Monthly Archives: November 2019

That was the month that was

Post 30 out of 30 for November’s blogathon. It’s an early one because I’ve got a busy day ahead. As always, I want to start this post by thanking you, my reader, for putting up with the daily bombardment this November. Your likes and comments are hugely appreciated and encouraging. I think I’ve enjoyed this year’s challenge more than any previous one. It’s seemed somehow easier to find inspiration consistently for things to write about. I know that I break all the blogging rules with the random nature of posts here, but it’s really interesting to me to see what topics catch the reader’s attention. Inevitably, and quite rightly, C. has once again (and has she has for 30 plus years) left me completely in the shade by being the focus of the most-read post this month. Whilst (of course) I loved writing that one (and the bruising has gone down remarkably quickly!), the post I actually enjoyed preparing the most was one of the least read. It’s hard for me to understand, but apparently the mix of Jose Mourinho, football, leadership and management are just not as interesting to other people as they are to me. Weird!

It has been good to get back to playing around with words and sentence structures through the discipline of Haiku, and it’s these posts that have generated some of the most feedback. The discipline of creating stories within a strictly defined 5-7-5 syllable structure appeals to my love of ordered creativity. There is a place for radical free-thinking that proposes new paradigms and challenges existing orders and forms; but most lasting change occurs through thousands of incremental ‘nudges’ against the boundaries of the way things are now. For me, Haiku is a useful discipline for codifying those nudges, and for stripping back thoughts and feelings to their essential core.

And then there are the posts from years ago that continue to get hits for no obvious reason, but which must be featuring in the algorithms that drive internet search engines. That can be the only reason why this one about a trip that Dan and I took to watch a football match in West Bromwich in December 2015 keeps popping up in the readership stats on a regular basis.

Anyway, as this post (and this National Blog Post Month 2019) draws to a close, it seems only fitting to finish with a Haiku. Thanks for reading. I’ll try not to leave it another year before posting again! (And you can see that as either a threat or a promise!!)

A blog post a day
Finding something new to say
Keeps boredom at bay

Ethical and moral compromises

Today has been a first for me. My first active (or more accurately, inactive) participation in industrial action. It’s not something that I voted for, but as a member of a democratic union (in my case the Universities and College Union), I am bound to support the majority view in a fair and open ballot process, to the extent that my conscience allows. In my case, this has involved striking today, and making a voluntary donation to the strike fund to support those members who will have lost up to 8 days’ pay by the end of this stage of the dispute on Wednesday next week. The strike is in protest at the failure of universities nationally to move quickly enough to resolve issues around pay, conditions (especially workload), and pensions. Despite the fact that some universities (including Bristol) have made progress in the areas of workload allocation, reducing the reliance on temporary contracts for teaching staff in particular, and the gender pay gap, the sad fact is that most of the key decisions around pay and pensions are negotiated on a national basis. Pay across the HE sector has been held artificially low for over ten years now, and allowing for inflation, pay remain below pre-financial crash levels. Pension changes have seen employee contributions rise and benefits capped, with the threat of further significant rises to come despite clear evidence from the Union (verified by some of the most qualified pensions academics in the country!) that they are not necessary at the scale proposed (and possibly not at all).

Nobody takes industrial action lightly; and nobody who works in HE wants to jeopardise the education or experience of our students and potential students. But equally, industrial action, whilst always a last resort, is also sometimes necessary to demonstrate strength of feeling and to encourage employers back to the negotiating table. There are signs that the action of this past week is leading some university vice chancellors to put pressure on the national negotiating body to re-open talks, and that would be a good step forward. Personally, I hope that there is enough goodwill on both sides to be allow progress to be made and the dispute to be settled. It is distinctly uncomfortable to find yourself placed between your duty to your students, and your duty to your colleagues.

It’s also good practice, though, because I will face a similar ethical dilemma when I go to the polling station for the general election on 12th December. In my constituency, it looks almost inconceivable that anyone other than either the Labour or Conservative candidate will be elected. There is no dilemma at all for me about not wanting to return a Conservative MP to parliament in my name. My problem is that in order to stop this, I will have to vote Labour. Ethically and philosophically, I can rationalise this on utilitarian grounds : that ethical actions are those that seek to do the most good for the greatest number of people. But in voting Labour, I am aware that I am tacitly supporting a party that has alienated large numbers of centrist socialists, as well as many Jews. The behaviour of some Labour members in some constituencies has been bullying and boorish. The failure of the leadership to genuinely apologise for the many incidents of anti-Semitism that have been reported, AND to take decisive action to root out the racists who have perpetrated those incidents, is shameful.

