The Five Whats

Some of you may be familiar with the idea of "The Five Whys". If you want to really uncover the reason for something ask why, ask why again, and keep doing so until by the fifth asking you are likely to be getting to the real reason.

I reckon we need "The Five Whats".

When someone in business comes out with a stream of nonsensical business bollocks ask them what they mean. Keep asking and by the fifth attempt you may be approaching a plain English, common sense description of something - or you may have uncovered the fact that they have no idea what they are talking about.

Either way, you win!

Oh, it’s just a fly.

The other day we noticed a bee buzzing around our house. We decided to take our chances and co-exist with it rather than throwing it outside where the freezing temperatures would certainly have killed it.

This morning I heard a buzzing again and started to imagine a scenario where I found the bee, tried to look after it, feed it etc.

But then I saw where the buzzing was coming from. It was just a fly. My caring instincts evaporated. It could look after itself and didn't matter. Flies are ten a penny.

Isn't it fascinating the way our brains do this? Label and then evaluate. Good/Bad. Interesting/Not Interesting. Worth saving/Not worth saving.

Sadly we seem unable to stop ourselves doing this.

Even with people...

Invisible chains

When I posted the other day about wriggle room I quoted the oft heard phrase "my boss would never let me do that." Is this really true? Or is it just imagined?

So often we limit ourselves through our assumptions about what other people think. We assume the worst because that lets us off the hook. It's not our fault we havent been what we could have been. It was him, it was them, it was the system.

Many moons ago I wrote "Is authority more important to those who wield it or those who defer to it?"

Too often I suspect it is the latter.

Wriggle room

I know I am not normal. I can work when I want, where I want, using the tools I want. The ways I am able to work are different from those available to most people. The choices I have made have led to me moving away from the apparent security and stability of a corporate job. It is not for everyone.

I am also aware that I make some of my living talking to people who are still in those corporate jobs. I am sure they often think "It's all right for him?" Some of them even say "l could never work the way you do, my boss would never let me!"

But there is always wiggle room. There are ways to start. Even with the most draconian of bosses there is always wriggle room. I know. I had to find it often enough in my past. It is worth trying.

"With a little more care, a little more courage, a little more soul, our lives can be so easily discovered and celebrated in work, and not, as now, squandered and lost in its shadow."

  • David White

The challenges of Twitter

Really interesting Joe Rogan podcast with Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter.

http://podcasts.joerogan.net/podcasts/jack-dorsey

Fascinating to hear the two of them work out the challenges and ethics of this vast network of conversations. It was also fun to hear Dorsey talk about the early days when we were all making it up, and I mean all, Twitter felt very much a group effort in those days.

But the monster that it has become has never been seen before and working out what to do, why, and when is clearly non- trivial. Their conversation brings to life all of the issues I raised in my Ideology of Algorithms article, not least my assertion that we are "allowing a bunch of ADD geeks to determine the future of civilisation".

https://diginomica.com/the-ideology-of-algorithms/

Listening to the podcast I swung between feeling that Dorsey was totally out of his depth and feeling that he was articulate and thoughtful about the challenges. Take a listen and let me know what you think.

Technology

I used to have to attend NAB, the largest broadcasting convention in the world, in Vegas every year when I worked at the BBC. The massive show floors spanning about six huge buildings, crammed with brash, noisy stands trying to entice you to look at the latest systems were such an assault on the senses. We used to chat with the guys on the stands about whether it was more stressful for us than them coping with the onslaught of the week.

The reason our team was there was to try to identify new tools that might be interesting or useful to the BBC, get our head around what they did and how they worked, and then to explain all this to people back home. In the process I encountered software from genius to lunacy and everything else in between. It meant that I developed a good nose for sales fluff and a skepticism about anything too shiny and polished looking.

This legacy means that when I am speaking at HR or Learning technology conferences I make my way through the show floor as fast as I can making sure that I don't catch the eye of any of the sales folks desperate to lure me in. But it also means that I find it all slightly depressing. The tech industry is predicated on overselling overengineered and overpriced software to people who often don't know any better. I also find it unnerving how focussed on systems and technology HR and L&D have become and am left with an uneasy feeling that people have been consigned to being the meatware in the system.

This might come as a surprise given that people seem to think of me as a technologist and a geek. But for me the excitement of technology has always been as a way of enhancing our human qualities, helping us to be better humans, helping us to connect with other humans. The dehumanising that I too often see happening seems to be the totally wrong direction to be heading in. If we are to stay ahead of the robots it is our human qualities that are our USP!!

Remembering

Sharing the story about Joe and Billy Connolly the other day reminded me of this post that I shared on my blog a few years ago. Joe was such a good friend.

