The Eye of I

Now, before Daedalus left Crete, he had given Ariadne a magic ball of thread, and instructed her how to enter and leave the Labyrinth. She must open the entrance door and tie the loose end of the thread to the lintel; the ball would then roll along, diminishing as it went and making, with devious twists and turns, for the innermost recess where the Minotaur was lodged. This ball Ariadne gave to Theseus, and instructed him to follow it until he reached the sleeping monster, whom he must seize by the hair and sacrifice to Poseidon. He could then find his way back by rolling up the thread into a ball again.
— Robert Graves, The Greek Myths

For centuries Daedalus has represented the type of artist-scientist: that curiously disinterested, almost diabolic human phenomenon, beyond the normal bounds of social judgment, dedicated to the morals not of his time but of his art. He is the hero of the way of thought—single hearted, courageous, and full of faith that the truth, as he finds it, shall make us free.
— Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

But such experience can only be hinted at
In myths and images. To speak about it
We talk of darkness, labyrinths, Minotaur terrors.
But that world does not take the place of this one.
— T. S. Eliot, The Cocktail Party

Within the extensive grounds that surround Leeds Castle in Kent, stands a relatively modern maze. It is a puzzle of topiary and pathways to be solved by the wandering visitor. At the centre of the maze can be found both an underground grotto and a viewing platform. From the vantage point of the latter, you can see the circular patterns of the maze contained within a square. Observing the bobbing heads of others undergoing the challenge, the route to the grotto reveals itself. Instructions are shouted by those in the know – who have completed the journey – to those lost in the maze’s cul-de-sacs, as well as to those pressed for time and in a rush to reach the centre. The secrets, once discerned, are shared. Friends and family are called to the I at the centre of the web.

The maze (with choices to be made en route) and the labyrinth (with only one pathway) are concepts, both spatial and metaphorical, that were documented in Antiquity and popularised in the Middle Ages. They have retained their allure, often used interchangeably, through the literature and art of Modernism and Postmodernism. The figure of Daedalus, for example, who designed the Cretan labyrinth that housed the Minotaur, resurfaces in James Joyce’s 1922 novel, Ulysses. Stephen walks the streets of Dublin, the city-as-labyrinth. In the same year, T. S. Eliot revived the figure of Tiresias who sits at the centre of The Waste Land, his poem-as-labyrinth. In this figure, time, space and people converge: past and present, Ancient Greece and contemporary London, masculinity and femininity, vision and blindness. Tiresias is another I that sits at the centre of the web.

Jorge Luis Borges continued the Modernist agenda with tales of literary detection and creation, dreams and maps. In essence, his short stories revolve around the motifs of all time as one time, all space as one space, all people as one person. His influence on fellow Latin American authors was immense. So too, as Gerald Martin documents in Journeys Through the Labyrinth, was that of Joyce’s Ulysses on a group of writers drawn to postmodern practices and the sub-genre of Magical Realism. Authors like Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortázar and Gabriel García Márquez self-consciously produced examples of the novel-as-labyrinth. Márquez’s monumental One Hundred Years of Solitude, for example, is packed with characters bearing the same name (all people as one person), a location – Macondo – in which all time and space converge, and a Tiresias-like character in the figure of Melquíades. Cortázar’s Hopscotch, on the other hand, is a formal experimentation, a literary maze, offering the reader multiple choices in how to read the book. This is hyperlinking decades before the invention of the World Wide Web. The labyrinth appears overtly in titles too from the region, as witness Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude and Márquez’s The General in His Labyrinth.

[Picture Credit: Labyrinth Noir by Noah Mease, Dunraven Comics, 23 October 2011]

Running in parallel with the Modernist writers and their postmodern followers were the hardboiled authors and noir filmmakers. In their works, the city-as-labyrinth forms the backdrop to feats of detection and sense-making. Invariably, echoing Oedipus (another figure from Antiquity with a Tiresian connection), the hardboiled figures of detection found themselves implicit in the mysteries they unravelled, from Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op to the protagonist of Memento. Journeying to the labyrinth’s centre, it was themselves they found waiting there. Another I ensnared in the web’s strands. In The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco draws on these characteristics of the detective narrative, borrowing from both the ratiocinative and hardboiled traditions, packaging them together with the interests and motifs of the Latin American authors. In his work, the sightless Tiresias morphs into the sightless Borges, thinly disguised as Jorge de Burgos, a blind guardian of the world’s knowledge.

