Weblog Entries for November 2003
November 28, 2003
The Joy of Blogging
For an instance of the real value of blogging, read Gary Lawrence Murphy's eloquent and beautiful posting triggered in a small way by my last posting, and in a larger way by the blogs of others.
Blogging and collaboration
Ton Zijlstra (crazy name, sane guy!) always blogs thoughtfully. His latest post Making Actionable Sense asks how come we bloggers create so many loose ends without leading to a lot of action.
We together came up with the idea, so why should we not together turn it into action? Current reality is that we try to feed the ideas into our regular workflow, and try to bring our colleagues into it. Most of our organisations however will not yet be layed out for the types of things we come up with here.Of course there are models out there of techie things that are done this way; open source software seems to be built by the collective communitarian will of independent thinkers. The Cluetrain manifesto was a collaborative effort by bloggers though I don't know if they were blogging at the time.
So, why not form ad-hoc (virtual) organisations, and create our own value adding networks. Bloggers together putting in proposals for conferences, defining projects etc. I'm not saying this is not being done already by some on some projects, but I am saying that we could be doing it a lot more. We feel like a community, so why not act like one. I think blogging is my first internet experience where there is a real bridge between my internet activities and my life off the net. Let's broaden that bridge, blur the lines some more. Turn our loosely coupled blogging-get-togethers into small enterprising networks.
Like Ton, I've seen Wikis but not made use of them so don't know if they are a small part of the way ahead.
I'm one of three people improvising our way towards a new book via a communal blog. It's called the Mutualist Manifesto or Brand Activism, depending who is sitting at the controls on the day. This is being produced in a very improvisational spirit and it will be interesting to see where it ends up.
I know that via the net I can now tap into some pretty remarkable talents in different parts of the world. This is both exciting and frustrating. Exciting cos I really like these people and love the idea of working with them, frustrating because I've yet to discover how best to do it. I've seen a lot of putative collaborations fail because they don't get to some kind of critical mass or level of commitment.
If I go to a complexity view (a la Snowden, see previous post) I think that I'm probably doing the right thing - trying stuff out - and should probably launch a few more probes and watch what happens.
November 27, 2003
Sunny Delight is plumbing new depths of hypocrisy in its advertising. Here is a soft drink full of additives posing as natural and healthy. It was long ago rumbled for this. If you google "Sunny Delight" you'll soon find the many voices of protest.This comment sums it up
Sunny Delight is the fake juice from Procter & Gamble, the same company that brought you the fake fat Olestra. There is nothing either sunny or delightful about a junk food that’s dressed up as real fruit juice. But Sunny Delight is not much more than sugar water with negligible amounts of juice and a bit of vitamins added.What is Procter & Gamble's response? Their latest ad campaign in the UK appeals directly to parents concerned about their children's health and says "Sunny D can help". This claim is substantiated by the fact that there's an option to have Sunny D with no added sugar. All the other rubbish is still there though. They've actually gone from merely implying there is something healthy about this muck to downright claiming it.
Surely no parent would think that giving orange soda to children is the same thing as giving them honest-to-goodness orange juice. But because some supermarkets actually place this product next to real juice and milk in the refrigerated aisle, parents and children alike are led to believe that Sunny Delight is juice. But it’s not. Sunny Delight’s marketing campaign is designed to deceive, and it succeeds.
This takes the biscuit for shameless cynicism and hypocrisy. This is like an ambulance-chasing lawyer or the conman who prays on the elderly, pretending to share their concerns with the sole motivation of exploiting them.
Procter and Gamble is the beneficiary of the advice of Kevin Roberts of Saatchi and Saatchi, who talks about wanting to create "Lovemarks" (see his site if you can handle the irony). As Tim Kitchin says (somwhere), these should really be called Lustmarks. And Sunny D is the proof.
The mechanistic mentality
Why do many brands still appear to forget the importance and role of the real relationships that should exist between themselves, consumers and society? Why do we live in a socio-economic vacuum of decaying trust? Why are most brands just wrapped in a surface veneer of humanity and “relationship gloss” that when consumers come into contact with them can be easily scratched off to see the awful reality that lurks inside?I agree with Chris that marketing has largely been taken over by a mechanistic approach. A set of latter-day Thomas Gradgrinds ("give me metrics, hard metrics") have taken over as Marketing Directors. Actually, that's unfair on Gradgrind, who at least was consistent in his denial of humanity. These guys are far more hypocritcal: in their advertising and promotion they peddle cuddly, warm, human fantasies, whilst behind the scenes in their secret family chapel they worship the deities of metrics and money.
I think this conundrum can be summed up with the present day marketer’s and CRMer’s obsession with what I call, “cleverness over relevance” and here is my humble attempt to explain why….
....The problem is that when the brain is taken out of marketing and put into a machine, the consumer simply becomes an object, a recipient of a predefined targeted piece of predefined communication and a passive set of bytes in a database waiting for an automated event to trigger an automated response through an automated script delivered by an unempowered and bored call centre operative
November 26, 2003
Can't get him out of my head...
