Mistakes were made…

…scapegoats will be blamed

Is it possible to see through the manoeuvring that is intended to pass on blame? Particularly when distraction is involved. The origin of the scapegoat suggests we have been societally accepting of this idea throughout history. Accountability must be retained in high office. Prime Ministers and NHS Trusts showing us why we need more transparency and power to intervene.

The original “scapegoat”

This quotation is from Karen Armstrong 2014, “Fields of Blood : Religion and the history of violence”

“Every year in ancient Israel the high priest brought two goats into the Jerusalem temple on the Day of Atonement. He sacrificed one to expiate the sins of the community and then laid his hands on the other, transferring all the misdeeds on to its head, and sent the sin-laden animal out of the city, literally placing the blame elsewhere.

In this way, Moses explained “the goat will bear all their faults away with it into the desert place”. In his classic study René Girard argued that the scape goat ritual defused rivalries among groups with the community. In similar way, I believe, modern society has made a scape goat of faith”

Leadership scapegoats

I give leadership a hard time. Occasionally I step back and ask myself if I am in-fact just projecting my own failings onto others. But not today. Today I am in full rant.

I think we have seen several protracted attempts at such deflection in the headlines today. Leaders who may claim to be victim. Political scapegoats. Alternatively, the case can be made that they themselves have been found to be creating distance to invite a future scapegoat in.

Example one, who is preparing whom for the blame here in party-gate, part IX?

Mr Raab said the PM had updated Parliament “to the best of his knowledge and his understanding

BBC article here

Is that really the party line? Surely, there is at no point opportunity for leadership to claim this final defence for withholding information – “I didn’t know” – that is not an excuse when you are in charge.

I have argued before that accountability is immovable from the highest office. In this instance, failure to check equals failure to act. That is failure as the servant of the people you represent. Accountability of the senior decision-maker is really that simple. With rightful blame attached.

But what concerns me here is the potential impact if Boris is seen to be a scapegoated leader, because it offers permission to leave all else unchanged. Boris is a scoundrel, and he must go – but what is stopping the next being just the same? We need change – but the system is as much to blame.

visibility | behaviour | trust

First, another example of the ease with which this can be flagged (if we are so inclined). Back to some basic heuristics to check the situation against.

visibility | b | t

A leader who is unable to present clarity because of a failure to look, is acting with neglect by turning the blind eye, or conveniently choosing not ask. We can see this, so should the governance that keeps their decision-making abilities defined.

v | behaviour | t

This persistent behaviour is self-serving. It enables the personal defence of a child. Except this is not a playground. “I didn’t know”, is responded to simply with, “Well you were expected to. It is your job to know.” We can back this up with clarity of permitted and expected processes in senior role.

v | b | trust

Once a failure to perform is highlighted, so inherent trust is eroded. A little lost trust, or perhaps in totality. Either way, this prompts a change.

Any manager will know this. If you have people responsibilities you will know this. The underperformer is now necessarily more closely managed. In 2022 may be in performance reviews, or perhaps the introduction of a performance improvement plan, disciplinary action, or in extreme situations in termination. This may be necessary for the good of the wider team. It may only be fair to them if lesser performance is managed this way. But we culpable too, at least in part, if the right training, the right resourcing, adequate empowerment and oversight offered, and clarity of internal processes that are regularly checked to ensure they reflect what is needed as critical controls.

Anyone with client responsibilities will know this. Any client relationship can reflect this building or loss of trust. A supply chain partner may have contractual remedy or legal ramification ( particularly if there was no trust but contracts enabled trade). Better trust however is built when closer relationships are being fostered. Better trust that goes both ways.

In all cases increased visibility, or corrective behaviour, are required now that we have less trust.

What should support the assumed trust, is the checking. The processes of assurance that may be line manager, peer review, stage gate approval, which is then further supported by spot checking or audit that is expected is actually coming through. How often do we see a lack of governance, procedure, or level of independent challenge meaning things are missed?

I speak at length about this in construction. This is more than dealing with assumed error, this is also adding value as that extra pair of eyes. “I didn’t know” as a leader is to reflect the failure to be aware. Why trust the leader who clearly does not care? This is the leader who is not serving you.

More scandalous dereliction of leadership

Another headline grabber today. This one a National disgrace that has been known of for years. This is the conclusions of catastrophic failures of management detailed in Ockenden report. Also see here, the BBC summary outlining the Shrewsbury and Telford NHS Trust. This is twenty years of negligent leadership, no doubt set against a backdrop of chronic underfunding. Funding however can be no excuse. I am tempted to see this as a twenty year reign of outrageous intimidation and deceit. Worrying in of itself, but it is not standalone to this one Trust – or should we say the antithesis of the word trust.

“The reasons for these failures are clear,” she said. “There were not enough staff, there was a lack of ongoing training, there was a lack of effective investigation and governance at the trust and a culture of not listening to the families involved.”

