Sunday, 28 November 2010

Advent is nearly here

… or has actually arrived – we had our Advent Carol service tonight. I've failed again to put together an Advent calendar but I'll try to post most days in December. I'll probably have to miss the first few days as we're away with no wifi access.

It's been a busy weekend. The Abbeyfield House in Missenden (a home for older people) held it's Christmas Opera Festival on Saturday. A week or so ago we realised that the High Street – and therefore the main access to the Church – was to be closed for the annual Dickensian Evening supported by the local council. I managed to negotiate with the School that we could offer additional access through the playground – provided we patrolled it. So Don and I met at 6:30 well padded against the cold (at least it was dry) and waited to help the audience through. However, the extra signage that the Abbeyfield people had provided seemed to work well and we had no takers! So once we saw that the road was reopened, we packed up and went to our warm homes.

The day had started with opening the Church and helping (watching!) Adey replace some bulbs in the Church. We're gradually changing over to energy saver bulbs although we have a stock of tungsten filament bulbs – I'm not sure what to do with these. Keeping them till they are no longer available and ebaying them at a profit for funds doesn't seem right! We took advantage of the scaffolding to replace some PAR bulbs with long-life ones. They claim 15,000 hours! We'll see (or maybe not)

This morning, I set up the projector and screen in Church only to be told 10 minutes before the service that it wasn't needed! We also had no-shows or late shows from a number of volunteers this morning. I think it's a symptom or the unstructured life everyone seems to lead these days. I'm not sure how to fix this: text reminders, asking people who swap to tell us are possibilities but it's all more work. I have before now identified the replacement lesson reader at Evensong by spotting someone who was poring over the bible before the start of the service.

The Little Hampden matins went well although was quieter than usual. Graeme played the new organ – including a lovely piece of Bach after the service. This evening's Advent Carol service was lovely, too, with Tricia and Carolyn leading quietly giving us time to contemplate. We had a slight disconnection at the end when the clergy left in one direction and the choir the other. But I don't think anyone minded. The mulled wine and mince pies – rather 11th hour – went down very well although I did manage to break a glass when helping Helen in the kitchen. Not enough damage, I think, to be banned in future!

So a busy but not particularly eventful weekend.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Leadership and teamworking – we tried tonight

As promised, we tried some of the lessons from Saturday at our full staff meeting tonight. The meeting, following the pattern from the previous one, was held over a simple bring and share supper. This in itself is a relaxing format, encouraging participation, albeit with some mouthful mumbling towards the start!

We started with two handouts: the first contained a vision statement and the Willow Creek quotation – see Saturday's blog. The vision had been developed several years ago and, although appearing on regular newssheets etc, is not at the front of people's minds. The second handout identified a set of leadership skills with the opportunity for each member to assess their standard on a scale of 1 to 10, together with a target score (which may be higher or lower than the current) and a space for an action plan to increase or decrease their current score by 1 point. We didn't spend much time on these: it was suggested that everyone has a go at scoring themselves after the meeting.

We also discussed the “Yes, and” concept – and I had provided a penalty box.

Then we got into the meat of the meeting (and the supper!) During the following 90 minutes or so we covered a number of significant issues with very wide-ranging discussion, mostly very much to the point. Everyone participated very openly and in general the debate was positive. We didn't use the penalty box in anger although there were a number of times when the discussion was nearer “yes, but” rather than “yes, and.” Nevertheless we came to a number of very positive decisions or agreed on a set of actions to resolve the issues.

After the meeting proper, I used a technique I have used with Young Enterprise when reviewing their progress: I asked each member to spend one minute recording what had gone well for them and what had gone badly. The comments were very encouraging. In summary, the following went well: covered lots, everyone participated, got results from discussions, fellowship, eye contact, open – no “under-table” chat, everyone was allowed to speak, plans of action, aims/vision clear, team effort; these were the 'went badly' items: diverted into unnecessary detail, wandering, got lost somewhere in choir discussion, talking over/2 meetings.

So, much more positive than negative. And in the more general comments I sensed that everyone thought it was a very good meeting. The only actions we could agree to build on the positives and fix the negatives were to have a published agenda for the next meeting, and for everyone to send items in for this ahead of the meeting.

Saturday, 20 November 2010


I've had a fascinating day at an Oxford Diocesan course “Leadership and All That Jazz” The premise of the course is that leadership skills and techniques can be learned from the world of music. Led by Alex Steele, the day was a mixture of discussions about management techniques and improvisations by a group of four jazz musicians. The first surprise was that Alex, a very polished jazz pianist had assembled three other players – drums, saxophone and double base – who had never performed together before. At first this seemed very high risk – but it worked very well at many levels.

The aim of the course was to use music as an example of various leadership techniques. This was very effective but for me there were two other benefits. The first was a simple one: breaking up what can be rather dry material with music made the day much more engaging. However, I picked up much more from the way the musicians operated than the points on the points they were trying to illustrate. Although they had never played together before the musicians formed a team with the clear aim of making music as guided by their leader Alex. The teamworking lesson for me was that members of the team must have a good understanding or their skills and how the interact, and must know what they are trying to achieve. Looking at some of the teams I work with, we're a long way from this.

