Be Stiff – A Genuine Tale of Disruption

In 2015 the word ‘disruption’ is fast becoming what ‘engagement’ was to 2013, and authenticity and mindfulness were to 2014, much hyped, overused and often misunderstood terms. Disrupt, disruption, disruptive, everything cool seems to warrant the disrupt tag. Here’s how the dictionary positions this currently popular term.

disrupt – verb

interrupt (an event, activity or process) by causing a disturbance of problem, ”flooding disrupted rail services”, throw into confusion/disarray, play havoc with, derange, make a mess of, drastically alter or destroy the structure of, “alcohol can disrupt the chromosomes of an unfertilised egg”, distort, damage, buckle, warp.

Pretty heavy stuff huh? While the overuse of engagement in the world of work felt like the equivalent of sneaking sleeping pills into a board bored meeting, taking the definition above, disruption is more akin to lobbing in a couple of stun grenades under Any Other Business. It’s still only February, and I’ve already had enough of the business word of the year. Or have I?

I’ve just finished reading ‘Be Stiff – The Stiff Records Story’. Written by Richard Balls, Be Stiff is a fantastically well researched and written headlong dash through the chaos, and dare I say it, disruption, that was Stiff Records. Despite being over 300 pages long (not including the all important discography, Stiff Tour Dates, notes and research), this book conveys the pace, urgency and in your face attitude that epitomised the Stiff Records way of life.

Stiff Records emerged on to the music scene in 1976, founded by Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson. Right from the start, they championed musical underdogs, and the way Stiff Records marketed their acts using badges, coloured vinyl, promotional stunts and more, left the established music business staggering in their wake. Click the badge montage photo to see all manner of unconventional promotional items that Stiff Records used to announce new signings, releases and tours.

Stiff Badges

It was as if the rest of the industry was completing the final plodding lap of a marathon when Stiff Records shoved them all out of the way in the last 100 metres as they sprinted for the line, before nicking all the medals, sticking two fingers up at everyone and jumping in the back of a beat up transit van to head to the pub and celebrate.

I first became aware of Stiff Records when they signed The Damned, and released New Rose (catalogue number BUY 6) as the first punk single in the UK. The Damned weren’t the first punk band on the scene, but whilst the like of Malcolm McLaren and The Sex Pistols dithered over their rehearsing and recording, Riviera and Robinson shoved The Damned into their own cramped recording studio, and beat everyone else to the punch, even going so far as to include a cover of The Beatles song ‘Help’ on the B side, just to piss off the establishment. The Damned also gave Stiff Records their first album release, Damned Damned Damned (catalogue number SEEZ 1), and among the first ten album releases you will also find artists such as: Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, Wreckless Eric, Lene Lovich and Jona Lewie.

Stiff Records put out more than its fair share of duff material too. Does anyone remember Pookiesnackenburger, The Astronauts, or Viva Vagabond? Thought not – but these unknowns were all part of the mix and all contributed to the colour and the chaos and the creativity that made Stiff Records the disruptive influence it was. Alongside the forgotten, you will find acts such as Madness and Tracey Ullman who generated the all important sales needed to keep the good ship Stiff patched up and sailing hurriedly through uncharted, dangerous waters.

The beginning of the end came when Robinson agreed to run the then failing Island Records in addition to running Stiff. It was too much for one person, and in particular, the kind of person like Robinson, who wanted input into everything. After eleven years of excess, fights, hit records and an approach to packaging and marketing that truly shook the industry, Stiff finally stiffed.

Stiff Records was brought back to life in 2006 and has generated some income for its current owners through reissuing elements of the back catalogue, but it’s not the same disruptive Stiff Records I, and many of you will remember. Despite its current popularity, disruption is a rare beast, and even when it works, by its nature it has a limited lifespan. If everything is disruptive, then nothing is, so if disrupt you must, then please use sparingly. If you have any interest in rock, punk and pop music and what real disruption looks and feels like, I recommend you read Richard Balls’ excellent book. And remember:

‘If It Ain’t Stiff… It Ain’t Worth a F@#!’

The Next Generation of Work

A Lucky Break

When I left school I was very fortunate in that one of my teachers (Mr Pope – technical drawing and graphical communication) introduced me to my first employer. I somehow managed to fumble my way through an interview and into the world of work as a trainee draughtsman. I learned a lot in this first job working among some supportive colleagues, both in the head office where I was based, and out on our many constructions sites too. All good things come to an end, and when I left this job, I had accumulated skills and experience beyond those I’d gained at school, and so found further employment. I was given a valuable hand from school into the world of work – many are not so fortunate.

In The Dark

Not long after starting my own business I did some voluntary work at a local school, helping kids with interview and CV preparation.My overriding memory of these experiences was how utterly unprepared nearly all the kids were. Prior to meeting me and other volunteers, pupils had apparently been doing some work on preparing a CV and getting ready for interviews. As the sessions unfolded I saw almost no evidence of this work as the volunteers and pupils clunked along together as best we could. I spoke with school staff after these sessions and the whole thing, right through to the involvement of us volunteers too, felt very much a last minute idea, ‘Oh look, some of our pupils are about to leave….should we be doing something…?’ I walked away from this experience feeling underwhelmed.

