Working things out



The Obvious?

Over the years I have been part of various groups of varying sizes working together in different ways. From the large, complex, bureaucratic organisation that was the BBC, to networks of people with only an intent and internet conversations to hold them together.

It is too easy to think that sharing the same physical space and having face to face meetings was better. Many of you will know just how frustrating that “normal” work experience can be, how confusing, how haphazard, how imprecise.

Likewise purely online work can be challenging. The things that are unsaid or misunderstood, the soul sapping experience of long conference calls, the struggle to work out what it is that you are meant to feel part of and how.

The rules are changing, the lines getting blurred. I am lucky enough to work with interesting people trying to work all of this out. Experts involved in property and the workplace, technology, communications, HR… the lot.

We are at the beginning of a really big transition in our experience and understanding of work. Who works, why, where and how.

Some days it feels exciting, some days it feels overwhelming.

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Locus of control

The Obvious?

It is easy to be drawn into worrying about things outside our direct sphere of influence: the economy; world politics; poverty. We can feel powerless and out of control. We devolve responsibility to others, to “the grown ups”. We are encouraged to do so.

While walking around housing estates in Riga in Latvia a few years ago I was struck by how tired, dispirited, and stressed people looked. I found myself thinking “What difference would what I know make to them? They can’t all blog, they can’t all be entrepreneurial, they can’t take on the enormity of the challenges facing them.”

But how else do things change? Do they wait for someone else to help them? Do they stay at the mercy of the whims of the state? Or do they take one small step? One thing that they can do that can help someone else, that can be valued, and rewarded in some small way.

Is it any different in our lives in large organisations? Are we diminished by our sense of powerlessness? What would happen if we started taking small steps that made a difference? Wrote that blog post that asked a question or shared an insight? Or even just started thinking about that blog post that we might, just might, write some day?

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Telling stories.

The Obvious?

Present a human being with disparate bits information and we will try to make sense of them, to give them meaning, to get them to tell a story. We can’t help ourselves and do it all the time.

We also try to get the world to fit our pre-existing stories. Those we learned from our families, our colleagues, our neighbours. We feel better when it does.

In fact having our stories disproved unsettles us and challenges our very sense of self. We cling to them for dear life. We cause ourselves untold stress and unhappiness when the world doesn’t conform to our stories. We even fight wars over the need to prove that my story is more true than yours.

We would do well to remember that they are all made up.

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Proactive sense making

The Obvious?

A great meeting yesterday with anthropologist John Curran reminded me of the power of patterns. Whether we are talking about the patterns made visible by big data, or those made apparent by our own activity on social networks, what the internet is giving us is the ability to see patterns in the thinking and behaviours of those around us in real time – and for the first time.

For years when people asked me what “the next big thing” would be I have said patterns. We’ve got all this stuff, what are the patterns in it? What does it mean? What are we going to do with that meaning?

My biggest worry is that we don’t notice. That we lack the curiosity to wonder what the patterns mean. That we allow others to tell us what those patterns mean. That we stay consumers of sense making rather than the creators of it.

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The promise of technology

The Obvious?

Don’t get me wrong. I love technology and I love its potential to change the world.

But…

I used to walk around the open plan offices at the BBC looking at all those people staring blankly at the beige PCs on their desks (which cost many millions to supply and support) rather than talking to each other and wondered what the ROI was.

I watch most people struggling to cope, still, with even basic use of their computers, unaware of all the wonderful productivity and creative power waiting at their fingertips.

Even teenagers, the “Gen Y” on whom so much faith is placed, use about ten percent of the power of their smart phones and that mostly to chat with each other and share selfies.

Is this inevitable? Does accessing all of this wonderful potential take a geeky mentality that most don’t have, or even want to have? Will things get easier as interfaces improve, or will technology continue to outpace most of the population causing stress, frustration, and inefficiency?

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Structure

The Obvious?

Sometimes the structures of our lives can feel constraining. The need to “clock in and clock out” of work at certain times. The processes and procedures that we have to follow when we are there. The cultural norms we feel have to conform to both at work and at home.

But lack of structure can feel unnerving. We feel at sea without boundaries and definitions. Our job titles defines us. Our roles guide us. We know where we are and what is expected of us.

Those of us who work for ourselves have to generate our own structures, our own definitions, our own sense of self. This can feel both liberating and taxing at the same time. It seems likely that in the future more will have to learn to work like this.

What is the optimal amount of structure? Dave Snowden and I have had a few heated debates about where society’s optimal constraints are on the spectrum between Fascism and Anarchy. Bit like my MVB (Minimum Viable Bollocks) acronym the other day. What is the minimum amount of management bollocks it takes to run a business? What is the minimum amount of structure does it take to hold society together?

What is the minimum amount of structure it takes to stay sane?

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Entropy Gradient Reversal

The Obvious?

Some of you may remember Chris Locke’s great blog of that name from back in the early days of blogging. You could feel the force of his writing pushing against the tendency for things to revert to previous states or to fall apart.

Entropy, in its sense of a return to equilibrium, is a powerful force in organisations. Whenever you make a change, unless you continue to inject energy into the system, things are likely to return to “normal” pretty soon. So many of my clients put in social platforms at work, have a communications push to start if off, see an influx of users, then it all slows down, often to a halt. The novelty wears off. People return to their old ways of doing things, and the naysayers get to say “I told you it would never work”.

You have to keep injecting energy, you have to keep caring, you have to pick yourself up and try again, and again. The sort of change in how we work that we are on the brink of is worth the effort but unless we keep injecting energy we will stay teetering on that brink.

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Managing Boundaries

The Obvious?

As we connect more the lines between us blur. The lines between individuals and organisations, between people within organisations, between work and home, between our inner worlds and our shared thoughts.

We are used to having those boundaries managed for us. The commute to work, the hierarchies of roles, time when we didn’t have access to technology, time when we could switch off. I see lots of signs of distress as we realise that those protections have gone or are disappearing rapidly.

We need to learn to draw our own lines. We need to work hard on working out where to draw them. We need to stand by them.

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Proper Drawing

The Obvious?

When I see a painting by Picasso I often think “Eh?”
But I then take comfort in the fact that he knew how to do “proper drawing”.
You need to learn to play the game well enough to know that you don’t have to.
Same is true of work.

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The tyranny of being picked

The Obvious?

I have always loved this phrase from Seth Godin. It neatly captures the challenge of working for someone else that starts with the recruitment process. The balance between the individual and the organisation. A dance that most have to do for all of their working lives.

Organisations say they want innovation and creativity when really they want conformity and collusion. Collusion in the insanity of buzy-ness. Not breaking ranks and calling out the pointlessness of the endless administravia. Not allowing the quiet scream inside to surface.

Seeing it all as a game helps. But it is a game with your sanity at stake.

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