notes from JK

Booklog: Three Women, Daniel, To Kill a Mockingbird & The Cat Who Liked Rain

As with many friends and acquaintances I found reading hard at the start of lockdown. After a couple of months I seemed to regain my appetite so here’s what I’ve got through. I’m missing libraries now…

Three Women – Lisa Taddeo

Powerful, brave, searing, brutal. This really is a masterpiece. Written with such beauty and clarity. Some of the sentences took my breath away. 

Nobody is normal. Nothing is ordinary. These are easily said but by delving into three women’s lives in crystalline detail we learn something essential about the American woman’s experience in the 2010s. About desire, about expectation, how men and women treat each other. About the guilt and doubt imposed through one’s own thoughts of what being a good parent or partner or friend should be. 

Some may balk at the very explicit details shared from each woman’s sexual experience in this book. But as a frank expose of love and desire it only works with that level of detail. 

Truly a masterful piece of work. 

Daniel – Henning Mankell

Beautiful, heart breaking. Perspective on how we are so easily drawn into exceptionalism for our culture, language, race and way of life. And how good intentions can cause harm if we don’t respect the agency of individuals. 

To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

It’s a classic, and rightfully so. I had never read it. Now I have, and I’m glad. Powerful and beautiful. Still so relevant.

The Cat Who Liked Rain – Henning Mankell

In my obsession with Henning Mankell I’m now even reading this story he wrote for children. It’s a beautiful piece on childhood and loss – about a treasured cat going missing. I really loved it. It’s beautiful, sensitive and comforting in how it’s set in a very normal family.

notes from JK

Booklog: The World According to Star Wars & When I Die

The World According to Star Wars – Cass Sunstein

A book on what Star Wars can teach us about constitutional law, democracy and family relationships? Yes, yes and yes. Even better, it’s brilliant fun. Renowned scholar Cass Sunstein absolutely sparkles in this book where he swoops through what George Lucas’ creative process teaches us about life, how the Force relates to religion and why parents should watch Star Wars with their kids. I absolutely adored this book, it’s a real quirky gem. But I do have one bone to pick – Sunstein claims that no knowledge nor affinity for Star Wars is needed to enjoy the book. I disagree, it will make little sense if you haven’t watched all the films at least once. Indeed on reading the book I found great pleasure in re-watching them all again with new insight. Just a wonderful, unusual book from a brilliant mind.

When I Die – Phillip Gould

A short, searing book told mostly from the personal perspective of political strategist Phillip Gould as he is diagnosed with and ultimately dies from cancer. It’s emotional, wrenching at points but deeply worthwhile. This is clearly a man who loved his family, but also had a huge appetite for his work and politics. Once can sense the battles within him as he suspects his work ethic may have contributed to his illness, and threatens to distract him from precious, now definitely finite, time with his family. He mostly stays true to what he identifies as the purpose for his illness: To share the experience in a direct and moving way, to help others and change how we talk about death and dying. And of course to have the conversations and time he needs to have with those closest to him. The book closes with messages from his family and close friends. He achieved his purpose and something more. A wonderful book.

In fiction:

Women – Charles Bukowski
Brutal, unrelenting, salacious and disturbing and points. It feels incredibly real, even if it is a life one would never want to live, one feels privileged that somebody was able to capture a slice of LA lowlife as eloquently and with grit as Bukowski did.  

Agent Running in the Field – John Le Carré
There are few authors so consistently good as Le Carré. I feel completely inadequate in the presence of his writing, how can he be so good? As with the great Henning Mankell, Le Carré has a talent that borders on magic: Writing gripping tales that also expose the great issues of our time in new and powerful ways. This is what great fiction writing should do – help us grow, learn and feel in ways we could never otherwise do. It’s another masterpiece. 

notes from JK

The obvious trap

We’ve probably all been there at work: A project, product or system is blindingly, painfully wrong – the better way is obvious. For a former business partner of mine, who’d trained in hospitality, it was the dire way in which the restaurant we were eating in was running their service, presenting their food, decorating the rooms and so on. Not always the most appetising topic of conversation!

