Friday 31 July 2009

Knowing excellence

Really knowing what excellence means for your project is the first law of performance management. Everything else builds on understanding what excellence means.

The clearer, more basic, and more direct you can make your understanding, the better. Getting to excellent can then be a purposeful journey, with a clear view ahead.

Everyone has different ambitions – whether you are an individual or an organisation. It might be to write a book, reach a particular goal or grow a product line. It might be to develop a well-used and useful software system or reduce your carbon footprint by a certain amount.

Excellence can always be defined. It’s not always easy – invariably it’s difficult – but it can be done.

Carl von Clausewitz, author of the 1830 classic text On War, starts by asking the simplest of questions: “What is War?” He provides a pivotal definition:

“an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will.”
By defining war at its fundamental level, he expands our understanding and tolerates no weakening of war’s purpose.

It is instructive that a military man starts his discourse by considering such a basic question.

I wonder how many advertising men consider the essential nature of advertising before designing an advertising campaign. Or garage mechanics consider the basic design of the internal combustion engine before carrying out a service. If they did, would more advertising campaigns might properly communicate with their intended audiences, and fewer cars might be returned to the garage after a service?

War is an act of violence; advertising’s purpose is to sell, and car servicing should make cars run better.

Whilst von Clausewitz in no way implied that diplomacy shouldn’t be used in resolving conflict, he defines war as a violent act that forces rather than persuades the enemy. By this definition he presses the case of diplomacy.

If you have a project that has stalled or isn't progressing as you would like, back up a little and check how you have defined your excellent end-point.

Thursday 30 July 2009

The Bentley Garage

My drive to work each morning takes me past a Bentley Garage. It is a thing of wonder: calm, polished and full of beautiful cars. Really beautiful cars.

As I queue with the rest of the traffic to get past the roundabout I watch their morning routine – the cars are slowly driven out onto the forecourt and lined up. Quietly, unhurried but in perfect alignment: simple and stylish.

When I drive past I always subconsciously think “ah – how the rich live…” but more recently I have been wondering who would actually buy a Bentley these days. They are lovely, but they do about 12mpg and chuck out over 3 times the emissions of my little car. Admittedly they get well over 3 times the admiring glances, but I wonder if that is likely to change.

I’ve heard that the waiting lists for the Toyota Prius is getting so long they will be delivering into next year. It has been massively popular in Japan, far exceeding Toyota’s expectations. I hope this is the way of the future – a leaner, 72 mpg car that cares for the environment, not just its sleek lines.

Am I passing a garage full of white elephants? Or will it take a great deal more to convince the wealthy to kick their oil-hungry habits?

Wednesday 29 July 2009

Let's talk about Measurement

There is no other subject I have found to be as quick at generating comments as measurement.

Only yesterday I was discussing the 100-day habit idea when the conversation veered towards the complexity of the reasons for wanting to, for example, give up caffeine. The reasons why are, after all, so much more complex and interesting. Yes, I argued, but they obfuscate – one cannot see whether or not the habit is being formed without measuring the number of days one has abstained.

The measurement idea is simple, and reveals nothing or little of the complexity. But it is a highly effective way of defining success or failure. It seems, though, it is also disturbing. I don’t think people like bald measures that hold no insights into the why’s and wherefore’s.

Another example is Toastmasters – the club I attend to practice public speaking.

One of the first Toastmaster goals is to complete the first manual of 10 speeches. The quality of speeches that people give varies enormously – from the well prepared to the barely prepared, the intelligent to the flippant, the funny to the downright embarrassing. Yet despite all of this, there are very few people who are not better public speakers once they have finished those 10 speeches. As someone once wryly pointed out - he had never known anyone get worse.

So despite the differing quality and styles, the number of speeches gives an indication of competence. It is only an indication, of course, even if I did 100 speeches I don’t think I would ever get up to Obama’s standards, although it might be an interesting test.

I consider measurement to be one of the fundamentals in increasing performance. It’s not the only one, but it is a cornerstone.

As Lord Kelvin so succinctly pointed out - if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.

