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English: The Red-eyed Tree Frog (Litoria chlor...

English: The Red-eyed Tree Frog (Litoria chloris) found in eastern Australia. Français : Litoria chloris, une grenouille arboricole de l’est australien. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So the story goes, if you throw a frog into a pan of boiling water, the frog immediately realises the danger and jumps out. If, however, you put the frog in a pan of tepid water and apply heat to the pan until the water boils, the frog stays put and slowly cooks and dies. I’m not a chef or a reptologist and I certainly haven’t performed this experiment to check the results, but it’s a good analogy for resistance to change.

In some ways, the human psyche is hard-wired against change. The brain works on success strategies, and once it finds one that succeeds in a given situation, then that becomes the brain’s go to guy when those events arise. It’s a very successful method. We don’t need to touch a flame more than once to realise it’s going to hurt and we soon gain a healthy respect for heights after a few falls.

When it comes to our working lives, it works the same way. We work out how to speak to people to get results (although I think this particular skill peaks at the age of 4). We work out the best way to word an email, apply for a job and ask for a pay rise. It’s not usually particularly scientific. We rely on trial and error, but once we work out a winning formula, the brain locks in that strategy.

One of the worst things about the brain is that it is a creature of habit. Once it has picked up a way of behaving, it is highly reluctant to change. After all, if something’s worked loads of times before, why wouldn’t you trust it to work again?

This would all be great if nothing changed. Unfortunately, everything does.

People change. Not only do people join and leave organisations all the time, but even the people who don’t learn new skills or go through new experiences that change their outlook on life. Technology changes all the time. In a living breathing organisation, processes change. In society, expectations of what’s OK and what’s unacceptable change. Our perspective changes every time we learn more about everything around us. When you think about it, there is very little that doesn’t change, so the circumstances in which we learned our success strategies gradually are unlikely to be repeated.

It makes sense to ask yourself occasionally whether you feel like a boiling frog. Have you changed enough to cope with all that’s changed around you?

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The Bowden Trophy

Laughing girl

Laughing girl (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

Life is serious and taking it too seriously robs you of happiness, fun and productivity. A solemn outlook increases stress, squanders creativity and innovation, and stifles progress.  

Making a fool of yourself is often considered a brave or stupid thing to do. To expect the company to do it in unison every year sounds like madness and yet that is what happened every year at BP while I was there. The event, known as the Bowden Trophy took place in the restaurant of BP House. Teams of 10 people competed in a variety of challenges to find the true champions in the company.

Some took it very seriously. Most approached it with trepidation and a sense of humour. From memory, there were about a dozen or so events and a bar was on hand to offer liquid courage to those who needed it.

All of the events involved simple team tasks. There was an element of suggestiveness to most of them. The early rounds were uneventful, but as the evening wore on and the teams became less and less sober, co-ordination started to disappear making the tasks very difficult indeed.

Transferring a polo mint from mouth to mouth using matchsticks and balloons from knees to knees became almost impossible. Transferring a key on a piece of string inside everyone’s clothes becomes slightly easier because when the drink flows, inhibitions disappear. Winning was more about stamina than any level of skill. Most teams retired early to the bar.

People from all over the company took part. Senior management through to the most junior staff. Every department was represented, even the most reserved such as legal and personnel (as they were known before they became human resources).

For one evening of the year, everyone forgot about the hierarchy. We left all the stresses and strains of keeping the wheels of industry turning back in the office and just had fun together. New friendships were made. New contacts were found. Compromising photos were taken.

I have no idea whether the event continues to this day. I suspect it died out as a casualty of political correctness. But it was fun while it lasted. During the whole time it ran, no-one was seriously hurt (physically or psychologically). Discipline in the office didn’t break down. Oil was still drilled, refined and sold all over the world and the company still made money.

Decisions, decisions…

English: Are you looking at me? Cowshed at Bro...