I’m certainly guilty of this too. I’ve often felt it was self-evident that prioritising sustainable modes of transport was the right thing to do for the environment, air quality and citizens’ overall benefit. Or on seeing a carbuncle horror of a legacy IT system I would be struck with how terrible it was, and how obviously better the alternative could be.

But of course what is ‘obvious’ to you or I, isn’t really that obviously better or right to everyone else. If it was, we wouldn’t still be talking about what to do with internal combustion engine cars and we wouldn’t still be discussing why that expensive enterprise software can’t recognise part time working patterns (or replace with your own favourite example).

When I reflect on my own failings in this area, I think it comes down to a failure of empathy: I make a series of incorrect assumptions which become blockers: Firstly, I assume that everyone knows about the ‘obvious’ better way and why it should be better. Secondly, in feeling ‘righteous’ about the better way I’m bringing to the conversation, I fail to listen well enough to understand why things ended up the way they are.

In my experience gross incompetence, or intentional malicious behaviour is rarely the cause. If this is genuinely the cause, tough as it can be, there are usually at least clear procedures to follow to resolve matters and hold people accountable.

Most times, however, the reality is it’s usually complicated. Most people want to do a good job when they come to work. But perhaps they work in a culture and system which doesn’t give them permission to think. Or there is a quasi-religious faith in a particular methodology which is utterly unsuited to the task in hand. In many cases, if one can put the ‘obvious’ thoughts to the back of your mind, deep listening will reveal a multitude of dynamics such as: An obsession with multi-year business cases which kills agile working dead; a failure to invest in staff development leaving teams ignorant of what works versus what sells or simply too many masters to please leading to a book-length list of requirements for a supplier.

Then the even harder task comes of challenging ourselves to let go of what we think is ‘obviously better’. In truth, for complex work, one person’s ideas will never be enough. Service users, the community and more all need to be included in the thinking, creating and discovering.

I’m not arguing against having high expectations of ourselves and our colleagues. Absolutely not, expecting the best and more from each other is great. I’m also not suggesting we should let obviously rude or abusive behaviour pass, no that needs to be challenged straight up. What I’m proposing is we might do better work if we let go of our perceived notions of ‘obvious’ so that we can hear and do better.

PS The wonderful Pen Thompson taught me to ‘never assume’. This blog shows that’s still a work in progress for me. It’s a very good rule to work from, ‘never assume’.

notes from JK

On trust at work

I’ve been thinking about trust at work. What it means, what it feels like and what role I might have in improving levels of trust. As Rachel Botsman points out on the excellent Your Undivided Attention podcast, the language we commonly use when discussing trust misleads us. We can’t really ‘earn trust’ but we do slowly build or repair trust through our repeated actions, if they are consistent with the promises we’ve made. Trust is intangible, and yet viscerally felt. Its presence, or absence, can leave an indelible aroma in a workplace that affects everything we do.

Personally I find it very hard, until it’s too late, to discern between someone who is merely playing the part of a high-trust leader and those who actually are high-trust leaders. For example if someone champions learning from honest failure as being important to how they lead, how will I know if this is spin or reality until failure happens? Does it become a disaster (gulp) or a gift to learn from (yay!)

I call those who are falsely spinning themselves as high-trust leaders ‘game-players’. These are the ones who find ways to avoid being held accountable for their failings, those who duck and weave to ensure someone else takes the blame or the extra workload. It can be hard to spot the game-players when first landing in an organisation, but they will be working hard to figure out who you are: Honest broker, another player of games or an easy target.

I find one of the most difficult choices I have to make in organisational life is deciding how to respond to the game-players. If already endemic, it can feel inevitable that we should join in the game-playing too. Or do we at least give the appearance of going along with them, to avoid becoming the target of their ire? Personally, and note I claim no particular insight nor wisdom other than 20+ years experience, I feel joining the games or even giving the appearance of doing so makes us complicit in a low-trust environment.

In making the choice to not become complicit we do become vulnerable, especially if those more senior than us are either wilfully blind to the games being played or unwilling to challenge the behaviours. By choosing openness, and a commitment to being truthful, we can build loyal teams who respect the path of integrity – which inherently builds trust in the work force – but we have painted a target on our own backs: We now represent an overt threat to those who have succeeded through their game-playing, which can only continue in the absence of openness and a lack of shared information.

