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October 2010

The mine of darkness

Dante’s Divine Comedy starts: Along the journey of our life half way/ I found myself again in a dark wood ... And this leads him on to the entrance to a place where the motto above the gate is, Abandon All Hope You Who Enter Here. [Peter Dale’s - my favourite translation].That place, of course, is The Inferno, which we call Hell. The life half way is 35 years of age, half of three score years and ten; his mid-life crisis, if you will.

 It is a place that we all find ourself in at some point in our life. There are those who like to pretend that their whole life is one long trajectory of success. But what the collective experience of humanity teaches us is that nobody’s life is really like that - at some point reality bursts in, and all the ‘achievements’ are literally kicked into touch. We are like Alexander the Great on his death bed - surprisingly. We have conquered the world and now unexpectedly we are in a place - somewhat prematurely - where we didn’t expect to be. All those we love, and our foot soldiers even, troop past for us to see them one last time as our glittering eyes start to dim. At this point we ask: What was Alexander the Great thinking?

 The darkness surrounds us. As Milton said, in another epic poem, Long is the way / And hard, that out of Hell leads up to Light.

 The Radio 4 PM programme on the 14/10 featured some top-notch agent from Curtis Brown talking about the potential issues and publications potentially arising from the Chilean mining disaster-turned-triumph. It was strange to hear someone so commercially savvy and yet so lacking in imagination. For instance, he queried whether in a year’s time there would still be interest in the story. Perhaps the real reason for this indifference to the fate of the story was because his own agency had no chance of scooping it; or perhaps, as I said at first, he perhaps he simply lacked all imagination; for the story is primary, primeval, and utterly compelling. Whoever is not moved by this story must already be dead.

 The story is literally true - 33 men trapped in the bowels of the Earth for 69 days - and also a metaphor for all of us. Perhaps the nearest great story I can think of in the last 100 years that compares with it is Shackleton’s great Antartic voyage and the entire salvation of all 29 men on the expedition.

 And what saves people? The President of Chile said it all: commitment, faith, team work. All of us at some time or another are trapped in the bowels of the Earth - in the darkness where we cannot see or discern light. We need faith, we need commitment, and most brilliantly we need others to help us; but not just to help us, we need to be part of the team. According to our strengths, abilities and talents, we must contribute too.

 Isn’t this a metaphor for modern Britain? Deep in the darkness of its own financial excavations, its own lax principles and so-called ‘freedoms’, firmly embedded in its own me-first attitudes from the top down, we are stuck and in danger of dying from our own bleak surfeits. Let’s hope that the new Government stays true to its initial impulses - for we need this kind of leadership exactly in the same way as the Chilean miners needed Luis Urzua, their shift supervisor.

Bad things happen and turn out nice again!

I met a great guy at a networking event recently - let’s call him Q to retain anonymity. We started talking and I said, “Your accent - I can’t quite place it.”

“Rhodesian,” he said.

“Right,” I replied. “That’s not a word I’ve heard in a long time. How long have you been here?”

“About two years.” And then I asked why he had come to the UK. The answer was because he had been “plundered” twice. I asked what he meant.

 Turned out he had owned a farm near Harari, and that had simply been confiscated with the advent of President Mugabe. Clearly, a major trauma as losing your family inheritance is never going to be pleasant whatever the wider political and historical rights and wrongs are.

 So, he said, he’d gone away and reinvented himself: got into telecommunications with a major international company and from that created what became a very successful business. Then, at the point of its success, that was confiscated to.

 During this period, he said, he had developed a serious health problem, namely, high blood pressure. This seemed to be getting higher and higher despite the best medication that he could access. As I observed: well, that was hardly surprising, given the stress and uncertainty he was under. Also, the injustice that he felt was being perpetrated against him and his family. He agreed.

 In coming to the UK he had expected his blood pressure to ease and go down. But he found it was still getting worse. So he went to his local GP. The GP referred him to a hospital for tests. In very short order he discovered he had a tumour, which if left unchecked would be fatal. But, of course, he had the tumour removed via the NHS and he now feels fantastic. His life has been saved. If he had stayed in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe he would have died without anyone realising the actual cause.

 So we are faced with the most bizarre situation: his life was saved because he was “plundered” twice and he couldn’t take living in his home land anymore. The net result for him was one of sheer gratitude: all the pain he had endured in the ‘plunder’ now was converted to joy for what it had led him to.

The story is wonderful because it is very easy for gurus to say everything works together for good, but when you are in the alligator swamp, up to your neck in sticky mud, it’s difficult to see how any good can come from it. Q’s story, because it is true, is a model of hope for all of us: no matter how bad things may be, there is a purpose and meaning in this which is for our good. And we need to find the good in all things if we are to stay psychologically and spiritually healthy.


