“29/04/18. My arms are aching, my legs are covered in bruises and I’m completely shattered. I must be in London.”
It has been a week since I vacated my flat in central London and returned once more to Swindon. It almost feels like the past year has all been but a dream, vape steam in the breeze. Invisible, abstract and only memorable by the faint smell it leaves behind.
On 2nd May I left London Paddington station for the last time packed like a loaded Buckaroo: an overfilled holdall case, a heavy rucksack, an additional handbag, a canvas tote filled with redundant bedlinen and a heavy laptop across the body for good measure. I learnt from my mistakes moving out and managed the travel back relatively bruise free, however my body has ached for days from strain. The day before I fully moved I’d completed a separate trip to Swindon with a similar amount of goods and wondered why I couldn’t stop violently shaking. I spilt coffee everywhere at the formal work function, of course. At the time I put it down to the amount of rushing around but now I see it as the culmination of mental and muscular stress.
Other than the short term pains it would be easy to pass off what I’d been through and achieved in just over twelve months living and working in the English capital as nothing more than normal. ‘Business as usual’ as my colleagues would say. But it isn’t. And it’s not just the big things that make me say that, like moving into the flat and travelling solo in Europe for the first time, but it is the little things as well. The events I put myself out of my comfort zone to attend, the weird obsession with finding the cheapest eggs, the men (goodness the men). And as I stood in Brompton cemetery one Sunday afternoon while a random man called Nicolas tried to chat me up I thought only one thing.
Thank God I’m writing this all down.
Seven separate notebooks, all documenting the experience of spending a year in London. Seven books with unique but different personalities as I went through a deeply personal and professional journey. Just glancing over extracts from book one and comparing it to book seven the transformation is really quite something (excluding coffee spilling and egg hunting, those two are deeply trademarked parts of me). Admittedly I haven’t read any of the books in depth since writing, I want to let some water trickle under bridges first. But I remember so clearly picking the first notebook off a shelf in a stationery store and telling myself I would make every effort to record the upcoming eight months in London (as it was then supposed to be) so that I should not forget the experience when I returned once more to Wiltshire. To ensure that I never let this fantastic opportunity turn into little more than a faded dream. And maybe, just maybe, one day I will do something more with my scribbles, that people will know about the time I ended up at a celebrity wedding, when the artist Grayson Perry became a fan of my writing, the time I got screen tested for a dating show. And again, the men.
If two things show how much I’ve changed over the past year then look no further than these separate quotes.
Guess who’s been writing internal news articles again? Below was produced to promote the tool I’m developing as part of a team for a sub-project at work. More details below but so far the reception to both writing and project outputs have been great.
Keanu Reeves is a Better Career Advisor than Britney Spears
When I was a little girl I wanted to be Britney Spears. Then around the age of seven I realised it would be a difficult career path (turns out it’s a ‘dead man’s shoes’ role), so instead I settled on hard-hitting journalism, only to find myself documenting the adventures of a pineapple in a party hat (don’t ask). Post University there were three years in charity and now I’m fast approaching two of the same at Nationwide but it’s only recently that the words ‘Project’ and ‘Management’ have sprung out as possibilities for someone like me.
I applied to be on a team for this year’s Association for Project Management (APM) challenge with echoes of Britney in the back of my mind. What skills and qualities do you
need to have to enter it? Where do you go to access accredited material? Is Project management even the right career? I was about to call it out on when someone else said it, and then another, until we’d all agreed that between our collective 17 and a half years’ experience no one knew the answers to these fundamental questions. Our deliverable was born; in four months we’d build a tool to help practitioners focus their development time more effectively. We would call it the “Project Development Matrix” (and Michael, our project manager, would tell me to stop suggesting we wear long coats and shades like Keanu Reeves’ did in the 1999 film The Matrix). With our tool all you’d need to do is answer a few questions and the answers would automatically populate charts to help tailor the development plan of the user.
The APM challenge is designed to develop project management qualities and knowledge of the project lifecycle. We produce detailed reports to deadlines, stage project boards with our sponsor and must deliver what we set out to do. For the finals night in May we’ll either have produce additional material or present to a panel. You’re up against teams from a range of organisations so company lingo has to be stripped away and everything taken back to APM fundamentals. The project would be enough of a challenge for a single co-located team, however we’ve added a layer of fun to the mix by basing ourselves across two Swindon and one London office.
So where are we now? In February we housed a focus group to get consumer views and refine our ‘product backlog’ for the first release, with a view to develop and expand the tool and its use case after that. No project is entirely smooth running, given the snow I experienced in central London I struggled to see why the original focus group in Swindon had to be moved, but it’s the setbacks you learn best from.
