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.

The voices in our heads - at work.

On Monday I wrote about the pressure we all face from cultural conditioning to conform, to react a certain way to life's challenges, and how difficult it can be to break away from that.

This pressure is even greater at work where, for all the talk of innovation and transformation, the norms are even more rigidly adhered to. Not fitting in carries with it an even greater risk of disapproval, disadvantage, or ultimately dismissal.

But as we head into an era of increased automation of the white collar, knowledge work, jobs that so many of those reading this post do, the need to break free from constraints and add value is only going to increase.

If we are not prepared to listen to the quiet differentiating voice in our head, develop insights, risk standing out by communicating them, and make a real difference, then why are we there?

The voices in our heads

Well, maybe I am assuming too much here. Maybe you don't have a voice in your head. I'm pretty bloody sure you don't have the same one as I do! That voice that adds commentary to everything. "This will never work." "You'll look like a fool." "What if they think your a waste of space?"

A small event or even thought happens and you spin off into endless wittering in your own head. Thing is, what happens if you eventually manage to shut it up? What is left?

I remember being frustrated as a youngster that my head was full of ways I "should" kiss a girl for the first time. Should I kiss her like Clint Eastwood would, or Woody Allen?

In his wonderful book [Mediated][1] Thomas de Zengotita explores how hard it is to identify and strip away conditioning, to free yourself from cultural and media brainwashing and to work out what you really think.

But what if there's nothing in there? What if it's just a big black hole? Is it a peaceful hole or a terrifying hole? Is it the horror that Kurtz faced in Heart Of Darkness, or the peace of the Buddha.

Maybe we get to choose?

[1}: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Mediated-Media-Shape-World-Around/dp/0747570868/ref=nosim?tag=euansempleswe-21

Different Lives

I throughly enjoyed a concert given in St John's Smith Square last night by my very good friend David Riddell. It featured a combination of well known classical pieces and more modern works performed by The Danish Sinfonietta.

The first piece was Mozart's Clarinet Quintet which I used to play nearly forty years ago when I first met David. In those days I took my clarinet playing seriously enough to have considered a career as a professional orchestral player. It was all I could do not to sing along with the piece last night as it was so familiar and brought back the hours of focussed practice it took to get to that standard.

And yet I never get my clarinet out of its case these days. Even my sax sits unused in a corner of my office.

Looking back over the years it is interesting to observe my passions for music, fast motor bikes, and I suppose even the BBC, and how they have been all consuming at the time.

Wonder what will follow my current obsessions with the web, and hill walking and mountaineering?

Blogging and the Buddha

I have been reading about, and occasionally putting into practice, the principles of Buddhism for more than twenty years now. I first became interested when I got my first "proper" line management role at the BBC. I had had various supervisor roles while still operational in radio, but this was the first time that I truly felt the burden of expectations both from "my seniors" and also from "my staff".

There are lots of air quotes in that sentence because even now the terminology raises issues for me. The idea of superiority implied in the hierarchy made me particularly uneasy. Half of the people I was managing were old enough to be my dad, had been editing since before I was born, and knew more about their craft than I would ever know. They had just had a lot of their friends made redundant with more cutbacks on the way. There were a number of ongoing industrial tribunals involving my group and a lot of understandable anti-management feeling. Suffice it to say I was feeling severely out of my depth.

I started to read management and personal development books in an attempt to find ways to cope. Trying to learn more about what I was meant to be doing and how I could get better at doing it. Sure I went on courses which helped at a superficial level but none of them really got at the deep existential angst I felt about my role, responsibilities, and fundamentally my place in the world.

One of the books I read was John Kabatt-Zinn's Full Catastrophe Living. Dr. Zinn has been applying the principles of Buddhism in healthcare in the US for decades and is really good at stripping away the religiosity of traditional Buddhism and expressing its philosophy and application in ways that make sense in the modern, western, world. I started to apply his teaching and meditating as regularly as I could. I am not going to try to explain meditation, the reasons for doing it, or what my expectations were but I remember one particular session in a hotel room in Hong Kong where something clicked and my level of self awareness took a momentary leap forwards. That has kept me coming back to the practice since.

At around the same time as this interest in Buddhism and meditation was beginning I was also getting into blogging. Although blogging had been going about a year when I started I was still part of a very small group of early bloggers working out what it was and what we could do with it. One of the writers of The Cluetrain Manifesto, David Weinberger, called it "writing ourselves into existence" and this has always stuck with me over the fourteen years that I have been doing it.

In order to blog you have to become more aware. Aware of yourself, your surroundings, and your impact on them. You think about what you have noticed and what it means. You then write about this, refining your thoughts, putting them into words, shaping them. You then publish these words on your blog which hopefully reaches into the minds of your readers in a very direct and immediate way. It feels like a more intimate connection than say writing an article or a book. It's like synapses firing outside your skull as well as inside it, extending your neural network to the rest of humanity.

Most recently I have started reading the wonderful books by American Buddhist Nun and writer Pema Chödrön. She explains Buddhist philosophy in wonderfully clear and understandable terms. She relates it to the strains and stresses we feel in modern life and gives really thoughtful applications of Buddhist thought to alleviating these challenges. Buddha didn't expect to be starting a religion. He was working out the nature of human existence and ways of reducing the suffering and distress we create for ourselves. This starts with awareness. Meditation practice that teaches you to be aware of your thoughts. To identify them as thoughts that come and go, and to realise that you are separate from your thoughts. This feels very similar to the process of blogging. Identifying something as an issue, a thought, a thread, that you want to address. Turning it and twisting it in your mind and then placing it outside yourself in writing. This has always felt very therapeutic. Identifying, articulating, refining the thoughts rattling through my brain.

