it’s hard to go back

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I stood in the electronics store surveying the laptops. It was the first time I had ever bought a laptop computer and I was pretty excited. But I was torn. For a bit more money I could lash out and get a new model that boasted (wait for it …. ) 2Mb of RAM. The significance of this was that it could operate a new innovation called Windows.

But I was unconvinced. Even though I was no computer geek, I really liked the idea of mastering MSDOS. Typing a code at a prompt to achieve certain tasks just seemed more ‘pure’. This Windows thing felt like cheating. I didn’t make a purchase that day, thankfully. Before I did, I managed to accumulate some experience in front of a computer screen, and realised that once I’d experienced Windows it was hard to go back.

When you get a taste of something that is … well … just better, it is really hard to go back. Australian beaches have the same effect on me. As Maria will testify, whenever we were fortunate enough to be in another country, I would hanker to get to the coast to check out the beaches. After some time I realised that, despite the cultural interest, nothing was ever going to beat the Aussie beach experience. You get spoiled … talk up the virtues of other beaches; sure … but really we’re just being kind. Take me to Brunswick Heads please.

When you get a taste of self-managed workplaces and genuinely purpose driven organisations, you can’t go back. Organisations with pyramid hierarchies that operate with the assumption that bosses know best feel like a throw back to another era. But unlike the mass consumer market where Windows machines very quickly rendered MSDOS computers to the storeroom, most organisations persist with operating paradigms that belong in the past. Management consultants and leaders are responsible, but it’s not their fault.

Years ago I was shocked to read that the technology to do away with air conditioning in high rise office buildings already existed. The problem was that the academics teaching architecture in universities continued to teach methodologies from the past, so graduating building designers simply did what they knew how to do …

The same is true in organisational design … it’s like the masses being convinced that MSDOS is the best and only game in town. Meanwhile the Windows revolution gains momentum.

There is a different way to run organisations that is not experimental, but proven and more fit for the era we are in. Bureaucracy and power hierarchies are out, self-management is in. Bringing your whole self to work is in. Market driven competition is out, evolutionary purpose is in. It’s a great new business world.

competent participation vs. ownership

The masterful Mark Lobo took this shot at The Do Lectures 2014

The masterful Mark Lobo took this shot at The Do Lectures Australia 2014

When I was at uni, a friend and I spent most of the money in our bank accounts to travel interstate to attend a conference at which one of our heroes was speaking. We ended up having dinner with him and he remained a mentor of mine for decades. I was thinking about this when the always thoughtful Carol Lawson asked me to elaborate on a comment I made in last week’s post about mistakes we had made in the 12 year MBO/Ergo business experiment.

I’ve had a need to use some professional services recently and have consequently come across some very competent people. And then, someone came along who appeared to operate at a different level. What is it about them that puts them in a new category? In a great little ‘rites of passage’ book called Secret Men’s Business, John Marsden, among many other things, talks about how a mark of maturity is knowing ‘when to break the rules’. (I recall the example of ignoring a red pedestrian light in the middle of the night when there is little traffic around.) People who stand out in their profession have a different relationship to the rules of the game.

Some of the ‘very competent’ people I have been working with practice their profession by navigating the rules of the game. The rules are king. These people are good because they have learned well the domain in which they operate. But the standout practitioners act above the rules. It’s not that they ignore them, they have mastered them to the extent that it is as if they make their own in order to achieve their desired outcome. This mastery is everywhere once you see it.

There are any number of deli/cafes around: these great little businesses add a person touch to the ‘formula’. But some places, like Annie’s Provedore own the rules. They are masters of the domain. There are dozens of champion AFL players, but the Chris Judds of the world somehow change the game through the strength of their talent, they are more than great players. The David Bowies own or invent a genre, they don’t just participate in it.

Chef’s, engineers. Facilitators and gymnasts, economists or politicians. Doesn’t matter what game we play, there are masters among us, people who are more than competent participants.

So, back to the question. What mistakes did we make? It wasn’t so much that we made discrete mistakes as much as we were seeking to model something we had hunches and inclinations about, but had not done before. We were participants in an emerging genre. We were mimicking others shamelessly as we went; for example, we took on Jack Stack’s Open Book management. And yes, we made up rules of our own on everything from performance reviews to philanthropy. But what we didn’t have was experience. We hired people we assumed would ‘get it’ and they didn’t and that caused truck loads of pain. There is no shortcut to mastery. The mistakes we made were not so much ‘we did X when we should have done Y’, it was more, ‘we tried our best and did good’, but we were tutors not masters. When we see people applying formulas, it is a sign we are in the presence of competence, or if it is an emerging area, creativity or ambition, but not mastery.

