EMBA Signoff

Looking into Rowan Williams’ eyes while he speaks Latin to you is a strange experience. The ex-Archbishop of Canterbury is Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and was presiding over the congregation ceremony on 14th May, where I received my MBA degree. When called forward, I knelt in front of him as he sat in his gold throne in scarlet robes, he placed his hands around mine which were together as if in prayer, and he recited something in a dead language I did not understand.

The Cambridge Executive MBA 2014 class graduated last weekend, drawing to a close 20 months of intense experience. Just some of the things that have come to an end include hours of late night study (and non-study), time away from family and other loved ones, college dinners in candlelit wood-panelled rooms, looming deadlines, doing the reading, sometimes pretending to have done the reading, engaging in discussion in the safe space of the classroom, and the feeling of going through all this as a band of allies all pushing to the same goal.

In truth, there was some divergence of goals through the programme. For some of us, gaining the harder, technical skills was the motivation. For others, myself included, the course was more of an opportunity for deep self-inquiry and more abstract thought. However, this tension was only significant enough to notice on a few occasions, and the course was sufficiently varied to cater for both camps very well. I enjoyed being pushed on the technical side as well as the ‘touchy-feely’ side.

Talking to my wife about how I have changed since starting the course, she said she thought I am “less strident, but more confident”. I count that as a victory. I hope it reflects that I am questioning my own views more, and acknowledging more shades of grey where they might exist. When I then do come to a view on something, it is hopefully more considered and robust. I also love that I can change my mind more easily when confronted with alternative views that are better or more valid than my existing opinion, and I would hope that’s something that most of the class got out of our collective experience.

On the evening of our graduation day we enjoyed a gala dinner at the Guildhall in Cambridge, with great speeches by our wonderful classmates Farah Ahmad Perez and Sami Masannat, and our programme director Dr Khal Soufani. Class prizes were awarded for the academic high-achievers in various areas of the course, and there was also an award for Outstanding Contribution to Class Dynamic voted for by the class. I was honoured and humbled to share this last prize with my course-long sparring partner Tony Catachanas. While we disagreed often, it was in the spirit of learning and exploration, and always in good humour. Thanks to the class for acknowledging us both in this way.

Coming back to that list of things that have come to an end, I fervently hope that there is as long a list of things that will continue. First and foremost, I hope the friendships we have made on the course will stretch out years into the future. There are a number of my colleagues with whom I have found strong connections and I’m sure that these will endure for many years. As a wider class, too, we have created a well-used Whatsapp group which I hope will continue to be a place to learn what Nik Shahrizal is eating at any given moment, as well as idle chat about births, holidays, weddings and other fun life events.

Also, I hope none of us lose the drive to question, learn and grow as people in both our professional and personal lives. Some of the material we have been exposed to, and the ideas exchanged with my classmates around that material, will stay with me.

Another thing that won’t end is our link to one of the great institutions of the world, the University of Cambridge. It is a privilege to count myself as an alumnus of this 800-year old seat of learning. I fully expect us as a class to be worthy of the association. Let’s see what the next few years bring, but I can’t wait to see how the class will take the knowledge and experiences of the last 20 months and run with them.

So thanks to all of our great lecturers and teachers throughout the course, to the programme team for all their hard work, to the phenomenal speakers who excited and challenged us at our Friday dinners, to our families and loved ones for the selfless encouragement and support, but most of all to this ragbag of diverse, caring, clever, funny, thoroughly decent group of classmates I proudly call my friends. Love to you all.

Written while listening to ‘Beautiful People’ by Mark Pritchard (featuring Thom Yorke) (Warp Records) and ‘Jumbo’ by Underworld (Universal)


One way to make work better — sharing information between workers

A few thoughts about work, and a humble request for help

Tl:drplease go to bit.ly/workproject to take an anonymous survey about the fit between you and your workplace(s) (past or present), to help me with a University of Cambridge Executive MBA project on this subject.

My wife was crying in frustration. Again.

