It Ain’t What You Do.

The best leaders focus, almost exclusively, on culture.

Culture is the way your business behaves. Especially when no one is looking.

Culture is the attitude with which your team comes to work, it is the generosity of spirit they do or don’t show to their coworkers; it is, as a whole, is the way you as a group of people think, act and interact.

It’s not what you say. It’s what you do.

And this matters, a great deal, because culture is how, as a leader, you actually get things done.

If you have a positive, can-do culture that is generous, permissive and creative then your vision for your business – your ‘Shining City On A Hill’ – is so much more likely to be realised.

Without it, your ideas – no matter how ‘good’ – will remain just that; ideas.

Because, as the song says, in the end, it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.

That’s what get results.

Monticello LLP

All By Myself.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret…

… I hate group work, and the truth is, so do most people.

Group work is a frustrating part of human existence.

On the one hand, most of our species’ major accomplishments would never have been achieved without it; we are, compared to our primate cousins, quite vulnerable to attack and starvation with our relatively hairless skin, small muscles, thin claws, and weak jaws. Instead, we use the power of numbers.

Though the advent of social media has highlighted again the continued salience of Dunbar’s number, we rarely note that our primate cousins tend to maintain smaller groups. Collaboration is part of what makes us so unique, part of what helped ancient humans to survive and even thrive – no one ever took down a mammoth on their own.

However, humans are also frighteningly likely to be killed by other humans – and most often, by other humans they already know. Indeed, humans are the second most deadly (to other humans) animal, just behind mosquitos.

Being a social animal is inherently dangerous, and human history can be told through incidents of interpersonal, intercommunal, and international conflicts.

Ok, you say – but what has this got to do with group work?

Think about your recent experience: you’ve probably had to pull together a team to go after a big client, case, or project, hoping that your collective skill and knowledge will improve your outcomes.

At the same time, one recent survey found that 40 percent of people who have been part of a team in the workplace have seen or been involved in a verbal confrontation amongst team members. Another 15 percent have seen an argument turn physical.

Being part of a team is part of being human – it has clear, evolutionary benefits, but it also has real drawbacks including the risk of conflict. I want to suggest that it is time to question the assumptions we have about the role of teamwork in organizations, namely, that the benefits generally outweigh the risks.

The idea that teamwork and collaboration are necessary skills is instilled in us very young through several vectors. We are socialized to play together and punished when we don’t share.

Starting in grade school we begin to force group learning, even when it may be detrimental to the development of other skills. It’s not just that group work encourages something called ‘social loafing’ but that it actively disrupts other cognitive functions that are linked to things like critical thinking and memory.

Whilst it seems clear that collaboration does add value to work in some ways, for instance, by increasing the diversity of thought, perspective, experience, and ways of thinking brought to bear against the defined problem or opportunity – studies suggest that this diversity can be more effectively harnessed by asking members of a group to ideate and contribute separately, and to review together.

For instance, whilst it is true that a group will remember, on the whole, more shapes on a paper than individuals alone, if you pool those same individual’s results after the fact and control for overlap, you will find that they have remembered more shapes than the group.

Apply this to a group project in which a team is asked to produce several creative ideas.

A group with 5 members might come up with 10 ideas versus an individual’s 2 – but ask those individuals to generate their own best ideas, and you may well end up with a pool of 15 solid contributions, with each individual generating 3 ideas. Your final pool still includes all of the diversity of thinking, but it is more efficient and effective because it places more responsibility on the individual for the outcome.

Sure, the group environment should theoretically lend itself to a natural competition that encourages the best of those 15 ideas to get whittled down to a more manageable number.

Only, that’s rarely how group hierarchies work. Instead, your most senior, or most strident, employee will dominate the selection process to the detriment of quieter colleagues, and to the detriment of your final product.

So how do we maximize teamwork, and when should we really use it?

Research increasingly suggests that working in a team is not as important as the makeup of the team itself. For example, social psychologists suggest that teams need to mix demographics as well as types of thinkers and types of socializers. More concretely, this means that you not only need to consider things like gender, education, and even social class, but also:

  • Familiarity – teams do best when they know each other and interact frequently both in and outside of work. This doesn’t mean, however, that teams need to work face-to-face to be functional. In fact, in 2009, a research team led by Frank Siebdrat assessed the performanceof 80 software companies around the world and found that more dispersed teams often outperformed “co-located” teams
  • Extroverts & Introverts – you need both for a team to function, but you have to balance their inputs effectively. Extroverts have a tendency to dominate.
  • Big Picture v. Analytical Thinking – like introverts and extroverts, an effective team needs both. Expect tension.

