Homonyms

SCHWEIZ, GLOCKE, GLOCKEN, GLOCKENGUSS,

I love when people inadvertenly use homonyms of words with completely different meanings producing a comic effect.  If you need multiple examples look up the hashtag on twitter #heardnotread.  They are real life examples of things people have written down, spelling them wrong, because they heard them spoken, but did not think through what they were hearing.

Bells ring.  When you make a bell it is “tuned” to a note.  The way you tune a bell is to take metal off on a lathe.  A tuner matches the bell to its “true” tone and grinds away the metal until the bell “rings true”.  We use the phrase “to ring true” to assess if something is on point or if it is a bit off.  I might assess a business plan for an investment and if I think something does not seem right, but I can’t exactly put my finger on it, I might say that something about this proposal does not “ring true”.

A bank manager assessing a loan application might look at a person, their education, their career, their house location, the car they drive, and feel that something about the person does not ring true.  The person in front of them does not match what you expect from the details supplied.  Something is “off”.  For the bank manager this represents a risk.

When cash registers were invented they were a form of control on staff theft.  Before the arrival of the cash register all pricing had to be simple, because sales of multiple items had to be added up either in your head, or on a piece of paper.  With simple maths a dishonest employee could manipulate sales to cheat the shop owner or the customer and pocket cash.  With an automatic cash register the shop owner could set complex prices involving fractions of units such as old money prices like 1s 4 1/2 d which is one shilling (12 pence) and four and a half pence, so 16 and a half pence.  If the next item is thruppence farthing (3 and a quarter of a penny) you can see that the maths begin to get complicated.

As a further staff control the register manufacurers introduced a further feature.  A bell that rang each time a sale item was added.  The shop owner could lurk behind a shelf and make sure that the number of rings on the register tallied to the items in the basket, so the clerk was not handing out freebies to friends and family.

From the introduction of the cash register we got the concept of “ringing up” a sale.  And some clerks would use a homonym of ring true and say something like “if you come over to this register I will ring you through”.  Ring true – ring through.  Sounds the same.  Totally different meaning.

Then the phone was invented, along with switchboards to connect calls.  An operator connecting your call would usually say something like “I’ll put you through now” but some also said, because the phone used to have a bell “I’ll ring you through”.

Now we have three meanings for ring true/through.

Then someone decided to attach buzzers to automatic doors.  You arrive at an apartment block and call the resident on the intercom.  To let you in they need to unlock the front door automatically.  They might say “I’ll buzz you in” or they sometimes say “I’ll ring you through”.  Doors have bells.  Bells ring.  Ring through.

When it becomes funny for me is when I get an email from someone about a business case and they say “What do you think on this?  Something doesn’t ring through for me.”

For Whom the Bell Tolls; by John Donne

No man is an island,
entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
for I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
for whom the bell tolls,
it tolls for thee.

Death in Paradise

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As I set up my compost pots and plant my seeds for the coming season I am pondering the rabbit issue.  The word paradise is derived from the Persian word for a Garden.  A garden is the ultimate symbol of man’s dominion over nature.  We build a fence or a wall to surround a patch of land.  Then we drive out the wild influences and cultivate what lies within.  The vegetables are larger, fleshier and sweeter than what grows out in the wild.  The fruits are more succulent and delicate.  The flowers are bigger and brighter.

To create this wonderful space is a statement of the control of man.  This control is represented at its greatest in the gardens of the Augustan period (early 18th Century), paved walkways, symmetrical and geometric layouts, neat box hedges, espaliered fruit trees, pulses supported by cane frames, clear boundaries between the area under control and the wilderness outside.  During the Augustan period this control was celebrated as beauty.  Wildness was represented as ugly.  It was not until the Romantic period that wild spaces and unregulated nature were appreciated.

Control of a garden also involved control of pests.  These can be very small pests, like greenfly, wireworms, codling moth larva.  They can also be much larger pests such as rabbits, dogs, deer and even certain types of people.

The poem below is the sad tale of a dog who had a good thing going until he made the mistake of becoming a garden pest.

A Dog’s Mistake: by Banjo Patterson

He had drifted in among us as a straw drifts with the tide,
He was just a wand’ring mongrel from the weary world outside;
He was not aristocratic, being mostly ribs and hair,
With a hint of spaniel parents and a touch of native bear.
He was very poor and humble and content with what he got,
So we fed him bones and biscuits, till he heartened up a lot;
Then he growled and grew aggressive, treating orders with disdain,
Till at last he bit the butcher, which would argue want of brain.

