Being bothered

I can't be bothered". It's a phrase I use all too often.

At the weekend Penny went sailing with a friend and talking to him how much faffing about it took just to keep the thing maintained and setting it up to go sailing I marvelled at how he could be bothered.

Last night we went kayaking along a stretch of the Thames. We nearly didn't go because I couldn't be bothered. In reality it only took us twenty minutes to drive to the river and five minutes to inflate and set up the kayak. In return we had the most wonderful trip in glorious low sunshine and came back full of the joys of life.

It's the same at work. It so easy to slip into not being bothered. Failing to find the reason to put in that little bit of effort that can make work so rewarding and make a difference.

It's worth finding the reason to be bothered.

Losing your balance

Many moons ago I managed the editors who worked on Panorama. In those days it was broadcast on a Monday night so the weekends were the busiest and most pressured time for the editors. Being at the end of the production process, editing is where all the pressure ends up coming to a head and to be frank the production team took advantage of the commitment of the editors and I had many run ins with them about the way they worked.

On one particular weekend I was laying roofing felt on our garden hut. I'd been fielding calls all day from work about some Panorama crisis, trying to protect my editors, keep the programme happy, and not get fired in the process. Eventually I lost control and shouted "fuck" at the top of my voice, hurled the hammer I was using spinning across the garden, and literally lost my balance at the top of my ladder.

Not all jobs work to deadlines like this and not all jobs involve temperamental luvvies like TV does, but we all have that moment when we lose it, when the world falls about our ears and we run out of things to do to keep our balance. It can be the loneliest feeling in the world and though rarely life threatening can get our pulse racing, hands sweating, vision blurred, the lot.

But it passes. It always does. No matter how long it takes. We recover our sense of perspective, the situation starts to resolve itself, solutions begin to emerge. We all know this.

It's remembering it in the heart of the storm that is the hard part.

We only have moments to live.

I've always loved this phrase from Jon Kabat-Zinn. It is meant to convey the idea that rather than live in the past or the future we should be more attentive to the present moment. In fact all of our memories of the past and our imagining of the future can only occur in the present moment so it really is all we have. One moment after the other.

How different things are in business. We obsess about the past, raking over the coals of previous disasters, or we fantasise about imagined futures spending months strategising about events that we delusionally expect to control.

Even when we are talking to each other we are never there. We are always racing ahead, anticipating our next smart answer to the question we imagine to have been asked or implied. Senior people are often the worst at this. I used to describe them as propeller heads. Always looking around for the next, more important, conversation to have rather than taking part in the one they are meant to be engaged in.

But it can be different. We have all experienced leaders who are truly present. Who lift our spirits with their attentive listening, who engage with the real world in the current moment rather than holding it at bay with a barrage of management bollocks.

Real presence takes courage, a willingness to face down and grapple with the world as it is in this moment, and the next one, and the next.

Tools of your trade

Sadly I still encounter too many people who still feel that technology is being done to them. From the senior execs I worked with who winged at me about what IT wouldn't let them do, to that sinking feeling when trying to send a client a presentation and they say "your file doesn't work" or they can't work out how to get it through their organisation's firewall. Even using Skype or knowing how to bcc emails appears to be beyond the abilities of too many.

Don't get me wrong. I am no geek expecting people to have PhDs in computing science. I have never been a fan of technology as an end in itself. I've never taken computers apart. I've only written as much code as I've written bad poems. My excitement about technology is as a tool to help me do more and better, along the lines of Steve Jobs' "bicycles for the mind".

In pretty much any job a computer, or smart phone, is the tool of your trade. It is a professional competence to know how to use it.


One of the hardest things about change, especially at work, is questioning what others take to be normal.

I so clearly remember that feeling of waking up to the madness of busywork, trying to talk to others about it, and watching them close down and close ranks.

There is an almost bullying collusion about clinging to “the way we do things around here” in most workplaces. Challenging office norms is seen as deeply threatening.

This starts at an early age. I am about to deliver a talk to the sixth form at my daughters’ school this Friday. The sixth-formers are allowed to not wear school uniform but are required to wear “office appropriate attire” which for the boys means cheap suits and for the girls a world of confusion!