As the list above suggests, just bringing the right people together isn’t enough. You have to ensure that they are being directed in such a way as to be successful. For instance:

  • Ensure that everyone contributes equally. Human collaboration is based on the principle of equal participation, and we have evolved to want to socially select against ‘cheaters’, despite being incentivized by social work to shirk responsibility. Call it ‘tragedy of the commons’ or ‘social loafing’ – it’s a conundrum. Don’t let your employees fall into it.
  • Ensure that communications channels are clear and delineated – either everyone uses a virtual workspace, or they all use phone calls. They all meet in person, or they communicate via email. Whatever the mode – keep it consistent. Do not fragment communications over various platforms or you will encourage tribalism within the group.
  • Encourage camaraderie – include jokes in emails, silly videos, whatever it is that gets your team laughing together and producing happy hormones to encourage bonding. We don’t groom one another anymore, but human closeness requires the release of bonding hormones like oxytocin. If you aren’t prepared to pick fleas, brush up on your funny cat memes.
  • Don’t force introverts out of their comfort zone. Introverts are critical to groups because they process inwardly. They often see trends and insights before extroverts, who are outward processors. We’ve been socialized to believe that extroverts are better team players than those who keep to themselves – wrong. Moreover, remember that introverts’ social status tends to be lower, initially, than extroverts. Over time this is likely to even out, but ensure your team lead knows how to make space for introverts to contribute without being dominated by higher status extroverts.
  • Big thinkers need analytical thinkers – don’t let the big idea people force everyone in line with their charisma or social dominance. Analytical thinkers tend to problematize existing options in an attempt to synthesize the best idea on the table. This can be deflating to a big picture person, but it’s critical to group process and keeps groups from falling prey to messianic thinking.

With all of that said – the most important thing to consider is that it may just be time to stop valorizing group work. Sure, most companies are interactive and social environments – but we don’t need social solutions to every workplace challenge.

Moreover, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of believing that we must force employees beyond their comfort zones for their own personal development. Some of the best teams are those that self select, and some of the best work is produced by individuals working alone or in collaboration with one or two trusted advisors.

We inherently know this because most of us recognize the frustrations of team work – but as a society (and possibly, as a species) we feel obligated to replicate the social pattern.

It’s time to stop, and really think about what it is we are trying to accomplish.

It may be that group work should be reserved for secondary brainstorms. Ask employees to bring a list of prepared ideas before a group unless you want the brainstorm itself to limit the participation of less outspoken, lower status members.

Group work can function well when the list of tasks is easily divisible, and individual objectives and responsibilities are tailored to member’s unique strengths and made very clear.

And at the end of the day, group work just doesn’t work for every employee. Instead of seeing group work as normative and necessary, it should be seen as just one modality, of many, through which work can be accomplished.

Before you divide up, ask yourself if the work really needs group input, or if individually driven ideation and collaboration will get better results.

Most importantly, if you can’t take the time to make sure the group is filled with the right people, working in the right way – than it’s not worth the conflict it is likely to produce.

After all, we aren’t hunting mammoths anymore.

Melyn McKay is a sociocultural anthropologist and a partner with Monticello LLP



Reclaim your creativity, amplify it and energise your team with Monticello’s  ‘Imagine….’ one-day programme.


  • why creative thinking is imperative in the 21st Century
  • the different types of creativity, and why they matter
  • the tools you can use to unlock your own inherent creative ability
  • suggestions and tips on how to build creative team cultures

This one-­day intensive learning course (with half-­day follow up) is ideal for everyone who feels that their workplace could do with more creative thinking. We’ll give you and your team the skills and confidence you need to take innovation into the heart of your business.

The day breaks down into three key sections, each with a specially designed ‘starter’, and ‘key activity’ ensuring maximum skills transfer as we build practical know-how that endures.

The session is led by Jamie Colonna – the award-winning creative genius behind some the UK’s most iconic advertising campaigns – and Nick Jefferson from Monticello LLP, the London-based advisory firm with a track record in delivering lasting, positive change to corporations around the world.

The programme is suitable for up to 10 participants.

To book dates, email

Monticello LLP


Not Afraid.

There are cowards everywhere, of course. In every industry.

You’d have perhaps thought there might be fewer in an industry that requires creative leadership.

But it turns out that this isn’t the case. Au contraire, in fact.

I once worked for a coward. He was a marketer, a ‘creative’ in fact, and he just couldn’t take decisions.

As a result, his agency became a festering pit of the juvenile politics of ego. A court, per Machiavelli’s Prince, but where everyone ends up playing the jester. This tedious situation was compounded by the fact that, disgracefully, it was all so obvious to both the agency’s junior staff and clients.

Not cool. But, more to the point, not necessary either.

