Monday, 24 November 2014


Globally the battle is between the past and the future.

In the Middle East and Asia, some Islamic values are at loggerheads with modernity. By the same token some traditional Anglicans find the idea of a female bishop bizarre. Someone said apparently:

You might as well ordain a pork pie as ordain a woman bishop

I rather like pork pies. But they are a little old fashioned and reminiscent of summers past.
As is the UKIP argument that the EU is sucking us dry, that immigrants are a drain on the economy and that fings aint wot they used to be.

Yet UKIP is doing well and we need to understand what their problem really is (not as some do hope it’ll go away). All traditionalists of whatever persuasion are saying in slightly different tones of voice “can’t we go back to things as they were?”

The trouble is that “the way things were” wasn’t really as good as it is today. Nonetheless stick with that nostalgic urge and try to empathise with it.

Jerusalem, green and pleasant lands, steam trains, pipe smoking, bosses and workers, Nottingham Forest, flat caps, Bill Hailey, Hancock, ‘O’ levels, Aberdeen Angus Steakhouses, Max Bygraves,  capital punishment, Watney’s Red, Jensen Interceptors, Woolworth, corner shops…..

The struggle between past and future is playing out in the marketing arena too. This is not just Farage v the Westminster Bubble. This is the High Street fighting back against the monolith out-of-town warehouses. Small shops trumping Tesco; big companies being attacked vociferously for being bad citizens; Jamie Oliver’s “Comfort Food” suggesting a retro-trend in diet (like the resurgence of pies); the revival of the fountain pen; an old fashioned, Midnight Mass, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen-type Christmas; the return of the epic story….has anyone reflected on the resemblance the long form TV series has to Victorian novels (which were also serialised, cliff hangers and all). This is Brave New World v Nostalgia.

There is nothing new with retro-marketing but there’s an increasing groundswell of opposition to new-fangled technology and, of course, Indian Call Centres and the “press 1 for accounts, 2 for complaints, 3 for other services” style of customer service. We increasingly call for personable, well- brought-up human beings not remote call centres.

Just as the UKIP, Tea Party, and Golden Dawn factions of this world tend to be vociferous minorities so too the retro-entrepreneurs are unlikely to usurp the Goliaths of the retail, energy, financial or fmcg communities. But they’ll bite their ankles very nastily and make them take notice.

This is a world where the entrance price for a troublemaking new brand is low. A website, a storytelling champion, a bit of news, a cacophony of tweets does it.  And one of the marketing strategies working well right now is based on authenticity and nostalgia.

So yes, the past, it seems, is alive and surprisingly well.

Technology moves on but traditionalism has a powerful voice too.

Saturday, 22 November 2014


Here’s how Alexander Solzhenitsyn described empathy:

If you want to change the world who do you begin with - yourself or others? I believe if we begin with ourselves and do the things we need to do and become the best person we can be we must have a better chance of changing the world for the better.”

The more we study this subject of people and their behaviour and ourselves and our own behaviour, the more we realise we aren’t irrational we’re just rather inconsistent. For instance we might speculate quite dramatically about how someone potentially might behave towards us and we might get cross about their hypothetical potential unreasonableness and end up having a fight in our minds with them.

I’ll never speak to him again. Bastard!!

But hang on….you’ve just made this all up. Get back to reality. Step into his shoes. Assume good nature might prevail…what then?

Sam Richards is a brilliant speaker and academic. His “radical experiment in empathy” on TED asks his American audience to imagine how they’d feel if the Chinese invaded the USA on a “peacekeeping mission” but with the generally understood motive of protecting their coal interests. And then switches to making the audience empathise with the Iraqis - yes even the terrorists. It’s compelling. It also shows empathy isn’t always comfortable. Sam asks us to “swap one tiny world for another tiny world” and quotes Dostoyevsky…“Nothing is easier than to denounce the evil doer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him”. If this doesn’t help you want to learn how to empathise then nothing will.

