‘The best idea in the world is useless if you can’t sell it,’ says Ross Lovelock. He learned that the hard way in his 20s at Pepsi, when he was forced to scrap the ‘data dump’ he’d put together as a strategic plan for his sales unit and rework it as a story to present to the President of PepsiCo.
He realised pretty quickly that nobody was teaching people how to do this work: not just to assemble the facts, but to interpret them, articulate the problem, find the solution and craft the whole into a persuasive narrative to sell the solution upwards.
That’s why he set up SCQuARE, a strategic consultancy that supports clients to build the complete plan and present it effectively. And out of this journey too came first the self-published book Getting Everyone on the Same Page and then The One Thing You Need to Know, published by Wiley. Not bad for the kid who left school at 16.
In this episode, Ross sets out his own extraordinary journey and the secrets of taking your idea and turning it into a story you can sell to the world.
SCQuARE on Twitter: https://twitter.com/SCQUAREInt
SCQuARE International: http://www.scquareinternational.com/
Alison Jones: Hello, and welcome to The Extraordinary Business Book Club. Today I’m here with Ross Lovelock and I am actually, genuinely here with Ross Lovelock. We’re sitting in Liphook in Hampshire together. You might hear a little bit of ambient traffic noise behind us. Liphook is busier than I expected. Ross is the author of “Getting Everyone on the Same Page” and “The One Thing You Need To Know.” He’s also the founder of SCQuARE, a strategic thinking and story telling tool, and we’re going to be asking him more about that.
So, welcome to the Club Ross.
Ross Lovelock: Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here.
Alison Jones: Really, really nice to have you here.
Tell me a little bit about SCQuARE and how it all came about to kick off with?
Ross Lovelock: Well, it’s been in existence now since February 1994. How it all came about dates back to a Friday afternoon in 1982, during my time at PepsiCo. I’d been at Pepsi six months which I still look back as the single biggest break of my whole life. As I’d managed to successfully screw up my education, and my career took a somewhat difficult start to get going. I then managed to get into the world of sales, got in with Nestle and then out of the blue came a call from PepsiCo and it literally was like joining Real Madrid football club at the time. The first six months were great and then one Friday afternoon, I was responsible for the sales development of what’s called the Impulse channel, basically outlets that were not major supermarkets such as the Tesco or an Asda or pubs or clubs. Small Spar, Londis, shops on the corner.
My boss came in on this Friday afternoon and said, “I’ve just got the news that Craig Weatherup the divisional president globally of Pepsi, is going to visit the UK in October and he wishes to see the strategic plan for the Impulse Channel, UK. So could you get something prepared for an European management review in three weeks time”. With that he said, “Have a nice weekend.”
Alison Jones: The strategic plan was all ready to go, yeah?
Ross Lovelock: The strategic plan… I looked at it and my first question was “What the hell is a strategic plan?” Where do you start, where do you finish? Why would I know, I was 27 out of a sales background. So I did what everybody else did, which was looked at the plans that had been written by colleagues and sort of copied the format. I knew a lot about the Impulse channel hence the reason I was employed. I knew how many outlets there were, I knew what the pricing the structure was versus coke, distribution systems versus coca-cola etc, etc but what I didn’t know was what to do with this information.
So I compiled it and I presented it to not my boss but my boss’s boss who was an ex-McKinsey Management Consultant, a great guy by the name of Peter Kendall. Then two days later, this plan, long before PowerPoint as you might appreciate, 1982, two days this plan came back and it had red lines through it like my English teacher use to do at primary school and the comment was “This is not a strategic plan, this is little more than a data dump, re-do.” So I went from confused to worried but I had the tenacity, if you like, to go and see Peter and I said “You’re clearly not happy.” He said “Of course, I’m not happy, it’s just data.” I said “Peter, it’s like this: I’m 27 from a sales background, you’re in your mid ’30s from the McKinsey background, if you don’t help me one of three things is going to happen.” He said “What’s that?” I said “Well, either I’m going to get fired, you’re going to get fired, or we’re both going to get fired.” I said “You’ve got to help me Peter, I know everything there is to know but I don’t know what to do with this information, what is a plan?”
