Category Archives: Business Analysis

V for Vegetarian

“But what do you eat…?”
“…er…. food…?”

In much the same way that there are deaf people with a small d and the Deaf community with a big D, I am beginning to think that there is vegetarian cooking with a small v – which is all about  meat and the lack of it – and Vegetarian cooking with a big V which is about actual Vegetarianism.

It seems to me there are five types of meat-free cooking.

Aphra’s guide to vegetarian food

1 – Something that’s “almost but not quite entirely unlike meat” (with thanks to Douglas Adams)

Expensive factory-made vegetable protein that passes itself off as cheap factory-farmed meat. These are Seitan, Quorn meat-style pieces, Soya mince, and so on. I loathe these on principle but am ok with them in practice. Mr Behn is a vegan and quite likes them

These represent a style of cooking I was never fond of in the first place; I never did use cheap factory-farmed meat for a start (I used cheaper cuts of meat for sure, but went for good meat usually from independent butchers).

But there’s more to my dislike than that.  There’s an element of selling-out here: there is so much more to vegetarian cooking than pretending to be chunks of meat. For me, this is the vegetarian equivalent of the choice I made to become “one of the lads” when faced with sexism in the workplace. It’s like changing your accent to fit in. It’s accepting normative pressure to be or do something you are not, instead of celebrating something real and much richer.

2 – Even better than the real thing, baby (with apologies to U2)

Well -ish.

There’s a category of vegetarian food which copies meat dishes rather than chunks of meat, and some of these are surprisingly good.  Meat eaters (including me) are surprised by how good Linda McCartney’s vegetarian sausages are. They’re no match for artisan-crafted Cumberland sausages made out of Gloucester Old-Spot pork by an independent butcher, but they are better than most cheap sausages.  (Q: Why do butchers put bread in the sausages? A: Because they can’t make both ends meat. Boom-tish.) Likewise McSween’s Vegetarian Haggis and Simon Howie’s Vegetarian Haggis are as good as meat haggis without the apparent ikk factor. (Haggis is one of the few things I miss: I was never frightened by offal).

Not everything is as successful as these; I’ve had vegetarian haggis that’s been little more than mashed beans. But aiming for meat dishes rather than aiming for meat gives the manufacturers more room for maneuver.

3 – Tribute dishes

These are ones prepared in the style of meat dishes, but unashamedly substitute non-meat ingredients. Don’t look for steak or seitan in a mushroom and chestnut suet pudding. My tendency to use lentils instead of mince puts my lasagne and moussaka into this category.

This isn’t always successful: for years mushroom strogonoff was the default vegetarian option on most pub menus, (mushrooms are apparently “meaty”… no I don’t get it either).

This approach still betrays the thinking that goes “start with meat and work out from there”.

4 – If the meat is in teeny tiny pieces, is it necessary at all?

A lot of dishes, especially mess-in-a-bowl ones, really don’t need meat: risotto, jambalaya, many kinds of curry, chowders, and so on. I can get four meals for six  people out of one chicken (roast, pie, risotto, soup) I know damn fine you don’t need chicken to make a good risotto.

I’ll grant you bacon and ham; there’s no real substitute for teeny tiny bits of bacon and ham as in pea and ham soup, though I do sometimes fry sunflower seeds in soy sauce for small crunchy salty bits to sprinkle on things.

5 – Ta dah! – Vegetarian Food!

Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you…. capital V- Vegetarian Food. Food that doesn’t give a toss about meat. Food where meat would be an intrusion. Food that didn’t start in someone’s mind with meat and work out from there. There is so much of it, and it’s so goddam delicious. And that’s what hurts.

There’s starter veggie food that everyone knows about but doesn’t think of as veggie because it’s comfort food: Mac and cheese, Fried egg sandwich, Beans on toast, Bubble and Squeak, Cheese on toast, Eggs Florentine, Baked Potatoes.

