Sunday, 30 December 2012

My first new product

Our adorable ten year old daughter seems to relish more than ever the unwrapping of Christmas presents, but, surprisingly, it was the Jellytots that seemed to create the most immediate joy. So I thought I’d re-publish my blogpost about their launch. It was the first that I published – on 27 October 2009 and doubtless had a microscopic readership then:

When I left JWT, where I’d had a very menial series of jobs starting with the mail room, I was lucky enough to land my first real break in “adland”, as Assistant Account Executive on what was then the UK’s largest single TV advertiser, Rowntree’s. I was twenty-three.

It shows the subservient role that innovation had then, that while the experienced folk were managing the main established brands, I was immediately assigned to the two new ones in the pipeline, a carbonated soft drink brand called POP (that sank without trace), and a small round fruity sweetie in a bag aimed at young children and their concerned mums.

That one, Jellytots, passed its fortieth birthday two years ago. Tightly targeted, it was never going to be a major player, but the fact that it still holds the stage is testament to the clarity of thinking and creative expression, in both company and agency, that went into the brand’s initial strategy, product, packaging and advertising.

Rather extraordinarily, Jellytots was the favourite of my now seven year-old when she was around four.

There is no doubt that I learned massive amounts about what works and what doesn’t in innovation from that seminal experience long ago.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Gandhi, Mandela, McLeod...

McLeod? Well, I never had the opportunity to meet the first two, only George McLeod.

In the summer of 1965, not far short of fifty years ago, I hitchhiked with a friend from London to Iona, a small, somewhat featureless Hebridean island off the west coast of Scotland. It had been the place in the seventh century that the Irish monk, Columba, had brought Christianity to Scotland. In the graveyard are Macbeth, Duncan and several other Scottish kings.  

The monastery that had stood there for centuries had fallen into disuse and ruin by the late 1930s, when George McLeod decided to set up an ecumenical centre there, rebuilding the abbey church, and establishing a new sense of Christian mission coupled with social justice. “The great sin, the sin compared with which adultery is a bagatelle,” he said, “is failure to forgive.”

It was an extraordinary experience to be there, to meet him, and to have the opportunity of participating, albeit briefly, in the life of the community. As a man, McLeod was an apparently paradoxical mixture – patrician and socialist, decorated First World War soldier (Ypres and Passchendaele) and pacifist, spiritual but practical, modest yet charismatic. His vivid presence lives with me to this day.

During lunch in the refectory on Sunday, we guests were invited to stand up and speak. On any subject we chose. For two minutes maximum. When that time had passed, McLeod rang a handbell and we were on to the next brief oration. I was too nervous to speak myself, marvelling at the sequence of articulate, passionate offerings that followed one after another.

I realised, among many other things, that, if I was to make any mark in the world at all, I should need to develop some competence in public speaking.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

A Sort of Christmas Card: Winter Night

Winter Night
Boris Pasternak

It snowed and snowed, the whole world over,
Snow swept the world from end to end.
A candle burned on the table;
A candle burned.

As during summer midges swarm
To beat their wings against a flame
Outside the snowflakes swarmed
To beat against the window pane

The blizzard sculptured on the glass
Arrows and whorls.
A candle burned on the table;
A candle burned.

Upon the lighted ceiling
Distorted shadows fell
Of crossed arms, crossed legs-
Of crossed destiny.

Two little shoes fell to the floor
With a thud.
A candle on a nightlight shed wax tears
On a dress.

All things were lost within
The snowy murk - white, hoary.
A candle burned on the table;
A candle burned.

A corner gust fluttered the flame
And the white fever of temptation
Uplifted its angel wings that cast
A cross-like shadow

It snowed hard through the month
Of February, and from time to time
A candle burned on the table;
A candle burned.
Alissa Firsova set this and two other poems from Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago for voice and piano (for my 65th birthday). Zhivago Songs op 20.

A Happy Christmas to One and All.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Metaphor and the barcode

Here’s another game-changing innovation imagined sitting on the beach. Not perhaps as inspiring in its way as the cochlea implant, but tremendously important just the same.

Joseph Woodland, a graduate student at the Drexel Institute of Technology, noticed that the institute had been asked by a local chain of grocery retailers to figure out a way to encode product data, so that the checkout process could be automated. This was 1948.

One day, sitting on the beach, “I poked my four fingers into the sand and for whatever reason – I don’t know – I pulled my hand toward me and drew four lines,” he told Smithsonian magazine many years later.

And, thinking of the Morse code he had learned in Boy Scouts, Woodland realised that lines of varying widths could be turned into a code. He worked with a colleague, Bernard Silver, to develop a bullseye solution, but it didn’t catch on. So they sold the patent.

Over the next two decades, manufacturers and retailers developed a range of systems, and in the early 1970s a standardised approach emerged. It’s now estimated that barcodes are scanned some five billion times a day, saving trillions of dollars/pounds etc.

Joseph Woodland died ten days ago, on 9 December 2012, aged 91.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

The heavy hand of HQ

When multinational companies have rebuilt or refurbished their corporate headquarters at vast expense, I always find the opportunity to suggest that they might think about an alternative strategy: closing them down.

