Category Archives: Strategy

Silver bullets and other mythical creatures

I started writing this post 5 years ago. It was a post on the Hilton Barbour blog about Silver Bullets that originally got me thinking, but the post stayed stuck in that neverland of unreleased world-changing ideas called ‘drafts’.

A discussion about a new project I saw in my company reminded me that I had written something about this. Perhaps I could point to a nascent post from years past to demonstrate my insight. Alas, not.

I never posted it, so instead of pointing to wisdom and foresight, it stays reactionary. Unless that is you are reading this in 2022 and think, “smart guy – he saw this 5 years ago”. Even if this happened, I think I’d still be frustrated that I didn’t publish in 2012 and look insightful by a whole decade.

Anyway … time to ‘publish and be damned’.

The myth of the Silver Bullet.

Those mythical solutions that fix all known problems.

Perhaps we could write a list of attributes that companies can test their projects and ideas against – the Magic Bullet test.

Does it …?

  • Save money
  • Save time
  • Increase efficiency
  • Provide a competitive advantage over any other choice
  • Connect A to B and C and D
  • Simplify everything
  • … and so on … until you realise this list is essentially ‘solves all our problems’

For now, ignore the cost … because this will be BIG.

Magic bullets are never cheap, but hey, against those benefits it must be good value for money. Yes, it means that a load of other things won’t happen, but this project is going to solve ALL our problems.

Check your project against the list and if you get a high enough score which can mean it solves all our problems – then DING – you have a magic bullet project.

At that point, the smart people should stand up, bring the discussion back into the real world and say, “Sir, you have a silver bullet project … we need to stop this madness“.

The smart people won’t of course.

We then enter the real world version of ‘The Emperors New Clothes‘, as it becomes increasingly obvious that the strategy/project has no realistic chance of success, but no one wants to say so. Nobody wants to jinx the plan. And so the dance continues. A chance to define a practical (but less exciting)  solution is missed, time is lost and the failure continues – with the magic bullet sucking up all available budget.

So if you spot what you think is a magic bullet, how do you call it out (without putting your job on the line by questioning this amazing idea)?

Answer: You ask for evidence. You seek validation of the claims.

This can be done in a positive way, but it absolutely needs to be done.

“This is a great idea, but how do we know this will work”.

The response to this will be to dismiss your question, as near heresy, but stay the course … your next point is what matters.

After listening to the response, you come back with the safety value.

“That’s great, so we should expect to see this [add defined outcome] by [date] and [add second outcome] by [second date].

What you are doing is putting in a simple safety value(s) that if this condition is not met you can ensure that the project is subject to the governance as other projects. You are not questioning the project, but merely putting in some simple qualification criteria that it needs to meet. If you are right and the project is anything close to a magic bullet, you will have minimised the cost of failure – or better still, forced a re-evaluation. The good news is that if the project is successful (and you were wrong) then it doesn’t matter – the project can continue.

So what is the point you ask?

Surely there is nothing special or unusual here?

But there is – a characteristic of a magic bullet project is that it typically seeks to exempt itself from measurement and validation. It is that special and important that the normal rules don’t apply. Which is all the more reason that the measurement and validation need to be there.

This all reminds me of The TV program, The Last Leg. Perhaps it would all be so much easier if we gave everyone a bullshit button and let them vote.

Magic bullet program. BULLSHIT.



3 Lessons from the Apollo Program


We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win …“.

This iconic speech from John F. Kennedy set the US a clear and ambitious goal of landing a man on the moon.

The date was September 12, 1962.

Many Americans thought the US was losing the space race. The USSR has launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, in 1957 and four years later had beaten the US Program Mercury to put a man in space.

The Apollo program achieved its goal, with Neil Armstrong becoming the first man on the moon in 1969 in Apollo 11. This was followed by another five successful landings on the moon, with the last one being in 1972.

The Apollo program wasn’t the start of the space program of course. The US had previously had the Mercury and Gemini programs. What the Apollo program did was raise the profile and the budget of NASA – and critically set a very clear goal.

