Post-COVID uncertainty and the Rumsfeld Paradox

Okay, before I go on, I’m not going to be able to solve all the uncertainty that we all have about the world that will emerge from COVID, like a young polar bear emerging for the first time from the only home it has known, born through a winter of hibernation and squinting at the sunlight reflecting from the pure, blinding nothingness of the frozen tundra tumbling off as far as the eye can see… and further than the mind can imagine.

If anything, I’m going to add in another level of uncertainty. Sorry.

Anyone who tells you they know how these things are going to play out is a charlatan or a confidence trickster. Or possibly a ‘futurist” [I wonder how many of them predicted this eh?]. We’ve never been in anything like this (obviously) and there has been too much change (obviously) and so even if you’re in the “we’ll probably go back to pretty much how things were with maybe a little more working from home” then sorry, but you’re making it up too.

Right now, I probably have about three or four conversations a week with someone about what we think might happen. I don’t mind having them because each one helps me a little to work out what I think I would like to happen, and perhaps give me another couple of questions which I need to ask or answer which would add to the information I’ve got.

But I’m also okay with the fact that I will never have enough information. I can read every article out there and listen to every bit of gossip about what so-and-so agency are doing (most of which turn out to be nothing more than gossip) and do another loads of employee surveys and fill in a thousand templates for the network [true story] and I’d have all the information and it still won’t be enough. Because it won’t be relevant to me, and my team, because we’re not anyone else. As the Smiths once said:

“This one is different because it’s us.”

The Smiths, Hand In Glove

I don’t know about you, but I think a good segue from a 1980s indie band from Manchester would be to immediately cut to a former two-time US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld. Let’s do it!

I’m not going to comment here on the politics of old “Rummy” (as he was affectionately known by people who knew him affectionately) because I don’t know much about them and I’m too lazy to find out. I’m also not going to comment on the fact that between serving as the youngest ever Secretary of Defence under Gerald Ford he worked for various big US pharma companies (my particular niche area of advertising) before then becoming the second oldest Secretary of Defence under George Bush. Again, I know not enough, and care not to find out.

What I am going to pick out from such a busy boy is a comment he made to the US press about the existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq.

[Bear with me we are getting somewhere I promise.]

Rummy said the following:

As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns: the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Do me a favour and read that again. I grant you, it’s tough not to get dragged down by the context and by the fact that it’s another politician avoiding answering another question. But give it another read for me.

There’s actually an incredibly astute, and almost philosophical point. And it’s something I’ve been coming back to quite a lot in the conversations about the future world [you remember, the baby polar bear thing].

Because yes, there’s stuff we know.

We know we can work remotely, and do bloody good work. Arguably we’re more efficient, and if we could all have got rid of the real estate sitting dormant in every major city, we’d have been a shitload more profitable.
We know that we can build, nurture and maintain authentic relationships, with each other and with our clients, despite not being (sometimes never having been) in the same room.
We know that this has taken a toll on people’s mental health and wellbeing and boundaries and the flow from home to work (I don’t like “balance”, but that’s another blog).

And there’s some stuff we know that we don’t know

We know that we don’t know how we’ll feel on inevitably crowded public transport.
We know that we don’t know who’s going to want to work where, and how that’s going to affect how we work as teams together.
We know that we don’t know how we’re going to react to the polar bear situation

But hell, if there isn’t also a load of stuff we don’t know we don’t know.

There are problems that haven’t happened yet.
There are opportunities that we can’t imagine yet.
There might even be new kinds of feelings which come about precisely because of this meta-uncertainty.

We’re not good with uncertainty. It causes stress and as animals we’re not good at dealing with that because the society we’ve built up around us is bigger and more complex than, as animals, we have evolved to deal with.

But I think the existence of the “unknown unknowns” can actually be a source of calm. Forget about the things I don’t know about, there are things that I don’t even know I don’t know yet! Yes it demands that we “adjust the sails” and deal with ambiguity, but is there anything more ambiguous than the year we’ve just done?

Yes it was hard, and remains hard, but we did do it. We made it this far, battered and tired but still we made it. And that tells me that we’ll make it again.

It won’t be how we think it’ll be. But there’s a bit of me that’s interested in finding out what I don’t know.

Routine, in every sense.

Our little habits and routines are crucial parts of our lives. Once we’ve done something the same way a few times, our brains create a kind of short-cut, low-energy running mode which means we can do things whilst only using the minimum of our internal working brain. Brushing your teeth, making a cup of tea, packing the dishwasher. It’s all done on your brain’s equivalent of standby mode.

This can even kick in when we’re doing quite complicated things, too. I’m sure you’ve experienced driving a route you know well “on autopilot” and arriving at the station or your Mum’s house or wherever and thinking “I didn’t really concentrate through any of that” and wondering how it all just happened.

But just happened it did. We’re actually bloody good at it, and it’s really useful, because if we had to think about everything all the time our overworked little ape brains would, without any shadow of a doubt, explode within 30-45 minutes, maximum.

30-45 minutes later…

That routine, that habit, just doing something without thinking – that does more than just save our brain power. It’s that same sense of being on ‘autopilot’ which can bring an element of stability to our lives. The familiarity of getting a coffee at the station every morning, standing in the same place on the platform, walking the same route to the office: yes it’s because “who wants to think about that stuff”, but it’s also familiar, and comfortable. We like that, us humans. We’re simple animals, and we like things to be the same. Same is simple. Same is known. Same is safe.