Tuesday 28 July 2009

100 days to form a habit

Habits are oh-so-useful things. Because they get done automatically, they don’t get missed. So when you make something a habit, you are close to guaranteeing it gets done. Because they don’t require brain-power they are also highly time efficient - you just do them, instead of agonising and wasting time.

Brushing your teeth, eating breakfast, reaching for your first cup of coffee – all get done on auto-pilot whether or not you have added them to your To Do List.

Aristotle said: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.”
There are many things that we would like to make a habit – eating less, exercising more, doing a task every day. All things that if we only had the discipline to do, we know we would be more effective.

So – if habits can be such useful things – how do create good habits?

To form a new habit you have to ingrain it into your routine. You must do it every day, without missing a day, until the habit has been formed. There are various estimates as to how long it takes to form a habit – ranging from 21 days, 30 days to 66 days. Researchers at University College London have been studying habits as part of their research into weight loss. They suggest that it takes 66 days for a new habit to become ingrained, perhaps longer if the habit is complex. Interestingly, exercise took longer to make a habit than did a healthy eating habit.

I was interested to note that I could give up wine for 48 days over Lent but had no problem reinstating a glass of wine with dinner as soon as Easter came. I had thought I would have difficulty readjusting, but it was frighteningly easy to get back to old ways. So for me, at least, 48 days wasn’t long enough for the teetotal habit to form.

If the new habit is worthwhile, it would seem that overkill is required to try to establish it. In the spirit of The Power of Round Numbers, I am going to try 100 days to ingrain the habit of not drinking caffeine.

I’m hoping that living a caffeine-free life will mean that I sleep better, have fewer headaches and enjoy a more even temperament. My alcohol-free living didn’t produce the performance-enhancing benefits I’d hoped for, and so far cutting out caffeine has done little but given me a headache. But I’m difficult to dissuade once an idea has lodged itself, so this is day 5 and counting ….

Monday 27 July 2009

10 Good Ways to Get Things Done

Everyone has their own techniques to get things done - and this is mine. A way to get done what needs to be done efficiently, and well. And then have time to Smell The Roses, which is a Good Thing to do at this time of year.

  1. Do Important things first. Consider the most important thing that was left undone from yesterday.

  2. Do difficult things first. This is a cornerstone in our work in software development, but also helps with other work. Getting difficult things completed stabilises a project.

  3. Do big things first. If you don’t have anything important or difficult (lucky you), do bigger things first. Smaller things are easier to fit around bigger things. (These first three point also work like Russian dolls, ie for any given task you can prioritise what needs to be done by Importance, Difficulty, Size.)

  4. Focus 100% on the task in hand. Although this has the biggest impact on productivity, it’s only possible when are convinced that whatever you are working on deserves your full attention. Turn off all distractions like e-mail, Twitter, MSN, etc. to help focus.

  5. Work for longer on the task that you think you need to. In other words – really finish it. Finish everything about it. Think about what you have done and whether it’s good enough/finished enough/needs input from anyone else. Finish the admin associated with it. Put things away neatly afterwards. Then it doesn’t reappear on your To DO list in a different guise.

  6. Plan before you do it – ideally at least a day before. This enables your mind to work on the problem/task beforehand so you are more productive while you are doing it.

  7. Work undisturbed in pre-determined blocks of time. The Pomodoro technique suggests 25 minutes. I like half days. This brings all the advantages of 5, plus it ensures you plan your time properly to get the thing finished before you have to stop.

  8. Make things a habit. For tasks that crop up regularly it is worth putting the extra effort in to engrain them into your psyche. You don’t have to think about habits, you just do them, so habits always get done.

  9. Plan your day. Spend time at the beginning of the day planning what needs to be done. Spend longer on this than you feel is necessary and really work through as much detail as possible. 30 minutes seems like a long time when working at the day level, but it pays off handsomely.

  10. Review your day. Identify what needs to be done tomorrow, what you could have done more efficiently, what could/should be made a habit. What can you do better tomorrow?

Then go smell those roses ….

Wednesday 22 July 2009

Work the problem

Anyone who has not been in a coma this last week will know it is the 40th Anniversary of Armstrong and Aldrin landing on the moon. Whatever your views on the space programme it is hard not to be impressed by the scientific and engineering achievements this milestone represented.