English: Are you looking at me? Cowshed at Brown Bank Farm (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The manager of a large organisation had a heart attack. The doctor told him to go to a farm for several weeks to relax.

At the farm, he became very bored, so he asked the farmer to give him some work to do. The farmer told him to clean out the cow sheds.

The farmer thought that someone used to working behind a desk would take over a week to finish the job, but to his surprise the manager finished the job in less than one day.

The next day the farmer gave the manager a more difficult job: to cut the heads of 500 chickens. The farmer was sure that the manager would not be able to do the job, but at the end of the day the work was done.

Next morning, as most of the jobs in the farm were done, the farmer asked the manager to divide a bag of potatoes in two boxes: one box with small potatoes, and one box with big potatoes. At the end of the day the farmer saw the manager sitting in front of the bag of potatoes, but the two boxes were empty.

The farmer asked “How is that you managed such difficult jobs earlier, and now you can’t do this simple job?”

He answered: “I’ve spent my whole life cutting heads and dealing with shit, but now you ask me to make decisions.”

Human beings make zillions of choices through their lives. What to eat or what to wear. What to read or what to watch. Usually it’s not a problem, but every so often, we have to make a hard decision. I’ve seen people literally paralysed with choice. Sometimes at the sandwich shop or choosing a bottle of wine in the supermarket. It usually happens because they’ve formed an idea of what they want and it’s not available. Maybe the sandwich shop has run out of their favourite sandwiches or there’s nothing they fancy. Maybe they are after a decent bottle of white wine for less than a fiver, but there’s nothing there that fits the bill.

But sometimes in business, leaders have to make really horrible decisions. Usually, they are choosing between a number of terrible options and they are trying to make the least bad choice. They will display the same behaviour as the wine picker or the sandwich muncher bouncing among the options, hoping that an optimal choice will become clear.

So how do you handle them? Firstly, if there is no downside to not making the decision, I would wait. The situation may change over time and the horrible decision may be avoided. Over time, more options may become available or the appeal of one option may change to make it the obvious choice.

If there is a downside to delaying and you really have to bite the bullet and make that decision, the key is to accept that there are no good options. Once you know that no perfect answer exists, it becomes easier to objectively look at the options and choose. Once you make the choice, don’t torture yourself with thoughts of whether you made the right decision or not. Move on and learn from the results.

What’s the hardest decision you’ve ever made?

On a scale of 1 to 10…

Risk

Risk (Photo credit: avyfain)

If you ever want investment advice – especially if you reside in the UK, an advisor will ask you to fill in a survey all about risk. I understand why these surveys exist, after all, the advisor needs to make sure you understand the concept of risk versus reward and pitch investment advice to you that is appropriate to how you feel.

By necessity, the survey is relatively simple consisting of statements like “Compared to the average person, I would say I take more risks” and you then tick a box to show how strongly you agree or disagree with the statement.

But who’s the average person and what do you consider a risk? I wouldn’t try anything like skydiving and I’m not too keen on the idea of deep-sea diving, but I do recognise that any kind of reward comes with risk. There’s even a risk of doing nothing because depending on your situation, the lack of action could leave you considerably worse off. If you’re standing in a burning building, you probably take a different view on the risk of jumping out the window.

I find such forms very difficult to fill in because my answers to the questions can vary wildly depending on which aspect of my life you are talking about. I have a very different attitude to the risk I take when I buy a £2 lottery ticket compared with one of those £50 tickets at the airport to win a car. It depends on so many factors; the amount of outlay, the potential reward and the likelihood of winning (or as is more often the case – losing).

When it comes to investment, it’s even more complicated. My attitude to risk changes with timescale, so I have a different attitude about the investment that’s supposed to pay off my mortgage compared to my retirement fund. The age at which you can retire in this country is galloping over the horizon so I’m fairly relaxed about taking some risk because a lot can happen between now and then.

