The positive impact of worrying

I used to have a poster on my bedroom wall which read : ” Don’t tell me that worrying doesn’t work, most of the things I worry about don’t happen!”

The reality of this has been brought home to me this week, when a number of potentially stressful situations – sources of severe worry at different times – have all been negotiated more or less successfully. Of course, the psychologists will point to the fact that a moderate amount of stress is a necessary precursor to successful completion of difficult tasks. We need to be ‘up for it’ and ‘on top of our game’ to be able to perform to our full potential. That has been true for me this week, but to be honest, it’s also quite wearing. There is a need to balance the stressful times with some rest and relaxation. Batteries need time to recharge. Stress enzyme levels need to be rebalanced. It’s not possible to keep operating at full speed all of the time.

So – sorry – no : there’s no chance of me making any progress on that list of jobs in the flat this weekend! 😉

Danny Dyer – simply a legend

So – tonight’s planned post has been usurped. I’ve been completely absorbed in the new series of Who Do You Think You Are on BBC1. Tonight, it’s Danny Dyer – and he’s basically a legend. The clash of cultures between the East End wide boy and the ‘old money’ that he shares an ancestry with is brilliant television! If you missed it, do try and catch up with it on the BBC iPlayer. I promise that you won’t be disappointed.

Back to more substantive stuff tomorrow!

Facebook wisdom : an unrepresentative sample!

For today’s post, I am drawing on some of the accumulated wisdom of Facebook that I’be collected over the past couple of years. These are the memes, cartoons and pictures that have either made me laugh, or touched a nerve, or otherwise given me pause for thought.


This first cartoon fits firmly in the laugh out loud category. The look of trepidation on the sock facing the washing machine, and the reassuring appeal of his ‘partner’ to remember the buddy system is beautifully observed.


This second one is both funny, but also touches on a more profound truth for anybody who is involved in education professionally, or who is simply a parent. Children and young people spend far more time being controlled, and exhorted to conform, than being encouraged to develop their creativity and flair. Another favourite meme features the slogan, “In a world of Kardashians, don’t be afraid to be a bit more Bonham Carter”, and appeals to the same principles as the dog cartoon.


For reasons* that I can’t write about today, but that I will almost certainly return to when the time is right in the future, this final Peanuts cartoon carries a particular poignancy at the moment. It gently reminds us that however difficult things may get, life always deserves a chance to win through. That helps me to smile even at very sad times.



* In case anybody is concerned, this is about work rather than anything to do with family or my personal situation.

Truth stranger than fiction

I caught the end of a fascinating news report on BBC Breakfast this morning. Author Jeanette Winterson had visited a school in the Cotswolds to help the children there critically review the Cinderella fairy-tale, and then re-imagine it for the 21st Century. You can see the report and watch the video here. In part, the purpose of the visit was to explore the inherently sexist nature of the traditional narrative, and the version created by the children brilliantly re-writes the story’s ending to create a vision of an empowered and independent Cindy becoming co-founder of a successful business in partnership with the prince. The sassiness of shortening the name to Cindy, and the ambition shown for her by these primary school children is charming and inspiring in equal measure. The opprobrium of many of the viewers who contacted the BBC following the story, declaiming the ‘ruining’ of traditional stories, was as depressing as it was predictable.

Juxtaposing this story with the “you couldn’t make it up”, real-life story of Donald Trump promoting his public-school educated, merchant banker buddy Nigel Farage, as a potential UK Ambassador to the US,simply proves the old adage that truth is often so much stranger than fiction. But the sexist, racist, elitist messages that both Trump and Farage openly endorse, make the work of Winterson and a whole host of other, less prominent, people who are continuing to promote ideals of equality, fairness and justice, even more vitally important.

It is Edmund Burke, 18th Century parliamentarian and philosopher, to whom is attributed the saying that “for evil to triumph it is only necessary that good men do nothing”. Of course, taking our lead from Winterson, we need to change the “men” in the quote to “people”; but now more than ever, Burke’s sentiment must be a clarion call to everybody who opposes the narrow-minded, myopic, xenophobic, homophobic, mysogynist narrative of Trump, Farage and the motley crew of ultra-right wing ideologues that cling on to their coat-tails.