Ooh, hang on. SAFE. That’s quite a big word, isn’t it? [And I don’t mean just because I put it in ALL CAPS, although I concede that does indeed make it bigger, well done if you spotted that, you get a cash prize of 10p please contact me on MySpace for details].

Feeling safe is really basic to us as animals. Right down towards the bottom of good old Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it’s a foundation of the pyramid, something we need before we can start to think about more lofty ideas. So much so, that once we have that safety, the idea of giving it up can actually make us feel very uncomfortable, very unsure.

Perhaps, when the world is so uncertain, it’s even more important? Because when the world is uncertain that means nothing is the same and won’t be the same again. And if same is safe and the world will never be the same again then that means…

Especially when the world – that place out there, full of masked strangers and signage and arrows and rules and fear – is actually full on proper actually scary in its own right.

So we close in. Our new routines, our new habits, become our new safe. Get it right and it can actually get quite comfortable really. At a stretch you could even convince yourself that it was your decision somehow. A smaller life, more constricted. Habits that keep you safe when the world cannot.

And so we lower our expectations, to the point when the only expectation is to make it through the day, the week. To cope, somehow. To get to the weekend… where we do the same things, in the same places. We stop living and we exist from day to day, week to week. We drink too much, or stop drinking completely because we worry about drinking too much. We wait for something new on Netflix but and we feel the grief of TV bereavement when we finish something we like because that was a habit for a bit and habits make us feel safe.

We didn’t get any snow last week. Not a fucking flake. My social media feeds were full of bloody snowmen and sledges and sublime scenery and we got drizzle, for two days. I was livid. Not because I’m desperate to throw a snowball which by chance hits my younger son Jack right in the face so he starts crying immediately and we have to go home and everyone hates me for the rest of the day (true story) but because it would have been different. A break from the norm. A break from coping, getting by, managing.

Oh brilliant, snow selfie is it mate? Yeah yeah whatever

But then, the same day that every other bugger in the whole country got the snow, we had a power cut. A proper, old fashioned, 1980s power cut!! I was genuinely giddy with excitement! The strange “oh my God where are the candles??” excitement of a power cut! What would we do? Maybe read by candlelight or play a board game? Is it out all over the village – yes look it is, not a light anywhere, I wonder what’s happened…

And then, in the time it’d taken me to find a match and light the first candles, it all came back on. The TV hummed into life; the lights all over the house [All together now: “It’s like Blackpool bloody illuminations in here!”]. Like a cruel joke, the house lights of normality chased the dramatic darkness of difference into the corners and away under the chairs.

And there we all were again, all the people in the village, suddenly right back where we started. In the old routines.

Coping. Getting by. Managing.

Is this life in 2021?

I say this is not good enough.

I say we deserve more than just coping.

I say that the habits we have built may keep us safe but they limit our expectations of life.

If we let our routines become our lives then we let our lives become… routine.

But make the choice to break your habits, to bend your routine, and that life can rush back in. Because it’s always there, ready for you. Life’s dependable like that.

If you’re a regular reader [what, nothing better to do with your time than read the latest emanation from my fragile psyche? You’re very kind, thank you I do appreciate it.], you’ll know that last week I went for a walk in the woods with my friend Joe. Well since then I’ve walked most mornings – this morning with the good doctor once again [hi Joe!].

I don’t go every morning, partly because sometimes it’s pissing it down and I’m not a total maniac, and partly because it’s the lack of routine to it that makes it so refreshing. As well as filling my lungs and getting my blood pumping around my increasingly corpulent carcass first thing [still proudly “Gym Free Since ’93”], it allows me to see the world at a different time of day, in a different light, with different smells and sounds. It makes me want to paint a picture or write a poem [neither of which I can do, but a boy can dream, right?]. It’s pulled me out of my routine, and made things less routine.

And in case you’re wondering, I haven’t done the same route twice.

Listen, I can’t tell you how to live your life. What I can tell you is that those new routines, and habits – the ones that aren’t just about keeping your brain free but more about keeping your soul safe – they will need to be challenged at some point. Because whatever comes next [and trust me when I tell you that although everything seems uncertain, this too shall pass] we both know it will need you to let go of some of those new things… just like the situation we’re all in at the moment forced us to let go of all the old things, in a single moment.

We didn’t have a choice before. And we didn’t have the chance to prepare.

Now we do have a choice, and we do have the chance.

So, tell me: what’s today going to be like?

[As a small post script, I just want to say how much I fucking love our crazy language. That one word – “routine” – can as a noun mean those commonplace things we regularly do, and as an adjective means dull, conventional and unremarkable is fascinating and joyous to me. I love the idea that our language is so furtile and full that we can push it around and play with it, like a cat toys with a ball of string, lost in a world of simple pleasures. Sorry if I lost you in the double meaning anywhere – I couldn’t help myself.]

Decisions, decisions.

I once heard about a checklist for making decisions consisting of three simple, sequential questions. Does a decision need to be made? Do I need to make that decision? Does it need to be made right now? If the answer to any of those is ‘no’, then you’re off the hook, decision-wise.

I’ve always thought it was a slightly flippant way of looking at things, but hey, I’m a slightly flippant kind of chap so I kind of liked it. Sometimes there actually doesn’t need a decision, and rarely right now. So when I have considered it, it’s usually to get more information or opinion so the eventual decision can be more informed and, as a result, better.

