Urban drift and Flexibility

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I live on the outskirts of a town in Buckinghamshire in the United Kingdom. My town borders on farmland, small lakes and parks. Including the walk to the local train station, it takes about 1 hour 45 minutes to travel by train south into Zone One (Westminster) London.

The train trip into Westminster starts by travelling past rolling landscapes of farmland (green rectangles of pasture, processions of trees, hedge lines and barren grain fields), through old industrial lands (an art-deco style drinks factory, an old biscuit factory and long empty Kodak factory). Continuing further inwards, you travel through the concentric zones of the commuter suburbs of London – the suburbs broadly getting wealthier, the further inwards you travel.

Travelling further towards the centre of London, you reach the hub station where a number of train lines converge. Then, travelling still further into the centre on the London Underground train system, you pass under various tourism sites. And ultimately reach the Whitehall government offices, close to the Houses of Westminster (the centre of UK-wide government).

Today it struck me that my journey into the very centre of London is rather like travelling forward in time (from basic farming, to 20th century industry, to a basic service economy to highly skilled service-worker economy. And ultimately, to reach the complexity & high stakes of a 21st century, first World, western government centre.

What has this got to do with flexibility? Well, as the super-rich progressively buy up the properties at the very centre (the plots of land that aren’t protected parks & tourist sites), each of the other groups, need to have the flexibility to move one level further out i.e. ride the waves of urban drift. To elaborate, new Industry moves into farmland, leaving old industrial sites ripe for environmental clean-up. New basic service-worker suburbs reclaim old industrial sites. Advanced service-worker suburbs renovate the more down-at-heel suburbs further out. Transport hubs move further outwards, to match the popular disembarkation points of the commuters. And with budget pressure on government department running costs, government offices move out into the nearby suburbs too.

All of this requires flexibility from local government planners & building consent regulators. And flexibility from the people who are inevitably priced out of inner-city accommodation.

At this point, I’m not passing judgement on whether this is a good or bad thing.

For inner-city, social-housing occupants, the further out their jobs move to, the longer their commute also becomes to reach those workplaces, if they stay in relatively inner-city properties.

What is also profound for the government planners in a mega-city is that the investment they need to make in transport infrastructure and social housing moves ever outwards. In other words, plan for greater investment in the outlying areas. Not renovation of the inner areas, to not even benefit the super-rich. Who travel by Ferrari, or helicopter in any case.

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What happens if some companies with deep pockets and high ambitions (Apple, Google, Microsoft etc) buck the ‘ripples on a pond ’ trend and invest in large inner city renovations to create office campuses there instead? Firstly the supply of inner-city property to super-rich investors becomes even more limited. Bidding wars drive up the prices of inner-city land even quicker. Commuter journey times lengthen, including for highly-skilled, service workers and the police, emergency-service workers who are required by their employer to commute into those areas. Of course, the more skilled workers are able to work from home, the more vacant those shiny new, inner-city software offices will become.

So in summary, what is needed?

1. For government policy makers and housing/transport regulators, make the urban shuffle as pain-free as possible, for everyone involved.

2.  And for the ‘players’? Accept the inevitable. And make your own plans regarding the inevitable shuffle.

What do you think?

Simon

Career Planning and Personal Flexibility

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Career planning, passion and ability

What should careers-advisors in schools and parents of the students do to help students plan for their future in the workplace? Firstly, don’t force-fit the student into a pathway that doesn’t tick both boxes of passion and ability.

If the student is passionate, but doesn’t show natural ability, be encouraging & supportive. The student may simply be a late developer. But possess inner drive to get there in the end. Even if not a late developer, the experiences & skills they pick up from the activity they’re passionate about, may transfer well into the job or career that they eventually take up.

If the student has obvious, demonstrable, natural ability, but little passion, use flexibility thinking to open their eyes to other options where that ability could transfer well.

