Archive for November, 2010

The Kult of Bettakultcha

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

As some of you may know, Bettakultcha is an evening of PowerPoint presentations organised by myself and Richard Michie.

It sounds incredibly dull, like paying to attend other peoples office meetings about logistics or sales targets, but at the last event, 120 people paid £5 each to show up on a filthy, rainy night, and watch 13 presenters talk about something that they are passionately interested in.

Why?

The word passionate is the magic key here, because it unlocks a vast reservoir of untapped creativity and purpose in the people who attend. Part of the answer also lies in the four basic rules;

  • You must use 20 Slides
  • Each slide must last for 15 seconds exactly
  • After 5 minutes, your presentation is finished and your time is up
  • ABSOLUTELY no sales pitches

The strict template of 20 slides, 15 seconds each is a great way of keeping all the presentations focused. You can only really get one point across with these imposed limitations, so it had better be a good one. If you are used to waffling on in a presentation for forty minutes because you like the sound of your own voice then the Bettakultcha format is a merciless disciplinarian.

No sales pitches was a masterstroke. How many breakfast meetings, networking meeting, conferences etc., have you been to where someone abuses the privilege of your undivided attention by trying to sell you something that is overpriced, useless or unoriginal? And how many times have you resented that fact? In my case, far too often, so from the outset we wanted to make it clear that this was not a networking exercise or sales conference. We extended this ethos to the entire project. In the early days we were offered sponsorship for the event. As tempting as it was to have some kind of financial backing, we resisted because we didn’t want to be beholden to anyone who might start wanting to interfere with the running of the event or impose some kind of sponsor related theme. We wanted to have a free hand to experiment with the running of the event.

Due to this strategy, we had to use a venue that was either free, or incredibly cheap. This ruled out the usual corporate type venues with regimented layouts and over-heated rooms. Instead, we used Temple Works, with no heating and a ‘make do’ attitude. And so the first four events were held there. This made for an unusual evening in an unusual space. People brought their own drinks and enjoyed the evening in their overcoats.

What we discovered was that this unusual approach initially attracted those people who are still curious about the world. The randomness of the presentations was also a refreshing change from the themed homogeneity of most events. Subsequently, other people from different backgrounds began to hear about it through word of mouth, and started to attend. I should point out that the entire marketing budget for Bettakultcha was, and still is, £0 and it has only ever been promoted through Twitter. It is the people who attend who subsequently become our best marketers. Word of mouth from a trusted friend or colleague is still the most influential of all the media.

The result of this is a wide diversity in the demographic of our audience. There are no silo’s of ’suits’ or ‘arty types’ or ‘geeks’. We have them all!

And so another unforeseen consequence has emerged; incredible networking that actually works and has become something far more powerful; a community.

Because people can be themselves, because the evening is about ideas and passion and there is no business agenda, people talk to each other. They swap stories about the presentations, they borrow bottle openers, they learn something new. Then they swap Twitter names and ask what each other does…

Another attraction of the event is the true egalitarian philosophy surrounding it – anyone can have a go. There is no hierarchy at Bettakultcha. The presenters step up from the audience and when they finish, they step back into the audience. We sometimes do have professional speakers (who don’t get paid) talking about their passions but they are alongside presenters who might never have done anything like it before but feel strongly about something.

My gut feeling is that something much bigger is being created at the Bettakultcha events. It’s as if a sector of society is looking for a new identity to articulate their frustration or pleasures and Bettakultcha is providing a kind of alternative parliament to voice those ideas.

The Kult of Bettakultcha is, in fact, real democracy making a comeback.

Leeds Salon – a debate on economic growth

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

A large crowd had gathered at the Carriageworks in Millennium Square, Leeds, last night to hear Daniel Ben-Ami and Clive Lord debate the limits of economic growth.

I use the emphasis because it wasn’t really a debate, more, a general airing of well formed opinions, prejudices and delusions by the speakers and audience members alike. I can say this because at no point during the evening was the skill of critical thinking allowed. I will explain why later but it was not for the want of knowledge.  At one point in the evening, I thought it was a competition to see who had read the most books around the subject, such was the lexicon of references.

It was clear that Daniel Ben-Ami was in the minority with his, “Growth is Good” premise and he rolled off the usual litany of technological achievements in medicine and the like. Unfortunately, his defence of the concept was about as robust as a string vest. Such was the confusion between technological innovation, capitalism, competition, human nature, economic wealth and happiness, that no-one could even begin to make a considered argument on such a swamp of shifting sands. This was a missed opportunity which could have been rescued if the focus had been on an example of what happens when untrammelled growth is followed through to its logical conclusion. And we have such an example, it is the, ‘tragedy of the seas.’