... Dave Snowden that is.
This paper of his - Sense Making in a Complex and Complicated World - which I blogged a few days ago - is really on my mind. In particular, I've been thinking of the distinction between two domains of the four he describes, the knowable and the complex. The knowable represents, I suppose, things that are complicated - if you study them for long enough, you can figure out what to do to achieve a result. The complex represents things where all that analysis could be a waste of time, better to try things and see what happens.
I see a lot of people (myself included, and especially Dr Rant) struggling to deal with the complex as if it's complicated. I can easily get into analysis and thinking without actually doing stuff (see how I felt on this day for instance) when it would be better to try a few things and see what happens. Curt Rosengren seems to get this in his advice to keep your feet moving. Another manifestation is to rush to judgement and categorise things as good or bad without allowing for ambiguity or context.
Far too many people don't get this, and waffle about metrics, obsessing with narrow measures and making dubious correlations to "prove" their latest ideas "work", without looking at the broader context. In Britain, our Health Service and education system have been plagued with the very worst kind of shallow target setting and performance measurement. Marketing is awash with dreary mechanistic models that reduce the subtle wonders of human relationships to things like "value drivers" (they sound pretty horrid, don't they!). This - to my mind - is part of a desperate effort to run away from the complex by treating it as merely complicated, coralling it into the familiar domain of the knowable, the safe hunting ground of the Experts who Know What To Do who delight in its complications as it allows them to seem so clever.
Snowden says (I think) that it's fine to treat complicated things as complicated but not to try to deal with complexity the same way. Spot on. (Or do I mean, approximately right?)
Chris Locke has Rageboy, and I have Dr Rant.
Dr Rant is a subpersonality of mine that pops out, often without warning, when I feel the need to vent steam. (For the Myers Briggs fans out there, I guess this is when I move from INFP to INFJ or INTJ.) Dr Rant is less reasonable but probably more entertaining, as long as you're not in his firing line. He does rather more first drafts for this blog that, to be honest, I tone down before publishing. Though you can see his fingerprints on posts like this here or my comment at the end of this over at Beyond Branding.
Actually, now I re-read them I realise these are pretty tame by Dr Rant's standards. Perhaps, as an advocate of greater authenticity, I should let him out more often? Maybe give him a category of his own? After all, as a witty therapist once said "I'm in favour of anger, it can be so energising!"
What is marketing? (cont)
November 25, 2003
Assimilation vs Accumulation
I just got a terrific article in a facilitation e-zine, Master Facilitator Journal. Observing the overwhelming amount of stuff in the (Western) world and the glut of information we have to sort through, it points out that we have a choice: to assimilate or accumulate.
More than half the US population is now considered "obese," while people are starving for renewal of "spirit" and "soul" in their lives and work. People are busier, have less time, and often feel overwhelmed, surrounded by "too much stuff" and stressed out under the growing burden of "too much information."It goes on to say
How do we cope with the temptation to consume ourselves into oblivion? Our proposal is simple. We suggest two things. First, that you begin replacing the habit of "accumulating" with the practice of "assimilating." And second, that you make sure what you ingest in any form is of the highest quality possible. Let's first quickly define these words:
Accumulate: To heap up in a mass; to pile up; to increase; to collect or bring together; to amass; as, to accumulate a sum of money.
Assimilate: To appropriate and transform or incorporate into the substance of the assimilating body; to absorb or appropriate, as nourishment; as food is assimilated and converted into organic tissue.
Satisfaction comes from fully digesting and extracting the fine nutrients from what we already have, and making choices for new input based on our true values and passions, not our casual likes and vague interests.Yes, with a side order of yes, to that.
Update: I've revised the link to take you direct to the page in question, and here's who the author is:
Steve Davis, M.A., M.S., is an Facilitator's Coach, Infoprenuer, and free-lance human, helping facilitators, organizational leaders, educators, trainers, coaches and consultants present themselves confidently, access their creativity, empower their under-performing groups, enhance their facilitation skills, and build their business online and offline. Subscribe to his free weekly ezine at www.MasterFacilitatorJournal.com. Contact him at mailto:email@example.com.Quite like that line about being a freelance human being!
Biology and systems
Richard Gayle has a great post on the difference between chemists and biologists as an example of different approaches to managing systems.
Life developed its huge complexity in order to be able to deal with changing surroundings. Any organism that could not rapidly adapt when circumstances arose would die. Times of rapid change selected for those animals that could deal with the changes. Complexity permits a wide response to a tremendous variety of stimuli. Command and control usually permits just a few.Gayle's commenting in the context of the contrast between the Howard Dean and George Bush Presidential campaigns, but it's also about command-and-control versus a less hierarchical approach to managing systems. Major brain food.
