Navigating the new world of work

Author: bella (Page 1 of 5)


This will be a short one because the book is mainly about the process and is fairly detailed – so if it’s something for you it’s worth buying and reading fully or there articles where it’s been summarised it online. However, there are a couple of things that I found quite useful which could be transferable.

Sprint – How to solve big problems and test new ideas in just five days, Jake Knapp

Written by some guys from Google Ventures, the notion is a bit like the Scrum Sprint where the objective would be to have something testable with users at the end, but it’s on steroids. With a big emphasis on speed, the idea is that this could be applied to any problem you’re trying to solve, as long as the problem is big enough. It has to be important. The book guides you through the process and what to do each day, along with where to spend most of your time. All sounds great until you try to get all of the people required, your best stakeholders, (aim for 7) into one room for a whole week with limited email checking! However, there are a couple of great takeaways that could be used as part of this, but also as part of other parts of the product design process.

One of the exercises they propose towards the beginning of the Sprint is the idea of ‘Starting at the End’ – where clarifying the problem to be solved and making sure all of the team have a clear focus in which to put all of their energy.

“When a big problem comes along, like the challenge you selected for your sprint, it’s natural to want to solve it right away. The clock is ticking, the team is amped up, and solutions start popping into everyone’s mind. But you don’t first slow down, share what you know and prioritize, you could end up wasting time and effort on the wrong part of the problem.”

The method that really stuck with me and I could see immediate application for was the ‘How Might We‘ method. Originally devised by IDEO via Proctor and Gamble in the ’70s, the idea is to transform the way in which the team thinks about problems by reframing what we’re trying to solve and get a bit closer to the customer. It works by each team member applying the “How Might We?” question every time their hear something interesting, e.g. If were trying to sell a loan to customers we could start with some “How might we?” questions such as, ‘How might we help customers buy a new car, or a new kitchen?’ and ‘How might we create an environment where customers would trust us?’ Everyone ends up with a stack of notes they can then end up prioritising later and do some affinity mapping to bring similar ideas together.

‘When we tried it, we came to appreciate how the open-ended, optimistic phrasing forced us to look for opportunities and challenges, rather than getting bogged down by problems, or almost worse, jumping in to solutions too soon’

The book is an easy read, split up into bit-sized chunks so you can put it down and pick it up when you need it. I think it’s a great method book to read even if you never manage to convince your leadership to actually follow through with it. In addition there are a number of techniques in there which can be highly valuable at lots of other points – there are some good ways to make decisions here, particularly if that’s often your sticking point in Agile and Scrum it is often said that ‘Done is better than perfect’. The drawings are quite cute too.


Given the world is currently in a pandemic and people are having a lot of choices made for them with regards to how they spend their time, many are left deciding what to introduce back in to their lives, once allowed to do so. This book, written by Greg McKeown in 2014 has become a useful guide to help increase focus on what’s important. 

On the face of it, it looks like a bit of an obvious idea that, if you try and do too many things you spread yourself too thin and end up doing nothing well. Which we all know, but it can be hard to create a level of discipline that allows us the clarity of thought to mindfully choose what we do with the time we have. We are always making choices about how to spend our time, even when we don’t realise. But the book really does make you examine your own thought process of where your time is used. It provokes you to ask yourself questions such as, What is the most important thing I could be doing with my time right now? Only a few things really matter, so what are the trade offs? And mantras like, ‘if you don’t prioritise your life, someone else will’.

Essentialism, Greg McKeown

A lot of the other things mentioned are things that are simple to say, but much harder to do in practice. They’re things which require a fair amount of practice before they stop being an uncomfortable habit, such as, cutting out trivial activity (seems obvious). But also having the ’emotional discipline’ no to people, which has come up in many similar books before (if it’s not a clear yes, then it has to be a no). However, reading about it over and over doesn’t make it any easier to do. 

It goes over how unimportant so much of life really is, the importance of play (play sparks exploration), the importance of sleep (sleep is for high performers and breeds creativity), of automating your routine (helps create a sense of flow, mentioned yet again!), of setting boundaries (much like in design, constraints are really your friends) and the importance of the ability to focus to help you choose where your time should be spent and find out truly what gives you purpose (‘In order to have focus we need to escape to focus’). All of these things help us have the energy to prioritise: 

Our highest priority is to protect our ability to prioritise.

