Sunday, December 28, 2008


2009 - hmmm

Reflecting on 2008 and looking forward to 2009, it strikes me that over the last few months - many months in fact - we have seen some of the best of the USA.  The presidential election was engrossing, not least for the fact that in popular vote terms it was a lot closer than the final result indicates.  I believe that in Obama the world has (soon) a president who will approach problems without the lazy, blinkered ideology that has so cursed the terms of GWB.  We have a hugely more politically engaged electorate there, for the time being at least.  We may at last see some closing of the blue/red divide in the US.  And the American system of checks and balances over its process of government may be slow and at times unsatisfactory, but at least it exists and performs.

What though of the UK, which I increasingly return to with an outsider's perspective?  Our economy is in far more dire straits than that of the USA, as so much more of our trade has moved to finance and services, and our real wealth-creating (rather than rich-making) industries have withered.  Our hapless belief in The City, which has now been exposed in all its ugly, greedy, uncaring incompetence, has led only to the usual hand-wringing and blame, not to any smart alternative ways forward.  Our government, who in the run-up to this crisis had consistently and smugly ignored the warning signs even when they were being flagged by others, have been lauding our financial services sector right up until the fat went irrevocably into the fire.  We desperately need some new ideas, an approach which can be honest about past mistakes, and a capacity to think above the panic and division fostered by our tabloid newspapers.  But instead we get from our government the same old defensive, knee-jerk pandering to lowest common denominators and short-term fixes.  If there were a robust Opposition things might just be different, but the Tories and Liberals are hopeless and unconvincing.  Between them, they have managed to make Gordon Brown, the prime architect and defender of our built-on-credit economic woes, look like a statesman.  2009 does not look like being a good year for the UK.


Saturday, December 20, 2008


Burning platforms

There is a lot of media comment about how tough these troubling times will be for incoming President Obama. On the contrary, I imagine he's rubbing his hands with delight. As anyone who has initiated a change programme knows, the hardest thing is to create the general perception of a need for change, to get the molecules moving in the first place. When, as now, you have a very obvious burning platform, and the frog knows very well it is being boiled, then that big challenge of breaking the initial inertia has been removed. If Obama had come in to a thriving economy, full employment, and a sense that all was well with the world, just how real would the response to his call for change have been?


Friday, December 19, 2008


That old class war thing

I always enjoy John O'Leary's blog of rock-and-roll memories loosely marshalled as metaphors for business and life. Not so sure about one sentence of his 28 November entry on one-time-Beatle Pete Best, where O'Leary attributes Best's capacity to move on from his sacking, settle down, raise a family and take a conventional job as a "testimonial.. to his working class values..". What is it that makes any of that behaviour - resilience, family, settling down - somehow specifically working class? If stereotypes are to be applied, one could argue that if anything Best's actions are more middle class. But middle class is still a pejorative term to many, and leads to complete loss of credibility in the "real" world of rock. Anyway, I think this sort of thing, right or wrong, just perpetuates some of the fruitless social divisions that plague the UK to this day. But I love O'Leary anyway for the sheer delight of reading what he writes.


Thursday, December 18, 2008


£, $ etc - questions about the language of values

The mechanism of language available to us shapes the way, extent and focus of our thinking. There is the story (which I gather is exaggerated) of Eskimos having hundreds of different words for snow, because snow is so central to their understanding of the world and their own existence. Circumstances like the need to survive do shape language, but language also shapes the viewpoint of circumstances.

What then do we make of the normal language of value available to us (in the western world) - on a computer keyboard for example, that thing sitting under our noses most days? What is there is solely financial or mathematical - £, $ and occasionally some others, with %, = and so on. What isn't there is any symbol for social value, any non-financial and non-quantitative measures. Does this limit the horizon of our thinking about value or expressing it? What if there were standard keyboard symbols expressing peace, justice, environmental impact, happiness or generosity - would we think about these things, use them, factor them in more frequently to our creation of thoughts? Would they be more to the front of our minds? Does this happen more often in pictographic written languages, where letters and words can represent concepts, rather than just spelling them out? Is this somehow a reason for the east-west difference in conceptualisation of the world - an intrinsic vs extrinsic view of the world? I don't know, but I'm interested.

Companies now talk about creating a triple bottom line. One of these three has a sophisticated, universal and (human error notwithstanding) precise coding language of its own, the others just have words, with all their capacity for different interpretation, vagueness, and flannel. Our mechanisms for expression, understanding and management still vastly emphasise just one of the triplet. When we have an accounting and auditing profession for environmental and social concerns, and our standard computer keyboard has, say, a carbon footprint key alongside the dollar key, then I think we will genuinely be seeing our place in the world through new eyes.


Monday, December 15, 2008


Self-appointed ...

Business networking sites seem to be full of people awarding themselves (without any discernible hint of irony) grand descriptive titles. "Guru" is one that is currently making me irritable. "Visionary" is another. And what exactly is a "maven"? Descriptive words like these should really - really - only be used to describe someone else, not oneself. To lay claim to being a guru or a visionary is easily done but smacks of serious lack of self-awareness, let alone appropriate humility.