It also depends on where in the world you are talking about. We have people in the western world doing essentially the same job as their counterparts a few thousand miles to the East, but we earn orders of magnitude more money. There is a considerable rebalancing that’s going to play out over the coming years which will affect the likelihood of growth in each area. Asser class makes a difference too. We have a saying “safe as houses.” I imagine many people across Europe and America take a very different view about the relative risks of investing in housing since the sub prime market imploded five or six years ago.

And it interest rates start going up or America decides that what the world really needs is another war – it will all change again. Maybe I’ll fill out 10 different forms.

My data – it’s just so big!

Regional ship on the amazon river

Regional ship on the amazon river (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every day we produce 2.5 Exabytes of data. How big is an exabyte? It’s a quintillion bytes. How many in a quintillion? 1 followed by 18 zeroes. Still struggling to visualise it? A quintillion pennies, if laid edge to edge, would cover the Earth two deep. If arranged in a cube, would measure 5 miles a side.

You can’t go to a conference these days without someone telling you that we produce more data today in the blink of a gnat’s eye than we did from the dawn of creation up to when something happened a long time ago. Every day, more people start using the Internet. More people join social networks. More social networks are created. More connected devices are manufactured. They all produce data.

Despite the soundbites, I doubt anyone really knows how much data we produce now, let alone how much we produced 10 or 20 years ago. Any figures you hear must be based on estimates on top of estimates, but no-one doubts we are producing a lot and over time the amount of data we produce increases at an ever-growing pace.

When it’s growing this fast and when we have this much, coping with it becomes a challenge. It’s a bit like trying to analyse the Amazon river. Every second, the Amazon spits out roughly 55 million gallons. Even the largest tank in the world would fill in less than a heartbeat. We have to use a different strategy. Either we sample the water every so often and extrapolate or we find a way whereby when something we’re interested in passes by – we get a message.

It’s no surprise that the software industry recognises the need to process and analyse all this data and it’s even less of a surprise that buzzwords have come about to describe the process. Big data is big business and it’s easy to see why. By analysing weather patterns, large retail chains can make a good guess about what’s going to sell and stock their shops accordingly. By analysing web searches, astonishingly accurate predictions can be made about election results or the potential success of a film or a music artist.

However clever all this seems, I can’t help thinking that we are like toddlers discovering our first toy. The potential in all this data is enormous. Who knows, we may be able to predict earthquakes, volcano eruptions, traffic jams, epidemics and murders by analysing everything from how many big macs are eaten in Bolton through to the water temperature in Tahiti.

Building culture

River Gade and the Kodak building, Hemel Hempstead

River Gade and the Kodak building, Hemel Hempstead (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was my first day in a new job and coincidentally the first time I saw the office building in which I was to work. It was a plain, red brick, shoebox shaped affair. It must have taken all of 5 minutes work for the architect to come up with the design. Inside, the fittings were elderly and tatty. When I reached the door to our particular office, I took a moment to take in the atmosphere.

It was untidy. In one corner, a pool table sagged under the weight of old computer equipment. There were shelves everywhere struggling to support the myriad of computer books, some of which wouldn’t look out-of-place in the British Museum. The whole place reeked of quiet industry, everyone far too busy to even think about tidying up.

The company had just been acquired and a move to smarter premises was afoot. We moved into a floor of Kodak House, the tallest building in Hertfordshire. Although the building itself is drab on the outside, no expense was spared on the internal fixtures and fittings. Although it was nice to have such a pleasant place to work, there was a part of me that missed the atmosphere of the old office.

We weren’t there for too long before we moved into a brand new state of the art building. It looks very space age from the outside with vanes that track the angle of the sun to shade the building from excess sunshine. Unfortunately, they don’t work. They track the sun OK, but unfortunately don’t block it out so they are effectively useless. In fact they are worse than useless, because a man has to come out in a cherry picker now and then with a big spanner to tighten the nuts. If it gets too windy, the vanes blow off in spectacular fashion threatening to decapitate any passers-by.

