Thursday, 27 December 2007

The Street Arena

It happened at about one in the morning as I was settling down in my sitting room with a large brandy. The quiet was disturbed by a dreadful commotion of yelling and screaming of obscenities from the street. I should say I live in a solid middle-class suburb which gets the occasional drunken yob walking through on the way to the council estate further out of town.

Outside, a fully loaded wheelie bin had been overturned, and a woman householder was struggling with a skinny feral female of about twenty, who was pulling her hair and kicking and generally fighting her in an ineffective but thoroughly unpleasant way.

I am in good shape for a (very) late 40's guy, and have been training in Tae Kwon Do for two years, so I felt confident that I could handle the situation. I shoved myself between the two of them, shielding the householder with my body, and pushing the girl away with my palms. Then I noticed, lurking at the side of the road, a weasel-faced scrawny little male of about the same age, and it occured to me that unless I was very careful, I would have two of them to deal with. Certainly if I launched a punching or kicking attack on the girl he was sure to attack me.

There are no police here at night, it takes them a good 15 minutes to get here, supposing they are not all out on calls. I had just walked out into the street the way I was, not changing my slippers for hard-soled shoes, not bringing my mobile phone to summon the police, not picking up my son's hockey stick that is parked by the front door. The brandy I had abandoned was the third of the evening, and followed half a bottle of wine and a gin and tonic. This was not going to be quite the same as sparring in the club. No gumshield, groinguard, or shinpads. No referee, no rules. No idea what weapons might be produced.

After a bit more pushing and shoving, two more females came into view, who added to the chaos by yelling and screaming at me. Fortunately they didn't touch me, because with four people to deal with I had worked out that I would be lucky to survive, and to do so I would have to put at least three of them down with a knockout or serious injury, and even if I was able to do that it would put me in big trouble with the police.

Eventually I managed to fairly gently push feral girl into the arms of feral boy and told him, in as good a voice of authority as I could manage, to get her home. To my surprise he pulled her away up the road - I guess he really did not want a fight either - and after one more round of screamed obscenities the other two harpies went with them.

I watched them down the street before turning my back and going inside, hands shaking, mind racing through the what-ifs, and wondering at how my life turned inside out in the seconds it took to get out of my armchair and walk into the street.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Fade to Red

Is this the way it ends, on a stubble field, as the sun is setting ?

Harvest given way to weaponclash and fall of men

Fear and fatigue forgotten, sword-arm moves unbid, parry and strike

Feet across and back as the shield-wall reseals

Nowhere behind and no path ahead

Only those whose strength withstands will walk from here tonight

Flash of blade, fade to red

© steve_roberts 2007

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Shaper / wrecker team dynamics - one reason why bureaucracy doesn't work

Although it is no longer fashionable, I have a lot of time for Meredith Belbin's work on management teams, and in particular his work on what distinguishes successful teams from the unsuccessful ones.

In the course of a long series of experiments with management teams, Belbin identified a number of specific roles which had to be carried out within a team. For example, there is the resource-investigator role, which finds out and communicates to the team the resources available to them (he is the one who can be relied on to know which cafe has the best pastries, as well as hopefully more work-related things). There is the Chairman, who has a strong sense of the objectives, and works to make sure that everyone's contribution is taken into account. There are several others: the Plant (ideas man), the Monitor-evaluator (who knows how well we are doing), the Completer-finisher (who makes sure things get finished and all loose ends are dealt with), etc.

I know some people who have been away on training course and have come back to work saying proudly "Guess what, I'm a Plant". Tempting though it is to reply, "Indeed, and the plant in question is deadly nightshade - in small doses emetic, occasionally fatal", the correct response is that they are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Their preferred team role is 'Plant', so if they are part of a team where no other member prefers to be the Plant, they will fill that role. If there is another Plant in the team, after a bit of shaking down, one will assume the role of team Plant, and the other will likely adopt a different role, although if the team is very big there can be room for two Plants. However, it is very convenient shorthand to refer to people as a Plant, when they are either someone who prefers to be the team Plant, or the person fulfilling the role of Plant in the team, so I will do so, and ask you to bear in mind that there is a distinction.