The question of sight, of vision, of perspective is an important one. The I at the centre of the labyrinth is not a matter of narcissism, but rather a reflection of personal journeys, personal narratives. Wherever I go, there I am. Where you go is who you are. In his hero adventure, Joseph Campbell owes much to Carl Jung’s ideas about individuation. He outlined a journey towards self-knowledge, an integration of the various aspects of an individual’s personality as represented by different archetypal figures. A notion echoed in Abraham Maslow’s progression to self-actualisation. Part of the journey requires that certain beasts – fears, misconceptions – are laid waste along the way. Crossing the threshold with Ariadne’s spool in hand, requires movement into a liminal state. Old-world thinking has to be displaced.

It is impossible to remove ourselves from the sense-making process. We put the personal into Personal Knowledge Mastery. Our modern labyrinths are the networks that we inhabit, both physical and digital. The nodes in the network become archetypal expressions of aspects of ourselves, our interests, who and where we are. Because our perspective stems from the I, we are always at the centre. We map our networks from ourselves. We may look to the edges, but like the spider adapting to context shifts, we are pulled to the middle again; Ariadne’s thread unwinding until it has led us home, where we are both detective and Minotaur. Just like Neo in The Matrix, we see the code, heed the advice of the blind guardian of knowledge, yet play our role in the system. Our modern struggles, our quest for self-expression and agency, our bucking against the industrial machine, are timeless. A story for the ages. All time as one time, all space as one space, all people as one person. All viewed from the eye of I.

The library defends itself, immeasurable as the truth it houses, deceitful as the falsehood it preserves. A spiritual labyrinth, it is also a terrestrial labyrinth. You might enter and you might not emerge.
— Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

Words, words that make me think. Because I am not devoted to aimless wandering, I’d rather say that I prefer to entrust myself to the straight line, in the hope that the line will continue into infinity, making me unreachable. I prefer to calculate at length the trajectory of my flight, expecting that I will be able to launch myself like an arrow and disappear over the horizon. Or else, if too many obstacles bar my way, to calculate the series of rectilinear segments that will lead me out of the labyrinth as quickly as possible.
— Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium

The Aleph was probably two or three centimeters in diameter, but universal space was contained inside it, with no diminution in size. Each thing (the glass surface of a mirror, let us say) was infinite things, because I could clearly see it from every point in the cosmos. I saw the populous sea, saw dawn and dusk, saw the multitudes of the Americas, saw a silvery spiderweb at the center of a black pyramid, saw a broken labyrinth (it was London), saw endless eyes, all very close, studying themselves in me as though in a mirror.
— Jorge Luis Borges, The Aleph

There is no single, “correct” view.
— Nick Sousanis, Unflattening

This post was inspired by a stimulating lunchtime conversation with Anners Abild and Kenneth Mikkelsen.

Context shift

The world was huge,
and everything was change
— James Sallis, Marxist at 50

But still we change,
And always it’s the truth ahead we aren’t ready for
— Iain Banks, A Word to the Wise

The spider made its presence known a week ago. Overnight it had spun a web on one of our kitchen windows, then taken up residence at the centre of its finely crafted work. Seemingly for days it remained motionless. Waiting. Adapting. Matching its rhythms to those of the Earth. Day following night. Cool following warmth. Responding to the narrower ecosystem that surrounded it in our garden as a host of insects gathered, attracted to the pears, grapes, raspberries and figs ripening in its confines. Meals in flight.

Climactic change was reflected in movement. This was a responsive creature after all. High winds and biblical rainfall prompted a shift in position. The spider had moved, albeit unobserved by human eye, to the frame of the window, tucking its body in, but keeping one leg carefully positioned on the web. A sensor to detect imminent danger or a possible snack ensnared in its fine strands.

The sun’s return and the calming of the winds saw the re-adoption of a central position. But something was awry. As the dawn chorus of children preparing for school died down, the spider moved while I observed it for the first time. Front legs were lifted and then replaced on the web. It was a dance of agitation. In fact, it was a signal that its platform had been disturbed; that an alien body had disrupted the carefully balanced ecosystem.

