Generalise to specialise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second curves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What counts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knowledge remains personal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knowledge is sought out, ingested, personalised and applied.

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

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

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

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

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

Road captain

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting
— Walt Whitman, O Captain! My Captain!

It is a mistake to think that being called “captain” means you do everything yourself.
— Martin Johnson, The Autobiography

When you’re dealing with ongoing challenges and changes, and you’re in uncharted territory with no means of knowing what comes next, no one can be expected to have all the answers or rule the team with an iron fist based solely on the title on their business card. It just doesn’t work for day-to-day operations. Sometimes a project is a long series of obstacles and opportunities coming at you at high speed, and you need every ounce of your collective hearts and minds and skill sets to get through it.
— Robyn Benincasa, Six Leadership Styles

The very essence of leadership, going out ahead to show the way, derives from more than usual openness to inspiration. Why would anybody accept the leadership of another except that the other sees more clearly where it is best to go? Perhaps this is the current problem: too many who presume to lead do not see more clearly and, in defense of their inadequacy, they all the more strongly argue that the “system” must be preserved — a fatal error in this day of candor.
— Robert Greenleaf, The Servant as Leader

It is 28 July 2012. The peloton is on the ninth and final circuit of the Box Hill climb in the London Olympics men’s road race. This is a gold medal target for the GB team, who are riding in support of one of the world’s top sprinters, Mark Cavendish. A breakaway has formed ahead of the peloton, and one of the main threats to Cavendish’s ambitions, Fabian Cancellara, takes this opportunity to attack and bridge across to them. As Cancellara makes his move, Cavendish seeks to follow him. But he is called back by his road captain, David Millar. Millar has judged that they are still too far out from the finish line, and that they have a strong chance of reeling the breakaway in during the remaining kilometres. He does not want Cavendish to expend unnecessary energy on the chase now and have nothing left for the sprint finish they hope to set up.

As things transpire, however, the victor and other medallists all emerge from the breakaway. The GB team’s attempts to control the peloton in the same manner that they did in the previous year’s World Championship, admittedly with a larger team, will come to no avail. Other teams have learned from 2011 and know that if they work with the GB team to close down the gap to the breakaway, there is every chance that they will be helping set up Cavendish to add a gold medal to his World Champion’s Rainbow jersey. There is no cooperation today. While Millar’s seemed the right call to make, in retrospect it backfires on the team.

The point here is not to highlight the wrong decision made but two other factors. First, the autonomy of the cyclists on the road. The Olympics road race title was a long-term objective for GB cycling, one element in their Project Rainbow, which included the 2011 success. It involved several years of collaboration between coaches, administrators and riders from competing trade teams. Both events had Cavendish as their nominated leader – the sprinter the others were riding to protect and to position for the race’s finish – and Millar as the on-the-road captain. For all the planning and training, the riders have to respond to conditions and context on the day. Both the Worlds and the Olympics are races that do not allow for radio communication between team support cars and the riders. Trust therefore has to be placed in the experience and decision making of those on the bikes, in particular the road captain.

Trust is the second factor to highlight. Cavendish’s trust in Millar is unwavering. While they have a history of competing against one another for their respective trade teams, with Millar working for one of Cavendish’s great rivals, Tyler Farrar, they have established a burgeoning friendship. This is a consequence not only of Project Rainbow and the occasional training ride in one another’s company, but also of shared experiences at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi. Millar is the elder rider who has experienced both the highs and lows of the sport, including a ban for doping. He is knowledgeable and experienced, nearing the end of his career, but still able to deliver moments of adventure and panache. He is not unlike some of the player-managers that enjoyed success in the top flights of football in the 1980s.

The road captain is most definitely not a position of command and control. There is a nurturing aspect to it. One founded in service of others; the team as a whole, the cyclists on the road, the directors in the team car, the protected rider for the day, the climber, the sprinter. Bernie Eisel is another close friend of Cavendish who has emerged as a natural road captain at the trade teams in which they have ridden together, including HTC Highroad and Team Sky. The supportive nature of his role is often hidden from the television cameras. As the action happens up the road on the high peaks, towards the back of the race, Eisel can be seen coaxing his sprinters up the long climbs. In 2012 he also was instrumental in organising the team on the road in support of Bradley Wiggins’s pursuit of the race leader’s yellow jersey in the Tour de France.

