Monday, 30 December 2013


In the middle of the punishingly deep pile of books I got for Christmas is Malcolm Gladwell’s latest offering “David and Goliath – underdogs, misfits and the art of battling giants”. Ever since his first book “Tipping Point” I’ve enjoyed his ironic, inquisitive style and his ability to spot the counter-intuitive. His best insight to date was of the company which spent more time and money than anyone else recruiting the best talent from the MBAs in the USA.

That company (outright victor in the war for talent) was Enron.

This book first of all describes why David, armed with the pre BCE equivalent of a .44 Magnum (his lethal sling) was the guy to bet on when faced by an overweight clown armed with sword and spear. (Even I would take on Mike Tyson if I had a gun and he didn’t.) His point is that size is not everything.  Yet all the accepted wisdom is power comes from scale. Not if you’re Indiana Jones of course…

Ask little Aldi –grocer of the year for the second year running with sales up 31.5% year on year with car parks resembling that of a posh funeral, as they themselves ironically observe, as they count the tills being filled by their middle class conquests. They and Waitrose are close contenders for the best outfit.  Their trick? Price… yes but quality too. They keep on outscoring the others for taste and quality – sixteen gold medals from the Grocer Magazine - but they’re not so good on what David Cameron, allegedly, called “green crap.” They are on the verge of doing a David on the Goliaths –Tesco/Aldi. They also have the best advertising – check it out.

It must be hateful to fight the Vietnamese and Taleban when all you have are costly tanks and stuff with your soldiers away from home when your opponents have improvised explosive devices and motor bikes so they can get home for tea.  The key words are improvisation and home.

One of his other points is the law of diminishing returns. He cites alcohol. Most doctors will tell you a glass or two of claret a day is good for you. Friends of mine have taken this advice to heart and, just to be on the safe side, have doubled the dose - to nil beneficial effect.  But carry on to a bottle or so a day and the effects are detrimental. More of the same is not a recipe for success. Balance is the key.

Back to scale.  The thought that bigger organisations are ipso facto better is what’s troubled me for ages. Our inbuilt instinct for M&As and “buy-and-build” are plain daft as anyone sitting on an ailing out of town superstore will admit. This inbuilt instinct allied to the desire consultants have to apply old business models to new situations. (Well it worked for RBS ….QED.)

That’s something fast-on-his-feet David didn’t do.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013


As another Christmas creaks into sight it strikes me as strange how little it changes. As I watched ‘A Christmas Carol’ on TV with Patrick Stewart as Scrooge (“beam me up Santa”) Victorian Christmas was depicted with all those same familiar urges I felt when I was small and Britain was poor – the smell of tangerines, of hot mincemeat, the sound of laughter and of singing carols like In Dulci Jubilo in which, momentarily, we all rather self-consciously utter Latin.

Those same familiar urges come back every year. Mulled wine urges. Roast potato urges. Calvados and port urges. Cracker urges…
Q. Why does Santa have three gardens?
A.  So he can ho, ho, ho.
Q. What sort of bike does Santa ride?
A. A Holly Davidson.

Nostalgia, as they say, isn’t what it used to be, except when it comes to Christmas.

Because we now live in radically changed times where life is played to new rules.  Things we no longer do or frown upon generally vary from capital punishment to fox hunting to smoking to applauding having stiff upper lips. And not so long ago many of those were normal.

We were taught to be masters and mistresses of fair play. Tribal loyalty outlawed whistleblowing. We didn’t “sneak”, complain or talk about “it” – which makes the emerging horrors of Caldecott School (gateway to Eton), a poignant example of the scale of change not least in the police’s willingness to become historians as well as custodians of the law. (It also raises a question as to the powers of observation of the seemingly intelligent Mr Clegg, a Joint Head Boy there, who was apparently completely unaware of what was going on.)

There is no such thing as “water under the bridge” any more… stones are no longer best left unturned.

Years ago I was talking to a senior academic about the huge sums paid to the college by a benefactor who was subsequently discovered to be a crook and suggesting we ought (perhaps) to return the money to his victims.

He sighed:  “My dear Richard. If we gave money back that rascals had given us over the centuries we wouldn’t exist or we’d be bankrupt. Don’t be silly”.

That was then. I’m not so sure now.

Because in today’s world the rules have changed.

The rules relate to doing whatever you can get away with to win and whatever looks good. The Charles Saatchi alleged media campaign to “whiten” the name of Nigella would be a classic example of playing a new game of media sledging.

