Monday, 30 July 2012

To travel hopefully

An essay, “El Dorado”, originally published by the twenty-eight year old Robert Louis Stevenson in 1878, outlines the case for aspiration as opposed to achievement. Although the whole essay is only some eleven hundred words itself, here are a few extracts. Good reading for all innovators, creators and leaders:

“There is always a new horizon for onward-looking men… our hopes are inaccessible, like stars…
“To be truly happy is a question of how we begin and not how we end… An aspiration is a joy forever… which gives us year by year a revenue of pleasurable activity. To have many of these is to be spiritually rich…
"To those who have neither art nor science, the world is a mere arrangement of colours, or a rough footway where they may very well break their shins. It is in virtue of his own desires and curiosities that any man… wakens every morning with a renewed appetite for work and pleasure. Desire and curiosity are the two eyes through which he sees the world in the most enchanted colours…
“Happily we all shoot at the moon with ineffectual arrows; our hopes are set on an inaccessible El Dorado…
“There is no end, indeed, to making books or experiments, or to travel, or to gathering wealth…
“When we have discovered a continent, or crossed a chain of mountains, it is only to find another ocean or another plain upon the further side…
“Little do ye know your own blessedness; for to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour.”

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Gold or Bronze please. But not Silver…

Winning Gold: I’m ecstatic; all that work paid off; I’m simply the best.

Winning Bronze: I got a medal; I’m not one of the also-rans.

Winning Silver: if I’d just trained that bit more; if my tactics had been better; if I’d made just one extra push; I’m depressed.

This seems to be a fairly constant psychological pattern. I learned about it while working with the International Olympic Committee.

The moral seems to be: if you’re going for a medal in life, and you’re not going to get the Gold, go for Bronze.

Above: Olympic Silver Medal from the London Games of 1908 by Australian sculptor, Bertram Mackennal

Thursday, 26 July 2012

The miracles of aspirin

It seems that the medical properties of one of the oldest pharmaceuticals, aspirin, are still being discovered, decade after decade.

First, of course, there was the analgesic use – the reduction of aches, pains and fever. This was noticed by Hippocrates in Ancient Greece around 400 BC, based on the powdered bark of the willow tree. In the eighteenth century, the Reverend Edward Stone, who lived in Chipping Norton in the English Cotswolds, conducted experiments with this powder and wrote to the Royal Society outlining his discoveries.

In due course Felix Hoffmann at the German pharmaceutical company, Bayer, discovered how to manufacture the powder and in 1900 aspirin was patented by them.

But all that was just a start. In the middle of the twentieth century, it was observed that low doses of aspirin were effective in the prevention of heart attacks and strokes, saving countless lives, including mine.

And more recently it has been suggested that aspirin may be effective in reducing the risk of a whole range of cancers – colon, lung, bowel, pancreas, stomach and others.

How much more is to come?

Hurrah for Hippocrates, and the Rev Stone, and Herr Hoffmann.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Conducting and leadership

In 1925, the composer of Der Rosenkavalier and much else, Richard Strauss, who was also an outstanding conductor, wrote “Ten Golden Rules for Conducting” for a young colleague:

1. Remember that you are making music not to amuse yourself, but to delight your audience.
2. You should not perspire when conducting: only the audience should get warm.
3. Conduct Salome and Elektra as if they were Mendelssohn: Fairy Music.
4. Never look encouragingly at the brass, except with a brief glance to give an important cue.
5. But never let the horns and woodwinds out of your sight. If you can hear them at all they are still too strong.
6. If you think that the brass is not blowing hard enough, tone it down another shade or two.
7. It is not enough that you yourself should hear every word the soloist sings. You should know it by heart anyway. The audience must be able to follow without effort. If they do not understand the words they will go to sleep.
8. Always accompany singers in such a way that they can sing without effort.
9. When you think you have reached the limits of prestissimo, double the pace.
10. If you follow these rules carefully you will, with your fine gifts and your great accomplishments, always be the darling of your listeners.