Then there’s a whole swathe of Indian, Greek, Moroccan and Lebanese cuisine: Chana Masala (chick-pea curry); Dolmades (rice or aubergine in vine leaves); Hummous (c’mon, you know what hummous is); Baba Ganoush (always sounds like the witch in a Russian fairy story, but it’s an outrageously delicious smoked aubergine dip); and a wide range of beans in every variety of savoury dressing both hot and cold.

The point about all these dishes is that they don’t need meat.  It’s not missing – it’s irrelevant.

I appreciate that meat substitutes have a place – some vegetarians miss meat and others like Mr Behn find they add variety to their diet. But I see no reason to imitate cheap meat badly when you can celebrate the amazing range of Vegetarian food really well.

How to plan a Vegetarian main course

The trick with Vegetarian food is mixing two or more kinds of protein; so rice and pulses (chick-pea curry with rice),  pulses and grain with dairy (lasagne). It’s a knack, it’s easy once you get the hang of it. And it stops you thinking “meat and then what…..?”

Some rants  – Blue Cheese, Goats’ Cheese and Tofu

While I have your attention, let me share the warm hatred I have in my heart for goats’ cheese. This is the mushroom strogonoff of our times and I’ve had enough to last my one and only lifetime.  Goats Cheese Tart,  Salad with Crumbled Goats Cheese, Grilled Goats Cheese on a Red Onion Marmalade are lazy lazy thinking by chefs who think “if it doesn’t have meat it must have cheese”. And I just plain don’t like the flavour of blue cheese in cooked food. Bored, bored, bored of these two.

What not to serve a vegetarian on Christmas Day

Goats cheese on roast veg, with roast veg – how to sadden the heart of a vegetarian on Christmas Day

Finally there’s tofu. Tofu is compressed soya beancurd and varies in texture from cheese-cake to cheese. It’s nothing like cheese in other ways, and saying “tofu is a substitute for meat” is like saying “ferries are a substitute for trains”. They do different things in different circumstances.

But saying you dislike tofu is meaningless. There’s almost nothing there for you to dislike. It’s an ingredient (like flour), by itself it tastes of nothing (like flour),  it gets its flavour from what it’s cooked with (like flour), it works well when it’s marinated (ok, this is where my analogy breaks down) or when it’s smoked. So don’t bung tofu into your recipe instead of meat and then complain about it. Treat it with respect and it’ll treat you.

I am sorry about those rants; I just had to get them off my chest.


About being a Vegetarian

I shouldn’t be irritated when people who eat meat ask what we eat in our largely vegan household. Mr Behn is vegan. Me, I don’t eat chunks of cheese, buy milk or cream, or eat eggs, but I’m a vegetarian not a vegan because I cannot face having to read every single label of every single product forever. Plus I don’t actually like Oreos.

I rather enjoy telling people “Mr Behn’s never eaten meat” because he was raised vegetarian by dippy hippies, but apparently his family weren’t completely vegetarian until he was a toddler. He did try to eat chicken as a training exercise for going to China. (Note the unpleasant use of the word “try”). So the truth is “he’s never consciously digested meat”, but it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

I don’t actually know when I became a vegetarian.

I was raised by women who were adults during the war (both wars, in the case of my grandmother) so I learned to treat meat with respect because you won’t get it at every meal. My grandmother’s macaroni cheese was a wonder to behold, involving soft-boiled eggs and a breadcrumb topping.

They raised me to be fussy carnivore, preferring good meat (free range, from independent butchers) though not necessarily expensive cuts (I can and did stew neck of lamb, casserole rabbits, stuff hearts and cook belly pork with butter beans and apples, as I said offal held no fears for me).

So easing back from meat three times a week, to once a week, to once a fortnight was easy.  I don’t know when I last ate meat.  I do know when I finally identified as ‘a vegetarian’ rather than ‘someone who eats vegetarian food’: it was when a cafe gave me bacon with my pancakes and maple syrup and I felt sick at the smell.

Wi’ heart an’ heid – the fire at the Glasgow School of Art

Glasgow School Art ‏@GSofA Photo: The Mackintosh Museum, Winged Victory surveys the intact gallery. pic.twitter.com/KsKTVdATeW

Glasgow School Art ‏@GSofA Photo: The Mackintosh Museum, Winged Victory surveys the intact gallery. pic.twitter.com/KsKTVdATeW

I’ve tried to articulate the difference between Edinburgh and Glasgow for some time now, and the fire in the Glasgow School of Art has brought me closer.

