Category: Learnings

Two Days with Biohackers

Last weekend we spent a fascinating two days at the Bio-hackers summit at a disused power station on the outskirts of Helsinki. A number of people have already asked me what my main takeaways were so I wanted to get some of them down straight away before memory fades too much, hopefully I’ll add to this through time.

One pleasant surprise about the event generally was how practically focused a lot of the speakers were. It was unexpected. I had expected a lot more high-tech focused sessions around apps, gadgets and medical innovation. While there was some of this, a lot of it was much more “ground level” (perhaps the clue was in the word “hack”) and gave me a huge number of immediately actionable ideas – some of which I had already started thinking about myself, which is always nice! It’s helped me progress some of my own thinking on productivity for knowledge work.

Top 5 takeaways –

  1. Understanding basics of nervous system can give simple insights

The basics of our nervous system have remained essentially unchanged for thousands of years, and evolved to suit a very different environment to that which we now live. This simple insight can unearth a lot of useful thoughts. For example, understanding the basic roles of dopamine, serotonin and cortisol in controlling our levels of motivation, happiness and stress – and the natural triggers to activate each of these can play a key role in helping us modulate our moods and control stress.

Probably the biggest insight I gained on the nervous system was the difference between the sympathetic (fight/flight) nervous system and the parasympathetic (“rest/digest”). As a species we evolved to survive first, then thrive, which means that triggers linked to survival promote incredibly strong nervous reactions. During the day we operate on a spectrum between these two extremes. Ancient humans would achieve balance between the two by resting in their cave following attempts to hunt animals. The modern world is set up to trigger fight/flight reactions more than it is set up to allow rest/digest – environmental triggers play a big role in switching between these modes, and triggers that promoted survival have become deeply encoded. Hence, to achieve the balance we need for optimum wellness and performance we need to work hard to find environments where rest/digest is possible (we need to find our “cave” – this insight helps understand why travel and moving house can both be stressful/tiring). If we are not careful we can set a new baseline at higher levels of sympathetic nervous system usage, which is damaging to wellbeing.

The role of natural light in the way we function and our own circadian rhythm – we are all set up to function optimally for different tasks at different times of the day, and achieving optimal productivity is about understanding this rhythm not trying to control it. For example most morning-people are able to achieve peak mental focus around 10am, best working memory around midday, peak co-ordination around 2pm, reactions around 3pm and peak cardiovascular ability at around 5pm.

  1. Connectedness to nature is shown to have a variety of positive benefits

Humans spent >99% of evolutionary history in natural environments, which is where nervous system evolved, said Olli Sovijarvi. Connectedness to nature has been scientifically linked to improved cognitive performance and happiness. This can be as simple as “grounding” – walking barefoot on soil or grass. Nature sounds eg birdsong shown to lower stress hormone cortisol. Having just moved away from central London, we now have the luxury of a garden and greater access to nature than we did before – I want to make sure we’re making full use of this everyday (see morning routine below!).

  1. You can use technology to provide “memory as a service”

Spending time recalling enjoyable events and moments of connection with others can be key positive influences on happiness. Don’t rely on your own highly imperfect memory to recall important and enjoyable events, Chris Dancy explained how social media can play a great role here. Apps like timehop, or facebook can surface previous memories for you each day. It’s possible to add songs, videos and locations to instagram posts to make the memory even richer. It’s even possible to time travel forward using facebook by writing posts to your future self, which will get re-shown to you a year hence (you can arrange the setting such that only you can see it). What better way to help your future self reflect than to pose the big questions or challenges that are occupying your mind today.

We had already started doing this to some extent, using particular hashtags on instagram to record our summer hihglights or information about our visits to particular cities (check our #djfrenglishsummer2017 or #djfrenglishstats if you’d like to see). It’s always interesting when a speaker takes a topic that you have taken the first few steps on yourself, and shows you a load more.

 

  1. Think about mindfulness (as part of a morning ritual)

Mindfulness was a recurring theme at the biohacker event, with multiple speakers referring to it. Clearly it’s a big theme in its own right, with plenty of literature and buzz around its usefulness in the corporate world. You might even say it’s being overdone.

I found it helpful to hear about mindfulness from some thoughtful speakers, including doctors, and in particular how people had used it in their own lives. As many others have said, taking the first steps toward practicing mindfulness can be as simple as spending a few minutes each morning focusing on breathing and trying to control the distractions that enter the mind. We have started doing this more consistently each morning.