This was her third job in a year that hadn’t worked out. After a very successful eight year stint managing an architecture practice as it had grown from 6 architects to almost 50, she had decided she wanted a change. She wanted to stay in the architecture and broader design industry, got in touch with a well-known specialist recruiter, went to some interviews, and was excited to be taken on by an internationally renowned design practice based in West London in an organisational management role.

Very soon into that role, it became clear that the company was highly dysfunctional, with a domineering founder and a hard, bullying culture that saw staff turnover rates of around 40% a year, in a company of 30 people. The recruitment bills alone must have been astronomical, let alone the lost productivity caused by this revolving door, and even more importantly the personal emotional cost was very tough on the individuals who went through such an oppressive and stressful experience.

Those who stayed were either willing to put up with the problems in exchange for some upside (perhaps financial, perhaps reputational, perhaps the work itself was fun), or did not find the culture in the organisation to be problematic.

My wife struggled her way through four months of stress, frustration and unhappiness until she could take it no more and quit. She soon found another, similar role in a seemingly more well-adjusted company. However, it soon became apparent that many of the same problems (minus the overt bullying) were present in this new place too, but in more subtle ways.

By the time she went through the same process again shortly after, I was beginning to form some ideas about problems and potential solutions in the employment market and the world of work more broadly.

Diagnosing the problem

Prospective employees know almost nothing about what it’s really like to work for an organisation. They do some research online, talk to friends or acquaintances, have the interview, and then they have to decide “OK, this is the organisation I want to spend the majority of my waking hours being a part of.”

Prospective employers instead often have a broad variety of applicants from which to choose. They have much more information on them than the other way round: CVs, covering letters, interviews, references, even psychometric tests.

So what we have here is information asymmetry between market participants. As economic theory (and real-world experience) tells us, information asymmetry results in the party with more information exploiting those on the other side with less information, and the market works less well than it would if both sides of the market had equal information. This is precisely the problem we have here.

Guiding principles

First, not all ‘bad’ workplaces are bad per se. One person may be very happy in a job or an organisation that another person hates, for all sorts of reasons. A calm, quiet, measured and formal workplace might be perfect for an introverted, conservative lawyer, but hell for an extroverted radio DJ.

Second, there are a significant variety of workplace experiences within industries — some law offices are extremely formal, some much less so; some ad agencies are calm and cerebral, some are creative and crazy. This kind of difference is relatively easy to spot by eye.

Third, and much more subtle, in some organisations there is a culture of support and collaboration, while in others in precisely the same industry doing exactly the same kind of work there is an intensely competitive internal culture. Neither of these approaches is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ for everyone, but for you as an individual, there is likely to be one which is better than the other.

Fourth, these subtle organisational cultural expressions may differ within organisations as well as between them. The Singaporean office of a US company might have quite a different culture compared to the Chilean office of the very same company.

It seems that the socially accepted minimum time to stay in a job (even a job you hate) is 18 months. This accords with my own instincts about what is deemed acceptable or desirable in terms of CV-level information. There are two ways to address this. The first is to break the social norm of putting up with a job that doesn’t fit, as my courageous wife did. This would take a long time and be almost impossible to directly effect. The other way is to radically improve the quantity and quality of information available to workers before they take this ‘at least 18-month’ commitment, thus reducing the information asymmetry between employers and employees.

Ways to help the employment market function better

  1. Gather data from workers about the real experience of working in organisations. That data needs to be anonymous, quantitative and manipulable. No prose, so no risk of defamation, and no unstructured data to try to understand and code around.
  2. Provide feedback to each individual who provides data about how well-matched they are with their current workplace.
  3. Help individuals find workplaces that would be much better, maybe even the best possible, fit for them.

I have drafted (following testing within my own company) a 10-minute survey here: bit.ly/workproject and as part of a project on the Executive MBA I am doing at the University of Cambridge, I am trying to gather pilot data urgently. This survey is just to test point 1 above — what data should be collected, and what can we start to learn from such data?

