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.


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?


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.

Managing Boundaries

As we connect more the lines between us blur. The lines between individuals and organisations, between people within organisations, between work and home, between our inner worlds and our shared thoughts.

We are used to having those boundaries managed for us. The commute to work, the hierarchies of roles, time when we didn't have access to technology, time when we could switch off. I see lots of signs of distress as we realise that those protections have gone or are disappearing rapidly.

We need to learn to draw our own lines. We need to work hard on working out where to draw them. We need to stand by them.

Proper Drawing

When I see a painting by Picasso I often think "Eh?"
But I then take comfort in the fact that he knew how to do "proper drawing".
You need to learn to play the game well enough to know that you don't have to.
Same is true of work.

The tyranny of being picked

I have always loved this phrase from Seth Godin. It neatly captures the challenge of working for someone else that starts with the recruitment process. The balance between the individual and the organisation. A dance that most have to do for all of their working lives.

Organisations say they want innovation and creativity when really they want conformity and collusion. Collusion in the insanity of buzy-ness. Not breaking ranks and calling out the pointlessness of the endless administravia. Not allowing the quiet scream inside to surface.

Seeing it all as a game helps. But it is a game with your sanity at stake.

"Oh I don't do technology"

I hear this response a lot, specially from senior people, when I talk about the internet. It's a nervous distancing from something they don't understand and are uncomfortable with. But frankly it's not good enough.

David Cameron's recently stated intention to ban messaging apps that he isn't allowed to have back doors into is yet another sign of a worrying erosion of civil liberties which much of the population won't understand never mind care about.

Not everyone wants to be a geek, and not everyone, including me, will understand all the nuances of why this is such a bad idea, but it is a matter of civic responsibility to at least try! The tools we use are becoming intrinsic to our lives and our ability to be effective.

Dodgy advice is being given to dodgy politicians that could have a massive ongoing impact on society and we are in danger of sleep walking into a very constrained future.

Idle chit chat?

Social media, and Twitter in particular, has been a blur of comment about the awful events in Paris last week. People have been sharing live images of the police chase, expressing sympathy with the victims and their families, and sharing links to articles attempting to explain what happened.

I saw someone imply that this is idle chit chat by resurrecting a cartoon of a building full of people on their phones tweeting expressions of sympathy to someone outside on the street who is asking for help.

But is this fair? Is this all we are doing? Sure, a single tweet with the #jesuischarlie hashtag isn't going to change the world or alleviate the suffering of those involved. But it is bringing us closer to events and closer to each other. We are cutting out the news media middle men telling us what to think. We are working out collectively what the events mean, how we feel about them, how we might react.

I have read some thoughtful and powerful articles that have helped me begin to understand what has happened and that will affect my future decisions about people and life. They have changed my assumptions and therefore my attitude to the world around me. If and when I get the opportunity to take action they will affect the action I take.

Isn't this how change happens? Isn't the internet expanding and accelerating our collective understanding? Isn't it increasing our potential to not only take action but do the right thing?

New Clues about The Cluetrain

For those of you who aren't aware of it yet The Cluetrain Manifesto was 95 theses, and later a book, written over ten years ago by four very smart guys about what the internet was really about and how it was going to impact our lives. It was hugely successful and influenced many of us who care passionately about these new tools we have been given.

When Stephen Waddington very kindly described having a pizza with me as one of the highlights of his year last year, he described me as "the embodiment of The Cluetrain". This was about as big a compliment as I get! I often describe myself as a Cluetrain missionary as the ideas in the manifesto and the book lie behind all of my work, and still get me excited as to their potential to really impact people's lives and make the world a better place. However there is still much to be done! We have only scratched the surface of what we can do with the internet to make a real difference. We have allowed it to be hijacked by those interested in maintaining the status quo. We have mostly remained passive consumers rather than active participants. This has prompted two of the original writers of The Cluetrain, now friends of mine, David Weinbergererger and Doc Searls, to offer New Clues.

