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Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart

 

They focus on money because their parents never told them they were loved.
Gary Shteyngart at The Edinburgh Book Festival, 2018

The main character in Lake Success is a hedge fund multi-millionaire. And Gary Shteyngart did hard time in hedge fund circles as part of his research for the book. When he talks about these people at the Edinburgh Book Festival you don’t sense much sympathy.

 

I spent a lot of time hanging out with people in the world of finance. I’ve never witnessed such a lack of self-knowledge in my life.
Gary Shteyngart

So I wasn’t expecting to find myself rooting for Barry Cohen as he does a dump and run routine on his wife and autistic son. His hedge fund is tanking, he is under investigation for insider dealing, and he takes off across America on a Greyhound bus.

I bought Lake Success because I loved Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, because it is one of the first novels written in and about Donald Trump’s America, and also because I could. It was available earlier than the official publication date for attendees at the Book Festival. Yet the idea of a protagonist with no redeeming features worried me. At the 2017 Book Festival, Lionel Shriver described the secrets of novel writing in simple terms: make people want to know what happens next, and make people care about what happens to your characters. But what if you don’t care?

We get off to an inauspicious start in this respect. Cohen’s Indian wife, Seema, gives it to him straight about caring for their son, Shiva.

 

Oh Barry. It’s so tough. And the toughest part of it all is that he doesn’t have a good father. That’s the toughest part, isn’t it? Forget your sperm, forget my eggs. He doesn’t have a good father. His father is not a good man. His father is not a good anything.

Barry is crossing America in search of himself, in search of an ex girlfriend, in search of redemption. But it feels like Shteyngart is reluctant for his readers to warm to his main man. In Atlanta Barry crashes at the home of Jeff Park, who used to work for him before being fired for a catastrophic spreadsheet error. Given their history, Jeff is a remarkably generous host. But he is not slow to express his distaste for Barry and the world that he, Jeff, has left behind. Ten years on from the banking crash of 2008, Jeff Park is a good spokesperson for those of us in the ninety nine percent.

 

But that’s how I think of people like you. I always have the same visualization. I start with a row of middle-class houses like the one my dad lives in. And then I see you. You go from house to house, from family to family, and you take money from their wallets, from their purses, from under their sofa cushions, and you put it in your pockets, and when your pockets are full, you put it in a duffel bag with the logo of your fund. You don’t sneak in. You don’t break in. You just walk among these people as if they’re invisible and you take the money they’ve earned. And then you go home and buy a watch or whatever.

In actual fact Barry Cohen is acting out a tragedy against the backdrop of 2016 America, the year that Sergio De La Pava, who joined Shteyngart on stage in Edinburgh, described as, “the most horrifying year in America since the Civil War.” Despite his early narrative setbacks, Barry refuses to conform to the shallow, venal Wall Street cliché. Meanwhile, Shteyngart does eventually conform to Shriver’s storytelling ideal of characters that the reader cares about.

Cohen is the literal embodiment of Shteyngart’s quote about wealth as a substitute for parental affection. Barry has been chasing money to fill the vacuum of meaning created by the death of his mother and the lack of love from his pool-cleaner father. He is an introvert who taught himself ‘friend moves’, a scenario planning approach to peer group conversation. He rehearses mental algorithms that he runs like computer subroutines to navigate social situations. When he talks to Jonah, the son of his former lover, there is also a suggestion that he himself is probably somewhere on the same spectrum as his own son.

 

And when I was your age I wanted to improve myself too. So each day I’d practice my ‘friend moves’. Like, what are ten things kids in school can ask me, and what are ten things I can say back? It’s like drawing a map or knowing all the train systems in the world. Except instead of facts, you have to memorise what they call small talk. People who aren’t smart like us, they love small talk. ‘Did you hear about this?’’Oh, what about that?’ ‘So-and-so got hurt in gym class.’ ‘That’s cool.’ So I worked my friend moves real hard, and then by the time I graduated from college, I was the friendliest guy in my profession. And it made me hundreds of millions of dollars.

The subtle, hidden complexity of Barry Cohen comes as a pleasant surprise. His personal metamorphosis is cleverly disguised and deftly handled by Shteyngart. Let it be the start of a list of things to like about Lake Success. Namely:

 

  • The roller coaster relationship between Barry and Seema.

 

“Grab my pussy,” Seema whispered as he was paying the bill, and they both cracked up, but there was something dangerous and sexy about it too, and her eyes were liquid and needy, so he decided to do as she asked, and moved his hand under the table, but she stopped him at the last moment… …After all his sexual adventures that summer, Barry could find nothing more sultry than kissing his wife on the lips.