Whilst the costs appeared huge, with Apollo reported in 1973 as costing $25.4bn (around $150bn in 2017), when we look at these in more detail, particularly in relation to total US spending, the numbers are very small. From 1959 to 1972, NASA represented roughly 2.2% of US federal outlays, with Apollo accounting for about 50% of this, or 1.1% of US total federal outlays. Since 1972, NASA has operated with an average of 0.5% of the total US budget. If NASA funding had been maintained at pre-1972 levels, the US would be investing around $67bn in 2017 rather than the $19.5bn it will actually receive .

If we look at the Apollo program, I think there are some clear lessons that can be learned from this, that apply equally to companies today.

1) Set big bold goals.

If you want to achieve something, set a big bold goal. It needs to be ambitious but achievable. The US was perceived to be behind the USSR, but this is perhaps with confidence rather than technical competence. The US successfully launched the Explorer 1 satellite in 1958 and successfully launched Alan Shepherd into orbit only a little over a month after Yuri Gagarin. Unlike Gagarin’s fully automatic flight, Shepherd had some control of his spacecraft. Amongst modern businesses, Elon Musk’s strategy probably best typifies the modern interpretation of setting big bold goals and exciting visions – across not one industry, but several including software, space transport, solar & battery power, and not least vehicles with Tesla.

2) Hire the best

NASA had a great start with Space Exploration. After World War 2, the US moved about 1600  of the top scientists, engineers and technicians from the Nazi rocket development program to the US. One of the most famous of these, Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr von Braun, later become the chief architect of the Saturn V launch vehicle that propelled the Apollo spacecraft to the moon. Von Braun was noted as taking a cautious approach to engineering, designing in ample safety factors and redundant structure. It was ironically this caution that caused the US to ‘lose’ the space race to put a man in space as Von Braun insisted on additional tests for rocket that would eventually put Alan Shepherd in space, taking up the slot that would have launched Shepherd into space three weeks before Gagarin.

The mantra of hiring the best is now accepted as a core principle at every leading technology company. Although Alphabet (Google) stands out in its positive public promotion of engineering as a discipline, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon all compete vigorously for the best engineering talent. Amongst startup companies, the demonstration of industry leading innovation will accelerate offers to buy companies that have never even made a sales as companies seek to acquire talent that will help them advance past their competition.

3) Invest!

The JFK “We choose to go to the moon” speech was very clear that this ambition was going to require additional investment. Extraordinary outcomes and big bold goals require investment.  The level of funding for NASA during the Apollo period was approximately 4x what was given to NASA after that program finished. Whether this was value for money is a subjective issue, but it was clear that big outcomes require big money. For the US, and most companies, the issue is not funding – it is prioritisation. The US can afford to innovate and invest in NASA. Most companies can afford to invest in initiatives which will allow them to achieve big bold goals, but they are not willing to prioritise these. Instead investments are either spread across a number of projects to reduce risk (often to reduce the risk to individual managers, rather than the company) or potential investment is returned to shareholders as dividends or buybacks to keep the stock price high. This is of course a subjective decision – because doing this prevents the company from investing in programs which could positively transform the value of the company – as a Apollo program did for the US.

Again, this lesson is absolutely understood by today’s technology leaders. Whilst the older established players such as Microsoft and Apple (and IBM, GE, Siemens etc) balance investment with meeting market expectations (and paying dividends), Amazon and Facebook aggressively invest in growth. Amazon in particular is veracious in its investment in new businesses – whether launching new Amazon products such as the Kindle Fire or Alexa, building whole new categories of business such as Amazon Web Services or its continual expansion of its core logistics business – across warehouse expansion, automation through AI and robotics or its vertical expansion into shipping, air freight and local delivery.

As I wrote this post, it became clear that there is another element that is critical – both for the Space Program and for successful companies. A real x-factor. An unquantifiable element that is essential but hard to qualify.

x) An inspiring Leader

I don’t see it as a coincidence that the Apollo program and successful innovative companies all have inspirational leaders. It is almost a truism to state this, but if we examine this a deeper, it is perhaps the most critical element.

Why is this?

