Monday, 13 July 2020

WHERE HAVE ALL THE FLOWERS GONE?

In the midst of this quirky summer the answer is they’re in our garden. What started as a way of consoling ourselves in lockdown became a thing of overplanting just to see what happened.  The mallow, campion, scabious, cosmos, salvia, lavender and penstemon are all jostling for position in our flower beds and getting taller and taller. It’s rather exciting.


Where have all the bees gone? Well we saw few last year but now our garden is crammed with swarms of humming, happy bees. They are accompanied by butterflies – and I’d nearly forgotten what they’d looked like. 

Like many people I’ve tended to take bees for granted. I’d heard of course of their dramatically declining numbers. This year it’s different. The bee crisis got celebrity publicity through Morgan Freeman and Jeremy Clarkson both becoming bee keepers buying millions of them Clarkson calls them the ”corner stone of everything… the keystone species.”


But bees are quite complex. There are over 270 different bee species in the UK – there were over 300. The females work incredibly hard collecting pollen and making honey. The males lounge about with their friends in the hive – if there was such a thing as a Bee Bar they’d be leaning forward with a glass of nectar and saying “I sure fancy that queen.”

What I realised the other day were not just the economics of bees and the benefits of honey but that the buzzing of bees and their sheer business – rushing from petal to petal – reminded me of being a small boy again. Back then bees, butterflies and cricket were what summer was all about.


But the economics of bees is not irrelevant. As I watch them at work I am blown away by the unremitting industry they show. The average hive produces 24 jars in a season and the value of their pollination of farm crops and trees is valued at around £ ¾ billion a year. 

So as Chaucer coined it, time to get “busy as a bee”. After nearly four months of slightly aimless inertia it’s hard to get the motor firing up again – we have all become hermits retreated into our furloughed sanctuaries. It’s not so much a question of “distancing” ourselves from each other as excluding ourselves from social contact. Greta Garbo was alleged to have said “I want to be alone” – I know how she felt because I’ve started to feel like that myself.

As I read the paper each day I see a mixed world right now. Anger. Solitude. Protests. Division. I don’t see too much joy except, thank God, in nature.

Happy bees are  the best news of all.  Time to reflect. Me? I’m reviewing my life options right now. Our house is gleaming with fresh paint. It’s up to all of us to make the best of life just like those bees. Let’s make this a better (not an angrier, adversarial or dirtier) place. Let’s just enjoy a wonderful summertime.



Monday, 6 July 2020

NUDGE, NUDGE.....

 “Nudge Theory” popularised by Thalers, Sunstein and Halpern in 2008  became very popular. David Cameron, Barack Obama, the World Bank, UN and the EU were supporters. It showed how suggestions rather than instructions and positive reinforcement could change behaviour more effectively than more doctrinaire methods. In behavioural economics it was the go-to philosophy.


I liked it. In my mentoring establishing a positive platform of optimism focusing on good things rather than trying to implement a programme of radical behavioural surgery has always seemed the better way forward and upwards.

Change is funny stuff. We may proclaim ourselves as advocates of change and of wanting to be ahead of the curve but most of us are more timorous and want to inhabit the known world rather than shooting off to Mars.


It’s the little things in life that make the biggest effect. When we embarked on a programme of post-coronavirus home improvements by hiring a genius called Darren, the swathes of  fresh white paint in a lightwell and renovated and repainted doors earned approval. However it was the tidying up and concealing of unsightly electrical leads in our library and the mending of a dripping garden tap that got bigger smiles, applause and delight. Fixing minor irritations is a key to happiness.

Similarly small successes in customer service are what we remember more than the predictable reliability of Amazon. I ordered a case of wine last week from a local wine merchant, Butlers of Brighton. They promise next day delivery but on this occasion they delivered it an hour later. Amazing.


I emailed the nursery at Leonardslee to see if they had delphiniums to replace the lupins which has done their turn. I got an email from Maxine their deputy head gardener, explaining how to cut back the lupins so as to get a second flowering and a tutorial on perennials. Amazing.

