What's the point?

We all want to make a difference; to "put a dent in the universe", however small. Some days we manage it and we feel good about having a sense of purpose beyond survival, beyond just making a living. Other days it can feel as if someone is following along behind is filling in those small dents and sanding them over.

Why bother? Why not reduce our aspirations, do no more than is expected of us, avoid rocking the boat and enjoy an easy life?

Because there is no such thing. There is no such thing as stasis. If we are not nudging forwards we are going backwards. The world keeps moving relative to us and time and progress wait for no man.

Sometimes what appears the safest thing is the riskiest. Getting a good steady job used to feel safe. Nowadays those jobs can disappear with frightening speed. The longer we've been "safe" the more devastating this can feel.

Keeping your head down used to feel safe. Nowadays if your'e not seen to be adding value, seen to know what you know and be willing to share that, then what's the point in keeping you?

Making small dents, sharing our knowledge, making a difference, is part of what we are. Forgetting this is one of life's great sadnesses. Whether we are recognised or rewarded is not the point. We are not doing it for others, we are doing it for ourselves.

That's the point.

Staying sane. Well, maybe…

People often comment during my workshops about the increasing pressure to keep up with the amount of information coming into their lives and the pressure of an “always on” existence. For all the usefulness of our mobile devices they do expose us to constant interruptions from the outside world. Whether emails from our boss, updates from our favourite celebrity, or text messages from our family, there is a constant tug to look at those small screens we carry with us wherever we go.

We need to learn to defend ourselves. We need to exercise control and impose limits. Whether this is turning off all but the most important alarms, switching off all visual alerts, or even (horror or horrors) not carrying the phone with us at all times, we need to do something. Having the self awareness and self control to do any of the above are good skills to develop.

There is an increased interest in mindfulness and meditation amongst geeks these days as a group of people who have hit these problems harder and earlier than most. For some of us this isn’t a new problem. I have tried to meditate every day and exercise mindfulness since first reading Jon Kabat-Zinn’s books more than twenty years ago when facing a particularly challenging time at work. To say that my success at applying his ideas is patchy is an understatement!

Finding the time and space to meditate, and trying to exercise mindfulness, are both a constant challenge and not getting any easier for any of us. The phones are a symptom as much of a cause and we need to protect ourselves from the various forms of overload to which the modern world subjects us.

Beating ourselves up for not managing to exercise control over our out of control minds just makes the problem worse. Catching ourselves failing and using that as a trigger to return to the moment is part of the game that Pema Chödrön is really good at explaining.

If you are interested I can thoroughly recommend Full Catastrophe Living by John Kabat-Zinn and When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön. Both are excellent at relating Buddhist philosophy and practice to our modern lives in practical and helpful ways.

The day job

This week I have been involved in great events and been privileged to hear from amazing people doing really interesting things. They are an opportunity for people to get out of the office to learn about new ways of doing things and be inspired about how they might do things differently.

But then they have to go back to the day job. Maybe they get ridiculed for acting differently or doing things differently. Maybe the mountain of stuff they have to deal with has got even bigger in their absence. Maybe they just feel overwhelmed at how different their organisation is from some of those they have heard about.

It is so important that they do something different, even if it is a tiny thing. Tiny steps repeated consistently are better than nothing. Thinking even slightly differently about your challenges is better than not thinking differently at all.

Every journey…

Wish fulfilment?

I was reminded again over the weekend of the £25Bn pounds that were spent on the NHS patient records system - to deliver NOTHING.

Something like 50 percent of IT projects fail.

Many people in business now use their own devices and public internet platforms to connect with each other and get work done.

And yet I still hear of IT departments throwing their weight around and saying no to everything with staggering hubris.

There are good folks in there trying to bring about change but the question I posed on my blog ten years ago is sadly still relevant...

"How much of the IT industry could be characterised as wide boys in cheap suits selling wish fulfilment to "out of their depth" execs?"

Shit happens

Businesses are terrified of the risk they perceive in social media. They fret about customers ganging up on them or of staff being indiscreet.

