Stating the obvious.

I am struck by how often people say "I have nothing to blog about. Why would people be interested in what I think?" when we are discussing using social tools at work. They suffer from the same reticence as I did when I started blogging all those years ago. "Who am I to say this?" "Surely everyone knows this?" I called my blog "The Obvious?" because it was me overcoming my reticence about stating the obvious in public. Even the question mark was a self deprecating virtual nervous tick!

And yet most people love talking about what they know when you are in conversation with them face to face. We all have valuable experience and given the right encouragement will willingly share it. Maybe it's because we are sharing in writing?Maybe even that little bit of additional formality makes us feel presumptuous?

The thing is, once you get over this hurdle amazing thing start to happen. Often what seems obvious to us isn't obvious to everyone. They may never have realised what we are sharing. Or maybe they had realised it but are glad someone else has too! At the very worst you might share something that is common knowledge. Is that the end of the world?

All that is necessary

Following on from my visit to Auschwitz last month I have been reading as much as I can to try to understand how such an atrocity could ever happen. I have just begun reading "An Interrupted Life: The Diaries And Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941-1943". Powerful, thoughtful, and heart rending, they are an intimate insight into the last two years of Etty's life before her death in the gas chamber. Reading such personal stories makes the situation all the more real than broad historical political analysis of the times. It also reveals, as I have written before, how terrifyingly ordinary evil can be, and how ordinary people allow it grow.

It is inconceivable that seventy years later we could be watching the apparent rise of fascism in America. "The Revenge of the Lower Classes and the Rise of American Fascism" (that I linked to yesterday) is a recent article by Chris Hedges that pulls no punches and is hard to argue with. Current conventional politics seem as much part of the problem as the solution. Our old "big picture" stories of material success and liberal politics are losing relevance and we're not anywhere near compelling alternatives yet. My usual strategic advice for unpredictable times of "Keep moving, stay in touch, and head for the high ground" isn't much use if we can't agree on where the high ground is.

Or is it?

Maybe it is the "big picture" myth that is the problem. The idea that there is one all encompassing story that will sort everything. This is where idealism and ideologies go wrong. Invariably it is one vocal, small group, who impose their views on the rest, no matter how benign their intentions. Maybe this is why I see the demise of mass media as a good thing, allowing us to take back our story telling and sense making to a more personal and more human level. Maybe this is where my "organisational anarchist" tag comes in handy. Maybe we need to take the idea of "Trojan mice" seriously and on a global scale? Lots of small actions, closer, more intimate networks, fragmenting the opportunity for abuse of power or polarising of wealth?

I have Burke's phrase “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing" ringing in my ears all the time at the moment. Maybe it is "ordinary people" who have the power to prevent evil? Maybe our alternative to doing nothing is to do lots of little things. Lots of little steps. Lots of real conversations with real people about stuff that matters.

Maybe...

Ten years

It is ten years this month since I left the BBC. Hard to believe really. I have to say I have loved every minute of it, despite the challenges of working solo as a freelancer, and find it hard to imagine ever doing a "real job" again.

As to the BBC I am occasionally asked what I think about what is happening there. I know this may sound harsh but, other than the impact its death throes are having on the few friends who still work there, I find it hard to care. I watch very little television and listen to practically no radio. I listen to a lot of recorded audio but it is all independently made podcasts and Audible audiobooks.

As I have often said, what inspires me about the internet is the potential it gives us to take back ownership of our story telling and the fragmentation of mass media into ever smaller bits excites rather than worries me.

Wisdom

Back in the days when I was involved in knowledge management I remember recoiling in horror at someone describing themselves as a wisdom manager. This seemed like a ludicrously presumptuous idea. It still does.

But…

We have more information nowadays than we know what to do with. It is increasingly difficult to discern the truth in our increasingly complex lives. Even within our own heads, extracting the signal from the noise is a perpetual challenge and a continual source of stress.

And yet...

Underneath all of this noise and complexity, at a deeper level, we know. We know right from wrong, we know what we should be doing, we know what things mean, and we know how we feel about things. When we become calm and step outside of our never-ending stream of thought, we achieve a sense of clarity. Of wisdom.

We don't need someone to manage our wisdom for us but we do need to get better at allowing our wisdom to surface. We need to get better at this both individually and collectively.

A slippery slope

I am currently reading Tzvetan Todorov's classic book Facing The Extreme. It is a fascinating exploration of what happened to morals and ethics in Nazi and Soviet concentration camps. Where individual responsibility for evil lies, why some people still "do the right thing" in the face of intolerable pressure, and how easy it becomes for everyone responsible for evil to be "just doing their job".

To some extent the camps were the logical extension of totalitarianism. You gain power and influence by identifying the enemy, even the enemy within, demonise and dehumanise them, and then justify their eradication. It is all too easy to see this as something particular to the German or Soviet character, or even to excuse it on the basis of the culture and norms of The Thirties, but to do so would be dangerously complacent. Stanley Milgram's famous experiment took place in America, Guatanamo Bay is still in use, and the circumstances of Donald Trump's rise are being compared to those of Hitler.

What is striking about the evil described in Todorov's book is how ordinary it all was. Very few of the guards were sadists or psychotic in any way. The vast majority were very average people. People pretty much like you and me. People trying to get through their days, to keep their families safe, not ruffling too many feathers.

It is all too easy for us to see evil as the result of particular, malevolent, individuals. But that is not how it happens. It is lots of little actions, or inactions, by lots of people that lead to our greatest nightmares.

As I have so often said "we all have a volume control on mob rule". We need to start exercising that volume control...

"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...