Little things, all of these, but they stick in one’s mind and restore faith in humanity. They are like the skilled adjustments a great driver achieves. We live currently in a world of handbrake turns or, as Matthew Syed put it in the Sunday Times, people trying to drive a tanker without a steering wheel. No nudging towards improvement. No attempt to learn from failures.

Our system , we’re told is broken, useless, needs destroying and rebuilding. I see the Germans call our Prime Minister ‘das GroƟmaul‘ – big mouth. Others I know call him other things but this isn’t another Bash-Boris piece. Just this…do we really believe that in the midst of the pandemic, a tottering economy and a battered and upset electorate the right course of action is revolution?  Surely what we need is quiet, systematic competence. We need some BMW engineering not eccentrically different concept like the disastrous Delorean.


If there’s nothing else the past few months have taught us it’s to make decisions carefully, see them through and then critically execute them effectively. Nudge to success. Not just bound hopefully to infinity and beyond.



   

Monday, 29 June 2020

TIME TO CHALLENGE ALMOST EVERYTHING

Last week I advised people how to restart their lives.  I think it hit the mark although it had a sense of “pull yourself together” about it. Sorry. 

We live under a mile from the sea and have been there once in 14 weeks. I’ve not lost my spirit of enterprise but the risks involved in being in one of the most popular venues for the heavy-drinking, young released from their incarceration in the grey, coronavirus-ridden suburbs of London, are too great. The pleasure I get from the Brighton seafront just isn’t enough. It’s not exactly Nice after all.


Time to challenge almost everything?

Let’s start with the tricky business of managing people. Government have shown they’re inept, astonishingly so. Switching from defining red lines – “stay at home” to pink lines “stay alert” to no lines at all is like removing all speed limits. If you’ve travelled on a German autobahn you’ll recall the terror of being driven at 260k kph by someone with one hand on the wheel and the other holding a mobile phone and having an argument. All round the world there are spikes in virus transmission because of the removal of speed limits and thus social distancing. Getting the economy going did not mean allowing crowds to assemble and become hooligans. 


Next, as though it has suddenly taken them by surprise the Italians have realised there are over 450,000 Airbnb listings in their country (up from 52 just over 10 years ago).  We give away what we have for a bit of cash and then regret it.  Cruise ships account for only 3% of the Venetian economy ($450 million) and have done more damage to the city than anyone can calculate although it’s estimated the pollution of the yearly 600 cruise ships docking creates the same as 8 ½ million cars.  We should challenge the easy, cheap access to historic sites and the erosion to them it creates.  Airbnb was a brilliant concept as were cruise ships but can they make sense post-coronavirus?


Silicon Valley is an easy target.  But if it’s true Apple impeded the UK’s “test and trace” plan – flaky though that might have been – then it’s what I’d expect.  Zuckerberg, Dorsey, Bezos, Cook etc. believe they’re more important than any government.  Strange to hear Sir Nick Clegg on the BBC justifying Facebook’s behaviour.  A rumoured $7 million package is all it took to get him to join them. 


Allegedly Bernard Shaw asked a woman if she’s sleep with him for a considerable sum of money. She blushingly said she would.  He then asked: ‘How about for a pound?’  The exchange that followed was like this:

She: 'What kind of woman do you think I am?'
He:   'We’ve already established that. Now we’re just haggling over the price.'

Challenge why people do what they do. The price is too often the key.

It’s time to challenge everything.

As children know ‘why?' is the most potent and infuriating word there is.


Monday, 22 June 2020

YOU'VE GOT TO SELF-START NOW NOT HOPE FOR THE BEST

As things get back to that normal people talk, and have been dreaming about they’ll be shocked to find their business is going or has gone bust or if they’re in employment that they’ve been made redundant. It’s nice to have a pint again, even if it’s in the street in the drizzle. But with as many as 4 million unemployed, 30% of small businesses failing, over 90% of which were trading at or above forecast pre-coronavirus, drastic measures need to be taken.


Think about starting your own business. If you lose your job or your business what will you do instead?

1. Think small - It’s no time to be grandiose. Think hard. Stick to what you are good at. Design something that you can do well and quickly.

