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.

9aa85950-556a-4403-8ac4-9211b9cc9c17-original.jpg
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…

de61ff55-b290-428e-8c39-6d837e9dbc4d-original.jpg
“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:

thumbnail
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).

img_54831.jpg

img_54851.jpg

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!

IMG_5582.JPG
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.

Team Pic
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…)

Advertisements

Why I Should be on Love Island (and other Discoveries this Week)

We all have those moments when someone makes a comment and it comes as such a surprise or so random that all you can think (or my case say) is “ha-ha, no seriously” because a suitable response fails you.

Well I’ve had a couple of those recently.

 

Why I’m a Corporate Celebrity

About a week ago I met with some members of senior management. About three quarters into the meeting we’d covered most of the agenda I’d set out originally and conversations turned into more laid back topics. When asked broadly about career development I gave a simple answer, that I’m there to be challenged but also to challenge. At this one of the attendees smiled and quipped “you don’t need to remind us, we know about your email to Joe.”

(For anyone not sure of the reference click here.)

Boom, corporate celebrity.

 

Why I Should be on Love Island

Good friend: “You’re so thin! You could be on Love Island!”

Me: “Bless you but no.”

Two weeks later…

Mumma Bennett: “You’re thinner nowadays.”

Me: “Thanks, I think it’s all the walking.”

Mumma Bennett: “It’s not a good thing.”

Friend approval and parental disapproval. Given personality doesn’t come into it I’d say that was a glowing reason to be on Love Island.

love_island_sr4_01.jpg

 

Although this woman…

I take it back, keep me as far away from these people as possible.

 

Why I’m a Pillar of the Community and Getting an MBE Award (Member of the British Empire)

I manage an 18-30 group in Swindon for which I’m frequently doing poster drops for as part of its promotion. I’d put a few up around the main offices in Swindon, including my own organisations, but you can imagine my surprise when in the middle of a live webcast being broadcast to thousands of people I noticed something in the background.

dff.jpg

thumbnail

So I’m sat there in the London office mildly losing my marbles because one of my 18-30 posters has somehow appeared behind the head of one of our directors and the deputy CEO. Meanwhile my colleagues are thinking that they work with a mad woman or someone who is far too excited over the prospect of organisation restructuring.

Either way I’m getting an MBE from the Queen.

 

18-30 Poster.png
Swindon 18-30 Poster

 

Why I’m a Trend Setter

I eat tomatoes on trains and if I need to give you a reason why then you’ve missed the point. Trend setter 101.

dfd.jpg

Why I’m Addictive to be Around (but no one knows why)

…because you’re still reading this.

Nobody Puts AB in the Corner

Alice Bennett. A fabulous personality and brilliant writer but certainly someone who wouldn’t stoop to cheap and forced puns (less wordplay, more wordforce). She only writes on the most topical and important of subjects and lets the title of posts come to her rather than chase after them.

Oh who am I kidding? I saw this clip and felt the need to write something about my hair.

 

We’re half way through the year now and that, alongside my hair being due for a home-done touch up, I thought I’d give a new shade a go. After all YOLO is still a thing somewhere in this universe (right?) and if not, at work we have a new initiative called Have-A-Goness so I can always say my CEO told me to do it. There are millions of brunettes in the world so how can I make myself stand out in comparison? Do something crazy and impulsive, that’s what. I’m done with sitting in the corner so in line with this post I did a few months ago: I’m Ruddy Awesome I’ve decided that seeing as Patrick isn’t going to help me out anytime soon I need to start making myself more visible and recognised for my own talents. The colour of my hair is a quick win way to help towards that.

I know what you’re thinking, you’re thinking “what on Earth has happened to Alice? She’s off the mother-flipping chain.” Well London. London’s herds of people and a hefty quantity of exhaust fumes, that’s what.

Anyway I very recently applied a temporary dye to my hair (one which lasts so long before it entirely washes out) so I could see if longer term it was a colour I wanted to work on a more permanent basis.

This was my hair before…

Alumi Photo AB

This is it now…

IMG_1722
For the love of God don’t ask me for another photo

 

 

So yeah, I’m a cross between a brunette, red head and a 50s dress up (I say that in a nice way). At the risk of sounding like a diva the second photo was taken in my ensuite (play your cards right boys and you too may end up staring blankly at this internal door). In natural light it is a lot redder. Muchos more.

