What comes first for successful enterprises?

In October 2017 I was lucky enough to be invited to join as an external advisor on the Spark Social Enterprise Safari held in Belgium.

My background is someone who has worked as a business coach and consultant in the social enterprise space for 10+ years and runs their own social enterprise that enables CEOs to grow their enterprises by addressing their confusion and frustration around – how to create clarity of leadership, strategy and an enterprising culture.

I wanted to share a few observations and challenges from the trip – particularly from the enterprises we visited on a great bicycle tour of Ostend (no one told me it would be 30km!) – relevant to organisations being able to innovate and create social impact whether in the UK, Belgium or Holland.

1. Innovation can take a long time (investment and not a cost). Whilst the SPARK programme is a great start in terms of enabling organisations to develop a method of scaling innovations, it is just the START. The good people we met at www.burenhulp.be, who provide a wide range of inclusive services for the elderly, were very honest in how long it has taken them to develop their service innovation and on some of the mistakes they have made along the way. This reminded me of a great book I’ve read on positive learning from failure, marginal gains, creativity and innovation – Matthew Syed’s ‘Black Box Thinking’ – which is worth a read for any entrepreneur.

2. The power of telling a story. I was struck with the power of a video we were shown of The Ostend Street Orkestra. The video was inspirational for the viewer understanding – the who, what, when, why, how and where of the marginalised people that the orchestra works with and supports. My takeaways from this visit were:

i)  Video has recently tipped over to 51% of the total content of the world-wide web. It is a very powerful medium to get your message across and is starting to replace the old-fashioned case study or report.

ii) If you can’t tell a good story about what you do then you will not fulfil your vision/ambition. It is vital to show funders, prove impact, put together a great crowdfunding campaign, get customers and engage a wide range of stakeholders etc. rganisations are now focusing on this element and getting smart so don’t get left behind.

3. Innovative use of technology. One of my favourite visits was to De Oesterbank www.oesterbank.be where they have transformed their supply chain business to compete alongside commercial organisations whilst being able to employ significant numbers of disabled people in meaningful/paid work.

A large warehouse may not be a crowd pleaser in terms of location, but it was very clever how they have deconstructed their operational processes into bitesize chunks and used technology to make the workplace accessible. For me it was good example of how you use technology/innovation to enable hard-to-reach groups to take part in every day work and not just focus solely on technology for the end consumer. And compete against pure commercial organisations.

My final thoughts on developing sustainable innovations, no matter which country you are from:

  • Innovation does not happen without the input of the end user or customer. Understand the needs/problems and only then work on shaping the solution (service and value) that you are providing.
  • Crowdfunding is a great way to test the market demand for your proposed product/service and raise much needed investment into your enterprise. Get the story right.
  • But what comes first is clarity on your purpose, vision and values – the bedrock of all successful enterprises.

Any thoughts, questions, feedback to share on the above please do get in touch:   Craig Carey, Director of Business, Bubble Chamber CIC craigc@bubblechamber.net

(Photographs by Lynn Delbeeke)

Investing in Talent

Ever played Fantasy Football?  Well, whether you’re interested in soccer or not, bear with me on this one.  Imagine that you’ve just signed Cristiano Ronaldo from Real Madrid for £100 million.  OK, if you’re really not into the beautiful game, it might be easier to think of David Beckham in his heyday (only better).  You’ve just signed this amazing player and you send him out onto the pitch (a bobbly school playing field) wearing slippers!

Anything wrong with this picture?   Even to the football virgin, this must look like a bad idea – a massive waste of talent. Well, that’s how a lot of businesses treat their staff or, what from now on I’m going to call their talent.  If you don’t value and invest in them, you’re no better than the hapless manager who’s just sent Ronaldo scurrying back to Spain.

Talent is potentially any organisation’s greatest asset.  In fact it’s a real Unique Selling Point, because every person is unique and can’t be replicated, unlike other aspects of your business.  Despite Intellectual Property law, ideas can be reproduced in different guises and protecting this asset can be costly and time-consuming.   But nobody’s going to steal your talent unless you’re careless enough to undervalue them and make it easy for them to flit off to somebody who ‘s going to look after them better.

But, while this may seem blindingly obvious, carelessness abounds and plenty of your rivals and competitors are failing to see the wisdom in this.

