Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Giant Steps

On Sunday morning, just before dawn, the three enormous cooling towers of Didcot A Power Station were demolished. My attitude towards this event epitomises most people’s reaction to change – I am slightly uncomfortable: I feel nostalgic for the train journeys I took when a student, travelling across the English countryside to visit my mother – Didcot’s three solid chimneys, like giant empty cotton reels, were a signal to me that I was nearing home and that soon I would be sharing a good meal with people I loved; however; I also care about the environment - Didcot has to be destroyed to comply with the European Industrial Emissions Directive, which takes effect as of January 2016. Being a forty-something-year-old coal-fired power station, Didcot produced significant emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, prior to being decommissioned last year. We now have a better understanding of the damage that burning fossil fuels can have on our existence and have begun to take suitable measures to alleviate the problem.

People are often slow at taking actions to effect desired change, but appropriate responses do not have to be as dramatic as blowing something up. Evolution, based on knowledge and understanding, can often prove more effective than revolution (and less destabilising). Take, for example, Susan Butcher, a veterinarian’s assistant who was aware that top athletes, weightlifters and pianists all have daily training and performance schedules in which they push themselves for up to four hours and then rest. Susan Butcher is a top dog sled competitor and was keen to compete in the Iditarod race, which takes over a week complete across 1,000 miles of challenging Arctic ice. Traditionally competitors race for a day and sleep at night, or are nocturnal and rest-up during the day. Susan Butcher chose to deviate slightly from convention, and treat her dogs as top athletes, letting them run for four to six hour stretches before resting for a similar period. Her understanding, of how a physical body best performs paid off – she and her dogs have now won the race four times and other competitors have changed the manner in which they participate.

The evolution of work over the past couple of centuries is full of examples of times when the ways of doing things have been enhanced and evolved, as well as notable periods of significant change. We have progressed through clear stages, from being:

·    Artisans - who would create a product, as required – often a cumbersome and time-consuming act that is not conducive to scalable mass production

A shoemaker's tools


·      Industrialists who, via the mechanisation of repetitive processes, on a production line, could replicate an object fairly swiftly – but the lack of adaptability forces customers to accept what is offered

Workers on a flywheel assembly line
at the Ford Motor Company's Highland Park, Mich., plant in 1913

·  Technicians who, through the use of information technology and tailored production (such as 3D printing) can amend a basic offering, so that it seems personal - this approach relies on speed and the ability of scientists and entrepreneurs to adapt existing systems to create a unique or amended product – although it enables a degree of customisation, as yet few products that are available to the masses are truly bespoke

3D printing

·  Digital Natives, who are beginning to flex their muscles in the workplace increasingly individuals are choosing to be self-employed and technology, in the right hands, is enabling bespoke, cost-effective production – but the current environment is so complex that it can be hard for a potential customer to locate their best provider for a desired product, or indeed for a producer to locate a suitable customer base.

As our world changes, we now need people with wisdom who can understand what is required and provide or locate a solution.

"Wisdom is the principal thing:Therefore get wisdom:And with all thy getting Get understanding."
         Proverbs 4:7

On Thursday I teamed up with a collection of people, all interested in the changes that are occurring (and those which need to occur) in the workplace - not just the physical environment but also the manner in which individuals choose to and are expected to work, as well as the workers themselves. The meeting was part of the Beyond the Workplace conversation (#BtWC) – a UK-originated initiative supported, in part, through collaboration between the British Institute of Facilities Management (BIFM) and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). Given that we wished to understand and find answers, it was appropriate that we commenced the session with a Street Wisdom session (you can read my thoughts on Street Wisdom here). Over 50 people participated, drawn from all walks of life, ages and demographics. We started by seeking an answer to a personal question and, having begun to think in a more open-minded and creative fashion, we moved on to contemplate the future of work and what could or might need to change. Many ideas surfaced including:
  •  A desire to give people what they deserve and to create work places where they can be their best selves and achieve their best outcomes;
  • The power of technology to drive change;
  • People, places and processes – how we need to move away from antiquated approaches and attitudes;
  • Personal needs vs. impersonal environments;
  • The importance of trust;
  • How many people are better equipped at home than they are at work and hence many employees now work “outside the system” using smart phones and personal tablets;
  • Ebbs and flows - including the decline of patriarchal/dictatorial organisations and the rise of ones where there is cross-divisional collaboration and a lack of secrecy;
  • Localised, usually technology-enabled, decision making;
  • The frustrations of email versus the need for effective communication across distances and teams;
  • The horrors of unproductive meetings and dull, uninspiring workspaces;
  • How people work better and are often happier when they can move and mingle;
  • The rise of contract employment and outsourcing, with the resultant reduction of traditional workforce dynamics;
  • The power of the self-employed;
  • The pros and cons of hot-desking;
  • The breakdown of barriers; and
  • Numerous questions such as “Are coffee shops the new offices?” and “Do generational attitudes matter?

