PhD and me – starting with realism

Projecting a realistic ideal

A blog offering a little reality into what a nerd considers to be a summer well spent. My preparations towards the start of my PhD. And how reality really is far from ideal.

📆 My formal introductions to my PhD are almost upon me. This summer has perhaps been my final dalliance with free time for what may be years. The little prof within me is quietly pleased. I’m excited, like only nerds can be, at going back to school.

🗄 Administration is still real…🖇📎🪪

Registration at University of Leeds felt quite familiar last week. All online and a few weeks ahead of time. A wrestle with new systems, weblinks, passwords, ID checks, and proofs. But all-in-all pretty slick. Very much akin to my online registration at University of Nottingham a year ago, almost to the day. And if I think back to City, University London, in 2019, registration has become easier. No disrespect to City, I am sure they are improved too. I just think the post-Covid era has moved us all on. The same admin required, but queuing at a desk beats standing in line. Especially 4 hours away from my campus, dealing with lockdown still, and less enthused at standing amongst a mostly near-teen cohort, me being aged 49.

📉 Reality check in a bear market

Did someone say recession three times in early July? Because the housing market has suddenly dried up. That’s the summer experience I can offer, anyway. So I’m starting my next degree very much like the last – remotely – albeit I hope not for long. My supervisors are being wonderfully understanding – my estate agent doing all that they can.

💭 Philosophically speaking 🗣

Ongoing lockdown has afforded me more time spent philosophically engaged. I have spent the summer in the company of phenomenology, transcendental idealism, and existential fear. Heidegger’s 1927 Being and Time as the spine from which wider reading has ballooned. This meant revisiting Kant, introductions better made to Kierkegaard, Tillich, Barfield, and an inevitable flirt once more with Jung, and all manner of those living with the greater crisis of meaning – more meaningful at least than any crisis of my own.

📚 The reality of learning what is hard

Philosophical works can be impenetrably hard. Assistance is almost compulsory for us mere mortals – especially those of us hobby readers with no prior philosophical training or formal learning. For me, that has meant books and academic papers to help unpick that puzzle. A few friendly post-grads (found via LinkedIn) willing to offer up a list of those secondary sources from whom experience has confirmed explain all best. But also so many lecture series that are worth watching. Audiobooks of some of those great philosophical works. Most are freely available on YouTube. I wonder how many know how much there is out there? Knowledge just waiting to be watched.

👥 Real networks for real people 🫂

I must also mention the ongoing generosity of peoples’ time. I give mine up too, but it is still amazing how many people are happy to speak openly about subject matter that is otherwise so hard. LinkedIn is full of possibility, if one just asks. So much welcoming active-learning and sharing.

As a PhD student I now have a new title to use in introductions. However, I think my success in making such connection is simply by being actively engaging in discourse online. Demonstrating some shared interest. Finding those with something to say. That creates a trust enough for strangers to become willing to give up their own time. This summer that has included a few friendly and generous professors and project practitioners equal in their kindness in sharing precious time. One of whom knows Heidegger’s work well enough to use in business school teaching – wow! – and he was delighted to receive an invite to chat – I think I may have struck gold with that cold call. We have spoken once a week all summer, and will probably do so for sometime more.

Such two-way engagement, one-on-one real-time discourse, is unquestionably my preferred mode of building. Building my network and building upon knowledge at the same time. Each of us in it for nothing more rewarding than a little discourse. A possibility of loosening the grip upon one mindful perspective at a time, enough to let new ideas in. That’s how ideas become real. Leaving the mind, and let free into the world. Free and for free, for those willing to be.

💭 Real thought lives outside the mind 🧠

Manage your network, and make that the value of your time. These are the projects of learning and the projects of future possibility.

Producing thought leadership is sometimes as simple as “you show me yours, and I’ll show you mine”. The output need not be a formality or a production. I’ve made connections and friendship over the summer that I hope last a long time. Trust builds that way.

“…projects are about people, not spreadsheets…”

Real advice I recently offered to Euromoney Project Finance students

As I said as part of some training production materials I participated in creating recently, “projects are about people, not spreadsheets…”. In my career I have had the privilege of being part of problem solving moments and all come from time spent with people. I feel sure it is that human interface that will be central to any success I hope to have in my PhD.

↪️ a real change of mind ↩️

Now for the bigger reality check. For me a lesson, or perhaps affirmation, or reward, for keeping an open mind. Despite the hundreds of hours of spare time I’ve given up towards new learning this summer, the philosophy I have spent so much effort to better understand may have fallen short in the end. I can best illustrate this by offering an examination of the final book of my summer read. I hope the real reason for my reality references are herein revealed.

Tom Sparrow (2015) “The end of phenomenology: Metaphysics and the new realism

[with a foreword by the Object Orientated Ontologist, Graham Harman – editor of this wider speculative realism series]

Tom Sparrow has proved a fitting – if phenomenologically devastating – end to my summer reading. He made quick work of the future failings of “phenomenology” and with it perhaps much of the truth I have gleefully read over this summer.

He concludes that my beloved phenomenology is doomed, and can only hope to be “…the handmaiden of science” (Sparrow 2015 pp188).

Sparrow is drawing upon the clashes of past masters – Husserl, plus his rebellious 20th century defining protégés Heidegger, and the almost greats who have since stood upon those shoulders: notably Merleau-Ponty; but Derrida, Sartre, and much of the continental tradition are herein drawn into view.

The result is a beautifully crafted critique. All pointing to a mind that is going to work methodically and cautiously; but with critical verve and devilish mastery of building a critical case. I loved his analysis of the dissonance and squabbling within the one phenomenology palace. His courage enough to professionally stand with those on the southern more impoverished side of the tracks is also noted, given he comes from a phenomenology orientated university accord. He appeals to the speculative realists, although admits to the further need of building a critical case toward their speculative place. Indeed his lean upon Graham Harman is extensive, freely admitted, and becomes the basis of a large weight of arguments made, including the predicted future orientation of the philosophy of things in themselves without transcendental idealism or hard-nosed materialism (cf Chapter 4 in particular).

