Correspondence and conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creative edges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Picture credit: Walk the Line by Shonagh Rae]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work in progress

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

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

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

Constraint serving as a catalyst to creativity is a topic that has been explored before on this blog. It certainly has informed my recent experience. This relates to work on a Pecha Kucha presentation regarding the subject of peloton formations. It is to be delivered at the Workplace Trends conference on 15 October. As I mentioned in Open work, I have been inspired by Jonathan Anthony and the way in which he worked out loud about the development of his own Pecha Kucha earlier this year. I do not have Jonathan’s discipline of blogging on an almost daily basis. However, in what follows I share the slides that I have put together, the thinking that went into each slide, and what I am planning on saying. Or rather reciting. The constraint in play here is the fact that 20 slides have to be covered at a rate of 20 seconds per slide. The danger is that you have too much or too little to say on each slide. You end up either rushing or standing silently waiting for the next slide. How to establish some sort of rhythm? The answer that occurred to me was rhyming couplets. Three per slide. The following recycles and polishes ideas already explored on this blog and in a July interview with Stowe Boyd. It is a work in progress… Image and idea Peloton PK slides.001 As I approached my 40s, I rediscovered a love for cycling. Physical activity and rides through the Kentish countryside on a new road bike were quickly followed by an interest in professional road racing. Hours were spent watching the sport, reading about it in voluminous depth, making my first visits to classic races like Paris Roubaix and the Tour de France. An obsession quickly had established itself. Around the same time I developed a growing awareness of different approaches to the world of work, different ideas about how we might organise ourselves, think about leadership and learning, and the relationship between companies, their partners, suppliers and customers. At some point the interests began to intertwine. Peloton PK slides.002 There are many metaphors in business. Many rely on nature: swarms of insects, murmurations of starlings, schools of fish, worker ants, termite mounds. As we are focusing on people, though, I wanted to use a human example. One that also suggested the communion between us, technology and machine: the cycling peloton. For me, this is ann example of the responsive, adaptive organisation to which many of us aspire. The peloton is united in common purpose. But there are many different objectives within its confines. Some members aim for the overall victory, some for the different jerseys on offer, some for stage wins on specific days, some simply for television exposure and advertising opportunities for their corporate sponsors. Peloton PK slides.003 As with a company, its internal operation and its partnership with external organisations, the peloton is rife with competition, collaboration, cooperation and co-creation. The competition can be at an individual and a team level, just as a corporation may compete with other companies as well as internally for people, money, technology and other resources. On occasion, though, both businesses and members of different cycling teams will partner to mutual benefit. Within a cycling team itself, all work together for a common objective. One person crosses the finish line in first place, but often this is a team victory rather than an individual one. Peloton PK slides.004 This mixture of competition, collaboration and cooperation can be seen in the breakaways that often form early on during each day of professional cycling races. It is informed by cooperative effort between team rivals and co-creation as the group pulls away from the peloton, then work together to stay away. The breakaway competes with the peloton, trying to remain out of the latter’s reach. Competition within the breakaway only resurfaces once the finish line is within their grasp. The breakaway is cycling’s skunk works. A place of experimentation, frequent failure and constant learning. Peloton PK slides.005 Often to be seen in the breakaway is the baroudeur. These are cycling’s change agents, the non-conformists, who frequently question and challenge the status quo, rattling cages, ignoring reputations, and stamping their own personalities on the race. Here you see Thomas Voeckler, loved by the fans for his devil-may-care attitude and on-the-bike gurning. He has been responsible for animating many races, attacking at will, trying to shake things up. He is less loved by his colleagues in the peloton, because he constantly leads them to the unknown, challenging and stretching them, making them suffer as he innovates and animates. Peloton PK slides.006 Another personality in the peloton is the sprinter. These are the accomplished PR men, smooth communicators who understand that it is their jobs to unite their teams in common purpose. The team’s goal is to enable them to cross the finishing line, arms in the air, exposing their sponsor’s logos. The sprinters take the plaudits and the glory on behalf of the team, ensuring that the victory is savoured and shared by all as they greet their teammates at the finish line. Peloton