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E161 | Why A Contrarian Could Help Your Business Grow with Alastair Dryburgh

Is everything you know about business wrong? 

Alastair Dryburgh is a contrarian who taught himself to think differently so that he can help businesses that want to remaster themselves. 

For 10 years, Alastair penned a monthly column for Management Today titled, ‘everything you know about business is wrong’, which is why he’s the perfect guest for Mind Your F**king Business Podcast. Because if your business is suffering and you can’t figure out what the problem is, maybe Alastair can help. 

Alastair is a recovering finance director who studied maths at Cambridge University. While becoming an FD was a natural career path, it never made him happy, which is why he segued into the world of business reengineering and crisis management. 

Alastair happily acknowledges he’s a bit weird as it allows him to look at business from a different perspective, a perspective that most business owners can’t see for themselves. 

Download and listen to this latest episode to hear Alastair discussing fundamental attribution error, which is what’s stopping people from seeing reality for what it really is. He also talks about recruitment, and whether people see curiosity as an opportunity or as a threat. And why those that are threatened by change, don’t get curious, they just get angry. This is such a fascinating conversation with Alastair, we’re sure you’ll enjoy it as much as we did.

On today’s podcast:

  • WTF consultations
  • Unknown knowns
  • Fundamental attribution error
  • The trouble with recruitment 
  • Business Remastered


Why a Contrarian Could Help Your Business Grow with Alastair Dryburgh

If you’re a leader of a business where the future needs to look very different to what it currently looks like, then you might need to hire Alastair Dryburgh. 

Perhaps you’ve enjoyed a period of rapid growth but have now hit a plateau. Or perhaps you’re finding that the ‘usual’ way of doing things just isn’t working out for you anymore. Or maybe you’ve found that the situation has developed not necessarily to your advantage – to paraphrase Emperor Hirohito of Japan after the second atom bomb had been dropped.

Alastair is a recovering financial director. In his past lives he was a finance person with over 14 years as finance director of six different companies for periods ranging from 5 years to 10 days. 

“I spent 25 years as probably the country’s, maybe the world’s, least happy finance person.”

He’s not done an MBA, instead choosing to study behavioural economics, sociology, continental philosophy, military strategy, taoism and a lot of other things which he finds much more useful, allowing him to gravitate towards crisis management. 

“I spent a lot of time going in and out of businesses where the previous FD had been found wanting, they’ve been fired, and [the company is now] in some very serious trouble. And I helped them get out of that. So that started my interest in what I call special circumstances, where business as usual is not an option.”

Alastair essentially helps people look at their existing business situation in different ways and finds different, more effective ways to move the business forward. 

Unknown knowns

Because, says Alastair, the things that you need to look out for are the unknown knowns. These are the things that we make assumptions about. We don’t have the hard facts, we assume we know what will happen, nobody questions these things. 

“It’s these unknown knowns, or as my favourite French sociologist Pierre Bordieu puts it: they’re the things that go without saying because they come without saying. We all know them. And we all assume them. Nobody actually says them out loud. And those are the sorts of things that I’m really, really interested in finding for businesses in the current situation.”

How does he do this for clients? By turning up with a completely different set of tools. The reason, Alastair says, he’s so proud he hasn’t done an MBA, is because they teach you to think a certain way, but sometimes, when you’re rooting out the unknown knowns, you have to think differently. 

He says he has to be able to examine a business through a different lens to the one everyone else is looking at it through. He then asks the questions – what are we all assuming here, that is no longer the case?

Fundamental attribution error

The fundamental attribution error is when we see a group of people who aren’t performing, we are hardwired to ascribe them as lazy, or that they don’t care, or that they’re useless, says Alastair. But when you look at the situation through a different lens, you see that the system they’re in, effectively prevents them from being effective. 

But the problem is, so often, if you tell somebody they’re wrong, or there’s evidence that they’re wrong, they just double down on it.

“Stop thinking that it’s individuals always who determine their performance and start looking at the system. And that’s difficult for a lot of managers because A, it’s more complicated. And B, it means they can’t push the problem off onto someone else.”

The trouble with recruitment

One of the biggest trends Alastair has seen coming out of lockdown is the difficulty of recruiting people. Companies are having to rely on recruitment consultants for the first time, yet they’re not getting results. They can’t even get people to come and interview, let alone accept a job offer. 

The issue, says Alastair, is that we have to think more creatively to attract good people. Prior to 2020, there were so many bad practices that were assumed to be normal business practices, and now, with people working remotely, we’ve discovered that you don’t have to work in horrible places for horrible managers. 

If you want to employ talented people, you have to be nice to them. 

Business Remastered

Alastair’s book, Business Remastered, explores how to make a business more profitable, by employing fewer people and making sure the ones you do have are working on massive impact, low effort work. 

“And if you could even get them working a third of that time on that sort of stuff. You would make so much money. You could afford to pamper them so completely that they would never leave you.”

You also don’t always need to just hire the people who got a 2:1 at university, and discount those who achieved a 2:2, especially if they got it from Oxford or Cambridge. These people have already proved they’re not stupid by getting into said university. Perhaps they didn’t achieve a high grade because they were focusing on other pursuits, pursuits that make them a more interesting employee – they were editor of a student newspaper, they were producing plays, they didn’t spend 3 years concentrating on passing exams. 

Then there’s the issue of diversity and inclusion, there are still huge numbers of women who are lost to serious employment through maternity leave or menopause. 

“You’ve got the people who don’t get a look at because, for one reason or another, they don’t fit the stereotype. And then you’ve got the people who basically leave in despair or disgust. Something is really wrong – we do need people to have babies.”

WTF Consult

If you feel that you have reached that point where the level of weirdness in your business has reached a point where normal methods just can’t deal with it, Alastair will very happily give you 45 minutes to try and help you make sense of it. Link above. 

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