Sunday, 24 April 2016

Beige Birthdays, Purple Rain, and some Black Hole Blues

It was sad to hear of the sudden death of Victoria Wood last week. She died, aged 62, following a short illness. I am sure she will be missed by many people. Her observations on everyday life and experiences resonated with me and I am sure many others. All were beautifully delivered in her broad Lancashire accent (she was born in Prestwich, a place dear to my heart). One of my favourite quotes was her boyfriend comment – ‘all my friends started getting boyfriends, but I didn’t want a boyfriend, I wanted a thirteen-colour biro’.

The pop star Prince also died suddenly last week. He was 57 years old. He was a phenomenally successful song writer and performer and his work was said to be immensely influential with other artists. However, I must be one of the few people who feel I am missing something. I don’t understand the enthusiasm and acclaim for his work. Even his most famous song ‘Purple Rain’ (which as I write this blog is at #1 in the UK and US charts) is losing its appeal through over play during the last 48 hours. That was something that didn’t happen to me when David Bowie died, aged 69, early this year and his music was played 24 hours a day.

Sadly there has been a lot of celebrity deaths this year. There were 4 such deaths between Jan and March in 2012, and 24 in the same period this year, and now 2 more. Many of these famous people dying belong to the so called ‘baby-boom’ generation that is, those born between 1946 and 1964. In fact people between the ages of 65-69 are most likely to die in this group. Slightly concerning, as I was born in 1955.

Last week also saw the commemoration activity celebrating the life and work of one William Shakespeare, who died on the 23rd April, 1616. What I didn’t realise until last week was that over 50% of the world's children read the work of Shakespeare, or that his favourite colour was Teal (a kind of blue) fringed with purple. Spooky if you look at this picture of a rare stamp which was produced at the tail end of the ‘baby boomer’ years, 1964. Its rarity comes from the fact that the knight should have been white. And of course the Queen was 90 years old last Thursday. Apparently she hates the colour beige, her favorite colour is blue, and nearly a third of all her outfits are blue, including everything from Teal to Navy Blue.

Last week it was colours that attracted to the title of a book which makes for fascinating reading: Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space. It is a book written by Janna Levin, which describes the multi-million dollar experiment to find and measure gravitational waves.  The language is challenging and alien and the text full of words and ideas I have never encountered before. It tells the story of the development of the Laser Interferometric Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Ligo). Ligo itself is a fascinating concept – 2 tubes, 1.2 meters in diameter, and 4 kilometres long, set at right angles to each other, within which laser light travels. This light bounces of mirrors so perfect that they reflect 99.999% of the light. It is the tiny movement of these mirrors that signals a passing gravitational wave.

The gravitational wave is caused by black holes colliding out in space, and the collision is ‘heard’ rather than seen. But for me, it is not this amazing scientific breakthrough that was interesting but the tale of one of 3 people responsible for making it happen. It is the story of Scottish physicist Ronald Drever. Ronald worked as a Professor at the California Institute of Technology (Catech) – ranked the number one university in the world in the Times Higher Education ranking since 2013. He almost fitted the archetypical professor stereotype. He was eccentric – short, dumpy, unkempt, habitually carrying his papers in 2 supermarket carrier bags. He never married, didn’t have a wide circle of friends and was not interested in material things.

Whilst Ronald was undoubtedly brilliant, some would say a genius, he wasn’t a team player. Others working with him found his approach increasingly difficult and in 1997 he was asked to leave the Ligo project. Soon after he was diagnosed with dementia. He now lives in a care home in Scotland. Understanding the success of the Ligo project is beyond my comprehension. Ronald’s current situation isn’t. I wish him well.  As many people know, black is my favourite colour, and I hope in Ronald’s world there is a memory somewhere of the importance of being able to hear black holes colliding.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Expert Elicitation: Farming Today meet Mental Health Care

It seems to me that inspiration and knowledge can be found anywhere. Driving to work I like to listen to Radio 4’s Farming Today. This wonderful 15 minute programme has been running every weekday since 1960. Back then it was billed as being 'a review of current affairs in agriculture at home and abroad'. It is currently aired at 05.45 every weekday and still explores issues closely related to the countryside and agriculture, and always focuses on how these issues might be seen from the framers point of view. In the UK, farmers look after 75% of the countryside land.

The programme is not afraid of addressing controversial issues such a badger culling; GM food production; animal welfare issues; agri-economics; and new technology. It mixes such subjects with features that bring to life the human and emotional side of contemporary farming, including issues such handing the farm over from parent to child; introducing children to farming (new born lambs and calf feeding); as well as often exploring new ideas such as how farmers can provide mental health care to people experiencing mental health and wellbeing issues.