The tool is presently due for release at the end of this month. Give it a go and let us know your thoughts. Any issues and I’ll don my shades and get Keanu to enter the Matrix himself and investigate further.
For my second of two articles I had to produce for the internal monthly newsletter I decided to do an interview with a senior bod in the organisation. However this is me and while I’m still clinging onto the famous ‘graduate’ gold pass (I’m not a graduate, but there has to be some perks to people forever calling me that), well, it seemed perfectly reasonable to take a different stance on the traditional dry corporate interview the Executive Committee usually answer via email. Even though you won’t know the guy directly I hope you get what I was trying to do here, I certainly got the feeling he did.
Jeremy Paxman got nothing on me.
Closed Conversations with JS, Head of Digital
JS: So why are we doing this?
AB: I thought it would jazz up the newsletter interview if we got to know the man behind the face. Don’t get me wrong, I love Digital strategy…
AB: …but we don’t really get to know you. Shouldn’t take long but before we start I should say you’re allowed to decline questions or terminate the interview should you feel uncomfortable
JS: What are you going to ask me?!
AB: I’m just covering my back J
JS: *Chuckles* okay, go on.
AB: What’s your favourite chocolate bar?
AB: Biggest strength?
AB: Football or Rugby?
AB: Favourite team?
JS: Bath Spa
AB: Playground nickname?
AB: Would you rather be a giant hamster or a tiny rhino?
JS: Tiny rhino
AB: Bath Spa or Swindon?
JS: As in the city?
AB: Well, yeah, I wouldn’t make you compare Swindon to basic hygiene.
JS: *Laughs* fair enough, Bath Spa
AB: What’s your Zodiac sign?
AB: Morning lark or night owl?
JS: Morning lark
AB: Tea or coffee?
AB: Would you rather meet an alien visitor of travel into space?
JS: *Pause* travel into space
JS: Anything before 1998
AB: What happened after 1998?
JS: It all went downhill
Describe yourself in one word.
JS: *Long pause*
AB: Just anything
JS: It’s a tough one
AB: Have you never had to answer that at an interview?
JS: I haven’t been interviewed in ten years! *long pause* Determined
AB: Digital or analogue?
JS: Analogue…joking! Of course it’s Digital.
AB: God, you had me worried there for your job. As if an analogue fan could head up digital, I’d have to get you escorted of the building out on principle!
The below was written as part of an internal communication piece showcasing employees who have chosen to relocate for their work. My piece focused on moving to London but with a classic Alice twist.
I wake each morning and stare at an isolated patch of peeling paint. I don’t how it came to be or why I look blankly at it every morning, but it has become a weird habit I’ve developed since relocating. Everyone has habits here, some people get through their commute with a super-skinny-muchos-frappy-bean café deluxe, others smoke like the bellowing car exhausts on Tower Bridge, for me staring at length at a flaky patch is mine. And I wonder why my Mum worries for me.
The most over repeated piece of advice on Development schemes is to make your own opportunities and I suppose for me London represented this to the extreme. If I could survive in the big smoke I could thrive anywhere. Combined with an exciting placement proposition I could hear Threadneedle calling in May 2018.
Upon arrival I told myself that I wouldn’t become another digit on London’s loneliness statistics which is why I have made every effort to try new things outside of work. “Speed-friending” events are all the rage in central London, up there with humanitarian clubs and vegan veg-outs. Regardless of my outlook I’ve attended all manner of get-togethers and learnt so much of wider society. I’ve even learnt to embrace my inner hipster, sitting crossed legged at acoustic sets and hanging out in independent coffee shops in berets and neck scarves (and getting subsequently mistaken for being French. “Je suis…Anglais”, the end result of five years of the British education system).
From the moment I leave my flat each morning I’m reminded of how far removed I am from Swindon. The smell of soot in the air, angry cyclists cursing at pedestrians, the wrapper of a tourist poncho blowing down the street, admittedly my battered copy of Lonely Planet didn’t prepare me well for daily life in the capital. But through perseverance I’ve forged my own lifestyle and friendship groups and that’s what I’m proudest of. The experiences I encounter, good and bad, are shaping me into a stronger person, the person I never thought I could be.
My advice to anyone considering placement relocation comes as no surprise. Do it! In the protective bubble of development schemes there’s a lot to gain from taking a plunge. Just don’t get in the way of my morning commute, yeah?
From July to October 2018 a small team of us from my organisation worked with Booth House, Salvation Army Centre in Swindon (Wiltshire, UK) to help increase revenue and awareness of one of their social enterprises called The Sandwich People. As part of our activities I spent time volunteering with the charity and even wrote an article off the back of my experiences.
