It makes us laugh. A harmless mistaken word and we giggle. Mrs Malaprop (The Rivals, Sheridan) gave her name to those little errors where the word sounds the same but means something totally different (‘a pine apple of politeness’ she said, meaning ‘pinnacle’)

And Freudian slips make us laugh. Gordon Brown suggested he’d saved the world in 2008, not just the banks.

But there is really useful data in these slips, and they can help us see the situation in a totally different way.

My two favourites from this week:

A Board Member was talking about recent changes in the financial relationship with the parent company. It was not all good, he felt it had been forced to some extent, and that it had revealed the ‘true colours’ of one or two individuals.

‘I don’t want to get into the business of conversation…’

He had meant ‘condemnation’. What a wonderful unconscious instinct. It was others who had failed to talk.

Conversation was exactly the business to be in.

And on the Today programme recently, a German diplomat (completely bi-lingual) was talking about recent violent events in his country. The line of questioning was to understand whether there was a pattern. Were these individuals at work or was there a structured network operating?

The Diplomat weighed up the pros and cons of the network theory, and noted

‘There are always lonely wolves…’

And in that one substitution of ‘lonely’ for ‘lone’ the whole issue is reframed.

While a lone wolf is a symbol of fear and danger, a ‘lonely’ wolf becomes something so different, even – possibly – reachable.

Listen for the slips. Its where the answers are.


Well here’s a thing.

While consulting a book about something else entirely, I chanced this week upon a little contribution from Theodore Zeldin (of power of creative conversation fame, ‘Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives’ published in 2000 ) about ‘humour’ and ‘anxiety’.

It turns out that humour and anxiety are closer than you think.

Once upon a time they both meant nearly the same thing: an imbalance.

And this snippet of wisdom appeared just as I was wondering about two little happenings.

Happening 1. Last weekend was filled with Shakespearean celebrations. London’s South Bank saw The Globe Theatre’s amazing series of 37 films – 10 minute essences of each of Shakespeare’s 37 plays – between Tower Bridge and Westminster .

And in front of ‘Hamlet’ I heard something of the conversation between two members of the audience. An elderly gentleman (of London, not Verona) was quietly recalling to his companion how he had once appeared, in his younger days, in a production of Hamlet. It was a young audience, and he remembered now that the sad Ophelia scene, beautifully performed, provoked … ….nervous laughter. And he had always wondered why.

Happening 2. To a team workshop, with a lovely team. But a team with a badly kept secret: the covering up of a longstanding and unspoken frustration that was inhibiting a conversation that really, really neede to happen. In a spirit of – frankly – desperation, I steered us towards some future story stuff. Amongst other things, we played around gently and not-seriously with ‘being’ different people and different roles. When … boom. We all stopped to watch and listen. The very pair with ‘the issue’ were conducting their conversation as comedians. I can report that starting a complaint with ‘I say, I say, I say’ is a near magical thing. We were all torn between gasps (of anxiety) and howls (of laughter). It really worked. The anxiety from the anxiety-making thing was handled as laughter from the laughter–making thing. Genius.

So thank you Theodore for that insight.

A bit of googling later turned up this thought, which I now think might be rather profound:

‘Laughter is the shortest distance between two people’ – Victor Borge.


…we say when things look wobbly. But until a real frisson of danger is felt, we’ll just carry on. We carry on trying to do the right thing, trying to be as perfect as we can.   And what could be wrong with aiming for perfection? It trails energy, concern and effort, raises the bar and gets that best foot forward. What’s not to like?

But there is an unlikeable aspect. Exclusion.

I saw an example this week. It was all very counter intuitive.

A superbly arranged conference debated ‘Leadership’.

A new report into Global Leadership in the 21st century was the catalyst for the discussion. It’s always tricky to organise groups of people, but there are time-honoured methods that seem to work. So the format was a prestigious panel of speakers, neat seating in accessible rows, a clear timetable – perfect military precision, in fact. (Hurrah for that – it’s good to feel safe, that things aren’t chaotic.)

The form of participation was a Q & A …and some great questions were asked. None seemed to challenge or stretch the speakers, but intelligence was displayed and opinions heard.

In a little crowd later around the coats I found myself talking to a shy young person. The timing was just right and we chatted.  She and her colleagues ran a business co-ordinating social media campaigns for big businesses. I asked her about Leadership.

‘We don’t really have that’ she said. ‘ We lead ourselves. I didn’t know how to raise it in there!’

Ah, a successful – leaderless – business.