Education, education, education

That was the rallying cry of New Labour; you could say the one thing on which they must be judged; after all, it would be simply unfair to judge them on their transport performance as Prescott was in charge. No, education was firmly what it was all about - build the future through the education of young people: that way, runs the implicit argument, people get happier, businesses get the skills they need, and Government gets its growing tax take.

 All the more striking, then, that we should continue to get stories like Katharine Birbalsingh’s, addressing the Tories in Birmingham at the invitation of Michael Gove, the Education Secretary. The underachievement, the disruption, the problems were all, she claimed, the fault of the system itself. Her blogs - soon to be published by Penguin books - catalogue the violence, inanity and despair that constitutes many of our modern classrooms.

 There is little point in denying this; I live in a leafy area of Bournemouth but took my son out of school five years ago and with my wife home educated him up to GCSE standard because the nearest local school was - to use a technical term - sh**e.

 The problem is systemic, but unfortunately it is even deeper than systemic: it’s philosophically and pedagogically all wrong. And until that’s corrected there can be no system cure. The system can only be built around the underlying philosophy and pedagogy - tamper with it without changing the latter and you move the deck chairs on the Titanic.

 What do I mean, then, by the philosophy (to focus on one point)? Well, here unfortunately I have to blame not the Labour Party, but the Conservatives. They, unbeknown even to themselves, did untold damage to British education at the very point at which they were doing untold good. I mean of course the Education Reform Act of 1988.

In so far as this Act enabled schools to act autonomously and free them from local Authority control, all well and good. But contained also within it was the worst possible thing: the foundations for the National Curriculum, a curriculum which at a stroke dis-empowered teachers and their professionalism, at a stroke led to education for the test and all education being examination led. But even that wasn’t the worst of it.

 Oh no. The worst of it was that without noticing they had done it, the Conservatives betrayed their own long standing principles, or philosophy. It was the subtle change in wording on which all depended. The 1944 Education Act was set up in order to enable schools to educate children according to their ‘age, aptitude and ability’. This meant that children had to strive to be educated at all - they had to demonstrate ‘aptitude’ and with that develop their ability. The 1988 Reform Act, by contrast, now painted education as an ‘Entitlement’ - they were entitled to it whatever their aptitude or ability.

 This all sounds trivial, doesn’t it? But that is precisely what it is not - now parents could start suing schools because moron Jonny hadn’t got his entitlement education, and apathetic Annie hadn’t got her certificates. And everybody now had to be equal because if some pupils did better than others then that wasn’t fair ... and ... and ... so the cult of total mediocrity took hold. One of the later things of infamy done by the Labour Government in the spirit of this philosophy was the extension of FREE Further Education to 25 year olds! Jeezus - how many times are we paying for these retakes? But then again, Labour, foxes that they are, weren’t really investing in education here, anyway, were they? Simply buying the public sector vote to keep them in office - what FE lecturer is going to vote Tory with this gravy-train running and running?

 So Michael Gove in highlighting Katherine Birbalsingh is doing a good thing. But he needs to do more: he needs to address the root philosophical problem at the heart of our educational failure. Then remedy it. And surprise, surprise: this poison root it will be found is exactly the same as the one blighting our families and businesses today. The country needs a wake-up call and an overhaul if it is going to have any chance of competing on the international stage.


Teaching the law of unintended consequences

Perhaps the most terrifying law in the universe is the law of unintended consequences; this is far worse than anything gravity could do. Why? Because it is a law with an unpredictable outcome, and human beings hate uncertainty. In fact most of our activities are directed towards creating certainty. How frustrating, then, when what we do has outcomes we never foresaw or planned.

 Nowhere is the more true than in the realm of politics and business. Only the other night on the BBC news a story was featured on Starbucks and their embrace of social networking. Naturally, proactive companies have embraced these technologies consciously and given out the usual spiel about listening to customers, two-way conversations and all the usual moral self-congratulatory PR. The story went on to depict, however, how this very media that they are embracing can so easily turn into a two-edged story: BP was cited as a case in point - the company’s complete failure to gauge the public mood and all their social media activities being turned in turn into parodies of the company that attracted far more attention and traffic than the self-justifying hype put out by the company. In short, from being a rock-solid company BP is now high risk. That surely is an unintended consequence of their efforts.

 Nearer home, we have an even subtler event occurring. Talking to one of my educational colleagues, he reminded me that next year the new law kicks in which means that teachers no longer have to retire at a statutory age. Great - we all want more freedom, the cut off age was arbitrary any way, and this by creating more productivity reduces costs on the system, so what could be wrong?