I don’t have answers to this conundrum other than encouraging awareness of the risks, and urging reflection on our own values and experiences when trust and integrity feel scarce at work. How did we feel in low-trust environments? Do we want to persist that?

The answers to those self-reflections should help guide us on the right path, though perhaps not the easiest nor most profitable one. I believe openness, honesty and building common understanding are what lead to happy, healthy and productive teams.

notes from JK

Booklog: Reasons to Stay Alive and Exposure

Reasons to Stay Alive — Matt Haig

A searingly honest book. While by no means the first book exposing the private devastation poor mental health can bring; to me, this book marks a real breakthrough in how we talk about mental health. Why? Perhaps because Matt Haig isn’t a super-handsome, mega-successful star/artist/celeb opening up about their challenges once they’ve achieved legendary status (sorry Matt). He’s a pretty ordinary bloke*, a writer by trade, which obviously helps. So here we have this sensitive bloke with a calm, open and caring way about him sharing his experiences with depression and anxiety. That in itself is all too rare still – men opening up about how they feel, sharing their anxieties and sensitivities. It’s testament to Haig’s skill that this is a good read, quick and light despite the subject matter. If everyone read this book the world would be a kinder, calmer more understanding place with far less stigma over mental health. That’s quite an achievement for a book.

* Perhaps more accurately, he was a pretty ordinary bloke at the time of his breakdown, because since then he’s written some bestselling books some of which have become plays and one is soon to be a film!

Exposure — Michael Woodford

This is the true story of how Woodford, shortly after becoming Olympus’ first non-Japanese president becomes aware of what turns out to be a huge accounting scandal. Over many years the company’s senior leaders had surreptitiously gambled funds and hidden the subsequent losses through a series of shady transactions. Woodford’s attempts to resolve matters through appropriate channels led to huge resistance from his mentor and board. The result: the board ousted him and he is left wondering if his life is at risk from criminal elements potentially connected with some of the underhand deals. 

It’s a brilliant read and fascinating for me as someone interested both in business and Japan.  Some of it is a critique of Japan’s business culture, which feels especially relevant in light of the Carlos Ghosn saga. I’ve had this on my list for a long time because whistleblowing is something I think we need to do far more to protect and support. Woodford’s account is very well written, feels fairly open to recognising his own failings whilst point a bright light on corporate behaviours which sadly still persist in too many boardrooms.

In Fiction: I read ‘The Children of Men’ by P.D. James and it was astonishingly good. Eery reading it when main action is set in 2021. So close!

notes from JK

Email newsletters I like

Email newsletters are enjoying something of a renaissance, which I think is wonderful. Here some of my favourites which I recommend:

James Clear’s 3-2-1 Newsletter (weekly)
Every Thursday James sends this short dose of wisdom, inspiration, quotes from others usually finished with a link to something funny. James wrote the excellent Atomic Habits (my review is here) and this newsletter is motivating and a bit of an insight into his continued thinking. Love it.

Dense Discovery by Kai Brach (weekly)
I wish I could remember who recommended Dense Discovery to me, so that I could thank them profusely. Every week brings a thoughtful combination of links and images on the topics of technology, design, ethics and sustainability. It’s beautiful, and so good.

Benedicts’ Newsletter by Benedict Evans (weekly)
For a savvy, hype-free view on the tech industry you can’t get better than this weekly dose of insight from Ben Evans: A British analyst who just recently finished 6 years in Silicon Valley working for top venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.

Jukesie’s Public Service Internet Jobs (weekly)
On a Sunday this drops into my inbox. A labour of love by the wonderful Matt Jukes, this is mainly his curated list of interesting ‘digital’ jobs being advertised, with the occasional bonus thought or comment. Why do I like this? Because it’s one of the best ways to see what’s going on in the sector and where thinking on ‘digital’ has got to.