BernhardEisel
[Photo: Bernie Eisel, road captain for Team Sky at the 2012 Tour de France]

In other situations, the road captain, often themselves adept rouleurs, good time triallists and occasional one-day race contenders, assumes the role of teacher. They are tutor, guide and friend in a master-apprentice relationship with upcoming stars. This comes across strongly in Beatrice Bartelloni’s description of her friendship with and respect for two-time Road World Champion Giorgia Bronzini at the Wiggle-Honda women’s team. On other occasions, teams contract with grizzled veterans like Roger Hammond, Alessandro Petacchi, Juan Antonio Flecha, George Hincapie and Michael Rogers to take on leadership roles in support of riders who were formerly their competitors and peers. Petacchi’s role in support of Cavendish at Omega Pharma-Quick Step during the 2014 season is a case in point. At Team Katusha, in another example, Luca Paolini, still a hugely accomplished rider in his own right, uses his craft, experience and decision-making skills to enable sprinters like Alexander Kristoff and general classification contenders like Purito Rodríguez to achieve podium success.

What cycling illustrates constantly is that leadership can come from anywhere. At the heart of the #pelotonformations concept is the notion of fluidity; fluidity of organisational structure, as well as fluidity of roles and responsibilities. The road captain is not a hierarchical role but more an articulation of the knowledge, mastery, autonomy and purpose that are necessary for success on the road. The role is taken on by different people on different days. Context is important, as is the individual’s relationship with the designated protected rider. The road captains mentioned here share a strength of character, conviction in their own decision making, mutual trust with their teammates and a willingness to share their experience. They are master tacticians and excellent communicators.

As Millar’s Olympics story suggests, the road captains do not always get it right. Nevertheless, they invariably enjoy the support of fellow riders and support staff for whatever decisions they make. This is not a blame game. Trust is all. This is built over time through shared experiences. Evidence that their on-the-road guidance to teammates can often make the difference between failure and success only serves to strengthen that trust. Reigning Commonwealth Games champion Lizzie Armitstead recently described the effect of her trade team road captain, Chantal Blaak, during the third stage of the 2015 Tour of Qatar. Blaak recognised the over-eagerness of her teammates, coaching them and keeping them calm, guiding as they organised themselves for the stage win. Her actions and encouragement of teammates helped secure the overall victory for Armitstead and the Boels-Dolmans team the following day.

Like a good project manager or internal consultant in the corporate world, the cycling road captain can lead from the front, from behind, from the side or from the shadows. They coach, mentor and enable others, serving as social connectors between riders on the road and the support teams behind the race. They are master craftsmen, big-picture thinkers who improvise strategy on the fly. They are decision makers who unite teammates in common purpose, maintaining that unity through both failure and success. They are champions of the framework within which the team operates, the glue that holds the team together.

It is at once a position of great responsibility and total subservience, fulfilled by a shifting cast selected on a race-by-race basis both for their suitability for a given event and for their relationship to the rider that the team hopes will win it.
— Timothy John, The Role of the Road Captain in Professional Cycling

Riders who are willing to adapt and learn will succeed. All it takes is a bit of guidance that instils confidence … In races, we can’t control the unpredictable external pressures – the peloton, nervousness, our rivals, the wind – and they force our bodies and minds to adapt.
— Michael Barry, Shadows on the Road

There’s more than one type of professional cyclist. There are those who have the potential to win big, and there are those who may not ever get near a big win, but who still make themselves valued in the professional peloton.
— Tom Southam, The Nearly Men

The role of road captain demands so much more than talent: it is racing with the mind as well as the legs, calculating tens of tiny, ever-changing elements in the heat of battle. It is patience, experience, intuition, tactics, reading of tiny signs in yourself, your leader and your rivals, knowing the course, weather, racing instinct, nerve; even personality and comportment off the bike.
— Andy McGrath, Luca Paolini

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

Elevators

‘This isn’t just an ordinary up-and-down lift!’ announced Mr Wonka proudly. ‘This lift can go sideways and longways and slantways and any other way you can think of! It can visit any single room in the whole factory, no matter where it is!’ … ‘The whole lift is made of thick, clear glass!’ Mr Wonka declared. ‘Walls. doors, ceiling, floor, everything is made of glass so you can see out!’
— Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Obliquity is a process of experiment and discovery. Successes and failures and the expansion of knowledge lead to reassessment of our objectives and goals and the actions that result.
— John Kay, Obliquity

A linear approach to what we make, how we make it, who we make it with and how we share and communicate is a framework or lens that sets us to look upon our world and act in a very particular fashion. Shuffle is an example of a non-linear approach, a means by which we can access, curate and interpret the world in a different way.
— Alan Moore, No Straight Lines

