The darker side of our nature.

The internet is a mirror and an unforgiving one at that.

Whether it is paedophilia, misogyny, racism or bullying, by indulging our weaknesses in a public "place" we will get to see them, perhaps for the first time.

Thoughts that we have harboured in the safety of our own skull are suddenly exposed. We get to see other people's reactions to them. We get the chance to adjust.

I hope we take it.

Professional Niceties

Clearly being nice is better than being nasty.

Business assumes professional niceness.

I occasionally resort to it myself.

I regret this.

Generally I prefer spending my time with enthusiastic amateurs.

Linguistic Epistemology

Linguistic Epistemology: the study of the way our language shapes our reality. In the interests of your reality and my own I promise not to use the phrase again but I do want to talk about the way we use words in our day to day lives.

Words box us in, even our own words. How often do you find yourself saying "I am [sad/angry/afraid]"? We may be feeling angry or afraid for a moment but defining ourselves as angry limits us, shrinks us.

Be particularly wary of defining yourself by other people's words, especially your parents'. How often is your sense of who and what you are a legacy from your childhood, the result of unthinking but repetitive use of critical words when you were at an impressionable age and too young to know better.

And then there is work. Not only are we at risk of our boss carrying on where our parents left off, but we are subject to whole teams of professionals hijacking and misappropriating otherwise useful words. Turning them into weasel words: "engagement", "collaboration", "content". The phrase "on boarding" always makes me think of water boarding. [Maybe if having read this you too will feel uncomfortable and stop using the awful phrase!]

We label the world around us. We can't help ourselves. We may not even be able to think without using words to do so. Words are as about as intimate and personal as our experience of the world around us gets. We need to choose them carefully.

Working things out at work.

Working things out at work.

We spend a great deal of our lives at work and, while there is a fair amount of routine, it can also present us with our most challenging situations. Apart from time spent with our families work is the setting for our most intense relationships with other people. We get to test ourselves, to discover ourselves, to act out different versions of ourselves. We do this along with dozens, or even hundreds, doing the same thing. It's no wonder work gets stressful.

As line manager of a large group of people I got to watch them doing this day in, day out. Sometimes they soared and became the best that they could be; sometimes they crashed and burned causing distress and chaos for those around them. Sometimes I was able to be of help, sometimes I made things worse. Either way I had the honour of accompanying a group of fellow human beings as they faced the challenge of working things out at work.

But I too was working things out and in a position to have disproportionate impact on those around me as I did so. This was a privilege I had to earn through gaining their trust, it was not a job title conferred right. The higher your position in your organisation the more this is true. Remembering this is an obligation.

Wherever you go there you are.

I am very lucky to get to travel as much as I do with my work. From Bangkok to Prague, Tallin to Sydney I have experienced many of the world's most beautiful and interesting places. And I do really try to experience them, usually managing to fit in a mountain hike or, at the very least, a long city walk. I try to get as good a feel for the place I am in as I can and not squander the amazing opportunity I have been given.

But often I am not really there. I am stuck in my head. Ruminating over some remembered mistake or anticipating some imagined threat. I might as well be wrapped in cotton wool for all the connection I have with the world around me. But then many of us spend much of our time like this. Lost in thought instead of living our lives.

If we could just get away it would all be better. The whole holiday industry is based on this urge to run away, to be somewhere else, to be someone else. But wherever you go, there you are. You take your thoughts with you and unpack them faster than you do your guide books!

Our realities are created inside, not outside, and if we want to be happy we have to get better at turning our attention towards dealing with our problems and challenges, not running away from them.

Myth busting

I found myself thinking about New York this morning and how wonderfully ordinary and "cosy" it always feels when I visit it. This is in stark contrast to its media image. Probably more than most cities our sense of it is conditioned by the many hundreds of movies it has featured in, many of which emphasise its seamier side and almost invariably involve wide shots of its soaring sky scrapers and apparently inhuman scale.

But real people live there. People I know. Sitting in a local park on the lower east side feels like sitting in a park in east London. Mothers entertaining their kids, older blokes dozing on benches, people walking dogs. Reassuringly human.

We pay people to create the stories that make our world feel unreal. How odd.

We do the same in our organisations. We pay people to make up myths about our place of work, creating air brushed, gender balanced, multi-ethnic, happy to the point of insanity, images of "typical staff" spending a typical day happy at the administrative coal face.

The reality for most of us is very different from this. Fraught with very human challenges and struggling to make sense of what is happening around us.

Do the air brushed images help? Or do they exacerbate the sense of disconnection from reality?

Intentional marketing

I am increasingly asked to work with marketing departments and run workshops for them on social media or "digital". This despite making no claims to expertise in the "profession". Listening to the conversations about their day jobs I am frequently surprised at the degree to which process takes over and thinking stops.