PK slides.007 An efficient, well organised but responsive sprint train is like poetry in motion. Each member of the team puts in their own effort at the front of a line of riders, taking the wind resistance and providing shelter for their teammates behind them. With 300m to go the last member peels off, leaving the ground open for their nominated sprinter to finish the job. This is like agile project delivery, each member of the team knowing exactly what is expected of them and when, but responding to minor variations around them. Peloton PK slides.008 Sprinters like Marcel Kittel, André Greipel and Mark Cavendish are beneficiaries of the work of well practised sprint trains. They are the ones who cross the line with his arms in the air. But that is the outcome of the high efficiency and continuous improvement achieved by their teams. Collectively, their teams are serial winners. They maintain a high ratio of wins though seeking marginal improvements, and responding to shifting conditions and context in the peloton. This is agile project delivery. At the 2009 Tour de France, for example, Cavendish crossed the line in first place 6 times. On the final stage, which finished on the Champs Élysée in Paris, so effective were the Columbia HTC team that both the final lead-out man, Mark Renshaw, and Cavendish were far enough ahead of the field to claim first and second places in the sprint. As a team, Columbia HTC improved stage victory by stage victory throughout the Tour. Peloton PK slides.009 Teams tend to operate under loose frameworks rather than minutely detailed plans. Any plan, in this respect, is only ever guidance. The riders on the road have the autonomy to respond to what they observe around them. Crashes. Poor form. Exceptional form. Shifts in climactic conditions. This is decision-making at the edges. Responsiveness and fluidity dominate. There was a good example of this in the 3rd stage of the 2009 Tour. Support staff had driven the stage route earlier in the day, and reported back on spots where opportunists might want to make a move. Michael Rogers, one of the Columbia HTC team, recognised that the they could attack the peloton as a group on a particularly sharp bend in the road, which was exposed to a strong cross wind. He called his team members to take action, and a concerted team effort fragmented the peloton and set up Cavendish for a sprint victory. Peloton PK slides.010 Even long-term goals, like the Great Britain team’s targeting of the 2011 men’s world road racing championship in Copenhagen (aka Project Rainbow), can only ever be informed by loose frameworks. Here the goal was to set up a bunch sprint finish, giving Mark Cavendish a chance, as one of the world’s fastest sprinters, to cross the line first. Each member of the team had a loosely defined role to help accomplish this, but the freedom to respond to what was happening around them. David Millar was the team captain on the road, but there were other leaders too, requiring some members of the team to protect Cavendish during the day, and others to lead and control the peloton. The goal was accomplished with tactics that were proactive, responsive and fluid, as required. Communication between team members and trust that had been built over a two-year period of preparation were key factors. Peloton PK slides.011 The fluidity or roles is hugely important in the peloton. They recall Jon Husband’s concept of wirearchy which highlights a dynamic, two-way flow of power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology. The peloton is a form of network, but even within the network there is a hierarchy of roles. The difference is that people are not inseparable from a given role. Indeed, they move fluidly between them as context and circumstance requires. When the road is flat, the sprinter leads. When the mountains are high, the climber comes to the fore. At others times, they follow the lead of others, or offer their expertise in other areas. The responsive organisation is similar. At any one point in time, you can be involved in multiple projects, leading some, following the lead of others on some, advising yet others. Peloton PK slides.012 Humility and self-knowledge are essential for such fluidity of roles to be effective. At the core of the cycling team is a form of servant leadership. Members of the team put themselves in service of their colleagues. The leader for the day is determined by context – terrain, weather conditions, form, health, overall objective and day-specific goals. Service can take the form of leading from the front, taking the wind, sheltering the designated protected rider for the day, so that they are in the best condition when the final challenge is in reach. The servant leaders attempt to control the peloton too, selecting who they will allow to get into the day’s breakaway, judging when it is time to close the gap between the peloton and the day’s escapees. Peloton PK slides.013 The 2012 Tour de France offered a great example of servant leadership. Mark Cavendish was the reigning world champion, wearing the coveted Rainbow bands. He was recognised as one of the fastest sprinters in the peloton, as well as the most successful sprinter to have ever participated in the Tour de France since the event began in 1903. Team Sky’s goal, though, was to win the overall Tour and secure the yellow jersey for Bradley Wiggins. Cavendish put himself in service of this goal, parking his personal ambitions. He acted as a super domestique, ferrying water to his colleagues in the team and leading them up the lower slopes of