But the last one – does a decision need to be made now? – brings danger with it. Because in a dynamic, fast-changing situation every delay could mean another potential option has been lost.

Imagine you’re driving down the motorway. Every time you pass a junction, you’re ruling that way out as a potential part of your journey for the day. A lot of the time that’s because you know where you’re going, so that’s a considered, thought-through and sensible decision. If you want to get to South Wales from London, stick on the M4 and you can’t go wrong.

But what if you’re not sure where you should be going? What if you were thinking of maybe going on holiday for the weekend but every time there was an option you bottled it? On past the junction signposted Oxford, past the Cotswolds, not sure about Dorset and couldn’t decide on whether to pick up the M5 down to Devon or Cornwall. And before you know it, the Severn Bridge is looming into view and you’re going to Wales not because you decided to but because you didn’t decide anything else and now you’re on the bridge and Wales is on the other side and you can’t stop or turn back so guess where you’re going on holiday…?

Wales here we come!

[Apologies here to anyone who isn’t familiar with the geography of the UK – please find details here – suffice to say my wife is from South Wales and it’s probably the trip I’ve done more than any other so it’s etched into my mind. Feel free to transpose your own well-worn road route.]

My point is that if you leave every decision to the final point then actually you’re not making a decision at all. It’s an illusion of decision making served up as leadership, when it’s actually just indecision for starter, procrastination for main course and inevitability for pudding. All followed by a cheese board of bullshit when you claim that the end decision was the only option.

Of course it was the only option in the end, but that’s because all the other possible options whooshed by one by one.

Taken to a completely ridiculous theoretical endpoint, in the current world, that’s how someone might end up having to close all schools the day after the first day of term! I mean, just imagine!!

Copyright @MattCartoonist

Decisions, therefore, come down to a exploration of the information you have in front of you, and a judgement on whether it’s enough.

Yes, bring other people into the decision-making process if you like. People you trust; people who might offer a new perspective; people who’ve experienced something similar perhaps.

By all means check if there really needs to be a decision made right now or whether there’s more time to gather more information.

Perhaps even try it out in a small way, like putting a splodge of paint on the wall to see if you like it as the light changes in the room through the day.

But for crying out loud, at some point just crack on with it, okay? Otherwise you’ll be sitting in Wales on holiday, wondering if you can find somewhere who’ll do a Devon cream tea.

You’ll never have all the information you need to make a decision.  If you did, it would be a foregone conclusion, not a decision.

David J Mahoney, Jr.

Yes, well said sir.

On Incompetence

There I was, all ready with an uplifting, Happy New Year, “things can only get better” post- something to clear away the cobwebs of 2020 and look forward into 2021 with renewed hope and excitement, eyes wide with the freshness of opportunity that only a brand, shiny new year can bring.

Then, like a young faun stumbling into a forest clearing and for the first time seeing the unlimited expanse of the sky above, suddenly I didn’t feel excited and fresh with anticipation; I felt overwhelmed, stunned into inaction by the vastness of the world, by things I couldn’t comprehend much less control, the sudden realisation of my own helplessness weighing heavy. The weight of another national lockdown on my shoulders, shoulders that slumped still further as I sat wondering if I was watching the beginning of the end of Western “civilisation” on 24-hour news from across the pond.

Gill Scott Heron was wrong, it appears – the revolution will be televised. It’ll even be selfied and streamed live on the social media channel of your choice. Who knew it would involve such a lot of milling around?

I’m not going to get into the politics of all this, you’ll be pleased to hear. You’re probably about as interested in my political views as I am in yours, so let’s keep those to ourselves.

But you won’t be amazed to hear that I find myself sitting and considering the idea of ego, self-assuredness, entitlement and narcissism, and how these can so often quite happily co-exist alongside such rank incompetence.

Incompetence on it’s own isn’t the worst thing in the world, and I’m not against it per se – in fact I’m very comfortable with it. We all have it, to some degree or other, in some areas. Either you’re good at something or you’re okay at it or you’re a bit rubbish at it.

The key is knowing which. That’s the really, really important bit. Having the self-awareness and humility to admit to yourself, and to others, when you really don’t know what you’re doing.

If you know you’re crap at something, that’s conscious incompetence, and that’s okay. I happily accept the idea that I’m consciously incompetent at some things. I know what I’m not good at, and I do one of three things about it…

The first (and let’s admit the least mature) is I deride it as being “crap anyway”. Things that fall into this category include golf (can’t play, don’t want to anyway because it’s crap anyway, crap clothers), ice skating (can’t do it, bloody cold, potentially dangerous, crap anyway), DIY generally (waste of time, total crap), and ballroom dancing (I love to dance but I don’t follow steps as I refuse to wear the chains of conformity on any dancefloor. And it’s crap anyway).

Some crap things

The second is a lot more grown up than that, but it also takes a bit more time and effort and energy. Because the next thing I do if I’m not good at something – or not as good as I think I could or should or want to be – is that I work on it, bit by bit, moment by moment, day by day.

In this bucket goes things like being a better human being. Being the best dad or husband I can be. Being a good friend, a good neighbour. Being a good leader, a kind and thoughtful boss. I sometimes ask myself a simple question which gets to the heart of this.., thinking about all the people in my life, in every facet, and asking simply:

If they could choose someone, would they choose you?

