Peloton interview with Stowe Boyd

Richard Martin: In Summer 2014 I was interviewed by Stowe Boyd about the concept of #pelotonformations that I had begun to explore earlier in the year. Stowe published the interview, based on an email exchange, on 26 July 2014. It appeared on the now defunct Gigaom Research site under the title The New Visionaries: Richard Martin on the Peloton. I was grateful then for the opportunity to pull together the various strands of my research. I am grateful now for the opportunity to re-post our exchange.

Stowe Boyd: Richard Martin wrote a series of posts in which he characterized people working together productively as being like the bicycle racing phenomenon of the peloton: the main group of riders that conserve energy by riding close together. The final in his series – Peloton formations distilled – has links to the other, earlier posts.

Martin’s exposition owes a great deal to Dan Pontefract, who used the analogy in a post last year, but Martin has intertwingled it with Jon Husband’s wirearchy notion, and the thinking of other theorists and practitioners.

I thought I’d ask Richard some questions, and the interchange below is the result.

Sky in Control
[Photo credit: Sky in Control, Will Bakker, 2 June 2011]

SB: I think there is a great deal of depth in the metaphor of new way of work being like the peloton, which is the formation of cyclists in a road race. The cyclists ride in close formation because of the benefits in reducing drag, but of course different teams are trying to win the race even while benefitting from the aerodynamics of being in a pack.

RM: One of the things that unites the cycling peloton is common purpose. All the teams, all the riders, are trying to get from point A to point B on a designated course as safely and in the shortest amount of time possible. Additionally, day-by-day, in long stage races like the Tour de France, each team will have a slightly different objective. Some are aiming for the overall prize of the yellow jersey awarded to the rider who covers the entire course in the least amount of time. Others target the white jersey of the best young rider, the green jersey of the points classification leader or the polka-dot jersey of the mountain climber’s classification. The composition of their team may well reflect these particular goals. Others still may simply target a stage win on a specific day when the terrain and conditions suits their team or, more modestly, may hope for lengthy TV exposure for their corporate sponsors by getting one or more of their riders into the day’s breakaway.

Because of this mixture of goals, sometimes you will witness great examples of partnership, collaboration and cooperation between riders and different trade teams. There is also, of course, a lot of competition too. In the latter case, though, it might not just be people competing against one another but against the elements, the terrain or the clock. There is wonderful human drama in evidence in bicycle racing. There is also a lot of camaraderie and mutual respect that transcends the boundaries between trade or national teams. You can get a taste for this by following a few professional riders on Twitter.

In the context of the racing itself, it is evident on the days that the race routes head steeply upwards into mountainous terrain. While TV coverage focuses on the front end of the race, behind it the peloton fragments into many parts. Right at the back a gruppetto of riders forms, usually composed of the sprinters, the riders with bigger physiques, the cooked and the wounded. They work together regardless of team affiliation. Their goal is to arrive together as a single unit at the finish line within a time limit calculated on the basis of the stage winner’s finishing time. Another example of cross-team cooperation can be seen in the way breakaway riders work together to stay away from the peloton. It is only in the last kilometres of the stage when this cooperation gives way to competition again. The breakaway usually serves as the hare to the peloton’s greyhound. Occasionally, though, the hare eludes the hound – especially in cases when the cooperation between the breakaway group persists to within sight of the finish line.

From a business perspective, there is a lot to be said for this notion of common purpose that can help unite multiple divisions and project teams. But also for those willing to partner and cooperate with others, even those outside your own company. I recently read A.G. Lafley and Roger Martin’s Playing to Win. It is not a book I enjoyed. Nevertheless, there are some good examples in it of when P&G realised they could create more value by partnering and cooperating with companies who were competitors in other fields. I think you witness evidence of this on a daily basis in the cycling peloton.

SB: On top of the manoeuvring of the teams against each other, there is a dynamic interplay among the members of a team, where they switch off in different roles, taking turns leading, sprinting and climbing. That seems to be in perfect alignment with the notion of fluid or emergent leadership: what I refer to as leanership. There has to be a lot of planning and communication for that to work, right?

RM: My thinking about this has been strongly influenced by Jon Husband and his concept of wirearchy. Jon defines wirearchy as: ‘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.’ What intrigues me about Jon’s concept is that he is not denying the existence of a hierarchy, but he recognises that this has shifted from a pyramid to a network model. Do any network analysis, and you will identify nodes of influence and authority. These do not recognise the stripes on the arm or the job titles that we associate with military-industrial ideas about hierarchy. These influential nodes are also in a constant state of flux. Leadership roles may be defined, as in more traditional notions of hierarchy, but what is different here is that people move fluidly to and from these roles, dependent on context and circumstance. So, as I work on multiple projects for my employer, in one situation I may be the leader, in another I will follow someone else’s lead, and in yet another I may be acting more in a consultancy capacity, providing specialist subject matter expertise.

You certainly observe this fluidity of roles and leadership responsibilities in the cycling team. This can be determined by a number of factors: terrain on the day, weather conditions, the form of the rider, experience. Even on the day itself leadership responsibilities will shift as the race progresses. Usually teams will have a road captain. In most cases this is not the team’s main sprinter or climber but one of the support riders or domestiques. This individual will be liaising with the directeur sportif via radios or visits to the team car, but there will also be a high degree of autonomy for the other riders, with each of them responding to what they see around them, assessing risks, seizing opportunities.

Some teams are built around sprinters who come into their own on flatter stages. Sprint trains form in front of the sprinter, with a line of riders following closely on one another’s wheel. The front rider punches a hole through the air, takes the wind resistance, and their colleagues ride in their slipstream. When they peel off another comes to the front, and so on until, with about 300m to go, the sprinter comes to the fore. All along, they will have been calling our instructions and encouragement from the rear of the sprint train. On mountainous days, the team puts themselves in service of their climber, who also, if they can time trial too, is often their contender for the overall general classification. The team members aim to deliver their leader to the foothills of the day’s final climb in the leading group so that they are in a position to compete for the stage victory or minimise the loss of time to their main rivals.

Cycling, in this sense, is infused with the idea of servant leadership. I think there were a couple of great examples of this from Team Sky at the 2012 Tour de France. Often we would see television images of Mark Cavendish, adorned in the rainbow stripes of the reigning world champion, ferrying water from the team car to his teammates. This, bear in mind, was the world’s dominant sprinter at the time, who was putting personal ambitions on hold in support of the team’s overall objective: securing the yellow jersey for Bradley Wiggins. On the final stage of the same race, with Wiggins’s and the team’s victory assured, we then witnessed a role reversal. The final stage is an iconic race for sprinters, one that Cavendish had won each of the previous three years. There in his sprint train, in service of Cavendish and his goal, was Wiggins leading out his friend and teammate.

As for planning, there is certainly a lot of work done. Many teams will visit certain climbs and stage finishes well in advance of the grand tours. On race day itself, they will send former road racing professionals ahead to check conditions (both of the road and the weather) and to communicate their findings back to the team car and the riders. British cycling coach Rod Ellingworth has written an illuminating book called Project Rainbow. It describes the collaborative work of backroom staff, coaches and riders in planning for the 2011 men’s world road race championships and for the 2012 Olympic Games race. For the GB team, their aim of securing bunch sprint finishes for Cavendish earned victory in the 2011 world championships and nothing at all at his home Olympics. The team rode strongly on both occasions, but others had learned how to counteract their tactics by the time of the latter race.

What emerges in bike racing are loose frameworks rather than detailed plans. This is not racing by remote control. It involves decision making at the edges as well as in team management. Not all variables can be accounted for, and riders need to be able to respond to what they see before them. This is well illustrated in a video exploring Team Garmin Sharp’s targeting of stage 9 of the 2013 Tour de France. Dave Brailsford, one of the leaders behind the recent success of British Cycling and Team Sky, is interviewed in Richard Hytner’s recent book, Consiglieri: Leading from the Shadows. He makes an interesting observation: ‘My approach is as an orchestra conductor, with an absolute recognition that the most important people in our world are the people who win and they’re the riders.’ Brailsford and colleagues can select the nine-man team for the Tour, but then they have to get out of the way and trust the instincts, expertise and experience of the riders on each day of racing.