Flexibility and career management

Many organisations have a pyramid structure. There is a relatively broad base of junior roles.  And a tiny proportion of the most senior ones. Intense rivalry occurs as ambitious, career-focussed candidates vie for promotion. And the chance to be noticed & rewarded with greater access to resources, on their journey to the senior leadership team & beyond. That said, some people work-to-live (jobs), while some people live-to-work (careers and callings). A lucky few find something they love that pays the bills.  And then feel like they never have to work a day in their life!

A generic, career journey in large organisations, could be described as follows:

  • a junior staff member is recruited and given some process tasks.
  • success leads to process oversight, perhaps with some improvement project tasks as well.
  • success leads to department oversight and perhaps part-time secondment to a multi-functional project.
  • success leads to multi-functional project oversight.
  • if the combination of success in functional department oversight and multi-functional project management goes well, that may lead to a senior management team position involving board liaison.
  • success may lead to board membership (being a full or part-time paid board member), or business consultant/advisor.

The point to note is that the requirements at each level are likely to be different.

For job seekers with qualifications, but no work experience:

Remain flexible to grasp volunteering opportunities that will give them those vital, transferable skills & experience.

For those early in their professional career:

Deepen and broaden your career experience, including through team rotations, or project secondments. If those who see little internal progression opportunity for whatever reasons, look outward, and move location if you need to.

For job seekers, note that job agencies are incentivised to maximise their commission.   Not find the candidate’s ideal next job. Putting the candidate in a safe ‘typecast’ role at the same salary, is the least risk for them.  Maximising candidate options & preserving career management flexibility is in the candidate’s hands alone. As the adage goes, ‘your career is too important to be left in the hands of someone else’.

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For those in mid-career:

It might be possible to remain a ‘straight arrow’ in the journey to senior leadership. But why not keep all your options open? Each option will have a different set of rewards & sacrifices. But simply embracing multiple options will be a confidence booster. On a related note, the more complex and diverse the World becomes, the less a one employer, one profession or one job for life applies.

Sometimes, people change countries, to work in offshore cultures (as I did). Often, university graduates in one country discover the hard way that when they move countries, their qualifications & work experience are discounted heavily in the new country. One mitigation to this risk is for the person concerned to develop additional qualifications/professional accreditations while working in the first country. Ones that will be recognised in the second country, in anticipation of moving to the second country for work.

In addition, business writers like Charles Handy have talked about people in future developing ‘portfolio careers’ i.e. a portfolio of fee-paying types of work, that together comprise the equivalent of one full time role. But also diversify risk (of personal redundancy or business insolvency).  And allow the person to maximise their impact in the time given over to each role.

For those returning to the workplace after a maternity break, perhaps consider upskilling in the time between completing child-raising and returning to the workplace. That way, the person returns in a position of strength, bringing something that other employees haven’t had the time to invest in.

Promotion

Organisational politics aside, the best way in future to get promoted, may be by focussing on working effectively to support the customer/beneficiary base. It sounds obvious, but organisations seem to find all kinds of ways of distracting staff away from that goal!

The customers need a mechanism (a feedback survey?) to ‘sing your praises’ and remind the senior management team why you are so valuable to the organisation. A key point is to ensure the targets set in your annual performance review align with things the customers care about, in care order of importance. Therefore, link your targets as directly as possible to those customers.

Workplace discrimination

A final word on discrimination in the workplace. A person’s stage in life, their disability status, their ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, distant past, or current occupation don’t define them. Except in the minds of other people who cannot be flexible & tolerate diversity.  Ask yourself, if an organisation cannot be flexible on diversity amongst its staff, how successful will it be in meeting the needs of its customers? Is that really somewhere you want to work?

