You will fail

the cane - a school punishment device from the 1970s

In my early years at school I loved learning French. The fact that my first French teacher was a kind, enthusiastic woman who drove a yellow Triumph Spitfire had no bearing on my enjoyment whatsoever. Miss Draisey was an excellent teacher, encouraging and trusting. I remember how shaken she was when discovering two girls cheating in a French spelling test. You just didn’t cheat in Miss Draisey’s class, she was too…nice.

Jump forward a few years and I’m sitting in the exam hall at Purley High School for Boys, aka Colditz. With a few notable exceptions, the teaching staff led by DGS Akers, our thoroughly unpleasant cane wielding headmaster, were a similarly grim bunch. They made Severus Snape look like Mr Tumble. My French teacher at this school was Madame Ananin. She came across pretty miserable most of the time, and seemed to have a loathing not only for all of us school boys, but her beautiful native language too. How odd.

Back to the exam hall. I’m at my desk, just one boy in an anonymous swathe of rows and columns. The teachers responsible for adjudicating the exam stalk the rows and columns as we prepare to start ‘O’ Level French (yeah I’m really that old!). Madame Ananin is on duty and she walks purposefully along the row of desks. She stops, puts a hand on my desk and leans over. She speaks four words, ‘You will fail Shaw’. She moves away from my desk and carries on. Thanks for the vote of confidence!

I passed ‘O’ Level French. I got a B grade and an A grade for spoken French. I won the inaugural Bruce McCallum Memorial Prize for spoken French that year too. My love for the French language was and is too strong for Madame Ananin.

Nowadays in the pursuit of helping people and teams to develop I encourage people to push themselves, often to and beyond the point of failure. Through failure we learn. To make mistakes and to fail is simply human, and in an encouraging environment it is a most powerful thing.

Know this. Creativity and innovation are forever locked in a whirling dancing fling with failure and chaos. As a leader, when you tell me you want creativity and innovation that’s great. And when you join the dance you never know whose hand you’ll take. You will fail. If you practice, you will learn and you will improve. And I will be there to celebrate that with you.

Thank you Madame Ananin.

photo c/o theirhistory


This post was inspired by two things. A talk given by Luke Johnson at the RSA this evening, and Adam Murby, who invited me along to listen and learn.

Entrepreneurship. It’s not about the money.

It’s about the creativity, the flexibility and the suffering, or passion if you must call it that.

And for me, it’s also about the encouragement.

Entrepreneurship. The money is a by product.

What can the world of work learn from entrepreneurs?

Shades of grey

Sitting on the train into London this morning I spotted a tweet from Sarah Lazenby to a great cartoon called “Whack An Idea” by Tom Fishburne. The cartoon illustrates the frustration I’ve long held about the endless corporate cries for creativity and innovation, so swiftly followed by the punishment of mistakes.

Fishburne says: “When a business culture plays Whack-An-Idea for too long, it no longer needs to use the mallet. The culture begins to self-edit. Ideas that seem too risky are discarded out-of-hand.” The cartoon gave me a good laugh – and it’s a powerful illustration of a serious point. That pressure to conform, to self-edit.

The train pulled into London Bridge and as I got up to leave all I saw around me was grey. Grey suits, grey faces, grey expressions. Why bother wasting time on dress codes when most folk self-edit to grey. It comes to something when my non-descript vaguely pink shirt stands out in a crowd.

Somewhere in the office there’s a drawer. And in that drawer is a piece of paper. And on that paper is written the secret mission:

“We cut out creativity

Can’t handle responsibility

We lie about innovation

We crave idea constipation

We have assumed control”

I don’t feel so good.