Friday, 31 October 2014


Mindfulness has become the new Pilates or Yoga. People use it to remove stress and doubt. But some find the trouble is it removes ideas and energy as well. “I felt terrific but when they asked where the work was I grinned and said ‘live and let live’. They didn’t seem too impressed.

 Yi-Yuan Tang (Universities of Oregon and Dalia, China) says of mindfulness “it creates a state of restful alertness …a balanced state of relaxation whilst focusing attention.…” And everything I know about the modern world says this is a great tool. In Davos Gwyneth Paltrow espoused it and even described it as “the new black.”

But…and it’s not a huge ‘but’, but it is a ‘but’….I think content matters…I think people need to focus on energising their brains usefully rather than resting them. If mindfulness is the new black then I think thoughtfulness is the new technicolour. Thoughtfulness is about trying to improve our fluid intelligence, our memory and our attention. It means cutting out multitasking (the most ludicrous practice ever - the next time someone’s texting while you’re talking stop talking.)

It is probable that “attention” is the scarcest and most precious commodity on the planet right now so pay attention, listen and think.

It’s strange that we can imagine thinking is so natural an activity that we don’t have to work at it and focus on how to feed our brains with new ideas and inspiration. We seem currently too worried about how we feel rather than how or if we are thinking powerfully. Our most important tool is being taken for granted. Allan Snyder from the University of Sydney described the lack of creative thinking - thinking at its best thus:

Imagine a company devoid of creativity and you’re looking at a place…about to die.

How to solve problems and make brilliant decisions. (Business Thinking Skills that really work) published by Pearson is coming out on November 7th 2014

Thursday, 30 October 2014


I hate what the MBA culture has done to Daniel Kahneman’s calls System One, which others call the right brain and normal people call instinct and impulse. I hate business plans which, for the most part are bigger works of fiction than Harry Potter. I hate the endless piles of paper, spreadsheets, analyses and self-serving reports. A friend said “paper plans or paper planes” - right on.

In his brilliant book “Blink” Malcolm Gladwell describes the magnificently effective tool a well-trained gut is. The expert on art who can intuitively smell a fake because “something feels wrong”; the professional card player whose playing behaviour changes before his rational brain notices his impulse to have done so sensing that the cards are stacked; our first impressions which are sometimes but seldom wrong.

All this suggests our desire to balance rationality and intuition, which is (if you think about it) perfectly rational, is entirely wrong. It belongs to the same school of thought that suggests you must dumb down the brilliant to accommodate the mediocre.

Intuition allowed free rein may lead us somewhat astray sometimes and can earn us the reputation of shooting from the hip but our gut feel and our ability to hone it and develop it is our magic bonus.
Where human ingenuity comes in lies  in our ability to think hard about whether the instinct that is so strong can make sense and isn’t simply a prejudice or a prejudgement based on previously good experiences. In a word we have great instincts but we are also smart. And we are smart enough to listen and learn. Our skill in learning up to the moment of death is impressively distinctive.

But when they insist you read all that data because therein lies the answer,  first of all ask them what they really think about the problem.

How to solve problems and make brilliant decisions. (Business Thinking Skills that really work) published by Pearson is coming out on November 7th 2014

Wednesday, 29 October 2014


That’s what a doctor said recently when I asked him about current knowledge on the human mind. He exaggerated of course. Like he always does when talking about diet and the amount one should safely drink.

Since I’ve started studying the subject prior to writing the book on thinking in business and how to think more effectively, I’ve realised this is true. If we knew as little about the body as we do about the human brain we would regard the heart as a no-go area  and the word bypass would be a term reserved exclusively in Transport circles.

US Journalist, Dan Hurley’s book “Smarter - The New Science of Building Brain Power” describes an attempt to discover whether we can and how we can improve our brain power. Perplexingly despite the number of professors and terribly clever people he talks to it is pretty well a journey into terra incognito.

That’s the bad news but here’s the good news.  It’s the top headline in everything but the tabloids. People are going on “good fats” as they seem to speed up the metabolism and make you smarter. Pundits like Brian Cox reflect there’s more going on in our head than there is in the Universe. Daniel Kahneman, Nobel prize-winning psychologist, at 80 years old bestrides the lecture circuit and does so to sell-out audiences.