Big question, right? But a challenge to get a bit better, every day.

The third thing I do to overcome my conscious incompetence in an area is perhaps the most sensible, and there’s no coincidence that it’s the one that’s proved itself time and time and time again. If I can’t do something, or can’t do it as well as it needs to be done, then I’ll find someone who can.

That sounds obvious with something like DIY – I’m much better getting someone to fix something than mess it up myself first and then pay someone to fix that whilst openly judging me for the horrible mess I’ve made as I make them a cup of incredibly sweet tea.

Perhaps it’s less obvious when we’re talking work stuff. I mean, who wants to openly admit – to themselves, let alone anyone else – that they’re a bit crap at something?

Well, me, actually.

By admitting that to myself and to others I can surround myself with people who can do stuff I can’t do – or who can do it better than I could – and then let them get on with it. In fact my role then becomes very simple. I’m there to make sure they can do their best work. To remove any barriers that might make things harder for them. To make sure they feel valued, and trusted, and supported to do the thing that they’re so good at doing. It’s become maybe the most important thing I can do.

But to do any of these things – perhaps apart from the first – you have to first admit to yourself that you don’t know what you’re doing. And that takes self-awareness and humility in equal measure.

And if you’ve got the opposite – someone with a refusal or inability to know or admit that they don’t know what they’re doing, coupled with self-assuredness, rampant ego, unconstrained entitlement, misplaced confidence… well then we’re in trouble my friend. Especially if they surround themselves with other people like that too.

Not that anyone like that would ever get in charge anywhere. I mean, imagine a situation where your country were run by people like that?! Imagine how poor the decision making would be?

[Sorry I did say I wouldn’t get into the politics didn’t I? Whoops]

Imagine where it could end up.

Happy lockdown to my UK friends, with the hope of an end on the distant horizon.

Love and peace to my US friends, with the knowledge that your wonderful country will come back even stronger.

Happy New Year folks. It’s been quite a trip so far, right?

Sorry

No, really. I’m really sorry. I know I was wrong and I take full responsibility for the impact this has had. I can probably have a go at trying to explain to you why I acted the way I did, but I am not trying to make excuses and appreciate that, whatever my intention, the actual impact is something for which I must take responsibility.

I’m sorry.

Elton was right – sometimes sorry does seem to be the hardest word.

But bloody hell, isn’t it powerful?

Sorry takes the wind out of the sails of any argument, any conflict. In seconds, it lays the foundation on which reconciliation can be built.

It has to be sincere of course. An insincere apology can be worse than no apology at all. And ‘The Power of But’ is more dangerous here than anywhere else. “I’m sorry, but…” means that actually I’m not really sorry at all.

[In case ‘The Power of But’ is  a new one on you, the word “but” has the power to make anything that came before irrelevant. “I think we’re going to make it but it’s going to be incredibly difficult” makes you think how difficult it’s going to be; “It’s going to be incredibly difficult, but I think we’re going to make it” fills you full of hope and and motivation. Tread ye carefully, for The Power of But can wreak havoc in the wrong place in a sentence.]

I’m not talking about the “sorry” that every British person says when someone bumps into them and it’s not their fault but they’re very British and that’s just what we do. The German stand-up comedian Henning When once said something along the lines that that the way to know someone’s nationality is to take a run up and deliberately ram into them with a shopping trolley. If they turn round and say sorry to you, they’re British.

“Sorry”

And I’m really not talking about the sly and sneaky non- apology politicians and other kinds of sociopaths and egotists tend to use, which usually goes something like “I’m sorry if you were upset by my actions”. This actually puts the blame on you for your stupid and unnecessary feelings rather than taking the blame for the actions. “I’m sorry you feel that way” fits into that same weaselly passive aggressive bucket. Ugh, and just in case that’s not enough disgust, may I also add UGH.

Ugh

No, I am sorry. I am very sorry.

Sorry says that you accept your part of the conflict, and want the conflict to end. You take responsibility for your own actions.

The best thing about sorry is that it doesn’t mean that you weren’t wronged in some way yourself. There are nearly always two sides to any conflict, with each person sure, in the moment at least, of their own position. But the magic is that it doesn’t matter if you can say sorry. And you always have that simple word with you, ready to drop into the middle of a storm and watch as the wind dies in a second, sails empty and flapping in the memory of the gales that threatened to destroy just a few moments ago.

There’s a powerful phrase I heard a few weeks back which has stuck with me. For the life of me I can’t remember where I heard it, and Google can’t help me which makes me think I actually might have misheard it, but as it exists in my memory it’s perfect….

Leaving aside the wrongdoings of others, we ask ourselves “how was I at fault?”

Clearly it has its roots in counselling or therapy of some kind, because even the phrasing of it is beautifully inclusive: “we ask ourselves” not “you must ask yourself”.

And the simplicity of it really gets me. Yes other people may have done the wrong thing. Yes they need to take responsibility and consider how their words or actions may have affected you or exacerbated an already difficult situation. No one is denying any of that.

But let’s put those things to one side for a moment, take a breath, and consider the idea that we weren’t perfect. That we were at fault in some way – how we phrased something, how we reacted… how we were perceived as a result (because, lest we forget, perception is reality of course).

Find your own fault. And then apologise, sincerely and without expectation or hope of reciprocity.