In their constant search for competitive advantage, organizations are seeking people who already have specialized knowledge. This encourages people to keep going deeper rather than wider in their formal and informal learning.
— Steven D’Souza & Diana Renner, Not Knowing

Metaphors are a great vehicle for communication. Kit White observes in his aphoristic 101 Things to Learn in Art School that ‘Metaphor is the medium of symbolic language and is the language of art.’ With metaphors we can package up ideas and concepts and convey them to other people. A metaphor is something that can transcend visual, written and verbal language. As Susan Greenfield suggests, metaphorical thinking is one of the ways that humans distinguish themselves from closely related species like chimpanzees. The torch and compass help us navigate our way into and map the unknown. The candle’s flame enables us to light the wicks of other candles as knowledge is shared and amplified. The spider’s silk is suggestive of the digital, networked world in which we now commune.

Author James Sallis offers an intriguing perspective in his essay Gently into the Land of Meateaters: ‘Certainly each of us becomes a metaphor of the world: we figure the world from ourselves.’ When I think of how I use this blog – as a sense-making tool, as a platform for sharing ideas both embryonic and developed, as a repository of curated content, as a catalyst to conversation – I find this is an interpretation that resonates with me. In some respects, this blog and the books that are evolving from it are exercises in metaphorical enquiry. Each metaphor used here – the peloton, the cathedral, the detective, the flâneur, the bridge – are threads that are being woven into a larger tapestry. One of the latest threads, representative of an interest in both the polymathic generalist and the act of stewardship, is the elevator.

The elevator with which Willy Wonka transports Charlie Bucket and his grandfather is one of opportunity, curiosity, transparency and multidirectionality. Not only does it operate within the loose framework of Wonka’s factory, but it has the potential to journey into the unknown too. It is not regulated by one set course, but it can navigate in any direction. Compare this to the traditional bank of elevators in an office building. They travel up and down. Some require passes to activate them. Certain floors are restricted and off-limits. The fast elevator to the top floor is reserved for senior executives. Not so very different, then, as I observed in The apprentice’s craft, from the deep channels of silo-based expertise and hyperspecialism that characterise the make-up of many organisations.

The traditional career path we have settled on suggests the exploitation of a narrow set of specialisms. The individual is recruited to a post based on a combination of academic credentials and previous experience. They are labelled and pigeonholed by both a job title and job description. By conforming with the latter and working within its bounds, they develop, even narrow, their specialism. Their subsequent progression up the corporate ladder, their access to the building’s upper floors, are closely aligned with this increasingly dated expertise. Their understanding of the other elevator shafts, the knowledge contained within them, the role of their occupants in achieving corporate goals and delivering on common purpose, is limited. Eventually they alight on one of the upper floors, the speed of their upwards trajectory either slowed or curtailed altogether. They are now a manager, acquiring a shallow set of broader skills to supplement their area of specialist expertise. They have been branded with the letter T.

Wonka’s elevator is one for the polymathic generalist, for #WWWpeople. It is the hyperlink made conveyor of people. It defies the silo of the traditional elevator shaft. It knows no restrictions. Its path is the path of obliquity, travelling to the unknown. It moves through space and time like the Doctor’s Tardis or Bill and Ted’s phone booth, acquiring knowledge, cross-pollinating ideas, taking a bird’s eye view, picking out patterns in the big puzzle. When all has been digested, internalised, sifted and blended, then a more traditional course can be set. Sometimes even to the top floor. So, for example, Alexander Fleming discovers penicillin by accident rather than design, and a pharmaceutical industry focus on antibiotics and their medical application subsequently follows. Or actress Hedy Lamarr and composer George Antheil combine their interests in applied science to develop frequency-hopping ideas that today are building blocks for wireless technologies. Or businessman Steve Jobs invests his personal energies and finances in multiple industries including personal computers, animation, music, high street stores, software and mobile telephony, and through an intricate game of hopscotch manages to master and integrate them all.

What happens when a polymathic generalist assumes a leadership role in an organisation? The intertwined stories of Jobs and Ed Catmull, documented in the latter’s Creativity, Inc., hint at the fusion of art and science and technology. Of people playing, experimenting, learning, failing and triumphing in several fields. In Catmull’s case, in particular, there is the suggestion of an individual seeking to create conditions in which others can bloom. The idealised polymathic leader is a visionary who strives for a future that they will not be part of themselves, an elevator floor at which they will never arrive. They aim to steward others, dedicated to the husbandry of their organisation, the individual people within it, nurturing the potential each has to fulfil. The stories that emerge about such people invariably point to their mentoring capabilities, their willingness to share knowledge and experience, to send the elevator back down so that others might follow, might build on the foundations they have laid, might push at the boundaries of the maps they have drawn.