Key messages

  1. Understand both your relative abilities and your relative passions. Possible career paths exist in a matrix of those things.
  2. Because of the changing nature of work, be flexible – skills will need modernising, work cultures evolve. And the mix of operations versus development will vary in a job over time. For example, you may get seconded to a project for a time.
  3. Review how you see your career at a certain point – are you working to live or living to work? It could easily vary, as interesting episodes of work come and go.
  4. Avoid being in a career race with your friends. They have their life journey. You have yours. You’re not clones of each other, so why compare? Their contribution might be sooner, matched by promotion. Yours might be more significant but later. Matched by its own benefits.
  5. Understand the sacrifices needed to develop a specific career. And think hard about your appetite to make those sacrifices. If making what you consider is a large sacrifice, make sure the payoff is both large and enduring. Try to balance off quick wins and longer-term wins, regardless of your career.
  6. Access to marketable skills has value. Try to chase both breadth and depth (oscillate).
  7. Stay in a role long enough to understand the basic business model and the ‘suite of issues’. Learn how to solve the issues, apply solutions and see them bedded in. This blogger took on a maternity cover role at a high profile UK university and then had his contract extended four times across different depts, as versatility and reputation to develop insights proved itself.  Incidentally, you decide what qualifies as the ‘suite of issues’, where you can play to your strengths in solving them.
  8. Build a ‘flexibility portfolio’ to manage your career uncertainty. It likely includes developing passive income from a variety of sources. Your main professional role may not give you enough expertise to develop passive income, so learn wider skills. For example, how to become the landlord of an investment property. Or learn some entrepreneurship & social media skills to become part-time, self-employed.
  9. See the link between career management and personal flexibility (PFL). PFL is probably your best chance to achieve effective and satisfying career management.

What has been your experience of some of these issues?

Lastly, if you found this blog helpful, feel free to tell others where to find it.

Simon

Families, Mission Statements and Fresh Thinking

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In our personal lives, including family life or partnership life, do we need to achieve a bit less blame culture. And a bit more of a family/partnership learning-points culture instead?  As an aside, why do we blame in the first place? Is it our way of venting our frustration, the way a kettle pushes steam out of the neck of the vessel? Is it to put distance between our own shortcomings and someone else’s? Like complaining about an inaccurate weather forecast, causing us to get wet, but really it was because we didn’t bring a coat? Is it to make ourselves look better by making someone else look worse?  Like a magician using misdirection to achieve glory from the audience?

Returning to families, would some families benefit from developing their own mission statement? For some, it might make the point of a family more obvious.

If some families decided to have a mission statement, should it be:

  • to live in the moment?
  • one where while every family member looks out for themselves – essentially a ‘survival of the fittest’, adapt as-best-you-can goal?
  • to build something bigger than its members acting alone, with or without carrying passengers. ­And then carry to that momentum forward to the next generation intact? Incidentally, what’s being carried forward isn’t just the family estate (financial resources). But also, less tangible things like; wider family ties. And goodwill within the wider community (the opposite of vendettas).

For a quiet life, do parents want their children to simply get along, without arguing? Or do what smart, professional organisations ask of their staff i.e. use opportunities to cross-sell, up-sell & collaborate on various things.

Perhaps parents can achieve a double benefit – give themselves less of a home war-zone and help their children build positive relationships (starting at home), if they actively seek out opportunities for their kids to collaborate at home. And encourage siblings to promote each other’s talents to outsiders (cross-sell and up-sell).

Perhaps why some families lose a family member to a street gang is that they fail to achieve both the cross-sell and collaboration activities within the family. Leaving the gang to step into the vacuum instead. Clearly there are other factors operating too.  But it follows that the stronger and more close-knit one ‘club’ becomes, the harder for another ‘club’ to lure away the members.

What do you think about families mimicking & adapting some things from the business world?

Simon

Personal Biases and Personal Flexibility

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Once bitten twice shy. Do our various biases hold us back from trying again? Is more personal flexibility (PFL) the best medicine for our biases?

Our mental architecture (the neural pathways in our brains) might favour strengthening various well-worn pathways, as a coping mechanism for the daily onslaught of sensory information we face.

