Radio Therapy 2

This is day two of my cancer treatment. I am writing about the radio programmes that I have enjoyed since boyhood. One radio show per treatment.

I was lucky enough to live in the US for four years towards the end of my corporate career. I was excited at the prospect of moving to Northern Virginia and expecting to enjoy lots of things about the American way of life. I had rather low expectations, however, mostly confirmed by experience, about the quality of radio and TV that I would encounter. One exception was much of the content provided by NPR, National Public Radio. NPR is funded by corporate and private contributions; no licence fee in the States. One particular show, produced by NPR affiliate, WBEZ Chicago, was an important part of Saturday mornings in those days and I continue to listen back in the UK.

Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me is a current affairs quiz hosted by playwright Peter Segal. In normal times there was a live audience. The panel, appearing live or dialling in from distant homes, is made up of journalists, commentators and satirists of various colours. It leans rather to the left, at least by US standards. During the Trump Election campaign, there was a period of several months when the first question sought the identity of the perpetrator of some absurdity of the week. The answer was always Donald Trump.

A favourite panelist is cat loving Paula Poundstone who has had a chequered past herself but somehow has always bounced back perhaps simply because she is just plain funny.

Wait, Wait invites listeners to dial in and answer, mostly quirky, news questions, triggering some lively banter from the panellists. Success is rewarded with a personalised answerphone recording featuring the dulcet tones of scorekeeper Bill Kurtis.

An eclectic collection of guest interviewees appear as part of the show. Recent guests include actor Don Cheadle, astronaut Christina Koch and figure skater Adam Rippon. As well as answering their quota of news related questions, they offer insights into their interesting lives.

Brits tend to look down their noses at American humour (actually most sorts of comedy not invented here). Here is one way to put the record straight.

Transformation Fatigue

As I write, Jacob Zuma, the discredited President of South Africa, is considering his position having been recalled, finally, by his party. South Africa is in the third decade of one of the most ambitious change programmes the world has seen. Understandably, transformation fatigue has set in. People are disappointed by the lack of progress towards a more equal society and angry that the party of liberation, the African National Congress, has incubated corrupt leadership of which Zuma is the prime example. South African’s were not fooled by Zuma’s desperate, drowning gestures, for example offering free university education without a plan or funds.

Strong leadership with absolute integrity is critical to the success of the programme. Such leadership sets realistic expectations, sticks to the plan, defines tangible milestones and communicates relentlessly to celebrate even small successes along the way. A programme led by leaders that have lost the confidence of the people cannot succeed. Communications are ignored or discounted as lies. The vision is forgotten.

The saving grace for South Africa is its constitution.  This has (mostly) protected a free press, an independent judiciary and kept important powers for parliament. Contrast with Putin’s Russia, where the slide into authoritarianism has gone largely unchecked.

By the time you read this, Cyril Ramaphosa may already be the new President. The challenge he will face is enormous but the elements of a turnaround plan are not difficult to identify. He will need to reestablish the vision for South Africa’s weary people and to rally them around a common set of objectives and priorities to drive development over the longer term. He must clean out the mire of corruption (“draining the swamp” is somewhere else) in which his leadership team is floundering.  Only then can the resources be focused on driving change rather than accumulating wealth.

Change is good. Re-energising the people suffering from transformation fatigue is critical.

Peace Through Cricket

I have been looking for an antidote to the diet of disheartening news, real and fake, which is headlined by Trump, Brexit and international terrorism. I think I found it this week at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London; headquarters of the sport. The Afghanistan Cricket Team were participating in a little piece of cricket tradition by playing an invitation side representing the Marylebone Cricket Club,  MCC. I had been at a packed Lord’s two days earlier to watch the England side beat South Africa on the exciting fourth day of a five day Test match. My fellow English were of course vocal in their support but rather genteel when compared with the flamboyantly dressed Afghan fans 48 hours later. Despite the untimely rain, in scarce supply this summer, several thousand Afghanis feted their cricketing heroes and enthusisatically expressed their national pride by chanting “AFG” in the style of Americans at the Ryder Cup. National flags were confiscated at the entrance to the ground but enough were smuggled in to provide the necessary rallying points.

