Why Michael Jackson flashmobs made me emotional

This morning I was moved to tears watching these two flash mobs dancing to Michael Jackson. This had nothing to do with the music of Michael Jackson - it happens almost every time I watch a video of a flash mob. Why?

There is something about people working together on something complicated without overt direction that seems to trigger profound feelings. Its like it is a basic human instinct, or at least potential, that kicks in when we experience it or even simply watch it happening. What a shame that we have been conditioned to think that without intervention the world starts to fall apart

I am currently reading Kevin Kelly's wonderful book Out Of Control in which he describes the actions of swarms of bees or flocks of birds in which there is no predetermined plan or particular leader but a group of individual creatures working within certain parameters can achieve complex operations on a vast scale without any apparent organisation. He then talked of an experiment conducted in a large auditorium where participants were given flags which could be turned either red or green and then asked to conduct relatively complex tasks such as play a game of Pong by making their choice of red or green behave like pixels on a large screen. After a couple of more simple tasks the group managed to replicate a flight simulator and "fly" a virtual plane successfully.

When I spoke at Reboot in Denmark recently I decided to do something a little different at the beginning of my keynote. When I was introduced by Thomas to an audience of approximately 300 people I didn't appear on stage but was in fact sitting alongside them in the audience two thirds of the way back in the hall. This alone was enough to disconcert the audience but when I began speaking, equipped as I was with a wireless microphone, they became even more agitated - some to the point of visible annoyance. My first words were to suggest that the feeling of discomfort that they were experiencing was likely to be very similar to the extreme discomfort that people are likely to feel when their manager doesn't do what they expect but instead appears alongside them acting very more like one of them than adopting familiar command and control behaviors. People have been trained to expect certain structures and behaviour and pulling those away without explanation or alternative structures in place can be very disconcerting.

This is why when I am working with clients I work with them as individuals and their attitudes, expectations and willingness to engage with others in a common purpose. There is , as far as I'm concerned, no "endgame". I am confident that if each of them operates with respect, tolerance, autonomy and fully engaged energy then as a group they will get where they need to get to. This is also what some clients, and certainly their bosses, find disconcerting. They feel the need of a plan and predicted outcomes.

Frankly an awful lot of management consultancy over the last few decades has been sold on the myth that life is that predictable. That if you apply McKinsey formula x,y, or z then outcomes can be predicted. I think this is less and less easy to pull off these days as things get more complicated and setting people up with the skills, attitudes, and insights to deal with whatever happens next and collectively work, in their respective Flash Mobs, towards a positive outcome seems a far more robust approach to adopt.

The Price Of Pomposity

On an almost daily basis I am faced with someone asking me to tell them the return on investment of social computing in business or proclaiming that Twitter is all about people telling us what they had for breakfast. These interactions are always delivered in a particular tone -- at best pompous, at worst sneering and condescending. Every time it happens it brings back memories of countless interactions I have had with more senior managers in my organisational life.

I would argue that pomposity represents a real, and nontrivial cost to the business world in the following ways:

  1. Every time someone is faced with a pompous response to a suggestion or idea they take one step back and become much less likely to ever offer their heartfelt thoughts again. Imagine the impact this has on the creativity and innovation that organisations depend on.
  2. Many, many meetings could be done in less than half the time if there wasn't a need to feed the ego of the chairperson or more vocal participants. How many times have things gone on way too long because someone likes the sound of his own voice?
  3. How many millions and millions of pounds have been spent because someone was too pumped up and full of themselves to admit that perhaps the major project they are sponsoring should be aborted?
  4. How many fledgeling social media projects get squashed by IT departments because "professionals" have had their nose put out of joint at "amateurs" thinking they know better?
  5. How many bright, committed and intelligent potential senior managers have failed to step up to the mark because they couldn't face the antler clashing and ego massaging that goes on in the boardroom?

I could carry on but I'd better stop - I'm sure you could add many examples of your own. Seriously, the cost of all this nonsense to business is astronomical and makes the odd bit of social banter on low-cost technologies appear trivial in comparison.

The risk of becoming conservative

No I am not talking about politics. I am talking about the increasing sense I have had over the past few months that "stating the obvious" is becoming harder. Some of you may have noticed that I have been blogging less over the past few months and there are a number of reasons for this.

