Bees 

In a meeting this week I asked how people felt about ‘whacking the beehive again’. 


We are trying a new ‘change management’ approach (as opposed the University standard of ‘resistance management’) on a major move; part of which involves regularly asking people how they feel about what we’re doing to them and all the things we’re changing. 


It’s finely poised. As I pointed out, asking people to put on the beekeepers outfit again – as we bring out all the angry bees – feels like a big ask on the hottest June in record at the end of a long academic year…


Still the point of change management is to keep asking, keep answering and keep moving forwards; so we agreed to give the beehive one last whack before summer and ask people if they felt ‘adequately informed’, ‘knew what they needed to do’ and were ‘broadly positive or broadly negative’.

Afterwards, I sent two of my fellow beekeepers this [only slightly doctored] quote from Marie Curie; which serendipitously had landed in my inbox that morning: 

Nothing in life [including bees] is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less. 

Marie Curie (1867 – 1934)  

But later in the day we did have a laugh, agreeing that we might need to pump a bit of smoke in the hive afterwards, to calm it all down again. 


Still as I emailed them later: 

“A former colleague of mine who keeps bees claims that you have to keep your hive in a reasonable state of agitation otherwise half of them clear off and make a new one!”

And now we can practise the art with the real thing… on the vary same day, we discovered a bee panel has just been installed on one of our busy London campuses…

I’ll be making a bee line!
 

The Wonders of Walking…


My surprise discover of the last month is the wonder of walking…

For over 15 years I’ve routinely cycled to work; rain or shine, hot or cold – but not freezing cold. My one rule is not to cycle when it’s near freezing or snowing. Too slippy all round.

At the same time I’ve realised – thanks to my FitBit – that I burn about 130 calories on a half hour cycle to work. And sometimes as low as 95 calories when in traffic; a 20 minute walk burns more…

All that faffing about getting changed and locking up and remembering keys and lights and all the paraphernalia – and then a perilous ride dodging tipper tricks, taxis, buses; not to mention ‘friendly fire’ from Lycra louts whizzing inside and out on racing bikes. Plus the handful of times I’ve fallen off, it REALLY hurts. 

So instead, given the cold weather I’m walking – 20 to 35 mins – then either hop on a bus or sometimes a hire bike for the last bit to work. When you factor in locking up and getting changed same time taken; but lots more done…

  • More calories burnt (wards off the spare tyre) 
  • More phone calls made (extra mileage and running repairs with people at work) 
  • More music listened to (additional joy and nostalgia in the tank)
  • More thinking time (clearer view of the road ahead)

At the Science Museum (for work) this week, I briefly took in their lovely new Robot exhibition – 300 years of trying to make human-like machines. Some of them are wonderful, some spooky; one in particular heartbreakingly engaging – she gives you a fist bump and twinkles at you when you lay your hands on hers. 


But the one thing the roboticists struggle with the most is the human foot – it’s too clever by half. Given it’s so surprisingly special, good to make full use of it. All roads lead to more walking. 

Scienceing the sh1t out of it

I met some old professional friends for an annual reunion yesterday; and was pressed (as we all were) to recount my year. This made me think. 

First what did I want to say, why and to what purpose? Second, write it down (good old Chris Croft at work here again).

So I chose to describe my last year/18 months through five books:

1) Fierce Conversations

Gifted me by some free coaching from my previous employer, I was far more honest than I normally would be in workplace assessment; and was suitably diagnosed as: perfectionist, passive/aggressive and chronically unassertive with a strong tendency to take the problems of the world on my slender shoulders.  

Prescription: more ‘fierce conversations’ to assert my needs and proactively and reasonably manage the expectations of others.  

2) Depressive Illness – The curse of the strong

Faced with the first sight of what my new job entailed, I realised I’d made a horrible mistake… Massive construction projects with big problems, chronically unhappy people, no status, no power, no levers and probably hired as a fall guy. 

A very deep and sudden slump in my mood was explained and then arrested by this priceless little book. And since I’ve helped three other people by buying it for them. 

The essence: if you always work harder when more pressure comes on, and you don’t feel you can escape, you will blow a fuse. Simple and unavoidable; your body does for you what your mind won’t and cuts the power.

Prescription: ‘leave the Hoover in the middle of the room’ as I’ve written before; learn to deliberately leave some tasks undone, and some people potentially disappointed, as the inevitable reality of more demands than you can possibly meet.

