Sunday, 26 February 2012

A Word in Edgeways

Perhaps it is a reflection on the current economic climate (or maybe it is simply my interpretation of events), but there do seem to be a large number of light farces playing on the London stage at present – I suppose they provide a way for audiences to escape the gritty reality of modern life.  I must confess that I am taking the family to see “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” later today (it’s a gentle British film – a comedy starring amongst others Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Dev Patel), with the intention of giving us all a lift.  I also note that the film tipped to win the top award at tonight’s Oscars’ ceremony is the gloriously humorous “The Artist”.  Across the globe we welcome the opportunity to smile. 

I do like the fact that a virtually silent film can say so much to so many.  Getting a message across is often one of the main challenges in life.

I wonder if everyone reading this is was comfortable with my usage of the phrase “giving a lift” – I intended to convey my desire to raise my family’s spirits, but the expression can also mean to physically elevate or even to drive or convey someone along a road or route.   Given the theme behind this week’s blog, I suppose that is appropriate…  I have spent much of the past week pondering how appalling people often are at communicating with each other, especially when they want to inspire others to achieve something.  Admittedly this can frequently be as a result of cultural and linguistic differences.  In the UK or America if I wanted to hitch a lift I might stand at the side of the road and hold out my thumb, however, to do so in other countries would be viewed as highly offensive.  The below depicts a number of hand signals that have radically different meaning across the globe:

Location where action is offensive

A familiar roadside signal in the UK and USA, to indicate that you want a lift or to show approval.  However in Greece, Russia and parts of West Africa it indicates “up yours”.  I have used it to signify to my spouse that it’s time to leave a party or event that I am not enjoying, as it is the diving signal for returning to the surface
Russia, West Africa, Sardinia and Greece

The “A OK” signal in North America and the UK shows people that things are going well, unless you are in Brazil, Turkey and parts of the Mediterranean where the gesture has sexual connotations and in France and Belgium it means that the recipient is a worthless zero.
France, Belgium, the Mediterranean, Brazil and Turkey

A frequently used signal to gesture to others stop by holding up a hand, palm out with fingers together, will tell someone in Greece that you want them to go to hell.

Using both hands, palms down, fingers outstretched to calm and settle a crowd works well in the US and UK but in Greece the gesture indicates that you want the people who see it to consume excrement
The Horn symbol is often used in the states to indicate success, whereas in many parts of Europe it shows the recipients that you think they are a cuckold/that their partner is unfaithful to them.
Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Colombia, Brazil, Albania and Slovakia

Be careful not to beckon your finger repeatedly to indicate that you want someone to come over to you when in the Philippines. It is viewed as sufficiently offensive that the gesture can be punishable with a term in jail if used on a person.

Those of us in corporate life know that, in an ideal world, there should be a clear line of sight and understanding between a business’ objectives and each individual’s role, to enable the desired success.  To know what’s expected of you in any environment, you have to be told (and understand) what your responsibilities are - this is often where there is a fundamental breakdown of communication at work, which can result in bad feeling, resentment, disputes and lot of wasted time sorting the problem out.

I see job descriptions as a crucial part of business – they are a communication tool that can make a significant impact on an organisation’s performance and the internal culture and morale.  Poorly written or out-dated job descriptions often add to workplace confusion and can make people feel as if they don’t know what is expected of them and hence result in disengaged employees.  Although in the UK there is no legal requirement for employers to provide employees with a formal job description, it is good practice.  However, a “written statement of particulars” is required to be provided to employees, within eight weeks of starting work - this has to contain the employee’s job title and/or a brief description of their role.

