Monday, 30 March 2015

THE MULTITASKING PARADOX


I’ve written frequently on the pernicious effects of multitasking. Focus, I instruct, focus on one thing at a time and stop juggling.

At a talk I gave at Portsmouth University a lady upbraided me for this:-
But what do I do when my son wants help with his homework, my husband wants his supper and I need to finish my essay? How can I not multitask?

I was kind but firm in insisting an orderly queue was formed and that each task was exquisitely performed and then everyone would be happy.  I knew as I said this I was talking bollocks. Apart from anything else I was talking to a woman. And women actually can multitask better than men. Fact.

This week I had to become a woman.


We’re moving house…multitasking women’s work…where they excel.

But disastrously my wife was very unwell - had to stay in bed - as unusual a thing as Netanyahu and Obama doing a man hug - she became a shivering germ-bag - a pretty one but nonetheless if it sneezes, groans and closes its eyes it’s a class A germ-bag.

So I was in charge.


f my wife’s plan; inheriting her way of doing things…. I had to think like her. Removal men, solicitor, BT, Bank, Estate Agent, Council, Royal Mail, Builder, Cleaners, an army of people all recruited and briefed by her who, she being unable to speak, meant I was their new CEO.

And they all spoke to me at once and rushed around me doing things and if I didn’t instantly respond to:- “this to go on the lorry Mate? …is this one to pack or stay? … can you return the deeds now please? … can you confirm that postcode?”… then they showed their initiative and that was usually a catastrophe.


It wasn’t that hard but it was an unremitting exercise in doing what I’d been telling people to stop doing, as the brain is not designed to do it - multitasking. And moving house or dealing with anything that is existentially critical is almost by definition one requiring multitasking skills.

My experience in multitasking came to a head as I took off my pyjamas on Saturday morning. A trivial thing which one can easily do whilst concurrently doing another task like reading a checklist, moving items around on a shelf…top off easy…trousers off on one side and using my toes to pull off trouser leg two I suddenly became aware that leg one and leg two had inexplicably both got trapped in trouser leg one causing me to lose balance and fall heavily to the ground. This multitasking has got a lot of minor injuries to answer for.


Yet, it’s simple enough.

Have a detailed plan. Any of us can manage to multitask up to a point but there’s no point in saving five seconds on trouser removal when the consequence is so silly.

And plan succession management. Or blame your poor wife.

Or simply be away.

Monday, 23 March 2015

I CAN SEE FOR MILES AND MILES

The memory of the Who’s 1967 hit fills the head of any futurologist who wants prove their infallibility. But it isn’t really like that. Look at those economists who thought the US property boom would last forever.


Justin King who used to run Sainsbury’s once said derisively that the High Street was over and out-of-town was the future.  Everyone from Lord Beeching onwards was wrong in predicting the demise of trains.  And the book (a paper David to the Kindle Goliath) is making a remarkable recovery from the literary morgue.  Even records in their own small way are on the way back.


From learning Latin in school to the seeming forever price decline of oil, nothing is any longer impossible. No trend is irreversible. The future is opaque and turbulent.

Which brings me to the internet.

I was phoned by a very senior guy from a big multinational last week to say he’d been to a talk by someone from the Harvard Business School about the future of technology. He laughed and said I was so out of touch - all quill ink and parchment - but that even he and probably his 15 year old son were off the pace too. It could have been Dave Eggers that was talking as  in his book “The Circle”, a fantasy of the future of the web and the end of privacy.

I mildly said this was probably wrong, that technology had a curious tendency to self- consume and that irreversible, bet-your-house-on-it trends had a nasty habit of leaving you homeless.  The internet is obviously wonderful and has changed a lot of lives for the better. Yes, it has served its original purpose of sharing knowledge generally to great benefit but its frailties are equally obvious - a force for evil as well as good as ISIS is showing.


Andrew Keen has written a book entitled “The Internet is not the Answer”. In his most recent blog he says “Be afraid, be very afraid.”   Be afraid that the internet is a winner-takes-all market leading to monopolies like Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook.

 Be afraid that usually the nastiest people in business seem to be the owners of the space

Be afraid of Wikipedia as a knowledge source.