• We sample what is convenient & comfortable to sample (selection bias).
• We notice the things that confirm the views we already hold (confirmation bias).
• We like to associate with those like ourselves (group or ‘me too’ bias).
• We over-estimate how soon improvements happen, but under-estimate their impact (judgement bias).
• We leap into action at the first opportunity, telling ourselves we should be more spontaneous and that it makes us look more powerful, by being decisive (action bias).

Then there are a load of other biases that (biased?) psychologists tell us we suffer from.
There are so many biases swirling around, it’s a wonder we achieve anything useful, ever! That said, can personal flexibility (PFL) help us counter, or at least moderate our biases? And if so, what form might that PFL usefully take?

1. Holding two opposing views at the same time is one form of PFL. Less a case of madness. More a case of seeing the merits of both sides of an argument. More strange still, our opposing views can happen implicitly – the risk aversion bias many of us have (to trying new things in case they don’t work out), works against a risk-minimising strategy of diversification (not putting all your eggs in one basket).

2. Forcing ourselves to take a second, more considered look is another PFL technique. For example, looking at a radical painting in an art gallery to think more about the artist’s message to the viewer. Or in the animal kingdom, a shark circling its potential prey, is partly waiting for more information.

Simon

Fake News and Personal Flexibility

‘There is no sickness worse for me than words that to be kind must lie.’ Aeschylus

‘People never lie so much as after a hunt, during a war or before an election.’ Otto von Bismarck

‘People can choose between the sweet lie or the bitter truth. I say the bitter truth, but many people don’t want to hear it.’ Avigdor Lieberman

‘Propaganda does not deceive people; it merely helps them to deceive themselves.’ Eric Hoffer

‘For every good reason there is to lie, there is a better reason to tell the truth.’ Bo Bennett

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So-called fake news is an age-old problem. And an annoying fixture in our personal and business lives.

So-called fake news can include:

  • accidental distortion– a version-control problem, information-relay error, false logic, false assumption, static, a reference error or typo. Or something misheard – perhaps generating a colourful rumour on the office grapevine.

A famous example of accidental distortion is about the WW1 message conveyed from the front-line trenches, shouted from trench to trench, back to the high command. It started off as the request ‘send reinforcements, we’re going to advance’. And ended up arriving as ‘send three and four pence, we’re going to a dance’.

  • deliberate distortion – an exaggeration, something taken out of original context. Maybe an outright lie, generated for commercial or personal gain.

Sometimes politicians rather than lie, simply evade the question, answering a different question, or changing the subject instead. At other times, their truth may be more damaging than fake news – a politician might promise one thing, but once elected, change their party’s policy entirely. Here the ‘news’ is real.  It’s the direction that has changed.

The method of collecting information to inform decision making, introduces opportunity for error at multiple points in the process. This blogger once served as a court juror and was surprised when a seemingly impartial police witness made a ‘rookie error’ on the time an event was alleged to have happened.

Court jurors weight the evidence testimony. Each juror has to do a mental-sorting exercise of the information presented – what is probably true and what is probably false. Incidentally, this mental-sorting exercise can be a form of personal flexibility – emotion fighting against rationality (heart and head). In this situation, it’s worth the jurors reassuring themselves that it is entirely natural to have an internal conflict. And that sometimes the internal ‘battle’ needs to rage, to make the resulting view more just. But that for something approaching justice to be done, a jury decision must be given, so a personal view on innocence/guilt must ultimately be taken by each juror.

‘It is well known that in war, the first casualty is truth – that during any war truth is forsaken for propaganda.’ Harry Browne

The method of information collection can introduce delay too. Or introduce selection bias in the data collected. The story about the drunk person searching for their lost car keys at night under the street light, because it was easier to look for them under the street light, is perhaps one example. For a court juror, it there’s been a ‘trial by media’ for the accused person before the court case even started, they may have to fight their own preconceived views from the start.

