Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Creativity and teamwork at Bletchley Park

For years I’ve been meaning to visit the British code-breaking centre from the Second World War, Bletchley Park, finally making it there this last long weekend.

Just so interesting, even exciting, to learn about the extraordinary achievements of creative thinking and teamwork. And the consequences for achieving sustained success – the shortening of the war, perhaps by years, and the saving of innumerable lives.

I had not realised how extensive it was, nor how much of it still exists. Nearly 10,000 people worked there at its peak, just a few of them still celebrated, Alan Turing the most.

It had me thinking about whether the German military machine enjoyed similar successes.

The Germans certainly poured similar resources into code-breaking, but with significantly less success. Why was that? My understanding is that while the British had one centre dedicated to all the services, the Germans had something like a dozen separate departments working in secrecy and isolation from each other. So there was very limited opportunity for one branch to benefit from the breakthroughs of another.

They did, of course, have successes. The most significant of these was that, in the early part of the war, their Naval code-breaking team were able to know the positions of all British ships – naval and merchant. 

I believe there are learnings here for R&D functions everywhere?

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Doing things in style

When I went to live in London from the provincial town where I’d grown up, a major incentive was to go and watch the great Tottenham Hotspur play. It was 1963 and I was nineteen.

This was the soccer team which had won the league and cup double in 1961, following up with the FA Cup the following year and the European Cup Winners Cup in 1963.

Their great players included Dave Mackay, Bobby Smith and, by the time I saw them, the legendary Jimmy Greaves. And they played so stylishly.

I was reminded of all this by a post on Facebook from my friend Chris McKay in Sydney, a Spurs supporter, who quotes the very articulate Spurs captain of that era, Danny Blanchflower, who wrote:

The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It's nothing of the kind. The game is about glory. It's about doing things in style, with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.  

Autre temps, autre moeurs. 

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Time and Professor Parkinson

All through my working life, I’ve noticed that colleagues will complain about the lack of time to do a job properly.

It’s not a view I share. If you have a month to plan something, it’s nearly always too long, leading to over-complication, muddle and prevarication. If you have twenty minutes, you’ll get to it urgently.

I’ve long been an adherent of Professor Parkinson’s brilliant “law”:

Work expands to fill the time available for its completion. 

And I love the composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein’s spin on the subject:

To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan and not quite enough time.


Monday, 20 May 2013

Sunny sounds at Glyndebourne

Glorious sunny day at Glyndebourne, where we were lucky enough to take in the dress rehearsal of Verdi’s Falstaff.

He wrote this brilliant, taut, energetic, funny piece at the age of eighty, his last opera. Hope for us all. (By the way, the opera is a serious improvement on The Merry Wives of Windsor.)

The singing was first-rate, but it was the orchestral playing that was so intriguing. For the first time, Falstaff was given with an orchestra dedicated to the kind of instruments and performing practices that the composer would have expected. This seems to have been at the initiative of the conductor, a famous Verdian, Sir Mark Elder, the band in question being the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

While they started life focused on baroque and classical music, in recent years the OAE has been exploring the Romantic repertoire, right up to the early twentieth century, with revelatory consequences. 

In this case, using gut strings instead of metal, and with narrow-bore trombones and valveless horns, the orchestra produced sounds of startling clarity. But for me the major change was the shift in balance of sound between orchestra and stage. Often the singers have to strain to be heard over a modern symphony orchestra playing fortissimo, but here they could really shine through.

A memorable evening.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Barbed-wire and BASTARDS

Living as I do in the country, I’ve grown a serious aversion to barbed-wire.

I can see that it can be useful in restraining cattle. And in trench warfare (until the arrival of the tank, that is). And in prisons and concentration camps and the like (as razor-wire).

It’s been with us, more or less unchanged, since its invention in France in the 1860s and standardisation in the US a decade later.  

But nowadays it’s everywhere in the country. Round every field and gate and stile (much of it rusty and forlorn). Whether or not there’s any purpose to its presence.

It’s a blight. It’s unsightly. It’s practically indestructible. And it constantly causes injury, especially to children, and to both domesticated and wild animals – horses, deer, bats, birds etc. 

Is this a global problem? Should we be forming a pressure group?

I propose the Barbed-wire And Suchlike Total And Rapid Destruction Society (BASTARDS).

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

"Love your country, tell the truth and don’t dawdle"

I wonder if I’d have enjoyed working with Lt Col Maurice Brown.

He was born and brought up in New Zealand, going on to serve in the New Zealand army, in the Second World War in the RAF and the RNZAF, before returning to army life in New Zealand again.

After working as a military observer in Kashmir, he founded Faujdarhat Cadet College in Bangladesh, which became one of the leading schools of its kind in the country.

