John-Paul Flintoff: Think big

John-Paul Flintoff


Think big

A gym for the mind

For visitors to Olympia, in west London, the variety of exhibitors can be dizzying. Never mind the ground floor, even the gallery – with 108 different stalls – offers far too much to see in one trip. The big problem, for exhibitors, is attracting attention.

The Mind Gym, at stall 1001, stands close to the gallery café but is hidden behind stall 1100. So to draw in passers-by, the men in charge have hired students to wander through the exhibition centre blowing soap bubbles. The bubbles evoke the Mind Gym’s logo – a cartoonish thought-bubble, clearly visible, in Granny Smith green, on the students’ white T-shirts. As a marketing gimmick, this may not seem particularly sophisticated, but it does the trick: where bubble-blowers lead, visitors to the exhibition follow, like rats after the Pied Piper.

Here they come, ready to swap their business cards for Mind Gym leaflets, one human resources professional after another.

We’re at HRD 2001, the biggest bazaar of its kind in Europe. Here, I discover stands promoting every conceivable type of training: in languages, stress management, presentation skills, cross-cultural management, health and safety, working with phones and assertiveness.

The market for training is a pit of frenzied competition, worth as much as £16.5bn a year in Britain alone. And there’s plenty of room for growth: 77 per cent of British workers would prefer to work for an employer that supports learning and training, rather than one that gives large salary increases, according to the Campaign for Learning; and a third of employees questioned by the National Skills Task Force have never been offered any kind of training.

In a corner of the hall there’s an “interactive arena” – seats and standing room around a raised platform, where visitors can watch free demonstrations. Today, at 12.45, the Mind Gym’s product director, Sebastian Bailey, will climb onto the stage to present a workout called “Coping with conflict”; and in doing so he will hope to change forever the British approach to personal development.

The Mind Gym concept was originally devised by Bailey’s colleague, Octavius Black, after his aunt, at dinner, mentioned a course on improving memory skills. From his background in consulting, Black knew that corporate training, as it is generally practised, loses much of its impact because participants are expected to take on too much in one go. What his aunt said set his mind racing. “I thought, if people go to a gym to work out their bodies, why not have a gym for the mind?”

Early last year, a friend put him in touch with Bailey, who was then working at a psychology consultancy, and in brainstorming sessions with friends they came up with the idea of boiling down specific issues into 90-minute sessions – short enough for participants to learn small amounts at a time and to practise what they have learned immediately. To learn more, simply choose another session.

“It’s like Lego bricks. You buy the gym in bits, and assemble it in whichever shape you want,” says Black, a master of inspirational appeal – a psychologist’s term – whose tools for persuasion include frequent, raucous laughter and a specimen of body language I’ve never seen before: a swaying motion like the last stirring of a jack-in-the-box, with upturned palms, which wordless conveys the rhetorical question, “How amazing is that ?”

Bailey, who is younger and quieter, joined Black in August last year. The first session for a paying client took place in September. Since then, they’ve devised around 60 courses – or “workouts”, to use the gym analogy. These include “Your Impact On Others”, “Having Presence”, “Conflict Handling”, “The Beautiful Question” and “Remembering Whatsisname”. (The snappy titles contrast impressively with the stodgier fare offered by other exhibitors at Olympia, such as: “Revealing the myth of multi-sensory learning”, or “e-HR: how can it help your organisation?”)

Additionally, Bailey and Black have learned how to price their product; having once been asked, after quoting for a 20-person course, “Is that per person?” (Workshops cost from £35 per person, with a maximum of 20 people in any given session.) After barely nine months in business, the Mind Gym enjoys high approval ratings from clients such as Barclays, Deutsche Bank, Guinness, Microsoft, Omnicom and Pret a Manger: 80 per cent of individual participants would recommend the workout they attended to others.

GMO Woolley, the City-based investment management company, is a new client, so Bailey and Black come in person to run the first workout. (Ordinarily, they might send associated facilitators, or “coaches”, of whom more later.) They arrive in smart suits – Black has come from the DfEE, where he spent the morning coaching “Hi-impact emails” – but after observing the casual dress code on the 15th floor they pull off their jackets and ties.