Technological innovation has improved the fish finding capabilities and catching methods of trawlers immeasurably. Actually we can measure the improvement, because there is very little fish left in the seas to catch. Also, with only a national sense of ownership and not a global one, the open seas are a paradise for any unbridled capitalist – the richest and most powerful take as much as they want leaving nothing for the less able or for future generations. The very worst predictions of the environmentalists regarding declining fish stocks are coming true. The economic and environmental destruction of the oceans is a disgrace which future generations (if they survive) will refer to in exactly the same way that we now refer to Easter Island as a salutary lesson in human greed and stupidity.

When I put this question of the fish stocks to Daniel Ben-Ami, he conceded it was a difficult one for which he had no ready answers but concluded that it was a just a political problem.

But, Mr Ben-Ami, everything is a political problem; damming the head waters of a river that also irrigates the fields of a country further down the precious artery, is a political problem, the fact that a tiny minority of the human population own the vast majority of the wealth is a political problem…civilisation is all about people therefore it is all a political problem.

I also suspect he had no ready answers because time has run out for the fishing industry and technology has not, miraculously, come to its rescue (fish farms, by the way, produce a net loss in terms of sustainability – they require more feed than they actually produce).

The incredible short sightedness of Daniel Ben-Ami’s vision was also telling. He boasted about the increasing life-span of humans when compared with the Victorian era (come, come, that’s like comparing life expectancy of today with the life expectancy of the population during 1942-1945 in say, Poland, particularly, Auschwitz) It was also symptomatic that he used the concept of longevity as a commodity to add to the growing list of stuff. The question was not raised however as to why the next generation will be showing a reversing of this longevity trend due to diseases of affluence – diabetes, heart disease, cancer et al.

I think it is important that people like Mr Ben-Ami gives everyone the heads up on important issues and I was fully prepared to amend my own views if a strong enough polemic was forthcoming from the discussion. I personally didn’t hear one last night but having said that, it was interesting to hear other peoples points of view and the subject matter was sufficiently emotive to stimulate fierce debate in the pub afterwards.

Job done.

I am Spartacus*

Sunday, November 14th, 2010
Most questionnaires are designed to prove a particular premise.

Most questionnaires are designed to prove a particular premise.

My son came home from school one day and brought with him a sealed envelope marked, ‘for the attention of parent or guardian’.

It turned out to be a questionnaire which formed part of an upcoming Ofsted inspection at his school. When we looked at it, the questions being asked were largely about the activities of teachers and management within the school. We were nonplussed; they might as well have been questions about the activities of Lord Lucan in the last 35 years. We had absolutely no way of knowing what the teachers or management were doing inside the school unless we were teachers or managers in the school ourselves. And, as we are not, it meant that whatever answers we gave in the check boxes, would be fiction – they would, in effect, be a lie.

The answers were either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – agree or disagree. I noticed that a, ‘don’t know’ box was entirely absent, as was a capacious box for unquantifiable comments.

Anyone with any common sense would have known that asking such questions of parents or guardians was a futile exercise as, apparently, we were not supposed to ask our son for help with the answers. Whoever formulated the questions and whichever committee approved them, either didn’t think about the realities of the situation or concern themselves too much about what they were supposed to be measuring. The questionnaire was designed exclusively for some box ticking exercise that justified some activity or funding by the controlling organisation to demonstrate ‘real’ measurable results. We, the parents, were simply an annoying, unavoidable inconvenience in this paper exercise.

Such was my irritation at the inanity of the questions that my wife had to take control of the questionnaire and prevent me from scrawling my true feelings all over it, in a thick red marker – “Must do better. See me after school.”

It may seem like a trivial matter – a few questions about the competence** of my son’s schooling – but, as always, it is the thin end of a wedge.

Most parents would simply accept any official document as infallible, and that they had to give the answers that the questionnaire was looking for. The consequence of such thoughtless acceptance of any official process is writ large on the blackboard of history. If no-one speaks out about the absurdity of pointless targets, measurements or belief systems, and everyone simply, ‘does their job’ or, ‘keeps their head down’, where does the madness end? We have a clue in the experiments of Stanley Millgram.

I’m sure everyone reading this will have a similar story from their own experience about unethical practices or crass inefficiencies occurring in whatever organisation they have had dealings with. But how many of you spoke out about it or refused to participate?

If more people made a personal stand on the smaller stuff, them maybe, just maybe we could prevent the death camps of today and tomorrow from being built.

* A reference to the recent activism surrounding the Twitter joke trial over a bomb threat at Doncaster airport.
**It makes me wonder just how competent they can be If they can’t even get basic questions right in a questionnaire.