When defining an individual’s role and responsibilities it is important to use mutually understood terms.  Language is a tricky medium, like hand gestures, words and phrases often have mixed meanings that are dependent on their location.  I once described myself as "nutty" to a North American audience - I spent the rest of the conference being accosted by over-amorous males who thought I had described myself as "naughty".  There are some great examples in advertising where a simple word has caused issues.  When Coke wanted to expand into China it tried a phonetic translation of its brand name, Ke-kou-ke-la to recreate the words Coca Cola.  It was not until thousands of signs had been printed that they discovered that the phrase means “bite the wax tadpole” or “female horse stuffed with wax”, depending on the dialect.  They tried again and, after considering 40,000 Chinese characters, Coke settled on “ko-kou-ko-le” which translates roughly to “happiness in the mouth”.  Things weren't any better for Ford when they introduced their new car, the Pinto, into Brazil. After very poor sales results, despite the fine credentials of the vehicle, the company learned that "Pinto" is Brazilian slang for "tiny male genitals." Ford pried the nameplates off all of the cars and substituted them with "Corcel," which means horse.  In the same vein, one of my current favourite advertising misadventures is this American poster for savoury quiches.  To fully appreciate it, you need to know that “bite” is a French slang word for “penis” and "petite" is small; you can almost imagine the conversation:

How many times have you found yourself talking at cross purposes?  Or at times felt that your voice is not heard?  Good leaders and managers listen to their people and respond in a timely fashion. 

I called this post “A Word in Edgeways” as the original meaning of the phrase is drawn from an allusion of edging through a crowd, seeking small gaps in which to proceed through the throng.  It was originally used  in the 17th century in a nautical context to describe the slow advance by means of small tacking actions, to enable movement in a desired direction, as here in Captain John Smith’s “The Generell Historie of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles”, 1624:

After many tempests and foule weather, about the foureteenth of March we were in thirteene degrees and an halfe of Northerly latitude, where we descried a ship at hull; it being but a faire gale of wind, we edged towards her to see what she was.

The first example of the actual phrase ‘a word in edgeways’ in print is in the one-act play “Twelve Precisely! Or, A Night at Dover” from 1821.  The lead characters, Amelia Wildlove and Sir Ferdinand Frisky, give a sense of the nature of the play:

Sir F. (Aside.) Curse me, if I can get a word in edgeways!

So we have turned full circle from one farce to another.  I hope that some of the above ponderings have helped raise a smile and I would like to thank you for enabling me to get my own words in edgeways!

Monday, 20 February 2012

Times They Are a Changing

At the risk of being thought a dinosaur, I must confess that I have witnessed and been involved in huge changes over the few decades that I’ve been alive.  When at school computers were still a rarity – my establishment was fortunate enough actually to own one: it was so large that it sat in a room in solitary splendour and, as a treat, we were allowed to peer in through the doorway at it – a bit like observing a monster from a safe distance. I am sat now writing to you on a small tablet that is easier to use and has greater capabilities than the machine of my childhood (or indeed the equipment that was used on the first lunar landing) and my tablet is small enough for me to carry in my handbag.  Change is one of the unalterable aspects of life.

After studying and working as a lawyer, I moved into The City just after “Big Bang” and became involved in the burgeoning derivatives markets.  I commenced as a junior on a dealing desk and was responsible for recording and ensuring the accurate reconciliation of the day’s trades.  I used to send a nightly telex confirming transactions and market positions; even now I use the Reuters’ codes for months as a form of shorthand when making my own notes.  I can clearly remember the noise that the machines made as they spewed streams of white tape-like paper, not actual ticker tape (the earliest form of digital electronic communications that transmitted stock price information over telegraph lines until the 1970’s) but data transmitted using automatic teleprinter switching systems that enabled local and international subscribers to call each other at any time (even when an office was empty of staff) and to communicate in print.  The onomatopoeia of ticker tape makes me smile - it was so called because of the noise the machines made recording on the ribbons of paper.  It has made a place for itself in history as the bunting of choice to be hurled from Wall Street offices’ windows in New York.  It was first used on October 29 1886, when people wanted to celebrate at the ceremony to dedicate the Statue of Liberty in New York, and it has enlivened many parades since.)

