Just what I wanted

Today, as I sat in a large city office in London, with its glass and steel and modern furniture, discussing possible work in Hong Kong, I had to keep pinching myself as the couple of days before I had been driving a truck up and down the M1, staying overnight in a Premier Inn, and delivering in and around the Leeds and Bradford areas.

I'm loving the fact that my two worlds of work are so very, very different!

Magical thinking

One of my first jobs at the BBC was scheduling the use of video and film equipment. We had A3 planning sheets, coloured pencils, a ruler, and an eraser. Resources were arranged vertically down the side and time slots horizontally across the top. You could visually take in lots of information at a glance and make changes in an instant.

And then the system was computerised! We only had a partial view of the information at any one time, we had to remember what it was we were changing and what we were changing it to, and changes were a complex multi step process. We were told this was progress!

Many moons ago I wrote "Is it unfair to characterise the IT industry as a bunch of dodgy characters in cheap suits selling wish fulfilment to out of their depth executives ". Sadly not much has changed.

The IT industry still resorts to the sort of magical thinking peddled by religions of various flavours for millennia. "Perform these rituals, obey these rules, give your power to our priests, and we will take your pain away and deliver a state of bliss/enlightenment/rapture."

Don't fall for magical thinking. Think for yourself, be skeptical, choose your tools and methods very carefully, and avoid priesthoods of any flavour.

Magic in our hands

It never ceases to amaze me how much technological power is at our fingertips these days.

One of the benefits of my alternative career in driving is having time on my own to think, and being able to capture thoughts simply by raising my watch on my wrist and dictating to Siri is incredible.

In fact most of my writing these days is done either by dictation or, as is the case now, by handwriting on my iPad which Good Notes then automatically converts into text.

Like I said, magic. But not just magic for its own sake, magic that makes me more productive, and creative, while having fun at the same time!

Bad weather

This morning I woke up the sound of heavy rain on the window and felt excited. As I said recently - I love rain. On the other hand my wife woke up and said "what awful weather".

Even on Friday when I drove my truck out of the yard with heavy rain obscuring the mirrors, car headlights sparkling and dazzling my view, it felt exciting. Terrifying, but exciting.

I don't tend to do much mountaineering in the summer. It is when the air gets colder, the days shorter, and the exciting prospect of snow becomes a possibility, that I start sorting my kit out and planning trips.

Bad weather feels real, coping with it makes me feel alive and it is so true that "There is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes!"

It's always the small things...

In the current turmoil brought about by Brexit and Trump it is so easy to think that we need to do something, to take action, to do something grand, to join a movement, to wave banners. But if we see the world as dominated by grand things, big things, things that we have no control over, then we either go numb and feel powerless, or we overreact and provoke a counter-reaction.

But neither Brexit nor Trump happened because of big or grand things, they happened because of the combination of a lot of small things. Conversations that weren't had, daft ideas that weren't discussed, unpleasant attitudes that weren't questioned, power that was deferred to rather than challenged that incrementally got out of hand.

It is only ever the small things that we have any influence over. We need to make sure that we exercise that influence. If we hear someone trashing immigrants, or being nostalgic for an "old days" that never existed, have a conversation with them, or for that matter failing to question the power in Brussels, ask them why they feel that way. Instead of building opposition movements, which just exacerbate the polarity and divisiveness, have lots of brave conversations, all the time, with everyone you meet.

In some ways getting busy with initiatives is easier than having those conversations. It's a bit like at work. Kicking off a grand change programme (ideally involving considerable spend on technology) is easier than facing the existential challenge of behaving differently, of relating to people differently.

It is in our relationships that our real power to change our world lies. We should spend more time focussing on that than on displacement activities.

Funny old things brains...

Pulling a Marlboro soft pack from the chest pocket of my combat jacket while looking down at the wet cobbles of a Glasgow backstreet as they glisten in the early morning streetlights just bubbled up forty years after the event.

Funny old things brains...