All teams have each of these roles, in small teams one individual will fill more than one role, in large teams there may be more than one person with a specific role. It is one of the wonders of human self-organisation how, within a new team, people will sense what roles everyone else is comfortable and competent with, and adjust their role accordingly, so that, after a shake-down period, the team roles are established.

One clear distinction between effective and ineffective teams is the extent to which the roles are filled by people with an aptitude to do them. For example, it makes a big difference whether the completer-finisher is good at completer-finishing, because it makes the difference between 100% complete and 90% complete with bits and pieces all over the place.

There is one role which is slightly different, the Shaper. The Shaper is the person who takes the lead in setting the agenda, in 'shaping' the task. Sometimes the team contains people who can be a good Shaper, or equally happily can fill one of the other roles, but very often, along with the sort of personality that has an aptitude for shaping, we find a need to be the shaper, not to allow anyone else to fill that role. I call that kind of personality a shaper/wrecker because depending on circumstances one will either shape the task or wreck it.

There are actually three modes of failure to do with Shapers. Firstly, as with the other roles, failure looms if no-one in the team is good at Shaping. In this case the task will drift until someone intervenes to cancel the task or introduce a Shaper. Secondly, the task will also be in trouble if the team Shaper does not have the right subject matter knowledge to shape the task well. This is particular likely to happen if the strongest Shaper in the team also has the Wrecker characteristic, because they will not step aside and allow a weaker Shaper who does have the right knowledge, to take over the Shaping. Thirdly, If the team includes two Shaper / Wreckers, the outcome is always bad - one will Shape while the other one Wrecks, and it is the nature of life that the wrecking will contribute more to the outcome than the shaping.

In a normal business situation, and especially when the owner is closely involved enough to observe what is going on, there is a natural limit to the shaper/wrecker dynamic, because each mode of failure will delay or compromise the task, and therefore reduce profits. Those firms that deal with the problems will succeed more often and therefore grow at the expense of those that don't. Knowingly or not, good managers will add a Shaper to a team that is making no progress; they will train up or replace a Shaper / Wrecker lacking in knowledge, and in the event of a wrecking contest, one or the other contestant will be removed.

In a bureaucracy, however, there is less pressure for corrective action, because no profits are at stake, and there is no Darwinian sifting of successful and unsuccessful organisations - what sifting there is being based on politics, not profits. Drift will continue because it is awkward to admit errors and make changes; lack of knowledge will be resolved over time through learning by making mistakes, the cost of which falls on innocent third parties; Wrecking competitions continue until the stronger party defeats the weaker. Only if the team has exactly one shaper, and he has the necessary subject knowledge, will the team be effective.

What are the chances of a team picked at random having exactly one Shaper ? It depends how many good Shapers are in the pool we pick from, but in any case, the smaller the team, the less likely it is to have a good Shaper, whereas a large team is likely to have two or more Shaper / Wreckers. Again, it will depend on how many Shaper / Wreckers are out there, but there may be a few pointers. In a well-managed business, Shaper / Wreckers will be identified and generally discouraged or excluded from senior positions, because of the necessity for effective team working especially at the higher levels. Instead Shapers who are also willing take other team roles will prosper, and in the Darwinian sifting of the competitive economy, such organisations will prosper. As a result, it is likely that the non-competitive economy will disproportionately attract ambitious Shaper / Wreckers, and as a result these people will be over represented in the places where they are least likely to be checked, and therefore liable to do most damage. The result is that bureaucracies tend to have less effective teams, and therefore don't work when it comes to complex many-sided tasks which characterise the modern world.

Reference:"Management Teams - Why they succeed or fail" by R. Meredith Belbin,
ISBN 0-7506-5910-6

© steve_roberts 2007

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Heroes of our time - Genrich Altshuller

Today I want to celebrate the life and works of Genrich Saulovitch Altshuller, inventor and creator of the process for the creative solution of technical problems known as TRIZ.

Altshuller's work is much less well known around the world than it deserves to be, based on a couple of unhappy circumstances. Firstly, because he worked in the Soviet Union during the Cold War he was denied the possibility of communication with the community of scientists and engineers in the West until very late in his career, and much of his written work remains untranslated from the original Russian. Secondly, the Soviet authorities regarded his work with suspicion, at one stage sending him to the Gulag, and later denying him facilities for teaching and research.