the big climbs. Peloton PK slides.014 When Wiggins’s overall victory looked assured, and the terrain was more suited to the sprinting maestro, roles were reversed. Wiggins, adorned in the race leader’s yellow jersey, put himself in service of the day’s objective rather than the overall goal. He slotted into Cavendish’s sprint train, acting as one of the final lead-out men. One of the great images from the 2012 event is of the Tour de France winner leading out his friend and team mate on the iconic Champs Élysées, setting up yet another victory for the successful Team Sky. Peloton PK slides.015 The climber is another of the peloton’s great characters. This is the individual around whom myth and fable hang like a cloak. The nicknames acquired by these giants of the road speak volumes: The Angel of the Mountains, The Eagle of Toledo, Il Campionissimo, The Cannibal, The Badger, The Pirate. These are cycling’s visionaries. Like some of business’s great entrepreneurs, they seem to see and reach out for things that many of us cannot even imagine – until we suddenly find that we have been led there. Despite their apparent physical delicacy, the climber is a driven individual, with a strong will and purpose. Often, when they are good time trialists, as well as outstanding climbers, these are the people that the team works for to secure overall victory in the big races. Their role is to win on behalf of the team, often leaping away from the comfort of their companions as the most difficult slopes and the highest peaks hove into view. They are both connected and lonely. Leaders and strategists. Not unlike many CEOs. Peloton PK slides.016 The time trial is known as the race of truth. It involves either a single rider or a team racing against the clock. There is no hiding place. When performed by an individual, this is the closest cycling get to the workplace assessment; the combination of measurement, delivery and individual scrutiny. The coasters, the tryers and the high achievers are easy to spot. More interesting is the team time trial. Five have to cross the line before the clock stops. Nine begin the stage and work in unison. All for one and one for all. But the team is only as strong as the fifth strongest member, so the high achievers have to hold themselves in check and serve their team mates. Otherwise their high capability in this form of racing can be harmful to their colleagues. To perform well in an individual time trial, you have to know yourself and your limitations. To perform well in a team time trial you have to know the abilities and limitations of all your teammates as well, and cater to them. Peloton PK slides.017 Rouleurs are strong riders, adept in rolling terrain, time trials, sprint trains and chasing down breakaways. These are team people whose primary role is service of others, assuming domestique functions. I liken them to the internal service roles in corporations, the people in finance, facilities, HR, IT, learning and development and KM departments. Occasionally they are set free to pursue personal goals, getting into breakaways, winning time trials. This is not unlike the occasions when somebody from a support function takes on a leadership or specialist expert role in a corporate project. Often rouleurs like Bernie Eisel (shown here) take on the role of captain on the road. They guide and influence their colleagues and act as the link between the other cyclists and the directeur sportifs in the team cars. Peloton PK slides.018 Cycling teams involve not only the riders but a supporting infrastructure. This is comprised of sporting directors, coaches, medical staff, nutritionists, chefs, mechanics and bus drivers. Former cyclists often fulfil the role of sporting directors, helping the team operate within its loose framework and achieve its race objectives. These are the people who drive the team cars, liaise with the riders on the road from their vehicles and via radios, handing out food, drink and clothing. Other former riders travel ahead of the race too, reporting back on weather and road conditions, providing information that can inform decisions taken by the riders themselves. Peloton PK slides.019 Beyond the teams of riders and support staff, there are a range of interacting systems. Within the context of the race itself are the race organisers and the hosts of the start and finish of each stage. Then there is the media, the police, the publicity caravan, the volunteers controlling crowds and flagging road furniture, the spectators themselves. Not forgetting the roads, the roundabouts, the level crossings, the bridges. The weather is also a huge factor. Intense heat, pouring rain, strong wind, heavy snow all have an impact on the peloton and what it can achieve. Nothing operates in isolation, just like our businesses and the multiple interacting systems they have to navigate – from financial markets to regulation to customer needs. The peloton and the business constantly have to respond and adapt to external factors. Peloton PK slides.020 Peloton formations is all about the fluidity and agility not only of modern organisational structures but of the roles and responsibilities of those who work within them. It recognises the need for people who are able to lead, follow, guide, advise, specialise or generalise, adapting to changes in context and circumstances. People who work in small units in synchronicity with and service of a larger whole. People willing to experiment, learn and act on new knowledge. People who can respond and adapt to systemic shifts and changes in their customers’ needs.