The National Flag flies proudly above The Pavillion at Lords

Afghanis have had precious little to shout about in the last few decades but the emergence of cricket as a national sport in only the last 20 years is a small but important miracle which they have embraced wholeheartedly. The national side has just been awarded Test status (alongside Ireland); something only 11 other countries can boast. Cricket is capable of drawing some of the largest TV audiences of any sport thanks partly to its obsessive preeminence on the Indian subcontinent. A typical series of 3 to 5 test matches each lasting up to 5 days has the potential to provide an absorbing diversion for a country that otherwise is cleaning up the terrible aftermath of the latest car bomb.

Change is good. Sport is a powerful agent of change.

Thirteen Moons

The northern spring has arrived in England so it must be close to the first anniversary of leaving the corporate world and entering the new, exciting, less structured phase of my life about which I regularly blog . It has been a tumultuous year of change for the world as a whole and a transitional one for me and my family. Reflecting on the last year, what seems important now?

Firstly, I acknowledge that I am unusually privileged. For the moment, I have my health; something I do not take for granted having had surgery to remove a colon cancer 5 years ago. I do not feel like a survivor or that I won a battle. More realistically, I had the benefit of early diagnosis, the power of prayer, world-beating medical care in the U.S. (right place and time), a supportive family, and a positive mindset. An alarming number of my friends and colleagues have not been so lucky even when they also had most or all of these advantages.

I also have the freedom that a generous (hard earned) company pension brings. This large slice of good fortune is increasingly rare of course. I have opportunities and choices that most people do not. The luxury of being able to work, write and enjoy life in the proportions that I choose is precious indeed.

The year which saw the start of Brexit, Trump elected and the boss at my former employer become US Secretary of State has been bewildering. Even those developments are perhaps not so important if you are unfortunate enough to be close to the Syrian Civil War, a Rohingya in Myanmar or eking out a living in famine struck parts of Africa.

When I retired from the corporate world, I was sure, to the surprise of many of my colleagues, that I wanted to continue to use my skills. I was not ready for a permanent holiday. I set up a limited company in the UK to provide a launchpad for that part of my plan. Running a small business is an education in itself. Negotiating the regulatory minefield is not for the feint-hearted. The end of the UK tax year, in early April, triggered a number of time critical activities and surfaced a few problems with the monthly reporting that we had been slavishly doing. Turns out that the Government’s basic PAYE software does not synchronise data between two, networked laptops used for reporting the same account during the year. Even though the telephone help desk talked me through the remedy with great patience, I am sure many small business owners in the same situation would have blown a fuse in the process.

Building and publishing a  website to showcase my business offer was relatively easy. Adapting it for mobile users turned out to be straightforward, as was linking the website to this regular blog. So far so good. Being heard above the din of the web and social media is more of a challenge.  My Google Ads are most often clicked through in Pakistan, Ethiopia and Papua New Guinea. No problem with that but the occasional view in Tunbridge Wells would be good too. Most of the people accessing my blog are hackers or people hoping to get comments published including embedded links to their own websites selling toddler stair gates. Russian IP addresses recorded against failed logon attempts are spookily frequent; perhaps the only thing I have in common with PoTUS. The amateur blogger is forced into a daily routine of blocking obvious hackers, marking unwanted blog comments as spam and checking the availability of new add-ons to reduce the risk of robot attacks.

My new, time-rich lifestyle is an opportunity to indulge in writing; something I have long wanted to do. In addition to this blog, I have published a short story; again something that proved to be much easier than I had expected. Thus encouraged there is more in the pipeline.

The paid work I did in the last year amounted to about 25 days in total. More would be good but nobody can accuse me of having lost sight of the life work (sic) balance that I am striving for.

I still spent enough time on planes to get to silver status with British Airways but pretty much all of that was with my wife and mostly for pleasure. A key message of the pre-retirement workshop that my wife and I attended was to make sure to spend a little of the pension pot and have fun. Check that.

Having fun is surely a critical ingredient in postponing old age. Others, not always fun, are suggested in Younger Next Year. I do not claim to have done everything the book recommends but I have stuck to my plan and I do feel that I can entertain, for the time being, the illusion of feeling younger, more relaxed and fitter, than this time last year.