If we consider man's material progress over the centuries, there has been a steady accumulation of clever inventions and ideas which enable us to make better use of time and resources to serve whatever purposes we have in mind. This expanding base of knowledge and ingenuity has over long periods of time led us from the uncertain existence of the hunter-gather, through to the more productive and predictable subsistence agriculture, and most recently to the fantastically rich, productive, and safe life that industrial society provides us today.

Over the last few hundred years or so, technical advances have been described and communicated in textbooks, research papers and patent libraries available to all, so that the pace of improvement has been multiplied by one mind being able to build on the thinking of strangers, even when separated by barriers of distance and language.

However, much as we can make better use of creative advances than we could in the past, the actual process of creating useful new ideas has remained stubbornly mysterious and impenetrable. Many discoveries and inventions have come about apparently by chance inspiration. Others have been the outcome of extended programmes of thousands or tens of thousands of laboratory trials. In view of the waste involved in both waiting for inspiration to strike and in conducting an exhaustive series of trials, many scientists, engineers, psychologists and philosophers have sought - with little or no success - a better way to stimulate the creative spark. It is Altshuller's greatness that he set about the seemingly contradictory task of systematising this type of creativity.

The foundation of his approach was the observation that inventions of different types, in different technical fields, could nevertheless be related through being instances of the application of a more fundamental underlying principle.

He set out, with collaborators, to trawl through the patent libraries of the world, and to distil from the hundreds of thousands of recorded inventions, the few inventive principles involved. He identified forty of these in all, independent principles each of which underpinned thousands of novel inventions in a wide range of technical fields. The basic use of his list of inventive principles is simplicity itself. When 'stuck' with a technical problem requiring a solution outside the textbook, one can simply take each inventive principle in turn, asking, for example "Could 'Curvature' help here? ". If, after due consideration, there doesn't seem to be any way to apply curvature to get closer to the necessary solution, move on to the next principle, and so on down the whole list if necessary. It seems in a way extraordinary to capture the elusive flame of creative thinking in a check-list, but the use of the principles does not entirely remove the need for creativity, it simply makes it a lot less difficult in practice.

The next advance, after identifying the inventive principles, was the observation that the inventive principles were in general applied to resolve a contradiction - for example, a railway carriage needs to be light - for reasons of carrying capacity, fuel consumption, etc; but it also needs to be strong, for reasons of safety, and carrying capacity. In this case the principle of 'Curvature' leads to the solution of a rigid curved shell which provides structural strength with much less weight than a chassis / framework / floor / wall /roof configuration.

Moving from this specific case of curvature resolving a contradiction between weight and strength - which is a contradiction that constantly comes up because in general, stronger things are heavier, and lighter things are weaker - the next step is to see whether the same logic applies to each of the inventive principles, in terms of each principle frequently being the basis for resolving specific types of contradiction between technical parameters. Re-analysing the patent library information to identify each invention as the application of an inventive principle to resolve solution to a technical contradiction, we come up with three things: a list of technical parameters, such as strength, weight, which frequently feature in contradictions; a matrix of pairs of these parameters frequently forming contradictions; and for each pair in a contradiction, a list of the inventive principles which have frequently been used to resolve the contraction. This is then put together in the form of the 'Contradiction Matrix', which allows us to further accelerate our creative solution-finding, by narrowing down our search to first examine those principles which solve the specific contradiction we face. Creativity is now down to a three-step process: 1) identify the technical contraction to be resolved; 2) identify which of the 40 principles applies to this contradiction 3) work with each principle to find a solution.

This is only the beginning of Altshuller's work, but in itself is fantastically useful for everyone in a technical profession, and for those of us working in more nebulous areas, we can build on it ourselves in two ways. Firstly, many of the inventive principles are not specific to engineering and scientific uses, so we can apply them directly to administrative or managerial issues. Secondly, we can, from our own experience and study, identify other inventive principles specific to our own field, which we then use in the same way as Altshuller's.