But Nigella’s a lot prettier than Charles (I supposed I’m being un-PC saying that) and like Christmas she’s big, fun and seems just a bit naughty. I haven’t heard her sing but I bet she’s tuneful…. Eartha Kitt meets Carly Simon.

Like Christmas, icons like Nigella are timeless.

And regardless of whatever allegations, is a whole lot more inspiring than the British preparatory school system.

Monday, 23 December 2013


My favourite painter is Tintoretto. Others may have finer brushwork. Others may be more inventive, perhaps, but none can match his speed of execution and his ability to take a Bible story and give it life, earthy reality and power. So what did he really make of Christmas and the events leading up to and succeeding it? First the Annunciation, where it all started, with the angel Gabriel, for all the world like a hairy biker astride a Harley Davidson surrounded by uncontrollable cherubs. He’s crashing through and into the wreck of a squat where Mary sits and giving her the shocking news straight: that the divine bun is in the virgin oven.

Second a detail of the Adoration of the Shepherds. In this, the shepherds reaching upwards towards mother and baby and the placid solidity of the animals emitting normal smelly farmyard smells in what was clearly as an abnormal event  – the ability of Tintoretto the storyteller shines out. Unlike so many artists he’s in it for the news angle, for the headline story and it’s this and the immediacy of breaking news that strikes a chord. Tintoretto is king of the hashtag way ahead of his time. Here he is trending Christmas.

And finally in yet another version of the last supper (Tintoretto painted six of them that we know about) where his take on the story varied from “Board Meeting” to “Booze-Up” to, in this one, “Brawl” with Christ as referee  - ”back to your corners boys and come out fighting”.

In 2014 may you all share just a little of that verve for storytelling and seeing new ways of telling an old, old story so as to grab your audience and have them asking for more.

Become that presenter with the appetite to do what ad man Ed McCabe once described as the truth about innovation:

There’s nothing new under the sun but there’s always a better way.

Enjoy a happy Christmas, a wonderful New Year and a better way forward.

Monday, 16 December 2013


There are moments when you are so absorbed in something, be it sport or a film or a book, that you lose all sense of time, space and identity. You are, as it were lost in a dream or – to use that lovely old fashioned word – in a reverie.

Losing oneself happened to me at a new play, “Lizzie Siddal” at the Arcola. My goddaughter Emma West plays the lead so, of course, I’m biased and I was likely to be looking at her acting to see her technique, rather like watching a horse doing dressage. Hallo horse. Hallo footwork. But I got lost in the idea of the play, of the intelligent woman being absorbed by the power of Rossetti, only to be ultimately disillusioned as his passionate fire for her became a smouldering ember. As she observes, art in the end is about smudges on paper, just an illusion. Truth is not beauty… not as Keats meant it. Art like acting isn’t real. Emma West does not die. She goes home to a pizza and a glass of Chianti and an episode of "Game of Thrones” – she’s an actress.

The ability to live a part convincingly and to dream along with that performance may seem a far cry from the world of work yet even there I believe in the need to be able to visualise, to see what a scenario might play out like – not logically but emotionally too.

Our experience shows it’s easier to do something so long as people don’t get involved. Jack Welch of General Electric was desperate to eliminate the human interface in customer service. The problem with people he reckoned was they were erratic, subjective and unreliable.  And that’s precisely why we need to have unreasonable people dealing with unreasonable customers. That’s how magic is created. Not by drones serving clones.

Cognosis (a management consultancy) had what Stefan Stern who writes for the FT ironically noted was unusual for their breed. It was an original idea.

And it was this - that a strategy would within a business have a much greater chance of succeeding if the people in the business expected to make it work were excited by it. If in other words other than merely understanding it they got lost in its possibilities. A strategy that was a vision that was potentially and emotionally seen as a real prospect not just some numbers on a spread sheet.

Time, I think, for businessmen to have the odd reverie. Time to dream. Time to imagine.

It’s good to see that even the Scots get it

Monday, 9 December 2013


Having said which, “Les Halles Cookbook” has a kind of poignance to it doesn’t it? But what I like even more than the recipes, good as they were, was Anthony Bourdain’s no nonsense philosophy of life. Quite simply this is the best management book I’ve read for ages. Because it talks about a real service business with the gas turned full on. His kitchen is hot. Bourdain tells you how to stand the heat.

