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Archive for August, 2008

Brainies Innovation Awards – Latest Entry

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 27, 2008

Time is running out for entries to the Mindworks Brainies Awards.  All you have to do is post a comment or email me with your favourite innovation and you’ll have the chance to win Mindworks products plus free consultancy/coaching time – see the Innovation Awards tab for more details.

The most recent entry arrived by email while we were away in deepest Dorset.  With great originality Gary Reynolds from Cheltenham has nominated…

‘Lying. The ability knowingly to tell or otherwise communicate untruth. Not because lying has any virtue, but because it represents a Big-Bang-like inflation of the range and abilities of the human mind-brain kit. I don’t mean it occurred with Big Bang rapidity, but that once in place the expansion of potential was of comparable relative magnitude.

In order to lie, it is necessary to have a mental model of the world, and ability to communicate. There’s evidence many species have these. However, the necessary equipment for lying also includes:

  1. Awareness at some level that the mental model is a model;
  2. Awareness that the model could be other than it is, therefore that the world/universe could be other than it is;
  3. Possession of a theory of mind, i.e. that others maintain mental models of the world;
  4. Understanding that mental models can be shaped by things other than input form the “real” world, including deliberate manipulation;
  5. Understanding that actions are influenced by these mental models as much as by the real world.
  6. Ability to project a model of circumstances achieved if others respond to their manipulated model rather than the “real” world, in other words, the ability to model a universe/world different to that which exists in the immediate present, and to act to bring it about.

The ability to mentally remodel the world brings with it the realisation that the actual world, objects and situations in it, can also be remodelled in actuality. Whether the remodelling e.g. shaping sticks and stones for envisaged tasks – preceded the mental remodelling ability or evolved together, I wouldn’t dream of speculating.

But I reckon the ability to lie is a useful signifier for the kit of mental innovation that enabled our species to take off. What the landing will be like is a different question.’

What an excellent nomination.  There’s no doubt that the first lie must have seemed like an astonishing innovation.  Presumably an early homo sapien (or possible neanderthal, given the emerging findings suggesting they might have been brighter than us) decided one day that he’d tell a deliberate untruth – “Look, there’s a saber-toothed tiger behind you!” or similar.  It must have been something of a revelation to his audience – perhaps the first joke was invented at the same time?

Lies have certainly played a part in making the world a better place, so the first lie – at least – certainly counted as an innovation. Ronald Reagan huge strategic lie about his Star Wars missile defence strategy probably led to the end of the (first) cold war and the Overlord operation included a number of bare faced lies about where D-Day landings were targetted.

As regular readers will know, I’ll be selecting the winning innovation randomly so all entrants stand an equal chance of winning so get those nominations in asap.

A liar

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Back and blogging again

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 25, 2008

Well, Dorset was very pleasant indeed as you can see from the photo.  But I’m now back, recharged and blogging again.

View from the farmhouse in which we stayed in deepest Dorset.

View from the farmhouse in which we stayed in deepest Dorset.

While I was away I wrote (as in ‘with a pen, in a notebook’) a short review of Here Comes Everybody (see numerous previous posts) for Newbury Library’s newsletter, Bookworm.  Mrs Mindworks, who works at Newbury Library, suggested this.

I’ve set up another WordPress blog so that I can introduce readers of the newsletter to some of the social media that Shirky mentions, together with some of his reference sources.  You can find the blog via www.cognitivesurplus.net, if you’re interested in finding out more about the book.  I’ll be adding more material and links over the next couple of days.  Incidentally, the review won’t be published in the newsletter until at least next month.

More news re. developments on a number of projects I’m working on, including my retail experiment, will follow later this week.

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Twitter inflation

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 14, 2008

I’ve never really got into Twitter, not least because it won’t search through the 600 odd addresses in my Gmail contact list to tell me about other people I know who are already registered (see ongoing correspondence at the Twitter help forum).  I’ve just received an email explaning that they are no longer distributing tweets (or are they chirps?) via SMS as the costs have become unsustainable.  I was wondering how their business model worked.

I’m looking for a self-hosted version of Twitter which could have a number of applications locally.  One of them would be providing the basis for an emergency communications network, which is something I’ve been thinking about as a result of the work I’m doing on an emergency plan (see previous posts).  If anyone knows of an SMS based many-to-many broadcast system, just like Twitter, I’d be interested to hear about it.  Am going to talk to a couple of mobile comms suppliers (we have quite a big one right here in Newbury, of course) today to find out what they offer but if there are public domain systems it would be good to know about alternatives.

An email or comment would be much appreciated.

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Yet another idea for the Whitehall Innovation Hub

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 13, 2008

Based on the responses I’ve been getting via email, I think it’s fair to say that few people think that the government should be spending more than it does already on management consultants.

So, what’s to be done?  Well, how about a dose of wikinomics?  It’s certainly taken off in a big way in the private sector so I think it’s time to try it in the public sector.

How would a wikinomics model of management consultancy work?  I think it would be very straightforward. Government departments would set up wikis describing problems they wanted solved, new systems they’d like set up, Olympic games from which they’d like lessons learned,  and so on.

