Collaboration

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?

Discomfort

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!

Social media purist

I love blogging, have done if for years, and would do it whether anyone read my posts or not. But it is also partly how I get my work. The more people read my posts, the more they are aware of what I know and can do for them, the more work I am likely to get.

However the idea that what I am doing is "content marketing" fills me with dread.

We all have a desire to have people read our stuff and respond to our posts but writing just to maximise SEO or liking our own posts here and on Linkedin to push them up other people's newsfeeds feels like cheating.

Call me old fashioned but I'd rather maintain my genuine intent to connect with others through ideas and conversations than start chasing work by trying too hard - even if it costs me work. I watch so many organisations and marketers get this wrong. Their intent is to game people into paying attention to them.They use words like "drive" and "capture" that makes readers feel like cattle. I understand why they do it, and often they are under pressure from their organisations to increase numbers, but it feels wrong.

Someone who was in that position recently called me "a social media purist". He wasn't having a go, he meant it as a compliment. I reckon we could do with more social media purists out there...

Gluttonous dreaming

Now that was odd. I haven't eaten meat for seventeen years, apart from the odd bit of finely chopped bacon squirrelled into a salad in the US. I don't miss meat, I don't think about it, and I have no desire to eat it ever again.

But last night I dreamt about eating a huge plate of lamb! It was cooked in small chunks and dripping in dark gravy, a large pile of it sitting on its own on my plate. I was sitting opposite someone else eating the same dish and we started off talking to each other about how delicious it was as we both rapidly picked up pieces on our forks and placed them in our mouths. I had barely finished one piece before I was ramming the next one in. As I did so I explained to him that I hadn't done this for a very, very long time.

But I started to feel queasy. The gravy started to feel slimy and over rich. The meat was feeling really heavy in my stomach and I was having trouble keeping it down. I kept eating despite really wanting to stop. There was this odd compulsion to keep doing something that I really wasn't enjoying.

Oh, and another thing. I very rarely dream so goodness knows what this all means!

MVB

I recently came up with the acronym MVB (Minimum Viable Bollocks) to convey the idea of the least amount of management bollocks that it takes to run a business. What is the smallest amount of administravia you can get away with? How do you resist the temptation to "play at shops"? How do you say no to people wanting to fill your life with things that don't matter?

This is what I really think I help organisations and the people who work in them with. Social tools can support all of the above. If your job is to know what is happening around you, deciding what to do about it, and mustering the resources to do it then working through networks, especially distributed online networks, makes a huge difference.

Developing a thick skin

"That's what I should expect if I stick my ideas out there onto the internet". This was my daughter's mature reaction the other day when a group of people took exception to one of her tweets. Their reaction had hurt her, and was unexpected, but not unusual. People seem to feel able to be more robust in their comments when they are not face to face, even with people they haven't met.

I know this is a big issue for some clients. Maybe they are tweeting or blogging on behalf of a large organisation which attracts public criticism and therefore attract a lot of online vitriol. Is impossible not to be hurt by this, no matter how much they know it is not aimed at them personally. Remember Organizations Don't Tweet - People Do!

Just to be clear I am not talking about disagreement or dissent here. That is a good thing, and a large part of why I do what I do. But it is the rudeness and aggression that seems unnecessary, whether intended or just a result of carelessness.

Yes we have do develop a thick skin but it would be good if people stopped to think about the effect of their actions too...

Throw caution to the wind

When on a slippery, wet, narrow ridge on a high mountain in blustery wind my instinct is to hunker down, make myself small, to cling to something solid. The trouble is this shrinks my spirit. It makes me feel vulnerable and weak. It dulls my thinking and clouds my mind with images of disaster rather than success.

When we feel at risk our most common reaction is to become cautious, to play things safe. I remember when editors faced the risk of being made redundant from the BBC most of them tried to do the right thing, to be "good", to fit in. They were successful in blending in to the background. This was the most risky thing they could do.

Standing out, being brave, being proactive and making a difference. These are the activities that would have made them safer. These are the most sensible things to do when under threat. These are the things that are the hardest to do.

