Monthly Archives: April 2018

My love affair with TEDx

I don’t know when my romance with TED Talks first started – I’ve been a fan for decades although I’ve never let it become an obsession. But my love of TEDx  (or little TED as I call it) started in 2013 when I helped to organise a TEDx gathering in Bedford.

TEDx is the independently organised offspring of big TED. If you haven’t already flirted with TED Talks, they’re a vast collection of 18-or-less-minutes talks – presented direct to camera in front of a live audience – on every subject under the sun, and probably some on the sun itself. Discover them online after reading this blog post and your life will be changed forever – just like when you fall in love.

After Bedford, I attended TEDxChelmsford twice, giving a talk – Male, stale and in a shed – in June 2016 and watching others go through the same ordeal a year later. I’ve also been in the audience at TEDxNorwichED (ED indicates the focus for the talks was education in its widest sense) twice – most recently on April 28th 2018 – which is what has prompted this post.

As readers of this blog series may remember (I try to forget it) my appearance on stage in Chelmsford in June 2016 was not without incident and it spawned a new series of blog posts which continue to this day. To cut a long and painful story short, in the middle of my 14-minute talk I dried up on stage for what seemed like an eternity but was probably only around 10 seconds.

It’s an experience you don’t easily forget, so I was with the presenters of their TEDx talks every step of the way as they went out under the spotlight – in front of 450 people at TEDx NorwichED, and literally thousands following the live stream on YouTube (so no pressure then, as they say). Scary stuff indeed, particularly as the idea is that you speak without notes (and most didn’t have slides as a prompt either)

I take no delight in reporting that, of the 30 speakers, at least half a dozen lost it like I did in Chelmsford (and more probably came close to it). This is no criticism of the speakers or their preparation for the day – it’s just something that happens. And each amazing one had their own technique for recovering – from admitting their mind had gone blank (with some skilfully making a joke of it), to pulling a small list of prompts from their pocket, to looking at a friend on the front row for a verbal prompt.

I am delighted to say that these very natural and understandable hiccups mattered not one bit. The audience in the hall was with them 100%. If anything, the vulnerability of the speakers endeared them to us all the more; our admiration grew for their bravery – and the applause and cheers rang out at the end as it did for all the speakers.

Which is why I love TEDx. The strapline for big TED is ‘ideas worth spreading’ and we got loads of inspiring ideas at TEDx NorwichED. But for me what mattered as much was experiencing the sense of community, the togetherness, sharing a thirst for learning about ways we can make the world a better place. And that, in my book, is a brilliantly worthwhile use of a very wet Saturday in Norwich.

A spot of bother https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2016/12/17/a-spot-of-bother-no-mans-land-1)

 Male, stale and in a shed – the edited version https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZ1e8FVcWEo 

PS The wonders of editing – if you think that the big TED talks look slick and professional, apparently even those speakers are known to lose it mid-presentation.

 

On being a new father – No man’s land #9

Reflections on masculinity, mental health and trying to make a difference 

Years before I was even considering parenthood, I got seriously concerned about the prospect of being a father. I don’t really know why, but I got burdened by just thinking about the parental responsibility of influencing a growing child by everything said and done in his/her presence. Now, of course, I know better; parents are just not that influential – much of what they say is rarely heard, let alone acted upon!

Which is not to say that our lovely daughter has even gone out of her way to challenge her upbringing; it never ceases to amaze me how lightly we’ve got off as parents. When she was a toddler everyone talked about ‘the terrible twos’ but that never happened. Then people warned us about the teenage years – they came and went. We’re still waiting for the storm…

Which is not to say her birth was without incident. In fact, for my wife it could be fairly described as traumatic. 14 weeks before her due date, my wife’s blood pressure rose alarmingly and two weeks later our very special daughter was born by emergency caesarean section. She weighed in at 2lbs 1.5 ozs – “less than a bag of sugar, but infinitely sweeter” was how I reported the news to my parents (and a surrogate grandmother from Uruguay).

The NHS care our daughter received for the next nine weeks was brilliant. Even at her birth in the operating theatre there was one team looking after my wife, one for our daughter, and a nurse for me – in case I fainted. For the record, I didn’t. I had absolute faith in the doctors and nurses and the bank of life-supporting equipment in the neonatal intensive care unit to which we had access 24 hours a day.

My wife was less calm and with good reason. She’d trained as a maternity nurse and knew too much about the hazardous journey ahead for our seriously premature baby. This, combined with a new mother’s strong maternal bond and hormonal turmoil, made our daughter’s nine week stay in hospital a particularly massive ordeal for her. My role as the ‘supportive husband’ included daily lunchtime visits to get photos developed that had been taken the day before and then visiting the hospital each evening. I felt it was very much a walk-on part and I now wonder whether I really understood what my daughter and her new mother were going through, or acknowledged my own true feelings.

