Monthly Archives: January 2013

The cat’s dilemma

Here’s a case study in managing change.

Suppose you are working on a long-term and complicated project with a big team of more than 25 people. You all have a broad understanding about the direction of travel, but within the team there are several, not necessarily compatible, perspectives on the overall aim and how to get there. Your colleagues have a range of skills and experience, and some pretty entrenched views too.  Your predecessors signed up to your involvement some time ago.

The project, as projects do, has a number of fairly intractable issues, and serious inefficiencies have crept in over the years as the team got bigger and bigger. Every now and then you all have to sit down and re-think how you go about your activities. But it’s come to the point where people in your home organisation are saying it’s all too disadvantageous and it’s time to cut your losses and leave. You have to keep these influential people sweet, but you also acknowledge that there are others in your organisation who hold the opposite view just as strongly.

How to respond?

a) give up and go home – thereby losing all the benefits of being in the team in order to gain unspecified advantages through dissociating yourself from the project;

b) stay, make your own entrenched view known and make it clear that you are never going to change this position – it’s not you, it’s them – and hope that (i) the naysayers back home don’t give you too much grief, and (ii) the ensuing stalemate is not entirely detrimental to everyone’s interests;

c) stay, find out more about what your colleagues really think; look for the common ground that’s in everyone’s interest; build alliances and seek out an approach that meets some of everyone’s needs but expects everyone to give something up too; and

d) … get stuck in to streamlining that overblown bureaucracy.

Answers on a post card please, direct to 10 Downing Street, London SW1.

For the next five years the UK public faces the enticing prospect of protracted membership negotiations with our 26 partners in the European Union – or not, I suppose, if they decide not to bother negotiating with us. The Prime Minister has promised a referendum on the results of the negotiations, in other words we’ll get to vote on whether we want to be part of the EU on the agreed new terms. In the meantime we will be subjected to an awful lot of pontificating from all sides in the debate. And even then the question will not be ‘settled’ because whatever the outcome, a large proportion of the population will be unhappy about it.

Quite apart from the eccentricity of this approach to negotiating – the Eurosceptics will say ‘give us more powers back or we’ll vote against’, and the pro-Europeans will say ‘be more committed or we’ll vote against’ so the government can’t guarantee that it will deliver a vote in favour of the new terms, which means they are not in a position to agree terms anyway – how on earth are we the general public supposed to know enough about it to make an informed decision? Statistics, polls and the finer points of EU treaties and legislation will be quoted at us like passages from the Bible, all out of context and less than enlightening. People will just vote on the basis of their instinctive reaction, or faith, as it were.

Already it’s known as an ‘In/Out’ referendum, a phrase which cannot fail to conjure up the image of 27 eurocrats in a solemn circle dancing to the 1940’s song …

In, out, in out,
You shake it all about,
You do the hokey cokey and you turn around,
That’s what it’s all about.’

Or else we’ll be like our cat, who makes a big fuss to be let out if he’s indoors, and after five minutes outside is banging on the back door and meowing to come back into the kitchen. Wherever he ends up, clearly he always thinks he’d be better off on the other side.

There are matters of state to be decided - it's exhausting

There are matters of state to be decided – it’s exhausting

Wheels spinning and going nowhere

I have  never been able to work out whether it’s because of, or in spite of, my Canadian genes that I hate the snow so much.

When the first flakes fall I am full of gloom and the world seems to shrink as I mentally itemise all the complications that will ensue. My horizon stops at the stretch of road I can see between the trees at the end of the drive, and the garden, which was just beginning to stir into life, turns monochrome. Although the house is cosy and warm, it’s pervaded with the hard smell of cold when you open a door or window. As the surroundings freeze up I find my energy and creativity do the same. I can’t settle but I’m not motivated to do any of those things you think you’ll do when you’re stuck indoors.

I don’t actually remember living in Montreal, we emigrated here when I was a toddler, but my older sisters talk about how hard it was getting to and from school, how the teachers had to allow an extra 30 minutes at the end of the school day so that pupils could get dressed for going home and how each child was inspected by a teacher before being allowed out of the door.

My parents moved over here because my Canadian mother loved English gardens. In Montreal the growing season was a few weeks squeezed between intense cold and scorching heat. The thing about the English climate is that nothing lasts for very long. Today the forecast is that ‘the end is in sight’ for this spell of winter that has lasted, ooh, nearly a week.

Next week it’s back to wet and windy weather. The natural order of things will be restored, and I for one can’t wait.

snowflake close up

A week is a long time in January

Writing this as the second week of January starts, I am struck by how far off last Monday feels.

Monday 7th January was still suffused with the sense of being on holiday, time was elastic and there would certainly be enough of it to enable me to get everything done in a calm and organised fashion.  I returned to the slim ‘to do’ list full of optimism that all things were possible, and nothing was too urgent.

But here we are seven days later and Christmas, the New Year and relaxed time off seem to belong to a distant era.  The weather has taken a turn for the worse, the list is considerably longer, and the deadlines that were reasonable are suddenly imminent after all.  I really must focus and get on.

It’s a funny old month, January.


A lovesome thing?

Fifteen years ago, I would often bemoan the fact that I didn’t spend as much time as I wanted to doing the gardening, even though I had reasonable control over how I spent my day. I was my own boss and working from home but I would always prioritise client work or other commitments.

Now, here we are at the dawn of 2013, and I have reached the age and station at which women seem to devote themselves to their garden – and, do you know what? – I’m not sure I like gardening that much after all. I have a fairly good theoretical knowledge after years of RHS membership, reading the newspaper gardening sections, listening to Gardeners’ Question Time and watching Gardeners’ World. I’m good at Latin plant names because I have a Classics degree. I know ‘salicifolia’ means ‘with leaves like a willow’, and ‘glaucus’  means ‘grey’. I do like being out in the fresh air, and the smell of the earth, and the biggest thrill of course is to see the snowdrops and spring bulbs pushing through. I like visiting great gardens with their luscious herbaceous borders and atmospheric garden ‘rooms’. But …

… actually ‘doing the gardening’ seems to share the dull relentlessness of housework, made worse by the fact that things are growing all the time. I suspect my sort of gardening is being the lady of the manor who is able to share an intelligent conversation with a callus-handed head gardener, and otherwise just float about soaking up the joys of nature as tamed by years of experienced cultivation.

There is some job satisfaction to be gained from an hour’s weeding on my knees, and spreading the compost around makes the borders look cared for and has definitely improved our heavy clay over the years. But although I know what plants do, I lack the creative horticultural imagination to design a border and more significantly, my experience is that while the weeds are happy to romp away, it’s hard to get the plants you’ve carefully brought home from the nursery to flourish. I’ve also noticed that if I’m writing, no detail is too small to attend to, but in the garden or when I’m cleaning, the prime thought is ‘that’ll do’.

The wider conclusion is that people make time to do what they want to do. However busy you are, if you’re really committed to something, you’ll do it. Good intentions aren’t enough to make things happen. I have become sceptical over the years about the reasons people offer for, say, not coming to a workshop. If it’s actually meaningful to their lives at that point, they’ll be there no matter what other demands they are juggling.

Meanwhile the garden jobs still await, and the best approach I can think of, given the lack of a wise old head gardener, is just to pick a specific and manageable task and get on with it. Then when it’s done, stop for the day and not worry about the unending vista of other jobs I notice as I head back indoors for a celebratory cup of tea.

Helleborus foetidus - self seeded

Helleborus foetidus – self seeded