The professionals I have been dealing with in recent weeks have not made any mistakes, it’s just that they do their job by navigating the rules. It’s so different when you come across someone who understands the outcome and cuts clear paths toward it; someone for whom the rules of the game are servants rather than constraints.

What does this all mean? What is applicable? Simple really; figure out which competencies matter most to you. Find some masters. Mimic shamelessly. Learn from them. Read their stuff, watch their videos, listen to their podcasts. Write to them, go to conferences where they are, and invite them to have a drink with you. Even if, as it did for for me and my uni mate, it costs you your last dollars. It won’t safeguard against mistakes, but it will offer inspiration to move past mere competence. Maybe hokey pokey is what it’s all about.

 

organisations as vocational communities

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Nearly fifteen years ago I was an active participant in an experiment. It was loads of fun, but it was serious. It was an experiment in doing business differently. Some of us lab rats are in the above photo. Chief experiment designer Paul Steele took the photo. We built a business without a rule book. Our basic operating idea was that work was more than a job. Work should be an expression of who we are. We should not have to check out our true selves when we turned up. Work should be social. I should do the things I’m good at to make the world better. We came to refer to it as a vocational community.

A vocation is more than a job. It is often associated with ‘calling’ and at times attracts a spiritual connotation. A vocation is a contribution that expresses who we are. We bring our whole selves to it. And it is purposeful. So a vocation facilitates us contributing our best to society.

A vocational community is therefore a ‘container’ that facilitates people living out their vocations collectively, recognising that we can achieve more in concert than we can individually.

A vocational community can be recognised from the following attributes:

  1. People have authority to make decisions about the most important aspects of their role. This is more than delegated power, it is autonomy to create and be more than what is required to be a cog in the organisational machine.
  2. People can bring and be themselves; styles, relational connections, hobbies …
  3. Activity is purposeful and is connected to a greater positive contribution for which the community exists.

Relatively few people have ever experienced work in an environment with these attributes. The dominant organisational model is better described with the antitheses of these. The assumptions behind current organisational practices include:

  • Bosses know best and therefore make the most important decisions,
  • Non-professional aspects of people’s lives are a distraction at work,
  • People’s role at work is to play a predefined role in an organisational hierarchy in service of the organisation’s mission.

This thinking served us well in the past. But once you have experienced a vocational community there is no going back.

Here’s a brief account of a vocational community I helped design and lead. The Ergo Story. We made lots of mistakes, some of them significant, but even back then in the early 00s, we knew that the old ways were broken and while a few businesses were tinkering, few were modelling what we wanted to be. Thanks to everyone who was part of those experimental days, may there be more and better ways to experience what we tasted then.

summer and January

We loved living on the perennial holiday mood of Bullcock Beach on the Sunny Coast.

We loved living on the perennial holiday mood of Bullcock Beach on the Sunny Coast.

It is not particularly cool these days to talk about new year resolutions. Very passé. But in the wake of the festive season, especially one that has been satisfying for all the classic reasons (family, summery recreational activities, afternoon snoozes, excessive quantities of plum puddings, fresh rasberries and cherries etc), it feels like a part of the natural rhythm to take stock and reset for the year ahead.

Brigid Delany wrote a nice little piece in the Guardian last week, on lazy, long summers; or at least the way we remember them. It is true that we romanticise some of our memories into myths. As kids we were spared the unsanitised reality of adult responsibilities and relationships, so it is no wonder we imagine long lazy summers with rose coloured glasses. But let’s not give up the dream too easily.

As Delany says, it is our contemporary work-centred lifestyles that trump our summer dreams. (Also see: Why are we still working? – thanks for the share @MelinaChan) But choices can be made. Yep, many of us feel we are compelled to fit in with what everyone else is doing, but as with most things in life, where there is a will there is a way. Maybe there are some habits from the 60s and 70s worth retaining. Our friends the Shorts and the Baxters have spent 6 weeks over summer at an iconic Sunny Coast caravan park ‘since Adam was a boy’, with commuting back into Brisbane the necessary price. And they are not alone … I’ve loved seeing updates from lots of friends this December / January who have done the iconic Aussie thing and lived temporarily on the coast. It is good for our souls; the simplicity of life in shorts and thongs. Board games, simple meals, long walks and salt water on our skin.