You find very few hierarchical organisms. In fact, if you map the interactions of the large group of proteins found in a cell, if you examine their network, you find that it looks eerily similar to two other networks that adapt to complex circumstances: human social networks and the Internet.
November 24, 2003
What is marketing?
I ran a seminar on Friday for independent schools. It's designed as a kind of Marketing 101. I always enjoy these, mostly because those attending seem highly motivated and eager to learn.
The best part of running seminars is when I get surprised or challenged. Basically, because that's when I learn something too. Someone asked me, how do you define marketing? I didn't have a ready made answer, so I did a little exercise where everyone had a go at definining it, including me.
There were some good answers, but I (smugly) liked what I came up with in the moment. It goes something like this:
Marketing is the process of getting stakeholders to engage in relationships that create value
It's not, fundamentally, about "awareness" or "image"; but about facilitating productive relationships. Much of the marketing I see would not satisfy this definition because it is instrumental - basically it's aim is to make money for the seller by trying to manipulate the buyer. Buyers have to waste time and energy decoding marketing messages for the truth, and lawmakers have to create more and more regulations - and thus large frictional costs - to protect us from sellers' inability to create genuine synergy with buyers.
And by value, I don't just mean profit, which again is what many marketing people really mean by the word. A powerful relationship is based on rich exchange, not just parting with cash for a good or service.
November 22, 2003
Michael Jackson: Enough already
I don't care if the audience eats this shit up. They'd eat up public hangings and cats being thrown out of skyscraper windows. We have to be above their basest desires ... that's why we pass up on the better-paying gigs at the National Enquirer. Well, isn't it?I sometimes watch Fox News on Satellite in appalled fascination at its version of reality. I can't believe the blanket coverage it is giving to this story. So much TV news has slumped to real lowest-common-denominator pap. BBC news has become increasingly trivial in presentation if not yet in content. My pet beef there is the ridiculous fixation with sticking reporters LIVE in the pouring rain at dead of night outside empty buildings like 10 Downing Street to make their content seem more important. Utterly insulting to audience intelligence.
News should be what affects the most people. Celebs have no impact on my life or the lives of anybody but their friends, families and co-workers. If Michael Jackson's arrest hurts record sales, it's a business story. If it boosts TV ratings, it's a TV page story. If he molests little boys, it's a crime story. Whatever kind of story it is, it's not Page One News:
This is the curse of BAD marketing, not challenging the customer but placating them. It's the soma of Brave New World, delivered to people they treat like Epsilon Minus Semi Morons.
Olaf Brugman asks, In other words: why do authors create costly dependencies on publishers, chain-ball themselves, give up their rights? And shut up, and believe it's 'normal practice'? Spells like exploitation..
360 degree feedback and the search for recipe cards
Financial Review BOSS | Magazine > Nothing but the truth
It's a hot tool for telling your boss why he drives you nuts. But 360-degree feedback can be counterproductive. Do companies play with fire when they canvas opinions from the bottom up?
Tony pointed out this article, on the pros and cons of 360 degree feedback.
Once again, I notice the desperate need to categorise and get a nice, simple, binary answer to the question, is this any good. A quest that leads to laughable attempts at an answer like this:
The Watson Wyatt 2001 Human Capital Index – an ongoing study of the link between HR practices and shareholder value at 750 large American companies – found that those with 360-degree programs experienced a 10.6 per cent decrease in shareholder value. In Asia Pacific companies, the impact is virtually neutral – a fall of only 0.3 per cent.As if that means anything when looking at one input and one (over-rated) measure of output of a sprawling and complex system, based on a snaphot along a long timeline.
The drift of the article is, essentially, that it depends. On a lot of not-easily classfied variables. Once again, the search for recipe cards to run human systems fails...
November 21, 2003
Poacher turned gamekeeper
I'm continuing to enjoy Robert Scoble's blogging from inside Microsoft (Scoble: ex-independent uber-blogger turned MS employee... see my previous entry). Some of Scoble's stuff is too techie for me to follow, but he gets interesting when he gets his dander up. eg
Now that I've worked here for six months "inside the tank" I see that it's not a tank at all, but 55,000 people all trying to simultaneously serve customers, investors, bosses. Just like at every other company.I like the idea of anthill, as I tend to favour cock-up over conspiracy theories and Scoble's picture of organised chaos makes sense. However sceptical I feel about Microsoft, the fact they encourage this kind of blogging suggests that this company is not quite the evil empire it's made out to be. Or at least that the remorseless power of transparency and networking will help keep it in check.
It's a lot more like an anthill than a tank. But, I've said this before.
By the way, this is a capitalist system we're working on here. Do you want us to NOT care about profits? Tell that to our investors. I keep meeting investors. They tend to be average people. I met a DJ in a bar a few weeks back. He said "I have 2000 shares of Microsoft, keep up the good work." (he bought them back in the early 90s and he says he's done astoundingly well with his Microsoft shares).