As footage of the space missions is played over and over again (at least in my house) one phrase is heard repeatedly:

“Work the problem, guys.” “Work the problem.”
I can find no evidence that the words “work the problem” were uttered with the regularity that the film footage suggests, but I can imagine something similar might have been said.

As tempers and personalities flare and flash it is tempting to get defocused with who did what and why, instead of what needs to be done. NASA couldn’t afford to defocus; this was a critical time for them. They knew the eyes of the world were upon them, and that they were working with difficult and untried technology. They also knew that mistakes could mean the loss of life of their colleagues. I can’t imagine anything with more pressure.

So those 3 simple words encapsulate quite a lot:
  • Stay focused on the issue
  • Don’t let irrelevant details take attention away from what needs to be done
  • Keep focused until the problem is solved
Having a process to solve problems can save time and tantrums, and improve the final outcome:
  • Identify and define the problem
  • Determine possible causes
  • Agree the cause of the problem
  • Evaluate possible solutions and select one
  • Implement the solution
  • Check that the problem has been solved

Not all our problems are rocket science, but that doesn’t make them any less important in achieving our goals.

Tuesday 21 July 2009

The benefits of not working at weekends

Someone posed a question on Twitter last week – should we work at weekends? I’m guessing the question was directed to people like me who have a computer based job with enough freedom to decide when, where and how work gets done. Not those who work set hours determined by someone else.

I have become quite a fan of Twitter. It has taken a little time for me to get used to it: at first I thought it was just silly. But little by little I have grown to find it quite useful.

So – what an interesting question – should we work at weekends? He followed up by saying it was very tempting - which indeed it is.

Going back a few years I always worked at weekends, and certainly during the time I did my MBA I had no choice – weekends were quiet time to get essays written and books read.

These days I find it difficult to switch off completely on Saturday and Sunday (although I do get the hang of it more by Sunday). My mind is still buzzing with ideas and thoughts on whatever project I am working on. The big difference, however, is that I don’t have to get to my desk by a set time, and I don’t feel compelled to start doing things. I can just let my mind turn the thoughts over and play with ideas. I often write them down in my notebook to come back to later. Not really work, but a change of pace and style. It’s often a time when I re-evaluate the direction I’m going with something, or question whether my approach is right.

It’s pretty similar to the phenomenon that most of us are familiar with – having an idea in the bath or while we are driving or going for a walk. The brain is still working away long after we think we have moved onto something else. That’s why the advice to sleep on a problem is normally wise counsel. A bit of time and space, and a chance for the cogs to turn slowly on an issue mostly produce a better answer than trying to solve it there and then.

So with the exception of the urgent report, or necessary emails from the week before, I come down on the side of not working at weekends. Letting the mind have a chance to rearrange and reorder seems like useful enough work for the two days sandwiched between frenetic weekday activity.

Monday 20 July 2009

6 tips for meeting deadlines

Deadlines focus the mind.

Going on holiday, sitting an exam, or a key client meeting are all examples immovable deadlines that result in higher than normal performance. By the time I’ve finished getting ready for a holiday, I absolutely need one, and strangely enough I’ve never missed a flight. Amazingly teams work to get everything together for an important meeting that somehow wouldn’t happen in the normal course of events.

So deadlines are an important aspect of performance management. But how do we make them work in our favour? Going on holiday, sitting exams and crucial client meetings are all deadlines that work wonders without too much additional management effort. They are external, often imposed on us (apart from the holiday!) and everyone understands their importance. Yes, one has to be organised, yes, one has to plan ahead, and yes, knowing exactly what needs to be done are all important. But the bigger the deadline, the more focused the mind.

