Wednesday, 30 December 2009

How was it for you?

31st December 2009.

We finally come to the end of the decade. The Noughties. And it does feel like the end of something and the start of something new.

As it is the end of a decade, I thought I would look back on the last ten years of my life and reflect on the highs and the lows. For many of you, doing this will take a lot of time, as you sit with a glass of wine and ponder. The extroverts amongst you will chat to people who went on the journey with you saying "Oh, yes, remember when we went to....". The introverts will grab a pencil and notebook, sit alone and sketch out a timeline.

No such effort for me. I simply go to my files, pull out the folder marked "My Life" and skim down the date-order list, selecting major events. What do you mean that's a bit weird? You mean you don't have a year-by-year list of events in your life to hand? Hey! You're the weird one, buddy!

It's a funny list though. Some years clearly had more of an impact on me than others. For example

Year 2000: (intentionally left blank)

(it appears nothing of particular note happened in my life that whole year)

Year 2005: Left Egg plc. Founded new company, Garlik. Received Honorary Doctorate of Technology. Elected Fellow of the British Computer Society. Visited Poland, South Africa, Jamaica (for wife's big family reunion), USA (New York, Los Angeles, Grand Canyon, Las Vegas), Nigeria. Met a President or two. Found a long lost sister in a country thousands of miles away.

Overall the "noughties" has been a positive decade for me. I became a grown up (i.e. reached the splendid age of 40), bought a new house, became a Freeman of the City of London, was invited to 10 Downing Street, appeared on national TV & radio, attended Davos, travelled through USA, Europe, Africa, India, China, learnt the Wu style Tai Chi Long form, met the world's richest man and some of the poorest, set up a new charitable foundation, and emerged from all this only about a stone heavier than I started!

By far the low point of the decade for me was the sad and untimely death of my brother-in-law Roger Gill in early 2006. Roger was like a big brother to everyone who knew him and just a wonderful, warm, down to earth, hilarious man. We miss him so, so much.

The high point was undoubtedly searching for and amazingly finding my half-sister in Uganda after over 30 years of having completely lost contact and not even knowing whether she was alive or not. The story of this experience is worthy of its own telling so I won't rush it here.

Poised on the edge of another decade (the "One-tees"?) I am very excited about the future. The world is getting nicely interesting. It's throwing some head-scratching challenges at us, just in case we were getting a bit complacent. Hey humans, thing you're clever huh? You're in control? Got it all sussed? Wrestle with a downpour of global warming with a dash of terrorism thrown in, it's saying. It's given us these vast technological landscapes to explore and it's given us friends. Friends, friends, friends everywhere we look. It's given you to me and me to you.

So, celebrate the highlights of the last ten years. At midnight share the very best thing that happened to you with the friends and loved ones around you. And then let's boldly go and explore this fascinating new decade together!

Happy New Decade to you all

Mr Bojangles

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Boxing Day Group Therapy

On Boxing Day like many men across the UK I attended a large scale, group therapy session. We stood in a huge circle and were encouraged to express our inner feelings in public, not something us stiff upper lipped types tend to do.

We call this ceremony a "Football Match".

I have come to believe that going to football matches is a great form of therapy and that must be its main attraction. Why else would hundreds of thousands of otherwise sensible grown men troop out onto the terraces shivering in the cold and rain when they could just as easily be sitting in the pub, pint in hand, watching it all on a wide screen TV?

There are three reasons why I and my fellow believers in Football Therapy left our families on Boxing Day and went for our therapy session.

Firstly, the SCREAM. How often do you get the opportunity to scream? I mean really, really scream. Let it all out in one primal howl that practically bursts your lungs? When was the last time you lept in the air, arms aloft, punching the sky, screaming and hugging complete strangers in a big group (apart from immediately after sex of course)?

We live in a repressed world. When you are "grown up" you are supposed to control your emotions. You "behave". Something great happens at work and you say "jolly good show, well done everyone" whereas what you want to do is scream like a banshee and run around the office with your shirt pulled up over your head, fist punching in a piston like motion shouting "get in my son, yessssss". Well at "A Football Therapy Gathering" you are allowed, nah, encouraged to behave in this way and it is very relaxing. Try it. Try it now. You'll enjoy it.

Secondly, the WOMB. When you immerse yourself in the midst of 22,000 fellow believers, you effectively re-enter the womb. You are surrounded on all sides, completely safe. You have no responsibility at all. You don't have to manage the team, yet you know exactly what "should" be done and you let them know in no uncertain terms. A bit like being an investor in a start up company I wold imagine. Take that donkey off, put that striker on. You demand action, but don't worry, you are not responsible so if they lose you can complain bitterly anyway. Relax. It's Not Your Fault. It's Not Your Fault.

Thirdly, the BROTHERHOOD. When you attend a "Football Therapy Weekly Group Meeting" you become part of a band of brothers. There are the 22,000 of you of course. For that moment all unquestionably committed to the same cause (unless a cheeky Manchester United supporter has sneaked into the Fulham end because that's the only way he could get tickets, and then he forgets to jump up a cheer at the right time). But more important is what we called your "Football Hug Group". These are the strangers directly around you, the other season ticket holders whose names you don't know, whose histories have never crossed yours, who you will never meet across a Board room table and yet who you will join in a group hug and cling on to for dear life as the curling free kick lifts over the wall and dips into the top left corner. Or who share your pain and anguish as Chelsea score a late, lucky winner in injury time.

Oh, your Hug Group. How you love them. Shouty Sweary Man and Shouty Sweary Man's Dad in front of you. When he leaps up, points at the linesman and screams "You Blind Lino????" you know that everything will be okay. Gnarled, Fed-up Bloke AKA "Sit Down "(or "Sidddaaaarnnn") sitting behind you. Grinning Bobble Hatted Clappy Lady to the right. Massive Fat Geezer to the left who really ought to have paid for two seats instead of taking half of yours. This is your Hug Group. You might pass them on the street, but in the heat of the moment, you will rely on them, you will leap up with them, you will join them in a group hug. And remember, your Hug group is a safe group. What happens on the terrrace stays on the terrrace (a fact I neglected to explain to my son when we started attending these sessions, who came home one day and walked into the lounge singing a popular football chant. We have since clarify the point regarding the importance of Football Therapy Confidentiality.)

Imagine how much better you would feel if after a particularly good pitch to a group of VCs, you could leap up and scream at the top of your voice, run around the room with your shirt over your head, hug your accountant and legal team and when the rooky VCs asked those silly questions they ask ("erm, shouldn't you be trying to sell some more stuff, errr?") a big tatooed bloke next to you would leap up, point straight at them and boom "You Don't Know What You're Doing, You Don't Know What You're Doing".

So on any given Saturday, when you see me and my fellow patients gathering at the clinic, don't be confused. We are not out enjoying ourselves and wasting time when we should be at home with our families. We are attending a Football Therapy session and making ourselves Better People.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Doing the deal

As the year comes to an end and at a time when I should be winding down, preparing for outrageous Xmas parties and generally getting demob happy, I find myself negotiating one last deal that we are trying to wrap up before the end of the year.

I wouldn't say that I am a brilliant negotiator but I am a disciplined and decent negotiator. This is because I still use that most basic of negotiating techniques - the Like, Intend Must (LIM) model.

Anyone who has had any sort of negotiation training will know this model, or variations of it, but if you haven't then you might find it useful. It's very simple and it has served me well over the past 20 years whether it's been negotiating my next meal or multi-million pound deals.

The key, in my experience, to negotiating a deal that you are likely to be happy with is to put in the effort up front to work out what that deal would look like. Some people jsut get straight into the action and start haggling. They haggle away on instinct, calculating the pros and cons of doing the deal in real time and arrive at whatever deal is doable with a view at the time as to whether it feels right.

I don't. I sit down and plan out up front what an acceptable deal looks like. Whether it's negotiating a job and salary package or a major investment, I know from the start what the deal I am looking for looks like. I will almost ceretainly have it actually written down on a piece of paper somewhere, so that I can look at it, sleep on it, wake up the next day and take another look and be sure that its the right deal for me.

I structure it using the LIM principal. What would I LIKE the deal to end up as, in an ideal world? What do I INTEND to aim for? What MUST I get, otherwise I am going to walk away?