So I give the guy his due, I’ll be forever grateful, we spent two days and we re-structured all of this information but the most important lesson I took out of this is we didn’t get another piece of data. We restructured the information, we critically interpreted it and then we put it back together again into a narrative that represented a story. It looked so good that unbelievably they said to me “Well, good stuff Ross, you can now present this to Craig Weatherup.”
So I’m now 27, right, with no education, presenting to the President of PepsiCo International on October, 13th, a day I shall never forget. It went extraordinarily well. At the end of the year review, I actually got promoted to be recognised as one of the high-flying young managers and got the job as general manager of PepsiCo, Ireland which was for aspiring managers. My boss’s boss, Peter Kendall got promoted to be the vice president of Northern Europe.
Alison Jones: That was the fourth outcome.
Ross Lovelock: That was the fourth outcome. This was the start point of 10 great years at Pepsi and my career started to go and soar and then I went from Ireland, to general manager at Holland, to vice president in Northern Europe and then to vice president for half of the Middle East. During this period I learnt what Peter had taught me and I got better and better at it, but I would watch young people come into our company – from great companies like Mars and Procters with really good education backgrounds – and I would watch them struggle to do planning and the company would say if you’re going to be successful, the single most important thing is your ability to diagnose any market, any business sector, find the problems, find the right solutions and put it back together again into a story and sell it. They would put that and of course they were correct.
The thing was, they wouldn’t show them how to do it. They would spend a fortune on this is how you stand up and present, this is how you manage each other, lead each other and I’d be saying I’ve got all that guys, thank you but how the hell do we teach both myself and these newcomers to do this critical thing of thinking through problems, finding the solutions and selling them.
Alison Jones: Selling, that’s the critical bit isn’t it because quite often people have really good ideas, they know exactly what they’re doing but they cannot tell the story.
Ross Lovelock: No and the brutal reality is the best idea in the world is useless if you cannot sell it.
Alison Jones: Right.
Ross Lovelock: So this went on and eventually I left Pepsi, they fired me, like they fired everybody eventually. No problem, still my favourite company in the entire world and I came back to the Britain because I’d been overseas with them and I got a bigger job. This time I got recruited as the commercial director of the Milk Marketing Board, seemingly an odd appointment but it was one that was looking for someone with an expertise in planning, which by then I managed to convince somebody I was. The job there was to build a plan that was going to metamorphosize the Milk Marketing Board from what it was, a cooperative organisation into a commercial organisation and that needed the approval of the dairy industry, the farming industry, British government and the European Union.
When I arrived I found that part of the recruitment was that I should know nothing about dairy and they would give me that, they wanted my skills, my planning skills, great. When I got there I found this really great educated group of people. They could tell you everything there was to know about dairy. How many cows there were, where these cows lived, what milk production was from one month to the next, what the pricing would vary during weather periods but what they couldn’t do was tell me what it all meant. We were desperately short of time to build a plan so I went to a colleague of mine and said we need to find a company that can help our people with thinking skills that can marry experts in this subject, experts in that subject and bring some alignment and create a plan that we could sell to all these different people with different interests. Crucial interests from the farmers to the processors to the governments.
The more we went looking for this company, the more we couldn’t find one. I turned round to this guy – Terry Leigh his name was – and I said “Terry, when I was at Pepsi I kept asking Pepsi to provide this skill and they didn’t and now we’ve gone looking and we can’t find it and the reason that we can’t find it is that it doesn’t exist, so I’m going to write it.” So that was about ’91 I came to that conclusion. I then subsequently went and looked up an old McKinsey friend of mine David Hulbert, who I shall be forever grateful for, we talked about the differences between planning and I started work on it.
The first realisation came to my head is that all that people ever look at is the output, you know the final document but actually the final document is 100% driven by the thinking and the one thing you ask people is how do you think and you get silence and so that’s how the journey took off. From there I found a client out of the blue ex-PepsiCo guy and that went well and then the next thing I know I get a phone call at home that says I’ve just bumped into someone that says you’ve found a system that you were good at at Pepsi could you come along and see me (that was at British American Tobacco) and then here we are 24 years later, we’ve worked in 84 countries in the world, for everybody from the big consumer goods companies to pharmaceutical companies to Sportsworld and I guess I had the right idea.
