Brainers, golden geese and nudging politicians,
using memorable memes
I live in a small, pleasant town and help out with the town team, who are an
influencing group with the goal of increasing the prosperity of the local area.
One of the ways we want to do this is to attract high tech businesses. As a part
of this work we invited a chap from the regional government who can influence
My goal in this meeting was to plant memes, ideas that would stick in his
mind and return when he was making recommendations to businesses.
An early nudge, which also helped establish my credibility, was to talk about
my years with Hewlett Packard, and how they always looked for sites in beautiful
areas with good communication links where talented people would want to work. Of
course, our town has these in spades.
I know this worked because he nodded as I was talking and then reflected on
how companies like being big fish in smaller ponds, with the attraction that
this creates for the best potential employees.
For the government, we are something of a cash cow, with high rates, rents
and parking charges. Yet most high street shops are occupied and the town is
often bustling. I acknowledged this and pointed out how, although traders were
busy, they were struggling with costs and that we must be careful not to kill
the golden goose that attracts so many spending visitors.
I later heard back the cash cow phrase, which was good, but nothing about
golden geese, so I wasn't sure that this idea has landed. A partial win,
perhaps. You can kill a meme by over-egging it, so I moved on.
A problem we have is that, being a nice area, we are not the top priority for
government investment when there are many other needy areas. I framed this in
novel phrasing by saying that there are some decisions which are no-brainers and
obvious help is needed, but there are also 'brainer' decisions that require more
thought, and that supporting engines of the local economy (such as our town) was
just such a move.
This meme landed with a thud as he quickly got the idea and took up the
conversation. Seeing closure happening, I shut up and let him lead.
As we left, he repeated that he would be thinking more about brainer choices.
A later repetition like this was a great signal that the meme had taken hold. I
left feeling I had achieved my goal. No commitments, but thinking nudged in the
Grumpy taxi drivers and the power of positivity
My daughter told me the other day that she got into a taxi recently and said
hello, but only got a grumpy response. Most people would take this as a signal
that the driver did not want to talk and would just be quiet. My daughter is not
that kind of person as she reads grumpiness as a challenge. She said 'Hmm. Looks
like you got out of bed the wrong side.' She didn't get an apology, but did get
a conciliatory 'Mmm'. She then kept up the positive approach and the
conversation emerged. And by the end of the journey she knew a lot about the
driver, who had cheered up considerably. Feeling good about spreading a little
love and light, she walked into an important customer meeting.
It is so easy to be dragged down by people who are negative. Or, worse, we
assume that other people are already thinking negatively and get infected by our
own assumptions. In either case, it can put us into a poor mood and a potential
slippery slope where we all go downhill and bad feelings just get worse.
When I had a day job, I would deliberately bounce into the office on a Monday
morning, smiling and complimenting people. I'd get a 'what are you on' type of
comment, but generally I found being positive raised the spirits of other people
and gave me some brownie points that led to people being more open to listening
and agreeing than they might otherwise be. At worst, I just felt good as the
general mood improved.
Being positive is something you can do to yourself. Identify negative
thinking before it gets to your body language or speech. Turn it around and see
the positive side of things. Or just kick it into touch. Avoid blame, regret and
other negative emotions that do no good whatsoever. Even if you don't feel to
positive, act positive and the virtuous spiral you create will eventually make
And just smile! You'll be happy that you do.
On the Brink of Brexit: TV questions, Petitions,
Marches and Parliamentary Madness
2016 was a strange year. First we had the UK's 'Brexit' decision and then the
election of Donald Trump in America. Both have been described as being a
vindictive result of anger in the 'left behind' white working classes who saw
their jobs move East while the political left turned into a haven for the
intelligensia. Both also have leaders who seem to have what might be politely
called 'mental issues'. In the USA, Trump's outrages are tweeted daily. In the
UK, we have Theresa May and a motley crew of blind, barracking ministers and
back benchers who are hell-bent on leaving Europe, no matter the damage to
Britain and Europe.