People are beginning to share their experiences of the event, you might enjoy this post by Ian Ellison or this one by Perry Timms. Both blogs express the frustrations of people seeking understanding and appreciating the power of having a sense of place. Nobody has the solutions (yet) but the debate has started. There will be other #BtWC sessions soon, in Sheffield, Brighton and Edinburgh. I urge you to attend if you can. None of us in isolation has all the answers, but, perhaps, between us we can stimulate debate to articulate and encourage a better future. Thinking is evolving…

As Mark Twain once wrote:
“Evolution is a blind giant who rolls a snowball down a hill. The ball is made of flakes—circumstances. They contribute to the mass without knowing it. They adhere without intention, and without foreseeing what is to result. When they see the result they marvel at the monster ball and wonder how the contriving of it came to be originally thought out and planned. Whereas there was no such planning, there was only a law: the ball once started, all the circumstances that happened to lie in its path would help to build it, in spite of themselves.” 

Last week, many marvelled at the arrival in Liverpool of three giants – a grandmother, her granddaughter and a dog – an extraordinary piece of street theatre. They were part of a commemorative spectacular, recognising the centenary since the start of the First World War. The event, produced in collaboration between Liverpool City Council and Royal de Luxe, the astounding French creative troupe founded in 1979 by the inspirational Jean-Luc Courcoult, was intended to commemorate the Liverpool Pals – the City’s heroic battalions recruited by Lord Derby in response to Lord Kitchener’s appeal for volunteers to fight in the war. (Of the 5,000 men who joined the Pals, 2,800 died.) Over a four-day period the giants slept, walked, played and enchanted the people who saw them. Their departure ended with a shower of Your Country Needs You postcards, scattered over the crowd.

Metaphorically, I am doing the same, inviting you to join us and contribute towards the Beyond The Workplace Conversation. Please add your voice, you might be the one to make the much-needed giant step that will change the world of work…

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Worth Remembering

I have never thought of myself as having repressed memories, but on Thursday night, while watching the wonderful production of Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades” at Grange Park Opera, an incident from my childhood came flooding back.  It was the scene in Act 3 that caused my flashback – the third Act of the opera is set in the elderly Countess’ bedroom – where Herman, the lead character, hides until the old lady returns from the ball. He wakes her and makes demands that ultimately cause both her and his death.  The image on stage triggered my memory. When I was about 14, and at an all-girls boarding school, some young men found their way one night into the boarding house where I lived. They must have wandered through the dark house, peering into shady rooms, until they located a girls’ dormitory, by chance the one in which I slumbered. The room was compartmentalised, like a cattle byre, with each girl given a cubicle with a bed and chest of drawers, these booths were secluded from the open corridor that ran down the centre of the room by a flimsy curtain. I don’t know why the youths chose my sleeping bay – odd given that it was not the nearest to the door – but I was woken to a hand over my mouth while someone else tried to pull down my bedclothes.