When the participants have all arrived, Black takes half of them into an adjacent room, and Bailey introduces himself to the remainder. Then he programmes the timer on his PalmPilot and launches the workshop – “Your Impact on Others” – by projecting a black image onto a white board and asking what we think it is. Tentatively at first, people call out answers. It’s either a man playing the saxophone or a woman’s face.

Having thus established that different people can see the same thing in starkly different ways, Bailey explains the importance of knowing the impact we have on other people. What are the consequences of failing to make the right impact? This time, as answers are called out, he scribbles them energetically on a giant flip chart.

Then he invites us to open our handouts and complete a ten-point quiz, rating ourselves on a variety of characteristics. As we do so, we’re to aim for consistency by thinking how we present ourselves in one particular context, because, “The language you use with colleagues is not the same as the language you use with friends, or parents.”

When we’ve finished, he says: “We’ll come back to score the quiz later,” and introduces us to four character types, Bridget, Graham, Helen and Roger. For each one, the handout supplies a brief character analysis. Back at his flip-chart, Bailey asks us what we think of each character in turn, starting with Roger. “Control freak!” says one man. “Bully!” says somebody else. Most of the epithets are pejorative; but when Bailey asks if we’d like to have a Roger on our team at work, the consensus is surprising. “Yes,” says one man. “He gets things done.”

(From Black’s group, next door, we hear the first of several bouts of raucous laughter.)

After we’ve done the same for Bridget, Graham and Helen, Bailey says, “If you were in the trenches in the First World War, and your officer was a Roger, what would he tell you?”

”’Charge!’”

“Very good. And a Bridget?”

“She’d have a group hug.”

Next, he divides us randomly into teams and invites us to write down what each character thinks of the others. After a few minutes we compare notes. Roger thinks Bridget is a pushover; that Graham is overly concerned with facts and too reserved; and that Helen lacks conviction. Graham thinks Helen is a loose cannon, while Bridget thinks Roger is competitive and aggressive. And so we continue, until each character has described the others. Then Bailey returns to the quiz, and explains our scores. Like most others, I turn out to be a Helen, meaning that I combine the characteristics of the other three. The next biggest group comprises big-hearted Bridgets. There’s just one Graham, and no Roger. Suddenly the generalised criticism feels much more personal. Do people really think I lack conviction?

Finally, Bailey asks us to suggest ways we can improve our impact on others. After much trouble, I come up with the following: to hold opinions firmly, and to express them consistently and without ambiguity. But I write this reluctantly, because – consistent with my type – I can see nothing wrong with being open-minded and diplomatic (as I see it).

“The point is,” says Bailey reasonably, “this is how other people might see you. You have to manage your impact on others. We used this in a leadership development programme and one guy scored 99 per cent as a Roger. Unbelievable! But when we got 360-degree feedback” – from his boss and his peers and his juniors – “he scored brilliantly. Our first thought was that he must have scared everyone into giving positive comments. But that wasn’t it. It turned out he was managing his impact brilliantly.”

So saying, Bailey leans over his PalmPilot and taps the screen. “There! Ninety minutes exactly! How about that!” And the session closes with polite applause.

After the participants have dispersed, Black returns to the room with Frances Davies, the executive who brought the Mind Gym to GMO Woolley. Black Black stands by the door, hands in his pockets and dark eyes twinkling: “We had a lot of Rogers, in our room,” he tells Bailey. Davies, perched on a table and swinging her legs, seems to have found the workshop invigorating. But it wasn’t perfect: “Two of the people who weren’t here are exactly the ones who most need it,” she confides.

Outside, at the lift, I meet a man from Bailey’s group, a tall, lugubrious individual who did not speak much. I ask what he thought of the session. He’s not hugely impressed. “It was fun, but a bit of a waste of time, because [in ordinary life] you moderate your behaviour according to who you’re with.” He should be grateful, perhaps, that the time wasted amounted to just 90 minutes; but I suspect this man is not alone in feeling that the workshops, by compressing a great deal into a short session, risk coming across as superficial, even glib. Speaking for myself, I found the workshop entertaining and thought-provoking: for some time afterwards, whenever I caught myself being vague, or ambiguous, I tried to stop, or at least considered stopping. And this remedial effect was prolonged by reminders, sent in the form of personal emails, that form part of the Mind Gym package.

