Tips for Business Start Ups, Lessons for Life: how to induce schizophrenia in your staff

It’s not lost on many people working in the public sector that we’re frequently asked to adopt two mutually opposing stances and attitudes at one and the same time. “Now run this way, now run that way – both at a very fast hard pace” is a commonly heard instruction albeit couched in terms which suggest the organisation knows what it’s doing and where it’s going.

Policy complexities of the poli-see and poli-do type (ie we say one thing vociferously and insist on doing the opposite equally vociferously) within a rabid target culture in which the targets are sometimes in front of you, sometimes behind you and sometimes imagined, contribute to a sense of working down an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole in which nothing is as it seems, narrative logic is irrelevant and what counts is what doesn’t count.

This isn’t confined to the public sector of course; many organisations, of large, small or indeterminate size suffer from the syndrome of asking its staff to adopt mutually exclusive attitudes in the same body politic and organisational mind. It’s an occupational hazard of having an occupation and working in an organisation which may not be particularly well organised.

The trick for small business start ups is to maintain their vision and try to define their targets in ways which don’t induce schizophrenia in its staff. One way is to say what you mean and mean what you say, but as Alice found out saying and meaning, eating and seeing, and breathing and sleeping can commonly be confused with each other. Your job in setting up a start up is make sure you know the difference between all those bodily functions.

Tips for Business Start Ups: how working with the grain of the wood can combat institutional fungal infection.

Many start up business men and women start up precisely because their current employer has an innate ability to shut down the burgeoning entrepreneur’s energy, vision and appetite for the work in hand.

Ray has been working in the public sector on and off for over 20 years: more off than on in recent times as he sees his employer become increasingly wooden in its response to the economic challenges it faces. It obsesses about targets, forgets about quality, treats it staff with ever increasing forgetfulness and takes on the appearance of an ash tree suffering from the later stages of ash dieback.

Whilst Ray has loved his work, he realises increasingly that this is not shared by the battalion of administrators who have taken root in the work place and who are trying to save the stricken fraxinus excelsior. Where once his work was concerned with public service, it now is increasingly preoccupied with spin, counter spin and presenting itself for maximum impact in terms which aim to woo venture capitalists from sunnier shores rather than reassure its local citizens of how it will enable them navigate the social service storms which are on the horizon over the next five years.

Ray is faced with a conundrum. He has been seduced by the vision of plotting his own destiny as an independent trader through the economic squalls which batter his home city’s frontiers. But he knows too that a lowly carpenter in a large public sector organ is not going to find it easy to persuade the wider world to buy his skills and products which are increasingly being squandered by the infected tree at the bottom of the allotment.

Whilst he’s been adept at knocking out things from his shed in a remote part of the organ’s empire, he’s worried about his ability to sell anything and scale up his production line which would enable him to pay the bills. The organisational fear he’s been fending off for years is in danger of infiltrating the grain of his carpenter’s soul.

However, his skills on the lathe, plane and jigsaw; his knowledge of the many grades of sand paper and different types of lacquer means that he knows intuitively how to erase any obtuse pieces of bark, wear away any unsightly stains and polish a seemingly dull veneer into something resembling mahogany. He knows too that working with the grain of the wood, rather than against it, is likely to produce a much more satisfying working environment for himself – as well as higher quality finished artefacts.

Ray may have honed his carpentry skills in the workshop by applying them to unprepossessing lumps of 2 be 4 – but he’ll find that they can be transferred to dealing with customers, estate agents and bankers. All he needs to do is look hard inside his own woody workshop soul, make an inventory of his tools, skills, knowledge and experience and start to make his skills work for himself, rather than for the infected lump of organisational driftwood he is currently wasting his time in.

Ray may have worked in wood for years and worked with wood in the work place for even longer: but his future now depends on his carpentry skills being applied to his life outside his workshop. If he doesn’t get out now, the fungus infecting his current employer is likely to infect the young sapling of a business he is currently nurturing in the potting shed at the bottom of the allotment.

Tips for Business Start Ups: immortality ain’t what it’s cracked up to be

We’re regularly reminded in the popular press failure rates of new businesses: 40% of start ups fail in the first year of trading; 70% fail within 10 years; and no doubt there are some figures somewhere which show that an unacceptable 99% of businesses don’t make it to their 100 years anniversary. Shame on them: yet another searing indictment of modern day capitalism, the waywardness of youth and the irresponsibility of the public sector or any other modern ill you care to remember.

The language of failure is however one which needs some early retirement itself. Businesses – human beings even – don’t have a God given right to last forever and there is nothing pathologically or morally wrong with the notion that businesses last for as long as they’re needed – after which they are likely to come to an end. This is not failure but recognising that everything – including businesses – have their time and their space and their role is to inhabit their time-space node, contribute to those around them and when the time and space is right – to gracefully withdraw from action.

Immortality in business life – often referred to as sustainability or legacy – is a seductive concept and, in human affairs, is frequently the cause of great art and music. It is not however the cause of great business: the conceit that your business will last for ever leads to sleepless nights, increasing bar bills and bedroom floors strewn with empty pill bottles. If you can accept that your new start up may peak early, deliver beyond its promise and then burn out as quickly as it started, then you stand a chance of surviving notions of failure long enough to do it all over again with the next love of your life: your next new start up.

