Weblog Entries for March 2012
March 31, 2012
They're laughing at you...
I think Harold Jarche is spot on, offering a cold bath to HR and other departments.
Perceptions of time
Wray Herbert explores how our perception of time is changed by the way we spend it. Research suggests that when we work to help others, versus just pleasing ourselves, our sense of time expands. The conclusion:
As described in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, those who spent time selflessly had a much stronger sense of personal power and effectiveness. Helping others apparently makes us feel we can accomplish more in less time, and this "fullness" of time seems to stretch time in our minds. It's not that the volunteers don't feel connected or that they don't find the volunteer work meaningful and enjoyable; they do. But only the boosted sense of self-efficacy actually triggered the shifts in time perception.I can't help feeling that this would be a good thing to reflect on before embarking on designing a meeting and getting fixated on timekeeping.
Hat tip: Richard Wise
March 29, 2012
In search of mediocrity
When I was finishing at Oxford, my annoyingly self-confident peers were pretending to agonise. Should they work as monstrously overpaid consultants, or... monstrously overpaid bankers?
Those whose greed inspired them towards the former would all ostentatiously refer to the dreaded In Search of Excellence. At the time, I wished I could find that book as exciting as they did - so that I could feel like I belonged. But some part of my stomach wasn't having it. I hated that book. Decades on, I think I can justify my choice more easily, and enough's been written about how un-excellent its thinking was.
There's such a massive ego-trap in demanding excellence. After all, who would want to get caught arguing for mediocrity? But it seems to me we tend to forget who we're dealing with: human beings. We come with all sorts of complexity, psychological luggage, unconscious urges, fabulously intricate biochemistry etc etc. The demand for ill-defined excellence easily becomes a platform for bullying and pomposity - and it's often a cover for avoiding saying what it is exactly that we want.
So I had to love Matthew Yglesias post about frozen bagel king Murray Lender, under it's heading: Lender's Bagels and the Power of Mediocrity. Here's a little of Yglesias' argument:
The fundamental story of Lender’s Frozen Bagels is that the winning product isn’t always the best one. Like Ikea for furniture, H&M for clothing, or the Olive Garden for Italian food, Lender’s innovated by finding a way to compromise on quality and reap huge gains in other spheres. To an extent, it’s thankless work. Nobody wants to stand up and proudly proclaim, “I changed the world with my inferior products.” But often this is how the world changes. And if you look at the health care and higher education corners of the American economy where spiraling costs are bankrupting the middle class, you see sectors that are largely untouched by this kind of low-end innovation. The world could probably use a few more Murray Lenders.There's something in that, I think.
Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan.
March 28, 2012
The silence of the big things
I love the lesson Chris Corrigan draws from sitting by the Mississippi.
And in front of me, the river was flowing fast and deep. And as huge as it is, with all that water going through it, it was silent. It slid by, a massive quiet anchor in the scene. Several times bald eagles took off from the trees across the water and soared in the wind, stillness in motion, also completely silent... And it just struck me then about how the biggest things are so quiet, and how our attention is drawn to the small and the flittery and the chirpy.Ain't that the truth?
On the edge of failure
Alexis Soloski suggests we shouldn't be too bothered if the star of the show is replaced by an understudy.
And it's often been my experience that understudies perform as well or better than the much-hyped actors they replace – because they want it more, because they're hired for factors other than looks or name recognition, because of the sheer adrenaline of playing a role they haven't fully rehearsed.My oustanding theatre memory is a performance from 25 years ago. The RSC were doing Gorky's Philistines in the Pit. A little slip of paper explained that there were no understudies for shows in this studio theatre and the lead actress was too ill to perform. But someone had persauded Juliet Stevenson to step in at half-a-day's notice. It said she'd have to be holding a script. I wasn't sure what to expect.
It was simply electrifying. Stevenson was brilliant, it didn't feel like she was actually reading from paper, though she was. And it seemed the whole cast had been energised by the challenge - I remember David Burke was absolutely blistering as Bessemenov. And, of course, the audience were in on the excitement too, willing it to succeed. Unforgettable.
So often excellence lies on the very edge of disaster.
March 27, 2012
Michael Herman spotted this piece of research suggesting peer support makes a crucial difference for diabetes sufferers. So the idea of being all in this together does work, when it's more than a slogan.
March 25, 2012
Charles Jennings gives a concise explanation of the 70:20:10 model for learning in organisations. It posits that most learning takes place "on the job" and about 20% through conversations with colleagues and networks. Only about 10% comes from formal training. Makes sense to me. My formal education was absurdly fixated on slabs of content and testing for content absorption. Quite a lot of training seems to fall into that trap too.