  • The sideshow relationships and sexual encounters that each of them dive into by way of coping mechanisms. These are sensitive and revealing. Lional Shriver would approve.
  • The well rendered cameo characters, both in New York and on the road.
  • The occasional homage to Bret Easton Ellis and the status symbol obsession that punctuated American Psycho. Patrick Bateman had his business cards, Barry Cohen has his wristwatch collection.

 

Barry checking his Noms Minimatik, a clever choice given that the product copy suggested it was a perfect watch for creative souls like architects and writers. The watch sat around his wrist like something from a gilded, well engineered universe, and it telegraphed just what kind of man Barry Cohen was.

  • Passages of profound prose whose intoxicating clarity and time-capsule topicality are distilled into sentences that are super-saturated with meaning. Like this from the election night party attended by Barry and Seema…

 

There were two bars at opposite corners of the five-thousand-square-foot spread, one serving the Nasty Woman, a lemon vodka concoction, and the other the Bad Hombre, a tequila-based drink. “I don’t like that both drinks are named after things Trump said,” Seema was yelling loudly over the din of the partygoers and the voices of the cable news announcers blasting from the speakers. “It’s like the only things that matter in this election are what he says.”

Lake Success is part tragedy, part travelogue and part time-capsule. And Gary Shteyngart has matured as a writer since Super Sad True Love Story, whilst retaining a tight grip on the Amercian zeitgeist.

 

What a New York scene this was, he thought, with unexpected pride. This was the country now. Archipelagos of normalcy amid a dry, angry heat.

Gary Shteyngart Edinburgh Book Festival

Sergio De La Pava (centre) and Gary Shteyngart (right) at The Edinburgh Book Festival.

 

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My grandfather used to breathe through a narrow, puckered mouth when he was concentrating. When he was driving in town, or when he was peeling and slicing an apple for his dog, he made a soft, high-pitched sound that wasn’t quite a whistle. This was a throwback to his days in the stable, a means to avoid breathing in hair when he was grooming horses. His first job was delivering ice for an ice merchant, driving a horse and cart around the east end of London.

Technological disruption came early to my grandfather’s profession. The invention of the refrigerator did to ice merchants what digital photography would later do to Kodak. So he became an actuary and ended his career as a director of a large insurance company.

In his retirement he acted as mentor to me.

His big themes were mental arithmetic and the importance of manners. Thanks to him I knew my times tables at a ridiculously early age. And he drilled into me the importance of a firm handshake, making eye contact when holding a conversation, and standing up when someone enters or leaves a room. That might sound terribly old fashioned, but manners still make all the difference. It is sad that good manners are more conspicuous than they should be these days. But it means that standing up when someone joins a meeting is impressive, especially when no one else does it.

My grandfather adored horse racing. It combined his love of the animals with his actuarial respect for the mathematical agility of racecourse bookmakers. But he stopped gambling after he met Mr William Hill at Aintree. After some introductory small talk my grandfather asked Mr Hill for his tip for The Grand National. The bookmaker was aghast. “I don’t bet,” he said with barely concealed incredulity. The message was clear. The only way to win on the horses is by making a book, not by making bets. My grandfather used this anecdote to school me on the business model of bookmaking and the foolhardiness of gambling. The house always wins.

Other than the occasional office sweepstake and lottery tickets, I have never gambled. I have never set foot inside a bookie. I have friends who would vehemently disagree with this opinion, but even a “harmless” flutter feels like an exercise in futility to me.

Grandpa on a mechnical horse.

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To understand the man you have to know what was happening in the world when he was twenty.
Napoleon

 

I turned twenty on 17th March 1986. Two days later the Bank Of England dropped its base lending rate by one whole percentage point from 12.375% to 11.375%. From there it fell a further four points before it bottomed out in May 1988 at 7.375%.

7.375% is eye-wateringly high by the standards of 2018. But in 1988 it was five percent lower than two years previously, and at its lowest level for a decade. The price of a mortgage also dropped significantly and house prices were expected to rise. It was generally considered a good time to buy.

 

“You can’t go wrong with property,” they said.

I had just graduated from university and secured my first proper job in an advertising agency in London. My starting salary was £10,500. A university friend and I each bought a half share in a maisonette in Osterley, a few stops before Heathrow on the Piccadilly Line. I borrowed £31,250 for my half of the house. Buying made sense. Interest rates were relatively low by the standard of the times. And who wants to see a large proportion of a hard-earned but meagre salary disappear every month in the form of rent? Instead of throwing money into a black hole we’d be making an investment.