Much of this fear is misplaced but it is in part driven by the mainstream media’s appetite for pouncing on them when they slip up.

I am seeing more and more signs though of the public pushing back against sensationalism and bias in the media. Just today I heard that in France, headlines focussing on the French citizens killed in the Tunis museum attack and barely mentioning the other victims have been criticised online.

I have also started to see people defending companies who may have made a mistake but don’t deserve the sensationalist headlines that appear in the press.

These may be signs of hope…

We've all got a volume control on mob rule

This is the title of a chapter in my book in which I suggest that we all get to choose on the internet which stories we share, which we choose to refute, which we ignore and which we elaborate on. When can now do this rapidly and in large numbers.

Watching the surge of support for Jeremy Clarkson, the high levels of engagement in the Scottish referendum, or the bravery of The Arab Spring, we clearly have a powerful tool at our disposal. Whether the impact of any of those is good or bad depends very much on the perspective of the beholder but that their potency is a sign of things to come seems undeniable.

A lot of what motivates me in my work is the belief that the more of us become active online, and learn to operate as a filter, consciously managing the memes that swirl around the internet and our collective awareness, the more likely we are to arrive at a good place.

We will increasingly sit on a knife edge between the wisdom of the crowd and the madness of the mob. Each of us gets to decide moment by moment which. Exciting and scary at the same time.

Owning our conversations

I worked for twenty plus years for an organisation that industrialised story telling. In learning to passively consume content we sub-contracted our sense making to others. What excites me about the interwebs is that we get the chance to take that back.

In this post William Buist considers the future for our dominant social media platforms and I responded to it by saying "Call me an ageing hippy but I’m still hopeful that we will eventually get tired of being “owned” and see more open platforms being thought of as social infrastructure. We need to lose the media bit of “'social media'".

"What are you going to do when only stupid people will work for you?"

This was the question asked by a participant in one of my workshops when another member of the group was being bullish about banning social tools in his business. His attitude is common, trying to maintain control, clinging to an old world that is disappearing around him. Seeing a world of threat rather than a world of opportunity.

There's no point struggling to maintain stability. Careers are already a thing of the past. A job for life a nostalgic memory. For some this is terrifying; for others it isn't even yet apparent. For the rest it is an exciting opportunity to use their energy and intelligence to shape their world and experience fun and vitality while doing so.

We have at our disposal more resources than ever before to get smarter, faster, and do more with what we learn. It would be a shame to miss the opportunity...

Ologies and Isms

We are clearly in the midst of huge changes in how we make sense of the world. Partly driven by technology and the power of networked communication, partly by our old sense making stories of materialism, conservatism or socialism running out of steam.

We need new stories to help us move forward, and these will emerge with time. At a business level they will help us to replace the machine metaphor and Taylorist thinking; at a societal level they will help us move towards our modern equivalent of The Enlightenment.

But be wary of those who would sell you new stories too soon. There are always those who seek to fill power vacuums with their own theory and dogma. We need to resist the temptation to go for the easy, quick solution.

I worry that we lose our nerve. That we grasp for a new -ology or -ism to ease our discomfort with not knowing. We need to be brave.

Happy Birthday To My Blog

Gosh. Is that really another year gone by? It is now fourteen years since I wrote my first blog post on The Obvious? In some ways it feels like yesterday, in others it feels like I have always blogged.

When people ask me what I do I sometimes say public speaker, sometimes consultant, sometimes writer, but inside I am always thinking "I am a blogger". No I don't get paid directly for blogging but it has led to all of the work that I do. It is the core of my online life and has allowed me to travel the world and meet the most interesting and wonderful people.

The demise of blogging has been predicted each year that I have done it but it is still for me the most exciting opportunity that each of has, in however modest a way, to change the world around us. That simple combination of noticing more, thinking more, saying more and collectively achieving more.

There is still magic in it.

Even senior managers are human

I am often asked to talk to senior managers, usually by someone lower down the organisation who wants them to change in some way. There is a risk that we talk about them as if they are a race apart, floating ethereally above the real world, disconnected from the reality that the rest of us think we share.

