Don't panic, don't panic (to quote Corporal Jones)

In spite of our best efforts we have little control over our lives. It terrifies us to admit it but from natural disasters, to twists of economic or political fate, to our relationships to our loved ones, we have no direct ability to control anything. Let's face it, most of us can't even control the thoughts running through our own heads!

When we notice this, and try harder to exercise control, we invariably make things worse. We get fearful, we get stressed, we start acting differently and make worse decisions or freak out those around us.

And yet there is a part of us, deep down and mostly hidden, that can just watch all of this happening. That knows that we don't need to control everything, that is perfectly capable of responding appropriately to whatever happens. The common sense that we all share without need of dogma or effort just asks that we get still long enough to hear it.

Digital Transformation

The meaning of the word digital has become so broad as to be almost useless, and most organisations prefer tinkering to transformation, but Digital Transformation has clearly become a thing.

To me it is about the pressure to change that organisations are experiencing due to the fact that their customers and staff are finding their voice. We are able to talk about them as never before. They don't own their brands, we do - their staff do.

Whether it is marketing teams using digital means to promote their messages, employee engagement programmes to attempt to reclaim the attention and commitment of staff who are ever more aware of better opinions, or even the use of real digits in the form of big data, AI, and automation to change processes, it is all about responding to pressures that most organisations haven't had to deal with before. Many are struggling.

PowerPointless

I marvel at the extent to which communication in the workplace has become about shuffling slide decks instead of talking to each other. Or writing good prose for that matter.

Rather than engaging directly with people to convey the power of our ideas we hide behind the apparent professionalism of a polished presentation - or we clog up our IT systems sending each other bloated files rather than writing well crafted and effective emails.

Worse still constructing PowerPoint has become a primary tool for thinking. There are so many better tools out there - paper and pencil for one, plaintext documents, mind mapping tools, powerful outliners. All of these tools allow you to focus on your ideas with the minimum of friction rather than grappling with the beast that PowerPoint has become.

Sure, if you have to, back up your face to face presentation with simple slides and images, but don't let PowerPointless become what you do for a living.

Life's too short.

What to do?

There are probably two main themes to the conversations I have with people in organisations - how to deal with complexity, and what to do about staff who are increasingly disengaged. The two are inextricably linked.

As work life becomes faster changing, less stable, more unpredictable, many managers attempt to exercise greater control. They do this by doing more of what they know, what they are comfortable with. More meetings, more communication campaigns, more technology.

But this leaves staff feeling that it's all being done to them. They too can see the increased complexity and unpredictability but they are left feeling that they have less agency, even less control over their own destinies than they had before. As a result they disengage.

The counterintuitive answer to change and complexity is to do less, certainly for managers. It's like the way to deal with a plane spiralling out of control is not to fight the controls but to let go of them and allow the plane to self correct and re-discover its own balance. I often quote Dave Snowden's insight that the way to handle complex environments is with simple rules.

Find these simple rules, deal with those who fail to adhere to them, let staff rediscover their own ability to solve problems, and let the system self-correct.

Actionable Outcomes

I often quote the inversion "don't just do something stand there".

There is such a strong tendency, indeed cultural pressure, to be seen to be doing something in business. We used to joke at the BBC that when someone was promoted to a senior role they couldn't just look around and say "Everything looks fine to me I'll leave it alone." They got more brownie points for screwing things up than for doing nothing.

It is for this reason that I react badly when people get all macho about demanding “actionable outcomes” from meetings or presentations.

Does taking the time to think more deeply about stuff that really matters before you do something stupid count as an actionable outcome? Does thinking long and hard enough to fundamentally change your perspective on life in a way that affects your future interactions with people count as an actionable outcome?

I suspect not.

Changing People

I've expressed concern previously about use the phrase "driving change" but now realise that my true discomfort goes deeper.

What bothers me is the underlying assumption that we can change other people - or have the right to try. We can't and we don't.