All ended well, in that my modesty remained intact (I was wearing pyjamas) and I managed to make sufficient noise, without scaring them into hurting me, by deliberately changing the tempo and volume of my speech, to wake a couple of my fellow pupils, who pulled back the curtain, startling my would-be-assailants – who fled. The young men clearly weren’t very bright (not just because they chose me to be their victim, as opposed to the recognised school-beauty who slept in the cubicle opposite mine)…they returned to the school the following day and asked the lady at the office to return their shoes, which they had left in the flowerbed outside the window before they climbed in. Needless to say, the attempted reclamation of this evidence resulted in their arrest.

There is no doubt that the school feared a scandal and that the incident was hushed-up – I suspect that no parents, other than those of the immediately impacted girls, were notified.  I remember being interviewed by the police (they were sent to see me at my home at the start of the holidays). The housemistress of my boarding house, perhaps concerned at her apparent lack of pastoral care and awareness of what was going on in her house, insinuated that I had invited the youths to come and meet me. How I could have done so is beyond me. For a while she tried to make out that the incident was my fault – I was a fourteen-year-old pre-pubescent girl. My flat chested, gamin figure (for which I was teased by the more visibly mature girls in my year) seemed to me a very unlikely object of lust. The intimate questions, which the police were compelled to ask, made me squirm with embarrassment and some quite frankly I didn’t understand. To this day I have no idea who the two men were or what eventually happened to them. The school seemed more concerned with keeping the matter under wraps and had little or no interest in the impact that the experience had on the victims – myself and the other girls who were terrified that night. 

As an aside, I went to the same school as Baroness Butler-Sloss – albeit a little later than her. As an “old girl” and a rising member of The Establishment she was invited to come and speak to us while I was there. Her talk was both memorable and inspiring.

Baroness Butler-Sloss - picture from BBC files
With hindsight, and perhaps partially influenced by the current UK media coverage over the loss or possible destruction of Home Office files pertaining to a supposed child abuse network, I have begun considering how the break-in and disturbance in the dorm was handled. People in positions of authority tried to conceal or twist events to suit their own purposes. Clearly, what happened to us is nothing, compared to the horrific experiences of sexual abuse suffered by children at the hands of Jimmy Savile and others.  However, I think that the adults at my school did not behave in a caring or supportive way. Perhaps they are a reflection of what was considered acceptable in the 1970’s and '80’s, but I believe that it is the responsibility of those in authority to see that matters are handled in a compassionate, appropriate and principled manner.

Vasili Kirillovich Nechitailo 1915-1980
painting of School Girl Ksyusha 1955

The current political scandal and concerns over an establishment cover-up is lifting the carpet on some murky ways of behaving in the past – why did nobody look deeper when, 20 years ago, Ted Heath’s former Chief Whip, Tim Fortescue, commented in the documentary, “Westminster’s Secret Service – the Role of the Whip”:
“Anyone with any sense who is in trouble would come to the whips and tell them the truth, “I am in a jam – can you help?” It might be debt, it might be scandal involving small boys or any kind of scandal that a member seems likely to be mixed up in… We would do anything we could, because we would store up brownie points. That sounds a pretty nasty reason but if we could get a chap out of trouble he will do what you ask for ever more”?
Ted Heath, former UK Prime Minister
appointed Tim Fortescue as Chief Whip
Power enables abuse.  The words of Lord Acton, written in a letter in 1887 to Bishop Mandell Creighton (but probably inspired by the words of Alphonse Marie Louis de Prat de Lamartine in his essay “France and England: a Vision of the Future” published in 1848) ring true: 
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”
The experience of my own small incident has got me thinking about the abuse of power and the danger of allowing the status quo in any environment to go unchallenged when things clearly need to be changed.  There has been much psychological research into the influence of power on behaviour – one notable experiment took place in 1971, the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which a group of people, arbitrarily assigned as guards over others, swiftly began to abuse their detainees. Participants were both horrified and surprised at the manner in which they behaved. Fortunately individual human nature is not always swayed towards self-interest and sadism when people are given power over others – another, more recent piece of research, undertaken by Katherine (Katy) A DeCelles of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, looks into whether power always results in self-serving, corrupt behaviour or if there is a difference in the way some people respond compared to others. DaCelles instructed two groups, one of undergraduates and the other adult workers, explaining that they had a shared pool of 500 points and that they should select between zero and ten points for each of themselves to win a lottery. The higher the number of points the greater the probability of winning, but, in the event that members of the group claimed more points than the total available in the pool, the lottery would be cancelled. Prior to participating she asked some participants to write an essay about an ordinary day and others to describe a time when they had been in power/felt powerful. The authors of conventional days on average took 6.5 points, those who had described powerful experiences took between 7.5 points (if they had a low moral identity score) and 5.5 (if their moral identity score was high). Clearly having a moral identity (i.e. knowing your personal values and believing that there is importance in being “caring”, “fair”, “generous” and “compassionate”) has a fundamental impact on the way in which we lead and interact with others.

