May 21, 2018


Filed under: Coaching,Consumer Trends,Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 9:35 pm
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‘It’s the spores – all that fungi floating around you – that’s what makes it so special.’

We were discussing the virtues of ‘foresting bathing’, which involves lying down on the forest floor and reaping manifold, albeit somewhat mysterious, benefits. The context: a recent book meeting I attended.

I have picked out this moment as representative of how we often have a tendency to seize on ideas that capture our imagination but not really go much further.

We were meant to be discussing A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled by Ruby Wax but the book had only be read by a handful of us (a fifth of those attending to be more precise). And, as the above quote suggests, the approach we took to engaging with the book was similarly ‘magpie-ish’.

‘All those exercises Ruby Wax describes, well, I don’t have the time or money to do all that. We’re not all wealthy celebrities who can take time out of the day just like that to do breathing exercises.’

‘I thought mindfulness was all about living in the moment. In the book, it seemed much more complicated than that.’

‘Someone at work gave me this article about how mindfulness is actually bad for you. All that introspection – it can make you down. You need to go out and do stuff, not just navel gaze!’

This chatting reminded me of how people engage with health, and in particular healthy eating. People have caught onto certain ideas and concepts, bringing them into their lives with great enthusiasm, going all out on avoiding gluten-free, eating quinoa with grim determination. In fact, it’s now a majority activity: 54% of the population purchased a ‘free from’ product during the past three months. Or what about the 5-a-day recommendation? Well, the message has definitely got through, but the issue is that though people know about it, they do not act on it – again a bit of a pick-and-mix approach. Only 26% of adults ate the recommended five portions of fruit or vegetables a day in 2015.

But with this flitting around between different ideas, I am actually demonstrating the type of behaviours that Frazzled aims to tackle – namely, not letting oneself get distracted by zillions of different thoughts, which aren’t actually the main focus of the task in hand.

Back to the book….

Well, I must confess that the elements I found most engaging were not so much the guidance around how to do mindfulness or explanations of why it is so important in our frenzied modern lives, but more the elements which were closest to telling a story. This story was the story of Ruby Wax’s life and her journey around writing the book – all of which were searingly honest and characteristically spikily funny. As the author makes clear, the book was written with hiatuses – times when depression hit and she fell into bleak black ‘do-nothingness’. She also lets us into her mind and shows how even people whom we might perceive as successful are riddled with insecurity, often in meeting other successful people!

The aspect of the book I found most challenging was the fact it set up a pressing need to deal with stress but was authored by someone deeper in than that, someone who suffered from periodic bouts of debilitating depression. Despite all the humour, it was clear mindfulness, for the author at least, was not about pushing up mental wellbeing, but a vital means for dealing with more profound mental health issues. A genuinely lighter touch might have been more helpful than many brutal but comic asides about the author’s feelings of inadequacy.

In my final words, I would like defend Ruby Wax’s promotion of living in the moment. This is certainly something which is brought up in the book, in several instances, and encouraged for its positive benefits, with advice on how to achieve such moments. Memorably, Wax talks about how delighted she became at eating some potatoes.

‘That night at dinner I fall in love with a potato. I couldn’t believe it could taste so sweet and crunchy and then so fluffy – it had everything going for it. I go into the kitchen and break my silence, demanding to know how they cooked the potato. The chef shows me a potato and some Tesco olive oil. I don’t get it: I have eaten potatoes in my life, but never on this level. Again, I’m wanting another one while I still have one in my mouth, and I think, ‘Yup, this is how I live my life.’


March 19, 2017

Weapons of Math Destruction

Filed under: Business,Coaching,Consumer Trends,Marketing,Sustainability,Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 8:50 pm
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There is much chatter about corporate social responsibility but little deep thinking about more complex moral concepts. This is what struck me as I read a polemical book about the troubling implications of living in a world ‘controlled’ by algorithms – Weapons of Mass Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil.

The author’s Big Message is to highlight how the clever models that sit behind how decisions to evaluate teachers, job candidates, prospective customers for insurance, consumers etc, are not as objectively fair as we might think, often capturing the biases of their creators, as well as more importantly creating negative feedback loops reinforcing social divides. Poor people living in bad neighbourhoods pay more for insurance as they are higher risk; thanks to accurate targeting, they can be more easily identified to be sold payday (or equivalent high cost/poor value) loans.