In every case I’ve been met with a stare of incomprehension. Is this guy all there? Is he joking?

But there are a number of ways that HQs are highly unproductive:

They send a clear signal of where power is concentrated, when decentralisation is nearly always better for promoting creativity and innovation - and growth.

HQs can and do slow down decision-making and agility in responding to new opportunities and threats.

They can turn folk in the front-line into mere implementers of standardised programmes.

They have continuously low occupancy, the corporate managers spending most of their time on the road (and in the air).  

They cost lots to run, adding little or no economic value to shareholders.

If a corporate space is needed at all, this is a corporate formula that works so much better (and costs so much less): plenty of meeting space; some work stations; good coffee; no offices.  

I’ve been working recently with one of the most exciting, fast-growing companies in the world – and this is their way. 

Thursday, 13 December 2012

How to Win an Election

This is one of my Books of the Year, for sure. 

Here are some excerpts from Quintus Tullius Cicero’s advice to his brother Marcus, fighting an election in 64BC:

Avoid any specific discussion of public policy at public meetings… Since you are such an excellent communicator and your reputation has been built on this fact, you should approach every speaking engagement as if your entire future depended on it.

Make good use of the young people who admire you and want to learn from you, in addition to all the faithful friends who are daily at your side… Now is the time to call in all favours.

Running for office can be divided into two kinds of activity: securing the support of your friends and winning over the general public… For a candidate, a friend is anyone who shows you goodwill or seeks out your company.

You should work with diligence to secure supporters from a wide variety of backgrounds… If men are sufficiently grateful to you, as I’m sure they are, everything will fall into place.

There are three things that will guarantee votes in an election: favours, hope, and personal attachment… As for those who you have inspired with hope – a zealous and devoted group – you must make them to believe that you will always be there to help them.

Recognising the difference between the useful and the useless men in any organisation will save you from investing your time and resources with people who will be of little help to you… Seek out men everywhere who will represent you as if they themselves were running for office.

I think now is the time to sound a note of caution. Politics is full of deceit, treachery, and betrayal… Nothing impresses an average voter more than having a candidate remember him, so work every day to recall names and faces.

Don’t leave Rome!... There is no time for vacations during a campaign.

If a politician made only promises he was sure he could keep, he wouldn’t have many friends… Be sure to put on a good show. Dignified, yes, but full of the colour and spectacle that appeals so much to crowds.  

Useful, practical stuff. Not only cynical. And not only for politicians.

How To Win An Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians by Quintus Tullius Cicero, translated by Philip Freeman (Princeton University Press, 2012)

 

Monday, 10 December 2012

Metaphor and the Seashell

New inventions can take years from the start of the process to realisation. Sometimes decades. With lots of creative problem-solving necessary along the way.

But occasionally there’s a key barrier that appears insuperable and the people involved just can’t imagine that there could be a solution at all, let alone what that solution might look like.

That was the case for Sydney doctor, Graeme Clark, and his team, who were working on ways to bring back hearing to people with deafness problems by tapping into the cochlea part of the ear. The basic idea was to introduce electrodes into it.

The problem was: how to squeeze twenty wires into a curling tube within the ear, where the available gap was no wider than a needle.

Then, one day, Clark was on the beach and looking at a Turban shell. Picking up some blades of grass, he discovered that they had exactly the right combination of flexibility and stiffness to enable him to push them into the shell, curling around until they reached the centre.

Eureka!

This was exactly the mechanical principle used for electrodes in the cochlea implant – an invention that became known as the bionic ear – giving back hearing to thousands.
 

Friday, 7 December 2012

Cutting the c**p

So many presentations run over their allocated time. It’s so unnecessary.

And so boring.

Usually the most valuable part is after the formal bit has finished and the conversation can begin.

So my policy is this: take the allocated time and divide it in two. Create a presentation that uses 50% of the time for presenting, protecting the remaining 50% for questions, thoughts arising, exploration of the theme.

You know, illuminating chat.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Wise leadership

I started managing the Pickford’s Removals client because the account director was leaving. He and his team had done an outstanding job, but it was clear from day one that the client just didn’t take to me.

And within a month we were involved in re-pitching the business. Over lunch, I told the agency chairman, Dick Desborough, the situation.

“Have you ever been fired by a client?” he asked me.

“Well, no. Not yet, anyway,” I responded. I was young!

“I think we’ll leave you on the business – it’ll be good experience for you.”

On the day of the re-pitches, each agency was allotted an hour. But when it came to our turn, everything was running very late. It looked as though we’d only have five minutes or so on stage.

In fact this was a blessing in disguise as we had a five minute presentation. Two minutes to show the existing campaign. Two minutes to show how strongly it had built both sales and share for Pickford’s. And one minute to propose to the client that they continue with it. And with us.

We won, of course. The client’s boss, the managing director, was there and couldn’t really understand why this was all happening.

I came off the business the following week. What a wise man, my chairman.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Who are you, Alexandra K Trenfor?

“The best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don't tell you what to see.”

