We Are Strange: Corporate Innovation in Action

Been curious as to my whereabouts these past few weeks? Sat at home wondering what coffee shop I’m loitering in or whether, quite possibly, I’ve melted into a sticky puddle on the Tube? Well now I’ve come out the other side I can fill you in on exactly what I’ve been doing.

Snapshot summary: shut up in freezing cold rooms with the same people, ferried about the country in bright t shirts to separate ‘us’ from ‘them’. After 15 days pushed onto a large stage in front of important people to perform a corporate dance. For the winners, glory, for the losers, vending machine coffee. Scaring hashtag memories and bursting inboxes for all.

Make sense? Lets take it back a step or two.

In the beginning…

Cast your mind back to mid June. That crazy time when the temperatures were seasonally normal and people scoffed at England’s chances in the World Cup. Myself, alongside all those on two of my organisation’s career development streams were called into a room and informed that for the first three weeks of July we were to come off our day jobs and work on another sub-project titled “Innovation”. In true project style, the title Innovation remained as clear at ditch water to all but the organisers so what followed was a more detailed brief. Simply put, in teams we had between then and the 26h July to produce a new, innovative, solution to a problem being experienced currently by our organisation.

While we understood the aims and objectives of the Innovation Project as a whole, what we struggled with more was the idea of being removed from the business for three whole weeks. As you can imagine our day managers were less than thrilled but conveniently had been briefed in a separate meeting in a different building. Their ‘feedback’ pinged into inboxes just as we were being put into teams.

After brief conversations within our separate units, team names and compulsory hashtags were provided to those in charge. Given at the time none of us expected these to go any further than a internal communication or the organisation’s corporate social page, my group went for team “All Change” alongside #WeAreStrange. The hashtag in particular was done in good humour at the organisation of the Innovation Project. A week or so after that we were assigned a topic to base our separate projects around. For my team it was “how might we better identify member* needs of the future?” (*member being another way of saying our financial customers’) And with that we were all set off into the big world. It was now mid-late June and we knew that in a few weeks we’d be presenting an idea, a solution, a product to senior executives.

Late June – Another presentation on presentations…

Enter Capgemini, one of our organisation’s third party suppliers and soft skills trainers for the duration of the Innovation Project and organisers of several weeks of WebEx talks and dynamic team building sessions. On the whole these were good, it only took an hour a week to listen to the online video conferences and they required zero preparation (unless you had a question). Unsure of who did or did not know me, my signature intro ended up being “hi this is Alice, Alice Bennett here” but otherwise I held up my strong cool-kid reputation. Admittedly given my London location I often couldn’t attend meetings in person, but instead dialled in to noisy boardrooms only to question the benefit of me hearing fragments of ten different people instead of my team mates.

Other than these sessions our day jobs carried on as normal. All of us manically working away in the background to get what we could completed, tidied up or handed over for someone else to cover whilst we were away. It really did feel as if we were leaving our current teams for some shiny prospect that none of us could quite explain without making it look like we were going to be paid to do nothing for three weeks. Like parrots our default justification was “it’s development”.

July – week 1

Admittedly I was off in Majorca for the first formal week of tech training, led by second supplier IBM. Although I was off enjoying the sun I felt a bit sorry for the two remaining team mates who had to go through a tough five day boot camp into all things tech related from coding to the Cloud. As the heatwave blistered on outside, within the walls of the hotel the teams were shut away in ice cold rooms, spaces that were so chilly I later heard tales of people bringing cardigans and jumpers to keep warm.

Week 2

Getting over holiday blues and how Britain could possibly be so hot still, the day after I landed back in Birmingham I was off again up north to Manchester. Here all the teams spent three days with, you guessed it, another third party supplier. Cisco is very proud of its innovation labs up in the northern powerhouse city, so was keen to show us what a dedicated innovation space looked like. But before that we had to settle into our hotel accommodation and be presented with our team t shirts. Remember what I said before about assuming the team name would go no further than that? Well I learnt a very painful lesson that evening about making assumptions…don’t. So now everyone had brightly coloured t shirts with a team name and hashtag printed boldly across the front and back. And we had to wear them the next day. And we had to walk halfway across Manchester to get to Cisco’s offices. Coincidentally management had long gone to bed by the time we realised all of this.

Day one in Manchester and we spent most of the day sitting on bean bags, because the stereotypes of creative spaces aren’t reinforced enough nowadays.

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Comfy at first but try sitting on them for three hours…

On this day we learnt more about what Cisco were doing at the MI-Idea labs and we met with start-ups to understand the personalities, mentalities and ideas that fall under the umbrella term.

On days two and three in Manchester IBM were back again to teach us how to unpick and create our own chatbots and visual recognition (VR). We found these sessions to be a lot quicker and easier to pick up and in no time at all Mike in my team was formulating his own Gareth Southgate chat bot and I looking into the boundaries of VR. I also posted several witty social media posts such as…

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“Now, while VR can tell you there are coffee cups in this image, what it can’t recognise is that you have a problem.”

We started Wednesday’s session earlier than planned so we could rush back to Swindon in time for the England vs Croatia match. That evening both our bodies and souls were crushed. It would take several days for us to regain ourselves.

