Singapore April 2010 Leaping Statues

April 29, 2010

Singapore April 2010 Leaping Statues

Originally uploaded by t.rickards

Stranded in Singapore


April 29, 2010

This is a test post from flickr, a fancy photo sharing thing.

Jose Dreams and Pep Obsesses

April 28, 2010

In advance of the semi-final of the European Champions Cup Tie between Inter Milan and Barcelona, Jose Mourinho offers his own philosophic take on the difference between the purity of dreams, and Barcelona’s obsessiveness

The Special One continues on his special way. This time he suggests a difference between dreams and obsessions, and why Inter will be less likely than their rivals Barcelona to be overwhelmed with psychological fantasies.

Inter Milan coach Jose Mourinho claims Barcelona are “obsessed” with winning the Champions League at the Bernabeu – home of their arch-rivals Real Madrid:
“I experienced what it is like [at Barcelona] , I have won cups – against Betis in 1997 – at the Bernabeu, where everyone was wrapped in Catalan flags I know what it is about, it is anti-Madridismo. It is an obsession,”

I almost believed what he was saying. And I’m blogging about it. That’s the the effect the charismatic leader has. There is some short-term suspension of belief which lasts at least as long as the master is speaking. Listeners are advised to figure out if there is any sense to what’s being said before getting too concerned (‘obsessed’?) with what the great leader is up to.

Outside Mourinho-world, dream contents are generally considered to be fantasy materials. Freud felt there was a scientific interpretation to much of what we are able to access in our dream-states. There are still many who offer and many who seek interpretations of dreams. The leadership literature has favoured the notion that a dream can articulate a desire and become a vision of the future. That seems a bit like Jose’s point.

If he is suggesting that there are dreams (‘pure’) and obsessions (‘impure’) then I can’t buy into the notion. Until new evidence is provided, (step forward the increasingly important neurologist as expert witness) I have to disagree. Dreams, particularly those connected with desires and visions will have been generated though accessed beliefs which may or may not have obsessial characteristics.

Probably if I had been listening as Jose was speaking I would have believed every word he said. His rival manager Pep Guardiola, was captain when Mourinho worked at Barcelona under Bobby Robson. Pep is as cool as Jose is hot. So it’s cool obsession against hot dreams. What is not a dream is the 3-1 advantage to Inter from their home tie with which they start the match against the team many football experts believe to be the best in the world. Worth watching [28th May 2010].

The Pope and the Brainstorming Blunder

April 26, 2010

The Pope’s visit to the UK is planned for September, but a controversy has already broken out leading to an apology from the Foreign Office for a set of insulting and derogatory ideas leaked to press. To understand what happened, knowledge of brainstorming is useful

Turns out that the bright young things at the Foreign Office have been getting ideas. Worse, as Sir Humphrey used to say, they have been getting new ideas, which is a particularly dangerous thing for civil servants to do.

Someone had requested a few ideas around the Pope’s visit. Maybe it was part of a wider security exercise. Anyway, a group of people were bought together, and we learn that a brainstorming took place.

Regressiveness in inexperienced groups

It seems unlikely that the group could be considered as skilled at brainstorming. This is important, because a trained group with an experienced moderator behaves rather differently to a less experienced one. Inexperienced groups tend to regress to a more infantile state in which repressed thoughts are released. And in keeping with one brainstorming principle, anything suggested gets recorded. That is actually justifiable on the grounds that more outrageous ideas can be ‘tamed’ to include novelty and potential relevance and feasibility.

My guess is, that under conditions in which free thinking had been encouraged, free association of ideas took place. More accurately, many utterances will be not so much free of constraints, but conditioned reactions to suppressed thoughts. Mention the Pope to such a group and it will induce close associations including religion, faith, The Vatican, and also associations with recent news stories dealing with abortion, birth control, and child abuse.

In the spirit of brainstorming, these words will then trigger even more outlandish and outrageous ideas. Suggestions such as a Pope’s condom, and a visit to an abortion clinic would be quite likely.

The confidentiality of brainstormed ideas

Creative? Creativity researchers would say probably not. Creative ideas have to meet criteria of novelty, relevance, and actionability. Brainstorming is a venerable but rather weak approach to overcoming team-level blocks to creativity. Such techniques have been the subject of some debate for decades regarding if and how they work to promote creativity.