To give you an idea of the scandal my hair has already caused, when I showed it to mumma Bennett the reaction was as follows:

“OH MY GOD!!”

“It’s red, isn’t it?”

*Covers eyes* “Oh my God, it’s so different! INDIA! INDIA! Come here!”

“What is it?”

“Your sister’s hair! Come look at it!”

“Jesus mum, the whole county will hear you. And stop laughing.”

“Oh wow, it is different. Not as bad as I thought though.”

“See, India is fine with it. Calm down mum.”

“It’s purple! What has your father said?”

“He didn’t notice.”

“He didn’t notice?! BEN! BEN!”

“For Christ’s sake mum.”

I’ve decided that while the principle of YOLO and Have-a-Goness are very valid ideas and mantras, if I do anything more scandalous than this I risk being taken out of the will (Patrick Swayze or no Patrick).

I’m Ruddy Awesome

The below piece was something I recently did for my organisation’s internal newsletter. At the time it got a lot of praise and a few chuckles so I thought I’d share it with my lovely readers as well (be it with a few tweaks to make it understandable to an external audience). Enjoy!

I’m Ruddy Awesome

 

Recently myself and a group of work colleagues undertook a two-day Mindset and Attitude course. Now, while all those in attendance will completely understand the term ‘lollipop moment’, say that to the rest of the world and you only get concern over my company’s funding policies (especially when you talk about the whole ‘tied up with rope, blindfolded and groping about “game”’ and dancing around to ABBA). With my Excel course I got given manuals to leave about my desk (‘look at me, I’m so smart. I have manuals!’) but Mindset, well, it’s harder to explain.

‘Annie, right now are you in the box or out the box?’

‘…I’m at my desk?’

 At Mindset we discussed our values and career aspirations and learnt ways to communicate better amongst other valuable exercises. On paper it was a jolly outing interjected with TED talks and Psychology lessons, nothing that you’d think would make much difference. However, in the weeks and months since I’ve started to form a new perspective.

The thing is when it comes to the day-to-day I’m pretty modest. I know how to talk to people and how to construct a fabulous bit of writing, but when someone tells me I’m awesome I’ve never been good at taking it onboard. I throw my head to one side and my hand goes all limp, finished with an ‘oh you’ as I quite literally bat away the feedback. Mindset and Attitude helped me acknowledge this and, when I struggled to praise myself, Richard Thorpe (the man leading the sessions) got the group to fill in. Being unable to run away from the positive comments of my peers turned me beetroot red, but five minutes was all it took for me to realise my own strengths and qualities.

A couple of weeks later I was in an art gallery in Bath (as you do) when the room steward grabbed me mid-exit. Much to my surprise, the lady proceeded to shower me with praise. She’d been fascinated by how I’d taken in the art on display (because apparently there’s a right and wrong way to view art) and didn’t want me to leave without saying something. Aside from thinking ‘how do I get “art viewing” on my CV?’ I also found myself smiling, eyes locked and hand firmly at my side.

I left the gallery feeling great. An actual lollipop moment! I also realised that in my quest to be a classy, empowered lady maybe I had been one all along. Perhaps I’d been my own blocker, taking in only the bad comments and pushing away the good.

Take aways from Mindset and Attitude include making time for people (a cheeky Facebook like at 7am does not count) and an end to copious coffee drinking at 10pm. Going forward I’m going to hold my head that bit higher and tell myself I’m the best thing to happen to every meeting. Why? Because I’m ruddy awesome.

 

More information on the Mindset Coaching offered by Richard Thorpe can be found on his company website: https://www.wiseheart.co.uk/ or contact Richard direct at richard@wiseheart.co.uk

 

Every Book has a Million Stories

You know that feeling when you walk out the door without a book?

84502c4e722a28abcd20ae6245faa51e76e38184

Nicole Scherzinger does, it’s probably why her and Lewis Hamilton aren’t together anymore.

“Nicky, did you remember to pack War and Peace?”

“Urm…”

“Oh for Christ’s sake Nicole, you had one job to do, one! What am I supposed to read now? Thomas Hardy?”

