Monday, 21 October 2019

THE DEATH OF THE SALESMAN

“When you're lying awake with a dismal headache
And repose is taboo'd by anxiety……
For your brain is on fire, the bed-clothes conspire
Of usual slumber to plunder you:
First your counter-pane goes, and uncovers your toes,
And your sheet slips demurely from under you.”


This was me– the song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Iolanthe’ filled my head plus a ‘new’ line
“and self-loathing corrodes your judgement”

This is unusual for me. My nights are normally full of enjoyable slumber and dreams in which I perform impossible missions with sang froid and daring.... but not on Saturday morning at 3am when I woke cursing, writhing and perspiring.


I was suffering as so many are with a nasty dose of acute brexitis and this was made much worse by an attack of gulliblonia as I suspected I’d been duped the previous day by a fast-talking, persistent salesman on the phone and I’d failed to say “no” or been dismissive to him. When I got out of bed my worst fears were confirmed. My broadband contract with BT was being cancelled and replaced with a cheaper deal with EE (their sister company with whom they’d merged) and I had, suspiciously, only one day‘s cooling-off period.

There are two rules I follow.
i) Never buy anything at the door or on the phone or from any cold call salesman.
ii) And always take your time. “Sign now or the offer goes” is the sales ploy of a desperado.

On this occasion with the lame excuse of not feeling very well I’d failed on both rules. Hence that self-loathing.


So I phoned BT. Mo is in India at one of those call centres and is a star. Brilliant English and a sense of humour. She told me not to worry. BT and EE were the same company and I’d been sold a perfectly reasonable deal. What, she wondered, was my problem? I explained the high pressured sales-spiel and the short cooling-off period irked me and that I knew something was wrong. She giggled when I talked about the sales patter and conceded those “sales guys” were really motivated to hit targets.


“So this deal is OK with a better router and half the price and it includes the BT TV deal as well?” It appeared not. That was the flaw. I told her my wife would be very unhappy if our TV went down whilst I was in the office chortling at cheap super-high-speed broadband. She giggled again and said she was totally with my wife.

So I cancelled the deal.

At the back of my mind I recalled a radio phone-in where a guy changed his mobile-phone provider to save money in response to a cold-call and it went horribly wrong. No reception and a lost/cancelled phone-number which he explained was on all his literature and his fleet of vans.


So if it sounds like a salesman on the phone terminate the call. Always.

“Start-ups Pivots and Pop Ups” by Richard Hall and Rachel Bell is published on October3rd by Kogan Page. The antidote to doubt and gloom. And definitely not a scam.




Monday, 14 October 2019

WHY RIOTS FAIL

Only an idiot would refute scientific evidence about global warming. Their issue, the deniers say, is we’ve had such cycles of change before in the world’s history. Maybe but not so pronounced nor that correlate so closely with global industrial activity.


So what are we doing about it? Sir David Attenborough has done more than most to open our eyes and minds and, quietly in the UK, we’re doing quite a lot - rather more than anyone else. Nothing to be smug about though. However we represent about 1% of the world’s population and just 0.2% of the world’s landmass so, whilst we can set an example, we can’t make a real difference.
It was nostalgic watching ‘Extinction Rebellion’ doing their thing last week. It brought back memories of the ‘Ban the Bomb’ marches in the 1960s, the miners’ strike riots of 1984, the Poll Tax riots of 1990 and the London riots of 2011. The voice of the people getting louder, increasingly intolerant (but as ever rather ineffective.)


The argument for exhorting urgent action is strong.  But when the extinction rebels get going with their japes they make me dislike their cause.  They’re simply so annoying that they neutralise my conscience. They are as idiotic as those denying their cause. What a pity that they get it, and so many of us, wrong. And how ironic that those schoolchildren taking time from school to wave their “Save the Planet” banners meet in their thousands and then depart leaving, would you believe, mountains of litter and plastic bottles.

Extreme language and thoughtlessness is the stuff of social media. It has a strangely shouty quality about it. Enoch Powell’s notorious “rivers of blood” speech in 1968 produced howls of execration. Now threats of killing them, to those who disagree with other people seem almost commonplace.