Unlike other psychological areas like creativity, empathy is an area of psychology that is being widely and excitingly explored. An example is the remarkable BrenĂ© Brown who’s an academic exploring how people connect with each other. She suggests we’re neurobiologically programmed for human connection and identifies that in this quest for authentic connection people really learn to empathise. Essential to it, though, is an acceptance that life is a bit messy (she confesses, as someone who likes order, she herself finds this disconcerting) and that admitting to and accepting our own vulnerability is essential to good

If you think about that it flies in the face of years of alpha males practising “don’t show fear” and Harvard Business School and others teaching the necessity of displaying confidence. BrenĂ© says that in her studies what matters most is not people asking “what’s in it for me?” but the increasing cohort asking a much more important question -  “what’s in it for us?” If she’s right, and I think she is, the implication of this for management is significant.

Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.

Michael Jordan

Given more people are asking “what’s in it for people like us?” not “what’s in it for me?” this means we’ve got to think more about groups not individuals. Because it’s the group not the individual who’s winning the climb up that greasy pole now.

How to solve problems and make brilliant decisions. (Business Thinking Skills that really work) published by Pearson

Friday, 21 November 2014


When it comes to creative thinking most of us get blocked by inner voices asking “what if?” or posing the question “just suppose x happens...” The fear of rejection looms larger than the anticipation of success and so long as it does we are driving our creativity with the handbrake on.

And here’s the hardest question of all that I once saw – “if whatever you decide to do next could not fail what would that be?”  The terrifying thing is you have things like “create world peace” and “end of all disease” to beat and then you wonder whether either of those might have an explosive impact on  population growth so terrible that the expression “be careful what you wish for” would come home to roost rather smugly. Creativity needs a bit of grit in the oyster to achieve really great results. Human beings handle perfection uneasily.

In fact most people are lacking in confidence when it comes to creative thinking. They think they are reasonably intelligent but weak at creativity. In self-assessment tests respondents scored themselves at 7/10 for intelligence but only at 4.5/10 for creativity. In removing the most obvious blocks we have to realise that our brain has a habit of lying to us. Yes inside our heads is a congenital fibber.

In research tests where people are asked to solve a problem involving moving a weight from position A to position B and the answer is to swing the weight on a rope pendulum (an obvious solution once seen) they will deny having had any help to get there despite the questioner brushing the rope and giving strong hints.

Yes, I’m sorry to say the creative muscle in our head tells great whoppers. It’s also a brilliant film editor cutting and editing our memory so our “honest” recollection of history is (how shall I put it?) especially favourable to us. We are heroes in our own memories. We are tolerant, kind and liberal. By the way if you want to find out what you really are deep down try the “Implicit Association Test” (‎). You may be a little surprised.

Creativity is massively impeded if we meet a cynic. There are a variety of terrible expressions cynics have mastered which act like a right hook on our ability to think lucidly, imaginatively and come up with ideas:

 “Well, anyway…”, “in the meantime…”, “mind you…”, “let me think about it”… (that means “no” in plain English), “suppose for the sake of argument…”, “with the greatest respect”…, “that’s all very well but…

Assumptions stifle creativity; assumptions that our ideas won’t meet approval, that the audience won’t laugh or assumptions that the worst will happen.  This also happens in institutionalised bureaucracies where the assumption exists that creativity is a bit flippant and “not for us.

How to solve problems and make brilliant decisions. (Business Thinking Skills that really work) published by Pearson

Thursday, 20 November 2014


We know how important our emotions are - that our instincts are the powerful engine of our thinking. We think we are coldly rational whilst it’s our intuition in charge.  This makes for a more interesting but less predictable life. Decisions are reached by our working hard trying to get emotions and logic aligned. But here’s what’s really going on.

Our sub-conscious is making the decision that is fed to our conscious and there’s a time lag of ½ second between the two (Benjamin Libet started this work at the University of California over 50 years ago). This suggests that when this happens the decision we are seeking arrives in our mind (unannounced as it were). So we’d do well to think “let’s question again whether this is the right or the only decision.” In other words rigorously question ourselves.

