The fury of helplessness and the loss of water supplies

December 30, 2010

When a completely unexpected disruption of plans occurs, there is often widespread reactions of fury and helplessness. News stories identify scapegoats in government, corporations, and through individual incompetence

As I write, I am half listening to the developing story from Northern Ireland where many people have had their water supplies disrupted [December 20th 2010]. The reporting talks of thousands of people who have had no access to water for nearly two weeks.

The incompetence of others

One TV interview revealed the fury of a woman about the incompetence of the authorities who should shift themselves and do something. Reporters speak of the failure of communications. They appear to suggest that people have been cut off from water for two weeks. More accurately, water supplies have been disrupted, and various short-term actions have been taken as the problems are being tackled. These include delivery points for bottled water and stand-by supplies.

Corporate and governmental actions could have been swifter. Some individuals within the authorities may have been particularly incompetent. It also seems to be the case that the story reinforces individual helplessness. The general public, as symbolically represented, can do little more than demand ‘they’ shift their idle bodies.

The real sufferers

I couldn’t help thinking that the most vulnerable are not well-represented by a healthy and well-dressed woman who had driven to a car park and failed to find a promised supply of bottled water. Some others, in geographical and social isolation will be preserving their energies on more serious survival strategies. The old, frail, and poor are accustomed to reacting to additional losses of the necessities for a tolerable life.

How to achieve a high grade for an essay-type examination question

December 27, 2010

Here are a few hints to improve your grades on essay-type examination questions. The suggestions are based on common weaknesses identified by an examiner with many years of experience

Different courses set such different challenges that there is no general list of hints available on how to write a good essay. These suggestions are among those I have offered to graduate-level business students based on essays they have written.

[1] Plagiarism: This still occurs in open-book examinations. Copying out anything without attribution is plagiarism. It is rather easy to detect, will result in a severe penalty and the candidate will risk disqualification from the examination and maybe the course.

[2] Poor citations: This is less serious version of [1]. Take care to indicate in the essay which contributions are your own ideas, and where they connect to sources you have drawn on.

[3] Answering the wrong question: Although relatively few students get an answer completely wrong this can happen. An examiner can award a 0% if there is no overlap with what was required.

[4] Bull****ing: An examination is intended to test whether a student has read and understood the study materials. It is easy to detect even the most imaginative bluffing. The loss of marks depends on how far off the mark you are, and could be substantial (20%- 50%)

[5] Weak argument signals: For example, try not to use terms such as “surely”, “clearly”, “logically.”. The examiner concludes that the student is unable to clarify his or her thoughts. This may make the difference between a good grade and a distinction as it could lead to marginal downgrading (10%).

[6] Over-simple causality claims: Beware of claiming that something was ‘caused’ by something else. These claims are unconvincing when there are often multiple ’causes’ to an observed outcome. For example: I recently came across a statement to the effect that “BP boss Tony Hayward lost his job when he said he wanted his life back”. Statements of this kind suggests you have an over-simple “map” or mental model of a topic. What evidence was there that the job loss was caused simply by one ill-judged remark. Grade loss could be quite serious (20%).

[7] Universal claims or generalizations: If you write “All effective leaders communicate well”, The examiner will test it by thinking up counter-examples. The student should qualify the claim as accurately as possible. (possible loss 10%, as in [5]).

[8] Failure to test ideas: Coming up wiuth an imaginative idea, but then spending the rest of the essay justifying it rather then critically inspecting it. Be your own first examiner. Examiners like to see ideas “tested” from different perspectives. (Possible grade loss 10%)

[9] Disorganized scripts: This covers various ‘scrambled’ answers which make the key ideas in script difficult to detect. Make sure your first paragraph shows you know what the question is about. Really confusing efforts will risk the patience of the examiner. Could be serious (5% up to 20%).

[10] Compulsive scribbling: Some students rush to get their ideas down on the page. The result is often hard to read and to follow. If you are a compulsive scribbler, listen to the inner voice asking “ am I writing something an examiner will be able to read and understand?” (Possible grade loss 5%)

[11] Wrong tone: Don’t get too chatty with the examiner. This is the case even if you suspect the examiner to be that friendly professor you met in your classes.