(That’s totally what caused their countless break ups and getting back togethers. I mean what else could a pop star and racing car driver possibly talk about?)

It’s no secret I like a good book. I like the escapism they provide, the ability to make you conjure an image in the mind that can vary incredibly from person to person. It’s a testament to the human mind that we can read a bunch of random symbols on a page and turn it into pure emotion. It’s equally a testament to incredibly skilled writers that the reader can be taken on a journey and laugh, cry or even be deceived by the story before them and yet, despite the abuse, the reader carries on to find themselves begging for more when the tale is complete. I refer to this feeling as a ‘book hangover’, when you finish a novel but feel empty inside. Unable to come to terms with the end of a good book.

My recent read, Gone Girl, was one recent example of a book hangover. Without spoiling the book and/or film (NB I have not seen the film yet, but am quite sure it’s terrible vs the book – they always are), Gone Girl is a gripping thriller involving the disappearance of Amy Elliot Dunne. A whodunit with countless twists and turns. A book worthy of anyone’s time.

That said, I think a sizeable chunk of my present book hangover can be attributed to all the locations I read this one particular novel. Now I likes my tea and coffee and I likes my intellectual style. For as long as I can remember I’ve dreamt of being sat in a stylish coffee shop and a handsome male swooping in and saying ‘Orwell, nice. What do you think of the book so far?’ instead of ‘is this seat taken?’ which is what I usually get. Hopelessly romantic ambitions aside, a good coffee shop with the right music and buzz is the best place the read a book. Fact.

One wash out weekend I basically went from coffee shop to coffee shop to read my book. (‘Oh look, its stopped raining’ *goes outside* ‘ah damn, its started again. Oh no, I’ll have to find another coffee shop to read in. The horror!’) What started as a one ‘look at me, I’m so intellectual!’ Instagram post turned into a mini series, a documentary of all the locations I read this one book. Aside from the plot of the novel itself, I now look back on these carefully posed photographs and think of the stories behind the locations. Those mini tales of no consequence or interest that form the back bone of daily human interaction.

Below are these said photos, complete with a slight description of the location. In taking and stylising these photos I learnt a bit about my tastes, how I like to relax and also that Gone Girl looks great in every filter. Show off.

Enjoy.

IMG_0758
Work, Swindon. I started and read a lot of Gone Girl in the break out space at work. This particular day I was in a good mood because I’d used a £2.50 Benugo voucher and the space was empty enough for me to take a picture without many people seeing. This area of the office houses a lot of meetings and discussions, I often hear fragments of interesting conversations causing me to lose my place mid paragraph. I wonder what people think of me reading in such a corporate environment. This is also the only photo which didn’t have a filter applied.

 

IMG_0736
Coffee #1, Swindon. This is my favourite coffee shop in Swindon. Upstairs it has a lot of space and never feels busy, perfect for reading and writing. Just out of shot (North West) a young couple were smooching on the sofa and spent the whole time I was there very much loved up, opposite (far right) a date was taking place and straight in front of me (where the Barista is) an older couple were reading the papers. To see three different relationship stages in a small area was charming.

 

IMG_0738
Caffé Nero, Bath Spa. I’d just arrived in the city on a Sunday morning and it was raining hard and steady. It was around 10:30am and none of the shops were open so I headed to a favourite haunt. The only seat available upstairs was a large sofa so I reluctantly took that. 30 minutes later an older man came and claimed another sofa that had been freed up and took possession of all the surrounding chairs for a upcoming group. Two friends, also awaiting a party, scrambled to get seats together around a table for two. A lady who’d sat in the corner eventually left and I claimed her armchair. The two friends turned around, having moved a number of seats, and saw my large, vacant, sofa. I apologised and invited them to claim my old space, which they readily grabbed. The older party discussed walking and the changing layout of Bath, the younger chatted about dating and studies. An interesting mix.

 

IMG_0740
Waterstones, Bath Spa. On the same day as the above photo, I dived into a bookshop to avoid the rain and happily discovered this place on the first floor. The area had largely been taken up by groups of young men with sci-fi t-shirts and beards, playing fantasy board games with excitement. I wondered if this was something they did regularly here and how they found a location with enough space to accommodate them for lengthy periods. It made me think that their gaming and my reading made us actually quite similar in that regard.

