Mindworks’ Weblog

Thinking Matters

Archive for July, 2008

Einstein and Thatcham

Posted by Andrew Cooper on July 31, 2008

I mentioned a while ago that I spent a year working as the project manager for a community planning exercise in a nearby town. The town was Thatcham, Newbury’s next door neigbour here in West Berkshire. It was a great experience and I’m still involved with the project on a freelance basis. The project was called the “Thatcham Vision”.

One of the consultation exercises we ran came in the form of a ‘wrap’ to the local free newspaper, which was a very cost effective way of getting coverage not only in Thatcham but across the whole district. This was important because we needed wanted to seek the views of non-residents as well as the 25,000 or so people who live in the town. We wanted to find some way to signal to readers that this was a little out of the ordinary, and came up with the idea of using the photo below on the front page. (The text was generated by the website at the address shown on the pic.)

This wasn’t the text we used in the final version of the wrap, a copy of which you can download here. You can also see the headline which accompanied the photo and puts it in context. (I notice in the version above Albert appears to be having problems with his apostrophes.)

I built a website for the project which is here, ran a blog and set up a Wiki to capture information about Thatcham.  If you visit the interviews page on the website you can hear me and Clare Tull, who worked with me on the project, being interviewed on Kick FM, the local radio station, shortly after we started working on the project.

The project was great fun and I very much enjoyed getting to know the local community. One of the highlights, for me, was being asked to chair a special Thatcham edition of Just A Minute which was run to raise funds for the Mayor’s charity. The evening was great fun, and was attended by the late Ian Messiter’s (creator of the game) wife, Enid and his son Malcolm, who as you’ll see from his website is a very interesting chap. Enid told us how she used to play the Just A Minute theme, the Minute Waltz, live when the programme was first broadcast in South Africa. (The wikipedia article seems to have missed Just A Minute’s South African roots.)

This is all pretty run-of-the-mill stuff for management consultants, obviously, so if you’re thinking of a change of career I recommend that you brush up on your Nicholas Parsons.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Telling stories

Posted by Andrew Cooper on July 31, 2008

As any managment consultant will tell you, storytelling can help you to think about your organisation and how it works (or doesn’t).  So, here’s a story I wrote ages ago to make some point or other.

Why Counting Honey is so Complicated

One day mummy bear said to daddy bear (while baby bear was asleep, it was the only time they could have a proper conversation) ‘How much Honey have we got?’.

Daddy bear said that he didn’t know and he went to find out. After daddy bear had counted all the jars he told mummy bear.

Some time later, Mummy bear wanted to find out how much honey there was again. Daddy bear said ‘I don’t know’ and went to count the jars. When he came back mummy bear said ‘There must be a better way of finding out how much honey there is’. Daddy bear replied ‘Yes dear, you’re right as usual, I will go to talk to the other bears about this’, and he went into the woods to find the other bears while Mummy bear got on with something more useful.

All the other bears said that they also had to count all their jars every time that they wanted to know how much honey they had. They all agreed that there must be a better way of counting the honey.

One bear said ‘why don’t we have some special bears who could count the honey for us; we could call them Honey-Counters?’. ‘We could give the Honey-Counters some honey in return’. All the bears agreed that this was a Very Good Idea and set about deciding who should be the Honey-Counters. They thought that all you would have to be good at is counting, so the bears who were best at counting (something that most of the bears found a bit difficult) were appointed as Honey-Counters.

The Very Good Idea worked very well indeed, at first. The Honey Counters would go from house to house counting the honey and would let the other bears know how much there was. The Counters were very happy to do this because all they had to do was count honey (rather than collect it from the bee’s nests, which was a tricky job at the best of times) and they got some in return.

Time went by, and the Counters got bored with just counting the jars of honey (it was difficult to fill up a whole day just counting, so they thought of some other things to do ). First of all they thought that it would be a good idea if they could tell the bears not just how much honey they had now, but how much honey had been used in the past. The other bears weren’t sure why this was a good idea (they just wanted to know how much honey they had), but because they weren’t very good at counting they thought that there must be a good reason and tried to look interested when the Counters gave them lists of how much had been used.

But soon the Counters got bored with this as well. So they thought of lots of other ways of counting honey, including double honey counting, guessing how much honey there would be in the future and counting other things like empty jars. Very quickly the job of counting honey seemed to become very complicated indeed. Certainly it was much too complicated for anyone who wasn’t a counter to understand.

The Counters decided one day, at a special meeting of Honey Counters in a land far away, to have a special test for any bear who wanted to be a Honey counter (the Honey Counters had decided that because they were special bears it was all right to go to a land far away to have their meeting, even though the bears who collected honey had to stay at home) . They thought up a Difficult Test and it was agreed (by the Counters, who were the only ones who could know) that a bear had to pass the test before he or she could become a Counter.

