Weblog Entries for August 2009
August 31, 2009
I've learnt a lot from Rob Poynton in a few meetings and Skype chats, and from his book.
So when he raved to Mark and me about a workshop he'd attended, in which non-musicians explore what it's like to conduct a choir, we paid attention. In fact, we encouraged Rob to get the workshop leader, Peter Hanke, over to London so we could have a go ourselves.
As result, on November 2nd, Peter and Rob are hosting Communication as a Performing Art. Here's a bit of the blurb:
Conductors have to express themselves bodily, communicating with the singers only through gesture and movement, so the act of conducting provides a medium through which to observe oneself. How we express ourselves in this unfamiliar situation, untainted by rational thoughts, knowledge or words reveals insights about aspects of our selves and how we communicate that are hard to come by with conventional methods.From what Rob told me, this is an amazing experience. It has had a profound impact on many people attending, in ways few of them expected.
So I'm willingly paying the £250 cost to be part of it. I'd encourage you to join us.
August 27, 2009
"Only management can occur"
The biggest problem with business these days, especially big business, and with Government, is that it has been captured by the managerial class and they KNOW this stuff already. But like every ruling class in history, they cannot afford to admit the problem because that involves their own career and livelihood being cancelled
He then reflects on how this affects our handling of the really big problems facing the world:
..for most people, especially decision-makers, the problem itself is invisible, it is outside the scale of their competence and all their training comes down to, "if it can't be measured, it can't be managed" because management can do only those things that are susceptible of management. Because they have captured the organisation, only management can occur.
August 26, 2009
The problem with incentives
Dan Pink gives a punchy TED talk about the adverse impact of incentives. He reports studies that show that offering incentives will increase performance for routine tasks. But for activities that require creativity or problem solving, the bigger the reward, the worse the performance.
Hmm, not quite the worldview prevailing in just about every company I've come across. As he puts it, there's a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.
(Alfie Kohn wrote a brillant book on this subject, Punished by Rewards. I heartily recommend it.)
If you want engagement, self-direction works better. People's intrinsic drive is a far better motivator than extrinsic rewards.
File this under "cobblers children"
From New Zealand, 24 August: Bosses "biggest cheats"
Middle managers are the most common corporate fraudsters, with more than $40 million of defrauded funds over 18 months only the "tip of the iceberg", according to a KPMG survey.
Need an international example to flesh this story out? No problemo:
KPMG accountancy chief fiddled £545,000 to pay for his new wife's £15,000-a-month luxury tastes.
August 23, 2009
How we talk
Yesterday, I spearheaded a new movement at the office. I stopped using the word "we", and started to say what I really meant to say. For example, instead of "We should fix that bug", I say, "You should fix that bug", and good God is it satisfying.It's an excellent rant about how people in organisations end up using euphemistic language that in the end disempowers them.
Not that always being direct and blunt is going to be a perfect solution either. But I am very interested in how we use language. Sometimes we use it to raise our status, but in doing so cut ourselves off from reality - and thus lose our power.
The other day on the bus, a passenger was carrying on a loud conversation with a client. She was discussing the morals of some candidates she'd been interviewing, which I thought was a little rich coming from someone with a fairly diminished sense of confidentiality. Perhaps this biassed me against her. Later in the call she was discussing some other HR issue and promised her client that she would talk to various employees. "Don't worry, I'll manage their expectations," she said. I realise that's a very common phrase in business but that morning it stuck out like a sore thumb, and made me wonder: what kind of world do we end up in when we frame our experience in such a way? Do we really believe that we understand other people's inner worlds so well that we can seriously "manage" their expectations with any certainty?
I might be over-reacting. But I've been thinking a lot about how people often talk as if they are in control of more things than anyone, in all truth, really could be. And then not talking about stuff where they do have some authority. So it's easy to make abstract criticisms of systems: "I think this process should be changed". And hard to say stuff that has less status but has more emotional truth, like "I'm bored and frustrated".
Thus there are a lot of conversations about how to change the world but maybe not so many about the humbler challenge of truly experiencing our own little piece of it. Which I think relates in some way to what Euan is saying here.
The market and nature
The marketplace in which most commerce takes place today is not a pre-existing condition of the universe. It's not nature. It's a game, with very particular rules, set in motion by real people with real purposes. That's why it's so amazing to me that scientists, and people calling themselves scientists, would propose to study the market as if it were some natural system — like the weather, or a coral reef.Rushkoff then traces our current notion of the market to origins in medieval times, where things like central currencies were devised not to set anyone free, but to keep the rising class of merchants in check. He goes on to make this argument:
It's not. It's a product not of nature but of engineering. And to treat the market as nature, as some product of purely evolutionary forces, is to deny ourselves access to its ongoing redesign. It's as if we woke up in a world where just one operating system was running on all our computers and, worse, we didn't realize that any other operating system ever did or could ever exist. We would simply accept Windows as a given circumstance, and look for way
Like artists of the Renaissance, who were required to find patrons to support their work, most scientists, mathematicians, theorists, and technologists today must find support from either the public or private sectors to carry on their work. This support is not won by calling attention to the Monopoly board most of us mistake for the real economy. It is won by applying insights to the techniques through which their patrons can better play the game.As a result, he argues, many of those studying the emerging patterns of a networked world are force-fitting them into a contrived model rather than seeing alternatives.
