Monthly Archives: August 2018

The joy of planning… and the unexpected

When I was little, awaiting some big event, I used to consciously avoid imagining it in my mind’s eye. I believed that visualising it would jinx things, meaning it wouldn’t happen like that. This deprived me of the pleasure of anticipation – literally looking forward to a day out, a trip to the cinema, or even waking up on Christmas Day.

50 years later, I can report I’ve outgrown this personal superstition and I now risk planning whole days, daring to imagine how it might happen without expecting it to then all fall apart. I’ve done this for two particular Saturdays in the past four months and, I’m pleased to say, both turned out well.

The two Saturdays have both involved watching football matches and running parkruns – in York and Stevenage. I’d also built food and drink into the days which tells you about another of my interests, alongside sport. Both days had developed well – no spanners in the works – and it wasn’t even as if I’d got PBs (personal bests) for my parkruns or that the football results had all gone the way I wanted. But, after lunch on the first of the two Saturdays, things were about to get even better.

I was in York for an annual school reunion. I’ve been a regular attender over the past decade or two, along with a dozen or so other male former school mates. Because we’re men, we do exactly the same thing every year to make life easier. OK, it’s sheer laziness, but around a  formula that works. We meet in the same pub at the same time on the same Saturday of the year for lunch at the start of a 12-hour catch-up. The reunion is essentially about food, drink and chat.

As I write this, I realise that the main reason that running parkruns, watching football matches, and the eating and drinking is such fun is probably because it’s done with other people – connecting and belonging to a group. But, that day in York back in May, I’d planned to do something that didn’t involved others.

After lunch in the pub I stayed on alone to watch ‘my team’ on TV to see if they could win promotion to Football League Division Two. They won – against all odds – down to 10 ten men in the first minute the prognosis had not been good. An early lead was equalised just before half time, the winning goal came late in the game, and a nail-biting final 10 minutes followed.

But by then I wasn’t the only one biting his nails. Just as the match started, I heard “is-i-ron?” in a fondly familiar (and, as it happens, female) Birkenhead accent. The question was closely followed by four fellow Birkonians (that means we come from Birkenhead) supporting our local team – Tranmere Rovers.

A great afternoon followed with recollections of Birkenhead and the mixed fortunes of our beloved team. Most incredible for me – more than the match result itself – was discovering that the neighbour of one of my ‘new best friends’ had worked in the same office as my dad over 50 years earlier! ‘Of all the bars in all of York…’ as Rick didn’t say in Casablanca.

For all my planning, and my delight when things turn out as I hope they will, that day in York taught me that the unexpected can turn a great (planned) day into one I’ll talk about for a lot longer. In our ever-faster, changing and uncertain world it’s great when things go as planned – reassuring and comforting – but real joy can come when you’re not expecting it.

An ABC of decision-making

Assessment – Balance – Compromise (but not necessarily in that order)

The big supermarkets tell us we want choice, they imply that the more choice we have the happier we’ll be. In reality of course, we get overwhelmed if there are ten brands/ sizes/ prices of tomato ketchup; we want only limited choice. If there’s too much decision-making we don’t make a choice at all and the supermarkets have been late to acknowledge this and are only now cutting back on the range of items on their shelves.

Price is just one element of a buying decision and, even then, it can seem difficult. When faced with just three prices for three brands of a relatively low-cost item with similar specifications – for example an electric kettle – many of us will avoid the highest and lowest prices and go for the mid-priced item. It’s comfortable and we can probably justify our choice as the ‘least-risk’ option (not getting ripped off nor buying a cheap pup). Similarly, when given a survey question asking us to rank an item from say 1 -5, we’ll often choose option 3 because it means we don’t risk criticism or need to give further explanation by expressing a ‘for’ or ‘against’ view. Anything to make life easy.

For decisions more significant than buying a kettle or completing a survey, compromise – taking a middle-of-the-road position can be seen as positive or negative depending on the context. In international negotiations, the resolution of a fiercely contested debate will strive for a consensus that is likely to end in compromise. All sides making concessions is usually necessary if diplomatic relations are not to break down.

In a business context, compromise can be seen negatively – a sign of weakness, the worst of both worlds, the easy way out – with the risk of losing face if applied to a negotiation. We expect our leaders to make firm decisions, after taking soundings from others holding contrary views maybe, but ultimately being decisive seems to be what leadership is all about.

This pressure means that our leaders, including politicians, often develop what Tim Harford brilliantly describes in a TED Talk as ‘the God Complex’. This is the belief that, although undeniably the world is an incredibly complex place, those with the God Complex believe they understand how the world works when, of course neither they nor anyone else, really does. Having identified the God Complex, Tim Harford goes on to advocate that we stop giving school children the idea that all problems have answers, and show instead that most progress in life is achieved through trial and error. A messy but more accurate portrayal of reality.