Today honey counting is very, very complicated. As the Counters get bored with each new idea they have think up another one. Honey Counters are now divided up into lots of different types. Some Counters only look at how much honey was used in the past. Others are more interested in how it was used (and whether it will be used in the same way in the future) or developing complicated theories about the liquidity of honey and whether there’s any such thing as too much honey. Lots of Counters don’t even count honey at all. They organise other Honey Counters and think up the (now very very difficult) tests for the different types of Counters. All the other bears have to go along with this because the Honey Counters refuse to count honey unless they are allowed to use the new ways of counting they have invented.

But not all the bears are happy . Some of the (admittedly rather few) bears who actually collect the honey, not to mention the bees, are getting a bit fed up. They think that sometimes the Honey Counters make mistakes, but it is very difficult for someone who is not a counter to tell whether a mistake has been made. They also wonder why the Honey Counters seem to be able to take lots and lots of the other bear’s honey, just for counting it. And it isn’t as if the Honey Counters are the only special bears …….

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Just a bit of fun…

Posted by Andrew Cooper on July 31, 2008

I do love WordPress. Nearly as much as I love my Flip camera. In fact, it’s difficult to chose between them.  If I was flying with my family and the oxygen masks deployed, I’d be hard pressed to chose between WordPress, the Flip, Mrs Mindworks and the junor Mindworks if I had to sacrifice my own mask to save one of them. (Keep that to yourself, obviously.)

(Back story: I was once flying back from Africa with KLM (the world’s most laid back airline) and an incredibly laid back steward going through the oxygen mask routine said ‘…and if you are flying with more than one child, decide which you love the most and fit their mask first’.  The passengers fell about, obviously, but I couldn’t see any parents travelling with more than one child so I don’t know whether everyone enjoyed the joke.)

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Dave Gorman attempts World’s Longest Blogpost record…

Posted by Andrew Cooper on July 31, 2008

…  and you thought my posts were too long!  Wait until you see this.  Dave, if you haven’t come across him is very funny indeed, IMO. Plus he’s seriously into innovation.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Power to the people?

Posted by Andrew Cooper on July 30, 2008

See if you can find anything wrong with this idea.

Careful, now...

Careful now: no premature evaluation please.

I have, for some time, felt that the machinery of government in the UK isn’t in the best possible shape.  It isn’t ‘fit for purpose’, to use a phrase currently favoured by politicians.

Here’s my proposed and, I think you’ll agree, flawless solution.

First of all we, reader, start a new political party.  Let’s call it the Systems Party until we can think of something better.  We only make one promise in our manifesto: if we are elected we will abolish the current system of representative democracy and replace it with what I suggest we call the ‘It Could be You!’ system.  We’ll need to provide a short explanation of what we mean, obviously.  Something like this, perhaps:

“When you elect us, we will pass a law that does away with elections and replaces them with a means of selecting MPs that is much like the jury system that has served us so well for hundreds of years.  The MPs who have been elected by conventional means will – by law – have to stand down and new MPs will be selected randomly from the population.  They will be asked to serve for a year or two (we’ll fill in the fine details during our first – and last – debate as conventionally elected MPs).  Each MP selected under the new system will be paid, let’s say, £100,000 a year and will receive the same whopping expenses and pensions that our current MPs have so selflessly awarded themselves.  Just think: that new kitchen or plasma screen TV you’ve been wishing for could at last be a reality! And there’d be no problem if you wanted to employ your relatives as assistants!

Your job, if you have one, will be held open by law and the state will provide home-helps and child care for those who need them.  Plus you get a car, but you won’t really need it because most of the business of government (debates, voting, committees etc.) will be done online so that you can work from wherever you like.  During Parliamentary recesses you will, like existing MPs, have extensive opportunities for foreign travel on what we will call ‘study tours’ and ‘fact finding missions’ but which are, in fact, nice holidays. Vote SP! It Could Be You!”

I have discussed this idea in numerous pubs and haven’t found a single objection which can’t be rebutted very easily.  The most common difficulty people have is along the lines that ‘most people are pretty stupid and you wouldn’t want to put them in charge with anything”.  I profoundly disagree with that sentiment,  As I’ve mentioned a number of times here, we all have 100 billion neuron brains, give or take, and if some people have been convinced that they are stupid, a little CBT should fix that (“I am stupid” really is a toxic thought and needs to be replaced with “I am just as capable as anyone else if I put my mind to it”.)  Some of the cleverest people I’ve met have done very mundane jobs.  I think it’s because they get a lot of time to think and don’t have their minds cluttered with things like staff appraisals, going to meetings, attending management workshops or reading and receiving emails.  There’s also firm evidence that we can all be really good if we want.