Get a piece of A4 paper, draw two lines down the page and mark the columns Like (right), Intend (middle), Must (left). Okay, you are ready.

Start with LIKE. Write down a long, ambitious list of all the things that you would like to receive as part of the deal. Don't be ridiculous, but don't hold back either. If the sun was shining, birds were singing, small cockney lads were tipping their hat to you and saying "G'Day to yer, Guv" then what would you get? Write it all down. Add a couple more items. Okay, thats in your "LIKE column.

Next go to your MUST column. Be completely and utterly realistic. What would you put in this list that you MUST get otherwise you are going to walk away. Don't kid yourself. Don't add a bit extra. This is the real, absolute bottom line. Want a salary of £40k? What if it was £38k? Would you really walk away from the job? £37k? £35k? What is your real bottom line? That's what you write down in the MUST column. There shouldn't be more than a handful of items in this column. If there are, you are probably kidding yourself and that's not going to be helpful in your negotiation.

Finally, go to the middle INTEND column. The way you do this one is to pick items from your LIKE column and copy them across, perhaps modifying them a little, but still being optimistic. There will be less items in your INTEND column than your LIKE column but there will be a lot more than your MUST column.

When you start negotiating, when the other guy says "so what are you looking for?" you are going to judge where to pitch between your LIKE and your INTEND list. If you are feeling strong or lucky you will go closer to LIKE (perhaps even start there). If you want to get the deal done quickly you will list INTEND and make it clear that there is not much room for negotiation. Then you haggle away, between LIKE and INTEND. If you are luckly you will end up somewhere around INTEND with a few nice bits thrown in.

But if you get pushed you may fall below INTEND. That's okay. You sit on your MUST list. That is deep in your mind. It's your bottom line, so you know exactly how far you can be pushed before you walk. That gives you confidence and you can't possibly do a bad deal. You can't be talked into anything below your MUST list and if at the end of the day the only deal equals your MUST list, then you do it because it is what you said you MUST get and you've got it. So don't whinge, don't complain, do the MUST deal, take what you came for and move on. Did the world end? No, it's still going round. Take your deal and move on.

I don't have a lot of patience for negotiating. Some people will go on and on for months, squeezing out another drop to get a slightly better deal. I don't. I prefer speed and certainty. I draw up my Like, Intend, Must. I pitch, I haggle a bit, I get to the right place. I do a deal or walk away. It's done, move on. Can't lose. Can't go below Must, so it's always going to be bottom line or better.

Two weeks of haggling to go on the deal I'm in at the moment. Wish me luck. Merry Xmas!

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The Ballad of Big Red

As an entrepreneur, you are constantly talking your business up. But there is a fine line between pitching hard and lying through your teeth. Sometimes you stay the right side of the line but you pitch too hard and to your surprise you actually get what you pitched for!

That can be a bit of a shock and that brings us to the Ballad of Big Red. But more of that later.

There is a game that start-up guys and Venture Capital guys play.

Start up guys are expected to "pitch up". Your business is going to be a BILLION $$ business. Your market is a BILLION $$ market. You have a WORLD CLASS team. You technology is WORLD BEATING. Your business model is PARADIGM SHIFTING. You are the new [INSERT LAST SUCCESS STORY HERE].

In some cases much of this might actually be true but whether it is or not, as a start up guy you pitch it. In fact you will learn to speak IN CAPITAL LETTERS.

VC guys demand that you do this. Ever seen a pitch where the start up guy says "I think we might at a stretch build a £10m business and you might make 2x your money - can't promise anything though. Let's see how it goes"?

VC guy needs to hear you pitch up, and then they immediately discount it. However if VC guys likes what he's hearing, he starts to pitch to you too. He is SMART MONEY. He's got CONTACTS. He can TAKE YOU IN TO CHINA (whether you want to go there or not).

By the end of it you and the VC are PRACTICALLY SHOUTING AT EACH OTHER across the desk, STRUTTING AROUND LIKE PEACOCKS. Start up guy and VC in full flow, going at it hammer and tongs. It is truly wonderful to behold.

In reality, you should pitch what you believe. If you believe that your business will turn over £100m next year, pitch it. Why not? It's your business. You are going to have to make it happen if they say yes. So pitch the future that you believe you can create and if the other guy doesn't believe you, go find someone who does.

If the other guy does believe you, you had better be ready to clamber aboard and ride your heart out. Which brings us back to the Ballad of Big Red.

So, a couple of years back I'm on holiday with the family in upstate New York. Wife wisely rests at the hotel whilst me and the kids go horse riding. We arrive at the stables and pay our money. Now this is where things go a bit wrong.

In mitigation I would like to remind you that I am a middle-aged man, comfortably into my 40's who has been known to boast to my kids on occasion about my extraordinary capabilities and can on occasion puff out my chest when in the company of the younger, fairer sex. So the cards were stacked against me, really, when the cowboy who assigned us to our horses turned out to be a cowgirl.

Having assigned midget pony things to the kids, she turned to me and drawled "do you ride much?" My son looked at me expectantly. He knew the truth. How could I have slaughtered all those buffalo "back in the day" if I didn't ride? Surely I wasn't lying when I told him I had ridden Camels in the Sahara?

I heard myself pitching up. "Sure, I ride a bit" I said in a fake American accent that I think came out a bit Lithuanian.

When I say I ride a bit what I meant was that in th early 70's myself and my elder brother once rode a donkey on a beach in Spain. It jiggled up and down and made us laugh a lot. But I didn't bother to go into detail. I "pitched up".

"Cool" smoldered Cowgirl "let's give Big Red a run out this afternoon."

"Look" says me in my best Hugh Grant "I err, errr, what, eh, what, I mean, are you sure?"

"Oh, its no problem, Sir"

When American's start calling you Sir, you know you are in trouble. "Step away from the car, Sir", "Let me see your hands, Sir", "Is this your goat, Sir?" You know how it goes. Best to give in.

Then they bring out Big Red. ARRRGGGGHHHHHH. A giant mutant, elephant of a horse that clearly was not in the mood for games.

I let the party trot gently off into the woods, saying that I would follow behind before starting the lengthy process of hauling myself up onto the BEAST FROM ANOTHER PLANET. I lay on its back, gripped everything I could grip and fortunately the T-REX IN A HORSE COSTUME decided to walk calmly after the rest of the horses.

All was well until Cowgirl called out from the front "Let's give them a run". Off they shot and off went Big Red. ARRRRGGGGGHHHHH!!!!

Anyway, all's well that ends well. I survived but I learnt three lessons

1) sometimes when you "pitch up" the other person believes you, so you'd better believe yourself too

2) if you walk into the VCs office and anyone around the table is dressed as a sexy cowgirl, don't inflate your figures by 100%

3) if you do find yourself sitting on top of Big Red, hold on for dear life and ride the damn thing! You'll live.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Worshipping workshops

In the business world there is nothing we love more than to get a bunch of executives together to do a bit of "brainstorming". Got a problem? Quickly, collect a gang together, grab some post-it notes, hug a flip chart and let's bang our brains together. We worship workshops. We bow before a good brainstorm. We love it !

But there are problems here and I often find myself on the receiving end of them.

The main problem is that brainstorms must have been invented by extroverts. They are a source of at least dismay and at worst downright fear amongst introverts.

As an introvert myself, I speak from experience. If I want to get into a problem, I want to think about it. Then discuss it a bit. Then read. Then ponder. Then talk again. It's a long, thoughtful process. No hurry. It's the "Tai Chi" style of brainstorming. It's the quiet force of a flowing stream wearing down the problem, cutting a new path.

But the extrovert pushes us I-types into a room. They time-box the problem. They leap about. They make decisions there and then. It's all action, action, action. Don't reflect, just Do. Think Karate. External Power. Chop. Thrust. Hack out a new path and surge forwards.

There is quite a macho thing in this, I think. As an Executive you feel you need to be seen to be decisive. I see this a lot in up-and-coming execs who want to prove themselves (to themselves? to each other? who to?). I see it in VCs, usually the younger ones and the analysts who jump in with cutting and barely thought out views whilst their more experienced colleagues sit back, take it in and ponder.

There is some issue to do with peoples' relationship with time here. A sense that everything is urgent. We must solve it NOW. I have very rarely come across a problem in business that needs to be solved now, now, now. There is always time to think, to reflect. It is very rare that you have to get together and solve it right now. Perhaps at the sharper end of stock trading, but not when it comes to business strategy. Never.