You have to send the elevator back down.
— Jack Lemmon in conversation with Kevin Spacey

The saving grace was that declaring my beliefs about the asphyxiating effects of mechanistic organization versus the vitalizing results of organic systems had an unexpected liberating effect on me. That experience of liberation through speaking personal truths – along with the fact that my presentation caused no significant change at the heart of Hallmark – convinced me that, in the future, my efforts would be best spent in not trying to change Hairballs, but in offering to midwife out of Hairballs anyone who longed for a fuller, more original work experience.
— Gordon MacKenzie, Orbiting the Giant Hairball

Enlightened leaders deliberately hand over responsibility in order to create engaged team-players able to adapt their approach to suit the conditions.
— James Kerr, Legacy

When looking to hire people, give their potential to grow more weight than their current skill level.
— Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace, Creativity, Inc.

Plato’s children

And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: Behold! human beings living in an underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.
— Plato, The Republic, Book VII

Art is a language of signs and symbols. To describe new conditions, new signs must be created or old symbols redeployed in ways that give them new meanings. Given that the world is constantly changing and that each new generation describes the world it sees in its own way, the symbol language of art must always be evolving. Language is influence.
— Kit White, 101 Things to Learn in Art School

To all viewers but yourself, what matters is the product: the finished artwork. To you, and you alone, what matters is the process: the experience of shaping that artwork.
— David Bayles & Ted Orland, Art & Fear

One of the many brutal sequences in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film A Clockwork Orange involves an exercise in aversion therapy known as the Ludovico technique. Alex, the recidivist protagonist played by Malcolm McDowell, is drugged and strapped to a chair. His eyelids are held open while he is forced to watch images of violence against a backdrop of classical music. The drugs induce a sense of nausea with the effect that, in the short term at least, he is revolted by the notion of sexuality, is unresponsive when confronted by violence, and is tortured by the music of one of his favourite composers, Beethoven. Alex is subject to state-sponsored brainwashing. His sensory responses to the experience of sitting before the movie screen are not within his own control. He no longer has agency in his own narrative.

In this latter respect, Alex differs from Plato’s cave dwellers. While they may be chained and unable to look in any other direction but forwards, they are not drugged and have control of their own eyes. However lightly, they play some sense-making role in relation to the shadow images they see projected before them. They are able to interact with those that surround them, and together name what they see. They are, in however restricted a way, participants in the story. Shadows are labelled. Language emerges and evolves.

Most of us, of course, have far more agency than this in our lives. Not only do we participate, we co-create. We are complicit, for example, in the art we consume and with which we interact. Both writer and reader, painter and viewer, actor and audience member have a role to play in the creative process. Meaning is projected, but it is interpreted too, with subjectivity and context both coming into play.

Digital technologies have further clouded the waters. Take film viewing, for example. When cinema gained popularity in the late 19th century, and well on into the post-WWII period, film-going was a communal experience. This is beautifully captured in Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 film Cinema Paradiso. People of all ages, genders and economic backgrounds gathered together around places of worship and the local cinema. These were the centres where a sense of collective identity and community were established. Group storytelling shifted from the verbal to the cinematic. It was a more synaesthetic experience, blending poetry, fiction, folk tale, dance, song, theatre, painting and architecture into a swirling phantasmagoria of word, image and movement.

As with so much else, however, the industrial cauldron of the 20th century served as an accelerator. Technical advances were rapid, almost tripping over one another towards century’s end. There were adverse side effects, though, not least the increasing fragmentation of community, the alienation of people from people, and the replacement of meaningful relationships with digital simulacra. So, in the post-war period, cinema began to compete with television. Then VHS and Betamax followed. So too Laserdisc, DVD, Blu-ray, online services and streaming. The role of the viewer shifted as well. A village assembled before the cinema screen in the 1920s became a family crowded on a sofa before a small television in the 1950s. That in turn transformed into the solitary commuter staring at their smartphone in the 2010s, cocooned in their headphones. Viewing became personal. It became asynchronous too, with viewers no longer tied to cinema or television broadcast schedules.