On Thursday all of us reunited in the conference suite, alongside the corporate graduates, to be briefed on another project we were to start working on. So now we had both an Innovation and Charity project to work on. As you can imagine we were so very, very, happy that day. So happy.

Friday was the first day were our teams all got together in separate rooms and started thrashing out ideas to tackle our theme. After so much time travelling or being lectured or learning or fighting off angry day job managers, the strain showed on everyone. We were all ready for the weekend.

Week 3

In the final week of formally being off project team All Change started to do that, change. We had a concept but how that would look on paper and how we could make it work for our organisation was a tougher challenge. It’s one thing to say your idea is innovative, but if that idea is a dancing unicorn handing out red velvet cake to customers then it’s not likely to be as well received compared to something that is crazy but works.

For our team this final week featured a lot of competitor research (which isn’t easy – turns out corporations don’t like to make their finances public) and trying to pin people down for answers. In any other situation you wouldn’t expect a specialist to have a free enough diary to meet, say, the next day however in our bubble project time wasn’t a luxury. We quickly learnt that saying “we have to meet tomorrow because we’re presenting next week” made no difference at best and at worst got them asking us questions instead of our team asking them. Quick emails from their side did the job just as well. Alex pulled together a great presentation and our mentor Steve was a star in helping and showing us how to build a mobile app prototype, an essential part of making our idea tangible to the panel and creating a stand out presentation.

Throughout this week there were touch points with our project sponsors, the wider project leads and general chit chat with the third party suppliers who operated in a facilitate, support and provide external perspectives on our idea. On the Friday we delivered a dry run through of the presentation to a dummy panel of persons whose role was to provide initial feedback. As a team we were quite happy with the response and readily took on board the tweaks and minor adjustments which the presentation needed.

Despite all the craziness we made time for this ‘official’ team photo:

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On the board: HOW TO LOOK BUSY – Dynamic team photos, post it notes, Latin team name (a jab at teams Acta Non Verba and Sempre Progrediendi), bean bags

Week 4

Back in day jobs = craziness = do not disturb = reminding team members we’re alive

Adjusting Innovation presentations = making time for research = making time for team rehearsals = trying to find rooms with phones (so I can dial in) = travelling back and forth from London to Swindon = shattered but ready

Thursday 26th July

Team All Change were fourth on the agenda after introductions and then the first presentation by Acta non Verba.

As we went up onto the main stage with all the big wigs, managers and colleagues of our organisation in front of us, we felt a little nervous. I’d never seen Claudia look so uncomfortable, bouncing on one foot to another as Alex set up his laptop with the presentation. “You’ve got this” I reassured her as we walked to the other side of the stage.

We not only smashed that presentation but completely owned it. All that was missing was internal fireworks or fire itself (the budget was there for health and safety checks).

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We did good for a team which had #WeAreStrange printed across our backs (or yeah, the t shirts just had to be compulsory attire on the day of the final presentation, didn’t they? Cool-kid cred reduced to minus figures in seconds.)

After post presentation questioning and celebratory complimentary coffee we returned to our table in the conference suite and listened to the other three groups deliver their problem statement solutions. As each group watched the other in turn we were all amazed by both the quality and complexity of what had been designed and tested in such a short space of time. These weren’t “have you considered setting up a Google docs account?” or “have you thought about getting Amazon in to fix this?” It goes to show that if you give people resource and a free space then the ideas that can formulate are without limit. What is that saying about a man and a fish pole?

During the panel’s deliberation time I sipped on my coffee and wondered how anyone could pick out winners when all the presentations and contents were so good but so different. To me it felt a little bit like comparing chalk and cheese.

After a lot of heated discussions, the three winning teams were as follows:

Most viable (i.e. something the business could start doing straight away) – The Dream Team

People’s Choice (voted for by the audience) – Semper Progrediendi

Most Innovative  – ALL CHANGE!! Yeeesss!

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All the teams in our assorted bright t shirts

I wish I could say we won a pile of cash or a mini break to Paris, but instead we were happy to accept a framed certificate and team photo where we all looked good.

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Team All Change (I’d say the dream team but the yellows were called that). Left to right: Me (Alice Bennett), Claudia Pellegrino, Mike O’Keefe, Alex Wheeler

After all the excitement and the close of the main event at 1pm there was only a little time to take lunch and crash. After that for most it was a case of taking off t shirts and getting back into the day job. I personally kept my t shirt on, firstly because I missed the memo about everyone bringing a change of top (and I don’t think my company is about to relax its uniform policies that much) but also because by that point I was beyond embarrassment. Enough people had seen me strutting about the office in heels, pencil skirt and black jacket like some product rep for a new health drink. I didn’t care anymore. Like the presentation I’d been part of several hours beforehand I was happy, if not a little proud to own the look on that day. And when friends outside of the challenge pointed to my top with a smile and a laugh all I had to do was turn on my heel and lower my jacket.

“Well, we are strange”

“Aren’t you hot in that black jacket?”

“You cannot begin to imagine.”

