Blending

Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic … And just as music is the space between notes, just as the stars are beautiful because of the space between them, just as the sun strikes raindrops at a certain angle and throws a prism of color across the sky—so the space where I exist, and want to keep existing, and to be quite frank I hope I die in, is exactly this middle distance: where despair struck pure otherness and created something sublime.
— Donna Tart, The Goldfinch

Only the most naive of questions are truly serious. They are the questions with no answers. A question with no answer is a barrier that cannot be breached. In other words, it is questions with no answers that set the limits of human possibilities, describe the boundaries of human existence.
— Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The disjunctures of film-time became their own, past, present and future running together in a kind of temporal plaid. Events were prefigured; memories eclipsed into fanciful flashbacks. everything was design and converging lines. The last few minutes would explain it all.
— James Sallis, Renderings

If there is an alpha and omega to what I think and write about work, art and other aspects of our life experiences, then it is this: there is no right answer. Everything connects. Whether it is the colours of the rainbow, the array of political ideologies, the introversion–extroversion extremes or the different points on the specialist–generalist continuum. Context and personal preference provide the focus. Often, though, this is time-bound and does not preclude alighting on other steps of the bridge that connects these apparent islands together.

Consider the following:

knowledge/not knowing
digital/analogue
online/offline
fast/slow
lead/follow
speak/listen
learn/teach
give/take
create/consume
past/future

With all these pairs, if you want to thrive in the modern world we now inhabit, either/or is displaced by both/and. We have to be wary of the fundamentalists who lean too heavily in one direction, advocating vociferously in favour of one perspective only. There is a danger that they blind us to the alternatives.

In exploring the concept of neo-generalism, I have become mindful of the fact that this is not just about the serial mastery of the individual. While this was the initial source of pollen that drew me to the topic, thinking of the multiple interests and practices of the individual, I have become aware of other factors. For example, an organisation – that collective of people – can be polymathic too, diversifying, excelling in many fields. This is what lies behind Nicholas Vitalari and Haydn Shaughnessy’s thesis in The Elastic Enterprise, as well as the latter’s deeper dive in Shift.

Also apparent is the play of contextual shifts on individual mindsets. Behaviour itself becomes generalist. Not just skills and endeavour. In my personal experience as a writer and editor, I can be, if not extroverted, at least ambiverted as I research, seek out information and filter what I find. I work out loud, at speed, becoming more socially active both in person and online than is the norm for me. Then the time comes to sense-make, to slow down and internalise what I have learned; to transform it into something that I will eventually share with others. Behaviour shifts towards introversion and apparent social withdrawal. Behaviour here is adaptive, responsive, shaped by context. A reminder that we are both islands and connected to a greater whole.

I may have grasped no right answer as a defining principle, a world view. But from it I haven learned the value of blending. I want to enjoy the benefits and experiences of fast and slow, analogue and digital, specialism and generalism. My preferences shift with the context. The answers are blowin’ in the wind.

Speed matters. Digital world. Patience matters. Analogue world.
— David Hieatt, Do Purpose

The specialists are exploiting opportunities, whilst the mashers are out exploring, discovering the next big opportunity. The mashers have the mindset to cross borders and apply learnings from one area to another.
— Ian Sanders & David Sloly, Mash-up!

Ideas used to come from below. Now they’re everywhere above you, connecting things and grids universally. The binary black-white yes-no zero-one hero-goat.
— Don DeLillo, Underworld

From the seed of a tweet, a blog post blooms. My thanks to Jo Stephenson for the nudge.

Knowledge horizons

All our lives, every day, we constantly remake ourselves, reinvent ourselves, layer after layer, mask after mask. Maybe when finally we peel off all the masks there’s nothing left.
— James Sallis, Eye of the Cricket

The moment someone keeps an eye on what we do, we involuntarily make allowances for that eye, and nothing we do is truthful. Having a public, keeping a public in mind, means living in lies.
— Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

No matter how far we travel along the path of truth, we will never arrive at a pure truth independent of falsity and error.
— Todd McGowan, The Fictional Christopher Nolan

Oedipus. The first great detective of Western culture. Like the ratiocinative detectives made popular in the 19th century, he used logic to solve the Sphinx’s riddle. But like the world-weary sleuths of the hardboiled tradition that followed, he found himself implicit in the mysteries he unravelled. The new knowledge he acquired became unbearable, resulting in him striking out his eyes in an attempt to dull one of his senses. In doing so he signified his intent to disconnect from the world around him, to deny himself one source of data and information to process and digest.

The truth revealed to Oedipus in his transition from a state of not knowing to one of knowledge filled him with horror. It induced in him an unrealisable desire to return to his former ignorant condition. But it also saw him take responsibility and accountability for his actions. New knowledge had to be confronted, assimilated and acted upon. He was unaware that the man he fought and killed was his father, or that the woman he subsequently married was his mother. When the mists of not knowing were burned away by the light of knowledge, he took ownership of his actions.

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera uses his male protagonist, Tomas, to produce a treatise on the Oedipus narrative. Analogies drawn are unfavourable for the Communist leaders in 1960s Czechoslovakia whose actions are perceived to have removed national liberty at the expense of Soviet subservience. Their argument that they were blameless and did not know what the outcome of their actions would be are derided. This is the defence of those who abdicate responsibility, who use not knowing as a shelter rather as the motivation to acquire learning and experience, to satisfy curiosity. It is the excuse of the War criminal, the self-interested CEO, the maligned politician.

There is a balancing act to be played with not knowing. On the one hand, there is the fascinating learning journey to be experienced as one acquires knowledge in a particular subject, following a breadcrumb trail of curiosity that forever leads to the boundaries of the unknown. On the other hand, there is a willingness to be comfortable with not knowing. An acceptance that no one individual can know everything, that there is no right answer. Mario Gleiser’s fascinating book The Island of Knowledge illustrates, particularly in relation to scientific progress, that what appears self-evident and obvious today can seem wholly inaccurate a few decades hence as we add to the vast pool of the known. Yesterday’s right answer is tomorrow’s monumental error.