  1. The role of a morning routine

Tomi Kokko took us through his morning routine and the logic behind it, which really got us thinking. Since we’ve been back we’ve worked on our own version. Tomi gives himself a minute after waking up to get into a cold shower – while that isn’t quite for us we’ve been thinking about how a combination of mindfulness, breathing, short intense bursts of exercise designed to get oxygen flowing can be combined with being outdoors, barefoot and the right combination of nutrition in the mornings(lemon water for hydration, coffee, fats for brain function and spices for increased blood flow). It would be too early to claim this as a success but I’ll aim to report back in a few months on how this is going. Taking time to recognise things in your life that you are grateful for on a daily basis is also something I aim to get better at.

All in all it was a thoroughly fascinating and engaging two days, with the vast majority of speakers being really engaging and impactful. The timing of each session was well-judged with 40 minute keynotes early in the day falling to 30 and 20 minute sessions later on with frequent breaks, and room to stand as well as sit in the main hall (conference organisers everywhere, take note!). I’d encourage anyone thinking of going to check it out, we are hoping to make it to next year’s event which is in Sweden and the Netherlands.

One minute guide to real-world AI implementation 

McKinsey just published an excellent and comprehensive paper covering how Artificial Intelligence (AI) can deliver real value for business.

tl;dr

The only issue – at 80 pages it’s a lot to read.

A lot of the use cases focus on retail, energy and education, one angle I find particularly are the read-across of these examples into service based and business-to-business environments. There are definitely some relevant points that could map to a services/B2B worlds: for example the automation of admin tasks for teaches, more targeted sales and marketing and more personalised customer service.

Here’s my take on the key points from the document:

1. No shortcuts: first data & digital, then AI

AI becomes impactful when it has access to large amounts of high-quality data and is integrated into automated work processes. AI is not a shortcut to these digital foundations. Rather, it is a powerful extension of them.

The firs thing firm’s need to do is come up with a real business case for AI that relates to the firm’s strategy, this requires separating the hype and buzz around AI from its actual capabilities in a specific, real-world context. It includes a realistic view of AI’s capabilities and an honest accounting of its limitations, which requires at least a high-level grasp of how AI works and how it differs from conventional technological approaches.
Each new generation of tech builds on the previous one – this suggests AI can deliver significant competitive advantages, but only for firms that are fully committed to it. Take any ingredient away—a strong digital starting point, serious adoption of AI, or a proactive strategic posture—and profit margins are much less impressive. This is consistent with McKinsey findings in the broader digital space.
Technology is a tool and in itself does not deliver competitiveness improvements.

2. Areas to focus on to create real value: project, produce, promote or provide 

To fulfil the expectations being heaped upon it, AI will need to deliver economic applications that significantly reduce costs, increase revenue, and enhance asset utilization.

Mckinsey categorized the ways in which AI can create value in four areas:(1) enabling companies to better project and forecast to anticipate demand, optimize R&D, and improve sourcing; (2) increasing companies’ ability to produce goods and services at lower cost and higher quality; (3) helping promote offerings at the right price, with the right message, and to the right target customers; and (4) allowing them to provide rich, personal, and convenient
user experiences

3. Data ecosystem & staff culture to the fore 

Firms must conduct sensible analysis of what the most valuable AI use cases are. They should also build out the supporting digital assets and capabilities. Indeed, the core elements of a successful AI transformation are the same as those for data and analytics generally. This includes building the data ecosystem, adopting the right techniques and tools, integrating technology into workplace processes, and adopting an open, collaborative culture while reskilling the workforce

4. Take a portfolio approach focused on use cases in short, medium and long term, be lean, fail fast & learn

A portfolio-based approach to AI adoption cases, looking at use cases over a one- to five-year horizon, can be helpful.

In the immediate future, McKinsey suggest a focus on use cases where there are proven technology solutions today that can be adopted at scale, such as robotic process automation and some applications of machine learning. Further out, identify use cases where a technology is emerging but not yet proven at scale. Over the longer term, McKinsey’s view is to pick one or two high-impact but unproven use cases and partner with academia or other third parties to innovate, gaining a potential first-mover advantage in the future. Across all horizons, a “test and learn” approach can help validate the business case, conducting time-limited experiments to see what really works and then scaling up successes. Fast, agile approaches are important.