SB: You’ve written about the various roles in a cycling team, and how these roles are similar to archetypes in the new way of work. The climber, for example, has attributes of a driven, high energy visionary. Perhaps you could give a short explanation of the other roles?

RM: When they step into their leadership roles on the flatter ground, sprinters are great salesmen. I mean this in the sense intended by Dan Pink in To Sell is Human. They sell ideas, galvanising their teammates, getting them to believe in their objective for the day, building common purpose, and inspiring them to invest effort in delivering them to the finish line, where they will complete the job. It is notable that the first action of the highly successful sprinters like Mark Cavendish, André Greipel and Marcel Kittel is that they greet their colleagues at the finish line to thank them for their efforts. There is also a commercial aspect to the sprinter’s salesmanship. They are often great communicators, comfortable in front of the media cameras and microphones. Their job is to cross the finish line, arms in the air, displaying the names and logos of their corporate sponsors. They are mobile, high velocity advertising hoardings.

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.

Baroudeurs are among my favourite riders. These are the change agents, the chancers and experimenters. They constantly challenge the status quo, making things up as they go along, taking risks, testing their colleagues in the peloton. There was a great example of this in Tuesday’s Tour de France stage this week. A strong group of baroudeurs – people who can climb but not overall contenders for the Tour win – had formed an impressive breakaway. As they hit the final climb they began challenging one another, comfortable in the knowledge that one of their number would win the stage. Two riders from Team Europcar were working together, taking it turns to attack. They could not shake loose Michael Rogers from Team Tinkoff Saxo, though, and in the end he chose his moment to attack and just rode away from them. His post race interview was brilliant, demonstrating a cool, calculating mind, mental fortitude, a tolerance of risk and an acceptance of possible failure. If you do not try things out, how will you learn if they are going to work or not?

That covers the riders, but we must not forget that a role is also played by the tour organisers, the local government for the towns that play host to the start and end of each stage, the police, the backroom staff for each team, the directeurs sportifs, and the riders’ coaches, not to mention the crowds that line the route. These are the policy makers, the regulators, the landlords, the suppliers and customers that are all involved to varying degrees in a company’s business.

SB: It’s the fluidity and near flight of the peloton that makes it such an inspiring image. In one of your pieces you call it ‘humankind’s answer to the murmuration of starlings’. How can we transcend the poetic and aspiration of the peloton into concrete learning for the business, today?

RM: The reason I am so drawn to the metaphor of the cycling peloton as a model for organisational structure is because it is suggestive of responsiveness, fluidity, agility and adaptiveness. I like the idea of small pods or teams loosely joined, which respond and cater to their customer needs. This can mean the rapid forming, disbanding and reshaping of teams to deliver different projects. These can extend beyond organisational boundaries too, suggesting the permeability of the modern, responsive company. A project team can be comprised of your own employees working in partnership with people not on your payroll. It can include your customers and suppliers too.

The other thing I take away from bike racing is this idea of multiple systems being interdependent on one another. On any given day you could have a route that covers 200-plus kilometres, travelling through numerous towns and cities, over railway crossings, bridges and roundabouts. Agreements have to be drawn up with these communities, crowd control needs to be put in place, and the roads closed for a period of time. Then there is all the infrastructure of the race itself, the catering vehicles, publicity caravan, the media, the gendarmerie, the team cars and support vehicles. There are the huge crowds too, who on mountainous stages will be spilling on to the road, and who have to be trusted not to interfere with the riders as they pass by. On top of all that there are the meteorological conditions and the state of the roads to be traversed too. A huge spaghetti soup of complex interlocking systems. No one of these systems can be treated in isolation. Just like the different systems that shape and inform the operation of any other business.

I get frustrated when I hear people talking about work as an ecosystem operating in splendid isolation from everything else – government policy, financial markets, customer needs. As a counter argument I’m inclined to use an example that affected me earlier this year: we experienced heavy rainfall in Kent where I live. When the rain stopped our streets were lightly dusted with sand from the Saharan desert. What a great example of how different ecosystems connect and are dependent on one another.

SB: Richard’s expansion of Pontefract’s peloton metaphor is rich and illuminating. The interplay between different roles in the teams is captivating, and so is the manner in which individuals lead at the front – to break the air for the peloton and their teammates in it – and then fall back into the pack as another – often a competitor – presses forward to take a turn at the front.

Martin draws our attention to the image of ‘small teams, loosely joined’ – an allusion to David Weinberger’s Small Pieces Loosely Joined, I’m sure. I’ve written on the distinction between different social scales, and the way that the interplay differs in small sets of people – networks of a few or a handful of people – versus the louder and less intimate interactions of social scenes, where dozens or hundreds may be connected.

I’ve made the claim that we live our work lives in our sets, although businesses may want to treat us as scenes, thinking that it is easier and more efficient. But we are more at home and at ease when working as a sprinter or climber on a team, jostling for position in the peloton, signalling and pushing the team ahead, one of the loosely joined.

Infinite loop

The world is a system and a network.
— Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox

Berlin recognized that few fit the ideal-type template of fox or hedgehog. Most of us are hybrids, awkward hedge-fox and fox-hog amalgams. Indeed, Berlin suspected that his beloved Tolstoy was a fox who aspired to be a hedgehog.
— Philip E. Tetlock, Expert Political Judgment

New ideas often come from the cross-fertilisation of different fields, occurring in the mind of a widely knowledgeable person.
— Ian Leslie, Curious

These pairs—the American and the Asian, the hedgehog and the fox, the expert and the generalist—suggest two main ways of managing and creating change: influence the players or manipulate the greater environment.
— Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock

They called him The Cannibal. Not because of a propensity to consume human flesh, but because of his insatiable appetite to win cycling events. The format did not matter – track races, one-day classics, World Championships, stage races, Grand Tours, the different categories within them – he won them all. In 1969, for example, at the age of 24, he entered his first Tour de France, and proceeded to dominate the race. He earned not only the yellow jersey of the general classification winner but also the points and mountains classification titles too.

Eddy Merckx was a phenomenon. He discovered the stage on which to perform his life’s work, then sought to push at the edges of the box he had selected for himself, creating, diversifying, slipping effortlessly from one role to another and back again. In selecting an industry in which to ply his trade, to develop his craft, he opted not to be pigeonholed but rather to develop deep skills and capabilities across a breadth of specialisms. In the context of the cycling world, he was one of the #WWWpeople, neither a specialist climber, sprinter or rouleur but all of the above as the need emerged. When Merckx retired from racing, he found new roles to fulfil in his chosen industry. First, manufacturing bicycles, developing a prestigious brand. Then working as a television commentator and as an advisor-cum-administrator for organisers of professional races, notably the Tour of Qatar.

Another to have followed numerous bifurcating paths in cycling has been Bradley Wiggins. He has enjoyed Olympics and World Championship success on the track as a pursuit rider and on the road as a time trialist. But he has also endured physical and mental shapeshifting in order to condition himself to win stage races too, including the Tours of France, Britain and California, the Critérium du Dauphiné and Paris-Nice. Like Merckx, Wiggins is seeking to challenge the coveted hour record, which requires yet another set of skills. He too is beginning to diversify as his own riding career draws to a close, setting up an eponymous professional team. Since his rise to prominence on the road with Team Sky, he has also carved out a space that brings together sport, fashion and music, revitalising the Mod meme, building a brand around the Wiggo moniker and the RAF roundel that was co-opted by The Who.

David Byrne is another to transcend the domains of popular culture and cycling. Best known as the frontman of the band Talking Heads, Byrne is also the author of Bicycle Diaries, his study of city life from the perspective of two-wheeled transportation, as well as a cycling column in The New York Times. He has enjoyed success as performer, composer, author, artist, photographer and filmmaker, winning multiple awards and collaborating with a host of luminaries in the fields of dance, opera and cinema. Byrne is truly polymathic in the context of the creative arts, but also has demonstrated his breadth of skills and business acumen too, founding the Luaka Bop record label and an Internet radio station, among other endeavours.

What unites all three of these examples is that they are people who alighted on an environment in which they could flourish – cycling for Merckx and Wiggins, the creative arts for Byrne – but rather than ploughing an ever deeper furrow in one corner of this landscape they opted instead to explore and map it. By so doing, they unearthed multiple opportunities to develop and express their own talents, discovering partners who could aid and abet, guide and nurture, along the way.