Whilst this is indeed troubling, my overall response to the book was to feel glad that I don’t live in the US and that, in the UK (I think!), there are more checks and balances in place to stop the level of exploitation seen across the Atlantic occurring.

However, after reading the book, I did start to notice other examples of concerns being raised about the moral implications of business approaches.

First example: an article widely circulated among the senior management at a major international marketing powerhouse. This article raises far more worrying concepts – how search engines are effectively being ‘gamed’ by organisations who wish to propagate ideas that would normally be dismissed out of hand in a liberal democracy. The journalist tried seeing what happens when you start typing in “are muslims…”, and seeing what comes up in Google Instant (though I must confess, I didn’t get anything as bad), she observes, “I feel like I’ve fallen down a wormhole, entered some parallel universe where black is white, and good is bad.”

Second example: an interesting piece in a recent edition of 1843. A writer for the magazine went to California to ‘meet the scientists who make apps addictive’. In a way, this article provides a much-needed human face to the O’Neill book. It seems that the clever people behind all the clever new apps and algorithms are not actually evil. They are described as ‘hipsters from San Francisco – all nice people’.

However, some of them have realised that what they are unleashing on the world may not be so straightforwardly ‘good’ after all. The founding father of ‘behaviour design’, B.J. Fogg, is quoted as saying, “I look at some of my former students and I wonder if they’re really trying to make the world better, or just make money. What I always wanted to do was un-enslave people from technology.” Let’s see what some of these students have been up to:

  • One of Fogg’s alumni, Nir Eyal, went on to write a successful book, aimed at tech entrepreneurs, called “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products”.
  • Another, Tristan Harris, resigned after working for Google for a year in order to pursue research into the ethics of the digital economy. “I wanted to know what responsibility comes with the ability to influence the psychology of a billion people? What’s the Hippocratic oath?” Whilst Harris was convinced to stay on temporarily as design ethicist and product philosopher, he soon realised that, although his colleagues were listening politely, they would never take his message seriously without pressure from the outside. He left Google for good to become a writer and advocate, on a mission to wake the world up to how digital technology is diminishing the human capacity for making free choices.

My final example is a film, but it succeeded in make me think the most as it captured my imagination and brought to life the moral dilemmas at play most powerfully. Eye In The Sky explores what happens when a drone is to be used to launch a bomb into a crowded street in Kenya in order to kill a wanted terrorist. Clever algorithms make use of Big Data to calculate what is the likelihood that a small girl selling bread on this street might be killed too by this bomb. For the minsters approving the mission, it is only acceptable for the bomb to be launched if the likelihood is below 50%. Initially calculations suggest the risk is over 50% (that’s what the model says), but in the film we can see how human actors can override and manipulate models. It is clear that ultimately humans need to be ready to make difficult decisions – and live with the consequences.


July 1, 2016

Disrupt Yourself

Filed under: Business,Coaching,Innovation,Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 9:48 pm
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Disrupt yourself

I have some confessions to make: in my first year of work, I often went to the library as an important way to get information and new ideas; and on one occasion I had to catch a late afternoon flight from Paris to take a VHS tape of an ad mock-up to the co-ordinating agency in London as the last Fedex delivery had been missed. There was no other way to get the creative work over. This was an analogue world and created tasks that now seem more than faintly ridiculous.

So it was with interest that I picked up my latest ‘worthy tome’ (part of my ongoing effort to broaden my reading matter beyond ‘story books’) had the catchy title of “Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work – Disrupt Yourself” by Whitney Johnson.

Sadly, the book disappointed. Though my opening anecdotes highlights I am only too deeply aware of the changing context in which we lead our working lives, none of this came through. It was a rather one-dimensional self-help book giving lots on the ‘how’ to bring changing into one’s professional life, but with little sense of the burning platform of ‘why’. To me, it would have been more compelling to also highlight the risk of redundancy of opting for stasis and certainty.

The introduction presents an interesting challenge – that of applying what is traditionally regarded as a business concept – the S curve – to individual experience. I have already read a book which used this ‘conceit’ of using business practices for personal problems to good effect (futures techniques to navigate personal life choices).  In ‘Disrupt Yourself’, there was less of a single-minded approach and more of a ‘pick and mix’ one to referencing examples/analogies from the business world as well as individual experiences. This links to another shortcoming – it suggests that personal disruption is more relevant for the more entrepreneurial, ie those who naturally conflate their professional development with the development of a business. What of those who those who aim to operate within the system? Or are they just redundant anyway?!