But I cannot cast my vote in a way that increases the chances of a Conservative government after December 12th. The Conservative Party has become a far-right parody of itself, pandering to a populist agenda that is as hollow as it is morally bankrupt. The leader of the Conservative Party is a philanderer and a liar who is unable to withstand even the most gentle cross-examination and so simply refuses to turn up to any interview with anybody who is not wholly biased towards him. A bully who threatens parliament, the courts, Channel 4 – indeed, anybody who stands up to his appalling behaviour – with curbs on their independence or their right to exist at all. A fraud who insists on pressing ahead with the outcome of a fraudulent referendum on membership of the EU despite all the evidence that there was no majority at that time (or at any time since) for any specific form of leaving. A charlatan who refused to allow detailed scrutiny of his renegotiated withdrawal deal, choosing instead to plunge the country into a divisive and wholly unnecessary general election. After nine years of Tory rule, the country is an international laughing stock, is mired in debt (despite the austerity measures that have seen the richest get richer while everybody else is much worse off), and has spent three and a half years without a functioning government while the Conservative Party tries to work out what form of Brexit it actually wants.

I saw a Tweet the other day that said that the most 2019 thing ever would be to see all parties returned to Westminster on December 13th with exactly the same number of seats as they had when parliament was dissolved. It would be a delicious irony and would certainly appeal to my sense of the absurd. My ideal outcome would be a result that delivers no overall control to any individual party, and that forces a coalition of Labour, Liberal Democrat, SNP, Green and/or Plaid Cymru MPs, with a radical agenda including a second referendum to settle the Brexit debacle, and constitutional reform including abandoning first past the post in favour of proportional representation. I want to be able to vote for the party that I really want to see representing me (at the moment, Plaid), and to know that that vote counts. I don’t want my vote to be a choice between the least worst option.

In the meantime, I’ll be the bloke at the polling station with a peg on my nose voting for Labour.

This one could run and run

We’re nearing the end of National Blog Post Month for 2019, so my thoughts are inevitably turning to what comes next. Earlier in the month I mentioned an intention to complete some sponsored runs in aid of Alzheimers Research during 2020. To be honest, I’ve become thoroughly lazy in recent months, and the public commitment to get back out and get active is the spur that I need to start putting things right. So today I have entered the Llanelli Half Marathon on 9th February, and the Newport Half Marathon on 1st March. Of course, neither of these can be safely completed unless I do some serious training over the next 10 weeks, and so my new challenge for December is to run at least one mile every day for 31 days (including Christmas Day). This may even be the year that I actually make it to a Christmas Day parkrun! I’ll provide weekly updates on progress through December, and (who knows) I may even combine these with some more general blogging content. It’s weird, but in a strange way I am really looking forward to taking the discipline of daily blogging and applying it to something that will be good for my physical health (and hopefully raise a couple of quid for a cause that has become very important for me in recent years). I won’t publicise the sponsorship arrangements until much nearer the time, so watch this space (please!).

Almost didn’t make it today

It’s been a close shave today. 27 days in and for the first time this November, I almost didn’t get round to publishing a post. An unexpected call earlier this evening meant that I spent two hours away from the house (and the laptop) doing something infinitely more important. I’m actually glad that I was able to respond to that call and to be there when I was needed. Blogging is quite a selfish thing to do : selfish in my case because quite a lot of what I write is about me; and also because (despite all appearances to the contrary) it does take some quiet time, away from everything else, to compose a daily blog. It’s a privilege that I don’t take for granted, and I know that I’m lucky to have the time and space to be able to do it. But it’s also important to keep things in perspective. I really do this for me – and I’m incredibly flattered that one or two others read this stuff and occasionally comment on it. But it’s really not that important in the great scheme of things, and this evening has reinforced for me the truth of statements like : enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think. None of us know what’s around the corner, and living life as fully as we can, day by day, is a goal that we should all strive to achieve.

Normal inane drivel will return to this blog tomorrow. Keep smiling everybody!

Strategic Planning (through the medium of poetry!)

Today saw the first of our Strategic Planning meetings in work. Our planning process starts in September each year and usually concludes with the final sign off of a plan and budget for the following academic year in March or April. It’s generally a helpful process and at least requires us to think about where we need to focus our time and effort to ensure that we deliver excellent teaching and cutting edge research. There’s no doubt though, that strategic planning also draws very heavily on game theory (in its broadest sense), where (in our case) the Faculty seeks to anticipate the expectations of the University and respond in a way that addresses those expectations, whilst limiting to the fullest extent possible any impact on our freedom to do what we would really like to do. Thus we negotiate and agree to generate a surplus of income over expenditure that meets our commitments to contribute to the core costs on the institution, within an overall budget that also allows us to invest in new posts, initiatives or facilities at a Faculty level without needing to go cap in hand to the University. Similarly, we adapt and translate institutional priorities and objectives into action plans that address what’s important to us in a way that satisfies the wider goal.