What we hope for is a quality of life, the evidence of which can be seen in everything we do, rather than by ticking off a few activities. If you’ve baked a rubbish cake with too much salt and not enough sugar, you can’t redeem it by putting strawberries on top. Sometimes, new year resolutions look like that … people trying to redeem life by adding some strawberries. The fundamentals of a well lived life are pretty ordinary and unglamorous. But if we get the basics right, adding some strawbs can make it a pretty special.

So, long lazy summers did not, do not, and will not deliver the quality of life we imagine. Long, lazy summers can refresh my soul, but only when I have a clear picture of what is important in life and somehow I manage to give expression to that in the hustle and stress of contemporary urban working life, as well as when I’m on the banana lounge. What is the quality of the relationships with those I love most? How is my health and physical resilience? Where do I find pleasure, goodness and meaning in my life?

Let’s take stock and reset; it is a good thing to do. But let’s build in weekly habits and routines that align the foundational routines and commitments in our lives with what is most important to us, rather than add in some activity that is unlikely to stand the test of a stressful winter Monday.

stories from a future that’s already here

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Since reading Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organisations, I’ve been reviewing some of the books on my bookshelf (and acquiring the odd new one), by organisational leaders who have written about their real world business experiments with radical organisational practices.

I know a bunch of you are now having your minds expanded by digesting Laloux’s book and like me, are curious about where the future is already visible. So here’s some titles that, if you are interested, you can chase down. (Laloux also has some lists in the back of his book) Note that every organisation is unique. Most organisations about which these books are written, are a mix of conventional business practice and approaches that reflect the revolutions of the emerging collective consciousness: namely self-management, wholeness and evolutionary purpose. The common thread is that these leaders had the courage to design their companies in ways that made intuitive sense to them, most notably by removing hierarchical authority.

To whet your appetite, here is a couple of exerts from Gary Hamel’s intro to Jim Whitehurst’s The Open Organisation (see below), including a great little list of characteristics. The important point here is that these characteristics might present as fringe … Laloux’s thesis and research has convinced me that this is the mainstream future.

“Here’s a conundrum. The human capabilities that are most critical to success – the ones that can help your organisation become more resilient, more creative, and more, well, awesome – are precisely the ones that can’t be ‘managed’. … Nearly fifty years ago, Warren Bennis … predicted that we’d soon be working in ‘organic-adaptive structures, organisations that feel like communities, not hierarchies.”

“In organisations fit for the future …

  • Leaders will be chosen by the led.
  • Contribution will matter more than credentials.
  • Influence will come from your value added, not your title.
  • Individuals will compete to make a difference, not to climb a pyramid.
  • Compensation will be set by peers, not bosses.
  • Every idea will compete on an equal footing.
  • Resources will be allocated with market-like mechanisms.
  • Experimentation and fast prototyping will be core competencies.
  • Communities of passion will be the basic organisational building blocks.
  • Coordination will occur through collaboration, not centralisation.
  • Lateral communication will be more important than vertical communication.
  • Structure will emerge only when it creates value and disappear everywhere else.
  • Strategy making will be a dynamic, companywide conversation.
  • Change will start in unexpected places and get rolled up, not out.
  • Control will be achieved through transparency and peer feedback.
  • Organisational boundaries will be porous.
  • Everyone will think like a business owner, and be just as accountable.
  • Decisions will be made as close to the coal face as possible.
  • Commitments will be voluntary.
  • ‘Why’ will matter more than ‘what’.”

So here are some titles for your reference. This is clearly not an exhaustive list, its just the ones on my shelf or on the way there. This list does not include classic management books; these are company stories, from which the authors distill leadership or management ideas.  (click on the image to get to the Amazon.com link) … and be sure to let me know if you’ve got some other good ones.

Maverick

 

 

 

 

 

Organisation: Semco

Comment: I put this one intentionally first. Not only was it the forerunner of books about unconventional business practice, it was the first text I read in my quest for a better way of running organisations. Ricardo Semler was indeed Maverick, so far ahead of his time in creating a workplace that refused to treat people as resources. Just skip to the cartoons at the back to get the idea.