Edinburgh knocks me out with its beauty. When I look at Edinburgh, I see one of those cities like Venice or Florence which is uniquely itself, whereas Glasgow keeps reminding me of other late Victorian Imperial cities like Manchester, Leeds and even parts of Sydney and North Oxford.

Glasgow’s uniqueness is in its people. I lived there for six brief months in 1999 and I miss them and their city in a way that I miss no other city I’ve lived in.

Edinburgh is the wellspring of the Scottish Enlightenment. For all its beauty and architectural follies it was always a city of austere logic. Family legend has it that a forebear was hanged in Edinburgh for stealing a sheep on a Sunday: the capital crime wasn’t the theft, it was breaking the Sabbath. These days Edinburgh isn’t ruled by the kirk, but it is still beautiful and still cerebral attracting some of the world’s brightest and best to an international, intellectual nexus.

However, Glasgow it seems to me mixes passion with its intelligence. Where else, would a fire brigade use the word “cherished” of artworks?

We are of course very conscious the Macintosh is a world renowned building that is a key feature of this great city, and that the artworks it stores are not only valuable but also cherished.
The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service

Cherished? That is not a word used by a Press Officer, or if it is, it’s a Press Officer who has not had their soul sucked out of them.

Then there is this from the GSA itself:

Audacity…? Another word to conjure with.

And here is their audacity:

… the fire services… succeeded in protecting the vast majority of the building, apparently by forming a human wall of fire-fighters up the west end of the main staircase and containing the fire.
Muriel Gray

It’s that eloquent passion I miss, living here on the East coast and working in cool, clever, cerebral Edinburgh.

When did email break?

I am trying to work out when email broke. I think it was about 18 months ago, maybe a year ago. No-one replies to emails any more.

I think it’s because we read them on our smart phones, but we’ll only reply to the easy ones when we’re on the move. Anything more complex we’ll leave till later and, as I learned when negotiating with my mother, later never comes.

Two or three years ago, five or fifteen years ago, emails worked. You would send an email and someone would respond within a few hours, a day at most. You would reply or send another and they would respond to that one. Email was faster and more flexible than letters, more private than faxes (unless you made the tee-hee-hee “classic” “newbie” mistake). It was great.

Recently I have been working on the schedule for Skeptics on the Fringe, and it’s been frustrating. It feels inappropriately public to make the first contact via Twitter and too in-your-face to make the first contact by phone. However, approaches by email are caught by spam filters or suffer from the double-bounce drop (if your email’s too complicated to be returned on the first bounce, it will be dropped).

I worked in times BC (Before Computers). Then I would have used the phone far more when I was confirming the schedule with the speakers, written letters quite a bit and maybe exchanged some faxes, instead of what I did today which was to use a mixture of email, twitter, FB messenger, texts, phonecalls and skype.

I am not certain which day would have been more productive, but I think I’d have been more productive BC.

We all used the phone more as a business tool, but these days I am shy of phoning people without arranging a time first, and when I do arrange a time to speak to someone call it “skyping”.  Today I got my rapid answers via Twitter, Chat, Skype, and Facebook messenger.

Would the letters have got a better response than the emails will now? I think so. People opened their post and put it in an In Tray and worked their way through it. Ideally you would deal with each piece of paper only once using one of the Three Ds (Do, Delegate or Dump). I am now trying to remember when I last saw an actual In Tray on an actual desk that isn’t in a post room. People mean to do that with emails, but the new wave of crap coming in drowns the previous wave of crap to be dealt with.

I am quite tempted to start writing letters again, just for kicks and giggles. Novelty works. In those early years of my working life, a fax was a good way to get someone’s attention because it was an urgent and important thing and the receptionist would bring it round immediately. But no-one has fax machines any more, there’s no “reply” link on a letter, no click through to our website, and stamps are 60p each.