Alison Jones: I’m looking up at the wall as we speak actually and there’s a really impressive gallery of brands that SCQuARE has worked with, it really is impressive. Tell me how the books fit with all that. I know you started the first one which you self published, where did that come from and how does it work with the business?
Ross Lovelock: Well, because if you want to be an expert, you’ve got to have knowing the different mediums which get your message across and as I said I’ve, well not I but the company has now been to 84 different countries in the world, but as the world moves on you’ve got to also provide documentation that people can sit down, read and learn in their own time. People kept saying to me, you need to write a book, where’s you book because they find the lessons in that and the work that we’ve done interesting so I just sat down one day and I found a guy to help me and we decided to construct it purely as a medium that says we own this territory we really are experts of what we’re talking about and if you haven’t got time to work with a corporation or you don’t work for a corporation here is the opportunity to have the same skills that a CEO of a major international company would have.
That went very well the first one. We couldn’t get a publisher.
Alison Jones: This is “Getting Everyone on the Same Page” is it?
Ross Lovelock: Yes. We tried to get a publisher and then we couldn’t. Then five or six years later a couple of publishers stumbled on that book and thought this is rather good, could we meet you and along came Wiley, who I have to say were actually sensationally good and said “Let’s take this book, let’s upgrade it, let’s add one or two things that you’ve learnt since 2007”, let’s create this and along came “The One Thing You Need To Know” and it started very well and again it just reinforces your level of expertise.
Alison Jones: Yeah, interesting and how did you find the difference between the self publishing and being published, how was that for you?
Ross Lovelock: Well, when you’re self publishing you are completely the only sales avenue. When you’re with publishers they’re experts, that’s their field. They can tell you where you’re going to get sales, where you’ll get exposure, how you can promote yourself and as I said Wiley were very good. All of a sudden you’ve got a profile on Amazon, you’ve got the books on Amazon. There are people promoting you and there are people calling you up. When you’re self published you are totally reliant upon yourself. If you’re on holiday, well then the books on holiday.
Alison Jones: Right, brilliant. You talk a lot about telling a story which I thought was interesting because it’s exactly the core of what you do in a sense, it’s equipping people to do the thinking, putting a plan together and then telling the story to sell the plan and of course, that’s what you’re doing in the book as well. You’re telling that story. Why do you think that is such an important skill for business owners?
Ross Lovelock: Well because if you think what is a story, okay it’s the output of something. It’s the output and I may have said earlier that it doesn’t matter what industry you’re in or what you’re doing if you’ve got a great idea and you can’t sell it, it’s no good. The best idea in the world is useless if you cannot sell it, if people can’t buy it.
If you take a look at the great professor from Harvard Howard Gardner, in one of his statements is the key to leadership is the ability to tell a story. I come back to which is my passionate belief all business success is driven by innovations and ideas into the market more successfully and faster than your competition. That generally requires a whole different range of people inside a big organisation to be able to make that decision. To be able to make that decision you’ve got to get alignment okay and if you think about what is a plan, whatever format what is a plan. All a plan is is basically thinking. Ask somebody how they think and you get err silence. Ask somebody what is a PowerPoint presentation and again you get a bit of silence and then someone will say oh it’s this, it’s that and eventually someone will say this is about your thinking. A PowerPoint presentation is no more than the visual output of your thinking. So if your thinking’s flawed okay, the output will be a mess.
So many people misconstrue that their work should be to create… the success of their work is going to be judged by the number of slides, the number of classy PowerPoint, not PowerPoint, pie charts and graphs. No it’s not. The success is to be able to take your thinking, turn it into a narrative of a story that people can understand and that is in a structure like your newspaper, headline to detail, conclusion to data because no one really wants to read. You’ve never seen a newspaper with the word background on it, have you? You haven’t seen a newspaper with the word sport. All they are are geographical signposts. Newspapers tell stories brilliantly. A well-constructed newspaper, you actually can just see what’s happening in the world in the last 24 hours in a matter of minutes and the same logic should apply in the way that you tell a story and write a presentation.
