Abstraction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who leads?

What we wanted to communicate with this swirling cluster of moving stars is the notion of fluid hierarchies, a key feature of many socialstructs that rely on the participation of large networks of people. It is not that such socialstructs don’t have hierarchies; it is just that such hierarchies are not based on assigned roles or titles. They are not results of dictates from above. Rather such hierarchies and organizational structures are fluid, emergent, and constantly evolving.
— Marina Gorbis, The Nature of the Future

The success of the elastic enterprise depends on virtually everyone exercising some type of leadership role, somewhere, in some way, through influence.
— Nicholas Vitalari & Haydn Shaughnessy, The Elastic Enterprise

We need all of us to take the lead, to act in line with the common purpose of our organisations.
— Christopher Bones, The Cult of the Leader

Leadership is the choice to serve others with or without any formal rank.
— Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last

Social movements and civil unrest. Popular challenges to long-established institutions. Border-crossing networks of informed crowds seeking to exercise their rights. Whether focused on fiscal policy, corporate corruption, inequality or the overthrow of dictatorships, these have formed the backdrop of world affairs over the past decade. They have been the subject of endless hours of media footage, reams of print, digital comment and observation. The emergence of what Manuel Castells has termed Networks of Outrage and Hope has raised a challenging question that continues to perplex traditional media outlets and the machinery of the state. Who leads? It was a question that greatly taxed the journalists as they interviewed the tent-dwelling protestors of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Was the answer no-one or everyone or it depends?

Strong, trust-based relationships are the genuine currency of networks. This was as true of the salon-era communities that we associate with the political and artistic movements of yesteryear as it is today. The difference now is that digital and mobile technologies foster and enable the speed and scale at which networks can be established and grow. A physical meeting strengthens a bond established online but it is not essential for the overall health of the network. People on different continents, in different time zones, can still connect on shared interests, fuelled by either hope or outrage, adding their voices and energy to the greater whole. What characterises the network in these situations is a fluidity of knowledge, roles, responsibilities and authority. Leadership is in motion, governed by context.

Networked partnerships, shaped by either collaboration or cooperation, are increasingly evident in business too. As Nicholas Vitalari and Haydn Shaughnessy argue in The Elastic Enterprise, this can happen between organisations, with certain enterprises like Alibaba, Google, Github and Apple creating platforms or ecosystems; spaces for partnerships with an array of other businesses both large and small. It can also happen within a single organisation. In Creativity, Inc., for example, Ed Catmull outlines the leadership responsibilities not only of the figurehead triumvirate of himself, Steve Jobs and John Lasseter at Pixar and Disney, but also of writers, directors and animators too. Leadership here can be a form of service, enabling others, guiding and advising.

It is also necessary to respond to context, recognising when it is your turn to take the initiative, to put your expertise or specialism at the service of others. This is not a case of telling, but of opening up a conversation, making others comfortable contributing too. Former rugby international Phil Greening has enjoyed success recently coaching the US seven-a-side team. In a Guardian interview, he discusses how he and his colleagues had to overhaul a command-and-control culture. Leadership has to come from within the team, from anywhere on the playing field. It is not the case of a coach simply instructing players on what to do. Instead it is about developing a partnership, recognising the skills and mastery, the autonomy, of each individual. As Paul Rees put it in a recent Guardian article, ‘The very best teams harness individualism, not exile it.’

In #pelotonformations, I use the professional cycling peloton to illustrate the responsiveness and flexibility that is necessary in the modern organisational structure. The metaphor also serves to highlight the absolute fluidity of roles and responsibilities within a cycling team itself and across the peloton as a whole. There is a constant need to adapt to context. Cycling is a sport in which competition, collaboration and cooperation are frequently in tension. Networked relationships across the peloton underpin time-bound partnerships on the road – the flight of the breakaway from the main bunch, for example – which eventually dissolve as the finish line nears. Within each team trust is essential, so too the fulfilment of specific roles on designated days – whether that is leading the pack up a climb, chasing down a breakaway, or taking your place on a fast-moving sprint train.

Cycling is an anomaly. It is a team sport in which, with the exception of the team time trial, a single person crosses the finish line to win and enjoy the plaudits on the podium. But it is a sport that also covers hugely varied terrain – rolling hills, flatlands, mountainous ranges. The composition of a cycling team, therefore, is an exercise in diversity. With diversity as an organising principle, there is a requirement to embrace a range of different but complementary skill sets, determined in part by the team’s overall objectives in the race. Is it chasing stage wins? The general classification? The climber’s prize? The sprinter’s? It is a sport that, because of its very nature, is always raising the question: Who leads?

In 2012, Team Sky entered the squad of nine riders pictured below in the Tour de France. From left to right, they are Christian Knees (GER), Richie Porte (AUS), Chris Froome (GBR), Edvald Boasson Hagen (NOR), Bradley Wiggins (GBR), Mark Cavendish (GBR), Bernhard Eisel (AUT), Michael Rogers (AUS) and Kanstantsin Siutsou (BLR). The overall objective for the squad was to win the general classification, earning a yellow jersey for Wiggins. His role as team leader is suggested overtly by his positioning in the centre of the image.

TeamSkyTour-1

However, this is a squad full of leaders. Standing next to Wiggins is Cavendish adorned in the jersey of the reigning World Champion. Boasson Hagen would also wear his national champion’s jersey during the race. Froome would follow in Wiggins’s footsteps as a multiple stage-race winner in 2013. Porte too would go on to develop as a general-classification contender. Something already achieved by his national compatriot Rogers, who is also a three-time world champion against the time-trial clock. Throughout the Tour, as well as in many other races, Eisel would fulfil the role of road captain.

While Siutsou sadly crashed out of the race on the third stage to Boulogne-sur-Mer, this meant even greater responsibilities had to be shouldered by his teammates. Who leads in this next photograph?

TeamSkyTour-2

Wiggins wears the race leader’s jersey. Note how he is protected both in front and behind by his teammates. Does he lead here? Or is it Knees who is at the front of the peloton, taking the wind, punching a hole through the air, clearing the way for others to follow? Or Eisel who will have organised his teammates into this simultaneously proactive but protective pace line? Or Cavendish, who is also sheltered, and may be seeking to compete for the stage win later in the day, the last wagon on a runaway sprint train?

The organisation of a sprint train is an art form that illustrates the notion of rotating leadership. It is executed at high speed, in complex conditions, surrounded by other riders, variable weather, huge crowds and road furniture. The members of a team ride in formation, wheel-to-wheel. They are streamlined for air resistance and maximum velocity. One-by-one they assume leadership of the train, until finally the sprinter is alone launching themselves towards the finish line, uncoupling themselves from the pilot fish instincts of their lead-out man.

The first of these two videos, from the 2015 Tour of Dubai, captures the work of Cavendish’s new team Etixx-QuickStep. The second illustrates the decision-making and lead-out work of Cavendish’s teammates George Hincapie and Mark Renshaw when members of the Team Columbia-HTC squad in 2009.


To answer the question Who leads?, one has to understand the importance of trust, autonomy and context. It is as relevant in the encampments of Occupy as it is on the roads of the Grand Tours, the corridors of government and the open spaces of the modern workplace.