After all that you are probably wondering what All Change’s big, award-winning innovation idea was or indeed the ideas of the four other teams. Well, I guess you’ll just have to watch this space to find out… #WeAreStrange #SimplyInnovating

(A big thank you to everyone involved in the Innovation Project, including organisers, facilitators, educators and panellists. Of the third party providers there are far too many of you to name individually so I hope that in thanking Capgemini, IBM and Cisco will suffice. You guys know who you are, especially the person who thought bright t shirts were a good idea…)

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How to be More Like Alice

Have you ever woken up and thought ‘damn, yet another morning and I’m still not Alice E. Bennett? Heck I’m not even Alice Bennett and there are thousands of those, including this deceased bae…’

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Well fear not because below are a few simple things you can adopt in your life to be less like you and more like me. And a world with more Alice would be a fudging sweet one.

  • Make this your new backing track:
  • Or this:
  • Listen to Classic FM on lunch breaks whilst reading solid literature. Bonus points for adding an amused/coy smile when you have no idea what you’re reading about.
  • Make the same sad cheese sandwich for lunch everyday. Own the saved pennies, disown the taste!
  • Play the game ‘new mole or just melted chocolate?’
  • Walk so fast you forget to look where you’re going, trip and smash your head into the pavement. Is that concussion or are you feeling sassier already?WP_20160218_18_08_05_Pro.jpg
  • Spill tea or coffee. Just because.
  • Dresses need to become a thing in your life.
  • Either look adorable…

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  • …Or honest.

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  • Drink wine knowing almost certainly what it will bring.
  • Read books in coffee shops – initially with the pretence of looking sophisticated but then because you enjoy the experience.
  • Explore/visit things by yourself and be perfectly happy in doing so.
  • Work hard, write harder.
  • Love your family.

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  • Mock your family.
  • But most of all, never forget your humble beginnings as a pair of 90s curtains.

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  • …Or a bin bag.securedownload (3)

 

Do that and you’ll be right on track to being more like Alice E. Bennett. Just don’t come knocking round my door asking for tea bags, you can spill your own tea.

10 Things you Simply must do in the North Cotswolds

The Cotswolds are a beautiful part of the world. Rolling green hills, golden stone brickwork and chocolate box villages make it one of the most desirable tourist destinations within the UK. It’s also a large region notoriously hard to pin point.

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According to this map Swindon and Evesham are in the Cotswolds which frankly is the funniest thing I’ve seen all day.

Who better placed to review North Cotswold attractions than someone raised in a border village? After all, no one goes on holiday to spend hours in tourist information centres.

asf.jpg‘North Cotswold Triangle’ shown on map above.

10 Things you Simply must do in the North Cotswolds

1. Chipping Campden

This little market town marks the most northern point of the region and typifies a lot of the features you’d expect to find in a place that made its wealth in the wool industry.

Chipping Campden has been able to retain vibrancy in its little independent shops, pubs and coffee houses spread along the main high street and having attended secondary school in this sleepy town I can certainly vouch that it’s worth a couple of hours of anyone’s time. During school holidays you can park in the school’s car park or, if you can’t park along the street, there’s a small pay and display car park in the centre.

Fun fact: Chipping Campden is home to the design studio of popular silverware brand Robert Welch.

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2. Walk the Cotswold Way

Linked to the above, Chipping Campden is one town that sits on this popular walking path. On this one I won’t compete with the multitude of books and websites (there’s plenty of information out there) but I would encourage anyone visiting the area to tackle a shortened route or section.

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3. Broadway Tower

Representing the highest point and one of the most iconic Cotswold symbols, Broadway Tower gives the best views for miles around. Don’t be fooled by the title though, this charming folly is located a short drive away from the market village of the same name, that said the hillside has considerably developed in recent years enabling visitors to linger a little longer and treat themselves to stylish interior buys and coffee in the converted barn.

If views aren’t your thing there’s also an underground nuclear bunker on site which is open to the public on weekends during the summer period (April – September). Closed in 1991 but restored to its 1980 appearance, it’s one for Cold War era fans.

Worth noting that this site gets busier during peak times (e.g. summer and weekends) and while fairly substantial the car park does fill up. Given the hillside bumps that sit alongside the tower, sheep are sometimes let lose to keen the grass trim resulting in lots of ‘little presents’. For both reasons sensible footwear is recommended.

Top tip: You can pay to go into the tower itself where a brief history of the area and exhibitions are presented. At time of writing tickets for adults are £5. My advice? Save the money and invest in coffee and cake at the tea shop.

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4. Cotswold Lavender

In many of the fields near Broadway Tower you’ll find the purple shrub growing in large quantities, spoils of which go into making the popular scented products sold by the Cotswold Lavender company. When the lavender is in season a visit to the farm is an experience for all the senses.

In a rush? If the lavender is in full bloom make the effort to drive down the country lanes that cut through the crops. The intensity of fresh flowers combined with a gentle breeze is something you won’t forget in a hurry.

5. Go for a drive (and give the sat nav a rest)

Take a map and a basic idea of where you want to go and just drive. There are some beautiful Cotswold lanes and undiscovered hamlets to be found across the North Cotswolds and, better still, the roads are all of solid quality and easy enough to spot (even if they’re not always signposted well).