All is not lost, he assures me, of my summer spent with Heidegger or phenomenology. We are advised that phenomenology’s strength is when it is put in opposition to scientific reductionism to offer another perspective, thereby, “…locked in a dialectical relation to scientific naturalism…” pp187. But it’s future is no less a relegation. Destined to be the “…irreducible supplement to natural science…” pp188.

Notwithstanding these huge blows, Heidegger has made a lasting impression upon me. As has existentialism and the recently claimed limitations associated with intentionality, consciousness and the object:subject phenomena pairing of correlationism – the eidos or intellectual core that makes phenomenology what it is (to which eidos our Sparrow has helped deny from within). Tom Sparrow pulls the latter asunder and my summer living with phenomenology may have just flown south as a result, at least as a complete philosophy.

The Sparrow that took the intentions of consciousness and thereby denied phenomenology a means to breath real air. Pinning it into its “correlationist” corner, branding it a “philosophy of access” – siding with Meillassoux and Harman by their critique and those boundary defining terms.

Meillassoux and Harman are both from the Goldsmith University origins of speculative realism. Both of whom tell us phenomenology demands those living by its name must also be tamed by the human lens by which all reality (if one is to stay true to phenomenology) is therein framed. Speculative realism rejects this. Objects are not so easily assumed to be as we subjectively perceive them. That claim cannot be made from within phenomenology. And Sparrow assures us the philosophical fashion of the day is speculatively turning, and that continental examination is on the wain. The real, not the ideal.

🧰 Ready-to-hand 🔨🔧🪛

This book threatens much of my summer preparations. Phenomenology appeals to me because my research up until now suggests we need to better explain what a project is. What being in a project represents. My whole summer has been spent reading this philosophical perspective of seeking what it is to be, because I think it offers some machinery, a tool, or device, that may help me refine my own arguments as to what a project is. What it is in a meaningful and wider sense, beyond any pithy definition. And here is Tom Sparrow successfully (in my opinion) presenting fundamental questions to that ontological grounding.

Mercifully, Sparrow (together with Harman and the speculative realists) do at least permit me to embrace phenomenological method. I merely delegate its primacy. If I have a tool, one that enables additional perspective alongside more scientific rigour, well that might actually suit me just fine. I do not need a complete philosophy, I just need method or examination of those limits, as to apply to matters of human interaction and ways to be. And how best they can be applied as projections towards better outcomes in projects by grasping better the needs to control what is yet to be. Surely I may be permitted to have claim on what is not yet present, to not yet be real? So my Sparrow, and his hawkish SR clan, perhaps leave me that future carrion at least to plunder as I go.

🌞 My summer summary 📚📕📗

That perhaps better summarises my summer project, or least in it’s aim fulfilled. Hardly reflecting the pedagogy, or the praxis, but certainly the teleology.

It further supports the next project I embark upon this week. I have that knowledge imbibed, at least. That goal fulfilled – as the insight I sort. Insight that further exemplifies the dangers of committing to a position as much of the late 20th Century philosophical canon has committed to. But it also confirms the necessity to commit one way or other anyway. How else can one find the limitations from which all knowledge grows? That is the reality of learning, the participation, and the experience, even when driving beyond what can be propositionally known.

💼 Ready for school?

I pack my metaphorical school bag again, and I reflect upon those more concerned with such fundamental truth. I remain unperturbed – unperturbed by knowing I cannot hope be the disrupting ideas or reality as Sparrow or the hawk-eyed Harman et al are perhaps moving us all to be. Them the realists. Me just being realistic. Realistic to the time I have left. Realistic to my intellectual neglect or the capacity it reflects.

🎯 Teleologically clear 🎯

I am however, seeking to conclude my own purpose in this cacophony of noise, and in a sometimes too constrained academic space. I can at least press to understand a little more those grander notions of what is. And towards a question of doing that sustainably.

In the end, is that not what project management becomes or can ever hope to be? A scarcity of resources and time, conflicting perspectives and interests necessarily but temporarily aligned (or at least cajoled) and directed towards an end. Managed to maximise likelihood of intended outcome, or more cynically to facilitate a distancing from blame. Realistic or idealistic is therein moot – speculative or otherwise – because if we are not being sustainable that is now our shared existential threat. Indeed if I may play with a word learnt today, we share culpability for iatrogenic risk, now as existential threat, and all project priorities teleologically clear.

“…the handmaiden of science”.

Tom Sparrow 2015 “The end of phenomenology” (pp188)

Everyone’s goal now needs to be orientated around sustainability. My purpose, or at least my intent, is to seek evidence that we can find ways to assess the appropriateness of the how. Ways that I suspect are best accepted as “…the handmaiden of [project management] science” but a compliment to risk assessment all the same. So perhaps, I am well placed enough to contribute in some modest way toward this fundamental enquiry all the same.

…to be continued

Is “Quiet Quitting” really a thing?

‘Quiet Quitting’ is not laying flat enough for me

27th August 2022

Tang Ping : is to lay flat.  A controversial phrase popularised by its supposedly being banned in State control of social media in China.  Supposedly.  It is associated with possibility of social rebellion of industrial scale apathy.  To lay flat at work, is to be present but unproductive and unseen.  Quiet Quitting has therein become the August phrase of choice to collectively approximate disengagement of a workforce, especially of the young.

Quiet quitting. I am immediately on edge by this trending phrase.  Simply because it seems to have captured the imagination of folk-psychology and has happily landed into immediate everyday language as something to be diagnosed and cured.

I found myself saying the following on a LinkedIn post today:

“Quiet quitting” will be the next great harm. Not as a thing, but as a grouping of issues that become hidden by this term. Just as “wokeism” becomes a convenience of debate.  We get to the heart of a problem by pulling it apart. Not bundling constraints up into a pithy phrase. Mental health starts with the dissonance being exposed, not upheld. Quiet quitting is not a phenomenon to manage, it is a false-step of pseudo-diagnosis being shared in the dark.”