Peloton formations: a poem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open work

Nothing’s more important than the connections we make to others. It’s all we have, finally. We move towards one another and away, close again, all these half-planned, intricate steps and patterns.
— James Sallis, Ghost of a Flea

The stories you tell about the work you do have a huge effect on how people feel and what they understand about your work, and how people feel and what they understand about your work effects how they value it.
— Austin Kleon, Show Your Work

Working Out Loud starts with making your work visible in such a way that it might help others. When you do that – when you work in a more open, connected way – you can build a purposeful network that makes you more effective and provides access to more opportunities.
— John Stepper, The Five Elements of Working Out Loud

Basically, I need my cool, dark cave quite a bit. And writing – any sort of writing – is of course personal. So while working out loud seems absolutely the right thing to do, it also exposes elements of the person (I was going to say the ‘soul’) that one might feel need guarding, need protecting, nourishing. This part of my problem isn’t really a matter of right or wrong, of guarding knowledge jealously, or sharing it generously – it’s just a matter of personality, and no more wrong than the actions of an extravert who needs continually to socialize and talk to feel affirmed.
— Carl Gombrich, Working Out Loud

Over the past few months I have had the good fortune to work with John Stepper on his Working Out Loud book project. It has been a great experience seeing John’s manuscript evolve through three drafts. On each occasion I have worked on it, I have had my own thinking challenged, and learned something new. The book, as well as our subsequent exchanges prompted by my reaction to it, have led me to assess my own behaviours too in relation to how well I work out loud myself.

As an advocate of openness and transparency, someone still bearing the scars of implementing the Freedom of Information Act in the UK public sector, I sometimes feel constrained and frustrated by the organisations I have worked for. Far too often the balance tends to tip in favour of confidentiality, privacy and security rather than towards open working and sharing. In my personal endeavours, though, here on this blog, in side projects, and with a view to a potential post-2014 future as a freelancer, there is no need to operate behind a closed door.

The personal learning and supportive network that has evolved from initial connections via social platforms and subsequent face-to-face meetings have taught me that. People want to help. Trust can be quickly established. There is no need to be afraid. Some of the professional relationships and friendships that are most important to me now started online. One case in point is the fact that Kenneth Mikkelsen and I are now embarking on a book-writing project together. We first encountered one another online less than a year ago via Twitter. We met in person for the first time in February at the Enterprise 2.0 Summit in Paris. As I mentioned in a blog post on introversion at the time, though, social networks are superb icebreakers. The small talk is out of the way by the time you encounter one another face to face. The conversation, therefore, can rapidly become deep and meaningful, leading to profound connections.

So even though, as an introvert, I fully recognise the perspective presented in the quote above by Carl Gombrich (another friendship developing from an initial online connection), I think that I have learned behaviours to counteract the in-built tendency to withdraw into my turtle shell. People like John Stepper, Anne Marie McEwan, Harold Jarche, Luis Suarez, Simon Terry and Jonathan Anthony, among many others, have taught me that. Jonathan’s example has been particularly influential in recent weeks.

A short time ago he opted to develop a Pecha Kucha presentation on the topic of working out loud. For those who are unfamiliar with the concept (and I admit I was at the time), this involves presenting 20 slides at a rate of 20 seconds per slide. It is rapid fire and highly visual. Given his subject matter – and in a postmodern, self-referential, ironic fashion that typifies his online presence – Jonathan opted to work out loud about the development of his slide deck. He used a series of blog posts to explore, tease, refine. Then, as you can see in the video below, delivered a masterclass in the format.

Now I find myself having to prepare a Pecha Kucha myself. Neil Usher graciously has invited me to present at the Workplace Trends event on 15 October in London. It will be on the peloton formations idea I have explored elsewhere on this blog and developed in an interview with Stowe Boyd. I am no seasoned presenter and, frankly, the introvert in me is terrified. Particularly as I will be presenting alongside several people I look up to like Anne Marie McEwan, Euan Semple and Doug Shaw. But I feel too deeply about the subject. It is too good an opportunity to talk about an alternative model for organisational structures and roles – ones better suited to an era of networks and increasing complexity – to let it pass.

