Saturday, 28 September 2013

The lure of the dredger

When I was in the advertising business, travelling around the world a lot, I used to get irritated by the fact that everyone on aeroplanes seems to have opinions on the morality and otherwise of the business, mostly very similar. (Are people still so allergic to adverts arriving through their mail boxes?)

So in an endeavour to stem the flow, when asked on flights “What do you do?”, I tried to come up with an answer that would put a dead stop to the conversation.

For a while I was in marine insurance. This did quite well. Then, mid-way between Brisbane and Sydney one day, I was asked the usual question by a bloke and came up with the winning formula. I was in dredging.

A long look of puzzlement followed. But words failed him.


Wednesday, 25 September 2013

At loggerheads in Manila

I was lead facilitator of a big Unilever workshop in Manila - and the going got tough.

Participating were 50 managers from all over South East Asia, the fastest growing region in the company at the time, and so filled with self-confidence.

The problem was that the Thais and the Indonesians were totally at loggerheads with each other about the way forward. I did what I could to bring about some kind of consensus. No joy.

Eventually my very experienced American colleague, Ned Preble, stepped forward. "Shall I see what I can do?" he asked me. "Be my guest, Ned!" I responded gratefully.

"OK, would everyone who intends to find a solution to this problem step up please," he announced. "You should know, however, that if you choose not to participate, you're agreeing to the solution. Agreed?"

So over the next 30 minutes or so, Ned facilitated a heated, chaotic-seeming scrum of competing voices around a flip-chart. Eventually, the hubbub subsided.

They had the answer.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Patronising Poms

I suppose that it was too much to expect.

While there have been some very positive notices about the Australia exhibition at the RA in the British press (notably in the Daily Telegraph and FT Weekend), many have struck the usual note of patronising dismissal.

For example, Adrian “I am certainly no expert on Australian art” Searle in The Guardian tells us that it’s: “… a wobbly ride through the past and into the present”, the Aboriginal paintings “extremely difficult to read”, the silverware “ghastly”, the flowering of the late nineteenth century dismissed as the work of “Barbizon-school émigrés, mediocre European impressionists and would-be symbolists”. And from then on, according to Searle, it gets “much more problematic”.  

When I went to live and work in Sydney in the 1980s, I knew all about the Aussie dislike of “whinging poms”.

But, after a while, it became clear to me that whinging isn’t the only, or even the major, source of complaint. That is the sense that Australians have of being patronised by us. Sometimes this springs from the particular style of English humour, but so often it is just naked condescension.

It had never occurred to me that this lay at the heart of Australian-English relations for generations. That is, until I picked up a book, Recollections, by the English-born writer David Christie Murray, published in 1908. Murray had lived in Melbourne in the 1890s.

“I have never in my life known anything more offensively insolent than the patronising tolerance which I have seen the travelling Cockney extend to men of the colonies, who were worth a thousand of him,” wrote Murray. “I have seen an Englishman unintentionally insult a host at his own table, and set everybody on tenterhooks by his blundering assumption that the colonists are necessarily inferior to the home-bred people. Nobody likes this sort of thing.”

You’d think we might have learned by now.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Australia at the RA

To the Royal Academy for their latest show, Australia. What a joy it is – filled both with old friends and new acquaintances. And a real credit to its curators Ron Radford and Anne Gray from the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra and Kathleen Soriano of the RA  in London.

The last major exhibition of Australian art in Britain took place at the Tate Gallery in 1962 over half a century ago. Although, as the catalogue shows, it had plenty of fine paintings, it was treated in a patronising fashion by the London art establishment, only “rather better than the more woeful prophets might have predicted,” according to The Times.

That kind of condescension has a long track-record. The critic RAM Stevenson (Robert Louis’s cousin) recalled the first substantial showing of Australian work in London in 1886, which included four paintings by Tom Roberts (including “Coming South”), as “still English, or, to speak more correctly, showed us fashions of painting that were founded upon the English trade picture… mechanical drawings and geological, botanical or topographical diagrams.”

By 1898, on the occasion of the second major Australian exhibition (at the Grafton Gallery), Stevenson was more enthusiastic: “The cleverest, the most brilliant, the highest toned work in the show is Mr Streeton’s square canvas, ‘Early Summer’.”*

The current exhibition, focused on landscape, is filled with major works, many of which have travelled around the world for the first time. Let’s see whether it unleashes a wave of patronising comment reminiscent of 1886. 

*Was this painting “Early Summer – Gorse in Bloom”, now in the collection of the Art Gallery of Australia in Adelaide?

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Oxfordshire’s Best Churches

I have a couple of dozen tomes by Nikolaus Pevsner, each one detailing every building of note in the counties of England, but the book that has been at the heart of my ecclesiastical tourism around England has always been John Betjeman’s Pocket Guide to English Parish Churches. Published in 1958 it covers some 2,000 examples.  