Of course, some of us really like where we work. Work does not have to be awful. People who love their work should also share that information — help other people like you find somewhere that they will feel happy working. It’s tough for everyone when there are people on a team who don’t fit with the culture, so by sharing clearly your organisational culture you will hopefully help to attract those that fit and help those that don’t avoid making the mistake in the first place.

It would be fantastic if you (yes, YOU) could go there and fill out the survey. For the completists out there, there’s also a small quick survey about the survey afterwards, to gather ideas for future improvement.

So, after a very difficult period, my wife decided that she would strike out on her own as a freelancer, and is currently business-managing a hyperlocal newspaper, helping to run a London walks company, and helping three of the architects she had worked with in her eight-year job set up and run their own practice. She is effectively part of, and helping to create, a variety of organisational cultures which fit with her.

Imagine a world where we could look up whether we would fit in an organisational culture before we took the plunge of committing 18 months of our lives to it, using the real experiences of people who had lived that culture: workers would make better choices for them and would thus be more productive and more fulfilled; those fulfilled workers would move around the employment market less, meaning that organisations would spend much less on expensive recruitment processes and services, and on lost productivity; organisations would be able to do what they are trying to do more successfully. More on the top line and bottom line of businesses, better outcomes from public sector organisations and a lot of more fulfilled people.

Let’s make it happen. Take the first step with me by filling out the survey at bit.ly/workproject

Thank you.

The cognitive dissonance of M&A

It’s a fascinating aspect of the human brain that we can hold contradictory thoughts at the same time, yet not realise the contradiction. It can even withstand the sunlight of exposure during discussion. Somehow, we can ignore the difficult fact that two of our opinions are mutually exclusive in a self-preserving plate-spinning act, where we tend to each vulnerable opinion as it wobbles under scrutiny.

I’m sure I have my own cognitive dissonance – if anyone notices, please do try to help me overcome it by bringing it to my attention. However, I want to write about an example of such mental plate-spinning that I came across in a recent discussion of mergers and acquisitions in the context of strategy as part of my Executive MBA at Cambridge’s Judge Business School.

It is a well-researched and well-established truth in business and management literature that approximately 75% of mergers and acquisitions destroy value.

The class is made of people from a healthy variety of backgrounds: tech, finance, oil and gas, management consulting, law, medicine, big pharma, and others. Discussion is often centred around finance and banking, partly because of its position in recent discourse thanks to the events of 2007-8, partly due to its importance to the functioning of our capitalist system in general. As such, it is clear from those discussions that many of the cohort believe in the ‘knowledge of the market’.

That is, an efficient public stock market effectively computes all known information about a company to come up with a value for the company and therefore a price for its stock. The stock price reflects all known information about a company and shared opinion about its future prospects, and therefore any change in the price is due to new information or opinions appearing in the public domain. Indeed, the rationale for automated trading by algorithm is an attempt to create an advantage by being able to act extremely fast on any new information. In this model, stock price moves themselves constitute new information too. Incidentally, according to nature.com, there have been 18,520 ‘flash crashes’ on stock markets between 2006 and 2013. The majority of these were caused by automated trading systems, and lasted 1.5 seconds or less (thanks to Wired magazine, UK edition December 2015 issue, for that stat).

So there are certainly difficulties with the idea that a stock price at any particular time tells you anything much, thanks to the magnification of sped-up feedback loops and herding behaviour exacerbated by automated trading. However, in theory it is a defensible position, and in a slow-moving market where stocks had to held for a minimum period of one month (so ultra-fast arbitrage and herding is much more difficult), for instance, it may well be true.

So in theory, the financialised view is internally consistent – if success is measured by financial metrics including expected future financial performance, then the collective wisdom of the stock market is the best available expression of aggregate views of those things, and the aggregate view is much more likely to be closer to reality than a single person’s view (with the significant herding behaviour caveat).

The other financialised view that a group of the class seemed to internalise earlier in the course is that diversification by creating conglomerates is not necessary where public markets (and private investment opportunities) enable investors to make diversification decisions themselves, by buying various different company stocks. So instead of VW buying Tesla to diversify, investors can instead invest in VW and in Tesla in order to achieve a diversified portfolio of investments.