A key to good thinking is always going to be to strengthen our resistance to taking our own feelings for granted. Trust your gut but then say: “hang on…can I find a better solution…is this necessarily the best and only decision?” Never dismiss first impressions but park them as a useful start and then re-examine all the data you can. Life needn’t be a lottery if you’re smart (but don’t tell Camelot that).

When we’ve decided what we need to do we still have to carry others with us. Marketing our decisions is the really hard bit, much, much harder than making the decision itself.

Because a decision isn’t going to be a real decision until it gets buy-in.

Emotion drives decisions. Emotion conditions receiving decisions. This is why presentation matters. How you wrap up a present says how much you care. How you deliver a message is critical to how it’s heard.

if a surgeon tells you either that a given procedure gives you a 10% chance of dying or tells you that it gives you a 90% chance of surviving (and rationally you know that these are exactly the same thing) the chancGeorge Bush, es are you’ll see the latter option as being much superior. (And, unsurprising, in research the comparative approval scores are respectively 50% and 84%.)

Not everyone thinks making decisions is that hard. Here’s what George Bush said: “I don’t spend a lot of time taking polls around the world to tell me what I think is the right way to act. I’ve just got to know how I feel.

I hope, if nothing else, that remark underlines just how important rigorous thinking really is when making decisions. Emotion is fine. Trust your gut. Yeah but shucks there must be more to the most important job in the world than that.
Richard Hall's book "How to solve problems and make brilliant decisions"

How to solve problems and make brilliant decisions. (Business Thinking Skills that really work) published by Pearson

Wednesday, 19 November 2014


A good friend, adventurer and guru of the human soul, John Scott, sent me a book he thought I’d like, the sort of question-asking book that has you exasperated, excited and being turned into a compulsive liar.
Sorry….my diary is packed today …maybe tomorrow” Well it was packed, packed with the story of Mae and the Circle.

Let’s talk about the author Dave Eggers. He wrote “A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius” aged 21 and with the proceeds set up a non-profit writing and tutoring centre for kids ages 6–18 in San Francisco. He set it up as a pirate shop selling pieces of eight, peg legs, and pirate impedimenta. Already you have to love this guy.

And so to “The Circle” which is a remorselessly involving story of a dystopian world. Think Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” meets Facebook. I’m not, I think, alone in speculating about growing older in a society where not being an inveterate Tweeter and user of Tumblr is to make one as socially inept as not having a phone.

Judged out of touch and incompetent, we’re a generation of two fingered typists who haven’t heard of One Direction let alone Pitbull and DJSnake.

Mae gets a prized job at the Circle, a multifaceted corporation that’s a cross between Amazon, Google, Facebook and Enron.  Life on the campus is a re-enactment of the best of university life added to living in the heart of downtown San Francisco (a nearby city) with the best chefs and music groups in constant, suppliant attendance so influential has the Circle become.

Her journey is one from a newbie in customer service, where she excels, to becoming the voice of the organisation. Life is busy on-line and offline but mostly the book deals with and dramatizes the claustrophobia that a perfectly engineered social existence would become.
The importance of the book described as follows by the critics:

Prescient, important and very funny” (The Guardian),
Witty and troubling” (The Washington Post),
A timely warning of of the perils of the internet age” (The Sunday Telegraph),
Prescient and scary” (The Times).

Take an idea and apply the principle of “reductio ad absurdam” and you create the Circle. But the scary bit is Eggers manages to get the reader from time to time to agree with deluded Mae. It also seemed weirdly true to life.

Unlike “The Hunger Games “which depicts another more violent vision of the future this has the protagonist not a victim, for once, but in control of her destiny. She applies teenage logic to the complexities of life. The results are populist and chilling.

By the way if you want a great send up of HR read it now. It’s compelling satire.

We could end up like this but not if we’re thoughtful and critical about technology. Just because it’s new doesn’t mean that it’s right. And just because progress seems seductive it doesn’t follow that the end justifies the means.

Still…read it and worry.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014


I wish I’d known all these earlier in my career. Decision making which varied from the timorous to crassly rash could have been avoided.

