Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Thriving on Chaos

I came across the quotation below in an article by Michael McKinney, writing about the current financial crisis. I think it has much wider application as well.

"effective visions are beacons and controls when all else are up for grabs... To turn the vision into a beacon, leaders at all levles must model behavior consistent with the vision at all times."
Tom Peters, Thriving on Chaos

Sunday, 28 September 2008

More Ryder Cup reflections

Following on from yesterday’s entry, there are a few other lessons that seem to come from the way that the American team won the Ryder Cup last week.

The principal issue is teamwork. This has been claimed by the Europeans as the decisive factor in their run of victories in recent Ryder Cups. The argument being that they worked better as a team, even though the Americans had the more gifted individual golfers.

Well, this year I think that Azinger did a fantastic job of planning and managing his approach to team-working. It appears that he grouped his players into 3 groups of 4 – based on the way that they lined up in Sunday’s singles matches, and in the paired events on Friday and Saturday. He combined is ‘flair/momentum’ players (Kim, Mahan, Leonard and Mickelson); his ‘rowdy, Southern boys’ (Weekley, Holmes, Perry and Furyk) and his ‘steady guys (Curtis, Cink, Cambell and Stricker).

I surmise that his Sunday philosophy was that if the first 4 players could build the right momentum, then they would sweep away their European opponents – this was only partly successful. (Although, as an aside, I think that the success of Anthony Kim against Sergio Garcia was hugely significant in both the outcome of the Ryder Cup and in establishing Kim as a mega-star of golf in the very near future.) By contrast the second group of 4 were all successful, and they completed the victory (rout) by each winning their matches. The crowd were really into it with these players – 2 of them from Kentucky where the match was being played. Finally, for Azinger, if his first two cohorts didn’t finish the job, then he had his steady guys at the end to grind out the necessary points.

The lesson here is about planning ahead and creating contingencies for a variety of scenarios.

But in reality, the Ryder Cup was won on Friday and Saturday. Again, Azinger worked with the same groups of 4 players, but he further divided them into pairs – mainly a blend of (Ryder Cup) youth and experience. It has long been a hobby horse of mine that people work best in consistent teams. There is a need to hold your nerve and let a team blend together. A couple of years ago, we brought a team together to implement a new software system. There were some initial difficulties and tensions, and some calls to change the composition – from within the team and from outside of it – but we stuck with it and let the sort out their differences. In the need we had a very successful implementation, in fact, the corporate Head of IT said that no other project had ever been so well managed.

Anyway, Azinger decided on his pairings and largely stuck by them. In the 16 matches on Friday and Saturday he used 7 pairings. By contrast, the European captain Nick Faldo used 13 pairings – which didn’t exactly indicate a high degree of confidence in his players (or his own decision making?).

There are other lessons that I could potentially draw out – like developing individual talents, using resources wisely, and about making sure that you have the right challenge mechanisms within your team, but enough already!

Congratulations to Azinger and his team for a well-planned and merited victory. And just for the record, Faldo didn’t get everything wrong – his choice of Ian Poulter as a wild card wasn’t universally popular over here (I didn’t agree with it at the time), but he was the most successful individual in the competition!

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Some lessons from the Ryder Cup

I watched a chunk of the Ryder Cup last week. While I love watching sport, I didn’t really enjoy it. Firstly, I had a stinking cold (so was feeling very sorry for myself); secondly I don’t have a high regard for either of the captains; and thirdly we (Europe) lost. Actually we were thoroughly thrashed by a much better team. But there’s always next time!

Anyway, after the disappointment of losing I started to look more closely at the differences that there seemed to be between the teams, and while I have no inside information, the following things occurred to me.

Europe seemed to be over-confident, probably based on their status as favourites going into the competition. This was based on our run of success over the last decade or so. But the problem with this way of thinking is that this particular group of individuals had never played in the Ryder Cup before, and only 4 of them had any significant Ryder Cup experience (Garcia, Westwood, Harrington and Jimenez). Over-confidence and complacency are not good attitudes in any environment.

Another difference seemed to be that we were looking for things to whinge about. Whether it was Azinger’s (ill-advised) ‘pep talk’ to the fans, or the way that putts were or were not conceded. In golf and in life you need to be able to deal with these minor irritations and focus on the objective. Maybe there was a sense of wanting to win the competition while maintaining some sort of moral high ground.

But for me the biggest difference between the teams was teamwork, and I’ll deal with that in another post.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Friday photo: GOMA

The Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow

Thursday, 25 September 2008

The return of Jools

Jools Holland's fantastic Later Live returned to BBC2 this week. I thought that Elbow were pretty good. I really enjoyed the strings on One Day Like This, and the lyrics - especially the refrain:
It's looking like a beautiful day
So throw those curtains wide!
One day like this a year’d see me right!
But for me the star of the show was Imelda May. I loved the look and the sound. But then again it's all a matter of taste!

