How The Smallest Behaviours Lead To The Biggest Changes

Many managers are surprised to find the extent to which small behaviours make a big difference. As a result they tend to disregard these small behaviours to their detriment.

Here are a five examples:

In 1988 I was Group Strategic Planning Manager at the Bank of New Zealand. The day I joined the Bank (8/8/1988) the directors asked the government for a $350m bailout to stop the bank from going into liquidation. Three months later a new Chief Executive was appointed. One of the first things he did was to lock-off his personal lift that took him directly from the basement carpark to his 24th level office without stopping. This tiny change signalled something much bigger to Bank employees who until then had seldom seen the CEO let alone travelled in the lift with him. Of course there were many other things that happened but it was an inspired first step. Three years later the Bank went from bottom to first or second in most industry indicators and was sold for $1.5b to National Australia Bank in 1992.

One of my favourite managers took over as Interim CEO of a major vehicle testing organisation and I asked one of his second-level managers how he was getting on. He said the difference was amazing and immediate. He said that when the previous CEO had come out of the lift he turned left and walked directly to his office without passing anyone else. When the Interim Manager came out of the lift he turned right and took a slightly longer route that took him passed every staff member before going to his office. This tiny change showed that he cared, made him more visible and kept him in touch.

I was facilitating an empowerment process in an engineering company. Nothing we did had any effect until the clock-card machines were removed. This tiny change symbolised trust, respect and equality. 

I was facilitating the implementation of a customer-first strategy in an Electricity company. Two small behavioural changes made a major difference. First, everybody (including the CEO) was rostered to answer customer queries on the phone; this not only sent a powerful message to the customers who were sometimes surprised to find themselves talking to the boss, but also kept the CEO and his top team more closely in touch with what mattered to customers. Second, they installed a large electronic message board at the front of the office. It lit up immediately the phone rang and clocked-up the number of seconds before the phone was answered. 

One of my colleagues was the Manager of a large New Zealand bank that had a “customer first” strategy. They discovered a computer error that resulted in a large number of customers being over-charged by a small amount. The amount was so small it would have been tempting to forget about refunding the over-charge; after-all, the customers didn’t know about the problem, and the fix was far greater than the refunds. By fixing the over-charge they reinforced the importance of customers and symbolised the importance of doing the right thing no matter what the cost.

I have dozens of other examples but I hope these five have made the point: Managers disregard small behaviours to their detriment. 

This may sound strange to many managers fixed in a mechanical mind-set; but, it makes total sense  to those  who understand Systems Theory, Complexity Theory and Emergence. I may get into this in a later post. Heads-up: ever heard of the “butterfly effect”? In the meantime if any of your people need beefing up in these areas please let me know.

Bruce Holland

Old Ways of Managing Don’t Work for Online Workers

With Covid-19 we have seen the introduction of more online work; and many organisations have been forced to accept that their managers have been ill-equipped to manage in the new environment. Organisations have found that management methods that ‘sort of worked’ pre Covid-19 didn’t work when people worked online from home.

In the new environment, managers who saw themselves on top of a group of people, no longer had a role. It was no longer possible to look ‘over-their-shoulder’ and closely supervise what would be done or how it would be done. It was no longer possible for them to be top-down, controlling and limiting. It just didn’t work in the new environment.

In my experience top-down was always a poor way to manage. It’s largely why, in 1992, we set up Virtual Group Business Consultants. We launched it in a pinstriped tent as a symbol that intangible assets are more important than tangible assets (see the high-rise buildings of our competitors behind the tent). By intangibles we mean relationships, knowledge, experience, culture, brand, and service delivery. The tent also symbolises our flexibility, pin-stripped quality, canvas-thin overheads and virtual structure).  

Interestingly, the tent has become far more than a symbol; it has changed the reality of how we work. When my colleague John Pettigrew suggested our marketing slogan, “Wisdom Without Walls” it immediately appealed to me as the essence of what we were trying to achieve.