What about the internal project planning deadlines? What about those deadlines that would massively improve our overall performance if we could raise performance to the same level as the pre-exam focus level? Here are 6 ways to ensure interim targets and deadlines are always met:
  1. Meet smaller deadlines. Be on time for meetings. Get weekly reports in on time. When the smaller deadlines slip it sends out a clear message that deadlines are unimportant. The army stresses the importance of being punctual, because lives can be lost when people are not. Not all civilians have that discipline, even though projects are often lost through missed deadlines. Practice meeting all deadlines, no matter how small.
  2. Communicate the importance. If no one thinks the deadline important, then no one will bother to meet it. It is, after all, hard work to meet deadlines and extra hours are often involved. The importance of a milestone needs to be communicated so everyone understands what the impact will be if it slips.
  3. Don’t set trivial deadlines. The opposite of ensuring a deadline is communicated, is not crying wolf when deadlines are not important. Save your thunder for the key things that do really matter, and ensure those deadlines are met. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Have fewer, but more important deadlines.
  4. Follow up. Follow up whether a deadline has been missed or met. Praise for a job well done and investigation when milestones are missed. Just never let a deadline pass with no acknowledgement of it.
  5. Work together to solve problems. Any deadline of any importance will likely have difficulties. So get together with other team members, or another colleague, to talk through the difficult stuff and find new answers. Sometimes just articulating where you are stuck can free things up.
  6. Communicate the vision. There are no magic answers to making things happen. Deadlines are a key tool in performance management but they need everyone to believe in what is being aimed for. Communicate the big picture and get everyone committed to the vision.

Thursday 16 July 2009

The Pomodoro Technique

Regular readers will know I have one bit of kit on my desk that saves the day when my personal performance takes a nose-dive.

It’s my trusty red stopwatch.

It’s water resistant, and can do lots of clever things that I have never bothered to learn. I only use the start and stop function on it. But as far as personal performance is concerned it is the best thing I have ever bought. And it probably cost less than a fiver – I can’t really remember, it was so long ago.

It’s simple, not unique, and goes like this:
  1. I decide on The Single Most Important Thing that I should be working on.

  2. If it’s a small-ish task, figure out what completion means. If it’s a larger task, decide how long to spend working on it.

  3. Start the stopwatch and stop it each time I stop working on my identified task. I stop if for any kind of break or interruption, noting down start and stop times. The stopwatch forces me to focus on the task in hand.

  4. I can then either see how long its taken me to complete the task, or ensure I have spent the allotted time on the task. I can also see how much time went on other things. Some of those other things will be unavoidable and actually productive, but some will be time-wasting activities. Sometimes short breaks turn into long breaks, or other less than useful stuff creeps in.
My stopwatch makes me really aware of how I’m working.

I’ve used the technique for years. When I feel I’m not focusing I bring out the stopwatch and get my productivity soaring. I’ve written about it before in
Boosting Personal Productivity – A Quick Tip

It turns out that great minds (or undisciplined minds) think alike. A wonderful chap called Francesco Cirillo has written about his version at some length. He recommends working in 25 minute chunks on a planned task. He also recommends analysing the time spent on specific tasks. There is a wonderful paper to download which is very helpful and I recommend you take a look:

What is most wonderful is his timer: instead of my boring old stopwatch he has a bright red tomato timer that ticks away and encourages you on with your work. I would be shot if I tried that here – software development likes a quiet workplace – but in noisier offices or at home it would work a treat.

If anyone knows where to buy these beautiful Pomodoro timers – let me know. So red, so tomato shaped, and so much yummier than my stopwatch …

Wednesday 15 July 2009

From Material Girl to Eco Warrior

I am a child of the ‘60’s who still looks back on the ‘80’s as her glory days. I worked in London and for the advertising agency that worked on the BMW account (amongst other things). I used to joke, although it doesn’t sound so funny now, that I changed my car when it needed washing. We got a new one every six months. It seems impossible now, when I happily drive a car for 10 years, but back then it was part of a heady lifestyle that I took to like a duck to sparkling water.

I guess I’m a pretty unlikely eco-warrior.

But I have to admit I have become increasingly focused on environmental issues. To some degree it’s inescapable: the newspapers are full of it. Yet to many it’s still “someone else’s problem”. And perhaps to me too, after all it’s a big shift in thinking – moving away from the “I-can-use-up-and-wear-out-what-I-like-so-long-as-I-can-just-about-afford-it” mentality.

