Interdiction

More than to the visionary his cell:
His stride is wildernesses of freedom:
The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel.
Over the cage floor the horizons come.
— Ted Hughes, The Jaguar

It is necessary to create constraints, in order to invent freely.
— Umberto Eco, Reflections on The Name of the Rose

What rules could we get rid of today that would enhance our ability to create value?
Vineet Nayar quoted in Lars Kolind & Jacob Bøtter, Unboss

Traipsing homeward from a bracing winter day’s walk last week, I opted for a route that took me through Whitstable’s active little harbour. The tide was high, the fishermen’s vessels rocking in their moorings, the whiff of their haul still lingering despite the best efforts of the freshening wind that whistled in off the North Sea. What I experienced, though, was a sensory overload of another kind. It seemed that whichever way I turned my head, my eyes were assaulted with signs of interdiction. No climbing. No black bags. No parking. No fouling. No jumping. No diving. No swimming. Rules and regulations rose up at me, and swam at the periphery of my vision. A swirling vortex of restriction and limitation.

What is permissible then? I wondered. Inevitably, I was reminded of the corporate world from which I have just jumped and begun to orbit instead. Reminded of the business appetite for policy, process and procedure. The legislator’s shopping list of constraint. The regulator’s quest for compliance. All packaged in demands for conformity and language dripping with negativity. But what of phrases of encouragement, participation and optimism? Why do we find it easier to say no rather than yes? More often we tell people not to do things rather than to do them. We adopt a position of risk aversion rather than taking a chance and embracing the unknown. No wonder our workplaces are as they are, and the statistics about worker satisfaction are so poor. We jump to prohibition so quickly.

Interdiction
[Photo credit: Interdiction, Richard Martin, 23 January 2015]

Which is not to say that there cannot be a beneficial aspect, in the right context, to limitations. Again, language is important here. For example, personally I am more drawn to the notion of frameworks than policies. Rightly or wrongly, I perceive the latter as rigid and restrictive, the former as flexible and permissive. With policies come rules that will be policed, a strict enforcement of the hierarchy. With frameworks come mutually agreed working practices, high levels of autonomy, fluidity of roles, plans that can be quickly adapted in response to shifting context. Policy creates an environment in which trust struggles to find a foothold, fear and inhibition rear their ugly heads, transparency is lacking, communication is closed, and email becomes a mechanism for covering one’s backside, serving as a record of directives issued and received. Frameworks enable openness and transparency to flourish. They do not require email at all. Within a framework, information can be exchanged rapidly and acted on in real-time. Cycling teams often show us how this is done, adapting their plans to suit the day’s conditions and the form of their team members, constantly communicating among themselves and with support staff, taking decisions on the fly.

Constraint can also help catalyse creativity. This is a common theme on this blog. Lack of people, money or technology can prompt innovative solutions. Working at the edge of the box, building on what has gone before, can result in great leaps in our knowledge, science, business and art. Working within the limits of the canvas, the frame, the page or available ingredients has not hampered our artistic forebears. But here the outlook is optimistic. I have these morsels available to me, what meal can I make from them? I have this small landscape before me, how shall I transform it into a floral feast? I have but a single piece of paper left, which words will I select for my poem? There is an inclination here towards what can be done, a positive outlook, rather than a sour-faced listing of all that cannot be achieved.

Rules may be necessary in the societies and communities we share. How we frame and present them matters, though. Better the language of the optimist than the strictures of the policymaker.

Only endings allowed things to stay
as they were, as they had been:
otherwise it was all change,
glimmers of light, faces at the window,
whispers of good intention.
— James Sallis, Other Conclusions

What kind of fool do you think I am?
To think I know nothing of the modern world
All my life it’s been the same
I’ve learnt to live by hate and pain
It’s my inspiration drive
I’ve learnt more than you’ll ever know
Even at school I felt quite sure
That one day I would be on top
Another dot upon the map
The teachers who said I’d be nothing
This is the modern world that I’ve learnt about
This is the modern world we don’t need no one
To tell us what’s right or wrong
This is the modern world
— The Jam, The Modern World