On a wider basis, the UK economy has massive issues with the productivity of its workforce.  Assessing the challenges facing us post-Brexit, Tom Kibasi, Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research and Chair of the IPPR Commission on Economic Justice, wrote recently in The Observer: “there is nothing progressive about declining to invest in skills in this country.”  He goes on to say: “Since the financial crisis, productivity growth in the British economy has stalled, leading to a stagnation in living standards for the majority of households.”

Kibasi cites productivity as one of the major problems facing the UK in the coming years.  On a more local level, the Social Enterprise sector doesn’t easily attract talent due to perceptions and a limited ability to pay salaries (although promisingly the so-called Generation Y are much more switched on to ethical trading, so we will hopefully see this change).

If the term ‘talent’ isn’t an easily understood one, how about the word ‘culture’?  Organisations often suffer from a lack of enterprising culture; at Bubble Chamber we hear a lot from social enterprises about the difficulties of introducing a truly entrepreneurial spirit throughout the business and this can hinder the ability to grow.  It also contributes to poor productivity.  Spending on recruitment but not investing (a key word here) in the development and retention of talent can be a real inhibitor to growth.

So, the micro picture reflects the macro one that Tom Kibasi describes in his Observer article. If we really see talent as our biggest asset, yet it is not delivering the desired productivity and has myriad other issues associated with it, what can we do about it?

The answer is simple:

Develop a Talent Strategy

This has three key elements:



and last but not least:


I’d encourage you to watch our video, which is part of Bubble Chamber’s Video Curriculum, for a simple introduction to this.

It’s vital that this is seen as an investment and not a cost, if organisations are to really address the urgent issue of productivity.  People are people but they are much more – they are the talent that is your richest resource, with the skills and values to take your organisation where you want it to go.

Your talent strategy is an essential part of developing an enterprising culture and, if you’re not already addressing it, you should be.

To get an overview of our whole curriculum, and how Talent Strategy fits in, watch the video here.

And do get in touch if you want to discuss any of these ideas further.


Bubble Chamber CIC

The Four Horsemen of Social Enterprise

It may sound a bit over-dramatic to refer to the big issues facing social enterprises as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” but, having spoken to hundreds of social enterprises in the last few years, I feel justified in doing so. These four evils can scythe down everything in their path, stopping you in your tracks and having a serious effect on your impact as an organisation.

What shall we call them? How about:





Not quite as hard-hitting as the original four – Pestilence, War, Famine and Death – but it’s just as deadly when these marauders invade your business.

What do I mean by them?

Well, Confusion is A Lack of Clarity about your strategy and where you’re going as a business. This is the deadliest of all because without it you can’t go much further and your decision-making, your ability to take advantage of opportunities and deliver impact will be clouded by confusion and, ultimately, inaction.

Famine, in a business context, is A Lack of Resource, which means that you just can’t achieve what you want to, even if you’ve got your strategy sorted out. This can apply to time, talent and, of course, money. You have to be fully resourced and sufficiently funded or the going will be, at best, slow and soul-grindingly frustrating. In the absence of having unending resources at your fingertips, it’s vital to maximize those you do have.

Failure can mean lots of things but here I mean it as A Lack of Enterprising Culture. Social Enterprise leaders have expressed to us many times that they sometimes feel alone in developing their business as just that – a business, where sustainability and even, dare I mention it, profit are key features. This problem can be found even among CEOs themselves who, despite the commercial acumen they undoubtedly have, sometimes still shy away from seeing themselves as business leaders.

And, if it’s not coming from the top, you can’t expect anyone else in the organization to be switched on to the harsh realities of surviving in the world of business. A key to tackling this is developing what we call The Core Habits of Enterprise – Effective Communication (Understanding, Being Understood, Challenging and Transforming Conflict), Plan Do Review, Personal Productivity, Coaching and Being Comfortable with Numbers.

And then Ineffectiveness is A Lack of Social Impact. We’re all in the social enterprise sector because we want to make a difference but how easy is it to prove that you’ve done that?   You can work incredibly hard over many long hours but what does it all amount to in the end? What we find is that there is a lack of clarity on how social impact is actually defined and measured. I’m not talking about spending 1000s on measurement, just something that is appropriate for the scale and complexity of your organisation. Understanding the impact and change will ultimately ensure you deliver better quality services and provide the evidence for your communications and for funders, when you’re seeking investment.

So, taking all of these issues together, we can see that good intentions are all very well but are not enough. They have to be backed up by systematic planning and a set of solid foundations that mean your business is sustainable and the difference you make is real and long-lasting.

