Vogel Wakefield blog

Vogel Wakefield blog

December
24
2017

Here ends the Vogel Wakefield Advent Calendar

It was only in the last week of November that I conceived the idea of writing a blog post every day in the lead-up to Christmas. I was inspired by my email provider, Fastmail, whose Advent calendar blogs I have enjoyed over recent years.

For various reasons, I’ve written very few blog posts over the past couple of years. In part, this has been because I’ve felt the world to be moving too fast for me to fashion my thoughts into timely and relevant written pieces. I wondered if giving myself a commitment to publish every day might break the logjam. I made the commitment semi-public by telling folk about it and announcing my intention just once on Twitter. This created enough expectations of me to be motivating; but not so many that the stakes would be inhibiting.

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December
21
2017

In praise of philosophers and other experts

I haven’t much time for the anti-expert sentiment that came out of the referendum campaign. But the Brexiteer blogger, Pete North, has made an articulation of the case against expertise that makes sense to me. He takes issue with the the narrow economistic perspective advocated by the corporate sector and he rightly points out that other considerations are at play in Brexit:

“There seems to be a quest to seek out a perfect answer to a complex question. But there is no perfect answer because you have to hold this Brexit crystal up to the light and see the many reflections it casts. It is entirely a matter of perspective and it extends beyond the realms of economics and into the domain of identity, culture, heritage, class and a myriad of rational and irrational concerns, all of which have equal standing. So diverse are the views that there is only really one way to settle it. Democracy. Imperfect though it may be, it is at least fair.”

Much as I agree with the sentiments expressed, this doesn’t amount to a convincing case against expertise. Rather, it underlines that what we take to be expertise in public debate is much too narrow.

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December
10
2017

England: the nation with a special place in Europe

The English and Their History by Robert Tombs is a monumental book covering the story of England from the 7th Century to the present day. Published in 2014, it’s a pertinent insight into our national identity. While the whole of the UK is leaving the EU, it is English nationalism that is a driving force behind it.

Tombs shows that an English nation was established well before 1066 using the language of old English which was suppressed by the Normans but revived in the fourteenth century. A long history of conflict with Scotland overhangs much of the story prior to the Acts of Union. The union is sometimes portrayed in the nationalist perspective as something close to England’s annexation of Scotland. But the union also meant England was subsumed into Britain. Scotland retained a national identity, England less so. And Tombs’ history becomes more blurry after union: it’s hard to pick out England’s story from that of the broader UK.

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December
03
2017

Don’t let the urgent crowd out what’s important

Dwight Eisenhower, focussing on what’s important

 

It’s a given in most management roles that there is more work to be done than there is time available to do it. But it’s with increasing frequency that clients are talking to me about their difficulties in deciding what to prioritise in their unrealistically demanding workloads. In such conversations, I reach for the urgent and important matrix. This is an approach to time management popularised by Stephen Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and inspired by the former US President, Dwight Eisenhower.

In a lecture in 1954, Eisenhower said, “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

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August
13
2017

Survival is insufficient: lessons for leadership from Station Eleven

 

Station Eleven, a novel by Emily St. John Mandel, depicts the collapse of modern civilisation when a flu pandemic sweeps across the world and (twenty years later) the dystopian society that is established by small clusters of survivors. I read it on the recommendation of the Financial Times’ business books podcast – although I refrained from listening to the episode until I’d completed the book. I enjoy it when novels appear on lists of business books, something that happens too infrequently. In truth, insofar as fiction provides insight into the human condition, almost any novel is more rewarding of a leader’s time than a business book, most of which are mediocre. But I can see why Station Eleven caught the FT’s attention.

The novel portrays how utterly dependent we are on organisations and the technology we manage, and how fragile is the fabric they weave. The virus that initiates the story originates in the Republic of Georgia but spreads rapidly in two respects: those infected develop symptoms within hours and are dead within two days; and, in an interconnected world, it is transmitted around the globe before most people are even aware that this disease in a distant land threatens their country. In Toronto, where the novel is initially set, chaos breaks out in the first 24 hours as hospitals are overwhelmed, parents fail to return home to their children and the mobile phone networks become congested. Within a few days, the familiar presenters on the television news networks disappear, to be replaced by whoever is still able to staff the office. Within a fortnight, the networks are off air. In short order, the electricity grid collapses as the staff needed to operate it die off; with it goes the internet, eliminating at a stroke the world’s knowledge. Motor transport becomes impossible and, before long, the surviving population settles in whatever locations they had reached when the plague took hold (for one group, a provincial airport to which their plane had been diverted) or to which they can travel on foot.

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December
09
2016

Universities and public value

I have a blog post at the higher education website, Wonkhe, discussing the lessons universities can learn from the BBC’s experience with public value:

“On the face of it, the higher education sector is in a weaker position than the BBC. It has to overcome the disadvantage of its fragmentation to present a robust voice to policy makers and the wider public. Compared with other sectors, it has enjoyed a good financial settlement through austerity – but at what cost? The marketisation and commodification of education and research have proved an anathema to many working the sector.