If you want to really experience the Cotswolds you have to avoid the well trodden path. Everyday large numbers of coaches take visitors (from the UK and overseas) on day visits to the main destination towns. Popular towns are popular for a reason and in peak season it’s not uncommon for individuals to come away feeling disappointed with the experience they get at such places. My advice? Ditch the crowds and gain a unique experience by going for a scenic drive. Who knows, you may even discover a location or pub you go back to later on.

Word of Warning: the unique experience will also mean a lack of mobile phone reception and make sure the tank is full of fuel before setting off (petrol stations are not a common sight in the rural Cotswolds).

6. Hidcote Manor Gardens (The National Trust) and/or Kiftsgate Court Gardens (Privately Owned)

My family home is quite literally at the bottom of the hill so I’d be foolish to not give a mention to these world famous gardens, both of which are neighbours. That said, having spent my entire life living in the shadow of Hidcote my opinion on the gardens themselves are a bit mixed (personally I think there’s a touch of Emperor’s New Clothes about them). I do however respect their popularity and historic value and would always encourage people in the area to visit either Hidcote or Kiftsgate (or both) because they are a big deal and a ‘must do’ if holidaying. 

Hidcote is free to National Trust members, Kiftsgate has an admission fee. As per a lot of attractions these gardens get busy so my advice would be to go early and on a nice day (if it rains there is little to no shelter).

thLU4BKI90.jpgHidcote Manor Gardens

thCZ6VZGYU.jpgKiftsgate Court Gardens

7. Stratford-Upon-Avon

Whilst not located within the parameters of The Cotswolds, Stratford brings with it a different vibe compared to that of its rural neighbours. As well as being home to Shakespeare Stratford also has a rich history dating back hundreds of years. A quick google search will provide you with several days worth of activities.

Depending on where you’re holidaying in the region Stratford is only a short drive away and worth exploring to get a comparison. It’s also home to a number of high street shops and well known eateries during the day and stylish wine bars and dining at night.

Top Tip: Don’t kid yourself into thinking the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) will have a multitude of same day performance tickets available. The majority of tickets sell out months in advance so book them at the same time you book your accommodation. Also check out ‘Stratford ArtsHouse’ – a venue that has come leaps and bounds in recent years. This small theatre pulls in a number of touring comedians and plays.

8. Bourton on the Water/Broadway/Stow on the Wold etc.

Granted these places do get busy but there’s a reason for that. Heavily photographed and easily accessible, any of the above towns will be found on number of visitor check lists. Each town has their own history and charm, for example Bourton is frequently referred to as ‘the Venice of the Cotswolds’. Avoid these places like the plague on August weekends/bank holidays, but otherwise they’re worth a visit if you’re seeking souvenirs and wanting to experience the pure essence of what the Cotswolds are all about.

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9. Batsford Arboretum (near Moreton in the Marsh)

If you’re visiting the North Cotswolds in Autumn and not considering this as a destination then think again. Batsford is home to a large number of tree species and is coincidentally the country’s largest private collection of trees and shrubs. That aside, it’s also a great place for photography, wandering and (if kids or big kids are present) running around and letting off steam.

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10. Snowshill Manor (The National Trust)

Located near Broadway, this National Trust property houses the collections of Charles Wade who bought the property in 1919.

The random but fascinating treasures held in this house define both the owner and period and show an early 20th Century interpretation of what the modern day rich do when money is no object. If you don’t dwell too heavily on the wealth being sourced from slave plantations in the West Indies then you’re in for an insightful experience. Each room provides a different exhibition of artefacts, it’s history within history.

Top Tip: during peak periods entry to the house is administered on timed tickets. Visit the property first before lingering in the gardens. The property itself is also a short walk away from the coffee shop/entrance which is worth noting before you set off.

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(11. Stanway House and Gardens)

Stanway is probably the best kept secret of the North Cotswolds, if not the entire Cotswolds. Only open two afternoons a week in the Summer (Tuesday and Thursday), this fully functioning family home will provide a truly different experience to anything you’ll see at a National Trust property.

Volunteers run every element of public-facing operations, from collecting tickets and acting as room guides, to running the tea shop in the converted stables. Inside is an explosion of old vs new, antique tables and tapestries coupled with modern day invoices and weekly food shops. The garden outside displays a dramatic jet fountain which rises to 300 feet (making it the highest jet in England).

Wonderfully eccentric and undiscovered to the majority of tourists (but well known by locals), this is the attraction that none of your friends or family will have visited.

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And there you have it…

…some starting points for things to do in this Cotswold pocket. Of course there are a many number of other places to visit in the region (for example Bourton has a record-breaking model village and Chipping Norton is also a popular go-to destination). However I hope this list gives you a feel for the range of attractions and culture us Cotswoldians are proud to have as our own. If you want a taste of the Cotswolds (and beyond) then the North is certainly your best bet to get all you need from a relaxing mini break.

Think I’ve missed off a notable attraction? Add your comments below!