In that I’ve recorded every visit I’ve made to an Anglican church since the mid-1960s, so I’ll be coming up to half a century quite soon. The most visited counties over that time are Kent (97 churches) and Oxfordshire (52). I used to live near the former, and am now adjacent to the latter.

So it’s a pleasure to be able to recommend a new book, Oxfordshire’s Best Churches by Richard Wheeler. It is well-researched and beautifully written, dealing in detail with the architecture, sculpture and stained glass of fifty buildings covering a thousand years of creativity and change. Shamefully, I’ve only been inside eleven of them. And there are shorter entries on a further sixty-five, together with superb photography (taken by the author) and nice typography throughout.

Altogether a joy to have. Enthused by it, we visited one of the most charming and atmospheric in the county, North Stoke.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

At the court of Queen Nefertiti

I went to a two day conference on forgiveness at Findhorn in Scotland. It was a tremendous experience and I learned lots, although it always remains a challenge, both forgiving and being forgiven.

Towards the end, a woman who works with victims of torture made a presentation in down-to-earth ways about how they can be helped to rehabilitate. From the audience, another woman put up her hand.

“I’ve been a torturer,” she announced.

Hushed silence.

“Tell us some more about that,” the presenter responded.

“Well, in a session we ran here that enabled us to go back many generations, I discovered that I had tortured people in the court of Queen Nefertiti.”

More silence.

“I’m only concerned with the living,” said the presenter, somewhat irritated.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The Power of Paraphrase

Over the years I have had the pleasure of partnering with (and learning from) some wonderful facilitators. And, amongst them all, a few particular moments remain in the memory.

One such was in Amsterdam. I was working with my colleague Emma Luten, helping one of the top ad agencies there, JWT, to create a new vision and strategy.

From quite early on, it was clear that the local management team was unhappy. Overwhelmingly Dutch, they clearly did not like each other, scoring points off one other at will, and resentful of working in the meeting in the international language, English.

So, after about twenty minutes, one of them told Emma to put away the marker pen, to sit down and be quiet.

“We need to talk to each other,” he said. “In Dutch.”

They went at it, hammer and tongs, many speaking at once, voices raised in anger and frustration, nobody listening to anyone else. Emma and I sat silently.

After half an hour or so, they paused to draw breath. Emma said: “Do you mind if I say something?”


“Well, it seems to me that there are three main issues here.”

“And they would be...?”

Emma calmly laid them out before them. The team was stunned and reluctantly agreed.

“My suggestion would be that we use these issues as task headlines and work together on each of them in the remainder of this meeting,” said Emma.

So that’s what we did.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

All’s Well That Ends Well

I seem to be in another Shakespeare immersion phase again – the fourth time in my life, I think. This time around I’m especially interested in the plays that I’ve failed to connect with well previously King John was something of a revelation last year.

Now it’s the turn of All’s Well That Ends Well, a wonderful production in the main house at Stratford. This is truly how I experience Shakespeare best: an uncluttered stage; real belief in the plot, the characters and the words; a modern staging, but without supermarket trolleys (Nancy Meckler the director); and great acting from a cast which was also a completely interdependent ensemble.

Especially noteworthy were Joanna Horton’s Helena, Alex Waldmann’s feckless Bertram, Jonathan Slinger’s brilliant Parolles, Greg Hicks’s King of France, and the fabulous Charlotte Cornwell’s Countess of Roussillion.

Together they made this often underrated “problem comedy” seem like genuine premier-league Shakespeare.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Blocking breakthrough innovation

The announcement of Steve Ballmer’s retirement as CEO of Microsoft has been accompanied by the recital of a sad list of major innovations created by that company, but rejected by the management during his term of office and exploited successfully by competitors – notably by Apple.

The list includes the iPhone and the iPad. And they are probably just the tip of the iceberg. What’s more, the company did launch a stream of new products that failed.

Poor Ballmer [?] is by no means alone. He’s just more famous than the other CEOs who routinely block breakthrough ideas.

The central problem in innovation isn’t coming up with ideas, nor with implementing them. It’s with recognising and supporting them. After all, the more disruptive the idea, the less likely it is that consumer research will pick it out as a winner, and the more likely it is that it will contravene an existing mindset.   

Distressingly there’s no evidence that senior managers are any better at picking breakthrough winners than my mum.

Monday, 2 September 2013

So farewell, Steve Ballmer

I had looked forward to seeing Steve Ballmer, the CEO of Microsoft (who has recently announced that he is stepping down). He was guest speaker at a major Coca-Cola conference in the mid-90s that I was co-facilitating with Bill Boggs. At the time Microsoft was the hottest company on the planet.

In the event… I just thought he was preachy, screechy and dull.

I’m not really surprised that the company has performed so poorly over the past two decades. So poorly that Microsoft’s stock surged when he said he was off.