In the spirit of working out loud, therefore, here is the first draft of the slides I am thinking of using. The story that accompanies them is still in my head. I just hope I can get it out of my mouth on the day…

Peloton PK slides.001 Peloton PK slides.002 Peloton PK slides.003 Peloton PK slides.004 Peloton PK slides.005 Peloton PK slides.006 Peloton PK slides.007 Peloton PK slides.008 Peloton PK slides.009 Peloton PK slides.010 Peloton PK slides.011 Peloton PK slides.012 Peloton PK slides.013 Peloton PK slides.014 Peloton PK slides.015 Peloton PK slides.016 Peloton PK slides.017 Peloton PK slides.018 Peloton PK slides.019 Peloton PK slides.020 Peloton PK slides.021

The people filter

Intellectually and culturally, we just bounce around like random billiard balls, reacting to the latest random stimuli.
— Jonathan Franzen, Freedom

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

What you got to do, if you want to absorb knowledge, you have to ask questions.
— Michael Chabon, Telegraph Avenue

Earlier this year I had the good fortune to participate in one of Harold Jarche’s excellent online courses, Personal Knowledge Mastery in 40 Days. Harold’s clarity of thought is evident in his writing. So too is the evolutionary nature of his thinking, raw ideas first appearing on his blog then being subjected to repeated scrutiny and refinement over time. This has been to the benefit of the PKM framework and the Seek > Sense > Share approach that serves as its fulcrum.

Another friend and advocate of PKM, Kenneth Mikkelsen, is fond of referring to a story about Picasso. He became aware of it via Networked Knowledge and Combinatorial Creativity, a post by Maria Popova on her Brain Pickings site. The great artist is spotted by a fan, and eventually submits to a request to sketch her portrait. Within minutes he hands over the drawing, prompting an enthusiastic response from its subject. When she enquires how much she owes him, she is shocked to hear him quote a figure of $5,000. How is that possible, she wants to know, for only five minutes of endeavour. To which Picasso responds, ‘No, madam, it took me my whole life.’ Harold’s writing and his PKM course mirror this. The apparent effortlessness and simplicity of his work is in fact evidence of years of experience, synthesis and distillation. His course is precisely about the mastery that he himself demonstrates and practises on a daily basis.

I have gone through a significant portion of my professional life nominally working in knowledge management (whatever that actually means), performing as and surrounded by knowledge workers. I am constantly seeking new methods to acquire and share knowledge and information in ways that are meaningful and useful to both myself and others. But until I came across Harold’s PKM articles and videos, I did not have a satisfactory lexicon to describe what I was actually doing. The Seek > Sense > Share approach resonates with me, therefore, in a profound way. So too Harold’s focus on the skills and habits necessary to deal with the complexity of what he calls the Network Era.

[Picture credit: Good Theft vs. Bad Theft by Austin Kleon. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Personal knowledge mastery is a framework via which we make sense of our world. It involves, as a first step, the acquisition and accumulation of knowledge, information and ideas, giving vent to our curiosity (Seeking). This is often done through our reading, our experiences, our networks and exposure to other people. The next step entails the personalisation of this information. How we internalise it, put it into practice, reflect upon it and remix it (Sensing). Often we learn through doing and experimentation. The final step, sees a return to the network, choosing when to share these personalised ideas and practices with others, including our own insights, adding our own value, collaborating and cooperating with colleagues, business partners and those who want to learn from and with us (Sharing). PKM involves the two-way flow of information. It can enable unlikely connections and the bridging of ideas and disciplines. It requires the exercise of a number of skills, including filtering, curation, creation and discernment.

