WWW people

While we need the machinery of Big Science and the specialists that make it possible, we also need the creative polymaths, men and women not bound by labels on degrees and job descriptions.
— Steve Spalding & James Gibson, Rebuilding the Polymath

The future has always been uncertain, but our ability to navigate it has been impaired by an increasing focus on studying bark. The closer you are to the material, the more likely you are to believe it. In psychology jargon, you anchor on your own beliefs and insufficiently adjust from them. In more straightforward language, a man with a hammer is more likely to see nails than one without a hammer. Expertise means being closer to the bark, and less likely to see ways in which your perspective may warrant adjustment. In today’s uncertain environment, breadth of perspective trumps depth of knowledge.
— Vikram Mansharamani, All Hail the Generalist

Our culture of specialization conflicts with something most of us intuitively recognize, but which careers advisers are only beginning to understand: we each have multiple selves.
— Roman Krznaric, How to Find Fulfilling Work

Imagine this. You have just been diagnosed with a brain tumour. One of the top surgeons in the country has been assigned to your case. They are widely admired, often sought out for their opinion by peers and media alike. Their work has been honoured with a number of awards, and they possess a lengthy publishing record. Only, they specialise in sports injuries, particularly those related to knees. Their reputation has been cemented following the rehabilitation of a number of high-profile sports personalities. How would you feel knowing this expert of the patella was going to be operating on your skull, removing cancerous tissue?

Now picture this. You work for a shipping company. Many of your colleagues have worked in the industry since graduating and are now experts in their respective fields. Shipping is the only work experience they have ever had. They are living encyclopaedias of shipping knowledge and history. But change is afoot. The industry is modernising. A new leadership team is restructuring the organisation, and a greater emphasis is being placed on service provision, on the role the company plays in the broader shipping family. A number of posts are being advertised. Several of the candidates do not seem to have any shipping experience at all. In fact some seem to have hopscotched from one industry to another across a range of disciplines. Are you worried about this lack of a shipping background? Or are you intrigued by the new perspectives that such appointments could introduce to your organisation? The potential for constructive challenge and cross-pollination of ideas?

Now reflect on this. Two young students are starting their courses at university. One always did well in geography at school and has selected this as their chosen topic of study. They have not really thought beyond the next three years. A geography degree is just a stepping stone, not a career goal. The other has a long-term plan, aiming to engage in non-profit water sanitation work in eastern Africa after they graduate. In order to specialise in this field, they have opted for a generalised degree. They will be participating in a combined Bachelor of Arts and Sciences programme, which they have designed, together with faculty staff, to cover a breadth of subjects. These include modules in anthropology, psychology, law, economics, politics, geography, geology and languages indigenous to that region of Africa. Who do you think is most likely to be the first to generate value – both social and economic – shortly after graduation? If they were both applying for the same non-profit role, would you be likely to employ the geography specialist or the multi-disciplinarian who wishes to specialise?

books
[Photo credit: Exercising Curiosity, Richard Martin, November 2014]

There are two points to make here. The first is that context is everything. The second is that there is a place for both the specialist and the generalist in the modern organisation. That they can complement and learn from one another. Currently, though, it often feels like the balance is tipped too far towards hyperspecialism. It is evident in how we educate, how we recruit and how we manage. We get squeezed through the specialist funnel at too early an age, normally when we are undergoing the hormonal turmoil of our early teens, when nothing is settled. Educational choices made at school during this formative age immediately narrow the opportunities for both employment and further education. At the pointy end of the funnel labels and pigeonholes await – either, dependent on your mindset, to be embraced or to be evaded at all costs.

During this International Working Out Loud Week (#wolweek), I am reflecting on the reasons why I want to co-author a book on generalism with my friend Kenneth Mikkelsen. It is difficult not to start with a personal journey, covering both the highlights and frustrations. Nevertheless, it is important too to broaden this out, to look at it from a corporate perspective. How to convince a business leader that a generalist absolutely has a place in their organisation crammed full of specialists? How to make them understand the value of multi-disciplinarity? How to help them comprehend that a generalist can add to the creativity of the company? How to illuminate the dot-joining, sense-making, horizon-scanning, strategic insights that a generalist can bring to bear on an organisation? How to demonstrate the facility with which a generalist can move from macro to micro and back again, developing compelling corporate narratives, framing them from multiple perspectives? How to illustrate that a generalist can move fluidly from leadership to following others to supplying expertise across a range of subjects?

Generalists are WWW people. By this I mean that they possess both a breadth and depth of skills, knowledge and experience. These are most definitely not jack of all trades, masters of none. Rather, they are people who have the potential, the attitude and the aptitude to specialise in more than one discipline. This goes against prevailing wisdom regarding T-shaped skills. In that model a specialist gradually progresses through their career, tiptoeing up the corporate ladder until they attain a management position that requires them to exercise a broader range of shallower skills, as well as their deep specialism. Everything plateaus at that point. Instead the generalist gets to enjoy the freedom, the highs and lows, the thrills and spills of a mountain range of interests.

Modern generalists are WWW people in another way too. They are adept at navigating the digital, networked world we now inhabit. Their broad and deep interests are buttressed by multiple networked communities, many of which overlap. This enables them to continuously exercise their curiosity, their thirst for knowledge and practical experience. They bridge from their own organisations to the outside world via these digital networks, using them to co-create, to test out ideas, to acquire and share information, to learn. The social web both maps and enables their polymathic tendencies. The smartphone in their pocket is as much a conduit to knowledge and validation as the person sat at the desk next to them. The generalist is ever curious, painting pictures, telling stories, mixing, sampling, experimenting, trying to redraw the edges of the map. It is what keeps us restless and energised. Even the quiet ones.

The days of compartmentalisation are passing. We are at the dawn of a new age where we must look for unity in diversity, the big picture in small parts, macrocosm in microcosm, large vision in little details and holonomics in economics.
— Satish Kumar, Foreword to Holonomics by Simon Robinson & Maria Moraes Robinson

I’ve come to believe that the potential to transition from a competent specialist to being a voracious generalist again is one of the most important inflection points in life.
— Saul Kaplan, Hourglass Theory Of Life

Specialisation is hard on polymaths. Every moment devoted to one area is a moment less to give over to something else.
— Edward Carr, The Last Days of the Polymath

I am grateful to Rotana Ty for his recent exercise in curation on the topic of generalism and specialism.

Cross-posted to Medium and LinkedIn on 18 November 2014.

Cathedrals

On the emergence of change

Let us bring to life in our imaginations this joyful spectacle. Let us stop a moment to read these lines and put clearly before our eyes the white cathedrals against the blue or gray background of the sky. We must get that image into our hearts. And then we shall be able to continue our reflections […] Eyes that see, persons with knowledge, they must be allowed to construct the new world. When the first white cathedrals of the new world are standing, it will be seen and known that they are something true, that something has really begun. With what enthusiasm, what fervor, what relief, the about-face will be made! The proof will be there. Fearful, the world first wants proof.
— Le Corbusier, When the Cathedrals Were White

La Grotte des Demoiselles can be found near Saint Bauzille de Putois in the Languedoc region of France. It is a testament to the passage of time and gradual transformation. A place of erosion, as water has hollowed out sections of limestone, collapse and growth. The grotte is a living museum of stalactites and stalagmites that have developed over a period of 9-10 million years. It is estimated that some of the enormous stalactites, for example, have gained 10cm in length every one hundred years. That is incremental growth in action over an incredible expanse of time.

The result, especially in the central cavern known as the Cathédrale des Abîmes, is breathtaking. The Cathédrale is filled with columns and pillars, as well as structures that look like stone forests and shoals of jellyfish. There is even a stalagmite towards the bottom of the Cathédrale that could be a man-made statue of the Virgin and Child. The chamber is a natural wonder, so magnificent and surreal in structure and artistry, that it seems unreal, not of this world. It resembles a set lifted from cinematic fantasy, straight from the mind of a film magician like George Méliès.

Whatever we aspire to, whatever we hope to innovate or create, nature has anticipated us. It either supplies us with a template to copy – the vines of trees, and the structures they support, teaching us how to design suspension bridges, for example – or it provides us with the raw materials and sources of energy that we harness in our endeavours. It provides succour and education, supporting the fragile vessels of our lives and illustrating, constantly, that everything is subject to change, evolution, transformation and growth.

Many of the structures contained in the cavernous depths of the Grotte can also be seen replicated in man-made structures that reach for the heavens. Medieval places of worship, as well as the Gothic reworkings of later centuries, echo and mirror the ornamentation and natural artistry of the Cathédrale. Both have required an investment of time to take on their current form. In the case of Chartes Cathedral, for example, it is thought that five different cathedrals have occupied this same location. Work on the building that stands today began in 1194 when a fire damaged the 12th-century cathedral. The new edifice was completed in 1250 some 56 years later. This was an era when life expectancy was significantly shorter than it is today. It follows, therefore, that a huge number of builders and artisans that contributed to the construction and ornamentation of the cathedral never saw the final fruits of their labour.