 If you saw the great Bruce Forsyth compering the dance programme on TV Saturdays you will get some idea: at 80 he is no longer the brilliant entertainer he once was, and the flow of his dialogue is clearly impaired - he has to ‘think’ about what he is saying before he can now say it. Imagine, then, that 80 year old in front of a first year Primary school class: they don’t want to retire, they are not going to retire, and the Head has to performance manage that.

So we have a situation in which over the last twenty or so years teaching has increasingly become a high pressure occupation: it is no longer about being a subject specialist who imparts knowledge to children. No, it is about far less content and far more process: teaching styles, special needs, diversity, accountability, performance targets, examination results, community involvement ... need I go on? An infinite array of specialism, and alongside these an accelerated process by which young teachers can be head teachers within five years. What I am getting at is that teaching has become very much a young person’s profession: the energy needed to perform at this level is staggeringly more than was needed only 25 years ago. Thus, at the point at which we need an increasingly young teaching force and with head-ship average age decreasing, we are about to inflict an aging teaching profile on these young turks. What fun!

 Between 2011 and 2020, then, expect some serious unintended consequences in the teaching profession - and probably in any high energy service profession - concerning performance, conditions of service, and dispute resolution. It would be quite good if somebody - anybody - might like now to try to think through what this all means and head off the problems at the pass.


Making books

I have just had a new book published,     "Insight"  (, which I am really pleased with. My friend Susan Rice-Lincoln is partially responsible since she gave me the idea - simple really, but not obvious till you get it. She said, ‘re-purpose’ your materials. What? Re-purpose your materials; make them work harder; re-use them in a variety of contexts.

I guess I get bored easily so have never been good at doing this. I am always on to the next thing without adequately considering whether something I have already done is being effectively used or distributed. Thus, looking at my backlog of blogs over the last two years I find I have well over 120 in total, and some of them have had great feedback from readers. Why not then compile a ‘best of blog’ and put them out in this new media, the book? The advent of Lulu (see makes such publications so easy - so check out my book if you are interested in this kind of thing and see what can be done so easily. With even more effort I am sure you could do better.

But to return to my book, there is something so gratifying about having your writing actually in print. It is also just so important to write. Writing is a kind of therapy to the mind, and I like to think of it metaphorically as a de-fragmentation of the brain in much the same way as we would de-frag a hard drive. After we do it, we are healthier and faster and more alive.

And here is another important aspect of writing - writing the narratives of our businesses, our passions, and our life. Narrative is a primary act of mind - it corresponds with reality, how things occur, past, present and future: when we tell stories, therefore, we can understand - make sense - of what is happening. The remarkable thing about narrative is that the creative act means that we don't know what we think until we have written it. Put another way, narrative reveals truth in the nature of things that was not foreseen when the urge to write started. This is startling and teleological, suggesting deep purpose(s) in the fabric of existence.

Thus, apart from the most banal and obvious of writings, we don’t decide to write ‘content’ but we discover ‘content’ when we write. This discovery is a process in which the head and heart are equally involved and as the layers peel away to reveal the truth beneath there is the conviction of truth - with my own eyes I see it, that is I see myself. So writing is a process of revelation even to the writer! Weird, but great. And it’s why writers get such a buzz from writing - it’s a form of exploration.

If you don’t do it, then give it a try. If you persevere you won’t be disappointed.



Music and motivation

There is a wonderful book, published some years ago, called the Music of the Mind, which was written by Darryl Reanney and published posthumously. Reanney was a distinguished biologist and his previous book, The Death of Forever, was a bestseller. Why is he important? Because as a scientist he increasingly came to see that even the science pointed towards what Socrates, the philosopher, observed.

 Socrates, we remember, argued that there were two proofs for the existence of God. The first was internal: the reality of the human soul. The second was external: ‘from the order of the motion of the stars, and of all things under the dominion of the mind which ordered the universe’. In short, the argument from design. Interestingly, Socrates thought that those who could not perceive that order were dull and stupid.

 Reanney through his investigations came to similarly startling conclusions, although he remained on his premature death bed, according to one Australian broadcaster, still an atheist. However, in talking of consciousness he said: ‘it is the unique function of consciousness to recognise patterns but they are patterns of a particular type. They are in the vast majority of cases characterised by symmetry, to use the physicist’s term, or rhythm, to use the dancer’s term, or harmony to use the musician’s term, or beauty to use the most general and most meaningful term of all’. And from this he deduced: ‘reality - the hidden structure of the universe - has harmonic configuration.’