2. Focus on people you know and build a relationship grid - Never cold call. Waste of time. Short cut to despair. List everyone you know whom you rate and like and you think rates and likes you. Use LinkedIn to find who they know; build a big map of potential supporters.


3.Relearn the forgotten art of conversation and debate - Too much PowerPoint. Not enough thoughtful talking.

4.Avoid the chit-chat of social media - The bane of business. Avoid it. All the smart people I know are talking 1X1 not on time-wasting-messaging.

5. Avoid politics or dissent; it has no place in business - You may hate Trump, Boris or wokeness.  Leave them out of your mind …focus on your service  or product and its immediate context.


6.Write clearly, simply and with joy (or get someone to help you) - Hilary Mantel and Philip Pullman prove the power of the word. Write a lot. Find your own clear, simple persuasive voice.

7. Avoid exceptionalism - Do not try to design from scratch when modification may work as well. The Test and Trace App fiasco should be a warning to all.


8. Have something to sell people want and is worth talking about. - Do not waste time by being abstruse. Better to be very good at something than trying to be unique. Be thrilled talking about what you do.

9. Be generous to others -  Don’t deride competition. Be nice.  It’s easy to be a killer or to want to be a Master of the Universe but be nice if you can. Good humour and good manners work well. Customer service is key.

10. Look for opportunities - Get your curiosity working all day, every day and look for better ways of creating something. Be an optimist.


There are no easy answers in life but with the right frame of mind you can overcome depression, recession and apparent disaster. And if at first you don’t succeed be smart enough to pivot and start again. The great thing about self-starting is you are free of office politics and are your own boss. Better by far to be a happy greengrocer than a miserable salaried person.

This book may help.

Monday, 15 June 2020

PUSSY CAT, PUSSY CAT WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?


In our garden. On our plants. That’s where. Constantly. Last Thursday on my thriving Pulmonaria - all over its glorious leaves. A spectacularly loose bowel movement. Until recently I have never been ailurophobic (fear and loathing of cats). In my life I’ve had a total of 13 cats the most outstanding of which was a long-haired tabby imaginatively named Pussy.  But I have recently become a cat loather as I watch them slink with an unmistakable pre-lavatorial gait towards our recently stocked garden.

Enter technology. I have just purchased two waterproof, high-power, ultrasonic-lazer-light- flashing cat-repellers. This adds to the cat deterrent pepper-powder.


I confess I’ve become obsessed with cats, with toxoplasmosis a particularly nasty feline-feces disease that’s more frightening than Covid 19. It’s a feline trademark virus that will give you headaches, confusion, poor coordination, lung problems that may resemble pneumonia and blurred vision. Hang on. I have most of those already.

Cats aside, aren’t we all becoming a bit obsessed? Since the end of March we’ve been locked-down, switched-off and living performers of Groundhog Day, the film where every day is the same and you can’t get away. 

Most of my life I’ve been regarded as being energetic, spirited and upbeat. I’ve espoused the cause of banishing negative thoughts. I’ve even seen some positives coming from the pandemic – a growing support and understanding of climate-change, an improving sense of community, a scepticism about buying solely on price, a burgeoning support for local rather than global and, of course, an intensifying hatred of cats – did you know they kill 27,000,000 birds a year? Bastards.


But being upbeat is a pose hard to maintain when we watch a collision of racism, right wing extremism, incompetence in government – yes crude incompetence is always depressing – and a growing sense of nations simply growing apart, the EU and America collapsing politically and the currently widening divide of rich and poor. As I write this I hear the roar of crowds of 10,000 in Brighton affirming their support for the importance of black lives. 

Black lives matter. So do all lives. Because people matter. Love of mankind matters. In the hysteria of crowds this somehow gets obscured. Protest marches and mass rallies fill me with despair. I thought we’d solved a few issues but the scabs of healing wounds are being scratched off again.
 

Back to upbeat. 
 
Someone said what should we do? Create a movement I said (no mass rallies) whose mission is “to think the unthinkable and the unthought-of and recreate your business and your life”. They thought this rather ambitious but if we don’t try this this really will remain Groundhog Day.


I actually think we can do it – that we have no choices with a 20% decline in GDP. Mass unemployment and company failures will follow but new, brighter businesses can be created. Think Silicon Valley, think advertising in the 1970s, think about the future not the past.