Telexes started becoming obsolete in 2004 when British Telecom ceased offering services to new customers and the business was discontinued in March 2008.  To a certain extent faxes replaced telexes for a while, although few businesses use faxes any more.  We now rely on emails, SMS texts and tweets and the tide is shifting further towards instant messaging (IM).  Each development of technology that is related to communication seems to enable faster, more efficient transactions, but at the expense of giving people time to contemplate a well rounded and grounded response.  Perhaps blogs fill this space… However, in praise of Twitter, it does at least force people to be succinct, which they often fail to be in email, and tweets can be witty or as breath catching as a Haiku.

People need time to acclimatise to change.  There has been considerable research into the subject – originally based on studies into bereavement.  Many of us are familiar with The Change Curve which shows a typical response to change over a period of time.

I have found that, having experienced change on a regular basis since a child, I am increasingly better at coping with it.  Knowing how I am likely to respond helps me get through the various stages faster (or at least to be able to rationalise how I am feeling to myself).  I, like most people, find change easier when I have some say in what is being planned and an understanding of the desired final outcome.  This is worth remembering when we are trying to inspire those around us to change.  It is also true that, for the main part, the young seem more comfortable with change than the older generations.  It is an issue for businesses that need to appeal to a wide range of customers.  My mother won’t even use an ATM, she likes to speak with a cashier, but my sons don’t see the point of setting foot inside a retail bank, when they can do everything they need online, via a hole-in-the-wall machine or by ‘phone.  There is a lot of truth in the lines of Bob Dylan’s song:

Come gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who
That it's namin'.
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside ragin'.
It'll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don't criticize
What you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin'.
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'.

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin'.
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'.
Great leaders are those who can sell a vision and inspire people to want to make the effort to change and/or achieve goals.  One of my favourite quotes at the moment is:
“Managers are often so busy cutting through the undergrowth they don’t even realise they are in the wrong jungle.  A leader is a person who climbs to the tallest tree, surveys the entire situation and yells “wrong jungle!”

Keep your ears tuned to recognise the dying out of old ways and make sure you are not encouraging others to hack their way through the wrong jungle.

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.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Making the Most of Things

Anticipation and prediction have long been a part of human nature (indeed they are the key to our survival).  I enjoy the symbolism in Art – in Christian Art goldfinches, because of their diet of thistle seeds and blood-red colouring on their heads (supposedly caused by trying to pull out the thorns and nails), have traditionally been painted to symbolise the crown of thorns and death of Christ.  The goldfinch, depicted in pictures of the Madonna and Child, remind the viewer of the crucifixion-to-come when Jesus has become a man.  An early example is Carlo Crivelli’s Madonna and Child painted around 1480:

The gourd, fruit and other details are also symbolic – the apple is a reference to the story of the Garden of Eden; the gourd is the symbol of recovery, redemption and resurrection (deriving from the experiences of Jonah) and the fly is representative of Satan – flies are universally seen as the bearers of pestilence and evil and hence the one in this picture is painted to symbolise sin and enticement.  The painting is a reminder to the medieval viewer of the need to be prepared and to overcome selfish temptation in order to achieve desired outcomes and a place in heaven.

I have been struck a number of times this week by people’s ability to overcome adversity and turn apparent problems to their advantage.  My youngest son was a participant in an inter-school rowing event on Saturday.  It was freezing cold, the riverbank was fringed with ice, and yet a huge number of young people and their supporters gathered to compete.  Their enthusiasm and energy was exemplary – many organisations strive to achieve the same dedication and effort from their employees, but few have such a unified and selfless focus, given by all contributors, towards achieving a shared goal, nor the same degree of appreciation for the input made by each member of the team.  My son is a cox – a tough position when the temperature is sub-zero – his team mates gave him their hats and scarves to help him, so that he could steer them to victory.  I loaned him my gloves, a precious souvenir of a memorable trip to New Zealand.  They are made of possum fur spun into a fine yarn.  Possum fur has hollow fibres and hence provides excellent insulation.   Possum gloves are an example of man’s ability to create advantage out of inconvenience.  Possums are not native to New Zealand, they were introduced in 1837 to establish a fur trade, but have bred unchallenged  and are now decimating local flora and fauna (in Australia, their native land, they are preyed upon by dingoes and their numbers are regularly reduced by natural bush fires).  In New Zealand, where there are no natural predators and very few fires, possums are having a huge, adverse impact on the ecosystems.  They are viewed as a national pest.  People work hard to reduce their numbers and industries have developed to use their remains.  My cousin, Roger Crowden, an exceptional bookbinder based in New Zealand, makes beautifully tooled book covers and vellum out of possum leather and I wear my possum gloves with pride.

