The voices in our heads - at work.

On Monday I wrote about the pressure we all face from cultural conditioning to conform, to react a certain way to life's challenges, and how difficult it can be to break away from that.

This pressure is even greater at work where, for all the talk of innovation and transformation, the norms are even more rigidly adhered to. Not fitting in carries with it an even greater risk of disapproval, disadvantage, or ultimately dismissal.

But as we head into an era of increased automation of the white collar, knowledge work, jobs that so many of those reading this post do, the need to break free from constraints and add value is only going to increase.

If we are not prepared to listen to the quiet differentiating voice in our head, develop insights, risk standing out by communicating them, and make a real difference, then why are we there?

The voices in our heads

Well, maybe I am assuming too much here. Maybe you don't have a voice in your head. I'm pretty bloody sure you don't have the same one as I do! That voice that adds commentary to everything. "This will never work." "You'll look like a fool." "What if they think your a waste of space?"

A small event or even thought happens and you spin off into endless wittering in your own head. Thing is, what happens if you eventually manage to shut it up? What is left?

I remember being frustrated as a youngster that my head was full of ways I "should" kiss a girl for the first time. Should I kiss her like Clint Eastwood would, or Woody Allen?

In his wonderful book [Mediated][1] Thomas de Zengotita explores how hard it is to identify and strip away conditioning, to free yourself from cultural and media brainwashing and to work out what you really think.

But what if there's nothing in there? What if it's just a big black hole? Is it a peaceful hole or a terrifying hole? Is it the horror that Kurtz faced in Heart Of Darkness, or the peace of the Buddha.

Maybe we get to choose?


Different Lives

I throughly enjoyed a concert given in St John's Smith Square last night by my very good friend David Riddell. It featured a combination of well known classical pieces and more modern works performed by The Danish Sinfonietta.

The first piece was Mozart's Clarinet Quintet which I used to play nearly forty years ago when I first met David. In those days I took my clarinet playing seriously enough to have considered a career as a professional orchestral player. It was all I could do not to sing along with the piece last night as it was so familiar and brought back the hours of focussed practice it took to get to that standard.

And yet I never get my clarinet out of its case these days. Even my sax sits unused in a corner of my office.

Looking back over the years it is interesting to observe my passions for music, fast motor bikes, and I suppose even the BBC, and how they have been all consuming at the time.

Wonder what will follow my current obsessions with the web, and hill walking and mountaineering?

Blogging and the Buddha

I have been reading about, and occasionally putting into practice, the principles of Buddhism for more than twenty years now. I first became interested when I got my first "proper" line management role at the BBC. I had had various supervisor roles while still operational in radio, but this was the first time that I truly felt the burden of expectations both from "my seniors" and also from "my staff".

There are lots of air quotes in that sentence because even now the terminology raises issues for me. The idea of superiority implied in the hierarchy made me particularly uneasy. Half of the people I was managing were old enough to be my dad, had been editing since before I was born, and knew more about their craft than I would ever know. They had just had a lot of their friends made redundant with more cutbacks on the way. There were a number of ongoing industrial tribunals involving my group and a lot of understandable anti-management feeling. Suffice it to say I was feeling severely out of my depth.

I started to read management and personal development books in an attempt to find ways to cope. Trying to learn more about what I was meant to be doing and how I could get better at doing it. Sure I went on courses which helped at a superficial level but none of them really got at the deep existential angst I felt about my role, responsibilities, and fundamentally my place in the world.

One of the books I read was John Kabatt-Zinn's Full Catastrophe Living. Dr. Zinn has been applying the principles of Buddhism in healthcare in the US for decades and is really good at stripping away the religiosity of traditional Buddhism and expressing its philosophy and application in ways that make sense in the modern, western, world. I started to apply his teaching and meditating as regularly as I could. I am not going to try to explain meditation, the reasons for doing it, or what my expectations were but I remember one particular session in a hotel room in Hong Kong where something clicked and my level of self awareness took a momentary leap forwards. That has kept me coming back to the practice since.

At around the same time as this interest in Buddhism and meditation was beginning I was also getting into blogging. Although blogging had been going about a year when I started I was still part of a very small group of early bloggers working out what it was and what we could do with it. One of the writers of The Cluetrain Manifesto, David Weinberger, called it "writing ourselves into existence" and this has always stuck with me over the fourteen years that I have been doing it.