And do not get a cat.

Monday, 8 June 2020

SIZE IS NOT THE ANSWER ANY MORE

In common with many I’ve led my life thinking growth and scale was good. Who, I used to think,  wouldn’t want to be CEO of BA, Tesco or better still Boeing? 


Over the past few years, and especially the past few months, this issue has been on my mind. I noticed the EU Aviation Body published a list of high and low risk airports. Predictably,  Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Glasgow and Manchester get the thumbs down. Most of us wouldn’t  have thought of flying from Bournemouth , Southampton, Southend or Bristol which are categorised as low risk but low stress too. Easy parking. Uncrowded. Smaller and better. 


I predict more airlines will avoid the turmoil of the giant traffic jams, of looking for extra runways and pay-outs and instead seek out slots in the low risk airports devoid of luxury shopping malls and crowds.
And who needs super Jumbo jets. After Covid 19 (with Covid 20 and 21 to come in due course) all we know about confining crowds in monster cruise ships and huge planes should make us look at travel differently and think smaller.

And shopping. Where department stores as theatres of excitement will continue to delight but bad ones will rightly die. Hurray for Harrods, Selfridges , Jarrold and Fortnum and Mason. Boo to Debenhams, House of Fraser and Primark. And big applause to the currently struggling-to-breathe let alone survive small independents in the stroll-and-wonder congregations of small shops in the Brighton North Laine, the Shambles in Tunbridge Wells and the Rows in Chester. Small, specialist and exciting is a good starting point for the future.


Advice? McKinsey, Deloitte, Bain, PWC, WPP? They are full of very clever, big-thinking, expensive people. But in our current world they seem a bit like the ancient Persians or Egyptians. Perhaps in the future we’ll look back at them and their pyramids of HQs and wonder what that was all about.  Bigger. Was that what it was about?

Or have we all been caught out by this moment in history to question virtually everything and start to apply principles of common sense not just private equity visions or Warren Buffet’s wisdom - or is it wisdom?


I enjoyed the story in the Times about face masks. Personally I hate them. They make me feel queasy and my glasses steam up. However if they help reduce infection we should probably use them. But, say the sceptics, they haven’t been tested properly in a big matched sample so how we can use data to establish their worth or worthlessness?  To which the answer is – what about parachutes? Did they ever test parachutes versus placebo parachutes? I’m still laughing about that.

This is not about size or growth alone. It’s about values, quality and great experiences. It is not about crowds – sorry O2 it is not about you.


Will we have the courage to face up to thinking smaller being a solution? I hope so. The alternative is monstrous.

Monday, 1 June 2020

ONLY 36 INCHES FROM REVIVAL

I have been working on and thinking a lot about managing risk over the past week. I recall the wonderfully acerbic H.L. Mencken‘s words:

“the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”

Life is risky. If we try to eliminate all risk we’ll stay in bed. Don’t drive – 27,000 die or are seriously injured every year on the roads.


Don’t go in the kitchen – fires, fingers sliced off, slipping on spilt liquid – the place is a death trap. Don’t play football – as many as one in five suffer a serious injury sometime. Don’t be born – 600,000 people die in the UK every year.

To be alive is to be at constant risk. Yet our human strategy has always been to manage risk not to avoid it. If there were no risktakers there’d be no new products, new companies or discoveries. It’s the entrepreneurial spirit that makes being a human so worthwhile . Yet…back to Mencken… this global pandemic globally reflected his cynical observation.


A culture of risk aversion, almost comic indecisiveness and panic interviewing of anyone who has the willingness to appear on radio or TV and say something different especially attacking the government (not that they deserve any praise, just a bit less mindless kicking).

OK smartarse so what would you do?

Mostly not pretend there was one foolproof plan (how can there be when no one really understands this virus?) nor would I let clever but uncertain experts divert me from one key strategy.
We have got to get the economy moving much faster. To spend so much money just putting it into hibernation has been perverse.

OK how?