Workscape: A metaphorical construct where learning is embedded in the work and emerges in “pull” mode. It is a fluid, holistic, process. Learning emerges as a result of working smarter. In this environment learning is natural, social, spontaneous, informal, unbounded, adaptive and fun. It involves conversation as the main ingredient.
When I do training with Viv, we barely refer to a manual and constantly get participants into practice - and into conversation with each other.
Central currencies vs peer-to-peer
Doug Rushkoff believes central currencies, and big corporations, were invented to repress peer-to-peer production. And their time is now up.
It's not the 99% who need to retrain themselves in order to get jobs. It's the 1% who need to face the fact that their 600-year workaround of the value creation has reached the very endpoint of diminishing returns. They need to consider whether they might actually make more money at this stage of the game by helping people create value instead of actively preventing it.
A deeper appreciation of Antonio Dias
How do we engage with people who are trapped in b&w thinking without pushing them deeper into their delusions?It is so easy to trigger people's defensiveness by being critical. I wonder if when I attack pomposity I'm being a kind of blusterer myself? Antonio asks his second, tougher question:
How do we keep from practicing just another form of b&w thinking by acting as critics, setting up just another form of opposition, a new version of the old conflicts?That's a good question to live in, as Chris Corrigan would say. It identifies a trap I easily fall into, of preaching a need to understand paradox and ambiguity... in an intolerant way.
Antonio's extraordinary flow of writing both challenges and comforts me. Lately, I've caught myself engaging in the kind of tense, drowning thinking and reminded myself to relax into a more floating way of being with life's challenges. I think reading his material is a good practice in holding that distinction.
His post on Planning, Superimposition and Palimpsest is another that I've felt very moved by. There is a density to his writing that can be intimidating. Read Antonio impatiently, read it like prose, and his style and content can feel frustrating, like being caught it weeds or nettles. Read it like poetry and instead, I feel more I am held with love by the ideas he expresses.
I'm going to excerpt one paragraph but it doesn't really do justice to the whole piece. It touches some deep chord in me about accepting the ebb and flow of life and the certainty of death and decay.
A palimpsest takes us out of the optimist/pessimist binary of Progress/Dissolution. It hints at a relationship towards what is that builds while also recognizing that every construction is conditional and provisory. The result is not to remain pitting progress against decay, but taking what each can give us and putting them into relationship with each other. The truth within the parts is held in relationship to the truth between the parts. What is said, what is eroded, what is lost, what is restated, and how; they all proceed over time and with shifts of contingency and attention….
I don't have an a complete answer to Antonio's question about managing our black-and-white responses to black-and-white thinking but I think having a sense of humour will help. Woody Allen is pretty wise to how our hunger for the mystical gets waylaid by our greed for the certain. I've often quoted his quip about his desire to
forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race. And then see if I can get them mass-produced in plastic.Antonio invites us to stay in the smithy.
March 23, 2012
Dwight's on fire
Dwight Towers is on the warpath against meetings that promise interactivity and then stick to tired, "sage-on-the-stage" formats.
March 22, 2012
Play and presence
Those who like to deride the touchy-feely should look away now.
At its source, playfulness is a bi-product of being fully present. Bringing our full presence to any moment is where we can experience life spontaneously. And spontaneity is one of the main engines of play. It happens when we lose our propensity for judging the mishaps and the details of life. When we aren’t reacting to the details, life surprises you. Becoming more playful can be as simple as a shift in view- celebrating the ridiculous instead of getting mired in the annoying. Treating our own frailties to a little fun is where grace steps in to replace these as ready sources of shame or alienation.... Many wrongly think of play as a frivolous waste of time, when in actuality, playing creates new neural activity. Many studies show that it is during play where the greatest education occurs, which is why many of the most well-known scientists and spiritual leaders extol play as the source of their genius.
Planning as drowning
Antonio Dias offers a fascinating description of what goes wrong when drowning:
What separates a swimmer from someone drowning is the way a swimmer acknowledges and respects the limitations of immersion in water. A person drowning rejects them. It is this rejection of their situation and its constraints that puts them in danger. A swimmer is immersed. A drowning person is not just in denial, but actively rejecting where they are and insisting that the same “rules” that work on land should apply. They attempt to climb out of the water. They close themselves off from any possibility of learning from their situation, from learning how to adapt to what almost any human body will do on its own if left to its nature. A body floats. With little trouble it can float in such a way that one can maintain breathing and maintain life. A drowning person for whatever reasons that lead up to their being overwhelmed by their condition, closes themselves off from these possibilities.The real kicker is that he offers this as a metaphor: when we become over attached to planning and stability, we are in effect making the same error:
Solid ground, under the most stable of circumstances is still at most a convenient fiction. We are all, always immersed in turbulent flows that will overwhelm us if we lock-up and refuse to engage, to recognize the fact of our immersion. The habit of turning away from our direct experience, looking for “leadership,” for directions, for some plan to show us how to proceed; will only get us drowned as they divert our attention from the turbulent flow.
