Uncertainty

People who feel certain about things worry me. So much of life is unpredictable and out of our control that certainty can seem an act of folly.

It is often said that the difference between people who are brave and those who are not is that they are both afraid but brave people do what they have to do anyway.

People who are uncertain, who are unsure, tend to be derided. But people who aren’t sure can still take action. Not only that but they can be flexible enough to respond to whatever happens next.

There is a lot of certainty on offer on the internet. Maybe we need more uncertainty?

Choosing our words carefully.

The words that we choose to describe each other have huge impact. They become a shorthand all to quickly and bake in assumptions, often before we have really considered situations.

Whether it is the words the media choose to describe the various examples of human suffering that they invariably focus on, or even the words we use ourselves to describe each other at work or in our families, our words shape our reality.

With social tools we get to write those words in a way that is stored forever, and in public. Our words pass with lightening speed into the brains of those we are connected to and have an influence whether we like it or not.

We should exercise the care of poets in choosing those words.

Repeated small acts of disobedience

It’s all very well knowing that how we currently work is broken. We can see how things could be better. But how do we start?

Usually we are not in a position to instigate wholesale change. We don’t have the authority or budget. Those above us, and who measure our performance, are stuck in the old way of doing things and have stopped listening to our attempts to paint an enticing picture of a different future. What to do?

Maybe that should be “What to don’t?”? Maybe we have to start saying no more often? Maybe we have to begin to exercise a degree of artistic interpretation of what we are asked to do? Maybe we have to act dumb and slow down things that maintain the status quo and put more energy into things that will bring about change?

Maybe we need to get used to asking for forgiveness rather than permission? Maybe we need to be careful while we are doing so?!

Lipstick, Pigs, and Dinosaurs

In more and more organisations senior management realise that fundamental challenges to the status quo are emerging and they know they need to do something about it. The knee jerk reaction is to have an initiative, some sort of change programme: “drive employee engagement”; “develop our people’s leadership potential”; “encourage creativity”.

Those further down the chain are put in charge of these initiatives and get busy doing what you do to run an initiative. But the challenge is that all too often they themselves are the very group who have been previously charged with creating the organisational norms and culture that are the source of the problem that the organisation is now having to deal with!

All too often the result is half hearted at best, disingenuous at worst. In fact the phrase “lipstick on a pig” has become common parlance for the superficial attempts at change that are all too often the result. Pockets of change may be achieved but the prevailing organisational culture reasserts itself.

I am increasingly asked to help with this challenge. Keynotes on working in a digital world, involvement in leadership programmes at business schools, workshops for large institutions trying to adapt. Sometimes it feels like I am spending my career attempting to resuscitate dinosaurs and I wonder if it might be kinder to shoot them and move on. But the sorts of institutions I mostly work with aren’t going away tomorrow. There are no viable alternatives. They have to find a way to deal with this.

I am more and more convinced that all change happens at an individual level - and for their reasons not yours. Superficial initiatives insult our collective intelligence and fool no one. You have to find a way to instigate profound personal shifts in world view. It is an existential challenge for most and we are just scratching the surface.

Much work to be done!

Real Jobs

A short holiday in the south west got me thinking about work.

I watched a farmer using an amazing device attached to his tractor to wrap hay bales in black plastic and wondered what Tess Of The D’Urbervilles would make of it. In the scene where she is frantically trying to keep up with a state of the art steam threshing machine Hardy is railing against the inhumanity of the onward march of industrialisation and technology. Before those machines it took dozens of people to do the same work.

The beautiful lanes and villages I was enjoying would previously been filled with locals who had lived in and worked on the land for centuries before the arrival of technology. Those lanes are now filled with people in cars returning to the countryside from their office jobs in cities, trying to recover some of the connection with the land and the landscape that they have lost.

The ongoing march of technology that so worried Hardy continues at an ever increasing pace. The automation of those very same car driving, white collar, knowledge workerS' jobs is currently looming on the horizon.

Should we be feeling the same concern as Hardy? Will this automation lead to fewer and fewer people being in what we currently think of as “real jobs”? Or will we find new ways to add value to each other, whole new industries that we haven’t yet begun to imagine?

It really does feel as if it could go either way at the moment.

Discretion

I write all the time about the benefits of sharing our thoughts and insights with each other. Thinking harder, writing better, and sharing more is my mantra. But there are many times when the stories we want to share involve other people and it is not always easy to decide if and how to share those stories.

Having spent the weekend with my parents there are lots of potential topics swirling around my head. They involve both the good and the bad of family relationships and what those have to teach us about ourselves and our ways of dealing with the world. In some respects these are the very topics that potentially offer the greatest learning, both for ourselves and for others.