LinkedIn chat

Unsupported in academic writing. A few hours of searching through my university library is a cursory look. I have not researched this thoroughly.  But I have found no academically obvious links to bring “quiet quitting” into my corner of science i.e., psychology.  Psychology Today have found means to comment using the term in blogspace, but this quickly moved into surer footing.  As to peer reviewed papers, I have had to turn to a management journal piece from 2018 that offers pre-quitting behaviour as a connection of sorts.  However, the more socially constructed truism or appropriation seems the less rigorous source of a term I suspect is already here to stay.  Please let me know if a more thorough check of academic literature offers more support than my brief examination uncovered.

Let us find ways to engage. This is not to discredit the notion of what quiet quitting is suggesting overall.  We must certainly have the discussion about engagement.  Let us widen this out to the full teleological discussion of life, or the subsets of priorities, meaning, and how to better share goals.  Let us perhaps further widen this challenge towards long-term objectives; innate motivations; autonomy of action; all of which I believe brings sustainability discussion to the fore.  But let us proceed with more rigour and less reaction to trend.

PhD and me. I will have such teleological challenge close to hand in my PhD research into project threat.  I begin that in earnest in a month from now.  And if personal observation from consulting and discourse is indicative, “engagement” is an emergent discussion – one I am now having regularly.

Fashions are not facts. But please, please, let us not fall into the easiest of all traps – and ironically be directed in our efforts based upon nothing more than the hearsay of popular everyday truisms.  Truisms that are founded on nothing other than the media circus that now distracts us from longer-term purpose in the today.

Five reasons to keep a journal

Do you keep a journal? Or, just wonder if you should? Then read on…

A blog offered as a personal insight into my measured but unbalanced calm. Here are my five reasons to journal.

Writing is my sanctuary. One discovered late in life, but all the more delightful because of that novelty. My hiatus from my blog of late is because I have my head back in my journal, and a less public period of reflection on my part.

Here are a few reasons why I sometimes favour my journal over either social media or my blog:

Reason one:
avoiding oversharing

It is good to talk. I am pretty bad at sharing my emotional range, but even beyond my willingness to do this now, I still like some semblance of Pre-Frontal Cortex control. This really does not need to be a spectator sport. Tears and social media seem a misplaced public display again this week. A CEO can cry. Who knew? Who cares? Both the real, the fake, and those tears in jest all seem to be an overshare, at least to me. When you really need to explore your feelings – and you really should – do it safely.

  • ✅ Best mates
  • ✅ Professionals
  • ✅ Journal
  • Not social media

Maybe talk it through. But if it is to be written, the journal is only ever going to listen, not laugh or mock. Writing it down can however also be its own therapy.

Have you ever written a caustic and undiluted email, and then just deleted it?

I share personal stuff on this blog. And that automatically lands on LinkedIn. But writing it down is often done long before the share. That’s just basic risk management – of both mental welfare and reputation. Have you ever written a caustic and undiluted email and then just deleted it? You should try it. It can feel great to both write it and then not have to deal with the reality of sending it. Same with a journal entry, plus you get to read it later in private and laugh or quietly chastise yourself. You should see some of the stuff I say but that never goes anywhere…

2013 Blackberry – don’t send that drunk reply!!

In the 2010s I would joke that all company Blackberry (remember them) should have a breathalyser test.

Maybe everyone should journal? Imagine if half the nonsense on social media just went into peoples journals and never saw the light of day – how much happier might the discourse that is aired then be.

Reason two:
manage your dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance is that pang of angst you experience when two truths collide – collide because they cannot both be true. There is a wealth of social psychological literature explaining this in detail (cf. Leon Festinger 1947 onwards).

Cognitive Dissonance Theory as summarised in my MSc Psychology notes

Evidence of this dissonance it is everywhere in daily life, and often helps explain cancel culture, them and us disputes, individual agitation, but also an inner sense of unrest between action and incompatible beliefs.

Bringing dissonance toward a positive conscious end

Harnessing dissonance: I actually enjoy the feeling of dissonance – at least when I have some sense of what it is highlighting. It can however sometimes consume me, torments me, or inwardly mock. Two truths that cannot be is a sign I am close to something interesting to uncover. But it can be exhausting just letting it fester within.

Nurturing dissonance: With practice – in my case therapy, extensive reading of psychology, meditative practice, and a permitted openness to hold for longer what just cannot be – this dissonance can be better felt, used, and even reached for. In other words, it can then be extrapolated and the threads captured and written down. Furthermore, with a little Heidegger in mind, I am minded to think it may be encourage to reveal insight (see the end of this block).

Parking dissonance: I sometimes just park the threads upon a page and suddenly my dissonance is less, and I can temporarily walk away. That is not to repress the issue (which is what most of us do), but it is a means of revisiting the conflict of ideas with less felt need for early closure or rejection of its relevance at all.

Inviting challenge when dissonance is missing: Other times I may note my absolute conviction towards something, by the way it has been written, and actively challenge that certainty.

Reason three:
Personal growth

The method not the show

Carl Jung embraced his own theorising and developed a process of “individuation” to which many of his personal books attest. Not that this is new, he borrowed much from philosophical classics, medieval, and modernity before him.

Throughout history the more private inward side of known figures have been elucidated posthumously by their personal note books.

The tortured soul: Carl Jung, Frederick Nietzsche, and Martin Heidegger, are known to us more from such writings in ways that I think each relate to growth through their writings. Each fair rather badly as people in this posthumous light (IMHO). Brilliant minds, tortured souls, and seemingly unsettled accounts at the end. But this also shows their process, and their changing perspectives over time. They each built their work out over time through their reflections.

The stoic goal: Marcus Aurelius’ meditations are quite possibly the best stoic treasure of all time. The whole Roman Empire was his burden, and mostly that was filled with war. His meditations are almost all his journal to himself. Humble he remained, and ever watchful to seek means to grow from his burden – his stewardship burden – and the grace he perpetually rediscovered to do this well.

Personal space

In the close care of my therapist, my journal became something of a free write for about a year. Very Jungian in its approach, very personal, very frightening, or exciting, or revealing at times. By comparison to the great minds like Jung or Nietzsche, my archetypal examination was somewhat comedic. From a Heideggerian perspective I was perhaps more Disney than profoundly Dasein. It became about 200 pages of personal fiction but based upon characters I was developing from within. Lockdown gave me that time. My journal gave me that safe psychological space.