Everything written about boils down to the simple principle of ‘less but better’. Which is a good principle to keep in mind next time you have that choice of what to do with your precious time. This also includes being intentional with the choices – being deliberate about the time spent. It also mentions the ancient, but ever applicable Pareto Principle, or 80/20 rule which comes up in many management or productivity books – 20% of our efforts product 80% of our results. 

To embrace the essence of Essentialism requires we replace these false assumptions with three core truths: “I choose to”, “Only a few things matter” and “I can do anything but not everything”.

One of the anecdotes I enjoyed the most was this idea of ‘Identifying the slowest hiker’ – the idea that if you have a set of hikers it’s usually the weakest link that is slowing down the entire team. The fictional hiking leader reorganises the group from slowest to fastest (instead of having the slowest at the back) so that they can all keep up and it makes it easier for him to analyse their speed. If you can pinpoint exactly why the front hiker is slow and find a way of speeding them up (in his example, leaning on the other hikers in terms of load) then the whole team of hikers’ speed will increase, then on to the next slowest. This is about finding the obstacles and systematically eliminating them. Again, it seems like an obvious thing to do, but takes a level focus in order to be able to identify and then remove the obstacles. This idea coupled with ’subtracting’ – the idea of producing more with removing more – is at the core of Essentialism:

This approach goes beyond just solving problems; it’s a method of reducing your efforts to maximise your results.

It is quite timely as I was recently reading a Guardian article on secrets to a (fairly) fulfilled life by Oliver Burkeman that echoed some of these sentiments:

The upside is that you needn’t berate yourself for failing to do it all, since doing it all is structurally impossible. The only viable solution is to make a shift: from a life spent trying not to neglect anything, to one spent proactively and consciously choosing what to neglect, in favour of what matters most.

This was a great book and at a time like this, more than any, devoting the time you have to purpose and deliberate choices does seem like a fruitful way to focus. 

Work Lies

9 Lies About Work has two authors and was only published last year (2019). The first thing I think of is, as far as I can tell the authors are British but it seems the book was directed at an American audience. I understand this given the market is larger, but it does grate after a while – “He lives in the United Kingdom, where anaesthesiologists are called anaesthetists.”

Nine Lies About Work

I won’t go through all the lies since you can read them yourself but I can give a high level view of the ones that I found to be the most useful. 

The first ‘lie’ is that people care about which companies they work for – which you would think would be particularly pertinent for some of the younger generations of talent in the workplace – those looking for meaning and purpose in their work. While the authors don’t dispute the search for a cause or meaning, they say that instead people care much more about the teams they work with, that effectively, people join for a cause but stay for the team, perhaps. 

“When we push on the data, and examine closely its patterns and variations, we arrive at this conclusion: while people might care which company they work for. The truth is that, once there, people care which team they’re on” 

The book also mentions the drivers, or questions, that appear in ‘Strengths surveys’ conducted by the Gallup organisation such as, ‘In my team, I am surrounded by people who share my values’ and ‘At work, I clearly understand what is expected of me’ – which are a good set of questions that in my experience, companies use to measure overall employee engagement at work. The authors talk about these factors and how the results of a survey featuring these drivers can be used to explain or maybe even predict certain sentiment or behaviour. I’ve also seen it in action in my working life – and it is helpful to be able to pinpoint drivers or detractors of engagement but it’s much harder to do something about it. In the same vein, they also mention the importance of team leads – people that trust their team leader were more likely to be fully engaged at work. 

Another lie is that ‘the best people are well-rounded’ – this chapter deals with the idea that people should not necessarily try to become multi disciplinary and that competency models are a waste of time. This is similar to what companies who endorse the Gallup methodology promoting the idea that instead of trying to work on your ‘development areas’ or ‘weak points’ you should just try really hard to improve on your strengths and areas in which you excel – using Lionel Messi’s magic left foot as an example. I don’t necessarily agree with this in all contexts. Whilst there are people that excel at one particular subjects, most people benefit from being multi-disciplined and certainly having an awareness of areas in which they struggle. Particularly if you look at soft skills such as negotiation and empathy or emotional intelligence. Many things do take a lot of experience and practice, and people are perfectly capable of developing these skills over time. 