The programme has 4 current presenters, all women, and all of them are warm, welcoming and clearly have great abilities in the art of being able to communicate on radio. The current Editor is Dimitri Houtart. He is the BBC’s rural affairs champion and works across the BBC’s entire programme portfolio. He is absolutely passionate about promoting disability rights and has mentored many of his colleagues who live with a disability.  He is also a visiting lecturer at a number of universities, and he regularly 're-tweets' and 'likes' many of my Farming Today inspired tweets. Last week was no exception.

I had a fleeting moment of fame when one of my tweets was quoted on last Wednesdays Farming Today. Whilst I was excited, it was more like 15 seconds of fame rather than the Andy Warhol’s ubiquitous notion that in the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes. Still it was a start. Amazingly, Andy Warhol made his prediction just 8 years after Farming Today started broadcasting.

Last week turned out to be a real fun week. I got to meet some absolutely inspirational people. These were people who were passionate about achieving their ambitions, people with big ideas, people who were emotionally intelligent, warm and forgiving. There was laughter, challenge and ideas exchanged.

And likewise, last week, Farming Today visited Warwick University, where a group of professors gathered together to discuss how to undertake research with insects such as bees and other pollinators where the normal Gold Standard approach to research, the construction of a Random Controlled Trial (RCT) is impossible. The outcome was something wrapped around what was described as 'expert elicitation'. Now in the world of research there is something called an Evidence Hierarchy. In this hierarchy, RCTs rank above qualitative research such as observational studies, while expert opinion and anecdotal experience are ranked at the bottom.

Not everyone has signed up to this hierarchy. Indeed, all my research has been largely qualitative, and I believe that the research I have undertaken, has changed peoples thinking, behaviour and perceptions. What the Farming Today report showed was that I am not alone in thinking that in many contexts, qualitative research and expert opinion can be just as powerful and impactful as the RCT. Indeed, last week I read a great blog from my colleague from Cardiff University, Ben Hannigan. He is also a mental health nurse, teacher and researcher. His work addresses the interrelated areas of service development, policy, roles and values, hearing the voice of service users and the wellbeing of the professional workforce. 

What I like about Bens postings is his desire to explore a wide range of issues to do with mental health nursing, mental health care. Many of his blogs build upon research he and others have undertaken. And he is not afraid of tackling the controversial issues. In fact I could almost say he is to mental health nursing what Farming Today is to farmers – and long may it remain that way. 

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Putting the China away and daydreaming of a better work/life balance

Last week turned out to be a real Liquorice Allsorts of a week. I should have been flying out to China, but my new role meant that my place was taken by someone else. Whilst my heart was sad at missing the trip, my head said it was a good opportunity to think differently about my work life balance. It's not that I think I work harder or longer hours than other knowledge workers, but at times it can feel like I do. In my previous role, there could often be a great deal to cram into the working week, and evenings and precious weekends would get sacrificed to meet these demands, which wasn't good for anyone.

On one of my journeys I was able to catch the engaging Lucy Kellaway programme on Radio 4, which explored the UK long hour office culture and what happened to the 9-5 working day. You can hear it here on catch up Radio. She noted that 50% of the UK workforce work over 40 hours a week, and that most people who work more than 48 hours say they are unhappy. Interestingly, Lucy also noted that our productivity starts to decline after 55 hours and at 70 hours, the productivity of most knowledge workers was almost non-existent. Keep that pace of work up for long enough and you are more likely to be prone to depression, dementia and other disabling cognitive loss problems. 

In 1930, the economist, John Maynard Keynes, predicted that by 2030 the development of technology would result in the British working population working a 15 hour working week. Of course this hasn't happened, but the way we are able to do somethings has radically changed. We can communicate differently, be interactive and creative with others and do so across remote and virtual environments.  As social media has developed so has our interpretation of concepts such as 'friends', 'followers' and 'likes'.

I think in the context of work, such changes might well have shifted our sense of self. Not working might mean 'not being' in many peoples experience. However, embracing a different work life balance, one where the boundary between 'being at work' or just 'being' can bring into sharp relief the concept of the whole or complete person.

I recall, many years ago Tom Peters ('In Search of Excellence') describing the notion that people don't become someone else when they walk through the factory gate or office front door. He noted that many organisational cultures don't recognise this fact of human nature, let alone acknowledge the wider contribution that a colleague might bring from being a Mother, Scout Master, member of a choir, or army reservist in the hours they are not working. 
All of us are 'complete people' whose lives no longer easily differentiate the person at home or work. For many of us we are much more 'visible' to others in a way that just wouldn't have been possible just a few years ago. I am not sure whether that is a good thing or not.  Last week I was 'visible' in the old fashioned sense of the word. I took part in a focus group looking at changes to University Pensions – an interesting experience, not least as the focus group was held on Tuesday evening in studios located on Canal Street, Manchester. As a good looking, youngish 60 year old man, I was flattered, but not entirely surprised at the attention I got as I walked back to my car.