The shift requires leaders to behave differently. There is a strong tendency for enterprises to exaggerate the prestige and esteem associated with leadership. But leaders in modern enterprises are respected as peers. They are the people who can lead change and invention because they are first among equals, not because they command the budgets. They are able to forge a new pathway for their people to walk along.
— Haydn Shaughnessy, Shift

By opening up organizational boundaries to partners, suppliers and customers, collaborative leaders can increase the flow of ideas, and often generate creative ways of reducing cost or improving service that no one would have come up with on their own.
— David Archer & Alex Cameron, Collaborative Leadership

What reasons do followers now have for going along with leaders? There are only two: either we go along because we have to (or think we do), or we go along because we want to.
— Barbara Kellerman, The End of Leadership

It is time to connect the dots between leadership, engagement, learning, technology and collaboration.
— Dan Pontefract, Flat Army

In flight from labels

The problem with categories is that things are made to fit within the boundaries, or anything on a boundary can easily be wrongly categorised. This means that threat and opportunity are too easily missed.
— Dave Snowden, Little Boxes

I write screenplays for a living but it’s not what I am. When I was young I really wanted that label.
— Charlie Kaufman, Screenwriters Lecture

Businesses don’t pigeonhole people. People do. People don’t want to be talked of in the abstract. But people do. About people. Isn’t it about time people stopped?
— Simon Heath, Let The Pigeon See The Hole

Refuse to be labeled.
— Marc Eckō, Unlabel

The conundrum of taxonomy
If you wander the corridors of any natural history museum, there is every likelihood that you will eventually find yourself staring at glass cases containing immense lepidoptery collections. Row upon row of butterflies and moths, pinned in open-winged glory.

Each insect will be neatly labelled, borrowing from a system developed by Swedish scientist Carl Linnæus in the 18th century. Named and preserved for posterity, constrained and unable to change.

Shift location to the open-plan spaces of the modern workplace, and there is a strong possibility that you will encounter a similar phenomenon. People identified not as exemplary specimens of the Homo sapiens species but as embodiments of different organisational functions.

Stripped of their humanity, their individuality, these are people who are defined instead in terms of job titles, job descriptions and the placement of their role on the corporate hierarchy. They are victims of our need to label and pigeonhole, of the conundrum of taxonomy. They have been pinned to the cork board by a word or phrase.

The funnel
We are sucked into an inverted funnel at an early age. Educational choices made during our impressionable teen years can have a lasting effect. To select is also to exclude. Opting for certain academic disciplines during high school limits what can be pursued at university. Higher education majors then narrow employment possibilities.

For those of us based in the UK, the ever insightful Stephen Jay Gould got to the nub of the problem in The Hedgehog, the Fox and the Magister’s Pox. He observed that ‘the British system of disciplinary specialization at such an early age accentuates both the parochialism of allegiance and the ignorance of other fields to an extreme level among Western nations.’

Unwittingly, we embark on the path to hyperspecialism. Qualifications lead to employment. Employment leads to the constraints of a role and description. Practice, behaviour and action lead to increasing functional specialism. Measurement and performance assessment impel us to sharpen our skillset within this narrow domain.

We mine our subject ever deeper. We allow ourselves to be defined by a label, self-identifying with it ourselves. We become experts in our field – for a certain time, in a certain context.

Many end up following a T-shaped career. The progression through the stem of the funnel is informed by their role and function. Eventually they are rewarded with managerial responsibilities, which require the acquisition of a range of shallower, broader skills.

The individual remains, however, closely identified with the pigeonhole of the discipline that earned them elevation in the corporate hierarchy. Often they are ill-equipped for, even lack interest in, their new responsibilities. They continue to specialise. Which is why we have to reposition the T.

Garden-Visit
[Photo credit: Garden Visit, Richard Martin, 14 September 2007]

Overcoming myopia
No wonder we complain so often of silo-based organisational structures and operation. We are blinded by the myopia of our own expertise. We are so deeply entrenched in the ruts of our own specialisms, that we fail to understand the limitations of our own processes and protocols, even as we point to shortcomings elsewhere in the system.

The silos we lament are engendered by the very way we educate, recruit and promote. They are the progeny of this move towards hyperspecialism, inevitable from the moment we adopted a conveyor-belt approach not only in manufacturing but in knowledge work too.

The hyperspecialist will only ever know a small part of the whole, one small nesting space in the larger dovecot. It is one of the reasons we need to redress the balance.

In the era of hyperspecialism, the generalist has been stigmatised. Because of their tendency to label dodge, to take flight from the pigeonholes, their polymathic skills have been undervalued. They bear lightly a label – generalism – that is in effect a non-label; a signifier of their tendency to unlabel.

Frequency hopping
But it is the generalist’s very ability to offer expertise in multiple disciplines, their comb-shaped or WWW inclinations, that can transcend the divisions and miscommunication that result from the silo mentality. The generalist is a connector, a cross-pollinator, a strategic visionary, who sees the big picture rather than just one piece of the puzzle.

We need both specialists and generalists in our workplaces. More than that, we need to recognise that we all carry the potential to both generalise and specialise within us. Our education, careers and curiosity spin the dial, tune the frequency, find time-bound resting places before we hop again. We can alight wherever we choose, select any channel, on the infinite loop.

The generalist has the potential to hyperspecialise when required, but they also offer the flexibility and agility to adapt and respond to shifts in context too. A generalist exercising a hyperspecialism is only ever temporarily in a cocoon. At the right moment a butterfly will emerge and take flight.

From chrysalis’s broken shell they stepped,
wings drying, prepared to unfurl.
In the light of a new dawn bedecked,
on wind’s current awaiting to hurl.

Alan Smithee

It is the organization of moving images, that is the very art of cinema, and true authorship resides in the hand that wields not the pen, but the razor.
— Attributed to Roderick Jaynes, editorial alter ego of the Coen Brothers

The big problem is that it’s precisely this self-confident focus that is both problematic and attractive about Self-Authorship. It’s problematic because to be flexible and sensitive there needs to be limits on your self-confidence. When you believe you are 100% right, there’s no space for alternative ideas, you are closed-minded and although you can be persuaded it takes a huge effort. However, in many ways the heroic path is much more attractive. Life’s easier when you have a sense of deep clarity and conviction in yourself and your ideas. Being open to other ideas can take effort and time.
— Richard Wilson, Anti Hero

Can a leader inspire people to give their creative best, cooperatively? The question then arises how do we become realistic leaders of people who are; able to take responsibility and authorship to lead people into the future, as it emerges; capable of designing conversations and situations that foster effective stewardship of teams and organisations; able to prepare people and environments to absorb the dynamics of non-routinely changing situations; use an appreciative focus on lessons learned from unexpected drawbacks, while focusing on opportunities to make a difference, rather than targets?
— Alan Moore, No Straight Lines

We are enigmatic, contradictory creatures. We carry within us Whitman’s multitudes. The late Dennis Hopper is a case in point. An accomplished artist and photographer, he was also a poet and art collector who enjoyed a lengthy acting career and something of a maverick reputation as a film director too. For some, Hopper was the poster boy of sixties counterculture, directing and starring in Easy Rider. Yet he was also a supporter of and donor to the Republican Party.

Hopper cut his teeth as an actor in post-war television and Hollywood cinema, featuring in westerns alongside the likes of John Wayne. There was always a hint of rebellion, though. He is there in the supporting cast of James Dean’s brief cinematic career. Latterly, his iconic rebelliousness was used to fuel the fire of a nascent independent filmmaking scene in the eighties. His turn in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet a significant breadcrumb in a trail of psychopathic, stimulant-dependent roles he would be asked to play henceforth.