In a similar vein, I also would have liked examples of people who tried to change and it didn’t work; is disruption really for everyone? And what about negotiating forced disruption that is thrust upon you rather than proactively seeking it? Clearly, the latter sounds ‘better’ (more aspirational/what we know we should be doing), but there may be valuing in taking a softer approach to help others cope with unsought change.

Finally, I would like to highlight the connection between ‘Disrupt Yourself and another book I recently read about growth mind sets. Both present the importance and value to be gained from challenging oneself to continue to learn and make progress, but there are interesting differences of approach. Whilst the Dweck book is a eulogy to redefining failure as an important to step to improvement, Johnson gives more space to acknowledging how rubbish failure can actually feel in reality and that it can be worthwhile accepting this. In the chapter entitled ‘Give Failure Its Due’, she writes, “When I fail, I am mortified, but I am also heartbroken. I have envisioned a future in which I would achieve a goal, and perhaps be hailed as the conquering hero. And then I didn’t and I wasn’t. I have learnt it is important to grieve….We often think of loss of a marriage or a loved one, but there is also the loss we feel when a professional dream – even a small one – is dashed.” Thoughtful and though-provoking.

As a floating freelancer who has never bothered to set up their own company, I constantly need to reinvent myself as I chase after the latest opportunity/hot prospect, whether it is a project about shopper trends, international development or cancer care. Disrupt myself – indeed I must.

January 17, 2016

Mindsets and coaching

Filed under: Business,Coaching,Marketing — by xrematon @ 5:47 pm
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Have you seen the light? Are you confident you can reach your goals by simply rethinking how approach setbacks?

If you have come across the growth mindset concept, first investigated and written about in the works of Carol Dweck, then the above statements will make sense.

Dweck is an American psychology professor who developed theories about intelligence and motivation encapsulated in the idea of fixed and growth mindsets. Individuals with the former tend to have a fixed view of their ability and are often less able to cope with failure, whilst those with growth mindsets do not think performance is fixed and believe that learning can come from keeping trying despite not doing well all the time. Dweck went on to show in study after study and through analysis of case studies across different aspects of life, such as sport, relationships and business, that those with growth mindsets will make better progress and achieve more.

As with any concept that is seductively simple and makes sense intuitively, it has become popular and adopted far and wide. Personally, I have found it very interesting, partly as I have a sneaking suspicion that I tend to have a rather fixed mindset about which I now feel guilty; and also because the concept seems worthy of consideration to add my coaching toolkit.

At some levels, the idea of cultivating a growth mindset does seem highly laudable and desirable and it is possible to find it sprinkled in the text of many coaches. For me, its greatest power lies in giving individuals a way to reframe problems or challenges. A setback becomes a step up once you understand it gives one the chance to learn. And it also helps to reinforce the importance of the idea of making progress, which is often at the heart of many coaching relationships – you are working with a client to help them achieve their goals.

However, it’s worth taking a step back ourselves. I do think there is the potential for a collision between mindset thinking and coaching when it comes to honouring values. Let me move away from fancy sounding fluff to more concrete explanations. From my experience of having worked with highly talented, very able, but also deeply committed perservers, I know that it can be possible to stall at work not through the wrong mindset but a fundamental lack of passion for what the work is about. I often work with people in marketing who initially find the idea of being in the world of brands, advertising, social media etc appealing, but then get frustrated with a sense of its superficiality in the face of other life concerns, whether on a personal or global level.

I have no doubt these individuals could progress but it would bring them little satisfaction. This brings in another concept which does not really appear much in mindset writing – namely the idea of happiness – which is pretty big in positive psychology and as a field in its own right. To me, there is value in thinking first about how you want to define progress and make sure it is according to your own terms/will actually make you happy and that you have the ability to understand that satisfaction comes in diverse forms. That ability to reflect back on what you are experiencing pulls in another ‘hot area’ – mindfulness – which again is not part of mindset thinking.

As Dweck herself observes in a revisit of her work, a big challenge for the mindset concepts is the risk that they are used simplistically and too broadly. These ideas must be accompanied by thoughts on ‘how’ and ‘why’ to ensure the gains made are valid and sustainable. Engaging with mindset ideas itself must be done with non-fixed mindset!