Infinite Loop

In Natural lessons, I cited the hedgehog–fox continuum that Philip Tetlock developed from his interpretation of Isaiah Berlin’s work. Tetlock recognised that no individual stays neatly within a single category. We have preferences and tendencies but, just like someone riding a bike, we are constantly making minor adjustments, little shifts, adapting to context. It is rare that anyone remains permanently at one extreme of a continuum. Merckx’s story, for example, illustrates this. He could be a track specialist, a climber or a grand tour contender at different points in time, in different contexts. It was impossible to pin a single label on him. So too Wiggins and Byrne, or Marc Eckō, Paul Smith, Grayson Perry, T. S. Eliot, Hedy Lamarr, Marie Curie or countless others.

The more I think of Tetlock’s continuum, the more I want to shape it, bending it through both space and time. The image that suggests itself to me is that of the infinite loop. Specialists on the left, generalists on the right, and meeting in the middle, where the loop crosses over itself, both hyperspecialists and polymaths – because polymaths can, of course, hyperspecialise. But they do so in multiple disciplines. The area that continues to capture my attention is that polymathic generalist curve to the lower right. I am fascinated by the opportunities and potential those who inhabit it can offer to the modern, networked, responsive company and the broader societies they service.

There is no question that expertise and hedgehog logic are appropriate in certain domains (i.e. hard sciences), but they certainly appear less fitting for domains plagued with uncertainty, ambiguity, and poorly-defined dynamics (i.e. social sciences, business, etc.). The time has come for leaders to embrace the power of foxy thinking.
— Vikram Mansharamani, All Hail the Generalist

Specialization discourages us from perceiving each other as complex, multidimensional, human beings and instead creates the illusion that we can achieve a definite understanding of each other simply through our majors or jobs.
— Maral Margossian, The Worth of the Polymath

What insights might physicists bring to international relations? What might plumbers bring to cardiology? Polymathism is a largely untapped force in business practice, but it’s also the future of problem-solving.
— Kyle Wiens, In Defense of Polymaths

These labeling frameworks help us, as consumers, navigate the world. Ideas, places, and things are labeled so we can make sense of them. Without labels, we’d be unable to tell a can of peaches from a can of beans.
— Marc Eckō, Unlabel

The silence of dissent

They were living in a fool’s paradise, mistaking silence for assent.
— Gary Klein, Seeing What Others Don’t

Since the majority of me
Rejects the majority of you,
Debating ends forthwith, and we
— Philip Larkin, Since the Majority of Me

The song
I’ll never sing
fell silent on my lips.
— Federico García Lorca, Verlaine

As the dust settles from the UK general election, the navel-gazing begins. How did so many pundits affiliated to each of the political parties themselves, as well as those in academia, the media and the professional polling services, miss the mark by such a wide margin? What made them predict a closely fought race and a resultant hung parliament? How were so many of them impaired by the myopia of their own expertise? Attention inevitably has been drawn by the slim majority earned by the Conservative Party, the unprecedented performance of the Scottish National Party, and the leadership implosion at the rival Labour, Liberal Democrat and UKIP organisations. But scant attention appears to have been paid to date to the electoral turnout.

As a young student, in the days before 24-hour television news coverage, I had the pleasure of watching two seminal events on the small screen: the fall of the Berlin Wall and Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom from the confines of imprisonment on Robben Island. They symbolised fundamental societal and political shifts in Germany and South Africa. What followed in the latter during the mid-1990s I found both moving and humiliating, watching millions queuing to vote for the first time in a post-Apartheid nation seeking to rebuild itself. People were seizing the moment, celebrating an opportunity that I had largely taken for granted, first voting as a callow youth while still at school in 1987.

What happened in South Africa gave me pause. Misguided as I believe many of the UK politicians to be; underwhelmed as I find myself by the choices served up at each general election, not to mention the burgeoning cult of the personality that infects them; disgruntled as I am with the first-past-the-post system; let down as I feel by the unfulfilled electoral promises; disillusioned as I am by living in an area that has been dominated by a political party I despise… I still vote every time. Because I can. Because there are some places in the world where that very act is denied and, perhaps naively, I feel I am letting those people down if I do not exercise a right some of them are prepared to die for.

But I do so knowing my vote, under the current system, is unlikely to affect the outcome in my local constituency. That is disheartening, for sure, but at least I had the opportunity to signal my dissent. That fact – my vote for another candidate, for other political policies – has been counted. So too have the actions of others who chose to challenge the status quo by deliberately voiding their ballot papers. They still took up their right to vote, but signalled their dissatisfaction with current party politics by opting for the Brewster’s Millions approach: vote for none of the above.

During the 2015 contest, some of the UK electorate were mobilised to vote for change, notably in Scotland where the Labour heartlands metamorphosed overnight into SNP strongholds. Conversely, others opted to quell the threat of disruption, as happened in Thanet South where voters came out in force to counter Nigel Farage’s push for a Parliamentary seat (even if they succumbed to UKIP’s influence in their local government). Nevertheless, national turnout was only recorded at around 66%, which leaves a silent 34% of eligible voters who chose to express no opinion whatsoever. Is this simple apathy? Or is it the silence of dissent? If so, how does it get amplified? How is it translated into genuine reform, into enduring transformational change?

The voice of the expert is often both loud and extraverted. It drowns out the soft murmurings of other people. On numerous occasions, though, as both Philip Tetlock in Expert Political Judgment and Gary Klein in Seeing What Others Don’t have illustrated, the expert is often very, very wrong. We were all reminded of this on Friday morning. So what do we do to ensure that diversity of perspective remains in our society and political system, that more people feel that they have a voice, that fewer feel excluded from and unwilling to participate in the game at all? What happens at a micro level in our companies is just as relevant at a macro level in our nations.

Use conflict productively: glean insights from disagreement and conflict to learn how to refine and advance an idea.
— Lois Kelly & Carmen Medina, Rebels at Work

Diversity and independence are important because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise.
— James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds

The point being that the ‘heroic’ mindset, which sees itself as 100% right and those who disagree as wrong, is unhelpful when trying to tackle modern problems.
— Richard Wilson, Anti Hero

Risk-aversion is rife and the pull of the status quo is strong. The ‘Challenge the status quo’ principle is about thinking and acting differently – asking questions, thinking critically, daring to disagree, learning the art of enquiry and using metaphors.
— Anne Marie McEwan, Calling All Instigators!

The paper magnet

Words of the world are the life of the world
— Wallace Stevens, An Ordinary Evening in New Haven

When I think back on my life, I can define a set of books that shaped me — intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. Books have always been an escape, a learning experience, a saviour, but beyond this, greater than this, certain books became, over time, a kind of glue that holds together my understanding of the world. I think of them as nodes of knowledge and emotion, nodes that knot together the fabric my self. Books, for me anyway, hold together who I am.
— Hugh McGuire, Why Can’t We Read Anymore?

For many of us, our book collections are, in at least one major way, tantamount to our children—they are manifestations of our identity, embodiments of our selfhood; they are a dynamic interior heftily externalized, a sensibility, a worldview defined and objectified.
— William Giraldi, Why We Need Physical Books

The best answer I can give is that it’s an emotional response for me, a reverence bred in childhood where books were something special to be cherished. But I’m beginning to see how annotation can also be read as a form of respect. I’m beginning to think maybe I’m being short sighted, a creature of habit stuck in old ways, and that perhaps I should take a more collaborative approach and start marking up.
— Kandy Woodfield, In the Margins

The elastic stretched a long way, but it did not snap. If anything it rebounded back even further than its starting point. As a bibliophile, I have returned to my first love, even if I have not entirely shunned the screen. Too many years spent appreciating and studying film, coding websites, crafting online texts, consuming those of other people, and conversing on social media mean that, as long as I have my sight, I will never wholly abandon the dull glow of the digitised rectangle. Nevertheless, the musty pages of the physical book hold me in their thrall once again.