A senior group or individual in a corporation decides on a new branding exercise or new angle on a product which may, or may not, be based on the interests of the customer. This then ripples down through the ranks until someone commissions an agency to tick this particular box. The agency process then kicks in, unleashing their "creatives" on the world, and too often the end result is the bewilderingly inappropriate crap we have thrust at us while trying to go about our daily lives. If they stopped to think many, maybe most, of the people in the chain know that it is crap.

I have no problem with being better informed, in a timely and appropriate fashion, about products or services I might be interested in. I am going to buy stuff, I might as well make better informed decisions about it. But this isn't the intent of most marketing which appears to be about shouting at me about stuff I don't want while I am trying to do something else.

Intent matters. Think about it.

Differentiation

When we got going with blogs inside the BBC we had seemingly endless conversations about whether bloggers should be able to use their own designs and add their own plugins etc. I was all for it, believing that differentiation makes it easier to navigate not harder. Others felt that it was important to make them all look the same in the name of some ideal of consistency.

Reminds me of the analogy I used to use. Networks of blogs linking to each other become like old villages. No one enforces an overall architectural style or signage, but we find them easy to navigate because there are well worn paths between the church and the pub for instance. We feel comfortable with the human scale and quickly learn our way around. Over controlled shiny corporate blogs, and most intranets, are like Milton Keynes. Efficient on the face of it, but bewildering if you don't understand the system. I get lost in Milton Keynes every time I go there even with a sat nav!

I occasionally hear of marketing or internal comms teams trying to assert control over individual bloggers who have "found their voices" and in some cases attracted significant audiences. In doing so they risk compromising the very qualities that made the bloggers trusted, successful and, most importantly, discoverable in the first place.

What are they so afraid of? That we won't be able to work out that the blogger works for them? That we will think that they have lost control and staff are running amok?

We love differentiation. Why not embrace it and try to get good at it?

Culture change

Every time I hear that an organisation is hoping to bring about culture change, or perish the thought "driving culture change", my heart sinks. You can't change culture. You can change things that affect people in the hope that doing so gives them a good reason to adapt their behaviour, but culture emerges from the collective behaviours of the people in your organisation over time.

The worst scenario is when those "driving change" don't change their own behaviours but start producing shiny posters telling everyone else how to behave. Doing so is likely to bring about a rapid change in your culture but not in the ways you intended!

Curiosity

When I was growing up my parents were forever taking us for "trips" whether locally or further afield. They still set off, in their eighties, in my Dad's sports car, to explore Dorset where they now live. My wife Penny shares this inclination to go places and discover new ones we've not been, so we have visited and got to know much of the wonderfully varied countryside of Britain and beyond. Needless to say the girls are growing up with the same willingness to follow their natural curiosity and see more of the world than is brought to them via their TV screens. In contrast many of their friends it seems never go anywhere except for school, shopping, and the annual foreign holiday.

And it's not just going places, it's exploring ideas. The girls will often comment that their fellow pupils seem incredibly blinkered in their ideas as well as suffering from a lack of travel itch. Even basic questions about why things are the way they are, why people behave the way they do, and inquiry into different philosophies and world views appear to be virgin territory. They wonder what sort of conversations take place over their schoolmates' breakfast tables and contrast this with our willingness to pick up an idea, throw it around, and leave it gasping for breath on the floor as we tussle with everything from politics to religion and everything in between.

This lack of curiosity seems to me to be at the root of so many of our problems. Yes it may be easier to pass through life asleep, and yes they may be happier not being riddled with self doubt and existential angst as we can sometimes be, but we all only get one shot at this. The willingness to wonder why, to explore beneath the surface, to break away from the norm out of a desire to explore the world and to address its problems seems so important and the more of us who do it the more likely we are to cope with our unpredictable futures.

To miss so much of what life has to offer seems a shame individually, and a willingness to sleep through the sort of challenges facing civilisation at the moment, seems a waste at the very least and an avoidance of responsibility at worst.

Do you wanna be in my gang?

Reading Mollie's post yesterday about religion, and reading today about Krishnamurti's rejection of any form of authority other than your experience when exploring truth, got me thinking again about tribalism and dogma.

The instinct to find and apply what Krishnamurti calls "false universals" is so strong. The successful case study, "best practice", or for that matter The Ten Commandments. Having chosen our formula we then identify with those that share our "truth" and reject those who don't. The sense of comfort we get from having found our answers is reinforced by our dengration of those who have come to different conclusions.

But they are all made up. They are all stories. Whether at work, or in the world at large, we cling to these stories with such desperation that we will fight holy wars over whether my story is more true than yours. We form gangs around our stories and exercise control over membership, who's in and who's out. We threaten eternal damnation to those who fall on the wrong side of that line.