Taking decisions as a leader, perhaps especially a marketing leader, is the job.

That’s it.

If you can’t take decisions then you are in the wrong job. This is doubly so if that job is in marketing where someone, ultimately, needs to back an idea and then rally the world, internal and external, around it.

A chap called Marcus Buckingham, in his book, The One Thing You Need To Know, argues that the number one priority of leaders should be to offer clarity. For him, leaders have a duty to set out beyond a shadow of a doubt where they stand, and what they will or will not tolerate.

This duty of clarity is so acute, says Buckingham, because it is what those being led want. They want this, he asserts, more than they want anything else at all – including liking or agreeing with whatever is being said.

In this thinking, he is in good company. Earlier this year, I read Boris’ brilliant biography of Churchill.

One of the (many) striking things about our wartime Prime Minister was the extent to which he was ready to make decisions; especially the hard ones.

The Mayor of London rates this characteristic very highly: I remember some years ago, in a wide-ranging interview he gave to the Evening Standard, he himself was quoted as saying:

“People don’t care what decision you make, they just bloody well want a decision”

Take a second to consider the most effective leader you can think of – business, political, even social. Is that person clear?

Indeed, would you go so far as to say that being clear – even when that clarity drives you crazy – is one of their defining characteristics?

In making and implementing clear decisions, one way or another, leaders set the agenda. Especially when it comes to marketing. It may not be an agenda that others like, but at least it gives them something to react to.

Even die-hard opponents of an idea ultimately tend to want a clear decision: it gives them something tangible to be “against”. Take a decision, good or bad, and one way or another you set the agenda.

Dither, and watch others set your agenda for you.

Fear is leadership’s sworn enemy.

And creativity’s kryptonite.

Monticello LLP

– this piece first published by The Marketing Society

I’ve Got Hurt Feelings.

I’m offended.

I’m offended by all the people who keep saying they’re offended.

Actually, I’m just bored of it. Really bored of it.

‘Outraged’ and ‘offended’ are the mots de nos jours.

Hypertense, strangulated tones surround us. It’s like everyone in the country is engaging in their own equivalent of being the nutter at the bar; coiled springs goading you into spilling their pint so they can feign ‘offence’ and have a swing at you.

Being offended is the opposite of being tolerant.

And tolerance is the goose that lays the creative golden egg.

Tolerance is a precondition to novation; the willingness to think that little bit differently, to accept new ideas from new places. It’s what produces genuinely fresh thinking.

Orwell’s Big Brother knew that if he stifled freedom of speech, he ultimately stifled freedom of thought, which in turn would mean no creativity – just what he wanted. ISIL are trying to pull the same stunt, albeit more clumsily, barbarously and murderously.

Thankfully, the history of the world is pretty clear that murderously intolerant regimes like ISIL, whilst brutal and hugely damaging, just do not last over the long term.

The same is true of corporations run on an overzealous ‘command-and-control’ model. They ultimately break down.

This is because humans need something different.

We need to feel that they can thrive. Together, for sure, but also as individuals.

Smart leaders, political, religious and corporate, know this. And they create structures and cultures that enable and underpin tolerance.

Ironically, perhaps, given ISIL’s desire to recreate the ‘Caliphate’, the ‘Golden Age of Islam’ was one of the most tolerant civilisations ever. And it was because of this that muslims were able to dominate, over centuries, an empire that stretched from what is now Iraq in the east to Southern Europe in the west.

The Caliphs of the Golden Age deliberately filled their jasmine-scented, fountain-adorned courts with astronomers, doctors, mathematicians, physicists, philosophers and thinkers of all kindsl

They tolerated other ideas, other religions – not pointlessly, but because they recognised that the resultant technologies and truths that would emerge from such tolerance could be leveraged to ever-strengthen power and dominance.  They saw that progress, development and growth were good: good for individuals, and so good for society overall, and so good for its leaders too.

Historically, at least, we Brits have also been famous for our tolerance. And there can be little doubt of the extent to which this fuelled the success of our own empire too.

We Brits don’t like the state-knows-best dirigisme earnestly pursued by some of our European neighbours. We prefer instead to put our faith in the eccentric ingenuity of our (often odd, and quirky) people.

Tolerance is the Magna Carta; tolerance is John Stuart Mill, the Non-Conformists, the Suffragettes, Alan Turing, Quentin Crisp, Sid Vicious and Vivienne Westwood.

Tolerance is the creation, lauding and awarding of a TV spot that would never even get thought of in the US, let alone commissioned.

Tolerance is Britain and Britain is tolerance.

Tolerance is what makes cultures – national, tribal, corporate – truly sustainable.

So let’s stop ‘being offended’ and start ‘being tolerant’; reclaim it as our own.

