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11
A Need to Remember

A Need to Remember

I wrote this piece several years ago; I hadn’t thought about it for some time, but the recent loss of two Canadian soldiers in Ottawa and in Saint-Jean-Sur-Richelieu changed that.

Today is Remembrance Day.  The eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month.  Please take two short minutes out of your day to remember and to offer a silent thank you to all who were willing to take up arms in the service of Canada.

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It’s low tide, and I have trekked out about 200 metres from the shore. It’s about as far as I can go without getting wet, and as I have no desire to make the drive back to Paris with some of the English Channel sloshing around in my shoes, I decide to stop where I am and take a moment to survey the surroundings.

A bright sun is shining down on Normandy today; there is a cool breeze, but you can see the heat shimmering off the sand dunes that line the shore. The air carries with it the tang of the sea, and I stand quietly, knowing full well that I am on sacred ground, and at the same time not quite sure of my worthiness to be here. I have waited years to come to this place, and despite my efforts at stoicism I feel the waves of emotion and history crash over me.

I am standing on Juno Beach.

For reasons that I don’t completely understand, I have always felt the need to come here and see the beach with my own eyes. I suppose part of it is personal, as both my parents were veterans of WWII, although neither served here. Another aspect is probably simple Canadian patriotism. Regardless of the reasons, a trip to France has given my family and me the opportunity experience Juno Beach.

Standing here, I am horribly conflicted. War is hell; I have never believed anything else. Yet it’s hard to come to this place, understand what was accomplished here and not feel some degree of pride.

Out on the tidal flat, I am standing where the soldiers of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles started disembarking from their landing craft. The small town of Courseulles-sur-Mer is just off to the east, nestled behind the river Seulles. To the west is a small sailing school, but no one is sailing today – despite the sunshine and the breeze the beach is relatively deserted. I try to imagine the sights that greeted these young men as they emerged from their landing craft – barbed wire, mines and obstacles strewn across the beach; smoke from the bombardment clinging to the shoreline; bright orange flashes from pillboxes and gun emplacements embedded in amongst the dunes; the thunder of the shells exploding on the beach; landing craft burning; the whine of bullets. And bodies of course; carnage and death everywhere.

A scene such as this is completely beyond my comprehension. It is so far removed from any reality that I have known that I can only stand in stunned silence and try to absorb the enormity of what happened here, of what these men accomplished and of what it cost.

I feel very exposed this far out from the shore, almost like a target in a shooting gallery. It makes me want to hurry back, but my daughter feels no such compulsion. Living in Toronto we don’t often see the ocean, and this is a treat that can’t be passed up. We take our time – she explores for seashells while I collect some sand. We can linger on the beach as we have the luxury of time, something that the young men from Winnipeg did not have. The gulls screech over our heads as we follow an erratic path back to the shore.

It was shells that were screeching overhead on D-Day. I have spoken to a soldier who was here on that day, who left his landing craft with ten men and reached the beach with only two. I still try to do the math, but I can’t. How does one make sense of an equation such as that?

I have tried to explain to my son and daughter what happened on Juno Beach, but it’s difficult to reconcile the horrors of 1944 with the beauty and serenity of today.  Men fought and died here. On top of the shattered remains of a gun emplacement we look across the beach, and I ask them try to imagine what it have been like to be on the beach that day.  To me it looks like a killing field – I know that these gun emplacements where virtually untouched by the naval bombardment and that they were ready and waiting for the Royal Winnipeg Rifles when they landed.  I visualize the overlapping fields of fire from these guns, and wonder how anyone made it off the beach alive that day.

We leave the beach and spend a couple of hours exploring the Juno Beach Centre. My daughter wants to hear the stories of the participants and is determined to investigate every audio/video presentation in the Centre. My wife, a teacher, is as interested in how the information is presented as much as the information itself. My son is most interested in the weapons that are displayed, as I would have been at his age, but there is surprisingly few of them.  As for me, I am not disappointed.  The information in the Centre is both accurate and realistic, it makes me proud to be a Canadian and even prouder of the men who fought here.

We finish our tour of the Centre, and head back to our car, but before we make our way back to Paris there is one more place we need to visit. It’s just a short drive from the beach.

In a few short minutes we are standing next to an oasis of greenery in the midst of a farmer’s fields on small hill overlooking the town and the beach. Hedges and large trees line its perimeter, providing shade and acting as a buffer against the outside world.  Standing out above the trees is a large Canadian flag, and beneath the flag are the graves of more than 2,000 Canadians.

The wind is rustling the leaves of the trees at Benys-sur-Mer; birds are singing as we wander about. Every now and then I catch the fragrance of the many roses growing around the graves. It is a serene and peaceful place, the tranquility belying the violent end faced by these men. The inscriptions on the gravestones brings the human cost of war into focus with painful clarity, none more so than this – “remembrance is the better part of love … sadly missed by wife and infant son”. The soldier was just 24 years old. I look at my son, not all that far away from that age, and I shiver.