June 15, 2014

A trio of books on making decisions; two posts; part two

Filed under: Coaching,Marketing,Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 8:01 pm
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To recap, I have read three books which each explore how we make decisions. In my first post, I made observations about all three works. In this post, I will concentrate on ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman. As mentioned earlier, this book required the most effort to read–perhaps because it needed more System 2 thinking. Here are further thoughts about ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’.

Much of the book is about System 1 thinking (swift and intuitive), but what I am really interested in is lazy, underplayed but swotty System 2. Yes, it is good to made aware of the fact that most of our thinking is actually carried out on a type of automatic pilot in which we make shortcuts, rely on bias and intuition, but what about when we don’t, what exactly is going on? Is there a story to tell here too?

And how much does everyone rely on System 1? The book contains descriptions of many different lab experiments in which individuals must respond to various scenarios. There is never any discussion about how the responses to these scenarios varied. It appears to be a blanket general response. As a marketer, grouping responses in such a ‘blocky’ way is unedifying. Do differences vary by demographics, such as age or gender? Or even something softer such as personality type? As I am not especially spontaneous but tend more towards evaluation and analysis in decision making, I would be tempted to claim that I try to go for System 2 thinking more often than not, but perhaps I am being rather naïve.

At the very least, we could raise the WEIRD challenge – namely that the research experiments are most likely to have relied on what has been shown to be an unrepresentative segment of humanity : those who are Western Educated Industrialized Rich and Democratic. It would be interesting to explore further.

In the book, System 1 and System 2 appear as clearly defined and distinguishable, but it is less clear whether this extends to being physically or physiologically distinct. There is much going on currently in brain scanning, and occasional references are made as to how thinking patterns can be analysed in this way. I am just curious as to how comprehensively this kind of analysis and matching can be made.

I was interested in reading that emotion impacts our thinking ability. In chapter five on Cognitive Ease, it appears that one could describe a perverse positive from unhappiness or bad moods – namely, that we are most likely to think harder (in System 2) when in this frame of mind. It says something about how we should approach decision making. Being gleeful risks being glib; being glum or grumpy begets more careful considerations. But I am not sure I could propose that as a coach!

‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ is incredibly rich, with a wealth of ideas over which to ponder, many which are extremely relevant for marketing and communications. I haven’t touched on those – just read the book for yourself!


May 15, 2014

A trio of books on making decisions; two posts; part one

Here are the titles from my triumvirate of recent reading:

  • Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
  • The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Now, I should perhaps begin by making clear that reading these three books in succession wasn’t a planned act. It just so happened that they appeared together at the same time in our household – for which I blame my husband. I am not sure what motivated him to buy them. I do know he liked the fact these books would look good altogether on the book shelf.

Shelf harmony

And having read all three, I do think there is some value in taking this approach as they do – sort of – cover the same kind of territory. Reading them allows us to get a better understanding of how we make decisions, and what is the role of information, expertise and bias within this.

If I had to pick my favourite book, I might, somewhat controversially, choose ‘The Signal and the Noise’ (which actually has the lowest Amazon sales ranking out of the three). Why? Well, it opened my eyes to my ignorance in certain domains. In essence, it was thought-provoking and inspiring. For example, I knew that making weather forecasts was a bit hit and miss, but hadn’t grasped how much efforts goes into these forecasts, and how these are actually so much better than what we used to have. And did you know that most commercial weather forecasts have a ‘wet bias’ (a tendency to forecast more rain than will actually occur). As Silver explains,

‘People notice one kind of mistake – the failure to predict rain – more than another kind, false alarms. If it rains when it isn’t supposed to, they curse the weatherman for ruining their picnic, whereas an unexpectedly sunny day is taken as a serendipitous bonus.’

The chapter about chess was just simply a really fascinating story. It’s all about how Kasparov was beaten by the Deep Blue computer, possibly all because Deep Blue made a move that Kasparov could not understand. It turned out that the move was the result of a bug, which made Deep Blue play a random move, but to Kasparov, this was a sign of devastatingly superior intelligence which threw him off track for rest of the game.