Change is good.


50 Shades of Brexit

Today, the UK government, acting on the advice of its people in England and Wales, but against the wishes of those in Scotland and Northern Ireland, has sent notice that it will leave the European Union in 2 year’s time. It has triggered the now famous Article 50. Just as in real life divorce, none of the parties involved has any idea what the eventual cost will be and whether life will ever be better again. In future years, we will try to reassure ourselves that it could have been much worse but if we are honest we will have to admit it was painful. It may be that our country will not exist as a United Kingdom at the end of all this. As a nation and as a continent, we are in the trough of the change curve surrounded by uncertainty and reasons to be fearful. Unforeseen consequences lurk around every corner.

Is the uncertainty so essential to the experience? Why is the Government’s Change Management Team (prosaically known as the Department for Exiting the EU) not able to offer a realistic, straightforward and non-partisan description of the essential factors which will frame the divorce? It might also focus on outlining those many things that will stay the same. Hang on though; the need to admit that EU immigration will continue at much the same level as today makes that a bit tricky. But it surely will. The British economy is close to full capacity and we will need the young, hard working eastern European workforce to maintain its momentum and, by the way, pay for my future healthcare. I can already hear the howls of outrage from those that voted for Brexit mainly because they were fed up with multi-consonent, slavic tones in the doctor’s waiting room.

There is much discussion of the cheque that the UK will have to write to secure its freedom. Estimates range from zero to 60billion Euro. The idea that we can leave for free must be fanciful. The EU, like most national economies, is in debt in its own right; some estimates suggest to the tune of 300billion Euro. It is obvious that since the UK has contributed to the debt, then we will have to pay back our share, net of assets. More likely, we will refinance the amount and add it to our own sovereign debt. In the grand scheme of things, the amount involved is not large when compared with UK national debt which is measured in trillions. However, whatever the amount, it will certainly become the source of populist outrage and just maybe voter remorse of which there is currently no sign.

Another dark shade of uncertainty is that surrounding our future trade relationship with the EU. In trying to simplify this, pessimists paint a picture of day 1 of a hard Brexit in 2019 in which the ports of Calais and Dover are choked by hundreds of trucks waiting for customs clearance under World Trade Organisation rules. Has no one heard of the digital solutions which are already in every day use to handle such transactions?

The next 2 years and longer will be a rough ride for the UK and Europe. We could make it just a little less traumatic by replacing some of the politics with some honest communication underpinning well structured change management.

Talk Talk

I have been in South Africa for the last 3 months. I blogged earlier, quite optimistically, on the slow progress that the country is making towards a more equal and race blind country. Since then I have tried to soak up the important trends and to learn more about what is really happening here.

Two very different data points struck me as relevant:

The first relates to an entrepreneur trading informally in the Eastern Cape. He refused financial help offered by a government agency charged with promoting the cause of micro and small businesses;  arguing that he would then become like a child of the agency and less able, rather than more, to stand on his own feet. This self reliance is a characteristic of people here, evolved from pioneering ancestors of all races and surely a reason to be hopeful.

The second relates to the recently updated corruption perception index. This places South Africa in 64th place of a 176 countries. The country scores slightly above the global average. This is probably better than most South Africans would predict. A real positive is that almost no one thinks this is anywhere near good enough.

There is a vibrant media here that is outspoken in its fight against government waste, corruption and big business collusion. Radio talk shows (Shado Twala on SA FM for example) provide a platform for equally vociferous members of the public. This same vibrancy also perhaps feeds the pessimism of people here.

The progress of South Africa (a member of G20 remember) towards a fairer society is undoubtedly hindered by her small tax base. Extreme income inequality means that less than 10% of the population contribute 99% of the income tax. Unemployment at about 25% and a thriving black economy are major factors and tax payers are unlikely to be encouraged if they think their tax contributions are finding their way into the pockets of corrupt officials.