Because without the charismatic leader ‘to make the case, to define the vision, to convince the stakeholders, to secure the investment, to rally the troops’, none of this happens.

If no one stands up in Congress, takes on the cause of NASA, makes the case to the American public – then nothing happens.

It is the same in companies too. Unless someone tells the story, shares the vision, paints the dream, then nothing happens. In a company where there is always an opportunity cost, there is always alternative use for the money – whether another project or a dividend.

It is up to the leader to make the case and inspire the vision. If they don’t, the investment doesn’t happen and you allow your competitor to win. The graveyard of failed companies is full of great ideas that were not supported.

JFK’s speech offers some good advice here about how to maximise your success. He made the goal big, bold and clear. It wasn’t to build a better rocket, to drive efficiency in engineering – it was an easily understandable goal – to put a man on the moon. He laid out the scale in easily understandable measures, “as tall as a 48 story structure, as wide as a city block, and as long as two lengths of this field“. He demonstrated capability to achieve the goal, “Within these last 19 months at least 45 satellites have circled the earth. Some 40 of them were “made in the United States of America” and they were far more sophisticated and supplied far more knowledge to the people of the world than those of the Soviet Union.” and he made is relevant to everyone in the audience and did’t shy away from the cost, “I think we’re going to do it, and I think that we must pay what needs to be paid”. Perhaps most importantly – in fact, absolutely critically – he inspired, “Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, “Because it is there.” Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there.”

This speech has endured as one of the most famous, and important of the 20th Century. Learn from it. Think big. Inspire and define your own moonshot.

The role of a designer is to rethink how the world works

I love this quote.

It comes from a Fast Company article reviewing a book by Kern and Burn.

Short and simple and it sets a high bar on ambition.

If we define a designer in this way though, doesn’t it allow us all to be designers?

I’m not sure that was the intention when it was written, but if you are rethinking ‘how the world works’ then are you really a designer?

You might not know Photoshop, carry a Macbook and or wear expensive black t-shirts, but if you are rethinking how the world works are you any less a designer than someone working on redesigning his brothers small business site?

Of course not.

But of course, it doesn’t matter.

Being a designer is a mindset. Just as being an artist is …

Or a writer … Or an interior designer … You could be completely crap at it (and many are), but it doesn’t matter. Creativity and art is by definition subjective. It has to be, else you would be an engineer, defining for function within accepted boundaries of what constitutes normal. Of course, there are highly creative engineers, but you get the idea. It is about pushing boundaries and challenging norms; in short, changing the world.

Sounds good to me.

Gary Burt, Designer

To drive change – lead with passion and vision, not execution

If something isn’t working, change it.

As the old saying goes, “Without change, there is no change”

If you are overweight and change nothing, you don’t lose weight.

If you cannot swim, and change nothing, you will not magically learn to swim.

The same is true in business, but with the added complexity that failing to change may cause your business fail anyway.

If you know a change is needed but change nothing, then your fears about what might happen are likely to become reality by virtue of your inaction and indecision. The world doesn’t wait for anyone.

Markets don’t wait.

Competitors don’t wait.

and customers certainly don’t wait.

If you want the change to be successful though, then assign the leadership of this challenge to someone who is passionate about what can be achieved, not what exists. Find someone who is passionate about ‘what can be’, about ‘what is possible’.

Most people are fearful of change and uncertainty. This isn’t unusual, it is the normal human reaction. So for any major change is to be successful, it needs to be led by someone who is positive and passionate about what is possible.

Whatever you do, don’t give this to an ‘execution guy’. Never give change projects to plan-following-gantt-loving-box-tickers. Have them monitor the change, report on the change, manage the details of resource allocation, but never lead it. Never let these people meet those that are at the centre of the change. Keep them securely away, counting beans, updating spreadsheets and producing reports; but never let them meet people.

Take the example of a personal trainer. 

You need to be enthused about what is possible; excited by the idea of the new you; fired up to want to make the sacrifices of time, sweat and pain.

What you don’t want is a personal trainer that defines a functional plan, clearly outlines the sacrifices, but fails to excite you about what is possible.

