Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Risking 'good' for 'great'

It was nearly a year ago when Newcastle United sacked Chris Hughton as manager. Seemed a crazy decision. This was a man who had gotten Newcastle promoted from the Championship and had started the Premier League season in pretty good form. When he was sacked in December, Newcastle were 11th in the table, probably safe from worries of relegation and playing some good football. Not bad for a team just promoted, and all the signs were positive.

Chris Hughton: Not Happy

So why sack him? Managers generally only get sacked when they have messed up, when the team is not performing, when they fall out with the ownership of the club or when there is an obvious problem in the team. In this case none of those reasons applied.

Everyone said it was crazy, but I applauded the decision. Even though nothing was 'wrong' with the manager, the owners decided that he was not the right person to take them to where they wanted to go. And so, in a time of strength and stability, they took a risk and replaced him. This took balls of steel, a killer instinct and a conviction in your own beliefs. Got to love it.

Ultimately it could have been a huge success or it could have been a disaster. So far, it seems to be going well. Since replacing Hughton as manager, Alan Pardew has overseen a hugely successful start to this season's Premiership, which sees Newcastle unbeaten so far and currently sitting in third position in the league. I doubt their run of form will last the whole season, and most likely they will be doing well if they finish in the top 8 or so, but with limited resources Pardew has gotten the team playing some great football.

Newcastle owner Mike Ashley: Happy
I think this is a great lesson for all of us. Why wait for things to blow up and fall to pieces before making a change? Why not try to improve from a position of strength not weakness? And why not risk it all by throwing away 'good' and aiming for 'great'.

Friday, October 28, 2011


As I write this blog Michael D Higgins is waiting to be confirmed as the 9th President of Ireland.

This success follows a strange final week to the election campaign, with a big shift in the voting since the last poll - 38 per cent of the electorate only made up their minds in the final 3 days before the vote. In particular, many people shifted their support to Michael D in the final days before the voting began.

So in the end what was it that pushed Michael D ahead of the others? When it came down to it, what did the Irish people look for in their President? In a poll taken on the day of the election, voters were asked what was the most important element in their decision making. The answer? Integrity.

According to the poll,  integrity was more important than experience, skills, independence or ability. And unfortunately  it seems that for the electorate, integrity did not seem to be an abundant quality in our candidates. Integrity is a tricky beast you see. As we have seen this week, one single slip or the hint of a question mark over your past, and a shadow of doubt can be cast. And once that shadow has been cast, it is extremely difficult to shake it off.

In Michael D Higgins' 71 years he has managed to avoid that shadow. He brought an aura of honesty, passion and integrity to the election campaign. For me (and many people around Ireland) that was what sealed the deal in the end. I hate to sound too much like his campaign slogan, but I really believe that he is a President who will do us proud. I can't wait to see him in the role.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Hope Deals the Hardest Blows

Did we all get a bit carried away? Did we allow ourselves to hope too much, to allow ourselves to dream the impossible dream? To dream that perhaps, just maybe, Ireland could get to the final of a Rugby World Cup (and maybe maybe just maybe we might just potentially, perhaps, win the feckin thing?). 

We were a hopeful and expectant nation. For the first time in a long time we had something to be collectively hopeful of. And it was a wonderful feeling. A great buzz swept across the country. Thousands of miles away on the other side of the world, Irish people who had left the country due to a complete lack of hope, were once again bursting with the stuff.  

Which made the defeat on Saturday morning even more difficult to take. As Foy Vance says in one of my favourite songs - hope deals the hardest blows. 

"If there's one thing that I know
It is the two shades of hope
One the enlightening soul
And the other is more like a hangman's rope
Well it's true, you may reap what you sow
But not that despair is the all-time low
Baby, hope deals the hardest blow"

It's true. But it's worth it.

Because if we do not hope we will never move beyond our current circumstances; we will never step back, see the bigger picture, believe in a better future and act to make it happen.

So after the blow that was delivered to a hopeful nation on Saturday, we have to pick ourselves up and find something else to be hopeful about, another dream to follow.  Perhaps it is now time  for us to start being hopeful about Ireland again. To hope that we can overcome the current challenges, hope that we can improve things, hope that in future things will be much better. 

In my work with social entrepreneurs, I have seen how hope can drive people to take action, how hope can help people overcome the greatest challenges, and how acting on this hope can bring about great changes......

..........and sure if changing Ireland doesn't work out for us, we've always got the footy. 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The iPhone

I was very sad to hear of the passing of Steve Jobs today.