Now the butcher, noble fellow, was a sport beyond belief,
And instead of bringing actions he brought half a shin of beef,
Which he handed on to Fido, who received it as a right
And removed it to the garden, where he buried it at night.

‘Twas the means of his undoing, for my wife, who’d stood his friend,
To adopt a slang expression, “went in off the deepest end”,
For among the pinks and pansies, the gloxinias and the gorse
He had made an excavation like a graveyard for a horse.

Then we held a consultation which decided on his fate:
‘Twas in anger more than sorrow that we led him to the gate,
And we handed him the beef-bone as provision for the day,
Then we opened wide the portal and we told him, “On your way.”

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Allez France

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Should be sunning it up down in St Jean de Luz in the French Basque country.  Instead we are moping about the house and it is raining outside.  Our holiday was a victim of the French Air Traffic Control strike.

OK it’s not a disaster (in relative terms).  Nobody died!  But it does seem that industrial action by French people has a considerable impact on their European neighbours.

It raises an issue about strike action, and its impact upon the wider community.  A strike in the old fashioned sense was an action taken by the workers against the Owner.  By withdrawing their labour the workers could impact upon the income of the owners, and bring them to a negotiation table.  In a “perfect” market the customer is not discommoded.  They simply buy a substitute product from another provider.

There is no perfect market for Air Traffic Control.  You cannot call up another service provider and ask them to reroute your flight.  It is a government monopoly.  It is a very vital service.  If Irish Air Traffic Controllers go on strike this impacts upon Irish Air Space, but not much else.  If France goes on strike it impacts on overflights.  Irish people flying to Spain find their flight cancelled because they route through Air Space controlled by France.

Should this be possible?  Should the unilateral action of one French Union have the potential to close down European skies?  Should Air Traffic Controllers have military style work contracts, which make it illegal, or even treasonous to strike?

If we remove the strike weapon from workers what do we give them as a replacement?

These are not issues that would tax my brain if I were lounging in the sun in the South of France.  Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Booker T. and W.E.B.; by Dudley Randall

“It seems to me,” said Booker T.,
“It shows a mighty lot of cheek
To study chemistry and Greek
When Mister Charlie needs a hand
To hoe the cotton on his land,
And when Miss Ann looks for a cook,
Why stick your nose inside a book?”

“I don’t agree,” said W.E.B.,
“If I should have the drive to seek
Knowledge of chemistry or Greek,
I’ll do it. Charles and Miss can look
Another place for hand or cook.
Some men rejoice in skill of hand,
And some in cultivating land,
But there are others who maintain
The right to cultivate the brain.”

“It seems to me,” said Booker T.,
“That all you folks have missed the boat
Who shout about the right to vote,
And spend vain days and sleepless nights
In uproar over civil rights.
Just keep your mouths shut, do not grouse,
But work, and save, and buy a house.”

“I don’t agree,” said W.E.B.,
“For what can property avail
If dignity and justice fail.
Unless you help to make the laws,
They’ll steal your house with trumped-up clause.
A rope’s as tight, a fire as hot,
No matter how much cash you’ve got.
Speak soft, and try your little plan,
But as for me, I’ll be a man.”

“It seems to me,” said Booker T.—
“I don’t agree,”
Said W.E.B.

The magic touch in Business

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How do you protect businesses from the brilliant decision makers who end up getting it all wrong?

The human mind is a pattern recognition engine.  It is an excellent learning tool.  When you spot a situation you have been in before, the mind tells you “oh yeah, I know this, here is how we moved through this situation the last time”.

There are positives to this, and also negatives.

The positives are that we learn rapidly from each other.  Spend an afternoon trying to learn a video game on your own, and then try it with your 14 year old son beside you.  With the benefit of his experience, and his bank of knowledge, built from games played by his social network, you very quickly pick up the things you need to know, and learn the distractions that you can safely ignore.

In business it is vital to have people in the room who have been there before, who saw the situation before, and can tell the strategies they used to work through it.  That is not to say you should slavishly follow an old strategy.  Remember, the competition also have a guy in the room who was there last time around.  If they lost the last “match” chances are they are going to adjust strategy this time round.  But the starting point is to know what happened in the last war.