5. Don’t be a hammer in search of a nail … 

To ensure a focus on the most valuable use cases, AI initiatives should be assessed and co-led by both business and technical leaders. Given the significant advancements in AI technologies in recent years, there is a tendency to compartmentalize accountability for AI with functional leaders in IT, digital, or innovation. This can result in a “hammer in search of a nail” outcome, or technologies being rolled out without compelling use cases. The orientation should be the opposite: business led and value focused. This business-led approach follows successful adoption approaches in other digital waves such as mobile, social, and analytics.

McKinsey graphics on AI:

Five years as part of a small team doing important work

It’s good to reflect, like many of you I spend a lot of time looking forwards, setting goals, moving forward, thinking about what we’re going to achieve. That’s what gets you far, but I’ve learnt it’s also important to look back, see how far you’ve come. That gives motivation, helps push on through the inevitable dips. Today was a good day to reflect – being 5 years since I started work at Redington.

 

5 years isn’t that long, in the context of a whole career, but its long enough to make a decent dent in things (if not in the universe then at least in one’s own small part of it) and really achieve stuff. Of course it’s also a period of time which will include some dips and speed bumps along the way (important to recognise that too). I do feel genuinely proud of what we’ve achieved and where we’ve come over last 5 years, more of that later.

 

As most of you’ll know I didn’t join Redington as a startup. I don’t have any stories of working in Rob’s bedroom or Dawid’s attic (as fun as I’m sure that was). I joined a 45 ish person firm in 2012 that was already working with many of the largest pension schemes in the U.K. It’s easy to remember my first days/weeks as it was just before & during the London olympics in summer of 2012. As many of you will know I spent the previous 5 years living and working in Sydney(note – in case there is still any doubt I’m not Australian: David spent the first year I worked with him thinking I was Australian, and introducing me as such – thought initially was a joke then got a bit awkward). During my years in Sydney I had a desk looking out over the harbour – straight to the ocean, getting the ferry to work. Immediately prior to starting at Redington I’d been travelling 4 months south east Asia. In fact I landed in London on a sat morning from a kick boxing camp in Thailand, started work on the Monday having bought a pair of shoes and a shirt over the weekend. So I turned up to old street on the first morning, mega relaxed, great tan and probably more of a hint of an Australian accent than I’d care to admit. Clearly neither lasted for long!

 

Of those 45 people around 25 are still here – e.g. Rob, Dawid, David, Pete, Alex, Jonny, Karen, Steven + others. And about 100 have joined since. It’s given me a great amount of pride and pleasure to build what we have here over those last 5 years & I really hope those people who’ve been around for some or all of that journey share that feeling, I really enjoy doing great things as a team and it’s great to look back and see what we’ve achieved together, inevitably there are dips and road bumps, and false starts – but seeing things in the round it’s overwhelmingly positive, couple of examples

 

Clients are of course a big part of the story of the last 5 years, and doing great things for clients, doing the right things, is at the heart of it. Too many examples to even scratch the surface but two in particular to mention:

 

  1. Doing the work to put the second LDI manager in place for the PPF. (2013) A highlight because, many bright and capable people in that organisation and they select from a panel of top consultants, so always a privilege to be chosen to work for them. But also because of the reach and impact of the PPF – supporting pension payments to a quarter of a million and counting pensioners & their families from schemes of failed companies.

 

 

  1. SJP, winning in competition a mandate to advise SJP on their fund range (2014), here I really started to see the power of the combination of skills we had in the firm, and it was really rewarding to win that mandate as part of a team alongside Pete, Pat and Rob.

 

Second theme is building assets internally, again so many things there I could mention, but one stands out:

 

Seeing blender and later toaster get built up from nothing to what we have today (2013-present) – observed that from a distance rather than being closely involved – hope that those of you partly or fully involved in that look on that with a great deal of pride, developing something like that from scratch isn’t the sort of thing you get to do many times in a career, great team effort to have produced the asset we have today over that period of time. That’s just one example and I know there’s a lot more to come there in the future too.