BBC report dated today {here} quoting the enquiry leader, the remarkable midwife come archetypal bastion of wisdom, Julie Ockenden

This behaviour by this Trust, is absolute failure of the stewardship we demand. Whether they see it coming or not, this must prompt wider change. No leaders gets to say “I didn’t know”, or “I was badly advised”. Not when babies were needlessly dying, and senior people still refused to look, listen, or believe the findings of 8 separate expert opinions, or the bravery and tenacity of the bereaved.

No to delegated accountability

In my opinion, these two very different leadership failures bring us to the same place. Accountability stays at the top, irrespective of whether each and every leader who came and went from this Board of Trustees chose to look. Regardless of whether a PM chose to ask the most basic of questions, and opt to rely upon the defence of “I didn’t know”. And let me be clear, I think Boris did know and does know – but that needs not be debated if we can simply call out the failure in his claims that he at no stage asked.

It is the same with the Board of Trustee. Theirs is the final decision, based upon visibility of any information gap they are prepared to accept. Theirs is the behaviour permitted to turn a blind-eye or to scapegoat staff. Theirs was the opportunity to act and ensure risk, internal control and assurance were functioning as they should. This is the trust we put in them.

I have offered a detailed argument as to why accountability as a concept is best understood if it is deemed only ever upwardly visible {here}. If seniority is permitted to deflect accountability this is when behaviours are free to become distanced from risk, trust can be abused, and visibility intentionally obfuscated. Focus can be distracted toward secrecy, decision parameters hidden, poor leadership rewarded as if good. The solutions are already available, these answers are not new. Existing management theory exists to enable this, with just a modest tweak in making accountability anchored, whilst responsibility moves.

These are the fundamentals of our leaders being our chief-administrators, and being responsible for the control environments that we all rely upon. I sometimes wonder if the administrative realities of leadership are somehow forgotten by some, or perhaps never learnt. There is a reason that the MBA qualification in management has administration attached to the name. There is reason that high office is called the Administrative function. Accountability lives here, whether understood or not.

Let’s get back to managing our leaders – accountability is to blame

We may well have made faith our modern scapegoat, and Armstrong’s arguments in her 2014 book is compelling. I would venture further still. 21st Century political leadership, and indeed invisible and unaccountable leadership in all forms, must be reframed. They are not scapegoats, they are rightly to blame. Failing to acknowledge this is making a scapegoat of us all.

The sucker punch

Hidden malevolent intent

Surprise attacks are effective because they take advantage of situational dissonance, i.e., actions by one party not anticipated by the other. Without offering much detail of events, I attempted to give this some thought across three media events that caught the headlines yesterday.

  • A slap in the face
  • Poison served as peace
  • Safe harbours no more for employment law pirates.
P&Ouch (created via MSWord)

Here I attempt to talk in terms of all three within categorical parameters I am using elsewhere to described project relationships

v | b | t

Hopefully familiar to anyone reading my blogs regularly, these are the interrelationship variables that represent a shared or separate set of interests namely, visibility | behaviour | trust. In the surprise move, we have:

  • One party disguising their intent (visibility | behaviour)
  • The other party perceiving no threat from the first (trust)

Additional factors in play

This gives me cause to revisit other factors in play in assessing threat. These are factors I have identified previously in the context of projects. Each seems to apply equally well here.

Influence – as Action Potential

Think of this as the spectrum of possible behaviours of each of the two or more parties. Typically dynamic, and therefore changeable over time. These are matters such as intent, motivation, belief, by which one party may find reason to choose or feel compelled to direct their energy. In neuroscience this is Action Potential. It is measured at cellular or neuronal level, but perhaps is an apt description between situational actors as well.

Right arena, right rules

In each of the three examples here, we have a definable space, and conventions that apply. The examples here:

  • confines of a spotlight;
  • a banner of truce;
  • legal employment frameworks deemed to be breakable rules.

But if we have the wrong arena in mind, we may have the wrong rules to apply. This highlights the importance of perspective or modal clarity.

What this additionally highlights is a threat to one actors safety, enabled because the wrong arena has been assumed. In these examples:

  • a single safe spotlight becoming a shared stage;
  • a table of negotiators but needing to see a wider arena concealing snipers, poisoners, or media spin:
  • a marketplace as a transport operator but finding safe harbour no more

Control environment

We have the perceived safety of a control environment therefore proved false:

  • A comedian’s sanctuary to say anything without reproach;
  • Rules of combat that may not prevail under a banner of diplomatic truce;
  • Legal rights of employees, legal expectations of ship owner and port authority.

Dynamics of change

To which we can then revisit influence and the appropriateness of control. Perhaps these two factors can be linked as situational awareness. Influence as an observable variable, positively or negatively directional towards self-interest or shared goal. To which the assessment of totality of range of possible behaviours, and appropriateness of controls can then be compared.

v | Behaviour as covert action | t

I need to now extend the range of behaviour. Not only is self-interest vs shared interest now possible. We now have shared interest defaulting to self-interest deteriorating to intentional harm of another. This requires visibility to be intentionally obfuscated and an illusion of trust to be maintained. This means we can have completely the opposite of full information i.e., [-1, 0, +1]

The hidden truth

Together these factors in each arena seem to help explain what was perceived versus what transpired. And how combative aims were concealed. By breaching the perception of trust we have a means to consider a bigger range of action potential as hidden intent.