The Quartz Daily Brief (daily Monday to Saturday)
I’ve been a fan of Quartz’s different take on news reporting since they were first spun up by Atlantic Media. I’ve tried quite a few of the news summary emails out there but I keep coming back to this one as the best for me. I find their daily news summary the best combination of what I want to see with a sufficiently global perspective.

The Book of Life by The School of Life (roughly weekly)
The School of Life is a superb organisation co-founded by the philosopher Alain de Botton. It aims to bring a calm, compassionate understanding to life’s challenges and helps people find saner ways through life. The Book of Life is their ever evolving collection of essays on the challenges of living. This lovely email gives you snippets and insights from their work. I think it’s wonderful.

notes from JK

Booklog: Bumper 2019 roundup

To Sell is Human – Daniel Pink

In a wonderful, gentle way Pink shows that there’s nothing wrong with selling and that we all do it, probably more than ever. 

Ultimately he concludes that by being humble, humane and seeking to find mutual benefit in any ‘sale’ we are all able to be a better version of ourselves. One could argue the book is simply a digestion of many well known studies and truisms. But that’s to undervalue the power of the work Pink has done in organising these ideas into a clear and helpful narrative structure which certainly gave me the opportunity to rethink how I approach some interactions. 

Black Box Thinking – Matthew Syed

Much of it feels familiar – perhaps because the examples are now well trodden business lore, which they probably weren’t when this first came out. But it still feels powerful and relevant. Syed’s essential argument is how we treat and react to failure is fundamental to whether we can learn and improve. Contrasting aviation and medical professions is compelling. It’s very easy to agree with the book’s core prescription, very much harder to follow-through, especially in complex organisations. 

The Secret Barrister

Learn about English legal system and huge strain it is under. How successive reforms which seemed sensible to outsiders actually harmed a system we hope we’ll never need, but assume will be sound should we need it. This isn’t just about austerity, it’s a broad and deep critique on how we have failed to care for the justice s system. This book does a superb job of accessibly exposing the issues.

Don’t Hold My Head Down – Lucy-Anne Holmes

Wow, what a frank, open and funny tale of a woman exploring her sexuality. When that woman happens to have been the founder of the ‘No More Page 3’ campaign you realise this is going to be very special, and it is.

The People vs Tech – Jamie Bartlett

Excellent, highly readable defence of politics and democracy over Silicon Valley tech utopia.  Really effectively and concisely brings together many of the key concerns around how big tech can put the wester democratic ideal at risk. Lots of good policy suggestions too… Other than the oxymoron of “secure online voting” !

Bad Pharma – Ben Goldacre

I’ve long followed Ben’s work, he has a brilliantly personal writing style. But I felt remiss in not reading any of his books, so here we go. I should disclose our orbits have slightly touched through work we’ve both done with the Open Knowledge Foundation and Open Rights Group. In fact, the word ‘open’ is the lodestone.

Bad Pharma is a great piece of activism, mandate for change and a searing analysis of how so many people in industry, medicine, professional bodies, regulators, publishers and more allow appalling behaviour to persist which result in death and harm to patients. It’s as simple as that. People knowingly let vast swathes of medical trial data be hidden, abused and mis-reported. Regulations are regularly skipped, skirted around or ignored with little or no consequence. Nearly every doctor in the world gets their ongoing professional education sponsored and curated by the pharma industry, with huge negative consequences on the cost and efficacy of prescribing. And most of this could be avoided with sunlight – openness and rigour at every step of the drug development and approval cycle.

At moments the book is utterly depressing but it comes through with a positive message and clear actions we can all take to challenge this situation. And Ben is working hard on brilliant work to improve things to, such as and more…

One more thing…

I don’t tend to mention my fiction reading here, but two epics I recently hugely enjoyed were Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore and Henning Mankell’s A Treacherous Paradise.

notes from JK

What’s wrong with business cases

@daverog: Business cases are corporate sci-fi

Dave Rogers’ tweet was spot on, and found a better way of saying what I’ve felt for a long time: business cases are not a good way to make decisions. They give us false certainty and almost invariably mislead some or all of an organisation’s leadership.

Business cases are lies. Not wilful lies usually, but they end up with the same results: misleading, misinforming and hiding reality.