It’s truthful, and disarming, and vulnerable (that word again) and incredibly, uniquely powerful. It’s the start of the rebuilding process. The first step towards a brighter place.

Give it a try. You know that your mistake was just that – a mistake. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, just that (leaving aside the wrongdoings of others, remember?) you’ve examined where you were at fault.

Admit you were wrong, Maybe have a bit of a plan for how you might start to fix things. Ask for forgiveness.

Start with sorry, and you’re making a start.

And if it doesn’t go the way you hope…

I’m really, truly sorry.

Fighting fires

When I was a kid, I watched my father [hi Dad!] walk into a burning building. I was maybe 8 I guess? Our house backed onto a farm and (so the tale goes) some local kids had been smoking in the barn in the evening and it caught fire. Next to the barn was a little cottage where an old lady lived, with a load of cats – like a dozen or something – and she had refused to leave the cottage before all of them were found and she couldn’t find one and “what if it’s still in the house??!!”…

My dad wouldn’t claim to be “brave”, I don’t think. I imagine he’d consider himself much too sensible for daft ideas like that [he reads The Times, for crying out loud] but on that evening [probably with an “oh for fuck’s sake” under his breath if I know him] he walked into the burning cottage to ‘convince’ the lady she really should think about making her way out of the building sometime soon if turning into a roast old lady wasn’t in her immediate life plans.

Anyway, you’ll be pleased to hear that he came out, jostling the old lady in front of him. You’ll be delighted to know that all the cats had, of course, left the cottage some time before, because as we all know cats only care about themselves. My old man [who, come to think of it, would have been younger then then I am now: what a mind fuck that is!] was coughing and his face was black from the smoke and soot and my mum was really cross with him which at the time I thought seemed a bit unfair, because, you know, he was a bloody hero and all that.

And then the fire brigade turned up and we got to watch them putting the fire out, and it was very late and very exciting and I think I got to wear a fireman’s hat [although I might have imagined that because I’ve watched too much TV in my life and that’s the kind of thing that happens in a montage at the end of a TV program about a fire isn’t it?].

My fake memory

Up to now, I haven’t had the opportunity to save an old lady from a burning building [although I did have my bravery tested once – perhaps one for another time!] but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t had fires to put out in my own way over the years. Oh no!

Because that’s what leaders have to do, right? Solving problems, making things better, fixing things. Filling gaps, plugging holes, and “putting out fires” [See what I did there?].

To be honest, I’ve never really liked the phrase “fire-fighting” when talking about work problems. It feels too reactive to me, like you’re forced to jump from the hottest, most urgent thing to the next, constantly on edge, constantly turning to find something else threatening to burn out of control. And so I think the phrase actually makes things worse, somehow.  But I do get the association of course.

Because we know that, left unattended, problems are more likely get bigger and less easy to deal with, just like a fire, until they’re totally unmanageable. And because we know deep within us, through thousands of years of generations upon generations from our earliest times on our planet, that fire has huge power and fearsome energy. Not just in what it does – how it destroys all in its path – but in what it does to us as people.

Just like our ancestors before us, we’re drawn towards fire. It’s deep within us to fan it or fight it, and so all too often we find ourselves simply gazing into it, transfixed, lost in its dancing light.

Nature’s cimena

And just like fire jumping from tree to tree and house to house, the closest possible proximity in which we’re forced to work in our overstuffed offices mean than even the smallest spark can catch, and grow and draw people in to fan or fight or stand and gaze once again.

But as much as we are mesmerised by fire, no matter how wondrous and fearful we find it, what we tend to forget is that the following day the ashes hold only a memory of the fire that once was, and hold no one’s interest for more than a fleeting moment before the winds of time disperse them.  Every fire that ever was ended up as ash in the wind.

And so perhaps one positive thing that I’ve experienced through the maelstrom of Bloody 2020™ is that the forced virtual nature of work has meant that when problems do arise there’s more space for consideration.

I don’t mean there’s more time, of course; not when the line between home and work has completely blurred to the point that it’s not actually visible any more, and I’m working earlier and later than I have in many years because it’s not like I’m going anywhere, and yes it’s getting physically and emotionally exhausting, as the stark sharp split between the imitation intimacy of a video call and the silence when it ends is jarring in a way that as simple, social animals we were never designed to be able to comprehend so we feel somehow empty in the moment, like we’re mourning the human connection that felt so real just a few moments before… [shit, sorry, where was I?]

No, I mean that there’s more physical and emotional space between us – space between the trees, if you like, so fires don’t spread so inexorably. With a watchful eye, some even die out all on their own.

Because with that space, people can consider their actions and consider what they might have done differently. The shared experience of lockdown and everything that’s gone with it means there’s more space for considering what someone else might be going through as well.

And so it seems people find it harder to hold a grudge from afar. People realise that they miss each other, individually and as the office buzz in the background as they work.

Starved of the oxygen of incidental interaction, disagreements become distant, irritations become irrelevant, niggles become nothing. And thus the flames of conflict are dampened, free to fizzle out naturally, quietly, simply.

There’s a lovely quotation I saw recently from a French writer/Aristocrat which goes:

L’absence est à l’amour ce qu’est au feu le vent. Il éteint le petit, il allume le grand.

Roger de Bussy-Rabutin

Which (as I’m sure you know) means:

Absence is to love what the wind is to fire: it extinguishes the small, it inflames the big.

