Feeling trapped

I often worry about coming across as a smart arse, sniping at organisational life from the sidelines. It's easy for me, I work for myself. I have a degree of agency that many would envy. But I remember.

I remember the creeping feeling that something's not right but that you can't do anything to make things better. Sensing that your boss is displeased with you in some way, that you don't measure up, but not knowing why. Working for someone who doesn't understand either you or your job. Whose values are very different from yours and who seems to hold your future in their hands. I remember trying to do the right thing, trying to fit in, trying to please others. I also remember hating myself for doing it.

Then I read. I read every self help, personal development book I could lay my hands on. I still do. I started to get a sense of possibility, that things didn't have to be the way they were. I started seeing myself and others differently. I realised that I had choice, even in very small ways. I started taking very small steps. Over time these steps got bigger and they speeded up. Things started getting better.

They still are.

A different approach to enterprise technology

I delivered the closing keynote at SocialNow in Amsterdam yesterday. The organiser Ana Neves takes an interesting approach to connecting technology vendors and potential customers. Each vendor is asked to demonstrate their system, from the stage, as if applied to the same fictitious company. A panel of experts ask the first set of questions and then the audience get their chance. As a way of helping potential customers get their heads around technology it was so much more interesting and relevant than the usual unsatisfying mêlée at trade shows or being hounded by salesmen. This was a neutral space where the vendors were on a level playing field and people had a better chance to understand their offering.

I don't know this for certain, but sadly I suspect that there weren't many in the room in control of IT budgets. The macho, big numbers game of enterprise procurement gets played out in very different ways in different places. During my time at the BBC I got an insight into the world of IT procurement and it is not pretty. In fact it is borderline corrupt. Same old players, often changing sides from vendor to buyer, escalating expectations and budgets in a pathetic arms race. They then spend even more money deploying their over engineered, over priced systems, and their organisations waste even more time and energy adapting to them and coping with their not always positive impact.

Building a technology ecology from small iterative deployments of specific tools, with a throw away mentality that allows more constant adaptation, driven by ongoing conversations with users is the only way to do technology efficiently. We can manage this on a global scale on the internet. All that is stopping us doing this inside our organisations is a combination of complacency, lack of imagination, and greed.

What price freedom?

What price freedom?

Having social tools doesn't guarantee change. There is nothing inevitable about it. Real change requires consistent changes in behavior and often manifesting those changes in behavior in public spaces takes considerable courage.

All it takes to maintain a repressive national regime is to shoot the occasional blogger. All it takes to maintain control over your corporate messaging is to make dissent a sackable offence. Moves like this one in Australia are likely to become more common.

We will all have to make harder decisions in the future about the balance between freedom and risk. We should start practicing now.

The art of saying what you think

This excellent article on the rise and fall of PR makes the point that senior people talking in public are very rarely using their own words, and indeed often don't even know what they are talking about. I remember hearing of someone talking at the UN General Council who didn't realise that he had picked up and was re-reading the previous speakers already heard speech until someone came up to the lectern and pointed it out to him!

In blogging we talk of "authenticity" and "finding your voice". I never underestimate how hard it is for people proficient in business bollocks to rediscover the art of plain speaking, but if they are going to get involved in social spaces online they have to. How can they even begin to do that when someone else is writing their words for them?

The phrase "make them look good" came up in conversation during one of my workshops this week with a group of "professional communicators". I immediately picked up on this and we went into more depth on what that "make them look good" actually means. There was a split between those who saw their job being to make sure their senior folks said the right thing in the right way in public, and those of us who saw that as artificially propping up people not up to the job.

What do you reckon? Where does helping people to do their best stop and starting to think for them start?

Don't just do something, stand there

Many moons ago I worked on a recording of an arts programme for BBC World Service. It was one of a series in which people read a short piece about their lives that had special significance for them and afforded a particular insight. As I was setting up the studio I got talking to the contributor. He was very knowledgable about the topic he was about to talk about, was articulate and compelling even in conversation, and had real presence. When he went into the studio for the read through, normally just a warm up and a chance for me to take levels etc., I decided to start a tape recording just in case.