Below is a video summarising what Booth House do, specifically the two enterprises Recycles and The Sandwich People:
Three months after we delivered our final report and presentation to staff and volunteers, myself and the team are so pleased to see how the social enterprise has implemented some of our recommendations and come on leaps and bounds in such a short space of time. Three things in particular which stand out for me:
The Sandwich People have set up an Instagram account and are more effectively using social media to get their message across.
As per our suggestions, the management have refined the menu based on the cost of production versus sales.
Starting this week, the centre manager has informed me that The Round (the daily sandwich delivery around offices) now have the equipment to take contactless payment. This is a big deal as before sales were entirely dependant on office workers carrying cash (which often they didn’t).
The social enterprise is also seeking collaborative groups and communities to help spread the word and foster a supportive environment for a number of local charities. I was recently asked to help contribute towards a case study article, the results of which you can find on the Swindon Social Enterprises website
It was great working with the guys at Booth House, as stakeholders they were infinitely helpful and useful, as human beings trying to make a difference they were complete saints. The residents and volunteers certainly taught me a thing or two (including how to make a chicken salad wrap) and it was an experience I will not forget in a hurry.
Been curious as to my whereabouts these past few weeks? Sat at home wondering what coffee shop I’m loitering in or whether, quite possibly, I’ve melted into a sticky puddle on the Tube? Well now I’ve come out the other side I can fill you in on exactly what I’ve been doing.
Snapshot summary: shut up in freezing cold rooms with the same people, ferried about the country in bright t shirts to separate ‘us’ from ‘them’. After 15 days pushed onto a large stage in front of important people to perform a corporate dance. For the winners, glory, for the losers, vending machine coffee. Scaring hashtag memories and bursting inboxes for all.
Make sense? Lets take it back a step or two.
In the beginning…
Cast your mind back to mid June. That crazy time when the temperatures were seasonally normal and people scoffed at England’s chances in the World Cup. Myself, alongside all those on two of my organisation’s career development streams were called into a room and informed that for the first three weeks of July we were to come off our day jobs and work on another sub-project titled “Innovation”. In true project style, the title Innovation remained as clear at ditch water to all but the organisers so what followed was a more detailed brief. Simply put, in teams we had between then and the 26h July to produce a new, innovative, solution to a problem being experienced currently by our organisation.
While we understood the aims and objectives of the Innovation Project as a whole, what we struggled with more was the idea of being removed from the business for three whole weeks. As you can imagine our day managers were less than thrilled but conveniently had been briefed in a separate meeting in a different building. Their ‘feedback’ pinged into inboxes just as we were being put into teams.
After brief conversations within our separate units, team names and compulsory hashtags were provided to those in charge. Given at the time none of us expected these to go any further than a internal communication or the organisation’s corporate social page, my group went for team “All Change” alongside #WeAreStrange. The hashtag in particular was done in good humour at the organisation of the Innovation Project. A week or so after that we were assigned a topic to base our separate projects around. For my team it was “how might we better identify member* needs of the future?” (*member being another way of saying our financial customers’) And with that we were all set off into the big world. It was now mid-late June and we knew that in a few weeks we’d be presenting an idea, a solution, a product to senior executives.
Late June – Another presentation on presentations…
Enter Capgemini, one of our organisation’s third party suppliers and soft skills trainers for the duration of the Innovation Project and organisers of several weeks of WebEx talks and dynamic team building sessions. On the whole these were good, it only took an hour a week to listen to the online video conferences and they required zero preparation (unless you had a question). Unsure of who did or did not know me, my signature intro ended up being “hi this is Alice, Alice Bennett here” but otherwise I held up my strong cool-kid reputation. Admittedly given my London location I often couldn’t attend meetings in person, but instead dialled in to noisy boardrooms only to question the benefit of me hearing fragments of ten different people instead of my team mates.
Other than these sessions our day jobs carried on as normal. All of us manically working away in the background to get what we could completed, tidied up or handed over for someone else to cover whilst we were away. It really did feel as if we were leaving our current teams for some shiny prospect that none of us could quite explain without making it look like we were going to be paid to do nothing for three weeks. Like parrots our default justification was “it’s development”.
July – week 1
Admittedly I was off in Majorca for the first formal week of tech training, led by second supplier IBM. Although I was off enjoying the sun I felt a bit sorry for the two remaining team mates who had to go through a tough five day boot camp into all things tech related from coding to the Cloud. As the heatwave blistered on outside, within the walls of the hotel the teams were shut away in ice cold rooms, spaces that were so chilly I later heard tales of people bringing cardigans and jumpers to keep warm.