When Andrew Neil interviewed an extinction rebel on TV last week she said banning the use of gas for cooking, driving cars and flying by 2025 were an acceptable trade-off in trying to reverse climate change . This extreme position, leading as it probably would to our becoming a mediaeval country again, would be impossible to enact.

There are certain uncomfortable truths, in addition to those Al Gore talked about, that early apostle of describing the perils of climate change, not least the fact that this world is healthier, wealthier and more content overall than it has ever been. We have made so much progress. But, yes, we have become far too greedy for growth and swung that dial too far.


The climate change rebels are presenting their case so badly as to make it noisily inaudible. Most politicians today go over the top – Donald Trump lives in a racing, spluttering first gear. Our own Parliament is full of rage.

But words matter. Calm, thoughtful argument matters. Riots, vituperation and violence aren’t the right tools for a balanced discussion.


The rebels have a strong story but super-gluing themselves to planes obscures that story.


“Start-ups Pivots and Pop Ups” by Richard Hall and Rachel Bell is published on October3rd by Kogan Page. The antidote to doubt and gloom.


Monday, 7 October 2019

VIDEO KILLED THE RADIO STAR...

This single by the Buggles went to the top of 11 international charts including the UK in 1979. The lyrics concluded as follows:
Video killed the radio star
Video killed the radio star
In my mind and in my car
We can't rewind we've gone too far


I was thinking about it last Thursday as our book on start-ups was launched and Co-Author Rachel Bell and I sat in a sound recording studio in Hammersmith doing a series of Radio interviews.

Radio wasn’t of course killed by technology, which this curiously elegiac pop song suggested. Radio’s listening profile is remarkably consistent remaining at just under 50 million weekly individual listeners throughout the current decade.

Have you ever done it? Headphones on, red light showing you’re on air, a tiny studio the soundproofing in which gives you illusion of being deaf.  And then you’re nearly on air…


“I’m Fiona, Terry’s producer you’ll be speaking to him in just 20 seconds”
You hear a long forgotten pop song blaring through your headphones  - Video killed the Radio star…ooh ah – which fades
“We have with us today Rachel Bell and Richard Hall who’ve written this book ‘Start-ups, Divots and Prop Ups’ – I got that wrong didn’t I – sorry guys - well what’s it all about?”


Just for a moment you have no idea. Your mind blanks. You are not sure you’ve ever written a book. You recall Jeremy Paxman who had a walk on part in The Edge of Reason, the Bridget Jones film and who found it utterly terrifying, literally struggling to walk and talk at the same time.

Or there was the time a taxi driver called (say) Ted Davies waiting in BBC reception hearing a bossy PA calling  “is Professor Davis here?” He raised a tentative hand and was rushed into a studio to be interviewed by someone like Martha Kearney about a recently published  report on something esoteric like black holes in space and earnestly trying his confused best:
“That Wapping High Street can be a black hole in the rush hour”…

The mind is a funny thing. You hear a voice – not your own surely – higher, rougher, slightly aggressive with a nasty sardonic chuckle. It’s talking very fast and quoting people you’ve never come across. You sound rather pleased with yourself. It’s all rather ghastly.
“Thanks Rachel and Richard that was great”…”Thanks Fiona” you croak.

 

I have a recurring nightmare of finals at Oxford and discovering I can answer nothing, have read all the wrong books and am staring dry mouthed in horror. This happened to one candidate I heard about who taking things into his own hands shouted “you bastards” and ran up the Examination Hall to attack one of the examiners.

The reality was all the radio stations were very professional and slick. The interviewers were charming, helpful, mentioned the right title of the book and got the best out of us.

Video killed the Radio Star? Not last Thursday it didn’t.

“Start-ups Pivots and Pop Ups” by Richard Hall and Rachel Bell is published on October 3rd by Kogan Page. The antidote to doubt and gloom.



Monday, 30 September 2019

WHO'S A SILLY BILLY?