“As universities contemplate the gulf between themselves and the public that Brexit has revealed, public value thinking could help them get closer to their communities and articulate purposes that the public would get behind. This in turn could help diffuse tension between academics and managers, if managerialism were mobilised in the service of a project that academics might find more inspiring. Clarity of purpose would allow for greater differentiation between universities – research-intensives, balanced, teaching-focussed – and, more importantly, provide a more robust foundation for dealing with government and the new regulator, the OfS, as we enter the Brexit-era.”

Read the full post at Wonkhe.

 

November
04
2016

A university’s strategy won’t succeed if it doesn’t excite staff

John Henry Newman defined an exciting purpose for universities.

John Henry Newman defined an exciting purpose for universities.

 

We recently ran a workshop with a university as part of some work we are doing with it on its strategy. In one exercise, we asked those present to reflect on what it was that they found exciting about it. The results were illuminating and we were hopeful that it would enable the team to engage their colleagues more effectively in the merits of what they were proposing. However, I was surprised when one member of the team commented that the word “exciting” was an odd one to use in relation to a strategy. He’d never heard it so used before. To which my reply was “what’s the point of a strategy that isn’t exciting?”

The term “strategy” is perhaps one of the most over-used and abused words in organisations both public and private. To some it’s a kind of virility symbol, to others it reeks of business school managerialism. At its most basic, a strategy is (or should be) a carefully considered, evidence-based plan for allocating an organisation’s resources in the most effective way possible to secure a desired end.

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February
10
2016

What has trauma to do with work?

stress

 

Book review: The Trauma of Everyday Life by Mark Epstein

I read The Trauma of Everyday Life to inform my thinking for an event I am helping to organise on trauma in coaching. I hadn’t appreciated before I read the book just how much of a Buddhist take on the subject it would represent. It turns out Mark Epstein, a New York-based psychiatrist, is an established writer on Buddhism and its intersection with psychotherapy. He provides here a psychotherapeutic biography of the Buddha: how the Buddha’s own traumas informed his enlightenment and how this, in turn, shines a light on how best we can cope with difficulty in our lives. This is perhaps more interesting to me than a straight psychotherapeutic discussion. Though no Buddhist, I practice mindfulness. As a matter of philosophical disposition, I find the possibilities it holds out for caring for oneself more appealing than the path that working with an expert therapist offers.

Epstein adopts a broader and looser interpretation of trauma than one normally encounters in psychotherapeutic discussion. He distinguishes between the conventional view of trauma, as confronting a death or serious injury, and developmental trauma, when emotional pain cannot be held. Sometimes, these might converge – for example, Epstein refers to the Buddha’s own developmental emotional pain resulting from the death in his infancy of his mother. But Epstein also views the common difficulties of life through the lens of trauma and refers to the pre-traumatic stress with which we experience the inevitability of death.

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May
15
2015

After the General Election, the forthcoming politics of organisation

It doesn’t have to be like this: the politics of organisation, circa 1984.

 

Earlier this year, I attended a talk at the RSA by Frederic Laloux, author of Reinventing Organizations. Laloux was every bit as inspiring as I had hoped after reading his book. But what has stayed with me also was a throwaway comment by Matthew Taylor, chairman of the RSA and former advisor to Tony Blair when he was Prime Minister. Reflecting on the paucity of organisational life, Matthew observed that we need a politics of organisation. Yes, I thought, this is exactly what we need and, at last, people are beginning to get it.

The politics of organisation was, of course, one of many absences in the General Election campaign. One of the successes of three decades of neo-liberalism is that what happens inside organisations has been ruled out of court for politicians. But at the same time, organisations – particularly private corporations – have become increasingly central to how our society is, well, organised. Most of us work in large organisations to earn our living and, with the hollowing out of the state, depend on them for the delivery of our public services. And what is left of life is increasingly mediated by the likes of banks that are too big to fail, food retailers whose chains extend from the convenience shop to the out-of-town megastore, and global internet businesses such as Google, Amazon and Facebook. How we experience them as employees and consumers and how they impact on society in general are among the most significant influences on our lives.

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March
21
2015

Apple Watch: how the quantification of life assists managerialism

Apple Watch blackSimon Western has ruined my eager anticipation of the Apple Watch (launching late next month, pre-orders from 10th April). In a profound and reflective piece, he discusses how the Watch (as opposed to the humble watch) represents the latest and most decisive step towards the creation of a neurotic age.

Key to this argument is the insight that technology is not simply an appendage to human life but changes what it is to be human. As Simon Western says, we are so affectively attached to the brands and products of the technology companies that they become a part of our emotional, physical and cognitive being. Apple is foremost in facilitating this attachment – with its celebrated competence in combining the disciplines of arts, humanities, science and technology in the service of the development of products to die for. But it is far from alone, as exemplified by the signal obssessions of our day: monitoring of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or email; the pre-eminence of collecting selfies above experiencing life; or the quantifying of one’s lifestyle.

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