Wiki on Genrich Saulovitch Altshuller

Wiki on TRIZ

The TRIZ Journal TRIZ Journal

© steve_roberts 2007

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Losing Weight - it ain't hard

What you do is to eliminate refined carbohydrates from your diet (sugar, flour, bread, cake, pasta, pastry, rice, potatoes, etc), and stick to modest levels of unrefined carbohydrates (fruit, root vegetables, etc) while ensuring you eat plenty of green vegetables, meat, fish, and dairy to keep up a good intake of fats and proteins. At the same time keep doing some regular exercise.

Eliminating refined carbs prevents blood sugar spikes which your body handles by converting the excess sugar to body fat. Keeping down the unrefined carbs makes your body use body fat for fuel. Keeping up your fats and proteins intake prevents your metabolism going into 'famine' mode, which is what trips dieters into bingeing. Exercise speeds things up by increasing the amount of fuel you need, and by building muscle, which also burns more fuel.

So, it's goodbye to: beer, sweet wines and spirits, cake, pies, pizza, chips, rice, bread, potatoes, fizzy drinks, sugar, and anything that you don't know what's in it. Hello to dry wines and spirits, nuts, seeds, green vegetables, fresh fruit, water, cheese, cream, olive oil, meat, poultry, seafood, and food you prepare yourself from any of the above ingredients.

There are some downsides, it takes a couple of weeks of self-discipline for new eating pattern to become a habit; shopping and preparing food this way takes more time than using factory-made crab-loaded additive-stuffed package meals; sometimes eating away from home is a challenge - when presented with a sandwich lunch I have been known to eat the filling and throw away the bread.

Read more in any book on Atkins, South Beach, Low GI - they all converge at much the same point.

© steve_roberts 2007

Thursday, 28 June 2007

Reflections on the Union

The Union of England and Scotland came about after the King of Scotland inherited the crown of England. It was not in the king's interest for his subjects to raid and plunder one another across the border, and to deny each other cooperation in matters of commerce, trade, and exploitation of opportunities abroad.

In due course the politics followed the economics, the two nations were united, and together founded and developed a global empire.

Many historic unions - and even many annexations - have become so well integrated culturally as to be indissoluble over a hundred or so years, but Scotland has escaped assimilation into England over a much longer period, and it seems to me that Scotland has become more rather than less culturally distinct over the last fifty or so years.

From a 21st century perspective the original causes that brought about the Union are long gone, and there is scant evidence of benefits to both sides which absolutely depend on the Union. Free trade does not require a Union, and the days of border raids have long gone.

For Scotland the positives are a certain level of tax subsidy, and economies of scale in defence and international representation, although these are offset by the lack of sovereignty - it is scarcely believable that soldiers of an independent Scotland would be engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For England it is harder to find positives, and the negatives are increasingly evident in the political sphere, including the Scottish domination of the cabinet, the overrepresentation of Scotland at Westminster, the West Lothian issue of Scottish MPs imposing measures on England which do not affect their constituents because they are outside Westminster's powers in Scotland, and the fact that England voted Conservative at the last election but has a Labour government due to Scottish Labour votes.

Amongst the politicians these issues cause great concern. An independent Scotland would be a constitutional earthquake, and there is no telling whether the beneficiaries of today's arrangements will be able to hang onto their privileges. However, the principle of self-determination must surely override the sharing of the spoils of office, and Scotland must not be denied the opportunity to resume its sovereignty, and nor indeed must England.

© steve_roberts 2007

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

A day in the City

I live in an English market town, similar to dozens of others, large enough to have a good range of employment opportunities and amenities, but small enough to avoid most of the scourges of today's big cities. Every now and then, however, I feel the urge to plunge into London and replenish myself from its abundant if slightly hazardous waters.

Taking the train to London, and then the tube, my first stop is the City for the walk down to the river and across the formerly wobbly bridge. It is of course a shining reminder of the perils of engaging fashionable architects, but it gives access to a magnificent view of the south facade of St Paul's amidst the jumble of City buildings - so many new since I worked there in the 80's.

There are a lot of people wandering around for a workday, some purposeful but others totally relaxed, quite a lot of men are wearing a smart suit with an open collar and no tie. Is this the new office fashion, or is it a nod to casual Friday ?