Not only that, but the air conditioning is poorly configured. We are on the ground floor and we freeze. The guys on the top floor get so hot they cook so there’s no air conditioning setting to keep everyone in the building happy. The landlord’s solution – to fit heaters on the bottom floor so that we can keep out the worst of the chill. It’s such a clunky, inefficient fix but at least we don’t freeze anymore. The feeling of quiet industry is still there but there is more of a pride in keeping the place tidy.

We managed to maintain the culture despite occupying 3 very different office buildings. It was not the same story when I worked for BP. We had an aging tower block in the town centre, part of which was condemned. The office culture was amazing – everyone knew everyone else, despite it being a large building. We moved to a purpose-built affair close to the motorway. The building, allegedly in the style of a country manor house, won many awards for its architecture. Unfortunately, the layout of the place meant you were unlikely to bump into many other people day-to-day. Almost instantaneously, the buzz about the place died.

Our working environment has a big effect on the culture that exists within so it’s no wonder that companies like Google and Apple spend so much money on providing world-class office blocks for their employees to thrive in. In doing so, they need to be very careful they don’t lose their culture along the way.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

When I Grow Up (Pussycat Dolls song)

When I Grow Up (Pussycat Dolls song) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After I filled in the questionnaire, the computer considered my future. After a short pause, the printer chugged into life and rattled out line after line of career suggestions on green and white piano paper. Once the clattering came to a halt, the careers officer ripped off the two feet or so of suggested vocations. As he checked the printout to make sure it was OK, he asked me what I thought I wanted to do.

As a young child, it was obvious. I wanted to be a train driver first. Then I decided that I would have much more fun as an astronaut. No, maybe a scientist or a spy. As I went through school, I dismissed such fanciful ideas and came to terms with the fact that I had no clue what I wanted to do in the future.

I scanned down the piano paper at the list of jobs. I could not see any common thread connecting them. They looked like a random list of careers plucked from a hat. Some of the selections made sense and I noted with some amusement that most of the fanciful posts I’d whimsied about as a small boy were present and correct – with the notable exception of spy.

The careers officer said to think about which entries on the list appealed and told me there was an upcoming careers evening where I could find out more. I went home baffled. How do you decide what you would like to do from a list of things you’ve never experienced.

During careers evening, I wandered from booth to booth to see what they had to say. A GP told me all about his job. You study hard for seven years and then you get to sit behind a desk whilst sick people visit you. Hmmm – no thanks. Someone told me about a career in education, but I didn’t really want to stay at school even if I would be on the other side of the desk. The only job that floated my boat was on offer by the navy, ironically enough.

Their offering was a life on the ocean waves as an engineering artificer. During a five-year apprenticeship, you learned about maintaining all the military technology they had at their disposal and all while sailing around the world. It sounded adventurous. I often think about how different my life would be if I chose to take that apprenticeship.

So what do I want to be when I grow up?  I’ll let you know closer to the time.

Cash or cheque?

Money Queen

Money Queen (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

I looked at my first full-time payslip in disbelief. More money in one month than it would take me all year to earn on my paper round. At that precise moment, I felt rich. What am I going to do with all that money?

It’s a shame that every payslip doesn’t come with that feeling. Unfortunately, as time goes on, we get mortgages and cars and other such commitments to mop up all that disposable income. Money felt very different to me back then.

It was more difficult to get at for starters. To make a withdrawal, you had to actually go to the branch. I can’t remember the last time I went to a bank branch. Once in the branch, you had to queue up to see a teller. Once you reached the front of the queue, you wrote out a cheque to yourself, handed it over and in return, they gave you some cash. You could only get cash during your bank’s extremely limited opening hours which meant that almost everyone went at lunchtime. That meant the queues were enormous.