SA is proud of her constitution and she has worked hard to establish functional government at national, provincial and local level. In doing so, I think the mark has been overshot. The straight forward language of the generation of ANC freedom fighters, many educated in the old eastern bloc, has been replaced by something else.  When interviewed, civil servants and politicians tend to get mired in fashionable phrases and gobbledegook; currently every initiative is labeled as part of the hoped for radical socio-economic transformation. It is not enough to claim to encourage just entrepreneurship. It must be social entrepreneurship. There is a strong sense that there is a lot of multi-sylabic talk and little action.   This seems to me, to point to a need for  government to be stripped down to the essentials in order to deliver more rapid and sustainable change.

So am I more or less optimistic about South Africa after 3 months of privileged existence here? Is this country another Zimbabwe waiting to happen as many here would have you believe? I do not think so. South Africans are protective of their right to dissent. They see through the talk. There is too much that is good here and a healthy set of checks and balances upon which citizens now insist.

Flippen Lekker Mangos

I am in my adopted country of South Africa escaping the northern winter. If ever there was a country that should understand change management it is this beautiful nation. The transition from white rule to democracy in the early 1990s has been much written about like its starring character, Nelson Mandela. The white leaders of apartheid South Africa came to understand that the case for change was irresistible and they succeeded in selling it to enough of their white constituency before time ran out. The transition was managed over several years and the feared for civil war did not manifest itself. Mandela and his colleagues in the African National Congress had a vision of a South Africa for all South Africans irrespective of race.

How is South Africa doing in its quest for a race blind society? The current consensus is that it is not going too well and there is plenty of material to feed the pessimism which is a characteristic of most South Africans. The ANC government led by Jacob Zuma is widely despised as corrupt and self serving. The hoped for improvements in living standards of the black population have been slow to come. Informal traders still eek out a living selling “flippen lekker Mangos” at the roadside. Domestic servants and gardeners earn meagre wages and live in separate communities just like the bad old days. Most of the wealth of the country remains in the hands of the white minority. Crime touches almost everyone. The first thing anyone tells you about a new acquaintance is their ethnicity. This is still an unequal society deeply concerned with race and racism is close to the surface in most aspects of life.

Jolly nice mangos

What has gone wrong? Maybe nothing. Maybe this is just the inevitable process of transition which may take generations and may encounter frequent bumps in the road. Or maybe the change management plan just did not comprehend the long slog that is fundamental societal transformation. The obvious things have been implemented. Universal franchise, access to education, better housing for some. Surely the rest will follow.

I think South Africa is a classic case of a change initiative which has stalled and run out of steam at least temporarily. The improvements are overshadowed by the failures and the unforeseen consequences of freedom without equality. Millennials are not that interested in the history of Apartheid which is already consigned to dry text books. Some older people have a tendency to be nostalgic even about the murderous police state of the cold war era. Madiba’s vision needs to be refreshed and energy injected into the next phase of the Rainbow Nation Project.

Where will the leadership for the next phase of South Africa’s transition come from? Politicians manage change on a 10 year horizon at best. They look for quick wins that translate into votes. A Change Manager is required here even more urgently than in Trump’s America and Brexit Britain. The Change Manager should ideally have an in-depth understanding of the country, her history and her complex cultural masala. The planning timeline needs to comprehend 20 years and consider scenarios that include things getting worse before they get better. Addressing the perceptions of the increasingly cynical minority groups who experience apartheid in reverse will be as important as setting realistic expectations within the majority of still deprived black africans.

Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. Change is good.

In Sickness and in Health

This has been a year full of life milestones and change for me and for my family. The latest milestone is the wedding of my eldest daughter. Said daughter is one of that generation of professional, young people forced by the high cost of housing in the UK to live with parents. Her fiancé and she decided not to live together before marriage. So her happy event was also a trigger for some quiet pondering on the part of her parents. How would we fill the gap left by her? At one level, there will be fewer lemon drizzle cakes and the discipline required to get to the gym each morning will increase without the help of a station drop off. On another level, more pressure on me to remain talkative into the evening when I have often had the luxury of slipping into the background while the women in my life discuss the day or the wedding plan.

It seems reasonable that we should treat personal change with at least as much care and thought as we might apply to professional situations but how many of us develop a Change Plan for such situations? More likely we make it up on the run or give it little thought until we hit challenges. Perhaps this is a good discussion to have with my wife on an evening soon when I might otherwise be tempted to go into standby mode.