So if the set up had been more relaxed and less perfection-seeking, we might have heard something radical. We might have had a chance to have all hands on deck for what is looking like an increasingly wobbly time.

From now on, it’s out with believing in perfection, and in with a little unplanned and inclusive chaos.

Perfect timing, of course.



E80pxtreeven if resolutions are not your thing, there’s still that feeling in January of wanting to get everything a bit clearer. What were the objectives again? What were we aiming for? What did we say we’d do?

So, a spate of briefings.

Several times over the last few days I’ve listened to teams, or individuals tell me what they want to happen as they look at the year ahead.

Here are the objectives, here are how we will measure them. You know the drill.
But whether big changes or little changes, the conversations have all had something in common.

Everyone’s been telling the outsider, me, what they want me to know, and do.
And then ….sort of drifting off, in a questioning way, half way through.   Truly, it’s happened 3 times in the last week, and with really smart people.  I wondered whether it might be the heating levels? Insomnia? New babies? Boredom? Or a sci-fi story come to life and I’ve actually been listening to myself?  Not sure, but I think this is what’s happening.

You know that feeling of hearing more when you get yourself into real listening mode? Of hearing the meaning behind the words?  At the best of times there’s a bit of a difference, especially in the work environment, between the words and the meaning.

The break over Christmas and New Year was a bit longer this time. (How many Boxing Days did we have?)  A bit longer to be exposed to the reality of family life, or floods, or hangovers.  That gap (I admit you do really have to be listening) between what another person is telling you and what they really want to say has been affected by this longer exposure to reality.

I think everyone is taking a bit longer to get back into business speak.

Hope it lasts.

There’s a little window to have some real conversations. A sort of January reality magic time.

To make best use of it, I recommend starting these sorts of clearing and briefing meetings with a question that’ll help everyone say what they really want to say. No, not ’what are objectives’.

Just ‘What are you thinking about at the moment?’


E80pxtreel amanecer
I have always secretly liked this Spanish word for ‘dawn’ because it works so hard. It can be used to ask someone how they slept, or to say ‘wake up’.

(A favourite phrase amongst a Spanish class I took was ‘amaneció reina’ – ‘she woke up as queen’. We were just at that age….)

And beginnings, dawnings, have featured a lot over the last week.
John Hurt starred in a new radio production of ‘Jeffery Bernard is Unwell’ by Keith Waterhouse as JB the talented anarchic roué writer of the Spectator ‘Low Life’ column.
He describes, in mock obituary style, the time he discovered Soho, when he fell under the spell of Dean St and Old Compton St.  (Or, more specifically, The Coach & Horses: Bells rather than spells.)

“ In 1946 he paid his first visit to Soho, and from that point he was never to look forward.”

‘Never to look forward’.

How poetic, how clever… and how final.

And that thought has been echoed in everyday working life experiences this week – the thought that beginnings are absolutely, indisputably, non negotiably, fundamentally….…crucial.

I offer you on the ‘never looking forward’ side…

– a short course on ‘Engagement’.
Without a welcome, or personal introductions right at the beginning, no one ever really ‘engaged’ with any one else throughout the day.

– a workshop briefing meeting.
Both project owners late, and stressed.
The team never got their arms around what was needed – the conversation had never really ‘started’.

I offer you on the ‘new dawn ‘side…

– a friend’s premiere of a new piece of music. A (shy) band member stepped forward first to tell everyone why it had been written.  Captive audience? Could have done anything with us…

– a new corporate mentoring programme begins.  I received helpful notes about the mentees, previous mentors’ advice notes, a ‘you might be interested in’ reading list, and a wave of enthusiasm. I tell you, I can’t wait.

Note to self. In everything, begin as you mean to go on.

Wake up as queen.


The Bechdel test started out as a witty way of pointing out how profoundly absent women are from mainstream cinema. The cartoonist Alison Bechdel had one of her characters in her strip cartoon (Mo, in ‘The Rule’) describe how, to avoid wasting her time on gender biased cinema, she would only watch films that met 3 criteria.

  • There must be two female characters. With names.
  • They must talk to each other.
  • The conversation must be about something other than men.

And in various forms the test moved from cartoon land to real life.
JestershatThe years have passed, and entire film franchises (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings) continue to fail the test.

Critics have stated that this is no way to judge a film (it was never meant to indicate quality, just absence), while in Sweden a couple of years ago an arthouse movie theatre resolved to show only films that had passed the test. (A big ‘A’ appeared on the poster. Just as worrying.)