17th century carving
over a door of the Tōshō-gū shrine in Nikkō, Japan,
If we want to make our world, our businesses, our institutions better, with leaders who have integrity as well as influence, we need to find a way to support and encourage those with a strong moral identity. Part of the problem is perhaps that these people do not feel comfortable in the world as it is. In addition we are all prone to making judgements based on first appearances. Often those with a conscience are also self conscious and so do not create the best/most impactful initial impression within the pressurised environment of an interview or assessment centre. The best candidates can be overlooked, but Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist at Harvard Business School, believes that she has found a way to help people create a better impression, as explained in this impactful TED talk:

I find it interesting that certain physical actions result in the release of hormones that impact our stress levels and/or self-confidence and hence how others view us. Our bodies control our minds just as much as our brains control our physical movements. Amy Cuddy’s ability to turn her own life around, through applying the behaviour she espouses in her talk, is inspiring.

Areas of the brain responsible for movement
It is possible for lives to be changed and for people to do things that they perhaps never thought they would be capable of doing. I shall end where I began in this piece…at Grange Park Opera. The singer who sang the role of Herman has perhaps the most powerful voice I have ever heard. He is the American tenor Carl Tanner and his personal history is inspirational – he was born into a modest working-class family in Arlington, Virginia.  He worked as a truck driver and a bounty hunter, before deciding to pursue his dreams – with only $75 and a few clothes in a bag, he moved to the Big Apple. One evening, attracted by the sound of singing, he stopped at Bianchi and Margarita’s, a restaurant in New York City frequented by the operatic set. The owner recognised that he could sing from the manner in which he spoke and let him entertain the diners. Richard Gaddes, the head of Santa Fe Opera, was eating at the restaurant that night and was so impressed with the tone of Tanner’s voice that he offered him a role in one of his operas and so a great singing career was born. A film is soon to be made of Tanner’s story, with Jack Black playing the title role – I personally think Tanner should play himself.

Grange Park Opera production of Queen of Spades
Herman played by Carl Tanner

Life is at times stranger than fiction and that is worth remembering, as are Abraham Lincoln's words on power and adversity:
"Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."
Crocuses pushing through snow

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Walking Gives Your Ideas Legs

This was printed in the Sunday Times in June 2014

Walking gives your ideas legs
When you are stuck for inspiration, it may be best to leave your seat and stroll around the street to get the creative juices flowing
Carly Chynoweth Published: 22 June 2014

Kate Griffiths-Lambeth said her Street Wisdom courses are a good way to step back from day-to-day pressures and give people space to think (Vicki Couchman)

