Shock Shock

The Co-operative retail movement was set up by 19th century Weavers in the industrial North West of England.  The foundations, which still hold today, were based on the business being member owned for the good of society.  Now running a range of businesses from Childcare, through Retail  to Funeral services the Co-op is a cherished and trusted organisation and it’s Banking business with it’s ethical principles seemed to offer an alternative to the ‘casino’ Banking that is now condemned.  But now, close to collapse the Co-op bank has had to be ‘rescued’ itself.

It was the acquisition of the failing Britannia Building Society that started the problems.  Like most of the other Mutual (ie member owned) savings societies the Britannia had incorporated allowing it to buy out it’s members for a few pounds and then act more like a ‘real bank’.   Sadly the Britannia was going bust (that did seem to be a definition of a ‘real bank’ in 2008) and the Co-op Bank bought the failing business.

The Co-op for it’s part underestimated the size of the bad debts in Britannia and overestimated it’s own management capabilities to turn things around.  It also failed to attract new accounts – given how little respect the public had for the main Banks and the apparent appetite for a different approach that seems incredible.

It is perhaps not unexpected but once again the words mismanaged and Bank seem to come together.

Now a deal has been struck with a number of aggressive Hedge funds ( the very antithesis of the ideals of the founders) to put £1.5bn into the business.  The Co-operative group will have to find around £500 million and will end up with only a 30% stake.   Of course everyone is now concerned that the Bank will lose it’s ethical stance.  That would be the same ethics that lead the Bank to have to put around £400m aside to compensate customers for mis-sold PPI claims etc.

In fact the Hedge funds know that without it’s ethical positioning the Co-op has little to differentiate itself and the new owners may well make a better fist of building on this unique selling point.  There are steps being taken to ensure that the basic principles of a mutual bank are retained and in truth a 30% stake should be enough for the Co-op to control matters.

Whilst the hard nosed business realities mean that the ethical principles are likely to be not only retained but strengthened, the ownership structure will lead many to challenge the authenticity of those principles. Throughout this saga it has been a lack of adherence to the basics of the Co-operative ethos that have been at play.  A lack of authenticity on behalf of management underlies many of the issues.  And yesterday the news broke that Chairman at the time is now facing charges of buying illegal drugs, the night after he testified to the Treasury select Committee, from a guy he met on Grindr.  It’s worth mentioning that he used to Chair the anti-drugs charity ‘lifeline’ and is a Methodist Minister.  The point isn’t that Flowers should be criticised for using Grindr and drugs  but the sheer bloody hypocrisy (if the allegations are true).

We should all learn from this, once we cease to be true to ourselves in even small ways we lose our way and lose the trust of those around us.  Finding and sticking to our own core values and purpose is a certain way to gain trust and improve our own fulfillment.

So whilst I wish the Co-op well as we need a better banking model (I should also declare that I am a Co-op member, an investor in the Bank and have many friends employed in the various businesses), I fear that faith has been lost in the very principles on which the business is built and the USP is badly damaged.  Time will tell how well they are able to repair the damage.

“You’re wondering why you’re exhausted, exhausted
From using theses lies, I’m sure you’ll regress again
Maintain your silence”
Biffy Clyro  – Shock Shock

Musing on the perfect law

The title track on Muse’s excellent 2013 album ‘The 2nd law’ refers to the second law of thermodynamics.  This defines Entropy and boils down (literally) to  the fact that in a closed system the amount of energy remains constant , but things will even out until everything has the same energy when no use  or work can be derived from this.

Or to put it another way:  “It’s the Second Law of Thermodynamics: Sooner or later everything turns to shit.”  Woody Allen, in Husbands and wives (1992).

The law is so fundamental that it has remained unassailed by advances in our knowledge and does seem to be a perfect law.

