The qualified self

Baa, baa, black sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes, sir, yes, sir,
Three bags full;
One for the master,
And one for the dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane.
— Nursery Rhyme: Baa, Baa, Black Sheep

Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds,
Baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened,
The birds began to sing;
Wasn’t that a dainty dish,
To set before the king?
The king was in his counting house,
Counting out his money;
The queen was in the parlour,
Eating bread and honey.
The maid was in the garden,
Hanging out the clothes,
When down came a blackbird
And pecked off her nose.
— Nursery Rhyme: Sing a Song of Sixpence

This may be a side effect of middle age, simultaneously reflecting back on youth and looking futurewards to an inevitable decline after many more years (hopefully) of play and endeavour. It may be a symptom of stubbornness and mild rebellion. Either way, I find myself increasingly drawn to loose frameworks over specificity in many different contexts. More and more, I find myself developing an aversion to shackles, constraints, policies, processes and all kinds of measurement, however well intended they may be. Lying in bed on holiday, for example, I was forced to hear the passing of each hour marked through the tyranny of church bells. These chimed on the hour and again three minutes later – midnight was torture, one o’clock somewhat more tolerable.

There are many things I used to do that I have now stopped doing. I no longer wear a watch, for example, relying instead on all the smart devices that surround me. I have deleted and stopped recording all the statistics from my bike rides, the trusty Garmin computer that adorns my road bike now serving primarily as a navigational aid and, yes, a clock. In fact, after an initial dabble, I find myself resistant to the notion of the quantified self. There was something in Dave Egger’s novel, The Circle, that spoke to my misgivings. I had already stopped using a Wii Fit, having derived some benefit from it early on, but maintaining a healthy scepticism (validated by a medical professional) about its reliance on BMI measurements. I then tried and soon stopped using a Fitbit; something that friends and family had likened to a prisoner’s electronic tagging device.

The benefits of exercise are undeniable. I would never want to challenge those. My problem is with control and choice, with data obsession, and the tendency to value quantity over quality. A bike ride will put a smile on my face not because of the number of miles covered, nor the speed sustained, but because of the opportunity to escape into nature, to sense the countryside not only through my eyes but via my nostrils, lungs, ears, thighs, skin and mouth too. Also for the opportunity to move at the pace I choose, contemplative or hurtling, exercising both body and mind. I have said it before: sitting astride a bike is where I do some of my best thinking. It is a seat of creativity.

[Picture credit: Measure Something by Hugh MacLeod @gapingvoid. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0]

Ever since my early teens, my morning ritual has involved the preparation of a coffee. This has increased in strength as I have myself aged, reflecting either a higher tolerance for the caffeine drug, shifting tastes or, more likely, a combination of the two. Regardless, this routine is repeated a number of times through the day. In the past, coffee grains were measured out precisely. Now I just tip the bag with a best guesstimate, relying on my vision and subsequently my tastebuds. The coffee is never too weak. In seeking out a quality experience, I have also found myself shifting to a supermarket’s own-brand French Roast. I like Illy but it is perhaps a little too weak and smooth for me. Monmouth Coffee is an occasional treat, but the price differential with no obvious gain in quality prevents a wholesale conversion.

I would not want to give the impression that numbers and measurement do not matter at all. Clearly, in the right context, they do. But as I have suggested before, the collection of such data in a workplace context has to serve a purpose that is linked to continuous improvement and/or decision making. Meaningless data collection is inefficient and ineffective, serving to create roles that should have no place in the modern organisation. If the management of an office is wholly dependent on a spreadsheet, then I want no part of it.

I am far more interested in quality. The quality of work. The quality of relationships. The quality of services both given and received. Often I find it difficult to attach a numeric value to this. If a colleague needs to work three hours a day over five days to produce a better quality version of what another colleague could produce in a single working day, I know which one I would prefer to ask to do the job. One consultant may take one hour, applying their extensive knowledge and experience, to find a solution that will add long-term value to my company. They may charge £30,000 for that solution. Another consultancy may, estimate two weeks’ work, charge £20,000, and disappear into a haze of inadequacy. I know which I am likely to contract with, which I am more likely to trust, and which I will be partnering with again in the future.

So as a countermeasure to the quantified self, I am advocating the qualified self too.

Eventually everyone realizes that the metric, which was good for a time, is now being gamed. Employees go so far out of their way to score well on the metric that it has negative effects on the real quality of what the company makes, something people recognize intuitively. And as is the way of things, the number-centric leader who created the original KPI decides the solution is to create more, and more precise, KPIs. More are added, which might help at first, but soon the same pattern repeats and the problem is amplified.
— Scott Berkun, The Year Without Pants

Many of the rules that people find onerous and bureaucratic were put in place to deal with real abuses, problems, or inconsistencies or as a way of managing complex environments. But while each rule may have been instituted for good reason, after a while a thicket of rules develops that may not make sense in the aggregate. The danger is that your company becomes overwhelmed by well-intended rules that only accomplish one thing: draining the creative impulse.
— Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace, Creativity, Inc.

Human beings are motivated by purpose, autonomy and a drive towards mastery. Accomplished leaders create an environment in which their people can develop their skills, their knowledge and their character. This leads to a learning environment and a culture of curiosity, innovation and continuous improvement.
— James Kerr, Legacy

Invisible hordes

Traded my daylight
for a career
But I need you to disprove
My theory of the crows
— The National, Theory of the Crows

So how do we add value, us knowledge workers? By developing personal knowledge mastery – to first embrace and sift that available data – then curating that data in a meaningful way for others, and by doing so becoming a connector node in our network.
— Jonathan Anthony, Fiendish Child: Knowledge, So What?!

Leadership in networks does not come from above, as there is no top. To know the culture of the workplace, one must be the culture. Marinate in it and understand it. This cannot be done while trying to control the culture. Organizational resilience is strengthened when those in leadership roles let go of control.
— Harold Jarche, Build Trust, Embrace Networks, Manage Complexity

But real change doesn’t happen until you do it. Until YOU do it. Until you think differently, speak differently, act differently. Until you have different conversations with your colleagues, with your boss, with your clients, with your customers.
— Euan Semple, Be the change

In the third instalment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King, there is a sequence in which Aragorn and his companions persuade the Dead Men of Dunharrow to unite with them. By supporting Aragorn in his battle against Sauron’s allies, the Army of the Dead will have fulfilled a pledge of allegiance they made in the past, and by so doing free themselves from a curse placed on them by Aragorn’s ancestor when they broke that pledge. I was reminded of this fragment of useless knowledge recently when chatting with a friend about job-hunting and value propositions, first touching on the idea in my post about the detective and their role as sense-makers and connectors.

Each of us builds our own multi-faceted networks over time, tapping into existing hubs, making connections between these different nodes that reflect our interests, our experiences and our expertise. The network is our personal United Nations of communities. It maps to us and our lives. My own network will be slightly different to yours, although there are likely to be many overlaps, with us connected at more than one node because of shared interests, friendships or the fact that we studied or worked together in the past.

Technological advances have made our understanding of networks and our ability to map them more overt, from the postal service, to the era of the telegraph, the early telephony systems, and right up to the current age of social media platforms and mobile applications. Our networks reflect our need for human connection, interaction, communication and support. Networks are where we learn, where we accumulate data and information, sense-make and share. They are where we test out ideas, and have them validated, challenged or refined. They are where we store the knowledge that we cannot fit into our own heads.

[Picture credit: The invisible horde, sourced from The Next Web]

In a Forbes article on the knowledgeable networker, Ken Perlman argues that organisations are evolving into a network of networks. The workers are themselves hubs, serving as connectors between those organisations they service, as employees, contractors or consultants, and their own extended networks. This is the modern value proposition for a worker. It is not simply a case of what value their knowledge, skills and expertise will add to the organisation seeking to employee their services. Also in play are the invisible hordes who stand behind them; their network of connections, their knowledge, skills and expertise. These now lie in the network rather than with any one individual. The value the potential employee offers to the organisation is their ability to harness the services of the network, to know who to turn to in a given context. It is who they know as much as what they know that matters now. By this I do not mean to imply old-school-tie nepotism, but rather the recognition of opportunities to collaborate, cooperate and enter into partnership. Such people also have a role in the networks of others, willingly sharing their own knowledge and expertise, assisting with sense-making, fulfilling a role in learning communities.