 

“You can’t go wrong with an endowment mortgage,” they said.

It got better. Not only would I make money on my half of the house as it (inevitably) appreciated in value, I’d also make money on my mortgage. Win win.

To do this I took out an endowment mortgage. Each month I paid interest on the loan to my mortgage provider, and I also paid into a twenty five year investment policy from a life assurance company. This endowment policy was designed such that my investment would be large enough to pay off my mortgage loan in full at maturity, with some to spare. Bonus!

My mum and dad did exceptionally well out of their endowment mortgage. They paid off their house and had a tidy lump sum left over.

But my win win quickly turned into a lose lose lose.

 

Lose 1 – monthly cashflow

Interest rates rose dramatically almost as soon as I had signed the mortgage papers. In fact they more than doubled from 7.375% in May 1988 (green circle on the graph below) to 14.875% in November 1989 (red circle). That meant that the monthly interest payments on my mortgage doubled too. This is not good when you are earning £10,500 and living in London. I had not budgeted for a 100% increase in mortgage interest payments. I suddenly found myself worse off than I had been as a student. At least as a student you are surrounded by other people in similar circumstances. Now I was surrounded by beautiful people in London’s hippest and hottest ad agency, in an achingly cool office in Soho. They were all Levi’s and loafers. I was living on baked beans. It was miserable but I somehow managed to keep my head above water until my salary rose and interest rates fell. But it would be another three years (November 1992) before the rate dropped to below the May 1988 level.

 

Lose 2 – negative equity

As interest rates go up so does the price of a mortgage. As mortgage costs go up, people’s ability to borrow goes down. People who can’t afford to borrow as much can’t afford to pay as much for a house. House prices fell away sharply in response to the interest rate rises. Little did I know at the time, but I had bought at the peak of the market, the peak that’s just to the left of centre in the chart below. Our house rapidly lost value into the early nineties, leaving my friend and I in a negative equity situation – our investment was now worth less than the amount of money we had borrowed to buy it. In the event that we sold in these circumstances the proceeds of the sale would not cover our mortgage debt and we would be faced with a shortfall.

As it happens, I did sell in these circumstances. I was getting married and moving to Scotland. Rightly or wrongly I decided to take the hit on the house so as to make a clean break. I am one of the few people I know who has lost money on property in London.

The chart also shows that house prices recovered over time, and that the long term trend is for property investments to reward the patient investor. However, I didn’t have the benefit of a crystal ball, and I would probably still have sold even if I did, given that it would be another eight years before I would be able to sell for what I had borrowed.

 

Lose 3 – poorly endowed

I lost money on my half of the property, and I also lost money on the endowment policy, which I kept going after I had sold the house. Lots of people lost lots of money on endowment policies. It is scandalous. Stock market crashes including the dot com bubble and the 2008 financial crisis eviscerated these policies as investment vehicles. The traffic light system on my annual statements went straight from green to red (do not pass amber) and stayed there. Eventually, through my financial adviser, I was able to secure some compensation by making a claim against the provider for miss-selling. But it did not cover the shortfall.

 

People have short memories. Not long after each shock, not long after each crash, the language of “you can’t go wrong” creeps back into the vernacular of financial advice, of both the personal and professional varieties. But money can go spectacularly wrong very quickly. And I have a long memory, which has coloured my approach to borrowing and financial risk ever since.

Lucky you if you can afford to ride out a short-term setback and wait for the natural long-term order to be restored. But sometimes the timing of life does not coincide with the timing of economics and you have to take a hit. Since 1988 I’ve always felt that I need to be prepared for that eventuality. I also believe that my generation or the next will be the one during which the idea of sustainable growth will be revealed to be an oxymoron. All bets will be off for everyone at that point.

 

Both charts borrowed from Economics Help.

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I don’t know what age I was when this happened. I hope I was young enough for my disgusting behaviour and my naivety to be excusable.

I was in a gang called the PVK. The V and the K make it sound like an Uzbek paramilitary organisation but we were unarmed, and dangerous only unto ourselves. We were the Pine View Kids, named for the street we all lived on. And these were innocent times, before infants were recruited as drug dealer lookouts and learned how to carry menace. For us, gang was just a collective noun for a group of middle class, prepubescent street urchins. The PVK were no angels but we were mostly benign.