But these topics touch on other people’s feelings and identities and to share them would have an impact on our relationships. It would also be a one sided perspective on situations with little opportunity for rebuttal.

The same is true of working with clients. There are many, many times that I am presented with situations which I am dying to blog about that would reveal really important stuff about the workplace. But I decide not to. It feels “unfair”, breaking an implicit trust, being indiscrete to my advantage and their disadvantage.

This is one of the hardest challenges of blogging and one about which there are no easy answers. We all have to work out where our own lines are drawn and when to be brave and when to be discrete.

Growing up

We currently face massive disruption with our institutions creaking at the seams, technology racing ahead of our ability to adapt, climate change and rebalancing geopolitics looming threateningly on the horizon. We need to get better at working things out faster and working together to rise to these challenges.

The internet gives us the potential to do this. To learn to think harder, to become more discerning, to share more effectively. It all starts with the next blog post, the next Facebook update, the next tweet.

The first chapter in my book is called “We all need to grow up”. We need to start…

Sunlight is the best disinfectant

I have just been listening to a Longform podcast interview with Noreen Malone who wrote the New York Times cover story about women raped by Bill Cosby. She talks about how some of the women had been ignored when they tried to tell their stories previously and what a large part social media played in the surfacing of the stories now.

We are seeing this power exercised more and more. Sure there is a risk of vigilantism and mob rule, but if we all exercise our judgement and "volume control" on which stories to amplify and which to turn down, we have at our disposal a powerful tool for good.

We will also start to manifest this power inside our organisations and learn to control their worst excesses and abuses.

I don't think management really understand this yet.

Staying with discomfort

Institutions, corporations, and the old order generally, are struggling to keep up with the levels of disruption and change that we are seeing. Old stories no longer makes sense and we are groping forwards for new ways to understand and manage our world.

There is much theorising being done about “the future of work”, or “new society”. But there is a real risk of leaping too soon for the comfort of a new “solution”. A formula that appears to take the pain away, that seems to explain everything.

My sense is that we have too much to learn to be doing that so soon. We need to peel away more layers, pick at more sores, dig deeper into why things don’t feel right. We have had decades of the capitalist, corporatist, "buy stuff till you die" story and we now have the opportunity to collectively work out a new, more inspiring one.

This is a much bigger opportunity than many realise and will take longer than we expect. Staying interested in why things feel wrong, why they fall apart, what our role in all of this is, is a once in several generations opportunity. We should make the most of it.

Most people

“Most people don’t…”
“Most people are…”
“Most people like…”
“Most people feel…”
“Most people think…”

It is so easy to preface our statements with “Most people”. It feels as if it gives what we say additional authority, as if we are sharing an incontrovertible truth. But we’re not. We’re just sharing our opinion and often simply projecting aspects of our own character.

Most people don’t think of themselves as most people!

Busywork rots the soul

So much of what takes up people’s time at work is pointless.

Meetings that are in the diary that no one can remember their purpose and that rarely agree anything; forty page reports that you are asked to rewrite or reformat a dozen times and that you know no one is going to read; pitches for work that inflate everything so that both purchaser and supplier can look more important but that are really only an indication of an intent to work together; project plans and strategies that bear little relation to how things turn out and join the large pile of their predecessors gathering dust on a shelf.

You know this and I know this, the people around us know this, but no one wants to admit it. No one wants to confess how out of control it all is, how nervous they are of stopping moving long enough to realise that they have forgotten what the point is (if they ever knew it).

Whole careers get wasted like this. This seems sad.

We can avoid this soul destroying nightmare if we break ranks, if we find the courage to be the first to ask that scary, and apparently dumb, question: “Why are we doing this?”. Follow it up with: “Do we need to do this?” Keep asking these questions and maybe others will break ranks and join you.

Maybe some, just some, of the madness will stop.

Negativity

I wrote a post this morning that had a go at faux busyness in the workplace but decided not to post it. It was a grumpy post, written for the wrong reasons.

It’s too easy to focus on the bad things in life, the news does it, we all do it, it seems to be part of human nature. It’s also wrong to bury our heads in the sand and pretend that things are OK when they are not. But just finding fault without offering possibility for change or insight doesn’t help.

We should try not to.

The enormity of it all

By the nature of my work I spend a lot of time with people who are trying to change the world around them, upsetting the status quo, encouraging people out of their comfort zones and into new ways of working. This is often unrecognised, long term, and challenging work that calls for endless energy, personal commitment, and a belief in worthwhile outcomes.

