"I don't care"

It's the easiest thing to say, the most reliable "get out of jail free" card, the ultimate side-stepping of life.

When faced with mind numbing routine, or overwhelming challenges, not caring seems attractive. It's shields us from the vicisitudes of life, against the grazing and scraping as we are buffeted by our challenges, a balm for our jangled nerves.

But it is corrosive and addictive. It becomes a way if life, a shell in which we can hide, an excuse we can all too frequently give ourselves.

And then one day it's too late. We've lost the ability to care, we don't care that we don't care. Our lives are out of control, freewheeling aimlessly, a recollection of unease our only memory of a time when we cared.

We should take more care...

Painful reflections

The internet is like one of those shaving mirrors you get in hotel bathrooms. You know the ones, especially those with bright lights around their frame, that seem to expose and exacerbate every flaw and blemish on your face.

Learning to use social tools for work feels the same. Starting to work out loud, and in groups, is awkward to begin with. What might have been got away with in a face to face exchange lingers online. A brusque response, a glib aside, a "light hearted" criticism, sits there staring at us for hours days and weeks, growing in magnitude each time we look at it. Our flaws, and those of others, gain a permanence and are amplified in a way that is testing, but testing in a good way.

Those shaving mirrors were invented to improve on the blurred, hazy images of our faces obscured by steam that risked missing bits of stubble or slicing layers of skin. It's the same with social tools. They enable us to get up close and intimate with attitudes and behaviours that arguably we should already have been dealing with. They make it harder to hide and cover up our moments of shame.

They are not for the faint hearted but reward those willing to take a closer look at their actions and their consequences, willing to learn from their mistakes, and willing to learn to learn together.

Guilt and accountability.

It would appear from recent developments in neuroscience that we are less conscious of our decision making than we would like to think. One of the most important functions of our brain is to filter the world as we perceive it, to identify from the infinite number of inputs that surround us those which matter and those which we should pay attention to. These filters are in part genetic, partly cultural, partly the result of previous filtering, and take place at a subconscious level.

These filtered perceptions and memories, which are themselves filtered for a second time as we retrieve them, form the basis for our apparent decision making process. I say apparent because we are not aware of much of this process happening! We then retro fit a story of conscious decision making onto what we have unconsciously decided in order to maintain our illusion of being in control of ourselves and the world around us.

Walking around Auschwitz last weekend this out of control decision making was troubling me. Did the Nazis have a choice? Was their industrialised evil inevitable given the vast number of small, unconscious, genetically and culturally driven micro decisions that led up to it out of their conscious control? Were those horrendous events inevitable given the time, the people, the context?

The slippery topic of guilt then arises. If what happened was inevitable what happens to guilt? Guilt is an emotive word, loaded with all sorts of moral and cultural baggage. It assumes a level of conscious control and intent that may not be our reality. It leads to feelings of justified retribution, ripples that spread out and subtly affect the attitudes of millions and itself becomes one of those unconscious factors that will steer the decision making of generations into the future.

But none of this means we get let off for the consequences of our actions. Causing untold suffering and misery isn't something we can ignore or condone. Whether or not we are conscious of our decisions we make them and they have consequences.

This is where the idea of accountability is, I think, more helpful. However unconsciously our decisions are made they have consequences and we must be held accountable for those consequences.

Arguably you have to be "out of control" to carry out even a more mundane murder never mind instigating the insanity on the scale of The Holocaust. No one "in their right mind" would do such a thing.

But this doesn't mean that you should ever expect to walk free having taken the life of another - whatever neuroscience might suggest.

Masterclass at Roffey Park

Most of the talks I do are for staff in organisations or, if public, for professional associations or trade conference so few are open to the public or intended for a more general audience. So it is nice to be able to let you know about a Masterclass I am going to be doing at Roffey Park on the 10th of March entitled Thriving In A Digital World. A 10% reduction is available for bookings made before the 12th of February.

A plague of managers

We need managers in our organisations. We always will. We just don't need them as much as they think we do.

It fascinates me watching startups grow beyond the original founders and the rate at which they accrete managers. When they get as big as Google, Twitter or Yahoo you start to see cracks at the seams as the original principles and behaviours get buried under the MBA fuelled "business as usual" mindset.