Our knowledge about the way we think is improving, indeed compounding daily and people are beginning to realise you can neither judge a book by its cover nor a candidate by their A*s. We are looking for a complexity of intelligence and an ability to think fast, slow, empathetically, decisively, creatively and smartly. Understanding thinking has gone to the top of the business agenda. Get with it.

How to solve problems and make brilliant decisions. (Business Thinking Skills that really work) published by Pearson is coming out on November 7th 2014

Tuesday, 28 October 2014


Over the next few weeks I’ll be writing a daily blog on “thinking” which reflects on some of the content of my new book which will be published in early November. A subject as vast as how we think which also considers how we can improve our thinking skills will inevitably provoke thought. Well, it’s certainly done that to me - hence these thoughts on thinking.

How to solve problems and make brilliant decisions. (Business Thinking Skills that really work) published by Pearson is coming out on November 7th 2014.

Monday, 27 October 2014


This week I was reading that we publish more books in the UK per capita than anywhere else in the world. Everyone has a book in them they say. Rather a lot of those books are getting out, it would seem.

But until recently book sales were declining and this year PWC predicted that e-books would overtake the sales of real books by 2018. That’s been the trend for sure but last year sales of e-books actually went backwards. And now I keep on coming across early adopters of Kindle who’ve renounced the e-theology. Too few fonts, too ordinary and everything dressed in the same clothes.

The same sort of experts as those guys at PWC were arguing the case for out of town shopping and deriding the potential of the high street, Here’s what one Harpreet Johal, the former managing director of the online retail chain Clothing Direct, said in the Financial Times a few years ago:
It is time for the local high street to die. The case for its death is simple: people no longer shop there.

Mark Price of Waitrose is now saying that as in all markets there’s been a splintering of consumer activity. We have shopping online, in the high street and out of town, a bit of store-choice-promiscuity, and frequent shopping for what we want tonight. The concept of the once-a-week monster-family-shop is over.

As is the alleged demise of books.

Have a look at these two pieces of film, respectively an ad for Ikea and a skit from a Norwegian comedy show.


Another problem I keep hearing about is the death of bookshops and libraries. The Jubilee Library in Brighton seems to be doing pretty well as does the library in nearby Lewes. And the new library in Birmingham is being raved about and won the Royal Institute of British Architects award and narrowly missed winning the prestigious Stirling Prize.

Bookshops? Well like bad restaurants, yes, they keep on closing. I heard of one recently at which, when a friend asked if they had a certain book, she was told “No. Why don’t you try Amazon?
They will have wished they hadn’t said that. She berated them and said she’d never shop there again. Bookshops open when they want - people who work find them closed when they get home and on Sunday, they don’t serve refreshment, they don’t look very nice and the standard of customer service is generally shocking.

But there are exceptions.

Daunts in Marylebone is wonderful and doing really well. And now a small Waterstones has opened in a beautiful Grade 1 building in Lewes. It has an exciting layout and in just over 2000 square feet is an enthusiastic champion of books. Like actor Daniel Radcliffe I want to buy more and more of them.

And if Waterstones’ new store is a sign of the times, real bookshops are on the way back. Good bookshops, Michelin star bookshops.

Monday, 20 October 2014


It had been a strange week what with Clacton and the prospect of the Stroud and Rochester by-election at which the Tories promise (threaten?) to send the Cabinet several times to drum up opposition to Reckless. It’ll be ghastly for the voters.

Ghastly is how I felt as I saw a lethal Panorama report by softly-spoken Darragh MacIntyre on Nigel Farage. As I watched Nigel’s brazen contempt for the EU and his embarrassing behaviour I remembered that great advertisement which the Democrats ran in 1960 against Richard Nixon.

Like Nixon, Farage has a slightly sleazy and flaky look about him - definitely a “nice little runner only one careful owner and because I like your face I’ll knock off fifty quid. OK?” sort of person.

And then, I thought, I must read the Daily Mail and see what’s going on. It was 88 pages long with some 42 stories in the first 40 pages (before we hit travel, property, lots of ads, TV, Sudoku and sport) of which 7 dealt with sex - mostly rape and paedophilia - 7 with politics, mostly anti Tory establishment, and an astounding 14 on health, many lambasting the NHS.