Remembering Old Joe April 20, 2014

I can see him now in his brown, zipped up, seventies style windproof. Walking towards me down Ashton Lane with his John Wayne swagger, hair newly Brylcreemed back, flask of tea and box of sandwiches in his plastic carrier bag, fag in mouth, a mischievous smile on his face.

I loved Joe. I still do. Love may seem like a strong word to use for a guy I only met through my summer job in Glasgow. In his late sixties or early seventies, still having to work as a labourer to support himself and his wife, to many he would have seemed painfully ordinary. But he wasn't.

I loved his wisdom, his generosity, his kindness and his wicked sense of humour. I loved that he took me under his wing and told me stories. Endless stories of work and love, told in smoke-filled Landrovers or in dripping oilskins as we sheltered under trees. Tales of Glasgow glamour from his Shawfield days; haunting memories of unrequited love for a Clydebank shipyard owner's beautiful young wife; numbing memories of unbearable sadness when predeceased by his son.

When I think of Joe I get an ache of sadness. I still miss him thirty years on. Forget stories of stones rolling away from graves. If there is immortality we achieve it by leaving a bleeding hole in people's hearts. Joe Wilson left a large one in mine.

Old Joe and Billy Connolly

Prompted by my last post about "the middle" Sean Trainor shared a great skit from Billie Connolly that makes the same point.

This brought back a memory of Joe Wilson, one of the great guys I used to work with in the summer as a landscaping and grounds maintenance labourer. Joe, like me, also worked in the winter with the brother of the family who had a florists business. Sandy was "upwardly mobile" in Glasgow society and very conscious of it. He new anyone who was anyone and was over the moon when not only was he asked to provide a floral display for an event celebrating the career of Billy Connolly, but was also asked to attend as a guest.

Sandy decided that Joe was the safest pair of hands to deliver a large display of flowers in the shape of a banana shaped wellie boot, a prop which Billy used in his show in those days. Sandy was very nervous about trusting anyone with this task as the display was to be ceremonially brought in during the dinner. He kept coaching Joe on what to do and told him not to speak to anyone, just deliver the display and get out.

On the big night everyone is there in their dinner suit finery. Sandy is preparing himself for the guests being impressed and ready to bask in the glory. The door opens and in walks Joe.

At this point Billy Connolly looks around, looks amazed, stands up and says "Joe my man, how you doin'?" "Put that thing doon and come over here and sit by me."

Joe used to be head groundsman at Shawfield Dog Stadium and knew Billy from the old days.

Needless to say Sandy, as Billy would say, "had a mouth like a dugs arse".

The middle

I have often told this story of being a student at St Andrew's and then working as a labourer in Glasgow during the holidays so forgive me if you have heard it before.

At St Andrew's I encountered lots of old money people, people who had always had money, didn't think about money, and had loads of confidence.

During the holidays I worked with people who were often alcoholic, living in digs, had no money, never ever had, and never expected to.

Both groups seemed comfortable in themselves though. One group because they had so much money and the other because they had so little. They could "afford" to be themselves. Both groups were good to be around and a formative part of my education.

In society it seems that it is the middle that has a problem. We are always trying to "get somewhere" to "be someone". We are aspirational and constantly dissatisfied. We compete with each other to get up a fictitious ladder first. We think that buying stuff will make us happy. We cause havoc with our dysfunctions. We are not always good to be around.

It is the same in the workplace. Those at the bottom and the top know where they are and what is expected of them. The middle gets confused and stressed.

I am clearly making sweeping generalisations, and people in any group in society can face problems, but this is a pattern I have seen played out over and over. None of this is anyone's "fault" but it is a shame. Does it have to be this way?

Organisational sludge

Working as I do with people trying to bring about change in their workplaces I am very conscious of what I have begun to call organisational sludge. The behaviours, attitudes, processes and policies that build up to create the enormous amounts of inertia that make change so difficult.

Like real sludge, you can try to clear it away, push it back, stem the flow. But as soon as you stop your efforts it starts creeping back, seeping into nooks and crannies until it eventually returns to its previous levels.

Maybe we need to instigate regular sessions where we hose everything down, clear the sludge before it gets too hard to deal with. Check ourselves, our actions, our attitudes at the end of the day for any signs of grubbiness and do something about it then before it becomes a problem?

Anti-social social media

"What does the money machine eat? It eats youth, spontaneity, life, beauty, and, above all, it eats creativity. It eats quality and shits quantity." - William Burroughs

I have just been reading about the Burger King influencer story. Well, I say reading it, I'm not that interested but I glanced at the headlines. Even a one paragraph article about influencers is tl:dr in my book.