So was BC was a pre-lapsarian age of artisan communications? When I started writing this post I thought “don’t be silly” but the more I re-wrote it, the less certain I became. With my rose-tinted specs on it seems like a golden age but Time Management™ courses and complicated products which were basically diaries in ring binders were heavily marketed suggest that someone made a lot of money out of other people being inefficient.

Instead, I shall think longingly of the true golden age, of the years between 1994 and 2012 when people read and replied to emails.

Incidentally, I assume you know, you babes who are reading this, that the cc on an email stands for “carbon copy”. Tell me you also know that a “carbon copy” was created by placing a sheet of black “carbon paper” between the heavier piece of paper of your top copy and the lighter piece of paper of your carbon copy; the impression by metal typewriter keys would then knock the carbon onto the carbon copy. This was one of the reasons why accurate typing mattered. The first carbon copy was legible, the second less so, the third a grey fuzzy blur.

Image

Case Study: Creating a SharePoint service

This post was written in 2010 or 2011, but sat in my drafts folder for a couple of years. Enough water’s passed under enough bridges for me to dust it off and publish it now.

I was reminded the other day how important it is to get the questions right when I caught up with a pal at the Contractors Reunion Ball1.

He told me how the right answer to the wrong question had produced internal tension within a service delivery team for over a year so that the service they delivered scored ‘6/10 – could do better’ but no-one could work out why.

This is a story about SharePoint. All you really need to know about SharePoint is that anyone who runs a blog can understand how to set up a SharePoint site. Rocket science it ain’t unless they make rockets out of widgets these days. However there is a huge difference between doing it and doing it well and hereby hangs the tale.

The service team’s job was to help the people who used SharePoint in the organisation to get the most out of it.  They provided the skills to bridge the gap between having an empty SharePoint site (a site address, a welcome page, a place to store documents and another to store pictures) and a fully configured SharePoint site which is more or less whatever you want it to be.

Two levels of service were clearly needed and during the year this story covers, the team discussed what these two levels of service were.  Were they

  • templated sites vs custom-build sites
  • off-the-shelf vs bespoke
  • off-the-shelf vs configuration
  • standard sites vs project work
  • simple vs complex

The service went live with two services based on a couple of customer scenarios or use cases.

  • collaboration and
  • gateway

A collaboration site would be a place for a team to work together, co-ordinate holidays and manage their workloads.  A gateway was much more one-off, it would be a mixture of shop-front, shopping basket and check-out.  The team expected to be able to deliver a collaboration site and walk away from it, but they knew that gateways would require weeks of consultation, configuration and user-testing.

However more and more people asked the collaboration team for advice because – guess what – they wanted to do do other stuff with SharePoint like publish process documents or whatever. So the team ended up with three de facto services

  • delivering templates
  • one off consultancy
  • gateway projects

This meant that the team were delivering a stellar service but failing to meet their yearly objectives and their work wasn’t recognised because they couldn’t report it to the service owner.  It also messed up who reported to whom within the team.  Meanwhile, the customers of the service were confused because there was no formal way to ask for the advice they needed.

The team muddled through, as teams do.  There was an intermediate service design built around the way the sites were actually used, which was more or less like this:

  • collaboration templates
  • document repositories
  • gateway projects

But the tension was still there because highly skilled customers were building their own gateways and customers with cash but no staff wanted fully-finished templates.

Despite that, the team played for a while with an even fuller offering based around more customer scenarios (use cases) but still it didn’t work.

Eventually, it dawned on my pal that the distinction wasn’t what the customer wanted SharePoint to do, it was what they wanted the Team to do, and there really were just three services:

  • Empty template with some rules, standards and help files
  • Occasional advice and QA
  • Full delivery

The problem, he said, was that the wrong questions were asked. He jotted them down for me:

  1. What does the organisation want SharePoint to do?
  2. What templates can we create?
  3. What skills do we have in the team?
  4. How complex are the customer requirements?
  5. What does the customer want SharePoint to do?
  6. What does the customer want us to do?