There is a tradition in US cinema of rebels with a cause. Figures like Orson Welles, John Cassavetes, Robert Altman and John Sayles, willing to take the mainstream dollar for their turns as actors, directors or writers in order to fund more personal, meaningful work. Hopper’s own circuitous trajectory seemed to follow a similar pattern. Funds earned as an actor-for-hire were diverted to the acquisition of art, property purchases and personal projects. His acting successes were followed by an accomplished return to directing at the end of the eighties with Colors, which caught the zeitgeist of pre-riot tensions in Los Angeles.

His next two directorial offerings, both released in 1990, would offer radically different experiences for Hopper. The Hot Spot is an early entry in the neo-noir revival that would swamp US cinema throughout the 1990s. Indebted to both the B film and literary traditions of the 1950s, it is based on Charles Williams’s adaptation of his own novel, and was originally intended as a star vehicle for Robert Mitchum. It is infused with a jazz and blues soundtrack and, ultimately, is a formulaic, frothy and fun slice of cinematic entertainment. The type of film that inevitably divides both the critics and the audiences.

Catchfire falls in another category entirely. In his 2010 Guardian tribute to Hopper, Alex Cox recognises that the film was partially intended as an ‘homage to the Venice artists’ community of which he felt a part’. Cox had first-hand involvement in what was nominally an action thriller, starring Jodie Foster and Hopper himself as her would-be assassin. He worked uncredited with his partner, Tod Davies, on script revisions for Hopper during filming in 1988. What the studio ultimately released in 1990, however, Hopper the director disowned. Look closely at the directorial credit of the theatrical release, and you will note that the film is attributed to Alan Smithee.

So we unearth a tradition, overseen by the Directors Guild of America, that spans the years 1968 to 2000. Hunt down the filmmaking credits for Alan Smithee during this period and you will discover a prolific individual. Or rather a frequently deployed pseudonym flagging a director’s dissatisfaction with the impact, the interference, of others on their work. It is a name attached to both theatrical releases and, occasionally, to the repackaging of those films for television broadcast. Michael Mann suffered the latter fate twice in the nineties, removing his name from the broadcast versions of Heat and The Insider respectively.

Alan-Smithee

It is an intriguing scenario. The film director serves as the conductor, setting out a vision, building common purpose, facilitating the artistic and technical efforts of a host of other people. They work closely with writers, actors, cinematographers, musical directors and editors to shape the work. Leadership within this network flows in context. People exercise their own mastery. They work with autonomy. Up to a certain point, that is. In fact, only until the right to interfere is invoked, the trump card of the financier. This is the fate that befell Catchfire and so many other films.

Which begs the question, how often does this happen in other industries, in other workplaces? How often is the bubble of autonomy punctured, leadership responsibility removed? How often does an apparent network, informed by fluid power and authority, suddenly reshape itself without warning into the pyramid of command-and-control? How often is ‘ownership and accountability’ nothing more than a trapdoor, a label without meaning?

If you are interested in developing leadership in others, you have to learn to get out of the way. You prepare the ground, inspire, guide and encourage. But the end goal of a transformational leader has to be their own redundancy, enabling others and ensuring their enduring self-sufficiency. How is that possible if entitled people are forever flexing their muscles, showing their power, looming over their charges and defending their self-interests all the time?

There is a happy twist to Hopper’s tale, in that he was able to release a director’s cut of his film on cable television, retitled as Backtrack. There are rumours that an even longer version lurks in the vaults somewhere, and may yet appear on a cinema screen one day. Have you ever seen a director’s cut of an annual report, though? Or a strategy reclaimed and distributed by its author after endless interference by executives and committees? Or a white paper, published as an extended version, after being mangled by the money men?

Thought not.

Responsibility means having a duty to deal with something, whereas accountability is more daunting, requiring you to justify decisions and outcomes.
— Richard Hytner, Consiglieri

Leaders create leaders by passing on responsibility, creating ownership, accountability and trust.
— James Kerr, Legacy

Asking permission, after all, is asking somebody else to take responsibility for your actions – no, take accountability for your actions.
— Rick Falkvinge, Swarmwise

How can you identify the disruptive innovators and radicals in your midst and engage them in the core transformation work of your organisation? How can you create the space, support and encouragement to make a difference, beyond hierarchy? How can you activate and engage them yet avoid overburdening them with programme management and accountability infrastructure?
— Helen Bevan & Steve Fairman, The New Era of Thinking and Practice in Change and Transformation

Atomisation

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
— Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

Put simply [social atomism] is the common assumption that the primary unit of analysis is the individual and that communities (and society) are aggregations of individuals and negotiated interests between those individuals … Atomism, or individualism, is the legitimising framework for liberal democracy and free market economics.
— Dave Snowden, Social Atomism, Identity and Natural Numbers

It is within all this that we find the real accelerants for the fall of Public Relations and the rise of Public Leadership: atomisation, activism and the asymmetry of power and influence.
— Robert Philips, Trust Me, PR is Dead

Our mass production-era sensibilities prevent us from seeing the value of mass differentiation because we are programmed to drive towards a one-size-fits-all formula for most products.
— Nicholas Vitalari & Haydn Shaughnessy, The Elastic Enterprise

In 2002, developing some of the ideas he and his writing partners had explored in The Cluetrain Manifesto, David Weinberger published Small Pieces Loosely Joined. In a relatively short but incisive study, he explored some of the effects of the still nascent world wide web on knowledge and our perception of time and space, among several other topics of interest. Weinberger’s title perfectly prefigured new ways of organising, working, collaborating and cooperating that would emerge over the subsequent years. These would be informed by loose frameworks, time-bound partnerships and shared platforms, which circumvented traditional organisational boundaries.

Enabled by technological advancement, people took advantage of the elisions of time and space that this made possible to build border-crossing relationships in order to get stuff done. Notions of where people did work, who they worked with, what they worked on and when they did the work all began to be challenged as a consequence of these emergent changes. So too the clearly defined roles and responsibilities of the individual. As the Cluetrain authors had predicted, the hyperlink really did have the potential to subvert hierarchy. So too the connections and conversations they enabled.

This notion of small pieces loosely joined is one of the governing ideas that inform my work on #pelotonformations – as Stowe Boyd was quick to point out in our interview last year. Peloton formations makes a case for the responsiveness, adaptiveness and fluidity not only of the modern organisational structure but of those who work within them too. My thesis is that to participate in the modern workplace, an individual will have to become adept at switching from leading to following, from specialising to generalising, from solitary practice to teamwork. They will have to constantly adapt to context, shapeshifting as required. Not unlike members of the professional cycling peloton who day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour, have to switch in and out of different leadership, followership and expert roles, collaborating, cooperating, serving, competing.

Another book that appeared towards the end of the last century, Gordon MacKenzie’s Orbiting the Giant Hairball, contained hints and foresight regarding the ways in which the modern workplace might become increasingly atomised. Change agents, for example, might unhook themselves from the constraints of corporate hierarchy, migrating to the edges of their known worlds, pushing at the boundaries, bridging to the outside, the unknown. Internally, they might campaign for a dual operating system of the kind that John Kotter discusses in Accelerate. Or exit the organisation entirely, maintaining connections in a freelance capacity, making the old hairball one planet among several in an ever-expanding solar system. The way was being prepared for the porous organisation; one which relied as much on partnerships with other companies, and a cadre of freelancers, as it did on the people on its own payroll.

atomised

The evolving pattern began to affect public organisations too, either through privatisation, public-private partnerships or a radical rethink about organisation and governance. The story of the NHS in the UK continues to unfold, and is a fascinating case study in this respect. But this is not exactly a new situation. We have seen monolithic organisational structures dismantled before, creating opportunities for new ways of working, new forms of organising. Take the example of the film industry, for example.