Anyway, someone I know in the media occasionally tries to wind me up by saying "Social Media has gone toxic" and I think is surprised when I agree. But social media isn't what I got excited about in the first place, it is the cess filled swamp that they, the media, created out of our valuable online conversations.

I know it is too late to stem the tide but if any of you reading this who work in the media could pause to think about the impact of your intrusions into this online space I'd really appreciate it.

Meanwhile I am proud to know people who are working hard to take the internet back.

Important lessons

I have been enjoying the fact that our younger daughter is doing Sociology, Psychology, and Politics as her A Levels. We have been having really interesting conversations, particularly about Politics, as you can imagine.

And yet when she told her grandfather what subjects she was doing he said "Oh, so no real subjects then". While I realise that Sociology particularly is still considered a "pseudo-sciencep" and I can see why, it struck me that all three topics will leave her better armed for life as an adult in our challenging world than say maths.

Yes, core skills matter, but I have never ever made use of any of the Maths, Physics or Chemistry that I did at school and spent the rest of my life reading all that I can about Sociology, Psychology and Politics!

My workplace

FullSizeRender.jpg

As I am speaking at a workplace event soon I thought I'd talk about mine. This is my office at home but all of the tools in the photo can be put in a bag and seconds and the whole thing reassembled wherever I am. The various bits and how I use them are listed below.

I love having the iPhone and iPad side by side which can give me a two screen setup. This might let me do a conference call on the phone and take notes on the iPad or, as I am doing now, look at the image on the iPhone and write on the iPad. Sure you can have different windows open on a laptop but I like the way this keeps things separate and simple. I also like the way that writing apps on the iPad present a simple uncluttered and distraction free interface!

The Logitech K380 keyboard has three yellow buttons near the top. This allows me to set it up to work with three devices (my iPhone, iPad and iMac in my case) and switch between them at the press of a button. This means that wherever I am or whatever I am doing I am always using the same keyboard which increases my typing speed no end.

The image on the iPad screen is of GoodNotes which I use increasingly for most of my writing and note-taking using the Apple Pencil you can see to the side. The notes can be converted to copyable text with a high degree of accuracy and all of my handwritten notes can be searched in one go. This means that it is easy to both get ideas out of my head but also to be able to find them again!

My AirPods are how I listen to podcasts or audiobooks. While sitting at my desk I also use them in combination with Siri to instigate phone calls, add to-dos to my Omnifocus list and ask Siri to find information on the internet.

The only thing not in the photo is my Apple Watch which I use all the time to monitor my exercise, keep track of tasks while on the move, and control the phone calls and audio apps that I use.

As I say, I am finding this combination particularly efficient and love the fact that I can reconstruct it anywhere I happen to be.

On writing

I write every day, whether blog posts, longer articles, journaling, or even working on another book. The tools I use, Scrivener and Drafts, allow me to write in chunks and get ideas down quickly and easily. Pretty much all of my writing is intended for the web. As a result, the idea of documents, especially documents printed out on paper, is for me a thing of the past.

I write words in different sized chunks depending on how much I have to say on a particular topic, and in the first instance, I am saying it to me. I have often commented that my blog posts are really "memos to self". As a result, my writing style is conversational - I am really having a conversation with myself. And so the length of my writing depends on the length and depth of the conversation I feel like having. The idea of a book is beginning to appeal again because I fancy having a more extended and in-depth conversation with myself.

If I ever get around to writing another one I will self publish it. I have over the last few years got a lot of value out of short, to the point, non-fiction Kindle books. They can be as little as 20,000 words but cost only £3 or £4. They hit the mark and don't have any padding. So even the idea of a book is becoming more malleable. What makes a book a book? When does a tweet become a blog post? When does a long blog post become an article? When does a long article, or collection of articles, become a book?

So my motivation is the type of conversation that I want to have. Short ones like this blog post, or longer ones that a "book" would allow me to have. Content is starting to drive form. Interesting times.

Thingification

The process of thingification (turning a useful idea into the latest thing and thereby rendering it useless) appears unstoppable. In the context of work it happened with collaboration, innovation, and creativity. It is even happening with disruption! It happened with blogging, it happened with YouTube, it's happening with podcasting.

All these potentially powerful attempts at building a new world using new tools being rendered safe by assimilation into the old.

Is this inevitable, or can we each do our bit to stop it happening? Being careful with our use of language, particularly jargon. Checking our intent and resisting bandwagons. Ignoring the most blatant attempts at cooption and manipulation.

Every time someone calls themselves a "social media influencer" an angel dies.