I came across this wonderful quote recently, posted by a Facebook friend. Isn’t it perfect?

It’s by Alexandra K Trenfor. And I discover it’s all over the internet, always attributed to her.

But who on earth is she? And if she said (or wrote) this one, how come there aren’t lots more wise thoughts where that one came from?

Declare yourself, Alexandra!

 

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Eyes Wide Shut?

I suppose, like quite a lot of blokes, I never much cared for ballet. I used to like the music of the Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev blockbusters.

But, truth to tell, when I was there I used to get bored with the goings on on stage and often closed my eyes for long periods of time, better to focus on the sounds.

That was until we started to go to see Birmingham Royal Ballet at the Hippodrome in Brum.

First there was their delightful and delicious Nutcracker. Charming Coppélia. Then their extraordinary, powerful Romeo and Juliet.

And at the weekend we went to a truly moving Cinderella.

Brilliant dancing, led by the superb Cinders of Australian Ballet School-trained Elisha Willis and Iain Mackay’s Prince. Wonderful choreography (and story-telling) from the company’s director, David Bintley. Dazzling design and lighting from John MacFarlane and David Finn.

And, of course, great music from the genius of Prokofiev.

Eyes wide open.  

Sunday, 25 November 2012

The Power of Silence

I was facilitating a creative workshop in Manila for a multinational group of senior managers. One of the head honchos came from New York to observe.

Mid-way through the second day, I asked him what he particularly noticed.

“What strikes me most is that you’re so unafraid of silence,” he said. “Sometimes you are prepared to just wait and wait till something emerges.”

That certainly was not the case when I started out as a facilitator. Nature abhors a vacuum. And, when there was silence, I would panic, worrying that the wheels were falling off, and I would fill the void with words.

But silence can be valuable in so many ways.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Learning how to practice

I’ve been studying the great Bohemian violin teacher, Otakar Ševčík. He taught some of the greatest players of the early twentieth century, including Jan Kubelík and Jaroslav Kocian.

But here’s the secret to his success. In an interview for Pall Mall Magazine in 1910, the writer reports this:

"The professor not only teaches how to play, he teaches, above all, how to practice. This he considers all important."

Where there are new skills to be learned, isn’t that the secret to all teaching, all learning?

I wonder why it’s not more widely known?

Monday, 19 November 2012

Premature rejection

Thinking about the premature rejection of new ideas, I’ve been imagining how the management of Motorola may have greeted Martin Cooper’s new-fangled mobile phone in the early 1970s – on the telephone:

“So, Mr Cooper, the market for these things is how big…?”

“Oh, there is no market. Well, what is market research telling us?”

“That people don’t think they need them. I see. And how would they fit with our business?”

“They’d need completely new manufacturing plant and new routes to market. Hmmm.”

“I must tell you that I showed your new gadget to my wife and she thought it was just too clunky. It really wouldn’t fit in her purse.”

“Too be honest, Martin, maybe your time would be better directed at more promising areas, no?”
 
Maybe that's what happened? Certainly Motorola missed the boat.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Strong leadership

I’ve been thinking about the interviews on the TV news with the newly-appointed interim director-general of the BBC, Tim Davie, on the day that he got the job.

What I heard him say was that the BBC needed “strong leadership” and that he was going to provide it.

I have a couple of concerns that arise from this:

Strong leadership is something you do on a day-by-day basis, not something you announce up-front.

If it’s said at all, it’s best said by someone else – ie “He/She will bring strong leadership to the organisation.”

Hope it doesn’t come back and bite him. After all, it is exactly what the BBC needs.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Switching to INTRIGUE

An elephant trap in innovation is judging new ideas too early.

Indeed one of my clients introduced a scheme whereby all the company’s thousands of employees were encouraged to submit ideas, which were then each immediately submitted to some basic screening questions.

Is the idea likely to sell over $x million? Is it a practical, implementable idea? Will it fit with existing systems and capabilities?

The consequence was efficiently to kill off at birth all the most exciting and ground-breaking ideas suggested. For, in the earliest stages, anything radical is highly likely to fall short when subjected to those innocent and sensible-sounding questions. .

A much better approach to ask is this question:

Is the idea INTRIGUING? If we were to devote time and attention to it, using our best creative problem-solving and design skills, might it turn into a real humdinger?

That way, breakthrough ideas get selected, developed and implemented. And it’s the paltry, incremental, time-wasting ideas that get discarded.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Obbligato coughing

Last week I went to Wagner’s Siegfried at Covent Garden, all six hours of it.

(I say six hours – but in fact it’s just four and a quarter. The rest of the time is taken up with intervals. Wagnerians always stress the inordinate length of Wagner’s operas in order to impress.)

I was very pleasantly surprised by the experience. The singing was quite ok (contrary to expectation), Bryn Terfel (above) a massive presence and voice, and the orchestra really exceptionally good.

It’s an opera that I first saw some forty years ago – the legendary Sadler’s Wells production from the early 1970s with Rita Hunter an amazing Brünnhilde, Alberto Remedios as Siegfried and Norman Bailey as the Wanderer (Wotan in disguise), conducted by Reginald Goodall. Still hard to beat, although a bit slow for my taste now.