The Blockchain and the New Architecture Of Trust

One of the best bits of the blockchain conference I hosted in Washington recently was hearing from people directly involved in practical implementations of the smart contract use of the technology. What was reassuring was the absence of hype and over selling of what blockchain can do.

One of the most grounded, realistic, sceptical, yet positive, presentations came from Kevin Werbach, Associate Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Kevin and I realised that we have known each other nearly seventeen years, and he is one of the smartest people I know. His new book, The Blockchain and the New Architecture of Trust, comes out in the UK mid December and if, like me, you believe that blockchain will survive the hype cycle and become really interesting and important, I would highly recommend checking it out.

The gap

Viktor E. Frankl once wrote:

"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."

Hannah is currently studying Psychology as one of her A Levels and yesterday we were chatting about neuroscience's discovery that our subconscious reacts to stimuli before our conscious brain is aware that we have had that thought. She told her classmates of my experiment where I try to observe myself deciding to get out of the bath in the mornings and the fact that I fail every time. I know that I am likely to get out of the bath soon, and then I know that I am standing up, but I have never been able to observe myself making that decision. If I am not consciously making that decision I am not consciously making any decision. But does this mean I have no free will?

On the way to my Class 1 HGV test yesterday the truck developed a fault, serious enough that we considered telling the examiner and rescheduling the test. We decided to go ahead anyway and to say that this increased my stress levels is an understatement! But because of my years of meditation practice I am so much better these days at noticing my thinking.

I may not have control over my situation, I may not be able to control my thinking, but I can notice it, and I can do so more quickly. Instead of my rising panic swamping me, I was able to observe it and in doing so reduce it. This noticing gives me space.

This is the gap. The space between the stimulus and the response. This is what Viktor E. Frankl was talking about. This is what Buddha realised 2,500 years ago. This is why it is worth practicing.

Drifting off

Doing anything new always requires more attention than something we are familiar with. Once an activity has become routine it is so easy to slip into auto-pilot. Once the auto-pilot is on we can indulge in the endless chatter with which we fill so many of our waking hours. The constant churning of regrets about the past and worries about the future.

Driving is for many of us the most common example of this. That moment when you suddenly realise that you can't remember any of the past ten minutes of motorway driving no matter how busy the traffic. But this is why my current truck driving adventures are so interesting. I have to be completely on the ball all of the time. Nothing is happening on auto-pilot yet. I have to keep my wits about me all of the time.

If I make a mistake my brain wants to go over and over it. What I got wrong, what I should have done, what could have been worse. 0ff I go spinning stories about something that didn't happen rather than keeping my mind and attention on what is happening now. But we live like this all the time. We miss our lives because instead of being here now we drift off into analysing what happened a week ago or terrifying ourselves about what might or might not happen next month.

Observing ourselves doing this is what meditation is all about - increasing our ability to realise that we have drifted off and away from the present moment. Catching myself doing this is going to be critical to my ability to safely negotiate my truck and its cargo through busy traffic. I seem to be reasonably good at doing this. Little did I think that practicing meditation all these years would benefit me in such an unexpected way!

Today’s workplace

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First day of proper HGV driving (I'd previously done a day but in a 3.5 tonne van). Great fun. Lots of complicated reversing, having to unload gazillions of window frames on my own, and the general nervous wear and tear of manipulating 7.5 tonnes through busy rush hour traffic and small country villages - I'm knackered.

This sort of multi-drop is not my longer term aim, and suspect I may be getting the older truck because I'm a newbie, but both are fair enough. Happy to pay my dues and work my way up.

Blockchain In Government

Last week's Blockchain In Government conference that I hosted in Washington was great fun. Thanks to Jane Dysart and Information Today for taking the leap and organising it. We managed to pull together a really smart bunch of people directly involved in implementing blockchain in a number of interesting ways.

It yet again reinforced my impression that once you get past the crypto currency hype there is much to be excited about with the advent of this new technology. As is so often the case, people's ability to grasp what is possible, practical, and sensible, is often compromised by the overselling and almost deliberate obfuscation that goes on around anything new. I am frequently reminded of Clay Shirky's aphorism that any new technology only becomes interesting once it has become boring.