We were hanging out in the local park. The park was, and still is (see Google Street View image below), a reasonably large area of grass in the middle of a reasonably large housing estate. There were swings from which we launched ourselves into the mud before wrapping their chains round the crossbar. There was a slide that we would mostly run up rather than slide down. There was a climbing frame with bars from which we would hang upside down until we grew tall enough to bang our heads on the ground. And there was a roundabout that we would encircle and trap younger children on by spinning it so fast that it was too dangerous to jump off. We were “mostly” benign.

Other mostly benign gangs from different parts of the estate would come and go on assorted Raleigh icons – Chippers, Choppers, Grifters – to act out the rituals of communal ennui. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. Despite the advance of digital technology I see those same rituals playing out today on the streets around my house. Only the bikes and the quality of footwear have changed.

It was inevitable that our paths crossed with another group of prepubescent street urchins from a different part of the estate. They were older than us, cocky and untouchable. The oldest of our elders, a boy whose face I recognised but whose name I didn’t know, singled me out for unwanted attention.

You were picking your nose and eating it in your bedroom last night. I saw you.

There are a hundred and one appropriate responses to being taunted like that in front of your friends. I could find none of them. Stunned silence and paralytic embarrassment don’t cut it in these situations. I had no witty retort. I had no cool brush-off. It was a catastrophic loss of face.

The problem was that he had me bang to rights. It was true, I had been excavating my nostrils the previous evening and, yes, I had eaten the grim pickings. Worse than that, I had been caught in flagrante delicto. Mea culpa. Guilty as charged.

But I was culpable of a worse crime than mucophagy (look it up).

I was guilty of innocence.

At the time, in the park, I was cursing the sequence of rotten luck and cruel coincidences that had brought about my shame. What were the odds of this boy passing our house and looking in the window at the exact moment of rhinotillexis (look it up)? And what were the odds of that same boy arriving in the same park at the same time as me?

It only dawned on me that evening that the odds were zero.

Being observed from the street is not in the same league as being burgled, but it still felt like a violation. An English boy’s bedroom is his castle and mine felt like it was under siege. I was determined to figure out the safe zones where I could not be seen from outside. My bedroom faced onto the back garden, a long narrow strip of grass with flowerbeds down each side. At the bottom were a rockery framed by tall conifers at the back, and a shrubbery of mature bushes of the dense variety. Behind these was a fence and a grass verge that sloped steeply down a few metres to the public footpath. The path was not visible from my room. People walking on the path were not visible from my room.

People on the path were not visible from my room.

So how had the boy seen me? He was a reliable witness because he knew exactly what I had done. But the evidence of my own eyes was telling me that it wasn’t possible.

I stumbled and fumbled in conceptual blackness until a dark idea percolated up through my artless mind.

Imagine you are a lowly grunt worker at CERN. You are a laboratory technician paid average wages to precisely execute strict instructions. Original thought does not feature in your job description. You run experiments designed by higher scientific beings to test their theories. Your job is to find empirical proof of the existence of sub-atomic particles that are figment of someone else’s superior imagination. The baby steps of your routine provide the empirical back fill for their giant intuitive leaps. Your discoveries are not your discoveries at all, and they are all expected.

Then one day a minor miracle happens on your watch. Your experiment exposes a hitherto unimagined particle, a revelation that sparks a revolution in particle physics. Our understanding of the universe is changed by a discovery that will carry your name ever after.

That’s how I felt when I realised that the boy in the park had told a deliberate untruth, with the sole purpose of making him look superior at my expense. Rather he had told what be thought to be an untruth. The fact that he had chosen a jibe that happened to be true was an unlikely coincidence, a fluke.

Everything changes in that moment. Life gets worse. It is tainted by guile, cunning, suspicion and wariness. But life also gets better. Trust is no longer a given and therefore becomes sacred.

Not exactly CERN, but a place of fundamental discovery nonetheless.

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Image from Cello Signal Slideshare, under licence from Shutterstock.

Image from Cello Signal Slideshare, under licence from Shutterstock.

 

Three sister agencies were merged into a single agency called Signal. And it fell to me to define the values of the merged entity. The output of that process is contained in the Slideshare file embedded below. It is designed to be self-explanatory and easy to digest.

The output reflects a strategic decision to chase a vibrant culture, in the belief that good work for good clients and financial success will follow. Signal’s purpose is an unashamedly culture-chasing purpose. And its principles are the management tools by which that culture is chased.

 

 

The full back story is in this post that I wrote for the agency blog.

 

 

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Coffee austerity in Uganda.

Morning commute in the Rwenzori Mountains of Western Uganda.