Worse than that, you never want a trainer that fails to excite you about the future you, instead they demand you follow a plan of steady plan of change. Week after week, month after month … just following the plan.

One problem with this approach … It won’t work.

It isn’t that the plan doesn’t work – it is that you will not stick to it. Without a clear vision of what is possible, any initial excitement will quickly turn into resentment at the plan and the training, with the result that you stop.

You may have a bad week (and not stuck to the plan). A good trainer will not shy away from giving you honest feedback but the conversation always needs to end positively – with you back on track and focused on the goal. You need to stay focused on the goal.

So a quick tip here – if you want to get fit, learn a skill or make a life change, then find a personal trainer who is passionate about what is possible. That doesn’t mean that they cannot be honest with you, challenge you, or give you a hard time, but underneath all of this must be a positivity that change is possible and you can achieve it. They need to believe in you – even if you don’t believe in yourself at the start.

Now lets move this example to the workplace.

If we want people to embrace workplace change, we need to excite them about the goal, about what is possible. We need to address their fears, always be honest, but never step back from demonstrating positivity about the future.

All too often though, change programs are delivered as functional projects to be followed and implemented by experienced project managers in initiatives that strip any passion out from the project. Instead of exciting people with the future, they instead find an increasing need to mandate, to order and force through changes. The change may happen (eventually), but at the cost of trust, respect and integrity. The loss of these may leave a company in a worse position than before the change. They will certainly result in the loss of people that you want to keep. So, even a change project delivered to plan can be a failure, if your company is harmed by the process of going through the change.

I’m not advocating that you let the evangelist, the visionary or the maverick control the finances or manage budgeting, but don’t the accountant lead change programs either – this second is a much bigger risk than letting someone with imagination and passion get his hands on the money to make things actually happen.

Changing the world (part 3) – Nike was right

Nike was right.

Just do it. 

The best piece of advice I could ever give. About anything.

By all means, talk about it.

You can design it, plan it, test it, demo it, pilot it.

But none of this matters until you DO IT.

Whether in business, your personal life, your training, your dreams, your WHATEVER.

Just do it.

You might fail? True.

You might get hurt? Maybe.

You might completely miss what you want? Absolutely possible.

But unless you DO IT, you can never be successful. The only way to achieve success is to do it. Not just in business, but in anything in life. Failure is underrated as a skill. I’d hire someone who had tried and failed everytime over someone who never had the guts to even try. I want to work with those who think big. Who dream. Who make mistakes.

I want to work with those who Just do it.

Why? Because those who Just do it, will never accept an excuse from me. They will push me. Inspire me to run faster, jump longer and think bigger.

And when I do that, I can be successful in what I want.

Not will be. Can be.

If I don’t even try, the only thing guaranteed is failure.

Want change? Stop complaining, start helping

Want to change something?

Stop moaning.

Stop whinging.

Stop complaining.

Instead shift your energies to focus on how you can help.

Seriously. Stop judging, start helping.

Make the change that you want to see more attractive, easier, better paid, simpler … make it the best choice.

You can criticise people for their choices, but it is more likely to cause the other party to defend their position, entrench their views and be resistant to change.

It doesn’t matter what the change is. Put your pride aside. Assign resources into making the change you want to see the best option. This is NOT the same as making the original option less attractive, which is the strategy taken by benefit cuts for example. Making the shift attractive means understanding the real-world blockers to the choice and implementing positive actions to remove these. Over the longer term you can shift resources but don’t do this at the start – it simply alienates the people you want to engage with.

So how can this work in the real world?

The baby box is given free to parents of newborns in Finland provides a brilliant example of this strategy in action. Instead of lecturing new parents, criticising them for what they should or shouldn’t do, it offered help. It shifted from telling to helping. It made this help unconditional. It didn’t mandate it. It didn’t attach conditions. It didn’t lecture. It offered practical help. And it worked. Finland now has one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world.


So how could this thinking be applied to our current problems?