My single biggest problem with the existing system, to be mildly serious for a moment, is that it’s destructive.  The whole basis of adversarial debate is premature evaluation.  Whatever the other party says is, by definition, worthless and its people are incompetent good-for-nothings who you wouldn’t trust to make a decent cup of tea.  If businesses were run like this they’d fall apart immediately.  Much of government should be about creating:  developing new ideas, working out how to solve problems, getting people excited about possibilities and persuading them to work together to achieve them.  The rest should be about enabling what’s in place tpp work as well as possible, rather than tinkering the whole time as politicians, partly due to my Law of Infinite Complexity, are inclined to do.

All political parties (see this, this and this) say that they are in favour of involving ordinary people in the business of government: giving them more say in and influence over the things that affect their wellbeing.  But our highly centralised system, which is still dominated by the Treasury, doesn’t allow real power (i.e. power over resource allocation) to be devolved away from the centre.

Of course there are countries which are run on lines which are not entirely dissimilar to this.  Sweden and Switzerland are examples, of course, in spite of the fact that they appear to have political parties.

During the course of the aforementioned in-pub discussions I’ve developed numerous glosses on the idea of the Systems Party: ways in which the system would be organised and structured to ensure that problems and policies were properly discussed and thought about.  And, once again, technology could really help here; see this, for example.

At the very least, people would vote for the SP because they’d think it would be worth a try: surely (in spite of Winston Churchill’s sentiments to the contrary) it couldn’t be any worse.  Plus they’d get a chance to win an excellent remuneration package and, as a free bonus, there would be no more interviews with politicians in the media.

I’m only thinking of introducing this in England, of course.  People in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland would have to decide whether they wanted their own Systems Parties.  But, like most English people I know, I think that full independence has to be a good thing, particularly once we’ve worked out how to collaborate on issues like defence and transport.

I’m actually a bit busy right now, reader, so if you would like to have a go at setting this up I will give you my full backing.  I suggest the first step should be for you to hire a really popular and charismatic actor to be the party’s figurehead: an approach which has been shown to work well in the USA.  They’d only have to do the job until the new system is voted through, so it shouldn’t be too expensive.  I don’t  think we could go with Clint, fun though that might be, but Dawn French and/or David Tennant, perhaps? Or maybe Patrick Stuart reprising his Jean-Luc Picard..  Now, there was a real leader.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Take a look at this…

Posted by Andrew Cooper on July 29, 2008

I was sent a link to this excellent Flash movie earlier.

As you’ll see it includes, towards the end, some spectacular shots of the International Space Station and the Endeavour Space Shuttle. See this post for some thoughts on the ISS.

Incidentally, Endeavour uses the English rather than American spelling because it’s named after James Cook’s ship.  Nice of our former colony to think of us like that, wasn’t it?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Behaving like a scientist

Posted by Andrew Cooper on July 29, 2008

One of the many excellent features of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (see numerous previous posts) is that it encourages those who use it to ‘behave like a scientist’. This involves thinking about your attitudes and feelings and the ‘negative automatic thoughts’ which could be driving them, identifying how you might think and act differently, and then testing these changes in day-to-day life to see what happens.

This post isn’t about CBT, though, but the general idea of experimenting. I’m currently running two small psychological experiments related to behaviour and the web. One of them, which I launched last week, involved building a four page website related to something which had really annoyed me. I don’t want to go into details, but the results so far are, to my mind, very interesting.

I built the website in about 90 minutes – it looks pretty good, and makes use of the usual web technologies (Youtube etc) to get its point over. After I built it I emailed about 50 national media organisations (newspapers, radio, TV), relevant pressure groups and a few high-profile blogs. The email was very short (yes, I know, unusual for me) and included what I thought was an irresistible invitation to visit my new site and to pass details on to others.

The site has received a total of about 30 hits in total over the past five days (this blog has regularly exceeded that on a daily basis for some time). So, only 60% of those to whom I sent the email have actually clicked on the link and they certainly haven’t passed on details or mentioned it on their blogs or websites.

I have a couple of theories about why this might be the case but, as they say, further research is needed to test them. In the meantime I think this illustrates the difficulties of getting a message over via the web. As I noted in a previous post I knew this already, but I’m keen to find out more about the best combination of the web and other means of communication.

Incidentally, I bought the rights to use the not-entirely-relevant cartoon from this excellent site which I discovered via Google earlier this morning. As you’ll see if you visit it, they are based in Bath – coincidentally the start of the Kennet and Avon bike ride (see yesterday’s post) that Sam and I took yesterday. More on that, including some Flip video via Youtube, later in the week when I’ve had a chance to edit it. The video will feature some of the innovations which made the canal possible.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Stretching the envelope

Posted by Andrew Cooper on July 27, 2008

Stretching the envelope is a term that test pilots use when they fly an aircraft beyond the limits of its performance envelope – which specifies the maximum speed at which it’s designed to fly, how hard you can wrench it around corners and so on – to see if any bits fall off.