I feel sure that all conductors should know these by heart.

But, at a metaphor level, maybe all leaders in all fields should consider them too.

I think Number 4 is particularly important. How about you?

Sunday, 22 July 2012

The tyranny of time

Just occasionally I stumble across essay-writing that thrills me.

This is part of a piece* in a recent issue of Philosophy Now by Professor Raymond Tallis on the nature of time:

“So, while we are pulling time out of the jaws of physics, we must not forget what an amazing, and deeply puzzling, activity ‘timing’ is. And its consequences are immeasurable. It transforms social life into a multitude of intermeshing ensembles harmonised by timepieces. We watch time and time watches us; and the portability of the watch compared with, say, the obelisk, locks together the watching and the watched more intimately. Inside these ever more tightly drawn temporal meshes, the clock rules our every moment. The living rhythms spelt out in our breathing, our walking and our beating hearts, are overridden by something totally different, symbolised by the way the watch we consult with fast-beating heart clasps our wrist, seeming to strangle our pulse. We dance to a rhythm of the shared day, of the common world, of the universe, that’s imposed and embraced: it is ours and not ours.

“This is not all bad, of course. Our lives are vastly enriched by keeping track of the time, and we are collectively and individually empowered by co-ordination: dancing to the music of clock time, we can work together more effectively to meet and anticipate our basic needs, to generate ever more complex ways of exploiting nature, and to erect defences against a universe that has no particular care for us. And wemust not underestimate what an extraordinary achievement this is.”

In recent years I’ve dispensed with watches (and my mobile phone is usually switched off). So I rely more and more on my sense of what time it is. It works for me.


Friday, 20 July 2012

Riding into the funeral pyre

Girls brought up on the farm in country Victoria in Australia are usually fit and healthy, learning to ride very young. Certainly Marjorie Lawrence from Dean’s Marsh had no problems in this department.

So in January 1936, when she had her chance to make her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in one of operas’s most demanding roles, Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods, she thought that it might be a good idea to follow the composer’s specific instructions – to mount and ride her horse, Grane, on-stage into Siegfried’s blazing funeral pyre, the climax of the opera.

Perhaps, she thought, it would be only polite to check this out with the director and conductor in advance. Under no circumstances, they responded. It would be much too risky.

And why take the risk? It had never been done. Unthinkable. Just do what your illustrious predecessors have done – at Bayreuth and Covent Garden, in Vienna and Paris, here at the Met. Lead the horse quietly off-stage behind the bonfire.

For many of those predecessors, to do what she was proposing would be a physical impossibility – several would have been just too large and most of the rest wouldn’t have been able to ride anyway.

Of course, to the astonishment of the audience, the critics and not least the stage director and the conductor, she leapt adroitly aboard and rode Grane confidently exactly as the libretto instructs, singing all the while.

The New York newspapers reported the event in full. She had sung magnificently. And now she was a star.

The performance was recorded live and was issued on CD in 2004. Here she is singing Brünnhilde, recorded in Paris and in French:

Sadly she was struck down by polio in her prime at 32. But that's another story.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Not just Higgs, Boson too

In the past week or so, with the success of the experiments with the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in finding the Higgs-Boson particle, we’ve all had the opportunity to become familiar with Professor Peter Higgs.

It prompted my friend Raj Marwah to post this note on FaceBook:

“Sure, Peter Higgs gave his name to the Higgs boson 'god’ particle, but in fact ALL bosons are actually named after an INDIAN physicist called Satyendra Nath Bose, best known for his early 1920s work in quantum mechanics, providing the foundation for Bose–Einstein statistics and the theory of the Bose–Einstein condensate. This entire class of particles (that obey Bose-Einstein statistics), ie bosons, was named after Bose by Paul Dirac (surprisingly, an Englishman: he held the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge around that time).
Settle down, now. I'm just SAYIN …”

Satyendra Nath Bose was born in Bengal in 1898. He took his BSc and then MSc at the University of Calcutta, his marks in the latter being a record yet to be surpassed. In 1919 he was the first to translate Einstein’s papers on special and general relativity into English. His own work was seminal in creating the field of quantum statistics – he sent a paper on the subject to Einstein, who returned Bose’s favour by translating it into German. Having done his work mostly at the University of Calcutta, in 1926 he became head of the Department of Physics at Dhaka University, where he was to teach for three decades.