Alison Jones: And actually to carry that analogy on a little bit further, it’s not just the pure facts they’re reporting in the story, they’re giving it a spin, that’s what the editorial slant in the newspaper is all about isn’t it and in a sense you’re doing that as well you’re not just presenting facts, you’re giving your interpretation of them and aiming to evoke a response of some particular kind in your listener?
Ross Lovelock: Well, I’ll tell you a story, I’ll tell you a story, right. We have an expression which is data without interpretation is useless, it’s like a chocolate teapot, utterly useless. I began this interview by saying I got kicked out of school at 16 so I am no academic, quite the contrary but I’ve learnt as I’ve gone along and the books that I’ve learnt, the way that we think is the opposite way round to the way that we assimilate information. We think deductively, we think a=b, b=…, therefore c=a and b but we actually assimilate the opposite way round. It all adds up to c because a=b. The mistake that people make is they present that the way they think. What you’ve got to learn to do is to think it all through, draw the conclusion but when you present it back you present conclusion to detail. I go back to the gentleman who gave me this inspiration back in 1982, Peter Kendall. As my career started to go, I put a slide up for him and he stopped. He told me what a nice guy he thought I was, got a good sense of humour and you knew the word but-
Alison Jones: I was just going to say there’s a but just waiting to happen.
Ross Lovelock: He said I am not interested in the way you think. Please Ross just give me the conclusion and then the detail. I can then say, I’ve got it, move on. You are boring the pants off me, don’t and that’s why that’s the importance of the story. You know a story is the output of your thinking. If your thinking’s screwed, the story’s screwed and you won’t get the decision that you so desperately need.
Alison Jones: Of course what often happens as you said yourself, when they’re asked to present a plan or report or something, most people scramble around and find someone else’s and then customise it, so they don’t do that work, building it up from the ground and then telling the story. They just sort of end up swapping in and borrowing ideas and you get less coherence and possibly it damages their own thinking as well?
Ross Lovelock: Then you get the dreaded expression which anyone listening to this will recognise, hmm yes not bad, I’m not sure we’re there yet, I think we need another meeting. CNN did a study of over a billion pounds or some number like that, that was wasted in fruitless, useless meetings in the United States. Another company whose name, I’ve got it somewhere did their own estimate a big company we know 78.8 million was calculated in dollars of lost wage time in useless meetings, all because people don’t know how to put the plan together and sell it in a form of a story that actually enlightens everybody and enables a decision.
Most of these plans or things that generate, I think we need another meeting is because they’re not worthy of having a decision made on them.
Alison Jones: Or they don’t call for a decision, that’s another thing isn’t it. As you say an assemblage of facts and there’s no so what, they don’t take it on?
Ross Lovelock: Here’s an interesting statistic. Some consultant donkeys years ago, did a study that came up with a ratio of 60/1 and asked people what is 60/1 on this particular subject and they had calculated that for every one minute that an audience takes to read a document or for every one minute it takes that person to present that document, there has been on average 60 minutes of thinking gone behind that one minute of output and you think well so what. Well I’ll give you the so what, no person, no company has ever made money out of a plan. You only make money when you execute a plan. So if all of your company’s timings are tied up in meetings that go nowhere, nobody’s making any money. That’s the importance and the passion that we’re still as passionate today as we were when we did this.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. Now story’s is the golden thread if you like of what you’re talking about but you’ve also got some really interesting tactics and I wanted to talk to you about the acronyms in particular. So you’ve got acronyms in the book there’s a great one, BRUTAL, which I really like. But also SCQuARE itself, a lot of the people I’ve spoken to have got mixed feelings about acronyms, tell me why it works for you, why you like them?
Ross Lovelock: Well firstly if I may, I’m not going to contradict you but just sort of say that SCQuARE is not so much an acronym as an mnemonic.
Alison Jones: Okay, yeah.