In short, these economic theories are selecting examples from nature to confirm the properties of a wholly designed marketplace: self-interested actors, inevitable equilibrium, a scarcity of resources, competition for survival. In doing so, they confirm — or at the very least, reinforce — the false idea that the laws of an artificially scarce fiscal scheme are a species' inheritance rather than a social construction enforced with gunpowder. At the very least, the language of science confers undeserved authority on these blindly accepted economic assumptions.He argues that in this analysis, we risk missing some very different ways in which our futures could unfold:
The net (whether we're talking Web 2.0, Wikipedia, social networks or laptops) offers people the opportunity to build economies based on different rules — commerce that exists outside the economic map we have mistaken for the territory of human interaction.
We can startup and even scale companies with little or no money, making the banks and investment capital on which business once depended obsolete. That's the real reason for the so-called economic crisis: there is less of a market for the debt on which the top-heavy game is based. We can develop local and complementary currencies, barter networks, and other exchange systems independently of a central bank, and carry out secure transactions with our cell phones.
Stress and ruts
Jonah Lehrer reports on a new study on the effects of stress. This makes intuitive sense to me:
[C]hronic stress reduces cellular plasticity (including neurogenesis), which might make us (and mice) more likely to settle into familiar ruts and routines. The end result is that people stick with the very behaviors that created the stress in the first place.So if you ever feel frustrated with yourself for repeating bad habits, you may be contributing to that tricky little feedback loop. Compassion may be a way out.
Hat tip Andrew Sullivan's blog
August 20, 2009
The other night I watched episode 5 of Wildest Dreams. It's a BBC show in which two small teams of people compete to become wildlife film-makers. Like so many such shows, I found the compete-and-be-judged format a bit grating, but the set-up for this episode was interesting.
The teams were taken to a famous watering-hole in Kenya, a place where a complex ecology includes hippos, crocs and lots of other wildlife. However, the rains had recently failed, and the hippos were seriously malnourished, with many dying. To the expert eye, this was readily apparent but it was not so obvious to the neophyte film-makers, who were caught up with the awesome scenes of nature before them and entranced by the almost mythic story surrounding this "magical spot".
(This was the cue for a good deal of snarky commentary from the presenter, who I suspect would have been just as beguiled as the participants if he hadn't been given the inside track by the experts.)
Both teams had similar experiences: only very late in the filming process did the drought story become fully apparent to them. One team decided to rewrite their script to reflect this perspective. The other team agonised for a fairly short time and the leader seemed to take the Macbeth perspective: too far steeped in blood. They'd spent hours making their "circle-of-life" story and it was too late to completely reshoot. Big mistake, as it turned out.
I thought this was a good example of sliding into "either-or" thinking, something it's easy to do under stress. We either stick to our plan or we have to start all over again.
The more successful team did something more elegant. They started off with the story of this marvelous watering hole, and then introduced the shock of the current drought. In effect, they incorporated their surprise into their story rather than seeing it as a challenge they had to capitulate to or ignore.
I see versions of this playing out in my life the whole time. The practice I'm constantly working on is being willing to sit longer with doubt and confusion and see if a new perspective emerges - resisting the more macho urge to take one side or another.
August 17, 2009
Portland in November
I'm going to be at the Applied Improv Network Conference this November in Portland, Oregon.
In fact, I'm going to run a preconference day with Kay Scorah and Denzil Meyers. This will be based on the workshops Kay and I have run recently in London and Dublin.
We're calling it Notice More, Change Less and here's a snippet from the blurb:
In the organisational world, there is a prevailing idea that change is difficult and stressful, and that innovation is scarce and requires effortful management to succeed. A lot of people and businesses have a huge financial and psychological investment in this worldview.(Regular readers will know that my kicker to change being easy is that it's control that's difficult)
And we used to as well. But after collective decades of working with people, and especially inspired by our experiences of improvisation, we've been wondering more and more...
What if change is easy?
There's a whole stack of other stuff going at the conference including a day of Open Space on the closing Sunday. It would be fun to see you there.
I don’t know what’s worse – the awful methods Flores employs; the fawning tone in the Fast Company article, which makes him sound like a corporate superhero swooping in to save business in trouble; or the fact that he charges companies millions of dollars for his assistance.It's hard to judge an approach by Fast Company's treatment of it, but like any model, technique or philosophy, Flores' notion of speech acts is open to abuse. Like Alex, I'm wary of scripted interventions and even more so of management hero-worship.
To me, this is one of the most disgusting business practices I’ve ever heard of. I’m all for honesty and openness but that is obviously NOT what Flores is preaching.