Accordingly, when there is covert (as opposed to overt) action potential, this is beyond a poorly shared truth. This is concealment, and acting within a lie. Self-serving, self-justifying harm.

Is it too much to suggest in a caveat emptor project world, we occasionally fit this expanded mould?

One more?

And what of today’s headlines? Knock-knock Prime Minister. Plenty of eyes are now looking behind your door.

Plato – The Republic

Still reflecting in Plato’s cave

Essays not withstanding, I managed a revisit to Plato’s “The Republic” this weekend. This passage caught my eye:

“the object of our legislation…is not the special welfare of any particular class in our society, but of the society as a whole; and it uses persuasion or compulsion to unite all citizens and make them share together the benefits which each individual can confer on the community; and its purpose in fostering this attitude is not to leave everyone to please himself, but to make each man a link in the unity of the whole”

Plato – The Republic – Book VII pp242

Watching the news, and ignoring political overtones, these words seem to reflect yet to be learned truths…

Uncertain relations

My visibility | behaviour | trust in you

My thanks to Chris Bragg for a line of questioning that prompting these prose; Jason Hier for promoting the dialogue from which I repeat my part in here; and Dinah Turner who generated the original visual prompt. All of which started {here}, a discussion on LinkedIn. My thanks also to Bill Sherman. Another LinkedIn thread {here}, one with a challenge I accepted yesterday, and answer at the end of this blog.

Visibility of what? v | b | t in context

Visibility for my project purposes i.e., Visibility | b | t , is addressing transparency between parties. Directed towards what is known and what remains uncertain. In our projects, how much visibility are we sharing one party (project actor) to the next?

This is how visibility relates behaviour i.e., v | behaviour | t , as transparency by one party to the next. This transparency reveals or hides certain behaviour. That could be our intentions, motivations, or actions. Derived perhaps from something as simple as our hubris or belief that we are surely right. Or something more self-interested or malevolent. From these two variables we can ask if we are affording the right level of trust i.e., v | b | trust , to the exchange. Assessing all three presents an indication of collaborative nature, as it relates to all parties supporting the intended change, as project truth.

How are we safeguarding a project from what we do not know?

This sketch, from Dinah Turner, prompted the wider discussion I refer to above. If the dot was the minimal amount of necessary information, Jason Hier teased us with asking what if it was as little as 1%, then let’s respond with the question as a percentage of what? We need to have more awareness to the reality that somethings are not knowable – but that our processes need to have the adaptability to manage these later realisations.

Image used with permission from Dinah Turner

As a graphic to reflect our limited availability of information, what was prompted here was a discussion around making best use of the little information we have. From my perspective (as related to project knowledge), the diagram also presented a third area of interest. (1) the spot of what is known; (2) the assumed everything there is; (3) a challenge to the assumption we can ever bound everything there is to know – beyond the circle. This is what Gigerenzer (2014) would reflect upon when comparing risk vs. uncertainty. It is the difference between working within a closed system vs one that interrelates to more. Or Engwall‘s “no project is an island” from which we can remove ourselves from closed system thinking in any project situation. Combining these two principles, we always have some uncertainty. I suggest the circle in the above graphic houses “the question we asked”. But outside the circle is “the question we wish we knew to pose”. From here we can hope to critically appraise the manner of any decisions being made, for what purpose, and from an information perspective we can ask “based upon what?“.

Being able to seek clarity on what the 1% represents enables better questions. Anyone who knows me, will know that my most likely answer to a question, is another question. This is because a question directs our attention to a set of assumptions and constraints. Are these parameters intended to facilitate an open dialogue, or are they intended to funnel and dissuade a wider perspective? Is this reflecting behaviour of the person posing the question, that we trust to have this right?

It is at these earliest of moments – in defining both problem and constraints – that we can begin to become unstuck. And why we should all therefore be first challenging the question, to see what visibility, behaviour, and trust, is represented. See other blogs on these areas individually, including for example sensemaking and wider problem solving perspectives.

Projects as time bound intended change

This is a dynamic position, and therefore change. In the modelling idea I have in mind, this is where my attempt to define everything by a project definition comes into play: as time bound intended change. And that any change, even one of enquiry, can be captured by this project definition.

Projects within projects

This also challenges us to consider if our collaborative practices are ever actually aimed at the same project. Or are two project actors working on their own projects and attempting to direct outcomes to their own intended outcome – even if that is at the expense of the other. I have in mind here game theory models that represent zero sum outcomes (winner:loser); or those where lesser outcomes emerge because of failures to cooperate (see prisoner’s dilemma, or tragedy of the commons, as examples).

Other factors are then able to be introduced:

  • direction of influence. Interests directed into the one project, or away from the project and directed instead toward the party with most momentary influence.
  • manner of project control to support the retained inward influence of both the one project aim and protection of all project actors.