My own view is that effective change – societal, political, workplace, institutional – requires a similar expanse of time to take root and be fully realised. Our work as advocates of the new, the alternative, is likely to result in transformative change that we will not ourselves enjoy. But our children may. Our grandchildren almost certainly. Religion and mythology teach us that the prophets do not get to enjoy the promised land. We are sowing the seeds and cultivating the landscape. Future generations are the ones who will reap the harvest.

It falls to us to engage in a form of organic leadership, helping create the conditions in which others can flourish, making manifest things about which we can only dream. This brings into play notions relating to servant leadership and stewardship. Everything we do in our efforts to rethink and change the workplace and other aspects of our society is for the benefit of others. We have a vision of what the outcome will be many years hence but, accepting that we might not enjoy that ourselves, our focus has to shift to the process and to the activity of fostering, catalysing and realising change.

Interestingly, this echoes a school of thought in the sporting arena, where you often hear athletes and coaches talking about how they focus on the process rather than the desired goal. Get the process right, people like Clive Woodward and Dave Brailsford argue, and the results will follow. This is not process in the constraining sense that we associate with corporate rulebooks, meaningless metrics and management bottlenecks. It is more an adaptive, collaborative endeavour. One that rarely stands still but is subject to continuous refinement and evolution. It is shaped by both human input and human action.

This idea of the humanisation of process is attractive to me. I have always been put off by the term ‘best practice’, probably because of its suggestion of an idealised state, a pinnacle that has been attained and upon which a flag has been planted, a camp set up. I cannot accept that the quest for improvement will have an end date. That there is anything that we cannot make better in however marginal a way. That our innate creativity and potential to innovate will have run its course. So, for me, the practices of others are educational. They are sources of learning and inspiration, scaffolding for my own work. But they are not something simply to be duplicated without constructive challenge and inquiry. You have to make them your own. Remodel and repurpose them if necessary.

Picasso said, every act of creation is first an act of destruction. In Revolutionary France of the early 1790s the people embarked on a process of de-Christianisation transforming Roman Catholic cathedrals like Notre Dame into Temples of Reason. They removed, defaced, modified and transformed artworks that represented the old hierarchy of Church and Nobility, reclaiming these great edifices, and the network of streets that led to them, for the people. For liberty, equality and fraternity. For philosophy and reason. In the Industrial Revolution that followed, people sought to build new cathedrals in the forms of factories, railway terminals, bridges and power stations. Testaments to humanity’s ingenuity and engineering capability.

Today, a more subtle form of revolution and reformation is underway. It is to be seen in how we repurpose and renovate the monuments of the industrial age. We are transforming buildings and institutions previously associated with the captains of industry. A new generation of workers are claiming lofts as art studios, power stations as galleries, railway buildings as food markets and restaurants, and factory spaces as hives of start-up business endeavour more in keeping with the era of knowledgeable networkers.

Enabled by technological advances, we are also building on the foundations laid by the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto. Our embryonic change communities span time and place, they foster diversity and recognise the potential of the individual. We have created digital Temples of Reason, inhabited by people who commune in both virtual and physical spaces. These are communities and movements that have been built through the hyperlink. The connection of people and knowledge facilitated by fluctuating networks. Our new cathedrals are digital spaces and human communities.

There is a need for us to be constantly nurturing ideas – our own and those of other people – pushing at the edges, stretching boundaries. We have a duty to help create the right conditions in which others can extend human achievement and creativity, whether in the arts, the sciences, our social institutions or the world of work. We have a responsibility to see ideas get put into action, ensuring that learning feeds in to the refinement of process, so that one day the product of transformative change can truly be enjoyed by those that follow us.

Water, minerals and time were the raw ingredients that went into the construction of the Grotte. Human endeavour and artistry were what shaped medieval structures like Chartes Cathedral. Our curiosity and thirst for knowledge continue to fuel the different ages of Enlightenment. Time is the ingredient we share. Time to experiment and learn, time to create and build. The changes we aspire to are evolutionary and do not happen overnight. We are building our own cathedrals, thinking of the future – adding a few centimetres, seeking marginal gains – as each small step leads us to a bigger goal for the benefit of future generations.

This post distils and repackages content from material previously published on this site relating to the topic of #buildingcathedrals.

Cross-posted to Medium and LinkedIn on 12 November 2014.

Shadow dance

All night long, like memory, the fog
has deepened. I reach it
again and find you are still there.
Ships of all sizes fumble
towards the harbor. Table lamps
set out everywhere on their decks,
hundreds of them gleam dully.
Again the world is wondrous
— James Sallis, Beside You

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
— T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

I was at the first of things,
I will be at the last.
I am the primal mist
And no man passes me;
My long impalpable arms
Bar them all.
— Carl Sandburg, The Mist

Everything is mist, fog and haze, slipping in and out of focus. A swirling kaleidoscope of shapes and colours – a peloton – that temporarily takes on form then dissolves. All is liminal, caught between two states. We strain to recognise patterns. To make sense. Are we on the verge of fundamental change? Approaching a new level of consciousness? Or is this flux merely representative of the human condition? A primordial smog from which we briefly mould meaning and existence before fading out?

One of the highlights of Antony Gormley’s 2007 exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London was Blind Light. This consisted of a luminous, cube-like glass structure filled with white mist. To enter the cube was to experience sensory deprivation. Unable to see more than a couple of feet in front of you, visitors either stood still or staggered around with arms outstretched. Shadows loomed before you then melted away again as the mist filled the gaps that had briefly taken on human form. From without the cube, too, observers could see a shadow play of briefly visible silhouettes, the occasional hand or leering face suddenly pressed against the glass.

I was reminded of this experience last week when I visited the Late Turner exhibition at Tate Britain in the company of Andy Swann. It seemed that both of us responded more viscerally to those paintings that denied the viewer clear lines and bold forms. Paintings filled with swirling skies or troubled seascapes. The more impressionistic the style, the greater the sense of emergence (rather than completion) of image and form on the canvas, the more profound the response I felt to the art. With such paintings, there was a sense of co-creation between artist and viewer. The canvas itself occupied an in-between state.

image

In this respect, J.M.W. Turner’s Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis is particularly powerful. It brings into play ideas about chaos and order, time and space, circles and spirals, writing and creation. At its centre sits the faint figure of Moses. He is writing the biblical tale of Genesis. He imagines the world and humanity into being through stories of divine intervention. He seeks to make sense of the chaotic maelstrom, the swirl of space and time that surrounds him. His only companion at the centre of the frame, joining him from the crowd below, is the serpent that will slither its way into the Eden of his narrative.

Outside the frame, in the painting’s title, looms the figure of writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The allusion is to Goethe’s Theory of Colours, in particular his writing on light and darkness, and the notion that every colour combines the two. In other words, every colour bridges between two states; it is both and neither, suspended, liminal. It swirls, creating a mist, refusing to take on permanent form.

This becomes an apt metaphor for human action and thought. Many turn their lives into a quest for meaning and understanding. The process of detection provides a sense of purpose. Patterns are recognised, one clue is linked to another, choices are made, and sense emerges from mists of confusion and obfuscation. For some though, that is not possible. Maude, for example, the geriatric heroine of Emma Healey’s novel Elizabeth is Missing gradually loses her hold on reality as she succumbs to Alzheimer’s disease. Memories become fragmentary. Past narratives intrude on the present. Written notes, intended to jog memory and trigger action, are rendered meaningless. All is fragmented, foggy, just out of reach. Leonard Shelby, troubled hero of Christopher Nolan’s film Memento, is another detective whose faculties fail him. The reminders he has tattooed on his body have catastrophic consequences.

Short-term memory and misguided action often intrude into contexts relating to societal, political and workplace change. The swirling mists clear temporarily, bold action is taken, then new fogs of forgetfulness descend. Spiral-like, we both progress and repeat. Small steps. Net marginal gains. The question that troubles so many of us now is how to effect something more fundamental, lasting and wide-ranging? How to truly shift from one state to another? To stop the kaleidoscope spinning and clear the mist away?

Liminal thinking is the art of finding, creating and using thresholds to effect change. It is a way of approaching situations with the system in mind rather than individual interactions. It is a kind of mindfulness that can be applied to the social systems we live and work in. Liminal thinking is the art of finding, creating and unlocking potential.
— Dave Gray, Liminal Thinking

Liminality is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs during periods of transition. It’s the ugly duckling stage of life, the “in between” in a rite of passage, and the barely perceptible threshold in a change of mind.
— Peter Morville, Intertwingled

Organizations must also periodically go through such wrenching times of transition, and it is during such liminal times that leaders have their greatest impact. They must manage to both craft the new world with smart strategy, often in the wake of disruption, and cause the organization to embrace the required change.
— Dan Pontefract, Leadership in Liminal Times

Humans form original ideas by subconsciously weaving fragments of stored ideas and memories with awareness drawn from real time observation. While a bit abstract, this notion of conceptual blending seems important for learning professionals and others keen on constructing tools and techniques to help organizations meet the challenges of liminality.
— David Holzmer, Knowledge and Our New Era of Pervasive Liminality

An extended version of this post, Mapping the edges, was published on Medium and LinkedIn on 19 November 2014.