However, I must confess that I did skim read the chapter on poker as I was too lazy to understand the principles of the game. This leads me to acknowledging that Gladwell was probably the most consistently readable. It seems, though, for some, this is readability is actually part of their ‘problem’ with Gladwell. Richard Posner, a prominent judge and academic, wrote in a review for the New Republic that ‘Blink is written like a book intended for people who do not read books.’ Ouch. http://www.newrepublic.com/article/blinkered

The learning one gets from ‘Blink’ is less satisfying than the edification that comes from ‘The Signal and the Noise’. It’s something to do with the fact that the basic premise behind ‘Blink’ – the value of snap judgements and the power of thinking without thinking – doesn’t turn out to be so easily validated. Using different examples, snap judgements are shown to have limitations. The Coke sip test, which led to the disastrous launch of new Coke, is perhaps of the most well known.

And what about Kahneman? This was perhaps the most venerable of the books. It is written by a Nobel Laureate after all, not some jumped up cultural commentator. All the reviews I have come across are glowing and reverential, but I found ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ to be the least engaging and most effort of all three.

Trying to understand why I feel this way, I decided that part of the problem is that points are made using abstract lab experiments as evidence, which is fine, but just doesn’t have the same impact as hearing about the messy and suddenly surprising facets of everday life you get in Silver and Gladwell. Another factor is that there are lots of terms and concepts to pick up, which I have no hope of remembering, and which thus ultimately feel redundant.

But perhaps, most significantly, was the thought lurking at the back of my mind that these are ideas which are already a bit familiar if you spent a lot of time reading and thinking about how people behave, as is the case if you are interested in consumers, communication and coaching. Communication is about exploiting the biases Kahneman points out, whilst coaching is about challenging people to think beyond them. I’ll spend more time on Kahneman in my next post.

What do I get out of having read all three? There is some overlap. Both Silver and Kahneman refer to Isiah Berlin’s idea of the Fox and the Hedgehog, whilst Kahneman references ‘Blink’ explicitly in his discussion about expert intuition. But more than overlap, there is some synergistic learning. Blink shows the power of snap judgements (for better and for worse) – it raises them to our consciousness. Kahneman shows how and why we are likely to use these snap judgements (System 1 thinking taking over, as per usual). Silver shows what happen when we consciously apply System 2 thinking, both to areas where snap judgements can happen, such as chess, or where it’s not really relevant, such as climate science.

These books made me wonder how judgements and decision making will change in the future. As is observed in both Kahneman and Silver, in a world of Big Data, sophisticated automated analysis and ubiquitous, unobtrusive algorithms, it could be thought that snap judgements will become less impactful. However, it’s not that simple. As Silver observes, knowing more can actually make life more difficult. ‘The same sciences that uncover the laws of nature are making the organisation of society more complex…The volume of information is increasing exponentially. But relatively little of this information is useful – the signal to noise ratio may be waning. We need better ways of distinguishing the two.’

It was never to going to be that simple.

March 11, 2013

Living the dream…walking the talk…what you see is what you get

Filed under: Coaching — by xrematon @ 10:15 pm
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The above phrases came to mind after I had read two pieces of material in close succession. Though they are very different bits of writing – one is a thoughtful article in the New York Times (NYT) and the other is an international French best-selling book – they prompted me to question how I present myself as a coach.

The author of the NYT article is Lori Gottlieb, who was a full-time journalist but retrained as a psychotherapist. However, she found herself virtually unemployed after several months and ended up having to resort to marketing to attract clients. Gottlieb was not comfortable creating a brand for herself and her practice. She goes on to observe.

If we give modern consumers the efficiency and convenience they want [through non face-to-face, possibly even tweet-based coaching], we also have to silence our nagging sense that we may be pandering to our patients rather than helping them…The more we continue in this direction of fast-food therapy — something that feels good but isn’t as good for you; something palatable without a lot of substance — the more tempted many of us will be to indulge.

These comments are subtly damning of coaching but, in coaching’s defense, I would argue that for many, the simple self-awareness that often comes with coaching, engenders good habits for mental wellbeing, not mental flabbiness as is implied.

However, the point I do wish to pick up on is around the idea that to succeed, you have to effectively sell yourself. This is something that Gottlieb is not keen on. My second piece, ‘Lhomme qui voulait etre heureux’ (The man who wanted to be happy) by Laurent Gounelle, offers a different perspective.