HR experts have found a new, trendy use for artificial-intelligence. They ‘re enhancing the precision of recruitment by getting applicants for jobs to video themselves whilst responding to a set of pre-prepared questions. The algorithm then analyses facial expressions for honesty, resourcefulness and, resilience or whatever qualities are deemed important. No, this is not a joke. Unilever and other big companies are taking it really seriously.


The theory underlying this is  that human beings’ judgement is too biased and unreliable and is better replaced instead by a kind of consistent, artificial …. stupidity.

Here’s my problem. We are all that we have. Our humanity is what makes is good or bad but above all remarkable. We are put on earth to play our part in a role of the drama called life. My favourite new way of describing the HR leadership function is not the increasingly popular “Head of People” title but that used by a Canadian company who’d decided it was the quality of people they hired and the way they interrelated that would define their success.  They used the term “Casting Director”.


The difficulty of hiring people relates to how they fit together as a team not them individually. Unity of purpose and the ability to collaborate is more relevant than it’s ever been.

Which brings me to the uneasy scenes we’ve recently seen in the House of Commons. It’s pretty obvious that compromise and the bringing-together-of-people are not probable achievements there at present.

It’s also evident that big, blustering, bonking Boris (no offence Mr Johnson but you must admit the AI algorithm would have you marked out as a bit of a  buffoon) has been briefed to act the role of disruptor to flummox and enrage the “remainers.” It’s working insofar as their barely restrained violence does their preferred position of calm unification  no good.

But where has the role of satire gone? Why is no one laughing at big, bad Boris?


The best joke  I heard was from Emily Thornberry who, at the Labour Party Conference, described her recent cycling accident. As she lay bleeding on the road the paramedics attending her asked a series of questions like “what day of the week is it?”, “How many fingers am I holding up?”

She was doing fine until the third question ”who’s the Prime Minister?” She told them to rush her to hospital as she was suffering serious delusions “it surely can’t be… Boris Johnson!”

Homo Sapiens, as Yuval Noah Harai says in his book “Sapiens”, got us where we are today through our gregariousness and ability to work together. Put AI or social sabotage like Boris is using into the mix and what has taken centuries to achieve will be compromised and lost.


It was that jovial attack-dog Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey who used the phrase “Silly Billy” in the 1970s

“Silly” is a good word for misused artificial-intelligence or misused leadership. Not “wicked” just plain silly. Silly Boris.

“Start-ups Pivots and Pop Ups” by Richard Hall and Rachel Bell is published on October 3rd by Kogan Page. The antidote to doubt and gloom.


Monday, 23 September 2019

ARE THERE ANY BIG IDEAS ANYMORE?

Historically civilisation has revolved around big ideas.


Successions of great empires like the Assyrian, Persian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Mughal, Chinese and British. Movements like the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment. Revolutions like the French and American. Technological breakthroughs: Gutenberg’s printing presses, the Agrarian, Industrial and Transport Revolutions and the Information Revolution around now for just two decades.
Then we had dictators (and leaders) from Attila to Julius Caesar to William the Conqueror, to Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Franco and Mao Ze Dong. History is full of big (and often bad) men.


All the big ideas of the past were driven by big brains and strong-minded people. But big ideas have more recently been usurped by distractions or small-minded ambitions. We seem be making the world a smaller place. In this smaller place figures like Trump, Putin and Farage stand out not through being better, bigger or smarter but be being simpler and louder.

When people talked about the benefits and cost savings being bigger brought, they were doing so in the context of the industrial age. A big idea like those we find in the writings of Harari, Gladwell or Lewis comes from one man’s mind not a scaled up machine. When we play new video games they, as often as not, are conceived by clever individuals. Creativity is not about bigger it’s always about smarter, more liberated thinkers.


Life has become more splintered. Big organisations like Arcadia, Carillion and Thomas Cook falter on mountains of debt and huge fixed-costs. Buying anything on line has neutralised consumers’ concept of size. Political parties are no longer broad churches. In 2017 the UK had three parties, Conservative, Labour and SNP. Now we‘ve at least two Tory parties, two Labour parties, the Lib Dems, Brexit and SNP. It feels more like Italy than Britain.