In the spirit of the original Cluetrain Manifesto this is a list of theses and thought provoking insights that address the issues we face now and what we can do about them. I was lucky enough to get an early peak and have been bursting to use the very quotable insights in the new list. And now I can and so can you!

We need more rubbish on the internet.

I was listening to a Jim Rohn tape the other day in which he talks about giving presentations and knowing that only some of the audience will respond well to what he says. Most of the audience will be mildly interested and some will be what he calls "the perplexed". He says that he loves doing the talks even if only a small group are what he calls "believers" because much of the reason for speaking in public is to aid his own learning. To say things clearly, to say them in public, to say them over and over again.

This is even more true online, some people will respond positively to what you write, many will wonder what the hell you are on about, but lastly, unlike usual face to face etiquette, online there are likely to be some who feel entitled to have a go at you. We all know that disapproving, censorious tone that people adopt when they are ranting about the amount of trivia on the internet and the iconic "I am having a coffee" tweet. The problem with this holier than though attitude is that it makes people nervous of being trivial. The fear not being "important enough" to say what they think in public. They worry that people will think them arrogant for expressing themselves and sharing their thoughts. They opt for the safe option and keep quiet.

This dynamic is even more true in the workplace where the risk of having views and sharing them feels all the more extreme. The problem is that if none of us are brave enough to share none of us get to learn. If that aha moment you have just had about a safety valve on an oil rig seems too trivial to mention the rest of us don't find out. If your gut feeling that sub prime mortgages are a bad idea seems too contrary to the "smart" people around you you keep it to yourself.

Our tendency to judge and to silence weak signals in our systems is one of their greatest weaknesses. Judgement and disapproval come too easy to too many of us. We need to encourage more noise to make sure we don't bury the signal. We need more of us being brave enough to think out loud and to do it over and over again - even if some think it is rubbish. We need more rubbish on the internet. We need more rubbish at work

Who needs a smart arse management consultant?

While I can get excited as the next person about new ways of working and thinking about our organisations I am aware that for many such considerations seem impossibly abstract and self indulgent. Work for a lot of people, maybe most, is an unremitting grind of unrealistic expectations and diminishing resources. Their organisations are still dominated by a management culture that hasn't changed in decades. Straying from predictable and safe behaviours seems like sheer lunacy.

This can be frustrating both for them and for those who can see a better way.

However there is no point getting frustrated with people for not being where you think they should be. They are where they are and you have to go to where they are to help them. Genuine, tactical attempts to help them are the only way forward. Small steps within the grasp of the individual is the only real possibility - whoever that individual is and whatever their position.

What a wunch of bankers

Ten days ago I contacted Bank Of Scotland, at least I think it is them - their web site says Lloyds Banking in the header, about a payment into my business account that had no identifying info. Bizarrely they said they couldn't tell me who had paid me the money but said they would get back to me in four days and that it had to be in writing rather than email.

Today I got a letter from the Halifax, which I nearly put in the bin as I don't have a Halifax account, but this turned out to in fact be from Bank Of Scotland - only apparent from the small text at the bottom of the letter. I called the number on the letter to spend the first five minutes of the call trying to get the lady on the other end to understand my name despite the fact that she had the details on her screen.

To describe Bank Of Scotland as confused is being charitable.

Writing "to" people not "at" them.

The difference may be subtle but I think it is significant. So much of the "content" on the internet is written at people. Reading it feels like you are being bludgeoned into submission, your role is passive, you are a consumer. Most marketing and business writing is like this. In fact it seems to go with the role of "professional communicator".

Good writing is more like letter writing. It is written to you not at you. It draws you closer, is offered to you deferentially, like two people who know and trust each other having a conversation, taking turns, listening as much as talking. It is our natural way of writing. Shame we have it beaten out of us.