Gounelle – as he describes in an interview to Pyschologies magazine – trained as a accountant and got a good first job. However, he soon realised that he didn’t get the satisfaction and happiness he had hoped for on growing up, and was in fact rather miserable. He took the bull by the horns, did some drama classes to change his views and had his big moment when he read a book about NLP. He was hooked by the ideas and realised he had found his vocation – to help people to live better. He had a particularly formative moment when on a course in Bali which he wrote up as the book I have mentioned.

Very simply, without any grand ambitions, Gounelle describes that he wrote the book because he wanted others to read it and learn what he had. It is his experiences that he is sharing with others (albeit it is not written as an autobiography but as fiction). Though I am tempted to digress and comment as to whether what effectively becomes coaching as a novel delivers good literature, there is one aspect I am clear about – that it is not inappropriate for coaches to present themselves – not just their skills and capabilities – to their prospective clients. It is matter of integrity -people should be able to see the impact of coaching in their coach. Coaches should be continually coaching themselves – it was for my own benefit that I first got into coaching. Perhaps, in fact, I will have been my own best customer.


October 15, 2012


Filed under: Business,Coaching,Futures — by xrematon @ 8:37 pm
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Last month, I went to my first ever book launch of a good friend and ex-work colleague. This was very exciting in itself, but made even more so by the fact I was quoted in the volume. Tamar Kasriel, founder of Futureal, a consultancy which assists businesses shape their commercial strategies based on an understanding of future change, has written a volume which brings together two areas of expertise close to my own heart: scenario planning and personal planning/ coaching. Futurescaping is described as ‘an engaging guide to make better life decisions by adapting the best elements of business planning for personal success.’

It is a book which has no clear ‘home’: it’s about the tactics companies use, which suggests it should be in the business books section, but its purpose is to help people make better personal decisions, which tips it into the self-help section. It’s an intriguing identity crisis and one which reinforces a key argument of the book – namely that people who are successful in their professional lives rarely apply the same rigour to their personal lives – personal and professional spheres don’t mix very well.

As someone who generally much prefers reading fiction, Futurescaping was far more entertaining than I expected, due to Tamar’s dry humour, her eclectic selection of quotes and masterful command of the diverse topics. Rather than review or summarise the contents, let me make four observations.

  1. I learnt a new word: ‘eustress’ which is a counterpoint to ‘distress’ and a far more elegant way of saying ‘I got a kick out of sorting that mess.’
  2. The idea that we should wish to plan our lives is a rather Western way of thinking; I would be intrigued to see if the strategies and tactics described in Futurescaping could be applied in contexts where thinking is less teleological and structured. I worked in India for a year and it took me a while to get used to the far more fluid way of doing things there.
  3. Tamar recognises that there are limits to the type of decisions for which scenario planning can be used. ‘It is not suitable for questions which are wholly dependent on emotional impulses or philosophical differences.’ It works for decisions which require practical and rational evaluation. This makes me think about the value of fiction as a way of exploring the non-rational. In novels, we can get into someone’s head and it gives us an opportunity to see what it would be like to go through that situation. A recent article in the New York Times described recent neuroscience research which shows that reading evocative descriptions stimulates not just the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with senses.
  4. The idea that exploring the future can help you toughen up is very powerful – as articulated in a quote from an interview with Daniel Kahneman, behavioural economist. ‘One of the things that thinking deeply can do, even if it doesn’t lead to better decisions, is inoculate you against regret.’ I like the idea that what I might think of as worrying and turning over an idea endlessly in my mind is actually a good thing – a defence mechanism about any future ‘wimping out’.

Enough of this chat – it’s time for action. I am off to do some futurescaping on myself. I have post-its, big sheets of paper and coloured pens at the ready.


June 1, 2012

Modern malaise – glass half full or empty?

I trained as a life coach five years or so ago and remain interested in seeing what write-up coaching gets in the media.  Before the bust, it was all glossy and glamorous. Now, according to a recent piece in the New York Times, life coaching is a symptom of what is Going Very Wrong With Our Society Today.

The article highlights how there now seems to be a market for anything you might need, including the services of a ‘wantologist’ (a type of life coach) to help you work out what it is you might want in the first place. The author, Arlie Russell Hochschild, a professor of sociology at the University of California, is particularly disturbed by the fact that

‘It is increasingly possible to outsource emotional attachment. A busy executive, for example, focuses on efficiency; his assistant tells me, “My boss outsources patience to me.’

