A theory of relativity

By | 23rd September 2010



Magpies and squirrels are renowned for collecting stuff and humans are not bad at it either. Clearing out old papers recently I came across an article published in The Times (sadly no longer available unless you pay to view the website!) on December 31st 1999.

Bear with me because this is extraordinary! Written by Simon Jenkins for the Eve of the Millenium over ten years ago, the article was entitled “Oliver the Timelord” (An extraordinary memory reminds us of the ambiguities of time).

It starts with a man he knew being addressed, as a child, on the subject of Oliver Cromwell. The speaker was a lady of 91 who told him sternly never to speak ill of the man: She went on:

“My husband’s first wife’s first husband knew Oliver Cromwell—and liked him well.”

Simon Jenkins develops this story over four long columns and, provided there are not too many of you, I am happy to send you a copy now that you cannot see it online at the newspaper. It is really that good!

But for those of you who merely like an idle browse through my musings when not particularly taxed by other issues, let me explain how what seems unbelievable actually happened.

The setting for the article was 1999 but the remark was made in 1923 by a 91 year old who had been born in 1832. At the age of 16 she had married an 80 year old man named Henry. Sixty four years earlier, in 1784, the young Henry had, for obscure reasons, married an 82 year old woman. Her first marriage had been in 1720 and was to an 80 year old who had served Cromwell before his death in 1658!

Whatever you make of this, it seemed worthy of mention because, at least in 1999, there was a man alive who heard a woman say “My husband’s first wife’s first husband knew Cromwell—and liked him well”.

I was clearly more of a squirrel in the 1990s because I have also come across my copy of Stephen Johnson’s well known book on motivation for change “Who moved my Cheese?” published in 1998.

It has apparently sold over 5 million copies world wide and there are a number of websites where you can read all about it as the newspaper boys used to say when flourishing the latest edition of a newspaper with a new story enticingly summarised on the billboards.

Again for those of you who like your cheese on a plate, here’s a summary of the book from whomovedmycheese.com:

The simple story of Who Moved My Cheese? reveals profound truths about change that give people and organizations a quick and easy way to succeed in changing times.

Who Moved My Cheese? is an enlightening story of four characters who live in a “Maze” and look for “Cheese” to nourish them and make them happy. Two are mice named Sniff and Scurry, and two are mouse-size people named Hem and Haw.

“Cheese” is a metaphor for what you want to have in life – whether it is a good job, a loving relationship, money, a possession, health, or spiritual peace of mind. And “The Maze” is where you look for what you want – the organization you work in, or the family or community you live in.

In the story, the characters are faced with unexpected change. Eventually, one of them deals with change successfully, and writes what he has learned from his experience on the maze walls. When you come to see “The Handwriting on the Wall” you can discover for yourself how to deal with change and enjoy more success and less stress in your work and in your life.

Change is definitely in the air and, as usual, it will be those who are prepared to be innovative in offering solutions to the challenges they face who will benefit the most often at the expense of those who stick to the old ways. As if that was not enough to cope with, the press abounds with reports of law firms facing a cash squeeze and the recent demise of Halliwells continues to keep the scribblers busy. Indeed The Times on September 13th had a headline of “Legal firms face struggle for survival during winter.”

Issues such as the availability of working capital, cost cutting, restructuring, job losses, hikes in the cost of PI insurance, mergers and consolidation are said to be foremost in the minds of managing partners and insiders talk darkly of being unable to rule out another big law firm failure. Even where demand for legal services has increased, and litigation seems to be one of those areas according to surveys whose results are now being published such as The Lawyer’s UK 200 Annual Report 2010, revenues are expected to be flat for some time to come as a result of pressure from clients to reduce fees. Added to all that, there is crunch time ahead in January 2011 when the self employed have to pay their tax bills.

All this brings me to flip-thinking.

I must confess I had never heard about the phenomenon (which is apparently all the rage in the US ) until Daniel H Pink alerted me to it over my poached eggs one morning recently. [Think Tank: Flip-thinking – the new buzz word sweeping the US , The Telegraph, 12th Sept, 2010] Mr Pink is an author and business leader who writes about the world of work and according to him flip-thinking is now sweeping the US. One example he gives is where an America teacher called Karl Fisch who is the technology co-ordinator at Arapahoe High School south of Denver, Colorado, was forced to return to maths teaching as a result of a round of budget cuts and found himself having to teach algebra to a group of 14-15 year olds.

Instead of teaching them about algebra during class time and then giving the pupils homework based on the lessons completed that day, he has flipped the sequence. He has recorded his lectures on video and uploaded them to YouTube so that his pupils can watch them at their leisure at home. In class, he then works with them to solve the problems and experiment with the concepts.

Other examples mentioned by Mr Pink include the publishing of new books which traditionally starts with an expensive hardback and progresses to a cheaper paperback. Why not do it the other way round and publish the paperback or e-book first and then, if it is a success publish the hardback later on the principle that you are more likely to get people to stump up the cost of a paperback in respect of something they have not previously heard of rather than the cost of a hardback?

The same applies to films where a low price DVD or streaming video could be made available first and then later on, if popularity and demand justify the expense, the film could be released to cinemas.

Turning to our own theory of relativity, regular readers of this blog may have noticed our rendition of Einstein’s theory in our masthead:  M=e-D 2. Millnet Smart e-Discovery is all about offering solutions to the challenges faced by our clients in ways which are flexible, suit their work flow patterns and their clients’ pockets. This month we have started to offer Relativity to our clients as part of the ongoing development of our business and the services we can offer to our clients. Relativity is a leading web based litigation support platform and you may access a short PDF overview here.

It was often said when I was in practice that in order to move on you had to change and that standing still was not an option. On this aspect, Daniel Pink kept the best until last! Here is his last paragraph:

So here’s your homework for tonight. Ask yourself: what is one process, practice, method or model in my business, work or life that I can flip? We’ll work on your answers together in class tomorrow.

All eligible! Answers on a postcard please! Or in this modern age, an email or tweet will do!