Too often organisations recruit for now. They live in both the past and the present, thinking of the skills and competencies they have required traditionally or need urgently to address problems today. Uniformity and groupthink therefore prevail. There is a tendency to seek out people who fit into pre-cut holes. As mindsets shift towards the notion of a network of networks, or David Weinberger’s concept of small pieces loosely joined, there is an opportunity to introduce diversity of perspective in organisations, mining knowledge resident both within and without the building, encouraging creative friction. Through their own workforce, organisations can derive benefit from the knowledge, leadership capability, technical proficiency and subject matter expertise that flows through the network. They can begin thinking beyond the present, embracing the future too, building for tomorrow, addressing the big issues that confront us relating to the environment, health, agriculture, technology and social divisions.

I have argued in my series on peloton formations, and in a recent interview with Stowe Boyd, that in a responsive, networked organisation leadership responsibilities are in a constant state of flux. Context and circumstance governs where leadership is required at a given moment in time, and from whom. Everyone has leadership potential in the network, with connectors to multiple hubs proving vital to organisations. These are the people who can help bridge different communities, enabling access to new ideas that can challenge preconceptions, inspire creativity and prompt innovation. Such people do not seek permission to develop relationships, to invest time in other people, or to further their own learning. They just act. They are doers, the ones who catalyse change, who build alliances with invisible hordes, helping establish partnerships from which everyone derives benefit.

So next time you are drawn into the recruitment process, think beyond the person sat on the chair in front of you. Think of the invisible hordes standing behind them and the potential for building the future. Think too of the people who will form part of tomorrow’s network.

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.
— Richard Martin, Shoring Fragments

Our ability to empathise through time remains rudimentary, stuck in the earliest stages of psychological evolution. This may be one of humankind’s greatest moral failings. The empathic challenge we face, therefore, is to close this distance as much as possible so that those who are far away from us across space, time and social background are drawn into our circle of caring, enabling us to touch them more easily with our imaginations.
— Roman Krznaric, Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution

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

Label dodging

Four letter word just to get me along
It’s a difficulty and I’m biting on my tongue and I
I keep stalling, keeping me together
People around gotta find something to say now
— The Ting Tings, That’s Not My Name

The coast disappeared when the sea drowned the sun
And I knew no words to share with anyone
The boundaries of language I quietly cursed
And all the different names for the same thing
— Death Cab for Cutie, Different Names for the Same Thing

I got all choked up and I threw down my gun
And I called him my pa, and he called me his son,
And I came away with a different point of view.
And I think about him, now and then,
Every time I try and every time I win,
And if I ever have a son, I think I’m gonna name him
Bill or George! Anything but Sue! I still hate that name!
— Johnny Cash, A Boy Named Sue

There is a film the closing sequence of which is guaranteed to agitate my tear ducts and prompt blurry vision. It is a sequence of action and revelation, played out with minimal dialogue but filled with the emotive strains of Henryck Górecki’s slow-building Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs). The film is called Fearless (1993). Adapted for the screen by Rafael Iglesisas from his own novel, it stars Jeff Bridges, Isabella Rossellini, Rosie Perez and John Turturro. It was directed by Peter Weir. At the centre of the film’s narrative is architect Max Klein (Bridges), who is one of the few survivors from a plane that crashes en route from San Francisco to Houston.

Like Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), the lead character in Peter Weir’s next feature film, The Truman Show (1998), Max experiences a major shift in his own reality. It prompts questions of an existential and epistemological nature. Both Max and Truman search for meaning, seeking to understand the world that surrounds them. Theirs are journeys of self-knowledge and learning, of understanding patterns and sense-making. Remarkably, both lead characters simply adapt to their new realities. The context in which they find themselves has changed, their own perspective has shifted, and they effortlessly accommodate the change.

[Picture: Poster for Fearless, directed by Peter Weir and released in 1993]

For Max, his new-found inner calm is disturbing to others. As are both his sudden ability to eat strawberries, a fruit that previously triggered life-threatening allergic reactions, and his overcoming the fear of flying following his flirtation with death in the plane crash. As a consequence, Max is required to work with psychiatrist Bill Perlman (Turturro). While Max’s erratic behaviour and emotional distance from his family following the accident justify the counselling he receives, it is difficult not to empathise with his resistance to the notion of treatment and avoidance of the label post-traumatic stress disorder.

It is this label dodging, this unwillingness to be simply categorised and pigeon-holed that I find most attractive about an admittedly flawed and damaged character. I have written before about my own aversion to job titles and job descriptions and all the constraints they imply. There is something unappealing, lazy even, about distilling an individual, in all their complexity and diversity, into a simple label. In recent weeks, for example, I have found myself increasingly intolerant of the articles, blog posts and soundbites that distinguish between boomers, Generation X, Generation Y and beyond.

Were I to subscribe to such labels, my birth date would suggest an X but other factors would indicate a Y. In my personal experience, though, across a number of industries in the public, private and nonprofit sectors, habits, working practices and technology preferences are less reflective of generational differences than of mindsets. I know many over-40s, for example, who are digital natives, connected via global social networks, focused on openness, transparency, collaboration and cooperation, and campaigining for an overhaul of our social institutions and workplaces. Conversely, there are many young people I have encountered who are resistant to disruptions to the status quo, who welcome the comfort blanket of tradition, and who advocate the hierarchical pyramid and their own lowly place within it. I am not saying either group is right. Simply that their choices and worldview cannot be demarcated by anything as simplistic as a year of birth or a zodiac sign.

Which brings me to another type of label that has attracted much Twitter commentary in recent days, especially following the publication of an article by Joseph Stromberg in Vox: the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). I previously expressed some of my suspicion of the MBTI label in a post called The quiet man. I’ve an appreciation, from a cultural studies perspective, of some of the Jungian theory that underpins the methodology. But I’ve always felt that any personality assessment has to be delimited by time and context. I am sceptical, therefore, when people constantly define themselves in terms of an MBTI label, even more so when I have seen my own scores alter on the different occasions that I have taken the test. I know that, with the passage of time, I have experienced and learned things that have affected the way that I behave and perceive the people and events around me. If I know I have changed, then I would expect the labels others would want to attach to me to change too. I will accept introvert as a personal preference. The rest of it is open to question and fluctuation.

One of the few other labels I am willing to accept without complaint is that of generalist. That may be because for some people it means everything and for others nothing at all. Or it may be that it is because I have learned to see my blending of multiple interests as a strength rather than the weakness champions of specialism would have had me believe. What is interesting, though, as I begin to look for new work, is that I am having to condense what I do, to self-apply labels so that others can make sense of me and what I have to offer. I have always embraced the idea of being a writer, and have recently rediscovered an aptitude for work as an editor. What has surprised me is that, without any affiliation, I now feel far more comfortable describing myself as a change agent – someone interested in catalysing change and guiding others through it.

As with Max in Fearless, I’ve needed a period of reflection, as well as coaching from others, to come to terms with this image of myself that I am comfortable with and willing to project. How long it will last, though, before I begin label dodging again, only time will tell.