I was recently an audience member in a TV programme where prominent people
are asked questions by the audience. When Brexit came up, our local 'leaver' MP
went on a bizarre Monty Python style rant, sarcastically saying we'd miss our
Mars Bars and Viagra. When an audience member pointed out that the local
population voted to remain in Europe and, as our democratically elected MP, he
should be representing our views, the chap just got worse, stabbing a punishing
finger at the questioner and raging about -- well, nobody noticed what he said
as by now he had lost all sympathy.
In the last few days an online petition appeared on the Government website
where members of the public can seek to gain support for concerning issues. If
100,000 people sign the petition, parliament is obliged to consider the
question. This one asked for Article 50 (the decision to leave Europe) to be
revoked so we stay in Europe. In a few days it had over two million electronic
signatures, yet Prime Minister Theresa May dismissed it as irrelevant. Her
particular madness is a blinkered charge towards any Brexit, preferably the deal
that she has brokered with Europe and which parliament has rejected twice with a
record majority. If they reject it yet again, she will lead us into a 'hard
Brexit' that is widely expected to bring shortages, chaos and soldiers onto the
streets. It has been suggested that she is on the autism spectrum, which makes
sense as her social skills are few and she is unable to countenance alternative
So on Saturday I took the bus to London to go on a protest march. I've not
done this since I was a student, many years ago. There I joined over a million
people in a massive march which demanded that the British people are allowed a
second referendum, deciding finally on whether we want to go with Theresa's deal
or to remain in Europe. This ideas has terrified leavers who, paradoxically, go
on about 'the will of the people' and the original referendum that 'instructed'
the government to leave. Actually the original referendum was advisory only and
the leave campaign is being investigated for corruption, not unlike Trump's
election campaign in America. There is even suspicion of Russian involvement.
It was massive. Over million extra people converged on the streets of London
coming from all across the country.
Will we be noticed? Certainly we hit the news around the world. Will the
prime minister change her mind? Almost certainly not. Will MPs notice? Probably,
as they wonder about how it will affect their chances in the next election. Will
our peaceful public action change the course of history? Unlikely. Brexit is an
ideology and the ideologues are in charge, straining towards the finish line
even as the country tugs vainly at the reins.
And if we fall into the pit of a hard Brexit, will it really be that
terrible? Probably not. We've weathered wars and austerity, where belts were
tightened yet people still went to work each day. Life will go on. Will it Make
Britain Great Again, as some Brexiters claim? Very unlikely. The post-colonial
respect that allowed us to punch above our puny size in the world has declined
steeply. Countries that used to look up to us now see us as mostly foolish. Like
the international view of America, our citizens are viewed with pity as
politicians trash goodwill with our friends and condemn our once-great nation to
Sunday 17 March 2019
Cost pressure, outsourcing, diffusion of
responsibility and ultimate catastrophe
There is a common pattern that starts with the pressure to save money and
ends in catastrophe. In the UK, in 2017, this was highlighted in the Grenfell
Tower disaster, where an apartment block in a poor area went up in flames,
killing around 100 people and ruining many more lives. I have seen the
underlying dangerous pattern happen before, and know it will keep happening.
The first step is cost pressure and the consequent search for savings. In
public service, politicians seek the vote-winning double act of reduced tax and
better services. In business, voters are replaced with shareholders who want
increased returns at lower risk.
This is followed by an assumption of incompetence. The boss looks around and
sees laziness, foolishness and failure. They blame others, not the system, and
certainly not themselves.
And then the idea of outsourcing arrives, where the underlying assumption is
that others can do it better than us. Give it to the experts. Save huge
headcount costs. And, subtly, let them take the blame.
And so the tendering and contracting game begins. Lawyers take charge (though
of course they ensure they are never responsible). Outside firms make glossy
presentations and clever offers. Though, like the flammable cladding on the
Grenfell tower, it is all show to hide the grim interior. Checks and penalties
may be written in, but so also are loopholes. Maybe the lowest offer is not
taken, yet cost is still the key and the outsource companies bid low to get
Then the rubber hits the road. Initially, things often go well as the
outsourcer works to build confidence. There is a novelty effect with new
implementations and initial contract work designed to show what a good decision
it was to outsource. At the very least a new lick of paint is added or, as in
the case of Grenfell, a layer of external cladding.