In the financialised worldview, the only rationale for mergers and acquisitions is in order to achieve financial benefit, through synergies that will reduce costs overall, or result in more profitable operation than the two individual companies could achieve on their own. Note that the important measure here is better profitability, not higher revenue. As the saying goes, “revenue is vanity, profit is sanity”.

The cognitive dissonance arose when we came to discussion of the rationale for mergers and acquisitions, when those empirically grounded financialised views give way to a strange thread of magical thinking.

Facebook’s acquisition of Whatsapp has been a recurring question throughout our course. Were Facebook right to pay $22 billion for the messaging app? Financially, there is very little to back it up. Whatsapp did indeed have the foundations of a very profitable company by charging its users $1 each year after the first year for continued use of the app. However, in the half-year prior to the acquisition, it had only $16 million of revenue, and a net loss of $232 million. With 900 million users, eventually a cashflow of $900 million per year on a relatively low cost base would be hugely impressive. However, even factoring in growth to 1 billion users and beyond (which the most pervasive social network, Facebook, has recently managed to reach) and assuming zero costs, the P/E ratio on the acquisition is 22. That’s before even factoring in a discount rate to account for the value of $1 billion in 22 years’ time (which is obviously lower than now, thanks to inflation and opportunity costs).

Anyone reading this want to predict what will be the most popular messaging app in 22 years’ time? Eleven years’ time? Five years’ time? As a reminder, it is less than ten years since the launch of the iPhone.

Anyone predicting with certainty, or even 50%+ probability, what the world of communication will be like in 22 years from now is bound to be wrong, unless they are miraculously lucky. Who wants to bet $22 billion on luck?

However, according to those previously empirical financialists on my course, the Whatsapp purchase is a masterstroke because ‘there are lots of users and somehow they will get monetised’, or ‘Facebook had to acquire the messaging app to defend its strategic position’. The vague notion of ‘strategic reasons’ for justifying acquisitions, let alone mergers, is magical thinking. Given that acquisition of a publicly traded company often involves a ‘price premium’ above the stock price of the target immediately before acquisition, plus often hefty transaction costs (bankers, lawyers, integration costs), there must be significant immediate synergies which enable a higher profit to be made, either by reducing costs or providing more value in the combined entity.

In other words, the acquisition needs to look like this: (a + b) = >((a) + (b) + c)

Company a combined with company b needs to be more valuable that those companies’ separate valuations added together and the transaction costs of price premium and legal and other advice costs (c). That is a high bar, particularly if both companies are publicly traded at the time of the transaction.

If strategic reasons are worth billions of dollars, then the combined value of the companies over time should indeed be more than the value of the separate entities. Facebook’s current earnings per share are $1 per year – roughly the same through Q1-Q3 2015 as they were in 2014 (the Whatsapp purchase closed in October 2014). They are trading at $105 per share. This is share ownership as speculation, which does seriously undercut the ‘knowledge of the market’ argument.

However, if you believe in the market with the financialist mindset, then acquiring for speculative, undefined ‘strategic’ reasons cannot be defended. The Whatsapp acquisition has tied up capital that Facebook had in hand with no method on the horizon for generating even an equal amount of capital, let alone a significant additional return. To claim otherwise is surely to abandon all pretence at measuring success in financial terms, and one cannot be on both sides of this fence simultaneously.

In our Americanised ego-celebrating business culture, the lone genius is venerated. Think of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Mark Zuckerberg to name just a few of the celebrities of business over the last couple of decades. Perhaps this is because the real stories of business success are too complex for easy digestion by the human brain wired for simple narrative, or perhaps it is just a cultural choice that we have fallen into. Either way, the amount of faith placed in the decisions of these successful men is bordering on religious.

When we have this level of fervent belief in the infallibility of previously successful people, we close our eyes to how the world changes. Remember those previous world-conquering companies MySpace, Bebo, Friends Reunited, AOL, HP, Kodak, GM – I could go on. At their height, there were many commentators and investors who believed – deeply believed – that dominance was self-reinforcing. That was true for a time, but change happened.