Back at Olympia, Bailey’s free presentation at the Interactive Arena seems to go down especially well. “We had the largest-ever turnout,” Black says with pride. “We were told there would be 70 people sitting and no more than 30 standing, so we brought along 100 leaflets – and we immediately ran out.” (To put that into context, when I go back later to watch another exhibitor, the audience comprises just 11 people.)

Visitors to stall 1001, likewise, seem consistently impressed. “They’re saying that this is a fantastic way of using training,” Black reports. “They say they’ve never seen it done before. Nobody, yet, has said, ‘that reminds me of such and such’.” One visitor is Helen Lewis, of CGR Business Psychologists, who comes over to congratulate Black on a workout she recently attended. Having done that, she enthusiastically “sells” the Mind Gym to other visitors, including me. You’d think she was on the payroll.

When she’s gone, Black says, “Some big companies have come, and been very enthusiastic. But there’s no point trying to predict whether that will lead to anything…” Looking ahead, Black and Bailey entertain ambitions that seem almost absurdly grand for a company less than nine months old; but it’s hard not to get carried away by their enthusiasm. Bailey would like to turn the concept into a consumer product. Black, yet to be convinced, prefers to concentrate on the corporate sector; but even here, his plans are magnificent. “We would like to get to the point where people ask potential employers whether they use the Mind Gym, just as they ask about pensions: if you can take a pension plan from one job to another, why not a personal development plan? Whatever the requirement – whether you want to improve your memory, or make your own luck – we want people to think of us first.” So saying, he rocks gently on his heels, turns up his palms, and hits me with a burst of inspirational laughter.

Who coaches the coaches?

In a meeting room at Soho House, more than a dozen – men and women, many of them trained psychologists, aged from 30 to 60 – assemble for an introductory session with the Mind Gym. They’re looking for work as coaches. If, after today, they still like the Mind Gym, and vice versa, they’ll do a dry run before friends, relatives, fellow coaches and anybody else who chooses to attend – for no fee – in response to offers on the Mind Gym web site. (“It’s like going to a trainee hairdresser,” explains Black, typically jovial. “You don’t pay, but you live with the consequences. Ha ha ha!”) After that, they’ll be set loose on paying clients.

Typically, introductory sessions, which can last several days, are unpaid. Some training companies actually charge for attendance, and also demand that would-be trainers show what they can do. “That means they’re going to steal it,” says one woman who has been ripped off this way, elsewhere. But the Mind Gym charges nothing, and also dares to show its own material.

Also present, today, is Guy Claxton, a professor at Bristol University who helps to devise the workouts and crams them with validated research; today’s workshop is based on one of his books. The idea behind “Zoom Learning” is to teach participants the benefits of alternating between two modes of thought: that is, using the brain like a floodlight to illuminate wide areas, and like a spotlight to pick out detail. “It’s like chess,” Claxton explains, “You look at the individual pieces, but also see the shape of the entire board.”

In groups of four we analyse the troubles of a photocopying company, based on a detailed case study. We begin in “floodlight mode”, then move into spotlight and back again. Every so often we request additional information, such as memos from particular departments. Gradually we move from an assumption that the problem lies with sales, towards the view that customer service is at fault. After 80 minutes, we’re on the edge of our seats – me, and three women I’ve never met before – racing against the clock to determine the company’s fate.

The first group decides to close the company; another wants to do a management buyout; a third group is split, with one pricklish woman in conflict with her team mates (predictably, she turns out to be the only candidate deemed unsuitable to work as a coach).

When it’s over, Bailey asks how we feel.

“Tired,” says a woman in my group. “Exhausted,” says another.

Bailey, clearly, feels the same. He’s never previously coached a workshop before Claxton; and fellow trainers can be a difficult audience too: “They know how to sabotage the process.” But sabotage is unlikely, as one would-be trainer explains when I walk to the Tube with him afterwards. “On a day like this,” he says, “you’re to some extent pitching to the Mind Gym for work. You have to say enough to make a good impression, but not too much.”

2498 words. First published 19 May 01. © The Financial Times

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