Don’t do as I do …

Great essayists (such as michel-eyquem-de-montaigne pictured above) break the rules. But they are not writing to pass an examination. Furthermore, their genius shines through their work. For examination purposes, a student is advised to stick to ‘plain vanilla’ practices suggested above.

Good luck.

Snow blindness and collective hysteria hits the U.K.

December 21, 2010

Unusually severe winter weather in the U.K. has triggered severe cases of denial and irrational behaviours. To the fore are individuals denying that the weather conditions may require a change of their travel plans

It was a football fan stranded on the M6 motorway who first caught my attention. He had called the BBC. He said he had been stuck for several hours into his journey from Liverpool. He had set off intended to drive to London to the Emirates Stadium. For at least 24 hours, there had been increasingly dire weather warnings transmitted on the station he had called. Don’t travel, they said, unless your journey is absolutely necessary. Hadn’t he heard the weather forecasts? The interviewer did not follow that line of questioning, preferring the number one in the bluffers’ guide to getting a story out of members of the public. How does it feel to be stuck in the snow and learning the football match you are heading for has been postponed?

He felt gutted. Betrayed somehow

Over the next few days the story was repeated in various forms. Some travellers were snow stuck en route to Heathrow and their winter holiday in the sun. The callers were finding all sorts of culprits to blame for their plight. Why hadn’t there been more efforts to clear the motorways? The Scottish transport minister fell on his sword for failing to do better for travellers in the North. In England, transport minister Phillip Hammond tells the House why he should not also resign.

Those travellers who had reached Heathrow found fresh targets for their anger. In packed waiting-areas, delayed passengers told sympathetic reporters how gutted and betrayed they felt. How no-one was giving them any information. How staff seemed to be hiding rather than helping. British Airways. Another cock-up. BAA inept. Boris Johnson with the full authority of his role as mayor of London rang up Heathrow to find out if they were doing all they possibly could. It seems they told him they were. D’yer meantasay roared Stephen Nolan on BBC Five live, that a family can’t travel in England to see their loved ones, their grandchildren, in December? Well, yes, Stephen, that’s precisely what those messages meant which your travel correspondents had been sending out. But full marks for capturing the mood of those stuck at Heathrow or on England’s white and impassable M ways.

Meanwhile in Helsinki …

Ah, yes, the ‘this doesn’t happen in Helsinki‘ story. Why are we so bad at dealing with snow in the U.K.? One of the national jokes is that the first snow of winter catches the rail network by surprise because it is ‘the wrong kind of snow‘. Which is a version of the wrong kind of leaves story. Anyway, Helsinki airport which is publically-owned does stay open in severe weather conditions. Challenge for discussion with the family which will pass the time if you are stranded in the car. Who can think of the best explanation of why Heathrow might be different from Helsinki?

Snow blindness and blind faith

The common factor around the wails of rage was that mood of frustration. And a blindness to signals that their plans may have had to to be changed. For those of a deep faith (like the football supporter) the snow-blindness was all the stronger. And, it goes without saying that someone, somewhere, outside this car was to blame for all this…

Footnote on footware

In Bramhall yesterday morning it was -10 degrees. A wailing ambulance had reached the centre of the village, where someone had slipped at the side of the road. An old lady was gingerly edging her way towards Tesco Express, her walking-frame wobbling ahead for her. We had exchanged words with someone who was wearing his severe-weather turtles. These are chains to wrap around your shoes to prevent you from slipping…

Sam Allardyce sacking reveals the politics of a football take-over

December 14, 2010

When the obvious explanation seems stupid, we are advised to look beyond the obvious. Sam Allardyce is sacked within weeks of a takeover of Blackburn Rovers by a firm seeking to strengthen its brand image. Beyond the obvious is the influence of professional advisors

There are echoes here in the recently sacking of Newcastle’s Chris Hughton. There is a curious link we will return to, in the story of Sam Allardyce’s removal at Blackburn. Maybe football followers will already have noticed it.

The Telegraph wrote of the outrage among players and staff.