Established organisations suffer too. If they encounter problems they invariably try to solve them by throwing managers at them. If they've run out of managers they hire more from consultancies!

Once in place management culture becomes an end in itself and anyone who dares question it risks disapproval, marginalisation, or dismissal.

When I was in an operational job at the BBC we enjoyed fantasising about inverting the pyramid. We knew what we had to do, we did it without supervision, and we also knew when we needed help to resolve conflicts or when change needed to happen. We imagined only recruiting managers when we needed such support and keeping them on short term contract only for the time that they were needed. An unrealistic fantasy perhaps but closer to the truth than many would like to think.

Don't get me wrong, good managers can transform a business, great ones can transform lives. Like I said, we need managers and always will. We just need them not to get ideas above their station!

What other people think

Yesterday I expressed surprise and disappointment on discovering that some teenage girls photoshop images of themselves before posting them online. In the ensuing Facebook comment thread there were interesting differences of opinion as to whether this was a good or a bad thing, an extension of the habit of wearing makeup, and so on.

My discomfort with this practice was the idea that youngsters should be so concerned what others think of them. Probably an unrealistic concern when it comes to teenagers, the age when comparison with others is at its most intense.

But it relates to a post I wrote a year or so ago called "The risk of becoming conservative" in which I confessed that gaining a larger audience was making me more conservative in what I wrote about, and more likely to moderate the strength of the views that I shared.

Worrying what others think of us is an inevitable human trait. Fear of disapproval is one of the greatest inhibitors when it comes to using social tools at work. That phrase is on my second last slide in my workshops and presentations.

But my last slide is about love. The basic human instinct to reach out and connect, to be part of something worthwhile, to care and make a difference. We need to be brave and willing to feel exposed if we are going to do other than keep our heads down and stay safe.

We need to get better at not worrying what other people think.

Learning to switch off

Thanks to our ubiquitous devices we are more vulnerable to other people's expectations than ever before. Whether it is our boss, colleagues, or even family, the number of people who can cause our phones to ping, shake, and flash has never been greater.

At work there has been an assumption for years that everyone is sitting at their work stations playing ping pong with emails and any response slower than instant is cause for rising frustration and paranoia. Now that we carry our connections with us all the time this assumption has escaped the confines of the office.

Instead of enjoying our lunchtime walk to the sandwich bar we constantly fret "Did they see my great idea in that email I sent them?", "What if they didn't think it was so great?", "What if they are laughing at it with the folks they are drinking with in the bar?", "I wish I'd been invited to the bar". And on it goes...

We have to learn to walk away from all of this. To choose to turn it off, in our heads as well as in our phones. Turning off those visual and audible alerts; leaving the phone behind sometimes; only replying to emails in batches at either end of the day and putting in a note in your email signature that this is your new way or working.

We only have ourselves to blame. If we aren't in control of our time and attention - who is?

Social media doesn't cause problems, it exposes them.

Time wasting, narcissism, gossip, abusive behaviour, the list of negative things that the social media is accused of is endless.

But it is us who indulge in those behaviours, who cause trouble, who act without concern for our impact on others. Seeing this as the fault of technology is an excuse. It lets us off the hook and allows us to expect someone else to take the blame.

The same is true at work. Organisations fret about the impact of staff using enterprise social networks, claiming that the tools cause time wasting and indiscretion. But those systems simply surface issues, or risks, that were always present. They were just unseen and not dealt with.

Whether at work or at home we should be more willing to feel our discomfort, take it personally, squirm a bit, think about it, learn from it.

The Voices In My Head

Are coming from you, and you, and yes, you!

A voice in my head is what you all are each time you post an update on Facebook, Twitter or wherever. It's what I am to you as you read this.

I trust you enough to let you inside my head and you trust me enough to reciprocate.

Sometimes what you think is trivial seems fascinating to me. Sometimes what you think is fascinating seems trivial to me.

Whether trivial or fascinating these little glimpses into each other's heads are new. We have never experienced them before, certainly not with this scale, immediacy, and intimacy.

It is worth paying close attention while we play with this new found ability.