As a relatively recent convert to social media and the networks such tools enable, I am particularly interested in the role to be played by filtering. How do we filter the noise, without shutting off the opportunity for serendipitous discoveries? How do we maintain a broad enough range of connections so that we are exposed to a variety of perspectives and ideas, some of them emerging from arenas unfamiliar to us? There are numerous tools and services I have made use of to help me with this, some of which I have since abandoned. I have alighted on one particular method for filtering the blogs to which I want to pay closest attention. Feedly turned out to be too much of a firehose for my taste. What I now do is set up recipes in IFTTT to send new posts from a small number of bloggers to Pocket. There I perform an initial triage, sending those posts I want to reflect on further to Evernote. This is where I build up a cross-referencing system, including notes on each of the books I read, with highlighted passages and personal observations imported from the Kindle site too.

What has become apparent to me is that one of the social platforms on which I rely most, both as part of my seeking and sharing activities, is Twitter. This has allowed me to exercise my curiosity across multiple areas of interest, building a number of interlinked networks both through the people I follow and the lists I have created. What has surprised me, though, is how I have started using the people I am connected to as a type of filtering or screening layer. There are some people on Twitter who seem to lack discernment in how and when they ought to share. They end up either creating white noise or turning themselves simply into broadcasters with no visible engagement with their followers. These are the people I am inclined to unfollow. Not because they never say or share links to interesting things. Far from it. Instead, I rely on friends that I trust within my network to share useful information originally posted by these noisy people. I am relying on other people to filter for me. I was reminded of this approach when reading Euan Semple’s recent post on algorithms and how he learns about news events in the Network Era.

Not long ago I suggested to a group of friends that the network is our memory. But it is so much more than that. It is a source of learning, news and connection. A collective pool of energy and knowledge flows. Developing adeptness in PKM helps us to navigate and accommodate its complexity.

If you are new to Harold’s work, you would do well to start with Seeking Perpetual Beta. Wonderfully accessible, this condenses a decade’s worth of ideas and blogging into a short ebook. Harold has also written a very useful chapter on PKM in Jane Hart’s book, The Social Learning Handbook 2014.

Harold’s next PKM course is likely to be advertised later on in the year. The opportunity to participate is one you should not let pass you by. I recommend checking regularly on his site for updates.

It’s because no one person can know everything. Knowledge is now distributed throughout your network – if you don’t know something or how to do something, the people in your network will either tell you, show you or recommend to you where you can find what you need.
— Anne Marie McEwan, Calling All Instigators!

If you only seek new information and knowledge for yourself, without spending time to make it personal, you will not advance your own growth. If you keep your knowledge to yourself, you will not be viewed as a contributor to any knowledge networks, and will miss out on learning with and from others, especially professional colleagues. However, if you share indiscriminately, you will be creating too much noise, and others will ignore you. The journey to personal knowledge mastery is finding the right balance between seeking, sense-making, and sharing.
— Harold Jarche, Sense-making and Sharing

PKM works in education and business. Increasing connections, developing meaning, and improving autonomy, are the necessary skills in the network era. PKM ties these into an easy to understand framework, that helps keep people and organizations focused through a common terminology. Seek, Sense and Share are simple words, easily understood by all. Getting started on a new path is often the most difficult. If you, or your organization are on a journey of transformation to a more networked way of life, then PKM may be the right tool.
— Harold Jarche, A Swiss Army Knife for the Network Era


Numbed by the effect – aware of the muse
Too in touch with myself – I light the fuse
I’m the changingman – built on shifting sands
I’m the changingman – waiting for the bang
As I light a bitter fuse
Time is on loan – only ours to borrow
What I can’t be today – I can be tomorrow
And the more I see – the more I know
The more I know – the less I understand.
— Paul Weller, The Changingman

I’m bringing back ghosts
That are no longer there
I’m gettin’ hard on myself
Sittin’ in my easy chair
Well, there’s three people in the mirror
And I’m wonderin’ which one of them I should choose
— The White Stripes, 300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues

So, I want to reassure those of you who feel the way that I did and do, I want to reassure you that that feeling of not really knowing what you should, that feeling may stay with you forever. In fact, I hope it does –  for your sake, for your profession, and for all of us.
— David Weinberger, In Over Our Heads

The Women’s Rugby World Cup tournament concluded mid-August 2014. England, having endured three successive final defeats to New Zealand in the competition between 2002 and 2010, eventually prevailed over Canada. What was remarkable about their success, for those of us exposed to a constant diet of male sport on our television networks and Internet channels, was that this was an amateur squad. In it’s match report, The Guardian observed that ‘This is a team of plumbers, vets, teachers, police officers and students’. Many of the English players, in the lead up to and for the duration of the World Cup, had taken a three-month sabbatical from their jobs in order to give themselves the best opportunity to win.