Anyone – members of the public, experts, academics, freelance consultants, civil servants and so on – could pitch in with ideas for dealing with whatever is published on the wiki.

Some responses might solve the problem then and there (‘I’ve seen that problem before, and this is how it was fixed’ or ‘Here’s one way you could build that new agency that ministers have dreamed up…’ or ‘You’re describing the symptoms and not the problem’) and so on.  In my experience, it’s the thinking that goes on before management consultants are hired that’s often the problem: organisations dig theselves in before they really know exactly what they want to do.  In other cass, it would be necessary to bring in outside help but only after things had been thought through properly.

Worth a try, isn’t it?  Could save millions.  Open source consultancy might be another name for it.  Tapping into that cognitive surplus once again and exploiting the fact that social media reduce transaction costs to virtually nothing.  Think of all that spare thinking capacity that’s currently wasted which could be brought into play.

A barrier to all this is that it might leave ministers with very little to do.  Politicians pretty much agree on what I call the ‘whats’ – we should all be healthier, wealthier, wiser and safer.  So they have to differentiate themselves from one another by coming up with headline grabbing ‘hows’.  In other words, they have to specify what they are going to change before they’ve even thought it through properly. ‘Let’s reduce terrorist attacks by forcing everyone to buy ID cards’ for example ‘the terrorists will never be able to think of a way around that!’.  (I think the ‘what’ for ID cards may have changed since the almost-certainly-disatrous system was proposed.)  If the Daily Mail thinks a particular how is a good thing that’s what we’re going to get.

It’s not politicians fault that they have to tinker randomly with headline grabbing and often ill thought through hows. That’s how the system works: it incentivises tinkering.  If the public were really involved in working out the hows for themselves – via open source consultancy – how on earth would politiicans distinguish themselves from one another?  It’d probably all come down to having good hair.

Incidentally, a poll currently online here asking the question ‘Do you believe there is sufficient IT expertise within government …. to deliver egovernmentand trans-government (sic.) ambitions?’.  The overwhelming response is ‘not bloody likely’, or stats to that effect.  Let’s hope that whoever is responsible for fixing the problem has read the NAO and PAC reports which point out that a good way of bridging the defecit would be not to hire yet more consultants.  It just ups the internal cognitive deficit, as we’ve already agreed.

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Watch this – it’s brilliant!

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 13, 2008

There’s are lots more about social media (blogs, Twitter, social bookmarking Linkedin etc.) where this came from – search for Common Craft at Youtube.  The producer’s website is here.

I found this one particularly helpful.

Wikis aren’t only useful for organising camping trips.  They’d be an excellent way of organising our school fete, which looks like this from www.stbartspa.net courtesy of, er, me.

and Newbury Carnival, another hobby of mine, see the old-tech (ie non-wordpress) site I put together and ran here.   We didn’t run a carnival this year, but a project wiki could certainly help us to do one in 2009.  (Turned out to be a good thing we didn’t do it this year: there were massive thunderstorms in Newbury at exactly the time at which the parade would have been fully under way).

You could probably do other things with them as well so have a go at www.wetpaint.com: it’s currently free and you can build your very own site in 5 minutes (4, perhaps, if you’re pushed).  I recommend playing with the templates – there’s some very powerful stuff in there.

PS here’s a Blogger (boo!) blog I set up for Newbury Carnival.  If we run one next year I’ll set up a site in WordPress (yay!) with a Wetpaint wiki to coordinate the project. Handy stuff this social media, isn’t it?

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Competitor analysis

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 11, 2008

It’s easy to poke fun at this sort of thing, isn’t it?

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Desert Island Quotes

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 11, 2008

What ten quotes would you take with you to a desert island?

Well it’s been a difficult choice Kirsty, but here they are in no particular order.

Always the more beautiful answer who asks the more beautiful question.e e cummings

“Theories should be as simple as possible, but no simpler”. Albert Einstein’s restatement of Occam’s Razor Although he is often quoted as saying this, his actual words weren’t quite so elegant: see the quote starting “It can scarcely denied that all theory..” on this page.

“Let’s pretend it isn’t and see what happens.” Rabbit’s reply to Winnie the Pooh one morning when Pooh happened along and said “Hello Rabbit, is that you?”

“I think it would be a good idea.” Mahatma Ghandhi, when asked what he thought of Western civilization during a visit to the UK.  (There’s a wonderful list of Ghandi quotes at wikiquote.)

“For every complex problem, there’s a solution that’s neat, elegant and wrong.” H L Menken (Again, this is an often quoted paraphrase of the original.  But it’s still a good quote.)

“The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.” Leonardo da Vinci discussing cognitive dissonance 500 years before the term was coined.

“Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts.” William Shakespeare, prologue to Henry Vth.  I think that prologue is wonderful – the bard himself (probably, but it doesn’t matter if it isn’t) inviting us to use our imagination.

“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
“That’s some catch, that catch-22,” he observed.
“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.”