I also did a safety walk about at Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh Hospital, which is always a privilege, and always an interesting and informative experience. But on a busy ward, having ‘strangers’ (in the Franz Boas anthropological sense of the concept) visiting, and particularly strangers who are symbolically visible as authority figures, can be a daunting experience for some. It was a good visit with lots of positive examples of safe care seen. As often happens in such situations the 'social order' and a sense of equilibrium was quickly established.

And despite not being in China last week, my own sense of self was nurtured by a number of encounters that reflected my new role. I was interviewed on film describing my contribution to the ICZ Programme; I co-facilitated a workshop with the University Management Team, aimed at agreeing some underpinning principles for the programme; I had a wonderfully enthusiastic meeting with a Professor of Robotics and shared her excitement over creating a new Living Laboratory; had 2 papers accepted for an international mental health conference in Prague; and my writing partner Sue and I had our latest paper published. So yes, it was a real Liquorice Allsorts of a week. 

It was Peter Drucker, who once said the No 1 sign of an effective leader was that they do things well by doing one thing at a time. Whilst technology provides us with the opportunity to do so much more in the given time and certainly its possible to do more things well at the same time, we should perhaps remember the wise words of Dov Frohman (read his book 'Leadership the Hard Way' - as a previous VP of Intel he knows a thing or two), who said 50% of our time should be unscheduled and that the secret to success is daydreaming! 

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Learning about Cooperation and Collaboration: a threshold moment

My best moment last week happened yesterday. I got to hug my little Sister again. She lives in Brisbane, and the last time I was able to see her in the flesh was 6 months ago in Australia. She is over here for a quick visit and staying at our parents in Cardiff. So yesterday it was an early morning dash down South to seize the chance to spend some time with my Mum and Dad, Sarah and her family. It was a lovely day. As the hours passed, the sun finally put her hat on and came out to play filling the house with warm light. The wine and conversation flowed, old memories were re-visited through my Fathers extensive photo collection and there was time to talk about what the future might hold for us all. It was a lovey way to spend a day.

My second best moment last week was a ‘threshold moment’ of learning. The moment, when it came, almost arrived in the most pedestrian of ways. There was no aha! moment. I had been tearing my hair out over how to get 3 separate areas of professional services to work more collaboratively with each other. The 3 groups each make a unique contribution to the work of the University, but essentially they are all largely concerned with the same basic task. When everything else is removed, the task boiled down to ensuring effective communication within and outwith the University.

The frustrating situation is not that unusual. It’s a problem that can be found in many organisations. I also have to believe that the situation I was dealing with was not even the result of some conscious decision by one or more of the 3 groups to be difficult. I have written before on why collaborative working is often difficult to achieve despite the rhetoric espoused by so many that collaborative partnership working is a good thing.

My previous research in this area was mainly concerned with how different organisations work together as inter-agency partnerships. However the same difficulties exist within large organisations. Although we might all rhetorically agree we are working to a common aim, there can sometimes be a huge over-confidence in what collectively we are thinking – what has been described as ‘groupthink’. This is a phenomenon that can occur when groups of people strive for harmony and a sense of belonging, and will do all that they can to avoid conflict with others, but do so in a way that does not allow for critical challenge. In this situation, groups can often have an unrealistic and unjustifiable sense of certainty that they are in the right, which paradoxically then often results in conflict with others!

When this happens, it can make an openness to working with people who have different skills, or even recognising and valuing the contribution of others extremely difficult. In such situations collaboration becomes almost impossible. True collaboration can only be achieved by people who are willing to co-operate with each other. Cooperation is not the same as collaboration, although it’s possible to argue that there is a high degree of congruency between both concepts. In my MBA studies I learnt that teams, groups and even markets collaborate. Post MBA, and in an era of digital fluency, I have learnt that social networks and communities of practice cooperate.

My ‘threshold moment’ occurred as a consequence of focused email communications, and a number of positive face2face conversations with colleagues from each of the 3 groups involved. I realised I needed to promote opportunities for cooperation in order to achieve effective collaboration. Its not rocket science, but getting people to work cooperatively means asking people to approach their work with a different mindset. Cooperation relies upon free and open participation. When we ask individuals and the teams they work with to structure their work through the use of Operational Plans and adherence to performance targets, such open participation often disappears. I would argue that it is only through free participation and cooperation that creativity can be nurtured and complex challenges effectively addressed. 

It remains to be seen as to whether my colleagues working in their 3 departments can connect, collectively contribute and cooperatively collaborate. It’s also early days here in Manchester. Last Friday the 1st of April 2016 saw the official commencement of the greater Manchester Health and Service Care Devolution. Cooperation as well as collaboration will equally be necessary if the devolution ambitions are to be realised.