Peloton formations in verse

We are all artists. On the bike we express emotion.
— Michael Barry, Shadows on the Road

The bicycle is one of mankind’s greatest inventions – it’s up there with the printing press, the electric motor, the telephone, penicillin and the World Wide Web.
— Robert Penn, It’s All About the Bike

This is Kaizen in action: it hands responsibility to everyone within an organisation; from the cleaner to the CEO, everyone is encouraged to participate in the organisation’s activities, and to think about and improve their performance. It doesn’t have to be a big improvement; just marginal ones.
— Richard Moore, Sky’s the Limit

In previous posts, Open work and Work in progress, and in the spirit of working out loud, I shared my ideas as I developed a Pecha Kucha. This was delivered as part of Workstock, a highly creative and inventive pop-up event incorporated into the Workplace Trends 2014 conference. Eleven speakers participated. Each challenged preconceptions about what business, organisational models, working practices and locations actually mean today. To do so they drew on personal stories, art, music, poetry, sport, conversational lessons and theory made practice. It was a privilege to be a part of such an event. I am very grateful to Neil Usher for inviting me to be one of the Pecha Kucha presenters.

To add to the energy and creativity that fuelled Workstock, each performance was preceded by the narration of a short story commissioned from Cara Long. Cara has very generously agreed to let me reproduce here the story used to introduce me. Stories for the other participants can be found on the Workplace Trends website.

Nothing in Isolation
Mr. Boyle says, We have a mixture of goals at this company and we stress partnership, collaboration, and cooperation to achieve these goals. Phil shifts in his chair, says, I understand. But he doesn’t, not quite. Mr. Boyle continues, Should you be offered a position here, we would expect you to be as comfortable leading a team as you would be working as a member of that team. Roles change, projects change, but purpose unites us. Mr. Boyle uncrosses his legs. And we prefer not to assign roles, but for employees to assume roles based on their own strengths and weaknesses. Phil asks if Mr. Boyle would like him to talk about his strengths and weaknesses. No, Mr. Boyle says, I want you to talk about how your strengths and weaknesses connect. Phil draws in a breath. That’s a somewhat new question, he says. Indeed, Mr. Boyle says, but they have always connected – nothing can be treated in isolation. Phil’s mind flashes back to his last cycling race – he remembers the rush he felt at the start, seeing the other riders, the spectators, the vendors. He remembers feeling both his strengths and his weaknesses well up inside him. He decides to talk about that.

Peloton formations: a poem

Reflecting back from middle age, I now make a confession:
from small seeds it seems cycling became an obsession.

It started with some country jaunts – man, nature and machine.
The Tour de France, and several books, then made me very keen.

The peloton I began to see as a metaphor
for fluidity, responsiveness – and many things more.

Like shoals of fish and flocks of birds, the cyclists ebb and flow;
They move with common purpose in a united show.

The cyclists ride far and wide following each other’s leads.
But every man has personal goals and very different needs.

Ambitious men chase jerseys bright in hue.
Yellow the highest honour, is worn by only a few.

Like a business in the world of work, the peloton is rife
with the rivalries and partnerships of a co-creative life.

Across team boundaries links are swiftly made
as riders collaborate and favours freely trade.

Within the cycling team there is a common goal;
the victorious rider wins alone – serving the greater whole.

The breakaway is where competition takes its hold.
It is a place for the driven, experimental and bold.

In games of cat and mouse, the pack seeks to reel them in.
And short partnerships dissolve as escapees go for the win.

This skunk works operation tastes many a failure,
but reflective riders learn from their intensive labour.

The baroudeur gurns and shuns the usual show;
he challenges, questions, overturns the status quo.

Unloved by his companions for the pain he causes them,
he leads riders to the unknown, attacking over and again.

Disruption and animation are his pedigree.
He innovates in the peloton. Then he sets them free.

The sprinter unfurls his arms, riding in first place
to reveal sponsors’ names and a smile across his face.

His teammates he unites in a shared mission.
He inspires and motivates with Technicolour vision.

Consummate he is in communication;
and just as effective his facilitation.

His colleagues he coaxes to form a long sprint train,
riding as one in a narrow cycling lane.

Leadership revolves, as they chase and protect.
Fluid and agile, they one-by-one eject.

The day-long project builds to the very time
when the sprinter is launched to the finish line.

Time and again they repeat their success;
continuously improving, refining their process.

They respond to context with their whirring chains,
adapting to the need for several marginal gains.

Every team member longs to be able to say,
“We got it right on the Élysées!”

The plan in cycling is a slippery beast;
there’s just as much famine as there is feast.

Autonomous decisions inform the key event;
the riders respond to what they can’t prevent.

Loose frameworks allow for the unexpected.
Both knowledge and action are often reflected.

Sometimes teams adopt a long-term perspective:
their project forms around a distant objective.

Rainbow was about conquering the world,
managing a race until the sprint unfurled.

A squad formed around Mark Cavendish,
and the GB team delivered on their ultimate wish.

A wirearchy is suggested by networked formation,
although leadership roles imply a certain station.

But individuals shift from one role to the next.
The duties they perform are governed by context.

From leading to following to subject expertise,
they adapt to their colleagues’ momentary needs.

While skill and mastery certainly earn your keep,
humility is the crop most successful riders reap.

Service of others can inspire and motivate,
establishing values from which none will deviate.

To ride at the front is to lead and protect,
showing other riders both trust and respect.

Some teams make decisions that exceed bold;
asking their Champions to put their goals on hold.

Yellow was the target for the 2012 race,
and Cavendish’s teamwork proved more than ace.

Ferrying water bottles from the team car,
Cav helped raise the servant leader bar.

But the tale of selfless giving does not stop there.
Wiggins in Yellow wanted to do what was fair.

With victory all but assured in the great event,
he led out his teammate when others were spent.

With trust and humility they showed their respect,
and on the race’s outcome had a huge effect.

When the road points upwards, new leaders appear:
The climber is a visionary who knows no fear.

The mountains are their canvas. The work is their art.
Dancing on pedals, they blow the race apart.

With feats of myth and fable they map the great unknown,
then inspire their companions with what they have just shown.

The time trial is known as the race of truth.
Numbers and measures as a form of proof.

When ridden solo, there is no hiding place:
all-out effort is demanded by the race.

Riding with teammates, all rests on five;
the fifth man over keeps your hopes alive.

The rouleur makes time trials a personal preserve,
then serves his companions with strength in reserve.

Leading the peloton, controlling the breaks,
he’ll guide and influence; anything it takes.

The link to the team car, he acts as road captain.
He unites his mates, allowing for no faction.

The riders on their bikes engage in the race
but right behind them are others keeping pace.

Directors and coaches, fresh from past success,
mechanics and chefs helping with the rest.

Every team needs some infrastructure.
United they form a healthy, winning culture.

Around the race swirls many different systems,
from cloud-laden skies to train engine pistons.

The media flit and dart in amongst the bikes,
while crashes are caused by en route blights.

Crowds fill the roads of the longest climbs,
and organisers try to keep everything on time.

From the union of human, tech and machine,
we learn the essence of agility and lean.

The fluidity of roles on every day’s stage,
teaches us to break from hierarchy’s cage.

Power shifts as the peloton flows and bends,
– and with that lesson learned, this poem ends.

Hopscotch

It was about that time that I realized that searching was my symbol, the emblem of those who go out at night with nothing in mind, the motives of a destroyer of compasses.
— Julio Cortázar, Hopscotch

Like nations, individuals come to be ruled by their self-narratives, narratives that accrue from failures as much as from success, and that harden over time into images the individual believes unassailable. Identity and symbology fuse. And threats when they come aren’t merely physical, they’re ontological, challenging the narrative itself, suggesting that it may be false. They strike at the individual’s very identity. The narrative has become an objective in its own right – one that must be reclaimed at all costs.
— James Sallis, Salt River

Our sense of ourselves feels constant but our identity is an ongoing performance that is changed and adapted by our experiences and circumstances. We feel like we are the same person we were years before, but we are not.
— Grayson Perry, Who Are You? exhibition notes

The hyperlink. It is the bridge that builds connections. The symbol of choice and decision making. The glue that binds networks of information. The hyperlink represents a path that connects a breadcrumb trail of clues. It invites investigation and detection. As with Dr Who or Bill and Ted, the hyperlink enables us to travel through space and time. Or, like Sherlock Holmes, to skip and jump through the mind palace of accumulated memories and knowledge.

The hyperlink allows us to edit and narrate both our own stories and those of other people too. It offers both conformity, following predetermined routes, and innovation. We can restructure a novel, as Julio Cortázar demonstrated in Hopscotch. We are able to re-programme the sequence of scenes in a film or the soundtrack we hear on a DVD or Blu-ray. We might choose our own trail through a woodland or art gallery, mapping out our own garden of forking paths, constructing our own labyrinths. Or we can use that corporate process more as guidance, a starting point, rather than as instructions to be slavishly followed.

