Amtrak v Greyhound: an experiential study

We got on the train, right at the very back.

Everyone else travelling south from New York’s Penn Station seemed to know exactly which track the train was going to arrive on. By the time they announced it would be Track 14, the queues for the escalators were already long and wide; one heading south, the other north, the two meeting in a ragged mess in the middle of the station concourse.

We took advantage of the disorder to gently merge into the line, and ended up taking the north escalator down to the platform, hence ending up at the back of the south-bound train.

We lumbered our cases on board, and started looking for seats. Our tickets said we had reserved seats, but when I had questioned which seats they might be, I had been told it was a free-for-all.

This is a very loose way of using the word “reserved”.

The train had arrived about 30 minutes late from Boston, and by the time it jerked its way out of Penn Station, it was still 30 minutes late.


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Contracting in Learning and Development

In the podcast The secrets of accelerated learning; create the right environment with Krystyna Gadd, we talked about the process of “contracting” in training sessions and other learning and development activities.

I haven’t found a definitive definition of exactly what contracting is in this context, indeed the word doesn’t seem to even exist!

The best I could do was this from, as a definition for “contract”:

[noun, adjective, verb 15–17, 21, 22 kon-trakt; verb kuh n-trakt]
1. an agreement between two or more parties for the doing or not doing of something specified

So, we can assume “contracting” is the act of doing that.

A reasonably good definition is this one from where they discuss various teaching strategies:

Contracting is the process of openly discussing with your students expectations about how classroom members will treat each other

I might change the words a bit for adult L&D, and include “… and agreeing” after the word “discussing”, but I think it’s good enough.

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The End of Asquith: The Downing Street Coup – December 1916 by Michael Byrne

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this hot on the heels of Asquith’s biography (by Roy Jenkins) because I was in the mood, and because I thought it’d help me get to grips with what happened when Lloyd George barged in and took over.

It is a fictionalised account, so it mainly reads like a novel, and Byrne does a pretty decent job to keep it going considering there isn’t really enough going on to justify a novel, and we already know the ending.

It leans a lot on Jenkins’s biography, but is more critical of Asquith than Jenkins was. In this book you understand a lot more the negative side of his premiership. You see the mix of respect and frustration felt by his colleagues – respect for the man, his skills and his achievements, frustration at his drinking, distractions (female), laziness (or maybe his half-hearted commitment is a better way of saying it), and most of all his consensual approach to government by committee which was too slow and cumbersome for the needs of wartime.


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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more. Not my words, but the words of the current President of the US, obviously a bit of an expert in the revered abolitionist.

This book is an account of Douglass’s life as a slave, and then as a free man, written by Douglass himself. As you’d expect for a book written around 1850, it reads a bit old-fashioned today, but it’s no chore to get through. It’s fairly short and to the point and is written quite fluently.

It describes a life that it is barely imaginable: twenty-plus years a slave, most of it fairly lucky by slavery standards, but he still had his fair share of physical abuse as well as the constant mental torture of being the property of another with no choice about his own life, and no hope for emancipation.


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Asquith by Roy Jenkins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I never got why Asquith was so consistently overlooked as a national figure.

If anyone ever talks about great Liberal Prime Ministers it’s always Gladstone this and Lloyd George that, poor old Squithy never gets a look-in.

As one of the few figures of consequence to actually come from Leeds, we should be bloody well talking him up, not letting Lloyd George overshadow him.

This biography is a bit old-fashioned and shallow. It’s good, and readable, and tells the story with minimal focus on childhood, and maximum focus on his time in Number 10, which is the right balance (reading about other people’s childhoods is almost as boring as reading about other people’s dreams).


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When people have nothing left to learn

You know when you get asked a question and then three hours later you think of the answer you should have said?

Frustrating, isn’t it?

It drives me nuts.

Not to the point where I want to go on a furious rampage through the city streets, more like I want to write a terse LinkedIn post. Each to their own …

It happened the other day when I was being interviewed for TLDChat about L&D, change management and leadership development. I was asked about what to do when you’ve got a room full of leaders and you get one who thinks they already know everything and have nothing left to learn.