Under The Weather

Spending as much time as I do walking in mountains I have developed an interest in the weather and particularly in clouds. From Eric Langmuir's Mountaincraft and Leadership, to The Cloudspotter's Guide I have read about the different cloud formations umpteen times and, apart from when they are really obvious, can spend ages staring at the sky trying to work out what is going on.

I sort of kid myself that I am understanding what is happening. I try to pin down the complexity and randomness with words and definitions, rules and principles. My inability to do so with any reliable accuracy becomes a source of anxiety. I wish I was better at it, I wish I'd read more and better books on it.

Aren't we the same with so much about ourselves and the world around us? Trying to label, to pin down, to make clear and understandable. It is the source of much of the busyness of the world of work - and the cause of much of our stress in that environment. I remember watching senior managers move into post and earn more brownie points by screwing things up than by leaving things alone because at least they were seen to have done something.

Maybe we'd get on better if we just relaxed, lay down in the metaphorical grass, put our hands behind our heads, looked up and enjoyed the show...

Think harder, share better.

I am currently reading, and enjoying, Cal Newport's new book Deep Work. In it he discusses the benefits of focus in our work and the means of achieving this. He also makes much of the internet's power to distract us from this focus.

But it is combining increased focus with effective use of our networks that will bring us success. As I said yesterday if it wasn't for the internet I would never have heard of sceptics like Cal. It is our networked tools that allow us to learn more and share more of what we have learned.

If, as I believe, the threat of automation is looming over many knowledge work jobs, thinking harder and sharing better will become survival techniques.

Better start getting good at both now!

Profiles In Converse interview

After I delivered my TEDx talk at Cambridge University last year I was interviewed for a Chinese student network. They have now made the video available on YouTube, including out takes at the end!

Coping with lack of structure

Listening to the girls get up this morning to get ready for school, and back into the routine and structure that this entails, it struck me how different my life now is from this standard nine to five pattern.

Unless I am working with a client, or have booked meetings or phone calls, my days are pretty free-form. This is both a curse and a blessing. When I am focussed and motivated it is a blessing, as I can shape my day around the things I have to do and the best times to do them. When I am down on energy and drifting it is a curse as any attempt to turn my mood around is up to me.

Over the years I have deployed many productivity techniques to help with this, from being a big Getting Things Done advocate for many years, to now using my calendar to assign a time for all but the smallest tasks and responding like a trained rat when the alarm goes off. I can of course find ways to duck and dive and avoid my best attempts at structuring my efforts and end up back where I started. Part of the answer is that even those that work in offices nine to five spend large parts of that time not being particularly productive or focussed and I sometimes think that being responsible for this ourselves makes us hyper critical of our behaviours.

I reckon more and more people are going to work freelance, or some variant on the home working/part time model. Working out how to do this to best effect, without descending into a guilt ridden, sado-masochistic sloth, is going to be a skill worth developing.

Us and them

It's so easy to do, to identify "them". Those not like us, those from that other "tribe", those we look down on, the enemy.

I am as guilty of this as the next person and can slip into demonising managers, IT, and those who don't "get" the internet or technology.

The next step is to devalue those others, to dehumanise them, to find reasons to reject them, to exclude them and at our worst to justify killing them.

But there is only us. There only ever was. I for one am going to try harder this year to remember this.

Being good enough

This is the time of year when Santa will bring us a present if we have been good enough.

Once we get to school we get good grades if we are good enough, and at work we'll get promoted if we are good enough.

As we get old we're told that we'll get to heaven if we've been good enough.

We are trained to let others decide if we are good enough.

But we trust those others less than we used to.

We need to learn to aspire to our own highest standards and realise what we are capable of.

If we all do this we might just be better than anyone ever imagined.

At least there will be no one else to blame if we're not...

Holding our companies, and ourselves, to a higher standard.

Last night while watching the TV, an unusual event which I almost immediately regretted, I saw a programme about consumer products which had a couple of stories about branding and marketing and just how dodgy those "professions" have become.

The first was that the brand names of Polaroid and Blaupunkt are used on electronic products that are made my companies with no connection with either of those companies. In fact Polaroid is apparently know as a "zombie brand" in that it no longer makes any products and exists only as a brand.