Wednesday, December 10, 2008


The studio/gallery of Mustafa Ali

This is the gallery/studio/workshop of sculptor Mustafa Ali, in the Jewish Quarter of the old city. He is the figure in the beret being pursued, I think, by a journalist from France. A most magical place.



Other new acquisitions

I gave a party at my apartment for the Massar team about ten days ago, and one of the Green Team brought me these, a pair of budgies! This was most unexpected and delightful, albeit with some practical aspects which will have to be sorted. These birds are turning out to be completely charming but extremely messy. Seed husks are spreading everywhere round the back room, so I'm busy with the dustpan and brush.

I think the blue one is female and the green one male but am not sure at all. In any case the blue one seems most interested in mating, and the green one not at all - budgie headache?

Tuesday, December 09, 2008


Making mistakes

I confess I'm still picking away at that Tom Peters list, this time point 17: No mistakes, no progress! (A lot of fast mistakes, a lot of fast progress.) (Australian businessman Phil Daniels: "Reward excellent failures. Punish mediocre successes.")

I think this over-simplifies and misleads - the problem with slogans. A lot of mistakes is not per se a good thing. Mistakes do not of themselves create progress. Trying lots of stuff, some of which is going to fail, and being happy with the prospect of failure, that is a good thing. Trying in the knowledge that you can learn from failure and go forward is a good thing. But mistakes have to take place on the road to somewhere, a mistake has to create a step upwards or it is just that - a mistake. And lots of mistakes are just lots. of. mistakes.

The message is not to make mistakes but cherish them when they happen, as they will if you are trying hard and innovatively enough to get somewhere.


Monday, December 08, 2008


New acquisition

On Saturday I visited the studio in Old Damascus of Mustafa Ali, one of Syria's most notable sculptors, and a most engaging person. As always when I get too close to artists' work I could not resist buying something, and this is it, a simple wood column about 50cm high with small metal symbolic shapes set into recesses on the sides. It's very typical of his visual language, and I love it. There were many other pieces I wanted as well, but at least some fiscal sanity remained. All that remains is to pay for it, get it signed and take it home.


What is "practical"

Here is the list from Tom Peters referred to in my last post. Notice the title words "The" (not "A" or "My") and in particular "Practical".

The “Top 27: Twenty-seven Practical Ideas That Will Transform Every Organization

1. Learn to thrive in unstable times—our lot (and our opportunity) for the foreseeable future.

2. Only putting people first wins in the long haul, good times and especially tough times. (No "cultural differences" on that one! Colombia = Germany = the USA.)

3. MBWA/Managing By Wandering Around. Stay in touch!

4. Call a customer today!

5. Train! Train! Train! (Growing people outperform stagnant people in terms of attitude and output—by a wide margin.)

6. "Putting people first" means making everyone successful at work (and at home).

7. Make "we care" a/the company motto—a moneymaker as well as a source of pride.

8. All around the world, women are an undervalued asset.

9. Diversity is a winning strategy, and not for reasons of social justice: The more different perspectives around the table, the better the thinking.

10. Take a person in another function to lunch; friendships, lots of, are the best antidote to bad cross-functional task accomplishments. (Lousy cross-functional communication stops companies and armies alike.)

11. Transparency in all we do.

12. Create an "Innovation Machine" (even in tough times). (Hint: Trying more stuff than the other guy is Tactic #1.)

13. We always underestimate the Innovation Advantage when 100% of people see themselves as "innovators." (Hint: They are if only you'd bother to ask "What can we do better?")

14. Get the darned Basics right—always Competitive Advantage #1. (Be relentless!)

15. Great Execution beats great strategy—99% of the time. (Make that 100% of the time.)

16. A "bias for action" is a "bias for success." (Great hockey player Wayne Gretzky: "You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.")

17. No mistakes, no progress! (A lot of fast mistakes, a lot of fast progress.) (Australian businessman Phil Daniels: "Reward excellent failures. Punish mediocre successes.")

18. Sometimes "little stuff" is more powerful than "big stuff" when it comes to change.

19. Keep it simple! (Making "it" "simple" is hard work! And pays off!)

20. Remember the "eternal truths" of leadership—constants over the centuries. (They say Nelson Mandela's greatest asset was a great smile—you couldn't say no to him, even his jailors couldn't.)

21. Walk the talk. ("You must be the change you wish to see in the world."—Gandhi)

22. When it comes to leadership, character and people skills beat technical skills. (Emotional Intelligence beats, or at least ties, school intelligence.)

23. It's always "the little things" when it comes to "people stuff." (Learn to say "thank you" with great regularity. Learn to apologize when you're wrong. Learn the Big Four words: "What do you think?" Learn to listen—it can be learned with lots and lots of practice.)