In order to blog you have to become more aware. Aware of yourself, your surroundings, and your impact on them. You think about what you have noticed and what it means. You then write about this, refining your thoughts, putting them into words, shaping them. You then publish these words on your blog which hopefully reaches into the minds of your readers in a very direct and immediate way. It feels like a more intimate connection than say writing an article or a book. It's like synapses firing outside your skull as well as inside it, extending your neural network to the rest of humanity.

Most recently I have started reading the wonderful books by American Buddhist Nun and writer Pema Chödrön. She explains Buddhist philosophy in wonderfully clear and understandable terms. She relates it to the strains and stresses we feel in modern life and gives really thoughtful applications of Buddhist thought to alleviating these challenges. Buddha didn't expect to be starting a religion. He was working out the nature of human existence and ways of reducing the suffering and distress we create for ourselves. This starts with awareness. Meditation practice that teaches you to be aware of your thoughts. To identify them as thoughts that come and go, and to realise that you are separate from your thoughts. This feels very similar to the process of blogging. Identifying something as an issue, a thought, a thread, that you want to address. Turning it and twisting it in your mind and then placing it outside yourself in writing. This has always felt very therapeutic. Identifying, articulating, refining the thoughts rattling through my brain.

But it can also feel very narcissistic. What difference does it make to our fellow man. This is where the idea of Tonglen comes in. This is the Buddhist practice of examining thoughts about challenges and stresses affecting you, those close to you, or ultimately anyone else suffering in the world. You might well ask what difference this is going to make in a world full of wars, disease and suffering? But these blights on our existence have to start somewhere. Apart from natural disasters we bring most of our suffering on ourselves. We do this one by one, consistently and inexorably. We identify others as the source of our distress or the perpetrators of our suffering and defend ourselves or attack them. And they will be doing the same to us! This projection of blame outside ourselves is a large part of what perpetrates our suffering. We have to understand and take responsibility for our impact on ourselves and the world around us. We have to get better at remaining detached from our suffering and helping others to do the same.

This is where blogging and the internet come back in. Being able to publish our thoughts instantly in a way that can be taken in, digested, and reshared by others is Tonglen in practice. It is our chance to understand things more and achieve a degree of detachment from our shared problems. We can carry out this approach in public, model behaviours, show the way, and make small ripples in the consciousness of our fellow humans.

There is no other way to bring about change. There is no "them" who are to blame and going to sort things. There is only us and that is where we have to start. With us. One at a time.

A doctrine of small steps

"Since death alone is certain, and the time of death uncertain, what should I do? - Stephen Batchelor

It is so easy to go numb in the face of our individual and collective challenges, to indulge in philosophising or theorising as displacement activities. To delegate the problem to others, our parents, our spouse, our manager, consultants or even a god.

But what small step can we take now? What thought or idea can we share with those around us? What tweet, update or blog post, no matter how trivial or apparently inconsequential, might make the greatest difference to those around us if we only dare to express it?

Starting again

I have just finished reading The Power of Meditation by Sharon Salzberg. One of the most interesting ideas in it was that meditation practice is not so much about achieving perfect tranquility or concentration but is teaching you to begin again. Each time your thoughts drift away from your breath you simply begin again and don't beat yourself up about losing focus.

It occurs to me this Monday morning that this applies to so much of life, work, relationships and health. We set off on all sorts of endeavours with good intentions but often we falter, things go wrong, plans get sidetracked and we give ourselves a hard time about being failures.

Learning to calmly think "Oh well" and pick yourself up and start again, over and over and over, seems like a worthwhile skill to develop.

Trust and institutions

I am increasingly being asked to do keynotes and workshops on the broader impact of digital on the workplace. This allows me to talk about more than just "social media" and get deeper into the sort of stuff I blog about these days.

How we work together, what sort of behaviours and attitudes are effective, how we cope with the huge changes coming our way both individually and collectively are the sorts of things that fascinate me. I am also able to draw on my ten years running the BBC's Digilab and the "nose" I developed for what is worthwhile in terms of technology and what is a waste of time and effort.

This coming together of people and technology is not new. Having spent time over the past week walking in Wales and The Peak District I have been amongst relics of Britain's industrial revolution. I've been thinking a lot about how the workforce was treated during this amazing period of growth, how this led to the rise of the unions, and how those ways of organising ourselves seem increasingly outdated.