But then there are extra demands on the outsourcer. Can you just do this? And
that? But having bid low to get the contract, they cannot afford to do (or even
pay others to do). The honeymoon is over and some kind of conflict sets in.
Contracting managers may be a bit confused as when things were in house, it cost
nothing to ask for a bit more. Outsourcers also have internal pressures. They
also are told by their management to make savings and increase profits. So they
seek to charge more or, if the contract does not allow for this, to cut costs.
I have worked in outsource environments, including for the government.
Indeed, I've been in meetings where almost everyone was a contractor, and when
things went wrong, the fingers all pointed at one another and away from the
pointers. With little or no ideological desire to serve the ultimate customers,
suppliers simply looked to contract renewal and constantly tried to avoid blame
or additional cost.
The signs from Grenfell were manifold. Experts were ignored. Inspectors were
deceived (apparently the lower floors did have fireproof cladding). An exposed
gas pipe ran up the central stairway. Complaints were ignored by a council that
were politically disinterested in the poorer classes. And so things that should
have happened did not happen, and disaster eventually ensued. And in the manner
of public enquiries, the investigations are still ongoing and will drag out for
years. This week it has been decided to sue a soldier who took part in the
Bloody Sunday shootings in Northern Ireland in 1972. There are various views on
this, but the point here is that investigations can go on for an inordinately
Ultimately, the promise of outsourcing often leads to dissatisfaction and
sometimes to disaster. It is typically driven by optimism and success is
regularly declared too soon. If those who would outsource took greater note of
human psychology, perhaps there would be fewer catastrophes.
Can rebels ever succeed? It's not as easy as it
Have you ever been a rebel? Have you railed against the status quo? Have you
ever complained bitterly about how unfair it all is? Most of us have at some
time in our lives, at minimum in our teenage years when our genes were urging us
to leave the parental nest and create our own life, free from all those
While most of us eventually learn that being a good, lawful citizen is the
easiest route, some continue pushing. To rebel is to turn against something, a
rule, value, person, society. This is often because rebels prioritise
differently, for example putting animal rights or some other cause above even
We often rebel simply against what we feel as oppressive authority, from
government to management. What really is happening here is that we feel our
sense of control challenged. When we are unable to publicly rebel, we may stoop
to displacement, passive aggression or subtle revenge. We may find succor in
social moaning and gossip. Occasionally, we may even collaborate in open
There is a question whether populist leaders are rebels. In some ways they
may be, but more often they have alternative agendas (typically around power and
greed) and act as rebels only to attract the support of disaffected others who
would like to rebel but who otherwise feel they lack the ability to do so.
Success for such leaders is eventual dictatorship, where rebellion is harshly
A paradoxical dilemma for rebels lies in success. Suppose you rebelled
against national membership of a trading bloc. Then you succeed and the country
leaves the bloc. What then? Initially you may feel euphoric, but as this fades,
you may feel strangely empty. The purpose that drove your life and friendships
is now done. Or you get sucked into the new order, presiding over the brave new
world that you imagined for so long. This, too, may be difficult.
When we identify as rebels, success can strangely unsatisfying as we lose
purpose or become the establishment we once reviled. Perhaps, then, a good rebel
should try to fail so they can sustain their oppositional persona.
Unsurprisingly, many do just this, typically by designing an unattainable
challenge based on an extreme position, or otherwise throwing away chances when
victory is within their grasp.
Rebels who truly want to effect change have to be more cunning. They need
patience and the ability to make small, seemingly insignificant changes, but
which add up to a more substantial effect. They need to appear to be an
insignificant threat until it isn't too late to stop them. They need to spread
the word and embolden other rebels, tapping into widespread hidden unhappiness.
Rebellions are sometimes aggressive, vicious affairs as long-suppressed
frustration meets an outraged elite in a desperate conflict. Sometimes they are
velvet, as the establishment reads the writing on the wall and retreats to
distant safety. And sometimes these former foes are truly persuaded, leading to
easier, peaceful change.
