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.

Locus of control

It is easy to be drawn into worrying about things outside our direct sphere of influence: the economy; world politics; poverty. We can feel powerless and out of control. We devolve responsibility to others, to "the grown ups". We are encouraged to do so.

While walking around housing estates in Riga in Latvia a few years ago I was struck by how tired, dispirited, and stressed people looked. I found myself thinking "What difference would what I know make to them? They can't all blog, they can't all be entrepreneurial, they can't take on the enormity of the challenges facing them."

But how else do things change? Do they wait for someone else to help them? Do they stay at the mercy of the whims of the state? Or do they take one small step? One thing that they can do that can help someone else, that can be valued, and rewarded in some small way.

Is it any different in our lives in large organisations? Are we diminished by our sense of powerlessness? What would happen if we started taking small steps that made a difference? Wrote that blog post that asked a question or shared an insight? Or even just started thinking about that blog post that we might, just might, write some day?

Telling stories.

Present a human being with disparate bits information and we will try to make sense of them, to give them meaning, to get them to tell a story. We can't help ourselves and do it all the time.

We also try to get the world to fit our pre-existing stories. Those we learned from our families, our colleagues, our neighbours. We feel better when it does.

In fact having our stories disproved unsettles us and challenges our very sense of self. We cling to them for dear life. We cause ourselves untold stress and unhappiness when the world doesn't conform to our stories. We even fight wars over the need to prove that my story is more true than yours.

We would do well to remember that they are all made up.

Proactive sense making

A great meeting yesterday with anthropologist John Curran reminded me of the power of patterns. Whether we are talking about the patterns made visible by big data, or those made apparent by our own activity on social networks, what the internet is giving us is the ability to see patterns in the thinking and behaviours of those around us in real time - and for the first time.

For years when people asked me what "the next big thing" would be I have said patterns. We've got all this stuff, what are the patterns in it? What does it mean? What are we going to do with that meaning?

My biggest worry is that we don't notice. That we lack the curiosity to wonder what the patterns mean. That we allow others to tell us what those patterns mean. That we stay consumers of sense making rather than the creators of it.

The promise of technology

Don't get me wrong. I love technology and I love its potential to change the world.

But...

I used to walk around the open plan offices at the BBC looking at all those people staring blankly at the beige PCs on their desks (which cost many millions to supply and support) rather than talking to each other and wondered what the ROI was.

I watch most people struggling to cope, still, with even basic use of their computers, unaware of all the wonderful productivity and creative power waiting at their fingertips.

Even teenagers, the "Gen Y" on whom so much faith is placed, use about ten percent of the power of their smart phones and that mostly to chat with each other and share selfies.

Is this inevitable? Does accessing all of this wonderful potential take a geeky mentality that most don't have, or even want to have? Will things get easier as interfaces improve, or will technology continue to outpace most of the population causing stress, frustration, and inefficiency?

Structure

Sometimes the structures of our lives can feel constraining. The need to "clock in and clock out" of work at certain times. The processes and procedures that we have to follow when we are there. The cultural norms we feel have to conform to both at work and at home.

But lack of structure can feel unnerving. We feel at sea without boundaries and definitions. Our job titles defines us. Our roles guide us. We know where we are and what is expected of us.

Those of us who work for ourselves have to generate our own structures, our own definitions, our own sense of self. This can feel both liberating and taxing at the same time. It seems likely that in the future more will have to learn to work like this.

What is the optimal amount of structure? Dave Snowden and I have had a few heated debates about where society's optimal constraints are on the spectrum between Fascism and Anarchy. Bit like my MVB (Minimum Viable Bollocks) acronym the other day. What is the minimum amount of management bollocks it takes to run a business? What is the minimum amount of structure does it take to hold society together?

What is the minimum amount of structure it takes to stay sane?

Entropy Gradient Reversal

Some of you may remember Chris Locke's great blog of that name from back in the early days of blogging. You could feel the force of his writing pushing against the tendency for things to revert to previous states or to fall apart.

Entropy, in its sense of a return to equilibrium, is a powerful force in organisations. Whenever you make a change, unless you continue to inject energy into the system, things are likely to return to "normal" pretty soon. So many of my clients put in social platforms at work, have a communications push to start if off, see an influx of users, then it all slows down, often to a halt. The novelty wears off. People return to their old ways of doing things, and the naysayers get to say "I told you it would never work".

You have to keep injecting energy, you have to keep caring, you have to pick yourself up and try again, and again. The sort of change in how we work that we are on the brink of is worth the effort but unless we keep injecting energy we will stay teetering on that brink.