 

Third theme learning – learnt a lot, surprised me in a way, was a bit unexpected. Not that I thought I was the “finished article” back when I joined the firm but having spent much of my 20’s doing exams (university, masters, actuarial) and starting work, I suppose at the time I thought it was natural that I would be using those skills more rather than learning new ones, I was completely wrong on that! I might even go as far as to say I’ve learnt more so far during my 30’s than I did in my 20’s – certainly more relevant and deeper stuff. Particularly grateful of learnings from Rob, David, Mitesh.  things like: knowing your inner chimp, tackling tough conversations, setting the context, working in the feel space. If you’re interested I’ve blogged in more detail about this here and here.

 

So, to sum up, Seth Godin put this really well in one of his blogs – a manifesto for small teams doing important work – and that really sums up how I feel about working here (and I know that’s how many of you feel as well) – done a lot of important work over last 5 years , with the team we have today am confident we do even more over next 5. Genuinely mean it when I say that the energy and enthusiasm you all have inspires me, pushes me and gives me that spring in my step each morning.  I’m proud of what we’ve achieved,  but above all really working at Redington has kept life interesting, really means a lot to me to work somewhere you have a spring in your step walking into the office, a sense of purpose, some thing that gets you out of bed each morning, that’s what it’s about isn’t it, at the end of the day.

 

Four Things I Learnt at Work in 2016

  1. Hack your own productivity, figure out what works for you 
As “knowledge workers” we all carry out a wide variety of different cognitive tasks each day: some are repetitive, some are simple but require a high degree of accuracy, some are creative while others involve problem solving or co-ordination of others. Some involve significant willpower while others may not.
Finding individual ways to maximise our own productivity can be hugely helpful – I firmly believe that the productivity of knowledge workers can easily vary by a factor of 4 or 5 times depending on various factors and circumstances, and some of these are quite simple to understand and change.
Things like choosing which tasks to take on at different points in the day, selecting the appropriate space to work in (working from home being great for some tasks, bad for others), harnessing and using your willpower most effectively and balancing requirements to meet and consult with others with working individually. Creating focus on what’s important (rather than simply urgent), and avoiding cognitive switching.

I was influenced in a lot of this thinking by Charles Duhigg‘s excellent book Smarter, Faster better which I discussed in more detail here. Mitesh Sheth also wrote up this excellent list of productivity hacks, which I contributed to.

2. Approach the world as it is, not as you’d like it to be

2016 was a year of surprises and shocks at a macro political level. Some of the events that took place challenged the world views of people – including myself. The result of the EU referendum left many people – myself included-  feeling more than a little frustrated and angry.

One positive I take from this is the opportunity it presents to acquire really valuable wisdom and experience – for those people open enough to be able to move past the frustration and approach the world as it is.
The reality is, disruptive events will create both opportunities and challenges. Spending time fighting the way the world is probably isn’t the best use of precious resources of mental energy and focus.

3. Understand the Building Blocks of Change

Changing habits at work is hard. Rolling out new systems and processes and changing old ones. It’s so vital to keep operating efficiently, but the extra burden to individuals of change in the short term will also be resisted.

This great blog by Mckinsey helped me greatly in my understanding of the 4 key requirements for workplace change:

  1. An understand of why change is necessary
  2. The capability to make the change
  3. The alignment of incentives and rewards
  4. Role modelling by senior and influential individuals
There is a lot of overlap here with takeaways of books such as Nudge and Inside the Nudge Unit. All fascinating and really powerful stuff if you can find ways to implement day to day. It feels like behavioural insights are rightly having more and more impact on policy & decisions across organisations as knowledge and appreciation of the field grows. Great to see this happening and I look forward to more insights in 2017.mckinsey
4. Beware the Narrative Fallacy
In his great book Black Box Thinking, Matthew Syed talks a lot about narrative fallacy and dissonance – and the effects these can have on decision making, as does Michael Lewis in the equally excellent The Undoing Project.
The hearing and telling of stories is fundamental to who we are as humans. It’s hard-wired into us. It’s part of how we understand and make sense of an uncertain world. It was the way our ancient ancestors explained things to each other and kept children away from danger. We are fundamentally inclined to believe convincing stories.
But there’s a problem, far too often in today’s world stories are constructed that ascribe too great a role to intrinsic characteristics such as talent and too little to luck. Stories dwell on the one thing that worked, ignoring the many that didn’t. Stories can easily make us fall prey to the availability or representative bias, skewing our decision making systematically in unhelpful ways.