Here are a couple of characters born out of that exploration. I found creative outlets came more easily once this process opened up:

Jack is my inner wit, guide, and mischief-maker, to shake the paradox of self-certainty
Jaqueline guides when I may leap toward shadow

Maybe that is my oversharing for the day. Only my therapist and I are ever likely to read all 200 pages – a singular example of a very open yet covert journey of change. And that is absolutely its rightful and surreal place. This was my intense Jungian phase – a child enabled to express all upon a creative stage – a place I emerged from to move to the next, but which I occasionally return to for fresh insight. One of my examples. For my journal allows for more – without need of such close fiction or psychoanalytic reflection. Only a journal permits that level of personal examination. Or the space to move beyond it without anyone witnessing that personal growth – but perhaps seeing the uplift in that change.

Reason four:
A dumping ground

We all have great ideas. Or at least we think we do. A journal is a great place to park them and later find them or rework them anew. I am currently reading Heidegger – because that’s what I am currently into – and many of the notes I am accumulating now sit in my journal. These aggregations are easily found, and easily contextualised alongside my wider writing accordingly. Before that I was reading Thomas Aquinas and Soren Kierkegaard. Last summer it was Immanuel Kant.

Often times, it is nothing so profound, or hard and/or pretentious. LinkedIn often generates the start. As my journal connects my notes I have much more to hand. Happenstance and odd connection happens occasionally. Soon a few strands may land toward my PhD, but having the notes in my journal makes them all easily found and contextualised.

The pre-journal or mobile notebook

I also use iCloud notes. Any flight of fancy or pithy phrase I hear myself say may prompt a quick note to myself. Most are nonsense (they are of course genius at the time). Some prompt further thinking. A few get completely forgotten but find place anew at a later time. When I am being organised I bring those notes back into my journal. It is interesting (in a very inward and personal way) to find a stray thought – and surprising how much extra recall it then brings back to life. No one else wants or needs to be privy to that. LinkedIn content creators please note…

Reason five:
Expanded practice

Society and technology seems to now be converging around the written word in near real time. If we want to be heard, in reality we are increasingly required to be read. Why would we not want to be at our best in such written exchange?

My journal is often my first draft of something important. My iCloud notes may be that first capture of an additional perspective I need to include or a record of a perspective offered in discourse, social media thread, a book, or as it pops into my head.

After a few months of journaling or otherwise capturing notes, something rather odd happened to me. I found my writing temporarily bound by a rhythm of poetry. Terrible poetry – my wife assures me – but it was something that just emerged. It still does occasionally, and that’s okay. Okay, because it lands in my journal and very rarely leaves.

And finally, can we Heidegger a little deeper?

Timothy Clark (2002) writes of Martin Heidegger’s philosophical stance on the primacy of creative mediums. This refers to Heidegger’s assertion that the very best of literature and of art did not just present itself to us into the open, but that it changes the Open into which it appears (see full quote below).

Clark, T. (2002) Martin Heidegger: Routledge Critical Thinkers essential guides for literary students pp44

This very best of art, Heidegger tells us, is not a mimic of life, or a reflection of the world, or simply the aggregate of material and skills that put all into one place. It is beyond the artist or or those observing it (Clark 2002). Clark advises that Heidegger scorned poets who explained their work. If the art was being revealed before the artist, and not completed by them – who were they to explain it?

The being-at-a-distance that necessitates the revealing that Heidegger observes is one I like. Not that I am suggesting any journal – certainly not mine – can be a self-emergent possibility, autopoietic if you will, but it is certainly a thrill to glimpse upon a personal insight written before it is even inwardly heard, or see an image emerge beyond the initial plan.

Is that the better dissonance?

And perhaps there is no finer dissonance than the one that is participated in, and thereby revealed, before it was even knowingly felt – and beyond being propositionally real. In our modern norms we are rarely permitting ourselves to be more that the logical of propositional thought. This is Heidegger’s criticism of the entire Western Philosophical tradition. Accordingly, might he argue that you cannot later record that participatory process, only be present when it appears. Why not let that possibility into your day? The journal, and the language itself, the mode of disclosure, not the re-presenting of what was on your mind. Maybe your journal will unlock unexpected insight.

Thank you for reading my personal insights all the way to the end. I will now return to my loosened strands and thoughts, in that more private space. I enjoy these busy but outwardly quiet days. Perhaps I have convinced you to try it too. If so, just write that down, and only share it with you.

Random invites

Three reasons random invites fail, and why you should be worried if they succeed…

This blog is prompted by a noted increase in the number of random invite connections received on LinkedIn this month. I love connecting with new people, but some basics can be identified which seem to offer a universal truth.

visibility | behaviour | trust

I conclude this is principally a question of trust. But this connects to visibility, and to behaviour, with both necessarily increased if trust is to be found.

v | b | trust

Random invites. Context free and no prior history. Unless of course they can find you off-guard, but that is intent (i.e., behavioural) which should be inviting more than distrust because of the hidden truth that reveals (i.e., visibility).

v | behaviour | t

This is the behaviour of someone in a rush; or grouping you with many others; or hiding their intentions, concealing their real identity, and/or attempting to appeal to vanity where the less information offered is enabling more directed distraction. As such invites are also more likely part of a cluster, this offered more indicators that the invitation is intended for spamming or farming or otherwise hidden intent (i.e., purposeful low visibility)

visibility | b | t

This random invite is offering minimal visibility. With no note to bring to attention toward the intent of the invite. Less information, offering more uncertainty. Or targeted information without intended subterfuge (i.e., negative behaviour). Perhaps this is overtly using a profile title or photo image to attempt to skip past checks. Note how much more suspicious it is when with minimal extra effort you reveal there is limited information in the profile to offer context.

These are three categories to consider why random invites fail. Low trust, reinforced by minimal information or positive action.