Placing faith in individual judgement over the wisdom of the crowd, and in unchanged dominance for many years, is closer to religion than reason. To have one religious opinion and another, different, reasoned opinion about the same subject matter is untenable. And yet, these extremely capable people on my course are managing to do so through the magic and the madness of cognitive dissonance. Seems there is a healthy future for M&A despite what the numbers tell us.

Written while listening to Feel You by Julia Holter (Domino Recording Co.) and Morning Vox by Rival Consoles (Erased Tapes)



The VW Trap – Size matters, in a bad way

On 18th September, the US Environmental Protection Agency outed Volkswagen as using special software in its cars to cheat emissions tests in the US so that their diesel engines were able to meet stringent NOx (various oxides of nitrogen) limits required by the EPA. Once out on the road, the cars containing those engines were pumping out up to 40 times the legal limit.

While diesel engines are more fuel efficient than petrol alternatives and thus emitting less carbon dioxide, the trade-off is the higher output of NOx. While on balance, this is better for the global climate. However, NOx have seriously detrimental local impact, including smog and respiratory effects for people in concentrated traffic areas such as cities.

This excellent Economist article sets out the background and details of the deception, including the laxity of the European testing regime which arguably laid the conditions for such disregard for the requirements of regulators. It also discusses the motivations for VW, concentrating on their desire for size above all else.

The idea of mission is something I have been thinking about and working on recently, and this drive for size is indicative of something fundamental which we should consider in the music industry too.

During an interview with Mary Anne Hobbs on BBC 6music, Kelis talked about how she was treated in her major label days:

“My label completely disintegrated into nothing and they took all of these artists and they moved them to different labels without any… we had no control. I was literally traded. Athletes get traded all the time but I was not a fan of being traded. It was too personal. And I’m someone who doesn’t take things personally, but that was personal for me because I got put on a label that would have never signed me and I would have never signed there. And so I knew it was going to be trouble. I knew this was never going to work. I can’t even fit in that position. It felt so foreign to me. And so I had been fighting for so long to get off of that label — it took about three years I think. The album was out already and I had to put another album out in this bad relationship.”

For those outside the music industry reading this, I should just explain that the so-called ‘major labels’ are effectively conglomerates with multiple sub-labels, arranged as a pyramid — much like VW with its ownership of Bentley, Audi and Skoda. So Universal Music, for example, owns label groups (like Island or Capitol) which then own labels beneath them. This is how Kelis can end up being shunted between labels as she describes.

Many labels have their own speciality in terms of the artists they work with and the music they release. Kelis ended up with Jive Records, famously home to N-Sync, Britney Spears and The Backstreet Boys, instead of Virgin Records, the much more eclectic label to which she originally signed.

Thus, as a result of corporate restructuring, Kelis was working with people she knew were not in her corner, either artistically or commercially. This is a very possible outcome for any artist working with a major.

The obsession with market share for the majors, which is why they suck up independent content via their distribution arms, why they buy successful independent labels and distributors whenever they can, and why they release music that is the auditory equivalent of empty calories in order to gain radio play and singles chart placings, seems to be a result of this strange phenomenon of a desire for size.

In music, chart placings were always an unsatisfactory proxy for real success, which is artistic worth and audience connection. This is too subtle to be expressed in a single metric, such as chart placing, just as business success is too subtle to be judged by a single metric, such as revenue. Even market capitalisation or return on equity are blunt tools that do not get to the heart of whether the business is, on balance, adding to the good of the world.

It seems that at a certain point, some companies become so big that the only thing they can think of to do next is to get bigger. Perhaps there is a threshold beyond which substantive missions and reasons-for-being become stretched beyond breaking point. Public markets seem to encourage this with their explicit signals (via stock price moves), that bigger is better and that mergers should be pursued even though mergers are known to destroy value (along with distinctiveness and purpose) the vast majority of the time.