Where do these Four Big Issues come from, you may ask? I haven’t made them up. Talking to many, many social enterprise leaders over the last few years, my colleague Ben and I have heard these concerns repeated again and again. On Purpose, who also work with social enterprise leaders, have based their CEO Programme around very similar concerns, based on research they’ve carried out on the sector.

These issues stand out as the biggest challenges that face social enterprises and come from real-life entrepreneurs who are struggling to make that vital difference. So often, soc ent leaders we talk to are in danger of becoming disheartened or overwhelmed by these all-pervading issues.

And these challenges are not confined to the social enterprise sector. All business leaders face them and that is a vital point to remember: Soc Ents are in the same boat as everyone else and trying to survive the same conditions that entrepreneurs are facing in the commercial arena. The aims may be slightly different but we’re all subject to the same forces of nature in all its destructive power.

These Four Horsemen of Social Enterprise have given us the pillars of what we do at Bubble Chamber.   Our approach to business growth is founded on:

  • clarity of purpose (the starting point for everything that follows)
  • developing an enterprising culture throughout the organization
  • scaling up and becoming sustainable
  • delivering social impact

If you can hear the distant thundering of hooves, don’t ignore them but talk to us about the tools we use to help you un-horse these devilish riders and build a positive and effective future.

PS  If you’re wondering about the picture, it’s from the 1921 film The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse but it could have been taken in some offices we’ve visited!

Why Clarity is Key

“Right, turn right. No, left. OK, go to the end of this road and do a U-turn and then go round the roundabout at the end. No, better turn left before then and squiggle through the windy bit of road in front of you. Ignore the tree in front of you or go round it, either way cross over the motorway (make sure nothing’s coming) and go down the fifth hill on your right until you come to a sharp bend. Well, not so much a bend as a slight incline (not that an incline is the same thing as a bend but you know what I mean).”

NO I DON’T!!!!!!

Imagine a car sat nav that gave instructions like that. You might feel that yours does sometimes but, let’s be honest, most of the time your mechanical voice can get you from A to B without too many mishaps.

Clear instructions are vital to completing your journey, and so it is with business. Without clarity it’s very hard to achieve what you want to achieve. Being clear enables you and all your stakeholders to go on the journey together and arrive where you need to be at the same time.

At Bubble Chamber, we set great store by clarity, so I guess I’d better be clear in what I’m going to say or I’m going to lose all credibility! Let’s start with a dictionary definition:

Clarity: The quality of being coherent and intelligible

Synonyms: lucidity, clearness, perspicuity, intelligibility, comprehensibility, coherence, simplicity, plainness, lack of ambiguity, precision

All of these qualities are important for excellent communication, both internally and to the world at large. But it all starts with you, as the leader, being personally clear – clear on what you’re trying to achieve (the big result – purpose, vision and values) and on how you’re going to achieve it (via your strategies).

A sat nav can only offer you a clear route when it has a defined start and end point and you know your mode of transport.

It sounds simple but it’s extraordinary how many people get so immersed in the minutiae of their everyday tasks that they lose the clarity of their greater vision and the reason they began in the first place.

And how often do we think we’re being clear when we’re not? We need to be constantly challenged on this subject, so that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking: “It’s not me, it’s the others. I’m always clear”.

And if you are lacking clarity, you can bet that everyone around you is not clear on what you mean. It seems so basic and yet it can be so difficult to achieve.

In fact, only once you achieve that clarity of purpose (why you exist), vision (what you want to achieve) and values (how you act along the way), can you even start to design the strategies needed to reach sustainable growth and maximize your impact.

In other words, if (and maybe especially if) you are some way into your journey, it may be time to step back and check how clear you are being about your intentions and the way you communicate them.

If you want your social enterprise sat nav to tell you “proceed at an appropriate pace on the road ahead of you, avoiding hazardous obstacles and arriving where you want to be with perfect timing”, talk to us at Bubble Chamber about developing clarity for yourself and your organisation.

Bubble Chamber CIC

Running, Learning and Kipling

Since my last blog a few weeks ago, the miles and my training programme have certainly been cranking up. One more big run at 22 miles and then I can enjoy the taper (alternatively known as legitimately doing little exercise!).

Since my football rant the big news is that Newcastle FC have belatedly employed a new manager who has a track record for knowing what he’s doing. He has a purpose and vision for how the team should play and that’s a big relief. I’m not sure how the board finally got there (as usual they made a complete horlicks of getting to the point), but I hope that ripping up the old blueprint lasts. It’s taken just eight years to get a strategy – isn’t it amazing what happens when there’s £100 million at stake?