He proceeded to read his piece brilliantly without a pause or fluff and the story was gripping. When he finished I turned to the producer, feeling pleased with myself for my intuitive foresight, and said "That was excellent, luckily I had a tape running and we got it first take." "No" she said, "I wasn't happy with it. I think it could do with improving. I will go in and talk things through with him."

So she went into the studio, sat down and proceeded to pull the thing apart line by line, giving instructions that confused the hell out of me, and presumably him. We were then made to record three more takes with him fluffing his way through them, getting progressively worse, and giving her more and more excuse to "give him a few more pointers". I then had to spend the best part of an hour hacking together the multiple takes under her instructions and ending up with a result that, to use a technical radio term, was shit.

But she felt pleased with herself. She had done her job. She had done something rather than nothing and this was good thing. Later in my BBC career I would see the same happen when senior managers were promoted to new posts. Not one of them ever looked around and said "This all looks fine I will leave it alone". They had to be seen to do something. They got more brownie points for fucking things up than they would for leaving things alone. Doing nothing was not an option.

Sometimes, perhaps even more often than not, as a manager more can be achieved by just standing there than can by doing something.

Who are you with?

"Who are you with?" is a question I am invariably asked by receptionists when I arrive at large organisations. The intention is obviously to find out which equally large organisation I work for. I sometimes respond with a mischievous "No one. It's just me. I managed to get here all on my own".

There's a world of difference behind my cheeky response and their formal assumption. I can get myself places without authority from others. I can make decisions without authority granted by others. I have agency. Many in large organisations do not, or if they do it is minimal. Try getting paid by one of these large organisations to see what I mean.

With a few notable exceptions the larger the organisation the harder it is to get paid. The bigger the system the more distributed the authority and the less agency the individual managers have. My favourite recent story is, having done the work, being told that my client's payment terms were a cash flow challenging ninety days. Not only that but the relatively senior managers I had been working for had no discretion in the matter.

Who are you with? How much agency do you have? Are you happy with that?

Words matter

We are still in the very early stages of understanding the impact of the Internet on our lives. We have a long way to go and almost limitless potential. If we are lucky we will achieve our own equivalent of the enlightenment in fifty years time or so. But we need to choose our words carefully.

To this day we are stuck with the words of enlightenment thinkers Adam Smith and Thomas Hobbes ringing in our ears and shaping our ideas of what is possible. The longer we use words like "content", "driving", "exploiting" and even "digital" carelessly and persistently the more measly and shallow our futures will be.

Keeping up with aliens

I heard recently of a senior manager who has to quit his and re-open his browser every time he wants to search for something on Google as it is set as his startup page and he knows no other way to get back there. This was a stark reminder of just how challenging many people still find technology. Sure things are getting easier, and more people are comfortable using their ubiquitous mobile computing devices than ever before, but for many, possibly most, it is still all a bit mysterious.

Even if some understand what effect the buttons many more people are vague what they actually do. How many know about the Google Page Rank Algorithm? How many understand how their Facebook newsfeed is constructed? How many know that the Internet and the web are not the same thing? These are increasingly important gaps in people's understanding. Our software is increasingly shaping our lives. The ideology of algorithms affects influence and power. Calling it "digital", saying "I don't do technology" and keeping things at arms length isn't good enough.

This is no one's fault. The rate of change is getting ever faster. Not everyone is a geek or a tinkerer, or has the time to play and discover. Not everyone is curious. Not yet. I believe they have to learn to be. They owe it to themselves and the rest of us. We all need to help those going slower than us to catch up.

Someone on a course I ran recently described me as an alien. I think I'm normal. In the future I will be.

Disapproval

In the flurry of life passing before us on the Internet it is easy to judge. For every post we like on Facebook there are as many that make us sneer or recoil.

