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.

Girlfriends

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?

Projection

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.

Maybe...

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!

A day off?

I often don't know what day it is. Weekends are only different because the kids are around. Bank Holidays creep up on me and are frustrating because things are closed. The joys of being a freelancer.

A while back, when I had travelled home from abroad on a Saturday, one of my wife's friends said "Oh, do they make you work on a Saturday?". My brain went into a flat spin trying to compute the words "they" and "make" and wondering why a Saturday was so significant.

I love doing what I do, I love doing it any time and anywhere. I love the fact that I am mostly in control of where, when and how I do it.

I have learned the need to have discipline about stopping sometimes, and need to get better at it, but do not regret the diminished importance of weekends and bank holidays as ritualised escapes from work. .

What's the point?

We all want to make a difference; to "put a dent in the universe", however small. Some days we manage it and we feel good about having a sense of purpose beyond survival, beyond just making a living. Other days it can feel as if someone is following along behind is filling in those small dents and sanding them over.

Why bother? Why not reduce our aspirations, do no more than is expected of us, avoid rocking the boat and enjoy an easy life?

Because there is no such thing. There is no such thing as stasis. If we are not nudging forwards we are going backwards. The world keeps moving relative to us and time and progress wait for no man.

Sometimes what appears the safest thing is the riskiest. Getting a good steady job used to feel safe. Nowadays those jobs can disappear with frightening speed. The longer we've been "safe" the more devastating this can feel.

Keeping your head down used to feel safe. Nowadays if your'e not seen to be adding value, seen to know what you know and be willing to share that, then what's the point in keeping you?

Making small dents, sharing our knowledge, making a difference, is part of what we are. Forgetting this is one of life's great sadnesses. Whether we are recognised or rewarded is not the point. We are not doing it for others, we are doing it for ourselves.

That's the point.

Staying sane. Well, maybe…

People often comment during my workshops about the increasing pressure to keep up with the amount of information coming into their lives and the pressure of an “always on” existence. For all the usefulness of our mobile devices they do expose us to constant interruptions from the outside world. Whether emails from our boss, updates from our favourite celebrity, or text messages from our family, there is a constant tug to look at those small screens we carry with us wherever we go.

We need to learn to defend ourselves. We need to exercise control and impose limits. Whether this is turning off all but the most important alarms, switching off all visual alerts, or even (horror or horrors) not carrying the phone with us at all times, we need to do something. Having the self awareness and self control to do any of the above are good skills to develop.

There is an increased interest in mindfulness and meditation amongst geeks these days as a group of people who have hit these problems harder and earlier than most. For some of us this isn’t a new problem. I have tried to meditate every day and exercise mindfulness since first reading Jon Kabat-Zinn’s books more than twenty years ago when facing a particularly challenging time at work. To say that my success at applying his ideas is patchy is an understatement!

Finding the time and space to meditate, and trying to exercise mindfulness, are both a constant challenge and not getting any easier for any of us. The phones are a symptom as much of a cause and we need to protect ourselves from the various forms of overload to which the modern world subjects us.

Beating ourselves up for not managing to exercise control over our out of control minds just makes the problem worse. Catching ourselves failing and using that as a trigger to return to the moment is part of the game that Pema Chödrön is really good at explaining.

If you are interested I can thoroughly recommend Full Catastrophe Living by John Kabat-Zinn and When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön. Both are excellent at relating Buddhist philosophy and practice to our modern lives in practical and helpful ways.

The day job

This week I have been involved in great events and been privileged to hear from amazing people doing really interesting things. They are an opportunity for people to get out of the office to learn about new ways of doing things and be inspired about how they might do things differently.

But then they have to go back to the day job. Maybe they get ridiculed for acting differently or doing things differently. Maybe the mountain of stuff they have to deal with has got even bigger in their absence. Maybe they just feel overwhelmed at how different their organisation is from some of those they have heard about.

It is so important that they do something different, even if it is a tiny thing. Tiny steps repeated consistently are better than nothing. Thinking even slightly differently about your challenges is better than not thinking differently at all.

Every journey…

Wish fulfilment?

I was reminded again over the weekend of the £25Bn pounds that were spent on the NHS patient records system - to deliver NOTHING.

Something like 50 percent of IT projects fail.

Many people in business now use their own devices and public internet platforms to connect with each other and get work done.

And yet I still hear of IT departments throwing their weight around and saying no to everything with staggering hubris.

There are good folks in there trying to bring about change but the question I posed on my blog ten years ago is sadly still relevant...

"How much of the IT industry could be characterised as wide boys in cheap suits selling wish fulfilment to "out of their depth" execs?"

Shit happens

Businesses are terrified of the risk they perceive in social media. They fret about customers ganging up on them or of staff being indiscreet.

Much of this fear is misplaced but it is in part driven by the mainstream media’s appetite for pouncing on them when they slip up.

I am seeing more and more signs though of the public pushing back against sensationalism and bias in the media. Just today I heard that in France, headlines focussing on the French citizens killed in the Tunis museum attack and barely mentioning the other victims have been criticised online.

I have also started to see people defending companies who may have made a mistake but don’t deserve the sensationalist headlines that appear in the press.

These may be signs of hope…

We've all got a volume control on mob rule

This is the title of a chapter in my book in which I suggest that we all get to choose on the internet which stories we share, which we choose to refute, which we ignore and which we elaborate on. When can now do this rapidly and in large numbers.

Watching the surge of support for Jeremy Clarkson, the high levels of engagement in the Scottish referendum, or the bravery of The Arab Spring, we clearly have a powerful tool at our disposal. Whether the impact of any of those is good or bad depends very much on the perspective of the beholder but that their potency is a sign of things to come seems undeniable.

A lot of what motivates me in my work is the belief that the more of us become active online, and learn to operate as a filter, consciously managing the memes that swirl around the internet and our collective awareness, the more likely we are to arrive at a good place.

We will increasingly sit on a knife edge between the wisdom of the crowd and the madness of the mob. Each of us gets to decide moment by moment which. Exciting and scary at the same time.