The hyperlink opens up opportunities for us to play our own metaphoric games of hopscotch. To cross borders, bridge differences, blur edges, exercise curiosity, mash-up, create and explore. The hyperlink is ubiquitous and subversive. It lends itself well to the polymathic tendency, allowing individuals to hop, skip and jump from one interest or discipline to another in games of combinatory play. In this respect, one of the great modern practitioners is Grayson Perry. In his artwork exhibitions, television series, Reith Lectures and books, Perry glides from one label to another, exploring both his own identity and those of the subjects for his pottery, tapestries and paintings.

Grayson-Perry-Map-of-Days
[Picture credit: A Map of Days by Grayson Perry. Currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery as part of the Who Are You? exhibition]

In his 2012 series for Channel 4, In the Best Possible Taste, Perry explores class, taste and tribes. He is fascinated by what it means to both belong to and to escape from a tribe. His own autobiography blends with the narratives of his subjects. What emerges in his work and his commentary about it is a sense of tolerance. For someone with a Humanities background, there can be no right answer just multiple possibilities. In his book, Playing to the Gallery, and the Reith Lectures from which it is derived, he argues that we may be entering the age of pluralism. Extrapolating what he has learned from artistic exploration, he challenges: ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to believe that the pluralistic art world of the historical present was a harbinger for a political thing to come?

This tolerance and pluralism is also evident in his latest 2014 Channel 4 series, Who are You?, and the accompanying exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Questions of identity are also central to this series, with Perry choosing as his portrait subjects individuals who are at a crossroads in their lives, whose sense of self has become fragmented, or who are building new identities for themselves. He describes his own role as ‘part psychologist, part detective’ as he converses with his subjects, photographs and sketches them, grows to understand them, then captures their essence in works of art. The blurring of boundaries, the redrawing of maps, the crossing of borders proliferate. From Perry’s own cross-dressing identity and shift from working-class roots to middle-class, art-world prestige to tales of religious self-discovery, gender change, celebrity personas and memory loss.

The exhibition itself is a masterpiece of hyperlinking. Rather than housing the fourteen portraits – a mixture of ceramic urns, tapestries, etchings, sculptures and paintings – in one room, they are scattered through several rooms. They nestle alongside portraits of modernist writers and scholars, Victorian statesmen, military leaders and monarchs. They link to the past – and they subvert it too. A giant tapestry, Comfort Blanket, questions what it means to be British in this age of pluralism. A nice counterpoint to the nationalistic rhetoric and fear of otherness that currently prevails in our society. Maps, too, are much in evidence. Visitors are able to follow a clearly plotted route through the various rooms where items in the collection are on display, or simply follow their own feet and curiosity.

At the foot of the stairs, though, that leads up to the bulk of the collection is the first exhibit, A Map of Days. It is a brilliantly-conceived self-portrait of the artist as a fortified town. One that offers endless opportunities for games of hopscotch.

Come sail your ships around me
And burn your bridges down
We make a little history, baby
Every time you come around
Come loose your dogs upon me
And let your hair hang down
You are a little mystery to me
Every time you come around
— Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, The Ship Song

He’s stronger than the walls
You tried to build around him
To dumb and dumbfound him
For two thousand years I waited for your call
Screaming from the windows
Screaming bloody murder
— Babyshambles, UnBiloTitled

Doping

I don’t know just where I’m going
But I’m gonna try for the kingdom, if I can
‘Cause it makes me feel like I’m a man
When I put a spike into my vein
And I’ll tell ya, things aren’t quite the same
When I’m rushing on my run
And I feel just like Jesus’s son
And I guess that I just don’t know
And I guess that I just don’t know
— The Velvet Underground, Heroin

Keep your silly ways or throw them out the window
The wisdom of your ways, I’ve been there and I know
Lots of other ways, what a jolly bad show
If all you ever do is business you don’t like
— Ian Drury & The Blockheads, Sex & Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll

Now the drugs don’t work
They just make you worse
— The Verve, The Drugs Don’t Work

The death this week of Ben Bradlee, former editor of The Washington Post, stirs up memories of all the research I did into the Watergate scandal. Investigating the evolution of film noir, I argued that the changes evident in the genre reflected more than just the fundamental shifts in the industry and the emergence of new filmmaking technology. Indeed, at the heart of my argument was the view that films, like other art forms, tend to tap into and critique the zeitgeist and prevailing ideology of their times. They take the temperature of, hold up a mirror to, the sociopolitical and cultural context in which they were made. The cinema of the early-to-mid 1970s, for example, suggested a failure of the establishment, and highlighted deeply entrenched corruption within it. Incompetence and impotence were dominant motifs. Detectives failed to solve their cases unlike their ratiocinative and hardboiled forebears. Scoundrels got away with their crimes. Psychopaths were everywhere. This played out to a backdrop of economic malaise, the on-going conflict in Vietnam, countless investigations and enquiries that failed to satisfy public need, and, in Watergate, a criminal act that implicated the US President.

We have always had a complex relationship with cheats. Dependent on the context, as well as the extent to which we are ourselves affected, we either celebrate or vilify those who game the system. If we dislike the system ourselves, then we are inclined to champion and celebrate those who challenge it. Outlaws become heroes in this context, from Robin Hood to Neo and Morpheus in The Matrix. The study of mythology and folk tales suggest that we are drawn to the archetypal character of the trickster. We celebrate Prometheus for stealing fire from the gods, for example. We admire the combined intellectual and physical efforts of Ariadne and Theseus for solving the puzzle of the labyrinth and overcoming the Minotaur. We write eulogies to the archers of Agincourt, who shifted the rules of warfare. Yet, when we encounter those who have defied our trust in them, public outcry ensues. We bay for blood when politicians fiddle their expenses, when spies are unearthed in positions of authority, or a when a national leader is found to be complicit in a break-in at his political opponent’s headquarters.

This tendency to game the system involves the blurring of moral, ethical and legal boundaries. Sometimes the results may be positive, the consequence of change agency and constructive challenge. Sometimes the system needs overturning, either with incremental steps or, less often, with a radical shift. The events of the late 1980s, leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall, are a case in point. Often, though, too many of us have too much invested in the system. Revelations about business malpractice at companies like Enron, unauthorised trading at Barings Bank, or incompetent management at our financial institutions do not garner public sympathy. Particularly when the innocent are hurt by such activities. More complicated is the psychological damage people experience when their sporting heroes are revealed as cheats. Usually there is no direct harm inflicted, but an invisible bond is snapped, an investment of goodwill suddenly devalued. Just ask any Canadian who witnessed Ben Johnson’s rise and fall in the wake of the Seoul Olympics.

The history of professional cycling is rife with stories of cheating, from riders hitching lifts in cars and trains in the early editions of the Tour de France to the more sinister interventions of medical practitioners in the sport. It is not necessarily the case that cycling is a more corrupt sport than any other, but that with its extensive testing programme it has been more effective at capturing and outing the cheats. The effect, though, in this era of 24-hour news coverage, is that from the period of the 1998 Tour de France, when soigneur Willy Voet was caught at the Franco-Belgian border with a car full of performance enhancing drugs, to the aftermath of the Lance Armstrong affair, professional cycling seems to have been constantly in the news for all the wrong reasons.

Among the most potent methods for cheating during the period were the use of EPO (Erythropoietin) and blood transfusions to improve oxygen delivery to muscles, enhance the endurance capacity of the athlete and aid recovery. The risks taken by such cheats were not insignificant, not only in terms of likely detection by the drug testers, potential imprisonment in some countries and loss of livelihood, but also in terms of the health risks that such cheating entailed. The insight provided by the testimony in the Armstrong USADA case, by an in-depth interview with Floyd Landis, and in books by former dopers such as Tyler Hamilton, David Millar and Michael Barry are horrifying. What emerges is the story of a toxic culture where there was an expectation that riders would do what was necessary to game the system. But Millar and Barry also point to a more positive picture. The arrival of a new generation, intolerant of cheats and cheating, and impatient with those who have practised a code of silence for too long.

Professional cycling appears to be undergoing a period of regeneration. Both cyclists and administrators are keen to excise a culture in which individuals felt it was necessary to cheat. To learn lessons from the past. To engage with those who did previously game the system in a process of truth and reconciliation. To re-establish a contract of trust between the sportsmen, the governing bodies and, most importantly, the fans of the sport. In effect, to overhaul the system while respecting and building on past traditions.

As always, other walks of life, other systems, including business and government, would do well to observe, adopt and adapt lessons from the world of sport.