The test is clever because it helps us see what we could previously only sense – and then to make our own judgement.

Let’s adapt the Bechdel test to work meetings.In the workplace, there are two biases – gender, and power.  So we could really have fun with these criteria..

Feel free to boycott any meeting that does not pass these 4 conditions.

  • There must be more people than communication devices.
  • The meeting must begin with everyone present speaking -checking in- for 30 seconds.
  • Everyone must prepare. Prep is 3 words only, 3 things to be achieved.
  • Any one eating must share with everyone else.

To really make a difference, then this additional condition applies.

  • Anyone apologizing for their point of view wears a Jester hat for the rest of the day.

Jesters tell the truth, and sometimes we all need to hear it.
Have a truly productive meeting. You’ll feel amazing.


C80pxtreeelebratory coffee in the café this morning.

We’d been working on some brand development stuff, getting nowhere.

We’d been getting nowhere with great diligence for a couple of weeks.  We decided to start again, (yes it was painful) but from a different entry point.  We rebooted our thinking not with what was good about the brand, what was working, but ..what was terrible? What made us angry?

From these socially unacceptable thoughts something appeared that felt much more real and worthwhile. One team member said we’d got a real sense of purpose back.

And lo, that very theme appears in a news item today.

The James Dyson award for innovation and design in engineering has been won this year by Joel Gibbard. He has designed a better, and cheaper, prosthetic hand. The application of 3D printing has helped make it possible. The designs are comic book brilliant, superhero functional, and breakthrough affordable.

This article conveys his brilliance, originality, and dedication.

The journalistic treatment is noteworthy – it succeeds in adding just the right seasoning of worthiness.

I happened to hear Mr Gibbard interviewed and heard something slightly different, more exciting.
He talked of sitting at his desk a few years ago thinking, wondering what he would build next.
And because he was in a mood of reverie, he began to think more. He began to think about not having a hand, and how that would mean he wouldn’t be able to build anything at all.

He said to the interviewer ‘…and from that twisted thought…’.

Well, great success came from that twisted thought.

He and his company, Open Bionics, are now participating in the world class programme run by Disney/Techstars to accelerate new businesses.

image00May you enjoy some unbelievably twisted thinking today.


E80pxtreeveryone’s been very grumpy this week. Is it the rain?
A strategy session this week with a particularly delightful and smart team got into grumpy territory. The team got stuck on not being smart enough, on not having been quick enough to spot something that had been going on in the business.

Strange, because it wasn’t true.

We unraveled a most fantastic chain of thinking.

It all started with one person reporting a feeling familiar to so many of us after a tough meeting.  You know that mental ‘slap’ you feel as you think of exactly the right response?  That excellent response thought that arrives approximately 7 minutes after you have left the room?

The French call it ‘ l’esprit d’escalier’ (my team called it ‘wit delayed’) describing how the perfect response (mot juste?) occurs as you leave by the stairs.

I think this disguises what has actually happened.

I don’t think it’s slow thinking or delayed wit.

I think it’s the fact that another meaning beneath what has been said to you has had to be weighed alongside the apparent surface message. I think this ‘esprit d’escalier’ happens when a seriously forked tongue conversation has been going on. Who wouldn’t need a few minutes to reconcile the un-reconcilable? Who wouldn’t need a few minutes to excavate the unreasonableness beneath the apparent reason?

It would be easy to blame the inexorable increase of general obfuscation in business speak. (Why say ‘how does this look to others?’ when you can ask ‘what are the optics here’? (!))

But an article about evolutionary science that I happened to have read offered us another lens with which to view what might have been going on. And seemed to help the team get to a less self-flagellating conclusion.
EO Wilson is the world authority on ‘eusociality’. He knows everything, as in everything, about ants. And natural selection. He and Richard Dawkins fell out spectacularly over the validity of the selfish gene theory to explain post Darwin thinking.

Unhampered by any relevant expertise I’m going to back the venerable Mr Wilson.

He notes two conflicting forces working for survival in all of us, at two levels. The individual level and the group level; the altruistic force and the selfish force.  He tells us that a selfish force trumps an altruistic force within a group, but that an altruistic force trumps a selfish force amongst groups. The tension is constant – if we move too far along a selfish line individually, our ability to survive as a group will dissolve – yet if we move too far along an altruistic line as a group, we will all be eaten by another group.