Be afraid of the virtually unchallengeable assumption that this is the only future there is so we naysayers had better shut up because they’re right and we’re wrong.

Well not necessarily.

Here’s another scenario.

A perfect storm erupting of persistent cyber terrorism, of critical systems failures and of the internet equivalent of a virus that’s a cross between Ebola and bubonic plague. All simultaneously.
Imagine in short it’s time for the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, megalomaniac geeks without any good on their minds.


Then the internet might prove not to be the answer at all just a messy problem; like 2008 but worse.
And the problem and the answer would, ironically, be the same thing.

Monday, 16 March 2015

I WANT IT HOT

If I were to get home from a work, from one of those exhausting meetings with colleagues in a wine bar at 10pm to find the chef (my wife) had shut down the kitchen and said “no hot food” I’d be quite cross. I’d express myself colourfully. I might even swing my arms around. Mind I’d never hit her - wouldn’t dare - not that brave - crikey….the very thought…..

That’s the trouble with self-opinionated egocentics like Jeremy Clarkson, Kevin Pietersen, Piers Morgan and me. We need our hot food.

But relax.

This isn’t yet another article about “Top Gear” and St Jeremy of Ferrari.


I wanted instead to reflect on difference between people who do their homework and those who don’t and on the amateurism that some aspire to. I’ve actually heard people say things like “I want to be fresh - I don’t want to over prepare”. That’s about as absurd as saying you don’t want to cook the food so it’s piping hot (as anyone getting in after a hard day’s work should expect it to be) but want to serve it fresh…and semi raw.

The best people I work with all allow a lot of preparation and rehearsal time for presentations or even the simplest of speeches.

Even those blessed with nerveless competence need to have their presentation nailed down.
There’s no room for hoping it’ll be all right in the night.  Besides it’s ill-mannered not to prepare your presentational banquet fastidiously. This is the opportunity to be a Master Chef or be sent home early in gastronomic disgrace.


Three things determine the star from a wally:-

  • A great story - one that hangs together which has a point and a memorable theme
  • One that is served hot - which has bits of contemporary garnish and relevance
  • One that is delivered with charm and confidence

 All of this deserves a lot of time - Leon Kreitzman, one of the finest speakers and storytellers I’ve ever seen, reckoned on a half hour presentation needing 5 hours hard work and practice - assuming it’s on a subject you really know about.

Recently I had to do a complex reading in church - I reckon I practised it at least twelve times before I had it cracked.

So the message is prepare, rehearse, assume nothing and don’t be so unprofessional as to hope you can stroll up on stage and busk it. To be sure, the more that you do it the better you get so never risk that ghastly feeling that you aren’t quite ready yet.


You haven’t got the time?

Set your alarm an hour or so early for a week….rehearse then.

I regard sleep as sacred but it’s a sin to be snoozing if instead you could be honing your performance.
Which is why JC was so cross. Because whilst ever the pro himself his production team were not and let the chef go home.

Bottom Gear guys.



Tuesday, 10 March 2015

LET'S HAVE A LONG MEETING


I was talking to a friend recently about the role of Communications in a big corporation. This discipline like HR is one which has grown and entwined itself through organisations. It’s yet another function to blame when things go wrong. But does it fulfil a useful role?

I personally don’t have an internal communications strategy in my own house. My wife tells me what to do and I do it. It really is that simple but in a 10,000 or bigger business ensuring the misunderstandings that can ruin a business are avoided, is vital.


Improving the quality and quantity of communication in a large business covering different countries and cultures could probably improve productivity and save money faster than anything else. It’s also certain than in a knowledge economy where there is an explosion of data and information, filtering and controlling the information dissemination needs new disciplines.

Just for a moment imagine this 10,000 strong business where the following happens.  Simple jargon-free English is the norm so the irate manager who said the following never has to get irate again.
If I hear the word ‘upcoming’ again I shall be down-coming and someone will find themselves outgoing.

E-mails will be short in short easy to understand sentences. Always. Every e-mail will have an ACTION REQUIRED section at the end. People who write complex e-mails will be required to do a “Communications Course.”

All documents, all of them, will have a short executive summary which has as point one - why this report has been prepared and point two - what readers are being asked to consider and decide.