Low level blogging

I haven't been blogging (or commenting) much recently - lots of excuses, no reasons. I'm reminded of a quotation from Virginia Woolf:

"I have lost friends, some by death... others through sheer inability to cross the street."

So rather than lose all of my blogging friends, I thought I'd better step off the kerb again!

I've had lots of ideas for blog entries (even put them together in a file), but zero output. That's life at the moment.

This entry simply a re-entry to blog-land. I checked out Lucy's place and came across one of those cyber-quiz thingumyjigs. I could have answered most of the questions at least twice (Does that mean that I have a split personality? If so, how many ways has it split?...). Anyway, my output is below. Play if you like - but remember there are other sources of careers advice available!!

You Are the Philosopher

You love thinking things over and developing theories.

Learning is very important to you, and you pursue knowledge relentlessly.

You love to talk about the things you know, often in more detail than people would like to hear.

And you know a lot! You're always taking on new subjects, interests, and hobbies.

You are at your best when you are left alone to ponder your newest ideas and experiments.

You tend to withdraw from environments that are loud, contentious, or passionate.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Friday photo: mellow fruitfulness

Monday, 15 September 2008

small acts - the sequel

"Do your little bit of good where you are. It’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world."
Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Imagine how surprised I was to get this link in an e-mail today!

God does work in mysterious ways - and through our small acts.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

In praise of a software upgrade.

I usually find software upgrades a pain in the behookie - unnecessary downloads and restarts for no perceptible gain in functionality.

However, to my great surprise I'm quite enjoying the latest version of iTunes (8.0.0). I'm having a bit of fun with the 'genius' button. Now I know that it's just another way to try to get me buying more music from the iStore, and in essence it's no different from marketing ploys used by other companies, like Amazon. But it has one feature that I like - it generates playlists from your music library. It's much more random than I would be if I selected the music myself. I like that!

The big question is how long will I resist buying more music - that I hadn't intended to buy - from iTunes?

Small changes, radical effects

This morning started normally (well, it’s been ‘normal’ for a couple of weeks) with an early morning run. It was beautiful but not spectacular morning, with a tinge of pink in the sky and some small pockets of mist clinging to the hills. After showering and breakfast, normality was abandoned. We decided to opt out of church this morning. Instead we will go this evening to hear That Hideous Man concluding his series on Ecclesiastes.

This meant that we had a large chunk of a day with no specific plans, which also allowed some space for thinking.

Yesterday we went to visit my parents. My dad is finding it difficult to maintain his garden, and he wanted a small tree removed. So we took a variety of tools and gardening clothes with us to do it for him.

True to form it started to rain as the removal exercise reached the point of no return. So I pressed on, getting wet and covered in soil and mud. Every time that I have removed a tree or shrub I have the same experience. Eighty percent of the job is done fairly quickly, but there are always a few roots that are buried deep or are hidden away – and this is the bit that takes the time. Anyway, I knew that I was nearing the end, when my mum came out to give me a telling off – it was wet and I should come in. The first bit was obvious! The second bit was a judgement call – it was getting very wet, but I was nearly there. I decided to keep going, and a few minutes later the last root was cut and the stump came out.

Due to the weather, we weren’t able to complete the clearing up, but we’d done the important bit. My parents will be able to do some of the clearing up (I took away the heavy stuff) or it can wait until our next visit.

It was only after we had removed the tree that I realised how much of an issue it had been for both of my parents. Maybe it was just a generous display of gratitude, but I got the impression that this tree had been a major problem for them. Removing the tree did open up a bit more light in their garden, but for them it was as if the whole garden had been liberated from a shadow that had hung over it for years. What might seem to me to be a minor change, was for them a significant improvement, and had I given up they would have been left with their problem for a few weeks.

My conclusion – sometimes the biggest changes can come from apparently small adjustments.

By way of a postscript, I spent almost as long this morning cleaning up the tools that I as had used, as I did taking the tree out. But as I removed the grime, I was able to do some thinking and that can’t be a bad thing, can it?

Friday, 12 September 2008

Friday photo: Modesty

by Giosue Argenti
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow

Monday, 8 September 2008

More on comfort zones

Had a bit of a frustrating meeting today with a colleague. This individual (please note gender neutrality to avoid identification!) is a senior manager in a fairly large organisation, responsible for a budget of several million pounds, a significant group of staff and - most importantly - the delivery of public services to needy people. They are experienced in their job, having been in their role even longer than me.

Anyway, they are heading up a project re-designing a bunch of services in their area of responsibility. We disagreed very early on in the meeting - as they tried to tell me how I should be doing the workforce planning for this project (the irony of this may become obvious in a wee while).

After a few minutes I thought we should move things on, so I asked where the project plan was. The response - 'there isn't one, and I don't do project plans!' This wasn't a humble recognition of a deficit in the management toolkit, this was almost a badge of honour. Next I asked for clarity on the objective of the project - there isn't one, or at least, it's not clearly stated. It seems that the approach to the project was to thrash around wildly, doing lots of things and asking for some major investment in the hope that the services will improve.

