Monday, 26 June 2017

IN PRAISE OF OCCASIONAL AIMLESSNESS

MBA courses and politicians hectoring businessmen for their poor productivity, all demand that we focus. As with the poor schoolchild a failure to pay attention is a detention-able offence. (Incidentally, demonstrating my own lack of focus and tendency to take detours, did you see the news item about a school advertising a role for Head of Detentions and Isolation? That’ll teach them - not).


My current aimlessness started with my going to watch a cricket match which, to those unfamiliar with this “art form,” lasts four days.  It’s the paradigm for sunlit wandering.  Yet Lord’s is a beautiful place to watch athletes in a temperature of 35 degrees C (95F) and to have roving conversations not focused presentations -  about all sorts of things including the joys of lunch.  It was there, whilst actually lunching, that I reflected on the benefits of a good aimless, talk-filled lunch and that in my life that there should have been some 15,000 creative opportunities for these already.

 

It continued on Friday as I wandered through “The Country Brocante” in Cowdray Park  which included  a surprising collection of Sussex craftsmen. The bric-a-brac stalls matched my bric-a-brac mind. There I saw a baby kestrel nesting in a ruined mediaeval tower peering down with bleating mews of mystification and hunger. I’ve never seen one that close before - praise be to aimlessness.  On I went, talking about wine-making and the peril of air frosts; about perfume creation and the way different scents open  gateways to different moods (in my case dilettante flaneurie); about using soya in candle production to achieve a long-lasting clean, fragrant flame and about how to conjure a broad bean hummus of exceptionally hedonistic sweetness.


Amidst all this riff-raff of thoughts, tastes and smells with my mind like a lazily fluttering butterfly doing little to solve the ills of the world, there is a serious point I want to make.

In our lives, at work and especially in education we are losing the ability to let our minds wander.  If you believe (as I do) that our future will be more fruitfully developed through creativity than just through productivity then, occasionally, going for a bit of a ramble physically and mentally is essential. Artists, it’s been said, perform best when up against a deadline in a freezing garret. They should also foster a suicidal depression and drink heavily. A la Bohème? What utter tosh!


Creativity instead is enhanced by having the time, space and frame of mind to notice what is going on around you and to let connections happen. As in sport let the ball come to you or (better) as the ice hockey genius Wayne Gretzky said:  “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.”

You won’t do that by being stressfully focused on the present but by letting your thoughts go on a stroll uncertain quite where they’re aiming but enjoying the journey.
 

Monday, 19 June 2017

SOMETHING'S COMING (I'M NOT SURE WHAT)

I admit to being an incurable optimist. Whilst I constantly hear mutterings about this “broken society” or “the entitlement class” I reflect on a high electoral turnout, the end of youthful apathy and the prospect of cross-party collaboration in Brexit discussions. Democracy flexing its collaborative muscles as opposed to the self-interested hegemony that political parties adore.


Yet some see it differently and more pessimistically  - here was one response I saw recently:
“Mayhem rules. Democracy teeters. Mobocracy right upper cuts. Millennials stir.”

I suspect this is from a disgruntled Tory because there seems a general sense that the allure of strong and stable leadership has been betrayed in favour of a rather feeble nil-all draw.


The “teetering, stirring and mayhem” of the malcontent above reflect the lines of WB Yeats’ “Second Coming” I’ve been reciting in my mind this week:

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

  Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

Yet are things really falling apart? If you’re a right wing Tory they may seem to be but for most the liberal centre created by people like Blair, Cameron and Clegg seems to be in reasonable shape. What was missing until now has been a Plan B, a bit of angry debate about inequality, about incompetence and opposition to antiquated thinking. But picking up from last week there is a rustling in the undergrowth, a sense of change and a feeling that there has to be a better and a fairer way.


If like me you feel ashamed and dismayed every time you see someone who’s homeless in the street, you want it changed. If like me your horror about the Grenfell Tower tragedy is despair about this having been an accident waiting to happen, you want a radical review of all suspect supported housing and the way we help all disadvantaged people.

Ken Clarke, usually the most sensible of spokesmen, said on Any Questions that party politics was being made out of Grenfell. Yet the victims, homeless, hopeless, in grief and sitting together in misery are generating understandable and increasing rage about the iniquity, inequality and hopelessness of their plight.  You’d better believe this is a political problem not just a tragedy.