Something else that became apparent was the need for people to have the opportunity that we gave them to work with each other, understand things that other people are doing, and get a sense of what is possible. This was very different from so many conferences where people end up being talked at rather the furthering their understanding. Many of the participants commented that it being a smaller group enabled them to be more open in their conversations and therefore to learn more.

This model seems to work really well and I said to the attendees that I believe that it also has prospects for being effective inside organisations, helping the various groups, Technology, HR, Comms, and the business management to fully come to grips with their challenges in the face of disruptive technologies.

So if you know anybody who could do with this sort of intervention and event you know where to find me.

Difference

One of the pleasures of my work, both speaking and now driving, is the number and range of types of people that I meet. It struck me the other day how nice they all are. Watching a porter help a blind man into the hotel here in Washington yesterday; having someone call after me when I dropped something out of my pocket in NY; the amount of kindness I have been shown by pretty much everyone I have encountered as I learn the ropes of truck driving.

And yet we somehow manage to make up stories about ourselves and others, create a sense of "other", and end up in warring tribes.

I understand the power of community and acknowledge the deep seated need we seem to have to belong, but increasingly wonder why we can't be content with belonging to the biggest grouping of them all - humanity?

Our incessant squabbling, whether within business or wider society, wears us down and reduces our collective and individual abilities to deal with our challenges, many of them created by the very same sense of otherness and made up stories.

Shame we seem unable to stop...

Presentation at CSPS

Nicely shot video of me doing my bit at the Canadian School Of Public Service in Ottawa a couple of weeks ago. My talk starts at 2hrs 30mins in but before that, at around 1hr 2mins, there is a fantastic panel of four women from the school that is one of the best discussions of the real issues in tech that I have seen for a long time.

The session was really well received and if you know anyone who is grappling with the issues I raise in my talk do, please, pass this on.

Being places

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I never take for granted the opportunities I have had to be places. Interesting places, different places. One of the appeals of truck driving is the opportunity to be lots of new places.

But I am always reminded of Jon Kabat Zinn's "Wherever you go, there you are." The constant challenge to truly be somewhere rather than stuck in our heads. 

Whether having a conversation with a loved one, tasting new food, seeing new sights, the constant labelling and commentary, that we so take for granted that we don't even notice it, steps between us and the world around us.

It is worth practicing being aware of this as it keeps it at bay, if only for a moment.  

Discomfort

We naturally tend to avoid discomfort but without it we never learn or grow. If we are to change in any way we have to get out of our comfort zone.

There are so many elements of freelance truck driving that are unfamiliar to me. In some ways the driving is the easy bit. Relating to agents and clients... learning the unwritten rules of what's expected and what's not... grasping the when and where of refuelling... I feel like I should be wearing a massive L plate on my back!

But it's a good feeling. It's making me think hard about my comfort zone, where its boundaries are and why. It is certainly stretching it!

The three Cs

I recently wrote a post about the potential for systems to be self organising and the way that we compromise this ability by attempting to exercise control over the world around us. In order for systems to become self organising the networks that make them up have to be comprised of healthy cells.

It occurred to me yesterday that in order to become healthy the cells need to be encouraged to work on the following three characteristics.

Curiosity

Wondering why things are the way they are. A willingness to relax their grip on fixed ideas and to consider alternatives. An inclination to tinker. This is what allows kids to adopt new technology so quickly. We have driven curiosity and playfulness out of the workplace in our attempts to be "businesslike" and in the process have compromised our collective ability to adapt and be effective.

Critical thinking

Constantly thinking about where information is coming from, who are its sources, and who has vested interests in its propagation. Working out the likely truth of the things we consume measured against our other experiences and with a healthily sceptical attitude. Considering the consequences of onward sharing of the information we take in.