Sounds of rebellion

It was anarchic, nihilistic and deliberately confrontational. It questioned the establishment, challenged the status quo and generally posed the question ‘Why?’
— Stephen Colegrave & Chris Sullivan, Punk

Their common problem
is that they’re not someone else
— John Cooper Clarke, Beezley Street

Who needs remote control
From the Civic Hall
Push a button, activate
You gotta work an’ you’re late
It’s so grey in London town
Panda car crawling around
Here it comes, eleven o’clock
Where can we go now?
Can’t make no noise
Can’t get no gear
Can’t make no money
Can’t get outta here
Big business, it don’t like you
It don’t like the things you do
They got no money, they got no power
They think you’re useless so you are punk
They had a meeting in Mayfair
They got you down an’ they wanna keep you there
It makes them worried, their bank accounts
It’s all that matters, it don’t count
Can’t make no progress
Can’t get ahead
Can’t stop the regress
Don’t wanna be dead
Look out’ those rules and regulations
Who needs the Parliament
Sitting making laws all day
They’re all fat and old
Queuing for the House of Lords
Repression, gonna start on Tuesday
Repression, gonna be a Dalek
Repression, I am a robot
Repression, I obey
— The Clash, Remote Control

How many rebels are celebrated in their lifetime or, at least, at the height of their powers? Often the people are small in numbers who truly appreciate the rebel cause in its moment of initial blooming. They follow the lead of the challenging few, advocating and disseminating their ideas. But it takes either distance – sometimes physical, sometimes temporal, usually reflective – or premature death – think Shelley, Manet, Rimbaud, Schiele, Clift, Kerouac, Guevara, Marley – to amplify the rebel yell and extend its reach.

Sometimes posthumous appreciation is many years in the making. Time, though, cycles around, moving in spiral-like progression. The ideas of the past become current again. Movements, ideas, individuals resurface. They find new context. What seemed a bump in the road back then suddenly takes on new meaning and, looked at from the other side, appears somewhat more lofty and mightier than originally thought. Take the music of The Clash, for example, and the punk movement of the 1970s from which it emerged. Were the band’s musicianship, generic experimentation and lyrical virtuosity appreciated more at the time of their conception and first airing, or from the perspective of the 21st century, filtered through subsequent decades of mediocrity?

The pattern is repeated constantly. Romanticism, for example, bubbled up as a reaction to the dominant ideas established by the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. The Modernists took on scientific ideas from Darwin, Freud, Einstein and others to transform the arts. They took form and style in directions hitherto uncharted. Before them, the group of artists we know now as the Impressionists were derided when they first displayed their work in Paris. For many subsequent years too. It took a shift in time and place – an exhibition in New York organised by Paul Durand-Ruel – to help turn around critical appreciation and the commercial viability of their work. The Beat Generation, on the other hand, initially struggled to sidestep the hedonism label, and found their works the subject of obscenity trials in the US courts. The whiff of drugs and sexuality permeated Andy Warhol’s studio, The Factory, in New York, as well as Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s boutique, Sex, in London. Yet they are now appreciated as catalytic hubs; cultural melting pots where art, music and design merged, where artifice, commerce and rebellion became uncomfortable bedfellows.

I am very sympathetic to the thesis Neil Usher sets out in his blog post Hollow Hills. Rather than finding ourselves in an era of unprecedented change, we may find it is one of crushing tedium, uniformity and vacuous conformism. I also appreciate Armando Iannucci’s challenge to the UK politicians in his Comment is free column. People really should stop talking about talking. There is so much flannel out there, soaking up the moisture of empty rhetoric, that it is becoming too heavy to lift. Ideas need to be defined and shared, but at some point they have to translate into action too. Some ideas, though, gestate slowly. They only take hold properly when they cycle around again, maybe on the second or third time of asking.

You can see that with some business ideas. Maybe the voices of Robert Greenleaf, Peter Drucker and Charles Handy have a more receptive audience now than at any other time. They needed both fruitful and fallow years before they produced their bumper crops. But they persevered. They challenged. They inspired others to do the same, questioning from the inside, asking why, punking up work, to borrow Perry Timms’s phrase.