Not giving up

Working with people in large organisations I often encounter those who have given up. They are doing the minimum necessary because it feels like anything else is pointless. Too many years of not being noticed or listened to, too many initiatives having been done to them, too many of their managers having been promoted beyond their level of competence. It is easy to see why futility creeps in. I've been there and remember well the creeping cynicism that works its way into your personality like acid.

But there is always something you can do, however small. Somehow, somewhere, you have given people permission to treat you the way they do. Subtly, probably unintentionally, you have signalled acquiescence. But you can change this.

You can start to say no. You can assert yourself in the smallest ways. You can start to rebuild that muscle. You can work out what your limits are and exercise them. You can start to rebuild a sense of agency and control in your life.

You have to, the other way lies madness.

A world of a difference

Having been in very different parts of the world over the last few weeks, with what were outwardly very different people, I am reminded yet again how alike we all are. Generally we like the same things, we fear the same things, and we express our likes and fears in very similar ways.

And yet we seem determined to find and focus on our differences. Watching some of the fear filled reporting on events in Ferguson in the US I marvel at our willingness to be steered to a sense of difference rather than alikeness.

We should be so, so wary of those who have a vested interest in playing on our fears of imagined difference. This would be a very different world if we were.

Some of my best friends are grown ups

I often quote an exchange, many years ago, between myself and Dave Snowden in which Dave accused me of being anti-religious evangelicals while at the same time being evangelical about my own world view. My response was that I don’t want people to think what I think. I just want them to think, to talk to each other about what they think, and by doing so we will end up somewhere exciting. Not maybe where I thought we were going, but that’s cool because we will have all worked it out together.

You may also have noticed my disparaging use of the phrase “grown ups”. This is my shorthand for those in positions of power and authority who take themselves too seriously, lose connection with those they serve, and increasingly are losing the plot as a result. It is also the tendency to assume the role of grown up in relationships, to infantilise the other person, reminding me of a favourite phrase “to rescue someone is to oppress them”. Things go wrong when some of us think we know better what is good for others than they do themselves.

When I was in Bangkok I went for a long walk around the city, walking along canal sides and rail tracks where people live in desperate poverty. But they were smiling and chatting and setting up stalls to sell food or do laundry and kids were playing with their dogs in and around the rail tracks. I felt safe the whole time and enjoyed the buzz and energy. I contrasted this during the workshop I was speaking at for the UN with the glass and steel tower we were in, full of people in suits perpetrating the myth that without the grown ups maintaining order and structure we would fall apart. It is not true, we don’t fall apart, and frankly the world of the grown ups can be pretty scary and unpleasant, or at the very least dead and lifeless.

My fantasy is a world where we all operate as autonomous, self directing cells in the greater organism of society. Sensing and adjusting on the basis of our own moral compass which we refine and adjust as we experience challenges and changes. Tolerant of the other cells around us doing the same thing we self correct and accommodate changes in our networks but move towards healthy and productive outcomes individually and collectively.

I’m bracing myself now for the grown ups saying “Ah but who defines healthy and productive? We need an overall framework, some sort of ‘ism’ or ‘ology’”. Do we? Don’t we all know when we are happy and at peace both individually and collectively? Don’t our problems stem from allowing others, marketers or religions, to tell us what they think will make us happy and manipulating us as a result? Might we not get on a lot better if we all grew up, took responsibility for ourselves and each other, thought more and talked more about what we are thinking and why?

This is all I hope for and work towards as I truly believe it is our only chance…

"Communication"

It always amuses me when someone introduces themselves as "a professional communicator" leaving me feeling like an enthusiastic amateur after fifty four years.

In most businesses communication has become a thing. A thing with its own department and dedicated staff. A thing that you can get certificates for and become more senior at. A thing that makes others, who are not blessed with the title communicator, feel that they are not good at or even entitled to do.

But we all do it all the time. It is the only way work gets done. In fact in pretty much anything but assembly line manufacture, and I suspect even there, it is a key part of everyone's job. It is something that we should all aspire to becoming better at.