I no longer hear the music
Oh, no, no, no, no
Well, I no longer hear the music when the lights go out
Love goes cold in the shades of doubt
The strange fate in my mind is all too clear
— The Libertines, Music When the Lights Go Out

The powers that be
That force us to live like we do
Bring me to my knees
When I see what they’ve done to you
But I’ll die as I stand here today
Knowing that deep in my heart
They’ll fall to ruin one day
For making us part
— The Pretenders, Back on the Chain Gang

Correspondence and conversation

The culture is again half-spoken, half-written.
— Esko Kilpi, From Productivity to Social Innovations

Conversations aren’t trivial. Culture is reinforced by shared conversations and understanding.
— Euan Semple, Organizations Don’t Tweet, People Do

Interconnected access to information, knowledge and instantaneous communications provides the modern equivalent to the dynamics created by the invention of the printing press – information distributed (much) more widely throughout society. Today it is also the case that the information is exchanged almost instantly; certainly at speeds that allow the back-and-forth rhythm of a conversation but in ways that leave a pragmatic actionable record of that conversation.
— Jon Husband, A New Chapter of the Internet’s Impact on Human Society

As a postgraduate student of film history during the early-to-mid 1990s, I used to experience the occasional frisson of excitement when connecting with someone from the industry itself or the academic world who had added to my understanding and appreciation of the medium. The communication methods available to me then were mainly letter or fax. While I did have an AOL account and a modem, generously supplied by a friend in Silicon Valley, this was before AOL had a toehold in the UK. Before there were a wide array of internet service providers. A period when Mosaic was the browser of choice. I therefore had to make international calls to the USA to connect. When I did so, there were few people I knew to converse and share with. Few friends, and certainly nobody from the film community who might be able to contribute or add value to my research project.

Instead, I had to rely on a ridiculously priced and hefty tome filled with the addresses of agents and production companies. I was firing out correspondence into the void. This was supplemented by the occasional visits to the British Film Institute’s cinema complex by celebrated filmmakers, who provided insights into the production process in on-stage interviews, then sold their latest books to the crowds of admirers. These included luminaries that spanned the generations: Robert Altman, Budd Boetticher, Quentin Tarantino, André de Toth. John Boorman, director of the neo-noir Point Blank, was one of the first to respond to me in a kind and generous hand-written note. Thelma Schoonmaker Powell, the brilliant editor who has worked alongside Martin Scorsese for many years, was another who took the time out to correspond. One of the great thrills was receiving a fax from Joseph H. Lewis, director of classic noir films like Gun Crazy and The Big Combo, when he was himself well into his eighties.

This was slow-going, though. The laborious assembly of a network of very weak connections. Film noir linked to neo-noir, through both generic tradition and film practitioners. Boorman as the driving force behind an early experiment with new wave filmmaking techniques applied to an American genre. Altman as another to subvert and interrogate generic expectations. Scorsese as an innovative film director who would be one of the key figures in the neo-noir period. Connections from him and Schoonmaker to her late husband, the maverick British filmmaker Michael Powell, and beyond to the academic Ian Christie. Then others related to the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger partnership, including the latter’s grandson, Kevin Macdonald. The gaps between my initial attempts to connect and response from correspondents were often huge. In some cases, I am still waiting, twenty years later.

Following graduate school, while working as a freelance writer and editor, my interest in the noir genre broadened, embracing not only the films but the literature of the period. I became particularly interested in the writing of James Sallis, whose crime fiction was unlike anything else that I had come across in the genre. This was a master of both prose and poetry, whose novels transcended generic boundaries and were as ‘literary’ as anything produced by the likes of Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon. Email allowed me to establish a friendship with Jim. An article and a website followed, as did in-person meetings which served to cement the bond. Mostly, though, our interactions were asynchronous, across time zones and the cultural differences that prevail between Kent, UK, and Arizona, USA.

What a difference, then, from our modern, hyper-connected world. We live in a time in which broadband and WiFi are viewed as necessary utilities, smartphones proliferate, email is already an old-world technology, and conversations are taking place in real time across global boundaries and oceans on a host of services and platforms enabled by the social web. Not for the first time, I was reflecting back on this change yesterday as I travelled home from the Workplace Trends conference. At the event, as was the case earlier in the year when I attended the E2.0 Summit in Paris, I met a number of people in person for the first time, having previously only had an online relationship with them through Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn. Bonds that already existed were strengthened through sharing the same space, shaking hands, hugging, chatting about both trivial and meaningful subjects. As we have done online, we were able to converse, exchange views and ideas, challenge, agree and laugh.

This has been a revelatory and repetitive experience for me over the past twelve months. Last October I made a conscious decision to blog publicly and be more active on social platforms like Twitter. Some of the connections made online since then, and amplified through face-to-face time spent over coffee or food, have resulted in strong friendships that are both cherished and highly valued. In people like Anne Marie McEwan and Jon Husband, for example, I have found individuals who influence and challenge my thinking, and with whom I interact several times a week. With Kenneth Mikkelsen, I have formed a friendship and a writing partnership, shaped by a relationship with someone with whom I have a number of overlapping and interacting interests. The list goes on and on. People like Julian Stodd, Doug Shaw, John Wenger, Anne McCrossan and Luis Suarez have given me the courage to take the next step and try the freelance life again. To put my convictions into practice.

The important factor here is human connection. While all these relationships started online, the digital technologies themselves are something of a red herring. They are nothing more than an enabling layer. Just like the dining table and the coffee shop are. Regardless of whether you are talking to people face-to-face, through a browser interface or on a mobile app, this is all about communication and humanity. The great technology in play are the words, the ideas they convey, transported from the mouth or screen to the brain of another person. Through conversation we connect, we communicate, we influence and we learn. It is that which I appreciate above all else since making a stronger commitment to the social web and the friendships that have followed.

What this means is that knowledge is becoming more connected, socially complex and culturally diverse as people learn to communicate across multiple professional, organisational, technical, geographical and demographic boundaries.
— Anne Marie McEwan, Calling All Instigators!

But perhaps we have become too connected. There’s less sense of community in the peloton and less solidarity amongst teammates and riders. Self-aware narcissism is the unhealthy side effect. The connectedness of the digital world has made us less connected with those around us in the present.
— Michael Barry, Shadows on the Road

Just that one man is empty
and done with listening to others; and another
finally found a way to speak, to say
all the things he wanted, dumb for years.
— James Sallis, Nine Below Zero

Creative edges

Individuals who are creative move along the edge of their existing abilities. But the same is true of creative companies. Creative people combine things in new ways. This is also done by creative businesses. They sample ideas from old products, from competitors, from social media, and from their existing knowledge base and use these as the foundations for their own products and ideas.
— Christian Stadil & Lene Tanggaard, In the Shower with Picasso

Only at the edge can you see clearly where you’ve come from and where you might go.
— James Sallis in conversation with Patrick Millikin

If not just the brain but the quirks that made the individual were composed of recycled matter only, it was hard to be sure where the edges of one such being ended and another person began.
— Sebastian Faulks, A Possible Life

As a subscriber to Rouleur, a cycling journal packed with an eclectic mix of writing and photography, I was delighted to find that the 50th edition not only had a front cover designed by Paul Smith but included a short interview with him too. Smith is one of those figures forever nudging himself into my consciousness, not least for his links to the cycling world, as well as his quirky clothing. As a young man, he aspired to a professional career in cycling, but he had to find new dreams and aspirations when injuries closed off that particular avenue. Discovery of art, graphic design and architecture, combined with experience in retail, led him to a life in fashion design and, latterly, photography. His entire career has been one informed by on-going curiosity, creative inquiry, and magpie-like habits as a collector. As he suggests in the title of one of his books, You Can Find Inspiration in Everything (And If You Can’t, Look Again).

In a documentary profile directed by Stéphane Carrel, Paul Smith: Gentleman Designer, Smith also highlights the importance to him of lateral thinking. This was a concept developed by Edward de Bono in the late 1960s, around the time Smith himself was part of the vibrant Notting Hill community that was beginning to make an impact on music, fiction, art and fashion. In the documentary, Smith talks about how the shift towards dandyism in the 1960s prompted the creative use of alternative fabrics, even as the traditional tailoring techniques of Savile Row were still being deployed. It is an important point. Ideas and inspiration were sought from all quarters, but traditional skills were still required to realise the new ideas. Creativity and innovation happened at the edge of what was already known. The documentary demonstrates that this is a pattern that still shapes the way Smith works.

This is not unique to fashion design. True creativity usually is bounded in some form or another. An artist works within the confines of the canvas. A poet faces the constraint of the blank page. A sculptor exposes the shape hidden within the block of marble. A photographer frames their subject, both excluding and including what will be seen when the camera’s shutter is activated. A composer writes for specified instruments. A gardener tends a delimited landscape. A chef makes use of a small number of ingredients in preparing a dish. But they all communicate outwards, hoping to move others with their work. They all exercise a degree of autonomy, mastery and purpose within the loose frameworks under which they operate. Whatever constraint they face catalyses rather than inhibits their creativity.

As Alf Rehn argues in Dangerous Ideas, the exhortation that we often hear from senior business leaders and management consultants to think outside the box is misguided. Of course, like Smith, we draw on the influence of external factors, sampling and remixing them. We steal like artists. But the point is that our own creativity is determined by and dependent upon what already exists. We operate within a box, or a framework, and our creativity manifests itself in the ways we build on, develop and re-shape that which has come before. This is very much the thesis of Christian Stadil and Lene Tanggaard. In their book, In the Shower with Picasso, they illustrate how creative people operate on the edge of the box. They may well serve as bridges to new ideas and outside influence, their efforts may well result in the map being redrawn, but essentially they continue to operate within the recognisable bounds of their discipline. As Stadil and Tanggaard phrase it: ‘we need to learn how to creatively traverse the edge’.