In 2019 it feels better to be a small independent restaurant than a large chain. Small and opinionated is better than big and amorphous. Which brings us back to ideas. Big ideas do not belong to big organisations; they are driven by simple easy-to-cling-to concepts.

We currently have four I can see:
- Go back to the past – read Robert Harris’ Second Sleep.
- Resist rapid progress – globalisation, federation, technology, change in general
- Accelerate communication – social media, more film providers, more fragmentation
- Stop Climate Change – a 16 year old Swedish schoolgirl has done more than David Attenborough to wake up the world

Brexit doesn’t get a mention but the bigger companies will suffer most and the smaller will cope best as will – if it happens - the smallest, who’ll thrive by being alert to changes.

This “new world” is the really big idea.

 A chameleon-like, rebellious place where people skip school to protest and get applauded not detention, where new political tribes are formed and where big is seen as “titanically” irrelevant against our melting icebergs.


Weep for Toyota, Facebook and Tesco. Memories of the past before people found their voices.




“Start-ups Pivots and Pop Ups” by Richard Hall and Rachel Bell is published on October 3rd by Kogan Page. The antidote to doubt and gloom.



Tuesday, 17 September 2019

SPAIN RAVAGED BY WORST STORM A CENTURY

I was there at 3pm, aghast as gales, crashing thunder, non-stop lightening and torrential rain - 20% of annual average fell in a few hours - and ripped through the laughingly named Costa del Sol.


Storm Gabriel met the remnants of Hurricane Dorian and put the piffling disturbance of Brexit into perspective.

Monday, 9 September 2019

A BIT MORE CHARM WOULDN'T GO AMISS

Maybe I’m in a genial mood because I’m about to go for a week’s rest, relaxation and reflection in Spain. When I discovered there’s going to be seven days of wall-to-wall sun there I felt even more genial. It’s the opportunity to read a book a day and fill my mind with new thoughts, plots and excitement.


My geniality was enhanced by Amy Ryder. Amy  works for British Airways. Here’s why we spoke. When our flights to Malaga were cancelled because of the pilots’ strike I tried to get my refund. It was at moments like this that automation and technology seem sadly wanting. With some 450,000 other thwarted customers also trying to get refunds on their PCs the BA systems crashed. Eventually I e-mailed Alex Cruz the BA CEO  and Chairman saying I realised he was busy but could he get someone to sort out my problem. Enter Amy. She was professional, charming, relaxed – in short, a delight and a brilliant example of customer service.  It took five minutes of unscripted conversation on the phone for her to sort my problem and five minutes for my faith in BA to be fully restored. Charm makes magic.


In contrast Parliament has been charmless. No worse than that,  thuggish, barbarian and stupid. Boris is not and has never been restrained. Reckless, rumbustious and expansive describes the man. But his behaviour was dwarfed by the baying crowds around him. I began to feel parliament had been prorogued by for far too short a time. How about proroguing it forever? And then within their ranks there were wistful reflections that maybe they could have another shot at Theresa May’s deal. Increasingly “no deal”  begins to feel like the vet’s humane killer gun necessary to put us out of our misery. The worst thing, of course, is their shocking manners and hostility.


How do we unite this broken country I heard someone wail. It’s doable but only if we encourage people to listen, think and debate good humouredly. I heard some signs of this on Any Answers on Saturday but presenter Anita Anand sounded frustrated as people phoning in were in succession thoughtful Brexiteers who kept on reminding her that the government had pledged to do what the referendum told them to do. “But no one voted for no deal” she retorted “No one didn’t not vote for it either” someone said. Hmm! Presenters and interviewers seem rather keen to stir things up which is regrettable.

In the meantime the BBC and everyone else needs to calm things down. The mood of the nation must be less adversarial and , yes, more genial. Recently I met someone who said how much he hated Christmas yet it’s that Christmas spirit we need. Here’s what Washington Irving who was the real inventor of the Christmas we love said:


So I’m off to Spain, the land of lazily enjoying life in ultimate geniality.
Se amable. Que te diviertas. Feliz Septiembre.