I'm also interested in the way we use language and I think Flores is on an interesting scent when he challenges managers. Politeness can be over-rated in conversations. Unfortunately, Flores' own approach can just as easily ossify into a ritual. As the mystics say, the tao that can be named is not the tao.
The other interesting thing about Alex's piece is the vociferous debate in the comments. I liked it a lot. Apart from anything else, I think it's a fitting counterblast to ideas that as a species we can usefully agree on an explicit set of rules by which to conduct our conversations.
Shopping and monoculture
Who will challenge this creeping monoculture? Not the main political parties. They offer only minute variations of the same pro-consumption product; for Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems read Tesco, Sainsbury and Asda. They even behave like retailers, testing policies to see what works best and adjusting them accordingly as they compete for market share. Meanwhile, retailers appropriate what’s left of the language and culture of democracy. Walkers crisps holds the biggest election of the year for its new flavours; Costa Coffee claims “the people have voted” and that seven out of 10 prefer its brand over Starbucks.
August 8, 2009
Innovation and the money
But for all of its undeniable power, the printing press wasn’t the source of large fortunes for the engineers, investors, and businessmen involved in this industry. Profits were made, yes, sometimes significant ones, but nothing quite proportional to the influence of the technology. The bulk of the benefits came to the organizations that leveraged this technology for their own ends like modern states, which would have been logistically impossible without the printing press, or the myriad business that cannot be conceived without a superbly well-educated (for pre-modern standards) source of workers and consumers.The initiator of disruption is not likely to be the big beneficiary. Interesting. Some people argue that you incentivise innovation but I'm a sceptic. It sounds like successful disruptors are driven by something other than financial reward.
The same pattern can be seen in many other technical advances, specially those that impacted society the most. Contraceptives, telecommunications, refrigeration: they are often overlooked foundations of the contemporary world, each of them enormously disruptive, yet none of them, over the long term, a gold mine of extraordinary returns.
August 5, 2009
I think there are way too many really bad diagrams in the world of organisations.
Visual explanations can be extremely useful and effective. The famous London Underground map is a great example, though recent versions do seem to be getting more cluttered.
But a huge number of diagrams make use of shape and colour in ways that seem gratuitous. Visuals are powerful and when used clumsily seem to screw up the signal-to-noise ratio. I have a suspicion that this sometimes intentional: you can take a fairly simple idea and make is seem more important by turning into a diagram.
For example, you often get a simple idea like "there are five aspects to this" that mysteriously becomes a brightly coloured pentagram. The big shape adds nothing relevant to the idea but introduces to my mind all sort of superfluous ideas about space and boundaries.
Here's one I spotted today from Accenture, relating to public service:
This seems to take four abstract concepts (outcomes, balance, engagement, accountability) and a few other words and throwing them at a series of shapes that might have been chosen at random. The result is - I find - ugly.
I think it visually suggests ideas that I suspect are entirely unintended. For instance, I'm sure there was no particular reason for "outcomes" to be placed visually more in the territory of government. Why would "engagement" be more in the territory of citizens? Perhaps this sounds pedantic but when you make a big picture you unwittingly shove chunks of additional ideas towards people's brains.
It's also linear, boxy and unnatural. Now in that sense, perhaps it does convey something very important for us to know about the story the authors wish to sell, oops I mean tell, us...
No straight lines
I enjoyed Alan Moore's slideshare from Reboot Britain, No Straight Lines. It's worth taking a good look.
Al kicks off with a very funny story about a train journey and an iPod that I won't spoil by summarising. And goes into a passionate diatribe against the limits of linear thinking. Alan seems to be read books like MPs refurbish their homes and there's lots of good reference material in this. Here's a couple of useful quotes I extracted:
The highest and best form of efficiency is the spontaneous cooperation of free people - Woodrow Wilson
Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing - John Stuart Mill
August 1, 2009
A yoda moment
...the responsibility for implementing is left to each person to accept, or not. If the idea has wings, then people will do what they must to make sure it is implemented. No lists of who will do what by when. The experts will show up if the invitation is well-crafted and well-offered. And they’ll be open to new ideas if they sense, among the invitees, an appetite for it, a hunger. In which case, if it can be made to work, they’ll make it work.This resonates strongly for me. Years ago at the end of a great open space event, a considerable list of things to be actioned emerged from the group. As I recall, during the day various people had spontaneously gone up to a flipchart listing stuff they wanted to happen.
One of the facilitators did the supposedly obvious thing, and suggested we get individuals to "own" these various actions and take responsbility for doing them. My heart sank a little, partly because it had been a long day, everyone was tired and this felt like a depressing way to end. The other facilitator just said this:
No, let's not do that. If people are passionate about these things, they will do them. If they're not, they won't. We don't need to spend time making promises.This came as a bit of a surprise, and not just to me. And like so many surprises, it sparked learning. The intervention struck me as much more aligned with real action then a superficially "action-orientated" ritual would have been.
Apart from anything else, it was a lovely example of what you could call "warrior facilitator" mode - you don't always have to be Captain Consensus.
(I wrote more about the ptifalls of commitment ceremonies here.)