Hundreds of thousands (and possibly even millions) of words have been devoted to learned tomes and treatises on what constitutes the ideal approach to strategic planning. In my experience though, it’s possible to distil the whole thing down into eighteen lines of Haiku. You read it here first!

Strategic planning :
Work-based creative writing
With limited plot

SMART objectives and
Measurable KPIs
Risk missing the point

Budget projections :
Creating the illusion
Of fiscal control

Detailed data sets
Summarise past performance -
Focus on what's been

Future projections :
How do you rationalise
A chaotic world?

When it's all over
Plus ca change, plus c'est pareil :
It was ever thus.

30 years and not a single day of regret

I’m going to get in a lot of trouble for this post, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take.

In September, C. and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary. I was the luckiest man on the planet on that day in September 1989, and I have been in number one spot every day since. In truth, we are the very epitome of the ‘opposites attract’ cliché. C. is beautiful, intelligent, gregarious, witty, and short. I’m quite tall. But it’s probably because we complement one another in terms of attitude and outlook that the last 30 years have been so much fun.

To mark our anniversary year, we are revisiting a load of places that have featured on our journey to date. So between Christmas and New Year we are making a brief visit to York, where we spent the start of our honeymoon in 1989 – only this time we are staying in a boutique hotel rather than the cheap and cheerful bed and breakfast that was all we could afford then. We will still though look out for the take away where we bought fish and chips with extra scraps before sitting in the dark and eating them under the slowly darkening sky.

Other things on the list include a walk along the promenade and out across the cliff top at Penarth; and KFC in the car at Roath Park Lake. This past Saturday, we revisited the first place that we ever went to on an ‘official’ date. At the time it was called the Mason’s Arms in Whitchurch, a suburb in north Cardiff. Quite by chance, our booking coincided with Beaujolais Noveau day – when that was still something of an event in the late ’80s. I don’t remember what we had to eat that evening, but I do remember that we were last to leave the restaurant and that C.’s eyes sparkled like diamonds the whole time that we were there. To be honest, whilst C. is as beautiful now as she was then, the former Mason’s Arms has – like me – allowed itself to slip a little in the intervening years. It’s now a Toby Carvery, and it’s not easy to recreate the romance of that first date when the table is a little bit sticky, and the lighting is so bright that you leave with a faint tan! What hadn’t changed was the magic of being in C.’s company – though the wine we chose this time was much better than the Beaujolais Nouveau that we thought we were incredibly sophisticated in drinking 30 years’ ago!

It was Groucho Marx who said : “Marriage is a wonderful institution… but who wants to live in an institution?” Well – any institution that provides as much happiness as being married to C. has provided to me, is well worth living in. Love you loads xx

Review : How the Grinch Stole Christmas

The regular reader of this blog may have picked up the subtle hints that we quite like Christmas in our house. The Muppets Christmas Carol has already had an airing from the ‘classic Christmas films’ folder on our BT TV box; and the past two weekends has seen C. and me trawling around Christmas departments in various retail outlets. An agreement has now been reached that our Christmas tree will be retrieved from the garden shed and assembled and decorated next Sunday (the earliest that we will ever have done this, but it seems somehow necessary this dark (literally and figuratively) winter.

This evening, the three of us made our way to the Motorpoint Arena in Cardiff city centre for a performance of a musical version of the Dr Seuss story How the Grinch Stole Christmas. There’s no doubt that this production would work best in a theatre setting, where the cast and audience are able to be more connected. The story and this version of it, demands a degree of intimacy. The Motorpoint Arena, for all it’s other strengths, is about as intimate as a loading bay (and just as soulless, to be honest). Nevertheless, this was an enjoyable re-telling of the story, featuring a score of appropriately saccharin songs and over the top acting demanded by the Dr Seuss original.

Edward Baker-Duly as the Grinch hammed it up beautifully, milking the audience and striking the balance between old misery-guts and misunderstood outcast, desperate just to be accepted. Griff Rhys-Jones was a revelation as ‘Old Max’, the Grinch’s dog and effectively the narrator of the story. Rhys-Jones showed off a surprisingly good singing voice, and formed a lovely partnership with Matt Terry as Young Max. The Whos were all unfailingly happy, smiley and determined to think the best of everybody – including the Grinch.

This was an enjoyable, feel-good production that was faithful to the original book and bore comparison with the Jim Carey film version (which is praise indeed). Today was the last day of the run in Cardiff, but the show now moves on to Edinburgh and then Birmingham, before a long run over Christmas and the New Year at the Lowry in Salford Quays.

What is going on with Christmas decorations?

