What does number 7 smell like?

Interview by Justin Small

Jamil Qureshi discusses free thinking, getting corporations to do culture properly, and how he got into sports psychology via an open mic magic night in a pub in Newark.

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WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST TALENT, AND WOULD YOU CALL YOURSELF A FUTURE THINKER?

My greatest talent is re-invention. Everyone is creative in their own right. A friend’s five year old said to me the other day “what does the number 9 smell like?”. That is the single greatest question I’ve ever been asked because it’s completely free creative and divergent thinking, making the strangest connections. We then go to school and it fucks us into convergent thinkers. Management is based on convergent thinking, you get rewarded for it. Life should be about free flowing connections, not a syllabus that manufactures individuals into a single minded purpose.

Future Thinkers are in essence ridiculous ideas thinkers. Innovation comes from free thinking, often if you can see too much sense in an idea it’s been done before. Imagine telling someone ten years ago that you want to start a taxi company that doesn’t have any taxis. Or that you’re going to replace hotels by inviting people into your own bed. Ludicrous, but it worked.

WHAT DOES THE WORD STRATEGY MEAN IN A TIME OF SUCH CONSTANT CHANGE?

Companies that were born for success in the 20th century, by definition are bred for failure in the 21st. So strategy in itself as a word or an idea has to be redefined in order to be future literate. Many organisations define themselves through what they sell rather than customer value. One of the key elements

Future Thinkers are in essence ridiculous ideas thinkers. Innovation comes from free thinking, often if you can see too much sense in an idea it’s been done before. Imagine telling someone ten years ago that you want to start a taxi company that doesn’t have any taxis. Or that you’re going to replace hotels by inviting people into your own bed. Ludicrous, but it worked.

of strategy in a positional sense is how do we grow our business from our core proposition - what do we do, how do we do it, who do we do it for. Future literacy and future relevance can only come from the value proposition. Very few people spend time looking at that. For example, If you worked for an automotive company and had an idea for a great set of feminine hygiene products you wouldn’t go to your boss and say I’ve got a great idea! Can you imagine an organisation that would celebrate this, harnessing our natural ability to be creative and translating that into something that drives value and revenue. We need to stop thinking like the industrial era. We need to form networks that are open and collaborative based on challenge and curiosity to explore new possibilities. Coffee manufacturers going in with DIY stores - we are starting to see things like that but it’s just the beginning, It’s limited right now.

WHERE DO YOU SEE THE FUTURE GOING?

People talk about digital disruption. Digital is just the hors d’oeuvre. Many organisations are still to this day trying to get their heads around digital and disruptors. So many people confuse luck with genius.

WHAT IS IT YOUR CLIENTS ASK YOU TO DO FOR THEM?

Aligning people strategies, to business strategies. They want to know how to drive attitudinal change that creates business success.

I spend most of my time on the attitudes within the business and how you can shape or change thinking to change behaviour. I always say the only way to change our attitude is to change our thoughts. The precursor to all of our actions is what we think. Unfortunately many organisations will go straight to behavioural frameworks, how do we change behaviour, how do we get our guys to act in a certain way. For me that short cuts the process. If we can get people to think in a certain way that translates into the most relevant action to drive the business forwards - that’s the difference between compliance and commitment.

YOU MUST COME ACROSS A LOT OF STRATEGIES IN ALL SHAPES AND FORMS - WHAT FORM DOES GREAT STRATEGY TAKE WHEN IT ACTUALLY WORKS AND DOES ITS JOB?

For me, strategy is about globalising talent and great strategy makes the most of the knowledge capital of a team of individuals. So by definition the level of fluidity has to be dynamic - people who truly do strategy will require more fluidity than those that don’t. Communities are full of hierarchy traditionally, so when you look at a civilisation changer, the greatest endeavour of our time has to be the internet. If you take a look at the rules of the internet they are completely different to the established rules of the time. If you look at the pace of what we’ve achieved since its introduction then you can uncover its true role as a catalyst for change. Look at the likes of AirBnB etc. You just put something out there - test - then invest. Organisations traditionally don’t do that, the risks are too high. The internet is full of open source, therefore those who have demonstrated success are only there because of the value they add. Now imagine if organisations behaved that way, if you only occupied a senior position because of the ultimate value you add to the business? Whoever adds the most value, becomes the boss. That’s definitely not happening at the moment. So for me great strategy is literally moving away from the rigidity of money and moving into the area of creating a community with a purpose. It’s very difficult for someone to understand an idea when their salary depends on them not understanding it. The most important business decisions are made by 3-6 people at the top. You’re better off going to the bottom of the pyramid and asking 3000 people who will give you a better, often more strategic and honest view of the future of the business. It’s proven. If you go on who wants to be a millionaire, the lifeline that is most correct is the Ask the Audience one. Strategy should not be preserved for the board. Strategy should be a collaborative and cultural initiative where people can embrace what it is by understanding how they fit into it.