In Orbiting the Giant Hairball, published towards the end of the last century, Gordon MacKenzie painted a picture of the unbending, conformist status quo that many of us recognise still prevails today – for all the technological advancement and social change that we seek to celebrate. In rebelling against the Hairball, there appear to be four options open to us. Compliance and soporific tedium I find the least attractive of these. One alternative is total disengagement, self-imposed exile like that sought out by Chris McCandless, protagonist of Into the Wild. But that way entropy lies. The energy that fuelled initial rebellion gradually leaks away leaving a corpse behind. One option is to follow MacKenzie’s own lead, orbiting the Hairball, occasionally zooming in for a quick raid and act of defiance. The final option is to find a place on the inside.

To me the latter seems one of the best positions from which to implant ideas, to start that slow change process that may produce a rich harvest many years hence. It is a place to bridge out to external influence, to serve as a conduit to orbiting rebels. With the passage of time, the pernicious Establishment absorbs the rebel of yore. Even Vivienne Westwood has succumbed to the lure of damehood. Better to play them at their own game, though, accepting a role alongside them and operating as an outsider on the inside. Like Mick Jones, punk figurehead with The Clash, now hall of famer and successful producer of The Libertines.

Hairball is policy, procedure, conformity, compliance, rigidity and submission to status quo, while Orbiting is originality, rules-breaking, non-conformity, experimentation, and innovation.
— Gordon MacKenzie, Orbiting the Giant Hairball

As future thinkers, rebels spot what’s coming and create ideas for how to respond to that change. Let the present thinkers figure out how to implement the ideas and manage the projects.
— Lois Kelly & Carmen Medina, Rebels at Work

Ideas don’t explode; they subvert. They take their time.
— David Weinberger, Small Pieces Loosely Joined

The myopia of expertise

The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one big thing.
Archilochus

You must become an ignorant man again
And see the sun again with an ignorant eye
And see it clearly in the idea of it.
— Wallace Stevens, Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction

Those who advocate certainty are not credible.
— Charles Handy in conversation with Steven D’Souza

Human desire for certainty is unshakeable, noble, incorrigible, highly dangerous.
— Isaiah Berlin in conversation with Michael Ignatieff

In the world of hyperspecialism, there is always a danger that we get stuck in the furrows we have ploughed. Digging ever deeper, we fail to pause to scan the skies or peer over the ridge of the trench. We lose context, forgetting the overall geography of the field in which we stand. Our connection to the surrounding region therefore breaks down. We construct our own localised, closed system. Until entropy inevitably has its way. Our system then fails, our specialism suddenly rendered redundant. The expertise we valued so highly has served to narrow and shorten our vision. It has blinded us to potential and opportunity.

It does not have to be like this, though. The maintenance of connections, the exercise of curiosity, the desire for continuous improvement at both a micro and a macro level can all energise, sustain and help evolve new practice and behaviour. Some of my favourite stories about receptiveness and openness to alternative methods and ideas have come from healthcare. They include the pioneering German surgeons who recognised the scientific nature of medical practice, and understood the need for sterility symbolised by the white laboratory coats they opted to wear. They also include the joint endeavours of the Great Ormond Street Hospital surgical team and the Ferrari F1 pit-stop team who partnered together to improve the hospital’s post-surgery handover procedures. Then there is the tale, documented by Atul Gawande in The Checklist Manifesto, of medical staff seeking to reduce the incidence of post-surgical infection by learning lessons from the aviation, construction and finance industries. All are examples where highly skilled individuals, however temporarily, removed the blinkers of their expertise.

Stories of positive deviance also offer up examples where experts have chosen to put their own knowledge and experience on hold. Instead they have selected to learn from emergent practices demonstrated by community members who have diverged from or modified standardised behaviours. The aim is not to impose or blend outside knowledge, as was the case in the Great Ormond Street-Ferrari example, but to amplify what already exists within the community. To uncover and broadcast it for the benefit of all.

The experiences of Jerry and Monique Sternin working on behalf of Save the Children in Vietnam have been well documented by the likes of Sternin himself, David Dorsey and Chip & Dan Heath. Tasked with addressing child malnutrition in a short time frame, the Sternins opted to observe both common and deviant practice. They learned that the healthier children tended to be members of families that provided smaller but more frequent meals than was the norm. In addition, these families tended to add other ingredients to their traditional rice dishes. Dependent on where they lived, this might include shrimps, crabs, snails, sweet-potato greens, peanuts and sesame seeds. Sources of protein and vitamins to supplement the children’s intake of carbohydrates.