To be honest, my thinking is changing kind of slowly. My car is still too useful not to drive whenever I want. I am more aware of the price of petrol, and how many miles I can drive on a tankful, but as long as I can afford the petrol it is still pretty much an academic exercise. It’s only when I stop making semi-necessary journeys that I can really say that I am on the first rung of being a trainee eco-warrior.

I’m also slowly becoming more aware of the real cost of the stuff I buy. Changing my thinking away from just its price tag, to considering the raw materials that go into it, producing the thing, me using it and then disposing of it. Cars, computers, even my beloved books, all have energy costs to them that I wasn’t really aware of before.

The government publishes their strategy for moving us towards a low carbon economy today. Their introductory paragraph is heartening – they suggest that low carbon living might actually create a better kind of society, and a stronger, more sustainable economy. When compared to the throw-away lifestyles we have become used to, that has to make sense.

So Material Girl turns Eco Warrior ….

Tuesday 14 July 2009

The Power of Round Numbers

What is it about the big ‘0’ that has such a hold over us? Round numbers have a magic that a ‘7’ can only envy. Anniversaries, birthdays, turnover, profit, runs, wickets (I think, I don’t play cricket) and speeches all have an allure in their round-numbers that we don’t quite understand.

Setting targets, meeting targets, or just living all has extra significance in round numbers.

In fairness, there are other numbers that also have a magic to them: 25, for example, and perhaps 7.

All of which is a roundabout and performance management way of saying I passed a milestone last night. I delivered my 10th Toastmasters' speech and completed my Competent Leader manual.

I don’t feel any more competent than I did yesterday, but that’s missing the point. Although I wasn’t 100% happy with my speech, I am certainly a better speaker today than I was before I delivered my first speech. Which is the whole point – pushing me to deliver 10 speeches gave me the practice and exposure I needed to improve my skills. And 10 is a nice round number to aim for. It is arguable whether doing 12 speeches might not have made me an even more Competent Leader, but the Power of Round Numbers won out and 10 speeches are in the manual.

What hit me this morning as I was still going over all the things I could have done better, was that hitting that milestone was important. Not important because it has finished something, but important because it allows me to step back and evaluate my progress. So often that’s what targets are all about. Phases of a project, or interim steps to a larger goal are designed to allow a pause for evaluation of what’s going right and what’s going wrong.

So whilst I expected to impress myself and everyone else with how I put Barack Obama’s speaking skills to shame, what I found was a milestone that forced me to look at where I thought I would be, and where I actually am. And then figure out what I’m going to do about it. Barack Obama isn’t safe yet, but it may take a few more than 10 speeches to reach his standard.

Round numbers have an undeniable power that is worth being aware of. Setting targets or performance management and measurement can all make use of the added magic they bring. It goes without saying that any number, round or otherwise, forces you to quantify your target. Quantifying targets is an absolute basic in improving performance; not always easy, but always effective.

So one target met, and the next one to aim for. Isn’t it always the way?

And a big thank you to everyone who voted that ribbon my way last night.

Thursday 9 July 2009

Floods and power cuts – just another day on the London Underground

I have been in London twice this week and I have been delayed on the underground twice. First it was flooding that closed a bunch of stations (including one I needed to use), and today it was power cuts that closed the Circle line for I don’t know how long. Readers outside the UK won’t recognise the details, but will certainly recognise the frustration this adds to the already arduous task of moving around a capital city.

Thankfully, in the London of 2009, this is a relatively rare occurrence. However, London of 2019 or 2059 might tell a different story. Scientists tell us that we need to prepare for climate change and that climate change is going to mean more extreme weather conditions occurring more frequently. Temperatures will get uncomfortably hot more often - perhaps 70 days in the year instead of the handful we experience at the moment. We will have less rainfall in the summer, and more in the winter.

This is the pioneering work being presented by UKCIP, leading the world in trying to predict what the effect of pumping CO2 into the atmosphere will have on our climate. UK Climate Projections 2009 is a brand, spanking new report that uses the best scientific and statistical techniques available to predict what the UK climate will feel like in 10, 20 or 100 years’ time. What I find particularly impressive, however, is that all of the data is being made available, including the assumptions of, for example, how much CO2 we continue to pump skywards.