But that’s not the reason he intrigues me. It’s his motto that does that:

“Love your country, tell the truth and don’t dawdle.”

It’s so resonant of his time and background. So certain in its precepts. So simple.

One has the sense that Col Brown would not have had much truck with the ideas that countries are less than permanent entities, that truth depends so often on perspective, or that there’s an upside to taking one’s time.

People like Brown are good to have on an innovation team as implementers – making things happen. But new ideas, the sources of innovation, spring from a much more flexible kind of mentality.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

On receiving a dedication

The Scottish novelist SR Crockett sent a copy of his newly-published set of short stories, The Stickit Minister, to Robert Louis Stevenson, who was by this time living in Samoa, with the inscription:

To Robert Louis Stevenson of Scotland and Samoa I dedicate these stories of that Grey Galloway land where about the Graves of the Martyrs the Whaups are crying – his heart remembers how.

Deeply moved, the homesick Stevenson wrote this poem, which he sent to Crockett:

To S. R. Crockett
On receiving a dedication

Blows the wind to-day, and the sun and the rain are flying,
Blows the wind on the moors to-day and now,
Where about the graves of the martyrs the whaups are crying,
My heart remembers how!

Grey recumbent tombs of the dead in desert places,
Standing-stones on the vacant wine-red moor,
Hills of sheep, and the howes of the silent vanished races,
And winds, austere and pure.

Be it granted me to behold you again in dying,
Hills of home! and to hear again the call;
Hear about the graves of the martyrs the peewees crying,
And hear no more at all.

Of course, he never did behold again the hills of home. He died in Samoa, which he also loved, in 1894.

Above: Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson by GP Nerli, Samoa,1892, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Understanding how markets work

“How can they be paying us only £5 a gig?" I wailed. "What kind of a negotiation is that?”

I was joshing Tim Mack, the manager of the band I played in (in the 1960s), the Idle Hands, who had landed us a regular gig at the premier venue in London, the Marquee.

“If you want to try to get more, be my guest,” responded Tim.

So we trooped into the Marquee manager’s  office.

“This is just slave labour,” I ranted. “We are good - and we get paid loads more at other venues.”

“Look,” said the manager patiently, “there are a hundred bands out there as good as yours, and any one of them would play here for nothing. All you guys need to decide is this: do you want to play here or not?”

It was the day I learned for real how markets work.

We had a joyful reunion of the band on Tuesday, less dear departed Tim.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Talking about music

Many years ago I went to a “literary evening” at Blackheath and the guest was the writer (and former singer) John Amis. He had just published a compendium of things said about music.

In the Q & A I asked him, “In the end, what is there to say about music?”

“Have you read the book?" he asked, witheringly. 

Now, at last, I have a response. Mendelssohn wrote: “So much is spoken about music and so little is said. For my part I do not believe that words suffice for such a task, and if they did I should no longer make music.”

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Imagining Viennetta

You know! The delicious multi-layered dessert ice cream. But where did the idea come from?

According to court reports from the 1990s, the Viennetta product was conceived in 1979 by a product development manager, Kevin Hillman, at Wall’s (Unilever) factory in Gloucester, England. He was looking through a cook book he had given his wife for Christmas, when he noticed an illustration of a traditional French cake, mille-feuille – a thousand leaves.

Suddenly he saw not a thousand layers of puff pastry, cream and jam, but “a cake consisting of layers of ice cream alternated with strata of chocolate.”

It was to become one of Unilever’s best-selling ice cream brands around the world, proof that good new ideas come from connection-making from the past, in this case from something that had existed for decades, maybe centuries.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Credit where credit is due

A new book by Morton A Meyers* highlights the problem faced by inventors and scientists in an organisation where a superior takes the credit for a breakthrough.

Perhaps most shocking is the case of Albert Schatz, the discoverer of the revolutionary drug Streptomycin. A graduate student at Rutgers University in New Jersey, he started searching in soil samples for micro-organisms that might combat tuberculosis, one of the great plagues of recent centuries.

After hundreds of experiments, on 19 October 1943 Schatz “realized I had a new antibiotic… I felt elated, and very tired.” Sadly for him, his boss at Rutgers, Selman Waxman, saw it quite differently. Waxman had approved Schatz’s work, and this seemed to him to be enough to claim the credit. In due course it was Waxman who won the Nobel Prize, not to mention having benefited from continuous income from royalties.

Schatz spent the rest of his life endeavouring to set the record straight. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of lives have been saved by Streptomycin.

The basic problem is exacerbated by the tendency present in all organisations – corporations, professional, governmental or academic – to believe and support the senior figure.

*Morton A Meyers, Prize Fight: The Race and the Rivalry to be First in Science, Palgrave Macmillan