Making effective decisions therefore, involves getting beyond stories into data, asking the right questions, and seeking evidence (where it can be found). Testing theories, rejecting hypotheses, trying to assess against a counterfactual and learning as much from the trials that didn’t work as those that did.

2016 was the fifth year-end that I’ve been a part of the team at Redington. As we close one year and start a new one it’s a great opportunity to say thankyou to all my fantastic colleagues who genuinely keep life interesting and make it worth getting up for work each morning – which is what really matters, isn’t it? Here’s to a great 2017 and beyond.

My 3 Favourite Books of 2015 

Feel like I’ve managed to read a decent amount in 2015, as always would like to have read more though!

With a bias to non-fiction, here are the 3 the books that really stood out for me in 2015.
1. The Success Equation (Michael Mauboissin)

I wrote about this one in more detail here, but in short I loved the approach the author took in laying out various quantitative frameworks for distinguishing the roles of skill and luck (most were illustrated using sports data). There were a number of interesting takeaways for finance.

2. The Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins)

Hardly an original choice, given this book was riding high in the best seller lists for most of the year. I don’t read much fiction, but couldn’t put this one down. I also recommended it to several other other people who all ended up feeling the same. A real thriller brilliantly told from several perspectives, I really felt like I got to know the characters. If you are one of the few people that hasn’t already read this then I recommend you get your hands on a copy asap. I am certainly waiting keenly for Paula Hawkins next novel.

 

3. Incognito (David Eagleman)

I seem to be reading a lot of books about meta-cognition (thinking about thinking) recently. Unsure if it’s just a “phase” or reflective of a glut of books being published on the subject. Anyway, I found this one, which ranges over a wide area of neuroscience hugely interesting, difficult to put down and really well written. There were real “aha” moments on each page and at no point did I feel “bogged down” by weight of thought as I sometimes do with these sort of books. I think Eagleman does a great job of keeping the subject matter readable and accessible, making good use of examples and stories where appropriate.

The main takeaways or themes of the book I would say are as follows:

Our perception of the reality around us isn’t quite what we think it is, and by understanding the way the brain creates this perception we can understand how it can be led astray.

A huge amount of our behaviour is governed by automated neuro-programs that are “burned down” into the circuitry of our brains, with little or no access from the conscious level (and this is much more efficient)

This calls into question the extent to which free will is actually “free” (are we making a conscious choice, or responding in a pre-programmed way)

This poses challenging questions for the legal system, which currently operates on the assumption that humans more or less start out the same. Perhaps as our understanding of neuroscience evolves we will need to revisit the principles behind the legal system.

One of the amazing things about our brain’s evolution is the flexibility to conquer new problems and “burn-down” into our unconscious neuro level the programs for solving them – so that they become automatic (such as learning to drive or ride a bike)

 

 

6 Things I Learned from Sir David Brailsford

I was fortunate enough to attend “an audience with Sir Dave Brailsford”. A fundraising event for Bloodwise in London in November 2015.

As a big cycling fan I have read before about Dave Brailsford’s famous “marginal gains” approach, so I was looking forward to the evening. I found it very enjoyable, and felt he shared some really insightful points that have massive relevance in a lot of other facets of life. Including:

  1. Belief in the ability to achieve a goal has to come first. After that its about mapping the route in absolute detail, and making small steps that take you incrementally closer. (DB cited Jason Queally’s 1km time trial victory on the opening day of the Sydney 2000 olympics as the moment when Team GB cycling began to believe olympic golds were achievable, after decades of underperformance).
  2. Culture is more than words written on a wall, it has to run deep. If done properly, culture can be what helps resolve the argument between two mechanics at 11.30 the night before a race.
  3. Win first, then build a culture around it.
  4. Take the problem to the person – moaning to others in a team can be  corrosive, be upfront.
  5. Success is based on building winning behaviours AND removing losing behaviours. The latter can actually be more important, as there can be a  corrosively negative impact on a team of losing behaviours (vocal moaning etc).
  6. Successful teams don’t have to be harmonious, but its imperative to have complete alignment around the team goal.