They have included, for the first time, the full range of confidence levels that can be extracted from the data. This is good news for all those journalists who write for The Sun – plenty of headline grabbing scare mongering to be had for those who go in for such things. But also a wealth of valuable data for professionals who want to make the best of available data to look 50 – 100 years into the future. Which is, coincidentally the life of a building or a railway track for example.

Unless our tube and railway infrastructures are upgraded The Sun’s headline writers will have had it about right – we will be in for summers of misery and winters of cancelled train services.

All this was hosted at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers – perhaps the very people we should be blaming for getting us into this CO2 pickle in the first place. It was engineers who taught us how to use carbon-based fuels with such efficiency. But let’s not quibble – they are making up for it now with some intelligent and thought provoking debates about how to move forward. And we have to face facts – there are not too many of us prepared to give up our washing machines or cars for the sake of the planet.

With a bit of luck, however, and some critical analysis of the data, policy makers will have a better view of what’s in store going forward. Which means I will be much less forgiving when they close underground stations for either “unexpected” floods or power cuts due to a certain type of leaf on the line.

In the meantime I’m resting my tired feet after having trekked half way across London to get home. All that, and it was a hotter day than the weather forecasters had predicted. Ironic, non?

UKCP09 is published by UKCIP and is available to download from

Wednesday 8 July 2009

Use Your Talents

I wrote yesterday about the genius next door: someone you know socially but have no idea about the contribution they have made to their field. It was inspired by a lovely comment from a reader who pointed out that geniuses have to live next door to someone, and sometimes we need to look up and see who is around us.

The unknown genius next door is one thing, but what if you get introduced to an acknowledged major talent? The word genius is perhaps a bit strong as we tend to think of geniuses such as Leonardo da Vinci or Einstein, and so no on else measures up. But there are many more who have been blessed with a talent and have diligently used it to make a real contribution in their work and to humanity.

The other evening I found myself sitting opposite such an individual. Well practiced in the art of small talk I invited him to tell me about his work – expecting a short explanation of his field. Not normally a high-risk question - except if you are sitting opposite a theoretical mathematician. Obviously.

I was introduced to the complexities of ring theory and matrices, although the explanation was dumbed down for my benefit. As the explanation progressed (at reasonable speed) he occasionally looked up and asked “do you recognise this equation?” or “you have heard of this?” or some other such question. As I failed to live up to the most basic expectation comments such as “I’m surprised you’ve not seen this before” were thrown in. If this is making it sound like a maths lesson, I’m doing him a grave injustice. It was a fascinating and friendly insight into a different world, a rarefied place where those who make genuine breakthroughs in algebra live.

He has a mathematical matrix named after him. Awesome.

On the way home I thought about Radio 4’s “Thought for the Day” when The Rev. Rosemary Lain-Priestley spoke of the Parable of Talents. Use Your Talents wisely, Jesus preached. Those who do not were judged harshly by Jesus, but those who do use their talents to generate wealth were praised. It was a fitting thought for the drive in to work.

It seems to me that we are all blessed with talents, but not everyone uses them wisely. I know I go about my day without a thought of any talents I might have, or how they manifest themselves in my work.

As individuals, managers and parents, however, we need to be aware of our own, and others’ talents. We need to encourage the best out of ourselves and those around us. Most of us won’t have some major breakthrough carrying our name, but that doesn’t matter. What the Parable of the Talents teaches is that we should not squander the talents we have. All contributions matter.

I now have a napkin covered in algebra. I’m hoping its similarities with the napkin Picasso signed are recognised. In the meantime, though, I will be using my talents just in case theoretical mathematics never gets to hang in The Tate.

Tuesday 7 July 2009

The clattering chasses

I don’t go to parties often; I guess it’s a function of my age. I used to, when I was young, free and single. Now I’m not, parties happen without me.

Last Saturday, however, I was invited to one, and had a great time. Not in the way I did when I was young, but still in a beautiful-July-evening-in-the-garden sort of way. There were lots of interesting people, a beautiful garden and conversation that flowed freely.