A Stake in the Outcome

 

 

 

 

 

Organisation: SRC (Springfield Remanufacturing Corporation)

Comment: And this one intentionally second. Jack’s story was so compelling, Paul Steele and I travelled to St Louis, Missouri to meet him and attend one of his Great Game of Business conventions. Jack’s conviction that people working in an organisation perform fundamentally differently if they have a stake in the outcome remains strikingly profound common sense as it is unthinkable to most business owners. This book was very influential for me.

Joy at Work

 

 

 

 

 

Organisation: AES

Comment: Years ago a long term mentor of mine recommended I read this book by his friend’s brother. That a business this big (40,000 employees globally) could operate with such a radically different management practice blew me away. Anyone in the organisation was authorised to make any decision. Really. Yes really. Not surprisingly, Laloux draws heavily on the amazing story of AES in his book.

The Open Organisation

 

 

 

 

 

Organisation: Red Hat

Comment: Linus Torvalds, the creator of the Linux operating system wrote the foreword in one of the most influential books I’ve ever read, The Hacker Ethic. Jim Whitehurst was the ‘conventional’ COO at Delta Airlines, turing it around from the brink of bankruptcy, but underwent a ‘conversion’ when he took on the CEO role at RedHat, the company who’s premier product is an Enterprise Linux one. His book is an accessible description of many of the principles Laloux predicts will become more common in the future.  As you’d expect, the CEO of an iconic open source company has probably got some useful perspectives on “openness”.

Open Minds

 

 

 

 

 

Organisation: St Lukes

Comment: This was one of the early books we read when we were searching for stories of businesses that had gone down the path less trodden. As a small agency, we loved path Andy Law took.

One from Many

 

 

 

 

 

Organisation: Visa

Comment: Extraordinary and compelling reading. I had no idea that Visa has started out with such an innovative approach to business. Unfortunately, as with AES, it is a tale of how these companies must have leaders who ‘get it’. You can’t install values and practices that survive leaders with more conventional methods and mindsets.

 

ReWork

 

 

 

 

 

Organisation: 37 Signals (Basecamp etc)

Comment: This is one of those classic contemporary books that presents as the funky, ‘don’t do things the normal way’ kind of book. It almost didn’t make my list because it is framed as a celebration of not being normal rather than simply telling a story. But there is some good stuff in here, so worth a look if you like the more popular style of text.

Let My People Go Surfing

 

 

 

 

 

Organisation: Patagonia

Comment: Chouinard is the stereotypical adventurer / accidental business hero. Fiercely committed to meaningful business; an inspirational story.

Delivering Happiness

 

 

 

 

 

Organisation: Zappos

Comment: Haven’t read this yet, have put it on my list as it is one of the companies that has adopted Holocracy, an approach featured in Laloux’s book.

The Common Good Corporation

 

 

 

 

 

Organisation: RHD (Resources for Human Development)

Comment: Not read yet – one of the organisations Laloux refers to frequently in his book.

Holocracy

 

 

 

 

 

Organisation: HolocracyOne

Comment: I guess it had to happen, and Brian Robertson got there first … systematising the emerging set of business practices into a package you can adopt. Lot’s of high profile companies have embraced Robertson’s system (such as David Allen’s Getting Things Done, and Tony Hsieh’s Zappos), but I feel sceptical. In Robertson’s system the company charter is king and people become subservient to it. I prefer the approach that embraces the peculiarities of talent that people bring; what I call a vocational community. However, this is still a fabulous piece of work and no doubt the attention to detail and the proven system will be embraced by many more organisations and the world will be better for it. This also almost didn’t make it because it is not so much a company story as a set of ideas backed up by stories, but along with the next one on the list, it deserves to be here because it will be a ‘go to’ reference for lots of people.

Management 3.0

 

 

 

 

Organisation: Happy Melly (kind of)

Comment: There are a few books I keep multiple copies of so I can give them to clients. This is one of them. My mate Shawn Callahan recommended this to me and it has been the source of some great ideas. If you are looking for common sense, creative approaches for conventional business processes written in an easy to read fun format … get Jurgen’s book.

to what extent can staff be trusted?

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In my last post I introduced the idea that organisations reflect the evolving consciousness of the societies in which they operate. The main ideas come from Frederic Laloux’s recent book Reinventing Organisations. This post is about one of the attributes we can expect to characterise organisations of the future, self-management.

So what does self-management look like?