Doc Danneka explaining why Yossarian can’t leave the air force on the grounds of claimed insanity in the wonderful strange loop that is Joseph Heller’s Catch 22.

“Never give in — never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”  Winston Churchill, who never read a book about management in his life or hired a single management consultant, demonstrating what leadership is all about in a speech given at Harrow School on 29th October 1941

‘If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don’t bother to try to teach them. Instead, give them a tool the use of which will lead them to new ways of thinking.’ Buckminster Fuller

And if I could only take one, Kirsty?  Probably the first one.

A luxury?  Would it be possible to have WordPress together with a supply of laptops and a fast broadband link?  Only if I promised not to use it to communicate with anyone else? Yep, that’s absolutely fine.

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Not Sir Humphrey

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 10, 2008

I’ve been thinking about my relatively brief (11 years seems relatively brief to me now) but interesting civil service career quite a lot recently.

The organisation I joined was the now defunct Central Computer Agency which was part of the also defunct Civil Service Department.  The CSD was the civil service’s civil service and it was uncannily like the fictional Ministry of Administrative Affairs presided over by the magnificent Sir Humphrey Appleby in the BBC TV series ‘Yes Minister’ which, together with its sequel ‘Yes Prime Minister’ was screened in the 1980s, starting 4 years before I resigned.

Here is Sir Humphrey, played by the late Nigel Hawthorne, in full flow.

The Civil Service Department was abolished one Friday lunchtime (I remember it was a Friday lunchtime because we’d been out to a pub and returned to hear the news) by Margaret Thatcher who had rather fallen out with our two Sir Humprheys (we had both a Permanent Secretary and a Second Permanent Secretary, so great was the load of administration of the government’s administrative machine which then, I believe, employed about half a million people) over pay.  She sacked (er, prematurely retired) both of them and merged us with the Treasury.  This was pretty much inevitable because a study carried out by two senior people from each department had, not long before, concluded that under no circumstances should the two be merged.

We duly moved out of the Old Admiralty Building – a very impressive esablishment which you can see here (the office I shared was in the top left hand corner and had a very pleasant view of the Mall, from the window of which which Mrs Mindworks and I had watched the parade associated with the wedding of Diana Spencer and Prince Charles in 1981) to the even more impressive Treasury building (known then, at least, as GOGGS – Government Offices Great George Street) which you can see here, thus lengthening my bike ride from Kentish Town, where we were living at the time, by about half a mile.   My – again shared – office in GOGGS actually overlooked Whitehall (on the first floor, close to the second bus stop on the map) and had a very good view of St Stephen’s Tower – aka Big Ben.  If there had been any doubt in my mind up to that point that I was a Civil Servant, there certainly wasn’t with a view like that.

Shortly after we had unpacked our boxes we were summoned to a welcome party organised by my bosses’ boss.  He was also known by his initials: FERB but he’s better known today as Lord Butler (see this for a rather fetching photo and his full title) as he chaired the Butler inquiry into the causes of the Iraq war.  As you can see from the article, FERB had about as spectacular a civil service career as it’s possible to have.  The wikipedia article also points out that he was (and, as far as I know, still is) fanatical about sport.

He also had the brain the size of a planet.   One of my first tasks after the merger was to act as secretary, in effect, to two senior people who carried out a study of the now enlarged Treasury’s open structure (i.e. big cheeses).  This was a facinating exercise and at the end of it we met FERB in his office and delivered the report.  He read it then and there, reclining in his chair with his feet on his desk, making the odd comment and then handing it over and that was that.

Butler was a Mandarin of the old school.   Dedicated to public service, very much a member of the establishment (I think he was related to Rab Butler, who is mentioned in the wikipedia article) and very effective.  As the article points out, he worked directly for Margaret Thatcher twice and was working with her on night of  the Brighton bomb as she mentions in her memoirs.

I certainly didn’t vote for Mrs T – I was notionally a socialist back then: now I’m completely apolitical as I’ve pointed out here before.  But I, and other like-minded people I knew, thought that the changes she drove through in the civil service were necessary and beneficial.  Her view of senior civil servants like FERB was, I think, very different to that of Tony Blair’s.  She respected the views of the Mandarins and, apparently, enjoyed working with them.  Blair just saw them as an encumbrance and he and his New Labour colleagues brought in legions of political advisers and outsiders, including unprecedented numbers of management consultants,  to ‘get things done’.   Not a good thing, in my view, but if UK politicians want a politicised senior civil service – like that in the USA – they need to be open about it.  I have a nasty feeling that New Labour have attempted to introduce a massive change by stealth.  I’m not a political scientist and may well be wrong, but if I’m right I don’t think it’s good news.

On that note, here’s Sir Humphrey laying it on the line for Prime Minister Hacker:

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Form follows function

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 10, 2008

Form following function

Form following function

Wikipedia is a wonderful thing.  A while back I thought it was going a bit awry: some articles were getting out of hand and were beginning to look as if they’d been drafted by committee (which, of course, they had in a way) but most of the articles I look at these days are really excellent.

I started off this post thinking about another project and typed “form follows function wiki” into my google pop-up window.  This is the article.