But I will say again, they are all made up. They are combinations of made up stories passed down by our ancestors or new stories made up by our experts. We need to be forever sceptical about other people's stories.

For that matter we need to be forever sceptical about our own...

Preachiness

There is a preachiness about enthusiasts for change of whatever sort. Whether technological, sociological, or pscychological. But if those who you are preaching at haven't given you the authority to preach you are just yet another voice in the wind. To preach is to assume a dominance, a position higher up the food chain, a more advanced state of whatever sort. Doing so is deeply unattractive.

So how to bring about change?

Be different, and brave enough to be visibly so. Be consistently different through good times and bad. When invited to share how you became different do so enthusiastically but respectfully. Allow others to be different in their own way!

When accused once of being against religious evangelism, while at the same time being evangelical about my own world view, I responded by saying: "I don't want people to think what I think. I just want them to think, and to share what they think me and with each other. Doing so may not get us where I think we are going but it will be somewhere worth getting to."

"Transformation"?

A while back I tweeted "Do you want transformation or just tinkering". The implied question being "Are you up for real change or do you just want to keep rearranging the deckchairs on The Titanic?"

But...

The word "transformation" is beginning to worry me. It implies a total change, a radical departure from the status quo, a discarding of how you currently do things. It also implies an idealised end state. "If we manage to get to the magical world described in this forty page document then all will be OK." But then we never do and it rarely is. Life, and work, stays gloriously messy and imprecise despite our best efforts, or most compelling fantasies.

Real change doesn't happen in these big bang ways. It happens one person at a time, it takes longer than you ever imagined, and it ends up looking little like what you anticipated it would.

Yet again Trojan Mice spring to mind. Little things, loosely coordinated, working together. Add to this my favourite "Keep moving, stay in touch, and head for the high ground" and you have a greater chance of bringing about the level of change that we are all beginning to realise is called for to deal with our ever increasing challenges.

Normality

I was going to write a post about breaking ranks, about the challenge of acting differently in the workplace and bringing about true change. This challenge is too intimidating for most and the pressure to fit into whatever is considered "normal" is enormous.

I then read a friend's Facebook post about his wonderful daughter and noticed that he had changed his profile picture to an image that says "I Love Someone Rare". I have just spent the last five minutes trying to remember what disability his daughter is challenged with so that I could put that appropriate "abnormal" label on her in the previous paragraph. I then realised that "wonderful" is the only appropriate way to describe her!

Then I got thinking again about Trump and the terrifying sense of being "normal" that his supporters have and their apparent willingness to demonise anyone who they see as not being normal. He is tapping into the instinct to not only cling to normality but to aggressively assert it over those who challenge it.

Normality is overrated. In fact it is dangerous. It erodes our ability to be our true selves as individuals, can cause unhappiness in those who through no fault of their own are "not normal", and gives us the tribal excuse to behave appallingly to our fellow man.

Be very wary of normality and its proactive proponents.

Retro Punditry

Like it or not, technology in all its forms is going to have an increasing impact on our lives. Most people and organisations are not ready for this. Attending the conferences that I do, even ones that are focussed on technology, I am amazed at how unaware people are and how many are actually in denial or resistant to the changes that technology is already bringing about.

Don't get me wrong, I don't for a moment believe that we should passively accept technology and it's effects on society. Far from it, my "mission" is to get more people aware, thoughtful, and actively engaged in how we deal with the challenges.

However, I get tired of pundits who make a virtue of resisting technology, harking back to a time when all we had was "good old fashioned face to face" relationships.

Yes we need to make better informed decisions on how and when we use technology and certainly we need to remember the importance of the real relationships on which we depend for our success and happiness, but there is a real risk that these "experts" allow people to stay in their comfort zones and asleep to the enormous challenges we face. This is not a good thing.

Stating the obvious.

I am struck by how often people say "I have nothing to blog about. Why would people be interested in what I think?" when we are discussing using social tools at work. They suffer from the same reticence as I did when I started blogging all those years ago. "Who am I to say this?" "Surely everyone knows this?" I called my blog "The Obvious?" because it was me overcoming my reticence about stating the obvious in public. Even the question mark was a self deprecating virtual nervous tick!

And yet most people love talking about what they know when you are in conversation with them face to face. We all have valuable experience and given the right encouragement will willingly share it. Maybe it's because we are sharing in writing?Maybe even that little bit of additional formality makes us feel presumptuous?

The thing is, once you get over this hurdle amazing thing start to happen. Often what seems obvious to us isn't obvious to everyone. They may never have realised what we are sharing. Or maybe they had realised it but are glad someone else has too! At the very worst you might share something that is common knowledge. Is that the end of the world?