How can personal flexibility (PFL) counter so-called fake news?

  • be open to engaging other inputs, from trusted sources.
  • sample quick then sample slow.
  • investigate and fix errors. Ask yourself, is the motive of the fake news to cover up something? Or take attention away from something more concerning?
  • rely on independent verification.
  • lower the stakes regarding a wrong decision made.
  • consider publicly discrediting fake news sources, when you find them (whistleblowing).

The combination of the above 6 approaches demonstrates PFL at work.  And how it can be used to counter fake news.

Simon

Design, Control, Film Directing and Personal Flexibility

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‘A good director makes a playground and allows you to play.’ Martin Landau

‘People think that the director’s direct actors. No. Really, what the director’s doing is directing the audience’s eye through the film.’ Julianne Moore

‘Directing is very close to choreography; you deal with space, time, emotions, lighting, making beautiful images.’ Benjamin Millepied

‘I prefer directing to acting. There is huge freedom that comes from being behind the camera. It brings a lot of responsibilities as well but is intensely rewarding.’ Angelina Jolie

‘Directing is so interesting. You know, it just sort of encompasses everything that you see, that you know, that you’ve felt, that you have observed.’ Barbra Streisand

Can we learn more about personal flexibility (PFL) from film directors, to help us in our daily lives? Do film directors have more PFL than the rest of us? But learn to harness it in their design & control work, to make a successful movie?

Firstly, what do film directors actually do? Arguably, they use control (like paramedics) & design (like architects) to adapt an adaption according to their expression. In other words, they use the medium of film and a multitude of design choices, to take a story that’s (probably) been adapted into a screenplay. And bring that story to dramatic life (crafting & control).

So can someone be a good film director without great design & control? And more fundamentally, can someone achieve great design & control in their life, without inherent personal flexibility?

Since it’s difficult to prove a yes answer to both questions conclusively, let’s take a leap of faith, assume yes and skip straight to how PFL might drive design & control.

Like successful architects, great film makers exploit their personal flexibility to achieve the best design, given the production constraints (time, money, available talent etc). That process of creating good design necessarily involves imagining, improvising, trying and reviewing.

Regarding control, emergency workers such as paramedics, arrive at the scene of a traffic accident and rapidly assess the situation at hand, taking control of events. Film directors do likewise. The personal flexibility exhibited is about:

  • Expecting the unexpected.
  • Managing expectations.
  • Quickly finding ways to relate to a host of questions, complaints & cries for help.
  • The uncertainty for the paramedic or film maker, regarding the resources to hand. A bit of trial and error is needed. Eventually, there is resolution. Patients are conveyed to hospital. The film takes are completed. And the movie content passed to the editing team to work on.

So what can we take away from these examples & embrace, to make our lives more flexible?

  1. Something magical can be created from nothing but time, raw talent & money. It just takes good design & control to craft a good solution. Therefore, give yourself more credit. To embrace your role as the director of your own life movie.
  2. By taking control of a life (and death) situation, it doesn’t mean you close down all available options. Control includes continuing to hold options in your head & heart, about what you might next do. There is an interplay between options & control, at all points of the ‘journey’.
  3. Spectators will watch your movie being made, or your heroic actions at the scene of the accident and silently judge your efforts. You will get credit for trying. Clearly, people can be bitchy and critical. But when we remind ourselves that we reap what we sow (what goes around comes around), we are capably of quickly adjusting our view to a sense of fairness.

If you find these blogs useful, feel free to share with others. Likewise, comments are welcome too.