Great insights that I believe can be applied to almost any collaborative situation in life

BrailsfordBrailsford (2)

 

 

 

 

 

 

6 Things I Learned at Work in 2014

mountain

1.Manage your inner chimp

2.Tackle tough conversations

3.Set the context

4.Work in the “feel space”

5.Change routines

6. Be flexible

Manage your inner chimp

The Chimp Paradox by Dr Steve Peters has become pretty well known over the last 12 months and I’d credit it as probably being the single book that has influenced me the most. At it’s heart its a simple model – although I’d encourage anyone who hasn’t to read the book in full and if you get the chance, do everything you can to attend one of Dr Steve Peter’s fascinating talks, where he speaks about his involvement with British Cycling among other things. I really feel that understanding and learning to manage one’s inner “chimp” appropriately is a great step toward becoming more a more effective person both professionally and personally.

Tackle tough conversations.

The fund manager who just missed out on a big mandate, the keen and aspiring would-be graduate who didn’t quite make the cut, or the colleagues you respect who are pursuing a project in a direction you don’t agree with. All difficult situations which need careful handling. I think knowing how to handle these sort of tough conversations well is one of the most valuable experiences you can gain as you progress through a career. I’m not saying I’m great at it by any means, far from it, but luckily I have some great people to learn from, and it’s something I’ve really realised the importance of in the last year. Handled well, these sort of conversations can really enhance a working relationship, handled badly or worse, not handled at all and they won’t.

Set the context

Three words for the start of every meeting or presentation: “What’s the context ?”. Such a simple question but properly answered can stop people trying to make decisions when the context is to inform, can stop brainstorming happening when the aim is to progress along a specific path and stop detailed questioning when the aim is to update. All these, in my experience contribute to making meetings more effective and presentations better received. If you meet me in a professional context in 2015, expect to hear that!

Work in the “feel space”

The “Think, Feel, Know” model is a pretty simple and intuitive construct, when presented with a new idea or concept an individual will often react in one of three broad ways: 1. Think – the person will want adopt a logical train of thought, based on rational arguments and evidence presented and be able to deduce the answer. 2. Feel – the individual will make a judgement by relating or likening it to other experiences, or forming a quick and intuitive view not necessarily based on articulatable logic. 3. Know – the individual already knows the answer (right or wrong).

Clearly each type of individual requires ideas and concepts to be presented in a different way for them to best be received, the insight that helped me was knowing when to mix the different approaches, and in particular when to suspend my natural tendency to try and prove everything logically and mathematically, and instead spend some time in the world of analogy, anecdote and metaphor (the “feel space”).

It was Nix Rixon of Shirlaws who first articulated to me this simple but insightful model  (although I have since seen it referred to more widely).

Change routines

Habits and routines can easily get ingrained into an organisation and may not represent the most effective way of operating. It might seem tough to change the behaviour of a large group of individuals but sometimes its possible that small changes to particular habits and routines can be a catalyst for wider and deeper change (Charles Duhigg writes a lot about the idea of such “keystone habits” in his excellent book The Power of Habit). Perhaps having a particular meeting every week at 8.30 on the dot, perhaps moving to a coffee shop for a chat, or even going to the gym before work on a particular day every week. It’ll be different for everyone, but I found it surprising how easy it can be to facilitate wider positive change through just one or two changes to existing routines.

Be flexible

Taking a black-or-white view or approach and clinging to it doggedly as facts and circumstances evolve is unlikely to make you an effective team player, and it can lead to your view ending up being discounted in a group context – everyone knows what you’re going to say before you open your mouth and they aren’t really interested anymore.

The challenge is that being flexible can sometimes feel like you’re going backwards on a project: changing tack to overcome a new constraint, going back to the drawing board, or moving to an alternative line of inquiry can all feel like a move of the rubik’s cube that takes us further away from a completed puzzle. However, by opening up more potential solutions, in the long run they might just be making it more likely we’ll succeed.

Those are my thoughts and lessons looking back on 2014, I’m hugely grateful to those people who’ve helped me appreciate these and other lessons (you know who you are!*). If you like this kind of stuff you might also like Mitesh Sheth’s excellent 15 Tips for 2015 which you can find here.

* In case they don’t I’d like to mention in particular Rob Gardner, David Bennett, Dawid Konotey-Ahulu, Mithesh Sheth, Pete Drewienkiewicz, and Patrick O’Sullivan who’ve all contributed directly to the above lessons