All that is necessary

Following on from my visit to Auschwitz last month I have been reading as much as I can to try to understand how such an atrocity could ever happen. I have just begun reading "An Interrupted Life: The Diaries And Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941-1943". Powerful, thoughtful, and heart rending, they are an intimate insight into the last two years of Etty's life before her death in the gas chamber. Reading such personal stories makes the situation all the more real than broad historical political analysis of the times. It also reveals, as I have written before, how terrifyingly ordinary evil can be, and how ordinary people allow it grow.

It is inconceivable that seventy years later we could be watching the apparent rise of fascism in America. "The Revenge of the Lower Classes and the Rise of American Fascism" (that I linked to yesterday) is a recent article by Chris Hedges that pulls no punches and is hard to argue with. Current conventional politics seem as much part of the problem as the solution. Our old "big picture" stories of material success and liberal politics are losing relevance and we're not anywhere near compelling alternatives yet. My usual strategic advice for unpredictable times of "Keep moving, stay in touch, and head for the high ground" isn't much use if we can't agree on where the high ground is.

Or is it?

Maybe it is the "big picture" myth that is the problem. The idea that there is one all encompassing story that will sort everything. This is where idealism and ideologies go wrong. Invariably it is one vocal, small group, who impose their views on the rest, no matter how benign their intentions. Maybe this is why I see the demise of mass media as a good thing, allowing us to take back our story telling and sense making to a more personal and more human level. Maybe this is where my "organisational anarchist" tag comes in handy. Maybe we need to take the idea of "Trojan mice" seriously and on a global scale? Lots of small actions, closer, more intimate networks, fragmenting the opportunity for abuse of power or polarising of wealth?

I have Burke's phrase “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing" ringing in my ears all the time at the moment. Maybe it is "ordinary people" who have the power to prevent evil? Maybe our alternative to doing nothing is to do lots of little things. Lots of little steps. Lots of real conversations with real people about stuff that matters.

Maybe...

Ten years

It is ten years this month since I left the BBC. Hard to believe really. I have to say I have loved every minute of it, despite the challenges of working solo as a freelancer, and find it hard to imagine ever doing a "real job" again.

As to the BBC I am occasionally asked what I think about what is happening there. I know this may sound harsh but, other than the impact its death throes are having on the few friends who still work there, I find it hard to care. I watch very little television and listen to practically no radio. I listen to a lot of recorded audio but it is all independently made podcasts and Audible audiobooks.

As I have often said, what inspires me about the internet is the potential it gives us to take back ownership of our story telling and the fragmentation of mass media into ever smaller bits excites rather than worries me.

Wisdom

Back in the days when I was involved in knowledge management I remember recoiling in horror at someone describing themselves as a wisdom manager. This seemed like a ludicrously presumptuous idea. It still does.

But…

We have more information nowadays than we know what to do with. It is increasingly difficult to discern the truth in our increasingly complex lives. Even within our own heads, extracting the signal from the noise is a perpetual challenge and a continual source of stress.

And yet...

Underneath all of this noise and complexity, at a deeper level, we know. We know right from wrong, we know what we should be doing, we know what things mean, and we know how we feel about things. When we become calm and step outside of our never-ending stream of thought, we achieve a sense of clarity. Of wisdom.

We don't need someone to manage our wisdom for us but we do need to get better at allowing our wisdom to surface. We need to get better at this both individually and collectively.

A slippery slope

I am currently reading Tzvetan Todorov's classic book Facing The Extreme. It is a fascinating exploration of what happened to morals and ethics in Nazi and Soviet concentration camps. Where individual responsibility for evil lies, why some people still "do the right thing" in the face of intolerable pressure, and how easy it becomes for everyone responsible for evil to be "just doing their job".

To some extent the camps were the logical extension of totalitarianism. You gain power and influence by identifying the enemy, even the enemy within, demonise and dehumanise them, and then justify their eradication. It is all too easy to see this as something particular to the German or Soviet character, or even to excuse it on the basis of the culture and norms of The Thirties, but to do so would be dangerously complacent. Stanley Milgram's famous experiment took place in America, Guatanamo Bay is still in use, and the circumstances of Donald Trump's rise are being compared to those of Hitler.

What is striking about the evil described in Todorov's book is how ordinary it all was. Very few of the guards were sadists or psychotic in any way. The vast majority were very average people. People pretty much like you and me. People trying to get through their days, to keep their families safe, not ruffling too many feathers.

It is all too easy for us to see evil as the result of particular, malevolent, individuals. But that is not how it happens. It is lots of little actions, or inactions, by lots of people that lead to our greatest nightmares.

As I have so often said "we all have a volume control on mob rule". We need to start exercising that volume control...