But what introverts do is to allow themselves to be swept along by their extrovert brothers. We turn up to the brainstorm. We pretend to enjoy it, but inside we are hating it. We barely get a word in edgeways as the extrovert throw ideas at the wall to see what sticks, running things up flagposts to see who salutes. And then horror of horrors, they actually rush out of the meeting and start ACTING on the discussion. Those decisions that were made in the few minutes of brainbanging were REAL! Yikes!

As usual in business, as in life, there is not a right or wrong way to tackle problems. There are just different ways. And lively, boisterous brainstorming sessions are certainly one of the tools in the kitbag for executives to use. But for introverts they can be a real pain and extroverts need to be aware of that before they go galloping off down that path, shouting yehaar and dragging their depressed looking introvert colleagues behind them.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

How much is your daughter worth?

One of my sisters in Nigeria is about to get married and the thorny issue of "bride price" has arisen. It is a fascinating and complex process steeped in tradition. My father has issued to the prospective groom's family a carefully drafted, typed list of 36 very specific items required before the traditional wedding can proceed.

I can't go in to all the details as negotiations are reaching a critical stage. Mediators have been appointed. Venues for the bilaterals have been agreed and talks about talks have commenced (although at this stage the UN Security Council has not been brought in to play). However I can reveal that the precise number of "smoke dried pure river fish (maggot free)" may be disputed.

For those whose culture does not include a "bride price" this whole exercise is easy to misunderstand. The brides family is not "selling" their daughter. The thinking is this. A man comes along and says he wants to take your daughter away. Naturally you refuse. Who does he think he is and why does he think he can deprive you of your beloved daughter? Go away and leave us alone, you cry. Our daughter is ours and we want to keep her.

Oh we beg , the man's family says. Look, they say, come on be reasonable. You say you love and value your daughter. Well, tell us how much you love and value your daughter and we'll see what we can do to help soothe the pain of the loss that you will suffer?

The girls family go in to a huddle. Wise old folk gather and discuss the issue. Remember old so-an-so's daughter? We loved and valued her this much. Then there was Mrs Muggings daughter. It was that much. Okay, let's put our list together.

A list is draw up. it is non-negotiable. It is a statement of the worth of the daughter in the eyes of the family. It is designed to send a message so it is pitched high. Some items are there to amuse and entertain. Some are genuine points of negotiation. Some are for the celebration (in the UK the bride's family pays for the Wedding, in Nigeria the Groom's family contributes a lot to the Traditional Wedding and that gets added to the list). It's part serious business, part pantomime. Finally in a serious of complex manouvers, the list is handed over.

The boys family are in a tricky position. On the one hand they are obliged to recoil in horror at the huge price being demanded by the bride's family. However, are they saying that their family isn't wealthy enough to afford the price? How embarrassing. Or are they saying that the girl that their son has chosen to marry isn't worth that much? Hmmmm. Tricky business.

And although I said that the list isn't negotiable, a compromise can always be reached. The position taken by the brides family is this - the list is a clear statement of the worth that the bride's family puts on their daughter, who they don't want to part with anyway. However the groom's family will come and present what they feel they can present and after much grumbling and dissatisfation from the brides family, including threats to walk away from the whole thing, everything will get sorted out.

Now, as the father of a clever, beautiful, talented young daughter here in England, I will not have the opportunity to set a bride price. But boy, oh, boy if I did have to put a value on my daughter let me tell you the groom's family, friends, casual acquaintances, descentants and anyone else who knows the groom would be paying out for generations to come!

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

My Gap Year

When I am all grown up I am going to take a gap year.

I am saving it up so that I can really savour it. like the last sweet in the packet. It's not something to be rushed. I don't know when I'll do it or what I'll do with it, but I am looking forward to it.

I would probably travel, but I don't like the idea of backpacking and slobbing around in dingy hostels. Perhaps I would travel from 5 star hotel to All-inclusive resort around the world. I'd love to tour around the USA. To go to India, China, Africa. High in the Swiss mountains. Paris. Ahhhh.

More likely I would go and sit in a library somewhere for a year and browse interesting books. I'd find some books that were so complex they would make my head hurt. But I don't know if that would keep me busy for a whole year.

I might try to learn something new. Pick a new topic, a new domain and immerse myself in it.

Or I might get out and about, meet interesting, intelligent, thoughtful people from around the world and think of interesting things we could do together.

I would want to create new things. New initiatives. Things that I could look at and say "wow, did we just do that?"

I think I will try to do some good in the world. Try to have an impact and change some things for the better. Or at least flap my wings like a butterfly and see what storm blew up across the world.

I would spend lots of time with my family. Watching, talking, helping, enjoying. I would want to spend time standing on the touchline and cheer my son scoring tries at rugby. I would want to have the time to go to concerts with my daughter and "throw my hands in the air like I just don't care". I would want to sneak off to the cinema with my wife, buy huge illegal buckets of popcorn and munch all afternoon.

I might even see if I could start a company. But not any old company. I would start an outrageously ambitious company that was trying to do something completely new. that if it worked would change the face of the world. And if it didn't then it wouldn't.

Hold on, hold on just a second. Aren't I doing all these things anyway? I seem to be doing exactly what I want to be doing. Now what am I supposed to do on my gap year? Damn!

Monday, 28 September 2009

Kasparov, Karpov and Simutowe

After 25 years Kasparov and Karpov, the chess Grandmasters are back to their old ways, battling it out for supremacy.

I am filled with awe when I think about the brain power that must be being set to work when these two meet. Intelligence is an interest of mine and I enjoy being amongst exceptionally smart people.

Not that I lay any claim to be exceptionally smart myself, although I did once score 104% in a maths exam. But when you meet people who are really, really clever then if, like me, you fall into the category of "definitely not stupid" you have enough smarts to appreciate what they are capable of.

Speaking of chess, I am not bad at the game myself. I wouldn't say I was a keen player, but I can put up a decent fight. However at my old software company, we had some really smart developers who were excellent chess players. Not that I ever played against them but it just wouldn't have been worth it to them. They would have beaten me as if I wasn't there.

Then we hired a testing analyst. As well as being a jolly decent software tester, he turned out to be an English Grandmaster . On one of our team awaydays, we set up about 20 chessboards for all of us, in a horse-shoe and he played against all of us simultaneously, moving swiftly from board to board. He beat us all as if we were children. Only one of our software engineers put up any sort of resistance, which I think he foundquite entertaining. For his own amusement, when all of us had succumbed, our grandmaster reset the engineer's board and then replayed the whole game from memory talking us through the moves as he went. Amazing.

However, he would admit himself that there were other international grandmasters who would beat him as if he was a babe in arms, and those grandmasters would bow their heads if they ever came up against a "super-grandmaster" such as a Kasparov or Karpov.

So, where does that leave me on the intelligence ladder? Slightly above a cabbage I think. Fortunately I have never felt bad about not being "the smartest guy in the room" because I grew up with two exceptionally smart brothers, so there was no point trying to compete on that score. In fact I find myself drawn to genius, I enjoy observing it, just being in its presence.

Sometimes I get mistaken for being smart and this is unfortunate, as happened when I was doing my physics degree in Nigeria. There was a mathematician who shared a couple of courses with me. He was super-smart and somehow got it into his head that I was too. So, when other lads were heading off to the bar for a bottle of beer or two, he would beg me to stay behind for an hour or so to "solve vectors" with him. Oh, the happy hours we would spend, him with the chalk at the blackboard scribbling away, turning occasionally to say "what do you think, Tom, is it correct, Tom?" Me lying on the desks, legs crossed, smoking away, pondering for a few minutes and then pronouncing, to his great relief "by jove, I think you've cracked it". I never had the heart to say "I have absolutely no idea what those funny little squiggles you put on the board actually mean, but can I go now please? Beer doesn't drink itself you know!".

Over the summer I have been reading extensively on the nature of intelligence, how to identify those with a real gift in certain areas and how to unleash their full potential. I am fascinated by gifteness and intelligence and I am also puzzled as to why the African continent has not managed to unleash its fair share of genii and what happened to my vector-analyzing friend who was easily as smart as the smartest people I have met since from London to Silicon Valley. Did he fulfill his full potential or did the rigours of African life mean that his awesome brainpower was put to the task of making a half decent living day to day? If so, what a waste!