Two weeks ahead of her due date, our beautiful daughter came home and some sort of normality returned to our household. Having a nurse and health visitor for a wife was both reassuring and slightly isolating. I didn’t think to ask questions about our growing child’s development assuming if all had not been normal my wife would have said something. My wife appeared to be in control but I’m not sure I ever thought to check.

I feel our daughter has developed and demonstrated her resilience by surviving those first precarious 12 weeks of her life. That and ‘willingly’ being sent to school at times she was probably unfit to go – that’s what comes from having a nurse for a mother! As parents of an only child with such a precarious arrival into this world, it would have been easy to spoil her, but we’ve tried to leave that to others.

We were warned that lung development might present problems for our daughter in later life (she had an emergency intervention when she was 12 hours old) but apart from a short stay in hospital aged 2 with bronchiolitis, her development has been smooth and untroubled. The medics said she’d be average weight by the age of two and that’s just what happened.

In earlier blog posts I’ve referred to the well-known advice for parents – that they should give their children ‘roots to grow and wings to fly’. But all parents will know the mixed emotions as they watch their young ones go off to school alone or with a friend for the first time. We  celebrate their new-found independence while regretting that one more parental tie has been broken. And then comes the recognition that our children have reached an age and stage in their lives when their pain can’t simply be removed by a kiss and a cuddle. I’ve sometimes look on feeling helpless and inadequate not knowing what to say. But then maybe just being there says something worthwhile?

We also want to shield our offspring from the darker side of life forever, but that’s just not possible. I’ll never know how my mental ill health during my daughter’s formative years may have affected her, and I don’t think the health professionals would know either.

So, was parenthood as concerning as I thought it would be all those years ago in my late teens? No – it was much less daunting thanks to the support and love of others. Before taking paternity leave, my then work colleagues reassured me that babies could be dropped without breaking (not that I ever put this to the test). And while parenting was not the number one topic of conversation at the fathers’ nights out after leaving London, we compared notes about sleep deprivation and joked about taking our daughters to football matches in the interests of being politically correct (remember this was nearly three decades ago…)

I know it’s a cliché to say so, but raising our daughter and seeing the person she has become is my proudest achievement. Her love and support have enriched my life and given me strength when I was at my lowest. She has inspired me to take on new challenges, her values, wisdom and approach to life have shown me new routes to a better world. I am truly blessed.

Further reading:

My father’s shadow https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2017/08/01/my-fathers-shadow-no-mans-land-6/

For other posts in the ‘No man’s land’ series go to https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/no-mans-land

Take note!

I recently did some mandatory online training modules at work. You know the sort of thing – manual lifting, equality and diversity and, new for 2018, GDPR (if you don’t know what that is, look it up). I’ve come to like this form of learning – it’s an in-my-own-time, read, listen and then answer some multiple-choice questions type of thing.

What online learning doesn’t dictate is how you absorb the information and, while it’s all fairly basic stuff, I do this by taking notes as I’m going through the module. I know my style of learning is ‘by doing’ which is not enough reason to start a fire to find out how to use the extinguisher… so I have to find other ways to embed the learning – hence the notes.

This note-taking is an extension on my normal practice when in meetings – it helps me to concentrate and to recall what was said and agreed – weeks later if necessary. And it’s surprising how often a discussion at a meeting can spark a completely unrelated idea; I need some means to record the idea for future investigation at a later date – I don’t trust my memory.

Another time I take notes at work is when I’m in a 1-2-1 with a would-be entrepreneur – often a young person thinking of starting their own business. I’ve been in advice roles for over 15 years and I find that being seen to take notes (pretty much whatever I actually write on my pad!) shows them that I’m listening; they’ve got my attention.

What worries me is that I’m not at all sure I’ve got the attention of the young people I support. I share detailed feedback on their business plans – usually my scribbled notes on their word-processed plan – and then see a look of horror on their faces when I say I’m going to hang on to their plan and my notes! Very few of them bring any note-taking materials to our meetings and I sometimes comment on this – giving them a pen and paper if they take the hint. Do they bring paper and pen next time? Not often.

I can only conclude that young people don’t need to take notes these days (and the hand-written work I’ve seen suggests some of them might not be able to) that in our fast-moving, information-filled lives the modern brains of the younger generation have adapted to record and recall information at will. Unlikely.

Which might bring me on to lists (my reliance on and love of them) and the state of my hand-written work diary, but that sounds like the subject for another blog post or two (or possibly a new online training module?)

For other blog posts about ‘working well’ go to https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/working-well

Is agile working the answer?

In our ever-changing world of work, management theories have had trouble keeping up with the speed of that change, and the ways of coping with the impact of these changes for workers. The ‘new’ solutions are often nothing more than a re-hash of old ideas (that may or may not have worked in the past) which is not in itself a criticism – most change is cyclical and re-inventing the wheel isn’t always a bad thing.