A major difference between then and now was in the audience. Hushed as before. But now constantly littered with coughing. Not the unavoidable muffled cough, handkerchief over mouth. But the unprotected, full volume, listen to me, I’m here, cough.

It was a very long time ago, but I still remember one of my old headmaster’s “lectures” to us all at school. It must have followed a concert where there had been lots of coughing, wheezing and general shuffling.

His theme was “the loud cough that betokens the empty mind”. His stern talk must have made quite an impact, because, in the hundreds of concerts and operas that I’ve been to in the intervening half century, I don’t think that I’ve coughed or sneezed out loud at a performance. If it happens to me, as it does, I find a way to suppress or smother it.

I realise that younger music-lovers prefer a more relaxed atmosphere at performances. In general I’m with them, but not, for me, including obbligato coughing.

There!

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Backing a winner

The running on Monday of the Melbourne Cup reminds me of the first year I was in Sydney, and had just been on my first trip to NZ (which I loved).

I discovered there was a horse in the race that day called Kiwi.

I gave everything in my pocket to our receptionist to back it and went out to lunch with some Aussie clients.

At the end of lunch we watched the race on TV. Kiwi was last until the final furlong. Then it raced around the lot of them and won easily. Legendary winner – at long enough odds. 

By the time I got back to my office the staff was already having a party (100 of them) on the basis of my winnings. 
 

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Lineages

I love it when a sense of lineage emerges in any field. I know how much I owe to my own teachers – and theirs.

The pianist Adelina de Lara, who was still playing in her 80s in the 1950s, was a pupil of Robert Schumann’s wife, Clara. This is how she recalled one lesson in the 1880s:

"I had just finished playing part of Brahms's Scherzo in E flat minor, op 4, when the door opened and in walked a short stout man. He wore a beard and his hair was long, swept back from a magnificent brow...

"The unusual intrusion into one of my teacher's lessons caused me to glance at her. Would she be annoyed? But to my surprise she was smiling at the intruder, a smile I had rarely seen before. Without greeting him she told me to repeat what I had already played. By then the visitor was standing behind me and I began to play.

"Then, as I finished the opening phrase I heard his voice: 'No, no, it is too fast - you must draw it out like this.' His hands were already on the keyboard, and Clara Schumann was saying, 'Let Dr Brahms show you, Adelina’."

Here she is playing Schumann’s Kinderszenen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eWutTfXvuW8

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Academic writing sucks (too often)

Why is it that so many academics so often write in such a glutinous and pompous style?

Consider this:

“Within the wider literature, the causal status of culture varies from being a supremely independent variable, the superordinate power in society to, at the other extreme, a mere epiphenomenon, a powerless superstructure.”

It’s from a paper by Brendan McSweeney of the University of Essex. Might there be an intelligible version of that? Perhaps not. Maybe it means nothing at all. Or, worse, that it’s saying something perfectly obvious.

So what a pleasure it is to turn to Professor Kenneth Hamilton’s book After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance. Full of insight. Radical in its approach. Charming and witty.

It might be read with benefit by every musician and musicologist (and academics from all disciplines).

Monday, 29 October 2012

Transforming outrageous start-ideas

“Let’s offer a Masters in Terrorism.”

“Say some more about what you’re thinking,” I urged.

“Well, around this university we have all the skills you’d need to be a first-rate terrorist.”

I had encouraged the group to explore some absurd ideas, but perhaps this was not going to thrill the Powers That Be at City University London. By this stage we had several dozen other “start ideas” and when it came to the time to pick a few to work up towards practicality, there was a small group who thought there might be something in it. So off they went to cogitate.

Twenty minutes later, they came back looking rather pleased with themselves. “We’ll offer a Masters in Counter-Terrorism.”

Brilliant. So often what appear to be outrageously impossible ideas can be transformed into winners if they are given the chance. 

I think this may be the outcome, just launched some three years later – an MSc in “Information Security and Risk”.


Doesn’t sound quite so daringly innovative, does it? But hopefully it will do well.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Modern instances

Beethoven: a large cuddly dog
Caesar: a salad with croutons
Calvin: a comic strip boy
Chekhov: navigator of the Starship Enterprise
Churchill: an agreeable stuffed dog
Hamlet: a cigar
Hobbes: Calvin’s sardonic stuffed tiger
Homer: Bart’s Dad
Madonna: an ageing rock star
Melba: a dessert with peaches, raspberries and ice-cream

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Re-emerging from the doldrums

It’s always exciting when a long-established organisation with a fine heritage that has been in the doldrums re-emerges. Often it can be a harder trick than building a new one.

That is what has happened to the 54 year-old Academy of St Martin in the Fields since the brilliant American violinist Joshua Bell took over as Music Director of the orchestra.

My memory of them pre-Bell is that they played excellently, but at the same time with a sense of safety first.

Now, directed by Bell from the first desk, they perform with such verve, real edge of the seat playing. And the results are thrilling.