[Photo credit: House Guest, Richard Martin, September 2015]

Suddenly another spider dropped from above, like an abseiler on a silky thread. Our own spider burst into action scurrying across, practically bungy-jumping from, then back on to, its own web. It was over in seconds. The intruder was repelled and order was restored. The defender of the status quo climbed back to the centre of the web, then slowly repositioned itself exactly at it had done seven days before.

Was this a creature that was change averse? Its contextual shifts and responsiveness to its environment suggested otherwise. Perhaps like the platform owners in the human world, it is selective about who it wants to partner with; mindful of disturbances to the wider ecosystem. Its responsiveness, then, is informed by context, focusing on different points on the proaction–reaction, fast–slow and making–using continuums as the environment changes around it.

I have apprenticed myself to this silent master.

The world turns and the world changes
— T. S. Eliot, Choruses from The Rock

Nothing has changed since I began.
My eye has permitted no change.
I am going to keep things like this.
— Ted Hughes, Hawk Roosting

Context Shift is the name of a white paper I have written for the Change Management Institute. In it I explore how the change industry itself is having to adapt to change. Against a backdrop of organisational, societal, economic and cultural change, I highlight certain context shifts: the atomisation of traditional organisational structures; the emergence of platforms and ecosystems; the utility of time-bound partnerships that are founded upon cooperation; the need for leadership fluidity; and the alternatives to financial capital. To remain relevant, change specialists will need to work out how to accommodate these shifts, moving away from models founded upon transactional interaction, colour-by-numbers solutions and the exploitation of intellectual property. The paper will be published later this year. In the spirit of working out loud, a draft is available here.

Another’s ruler

There is no such thing as an exact measurement.
— Mario Gleiser, The Island of Knowledge

These enclosures become internalised. What was outside is replicated within.
— Nick Sousanis, Unflattening

As a culture, we have a persistent tendency to pretend that asking ‘what’ can be substituted for ‘why’. When we can, we avoid the murky waters of emotion and causation, and focus only on the measurable.
— Ian Leslie, Curious

Why do I twitch when I think of measurement? Why am I resistant to quantification? Is it because I have to make use of the establishment’s system, use their tools, their labels? Is it the notion that it is always somebody else’s ruler, in both senses of the term, that stirs up the rebel in me?

Certainly, I recognise that unwillingness to conform. Being subjected to an HR process known as calibration made me physically ill last year. A form of linguistic terrrorism, of dehumanisation, coupled with numeric challenge. But there is something here too about not settling. About curiosity and bridging from knowledge to not knowing. We are constantly reshaping the known landscape, our methods of analysis and measurement, as well as our consideration of context. This refusal to stand still and take root is reflected in Nick Sousanis’s observations in Unflattening: ‘There are never bricks to put in place from which to see everything, only stepping stones towards what’s next.’

Measurement, for me, is one of the many forms of language that constrains us. It gets baked in. It builds false expectations and a warped sense of reality. It denies the new. There is also that perspective that to measure changes what is being observed. It distorts. It can result in poor decision-making. As Mario Glesier states in The Island of Knowledge: ‘to measure is to interfere’.

[Image credit: Frame from the 1964 film Mary Poppins]

Then there is that perennial issue with hierarchy. Measurement here as an instrument of scientific management. A form of subjugation in environments where quantity and efficiency are valued above quality and effectiveness. Gordon MacKenzie’s sage words in Orbiting the Giant Hairball still hold true: ‘If an organisation wishes to benefit from its own creative potential, it must be prepared to value the vagaries of the unmeasurable as well as the certainties of the measurable.’

In business, measurement is often a means of justifying one’s role. It clogs rather than enables. The mechanisms of control that are married to workplace measurement get in the way. They are shackles as onerous as job titles and descriptions; another form of pigeonhole. Of course, in other contexts, where there is clarity about what to measure and why, the numbers are integrated into a process of continuous improvement. Many in the sporting arena, for example, are constantly asking What counts?

The trick is not to measure everything, and to recognise that some of the most important things can never be measured. We have to find different ways of understanding value, appreciating the world around us and our interaction with it.

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons
— T. S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

And so I mocked her in magnificent measure.
Or was it that I mocked myself alone?
— Wallace Stevens, Le Monocle de Mon Oncle

Intoned by reality, larded with technical terms,
Each one double-yolked with meaning and meaning’s rebuttal
— Philip Larkin, If, My Darling


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

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


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.


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.


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.


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
— 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