This might interest physicists and cosmologists but why is it of relevance to the rest of us?   It does suggest that in the fullness of time the Universe ends with a gentle sigh as entropy reaches it’s maximum and all things are at equilibrium.  I find that oddly calming, but it doesn’t excite me. After all the Earth will be long gone by then – in a far more exciting explosion of a star.   Of course the Earth is not a closed system, energy from the Sun pours down on us continually, but the principles of the Second Law hold true in many instances and serve as a good guide to how things operate at a fundamental level.

We are bombarded with economic statistics that assume that we must have growth.  To be successful as a Nation (and so presumably as individuals) we must continually have more stuff.  The same amount of stuff as last year is considered stagnation.  Less stuff than previously is considered a National tragedy and all manner of tactics are used to create growth.

The fundamental truth illuminated by the Second Law is that there is only so much ‘stuff’ to go around and once it has been used it get’s harder and harder to re-use until it’s gone.  There are more and more people chasing the finite amount of ‘stuff’ which, to me at least, makes our endless quest for growth seem contrary to the very forces of nature.  As Matt Bellamy sings  “…An economy based on endless growth is unsustainable”.

Ask yourself – beyond the necessities of life do you feel happier having more stuff?  As a family we have loads more stuff than I had as a kid, but I don’t think that’s what makes us either more or less fulfilled.  It seems that it is the quality and nature of what we have that creates well being.  A hand crafted artifact made with care and passion has far more worth than container loads of cheap goods made on a production line.  And compassion, care and love use up no stuff at all but are invaluable.

I believe that it is time to challenge the assertion that growth is per se good.  Growth can be a force for good and cheap mass produced food and goods help us to feed and clothe an ever increasing population.  But let’s support those who don’t want to be the biggest but who want to be the best, or just different.  Let’s base our views of our own self worth on something more than the amount of ‘stuff’ we can accumulate.  Our own well being rests not on material wealth but the less tangible. The expression of contentment, patience, tolerance and compassion for others attract real friends not money and power.

To quote the Dalai Lama “…By changing ourselves we can change our human way of life and make this a century of compassion”  and maybe then we’ll care less about ‘stuff’ and more about true well being.

Flexibility means not having to bend over backwards

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Stephen Deans has now resigned his role at the Ineos petrochemical plant on Grangemouth and will not seek re-election to his role at the Trade union Unite.  It isn’t surprising that the employer saw him as the enemy and with the full power of hindsight the workers feel that he should pay the price for taking them to the brink.

Ineos runs a large petrochemical plant and refinery at Grangemouth in Scotland.  They argued that costs had to be cut to make the petrochemical plant viable.  And without the petrochemicals side of the business the refinery isn’t competitive and so was at risk of closure.  To make the savings some fundamental changes to the Terms and Conditions of employees were being demanded and the Union Unite were unsurprisingly strongly against this.

Now we could debate the rights and wrongs of this case at great length.  Depending on your viewpoint either:

  • The fat cat employers used bullying tactics and threats to cow the workers into submission and their threats of a total closure was tantamount to blackmailing the Government.; Or
  • The militant Unionists used this as a platform to spout their ill informed dogma with little or no regard for the livelihoods of their members and communities and no recognition of economic realities

In the end Ineos announced closure of the entire site and within 24 hours the Unions accepted all of the proposed changes. Having lost on all counts the workers celebrated getting their jobs back.  No doubt it will take a lot of effort and time to rebuild trust on both sides.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the way this battle was fought (and battle it surely was) it feels that we could have avoided the brinkmanship if both parties had been willing to see the confrontation through the others’ eyes and from a third party perspective.   This was an extreme case but how many times do we get ourselves stuck in a negotiation (be it with the kids about bedtime or the boss about a project) and are there any steps we can take to stop the little things escalating and creating an issue that will live on after the immediate problem is resolved?

Certainly trying to see things from another perspective always helps to create balance and avoid disputes arising – this can be a great role for a coach or mentor.