When I wrote my first book, Mean Streets and Raging Bulls, on the evolution of film noir in the context of industrial, cultural and socio-political change, I deliberately opted not to include a proper conclusion. I was criticised for this in reviews, but my feeling then and now was that I was describing something that had not yet finished. There was no definitive answer to offer. Everything that had gone before in the previous pages was impressionistic, filtered through my subjective perspective. I offered it up as one view among many. The book was an invitation to conversation and further discussion, not the closure of a debate.

Perhaps my suspicion of the expert stems from that time and guides some of my research into neo-generalism. Having immersed myself in several industries and the endless streams of words and images that shape our social media, I am left with two reflections. First, that we live in a world of hypothesis and speculation. Second, that there is an overriding tendency among many to impose their own preferences in relation to these hazy notions, to shape concrete opinions from them with which they seek to indoctrinate others. I can never know to what extent they delude themselves, firmly believing in the rightness of their convictions. However, when I see their platitudes and artful self-marketing shared in my Twitter stream I am reminded of the line from James Sallis’s poem Manumissions: ‘Each morning they tell us eloquent, beautiful lies’.

Words and images deceive. Yet all gets amplified in this era of FOMO activism and constant sharing. We have to remember, too, that the culture that surrounds us is often one of performance and masks. As Kundera suggests, being observed, having awareness of it, affects our behaviour and actions. While I advocate ideas about working out loud, there are times when I wonder to what extent this becomes performance instead, self-limited and self-directed. Does the power of observation, awareness of our place on the stage, affect what we do, the filters we deploy, the stories we tell, how and what we share? In Unbearable Lightness, Kundera offers an interesting perspective on openness and transparency too, through the figure of Sabina. For her, the willing surrender of one’s privacy is monstrous. She is highly selective, therefore, about what she reveals about herself and to whom.

As individuals, there is something about straddling both the known and the not-known, balancing the open and the private. In recent weeks, I have been rethinking my own presence on the Internet, what I am happy to share, what I want to withhold, where I want to hang out with friends and colleagues online, and where I feel wholly uncomfortable. It has led me to withdraw from certain platforms and communities, to re-visit how I use follows and lists, to be more selective about what I share and where. This is motivated by a desire to find more meaningful connections with fellow travellers, the curious and adventurous, who accept that the knowledge they acquire is ephemeral, soon to be displaced or expanded upon.

For people like them, the neatly packaged, the ribbon-tied, is to be treated with suspicion. They muddle through, making it up as they go along. More Lebowski than the computer-like Sherlock Holmes. Their mysteries never entirely resolve themselves, forever morphing into yet another fog of the not-known. But that is the lure. Ever expanding knowledge horizons, new questions to ponder, new opportunities in abundance. Endless possibility. But no right answer. Like Oedipus, these are liminal figures always traversing the ground between the known and the unknown.

The more we know, the more exposed we are to our ignorance, and the more we know to ask.
— Mario Gleiser, The Island of Knowledge

How can we hold doubt and be truthful about the limits of knowledge on the one hand, whilst meeting other people’s expectations to be certain on the other?
— Steven D’Souza & Diana Renner, Not Knowing

But she had that thing most people don’t have: curiosity. She might not have always got the right answers but she wanted to ask the questions. I value that in a person.
— Zadie Smith, NW

Palimpsest

We have done this before,
and should know how. Still,
one must learn again and again
— James Sallis, Love, Again, at Forty

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

Today, at the terminus of this evolutionary process, our immense memory banks are smoothly activated to join past, present, and future. They allow us to evaluate the prospects and consequences of alliances, bonding, sexual contact, rivalries, domination, deception, loyalty, and betrayal. We instinctively delight in the telling of countless stories about others, cast as players upon our own inner stage. The best of it is expressed in the creative arts, political theory, and other higher-level activities we have come to call the humanities.
— E. O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence

Take the challenge, Steve Wheeler exhorted on Twitter. I decided to pick up the gauntlet that lay at my feet. #blimage has built momentum over the past week, with many people prompted to blog using one or more images selected by others as a source of inspiration. Learning is the common theme that ties the #blimage room together.

I am looking at the image of a weathered wall. Cement rendering has come away in chunks revealing patches of brickwork. What remains of the darker covering shows signs of age, an industrial past and more recent graffiti. Past and present blur together with a hint of future utility. A word bubbles to the surface of my mind: palimpsest.

blimmage

Strictly speaking, a palimpsest is a manuscript from which earlier writing has been scraped away or effaced and more recent writing has been added in its place. It is a form of authorised vandalism. This is a notion that I have co-opted before, applying it to my interpretation of other art forms and my understanding of our broader culture. The palimpsest as metaphor.

I can look at the work of the Coen Brothers, for example, and see in their films a form of cinematic palimpsest. Watch Miller’s Crossing, and lurking beneath the surface is the fiction of Dashiell Hammett, Coppola’s The Godfather and Bertolucci’s Il Conformista. Watch their The Big Lebowski, and Raymond Chandler’s fiction is shouting for attention as filtered through Altman’s interpretation of The Long Goodbye. James M. Cain nudges and winks at the viewer from the depths of The Man Who Wasn’t There, distilled through decades of film noir tradition.

Wander the streets of London or Paris, on the other hand, and you will encounter palimpsests in bricks and mortar. Ancient and modern edifices and structures jostle for attention. In some cases the old is either incorporated into the new, or takes on a more modern role in both our physical and psychic geographies. They are revitalised, repurposed. Power stations and rail terminals are transformed into exhibition spaces for art, factories become people’s homes, wharves and warehouses are converted into restaurants.