There are a few other things I don’t agree with. One is the book’s mention of the Hawthorne effect when discussing lie that ‘people need feedback’. Instead they purport that people need attention and use the famous 1920s psychological study to prove a point. Describing the study they talk about how when participants are being watching productivity goes up regardless of the changing conditions (lights on it goes up, and then further up with lights off) and talk about how this is due to the fact they enjoyed the attention: 

“Each of these interventions demonstrated to the workers that management was interested in them and their experience and they liked that’

However most people cite the Hawthorne affect when they talk about the fact that someone is being watched. So from what I’ve read in the past it’s not an enjoyment factor, more of the idea of the workers being on their best behaviour. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, and that really the crux of it is that it is that attention is what is important – even if not everyone enjoys it. 

The book also references other popular books  such as Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus and Jim Collins’ Good to Great, as well as the concept of ‘flow’ although they don’t mention Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi by name – this can be useful as it helps you understand how other theories fit with what they are proposing. 

The book is a very easy read, but it didn’t blow me away. Some parts seemed a little sensationalist (‘the idea that leadership is a thing is a lie’) Aside from a fairly alarming story about an anaesthetist (or anaesthesiologist?), many of the ideas here I have come across previously in various other forms. And whilst I agree with a lot of them, I think the book lacks a little on ways in which to enact the alternatives in some places… The lies they’re talking about are ingrained in working culture. I don’t see the theories changing the status quo within the workplace any time soon. 

Compelling People

I actually read this book quite a while ago but never got around to writing about it. And when I did, I could only remember one concept in the book, so I think that’s probably the main concept. I’m not sure one would need to read the book to get their head around the concept either… 

Compelling People by John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut

So what is the book about? Written back in 2013, it claims to be about being more influential and beings with saying that being influential is not necessarily something people are born with and that it is something that can be learned. Ok, so far, makes sense, mostly. And what are the secret ingredients that make up the big idea? 

“It turns out that when we decide how we feel about someone, we are making not one judgement, but two. The criteria that count are what we call ’strength’ and ‘warmth’. Strength is a person’s capacity to make things happen with abilities and force of will. When people project strength, they command our respect. Warmth is the sense that a person shares our feelings, interests, and view of the world. When people project warmth, we like and support them.”

That’s pretty much it, in a nutshell – too much strength creates fear and distrust, and too much warmth makes one look weak. So it’s a balancing act. And while I appreciate it’s scientifically backed and endorsed by lots of academic people, I can’t quite help feeling that it’s a little obvious. Then on to some other things that are probably quite obvious, stereotyping like men are perceived to have more strength, women more warmth but that having a good mix of the two gives you that influential edge in business. The book goes on to give examples in many different areas, such as language, gestures (talks about mirroring), humour, gait, clothes, hair and so on. If you’re interested in that kind of thing I recommend the much more insightful ’The Definitive Book of Body Language’ by Allan and Barbara Pease, which I read a long time ago but still echoes around my grey matter even today. Compelling People also comments on gender differences, sexual orientation and other factors which, frankly, mean it is not ageing well. 

Whilst I agree with what the bulk of the book says, again I find a lot of it quite obvious and I don’t feel it gives a lot of help and advice, or practical examples of what to work on on an individual level. It’s likely everyone is different but just telling someone they need to exhibit strength and warmth simultaneously is not that insightful. 

The passage I did find more useful was one called The Circle – the theory that it’s easier to persuade people from inside their personal safety circle. They use Robert Kennedy’s powerful speech in Indianapolis that he gave on hearing the news of Matin Luther King’s death in 1968. In which the writers call out three steps that he took to build rapport with the public.