As a regular commuter, an iPad loaded with ebooks books served me well. But as a freelancer, mostly working from home, I find that the favoured Kindle titles are now duplicated in hard copy. The iPad is gone too, surplus to requirements. The only constant is Evernote, loaded on both phone and laptop, as a tool for capturing quotes, thoughts and a web of cross-references which I record in response to the texts I read, then weave into ideas and early drafts of my own writing. Only a few Kindle books remain to be read, none waiting in a bucket list to be acquired at a future date. I am operating in both the digital and analogue worlds. I want, maybe need, both, having gained awareness that I am more than just a digital forager. By embracing and bridging between the two, I am resisting becoming an advocate or fundamentalist for either one. I am realising the benefits of thinking and working both fast and slow.

The journey of the past few years, in which my reading habits have twisted and turned, have unearthed a few other interesting discoveries too. Having duplicate copies of titles in physical and Kindle format, for example, has revealed that content is occasionally excised by publishers from the latter or re-ordered in a way that interrupts the flow of the text. The beauty of typefaces and the layout of certain physical books mostly fails to transition to the screen. Covers in digital books are something you flick away too, rather than an object of beauty and attraction to be lingered over every time the book catches your eye. The feel of a book in my hands is wholly different too, somehow more tactile, more giving, than the experience of holding an iPad or phone. Paper has a different quality of touch to metal and glass.

There has been a period of reconditioning and adaptation as I have opted to read more on paper than on screen. Space and storage remains a perennial problem for all book lovers. But there are other habits quickly acquired and slow to set aside that arise from technological innovation. I still find it hard, for example, to resist pressing my finger on a word and waiting for a dictionary definition or Wikipedia link to pop up. But that just does not work on a physical book, as I have found to my embarrassment. Flicking will not turn the page either on a physical book – but it may tear it.

[Photo credit: Bibliophilia, Richard Martin, 30 April 2015]

Don’t ask me to explain, because I cannot in any rational way, but poetry needs to be read on paper, somehow losing a little of its magic on screen. Fiction, on the other hand, seems to work in either form. In fact, the search facility of the ebook makes it very easy to remind oneself who a character is and when they first made an appearance in a multi-populated novel like Wolf Hall or One Hundred Years of Solitude. I have learned the hard way that I prefer an academic text, business book or anything on the arts in physical form. Sports literature I can take in any flavour. Although some of the really good examples I seem to have acquired in both. Working alone, there is something comforting, though, about being able to reach out and touch a book. They are the present friends with whom I resume a conversation while flicking through their pages. This is the slow side of engagement with a book, a counterpoint to the rapid find and retrieve of digital search engines. Holding a book in my hands, scanning its pages, I am far more likely to serendipitously encounter a half-forgotten passage or idea than I am with a Kindle text.

Books in both physical and digital form remain essential to my own approach to personal knowledge mastery (PKM). The books themselves are integral to my seeking activities. The notes I make and refine are part of my own sense-making. The blog posts I then write, the curated extracts from other texts I include with them, the books I will eventually publish myself, all fall under the broad umbrella of sharing. But so too can the notes I make, transcending the blurred line between sense-making and sharing, becoming digital artefacts themselves. Doug Shaw has written of the value, and the joy, of sharing and passing on books. In a sense, it is a form of working out loud, of sharing a gift in both a literal sense and in that intended by John Stepper in his own forthcoming book. But while I can share digital notes with multiple people simultaneously, I can only share a physical book with one of them at a time. The spectre of digital rights management largely inhibits me from sharing digital books at all. At least within the strict bounds of the law.

It is so much easier to highlight and copy in a Kindle text than to transcribe from a physical book, but I suspect that the act of transcription leaves a memory trace whereas the copy-and-paste approach does not. I took many notes, highlighted many passages, when I first read certain books on the Kindle app. The extracts were transferred to Evernote, and the personal notes and observations added to and refined over time. As I have now duplicated some of these titles in physical form, I have taken the time to scan back through my notes, adding relevant page numbers, enjoying a different experience with a real book in my hands. Inevitably, new gems have been unearthed as I have worked my way through the texts again. My relationship with and understanding of the text has been further enriched.

I still cannot bring myself to write on the pages of a physical book, though. The childhood and university habit of adding my name at the front of the book, of demarcating possession, is long gone. The reservation about writing on a book that Kandy Woodfield expresses in her post on marginalia is something I share. Nevertheless, Stephen Jay Gould’s accounts, in The Hedgehog, the Fox and the Magister’s Pox, of his interaction with the Latin annotations of a 15th-century student on one of his prized books and the defacements of a censor on another are truly delightful. It speaks to one of Kandy’s observations about how marginalia, in fact, can be helpful to others years after they were made. With physical books, annotated or not, there is a legacy to leave for others – or a mess to sort through, dependent on your perspective. With digital books, however, your collection effectively disappears as your own life expires. It is neater, but the evidence of your own intellectual and cultural existence are extinguished at a stroke.

What I have become conscious of is I still want to write books, real books. That I find the inclusion of my writing in digital books not entirely satisfactory,  even somewhat unfulfilling. The publication of ephemeral, digital text is well suited to blogging. It is good for work in progress. But I have this aspiration to make, to create, to have a finished product in my hands. Not to say that that is the end, though. For me, the book is the start of the conversation. It is an act of sharing, opening the door to yet more seeking and sense-making.

In many areas, progress destroys diversity. Not so with books. After Gutenberg, mass market journalism, film, television, computing, satellite communications, and the Internet have all appeared. With each new development, the end of the book was prophesied, and each time more books were published, with greater ease and on more diverse subjects.
— Gabriel Zaid, So Many Books

Culture and context, it seems, are playing a constant game with the senses, shifting the balance between them, encouraging them sometimes to bloom but at other times to fade.
— Roman Krznaric, The Wonderbox

Books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.
— Umberto Eco, Reflections on The Name of the Rose

He thinks how, in all these endless pages, all these stories and poems and essays and letters, he tries to give imaginary meaning to parts of his life he doesn’t understand.
— James Sallis, Accounts Due

The rhizomatic path

The rhizome is so constructed that every path can be connected with every other one. It has no centre, no periphery, no exit, because it is potentially infinite.
— Umberto Eco, Reflections on The Name of the Rose

A rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles … the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even nonsign states … The rhizome operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots. Unlike the graphic arts, drawing, or photography, unlike tracings, the rhizome pertains to a map that must be produced, constructed, a map that is always detachable, connectable, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entryways and exits and its own lines of flight … A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo.
— Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

The present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space. We are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed. We are at a moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein.
— Michel Foucault, Of Other Spaces

The new networks involve relations of dynamic interdependence.
— Esko Kilpi, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and the Future of Work

The first fifteen years of the current century have played out to a backdrop of social, political, economic and environmental upheaval. At the same time, we have witnessed accelerated technological advances in relation to communication, big data, workplace automation, healthcare, transportation and alternative currencies, among many other things. It may well be a time of new beginnings, big transformation, fundamental shifts.

The so-called Digital Age has prompted us to reconsider how we organise ourselves too, resulting in experimentation with different structural models. It has enabled greater collaboration, cooperation and partnership between companies, their customers and suppliers. It has raised questions about where and how work is conducted, the need for a presence in both physical and virtual spaces, the permanence of the employer-employee relationship, the value of the network, and the need for both individual and corporate agility and responsiveness.

The future of work, it seems, is one of fragmentation and small pieces loosely joined. One in which knowledge resides in the network rather than with any one individual. One where loose collectives, temporary confederacies, are formed to deliver projects and then disbanded. Organisations, core businesses, may well shrink over time and serve as hubs within a larger network of business partners, operating in different spaces and at different times. In some cases, companies may become atomised, broken up into small pieces that re-cohere for short-term work.

In delivering projects, individuals are likely to discover that many of their colleagues are no longer on the same payroll as them. They are drawn instead from partner organisations, a networked pool of freelancers orbiting around somewhat diminished hairballs, as well as customers themselves.

Roles and responsibilities will become more fluid too. Individuals will be required to both specialise and generalise, to operate as #WWWpeople, shifting from micro to macro perspectives and back again, understanding their own stories in relation to the broader corporate narrative. Dependent on context, they will need to lead, follow the lead of others, or simply supply subject matter expertise in an advisory capacity. This is central to the notion of #pelotonformations, which embraces the responsiveness, adaptability and fluidity of both organisational structures and the individuals within them.