On the other hand, I always worry when people get sanctimonious about the demanding investors, in whose name it seems to me no end of noxious practices can sometimes be justified. In David Copperfield, Dickens created the character of the crafty partner in a law firm who told his pupil (David) that he'd love to pay him better, if it wasn't for his mean-spirited business partner. In the end, we learn that there is no partner at all, it was just a convenient invention to disguise the guy's own meanness. Invoking the "demanding investor" can slide in this direction.
November 20, 2003
May I share an abiding frustration of mine with you? Thank you so much.
The question "What is your process?" is becoming the bane of my life. Yet the received wisdom is that all consultants must have one, or perhaps five, processes preferably ones that are unique. It is said that clients don't feel safe without a process, and consultants believe without a process they have nothing to sell.
Of course it's useful to work out with a client what it is you're going to do for them and what the benefits might be. But I'm really weary of what I think is a fixation with technique.
When I did my psychotherapy training, time and again the excellent trainers would refuse, in their phrase, to give out recipe cards - to try to suggest that a human relationship can be operated like a machine, according to some simple (or worse, complicated, formula). What they emphasised was the value of being present to the relationship, paying attention to the client and to one's own feelings and responses. Often the most powerful intervention would be simply to acknowledge what was there... The simple statement, "I see your eyes are tearful", might unleash a tide of feeling and information that the clumsy implementation of a process would have missed. As I'm fond of pointing out, that comment might sometimes be "I notice that my attention is wandering and I'm feeling distracted." Which also might generate a powerful exchange.
As I've said on my facilitation page, John Grinder (ironically, a co-founder of NLP which has more than its fair share of technique junkies) said that three things are needed for one person to help another to change: a relationship, a ritual and an intention. To quote myself:
There seems to be a bias in business towards focussing on the ritual. People ask, what's your technique? For every successful business, there are hundreds of books claiming to explain how it was done.I notice one or two blogs where the entries seem, almost daily, to consist of lists.. the seven key things to get right in CSR/CRM/etc; the eight fatal mistakes of branding blah blah blah. I've knocked out a few lists of my own but I'm getting really tired of them. I notice that my heart sinks at these leaden efforts to categorise and I think they're often part of a mindset that is fearful of change and gets a fleeting sense of control by putting human processes into boxes.
Grinder's insight was to put the ritual part in its place, and give weight to the relationship and the intention. Business is not short of techniques, but it is lacking in trusting relationships where there is goodwill and positive intent.
I recently got someone to tell me what "heuristics" are. They are, as I undersand it, rules of thumb. Don't know why we can't just call them rules of thumb, but that seems like a better way to go. Improv works brilliantly on a few simple principles - and a willingness to break even those when the spirit arises. To the extent I follow Dave Snowden - and let's face it, not many of us are that confident - what I like about his approach is that it involves paying attention to what is there, and cautions against the pitfalls of categorisation. Rules of thumb allow for fuzziness which is where the learning usually lies.
The second thing I dislike about consultants' processes is the way they trademark them and mutter about their "intellectual property". Nearly always, I find that what has been trademarked is a fairly dull and not very insightful process in the first place - or a good one lifted from somwhere else. And as soon as you get into trademarking processes - at least those for dealing with human beings - you get into a mindset of protection and control - the antithesis of what's needed for a learning organisation.
Perhaps it's too much to hope, but I'd like clients to hire me not for the clever things I might know but for my personality, enthusiasm and presence.
November 17, 2003
Making sense of a complex and complicated world
Lilia Efimova blogs Dave Snowden's keynote speech at the Knowledge Management Europe event in Amsterdam. She links to his rich and fascinating (and densely written) paper on Sense Making in a Complex and Complicated World (pdf file).
we challenge the universality of three basic assumptions prevalent in organizational decision support and strategy: assumptions of order, of rational choice, and of intent. We describe the Cynefin framework, a sense-making device we have developed to help people make sense of the complexities made visible by the relaxation of these assumptions.The paper distinguishes between situations where order prevails, and mechanistic management can be effective; and those of "un-order" where such approaches are likely to fail or make things worse.
Among nuggets of wisdom in this is this good statement about building awareness rather than just handing out answers, which I think is a vital principle for facilitation:
the group should accomplish Descriptive Self Awareness, or a greater understanding of their own biases and potentials. This is also our goal in helping people go through the process, because it is our place to enable clients to achieve self-awareness ratherthan to provide “expert” advice, which has a much lower value in practice.Also there's an elegant section on boundaries which is a topic that fascinates me. Snowden distinguishes between the "shallow river" (you know when you cross it and it's easy to cross); the "deep chasm" (crossable but only at bridges which can - for good or ill - limit access) and the "high plateau":
the boundary with the most potential danger, because you may not be aware thatThe article is packed with ideas and I can't quite do it justice here!
you have crossed the boundary until it is too late and you drop off the other side.