  1. Acknowledge – you have to acknowledge the circle of the other person. You have to acknowledge what they are and what they feel right now.
  2. Empathise – Kennedy then identifies directly with the people he’s addressing, referencing his own family murders at the hands of white men. Showing that he had a shared experience, he put himself further inside the circle with them. Seeing and feeling what they see and feel- connecting with warmth. It’s this empathy coupled with genuine humility that then allow us to authentically take on the third step.
  3. Lead – Once the foundational steps have been laid, then Kennedy was in the place to lead – to put forward notions of reform, what needed to change and his vision for the future.

Aside from a couple of the central theories in the book, I didn’t find it to be that helpful in terms of telling me anything I already knew (and what I believe to be quite widely know) nor did I find it a particularly enjoyable read. Not one I recommend as there are much better alternatives out there. 

The Peter Principle

The Peter Principle is a notion that’s come up time and again during office life. Supposedly a universal theme, I decided to do a little investigation into who this so called ‘Peter’ was and what his particular principle was all about. The first surprise I came across when I located the book from where the principle first came from was how old it was. 

The Peter Principle

Written originally in 1969, in Canada, Raymond Hull collaborated with Dr Laurence J. Peter to summarise some of Peter’s research on management phenomena. The second surprise, was that it was funny (funny despite being old!). It was always intended to be satire and that certainly comes across in a way that makes you chuckle to yourself as you remember a time when you’ve witnessed some of the amusing examples used to illustrate the arguments. For something so old, it still seems to be scarily relevant today. So what is the Peter Principle? Quite simply it is:

“People in hierarchy tend to rise to their “level of incompetence”: an employee is promoted based on their success in previous jobs until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent, as skills in one job do not necessarily translate to another.”

Describing themselves as ‘hierarchiologists’ the co-authors run through many examples of the manifestation of the principle and how one recognises when they are observing the principle, i.e. when they see that someone has hit their level of incompetence. The book starts with a funny passage about first discovering the ubiquitous nature of incompetence. Hull describes becoming a teacher, discovering everyone around him didn’t know what they were doing or were committing many mistakes. Suspecting it was the school that was the problem, he decided to apply somewhere else:

“I filled out all the special forms, enclosed the required documents and complied willingly with all the red tape. Several weeks later, back came my application and all the documents! No, there was nothing wrong with my credentials; the forms were correctly filled out; an official department stamp showed that they had been received in good order. But an accompanying letter said, “The new regulations require that such forms cannot be accepted by the Department of Education unless they have been registered at the Post Office to ensure safe delivery. Will you please remail the forms to the Department, making sure to register them this time?” I began to suspect that the local school system did not have the monopoly on incompetence…” 

Due to its age, I suspect some of the ideas were more novel at the time, but unsurprisingly there is very little ground on there that hasn’t been gone over 1,000 times since. The advantages of networking and building connections within the workplace to help raise your profile are brought up in the book which of course are highly relevant today. Though they are called ‘Pull’ factors (as opposed to ‘Push’ factors where you drive forward recognition yourself). The Pull is more compelling as it involves others talking about the value you contribute.

The book definitely is a product of its time with many passages that would (thankfully) not be acceptable today, such as the following that describes ’Substitution’ – the things people do in absence of competence:

“However, in domestic hierarchies, it is exceedingly common at the housewives’ level. Many a woman who has reached her level of incompetence as a wife and/or mother achieves a happy, successful Substitution by devoting her time and energy to Utter Irrelevance and leaving husband and children to look after themselves. ”

Heaven forbid! The book is, like a lot of books on management, a long version of an article. It uses many examples to explain fairly simple concepts so it does not really need to be so long (and it’s only about 170 pages), but as it’s an easy read and quite amusing it doesn’t take too long to finish. 

For all of its satire, it does point out some workplace truths that even exist today. But really the world of work today is slightly more nuanced and grey than it was back then or at least as much as the book makes out. These days we know there are many facets to ‘being senior’ and to leadership and that some people are more well suited to some aspects of them than others. Not only does the book seem slightly reductionist in its view that if you’re a good ‘doer’ you may not be good at, or want to be involved in managing teams or more strategic thought, which seems an unfair way of looking at things. As if one would only belong in one box or another. It puts forward no notion that one could improve certain qualities of which they are deficient and seems to suggest that once you have reached your level of incompetence there is nowhere to go and so you must just try to stay just below it. Even if someone did recognise this in themselves which the authors acknowledge is unlikely, I’m not sure how satisfying it would be for most. It’s definitely earned it’s place in the everyday vocabulary of the workplace but I don’t believe people should take it to mean that their position is the end of the road and there is nothing more for them to give. 