As with men’s rugby union in the wake of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, though, times are changing – and quickly. Professionalism is now inevitable. The seven-a-side version of the sport will be a feature of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, and moves have already been made, barely a week after the conclusion of the World Cup, to identify a group of players from which a Games squad will be built. Twenty English players have been awarded full-time, professional contracts, including twelve women from the World Cup-winning 15-a-side squad. The group will compete in the IRB Women’s World Sevens Series, aiming to qualify on behalf of Great Britain for the Rio Games. Suddenly they have a shared profession; they are sporting specialists rather than representatives of assorted trades. Their worlds have the potential to narrow dramatically in perspective and focus over the next few years.

There is a cycle that observers of sport see repeated over and over again. A highly skilled sportsperson who has specialised in a particular discipline for much of their adult life reaches their early-to-mid thirties and suddenly finds very few options are open to them in terms of the next step in their career. We see footballers moving into coaching, journalism or television punditry. We observe cyclists who migrate to team management, roles with niche manufacturers affiliated with their sport or bar ownership. Book projects and public tailspins are all too common too. The small professional world of their deep specialism ceases to be available to them, and they are returned to the ranks of the amateur, the generalist, the continuous learner. This is unlikely to affect the newly professional women rugby players, as many already have trades to fall back on at the end of their rugby playing days. But what of the next generation of players, those identified at a young age for future sporting success and fast-tracked into the professional arena?

England captain Katy McLean celebrates the 21-9 victory over Canada in the Women's Rugby World Cup.
[Photo credit: England's players celebrate World Cup success. Sourced from The Guardian]

Of course, there are some who exercise a degree of multi-disciplinarity throughout their sporting careers. They use downtime or periods off through injury to broaden their horizons, accumulating knowledge and experience, exercising the polymathic tendency. Jonny Wilkinson, another rugby player, is a case in point. In the early days of professionalism in men’s rugby union, he side-stepped the usual track to university and moved straight from school to one of the top English teams. His 17-year career included many highs at both club level, in England and France, and as an international player. But it was also one marked by an extended hiatus of multiple injuries and near-crippling self doubt. Yet Wilkinson is someone who has exercised the thirst for knowledge and built impressive leadership skills, founded upon his own self-awareness and understanding of other people. A favourite story involves the Englishman, who spent the latter years of his playing career based in Toulon, delivering a lecture in fluent French on quantum physics while sharing a stage with two Nobel prize winners. Quantum physics presented him with a different perspective on how to look at life. It taught him to not fear failure.

The acting world is filled with people who have looked beyond the confines of their profession. They recognise the vagaries of a career in film, for example, or simply seek to accommodate multiple interests and talents. Both Jodie Foster and Natalie Portman experienced early stardom as child actors but opted to pursue and complete university educations too at Yale and Harvard respectively, picking up degrees in literature and in psychology. I have written before about the work of Hedy Lamarr as both Hollywood screen siren and applied scientist and inventor. Many others diversify into business, charitable work or other arts. They are not one-trick ponies, but make use of their well-known specialism to fund other interests.

The point is that such people, who have both a breadth and depth of skills, who are WWW-shaped rather than T-shaped or defined by one hyperspecialism, have a role to play in our organisations and society. There is a place both for the generalist and the specialist. The generalist position should not be viewed through a jaundiced lens as some form of disability or disadvantage. It is a position of strength. One that allows for constant framing and reframing, synthesising multiple perspectives, aggregating knowledge from numerous fields, connecting dots, recognising disparate patterns, building and implementing solutions. There may, at times, be an element of amateurism about it, but this is a positive thing. Not knowing, finding our way, leads to the constant acquisition of new knowledge, experimentation and play.

There is also an overt sense of evolution to it too, of frequent self-transformation. This is something the generalist shares with the professional sportsperson who suddenly finds themselves separated from their specialism and thrust back into the ranks of amateurism.