They were recently at Symphony Hall in Birmingham giving Beethoven’s Egmont Overture and Romance in F, and two “Scottish” works, Bruch’s Fantasy for violin and orchestra and Mendelssohn’s third symphony.

A memorable occasion.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Customer service at its best

Overnight from Singapore, I arrived in Sydney on an early morning flight.

Checking in at the Regent – now the Four Seasons I was asked “When is your first meeting, Mr Neill?”

“At nine-thirty,” I responded.

“Well, would you like a suit pressed?”

Now that’s what I call customer service.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Cutting back on innovation

A new research study* shows rather shockingly that a quarter of British businesses have reduced their commitment to innovation in the current economic climate. And more intend to do the same in the coming year.

Do they imagine that battening down the hatches will help them to emerge from the current double-dip recession stronger?

It’s always been my experience that recession is a great time to outperform timid competitors with new creative ideas that have the potential to change the game. 

*Allianz Insurance, 500 CEOs in Britain, 2012

Monday, 15 October 2012

Welcome to our home

As regular readers will know, I am a devoted follower of Professor Hofstede and his researches into cultural difference as it impacts organisations.

One thing is clear. It is a more difficult and complex matter to provide effective leadership in situations where there is low “power distance”.

Where power distance is high, for example in India or Latin America, people by and large will do what they are told to do, and what’s more expect it to be so.

But where power distance is low, for example in Australia, how can a leader expect to get compliance?

When I lived in Sydney in the 1980s, the finest hotel in the city was the Regent. Not only did it have a magnificent position with sweeping views over the harbour. It also had immaculate service.

But Australia is a society that has joyfully escaped from the servant culture. “How do you get your people to be so terrific in dealing with guests?” I asked the General Manager, an American.

“It was a real problem to me for quite a while,” he responded. “But then I got it. It dawned on me that Aussies are both intensely house-proud and extraordinarily hospitable. So we re-positioned the hotel internally as ‘our home’ and the customers as our own guests.”

Simple and brilliant.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Just one…

One of the most popular and successful TV ad campaigns that I ever worked on was for Cornetto. And, in a rather degraded form, it was still running quite recently, thirty plus years later.

Early commercials in the series were all shot in Italy, and, of course, I had to be there. But the truth is that, if all the pre-production work has been done well, there’s nothing more for someone like me to contribute. I’d just be in the way.

So, after the first take had rolled, I would walk. That’s why I know, for example, Venice so intimately.

After one long and tiring day - walking the towpaths, crossing the bridges, visiting church after church - I fetched up in a square with an imposing building straight ahead. It was Venice’s legendary opera house, the Teatro La Fenice. I’d read about its fabulous rococo interior, but had never been inside. The front door was open, so in I went.

“This way,” I was instructed, probably in Italian. And this…. And this…

And I found myself walking into the first notes of the overture to Cosi fan tutte, then and now my favourite of Mozart’s great series of operas. It was the dress rehearsal. I was in heaven.

The commercials? They were great.  

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Advertising Alfa

I’m reminded of the time that I missed the flight to Milan. It’s not the only time that happened – in a long working life around the world I’ve missed a few.

It’s just that this particular flight was in order to pitch the Alfa Romeo business. And I was the one managing it. Quite luckily my boss and the creative director were both there already and we won.

I’d always put my miss down to sheer incompetence on my part. But thinking about it after such a long gap, I wonder whether a contributory factor was my disappointment with the creative work we were presenting?

In automotive advertising there’s a basic print ad design that (to this day) seems to be used by nearly every manufacturer in the mistaken belief that it will make their product appear different, better, special. I don’t think so.

You can still see it in magazines around the world. Shiny, but bland. And interchangeable between brands.  

What added insult to injury was that a couple of years later we were forced by another carmaker to resign the Alfa business – and I had to get on another flight to Milan to inform them.

Life in the fast lane.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Launching After Eight in France

I was given the task of persuading our French colleagues to launch After Eight mints in France and, what’s more, to adapt and adopt the British TV campaign.

You remember the scenario? Upper class British dinner party. Everyone in evening clothes (tuxedos, black ties, long frocks, tiaras etc). Silver candelabra on a groaning table. Plum-in-mouth accents. Horsey laughter. After Eights being passed.

JWT at their most posh.

The French thought this quite impossible.

First of all, chocolate and mint together? Absurd.

Then, all those ridiculous clothes. Nobody in France goes to dinner dressed like that.

“Nor do they in England,” I responded. “It’s a… joke.”

Long pause…

“Why would anyone want to go to dinner dressed as a waiter?” they enquired.

Game. set and match.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Drying the bitter tear

We had our celebration of William Lisle Bowles’s 250th birthday at the weekend. Sixteen readers of twenty four of his poems at his birthplace, King’s Sutton.