Sometimes it is the history associated with the edifice that serves as the palimpsest. To gaze upon the Notre Dame Cathedral is to behold both the technical mastery and artistic capability of medieval masons and craftsman. But it is also an opportunity to look upon one of the centrepieces of the Age of Reason; a building that was claimed for liberty, equality and fraternity, secularised and given over to the post-Enlightenment populace. However temporarily, this ceased to be a cathedral of Catholic worship and was transformed into a Temple of Reason. The streets that surround the cathedral still bear testament to the actions of the crowd during this period.

Increasingly, we are seeing other symbols of the past peeking through. Construction in our major cities is unearthing archaeological wonders that reveal much about our ancestors, their culture, work activities and feeding preferences. Technology has given us insight into what the area around Stonehenge may have once looked like and where its ancient visitors came from. Regeneration has peeled away layers of paint and whitewash accumulated over the years to reveal the shops signs and advertisements of yesteryear. Artwork hidden behind masterpieces painted by the likes of Picasso and van Gogh have been detected and analysed. Telescopes launched into deep space are allowing us literally to look back in time.

But what of us? People living in the here and now? What hidden wonders hide behind our carapaces? To what extent have we allowed years of habit, narrowly focused attention and repetitive practice to cover us in layer upon layer of grimy rendering? How far have we allowed expertise and specialism to overshadow our innate polymathic tendencies? Have our inner workings, our capacity for continuous learning, our impetus to curiosity, become silted up? Could we too benefit from a sandblasting? A descaling? Something that would expose our interior scaffolding?

We are all walking palimpsests. Memories of things past are held within. Sometimes our most beneficial lessons come from revisiting what came before. We need to find ways to give full licence to our curiosity again. To look once more at the world with the wonder of a child. To experience the joy of flow.

Now ritual is the husk of faith and loyalty, the beginning of confusion.
— Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching

The memory is littered with bits and pieces of images, like a rubbish dump.
— Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium

There are clues in my past that may make sense only when I’ve seen them more than once.
— Scott Berkun, The Ghost of My Father

Where did all the people go? (redux)

A longer version of this post was first published in February 2014. An edited version was briefly made available on Medium last November and then tweaked again for LinkedIn this month. Ever the editor, I am sharing it here as a live and evolving example of my writing. A form of working out loud in practice. This blog remains my preferred space for web-based work. Forays on to other platforms have been experimental at best. (RM)

Like health practitioners, change specialists must not hand out the same prescription to every patient. They have to treat each new client relationship on a case-by-case basis, applying the learning they have gained from previous commissions, but also adapting to everything that is unique and special about the current company they are working with. Nevertheless, certain patterns emerge over time. This is why there are so many voices arguing right now that work is broken and needs fixing.

Blog posts and books proliferate in which potential remedies and new ideas about organisational design, the role of employees and alternative working practices are promoted. Numerous manifestos have also been published. These address not only business but, in some cases, broader social issues too. There is much to commend these works. Much that appeals to our instinct for common sense. They are mostly noble in intention, occasionally inspirational and, in large part, simply written and easy to understand. Any call to action, though, requires the next step: action itself.

This is where I find many people advocating the future of work and grander social change initiatives can come unstuck. There is a tendency to become so mesmerised by the very nature of the research itself, and the conversations that surround it, that people simply fail to put their new-found or long-gestated knowledge and ideas into action. Rather they talk around the subject, arguing for change and broadcasting their ideas, but achieving little that is tangible. And then it is heard no more: it is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing (Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5). Alternatively, they can become victims of inertia, self-doubt, imposter syndrome and risk aversion. Or they find that their own enthusiasm and energy are gradually eroded as the consequence of cultural resistance and the constraints placed upon them by others.

So what are some of the problems that we need to consider and address? We probably all have slightly different answers to that question. Each of us will develop awareness and understanding based on our own experiences. Many of us will certainly have encountered resistance to the change work we are responsible for delivering. When dealing with resistance, though, it is important that we empathise and learn, reframing our messages and trying to understand things from other people’s perspective. This is far easier to say or write, of course, than it is to actually do. More often than not, we are left with a sense of frustration, feeling isolated, misunderstood, struggling to influence others and build momentum.

What we have to understand is that some people do not see or embrace change in the same way that we do. For them, change is not simply an evolutionary part of life, an inevitable step on the learning journey, nor part and parcel of continuous improvement and marginal gains. Instead it is threatening. It yanks away the comfort blanket of the status quo and exposes people as vulnerable, uncertain, lacking in specific knowledge and, well, just human: a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage (Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5). Such opponents to change can either descend into apathy, offering resistance through disengagement, or they can become deeply cynical and highly active in their attempts to poison the well.

A certain type of culture begins to build around these cynics. It is one that in my personal experience I have found to be characterised by deeply entrenched habit, risk aversion, a sense of entitlement, a not-invented-here mentality and an abdication of responsibility. On a corporate scale, it is the sort of mindset that can lead to companies failing to modernise and respond to disruptive innovation, sometimes disappearing altogether or experiencing lengthy periods of bankruptcy like Kodak and Blockbuster.

The cynics and the disengaged are people who see no issue with entrenched working practices. Work, for them, is defined by a job title and description. It is a purely transactional experience: Effort + Time = Salary + Benefits. In some respects, they are like a patient who has been diagnosed but refuses to recognise their illness. They appear blind to, comfortable with, perhaps unthreatened by, the language of the machine and measurement. They rarely recognise opportunities to explore and develop, preferring to argue that action can only be instigated through the articulation of a problem statement. Even then, they insist that they be told what to do rather than taking ownership and responsibility themselves for canvassing opinion or promoting and delivering change.

people-where

We have to develop understanding of what fills such people with fear and what motivates them intrinsically, if we are ever to redirect their energies to actions that will benefit both themselves and those around them. John Wenger makes many insightful observations in an October 2013 blog post in which he likens the behaviour of many modern workers to Stockholm Syndrome. This is a condition experienced by some hostages whereby they begin to empathise with their captors. People lose sight of their true condition, their perception becomes distorted and their world contracts until they are interested in little more than themselves. In a workplace context, it’s a question of survival and self-advancement. Thoughts of me rather than we, as John puts it.