And what then? Much change is easy in theory but contains hidden, lurking
dangers. The expelled old guard may stir trouble and seek to return. The shadows
of human nature may creep out as people seek influence and other gain. And fresh
rebels may appear, with different ideal and ideals, biting the heels of the new
The Trump in all of us (but which we don't
Donald Trump is famous for his braggadocio. He boasts of his great
intelligence, skill and success, not just to friends but on the world's stage.
It's breathtaking, really. Most people wouldn't dare be as boastful, even at
home. We'd be first laughed at, then criticized, and finally shunned. We know
this, so we don't. Even as we naturally think a lot about ourselves, we act
modestly and conversationally show more interest in others.
And yet, secretly, we may wish we could just say what we think without
worrying what others might say.
Where Trump is fundamentally different to you or me is what he wants and what
he is prepared to do to get it. To live in society, we mostly need to get get on
with others, which means we need them to like and respect us. So we constantly
seek social approval, and quickly change course if even a raised eyebrow appears
on the horizon.
Trump, on the other hand, has been brought up in extreme privilege. He never
had to worry much about what others think. Perhaps as a result of his
upbringing, he seeks attention rather than approval. Rather like a naughty child
who knows he will be scolded, but still acts out because attention is better
than no attention. But Trump's attention is no longer from a grumpy parent -- it
is now from a largely horrified world.
Perhaps closer to home, you may remember that cool kid in high school who
said and did things you wish you could, but did not. The common factor with
Trump is in the boldness, the willingness to be criticized. The confidence that
he can survive social castigation.
A difference between Trump and the cool kid is that Trump gives voice to
bias, criticizing people of colour, women and anyone else who stands in his way.
He gives people unkind names and is known for his cruel vengeance. And his core
audience love this, because, like the cool kid, Trump does what his followers
would like to do.
For most of us, while we feel the evolutionary pressure of self-focus and
out-group bias, we also fundamentally believe in equality. So we repress unkind
speech not only to avoid the stick of disapproval but also for the carrot of
feeling good about ourselves. A result of this is that we simultaneously feel
the secret attraction to Trump for his cool kid rebellion and also conflicted
disgust at his selfishness and bias.
The two-part photographer's question
I'm a keen photographer and often go out with friends to see what we can
'Do you mind if I take photographs?' He asked. 'Yes, sure.' They replied.
His next question was the real one: 'Is it ok if you are in the picture?'.
They paused, briefly. 'Yes, ok.'
So away he snapped. Neat method! Start by getting an easy yes, then add that
which might have been refused.
A variation on this 'yes set' method could be first to ask a simple question
like 'Isn't is a nice day?" Then be more positive than 'Do you mind'. Perhaps
better is as used in the final question, 'Is it ok'. But the bottom line is
always 'use what works', and his words worked fine.
To complete the story, a couple of men turned up, looking rather unhappy at
their partners being photographed by a stranger. 'Don't worry, we gave
permission' said one of the women. The men frowned and my friend beat a hasty
retreat, though it could, if he hadn't asked, have ended up far, far worse.
A rather strange Vodaphone service experience
Vodaphone is a UK cell phone supplier, with whom my wife and I have a
contract. We also have in the house a 'SureSignal' device from them, which is
quite handy as we're out in the country and get little or no signal. The
SureSignal plugs into the router and does the mobile phone stuff via the
internet. Usually it works well but then it worked only intermittently and
finally stopped working. So I found my way to the online chat with their service
folks who were very helpful, though I had to sign off and wait for resets and
things several times. Eventually, they concluded that the box on the wall was
dead and I needed a new one. Fortunately, it was just about within warranty.
They offered to send me one, but I was going to be away for a while.
And this is where it started getting strange.
I asked the online agent if my local Vodaphone store had a SureSignal device
for me. Yes, they said. It's there. So I drove into town (I'm out in the
countryside). The chap in the store was very friendly but rather confused by the
assertion that I'd been promised a device there. No, the online agent must have
misunderstood, he said. But hang on, he said, I'll check if there's one in the
next town. Type, type, type. Yes, no problems. You can go there to pick it up.