For example, in a continent of nearly a billion people, why is there only one chess Grandmaster, Amon Simutowe from sub-saharan Africa? Is there a different distribution of intelligence across the African population? I don't believe there is. But if there isn't then that means that, just taking the young people, of which there are about 400 million across Africa, there must be something like 8 million (2%) who would be eligible to join Mensa!

I imagine what the continent could be like if we could find and unleash some of this brain power and so I am creating a charitable foundation to take on that challenge. In Britian, USA, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and all over the world countries are investing millions into gifted and talented programs for their young people and I want to make sure that the same thing happens across Africa. I have been working on this for a couple of years now and the bits of the jigsaw are coming together. It's an impossible challenge and it's going to be a long and fascinating journey that will start in earnest next year when we run our first major gifted Academy program. The outcomes are unpredictable and that makes it even more exciting.

And if in ten years time all I suceed in achieving is finding and unleashing 10,000 young people who all beat me at chess as if I was a babe in arms, then I will be very, very happy.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Mingling with the Party Boys

Today I attended the launch of a policy document by the Conservative Party shadow Justice Minister Dominic Grieve QC. The topic was the surveillance society and government databases and as it looks a fair bet that we might see a change of Government in 2010 I thought I had better accept the invitiation and hear what the thinking is from opposition quarters.

The content of the paper and discussion is covered elsewhere (here and here for example) so I won't bother repeating it. Suffice to say that despite not being of a Conservative persuasion myself, I was a bit surprised to find that I agreed with pretty much everything in the paper and I was impressed with the way Dominic Grieve handled himself during the lengthy Q&A session.

But having never been to a real live "launch" of a political policy document before I was keen to find out what it was like. So I put on what I thought looked like a Tory sort of suit and set off to the invitation only event held at a Microsoft office in London.

The event was smaller than I thought it would be. There were about 40 people present and I suspect at least 10 of them were party faithful. Judging by the number of badges on the reception table when I arrived, I think the majority of guests were present (perhaps 10 or so missing) so it seems that these launch events are not designed to be the big "show and tell" affairs that I had assumed.

Speaking of party faithful, I do like watching young politicians on the make. They tend to be caricatures of whatever party they belong to. I slipped in and sat on the back row just as the event was getting going and a young lad in his twenties spotted me, glided across the carpet and pressed a copy of the report into my hand. I say young lad and I think he was a young lad but he somehow managed to look as if he was comfortably into his fifties. He looked as if he had been born in his fifties. This may be the look you go for if you are an aspiring Conservative. I must find out what the Labour lads try to look like these days. I know what your typical libdem aspires to.

After a brief introduction by someone important but instantly forgettable, Dominic Grieve stood up and made a few remarks about his document. Then we got down to the meat of the event - the Q&A. Dominic sat between two other folk, a mate of mine and all-round good egg called Jerry Fishenden and Eleanor Laing MP, Shadow Minister of Justice. I must say, I was slightly taken aback to see Jerry up there, not because he shouldn't have been but I just hand't expected it and it's always a surprise when you see someone you know unexpectely out of context, being all grown up and speaking in deep, well modulated, authoritative tones. Jerry was, I believe, the techno-totty (on account of knowing what he is talking about when it comes to technology) and Eleanor's role was to agree with Dominic and repeat what he said but in a soft reassuring Scottish brogue.

Despite it being a small and largely friendly group (why would you invite your critics to your own launch party, after all?) the questioning went on for a good hour and was very persistant. This was the bit where I was reminded why I will not make a good politician. Most of the questions were pretty good as the audience knew its stuff, but some were self-serving drivel and it would have been quicker if the questioner had just stood up, waved their arms in the air and said "Yoo Hoo Look at me. I'm here!". That's when I would have said "yes, yes, yes, we've all seen you, you ARE big and you ARE clever, now sit down", Dominic however looked thoughtful and came up with half-decent answers that gave the impression that he gave a damn about the questioner. Impressive.

Probably the most impressive was a question that the chap next to me asked about ISO standards verse kite marks. I assumed that Dominic would immediately pass the question over to Jerry, who might have stood a chance of knowing what the question was about. Indeed, I thought I caught Jerrry shifting uneasily in his chair. But to my surprise Dominic responded to the question himself and actually answered it pretty well.

As I didn't understand the protocol for asking questions (such as did your question need to make sense or not) and because my personality type makes it illegal for me to speak unless spoken to in strange public settings, I didn't get around to asking a question. But almost everyone else did and the session had to be cut short and brought to an end.

Job done, the group prepared to retire for drinks, nibbles and networking in Microsoft's plush offices (Microsoft have been very smart boys, getting so close to the opposition, no other tech companies in sight at this stage). Networking is something the young party boys really know how to do and I could see them stretching and limbering up for a good session of trusting about, grasping hands insincerely and looking just past your left shoulder as they speak to you just in case someone slightly more important hoves into view. I should really have stayed and sprayed business cards around, but there is only so much I can take. I made my excuses (to myself, under my breadth) and fled.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Son's new school sets me homework!

My son looked resplendent in his new dark green school blazer and tie for his first day of secondary school yesterday. Suddenly he looks all grown up. Time has passed so quickly.

I still remember my first day at secondary school. Me and the boys going by ourselves on the train to Teddington in our brand new school uniforms, messing about on the train. We threw paper at each other, climbed on the seats and made loads of noise. What fun!

I also remember my second day at school. The second morning, at Assembly in front of the whole school, the Headteacher slapped his cane on the table and shouted "Four new boys were seen in the school uniform, THE SCHOOL UNIFORM, messing about on trains. If you were one of those boys STAND. UP. NOW." All 1,000 boys sat in complete expectant silence. Then one by one Tom, Stephen, Steve and Ross (not necessarily in that order) stood up, quivering like jelly and as the whole school looked on sniggering, we made our way to the Head's office to be disciplined!

These days caning is out and health and safety is in. No more horrible Mr "VZ" taking a run up and whacking boys with his trainer. It's forms, forms, forms now. There are so many forms to fill in when your child is going to a new school. Clubs to join, health and safety to worry about and the trickiest of all - the Ethnic Origin form.

This school has a long and complex list of options available for me to tick to identify my lad's ethnic origin. It was easy to dismiss most of the options - Irish traveller, Polish etc. But then we were left with these "black" choices:

Black European
Black and any other ethnic group
Other black
Other black African
White and black African
White and black

Well this is not as easy as we thought. Let us consider the situation.

My son was born and has lived his whole life in England. He is a south London, rugby playing, Fulham football club supporting geezer. One of his parents was also born and grew up in London of Caribbean parents. The other parent was born in London with a white English (plus a quarter Irish) mother and a Nigerian father.

So what variety of "black" is my boy? I puzzled and puzzled. I could of course have opted out and just not ticked one of the boxes but I think its no bad thing for the school to be aware of the diversity (0r not) of its student population. Finally after much thought and voices saying "oh for goodness sake, just tick something" I came up with an answer.

I'll tell you what I did later, but what would you have ticked?

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Confirmation that I am the ladies choice

Great news! I finally have irrefutable evidence that Ilube is the ladies choice.

I know many of you have thought this for some time, but now there is hard evidence to back it up.

Okay, perhaps that's not the same Ilube. Mind you, it's cooler to be the ladies choice than to be a lubricant for dry eye conditions.

Having said that, I prefer being an eye lubricant than a biomass project in Slovakia or a socio-linguistic research project. But I guess I don't get to make these choices. If you've got a name that lends itself to a wide range of products and services, you get used to it. But for the avoidance of doubt, let me explain where the name ILUBE originally comes from.

To do this, I need to tell you a story that goes back to the tail end of the 19th Century. A young lad in what is now Nigeria, West Africa was hard at work under the hot sun, clearing bush to plant his seeds when he was "seized" by warriors. He was kidnapped, taken hostage by warriors from a rival tribe and taken into captivity.

The boy was dragged off to Urhobo land in modern day Delta State (which reminds me - if any of my Urhobo friends are reading this WILL YOU PEOPLE PLEASE STOP KIDNAPPING MY ANCESTORS!).

The young lad grew up amongst these Urhobo people as a captive/servant and he eventually married a local Urhobo/Itsekiri woman called Inene from a town called Okpara Waterside.