James Sallis is another of these boundary walkers, exploring the edges of multiple disciplines and genres. A true Man of Letters, Sallis is a novelist, poet, essayist, short story writer, biographer, musicologist and translator. He has worked in publishing, in academia, in hospitals, and is also an accomplished musician himself. In his long-form and short-story writing, Sallis has tended to focus on two genres: science fiction and crime. Both are constrained by tradition and the expectations of the reader, even as they themselves explore edges between the known and the unknown, conformism and deviance. In his six-book cycle of Lew Griffin novels, Sallis plays a literary game. The novels are as much expositions about literary criticism, the history of jazz and the blues, and recent US history, as they are tales of detection and criminality. Poetic and allusive, they sit at the edge of generic tradition.

walk-the-line
[Picture credit: Walk the Line by Shonagh Rae]

In Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon urges us to ‘Read bibliographies. It’s not the book you start with, it’s the book that book leads you to.’ It is certainly like that reading a Sallis novel. One allusion leads you to a new author, a new poem, a new book. But it is also like that in the networked, digital world that we now find ourselves navigating. My personal experience is that I have become part of a number of interconnected and overlapping communities that meet both online and in restaurants and coffee shops. These cater to my varied interests, inform and validate my thinking, and allow me to bridge to other disciplines that inspire me to take different approaches to the work I do. I am still operating within an established framework, but I am exposing myself to a greater diversity of perspective. Participation in these communities prompts me to develop new ideas. They may be a long time in gestation, and will require nurturing. There is no doubt, too, that they will be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Working at the edge of an organisation, I then seek to influence others within it by introducing these ideas, influencing their thinking through what I share and how I act.

Valdis Krebs, a fellow member of one of the communities I participate in, has a great one-liner: ‘Connect on your similarities, and benefit from your differences.’ I remain fascinated by the period of Modernism. I am captivated by its artistry and challenge to the way we look at the world, by its fusion of art and science, by the lessons it has taught us, and from which we can still benefit today. One of the things that intrigues me about the period is the role the salon played, either formally, with wealthy individuals taking on the role of benefactor, or informally, with the frequent café gatherings. There is a feel of the salon about many of our current communities. In a recent Edge article, Andrian Kreye even suggests ‘it was mostly the lounges and cafes in Europe (and later America) that gave birth to the fundamental principle of progress and innovation, namely the network.’ Whether it was the Generation of ’27 in Spain, the surrealists in France, the Bauhaus movement in Germany, Gertrude Stein and companions in Paris, the Algonquin Round Table in New York or the Bloomsbury Set in London, groups formed that catered to both similarity and difference.

These were multi-disciplinary communities that enabled the cross-pollination of ideas. Artists would then take what they had learned, exploring and experimenting with what was already known in their chosen sphere. Even as they critiqued and rebelled, they still conformed to a certain extent with what had been long established. They worked within existing frameworks. T.S. Eliot’s poetry, for example, is littered with the fragments of other writers. James Joyce’s Ulysses is wholly dependent on the work of classical mythology. Luis Buñuel’s films would lack any power if he had not himself experienced life in the bourgeoisie. In later years, rebel music like punk, reggae and hip hop evolved from what had gone before. Abstract art built on the foundations laid by painters in the 19th century. Smith and his friends in the fashion industry introduced countercultural variations on established themes.

So too now with the future of work advocates. Change agency does not happen in a vacuum. It happens on the edges of that which already exists. It develops and adapts what came before. It does so with incremental, creative steps. As part of an evolutionary progression.

What happens to us when we get older? Why did we let them beat the creative spirit out of us? When we were children, we all played with crayons and Legos and finger paint. What happens in adulthood that leeches our desire to create, to build, to get messy and explore? Or at least try?
— Marc Eckō, Unlabel

In the era of ecosystems, seeing the big picture is more important than ever, and less likely. It’s not simply that we’re forced into little boxes by organizational silos and professional specialization. We like it in there. We feel safe. But we’re not.
— Peter Morville, Intertwingled

We need frameworks – a box – for thinking to be possible. Without our boxes, we’re lost at sea, as all thought builds on frameworks, assumptions, accepted conventions and definitions.
— Alf Rehn, Dangerous Ideas

We need to give our ideas time to form, to breathe, to strengthen, to let us know when they are ready – and to do this at our own pace, in our own way.
— Neil Usher, Red in the Face

As is so often the case, I am indebted to Kenneth Mikkelsen for introducing me to the documentary about Paul Smith. A note of thanks too to Andrew Jacobs for making me aware of Alf Rehn’s work.

Work in progress

The truly valuable ideas are those that create a significant change in the world, and these types of changes are never completely free from resistance, friction and destruction. Every productive idea will attack something existing, make some way of working obsolete, deprive somebody of their power base.
— Alf Rehn, Dangerous Ideas

New ideas lie latent in the tradition, in the world’s forms, and in the materials with which we surround ourselves.
— Christian Stadil & Lene Tanggaard, In the Shower with Picasso

This is something you should think about in any business: don’t try to do everything. You aren’t the best at everything. Find out where you have an advantage and stick to that.
— Marc Eckō, Unlabel

Constraint serving as a catalyst to creativity is a topic that has been explored before on this blog. It certainly has informed my recent experience. This relates to work on a Pecha Kucha presentation regarding the subject of peloton formations. It is to be delivered at the Workplace Trends conference on 15 October. As I mentioned in Open work, I have been inspired by Jonathan Anthony and the way in which he worked out loud about the development of his own Pecha Kucha earlier this year. I do not have Jonathan’s discipline of blogging on an almost daily basis. However, in what follows I share the slides that I have put together, the thinking that went into each slide, and what I am planning on saying. Or rather reciting. The constraint in play here is the fact that 20 slides have to be covered at a rate of 20 seconds per slide. The danger is that you have too much or too little to say on each slide. You end up either rushing or standing silently waiting for the next slide. How to establish some sort of rhythm? The answer that occurred to me was rhyming couplets. Three per slide. The following recycles and polishes ideas already explored on this blog and in a July interview with Stowe Boyd. It is a work in progress…

Image and idea

Peloton PK slides.001

As I approached my 40s, I rediscovered a love for cycling. Physical activity and rides through the Kentish countryside on a new road bike were quickly followed by an interest in professional road racing. Hours were spent watching the sport, reading about it in voluminous depth, making my first visits to classic races like Paris Roubaix and the Tour de France. An obsession quickly had established itself. Around the same time I developed a growing awareness of different approaches to the world of work, different ideas about how we might organise ourselves, think about leadership and learning, and the relationship between companies, their partners, suppliers and customers. At some point the interests began to intertwine.

Peloton PK slides.002

There are many metaphors in business. Many rely on nature: swarms of insects, murmurations of starlings, schools of fish, worker ants, termite mounds. As we are focusing on people, though, I wanted to use a human example. One that also suggested the communion between us, technology and machine: the cycling peloton. For me, this is an example of the responsive, adaptive organisation to which many of us aspire. The peloton is united in common purpose. But there are many different objectives within its confines. Some members aim for the overall victory, some for the different jerseys on offer, some for stage wins on specific days, some simply for television exposure and advertising opportunities for their corporate sponsors.

Peloton PK slides.003

As with a company, its internal operation and its partnership with external organisations, the peloton is rife with competition, collaboration, cooperation and co-creation. The competition can be at an individual and a team level, just as a corporation may compete with other companies as well as internally for people, money, technology and other resources. On occasion, though, both businesses and members of different cycling teams will partner to mutual benefit. Within a cycling team itself, all work together for a common objective. One person crosses the finish line in first place, but often this is a team victory rather than an individual one.

Peloton PK slides.004

This mixture of competition, collaboration and cooperation can be seen in the breakaways that often form early on during each day of professional cycling races. It is informed by cooperative effort between team rivals and co-creation as the group pulls away from the peloton, then works together to stay away. The breakaway competes with the peloton, trying to remain out of the latter’s reach. Competition within the breakaway only resurfaces once the finish line is within its grasp. The breakaway is cycling’s skunk works. A place of experimentation, frequent failure and constant learning.

Peloton PK slides.005

Often to be seen in the breakaway is the baroudeur. These are cycling’s change agents, the non-conformists, who frequently question and challenge the status quo, rattling cages, ignoring reputations, and stamping their own personalities on the race. Here you see Thomas Voeckler, loved by the fans for his devil-may-care attitude and on-the-bike gurning. He has been responsible for animating many races, attacking at will, trying to shake things up. He is less loved by his colleagues in the peloton, because he constantly leads them to the unknown, challenging and stretching them, making them suffer as he innovates and animates.

Peloton PK slides.006

Another personality in the peloton is the sprinter. These are the accomplished PR men, smooth communicators who understand that it is their jobs to unite their teams in common purpose. The team’s goal is to enable them to cross the finishing line, arms in the air, exposing their sponsors’ logos. The sprinters take the plaudits and the glory on behalf of the team, ensuring that the victory is savoured and shared by all as they greet their teammates at the finish line.