On a slightly separate but related note, for a more nuanced view of how to develop leadership qualities, I find this Harvard Business Review article from back in 2012 more helpful. It was actually written by Michael D. Watkins, author of The First 90 Days (see below). Whilst the The Peter Principle focuses on highly localised dynamics and interactions (mainly Boss and Work) the article focuses more on how important transitioning from a specialist to a generalist (‘a bricklayer to an architect’) can be when moving to a leadership position and the role of the business in its development of leadership:

“One of the paradoxes of leadership development is that people earn promotions to senior functional levels predominantly by being good at blocking and tackling, but employees with strategic talent may struggle at lower levels because they focus less on the details. Darwinian forces can winnow strategic thinkers out of the developmental pipeline too soon if companies don’t adopt explicit policies to identify and to some degree protect them in their early careers.”


The First 90 Days

This book as been around for a while, and it’s easy to see why. The premise is fairly simple – whenever you’re transitioning into a new role, be it internally within an organisation or to a new job entirely, you only get three months to prove yourself. These are the crucial few months where you can make and impression and whatever that impression is – it’s likely to stick.  This book, written by Michael D. Watkins is about how to make the most of those 90 days. He uses a combination of stories, strategies and frameworks to outline pointers and highlight common pitfalls and gives a huge emphasis to the importance of soft skills and of understanding organisational culture. 

The First 90 Days – Michael D. Watkins, the updated version of 2013

All new roles are likely to have different variables, but what this book does is gives you a basic framework and some examples for you to apply yourself and your situation.  The main framework is about the type of objective your new role has, Watkins suggests tailoring your strategies to your specific type of objective within the ’STARS’ model:

  • Start Up – Assembling the capabilities to get a new business or initiative off the ground
  • Turnaround- Saving a business or initiative to be widely acknowledged to be in serious rouble
  • Accelerated Growth – Managing a rapidly expanding business 
  • Realignment – Reorganising a previously successful organisation that now faces problems 
  • Sustaining success – Preserving the vitality of a successful organisation and taking it to the next level 

It may be that your role has a combination of these elements but many will only have one underlying objective that fits these. The rest of the book then gives different guidance depending on the particular objective you find yourself in. It may also help to think about which of these types of objectives suits you, your working style – what sort of projects do you like to work on and why?  I also found it beneficial to think back over previous roles I’ve had, to see which of these buckets it would fall in to and whether I had taken the best approach with them at the time. Given the answer has usually been “I could have done better”, it makes me wish I’d found this book sooner. 

The book starts chapters with anecdotal stories that illustrate the theme of the chapter. Sometimes I found these a bit simplistic but they did their job in terms of getting across the main points. Some of the key advice in the book covers:

  • Taking a clean mental beak between jobs
  • Systematic ways to accelerate learning of the organisation, people, tools and systems 
  • Secure early wins to demonstrate your value – in my experience, this is particularly important and can severely damage your reputation if not done or not done well 
  • Building the right teams
  • Creating coalitions and generating supportive alliances for you and your goals – basically gaining buy-in which is essential in any role where you want to get something done!

It isn’t saying you’re going to get up to speed and be a top performer within 3 months. In fact, at the beginning of the book it gives a graphical representation of the typical journey from when you begin a job and drain the resources of those around you to where you begin to create more value (a ‘net contributor’) for the business than the value you take up, with a break even point in between. Watkins says although it varies, it can take double that:

“When two hundred company CEOs and presidents were asked for their best estimates of the time it takes a typical mid-level leader who has been promoted or hired from the outside to reach the break-even point, the average of the responses was 6.2 months.”

The examples and the anecdotes are generally better suited to more senior roles, for example, there is a lot about securing resource and budget to run programmes of work but there are definitely some nuggets that anyone could use, regardless of their point in career. Watkins talks about certain nuances of new roles such as the changing nature of interpersonal relationships – what if you now end up managing some of your former peers? How should you change your behaviour, or not? How do you create meaningful alliances? How do you make decisions which weren’t previously yours to make? He also cautions against using your strengths at every opportunity:

“The qualities that have made you successful so far, can prove to be weaknesses in your new role.”