The couple's first three children were born there. Their second child, and first son, was a boy who was named, Oritseritseilubeye, which is an Itsekire name. Snappy name I know, and for day to day use it was shortened to ILUBE - a ha!

The couple settled down and engaged in fishing and trading commodities (not as in "BUY GOLD, SELL OIL" on the international markets but "buy fish, sell bananas" in the local market). At the time Inene was pregnant with their third child.

However, one day the captive lad who was now a grown man was at the market in Abraka when he overheard some traders speaking in his own language, Emai, that he had not heard for many years. After several months he plucked up courage to cultivate their acquaitance and eventually disclosed his true identity and how he came to be in this strange and distant place so far from "home".

This is now the first half of the 20th century and British Colonial administration was gradually creating an environment that made it more conducive for displaced persons, refugees, prisoners of inter-ethnic wars and slaves to migrate back to their ethnic areas.

Our hero determined to try to gain his release from his captors and make his way home. With his wife heavily pregnant, the local "Oracles" were consulted and revealed a surprising insight. The Oracles claimed that the unborn child would refuse to be born until a solemn promise was made that the child would be taken to its father's land.

This caused much panic particularly amongst Inene's family and in the circumstances Inene and her people, after a number of family conferences, eventually gave in and agreed that after the child was born, the family would be allowed to leave. The child, Itakhor, therefore agreed to be born and everything went smoothly.

However about 6 months after Itakhor's birth there was still no sign of the captors releasing the man and his family and Itakhor fell ill and refused to respond to the usual medication.

The Oracles were again consulted and not surprisingly the unfilfilled promise was quickly identified as the root cause for the child's illness. Rapid arrangements were made and, as the Oracles predicted, the child quickly recovered, so the family set off on the epic trip on foot through dangerous terrain back to Emai land. The baby Itakhor was strapped on to Inene's back, as is the custom, and young Oritseritseilubeye sat astride his fathers shoulders. The family set off at a pace set by the little daughter and oldest of the three children, Uledikun, on a dangerous journey that took several weeks, following a route and directions obtained from the Emai traders.

Years later Oritseritseilubeye or Ilube for short, now settled back in Emai-land, had children of his own and as is sometimes done, his sons decided to take his first name as their surname, thereby establishing the Ilube family. One of his sons is my father and you may not believe it but I actually met the lady Inene when I was very young and she was very, very, very old, blind and simply terrifying.

So now you know the origins of the name Ilube. Mind you, that's not to say that I was wrong in my starting assumption. Oh yes, I'll say it again for the hard of hearing. I am indeed the ladies choice :)

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Talking to strangers

Internet security types, like me, are always advising people to be wary about who you are talking to on the Web. We advise parents to tell their children not to talk to strangers, and rightly so. In particular we try to advise teenagers about "stranger danger".

So, why was I not surprised when I was told about a fairly new site, set up by a teen for teens that is sweeping across that generation like crazy.

Enter Omegle - tagline "Talk to Strangers". Yes, it's a site that encourages you to chat to strangers on the web immediately without any controls, restricitions, nanny-words about being safe etc. Just dive straight in and chat to strangers about nothing. Waste hours chatting to strangers.

At the same time as being slightly "creepy" it is a great lesson in targeting customer needs, if you are thinking of creating a start up. Start with your customer, in this case teenagers, and think about their requirements. Two stand out. One - Annoy your parents by doing the exact opposite of what they tell you to do. Two - achieve this whilst wasting time in an entirely non-productive way.

It's wierd and compelling and apparently loads of kids use it in an idle moment. Sitting near your computer and mind wandering? Reach over to Omegle, click the button, chat to a stranger amongst millions somewhere in the word. If it gets boring, disconnect and carry on staring at the lightbulb. Brilliant ! And spooky! No wonder its so popular.

It's interesting to see how kids use it too. They are quite brutal. If the conversation is threatening, wierd or boring they just press the "disconnect" button and start another chat with a new stranger. Perhaps there is some useful learning going on here on how to deal with annoying strangers online - you disconnect them without a second thought.

I was explaining it to some of my technical colleagues and they were dubious. They said they think you are not chatting to a real stranger. They think you are chatting to a robot, a piece of simple artificial intelligence software that is able to engage in a fairly believable conversation by reflecting comments back to you. So I thought I would put this to the test. Here's what I got (I am YOU and the stranger is STRANGER).

Omegle conversation log


Connecting to server...

You're now chatting with a random stranger. Say hi!

A word of advice: "asl" is boring. Please find something more interesting to talk about!

Stranger: hi

You: hi, are you a real person or a computer?

Stranger: i'm a real person u idiot! :)

Stranger: female or male?

You: yeh, that's what a bot would say

Stranger: haha

Stranger: okay then how are u doing?

You: i'm doing wednesday, u?

Stranger: not so much really..... what is wednesday?

You: i'm pretty certain you are a computer program

Stranger: okay then i dont want to talk to a person who thinks that i'm a computer program!! see u

You: hey don't go!

Stranger: why?

You: i am from the future

Stranger: haha! u are not funny

Stranger: are u a male?

You: sometimes, but only after 6am and on green days

Stranger: are u sure u are okay?? because it doesn't sound like that to me..... call a doctor!!

You: i am a doctor

Stranger: yeah..... how old are u... doctor?

You: the square root of pi minus the height of the moon

You have disconnected.

So, was I talking to a person or a Bot? I think it was a person but I'm still not 100% sure. Have a play with it and let me know what you think. Horrific or harmless fun? And if you get arrested for grooming teenagers don't blame me!

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Bojangles Birthday

Somedays you must focus. Focus on the business, the fund raising, the revenue, the cost base, getting the PR right, wrestling with the technology.

Other days you focus on one thing and one thing only - yourself. Nothing else matters. Wake up selfish, be selfish all day and as midnight creepes towards you, let your selfish head rest on your selfish pillow, breath out and relax.

That day is called your birthday and today was Bojangles Birthday.

I woke up late and slowly opened my pile of presents. I love opening presents. It doesn't matter what they are, I just love opening them. I take my time. Prod them, rattle them, sniff them and then slowly unwrap them.

I wander off for a mid-morning breakfast with my wife. Full English and a steaming hot mug of tea.

I arrive at work just a few minutes before lunchtime and disrupt everyone by telling useless jokes and generally behave like a naughty schoolboy. Then I wander vaguely off to lunch with a couple of my favourite Professors and my Chairman. Sitting in a French cafe overlooking the River Thames in leafy Richmond, I laugh and joke with my mates until its time to drag ourselves back to the office.

I arrive back in the office in time for my two - yep, two - birthday cakes to be lit and then I settle down to an afternoon cuppa and a couple of slices of cake. A big piece of chocolate and an slice of the jam sponge one. By the time I had finished that it was nearly time to go home.

Got home in time to prepare to go to dinner with the family. A great turn out - it was going to be just the four of us but over twenty turned up. My mum, brothers and sisters and the kids turned out in force and we had a jolly time, taking over a restaurant that usually only gets about four diners on a typical evening.

Finally, I get home, make myself a jasmine tea, take a look at facebook, smile at the "happy birthdays" people have sent me and then settle down one last time for the day to listen to my old friend, Sammy Davis Jr, singing my tune - Mr Bojangles.

"He said his name was Bojangles, then he danced a lick
Right across the cell
He grabbed his pants, took a better stance, jumped up high
That's when he clicked his heels
Then he let go a laugh, Lord, he let go a laugh
Shook back his clothes all around

That was Mr. Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles
Mr. Bojangles, Lord, he could dance

Today was my birthday and it was all about me :)

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Play up! Play up! And play the game

Strategic planning for start ups is just a game. Literally, in our case. We don't do long term, 3 or 5 year strategic plans. We create a "Game" and then we play it full on. Play up! Play up! And play the game.

A lot of companies produce sophisticated 3 year plans, full of precise detail and copious spreadsheets. Business schools churn out battalions of MBAs capable of producing a 3 year plan at the drop of a hat.

But our approach is different. We define two things. One is the "Enduring Purpose" and the other is "The Game".

The Enduring Purpose gets defined once and never changes. It is a statement of why the company itself exists, what its ultimate purpose is. It is a single, clear, carefully thought through sentence and it is aspirational. You may never achieve it but that doesn't matter, it serves as a guiding light that you are constantly working towards.