It was during a lecture at Dhaka that Bose made an error that subsequently became the basis of his new hypothesis, which in time supplanted Planck’s work and laid the foundations for modern quantum physics.

Good to know you. Thanks, Raj.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Immigration to save our bacon

The widespread public opposition to immigration in Britain is something that will have to be tackled, sooner rather than later, by the major political parties.

With our rapidly ageing population and consequently shrinking workforce, and with all the future demands on the healthcare system and pensions, Britain is going to need a consistent influx of immigrants ready and willing to do the work, be entrepreneurs and drive innovation.

Together, this might just provide the wealth creation (and therefore taxation) to sustain our old folk (and our young) in the style to which we have become accustomed.

(I notice that the annual Fiscal Sustainability Report of the Office for Budget Responsibility, out yesterday, has lots of tables and graphs demonstrating all this.)

To block immigration at this juncture would seem to be next door to suicidal.

Or have I missed something?

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Don’t know that they don’t know?

So far as I could tell, Bill Weithas had scarcely been out of America when he was appointed worldwide CEO of Lintas.

So, during the lengthy handover, his predecessor in the post, Tim Green, took every opportunity to give Bill the benefit of his long years in international management. Especially the crucial but subtle differences between different ethnic groups. “The Flemish are very xxxx, but the Walloons are totally yyyy”. Ah!

When it came to New Zealand (had Tim actually been there?), he pronounced: “The problem with the Kiwis is that they don’t know that they don’t know.”

By this stage, Bill just looked terminally bored.

Sometime later, walking down Orchard Road in Singapore with him (on his first trip there), he stopped me and pointed at a neon sign.

“What do you see there, Rog?” he asked.

It was a Johnnie Walker logo. “And there… and there… and there…” McDonald’s, Fuji, Coca-Cola.

“It’s a global village,” he opined. “You just don’t need to know all that stuff about cultural difference anymore.”

Well, he certainly didn’t.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Peter Drucker and the perils of fact-based management

The problem with “fact-based decision-making”, so popular these days among leaders and business schools, is that it’s bound by its nature to restrict the possibilities for future action.

If what you have is a bagful of incremental innovations in your pipeline, chances are that fact-based may serve you well.

But if you are looking to have some breakthroughs in there, it’s very unlikely that the deepest, widest crunching of the data will be of any real help. Indeed a fact-based approach may well be the most efficient way to kill them off at birth.

Ideas-based management? So much more likely to grow your business.

As the great management guru Peter Drucker put it: “The understanding that underlies the right decision grows out of the clash and conflict of divergent opinions and out of serious consideration of competing alternatives. To get the facts first is impossible.”

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Music at home

On Sunday, we had our tenth concert at home. A small audience of friends and family packed into our cottage ‒ using our Broadwood square piano of 1790 (the year before Mozart died).

The wonderful performers were the cellist, Katherine Sharman, and the fortepianist, Geoffrey Govier, both of whom have played for us before. Between them they gave us Bach’s Third Suite for Solo Cello, Haydn’s penultimate piano sonata (in D) and Beethoven’s early Sonata for Cello and Piano (Op 5 No 2).

The piano itself was given to us in the late 1990s by my mother-in-law, Jill Wilson. Her parents had acquired it in the 1930s from a pub in Kent, reportedly for £4. Unlike most of these instruments, it had not been gutted and turned into a cocktail cabinet, but was in completely original condition.