Crossing the bridge leads conveniently to Tate Modern in time for lunch, where both food and service are surprisingly good for a public institution, although it seems expensive, but then again in London everything seems to cost so much that it is hard to tell the difference between normal and expensive. Unfortunately there is not enough time to look at the pictures, although the crowding suggests it might not be a very pleasant experience in any case, but there are a few minutes for a shufti inside the Turbine Hall to admire its brickwork and the exposed frame of I-beams. There is something noble about it, as so often in buildings designed rigorously around a narrow purpose.

The afternoon's entertainment is 'Comedy of Errors' at Shakespeare's Globe. I saw this once on TV and was not greatly impressed, but it is a completely different experience when you are standing right next to the stage, and for the first time I find myself laughing at the Tudor jokes about twins being mistaken for each other. Being open to the elements inevitably means you get wet when it rains - Is such a degree of authenticity really a good thing ? and it also means from time to time the actors have to compete with the non-Elizabethan noise of helicopters going to and from the City. All in all, it is a very intimate arena, and for me the play works very well, as the cast ham it up almost in Morecambe and Wise style.

Intellectually refreshed, it is time for a brisk walk back over the bridge and across to Piccadilly via Fleet street and the Strand, to get some Japanese cakes at the Minamoto Kitchoan, as snacks for the train ride home, before meeting up with an old friend from University days. We find a quite pub in north-west Soho which a couple of hours later is jam-packed and incredibly noisy. This seems to be normal for central London, I suppose there are no quiet pubs there on Friday evenings, but it does not matter because it is time to move on to the evening's entertainment. This is the rock band Porcupine Tree, supported by the Swedish band Paatos. On the way in my bag is searched, presumably for drugs, and I wonder what they will make of some of my stuff - the wine from M&S for the train-ride home, the bottle of aspirin and codeine, the pork pie. However the search is barely cursory, and after being asked what is in the package with the Japanese writing on it - answer Tsuyaguri - I'm waved through. Paatos are playing and are quite good, and while Porcupine Tree are on stage Paatos stay in the bar to sell their CDs, sign autographs, and chat to their fans - but mostly chat to each other because it is cruelly obvious that the fans are only here to hear Porcupine Tree. The main show falls into two halves, firstly an hour of new material that we are told will be the basis of a new CD, followed by a second half consisting of favourites from the current CD going right back into the past. There is a good atmosphere, with the crowd alternately singing along and listening in respectful quiet.

Finally it's the last train home, with banter from a group of people on a birthday outing arriving at 2am in good humour to ride the bike the final leg of the journey home, tired but excited.

© steve_roberts 2007

Monday, 16 April 2007

A day in the country

Although I was brought up in the countryside, I am at heart a townie, and cannot bear to be parted long from the many amenities of urban life. But a small notice in the local newspaper for the annual meeting of the Steam Plough Club immediately put me into the rural frame of mind. I thought of the village where I grew up, where the local blacksmith kept a traction engine and fired it up for the village fete, I remembered the smell of freshly ploughed fields, the flocks of lapwings wheeling overhead, the gently rolling vista from hedgerow to hedgerow, and the great elms standing out amongst the blackthorn.

Steam ploughing is one of those Victorian techniques with a logic all of its own. A pair of traction engine stands, one on each side of a field, and they haul between them a double-ended plough on a steel cable, with a driver steering. Steam ploughing only works effectively on large rectangular fields, within large estates with plenty of money and manpower. Although the actual ploughing is very quick there are a number of disadvantages of operating on a small scale - the margin where the engine stands is not only unploughed, but because the weight of the engines compresses the soil, is made unsuitable for growing crops. Normally a five-man team is used, two at each engine and one riding the plough, and the engines need to be kept supplied with coal and water, in practice requiring a horse-drawn cart and driver. Smaller farms with smaller, irregular fields kept to the more flexible and less costly attentions of horse plough teams, until the internal combustion engine was brought to the point where it swept away both horse-drawn and steam ploughing.

The steam plough club in full flight is a magnificent sight. Along a huge rectangular field there is a line of ten or twelve traction engines, each paired with another on the opposite side. Some are in steam, emitting a faintly intoxicating mixture of sulphurous coal smoke and hot oil-vapour, others are standing in position, having ploughed their competition piece, or waiting for the tender to bring them coal and water.