Getting over holiday blues and how Britain could possibly be so hot still, the day after I landed back in Birmingham I was off again up north to Manchester. Here all the teams spent three days with, you guessed it, another third party supplier. Cisco is very proud of its innovation labs up in the northern powerhouse city, so was keen to show us what a dedicated innovation space looked like. But before that we had to settle into our hotel accommodation and be presented with our team t shirts. Remember what I said before about assuming the team name would go no further than that? Well I learnt a very painful lesson that evening about making assumptions…don’t. So now everyone had brightly coloured t shirts with a team name and hashtag printed boldly across the front and back. And we had to wear them the next day. And we had to walk halfway across Manchester to get to Cisco’s offices. Coincidentally management had long gone to bed by the time we realised all of this.
Day one in Manchester and we spent most of the day sitting on bean bags, because the stereotypes of creative spaces aren’t reinforced enough nowadays.
On this day we learnt more about what Cisco were doing at the MI-Idea labs and we met with start-ups to understand the personalities, mentalities and ideas that fall under the umbrella term.
On days two and three in Manchester IBM were back again to teach us how to unpick and create our own chatbots and visual recognition (VR). We found these sessions to be a lot quicker and easier to pick up and in no time at all Mike in my team was formulating his own Gareth Southgate chat bot and I looking into the boundaries of VR. I also posted several witty social media posts such as…
We started Wednesday’s session earlier than planned so we could rush back to Swindon in time for the England vs Croatia match. That evening both our bodies and souls were crushed. It would take several days for us to regain ourselves.
On Thursday all of us reunited in the conference suite, alongside the corporate graduates, to be briefed on another project we were to start working on. So now we had both an Innovation and Charity project to work on. As you can imagine we were so very, very, happy that day. So happy.
Friday was the first day were our teams all got together in separate rooms and started thrashing out ideas to tackle our theme. After so much time travelling or being lectured or learning or fighting off angry day job managers, the strain showed on everyone. We were all ready for the weekend.
In the final week of formally being off project team All Change started to do that, change. We had a concept but how that would look on paper and how we could make it work for our organisation was a tougher challenge. It’s one thing to say your idea is innovative, but if that idea is a dancing unicorn handing out red velvet cake to customers then it’s not likely to be as well received compared to something that is crazy but works.
For our team this final week featured a lot of competitor research (which isn’t easy – turns out corporations don’t like to make their finances public) and trying to pin people down for answers. In any other situation you wouldn’t expect a specialist to have a free enough diary to meet, say, the next day however in our bubble project time wasn’t a luxury. We quickly learnt that saying “we have to meet tomorrow because we’re presenting next week” made no difference at best and at worst got them asking us questions instead of our team asking them. Quick emails from their side did the job just as well. Alex pulled together a great presentation and our mentor Steve was a star in helping and showing us how to build a mobile app prototype, an essential part of making our idea tangible to the panel and creating a stand out presentation.
Throughout this week there were touch points with our project sponsors, the wider project leads and general chit chat with the third party suppliers who operated in a facilitate, support and provide external perspectives on our idea. On the Friday we delivered a dry run through of the presentation to a dummy panel of persons whose role was to provide initial feedback. As a team we were quite happy with the response and readily took on board the tweaks and minor adjustments which the presentation needed.
Despite all the craziness we made time for this ‘official’ team photo:
Back in day jobs = craziness = do not disturb = reminding team members we’re alive
Adjusting Innovation presentations = making time for research = making time for team rehearsals = trying to find rooms with phones (so I can dial in) = travelling back and forth from London to Swindon = shattered but ready
Thursday 26th July
Team All Change were fourth on the agenda after introductions and then the first presentation by Acta non Verba.
As we went up onto the main stage with all the big wigs, managers and colleagues of our organisation in front of us, we felt a little nervous. I’d never seen Claudia look so uncomfortable, bouncing on one foot to another as Alex set up his laptop with the presentation. “You’ve got this” I reassured her as we walked to the other side of the stage.
We not only smashed that presentation but completely owned it. All that was missing was internal fireworks or fire itself (the budget was there for health and safety checks).
We did good for a team which had #WeAreStrange printed across our backs (or yeah, the t shirts just had to be compulsory attire on the day of the final presentation, didn’t they? Cool-kid cred reduced to minus figures in seconds.)
After post presentation questioning and celebratory complimentary coffee we returned to our table in the conference suite and listened to the other three groups deliver their problem statement solutions. As each group watched the other in turn we were all amazed by both the quality and complexity of what had been designed and tested in such a short space of time. These weren’t “have you considered setting up a Google docs account?” or “have you thought about getting Amazon in to fix this?” It goes to show that if you give people resource and a free space then the ideas that can formulate are without limit. What is that saying about a man and a fish pole?