Once we get into negotiation there are simple things we can do that help in all cases; let’s see how Unite and Ineos measure up:

  1. Have a clear view of the desired outcome (I think both Unite and Ineos were clear on this)
  2. Develop as many options as possible and  avoid a fixed position by agreeing the upper and lower limits of the range of acceptable outcomes (I suspect that Management would have given a little away but Unite had limited flexibility)
  3. Identify potential areas of agreement (hard to say how they did on this but given their entrenched positions I’d say they failed to agree on even the basic point that the Plant was worth saving)
  4. Identify areas to be resolved and plan how to discuss them (Ineos did seem to want to talk but Unite wanted to demonstrate outside the homes of the Directors)
  5. Determine what your best alternative to an agreement is. (Management were clear on this that if they did not agree they’d walk away from Grangemouth, Unite clearly hadn’t got a plan B – unless it was abject surrender)

No surprises that I score this heavily in favour of the Company who would feel that they ‘won’.  This amply demonstrates the Law of Requisite Variety: In any system those with the greatest flexibility of behaviour will control the system.

Try these steps out in your next negotiation, get a friend or colleague  (or an external Coach) to help you see the bigger picture and generate ideas.  You’ll increasingly find win win scenarios popping up all over and you’ll know when to back down graciously, avoiding pointless acrimony.

If only Unite had shown more flexibility they might well have had a better result and Stephen Deans would still have a job.

Don’t Panic, but you might need an update.

This World: the Truth About Populations - Prof Hans Rosling gave an analysis of our changing world

Last night those of us lucky enough to get the BBC were served up a real treat.  A Swedish statistician (Hans Rosling) giving an ‘as live’ lecture on demographics isn’t your usual prime time TV (no one cooked, no house was renovated and no one was murdered).  I found it fascinating and urge you all to go and take a look – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03h8r1j .

Maybe I should give a spoiler alert but the key points were that fertility rates have fallen and taken across the planet the average woman has 2.5 children.  There are now 2 billion children worldwide and the UN expects that number will remain constant.  This is a result of improving healthcare (family size only starts to fall when the children are expected to survive) and improving education (especially of girls).  80% of the worlds population is literate.  With a stable fertility rate the rapid expansion in population is starting to slow and  should stabilise at around 11 billion (currently 7 billion).  Whilst there are huge differences between rich and poor, the end of extreme poverty may be in sight. The UN are launching a campaign to eradicate this within 20 years.

Of course there are huge problems ahead and 11 billion is a lot of mouths to feed but it is a hopeful future.  It is easier to galvanise support when there is hope than when all seems lost.  After all if we are all doomed why not enjoy the moment?  But inaction in the face of hope seems much more cowardly.

One point made in the programme was that there is a huge amount of ignorance about these statistics.  It seems that we don’t update ourselves.  When I was young Bangladesh was always in the news with awful pictures of starving babies and to my shame that was still the image I had.  I would have said it was a poor country of illiterate subsistence farmers having huge families.  But in fact average family size is 2.5, literacy rates are high and girls outnumber boys in schools .

Maybe this is in part due to media coverage – ‘no famine this year’ or ‘things slowly getting better’ are hardly an editor’s dream headlines.  However this is true in much of our lives.  We develop a view of the world and unless we work at it it becomes fixed.  For example, as most of us get older we stop listening to new music and change radio stations to ones that play oldies – all this new stuff is just noise!  It’s not just music or fashion it’s everything and those of us with experience and maturity tend to be in senior positions and so make big decisions about all our futures.

And sometimes those fixed views are not just outdated, they might have never been true or were gross exaggerations, simplifications and distortions of the truth to start with.

What is it that you have fixed views about that may no longer be true?  And most importantly, what are you going to do to get a fresh perspective?  How will you update yourself?

London’s oases of calm

London's  oases of calm

Warm, watery sunlight in Autumn must be some of the best weather in which to enjoy London. Warm enough to need no coat yet cool enough not to broil on the Tube. Tempers stay calm and attitudes sunny!

Having a spare hour I chose to walk between meetings from Covent Garden over to Moorgate. The noisy centre of arts and culture giving way to the financial district.