A mission statement of, “We must be the biggest ___________” seems generally to be a combination of too much ego and too little imagination.

A simple question to ask is: Why?

Only if there is a real reason to be the biggest— perhaps to do with network effects, or real economies of scale in production of goods or provision of a service — should such an ambition not be laughed out of the room. Otherwise, it is vapid; a waste of the efforts of all those involved in the business day-to-day, making the world slightly less interesting and gaming whatever metrics need to be gamed in order to win.

Neither VW nor the major record labels have compelling reasons why being bigger is better. For VW, becoming biggest was achieved through selling more and more very low margin cars (with profit margins of 2%) rather than Bentleys. And for what purpose? For the major labels, it is about units shifted or streams gained, rather than the art of music.

Haven’t we learnt that there are different, and better, ways to win than being biggest? Why not be best instead?

Written while listening to ‘White Math’ by Blanck Mass (Kemado Records) and ‘Jaws Of Life’ by Wintersleep (One Four Seven Records)

Interchangeable human units (Otherwise known as ‘people’)

Something has been coalescing for me recently, around the sharing economy, on-demand economy, my study of motivation and team management, and my EMBA colleagues.

That something is a difference between people and humans, and it is the core of modern business and social ethics.

I promise this isn’t going to be another attack job on Uber. We know they do a fine job of illustrating their shortcomings themselves on a daily basis. However, given that they are the exemplars of the sharing economy and on-demand economy in the cultural mind at present, the impact of their approach on the zeitgeist is ripe for dissection.

IMG_20150601_224653343~2~2 (3)

In Wired magazine’s UK June 15 edition, the cover feature lays out a number of pros and cons of Uber’s business approach. The two key aspects are nailed by Russell Davies, director of strategy at the UK’s celebrated Government Digital Service. He says “Treating the people who work for you as units of deployable resource lets you build great, scalable systems, but as soon as they can, those people will move elsewhere. Same with your customers.” Davies also points out that “Its errors over privacy and surge-pricing are fundamentally failures of empathy.”

This idea of interchangeable human units is an echo of the twentieth century’s conception of people as ‘human resources’ in business terms, and is pervasive in the on-demand economy of apps promising free or almost-no-cost instant deliveries or pick ups of anything from groceries, fast food, dry-cleaning and laundry, ironing, wine, beer, or coffee, to people getting from A to B. Even dating apps are starting to work this way, with the growth of Tinder.

(If you want a laugh, just google ‘dry cleaning app’ and marvel at the amount of effort, time, thought and capital that have gone into the competing apps.)

Screenshot 2015-06-01 22 53 32 (3)

In some important sense, the on-demand economy is just a subset of the sharing economy, except what is being shared is human effort and time rather than an otherwise-unused real-world asset.

The essential relationship in the on-demand world is between the platform, and the undifferentiated mass of demand and supply on either side of it. In order to grow, platforms are pushing prices down as far as they can go, often far below the cost of provision of the service.

In the older world of VC-backed companies, however, it was the company itself that absorbed the direct effect of that aggressive pricing to fuel growth. In the ‘sharing economy’, it is the providers of the service — the taxi drivers, the delivery people, the TaskRabbits — that are absorbing the pain of this pricing approach. The fact that the providers are not formally part of the app company means that they have no chance of sharing in the inevitable payday exit that these companies are aiming for. It is all downside for them.

And this ability to order up a human-provided service on our smartphones helps us consumers to depersonalise those who are on the other side of these transactions. And since there is a mediator, we can wash our hands of the ethical considerations — “well, if that’s what Uber takes from my credit card, then that’s what it’s worth”.

As opposed to good examples of the sharing economy, where underutilised physical assets such as cars or spare rooms (or entire homes) are made more useable by companies such as Zipcar or AirBnB, treating a person’s time in a similar way seems distinctly reductive. Are we really willing to say an hour of a person’s life is just the same as an hour a car is parked and unused?