I knew the phrase had its origins in architecture and the article identifies two architects associated with it.  It’s worth quoting Louis Sullivan’s statement of his credo:

“It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic,
Of all things physical and metaphysical,
Of all things human and all things super-human,
Of all true manifestations of the head,
Of the heart, of the soul,
That the life is recognizable in its expression,
That form ever follows function. This is the law.”

Gosh, there’s a lot in there don’t you think?  “All true manifestations of the head”!?  And I love the idea that “this is the law”.  Presumably he means a natural law, but the idea that it should be an actual law is more interesting.  Imagine a law which decreed that form should follow function.  Lawyers would have a field day.  Car designers would be prosecuted for adding bits onto their designs which had no obvious function and their defence lawyers would say ‘it doesn’t actually do anything, but it looks nice and that’s part of the car’s function”.

Anyway, the best example I know of form following function in “things physical” is the modern high-performance glider.  I included youtubes of some glides in an earlier post.  They are, to my mind gorgeous machines.  Their function is to be able to fly as far and as fast as possible, simply using the energy in the atmosphere.  The fact that they look the way they do has everything to do with the best aerodynamic form and nothing to do with aesthetics.  If there was an uglier way of increasing the efficiency of a glider, glider pilots would fly uglier machines.  The ASG 29 pictured top right has a ‘glide angle’ of 52:1. This means that it will fly 52 thousand feet – 10 miles – horizontally while only losing 1000 feet in altitude.  That’s very efficient.

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As it’s Friday …

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 8, 2008

… and we’re all winding down for the weekend, I thought I’d share some photos with you.  (Only two , don’t panic!) The first is my current desktop image.  It was taken early in July during a guided walk around this farm/research centre, which is a couple of miles from here.  English countryside at its best, in my view.

I’ve only ever wanted to live in two places, really.  Italy (of which more in a moment) is one and England is the other.  Southern England in particular.  This spot is just over 60 miles from London, but – like many places around here – it’s very easy to get away from the crowds even in this overcrowded island.

I’ve been told, by Richard in fact – you probably don’t know him, but he’s just about to head off on holiday to Italy and is something of an Italophile – that I’d actually hate living in Italy because it’s so difficult to get anything done.  I say that I’d forgive the Italians their bureaucracy because it’s part of what makes them what they are.  Plus, they do everything else so well.

This is one of my favourite photos.  It was taken on the Spanish Steps in Rome in the Autumn of 2006 during a family break.  You can make up your own story about what they are plotting and how the old guy slipped into the group.

OK, forgive me, just one more.  I took lots of photos sitting on the steps with Sam that late afternooon in the autumn sunshine, while Mrs Mindworks and number 1 child went shopping nearby.   No, they didn’t go into Gucci – they in fact ended up buying something from a chain we have here in Newbury.  However one of the glitterati – I don’t know who, but possibly a Beckham – did turn up in a limo to shop at Gucci and the car was instantly mobbed by a crowd.  We sat there for about 45 mins watching the chaos that ensued in the narrow Via Condotti as numerous police cars turned up to help sort things out, thereby making things a lot worse.

Most of the photos were taken with the camera at its maximum zoom – the subjects were quite a distance away. Again, with this one, you can make up your own story.

There’s something about her expression – the story could almost be a novel, couldn’t it?

Have a great weekend.

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This really would be …

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 7, 2008

inconvenient.

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A JFDI for the Whitehall Innovation Hub

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 7, 2008

Do this. No messing about.  Hundreds of people would enter if you set the prize at the right level.  You’d get lots of well thought-through virtually free ideas (and some dross, obviously).  I, and lots of people I know I’m sure, would certainly send you some interesting ideas.  Let civil servants enter as well. Get people from CISCO to advise you how to do it, then get some bright civil servants (not consultants or other outsiders) to run the scheme as they’ll learn a lot as well and their learning will stay inside government.  Also, read Clay Shirky on the company which ran a competition for advertisements and saved millions they’d otherwise spent on advertising agencies.

No need for much discussion, is there.  Definitely a JFDI.  Tap into that cognitive surplus.

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Follow the money

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 7, 2008

You’ll recall the fellow management consultant with whom I discussed the negative value of Big Consultancy at the weekend.  Well, she’s been advised by a colleague to remove the post in which she defended the value of Big Consultancy (small consultancy is perfectly fine, you understand, particularly when their job involves equipping people to think more effectively).  IMO I comprehensively demolished her argument (which was that she can firefight service on failing projects in a way which public servants themselves can’t) by pointing out that, if the situation she described is correct, it’s because the public service has become over dependent on Big Consultants and this has reduced it’s own capabiity.  I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about the fact that she has, in fact, deleted the post in question and my responses.  (Frankly, I think it’s because she couldn’t counter my argument and has nothing to do with her possibly losing her job.)