In parenting, dad and mum know best. At work, ‘bosses know best’. It is held to be a self evident truth. At least operational processes are based on that presumption. Think about it. But increasingly we know that intelligence does not increase as one gets promoted, even if power does. As our organisational consciousness develops, it is not surprising that there are some emerging reactions to the concentration of power at the top of the pyramid. Progressive managers are embracing employee empowerment in one form or another. Managers are beginning to appreciate the value in consulting those who are affected by their decisions.

But according to Laloux, ’empowerment’ is a pale refection of what authentic self-management looks like. Empowerment still operates within a pyramid hierarchy with those higher up delegating power down the line. In the future, he argues, power will not be understood as a zero sum game. Self-managed teams will have the authority to make ‘all the calls’. Power will be distributed with an abundance mentality.

It’s not fantasy, many successful businesses already operate with self-managed teams. Laloux tells stories from his in-depth research with 11 organisations from around the world. These are not small innovative professional services firms (there are countless hundreds of these including the one I was involved with for many years) where innovation and creativity are relatively easy. His case studies are across industries. He discounted case organisations  if they were less than five years old and had fewer than 100 employees. Most actually had thousands.  Some of the patterns, the common observations of companies with self-management are:

  • They operate almost exclusively with autonomous teams, often as small as 10 or 12, occasionally more, up to 40 or 50.
  • Middle management was eliminated
  • There were no or minimum corporate services (eg AES which operates in 31 countries and with 40,000 employees has just 100 people in a central office with no HR, no central maintenance or safety departments, no purchasing, no internal audit.)

Note that these were practices that were adopted intuitively by these companies without following any management blueprint. If the fundamental assumption was that people self organise and make decisions for the common good, these are the natural consequences. If the foundational belief that has formed the power structures of organisations we are most familiar with today is ‘bosses know best’, what is the foundational conviction behind self management?

How about, “you get better outcomes when everyone’s intelligence is engaged.”?

At Sun Hydraulics there is no project management function, process, protocol or staff. They have taken Google’s apparently radical ‘20% of your time is your own to work on projects’ custom and applied it to the whole week.

There is no master plan. There are no project charters and no one bothers with staffing on projects. Project teams form organically and disband when work is done. Nobody knows if projects are on time or on budget, because for 90% of the projects, no one cares to put a timeline on paper or establish a budget.” (p84)

This is not being slack. This is a fundamentally new way of running organisations. Laloux says,

If the notion of trusting the collective intelligence of a system seems risky or outright foolish, think about this idea: the idea that a country’s economy would best be run by the heavy hand of central planning committees in Soviet style has been totally discredited. We all know that a free-market system where a myriad of players pick up on signals, make decisions, and coordinate among themselves works much better.” (p85)

Tony Hsieh (pronounced Shay) is the CEO of Zappos. Tony was fascinated by research that indicated every time a city doubles in size, innovation or productivity per resident increases by 15%. But when organisations increase in size, innovation decreases. He built Zappos into a company that runs more like a city than a bureaucracy. Zappos is a glimpse of the future.

The self management that will shape our organisations in the future is not a dialling up of employee empowerment. It will reflect an emerging consciousness that the unequal distribution of power in an organisational hierarchy expresses a stage of collective development unfit for future challenges and opportunities. Most companies are already experiencing the inability of current business practice to respond quickly enough.

Is this idea that employees in an organisation can be trusted, without all the conventional supervision controls, far fetched? Like most things, it can seem so before the tipping point. An increasing number of organisations are paving the way and I am confident it is the way of the future because there is so much pain associated with the way things currently work. When there is this much pain, change is inevitable. Every organisation I work with wants to be agile. But hierarchical decision making structures are cumbersome and centralised planning takes so much time and resource.  Companies that maintain these ways of doing business will become obsolete more quickly that we imagine. Self-management is a significant part of the solution.

Those in current positions of power will resist the shift. They have spent their careers climbing the pyramid, to dismantle it undermines their view of how the world should work. But unless leaders embrace the change, they will be putting their organisations under high risk over the medium term.

the future of organisations

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I would make a lousy teenager. Or at least I would be a pretty boring one. I know too much about the way the world works to make the choices that made being 16 so much fun. Then again, my teenage self in this stage of life would be a frightening prospect too. Thankfully those scenarios are mostly the preserve of B grade comedies.