In any event, it is easy to understand how the FO team would have arrived at a set of ideas which included a lot of fantasy remarks of the kind which were leaked to the media. I always advise brainstorming teams to treat the raw output as highly dangerous. (Yes, I’m with Sir Humphrey on this) Even when accompanied by an explanation, outsiders who get the full unedited set of ideas will question the competence or even the temporary sanity of the group. Far better, I suggest, is to treat the full set of ideas as highly confidential, and present to the senior management sponsors only the most promising few ideas which can be acted on. In this case, the confidentiality could be and should have been treated as a matter of some security.

An anti-catholic culture at the FO?

Perhaps it was treated confidentially. There is a possibility that a disaffected member of the brainstorming group may have wanted to blow a whistle about what had been experienced. That doesn’t affect my main points, but would be consistent with a team that had not sorted out the psychological contract at the start, that there may well be some bizarre suggestions made which will not become public.

So there we have it. An anti-catholic plot by members of the FO? There are more convincing possibilities. I would not discount the possibility that some of the ideas came from people who were educated at one or two of our best Catholic Schools. It’s my Jewish friends who tell the best Jewish Jokes… and I don’t think it makes then anti-Semitic.


The controversy seems to have cooled down:

The Pope’s visit to Britain will not be affected by a leaked memo which appeared to mock the Catholic Church, the Vatican has said …The junior civil servant responsible for setting up the brainstorming and circulating its results said in a cover note: “Please protect; these should not be shared externally. The ‘ideal visit’ paper in particular was the product of a brainstorm which took into account even the most far-fetched of ideas.”

Leadership in Banking: Was Goldman Sachs “doing “God’s work”?

April 24, 2010

Dr Jeffery Ramsbottom

Goldman Sachs is in the news again [April 2010] after the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charged the bank with fraudulently misleading investors. The UK and German governments want the bank to be investigated by their own regulatory arms

It used to be that banking was a relatively simple business not even requiring a degree to enter the profession, let alone an MBA or a PhD in financial economic modelling. For years banks made their profits from the “spread” – the difference between interest income, typically from loans, offset by interest expense on savers’ deposits. This led to the old joke about the 6, 9, 3 rule of banking: “If you can borrow money at 6%, loan it out at 9% then you can be on the golf course by 3 pm!” The Loan Officers in banks were kings, and became the branch managers and even managing directors.

Seismic changes

But over the last 25 years, banking has experienced seismic changes, whose impact was not always initially apparent in the industry and society as a whole. The vast majority of profits for major banks are no longer the “spread” but increasingly fee-based income (insurance, mortgages, pensions), increasingly own-account trading (Nick Leeson’s foreign exchange trading for Baring Brothers in Singapore in the 1990s), complex financial packages from Wall Street/London asset bundlers/sellers, and the relentless reducing of bank’s costs (bricks and mortar, people, back office clerks).

The traditional “plug figure” in banks’ annual accounts has always been “provisions” for bad debts. So how has this fared? Such an accounting provision was always no more that an estimate and open to serious manipulation to improve the bottom line. How can you really know which companies, and for how much, will default over the next 20 years?

These “provisions” have now escalated from manageable company debt risk to an overwhelming combination of portfolio risk, trading risk, sovereign risk and even personal risk (lending to the man), without the Masters of the Universe realising or understanding. So how does this reflect on recent leadership both strategically and morally? And how does it compare with the past?

There were those who forecast today’s problems

Well certainly the late Sir Brian Pitman, who brought Lloyds Bank from a minor UK bank to one of the top 15 profitable banks in the world within 10 years, would be saying “I told you so. We at Lloyds didn’t really understand things like sovereign debt in Latin America, after catastrophic losses, so in an unfashionable strategic shift at the time of big bang (late 1980s) we went local not global and didn’t follow the herd”.

Prudence used to be the hallmark of bankers and banking

Sir Brian was no intellectual but espoused what he called “shareholder value” (now a theoretical idea in contention) but his approach was mainly what is now referred to as “the balanced score card process” in strategic theory. He was the most successful commercial banker of his generation as was John Reid of Citibank in the US before its merger with Sandy Weil’s Travellers Insurance and his subsequent demise.