Mine is not a complacent optimism. Rather it’s a wrathful optimism, wrathful that this wealthy country with improving health, intelligence and nice socially-minded people manages so readily to screw things up.


I’m optimistic because human beings are a resourceful and tolerant bunch capable of unravelling the threads that need unravelling. The problem is the politicians who are currently in hiding or plotting or in fear of their political lives and don’t know what to do, are not going to easily be part of the solution.

We need to put together the best we have from all parties and beyond those parties and create a platform for action - not left, nor right just right-minded and optimistic.

It also seems like a good time to start listening.

Monday, 12 June 2017

SUDDENLY IT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO READ

Do you remember when it was all so predictable? Until Harold Wilson, in 1964, said if the country was to prosper, a "new Britain" would need to be forged in the "white heat" of this "scientific revolution."  I remember thinking how exciting it all sounded. Labour had giants like Crossman, Crosland, Jenkins and Castle.  It was a tonic after what was described as “13 years of Tory Misrule” (what a soundbite that was).


Since the war (72 years ago) we’ve had 17 governments, 7 Labour (three of those under Tony Blair so “labour” rather than LABOUR), 9 Conservative and just 1 coalition in a rather dull game of political ping-pong.

But on Thursday that changed.

From an ostensibly unassailable lead in the polls Mrs May seized defeat from the jaws of victory and having claimed to be her team’s best player and only hope, dropped a dolly catch and said - mortally - after her u-turn on her manifesto social care plans in apparent exasperation  that we didn’t seem to understand her: “But nothing has changed. Nothing has changed.”

The Prime Minister cannot deal with the chaos of life, untidiness and contradiction. As such she isn’t an ideal leader or (heaven forbid) a negotiator in our modern world. Because of course things had changed, and always do change. More than anything else this rigidity lost her votes.


The restless electorate used the ballot box as an instrument of punishment for this inflexibility in a new way. Above all youth gave the Tories payback for Brexit. I’d never before heard diehard voters say “I don’t know who to vote for.” Imagine Arsenal fans supporting Spurs? Impossible in football perhaps but it’s now it was happening in politics.

I live in Brighton - two out of three seats marginal.  Caroline Lucas, the Green, doubled her majority.


But it was in Kemptown and Hove that we saw the real action.  Kemptown went from Conservative to Labour on an increased Labour vote of 19%. In Hove Peter Kyle increased his vote by 22% on an amazing 78% turnout turning a 1000 majority marginal into a 20,000 majority safe seat.  Localism, young voters and talent have played a major part in the election overall.

Jeremy Corbyn’s right in saying the face of British politics has changed and that Theresa May is the old, inflexible face. New and relevant faces are people like Emmanuel Macron, Ruth Davidson and Justin Trudeau. The new faces are not compromised by party machines. They are young, angry and authentic. Most of all they listen to other people.

The old “irrelevants” simply stay stuck on message with old ideas, bad scripts and fifth rate soundbites.
If you are out there and want to play this new, sensible politics then draw up a chair and please join in.
We need talent because everything has changed, yes, everything has changed. It’s a terrible time to be a diehard but a great time to be open minded and articulate.

Monday, 5 June 2017

"STRONG AND STABLE" - IS THIS REALISTIC IN TODAY'S WORLD?

Apart from an irrepressible desire to giggle when I see or hear this I wonder how and why the Tories ever saddled themselves with such a curious steam-engine of a phrase. Presumably they hadn’t counted it on it being gainsaid so emphatically.

But was it even appropriate?

I imagine focus groups said they yearned for strong leadership. Oh for the days of Attila, Genghis Khan or Frederick the Great the respondents said. We want someone to stand up and fight for us. We want a strong leader to take a firm grip.


The researchers concluded that people want a more predictable and ordered life.

They want hot summers and cold winters. This has become a prosecco and pesto world and people really yearn for bitter, pie and gravy. They yearn for an era of 11 plus, ‘O’ levels, 45rpm, mini-skirts, shipbuilding and capital punishment; an era of upper class, middle class and lower class, of pen and ink, of slide rules, of the TV Test Card and of BBC interviewers who call the Prime Minster “Sir or Ma’am” when they interview them. They want the past because then they know what happens next. The future is just so unstable.

Thus said the researchers…..