Job titles and job descriptions may become a thing of the past too in terms of recruitment to a business; they may only be apt in the context of roles on specific projects. The concept of an organisation will be more porous than is currently the case; an assembly of people with shared purpose and common goals, united in a time-bound organisational structure. Success, as with the cycling team, will be defined by both personal fulfilment, collective achievement and meeting the expectations of the customer. For the individual, the delivery of one project with a given team quickly morphs into the delivery of another with a different team.

Many transactional and analytical functions will be fulfilled by software. The different working practices enabled by technological development could see a reduction in commuting, with former dormitory towns going through a process of gentrification and regeneration as they adapt to accommodate the needs of remote workers with shared workspaces, cafés and restaurants. Many workers may divide their time between one regular employer and associate relationships with networked communities that serve as a gateway to ad hoc projects with other organisations.

Of course, in many respects, I am projecting my personal preferences here. Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations teaches us that there are numerous ways in which people have and will continue to organise themselves. Philip Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgment illustrates how often self-labelled experts miss the target with their predictions.

There were many people at yesterday’s #ResponsiveOrg event in London, however, who seemed to aspire to the changes suggested above. Some, like Tom Nixon, are already putting their convictions into practice: NixonMcInnes now serves as little more than an umbrella brand name for a collective of new, small companies established by consultants formerly employed by them.

People working in networks on time-bound initiatives across physical and virtual spaces is my future of work. What is yours?

The labyrinths
formed by time
— Federico García Lorca, And After

O miserable cities of designing men,
O wretched generation of enlightened men,
Betrayed in the mazes of your ingenuities,
Sold by the proceeds of your proper inventions
— T. S. Eliot, Choruses from The Rock

Echoes start as a cross in you,
Trembling noises that come too soon.
Spatial movement which seems to you,
Resonating your mask or feud.
Hollow talking and hollow girl,
Force it up from the root of pain.
Never said it was good, never said it was near,
Shadow rises and you are here.
And then you cut;
You cut it out,
And everything
Goes back to the beginning.
Silence seizes a cluttered room,
Light is shed not a breath too soon.
Darkness rises in all you do,
Standing and drawn across the room.
Spatial movements are butterflies
Shadows scatter without a fire.
There’s never been bad, there has always been truth,
Muted whisper of the things she’ll move.
And then you cut;
You cut it out.
And everything
Goes back to the beginning.
Never said it was good, never said it was new,
Muted whisper of the things you feel.
— Choir of Young Believers, Hollow Talk

Natural lessons

mist is a friend
I am alien
to expectations
absent from definitions
— W. S. Merwin, Fox Fire

Multa novit vulpes, verum echinus unum magnum / The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog one big thing.
— Desiderius Erasmus, Adages I V 18

But we are still part of Earth’s fauna and flora, bound to it by emotion, physiology, and, not least, deep history. It is folly to think of this planet as a way station to a better world.
— Edward O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence

The freest human being is not one who acts on reasons he has chosen for himself, but one who never has to choose. Rather than agonising over alternatives, he responds effortlessly to situations as they arise. He lives not as he chooses but as he must. Such a human being has the perfect freedom of a wild animal – or a machine.
— John Gray, Straw Dogs

We learn from nature because we are of it. In particular, we are drawn to the realms of animals, birds, fish and insects, studying their behaviours and actions, borrowing from them in our folk tales, mythologies, poetry, fiction, even our business literature. In his latest book, The Meaning of Human Existence, E. O. Wilson points to humanity’s anthropocentricity, our fascination with both ourselves and others like us. We project our humanity on to other things, other creatures, in order to sense-make and explain. He elaborates: ‘Our stories about animals require human-like emotions and behavior understandable with well-worn guidebooks of human nature.’ This is common knowledge for students of human storytelling through the ages like Marina Warner, Steve Seager and Vladimir Propp. It informs our understanding of narratives about Little Red Riding Hood’s lupine encounters, Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis, Aslan’s wanderings through Narnia and the adventures of Rat, Mole, Badger and Toad.

The attraction of metaphors drawn from the natural world applies as much to those who perceive humankind to be at the centre of the universe as it does to advocates of Gaia theory, who recognise the Earth as a self-regulating system and maintain that humanity has no more value or meaning than any other life form. The metaphors expose the porousness of boundaries, serving as bridges between apparently contrarian views. They are open to interpretation from a variety of perspectives, bringing personal context and subjectivity into play. Phil Jackson, the former coach of the Chicago Bulls, used to cite a line from Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Law of the Jungle to articulate the importance of both the team unit and the skilled individuals within it: ‘For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.’ It is a concept that has been picked up in recent years by the Saracens rugby team who describe themselves, particularly their approach to defence, as a wolf pack. In Reinventing Organizations, however, Frederic Laloux argues that the wolf pack is a marker of red organisations, redolent of early forms of human consciousness and organisation. It is a metaphor, then, that has both positive and negative connotations, dependent on your perspective at a given point in time.

Other business writers have been drawn to animal pairings. They continue a tradition that can be traced to Aesop’s tortoise and hare, via the satirist Jonathan Swift’s bee and spider. Charles Handy explores the elephant and the flea, Rogier Noort contrasts the bear and the eagle, while Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom examine the differences between the starfish and the spider. From such studies we learn about human characteristics, decision-making capabilities, leadership style and organisational preferences. One of the most recurrent pairings to appear in recent literature both about business and our understanding of people has been the hedgehog and the fox. The concept has a long lineage. The adage from Erasmus quoted above can be traced back to the Ancient Greek Archilochus. It was then popularised mid-Twentieth Century by Isaiah Berlin in a celebrated study of Tolstoy. This gave us the building blocks for exploring the differences and potential synergies between specialists and generalists.

Berlin’s central ideas subsequently were co-opted and modified by others in diverse fields. Philip Tetlock, for example, in Expert Political Judgment, describes a twenty-year study exploring how successful people were at making predictions, and highlighting the differences of people on a hedgehog—fox continuum, including hedgefox and foxhog hybrids. Jim Collins, in Good to Great, makes a case for the value of hedgehog-like qualities in leaders. His argument has been somewhat undermined, though, in that many of the individuals and companies he chose to focus on have suffered badly during the recent economic crisis. A suggestion here, perhaps, of the myopia of expertise. In The Hedgehog, the Fox and the Magister’s Pox, his brilliant thesis on why we need to bridge the gap between the sciences and the humanities and do away with age-old misconceptions, the polymathic Stephen Jay Gould builds a case for the hybridisation of the hedgehog and the fox.

There are theoretical underpinnings here, then, for the notion of #WWWpeople; for people who generalise to specialise, serially, remaining open to broader influences and sensitive to shifts in context. As Gould rightly observes, these are not Renaissance People. They do not just look to the past and the knowledge of the Ancients. Nor are they simply scientific Modernists looking to the future and filling knowledge gaps. These are holistic individuals, adept at navigating all times, comfortable in the domains of knowing and not knowing, both with the manuscript and in the virtual world. Tetlock’s terminology (echoed by Ian Leslie in Curious), in which he recognises the existence and value of hedgefoxes and foxhogs, resonates not only with Gould’s call for hybridisation but with our organisational requirements for a diversified workforce. It is never a case of either/or but always of both/and. We need our polymathic foxes just as much as our expert hedgehogs. But we also require the full spectrum of everything that sits in between too.

For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel – a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance – and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle.
— Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox

While hedgehogs were locked into their own disciplines, foxes could think laterally, applying the insights from one field to another. Knowledge had handicapped the hedgehogs, while the wide ranging curiosity of the foxes gave them the edge.
— Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock

What experts think matters far less than how they think. If we want realistic odds on what will happen next, coupled to a willingness to admit mistakes, we are better off turning to experts who embody the intellectual traits of Isaiah Berlin’s prototypical fox.
— Philip E. Tetlock, Expert Political Judgment

Scramble or persist. Foxes owe their survival to easy flexibility and skill in reinvention, to an uncanny knack for recognizing (early on, while the getting remains good) that a chosen path will not bear fruit, and that either a different route must be quickly found, or a new game entered altogether. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, survive by knowing exactly what they want, and by staying the chosen course with unanswering persistence, through all calumny and trouble, until the less committed opponents eventually drop away, leaving the only righteous path unencumbered for a walk to victory … Diversify and color, or intensify and cover. Foxes (the great ones, not the shallow or showy grazers) owe their reputation to a light (but truly enlightening) spread of real genius across many fields of study, applying their varied skills to introduce a key and novel fruit for other scholars to gather and improve in a particular orchard, and then moving on to sow some new seeds in a thoroughly different kind of field. Hedgehogs (the great ones, not the pedants) locate one vitally important mine, where their particular and truly special gifts cannot be matched.
— Stephen Jay Gould, The Hedgehog, the Fox and the Magister’s Pox

Cross-posted to Medium and LinkedIn on 20 April 2015.