Ross Lovelock: It is the steps to actually build the complete plan. I come back to something I said previously that data without interpretation is absolutely useless. What SCQuARE is are the steps that are necessary to be able to think your way through from trying to agree the overall aim the setting and start point to what has now changed and complicated matters so what is the question that we now need to address, what is the answer. How do we recommend we execute it and what’s the evidence to support all that. So it’s not so much an acronym as an mnemonic that takes people through there, we’ve now turned that into software that allows that all to work.
The BRUTAL one came out of the creative side of what we do. We’ve got another product that’s called “Break Up” which is about breaking traditional patterns of thinking and where that came from is my loathing of the words “brainstorming sessions”. If I ever go back into business again and I saw somebody going into a meeting and say what are you doing and they say “We’re going to a brainstorming session”, carrying a blank piece of paper, I would fire them. Because brainstorming and creativity is fundamental to everything we do and I love it but you’ve got to be creative against a target. You’ve got to be creative in solving a problem that everybody understands, not just blue-sky thinking for the sake of it.
I was working in Thailand of all places, not very long ago with… I’m not going to name the company but you’d know them very well, they’re a multinational. Asian group of people and one guy said that he’d been to a meeting last year where they had a brainstorming session and they captured it on an Excel spreadsheet and they left with 180 different ideas, that no-one’s ever seen since. So what we did, we said let’s stop this nonsense about brainstorming sessions. When we come up with ideas we need to measure those ideas and about this acronym we call it, the measurement is that they’ve got to be brave critically what BRUTAL stands for Brave, fine, Relevant, Unexpected, Transformational, Ambitious and Liberating.
So when you’re looking at 180 ideas, that’s not “Oh that a good idea, well done sir, or well done madam,” no. Does this work actually measure, will it pass that test of brave, relevant, unexpected, transformational, ambitious and liberating and that’s where we try to get people to. Because being creative, yeah it’s great, I love it but it can also be an easy way out for people.
Alison Jones: With expansive thinking, you need the convergent bit afterwards don’t you to sort of pull it together and say this is what we’re taking forward and this is why?
Ross Lovelock: Yeah, absolutely it really is. Creativity is fundamental and I come back to Einstein is… I wouldn’t say my hero but he’s someone we quote more than anybody. If he had an hour to save the world he said I’d spend 55 minutes to find the problem and 5 minutes on the solution but most people spend all their time on the solution. I’ve had 24 years of doing this job now, if someone asked me what do I see, it always the same. Here’s the solution now let’s if we can find an idea for a problem for it to fix. Pointless, utterly, utterly pointless and that’s why we’ve been so tough. Let’s work out the problem and when we come to the creativity side of it, let’s actually make certain it measures up to the tone of BRUTAL.
Alison Jones: When you’re using BRUTAL and the mnemonic SCQuARE with people, does it help them… is it just about remembering or does it actually help them process the thinking do you think?
Ross Lovelock: Well certainly under SCQuARE it is the tool, it is the tool. It’s now in software as well as on people’s brains and it does, yeah, because data without interpretation as I’ve previously said is useless so you’ve got to separate data. You’ve got to separate data into what is working and what is not working and interpret it against a goal and if you don’t have a methodology to do that, people inadvertently just sink back into, “I think this,” “There’s a great opportunity,” “I think it’d be a good idea,” they’ve lost it. So SCQuARE is fundamental, it’s absolutely fundamental to the way you think your way through problems, and BRUTAL to Breakup, I wouldn’t call it fun but it’s a good measurement.
Alison Jones: It gives you that framework doesn’t it, as you say it holds people, the constraints can really help with thinking otherwise your thinking just tends to evaporate off doesn’t it?
Ross Lovelock: Well it does because you know I just find the whole thing incredible. We are described, the greatest accolade that any company has given us, any person in 24 years is a chairman called Vince Robinson who is now the president of PepsiCo and Nestle USA sales, a Scottish guy. He describes SCQuARE as the traditional management consultant’s worse nightmare and I’m so proud of that, because what he really meant was that the skills that are contained in SCQuARE is what are contained at McKinsey, Accenture, Bain, but our job is to provide those skills so that they use this to write their own plan, so what comes out the other end is their plan and not a consultant’s plan.