Fairy tales are quaint and can be indulged more liberally when the prevailing wisdom in society sees them as artefacts of a by-gone era when we were less enlightened. When the core messages of a ‘woman’s place in the home’, economic dependence on men, and a good marriage as the principal means of future security, are now part of mainstream political discourse, then its time for all of us to re-write the fairy tales.

Together Stronger

European football’s governing body, UEFA, today announced that three Welsh players had made it onto the shortlist for their team of the year. Joe Allen, Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale have been rewarded for a series of stand-out performances for Wales as they progressed to the semi-finals of the European Championships in the summer. Their recognition is well-deserved, as is that for Hal Robson-Kanu, who has been nominated for goal of the year for his audacious turn and finish in the quarter-final fixture against Belgium. There is no doubting that the European Championships was a major triumph for Wales – players, supporters, the management team under Chris Coleman, and officials. If qualifying for the first major tournament in 58 years wasn’t enough, wins against Slovakia, Russia, Northern Ireland and Belgium propelled the team into the semi-finals and the spotlight in a way that none of us could ever have dared to dream. I was fortunate to travel to Bordeaux for the opening weekend of the Championships. It was an experience that I will never forget and that I will probably never come near to matching. You can read my blogs about the opening games of the tournament here and here.

What has been most impressive about the way that Wales has gone about building a competitive national football team, is that it has not been an accident of good fortune or lucky timing. Whilst Bale, Ramsey and Allen are undoubtedly the pick of the squad in terms of technical ability and (in Bale’s case at least) world class, the success of the team is founded on the established principles of working hard for each other, never knowing when you’re beaten, and giving 100% effort for the cause on every occasion. Whilst Bale received the plaudits in France for his goals and all around attacking flair, in many ways it was Ben Davies who set Wales on their way with a miraculous goal-line clearance in the opening 10 minutes of the first game against Slovakia. You could sense in the stadium at the time a sudden surge of belief that we could do this! We were not just there to make up the numbers – cannon fodder for the ‘more established’ teams.

The Welsh Football Association’s plan for the development of all aspects of the game – under the banner Together Stronger – encapsulates that spirit of teamwork and togetherness and applies it to junior and women’s football, at the grassroots and elite levels, and across all four corners of the country. In partnership with the charitable FAW Trust, investment in the latest artificial surfaces now sees many FA Wales Premier League matches played on high quality surfaces all year round, irrespective of the weather. And those same surfaces support youth teams, development centres, women’s football, and disability football programmes throughout the rest of the week. It’s a commitment to the game that has seen participation rates increasing, with over 210,000 (8% of the population) adults regularly playing football or futsal according to the latest figures. Just by way of comparison, this is nearly three times the participation rate for rugby union in Wales. Given that the last published survey was in 2014, one suspects that the numbers may have increased further in the last two years.

Whilst the current World Cup qualifying campaign has not yet reached the heights attained during the Euros, Wales remain unbeaten after four matches and very much in contention in a group where everybody is taking points off everybody else so far. The two matches against the Republic of Ireland look likely to be crucial in determining both nation’s fate in the race for Russia. The game in Dublin in March will be a cracker.

Time to change the way we do change?

Last week, I spend two days with colleagues from universities across the UK in similar operational management roles, reflecting on the key challenges facing us and the options for addressing those challenges. During the first session of the meeting, we heard about the range of things currently impacting on universities in the UK : the impact of the ‘market’ for undergraduate students that has been brought into starker relief by the removal of the cap on student numbers for the vast majority of programmes, and the removal of central funding support replaced entirely by student fee income; Brexit, and the impact on recruitment of students from the EU and internationally; Brexit, and the impact on staff recruitment and retention; the US presidential election outcome; the emergence of new players in the UK HE sector, adopting an aggressively market-driven approach to student recruitment and fee-setting; the research excellence framework (REF) process that is next due to report in 2020/21, and the new metric on the block, the teaching excellence framework (TEF) that is already threatening to cause major upheaval and some considerable embarrassment to institutions that have hitherto enjoyed high academic reputations, but perhaps more because of their research capability than the quality of their teaching.