Peloton PK slides.007

An efficient, well-organised but responsive sprint train is like poetry in motion. Each member of the team puts in their own effort at the front of a line of riders, taking the wind resistance and providing shelter for their teammates behind them. With 300m to go the last member peels off, leaving the ground open for their nominated sprinter to finish the job. This is like agile project delivery, each member of the team knowing exactly what is expected of them and when, but responding to minor variations

around them.

Peloton PK slides.008

Sprinters like Marcel Kittel, André Greipel and Mark Cavendish are beneficiaries of the work of well-practised sprint trains. They are the ones who cross the line with their arms in the air. But that is the outcome of the high efficiency and continuous improvement achieved by their teams. Collectively, their teams are serial winners. They maintain a high ratio of wins through seeking marginal improvements, and responding to shifting conditions and context in the peloton. This is agile project delivery. At the 2009 Tour de France, for example, Cavendish crossed the line in first place six times. On the final stage, which finished on the Champs Élysées in Paris, so effective were the Columbia HTC team that both the final lead-out man, Mark Renshaw, and Cavendish were far enough ahead of the field to claim first and second places in the sprint. As a team, Columbia HTC improved stage victory by stage victory throughout the Tour.

Peloton PK slides.009

Teams tend to operate under loose frameworks rather than minutely detailed plans. Any plan, in this respect, is only ever guidance. The riders on the road have the autonomy to respond to what they observe around them. Crashes. Poor form. Exceptional form. Shifts in climactic conditions. This is decision-making at the edges. Responsiveness and fluidity dominate. There was a good example of this in the 3rd stage of the 2009 Tour. Support staff had driven the stage route earlier in the day, and reported back on spots where opportunists might want to make a move. Michael Rogers, one of the Columbia HTC team, recognised that they could attack the peloton as a group on a particularly sharp bend in the road, which was exposed to a strong cross wind. He called his team members to take action, and a concerted team effort fragmented the peloton and set up Cavendish for a sprint victory.

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Even long-term goals, like the Great Britain team’s targeting of the 2011 men’s world road racing championship in Copenhagen (aka Project Rainbow), can only ever be informed by loose frameworks. Here the goal was to set up a bunch sprint finish, giving Mark Cavendish a chance, as one of the world’s fastest sprinters, to cross the line first. Each member of the team had a loosely defined role to help accomplish this, but the freedom to respond to what was happening around them. David Millar was the team captain on the road, but there were other leaders too, requiring some members of the team to protect Cavendish during the day, and others to lead and control the peloton. The goal was accomplished with tactics that were proactive, responsive and fluid, as required. Communication between team members and trust that had been built over a two-year period of preparation were key factors.

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The fluidity of roles is hugely important in the peloton. They recall Jon Husband’s original concept of wirearchy, which highlights a dynamic, two-way flow of power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology. The peloton is a form of network, but even within the network there is a hierarchy of roles. The difference is that people are not inseparable from a given role. Indeed, they move fluidly between them as context and circumstance requires. When the road is flat, the sprinter leads. When the mountains are high, the climber comes to the fore. At other times, they follow the lead of colleagues, or offer their expertise in different areas. The responsive organisation is similar. At any one point in time, you can be involved in multiple projects, leading some, following the lead of others on some, advising yet others.

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Humility and self-knowledge are essential for such fluidity of roles to be effective. At the core of the cycling team is a form of servant leadership. Members of the team put themselves in service of their colleagues. The leader for the day is determined by context – terrain, weather conditions, form, health, overall objective and day-specific goals. Service can take the form of leading from the front, taking the wind, sheltering the designated protected rider for the day, so that they are in the best condition when the final challenge is in reach. The servant leaders attempt to control the peloton too, selecting who they will allow to get into the day’s breakaway, judging when it is time to close the gap between the peloton and the day’s escapees.

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The 2012 Tour de France offered a great example of servant leadership. Mark Cavendish was the reigning world champion, wearing the coveted Rainbow bands. He was recognised as one of the fastest sprinters in the peloton, as well as the most successful sprinter to have ever participated in the Tour de France since the event began in 1903. Team Sky’s goal, though, was to win the overall Tour and secure the yellow jersey for Bradley Wiggins. Cavendish put himself in service of this goal, parking his personal ambitions. He acted as a super domestique, ferrying water to his colleagues in the team and leading them up the lower slopes of the big climbs.

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When Wiggins’s overall victory looked assured, and the terrain was more suited to the sprinting maestro, roles were reversed. Wiggins, adorned in the race leader’s yellow jersey, put himself in service of the day’s objective rather than the overall goal. He slotted into Cavendish’s sprint train, acting as one of the final lead-out men. One of the great images from the 2012 event is of the Tour de France winner leading out his friend and teammate on the iconic Champs Élysées, setting up yet another victory for the successful Team Sky.

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The climber is another of the peloton’s great characters. This is the individual around whom myth and fable hang like a cloak. The nicknames acquired by these giants of the road speak volumes: The Angel of the Mountains, The Eagle of Toledo, Il Campionissimo, The Cannibal, The Badger, The Pirate. These are cycling’s visionaries. Like some of business’s great entrepreneurs, they seem to see and reach out for things that many of us cannot even imagine – until we suddenly find that we have been led there. Despite their apparent physical delicacy, the climber is a driven individual, with a strong will and purpose. When they are good time trialists, as well as outstanding climbers, these are the people that the team works for to secure overall victory in the big races. Their role is to win on behalf of the team, often leaping away from the comfort of their companions as the most difficult slopes and the highest peaks hove into view. They are both connected and lonely. Leaders and strategists. Not unlike many CEOs.

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The time trial is known as the race of truth. It involves either a single rider or a team racing against the clock. There is no hiding place. When performed by an individual, this is the closest cycling gets to the workplace assessment; the combination of measurement, delivery and individual scrutiny. The coasters, the tryers and the high achievers are easy to spot. More interesting is the team time trial. Five have to cross the line before the clock stops. Nine begin the stage and work in unison. All for one and one for all. But the team is only as strong as the fifth strongest member, so the high achievers have to hold themselves in check and serve their teammates. Otherwise their high capability in this form of racing can be harmful to their colleagues. To perform well in an individual time trial, you have to know yourself and your limitations. To perform well in a team time trial you have to know the abilities and limitations of all your teammates as well, and cater to them.

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Rouleurs are strong riders, adept in rolling terrain, time trials, sprint trains and chasing down breakaways. These are team people whose primary role is service of others, assuming domestique functions. I liken them to the internal service roles in corporations: the people in finance, facilities, HR, IT, learning and development and KM departments. Occasionally they are set free to pursue personal goals, getting into breakaways, winning time trials. This is not unlike the occasions when somebody from a support function takes on a leadership or specialist expert role in a corporate project. Often rouleurs like Bernie Eisel (shown here) take on the role of captain on the road. They guide and influence their colleagues and act as the link between the other cyclists and the directeurs sportif in the team cars.

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Cycling teams involve not only the riders but a supporting infrastructure. This is comprised of sporting directors, coaches, medical staff, nutritionists, chefs, mechanics and bus drivers. Former cyclists often fulfil the role of sporting directors, helping the team operate within its loose framework and achieve its race objectives. These are the people who drive the team cars, liaise with the riders on the road from their vehicles and via radios, handing out food, drink and clothing. Other former riders travel ahead of the race too, reporting back on weather and road conditions, providing information that can inform decisions taken by the riders themselves.

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Beyond the teams of riders and support staff, there is a broad range of interacting systems. Within the context of the race itself are the race organisers and the hosts of the start and finish of each stage. Then there is the media, the police, the publicity caravan, the volunteers controlling crowds and flagging road furniture, the spectators themselves. Not forgetting the roads, the roundabouts, the level crossings, the bridges. The weather is also a huge factor. Intense heat, pouring rain, strong wind, heavy snow all have an impact on the peloton and what it can achieve. Nothing operates in isolation, just like our businesses and the multiple interacting systems they have to navigate – from financial markets to regulation to customer needs. The peloton and the business constantly have to respond and adapt to external factors.

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Peloton formations is all about the fluidity and agility not only of modern organisational structures but of the roles and responsibilities of those who work within them. It recognises the need for people who are able to lead, follow, guide, advise, specialise or generalise, adapting to changes in context and circumstances. People who work in small units in synchronicity with and service of a larger whole. People willing to experiment, learn and act on new knowledge. People who can respond and adapt to systemic shifts and changes in their customers’ needs.

Peloton formations: a poem

Reflecting back from middle age, I now make a confession:
from small seeds it seems cycling became an obsession.

It started with some country jaunts – man, nature and machine.
The Tour de France, and several books, then made me very keen.

The peloton I began to see as a metaphor
for fluidity, responsiveness – and many things more.

Like shoals of fish and flocks of birds, the cyclists ebb and flow;
They move with common purpose in a united show.

The cyclists ride far and wide following each other’s leads.
But every man has personal goals and very different needs.

Ambitious men chase jerseys bright in hue.
Yellow the highest honour, is worn by only a few.

Like a business in the world of work, the peloton is rife
with the rivalries and partnerships of a co-creative life.