To complement the picture there are a couple of horse-teams performing, demonstrating the difference between man and beast and man and machine, in terms of power and efficiency, but also flexibility and teamwork. And in the next field, petrol and diesel-engined tractors also hauling ploughs, conquerors come to gloat over the vanquished.

After a stiff walk up and down the line to inspect the machines at close quarters, inhale their vapours, and criticise the straightness and regularity of the furrows, it is time to find the refreshment tent. Here we are offered mostly the products of the renascent rural economy - farm-made ice-cream, hand-raised Melton Mowbray pies, courtesy of pigs from a named farm only a few miles away, and beer from a microbrewery not much further distant.

It has been a grand day, and an interesting one from the point of view of an amateur economist. You have to wonder, would steam ploughing have lasted longer but for the boom and bust caused by government actions during the 1914-18 war ? Will the charming niche products we ate today flourish, or will they be washed away by the tide of low-cost commodity foodstuffs ? Will estates like the one in use today remain in productive use, or will they be forced by the weight of subsidy to covert to wasteland (set-aside) or woodland ? No-one really knows what the future holds but at least today brought a whiff of a glorious past and a taste of the best of the present

© steve_roberts 2007

Thursday, 12 April 2007

Becoming a freelancer

We filed into the large conference room apprehensively, about 200 of us, in order to hear the announcement about the future of the business that employed us, which had been put up for sale several months previously.

As soon as the boss walked in and faced us from the stage, we knew it was bad news. 'Despite all our efforts, we have been unable to find a buyer...Accordingly Corporate have decided to close the business'. A few more words filtered through into my stunned consciousness '..consultation period..three months notice... redundancy terms...pension scheme....'

We filed out again, disbelieving, twenty years of employment dissolved in about ten minutes flat.

I had sensed some time before that my own job was at risk, and that I should think through how to handle redundancy - after all a new owner would probably want to install their own management - but it was a huge shock to hear that the site was to be closed and the whole staff laid off. It was a small comfort that this included everyone, the boss too, so that we could all support each other, and no-one could feel more aggrieved than anyone else.

My forward thinking had been quite simple. I knew I was unlikely to get another career-type job in the same line, and certainly not without moving house, with all the expense and family disruption involved. Even then I would have no real job security, and no further compensation package until I had built up several years of service. For me then, the future had to be freelance / self-employment / contracting. I would do whatever would enable me to earn a living without having my professional future bound up with any particular firm. Surely I could exploit my own skills, knowledge, and experience better than anyone else, and if that meant travelling, then I would travel.

This logic was backed up, on the day, and for weeks afterwards, with an instinctive determination that I would never again put myself on someone else's payroll.

Three months later I feel I have successfully made the transition from employee to freelance, and although I have the simplest possible business model (no staff, no stock, no premises) I am actually quite impressed at the number of different things that I needed to do, and have done. More than that, I have enjoyed tacking many of the business issues that I was sheltered from as an employee, even as a departmental manager. So I have drawn up a profit & loss account, and filled in my own VAT and PAYE returns after studying the guidance documents.

Have I become a real freelance yet ? Maybe so, but maybe also it's true that a freelance is only a freelance as long as there is work booked ahead. I get more highs than I did as an employee - for example I love posting out my invoices and I am thrilled when I check my bank account and find another payment has arrived. There are also more lows - such as when I am not awarded the business I pitch for, or when the very occasional industry contact from my past treats me like someone to avoid. However, these are easily offset by the employees who have said 'I envy you, I wish I could leave and start again, but with the mortgage, pension, etc, I can't'. There are also the freelancers who, having established that I'm quite determined to live this way, tell me that after a year or so I will never regret my redundancy.

I have thought for some years that while being an employee was a fairly straightforward way to make a living from technical skills, it wasn't necessarily a good deal for everyone, and carried a significant risk that individual talents would be wasted by the employing organisation. However, bearing in mind my career, pensions, and in the last few years the possibility of a redundancy pay-off, I had not taken action.

Now, of course the action has been taken for me, for better or worse. I genuinely believe that whatever I want - money, leisure time, travel, security - is more easily available outside employment than inside. The most liberating fact of my new situation is that, if I am dissatisfied about anything in my professional life, there is only one person I depend on for a solution - me.

© steve_roberts 2007