Something else that probably resonates well with anyone who has worked in a political environment (I mean politically charged, not necessarily government) is Watkns’ mention of the ’shadow organisation’ [emphasis added]:

“In the political domain, you must understand the shadow organisation – the information, set of processes and alliances that exist in the shadow of the formal structure and strongly influence how work gets done.”

Or in some cases, doesn’t get done. It also talks about ’transition coaching’ (very much separate from developmental coaching) which is using a coach to help you through this specific transition period – usually someone already in the organisation, that has a lot of knowledge, particularly the tacit kind, and can help share that knowledge to get you up to speed more quickly. 

Like anything, there will be a lot of personal circumstances that get in the way of achieving everything the book mentions, in the timescales it talks about. For example, I started a new job during the Covid-19 lockdown period and so building relationships was a much more difficult task than I had been able to meet people in person. Despite this, I personally still found it incredibly useful and can definitely see myself using it to refer to each time I transition to something new. 

A Job To Love

At first glance this is a fairly unassuming book. It certainly does not scream bad graphics and self-help like some of the other contenders for your attention on the shelf. Similarly, it doesn’t have an authors name plastered all over it, in fact, it’s a bit of effort to even figure out who wrote it. It comes from the School of Life series which could easily be mistake for a joke book or something you might have as bathroom reading.

A Job to Love, The School of Life

But this book is no joke. In fact, it probably struck more chords with me when it came to think about my career fundamentals than any other book, so far. It’s a very easy read and although there is no named author, it has a conversational tone and uses short stories and analogies in order to explain its concepts along with some small practical exercises to help you think about where the origins if desires came when thinking about what you want to do for a living.

Although the exercises are short, doing them takes quite a lot of thinking time, especially when some of them ask you to really analyse why it is that you think the way you do – and most of us are not very well versed in this level of deeper thought. I had to practice even though I have, in that past, thought quite a lot about these topics. I found it easier to think about them deeply for a while, but then to also have them in the back of mind to revisit over time – as sometimes what you have in the depths of your mind, and your motivations or memories are not readily available and can be triggered later. Sometimes by something completely unrelated that can cause unusual things to fall into consciousness.

The book spends a fair amount of pages exploring why it is so difficult for some of us to really examine what is in our minds and hearts:

‘Even when we accept that working out what to do is something we’ll need to devote much attention to over many years, we come up against a further, and much more puzzling, problem: how difficult it is to know the nature of our own minds.

Our brains are fatefully badly equipped to interpret and understand themselves. We cannot sit down and simply enquire of ourselves directly what we might want to do with our working lives – in the way we might ask ourselves what we would favour eating. The ‘we’ retires, falls silent and fragments under examination.’

One of the most useful exercises in the book is the pleasure points of work. It lists a number of different positive outcomes of work and helps you figure out which of these you most identify with based on some of the examples, such as, ’the pleasure of creativity’ or ’the pleasure of technology’. You could imagine them on sliding scales and attempt to mentally plot yourself on them to understand your career based motivators, which are generally different or have different weightings in everyone. It also then goes on to discuss various blockers or ‘obstacles’ that may be preventing you from understanding your life’s calling – these could be sense of duty or being too invested in our current job.

It also has other small exercises that I haven’t come across before – like one where you can imagine yourself having an interview with an employee of where you might work – one of your potential or desired career paths. I thought some of the questions were useful – ones that I would consider using even in an interview if it were appropriate, either when someone is looking to join my team or I’m even if I’m looking to join someone else’s.