Learning what makes you pull back, what triggers disapproval, matters.

What you judge harshly is what you see in yourself and don't like.

The nitty gritty of Organizations Don't Tweet, People Do

I am often asked "What is it like to work with The United Nations or The European Commission". I struggle with the question because I don't. I work with people who work for those organisations. In fact I will be working with those people in both organisations again in the next couple of weeks. Our conversations will be about how they do social media and again I struggle. They struggle. It is not easy.

What is easy for them is to treat social platforms as channels on which to place content. Sure they can get better at making the content relevant for those channels and the tone more appropriate - but it is still content. It is not a conversation. On social platforms I want conversations with interesting people who work in interesting situations - it's what they are for. The people I work with are really interesting and do really interesting things but most of the time when I visit their sites I don't know who I am listening to. Often there is no way to talk back, or if there is it's in a comment thread populated by other people not knowing who they are talking back to. Most of the time I disconnect and move on.

Many of the people I meet are at the front line in this shift of expectations. Some of them are being brave, being themselves, and forming genuine connections. Some of them are now friends here on Facebook. But it is not easy. How do you manage the tensions between being you and representing your organisation? Where is the line? How can one, very often junior, person represent their large, complex, often contentious organisation?

For me the answer is that they don't have to. All they have to do is to be themselves talking about what they do, what they know, what they see and what it means. This is what I love so much about Hilary Clinton on Twitter. It is her being her, doing what she does, sharing it genuinely, not being indiscrete, sometimes being brave, and generally getting it spot on. But getting your organisation to let you do this is hard. I bet it was hard for Hilary too!

So could more people do this? Could people in commercial organisations as well as political ones do this? I know it's not easy but the rewards for those who manage it will be huge.

Strategy vs reality

As I listened this morning to a friend describing her frustration at pulling together some corporate history I realised how our organisational views of the future bear little resemblence to the view in our rear mirrors.

Despite the best efforts of records management professionals it is often really hard to piece together who decided what and when. Who spoke to who about what? In what order did events happen? Even if you give up on the "paper trail" and try to piece things together through interviews and oral history recollections vary, interpretations vary, perspectives vary. To be honest - it's a right bloody mess.

And yet going forward, next time, we will follow our strategy to the letter...

Discretion

In the latest Shift podcast Megan and I talk about the pros and cons of radical transparency. Mark Gould responded with a blog post about the need to consider the impact of radical transparency on others and felt that we didn't cover this enough.

I am currently enjoying Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach and am reading the section on how to deal with writing about real people in memoirs who may not want you to write about them or who you may want to portray negatively. I am reading the book because there are many parallels between blogging and memoir writing. You want to convey the essence of a situation and pass on insights but at the same time don't want to expose or antagonise people, especially clients!

It occurred to me in a Twitter chat with Mark that maybe the word that fits here is discretion. It is an old fashioned word that you don't hear much these days. Maybe we need to resurrect it?

Not so smart

At a recent conference one of the speakers, without a hint of irony, put up a slide which read "We need to attract and retain the best talent." To my horror the lady in front of me raised her phone to take a photo of it. Really?!!

How many years have we been trotting out that same trite truism, and how long have we been doing the opposite? Our organsations don't generally treat smart people well. Smart people think for themselves. Smart people say what they think out loud. Smart people tell us when what we are doing isn't so smart. We don't like this.

I spent the weekend in Italy helping to plan this year's SOTN for which the theme will be "Smart Life". As I mentioned to Paolo, my friend and one of the founders, the first step to becoming smart is being willing to admit that you are stupid. We need to get better at this.

Customer service done right.

When we renovated our house a couple of years ago we decided to put in an air source heat pump. We are not on gas mains and oil is only going to get dearer as time goes by. The system worked OK and our bills were about a third what they had been previously. Not easy to be totally accurate about this as we weren't comparing like with like, not least the fact that we went from a leaky thirties build to essentially a modern, insulated house, but it certainly seems to be saving us a lot of money and the house was warm.