Conversation

Adopting a more conversational tone in how we share ideas and discuss the world around us. Avoiding dogma and dogmatic attitudes. Engaging in a to and fro with equals. Recognising that we are conversing with another human being who shares our challenges and is also struggling to make sense of the world. This last principal needs to be applied just as much online as off.

These three Cs are just as important as the traditional three Rs and we should consider teaching them in school.

While sitting in the airport in Halifax, Nova Scotia, waiting for the second leg of my journey home from Ottawa, I became aware of what I thought was someone listening to a video on their mobile phone with the sound turned up loud.

It was of an annoying child's whining voice, repeating over and over. I decided it was some YouTube video, or a video of a beloved grandchild. I thought that I had discovered the culprit, an older guy staring at his phone. He became the focus of my irritation, my righteous indignation at the increasing trend to watch video in public spaces with the sound turned up. I began to imagine myself walking over and asking him to turn the bloody thing off, to buy himself some headphones.

And then, walking towards me, and coming from behind this innocent old guy (who could have been doing his taxes online for all I know), I saw a father with two kids, one holding each hand, and one whining over and over in this high pitched, annoying, voice...

I'd made the whole thing up!

We do this all the time without being aware of it. We interpret reality and make it conform to our prejudices, our sense of right and wrong. We impose our stories on the world and make ourselves happy or sad as a consequence. We should try not to.

On not having a job

When we dropped Mollie off in Cambridge for the start of term I got to meet her best friend's parents for the first time. As the dad and I started chatting it became apparent that we actually worked in very similar, or at least related, fields. We hadn't realised this until we met and it occurred to us that neither of our daughters had been able to explain to the other what we did!

People not being able to describe what I do is not new. I face that all the time. In fact when it comes to filling in forms I struggle myself! I usually say something about being a writer and public speaker or consultant, but none of those feels quite right. I suppose in essence what I do is try to be interesting and relevant and then I'm very lucky that people find enough reason to pay me to pass on my ideas and thoughts.

I marvel at the fact that even nearly 13 years after leaving the BBC I am still able to do that. In fact I'm about to travel to Canada, the United States, and Dubai in the next three months. But nonetheless there are gaps. Work doesn't always come in a steady flow. I get caught in the trap of wondering whether I should be "marketing" myself more, spending more time networking, all the things that everybody else seems to do but which I find difficult and uncomfortable. The thought of getting a real job again doesn't appeal. I love my lifestyle. But it isn't easy. Nagging doubt is a constant companion.

This sense of being in never never land is something that I guess more people are going to have to get used to as the structures and stability of "real jobs" begin to diminish in society. People talk about the gig economy as if that was another established, structured, similarly stable way of going about things. But often it is not. It is harder than that. It raises more existential challenges.

As more and more "knowledge work" jobs are replaced by technology we are going to have to do a lot of work as a society to help people adapt to this very different lifestyle. Not all of them will find it easy.

Sticking our oars in

Most systems have the potential to be self organising. With the right feedback and thoughtful, aware, tolerant, adaptive individual cells it is amazing what is possible. Just look at nature and the incredible complexity, and adaptability, that it achieves. Look at what our unbelievably sophisticated bodies achieve every day, often in spite of our attempts to derail them!

So why do we get it so wrong? We don't trust our natural, emergent systems, we impose ideologies, we put small groups of people in charge of large groups of "others", we impose rules based on partial (in both senses of the word) understanding, and then we meddle constantly.

No wonder things go so horribly wrong.

Blogging equals thinking

Well, writing equals thinking. I can't remember who it was that said "I don't know what I think until I start writing " but certainly for me it has always rung true.

I've not been writing much for a while, and it feels like I've not been thinking. Sure, ideas flit through my head and I can ruminate endlessly as we all do, but by not writing I've not focussed my thinking. I've become reactive rather than proactive, being triggered by things around me rather being productively creative.

But I am delivering a keynote in Ottawa next week on the topic of The Ideology Of Algorithms so I am starting to focus my thinking again, pulling ideas together into something hopefully meaningful and helpful, and starting to write things down.

It feels good. I've missed it.