Innovation and Status Games
I enjoyed Roland Harwood's post: Innovation is Meaningless.
For a long time, I’ve disliked the word ‘innovation’ as it is increasingly ubiquitous and therefore has become totally meaningless. And it was only last December that I plucked up the courage to say it in a public forum (at a gathering of innovation professionals) and was surprised how many other people came up to me afterwards and agreed vociferously. Ever since I’ve found it quite liberating and say it as often as possible, and was further spurred on when speaking with the CTO of a major global company last week who made exactly the same point.I think demanding innovation has become largely a status game. Too many organisations promoting innovation have become narcissistic. I don't need to name names.
I think pomposity and self-importance are by far the most toxic threats to creativity and innovation in organisations. We work better with people who we feel are on our level, neither above nor beneath us. Time and again, I see projects floundering as big cheeses in organisations play out their need for status. I love to quote Casteneda:
Most of our energy goes into upholding our importance... If we are capable of losing some of that importance, two extraordinary things happen to us. One, we free our energy from trying to maintain the illusory idea of our grandeur; and, two, we provide ourselves with enough energy to enter into the second attention to catch a glimpse of the actual grandeur of the universe.
The current British Goverment dabbles in things like the Big Society and Tech City as if these things are the key to innovation. I think they're largely vanity projects.
Similarly, I really wonder if we can take seriously companies that claim to champion innovation, yet perpetuate massive differences between the pay of top management and everyone else. These bosses are saying: "The value of your contribution to this company is miniscule compared to mine. But I'd really love to hear your ideas."
I feel the massive challenge for our society is to address spiralling levels of inequality. Posturing about innovation may just be a form of denial.
March 21, 2012
The Tube and complexity
I've really enjoyed the new BBC docco, The Tube.
As a passenger I tend to take the tube for granted and grumble when it doesn't quite work to plan. What the films bring out is how staggeringly complex the system is. In particular, they bring out the human complexity of it.
Everyone working or travelling on The Tube has their view of what it is and should be. For instance, one passionate Piccadilly line driver thinks each line has a different personality, and his is the best. I forget which one he likened to a librarian, but you have to admire his enthusiasm. Others might see it as epitomising everything that's wrong with an impersonal selfish city; others again as the lifeblood of a thriving optimistic metrolpolis.
Much of the drama comes when these different worldviews come into conflict. Sadly, these conflicts tend only to reinforce the worldview rather than open it to questioning. For example, when a passenger is attacked on a station, the police declare a crime scene and close it just as the system deals with the rush before nighttime shutdown. For outraged passengers, unaware of what's happened, this just confirms their view that system is run by imbeciles. For the station staff, this just confirms what intolerant selfish people the passengers are. When folks are told there's been a stabbing, you get the impression there is at least a double take; but I get the sense everyone's quite attached to their own version of outrage at the other's behaviour.
I think a few minutes of this would be salutary viewing for anyone claiming to understand how to manage complexity.
By the way, I can't help noticing one of my worldviews being reinforced by the show. The show makes all the Underground personnel come over as very human in a good way. But I do find the management a bit less sympathetic, especially when sitting around tables in rooms trying to sound important. And I also note that whoever furnishes these rooms seems to delight in finding a table that's really too big for anyone to feel they can breathe comfortably while sitting at it.
Money and motivation
I'm astonished at the glibness of those arguing for cutting the top rate of tax from 50% to 40%.
There is a lazy tendency to imply that those earning lots of money are a set of fabulously robust, risk-taking entrepreneurs whose virility and vigour are key to the success of the rest of us lesser mortals. Yet at the same time, we're asked to believe that these people are more like the most tiresome adolescent, who struggles to get out of bed in the morning. The thought that they have to pay a bit more tax than the rest of us (or have to go to the trouble of finding an accountant to help them avoid it) is so terribly demoralising that they are really only working at a fraction of their capacity.
I know quite a few people who work for a pretty meagre salary who daily confront tremendously stressful experiences who are actually motivated by trying to do some good in the world. I can think of other social entrepreneurs who are are doing all sorts of great things for whom money is clearly of secondary interest.