Then just before Christmas we started to hear gurgling noises in the radiators. It turns out that the heat exchanger had developed a leak and water had got into the refrigerant line inside the outdoor unit, and we would have to replace the whole system. Not only this but despite documentation from the installer that indicated that we were still within guarantee there was a lack of agreement as to when that period had begun.

We had minimal help from Green Air Heating, who we bought the system from, who chose to be rigid about the install date and guarantee. On the other hand the system suppliers Heat & Save, did the right thing and recognised that a castrophic failure of this kind should not happen, whether within the guarantee or not, and they have replaced it with their latest system which actually works much better than the original.

I am aware that I indulge in the occasional grump online about poor service but I wanted to give Heat & Save public thanks for not only doing the right thing but sticking with it to make sure that we were happy with their product. Good customer service is as much about recovery when things go wrong as it is about everything going smoothly in the first place!

Good, bad and the joys of letting things be.

I had to spend a couple of hours in Berkhamsted recently while the girls rehearsed for a school play. This gave me time to fill and I decided to go for a walk locally. The country paths are still really wet and muddy but I couldn't be bothered putting my gaiters on and so decided to walk on roads and explore the town instead.

Walking up the steep hill to the north from the canal gave me yet another chance to practise not getting wound up by circumstances and not feeling sorry for myself. Yes I was on roads rather than country paths, yes the hill was steep, yes the weather was overcast and chilly, but rather than get frustrated at any of this I just put one foot in front of the other. I noticed my breath and the stretch in my muscles. I noticed the textures of the metalled path I was walking on. I noticed the architectural shift from small, terraced houses to very large properties standing in their own grounds as I moved out of the town.

My route back down the hill was on a more remote lane and afforded wide views across countryside and over the town. The wind was strong and gusting and instead of regretting that I wasn't up a mountain in snow, as I had hoped for that week, I enjoyed the wide horizon and bracing buffeting.

I've been reading Alan Watts The Book again recently and in it he talks about our tendency to seek happiness in what we consider good, and to experience unhappiness when we are inflicted with what we consider bad. He makes the point that we can't have the one without the other. We wouldn't know what good was if we didn't know bad.

This got me thinking about the difference between a good walk and a bad walk. I wouldn't know what a bad walk was unless I had experienced a good walk but how do I define either? I can have good walks in less pleasant places and bad walks in beautiful places. I can enjoy the challenge of a hard walk and be bored with an easy bimble. I can't have the pleasure of coming down from a hill if I hadn't exerted effort on the up. In fact this is one of the aspects of hill walking that people find hard to understand - that very often the extreme effort of the up is more fun than the apparently easier, but knee jarring and accident prone down.

These thoughts helped me really, really enjoy this very ordinary bit of road bashing in grey weather. It was what it was, and wasn't what it wasn't. I didn't "try" to enjoy it. I wasn't intellectualising away negativity. I just let it be what it was - good and bad, up and down, and enjoyed it immensely!

Disaster porn and pictures of cats

A number of times over the past few days updates about What'sApp selling for $15bn in my Facebook newsfeed have sat next to distressing updates about what is happening in Kiev.

This mixture of challenging events in the world and Facebook ephemera, or first world excess, happens all the time. I follow Keith Somerville and Anne Mugishu who regularly post updates about grim events in Africa and these can often find themselves next to new age aspirational images or pictures of cats.

I sometimes worry that this is no different from the TV news mix of disaster porn and "and finally" stories. I don't very often share negative stories. It feels too easy. Feels too much like saying "look at me, I can care about suffering in the world and you should too". It feels voyeuristic, triggering a guilty pressing of the "like" button (we SO need a "not like" button) on stories that we feel we should do something about but never do more than that click of the mouse.

Is this a bad thing? Is it better to know about suffering even if we do nothing about it? Is it just life that challenge sits next to froth? Should we learn to take responsibility for our experience of the world through these new platforms as much as we should with mainstream media?