Now, having invested time and money in training to be a life coach, I do feel coaching has a lot to offer, and that it is about positivity and progress. However, I am not sure that I agree with the rebuttal made in The Atlantic to Hochschild’s article. In crude terms, the argument here is that not knowing what we want and feeling anxiety is the sign of a successful society as we have moved from answering our basic needs to thinking about our higher purpose. (Yes – a diagram of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is included as part of the article.)

Perhaps the author of the Atlantic article needs to read The Spirit Level. This shows there is another way. We can be prosperous without having to go through a phase of being miserable. We just all need to be equally prosperous, which is admittedly, easier said than done.

I came across another pair of articles presenting opposing points of view about the state of modern life. One piece was from Sherry Turkle of ‘Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other’ fame. Her article described the sad state of affairs we are in: we don’t seem to be going through the effort of talking properly to each other any more; we have lost the patience this requires; we expect faster responses; we ask simpler questions; and find it’s easier just to turn to some form of technology instead.

Again, there is a rebuttal from the Atlantic.  Here, Alexandra Samuel points out that many face to face conversations are in fact pretty inane, and we should recognise that these technologies can enhance, rather than replace, communication, in whatever form it might take place.

Once more, there is another reference I want to bring to the table. Susan Cain’s ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts’  makes the case for people whose natural preference is to flee big social gatherings. This suggests there is another aspect to the debate to take into account: people might not be talking so much as they tend to respond to the world around them in a different way – namely by reading and writing and listening. And that should be just fine.

Glass half full or empty?

April 15, 2012

Are you part of a stir-fry, marinade or just stewing?

Filed under: Business,Coaching,Futures — by xrematon @ 8:40 pm
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Which competitive advantages have staying power? What skills matter most? How can you weigh up risk and opportunity when the fundamentals of your business may change overnight?

These questions appear in a recent Fast Company article about Generation Flux – ‘The Pioneers Of The New (And Chaotic) Frontier Of Business’. The piece includes snapshot of individuals who fit the this pioneer profile – people such as DJ Patil, 37 who has been all of the following: researcher at Los Alamos; Defense Department fellow; virtual librarian for Iraq; web-security architect for eBay; head of data team at LinkedIn, where his team created People You May Know.

The article then goes on to tell us:

Nuke Nostalgia. If ambiguity is high and adaptability is required, then you simply can’t afford to be sentimental about the past. Future-focus is a signature trait of Generation Flux. It is also an imperative for businesses: Trying to replicate what worked yesterday only leaves you vulnerable.

As someone who worked for the same company for ten years, I must confess I am feeling a little vulnerable. And I am not so keen on this emphasis on constant flitting between jobs – another way of describing this flexibility is to say that it provides only a shallow understanding of what a position requires. And what about the time it takes to build trust between teams?

Though it is undeniable the Pioneers in the article are very talented and high achieving, it is possible to find other models of success. They are based on people who have worked at the same company for years, slowly but surely working their way up to get to grips what the place where they work is really about. An obvious example is Terry Leahy, who joined Tesco in 1979 and spent 14 years as chief executive. In Jim Collins’ ‘Good to Great’, it is leaders who manifest personal humility and who understand their success is contingent on the many but minor accomplishments of others that build companies with the best financial performances.

To take a culinary metaphor, I am thinking of a marinade – a chance to soak up the culture and values of a place. The Pioneer model is more akin to stir-fry  – throwing different people and skills together to create something fresh and different. To be fair, there is a risk inherent in the ‘stuck it and stay’ approach – namely that the employee does not marinade but stews, becoming soggy and without ‘spark as a result.

There is a third way which takes something from both. It’s when people stay within the same company but change roles. It’s something that happened at Nike during Phil Knight’s reign as CEO – apparently he liked to shuffle people around, keeping them on their toes.

As Knight moved executives here and there, someone who was a boss one day could find himself a subordinate to his former charges the next. Rotating titles meant there might be half-a-dozen people in the company who had served in any one position, giving them license to critique the performance of the newcomer. In this setup employees learn quickly that the only way to get things done is to come up with ideas and build alliances. Brashly making demands won’t get you far.

And what of the freelancer – well – I think they are more like an ingredient which is added in and needs to work well in any corporate cuisine – versatility will be critical. Sorry – the first thing that comes to mind is Quorn, which as the website itself says, is ‘many things to many people’.

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