Maybe professional communicators should stop doing it for us and start helping us get better at doing it ourselves?

The "initiative" challenge

I am going to be doing a keynote at the Enterprise 2.0 Summit London at the end of the month. It is increasingly unusual for me to speak at a conference with those words in the title, or social business, or social anything for that matter. For some time I have preferred to talk at conferences focussed on specific aspects of doing business, or specific professions. Conferences that aren't all about social.

I am doing this one because it is being run by good folks and will give me a chance to catch up, but I am going to base my keynote on why I feel uncomfortable with the whole E2.0, social business thing. I guess I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about initiatives. Probably a result of the number of times I had them done to me while at the BBC. It is also because I believe passionately that real change happens one person at a time and for their reasons not yours. Initiatives are done to them rather than by them.

I guess this is the old problem of how do you encourage things to happen, encourage people to behave differently, make it more likely that change makes a positive difference, without reverting to the conventional management techniques and processes that are part of the problem we are trying to solve!

The power of words

"Oh yes, blogging. That is just people sharing their opinion."

Opinions matter, ideas matter, sharing them matters.

Why should only experts or journalists get to shape our thinking? We have outsourced our thinking to professionals for too long. We need to choose our own words, use them more carefully, share them more effectively and shape our worlds more actively.

Wherever you go there you are

Another post prompted by a quote, this one from Jon Kabat Zinn.

I am going to be in Amsterdam for a couple of days this week and possibly Bangkok next. I love being places and know that I am privileged to get to travel so much with my work. But I remember sitting on a tropical beach in Australia a couple of years ago and being struck that there I was, in what most would consider an idyllic setting, not really seeing the beauty around me because I was wallowing in the troubled thoughts in my head.

We are sold the idea that if we buy the tropical holiday we will be happy. If we move to the bigger house we will be happy. If we change jobs we will be happy. But happiness isn't something we get, it is something we do. We can be happy, or unhappy, anywhere and any time we choose.

Being aware of our thoughts and taking responsibility for them is hard work. How we see the world around us is a reflection of the way we are as much as the way it is. If we don't like it then it is ourselves we have control over. It is our thoughts we have to change.

Pushing eagles off cliffs

Increasing numbers of senior people face the challenge of social tools in their businesses. As these platforms become more widespread, and the numbers using them increase, the pressure to take part is growing. Even if they were the ones responsible for the deployment of the tools, using them on a daily basis is a different matter.

Some managers are willing participants and take to online engagement readily, but they are very much in the minority. Most are unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Frankly they are not used to such close contact with staff. Hearing people's opinions and reactions to your decisions can be terrifying at worst, awkward at the very least. Working out how to react is challenging. Even finding the right words and tone is a significant hurdle.

But with a little help the majority will learn to cope, some even flourish. Supporting them is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. It was them that my book was written for - let's face it I was one of them once! Watching them learn to fly and discover a whole new way of working is immensely rewarding.

Signal to noise

I am sitting opposite a city gent who has obviously just had a cigarette before joining the train. The smell is overpowering and I was tempted to write one of those witty observational tweets you see so often during commuting time.

I found myself thinking "Is this it? The power of the internet reduced to sarcastic comments about fellow tube travelers?" Instead I chose to write this blog post. On my phone.

I am on my way into town to take part in a workplace event and to talk about the power of writing on the internet. This issue of trivia versus import is what I am talking about. The right balance of signal to noise. The opportunity to think harder about things and share those thought, even on the move on a mobile phone.

I will leave you to judge whether this post was signal or noise but whichever it is I still find the potential it represents to work stuff out together, even in the midst of busy lives, amazing.

My outboard brain

In the twenties the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin coined the phrase noosphere to convey the idea of a layer of thought surrounding the earth. I first read about this idea more than a decade ago and it stuck.

While walking with Matt Mower last week I worried him when I said that I thought of him as part of my extended neural network. This is what it feels like. The ubiquitous short messages connecting those of us using social platforms allow me to push ideas in and out of my brain in an almost biological way never before possible.

This feels powerful and exciting. Literally worth wrapping our heads around!