A sample of these

  • “Air Passenger in protective suit as ebola fears start to grip the west”
  • “Filing your nails daily does more harm than good”
  • “Run off four miles to burn off just one bottle of Coke”
  • “Piling on the pounds? Blame it on Jet Lag”
  • “Don’t call 999 until you’re unconscious, dying man is told”
  • “France to curb binge drinking”

But on page 35 - immigration rears

  • “Adult asylum seekers pose as teens to get school places”
  • “Our right to be here by Park Lane migrants”
What was the overall effect of the paper?

There were some rather grumpy arguments between my wife and me about how the paper seemed to use consistently just one ‘typical’ story to stir up general anger about immigration, the NHS or government.

I was very conscious of the Taxi Driver grumble - “and another thing” - and I noticed this, for instance, in the leading article when Cameron’s team were accused of being in danger of making “a mistake they’d made all too often in the past”. Expressions like “All too often, not for the first time and how typical” are key words of negative thinking.

How did I feel? I felt shocking to be honest. This is not company I want to keep or a country I recognise or would want to live in. It’s sterile, cantankerous and permanently discontented. The sun doesn’t shine in Northcliffe House the Mail’s HQ.

And another thing - they really do think “Voting for UKIP will hand keys on No10 to Miliband” (p.19) - source: Lord Ashcroft. And you know, I think they actually want this.

Because then they’ll really have something to complain about.

That Miliband made a right balls of it - typical!

Monday, 13 October 2014


In a turbulent week of Clacton and Heywood & Middleton by elections we have the continuing paradox of good news and bad news. The UK is the fastest growing economy of the G20 yet all around we hear of top line decline in companies and that the going is tough.

On Saturday I reflected on Tim Bell ex Saatchi and Saatchi and the most extraordinary stand-up presenter I ever saw in advertising. Tim (now Lord) was good enough to endorse one of my books. In his own recently published book “Right or Wrong” he reflects on the renaissance days of advertising in the 1970s when creativity was king:

We had long lunches, late nights, irrelevant expenses. Sometimes I got by on the wing and a prayer…for example we used to make up research results all the time”.

Yes, 72% of people did back then - today it’s down to 41% according to Pinocchio Polling Inc.
Tim was a showman and a driving force. A mix of charm, insight, persuasiveness and recklessness.

But he had real, old fashioned style.

But that kind of style is out of vogue. The world now needs more balanced and empathetic leaders. In a world of increasing pace we need anchors of thoughtfulness. Interesting to see there’s an increasing move towards slow reading, slow cooking and slow travel. We all need to let our brains work at a more considered, wandering about, reflective pace. The joy of reading is in letting the story enfold and transport you.

Slow cooked shoulder of the lamb is a brilliantly yummy antithesis of fast food. Walking is the new joy and nowhere better than Venice where each alleyway leads to new discoveries.

Last week the new CEO of the M&S Bank was profiled in the Times. Sue Fox has a lifetime of banking behind her at HSBC. Why am I pleased about her appointment? We have Ana Botin as worldwide boss of Santander, Daniel Nouy head of the Euro Banking Watchdog, Jane-Anne Gadhia CEO of Virgin Money. But only around 10% of the top jobs in banking are taken by women (although 50% of all employees are female).

So I’m pleased to see some rebalancing but more pleased by what Sue said about leadership:

It’s about authenticity, living your values and being a visible role model. It’s about creating an environment where people can be the best that they can be.”

We need people who are outside the bubble, who understand today’s world and who are prepared to argue what they believe rather than avoiding confrontation. Most of all we need leaders who are team players and who understand the old fashioned macho leader is a dead concept. Sue Fox claims she knows what it’s like being in a call centre and I believe her.

I do understand the day-to-day issues and what they’re facing. I’ve lived it. I’ve been there.

As Nancy Durrant wrote last week in her interview with Stage Director, Phyllida Lloyd…”go girl!

Monday, 6 October 2014


Just a short time ago we accepted as a universal truth that a company belonged to the shareholders and since the shareholders wanted dividends our job was just to deliver profit.

Go back longer and owners of companies stumbled upon the idea of adding value to make a buck (or if you were Henry Heinz a bean.) Take a commodity, add some magic ingredients, trumpet your existence and make sure you could hardly move without finding it. Result a profitable, valuable brand.