The intentional deceit. And so what of covert attempts to overcome these signals? When might these random invites succeed? How about appealing to that covert side of our own behaviour, using that same overtly visible shallowness against us. Why might that work? I think deep down, we all know. It’s the means to override our more attuned sense of when to trust. Am I alone in being doubly suspicious when an unnecessarily dressed up face wants to say hello? Too right, I am. And if you are selling yourself by your image, that’s precisely the unsaid term I have just used. Without apology. Without limitation to ones preferences or bias. There are plenty doing this from all sides. These seem to me the most common-sense flags to avoid the many fake accounts that overtly play this game.

Examples of invite warning signs:

  • reliance upon shallow appeal (e.g., photo, title, pod followership)
  • offering little in way of content or prior chat
  • nothing relatable in profiles
  • industry or geography that seems completely left field

The interaction of visibility | behaviour | trust

So let me finally return to that telling lack of a note. That should say plenty. Why would you think someone is going to accept an invitation without a note that has something that connects you?

Conversely, I do actually send invitations without a note. But only because prior discussion has made that blatantly unnecessary. But then that’s increased trust, built via prior visibility and relatable behaviours.

Trust is built upon these principles, but should also be where it is lost…

Coaching more…

“…are your people empowered to spot quality issues, and the conditions that breed them, and speak up…?”

Dave Stitt (2022) “Coach for results”

A blog to briefly congratulate Dave Stitt on a book worth a place on the desk of any construction manager (and people managers everywhere).

Coach for Results : Empower your people to achieve the extraordinary. Dave Stitt (2022)

Dave and I connected instantly when we first spoke last year, completely unrelated to this or any other book. Our discussions have been varied since, always with shared enthusiasm, and unabashed confidence of where we have been, or going. His energy is infectious, his perspectives easy to align to, with pithy anecdote never far behind.

It was therefore no surprise at all to read his 2022 book in similarly attuned frame of mind. His passion comes through on every page; and the anecdotes help keep a steady pace, fixing each new point firmly into the construction paradigm.

Coaching Leadership

Here is Dave explaining what is different in engaging with your people in a coaching style

“…you stop seeing them as a problem to be fixed and you start seeing them as a treasure to be discovered…you say, ‘what do you think?’, and then you listen…you the coach and them the thinker…”

Stitt (2022) Coach for Results pp9-10

and Dave of the wider cultural transition possible

“…courtesy, respect, and esteem are universal…it is the antidote to exclusionary micro-cultures…”

Stitt (2022) Coach for Results pp25

The premise of the book is not new. The coaching leadership style is well documented and has probably not passed by any MBA or well-read manager or consultant. But Dave’s writing is to the point, backed up with pertinent example, and just enough academic reference to be assured the bridge between the two is secure. Crucially, everything is directed back to what counts most: the day to day of management and leadership, as it connects to the construction project world; and the care and growth of those coming through that are its future, and it’s today. Chapter 4 of this second edition offers confirmation of this appreciation, from at least a dozen cohorts from his accompanying training course.

Self-Determination Theory

As part of my psychology MSc this year, one module focused upon classical and contemporary social psychology. I have concluded that much of the management jargon I have been fed over the years, at least the decent concepts, have been influenced from here. Dave has a chapter outlining one of the most significant revelations (in my opinion). He does not name the series of connected theories per se, but he cites Dan Pink who is well respected in this psychological field, and Dave describes this and related theories perfectly.

It is called Self-Determination Theory, one I have written about before {here}. It helps explain why our obsession with motivation by cash incentive, as employer of internal teams or of external contracts and work packages, ultimately causes organisational or project harm. As Dave states “…external enticements…extrinsic motivations…are not very effective…” pp11, to which he then makes the comparison to command-and-control style management which is very much the abrasive construction norm most can relate (be that employee or supply chain relationship carrot and stick, comply or die culture we all know).

In Dave’s words:

“…command and control…sucks initiative, confidence and accountability out of a team…”

Stitt (2022) pp26

“…risky when…commercial agendas are indifferent to the success of the project as a whole…. Are your people empowered to spot quality issues, and the conditions that breed them, and speak up…?”

Stitt (2022) pp27

Understanding these implications of externalising motivations are lessons we should all have close to hand.

Managing the coaching conversation

Thereafter Dave offers some excellent practical advice in managing the coaching conversations. As an empathetic manager myself, with training from several multinational organisations seeking to enable this style of communication and learning leadership, these chapters resonate. Learning the right way to prepare and start such discussions, how to direct them, and how to conclude them in empowering rather than directing ways. These are important things to give your people their means to find their why. I am reminded of my own why in reading his words here, but also improved by these practical chapters and how they can be applied.

How far can coaching go?

I do disagree with Dave on one thing. His pragmatic stance is one in which the fundamentals of construction are considered beyond absolute change – it is just how it has evolved to be. My opinion, is that this confrontational industry norm is a reflection of how we set projects up. And if this more engaging coaching style of leadership were present in senior political spaces – where expectation was on leaders to bring teams with them, not just drive them hard to the next staging post – the projects serving these masters would be less caustic from the start. A world better informed and more real in its possibility in consideration of this project management style. But that is my research challenge – and therein my bias.

There is more I could offer in review. Dave has given plenty more insight and well reasoned connection to contemporary thought, similarly linking other behavioural thinking to construction project application. But I will let you read the rest for yourself. At 126 pages this is an afternoon’s single sitting read. But one to keep close by as that next chance to try “…a tool for challenging and supporting your people…”, pp14, to which both you and all your leaders-in-waiting should be demanding and apply.

Stitt, D (2022) “Coach for Results : empower your people to achieve the extraordinary” 21CPL Productions

49 not out – what about you?

Generation X-it

Can we afford to retire … with the work half-done? A blog relating the prospect of retirement, possibility of resignation from role, and the need to carry-on

Boris is done – surely – the rogue that some love but who many more have come to hate. If there is one undeniable truth – two words not quickly associated with his testimony – it is that he never gives up on himself.