Words are just words. Stories are just stories. But with context, concepts come alive.
— Bryan Kramer, Human to Human

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
— Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

Most organisations almost solely appoint people on the basis of their professional qualifications. An unboss puts just as much emphasis on attitude. Are the applicants really passionate about your organisation’s purpose? Will they do their utmost to promote it? Finally, look for people with unusual backgrounds.
— Lars Kolind & Jacob Bøtter, Unboss

I’m often faced with two types of job applicants. One has years of experience, an impressive portfolio of work and a specialty that took years to hone. That candidate discusses their job history engagingly, within the parameters of what is known and what has come before. The other candidate is young—sometimes almost ridiculously so—and is only held back by a lack of experience. That candidate never talks about history, but about what she wants to learn, where she thinks the world is going, and what kinds of products she wants to develop there. The second candidate is the smarter hire.
— Josh Payton, Why the Best Designers Don’t Specialize in Any One Thing

Breadcrumb trails

They offered me the office, offered me the shop
They said I’d better take anything they’d got.
— The Clash, Career Opportunities

What’s got into me? Can’t believe myself!
Must be someone else. Must be someone else. Must be.
Any day now how’s about getting out of this place? Any ways.
Got a lot of spare time. Some of my youth and all of my senses on overdrive.
— Elbow, Any Day Now

It’s breaking up and getting far away,
I used to know what I wanted to say.
Please remove that field grey coverall,
Your works of nature are unnatural.
— British Sea Power, Something Wicked

Think of work as a series of projects. It is some of the best advice I have received recently from others in my network as I consider the next steps to take on the career-life journey, combining a breadth and depth of work and other interests. It applies equally well to the diversity of people who make up today’s knowledge workforce. It is relevant to the consultant who temporarily parachutes in to help out others. It defines the working life of the freelancer who glides from one short-term contract to another. It even captures much of the routine of that increasingly endangered creature, the permanent employee. Work has become an endless stream of projects loosely joined. This is a point that Seth Godin reinforces in a blog post earlier this month reflecting back on some of the highlights of his professional life to date.

This fragmentation of work into projects, from my perspective, opens up the opportunity for greater experimentation. A single project can be treated as something of a sandbox, a space for risk-taking and exploration. A learning environment, a place to adapt and to be wrong. I have been involved in several big, long-term projects, with their subsequent analysis of lessons learned from success, failure and the unexpected. Such experiences have prompted me to advocate for the breaking up of such projects into an interlinked collection of mini projects. Some of these may never happen as each of these projects unearths new learning experiences, and the passage of time sees a shift in context and requirements. Too often, though, one business case with, at best, a guesstimate of the benefits to be derived from the project, continues rigidly to govern activities two or three years later. Money and time are wasted, and the responsibility to pull the plug on misguided endeavour is ducked.

[Picture credit: New Beginnings by Hugh MacLeod @gapingvoid. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0]

Tackling things on a smaller scale, however, opens up a world of opportunity. Rather than the behemoth, multi-year project why not a series? Why not start with a small requirements gathering project, engaging with customers, thinking about user experience? Then make the call whether to proceed or not. If you do, break it up into a number of development projects borrowing from agile methodologies, with constant learning and reflection built in. As well as the opportunity to close things down and cut your losses when things are not going well. The review exercise can be treated as a project too. Everything in bite-sized chunks. Everything connected.

As with the breadcrumb approach to the corporate project, so too with the career of the individual knowledgeable networker. I have been employed in a couple of sectors, health and transport, where a large proportion of my colleagues have spent their entire professional lives working in the same industry. The name of the employer may have morphed over time, a consequence of Government changes and the effects of privatisation, but the furniture, the working habits, have largely stayed the same. Today, though, the chances of securing a job for life, and all the associated trappings that come with it, are vanishingly small. It is a time of diversification, short-term commitments, continuous learning, cross-pollination of ideas and servicing of multiple clients.

It is something that, as a generalist interested in bridging ideas across multiple disciplines, greatly excites me. But as a parent with financial commitments there is also a fear factor in play too. Can a portfolio life, a life of project and contract hopping, sustain me? On an intellectual level, I am convinced that it can. On a giving level, providing an effective service to others, I am certain of it. As a co-provider, supporting a family, only time will tell. What is clear, though, is that the shift to a work-as-projects perspective is a necessary step in the knowledge worker environment. It is part of the process of divesting ourselves of certain old working practices that prevailed when I first entered the world of work. The hope is I emerge from the chrysalis shell with wings rather than as an unchanged caterpillar.

As my friend, Simon Terry suggests in his A Little Bit of Rebel, I’m starting small.

The future is about projects.
— Ian Sanders & David Sloly, Mash-up!

Unleash Trojan Mice. Don’t do big things or spend loads of money. Set small, nimble things running and see where they head.
— Euan Semple, Organizations Don’t Tweet, People Do

Somehow, I always thought of my career as a series of projects, not jobs. Projects… things to be invented, funded and shipped. Sometimes they take on a life of their own and last, other times, they flare and fade. But projects, one after the other, mark my career. Lucky for me, the world cooperated and our entire culture shifted from one based on long-term affiliations (you know, ‘jobs’) to projects.
— Seth Godin, Thirty Years of Projects

Now this is a serious issue for all organisations. As we move more and more towards a standardised model we lose adaptability and in consequence resilience, the capacity to change in the light of changed and changing circumstance. Consistency may seem attractive and in some cases it is, but it’s a very bad universal.
— Dave Snowden, Of Artisanship

The rebel within

The connection economy rewards the leader, the initiator, and the rebel.
— Seth Godin, The Icarus Deception

I believe that the future of the art of living can be found by gazing into the past. If we explore how people have lived in other epochs and cultures, we can draw out lessons for the challenges and opportunities of everyday life.
— Roman Krznaric, The Wonderbox

I’m more interested in impact – changing behaviors – than decoding. So, beside searching for answers in science, I believe we should invest in developing people’s humanity, empathy, capacity to connect with one another. It’s time to bring back the humanities in the center of the picture. We can develop human connectedness through arts, literature, philosophy. Sharing, questioning and emotions are at the core of what makes us more human. Culture is a great way to foster this.
— Céline Schillinger interviewed by Stowe Boyd

In expressing my admiration for the bridge and the metaphors it inspires, I highlighted how it symbolises both choice and connection. Either/or can become and with an effective bridge in place. The history of US cinema supplies a good illustration of this. Of course, appreciation of art forms is always going to be subjective, but for me one of the most creative periods in cinema occurred in the decade that spanned the late 1960s and early 1970s. This was informed as much by industrial change as by cultural and sociopolitical context. It was characterised too by the emergence of a new generation of filmmakers, some of them film school graduates, others versed in the production methodologies of television, all of them highly cineliterate.

For a brief period of time, this group served as a bridge between the cinema traditionally produced by the Hollywood conveyor belt and the art-house filmmaking techniques associated until then with European and Asian auteurs. Suddenly US screens were filled with anglophone films that in their narrative content, stylistic flourishes and formal experimentation were as captivating and challenging as anything that had emerged from the European New Waves of the previous decade. With Bonnie and Clyde (dir. Arthur Penn, 1967) and Taxi Driver (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1976) as loose bookends, these films had as their backdrop the rise of the 1960s counterculture, political assassinations, equal rights campaigns, race riots, the Vietnam War, Watergate, and numerous high-profile public inquiries and investigations. Temporarily unconstrained, this new generation of cinéastes was able to import both art-house sensibilities and political agendas into mainstream cinema. They were neo-modernists. They were rebels on the inside.

One of the ‘elders’ of this new breed of US-based filmmaker was Robert Altman. He would go on to make a life’s work from being a maverick, constantly traversing the boundary between the Hollywood machine and the independent sector. He was the guiding light behind films as diverse as M*A*S*H (1970), Nashville (1975), Short Cuts (1993) and Gosford Park (2001). Like many others in the early 1970s – among them Alan J. Pakula with Klute (1971), Roman Polanski with Chinatown (1973), Francis Ford Coppola with The Conversation (1974) and Arthur Penn with Night Moves (1975) – Altman was drawn to the figure of the detective. The private investigator was a surrogate for the film-going public, representative of a society’s own attempts to make sense of the revelations of corruption and malaise that both surrounded and implicated them on a continuous basis.