No matter how successful you are, change is always good. There can never be a status quo.
— Michael Lewis, Moneyball

That’s what our lives do. Wear away what’s not part of the sculpture. Pare us down, if we’re lucky, to some kind of essential self.
— James Sallis, Eye of the Cricket

Are you saint, sinner, or something in between, because nothing’s worse than in between. To disappear into the lumpy, undefined center when the lure is so clearly found at the edges. No-one aspires to mediocrity. Mediocrity withers and dies with nary a notice; its practitioners rendered mute by their race to the middle.
— Sergio De La Pava, A Naked Singularity

Online, everyone – the artist and the curator, the master and the apprentice, the expert and the amateur – has the ability to contribute something.
— Austin Kleon, Show Your Work

Nature’s cathedral

The art you can experience may have originated a thousand miles away or a thousand years ago, but the art you can make is irrevocably bound to the times and places of your life.
— David Bayles & Ted Orland, Art & Fear

One space: multiple interpretations. One space, many communities, many different purposes, some old, some new, some anchored to the past, some directed to the future.
— Julian Stodd, New York: Community, Spaces & Performance

It is the essential paradox of engineering that the violence of the forces of nature can only be withstood by man-made structures that fully utilize the forces of nature.
— Dan Cruickshank, Bridges

There is always a story. Usually apocryphal. Probably with some elements of truth. Not that it really matters. Our lives are filled with myths and fables that impart nuggets of knowledge and wisdom, prompting our own insight and understanding.

We are close to Saint Bauzille de Putois, near Ganges, in the Languedoc region of France. A shepherd is looking for a lost lamb. He hears its bleats coming from a small opening that leads into a cave. With his path illuminated only by the flames of a torch, he follows the sounds deeper and deeper into the cave, until he reaches a huge chamber. There he loses his footing and falls a great distance, knocking himself out on impact with the floor of the cave. As he slips from consciousness, he is convinced that he sees a group of young women singing and dancing around him. When he awakens, he finds himself back on the ground outside the cave’s entrance reunited with his lost sheep. So has humankind come to name La Grotte des Demoiselles and gain familiarity with its wondrous Cathédrale des Abîmes.

It is also a natural story of limestone and water. Of erosion, collapse and transformation into something different, something magnificent. The grotte is a living museum of stalactites and stalagmites that have grown over 9-10 million years. It is estimated that some of the enormous stalactites, for example, have gained 10cm in length every one hundred years. That is incremental growth in action over an incredible expanse of time.

The result, especially in the breathtaking Cathédrale des Abîmes, are structures that make the most excessive of gothic cathedrals seem prosaic. The chamber is filled with columns and pillars, as well as structures resembling stone forests and shoals of jellyfish. Spookily, even for this atheist, there is a stalagmite towards the bottom of the Cathédrale that resembles many of the man-made statues of the Virgin and Child that are a feature of Catholic places of worship. It is a natural wonder, so magnificent and surreal in structure and artistry, that it seems unreal, not of this world. It is like a set lifted from the cinematic interpretations of the Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings series, or straight from the mind of that great film magician, George Méliès.

[Photo credit: Cathédrale des Abîmes by Richard Martin, 09/08/14]

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

Water, minerals and time are the raw ingredients that have gone into the construction of the grotte. Time is the ingredient we share. Time to experiment and learn, time to create and build. The changes we aspire to are evolutionary and do not happen overnight. We are building our own cathedrals, thinking of the future – adding a few centimetres, seeking marginal gains – as each small step leads us to a bigger goal.

Small targets lead to small victories, and small victories can often trigger a positive spiral of behavior … big changes come from a succession of small changes.
— Chip & Dan Heath, Switch

We’ve got this saying, ‘performance by the aggregation of marginal gains’. It means finding a one per cent margin for improvement in everything you do.
— Richard Moore, Mastermind: How Dave Brailsford Reinvented the Wheel

You put together two things that have not been put together before. And the world is changed. People may not notice at the time, but that doesn’t matter. The world has been changed nonetheless.
— Julian Barnes, Levels of Life

This put us on a trajectory of cumulative cultural evolution as ideas successively built and improved on others. It is something no other species has achieved, and it continues today at ever-increasing rates because the sheer volume of cultural knowledge acts as a vast crucible for innovation.
— Mark Pagel, Wired for Culture

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