This is one of them - quite representative of the style that was so influential for Coleridge and others. The effect of time on grief:

Sonnet: July 18th 1787

O Time! who know'st a lenient hand to lay
Softest on sorrow's wound, and slowly thence
(Lulling to sad repose the weary sense)
The faint pang stealest unperceived away;
On thee I rest my only hope at last,
And think, when thou hast dried the bitter tear
That flows in vain o'er all my soul held dear,
I may look back on every sorrow past,
And meet life's peaceful evening with a smile—
As some lone bird, at day's departing hour,
Sings in the sunbeam, of the transient shower
Forgetful, though its wings are wet the while:—
Yet ah! how much must that poor heart endure,
Which hopes from thee, and thee alone, a cure!


Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch included it in his edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse of 1919. 

Does it speak to you today?

Monday, 1 October 2012

My top 10 visitors

These are the top 10 visitor countries to my blog for the month of September 2012: UK, USA, Russia, Australia, Germany, Denmark, France, India, Italy, New Zealand.

But, if one recalculates in terms of per capita population, a quite different list emerges:
  1. Denmark
  2.  UK
  3. New Zealand
  4. Australia
  5. USA
  6. Russia
  7. Germany
  8. Italy
  9. France
  10. India
Wonder what that tells us if anything? Are Danes and Kiwis especially interested in innovation, creativity and leadership? And, if so, does that show up in their economic performance?

Saturday, 29 September 2012

A sort of apology

“I apologise to posterity for living in a country where the capacity and tastes of schoolboys and sporting costermongers are the measure of metropolitan culture.”

George Bernard Shaw (as music critic) in 1922.

Here we are ninety years on. Aside from the sexist reference (by today’s standards), he could have written it yesterday.
 

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Imaginative escape

I’m currently re-visiting the poet and music critic, WJ Turner. I’ve collected his books over many years. Although his writings on music were highly esteemed (by the great pianist Artur Schnabel among others) and his poetry too (by Yeats, Aldous Huxley, Sassoon etc), he has more or less sunk without trace currently.

This is an early Turner poem that I learned by heart at school. It’s about recognising the need to escape imaginatively from childhood (in his case in Melbourne)…

Romance

WHEN I was but thirteen or so
I went into a golden land,
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi
Took me by the hand.

My father died, my brother too,
They passed like fleeting dreams,
I stood where Popocatapetl
In the sunlight gleams.

I dimly heard the master's voice
And boys far-off at play,
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi
Had stolen me away.

I walked in a great golden dream
To and fro from school--
Shining Popocatapetl
The dusty streets did rule.

I walked home with a gold dark boy,
And never a word I'd say,
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi
Had taken my speech away:

I gazed entranced upon his face
Fairer than any flower--
O shining Popocatapetl
It was thy magic hour:

The houses, people, traffic seemed
Thin fading dreams by day,
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi
They had stolen my soul away!

His father, a leading musician in the city, and his brother both did die (within a few months of each other in 1899/1900). The school he refers to is Scotch College in Melbourne.

You can listen to his voice reading the poem here (but you might prefer to look away from the ghastly “animation”): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pi7-Yf_I2P8

Does anyone still know it? Did many of us have this kind of moment?

Sunday, 23 September 2012

The relativity of time


 
I don’t know that Einstein was aware that time is also relative to culture.

In Germany, a 9:00am meeting will start at 8:55. In England at 9:10. In France at 9:15 and in Italy at 9:20. In Brazil it will be 9:45 or 9:50. Uniquely, in my experience, the meeting starts at 9 o’clock sharp in the Netherlands.

All of these are in reality on-time meetings. So getting upset when “my time” isn’t happening often means that you’re working with foreigners.

Running a workshop in Sao Paolo, the German client came to me on day two to apologise for the tardiness of her Brazilian colleagues. “I’m sure they will be here on time,” I responded. And they were.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Creativity on the rugby pitch

As a child I used to go with my father regularly to see Coventry play rugby. “Cov”. They were the best. It was the late 50s and early 60s. And, among all the other internationals in the team, on the wing they had the sublime Peter Jackson. He played brilliantly for England and for the Lions on tour. There was a magical creativity about him that bewitched opponents. The crowd would rise in expectation and bay every time he touched the ball.

On one occasion he received the ball behind his own goal line and headed off with his inimitable shimmy straight into the opponent’s pack of forwards, who appeared to open up like the Red Sea in his path, and headed off into the other half of the pitch. At this point he was confronted by their full-back, who proceeded to launch himself into a classical ankle-height swallow dive to lay low this intruder. Problem was – he dived in entirely the wrong direction and Jackson slid past him, untouched, to score under the posts. In recent years

I’ve started to go again to rugby matches, and have grown to love the way Northampton Saints play the game. A few seasons back they had the great All Black, Carlos Spencer, with them in the latter stages of his career. Half a century on from Peter Jackson, he had the same kind of magic.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Centenary of a great musician and teacher


Walking up Marylebone High Street, I stopped to look in the window of Oxfam to see which pre-loved books were on display in the window. And there was a fine, only slightly foxed, early hardback copy of Woodwind Instruments and their History by Anthony Baines. So I bought it.

Tony Baines was one of those (very few) teachers at school who lit my fuse. I don’t think, when he was endeavouring to impart to me better ways to play the trumpet, that I had any idea of the scale of his musical scholarship or the esteem in which he was held by his contemporaries. Basically he was a bassoonist but, as I was informed by an awed colleague, he could play (and teach) every wind instrument from every era.