These are factors that relate to potential outcomes. The one shared outcome, if we are claiming to be in the one same project. Each factor (visibility, behaviour, trust, influence, and control) the aggregation of contributing factors. So, if a question is asked with a hidden or misguided agenda in mind, the project of enquiry is immediately more likely to fail. Failure because it fails at least one participant, and probably the project overall. Or if the intent was misdirection, there was never a single project with the two parties in mind.

At bigger scale, this is why the inevitable uncertainty that exists is eroding this collaborative endeavour if it is simply defined and offloaded in contract. This is not the same as project outcome control. It is more simply a financial risk transfer with increased likelihood of dispute. Arguably a later revelation that project truth never existed. Only the roughly aligned interests of the two separate projects and outcomes each party was interested in, influencing, and operating with suboptimal visibility, behaviour, and trust.

I would argue this is the default position in construction. As one example where hidden agenda is almost always assumed, even if not shown. Low visibility as data is filtered between commercial boundaries. Malevolent behaviours. No trust. Contracts attempting to replace trust, but therein failing to regain control.

If this observation is accepted, then it offers an rough guide to likelihood of project success. If we see a project with inadequate control of its truth (the totality of visibility, behaviour, and trust) it is a riskier project than it needs to be. It is representing a project at risk of unseen influences, permitting malevolent interests, and abuses of empowerment bestowed. Therein is the prospect of increased potential for dispute, plus missed opportunity to intervene.

Are we one project? My ongoing hypothetical

I am yet to be convinced we can ever truly be one project. It is why this entire blogsite is called Projects | Within Projects. But I do think we can seek to ensure our own projects are more closely aligned. As well as all the other project assessments we undertake, I am suggesting this v | b | t assessment of the many influences, directed at the appropriateness of controls containing them, can be one of those higher level quick indications of the human made threats to success.

This affords a simple question, “why say yes to this project?“. Why as a potential project actor agree to enter this enterprise if the divergent interests are not a central focus of control? Why insure it? Why invest in it? Why be party to it? Why approve it? If one can heuristically identify this increased chance of failure, the questions you ask can all be directed this way.

This is visibility | behaviour | trust as a rule of thumb. A heuristic tool, directed at the overall collaborative interest at a project’s core. A work in progress. One that keeps me returning to first principles, new discourse, and regular revisits to this hypothesis as I go.

Agreed or not agreed – is that my question?

And finally…to the challenge I am responding to.

Can you distil your best ideas down into a simple question?

asks Bill Sherman via LinkedIn

Bill Sherman – a writer of thought leadership, and taking ideas to scale. His post yesterday was quite different. He compared NASA mission statements to those we each set ourselves. He offered contemporary examples of the questions NASA set to define their missions. Each a single question – pithy and capturing the imagination of any five year old or older still living with a sense of wonder. His challenge, which I agreed, is to set my idea into a single question. What is the essence of what this big idea is trying to do?

Bills advises us to be guided by the following:-

What’s your big idea that you’re pursuing?

How are you staying connected to your sense of wonder?

Are you able to explain that wonder to others?

Here’s a quick way to check:

1. Write your big idea in one sentence that evokes joy/wonder.
2. Then, test it out. Ask people what they think.
3. Keep going until people say “wow.”

I will confess to writing this entire blog with this question in mind. So here goes, attempt number one.

Can our modelling of projects be linked, to better guide all scales of intended change?

Version one

Can success or failure be gauged by a simple assessment of external influences and resulting appropriateness of project controls?

Version two

Projects are jeopardised if rogue influence gains control: can we avoid the invitations to fail?

Version three

£Project debt

Comparing perspectives of key project actors

Infrastructure Journal kindly invited me along for a chat on their podcast yesterday, due out next Monday {here}. I was invited to share my thoughts on the origins of risk. I squeezed much into a 20 minute slot. My principal method of fitting so much into that time was easy – I took twice as long. Sorry Angus – I hope it will be 40 minutes of something worthwhile.

In preparation for the chat I revisited my research notes from 2020, specifically my PFI orientated dissertation {link here}. This was an early part of my now ongoing research. The prompt that directed me to ask more. Research that is now directed toward both project management and psychology as interrelated themes. 730 PFI projects remains the one example I have found of a population of comparable projects representing a time frame long enough to see the true impact of systems upon systems change.

The fundamental question is one I think we have not asked. Where does risk originate from? My view is that the origin of risk in projects is us. We as the instigators of intended change. Our intent in change is the origin of risk. Risks that emerge as we orientate ourselves against each other. Risk that is created, particularly where uncertainty prevails. We orientate around influences, most of which are redirecting attention towards whichever momentarily strongest influence of one or other different project actor has. That may be an individual, or a department, a sector, or political will. Almost always such influence is directed towards themselves. The challenge therefore is how to draw all parties attention into a project’s prioritised aims. But also ensuring those aims are true.