Sometimes people get ground down by the enormity of it all. They feel like Sisyphus, endlessly pushing that stone up the hill only to have it roll down again; a lone voice facing armies of at worst dissenters, at best the disinterested.

Helping keep their confidence and energy up is part of my role; reminding them that they are not alone, that others around the world are taking on similar challenges. Reinforcing the idea that what matters is taking the next concrete step, no matter how small, and doing that again and again - potentially for a very long time.

The trick is to focus on and enjoy the process rather than obsessing about the outcome. Remembering this is the hard bit!

Fear of disapproval

We all face it. From an early age the disapproval of our parents and teachers was something that most of us learned to avoid. This feeling of not being good enough carries on into the workplace where we are monitored, measured, compared. Even if we have become successful, have reached senior positions, gloried under impressive job titles, the existential terror of being found wanting lurks under the surface.

On the face of it we may appear confident but our decisions are really being driven by concern about what other people might think. We don’t say what to us seems obvious in case we contradict. We keep our world changing ideas to ourselves in case they are laughed at.

In the online world this fear is even greater. We are expressing ourselves in writing, potentially in front of large numbers of people most of whom we don’t know, in a medium that can last forever.

It’s little wonder we are terrified.

But we need to overcome our fear. We need to learn to assert ourselves, risk disapproval, deal with it when it happens. We need to because if we don’t we will always wonder what might have been. We will have let ourselves down. We will have let those around us down.

Being brave

We live in a time of massive change and instability. Many of us sense the uniqueness of the opportunities this presents us as individuals and collectively.

But we are daunted too. In many cases we are trying to shrug of lifetimes of conditioning and habit.

In the "real" world of work most of us are afraid, most of the time. We comply, compromise, concede. We know we "should" be brave and then we beat ourselves up about being too scared.

We need to be gentler with ourselves, and each other, as we take the small steps that are the only way we will be able to deal with the enormity of our challenge.

Change

Years ago I wrote that "Social media adoption happens one person at a time and for their reasons not yours". As time passes I am more and more convinced that this is ultimately how any change happens.

For all the change initiatives that keep people busy at work, the strategising, the PowerPoints, the endless meetings, nothing happens until one person has a conversation with another and the other person thinks "Right, I'm having some of that!"

We use slightly disparaging words such as viral for this kind of change, as if it was somehow under the radar, unofficial, risky. But it isn't it how all change really happens? Isn't everything else just a displacement activity helping us avoid facing the fact that we feel uneasy about having those real conversations because we ourselves haven't bought into the change that we are so busily proposing?

Isn't real change something we do for and with each other rather than something we do TO others? How could we get better at that? How could we all make it more likely to happen?

It's the little things

It fascinates me how organisations don't disappear under the weight of their own administravia. Getting even the simplest thing done becomes a challenge that can soak up valuable time and energy. As a freelancer I have a lot of control over my own processes but if you are stuck in a large organisation it can become a nightmare.

Bureaucracy is a necessary part of all of our lives but sometimes it runs rampant and out of control, becoming an end in itself. We need to exercise constant vigilance to keep it in check: to get as good as we can at designing the form that we expect others to spend time filling in; to constantly ask if we really, really need the form in the first place; to have the courage to say no to processes and practices that we feel add no value.

The world doesn't end if we say no to bureaucracy. Try it today!

Reality

Presenteeism came up in conversation over the weekend and I was expressing frustration that it was still so common. "But that is what real work is like" was the rejoinder,"anything else is just philosophy".

How did we end up with this fixed sense of reality? Isn't it all just stories about how things should be?

We must always ask who started those stories and why. We must always remember that we can choose our own stories. We can always imagine new ones.

If we don't have control over our stories we have lost control of our lives.

Stan The Man

The stunning poem In the video below by Tom French (recited by Andrew Rowen) brought back memories. I knew men like Billy and Tadgh, or their Hebridean equivalents.

Those memories prompted this novice poem.

Stan The Man

Clattering down Byres Lane late
His seg'd brogues sparking on the cobbles.
Hands in dungaree pockets
Leather elbowed tweed flapping like wings
'Til he swaggered to a stop.
To stand shaking
Drink sweating from his flanks
Like a bull shocked to be in the ring

Ready to drive the truck.

Pity The Bastards (For Billy & Tadgh) from Andrew Rowen on Vimeo.

Balancing acts

Between:

Technological progress and stable society.
The drive to succeed and the need to support.
Standing out and fitting in.
Striving for excellence and being good enough.
Being a seeker and finding peace.

Endless.