I think that’s true, not just of romantic love but also of the companionship we all miss from our working relationships. The wind of absence has made the ones that were important to us before even more important now.

But perhaps the very same wind can blow out a lot of little fires of little inconsequential problems, too.

All without a fire-fighter to be seen…

A post-office world?

When my wife [hi Sarah!] and I made the decision to move out of South East London [big up big up Crystal Palace massive] three years back, I planned to work from home for “at least” a day a week. I was going from a 45-minute commute to one which would take an hour and a half, and anyway it’s not like I actually need to be physically ‘in the office’ every day…

Needless to say, that didn’t happen. Most weeks I was in every day, with perhaps a day working from home every couple of weeks. And when I did, I made it very clear what I would be working on…

Because tradition states that work is something that was done… well… at work. And everyone knows that all this newfangled “working from home” nonsense really just means dossing around doing nothing. No way that someone could be as productive from home, or that they could really be trusted to do their work instead of drifting off and playing computer games or watching daytime TV.

“Oh yeah right working from home mate yeah? Like nice one yeah?!”

Of course I knew that wasn’t the case: if anything I tended to work longer hours, with less distractions, fewer interruptions and less breaks than I did at the office. Without my friendly neighbourhood Finance Director [hi Jonny!] sitting next to me ready to wander off and grab a coffee, I was smashing through my to-do-list at quite a pace.

In fact, if I had organised a bunch of things to put on my WHF to-do-list which might have taken me a whole day to get done in the office, I might even find that I was through it by early afternoon and freeing up time to get to some of the important stuff that often got bumped by the urgent stuff.

But I always felt I had to check in with people too to prove I wasn’t off doing what I thought people might think I was doing instead of work. Call it “virtual presenteeism” if you like – an email, a text, just to say “I am still here, and I am still working”.

And I was also conscious that it was all very well for me to be working from home, because I’m in the privileged position of being the boss of the agency and thus a) largely setting my own work timetable and b) having no one to tell me what to do or where to be (in London, anyway!). Not so easy if you’re the Account Manager with the client on the phone all day, or the Planner with a creative team to brief…

Within a matter of days, lockdown meant that “WFH” was the norm. And soon everyone showed that they can work just as hard, just as effectively, just as productively from wherever their laptop was set up.

We’ve still had some issues – of course we have. The blurring of lines between work space and home space has meant that hours become blurred too; sometimes too much. I still have the occasional twitch which pushes me into digital presenteeism… now using Teams or WhatsApp as much as the other channels I used to use. “Video calls” where instead of a load of faces it’s just a sea of initials or avatars made everything feel very cold and unnatural [luckily we’ve pulled ourselves up on this and have made a real effort over recent weeks – it’s made a massive difference].

Stolen from my cousin Nick’s post [hi mate!]

And I’ve written recently about the lack of opportunity for ad hoc, in person, informal learning from colleagues and co-workers which I found so valuable in my formative years.

So there’s stuff to fix, but surely the stigma around working from home will have been the one victim of this virus that we can be positive about?

Hmm. I’m not sure.

When our office spaces are back to something like normality, will the assumption return that work is done “at work”? If we don’t need to work from home, wouldn’t it just be better if most of the people were in one place most of the time?

I think there are various truths about this whole thing that we’re going to need to reconsider, and possibly reconcile, over the coming weeks and months…

  1. There is no substitute for personal, face-to-face interaction. None.
  2. I would not have the relationships that I have with the people with whom I work had I not spent a lot of time with them in the same place [specifically “the office”, in case you’re wondering].
  3. Building an organisational culture without being physically together as a group would be really, really difficult. Not impossible, but tough.
  4. A strong organisational culture makes a company more resilient to a crisis, with shared values acting as the strongest foundation for honest, genuine working relationships.
  5. Some people have been more productive working virtually, with associated benefits in their mental wellbeing and emotional and physical energy
  6. Some people have found working virtually incredibly difficult, with the blurred lines between work and home feeling both draining and isolating at the same time.
  7. Some people will work like a dog no matter where you put them.
  8. Some people will do as little as possible no matter how much faith you put in them.
  9. Virtual hugs are not as good as actual hugs. Especially from me, as I am a world-class hugger [N.B. this is not my personal opinion – I have a full trophy room to prove it].
  10. It’s all about trust.

Yeah I know, I funnelled you into that last one. But it really is.

And so before you do anything else, assume positive intent. I know it’s obvious, and I know it’s not always easy. But it’s also surprisingly uplifting.

Assume that people are trustworthy. That they care about their work and their colleagues. That they want to do a good job, every day.

That they trust you to do the same.

Let’s all assume that we’re all doing our best, unless specifically proven otherwise, and a lot of this “new normal” [aaaarrrrgggghhh that phrase again] planning will be a lot easier. Start with trust and we can crack on making a new kind of totally flexible working – flexible around you as an individual with specific requirements and specific responsibilities, in all parts of your life, like never before – really work. For all of us.

What’s past is prologue…

It’s been a long time since my last post. To me, anyway. We all know that time sometimes go fast, sometimes slow, but it’s rare that this happens at the same time. But this summer, well. You don’t need me to tell you that this summer has been different, in every way. Days drift into weeks and February in an office in the middle of London seems not just like another time but almost another place, in another life we once had.

