A year. One lap around the sun. 365 instances of rolling out of bed and starting a fresh new day.
One year ago I was celebrating the arrival of Spring. Flowers blooming. Randy birds chirping. T-shirt weather. Firing up the barbecue. Eating outdoors with family and friends long into the night.
I had been cloistered away at a residential executive retreat. The great and the good from around the globe assembled to plot and scheme their way towards advancement and riches.
A brutal pace.
Relentless and demanding.
Smiling assassins, viciously taking out their rivals in back play.
A seemingly endless series of presenters walking the audience through their hopes and dreams. Excel projections and Powerpoint forecasts attempting to dress up wishful thinking as scientific fact.
Some lauded and applauded by an appreciative crowd. Careers advanced.
Others eviscerated by a bloodthirsty mob sensing weakness. Careers derailed.
Game faces worn in public while surviving skirmishes and turf wars. Tears in private, as wounds were tended and egos salved.
Management theatre. Set-piece workshops by day. Celebrity motivational speaker. Diversity. Equality. Performance objectives. Professional development. Roadmap. Strategy. Team building. Trust.
Lip service all.
The real business was done during coffee breaks and over drinks in the bar. Decisions made. Deals with the devil agreed.
Tellingly, throughout the entire event, there wasn’t a single mention of long term plans. Building the business. Improving shareholder returns. Strategic growth.
When performance is measured in months and reported quarterly, few think in terms of years. Why bother? Someone else will be sitting in the chair by then, the incumbent having long since advanced or been dethroned. Misaligned commercials rewarding short-termism and punishing those who invest for the long term.
What a difference a year makes. But not really.
Same, but different
One year later, I was enjoying the spring sunshine in a t-shirt. Randy birds and spring flowers had appeared once more. In the background, the barbecue was warming up. No friends this year, but things are otherwise the largely same.
The lazy cat sprawled on the trampoline. Felled by a sunbeam.
The lockdown kitten nursed an injured paw, comedically swollen to cartoonish proportions. He had swotted a bee. The bee hit him back. Tail swishing, he spied another bee flying past. Slow learner!
The cats were oblivious to all but their current surroundings and immediate needs. Pandemics. Lockdowns. Stock market gyrations. Tax rises. Abstract concerns and white noise to them.
Come to think of it, the bees and the birds don’t seem overly troubled by those things either. Worry or not, the sun will still rise tomorrow. Something else we have no control over.
Earlier in the day, we had spoken to my mother-in-law. She regaled her grandchildren with tales of her childhood during the Second World War. A different type of disruption swept the land. Successive armies commandeered her school building. Teachers pressed into service of the war effort. Children sent home, receiving no formal schooling for five long years.
Eventually, the disruption passed. The war ended. Soldiers left. Teachers returned. Classes resumed.
Some kids had been taught by their parents. A few had learned a trade, earning their keep by making themselves useful. Many had simply spent the war years as children. Playing. Doing chores. Looking after younger siblings.
But here is the thing. Despite all the disruption and uncertainty, the kids mostly turned out ok.
Some went on to become bankers, doctors, farmers, nurses, soldiers, and teachers.
The proportion of her class who succeeded in life was little different to earlier and later generations. Those whose educations had not been interrupted by half a decade of war.
Her lesson was that those who succeeded found a way to do so regardless of the challenges faced.
My elder son related to her tale of the past. His school had informed students that while standardised examinations had been cancelled, the expectation remained that they had mastered the curriculum.
Many of his friends had shrieked in outrage! How dare the school presume they had done any work during lockdown? Tiktok, Xbox, and YouTube weren’t going to watch themselves you know. The academic year should be written off. Special circumstances. A free pass for everyone.
Aggrieved parents took to social media. Their precious darlings simply must be allowed to advance, irrespective of aptitude or effort. Guaranteed university admissions. How else will they assume their rightful place in society?
My son had asked why I hadn’t joined the cacophony of complaining parents? Demanding that the government do “something”. A vague notion that was neither well-articulated nor tangibly actionable.
I answered his question with one of my own: had he done the work?
Then I shrugged and observed that he didn’t need any special treatment.
Kids like him, who had put in the effort and done the work, had little to worry about. They had found a way to succeed regardless, just like the kids in his grandmother’s story.
I felt some sympathy for kids from disadvantaged homes. Those who lacked ready access to the homeschooling essentials. Screens. Reliable internet access. A safe quiet place to study. Parents with the ability, interest, and time to assist with their studies when required.
Some were casualties of the poverty cycle. Others of the rat race. Disadvantages both.