During the panel’s deliberation time I sipped on my coffee and wondered how anyone could pick out winners when all the presentations and contents were so good but so different. To me it felt a little bit like comparing chalk and cheese.
After a lot of heated discussions, the three winning teams were as follows:
Most viable (i.e. something the business could start doing straight away) – The Dream Team
People’s Choice (voted for by the audience) – Semper Progrediendi
Most Innovative – ALL CHANGE!! Yeeesss!
I wish I could say we won a pile of cash or a mini break to Paris, but instead we were happy to accept a framed certificate and team photo where we all looked good.
After all the excitement and the close of the main event at 1pm there was only a little time to take lunch and crash. After that for most it was a case of taking off t shirts and getting back into the day job. I personally kept my t shirt on, firstly because I missed the memo about everyone bringing a change of top (and I don’t think my company is about to relax its uniform policies that much) but also because by that point I was beyond embarrassment. Enough people had seen me strutting about the office in heels, pencil skirt and black jacket like some product rep for a new health drink. I didn’t care anymore. Like the presentation I’d been part of several hours beforehand I was happy, if not a little proud to own the look on that day. And when friends outside of the challenge pointed to my top with a smile and a laugh all I had to do was turn on my heel and lower my jacket.
“Well, we are strange”
“Aren’t you hot in that black jacket?”
“You cannot begin to imagine.”
After all that you are probably wondering what All Change’s big, award-winning innovation idea was or indeed the ideas of the four other teams. Well, I guess you’ll just have to watch this space to find out… #WeAreStrange #SimplyInnovating
(A big thank you to everyone involved in the Innovation Project, including organisers, facilitators, educators and panellists. Of the third party providers there are far too many of you to name individually so I hope that in thanking Capgemini, IBM and Cisco will suffice. You guys know who you are, especially the person who thought bright t shirts were a good idea…)
You may be aware that I haven’t posted anything on here for a while. To be honest it baffles me too, although not quite as much as bafflement that I seem to have developed a mild addition to banana chips whilst conversely becoming less inclined to fresh bananas.
I’ve also been watching a lot of period dramas and Four Weddings and a Funeral, and I think it’s having an impact on my writing.
All my notes are full of deep, intellectual rubbish, like Austen writing scripts for the Kardashians, or like me…writing about bananas…
Moving swiftly on, the main reason why I haven’t been writing much of late is because I’ve decided to do something very crazy (“very Alice!” – without jazz hands). I won’t leave you in suspense or give you three guesses because you won’t get it, I’m moving to London. There, ok, I said it, can we move on now?
Why? It’s a long story so I’ll shorten it to one word: work
Am I being forced into it? Well no, but then I wanted to be involved with this super cool project and the boss people were like “but it’s in London” and I was like “ok” and they were like “it’s in London though” and I was like “London, London?” and they were like “yeah, like the capital of England London” and I was like “ok I accept” and they were like “cool so you start in two weeks yeah?” and I was like “say whaaa?” (And there’s the Kardashian in me coming out.)
Yes I am very much aware this goes completely against my traditionally held beliefs and flies right in the face of a previous article I wrote: 10 Things I Hate About London but hey, call me a hypocrite.
So far London has done a good job of trying to kill me. First there was mental exhaustion and dehydration from trying to find house viewings on the hottest day of the year so far. Linked to that was the absolute destruction of my feet which over a week later still haven’t fully recovered. Those were all ‘fun’. Now that I’ve found a place in East of the city the fun has begun of moving items into said property. Then there was the delight of lugging the world’s heaviest bag of coffee and shampoo across the city via the Tube network (hey, they say things are expensive in London, ain’t no way I’m being ripped off by 50p on my Herbal Essences). So now my legs look like this:
(In fact they look worse than that now, but I didn’t want to clutter my phone with pictures of bruised legs – such images have a limited mileage.) I’ve decided that the self inflicted injuries are going to continue and gradually work their way up my body. Accept it, move on.
But hey, at least I’m covered on snack bars!
Have I taken any clothes down? Nahh. Any books or kitchenware? No way! But do I have enough snack bars and a creative type duvet set? Hell yes!
I have so totally got this London thing covered (pun not intended).
I’ve leave it at that for now while you all digest the news and take a moment to worry about my well being. More will come as and when but for now things to take away from this post are 1) I’m moving to London for a temporary position at a different office 2) I am still alive and writing and 3) I need banana chips.
(Ps Did you get it? Swindon = pig hill, piggy = Swindon = me? Did you get it? Huh? Oh I give up.)