The other story was about high end cosmetics and perfumes where the cost of the product can be as much as 95% marketing and packaging. All that money ending up in the pockets of "the creative industries" convincing us that we have a need for products whose actual cost is 5% of what we are persuaded to pay for them.

Lastly today I noticed this story about Nurofen marketing what look like specific painkillers, at double the price, that turn out to be no different from standard Nurofen.

All of these seem beyond anything justified by effective business and are downright dishonest and manipulative. Some of you work for companies that indulge in these practices, and no doubt worse. Some of you may sit in on meetings at which these sorts of things get discussed.

I have written before about the possibility of using our online connections, or internal social networks, to hold our organisations, to higher standards. Many of us, including myself, work with or for these companies. I am becoming increasingly robust in questioning their activities and have on occasion declined to work with those that I feel strongly enough about. I would encourage you to do the same.

Reaching out.

The internet shrinks distance. Whether this is bringing us closer to relatives on the other side of the world, finally realising that the person far across your open plan office who you've been staring at for years is part of the solution to your problem, or customers being able to directly connect with someone inside the faceless corporation they've been banging their head against. We are discovering the power of proximity.

But with proximity comes risk and responsibility. The inside and the outside of our organisations are becoming harder to distinguish. The barriers between home and work are blurring. The edges of our companies are more permeable. As individuals we are having to get better at managing the joins.

I heard of someone about to go through a merger with another company who thought it would be cool to connect online with their opposite number, and soon to be colleague, without realising that the law prohibited them from doing so. We've all had that situation of having agreed to link with someone on LinkedIn and then second message they send is trying to sell us something. Or maybe we've been reading that influential industry blogger's posts for years and, thanks to their easy going style, feel like we know them - but how would they react if we reach out and try to connect with them?

This is why lurking matters. Finding the people you want to connect with, working out where they spend time and watching how they behave. You need to learn the ropes, get to understand the rules and the etiquette of people and situations. Think about the person you are about to connect with. What are their challenges and priorities? What sort of language do they use? What is your motivation for connecting with them and is it mutually beneficial?

Sometimes we forget that this is nothing new. We've always had to think about building networks and relationships whether in business meetings or at parties. We know how to establish common ground, build trust, and respect each other.

All it takes to do this online is a little thought and a little courage.

Digital Limbo

In his influential book Crossing The Chasm, Geoffrey A. Moore wrote of the challenges of moving from our old ways of doing things to new, technologically enabled ones. Sadly many don't quite make it to the other side and get stuck in some sort of digital limbo, not having let go of previous ways of doing things, but not fully embracing the new either.

Just because you have some new social platform, or aspire to "virtual working", doesn't mean that you don't need to manage situations or invest time in people and relationships. You may need to have less face to face contact but you need to invest more in building online trust and understanding.

Especially in the early days when everyone is finding their feet you need to be obsessive about staying in touch, being as transparent as possible, and stating the obvious at every opportunity. We have all seen comments threads spiraling downwards due to an off the cuff contribution, or people shooting off in the wrong direction due to a less than clear post. Worse still is the inclination to discuss online misdemeanors offline with the risk of that particular back-channel tipping into gossip and character assassination.

There is so much to be gained from using our tools appropriately and exercising our new found skills but it doesn't just happen. It takes thoughtfulness, focus, tolerance and consideration. Real work.

Other People

We all do it. Assuming that what is wrong with the world around us is down to other people. If we could just change those other people all would be all right.

How many times has that worked for you? How many times have you truly changed anyone? How much energy have you wasted trying?

The only thing we truly have control over is ourselves, and even that seems like a struggle most of the time.

Keeping up

Although people usually leave my workshops feeling fired up and enthused about the social web, they also frequently confess to feeling overwhelmed by it. The sheer volume of incoming information, combined with the unfamiliarity of tools, which themselves keep changing, is all too much. A common response is to shut down and stick with what is familiar. When you already feel busy having another thing to attend to is the last thing you need.

The problem is that some do manage to keep up. They do make the effort to learn the tools, to discipline themselves in their use, to focus on making sure that the good stuff surfaces and the noise abates. Those people get smarter faster. They make better decisions more often.

There are more of them every day.

[The most recent episode of Shift, the podcast I do with Megan Murray, is about overwhelm and I'll be publishing it later today]