And that’s my last mention of football. I promise. Really.

What was occupying my mind on my last long run was the question of ‘core habits’. I’ve been reading running blogs and taking friends’ advice and there are a number of habits you can develop that give you a chance of being successful (rather than just getting around).

I’ve been focusing on dynamic stretching before starting, having the right breakfast, keeping properly hydrated, giving each run a purpose, then stretching to warm down and using a roller. Wow. Does it really make a difference when you do all of these things? Well, it certainly takes longer to hit the frightening “wall” and I’m not aching so much the next day, so the training plan is definitely getting easier.

It’s the same in enterprise – you can develop a great strategy on paper but the organisation needs to have a number of core habits embedded to make it effective and also to develop an enterprising culture. As well as using Strategy on a Page, here at Bubble Chamber we work with our customers on building these core habits – Plan/Do/Review, time management, coaching, effective meetings, leadership development, feedback, flowcharting and developing confidence in using numbers.

All of these habits are important for embedding strategy into an organisation’s culture but one of the key ones that stands out for me is the Plan/Do/Review (PDR) cycle, which comes from David Kolb’s experiential learning cycle. A number of different variations – Plan/Do/Study/Act (or you can swap Study for Check) – are credited to Dr. W. Edwards Deming, who is considered by many to be the father of modern quality control.

For me, PDR is the key for learning within an organisation as it ensures a consistent approach to all projects (however big or small), ensuring a clear focus and a reduction in wasted effort. It maximises enthusiasm and effectiveness.

PDR is simply a description of the key steps that have to happen in the correct order within a learning process. It starts with a Plan, setting out what you want to do. Then the Doing of that plan takes place, followed by the Review of the results. Then, based on the review, you update the plan to start the cycle again.

This is a universal tool that is always of use, from the smallest plan to the biggest. The steps are always the same; it is simply their scale and complexity that changes with the size of the project. I never thought I would refer to Kipling in a business blog BUT any plan can be created by answering the following key questions, often referred to as Kipling’s six honest men.

“I keep six honest serving men
 (They taught me all I knew); their names are What and Why and When
 and How and Where and Who”.

In most cases, the answers can be written on one page. On the occasions when that isn’t possible the questions stay the same but the answers simply require more detail. Always start with the Why, then the What, Who, When and Where in that order before diving into the detailed How.

But also ask “why?” at the end of each question as a double check to ensure everything references the original purpose. It is always possible that details will be added to these questions once the How is fleshed out but doing it in this order gives the How maximum focus and lessens the chances that key elements will be missed.

In my last last blog, I highlighted the why/purpose as being at the heart of any strategy (defined as a plan for a major result). Personally, I like the one page approach for any strategy or project, as it really gets you to clarify your answers and be clear on your direction of travel.

I’ve been around the learning cycle for my running training a number of times now and, although you can know the theory and have a good plan, I’ve found there is the issue of having the ‘talent’ to deliver it!

And there’s suffering a little of Albert Einstein’s famous saying to consider as well:

“Insanity – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

So, back to the training plan and the accumulation of those hard miles….

My next blog will be on Talent Dynamics.

Running (Your Organisation) with Purpose

So, somehow my brother-in-law persuaded me to run a marathon this year. Beer and bravado probably had something to do with it. Now, I’m not built like your traditional runner but I’m really enjoying some serious mileage each week.

Apart from the physical challenge there’s the mental aspect of cranking out those miles. To help with this I went back to a book I read a number of years ago called ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’, a classic by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. He’s a bit of a legend: 25 marathons, 11 novels and some crazy ultra marathons.

I’ve decided to take a proverbial leaf out of the book – that is if you substitute being a novelist for being a social enterprise coach and consultant.

When working with organisations, we always start with the personal and organisational purposewhy are we doing this? If we don’t get this right then the business is simply not going to work. So, taking some of my own medicine, I’ve had to think about why I’m running, if I’m to have half a chance of getting through this marathon and that scary thing called the ‘wall’. I realised I need to get some focus.

Craziness, fitness, raising money for charity, challenging myself & wanting to get a faster time than my brother-in-law are a number of reasons that spring to mind. But thinking this through, it’s not clear as some or all of these are relevant and valid reasons.