Across team boundaries links are swiftly made—
as riders collaborate and favours freely trade.

Within the cycling team there is a common goal;
the victorious rider wins alone – serving the greater whole.

The breakaway is where competition takes its hold.
It is a place for the driven, experimental and bold.

In games of cat and mouse, the pack seeks to reel them in.
And short partnerships dissolve as escapees go for the win.

This skunk works operation tastes many a failure,
but reflective riders learn from their intensive labour.

The baroudeur gurns and shuns the usual show;
he challenges, questions, overturns the status quo.

Unloved by his companions for the pain he causes them,
he leads riders to the unknown, attacking over and again.

Disruption and animation are his pedigree.
He innovates in the peloton. Then he sets them free.

The sprinter unfurls his arms, riding in first place
to reveal sponsors’ names and a smile across his face.

His teammates he unites in a shared mission.
He inspires and motivates with Technicolour vision.

Consummate he is in communication;
and just as effective his facilitation.

His colleagues he coaxes to form a long sprint train,
riding as one in a narrow cycling lane.

Leadership revolves, as they chase and protect.
Fluid and agile, they one-by-one eject.

The day-long project builds to the very time
when the sprinter is launched to the finish line.

Time and again they repeat their success;
continuously improving, refining their process.

They respond to context with their whirring chains,
adapting to the need for several marginal gains.

Every team member longs to be able to say,
We got it right on the Élysées!

The plan in cycling is a slippery beast;
there’s just as much famine as there is feast.

Autonomous decisions inform the key event;
the riders respond to what they can’t prevent.

Loose frameworks allow for the unexpected.
Both knowledge and action are often reflected.

Sometimes teams adopt a long-term perspective:
their project forms around a distant objective.

Rainbow was about conquering the world,
managing a race until the sprint unfurled.

A squad formed around Mark Cavendish,
and the GB team delivered on their ultimate wish.

A wirearchy is suggested by networked formation,
although leadership roles imply a certain station.

But individuals shift from one role to the next.
The duties they perform are governed by context.

From leading to following to subject expertise,
they adapt to their colleagues’ momentary needs.

While skill and mastery certainly earn your keep,
humility is the crop most successful riders reap.

Service of others can inspire and motivate,
establishing values from which none will deviate.

To ride at the front is to lead and protect,
showing other riders both trust and respect.

Some teams make decisions that exceed bold;
asking their Champions to put their goals on hold.

Yellow was the target for the 2012 race,
and Cavendish’s teamwork proved more than ace.

Ferrying water bottles from the team car,
Cav helped raise the servant leader bar.

But the tale of selfless giving does not stop there.
Wiggins in Yellow wanted to do what was fair.

With victory all but assured in the great event,
he led out his teammate when others were spent.

With trust and humility they showed their respect,
and on the race’s outcome had a huge effect.

When the road points upwards, new leaders appear:
The climber is a visionary who knows no fear.

The mountains are their canvas. The work is their art.
Dancing on pedals, they blow the race apart.

With feats of myth and fable they map the great unknown,
then inspire their companions with what they have just shown.

The time trial is known as the race of truth.
Numbers and measures as a form of proof.

When ridden solo, there is no hiding place:
all-out effort is demanded by the race.

Riding with teammates, all rests on five;
the fifth man over keeps your hopes alive.

The rouleur makes time trials a personal preserve,
then serves his companions with strength in reserve.

Leading the peloton, controlling the breaks,
he’ll guide and influence; anything it takes.

The link to the team car, he acts as road captain.
He unites his mates, allowing for no faction.

The riders on their bikes engage in the race
but right behind them are others keeping pace.

Directors and coaches, fresh from past success,
mechanics and chefs helping with the rest.

Every team needs some infrastructure.
United they form a healthy, winning culture.

Around the race swirls many different systems,
from cloud-laden skies to train engine pistons.

The media flit and dart in amongst the bikes,
while crashes are caused by en route blights.

Crowds fill the roads of the longest climbs,
and organisers try to keep everything on time.

From the union of human, tech and machine,
we learn the essence of agility and lean.

The fluidity of roles on every day’s stage,
teaches us to break from hierarchy’s cage.

Power shifts as the peloton flows and bends,
– and with that lesson learned, this poem ends.

Maps

Maps tell stories in that they can represent the viewpoint of their makers or commissioners. They may tell a specific story, from one side, when in fact there may be other viewpoints.
— Andrew Janes & Rose Mitchell, Maps: Telling Their Untold Stories

The process of making a map helps us rise above the limits of the local to see the whole, but this bird’s-eye view isn’t suitable for all audiences. Often we must aim for simple visuals that make the complex clear, focus attention, and transform ideas and understanding into decisive action.
— Peter Morville, Intertwingled

To stay on solid ground, whatever humans ‘can grasp’ should be critically scrutinized by others whether it faithfully maps reality or contingencies.
— Zbigniew Gackowski, The Helix of Human Cognition

The wandering and curiosity of the flâneur. The pattern recognition and sense-making capabilities of the detective. These are good habits, useful skills to have as awareness of the digital era develops. People are looking to others to guide them, to help them navigate the complexities of a networked world. The edges between virtual and physical, online and offline, inside and outside, are blurring. All is liminal, fuzzy, ill-defined. Bridge builders are required. Mapmakers too. Explorers who will simplify and translate what they discover, laying out suggested paths for others to follow.

Edges, usually artificial, are drawn up between the known and unknown. The Argentinian author, Jorge Luis Borges, knew this. He lost his eyesight and began to rely more on other senses to understand the world around him. Space became labyrinthine, a constant garden of forking paths. It is he who becomes the blind librarian in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. He who determines which books of knowledge should become forbidden fruit. As Jorge of Burgos, he and a small number of other monks create a mystical land of literature that only a few are permitted to enter or able to navigate. Brother William and the novice Adso are visitors who unravel the mystery of this foreign land. One clue leads to another, like hyperlinks in our virtual spaces.

Throughout the history of humankind, our explorers, scientists, inventors and artists have constantly reshaped the boundaries between the known and the unknown. Whether on the ocean, jungle-bound, in a laboratory, before a canvas or with the first tentative steps on the moon they have erased old edges and drawn in new ones – for others to smudge and redefine in the future. Their endeavours help simplify the chaotic for the rest of us. They overlay new patterns that they have recognised, erect signposts and markers to guide us, beacons to light our way. They enact the cycle of knowledge mastery, seeking, sensing and sharing as they go.

Ptolemy_World_Map
[Picture credit: Ptolemy’s World Map, sourced from Wikipedia]

Of course, their maps are ultimately personal. They reflect their own cultural context, ideology, preferences and prejudices. ‘Here be dragons’ is a call to action to venture into the unknown and explore. But it is also an opportunity to impose their own vision, to channel their own beliefs and values and thereby influence others. Mental landscapes become entwined and intermingled with physical ones. James Joyce’s Bloom and Dedalus wander the remembered streets of Dublin, and years later Vladimir Nabokov maps their literary wanderings. Others have taken advantage of Google Maps’ capabilities to do the same both for Ulysses and Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Reality and fiction merge, if they were ever distinct in the first place. Writing itself becomes a form of mapmaking, as Ferris Jabr notes in a recent article in The New Yorker: ‘writing forces the brain to review its own landscape, plot a course through that mental terrain, and transcribe the resulting trail of thoughts by guiding the hands. Walking organizes the world around us; writing organizes our thoughts. Ultimately, maps like the one that Nabokov drew are recursive: they are maps of maps.

In Intertwingled, Peter Morville shows us that the way that we organise, shape, categorise and architect information is another form of mapmaking, another process for knowledge mastery. Echoing the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto, he argues that in the digital world ‘We use links to make maps and paths.’ But he is equally quick to warn that ‘all maps are traps’, that ‘We draw edges that don’t exist.’ We see this in our digitally-assisted journeys, new roads not yet visible on maps, GPS devices suggesting that we are driving through the middle of fields. We observe it in our organisational cultures too, context shaping where leadership responsibilities reside, where influence rests, albeit temporarily, in the dynamic flow that characterises life in networks. We have to navigate with care, develop understanding before we proceed, map and compass in hand.

The maps themselves are constantly transforming. We have to keep retuning, exercising our sense-making skills not only to guide others but ourselves too.

Usually our work maps don’t reflect the potential geography. They are a simplification of the complexity of the real world with real customers. They don’t adjust often enough to the shifting context of our organisation … Change the map and you change your potential.
— Simon Terry, Check Your Mental Map

We are explorers, pioneers of the Social Age. The technology is taking us into new spaces, new ways of relating to each other, new ways of ‘sense making’, new ways of working and playing. Everything is changing and it’s down to us to draw the map, not from on high but as we tramp through the mud.
— Julian Stodd, The Social Leadership Handbook: Launching Today

We have most of the answers, but a lot of organizational leadership appears to be directionless in preparing for the Big Shift. Social leadership can be the rudder, with PKM as the compass.
— Harold Jarche, A Compass for the Big Shift

An extended version of this post, Mapping the edges, was published on Medium and LinkedIn on 19 November 2014.