If this happens in real life, I’d know what to do … much as I enjoy working with open-minded professionals who love learning, when you do this sort of thing a lot, you kind of like (in small doses) the awkward buggers who make it harder. I wouldn’t want a room full of them, and would tire if they persisted for the whole session, but now and again it’s fun to test your wits against the tougher cookies.

What I said during the interview was fine, but it was incomplete and vague.

It would be misleading to suggest there’s a secret one-size-fits-all formula that always works, and it is correct that it’s a judgement call where you need to flexibly apply soft skills honed through years of thorny experience, but there is some solid ground beneath our feet here, and there are a series of steps you can take that will increase the likelihood of you being effective.

So this is what I wish I’d said …

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The importance of knowing where the brakes are

I took a bike from my hotel in Stockholm ride to the office.

This was chiefly because I have an injured foot and the 20-minute walk wasn’t going to help it any, but also because I am envious of people who get to commute by bicycle, so I thought I’d pretend to be one of those people.

I haven’t ridden a bike since about 1997 when a friend bought a new bike and gave me his rusty old one. I rode it back to my flat, struggling along, the warped frame trapping the wheels so the stupid thing slowed to a halt even going down hills. I propped it up by the steps next to my house, and ran upstairs to get something: that was the last I saw of it.

The ride to work was uneventful. I didn’t feel comfortable going too fast, it was an old clanger of a contraption, and I was wearing a suit and was without a helmet, so I took it slow; I was not keen to arrive at work with torn clothing and visible bruising.


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Stuff I wish I’d know years ago: five top tips for interviewing people

I just spent a day interviewing people.

There is a reason Julie Andrews didn’t include running a recruitment campaign in her list of favourite things: compared to raindrops on roses and/or whiskers on kittens, interviewing people can be a real chore.

This is a problem because it’s also one of the most important things we ever do … and yet so few people do it well.

If we get it wrong we might miss out on great talent, but more importantly we might employ someone who ends up costing us a huge amount of energy and cash, and damages the motivation and performance of others in the organisation.

This is the main reason running “Interview Skills” workshops is one of my favourites. It’s such an important topic and has lovely clear positive tangible outcomes (I hear loads of great stories from previous participants about interviews they’ve run after the workshop, and how they’ve ended up making different – better – decisions as a consequence).

One of the things participants like is that it has a few solid tips and techniques that can make such a big difference.

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Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life by John Campbell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A very good book, but more than that, a very interesting and inspiring subject – much more so than I realised.

Two things in particular: first he was someone whose politics were remarkably similar to my own; and second he had the concept of living life to the full, “a life well lived,” which is something I never quite worked out for myself, but aspire to.

I remember Roy Jenkins from my own childhood. Not very well, but I knew who he was. I clearly remember the SDP and thought he was the stuffy old one who looked a bit out of place next to the glamour of the much younger David Owen and David Steel. Later when I studied politics properly, he cropped up as a big name in Harold Wilson’s first period in office (Home Secretary, then Chancellor), but I didn’t know the detail, and he seemed to peak way back in the sixties, and then wander off to Europe before returning to split Labour and melt away into obscurity.


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If you’ve missed a flight recently, you’re not spending enough time in airports

In this post I tackle three big issues facing the frequent flyer.

A lot of the advice for the business traveller is based on three assumptions: speed is king, you need to keep working all the time, and you don’t need clean pyjamas.

I disagree; I’m not that kind of traveller.

We work incredibly hard most of the time, have lengthy commutes, and often return to a busy house with a long list of responsibilities. Travel is an opportunity to take care of ourselves, to have some peace and quiet, to meditate, to escape the hurly-burly senseless busy-ness of most of our working days.

So don’t feel the need to spend every waking second of travel on your laptop working at breakneck speed, use the peace and solitude to reflect and take a step back.

Early or late?

If you haven’t missed a flight recently, you’re spending too much time in airports

(Dr Jordan Ellenberg)

I don’t agree; I’m not that kind of traveller.