With an app such as Tinder, we get into even murkier ethical waters, as the hopeful or desperate offer themselves up to be swiped left or right after about 1.2 seconds of consideration by a user on the other side of this potential transaction. Reducing sex to a transaction does not seem to me to be a laudable aim, but instead is the apotheosis of the depersonalising tech trend on the march in the last couple of years.

On the flipside to this, the motivation and management practices we are learning about on the Executive MBA course are all about treating those who work with you as people each with their own peculiarities — adjusting management style to suit their needs, thinking about team make-up in terms of preferences and personality types, even discovering our own strengths and weaknesses so that we can work with them intelligently.

Another part of the experience of the EMBA is getting to know that each of my class has a story within them — often utterly remarkable ones. Just a couple of examples involve a faked accent to get into university while their immigration case was being considered, and a leap within one lifetime from washing clothes in the river to attending Cambridge University and the EMBA. These stories are there in everyone, and understanding that ‘the finance guy’ is not just the finance guy (and ‘the driver’ is not just the driver), but has a hinterland, a history, some aspect of themselves that would make you gasp if you knew it, is just one illustration that the idea of interchangeable human units is so offensive and deeply contrary to properly ethical notions of personhood. It is something that has resonated with me the more I’ve got to know my classmates.

The EMBA class of 2014

The EMBA class of 2014

In the end, as Russell Davies noted, it comes down to empathy. These on-demand companies are doing their best to blur and distort the umbilical link between buyer and seller. When sales are made face-to-face, with cash, the calculations on either side are immediate and rooted in the real world. When mediated through an app that decides the price and takes the funds painlessly from your bank account, there is no direct exchange, no eye contact as money is handed over, and no chance for empathy to arise.

I do not accept that we should be stratified into those with money and power (‘people’) and those whose job is to run around to satisfy the whims of those with money and power (‘humans’) on-demand, as if servants in a stately home waiting for the bell to ring. The aspiration in this new technological age should be for all people to express their individual miracle through their whole life, including their work. With a bit of thought, effort and empathy, I believe it can be achieved. I also believe it is the small first step towards a less divided world.

Written while listening to ‘On The Regular’ by Shamir (XL Recordings) and ‘Yeah Right’ by Toro Y Moi (Carpark Records) Interchangeable human

En Route

I am writing this at 35,000 feet above the Atlantic, while some of my classmates slumber in the cabin nearby on our way from London to Brazil.

We are about to undertake (or undergo?) the EMBA International Business Study Trip – a week-long jaunt around Sao Paolo and Buenos Aires. We’ll be spending four days in the former, then heading to Argentina for three days more.

The programme seems intriguing and exciting, incorporating teaching sessions, company visits to global behemoths and indigenous businesses with global operations, and dinners and networking events with distinguished speakers. The trip will be rounded off with a set of presentations in our small study groups on various questions related to international business.

A little over two weeks ago, I was flying the opposite direction – from London to Vietnam. My company is setting up an office there to serve our current and future clients in the Asian and Australian region. I was headed over there to find office premises and to interview prospective team leaders for our small support team to be based there.

My experience interviewing candidates there has got me thinking even harder than normal about cross-cultural communication and organisational culture, a favourite subject for me over the last few years. I am trying to reconcile the hierarchical expectations of Vietnamese work culture with my company’s distaste for hierarchy, titles and structure. Or maybe not reconcile. Maybe just accept the gap between one and the other, and move forward regardless.

The candidates I interviewed varied from quiet and submissive, to bold and brash, to monosyllabic but technically skilled. How to work out what a Vietnamese team would respond well to, and who would fit with our business culture as it snakes through the internet across half the world?

When mentioning to friends and colleagues that I would be visiting Brazil for this trip, a name came up over and over again in glowing terms: Ricardo Semler. I must confess, I had never heard of him. However, after having been blown away by his TED talk here, I bought his book Maverick! to read on this flight. Just a few pages in, and he is bolstering my anti-hierarchy stance with gusto. I am growing bolder in my attempt to mould a team in Vietnam that shares knowledge, responsibility, failure and success as well as our superb team in London.