What do you reckon?

Troubled about big data

Sometimes issues can seem too abstract or remote to deal with. I guess big data, and the challenges it raises, is like this for many. I find it helps to relate the pros and cons to things I already experience.

I can see the benefits in the patterns that will emerge from increased amounts of data. I use a fitbit and various apps to track my activities and their consequences. This make it easier to make decisions about and changes in my lifestyle. I also like the visible connections between people that social platforms give me. These have enabled me to reconnect with friends or to meet interesting people I would otherwise never have encountered. I can imagine both of these benefits applied on a national or global scale to positive effect.

But I can also see the risks of people I don't know making decisions on my behalf or putting two and two together randomly and making decisions about me. Decisions that affect my life but over which I have no control.

The government's attempt to filter the Internet on our behalf have ended up, as predicted, like having a brainless IT manager filter your corporate Internet access and making arbitrary decisions as to what is acceptable and what isn't.

Consider the frustration you currently feel dealing with utility company or telephone company call centres where their data is wrong and you are dealing with people who have no ability or inclination to do anything about it but whose decisions affect your ability to live your life.

Now apply these familiar experiences to the government giving corporations access to your medical records, or the NSA/GCHQ deciding to put you on a watch list because you once wrote in your book that someone dubbed you an organisational anarchist. You probably don't know anything has happened, and don't even notice when things start to be unavailable to you or services react differently when you engage with them. Even if you do notice something you face call centre hell getting anything done about it.

For all the potential benefits, blindly trusting our lives to an increasingly autonomous database driven nightmare carries with it significant risk.

HT Antony Mayfield for the medical data link

Pointlessness

I am currently reading Natalie Goldberg's The True Secret of Writing. In it she describes an exercise in which she visited the same seat in the same cafe every day and wrote about what she saw. No more meaning or purpose than that. A pointless exercise.

She reproduces each day's writing in the book. At first I wanted to skip this section - to rush ahead to the next bit of instruction. The next bit that I could extract some practical benefit from. I saw reading her pointless writing as an even more pointless exercise. And yet... her writing has triggered memories, assumptions, insights, ideas for my work, thoughts about writing style.

Maybe we need to make just a little bit more room for pointlessness in our busy lives. Maybe even in our work lives.

Arboreal Melancholy

There are a row of pine trees along the side of the lane behind our house which I can see from my office window. They are at their most majestic in the winter with snow resting on their tops and their bark glowing golden in the setting sun. In the storms of the past few weeks the sound, as they swayed in the high wind, has been like crashing waves on a shore and soothing in a rugged sort of way. I have looked out on those trees for more than twenty years and never tire of the view.

If HS2 happens the whole row will be cut down to allow for the road to be widened for construction traffic. This will make me sad.

So have I evolved?

I met up with my friend Jeff Hall this week for a coffee. Almost literally the first thing he said to me was "So have you evolved or are you still doing the same thing?". I am ready for this question these days and calmly took it in my stride. "No, not evolved, still doing the same thing."

I used to feel guilty when asked this sort of question. I felt somehow lacking because I wasn't building a business, employing staff, aiming for the big figure buy out. I haven't done big promotional tours for my book (OK, so I'm slightly miffed about that one), and I don't pay PR or marketing people to "build my brand". It is still just me, writing, speaking, doing workshops and having conversations with people - and I love it. Long may it continue. The idea of retirement is totally alien to me now. I will happily keep doing this until too old to keep going.

And what is "this"? It is just me thinking, speaking and writing in public. Working stuff out. Working me out. Working the world out. In doing so I also hope to encourage other people, one at a time, to do the same. To think more, to write more, to share more and to connect more. Why do I do it? Because it feels good and it also feels important. I believe passionately that this is how we will deal with our individual and collective challenges. Not with strategies, not with movements, not with ideologies or dogma. But one thought at a time, one conversation at a time, one blog post at a time.