Useful Links (please note that all direct to external websites)

Broadway Tower

Cotswold Lavender

Kiftsgate Court Gardens

Hidcote (The National Trust)

The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC)

Stratford ArtsHouse

Batsford Arboretum

Snowshill Manor and Garden (The National Trust)

Stanway House and Fountain

 

10. There’s a Lot of Shizz in my Room

There was a room.

A room full of bits and pieces and accumulated knick-knacks gathered over the course of two years. All telling the story of Alice Bennett, the Alice Bennett Installation if you like. Small, full of rubbish and severely lacking in suitable storage. A room unable to decide whether it wanted to rival Tracey Emin or desperately try and avoid it.

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Alice Bennett’s 2017 installation – ‘Push it Against the Wall and It’ll Become Invisible’
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Tracey Emin’s 1998 installation ‘My Bed’ – what can I say, I learn from the best.

As the house sale on the property next door started drawing to its intended close, I realised I was actually going to have to tidy up and clear all my stuff out. And this wasn’t something that a bottle of Windowlene and a couple of Peter Gabriel songs could solve, it was going to involve brutal woman power and an acceptance that, indeed, my room was full of shizz.

The timing for this wasn’t great, I was in the process of re-establishing my love of porridge and the supermarket had a sale on. Plus the shared kitchen gave me no space for storing foodstuffs (see – There’s Some Weird Shizz in My Cupboard) so I started the process of cleaning my room by with piling a load of oat sachets chocolate bars and varying alcohols and taking a photo of it for Instagram, obviously.

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Remember what I said about Tracey Emin aspirations?

Then it all got too much and I wrote a blog article about something else.

Several days later, after consuming a sizeable amount of ‘the pile’, I remembered why I’d piled it in the first place. I got cracking with the tidy up.

It was a painful process. Because I’d achieve a mini-milestone of clearing one patch of floor space…

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…to turn around and see this behind me:

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That’s what hurt me most. Having to empty drawers and boxes that had previously hidden so much but now spewed everywhere. As you can probably tell, my room was tiny in the shared house, the double bed sandwiched into the small space the only way it possibly could.

The clean went on. Thanking the God’s for a decent metabolism and reasonably priced gym membership, one evening I wriggled under the low bed to pull out all the hidden ‘gems’ that had spent years in the shadows. Forget Blue Planet, my under-bed had some weirder things than the deepest depths of the Antarctic Ocean.

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But it also had a couple of bottles of wine so I was prepared to overlook some of the other things I found under there.

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Discovering bottles of wine when cleaning is like finding a five pound note when you’re tidying your room aged ten.

I learnt a lot about myself when cleaning up that space. For example, I’m a closet hoarder who’s in denial. I had enough plastic bags to fill a tanker.

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But then I realised I was British so quickly laid to rest my concerns. I wasn’t weird, just normal. In the same way I had been unable to throw away a handbag I like so mended it with a safety pin as a short term solution. Five million handbags later, I found it at the bottom of my wardrobe.

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You just wait until ‘Make Do and Mend’ comes back into fashion.

A week or so later (yes, that long) I was starting to see progress in the big tidy up.

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Yes, I saw this as progress.

I was quickly becoming numb to the difficulty of throwing stuff out. Either an item was literally falling apart or I was lazy and wanted future me in her massive house to store it. Clearing out items was as black and white as that.

When it came to my wardrobe door however I was forced to make more brutal decisions.

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I find it easier to tear up memories when it means I can spend more time looking at Andrew Lincoln’s face in Love Actually.

In rentals (or at least mine) blu tac is the substance of Satan, pretty much all landlords don’t want it anywhere near their magnolia walls. In place of that, the thin door was my only place to tac up things which meant something to me. A pin board-come-scrap-book of information and pictures that summed me up. New job cards, renters info from the Telegraph, a sassy postcard from M&S, it was, well, me. And now I had to take it all down and be a big girl for a change. Renters and school girls can do this sort of thing, homeowners with matching furniture sets and themed wallpapers couldn’t. The odd item got put to one side (sassy postcard, check!) but most of it ended up in the bin.

When the drawers were finally emptied and the shizz (well, most of) was in a black bin sack there remained little for me to do than slog over the worn down dirty mess that was the carpet. The landlord had bestowed on us a Henry hoover to enable us to keep the house tidy. Now, Alice, I hear you cry, what could possibly be wrong with that? Hurrah for landlords! Well, before you think my previous landlord was a saint…

  1. Three storey townhouses with heavy, hose-based, Henry’s do not mix.
  2. Never expect tenants to buy hoover bags, especially when most do not know what they are.
  3. No hoover will revive a cheap, well trodden, carpet that hasn’t been replaced since the property was built fifteen years ago. None.

I spent hours on my hands and knees trying to suck up every bit of dirt the machine could just about manage. I knew at the time it was a joke, trying to remove a strand of hair from the dirty beige pile. At the end of it I was so exhausted that I think I lost it a bit. On a Saturday night, a Saturday night, I put this on my Instagram:

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The filter only makes it worse.

I mean seriously.