Even then, the me tends to be a cipher of a real human being. Often people have a tendency to adopt a game face, hiding behind a mask that obscures their real identity from those they work with. There are many other facets of the workplace that contribute to this sense of depersonalisation and dehumanisation. They include job titles and job descriptions; artificial constraints that often lead to stereotyping and pigeonholing. They reduce people to labels and functions, blind to their diversity of backgrounds, experience and skills, both historic and emergent.

The obsession with process and efficiency, which ignores the equal emphasis placed in quality management methodologies on people and service, also has a dehumanising effect. As does the language we use. It promotes uniformity, not diversity. Rather than people and individuals, we are asked to talk of resources and assets. We are required to think of colleagues as boxes in an organisational map or on a flow chart, their activities constrained by a few steps in a repetitive procedure. Or to think of them in numerical terms; data interpreted in relation to KPIs. Further, we are invited to assess whether what they do can in fact be automated. There are many examples of us entering a new machine age, even as those interested in knowledge work, the importance of people and relationships, and the power of networks make a case for a so-called digital age, a social era.

It is reassuring to hear a growing number of voices beginning to challenge and question whether we have in fact lost sight of our people in the workplace. They argue that we should be treating people as people, not as resources or assets. That we should recognise that humans are social animals, not machines, who build relationships through collaboration and cooperation. That people need to be respected and celebrated for their diversity and individual knowledge, productivity and creativity. They demand that we think of our companies not as abstract concepts centred on a particular location but as the aggregation of a group of people who should be united in a common purpose, servicing and interacting with other people: meeting the needs of their customers.

There is a sense that for too long we have been paying attention to the wrong things. It is time to seek answers to different questions. Time to start making work less a transactional and more a transformational experience. Rather than applying the cookie cutter, or always seeking like-for-like replacements when staff leave our companies, maybe it is time to recruit for diversity, social skills, competencies, aptitude and attitude. Instead of telling people what to do, it is time to start modelling the behaviour we expect of others, working out loud while doing so, narrating and explaining the work we do. People imitate what they observe. They learn from hearing and watching others. But more than anything they learn by doing and by applying their own personal twist, giving themselves ownership, however transient, of newly acquired knowledge and experience. We need to make them feel that it is OK to question, to challenge, to experiment, to fail, to share what they have learned.

Can we begin by putting people back at the centre of the work we do? Can we give them common purpose but free them from the constraints of corporate language, micromanagement, number crunching and process to discover the most innovative ways to add value to the customer experience? Can we help them realise that it is the machine that is subservient to the human and not the other way round? Without people there is no knowledge. Without people there are no relationships, the lifeblood of service-oriented business. Without people there is no company.

Logophile

There’s the need to make sense of life behind the impulse to write.
— Jane Kenyon, Everything I Know About Writing Poetry

I followed the course
From chaos to art
— Leonard Cohen, The Book of Longing

Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
— T. S. Eliot, Ash-Wednesday

Just beyond my reaching,
an itch away from fingers
— Maya Angelou, Slave Coffle

I watch my youngest child reading one book after another and I glow with pride. They have discovered my first love. They share my rapture with the written word.

With words, I reach for knowledge, seeking to learn, consuming the work of other people, corresponding with them, pushing at the limits of the known. With words, I give full vent to my imagination, painting mental images as I digest the narratives of fiction, biography and poem. With words, I create my own literary offerings – articles, books, blog posts.

Indeed, I find that, with words, I write myself into meaning. The very act of writing, and the research that feeds it, is how I sense-make and achieve understanding. The selection of words, their juxtaposition, helps me bridge from a state of not knowing to one of at least temporary knowledge.

An embryonic idea prompts a blog post, the post triggers conversation, reassessment and refinement, articles follow, a book project emerges. It is an organic process, open, transparent.

It is with words too that I seek to serve others.

My interest lies not only in reading the words of other people or writing my own. Stepping away from the commuter life, returning to the freelance world, has made me realise that one of my strengths lies in helping other writers. Guiding them, advising them, serving as both sounding board and critical friend. Combining ideas about structure, grammar, tone and subject matter.

I may have finally found a purpose for my generalist ambulations, the perfect application and blending of my multiple interests.

apparently we believe
in the words
and through them
but we long beyond them
— W. S. Merwin, Raiment

all ignorance toboggans into know
and trudges up to ignorance again
— e. e. cummings, Selected Poems

To introduce the unknown to the known
And only by politeness make them breed
— Philip Larkin, Disintegration

Words have no knowledge;
only our fear
knows the names of things.
— James Sallis, Principles of Aesthetics

In between

I’m frightened
sitting in the middle of perfect
possibility.
— Jane Kenyon, Afternoon in the House

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
– T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

Just outside my wisdom
are words that would answer everything
— Joan Walsh Anglund, A Cup of Sun

Never lose your sense of wonder
Even if you lose all else
— Yeti, Never Lose Your Sense of Wonder

Is the modern condition one of constant motion? To be responsive we have to continuously transform, constantly evolve. We can never rest for any period in a single place, a permanent condition. Adaptiveness requires that we cycle through different states, engage in a haphazard game of hopscotch that helps us navigate our way through complexity and chaos. It is life in perpetual beta, constant liminality. Perhaps this is why the peloton has become my adopted metaphor for this notion of constant flux, ebb and flow.

In Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood, there is a scene in which Ethan Hawke’s character reveals to his son that ‘We’re all just wingin’ it.’ This is a theme echoed by David Weinberger in his wonderful commencement address at Simmons College, subsequently published as In Over Our Heads. Throughout our early lives we talk about what we want to be when we grow up. Then middle age hits and there is the slow realisation and gradual acceptance that, actually, we never grow up. The potential, the opportunity, remains to be many things. To experiment and adapt.

Perhaps, with the neo-generalist, there is an understanding that we do not know, that there is no solitary niche into which we will fit while the blood remains pumping, the synapses crackling. We can go both broad and deep, bridging and eliding. We both learn and teach, listen and work out loud, collaborate and cooperate, lead and follow, give and take. Curiosity propels us, if we allow ourselves to maintain the wonder of a child, forever questioning. It is the page turner, opening up new chapters, enabling the acquisition of new knowledge, inviting new experiences, always leading us to the edge of what we know.

There is something about being comfortable with not knowing that has the quality of a liminal state. Following curiosity is like wandering through a garden of forking paths, finding solace in the whole labyrinth and not just in the route taken. It is a process of endless transition – from not knowing to knowing and back to not knowing again. A shadow dance is played out through the mist, occasionally illuminated by a bright light. Knowledge enlightens and connects us to other people. Our relationships with others, our conversations with them, our exchange of learning and experience, all fuel our transitions, moving us from one state to another.

Therefore having and not having arise together;
Difficult and easy complement each other;
Long and short contrast each other;
High and low rest upon each other;
Voice and sound harmonize each other;
Front and back follow each other.
— Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching

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

The absence of knowledge in Not Knowing is a ‘negative’ space full of potential.
— Steven D’Souza & Diana Renner, Not Knowing

Liminality can be thought of as a human type of singularity point in a black hole, a halfway point in transition, where existing structures have broken down but new ones have not yet been built.
— Simon Robinson & Maria Moraes Robinson, Holonomics

The puncheur

Are you taking over, or are you taking orders?
Are you going backwards, or are you going forwards?
— The Clash, White Riot

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery,
None but ourselves can free our minds.
— Bob Marley & The Wailers, Redemption Song

“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief,
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.”
“No reason to get excited,” the thief, he kindly spoke,
“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate,
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.”
All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.
Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl,
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.
— Bob Dylan, All Along the Watchtower

6 July 2015. The peloton is taking a literal and metaphorical buffeting in the 102nd edition of the Tour de France. The race started in the flatlands of the Netherlands and is now into the terrain of the Spring classics in Belgium. The first nine days have been designed as a series of unique one-day challenges. This is a departure from previous starts to the race. It means that the teams participating in the Grand Tour, especially those with ambitions for the general classification, have had to give careful thought to the diversity and skill sets of their riders.

To show up with nine lightweight climbers who will float up the Pyrenean peaks and effortlessly ascend the Alps will be to place yourself on the back foot. Such riders will struggle in the coastal winds of Zeeland and the cobbles of northern France. They may be suffering an extreme time deficit by the start of the second week when the first mountaintop finish comes into view. Conversely, to fill the team with sprinters and rouleurs may provide dividends with the odd stage win and time spent in the classification jerseys during the first week. However, when the terrain tilts upwards, such teams will find that they are severely hamstrung.

A balance is required, including not only climbers, sprinters, rouleurs, time trialists and general classification contenders, but a type of rider that we are yet to explore in this #pelotonformations series: the puncheur. While much of the three-week race will be spent in service of others, with the purpose of achieving both day-specific and overall objectives, each type of rider nevertheless is likely to enjoy a moment in the sun. So varied is the type of racing and the daily parcours for this edition of the Tour, that there will be stages when riders with different preferences and capabilities will be required to assume time-bound leadership of the team.

Today – stage 3 – is the turn of the puncheur. Another opportunity will follow on stage 8 too, when the Tour takes on the challenges of the Mûr de Bretagne. These riders are specialists in rolling terrain that is punctuated with short climbs of 1-2km in length, characterised by extremely challenging gradients of 10-20%. Their domains are the hilly one-day classic races like La Flèche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Tour of Lombardy and the UCI Road World Championships. They count among their number riders like Philippe Gilbert, Peter Sagan, Simon Gerrans, Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodríguez, Tony Gallopin and Alexis Vuillermoz. As well as a few climber-puncheur hybrids like Alejandro Valverde and Dan Martin.

Purito on the Mur

Wind has been a feature of stages 2 and 3. Crashes too, including a mass, high-speed pile-up earlier in the day, which has already removed three potential contenders for today’s stage from consideration: Fabian Cancellara, Simon Gerrans and Michael Matthews. So severe were some of the injuries, that the stage was brought temporarily to a halt by the race organisers as there were not enough medical crews available in the event of any further incident. As the race gets underway again, the puncheurs find themselves on familiar territory. The route takes in some of the same roads and climbs as the Spring classic, La Flèche Wallonne, finishing on the steep ramp of the Mur de Huy.

The nervousness of the peloton is evident, even for the television spectator. The first week is always a nervous one, as teams attempt to hold position on narrow roads. The wind and the crashes have exacerbated this. General classification contenders are concerned too about losing time to their potential rivals. Too many people, too little space, narrowed even further by exuberant crowds and road furniture. The teams work to protect the leaders, to ensure that they are in a good position as they turn on to the lower slopes of the final climb up the Mur.

Team Sky have done an exceptional job for Chris Froome. He is at the front not so much in an attempt to win the stage as to keep out of trouble and avoid either crashing or losing time. Clearly, he is peaking at the right time, maintaining a high tempo up the climb. Surging past him, albeit temporarily in some cases, are the puncheurs. Foremost among them is Rodríguez, chased by Gallopin, Vuillermoz (who will win in Brittany a few days later), Sagan and Martin. With Froome eventually regaining position, taking second to Rodríguez, the others will make up the top five riders for the stage. They have fulfilled their leadership responsibilities for the day.