It’s also the name I give to one of the idea generation techniques I introduce on a technique card in my Mindworks Approach (now available entirely online, incidentally: click the Products and Services tab).

The way it works is simply to take an idea and to attempt to push it to its limits to see what happens.  An example of this is something that occurred to me in connection with Explore China (use the search box to find references below).  I’m not going to say what the idea was, because I’d like to research it first, but it would involve some rather impressive technology.

However, a point that’s worth noting is that some new ideas need to be introduced gently.  I mentioned the thought that had occurred to me to someone who may well be reading this, and he looked at me with a nervous smail.  ‘Andrew’ he may or may not have been thinking ‘has finally lost it’.

But the idea is technically perfectly feasible, if a bit audacious and is would certainly need lots of cooperation from various organisations.  It grabbed my imagination, though: I could picture it happening, exactly how it would look and sound and how I would feel if it was happenning.  If we could do it, it would be quite something.

However, in mentioning the idea I’d indulged in something that’s sometimes called called ‘premature revelation’.  It’s not entirely unrelated to ‘premature evaluation’ (the term I coined for evaluating ideas too soon which is on one of my Meeting Cards).  It would have been much better to find out whether it’s at all possible to set it all up first and only then drop it casually into the conversation.

The chances are approximately 98.5% against it being possible, but at least I now have both a ‘vision’ and a target (0% against) More on that story, one way or the other, later.

In the meantime,  In about three hours from now, I’m going to jump on a train with our son, Sam, and our bikes and head for the glorious city of Bath.  We’ll then cycle back to Newbury along the Kennet and Avon canal which I videoed for this post.

Thanks to Google Maps, you can see the start of our cycle ride here – the point at which the man-made Kennet and Avon meets the River Avon is in the lower right, on the opposite bank to the railway station at which we’ll arrive – assuming the railway system is working – at 10.30.  If you feel so inclined, you can drag the map in ‘satellite’ view (they use aerial photos, not satellite images) all the way along the canal to the point at which I made the earlier video which is here.

I’m planning to video some of the hightlights of our trip and will post a short You Tube of some of the innovations we encounter on our way after we get back.  It will be 28C out there for much of the trip, but the route – apart from one rather astonishing hill which I’ll video – is, of course, pretty much flat.  It’s tough work, this management consultancy, but someone has to do it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Replacing planning with coordination

Posted by Andrew Cooper on July 27, 2008

Panzer tanksThe title of this post is taken from a section of Clay Sharkey’s ‘Here Comes Everybody – the power of organizing without organizations’ which I mentioned that I was reading when the creative binge (see this from wikipedia) that resulted in ‘Explore China‘ (and some other exciting things) started just over a month ago.

In the section in question, Sharkey makes a point which is very relevant to my last post.  He argues that the reason that the Battle of France turned out the way it did was not because the Germans had better tanks than the French.  According to Sharkey, the French tanks were actually superior to the Panzers.  But the German tanks were equipped with radios, unlike those of the opposition.  This meant that the minds of the German tank commanders were networked together and they could adapt to changing circumstances much more effectively than the French, who had to stick to a pre-arranged plan.

An interesting point in the wikipedia article on the Battle of France is the claim that one of the German commanders, Guedarian, later said that he’d pretty much invented the idea of Blitzkreig during the battle.  Another well known military commander, Dwight D Eisenhower, was once asked how important plans were in the successful execution of battles.  He replied ‘plans are nothing, planning is everything’.  He meant, of course, that if you think hard about all aspects of a situation you’re much better equipped to exploit opportunities that arise and deal with unforseen problems.  The ‘plan’ becomes irrelevant.  This suggests that Sharkey’s heading should be ‘Replacing Plans with Coordination’, not planning.

I do hope, therefore, that none of the management consultants who are being paid £3bn a year (or were, in 05/06) to do work for the public sector, are writing plans for their clients.  As Eisenhower could have told them, plans developed like this would be pretty much worthless.

Incidentally, my late father once told me a story about a meeting he’d been at when he worked at SHAPE, near Mons in Belgium.  The team of engineers finished their meeting discussing a trip one of them was due to take to Paris.  A German member of the team said it had once taken him four days to drive from Belgium to Paris.  He had made the journey by tank.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

The Vision Thing

Posted by Andrew Cooper on July 24, 2008

One thing that any management consultant will tell you is that you need to have a vision in order to achieve anything.  It’s common sense, isn’t it?   As my grandmother never said ‘If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do’.

Here’s the second part of that Kennedy speech to which I linked in the “We have ignitition sequence start…” post.  It includes, famously, just about the most inspiring ‘vision’ you could ever want to have.