Cinema quickly developed from novelty attraction to fully-fledged industry in no time at all. It established itself as a lucrative, cultural machine. In the USA, the filmmaking centre soon shifted from New York to Los Angeles, which offered many more hours of the sunlight that the early cinematographers required in order to capture good quality images on celluloid. Elsewhere scientific management practices were taking root in big emergent industries, with the success of Ford’s car manufacturing earning particular notice. Similar conveyor-belt like approaches developed in Hollywood cinema, covering end-to-end endeavour: from initial idea, narrative conception, performance, photography and editing, to its eventual printing, distribution and display. Big businesses emerged, monopolies of the few, horizontally and vertically integrated, with names like Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox. The addition of sound strengthened the monopolies and ushered in the so-called Golden Era that extended through the 1930s and to the end of WWII.

The post-war period witnessed successful challenges to the established paradigm. The first atoms broke loose, new production companies began to emerge. Some were associated with marquee names: actors who had broken free of arrangements that had made their careers the ‘property’ of the big film studios; directors too whose value was beginning to be recognised and celebrated by critics influenced by developments in literary theory. In a key ruling, The Unites States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., the studios were forced to divest themselves of their theatres, fundamentally changing their distribution and exhibition model. There was evidence too of greater partnership with small and independent production companies. Film credits began to change, reflecting the increasing atomisation of the industry. This was something that would extend well beyond the USA, affecting the industry as a whole.

A comparison between the opening credit sequences of a classical Hollywood film from the 1930s and a recent popular success is illuminating. The Thin Man was a popular adaptation of a Dashiell Hammett novel, which was rapidly filmed and released in 1934. A single title card establishes that this is a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production and lists the principal and supporting stars, director and producer, all of whom were on contract to MGM. A second card acknowledges the source novel and some of the behind-the-scenes talent that worked on the film. There is also a small nod to Cosmopolitan, which suggests that William Randolph Hearst may have had some financial interest in the production. Nevertheless, this is clearly packaged as an MGM film and relied on the studio’s own people and exhibition network for all phases of its development and distribution.

Mike Leigh’s 2014 popular and critical success, Mr. Turner, is a different proposition altogether. The opening titles are a lengthy read: (1) Film 4, Focus Features International & BFI present (2) a United Kingdom / French Republic / Federal Republic of Germany co-production (3) in co-production with Diaphana and France 3 Cinéma and Amusement Park Films (4) with the participation of Canal+, Ciné+ and France Télévisions (5) produced by Xofa Productions in association with Lipsync Productions (6) A Thin Man Film. All this before the viewer is informed who is in the film or, indeed, what it is called.

I wonder, if we were writing the credits to the multiple projects that consume so much of our time today, whether they would reflect equal levels of atomisation, of small pieces loosely joined in common purpose?

But in terms of how and where work actually gets done, there is very little to beat the small, agile team of committed people with a clear shared goal. I doubt even the most timid consultant or vendor could make an argument that hierarchical operations are the most efficient way to get work done. For companies trying to become more competitive in the 21st Century, we foresee a rebalancing of structure with a reduction in hierarchy towards what we might label a minimum viable hierarchy, with pods or agile teams growing from the branches, and more focus on developing the lateral social fabric of communities and networks.
— Lee Bryant, The Limits of Social Technology within Existing Organisational Structure and Culture

A swarm organization is a decentralized, collaborative effort of volunteers that looks like a hierarchical, traditional organization from the outside. It is built by a small core of people that construct a scaffolding of go-to people, enabling a large number of volunteers to cooperate on a common goal in quantities of people not possible before the net was available.
— Rick Falkvinge, Swarmwise

Decentralization has been lying dormant for thousands of years. But the advent of the Internet has unleashed this force, knocking down traditional businesses, altering entire industries, affecting how we relate to each other, and influencing world politics.
— Ori Brafman & Rod A. Beckstrom, The Starfish and the Spider

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

The elasticity of expertise

The mystique of expertise is so rooted in our culture that failing to consult the right experts is as unconscionable a lapse of due diligence as failing to consult witch doctors or Delphic oracles in other times.
— Philip E. Tetlock, Expert Political Judgment

The natural enemies of this spirit are cleverness and specialisation: hence the contempt so rightly shown for, in the Roman world, experts and technicians.
— Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox

Chasing the expert is a mistake, and a costly one at that. We should stop hunting and ask the crowd (which, of course, includes the geniuses as well as everyone else) instead.
— James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds

Fast thinking includes both variants of intuitive thought—the expert and the heuristic—as well as the entirely automatic mental activities of perception and memory.
— Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

At the turn of the century, I used to do a commute that required me to drive on a fast motorway through Kent. On occasion, I had the surreal experience of travelling at velocity but feeling like I was moving in slow motion. This was an effect of all the vehicles surrounding me moving at the same speed. As I became conscious of the phenomenon, however, my focus shifted and I became less aware of the pace at which I was travelling and more attuned to that of fellow drivers. It was not unlike one of those special effects seen so frequently in television advertising, where the protagonist occupies an oasis of calm while all around them is a blur of frenetic motion.

On reflection, there have been many occasions in my working life during which I have experienced something similar. People occupying the narrow lanes of subject matter expertise racing towards the acquisition of more experience and knowledge in their chosen field, only dimly aware of others outside their lane as streaky blurs in their peripheral vision. Sometimes, however, a brave soul chooses to change lanes, to alter their pace, to explore elsewhere. They shift from fast to slow. My own career has been fragmentary and circuitous, even if, with the benefit of hindsight, I can mould it into a coherent narrative. We humans are ever sense-makers, always storytellers. Those fragments, though, have taught me two key things about expertise. First, that it is time-bound and will atrophy. Second, that true, dynamic, fluid and evolving expertise is found in a network of connections and relationships, not in the head of a single person.

In his wonderful new book, Flawed but Willing, Khurshed Dehnugara differentiates between the teacher as expert, emblematic of the industrial age, and the community as expert, which is more characteristic of what he calls the age of connection. This resonates with my personal experience as an academic. In the middle years of the 1990s I developed deep expertise regarding the evolution of film noir, eventually publishing the first book-length study of neo-noir. I read about it, I wrote about it, I taught courses about it. By the end of the decade, however, I had left academia for good. I retain a keen interest in cinema and film history, and continue to weave references to it into my writing about business, change, leadership and learning. However, I am no longer what would be traditionally thought of as an expert in the field. Instead, I rely on networked connections, access to other people, their ideas and published work, to retain some currency in the subject. I may not have the answers but I know who to turn to if I need them. The knowledge, the expertise, is in the network. It is always in motion.

In another personal example, later in my career I fell into a role that required me to develop extensive subject matter expertise in the area of information governance, in particular as it related to information rights, data protection and freedom of information. This shaped my role and who I was required to be in the office for a number of years. I again became an expert in a narrow discipline, practising it, guiding colleagues on it, cooperating with others expert in the field outside my own organisation. An interesting experience during this time was when I opted to pursue a Masters degree in the subject. I quickly dropped out, realising that I was gaining far more useful knowledge, experience and expertise through practice than theory. It was probably the first inkling I had of the notion of personal knowledge mastery, even though I did not have a name for this at the time, even though I was stuck down the deep shaft of hyperspecialism.

Another example, another industry. In a later role I was recruited to lead a knowledge management function in a nonprofit body in the rail industry. The experience led me to question what was intended by knowledge management and steered me further still towards the notion of PKM. It also coincided with my growing awareness of and participation in networks, both physical and digital, that transcended industrial, political and national boundaries. Together these experiences would eventually prompt me to go solo, trying to help those who want to be helped rather than pushing against an immovable rock in frustration.