But they are just like us, feeling out of their depth, feeling unable to keep up, feeling the pressure of expectations of those around and below them. They can also feel cut off. In fact one of the biggest appeals of having a social platform in their organisation is that they get to see what is going on, often for the first time.

Taking the next step of contributing is a huge challenge for most of them. Even if they have learned to hide it behind their corporate armour, they fear making a fool of themselves as much of the rest of us. It is no wonder that they are nervous, the expectations of them are often unrealistic.

We can all play our part in helping them learn to reach out and connect, understand what they are seeing, find the right words to respond. Metaphorically holding their hand as they engage with that online social world is immensely rewarding. They are only human after all...

A flippant curser

No not a flashing cursor, but someone who drops the odd swear word into their conversation. Goodness knows why the phrase popped into my head this morning, probably a reaction to having used my new acronym MVB (Minimum Viable Bollocks) during my keynote at the Henley KM Forum this week.

Anyway, it occurred to me that I need to be careful. It would be too easy, in an attempt to come across as familiar and relaxed, to make too many assumptions about what others are comfortable with. It's a bit like dress code. When asked to wear anything other than my standard casual shirt and jeans I've been known to respond that "I don't do fancy dress".

And yet I have even had people come up to me after a keynote and thank me for wearing jeans! They had, rightly, seen it as a push back against the conformity of business suits and ties. Likewise with my language. It is a conscious attempt to introduce more every day ways of talking into a world where formality, passive verbs, and the third person are the norm.

I don't want to appear disrespectful but I do want to signal difference. Yes it takes more than wearing black t-shirts and dropping the odd f bomb to change the world but you have to start somewhere and maybe it will encourage others to ease the shackles of conformity even slightly.

Judgement

Judgement is something we are usually keen to get good at, to have been seen to exercise good judgement, to be a good judge of character. Discerning good from bad is surely a good thing? Knowing when something has been done well and when it hasn't - isn't that the first step in progress?

It is seen as a skill in management. Judging who has done better, who deserves reward, who deserves punishment.

But judgement has a dark side - being judgemental. Judging others and finding them wanting is something we all indulge in. Whether it is political extremes projecting their own dysfunctional nastiness onto each other, or religions judging other religions to be the work of the devil. It makes us feel good to judge others. We can feel superior. We can ignore our judging of ourselves, the pain of finding ourselves wanting.

Like everything else the online world can amplify judgement. It can speed it up and increase its scope. We can work out good from bad faster but we can also judge more people for their actions and we can compare ourselves unfavourably against more people whom we deem successful.

We all do it, and I am as bad as the next person. Maybe we should try not to.

Don't just do something stand there

In my first job at the BBC, doing planning for Post Production, I used to beast in to my work, focus hard, and try to improve. The result was I often finished my day's work in a few hours. I would then look around at my fellow office workers still working away and wonder.

When I got into management I would sit in meetings that were there because they'd always been there. People had forgotten why they were originally instigated but they still turned up, because that is what you do. Again I wondered.

Nowadays I walk through the city and look in on open plan offices of mostly men in suits staring at computer screens in mute dedication. And still I wonder.

Nowadays I am a professional pontificator. I get paid to think and share what I think. Sometimes I feel guilty about this. I feel guilty about how much I enjoy my job. About how it doesn't feel like work. I have more than my fair share of legacy protestant work ethic. With a mum who was an elder in The Church Of Scotland it was inevitable.

But I want more thinking. I want more people to think more. I am often told that it is unreasonable to expect others to think, especially not at work. They are too busy, too keen to keep their heads down.

Such compliant busyness. Does it have to be this way?

I wonder.

Belonging

I had a great meeting recently with Isabel Collins who is building a consulting business around the idea of belonging. We talked about the sort of things people feel the need to belong to and why. What is the optimal group size for a sense of belonging? What norms have to exist to give us something to belong to? What is the right degree of conformity?