Avoid thinking like an ass. An ass was dying in the desert equidistant from food and water. Unable to decide which way to go to satisfy his needs he died. If you know that you have to make a decision and it’s a 50:50 choice about what to do, assess both options and then make a decision. Do not be an ass.

Avoid making up your mind prematurely. The single most common cause of bad decisions is deciding what to do before hearing all of the evidence. It’s hard to resist as our instincts are at work before we are even aware of it. Listen to what the whole story is first.

Avoid inappropriate prevarication. “Stop and think” is good advice. But in a crisis or if you’re in the middle of a motorway with traffic hurtling towards you, rely on your instincts, trust your gut and get a move on.

Avoid being that man in the ivory tower. Do not decide without conferring from others if you want good results from those around you.

Don’t be a dictator. The Duke of Wellington, who led the British Army at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 became Prime Minister 13 years later. Asked by a friend after his first cabinet meeting how it had gone he said:-  “Extraordinary thing but I gave them their orders and they wanted to sit around and discuss them.” The day of the autocrat is over.

Avoid being hungry. As a young man Daniel Kahneman worked in Israel with the Israel Parole Court. He found judges were more likely to allow parole after lunch than before they’d eaten. So do not make big decisions on an empty stomach.

Avoid small numbers. The use of anecdote and small samples “The law of small numbers” is bad practice.  How often in the middle of a seriously argued case will you hear someone who’s otherwise very sensible say “well that’s all very well but I recently saw…”?

Avoid being smug about success. Success can confuse thinking and decision making. We remember when we made a great call that really paid off. We always (being human) want to repeat that.

Avoid reducing your chances. Making decisions when you are very tired, jet lagged, drunk or are working in a foreign language is best avoided

Avoid shortcuts, sleeping on the job and short changing – the brain has a brilliant way of taking the easy way out. By:

  • Asking ourselves a different,  easier question
  • Or moving on to something we like doing not this difficult thing
  • Or going  into mental hibernation like  “I’ll sleep on it”
  • Or failing to look hard enough. Magicians rely on our faulty eyesight. We see pretty clearly dead in front of us – things that are in the spotlight – but there’s darkness on the periphery of our vision.

How to solve problems and make brilliant decisions. (Business Thinking Skills that really work)
published by Pearson

Monday, 17 November 2014


Everyone is talking about “Big Data.” It’s transforming the way we think and analyse stuff. We have discovered that correlation has become more important than causality. That what happens is more important than why it happens. The book by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier published last year - “Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think” is highly recommended.

We know the increase of information is accelerating. For instance all the information and data that currently exists will double in the next three years. With more information we need less exactness. Nowadays the equation 2+2= 3.9 is good enough. We don’t need to be exact if we can see the big

Today social media and CCTV may be more useful research tools than anything else we have. Google Translate has extraordinarily proved to be the best translation service around. The software uses “corpus linguistics” techniques, where the programme "learns" from professionally translated documents, specifically UN and European Parliament proceedings but increasingly from all kinds of documentation – lots and lots of sources – big, big data. (In passing how it is nice that the forest of paper produced by the UN and EU can go to such good use.)

Intriguingly they say the service improved since the linguists they’d hired when they started up (well you would want linguists in a translation service wouldn’t you?) left the business because they wanted linguistic perfection whereas this being a product of big data is not that subtle. This is one of the few examples I’ve come across where big trumps clever.

The existence of robust data obviating the need for the tabloid use of anecdote allows us to spend more time using our brains to think rather than using them as pickaxes to mine for information. Anyone who tells you that guessing is more fun than knowing hasn’t come across the thrill of irrefutable information.

Its application is critical in the medical field where the speed of big data via social media allows a disease to be detected before it becomes an epidemic (and because detected early it can never become a pandemic.) We hear less about avian flu today in part thanks to big data.

So the big data  boom is happening and we have however sufficient glimpses of the future to see we’ll be doing less intellectual “grunt-work” in the future and more intellectual “stunt-work”.
To be sure there can and will be issues of data protection that arise from increasing access to data but the excitement lies in big data allowing us the freedom to think more clearly.

How to solve problems and make brilliant decisions. (Business Thinking Skills that really work) published by Pearson