The Game gets defined frequently. It typically has a 12 month timeframe, but it can be shorter (Garlik's current Game is a 6 month game) or longer. However its best to think in terms of 12 months.

The Game starts with a sentence, usually along the lines of "By the end of 2010, we will have...." and it needs to be a clear step towards achieving the Enduring Purpose.

Underneath the sentence or two that defines The Game you will write some Conditions of Satisfaction. There may be 3 to 5 conditions of satisfaction and these are the statements that make it clear how you will know whether you have "won" the game.

For example, if you are running an environmental company, GreenCo, then...

Enduring purpose..."GreenCo will change the world by giving families real power over their impact on the environment around them and inspiring them to reduce the harm they cause."

The Game..."By December 2009, GreenCo will launch its GreenHome online platform to consumers across three continents and establish itself as the leading player in consumer green issues".

Conditions of satisfaction....

a) GreenHome will be launched in USA, UK and India by December 2009
b) GreenCo will acquire a critical mass of users by December 2009
c) GreenCo will be recognised in the environmental industry as a thought leader in the USA

This whole structure should fit onto a single side of A4. If it's much longer than that then it probably isn't clear or focused enough to be useful. Underneath each condition of satisfaction, you will list 1 to 3 "measures" that make it absolutely clear what you mean by "critical mass" for example or "recognised in the ... industry".

The final step is to allocate accountabilities to each condition of satisfaction. Whilst there may be several people involved in each item, you need to give someone (including yourself) the primary accountability to hit that CoS.

The process of putting this together should take you 2 to 3 days of debate and discussion and plenty of flipcharts and if you can you should tackle it off-site so that you can clear everyones mind of the hassles of the day to day. In fact you might want to start off by having some discussions that help people to get their immediate angst out of the way.

As you get into the debate, you and your leadership team should test each word to make sure it says what you mean it to say. Words are important here because you need to get clear on what matters to you. There may be some debate amongst the team about the wording so remember that ultimately the Chief Executive gets to decide and the rest of the team aligns behind the CEOs decision.

But what about years 2 and 3 I hear the MBA's chant. Don't worry about them. Play your Game full on for the short period you have defined and as you get to the end of that period, define the next Game, consistent with the Enduring Purpose, for the following period. Nothing matters except The Game.

So, Play up! Play up! And play the game, and everything else will look after itself.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Leo Sayer made me do it

Over the past 3 years we at Garlik have put a lot of effort into building a state of the art semantic technology platform. We raised millions of pounds from hard nosed VCs, hired brilliant software engineers, bought bucket loads of servers and developed some pretty impressive software.

And then last week, we took the core bit of technology (something called an RDF store for the geeks amongst you) and GAVE IT AWAY!

Yes, we released that software, 4store is it's name, as open source software, free for anyone, anywhere to download and use for whatever they want.

Why one earth did we do that? I hear you ask (not dissimilar to my investors reaction). Simple. Because Leo Sayer told me to. You see, I'm just a boy, giving it all away.

Actually, the real reason is that we want to help the semantic web grow by encouraging as many businesses and other organisations as possible to publish their data in the right way, so that it all links together into one huge web of linked data - the next generation of the web. They need tools to do this, we have those tools, so why not give them away and see what happens? That's how the web itself grew after all.

Within the first 48 hours, thousand people from all over the world have visited and projects are springing up using the software. It's exciting. It makes me feel like dancing.

Sometimes when you do stuff like this, you can feel like a one man band. Nobody knows or understands. Is there anybody out there wanna lend a hand?

p.s. for those of you old enough to remember Leo Sayer, here's a bit of trivia for you. When he was a huge British pop star in the 70's he lived in Richmond...and my grandad, Maurice Christian, used to tune his piano! There, feel free to use that. It may come up in a pub quiz one day.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Who the hell are you, my friend?

Facebook and other social networks have highlighted a troubling social phenomenon that is causing people like me a real problem – “Asymmetric Memory Retention” or AMR.

AMR is the situation where you interact with someone who has a shared experience with you, but whereas one of you has a clear recall of what happened, the other has no memory of the event or even the other person at all. I’m not talking about a vague and distant recollection. I mean no trace at all.

Whilst AMR has existed forever, in the past the likelihood of you meeting someone who you had completely and utterly forgotten was very remote. But with the advent of Facebook, twitter and all the rest it is becoming increasingly common. We’ve all had that friend-request out of the blue from someone saying “Hey, Tom, you old rogue, remember that day with the red bowtie and the halibut?” But how are you supposed to handle that situation? What are the social norms of interaction when you are a victim of AMR?

To gain some insight into this, I turned to the academic literature on AMR. This turned out not to be very fruitful because I have only just this second invented and named the concept of AMR so no-one has actually studied it yet. However, I am confident that before I finish typing this blogpost, a Professor of AMR will emerge to challenge outdated notions of AMR treatment and present their own theory, along with a best-selling book entitled “Who the hell are you, my friend?”, on how to embrace the joys of AMR for fun and profit.

The issue popped up for me recently because I came across an ancient photo album containing scenes from my distant past – nearly 40 years ago. The picture above is me back then with my great friend, Raymond (who I do remember very well of course), aged about 9 or 10 I think. Some of these pictures I look at and remember exactly, in a very deep way. I couldn’t tell you the date, perhaps, but I remember not only the event but exactly how I felt. In fact when I look at them I am not observing them from the outside, I actually feel as if I am experiencing the events again. I looked at one and tears immediately welled up in my eyes, as the painful emotions I felt at the time reappeared.

However, there were some photos that I looked at as if I was a stranger. I could see my younger self standing there looking back at me, but I had no recollection at all of being there. That’s a very odd feeling.

It is even odder when you are contacted by someone who was in the photo, who knows you really, really well but you remember nothing at all of them. The face draws a blank however hard you stare. The name doesn’t ring the tiniest bell, the events are a complete mystery. You have no idea whether they are just lying or whether your memory has been wiped clear. We call this Deep AMR. I say “we” but I mean “me” as no-one else has heard of AMR, yet.

I am wrestling with just such a Deep AMR problem. I have a message and a friend request from someone that I have absolutely no recollection of, but they clearly know me very well so we must have hung out together at some point. Mind you I was a bit distinctive in my youth – I think I was the only “dark glasses with 5 inch afro, poncho and clog wearing physicist” hippie in West Africa at the time, so perhaps more people remember me than vice versa. But what is the correct social etiquette in this Deep AMR situation?

Do I come clean and say “sorry, old bean, I appreciate that you know me well but I have zero recollection of you, so we will have to start again as if we are complete strangers” Or do I bluff saying “hey, you old dog, how’s it hanging homie? Remind me about the good old days again” and hope that some glimmer of a memory of him returns.

It’s quite unsettling really and no doubt someone will tell me it’s the beginning of the onset of altissimo (I say “altissimo” because I tried to spell that word beginning with A that means you lose your memory but I mangled it so badly that the spell checker offered me altissimo instead and I liked the sound of it). But I don’t mind it. I find it fascinating and I’m wondering if I am the only silent AMR sufferer out there or whether Facebook is inflicting this previously hidden problem on loads of us.

Friday, 26 June 2009

The importance of being lazy

I was at a dinner a couple of weeks ago sitting next to a high powered Washington executive when a young investment banker came up.

"How's it going?" the Exec said. The young banker excitedly said "It's going great. I haven't had a single day off work for the last 6 weeks. I've worked straight through, including every saturday and sunday."

"Excellent" says the Exec. "My staff never go home before midnight. The other night I said goodnight to them at 3am and they just laughed and said "do you mean goodmorning, boss?".

They then both looked at me expectantly. "Ooooh", I said "Well, erm, well, sometimes I do up to 2 hours of productive work a day. On a good day of course". Phew, just listening to these two was wearing me out.

You see, I discovered something interesting a few years ago. It turns out that a lot of what we do at work is a complete waste of time. I reckon that if you work for a large corporate then 60% of what you do makes no difference to anyone anywhere and if you work for a start-up it's more like 40%. Fortunately your corporate competitors probably waste 70% of their effort so your 60% of non-productive effort is pretty good going.

You can do lots and lots of this timewasting stuff in the hope that if you do lots of stuff then you are probably doing a bit more useful stuff. Or you can try to figure out what the useful stuff is and just not bother to do the rest. That's what I try to do.