My first question tonight is just how different is he from the leaders we may each aspire to be? We of similar age, if not similar bravado and self-belief. Boris, 58 years old – born June 1964 – represents the last of the baby-boomers by category of age (baby-boomers born 1946-1964). I am firmly within generation X (born 1965-1980), and by age alone it is now we whose time of life sees us amassing towards those top-most roles. So are we going to be the first of better, or the worst that there has been? We who grew-up to the mantra of greed is good, into low inflation and cheap flights, distracted by new tech and toys, and the internet of disposable things, when millionaires were the wealthy, not anyone with a maxed out pension pot. Are we set to be the most self-serving, self-righteous, and guilty in possibility of being the keenest to call time of any generation before? Is Boris the last, or the first of more to come?

Control of narrative or action?

I took the time to watch Boris’ testimony at the liaison select committee today {here}. His excuses extended to suggesting a culture of alcohol abuse in government {here 1:47:01}. No indication that lessons learnt in this latest episode include the appropriate checks of or support to candidates for government roles. In response to being asked what system is in place to help people with behavioural problems or alcohol, there was no offer of explanation beyond “we all have a duty as colleagues to look out for each other and to try and help people” (ibid ~1:48:03). There was curiously little suggestion that serious allegations of sexual misconduct sit long in his memory. Nor much indication that the vague recollection of parties which required an independent enquiry to help him recall, were being supported by any more rigorous means of decision-making assurance via record keeping or data control. Related or unrelated, such facts seem to reflect outdated cultural norms. Truth engineering or political spin, what his tenure exposes is an infection or pandemic of woeful attitudes, actions, and beliefs that exist alongside a lack of interest in critical controls, scrutiny of people or process, or even the basic expectations of recall of what to most would be stand-out moments of concern.

Boris does not stand and fall alone in this, but his leadership does stand apart for its sheer audaciousness in its disregard. Whilst I do not seriously think baby-boomers or generation X are suitably tarred with that one brush, it is we, generation X, who have every chance to be equally complicit and be remembered with similar disgrace if our own interest in those we serve and the wider communities we are part are not held higher in our priority of care.

Rewiring or retiring?

This I now present in its wider context. The world stage of which we are each now citizen actors upon. Change is upon us, environmental and socio-economic. Whether we are to blame or not is now irrelevant. The world need has changed, or at least our awareness of it has become more complete. It is with the constructive criticism and reflection of the likes of Boris Johnson that I think it this generation of proxy leaders, generation X, that is most in need to respond to what comes next. Not because we took more, or gave less, but just because we must.

Leadership is landing in the laps of many who may never have wanted it. For others it is reward for 30 years of work that has come before. Nest eggs, houses accruing value, or simply a realisation that the work can soon come to an end. We are now that generation that sets the culture in our workplace. And hearing Boris acknowledge an integrity vacuum under his watch, but to then present alcohol abuse as a cause not an effect, offers new insight into just how loose his hand upon the reins have been, and how undignified his grip now is. The flippant question may be where is his stewardship of those he serves beyond the garden G&Ts? The more serious observation is where is the control environment he should be the champion of, to aid his memory and not his sleaze?

Control environments can assist the management of actions, at least to a point. But what of attitude? And is our attitude, generation X, really so different in that respect? Whether we are a leader or labourer, this is our time. To first of all demand better from our peers. Second of all to take ownership of what mess we now preside over, even if not ours made. In my opinion there is plenty who need to rewire their thinking, their behaviour, and their beliefs. But most of all, we are now either the last generation to lead for ourselves, or the first to lead for the next. That’s the attitude rewiring we may be forced to make.

Next is the question of retirement. A rather recent societal expectation in historic terms, and one that seems rather 20th Century in a time of longer life and longer debt. Retirement seems to me the last thing we should be aiming for, despite it now being within our grasp. For some I fear that is perhaps already not a choice. But it seems to me what the world needs right now is all the help it can get. And if it’s help that is required, maybe we are the generation that now needs to show what leadership is in deed, not reward for making it to the lucrative top step. Many of us have lived our whole lives in debt, but what we are borrowing most of all, is the future planetary health for the next.

If Boris and his party bus is demonstrating anything to us – his real peers – it is that leadership is action, not title. And deed is assessed by those whom one is serving, not by those to who the perks are being served. If leadership feeds a machine that serves itself, the disorder and disrespect that spreads to all is absolute. Boris’ time in charge should stand for that. A caricature from which generation X should note, reflect upon, and seek to be opposed. But wider still is that me first attitude, the consume today pay tomorrow, the dispose and disregard, we have all become culturally attached. It is from this expectation that politics is permitted to be about the now, and therein the never never.

If there is money to retire, there is money to do more whilst needing to be paid less. Maybe that is a deed that sets the leadership example to the next. Aiming toward a sustainable platform (contribution), not sustenance towards gout (consumption). Generation X-it, becoming generation fix-it.

—//—

Visibility | behaviour | trust

Closing remarks using v|b|t. By such leadership failings it’s getting harder to find places to hide. Yet there seems a whole barracks of generals still strategising over shared greed. It’s a minority but seemingly unaccounted and unopposed. We must be an army of people at the top of their game – generation X now approaching those years that count double – doubling up or halving effort – that could be stepping out armed with the questions that cut deepest in repost. Or being the more selfless leader seeking less but wanting to contribute more.

Maybe it is we, generation X, who secretly eye up the retirement age escape, that should be first to redirect the aim. Seeking out those opportunities to do more. To bring more to the table than we take away. And in acting, so demand more of those in these roles to do the same. Maybe then we can watch our peers with pride. And not cringe in shame, as we see the self-serving lies they try to hide.

Visibility returning to the blindest eyes. Behaviours unbecoming both permitted and rewarded, lies told in defence, blame diverted and scape-goats made. Trust lost even from the closest aides, as the last knot of control by distraction is finally frayed.

Maybe such metric along such lines can indeed be found. Seeking to identify where projection and controls are so desperately unaligned. That one, in some small way in the research I have set out to undertake, I am putting down to me.

To be continued…

PhD and lucky me

My application story – first time lucky 🍀

A blog summary of what the PhD application process looked like for me.