Technologies like Laserdisc also opened up new co-creative and consumption opportunities for viewers. As a film student, I was able to watch the original versions of films as screened in the cinemas, or to observe the film while listening instead to film directors like Martin Scorsese and Michael Powell describe the creative filmmaking process and their original intentions. Or to hear film academics like Laura Mulvey offer dense theoretical interpretations of the film I was watching. I could reprogramme films like Boyz N the Hood to include scenes that had been deleted in the theatrical release. DVD and subsequent technologies included these additional features and much more: mini documentaries, multiple commentary tracks, original studio and alternative directors’ cuts of films. The viewing experience became one of choice and interaction. Tools and maps were available; it was down to the individual whether they made use of them or not. Through social media, too, the community swirling around these films became global rather than local. Digital had fragmented the audience, but it had also enabled the fragments to be joined together in an ever-evolving, always-shifting network of common interests.

The opportunities to co-create, to navigate and harness the potential of networked communities, are there in the workplace too. If you only act on instruction, as Andrew Jacobs highlights in his See no ships blog post, you are in danger of returning to Plato’s cave. If you are acting on curiosity, though, not waiting for permission, but still aligning yourself with overarching corporate purpose, it is more likely that you are moving into the realm of creativity and innovation, of learning and knowledge exchange. Even as you tread the borderlines of rebellion. Such agency is what distinguishes us from the automatons or the brainwashed like Alex.

The shapes wore away as if only a dream
Like a sketch that is left on the page
Which the artist forgot and can only complete
On the canvas, with memory’s aid.
— Charles Baudelaire, A Carcass

the walls that were
whitewashed when they were younger
have turned into
maps of absence
— W. S. Merwin, Before Midsummer Above the River

When I write I’m absent
and when I come back I’ve gone:
gone off to see if other folk
go through what I go through,
if they’ve got so many others inside them,
if they see themselves the same.
— Pablo Neruda, We Are Many

Make curious with me

Good morning, Mr. Magpie
How are we today?
They’ve stolen all my magic
And took my melody
— Radiohead, Good Morning Mr. Magpie

Curiosity is unruly. It doesn’t like rules, or at least, it assumes that all rules are provisional, subject to the laceration of the smart question nobody has yet thought to ask. It disdains the approved pathways, preferring diversions, unplanned excursions, impulsive left turns. In short, curiosity is deviant. Pursuing it is liable to bring you into conflict with authority at some point.
— Ian Leslie, Curious

The more fully we believe a model is reality, the more rigid the model becomes. And the more rigid it becomes, the more it confines us.
— Gordon MacKenzie, Orbiting the Giant Hairball

From the seat of a bicycle ideas are shaken loose and mashed up. As the mechanics of the body enable pedalling and steering, doors into the unconscious are unlocked. Fast thinking and slow blend together. The mind becomes a melting pot, forming ideas, signalling calls to personal action. No one knew this better than Tullio Campagnolo. A racing cyclist during the 1920s, Campagnolo would go on to establish one of the most famous marques in cycling, accumulating patent after patent along the way. The company retains a fiercely loyal following. Its bike parts are recognised both for the quality of their engineering and their aesthetic appeal. Some have become collectors’ items.

As a racing cyclist himself, Campagnolo was confronted with the conundrum that affected all his contemporary giants of the road. The rear wheel of a bicycle includes a central hub. Cogs are attached to this which determine the gearing on the bike. During the 1920s, racing bicycles were fitted with one cog on each side of the rear wheel hub. To change gear, selecting something more suited to the terrain being traversed, necessitated stopping entirely. The rider would have to dismount, remove the rear wheel of the bike, turn it around, reattach it to the frame and ensure the chain was correctly fitted to the new cog. This was fiddly. It consumed valuable time. Climbing a mountain might require two changes; one for the ascent, the other for the descent.

Campagnolo had insider experience. He accumulated knowledge as a member of the peloton, constantly having to switch the gears on his bicycle. He was prompted by both frustration and curiosity to seek out more effective ways of making the change. Losing a race because he could not loosen a wing nut in freezing conditions gave added impetus to his quest. So began a lifetime of innovation. His first product, still seen on many bicycles today, was the quick release skewer, which allowed for the rapid removal of a wheel from the bike frame. A sliding hub and a derailleur, which precluded the need to remove the rear wheel to change gears, soon followed.

Campagnolo’s story illustrates a point made by Ian Leslie in his excellent book, Curious. Knowledge and curiosity feed off one another. Foundational knowledge – what the individual already knows – serves as a platform for curiosity. Curiosity itself services the individual’s desire to acquire more knowledge. The curious individual constantly moves to the boundaries of their knowledge. In Not Knowing, their award-winning new book, Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner observe that ‘The edge is the place where something new can emerge. We call this Not Knowing.’ We seek to bridge our knowledge gaps through curiosity, combinatory play and serendipity.