Allardyce, who was in charge of Blackburn Rovers for almost two years, was offered a list of players including Middlesbrough forward Kris Boyd and former Manchester City and Hull midfielder Geovanni after urging the club to sanction a January move for Tottenham striker Robbie Keane. But having rejected plans by the Venky’s group, the Indian-based poultry company which secured a controlling interest at Ewood Park last month, to rely on advice from the sports agency Kentaro in relation to transfer targets, Allardyce was sacked by chairman John Williams on the orders of Venky’s. The company’s priority is to appoint an English manager with Premier League experience, but a foreigner with a proven track record here would be considered.

The strategic mix

In one paragraph we glimpse the ingredients going into the poulty-maker’s grinder:

[1] New owners Venky inexperienced in football management
[2] Stated objectives to use Blackburn Rovers to strengthen their brand
[3] Allardyce submits plan to obtain a value-for-money player
[4] Venky hire and rely on advice from the sports agency Kentaro in relation to transfer targets
[5] Kentaro suggests other players
[6] Allardyce is sacked

to which I would add

[7] while this was happening, Blackburn suffer a humiliating 7-1 loss the Manchester United.

Complicated but not even complex

These factors may appear complicated but the story they tell is not a particularly complex one. Strategy students will find it easy to draw up a SWOT analysis. For me it reads something like this. Lacking knowhow of football, The Venky’s group seek advice. They are advised by Kentaro, a sport’s agency firm. Kentaro will have considerable influence and opportunities to prove its worth in a nice little earner drawing on its network of contacts. Sam is a gifted but strong-willed manager who knows what he wants…When you think of it that way, the decision to remove the manager makes a kind of peverse sense. It addresses the dilemma of having to work with an able but difficult manager.

The Newcastle connection

The recent Newcastle decision to sack Chris Hughton has similarities. Sam’s Newcastle connection? He was sacked from NUFC by an owner who may or may not have been swayed by advisors more experienced in football. The Blackburn drama appears to have some similarities.

Why did Mike Ashley sack Chris Hughton?

December 11, 2010

Some leadership stories are simpler than others. The departure of the Newcastle United manager this week seems sad but relatively uncomplicated to explain. But there may be possibilities beyond the most widely-accepted explanation

There has been wider-than-usual condemnation of the abrupt removal of Chris Hughton from his post as manager of Newcastle and his replacement with Alan Pardue. The consensus was high among footballers, pundits, fans, and fellow managers.

The popular story runs as follows

[1] The owner Mike Ashley has ‘previous form’ for ill-judged and hasty decisions in hiring and firing managers.
[2] This dismissal follows a pattern.
[3] It is ill-judged this time because Hughton had done an admirable job in the rescue of the club from relegation from the Premier league (a decline itself widely attributed in part to its dubious governance under Mr Ashley).
[4] The revival this season in the Premiership was better than expected even by fans. A relatively brief run of poor results recently has still left the club close to the middle of the Premiership table.
[5] Chris Hughton is widely admired as a capable manager.
[6] Claims that his replacement, Alan Pardue, will bring an experience which would strengthen NUFC’s future are unconvincing.

Chorus of disapproval

Among this chorus of disapproval, one voice offered some justification for the owner’s decision The Guardian suggested that:

Maybe, just maybe, Ashley will get this one right. Hughton was popular with the players but not so popular, apparently, that the team felt like breaking sweat at West Bromwich Albion last weekend, when Newcastle did not so much have an off day as a day off. A manager should never be one of the boys because boys occasionally play truant. Newcastle’s record since Hughton brought them back to the Premier League has been surprisingly good…yet impressive performances against Aston Villa, Sunderland, Arsenal and Chelsea have been offset by losing at home to Blackpool, Stoke and Blackburn. It seems that under Hughton, Newcastle were up for some fixtures but not others, a bit like Middlesbrough under Gareth Southgate. Christmas departures are sad but not necessarily bad.

The Guardian analysis differs from the widely espoused view that Newcastle are cursed with a particularly stupid Chairman who fails to see what is obvious to almost everyone with an opinion on the matter.

Other possibilities

There are other possibilities. Mr Ashley has in the past revealed an emotionality in his leadership style. His actions may have repeatedly influenced by irrational feelings of frustration and a failure to win the approval of the Newcastle faithful.

Or maybe, and I find this rather convincing, the owner is an entrepreneur who was successful in earlier business dealings. He may well be pursuing an entrepreneurial strategy for preparing the club for his exit at as good a price as he can obtain. In which case, the sacking may not necessarily be bad for Mr Ashley. As for Newcastle Football Club? New ownership may also ‘may not necessarily be bad’ for the club.