The publicising of the results of this positively deviant behaviour, and the sharing of knowledge by parents who had been adding variety to their children’s meals, led to broader adoption and ongoing experimentation. Not only individuals but villages too learned from one another. They were exposed to different practices, internalised them and adapted them to suit their own context. The solution to child malnutrition was personalised, home-made, evolutionary, communal. It emerged from within rather than being imposed from the realm of the alien expert briefly parachuted in to espouse a colour-by-numbers quick fix.

For the generalist, there is something hugely appealing about the notion of taking themselves out of the expert’s comfort zone and plunging headlong into the unknown territory of a new discipline. The realm of Not Knowing, explored in a recent book by Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner, is one of opportunity, exploration and the acquisition of new knowledge for such an individual. It is a place where they can give vent to their curiosity, exercise personal knowledge mastery and experiment continuously. It is a chance to broaden one’s horizons, to make the canvas on which one paints even bigger, rather than exchanging one ploughed furrow for another.

Sport supplies several examples of multi-disciplinarians. In athletics, decathletes and heptathletes have to be adept at a broad range of track and field events, and outstanding in at least a few of them. Similarly, medley swimmers, pentathletes, biathletes and triathletes have to be competent in a range of disciplines. These sports people learn constantly from others, collaborating with coaches, liaising with former high achievers in their various events. More fascinating still are those individuals who exchange one sport for another and excel at both. Dennis Compton, for example, was a test match cricketer who also played football for Arsenal. Rob Andrew was a rugby international and a double Cambridge Blue who also had experience of first class cricket. Both Chris Boardman and Bradley Wiggins were specialist track cyclists, highly accomplished Olympians in the pursuit discipline, both of whom went on to enjoy success on the road. Wiggins, for example, transformed himself from a 4,000m board specialist to winner of the mountainous Tour de France. Perhaps less well known is the story of Rebecca Romero.

Romero was a member of the quadruple sculls rowing team that won the silver medal at the Olympic Games held in Athens in 2004. Four years later in Beijing, she again represented Great Britain, this time winning gold in the women’s individual pursuit event held in the velodrome. In so doing, she demonstrated what can happen when someone moves from a realm of expertise and, with an open mind, embraces the unknown. By being receptive to new ideas, combining them with existing knowledge and experiences, working collaboratively with others, she was able to transform herself into an expert in another discipline. She demonstrated the curiosity and generalism of the fox, rather than the specialism and prickly defensiveness of the hedgehog.

By opting to specialise in multiple fields, the generalist helps correct the myopia that is characteristic of expertise.

The lively plurality of voices sometimes can and should outweigh the stentorian voice of experts.
— David Weinberger, Small Pieces Loosely Joined

The idea of self-realization is one of the most destructive of modern fictions. It suggests you can flourish in only one sort of life, or a small number of similar lives, when in fact everybody can thrive in a large variety of ways.
— John Gray, The Silence of Animals

We have access to a growing network of expertise from people, like bloggers, who are willing to share their knowledge for free. Expertise is becoming ubiquitous through the Internet and professional social networks. One’s position in the hierarchy is no longer an indicator of one’s influence or knowledge.
— Harold Jarche, Finding Perpetual Beta

Cross-posted to Medium and LinkedIn on 6 January 2015.

The future of now

In fact we can provide many examples of verifiable phenomena, such as the particle/wave duality of certain entities, that seem to contradict the manner in which experience tells us the world works. Similarly, with Time the fact that we experience it as a linear procession of events does not mean that’s what Time truly is; or that it even exists for that matter. So let’s posit a possible description of true Time. Basically, imagine a vantage point with respect to Time whereby you can see all events at once. When you observe it from this vantage point, Time is not linear. Instead, from this view, you see that events that exist in spacetime do not really precede or follow each other and therefore probably cannot be said to cause each other either. They exist all at once so to speak.
— Sergio De La Pava, A Naked Singularity