But this brave new world isn’t brave at all. It’s a nervy place where what we want isn’t “strong” (if by strong you mean, Trump, Putin or Erdogan.) What we really want and need is “smart”. And “stable” is not what you get on the ice rink of modern life.  Maybe calm and controlled would be better. What we want is to be as good as we deserve to be. And what we need is a top team who’ll help us get there, avoid us making a mess of things and be advised by sensible experts who have no ideological axe to grind.

On Friday I spent a few hours with a very bright 26 year old who’s extremely relaxed in part because he’s resigned from his stressful, busy-busy job where he was offered a seat on the board. Instead of building a glittering, “stable” career he’s earning enough freelancing whilst he reflects on his future.


Chances are he’s got 60-70 years of this adventure left.

He’ll have time to write some great books, have ideas for some successful and entertaining TV series, invent some life-changing products and even eventually become part of a smart, creative and adaptable leadership team.

Whatever else he’ll undergo lots of rich and exciting experiences and never just be what we once called a “wage slave”.


Maybe the world will gradually lose its urge for growth; our Brexit decision may create a platform for economic retreat. Most of all “strong” will be replaced by receptive and “stable” by adaptable.  What we are heading towards is a more natural way of living and possibly a happier and more productive one.

It’s the end of the old normal but strong and stable it’s not.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

OF MARMALADE, HAIRDRESSERS AND AN END TO GIVING IN

Let’s start with the “Mar...” word. Marmite and marmalade both evoke mixed reactions. For years sales of marmalade have been in decline despite some daft strategists in advertising who floated the idea of renaming the product “orange jam”.


Now there’s a worldwide competition attracting 3000 entries from 30 countries at Penrith in Cumbria. Marmalade is on the map again with especial interest coming from Japan. Along with British jams, tea and biscuits marmalade has been described as being at the heart of Britain’s desperate post Brexit trade negotiations.

The word in the corridors of marmalade-power is the trend is towards eating it with savoury food. Try it mixed 60:40 with English mustard. It’s a unique taste sensation.

The hairdressing industry meanwhile is growing and is seen as one of the key sectors for entrepreneurs. This £6.5 billion market sees salons increasing at 10% + year-on-year and employing 35,000+ people (about the same as in energy or agriculture).

Hairdressers are amongst the most trusted people in society according to recent surveys and throughout the UK new salons with bizarre names keep on emerging. Here are some of the most adventurous


  • Barber Streisand
  • Curl up and Dye
  • The God Barber
  • The Second Combing
  • Barber Black Sheep
  • Ben Hair
  • Shylocks
  • Streaks Ahead
  • Hair-vens Above
  • Hair Port

As we drive around Britain it’s the lamentable taste of barbers that dominates our impression of the high street. How great to see names like Robert Dyas and Rymans … names that suggest seriousness. (I think I shall open one called “Whoops… Sorry!”)

And so to the stricken expression of a friend recently, one that Sisyphus might have had as the rock he was pushing careered down the hill yet again. It had been provoked by my saying his working life - he’d just retired - was actually only half over or put another way he had to do the same all over again.


This was inspired by Hokusai the Japanese artist whose woodcut “The Wave” is so famous. Here’s his take on age:-

“At seventy-three years I partly understood the structure of animals, birds, insects and fishes, and the life of grasses and plants. And so, at eighty-six I shall progress further; at ninety I shall even further penetrate their meaning…”


At the time you retire recognise the best is still to come if you work at it. That’s great advice.

The election continues to frustrate me.  “Strong and stable” is a joke. The rhetoric is impoverished and mean.   But salute Andy Burnham the new Manchester Mayor, transformed from being yet another Westminster politician into an impressive political voice. He gave me hope again following the Manchester outrage.

We need more like him - kind, thoughtful and putting the outrage into perspective:
“…the man who committed this atrocity no more represents the Muslim community than the individual who murdered my friend Jo Cox represents the white, Christian community.”


Monday, 22 May 2017

WHY BEING A BIT AWKWARD WORKS

I’ve even gone so far as to espouse rebellion, something Thomas Jefferson perhaps unsurprisingly recommended. There’s simply too much dumb acquiescence going on right now in business and in politics. I keep on hearing this dire word “alignment”. Alignment behind Prime Minister May’s manifesto by her Cabinet is horrifically servile. Thank God for Ruth Davidson the only Tory with an awkward brain. This manifesto was crafted by Nick Timothy (as my mother said never trust a man with a beard.)


Awkward is about asking “why?” Children can be awkward in their genuine attempts to unravel adult totalitarianism:

“Why?”