In my work with young people trying to start their own businesses, I try to instill in them the idea of trial and error – having the confidence to take risks, to fail, but then to reflect, learn and return to the original challenge. But my particular interest in getting away from expecting a direct route to solutions, is my experience of the importance of a b-word – balance.

I invite young entrepreneurs to look at a variety of routes to achieving success, even though it may feel less comfortable than choosing what appears to be a direct route to the next stage in the development of their business. The ‘right way’ is surprisingly often about pursuing more than one route and being prepared to flip from one to another as situations change – balancing alternative solutions.

As the person trying to support the decision-making of others, I’m aware it’s a fine line between helping them make an informed decision and (perhaps subconsciously) steering them in a particular direction. Working with a group, it’s a question of balancing top-down versus bottom-up ideas development, and in moving forward, it can be a matter of finding the balance between the ‘just do it’ and ‘fail to plan and you plan to fail’ approaches. Deciding to be indecisive can be liberating – try it!

Tim Harford’s TED Talk is at:

What’s in a job title?

The other day I was on the train and I was asked to show my ticket, not by a Ticket Inspector (which describes what she was doing) but by a woman with ‘Passenger Host’ on her name badge. She certainly didn’t fit my idea of a host – there wasn’t a mushroom vol-au-vent in sight – but it was obviously meant to make me feel cared for; something the rail company in question is spectacularly failing to do right now.

Whenever I think about job titles (which is not often) there are two titles that come to mind. A woman I’ve respected and admired from afar for several years describes herself on her business website as ‘Chief Muckety Muck’. Muckety Muck is defined in the dictionary as ‘an important and often arrogant [so self-important] person’. I know the person concerned is using the title with her tongue very firmly in her cheek so I’m wholly comfortable with it and her.

The other job title sticks in my mind for a different reason – it makes me cringe because I don’t think the title-holder is using it in a playful way. I have also respected him from afar for several years but not his [self-selected?] job title – Driver of Ideas. I don’t understand what it’s trying to achieve – unless it’s meant to sound a bit, er… edgy. Don’t we all sort of ‘drive ideas’ in our, possibly more mundane, roles inside and outside of our jobs?

Moving from the very specific to the more general, take a job title that includes the word ‘executive’ – what does that suggest? Throughout my career I’ve understood that a job title with executive in it (other than Chief Executive of course) is likely to be badly paid and of relatively low status; that the inclusion of the e-word is intended to make the post-holder feel more important to compensate for the terms and conditions. The dictionary definition of executive is associated with power and responsibility – which is maybe why it looks good on a CV when read by people who have never been executives themselves. And might people value the information they receive from an ‘executive’ more than if they receive it from an ‘adviser’?

Another important sounding, but vague, title is ‘consultant’. I’ve always associated it with people who are between jobs (the actor’s euphemism for being unemployed) but don’t want to admit this publicly. It’s usually coupled with something like ‘I’m currently looking for new projects/ challenges’ to muddy the water even further.

Coach is a role I’ve never understood and this may be because it means different things in different contexts (and I don’t mean talking about a vehicle with four wheels and lots of seats). So there are job coaches, sports coaches, life coaches and lots of other kinds no doubt. And how does a coach differ from a mentor or a counsellor? I imagine it’s to do with the relationship with the person being coached but I’m not sure – I probably need an adviser to put me straight on this.

Which brings me to further confusion – around the role of an ‘adviser’ (which can also be spelt as ‘advisor’ to complicate things further). While we’re here, have you heard about SPADs – in different contexts they can be ‘Special Political Advisers’ or ‘Signals Passed at Danger’ (but don’t get me started on confusing acronyms).

Back to advisers and I’m still confused because I’m not sure about the difference between advice and guidance (although my mental image of a guide is quite different). This is not unlike the problem I once had with the difference between ‘helping’ someone and ‘supporting’ them. Then a colleague suggested that helping someone implies there’s a solution to their problem and you’re going to find it for them. In comparison, when supporting someone, they will find the solution and you’ll just be doing your best to give them a nudge in the right direction. So support is more empowering.

This all begs the question as to what a job title is meant to achieve. It is intended to look good on a business card, website, or even on a name badge? It is meant to describe what the role involves – to the post-holder, to their colleagues, or to clients (or all three if that’s possible)? Or is it something more subtle – to create an impression (however inaccurate) about the post-holder?

All advice or guidance welcomed!