Ellenberg says that I could be doing something better with my time rather than idling it away in an airport terminal, that the “opportunity cost” of my arriving early is subtracting from all this productive stuff I would have been doing otherwise.

Well, Dr E, there are some mighty big assumptions in there.

If I waited until the last minute to get to the airport I wouldn’t be doing anything productive, I’d be standing around, glancing at my watch, and anxiously thinking about needing to get to the airport. At least if I’m already there I can relax and read and drink coffee, which is all I really want to do anyway.


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Who are you going to believe, me or your lying brain?

Hi I’m John, and I’m biased.

I am not the only one. You are too.

In fact all human beings are born with a set of biases and mental shortcuts that help us survive and deal with the world around us.

In the past such biases were vital to survival.

We didn’t need to worry about being fair and inclusive when we were living in caves; we were more concerned with finding the next woolly mammoth and avoiding being eaten by lions.

Issues such as creating a diverse community were way down our priority list.

Back then, if we automatically feared the unknown person from the outsider tribe down the road, at worst we’d lose out on what could have been a beautiful friendship. If we got it wrong the other way around, including someone dangerous in our group, then we’d have likely lost our heads – literally – and evolution favours people with heads … ergo survivors are more likely to be suspicious of strangers.

The issue of bias goes beyond how we jump to conclusions about other people.

It includes how we approach all kinds of incoming information, especially that which contradicts what we think is true – again, evolving on the savanna didn’t equip us to distinguish the good data wheat from the misleading chaff; instead it left us transfixed by shiny objects and distracted by movement.

This was important functionality back in the day when it was vital to spot unexpected movement in the bushes – but times have changed, and being distracted by a TV screen when someone’s trying to talk to you is now more a bug than a feature, reducing our ability to perform, not enhancing it.

Now that we live and work in a multicultural global environment we need to broaden our vision beyond our own narrow bias-filled perspectives if we want to make good decisions.

This isn’t easy.

In fact a lot of biases will persist even if you are aware of them and intellectually believe they are wrong … but we can only manage what we’re aware of, and whilst we cannot rid ourselves of these hardwired shortcuts, we can change our behaviour to move beyond them.

I discussed all this (and more) in a recent Trainer Tools podcast with Paul Tizzard, and talked through a workshop I have delivered on the subject – including my favourite ever illusion:

In the picture above, squares A and B are actually the same colour.

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Making training effective: closing the habit gap

Training has a success rate of 1%

This means that of the total potential value (TPV) that could be added to the organisation if all the skills and knowledge of the training course were implemented consistently and to a high standard, only 1% is realised.

In other words: rV (realised value) is equal to 1% of TPV (total possible value).

OK, I just made that up.

Not just the numbers, I also made up the concept of rV and TPV.

None of it came from any form of evaluation or research, I just pulled it out the air – but they sound true, and that’s good enough for me to construct the following argument.

There are three internal factors that get in the way of learning leading to improved performance. For the first two, I borrow from Blanchard and Hersey model of “Situational Leadership”, the other is from observation and from Peter Senge’s rubber-band analogy about habitual behaviour.

  • Motivation (do they want to do it)
  • Confidence (do they feel they are able to do it)
  • Habit (do they default to other behaviours – do they remember to do it)

There are also three external factors, but I’m not including those here for fear of this post turning into a tome – but for completeness they are culture, management, and opportunity.

Training is concerned primarily with closing knowledge gaps, and to an extent addressing skills gaps – at least giving the learner a start on closing the skills gap.

Training can influence the motivation gap, and by encouraging action planning, coaching and practice, it can begin to tackle the confidence and even habit gap, but it’s that pesky habit gap that’s the big stumbling block.

(See here for a great podcast on action planning and other learning implementation strategies)

The Habit Gap

A habit is the default response, it’s the six-lane neurological pathway that cuts through our brain, it’s the road you travel on autopilot because you don’t notice the poorly-maintained rabbit paths snaking off to the side, paths that could lead anywhere.

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Travel broadens the waistline

It’s a fairly long way to Vilnius from Spain.