Example 1 – Obesity

Forget trying to mandate against unhealthy choices. Instead shift energies to positive changes. No VAT on bikes, investment in safe cycle routes. What about safe, secure FREE lockup areas at all public facilities. Make gyms and healthy food cheaper. Free gym places? Free healthy food at school to help develop a change a nations taste buds? What about investment in sports facilities that are affordable to families? Over time, you could increase taxes to fund more changes, but NEVER at the start. Start with the positive first.

Example 2 – Studying science at school (and beyond)

As with obesity, it is hard to know where to start – not because it is hard, but because there are so many potential areas to improve. Start by paying science teachers more. Recruit the best – invest in new labs at schools, provide resources for more engaging lessons focused on hands-on learning. Get rid of the whiteboard and replace these with living learning spaces that put the children’s experience at the centre of your strategy. Provide free science holiday camps so the resources stay utilised. Make university places for science courses free. Provide tax breaks for science graduates who work in a science discipline for 5, 10, 20 years after graduating.

Example 3 – Traffic congestion

The simplest to fix. Invest in public transport and remote working. Stop messing about with high speed broadband installation and devote serious resources to this to make things happen quickly. Public transport doesn’t need to be just affordable, it needs to be clearly the best financial option. That means a big differential between alternatives. So prices need to fall. On rail they need to drop massively. All of this costs money of course, but having snarled roads at rush hour all over the country is sheer stupidity. It is the best example you could find of a system not working. It isn’t a quick fix, but you could make a difference in months.

Can you see the pattern?

Focus on the positive.

Make the shift attractive. Invest your time in the change you want to see, rather than than putting efforts into things that you want to stop. When you shift your thinking to the positive, your problem is not knowing what to do, it is knowing which to do first.

How do you know which one to do?

You try it.

Pilot, trial it, but DO IT.

Be methodical, use research methods, but start and keep going. Adapt, evolve and learn, but don’t make failure an option. Stay positive and refine what works.

Whatever you may hear on TV or in the media, the primary blocker to these happening though is not money or funding. It is political pride and a focus on short termism. 

The examples so far have focused on public policy, but they equally apply to any change. From getting your children to read or swim (incentivise the change and make it attractive to them), to increasing productivity in the workplace (provide great spaces and good tools, trust people and stop micro-managing).

And one final tip.

Be patient.

Very patient.

The results of the Finnish study took a generation to fully appreciate. Changing life choices takes time. Changing any behaviour is a challenge, but not impossible.

Complaining though … you can do that for as long as you want. It doesn’t work.

Don’t be an idea thief

Never steal others work. Ever. Period.

Show respect, credit it, attribute it and build on top of it if you want to, but never pass it off as your own if it isn’t.

I’m not talking lazy research where you fail to properly credit published work although this is bad enough, I am talking about idea theft. If you are going to propose someone else’s idea, then credit it. Simple as that. It doesn’t matter if it is written down, formally recorded and logged or legally protected. If it belongs to someone else, then give them the credit for this.

Unfortunately, in business the idea thieves are rampant, so beware. Often the worst culprits are senior managers and executives. They should know better, but too often they think that the intellectual ideas of those who work for them are theirs to plunder.


Idea theft is still theft. When you do this you demonstrate that you have the same integrity as a thief stealing from a corner shop. You didn’t need to take it – but you did – and you deserve the loss of respect and dignity for doing so.

There is no difference.

Crediting those who created the idea not only helps those people get the respect they deserve, it means that they are more likely to work with you and want to collaborate on joint initiatives, giving you both increased opportunities. For a manager there is no greater measure of success than being able to lead a team of very smart people who respect you. If you steal their ideas this is impossible.

Isaac Newton is widely credited with the quote that best sums this up, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”  He understood that the work he did was adding to a body of existing knowledge.

The academic world quite rightly requires accurate and diligent referencing, reflecting the reality that most ideas are building on the work of others. The corporate world is far less demanding, but never underestimate the risks and dangers of failing to attribute intellectual property.

You may not think I remember that idea that I emailed to you a few months ago that you have now blatantly taken the credit for. Not only do I remember, but the server logs don’t lie.

It is hard to defend against a timestamped email.

Your call.

This article is copyright Gary Burt … reference it, build on it, but please credit me. The WordPress logs don’t lie.