money was no barrier and what the guests thought would be a terrific fantasy on many occasion turned out to be anything but.  Usually, as with all fantasies they had not thought it all through, so different circumstances and outcomes would pop up and surprise them.  This then got me thinking about people who start businesses from a laptop and a spreadsheet and create their own fantasies.


this is where the conversation became a little strained


I once had a guy  – who we will call an ‘entrepreneur’ as he told me he was one so I had to believe him – tell me his business was valued at £20 million.  Great news I thought as I studied him.  Can you tell me all about it and how many staff you have.  Tell me about the profit you make and your plans for growth.  And this is where the conversation became a little strained.


He pulled out his MacBook Pro and opened it up, where I was presented with a spreadsheet.  Now, I’m not a big spreadsheet fan, but I sat and had a good look at it all the same.  The spreadsheet outlined a £4M profit in year three.  It showed explosive growth in customers using his mobile App.  I must say it all looked good and most plausible on a laptop screen.  But, when I asked him some questions about the £4M profit, I ended up with more and more questions.


With not one customer at that time, this ‘entrepreneur’ had created his very own fantasy that would have fitted well into an episode of Fantasy Island.  He was convinced beyond reason that his early adopter customers would jump at the chance to use the App and that the money would tumble in thereafter.  I could see Mr Roarke and Tattoo shaking their heads behind the scenes as this fantasist in front of me was living in a world of make believe.  I suggested that he go out to a friend of mine who would be a model customer for his App.


the grim reality of facing a customer asking hard questions


A few days later I got two rather interesting phone calls.  One from my colleague who told me that the ‘entrepreneur’ was deluding himself and one from the ‘entrepreneur’ telling me that my colleague had been rude and did not understand how the App worked, so dismissed it.  Oh dear, I thought, the grim reality of facing a customer asking hard questions of your wonderful spreadsheet that is in fact, a fairy story or fable.  Suffice to say, the ‘entrepreneur’ with the £4M profit business in year three is no longer and in fact had disappeared into a black hole, despite me suggesting that he keep talking to customers to get more feedback and insight.


the best way is to co-create the business with customers and be prepared to pivot


This approach is typical of many who startup and get seduced by spreadsheet madness.  A zero here and there is easy to add into the spreadsheet and this is where it moves from reality to fantasy.  I’m not going to stifle anyone who wants to start a new business – far from it.  But, I would suggest from experience that the best way to do this is to co-create the business with customers and be prepared to pivot and swap out staff.  As I tell people who apply for the Moonshot Academy, there is no point in starting out with the wrong people taking up precious seats in the spaceship.  It only adds to the load.


Co-Creation with real people who you believe will buy your products really helps with product/market fit.  It is very different from the Fantasy Island approach on a spreadsheet, where Mr Roarke and Tattoo will allow you to live out your fantasy of being an entrepreneur for the day.  There is nothing wrong with talking to people about your idea.  Trust me it is where you gather your best insight…