Sunday, 12 February 2012

Stitches in Time

Perceived oppression, combined with emotions running high, often result in revolt.  A new, fairly minor story, which hit the web late last week, illustrates this...  An American teenage daughter, feeling aggrieved at having to perform chores at home, voiced her frustrations in explicit and uncomplimentary terms on her Facebook update, which she thought her parents would not see.  Her father, an IT professional, after having spent a day upgrading his daughter’s laptop and installing expensive software for her, found the distasteful posting and was incensed.  Rather than challenging his daughter (which he had done in the past - when she had previously written disparaging comments - resulting in the confiscation of her mobile phone and laptop for a period of time) he decided to respond in a way that she and her friends would remember.  He filmed himself, calmly explaining his opinion of the content of her update and why he thought it erroneous as well as offensive, before using his handgun to fire nine bullets into the laptop, thereby rendering it unusable.

I am amazed at the number of responses, especially from teenagers around the globe, who feel that the father did the right thing and that his actions demonstrate laudable parenting.  I’m not so sure.  I can’t help but feel that if he, his wife and the girl’s mother had acted as better parents earlier, his daughter might not have posted the update that she did.

My grandmother often used to say to me “a stitch in time saves nine” and she was right.  If people make the effort to remain aware of what is going on around them and to take appropriate action, before problems arise, difficult situations can be avoided.  I suspect that this approach should have been applied in many European countries over the past decade.

As I write Greek MPs are debating an unpopular austerity bill, demanded by fellow European states and the International Monetary Fund, in exchange for a 130 billion Euro (that’s USD $170 billion or GBP £110 billion) bailout to avoid default.  If the measures are not approved Greece is likely to face bankruptcy next month.  The potential knock-on effect, should Greece default , could be devastating for many of us around the globe,  with certain European countries, such as Portugal and Spain, likely to follow suit; this could herald the break-up of the Eurozone and increasing global financial turmoil.  One can’t help but wonder whether some of the issues could have been prevented.  The Greek people are already feeling the impact of recent government measures and are taking to the streets in protest.  Emotions are running high and riots are likely.  People and institutions can often be seen to behave in similar ways.

Nearly two hundred years ago, on 25 August 1830, a performance of Daniel Auber’s “La Muette de Portici” (The Mute Girl of Portici) engendered a riot that became the spark for the Belgian revolution.  The duet , “Amour Sacré de la Patrie”, (Sacred Love of the Fatherland), a sentimental and patriotic song, enflamed the emotions of aggrieved inhabitants of Brussels; they felt oppressed by their Dutch overlords.  In addition to religious differences (the Dutch king, William I, and his court were protestant, whereas the Belgium populace were predominantly catholic), the people of Brussels and others in the South felt disenfranchised.  Although the Northern region had to bear an unequal financial burden on behalf of the state (most trade occurred in what is the present day Netherlands and hence they were required to pay more than 50% of the state's tax burden), the fact that 62% of the population lived in the South was not taken into account in parliament - the North and South had equal numbers of representatives and, to make matters worse, many of the potential Southern members of parliament did not take their seats, as the catholic bishops in the South had forbidden them to work for the government.  The North was in favour of free trade which lowered the price of bread, made from imported wheat, but these imports from the Baltic depressed agriculture in Southern grain-growing regions.  The people in Brussels felt that they were being treated unfairly.  After the emotion-rousing performance, crowds took to the streets shouting patriotic slogans, hurling stones and taking control of government buildings.  Despite desperate attempts to restore order, William I was unable to find a peaceful solution and consequently the United Kingdom of the Netherlands was dissolved and Belgium became independent.  With hindsight the situation was predictable.

 In the work environment, leaders have a responsibility to look ahead and determine whether there are aspects of the business and the way that it is being run that are likely to cause conflict or its demise.  They should take actions to prevent potential damage and to ensure a successful future.  There are numerous examples of leaders who have failed to spot the signs.  Some of my favourites include:

  • “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.  The device is inherently of no value to us.” – Western Union internal memo, 1876.  As an addendum to this, the mayor of a leading US town stated that he was extremely impressed and enthusiastically exclaimed “Why I can foresee the day when every city will have one.”  At about the same time the Post Master General of Great Britain dismissed the potential of the telephone, stating “It may be all very well for the colonists, but we (the British) have quite enough messenger boys.”
  • “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” – H.M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927;
  • “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” – Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM, 1943 (this estimate was raised to about 10 a year later);
  • “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.” – Decca Recording Co. Rejecting The Beatles, 1962;
  • “The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C’, the idea must be feasible.” – A Yale university management professor in response to Fred Smith’s paper proposing a reliable overnight delivery service. (Smith went on to found Federal Express);

We need to hear the bell chiming and anticipate the future in a timely fashion, rather than stitching together a response after the event.


  1. I would rather suspect that there are a good many people who have read the signs and been predicting better ways to behave. There are then two factors we need to consider in this. The first is do the leaders have the conviction to act in the best interests of the nation (and equally of organisations)? Second, who would we rather have lead us, someone who can see the right path is a difficult one but needed, or the one who sees risk and is averse to act. Mervyn Dinnen was making a similar point on his blog not long ago. Very worthwhile discussion this.

  2. Thanks for your comments - I agree that we have a major issue in politics (and often also in business) that a high proportion of people are either not driven by the desire to act in the best interests of the nation/business as a whole and/or for the long-term benefit of others and the community. Recognition and reward (be it re-election or annual bonus payments and salaries) are often linked to short-term or instant results, to gain approval from the decision makers (voters, or management and/or shareholders).

    You are right too that the fear of speaking out or taking action in the path of adversity also is often an issue. Neither behaviours are simple to stop. They are deeply ingrained in both individuals and institutions. Frequently people are unaware that they do it, until they take time to contemplate their reactions and responses. Being sufficiently brave to stand out from the crowd and go against the flow is a "big ask" for many.

    I will revisit Mervyn's blog.

    Given the state of the world at the moment, I am not surprised that a number of us are touching on similar themes. We can only improve matters if we lead by example and encourage/enable others to do so too.