In the 1930s, Sidney Weinberg was Managing Partner at Goldman Sachs (note the bank had Partners, not CEOs and VPs in those days) declared the bank’s overarching strategy was “long term greed”. Fine with the Partners’ own money. Nevertheless, all banks and especially his got a clobbering in the US great Depression because banks, the lifeblood of economic activity of any country, were all deemed recklessly greedy.

Today is not a lot different especially in public perception. However it is more complex business-wise for banks, clients, shareholders and investors. So what is legal, what is whole, and what is moral behaviour? Should bankers, especially international ones, be penalised or are they fundamentally doing “God’s Work” in promoting the pursuit of a wealthier happier global society?

Stranded in Singapore. Blame the Volcano

April 17, 2010

So what’s it like to check up on your flight home to Europe? Get on to web to find a story about a volcano erupting in Iceland. Sad news, but not personal. Until you try to confirm that flight. Confusion reigning.

With a few hours spare before leaving for the airport in Singapore, we attempt to confirm flights. After an hour learn all is OK. Brief allayment of concerns. The airline can get us to Dohar. Almost immediate reversal of that information. No flights, sit tight.

So we did. Or at least we would have, but the hotel apologetically explained there were no rooms. Biggest convention of the world just starting (ironically, Hotel Asia trade fair). So, no flights, no hotel.

No room after Sunday

Local contacts (thanks Lim, Margaret) gave great emotional and practical support. They find Susan and myself serviced-apartment accomodation for the weekend. Short trip through business district. Solicitous staff at new place suggest we book with them until Monday but warn yes you’ve guessed it, they are 100% booked for next week.

Saturday am. Multiple calls to UK travel agent. Best get to the airport to arrange flights. Do so, where friendly staff can not help directly. Indirectly though, they help by explaining that their local office will open for business next on Monday. Orchard Road premises. Yes we can get there on Monday.

Return to apartment via MRT and market place for provisions, and then with the first taxi-driver on this trip who could not speak English. Not to be recommended. Driver heads back to airport. It’s true. You do shout louder if you are not understood.

Back to room. Calm down with nostalgic toast and marmalade acquired in Seven Eleven walk-in store. Later: watched Manchester City/United at a nearby Tiger Beer open-air local greasery spoonery. Great atmosphere. High-pitch high-decibel fans split pretty evenly for and against each team.

More news

It’s all a blur. Monday we learn we can get fresh tickets, but only for a flight on May 6th. (Yes I remember. Date of UK General Election and three weeks away.) No guarantee of a room beyond a few days. Dismay. Obsess over maps of the pollution over much of Europe and experts suggesting we may have to wait even longer. Then some more positive news. Maybe the air traffic authorities have been over-cautious. We wait for a call. Hello, is that Mr Godot? Your two friends are still in room 3.01.

Little triumphs. We keep renewing our room. Organise medical supplies from a local practice. Also sincere thanks to Moorlands Medical Supplies for their 48-hour special delivery service of our urgent request, once flights to Europe resumed.

Do something useful. So Saturday we stand in for colleagues who can’t get to the Singapore graduation ceremony of Manchester Business School WorldWide graduates. Returning to our hotel planning the next ten days, we discover we have been booked on a flight the following Monday.

Is it really happening?

Curious sense of not believing it will happen until we are on the plane… judging from the line of people at the check-in desk three hours before take-off, the entire planeload of refugees had been of a similar mind.


Image from Stephan of Icelandic volcanic activity which did not have such dire global consequences.

Leadership Singapore Style

April 14, 2010

A visit to Singapore prompted reflections on the culture of this dynamic state, and the stories to be found in and behind the media headlines

Singapore owes much to the efforts in the 1960s of Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew, founder and first secretary-general of the People’s Action Party (PAP), who oversaw the separation of Singapore from the Federation of Malaysia, and its transformation into a dynamic economic powerhouse. Fifty years later, there is talk of a Lee dynasty. His son, Lee Hsien Loong, has been Prime Minister since 2004.

Change but not too radical change

I had heard that in the ten years since my last visit, Singapore had changed enormously. It has, although in many ways the changes are incremenatal rather than radical shifts. The newer condos are higher and more space-age in design, but fit in with the older ones (i.e. those venerable skyscrapers built in the 1980s). Traffic still negotiates its regulated way through the crowded central-city area. Business, despite the global recession, seems pretty much as usual. (The Government put plans in place to buy-up unemployment in 2008-9).