[Picture: Poster for The Long Goodbye, directed by Robert Altman and released in 1973]

In The Long Goodbye (1973), though, Altman and screenwriter Leigh Brackett take things further. Like the Coen Brothers more than two decades later in The Big Lebowski (1998), which owes much to Altman’s own film, they debunk a beloved text by Raymond Chandler. They modernise the narrative, adapting it to a contemporary setting more in line with the time of the film’s production. They also deglamourise the detective, making him a figure of fun rather than an urban knight. Marlowe, as played by Elliott Gould is a shambolic caricature, a misfit seemingly out of time and place. Despite his head being constantly shrouded in a cloud of tobacco smoke, however, a pattern gradually reveals itself to him. He co-creates his own narrative, one in which he is both player and played, complicit in the criminal activities of his friend, Terry Lennox (Jim Bouton). His betrayal, this erosion of trust, prompts him to assume the role of executioner. Altman’s Marlowe tracks Lennox down in Mexico and kills him in cold blood. Unsurprisingly, such liberties with Chandler’s character prompted howls of protest from the Marlowe aficionados. But it is representative of Altman’s non-conformist approach even as he was working within the generic traditions of the noir detective narrative.

This ability to work within a usually conservative industry and yet display a tendency towards creative and constructive rebellion is one I fully appreciate. It is something that Julian Stodd elegantly has labelled sanctioned subversion. Julian illustrates this with reference to the NHS Change Day initiative and the work of Helen Bevan and team in proactively developing a group of healthcare radicals. These are change agents in the making, people who are being encouraged to rattle cages and challenge the status quo. They will build their own networks and communities that will transcend the artificial dividing line between the inside and outside of the National Health Service and healthcare in general, building bridges to other initiatives, exposing themselves to a multiplicity of ideas and perspectives. The white paper that Helen and Steve Fairman have written is a great exercise in synthesis and distillation, bringing together a smorgasbord of ideas from change practitioners across the globe.

From such seeds, great things can grow. A continuous process of incremental and emergent change, nurtured by a network of committed change agents and sanctioned subversives, with rebellious leaders at the edges slowly infecting the organisation’s core with their ideas. The NHS initiative is one many other sectors could learn from.

Not all change uses official channels. Not all change is public and approved. There will be times when you might need to run a rebellion or even a revolution to make change happen, particularly in large organisations or large systems.
— Simon Terry, The Blocking Boss

As organizations become more technologically networked, they also face skilled, motivated and intelligent workers who can now see systemic dysfunctions. But those who talk about these problems are often branded as rebels. Pitting tribes of rebels against tribes of incumbent power-holders only detracts from the serious organizational redesign that needs to be done.
— Harold Jarche, Moving to the Edges

Around the world, there is an emerging movement of change agents who are committed to their organisations and want them to succeed but also want them to go about change in different, more radical ways and are stepping up as corporate change activists … These ‘radicals’, often operating at the edge of current thinking and practice, will espouse unorthodox views, question existing practice and open up new fields of inquiry and areas for action.
— Helen Bevan & Steve Fairman, The New Era of Thinking and Practice in Change and Transformation

Race day

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

Throw me in a landfill
Don’t think about the consequences
Throw me in the dirt pit
Don’t think about the choices that you make
Throw me in the water
Don’t think about the splash I will create
— Daughter, Landfill

When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking.
— Arthur Conan Doyle quoted in an 1896 edition of Scientific American

July 2013. Stage 9 of the Tour de France is under way. It is a challenging, mountainous stage from Saint-Girons to Bagnères-de-Bigorre, taking in a number of Pyrenéen cols. Chris Froome is already in the leader’s yellow jersey, and Team Sky’s role is to protect and consolidate his lead. Teammate Richie Porte is second on the general classification at the start of the day. But lurking behind them are a number of dangerous riders, including Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana from Movistar, Bauke Mollema and Laurens Ten Dam from Belkin Pro Cycling, and Alberto Contador and Roman Kreuziger from Saxo-Tinkoff. Team Sky, who put in a dominant mountain display the previous day on stage 8, are about to be seriously tested, prompting Froome at day’s end to observe that it has been one of the hardest days he has ever experienced on a bike.

Teams enter stage races with different goals. Some target overall victory, others solo or team time trials. Some are sprint specialists, while others are on the look out for opportunistic stage victories, putting riders into breakaways. Choices are determined by the composition of their teams, the route chosen by the race organisers, the weather conditions on certain days, the health of riders during the course of the race, and, naturally, race plans devised by the backroom team in collaboration with the cyclists. A well-documented example of the latter, covered in Rod Ellingworth’s book, Project Rainbow, is the extensive planning the British Cycling team put into the winning the Men’s UCI Road World Championships in Copenhagen in 2011. Stage 9 of the 2013 Tour was to see a different example of unconventional ideas getting beautifully executed by a team.

Dan Martin of Garmin Sharp lies in thirteen place on the general classification at the start of the day’s stage, some 2 minutes 48 seconds behind Froome. He has lost most of that time on the previous day’s stage as Froome and his Team Sky colleagues delivered a tour de force securing victory atop Ax 3 Domaines. Martin’s team has narrowly missed out on securing the leader’s yellow jersey on the opening stage of the Tour. They have also failed to achieve one of their pre-race objectives: winning the team time trial on stage 4. Their focus now shifts to a more disruptive, high-risk goal. Operating within a loose framework, informed by data analysis, but with decision-making delegated to the directeur sportif in the team car, as well as the riders on the road, they opt to do away with cycling tradition and attack the race as a collective.

This is a challenge to the status quo; change agency in action. As a team, in only the ninth stage of a 21-stage event, they are prepared to sacrifice riders and harm their chances of placing well in the overall race. Instead they adopt an all-or-nothing strategy, placing their trust in Martin, their designated leader and protected rider for the day. As the peloton climbs one col after another, the Garmin Sharp team attacks in waves, until Martin recognises an opportunity and launches an attack of his own. Even then, having traversed 169km and climbed five categorised cols, he will still need to beat Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) in a two-up sprint finish into Bagnères-de-Bigorre. By the end of the day Martin has raced into the top ten on the general classification. In the process, while not dislodging Froome from the race lead, Martin and his colleagues have exposed Team Sky’s vulnerabilities. Porte’s chances of finishing on the podium now lie in tatters.

[Photo credit: Directing Tour de France fans in the Olympic Park. Taken by Richard Martin, 07/07/14]

Martin’s victory, though, is not so much the product of team tactics, as of a number of interdependent factors that favoured them on the day. Certainly team spirit and common purpose are both features, as are Martin’s own intuition, decision-making and athletic capability. But so too are the route chosen for the stage, the favourable weather conditions, the temporary dip in form of the Sky team, the concerted effort of other teams, especially Movistar, to take the race to Team Sky, and the early isolation of Froome himself. Serendipity and luck play their role too. These are not things you can plan for. Indeed, the racing aggression and risk taking displayed by Garmin Sharp and Movistar, in comparison with Team Sky’s more conservative approach on the day, illustrate the misguidedness of conventional planning. As Ian Sanders and David Sloly argue in Mash-up!, ‘Most plans are rubbish, written by people who are guessing the future based on what has happened in the past. The past is exactly that, the past; it has gone, and even though it has a habit of repeating it can’t be used as an absolute map for the future.

Grand Tour bike races are great examples of the interconnectedness of multiple systems. That applies within the context of the race itself and the actions of the cyclists, as demonstrated by Martin and his fellow members of the peloton. More broadly, it also applies to the organisation of the races and their impact on the numerous communities that host the start and finish of each stage, as well as those that lie on the day’s route. This was really brought home to me yesterday as I stood by the roadside next to London’s Olympic Park as stage 3 of the 2014 edition of the Tour came to town. Everywhere was evidence of the Tour organisers’ collaboration with British counterparts. Different bodies had been mobilised, including Transport for London, the British police force and the French gendarmerie. Roads were closed. Crowds controlled. The media flitted in and out of the race on motorbikes or hovered above it in helicopters. The cyclists were preceded by the commercial excesses and blaring Euro pop of the Tour caravane, as well as by VIP vehicles, press cars and police outriders. Then in among the cyclists and bringing up the rear were race officials, team cars, cameramen. It was fluid, chaotic, agile and speedy. Elsewhere team coaches and other vehicles carrying support staff, chefs, soigneurs and mechanics were heading into central London. Yet other systems came into play too, not least the weather, which turned from sunshine to rain as the riders headed towards the finish line on the Mall.