The rail industry in the UK is a strange beast; a legacy of a horizontally-and-vertically-integrated monopoly, British Rail, that was fragmented in the 1990s. From my outsider’s perspective, it was an industry that evidenced more competition than collaboration, a tension between public utility and private enterprise, and an assembly of organisations that tended to be more self-interested than networked, more concerned with their own longevity than the performance of the industry as a whole. I was surrounded by experts. With expertise preserved in the aspic of hierarchy. People with twenty-plus years of experience in different facets of the sector. But there was a sense, perhaps unwarranted, that they were trapped in an ivory tower. How current was the expertise in the individual’s head sat in a London office rather than at the front line of rail service and operation? Were they contributing to and deriving benefits from the flow of knowledge and experience not only in rail but in other sectors too, like shipping, aviation, logistics, gas and oil, catering and professional services? Were they too reliant on the historic knowledge of the few, backwards looking rather than progressive, more concerned with lost knowledge, as embodied by the individual or the document, than with networked and fluid experience and learning?

As I suggested above, knowledge and expertise will atrophy. Entropy will have its way. In this respect, expertise is not unlike an elastic band. You can keep it limber and stretch it, to a certain extent. But if you just leave it lying around for long enough, it will dry out and either disintegrate or snap.

For this reason, among many others, I remain fascinated by the notion of generalism, particularly as it applies to the polymathic generalist. This is the WWW person, someone with comb-shaped skills, who possess a breadth and depth of specialisms, with deep knowledge and experience in a number of disciplines. In The Neo-Generalist, our forthcoming book, Kenneth Mikkelsen and I will be arguing that we all carry the potential to either specialise or generalise within us. This is reflected in the infinite loop. Context applies the focus, bringing different specialist or generalist tendencies into play. However, one of our contentions is that the neo-generalist not only is able to generalise as required but that they also are experienced at navigating networks, adept at wayfinding, sense-making, connecting to other people, other knowledge.

In this sense, they are experts at knowing how to tap into collective expertise. Which is ironic… As is the personal experience of gradually becoming a specialist on generalism.

The curse of knowledge means that the more you know, the harder it is to think and talk about your area of expertise in a simple way.
— Steven D’Souza & Diana Renner, Not Knowing

The expert whose expertise is in heavy demand may be too busy being an expert to develop new knowledge or increase expertise; experts are eventually reduced to disseminator rather than creator.
— Jane Bozarth, Show Your Work

Good leaders surround themselves with expert advisers, seeking out the smartest specialists with the deepest insights into the problems of the day.
— Tim Harford, Adapt

We no longer have to go to the library to get a book. We have access to a growing network of expertise from people, like bloggers, who are willing to share their knowledge for free. Expertise is becoming ubiquitous through the Internet and professional social networks.
— Harold Jarche, Finding Perpetual Beta

Repositioning the T

T-shaped people have two kinds of characteristics, hence the use of the letter “T” to describe them. The vertical stroke of the “T” is a depth of skill that allows them to contribute to the creative process. That can be from any number of different fields: an industrial designer, an architect, a social scientist, a business specialist or a mechanical engineer. The horizontal stroke of the “T” is the disposition for collaboration across disciplines.
— Tim Brown interviewed by Morten Hansen

A T-shaped person is someone who has a strong descender (the vertical stroke of the T) and a well-developed crossbar (the horizontal stroke). The descender represents deep experience in a certain discipline, and the crossbar represents the ability to work with people across disciplines. Like rock bands, creative groups need specialists who can contribute something unique to the collaboration. The last thing they need is I-shaped people—specialists who have useful skills but don’t connect with others.
— Marty Neumeier, Finding X: Why T-shaped People Are Valuable but Insufficient in an Age of Nonstop Innovation

The beauty of simple models, like IDEO’s T-shaped thinkers is they are simple to convey and remember. Their marketing power is undeniable, and they serve the consulting model superbly. But the drawback is they are often too simplistic to be accurate. In fact, I say the T-shaped thinker model is quite poor in capturing the generalist-specialist synergy.
— Liviu Nedelescu, Forget IDEO’s T-shaped Thinkers – Enter Meta

The concept of the T-shaped person advocated by the likes of Tim Brown at IDEO and Morten Hansen and Bolko von Oetinger in the pages of the Harvard Business Review is one that continues to provoke ambivalent feelings. On the one hand, I am attracted to the notion of people who can combine a deep set of skills with shallower managerial practices, potential leadership capability, and the facility to connect with others and develop collaborative experiences. On the other, as I have discussed in previous blog posts like Generalise to specialise, Elevators and WWW people, I am mystified by the notion that a T-shaped person could be confused with a generalist.

A T-shaped person, following a traditional career path, tends to be one who develops and refines a deep specialism over time. Often this has a basis in their education, and is subsequently narrowed in focus as the subject is mined ever deeper. It is a practice that has become emblematic of the silos we are all so keen to bemoan. The span of time and the deepening specialism ultimately results in promotion and the acquisition of managerial responsibilities. It does not mean that the blinkers of specialism have been wholly removed. Responsibilities remain largely operational, drawing on the experience and deep knowledge of someone with subject expertise. For me, it feels like the T-shaped person is a category that should be associated more with the hierarchy than with the network. My case, then, is that the T should be positioned on the specialism curves of the specialist–generalist continuum that I began to explore in Infinite loop.

We need both specialists and generalists.

In The Neo-Generalist, the book we are writing at present, Kenneth Mikkelsen and I make a case for recognising the value a generalist can add to a world which, in so many walks of life, has skewed towards hyperspecialism. Our aim is to reclaim the term generalist as something that is positive rather than detrimental. Also to position it, in its various manifestations, on a continuum with specialism. In the recent blog post Infinite loop, for example, borrowing from and adapting the hedgehog–fox continuum developed by Philip Tetlock in Expert Political Judgment, I proposed a model that looks like this:

Infinite Loop

The suggestion was that various forms of specialism resided in the left loop, while generalism – from its most rudimentary to its most polymathic – was found in the right loop.

infinite-loop-specialism

infinite-loop-generalism

In this continuum, Archilochus’s fox and hedgehog, discussed in Natural lessons and The myopia of expertise, view one another from either extreme of their respective loops.

infinite-loop-hedgehog

infinite-loop-fox

Because of the nature of an infinite loop, curving back on and crossing over itself, hyperspecialism and polymathy align with one another. For the polymath is able to hyperspecialise in multiple disciplines.

infinite-loop-hyperspecialist

infinite-loop-polymath

The T-shaped person, more specialist than generalist, therefore can be found between the polymath and the hedgehog, while the polymathic generalist inhabits the ground between the polymath and the fox.

infinite-loop-t-shaped

infinite-loop-polymathic-generalism

Where any one individual sits is not a question of nature or nurture but rather of context. It is more than likely that at different times someone will occupy different positions on the continuum. Previous roles, for example, and the expectations that have attached to them, have pushed me into the specialism loop in the past. Sometimes even down the deep shaft of hyperspecialism. For now, though, I see myself floating around the foxy apex to the right of the continuum.

How about you? Where do you see yourself? Does this embryonic model even work for you? Both Kenneth and I are keen to hear your thoughts.