There is something about the temporary moment in the spotlight for the puncheur that reminds me of the directors who make up the executive teams in the world of corporations, public bodies and non-profit organisations. These are highly accomplished individuals. They are leaders when they need to be, but are adept at following the lead of others too. Unlike the rouleur, for example, who tends to assume domestique duties, only occasionally venturing up the road to victory, or the baroudeur who tends to embody the qualities of the maverick, the puncheur is meant to both lead the team and chase the win – in the right context. When it is not their time, however, they step back into the shadows, supporting the general classification contender, sometimes taking on a mentoring responsibility, the role of the consiglieri. Think Valverde and Nairo Quintana in the Movistar team.

The puncheur, then, is like a George Harrison in The Beatles. Or a Jonathan Ive at Apple. Or, until recently, a Yanis Varoufakis in the Greek government. They stand in the shadow of the CEO, building rapport with their team, serving others with humility. But when the need arises they can take possession of the stage and mesmerise and inspire others with their knowledge, experience and skills.

Everywhere in early racing there is a sense of pushing the boundaries of human endeavour, of finding out through trial and, if necessary, error what the limits of the possible are.
— Max Leonard, Lanterne Rouge

The philosophy is that you push the power of decision making out to the periphery and away from the center. You give people the room to adapt, based on their experience and expertise. All you ask is that they talk to one another and take responsibility. That is what works.
— Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto

They exhibit a type of fluidity founded on the power of relationships, amplified by a network of instantaneous connections.
— Nicholas Vitalari & Haydn Shaughnessy, The Elastic Enterprise

The group is in a constant state of flux and this becomes the key insight for them and for me. If we are standing at the edges of the Industrial Age, attempting to bring forth something novel, then there is going to be a constant shifting between positions, many of them difficult and all of them, including the ones associated with success don’t last long.
— Khurshed Dehnugara, Flawed but Willing

An elephant in every room

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.
— Rudyard Kipling, Six Honest Serving Men

The elephant in the room is human nature. Enterprise knowledge sharing will never be as good as what networked individuals can do. Individuals who own their knowledge networks will invest more in them.
— Harold Jarche, Seeking Perpetual Beta

Personal Knowledge Mastery (PKM) is an evolving concept for navigating change and learning to catch the waves before they break. PKM helps people scan the external environment and make sure that they are seeing signals, patterns and trends that are going to have an impact on their company’s ability to continue to thrive and grow.
— Kenneth Mikkelsen, Personal Knowledge Mastery

For all its gentrification and influx of people who would rather commute than live in the big city, Whitstable still maintains a sea-salt edge that is linked to both culinary endeavour and commercial fishing. Metres from the town’s centre, the paraphernalia of oyster farming is clearly visible both on the pebble beach and along the coastline. Wander towards the harbour and you will encounter lobster pots and fishing net bundles, as well as small vessels unloading their hauls and people selling the catch.

The metaphor of fishing is one that lends itself well to our personal knowledge mastery practices. We have to work out filters, services and applications to use to extract useful information from the tidal waters of our digital and analogue worlds. What communities do we join? Who do we follow on Twitter? Which conference do we attend? What books do we read? Who do we meet for that chat over coffee? Which series of blog posts do we follow? What virtual and physical spaces do we use for collaboration, cooperation and exchange of ideas?

It is a process of experiment and refinement. I constantly follow and unfollow people on Twitter, join communities and leave them, submitting to curiosity, zooming in on different interests, assessing what does and does not work for me. The same applies to some of the technologies I use to support my evolving preferences for seeking out information, making sense of it, and then sharing it with other people.

Harold Jarche’s seek > sense > share framework that is at the centre of his notion of PKM has had a profound influence on me. It has helped clarify my own thinking about knowledge, both personal and in networks, about the function served by technology, as well as about who and what I depend on to learn and do my work. In a post from March 2014, Harold asked What is your PKM routine? He illuminated the idea with examples from Jane Hart, Sacha Chua and himself. It prompted me to think more closely about routines I had adopted almost unconsciously. What I want to focus on here is how I use one particular enabling tool to help me get things done.

evernote

Although an early adopter of Evernote in February 2009, I did not really begin using it with any great effectiveness until late 2011, after which I paid for a Premium account. Since then it has become something of an outboard brain, a crucial hub in a network of activities, services and technologies. I have reordered, cleansed and refined my Evernote library over time. As I have done so I have stopped using many other services and online storage facilities. It took a few attempts to get it to a state I was happy with. It is now an app and multi-platform service that I use as a curated repository, for note taking and drafting, as a collaboration space and for business administration.

Within Evernote, I maintain a number of different notebooks. Some of these I keep in stacks. So, for example, I have created a Book Notes stack within which there are Business, Culture & the Arts, Fiction, Poetry, Sport and Understanding People notebooks. Whenever I read a book, physical or digital, I create a new note in one of these notebooks. Within this I keep personal notes and extracted quotes. I also begin building hyperlinks between different notes, not only to other notes about books I have read but to any other information stored in the Evernote library. This can range from annotated blog posts to graphics, videos and audio files. It helps create a web of interlinked material which feeds my own ideas for blog posts, books and articles. Many of the quotes find their way into my own posts, topping and tailing them. So I move from seeking and collecting, to sense-making and writing, and on to publishing and curating.

Also within the Evernote library is a huge swathe of annotated online content. I have collected this over time through a variety of means. Sometimes simply following a recommendation on Twitter, reading an article and saving it for further reflection and annotation using the Evernote web clipper or the save-from-iPhone functionality. Occasionally I come across an academic paper, ebook or white paper in PDF format, which I save to Evernote, then add a series of my own notes and reflections in the relevant note. I am also developing a filtering process too in relation to a number of bloggers who I like to follow closely.