As I said in my earlier post, I fully understand why Big Consultants do what they do (it’s called ‘body shopping’ in the trade – selling in as many consultants as you can to work on a project).  They’re in business to make money – that’s what businesses are for.  If a customer is willing to pay you £3bn a year, and you’re in business, it would be insane not to take their money.  No  problem with that.  What I do have a problem with is the cognitive deficit it creates.  Hire other people to do your thinking for you, and you’re not thinking yourself. Eventually you forget how to do it altogether.  Rather like the humans in the new Pixar film, I understand.

I’m not going to go into all the ins and outs of this – of course it makes sense to hire people with specific expertise you don’t want in-house and of course you’ll have to pay market rates for that help.  But the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office are concerned about a system in which a government department is prepared to shell out £9.7m to build a website and £80K to learn the lessons from the Sydney Olympics (see various earlier posts).  Something is seriously wrong there.  Let’s hope someone is busy fixing it.

A PWC office

A PWC office

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Making time

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 6, 2008

One of the best things, to my mind, about being self employed is that it enables you to make time.

This isn’t about time management, it’s about having control over your day.  For as long as I can remember I’ve only needed about 5 hours sleep.  I sleep very deeply, drop off almost the moment I go to bed and, roughly five hours later, I wake up and start my commute to work.  This involves going downstairs, making a cup of coffee, having a brief conversation with Sheba (see below) who has spent the night in the kitchen and she is invariably only interested in talking about food  so it’s not much of a converation) walking through the door from the hall into the rear of the garage which is my ‘office’, nodding to Negative Bastard (see below), firing up the Dell (very fast, on my Tesco Dell) and getting to work. It’s now 5.08 and the scene before me looks like this, although I’d only got to the word ‘downstairs’ when I took the photo.  Negative is glaring at me from the other side of the desk, no doubt wondering when I’m going to stop blogging and get on with some revenue generating work.

As you can see, I’ve already consumed more than half a cup of coffee.  This, to my mind – and I’ve been doing it for over 20 years – is the only way to work.  Blogging has been part of my getting-up ritual since early July when I started the current run of posts.  I’ve found that it’s a good way to get my brain in gear.  I’ll write for 20-30 minutes, often about something that I’m going to start work on after I’ve finished dumping my thoughts onto the blog, get some exercise for 10 minutes (that involves finding my way to the ‘gym’ which is behind a bank of bookshelves that partition this off bit of the garage from the rest) and then come back to the office again.

Then I’m properly at work.  I once read some advice on working from home.  The author said that the thing to do was to get up, have breakfast etc, put on your suit and pick up your briefcase, walk around the block and then come back to the house – presumably imagining to yourself that you were arriving at the office – and sit down to work.  Well, whatever worked for him I suppose.  I’m sitting here in shorts and a T-shirt and the very idea of putting on a suit, walking around in the drizzle at 5.15 and then sitting here in front of the Dell is faintly ludicrous.   More than faintly, actually.

The working ‘from’ home is important here.  I don’t always work at home.  Yesterday I drove (I would have cycled, but iit was raining and I’m a wimp) to Thatcham to discuss the work I’m doing there (see below) with my client, went to Waitrose in Newbury for another meeting in the cafe to discuss Explore China and various other things, came home to do some work, had another meeting in pub in Newbury at 7.30 to discuss some websites and then Jacquie and I met some friends in yet another pub (during which we also discussed Explore China) went to bed at 11.30 and now I’m back at work again.

There’s more to say on the joys of working from home, but I strongly recommend that the Whitehall Innovation Hub investigate the possibility that as many civil servants as possible are given the opportunity to work like this.  It’s perfectly doable for those who can make some space to do so (with current technology, even many of those in front-office jobs could do it) and I guarantee that the civil service will become more innovative if they can get it right.  There are some obvious barriers, but many of these could be overcome fairly easily.  And there there are lots of strong bridges which can be exploited (to use the terms from my very own 9 step process, copies of which together with various other interesting things, including online support will be on sale online very soon).

Incidentally, re. revenue generation, I’ve been in touch with the local newspaper to find out whether they’d like a column/series of articles about thinking and working together in groups (ie innvoation, management etc.) based around some of the material I’ve been discussing here, but obviously without the personal elements. I.e. I was trying to get paid for blogging.  Seems they aren’t interested, and I really can’t blame them.  It would fit into their business supplement about as well as my nuclear powered tea pot invention (also, see below) would fit into the real world.

On with some work, then in a couple of hours I might stand in the front garden watching people heading off to do real jobs and thinking about how more productive their lives would be (and how much less congestion there would be on the roads and trains) if they could only do this, at least for a couple of days a week.

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Moving into retail – update

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 5, 2008

Just a few more bits and pieces to put in place and we’ll be at ignition sequence start for my experiment in retail.  Meanwhile, here’s a sneak preview of the cover sheet for the Mindworks Approach Starter Pack which will soon be available to purchase (along with by-the-hour online coaching, a Booster Pack and a surprise Mindworks new offering) via …. well I’ll leave the ‘via’ until I’ve made a final decision on whether to use the particular channel I have in mind.  Watch this space.