 

You are a coffee farmer in Uganda. You till the soil on your patch of mountain with your spouse. You have three children and a dependent grandparent to support. You have a roof over your head and, to all intents and purposes, you are self-sufficient for food. You are poor but you are not malnourished. How much money do you need to live off the land in this way? What is the price of minimum viable coffee farming in Uganda?

According to Great Lakes Coffee, a Ugandan coffee trading company that works with and buys from thousands of smallholder farmers, it is $758.

Seven hundred and fifty eight US Dollars.

Per annum.

This is the annual cost of life’s essentials; cooking oil, fuel for heating (paraffin or equivalent), salt, sugar and secondary education for your three children. In Uganda, primary education is provided free by the state but secondary education costs $150 per child each year.

Three fifths of the breadline total is spent on schooling. Education is the single biggest outlay for these farmers but it is the last thing they would sacrifice.

The rest is all low tier Maslow’s hierarchy stuff. No frills. No luxuries.

No retail therapy. No first Thursday of the month date night dinners for two. No ketchup. Just African style austerity.

It is the economics of harsh reality. It is bean counting at its most basic. If you earn $758 from your coffee harvest you break even. If you don’t you find yourself in the kind of poverty trap that threatens to undermine many fragile food supply chains. Poverty at origin is at least as big a threat to sustainability as climate change. It acts like gravity to drag farmers down. In Uganda, $758 is the financial equivalent of escape velocity.

Sadly, this figure is more of a challenge than it might appear to developed world eyes. There is ample cause for pessimism.

Coffee country. Mount Elgon, Eastern Uganda.

A more optimistic view is that, with the poverty bar set so low, there is scope to significantly enhance farmer livelihoods with the right kind of constructive intervention from further up the supply chain. A higher yield of better quality coffee, with fewer defects, from the same amount of land, has a double multiplier effect on earning potential.

But these constructive interventions must also be sustainable pursuits. Dipping in is dangerous. Too many aid organisation infrastructure projects ignore the subsequent running costs that they impose. The long term price of these well intentioned but badly deployed projects is ongoing costs that commit farmers to debt funding which they are unable to service. A new coffee washing station won’t maintain itself.

Project has become a dirty word. In Ugandan coffee farming circles it means “fuck things up and take pretty pictures”.

It takes sustained effort to establish sustainable conditions. And these efforts need to be appropriately directed. Rather than remotely triggered events whose aim is to alleviate poverty, the focus needs to be on indigenous initiatives designed to create lasting prosperity.

And it takes local knowledge to direct and deploy these efforts effectively. There is no substitute for operating on the ground at origin.

I tagged along with Konrad Brits, CEO of Falcon Coffees, on an origin trip to Uganda. Falcon trades green (unroasted) coffee. It buys at origin and sells to roasters, such as Starbucks, across the globe. For these roaster brands, Falcon and its origin partners pretty much are the supply chain.

Great Lakes Coffee is Falcon’s origin partner in Uganda and both organisations are committed to the endeavour of sustainability. They are working with thousands of smallholder coffee farmers to unlock the latent potential of their land to mutual benefit.

Uganda’s Arabica beans are the cheapest in the world, and yet most of the coffee is grown in ideal conditions, at altitudes of up to 2000 metres, in volcanic soil, in an equatorial climate. There is therefore significant potential to increase farmer income through training and support in good agricultural practices; soil management, water management, pest control, tree surgery and such like.

Such well-directed support can pay handsome dividends. It creates better farmers who are also better business people.

Farmers who partner with the Great Lakes Coffee team of agronomists are hoping to repeat the success that Falcon has enjoyed with its trading partner in Rwanda, where a similar collaborative approach has seen yields increase by up to 211% and the level of defects reduced to levels that satisfy Premium Grade criteria.

Higher grade coffee that commands higher grade prices is good for everyone in the supply chain. But sustainability efforts at origin need to go beyond better agricultural practices. Governance and effective oversight are difficult to impose in remote areas, but they are essential to maintaining the transparency and traceability that are vital to instilling confidence in buyers.

Rain Forest Alliance certification is rightly coveted but it creates incentives for “dubious practices on the mountain”.

It takes vigilance, good processes and adequate resource to spot when an agent brings more “certified” coffee down from the mountain than should theoretically be possible in an attempt to secure a better price, which may or may not be passed on to the uncertified farmers he claims to represent.

Konrad Brits of Falcon Coffees and Norman Mukuru of Great Lakes Coffee discuss the nuts and bolts of quality control and sustainability in a Mbale warehouse.

Traceability and quality are essential for sustainable coffee farming. But so is price transparency.