I have learnt (again) that a spreadsheet approach to planning, in this case, a wedding is not welcome and that a family does not respond well to a too obviously structured approach to Project and Change Management. In the absence of such an approach it seems that my family falls back on intense communication and consultation followed by periods of frantic action. Roles are assigned without discussion based perhaps on previous experience of what works and what does not. My wife is the planner and has a complete grasp of the detail. On a practical level, my role is to manage logistics. At other times, I am the one that is expected to stay calm and see the way through a difficult phase in the preparations. My family has come to expect that I will often be grumpy but nearly always support our team effort.

I am not sure I would recommend the Lewis family approach to Project and Change Management but it demonstrates that there is more than one way to achieve success.



Brexit Plus Plus

My regular readers will know that I am not a fan of the invented word coined for the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. If you are based in the UK it is impossible to go more than an hour or two without hearing the ghastly word. A new, ugly vocabulary has sprung up to describe the type of relationship we might have with the EU in future and to disparage particularly those, like me, that would like to keep all our options open until we know more about what we are doing to ourselves. Our expensively educated leaders are adept at word invention. Just yesterday we had the British Chief Diplomat’s “Whingerama” which I take to mean “a collective expression of concern about the election of an unknown quantity to the most powerful position in the world”.

For me, it was another unwelcome development when the President elect of the United States started to compare his campaign to the apparent success of the forgotten people of England in putting the finger up to their governing class. Of course, being American (are we sure?), P(e)oTUS is compelled to add a double plus rating to his election win. It is rumoured that our very own Nigel Farage (Brexiteer-in-Chief) is advising the Donald.

The rallying cries of recent political campaigns have trumpeted change even, perversely, when the vision is conservative and reactionary.

Over the summer and more so now, I have been trying to find evidence for structured change management planning for the UK, in the EU, and now the US; not the mechanical transition of power but the kind of plan that would allow us ordinary folk to begin to understand what the future might look like. We are all stakeholders.

The British government has repeatedly said it will not run a commentary on its vision for the future; spuriously suggesting that this would undermine its negotiating position. All we need to know is that “Brexit means Brexit”. Thanks for the clarification.

The policy positions of the incoming US administration are now the subject of media speculation based on the idea that what was said during the campaign was for effect only and that we can expect something much more moderate and thoughtful. Really?

Behind the scenes in Washington, Brussels and London, I am hoping that there are teams of left-brain thinkers that are above political point scoring and focused on developing a coherent, realistic plan that everyone can at least understand even if they would not vote for it.

What you each need, Donald, Jean-Claude and Theresa, is a Secretary of State, Commissioner, Minister for Change. I am available.

No Victor but God

A few weeks ago, I reflected on a millennium of change in York. Last week, I travelled to the beautiful Andalusian city of Granada and found myself looking for clues to the preoccupations of our troubled world in the history that is embedded here. Granada is the site of the Alhambra; a reminder that multi-cultural Europe is nothing new (think also the Balkan countries) and that the tensions this introduces to society are not new either.

Andalusia was ruled for 8 centuries by Muslim sultans with roots in North Africa. The Christian kings of Spain, of course, were determined to expel the Muslim occupiers. Granada, the last stronghold, was finally surrendered to the Spanish king in 1492. At that time it was a prosperous city with important communities representing each of the Abrahamic religions. Today Granada is an exotic cocktail of Christian and Muslim heritage surrounded by olive groves, scorched mountains, and sharing its climate with Morocco. The handsome citizens sport features that perhaps point to marriages across the faith divide all those centuries ago.

The palaces of the Alhambra are largely intact and testament to the peace and tranquility which is at the heart of true Islam. Beautifully carved marble, gentle fountains, pomegranates and roses combine to transport the visitor into a world dedicated to the celebration of God and the beauty of creation even while the world outside lays siege.

The Koranic text that is exquisitely carved everywhere translates variously but most often as “There is no victor but God”; surely a reminder that our predilection for war is ultimately and always futile. Our tendency to turn suspicion and ignorance of other cultures into hate is blinding us to the opportunity for a more gentle, meditative world.

And the lesson for the Change Manager? Maybe that change washes over everything but beauty will not be easily swept away. The good in anything can be the backbone of  the new and the inspiration for progress.

Change is good.