Along came the ATM. Suddenly with your plastic card and a PIN number, you could get your cash when you liked. At first, you were limited to your bank’s own branches still, but it was progress. Mine had a weekly limit of £50 which was just too low to eliminate the tedious trips to the branch.

If you wanted to pay someone else some money, you would write them a cheque. For it to be worth the paper it was written on, it needed to be backed by a cheque guarantee card. I can’t remember the last cheque I wrote out but for some strange reason, my cheque book still lives in the back pocket of whichever trousers I happen to have on. Old habits die-hard.

I remember applying for my first loan. It was for the princely sum of £2,000 to buy a new car. I had to go down to the branch for an interview with the bank manager. I remember dressing up smartly and turning up early, eager to make a good impression. That was over 20 years ago and was probably one of the last times I ever saw a bank manager.

Today, I can pay for my tube ticket with a swipe of my card. I can lend money out to other people without ever leaving my armchair. From that same armchair, I can place bets or invest in the stock market. Some would say that they are one and the same thing. I can also launch a project and ask strangers to invest in it. I can find almost anything I want on the Internet and pay for it there and then. I could probably list off half a dozen different ways to pay someone some money. I bought my last house without seeing a soul (apart from the estate agent).

And yet, despite all that, our financial system seems very antiquated. I still have a pocketful of change and a wallet full of paper money. If I go to a different country, I need to change those coins and notes for different ones. I have a number of plastic cards, each with their own provider, credit limit and statements. I probably have accounts with dozens of institutions, from Amazon and eBay, through to utility companies and banks.

If I want to work out exactly where I am with everything, it’s up to me to collate all the information and do so. I can’t wait for the day when all I carry is my phone and I’m able to see everything about my finances in one place without breaking sweat. Maybe one day.

Kiosks – haven’t they got them just right?

barcode

barcode (Photo credit: Status Frustration)

I’m in a bit of a hurry. I only have a few items to buy, but when I round the corner, my heart sinks. There’s a big queue for the only cashier in the shop. I look over in the corner at the dreaded self-service machines. They all stand empty and there’s a member of staff standing near them. Oh no! She’s seen me. She’s going to come over and ask me to use the kiosks. I can’t refuse. I don’t want to look cowardly in front of this shop full of complete strangers. I grudgingly follow her over to the kiosk. A big green button flashes in front of me. Press here to start. I take a deep breath and hit it.

It takes a while to find the first barcode, during which time, the machine insists on blaring out to tell me to scan the barcode, so people start looking over. Eventually I find it and to my amazement, it scans first time. “Place the item in the bagging area“. I press the button to indicate that I don’t want to bag the item. “Place the item in the bagging area.” I hit it again, and once again, the voice repeats the instruction. With a sigh, I give up and reluctantly place the item in the bagging area. Thank God, the machine shuts up.

I scan the next item. It goes through first time and I place the item in the bagging area. Fantastic – I’m getting the hang of this now. I scan the third item. It won’t scan. I try again. Nothing. Third time lucky… no. The machine advises me to seek assistance. I look around for the lady who’s supposed to be supervising these damned kiosks – she’s not there! So I stand there, helpless, like a lemon waiting for her to return. I look forlornly at the checkout queue. I work out that I probably would have been served by now if I’d stuck to my guns and remained in the queue.

What is the point of a technical advance if it doesn’t make people’s lives better? This device makes the whole shopping experience worse, not better. But there again, I suppose that’s not the point. It’s there so that the miserly shop can get rid of some staff and save some money. But it deprives me of swift and courteous service. No smile or greeting. The efficiency of my entire shopping experience goes up in smoke, all to do someone out of a job.

If you’re going to put in kiosks, they should give you a better customer experience. ATM machines are not perfect, but they mean that I don’t have to queue up in a bank and I can get my money when the bank is closed. Check-in kiosks at the airport mean that I don’t have to queue up to get my boarding pass. Self service checkout kiosks just make me mad.