What was clear is that London is blessed with many parks and squares, oases of calm amidst the hustle and bustle.

Lincoln’s Inn Fields were enchanting, Postman’s Gardens in Aldgate a small yet densely planted unexpected treat. And finally Finsbury Square. A barren square of grass, still noisy with traffic but even so a magnet for office workers.

Proof, if it were needed, of how much we are drawn to green spaces and how much value we must place on even a little nature to calm our senses.  Even without a quiet, green space we can create such a place in our minds and return to it whenever we feel in need of relief from the demands of modern life.  Many are now learning the benefits of meditation, yoga and other techniques to calm their minds.  The results are invariably positive,  I am tempted to try a yoga class myself, but in the meantime a stroll does the trick and saves the Tube fare.

Lightening the load

On my morning commute today a very worried young man sat next to me.  He pulled out a thick text book and feverishly pored over it.  It’s no exaggeration to say that he was working himself into a real state of anxiety – mumbling sentences out loud, pressing his fingers to his ears and rocking to and fro.

Most of us would have put our earphones in , shut our eyes and put it down as another ‘commuting nutter’ story.    I decided to see if I could improve his day.

I asked him what the subject was and he sheepishly said that it was the Chartered Institute of Taxation foundation course.   We briefly discussed what a huge, complex, ever changing and desperately dry topic that could be.  Not only that but his day job only covered about a quarter of the subjects and he was trying to study in his limited spare time via a correspondence course.  He knew no one who had passed first time, even the partners at his firm had struggled. With only 30-40% of candidates rumoured to pass outright he felt it was a hopeless task.

I wondered out loud whether making the exam seem harder than it was might serve any purpose for those that had passed? Perhaps it gave more kudos to the senior guys?  Maybe telling scare stories and frightening the juniors was a bit of a rite of passage?  I also asked what the pass mark was and this was rumoured to be 40-50%.  So I mused that if his day job covered 25% of the syllabus and he was good at that then he had half the required marks in the bag before starting.  All he really had to do was work out how to scrape together 25%.  That didn’t seem too daunting especially as it was an open book exam.

If my new companion applied the 80:20 rule and chose topics carefully he could quite easily get to a point where he was confident of getting the pass mark.  Ok he might not win any prizes but he could relax and really focus on doing a few things well.  After all when in practice as long as he knew what he didn’t know all would be well.

He went very quiet, but as we pulled into the station he said that he’d never looked at it this way.  If he thought about it logically he started to feel confident.  I could visibly see the change in him – as he stood to leave the carriage he looked a few inches taller, less stressed, more confident.

I have no way of knowing how he will perform in his exams, but I will guarantee he had a much better day today than he might otherwise have had.  Perhaps we can all have a better day if we take the time to look at things in a new light.  Getting a fresh perspective can really lighten the load.

Scottish Indie rock and Yoda – without trying!

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So after a ten year break the Scottish Indie rockers Franz Ferdinand have returned with a new album.    I immediately liked the title.  It feels strong and empowering.  But the more I thought about it it the more something felt wrong.

The thing is the words we use change the way we think.    Words can mean very different things to different people, based on their past experiences.  We have all no doubt been surprised when someone reacts unexpectedly to something we said.  But even putting this personal meaning aside words can be tricky blighters.

The words we use to describe something carry a huge amount of meaning much of which may be unintended, but which colours our thoughts. Simply by asking someone to ‘Try’ to do something we imply a degree of difficulty and an acceptance that failure is acceptable.  On the other hand simply asking someone to ‘do’ something implies that it is perfectly within their capabilities.  If you say to a child ” Here,  try this new food and see if you like it”  they are likely to taste a tiny amount and be ready to spit it out.  On the other hand “Here, do you want some of this?” might get a more open minded tasting.

As Yoda says ” There is no try, only do”

So a better title might be Right Words, Right Thoughts, Right Actions.