But it can also feel very narcissistic. What difference does it make to our fellow man. This is where the idea of Tonglen comes in. This is the Buddhist practice of examining thoughts about challenges and stresses affecting you, those close to you, or ultimately anyone else suffering in the world. You might well ask what difference this is going to make in a world full of wars, disease and suffering? But these blights on our existence have to start somewhere. Apart from natural disasters we bring most of our suffering on ourselves. We do this one by one, consistently and inexorably. We identify others as the source of our distress or the perpetrators of our suffering and defend ourselves or attack them. And they will be doing the same to us! This projection of blame outside ourselves is a large part of what perpetrates our suffering. We have to understand and take responsibility for our impact on ourselves and the world around us. We have to get better at remaining detached from our suffering and helping others to do the same.

This is where blogging and the internet come back in. Being able to publish our thoughts instantly in a way that can be taken in, digested, and reshared by others is Tonglen in practice. It is our chance to understand things more and achieve a degree of detachment from our shared problems. We can carry out this approach in public, model behaviours, show the way, and make small ripples in the consciousness of our fellow humans.

There is no other way to bring about change. There is no "them" who are to blame and going to sort things. There is only us and that is where we have to start. With us. One at a time.

A doctrine of small steps

"Since death alone is certain, and the time of death uncertain, what should I do? - Stephen Batchelor

It is so easy to go numb in the face of our individual and collective challenges, to indulge in philosophising or theorising as displacement activities. To delegate the problem to others, our parents, our spouse, our manager, consultants or even a god.

But what small step can we take now? What thought or idea can we share with those around us? What tweet, update or blog post, no matter how trivial or apparently inconsequential, might make the greatest difference to those around us if we only dare to express it?

Starting again

I have just finished reading The Power of Meditation by Sharon Salzberg. One of the most interesting ideas in it was that meditation practice is not so much about achieving perfect tranquility or concentration but is teaching you to begin again. Each time your thoughts drift away from your breath you simply begin again and don't beat yourself up about losing focus.

It occurs to me this Monday morning that this applies to so much of life, work, relationships and health. We set off on all sorts of endeavours with good intentions but often we falter, things go wrong, plans get sidetracked and we give ourselves a hard time about being failures.

Learning to calmly think "Oh well" and pick yourself up and start again, over and over and over, seems like a worthwhile skill to develop.

Trust and institutions

I am increasingly being asked to do keynotes and workshops on the broader impact of digital on the workplace. This allows me to talk about more than just "social media" and get deeper into the sort of stuff I blog about these days.

How we work together, what sort of behaviours and attitudes are effective, how we cope with the huge changes coming our way both individually and collectively are the sorts of things that fascinate me. I am also able to draw on my ten years running the BBC's Digilab and the "nose" I developed for what is worthwhile in terms of technology and what is a waste of time and effort.

This coming together of people and technology is not new. Having spent time over the past week walking in Wales and The Peak District I have been amongst relics of Britain's industrial revolution. I've been thinking a lot about how the workforce was treated during this amazing period of growth, how this led to the rise of the unions, and how those ways of organising ourselves seem increasingly outdated.

But how do we exercise influence over our working lives? How will we keep those running our businesses accountable? What sort of institutions will we see emerge in the future and how will they gain our trust? What are the prospects of using technologies like the blockchain to work this out amongst ourselves in truly distributed ways more suited to our increasingly connected lifestyles?

Lots of big questions and fun to get to increasingly spend time with smart people trying to answer them!

A shoulder to cry on

A lot of my time is spent listening to people sharing their challenges and frustrations. Lone voices in their organisations, who can see a better way of doing things, they get ground down by resistance and inertia. Knowing that others feel the same, and that people around the world share their vision of what is possible can be very sustaining.

Just having someone listen helps. I can see them clarifying their thinking or stiffening their resolve simply through the process of articulating their thoughts and sharing them with someone who understands.

We don't often need people to fix things for us, we just need someone to help us work out what to do and find the motivation to do it. This is why a coaching or mentoring relationship is so powerful. Not the dependency model of old style consulting where you would pay others to come up with solutions and deliver them for you, but a way of building your own skills and insights and becoming better at using these to make a difference.

Eating Elephants

Clearly we are facing some pretty significant changes in our worlds of work. Partly driven by technology, partly by changes in society.

But there is often an unfortunate revolutionary zeal about change. Out with the old in with the new. Get with the programme or get out of the way.

There is also a lot of theorising done about new ways of organising ourselves with firms like Zappos hailed as visions of the future.

Much of this serves to put people off, intimidating them and building resistance.

In contrast I am seeing more and more real change happening in client firms and it is happening incrementally, one person at a time. It is happening because things are being done differently rather than talked about. Problems are being solved and opportunities grasped. Deeper changes are happening as the consequences of these actions start to bite and people have to work out what to do about them.

The end point is going to be no less significant than the revolutionaries predict but how we get there will be gentler and more incremental.