I have had the great discomfort pain pleasure of spending time on each of the last two Saturdays in Christmas departments of retail outlets. Last week it was Harrods; today it was a large garden centre and shopping outlet to the north of Cardiff. I love Christmas, but I hate Christmas shopping with equal passion. Normally, however, the Christmas departments are just about bearable. I like the gaudy baubles for the tree; and the musical Father Christmases or Elves, with their festive melodies and over-the-top laughs. The bright colours and gauchely tasteless nature of Christmas decorations really appeals to me.

This year, however, something weird is happening. Last week at Harrods it was all pastel shades and muted colours – more like a high end paint palette chart than the gaudily bright colours that normally signify Christmas. Today, though, was even worse. When did swans become a Christmas decoration? And what have unicorns, mermaids and llamas (that is a llama in the middle of that tree, isn’t it?) have to do with the festive season?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favour of progress and change. I understand that the environmental half-life of tinsel is now just less than nuclear waste; and we need to wrap our presents in paper that can be easily recycled once it’s been ripped to pieces on Christmas morning. But there’s something surreal about Christmas decorations fashioned to look like rainbows. For myself, I’ll be sticking to traditional decorations that speak to the things that really matter this Christmas.

Have a great Saturday everybody!

Analysis of a week in the life of an operations manager

A loss of power
Gives voice to the powerless:
Vindicates concerns;

Denying the truth
Works well as a strategy
Until the cracks show.

Waiting long enough
Creates space for those who know
To cry : Told you so!

Lack of investment
Creates the compelling need
For radical change.

When two distinct melodies
Join in harmony.

Jose Mourinho – ‘the special one’ and hero-leaders

Jose Mourinho has made a spectacular return to football management in the English Premiership. In the early hours of Wednesday morning, Mourinho is announced to the world as the new manager of Tottenham Hotspur football club. Mourinho is a big character : his spells as manager of Chelsea (twice), Real Madrid, Porto, Inter Milan and Manchester United have been characterised by great successes, spectacular lows, and occasional controversy. What has been unstinting has been his belief in his own ability and his sense that he is somehow set apart from other managers : ‘special’.

In his paper on Hero-Leaders in business and cinema* Olivier Fournout summarises the qualities displayed by hero-leaders in a matrix of six features that are held in seemingly competing pairs. In the first place, hero-leaders take on roles. “[They] play at being someone different from who they really are… They may wear masks. They make the show.” At the same time, the hero-leader “has depth – deep emotions and sensations… [and] they exaggerate how strongly they are connected to their sensations, thoughts and emotions”. Mourinho has often been the very embodiment of this tension between the role-player (playing up to the crowd on the touchlines, and acting out the ‘special one’ persona in press conferences) and somebody who displays a profound interiority (reacting instantly and emotionally to incidents on the pitch, or to perceived slights from interviewers).

Hero-leaders are on a mission – striving to achieve “some practical results”. For Mourinho this is winning football matches, bringing trophies to his club. Whilst this is standard for all managers, what marks out the hero-leader is the tension that they create between the desire to win, and the way that they achieve this “through creative or unorthodox moves, by being divergent.” This can lead to the achievement of success despite the odds being against the endeavour (Chelsea’s Premier league success was often achieved through a defensive approach that flew in the face of the broader direction of travel in coaching and tactics at the time). But divergence can have other implications. Hero-leaders bring change, and with it, relative chaos and improvisation.” There is a case for saying that Mourinho’s attempts to impose his vision on Manchester United – to change and improvise at a club with a long and deeply ingrained culture and ethos – was always going to be a tough ask.

Finally, hero-leaders seek to reconcile the tension between acting as negotiators (“opening the door to win/win [outcomes], compromise and shared leadership”) and as ‘special ones’ – holding super-powers that lead them to act “in sudden bursts of all-powerful authority” and “with a sense of omnipotence”.

Fournout contends that managers at all levels will display hero-leader behaviours at various stages in their careers and in response to particular circumstances at particular times. However, he also identifies a particular aspect of the hero-leader that seems to resonate particularly with Mourinho’s managerial career to date : “With time, it seems the features of the hero-leader are pushed forward, intensified, exaggerated, and become more and more spectacular… Not only does this shed light on why it is not easy to be a manager today, but it may also help understand how burnout situations can arise among… top managers who – up to the point where they break – do their job quite successfully”.

There is no doubt in my mind that Mourinho fits Fournout’s hero-manager mould perfectly (and the same is probably true for Guardiola and Klopp, although they seem better able to hold the tensions in creative balance). I genuinely hope that Mourinho is successful at Tottenham. I have a deep affection for Spurs – a club that always tries to play the game the right way. It will be interesting to see whether Mourinho 2019 is a little wiser, a little cooler and a little more able to hold his hero-leader qualities in check. If not, it will at least be fun while it lasts!

* “The Hero-Leader Matrix in Business and Cinema : Fournout O. : Journal of Business Ethics (2017) Vol. 141 pp.27-46