Generalise to specialise

The search for origins ends with the discovery of fragments.
— John Gray, The Soul of the Marionette

Sometimes even the questions, let alone the answers, are too important to be left to the experts, who tend to look at the trees rather than the wood, missing the big changes that are looming while they concentrate on the particulars.
— Charles Handy, The Second Curve

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
— Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

The flexibility and strategic outlook that a polymathic generalist can offer to an organisation will be crucial to the future of work. Over the past several decades we have embedded through recruitment processes, job titles, job descriptions and performance processes all the hallmarks of hyperspecialism.

The result is T-shaped careers. Some argue that the T-model is an indicator of generalism. I disagree. For me it suggests career progression based on a narrow set of skills and increasing specialism and expertise in a single field. Over time, the individual progresses up the corporate ladder based on their specialisation in this field, they attain a management position and then add a broader range of shallow management skills to their portfolio. In the meantime, no longer as active in customer-facing and partnership work, their previous knowledge and expertise atrophies.

The polymathic generalist, on the other hand, can offer deep specialism in more than one subject. In recent blog posts, I have suggested that these are #WWWpeople, in possession of broad and deep skills, horizon scanners, adept at navigating the digital, networked world we now inhabit. Such people generalise to specialise, but they are agile and flexible enough to switch their specialism as the need arises. By cross-pollinating skills and experience, they keep their expertise current. They are comfortable with not knowing and exercise their curiosity to plug knowledge gaps and learn continuously.

This impetus to generalise in order to specialise can start with formal education at a young age. Carl Gombrich, Programme Director of UCL’s Interdisciplinary Liberal Arts degree (BASc), explains in his latest blog post: Education for ‘specialisation’ in the knowledge economy. This is an important addition to the ongoing discussion about the value #WWWpeople can add to the modern organisation.

The choices the young make at a tender age can be both an opportunity and a constraint. The broader, the more generalised, their selections now, the more likely they will be able to specialise in multiple fields in the future.

It is not only our organisations that will need to be adaptive, but the people who work in them too.

Expert beyond experience
— T. S. Eliot, Whispers of Immortality

There are two classic approaches to being a wide achiever: becoming a ‘Renaissance generalist’, who pursues several careers simultaneously, or a ‘serial specialist’, who does one after another.
— Roman Krznaric, How to Find Fulfilling Work

Cross-posted to LinkedIn and Google+ on 26 March 2015, and to Medium on 29 March 2015.

Second curves

In the time of that life, and in his work, he has been many people, and if sometimes he contradicted himself well then, like Whitman he contains multitudes.
—James Sallis, Accounts Due

The nasty and often fatal snag is that the Second Curve has to start before the first curve peaks. Only then are there enough resources – of money, time and energy – to cover that first initial dip, the investment period.
— Charles Handy, The Second Curve

This pattern of connectedness is rife in humanity, technology and science. If you have two similar tuning forks, whack one and the other will sing, despite the fact they’re not touching. It’s the same in humans. Everything has a natural frequency of vibration. We resonate at certain frequencies, seeking and finding meaning in different experiences, clans and value-sets.
— Alan Moore, No Straight Lines

Practised obliquity routinely wins against disciplined directness.
— John Kay, Obliquity

As an amateur international rugby player, Martin Bayfield earned his living as a police officer. Having won 31 caps representing England, and a further three for the British Lions, he continued at club level into the professional era that emerged in the wake of the 1995 World Cup. Injury brought a premature end to his playing career, and Bayfield made one of numerous shifts that have been a feature of his adult life. Now a former policeman and rugby player, Bayfield moved into both journalism and acting. Opportunities emerged, were occasionally anticipated and acted upon, which have served to cement his presence as a media stalwart. Bayfield has worked variously for Channel 5, ITV, the BBC and BT Sport over a number of years now, covering rugby union and the NFL on the sporting front, but prime time programmes like Crime Watch too. He has also featured on the big screen, occasionally as an actor, but perhaps more famously as a body and stunt double. In the Harry Potter film series, it is Bayfield’s 6 foot 10 inch frame that stands in for Robbie Coltrane’s half-giant Hagrid, usually hidden inside an animatronic disguise.

Bayfield’s story is one example among many of people who have enjoyed a diversified, mashed-up, portfolio career. Others have enjoyed a narrower range but over a more extended period of time.

Debbie Harry, for example, enjoyed success as the lead singer of the band Blondie, as well as occasional acting roles in front of the movie cameras. As with Joe Strummer, another singer-actor to emerge from the fusion of music, art and protest that characterised punk in the 1970s, Harry’s personal diversity was also representative of the group with which she was identified. Indeed, both Blondie and The Clash proved to be great surfers of the zeitgeist, constantly moving between musical genres, anticipating changes in public taste. To listen to their music is to listen to rock, reggae, disco, funk and rap. Punk is too narrow a label, too great a constraint. Two of the key members of Blondie have similarly changed streams at will. Harry moving from the band to acting and a solo singing career then back to the reformed group, even performing at Glastonbury in 2014, showing no signs of letting up as she approaches her seventieth year. Chris Stein, co-founder of Blondie, has also demonstrated his versatility and adeptness as a photographer, enjoying a solo exhibition in 2015 and an associated book publication.

It is relatively easy to spot the polymathic generalism of the individual, especially when they have gained prominence in one discipline – like Bayfield, Harry, Strummer and Stein – and then demonstrated elevated proficiency in another. What is observed less often, though, is this tendency among collectives too.

In his new book, The Second Curve, business writer Charles Handy develops a metaphor based on the sigmoid curve; a form of elongated s turned on its side. In Handy’s view, this ‘is the line of all things human, of our own lives, of organisations and businesses, of governments, empires and alliances, of democracy itself and its many and varied institutions.’ Handy describes how the curve represents a familiar life cycle that is repeated over and again: an initial investment of effort and resource, followed by eventual progress, culminating in a peak, extended decline and end. The trick is to anticipate the peak and change before you reach it, starting a second curve. The career of a Bayfield, for example, suggests that each new curve leads constantly in new directions; that of a Harry that a new curve can actually cycle back to an old one, the same but different.

We live in an era when the average company life span is getting shorter and shorter. Organisations either need to learn to shift to a second curve on a frequent basis or accept inevitable decline and demise. Handy highlights Apple as one company that has jumped from one curve to another: from Mac to music to iPhone to tablet to wearable. As Steve Jobs wandered with the Apple brand, Richard Branson also did so with the Virgin name, embarking on adventures in multiple industries. Google are trying it too. Some of the big financial, petrochemical and pharmaceutical companies have dabbled for years. The danger, though, is that organisations can become too bloated, trying to swim in too many streams simultaneously, strangling themselves with bureaucracy. It is possible to over-diversify, as witness Tesco or Walmart, for example.

It seems, however, that the second-curve mindset can open the way for rethinking organisational design. Perhaps smaller corporations – or at least reduced cores – can interact with a host of satellite teams comprised of employees, customers, suppliers, freelancers and other business partners. These can be small-scale and diversified, free to self-manage, to detect and act upon second-curve opportunities. Lessons can be learned from those experimenting with Dunbar numbers and capping the size of plants or operational units. The examples of Semco, W. L. Gore and the military are cited too often. We need new examples.

Maybe now is the ideal opportunity for the autonomous crew to emerge as the default work unit. As Mark Gould, building on ideas developed by Dave Snowden, describes it, a crew ‘is a temporary group of people brought together for a particular job or task and then disbanded’. Not unlike the breakaway in #pelotonformations. The arc of the breakaway follows that of the curve. The opportunist, therefore, needs to look for the right moment to attack and move away from their breakaway partners, before the catch is made by the peloton, before the curve peaks and declines.