Always on

The ability to maintain contact with people all around the world as they face life's challenges and discover its joys is a wonderful thing. Those who sneer at us using our social tools to rub shoulders virtually don't understand the sense of being connected that it gives us.

The desire to feel connected is a powerful human need. But there is a downside. We can be overloaded and overwhelmed with all of these connections and sucked into dramas that are not our own. We need to learn our limits and learn to protect ourselves. We need to remember how to walk away and switch off.

As we head towards Christmas, with all the "real world" connections it affords, it will be interesting to see the balance that you all strike! Whatever it is - I hope it makes you happy.


It's one of those words isn't it, that we all bandy around, slap on software, and feel superior if we think we do it. But what does it really mean? What does it look like? What does it take to make it happen?

I have always said that the first step to real collaboration, as opposed to just having a shared space to stick your unreadable documents, is having the self awareness, the humility, and the courage to admit that you need help.

How you ask for that help mattera too. I am currently reading Amanda Palmer's excellent book The Art Of Asking in which she writes:

Asking for help with shame says:
You have the power over me.
Asking with condescension says:
I have the power over you.
But asking for help with gratitude says:
We have the power to help each other.

Management Bollocks

There is something chilling about conventional business culture. The suits, the glass and metal offices, the constraint, the competitiveness, the loneliness. Even when you walk through staff canteens where there is a buzz of chattering it somehow doesn't feel real. The constraint is palpable.

You know that feeling when you are talking to someone and although they maintain eye contact, smile, and appear to be talking directly to you there is a feeling that there is no one there. The words come easily and smoothly but they don't mean anything. There is a deadness to the eyes. There is a lack of connection.

It is all too easy to slip into this world, to fit in, to conform. Standing out feels risky. Saying what you think feels uncalled for. Using plain words that mean something feels childish. We want to fit in, we want to talk like the grownups, we want to be accepted. We start to talk management bollocks. We start to look down on those who don't, we sneer inwardly at their naivety. We ostracise them for not playing the game.

It's a dangerous game and one we all lose if we get too good at playing it.

The System

I am currently going through an endless process of form filling and nit-picking questions in order to get paid by a large organisation. Those asking the questions clearly have no discretionary authority and the questions are equally clearly the result of trying to cover years worth of different eventualities. All of this for a one hour gig.

I also recently took on the challenge of arranging car insurance for my daughter as she has just got her provisional licence. A painless conversation with a pleasant salesman turned into another bureaucratic nightmare when "the system" decided that the wrong boxes had been ticked in the wrong way and started sending me paperwork reflecting charges 3 TIMES what I was expecting. Now resolved but another battle I could have done without.

Everyone in both cases was very nice, and very apologetic. It's not them, it's "the system". They are constrained by the system and have minimal ability to intervene. It's a bit like airline pilots in modern planes, they are there just to make me the passenger/customer feel reassured that there is someone in charge.

With whole new levels of increasingly sophisticated automation becoming available to "the system" things are unlikely to get better. I fear for our sanity.

Non aspirational staff

I heard this wonderful phrase last week at an event. It says it all doesn’t it. The sweeping generalisation. The arrogant condemnation. The chilling managerial tone.

But is it any different from those who say to me that it is unreasonable to expect people to think, especially at work? That not everyone wants to think about their lives and certainly not to express their thoughts in public.

Are either true? Or are we just making excuses for ourselves and others. Allowing ourselves to stay asleep in the half life of safety and compliance enculturated from an early age?


Many of us have vague feelings of discomfort that accompany us all the time. A feeling of unease, of things not being quite right, sometimes enough to make us anxious. It is all too easy to ignore these feelings as being "just the way things are" and do nothing about them.

The inclination to set these feelings aside is even stronger at work. The effort that it takes to change things, and the disruption it can often lead to, are strong disincentives.

But all of my clients have decided to do something about their discomfort, to address the issues that aren't feeling quite right, to take on the risk and responsibility of doing something about them.

They deserve all of the support I can give them!