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Some thoughts for the Whitehall Innovation Hub

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 5, 2008

Thanks to a post on Simon’s blog (Simon, as you’ll recall from earlier posts, is WordPress’s representative on planet Earth and, like me, a former civil servant though not quite so former as I am) I now know that something called the Whitehall Innovation Hub has been created at the National School of Government (or the Ecole Nationale D’Administration, as I think they’d like to be thought of, having apparently downgraded themselves from a college to a school via various name changes)

Simon’s post was the fifth hit on Google when I searched for this just now – see this – the ranking may have changed since I searched, but the top four hits were from egovmonitor.com, publictechnology.net and Simon.  So Simon, a freelance web consultant who lives just down the road from me, is in the top three organisations to break the news at the place most people will go to find out what’s going on – Google.  That says something.

Anyway, as this blog is entirely about people and their ability to innovate, I feel a public duty to throw my half-pence worth into the debate.  I often ask people what they would do if they were running their organisation (the results are always interesting, particularly if you ask them privately and promise not to tell anyone) so this is what I’d do if I was running the Hub.

  1. Stop doing all the things which stop people innovating. Large organisations are virtually designed to stop people innovating and as the civil service (aka Whitehall) is a very large organisation, it’s full of things that stop people innovating.  There’s a good reason for this: if everyone innovated all the time life would be chaotic: everything would continuously be changing  and no one would know what the heck was going on.  So ignore that first sentence.  But I really would look hard at barriers to innovation and find ways of unblocking them.  It’s not rocket science.
  2. I’d also look hard at Whitehall’s tendency to hire other people to do its thinking.  I’ve banged on enough about the £3bn public sector bill for consultants in one year – £1.8bn of which was in Whitehall – which raised the PAC’s collective eyebrows somewhat.  But it’s simply a fact that if you hire other people to think for you, you aren’t  doing the thinking.  And that stops you from learning.  Innovation is largely about learning, so this is a Bad Thing.  We need civil servants to be innovating themselves, and given the tsunami of money that’s been thrown at consultants, I doubt whether they’ve had much practice recently.  They don’t even get to firefight, and firefighting provides massive potential for learning.  I linked to this management consultant’s blog over the weekend.  She argues that civil servants can’t firefight  so someone has to pay her £1000 a day to do it for them.  Big missed opportunity.
  3. Next (or, more likely, at the same time) I’d talk to some innovators.  I wouldn’t sit in Sunningdale, lovely place though it is, thinking great thoughts about innovation, consulting leading academics, chewing the cud with NESTA, IDeA, the Design Council and the rest (although I’d certainly have a chat with them and ask them to write their advice on one side of A4).  I’d be out and about, finding innovators at all levels in the government machine and videoing them with my Flip camera (did I mention I have a Flip camera?) to find out how they were able to do it.  Then I’d post the interviews to Youtube so that everyone else could find out.  That would be both simple and fun.
  4. The Hub is going to look at incentives, so I’d have to think about that.  I’ve touched on this before.  Really good innovators should have the incentive of earning a lot of money.  That usually works as an incentive.  They could even, as I suggested in an earlier post, earn more than their bosses.  Happens all the time elsewhere.  So I’d look at that idea too. And I do mean innovators and not inventors – see below.
  5. I’d think hard about creating a career civil service again.  This sounds dreadfully old fashioned, but I’d re-read Arie de Geus’s The Living Company to remind myself that it isn’t.  De Gues (a senior manager at Shell for many years, not a guru, consultant or member of a think tank) uses the analogy of companies as organisms to analyse why some companies (unlike most) have particularly long lives.  He even refers to Richard Dawkins (who was excellent on Channel 4 last night, I thought, not least because he pretty much kept away from the whole God thing).  Many of the best companies grow and nurture their own talent, rather than hiring it in.  The logic for doing so, both in terms of cost effectiveness and building the internal capability to manage/innovate is, to my mind, irrefutable.  I think the Public Accounts Committee agrees with me.
  6. I’d get on and do some innovating in my own team. Act as a role model.  I’d run the whole thing online and not have an office.  As I’ve already established on this blog, 99.8% of people don’t have good ideas in offices and the other .2% only say they do to impress their bosses.  I don’t have an office already (unless you count the converted end of my garage, from which I write, and it’s much too pleasant and useful to be called an office) so I’ve got a head start.  I once met a brilliant local government direct services manager who didn’t have an office either.  He spent all his time out and about with customers, suppliers and his people.  On the few occasions he went into HQ he used a spare desk or an empty meeting room. He also had some really good ways of managing: for example, he asked all the people who worked for him in managerial jobs to improve at least one thing they or their teams were doing every month.  That’s innovation and that’s the sort of person I’d want to video with my Flip.  Simple.
  7. I’m going to stop at 1000 words (post posting note: this turned out to be wrong), and WordPress is telling me that that was 902 so I’ll have to be quick.  Above all I’d find ways of tapping into what Clay Shirky calls the ‘cognitive surplus’.  Watch the youtube at this post to find out what he means.  And I don’t just mean the cognitive surplus of civil servants, although they must have some surplus, what with all those consultants doing all the thinking and that. I mean the cognitive surplus of the public – us – the people that civil servants are serving.  Customers can innovate too.  A very good way of tapping into cognitive surplus is to use the same technology that I’m using to communicate these blindingly obvious thoughts, as Mr Shirky also – rather brilliantly, in my view – points out.
  8. Lastly I’d work hard to stop ministers – and Prime Ministers – from meddling and try to persuade them to lead instead.  For reasons I’ll have to mention in another post, this could be problematic.  But imagine if Gordon Brown had made the speech shown here?  If our PM had been President during the Apollo programme he would, every morning at 6.00am, have phoned Von Braun to ask how it was going and to offer his own thoughts on booster separation technology and the design of the LEM.  Enough said.