Cycling history is littered with stories of the impact of inclement weather, notably, in recent memory, the snow-affected Milan-San Remo race of 2013. Then there is the rogue or simply vacant element in the roadside crowds, such as the tack droppers who attempted to sabotage the 2012 Tour and the selfie-photographers that lined the Yorkshire roads in 2014. There are also numerous tales of the role railway level crossings have played in proceedings, holding cyclists up as others, who managed to get over the crossings before the barriers came down, race away to victory. It is a sport that demonstrates that everything connects. A sport steeped in and interwoven with politics and media throughout its history, with both the Tour and the Giro d’Italia originally conceived to sell newspapers.

It is this very interconnectedness, this interplay of multiple systems, that reinforces my belief in the peloton formation as an apt metaphor for a modern, agile, adaptive and responsive organisation. One that has to operate under loose frameworks, tolerating risk, constrained by Government and regulatory policy, responding to shifting market conditions, seeking to evolve, transform, succeed, survive.

Well I think in a lot of organisations we actually create quite a muddy picture of the goals and priorities that we have got. I think in all organisations we can be much clearer about the strategy, what it is we are trying to achieve, to get buy in to that, to be absolutely sure about the roles and responsibilities that individuals play in reaching those goals. Unless people have a shared set of goals that they can identify with and they are getting constant feedback that they are moving towards those goals or moving away from those goals, then they are not going to achieve them. So I think we can all learn something from really discussing the goals amongst the stakeholders involved and really ensuring that there is some clarity.
— David Denyer, Leadership Lessons from British Cycling

Using vivid storytelling techniques, including themes, symbols, imagery, rituals, mantras and metaphor, and bringing them to life with imagination and flair, leaders create a sense of inclusion, connectedness and unity – a truly collective, collaborative mindset. It begins by asking Why? Why are we doing this? Why am I sacrificing myself for this project? What is the higher purpose?
— James Kerr, Legacy

Systems thinking bridges these two approaches by using both analysis and synthesis to create knowledge and understanding and integrating an ethical perspective. Analysis answers the ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions while synthesis answers the ‘why’ and ‘what for’ questions. By combining analysis and synthesis, systems thinking creates a rich inquiring platform.
— Kathia C. Laszlo, From Systems Thinking to Systems Being

Creative constraint

So: with words
we do dance over all things, speech is
beautiful folly. For we are of language as
the world is of silence. Words slice
through the surface of the mirror, of darkness, like
shark fins, shining under the moon. Into the world, then–
but with speech to hold these things in place.
— James Sallis, Temptation of Silence

So you finally got what you wanted
You’ve achieved your aim by making the walking lame
And when you just can’t get any higher
You use your senses to suss out this week’s climber
And the small fame that you’ve acquired
Has brought you into cult status
But to me you’re still a collector
— The Jam, The Butterfly Collector

You’ve seen the world
What did it look like?
You took a plane
I’ll take a push bike
Run with the wolves
Calling all the wolf pack
When did you go and when did you get back?
— The Vaccines, Wolf Pack

Less is more. It is a worldview to which I have subscribed for much of my life. I am a man sparing with the spoken word. Someone who mastered the art form of the three-page essay as an undergraduate, and who was subsequently overwhelmed by the requirement to write a book-length thesis as a postgraduate. The stark paintings of Edward Hopper enthral me. Taciturn cowboys and detectives entertain me. The sleek, uncluttered design of Apple gadgets attract me. The 140-character tweet suits me. Yet this tendency towards minimalism has been challenged and gently subverted by the value I have come to place on networks. I have witnessed how a network, even one largely comprised of weak ties, provides succour. I have also benefited from the wisdom of the crowd, from that notion of powerful knowledge residing not in the individual but in the networked collective. This is knowledge unleashed, built on relationships. But is is also knowledge as firehose, at times lacking direction and focus.

So how to reconcile this apparent contradiction? This simultaneous desire for community and the recognition that small is beautiful? This acquisition and tapping into the knowledge and experience of others counterbalanced by the need for action? The free flow of energy and ideas and the imposition of limitations? In fact, increasingly I am coming to the view that constraint can be a catalyst to innovation and creativity, to the more targeted identification and implementation of solutions. Clearly, I am not alone in holding that perspective either. For example, my fellow change agent and advocate of new ways of working, Sharon Richardson, recently observed, ‘Don’t be fooled that efficiency and creativity cannot share the same space in business. Efficiency is often a driver for creativity. Limits force us to get inventive with our solutions.

In response to Sharon’s post, I shared some personal observations from my time working in the UK public sector. Having worked in the volatile environment of a start-up during the expansion and popping of the bubble, entering the NHS had been a significant culture shock. Everywhere I looked I saw excess and waste. Time slowed down. Decisions were made by committee rather than individuals. Small fortunes were wasted on vapourware. Disenfranchised staff members kicked their heels, biding their time until their pensions were ready for collection. Moving on to a small health regulator, one of numerous arms-length bodies affiliated to the Department of Health, I began to see the old public sector ways gradually challenged and usurped. Change was accelerated with the financial crash and the election of a new government. For a short period, the public sector that I was exposed to appeared to be a hotbed of creativity. Small organisations under threat of abolition, financially constrained and unable to recruit without ministerial approval, were taking their own destiny into their hands. Why not be creative now with their limited resources? Why not experiment when their days may be numbered anyway? Long-established public bodies were suddenly behaving like private sector start-ups.

[Picture credit: Screen grab by Kyle Read of a Kate Bingaman-Burt Creative Mornings Lecture]

For me, this was a great example of limitations catalysing positive change. But it was all too short-lived. Extend the budgetary constraints, haemorrhage personnel and their knowledge, impose an excess of policy and process, and things can tip in the other direction. It is a fine balancing act. Something recognised by Ed Catmull, drawing on his experiences in the film industry: ‘My rule of thumb is that any time we impose limits or procedures, we should ask how they will aid in enabling people to respond creatively. If the answer is that they won’t, then the proposals are ill suited to the task at hand.’ It is something I recognise from my own film studies too. Some of the movies I responded to most strongly when exploring the evolution of film noir, for example, tended to be the B films of the 1940s and 1950s and the independently-produced, small-budget films of the 1990s. In these cases, filmmakers where constrained by budgetary limitations, small cast and crews, as well as generic conventions. They collected ideas, even sets and props, from high budget A films and reworked them. Limited resources became an aid to creativity, leading to inventive lighting and editing styles. A favourite story from the 1990s is that of Robert Rodriguez who offered his body up for medical research in order to fund the production of his micro-budget El Mariachi. A film that is infinitely superior to the big-budget sequels he went on to make as part of the Hollywood machine.

Reuven Gorsht is another who has been exploring the benefits of limitations and constraints, with an emphasis on quality over quantity. He picks up some of the same themes that have been explored by the likes of Dave Gray, Lee Bryant and Alan Patrick. Each of them, in their writing or their presentations, have pointed to the power of small pods or units, whether in a business or a military context. Reuven observes, ‘People in smaller teams are far more productive. As group size rises, all sorts of issues spring up and individual performance levels diminish. So while larger teams may be getting more done altogether, it’s happening at a rate lower than the sum of individual efforts.’ Only yesterday I witnessed this in action. Participating in an early-morning workshop, it was notable that a number of invitees did not show up. The knock-on effect was reduced inhibition, the free and frank exchange of views, and a highly productive, action-oriented two hours.