And he had boundless enthusiasm and ability to communicate. I was so lucky.

After Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford, in 1933 he became a scholar at the Royal College of Music in London. While he was still a student, he came to the notice of Sir Thomas Beecham, who invited him to join his fledgling London Philharmonic Orchestra as a bassoonist.

He had a very active Second World War, was wounded and captured in the desert (escaping twice). In one of the prisoner-of-war camps he arranged (and conducted) from memory Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. After the war, he worked with a ballet company, before turning to teaching (at Uppingham then at Dean Close) and writing.

His great collection of wind instruments form an important part of the Bate Collection at Oxford University and he was the first curator of that archive from 1970.

He died in 1997, but this year is the centenary of his birth.

Friday, 14 September 2012

A new Festival of Britain?


In my somewhat contrarian way, as Britain has been rejoicing over the success of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in London, I’ve been thinking about how much more relevant the expenditure of all those billions might have been on a new “Festival of Britain”.

I remember so well the last one. It was in 1951 and was created in order to build the sense of recovery, economic and spiritual, in the aftermath of war.

Although it was centred on the south bank of the Thames (the Royal Festival Hall being its greatest surviving legacy), it reached out across the whole of Britain, embracing science, technology, design, innovation, architecture, the arts. It utilised the best people of that time and engaged the whole nation.

How much more relevant that would be now, in the hour of our economic distress (so similar in many ways to the post-war situation) - to give a clear sense of hope and the way forward, something which, for all its feel-good factors, the Olympic experience is not going to provide.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Measurement and Control – the Sequel


Following my recent piece about measurement and control, André Snoxall took me to task.

“I’m afraid you have really got this one wrong,” he told me. “If as a manager you are monitoring compliance with a process then it will generally get followed more reliably than if you are not monitoring compliance.”

Of course, he’s quite right.

But it’s not measurement that I have a problem with. Measurement is essential. It’s CONTROL.

And own André’s example is not fundamentally about control. It’s about INFLUENCE.

That’s what you need as a manager (or indeed as a leader).

But, control. It’s a mirage. And one that if you seek it, you end up stifling the business.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Re-assessing the first Romantic poet


Born in 1762 in the village where I live on the borders of Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire was a poet. He was one of the earliest, perhaps the first, of the English Romantics. I wrote about him briefly in April.

His name, now substantially forgotten, was William Lisle Bowles.

In his own lifetime, as his biographer Robert Moody puts it, “… had any educated person been asked whether he or she had heard of William Lisle Bowles the answer would surely have been a resounding ‘But, of course!’.”

He was a major influence on the young Coleridge, Wordsworth and others. He did battle with Byron.

To celebrate his 250th birthday and to re-assess his work we shall be holding a reading (with music) in the parish church of King’s Sutton, where his father was vicar.

SUNDAY 30 SEPTEMBER at 3:00pm.

Do come and join us!

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Immigrants as the drivers of economic growth


In the 1980s, when I lived in Sydney, Aussies prided themselves on having created a truly harmonious multicultural society. It always seemed to me to be overstated, so I commissioned a study rather provocatively entitled “Racism in Australia”.

At that time the latest influx of immigrants was from Vietnam. Many of them were highly qualified in a multitude of areas, but they arrived having lost the war with the Communists and with little or no English. They took any job they could get, many of them as taxi drivers or taking in laundry. Within a very short space of time they were setting up businesses of all kinds. And their children were doing spectacularly well at school and university.

A striking insight came during one focus group, when an Aussie mum said: “I walk past the university library late evening. And the lights are still on in the library. And I know who’s in there working…”

Working too hard, apparently. It was those Vietnamese, of course. Resentment seems to follow every new immigrant wave.

It occurred to me as a result of that study that in reality Australia’s long-term success economically had been continuously driven by successive waves of immigrants – from England, Ireland and Scotland, Italy, Greece and Lebanon, Serbia and Croatia, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Singapore, Japan and so on.

In a fairly recent mixed society, such as Australia (or indeed the USA), with hindsight, this is rather obvious. But my sense is that it also applies in less evident ways to the “older” nations… such as Britain.

Above: "Shearing the Rams" by Tom Roberts, 1888-90, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

The genius of the adult Mendelssohn


To the Albert Hall on Friday for the all-Mendelssohn PROM concert given by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

Mendelssohn has suffered through most of my lifetime for the mistaken belief that he was a genius as a child and teenager, but somehow lost it all as an adult. How wrong this is.

Certainly he was the most brilliant composer from a young age, even out-performing Mozart in childhood. But, as this concert showed so clearly, he retained his talent well into adulthood.

On Friday we were given two overtures – “Ruy Blas” and the more rarely performed “The Fair Melusine” – the Violin Concerto which the great fiddler Joachim described as “the heart’s jewel”, and his fifth symphony, the “Reformation". All of them were written in adulthood with an evolved, grown-up aesthetic, but no signs of decline.