November 15, 2003
Marketing as community building
I'm running a seminar next Friday for a group of independent schools in England. This is something I've been doing for a number of years and I'm looking forward to it. I've come to think lately that some of these schools already have a great intuitive understanding of effective ways to do marketing in today's environment. It's just that they don't see it as marketing. In some ways, they may be better placed to market effectively than many commercial organisations with large marketing departments.
That's because successful schools implicitly understand the challenges of creating community. They have never fallen for simplistic notions such as "the customer comes first" because their professional ethics and beliefs mean there are limits to what they will do just to make pupils - or parents happy. So good schools have learnt how to create respectful relationships with all their audiences in which there is an exchange of duties, not a simple buy-sell exchange.
Schools are learning communities. A lot of the motivation of those involved is based on the innate human desire to learn, which is not about immediate, sometimes not even long-term, financial rewards. So good schools also have a better sense of how to value intangibles than a great many businesses - which tend to get trapped in the processes and disciplines that were better suited to an industrial economy than today's network and knowledge economy.
Certainly, there are some marketing basics that schools can benefit from. But more and more, I think my seminar should focus on helping them do better what they're already naturally good at... creating positive learning relationships and extending these beyond the classroom into the wider school community.
November 14, 2003
Passion in the workplace
On a brighter note, here's a great link I found in Curt Rosengren's blog. Curt writes:
File this one under companies who get it! In the dismal economy of 2002, independent bookstore Rainy Day Books' sales rose 6 percent, four times the industry average. Their secret?
"Our philosophy is that our staff comes first, then the customer," says [co-owner Vivien] Jennings. "We feel that when you take good care of your people, they will take good care of the customers." [Read the article here.]
Marketers are rediscovering that strong customer relationships are essential if companies want to avoid the downward spiral into commodity status that comes from competing on price alone. Throughout the halls of corporate America, banners proclaim programs such as "Putting Customers First," being more "Customer-Centric," or "Becoming a Customer-Focused Organization." These initiatives may be part of a culture change or a back-to-the-basics effort. However, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, published by the Institute of Social Research, only a handful of such programs succeed on a sustained basis...John comments
For a company to truly put customers first, it must focus all its processes, systems, infrastructure, policies, and practices on that goal. The problem is, too many organizations are structured in ways that hinder achieving world-class levels of customer engagement
My favorite failure is that companies expect behavior that isn't natural for the people they've hired. Can someone hired for their competitive tenacity, their cut-throat "win-at-all-costs" action-orientation, or their "logical prowess and smarts" be expected to be open to customer feedback, to solving customer issues, or adopting a true "customer focus?It's a good point, one I have seen reflected in many organisations I've worked with. The rhetoric is of customer satisfaction, but the reality is not.
Change the rhetoric
The solution may not be to change the reality alone. What may be needed is to change the rhetoric and acknowledge a deeper reality. Any organisation of any size has a multitude of stakeholders to "satisfy" and will always struggle to keep everyone happy. In the long run, customer satisfaction can only be achieved if employees are satisfied, and investors and other business partners too. I have seen companies fixated with customer service burn out because their staff become exhausted and disillusioned.
This "customer is king" stuff sucks. Sure, there are companies that need to pay a lot more attention to customers. But stating some idealised aim of customer delight is not the answer. What it tries to set up is a series of doting-parent - spoilt-child relationships that seem almost endemic in society.
I go on a lot about Easyjet (a European budget airline). They are a cheap no-frills operation. There's a TV show here every week showing them warts and all. In fact, it's mostly warts since that makes the best viewing. Every week we see irate customers berating the staff for various cock ups, sometimes within and sometimes outside the airline's control.
Typically, a group of passengers on a much-delayed flight gather round some nervous Easyjet employee. A couple of ringleaders start ranting and raving, engaging in sarcasm and apparent outrage... others, caught to one side, admit to being philosophical. Or we see a passenger who has arrived too late for the flight demanding to be let on, as if the airline should revolve around them. You know what? I end up feeling the airline isn't so bad, it's the customers with their childish expectations that the world should revolve around them who need to sort themselves out.
And I think the airline knows what it's doing here. It's saying "hey, we don't pretend to revolve around our customers, but we're cheap and what you see is what you get. Fly with us and if things go wrong, don't expect any big favours". To me, that is a more adult basis for a relationship than the ludicrous nonsense that passed for airline marketing in the past. eg "We love to fly and it shows" and "You're going to love us" Get real!
No, I'm not suggesting that crappy service is ok. But I for one don't trust organisations that go on and on about "customers first" because it's usually a half-truth. Or it's at the expense of the staff. Take a look at the shitty working conditions of folks who work in many so-called "service industries" where the customer gets the polished marble and velvet wallpaper and the staff behind-the-scenes work in stygian gloom.