  • How do you feel on a Monday morning?
  • Who do you admire at work? What is it about them you admire?
  • Do you think you are suited to your job? In what ways? (pros and cons)

The book is short and to the point which I think is another of its strengths. Although it gives numerous examples to help you apply the thinking to your own views on work, it doesn’t labour the point or take long detours with stories or anecdotes that don’t add very much. The last part of the book called ‘Consolations’ takes a different tone, a more reflective one. It highlights some historic factors where relevant for example talking how things these days are quite different from the past:

“In 19th Century England, a respectable father could have his daughter locked up in an asylum if she persisted in a wish to become an actress or singer… Then in the early 20th century, under the sway of a romantic ideology, societies gradually freed themselves from class and parental structures. In two central areas – love and work – parents ceded power to their children, leaving choices in the hands of every son and daughter. We were liberated to marry whomever we liked and to do – professionally – whatever we pleased.”

This can make parts of it not that memorable; when I came to write this I had to refresh my thoughts but it is a small handy reference book that I will definitely be going back to periodically, perhaps the next time I’m on holiday and have the mental space to give to deep thought.

Missing the mark with Microsavings

Recent times have seen an increased focus on consumer savings and attitudes to money, and budgeting in the media. General savings and saving enough for pensions, retirement and longer life have been in the spotlight in particular. Last year some studies reported that up to a quarter of people in the UK have no savings at all with more than half wishing they could save cash.

Enter the new micro-savings platforms. These products are designed to help you saving by saving in small regular amounts that should add up over time, but not be so much that they disrupt your budgeting. There are many, I’ve tried a few over last few months. Let’s go through some of them.


Plum & Cleo – Micro savings and money tips chatbots with automated savings but based on the Facebook Messenger platform

Both these players’ have a proposition about using AI to help you manage your money. They sweep your account (once you’ve told it your details) and then automatically takes money money out and places it in to a savings account for you. They have a conversational UI, supposedly giving you hints and tips which you can access using Facebook Messenger.

I found the tone of some of them quite patronising, and maybe a bit juvenile? But perhaps that’s because I don’t like being told what to do with my money. Other people might find it helpful. But my biggest issue, and the reason I didn’t save any money, is that they don’t have the overall picture of my spending – if they can’t see that all of my spending is on my credit card and that ring fence a lot of my money for buffer accounts and emergency savings. And I keep a fair amount in my current account because I earn interest on it – the apps think I’m loaded! I’m not, it’s just buffer money, but they would scrape lots out of the account as I’d left it in there. I also think having Facebook near my finances makes me uncomfortable – again, a personal thing.


Chip – Dedicated app for automated savings

Like Plum and Cleo, Chip is a conversational UI complete with GIFs. Unlike Plum and Cleo this was app-based from the off. Just like the above it sweeps your account, guesses how much to take and then saves it for you. I liked it for a while, but it used to send me too many push notifications and it would give me same issues by sweeping too much because of the state of my current account. They also used to do a scheme where you could refer people for a better interest rate which was nice while it lasted.

They’ve also just opened their new community platform, just like Monzo, just like Emma which have similar features but have more of a focus on general financial management. Are there lots of people members of all of these communities or do they just expect hard core fans? Sounds like a lot of effort to part of multiple. And a few too many emojis for me.

I have used Lloyds ’Save the Change’ round up payments that go automatically in to a savings account, this isn’t new – but if you use your credit card for payments it’s quite slow to build.


Moneybox – Rounded up transactions that are moved to an investment account

This is a bit different as it’s straight to investments, not a savings account. My Moneybox account is attached to my credit card for round ups, but not directly. It was a bit strange initially – Moneybox reads my credit card transactions but only has debiting permissions for my current account. So it calculates round up amounts from my credit card and then takes the total from my current account. It’s nice to have someone doing this in the background especially as I’m not planning to touch it for a while. The app is quite nice, but the animations feel quite child-like. But getting back to the money, your odds at beating inflation are much better with investing, especially over the long term. Do read the small print and make sure you understand investing before embarking on that. There are different types of investment account, Lifetime ISA, Stocks and Shares ISA, or General Investment Account. Settlement also takes longer with investments than cash – something to bear in mind.

There are lots of different people after your money – it pays to do a bit of research when working out where to put it.