My strategy is to try to do ONE really high impact thing each day. One critical decision, one cut through phone call, one killer email, one transforming conversation. I know in myself when I've done something that really makes a difference and once I've done it, I relax. Sure, I'll do a few other things but knowing that I've done that ONE BIG THING is enough for me to declare that day a good day's work, even if it only took me 5 minutes.

Mind you, this strategy doesn't work if you kid yourself about whether the thing you did really was a high impact thing. You need to sit down, look at your To Do list and see whether there is anything on it that will make a real difference. If there isn't then prepare yourself for redundancy! You can hid behind "being busy" for a while but it will catch up with you. Come on, is there really anything on your "To Do" list that makes a serious difference? Then, do it.

The other important thing to making this approach work is not to feel guilty, once you have done your ONE BIG THING. If your boss comes around the corner and you are relaxing with your feet on your desk, sipping a cup of cocoa, are you sure the ONE BIG THING is big enough to stop the top of his head blowing off? If it is, then sip away my friend, you've earned it.

I like to think of this strategy as a "Tai Chi" approach to business verses the standard hard-form Karate style of business. It's a soft power approach. If you enjoyed Chinese films in the old days, then you would have loved it when the muscle bound young man attacks the old, blind begger with his powerful karate blows and kicks, but the old man uses his relaxed, almost nonchalant tai chi style to block all the blows, whilst calmly eating a bowl of rice, before causing his over-enthusiastic opponent to punch himself in the head.

Actually the principle I am interested in is that of "Wu Wei", the art of doing things "without action". So, you run around if you want to, hustle, bustle, put those hours in, show those bosses that you've got what it takes. Me, I will think carefully about my objectives, I'll do my ONE BIG THING each day as effortlessly as possible and then I'll relax and cheer you on with my feet up. Good luck!

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Sports day in Cape Town

Today the World Economic Forum in Cape Town was all about sports, well for me at least.

This afternoon I joined delegates on a trip to Greenpoint Stadium that nestles between Table Mountain and the Atlantic ocean.

When we arrived we were met by a barrage of photographers and journalists. I knew we were important but not that important, surely? It turns out I was right because after we collected our hard hats and sat in the auditorium for a briefing on the stadium, we were asked to stand to welcome President Jacob Zuma and various other eminent personalities, including the Secretary General of Fifa. Zuma was there to kick off the one year countdown to the first match of the 2010 World Cup.

The President literally kicked off the countdown, as we all went out onto the pitch (I can claim now that I have stood on a World Cup football pitch). In front of what must have been several thousand construction workers, Jacob Zuma spoke more eloquently and fluently than I had heard him in front of the WEF audience, then as we counted down, kicked a ball into the stands.

I did enjoy the fact that, after signing disclaimer forms and donning hard hats, in the middle of the massive construction site, standing under cranes as high as the sky, the South African national anthem was played and we all, including the President, immediately took our hard hats off and held them to our chest. That must have been the health and safety officials worst nightmare!
Later on that evening, I attended a soiree in honour of the 800 WEF delegates, in the presence of President Zuma and a number of other African Heads of State. Again the whole thrust of the evening was the 2010 World Cup. There is such enthusiasm building up here, it is going to be one HUGE party and I am definitely going to come to Cape Town in 2010 to be a part of it.

I thought I had done enough sport when I finally got back to the hotel at about 11pm, only to find all the hotel staff wearing British Lions shirts over their uniforms, because the Lions had just checked in to the hotel that I am staying at. I can see a group sitting round the pool now and I can hear some gentle rugby songs wafting upwards. I have a feeling that this hotel is in for a lively time over the next few days!

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

African Flavour

This week I am attending the World Economic Forum on Africa event in Cape Town, South Africa. WEF events are remarkably similar, whether they take place in Davos, China or Africa but this one has a definite African flavour.

Mind you, it's a subtle aroma rather than a full blown, assault on the senses type of flavour. Rather like Cape Town itself. I met an English couple in the hotel this evening and the wife said "this is my first trip to Africa". I felt like saying "Lady, you think Cape Town is Africa? You ain't seen nothing yet".

On the surface this WEF event is identical in look and feel to the others I have been to, whether in Switzerland or China. The "WEF Welcomes You..." banners at the airport, the meet-and-greet staff who direct you to the WEF branded mini-buses. The 5* hotels chosen, the shuttle buses to the conference centre, your WEF bag with the participants book on registration, the security badge are all identical from country to country. Inside the conference centre they have literally lifted up the whole of the Davos look and feel and plonked it down on a different continent thousands of miles away.

However just below the surface there are a couple of differences. Not many, but one or two that give it that slightly distinct flavour.

For example, at WEF events the dress code is business casual. That usually means open necked shirt and jacket, or even shirt and no jacket, particularly amongst tech guys. But at WEF Africa business casual means smart suit and tie and properly polished shoes. In fact it means exactly the same as business formal. When you are going to a business meeting in Africa, if you want to be taken seriously you wear a suit and tie and that's that.

Interestingly, out of the 800+ delegates here from all over Africa not one man (so far) is wearing traditional African attire. Everyone is in Western suits and ties. That's quite unusual really and tells me two things. One is that the delegates are not entirely comfortable with the environment. They don't "own" it. They are guests at this event on their own continent. Secondly it tells me that there are not many Nigerians here, because if there was a strong Nigerian contingent you would see the brightly coloured flowing agbada's being worn with pride. Nigerian's "own" wherever they happen to be at the time, they wear what they like, they will talk as loud as they like and if you don't like it "you can go to hell, blorry idiot".

Some of the women are wearing traditional outfits though, the most notable being Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the World Bank Managing Director (pictured above) who ALWAYS wears her traditional outfits with pride. Ngozi is a very impressive lady. I have seen her speak on several occasions and she is a match for anyone. Today she shared the stage with the likes of President Jacob Zuma and Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the UN, and she more than held her own.

The other African thing that happens here is that the audience applaud after every speaker makes a comment, however short. This is traditional African respect - you are in the presence of your "seniors" and betters, so if they honour you by speaking to you then you should show your appreciation. African's are quite formal, you know. This is something that is not well understood by non-Africans, but the formalities of greeting correctly, showing respect to your elders and knowing your place are deeply ingrained in African culture.

This can sometimes prove an unexpected problem in a Western setting. For example, a young man brought up within a mildly traditional African family will show respect for an older man by looking down rather than looking him straight in the eye, shaking hands carefully, sometimes with two hands and generally transmitting a tone of subserviance. The younger man doesn't actually feel particularly subservient but that's how you treat your elders. Now if that young man goes for a job interview in London, where you are supposed to stride in, hand outstretched looking your interviewer in the eye and talk to someone 30 years your senior as if you "are mates", well he just doesn't stand a chance.

Greetings are all important too. The more junior person greets first and then there can be a lengthy to and fro of greetings that can quite easily take 5 minutes, before any real conversation starts. For example, in my father's area (Afuze, Owan East Local Government Area, Edo State, Nigeria) it will go something like this

Ah hello Sir

Hello boy

How are you sir?


That's good. How are you Sir, still fine I hope?

I am still fine boy. Nothing has changed since we last spoke

That's good news Sir. And the wife Sir, how is she, Sir?

She is fine, boy

The wife is fine, Sir? That is good. Fine is she, Sir?

Yes, boy, she is fine

Good, good. And you Sir, you are fine?

Yes boy, fine

Good. Anyway, I was just passing and thought I'd say hi, Sir

Ok, boy

(silence ensues for a few minutes)

Anyway, Sir, I will be going

Ok, boy

But before I go, I just wanted to ask, how you were Sir?

Fine, boy

And the wife

She's fine too, boy

Ok, Sir, I will be going

Ok boy

(this can go on for several days until one or the other of the participants faints with hunger, allowing the other to sneak off, unless someone else arrives in which case it starts all over again)

So, this WEF event in Africa has a definite if subtle African aroma. It's sort of in Africa but not quite in Africa. It's more "on" Africa than "in" Africa. But that's okay, at least the challenges that the continent faces are getting some attention by an influential group of people and that's got to be a good thing.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

In a diplomatic bubble

I attended a quite unique dinner at the Dorchester, London last night. It was in honour of the Diplomatic Corps and I found myself in the company of 128 Ambassadors and High Commissioners, 19 Lords, Ladies and Barons, 24 Sirs and an assortment of Professors, Bankers, Diplomats, Field Marshalls and political and media folk.