I had it restored by one of the great specialists in that kind of thing, Lucy Coad. Lucy told me that it was one of the most unspoiled instruments of its kind that she had seen – complete with original hammers, felts and strings.

It has a sound quite unlike a modern piano – silvery and delicate. The invention of the pianoforte (able to respond to touch, both soft and loud) was one of the great innovations of the second half of the eighteenth century.

Music at home is the most fun.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Adland and collective memory

Things always seemed to be so urgent and important in the advertising business. It never occurred to me that adland’s collective memory was virtually non-existent.

I was to teach creative problem-solving to a group of young admen and women at Lintas in Melbourne. At the start of the first day, getting to know each other, one of the women asked me a series of questions.

“Have you been to Australia before?”
“Yes, indeed.”
“And to Melbourne?”
“Oh yes.”
“What do you think of it?”
“Great city. Love it.”
“Ah… Have you worked with ad agencies here before?”
“Well, have you been to this agency?”
“I started this agency some ten years ago.”
Longer pause.
Was I bullshitting?
Apparently not.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Kennst du das Land?

For me, one of the great mysteries in the world of music is why the songs of Hugo Wolf should be so out of fashion. I’ve addressed this question to several of my musicianly friends without getting any kind of satisfying answer.

Three quarters of a century ago, Gustav Mahler’s music was hardly played at all and Wolf’s was programmed regularly. (They were both born in 1860 and lived together as students in Vienna.) Now it’s the opposite way round.

In fact, when Fred Gaisberg and Walter Legge made a great sequence of recordings of Wolf’s songs in the 1930s, they left out his extraordinary setting of Goethe’s “Mignon”, deeming it to be too hackneyed.

You’re lucky to hear it sung once in a lifetime these days.

Here it is, sung live at Salzburg in 1958 by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf with Gerald Moore at the piano:

Do you have a sense as to why he’s so neglected?

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Professors meeting consumers to invent the future

Over a period of several years I have helped some of our biggest consumer goods multinationals to develop visions, missions, strategies and key projects for their R&D efforts. In several of these we explored the broad areas of healthy ageing – including genetic engineering, antioxidants, nanotechnology and a host of other topic areas.

One of the key issues that had to be addressed was how to blend together some of the world’s leading research scientists, some of them Nobel prize-winners, with sets of relevant consumers (together with marketing management, outside experts and journalists, and the companies’ own R&D scientists).

Very diverse groups like this usually need help in discovering that at root they are all human beings with families, friends, futures and common values. When they are asked to work creatively together, they need to find common ground and common language in order to explore possibilities, walk into the future together, develop new ideas and problem-solve.

Moreover, in situations like this, one of the greatest challenges is to persuade all the participants that their thoughts are of equal validity. For example, consumers can and often will relegate themselves to observer status, while Professor X from Harvard or INSEAD gets into lecture mode, holding forth as though he or she has all the answers.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Sport as catalyst?

All my life I’ve loved sport. As a child it engaged me fully and there were moments when I thought that I might become quite good at rugby or cricket or athletics.

I still love to watch sport, both on TV and in the flesh, especially when it is played well. And the final of the Euro 2012 football competition last night between Spain and Italy was outstanding in terms of the skills on show, the creativity of the players and the teamwork displayed.

Where I draw the line is when pundits suggest that winning the Olympics, or the World Cup, or the World Series, or whatever, will lift the morale of a nation or city in ways that will impact either the economic performance or the net quotient of happiness of the inhabitants. It doesn’t. Although politicians often pretend that it does (and consequently plough billions of our money behind massive schemes, when the resources could be so much more effectively targeted elsewhere).

The only exception to this in my lifetime is the way in which Barcelona planned and implemented a strategy to transform their city, with the Olympics as a keystone. (I wrote about this in the blogpost of 14 November 2011.)

But this is not going to happen with Spain winning last night’s competition. The country’s problems will be just as great today as they were yesterday. Nor, I sense, with London’s Olympic Games, now just a few weeks away.