The story of the Wright Brothers, Orville and Wilbur, and their contribution to the history of aviation offers another good example. The Wrights possessed foundational knowledge and skills. They were experienced at working with machines like printing presses and motors. More tellingly, perhaps, they had extensive experience with the bicycle too, as did their workshop collaborator Charlie Taylor. They were able to draw on their knowledge about balance and stability, derived from their cycling experience, and apply it in another context. Using their existing knowledge as a basis, they allowed their curiosity to lead them into an exploration of controlled and powered human flight and resolve the problems with which they challenged themselves. As Ian Sanders puts it in his essay, The Art of Curiosity, ‘Being curious is often about shifting your mindset to ask a really simple question: what if?’

Regardless of industry or sector, organisations that want to thrive, to survive, need to be breeding grounds for curiosity. They need to be responsive and adaptive, open to the serendipitous occurrence, experimental and open-minded. Innovation rarely happens at the closely regimented conveyor belt. In that environment, there is little time to lift your head up and observe what else is going on around you, to wonder, to daydream, to mash up ideas in the maelstrom of creative thoughts.

Both curiosity and combinatory play tend to be characteristics of #WWWpeople. Yet another compelling reason to introduce a few polymathic generalists into the domain of hyperspecialism.

The bricoleur has an exploratory mindset, working at the edge between knowing and Not Knowing, constantly improvising and spontaneously engaging with the surrounding environment. For a bricoleur the process is as important as the end result.
— Steven D’Souza & Diana Renner, Not Knowing

Hyperthinkers are curious, want to learn and discover new things; they marvel at the wonders all around them. This curiosity can be innate or it can be developed through education, but the inner drive to discover and learn, the ability to ask questions, challenge preconceptions and get genuinely excited about the discovery of something new are all marks of the hyperthinker.
— Philip Weiss, HyperThinking

Goals in both life and career are important; it’s good to have a vision of where you’re headed. But stay open minded. Instead of having a fixed linear path for how to get there, embrace randomness and serendipity along the way.
— Ian Sanders, On Being Curious

immensest
mysteries contradict
a deathful realm of fact
— e. e. cummings, Selected Poems

Cross-posted to Medium and LinkedIn on 16 February 2015.

The apprentice’s craft

The old craftsperson is back. He lost his job to the factories and became a worker; now he is back as a small business owner, this time with new tools to compete with the old workplace.
— Rolf Jensen & Mika Aaltonen, The Renaissance Society

The master craftsman is adept in using a philosophical framework, as well as tools and materials, to deliver useful things to the world. But more than that, the craftsman must be open constantly to new ideas; he is essentially always in beta.
— Alan Moore, No Straight Lines

If you were a craftsman, or merchant, or clothier in the case of Rembrandt’s drapers, guilds offered members and society at large great benefits: ranging from education and apprenticeships to medieval forms of peer review, and all important stamps of approval.
— Peter Sims, The Return of the Guild

For all the innovations and dominance of different materials in their manufacture, the shape of the racing bicycle frame has remained remarkably consistent since the latter years of the 19th century. The road bike diamond is familiar to all, regardless of whether you express an interest in the sport or not. The production of these frames transcends the hazy line that separates bespoke artisanship and craft from large-scale industrial output. Indeed, just as professional cycling is inextricably connected to the evolution of mass media from the late Victorian period onwards, so too does the history of the bicycle in the same period reflect in microcosm shifting attitudes towards industry and craft. The revival of interest in cycling and the emergence of the maker movement has prompted increasing curiosity about the skills of the master framebuilder.

In Open, David Price observes that ‘Efficiency, standardisation, elimination of waste, were key drivers in the shift from craft production to mass production.’ Bicycle manufacture was no exception. Early on craftsmen had mastered the manipulation of steel tubing, shaping it into attractive frames with ornate lugs. However, the incessant search for lighter, cheaper, stiffer and stronger parts and frames, particularly in professional cycling, led to experimentation with other materials too, including titanium, aluminium and carbon. The development of carbon moulds, as well as alternative methods for manipulating carbon-fibre-reinforced polymers, opened the way for outsourced mass production in Asian factories. Designed in Italy. Made in Taiwan.  The names of famous brands plastered over uniform products lacking any idiosyncrasies.