Once that was done all that was left was to wait. Until the house sale was completed a lot of items remained bagged up in assorted suitcases donated by family and random shopping bags. It looked like I was about to go to some far flung country, about to jet off somewhere new, but in the meantime I had to sit and wait it out while messages pinged in from solicitors and I scrabbled around the square of floor to complete important documents. Like I was waiting for my plane to depart.

After the sale had completed on my house I started moving items over, often taking a heavy case down to flights of stairs, across, up another two flights of stairs, then dumping the contents in a cold, empty bedroom. Then back down and up, fill up the case again and repeat. Then do the same with kitchenware and foodstuffs and you have the makings of a very drawn out, tiring, house move. My housemates would watch me carrying out the unorthodox house move in silence, whether they thought I was crazy or not mattered little to either of us.

On the last night I packed up my case with the last of the few items of clothing and put out what else remained on the bedside table.

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The boiled down essentials of Alice Bennett, all laid out on one tiny rectangle. At first I was a little bit emotional, then I felt a bit let down by the basicness. Only I would rate the presence of Sudocrem and a lemon pip higher than books or make up. What scenario would cause me to urgently need Sudocrem and a lemon pip I do not know.

The duvet and bedding got carried round to the house bright and early the next day, alongside the final case of clothes which this time got left unopened in the bedroom. Into one of my many plastic bags I scooped up the bedside table contents and checked the tiny room for the millionth time. I knew that it would be clear and I also knew that living next door it would be a breeze to collect things should anything have been missed off, but it still didn’t stop me checking again.

Ironically, now the room was clear of junk and shizz it looked much bigger, I realised why I’d taken it on in the first place (well, cheap rent and location were the main reasons, but still).

 

I placed my bedroom door key on the bedside and with a final long look and a sigh, walked out with the latch off so that the newer housemates could peer in after I’d gone. I slipped out the front door and posted the key back through the brass-coloured letter box. Done.

 

There was a room.

A room full of bits and pieces and knick-knacks accumulated over the course of two years. A room which told the story of a kooky girl who hailed from Gloucestershire (or was it Hampshire or Warwickshire?) who worked in a solid job, with solid interests, yet always aspired to be more. She moved out of the busy house share and into her own home next door. Why? Because we all thought she was mental.

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This post is part of The First Time Buyer Diaries. To view all articles in the series (so far) click here.

Waterfall vs Agile Project Management Models

Waterfall Project Management

When you complete each stage of a project in isolation. You can’t move onto the next stage until the previous one has been completed.

Teams may have frequent meetings in the form of monthly boards, where decisions are made by stakeholders, or dial in meetings with team members who may not work in the same office location (e.g. a Tester who works offshore).

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Waterfall Methodology

A project example would be upgrades to multiple interlinked computer servers. Server one must first be upgraded first before server two can be looked at.

Pros

  • Methodical and the traditional method of running projects.
  • Works well for projects where there’s one end goal and nothing in between.
  • Enables clear investment decision points and reviews at stage ends and also ensures everything is completed before progressing to the next stage.
  • (Pro or con!) results in stricter levels of governance as projects need to fulfil specific criteria before being allowed to develop and implement.

Cons

  • Slow. A hold up at one stage affects the rest of the chain for the project.
  • This also includes potential impacts on dependant projects who rely on other projects for meeting their deadlines.
  • This in turn can lead to resource inefficiencies, project overspend and failure to meet to time scales.

 

SELRES_18becb00-8b2c-49eb-bb78-305b4e1cf3bdSELRES_a42bbdd4-aaaf-44c1-801a-95ab1f7d3246SELRES_a92ed792-ef54-4bda-9325-efc9bfdaab93AgileSELRES_a92ed792-ef54-4bda-9325-efc9bfdaab93SELRES_a42bbdd4-aaaf-44c1-801a-95ab1f7d3246SELRES_18becb00-8b2c-49eb-bb78-305b4e1cf3bd Project Management

Instead of aiming to complete whole stages in isolation, Agile projects take a more cyclonic approach, tackling a project delivery in multiple smaller stages (or sprints). Sprints tend to last between two and four weeks.

Teams keep each other informed via stand up Kanban/scrum meetings. An appointed scrum master leads discussions to enable the different teams working on the project provide updates. A) with what they are going to tackle during each sprint (at the start), B) progress updates (during) and C) what they have achieved (at the end). Meetings tend to be more informal and visual compared to Waterfall and the use of whiteboards with post its and/or dedicated software are adopted more frequently to enable updates in a quicker paced project.

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Agile Project Methodology

An example of an Agile project would be the development of a App. Over the course of multiple sprints teams are able to gradually build and test the App, first with the basic code, then the functionality, then finally adding in user appeal – pictures, sounds etc.

Pros

  • Fast moving. Enables teams to quickly identify any faults and either fix or ‘drop’ them before too much money and time is invested.
  • Deliveries grow over time, a project leader can start to see formation much earlier into a project, where in Waterfall the change is sudden.
  • Considered to be a more resource efficient model and allows for greater collaboration.

