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

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