This is a common mistake organisations make when they are not clear and have too many “whys”. When pushed, I would say the main reason for me to run is that, having got to the other side of 40, I want to challenge myself. Having defined this, I now know that I should be planning for the THE BIG RESULT, that is the marathon.

Back in Enterprise life, if you know why you are doing something, where you want to go to (Vision), and where you are positioning yourself in the market, then devising a growth strategy becomes a lot easier.

A good organisational example of not knowing why they exist, which is close to my heart, is that of Newcastle United Football Club. From a fan’s perspective, the club has been directionless for about eight years now. Some would say they do know the “why” – the club just acts as a shop front or giant billboard for Sports Direct and the owner’s passion.

Other “whys” include making as much money as possible (another passion) through buying cheap young players with high sell-on values, while just staying in the Premiership and getting stupid amounts of TV money. And, at the same time, cutting the costs of running the club to the bone.

Another key thing about purpose is aligning it with the different stakeholders involved. In Newcastle’s case, the fans want a team that at least tries, provides some entertainment and is a good representation of the region. The players know it is just a stepping-stone to getting sold to another club, so there’s no loyalty. Fans, players and the people who run the club all have different purposes.

The result of this? Well if you know the current state of football, you can look at Newcastle and see we’ve got one giant mess of an organisation! Not knowing the “why” has led to numerous mistakes in sales, marketing, operational, finance and people strategies.

The club is certainly not growing. The owner and board do not understand the marketplace. Even the owner’s purpose of using the club as a shop front for Sports Direct seems less than logical, as a poorly run and performing club is not the best brand advertisement. Or so it seems to me.

Well, rant over – perhaps a long run this weekend will run it off. Another 18 miles to ponder all things Strategy and Social Enterprise!

Work On Your Business, Not In It

What you need to do is start working ON your business NOT IN it.

This is a growing catchphrase used by business coaches and consultants who are trying to help CEOs scale their social enterprises. Hands up, I’m guilty as charged here as well!

When you work with CEOs and leaders on strategy you will hear the excuses:

“I haven’t had time to do that”

“This and this came up that I had to sort out”

“I need to cancel a meeting” etc.

Working in the business, wanting to make the organisation run smoothly at an operational level, working directly with end users and getting stuck in to solve problems for the team is a great thing for a leader.

However this approach is not sustainable if you want to grow the impact of your organisation. To grow requires a real strategic lead and the headspace to look and work on the business. Otherwise you will be for forever firefighting, which can still allow growth but not to the scale and impact that is possible.

So what can you do as a leader to start to make this transition, to create time and get off the treadmill?

1. Get the right team in place

How does the old saying go – the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

All the best leaders surround themselves with a great team. This will give you confidence to take that step back knowing that the organisation is being well run and you have empowered the team to take ownership.

Often overlooked is the importance of succession planning despite its potential benefits to the organisation; this should not just be for the leader but all key staff. The process ticks the boxes for keeping it strategic, fresh, innovative and is great for staff development.

2. Prioritise and delegate

Two key things to master but we are also notoriously bad at – prioritisation and delegation. All leaders at some stage would have gone through a prioritisation test or exercise at interview, obviously doing very well at the time but then forgetting the principles when actually starting the job.

The art of delegation – choose the right tasks to delegate, identify the right people to delegate to, and delegate in the right way.

3. Give yourself permission

Easier said than done and perhaps this should be No 1. This is all about giving you the emotional permission to take a step away from the business to focus on the strategic direction. I think this is especially hard for a founder who’s in a leadership role. But, if you have all the other support blocks described in place, then this will be easier to do.

4. Reconnect with your actual role

Have a look at your job description sometime – what does it actually say? It will probably have words like strategic, leadership, developing new business, building key relationships etc. – not firefighting in the business!

5. Write it down

We are all intelligent people but for some reason, we try and keep the ideas and plans in our heads. This takes up a lot of emotional energy; it takes time to keep it there and can be stressful. A plan needs to be written down so it can be shared with a wide range of internal and external stakeholders.

The strategy does not have to be complex; it shouldn’t be like reading a copy of War and Peace. A good plan can be written down in 10 pages or less. It needs to be accessible, actually used and updated on a regular basis.

Our Strategy on a Page is an even more economic way of presenting the absolute essentials of planning and guiding your enterprise concisely and with laser-like precision.

So, get the proverbial helicopter out and have a look at what is going on in and out of your organisation – it’s a flight worth investing in.