A perverse circle of sycophancy
Perhaps the worst thing about this whole "make-me-happy" approach is the amount of energy wasted because people don't get challenged. A company that is sycophantic to customers will probably have sycophants for suppliers. David Maister (see this Fast Company article) reckons most consultants aren't happy in their work and don't like their clients. But I bet most are also pretending that they do. Then going to the pub and grumbling for an hour about their loathed client, before of course getting into a round of stories about the terrible customer service they've experienced somewhere.
A most ingenious paradox
I don't say customer satisfaction is impossible, but it doesn't come from a series of mechanistic b-school practices and satisfaction surveys. It does not, cannot, come from a fatuous mantra about delighting people. In fact, like most things to do with humans, it's paradoxical.
Also, satisfaction is not something to be "given" from one person to another. Satisfaction is a mutual thing, it's created in multiple little pieces of theatre that take place between people. I suspect that the people who are really good at customer service probably are pretty good at satisfying themselves... and yet aren't self-satisfied.
Oh, and a learning frame might offer some insights. Installing Movable Type and learning to use it, and deal with comment spam, has been irritating and frustrating for me... but I've also enjoyed overcoming the obstacles and getting more sophisticated. So it's actually been very satisfying - and that satisfaction is not manufactured and supplied by the Trotts, but has arisen from my interactions with the community of other users they've stimulated. I - and a lot of folks - get satisfaction from learning and learning does not happen if there isn't some discomfort and challenge along the way.
There is no magic formula. (But I will say that Improv Games can teach us a lot since they are great for paradoxical learning).
(See also my blog on some work from Stanford on the volatile chemistry of trust a survey which shows some of the paradoxes of customer satisfaction.)
November 13, 2003
Good and bad Improv
In the midst of a great meeting a couple of days ago with Tim Kitchin and Paul Goodison we shared a grumble about one or two client contacts who were behaving erratically - you know, expressing enthusiasm, then changing their minds; half-committing then falling silent. The usual kind of thing.
Yes, it is the usual kind of thing in my experience. And of course the usual kind of thing is for us consultants to grin and bear it. Well today I'm not in a grin-and-bear mode. More just a plain bear mode.
What frustrates me about so many businesses is that they describe themselves in such orderly terms, it's all strategies and plans and spreadsheets. Yet the day-to-day human reality is sometimes nothing like that. It's a chaotic cocktail of confused and indirect communication, with oodles of second-guessing of what other people might or might not like.
Businesses sometimes hear about Improv (ie Improvisational Theatre methods) and think it's completely alien to them. What would we want with all that spontaneity? they seem to say.
Well, I think they're missing something. The reality, I find, is that they're doing Improv the whole time, they're just doing bad Improv. They're not present to the immediate relationship they're in - instead, their minds are wandering elsewhere to what some other person might think; they're constantly fumbling the offers they are made; they frequently fail to give voice to the obvious.
Charles Handy has a nice word to describe what he sees in business today: presenteeism. People showing up with their bodies, but leaving their spirit at home. Gallup surveys consistently show that only around a fifth of workers actually feel engaged in their work. Good Improv exercises quickly get folks to be fully present, an experience that comes as a pleasant surprise to many of them! Bad Improv businesses seem to function only by people ignoring much of what is going on around them.
November 10, 2003
Comment spam solution
Like many others, I've been getting more and more bogus comments from Spammers promoting their sites. So, having delayed for a while, I've just installed Jay Allen's Comment Spam blocker.
It was a breeze to install it and it seems to work effortlessly. Thanks Jay!
When a conference sparks a series of continuing conversations, that's a good sign. That's what's happened with the NGO Knowledge Sharing event I went to in Brussels a few days ago. Olaf Brugman has now posted the workshop materials and conversations continue.
Ton Zijlstra has been thinking about the impossibility of controlling social change. And in a knowledge economy, command-and-control methodologies are going to be particularly ineffectual. Letting go of control is something we humans find hard to do, yet it can be what leads to the most connecting and exciting experiences.
Which neatly ties back to my Improv experiences of recent days. The best Improv moments happen in the moment, not from planning. A lot of laughter in the Improv exercises comes not from obviously funny lines, but from a delight in human spontaneity. We often relish the unexpected, however much our minds fear it.
What the Toronto conference also provided was a strong sense of community spirit. A lot of people, including me, had put in many, many hours towards creating the event, for no financial reward at all; they actually enjoyed being helpful. The result: a great event and rich connections, and lots and lots of learning.
I'm back in London after 5 days in Toronto with a heavy cold. I blame it on too much time spent in airconditioned rooms at the Improv conference. Among the highlights of the last day of the event was a great session on creativity with Alain Rostain and Cynthia Oelkers. Alain showed us a great exercise in which two people draw a picture, taking turns to add features. What results is a bit of what I'd call social creation, something unique which neither individual could claim as their own.