My interim conclusions are that our politics and the lack of partnerships is ultimately what shines through. For me this is at the core of why our coordination and cooperation ideals fail. I come from a background of insurable risk. A perspective that demands anticipation of a future retrospective interest in claims. Regardless of the nature of claims however, be that commercial (including insurance and contract dispute), performance, efficacy, user disappointment, reputation, or a media frenzied sense of fairness betrayed, all claims stem from our failure to have the truest project outcomes in mind.

This is what I hope is reflected in my discussion with Infrastructure Journal, yesterday. In my opinion this is what goes to the heart of public services procurement – regardless of who is carrying the debt or asked to carry blame.

This is how we do better. We change the narrative. This is about project control. This is about outcome orientated management. This is about accountability in decision-making and clarity of purpose in leadership. This is about collaborative and coordinated cooperation. Not financial risk transfer, or “them and us” procurement, or “value for money” as a zero sum game. Not when we need everyone back, and ready to collaborate on the next.

Look out for the podcast next week. I’ll link it here when it’s released.


Writing practice : a short-story

Milo hungrily accepts round two of breakfast. His feline tongue grateful for my intervention in the banquet. Human fingers stacking up the biscuits. Biscuits that have by now soaked up the remaining soup, all the tastier for it. Easier for a discerning nose to choose between, meandering over each small mountain peak ranging left to right across his bowl.

I return to my phone. What to write down? What to let drift by? Attention flitting between racing thoughts but so many choices: and quite different themes in mind.

Round three of breakfast. Upon the sofa now. Brushed and primed, a black tail and white socked legs take on balancing duties as he tucks in – a little more noisily this time. I acknowledge the thanks with a backhanded stroke across his back. My gaze not leaving the iPhone now back in handheld mode. His eyes not leaving his bowl, until in contented cat mode, he is away to clean his face. Leaving me free to spread out my thoughts.

I unfold my iPhone to iPad mode. The vertical hinge flattens out, as would a paper fold. I double up again, this time a horizontal fold to settle down. Four times the screen, one quarter the thickness. That will do me for now. The next two unfolds would be sixteen times that first screen, but as thin as a paper map. No need to go that far, not whilst I’m still reading from my lap.


5 Year lockdown anniversary – 13th March 2025 – hopefully a near future fiction

v | b | t

visibility | behaviour | trust

Someone very kindly asked me about v | b | t today. A chat ensued via DM on LinkedIn. A very welcome challenge or validation of an idea which I am still tentatively exploring.

v | b | t is an experiment of sorts. It introduced itself to me as I was analysing the themes from the PFI projects I was assessing – via my MSc dissertation in project management in early 2020. In categorising my interview data into themes, the three categories that emerged were visibility | behaviour | trust. Collectively they combined to represent whether parties shared one project truth. To which I could then assess whether each project party was directing their influences into the project, or towards themselves.

We often fall short upon this metric, although I am still working through the validity of this idea. It is proving useful in projects of all kinds, in personal development, and assessing the nature of leadership and decision-making sincerity at scale.

For me this is about unlocking ways to assess how cohesive the interests and influences of parties really are. v | b | t is helping me give a first view on whether control environments are suited to the project aims and people involved. I am concluding it’s our relationships and attitudes towards sharing or passing on risk that is our bigger threat, often bigger than the physical or financial risks themselves. Risks that threaten the very project outcome, or intended change.

v | b | t has become a useful heuristic tool for me. It is promoting further research. I’m now doing another MSc, this time in psychology, with an aim to direct my research towards broader human behaviour. The links to projects, as intended change, perhaps then taking this towards a PhD. Scrutiny via academic rigour in these ideas, and a need for validation (or perhaps a hubris) within me.

We are socially motivated as a species. But deeper down we are emotionally directed to look out for ourselves. This conflicting anticipatory distraction is at our core. So can we look at behaviours and consider the inherent trust? Consider if we are sharing a truth, or defending our own.

That is v | b | t : a thumb nail approximation of acting collaboratively.

Socially outraged

Who do you blame? Four perspectives on our role in social media anger. Which do you choose?

Twitter Age, or twitter-rage? In the social media world, there is always someone else to blame. Yale University offers research that supports claims that we are being manipulated. Links below.

Here are four perspectives, each with differing levels of psychological distance and blame attached. I am persuaded to take action, and offer some wider personal insight at the end.

One: Blame them, not me

A nice safe distant other to blame. We each have good reason to be angry. To be offended. The easy blame is directed at the politics of our day. A political class about as contemptable as they have ever been. Entitled others. Uncaring others. Others defending us or threatening us, and our way of life.

Two: We are just hard-wired that way

Blame our biology. Remove all psychological distance but claim no part in it at all. The harder truth is that we really are all built this way. These processes are at work beyond our conscious perception. In our brain, lurking deep below the surface of the social diplomacy contained within the pre-frontal cortex, is an emotional limbic system raging to get out. Our self-control makes us socially capable. But we are not always in control. Worse still, we seek social acceptance of our group – meaning chemical reward is available when our own goad us, will us on, or applaud. We like to be liked. Even if it means we must pretend we are right, or in control.