And if I have to listen to one more whining plutocrat telling me about the stress of his/her job, I'll invite them to take over from my friend at the sharp end of social work whose colleagues have to defend themselves against stabbing as a routine hazard. I abhor violence but were I in revolutionary France, I'd be taking a serious interest in knitting lessons.
At a much more mundane level, the point in a client relationship where I start thinking much about what I'm being paid is usually the point where I've lost my inspiration and motivation.
I could link to the scholarly research on money and incentives but I don't think the kind of politicians I'm arguing against will be, er, motivated to read it.
March 19, 2012
Chris Corrigan has some great things to say about interior versus exterior transformation.
One of the reasons why “change management” fails is because a small group of people undergoes a transformative moment from their individual and collective interiors and they “roll it out” over everybody else with a – literally – missionary zeal. For the leaders, the mission is to give everyone the incredible experience of awe and wonder and creative energy. For the rest of us, we experience a meteor strike.
March 13, 2012
Steinbeck on writing
Maria Popova spots this great comment from John Steinbeck.
If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it.I feel the same applies to vast swathes of human experience which business books reduce to apparently precise formulae.
March 12, 2012
The QWERTY effect
Wired reports on the QWERTY effect. It seems that the ease, or difficulty, with which words can be typed on a keyboard has a measurable impact on perceptions of the word. If it uses letters on the right hand side, it's likely to get better perceptions.
I'm always intrigued how things affect our perceptions in ways we'd never normally notice or credit.
Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan
Viv and I have been tinkering away on these little cue cards. When we've been training facilitators, we use a lot of ideas from theatre improvisation. These remind us of some of them.
They tie in to our practice of serious playfulness. We've written a bit more about that over here.
Reason and emotion
Jonah Lehrer has an interesting piece in Wired sticking up for the value of emotions.
For thousands of years, human beings have looked down on their emotions. We’ve seen them as primitive passions, the unfortunate legacy of our animal past. When we do stupid things – say, eating too much cake, or sleeping with the wrong person, or taking out a subprime mortgage – we usually blame our short-sighted feelings. People commit crimes of passion. There are no crimes of rationality.There's an interesting debate in the comments about some of the examples used, but I think the drift of Lehrer's argument is right.
This line stuck out for me:
If true, this would suggest that the unconscious is better suited for difficult cognitive tasks than the conscious brain, that the very thought process we’ve long disregarded as irrational and impulsive might actually be more intelligent, at least in some conditions.I think so much of the output of management writers seems to assume we can just manage in that cognitive area; as if we can then not worry about the workings of the unconscious.
March 10, 2012
Carl Franzen describes how scientists captured the first picture of atoms vibrating in a molecule.
What caught my eye was that the technique used has been around for some years.
Blaga said that the team's main innovation -- and the reason why nobody had achieved such a view of atomic vibrations before -- was overcoming the molecule's electrical field, which would block out any imagery of the scattering. Blaga told TPM that the team was able to address this problem by using laser pulses in the mid-infrared range, rather than the near or far range.My hunch is when people talk about innovation, they have a narrative of big leaps and miss that much of the time it's a case of really valuing what's already known and then making one small step further.
It's a less heroic story.
March 8, 2012
Heart specialist on why you should ignore what he's been saying
About a year ago, I succumbed to Rob Paterson's passionately argued blog postings about our diet. He's just posted an article by a heart surgeon that cuts to the chase.
What it boils down to is that the low fat diet recommended by doctors for decades is not the solution to heart disease and diabetes. It is, in fact, the cause. Cholesterol levels are not the cause of heart disease - which has pretty shocking implications for the amount of money being spent on statins these days.
Rob likens this to how the nineteenth establishment stuck to the idea that diseases were spread by smells rather than germs. It was only when this fundamental error was reversed that cities were transformed into (relatively) healthy places to live.
Switching to a paleo diet was quite a change. The shops are awash with sugar laden, processed temptation. But I've dropped about 20lbs in the process and I'm not planning to go back.
Viv and I have been working with some friends on the idea of working at edges.
It strikes me that the most interesting things happen when we are at the edge of our competence and confidence, of our comfort zone.
If we get too much beyond that point, the level of anxiety and stress overwhelm our enthusiasm and capacity to learn.
Too far inside the comfort zone, and we slip into routines and stop paying full attention.
We're going to make a little video reel where we ask all sorts of people to share their experiences of edge territory - what's it like, what have they learnt from it, when do they avoid it etc etc?