The beauty of the cemetery is a surprise, but as I walk around I can’t shake the feeling of melancholy that has come over me. This is a place so beautiful, but yet so sad. They were all so young. They were sons of farmers, sons of miners, sons of bankers. Sons of mothers; and they’ve been gone over 70 years. The stone of remembrance at the entrance to the cemetery carries a simple inscription – “Their Name Liveth For Evermore”.  I can’t help but feel that as the memory of WWII fades that their names, and their sacrifice, will also fade.

We place our own flags in front of the stone, the red of the maple leaf in stark contrast to the brilliant white of the memorial.benyssurmer01

Then it suddenly it strikes me precisely why I needed to come. It is the simple need to bear witness to what happened here and to make sure it is not forgotten. What happened on Juno Beach all those years ago mattered then and it still matters today. I need to let my children see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears what happened here so that they can better appreciate the sacrifice that was made.  They need to remember this place; Juno Beach needs to be more than a fact in a textbook; it needs to be a truth they can hold in their hearts.

Canadians owe a debt to the men who rest in the cemetery at Benys-Sur-Mer, as well as all the other men and women who fought in WWII and in other conflicts. It is a debt that can never be repaid, but it is a debt that needs to be acknowledged. Perhaps the best acknowledgement is simple remembrance.

As we walk back to our car, I look out past the cemetery and the town and see the English Channel. It shimmers in the sunlight, a brilliant band of blue separating the shore and the horizon. I close my eyes and try to burn the image of this place into my memory. Tomorrow my family and I will cross the Channel to England to finish our vacation.  The likelihood that we will ever return this way is slim.

But we will always remember.

photo credit: Owen Benson Visuals via photopin cc

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20
What’s in a Name?

What’s in a Name?

The first question I’m usually asked is about the name of my business.  It normally goes something like this: “Spitfire Innovations?  Where did that name come from?”

I normally answer that my son suggested the name and everyone in the family liked it, so it stuck.

And that’s true, but the complete answer is a bit more complex; it’s a two-part answer.

Supermarine Spitfire IXE aircraft of No. 412 (Falcon) Squadron, RCAF, preparing for takeoff in Holland, 22 March 1945

Supermarine Spitfire IXE aircraft of No. 412 (Falcon) Squadron, RCAF, preparing for takeoff in Holland, 22 March 1945

When I was younger I dreamed about flying, and in my dreams the plane I flew was the Spitfire. My parents both served oversees with the Canadian Forces in WWII and I suppose part of their experience resonated within me. Back in the late 1970s (!) when I learned to fly and I was puttering around in Cessna 150s and 172s, somewhere in the back of my mind I was pretending I was in a Spitfire.  (It didn’t help that one of my flight instructors, Marion Orr, was a Spitfire ferry pilot during WWII.  You can read her story here.)  Even when my direction changed and I started down the information technology path the Spitfire stayed with me; a picture of a Spitfire MkV graced the wall of my first cubicle. But while the Spitfire has a place in my heart, what it really represents is what I hope to achieve with this company.

The Spitfire was the most significant airplane produced by Britain during the WWII, and arguably one of the most significant ever. As a piece of technology it had a remarkable lifespan, from its first test flight in 1936 to finally being retired from operational service (from the Syrian Air Force) in 1953. But it was not only long-lived, it was flexible, with over 24 major operational versions being produced as well as countless smaller variations. The fundamental robustness of design of the airframe, particularly its distinctive elliptical wing allowed the design of Spitfire to evolve and improve during the war. Problems were encountered and problems were fixed. Everything about the plane changed; the engine, the armament, even the materials used to construct it.  And as the plane evolved its characteristics changed and its capabilities changed. This flexibility allowed the plane to be used in numerous roles, from a single seat fighter (made famous by its role in the Battle of Britain), to reconnaissance, to ground support as a fighter bomber. Spitfires even flew off aircraft carriers.

The Spitfire epitomizes what I believe is the essence of good design and innovation; a design that can evolve and extend far beyond what was it intended to be and become something better.

This is what Spitfire Innovations will do for its clients – to build a solid foundation that can be scaled, extended and leveraged far into the future. To maximize the investment by delivering value not just for months, but for years and years. By building into the design capability for change.  To exceed expectations.  To go above and beyond.

Wish me luck.

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18
Why a Blog?

Why a Blog?

Why not?

After well over 30 years working in information technology within the financial services sector I have at last decided to strike out on my own. This seems to be a trend among my friends and colleagues who are of the same vintage as me; many have chosen a similar path (or have had that path chosen for them).  My former company and I had some serious philosophical differences over the last few years. It became pretty clear that they weren’t going to change their direction, leaving me the choice of holding my nose and remaining with the company, or striking out on my own (and being able to breathe).