There was an excellent quote from the bass player: “leave the ego at home and play for the band” Again, clear common aim and understanding how people relate together. Of course I'm sure this is rather simplistic. I'm sure there are competitive musicians who have an additional agenda, just as there are team players with an axe to grind. However, today, the way these four played together was a model.

The session where the players were deliberately restricted was interesting, too. The aim was to support the proposition “ make the most of what you're given” They tried – and succeeded – in playing with severe restrictions: pianist using left hand on black notes only, saxophone left hand only, bass in three strings and drummer using his feet. A real lesson in doing well in spite of difficulties – not as well as if there were none but still acceptable.

But the most meaningful lesson today was a quotation from a bok by Bruce Bugbee, Don Cousins, and Bill Hybells of the Willow Creek Community Church in the US: “The primary call and greatest expression of leadership does not lie in the exercise of the giftedness of the leaders but in the empowerment of God's people. Leaders understand that what they do is not as important as what they cause to be done through God's peopleas a result of the application of leadership gifts.”

We're going to try some of the ideas at Monday's staff meeting....

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Managing Volunteers

A few events of the last week or so have made me think again about how we manage volunteers. I spent many years living in the management system of one of the best managed companies – and some time developing and implementing parts of this management system. Yet we seem to ignore most of this in the volunteer sector. Risk management is a good example. The Health and Safety Executive and particularly the press have done a poor job in its handling of risk assessments. They have become the excuse for silly notices and inappropriate bureaucracy. Why don't owners of public buildings turn down the boiler thermostat rather than putting up notices next to hot taps warning about hot water?

The HSE has achieved enormous improvements in safety in the workplace – just look at the employee fatality statistics

See more at their web site here.

However we still get appalling 'accidents' like the death of Charlotte Shaw on the Ten Tors Challenge a few years ago – read a report of the inquest here. We seem unable to get people to have an awareness of risk and to modify their actions accordingly. I see it all the time: how often have you seen a walker or jogger on the right side of a road with no pavement not looking over his or her shoulder when a car approaches from behind? Or wearing earphones? The chance of being hit by the car is slim but the result could be fatal. Actually, with the way some drivers go round our lanes makes the chance greater than slim but that's another story.

I've even had a Young Enterprise company, planning to run an event in the school, tell me not to worry about the risk assessment because the office was going to do that! Were they not going to be aware of the risks themselves? I've also had a YE company when prompted produce a risk plan that was described by a colleague adviser as one of the most professional plans he had seen – and he worked for Am Int (GE Healthcare now) where they manage the risks of radioactive production!

It's not an easy area: I remember at work when we first tried to introduce an approach to risk management for use with our customers, the legal department tried to veto it “we can't suggest that there's any risk in implementing our systems” Common sense prevailed. We need an appropriate level of bureaucracy but most importantly we need to get people to be aware of risks and to manage them sensibly.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Another week on the canals

Blog silence for a couple of weeks... another week afloat. An outdoor holiday in the UK in November is a risk but we had several days with wonderful weather. The weekend was virtually cloud-free and not too cold.

We met our friend and were invited to lunch ashore by her brother. As our hosts were driving and collecting the friend and her husband for the next day, we suggested they join us for dinner on the Sunday. Only when we set off again did we think – 7 for dinner? Where will we all sit? Have we got enough plates? We were OK on the latter (and had plenty of food and drink aboard) and Brenda had an inspiration about seating arrangements.

On Sunday, we went up the Watford flight of locks with our friends. This flight consists of two normal locks at the bottom followed by a staircase of 4 locks, then a normal lock at the top. The staircase consists of four locks where the top gate of the first lock is the bottom gate of the next one. There are very large side pounds which keep the levels correct and very strict instructions to open the red paddles before the white ones. We managed without any mishaps.

The dinner went off well. On the Monday morning we woke to rain and wind. After about 2 hours of cruising the rain got much worse so we gave up, lit the stove and settled down to watch Mama Mia on the DVD! Big contrast to outside. The gas ran out at about 10pm – the boat has Calor gas cooking and a boiler for the radiators. We always carry a spare cylinder – but on this occasion, the screw thread on the replacement cylinder was damaged and we couldn't get it connected. And we were trying the right way – Calor gas cylinder connections have left-hand thread.

So next morning, Ian lit the stove again and we managed to boil a saucepan of water for coffee. Fortunately we found a marina that would exchange the faulty cylinder – the attendant turned out to be another Churchwarden known to our friend! Tuesday evening was spent in a splendid canal-side restaurant Edwards at Crick. Super food and wine; shame we were the only guests.

We went through 2 tunnels on the trip – the Braunston tunnel is 2042 yards long (1867M) There's no towpath but there is room to pass another boat – just!

The photo of the watford locks is from Stephen and Lucy's website -

Edwards at Crick -