I’m sure  that all this will have occurred to the seconded academics and Design Council, NESTA and IDeA people etc. who make up the Hub, but at least I’ve got it off my chest.

PS – have just emailed a link to this to Clay Shirky.  If the hubbers get him to talk to them – as I think they should – I think I deserve a cut of his fee, don’t you? :0

Posted in consultancy, creativity, government, innovation, Network of minds, thinking | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Mwalimu

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 4, 2008

Julius Kambarage Nyerere

Julius Kambarage Nyerere

The late Julius Nyerere was, by any measure, a great man.  He led Tanzania (the former Tanganyika and Zanzibar) through the painful process of gaining independence and was its President from 1964-1985.

Nyerere had a very clear vision for the new Republic.  Based on a version ofAfrican Socialism, he wanted Tanzania to stand on its own feet and be largely independent from the world’s economic system, which he thought would corrupt the country and lead it in the wrong direction.  (There are, I believe, some similarities between his vision and that of Eamon de Valera for Ireland.)  Although the dream of an independent Tanzania proved impossible to achieve (one measure of Nyerere’s greatness is that he said, later in his life, ‘I was wrong’ – try counting the number of leaders who have the courage to say that, and you probably won’t need all the fingers on one of your hands), Nyerere achieved many great things.  In particular, he bound the country together by establishing Kiswahili (it means ‘language of the coast’) as a shared means of communication across his vast country, binding together over 100 tribes into a single nation.  (It’s not quite that simple, Zanzibar’s relationship to the rest of the country is problematic, but I’m not going to spin off into that – the fact remains that Tanzania has, unlike its neigbours, been at peace with itself since Independence.)

I’m thinking about Tanzania this morning because I hope to hear today that the mother of all contract negotiations has, at last, been concluded by my friends and colleagues Vipul and Tom out in Dar es Salaam. What a wonderful name for a city that is, isn’t it?  Almost poetry: it means abode or haven of peace.  ‘Peaceful’ is not the word that would spring to mind if you were suddenly to be transported to its vibrant city centre, but it certainly has its peaceful spots – the botanical gardens, for example, and particularly its spectacular Indian Ocean shores.  You really must go there some day.  For now, try exploring it from the air thanks to the wonders of Google MapsThis view is centred on the botanical gardens.

Nyerere, who is very much revered in Tanzania, is known by two titles. One is Baba wa Taifa (Father of the Nation) and the other is the title of this post.  Mwalimu means ‘teacher’.  Nyerere was a teacher by profession and teachers are, I think it’s fair to say, held in rather higher regard in Tanzania than they are here.  There’s another post in that idea, but I must draw this to a close.

If the mother of all contract negotations has been concluded, I’ll be heading for the haven of peace quite soon and you, reader, will be able to come along with me via this blog.  I’ll be taking my laptop, Flip camera, my digital camera and the digital voice recorder I used for the interviews here, with me so – in the moments I have to spare between working – I’ll cover the trip.  This will be fun for me and will give me a chance to try out some ideas forExplore China and also for another interesting project I’m working on closer to home.  I’ll need to be careful with my time – it’s going to be a packed and very busy – but I’ll make 30 minutes a day to do this.  Should learn a lot, I think.

One last point: in establishing Kiswahili as a common language, Nyere was helping to create a ‘network of minds’: something I’ve blogged about before and an idea that increasingly intrigues me.  More on that story later.  (Note to self: must check all the ‘more on that story laters’ below and follow them up at some point!)

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Power to the People – follow-up

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 4, 2008

Here’s my latest missive to the relative of mine with whom I’ve been discussing the ‘Power to the People’ post via email.  I’m working on a couple of projects which are to do with involving the public directly in policy formulation, so I’m not just banging on about this for the sake of it.   More on the projects in question very soon, I hope.

‘Dear L,

I think that’s probably a straw man argument.  Now that I’m nearly 53 I think I realise – as I may not have done when I was 18 – that there’s no such thing as absolute truth.  Even in science, the knowledge we have is always provisional and is likely to be proven wrong at any moment.  Al Gore called his film “An inconvenient truth”.  I suppose that was more snappy than “An inconvenient set of hypotheses about the likely causes and consequences of climate change which most climate scientists more or less agree on but are very difficult to prove in any substantive way due to the poorly understood and extremely difficult to model systems which are involved”, although that would be a more accurate title!