I suppose one of the reasons I am so interested in the notion of creative constraint is that I am now operating on borrowed time. The work I am delivering in the next few months is time-bound and has an end date, at which point I will be leaving my current employer. This focuses the mind, prompting a higher level of creative thinking and a quest for effective solutions. It is both liberating and a little frightening, as hanging over me is the question of What next? Will others recognise what I have to offer? See that I want to help? Accept my generalism as a benefit rather than a drawback? Knowing your employment arrangements will end on a certain date also helps improve the quality of the conversations you have. I am turning to this amazing network that I participate in, seeking guidance and advice, but trying too to sip from the faucet rather than turn it on full blast.

I am seeking and collecting nuggets of information and wisdom. Trying to make sense of my options, using these online and real-world connections to help prompt creative solutions. The net is cast wide, while the focal point is at the same time very narrow. The bridging of contradictions. A clarity of objective, with a potentially ambiguous outcome.

The Web is changing our understanding of what puts things together in the first place. We live in a world that works well if the pieces are stable and have predictable effects on one another. We think of complex institutions and organizations as being well-oiled machines that work reliably and almost serenely so long as their subordinate pieces perform their designated tasks. Then we go on the Web, and the pieces are so loosely joined that frequently the links don’t work … the Web is binding not just pages but us human beings in new ways. We are the true “small pieces” of the Web, and we are loosely joining ourselves in ways that we’re still inventing.
— David Weinberger, Small Pieces Loosely Joined

Productivity and growth are no longer linear, if they ever were. They have gone quantum. Small teams can produce millions of dollars of value, seemingly from nothing, whilst huge, lumbering bureaucratic departments with massive resources can struggle to produce any at all. Even large firms should be capable of creating protected spaces where talented teams can operate in the most effective way possible. Is it really possible to inject Twenty-First Century technologies, skills and values into long-established corporations? Are they prepared to take the pain of change, or is innovation tourism the most they can aspire to?
— Lee Bryant, The Shift Has Happened

Pods are more powerful when they are networked together. A platform supports the work of the pods and gives them a way to coordinate their activities in a peer-to-peer way.
— Dave Gray with Thomas Vander Wal, The Connected Company

Dreams of detection

The urge to know, to rationalize, is one of the primary qualities of the detective – his process of discovery through the labyrinth of crime forms the central structure of the mystery narrative. The viewer, sharing the detective’s perspective, anticipates the final explanation, when each character’s place in the scheme of things becomes logical and apparent.
— Peter Knowles, Genre and Authorship

Noir protagonists need to investigate themselves as much as the culture and the crime.
— Woody Haut, Neon Noir

Hammett not only brought detective fiction to a new level of technical and artistic achievement, he also inaugurated the antidetective novel by dissipating the binary oppositions of detective/villain, good/evil, and order/disorder that characterized the rational moralism of the formal English novel of detection [...] Unlike Poe’s, however, Hammett’s language does not affirm a positive vision of knowledge. There is for him no master epistemology such as rationalism that will allow him to solve the dilemmas he is presented with, partly because the problems he engages are not limited to the solving of a whodunit: a crime in hard-boiled fiction always signifies the presence of a wider social or political malaise of which the corpse is merely the signifier. Ultimately, there can be no solution to a crime, because crime is not extrinsic to the system but intrinsic, part of it. Even if the detective discovers the identity of the murderer, the implications of the crime extend far beyond the matter of a mere corpse and are so endemic that they are, finally, intractable. If in the formal English novel of detection the resolution of the crime seeks – unsuccessfully, I would argue – to exonerate society, the ending in the hard-boiled novel almost invariably suggests the wholesale corruption of society. Individuals may be exempt, but the social order stands condemned.
— Jon Thompson, Fiction, Crime, and Empire

La vida es sueño. Life is a dream, according to Calderón de la Barca. So how do you anchor it? How do you give it purpose. I am fascinated by the ways companies seek to do this, setting out mission statements, distilling purpose into pithy phrases, writing strategy documents on a cyclical basis. Do they seek to make sense of the world through their corporate actions? Or do they impose their vision of the world on an unsuspecting public in a devious form of transference? According to A.G. Lafley and Roger Martin, strategy is all about winning. I have to confess that leaves me hugely dissatisfied. Disillusioned even. Winning just is not my end goal. Service is. Empathy is. Understanding is. Sense-making is. I guess it is a form of existential angst, something that fuels my fascination with the figure of the detective and its recurrent appearance in this blog.

Often I think it is our cultural artefacts that better reflect the underlying mood, interests and concerns of our times. Maybe the sensibilities and sensitivities of our artists are just more finely attuned to the zeitgeist than those of our politicians and captains of industry. Maybe self-reflection and investigation is something artists are more comfortable with, while statesmen and business people are preoccupied with beating and forcing their views upon others. One artist whose work I am constantly drawn to as it explores issues relating to purpose, meaning, reality and role-playing is filmmaker Christopher Nolan. From the identity crises of the Batman series to the mixture of magic, science and duality in The Prestige, from the dream-building of Inception to the memory loss, sense-making and detection of Memento, Nolan’s is a body of work that challenges our preconceptions about reality, ontology and purpose.

[Image: Poster for Memento, written and directed by Christopher Nolan]

As with many of my favoured artists, Nolan debunks our understanding of space and time, explores the fragmentation of personal identity, focuses on moral turpitude, and moves his viewers to positions of ambiguity rather than clarity. He proves himself over and again to be a genuine cross-pollinator, a bridge crosser who can introduce philosophical and sociological themes and ideas into mainstream cinema, or who can take mainstream genres and deconstruct them, challenging the formal traditions that characterise the medium. This is well illustrated by the narrative structure of Memento in which two separate timelines converge. These are intercut, with a black-and-white sequence of scenes progressing chronologically, and a colour sequence jumping progressively further back in time. This takes the formal experimentation of film noir (known for its voiceovers and flashbacks) to an extreme. It serves to illustrate the mental disjunctures of the protagonist, as well as puncturing audience expectations. In Inception, on the other hand, we are presented with a Russian-doll-like structure. Dreams within dreams within dreams. We have to journey down to the bottom of these layered dreamscapes with the protagonists, then resurface through each one like a diver ascending through the ocean but trying to avoid a case of the bends. This is an artist as deep thinker, as innovative leader, as subject matter specialist, as technical expert.

In J.K. Rowling’s novel Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, there is a scene in which Albus Dumbledore advises Harry, ‘It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that.’ It is a theme that Nolan mines in several of his films. In The Prestige, for example, the twin brothers played by Christian Bale do not perform real magic in the grand finale to their show but a simulacrum of it. While their rival seeks out scientific solutions and disturbs the natural order of things, they share a life, an identity and a partner. Or rather two lives – one associated with performance and magic, another off-screen, private and unseen. In Inception, Mal (Marion Cotillard) goes too deep into the dream world. Her bridge, like the buildings around her, collapses and she is no longer able to distinguish between reality and illusion. Ultimately, this costs her her own life and threatens the psychic integrity of her partner, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), who survives her. It is an important point in a world of multiple, interconnected systems. People, companies, countries cannot operate in isolation from all that surrounds them. Everything connects. Rain falls from English skies and Saharan sand dusts our streets. Try for full disconnection and entropy will prevail. This is a possible outcome when the bridges leading into Gotham City are blown up in Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, the final instalment of his Batman trilogy.

With Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) in Memento, it is his mental bridges that have been destroyed. Suffering from anterograde amnesia, Leonard is unable to access memories of recent events. His life becomes a continuous work of detection. His body, covered in tattoos, and his annotated polaroid photographs, are data repositories that inform ill-judged decisions, supplemented by manipulative advisers with ulterior motives. Like the protagonists of The Big Clock and No Way Out, Leonard becomes his own quarry. He has given himself purpose, sifting clues, hunting down his wife’s murderer and exacting his vengeance upon them. Unable to retain memories, however, he does not realise that he has mistakenly followed this cycle at least twice. All along he alone, victim of his mental condition, is responsible for his wife’s demise — an accidental death from over-medication rather than the different tragedy he has constructed in his damaged mind. Now he is a willing servant to a Sisyphean cycle of repetition. His purpose is distorted, misguided and damaging to those around him.