Maybe we have to become flatter. Maybe the stem of the T gets shorter, the bar gets wider. Maybe we are getting pretty squished out, widely spread, more like a pancake. But what this metaphor of flattening doesn’t show us is that we are connected. There are fewer and fewer isolated Ts, fewer lonely, solitary pancakes. Who we are and how we operate, how we think, is increasingly related to our connections. We are becoming the Stickle Brick people.
— Carl Gombrich, T-shaped People, Pancake People and Stickle Brick People

The typical “T-shaped” team member is no longer adaptable enough to keep up and maintain their value in a market that evolves as quickly as today’s market does. The ideal evolving skill set for today’s digital strategy world is shaped more like an expanding square than a “T”.
— Mike Arauz, Square-shaped is the New T-shaped

So there is the potential for us to develop what we might call “Comb-shaped” skills, in which we have many specific domains of expertise as well as breadth. In this case we can certainly never match the knowledge of a deep specialist in any one area.
— Ross Dawson, Building Success in the Future of Work: T-shaped, Pi-shaped, and Comb-shaped Skills

The caper

The C is a galvaniser more than a cheerleader. Through their deeds Cs create trust in the organisation’s purpose and reduce friction in its ecosystem of relationships. One symbolic act by the C can establish integrity, foster confidence and promote a movement within and without the organisation.
— Richard Hytner, Consiglieri

Complex human dynamics define the culture and outcomes. But what is clear is that conventional management levers cannot control these ecosystems. They can influence them profoundly, but members of an ecosystem are not employees. They are free agents and we have a lot to learn about how and if they can be influenced to do anything at a predictable degree.
— Haydn Shaugnessy, Shift

Within business, the opportunity exists for leaders who embrace the principles of Public Leadership to fully appreciate the employee as advisor, the employee as advocate, the employee as agent for change. These activist employees – possibly co-funded by the employers themselves – will help drive better internal communications, find richer ideas, embed true innovation, protect the social and environmental bottom line, build new coalitions and partnerships, and ultimately deliver a more genuinely accountable system of governance.
— Robert Phillips, Trust Me, PR is Dead

But how do we exercise influence over our working lives? How will we keep those running our businesses accountable? What sort of institutions will we see emerge in the future and how will they gain our trust? What are the prospects of using technologies like the blockchain to work this out amongst ourselves in truly distributed ways more suited to our increasingly connected lifestyles?
— Euan Semple, Trust and Institutions

In an era obsessed with technological advancement and the next big thing, we should not forget that we already have access to an exceptional form of sensor. Literature, cinema, painting and the other creative arts tap into the zeitgeist. Artists have an extraordinary ability to tune into frequencies that the rest of us are slower to discover. Their works, dependent on their own personal preferences, can either reinforce or counter prevailing ideology. Their books, poems, films, tapestries, ceramics, photographs and plays are retrospectively interpreted either as artefacts of the dominant culture or reflective of emergent countercultural movements. There is no work of art that is not in some way ideological, in some form imbued with politics with either a lower-case or capital P.

The same applies to how we think about our workplaces, about how we organise ourselves, our leadership preferences, the behaviours, beliefs and relationships we value. Our commentary on business, politics, psychology and sociology is filled with metaphors that draw on the arts. We cite the paintings of Jackson Pollock, for example, as a shorthand for living and working in networks. We point to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times as illustrations of the dehumanising effects of industrialisation and the dangers of automation. We quote from Dave Egger’s The Circle to highlight the pernicious effects of unwittingly giving up our right to privacy. We borrow from Archilochus and his followers in adopting the hedgehog and the fox as emblems respectively of deep specialism and broad generalism.

One word that constantly bubbles to the surface in commentary about our workplaces, our socio-political systems and our relationships with those who have been mandated with authority is trust. Often the commentary is catalysed by a negative experience, by the betrayal of trust. This week, for example, the news headlines are dominated by FIFA and examples of criminal activity that have seeped into that sporting institution. The recent economic crisis has exposed the lack of trust placed in those leading our financial bodies. We also hear frequently about tales of business malpractice, political corruption, cheating by sports stars and unethical behaviour by journalists. Of course, this is not a recent phenomenon. Just think the Dreyfus Affair, Profumo or Watergate. But in a network era built on relationships and social capital, trust is one of the important currencies. To betray it is to isolate oneself, often irreparably.

Sometimes we can learn lessons from criminality. At least as filtered through the arts. In The Godfather, for example, we witness different approaches to the concept of trust. Guests at the wedding of Vito Corleone’s (Marlon Brando) daughter trust him to comply with requests they make of him. He in turn trusts them to return the favour as the need arises. Underpinning these exchanges, however, is a sense of menace and a fear of harm either to the wedding guest themselves or their extended families. The Don’s eldest son, Sonny (James Caan), later demonstrates the dangers of misplacing trust in those who surround him and have married into his family. His myopia leads to his death in a roadside ambush. His brother Michael (Al Pacino) is colder and more calculating. It is his story that dominates the remainder of the film, extending through two sequels as well. His distrust of the majority is a catalyst to warfare between different crime families, murder, including fratricide, and, ultimately, estrangement from many members of his immediate family. He commands and controls, pulling the puppeteer’s strings, isolated at the top of the crime syndicate’s pyramid.

Ocean’s Eleven, another crime caper extended through two sequels, offers a very different perspective on organisation, leadership and trust. Danny Ocean (George Clooney) is, in many respects, a facilitator. He builds relationships with trusted partners like Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) and financier Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould). Together they assemble a team of specialists with complementary skill sets, building camaraderie between the team members, establishing trust in one another’s expertise. Leadership flows from one team member to another as the context in which they are operating shifts. Ocean, in this sense, is not unlike a film director, creating an environment in which others can come into their own and perform, exercising and extending their range. The trust they are shown by Ocean and Ryan allows them to both demonstrate their technical expertise and, especially in the case of Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon), to grow.

Another character voiced by Clooney has a similarly galvanising effect. This is the eponymous lead animal in Fantastic Mr. Fox. Like Ocean, this polymathic, wily creature is the sun around which the other characters orbit. He inspires others to take action, trusts in their ability even when they doubt themselves, constantly adapts and responds to changes in circumstance, acknowledges his own vulnerabilities and trusts others to help him overcome them. It is a tale of rebellion against injustice and exploitation, of networks both literal (the underground tunnels that connect characters and place) and metaphorical (the relationships between the different creatures and the various behaviours they embody) overcoming the tyranny of industrialised monopolies.

Is that art a couple steps ahead of us yet again?

One inoculates the public with a contingent evil to prevent or cure an essential one. To rebel against the inhumanity of the Established Order and its values, according to this way of thinking, is an illness which is common, natural, forgivable; one must not collide with it head-on, but rather exorcize it like a possession: the patient is made to give a representation of his illness, he is made familiar with the very appearance of his revolt, and this revolt disappears all the more surely since, once at a distance and the object of a gaze, the Established Order is no longer anything but a Manichaean compound and therefore inevitable, one which wins on both counts, and is therefore beneficial.
— Roland Barthes, Operation Margarine

It is an epoch formed from an unstoppable, unmappable collision of different forces: the imagined communities of nationalism, the pseudoreligions of class and race, the dream of an ultimate subject of History, the new technologies of mass destruction, the death throes of the “white man’s burden,” the dismal realities of inflation and unemployment, the haphazard (but then accelerating) construction of mass parties, mass entertainments, mass gadgets and accessories, standardized everyday life.
— T. J. Clark, Picasso and Truth

We’re in a post-historical state of art; we’re in a state where anything goes. But there are still boundaries about what can and cannot be art; the limits are just softer and fuzzier. I don’t think these boundaries are formal – I truly believe anything can be art, I’m quite happy to engage with that intellectual idea. I think the boundaries now are sociological, tribal, philosophical and maybe even financial.
— Grayson Perry, Playing to the Gallery

Peloton interview with Stowe Boyd

Richard Martin: In Summer 2014, I was interviewed by Stowe Boyd about the concept of #pelotonformations. This was a topic that I had started to explore earlier in the year in a series of blog posts. Stowe published the interview, based on an email exchange, on 26 July 2014. It appeared on the Gigaom Research site under the title The New Visionaries: Richard Martin on the Peloton. I was grateful then for the opportunity to pull together the various strands of my research. I am grateful now for the opportunity to re-post our exchange.