As with the first part, it’s well worth watching the whole clip.  For all his flaws, JFK had in buckets two things that most modern politicians lack: charisma and the ability to relate to ordinary people.  5 minutes and 43 seconds into the clip he goes into overdrive, setting out the vision (he actually mentions the word).  He seems to go off the script at one point, and almost as an aside says “I don’t think we should waste any money, but I think we ought to do the job”.  He also cracks a couple of jokes which certainly seem spontaneous.  He would certainly have inspired, I think, many of the students listening to him to join 100,000 or so strong team needed to achieve Apollo. (It’s also worth noting that, while some of those behind him seem to be in the final stages of terminal heat exhaustion, Kennedy who, as he points out is “doing all the work”, doesn’t appear to have a bead of sweat on him.)

The Apollo mission was largely driven by political considerations, of course.  If Apollo was the ‘how’ an important ‘what’ had to do with recovering the USA’s lead in the space race and re-establishing its position as superpower top-dog.  But Kennedy quotes Mallory’s “because it is there” motive as well and, whatever the underlying reasons, Apollo was an astonishing scientific and engineering achievement.

This clip includes Kennedy setting out the vision, in rather more dispassionate tones, to Congress in May 1961 some 16 months before the Rice University speech.

And this wikipedia article includes this well known quote from the Rice speech which outlines some more ‘whats’ for the programme:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Today’s manned spaceflight programme has much less focussed goals and is certainly in trouble.  I was prompted to write this post after reading this item, from the New Scientist.

The International Space Station is a phenomenal engineering achievement and from time-to-time I will wander outside on a clear night to watch it shoot over Newbury, sometimes with an approaching Shuttle chasing it, and think about what’s been achieved and what’s actually going on up there.  (You can check when it’s next passing over your neigbourhood at 18,000mph here and, with more precision, here.)

But I also know that the ISS, even though the programme has been hobbled by large budget cuts, is phenomenally expensive. It’s also, to my mind, pretty pointless.  And it’s certainly a long way removed from this, which I well remember watching, spellbound, in the Regal Cinema, Henley-on-Thames, on its first release in 1968: a year before Apollo 11.  Apart from the first part, obviously, this was supposed to be taking place 7 years ago.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

Choosing the right words

Posted by Andrew Cooper on July 23, 2008

I’ve always been keen on plain English.  Some years ago I wrote a Consultantese/English dictionary, copies of which are available from me for the price of an email.  I updated it in 2004 to include some of the new management jargon which appeared on the scene at the turn of the millenium.  These included talking about ‘issues’ rather than ‘problems’ (see one of my first posts) and the tendency for things to ‘move forward’, which I’ve already mentioned.  Here’s an extract from the introduction to the 2004 edition:

“… management jargon is particularly pernicious. It is often redundant or tautologous as in ‘our plan, moving forward ….’, as if there was any other kind of plan and frequently misleading – ‘human resources’ to describe people, for example. Sometimes it is just annoying – the verb form of partner – ‘partnering’ – perhaps being my least favourite. Compare these sentences:

Moving forward we will tackle procurement issues by forging new partnering arrangements with trusted suppliers.’

We have had problems with suppliers in the past so will buy things from companies we can rely on in the future.’

If you were, say, writing your company’s annual report why would you choose the former? (Not that you would even think of it, of course, but we all know people who write like this in their sleep.)” … and so on.

One of the reasons that language is important is that it’s central to how we think.  Imagine inventing a nuclear powered tea pot without having the words ‘nuclear powered’ and ‘tea pot’ in your head.  Difficult, isn’t it?

Fuzzy language leads to fuzzy thinking.  Or worse, no thinking at all.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

“We have ignition sequence start…”

Posted by Andrew Cooper on July 22, 2008

Well, ‘the idea’ to which I’ve been referring obliquely here is now out in the open.  See this website which explains what it is.  There’s quite a lot more to the idea than I’ve mentioned on the website, but I’m very keen not to overload people at this point and attempted to focus on the essentials.

More on that story later, but for now I just want to mention briefly the source of the quote above.  It is, of course, part of the routine during a rocket launch count down.  I was 13 when Apollo 11 launched on its way to the Moon, and it was – particularly for a teenage boy with an interest in aviation – somewhat exciting.

Although all the Apollo missions launched safely, we were very aware that things could go horribly and spectacularly wrong.  It would be another 14 years until I watched with horror as Challenger exploded but the Apollo launchers released as much energy as a small nuclear bomb. If they did it all in one go…

I’m very excited about Explore China – it draws together many threads that I’ve been thinking about and have worked on over the years.  We’re at an early stage and there’s lots to be done.  It’s almost – given that I’m in mission control here in Newbury – as exciting as this:

As the years go by it seems almost unbelievable that they did it.  (I recommend plugging your speakers in and turning them to full volume when watching the above.)