As the wine flowed, so did my outgoing nature and I found myself bending the ear of one of the geniuses next door. I don’t know that he was a genius, he had had some success in Making Things Happen, and had been recognised for it. We were talking energy policy (a bit of a difference to younger day parties!) and decided that there was a swell of public opinion that cared about how we would be leaving this planet once we have burnt all the fossil fuels we can lay our hands on.

The clattering chasses are not being given fair information about where we are heading with our energy policy. In our happy July evening way chattering classes was far too dull a description for those who discuss such things. I fully realise how this gives away my idea of a good time, but somewhere along the way things changed. I became one the clattering chasses – sorry chattering classes – and started to care about such mundane things.

I don’t believe we do understand what the target is with energy and reducing carbon emissions. Not everyone agrees that the Waitrose brigade are ready to discuss energy policy at their dinner parties (it will take a lot to displace the state of pension schemes) but there is definitely a change from a few years ago.

Performance management understands the importance of making targets clear and understandable, as does project management and many other disciplines. If you don’t know where you are going, you have little chance of getting there on time.

It is the same with whatever we are trying to do. If we don’t understand what the target is, we cannot understand how our actions contribute, positively or negatively, towards it.

Having clear targets will enable you to achieve whatever is important to you. Ensuring everyone understands the target, and can see visible progress, will improve performance. It's worth considering what’s important to you right now, and how clear and communicated your targets are.

I know I should give it a rest whilst partying, but I also probably should have had one less glass of wine. Perhaps the two are linked? Can’t wait until I get invited to a party with Ed Milliband …

Saturday 4 July 2009

Nuclear Fusion's promise

I am one of those illogical people who is amazed when something of world importance happens to be on my doorstep. I mean – it has to be on someone’s doorstep, doesn’t it?

Culham is home to UKAEA’s research facility into Nuclear Fusion and is the world’s most advanced magnetic confinement research programme anywhere in the world. It is home to MAST (the UK’s fusion machine) and JET (the EU’s Joint European Torus). Nuclear Fusion is probably the most difficult thing that mankind has ever attempted, so the work they are doing on my doorstep is right up there on world-scale impressive things. I visited Culham last week and was shown around their impressive facilities. It is fascinating stuff and provides more than a little food for thought.

Let’s start with Nuclear Fusion. It has been described by a certain dishy physicist as mankind’s “Get Out of Gaol Free Card”. We don’t appear to have too many other answers about how we are going to supply an ever-increasingly energy hungry world with electricity that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels. Renewables such as wind, tidal, hydro and solar will play their part but there is no realistic likelihood that they will be able to replace the amounts of electricity that we are generating using coal, oil and gas – we simply couldn’t install enough of them. Nuclear Fission (traditional nuclear power stations) is a likely stop-gap but has significant problems, not least of which is managing waste which is radioactive for thousands of years. So Nuclear Fusion carries heavy expectation on its shoulders – it promises big advantages in the conundrum of how to produce electricity without frying the planet or using up resources that future generations also have a claim to.

But therein lies the rub – it’s still a promise, a hope, a research facility. And will remain so for some years. The reasons are twofold – one is that it is extremely difficult to do, and the second is that it is underfunded: the second reason only being slightly more controversial than the first.

Nuclear fusion produces energy by fusing atoms together at massively high temperatures. It is the same process at the heart of the sun and the stars. But on earth we have to use much higher temperatures because we cannot reproduce the mass of the sun. So where the sun is a mere 15 million degrees Celsius at its core, scientists have to heat plasma to 200 million degrees Celsius to get deuterium and tritium atoms to fuse together. It’s a tall order which is posing all sorts of problems and keeping some very bright brains more than occupied.

As for the funding issue, we spend about £75m per year on fusion research in the UK – that’s our own UK research on the MAST programme plus our contribution to the EU JET programme. Even I don’t think that’s a lot of money when you consider the scale of the problem and the potential benefits involved. We (that’s you and me the taxpayer) spent £1.6bn on refurbishing the MOD headquarters at Whitehall in 2007. It was agreed to be extremely good value considering the quality of marble and oak that was used. I only mention it to give you some sort of benchmark and so that we can be clear on where our priorities lie.