Wisdom comes from people and treating people as whole: Body (physical), Head (intellectual), Heart (emotional) and Soul (spiritual). Mostly wisdom comes from the Soul. Wisdom comes from becoming deeply connected in three ways: more connected to the Self, to other people and to the environment. These are connections we have always worked to achieve even when most people worked within the organisation. For us working without the walls meant without separations, silos, barriers and controls that normally go with organising people. We have found that people work with unbounded energy in an open system with all unnecessary rules and structures removed, if they are supported by a new type of leadership, technology and culture. 

For nearly 30 years we have helped organisations achieve wisdom without walls and they have found it to be the difference between success and failure. Post-Covid-19 ‘without walls’ has taken on a more literal meaning as Covid-19 has exposed weaknesses in managing people online.

Today we have specialists working with Boards, senior managers and front-line people. We are experts in achieving wisdom without walls, liberating human energy, breaking down silos, building connections and trust, opening communications and reducing complexity by removing unnecessary boundaries, barriers, rules, processes and top-down management. We are also experts in the technological support and decisions required to work remotely.

If your managers have been ill equipped to manage remote online workers please give us a call. We’d love to chat with you about achieving wisdom without walls in your organisation.

Bruce Holland

Why 76% of Strategies fail. How to do it successfully

Strategic Managers know that 76% of strategies fail to produce the benefits promised and most fail during the implementation phase. This is extremely costly both in terms of time and money wasted on the current strategy but also costly because failure this time makes it harder to achieve success next time.

You see Strategy is usually an intellectual exercise that’s done by only the top people in the organisation. Both of these practices are a problem.

An intellectual exercise?

Many managers see strategy as an intellectual exercise. They put 80% of their effort in to logic and costs and features. They should put 80% of their effort into emotions, feelings, trust and security. The 18 Inches from the head to the heart is a long journey. Until this unconscious level is addressed nothing will change.  It’s like an iceberg; we tend to address the bit that is most visible forgetting that so much lies unseen below the waterline.


Only the top people?

Even the best managers have problems going from planning to doing. Recently, different CEOs, all of whom I would rate as some of the best, have made the following statements to me. Do any of these statements ring true to you?

  • ‘We know what we need to do, but we don’t seem to be able to make it happen.’
  • ‘We need to put some rubber on the road.’
  • ‘It is not that people don’t want to do it, they just don’t know how.’

Part of the reason these problems exist is because strategy processes are restricted to the most senior people in the organisation, whereas it’s the frontline who have to implement the strategies; and they don’t understand them let alone care about them. Implementation is the result of thousands of decisions made every day by employees who want to do their best but often don’t know what the strategy really means.

Of course the Tops understand and care; they have spend days thinking and arguing about the strategies; but the frontline haven’t and so they don’t care. 

It’s a process

Some managers think they can get around this by doing a one-hit “roadshow”. They proudly tell me: “I’ve been to every branch in the country and presented the strategy. Everyone knows about it!” This is a nonsense, there’s no way you can tell someone about a strategy; it takes a process which has as much to do with building trust and confidence as agreeing strategies.

So wise managers find ways to involve the frontline right through the process including, the decision about what to do and why we’re doing it. As a minimum managers need to find ways to involve these people in thinking deeply about how they will make the strategy work. 

There are real benefits in involving frontline right through the process. It often adds to the quality of the strategy because in my experience the ability to think strategically is widely spread throughout the organisation and has little to do with where people sit on the organisation chart. Also, the strategies end up being grounded in the real world and more highly practical than otherwise. And most importantly, it adds meaning to the work and increases levels of energy at the frontline. 

You want me to involve everyone?


I first trialed the 100% solution when I was Group Strategy Manager at the Bank of New Zealand. It was 1989, just after the recession, and the Bank was in a bad way. Everyone said the recovery would take 10 years; however, by involving all 6,500 people over 350 branches the recovery was achieved in just over two years.

Since then we have run dozens of processes that involve everyone. Depending on the levels of trust and communication they usually involve several half-day workshops of up to 100 people at each workshop. This approach may take a little longer in the short-term, but in the long-term the time is significantly shorter.

Want more information?

This video will give you far more detail.

Bruce Holland was the Group Strategic Manager at the Bank of New Zealand before becoming a consultant. In 1992 he formed Virtual Group and works with many organisations helping their strategic processes.

