Monday, 11 February 2019


A friend of mine is very clever but he also has the irritating habit of describing complex issues as “incredibly simple” or even “insanely simple”. In fact nearly everything we have created nowadays is distinctly not simple at all. The idea of ‘just in time’ as a supply chain concept couldn’t be simpler but in fact it requires Rolex precision processes to work. It’s complexity is such that any tinkering with it will break it.  ‘Almost in time most of the time’ is not a viable concept; it’s like a watch without a minute hand.

What has shocked me most over the past months is the pitiful ignorance of many politicians in failing to understand how complex businesses with sophisticated supply chains work. I suspect they imagine that Tesco is like a larger version of a corner shop or what we used to called “Mama & Pappa Shops” or more interestingly “Cat in the Window” shops.

Our world, like it or not, comprises Smart Phones which are ludicrously over powered pieces of technology worth thousands of pounds but through volume production driven down to cost just pence. The warehouses that supply us with books and clothes and food are increasingly driven by robots so when the Ocado Warehouse in Andover caught fire last week the fire brigade couldn’t get in as it was totally robot controlled. Eventually they hacked holes in the roof but too late. The warehouse was completely destroyed.

The big things we create like the NHS with bigger and better hospitals, new MOD toys like leading edge aircraft carriers and fighter planes so technologically advanced that understanding just why a glitch occurs and how much it will cost to fix is not simple -  it’s very complicated.

There was an old world that an 85 year-old dreamily described as “when we made Spitfires”  (during World War 11 we made 22,000.Morgan currently makes 1.3 k cars a year – fewer but that’s Spitfire country.)  That old world was duller, slower, dirtier (who remembers smog?), and much less efficient in every way but it was simpler and we collectively are beginning to feel it’s simplicity that’s been stolen from us.

How many people really understand the algorithms that drive the Facebook Empire. When  the late Molly Russell’s parents tried to have their daughter’s social media data retrieved – her suicide possibly encouraged by online imagery -  they couldn’t get it done because we’ve become victims of complexity.

I used to play the game “what would you do if the internet permanently collapsed?”  The Millennials burst into tears whilst older people rubbed their hands, got out their Airfix catalogues and Parker pens.

The reality is our sophisticated, incredibly clever systems can’t be done by hand. If the internet collapsed it would be chaos. Banks, retailers, hospitals, transport systems, schools and government would grind to a halt.  Our world is too complex to go back.

And that’s why none of this is simple however much we wish it was.

Monday, 4 February 2019


A friend of mine with a big job in a multinational company told me about his appraisal. It was glowing, all the KPIs were “smashed out of the park”. But there was just one thing - almost an afterthought. He was told he needed to do something about his “executive presence”. As it was just after Christmas I assumed he was being criticised for the quality of the gifts he’d given his colleagues at Christmas. No he said “executive presence” not “executive presents”.

And he thought it was a problem. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. About why people judge others primarily by their noisiness, by the way they laugh or the way they dress. Years ago another friend – a senior civil servant who’d successfully  led a tricky  project that required great diplomatic skills, intelligence and courage got a review that focused on his clothes -  “this man should get a new tailor”. Save the nation? Pah! Creases in his trousers not sharp enough.

The solution to this, of course, is to learn how to play the game. And there are four immediate things to do.

1. Speak much louder. Clare Foges, the Times columnist and one time No. 10 speechwriter noticed the public school boys around David Cameron all had very loud voices and loud laughs. Apparently you could hear Dave from two rooms away. Clare herself upped her vocal decibels.

2. Not just a  firm handshake - a challenging vice like grip whilst staring into your victims eyes and getting close to them. Behave as though there is no one else in the room, that they’re important like you.

3. Think tall. Straighten your back imagine you’re a foot taller than you are and don’t walk confidently. No. Swagger.

4. Always look as though you have a lot of time and that what you’re doing is easy, almost beneath you and deeply amusing.  Nothing but nothing can ruffle you. Rich Hall (my extremely funny American comedian/musician namesake when asked if he ever got nervous said “no because I don’t care what they think”… that’s executive presence.)

Years ago Jim Collins wrote a book called “From Good to Great”. In it he celebrates low-key CEOs who coach their people and take an avuncular back seat. More Clement Attlee than Winston Churchill. His thesis is the rock star leaders like Jack Welch was belong to a different more combative era.
If, as it seems, business and politics has become a game then it isn’t that hard to be coached to look and behave a bit more like Gwyneth Paltrow than the late Victoria Wood or George Clooney than Mark Rylance. Polish and make up are cheap. Talent and integrity less so.

We could do with a bit less flash look-at-me and a bit more thinking. A bit less Mourinho a bit more Solskj√¶r. It’s time to place our bets on intelligence not alpha male or female braggadocio.