My younger son loved his grandmother’s tale of five years with no classes. Being able to ride his bike or visit the playground during the middle of the school day had made this the “best year ever”. All while still completing his schoolwork, in less than half the time it took in the classroom.
Several of the teachers I have spoken to during lockdown had expressed a similar sentiment.
Homeschooling progresses at the speed of the individual student’s ability and attention span.
Classroom lessons were a handicap race. Proceeding at the pace dictated by the slowest or most disruptive students. That in turn generates the need for issuing homework outside of normal school hours, because the pace in the classroom is insufficient to cover the entire curriculum.
Virtual classrooms had removed much of the friction for those kids who wanted to learn.
Bullies stripped of their power to intimidate. Class clowns starved of an audience. The disruptive and special needs kids, who monopolise the teacher’s attention during physical lessons, are for the most part absent from the virtual classroom experience entirely.
There was no question that virtual schooling was less fun and less social. Students had no opportunity to gossip or compare answers with their friends. But it was undoubtedly more productive.
A grand educational experiment, on a massive scale, has been conducted during these covid times. Hopefully, one that schools learn from, and incorporate into their teaching methods of the future.
Later in the day, I had taken the kids for a walk. We were surprised to discover the park had been overrun by anti-lockdown protesters, who had gathered for an impromptu concert.
Bemused police performing crowd control were the only people wearing masks.
The performers alternately chanted, danced, and sung. “Freedom from lockdown!”. “COVID is fake news”. “COVID is caused by 5G”. Oblivious to the inherent contradictions. That people like them, attending events like this, would only spread the virus and prolong the lockdown they sought to end.
A loud cheer went up as we walked by. Celebrity attention seekers posed for tabloid photographers, whom they had tipped off ahead of time, as they manipulated the police into arresting them. Building their brand by ensuring their names would appear in headlines for another news cycle.
We swiftly headed for home as the rent-a-crowd members played their part, providing the assembled camera crews with some dramatic footage of them scuffling with the police. The jostling was over as swiftly as it began. Carefully framed footage captured, the camera crews exchanged handshakes with the thugs, before they all left the park together.
That night the television news featured a breathless reporter narrating over the footage, claiming hundreds had reacted angrily when overzealous police had arrested the peaceful leaders of a protest against draconian government restrictions.
Which was a far cry from what had actually occurred.
A small scripted protest. A carefully orchestrated news story. As false as the diversity workshops at that executive retreat.
Which used a free concert in the Spring sunshine to lure dozens of nearby cyclists, dog walkers, joggers, sun worshippers, and bored parents. Then portray them as the “angry mob” in the background of a planted fake news story.
While I barbecued dinner, I reflected on the day’s events.
A recurring theme of cause and effect had emerged.
The lockdown kitten’s enormous cartoon paw was the direct result of his ill-considered actions. Who would have thought that tempting fate and doing something stupid might result in getting stung? Blame the bee!
My elder son’s school friends (and their parents) experienced a similar outcome. First neglecting their school work, then protesting the unfairness of being held accountable for their actions. Blame the pandemic!
The protesters in the park objected to London’s pandemic lockdown. Yet their actions undermined the very efforts that would see those restrictions eased and normalcy return. Blame the government!
And what of the players in that corporate Game of Thrones, where our story began?
One year on, more than half of last year’s executive retreat attendees were no longer with the firm.
It would be easy to dismiss that outcome as yet more casualties of the pandemic.
Complain. Make excuses. Blame events beyond their control.
Except that wouldn’t be true. Any more than it had been for the cat, the students, or the protesters.
Commitments made during all those presentations had gone unmet. Optimism and incompetence crashing into harsh realities.
Undercooked budgets blown.
Overly ambitious deadlines missed.
Lowest cost vendors underperformed.
Misaligned commercials hurting rather than helping to achieve the desired outcomes.
A culture of perpetually cutting corners, “doing more with less”, and compromising quality for price had caught up with them. By ones and twos, the executives had retired, resigned for “health reasons”, or been fired.
The executive retreat had been cancelled this year. Not because of the pandemic. Nor because of an expensive series of project failures.
Short-sighted decision making and lax controls had seen the firm fall victim to a well-orchestrated cyber attack. “Bring Your Own Device” and insecure home working environments made it easy. Social engineering access to administrator credentials. Capturing, then compromising, the “infrastructure as code” deployment process. Modifying “white list” access controls to turn the firm’s own security measures against them. Seizing control of the firm’s virtual private cloud. Locking employees out of applications and data. Then making an eye-watering ransom demand.
It would be fair to say the firm’s executives faced other priorities this year.
Not their fault of course. Events beyond their control.