“If you always do…”

The team turned in one of their best performances of the season a few day’s after Pardue’e appointment [Saturday 11th December]. A new dawn? More systems-oriented fans may feel that “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got.”

The realities of power catch the Liberal Democrats unprepared

December 10, 2010

The realities of power have caught the U.K.’s Liberal Democrats unprepared. Their treatment of the students loan issue demonstrates how not to deal with a critical leadership issue

In May 2010 Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, became head of a minority party in coalition government in the United Kingdom. Six months later, his party found itself under extreme pressure dealing with accusations of abandoning election pledges in order to gain power. A critical issue has resulted in a series of demonstrations amongst student groups, formerly among the party’s strongest supporters and activists. These became more violent as the debate took place [Dec 9th 2010].

Higher education policies and problems

Agreeing a policy on higher education was always going to be difficult for the new coalition. The parties had realised the financial problems of funding tertiary (University level) education and had signalled the need for changes during election campaigning, offering different approaches. When the result of the election was inconclusive, a deal with the Conservatives was established as the better option for the Liberal Democrats. Mr Clegg’s party found itself sharing power for the first time in living memory.

The arrangement was always seen as potentially dangerous. Actions to deal with the tough steps towards economic recovery were going to lead to unpopularity for the coalition. In particular, the minority party was vulnerable to accusations that they had acted out of ambition for power. Clegg maintained from the outset that the actions placed the interests of the country first. The coalition government under conservative David Cameron has lost some popular ground but the opinion polls are signalling strongly that opposition (Labour) gains have been at the expense of the Liberal Democrats.

With the benefits of hindsight [1]

In hindsight, the dilemmas Nick Clegg faced were never clearly addressed. Vince Cable, another political asset was equally vulnerable, having to make a U-turn on his advocated financial policies. Their duties remained as leaders of their party and to work in its best interests. But they also now had undertaken to work towards a common policy with one-time political opponents, having recently campaigned as vigorously as was possible to establish the fundamental differences of policy between the parties.

Wriggle room

Even in the hasty negotiations as the deal was being set up post-election, the need for wriggle room was recognised. Liberal Democrat MPs would be permitted freedom to vote where new policies were believed to cut across election pledges. This freedom was not extended to ministers of the new Government.

The first hostage to fortune

The first hostage to fortune was the Lib Dem pledge over higher education. The Government has accepted the main thrust of a report commissioned under Lord Browne by its predecessors. The outcome was an extension of the policy initiated by that administration of charging students admission fees payable up-front. In effect these were nominal payments leaving students to pay of the charges under longer term financial arrangements. The parties largely agreed on the need to deal with a funding gap for University education, but not with the means of dealing with it.

By December [2010] the issue had become a near crisis for the Liberal Democrats . The political problem stems from their election pledge to oppose the conservative plans for the student fee approach, favouring a graduate tax instead.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies says that, for about half of graduates, the plan is essentially a 9% graduate tax for 30 years, because they will not finish paying off the debt by the 30-year cut-off point…[and that] about 10% of graduates will pay back, in total, more than they borrowed.

With the benefits of hindsight [2]

How might the issue have been treated differently? Perhaps by examination of how ‘tough to resolve’ dilemmas call for creative leadership.
The broad principle is to explore whether issues have been too quickly reduced to to one of two unpalatable ‘either-or’ options. In this case, it seems to me, the ambiguities inherent in the conditions emerging after the election. In particular the Lib Dems had made it a core election pledge (one of four) to oppose the very education policy they accepted once in power. This required considerable effort at communicating their continued commentment to, and concern for their affected and disenchanted stakeholders, while working and negotiating with their coalition partner to meet broader economic goals within a financial crisis. The situation is one which politically astute individuals are distinguished from the less able. Former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown turned up on a phone-in yesterday [Dec 8th 2010]. Herather effortlessly demonstrated the required skills. Danny Alexander and Nick Clegg in contrast continue to wriggle on public exposure. Cruelly, at the moment, their wriggle-room seems to be that of worms impaled on hooks.


The issue was highlighted by the unrest and violence around Parliament as the tuition fee vote was passed through.