To do that you’ve got to employ the same skills that management consultants do and in fairness to management consultants they don’t just walk in with an assignment and get a shotgun out and say there you go, bang one of those will stick. They are forensic and SCQuARE is forensic and if you are going to be successful, you’ve got to be forensic in your analysis, forensic in defining the problem, SCQuARE enables you to do that. If you go off piste, you start to lose it.
Creativity, go all over the place if you like, all over the place. You can be as creative as you want in whatever way you want as long as it’s targeted against the problem and then you measure it against the concept of BRUTAL.
Alison Jones: Brilliant, thank you. What one bit of advice would you give, if somebody is listening to this, they’re deep in the throes of writing their first book, what would you say to them?
Ross Lovelock: Writing their first book. I would certainly get a previous author, an expert to help you. Not to just proofread it but actually get the structure… I’m back to story-telling here, it’s about the structure. I would get someone with experience, as I did, to structure your argument and be brutal, if you like, not my expression of BRUTAL, in telling you whether you’re accurate or whether you’re going off piste. I would also try and make friends with some people in the publishing world before you wrote it and then discovered that you were just kicked into touch when no-one was interested.
Alison Jones: Brilliant, a proposal challenge? I shall put the link up-
Ross Lovelock: Yeah, ownership. If the publisher says, you know what this is a pretty good subject this, I’m interested. The likelihood is they’re going to go ahead and publish it.
Alison Jones: That’s really important with non-fiction because you don’t have to finish the whole manuscript before you pitch it, you write a really good proposal which helps you do the thinking yourself and then you get a sense of whether it’s worth writing.
Ross Lovelock: Yeah.
Alison Jones: Yeah, good. As you know I always ask my guests to recommend someone as a guest on the show so someone with something interesting to say about the business of business books, who would you want to hear?
Ross Lovelock: I haven’t read this so I’m not spinning any yarn to you this morning, so I’m not going to end by spinning you a yarn. I’m halfway through this book by Paul McGee, “How To Speak So People Really Listen.” I’m going to see if I can meet Paul McGee because I think he and I have probably got a great deal in common.
Alison Jones: I think you probably have.
Ross Lovelock: It’s simple, it’s straightforward and it’s entertaining. What more do you want?
Alison Jones: Paul McGee’s the S.U.M.O guy isn’t he, the “Shut Up Move On” guy?
Ross Lovelock: “The Shut Up or Move on” and in this book he recognises, he promotes that brand but as I said it’s simplicity, it’s the ultimate sophistication as Leonardo da Vinci said, when this book takes you through there and it entertains you at the same time.
Alison Jones: I love it as well, looking at the cover just now and it’s a white cover with black writing on and then the ‘Really’ is in red. There’s no messing around with that cover is there, there’s no fancy bits?
Ross Lovelock: None whatsoever. Business books, let’s face it nobody in their… Have you ever met anybody down the pub that says my hobby is reading business books because I’m sure you’d be walking out of that pub rather quickly. Now you read business books to learn and be engaged, so it’s not a fun element, this is entertaining but it’s also learning.
Alison Jones: I’ve got a horrible feeling I am that person down the pub actually, I’ll be honest with you.
Brilliant, thank you so much that was fantastic. If people want to find out more about you, if they want to find out more about SCQuARE, where do they go Ross?
Ross Lovelock: Well SCQuARE of course is misspelt, it’s an acronym or mnemonic SCQuARE.com
We have a website www.scquareinternational.com.
We’re in Liphook, you can find me on just about every medium there happens to be.
Alison Jones: I’ll put up those links on the show notes.
Ross Lovelock: Lovely, yeah.
Alison Jones: Great.
Ross Lovelock: Great stuff.
Alison Jones: Really energising conversation thank you, could have gone on for all day but we’re going to have to leave it there.
Ross Lovelock: Thanks a lot appreciate it, was really enjoyable, appreciate it very much.