Leonard walks away from one corpse he is soon to forget, his purpose now to create a new one. His mission is self-centred and self-serving, creating huge collateral damage along the way. His vision is blinkered and myopic. He is wholly reliant on misleading data. I worry that too many ‘winning’ businesses can be described in exactly the same way.

Because of this at this moment I know
something of the future, how it will
give itself to us slowly, its reticence.
— James Sallis, Trying to Surface

Walk in silence,
Don’t walk away, in silence.
See the danger,
Always danger,
Endless talking,
Life rebuilding,
Don’t walk away.

Walk in silence,
Don’t turn away, in silence.
Your confusion,
My illusion,
Worn like a mask of self-hate,
Confronts and then dies.
Don’t walk away.

People like you find it easy,
Naked to see,
Walking on air.
Hunting by the rivers,
Through the streets,
Every corner abandoned too soon,
Set down with due care.
Don’t walk away, in silence,
Don’t walk away.
— Joy Division, Atmosphere


Something of the abysmal darkness of the world has broken in on us, poisoning the very air we breathe and befouling the pure water with the stale, nauseating taste of blood.
— C.G. Jung, Essays on Contemporary Events

The political and social struggles of our time are not concerned merely with external changes and new borders – they involve the very core of our existence. A civil war is being fought inside every soul; and the movies reflect the uncertainties of that war in the form of general inner disintegration and mental disturbance.
— Siegfried Kracauer, Hollywood’s Terror Films

In movies celebrated for their portrayal of the unseen, the war is the singular invisible beast, the Damned Thing, that stalks around and bends the grass as we look in vain for shade of hide or hair.
— Alexander Nemerov, Icons of Grief

Cat People was a landmark film in the history of American horror cinema. It was the first in a series of low-budget feature films to be produced by Val Lewton’s unit at RKO with the aim of competing with the horror productions from other big studios such as Universal. While borrowing favoured archetypes from the Universal films of the 1930s and early 1940s, in particular that of the shapeshifting protagonist, Cat People was notable for its mise-en-scène, inventive use of sound, and its stylistic visual effects. The latter was principally the work of cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, putting into effect the desire of Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur to play with shadows, engaging the imagination of the movie-going public by means of suggestion. The lighting, which at times recalled Musuraca’s earlier work on the atmospheric Stranger on the Third Floor, was to influence the evolution of film noir as much as it was the 1940s horror film. Cat People was also innovative as an example of the latter genre in locating the bulk of its narrative in a recognisably contemporary US setting, focusing on a story populated largely by everyman US citizens who are threatened by the duality and otherness of the Serbian immigrant to New York City, female protagonist Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon).

The film opens in the Central Park Zoo with Irena, a fashion artist by trade, sketching in front of the panther cage. A chance encounter with ‘good old Americano’ Oliver Reed (Kent Smith), following Irena’s clumsy attempt to dispose of her first drawing, soon leads to friendship and romantic interest. Irena reveals her loneliness and sense of isolation to Oliver, while also disclosing an obsession with a mysterious cultural heritage evidenced by the many images of cats in her apartment and a statue of the Serbian King John with a cat-like figure impaled on his sword. It becomes evident that Irena believes that she is descended from a line of devil-worshipping, lycanthropic witches who have the power to transform themselves into large predatory cats when aroused to sexual passion, jealousy or rage. She tells Oliver that she has ‘fled from the past, from things that you could never know or understand – evil things’.

An encounter with a feline-looking woman in a Serbian restaurant on the night of Irena’s and Oliver’s wedding, who addresses Irena in their native tongue as ‘my sister’, fills Irena with terror. As a result, she refuses to consummate her marriage. Oliver, despite his apparent understanding, is dismissive of Irena’s beliefs and, as his frustration mounts at the unfulfilled relationship, he increasingly seeks solace in the companionship of his work colleague and fellow draftsman Alice Moore (Jane Randolph). Addressing their failing marriage, Irena and Oliver decide that it would be best if she undergo treatment with a psychiatrist. Irena is not convinced by the Freudian approach adopted by the predatory Dr Louis Judd (Tom Conway). Under hypnosis, however, she does reveal to him the history of the Serbian cat women and the fact that she appears to suffer from intermittent amnesia. Her unwillingness to revisit Judd causes further tension between Oliver and herself, and fuels Irena’s suspicions about the burgeoning relationship between him and Alice.

In two celebrated sequences, Irena in panther form (although this is not seen onscreen) terrorises Alice, first as she travels home through Central Park, then at the swimming pool in her YWCA building. When Oliver finally professes his love for Alice to Irena, and offers her a divorce, Irena again assumes panther form (this time explicitly shown onscreen). She is on the point of attacking the couple at their workplace when Oliver, using an architect’s T-square as an improvised crucifix, beseeches her to leave them alone. Returning home, Irena finds Judd waiting for her. While Oliver now believes all that Irena has told him regarding her shapeshifting capabilities, Judd remains entirely dismissive of her story. His interest in Irena is wholly sexual rather than pastoral. Irena willingly submits to a kiss in the knowledge that this will trigger another transformation. In the ensuing struggle, although Judd is killed, he wounds Irena with his sword-cane, a weapon that aligns him with the statue of King John and all that that symbolises. Irena makes her way again to the site of frequent visits – the panther’s cage at the zoo. Using the key that she has stolen from the zookeeper earlier in the film, she opens the cage in a suicidal gesture, allowing the panther to attack and kill her before it is itself run over by a police car. The film ends with all-American couple, Oliver and Alice, walking away from the Serbian cat woman’s corpse. Normality and the patriarchal order are apparently restored.

[Picture credit: Poster from the 1942 film Cat People]

For a 70-minute B film, Cat People is an incredibly rich text and has lent itself to interpretation under a variety of critical methodologies. Genre theorists, for example, have made a case for Cat People as a horror film, a film noir, and a hybrid of the two. Auteurists have argued both in favour of producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur. The film has also been subjected to psychological and analytical interrogation drawing variously on the theories of Freud, Jung and Fromm; to feminist, queer and race analysis; and to interpretation in terms of the mythical and the fantastic. Popular with film audiences of the forties, it subsequently was held in high esteem by a generation of film-school-educated critics, academics and filmmakers in Europe and the USA. This resulted in a remake by Paul Schrader in 1982, as well as extensive references in Kiss of the Spider Woman, a 1976 novel by Manuel Puig. Its commercial and critical success, its enduring legacy, is suggestive of an on-going cultural fascination with the notion of shapeshifting. This is a tradition that includes figures like Dracula, the werewolf, Kafka’s Gregory Samsa and several characters in the Harry Potter series. In this sense, Cat People is both timeless and very much of its time, tapping into WWII-period anxieties about otherness, dislocation, exile and the rise of Fascism in Europe (panther as panzer), the self-sufficiency of women in the workforce during male absence in overseas conflicts, and the tension between tradition and modernity.

In his The Myth of the Eternal Return, philosopher and religious historian Mircea Eliade counterpoints archaic humans, who build their understanding of the world through magic and mythology, with modern people, who experience their lives as a linear sequence of events through historical time. In Eliade’s view, one of the contributory factors to humankind’s anxiety and existential angst is this acceptance of linearity, the abandonment of mythical thought and the resulting ‘terror of history’. Little wonder, then, as we continue to evolve and build awareness and understanding of both ourselves as humans and of the world we inhabit, that people seek to reintegrate mythical ideas into our perspective. The cat women of a magical past become incorporated into the tapestry of the most modern of modern cities. Myths – in oral, written and now cinematic traditions – provide both lessons and escape. They offer keys to understanding, or at least a mechanism to assimilate and reflect (as witness the popularity of the vampire in the era of HIV/AIDS, for example). Just how many recent business writers and bloggers have made reference to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces? How many include allusions to archetype-driven narratives like The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and The Matrix?