A huge proportion of the value created in the coffee supply chain accrues to the roasters. The Free On Board (FOB) price paid to traders such as Falcon is roughly 3% of the final price of your Americano. And a typical Ugandan farmer might expect to see 72% of that 3%. In other words roughly 2% of the price charged by a roaster for a cup of Ugandan coffee goes to the family unit described at the head of this post.

Price transparency could have a transformative effect on farmer prosperity at origin. A more equitable distribution of value along the supply chain would be a boon to sustainability.

But this would require all stakeholders to be culturally invested in such an outcome. Sadly this is not the case. The attitude of many large roasters to their supply chains is based solely on commercial responses to market forces rather than a sense of duty or stewardship. Traders such as Falcon carry much of the risk associated with sourcing, processing and transporting a perishable commodity for a fraction of the value created. These imbalances serve to make a mockery of corporate social responsibility.

Don’t be fooled by the touching photograph of grateful farmers in your local coffee shop. As likely as not it is a thin veneer which cynically masks underlying supply chain venality.

People, both commercial people and consumer people, need to care more about these issues. What applies to coffee applies to the global provision of all foodstuffs.

Consumer education is part of the solution, but consumers can only be educated if the barriers to price transparency can be overcome as described in this post on the subject by Denmark’s Coffee Collective.

These barriers are cultural and commercial. “Sustainable” coffee commands a price premium in San Francisco in the same way that “certified” coffee commands premium on the mountain in Uganda. This creates incentives for “dubious games” all the way to the top of the supply chain. The sustainability trade secrets of smaller companies like Falcon are liable to be copied by larger competitors who are not as philosophically invested but who have greater resources. This conflict of interest is a serious dilemma and a major impediment to an open source solution to an urgent global problem.

Being able to take for granted where your food comes from and how it gets to you is destined to be a short-lived luxury.

Food chain sustainability is right up there with conflict resolution, renewable energy and over-population at the top of humanity’s to-do list.

An annual income of $758 translates to roughly $15 per week. The poverty line for a Ugandan coffee farmer is the same as the price of your daily coffee before work. It is everyone’s interests that everyone knows and everyone cares about how the price of that cup of coffee is justified and distributed.

First published on Medium.

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At the sharp end of coffee farming in the Mount Elgon range in eastern Uganda.

You won’t find any climate change deniers on the mountains of Uganda. Thirsty coffee trees don’t do fake news.

Nor does broccoli. When the rain fell too heavily on the plains of Spain in December 2016, washing away entire crops, broccoli and other vegetables disappeared from British supermarket shelves. Prices soared and bulk purchase limits were imposed.

It should have been a wake-up call. Food doesn’t appear in our shops by magic. We can’t take our greens for granted. Sadly the inconvenience of this inconvenient truth will be short-lived. We will hit a collective snooze button until the next alarm, which will be more urgent and more persistent.

Uganda’s coffee farmers don’t have the luxury of that kind of procrastination. Climate change is a clear and present danger at the point of origin.

In the Rwenzori Mountains, which form the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo in the west, leaf rust is affecting coffee trees at greater altitudes every year. This insidious progression doesn’t make for dramatic time-lapse images like a receding glacier but it is every bit as real, and its implications are every bit as profound.

As recently as 2012, in the Mount Elgon Range, which forms the border with Kenya in the east, it rained at 3pm for an hour and a half every day for eleven months of the year. In tropical east Africa, Mother Nature was the speaking clock. (At the third drop it will be three o’clock precisely.)

By contrast the torrential rains of February 2017 marked the end of three months of drought which, despite the best efforts of the region’s farmers, had left coffee trees looking withered and stressed. To add insult to injury the rain washed away vulnerable, dry topsoil. The environment is getting worse for coffee and better for coffee diseases. Yields and quality will be adversely affected.

Konrad Brits, CEO of Falcon Coffees, speculated to me that the blankets of coffee covering the mountains will quickly dwindle to a few, high-altitude islands. He foresees a not too distant future in which high quality coffee is the preserve of billionaire oligarchs. There was irony in that statement, given that many of those same oligarchs have vested financial or political interests in climate change denial, but there was barely a trace of hyperbole.

Wake up and smell the coffee while you can.

I tagged along with Konrad on a week long visit to Uganda. He was working. I was a coffee tourist. It was an eye-opener. Climate change and poverty at origin are the main enemies of sustainable food production.

Also tagging along, but anything but a tourist, was Dr Tim Shilling. Tim is CEO of World Coffee Research, a not for profit organisation working to ensure the future of coffee and coffee farmers. We were all the guests of Great Lakes Coffee, a third generation family company that sources and mills green (not roasted) coffee from Ugandan farmers.