A long time ago a less subtle technique for achieving wealth was used. Smash and grab. Attila, the Romans, Walter Raleigh, Thomas Cromwell, the British Empire, the American Railroad entrepreneurs all went out and took what they wanted - money, jewels, property, land and slaves. Some Russians copied this ‘honourable’ activity after perestroika and the Yeltsin liberation of state assets. These oligarchs haven’t exactly worked for their wealth. Most have simply stolen it.

The game’s changing. After the banking crisis and the astonishing valuations of high tech companies there’s a widespread reaction against corporate wealth. As I stumble in search of Nurofen through crowds outside Boots baying “pay your taxes” I realise how much it’s changed.

Quite simply the consumer of tomorrow will say in the cliché from the 1976 film Network:

I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore

(I just watched Peter Finch in the film ‘Network’. Look at the clip on YouTube - it’s still chilling nearly 40 years on.)

Ron Paul, the former US Republican congressman and two-time Republican presidential candidate said “Don't steal - the government hates competition” and if you look at what governments in the past have taxed he has a point. In the UK fireplaces, hats; in Russia beards; in Ancient Rome urine (which was used in leather and the treatment of cloth). The Americans have been and in some States are no less inventive. There’ve been taxes on blueberries, pumpkins - those going to be carved, body piercings and in 2005,Tennessee began requiring drug dealers to anonymously pay taxes on any illegal substances they sold.

The world operates globally yet small players in a given market like UK retail can shake the foundations, the might of Google and Amazon are being increasingly criticised on the grounds of their failings as good citizens and respectable occupations are shifting.

A French patisserie maker came to live in the UK recently to set up business.  This new neighbour was invited to a drinks party - “what do you do?” someone asked. “Je suis un…baker” Horror! “What’s wrong?” he asked. “We don’t like bankers” they said “I’m a baker not a banker” he protested. They gave him more to drink and embraced him fondly.

Slowly we are beginning to treat big wealth like big anything.

So is this the age of the baker?

Maybe not but it’s certainly an age of refreshed values as Wonga found out last week. Their age of funny-money is ending. And shortly the slogan will read “Wonga is no longer”.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014


The remarkable thing about the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles was the teamwork Europe showed in this most ‘teamly’ of golf formats, the foursomes, which we won 7-1. I shall no doubt reflect more and deeper on how it is four Englishmen and representatives from eight other European countries came together as one cohesive synchronised unit. How it was that even suspiciously UKIP looking spectators were howling “Europe! EEUURRope!!!” How for one glorious weekend we all felt as one.

And yet we are increasingly Eurosceptic with 51% saying they’d vote to exit and only 40% voting to stay in in a recent MORI poll.

I suppose if we exit we’ll no longer be part of the Ryder Cup which will be very good news for the USA. Just as it was for us when an always-beaten Britain in golf joined forces with Europe and the miracle started because of that alliance. Do we detect a possible lesson here?

But that would be less sad than the loss of what feels like an increasingly natural link. I actually feel more European than at any time in my life. Do I hate Brussels bureaucracy? Of course. Do I admire the Euro economy? Not particularly, no. But do I think we have a huge and necessary leadership role in the Europe of the future - of course I do. Without the UK I really do suspect Europe may not make it.

And I’m influenced by UK business leaders - a hard headed bunch - 80%+ of whom say we should stay with Europe. The CBI spell out the numbers saying that at around £70 billion a year EU membership is worth nearly 5% of Britain’s GDP.

The desire to leave is less well founded by far than the Scottish “yes” votes’ argument was.
Back to golf and that astonishing cultural harmony we saw. It was more than golf. The US team were statistically on average slightly stronger but the star spangled banner didn’t have the clout or the passion of that star-circled device for the EU.

I felt as though I was watching the possibility of “Europeness” as German embraced Spaniard and Dane embraced Scot. Unlike the World Cup or the European Song Contest Britain seemed happy to be in close company with its neighbours.

The mood in Britain is pretty well anti-everything at present. We have become a nation of “Doom Dabblers”. Given this I am not hopeful of a referendum on Europe.

I am (I recognise this) irrepressibly and even irritatingly optimistic.
But there are two guiding principles here though not just a bucket of warm Bonheur.

The world needs more collaboration. Being small may be beautiful but things are too complex to do them solo.

Learning to be in and loving being in a team needs strength of will and empathy. Opting out is always the easier choice.

Little Britain could be great in a united Europe which it helped lead. Or we could be proud, independent, little and ignored.

Our choice.