Three: We are being manipulated to be this way

This is the more sinister place to let blame sit. Acknowledging our part in destructive discussion, but not having to take the blame. At these moments even the right are wrong. This neuroscience is known and is being exploited. Advertising is built on propaganda lessons from WWII. Politics lives here. Peer pressure. Social norms. We are easily manipulated to behave a certain way. Most alarming however is 21st century psychological manipulation. We are engaging via formats that reward the polarised debate. That is what this study by Yale university concluded in August 2021 (detailed version see here). It would seem social harm has become an acceptable norm.

“It’s not my fault!”

All three perspectives above are correct. Conveniently, none of them require us to act. It’s just the way things are. In all cases, this is very much the playground view. The “it’s not my fault” response of every teenager. Our physiology backs this up. Our pre-frontal cortex does not completely develop until our mid-twenties, meaning our more ancient but primitive impulses act more strongly in our youth. This impulsiveness is being targeted and exploited.

As we allow ourselves to be directed towards these older neural pathways, it is this playground I think we all return to. Those developmental years, where everyone and everything else is available to blame.

Four: Control. No blame. Simply reclaim.

Which leaves the fourth perspective. Which is psychologically close-by, and for me to own. If all of these perspectives are true I can blame them all. Or I can accept my part in this playground. Owning my output from the games being played.

Taking back control

My simple choice. Twitter no more.


A grown-ups choice?

A few more personal observations which have helped me move forward. Maybe they can help others relate.

My return to Twitter served one positive step. I was suddenly back in the playground. The pre-teen boy. Seeking validation but getting rejection. Standing my ground anyway. Thinking myself smart, and ensuring my own isolation by that very fact – for me weaponised empathy and knowledge often had that effect. These are core traits for me. Wanting to know more about people and their ideas. It developed into consensus building, and problem solving. But not until well past school. I had to grow up a little first, and I buried much along the way.

The fact is that well into my teens these traits became ever more my prison. A prison I escaped only once I learnt humour, and how to make others feel comfortable and laugh. Weaponised empathy still, but in a more acceptable form. I can own that. More than I can own the playground that I so wished to be validated in, and never was.

Twitter is all those playgrounds all over again. Everywhere is psychologically a little less stable. Popular kids and wannabes, all trading on how to get likes. Everyone addicted to that next affirmation. Compelled to seek out their kin. Rewarded for not being kind. Just being seen. Being authentic but against these ideals. Yale now confirming we are being neurologically encouraged to act in more childish ways. I wonder how many others see an uncomfortable version of themselves this way?

So for me at least, that is the perspective I choose. Because it is the perspective I can own. And a means to consider environments where I am becoming better, not revisiting where I have been.

Visibility | Behaviour | Trust

I can apply a new heuristic to this old reality. As a perspective that I can actively manage, now that I have seen it with fresh eyes. I have visibility of a side of my discourse I do not like. A little lost trust in my intent and motivations. Time therefore to make a behavioural change. My change, rather than an attempt to change others I blame for being part of what is not my truth.

I rely heavily on social media whilst I remain locked-down. Perhaps too much. It is time to break free some of those chains. Politics no more. Twitter is shown the door. LinkedIn, my only outlet beyond this blog, is also being reigned in. I suspect my blog will become more regular as a result.

Let’s see if my temperament – notwithstanding living alongside bad politics -therein improves.

To be continued…but I will tweet no more

Be nice – be happy

International day of Happiness

Be nice – put the ‘phone away

I started today with an apology. Having spent much of Saturday afternoon in moderately civil debate on twitter, I went to bed sad and irritated. I woke up in much the same mood, but forced myself to examine why that was. I found a path to a little happiness as a result.

I am currently writing an essay that has me facing some self-doubt. It is all the harder for having to be just 500 words and aimed at a general-public audience. I am neither succinct, nor easily able to perceive that dividing line. So I hatched an ill-thought out, ethically suspect, and hubris-laden plan. Why don’t I engage with an audience on twitter and see if I can stand? Not my finest moment. I did actually learn a few things, but I made no friends. Indeed I rather arrogantly walked a mile or two with idle curiosity at what others fight hard to make their way through. The apology this morning was heart-felt but probably too late.

So I do feel a little happier, having acknowledged blame. More settled and socially normal again. I seek out social cohesion, so caustic debate is draining – and it rarely ends well. The apology was an important step for me. Strangers bickering in blindness would perhaps be easier to just walk away from. But that would linger still. For them and for me.

Genuine apology. An attempt to put right a wrong. The tiniest of kindness to bridge a divide. A gap where respect should have been. I am reminded that kindness is psychologically the better way. And that this is almost always true. Professor Abigail Marsh shows altruism is beneficial to mood, in all but a tiny psychopathic minority. Psychologist Jo Cutler suggests we are quite calculating with kindness, but argues it still has positive results. To which Evolutionary Behaviourist, Nichola Raihani adds that this “social instinct” is a fundamental to the human condition. Check out this BBC podcast for a summary of those truths.