But how do we exercise influence over our working lives? How will we keep those running our businesses accountable? What sort of institutions will we see emerge in the future and how will they gain our trust? What are the prospects of using technologies like the blockchain to work this out amongst ourselves in truly distributed ways more suited to our increasingly connected lifestyles?

Lots of big questions and fun to get to increasingly spend time with smart people trying to answer them!

A shoulder to cry on

A lot of my time is spent listening to people sharing their challenges and frustrations. Lone voices in their organisations, who can see a better way of doing things, they get ground down by resistance and inertia. Knowing that others feel the same, and that people around the world share their vision of what is possible can be very sustaining.

Just having someone listen helps. I can see them clarifying their thinking or stiffening their resolve simply through the process of articulating their thoughts and sharing them with someone who understands.

We don't often need people to fix things for us, we just need someone to help us work out what to do and find the motivation to do it. This is why a coaching or mentoring relationship is so powerful. Not the dependency model of old style consulting where you would pay others to come up with solutions and deliver them for you, but a way of building your own skills and insights and becoming better at using these to make a difference.

Eating Elephants

Clearly we are facing some pretty significant changes in our worlds of work. Partly driven by technology, partly by changes in society.

But there is often an unfortunate revolutionary zeal about change. Out with the old in with the new. Get with the programme or get out of the way.

There is also a lot of theorising done about new ways of organising ourselves with firms like Zappos hailed as visions of the future.

Much of this serves to put people off, intimidating them and building resistance.

In contrast I am seeing more and more real change happening in client firms and it is happening incrementally, one person at a time. It is happening because things are being done differently rather than talked about. Problems are being solved and opportunities grasped. Deeper changes are happening as the consequences of these actions start to bite and people have to work out what to do about them.

The end point is going to be no less significant than the revolutionaries predict but how we get there will be gentler and more incremental.

Blogging and leadership

It's been interesting to see the strength of response to last night's Facebook update:

Pondering the possibility that reading more poetry books and less management books will bring about the changes we need to see in the world faster.

And not just reading poetry but writing it. I have long thought that good blogging is somewhere between poetry and essays. At its best it is an attempt to distill the essence of an insight and convey that insight as concisely as possible to others.

The activity of blogging calls on the writer to develop a heightened awareness of their surroundings and to work out their reactions to those surroundings. If translated into effective writing this then triggers a similar process in others and sends ripples out into the world like lobbing a pebble into a pond.

Developing these skills of acute observation, self awareness, and ability to convey ideas compellingly would appear to be key skills in the toolkit of anyone hoping to achieve influence in any context.

This is why I still believe that blogging has enormous potential to help us sort our most significant challenges.


At least as many of my best friends are women as are men. This drew comment from one of my daughter's schoolmates: "My Dad could never have friends who were women”.

This explains much that is wrong with the world.

Finding our voice

In conversation yesterday with a senior figure from business about why large IT projects so often go wrong we got talking about complicity, checks and balances, and ultimately the prospect of collective responsibility. Our conversation touched on many of the challenges we face in the modern world but we kept coming back to how passive people have become and how little dissent there is these days.

We rely too much on forces outside ourselves to dictate what we think, feel and say. Whether in the form of politicians, the media, or even the power of consensus around us, we defer to voices other than our own. We need to reclaim this right to think for ourselves and exercise this skill at every opportunity. We need to think more, think better, share what we think more, and work things out together.

This process of waking up, finding our voice, and improving our collective understanding is the still untapped potential of the web and of blogging. This is what my work is about.

As polling day starts here and many of us struggle to know who to vote for other than the self dubbed "natural party of government", I am struck yet again how broken our current approach to democracy is and how far from our new found potential...

It’s the little things

Just in the last week I have had to navigate miniscule file size limits on corporate email systems, a broadcaster whose staff don't have industry standard audio codecs, and having to complete labyrinthine forms in order to reclaim travel expenses.

Thankfully, as a freelancer, my exposure to such mind numbing inefficiencies is limited but most people have to put up with this sort of thing most of the time.

I understand the need for procedures and controls, especially as organisations grow, but they become ends in themselves and those responsible for enforcing them become so remote from the people actually trying to get things done that the whole system is in danger of being dragged down by its own weight.