This has felt like a strange interlude – like we’re all living in the interval in the middle of a play: discussing what we made of how the first half went – which characters seemed the most plausible, which plot lines might develop – and waiting for the second half to begin when we can see how things turn out. Except we’re not just the audience, we’re also part of the play too: expected to know how to act and where to stand and what to say, even though we have never read the script and don’t know the plot.


Act One was all about reacting to this unknown something that forced us to change everything overnight and question everything. How to live, how to work, how to feed ourselves even. It was punchy and powerful, leaving us dazed and confused.

Act Two was learning to live with a new situation, settling down, understanding how this might work. Learning more about the unknown, too – how it might affect us and our loved ones; learning to understand statistics and judge risk. And it was about settling into some kind of solidarity through our shared experience. All in this together.

Act Three, just before the interval, was about conflict. Disagreement on what was right and what wasn’t. One rule for them, another for you. And then more conflict, even more visceral. Disbelief, disruption and demonstration. Tumultuous turmoil.

And then the interval.

From here, it’s about some kind of return to some kind of something which isn’t really normality but rather a new kind of normality seen through a distorted lens. It might look similar, but it will never be the same.

My own experience of the good and bad of lockdown is unique to me, of course. Yours is unique to you, too. But the next Act is coming, and just as this year has played with time so uniquely thus far, it will again, and now the bell has rung and the curtain is going to rise once again whilst you’re still grabbing one of those tiny ice cream tubs with a spoon in the lid.

So before the lights dim, just take a moment to look around. Remember the crazy time we’ve all gone through, good and bad, and consider what’s worked for you during this enforced performance and what you want to leave behind.

Because this feels very different to every other time, and if you’re one of the lucky ones with a job to go back to, and a company with a vision for the future, then for the first time in the history of people working in offices you might just be able to have a say in what part you might want to play from here.

What’s past is prologue; and what to come, in yours and my discharge.

William Shakespeare, The Tempest: Act II, Scene I

Double Down

My wife’s grandfather [not he from my earlier story – her other one. She’s lucky enough to have both grandfathers and one grandmother still around to drop a good amount of wisdom] once told me a story – possibly apocryphal, but no less of a story for that. As with all great stories, the subject was something each of us have a connection with in our own, unique way, which transcends time and connects us back to a place where we were more innocent… more carefree… more elemental.

Yes that’s right, we’re talking about ice cream.

The story went something like this…

It’s the mid-1970s, and in the small seaside town just down from the Garw Valley where the family lived in South Wales are two ice cream parlours. And in the ice cream trade, times are tough.

Because this isn’t the glitter-filled shiny 1970s of disco, platforms and Space Hoppers, this is the grey 1970s of economic struggle in underpaid mining communities, toiling to make ends meet between the three-day week and the Winter of Discontent.  Times are tough for everyone, but tougher still when you’re selling something as intrinsically non-essential as ice-cream.

The 1970s in South Wales

So, with ice-cream quite a way down on the priority list, one of the ice-cream parlours decides to do the prudent thing.

They cut back a bit.

They cut back on their local advertising. They put off the paint job they were going to do. They even start using some cheaper suppliers for the ice cream ingredients. Individually all small things, which people probably won’t notice, or perhaps even forgive as a ‘sign of the times’.

Except…

The other ice-cream parlour has another idea.

They double down.

They don’t advertise less, they advertise more. They do up the front of the parlour, repaint the chairs and tables out front and get some umbrellas in case of the sun or (because this is South Wales, remember) the rain. They source even better ingredients for their ice cream, from local suppliers wherever possible.

At every opportunity, they recommit to the service of their customers; double down on what an ice cream parlour should all be about. If it’s going to be an occasional treat, then let’s make it the best experience it can be.

You know the rest, of course. Only one of the parlours survived the tough times and came out the other side.

Now I’m very aware that this story is almost too perfect – like a fable almost. But hey, let’s not let the truth get in the way of a good story, right? [Did I mention I work in advertising?]

Times are tough, right now. We’re going into probably the biggest recession in living memory, with unemployment sky-high and well-known companies adding to the lay-offs every week. We may not have a 3-day week – if anything, working from home has blurred the lines of work & home more than ever – but make no mistake, this is going to be tougher than anything most of us have experienced.

And on top of our economic outlook, we’re right in the middle of a social shift too. Something that sparked from what we saw in Central Park and Minneapolis and enflamed in Bristol and London and every other part of the world. It’s not the first time the world has been rocked and shocked by racial inequality – even by police brutality – but this time does feel different.

Perhaps it’s because for the first time we’ve all had a shared collective experience of lockdown and isolation and fear, that now that’s translated into a shared collective determination to make a change in the world? Perhaps it’s just because it’s all been there, shot on shaky iPhone, for us all to see, our heads shaking slowly in disbelief? Perhaps it’s just because without the daily commute there’s more time and headspace for the daily trawl through the daily news? Wherever it comes from, this feels like a time of change.

Tough times. Uncertain times. No idea of what the times to come will look like.

So what are you going to do about it? Play it safe, or double down?

Double down comes from Blackjack – after seeing what you’ve got in your first 2 cards, you can double your bet and get one more card, so you have twice the money on the table and thus twice the winnings (if you do win, of course). Based on what’s in front of you, you can make a decision to take more risk with potentially a higher reward.