Lastly, it’s well worth watching the whole of the video below.  I know we have short attention spans these days, but all nine minutes are worth the effort.  I have no idea who wrote this, but try to imagine a modern politician giving a speech like this.  Wouldn’t happen, would it?    It’s based around a potted history of innovation which, if you’ve been following this blog, is a topic that’s dear to my heart.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Information overload

Posted by Andrew Cooper on July 22, 2008

Hmm – very interesting.  Even when you offer people a chance of winning goods and services to the value of £1000 for emailing or posting a two line comment. the web is a bad way of attracting people’s attention.  I’m not surprised: I knew already from my PA experience that email is a very poor way of getting people to do things: you have to phone them up and ask them.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

DIY online brain surgery, a good joke and a trail

Posted by Andrew Cooper on July 22, 2008

A helicopter

A relevant helicopter

As careful readers will have noticed, I’ve been banging on about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy here somewhat (type CBT in the search box). It’s because I think CBT is really important and useful.  It seems common sense to me.  It’s something that we’re able to do naturally (think about how we are thinking) but we can get trapped into cycles of negative thoughts and CBT helps us to stand back from what’s going on and think more clearly about our thoughts and feelings.  (We all get depressed from time to time, but when the cycles get really vicious they can be completely disabling: it’s called clinical depression.)

I’m certainly not a qualified CBT counsellor and I wouldn’t dream of trying to provide counselling using the approach.  But one of the good features of CBT is that you can do it youself.  In fact, there’s some evidence that, in the right circumstances (and clinical depression wouldn’t be one of those), CBT works better when it’s self-applied.  Even when there is a counsellor or therapist in the loop, their aim is to enable the counselee to ‘become their own therapist’.

As I’ve already mentioned, there are some excellent books around on the subject.  (Don’t forget to check Bookbrain for the cheapest online price.)  There are also some very good websites, which will take you through the CBT process.  This one is from the Australian National University and Living Life to the Full is from Doctor Chris Williams, a Senior Lecturer in Psychiatry and Honorary Consultant Psychiatrist at the University of Glasgow, so he should know what he’s talking about.  Both sites are very good and, what’s more, are free to use.

As I say, I think CBT can be helpful to anyone but the old ‘How many Californians does it take to change a light-bulb’ joke springs to mind (only one, but the lightbulb really has to want to change).  You do have to put some effort into it and be motivated to do it, but the potential pay-back, for everyone, is obvious.

I heard a better light-bulb joke from a group of senior naval officers for whom I once ran a workshop.  They had all been helicopter pilots (and most of them were still ‘current’) and were, to put it mildly, great fun.  I staggered off to bed at the officer’s mess we were using for the workshop at 1.00am leaving them singing around a piano.

Apparently Navy helicopter pilots hold Harrier pilots in rather low regard.  To put it crudely, the former think the latter are rather up-themselves.  Their light bulb joke went like this:

How many Harrier pilots does it take to change a light-bulb?

Only one: he stands still holding the light bulb while the whole ship revolves around him!

Some real lateral thinking there!

As I’ve mentioned before, CBT does for feelings and behaviours what my Mindworks Approach does for activities and innovations.  It provides a structure for thinking things through: rather like software for the brain.  Our brains can do this stuff anyway, but can help enormously.   I’ve been thinking about doing what I do online and have realised that the web technology is sufficiently mature that I can provide online coaching very easily.  I’m going to use a combination of specially configured blogs and various other Web2 applications, plus some interesting ways of distributing the physical bits of my kit which can’t be sent electronically.  It will have significant benefits over face-to-face coaching, training and consultancy.  Watch this space for more, very shortly.

Incidentally, the helicopter is relevant in two ways.  I talked about standing back from our thoughts and feelings: in at least one large organisation I know of, the ability to stand back from the detail and reflect is called ‘helicoptering out’.  Helicopter as a verb.  Only in America.

(I first found the two websites above via the Royal Institute of Psychiatrists’ website.)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »


Posted by Andrew Cooper on July 21, 2008

Well, the new toy has arrived and what an excellent piece of kit it is.  You can find out all about it here and the manufacturer’s site is also well worth a look.  Lots of advantages over the competition: i.e. all the software comes on board and loads itself onto your computer when you plug it in; the ‘flip’ arm plugs straight into a USB socket – no cables to carry around; powered by 2xAA batteries so you don’t need to worry about re-charging; very simple to use and it fits in a shirt pocket.  The video is VGA quality so fine for Youtube and the web, which is what I wanted it for.

I’ve uploaded my first attempt, as you’ll see below.  The picture in the second shot is a bit wobbly (it was on a monopod for the first shot – it has a standard tripod mount) and I’m not used to doing improvised commentaries but for a first attempt I don’t think it’s too bad.  You can find out more about my nomination via the excellent wikipedia article here.

Hey, I’m on telly!

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

“You need to talk to yourself in the car.”