The modern, responsive organisation has to be comprised of small crews loosely joined. Crews whose membership is fluid, as are the leadership roles within them. Crews whose lifetime may not exceed one project curve. Crews comprised of a collective of individuals who are polymathic in outlook and skill set, willing and able to shift in multiple directions, horizon scanning and jumping when peaks are in sight.

We require both individuals and collectives following oblique paths, discovering second curves.

Sometimes the best way to have ideas is to be thinking of something else.
— David Hieatt, Do Purpose

A fixed mindset is a critical stumbling block at the edge. It stops us from being open to trying new things and experimenting.
— Steven D’Souza & Diana Renner, Not Knowing

Anything that takes us out of our comfort zones for a while can act as a reminder that the past we are used to may not be our best future.
— Charles Handy, The Second Curve

My strong conviction is that the more of us that try both A and C roles, and the more effortlessly we can switch between them, even wearing both hats at different times on the same day, the more successful we will be as leaders and the more successful will be our collective efforts.
— Richard Hytner, Consiglieri

What counts?

clarifying the whole grammar of waiting
not removing one question from the air
— W. S. Merwin, A Codex

Because I can no longer raise
the questions,
because I cannot support
truth or its widower’s eyes,
now I will be flame,
the young man says.
— James Sallis, Memory’s Empire

A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity.
— Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

There are many men adept in those diverse disciplines, but few capable of imagination – fewer still capable of subordinating imagination to a rigorous and systematic plan. The plan is so vast that the contribution of each writer is infinitesimal.
— Jorge Luis Borges, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

On 4 July 2009, as a belated 40th birthday present, I visited the Tour de France for the first time. This consolidated a fascination with the professional sport that had been further piqued in April by standing at the roadside (and then in the velodrome) for that year’s edition of the one-day classic Paris-Roubaix. As I walked the streets alongside Monaco’s Port Hercules and up into Monte Carlo in oppressive heat and cloying humidity, I watched riders from the different trade teams warm up and inspect the course for the time trial that would launch the great event. Proximity to the athletes and support staff, together with the atmosphere and anticipation among the fans, was a heady mix. I was smitten.

Elsewhere in Monaco the latest pages in the first chapter of another story were being written. This was one that would buttress and intertwine with my appreciation of professional cycling and my borrowing from it for the notion of #pelotonformations and the exploration of responsive, adaptive organisations. Behind the scenes the then performance director of British Cycling, Dave Brailsford, was in negotiations to establish a new professional men’s road racing team for the following season: Team Sky. Everything about the team, from its initial launch, its openness to and advocacy of new practices, its bucking of tradition, have tended to divide opinion since its black-clad riders first appeared in the peloton during the 2010 season. For some, Team Sky is viewed as an interloper, an undesired change agent. Its failures are celebrated just as vociferously in certain quarters as its successes are lauded in others.

Of course, there is no right answer. The story of Team Sky is a story of both/and not either/or. Sky serves as a bridge from the past to the present: a new team combining youth and experience; clean riders and a backroom team tainted in part by cycling’s doping past; established professional racing practices blended with new techniques related to training (of both body and mind), performance assessment, nutrition, an individual’s race schedule, clothing, sleeping habits, adoption of information technology and use of big data. You can walk around the story of Team Sky over the past five years and constantly reframe, adopt a different perspective, find an angle that suits either diatribe or eulogy. There is evidence of naivety and misplaced confidence just as there are many examples of innovation and unprecedented success. It is the story of a start-up taking on and then rapidly becoming part of the establishment. No different, really, than the story of a Google or a Facebook.

One of the factors that informs the culture and operation of Team Sky is the notion of continuous improvement. Brailsford has absorbed ideas from kaizen and from other sports, notably Manchester United’s treble in 1999, England’s success at the 2003 rugby world cup and the Oakland Athletics’ Moneyball story in baseball. He has coined the phrase ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’, which is all about making infinitesimal improvements across a broad range of things rather than a huge advance in a single thing. It echoes Clive Woodward’s argument that success often is ‘not about doing one thing 100% better, but about doing 100 things 1% better’. As Daniel Friebe argues in his article Cyclonomics, Brailsford’s fascination with Moneyball reflects a shared interest in data and what can be learned from it. It proved to be a contributing factor in an unprecedented run of Olympic and World Championship success for British track cycling under his leadership. Lessons learned also were adapted for and absorbed by his road cycling programmes too, first with the British Cycling Academy and then with Team Sky. It eventually led to close partnerships with the likes of Matt Parker and Tim Kerrison, the latter one of the architects of Tour de France triumphs for both Bradley Wiggins in 2012 and Chris Froome in 2013.

[Photo credit: Grand Départ, Richard Martin, 4 July 2009]

Like many sports, cycling has always been one filled with data and statistics. It includes time measurements within each stage, aggregated time assessed over stage races, and points systems for certain jerseys. More recently, a rolling points system has been established by the UCI, the sport’s governing body, that assigns a quantified value to individual riders and can impact on the licensing of the trade teams for which they ride as well as the size of their national teams at competitive events. It is a sport in which numbers matter. As with any workplace, performance assessment is in place and it can affect individual, as well as team, behaviour. Brailsford appears to have introduced another dimension too, which others have been quick to copy. For example, the biological passports and long-term performance data of athletes were assessed prior to some of the early signings for Team Sky. With Kerrison in place now, the collection and assessment of training data is constant too, as the team seeks to understand where an athlete’s tolerance threshold is, helping them determine the correct pace for climbing a given mountain or closing the gap to a breakaway. Some of the riders now seem to find it difficult to tear their eyes away from their power meters as they hit the peaks of the grand tours.

A recent Guardian interview with Brailsford by Sean Ingle suggests that there is much more to follow. Brailsford has spent time in Silicon Valley assessing new technologies and how they might support rider performance and health, continuous improvement and effective decision making. Sensors in clothing, for example, have the potential to provide a dashboard of rider health information, real-time data that can impact on who should lead on a given day, who should attack the peloton and when, and so on. There is a danger that the riding then becomes robotic, remote controlled from team cars. It is a criticism already levelled, perhaps unfairly, at Team Sky and others in the peloton, particularly in those races in which radio contact between riders and sporting directors is permitted. It is a criticism that tends to ignore the level of autonomy the riders themselves have. It is not all about numbers or radios.

There are many riders in the peloton who are not quantified serfs. Like the corporate employees who rebel against the calibration process that accompanies the annual review, there are prominent athletes like Mark Cavendish who mount a numeric challenge. It is well known that Cavendish performs dreadfully on the static testing equipment that generates assessment metrics. Thankfully, his abilities on the road, his capabilities among the peloton and his strength of purpose were all recognised early in his career and this overrode the story the numbers told. As a consequence space was made for the qualified self. One of the most successful careers in road cycling sprinting followed. Numbers do lie. We should not always be in thrall to them. Brailsford himself is one of the first to observe that data or technology will not themselves give riders an edge. It is the application of these things, their enabling potential, that matters together with the athlete’s own talent, the mastery of their discipline, their decision making and autonomy within the context of a loose framework.

This was brilliantly illustrated at the 2015 edition of the one-day race Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Another example where the story suggested by numbers was turned on its head. Riding for Team Sky, Ian Stannard was the reigning champion from 2014. Through smart riding and great awareness, he had managed to manoeuvre himself into the decisive breakaway in the final kilometres of the race. There was one problem, however: a significant numeric disadvantage. The three other riders in the breakaway all belonged to the same team, Etixx-QuickStep, specialists in the north European races over the cobblestones. Among their number were Stijn Vandenbergh, Niki Terpstra, winner of the 2014 edition of Paris-Roubaix, and Tom Boonen a serial winner of one-day classics and one of the most successful cobblestone riders of the past decade. This, however, was a race without radios, the breakaway’s bubble punctured by occasional visits by team cars to the front of the race. In other respects the riders were on their own and had to self-organise. The Etixx decision making proved to be flawed, and Stannard, through a combination of his own skill, mental fortitude, physical strength and canniness was able to outwit his companions and win the stage. It was a demonstration of talent and autonomy. Evidence that the riders selected to represent the team will always outweigh any interest in data or technology. People first. Always.