3) Learned Optimism

Now this has been a BIG change… having written on it before I won’t rehearse it again.

Prescription: unless you are an Air Traffic Controller or a Loss Adjuster, as Eric Idle famously sang ‘always look on the bright side of life…’

4) The Anatomy of Peace

The simple if obvious discovery, that, nearly everything that happens to you, spirals out from your own attitudes and behaviour towards others. Correcting the behaviour of other people directly (however selfish, antagonistic or hurtful) is impossible; the only way to change things in others is by startling with yourself. 

As I said to someone this week, quoting Oogway from the marvellous Kung Foo Panda: “a man often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it” as here

But I have discovered progressively (since an epiphany half way through this book on our family holiday in Italy last summer) change how you yourself are ‘being’ and everything else changes for the better. 

Prescription: stop trying to correct things in others and invest in listening, understanding and accommodating them.

5) The BIG Book of Happiness – 87 Practical Ideas

My current favourite – there’s just so much to learn from this as here

Having reeled of my five books and the linking story, one of my pals said: ‘it’s quite impressive how you’ve analysed, researched and read stuff and figured out a way through all this.’

That struck me as very kind. I’d simply thought of it as ‘installing new upgrades’ and a few ‘power ups’ as my son would say. 

But on reflection later in the day, I concluded I’ve largely followed Matt Damon’s advice from ‘The Martian’ when he was faced with a hostile climate and a low apparent chance of survival – I’ve scienced the sh1t out of it. 

Concrete or Casuistry?

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casuistry (kazjʊɪstri) noun: the resolving of moral problems by the application of theoretical rules.

As I continue my voyage through Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, I also continue to be astonished by the man. Limpid paragraphs of dense and pure meaning, sweeping historical context – and tub thumping Christianity. A heady mix.

But the page which stuck with me this week describes the challenges of Christian ethics; but also the constant challenge of modern organisational life:

“The attempt to define that which is good once and for all has always ended in failure. Either the proposition was asserted in such general and formal terms that it retained no significance as regards its contents, or else one tried to include in it and elaborate the whole immense range of conceivable contents, and thus say in advance what would be good in every single case; this led to a casuistic system so unmanageable that it could satisfy the demands neither of general validity nor of concreteness.”

Pretty much every strategy exercise or major organisational change programme I’ve ever worked on has wrestled with this. As Bonhoeffer puts it, the conflict between the ‘good’ and the ‘real’.

Bonhoeffer argues for concrete not casuistry. Not a bad place to go, not least given how bad things were in his times. But I go with Aristotle’s ‘golden mean’; the ‘good’ is always somewhere in the difficult and constantly contested place in between.


My left foot

Nearly a year ago I was preparing myself for a big change: a change of job, role, sector and working context.

About the same time, I decided to change foot. For over 15 years of cycling to work, pretty much every day, I’d always rested and hopped about on my right foot – at the many traffic lights and junctions to and from work; the left leg never used, bent double, toe strapped in toe clip.

Result – a dodgy left hip and a chronically sore tendon at the back of my right knee. 

If you’re going to change some things; why not change everything, was my reasoning: job, route and standing leg. And so I was wobbly, uncertain, off balance and uncomfortable on my bike – just as I was in the new job. Great idea!

But in a way, learning to stop, stand and push off on my left leg has been a metaphor for my life and the year at work. 

Many was the time in a long cold winter and an endless wet spring, I yearned for the certainty and sure footedness of old. But the other day on a summer cycle in, I noticed I am unconsciously surer now, left-footed on the bike – more confident in my balance and stronger kicking-off.

A year of trying something new, and it has become something I can more or less do. Much like my job. Practice makes perfect; we’re never too old to adapt and learn. 

Peace in our time

After some months of high emotion, major change, turbulence and anxiety; this morning I woke up knackered – but at peace.

My other half greeted me, observing I looked like ‘death warmed up’; sleepy, unshaven and generally out of it as I staggered into kitchen. True, but that wasn’t the point….

Some minutes later: accompanied by a nice piece of classical music, porridge on the boil; duck ramen, a bunch of flowers and a trip to Sainsburys in my plans – normal service has resumed.