Doesn’t this constant and alternating tension between group and individual survival sound as if it could be operating at an organizational level? So many ‘forked tongue’ conversations are essentially about this interplay. Might that be why sometimes unreasonableness seems to lie beneath reasonableness in tough business conversations – the tension between the selfish and the altruistic, the group level and the individual level? Perhaps that perfect response on the stairs appears delayed because it is a response to a genuinely complicated exchange, involving the identification of these opposing forces.

The team concluded that they were as smart as can be.

Quite right.

Within groups, selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals but in the selection of other traits of individuals that are interactive with other individuals – social traits – then groups of altruists defeat groups of selfish individuals,” Wilson explains. “In a nutshell, individual selection favours what we call sin and group selection favours virtue.

From ants to organisations?


W80pxtreehat a retro sort of week it’s been.
Back to 1934 to see on film a little girl who would grow up to be Queen playing around in a garden (quite a big one) and throwing a familiar straight arm salute to the camera.

Back to 1960 and the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird to re-assess a globally loved fictional hero of goodness – Atticus Finch –as Lee Harper’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ was published last week, 55 years later.

Moving images, and eloquence, have both had the power – at the first encounter – to shock.
It is disorientating to have a cherished belief challenged.

It can feel like betrayal (as the grown up Scout, Jean Louise discovers) when a hero acts like a human.  But that rosy glow is much more about our own needs than…reality.

1934 was the height of the Depression, the BBC wouldn’t exist until the following year, everyone went to the cinema at least once a week (so who wouldn’t have seen a goosestep?) Hitler became Fuhrer, and Bonnie & Clyde were caught and killed. What a complicated context.
image01In To Kill a Mockingbird, it was Scout’s friend Dill who was physically sick at witnessing the trial proceedings (it’s possible Dill was based on Truman Capote), Atticus only ever positioned himself as upholding the process of law – calling it a hopeless case – and defended Mrs Dubose, a character who was brutally clear about white superiority.

What a complicated context.

So our shock and disorientation must be about a need to believe in a simplified version of life and of people’s goodness.

I’ve just witnessed a similar wave of responses where a trusted founder of a small company has emerged as less ‘pure’ than previously thought.  It does seem as if clinging to a rosy story doesn’t help anyone at all. Especially when that story is essentially rooted in a past that is only dimly perceived. Looking to what might make things better, which doesn’t need a hero myth, seems in my experience to be the more helpful place to be.

Alasdair Grey would often quote
‘ Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation’.

Hillhead Subway, Glasgow

Exactly. So, onward…


I80pxtreet’s taken 12 years to negotiate a deal with Iran. ( They say negotiating these sorts of multilayered deals is like playing chess and bridge simultaneously. How did they do that? The longest recorded tournament chess game is a smidge over 20 hours)

It’s been 12 years since this café in which I’m sitting opened. I’ve been back infrequently but consistently.
And looking around, I feel a bit of a metaphor coming on…image00The walls are now a gorgeously cool range of greys: a soothing hint of healed bruise. On the accent wall is an abstract mural, and the tables glow in their whiteness. A slightly aggressive whiteness. You know that ‘look at me’ smile people flash when they’ve just had their teeth whitened.

My coffee is just a little bit cold. (Espresso snob – sorry, full disclosure – penance will done)

The chair is just a little bit unforgiving. Love the colour and shape. But it is hard to sit still.

The chaps behind the coffee machine can’t be seen. A strange head-bobbing dance was involved in asking for the coffee.

A table with coffee bean blends for sale – with cheery signs like ‘to bean or not to bean’ – stands where the corner ‘cosy’ tables were once placed.

So what happened?

During those 12 years I recall – just – some phases, like the slightly Moroccan (yes, really), the retro irony (pictures of prawn cocktails), the boho ….

But what I remember much more clearly was why it opened. Because that was why I became a non-local loyal.
They opened because: the tea shop next door (only one in the area- those were the days) was run by the most astonishingly aggressive and shouty owner; because there was no where to put local community leaflets and info; because the anti Starbucks / corporate chain movement had just accelerated in San Francisco; because there was no where in this road to sit, feel welcome, be comfortable, to be treated like a human being and hang out for a while.

I’ve been working on a brand, with the marketing team,that has unwittingly behaved exactly like this café.
Both brand and café started out with a certainty, a conviction.

Over time they have ‘refreshed’ and ‘re-positioned’ so many times that they have forgotten where, or rather why, they started.

Both have become slaves to whatever prevailing wind is currently blowing.

Both brand and café have lost their purpose

And the café’s lost me.