Frédéric Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations is a fascinating study of the evolution of human consciousness and the different models we have adopted to organise ourselves through time. He highlights how humanity builds on the past, using it as a scaffolding, but also evolves, adapts and refines. Each new model has many elements from those that came before, but significant evolutionary changes too. Many of these models co-exist in the modern world. Some are forward-looking, focused on the whole person and their interactions in a community. Others are more entrenched in past beliefs and practices, emphasising the cult of the all-powerful individual. The former allows for a meeting of human advancement and mythology, a unification of world views, the closing of a circle. The latter fluctuates between the kind of authority enjoyed by deities and monarchs and the cold logic and numeracy associated with science and industry. All are part of the melting pot we call modern life, with different communities and organisations demonstrating preferences for different models.

What happens, though, when, as in Cat People, different models, different ways of responding to and living in the world, collide? Is it possible to dismantle evolutionary change? Can myth prevail again? Do the vampires infect everyone, turning them all into shapeshifters? Laloux recounts the ultimately sad tale of AES and the reaction of shareholders to a particular incident, prompting increasing challenge to the company’s modern working practices and a move backwards towards centralisation and control. Cat People also suggests that disturbances to the status quo will only be tolerated briefly, before retrenchment ensues and order is reimposed.

Or does it? After all, there is at least one other cat woman still at large by film’s end.

Change is continuous and evolutionary. It never ends, spiralling through time, echoing elements of what has gone before even as it progresses.

Part of our job is to protect the new from people who don’t understand that in order for greatness to emerge, there must be phases of not-so-greatness. Think of a caterpillar morphing into a butterfly – it only survives because it is encased in a cocoon. It survives, in other words, because it is protected from that which would damage it.
— Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace, Creativity, Inc.

Experience shows that efforts to bring Teal practices into subsets of organizations bear fruit, at best, only for a short while. If the CEO and the top leadership see the world through Amber or Orange lenses (Green’s tolerance allows for more hope), they will consider the Teal experiment frivolous, if not outright dangerous. They might allow it for a while until they understand what is going on. But ultimately, the pyramid will get its way and reassert control.
— Frédéric Laloux, Reinventing Organizations

Art as rat

Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage.
— The Smashing Pumpkins, Bullet with Butterfly Wings

You don’t know what it is, but there’s got to be more
You’d better find a way out, hey, kick down the door
It’s a rat trap and you’ve been caught
In this town, Billy says, “everybody’s tryin’ to tell you what to do”
In this town, Billy says, “everybody says you gotta follow rules”.
— The Boomtown Rats, Rat Trap

I’d been painting rats for three years before someone said ‘that’s clever it’s an anagram of art’ and I had to pretend I’d known that all along.
— Banksy, Wall and Piece

The rat. It is a creature that many people find abhorrent. They categorise it as vermin and associate it literally and metaphorically with negative images. The rat as scourge of the seafarers who traversed and mapped our world. The rat as carrier of disease and purveyor of the Black Death. The rat as sewer resident and symbol of squalor. The lab rat as unwitting and unclean victim of scientific experiment, which suffers so that humanity might prosper. The rat race as representative of the never-ending, meaningless pursuit that some associate with modern life, in particular their jobs. I confess that I share this jaundiced view of the rat, a shiver running down my spine whenever I observe one running along the tunnels of the London Underground or scurrying around refuse piled up in the streets. However, I really enjoy the way that certain artists are challenging these preconceptions. Banksy’s playful observation about the word rat being an anagram of art is a case in point.

Banksy himself has been responsible for a series of graffiti images that confront our rat prejudices. His rat artworks, some of which are documented in Wall and Piece, are both playful and challenging. Before Banksy some of the silver screen favourites of the 1950s and 1960s organised themselves as The Rat Pack, originally around Humphrey Bogart then, after his death, in a slightly different configuration around Frank Sinatra. Their beauty, charm and success pointedly undermined by their collective name. The animated film studio Pixar also has taken up the baton with their 2007 feature film Ratatouille, based on an excellent screenplay by writer-director Brad Bird. Not only does this challenge our feelings about rats, it goes so far as to humanise them, with the lead character, Remy, walking upright on his hind legs and seeking to emulate his deceased hero, Auguste Gusteau, as a master chef.

[Photo: ‘I'm out of bed and dressed - what more do you want?’ by Banksy, Hollywood, March 2011]

Rat as rebel
Although his father, Django, is the leader of their rat pack, Remy lives on the edges. He is a rebel. He constantly explores and experiments. He seeks out new knowledge, learning through success and failure, using lightning to cook, for example, trusting his highly developed senses of taste and smell. He refuses to conform to the status quo, challenging what it means to be a rat. He alone among the rats walks on two legs (an interesting adjustment to the film that Ed Catmull recounts in Creativity, Inc.). He alone consumes like a human – whether it is food, literature or television shows. Occasionally he influences his brother, Emile, to take a walk on the wild side, but only he consistently challenges the preordained path that has been chosen for him as a scavenger and four-legged creature. His understanding of human language and communication has exposed him to Gusteau’s lifelong mantra that anyone can cook. This inspires his every action in the remainder of the film.

Rat as puppeteer
On his arrival in Paris, Remy develops a symbiotic relationship with a human, Alfredo Linguini. The latter is a clumsy new arrival in the celebrated Gusteau’s kitchen, which is now run by his former sous-chef, the temperamental Skinner. The relationship between rat and human evolves quickly. Fear and threat give way to authorised control and collaboration. Remy, a chef-in-the-making developing in both confidence and skill, learns that he can act as puppeteer. By pulling different clumps of hair on Linguini’s head, Remy is able to master the movements of the human’s limbs, cooking by remote control. As Linguini experiences one success after another, piloted by Remy, the rat becomes consigliere and confidant, witness too to the burgeoning relationship between his human friend and Colette. There are inevitable peaks and troughs for both rat and human, but by film’s end proper partnerships have been established between the rat and several humans – Linguini as front of house, Colette as kitchen collaborator, and Anton Ego as supportive critic and reformed cynic.

Rat as artist
These three humans display trust in Remy. They recognise and applaud his artistry and creativity, and seek to nurture the conditions in which his talents can take root and grow. Gusteau set out a vision: anyone can cook. Remy makes it his life’s work to realise this vision. His is an existential quest to give his life meaning and purpose. Shakespeare suggested that all the world’s a stage. Calderón de la Barca countered with life is a dream. Maybe so, but for Remy his life is cooking, cooking is his work, and his work is his art. In producing such art he demonstrates not only his creativity, his appreciation of the senses and understanding of his audience, but he also makes himself vulnerable, offering himself up to criticism and interpretation.

Small is beautiful
What Remy also succeeds in doing is infecting his fellow rats with his ideas. He gives them purpose, transforming his father’s rat pack into teams of kitchen staff, preparing food, cleaning, collaborating. This truly is an example of small pieces loosely joined, an idea developed by David Weinberger and invoked by Neil Usher in a blog post today. Neil signs off his post with a great observation: ‘The power of small to succeed is enormous. The potential of enormous to fail is enormous.’ This is well illustrated in the film, with Remy’s boutique kitchen, serving quality cuisine that looks like high art but is evocative of home cooking, counterpointed by Skinner’s soulless kitchen operation and his dabbling in the world of corporate, industrialised, heavily marketed frozen food products.

The film shows us that small is beautiful, purpose is everything, and that rats do make art.

If you are dirty, insignificant and unloved then rats are the ultimate role model.
— Banksy, Wall and Piece

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But, the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things… the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.
— Anton Ego in the Pixar film Ratatouille