24. The "obvious" may be obvious, but "getting the obvious done" is harder said than done.

25. Time micro-management is the only real "control" variable we have. (You = Your calendar. Calendars never lie.)

26. All managers have a professional obligation to their communities and their country as well as to the company and profit and themselves. (Forgetting this got the Americans into deep trouble.)

27. EXCELLENCE. ALWAYS. (What else?)

So...just what is "practical"? Are these ideas strongly practical, as in capable of being put into practice, or are they just good-sounding ideas? The Economist Style Guide recommends using "practical" in place of "actionable", on grounds of taste rather than difference in meaning, so let us treat the two as synoymous. In which case just how many points on this list are actually actionable by a normal business leader or manager? take "Learn to thrive in unstable times". It's like saying "learn to thrive in the wild". There is no practical guidance here; it's a STRATEGY for survival. And given that Peters himself acknowledges this is nowadays a de facto necessity, you would think it hardly needed saying. How to do so, he doesn't say, so where is "practical"?

Or take "All around the world, women are an undervalued asset." What is the actionable transformative tip here exactly? Employ them? Market to them? Listen to them? What Peters provides here is the most general statement imaginable. I agree with the sentiment 100% but it is just a sentiment, not "practical", as he claims.

And "Get the darned Basics right". Yes indeed, but what exactly constitutes "the Basics"? Giving clients what you think they would like rather than what they ask for, as Peters himself has done in this case? I don't think so. A "practical", actionable list will NOT be 27 points long. It will encourage focus. It will not repeat itself. It will not be vague sloganeering; "practical" needs precision in the briefing. And it will translate smoothly into actions - the very definition of actionable. This list was nothing like that. Excellence Always (and how actionable is that?) it was not.

I was disappointed in this list, for its inconsistency, as well as its failure to meet client spec. It's downright impractical, in all but a couple of points. I was disappointed too in the discussion that followed, in which Tom Peters justified himself by saying that the client was delighted, and after all he knows a thing or two about customer service by this time. Other familiar voices clustered in his defence like white cells. There were one or two who agreed with my criticism, but the dominant tone - I'm sorry to say - was that if Tom Peters does it, it must be all right. Which I think is the most dangerous comfort zone for anyone to get into. It's exactly what brought about the current financial crisis; it's exactly what has brought the Big Three to their knees. I was very sorry that Peters seemed more interested in not being wrong than acknowledging that someone might have a point. Feet of clay time.

Oh, and Peters' most enthusiastic acolyte called me "arrogant and ignorant" for the message at the end of my last post! Guilty as charged.


Saturday, December 06, 2008


Excellence is meeting the spec - among other things

I find myself re-visiting the Tom Peters website again today to check on a current discussion about the latest of his regularly published lists. This one was in response to a client request for 5 bullets about a forthcoming presentation by TP, to be used for marketing purposes. In response, Peters had produced 27 bullet points, which I suggested, rather brusquely, was 22 more than asked for, and not necessarily a good thing. Some agreement followed, but then a lot of stuff about whether short was better than long, which even took us off into poetry. I suggested, again, that meeting the brief (five bullet points) was the issue, not whether a haiku was better than a sonnet - which anyway are both short forms of poetry. A writer who turns in 8000 words against a request for 1500 hasn't done five times better than wanted, or vice versa. It's not a size thing, it's a delivery against spec thing. A keeper of the flame then intervened to propose that the client would anyway have known that they would get a long list from TP, and bless me if Peters himself didn't agree! "They would have been surprised if they'd gotton (sic) less than 10." In which case I'm surprised the client didn't just say "give us one of your lists Tom", or "chuck some bullet points our way, you decide how many". But they asked for five, presumably because some marketing squaddie had been told to get an ad, brochure or web page ready, and to block out a space that five bullet points could reasonably fit into. I'd love to see what that brochure looked like with 27 points on it...

To produce 27 points anyway seems remarkably unhelpful on various levels, not least in that these points were supposed to be practical steps someone could take to transform their business. No-one is going to apply 27 points. It's like having 27 key objectives - all over the place. No-one can communicate 27 of anything to their team. No-one can remember 27 points either. To suppose that the client is going to select their favourite five is just abrogating responsibility - the client wants to say (presumably) that these are Peters' top picks, not their own. And, dammit, 27 is just nowhere near five, not even close.

[BTW, Peters' previous post had been extolling the absolute centrality of good design, which didn't even appear in his 27 points.]

It all smacks to me of a distance from reality, or privileged "clients-will-take-anything-if-it's-got-my-name-on" status that I had not suspected Tom Peters of suffering from. I have posted on his forum again (exerpt below) and will see what if anything comes back that doesn't sound like hefty post-rationalising. Meanwhile back to the real world where if a client asks for five they get five, and "by next Tuesday" doesn't mean next Friday is okay.

"bingo's plainly the name of the game here, where a client asks for five, when really they would be disappointed with less than ten, and in the event gets 27. And everyone's okay, or at least saying they are. I think we will have to differ on this one, Tom. Seems to me it's like saying why be content with just one USP when you could have twelve"


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