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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.

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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 …….

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