Dr Tim Shilling working with field agronomists from Great Lakes Coffee in a pop-up warehouse workshop in Kasese.

Falcon, Great Lakes Coffee and World Coffee Research have a shared agenda to protect and improve the livelihoods of small-hold farmers. And, to that end, Tim was in Uganda to work with farmers and agronomists to establish a programme of in-situ experiments with potentially disease-resistant coffee varieties. These new varieties are the product of natural, hybrid breeding rather than genetic modification. Hopefully the initiative will buy some time to address apparently inexorable climate deterioration at a more fundamental level.

It is too easy and too convenient to view climate change as tomorrow’s problem. It is real, it is important, but it is not as urgent as the more immediate and pressing concerns of daily life. Not when there is coffee in our cups and broccoli on our plates. This is its own form of denial.

Broccoli rationing is a sure sign that we need to reboot our relationship with food. Our geographic remove from the the point of origin and the people who produce is no excuse to be intellectually or emotionally remote.

For a start the language is all wrong. Coffee is not a commodity. It is a precious and fragile gift. And these are not abstract supply chains. They are circles of human life and international trade that connect us to very important but ridiculously undervalued people in fragile high places.

These people and the fruits of their labours need to be better appreciated, conspicuously celebrated and fiercely protected.

Supply chains should not be abstract and anonymous. The warm, eloquent, hard working human being who grows your coffee. (Mount Elgon, eastern Uganda)

First published on Medium.

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JWT25 is stupidly ageist.

Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 20.17.42

JWT25, the deliberately youthful and deludedly agile content production start-up from JWT Singapore, is stupidly ageist in my relatively senile opinion.

Here is the agency’s pitch according to The Drum.

JWT has launched a new service called JWT25 which uses young content creators to focus on short content made quickly. The average age of the teams will be 25 and the content will be made in under 25 days, which led to the name of the division.

In how many ways is this idea misguided?

  • It has a perverse, in fact reverse, perception of how content agility relates to age. At 50 I am exactly twice the average age of this new venture’s employees. And admittedly I might not be as physically supple as the average 25 year old. In a toe touching competition JWT25 would beat me hands down. Literally. But I’d bet my house that when it comes to content creation I am much more intellectually agile. I have been doing this idea-based content thing (i.e. advertising) for 28 years compared to the 3 or 4 years of these JWT greenhorns. I understand brands better, I deal with clients better, I arrive at solutions quicker and I recognise and mercy-kill crap ideas quicker. This is not arrogance. It is a statement of the obvious.

 

  • “Short content made quickly.” What about good content? What about content that actually serves a valuable commercial purpose? What about content that captures the imagination of its intended audience in such a way as to stimulate the desirable behaviours? And why the assumption that quick equals good? Quick is usually the enemy of good. At best quick is a necessary compromise if topicality is a tactical imperative. It is a compromise nonetheless. Most, in fact that vast majority, of content produced for marketing purposes is crap. Content marketing is to the internet what cosmetic micro beads are to the world’s oceans. An agile process is merely destined to produce more crap at higher speed.

 

  • Maybe, when they say agile, they mean lean. There is a market for more efficient content production that cuts out the fat and the baggage that makes conventional commercials production so expensive. Good content made more cost-efficiently is a compelling proposition. Reducing cost is a better idea than increasing speed. But even this idea would be made worse by a gimmicky age restriction on its staff.

 

  • Is 25 days actually “quick” anyway? This is a rhetorical question.

 

  • In the context of making quick (and cheap?) content am I wrong to feel disquiet at the phrase “uses young content creators”? Admittedly these are the Drum’s words* rather than JWT’s, but I’m uneasy at the hint of exploitation.

Good luck boys and girls.

(In the spirit of agility I bashed this out in 25 minutes. Not bad for an old timer.)

 

*At the time of writing I can find no direct link to a JWT25 website.

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Technology vs Machinery.

Russell Davies talked about the “machinery of government”.

Steve Hilton talked about the “machinery of political funding” in the States.

They were talking at the APG’s brilliant Strategy vs Robots conference at the Royal Institution. But they weren’t talking about technology.

They were talking about how things get done. Machinery is a catch-all term for issues like organisational structure, process, governance, leadership, culture and communication.

Sometimes, seldom it seems, the machinery is compatible with new technology.

More often than not the machinery reacts to technology like a cat with a hairball in its throat. The machinery rejects digital transformation like a poorly tissue-typed donor organ.