We can change our own behaviours, we can change processes and structures, but we can’t change people - only they can.

And they have to want to.

Letting go

Many years ago I had the best ever sports massage in the spa at The Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego. It was so effective that I became really emotional. I was overwhelmed by the feeling of tension falling away and realised that I hadn't felt so relaxed since I was a youngster.

We build up so many worries and tensions over the years, burdening ourselves with responsibilities, holding our fears in our bodies, becoming literally bent out of shape.

Having recently renewed my interest in Buddhism I have become better at observing my thoughts and more aware of how our thoughts create our reality. I am also, most importantly, getting better at noticing the gaps in between my thoughts.

In those gaps, fleeting and rare though they are, I experience the same blissful feeling of letting go that I felt all those years ago in San Diego.

It's nice.

Intimacy

There is something profoundly intimate about the conversations that we have online. Our handheld devices are becoming extensions of our physical bodies and our interactions feel as if they are directly wired into our brains.

These apparently trivial little chunks of text that we exchange rattle around inside our skulls like overexcited neurones. They affect our moods. They cause delight or distress.

Collectively they bring to life Teilhard de Chardin's noosphere as never before. We are literally messing with our brains and with our collective psyche.

We need to be gentle with each other as we learn how to do it.

Not fighting what is

Not fighting what is I love mountains and I love climbing them. In the past, having to cancel our walk up Foel Fras in Snowdonia yesterday due to the thundery weather, would have left me in a very bad mood. I would have felt sorry for myself and resentful that the weather wasn't what I wanted. I would have spent the day with a metaphorical, self induced, cloud over my head.

But I am getting much better at accepting the way things actually are rather expending needless energy on what Buddhists call clinging or aversion, trying to hold on to things we like and push away things we don't.

I used to think this meant apathy, a sort of passive stupor, laissez faire at its worst extreme. But it doesn't. You still plan to do things, you still engage with the world and expend effort to move life forwards - you just don't get bent out of shape when it doesn't happen the way you expect.

The result of my new found equanimity was that instead of Penny having to deal with me acting like a bear with a sore head we had a very pleasant day exploring Anglesey, the highlight of which was a multi scone clotted cream tea - possibly my second favourite thing after mountains!

Driving change

Every time I hear the word "driving" used in the context of business I wince.

It reveals so many misconceptions: that the person using it is in charge; that people can be driven like cattle; that there aren't consequences to using the word.

The false macho fools no one. The use of it distances those "being driven" and they disengage.

And then to solve this problem you set up an "employee engagement programme"!

What a shame that we appear to be losing the ability to have interesting, purposeful conversations with people about how we all respond to our challenges.

Resist!

I recently installed Windows 10 on my Mac. Don't ask, but it had to be done! This has meant me not only touching the Windows world for the first time in many years but also encountering Microsoft's attempt to design an operating system that works on both a touch devices and conventional computers.

My initial reaction was to recoil in horror. Everything seemed harder than it had to be, logic appeared to be an alien concept to the interface designers, and everything looked so damn ugly!

I knew deep down that a lot of this was to do with unfamiliarity and stuck with it. I kept clicking on things until I worked out how they worked. I looked up videos on YouTube to explain the hard bits. I'm beginning to find my way around.

But what I am also bumping up against is the corporate world and its use of computers. The insistence on standardisation and fitting in. This fetish with uniformity over effectiveness sucks you into an over complicated world of not quite right templates, rigid corporate style guides, and endless hours faffing around rather than thinking or communicating. It is a reflection of the cultures in which the technology is predominantly used. Better that no one says anything interesting or useful than that things look messy or individuated!

I remember when this culture first arrived at the BBC. Countless millions spent on delivering Microsoft Office to everyone so that they could sit in serried ranks, staring at their beige boxes, messing around with PowerPoint or beating each other up with email instead of talking to each other.