Airbrushed Reality

More and more people in the businesses I engage with are expressing discomfort with the work of their marketing departments. These people are spending more time online, they see what people are saying about their business, they are increasingly willing to engage in those conversations.

But there is this unhelpful, shiny, airbrushed insanity, going on alongside. The glossy aspirational images, the disingenuous copy, the intrusive attempts to interrupt what we are doing to get us to pay attention to what increasingly just makes the organisation look naïve and untrustworthy.

Did this ever work? Is it time they gave up? How can we help them to do better?

Real conversations with real people about real products and services.

Reading this article from Azeem Azaar yesterday, and reflecting on conversations over dinner last night here at The Retail and eCommerce Directors Forum I am struck, yet again, how much opportunity there still is in companies truly engaging in online conversations with customers or business partners - and how few do.

Most companies still hold the internet at arms length, whether through the controlled actions of their own marketing departments or, even worse, by using digital agencies many of whom are still stuck in the internet dark ages.

And yet their staff are increasingly all over the internet, probably having to try and work out if they are allowed to talk about work and if so not sure how to. Conversations about their organisations will be happening all around them. They are going to have to join in some time.

I don't want to be a business's "friend". Remember Organizations Don't Tweet - People Do. I don't even want to be friends with people who work for the companies I buy from. But I do want to have real conversations with real people about the real products and services I want to buy.

Your staff are my best chance of doing this. Why not help them get good at it and help you get closer to your customers?


The habit of projecting onto others things we don't like in ourselves. So easy to do, so hard to avoid.

There is much to find fault with in the world. Much that is clearly not working. Much that causes tension and distress.

How to respond without projection? Seeing our way without clouding things with our own baggage? Suggesting solutions without the need for blame?

Must try harder...

Holding our organisations to a higher standard.

There are times when I have to think hard about working with some clients. They maybe provide services or products that I am not sure about or work in ways that I disagree with. I have limits and do say no sometimes. But for the others I justify my involvement in the following way.

If you have a big enough, mature enough, and lively enough internal network maybe when someone suggests sub prime mortgages and enough of you go "Really?" they think again. Maybe if someone proposes putting yet more sugar in your prepared food product and enough of you go "Really?" they choose a healthier option. Maybe if your organisation screws up, tries to spin the situation, and enough of you go "Really?" they do the right thing and take it on the chin.

In my book I suggested that if our corporate behemoths are becoming harder to constrain from the outside maybe we could all play our parts in doing so from the inside.


I get so tired of social media

Some days I get wearied by it all. The latest tools, the latest memes, the constant updates, the selling, the PR, the self promotion, the cats. I wonder if we've lost the plot and the opportunity the web gave us to change the world. I sometimes feel like giving up.

But then I think about all the wonderful relationships that I have been able to establish and maintain thanks to the online world. How much doing so is now part of my life, and a part of it that I would never want to do without.

The conversations I have with friends, relatives, existing clients and people I might work with in the future are as fresh and exciting as ever.

That's what it is all about. It always was.

Not bowling alone

Yesterday I facilitated a session for my friend Caroline Halcrow who is studying what it takes for online and offline communities to grow and thrive. She has developed a set of measures of the health, liveliness, and impact of these communities and wanted to test out her theories with a group of folks responsible for setting up and running local community groups in the London area.

The issues they faced exactly mirrored those we face trying to support online communities in business, attracting people, getting the energy levels up and keeping the group active, dealing with difference and dissent, helping the community work out how to mature and become more effective.

The groups had different origins and different purposes. Those running them had different backgrounds and different motivations. But I was struck by the level of commitment and care they all showed and suggested that caring should be included in the measures. Someone has to care that these things happen and care that they succeed.

The biggest thing I took away was how we are still early days with all this, even thirty or so years in. Most people are still new to connecting purposefully online and we are still working out how to combine online and offline to best effect. What is clear though is how important it all is, how much good we can do with it, and how crucial it is that someone takes responsibility for making it happen.

Memos to self

If it hasn't already become obvious to my readers, most of my blog posts are memos to self. Things that I think, want to think, don't think, try to think.

Even the posts about other people are about me. The things that I admire, the things I aspire to but also the things that press my buttons, the things I look down on, the things I envy.

If I occasionally write posts in which I am critical or dismissive of others rest assured that they say more about me than they do about you!