He said that it wasn’t until they had got to question #6 that they could finally create a service that was fit for purpose.  As I rather cruelly said to him, ‘ask a silly question you’ll get a silly answer’ and as he replied, nursing his hangover the next day, ‘hindsight’s a wonderful thing’.


1 – Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Mr and Mrs Net-Developer and their daughter Dot…. Net-Developer.

I guess you had to be there.

Return to top

My new year’s resolution: no more effing flies

How important is presentation? Does it matter what your work looks like so long as the thinking is sound?

It’s all in the context. I’ve worked in very large organisations where high standards of accuracy, detail and presentation were the norm. I work now for a company which is smaller, more entrepreneurial, fleeter of foot, and where what matters is the message not the medium. Some environments – academic, technical and medical for example – take great pride in making sure their presentations don’t look “too corporate”.

Accuracy matters in Great Big Organisations (the ones with customers in the millions and employees in the tens or hundreds of thousands) because of the way that scale multiplies the effect of errors. Herding 10,000 cats (pcs, people, pension payments, whatever) is not just 10 times harder than herding 1,000 of the wretched things. It’s nearer 10 to the power of 10 (or 100) times harder. Trust me, I’m a cat.

Detail matters in these behemoths because the systems are too big for one person to understand them, while completeness matters because people cycle in and out of the two year and three year change programmes taking their knowledge with them. Documentation is the baton that passes the knowledge from one team to another.

But the reason presentation matters in these modern-day Versailles is not because it contributes to profit or effectiveness, it is because your credibility is on the line: an obsessive focus on presentation standards is a product of power imbalances. This makes it understandable in companies with corporate clients; in fact some consultancies have entire teams whose job it is to take a document and make it look beautiful. Institutional clients judge the book by its cover and assume that a lack of effort in the sales process indicates a lack of effort in the delivery.

But where is the value-add in highly polished work when it’s only being done to negotiate internal fiefdoms? I am talking about work-places where people use phrases like

trying to get traction

socialising the idea

getting face-time

and

executive buy-in

I have spent weeks of my life polishing slide decks while I waited for my five minute slot in front of – say – the Heads of Strategic Operations Support at the monthly Governance Committee Change Review Meeting after next.  Where is the value-add in that?  I found it comforting, mind you. It meant I’d done my best and wouldn’t be damned with the faint praise of “could try harder” in my next 360. It also meant that the Heads of Strategic whatever whatever were less likely to find something to criticise in my proposal. And – best of all – it looked and felt like work and didn’t require much thought.

Don’t get me wrong, some aspects of polishing do add value.  I am hot on spelling and grammatical correctness because they reduce confusion and stop you annoying your reader. When a colleague who translates everything they say to me from French to English in their heads and says

We are giving the test scripts to Pete so we can test him

I have to remind myself it is the system we are testing not Pete. My French colleague is entitled to make grammatical errors in English, but anyone whose first language is English has no excuse. Good grammar and spelling mean that what you say doesn’t get in the way of what you mean.

But when we get down to that extra round of refining and polishing, what a Danish friend of mine called

Fly f***ing

how necessary is that?  Fly-f***ing is when you move a comma from one side of a word to the other because you’ve revised the damn thing to death. I’m fond of the term, but the English equivalent isn’t as blue. It is:

Nit picking

And clearly, no, messing with insects doesn’t add value, outside the situations where professional credibility affects the bottom line. Quite the reverse: I have discovered with joy that stopping when you’ve got the meaning down is a great way of clawing back some time.

PS – I’m fascinated that just thinking about Great Big Corporates has re-jargonised my language.  Have a link.

Finding a workplace that’s good for you

Whether you are happy in your work doesn’t just depend on the job that you do, it also depends on whether you like the culture of the place you are working.  There are ways to route round the corporate bull**** to find indicators ahead of time that show what a place might be like to work in.

Many recruiters will ask you to take a psychometric test to check your aptitude for the job, but if you are looking for work, you should remember you can turn the tables to some extend and avoid a lot of unhappiness by knowing what sort of organisation and culture will suit you best.

The tool we are probably most aware of is good old Myers Briggs but I’m not a fan. I think it’s too complicated and too ambiguous: I think AND I feel, thank you very much. The four scales are:

  • Extraversion vs Introversion
  • Sensing vs iNtuition
  • Thinking vs Feeling
  • Judgment vs Perception

I can never remember where I sit on this, and it’s hard to map on to a work environment though it’s useful when thinking about your suitability for a specific role. It’s popular with HR departments and tests of varying quality are widely available, but I think there are better models out there.

My favourite model is Goffee and Jones’ double S-Cube because it is simple and powerful. Goffee and Jones consider that groups of people are held together by two different kinds of glue: sociability and solidarity.

Goffee and Jones' Double S Cube

Goffee and Jones’ Double S Cube

Organisations with high sociability scores are characterised by long-term friendships, so Monday morning meeetings start with a catch-up about the weekend and a lot of what’s done is done out of goodwill and comradeliness. Organisations and people with high solidarity scores are characterised by a complete focus on the task in hand, social chit-chat is kept to a minimum, people are highly motivated by professional success and when they go the extra mile it’s not for friendship.

Clearly, if you know where you sit in the front 2×2, you know what sort of organisation you will be happy in.  It’s fairly easy to uncover where the organisation sits on the 2×2. In an interview you can ask questions like “it’s clearly a busy department, how do people pull together when the heat is on?” or you can just describe the model and ask where the organisation sits on it. Recruitment websites are clear about their values:

Working at Goldman Sachs is a fast-paced, high-energy experience that can help you find the best place for your talents

Googlers range from former neurosurgeons, CEOs, and U.S. puzzle champions to alligator wrestlers and Marines. No matter what their backgrounds, Googlers make for interesting cube mates.

Another model which I prefer to Myers Briggs is Denison’s Research-based Model.  His two axes are Flexibility vs Stability in one direction and Internal vs External focus in another. When you use this  model to sanity check your workplace just work out which quarter you and they fit in: work out where you and they fit on the two axes Flexible vs Stable and Internal focus vs External focus, and you’ll be fine.

Denison's Leadership Development Model

Denison’s Leadership Development Model

If by temperament you have an external focus and are flexible, then you pay close attention to what is going on ‘out there’ and think the best way forward is to supply what the market wants. Working in an environment where the decision-making style is consensual, where you “have to get buy-in” and you “socialise” an idea will suck your soul. Denison’s view, by the way, is that all traits are equally necessary in an organisation. No-one said it was easy. However, a sales department would probably sit top left, while HR in the same company would probably be bottom right.

No discussion of organisational culture would be complete without mentioning the work of Geert Hofstede whose research compared international cultures.  The image below shows Hofstede’s five dimensions and how strongly each one is present in the UK

Geert Hofstede™ Cultural Dimensions - UK

Geert Hofstede™ Cultural Dimensions – UK

I found Hofstede’s work fascinating while I was travelling, but it’s of limited use when working out how you’d fit into a specific workplace. The dimensions are:

  • Power Distance Index (PDI)
  • Individualism (IDV) on the one side versus its opposite, collectivism
  • Masculinity (MAS) versus its opposite, femininity
  • Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI)
  • Long-Term Orientation (LTO) versus short-term orientation

Other models are available.

While I was researching this post, I came across the Kiersey Model which looks as if it would map neatly on to Denison’s though it’s even more complex than Myers Briggs. Hermann’s Whole Brain model looks at thinking styles, whether you are emotional, analytical, strategic or structural.

However if you want to work out whether you’ll be happy in a workplace, then I have yet to find models that are more effective than Goffee and Jones’s Double S-Cube, and their book is a quick and illuminating read, and Dension’s Research-Based Model whose the website is informative, but designed to sell consultancy.

Double bubble

Woo Hoo! A post I can tag both Apostrophes AND Business Analysis!

In fairness, whoever wrote this speaks English far better than I speak any other language. But the sloppy layout in section 1.5 is not “Attention to Details” in any language.

I like “data’s” though.

I really like “data’s”.

I might start spelling it that way myself.