Apparently this is when to “Double Down” in Blackjack, but please bear in mind I know nothing about gambling apart from the fact that “the house always wins” (which I guess is the only one I really need to know in order to know I don’t want to know anything more about gambling)

And so in common parlance it’s taken to mean “to engage in risky behaviour, especially when one is already in a dangerous situation” (according to the Oxford English Dictionary).

But who decides what is “risky”? Perhaps now, like in South Wales in the 1970s, the risk lies in shadows: doubting, worried, holding back. Perhaps by doubling down on an idea, a belief, a course of action you believe in… perhaps this is about conviction and commitment; resilience and resolve. 

That’s an illusion of risk – something that seems risky or even reckless to the people on the outside, but only because they don’t know what you know, what you believe, how you feel, or how deep your commitment goes.

Consider what you have committed to – as an individual, as a group of people, as a company – and have no doubt that this is the time to recommit, to go even further and deeper.

If you have committed to being part of a group – whether that’s at work or outside – then this is the time to really, really be a part of that group. Give more of yourself. Be open, and brave, and authentically yourself, and get more out of it than you ever thought you could.

If you’ve committed to being a caring, thoughtful, open and honest leader or manager… go further. Push yourself to care more than you expected you’d have to – more than the people who work alongside you would have ever expected from you.

If you’ve committed to the belief that that culture and values can really mean something for your business, then recommit to that culture and those values being the most solid foundation possible for whatever you build out of the situation we’re in.

Times may be tough, difficult, strange, “unprecedented”. But it’s precisely because of that uncertainty that this is the time to work out what you really care about, what you really believe in, and double down. Go out and be the ice cream parlour with the fancy paint job and the delicious flavours, and the pride of knowing that you refused to go down without a fight.

Now, who wants to double down on a double cone 99 with sprinkles and raspberry sauce? I’m buying.

Where the hell do I start?

With the incredible sense of entitlement that allows someone to feel vindicated in doing pretty much whatever they like because their situation is so much more nuanced and complex than your situation and anyway they’re actually more important and intelligent than you and really you wouldn’t understand?

With the strategy to combat a deadly virus conflated with partisan politics?

With lies openly told by governments but everyone too exhausted or bored or disengaged to bother to do anything but sigh?

With full on, simple, bare-faced racism which has never been addressed with truth and honesty but just ignored and constantly re-booted in big and little ways because it’s too difficult and uncomfortable to unpick?

With peacefully protesting citizens being tear gassed by police to make way for their own fucking president on his way to a photo opp?

Wait, what??

With the leader of the free world using language inextricably linked to historical, racist police brutality (oh but “that’s not what I meant” so don’t worry that’s okay)?

With deliberately provocative groups of white vigilantes armed with golf clubs and baseball bats taking to the streets seemingly without challenge from the police?

With the systematic militarisation of police resulting almost inevitably in dehumanisation of the individuals dressed like something out of an unrealistic dystopian film?

With members of the UK Parliament currently unable to vote on behalf of their constituents because a very small amount of very entitled people need that parliament to look, sound and act more like a public school common room than a place where important decisions need to be made?

With the hypocrisy of people who voted for years against actual policies that might have supported “our” NHS, clapping and banging outside their houses every week in areas where front line NHS workers could not afford to live and will never hear the empty noise echoing into the dusky evening?

Spotted in a town in Northern England. Not selling anything.

With corporations around the world talking about their inclusive culture whilst actively failing to actively support or actually invest in inclusivity programmes which might actually do something… or worse, actually actively and openly putting D&I on the back burner in “these unprecedented times”?

With video after video being shown of police hitting unarmed protestors as hard as they possibly can, protestors who were standing still, or trying to cycle home, or reacting to being groped, or just getting ‘too close’?

With the retort of “yeah, but don’t all lives matter?” glibly thrown like a smarmy, clever little hand grenade full of deliberate ignorance?   

With a growing dread that because every media outlet has some kind of agenda, it’s getting harder and harder to find objective truth beyond hastily shot iPhone footage?

With the sense that no one really cares about truth anyway, they just want to hear from sources who reinforce what they already think?

With the horrible feeling that your faith that kindness and love will ultimately conquer all might just be a naïve fantasy?

Okay, wait a minute.

Yeah, maybe I’ll start with the last one.

Because I’ve seen white cops taking off helmets and laying down batons and walking alongside their communities.

Sheriff Christopher Swanson, Genesee County Michigan

Because I know that the outpouring of sadness for what’s happening in America is real, and that sadness comes from a good place.

Because we may not know what to do, but knowing something has to be done is the first step.

Because the further things go, the more people will decide that enough is enough.

Because regardless of political or social predilections, I do think that the idea of “fairness” is one that transcends most divisions, and there’s nothing fair about what’s happening at the moment.

Because there’s a fine line between frustration and injustice, which drive action, and dejection and gloom, which make you give up. And I need to actively keep myself on the right side of that.

Because I do believe, with all my heart and soul, that hope and love are stronger than despair and hate. That the light side of the force will ultimately overcome the dark side of the force. Even if it takes 9 feature films to get there.

Unusual that I turn to Rocky for wise words, but just this once…

“The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It is a very mean and nasty place It will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me or nobody is going to hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit, it is about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much can you take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done”

Rocky Balboa, 2006, written & directed by Sylvester Stallone.

Because we will move forward.

Love and peace x