Stowe Boyd: Richard Martin wrote a series of posts in which he characterized people working together productively as being like the bicycle racing phenomenon of the peloton: the main group of riders that conserve energy by riding close together. The final in his series – Peloton formations distilled – has links to the other, earlier posts.

Martin’s exposition owes a great deal to Dan Pontefract, who used the analogy in a post last year, but Martin has intertwingled it with Jon Husband’s wirearchy notion, and the thinking of other theorists and practitioners.

I thought I’d ask Richard some questions, and the interchange below is the result.

Sky in Control
[Photo credit: Sky in Control, Will Bakker, 2 June 2011]

SB: I think there is a great deal of depth in the metaphor of new way of work being like the peloton, which is the formation of cyclists in a road race. The cyclists ride in close formation because of the benefits in reducing drag, but of course different teams are trying to win the race even while benefitting from the aerodynamics of being in a pack.

RM: One of the things that unites the cycling peloton is common purpose. All the teams, all the riders, are trying to get from point A to point B on a designated course as safely and in the shortest amount of time possible. Additionally, day-by-day, in long stage races like the Tour de France, each team will have a slightly different objective. Some are aiming for the overall prize of the yellow jersey awarded to the rider who covers the entire course in the least amount of time. Others target the white jersey of the best young rider, the green jersey of the points classification leader or the polka-dot jersey of the mountain climber’s classification. The composition of their team may well reflect these particular goals. Others still may simply target a stage win on a specific day when the terrain and conditions suits their team or, more modestly, may hope for lengthy TV exposure for their corporate sponsors by getting one or more of their riders into the day’s breakaway.

Because of this mixture of goals, sometimes you will witness great examples of partnership, collaboration and cooperation between riders and different trade teams. There is also, of course, a lot of competition too. In the latter case, though, it might not just be people competing against one another but against the elements, the terrain or the clock. There is wonderful human drama in evidence in bicycle racing. There is also a lot of camaraderie and mutual respect that transcends the boundaries between trade or national teams. You can get a taste for this by following a few professional riders on Twitter.

In the context of the racing itself, it is evident on the days that the race routes head steeply upwards into mountainous terrain. While TV coverage focuses on the front end of the race, behind it the peloton fragments into many parts. Right at the back a gruppetto of riders forms, usually composed of the sprinters, the riders with bigger physiques, the cooked and the wounded. They work together regardless of team affiliation. Their goal is to arrive together as a single unit at the finish line within a time limit calculated on the basis of the stage winner’s finishing time. Another example of cross-team cooperation can be seen in the way breakaway riders work together to stay away from the peloton. It is only in the last kilometres of the stage when this cooperation gives way to competition again. The breakaway usually serves as the hare to the peloton’s greyhound. Occasionally, though, the hare eludes the hound – especially in cases when the cooperation between the breakaway group persists to within sight of the finish line.

From a business perspective, there is a lot to be said for this notion of common purpose that can help unite multiple divisions and project teams. But also for those willing to partner and cooperate with others, even those outside your own company. I recently read A.G. Lafley and Roger Martin’s Playing to Win. It is not a book I enjoyed. Nevertheless, there are some good examples in it of when P&G realised they could create more value by partnering and cooperating with companies who were competitors in other fields. I think you witness evidence of this on a daily basis in the cycling peloton.

SB: On top of the manoeuvring of the teams against each other, there is a dynamic interplay among the members of a team, where they switch off in different roles, taking turns leading, sprinting and climbing. That seems to be in perfect alignment with the notion of fluid or emergent leadership: what I refer to as leanership. There has to be a lot of planning and communication for that to work, right?

RM: My thinking about this has been strongly influenced by Jon Husband and his concept of wirearchy. Jon defines wirearchy as: ‘a dynamic, two-way flow of power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology.’ What intrigues me about Jon’s concept is that he is not denying the existence of a hierarchy, but he recognises that this has shifted from a pyramid to a network model. Do any network analysis, and you will identify nodes of influence and authority. These do not recognise the stripes on the arm or the job titles that we associate with military-industrial ideas about hierarchy. These influential nodes are also in a constant state of flux. Leadership roles may be defined, as in more traditional notions of hierarchy, but what is different here is that people move fluidly to and from these roles, dependent on context and circumstance. So, as I work on multiple projects for my employer, in one situation I may be the leader, in another I will follow someone else’s lead, and in yet another I may be acting more in a consultancy capacity, providing specialist subject matter expertise.

You certainly observe this fluidity of roles and leadership responsibilities in the cycling team. This can be determined by a number of factors: terrain on the day, weather conditions, the form of the rider, experience. Even on the day itself leadership responsibilities will shift as the race progresses. Usually teams will have a road captain. In most cases this is not the team’s main sprinter or climber but one of the support riders or domestiques. This individual will be liaising with the directeur sportif via radios or visits to the team car, but there will also be a high degree of autonomy for the other riders, with each of them responding to what they see around them, assessing risks, seizing opportunities.

Some teams are built around sprinters who come into their own on flatter stages. Sprint trains form in front of the sprinter, with a line of riders following closely on one another’s wheel. The front rider punches a hole through the air, takes the wind resistance, and their colleagues ride in their slipstream. When they peel off another comes to the front, and so on until, with about 300m to go, the sprinter comes to the fore. All along, they will have been calling our instructions and encouragement from the rear of the sprint train. On mountainous days, the team puts themselves in service of their climber, who also, if they can time trial too, is often their contender for the overall general classification. The team members aim to deliver their leader to the foothills of the day’s final climb in the leading group so that they are in a position to compete for the stage victory or minimise the loss of time to their main rivals.

Cycling, in this sense, is infused with the idea of servant leadership. I think there were a couple of great examples of this from Team Sky at the 2012 Tour de France. Often we would see television images of Mark Cavendish, adorned in the rainbow stripes of the reigning world champion, ferrying water from the team car to his teammates. This, bear in mind, was the world’s dominant sprinter at the time, who was putting personal ambitions on hold in support of the team’s overall objective: securing the yellow jersey for Bradley Wiggins. On the final stage of the same race, with Wiggins’s and the team’s victory assured, we then witnessed a role reversal. The final stage is an iconic race for sprinters, one that Cavendish had won each of the previous three years. There in his sprint train, in service of Cavendish and his goal, was Wiggins leading out his friend and teammate.

As for planning, there is certainly a lot of work done. Many teams will visit certain climbs and stage finishes well in advance of the grand tours. On race day itself, they will send former road racing professionals ahead to check conditions (both of the road and the weather) and to communicate their findings back to the team car and the riders. British cycling coach Rod Ellingworth has written an illuminating book called Project Rainbow. It describes the collaborative work of backroom staff, coaches and riders in planning for the 2011 men’s world road race championships and for the 2012 Olympic Games race. For the GB team, their aim of securing bunch sprint finishes for Cavendish earned victory in the 2011 world championships and nothing at all at his home Olympics. The team rode strongly on both occasions, but others had learned how to counteract their tactics by the time of the latter race.