What’s the big deal about sustainability?

In much public life, the idea that ones efforts – whether artistic or educational or economic – should be sustainable is a highly persuasive piece of rhetoric. If your work is any good, the argument goes, and if you want money for it, then you must have a sustainability plan. You must want to see it existing over and beyond the short time of its current life time. If you can’t argue that it’s sustainable, there is an almost automatic burocratic frown placed against the merits of the project. It can’t be that good, they say, if it can’t be sustained. If there’s no more of the same, then what is the point of the project in the first place?

But why? Our lives are unsustainable. Like it or not, our death partners will call for us all one day. No-ones going to be left out of that particular public project. Our lives are the essence of unsustainability so why do we expect it of the artefacts we make, the dreams that we dream ?

Death and decay is much a part of creativity as its more user-friendly sister, birth and generation. Perhaps we should plan for project ending, closure and fading away in the public sector as much as we argue for sustainability, legacy and immortality.  It would at least make for much shorter funding applications and mean that the short time we have on this planet has one less burocratic task attached to it.

Poetry on the Hoof: Terraced? Semi? Detached? Year 7 plan their future homes.

You gotta decide the lighting,
It’s November, remember.
You gotta agree,
Sort it out reasonably.
You gotta think it out,
You’ve gotta act quick.
Silence hush descends.

You’ll need pools of light
You’ll need water, air, space.
Somewhere to park the car
When the days close in.
Can I get a red phone box?
Can I get an allotment?
Silence hush descends.

You’re gonna see nothing
With windows like that.
You’re gonna be a resident, remember.
You’re gonna freeze to death
With walls like that.
Are we gonna pretend?
That we have to pay mortgages an’ ‘owt?
Silence hush descends.

You gotta make a choice,
Or you’re gonna get stuck.
Best to say little,
If you’re not sure.
If you don’t wanna pay for ‘owt can we live in a toilet?
We could use our imagination.
Silence hush descends.

Everyone’s gotta live somewhere
Everyone’s gotta have a place
They can call their own.
But if you’re gonna want a family.
But if you’re gonna get you a mortgage,
You gotta be quick,
You gotta be sharp,
You gotta get rid of those ghosts that moved onto your land.
Silence hush descends.

Some responses by then young people of Kingstone School, Barnsley to recent exhortations to a ‘Housing Revolution’. Readers may be interested to know about similar revolutions being plotted in education.

The rhetoric of crisis is also echoed in housing and education too here.

Tips for Business Start Ups: 5 ways to act like a partner

There’s been an increase in recent years of large public sector organisations who, in developing all sorts of cultural initiatives from music to leadership to creative learning, identify themselves not only as funders but as partners too.

The notion of quite what they mean by partnership varies wildly from organisation to organisation and sometimes on a day to day basis within the same organisation too. Clearly, as perhaps the main funders of a project they have every right to be concerned and interested in how public funding is used – but this has always been the case with any public sector funder in the past.

No, the difference with these funder-partners is not only that they are concerned that the funding is used appropriately, but they also see themselves as having a hand in the messy business of delivering aforesaid projects. They want to work on both an arms length principle – and also be upto their elbows in the minutiae of delivery, and preferably control that as well as the cash flow, contractual agreements and at what time we take a lunch break.

This may of course be fine if those funder-partners had any skill in the delivery of those projects. But frequently they have been out of the sector for so long they have lost any touch they might have had in the past in delivering those projects. It’s like your great-grandad insisting that he get a stint on the turntables down at the local youth club to show everyone how it’s really done.

But more irritatingly, the funder-partner is less than helpful if they can’t get the basics right of partnership working. This means working within the following guidelines:

1. Liberty. Understanding that partnership works best when partners enter that partnership voluntarily and are not coerced into or into an arrangement that suits one partner better than the other.
2. Communicate. If we agree a communication protocol, then stick to it. Especially when times are getting pressured and deadlines are looming. Don’t pass off your communciation inertia with the excuse that you’re busy. We’re all busy these days, very very busy and your busy-ness is no more important than anyone elses.
3. Take responsibility. Don’t just point accusingly at one partner in the arrangement but share the load and take responsibility for what the partnership has agreed.
4. Respect language differences. Appreciate your way of knowing the world and acting upon it is not the only way of living the good life. Other partners might speak differently, use different metaphors and may not be hide-bound by your language (they’ll be hide bound by their own) – the value of your partnership is in appreciating those differences in language and not just railroading over them.
5. Realise your funding is not the be all and end-all. It’s not just your money that makes you a partner – you have to bring skills, knowledge and wisdom to this process not just a large bank balance. A decent partnership isn’t a forced marriage where you bring your ugly self and explain it away with the large inheritance you’re bringing to justify your place at the table.

All partnerships need the benefit of joint wisdoms and a commitment to talking and respecting each other. The funder-partner who manages to avoid all these guidelines in the name of accountability is nothing more than a control freak.