How to be a more powerful manager

Many managers think their power comes from the conscious mind, so they put lots of effort into building their thinking skills, especially analysis.

Most of their power comes from their subconscious mind and this can be a powerful friend or a powerful enemy. Without realising it many managers sabotage themselves.

About 90% of what managers do is done at the subconscious level. It’s all about the pictures they hold about themselves, the words they use, and the habits they adopt. It’s about trusting their gut feelings, intuitions and listening to their bodies.

Here is what the best managers do:

1.They deliberately develop positive rituals because they know about 90% of what they do is done at a subconscious level based on habits; therefore 90% of their success depends on having positive habits.

2. They take control of their subconscious mind. They know they will be as big as their self-image, or as small.

3. They know they are creatures of habit and work to establish highly specific, positive behaviours that become automatic rituals in their subconscious minds.

4. They understand and trust their subconscious mind, in the knowledge that it is the source of much of their success.

5.They understand the power of words. They actively feed their minds with powerful words and thoughts. They deliberately reject words and thoughts that make them weak.

6.They know that the people they lead will be as powerful as the thoughts they hold about themselves. They deliberately help people overcome their doubts and find their core of greatness.

7. They understand that the seven points listed above also apply at the organisational level. They are happy to talk about the health of the organisation’s subconscious. They work to build it.

Bruce Holland

Strategy Perpetuates the Status Quo

“Strategic planners pride themselves on their rigor. Strategies are supposed to be driven by numbers and extensive analysis and uncontaminated by bias, judgment, or opinion. The larger the spreadsheets, the more confident an organization is in its process. All those numbers, all those analyses, feel scientific, and in the modern world, “scientific” equals “good.”

“Yet if that’s the case, why do the operations managers in most large and midsize firms dread the annual strategic planning ritual? Why does it consume so much time and have so little impact on company actions? Talk to those managers, and you will most likely uncover a deeper frustration: the sense that strategic planning does not produce novel strategies. Instead, it perpetuates the status quo.”

So starts the Harvard Review article (Sept. 2012), “Bring Science to the Art of Strategy.”

I agree entirely with their analysis of the problem; however, I agree less with their solution to the problem. In my view strategy needs logic and magic; the weighting of which depends mostly on the level of change the strategy will require in technology and changes it will require in people.

Logic and magic

In a more predictable market where there are few changes required in either technology or people, a weighting towards logic may be appropriate; however, in a less predictable market (and today most are) more magic is required.

What sort of strategy required?

Today the environment for most strategy processes is requiring a more
“Magic” (sometimes called Wicked) approach; despite this, most strategist rely on the “Classic/Management” approach described above.

There are two schools of thought about the Strategic Process

  1. Logic School – A linear or left brain school
  2. Magic School – A nonlinear or right brain school.

The Logic school is by far the most common, however, on its own it is seriously lacking. It is based on several unspoken assumptions that are highly questionable:

  1. That you can create a powerful vision of the future after thinking extensively about the present. In my experience, thinking too deeply about the present tends to limit the possibilities considered for the vision.
  2. That analysts are the best people to drive the Strategic Process. In my experience Line Managers are far better drivers of strategy because they understand the issues and reality in the market place. They are also the people who must execute the strategies and therefore their ownership is vital. Managers do not have sufficient ownership or understanding when strategies are presented to them by analysts.
  3. That the ideas needed to create a winning strategy do not exist within the organisation and need to be imported from outside. In my experience this is simply untrue. I think it’s vital to have an outsider to lead the Process so they can challenge thinking that is not strategic or innovative enough; but I’ve found the content is always available from within.



Left Brain Thinking Starts With the Present

Sequence =
• where are we?
• where do we want to go?
• how are we going to get there?

Driven by Analysts Ideas must be imported

Extensive analysis determines strategies

Right Brain Thinking Starts With the Vision

Sequence =
• where do we want to go?
• where are we?
• how are we going to get there?

Driven by Line Managers Ideas exist within firm

Extensive analysis to test strategies


Both schools have their strengths and weaknesses. It would be wrong to disregard either; however, in my experience most New Zealand organisations rely far too much on the linear approach. As a result, many strategic workshops are boring, and not nearly as successful as they could be.

Bruce Holland