Ocado Oddities

I’m not a very loyal shopper when it comes to supermarkets. I have some specific needs and I’ll be as fickle as possible to whichever shop – total sucker for convenience! Which means, I love Ocado. I’ve been shopping with them for a couple of years and haven’t really considered switching online supermarket. Why do I like it so much? Well, they have great variety, and a great range. I suppose these are some of the perks of not having to deal with physical stores. I’ve never had poor quality vegetables (well, not really) and they have a great loyalty scheme and are always offering me discounts and free stuff, which is a nice bonus. It’s also all really easy to redeem, a lot of it is added to my account or basket without me having to do anything (they have this interesting Smart Pass for free delivery and other perks).

Except vouchers. I get sent a cashback code by email for any items that could have been cheaper at a different supermarket. It’s a great feature but they need to sort that out so that it’s automatic. But the main reason is because when things go wrong, which of course they do, sometimes… Ocado always fix it. It’s definitely these moments of truth that builds your love and trust for a brand – and that’s exactly what they’ve done with me.

Discovering new ways in which companies are attempting to be helpful to me and personalising my experience by using my data is one of my favourite past times, and Ocado has some interesting features. Firstly, they have a number of dynamic panels that pop up when you do various things. The one below shows the ability to drill down into your choice – in this example you can choose to narrow your sear to wholemeal wraps etc. Additionally, it’ll show you other frequently bought items such as beef stock cubes with your kidney beans and so on. Seems pretty useful.


Secondly, and one of the more surprising ones was when they suggested some substitutes based on calorie count during checkout. I’d put some tonic water cans and some pots of risotto in my trolley and within the ‘before you go’ step of the check out it has suggested a slimline alternative. It says by choosing their suggested alternatives I could apparently save 576 calories which is equivalent to an 188 minute walk and 59 minute run. To my knowledge, I’ve not told Ocado that I’m dieting or watching what I eat or calorie counting etc. I’m not sure how I feel about it. I think converting it into actual activity and not just talking about calories themselves is more compelling. I think it works better for single meals as well, so, in this example it worked better for the risotto than the cans. I’m not going to drink all of the cans in one sitting so I’m able to explain away the extra calories.

I did a mini survey around the office and the views were a pretty even 50:50 split – with some people calling it judgmental and others saying it’s good for the supermarket to promote healthy choices. We then had a debate on whether it should be an opt in or opt out solution. Does it make much difference to the supermarket? They’re not actually going to make more money by me switching to healthier choices in this instance. Does this mean they would be more likely to offer a healthier choice if it was more expensive? Or less likely to offer one if they were going to make a loss? There are clearly some decisions of an ethical nature that need to be made here.

So did I change my choices? No. Maybe it was in defiance, I’m not sure. Sometimes I don’t like the idea of a machine telling me what it thinks I should do – perhaps this is going to be one of the biggest problems that AI will now face. There is going to need to be greater research into different ways of talking to customers – with persuasive design at the forefront. Perhaps I was part of an A/B test experiment… I haven’t seen it since… Maybe that’s a sign of how well it’s doing or how well it’s been received by customers!

Duplicitous Data

This is LinkedIn’s latest crafty attempt at trying to get you to hand over your data. They’re ineloquently asking for it outright, rather than trying to mine it somehow. I suppose that makes sense. So, what’re they doing? By providing your salary amount, they promise to tell you if they think you’re not getting paid enough but you’ll also get free general salary insights for an entire year. Intriguing.

For now, I’m sure they’ll tell me that employers or recruiters aren’t going to be able to see that. In fact it says that at the bottom. And I’m sure eventually, at best, they’d get a band or range, or an anonymous aggregated average. But I can see a time in a not too distant future where recruiters will be able to work out how much they think they ought to be paying you initially based on an average… but potentially then based on what you’re getting paid now and what they think they can get away with paying you.

There’s an obvious problem with this. Taking the above example of a Marketing Manager. The salary range for this could be vast depending on the size of company or the size of budget or the team you’d be managing. I can picture scenarios where people are being told they earn a lot more, or less than others purely because of the nature of the job. It would make a lot more sense for more generic jobs, but they’re not the sort of jobs you usually get here – most of the jobs on LinkedIn are fairly nuanced in terms of role and responsibilities. I suppose LinkedIn could get a little cleverer the more data it collects… And that’s the idea. I’m still not giving them my salary though.

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