I found myself sitting amongst a small group of political observers, including Adam Boulton of Sky News (he left early and when I got home and turned on the TV, there he was again, reporting live outside Downing Street!), Michael Prescott (former political editor of the Sunday Times) and Anji Hunter (Tony Blair's former spin doctor, who I have since realised is married to Adam Boulton, which explains what I thought was a level of over-familiarity not entirely appropriate for such an event). There was a flurry of excitement and chattering amongst these folk when news filtered through about another Ministerial resignation.

You can always rely on a good speech from senior diplomats and we were not disappointed. The Ambassadors all laughed at the standard joke told at such occasions about the definition of an Ambassador being "an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country", turning to each other to say with perfectly straight faces that that was possibly the funniest joke they had every heard.

We were a bit more confused when the senior diplomat appeared to say "I really believe that we are an honest and corrupt nation". We tittered politely. Did he say that? Did we miss-hear? Perhaps he said "honest, uncorrupt nation" but that's a strange phrase too.

Much of the main speech was about the power of new media, blogs, twitter, youtube and so on. This is an interesting challenge for the Diplomatic Corps who are in the business of controlling communication, not letting it rip. These social media give mere mortals a direct view inside the diplomatic bubble and the senior diplomats will have to move quickly to get on top of them. In fact I heard of a new concept, a "digital coach" who apparently works one to one with a senior executive coaching them through the world of social media (isn't that sort of like a paid grandchild?). I enjoyed tweeting about diplomats talking about tweeting.

This piercing of the bubble by social media will be very interesting, because that world really is a bubble. For a few hours one is dinning with over a hundred senior diplomats and other guests in one of London's best hotels and you are completely disconnected from the everyday world outside. Then at the end of the evening, we go our separate ways. The Ambassadors step into their long, black limos with uniformed drivers (picture a hundred cars all with number plates like "COUNTRY 1" parked in 3 rows on Park Lane) and stay in the heart of the bubble.

Mere mortals, like me, wander off to our parked cars, rip off our bow-ties, stick on some roots music and zoom off back to reality.

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Me vs My Belly

How we laughed. How we laughed. It happened when my father entered his forties and suddenly from being a tall, slim fellow, he became a tall fellow with a podgy belly. It seemed to happen almost overnight much to my and my brother's amusement and we immediately christened him "The Fat Man" (not to his face of course and please don't mention it to him if you see him).

I think the idea for the name "The Fat Man" came from Sydney Greenstreet in that classic 1942 film Casablanca. Which is odd because I have never watched the film, but I know that there is someone called The Fat Man in it.

So there we are, chortling away, year after year at the fat man, when all of a sudden something terrible has happened. I am harmlessly going around in my mid-40's, I happen to glance down and - shock, horror - there right in front of me is a huge, podgy belly !

How did this happen? Who put it there? My children thinks its very funny. They have taken to calling me The Fat Man, after a film that they have never seen (not to my face of course, but I know what goes on behind my back).

But I am determined not to give in so easily. After all, I have proven in the past the sheer strength of will, of mind over matter, and I will defeat this creeping blubber.

For example, years ago I used to smoke. You didn't know that did you? I smoked through my late teens in to my twenties. I even used a cigarette holder, like The Penguin. In those days I had an iron will. If I wanted something to happen, I made it happen, whatever stood in my way. So when I decided to stop smoking, I didn't agonise about it. I didn't get counselling, apply patches, seek hypnosis. I just stopped. And two weeks later I started again! That was amazing. I looked at myself with a mixture of amusement and disgust. How dare my body try to dictact to my iron will. I laughed in the face of my body's pathetic resistance, bent my will to the problem and crushed the life out of my smoking addiction.

About ten years ago I decided to give up drinking alcohol. I think I must have been drinking for about 30 years, but one day I decided enough was enough and it was time to stop. I stopped overnight. Immediately. No questions asked. Just stopped. Never touched a drop since. Hah!

So, now I'm the Fat Man, eh? Fat Man 2.0. Well, I can deal with this. I just stop eating. Well, I don't mean stop eating completely, but stop eating the pies, the muffins, the sugar, the popcorn, the butter, the full fat milk.

But somethings going wrong. My iron will seems to be wilting in the face of my jelly belly. Yesterday, I was watching the telly and suddenly found I had slipped a slice of cake into my mouth without even noticing. Today I convinced myself that cracker biscuits don't count, so I ate about ten of them.

Am I getting old? Is my will fading? Or is this dieting thing a whole new level of challenge? I am rapidly developing a newfound respect for people trying to diet.

But I'm up for the fight. I'm not ready to be Fat Man 2.0 yet. Me vs My belly. Let battle commence.

(oh, by the way, if anyone's got any advice, I'd love to hear it)

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Grokking Pizza

Are you familar with the term "grok" ? If you are, then go back to your code hacking and read no further.

Yesterday I made a pizza for my daughter. I was showing off, because the day before I had managed to assemble pasta with some sort of sauce and salad which was greeted with a positive sounding "Hrummph". Flushed with success I thought I would up my game and go for the pizza.

When I say "made a pizza" I am perhaps stretching the definition of "made". What I mean is that I took a packaged pizza from the fridge, read the instructions and carried them out. The instructions were crystal clear - remove packaging, place on tray, set oven to 220 degrees for 12 minutes. All these things I did, exactly as instructed.

Imagine my surprise therefore when the oven beeped after 12 minutes, I opened the door and, hey presto, there was the pizza BURNT TO A SMOKING WRECK!

This has happened to me before. Not with pizza but with other things. I burnt tomato soup because the instructions said to put it in a saucepan over the heat for 5 minutes and when I came back the soup had vanished completely apart from an accusing stain around the edge of the pan which I had to throw away as I couldn't clean it. I once boiled an egg so hard that I was able to bounce it off the wall.

There is something about following cooking instructions that just doesn't seem to work for me. This, I have come to understand, is because I don't "grok" cooking.

I mentioned the pizza fiasco to several people and they immediately said "ah, fan oven, knock a few minutes off the time". I rechecked the instructions. Nowhere did it say to knock a few minutes off the time for a fan oven. I checked my oven. Nowhere does it say "I am a fan oven and I will burn your pizza to a crisp unless you knock a few minutes off". How am I supposed to know these things?

Apparently I should just "know". People who cook just "know". A pinch of salt? They "know" what I pinch of salt it. When I put in a pinch of salt it immediately renders my food inedible. A "dash" of whatever? They "know" what a dash is.

To "grok" something is to "know" it in such a fundamental way that it becomes part of you. The knowledge seeps into your bones. It's way, way beyond learning something. It just "is".

You can "grok" all sorts of things. I used to "grok" maths, in school that is. I never seemed to have to learn it, I just knew it and I couldn't understand why other people seemed to struggle their way through it step by step - until I got to university and suddenly had to learn some maths. Boy, did it feel odd. I still got decent marks but I knew deep inside that I didn't grok it anymore. Something was gone. It was quite sad in a way. For a while I rediscovered this feeling of really "grokking" something when I was an Assembler programmer in the mid-80's. That's long gone now.

I can and do learn new things. I learn the Wu-style Tai Chi long form and I practise it over and over. But when I perform it alongside my Tai Chi master, whilst to the untrained eye we probably look identical, I know that I have just learnt it and he really "groks" it.

I wonder if I will ever get that grokking feeling again. That complete immersion in something where you know it and it knows you as if it was part of you. Beyond intuition. Perhaps I will. Perhaps I do in some areas but don't realise it.

However I can assure you that cooking is one thing that I will never grok. I remember the day we launched the internet bank, Egg plc, back in 1998. We had a long day and I decided to make myself something to eat before the evening's launch activity really kicked off. I put my microwave meal in the machine, pressed the buttons and got on with my work. Next thing I know the fire alarms were screaming, a fire-engine arrived and the whole building was cleared of several hundred angry people, hard at work trying to get everything lined up for launch.

As we stood around outside, shivering, the head firefighter came out with a weary look on his face "No panic" he says "it was just some idiot who had warmed up his dinner in the microwave for 40 instead of 4 minutes". Grok that!