Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Bail-out ideology

I was amused to find this commentary on why the US government's economic bail-out plan should not go ahead from a Harvard economist. Any analysis of a problem that starts with "well, we shouldn't have been here in the first place" is just completely unconnected to the real world. By definition we are here, and the question is how do we best get out, not where should we have been instead. There isn't a place for "if only...". For this academic, however, ideology is all that matters. Wrong thinking got us here, only "right" thinking will get us out. If government intervention is wrong in principle and responsible for this mess, he argues, it must follow that the best - the only - thing now is for government to keep out. The possibility that government just might do the right thing is simply not thinkable, apparently. Government is automatically bad, bad, bad. No government is automatically good, good, good. He gets paid for this?

Somehow, I reckon he has a tenured position. I suspect his house is not about to be repossessed. I bet he's not clipping coupons. I bet he's relatively immune from the law of unintended consequences, from the inevitable wash-through from Wall Street into the lives of ordinary people. A comfort zone which makes a theory easy to hold and expound.

Ideology is a powerful force for good and evil. But it makes it hard for ideologues to differentiate between the two. The quote "in order to save the village we had to destroy it" comes forcibly to mind.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Sub brands rule

The story goes that after UK's state-owned car-maker British Leyland took over the sporting Jaguar marque, they renamed the famous Jaguar factory at Browns Lane as "BL Large/Specialist Vehicle Operations Plant". At which Jaguar's founder Sir William Lyons was so disgusted that he marched into the factory and removed his portrait from the boardroom wall.

Acquired "sub" brands can often carry more heritage, authority and meaning than the parent brand, but are routinely deemed by those in charge to need to fit (as in disappear) into the larger corporate image, however drab and unimpressive. Often this is done out of sheer ignorance of what brands mean and the asset they represent, and often it is an act of political machismo, to reinforce the relative status of organisations (you're part of us now). And sometimes it is a result of a simplistic desire for consistency, as though that was of itself a good thing.

The brands that have fans, however, are rarely the engulfing conglomerate but more usually the smaller entity. [I do know there are exceptions here.] My theory is that this is because in smaller organisations the brand and the vision are nearer the coalface, more likely to have real meaning, more likely to be directly connected to what staff do and customers get. It's straight brand, without the mixer. The bigger the entity, and the more components parts the brand has to embrace, the less focussed it can be, and the more it is likely to tend to the brand-as-label rather than brand-as-essence.


Monday, September 15, 2008



I have a huge admiration for John McCain's courage as a prisoner-of-war. The thought of what he had to go through for five years just leaves me, as someone who has never even had to do military service, humbled. It does also make me wonder what his views are on torture, rendition and "enemy combatant" status and the Geneva Convention. He himself has experienced torture, been broken by it, seen its effects on others; does this make him think twice about approving its use by his own country should be become president? Might his attitude be: well I suffered, so others can too? Or will it be a case of expediency - it's wrong, but there's one law for us and another law for everybody else?


Tuesday, September 09, 2008


On Massar-ness

We have started a very basic and simple excellence programme inside the project. The aim, and method, is to get everyone without exception to think about what excellent means for just one element of their work, then to find a way to work towards it, and then expand from there. We discussed this at a team meeting recently and I suggested one shared component of excellence - for us - was Massar-ness, doing things in a way that complemented and reinforced Massar's values. Which of course prompted some reflection on what Massar-ness was.

I had chatted earlier with the senior team about this, and to some extent the results were as you might have expected. Massar-ness was seen as including attributes such as - collaborative, involving, inspiring, fun, celebratory, learning. But there was one element which struck me as both different and very defining of Massar in its Syrian context - being unafraid to fail. Fear of failure, both individually and organisationally, is completely corrosive. It inhibits an essential characteristic of creativity, in which interim failure is such an innate contributor to eventual success that it has not only to be accepted, but welcomed and sought out.

In Syria, avoidance of failure is culturally embedded in young people and their parents by the very traditional school system. So one of the most important things Massar can provide for them is a space where failure is okay, where they can learn from it and recognise its value. Failure happens; it's how we go on from it that defines us. And that is true of us as a team too. We are doing new things, often they are going to be messy, and sometimes they won't work. That's fine. That's what we want. That's Massar.



Raising the money

Attended a fundraising Iftar dinner the night before last in Homs hosted by the Governor and attended by around 200 business people and spouses. Massa and I made a presentation about Massar in general and the regional centre in Homs. Around $150,000 was pledged towards the development of the centre, which is great, even if it only takes us part of the way there. More such dinners are being planned, so it looks like a busy time.

Update 13 September: we have now received some $400,000 in pledges!


Wednesday, September 03, 2008


The French are in town

I found myself today presenting, on behalf of the Governorate of Damascus, a sort of masterplan for the area around the site of Massar's discovery centre to a visiting French delegation, who had arrived with President Sarkozy. The Louvre had put forward a proposal for an extension to the national museum, and this was the formal response from Damascus/Syria, given to the Head of the Louvre, the Head of the Institut Du Monde Arabe and a representative from the French Embassy.

All this followed a call on Monday morning to attend immediately a meeting at the Governorate about the Old International Fairground site - no agenda, no clarification of what the meeting was for, no explanation of roles or responsibilities of anyone present. An architect called Sinan Hassan presented a design vision for the area which I was then asked to comment on. I said that as it entirely did away with the public park and created massive built forms right alongside the Massar building I was not in favour. Several people commented about the Louvre scheme, and I had to point out that I had not yet been shown it so could not say whether it was good or bad. The director of the national museum had thought the meeting was dealing with an entirely different problem, and lobbied for some emergency storage space into which to move some of his collections. The Governor replied that he should sort that out with the Ministry, not at this meeting. It was eventually clarified that the Louvre scheme could not be accepted for various reasons and that we should produce a reasoned response which put us, not them, on the front foot. This would include a commitment to the construction of an entirely new national museum! Plainly noone was leading the process, and some basic prep was allocated to Sinan and me. The following day, when all the material was put together, it was then decided that I was the best person to present it, following a short intro by the Governor. A strange choice for various reasons, not least that I would not be playing a role in the process going forward.

However, I duly turned up and spoke to the material and it all seemed to go down well. The French apparently felt that we had seized the initiative and that the thinking was well structured and suitably ambitious. So job done, but two entire days spent on this. I suppose there is benefit to Massar in quashing some bizarre proposals, but it is significant that neither in the Governorate nor in HE's office is there someone able to pick up and run with this sort of basic liaison on cultural matters.


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