So how will I be happy today? Maybe a little kindness to myself too. A good start point will be to stay away from my ‘phone and social media today. Allowing hubris to melt; and for respect to return. Respect for other opinions that may have less textbook clarity but more life-living experience attached. Respect for the dialogue. And respect for myself.

There. I am feeling a tiny bit happier already…


Further reading – www.dayofhappiness.net/report

This is great website to visit on International day of happiness.

What follows are notes I will return to, with some quick find observations to help me return here soon.

In regards to social media this paper, Chapter 4 of the 2022 Happiness Report, caught my eye as I prepared to write this blog. The paper confirms that studies seeking out emotional trends in a population could be conducted via social media analytics. The correlation of social media and survey emotions used as a comparisons, shown to most closely aligned in negative emotions of sadness and anxiety – see page 80 figure 4.2 for a more limited correlation for happy emotions. Even when reporting we are happy on social media, we may not be.

The paper also outlined a relationship between social media and survey emotion measures becoming most visible in times of large variations of emotions, such as during the COVID-19 outbreak (pp81). Key limitations noted as representative nature of samples so best limited to within-sample comparison as opposed to representing a wider population (pp96). Reporting bias is also inevitable given the lack of anonymity inherent in social media posting (pp97).

I also noted that the adjustments for gender were made as absolutes with no account for differences that may arise within samples due to heightened interest or topic. The 60% male gender bias not considered against more nuanced variations over time. I also consider the particular interest in gender difference but no other categorisation to be as much a reflection of bias in assuming emotional variance is most acute across gender difference. Something psychologists such as Gina Rippon are fighting hard to call out and change. Also, the subject of my current essay which I am finding so hard to land.

men are more visible on Twitter (pp81 citing Nilizadeh 2016)

tweets posted by male users account for ore than 60% of tweets with gender detected in our sample (pp81)

Happiness Report subsection regarding social media measures. My question: is gender actually the key category of interest here?

This particular paper was ultimately more interesting to me as an exploration of the validity (and limitations) of social media as a passive measuring tool for emotional trends. Passive because it was based solely on language and tone of all posts, not seeking direct questions as the survey comparisons had done. It concluded there was validity, most strongly in detection of negative moods. Although, that is no surprise given the tendency toward negativity expected during the Covid19 ordeal.

7 lessons from 2 years in isolation

What two years in lockdown has taught me

Life lessons from lockdown. Here are 7 lessons from two years indoors, expanded on below:

  1. take ownership of risk
  2. acknowledge your luck
  3. go with the flow
  4. acknowledge your relationships
  5. listen and learn
  6. set your boundaries
  7. start and end with respect

Two years ago, today

13th March 2020 was a Friday. The fear, and denial of a distant threat, had turned to a reality. SARS-Covid-19 had definitively arrived in London. I had already sought permission from my university course to either defer or be given means to complete my course remotely. This Friday 13th marked my last face to face meeting. A pass/fail assessed MSc presentation on Engineering Safety Management – a group exercise which I had unwittingly become the coordination point to conclude. My daily train trips to Farringdon had become notably more hazardous – to the point that walking the last mile or so from Blackfriars had already become normal. A walk that meant I could visit three pharmacies en-route and buy precious paracetamol, a daily need which was already in short-supply.

Living from home

Within days the whole country was locking doors. We speak of it now as “Working from home” but that is perhaps not quite equating to the same thing. The service industry was about to be starved of patrons, as life outside stopped. For the likes of me, indoors was now life. Work, rest, and play; becoming extended study, anti-socialising, and staycations.

Two years in, and perhaps a little more to go, I have a few observations to share. The remainder of this blog I therefore offer as lessons from living a lockdown life at home.

Lesson 1 : take ownership of risk

Life was already changing, but it was becoming increasingly clear that there was no contingency plan in high places. Hospitals were reporting high death-rates. Medical advice was contradictory. There was no clear guidance for those clinically vulnerable. If I were to come home with the virus, my wife (and the 21% of her lung capacity still working) would be quickly overwhelmed. We were not the average risk case. We could not live at the level of uncertainty now present. We needed to determine risk from our own perspective.

It was also obvious that even the average risk was late to be realised in high places. We had no confidence that we had institutions around us – government in particular – adapting or even reacting in a manner that was going to keep my wife safe. So the decision was made; we were staying home.

Luckily for us, we had been living with contingency plans set for some time.

Lesson 2 : 🍀 acknowledge your luck 🍀

Two years is a long-time to be away from the world. We are however more fortunate than many who have been in similar situation. We had less domestic or work related constraints to manage. Most people in the support groups for Pulmonary Fibrosis had a tougher time adjusting. Sadly, not all did. Economic or medical care demands exposed many to risk they could not manage. Others just boldly or foolhardily carried on – loud in their protest or denial but all suddenly stopping; followed by news of another death in the group.