After a far-from-perfect season in 2014, Team Sky’s dual emphasis on both its people and its drive for continuous improvement is already bearing substantial fruit, of which Stannard’s solo efforts are just one example. Elsewhere Chris Froome and his teammates overcame the challenge of Alberto Contador to win the Ruta del Sol, Geraint Thomas claimed overall victory in the Volta ao Algarve stage race and Richie Porte prevailed after eight days of Paris-Nice. Cycling is a team sport where individuals win, one person stepping onto a podium representing the networked efforts of teammates on the road and the support team of directors, coaches, chefs, psychologists and data analysts which orbit them. The marginal gains have effectively blended training methods, professional mastery across a spectrum of disciplines, a balance between quality and quantification, planning within broad frameworks, the adoption and application of appropriate technology, and trust placed in the ability and decision making of the athletes on the bikes.

So, what counts? Certainly not just the numbers. As with the operation of any organisation, from small-scale cycling team to huge corporation, the people matter above all else. They flourish in the right environment, with a supportive culture, enabling technology, common purpose, freedom to express their professional mastery, and autonomy to respond and adapt to context. Cycling is a fascinating mix of human endeavour, mechanisation and technological advancement. The way each element is harnessed to achieve objectives is crucial to the concept of #pelotonformations and its broader application to business.

The scientific part comes, for me, before the race, in terms of my position, training and looking at the course. But once you have the strategy, you just go out there and give it everything.
— Steve Cummings quoted by Colin O’Brien in The Art of Time Trialling

Dave Brailsford had famously coined the phrase ‘aggregation of marginal gains’, and there was some of that in here, but really all we were doing was aggregating a lot of common sense and mixing in some passion, determination and a bit of camaraderie.
— Mark Cavendish, At Speed

Here, what paid off was the way the riders had been trained to think for themselves during the race, to communicate and to be honest.
— Rod Ellingworth, Project Rainbow

In a race, you don’t have five seconds to think about things. You make a decision in an instant. You feel it.
— Johann Museeuw quoted by Harry Pearson in Last of the Flandrians

A racer’s life is the constant pursuit of a goal. To push ourselves to extremes we are always looking beyond the present. Our bodies move in the moment, but our minds are two steps ahead … During the races we are constantly counting down our lives. Our cyclocomputers tell us how many kilometres we have covered, so we calculate how many are left. The directeurs remind us over the race radio how many kilometres there are until a climb, a corner, a windy section, an intermediate sprint, a town, and the finish. The markers are both tactical and psychological … Along the way we tick boxes as objectives and targets are achieved. We are constantly working towards improvements, setting greater goals once we have achieved the first ones and recalibrating after missing others.
— Michael Barry, Shadows on the Road

Cross-posted to Medium and LinkedIn on 17 March 2015.

Knowledge remains personal

The wisdom only the knowledge of dead secrets
Useless in the darkness into which they peered
Or from which they turned their eyes. There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been. We are only undeceived
Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm.
— T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets: East Coker

I have with me
all that I do not know
I have lost none of it
— W. S. Merwin, The Nomad Flute

Voracious in my appetite
For the uncertain and unknown
— Charles Baudelaire, Congenial Horror

Out of confusion, as the way is,
And the wonder that man knows,
Out of the chaos would come bliss.
— Dylan Thomas, Being But Men

We write less than we speak and know more than we say. It is an aphorism that owes much to the thinking, writing and sharing of others. In his 1966 book The Tacit Dimension, Michael Polanyi posited the notion that ‘we can know more than we can tell’. Dave Snowden subsequently offered a refinement, observing ‘We always know more than we can say, and we will always say more than we can write down.’ Chris Collison then expanded the idea further, arguing that ‘We know more than we can ever tell, we tell more than we can ever write down, and we write down more than we ever act upon.’

Collison’s addition of action was a useful variant. Before humankind had language we still had the ability to learn from one another. We did this through observation and imitation. This remains part of our learning capability today, part of the toolkit alongside language and thought. Can knowledge ever be transferred, though? I am sceptical on that point. But I certainly believe that knowledge, like information and data, can be made available. It can be done so in a variety of forms too: demonstrated, acted, verbalised, drawn, codified. As Jane Bozarth observes in her recent book Show Your Work, ‘showing work helps an idea connect with someone else who needs it.’ A stagiaire cyclist learns by riding alongside professionals in the peloton; a linguist learns a new language by immersing themselves in the culture of a country where that language is spoken; an infant learns to walk, to talk, through copying and repetition.

In each scenario certain preferences and individual choices come into play. These relate to how knowledge is discovered, accessed, processed, absorbed, imitated and sampled. We are always at the edges of not knowing, curiosity and experimentation helping us bridge those gaps. In a world of networked knowledge, we constantly discover opportunities to connect to new knowledge or, at least, to the people who carry it and are able to put it into practice to our mutual benefit. Access to new knowledge also initiates an interesting process. As with food, we consume, digest, retain and excrete. Personal filters, personal context, will govern what we find useful, what we will act upon ourselves. The point is that this process is internalised. Knowledge remains personal, implicit.

I can make some of my own knowledge visible through my actions, words or writing. I have shared it but it remains mine, constrained by my own context, my own experience. You might consume some of what I have shared – observing, listening, reading – but you will make it your own, pass it through your own filters. Is that transference of knowledge? Not really. At best, I have helped catalyse your own thought processes, nothing more. I think this is why I was always uncomfortable leading a knowledge management function: I do not really believe that collective, corporate knowledge can be managed in the same way as data and information can. This is because knowledge is personal. Separate it from the individual and their context, and I question whether it is still knowledge. Rather we are left with digital and analogue artefacts: videos, documents, slide decks and social networks filled with words, numbers and images.

As a student of literature and film, I was required to explore ideas that had emerged from semiotics and structuralism. These schools of thought were indebted to the work of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. For him, the sign was the organising concept for all forms of language. A sign was comprised of two elements, the signifier and the signified. So, if I were to say or write the word cat (signifier), a fellow Anglophone would infer from that a four-legged creature with a tail, pointy ears and whiskers (signified). Similarly, if I were to draw a sketch of such a creature (signifier), people would understand that I was alluding to a domestic pet that looked roughly the same (signified). The idea is beautifully captured in René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images in which his painting of a pipe is accompanied by the words ‘Ceci n’est pas un pipe’ (This is not a pipe). It is not a pipe because it is a picture of a pipe, a simulacrum.

Something similar happens with the exposure of our own knowledge. Knowledge is personal, there is a human dimension to it. When I write it down or speak about it, I serve up a signifier. But my intentions may differ from the way another individual interprets what I write or say. They need to make it their own. Much in the same way that I use the quotes that top and tail this post. I have removed them from one context, interpreted them and used them in a different way. The ideas I share only become knowledge again when they have been internalised by someone else, made their own. This is, for me, one of the great attractions of personal knowledge mastery as advocated by the likes of Harold Jarche and Kenneth Mikkelsen. PKM is a continuous human activity, not a mechanised procedure redolent of old knowledge management initiatives in the corporate world. It recognises that knowledge remains personal.

Knowledge is sought out, ingested, personalised and applied.

Knowledge, unlike information, is a human characteristic; there can be information no one knows, but there can’t be knowledge no one knows.
— Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus

Practising PKM, as a flowing series of half-baked ideas, can encourage innovation and reduce the feeling that our exposed knowledge has to be ‘executive presentation perfect’. Workplaces that enable the constant narration of work and learning in a trusted space can expose more implicit knowledge. Organizations can foster innovation by accepting that collective understanding is in a state of perpetual Beta. A culture of innovation can be created by changing daily behaviours, which the practice of PKM can do.
— Harold Jarche, Innovation Means Learning at Work

We follow people because of what they know, not because of what they don’t know. We engage consultants because they know something that we don’t.
— Steven D’Souza & Diana Renner, Not Knowing

It is increasingly important to be seen to add value. To be seen to be knowledgeable and willing to share your knowledge. In the old days “knowledge is power” used to mean holding on to it and only giving it out judiciously to certain people. In an Internet world there is no point in having knowledge if people don’t know you have it, and if you are not prepared to share it.
— Euan Semple, Organizations Don’t Tweet, People Do

Cross-posted to Medium and LinkedIn on 10 March 2015.