Monday, 16 May 2022

I REMEMBER SOMETHING JUST LIKE THIS HAPPENED BEFORE

Anthony Seldon recently said we need historians in important positions in government to categorise, interpret and help us learn from what happened in the past. 

Anthony Seldon: why I changed my mind about Toby Young | Times Higher  Education (THE)

An executive steeped in the pharmaceutical industry said something similar to me about the absence of “corporate memory.” 

In both politics and in business, incoming regimes want to demolish their predecessor’s work and innovations. We live in a time of brooms zealously sweeping clean but losing lessons from which we might otherwise learn.

When I was in advertising we worked with Heinz. Their Tomato Ketchup is still without a challenger. 

Heinz | Tomato Ketchup

They were impressively demanding but also courteous in their demands;  the ideal client. They were heavy users of market research. 

In theory no one should have known more but as people retired or left, their library of research gathered dust and they started to forget what they’d known. One weekend we assembled a team to scour part of the library, summarising what was in it and what its key conclusions and insights were. We unearthed a treasure trove of material. I realised that sustaining a corporate memory required hard work. Also that the more valuable insights lay in either understanding why something had gone right or wrong or what over time were the unchanging values and attitudes .

In this, the Queen’s Platinum Anniversary, some of those intrinsic values, memories and recipes will be recreated, Coronation Chicken, Brown Windsor Soup (although to survive this will have to be radically  new and improved,) Meat Loaf, Prawn Cocktail, Chicken Kiev and winner of the recent Mary Berry inspired cookery competition for the Platinum Pudding , Jemma Melvin’s Lemon Swiss roll and amaretti trifle (we hear this tastes utterly amazing although it takes 5 hours to create from scratch). 

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But we all need a party after the traumas of Covid and this year we’ll have ‘nostalgia-thon’ and a series of street parties celebrating home cooking and old fashioned neighbourly values.

Feast are fine but how do we retain those lost memories and build a better sense of our history? And remembering too that history is not just about dates and documents but also about feelings, beliefs and prejudices.

I had a conversation with a centenarian who speaks of the learning from the Treaty of Versailles which was more punitive, indeed was so overly restrictive on Germany that after the 1930’s economic crises, its consequences led to the Second World War. 

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This was followed by a half century of global economic growth, globalisation of trade and some significant skirmishes or worse in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and  across borders from time to time. Overall though “peace in our times” seemed to have been achieved. Until Thursday 24th of February this year when Russia invaded Ukraine. 

She sighed and said how many more times in our history shall we say “that’s it. No more wars.”

Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall | Waterstones


If more people had read Tim Marshall 7 years ago when he wrote “Prisoners of Geography” they wouldn’t have been so surprised. “Putin has not finished with Ukraine yet” he said. And to understand Putin “this student of history” read this:

“..the map that Ivan the Terrible confronted is the same one Vladimir Putin is faced with today.”

Few expected Ukraine to be so courageously enterprising (like mounting an undercover attack on Quad Bikes) or Russia to be so ponderous and inept. But why not? Remember Vietnam, remember Afghanistan, remember David and Goliath.

Let’s hope we have politicians studying the Treaty of Versailles to understand what we must not re-enact after this “war” grinds to a halt.


Monday, 9 May 2022

I'M GETTING TECHED OFF

There was a review of the VW Taigo in the Sunday Times Magazine recently. It’s  a Brazilian model, basically a simplified, old fashioned Golf. No bad thing in a world where there’s a critical chip shortage leading to factory shutdowns and Toyota suffering a stalling of production. 

Volkswagen Taigo review | Car review | RAC Drive

 

Reviewer Nick Rufford rhapsodises: “it has a mechanical handbrake, a full sized gear shifter plus proper buttons you can operate by touch alone and which make a reassuring click.” He awards the car 5 stars saying it’s great to drive a car with no techno-fumbling; in short what originally made the Golf such a great car.

This isn’t going to be the rant of an old technophobe.  When Bill Gates said:

“The advance of technology is based on making it fit in so that you don't really even notice it, so it's part of everyday life.”

Bill Gates: Elon Musk could make Twitter 'worse' on misinformation

I thought, that’s a nice idea Bill but we do notice it and actually whilst it’s mostly good it’s not always. Not when you’re working on your PC and a notice comes up saying Avast needs to do an update, or an advertisement for Mobility Scooters appears. It’s like being thoroughly engrossed in your office and having the door hammer open and a big, sweating Dennis crashing in saying “Let’s talk about the conference”. Being interrupted is always irritating. 

Let’s look at working from home. It’s reliant on technology. But a part of me is beginning to recognise its disadvantages in human terms. It’s excellent in small doses but it doesn’t begin to replace human contact, body language, laughter and gossip. 

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Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens suggests that Homo Sapiens overtook Neanderthal man, who on paper seemed more likely to succeed, because Homo Sapiens developed gossip. Quiet gossip keeps you up to date. (Gossip on social media is altogether different because it’s shouts rather than  whispers.) Zoom and Teams don’t hack it either although they’re still, occasionally quite useful.