After the demise of Google Reader, I tried Feedly but struggled to filter effectively. What I do now instead is use IFTTT recipes to save posts from personal sites and Medium to Pocket. This is a triage space where I read the post and determine whether it has further utility for the different projects I am working on. If it does, then I forward it from Pocket to the appropriate notebook in Evernote, where I will annotate, highlight and hyperlink to other notes.

Evernote also allows for the capture of information via camera and audio, which is extraordinarily useful. The former I find particularly helpful when managing details of business expenses, for example. It also allows for direct interaction with a number of other applications such as Skitch for annotating graphics, Penultimate for handwriting notes on an iPad, and Say&Go for capturing audio memos on the fly from an iPhone.

One of the most useful recent additions to the Evernote service has been Work Chat, which enables me to share content with others or to create broader collaboration spaces. You can let others simply see your notes or interact on the notes directly with full read-write access. So, for example, you can use it conversationally like the DM function in Twitter but without the character restrictions, occasionally sharing a note for interest, comment or amendment. Or you can share a whole stack of notebooks and the content therein as you develop a book project together.

There are a number of ways you can design your internal architecture in Evernote. Personally, I have relied more on notebooks and stacks than on tags, which I use sparingly. I am very reliant, however, on the search engine. I use this to search for proper words, phrases and hashtags that I have added to my own notes. A simple search on PKM, for example, will pick up a host of material, some of it posts written by others, ideas that I am mulling over, notes on books I have read, and so on.

Evernote is a service that I have used across a range of platforms and devices – always on a Mac and an iPhone, for a period of time on an iPad, occasionally via a browser interface on a workplace Windows PC. Synchronisation across all is seamless, a huge bonus when compared to previous note-taking OS X applications I used to rely on like Yojimbo. Emergent practice between 2011 and 2014 enabled me to circumnavigate the restrictions and constraints of a locked-down IT environment. With Evernote I was able to bring my own app (BYOA) to work and operate in a style that suited me rather than in one that was imposed on me.

Whichever room I happen to be in, I always have a digital elephant with me. Evernote is a service from which I fish constantly and which I am forever supplying with new stock too. Its waters are the pool from which I attempt to extract meaning and share that with others.

Who are we, who is each one of us, if not a combinatoria of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined? Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable.
— Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium

The things I’m curious about create a network of information and contacts and relationships for me (not unlike the networks of information intelligence officers map out).
— Brian Grazer and Charles Fishman, A Curious Mind

In the information age, we are all information architects. Content creation and organization are core life skills. At home and at work, from desktop to mobile, our ability to manage and make sense makes us efficient and effective.
— Peter Morville, Intertwingled

Everything connects. Making connections between disparate things is a key to creative thinking, and so seeing these relationships is one of the keys to catalyzation.
— Faisal Hoque with Drake Baer, Everything Connects

Version control

Changing
Always into itself
New. Now new.
Still itself.
Still.
— Maya Angelou, To a Man

The building blocks of an evolutionary process, remember, are repeated variation and selection.
— Tim Harford, Adapt

Creativity is renewal that stands on the boundaries of the box, explores them, and further expands them.
— Christian Stadil & Lene Tanggaard, In the Shower with Picasso

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

Why is there such an obsession with appending version control to human ideas, actions and forms of organisation? In relation to documents and software development, it is completely comprehensible. We need to understand that we are all referencing the same version of the strategy or policy, that we are supporting the customer on the correct version of the app and the relevant operating system.

Ever since the dot-com bubble burst so dramatically at the turn of the century, though, it seems that there has been a proliferation of 2.0 and 3.0 endeavours. Meandering from the web to the enterprise to the community, even to the ill-named HR function, we are dancing around numbers and their decimal point accomplices.

There seems to be a naive reductionism about this tendency. One which ignores the history of humankind prior to Tim Berners-Lee’s eureka moment in the late 1980s. For implicit in all these 2.0s and 3.0s is the assumption that human interaction and working practices effectively started with the web.

The central thesis of Mark Pagel’s book Wired for Culture is that humans serve two purposes in life. First, the perpetuation of the species through the transfer of genes. Second, the spreading of our culture. For Pagel, ‘elements of culture themselves — ideas, languages, beliefs, songs, art, technologies — could act like genes, capable of being transmitted to others and reproduced.’ In other words, imitation, visual theft and repetition have been constant throughout the lifetime of our species.

In this sense, we can trace our current predilection for social media back through the web, television, radio, cinema, the telegraph, photography, flags, beacons, tribal drums, rock paintings and so on. It is not so much the case of Web 2.0 as Smoke Signals 11.0.

Similarly, advancements and modifications in information and communication technologies, as well as transportation, have had an immense impact on how we organise ourselves, who we collaborate and cooperate with, our levels of literacy, and our competency in visual and verbal communication. The numerous forms of colour-coded organisation that Frederic Laloux documents in Reinventing Organizations have their counterparts in these enabling technological developments, from papyrus to printing press to WordPress, from canoe to steam engine to jet plane. So less Enterprise 2.0, more Nomadic Tribe 20.0.

The point is that we both advance and repeat. There is a spiral-like pattern to it. We take from and add to the old. It is what we have always done. We internalise ideas from other people, then creatively build on them, personalise them, develop them. That is not a million miles away from Harold Jarche’s seek > sense > share framework for personal knowledge mastery. Perhaps that is why his model is so compelling. It is almost an organising principle for human progression.

Christian Stadil and Lene Taggaard in their book, In the Shower with Picasso, observe that ‘creative individuals absorb inspiration from traditions and materials that are already in the world – from film, science fiction, and past masters. They discover paradoxes, breaks, holes, and cracks in the existing knowledge and use these as points of departure.’ Later they state, ‘being creative is about sampling, synthesizing, mediation, building bridges … Being creative is about reimagining old knowledge and expertise.’

I think we see a lot of that going on at the moment. The collection of ideas, their exploration and constructive critique. It is all important. All very human too.