What was striking about these developments was the extent to which many of them have only really come to the fore in the past six months. Certainly, in the spring, nobody was really planning on the basis that the UK would be leaving the European Union, and that Donald Trump would be the nominated successor to Barack Obama as President of the United States. Of course, neither of these things has yet actually reached a conclusion, and it would be a foolish even at this stage, to be too certain that either Brexit or a Trump presidency will actually happen. Nevertheless, the mere fact that either is a possibility is not something that was being contemplated with any seriousness only half a year ago.

There was, therefore, a degree of cognitive dissonance during the second day of the meeting when we were discussing approaches to the management of change in our organisations, that seemed for the most part to be grounded in the ancien regime of horizon scanning, identifying a compelling need for change, communication and engagement strategies, unfreezing structures and processes, implementing new approaches, and then reviewing and amending the new approach before re-freezing the organisation in its new form. All this, of course, taking place over a time-frame of many months.

It seems incongruous to be tied into an organisational approach to change that takes months to plan and implement, when the world in which organisations operate can change as radically as we have seen in something less than 150 days. Change management approaches have been designed for an organisational context where strategic threats and opportunities can be calmly and rationally spotted on the horizon, and the organisation’s direction and response to them can be equally calmly and rationally planned and implemented. When change is all around and happening at a speed that requires immediate responses, long periods of consultation and planning become at best tiresome, and at worst, threaten the survival of the organisation itself.

Universities, for the most part, are large and bureaucratic (in the technical sense) organisations that tend to have highly consultative and democratic decision-making processes. They also tend to be organisationally conservative and suspicious of proposals for radical change in the way that they are run (something of a paradox given the fleetness with which new academic research areas spring up and new courses are developed). It seems inevitable that we will need to change the way that we do change if we are to respond effectively to the choppy waters that we are currently navigating. Whether that is possible in time to prevent some institutions from ending up on the rocks remains to be seen.

One possible approach would be change the focus of Strategic Change teams from project managing specific change projects, to supporting the development of a culture of change and flexibility across the whole organisation. The obsession with job descriptions, lists of tasks, and multiple job gradings, that typifies so much of HR planning and management in the HE professional services context, needs to give way to recruitment on the basis of core competences and values. An institution that is capable of responding with sufficient rapidity to the pace of change in the environment within which it is now operating needs to be able to deploy and redeploy staff quickly and effectively in response to identified opportunities without the delay that comes from long periods of consultation on changes to the minutiae of job descriptions that seek to detail to the nth degree every aspect of a particular role. In parallel with this, consideration needs to be given to reducing the number and increasing the financial boundaries of the grading structure, allowing staff to develop and progress in role and reducing the extent of the disruption that occurs as a result of the turnover and dissatisfaction that arises when somebody reaches the top of the scale after four years and can only progress further by leaving their team or (even worse) the organisation as a whole.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the pace and extent of change is accelerating. There is little sign that this is a trend that will reverse in the short to medium term. The way that we do change itself needs to change if we are to flourish into the future.

Retail therapy? Torture more like

Why on earth do people go into city centres at this time of year? Today, I’ve had the pleasure of spending time with Charlotte and Joanna, and that’s been great. But we spent it in the centre of Manchester with what seemed like millions of others all ostensibly Christmas shopping. In reality, we were mostly shuffling from shop to shop, elbowing our way through the throng to get close enough to the items that we were interesting in buying, and then queueing in long lines for the privilege of sealing the deal. Our trip was mostly successful, and we’ve managed to tick a few things off the list of presents that need to be bought before 25th December. But it’s hardly a relaxing and life-affirming experience. As someone who tends to go shopping only when I have a clear idea of what’s needed, from where, and at what price, ‘browsing’ doesn’t come naturally (surely that’s what the internet is for?). But the concept of browsing when the things you’re looking at don’t feature at all on any list of things needed (scented candles at £43 a pop, anyone?) is so alien to me that I don’t think I’ll ever completely understand it. On the plus side, we are at least back in the hotel in time for the Spanish football… 😉