We were lucky. Adversity had already found us. So too therefore had contingent planning already long been put into action. Life had dealt a crappy hand to a fine teacher and had forced her to give up work several years before. I had already made a career choice that enabled me to work from home. The home office was already built. The mortgage paid. Financial priorities reviewed, repurposed, dumbed down. Wanting less, needing less, earning less.

But I had also buried my own thoughts deeply, and they had already broken free. I was back at university revisiting life goals and needs. Dealing with mental illness, diagnosed the year before. Part of a reset already underway. For a multitude of reasons, we were already primed for dealing with change.

Lesson 3 : go with the flow

Going with flow is not quite as compromise-orientated as it first sounds. For any independent person, there is a stability problem if one just meanders and adapts to any and all demands put upon your time. My wife and I have a strong domestic platform: in our relationship; in our physical security, safety, and basic needs; and now also in our clarity of priorities. It is only by that stable base that I think we have been able to maintain a perspective of hope as daily challenges come and go. We can go with the flow. But only because we can also let some things flow by, or wash over us. Going with the flow has meant letting some options and aspirations go.

Lesson 4 : acknowledge your relationships

Love your network. Be part of the network you wish to know. With 21st Century technology to hand, networking is fundamentally how we each grow.

As a household this presents a moment to acknowledge many people:

  • Friends, family, and the kindness of strangers who have been at the other end of a phone. Places to chat, the occasional quiz or game of cards.
  • At the height of the pandemic local people making themselves available to fetch and carry medicines and sundries.
  • Long-standing relationships with supermarket chains, car dealerships, banks and credit card companies. All were vital sources of assistance and being looked upon favourably in our moments of need.
  • Prioritised, reliable, and understanding gas-heating engineers, white goods repairers, gardeners and tree surgeons.
  • A fleet of delivery services who have kept us going. A postal service that has regularly supplied me with books.
  • My business associates and client friends, university staff and fellow students, all making allowances for my situation.
  • Neighbours who have overlooked rickety fences, raggedy hedges, and occasional unkempt lawns.
  • The many medical staff at various hospitals who have enabled distance orientated treatment possible. A pharmacy who have delivered medicines to our door. Oxygen suppliers and breathing apparatus repairs as and when called. Plus my therapist, and GP both of whom have kept tabs on me too.
  • Long standing mentors and mentees, plus a few new relationships I’d categorise here. Old business contacts reaching out, offering support, or just revisiting online as a social outlet and checking we were okay.
  • The hundreds, many hundreds, of new connections, contacts, and sources of inspiration on platforms such as LinkedIn. A true lifeline connection to the outer world. A place of discourse, learning, and chat which eventually encouraged me to begin this blogsite. New connectivity in new places leading to new opportunities, invitations to join think-tanks, guest slots on podcasts, working groups, organisations and societies. Plus many moments to talk over zoom with amazing new people at leisure and at length.

So many kindnesses, from so many places.

This lesson in management is also a moment to appropriately acknowledge relationships at home. In many respects we are self-contained. Our relationship to each other is one of love and respect. We have built a home in that image. We habitually lunch at the table. Moments to regather from different corners of the home. We enjoy each other’s company, and our moments alone.

We rescued a cat a few months before I started university. Or maybe he helped rescue us. Like us, he is happy looking into rather than being in a garden that looks after itself, offering up wildlife at our windows. Each of those interacting relationships have helped pull us through.

Lesson 5 : listen and learn

Two years into a lockdown, and maybe just a few months to go. It’s been an enforced time of reflection and new learning. Communication in new ways. Cooperation in discourse, and collaboration in effort.

Listening and learning from the experiences of others and ourselves. Listening and learning from what is happening within ourselves, within our relationship, and within the home. Communication, or just checking-in.

For me that has also been part of deeper journey. Serendipity played a hand here, that I began to find ways to do this before this lockdown ensued. For me this is now meditation, contemplation, journaling, and occasional therapy. It is also this blog. Critically, it was also giving myself permission to reignite and feed a curiosity, a more open mind to see more, and hear more. Hearing the wisdom of others in many forms.

Lesson 6 : set your boundaries

Everyone will have different perspectives on working from home. How do we create the appropriate separation, if any? Not expecting people to be 24/7 at our beckoning or call.

My attitude is one of adaptability. To accept that there are times that other people’s need for work/life balance are going to impact my own. But I have also been prepared to retain boundaries that mean others respect my time too.

Thankful to my neighbour for tolerating blurred boundaries

I personally place a necessary lesser expectation upon others. Colleague, client, or collaborative partners. But I’m curious to know how this changes expectations of behaviour in ourselves. I work in different time zones, to deadlines or towards developmental ideas of my own, as well as remotely from people I interact with.

Lesson 7 : start and end with respect

There are no binary rules here. Home and work can co-exist. Being present and being honest with what that means becomes critical if it is to work long-term. This is simply relationship building and management by both sides, built around mutual respect. Both sides, therefore also meaning you.

My heartfelt thanks – so many have pulled us through!