I couldn’t help but smile when I saw another example of humans making the most of adversity this week.  For those of you who read music, the below might make sense.

If the meaning defeats you, check out this posting on YouTube:

All credit to, Lukas Kmit, clearly a very talented viola player and musician, who turned the situation he found himself in to both his and his audience’s advantage.

Given the hours that I have been working this week, I have not always been able to get home in time to cook supper for my family.  I have had to resort to prepared meals.  One such was a dish of Perciatelli with prawns and chilli.  Perciatelli are Spaghetti slim strands of pasta that are hollow (like Bucatini, but thinner).  They reminded me of possum fur.  At first I presumed that they had been developed by a supermarket to enable the swift reheating of pre-prepared meals.  However, I have now undertaken a little research into pasta and suspect that it came about as a result of the pasta making machine.  Pasta grew in popularity during the 18th century, as its production became easier.  When the American Ambassador returned from France in 1789 he brought with him a Macaroni maker that he used to delight friends and guests.  Many people credit the advent of Italian pasta to Marco Polo, when he returned from China in 1295.  However, there are Italian recipe books from twenty years earlier containing references to pasta dishes.   Although he certainly encountered pasta in China, it is probable that pasta was being eaten in Italy at a much earlier date.  The first mention of a recipe is in the book “De arte Coquinaria per vermicelli e macaroni Sicilian” (The Art of Cooking Sicilian Macaroni and Vermicelli)”.  It was published around the year 1000.   The earliest record of food made from a wheat and egg paste was circa 1,000 BC, when the ancient Etruscians baked it and there are objects from this period that seem to be pasta extruders.  The ancient Greeks and Romans ate a version of lasagne and there is evidence of Arab traders bringing noodle-like strings of pasta to Sicily early into the first millennium, the Talmud refers to pasta-like dishes being prepared and eaten prior to the 5th century AD.  Pasta is another great example of man being able to overcome obstacles and cope with the unknown.  When dried, it is a convenient source of food that can easily be transported.  It proved a staple food source for troops over the centuries – there are records of it being used in the Civil War and in World War Two macaroni and cheese was a popular meal – pasta can last a long time and only water is required to create a nutritious serving.  There are few foods that have remained relatively unchanged for over 500 years – proof to the value of pasta as easy and nutritious sustenance.

The garden is swathed in a two inch blanket of snow and I am glad that I put food out for the birds.  There are queues to get to the bird-feeders and mealworm encrusted fat.  The goldfinches behave like a supportive and social family, sharing the feeder full of Niger seeds and chattering to each other as they eat.  The robin has acquired new skills (to get to the food that it prefers) and now hovers like a hummingbird to feast on fatty mealworms – I am surprised that it doesn’t burn more calories than it consumes.  The crows and magpies are selfish bullies, watching from the fig tree, before flying down to snatch a chunky offering from the blackbirds and dunnocks, then returning with it to their perch, where they eat in solitary enjoyment in the branches of their lookout.  Their swooping in for their own self-gratification at the detriment of smaller, less influential birds reminds me of some of the least attractive traits in human behaviour  – I could draw analogies between Bankers and the City bonus culture where, for the main part, individuals judge themselves on the amount given in comparison to their peers, rather than considering the wider environment and their own contribution towards achieving desired outcomes for the business and the community in which they operate.  My time with the executive team this week was well spent, as we considered each individual’s performance in relation to the overall business and results.  We are ambitious goldfinches, aware of many of possible pitfalls but also the potential for the future, and not self-centered crows.