Why would I feel so strongly about what is a pretty standard part of modern organisational life? Because I think it’s symptomatic of the challenge we face in moving to Internet-age public services. It’s easy for folk to nod along with the importance of ‘being digital and agile’ but then insisting on a ‘layer of programme management and finance oversight’ you know, “just to make sure it delivers”. This kills the good stuff and pulls us back to the wrong, lumpy ways of doing things.

Take a business case for a software implementation project. Probably what will have happened was requirements were collected, some market engagement done with potential suppliers and then estimation on what the work requires in terms of time and people. A return on investment will have been calculated to justify the costs involved. If everything looks reasonable, leaders will read through it, perhaps asking for some contingency funds or reassurance from managers. Then the document gets approved and people run off to do stuff. Almost certainly work doesn’t proceed as expected: Requirements change, a supplier experiences delays, costs rise.

If costs are within the total envelope no leaders are bothered with this. Programme managers juggle the finances internally. If spend goes above the envelope, then a scary moment as permission is sought to spend more. But usually we experience a few questions and the green light to carry on from our leaders. How so? Because the hole has already been dug, we need to finish it, the costs have been sunk. Let’s press on.

The ability to observe, orient, decide and act continuously is not the norm when business cases live among us. Let’s unpack our example:

  1. The Requirements – The idea that we can capture all our requirements and then share them with suppliers to get answers is fantastical, and wrong. Usually the requirements are widely varying in detail and realism, furthermore they utterly fail to recognise that customising commercial software is poison. For years big vendors thought charging for customisations was a profitable wheeze for clients stupid enough to request this. But even they realised this was money they didn’t like as the cost of maintaining all these forked and patched version of their products was just too painful to bear. Customising commercial software almost never ever makes sense. Even more importantly the requirements tend to be a deeply imperfect snapshot at a moment in time. By the time any code is likely to be in use the world will have moved on.
  2. The Cost – Software should not be a capital expenditure. It is a continuously changing, living thing that needs constant care and maintenance. The idea that a fixed price can “get us there” is fundamentally wrong. It takes us away from the power of funding teams, not projects. Business case methods massively favour capital expenditure, one-off type thinking. Yet for the complexity public servants are normally grappling with this is rarely the right approach. We need long term, patient funding for the wicked issues we seek to tackle. And also of course cost estimates for such business cases then to be wildly wrong.
  3. The Time – Building a bridge or a school? Then a fixed timeline (with padding for slippage) makes sense. Trying to change complex systems issues like integrating health and social care? Then a fixed time business case is the wrong tool for the job.

I understand that the ‘certainty’ and ‘process’ surrounding business cases can be comforting for colleagues. But we’re fooling ourselves, we need to be courageous and hold the uncertainty as we explore the problems we face in open, collaborative ways.

Shifting away from business case culture takes time and effort – it’s a big cultural shift, as well as one that will take away a prized method some will have spent their careers on mastering. But shift this we must, otherwise we will look back in 2030 and see more wreckage of failed programmes led astray by false certainty and sunk hole mentalities. We can do this.

notes from JK

Listenlog:Missing Cryptoqueen, Alone: A Love Story & many more!

Recently I’ve been doing quite a bit of commuting so hey… more podcast listening time. Here’s a bumper crop of recommendations for your listening pleasure.

The Missing Cryptoqueen

Georgia Catt, Jamie Bartlett and team at the BBC have made a stunning journalistic podcast. It’s made even better thanks to the wonderful sound design by Phil Channel, who also worked on the masterful ‘Death in Ice Valley‘.

They masterfully investigate OneCoin, a multi-level marketing scam which purports to be a cryptocurrency ‘Bitcoin killer’. Yet the currency can’t be traded and can only be purchased through ‘educational packages’. The founder disappears (the Cryptoqueen they are searching for) and the story gets weird and weirder as more people come forward through the series – a OneCoin beauty pageant, a OneCoin OneLife church in Uganda and so on. That OneCoin was able to reach globally, from Amsterdam to a farming village in Uganda, is remarkable. But also how the hype around technology, getting rich quick and regulatory failures all played their part in letting a few get enormously rich at the expense of so many people who couldn’t afford to lose a penny. Go listen, it’s absolutely superb.