Off-the-shelf bicycles flooded the market to suit all riding styles, body shapes and sizes, not to mention wallets. But they lacked the personal touch. It was at the fringes of cycling culture, among the messenger community, for example, and the fixed-wheel enthusiasts, that something a bit more distinctive could be seen. Famous old marques and steel steeds were dusted off and repurposed. Artisans of the past were sought out, their knowledge and craft highly valued again. Steel and titanium frames offered romanticised memories of things past, a different feel on the road, a ride that appealed to those less interested in haste. Measurement here related not so much to speed, distance covered, calories burned and heartbeat, than to bespoke fit for your own body. In his It’s All About the Bike and the documentary film that complements it, Rob Penn enthusiastically describes the experience of having crafted for you, by an experienced artisan, a frame that fits you like a glove. Bella Bathurst, in her The Bicycle Book, goes further still, describing the experience of making your own frame under the watchful eye of a master framebuilder. The journey to knowledge mastery starts with both conversation and action.

It is intriguing to see how the professional cycling teams have carried over the notion of the master-apprentice relationship into the sport itself and not just in its supply chain. In #pelotonformations there is always a fluidity of leadership, roles and responsibilities that is governed by context. The passage of time comes into play too. For example, many successful professional cyclists at career’s end as practitioners on the road move into advisory or management roles off it, serving as sporting directors, coaches and mentors. At the other extreme is the space created for promising, young amateur riders towards the end of each professional cycling season. Stagiaires are given the chance to gain experience competing in professional races as short-term members of established teams. This gives both the rider and the team the opportunity to assess readiness, attitude, aptitude and team fit. It is an immersive learning experience, where inexperienced youth rubs shoulders with and performs alongside seasoned veterans of the road racing circuit. For some it is the launching pad to a successful career. Mark Cavendish, for example, was a stagiaire with the T-Mobile Team in 2006, having spent time in one of their feeder squads. The following year he was riding his first Tour de France with the same team.

The novice is exposed to the knowledge and expertise not only of the master but of the colleagues with whom the master interacts. Skills are acquired through observation, imitation, enquiry, internalisation, deed and subsequent repetition. It happens in the cycling team with the annual introduction of new team members and constant access to veterans of the sport. It happened in the medieval monasteries as suggested by The Name of the Rose; Adso learning not only in the moment alongside Brother William, but years after the fact as he reflects back on past events and filters them through decades of subsequent experience. It happened with the blacksmiths, bakers, cobblers and masons of old too. It happens still on a daily basis, in workplaces large and small, in both the office filled with knowledge workers and the artisan’s workshop occupied by the few. It is personal knowledge mastery made manifest. A perpetual exercise in curiosity, acquisition and application of learning. Both master and apprentice continuing to learn together.

Where recognition and reward for one’s expertise is the end goal, there is always the danger of stagnation. An organisation comprised only of a team of deep specialists is not unlike a bank of elevators, separated from one another, loosely serving a common purpose but only occasionally pulling in the same direction. The tendency towards hyperspecialisation fosters a blinkered perspective. The knowledge and personal experience of the individual gradually becomes valued above all else, curiosity fades, self-promotion escalates, expertise loses its currency and evolves into empty rhetoric without foundation in the market it is intended to serve. The craftsman as the incomplete, always evolving learner is a useful countermeasure to this. By remaining open to new ideas – including those introduced by their own youthful apprentices – the craftsman allows themselves to blend new knowledge with traditional practices, to experiment and tinker at the edges.

Some of the great innovations in cycling equipment, including the quick-release wheel, have resulted from such Trojan Mice initiatives. So too some of the nutritional and training practices adopted by cycling teams open to the influence of newcomers experienced in other disciplines. Many of the great masters of painting have also shown themselves to be receptive to new influences and ideas. Picasso’s career, for example, is one marked by many sudden deviations and experiments in form and style, co-opting and personalising, cycling constantly between the role of master and apprentice. Maybe what our modern offices need are a few more generalists, who can both span as well as mine specialisms, an injection of artisanship and a greater emphasis on learning while doing.

It is a rewarding, stretching venture. The quest for a mastery that can never quite be attained. What Harold Jarche calls life in perpetual beta.

Knowledge artisans are retrieving the older artisan model and re-integrating previously separate skills. Knowledge artisans not only design the work but they can do the work. It is not passed down the assembly line.
— Harold Jarche, A New Way to Work

[Tattoo artist Ami James has an] uncompromising and absolutely clear conception of what creativity requires: time, immersion, ability to overcome resistance, professional knowledge, craftsmanship, finding the right master, the desire to express one’s own voice, and a joy in creation.
— Christian Stadil & Lene Tanggaard, In the Shower with Picasso

An apprenticeship is one kind of learning field. A team is another kind of learning field, because the action is shared among the members of the team.
— Dave Gray with Thomas Vander Wal, The Connected Company

Craft is what we are expected to know; art is the unexpected use of our craft.
— Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace, Creativity, Inc.