One thing I’d do is abandon that two metre rule. The WHO recommend one metre and only two countries advocate two metres. The UK and Spain (the 4th and 5th worst performers in terms of deaths per million). So that didn’t work too well. Current risk aversion would suggest we extended not reduced it.


If instead we reduced it by 36 inches to one metre we could open pubs, restaurants and the tourist economy might start purring into life. Is it a risk? Of course it is. It’s a manageable risk and one we should take.

Unless the towns come back to life it’s hard to start the rest of the economy. And if they do revive a strategy of awakening a dozy, just-had-a-lovely sabbatical workforce is easier to achieve.
The fear and alarm about Covid19 needs to be cooled and proportionate – here in Brighton the incidence has been low. The hospitals have not been and are not overrun. We have to balance risk and reward.


I am not advocating recklessness but we cannot nor should we try to exclude all risk. If we do we shall give up our humanity, our economy and our children’s future.

Monday, 25 May 2020

MOMENTS OF MAGIC AND IRRITATION

This is supposed to be a reflective time when we at last have the opportunity (“space” is the word we’d use today) to examine our values and redefine the meaning of life.

I’m finding it’s more basic than that. For me it’s been the meaning of meals,  of wine (do we have enough?) and of woodlice whose invasion of our flowerbeds have kept me sleepless at night.

There’s a certain aimlessness and self-indulgence to this ‘short’ intermission. They say most of us are gaining weight. Mine however has remained pretty static – slightly tubby – and my appetite for everything is good. Especially magic.


Magic trick number one. The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel, the last and most vast in her trilogy on Thomas Cromwell. I’ve just started reading it and it’s stupefying. Because she writes in the present tense it’s like being there right now next to ‘him’ when ‘he’ speaks or thinks. Thomas Wyatt the poet, courtier and rake appears in it and I recall his poem

‘I find no peace’
‘I fear and hope. I burn and freeze like ice.’ 

Thomas Cromwell is hugely rich, powerful and adept yet he’s skating on very thin ice in this mercurial Tudor world.  Mantel is magic.

Secondly my sense of time has changed since I stopped wearing a watch and keeping a diary. I remember when and where (where? Here) my online meetings are. Life is free of the tyranny of a clock. And seasons have started to mean something real. Three weeks ago they cut the first Sussex asparagus and we had our first season Sussex broad beans on Saturday. They taste of fresh …broad beans…imagine….magic.


To counterbalance the magic I have become increasingly aware of how much and why I loathe social media. It’s mostly puerile and either pity-me whining or listen-to-me ranting. Local communities exercise their petty dislikes and gripes in off-the-cuff comments. Witness the falls from grace of people like Jonathan Agnew, Gary Lineker, Piers Morgan and others like the US President managing to sound like idiots because knee jerk responses are never likely to do them credit. So that’s my first and deepening irritation.


My second is to watch government prove as inept at communication as anyone could imagine.  A recent Financial Times article – still the best most considered journalism – reflected on a government varying from complacency to panic with nothing in between.

I sympathise. This is unknown territory for global leaders. Sweden, Germany and South Korea all have different approaches and we are learning from them but this has not been anyone’s finest hour. We’d better learn because I’m afraid this won’t be the last pandemic

Final piece of magic (and irritation) Venice – devoid of tourists, residents seeing its beauty but facing a  $2billion income hole in their economy. They’ve been trying to manage tourism for decades. Now Covid19 has done it for them.

Be careful what you wish for if you want to avoid economic disaster.


Monday, 18 May 2020

GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS

We have never experienced anything like this. We have slowed down and become more thoughtful but I am detecting underlying schisms in our world  that are emerging with opposing sides are hardening in their thinking.

But first the good news. It’s nature. Spring is always wonderful but this year’s has been spectacular. We’ve spent time this week trying to fill our courtyard “cottagey” garden with as many plants as we can lay our hands on – spurge, Witney primrose, lupin, geum, mesembryanthemum, salvia, teasel, mallow, phlox and lots more. There are  extraordinary petunias like ‘black satin’ and of course a profusion of pansies and geraniums. Meanwhile our jasmine and rose arch has burst into exotic splendour. I wander out at 7:30 am every day muttering encouragement and dispensing water like a Friar dispensing alms … “bless you my son.”