Nothing, nothing mattered and I knew very well why. He also knew why. From the depths of my future, throughout all this absurd life I had lived, a gathering wind swept towards me, stripping bare along its path everything that had been possible in the years gone by, years that seemed just as unreal as the ones that lay ahead.
— Albert Camus, The Outsider

Life is always in between. Life was what happened while you were waiting around for other things to happen. Life was what sprang up in the places you never thought to look. In between.
— James Sallis, Death Will Have Your Eyes

When does the past stop and the future begin? What about that void, that in-between, we know as the present? Author James Sallis observes that every day we reconstruct ourselves out of the salvage of our yesterdays. Past lessons and memories carry us across the in-between. How to blend them with the occasional glance futurewards? How to marry what we know with the potential and opportunities offered by social change and technological advancement? I have to confess that, while agreeing wholeheartedly with the sentiment, I find the phrase the future of work highly problematic. If we are truly building cathedrals of change, then we either need to be laying foundations or constructing on top of existing ones. Action needs to be taking place in the Now, continuing tomorrow and persisting into a vague, hazy and distant future too.

There is a danger that the future of work has already become a vacuous term, in the same way that social business and Enterprise 2.0 have. It is a momentary hit, like fast food, delivered by clever and manipulative marketeers chasing a dollar and an ego massage. There is a need either to reclaim the phrase and properly define what it means or move on. That said, it was interesting for me to be invited this week to speak about the concept at a couple of local creative workspaces in Kent. What does the future of work mean to me, on a personal level, right now? It was an ideal opportunity to both reflect back and look forwards. Ideally timed too, as I find myself in an in-between state, working out the last few days as an employee of a traditionally structured organisation and in the throes of setting up my own company of one. From January, I cycle back to the freelance life after fifteen years in corporate hierarchies.

Where I work and whom I work with have become increasingly important to me. I need diversity. Diversity of projects, diversity of location, diversity of perspectives. I am a generalist, I am curious, I need to learn. Working for a single organisation, in a single office, on a single subject, just does not make sense to me. I feel like I am ossifying. My saving grace has been the advent of social media, learning to navigate and connect in the digital, networked world. The people with whom I have interacted the most over the past year, with whom I have exchanged ideas, argued and debated, given and received validation, and, increasingly, collaborated and cooperated, have not tended to be on the same payroll as me. Often they are not in the same industry. Invariably not in the same country. These are friendships and partnerships that have been formed online and, wherever possible, been cemented by in-person meetings in coffeeshops, restaurants, creative spaces and galleries.

persistenceofmemory
[Picture credit: The Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dalí, 1931]

My most productive days while an employee have occurred when I have worked offsite, either at home, in a café or at a gallery. The most qualitative of learning experiences during this same period have resulted from conversation either online, face-to-face over coffee, or in motion, walking and talking. These learning experiences have resulted from networked connections and communities, never from prescriptive corporate training programmes. This is not to suggest that I have neglected my duties as an employee. Rather, that I have combined my varied interests to add value to the work I am responsible for. As an outsider on the inside, with an internal consultancy mandate, I have sought to bridge out to other organisations, other disciplines, other practitioners, serving as a conduit to other ideas, alternative working practices, different business models.

I have no background or particular interest in the industry I am about to exit. My focus has instead been on people, how they organise themselves, how they acquire and share knowledge, and how they adapt to change. It has also been on the value of generalism in a hyperspecialised industrial context. The need for pattern recognition, curiosity, cross-pollination of ideas, storytelling, horizon scanning and a strategic outlook are all important facets. From the perspective of my in-between state, I have come to realise how important these are for future working practices too. Also how I want to help multiple organisations, rather than a single one, acknowledge the need for such skills. As Peter Morville has recognised, the ideal state for the future is an intertwingled one. Where science and art and business and technology all have value, connect, combine and intermingle. It seemed pertinent somehow this week to be talking about such things in Kent’s creative spaces, discussing lessons drawn from business experience with people making a new start as artists.