Creative thinking is as easy as a walk in the park — or a ride on a train. Executives struggling to solve knotty problems should step away from their desks and ask the street for answers, according to David Pearl, co-founder of Street Wisdom, which runs learning sessions on the roads and footpaths of several cities.
“Bring to mind the question that you want answered, that you want a fresh perspective on,” he said. “Keep it in mind as you wander, and you notice what happens. It is a way of using everyday life to answer things . . . and of taking the streets you hurry through on the way to work and using them to learn something new.”
Sometimes the answer can be amusingly literal. One participant who was wondering whether to sell his house walked past a shop in London’s Chinatown called Hang On, and took it as a sign not to move. But it is more likely the experience will spark an unexpected connection or insight.
Often participants realise this only at the end of the three-hour programme, when discussing the experience with others. “Many people don’t realise what they have learnt until they reflect on it. Wisdom whispers as well as shouts,” Pearl said.
Research at Stanford University suggests that most of the creativity could be induced by the walking itself. The study found that people who walked outside or indoors on a treadmill came up with twice as many creative ideas as peers who were asked to think while sitting down. People who walked in the fresh air did a little better than those who did it indoors, but not significantly so, said the authors of Give Your Ideas Some Legs.
Kate Griffiths-Lambeth — who paid her way through university by running a fly-fishing school — suspects that simply being away from the office makes a difference. “Part of the success of Street Wisdom is based on the escape from the constant interruptions and pressure for long enough to think in a meaningful way and to reflect,” she said.
Griffiths-Lambeth, HR director of Stonehage, which advises high-net-worth individuals and families, admitted: “I don’t necessarily get my best ideas in a meeting room.”
Her Street Wisdom mission was to learn how to prioritise professional and personal tasks better. “At the end I had a much clearer sense of what was important and what I needed to do, and a greater acceptance that sometimes it is OK to go with the flow, that I don’t have to plan out everything.”
The best way for people to see if this approach could work for them is simply to try it, she said. “This is a way of getting your head into a different space, which is what you need to do to come up with different, creative ideas. In the future it will not be technical knowledge that makes a difference, particularly in areas such as professional services, but creativity, wisdom and how you apply them.”
Most Street Wisdom participants come from creative industries such as PR and media but anyone looking for a new perspective on a problem would find the approach useful, said Pearl, who set up the not-for-profit group with Chris Baréz-Brown. “We’re also getting interest from teams who are looking for ways to refresh their thinking collectively.”
Griffiths-Lambeth is one of them. She has run mini-Street Wisdom programmes for two staff, and has plans for team events. “It’s a good way to get people to step back from the day-to-day pressures and give them space to think things through,” she said. In keeping with the founders’ philosophy, which keeps the programme free but asks participants to give something back, she will lead open sessions in Edinburgh and London.
While the truly time-pressed may find it hard to take a three-hour break to listen to the street, Andy Green will not accept such excuses: he wants people to see their daily commute as an opportunity for inspiration. “Your jour–ney need not be downtime in your schedule but can instead be one of the richest times of your day for new thoughts,” said Green, author of Tubespiration.
People’s reliance on computer programs and mobile apps can lock them into prescribed ways of thinking. He gets annoyed when he sees commuters glued to their phones or tablets. Consciously exploring ideas presented by the outside world can help people to break out of those parameters.
“It’s about taking on board everything around you and feeding that into your thinking,” he said.
Stephen Waddington, a director of the PR agency Ketchum Europe, was astounded by how many triggers Green found in the Tube trip between London’s Liverpool Street and Aldgate stations. “He told me to come with a creative problem, which was a situation I had with trying to build a community for one of my clients,” Waddington said. “We started travelling and around every corner he would pull out an idea or a source of inspiration.”
Even a dating ad on one train contributed a new way of considering the issue: “He said, is there a way that partnering with someone could solve your problem?”
While Waddington did not solve his problem on the spot, the new ways of looking at it got him thinking about it differently, and eventually contributed to the result — which did include working with a partner.
Finding analogies between things spotted on the journey and the problem in question can be effective, said Green. “At Borough station, 14,000 people slept there for four years during the Second World War, so that might get people thinking about providing safety and security, or even about who is the equivalent of the Luftwaffe in their problem.”
Waddington does not treat every commute as a brainstorming opportunity — switching off altogether can be a good thing, he said — but he does use some of the techniques when searching for ideas.
Green would like executives to use their commute for inspiration more regularly, such as by making a habit of “Thinking Thursdays”.
“The idea is that at least one day a week you sit there with your notepad out and just put down your thoughts — even things that might not, on the surface, seem to be concrete solutions,” he said.
“It’s often the things that don’t look like much at first that turn out to be your intuition showing through.”