“Just because I said so. Now be quiet”

Hey, that sounds like a Cabinet Meeting.

But most awkward of all is democracy. Those who praise the strong stable leadership of Erdogan or Putin are discounting the fact neither accepts any attempt of truth being spoken to power. Working in a democracy is tough as it involves give and take and constant compromise. In a democracy you have to listen and you have to be patient.


So imagine the dismay that poor perplexed Donald Trump must be feeling as his attempts to impose his will on an American Constitution are thwarted so publicly. He actually thought being president was like being CEO. As a wise commentator recently put it:

“Somehow he seems to lack the skills that the job requires”

Those skills include patience, diplomacy, guile and charm.

Awkward is also about being persistent and trying to ensure that the downside and potential for problems is understood and anticipated. Here’s how Sir Kit McMahon, one time Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, put it:

“No time is as usefully spent as that spent guarding against disasters that do not in the event occur”.

Life is awkward. We are not masters or mistresses of our destiny. We are constantly surprisingly and irritatingly mugged by little setbacks. It was like this over 50 years ago:


Interviewer: “What is most likely to blow a government off-course Sir?”
PM Harold Macmillan: “Events, dear boy, events”

My own bit of awkwardness relates to books.

I spent my long and idle life building a quite decent library of a few thousand books. When we moved house and downsized somewhat, the few thousand books wouldn’t fit in. I tried hiding them in cupboards and keeping some (no idea which ones now) in expensive storage.


Belatedly (this is where patience comes in) I’ve decided to adopt a process of zero based book collecting. If I shan’t ever read it or refer to it, if it isn’t central to my core interests and passions, if it isn’t a “friend” whose absence will be noticed and depressing and if it is too big and weighty (no one needs the complete works of anyone…the complete includes stuff that a good editor would have discarded) they are sold, given away or destroyed.

Last awkward thought: time is too short to be tyrannised by people, music, art or books.

Monday, 15 May 2017

SOME MORE IDEAS WORTH SPREADING

TED has transformed the world of presenting. Presenters now learn their presentations - no scripts, barely any notes. They line up with their stories and they practise, boy, do they practise.


The 2017 London Business School TEDx event was on Friday; the standard was higher than ever. But there’s a problem. In a world of virtually universal competence and consistency little stands out unless it’s exceptional.  Here were some highlights from the day’s insights and entertainment during which some ideas worth spreading were spread.

We had  presentations on the importance of dance, on radical developments in reading for the blind - “seeking the holy braille,” on how bilingualism is like having two eyes whilst we monolinguists are one-eyed unfortunates, on finding whose live saving heart tissue was donated to you and the emotions this stirred, on narcissism, on colonising Mars and much, much more.

Here are a few “aha!” observations:


Sangeeta Bhatia who talked about nano-sized cameras - in effect tiny particles that can roam your body seeking cancer cells and which are flushed out in your urine.

She said:
“OK where are we going with this?”

I love that - where we are going is early cancer detection and longer lives…is that a dream? Not much longer…anyway

“We all need dreams to help us keep pushing forwards”

***


Lucy Kellaway who has given up her cushy job writing for the Financial Times and writing so well that she is probably the foremost management writer of our times constantly pricking the pomposity of the corporate world. On being asked how she would make Maths (which she’ll be teaching) more fun she retorted:
“Fun? Why should Maths be fun? I want to make it clearer.”
***


Rafe Offer who set up Sofar Sounds abandoned a career in global marketing with companies like Diageo. Sofar organises intimate, secret and small musical gigs for people who want to listen and savour quietly. It’s gone global and is operating in 300 cities worldwide. You only get to hear what’s happening, and where, the day before they happen. Inevitably (this is the London Business School hosting this TEDx event after all)

Rafe was asked:

“How do you scale this?” to which he replied
“We scale it by staying small.”

Interesting and right. The root of Sofar’s success is its intimacy and lack of big scale concert-venue paraphernalia. These are not events; they are “happenings.” Too many brands betray their original magic in the quest to grow. I don’t see Rafe making that mistake.
***


Renier Zeldenrust is in the construction business in complex environments. Like Mars. Why go to Mars and beyond? The silica rich earth on Mars and the precious metals like titanium and nickel in the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter that’s why. There’s a gold rush into space about to happen.


We need to have more radical, important and inspiring conversations like these more often. We just need to think and debate more deeply.