In my personal journey, I have advanced to repeat. I started my career as a freelancer, ill-equipped for it, fresh from many years in the ivory towers of academia and naive about business and work. I hope I return to it more knowledgable, better able to add value and assist others. But there is also a sense of simultaneously looping back and progressing in terms of the working practices now available to me and others. The advancement of technology, social structures and workplace expectations has enabled us to revisit and improve upon old traditions. Transportation, telecommunications and mobile computing make a nomadic lifestyle attractive again. The hyperlink erodes spatial and temporal divisions. Asynchronous collaboration across countries and continents is a regular undertaking. Crafts and manual skills also are becoming highly valued again. Workers, previously tied to the industrial conveyor belt, a particular place and time of work, are being freed by automation and algorithms. For some this is a threat, for many others an opportunity.

Long-established notions about time, which have governed working life since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, have become fractured. Different conceptions of time co-exist. There is the linearity of past, present and future, the ticking of the clock, the flicking of calendar dates, the sound of the church bells and the punching of the timecard. There are the natural cyclical rhythms of the seasons, Winter forever giving way to Spring, birth to death, drought to flood. There is also the helical, spiral-like sense of forward movement and repetition, echoes and mirrors of the past intruding on the present, time matching the structure of our DNA and the movement of our planet through space. Then there is a Now that may be long if you are running a 10,000-year clock, somewhat shorter if you are operating on 10-15 year cycles, and minuscule if you are focusing on the movement of the second hand. So just as the location of where we work is becoming less and less fixed, so too is when we work. In a digital, networked world we can be forever on, or we can learn to revisit the patterns of our forebears who worked the fields and find other rhythms more suited to our bodies and personal preferences.

For me, the future of work is one of fragmentation, small pieces loosely joined, diverse locations, networked connections, time both speeded up and slowed down, time chunked and repeated. It is possibly one where the generalist becomes the counterpoint, the counterbalance to the highly specialised machine. It both thrills and terrifies me.

It started yesterday.

The world is infinitely complex, and any attempt to simplify, which means the elimination of contradictory elements, will fail to capture that complexity. One can, however, attempt to compress or condense those elements into a more abbreviated or altered form. That is the role of metaphor.
— Kit White, 101 Things to Learn in Art School

Time in the digital era is no longer linear but disembodied and associative. The past is not something behind us on the timeline but dispersed through the sea of information. Like a digital unconscious, the raw data sits forgotten unless accessed by a program in the future. Everything is recorded, yet almost none of it feels truly accessible.
— Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock

We want to welcome the future as a good friend that we wish to meet, not as an enemy that we hope to avoid.
— Rolf Jensen & Mika Aaltonen, The Renaissance Society

I am grateful to Lloyd Davis for inviting me to work alongside Brian Condon and himself, talking about the future of work at #workshop34 in Sittingbourne and the POP Creative Space in Chatham on 11 December 2014.

Cross-posted to Medium and LinkedIn on 14 December 2014.

Bridges

Choice and connection

Bridges are a great paradox, they not only use nature against nature, but magically the best examples do not defeat or damage nature but enhance it, and, in ways that are sometimes hard to fathom, achieve a deep harmony with their surroundings.
— Dan Cruickshank, Bridges

In art forms we see frequent attempts to incorporate the past into the present and offer up something for the future. Painters, poets, architects, composers, photographers, novelists, choreographers, comedians, filmmakers and sculptors build on the ideas of others, paying homage even as they create something new. They steal like artists, as Austin Kleon claims. They blur and elide. It is like the photographs that were briefly popular earlier in 2014 as we commemorated the D-Day landings: modern-day images of Normandy beaches blended with wartime shots of the same locations from 1944. It is a Modernist idea, holistic in scope and intention: all time as one time, all space as one space, all people as one person. Ideas co-opted from science and woven into the artistic works of people like Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, T.S. Eliot and Jorge Luis Borges. Cultural hopscotch, the embracing of diversity, the bridging of borders — east-west, conscious-unconscious, public-private, craft-industry — all prompting creativity and innovation.

We are social animals, and one of the ways we have learned throughout human history is by means of imitation, repetition and refinement. We were doing this before we had speech, painting or writing. We copy what we perceive to be necessary to our survival. We copy what we like. We copy what works, making adjustments when we come across something better. But also because we inevitably make mistakes, seek variations and attempt personalisation. Evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel, in his book Wired for Culture, describes this as a form of visual theft, echoing the views of Kleon. It is one of the defining features of human history and the longevity of our species. We bridge back to what went before and innovate for the future. We can see evidence of this in our great cities. London, for example, serving as a palimpsest in bricks and mortar.