The UK’s energy spend each year is £75bn. So we are spending 0.1% of our energy expenditure on trying to find a credible replacement for our carbon-based fuels. In the meantime our government is collecting £780m in tax from the UK’s largest energy company. I hate to think what that figure might be if you added the tax from all the UK’s energy companies together.

By now I hope you are beginning to think that our efforts to replace carbon-based fuels are beginning to look a little half-hearted, despite what all those fluttering windmills would have you believe. Not all problems have an easy solution, and a deeply embedded problem like our addiction to carbon-based fuels took hundreds of years to take hold. Undoing the damage we realise we are now doing is going to take at least as much effort.

And for those interested in such things – the picture is of the sun taken by NASA at 7am this morning, Saturday 4th July 2009. Neat, huh?

Thursday 2 July 2009

A higher purpose

St Paul’s Cathedral stands tall and proud across the skyline of London as one of the most instantly recognisable and most admired buildings in the world. It was built by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London. Its sumptuous golden interior is an awe-inspiring reminder of man’s faith in a greater good.

My blog is inspired by excellence and high performance and I have often thought of writing a piece about Cathedrals. They are a testament to vision, planning and leadership that go far beyond what most of us try to achieve in our working lives. St Paul’s Cathedral must surely be one of the most outstanding and lasting examples of what man can achieve.

Tuesday evening saw St Paul’s host worship of a different kind, however. One of our favourite and most accomplished ballet companies danced under St Paul’s magnificent dome to an appreciative audience. English National Ballet was performing at St Paul’s as part of the Festival of London and their ballet was in perfect harmony with their imposing surroundings.

I have made more than passing reference to the inherent excellence of ballet – it is an unforgiving art form that makes high demands on management and dancers alike. Those demands were more than met on Tuesday evening.

A new ballet choreographed by Thomas Edur started the evening – simple and disturbing it was a bold first act that was instantly judged a success by the audience. It was followed by Elena Glurdjidze dancing the Dying Swan to Sans-Saens’ beautiful music. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies was in attendance to hear his rousing Orkney Wedding with Sunrise performed complete with a Scottish piper. It gave everyone a chance to enjoy the enormity of our surroundings, as well as the scale of his music.

The evening culminated in Thomas Edur and Agnes Oakes dancing in Les Sylphides, a favourite that I had seen just recently. Already poignant with its prayer-like simplicity, it was made all the more haunting by this being their last performance with English National Ballet. Individually and together they have danced with English National Ballet in principal roles for almost twenty years and will be missed by their many fans and colleagues.

The evening was a feast for the eyes, the ears, and the soul. And a reminder that excellence comes from deep within.

Photograph by English National Ballet

Wednesday 1 July 2009


I’m like a kid with a new piggy bank – counting has become a marvel to me. In this case I’m counting miles to the gallon. Well, actually miles to the litre, or converting between the two. OK – maybe the similarities between me and a kiddy’s piggy bank are a bit limited.

Anyway – the latest tankful got 39.5 mpg – 3.5 mpg better than last time. In other words I drove almost 30 miles for free – the equivalent of almost two days to work and back. Not bad considering I didn’t have to rob a petrol station or even a bank to do it. I just had to drive a little slower and brake a little less often. Even though I rant about inconsistencies in units of measure, I think this little experiment is showing one thing: I can teach myself to drive more economically. And save money. And the planet. And ignore other road users who want to overtake me on narrow country lanes. Hey – we all have to make sacrifices to go green.

This has probably been my most successful experiment in the living data-centrically month. It’s pretty simple, but has also been very effective. As we all know round numbers have a power over us that we cannot control, so my next target is to get over 40mpg out of my little car. We shall see.

I’m also noticing a complete change in my attitudes to cars and driving. Whereas before I couldn’t comprehend anyone who didn’t tear around like a Bat Out of Hell, now I let them overtake me without even a hint of irritation. Quite a change. And safer too.

So if a dyed-in-the-wool girl racer like me can do it, imagine how much CO2 we would save if everyone took their foot off the accelerator, and the brake, a little more often. Imagine calmer, safer roads, with less CO2 being emitted. Imagine … (fades out to the lyrics of John Lennon)