I promised a little more detail on the application process. So here it is. Just a little.

Firstly, if you are here to read about how to approach a PhD: try here instead. Thanks go to my new PhD supervisor for highlighting this resource.

The remainder of this blog is my application story. 10th May I was unofficially told, a few days later it was official. My application to begin a fully funded PhD enquiry had been selected. University of Leeds, School of Civil Engineering. As of October 2022 this part of my journey truly begins.

If you think you’re too old, or too career committed, just like me, you too may have thought of one day reaching higher into academic rigour, but let the passing of years latterly take the blame. Au contraire, says I, for our brains do not grow old until long after our hearts. So here are a few heartfelt pointers that worked for me.

Network, network, network

This is my most keenly offered advice. It is what we oldies still know how to do better than most. And what is true in industry, is also true in academia. We humans are social animals, and we connect to good luck more easily when we increase the number of times circumstance crosses happenstance. That requires activity in the social arena – even if one cannot leave the house.

My LinkedIn friends at the Major Project Association first prompted me towards this particular PhD possibility. The application deadline had been extended a month – so said their post. Not that I was looking to apply for this PhD or any other. At least not this year. But in bringing to my attention this advertised placement, combining sustainability with project need, I was drawn towards a speculative enquiry just to see what this might be.

Prepare long, to act fast

All of this happened quickly. Most PhD application processes are months in the making. I had no more than days to make my case. Timeline as follows:-

2nd April

The Major Projects Association post was 2nd April 2022. I know that because I tagged my soon to be supervisor on that LinkedIn post. I sent an invite to connect with a few details of myself, my research, and this blog. I thought no more of it for several weeks. Candidly, a network connection with a like-minded academic was all the prize I dared hope achieve.

14th April

14th April was the Thursday of the Easter weekend. “Thanks for your LinkedIn message, can you email me and we can chat early next week?”, said a LinkedIn DM in response to mine. I immediately obeyed and we agreed to chat on the Tuesday, i.e., post the Easter long weekend.

19th April

Tuesday 13:00. A very convivial chat. “Even if this goes no further“, I said with transparent intent, “lets find reason to talk again.” The discussion had indeed confirmed some alignment of research interests and I was keen to keep the dialogue going.

Having established a little common ground the bigger question was would I be prepared to move to Leeds? As a fully funded PhD this opportunity was in-situ and full-time. So if I was prepared for that then yes, an application by the imminent deadline would be well received.

Woohoo, to the first hurdle passed. Approval to apply. However, with the deadline so close and with my needing to prepare a proposal from scratch, I was under no illusions to the scale of that application task – at least I thought. Realistically, I was still only thinking as far as making my case and learning how to make it better. Learning and refining.

24th April 2022, written application deadline day.

There is simply no way a full blooded PhD research proposal can be written in just a few days. Several months is recommended – at least.

Prior research experience

But I had a little luck I had been storing up for a moment like this, which I can breakdown as follows:

  • a ready-made personalised blended template of key features to include and a framework to build upon in a PhD application – mind-maps I had made of 12 guide books on writing to a PhD proposal from my 2020 MSc dissertation which I had successfully self nominated using these same guides
  • this same 2020 MSc dissertation directing me toward a further research area, one I had been working with since that graduation, and which I hoped one day to be able to return to
  • from that same dissertation interest, a prior body of research notes offering a swollen literature review of over 120,000 words. Just 3,000 words of that chronology of project management theory had made it into my MSc dissertation – much to the amusement of my peers at the time
  • my decision to start writing this blog (back in September 2021) which holds a few of my strands of connection I hope to now build upon
  • detailed notes and mind-maps from my second MSc (psychology conversion course) where much of the behavioural science I hope to bring into what I think a project metric could reflect
  • a bonus of that ongoing second MSc was continued access to a library of peer journal articles written by those I was seeking to at least converse with in academically acceptable terms

Once the application forms were completed, a further 50 hours in three days turned that prior luck of preparation into the 18 page (5,500 word) proposal I submitted.

9th May 2022, 11:15. PhD Interview.

Maybe I was just managing my expectations, but I had not expected to be invited to interview. When I was invited, I took it as a job well done. First application attempt, first interview: affirmation that I was on the right track. But once that interview invite came in I reset. My reading and reflection of the research by this supervisory team was talking my language. I now really wanted this placement. The right university, the right people, the right research interests. All just coming sooner than planned (or dared believe). Other academics I know were saying the same. So I realised I now had more preparations to make.

Preparing for a PhD interview is well documented in 21st century ways. Podcasts and YouTube video have some great posts on what to expect in a PhD interview. All came to pass as those guides suggested. Each question designed to ensure aptitude and attitude aligned. No trick questions, or stock answers… I also had other academic contacts (all from discussions started on LinkedIn), all very generous in their encouragement and time which all helped me prepare.

More to share. More to say. More to learn.

That is not the full account. Not by far. Some of my research ideas may become blogs in due course. Mindful from hereon however that self-plagiarism is a risk if blog and attempted publication overlap.

For now, what I really wanted to volunteer in this post is what makes me think myself lucky. And to some degree, how such luck can be made.

Luck 🍀 based upon networking effectively – meaning modestly and sincerely, and with no agenda beyond a want to learn and contribute to the learning. In this regard I have so many people to thank and so many kindnesses to reciprocate. Each offering guidance, perspective, challenge, and learning.

Luck 🍀 derived from passion in this craft, desire to be more, and pleasure therein making work and play combine in my own time.

Luck 🍀 in discovering I work best in conjunction with others. Best of all via engagement in discourse. As I think in the end, most of us do.

PhD and me – and mine

We are all migrants of somewhere

This insight arrived this morning in my inbox 📨. An insightful opinion piece from Sarah Haider, entitled “poor by choice is not poor” {here}.

We are living their legacy

Sarah focus’ on the freedom of choice presented to third generation immigrants derived from the graft of their forebears. And the mistake made in thinking their plight equates to that of those who came before. A mistaken comparison, she argues, because this latter generation get to choose a meaningful life over a well-paid trajectory. Migrant forebears just made much of what met them from their leap.