Cons

  • Agile is not a suitable method for all projects. A single delivery can’t be built over time (for example, the delivery outcome ‘running a marathon’ cannot be done in separate sprints. You sign up, train, then run it. An Agile approach would be useless in this instance – you cannot gradually run bits of the marathon over twelve weeks!)
  • The working environment must contain all persons on the project (project lead, governance, software architects, testers, accountants, etc.) to enable collaboration. These resources can only be dedicated to one project or sprint. If resources are split between multiple projects (as they can be on Waterfall) then the sprint may fail to meet its delivery.
  • As sprints are quite short and projects adopting Agile are quicker paced, the project lead must ensure that suitable investment and project governance/review points are put in place as the cycle system doesn’t naturally allow for any sudden or prolonged stops.
  • As it’s a new methodology of project working, team members may require additional support and/or training.

 

 

And there you have it. A (very) quick overview of the two main methods of running projects. I want to add here that I am by no means an expert on either approach, having only started a career in business project management and governance three months ago(!) but hopefully for that reason it will help any new starters in the world get to grips with the basics.

(Also, I hope that doing this will stop Mumma Bennett getting into hysterics when I talk about my job- ‘Waterfall? Ha, ha, haah! What’s Waterfall?! I don’t understand, what’s water got to do with technology upgrades? You’re so corporate!’ and so on and so forth…)

 

And who says you don’t learn awesome things from this blog?

9. Completion

When I went to pick up the house keys from the estate agents on a grey drizzly Saturday morning I felt in a rather neutral mood. Being stubborn and British I decided to walk the distance of almost two miles up hill to avoid paying for a bus or taxi, resulting in a matt of tangled, curly hair and a nose that continued to pour, even when I stepped inside the ultra clean office.

A man with overly gelled hair and patchy stubble directed me to a sofa while he consulted with a female colleague. All the staff looked like dolled up fifteen year olds, and I think no one could quite believe a young woman in unbranded jeans and a tatty Gap hoodie could possibly have bought a house from them.

The lady tottered over with a clipboard and let me sign for the keys. I politely smiled and said thanks, but she’d already gone. Everyone else was continuing to hit their keyboards in a monkey-like fashion, so I took my cue and left.

That was it. I owned a house, my house. I checked the envelope ten times over just to be sure.

“Oh my God.”

I was so overjoyed I didn’t know what to do with myself, so ended up marching straight down the hill in record time and landing back to the house I lived in. I dumped my bag, threw off the soaked hoodie and dashed around next door with nothing more than the key.

I held my breath as I inserted the key into the door and slowly opened the door. I stood there for a moment before walking in and sitting on the bottom step. I stroked the banister rail, like some prized pet.

“You’re mine now, and I am yours” I muttered.

With rain cold feet I ascended the first flight of stairs with ease and entered the bare living room and then the empty kitchen. Suddenly without warning I started laughing, then screaming, then running up and down stairs and into rooms and out of rooms. Slamming doors, apologising for slamming doors. Spinning round and round and round. I lay on my bedroom floor and took my breath.

“This isn’t happening, pinch yourself Alice, you just can’t have done this. Oh my God, what is happening? A homeowner? A homeowner…A homeowner! You. Are. A. Ruddy. Homeowner!”

I ran next door and grabbed my laptop from the top floor before rushing back round to my house. I turned it on and loaded Spotify, before blasting out Nina Simone, Arctic Monkeys, The Killers, B*Witched. Anything and everything which came to mind. I screamed every lyric from every part of the house until my throat was hoarse from all the yelling, before lying in a heap on the cold, dark living room floor.

Why? Because I could.

 

This article is part of The First Time Buyer Diaries. To view the entire series (so far) click here.

8. Swapping Solicitors for Social Media: Impatient Sellers

With the mortgage in place and all the relevant forms filled in, my solicitors were deployed.

For cost sake, said legal representatives were located nowhere near Swindon, but their website and documentation reliably informed me they had a small office in Suffolk. The price I paid was so low I never questioned my solicitors’ insistence on email and postal communication and in return they didn’t spit in my envelope for paying them peanuts and putting Swindon-based solicitors out of business.

The next day I strolled down to the nearby pillar post box and posted off the initial fee. “Lovely county Suffolk,” I thought, “shame about all the Londoners though.”

For the best part of a month there was little more for me to do. My energies became more engulfed with buying, collecting and, in Mum’s case, painting furniture from around the region and storing it in the furniture warehouse (alias, my parent’s garden room extension).

Meanwhile, at work, people were beginning to realise why I’d been so stressed of late. Although I’d frequently commented on “looking at houses” or “difficulties with the bank”, many colleagues had wrongly assumed I was moving into a new rental property. Given my age and martial status I can hardly say I was that surprised by the confusion, in fact I was more taken aback by the ripple effect my purchase had on these same people.

Suddenly I was the Martin Lewis of home buying, everyone had a question to ask and apparently I was the girl to give advice. The hints and tips recited beside boiling kettles and in toilet queues was little more than a blended mix of common sense and random statistics from The Telegraph, and yet that was enough. I was the Marmite of the organisation, people respected me or envied my very guts. And slowly, oh so slowly, habits of those around me began to change. People stopped buying coffee, packed lunches started making a comeback, and a night in with a made-from-scratch lasagne became the ultimate date night experience. All subtle signs of people putting money to one side for an unspecified goal.