There was a good discussion about "orginality". The deeper meaning of originality is "from the origin" - in other words, something from within oneself; this is not about coming up with something deliberately different; instead it's about coming up with something true. Thus the person in a meeting who speaks against the consensus, voicing a deeply felt objection is being original - but a lot of creativity training would say they are just saying no.
I love the idea of promoting this kind of orignality, very different from a frantic search for what may often be only passing novely. It ties back to my own excitement in promoting authenticity in work.
November 7, 2003
Spontaneous humour vs telling jokes
Just sneaked out of the conference to catch up on the blog.
Best nugget from yesterday was an idea passed on by Gary Schwartz. Gary was discussing the value of spontaneity and way unexpected humor is often more satisfying than telling jokes. This is in an Improv context but obviously applies elsewhere...
If in a scene you tell a great joke, the audience will get a surprise, and laugh. But as the joke teller, you know the punchline and you won't be surprised... But suppose in the heat of the moment you say something spontaneous, and then everyone starts laughing... now you're sharing the surprise with them.
Great moments in Improv come when a group creates something together that is not forced or controlled by any one individual. I think great teams in all contexts are able to generate the same kind of spirit where a group mind is created that is more than the sum of the parts.
November 6, 2003
So I'm in Toronto for a few days, for the conference on Improv in Business. Looking forward to an inspiring time.
This evening we kicked off with a performance of Playback Theatre, which aims to capture stories from the audience and then dramatise them... one of many ways Improv can get people to share and explore experiences.
What I particularly enjoyed tonight was that it emphasised a serious side to Improv, which sometimes gets too easily dismissed as merely comic. I'm passionate about Improv as a way of bringing greater spontaneity to people and organisations; this evening some of the stories told were intensely personal and showed how Improv can also support people in being authentic, telling their own truth and having it acknowledged.
November 5, 2003
Badgers and the joy of complexity
Great article in today's Independent. The government decided to take action to stop the spread of TB among cattle. They found that badgers were to blame for spreading it.
So they ordered a badger cull. Luckily, they decided to do a limited trial first.
In some areas, the cull got 80% of the badgers - which you might think would lead to a reduction in catle TB. Wrong! The rate actually rose by over 20% everywhere they tried it.
Turns out that culling badgers to this degree so disrupted their social system that the survivors went roaming around - thus driving up the spread of the disease, and confounding the expert scientists.
To its credit, the government has stopped the experiment in its tracks.
Good news for badgers. I like these stories that illustrate how complex systems can defy expectations; it's all too easy to come up with neat "scientific" models for things that aren't that neat in reality.
November 4, 2003
The strains of corporate blogging
He wrote the Manifesto the day after being offered his current job at Microsoft. His update is posted a few months later. What intrigues me is the contrast between the two. The original manifesto is optimistic, challenging and inspiring...
Tell the truth.. Post fast on good news or bad.. use a human voice.. have a thick skin.. if you screw up, acknowledge it.. never hide information
Compare and contrast with his update, written as a Microsoft employee. Check the full entry to get these quotes in context, but note the language of these snippets..
Don't be sensationalistic.. If you don't want to put your career at risk: don't ever give away company secrets. Assume that everything is a company secret until you see the PR team put it out there.. Stay away from topics that have conflict..It's surprising how the whole tone shifts from one of engagement to one of avoidance; from a list of dos to one of don'ts... for me from courage to fear.
Don't get me wrong; I think Scoble keeps a fantastic blog and is being very open and honest here. I'm not saying this is a binary good:evil thing. But when you think about the challenge Microsoft faces from Open Source, you have to wonder about the relative authenticity of the conversations in the two environments.
Jerry Springer The Opera
I met Ton Zijlstra and his partner Elmine yesterday evening and we went to see the wonderful and bizarre Jerry Springer The Opera. How can I capture this experience in words? The idea of turning his show into Opera is inspired and the sheer hilarity is hard to convey... the vulgarity of the content set in operatic arias. Very funny... and also quite dark in that the relatively upmarket theatre audience becomes ensnared in the whole thing really in much the same way that the audience in the original TV show does. All this plus tap-dancing Ku Klux Klan and to top it off a mad chorus of dozens of Jerry lookalikes.
Ton and Elmine seemed to enjoy it even more than I did.
November 3, 2003
I've finally started paying attention to RSS and all this stuff about "Blog Aggregators". The final shove was wanting to get Martin Roell's English feed.
Knowing myself, I decided the easiest way to find out what they do is just to install one and see what happens. I did a quick google and after a few minutes decided to try SharpReader. I tend to go for half-informed blunders on this kind of thing, as I'm better with experimenting than with reading in the abstract.
Already, I really like it. After figuring out one glitch (had to cancel the default setting to "Proxy Server", whatever that means) it works a treat. Slightly slow to load but a great time saver. Instead of slavishly visiting all my favourite bloggers, often to find they've not updated, it instantly shows me a summary of who's written and who's been silent.