Alone: A Love Story

This is a heartfelt memoir written and narrated by Michelle Parise covering her marriage, its collapse and her life after divorce as a part-time mother trying to find love in Toronto. Ethnically Italian it’s also about identity as a second generation immigrant, about what relationships can and should be in the age of app-based dating and so much more. It’s beautiful, moving and searingly honest. Don’t miss the accompanying website which has lots of lovely extra details.

Over My Dead Body: Joe Exotic

This is a fun journalistic romp through a bizarre US story of a feud between a petting zoo owner specialising in big cats and an animal rights activist which escalates to hitmen being hired, fires being set and more.

Intrigue: Tunnel 29

BBC Radio 4 continue their Intrigue series with this fairly short series into the story of how a small team of students dug tunnels to help people escape from East Berlin. The series is filled with powerful personal testimony from participants, who suffered tunnel floods, Stasi spies and all sorts of other challenges. It is well paced, with lots of interesting detail. Well worth a listen.

Patient Zero

This podcast, from the excellent New Hampshire Public Radio team who produced Bear Brook, is all about disease. Specifically it’s about Lyme Disease: The story of how it was discovered in… yes Lyme, New Hampshire… and the challenges early sufferers had in being listened to by medical professionals. The series patiently explains epidemiology, how ticks were found to be key to transmission, unpacking why vaccines have been hard to develop for the disease, through to various attempts to control the disease. It stops off on the way to why and how lots of dubious treatments persist at great cost to patients, and why doctors don’t agree on how to treat some patients. So yes, this is about Lyme disease, but it’s also about the modern medical model and how we don’t know as much as we think we do, which leaves us vulnerable in times of illness to quacks. A very well produced and thought provoking series.

Sex Power Money with Sara Pascoe

Sara Pascoe has a book to promote, also called ‘Sex Power Money’. So rather brilliantly she decided to produce a podcast interviewing people on the topics her book explores. And through word of mouth I heard it was rather good. One of the topics I explored in my aborted PhD on government policy consultations was a Home Office one on sex work. The literature review I did on this took me into a world I had previously known absolutely nothing on, but it soon became stark that the evidence on what works to reduce harm (decriminalisation etc) was rather different to the policy options being debated in the political space (Nordic model, criminalisation etc). Sara Pascoe proves to be an excellent interlocutor talking to sex workers and campaigners to open up the many complex issues we as a society face when trying to explore how we handle the intersection of sex, power and money. I felt much better informed through listening to this short series. Give it a go.

notes from JK

Listenlog: The Shrink Next door, Don’t Tell Me the Score & The Great Hack

The Shrink Next Door

No matter how many qualifications and professional registrations a health professional has, there is ultimately a degree of faith and trust you need to place in them. Thankfully most times that works out ok. But sometimes that trust is abused.

This podcast is an incredible story of how a celebrity-obsessed New York therapist manipulated some of his patients to gain control over their money, their businesses, their properties… their whole lives. It’s wonderfully put together to make a compelling narrative whilst also exploring the limitations of professional associations in managing such behaviours by their members. Joe Nocera takes us through the story with great personal insight as the story came to him through the key characters being his neighbours in the Hamptons. Do listen.

Don’t Tell Me The Score

A sports podcast?! I know, not my usual fare but this is really more a podcast about achievement, careers and the science on performance. Some recent episodes have been utterly fascinating: Boris Becker on the price of celebrity, David Epstein on why in most cases early specialisation is not beneficial and Christie Aschwanden on recovery. Simon Mundie does an excellent job interviewing his guests, well worth a listen.

The Great Hack

OK so it’s a documentary movie, not a podcast, still go watch it. It’s on Netflix and is an excellent summation of everything we know so far on Facebook and Cambridge Analytica worked to manipulate elections and other types of campaigns. It’s very well made, but does feel like it will need a sequel as we are still in the midst of understanding what is really being done with our data.

If the issues it raises concern you then go join the Open Rights Group and support Carole Cadwalladr in her legal fight with over the reporting featured in the film.