Preoccupations remain familiar. Educational opportunities, regional political alliances, invasion of Western pop culture still find their way in to the news, as do shopping and lifestyle stories. This year’s Food and Hotel Asia exhibition will bigger and better including Cypriot mineral water and Argentinian popcorn. Has the 150 year-old Lau Pa Sat become nothing more than a glorified food court?

High-class media coverage

International affairs are still well-covered in TV and press. The Straits Times stands comparison with its better-known Murdoch-owned namesake. Business is well covered in The Business Times. During my visit, the unfolding events in Thailand was receiving extensive and impressive attention.

Local Interest Stories

Local stories capture local interests. Last week[April 10th 2010] a rugby match between St Andrews and Anglo-Chinese (Independent) School ended in an unsightly brawl after “ACS player Leonard Wee was injured in the mouth and taken to hospital”. The next day, his aggressor was suspended after making an apology in front of the entire School at St Andrews.

Like other readers, I was shocked at the growth of “up-skirt photography” carried out by individuals using strategically-positioned mobiles, who then share their work on U-tube.

A less disturbing trend is that of business executives using coffee-shops to finalize business deals. This is, of course, a reminder of the origins of business struck in London’s coffee parlours centuries earlier.

I can’t finish without mentioning those letters to the editor, which reveal the flash points of local interest. Those noisy young people shouting on Clarke’s Quay until long after midnight; the importance of retaining good bus services; comments on indiscrete remarks made by pubic figures. And a favourite of mine: Someone discussing the environmental aspects of golf courses had written “The old myth that golf-courses must be built close the reservoirs no longer holds water”.

A Unique Culture

Singapore remains a vibrant and unique culture, perhaps a little too hasty to aspire to norms of its economic rival Hong Kong. But does Singapore really want to develop an even more frantic life-style? I hope not. If that happens, I won’t recognize the place on my next visit.

Has Manchester United failed the duck test?

April 12, 2010

Manchester United Football Club stands accused by supporters and many commentators of facing financial problems which are damaging its business model and its on-field performance. Increasing evidence suggests they may be right

It is rarely easy to establish with confidence whether a corporate strategy has gone completely wrong. It is left to investors to weigh up the probabilities and back their hunch with their money. However black and white things seem, there are always shades of grey to be factored into the decision-making.

A paler shade of grey?

There has been little evidence of shades-of-grey thinking at Manchester United recently. In the last few weeks there have been plenty of disappointments on the field of play. These had been taken as yet more evidence of the failure of the business model followed by the American owners since its debt-financed takeover of the club.

The popularist movement from the club’s fan base has been reinforced by the financial interests of the so-called Red Knights. The fans have been pretty convinced from the outset that the new owners were bad news. The Red Knights, however much they claim to be working in the best interests of the club’s traditions, have the single-mindedness of any consortium seeking an acquisition The outsider may have to fall back on interpreting what might be called weak signals out to the market place, and applying the Duck test.

The Duck Test

The Duck Test serves as shorthand for basing a conclusion on accumulating, if circumstantial, evidence. “If it walks like a duck, squawks like a duck, flies like a duck …probability is – it is a duck”.

This week faced with serious injury crises in his squad, and lack of back-up strikers, Manager Sir Alex Ferguson defended the decision (‘non-decision’) to show interest in a world-class striker for next season on the grounds that prices are over-inflated.

Sir Alex is generally convincing, or at least plausible, in his public statements. This time it all just sounded too much like observing a duck walking, squawking and flying.

What’s the difference between Gordon Brown and Colin Montgomerie?

April 10, 2010

What’s the difference between Gordon Brown and Colin Montgomerie? Answer: Gordon Brown has less time left to work on his performance anxiety

The question struck me as the phony war ended, and start of the official election campaign was announced. Television clips showed a relaxed David Cameron, and a not quite so relaxed Gordon Brown. For some reason my thoughts wandered and paused on a comparison between the Prime Minister and his fellow Scot, Colin Montgmerie.