We know a lot about how we develop as we move through the different stages of psychological development, from new born through teenage years, mid life and to old age. And via similar analysis, we know an increasing amount about how societies have developed over the centuries. Researchers have different ways to describe the progression, but as with developmental psychology there are common patterns. Our collective consciousness has evolved over time to keep pace with the opportunities and challenges humans have faced collectively. As new environments emerge, we develop new and sometimes surprising perspectives which eventually become normalised.

For example, the feudal system was never going to support the economic development that flourished as monarchies rose and then democracies. It would have been inconceivable as a peasant in a feudal environment to imagine the mindsets that would be commonplace in later societies. Or more recently, a paper based system would never have supported the access to banking services experienced in developing economies today. Even Mr Jones, (or Fruitcake as we affectionately called him) the geeky computer science teacher at my high school when there was one computer in the whole school, would have had no skerrick of an inkling of the empowerment we experience as citizens via our connected devices.

The mainstream thinking in any society is bound by the dominant worldview. So much so that we tend to believe what we have is ‘better’ than what has come before, and for most of us, we are sceptical of future predictions because our view of the world is deeply rooted in the prevailing wisdom of the time. For example, how many of us can genuinely conceive of a system of governance that offers more than parliamentary democracy?

My consciousness as a middle-aged adult is not better than what I had as a teenager. Rather it is fit for purpose. Our society is changing rapidly and we need new ways of being. The new ways are not ‘better’ in an absolute sense, they are simply ways that are able to respond to the opportunities and challenges of the world we live in now. (I do not mean to imply that the social gains are not improvements. It’s just that we always view the past with the benefit of our current consciousness.)

A relatively new book applies this logic to organisations. Frederic Laloux’s somewhat benignly titled Reinventing Organisations brings together into one text so much of what I have been observing, experimenting with, advocating for and curious about over the last 15 years. Laloux maps different organisational practices to the evolution of human consciousness.

The book is mainly about what is to come. But to appreciate the trajectory we are on, Laloux outlines the key breakthroughs of the dominant organisational paradigms that have shaped our history up to now. I include a simple table below as a taster, starting with the most recent models. (Please note that the idea is not that an organisations always fits neatly into a model. Organisational consciousness is a complex mix of intelligences and trajectories. However, my experience is that we can easily recognise the dominant paradigm in actuality and intention.)

This table is an adaption of a table on page 36 of Laloux’s book.

Reinventing Orgs RED-GREEN table

William Gibson (who also incidentally coined the term cyberspace) is famously quoted as saying that “the future is already here, its just unevenly distributed”. So in his book Laloux researches organisations that appear to be giving us a glimpse of the future. Of course we cannot predict the future, but we can get a sense of where we are going.

The most insightful thinkers at the turn of the 20th century predicted that the car would take over from horses as civilisation’s main form of transport. But few could have foreseen the infrastructure development (sealed road networks etc) that evolved in the succeeding decades. In the same way, who knows what the key breakthroughs Laloux identifies will ultimately facilitate in the development of our consciousness and practice in the coming decades? Not me, but I’m looking forward to seeing it.

The three breakthroughs in evolutionary TEAL organisations might not sound particularly radical. However, as these new ways of thinking and being become normative, our workplaces and lifestyles will change dramatically. Most of my current work by the way, feels like helping organisations shaped by ORANGE practices move to more GREEN practices. I hope I am working long enough for most of my work to be to helping teams and organisations transition from attitudes and behaviours that reflect GREEN to those associated with TEAL. My observations are that the future is already being shaped by organisations that are intuitively operating with TEAL practices. I fear for those who are stuck in ORANGE. Many of them have forward thinking leadership, but the organisational paradigms and related systems are deeply imbedded.

The three key breakthroughs of TEAL organisations, according to Laloux’s research are:

  1. self-management
  2. wholeness
  3. inside out purpose

These words don’t convey much, but I am enjoying thinking about what this might look as illustrated by organisations that are already doing it, and will include some thoughts in upcoming blogs.

thinking about the sound of one hand clapping

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Over the weekend I finished reading The Sound of One Hand Clapping. I figured while living in Launceston I’d read a classic Tasmanian novel. Some parallels with Maria’s childhood, growing up in Hydro villages in the harsh environments of the wet west made Richard Flanagan’s acclaimed 1950s tale an obvious choice. For the Europeans who made up much of the workforce, Flannigan describes their daily lives through the lens of wartime atrocities, the memory and reality from which they are attempting to escape.

