How to be a Woman (and an inclusive feminist)

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“The best thing to do is to choose what you think is right and then just make it look cool… With writing a book about feminism, I was like ‘I could write a real ball aching book and just go ‘you must believe women are equal to men because it’s like a fact of science’, or, I could just write a funny book where women go ‘oh, I’m having fun reading this. It’s making me happier about myself and now I’m just going to buy myself a more comfortable pair of pants’.”

Caitlin Moran on how focusing on the positive (and humorous) can be a much more fruitful approach to engagement and change than acting righteous or having a rant. From a male perspective, I find her disarmingly funny, articulate, passionate and very intelligent. There is something about her style that makes me feel included as a feminist, rather than adversarial as a man. I suspect this comment about her positive focus goes a long way to explaining why. Her book, “How to be a Woman” has (as of July 2012) sold over 400,000 copies in 16 countries. For more funny, articulate, disarming feminism (including how to teach your children to pity Rhianna despite her beauty, wealth and power), listen to her interview with Tim Minchin 

Crisis and the UCI’s Road to Redemption

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It has been a bittersweet week for cycling. I will say up front, it is my opinion that Lance Armstrong doped. Having followed the case with a mild obsession for the last five years, it is very hard to come to any other conclusion. In that sense, it has been a good week. The cycling world has obtained some closure on one of the most controversial and painful chapters of its history. And yet, a good week is not the same as a happy week. I still remember the awe with which I watched Armstrong destroy Marco Pantani and the entire peleton at Lourdes Hautacam in 2000. It is hard
for anyone who had a similar experience to feel happiness about the confirmation of a former idol’s fall from grace.

Armstrong apart, there are plenty of interesting insights on governance and change that arise from the case. It has been a massively difficult experience for the UCI (cycling’s governing body) and they have some way to go yet to rebuild. While the Armstrong case may never see the light of day, the air is thick with accusations of cover ups and complicity. Pat McQuaid’s posturing over who has jurisdiction to charge Armstrong is factually fair, but politically pathetic. The UCI is heavily implicated in the case, and their impartiality in prosecuting it could not be trusted. They should welcome the USADA’s offer to handle it.

While the last thing McQuaid and the UCI will want is for the case to drag out, any accusations of a cover up need to be fully investigated. If ever an organisation needed to demonstrate a resolve and capability to ask difficult questions of itself, then this is it. Cycling’s credibility is shot in the eyes of many fans. While a full investigation would undoubtedly be painful, it is absolutely essential to rebuild the reputation of the UCI.

That’s the great thing about a crisis: It offers an opportunity for a complete change of direction. Outcomes become possible in a crisis that were unthinkable in happier times. And people are very forgiving of individuals and organisations that acknowledge their mistakes and demonstrate sincere effort to change their ways. The UCI need look no further than David Millar. A former disgraced drug cheat, Millar is now one of the most widely respected riders in the peleton thanks to honesty with which he dealt with his mistakes, and the firm anti-doping stance he has taken since his return. So well has he re-established his reputation that the British Olympic Association, an organisation renowned for their anti-doping stance, welcomed him back for London 2012.

There is hope for the UCI, but they must act quickly and courageously. While this case must feel like the worst thing that could have happened, it is in fact a lifeline for an organisation that lost the public’s trust a long time ago.

Competing with Competition and the Wisdom of Starlings

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Photograph from Flickr. See the incredible original gallery here

Once upon a time, in a land not-so-far-away, a gaggle of economists thought very hard about the best way to bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people. They came up with some pretty smart answers: Among other things, in an attempt to increase the level of innovation, they identified competition as a useful spur and set up a system that legally protected competition, and rewarded those that won.

Except – as with all economic models – the idea is based on an approximation of reality. And while that approximation might be quite close at one point in time, the longer the model stands, the further from reality the model is likely to go. And more than that, the longer a model stands, the more likely people are to treat means as ends in themselves. In this case, competition was identified as a way of bringing about the greatest happiness for the greatest number, not as a goal to be pursued for its own sake. This is exactly what Christopher Meyer and Julia Kirby argued earlier this year in the Harvard Business Review.

With all the focus on competition, policy makers and organisations have forgotten, or overlooked the value of collaboration. In his excellent TED talk, Don Tapscott outlines his vision for an open society, based on collaboration, sharing, transparency and empowerment.