In the end, CI’s Vietnamese office, just like the businesses we will learn about in Brazil and Argentina, just like life itself, is an experiment with uncertain outcomes whatever approach we choose. The trick is to remember that malleability, and to be willing and able ourselves to bend and change with circumstances.

Now, while I think a bit more about all that, where’s my caipirinha? Stewardess?

Written while listening to ‘Sea’ by Roosevelt (Greco-Roman), and ‘Send Me A Postcard’ by Shocking Blue (Red Bullet).

Compliance, conformity and convergent thinking

Cambridge’s identity is bound up with breaking new ground; thinking in new ways; making unexpected leaps of insight. That is part of what drew me to Cambridge Judge Business School to undertake the EMBA. Recently, I’ve been thinking about what this means in relation to my experience of business education in particular, and to the business and wider world in general. It’s partly been sparked by Christmas jumpers and ballgowns.

EMBA Xmas Dinner at Peterhouse College

EMBA Xmas Dinner at Peterhouse College

The class of 2013 (some of whom I have met, all of whom are brilliant) and the class of 2014 (my lot) enjoyed a collective Christmas dinner at Peterhouse before Christmas. The discussion regarding dress code for the event was very interesting to observe. Sadly, I couldn’t make the event, but those who could expressed a variety of preferences, from black tie to the gaudiest Christmas jumpers people could find. The choice was to go for black tie, but with an option for full-on Santa fancy dress – see the picture above. As you’ll see, 99% of attendees went for the former option. Some members of the 2014 class were happy to go along with the black tie idea, but there is a group on the course who are keen to ditch the formality where possible.

To declare an interest, I absolutely fall into the latter group. As I work in the music industry I guess you would expect that – I haven’t worn a suit or tie to work at any time in the last five years. However, I think that this whole idea of formality, of rules, of expectations that must be met is highly corrosive to doing worthwhile work in any industry, and to living a fulfilling life in general.

In our learning environment at Cambridge, deference to ‘received wisdom’ or accepted theories is a waste of our wonderful opportunity to think things through for ourselves. As aspiring business leaders, it is up to us to make our own leaps of reason. It is not necessarily the case that others know better, although surveying generally accepted theories is a great starting point for thinking about finance and managerial decision-making, as we have been doing, or organisational behaviour and operations management as we are about to this term.

In business itself, I am very much in agreement with the characterisation of firms set out in the fantastic Uncommon Sense, Common Nonsense by Jules Goddard and Tony Eccles (Profile Books, 2012). In this brilliant book, one of the authors’ key messages is that “Firms outperform their competitors by aiming to be different, not better”. This could be in the realm of providing unique products or services, or by coming up with innovative processes by which products or services are provided.

In my view, in business contexts, compliance and conformity should only be enforced or encouraged for reasons of legality. All other bets should be off. Collective endeavours will spontaneously evolve based on Darwinian processes (such as industry or technical standards), and these should always be open to disruption if a better collective endeavour arises rather than becoming zombies kept alive beyond their point of natural death or decline by those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. This last point is tough to put into practice. It should also be the process of the evolution of law, by the way, but necessarily the law will tend to move slower than the rest of society in adapting to change.

If we achieve this openness to challenge and change, we are more likely to have to question ourselves more deeply – perhaps using the Five Whys method, or my favourite direct question “What is it for?” in our daily work. If the answer is “because that’s how we do it” or even worse “that’s how we’ve always done it”, then we aren’t thinking hard enough.

If we’re not able to free ourselves from the constraints of compliance and conforming to expectations in the safety of our EMBA classroom (or Christmas dinner), we surely won’t be able to do so in the outside world.

Convergent, closed thinking leads to convergent results. Divergent, open thinking at least gives us the chance to hit on something remarkable. Most importantly it gives us the space to explore, discover and to become ourselves.

Written while listening to ‘Open Up Your Door’ by Richard Hawley (Parlophone) and ‘Lotus Flower – SBTRKT Remix’ by Radiohead (Ticker Tape)  .