Presentations should only last 20 minutes. In exceptional circumstances presentations may be longer but no presentation will ever last more than one hour. No presentation will have more than one slide per minute. No slide will have more than 12 words on it. No meeting should last more than the length of an average examination (namely 3 hours). The consequence of this is that agenda creation and the rigorous use of pre-meetings and meeting preparation will intensify. In fact meetings will become an art-form in celebration of clarity and minimalism.


All executives will receive regular coaching in clarity of, impact creation and brevity of communication in the business context.

In all appraisals “Quality of Communication” will be a KPI or Important measurement of performance and potential - acronyms are being weeded out as abominations.

Face to face communication is being encouraged but all new recruits are being coached in something new to them called “telephone manners”.

What’s wrong with all this is it smacks of the “Thought-Police” and a regimen of communication dictatorship. But this is not an attempt to create a 21st century Tower of Babel.  Quite simply a more focused and disciplined communication strategy is needed in most companies if we are to produce a generation of effective, rigorous and clear thinking managers.

It’s that simple.

Monday, 2 March 2015

DO WE REALLY UNDERSTAND HOW TO DEVELOP?


I’ve had a recent stint of travelling through Europe and I’ve been reflecting on our frustrating country that I’ve lived in and loved for so long.

Do you remember the 1960s and a wave of “new music”, Herman’s Hermits for instance with “No Milk Today” or “Bus Stop” by the Hollies - prosaic, local love stories….no Empire building here.


Then we had the strike-ridden, high-inflation ‘70s.

The Thatcher axe wielding ‘80s followed when we relearnt the art of combat …. invading  New York and pillaging ad agencies, banks and businesses.

And then the ‘90s, noughties and the current decade when we became middle class, more meritocratic and technophiles. A world in which London started winning the race to become arts, sports and financial centre of the world.


What could go wrong?

Last week I was told what by the guy running Russia for a multinational:
“I love your country but from my perspective it’s fumbling along without any clear strategy….if it were a company it’d be ripe for takeover”.  (Probably Vladimir Putin feels the same.)

Listen to the British news in which pratfalls are celebrated more than success and cynicism rules and you’ll take the point my friend from Russia made. Unlike most of the EU, compared with whom we are doing brilliantly, we seem unable to promote our strengths. Creativity, innovation, arts, media and yes finance (over-cooked as that sector has been).

Psychologists have proved that human beings are more responsive to bad news. Good news seems so cheesy in comparison. That’s why for some Peter Mead’s book “When in Doubt be Nice” was an awkward read. Where was the tabasco wit, the flagrant irony?

Recently a very nice guy said “We must play the ball not the man” to which a very smart and funny German retorted “No. Play the man first - always. Then everyone knows where they stand”.


We need to sharpen up. We are living in a global economy and over the past six weeks at various conferences I’ve reflected on how lacking in confidence we seem despite having a growing economy; English is the language all business speaks and speaks well; we are becoming an increasingly desirable country to visit; our capital city bestrides the world - top of the cultural pops.

To thrive and grow we need to look forward, enjoy our economic status, we need to be confident, fast-footed and relaxed. We need to become traders  again not tubby diplomats.

I’ve loved travelling Europe and its neighbours hearing optimists regardless of their current “temporary little local blips”. My growth conversations with Russians, Egyptians, Turks, Poles and people from the Gulf, ….opportunity-hunters explaining in flawless English why their future looks so great, have felt unusually inspiring and refreshing.

Maybe we don’t want to succeed. Maybe being miserable fatalists is our natural role in life.


But I don’t think so.

We should travel much more, talk up our successes and feel good.

That’s all it takes, Tiger.

Monday, 23 February 2015

AVOID BEING BUSY OR BEING OBEDIENT


We live in a world where being busy is most people’s default position.

A friend of mine told his sons, “if you snooze you lose”. And children have never worked so hard. Five year olds do more homework than I did when I was 11.

And the badge of courage is to seem even busier than you really are. It’s pretty bad anyway isn’t it? You have a shortage of breath, a vile temper, are sleeping badly, getting up early to cram in extra work and really needing that glass of wine in the evening. Somewhere recently I saw this fantastic insight. People are so busy they don’t eat, they “inhale” their food.
So how are you? “So busy I can’t believe it, it’s ridiculous”.