You have to go via Warsaw or Helsinki or even Moscow, but Moscow involves a transit visa, and it means flying over Vilnius in order to come right back again, several hours later. Such graceless inefficiency offends me.

And … if there is one cast-iron rule of travel it is this: never take a route that requires a visa unless you have absolutely no choice.

I could have gone via London or Amsterdam. These options were somewhere north of 27 hours each way. My computer presented them anyway, with a straight face, as if I might seriously consider them.

No sense of the ridiculous – one of the many problems with Windows 10.


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The standard you walk past is the standard you accept

The standard you walk past, is the standard you accept

This great quote – attributed to Lieutenant General David Lindsay Morrison (a senior officer in the Australian Army) – was first said to me by Dan Pruce, a speaker on one of our leadership development programmes.

Dan’s story went something like this:

Every day I walked past a scruffy old hedge.

The hedge ran along the side of one of our office buildings, our gardener was responsible for giving it an occasional trim. I supposed that because the public rarely saw it, it had tumbled down the priority list, and got little attention.

It annoyed me, but it wasn’t my priority either, and I didn’t really think of it as something under my sphere of influence. It took me a while before I realised I could do something about it.

So I put aside my reservations about being seen to be wasting time on an unimportant issue, and ignored my inner voice shouting at me to stop being annoying, and I met the gardener and asked that the hedge be maintained to a higher standard.

It was a small thing, but from that moment on I never walked past something I thought wasn’t good enough.

Odd for a story about topiary to be so meaningful, but the central message was clear: if you’re a leader, and you don’t challenge it, that means it’s OK.

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Change: principles of problem formations and problem resolution by Paul Watzlawick, John H. Weakland, and Richard Fisch

This isn’t an organisational change book.

It’s about individual problem solving from the perspective of psychology and therapy – but the underlying ideas are applicable to change management anyway, and for this reason the book is a useful addition to the change manager’s bookshelf.

Change is an individual journey anyway.

All change management models I can think of: PROSCI’s ADKAR, Kotter’s 8 Steps, William Bridges Transitions model, Lewin’s unfreeze-change-freeze (that really needs a better name), change equation, Peter Senge’s approach … they all focus on the individual (less so Kotter perhaps).

So a psychological approach is useful, but we have to be careful. If we’re not trained psychologists, we have to be cautious with using the little bit of knowledge we get from this sort of book, and make sure we don’t overreach into territory we’re not qualified to operate in.

So I’m not going to talk about all parts of the book, I’m going to twist this review toward organisational change management and learning and development … so if you’re interested in this from a therapist’s perspective, this review won’t float your boat.


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Why I came to Spain (part one): the footsteps of Don Pelayo

Spain started in Oviedo.

Or, to be a bit more precise, the local Visigothic ruler, Don Pelayo (later King Pelayo), defeated the Moors at the battle of Covadonga around 718, establishing a Christian kingdom in Asturias, and so began the reconquest of Spain that wasn’t completed until 1492.

Like King Pelayo before me, I too started my Spanish life in Asturias.

Pelayo made Cangas de Onis his capital before shifting his court to Oviedo. I took a more direct approach and went straight to the Asturian capital, no messing about.

Day one

I took an early bus from Madrid (Note 1) and had no real idea where I was going or just how big and empty Spain was. I stared at the endless flat plains of León as we drove on and on, nothing to see for miles. Hours later we climbed up into the Cantabrian mountains and eventually emerged into the driving rain of Asturias. I understood that Spain was not just hot and sunny beaches, but there was not a single time that I came out of that mountain pass and it wasn’t raining cats and dogs.

Oviedo didn’t look great from the bus. It looked drab and shoddy, but then very few cities look nice from the point of view of their bus stations. Oviedo’s bus station was surrounded by apartments that hung their washing out on spiderweb carousels overhanging the central courtyard where the buses parked. I wouldn’t like to dry my pants in full view of the city’s travellers, and would fear that they could easily become dislodged and fall, ending up on the roof of a bus, never to be seen again.