A New Direction – Taking Part

Fast forward to 2014, and I became aware of Learning to Work, a programme led by the CIPD to promote the role of employers in reducing youth unemployment.

The overall aim of the programme is to promote the business case for investing in the future workforce. We encourage HR professionals to offer a wide range of access routes into their organisations and ensure their recruitment and management practices are youth-friendly. We also promote direct contact with young people via two youth volunteering programmes, Steps Ahead Mentoring and Inspiring the Future.

Employer Youth Engagement Map

Having been invited to a couple of events designed to showcase and promote this interesting work, it became clear to me that young people involved in the programme, including CIPD student members, are getting a lot from their participation. Through talking with these younger people, it also became clear to me that small businesses like mine also have a useful role to play. Big businesses are often the ones who offer support on programmes like this, and while they are surely useful, and have the added benefit of big, familiar names to help with the PR side of the scheme – they are not the only gig in town. When I explain my work to people at these events a lot of them say they would benefit from having access to smaller businesses like mine. With this in mind I joined Inspiring the Future (you can too if you like) and have supported the programme through attending and participating at events at local schools.  The basic premise is not so different from that which I experienced when I first set up in business, but the whole Learning to Work programme benefits from a much more intentional approach. I think this programme is one of the most important activities currently being undertaken by the CIPD and I have just extended my involvement by signing up to offer student workplace placements in my business. Nothing grand, just working with me for a day or two – as a way of helping people explore what goes on in a small business like mine.

London’s Skilled Future – and your part in it

As part of this future focussed work, on March 16th, CIPD London are running a conference called London’s Skilled Future. The conference will tackle subjects like youth unemployment, low pay, the London economy, and much more besides. The CIPD has structured ticket pricing so as to appeal particularly to student members, and I encourage the CIPD student membership based in London to check the event out. If you are a current CIPD student member and would like to attend, but do not have the budget, then I may be able to help. I have purchased two student tickets to the event which I would like to give away. If you would like one, all you have to do is leave a comment on the blog, and I will draw two names from the hat on Friday 27th February. Thereafter I will contact the two winners so you can register, and make arrangements with the CIPD about which sessions you would like to attend. If you win one of these two tickets, I hope you have an excellent day at the conference. And if you are reading this and know someone who might benefit from this offer, please let them know – it is open to all current student CIPD members.

Obrigado Lisboa!

Second Time Around

This week I took my second trip to the city of Lisbon. Last time I visited as a tourist to take in a MotoGP race with two good friends, this time I was a guest of 3g Office at their 2015 Lisbon Workplace Conference. I flew over late afternoon on the Wednesday and took a couple of hours to reacquaint myself with the Bairro Alto, a beautiful historic district in the heart of Lisbon.

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Stranger On The Town

I was joined on Thursday morning by bright sunshine and Andy Swann, who was also in town for the conference.

Sunlight Over Lisbon

We enjoyed a lovely walk together before heading over to Microsoft’s new Lisbon offices for the conference. When we jumped onto the subway it was a warm sunny day, but by the time we got off it was hammering down with rain. Andy and I splashed around in unfamiliar territory getting absolutely soaked. We eventually found a taxi and jumped in, dripping wet. The driver took us to Microsoft, all of 150 metres round the corner! Sardines are a famous Portuguese dish, and Andy and I arrived into the conference hall as wet as any sardine swimming in the neighbouring river Tajo. It was a fun, albeit unusual way to make an entrance.

An Environment for People to Thrive

Andy spoke about the workplace as an environment for people to thrive. He was good humoured and positive in his delivery and took a nice gentle swipe at a few things too, including the mot du jour – ‘disruption’. I’m sure he will share thoughts on his session somewhere soon, for now – here are a few snapshots (sorry my iPhone camera really doesn’t cope in poor light).

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Most of the event was presented in Spanish, and I found it oddly interesting trying to interpret what was going on purely from the visual aids.

The Art and Soul of Better Work

I was on last and spoke about the art and soul of better work. The session was based on my work using art as a way of exploring how to make improvements in what we do, and some personal experiences related to the importance and power of getting to know one another better. As I practice this work more and more (to date almost 500 people have experienced Art for Work’s Sake), I am finding it a little easier to talk about it with sincerity and confidence. I still get nervous, and on reflection I could have shown more examples of real work done by real people in this space, and the session was really well received. Here are the visual aids I used – and if you click the link you will find some of my speaker notes and links to further relevant resources too.


The art and soul of better work – Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires

After Hours

With the formal proceedings over everyone enjoyed some time to talk over a few drinks, before a few of us headed out to dinner. Prior to our departure I was fortunate to speak with Nelson Paciencia who kindly allowed me to share his notes from my session with you.

Conference Notes

Nelson is a talented artist – I encourage you to take a look at his work.

Dinner was great fun, and afterwards our hosts insisted we carry on into the night. We had a lovely evening and before I knew it, and with far too little sleep, I was back at the airport heading home.

To close – here is a very short video showing a few Lisbon highlights…

…and a lovely conference sketchnote, by Maria.

Conference Sketchnote