Dumb luck and bias

Many years ago I was sat in a room with a number of senior politicians and business people discussing the challenge of improving social mobility. One of the advisors to the then coalition government made a point that has resonated with me for years, partly because of its obvious nature, but also because the infrequency of which it is made.

If you want some people to go up, by definition others need to go down. Which means the people that make the argument for change need to support the personal impact of their children potentially doing less well as a result.

I appreciate that there are some that will argue that there are ways and means by which this can be overcome on a macro level, however, for the sake of this argument I’m going to remain in the pragmatic rather than the idealistic.

This is a simple, but very compelling truth. In a system that is rigged in the favour of certain groups within society, change inevitably means the risk of them doing less well – which is one reason why it is incredibly hard to deliver. Because it means accepting that we might not have achieved what we have because of merit, but instead because of who we are.

At this point we all awkwardly look at one another and suggest the least competent in the room as perhaps the one that doesn’t deserve to be there, because it can’t be us, can it?

I’ve written so many times about how education is not a meritocracy. But there is also so much evidence that demographic factors and our social background influences our path throughout our lives. Add to this the random and untested nature of most recruitment and selection processes and you are more likely to be where you are because of dumb luck and bias than you are because of inherent talent.

If we want change, if we believe in change, then it means we have to accept that there will be losers as well as winners. For some of us, our children and grandchildren might need to accept places in schools, colleges or universities that we would previously never have considered. They may prosper less in the workplace, the housing market and in society as a whole. We have to look beyond personal self interest and to society as a whole.

And before you nod and walk away contently, remember that this isn’t just a small faceless elite sitting at the top of the pile, it applies to you, me and large swathes of corporate Britain too.

Silence and hope

I’ve been writing on at least a weekly basis for over ten years, only taking time off for holidays, yet last week I didn’t write. And this morning as I sat down again, the overwhelming desire was to stay silent again. Whilst I’m hardly the Boston Globe, it just feels like the world doesn’t need another opinion.

I can’t believe you’re writing about x whilst y is happening.

I can’t believe you’re not writing about x whilst y is happening.

In the UK especially, our rhetoric, or dialogue and debate has, over the last 5 years become increasingly one of polarised anger. That anger has rolled across multiple topics, all just, all deserving of focus, but increasingly expressed in outrage. Fuelled by our social media habits, surrounding ourselves with like minded views, blocking those that disagree.

There are of course many balanced views, those that seek to understand, those that seek to find the data and information, to explore concepts, to research the history, to think, reflect, ask questions, seek to explore the contrary opinion. But there are also those that seek to shout, to point fingers, to accuse, to remain indignant regardless.

And there is so little change. So very little change. Just more anger, more division, more separation, more sadness, less hope. I cannot help, for example, to think of all the energy, all the action and outpouring of emotion that went into the anti-Brexit campaign but to absolutely no avail. What if that had been used more constructively, more directly, more positively to change the lives of young people in our society? What could that have achieved? This isn’t a political point, I’m a fervent Remainer.

As I sit here, it feels we need less opinions and more positive action. Less debate, less anger, more intervention and ultimately more hope.

I screwed up (again)

As the events of the last couple of days of Cummingsate have shown us, it doesn’t matter how clever, how senior, how powerful one becomes, we are all capable of getting stuff wrong. Watching the press conference, and putting aside for one moment the reason for it, I had some personal sympathy as journalist after journalist lined up to ask him ostensibly the same question, picking over the details again and again.

The sympathy came because, in my own small way, I was also recovering from getting something pretty badly wrong and figuring out how to set best to articulate it in writing. To be clear, this is in no way a commentary on the Dominic Cummings situation – I’ll leave that to those that are better qualified – more a note to self and maybe to others.

  1. You have to take it on the chin – The first and most important thing about getting things wrong is that you have to own it. The immediate desire is to try to explain and rationalise and whilst that is absolutely critical too (see below), you have to start from a position of accepting your sub optimal outcome.
  2. Differentiate between the what and the who – It is very easy to start an inner self narrative, “I screwed up because I’m useless” or “I’m just no good at these things”. At the moment you’re dealing with a thing – whether that is a conversation, a piece of work, an event doesn’t really matter. It is too easy to generically attribute blame to some fundamental personality fault and it doesn’t help you learn.
  3. Try not to over steer – Trying to get perspective quickly is important and there are people around you that can help – but you have to choose wisely. Some will lead you not to follow numbers 1 and 2 above. They’ll tell you that you’re wonderful and the other person/people are idiots or they’ll tell you you’re an idiot and they could have done it so much better – “I’m not sure I would have handled it like that”. Helpful.
  4. Get analytical with it – In order to feel better, to learn and to improve you need to start getting analytical. What exactly went wrong? What was the timeline? If you could go back and do-over, which bit would you change, how and why? What would the impact of that amendment been to the end result? How do you know? Contrary to popular practice and belief, this isn’t best done with cold sweats at 4am, but in the light of day with a steady mind.
  5. Move on – Once you’ve been through this process, you need to let it go. Take the learning, remember the feelings and emotions, but contextualise them as a power to take you forward, not to take you back. “I don’t want to ever feel like that again, so to avoid that I’m going to do xx”. Of course others will risk drag you back, depending on the context, but that takes you back to number 1. Own it, acknowledge it, learn from it, move on from it.

Not a bad process to follow if one of your team or colleague gets something wrong either. You know, it happens to us all. Right?

Here’s some things we can all do

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks talking about the societal impacts of the pandemic, the way in which it risks increasing injustice and widening the already significant gaps that prevent social mobility. And more than ever, organisations need to step into the breach and make real meaningful interventions and sustainable changes to the way in which they do business.

Whilst many of the changes are going to require substantial changes to our education system, our economy and our industrial policy. There are also practical steps that each and everyone of us can take.

  1. Stop asking for educational qualifications. This summer, for the fist time in living memory, hundreds of thousands of young people will leave school without having taken a single final exam – not to mention those that are graduating at the same time. The rest of the school system has been put on hold, risking significant disparity between different social groups. If you haven’t removed qualifications from your recruitment process already, now is the moment to do so.
  2. Invest in apprenticeships and retraining schemes. As people start to lose their jobs as sectors contract and the economy changes, we will need to create opportunities to retrain and re-skill. Where we’ve struggled to attract, to fill positions or to build succession. Now is the time to think about the opportunities to solve those problems  and provide good quality career prospects for people needing work.
  3. Think more broadly than working from home. There’s understandably been a lot of talk about flexible working, agile working, remote working and everything that we’ve learnt. Whilst of course we have some fantastic data and evidence, let’s not forget that not every one can work from home. And moreover, lots of jobs are based around people working in offices. Let’s think about all jobs when we’re making our plans.
  4. Engage with schools and colleges. When schools get back and running we need to double up our efforts to support them and build skills and confidence back into young people. Looking at how we can work better together as organisations, how we can reach those schools that need support the most and we can support the charities and organisation that act as intermediaries that will have struggled during this period of time. We need to create hope, as much as we do jobs.
  5. Consider jobs as well as technology. If there is one thing that we’ve learnt over the past few weeks is that we are better when people and technology come together, where they’re additive and not replacements of one another. Decisions that replace jobs with technology, without addressing the societal consequences will come back to bite us sooner or later.
  6. Be open to all, not just those you know. I’ve seen a number of people offering help to their connections either online or in person. Whilst well intentioned and well meaning, the problem is this only helps people you’re connected too. And we know one of the biggest challenges in terms of closing the social divide comes in the collateral that comes from personal relationships. It is no different to offering jobs or internships to your friends – find organisations and charities that will help you translate your offer to a wider group based on need.