It is also a symptom of a wider challenge with technology generally, that people are so passive. It is being done to them. They don't assert themselves over their technology and get it to do what they want it to do. They don't assert their right to use it to say what they want to whoever they want.

Technology is just a tool, and it is our tool. Yours and mine. Not theirs. We need to make the effort to learn what we want from our tools. We need to keep things simple, effective, and personal. We need to be brave and assert our right to do so.

Death

I finally got around to reading Carlo Rovelli's Seven Brief Lessons On Physics. Wonderful, mind blowing book. In it though he expresses doubt that we will last as a species. Given how many species, including our own ancestors, have come and gone - and combined with our current self destructive activities - he's pessimistic.

While showing Penny how to do something online with our finances yesterday I made some comment about it being important that she learn how to do it herself as I won't always be around. She got upset.

I visited my parents at the weekend. They are both in their eighties. Mum used the phrase "when I'm gone" a couple of times in conversation. I have no idea how I will cope when they go.

Life is such an amazing adventure but much of its meaning is down to the fact that it is finite. It comes to an end. How we feel about this, and how this knowledge of our inevitable demise conditions our behaviour while we are here, matters.

And yet we struggle with thinking about it at all, hide it behind hospital doors, pretend it won't happen, and act as if life is a blank cheque.

I was going to make a joke about this, as we usually do, and call this post "A cheery topic for a Monday morning". I decided not to.

Zombie Documents

I remember David Weinberger once saying that "documents are dead". Would that things were that simple!

I watch people in business struggling with the persistent idea that documents are how we convey information. We still think of them as real things, formatted for reading on paper, stored in pretend folders, lying on pretend desktops.

Yes there is some stuff that still gets printed off, but nowadays is it more likely that the same content can be presented as a web site, shared as an editable Google Doc, or read as PDFs, ePub, and on umpteen different devices with different demands and formats. The result is a stressful mess for many people in business who write in one format then publish in another, mangle documents into PDFs - and don't even start me on forms written in Word that break when you try to complete them. There is also the ongoing issue of incompatible legacy formats which only seems to get worse.

The combination of these issues is why I do all of my writing in plain text. The tools are simple and lightweight, I don't get tempted to faff around with fonts and formatting instead of getting the ideas down "on paper", and I know I will always be able to open any text file on any computer.

Only at the very end do I think of formatting and where the text will end up. I am writing this, as I do all of my writing on anything but long form stuff, in Drafts, a wonderful iOS app that allows me to "send" the finished text to umpteen other apps in umpteen formats - and only once the writing is finished.

Being cruel to be kind.

Change in large organisations is such a perennial challenge. How do you bring about change across multiple business units, diverse cultures, tribal rivalries?

Real change calls on change at a personal level. Behaviours have to change and beliefs have to change with them, otherwise change is the proverbial lipstick on a pig.

Do you plant seeds, ideas that propagate virally, and allow people to buy in to the proposed changes at a deep and personal level? Or do you mandate change, throw out old processes and start again, forcing people to adapt or leave?

Most organisations fudge it somewhere in the middle. This just confuses people and saps energy. If you don't have time to follow the viral route is it better to be cruel to be kind?

On the death of a "real friend".

Very sad to read, via another blogging friend from the old days Garret Vreeland, of the death of Mark Wood, writer of the marvellous wood s lot.

I just referred to both Mark and Garret as friends - but I have met neither of them.

This prompted the recollection of the following story from my book in the chapter on “real friends”:

Way back in the early days of blogging, when it was a much smaller world, I read a wonderful blog by called “wood s lot” by Canadian Mark Wood. Mark still does a remarkable job of curating fascinating content from quality sources around the web and I got a lot of value from his remarkable ability to spot interesting content. Mark didn’t blog much about himself but one day he announced that he was going to have to stop blogging because he wasn’t going to have access to a computer.