The biggest danger in the “pattern recognition” engine is the way it craves order in chaos.  The human mind abhors uncertainty.  When faced with pure chaos it scrambles for anything that might make sense.  Derren Brown, the UK “magician”, illustrated this with a very funny episode “Trick or Treat” where he wired a sensor to a goldfish tank.  Each time the goldfish swam past the sensor a counter added a score.

In a separate room he assembled a group of people, who were told they could win an amount of money if they managed to get the counter to 100 in a given time.  They did not realise that they had no control over the counter.  They jumped, shouted, ran about, organised themselves, disorganised themselves, and sometimes it seemed to work.  The counter moved.  So they would repeat what they did, and fail.  Their brains were trying to make order out of chaos.

It is this struggle to make order from chaos that has led to some of the worst episodes in human history.  When things are at their worst, the pressure to find an answer is more acute, and we do some really bad things or make some really bad decisions.  Aztecs harvesting thousands of heads, Celts burning people in wicker men, burning witches, self immolation, sacrificing virgins, anything that might work.

Then into this space you get people with an agenda, who see that the time is right to lay blame on a section of the community.  God is displeased with us because we tolerated  Jews/Gays/Irish/Blacks/Dancers/Gamblers/Alcohol whatever.  Now the time is rife to rid ourselves of this evil and set ourselves straight with some made up divinity who seems to have a pretty nasty and narrow minded agenda.

Of course this would never happen in the business world.  When we operate in the workplace we make rational decisions, based on logical analysis of events, and we don’t allow demagogues to hijack the agenda and drive us collectively to construct a new tower of Babel…..do we?  Well, sadly we do.  We see success and we see the guy who causes the success and we assume that he must have the “secret”.  OK he isn’t slicing off heads and rolling them down the front steps, but he may be doing the business equivalent.  Look at Enron, Nick Leeson in Barings Bank, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, securitization of sub-prime mortgages, contracts for difference.  The truth is, the more confusing a derivative is, the more magical it seems to those who cannot understand how it works.  Many senior managers in banks failed to spot the magic tricks for what they were, because they were working at first.

In World War 2 both Churchill and Hitler interfered with military strategy.  The lucky thing for the British was that some of Churchill’s early interventions were disasters, and he bowed to sound military analysis later in the war.  The unlucky thing for the Germans was that all of Hitler’s early interventions were successful.  His cabinet believed that he had a magic touch, and his interference became more pervasive and more damaging

In the workplace if you have senior managers who are seen as having a magic touch, that in itself should be a warning sign.  These managers should be subject to MORE monitoring and analysis to ensure they are making commercially sound decisions.  Instead the opposite holds true.  The manager who delivers a big win is given more latitude than his non-performing counterparts.  He may buy into the belief that he has that bit of magic, and he may carry out less and less analysis on his own decisions.  He is given more and more resources to “gamble” on the next big move.  If he is given enough rope he will ultimately make the bad decision that costs the company dearly.

A worse situation is that the manager is someone with an agenda.  His agenda is not aligned with the corporate goals.  His decisions are being made to line his own pocket, at the ultimate expense of the business itself.  The greater the flux in the market, the greater the uncertainty, the easier it is for this person to make the call that can collapse the business.

In Ancient Rome a triumphant general was made up to look like a God for the day of his triumph.  He rode through the city in a chariot at the head of his army.  A priest in the chariot had the job of repeating constantly, in his ear, “Remember, you are only a mortal”.  In business we need those kinds of priests.

 

What can we do to protect businesses?

  1.  Operate the same decision control procedures for all managers.
  2. Ensure that charismatic “stars” have grounded detail analysts on their teams.
  3. Make sure everyone understands how an investment works, there is no magic money.
  4. A solicitor on the decision team to ask “is this legal?”
  5. Post-decision analysis.  Something that appears in every textbook, but seldom exists in reality.  We are all focused on the next big thing and it seems wasteful to analyse what is over.  We should bring in a cold resource, from outside the decision team, who will demonstrate what elements of the success were due to team decisions, and what elements were down to general market movements.  The winning teams hate these guys, but they can separate the myth from the reality, and greatly change the way you will approach the next opportunity.