I've known this individual for over a decade, and I know that we approach things very differently. Nevertheless I was shocked by the (initial) attitude that planning was unnecessary. Effectively this manager's comfort zone is in handling operational issues, almost at an individual case level.

Well, being awkward - like I am - I wasn't prepared to let this rest. I have absolutely no intention of being associated with a project that is doomed from the outset, so I forced the issue, and in doing so, forced this individual out of their comfort zone - and into a place where thinking was required. In the end we agreed a way forward. I doubt that it will lead to any lasting change, but at least it's a first step.

The moral? If there is one, it may be that the deeply entrenched comfort zone is the hardest to deal with. For us as individuals and for those who work alongside us.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Comfort zones

His Girl Friday reminded me about the talented (and gorgeous) Alison Krauss. I’m not at all familiar with her bluegrass music, but I remember being completely blown away by her collaboration with Robert Plant (of Led Zeppelin fame).

Some genius came up with the idea of taking these two singers from completely different backgrounds and putting them together – and it worked. Both Alison and Robert have spoken about how they felt quite intimated by being removed from their comfort zones, which got me thinking…

If we always do the same things, in the same way, with the same people there is a real danger of complacency and the loss of innovation and creativity. Of course, it’s hard to move from your own comfort zone unless you’ve got the discipline to challenge yourself. It’s much more likely to happen when we’re forced into a situation, or when someone else challenges us.

This is quite topical for me as I’ve been challenged lately in a couple of areas where I think that I’m pretty good at what I do. The details don’t matter, but I’ve been doing these things for many, many years and – on reflection – I have become quite complacent. So I needed the constructive criticism to give me the impetus to look at how I’m performing and to raise my game.

It’s not exactly pleasant to be challenged in this way - then again, it’s not too easy to be the challenger either. So I’m grateful for the timely comments.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Friday photo: Bee heaven!

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Taxation and accountability

This is a real thrupenny thought!

The SNP government in Scotland has published its proposed legislative programme for the parliamentary session, including plans for a “Local” Income Tax to replace the current Council Tax system.

As I understand it, the proposal is to abolish the Council Tax, which is a property based tax set and collected separately by each of the 32 local authorities in Scotland. (By the way, the thrupenny bit comes in because it’s likely that the proposals would add 3pence to the existing Income Tax rate.)

Now I need to declare a pecuniary interest in this. First of all, I work in local government; secondly I’ll be a ‘loser’ financially if the SNP proposals ever make it to the statute books.

Predictably there’s been a party political stooshie about this with all sides adopting their familiar, entrenched positions. But I want to spend a few moments thinking through some of the underpinning issues as I see it.

All parties in Scotland seem to agree that the existing Council Tax regime is unfair. So what constitutes a fair system of taxation? Ideally it should reflect consumption of the end product and to some extent reflect ability to pay.

Neither the Council Tax nor any form of ‘local’ income tax will reflect consumption, and any attempt to measure the use of local government services by each citizen/ family would be so hideously complex and contentious that it would be completely unworkable. Income tax does come closer to measuring ability to pay.

What else do we need to consider?

Cost of collection is surely an issue. To collect Council Tax, each local authority needs to have staff and systems to notify citizens of the amount that they are each due to pay, collect these amounts through a variety of methods, and chase those who choose not to pay. There is a also a system for assessing individual relief from payment due to individual financial circumstances. On the other hand, it is argued that Revenues and Customs already collect money from all income tax payers, so varying the percentage to be collected from me shouldn’t be too difficult. It is clearly more straightforward to collect if the rate is set nationally, as opposed to separate rates for each authority.

Of course the big, philosophical show-stopper is about accountability – so the opposition parties say. The argument runs that each Council must be accountable to their citizens for the amount of money collected from taxation to run their services. There is a certain logic to this position – except that Council Tax currently represents less than 20% of the money spent by each local authority. The rest of the money comes through direct charging for services (e.g. use of leisure facilities, payments for social care), business rates AND funding from central government – which in turn comes from INCOME TAX (and other nationally set taxes).

Do citizens judge their democratically elected representatives solely - or mainly - on the basis of how much tax they pay? What view do they take of outcomes and the quality of services delivered? What about ensuring that services are provided to the most vulnerable?

And what about the fact that turnout in local government elections is laughably low and likely to decrease if/when they are de-coupled from Scottish Parliament elections?

In my opinion, if the issue is about fairness then ‘local’ Income Tax wins the argument. This is also true in terms of the cost of collection.
As for accountability – well there’s a real debate around that, if only the politicians were capable or willing to look at it from the citizens’ perspective rather than a party political one. But is there any prospect of a mature debate on this? Not a chance!!

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Newton's pebbles

"I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."

Isaac Newton