It turns but does not try to remember
it does not precede or follow
obey or disobey
it is not answering a question
it arrives knowing without knowledge
— W. S. Merwin, The Artisan World

Cross-posted to Medium and LinkedIn on 12 February 2015.

Interdiction

More than to the visionary his cell:
His stride is wildernesses of freedom:
The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel.
Over the cage floor the horizons come.
— Ted Hughes, The Jaguar

It is necessary to create constraints, in order to invent freely.
— Umberto Eco, Reflections on The Name of the Rose

What rules could we get rid of today that would enhance our ability to create value?
Vineet Nayar quoted in Lars Kolind & Jacob Bøtter, Unboss

Traipsing homeward from a bracing winter day’s walk last week, I opted for a route that took me through Whitstable’s active little harbour. The tide was high, the fishermen’s vessels rocking in their moorings, the whiff of their haul still lingering despite the best efforts of the freshening wind that whistled in off the North Sea. What I experienced, though, was a sensory overload of another kind. It seemed that whichever way I turned my head, my eyes were assaulted with signs of interdiction. No climbing. No black bags. No parking. No fouling. No jumping. No diving. No swimming. Rules and regulations rose up at me, and swam at the periphery of my vision. A swirling vortex of restriction and limitation.

What is permissible then? I wondered. Inevitably, I was reminded of the corporate world from which I have just jumped and begun to orbit instead. Reminded of the business appetite for policy, process and procedure. The legislator’s shopping list of constraint. The regulator’s quest for compliance. All packaged in demands for conformity and language dripping with negativity. But what of phrases of encouragement, participation and optimism? Why do we find it easier to say no rather than yes? More often we tell people not to do things rather than to do them. We adopt a position of risk aversion rather than taking a chance and embracing the unknown. No wonder our workplaces are as they are, and the statistics about worker satisfaction are so poor. We jump to prohibition so quickly.

Interdiction
[Photo credit: Interdiction, Richard Martin, 23 January 2015]

Which is not to say that there cannot be a beneficial aspect, in the right context, to limitations. Again, language is important here. For example, personally I am more drawn to the notion of frameworks than policies. Rightly or wrongly, I perceive the latter as rigid and restrictive, the former as flexible and permissive. With policies come rules that will be policed, a strict enforcement of the hierarchy. With frameworks come mutually agreed working practices, high levels of autonomy, fluidity of roles, plans that can be quickly adapted in response to shifting context. Policy creates an environment in which trust struggles to find a foothold, fear and inhibition rear their ugly heads, transparency is lacking, communication is closed, and email becomes a mechanism for covering one’s backside, serving as a record of directives issued and received. Frameworks enable openness and transparency to flourish. They do not require email at all. Within a framework, information can be exchanged rapidly and acted on in real-time. Cycling teams often show us how this is done, adapting their plans to suit the day’s conditions and the form of their team members, constantly communicating among themselves and with support staff, taking decisions on the fly.

Constraint can also help catalyse creativity. This is a common theme on this blog. Lack of people, money or technology can prompt innovative solutions. Working at the edge of the box, building on what has gone before, can result in great leaps in our knowledge, science, business and art. Working within the limits of the canvas, the frame, the page or available ingredients has not hampered our artistic forebears. But here the outlook is optimistic. I have these morsels available to me, what meal can I make from them? I have this small landscape before me, how shall I transform it into a floral feast? I have but a single piece of paper left, which words will I select for my poem? There is an inclination here towards what can be done, a positive outlook, rather than a sour-faced listing of all that cannot be achieved.

Rules may be necessary in the societies and communities we share. How we frame and present them matters, though. Better the language of the optimist than the strictures of the policymaker.

Only endings allowed things to stay
as they were, as they had been:
otherwise it was all change,
glimmers of light, faces at the window,
whispers of good intention.
— James Sallis, Other Conclusions

What kind of fool do you think I am?
To think I know nothing of the modern world
All my life it’s been the same
I’ve learnt to live by hate and pain
It’s my inspiration drive
I’ve learnt more than you’ll ever know
Even at school I felt quite sure
That one day I would be on top
Another dot upon the map
The teachers who said I’d be nothing
This is the modern world that I’ve learnt about
This is the modern world we don’t need no one
To tell us what’s right or wrong
This is the modern world
— The Jam, The Modern World