Daily life in the villages and in 1960s Hobart is a kind of façade, behind which the unfathomable depths of pain from the past lay hidden. It might be less dramatic for us than Flanagan’s characters, but there’s a whole bunch of ugly stuff behind our façades too I reckon. Unmet needs for love, security, recognition and a whole bunch of other stuff.

One of the strengths of Flanagan’s tale is the unspoken understanding of each others’ pathologies. Grace is given. The inhabitants of the single men’s quarters are under no illusions, unlike those of us who’s lives have been less painful, that games of denial are being played as people get on with the routines of life.

As I write, I am sitting with my back to a group of about a dozen professional athletes; they are the leadership group of an AFL football club that has failed to make the finals. They are debriefing the season, exploring the factors (positive and negative) that have impacted their performance this year. As these blokes walked past my table, they could hardly have presented with more confidence; swaggers and struts the order of the day. But I wonder what the cultural hero status hides? (As I write a young women has taken her shoes off and ran to the water’s edge and into the shallows, turned around with arms lifted skyward for her friend to take a shot, one which will no doubt find its way onto social media – and I wonder what pain and insecurities lay behind the insta-smile.)

Should we attempt to live without facades? I think not. Imagine the awkwardness of everyday interactions. But it helps to acknowledge their existence. Mine, and others. And then beyond acknowledgement, hopefully there are a handful of loved ones who we trust enough to invite behind the façade. This is where love happens.

I like a good instagram pic as much as the next, but my instagram persona is a miniscule fraction of who I really am, as is your’s. I love competence and confidence in the workplace too, but how people present in their work uniform, whether it’s a suit, overalls or a footy jumper, is not who they really are either. These things are simply the facades we have constructed, and as helpful as they are in navigating our way through life, our lives are not our projected persona any more than the building is the façade.

So I have been wondering about the depth of our lives. I have been wondering how we are supposed to fathom the complexity and mystery of the accumulation of disappointments and years of living as screwed up people.

Flanagan’s book is profoundly and hauntingly sad. It challenges us to understand our living, not as a polaroid of the present, but the accumulation of everything we have experienced, especially the pain. For me, it has been a good antidote to the sometimes pollyanna stories we prefer to tell each other about who and why we are. And despite the depths of tragedy, for Flanagan’s characters, as is true for us, attempts at selflessness, however stumbling and imperfect, have a near magical, and certainly mysterious, capacity to break through life’s facades with the hope of genuine love.

be wary of commitments to data driven decisions

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It is pretty hard to argue with a commitment to data driven decision making, and its sibling, evidence based strategy. So why have I found it so hard to embrace them with unbridled enthusiasm?

The clue, as always, is what it looks like in practice. How does the business practice of data collection and reporting affect the way leaders engage choices? When the expert data technicians do their thing, what can we expect?

A bit of proverbial wisdom gives us some clues:

  1. As my mate Shawn (@shawncallahan) tweeted recently via Malcolm Gladwell, “data increases confidence, not accuracy”.
  2. Elliot Eisner borrowed from a poster Albert Einstein reportedly hung in his office: “Not everything that matters can be measured and not everything that is measured, matters.”

The best leaders have a clear picture of the future. We somewhat benignly refer to this as vision. This clarity almost always derives from an intuition. Not an intuition devoid of data, but typically the evidence is anecdotal. Vision is cultivated over time by ad hoc sets of experiences and information. I sense sometimes that a stated commitment to evidence based decision making can, paradoxically, be a proxy for clear and courageous leadership.

So how do we use our incredible contemporary capacity to capture and analyse data to complement the kind of leadership that always has, and always will, create the new realities we need and want?

What about the following?

  1. Leaders develop a view of what needs to be done.
  2. The research then tests this hypothesis. However to avoid the scenario where the evidence collected inevitably confirms the leaders position, the research is designed to prove the opposite or an alternative hypothesis.

For example, at Google, there was widespread scepticism about the value of managers … at all. Page and Brin’s early experiment to completely flatten the structure and do away with managers apparently only lasted two months. They realised how dysfunctional they were without managers, but the staff cohort remained unconvinced of their value.

In such a data driven culture, the approach they actually took was to set out to prove the opposite; that managers didn’t add significant value. They failed … and the whole company consequently bought into the need for managers. Not only that, but the data they collected gave them great insight into what effective management looked like in their context.