 Thus, if we want to describe the universe as consciousness ‘knows it’, then he said, ‘We should stop thinking about it as a machine or a system or a process and start thinking of it as a song.’ But this is his account of consciousness seeing ‘it’; when we consider the etymology of the word ‘universe’ itself, we find it means either ‘one song’ or ‘one poem’. Staggeringly, then , creation itself is a song: an unfinished product and process both - consciousness creating the self-building building blocks of the whole!

 In describing reality in this way we become aware, I think, of the intrinsic energy in all things: these ‘harmonic configurations’ whether they be in physics, dance, music or beauty itself all conspire to inspire and motivate us.

 One of the great challenges of the Twenty-first century is to resist ugly art and artists, valueless and meaningless work, packaged and commoditized relationships on the grounds that they are seriously de-motivating and unhealthy. Why? Because they go against the grain of the universe; they are discordant to its song. Where there is real music, there is real motivation.


What's wrong with the world?

If we ask the big question, What’s wrong with the World? We may come up with answers like – Greed, Power, Corruption or, looking at it from the other end of the spectrum, Poverty, Ignorance, Crime. The World is a difficult place. Wherever we are we have a duty to try to make the World better, but where do we start faced with these huge problems and vested self interests?

For me I start with what I know something about. What’s wrong with management? If management could be improved what effect would that have? Actually, since most people spend some 30-50% of their lives working and managing and being managed, presumably then a big difference.

 Three is a magic number, so it would be wrong not to pose one more question: What is the purpose of a business? Here we all know the answer, don’t we? Think about it whilst I digress. Because whenever things are tough, and times when everything goes wrong, one key principle to remember is to return to first principles. Why do we do this? So many of our activities are the results of habits whose original purpose and usefulness has long been superseded.

 What is the purpose of a business? If your answer is to make a profit, or to make money, which is the answer of 99% of people, then I am sorry to inform you, but you are mistaken. Turning a profit is a by-product, an indirect and necessary consequence if you will, of the real purpose of a business. The purpose of a business is to acquire and retain customers; if we do that successfully we make a profit. If on the other hand we only aim to make a profit we guarantee our business is short-lived.

The essence of acquiring and retaining a customer is of course that old fashioned word, Service. Arthur Andersen began this way. Its motto was Think Straight, Talk Straight, and when it strayed from these principles it foundered. Aiming to add value to someone’s life, as opposed to making money from them, is the essence of longevity in business, as well as in personal relationships: we all like the friend who is true and supportive, and eventually shun the one who is self-centred and manipulative.

 With this in mind, therefore, we can begin to change the World. I reckon that sixty years ago, 95% of management was command and control, and 5% was enlightened and engaging. Now that statistic is probably more like 80% command and control, and 20% engagement. Lots has happened in the interim, from the emancipation of women, to leadership research, and even in 2007 the Macleod Report on Employee engagement. A movement, in short, that demands a more bottom-up approach to management.

 But we still haven’t reached the Tipping Point – the point at which the change becomes embedded and irreversible. We need more people to buy into the idea that helping others is the ultimate source of value and that when we do it, paradoxically and counter-intuitively, we help ourselves. Let’s, then, have as a business objective: to change the world and make it better!


Motivation in a recession

One of the biggest problems of a recession is that everybody does less business, except the pawn brokers, debt collectors, and specialised accountancy firms - specialism, receivership. Things are particularly tough for training and coaching companies because, along with marketing and It, their budgets are easy to slash. So what’s the good news?

 Bizarrely, perhaps counter-intuitively, there is some light in the motivational tunnel. As I go round, and my friends go round, we keep hearing the same problem from company directors. What are we going to do to motivate the staff that remain? We have had cuts, efficiencies, redundancies and the net effect on the staff who remain and who are mission critical is devastating. How can we refuel and refire their batteries?

This is a great question. Such company directors know that skill alone does not lead to high performance The missing alchemical element is motivation. So, although it hardly needs saying, let’s say it: training is not the answer. Change management via advanced motivational tools such as Motivational Maps is.

 I was conducting a two and a half hour seminar for HR managers in business in London last week. What really took their fancy was - in my opinion - the moment after I had explained the Map, then the team Map, and so we got on to ‘Reward Strategies’ - the specifics we do, the ideas we target on individuals within the company. And I showed them a sheet of paper that I had created for a client with 70 staff.

Their challenge to me had been: find three ways to reward each of the 9 motivational types for £15 or less - as £15 was the team leaders maximum budget for each member of staff. Now that is an astonishing, and highly cost effective, strategy. I saw them tightly gripping their sheets to take away!

 Let’s, then, stay motivated during and through this recession. How? By thinking of real ways to get our mission critical staff fully on board.