Not that ‘change’ is done. More that it’s here to stay and be lived with. There’s a stack on at work, the kids are growing faster than feels comfortable, and we’re none of us getting any younger…

But yesterday for half term, my smart cookie of a daughter and I toured the architectural wonders of my new workplace, two museums, Chinatown, saw Giacometti sculptures, bought books and ate Japanese.

Perhaps that’s what’s fixed me. I don’t feel rattled, restless or anxious – for the first time in weeks. I just am. And she’s nearly finished munching a ham and cheese croissant in front of me now, so back to it.

Ladybirds

  
After a wonderful week of goodbyes, this morning, I feel my ladybird has begun to peep its head out from the proverbial matchbox (see my leaving card above); to see a bigger world and a brighter future.

I’ve been working in or adjacent to government for nearly 15 years. And while Aristotle felt politics to be the highest of human endeavours, a quick scan through these quotes of his pretty much covers the many pitfalls.

  
Yesterday I crossed a new bridge to work – Waterloo instead of Westminster; and spent the afternoon at a ‘freshers fair’ watching excited new students sign up for everything from touch frisbee to Russian Club. My new university life came to life.

And today the sun is shining. It’s all change – but a good one I feel sure.

Status

I’ve been really struck in the past couple of weeks by how much some people define status in their lives through work. I was talking to a smart guy I’ve not seen for a couple of years about his mother who had a very big job, but was also refreshingly down to earth. He said “she recognised she had a serious job, but didn’t take herself too seriously because of it”.

This strikes me as a good approach. Some people have greater status needs than others. I think mine are less than many people’s. But I do also wonder if I think that, to some extent, because they are more than amply filled by my current job. Last week I did a speech to 100+ people on the 40th floor of a major bank to generous applause. I used to fear these sorts of things, now I almost enjoy them, but the fringe benefit is to feel I have a serious job, even if I don’t take myself too seriously because of it.

But in these recessionary times we all wonder from time to time whether this status might be rudely taken away by redundancy or our face not fitting. I know a couple of good, experienced people who got the bullet this week. In some ways worse is the more realistic realisation that I will likely be taking some people’s employment away from them in the coming months. I feel bad about this and think about it a lot.

I was talking to another professional in a different field about this on Friday and he said “hard decisions should feel hard”. I think he’s right, it’s all too easy to switch off your emotions, don the protective armour of ‘managerialism’ and simply ‘do what’s wanted’.

I think to downsize with care, empathy, kindness and self-respect is do-able. Engaging with people as people, not losing my humanity or switching off my emotions is an important part of doing this well. And ultimately if I am asked to do something I feel is wrong, finding the courage to say I feel it is wrong and being brave enough to risk my own job and status feels important too.

The paradox of job cuts is what’s brave is to do the right thing for the many as well as deal with individual people with care, integrity and humanity. The cowardly thing is to ‘act tough’, switch off your emotions and use the excuse of managerialism whilst saving your own skin.

What looks and is often rewarded as ‘tough’ in job cuts is in fact comparatively easy in my experience. What is hard is caring, thinking fully about the consequences of what you are doing and doing it right.

Evolution

There’s a line which sticks with me from the recent remake of War of the Worlds. It sounds like Morgan Freeman who says it at the end of the film as the Martians have been vanquished not by armies or modern weapons, but by a simple virus.

He says words to the effect of the hubris and arrogance of ‘them’ to believe they could win their place on earth in a moment when others had fought for theirs through millions of years of struggle to be the fittest.

A similar thought came to me this morning talking to my partner today about our lives. It’s easy to feel that there are big changes we can make which would make our lives even happier. New job, move house, a bigger garden, less work, more money. But I’m increasingly convinced that happiness, flourishing and fulfilment are the product of many small things – not things you can confidently and sustainably change directly by conjuring up big changes.

Of course we could win the lottery, have our house destroyed by fire or worst of all have one of us die. Big things could happen bad or good and we would evolve – or not – like viruses, dinosaurs or finches beaks. What I’m starting to believe is ‘the good life’ evolves from myriad small choices, chances, modifications and improvements and not big leaps in the dark.

We concluded this morning that we shouldn’t rule out the possibility of one of us making a big change, but we equally shouldn’t forget that our life has evolved to a pretty good state.

Like those Martians beware the hubris and arrogance which says you can conquer life or design a better one – evolution is infinitely more powerful.