Culture is the one problem that always comes up because a lot of organisations aren’t prepared to invest or don’t know the right way to it.

It’s why most mergers and acquisitions fail. The thinking gets left until last, people always just look at the numbers. It’s always Mary, who’s been in the company for 20 years, sat there with her arms folded listening to her new board thinking, you know what...fuck off, I’m not doing that, I’ve been doing this 20 years and I’m not changing now. Most companies I work with have a lot of Marys. And it makes it bloody hard to change anything.

IS THERE NO NEW WAYS OF DOING HR? IT SEEMS HR AS A BUSINESS FUNCTION HASN’T CHANGED SINCE THE BEGINNING OF TIME.

I don’t think there is any model for HR that is relevant for business today. That stems from there not being a viable model for management in today’s businesses. Innovation in management processes is where you can truly achieve change, if you look at the cost of management and what it achieves it’s utterly shit. There’s got to be a better way of globalising talent.

WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO SOMEONE WHO WANTS TO GET INTO STRATEGY?

The key to developing great strategy is open mindedness. One of the greatest inhibitors of human performance is our belief systems, what we believe to be true. So if we live by existing parameters we have a particular view of the world and we shape our strategy based around this. We base our strategy on assumptions and so we need to be more able to think sideways rather than forwards and to question our interpretation and translation for what we believe to be evidence. That’s the heart of strategy. Too many people sit in boardrooms and claim their truth, based on false or assumed evidence. Imagine a situation where I take you to the British Museum and say, go in there and find five things to base your strategy on. Come at things from a different angle to build more creative environments. Let’s find new and better ways to engage with one another. Why don’t we spend time having a creative discussion rather than a strategy meeting. We have to get outside of the mental tramlines that hold us in place.

TELL US ABOUT YOUR CAREER, HOW YOU GOT TO DOING WHAT YOU’RE DOING?

It’s definitely a road less travelled. My degree is Business and Marketing, but I have never fitted it to the corporate world. In fact, I’ve been sacked from every job I ever had.

I started out playing cricket for a living, got sacked. I just wasn’t interested. I was a natural talent, it was easy, but my attitude was poor. I saw a psychologist and got really interested in it, so I started learning the fun stuff like hypnosis. I got really into the Derren Brown and that entertainment psychology world, so I started doing that. One day I just decided to go into a pub in Newark and did a mind reading gig at an open mic, got £30 for performing to 50 people. For some reason I continued this, I’ve no idea why. I did some stand up at the Comedy Store, but I wasn’t doing it for a career, I was just trying to test myself and learn more about me.

I do things I am scared of, in order to understand human nature. Behaviour has always fascinated me. Why is it that people slow down for a speed camera only to immediately speed up again? Why was it that I was naturally good at cricket, but couldn’t be arsed? Why is it that 84% of people who work are completely disengaged? I just started asking myself some really good questions.I started reading about NLP and about mediumship from a psychological perspective. So I built up a toolkit of really eclectic techniques. Then I ended up getting a lot of good luck.

From my mind reading gig I met a guy who ran a TV company, and I then met Derren Brown who taught me a lot of interesting things. I ended up doing occasional things on television. A guy in golf ended up seeing me on TV, he approached the TV company who approached me and I ended up working with him from a sports psychology perspective.

In the time I worked with him, he went from losing quite badly to nearly winning the Open. This was despite me never having done sports psychology in my life. The Daily Mail then ran a story “Magician helps golfer” on the back pages, and then because the world of professional sport is so small I worked with a couple of other golfers and turned their careers around. I was just using practical psychology and a general view of stop fucking about.

Due to the success I had with the golfers, the sports manager Chubby Chandler was having a drink with Phil Gartside, chair of the Bolton Wanderers, who were at the bottom of the Premiership table at the time. Phil was moaning about his team not performing and Chubby recommended me. So I worked with Bolton Wanderers. I got them quite high in the league from really underperforming. From that I ended up working with Stoke City. And then worked with Freddie Flintoff and the England Cricket team - so I came full circle and managed to work in cricket again.

Then businesses got involved, I started talking about my work and getting involved on speaking circuits and what naturally evolves from there is a change in the makeup of your audience. It became a natural progression to apply everything I’d learned to business.

What I didn’t mention is that my story started 15 years ago with me being homeless. Things just spiralled somewhat because I kept getting fired for character reasons. I was earning good money, but was spending it all on alcohol and drugs and then ended up homeless, living on a building site. That’s why I ended up at that pub in Newark. Trying to earn money being a magician.

Since that gig in Newark I’ve had a huge amount of luck. When I was working with some of the best golfers in the world I was penniless. I went from earning nothing to earning substantial figures in 12 months. If you ask me what my strategy was, what was my thinking behind it? There wasn’t one. I had no business sense in regard to what I was doing and why. I just said yes. I was in a position to be agile and open minded and I followed my interest which allowed whatever talent I have to come to the surface and result in success.