Apart from anything else, tolerance makes the world a kinder, more fun and inextricably more creative place.

Nick Jefferson is a partner with advisory firm, Monticello LLP, and a curator of The Library of Progress.


Why Do You Build Me Up, Buttercup?

‘What on earth do you think you’re doing?,’ snarled the imperious, plump little woman from behind her clipboard.

‘Hi’, my friend grinned. ‘Just taking a picture of the brilliant model’, he said, genuinely. For he wasn’t just anywhere. He was deep within his employer’s ‘Creativity Lab’.

(Let the record show that the ‘Creativity Lab’ is no ordinary corporate workspace. Oh no. No grey furniture, no drab pastels here. The ‘Creativity Lab’ is all brightly coloured bean bags, and squidgy balls; PostIt notes and trail-mix.)

And there, in the heart of what to the outside world might have looked like a regular corporate meeting room hurriedly filled with some hideously clichéd ‘creative’ accoutrements (because it was), was the offending model.

I’ve seen the picture. It was, indeed, brilliant: a searing tower of Meccano excellence. You could say it was the poster child (at least for this corporation) of what the ‘Creativity Lab’ was all about – the chance to break out, to explore a different way, to offer and experience a flash of colour (and perhaps even insight) in an otherwise dull world.

And yet the beady-eyed little woman was aghast.

‘Did you make that? No one is supposed to use the Meccano. It makes a real mess of the room. We can’t have that. You’ll need to dismantle it. Straightaway.’

Her brusque tone left no doubt in my pal’s mind. She definitely wasn’t joking.

But she should have been.

Making your corporate culture one that is more creative is not a luxury. It is business critical. In the 21st Century, success, in part, is defined by how differently you can think.

That mindset has to come from within. Each person in your business needs to live it, breathe it; nurture it. The fragile flower of creativity needs the light and warmth of tolerance, diversity and fun in order to grow. Not the suffocation of the Poujadiste, risk-averse, computer-says-no mentality of an idiot with a clipboard.

The whole idea of a ‘Creativity Lab’ is, for my money, absurd. Creativity does not have a ‘place’, for a start.

But if you are going to ram A. N. Other meeting room choc-a-bloc with things that you earnestly (if misguidedly) believe are going to make your people more ‘creative’, then, erm, shouldn’t you at least let them use them?

Nick Jefferson is a partner with Monticello LLP, the advisory firm working across Brand, Culture and Digital, and a curator of The Library of Progress.


Let It Go. Let It Go. And I’ll Rise Like The Break Of Dawn.

One of our partners, Nick Jefferson, was recently invited to speak to a group of the world’s most powerful Chief Procurement Officers.

Here is the text of what he said…….

‘Tonight I’d like to talk to you a little about the ‘3Cs’:

  • Culture
  • Creativity
  • Communication

Continue reading “Let It Go. Let It Go. And I’ll Rise Like The Break Of Dawn.”

Heigh-Ho! Heigh-Ho! It’s Off To Work We Go.

The typical successful American probably isn’t, in reality, any more productive than your typical successful Brit, or any other nationality for that matter.

But what is different is the propensity within a certain strand of our cousins across the pond to talk about work; seemingly at every possible opportunity.
Continue reading “Heigh-Ho! Heigh-Ho! It’s Off To Work We Go.”

Night Divides The Day.

My poor family.

As if mile upon mile of Pacific Coast Highway with only the ‘Tapping Game’ (a spectacularly under-rated form of in-automobile entertainment in which ‘Tappees’ barely notice the hours as they try to guess which particular tune the ‘Tapper’ is knocking out on the dashboard, window, etc) to break up the boredom wasn’t bad enough, yesterday I subjected them to over an hour of ‘Speaking Personally: Aldous Huxley.’

Continue reading “Night Divides The Day.”

I Don’t Know Where The Lights Are Taking Us. But Something In The Night Is Dangerous.

The middle of nowhere takes a long time to get to.

Especially when it’s in Devon, and you’re in London.

But it was worth it. Continue reading “I Don’t Know Where The Lights Are Taking Us. But Something In The Night Is Dangerous.”

‘Let Them Eat Cake’, She Says. Just Like Marie Antoinette.

Some say the centre of Paris is prettier than the centre of London. That may or may not be true. What is true is that physically Paris has changed a lot less than its British counterpart in the last 150 years.

Continue reading “‘Let Them Eat Cake’, She Says. Just Like Marie Antoinette.”

I Am He As You Are He As You Are Me. And We Are All Together.

In 2013, at least on one reading, the heart of the creative world was knifed; violently, and by one of its own.

Continue reading “I Am He As You Are He As You Are Me. And We Are All Together.”