With a bridge — both literal and metaphorical — either/or is replaced by and. With a bridge, it is no longer a case of here or there but here and there. Not in or out but in and out. Not us or them but us and them. Not past or present but past and present — and future too. You can see the metaphor applied in professional cycling. A rider bridges the gap when they ride off the front of the peloton and catch up with the breakaway riders. They bridge across through both time and space. When they make their move, they are simultaneously part of the peloton and part of the breakaway. They are in both places and in no place. Standing above the River Thames, I am on both the North Bank and the South Bank and in neither place.

pont-du-gard
[Photo credit: Pont du Gard, Richard Martin, August 2014]

In our moment, in our time, we complete building the bridges from the past to the present even as we begin working on the bridges to the future. We look both backwards and forwards at the same time, learning from our forebears, sense-making and amplifying, while exploring how our knowledge and work can benefit future generations. We advance to repeat. The result is a spiral-like sense of time. This can have both positive and negative implications.

In Reinventing Organizations, Frédéric Laloux draws parallels between our various organisational models and the history of human consciousness. He highlights the accelerated changes of the past couple of centuries. Crucially, though, he draws our attention to the fact that many of these models exist concurrently. That it is not simply a case of linear, evolutionary progression from one model to another. That, in fact, conscious choices can be made to move from an apparently progressive, networked-style of model back to a command-and-control centralised regime. We do not destroy our bridges as we move forwards. The option always remains to move in either direction. If the mood takes us, we can move backwards in time and try again, develop a different pattern or repeat the same one. From city state, to nation state, to union of nations and back again.

Consider this scenario, for example. A financial collapse is followed by an extended period of economic recession. Political extremists make their move, with a notable swing to the right. Scapegoats are sought for the financial woes. Immigration becomes a hot topic. Nationalist rhetoric is prevalent, permeating both media and politics. Anything that departs from the ‘ideal’ promoted by these right-wing extremists is treated with suspicion and disrespect. Trust is eroded. Simmering resentment boils over, manifesting itself in popular uprisings and armed conflict. Is this Europe in the 1930s or the West in the 2010s?

Consider too the spiral like progression from a nomadic existence to one based on settlements. Then back again to global nomadism enabled by technological advancement. With WiFi and mobile technologies, where you work is largely irrelevant. The hyperlink opens up multiple opportunities for working in different times, places and with different business partners. The hyperlink is our digital bridge.

We have choices in which direction we build our bridges. We can proceed in the same direction as the one that arched from the past to our present. Or we can twist the turntable a couple of notches and build in another direction. Indeed, in multiple directions, constructing a network of bridges. A web of potential and multi-way influence.

In his study of bridges, Dan Cruickshank observes that, ‘bridges are, in their way, a form of alchemy — they transform, they bring life.’ For me, they epitomise Lois Kelly’s observation that ‘our work is our art.’ They are the product of hard labour and artistic vision, merging science, engineering, design and aesthetics into incredible structures. The bridge is a symbol both of choice and connection. We determine in which direction we wish to travel. Which connections we wish to establish between people, places and knowledge.

This post reworks and adds to material previously published on the IndaloGenesis blog, In the Flow. It was published on Medium and LinkedIn on 28 November 2014.

Mapping the edges

Navigational skills in the digital era

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.

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. So too our digital journeys via the hyperlink.

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.

Rainbow
[Photo credit: Rainbow, Richard Martin, November 2014]

The maps themselves are constantly transforming. We have to keep retuning, exercising our sense-making skills not only to guide others but ourselves too. For, at the edge of our maps, everything remains 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. It 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.

The 2014 Late Turner exhibition at Tate Britain reminded me of this experience. I found myself responding 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 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.

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; in effect, drawing a map in words. 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? How to redraw the maps so that others can follow?

This post reworks material previously published on the IndaloGenesis blog, In the Flow. It was published on Medium and LinkedIn on 19 November 2014.

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.