Part of it is that working with the clients I do I don't always feel I can write about my work. Not that any of it is secret, but I feel sensitive to their right to choose when and how our work is made public. Secondly I have been blogging for eight years and there is this feeling, that continues to grow that, I have already written about most things - at least once!

The last reason is possibly the most concerning and the main prompt for this post. I feel more watched than ever before. I don't get vast numbers of readers for this blog but the ones I do tend to be smart, vocal and influential. As a result I get more and more concerned about what "they" will think. Will they think I am stupid, will they think I have lost my touch, will they think I have lost my relevance?

Risk is one of the main inhibitors to blogging, especially in a corporate environment. All those voices that you imagine saying things like "Who are you to say that?" or even "Who am I to say that?" or as an older relative of mine once said "Oh yes - blogging - that's just people expressing their opinions" - get ever louder and more difficult to ignore. Giving in to these sorts of risks though is why people stop saying what they think - and sometimes even stop thinking! It becomes easier just to stay quiet and let things pass you by.

Well, it may or may not come as a relief to you, dear reader, to know that I am going to resist these pressures and renew my efforts to state the obvious and continue to fill this blog with the inane burbling you have come to expect!

Learning when to switch off

In the old days there were physical constraints on the world of work. The speed at which the postman could bring memos to you, the size of your in tray, the fact that the cleaners expected you to be out of the office by a certain time and the need to be in your boss's physical presence to be confident he knew you were working.

These days all of those constraints have gone and people have to decide for much more for themselves when they are working and when they are not. They also have to decide "how" they are working too as the number of ways in which we can process information means that the nature of our attention can change from one moment to the next and the quality of our connection to the tasks at hand can vary with it.

As Joshua-Michele Ross writes in a recent blog post:


The ability to pay attention, focus and strategically disconnect will be a winning discipline of the next generation of business leaders.

Blogging Guidelines

There comes a time in any organisation's use of blogging, and for that matter other social media tools as well, when someone feels the need of a line in the sand. A blog post from James Dellow at Headshift Australia brought back my own "line in the sand" moment at the BBC, the moment when having some "official" view from the organisation about this new field of staff activity felt like a good thing to do.

The thing is, a blogging policy can range from "Don't be stupid" to a multi-page legal document with every possible variation in between. The document says at least as much about the people writing it as it does about the people it will affect. The neat trick we pulled off at the BBC was to make them largely one and the same thing. We encouraged collective responsibility from the start. It wasn't one group of people telling another group of people how to behave. Attempting to do so rarely works in online environments and indeed government legislation often falls prey to this. One group, who have status and power and feel the need to control, writing legislation intended to apply to a sphere of influence and activity of which they have little or no experience.

The thing to remember is that bad laws are hard to enforce while good rules pretty much enforce themselves. There are loads of different examples of blogging policies out there that you can learn from but make sure you don't just copy and paste or worse still fall into the trap of letting someone else write yours!

Social Nervous System

I had a great, long, chat on Skype last night with Joshua-Michele Ross who recently wrote an interesting post, The Rise Of The Social Nervous System, on Forbes. Smart bloke and well worth reading the rest of the article.

Given the complexity and precarious position of the modern world, getting people to genuinely reach out and touch their neighbors is a good thing but it will come at the price of reshaping our identities as part of a larger, interconnected whole.

Vander Wal on Sharepoint

If your IT department has not yet deployed Sharepoint get them to read this post from Thomas Vanderwal which includes the following telling quote:

“We went from 5 silos in our organization to hundreds in a month after deploying SharePoint”. They continue, “There is great information being shared and flowing into the system, but we don’t know it exists, nor can we easily share it, nor do much of anything with that information.”

Thomas' post reflects accurately the sort of stories I have been consistently hearing over the last year or so.

Make sure you are sitting down before you read this.

I know I have been critical of Sharepoint in the past but the highlight so far for me of FASTForward '09 has been getting to know Christian Finn, director for SharePoint product management at Microsoft. Christian is a really nice guy who has been going out of his way to spend time with the bloggers from the FASTForward blog and myself getting his head around the social computing world we all get so excited about.

Who Sharepoint enables, and why, and how are still big, non-tivial issues facing both Microsoft and a lot of the companies I work for but all I know is these conversations have felt good in a way I didn't expect.