The idea of ‘flexible working’ has underpinned discussions about working practices for decades. Traditionally, standardisation with workers being treated as ‘units of production’ – a conveyor belt mentality – was seen as the panacea for running efficient and cost-effective organisations. Since then the pendulum has swung the other way. Flexitime – flexible start and finish times covering certain ‘core’ hours – has been part of the management speak lexicon for at least the past four decades; the concept was actually trademarked in 1971. Hotdesking may be seen as a more recent idea, but its origins date back to the 16th Century and the naval practice of ‘hot-racking’ where one sailor would vacate a bunk bed for use by another (so sleeping and working in shifts).

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, one of my heroes, Charles Handy, popularised the phrase ‘portfolio working’ – being employed by different businesses at the same time, often on a freelance basis. Handy’s book The Empty Raincoat was some brilliant crystal-ball-gazing into the future of work.

Behind all these concepts is the theory of making the best use of time and space.

Since the global financial crisis of 2007 at least, I’ve noted the rise of management-speak, business bullshit – call it what you like – that tends to put the focus on the individual worker’s behaviour, rather than that of the employer, as the potential remedy for inefficiency and under-use of resources in organisations of all shapes and sizes. This may be dressed up with words like ‘empowerment’ but, not surprisingly in the age of austerity, it’s more about cost-cutting than anything else.

We see increased use of phrases like ‘mobile working’. With the advent of technological advances, and the mobile phone in particular, not only can we work anytime, but we can work anywhere – at home, in our cars, in cafés. And if someone else is picking up the cost of heat, light and rent so much the better. In the name of increased efficiency and cost-savings in the wake of the financial crisis, a decade ago I also noticed the introduction of the phrase ‘smart working’. It was easy to say, sounded good but, in my experience, no one ever really defined what it meant (perhaps because we all already knew it was about getting people to do more for less).

And coupled with the idea of doing more for less, if that endangers out mental wellbeing we can now learn to be resilient – to bounce back whatever life and work throws at us. Resilience in technical circles is a measure of what stress it takes to break something… The NHS is awash with resilience training for staff which at least acknowledges that the service and the people who work in it are at breaking point.

This focus on the individual continues with ‘agile working’ which seems to differ from flexible working in that the latter is about what primarily suits the employer, which agile working is intended to (also) meet the needs of the employee. This is a 2013 definition…

Agile working is a way of working in which an organisation empowers its people to work where, when and how they choose – with maximum flexibility and minimum constraints – to optimise their performance and deliver “best in class” value and customer service. It uses communications and information technology to enable people to work in ways, which best suit their needs without the traditional limitations of where and when tasks must be performed.

Asking ‘Is agile working the answer?’ – the title of this blog post –  begs the question, what is it meant to achieve?

Cost-saving? Almost certainly, transferring core costs away from the centre and having them absorbed by others, often the employees (and owners of public meeting spaces such as cafes and bars).

Time-saving? Agile working, like home-working, implies less unproductive time spent travelling made ever more possible by technology. But I fear the reduction in face-to-contact with colleagues and customers may bring new costs (in terms of effectiveness) down the line.

Increasing productivity? More time ‘on the job’ – in your pyjamas at home late at night, on a laptop or mobile phone in your car (a mobile office) – is certainly more possible in theory but relies on the commitment of workers that will be increasingly managed at arm’s length. It also increasing blurs the line between work and play.

A happier workforce?  Being empowered and in greater control of our working conditions are objectively ‘good things’. But everyone is different, and many employees are happier working regular hours in a structured environment alongside colleagues they can see and bounce ideas off, rather than working alone with the freedom to decide when and where the job gets done.

At the heart of the debate about different ways of working is the difference between efficiency and effectiveness, about balancing short and long-term gains, and the importance of the health of the individual relative to the health of the organisation (the two may not always go hand in hand).

Efficiency is about the relationship between inputs and outputs, effectiveness is about inputs and outcomes. In a service-based business, the first tends to be about quantity and profit, while the second – effectiveness – tends to be about quality and people. As is the case in politics, when budgets are squeezed short-term decisions may be made for financial expediency without due regard for long term cost (and potential future savings). Witness pressure on the NHS to treat symptoms of ill health rather than the causes.

Employees across the UK are being asked to accept unpalatable changes to their terms and conditions for the greater good – sustaining services, making sacrifices now for jam tomorrow. This is all about changing cultures and mindsets and the best ways to do this will be as various as the organisations needing to make those changes.

My primary concern about this, borne out in part by personal experience, is that short term sacrifice is rarely rewarded in the long term. This is not just for individuals that feel the pain most personally, but also for the organisations and causes that are the reason we get out of bed in the morning. The health of well-run organisations is intrinsically tied up with the health of those running them; if staff get burnt out and leave, I fear for the future.

Further reading on agile working http://www.nhsemployers.org/~/media/Employers/Documents/SiteCollectionDocuments/Agile%20Working%20Guide.pdf