Posted by Andrew Cooper on July 20, 2008

A car

A car

I’ve forsaken TMS (see below) for a combination of the ITV and Radio 5 live commentary teams covering the German Grand Prix.  The wonderful machines I mentioned before make this – for me, riveting, for you, possibly, astonishing tedious – sport even more gripping.  As I type I’m sitting on the sofa with my laptop.  I have streaming Radio 5 live commentary playing via the BBC iplayer and the excellent Formula1.com live timing system open in another Firefox tab.

A couple of minutes ago, Martin Brundle on the ITV commentary was talking about the importance of Lewis Hamilton  – currently driving imperiously in first place, with a 10.1 second lead over Massa in second and, according to the live timing, increasing his lead by .1 seconds in each sector – staying in the right mental state.  “You need to talk to yourself in the car”, he said.  Very CBT.  (Use search to find references to CBT here, a bit too engrossed to add a link.)  The point, of course, is that when he talks to himself, he needs to be saying the right things: a couple of times this season he clearly hasn’t.

When the race is over I’ll be collecting a new toy from a friend.  Looking forward to trying it out and I’ll be blogging about the results with the help of Youtube and the toy in question.  More on that story later.

30 laps left.  Go Lewis!  You seem to be saying all the right things to youself just now.

(The photo was taken by our son, Sam, on the mobile he evaluated during his work experience week at Vodafone: search for ‘work experience’ for more on that story.)

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »


Posted by Andrew Cooper on July 19, 2008

When you’re spending a lot of time generating ideas and generally wearing your ‘right brain’ out it’s important to give it a rest from time to time.  There are two things that I find particularly useful.  Tidying is the first – tidying your office, sorting things out, checking off to-dos etc. are all pretty left brain and engages my mind sufficiently that my thoughts don’t wander.  But listening to TMS – the BBC’s Test Match Special radio commentary programme is – perfect.  Combine the two, and voila: no creative thoughts for hours!

Currently things aren’t looking too wonderful for England, who are playing South Africa.  This is reassuring: it’s always more stressful when there’s a chance that we might actually win.  Losing, hopefully gracefully, is so much more English, isn’t it?  Also, we invented the game. Just how popular would you have been at school If you invented a game and then went around beating everyone when you played it?  Quite. The fact that we’re so good at losing at games we invented explains why the English are so popular around the world.  (Hmm: there’s a flaw in that theory somewhere…)

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

If you’re interested in education…

Posted by Andrew Cooper on July 19, 2008

look at this, which I discovered thanks to Google after writing that last post.  It’s excellent.

(I use slideshare myself incidentally, and it’s excellent too: see the link to online presentations from my main website)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Thinking space

Posted by Andrew Cooper on July 19, 2008

I like blogging.  I started this blog on Christmas Eve 2006 after someone said ‘Andrew, you should write a blog.’  As you can see if you find your way back to the beginning (use the ‘next page’ link at the bottom of this one) I wrote a few posts and gave up.  My view about blogging was that it was a lot of sad people talking to themselves.  Well, it isn’t.  Or to be more precise, it is mostly people talking to themselves but there’s nothing sad about it.  And there are some blogs – in this case, a network of linked blogs – where there’s very much a many-to-many (as people say in the world of IT) interaction.

The someone I mentioned was this chap, a former local councillor who I don’t actually know that well in the real world, but with whom I’ve corresponded in various ways at various times.  As you can see, he has a very successful blog.  (I left the rather, er, short comment on it here last night – as I’ve pointed out I am completely apolitical these days).  Paul is the person who, as I mentioned in the Blog Event Horizon post, pointed out that most blogs have a readership of one.

He’s right, but I now think everyone should start a blog.  Pick a topic about which you are passionate and then just write about it.  It’s mind expanding.

Everyone is supposed to have one book inside them and in the vast majority of cases, including mine, I’m sure that’s the best place for it to stay.  I remember reading an item in the Financial Times once which said that something like 70% of all the management books that are bought are never read.  There’s a good reason for this: all their meaningful content could be conveyed on about four pages of A4.  The rest is just waffle is included because, like management consultants’ reports, they have to pass the drop test to make people feel they’re getting value for money.  Most management books are bought as decoration – they look good next to those slogans like ‘Together Everybody Achieves More’ which I mentioned.

I suppose that if I ever wrote a book it would be about people, thinking and innovation.  But I think a blog is a much better way of getting my thoughts on those topics out of my head.  I can write them quickly, link them to other resources videos, photos, other websites and so on in a way which wouldn’t be possible in a book. And noow that I fully dongled-up (see a comment I left on my new Vodafone dongle) I can blog anywhere that I can pick up a 3G signal,

One of the most useful things about all this is that expands my thinking space, to put it pretentiously.  I’ve always found that writing helps me to make connections and crystallise ideas – it’s a creative process, after all.