 

Reading at home
Home, Swindon. I’d just got back in from a two day Excel training course and felt shattered due to an information overload. I put on my oversized hoodie and felt relieved to have the option to read something which didn’t contain formulas.

 

Wine Bar Reading
Harbour, Bristol. I’d always wanted to go into a wine bar by myself, to defy the British stereotype that ‘it is ok for a man to hang out in a bar alone, but for a woman it’s weird.’ I’d never had the courage to do it, especially somewhere I didn’t know. I’d spent the day hanging out in Bristol with a friend and felt really good about life. Having missed my train I had some time to kill, so I ventured down to the harbour. Deciding it was now or never, I went into a bar (not my first choice, but everywhere was packed) and sat on a window ledge stool, between a large party of students and a first date-in-progress. I read my book for about 20 minutes before heading off. I felt so empowered that, on a Saturday night in a busy bar in a city I barely knew, I’d been able to do that. It wasn’t necessarily the action itself, but knowing I could perform the action by myself. I walked out with my head high and the eyes of numerous men on my back (including the man on his date).

 

IMG_0770
Home (bed), Swindon. By this stage I only had forty pages left to go so was thinking ahead to my next read. I was in bed, blinking off the sleep dust from my eyes and lolling around the duvet covers. On each of my bedside tables are piles of books, I had to carefully pull novels out of each tower to avoid the entire stack falling over. I placed a selection to my right, pulled the covers up and finished reading Gone Girl. Once I closed the orange cover I sighed, made myself a tea, and quickly disregarded a number of my earlier shortlist selection. A Clockwork Orange felt too challenging to deal with whist suffering from a book hangover. I couldn’t make a finial decision, but left it at TBC between a F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, or a children’s classic that I’d never have considered reading had I not spotted it in a charity shop.

 

 

Every book has a million stories.

Line!

Evoking emotion in me is like filling a massive man-made dam. You keep pushing and pushing to go further, to fill it higher, until suddenly the walls break and water goes everywhere. Many lives and friendships lost, terrible mess, nightmare insurance claim.

Problem is I often don’t know when to stop. It’s like the world is challenging me to tip toe over the thick red boundary, to see the signs and ignore the warnings. To step over “the line”.

Within our family we’re pretty good at keeping each other in check. A slip of the tongue and down the phone you’ll hear me dryly saying “line! Line!” As if I’m  voicing a submarine siren or hitting a desk buzzer. I used to mimic the action, that was until people in public places started expressing concern that I was having a some kind of seizure.

“Line! Line! Line!”

Outside of family there’s no such restriction on what I say. Now obviously I never say anything offensive or plain stupid, I’m not Donald Trump, but that doesn’t stop me saying things that are a bit kooky and classically Alice. A throwaway comment that develops into a very strange trail of thought, carrying on and on until I look up and realise that, at best, no one is listening or, at worst, I get “a look” which says it all; “must remove from LinkedIn.”

Only recently have I discovered that I’m not alone in evoking stupid thoughts. Someone at work is equally resilient to being unable to locate the line. At first I thought “oh my God, another one exists! Yay!” now I’m thinking “oh my God, how does this end? Will the world implode if we share one pun too many?”

I’ll spare you the full detailed story that has developed between us because honestly it’s pretty weird (I know, even by my standards). This fictional life started with an innocent accidental wave on Facebook – 30 minutes later and it had become all kinds of Mighty Boosh.

To make matters worse, the colourful (and ongoing) contents were inadvertently brought from the safe confines of social media and into the office today. You can only imagine the looks (or non-looks) the pair of us were getting. I may have discovered the older, more ‘out there’ version of me, but I’m also discovering why “you can never have too much of a bad thing” isn’t a common saying amongst sensible people. The banter is wonderful, but the confused looks and hole-digging explanations? Hmm, that’s harder to put up with on a day-to-day.

Where is my conversation controller, my stupid stopper, my tame talker? Where is my internal, one word, monologue when I need it the most?

“Line! Line! Line!”

 

Written in response to the WordPress prompt Evoke

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.