We all need to simplify – or is it just me who wants reductio ad beatitudinem (reduction to happiness)? Do I want a computer in my hand when for day-to-day use I want a phone. Today we have an equivalent of an evolving technological tasting menu. Too much, too many.

Robochef is here with a taste of the future | News | The Times

Then I read about the Robochef that learns to 'taste' food at different stages of the chewing process to check whether it's salty enough. Why? I suppose to take human subjectivity out of the equation. But what a lot of nonsense. 

 

Me? I want hand-cooked food not techno-grub. I want to eat at old-fashioned Rules where they use egregious quantities of butter to make food taste amazing or at The Ritz with its  wonderful dining room. 

 

THE RITZ RESTAURANT, London - St. James's - Updated 2022 Restaurant  Reviews, Menu & Prices - Tripadvisor

 

Technology usually seems to make customer service worse. It shouldn’t but, frustratingly, it does. So technology shouldn’t be part of everyday life, Bill, unless it actually  makes everyday life better.

 

In my simple life I want a garden to wander around, a library so I can dip into books, and yes a big screen computer with a sensible IT guy (got both of those) occasional laughter-filled lunches, trips to the best of Europe’s cities whilst they’re still there and challenging projects from people I like who want my help. 

 

This makes me sound as though I’m old and fumbling when it comes to technology. Fair enough. But I can cope and choose what seems to matter. It’s just this urge to remove human contact that seems wrong.

 

We need to get back to simplicity in life and in work helped, not led, by technology. 

 

Bill, are you listening? 


Monday, 2 May 2022

FOLLOW MY LEADER

Leadership’s been a hot topic recently. From Boris Johnson to Joe Root. The Ukrainian leader, Zelensky, from being ignored by EU leaders has become a global hero. Mr Bean to Superman in under a month. In contrast Putin has seemed remote and callous.  But I’m not sure that’s how most Russians would see him. To many of them, I suspect he's a strong, ruthless, very Russian leader – as leaders should be as opposed to that “decadent Zelensky.”

We’re short of leadership skills here in the West. How bad? This bad. 

Watch: Did Donald Trump really walk out of explosive interview with Piers  Morgan? Here's the truth - World News

Donald Trump on Talk TV, the new Piers Morgan channel, seemed more in touch with the nasty world we really live in. But remembering the clever advertisement the Kennedy’s ran to discredit Nixon, we can apply the same question to Trump (and to Boris) “would you buy a used car from this man?”  It’s a brilliantly pointed question about trustworthiness.

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Rather than looking at today’s leaders I’ve reflected on leaders whom I’ve known in my working life. Some of them memorable for their sadistic or otherwise character flawed eccentricities. There was one who had a glove puppet who did his dirty work. “I’m terribly sorry but Sooty says you’re fired”. He was an insomniac who phoned his executives at midnight saying: “get over here now we need to talk”. Did it end badly for this fellow? No, I’m afraid he made tons of money and was hugely successful. Being nice isn’t always the answer then.

Another had a very short fuse. Following yet another row he left in such a rage that in a futile exit from the car-park he battered his car from wall to wall until it slumped clanking to the ground.

This Is The Aftermath Of The World's Most Expensive Car Crash | Nafterli's  Car World

Another had obviously read a book that said be aggressive and always interrupt and keep on prodding people until they give in. He liked holding court in ten hour meetings. Finally there was a genius who was also a megalomaniac who loved and loathed his people depending on whim. He ended up years later in prison having squandered his riches on addictions.

Many so-called leaders were in it just for themselves and let the idea of leadership go their heads enjoying the terror their presence struck in their employees.

But there were also great guys who said – when appropriate – “thank you.” People who cared about you and your family. People you liked.

Peter Mead leads tributes to David Abbott

Salute the guys who founded Britain’s most successful advertising agency Abbott Mead Vickers. Peter Mead wrote a book “When in doubt be Nice” – it worked for him and his partners. It was their creative head, Abbott, though, who crafted the culture based on being nice and being kind.  But it was also demanding and did excellent work. They were winners.

The idea of Level Five Leaders was created by Jim Collins in his seminal book “From Good to Great”. He described them as leaders who displayed  a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will. Good stuff…. but leaders must be winners to survive. Winning comes first. Doing so with courtesy and thoughtfulness is a wonderful bonus.   

Perhaps the era of strong, autocratic leaders like Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt have come to an end. But “Mr/Ms Nice Guy” can’t simply replace them. We still need tough decision makers, leaders who demand excellence and set strong examples about succeeding and growing too. We need civilized winners and better role models.

Ruth Davidson - Building a stronger future for Britain
From The Eyelashes To The Cagoule, Plus The Anti-Government Anger:  Suddenly, We All Fancy Andy Burnham | British Vogue

So, what if pragmatic, credible leaders like Andy Burnham and Ruth Davidson were running the two main parties in the UK?

Ultimately, we deserve better people like them as well as better leaders.