This was a real blow as I loved reading his blog and I found myself wondering why he wasn't going to have access. Was he going in to hospital? Was he running out of money? Was he about to be arrested?? I realised that I didn’t care what the reasons were - I just wanted him to be able to keep blogging. So I decided to set up a PayPal account and encourage people to donate money to enable Mark to buy a computer. I blogged about this and by the end of the day we had several hundred dollars in the account. I arranged for this to be transferred to Mark and he kept blogging.

I never did really find out the circumstances, and I never knew for sure that the money was spent on the computer, all I know is he kept blogging. So was this friendship? I don’t know - maybe is it something different. But it is not nothing.

Forms over substance

I recently had to fill in forms for two different organisations. Each form asked me questions that if I answered them truthfully contradicted each other. Both organisations just contacted me to say that I had filled in their form incorrectly.

How much organisational energy is wasted trying to force reality to conform to their distorted idea of how it should be rather than adapting to the real world they operate in?

The wonders of technology

It is all too easy to get caught up in the anti technology band waggon and forget what unbelievably clever devices they are - and how lucky we are to have them.

During our visit to Torquay at the weekend Apple maps guided us on our route down, avoided traffic build ups, and was, as is often the case, within five minutes of its predicted journey time over a nearly three hour journey.

I was able to use the amazing camera in the phone take great photos in diverse and sometimes challenging light conditions without even thinking about it. I was also able to film us paddling in and out if sea caves on our kayak trip.

I was able to use Ordnance Survey maps in the wonderful ViewRanger app to plan and track our sea journey.

I was able to video FaceTime my mum while I was sunbathing floating in the bay on the kayak. I could point out the beach and our hotel while bobbing gently on the waves, giving her a sense of being somewhere and doing something that she is unlikely to experience for herself.

And yes, horror of horrors, I was able to share some of our experiences on the trip on social media!

Cambridge Analytica is just the beginning.

It's been fascinating the number of people to whom the antics of Cambridge Analytica came as a surprise. I'm guessing there's a large overlap between them and the people who think that their demise has solved the problem. The media didn't help by describing what they did as "hacking". This wasn't some sort of marginal, one off bit of criminality - this was inevitable.

As the amount of data that is collected continues to increase exponentially the amount of trails and patterns we leave will likewise expand. The exciting and positive uses to which this data can be put will advance apace, but so will the nefarious uses.

The problem is that one person's exciting is another person's nefarious. Who gets to decide which is which? Who writes the laws that enforce these decisions? Who's keeping up and who is letting us down with their "I don't do technology" excuse?

If there is someone you know who is dragging their heels, and letting you down, feel free to point them at my [ideology of algorithms][1] article.

[1]; https://diginomica.com/2018/03/29/the-ideology-of-algorithms/

The rat race

On the odd occasions that I travel in to London during morning rush hour I marvel at the subtle jockeying for pole position that goes on on the station platform. An error of judgement could mean not getting through the door fast enough and not getting a seat so it's a life and death struggle.

I imagine the jockeying for position carrying on through the working day. I remember well the underlying worry about not keeping up, being overlooked, being left standing.

Is this inevitable? Is competition just part of human nature? Is it symptomatic of the drive that fuels progress?

Or is It a shame?

Patterns

I am currently playing with an app that purports to work out how I spend my time. It does do some clever stuff trying to work out what is work, what is commute etc. but given that I work all over the place, and often in cafe's, the patterns are almost meaningless. I could intervene and manually adjust times, locations, and activities, but life's too short.

Amazon are pretty good at working out patterns in my purchasing - usually too good as my impulse purchases show. But a recent purchase of a pair of fairy wings by one of my daughters on my account will cause mayhem unless I, again, take the time to manually intervene.

Both of these are frustrating but not the end of the world. They do however raise concern about the patterns I leave that are interpreted by others - marketers, insurers, governments etc. They too will be imprecise and subject to error and misinterpretation and with what greater consequence than a little inefficiency?