One of the attributes of effective leadership is self awareness. This includes the self awareness that reality is being denied from, rather than factored into, a conclusion. Just like the fact that like ‘painters paint because they are painters; painting doesn’t make one a painter’, my point is that leaders lead. And for the most part this leadership comes from deep inner convictions about what needs to be done. Collecting data and then determining what to do as a result, does not a leader make!

The research skills that objectively gather data and develop an evidence base matter. But only in concert with, and in service of leadership. Otherwise, the cacophony of information available and the reporting of it, technically beautiful as it may be, becomes a distraction for an organisation or society calling out for definitive, clear leadership. Leadership that, often in my experience, intuitively knows what needs to be done, but is constrained by the need to bend the knee at the throne of data.

essentialism and wellbeing

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Some years ago I met someone in Toronto who invited me back to his small apartment. He was a minimalist, meaning that he was deeply committed to living with as little as possible while maintaining engagement in normal life. After walking a long distance to his place (intentionally avoiding motorised transport) I recall having a cup of tea and something to eat, an awkward experience because he had only one cup and one fork. I was inspired by his commitment, yet left feeling his drive for simplicity had ended up in a weird kind of austerity.

In this phase of life Maria and I are living transiently. A few years ago when we vacated the house in which we had raised our four children, we threw out skips full of junk, gave away virtually all our furniture and took many loads to op shops. It wasn’t because the stuff we had wasn’t valuable or held memories, but we decided to declutter and facilitate a mobile lifestyle that is impossible if you have to maintain a lots of ‘stuff’. (and yes we store a few boxes with photos and kids toys etc, things that money cannot replace.)

But we kept some things that, at face value, are not necessities. Pruning our possessions was not a discipline of eliminating non-luxury items or keeping a small wardrobe of white T shirts. It was an exercise in surrounding ourselves with the few things that facilitated pleasant, good and meaningful living. The books I kept weren’t the best books I owned, they were the most meaningful to me. The couple of bits of furniture we kept for our 1 bedroom apartment were not the most expensive but the ones that had stories associated with them. And yes, it’s a bit cliche, but it also means that when we buy things that we intend to keep, we pay for handmade or quality to last the distance. A few things that matter.

The current Kinfolk is the Essential Issue. It contains this great introductory sentence, “Deciding what is essential in our lives isn’t about paring back our belongings and forgoing our beloved but unnecessary frivolities: Instead of determining how little we can live with, it’s about working out what we simply can’t live without.”

This same idea surfaced for me in a surprising context a few days ago. A friend asked me what I do to maintain mental health. As I thought out loud, I realised I have a few ‘modes’ of living. For the sake of simplicity, lets call them ‘on’, ‘slow’, and ‘yurting’. In each of them, as is true for everybody juggling contemporary urban living, there are a multitude of things going on and decisions to be made. But I am at my best when I have a system or set of processes that take good care of all of them automatically, except for a very small number. I could call it focus, but that doesn’t do the concept justice. I’m ‘on’, when I’m working. Adrenalin pumps through my veins from when I get up to when I go to bed and I need less sleep in this mode. I walk faster, I eat more functionally, I do everything in ways that help me work better. In this mode, it is all about making a positive difference in the world through my work with clients in values driven organisations. I have routines and systems that take care of domestic decisions (clothes, food, cleaning, shopping, and yes even family etc) so those things take up very little emotional energy as a rule.

When I’m in ‘slow’ mode, typically at home with Maria on the weekends I cook, go to markets, get exercise, explore the natural environment and sit around. Conversely, I have habits and systems that mean I spend very little energy on work. It is simple things like where I put my computer, and the clothes I wear. Call it anal, but it works for me. It means my attention and energy is present in our weekend-type activity. ‘Yurting mode’ is harder to explain but you get the idea. Be present in the context and determine ways to take care of decisions and distractions that don’t permit you to be present.

The point I am attempting to make is that simplicity is an extremely potent lifestyle choice for me, one that I believe contributes to my mental health. And it’s not the simplicity that smells of austerity. Minimalist austerity is a poor idea when compared with essentialist simplicity. One is clinical and transactional, the other rich with values and embraced compromise. Identify the essentials, the things that matter most (in that context/mode) and figure out ways for the other stuff to take as little energy as possible.