The sound of silence

I enjoy the comment threads I get on my posts on Facebook. It is these sort of interactions that attracted me to the social web in the first place. Interestingly I get much less response on LinkedIn and Twitter despite the fact that I am connected to many more people on those two platforms. And my blog is the place where I get least response as the numbers of people using RSS aggregators has diminished over the years.

But of all them, it is my blog that I will keep going. It is there that I have been thinking out loud for coming up seventeen years. It is that that I think of as my outboard brain. I have often said that my posts are thinly disguised "memos to self" and there's value in that even if no one is reading them.

If any of you are considering blogging and worrying if anyone would read you, or if you are already blogging and dispirited at the lack of response, keep going. It's worth it. Even if no one else is listening - you are!

Getting your hands dirty

Like it or lump it technology plays an increasingly important role in all of our lives. It also plays an increasingly important role in business and our organisations.

And yet it is still held at arms length by most management, certainly most senior management. This isn't good enough.

Don't get me wrong, I am not suggesting that they all need to learn to code.. There was a flurry of interest in that about a year ago to little effect.

But more people need to be more curious, to play more, to tinker. They need to learn more than 5% of the powerful capabilities of their phone. They need to have fun exploring their computer beyond the ubiquitous confines of Microsoft Office. They need to learn enough about Facebook, Google and Amazon to know the questions to start asking.

Why do they need to do do this? Because these are the first steps to getting a real hands on, visceral experience of the major challenges we face. It will trigger the curiosity, confidence, and inclination to become more thoughtful about technology's role in life.

"I am too busy", "It's not my job" I hear them cry. But it increasingly is your job and it is all of our responsibilities. It is way too important to leave to the techies and we have already given them too much of a head start!

Reality

I will assume that, like me, you are currently looking at an electronic device of some sort, reading the words that I am typing. But then as I type you are not there, and as you read I am not here. So we are neither here nor there but it feels like we are having a conversation. More and more of us do this more and more of the time. We think it is normal and rather take it for granted.

Is it normal? Is it real? All we get to see is short bursts of text and from these we extrapolate personalities that we can feel attracted to, annoyed by, even close to. But we have no way of proving that they exist. They could be a bot. As far as you are aware I could be a bot. It is increasingly possible.

Our lives are made up of such bursts of input. Not just text on a screen but the sounds of a phone call, even the smiling presence of a body standing before us. Out of these stimuli we create reality. Our reality is created. It is a construct in our mind. This is always true. Sure there are molecules out there and the physical world is real, but what it means, and how I react to it, is all made up.

So to go back to the funny little text boxes that so many of us nowadays spend our lives staring at and responding to, we would do well to remember what they are. They are light streaming from a bit of glass. Nothing more, nothing less. What they mean and how we feel about them is made up. It is up to us. We would do well to remember that.

Capital T Truth

I have just started reading The Patterning Instinct by Jeremy Lent, described as "A cognitive history of man's search for meaning." - Right up my street!

Reading the opening chapters on how language developed, how communal thinking came to be a thing, and the anthropological approaches currently being combined with recent advances in neuroscience, made me realise yet again what a malleable thing the truth is.

Even in the scientific world the best any particular version of the truth can claim is that it is a currently working hypothesis. In fact one of the strengths of the scientific method is that it acknowledges this and is continually testing existing hypotheses and "improving" them.

But one of the points of the book is that what "improving" means changes over time. Our overarching narratives of what life means steer our day to day experiences and determine what sort of truths we seek proof for.

While I worry that we appear to have a generation of politicians in charge who have an even more loose than ever grasp of the truth, the fact that it is making apparent how consensual these truths are will, in the long run, prove to be a good thing.

Fear, and loss of control

We love the idea that we have control over our lives and the world around us. A lot of work goes into maintaining this fiction. How much time and effort is spent in business attempting to convince ourselves that we know what is going to happen next and the reasons why?

But do we? How many ten year, even five year, strategies come to pass as so confidently predicted? How many carefully spreadsheeted cashflow predictions turn out exactly as planned? How many of our own goals do we look back on wistfully as another year passes and nothing turned out quite as we had hoped?

Life keeps on happening, without our control. We are out of control. We don't even control our own thoughts never mind the world around us. Deep down we know this and numb ourselves to the fear it induces with mindless media, sugary food, or alcohol.

But something magical happens when we stop worrying about our lack of control. We can still take actions, we can still think thoughts, we can still affect the world around us, we just stop worrying about whether things turn out as we expect. We stop piling stress on top of the lack of knowledge of how things will end up.

Rather than inhibiting us, the acknowledgement of our total lack of control makes it easier for us to take action. We stop worrying and do stuff. We enjoy going along for the ride and worry less about where we are going. In doing so we might just get somewhere magical - again and again.