When I attempt to explain ‘the idea’ I’ve been discussing on and off here to other people most of them say ‘so, you want to build a website’.  That’s my fault entirely because what I do is to thrust a rather pretty, if I say so myself, mock-up of the home page of a website in front of them and they instantly start thinking about the web and not the thing I’d like them to think about.

I need another diagram or picture.  This would need to capture the ‘what’ rather than the ‘how’.  The website is a means to an end.  The end in this case is to do with linking a large group of minds together so that they can do various interesting and, I think, useful things.  I want, to be even more pretentious, to create a kind of collective thinking space in which people will learn, communicate and create while getting to understand a specific topic.  This learning, communication and creation wouldn’t take place ‘on’ the website – it takes place in people’s heads: the web is just a enabler.  And this is exactly what is already happening in places like http://scienceblogs.com.

If you don’t know how to start a blog, just go to http://www.wordpress.com – it’s very easy.  Once you’re up and running the next thing to do is to start writing, but it has – I think – to be about a passion.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Follow the energy

Posted by Andrew Cooper on July 18, 2008

There are two activities which I have heard described as being ‘the most fun you can have with your clothes on’.  One of them is gliding.  It certainly is enormous fun – until about 11 years ago I flew gliders at Lasham Gliding Club in Hampshire.

During my last few years at Lasham I owned a third share in a glider called an ASW20.  Let’s pause for a moment and look at one of those doing its stuff.  This is what it’s like inside the cockpit when you’re thermalling – using rising air to gain height  The beeping noise is the variometer (an instrument which tells you whether you are in rising air or descending).  Because it’s quite important to look through the window, as it’s not called,  to ensure that you don’t bump into any other gliders, an audible signal is used.  When the pitch rises the glider is climbing, when it falls it’s either sinking or not rising so quickly.

Here’s what an ASW 20 (and some other types of glider) looks like from the outside.  (If you want to save some of your valuable time, I’ve just noticed that you can play both videos at the same time.)

That may not be your idea of fun but we’re all different, which is a point to which I’ll return in a moment.

If you want to fly any distance in a glider, you need to learn how to exploit the energy contained in thermals.  I once read that a British Standard thermal consists of roughly 40,000 tons of rising air, so it’s not very surprising that when you stick your highly aerodymanic half-ton glider into one it’s pushed upwards.  And I mean pushed – when you fly into a strong thermal in a glider you certainly don’t need the vario to tell you that you’re going up.  I once remember being in a strong thermal with a hawk. He was much better at it than I was, obviously, but we flew in circles for maybe a minute eyeing each other: pure magic … anyway I’d better get to my point before I hit my 500 word cut-off.

Here’s some of what I wrote in my introduction to the Mindworks Approach, using gliding as an analogy:

‘Cross country flying in a glider isn’t like powered flying: we rarely fly ‘as the crow flies’.  Instead, we ‘follow the energy’.  This means that we look for thermals  (masses of rising air which will keep the glider aloft) and plan our route to make the best use of them.  Often thermals don’t lie on the direct track along which you want to fly, and it is necessary to take a detour or even to simply ‘mark time’ by flying in circles until the conditions ahead improve. ‘

When you are developing an idea it’s just like this.  Some people are sources of energy.  They typically say ‘great, and…’ and then go on to think of ways of improving the idea you are discussing and spin off in new directions.  They provide lift.  Other people say ‘yes, but…’ or just ‘but’ or ‘no, that will never work’.  In gliding the opposite of lift is called ‘sink’ and talking to some people about ‘the idea’ I’ve been hinting at here certainly gives me a sinking feeling.

But – and here’s a vital point – it’s very important to talk to both kinds of people.  A long glider flight (my longest was over six hours) inevitably consists of periods of flying in both lift and sink.   And although flying in lift is great fun, and you need to learn how to seek it out, dealing with the sink is just as important.

Engineers are always good people to talk to.  As I’ve already noted, I like engineers.  They are practical, can-do types who can really test your thinking.  They don’t like bull-shit, to be frank.

When I fly back and forth to Africa it comforts me greatly that the aircraft that make those magical journeys possible are built by practical people who test ideas and don’t put up with bull-shit.  I really don’t want them to be zany lateral thinkers who say things like ‘hey, let’s try gluing the wings on instead of making them integral to the structure’ and ‘that’s great, and why don’t we try using Blu-Tak?!’.  That would be a bad thing.

So, as I say, developing an idea is exactly like gliding.  You need to follow the energy otherwise you’d get nowhere.  But you really do have to deal with the sink as well, and learn from the experience.

More on gliding, engineers. and adaptors versus innovators later.

Oh yes.  The other activity that’s been described as the most fun you can have with your clothes on?  It’s creative thinking.  I agree with that thought as well: very difficult to choose between the two, but the latter is a heck of a lot less expensive.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »