Author Archives: ab

Your mountain is waiting…⤴

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You’re off the Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So…get on your way!

Today I start a new job in West Dunbartonshire Council. I’m taking up the role of Education Service Manager for Education Development, which sees me leave Education Scotland after a period of five years. It feels like I work in five year cycles looking back, as before that I was working for Argyll and Bute for five years, so it’s a good time to be looking at change.

New starts are always a challenge, as you have a mixture of feelings – excitement about what the future may hold, and a fair bit of trepidation to accompany it, as you question your own ability facing the unknown.

Dr. Seuss had a wonderful story to tell people facing decisions in life. In his wonderfully affirming ‘Oh The Places You’ll Go’ he talks about good times and bad times that people face in life. So for anyone else reading this on a Monday and needing a wee boost of confidence, check out the video above from the Burning Man festival.

Kid, you’ll move mountains


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… I started hearing the phrase “riding paniagua.” Sometimes it was delivered in a slightly depressed tone, as if the speaker were talking about riding a particularly slow and stubborn donkey. I might’ve finished higher, but I was riding paniagua. Other times, it was mentioned as a point of pride. I finished in the first group of thirty and I was paniagua. I came to discover that it was really pan y agua– “bread and water.” From that, I made the obvious conclusion: riding without chemical assistance in the pro peleton was so rare that it was worth pointing out. Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle – ‘The Secret Race’

I’ve recently finished reading Tyler Hamilton’s revelatory book ‘The Secret Race’ – the hidden world of the Tour de France. It’s well worth a quick read.


Like many cyclists, I’d lost faith in the pro peleton. Even to this day, I struggle to watch the near super-human achievements of the professional cyclists without a massive question of doubt in my mind. For all those that say the days of doping are over, I’m reminded of some that have only just returned from bans, and others that continue to fail drug tests. I can’t help but recognise the faces and names of past riders that now work on the team administration side of the sport whose performance was at best questionable in the past, and at worst proven to be performance-enhanced. The sound-bites of the present winners don’t help regain my confidence, either. Chris Froome (who I desperately want to believe rides the race clean) said in one interview “time will tell that I’m clean” – why will time tell? What will the future reveal that you can’t say now? You’re either clean or not…

I suspect I’d been duped by the question avoiding tactics of Lance Armstrong in the past – “Have you ever taken performance enhancing drugs?” – answer “I’ve never failed a drugs test” – isn’t technically the answer to the question posed, but left me with a shred of belief – if he wasn’t clean, how could he beat the drugs tests?

With all of this at the back of my mind, it was fascinating to read Tyler Hamilton’s story. How the sport was awash with drugs, but not talked about due to the cyclists ‘omerta’ – or code of silence. The systematic doping and transfusion programme the riders participated in, in order to beat the drug tests and maintain an artificially high advantage over their rivals. The underworld and suppression culture that presented to the world one image, whilst living a total lie underneath.

I was left wondering about the notion of ‘pan y agua’ – only on bread and water. I love the similarities to Occam’s razor that this brings out in my mind. If you were to strip back all the things we add on in life, to try to return to a simple way of life, could you manage it? In a competitive world, would you still be able to keep pace with your colleagues or competitors? Think about all the assistance you get to perform simple daily tasks. To do the things that you do on a regular daily basis – could you perform ‘pan y agua’?

You can get Tyler Hamilton’s book on Amazon – I’d recommend it as a good quick read.

Image credit: markb120.

Congratulations to me⤴

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managing-successful-programmes15 months ago I along with two colleagues took part in a Managing Successful Programmes course. Due to work commitments beyond my control, I didn’t manage to sit the ‘Practitioner’ exam on the last day of the course. I was gutted, as I’d been looking to do the course for a number of years for my own professional development, so not having the chance to gain the qualification was a disappointment. For those of you that know the course, you sit a ‘Foundation’ exam mid week, but the true test of the course is the application of the theory in a practical example. A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to sit in on the course again, but this time I sat the ‘Practitioner’ exam – and passed!

When your confidence takes a knock, it’s lovely to have little moments like this that help boost it again. Turns out I do know quite a bit about Managing Successful Programmes after all.



Leadership isn’t management⤴

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My gripe for today.


I cringe when I hear the phrase ‘distributed leadership’.

I fight back the rage building within me whenever I hear someone exchange the term ‘manager’ for the term ‘leader’.

Let me be clear about this – I love the concept of distributed leadership. The world would be a wonderful place if the people with the vision and passion were given the space to drive change. My gripe however is this – people seem to be using these two terms interchangeably.  ‘Leadership’ and ‘management’ are not the same thing, for one very simple reason: accountability.

Sure, ‘leadership’ is a quality we would hope ‘managers’ exhibit, and one would hope that any organisation would provide opportunities for staff to develop their skills both in terms of leadership and in terms of management, but they are not the same thing. You can be a leader because you have the vision and drive to make change happen. You are a manager because you are accountable. Leadership is a whole subject in it’s own right, but it’s also a really important subset of management.


Ignore the rest of management at your peril.

Sharing your working⤴

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The recipe for perpetual ignorance is: be satisfied with your opinions and content with your knowledge. – Elbert Hubbard


In the book ‘Crowdsourcing‘ by Jeff Howe, he quotes a wonderful example of the community of MATLAB users working to solve a problem:

Contestants were required to solve what is commonly called a “traveling salesman problem,” the classic example of which asks for the shortest possible round trip a salesman can take through a given list of cities. Participants submitted a solution in the form of an algorithm, or computer code that directed the salesman through a number of steps. The contest ended after ten days, at which point the most efficient algorithm would be declared the winner.

But [Ned] Gulley added an extra twist: Participants were allowed to steal each other’s code in order to create a better solution. Every time a new solution was sent in, it was quickly scored, ranked and posted to the Web site. Every other contestant could then see the programming code, in full. They could cut-and-paste the best bits and resubmit it with any improvements, however minor. If the tweaks, as Gulley calls them, created a more efficient algorithm, it vaulted the contestant into first place, even if he or she had only changed a few lines of code.

When I used to speak about development, I would often use this example. What fascinates me is not the open approach to solving the problem – this approach is used the world over. What fascinates me is how successful it was: 

But the extraordinary aspect of MATLAB isn’t the fervor it inspires, but the fact that the ten-day hurly-burly—in which all intellectual property is thrown into the public square to be used and re-used at will—turns out to be an insanely efficient method of problem solving. The contest has been held twice a year since its inception in 1999. On average, Gulley notes, the best algorithm at the end of the contest period exceeds the best algorithm from day one by a magnitude of 1000.

Is this how you approach problem solving? Do you open up your working to others? This is after all, how the world works. As Isaac Newton remarked, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”*. We all make use of the findings of others, but how prepared to share are we? Is the goal the finding of the solution, or the kudos of being the winner? In a time when the majority of information we require is at our fingertips, are we good at sharing? How much do we personally contribute to this melting pot?

If you’ve not read ‘Crowdsourcing’, I’d highly recommend it. You can get your own copy from

Image credit: Evan_Terada.

* – I love the quote from Newton – but I love the circumstance even more. His comment could easily be taken to be a barbed insult to his rival Robert Hooke - widely believed to be the originator of some of Newton’s ideas, and a man of somewhat short stature.


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Maybe that’s why a broken machine always makes me a little sad, because it isn’t able to do what it was meant to do… Maybe it’s the same with people. If you lose your purpose… it’s like you’re broken.


Hugo tells the story of an orphaned boy Hugo Cabret (played by Asa Butterfield) living in the walls and attic spaces of a Paris train station. He has in his posession an automaton – his only connection to his deceased father who taught him to look after clocks and mechanical objects. Hugo is searching for missing parts to restore the Automaton to working order, and finds himself caught up in an adventure - trying to find out the link between the automaton, the shopkeeper Georges Méliès (played by Ben Kingsley) and his God-Daughter Isabelle (played by Chloë Grace Moretz). On their way in the adventure they have to avoid the path of the bumbling Station Inspector (played by Sacha Baron Cohen). 

The film is sumptuous. James Cameron remarked upon seeing it that is was the best use of 3D he had ever seen, and praised Martin Scorsese for creating a beautiful masterpiece. I couldn’t agree more.

I’m always a sucker for a film that asks philosophical questions, and this one captures the question of ‘purpose’ exquisitely.  

I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured, if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason.

Do you feel that you have purpose? Do you feel that you are doing the right thing each day?

If you haven’t seen Hugo, I’d urge you to watch it. You can watch it via, or get your own copy of it from

Image credit: Noodlefish.

The limit of your ability⤴

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Nothing more can I teach you. – Yoda


In the early part of this millenium, I spent a lot of time teaching people to play the guitar. I’m quite knowledgable and fairly technically proficient as a guitarist, so it was with delight that I would help others in their own musically dexterous journey of development. Along the way, this would introduce me to a whole host of different artists and bands, as I was always keen to ensure that my students learned the songs and tunes that they wanted to play, not just what I wanted to teach them, or worse still, what I felt they should learn.

Sometimes this was really easy to prepare for. Often, the songs had already been transcribed and posted online (yep, this was the 2000′s after all!), and if it wasn’t something I had in my own music collection, it was simple enough to find the track online to listen to.

Sometimes it was harder to prepare for. I couldn’t find the track online. A transcription of it hadn’t been shared online, and I would sit patiently beside my cd player, paper in front of me, guitar in lap and pencil between teeth, shuffling between ‘play’, ‘pause’ and ‘rewind’ to get down on paper what I needed to help my student learn the track.

Often, a track the student would suggest was complex – arguably too complex. They may not have reached the required level of dexterity or speed to emulate the exact notes played by the artist. In many cases, we split the learning up, first learning the chord accompaniment, then perhaps some of the patterns or riffs that formed the key features of the track, before building up to a detailed breakdown of the solo. Often this breakdown would be performed in sections, at slow speeds before knitting it all together and cranking up the pace. What drove them on was the desire to learn something that motivated them.

Occasionally, you’d hit a wall. There is a limit to both my dexterity and the speed at which I can pick. I remember working with a student to learn ‘Surfing with the Alien’ by Joe Satriani. Whilst I can play all the phrases and notes Satch plays when broken down into chunks, I can’t play the whole piece at the recorded speed. I vividly remember the feeling of telling my student that although I could teach him how to play it, I couldn’t actually play it myself. I was a moment of pride watching in awe this student surpass my own ability, as he was a more technically proficient guitarist than me.

How do we cope when we realise the limits of our ability? Do we strive to improve and better ourselves? Do we hide it away, and hope that no-one finds where we will fail?

Image credit: Terriko.

Saying “I don’t know” more often⤴

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In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. - Desiderius Erasmus


It’s very easy to take on responsibility for something that you’re not able to do – you’re asked to do it, and have time; you’re interested in the topic; you once did something similar; it’s the next ‘logical’ step for your career; (this list could go on!)

With a new challenge could come a phenomenal opportunity for exploration and growth, but it could also bring fear, uncertainty and doubt. To ensure the former and eliminate the latter, there needs to be in place support, encouragement and trust.

That’s all very well, but there also needs to be in place fundamental ability and knowledge. Both of these could be gained, or managed, but without either we’re destined to fail. We need to be confident to admit where we’re not able or admit that we don’t know, and respect other that are able and do know.

I think we need to say “I don’t know…” more often than we do. This could easily be followed by something like “…but I’m itching to find out!” in order to see progress. Equally, “I can’t do that…” could easily be followed by ‘…but I’m going to keep trying!”

Is there a bottom line though? At some point, do we reach the limits of our ability?

Image credit: Jonas B.



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My name is Clareece “Precious” Jones. I wish I had a light-skinned boyfriend with real nice hair. And I wanna be on the cover of a magazine. But first I wanna be in one of them BET videos. Momma said I can’t dance. Plus, she said who wants to see my big ass dancing, anyhow?


Nicola and I watched this months ago, but it’s stuck with me as a film. It follows the title character, Clareece ‘Precious‘ Jones in a period of her life where she is pregnant with her second child, and referred to an alternative school, effectively giving her a ‘second chance’ at her education, set amidst the bleakest of circumstances. The film was widely criticised for portraying too bleak a picture of ‘welfare America’, and from this bleak picture creating a ‘superficially inspirational’ storyline.

There’s something very harrowing about watching such a movie in the comfort of middle class Scottish suburbia. A number of weeks before this, we’d watched ‘NEDS‘ by Peter Mullan, which was disturbing in a similar way – the principle character struggling to come to terms with how their environment has shaped them into the person they are.

What was utterly depressing about Precious was how despite the horror of her home life, her manipulation by social stereotypical marketing was still a driving force. Last week, I spoke about Katy Perry’s movie, and the power of the Oscar Wilde quote near the end – “Be yourself – everyone else is already taken”. How does this stack up for someone with such a turbulent homelife like Precious? What is our role in life to help or inspire the likes of Precious? What type of society condones such an existence?

If you haven’t seen Precious, I’d urge you to watch it. You can watch it via, or get your own copy of it from

Image credit: amboo who?.

The faculty of wonder⤴

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…the only thing we require to be good philosophers is the faculty of wonder… – Jostein Gaarder


In his phenomenal book ‘Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy‘, Jostein Gaarder gives us a beautiful quote, and I’ve been trying to find out if it comes from him initially or from some other source. I’ve drawn a bit of a blank, hence crediting it to Gaarder here.

What a great line! There is something beautiful about ‘wonder’ – I watch our two children grow, and marvel at their daily discoveries. Each time they find out something new, or take a little step further into an unknown world I find truly breathtaking. This faculty, to be curious; to investigate; to examine; to have a sense of awe; to be amazed – to find out something that you didn’t know before. What a brilliant faculty to have! We ought to cultivate this ourselves, and go out of our way each day to help others cultivate it too.

Many a journey of discovery must have started with such a simple phrase “I wonder…”

What do you wonder today?

Image credit: sektordua.

footnote: I quoted this at an event I was at in August last year. Curiously, those present took ‘faculty’ to mean ‘staff’, and began talking about the ‘faculty of wonder’ being an organised, structural thing. Certainly not how I would have thought about it.