Simon

Driving and Personal Flexibility

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Driving. Ok, firstly, a few credentials…

I’ve been lucky. In a driving ‘career’ spanning some 42 years, I’ve caused zero traffic accidents, that I know of.  Once in a car full of reckless teenagers, I was in the back of a car that tilted sideways (without quite overturning), when it hit the curb while taking a corner too wide at speed. More recently, in a taxi going to the Shanghai airport, we slammed into the side of a large truck that didn’t stop at an intersection. It smashed up the engine of the taxi quite badly. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

My driving’s been in New Zealand, Australia, the UK and continental Europe. I’ve driven alert and tired. In wet, dry, foggy, windy, icy and soft gravel conditions. It’s been in the London commuter rush. And the remote back-blocks of the New Zealand high country. I’ve paused to let herds of dairy cattle, or flocks of sheep, jostle along the road around my car, herded by farm dogs and overseen by gruff farmers on farm bikes.

My driving’s been in a range of cars, manual and auto – some highly reliable, some barely road-worthy. Hillman, Ford, Honda, Mitsubishi, Vauxhall and more recently, a Toyota RAV.  For a few years, I rode touring bikes and trail bikes too.

I’ve towed trailers, affixed windsurfer boards to the roof rack & multi-bike racks to the back of the car. Although, not all at once.

At least twice, my car had to be towed out of trouble. Once when the slightly swampy ground it was parked on, sunk a bit. And the other time, in some volcanic sand in a concave piece of ground, when trying to dig it or push it out of the dip wouldn’t work. And at least once, my car has been completely covered in snow & ice.  After being parked at a ski field carpark for a number of days.

Crime wise, while out hiking for the day in a New Zealand national park, my car was broken into and a bunch of Christmas presents stolen from the back seat. Another time, after a different NZ hike, I came back to my car to find a wheel stolen and the car resting on a block of wood! Fortunately for me, the thieves had left the wheel nuts on the ground next to my car, so I could get home using the spare wheel from the trunk of the car. Anyway, enough about car experience credentials.

As a vehicle driver more generally, how is personal flexibility (PFL) relevant to the driving experience? In my view, there are essentially three things for the driver to concentrate on (assuming the satnav is working): safety, speed and passenger experience. The driver needs to remain flexible enough to move between each.  Keeping safety paramount of course.

Speed isn’t just about average speed of the vehicle being driven. But also, about the journey time end-to-end. Taking the road less travelled, can be both fun and insightful. But take a bit longer, even if the average vehicle speed is high.  Sometimes, it’s more a case of get from ‘A to B’, to maximise the enjoyment at ‘B’, rather than the journey itself.

Conversation involving the driver, fresh air blowing through the vents, music blasting out, or frequent services stops can help all the driver stay alert. And keep the passengers safe. Conversation can help eat up the journey miles too.

PFL is also about doubling the value of the trip – go somewhere to enjoy the destination. But explore the journey to get there at the same time. Use conversation with passengers to discover new things. And build relationships further.

Modern cars automate quite a bit of the driving process. So, you as the driver can concentrate on the high-end stuff. Double check the satnav against the physical environment of what you’re seeing through the windscreen. Fine tune the safety aspects. Have some good conversation with a captive audience.

Your car is remarkably versatile:

Its seats act as a movie theatre (in drive-in movies).

It’s private for romantic dates.

It can at as a private meeting room, or comfortable waiting room generally.

It has a climate-control environment to get you out of blistering sun.  Or driving rain.

Thanks to locks & car alarms, it can be a temporary, valuables-storage locker.

At a pinch, the car interior can be a temporary bedroom.

With a good music system installed, the car interior acts as a set of oversized headphones.

The vehicle with a full tank of gas is a freedom device. A road-trip enabler. A bike, boat, trailer, horse-float or caravan transporter. A temporary outdoor light.

Lastly, for those travelling by car, here are 8 things to increase the enjoyment factor:

  • People watching,
  • People helping,
  • Good conversation,
  • Good music,
  • Playing a family game in the car,
  • Taking a scenic route,
  • Using a satnav aid (stress reduction),
  • Making sure your car is roadworthy and has oil, water & gas necessary for the trip.

 

Enjoy the journey!

Simon