The addition of numbers, of version control, is just not required.

Almost all learning—whether personal or corporate—is evolutionary, incurred incrementally from the building of one experience on top of another. This helps to create a framework of reference points from which to make informed judgments and help to refine decisions.
— Arnold Kransdorff, Knowledge Management: The Death of Wisdom

The necessity to develop increasingly refined skills to sustain enjoyment is what lies behind the evolution of culture. It motivates both individuals and cultures to change into more complex entities. The rewards of creating order in experience provide the energy that propels evolution—they pave the way for those dimly imagined descendants of ours, more complex and wise than we are, who will soon take our place.
— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow

The central importance of contingency as a denial of reductionism in the sciences devoted to understanding human evolution, mentality, and social or cultural organization strikes me as one of the most important, yet least understood, principles of our intellectual strivings.
— Stephen Jay Gould, The Hedgehog, the Fox and the Magister’s Pox

All human cultures have developed forms that allow stories of failure to spread without attribution of blame. Avoidance of failure has greater evolutionary advantage than imitation of success. It follows that attempting to impose best practice systems is flying in the face of over a hundred thousand years of evolution that says it is a bad thing.
— Dave Snowden, Rendering Knowledge

Abstraction

Abstraction is the process of turning complex problems we cannot completely describe into simpler ones that we think we can solve.
— John Kay, Obliquity

We live in an unending rainfall of images. The most powerful media transform the world into images and multiply it by means of the phantasmagoric play of mirrors.
— Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium

Art is the means by which a culture describes itself to itself. Those descriptions, in turn, form our sense of how we see ourselves in the present and in relation to the past.
— Kit White, 101 Things to Learn in Art School

I feel it is a noble thing to be an artist. You’re a pilgrim on the road to meaning.
— Grayson Perry, Playing to the Gallery

I write for myself. I share to converse, not to convert. In my view, without diversity of opinion, the world would be a boring place. What I offer here and elsewhere in my writing, therefore, is merely a contribution to an ongoing discussion. I do not believe in right answers but in different perspectives shaped by different contexts.

Blogging, for me at least, is a form of sense-making. It is working out loud, writing oneself into understanding, shaping and refining ideas which are forever in beta. Curiosity leads me on journeys into uncharted territories, and words help me map them.

It is a form of abstraction. Abstraction, that is, in multiple senses: Existing as an idea but devoid of tangible existence. Art that does not denote external reality. Something extracted, filtered, rendered theoretical. A summary.

The process of abstraction enables meaning to be distilled into a metaphor, into a verbal or visual image. With very little much can be communicated. With words I shape metaphors about peloton formations, WWW people, detectives and flâneurs, bridges, the construction of cathedrals. With words I unpackage these metaphors to explain my understanding of responsive organisations, fluid leadership, polymathy and generalism, knowledge mastery and sense-making, evolution and transformational change.

Indalo-Gabe
[Photo credit: Gabe’s Indalo, Richard Martin, June 2015]

Visual images, or their suggestion through words, play an important role in abstracting ideas. The tools of navigation and wayfinding, sources of illumination, hedgehogs and foxes all appear with regularity on these digital pages. Signs are everywhere. Signifying meaning. Open to interpretation.

Take the Indalo, for example, that I have adopted as part of my online handle. This ancient pictograph is suggestive of liminality – a ghost-like figure carrying a rainbow. It is associated with good luck and protection from evil. It also represents the Spanish region of Almería, and has specific connection with the coastal town of Mojácar.

On a personal level, the Indalo has strong associations with childhood as I lived in that part of Spain. But also with the notion of cultural heritage, the past intruding into the present, informing the future. There are many origin stories about the Indalo. One of them concerns the image of a man and the rainbow he observes becoming imprinted on the wall of the cave in which he shelters from the rain. In my turbulent mind, then, it is interwoven with a personal interest in cinema and Plato’s children. For me, it has been rendered cinematic, both present and archaic. It has become something that, for reasons I still do not fully understand, I associate with my favourite line of poetry: find beauty, try to understand, survive (James Sallis, ‘To a Russian Friend’).

Ancient totems, film, photography and art all influence my thinking. I am an admirer, for example, of the work of Saul Bass. Not just his static images, corporate designs and film posters, but the many credit sequences he created for filmmakers over the years. His abilities to abstract, to condense, to simplify were astonishing. With a single image, like the posters for Vertigo or Anatomy of a Murder, he was able to abstract a film’s primary theme, to convey meaning that resonated with audiences at a subconscious level even before they entered the movie theatre. With a few moving images, he could prefigure the entire narrative. He continues to cast a long shadow today, influencing many who have followed in his footsteps.

With a blog post, I am similarly trying to peel away layers, condense and distil, to simplify the complex, and reach for some kind of understanding. However abstract and metaphorical. However vague and ethereal.

Art is how you find yourself. Somewhere out there is a poem or a song that can tell you something you need to hear or capture a fear you didn’t know had a name. Listen carefully to your favorite songs, and pay attention in your favorite books, and you’ll see artists desperately sorting through what they can’t explain in their lives. When done well, art captures the essence into a song, a story, a book, or a poem that transforms you.
— Scott Berkun, The Ghost of My Father

Strange how, as we age, our lives turn to metaphor. Memories flood in often and with little provocation, to the point that everything starts to remind us of something else. We, our actions, our lives, become representational. We imagine that the world is deeper, richer; in fact, it is simply more abstract. We tell ourselves that now we pay attention only to what’s important. But sadly, what’s important turns out to be keeping our routine.
— James Sallis, Salt River

What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
— T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

A small tip of the hat to a handful of people who influence my approach to blogging, as well as some of the ideas I continue to wrestle with: Kenneth Mikkelsen, Harold Jarche, John Stepper, Euan Semple and Anne Marie McEwan.