I walked out, suddenly realising that my happy-go-lucky lack of planning had a negative side. I had no idea where to go, what to do or how to speak the language. I felt lonely but not lost. It was an exciting and exhilarating – if a little daunting – feeling of freedom and opportunity; it was like I was actually living my life at last, and that anything could happen.

This feeling waned slightly as I checked into a hostel and was shown to my room.

It was small with a uncomfortable bed and a postage-stamp-sized window in the top corner of the far wall. Stig of the Dump would have felt at home in that room, although he may have complained about the lack of natural light. Desperate to recapture the feeling of youthful adventure, I went to enjoy a beer, a smoke and my Jack Kerouac book.

I didn’t particularly want a beer, or a smoke, or indeed to read the Kerouac book, but I thought it was best to try to live up to the idea of who I was supposed to be.

When I’d left University earlier that same year, I’d decided that it wasn’t cricket for an educated fellow to be monolingual. Having enjoyed a holiday in Spain the year before, travelling around the Basque Country and the Ebro valley, I’d seen a side of Spain that I really liked. It was both lively and easy-going, relaxing but energetic. And had great food, cheap booze and pretty girls. Even the language didn’t seem like such an impenetrable impossible mouthful as French or German, the two European languages I had tried (and failed) to wrestle with previously. Spanish seemed to flow better, it was difficult and often maddening, but at least it went with the grain, not against it.

That first day in Oviedo I realised that I didn’t know a thing. The few phrases of this bizarre foreign tongue (2) I’d picked up on previous trips were better than nothing, but only in the same way as a grain of salt is better than no salt in a scenario where you need loads of salt.

Continue reading “Why I came to Spain (part one): the footsteps of Don Pelayo”

Listen! Not everything’s visual. Use more podcasts!

People should use podcasts more in learning and development.

It’s a very easy and accessible way of creating additional content to complement face-to-face learning events.

A podcast is just an audio file.

You can listen to a podcast online, or, more usually, download it and listen on your phone when commuting or out running or at the gym.

It’s as simple as that.

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Building teams with biscuits

I am not the World’s Biggest Fan of teambuilding days.

I have had good experiences, and I’ve had mediocre experiences, and I’ve also had drunken experiences that are best forgotten, so it’s not that teambuilding events are always a bad thing; it’s just that they’re not usually my thing.

I’m not entirely comfortable facilitating them either.

I feel nervous that I’m adding enough value to justify the time and cost commitment – is it really a good use of the organisation’s coin – I ask myself – as I watch people rolling around in treacle trying to build a bridge with a box of paperclips and a stack of A4 paper?


It was a relief to chat to Paul Tizzard about this topic for the Trainer Tools podcast (see here: Practical approach to fun and effective teambuilding events) because it helped me think through different structures and approaches to teambuilding events, and I find structure is a great way to help plug a confidence gap.

During the discussion we stumbled on a silly thing called Belbin’s Biscuits – a light-hearted variation on the famous team roles model by Dr Meredith Belbin.

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I have inventified a new tensy thing in English

I think I’m going to call it the imprecise tense, or maybe the inexact tense. I haven’t decided yet.

It’s a very important tense, and we need to use it more often.

But it must be used precisely.

It is not used to convey imprecision of understanding in the subject (e.g. “these new-fangled computery thingies”), it is used to convey imprecision in the object of the sentence (e.g ”I’ve got some datary stuff on this topic”).

We are taught to be precise and professional in our speech, especially when presenting information or writing professional reports.

The problem is that precise language can be misleading.

It overstates the accuracy of what we’re talking about, appealing to the “precision bias” in us all.

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SMART objectives can be really DUMB

How many people and organisations suffer through the process of objective setting, insisting they be SMART, and yet feel like they’re an unnecessary evil that gets in the way of the day job?

SMART is one of those cases where the acronym is so good, it takes over the whole process.

Of course objectives must be Specific and Measurable, although being measurable means that they have to be specific anyway. Objectives should ideally be Agreed, always Realistic, and adding Time-bound at the end is absolutely crucial – there has to be a deadline (I’m using the definition of SMART from MindTools).

In other words, being specific about what you want and when you want it.

The problem is that it doesn’t often work out that way.

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