I chose breathing (and I thank my family and friends for helping me through that process – it was harder than it looked).

My intention is to use this blog to provide you, the readers, with the opportunity to think about things a bit differently. And by ‘things’ I really mean ‘how you plan, design and operate your business’. And how you manage change. Where it gets complicated is that many of opportunities that I see are behavioral in nature; sometimes changing your business will mean personal change – changing how you think and how you act.

And change is hard.

I know change is hard because at my former employer I was a part of no less than three major strategic transformational initiatives, as well as a host of acquisitions, divestitures, reorganizations, outsourcing efforts and the like. And in looking back at all that change and how successful (or unsuccessful) those change initiatives were, I can only conclude that, in virtually every case, we could have done better.  Much better in some cases. And some cases the change had no business happening at all.

Virtually all of my learning has been of the ‘hands-on’ type; over the years I have gained considerable amount of experience in managing change and I believe that my judgment is sound.

Here’s a brief account on how one gains judgment –– it dates back to the 17th century and it’s probably apocryphal in nature but it’s a good story nonetheless.

A student sought out Mullah Nasruddin for years, hoping to find guidance from him. He finally found the Mullah in the marketplace sitting atop a pile of banana peels – no one knows why.

“Oh great sage, Nasruddin,” said the student. “I must ask you an important question, whose answer we all seek: What is the secret to attaining happiness?”

Mullah Nasrudin pondered for a time and finally replied, “Good judgment.”

“Ah,” said the student. “But how do we attain good judgment?”

“From experience,” answered Nasruddin.

“Yes,” said the student. “But how do we get experience?”

“Bad judgment.”

(As recounted in THE BEGGAR KING AND THE SECRET OF HAPPINESS by Joel ben Izzy, Algonquin Books, 2003).

I am more or less self-taught. I don’t have a doctorate. Nor do I have an MBA. I am not an academic theorizing.  What I am is both an observer and a practitioner. I’m pragmatic. I’m a bit of a contrarian. I like experimentation. I’m realistic. And I remain absolutely convinced that every organization can implement change that will provide lasting value to the owners, the employees and to the customers. I am also convinced that every organization can improve the process by which they implement change.

How can you improve your business without breaking the bank, without losing your ability to operate effectively and without losing your sanity? And without losing your integrity? These are the questions that my blog will hope to answer.

The primary focus of this blog will be people, process and technology, in that order. I will do my best to stay on topic, but sometimes I may go off on a tangent and there may be the odd time where current events get in the way. I beg for your indulgence in advance; I promise I will do my best to keep these walkabouts to a minimum.

Let me give you my solemn pledge about a couple of things:

  • Your personal information is safe.  I take privacy, confidentiality and security very seriously.  Your contact information will *never* be sold, given away or otherwise distributed.
  • You will never see ads displayed on this site. Ads are crass, and I don’t want it to appear that I am endorsing any of the products or services.
  • I commit to promptly replying to everyone who either comments or sends me a private communication.

My intent is to publish twice a week, probably Mondays and Thursdays. I expect each entry to be between 500 and 1000 words. (I know that you aren’t really too concerned about my publishing schedule or the number of words, but I am, and I need to see it written down to make it real).  And I will make it worth your while to read them. Your time is valuable – it’s a non-renewable resource – I have no desire to waste it.

I hope that you will comment on my entries. It will help me gauge interest in specific topics and inform me where I should probably go into more detail (or conversely, where I should just move on!).  A dialogue is much better than a dissertation and I invite everyone to agree or disagree and to add their own perspective to the conversation.

Ideas are grand, but magic only happens when those ideas are transformed into action. I hope that there are some success stories that can be shared – case studies on successful implementations of change. And I hope that we can have a bit of fun with this.  Fun is something that has been absent from my work life for some time now and it’s high time for a return engagement.

I have a few goals for the blog.  I’d like to see it grow into a community of individuals who are willing to listen to each other, take what they have learned and then apply it.

I am looking at this as an incredible opportunity to share, and to learn, and to grow.  For me, and for us.

Back in 1988, at a UN conference aimed at saving the rainforest, Jerry Garcia (of Grateful Dead fame) said this: Somebody has to do something, and it’s just incredibly pathetic that it has to be us.

I’d like to paraphrase a bit: Somebody has to do something, and it’s just incredibly exciting that it gets to be us.

Welcome to the Spitfire Innovations blog – dedicated to promoting an intelligent approach to planning and implementing change in your business (and maybe in yourself too).

Update Monday April 14th: Now that I have been blogging for a month I’ve come to the conclusion that producing 2 quality posts per week is akin to a full-time job.  I’ve decided that one post a week is going to have to suffice.

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