And prompted me to fiddle with the XML feeds this blog generates... And got the power of community on my side - I was able to copy a neat little template from Jennifer who seems to be a great resource for stuff like this.
That's what I'm like with computers - good intuitively, good at getting what I want, not so interested in the technical stuff.
I'd be interested in feedback from anyone who's smarter at this than me.
November 2, 2003
I was chatting with Tony yesterday about "shadow conversations". I've noticed that when I'm talking about Beyond Branding, and its agenda of increasing integrity, I keep getting told something like this:
That's all very well as a concept, but how do we deal with bosses like mine who only talk about the bottom line/hate being criticised/can't be trusted (insert your own variation here)?I recognise it's a tough world out there and it's not always easy to take the path of virtue. But it's struck me that in all these meetings, these hostile bosses are not present, they are simply referred to.
Then I thought of the times I've worked with bosses and found that, curiously, they do the same thing vis a vis their staff eg
Of course I agree with that, but you try getting my staff to level with me/understand etc,These are all shadow conversations in which we humans scare ourselves with what often turn out to be untested assumptions about others, instead of focusing on our own heartfelt beliefs. And such conversations are highly infectious; once one person starts the idea, a kind of mass hysteria quickly sets in.
I'm not suggesting that we never attempt to forecast the possible impact of what we might say on others, but I do think a lot of us put far too much energy into it. The fact is, we won't know until we try.
I also believe it's characteristic of many people to act like they don't want to be challenged when, at a deeper level they are searching for someone to give them a limit. Their outward behaviour is swollen, but underneath the bluster they're really saying (like Jim Carrey in The Mask) "Somebody Stop Me!"
Some of the most energising moments in therapy groups I've been in have been those when someone punctures an atmosphere of collusion and challenges the behaviour of another. Sure, sometimes the effect is incendiary, but often the person challenged is open to the intervention and appreciates the intervention. A lot of this has to do with the care and skill with which the challenge is made... there's a world of difference between "Oh for goodness sake, you are so boring" and "I really want to understand what you're saying and I notice that my attention is starting to drift..." I don't like to issue recipe cards on how to do this, but starting with the word I and describing your own feelings/responses is generally better than starting with you and labelling the other person's behaviour is generally a good idea.
Numbers and proof
The area in which I find the most shadow conversations at the moment is that of numbers. I keep finding myself invited to shadow conversations about it being impossible to get business to look beyond short-term numbers. This has a charge for me as I passionately believe that the numbers are often a woefully inadequate guide to the health of an organisation. But, in truth, I can't remember the last time anyone actually told me that the bottom line was all that counted to him/her. But if I had a pound for every time I've heard of all the other people who do... well I would have quite a few quid now.
Some people, of course, hate being challenged. That - to me - is a good reason to limit such unproductive behaviour to when they are actually in the room being obstinate or hostile. What really gives such characters a kind of malign power is that they are brought to countless other meetings by shadow conversation. In ad agencies, people were constantly invoking the tiresome client's likely response to sit on ideas before they had a chance to be expressed. Needless to say, such agencies were lousy at really challenging their clients and experts in sycophancy. Take a look at most advertising and you'll see that spirit manifested in ill-considered, implausible pitches to us sceptical and bored consumers.
I blogged about King Looie Katz a few days ago to illustrate the turnkey potential of a single expression of honesty in cultures of sycophancy. But I'm not saying we can expect such positive consquences, or that we always have to take such risks.
We can start in the parts of our lives where we do feel relatively secure, and get some practice at speaking the unspoken. I will be learning and relearning how to do this for the rest of my life!
I've been experimenting with Skype, software that let's you make phone calls over the net. Quite impressive and completely free (for the time being). I've had several chats with Tony in Australia without any call charges. The sound quality is remarkable, much better than a regular phone call. I do find that it does that thing where it seems to cut the other person's voice off when I talk, but they may be because I'm using Windows ME and they say it's not really designed for that.
November 1, 2003
Google translates compliments well... but strangles a lot of stuff!
At the NGO conference (blogged yeserday and the day before) I met Martin Roell, a German blogger and e-business guru. He's blogged the event in German so I got a chance to try Google translate which is charmingly erratic. Verna Allee has become Verna Avenue and I am now John Moorlands! This is Google's somewhat Pythonesque version of Martin's very nice comment about me:
John moorlands spoke about confidence. We often speak of confidence as of something binary: "I trust him." "I do not trust him." We should of confidence much more, as somewhat flexible and context depending speak.For confidence, read "trust". Well the bit about unbelievably good lecture translated well, didn't it! Thanks Martin!
Confidence vs. risk. Incoming goods take risks ton identify trustworthy left .
Unbelievably good lecture. One of the sort, which one cannot show in writing at all. Absolute highlight was, as it linked knowledge management and marketing over the confidence. Intuitively I always knew that (why I advise actually with knowledge management and marketing?), but in such a way formulated I had not ever heard that. Beautifully.