We all came from somewhere

I think many can relate to this. I certainly can. And I think many others should, but do not. Living off of the effort of our forebears – there hides a duty to make that count. A gratitude missed.

Analogously, I am that same third generation immigrant. Not that my grandparents or theirs travelled far. Nor anyone I have traced in lineage dating as far back as 1750. The era of George II and the last Jacobite chapter with Bonnie Prince Charlie. My lineage sits squarely around Hucknall, Nottinghamshire; and Church Gresley, Derbyshire. We did not move far.

Economic migrants from past ages

Yet, this era of 1750 onwards was a period of European wide mass-migration. Labourers driven towards urbanisation, farmland upheaval, power struggles of state, Parliament and faith. Plenty of reasons to escape. Many found different paths to today. My forebears migrations were from presumed serfdom towards pottery and coal. Plenty of muck, but little brass. Plenty of blisters, but few miles in-between.

Class migration

The common theme is that all survived the hardship of those times, and made do. My father joined the Royal Navy to escape that option poor cycle. He worked hard too. Sacrificing much so that I had more. And working himself slowly upward to an officer from the ranks. Living by his wits, his intelligence, and steely determination – determination like few others I know. From Junior Seaman to Commander. From missed 11+ to earning an MA in Military Strategy. Emerging from a sea of God fearing labourers, my father was the migrant of class who took to the sea, to provide for my brother and me.

So I too am that third generation immigrant. My father migrated class whilst maintaining all the class of working hard. Enabling me to get a degree. Enabling me to find meaningful well paid work in the City. Enabling me to eventually be free, as I near age 50 to be born anew and begin a life less bound to tomorrow’s debt. My third generation immigrant status, as a migrant from the harder working class, to that of working more leisurely toward what most interests me.

So I am mindful of all that, as I prepare for life 2.0. That’s my relationship to my past, and my preparations to begin my PhD. That’s my third generation migration journey. My PhD aspirations, founded upon my migrant forebears, my ever present enabling father, and me.

—//—

Follow the below link to comment:

This post began on LinkedIn {here}. A few have shared their related story on that thread. I have enjoyed reading them too.

Coming up

My next blog will give a little insight into the happenstance that accompanied my successful PhD application. A first peak into what that new chapter may be, but mostly a story of being at that academic border crossing, and being let through.

To be continued…

Focus

Examining the wood from the trees

Odd to think that in a few hours my attention will change so profoundly. As regular as this change is, I doubt I’ve ever really considered the knowing of its impending impact upon my experience of the now. It is exam day again. My last for quite a while. It therefore represents a final push in one direction, before I am compelled to look another way.

This is a personal reflection upon those influences which I am coming to believe direct us all. Both individually, and in coordination or conflict; in cooperation or competition; and for better or for worse, compel us all.

As with anyone or any team, my focus is occasional drawn to other things. Other things that at the time become my focus. We may have many focus’, or a few. Beyond my study focus I have my research. My work. My wife. My engagements with the wider world. My imminent changes to where I live, my finances, my everything. But right now, beyond this reflection, my focus quickly funnels back into a space of learning. My gaze the leading edge of my thoughts. Drawing me toward the window of my laptop. And from there inside another world, where all the unknown knowledge waits for me. This siren lures me in. The answers to my questions shared here with me. The demands of an exam deadline keeps me from distractions. And in a few hours it will be gone.

What then will have my focus? My work. My wife. My engagement with the wider world. My imminent changes to where I live, my finances, my everything. Odd to think that in a few hours my attention will change so profoundly. Once again.

Seeing the wood for the tress. Is that the wood 🪵 in trees 🌲 🌳 🌳 or trees in the wood? Either way I think the need for perspectival adaptability and focus is well made.

A Gray Day – can we Sue?

What SMART change to the control environment is being made?

I am sure we have all read the report. It does not take long. Once the blame game subsides, what has changed or will change now? That is my question.

Whilst SMART objectives are a little cliché these days, they do still serve purpose when seeking visibility of behavioural change, and thereby regaining trust in systemic failure.

SMART move to avoid committed change…

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time bound

Not that much of this report is intended to be anything more than presentation of facts. My concern here is that we have sixty pages that simply gift the tabloid tickertape and headlines a few more inches – but none of that will lead us anywhere meaningfully forward.

This report is a pretty disappointing an output by volume. By quality, the analysis and conclusions are so very weak and devoid on any tangible opportunity to act. And I see nothing coming to challenge that fact.

Painting over the cracks

In the end we are being offered a report that describes a clear dereliction of duty. The greater dereliction here is what is happening beyond this report. The failure to offer SMART actionable change should concern us all.

I present the key wording that foreshadows this coming apathy to change. In essence what this reads is “mistakes were made, but changes are afoot, and you just need to trust us not to do it again“.

All of these quotes are from pages 36 and 37 of the Sue Gray report.

Mistakes were made:

“…attitudes and behaviours inconsistent with the guidance…”

“…failures of leadership and judgement in No. 10 and the Cabinet Office…senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear the responsibility for this culture…”

“…lack of respect and poor treatment of security and clearing staff. This was unacceptable…”

unquantifiable actions taken, thus enabling leadership to once again escape:

“…fragmented and complicated leadership structures in No. 10. I am reassured to see that steps have since been taken to introduce more easily accessible means by which to raise concerns…embed a culture that welcomes…challenge and speaking up…”

“…changes to the organisation and management of Downing Street and the Cabinet Office with the aim of creating clearer lines of leadership and accountability…”

More time being gifted to avoid measurable improvement:

“…I am pleased progress is being made in addressing issues I have raised…”

“…since then guidance has been issued to all Government Departments…”

“…now these need the time and chance to bed in…”

visibility | behaviour | trust

If this is the direction of change, then we will be no closer to increasing visibility and addressing inadequate behaviours (as intent, belief, action). There can be no expectation of increased trust.

In any other context, this would not stand. Yet here, we all seem powerless to intervene. Let’s at least start with asking the better questions. What SMART change to the control environment is being made, to which you (PM) stand personally accountable for?