I’ve worked on a few  digital transformation projects recently. By which I mean the kind of project where the scale and scope and significance of the change wrought by new technology truly justifies the “transformation” label.

And what these projects had in common is that, out of the discovery phase, technology was the last thing we had to sort out. In all cases we had to sort the machinery before we could prescribe and implement the technology.

Talking to stakeholders from senior management (the people who would be paying for the technology) and from various operational functions (the people who would be using the technology) invariably raised issues of strategy, governance and internal communication that rendered redundant any discussion about CRM or CMS platforms.

The old(ish) Forrester POST methodology has never rung more true.

People. Objectives. Strategy. Technology.

In. That. Order.

You might find that everyone is talking in similar terms about the importance of CRM technology. But probe a little deeper and it becomes evident that no two stakeholders define CRM in the same way. Some stakeholders are adamant that there is a CRM strategy, others are blissfully ignorant of this “fact”.

You’ll probably find that what the left hand of the business thinks the right hand needs from technology is wildly at odds with the right hand’s self-assessment.

You shouldn’t be surprised if no two members of the senior management team share the same understanding of business strategy. Seriously.

I had a chat with Neil Perkin during coffee and he mentioned that he had been working more frequently with senior management teams on recent consultancy projects. And he observed how apparent it quickly becomes in stakeholder workshops just how little time these business leaders spend with each other. In fact it is questionable whether the word “team” actually applies to the senior management of many large organisations.

The machinery is broken, or at best dysfunctional, and technology won’t fix it. The digital transformation of a badly oiled machine will only make matters worse. It is doomed to be a very expensive mistake.

Done properly digital transformation is, first and foremost, an exercise in management consultancy. No surprise then that management consultancies are the organisations with which we most often compete to secure these digital transformation projects.

Russell talking about technology and machinery.

Russell talking about technology and machinery.

 

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Remember when acid rain was the poster child of environmental damage? Along with the hole in the ozone layer it seems almost quaint now in the context of climate change.

Time does that. Time is less of a healer and more of a tough-loving mother who gives you something to cry about if she feels you are sniveling over trivia.

Remember when the F-Plan diet was the darling of the slimming community? Remember, for that matter, when slimmers and slimming were the weight-watching nouns du jour? Who calls themselves a slimmer these days?

In the 80’s, the obsession with dietary fibre became such a cliché that Mel Smith and Griff Rhys-Jones made a sketch about it. Sprinkle a  “li’l bit of bran” on any nutritional nightmare and suddenly it would be ok again. (The bran section starts at about 1:25.)

 

 

“You can eat what you like but you’ve got to have some bran on it.”

 

Workshops are a bit like that. They have become the F-Plan diet of business. People use them like a magic sponge.

You name it, a workshop will sort it. Such is the almighty nature of the humble workshop that we have witnessed workshop ascension, from noun to verb.

Strategic impasse? Let’s workshop it.

Tricky creative brief? Let’s workshop it.

Can’t be arsed doing the brand plan ourselves? Let’s get the agencies in and workshop it.

Need something in a hurry that takes time to do well? Workshop it.

Content calendar? Workshop.

The next action’s workshop, now what’s the objective?

If two heads are better than one, eight heads must be awesome right? Wrong. Workshops are unfit for certain purposes and many hands can make expensive, mediocre work.

You’ve got a knotty problem and you think you can workshop (v.) the shit out of that baby. The trouble is that, as often as not, you workshop the shit in rather than out. Because they get used for everything, workshops get used for the wrong things a lot of the time.

Workshops are a good environment for a new team to get to know each other, as long as the task at hand is appropriate to the format. Workshops are fine for defining a problem, prioritising issues and achieving consensus. Workshops are fine for doing high volume, low concept work quickly; thrashing your way through an extensive list of user stories for instance.

But workshops are poor at delivering high concept solutions requiring creative thinking. Solutionising and ideation are the feeble progeny of inbred workshop thinking. Unfortunately it is precisely because this kind of work is difficult that it becomes the objective too many workshops.

As with the F-Plan diet it is human nature to seek easy, low-effort solutions to difficult problems. We want to believe that losing weight is as easy as sprinkling a bit of bran onto everything. We want to believe that making progress is as easy as sprinkling some workshops into the project plan. Sadly it isn’t if making progress involves heavy lifting like strategy, vision, original thought, or creativity.

Because they do have their uses workshops don’t deserve the same ignominy that seems to attach to brainstorming these days. But they should be used more sparingly and with a greater degree of consideration.

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A li’l bit of bran.

 

 

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