We're shooting in Hoxton, London on April 3rd between 11am and 4pm. We'll be laying on excellent food and coffee all day and playing host to whoever feels like dropping in for a chat. So if you're interested in coming along, let me know. I'll be adding some kind of online booking thingy too at some point.
Big hat tip to Chris Corrigan for the fabulous rock balancing photo.
Networks and creativity
Keith Sawyer spots some research that looked at some famous "loner" creatives and found that their most creative periods coincided with less social isolation.
March 4, 2012
Intro to Clowning
The brilliant Carol Thompson is running her introductory Clowning Workshop, The Courage to Be, again. It's in London, starting at the end of this month.
It's possibly the most intense, exciting and challenging training I've ever done and I highly recommend it.
This is not about clowning in the sense of rickety cars and buckets of tickertape. It's a very stripped down form of improvisational theatre which has much to teach about presence, spontaneity and collaboration. Here's what I wrote about the course when I did it last year.
A few years ago I was with a friend and her young son in the park. She encouraged him to try out the big slide and he got to the top of it... and panicked. He was terrified of going down.
There was a bit of conversation where we both tried to work out with him what to do about this.
Then I tried this idea. I said to him, "What if I hold you all the way down the slide? I won't let go so you can be safe and still get an idea what it's like. Then see what you want to do after that."
There was a little pause as he took this in. Then he said yes. I held him as promised.
When he got to the bottom, he leapt from my hands, rushed to the top of the slide and fairly whizzed down on his own.
Do not file under "knowledge management". If you would like a bit of jargon to go with it, I guess you could try the Zone of Proximal Development.
Doubt as a form of enquiry
I like what Chris Mowles has to say about John Dewey and Doubt as a form of enquiry.
Dewey was interested in experimentation and argued that traditions of thought, such as mainstream philosophy, have conventionally been suspicious of the bodily, the temporal and the experiential, instead preferring Plato’s fixed and pure forms. We are generally encouraged to discover pre-existing ‘truth’, rather than dwell in the messy reality of experience. However, he himself was much less interested in knowledge as a pure and static expression of truth, and more committed to knowing as a form of active enquiry, the idea of constantly opening up experience to further experience. I think this idea of constant doubt and enquiry is especially relevant to managers who are thinking about how to deal with the ever changing patterning of experience in organisations that they have to deal with on a daily basis.
Is management on the table?
Harold Jarche asks, very provocatively: Is management on the table?
We falsely believe we can manage the future, based on the past. Researchers have shown experts do worse than laypeople in predicting the stock market and that these experts do even worse than just flipping a coin. Managing for the future is a conceit of those in power and our institutions are based on the notion of being able to manage complex systems using mechanistic models.
The smallest human organisation
I'm tinkering on a new website with a couple of mates to offer some coaching/training ideas to organisations.
I showed to a friend, who said it looked "more like a personal development website than an organisational development website." She illustrated this by showing me some of the latter kind. They had lots of famous client logos and several diagrams with circles and arrows, all of which are lacking in our draft.
I found this reassuring.
So often when people talk about organisational development, they're invoking the heros and villains of our corporate world, the Apples and BPs etc.
I wonder if they should test their theories on a smaller human organisation. The self.
Or if they're really ambitious, a couple of selves in relationship to one another.
At that level, I think we start to realise that the business of live is full of drama and confusion, pleasure and pain, frustration and learning. Little of of which really be explained still less "managed" by those clever diagrams.
Culture and strategy
It was hard to resist the allure of Eaon's post, the route to everything. He starts off with the Japanese idea of Kyo-chi-gyo-i. In this, Kyo is Goal. Chi is Wisdom. Gyo is Action. I is the result.
He then offers a different translation for business: Purpose>Insight>Strategy>Results and says a lot goes wrong when the achievement of results loses sight of purpose. I pretty much agree; the question of why we're doing this is easily avoided.
This leads Eaon to this article in Fast Company by Shawn Parr: Don't let the culture vultures scuttle your strategy. It's a fairly passionate rendition of the idea that culture eats strategy for breakfast. I suspect most people dealing with organisations find they are easily disconnected from their purpose and the reality on the ground is frequently at odds with the glossy brochures.
I'm sitting here trying to put my finger on what is about this that makes me uncomfortable. It might be Parr's division of strategy as rational and culture as emotional as I don't think in the real world we can so easily separate these aspects of ourselves. When I also see a subhead about the importance of visionary leaders, I worry a little bit more. Is Parr saying you need a visionary leader who can set a beautifully rational strategy and then makes sure the culture supports it? If so, I would resist that kind of idealism. I'm not sure we can truly separate strategy from culture in that way, except in our heads.