My own belief is that networks of autonomous, tolerant, collaborative individuals are how we are going to thrive in the future and the only way we are going to solve our complex and volatile challenges. What is the minimum amount of structure, rules, or consistent behaviours that allows those networks to work and not fall into dysfunction and disorder? What is the right balance between the outlook and interests of the individual and those of the network? How do we keep the networks fluid and diverse enough to avoid them becoming tribal? How do we retain our identity when we belong to multiple, overlapping, networks?

Last night I read a long but fascinating article about ISIS in which I was struck by the need that fundamentalists of any religious persuasion have to belong. A need to belong that overrides their individuality and even, in extreme cases, their need to live.

Even in the workplace there is an often overwhelming pressure to conform, to fit in. We are encouraged to sublimate the self to the needs of the group. Dissent is frowned upon and individualists invariably end up being ejected.

A need to belong to something larger than ourselves is clearly a powerful part of being human. How do we avoid that need overcoming our sense of self, our ability to operate effectively, and our very humanity, in the process?

A wonderful lack of normality

One of the greatest joys of my job is that I work with such a wide variety of organisations, from large corporations, to governments, to charities, to small startups, to individuals. There is also no pattern as to what sector those organisations operate in nor even the countries they are based in. I don’t even work with the same people for very long as most of my engagements are very short term.

While this can be challenging when it comes to finding work or marketing my services it also has the wonderful consequence of there being no sense of normal. There is no pressure to “fit in” as there is nothing to fit in to. There are no pressures to conform, no tribes to belong to, no peers to compete with.

Clearly I am not immune to the influence of the media, my local community, or those I rub shoulders with online. But my exposure to each of those is more in my control. I am not stuck in the same office day in day out. I am not stuck in repetitive patterns of behaviour or routine. I am not forced to listen to the same stories all the time.

This lack of identity could feel challenging to some but I relish it. It means I have little “received wisdom”. I have to constantly work out what I think and why. I have to think for myself. I think this is a good thing.

Messing with your head

Thoughts rattle around my head all the time, good ones, bad ones, confusing ones, and the odd interesting one.

Two or three times a week I sit in front of a "blank page" in my text editor and start writing in the hope of getting some of those thoughts out of my head and onto the page. Sometimes I don't recognise them. Sometimes they look better, sometimes they look worse.

I try to make them intelligible to others, getting the right words in the right order, deciding where to put the paragraph breaks, hoping that they make sense.

And then I copy them into my various places on the web and press save...

... and seconds later they appear on your screen, you read them, and somehow the thoughts that were rattling around my head, only moments ago, are now rattling around yours.

This is a kind of magic.

Choosing your words carefully

I get a funny look when I tell people that I read books on poetry and grammar as a way of improving my tweets and blog posts. Trying to squeeze the maximum value out of those 140 characters or optimal four paragraph posts. I take it as my responsibility when my posts are misconstrued and comment threads veer off in wild directions. I resolve to try harder next time.

This is even more true in the world of work, especially as more and more people work in distributed networks, where their only experience of each other is through their online exchanges. All we know of people is the words they choose to use and the order in which they use them. It is possible for our boss to throw their weight around verbally without even realising. Underlying assumptions become visible through use of grammar. Tensions surface in the inadvertent use of apparently innocently chosen words.

I love all this. I love trying to get better at it. I love how much it matters. I love to pass this enthusiasm on to others!

Working things out

Over the years I have been part of various groups of varying sizes working together in different ways. From the large, complex, bureaucratic organisation that was the BBC, to networks of people with only an intent and internet conversations to hold them together.

It is too easy to think that sharing the same physical space and having face to face meetings was better. Many of you will know just how frustrating that "normal" work experience can be, how confusing, how haphazard, how imprecise.

Likewise purely online work can be challenging. The things that are unsaid or misunderstood, the soul sapping experience of long conference calls, the struggle to work out what it is that you are meant to feel part of and how.

The rules are changing, the lines getting blurred. I am lucky enough to work with interesting people trying to work all of this out. Experts involved in property and the workplace, technology, communications, HR... the lot.

We are at the beginning of a really big transition in our experience and understanding of work. Who works, why, where and how.

Some days it feels exciting, some days it feels overwhelming.