“Office appropriate”. Two seemingly mundane words with so much behind them.

But it’s all stories. Appropriateness is a story. Normal is a story. We make them all up. Other people make them up. Other people assert their stories over yours.

They say that madness is being in a minority of one. I reckon it’s a sign of sanity. Make sure the stories that make up your sense of normal are your own and not other people’s!

Bugger “tolerance of ambiguity”. Run towards it with your arms open!

I’ve not been paying enough attention to the election of Jeremy Corbyn to comment about his suitability as either leader of the Labour Party or as a potential prime minister. But I do get a sense of excitement about his appointment that signals bigger changes.

We are moving away from “mass”. Mass movements and mass media are things of the past. Our current political class knew how to handle mass, they appear at a loss as to how to harness networks of thoughtful individuals. Our old isms are outdated. We are shaping and forming new stories with each tweet, selfie and update. Large networks of individuals are beginning to emerge as the way we now make sense of the world around us.

None of us really know the rules for this yet. We are making them up as we go along. WE are making them up as we go along. Each of us individually has a new found responsibility, a new found power. It’s why the chapter in my book called “we all have a volume control on mob rule” will matter more and more.

It’s exciting - and the more we shake off our fears of ambiguity and learn to proactively shape our stories, the more exciting it will get.


This could be an alternative name for my business! I am increasingly asked to talk to people who are obstructing use of social tools in their business or otherwise getting in the way of change. One grey haired old codger talking to other grey haired old codgers to try to get them out of the way.

Seriously though having been a senior manager in a big organisation myself I can relate to their challenges. Managers are under pressure to deliver. Especially middle managers are in a tough place, getting grief from above and below, blamed for everything, and invariably in a situation of competing for resources and profile with their peers.

The sorts of behaviours that got them where they are today, and that appear to keep them safe and successful, are based on some deeply held assumptions. Challenging those assumptions is not for the faint hearted because doing so provokes an almost existential crisis and they, naturally, resist!

Like I say, people change one at a time and for their reasons and not yours. You have to find a way to relate the changes you want to bring about to the challenges the people you are talking to face. You need to really work hard at building trust and finding ways to relate to their fears and deal with them. Challenging but rewarding work.

Plus Ça Change...

Change is nothing new. It’s a constant and always has been. Every generation thinks that is it is experiencing greater change than those who have gone before, and certainly the fundamentals of human nature remain the same. But surely there are certain periods that are more momentous than most?

If, as I do, you believe that digital technology, in all its forms, is going to have an impact equivalent to the printing press, and you consider the long term ongoing impact that that had in terms of the enlightenment and our modern world view, then we are about to enter a similarly fundamental period of change. We are only getting started with what we will have to deal with.

This is why I feel a sense of urgency in working out what our overarching story is, our collective way of making sense of what is happening. Not a formula, not a quick and reassuring answer, but a different philosophy, a different world view.

Exciting and frightening at the same time.


Sometimes I wake in the night screaming having dreamt that what I am doing here is “content marketing”.

But it is not. My intent is different. I write to work out what I think. To respond to what I see happening in the world around me, to work out what it means, to consider what to do about it. I do this on a blog to share this thinking and offer it to others. I do this to trigger conversations, which in turn help me think more and often better. I also do it in the hope that I might help others to understand their worlds better, act differently, and make a difference.

It would be disingenuous to pretend that my blog doesn’t help me get work. By touching on issues that people are grappling with, and hopefully having some insights that help, it gives them reason to reach out and ask me to work with them. But it is not my primary intent.

Conventional wisdom would have it that you have to work out a reason for blogging before you start. You’re meant to focus on a particular outcome, target an audience, “drive traffic” to your blog etc.. Even inside businesses it is seen as a channel to improve “employee engagement”, a means to an end, a way to steer people to particular outcomes.

But people aren’t stupid. They sense the difference. They feel manipulated. Your intent becomes obvious. Your intent matters


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.


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.