While the potential benefits for business are massive (as Tapscott’s Gold Corp example demonstrates), there is a lot of work for businesses to do to get to a place where they can make a difference. Rick Lash has argued that businesses produce the behaviours they reward; and at the moment, they reward employees who work in silos and will turn the world upside down to achieve the objective they have been set. Lash argues that a totally different competence is needed to build a collaborative organisation – one that rewards teams forsaking their own objectives for the sake of the broader organisation. He offers the example of how Apple were able to develop the i pod far more quickly than Sony developed their MP3 Walkman, because they recognised the potential of the product for the company as a whole far outweighed the projects they were working on in individual functions. Beyond that, a collaborative organisation might genuinely commit time to crowd-sourcing and incentivise employees for proactively look to connect disparate strengths in the organisation. Most importantly, organisations would put their best ideas and their biggest problems in the public domain, acting as a focal point and moderator, rather than a secretive, cannibalising black box.

The shift in mindset is massive, the legal infrastructure for it to work is nearly non-existant; but it looks to be the right model – the means to our ends for our time. And it’s on its way (see the UK government’s brave decision to make all scientific papers free to view)! If we can build half the enthusiasm for collaboration that we have had for competition over the last century, the possibilities are massive.

A Generation Inspired

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“It’s a complex, cluttered world we live in… But the oasis of sanity is often the Olympic Games.”

Lord Sebastian Coe

If you read this quote before the Olympics began, you could have been forgiven for questioning Lord Coe’s own sanity. Between G4S’s project management woes, missiles on residential buildings and frenzied taxi drivers; with all the cynicism and the hype and the back-biting and the worry, the Olympics looked anything but an oasis of sanity.

And yet the last two weeks of breathtaking competition and raw human experience have served as the best possible remedy to the pre-games angst. They have been a timely reminder to any of us who underestimated the magical, unifying, inspiring nature of the Olympic games.

It has, hands down, been a show case of all humanity at its best – and not just mind-addling physical achievement. Has there ever been a more perfect display of parental pride than Burt LeClos’ interview with the BBC after his son beat Michael Phelps to gold in the 200m fly; or Michael Phelps’ grace in defeat in the same race? Oscar Pistorious’ may not have won the 400m, but his stereotype-smashing presence was a huge step forward in the way disability is viewed. Likewise, the crowd’s heart warming support for Caster Semenya  has hopefully begun to redress the disgrace of her public humiliation over the last three years.

Olympic athletes continually redefine what is possible for the human body to achieve and showcase the irrepressible strength of the human spirit. What’s more, by showcasing our common humanity; for two weeks speaking in a Universal tongue to the potential of the human when we are courageous, and dedicated and selfless and heroic, the Olympic games unites us and offers a glimpse of what we, as a society could be. So yes, the Olympics brings mania, and hyperbole, and many, many tiny flags; but if a positive vision, a positive demonstration of humainty at its best is not the epitome of sanity then I don’t know what is. Thanks your London 2012 – a generation inspired.

Sustainability in our time

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I read a piece this week using Neville Chamberlain’s “peace in our time” speech as an analogy for the “Future We Want” document that emerged from the Rio +20 Conference. It seems apt. The final paper at the summit suggested that “sustained development” (not the blue economy; not sustainable development; not even an end to fossil fuel subsidies) is the solution to climate change. That our political leaders met to find a solution to climate change and committed to the myopic course of action that has brought us into peril in the first place is the most shameful and dangerous abdication of collective political responsibility since failing to ask Hitler what he planned to do with all those Panzer tanks.

Many have pronounced a multilateral solution to climate change as dead. One of the more interesting developments at this summit was the increased engagement of big business. The profoundly disappointing efforts of government to produce anything relevant has re-focused many on the role of business in tackling climate change. So what might that role be?

Jeffry Sachs has quite concisely articulated the benefits and drawbacks of business’ current role in society; and it seems a sensible place to identify the particular areas business can engage in. First, the core strength of business over the past century has been in getting things done. Nobody is better placed today to create solutions to the climate challenge than organisations like Shell, Siemans and GE. Not only do they have the financial capital to make things happen, but they have some of the smartest, innovative minds in the world, and world class R&D processes designed to produce tangible results.

The most positive development in this space at Rio was the emergence of the Friends of Rio group, looking at multi-stakeholder collaboration and whole systems change. Combining business’ funding and delivery focus with Civil Society organisations’ values and experience with non-monetary deliverables, the possibilities are intriguing.

Secondly, there is the question of separating business from politics and stopping business from writing its own rules. In the words of Peter Bakker, we need to “change the way we think about business performance and align the business with the world we want to create”. At the moment, this charge is being led by an “enlightened few,” including the likes of Unilever and Puma. Businesses need to start thinking this way themselves and must be open to regulation in this space.

Tragic as the failure of the multinational process at Rio is; if the scale of the shortcomings is enough to force a “crowding in” effect from big business, Trade Unions and other non-traditional stakeholders, then perhaps all is not lost.