Combine the following: self-pity, stress and a curious sense of pride and satisfaction. Welcome to 2015.
But is it true that everyone’s unusually, mind-numbingly busy or have we all just lost our sense of proportion?
I think Thomas Cromwell was pretty busy apart from being multilingual and seeming to manage what was the Tudor Civil Service pretty well singlehandedly.

Yet in Wolf Hall we see him thinking at least as much as rushing around. And he doesn’t rush anyway. He prowls. Take up prowling - it might change your life.


Anthony Trollope wrote a lot of great novels as well as holding down a huge and successful job in the Civil Service.  They used to call someone who such had a broad portfolio of activities a Renaissance Man.
Stop being stressed, start celebrating. Having a lot to do gets you nearer to changing the world. Being active feeds your brain. Be a Renaissance man not an ungracious moaner. And you know what? It isn’t that bad. Trollope had to learn French and German in a year for his job which makes AS levels look just a bit easy in comparison.

And now for obedience: Thomas Jefferson said: “A little rebellion now and then isn’t a bad thing”. Nor is it - it was only when I started to be a pain in the arse at school arguing, disagreeing with masters, looking for new ideas that my brain started to work.


In most workplaces I’m beginning to detect a lemming-like obedience which worries me a lot (and it’s worrying a lot of CEO’s I know). Here’s Sam Goldwyn’s contribution: “I don’t want yes men around me. I want people who tell me what they think - even if it costs them their jobs.”

I think he was joking. I hope so.

We need to think more, plan better, choose to do what matters and start arguing if something’s being done that’s wrong, illegal or which could be done better.  In a world of great change we need to prowl more, think more and question more. We’ll enjoy our jobs more and we’ll get on better too.  Because few things are worse for everyone’s morale that being a busy sycophant.


Monday, 16 February 2015

WHAT IS IT ABOUT PERFECTION THAT WORRIES ME?


I keep on hearing the word “perfect” nowadays. When someone asks me my name and I tell them they tend to say “perfect” as if in awe at my accurately and confidently remembering my own name. Perfect has become the new “great”.

I’m not sure I much like “perfect.”  Seth Godin the management guru and inspirational writer said: “stop trying to be perfect. Be remarkable”.


Remarkable is what a live performance can be.  When, many years ago, I stood just a few feet away from the Kinks playing “You really got me” they did, get me that is, because it was quite remarkable. But it was far from perfect.   Dave Davis was so drunk he could hardly stand and Ray was reviling him. It wasn’t perfect but it was very exciting wondering if rock murder might occur in front of me.

It’s the danger of live performance that provides the frisson of what has been called “the dramatic moment” when the suspension of disbelief is total.  It happened to me in Lewes at a performance of Othello in a hotel when suddenly I found myself almost part of the action arguing about a handkerchief. Rather than grand Shakespearian Tragedy I was embroiled in a domestic.


Life is not perfect. And if it always were perfect how dull we’d find it. I talked to real live Russians and Ukrainians last week at a conference, not the sort you see on TV. All that these smart people wanted was to get on with their lives, better themselves and their prospects, become remarkably successful. Putin and Poroschenko seemed a million miles away from the reality of life I was hearing about.


Nearly all politicians we are told are increasingly aggrieved by the apathy and active dislike the electorate feels towards them (and that includes you too Nigel.)  It’s because they really don’t have our interest at heart at all. They want to do their own thing and create their own perfection. Their persistent criticism of business seems a bit odd.

Business generates wealth, generates opportunities, generates jobs and generates happiness. Not perfect but pretty good.


Innovation is seldom perfect either. The first version of almost everything is slightly defective. Have you ever had a “new improved” mobile phone that wasn’t “new and nearly improved but not quite yet.”  But that striving to improve is what appeals not the perfection. Psychologist Carol Dwek established praise of effort has a much more beneficial effect on recipients than if they are praised for their talent.


On Friday we went to a promenade performance at St Paul’s Cathedral by the Cardinall’s Musick, a group of accomplished singers whose speciality is early English Church music by composers like Tallis and Byrd. And it was remarkable because we were there watching something being created live with all the risks that entails.

Listening and having our hearts and minds moved. Mere perfection would have been plastic and still next to this live experience.