“What have I created?” I thought.

Apart from changing the psychology of my fellow workforce, up until February life was blissful (well, compared to the fiasco with BankUK*).

I suppose I was a bit naïve to think the sellers would let the house sale proceed on my terms. Throughout the entire mortgage drama there had been not a word from either of the two solicitors to suggest concern, so I guess I assumed that with things moving at a normal pace I shouldn’t have the cause to be concerned.

On February 14th 2017 the tenants of the house formally moved out. I knew this because a) They told me this when I met them to discuss buying furniture (of which I bought none) and b) I saw the van on their drive that very evening as I walked back from food shopping. The tenant had wanted me to buy his wares to avoid use of a van, which made me watching him struggle with an oversized pine bed particularly awkward. Unable to commit my vocal cords, I made somewhat awkward eye contact and mouthed “hi” in the winter darkness before scuttling into the house next door and telling myself I was not to go out again that evening.

On February 15th the chasing began. My solicitors informed me that the sellers’ Swindon solicitors were constantly asking for updates at request of their client. This was frustrating my people in Suffolk because they were not being paid enough to care or give five minute updates to first-time sellers who weren’t clients. I thanked them for letting me know and assured them that I’d see any documentation was returned promptly upon receipt and funds were moved into place ready for exchange.

To save boring legal and financial jargon, the planned exchange date fell through. The fault was not down to myself, nor my solicitors, not even the sellers, but due to incorrectly submitted documentation from my old friends BankUK.

I called Katie* to inquire as to the hold up.

“We sent both sets of documentation through, your solicitors should have read them and used the right one.”

“But why wasn’t it made clear?”

“They were sent both the first and second versions because of the difficulties we faced with your application before. If they’d read the figures correctly…”

I was already impatient. “I can’t believe this. At the final hurdle BankUK have messed up. Look, whatever documentation my people have got it’s wrong. They need a different form to either of the two you sent them. If the exchange falls through again the whole house sale might fall through. You can understand why I’m a bit frustrated, no?”

“We are aware of this Miss Bennett and looking into it now. I’ll remind you to watch the tone of your voice on the phone.”

“For Christ’s sake” I said as I hung up the phone.

I never spoke to Katie again.

I cursed under my breath but hoped that the sellers would accept the revised date and understand there was nothing anyone could do until Thursday, two days later.

That was when the seller’s fiancée crossed the line.

Before this situation had kicked off I’d met them very briefly to check out the white goods which were being included in the sale. From that I learnt the house belonged to the man and he and his soon to be wife were buying a new build on the edge of Swindon. In turn they learn my first name and I lived next door. In the world we live in that’s all she needed.

I don’t know how, but she found me. Of all the millions of Alices on Facebook she found my profile that evening and, in blatant convention of legal process and regulation, she sent me a direct message.

“Hi Alice, My solicitors have just told me we are not going to be able to exchange today due to BankUK not being in a position to go forward…We’ve been advised by our sellers that they are very reluctant to continue with the sale to us if the completion date is affected, consequently if they pull out we will have to too. Many Thanks.”

I was stunned. Was she seriously threatening me to pull out on the entire sale, over Facebook? She wasn’t even the owner of the property.

Eventually, after fully processing what I’d read I wrote back a response with the help of my parents down the phone. I sent it thinking it would be the end of it, but no the messages came in thick and fast from her, pouring her heart out with the added threat of turning at any point and making her partner put the property back on the market again. After all I’d been through and money already sunk in, I couldn’t bear the pain of living in the shared house next door, forever watching people go in and out of my ‘could have been’ home. I’d had enough, I ratted them up to my solicitor and under their instruction ignored all of the messages sent from thereon.

It transpired that the real reason why the house sale almost fell through was so petty it was almost a joke. My sellers’ sellers didn’t want to pay another monthly repayment on their mortgage which would happen if the exchange was delayed by two days. The news came to me via phone after we finally exchanged. It was one of the few times I actually spoke with my solicitors.

“But if they relisted the property they’d have to make the payment anyway?” I questioned. Surely no one can be that stupid?

The speaker sighed. “Yep. You’d think someone would have told her that before she started shouting and getting your sellers into a state. I don’t know what game she was trying to play and we don’t know why it wasn’t handled better as opposed to scaring everyone in the chain. As for the Facebook messaging, well that’s taken us all aback.”

“I suppose it’s the world we live in right?”

“Where rules don’t apply because it’s social media and everyone thinks they can be a solicitor,” there was a slight pause, “I’ll send you the final invoice via email shortly. If you can pay it ASAP we can at least complete on the original date everyone agreed to, even if the exchange was delayed.”

 

I did all that was required by me, signed a few bits of paper, moved a few digital numbers from one place to another and then waited. And as if by legal magic I received an email saying I owned a house.

No big deal.

 

(Names marked * have been changed for the benefit of this article.)

This post is part of The First Time Buyer Diaries. To view the full series (so far) click here.