Sachs on business

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“I deal with a number of businesses that I admire because they are better diplomats than the state department as they are actually doing things rather than talking about them. They are getting real things done.
“The other face of businesses is that they are too powerful in our societies. They write the rules, they pay the politicians, sometimes illegally and sometimes, via what is called legal, which is financing their campaigns or massive lobbying.
“Billions of dollars are spent and this is horrendous because if business writes the rules, it is not true their shareholder value is their value to society. It can reflect highly destructive practices which the politicians turn their eyes away from because of the political power companies hold. This has got completely out of control and is leading to the breakdown of modern democracy.”

– Jeffry Sachs

A concise summary of the potential and barriers to business’ current role in society. Its pertinence is highlighted by Barack Obama’s current messaging about his fundraising. The quote comes from an interesting article by Jo Confino in the Guardian. Whether you love or hate Jeffry Sachs, its worth a read.

Profit – an end to a means?

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In 2011, Bob Diamond laid out his view of what organisational culture means, and what it should look like at Barclays:

“Our culture must be one where the interests of customers and clients are at the very heart of every decision we make; where we all act with trust and integrity.”

Much has been made of these comments over the last couple of days, and how the LIBOR-fixing scandal has made a mockery of his words.

While there can be no doubt that Barclay’s behaviour in fixing LIBOR rates has not put their customers and their clients at the heart of their decision making, I find myself more depressed at the limited scope for good – even in this, what should have been Diamond’s most aspirational address. Diamond gave plenty of good examples of CSR, and ways that Barclays could contribute to society while also continuing a relentless drive for its own profitability; but surely there must be a real debate at this stage about the viability of organising society around businesses driven primarily by profit.

It’s a concern that is not limited to Barclay’s by any means – indeed most blue chip companies would take a similar view of their purpose: Delighting customers and producing value for shareholders. The traditional argument says that the role of business to fuel economic growth, and this helps society by creating jobs and wealth.

There is truth to this – and it is not surprising that the financial system has produced hermeneutic knowledge to justify its behaviour. What is left out of this narrative however is that in pursuit of growth, this capitalist system has also produced a range of negative unintended side-effects whose consequences now significantly outweigh the positives produced by economic growth.

Klaas Van Egmond has articulated the obvious, in highlighting capitalism’s “tendency to reverse ends and means”. He suggests the financial system has become an end in itself, rather than being the means it should be to further human happiness and social value.

What is truly frightening is how embedded this topsy-turvy capitalist narrative is. Even this week Bob Diamond has been praised for masterminding a “British corporate success story”. National newspapers are peddling the argument that he should stay because he would be too difficult to replace.

Just why are we putting such value on his job?

Barclays exists today, to enrich itself, and by so doing (it would say), improve society. We need to re-imaging Barclays, and every major business so that they exist to improve society, and in so doing enrich themselves in a sustainable way.

If Diamond was leading on organisation that thought and acted in that way; then maybe, just maybe you could begin to fathom his £17 million annual pay packet. As it stands, I find myself slack-jawed as people formulate arguments for continuing to pay a man 649 times the average wage in Britain so that he can continue to increase the profitiability of an investment bank without thinking beyond his immediate “customers and clients”.

The Empathic Civilisation

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The above video triggered some interesting thoughts for me on the links between empathy and organisational change: Rifkin suggests here that “Empathy is our ability to show solidarity with each other” and that is it “grounded in our rooting for each other to flourish and be.”
There is a wealth of research in the field of evolutionary psychology suggesting empathy exists because it helps those that have it to survive. It is easy to imagine how an ability to put ourselves in each others’ shoes and root for each other has helped us to co-ordinate our interests, collaborate and organise. And it is easy to take this a step further and imagine how organised, collaborating, empathetic individuals gave themselves a load of advantages over others.

How does empathy work? By listening to each other, we can better understand each others motivations. This allows us to create knowledge, understanding and meaning that enables co-ordination of our actions. In other words, empathetic dialogue is all about historical/hermeneutic knowledge.

This is nothing new in itself. Iban Mayo was championing the idea of listening to employees and allowing them to engage in the change process as far back as the 1930s. The issue is that much recent literature still relies on Taylorist notions of rational managers identifying the correct path for change and overcoming resistance from employees who are attached to the status quo. There is an unspoken fear on the part of managers that allowing employees to design their own change will lead to off-the-wall suggestions, founded on employees’ rational pursuit of laziness and self interest.

But thinking of ourselves as empathetic first and rational second suggests there is a lot more give in the system. It suggests that in the face of external change, we are not inclined to steadfastly pursue our own self-interest, but that we are “soft-wired” to find a new way of working together.

So, assuming collaboration is still sensible in changed circumstances, people are pre-disposed to find a way to make it work. Facilitating an empathetic discussion will enable people to make sense of the change and build the hermeneutic knowledge they need to give their best in the new environment.

Letting go is always frightening for a manager, but thinking of employees as empathetic human beings is a very helpful first step.