So how did this reputation grow up? Probably it was the result of dreary, overblown performances. None of that was on view on Friday from the scintillating Leipzigers.

And how good to see a young Sydneysider, Tahlia Petrosian, among the violas. Is she the first Australian to play in that great orchestra since the teenage Alfred Hill in late 1880s?

Friday, 31 August 2012

The delusions of innovation process


One of the core beliefs that inhabit organisations is that problems will be solved by the adoption of a whizzy new process. It’s simple, attractive… and almost always WRONG.

At one stage, a major multinational client adopted a “funnels and gates” approach to managing innovation projects. This was imported from flavour-of-the-month academics at Harvard Business School. The company was reorganised in line with the new process and training programmes were implemented at major expense worldwide.

I remember, shortly after the start of that voyage, having a meeting with the senior manager responsible for implementation of the programme, and endeavouring to surface with him some of the cultural issues that seemed to me to lie behind their difficulties with innovation.

“Don’t worry about all that,” he told me. “This new process will solve all those problems.” Of course, it didn’t. And the cultural issues remained as critical roadblocks. So innovation performance remained, at best, static.

At a general level, another Harvard Business School professor, psychoanalyst Abraham Zaleznik, addresses the problem head-on. He observes that management’s obsession with impersonal processes distorts reality, and that “depersonalised relationships” become the heart of “management mystique”, with the result that “you tend to lose sight of what you are doing”.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Tips for sitting through Wagner


I rather stumbled across the Kiwi blogger, From the Choirboy Motel. He’s full of things that I’m interested in, and he writes really well, but at a length that I sometimes find difficult to stay with.

Recently he’s been diving into the many hours of Wagner – not in the opera house, but at screenings of the New York Met’s Ring cycle. It’s an exciting journey for him, full of new insights, including the demolition of many received ideas about the work. It certainly brings back my own entry into Wagner’s wacky world some forty or more years ago.

Then, after several paragraphs of almost Proustian length, he shares with us “three handy hints on how to make it through”:

1. Sensible shoes
2. Chocolate raisins
3. Aisle seats

So succinct. So valuable. Wish I’d known this several decades ago.

Here’s the whole piece: http://choirboymotel.wordpress.com/2012/07/09/gotterdammerung-aka-god-damn-its-done/

Monday, 27 August 2012

The Real King Lear


I notice that Tom Stoppard has spoken recently of the late John Wood as “truly my favourite actor”.

I first saw him in the debut production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at the Old Vic in the 1960s. Then, brilliantly, in Travesties, which was written by Stoppard for him.

But for me he was the indelible Lear.

I had first seen King Lear as a teenager at school, directed by the extraordinary Gordon Braddy and starring David Allister (then David MacDonald). But I was far too immature to get it then (as I do so personally now).

So when I became involved with Sam Wanamaker and Shakespeare’s Globe, I made up for lost time, seeing a dozen or more different Lears in eighteen months, many of them our most celebrated actors. It was John Wood at the RSC in 1990 that seemed to me to be Lear.

He died aged 81 a year ago this month. A great actor, but no celeb.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

The illusion of measurement and control


The notion that control of a business follows from measurement is a fallacy.

What’s the mantra? “If you can’t measure it, you can’t control it.”

It’s a comforting illusion.

My colleague, Bill Boggs, famously responded to a client in a workshop, who had just put out the usual line, with: “I’ve been measuring my d**k since I was fourteen and I still can’t control it.”

Did you know that in Britain there’s an Institute of Measurement and Control. Wonder how they are doing with the Boggs question?

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Florrie Forde’s lost Blue Plaque


In 2006 I proposed to English Heritage that they put up one of their Blue Plaques in London to the music hall legend, Florrie Forde. They were enthused and started the apparently long and arduous task of researching her life and work and homes.

Florrie was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1876 and ran away from home at sixteen to Sydney to go on the stage. There she was seen by a British star of the day who was touring Australia, GH Chirgwin and, encouraged by him, moved to London, where she made her debut at three separate halls on the same evening.

Her inexhaustible vocal power and engaging personality equipped her ideally to become queen of the music hall chorus-song – amongst them “Down at the Old Bull and Bush”, “Hold your hand out, naughty boy”, “She’s a lassie from Lancashire”, “Oh!Oh! Antonio”, “It’s a long way to Tipperary”, “Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag”, “Daisy Bell” (Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do…), “I do like to be beside the seaside”, “Fair, Fat and Forty” and many more. She was also a famous Principal Boy in panto and starred in the first Royal Variety Performance in 1912.

Florrie Forde died in Aberdeen in April 1940 after entertaining wounded sailors. What a trouper. In his curmudgeonly poem, “Death of an Actress”, Louis MacNeice recalled her “elephantine shimmy” and “sugared wink”.

Here she is, very movingly, in the flesh: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oYWygJSetbA

Now, six years on from my original proposal, English Heritage has just dropped her from their shortlist, with the explanation that their budget has been cut and that anyway she lived mostly at Shoreham-by-Sea in Sussex. While she was working? I don’t think so.

And what took them six years to discover this? No wonder their budget has been slashed.