Here are some of his observations about work just to give you a few amuse bouches of his style:
It’s about perspiration, he says, it’s not in the blood, it’s in the energy and effort and, despite his protestations, the training.

They are some of the best cooks of cuisine bourgeoise in America. I would proudly put them up against any cheese-eating, long-lunch-taking, thirty-two-hours-a-week-working socialist clock-puncher from across the water. Any day. They’d mop the floor with them. This is less a testimonial to my training abilities than it is evidence of the triumph of persistence, hard work, pure hearts and a sense of humour”.  

It’s about pragmatism. It reminds me of the Lord Rutherford quote “We have no money. We shall have to think”.

Poverty and tough times can produce genius.
“It is no accident that in just about every country you might want to visit, the good cooks seem always to hail from the most ass-backward and impoverished backwaters.”

So straitened circumstances can bring out the best. It’s about the ability to transform by using your brain.
“Something magical……that’s what cooking has always been about at its very essence…’s all about transformation, about taking the ordinary and making it extraordinary. That’s magic.”

It’s about learning from your mistakes. This is what great training can do….teaching skaters to “skate to fall” so they learn their limitations and teaching cooks how close they can get hot before burning.
”Screw-ups are good. Screw-ups – and bouncing back from screw-ups – help you conquer fear. And that’s very important because some dishes know when you’re afraid. They sense it, and will….misbehave”.

The art of preparation has always been key. It’s the biggest timesaver there is.

“Mise en place (means) that you know where everything is. You know how much you have. As a result your mind is similarly arranged, rested and ready to cook – a perfect mirror of your work area.”

And the best lesson of all is that life is a balance of time versus perfection.

“It’s what we do every day in restaurants. The age-old question of durability versus quality. The quest for the perfect balance between what’s good and what’s serviceable.

It’s seldom good being brilliant but very late in the workplace. Compromising brilliance is what I call a “value-added trade-off” – it works if we can present brilliantly and sell it well enough.

Read Bourdain and you’ll learn a lot.

It’ll also improve your cooking.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013


No, this is not an attack on UKIP, who will carry on muttering their stuff regardless of me and be very happy, on their own, in a pub with locked doors.

No, it’s a reflection on the dangers I see in isolationism and resistance to change.  It seems entirely possible that we could soon have a resignation and a divorce pretty well all at once with Britain saying goodbye to Europe and Scotland saying goodbye to Britain.

All done and dusted, we’d be proudly on our own.

But why stop there? Let’s ditch everything apart from London and the South East. We’re roughly 40 % of the UK and twice as rich as the rest. A £1.5 trillion gated community of an economy and no need to worry about Labour or Liberals anymore or those strange Northern accents or greyhounds or pies or the Co-op. Burn the cloth cap and build another runway or two at Heathrow and who needs HS2? We’ll spend it on skyscrapers instead.

Increasingly we’ll retreat indoors behind our PCs and read about the Bulgarian invasion of Scotland and laugh drily.  But weren’t we born to huddle together, laugh, drink and tell stories?  Weren’t we born to exchange views and change minds?  Aren’t we hard wired to work together?

I was asked today if I thought travelling broadened the mind. Not exactly, I reflected, it’s bigger than that. It explodes boundaries. Go to China or India and you see unimaginable scale, poverty, wealth, growth and a sheer sense of wonder and discovery in their eyes and through your own. These are places that are devouring a diet of change. They have infinite  horizons just as extraordinary and wide as Columbus saw.
Caitlin Moran lamented her London being stolen by a new rich foreign cadre who’ve taken it over. Yet I rejoice to hear people describe Mile End as trendy and smart. I’m amazed (happily) that Park Royal is cool – a sort of South Ealing without the ponce and that Clapham is the Chelsea of today.

Because there is only one poison more toxic than that of hating abroad and that’s the small ‘c’,  conservative resistance to change and hostility to ambition.

You know, the view that we can’t afford to do whatever it takes to get to the next level when all the evidence of history has consistently shown ambition, investment, drive and change has, nearly always, led to a better life. Isn’t that the lesson of the Olympics?

I realise how much I like being part of Scotland and how refreshing, foibles and all (and we’re good ones to talk) Europe is (from Greece to Sweden) and how good it is being a European citizen…..because here’s where I live.

Maybe we’ve got bored or gone mad but as Tom Peters once put it “you can’t shrink into greatness”.

Here’s hoping lots of people hear that.