I once came across a paper written by an academic called Lindblom titled “The science of muddling through”.  It’s about policy formulation and planning, particularly in relation to government policies.  Lindblom argues against the ‘classical’ model of planning – decide what you want to achieve in the future, set some goals, develop policies, allocate resources etc. because, he says, it can never work.  You can never be sure what the future will bring, you can’t (particularly when you’re dealing with complex issues like public policy on, say, crime and health) be sure exactly how your policy interventions will play out and so on.  He says that a much more incremental approach is required, certainly with a goal in mind but with something much more akin to experimentation where possible.  For example, instead of implementing a policy on a national basis if you don’t know whether it will work, do some experiments first and see what happens.   In other words, you ‘muddle through’ rather than assume that you can control everything – he saw ‘muddling’ as a good thing. (There’s a good piece from yesterday’s Guardian on this – see the “Ready, fire, aim” approach to planning that’s mentioned here.)

Linblom also argued that the one thing that you should do when things are uncertain and difficult to plan is to make the whole process as open as possible, making lots of information available to people, explaining how decisions will be made, essentially being honest with those involved and treating them like grown ups.

I don’t claim that policy analysis conducted in public – using something like wikipedia, so that lots of people could get involved – is ‘the answer’ but it’s at least interesting to think about what a system like that might be like.  As I’ve noted on my blog, all political parties are saying that more power should be handed to ordinary people and that they should be more involved in the governance of the country.  They are doing this because they know that many people are very cynical about politicians and politics and they think that getting people involved again might change this.

I don’t know whether you heard Lisa Jardine’s ‘Point of View’ talk on Friday but it touched on the dangers of adversarial debate particularly when it’s exaggerated out of all proportion by the media.  There’s a transcript of it here.  I agree with her, and I also think there’s a better way, although I’m not so naive that I think that a ‘better way’ ever be adopted.  I just think that some things – like humanity’s response to climate change – are much too important to leave to short-termist, self-centred politicians.

Andrew’

That last statement is unfair: I’ve met a fair number of politicians, at all levels, and indivdually their committment to public service often shines through.   However, the system forces them to think short term: if you’re going to stay in the job, you have to win votes.   Also, my generally positive view of MPs has been somewhat downgraded following the revelations about their expenses claims earlier in the year.  There was a nasty whiff of corruption in the air and one or two should certainly have been prosecuted, in my view.

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Negative Bastard

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 3, 2008

While I’m taking photos, I thought I’d introduce you to Negative Bastard.

Every organisation needs a negative bastard or two. It keeps the rest of us ‘half glass full’ types on our toes.  I’m fairly sure that the Huge Corporation would employ professional negative bastards to wander around ensuring all the new ideas its people generate are subjected to extreme levels of ridicule.  This would help Huge’s innovators to develop their objection handling strategies.

Being self-employed I obviously don’t have any negative bastard colleagues, so I bought the one pictured below eleven years ago to fill the position. He was actually part of a job lot from the Warner Brothers store at Gatwick Airport. They’d discontinued the line and sold me about twenty of them for a knock-down price. I was running some innovation workshops which were being held at the Gatwick Hilton (the project for a large multi-national I mention on my biog page), and I awarded negative bastards to participants who were particularly positive during the events.  I hope that they’ve taken good care of them.  (This sounds as though I’m making it up, doesn’t it?  Well I’m not.)

As you can see, Negative Bastard certainly looks the part. The small goat standing next to him usually lives on top of one of my modest collection of sand timers and was sent to me by a charity after my sister bought me a ‘goat for Africa’ birthday present, although there was some confusion at the time and I thought, not having properly read the instructions, that the present was the plastic goat.

You can see what I mean by negative, can’t you?

Negative Bastard does speak from time-to-time (actually it’s me that does the talking, but don’t tell anyone or you’ll spoil the illusion) . When he does talk he has, for obvious reasons, an extremely negative Australian accent.

If you work in a proper job and this all seems a little odd, don’t worry: it’s perfectly normal for freelance management consultants to surround themselves with virtual team members like this. (Hmmm. Sheba is looking at me right now with an ‘Oh no it isn’t’ expression on her face. In a moment I’ll tell her to get back to her job as Mindworks’ Director of Human and Non Human Resources althoughI have a feeling she rather admires the Evil Human Resources Director, Catbert, who you can see in action here. )

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Stephen Fry also likes Flips

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 3, 2008

See this.

You can see the results of my first attempt at Flipping here. It was the day after we first met and she was fresh out of the box, having flown in from the US over the weekend.  Just Flip and me on the banks of the K&A, with me mumbling sweet nothings into her mic.  Since then our relationship has blossomed.  She comes with me wherever I go and later today I’m going to screw her … sorry, Sheba interrupted me just then …. screw her onto a tripod and spend half an hour videoing something which I hope will be very special – and which will feature in my new ‘retail offering’.  More on that story later.

I expect you’d like to see her, wouldn’t you?  OK then, here she is.  Look, she’s giving you a little wave!  Bless!

PS – I’ve just noticed that Flip have a UK web site and one of these, which I came across a while ago, would be handy.

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