As a lover of the iPhone (quite literally apparently - according to this report) I know first hand the difference that this piece of technology has made to the lives of millions of people around the world.

People with iPhones get a hard time of it. Always being online, checking emails (work and personal) at silly times and stalking people on facebook are the usual slags. Having an 'app' for pretty much every problem you find yourself in, or simply just being the annoying person who check up on facts mid-way through a conversation.

I like doing all of these things, and so was a fan of both the iPhone and its inventor.

Many eulogies have come out today about him. For example, in the words of Obama, Steve Jobs was:
 "brave enough to think differently, bold enough to think he could change the world and talented enough to do it."
Well said.

For me though the best quote about Steve Jobs came from a social entrepreneur based in Ireland, Lisa Domican. Lisa invented the Grace App, an iPhone application that allows children with autism to communicate using a system of pictures and photographs.

Lisa created the app for her daughter Grace, who is autistic and finds verbal communication difficult. With the iPhone app, Grace, and other children like her, can communicate exactly what they want to say.

And so the words that really struck me today was a message I received from Lisa:
"Feeling very sad about Steve Jobs today. Without the iPhone I don't think Gracie would be talking to me" 
Out of all the other great things that Steve Job achieved, this has to rank right up there.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Future of Education

With everything that's going on in Ireland at the moment, people are rightly a little bit fed up. The lads and ladies up in the IMF and EU are calling a good few of the shots, so things seem a bit futile and there is a sense of powerlessness about the direction we're going in.

But there is one area in Ireland that we can do something about, that will have massive implications for the country, and that need not cost us much to change.


There is now a unique opportunity to bring about significant changes in our education system, due to three different factors:

1. Economic Arguments:
The business sector have come out clearly to state that the type of graduate they would like is not really being produced by the current education system. Rote learning and a good memory will get you through exams, but in the modern world employers are looking for much more from graduates, and if they don't find it here, there are plenty of other countries that they could go.

I read with interest the recent announcement by DCU that they are planning to create a new generation of 'model graduates' based on the needs of the economy and the business sector. While many people reacted negatively to this story, the details of their new  "Generation 21" scheme are actually on the right track.

They are looking for our graduates to be:

- Creative
- Enterprising
- Committed to continuous learning
- Solution-oriented
- Effective Communicators
- Globally Engaged
- Active Leaders

Hard to argue with that. For perhaps the first time in history, the needs of business are matching the needs of the education system. We need to grab this chance.

2. Social Arguments:
A bad education has an impact on all students, but the negative impact is greatest on students from disadvantaged backgrounds. If we want to combat the ridiculous situation of Irish citizens being illiterate (some studies show 23% of Irish men are not functionally literate), we need to change the education system. Education systems that encourage children to take an active role in their learning, support them to work in teams and foster innovation and creativity have been shown to lead to better outcomes for students. More importantly, educating children in this way is shown to improve achievement particularly for for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Finland is a great example of this system of education in action, and they have the smallest gap between highest and lowest educational outcomes.

All of this is backed up by global momentum and some legendary people on the side of educational transformation. My man crush Ken Robinson is one such legend, and if you haven't seen his talks on education you need to watch them right now: "Schools Kill Creativity" and "Bring on the Learning Revolution".

Getting this right is probably the most important thing we can do to transform the outcomes for children in the coming years.

3.  Political Will
In Ruairi Quinn we have a Minister for Education who gets this. In the short space that he has been in power he has already set out his stall to change the focus of education, and backed proposals to radically reform the Junior Cert, making it 40% dependent on project work and only 60% dependent on exams.

What next?
So the need is there from both the social and economic viewpoints and there is a growing momentum building to bring about change. The next steps are, therefore, vitally important, as the danger is that changes will be made to the system without providing the appropriate supports to make the changes work. This would be disastrous.

As luck would  have it, solutions are emerging that will help schools to transition into this new model of education. These need to be supported to ensure any changes we make to the education system are effective.

One such solution is provided by 'Bridge21' , an innovative organisation led by an award winning social entrepreneur, John Lawlor. John's aim is to smash the victorian classroom and support schools to implement an education system that is team based, technology mediated, project based and cross curricular. They are already working in Irish secondary schools right now, and initial results indicate that it's making a real impact. As we make the move to a new system of education, solutions like the Bridge21 model will be vital to success.

This is an exciting time for education in Ireland. Many of the pieces are falling into place. We have some momentum, we have some solutions, and we know how important it is for the country. All we need to do now is make it happen.