Best of all it has been the week just past that the first white stork chicks since the 15th century in England, have hatched at Knepp, the source of that great “Wilding” story. In the same week Carol Midgely of the Times and Monty Don of Gardeners’ World both tearfully lost their beloved dogs. But nature joyfully moves on.


Nature is winning and the dramatic fall in carbon emissions already this year suggest the climate changers have an unstoppable momentum for their cause. We hear the indignant demands of the UK airline industry which is a large employer for a return to normal. Will many people want to check in 4 hours before take-off for a short flight? Is the whole idea of travel made cheap and painless history? Perhaps an adventurous trek across France to Italy might be more fun. Can we afford to let the industry revive? Should relics like Boeing survive?


People have become kinder, cheerier and more considerate. Alternatively people have become ruder, cruder and crueller. Yes, both of those at the same time. Worse behaviour and stories of heroic neighbourliness. Human beings are complex and not always in a good way. There’s a current story about a Premier League footballer who with friends flew to Paris for a sex party – those were the days I thought but as a flouting of lockdown in two countries it’s breathtaking. I bet he scored though.


The divide between old and young is widening and each is becoming more of a self-parody. The “peace” party versus the “party” party. The landline and letter party versus the social media party. (And can I declare my increasing dismay about the inflammatory power of most social media?  Great jokes go viral - good news; people snarl and froth and create group rage - bad news.)

We talk about ‘getting back’ when we should be talking about ‘moving forward’ – to a better, sustainable world. It’ll  be both good and bad – inevitably. But let’s hope nature comes first. A world where we try to earn money not just to consume more but to create a society that works for everyone – fairer, cleaner and happier.


Monday, 11 May 2020

HOW MIGHTY IS AMAZON?

I’ve always had this back-of-the-mind worry about Amazon. It’s a huge success, of course, and what would we all do without it? All those late night purchases of books which we forgot to buy at Waterstones but now, refreshed by red wine, we joyfully order another selection to join the piles of the unread when they arrive the next day.


So what’s not to like? Their attitude to people for one. Amazon is an HR nightmare. It’s also breaks all the rules we learnt when small. That profit was king. At 4% or less, profit on sales Amazon sweeps all before it; with Third World man management and price-cutting to destroy smaller, more circumspect competitors. And tax? Last year they paid £220 million on UK sales of just under £11 billion. Go figure.


Yet it provides an essential service to the lazy or forgetful. But I’ve started to detect a few cracks. During lockdown it’s taking longer to deliver and it’s not always so cheap now.

Its secret of success was that its competitors were so dire. Bookshops were expensive, slow and often rude. You sometimes felt they were there for the staff and that customers somehow got in their way.
Suddenly we have entered a new world of home-delivery by bookshops, restaurants, butchers,  greengrocers and wine merchants.

One of the great comic writers – our own version of P.J. O’Rourke – is Rod Liddle. Here’s what he wrote last week about one of the most beautiful sounds in the world – no, not birdsong….
“The growl of a diesel engine, the crunch of wheels on gravel and the squeal of brakes”
This signifying the arrival of a Majestic wine delivery.


I have the same feeling – less growling, crunching and squealing – with a Sussex Peasant delivery of asparagus and other locally-grown delights.

But here’s my story of how the game seemed stuck in the past but then was shown to be totally changed. On March 29th I sent an order worth just over £100 to the Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley in response to their heavy catalogue drops. Silence. When we at last put on some pressure we got a slightly aggrieved … “it’s all very difficult and we’re very busy.” More silence. Followed by a cheque returned and a slip of paper saying “we are unable to fulfil you order at this time…we’re sorry for any inconvince (sic) this has caused”

More than “inconvince” matey. Our garden was naked, drab and forlorn.


I wondered if Leonardslee Lakes and Gardens could help albeit from their small nursery. They could. Hurrah! I sent off an order. Next day they made the 20 mile journey and because they’d been unable to fulfil all the order they’d made intelligent substitutions and bunged in a free bag of compost to say “sorry”. The business is South African owned with people who understand customer service. 


So, I believe in buying from small, local businesses from people we know and who care. Amazon beware.