Colin, like Gordon, is not at his best when a microphone is nearby. This has become apparent since his appointment as Captain of the European Ryder Cup team. When asked even an innocuous question, his face distorts as evidence of some inner turmoil. Then there is rush of comment with only glimpses of the intelligence of the speaker. Over-rehearsed, rather than under-rehearsed.

Gordon’s performances can also appear over-rehearsed. He has been trained to smile at the cameras. Unfortunately, the smile is never totally convincing. I realize that there may be medical explanation due to his well-reported facial injuries sustained as a student. Unfortunately, the game of public presentation does not permit concessions on that count. Gordon on camera, like Colin, appears to suffer from performance anxiety.

And as any life-coach will have been telling both Gordon and Colin, they should approach interviews remembering their achievements. Each is a proven winner in his field. Ah yes, whispers Colin’s inner voice, you might be a multiple European Tour champion but you never won an Open championship. Ah yes, whisper’s Gordon’s inner voice, you might be Prime Minister, but you were never elected to the position.

At present the inner voices seem to be the more powerful. Can nothing be done to diminish these effects? There is plenty of advice available, and will be offered by various experts on political, sporting, or just everyday psychology. Much of it boils down to the Dale Carnegie School of building inner confidence, with a few flourishes about visualization.

Colin (more than Gordon, perhaps) knows that performance can be grooved, and supported by an expert coach (on the golf course, at least). At present the inner voices seem to be the more powerful. Only he will know whether the inner voice got in the way of him executing a vital putt and depriving him of an Open victory. Only Gordon will know if inside he is feeling confident enough, and it is no longer a battle with inner demons.

And Gordon faces severe trials in the weeks ahead against David Cameron, who appears to have no such inner demons.

Pupils Interviewing Teachers: A Cause for Concern?

April 7, 2010

Pupils interviewing teachers? The idea appears to have led to a Teacher’s Union seeking industrial action. But is it an example of a good idea badly implemented?

According to the BBC,

The NASUWT teaching union says attempts to give pupils a voice in their school are being abused by head teachers. Delegates have voted unanimously to support a motion for a ballot over industrial action where abuses of student involvement are identified. Student voice was developed in the early 1990s to allow pupils to participate in decision making with the idea that students with a greater involvement in their school community were better motivated to learn.
But a paper at the NASUWT conference in Birmingham suggests steps to improve student voice in some schools have gone too far. It reveals schools are using pupils to answer questions about teachers’ competence and to help interview them for promotions, which the union says is unacceptable. NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates [described] a dossier which was “littered with examples of demeaning, embarrassing and humiliating practice”.

Turns out that the Union action may have been triggered by a successful introduction of pupil involvement in the management of a previously-failing inner-city school.

Pupils at a school in East London are so involved in the running of their school, that they interview all prospective teachers – even the head. Student panels were introduced at George Mitchell School in Leyton two and a half years ago in an attempt to give pupils “ownership” of their learning… The 70 pupils involved in the “Making Learning Better” (MLB) scheme regularly observe teachers’ lessons and make suggestions about how classroom displays, teaching styles and discipline can be improved.

The MLB scheme is the brainchild of a formidable partnership between head teacher Helen Jeffery and her deputy, head of English, Matthew Savage, as assistant head teacher. It was Mr Savage who laid down the foundations for the MLB programme by asking for pupils to get actively involved in improving lessons in his department. Now the scheme has been rolled out across all departments.

Ms Jeffery was brought in as acting head in September 2003, charged with improving attainment at a school which has languished for years near the bottom of the local league tables. Many of the pupils at George Mitchell come from an estate of high-rise tower blocks which dominates the vistas from the school.

The scheme has had its inevitable setbacks, including overcoming scepticism and robust interviewing behaviours from pupils. Results however have been promising, although the process has thrown up some interesting dilemmas of leadership.

Ms Jeffery recalls how two candidates were invited for interview for a vacant post last summer. By lunchtime, having interviewed and observed both, the pupils decided only one candidate should continue into the afternoon for interviews with the head and other teachers. “The students came to me and said they didn’t think this person was suitable. It left me in a difficult position”.

What happened next?

If you want to find out what happened next you will have to go back to the original link. But you don’t need to do that to decide what you might have done, or to explore the merits of the idea of such pupil power. Or to see its significance for concepts of distributed leadership and for developing the self-esteem of members of social groups.