But I'm going away, I said, could you get them to send it here so I can pick it
up when I'm back? No, said the nice chap. We're not allowed to move stock
between stores. Strange, I said. How about if you order one in for me? No, he
said, he couldn't do that either. Even more strange, I said. So I drove to the
next town and picked up the SureSignal, took it home, installed it and now it's
working just fine.
In a time where customer service is critical for such businesses, I'm baffled
that they have such policies in place. It's just bizarre. Their entire business
is based on delivering service to customers, and yet they can't ship stock
between stores and can't even order in a replacement product for me. Some people
might get angry about this. They might demand compensation for having to drive
to another town. But I just didn't want the stress of anger. So I wrote a blog
The words we use betray our beliefs, values and
Yarkoni (2010) looked at nearly 700 blogs, each with an average of 115,000
words, and analyzed them for the type of words used, correlating these with the
answers given to Big Five
personality tests. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the words used in the blogs matched
those suggested by the personality test results. Some of the results found that:
- Bloggers who scored highly on the personality dimension of neuroticism
also tended to use more words associated with negative emotions. They also
were more ironic and were less inviting.
- Bloggers who scored highly on the dimension of extraversion used more
words associated with positive motions. They also talked more about drinks
and less about computers.
- Those who were high in agreeability used more words related to
socializing and avoided swearing. They also used words like 'wonderful'.
- Those higher in conscientiousness used more achievement-related words.
They used more words like 'completed' and less like 'boring'.
Perhaps oddly, there was little direct correlation for openness, though
people scoring highly in this personality dimension used more prepositions,
longer words and generally more formal language. Also oddly, they talked more
This could also a bit surprising, as we are often told that online, people
project their idealized self rather than being natural. Maybe what was happening
was that their subtle choices of words were more unconscious and hence less
affected by conscious intent. This is a useful note when listening to other
people, especially when you think they may be
lying or in
HR related interviews at work. The
real person may be spotted by listening and watching for unconscious clues not
only in body language but
also in the spoken word.
Yarkoni, T. (2010). Personality in 100,000 Words: A large-scale analysis of
personality and word use among bloggers. Journal of Research in Personality,
44, 3, 363-373
In making a life, do what you must -- but
ensure it is LSD!
I wanted to life advice to my son, wondering what to say. Children can be so
naive, especially in these millennial times where they have been given so much
and expect so much more. We tried to make their lives safer and give them more
education and opportunity, yet their decisions may not always be as wise as we
had hoped. How do you teach wisdom? That's a puzzle and a half.
My first advice was that there are three things you want from a job:
- That it is something you enjoy doing
- That it is something that you are able to do
- That it is something that somebody will pay you enough money to do
In other words:
- Do what you like
- Do what you can
- Do what you must
Seems straightforward, but even this simple list has multiple issues. Doing
what you enjoy can spoil that enjoyment. My daughter is a wonderful artist, yet
works as a business consultant. Her reasoning is that she would not enjoy
painting for commissions. She sees art as expression of the moment, not a job
where you are do as you are told. She also realized that she would be lucky to
make a living wage in this profession. So she took up something that she was
good at (number 2) and paid her well (number 3). She sorted number 1 in her
head, finding ways to enjoy the work (and she really does).
The dilemma that children may face when looking at this list is that they
prioritise it from 1 to 3. They first want to do what they enjoy. My son really
enjoys painting and dreamed about being a graphic artist, but he eventually
realized that other people were more talented in this area and so stepped back
from the dream. Yes, he could have worked his 10,000 hours or so (and he
certainly had a go at this) but he could see that, while he made progress, he
would still face stiff competition for jobs in this area. And so with different
motivation from his sister, he must find his way. I don't compare them - they
are just different folks on different paths. Whatever their routes, I hope they
both can look back in old age with some satisfaction about what they have
The sad fact of many lives is that people do what they must. They don't
particularly like their jobs, but they do them because they have obligations to
their families, partners and, ultimately, themselves. This is where my son finds
himself at the moment. So, given that he must do what he must to get by, what
advice should I give? In the end, I added the rider of LSD. Do what you must,
but don't break the rules, don't do things that could harm yourself, and be a
kind and thoughtful citizen. The LSD rule is hence 'Do what you must, but make
sure it is Legal, Safe and Decent.
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