What emerges in bike racing are loose frameworks rather than detailed plans. This is not racing by remote control. It involves decision making at the edges as well as in team management. Not all variables can be accounted for, and riders need to be able to respond to what they see before them. This is well illustrated in a video exploring Team Garmin Sharp’s targeting of stage 9 of the 2013 Tour de France. Dave Brailsford, one of the leaders behind the recent success of British Cycling and Team Sky, is interviewed in Richard Hytner’s recent book, Consiglieri: Leading from the Shadows. He makes an interesting observation: ‘My approach is as an orchestra conductor, with an absolute recognition that the most important people in our world are the people who win and they’re the riders.’ Brailsford and colleagues can select the nine-man team for the Tour, but then they have to get out of the way and trust the instincts, expertise and experience of the riders on each day of racing.

SB: You’ve written about the various roles in a cycling team, and how these roles are similar to archetypes in the new way of work. The climber, for example, has attributes of a driven, high energy visionary. Perhaps you could give a short explanation of the other roles?

RM: When they step into their leadership roles on the flatter ground, sprinters are great salesmen. I mean this in the sense intended by Dan Pink in To Sell is Human. They sell ideas, galvanising their teammates, getting them to believe in their objective for the day, building common purpose, and inspiring them to invest effort in delivering them to the finish line, where they will complete the job. It is notable that the first action of the highly successful sprinters like Mark Cavendish, André Greipel and Marcel Kittel is that they greet their colleagues at the finish line to thank them for their efforts. There is also a commercial aspect to the sprinter’s salesmanship. They are often great communicators, comfortable in front of the media cameras and microphones. Their job is to cross the finish line, arms in the air, displaying the names and logos of their corporate sponsors. They are mobile, high velocity advertising hoardings.

Rouleurs are strong riders, adept in rolling terrain, time trials, sprint trains and chasing down breakaways. These are team people whose primary role is service of others, assuming domestique functions. I liken them to the internal service roles in corporations, the people in finance, facilities, HR, IT, learning and development and KM departments. Occasionally they are set free to pursue personal goals, getting into breakaways, winning time trials. This is not unlike the occasions when somebody from a support function takes on a leadership or specialist expert role in a corporate project.

Baroudeurs are among my favourite riders. These are the change agents, the chancers and experimenters. They constantly challenge the status quo, making things up as they go along, taking risks, testing their colleagues in the peloton. There was a great example of this in Tuesday’s Tour de France stage this week. A strong group of baroudeurs – people who can climb but not overall contenders for the Tour win – had formed an impressive breakaway. As they hit the final climb they began challenging one another, comfortable in the knowledge that one of their number would win the stage. Two riders from Team Europcar were working together, taking it turns to attack. They could not shake loose Michael Rogers from Team Tinkoff Saxo, though, and in the end he chose his moment to attack and just rode away from them. His post race interview was brilliant, demonstrating a cool, calculating mind, mental fortitude, a tolerance of risk and an acceptance of possible failure. If you do not try things out, how will you learn if they are going to work or not?

That covers the riders, but we must not forget that a role is also played by the tour organisers, the local government for the towns that play host to the start and end of each stage, the police, the backroom staff for each team, the directeurs sportifs, and the riders’ coaches, not to mention the crowds that line the route. These are the policy makers, the regulators, the landlords, the suppliers and customers that are all involved to varying degrees in a company’s business.

SB: It’s the fluidity and near flight of the peloton that makes it such an inspiring image. In one of your pieces you call it ‘humankind’s answer to the murmuration of starlings’. How can we transcend the poetic and aspiration of the peloton into concrete learning for the business, today?

RM: The reason I am so drawn to the metaphor of the cycling peloton as a model for organisational structure is because it is suggestive of responsiveness, fluidity, agility and adaptiveness. I like the idea of small pods or teams loosely joined, which respond and cater to their customer needs. This can mean the rapid forming, disbanding and reshaping of teams to deliver different projects. These can extend beyond organisational boundaries too, suggesting the permeability of the modern, responsive company. A project team can be comprised of your own employees working in partnership with people not on your payroll. It can include your customers and suppliers too.

The other thing I take away from bike racing is this idea of multiple systems being interdependent on one another. On any given day you could have a route that covers 200-plus kilometres, travelling through numerous towns and cities, over railway crossings, bridges and roundabouts. Agreements have to be drawn up with these communities, crowd control needs to be put in place, and the roads closed for a period of time. Then there is all the infrastructure of the race itself, the catering vehicles, publicity caravan, the media, the gendarmerie, the team cars and support vehicles. There are the huge crowds too, who on mountainous stages will be spilling on to the road, and who have to be trusted not to interfere with the riders as they pass by. On top of all that there are the meteorological conditions and the state of the roads to be traversed too. A huge spaghetti soup of complex interlocking systems. No one of these systems can be treated in isolation. Just like the different systems that shape and inform the operation of any other business.

I get frustrated when I hear people talking about work as an ecosystem operating in splendid isolation from everything else – government policy, financial markets, customer needs. As a counter argument I’m inclined to use an example that affected me earlier this year: we experienced heavy rainfall in Kent where I live. When the rain stopped our streets were lightly dusted with sand from the Saharan desert. What a great example of how different ecosystems connect and are dependent on one another.

SB: Richard’s expansion of Pontefract’s peloton metaphor is rich and illuminating. The interplay between different roles in the teams is captivating, and so is the manner in which individuals lead at the front – to break the air for the peloton and their teammates in it – and then fall back into the pack as another – often a competitor – presses forward to take a turn at the front.

Martin draws our attention to the image of ‘small teams, loosely joined’ – an allusion to David Weinberger’s Small Pieces Loosely Joined, I’m sure. I’ve written on the distinction between different social scales, and the way that the interplay differs in small sets of people – networks of a few or a handful of people – versus the louder and less intimate interactions of social scenes, where dozens or hundreds may be connected.

I’ve made the claim that we live our work lives in our sets, although businesses may want to treat us as scenes, thinking that it is easier and more efficient. But we are more at home and at ease when working as a sprinter or climber on a team, jostling for position in the peloton, signalling and pushing the team ahead, one of the loosely joined.

Infinite loop

The world is a system and a network.
— Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox

Berlin recognized that few fit the ideal-type template of fox or hedgehog. Most of us are hybrids, awkward hedge-fox and fox-hog amalgams. Indeed, Berlin suspected that his beloved Tolstoy was a fox who aspired to be a hedgehog.
— Philip E. Tetlock, Expert Political Judgment

New ideas often come from the cross-fertilisation of different fields, occurring in the mind of a widely knowledgeable person.
— Ian Leslie, Curious

These pairs—the American and the Asian, the hedgehog and the fox, the expert and the generalist—suggest two main ways of managing and creating change: influence the players or manipulate the greater environment.
— Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock

They called him The Cannibal. Not because of a propensity to consume human flesh, but because of his insatiable appetite to win cycling events. The format did not matter – track races, one-day classics, World Championships, stage races, Grand Tours, the different categories within them – he won them all. In 1969, for example, at the age of 24, he entered his first Tour de France, and proceeded to dominate the race. He earned not only the yellow jersey of the general classification winner but also the points and mountains classification titles too.

Eddy Merckx was a phenomenon. He discovered the stage on which to perform his life’s work, then sought to push at the edges of the box he had selected for himself, creating, diversifying, slipping effortlessly from one role to another and back again. In selecting an industry in which to ply his trade, to develop his craft, he opted not to be pigeonholed but rather to develop deep skills and capabilities across a breadth of specialisms. In the context of the cycling world, he was one of the #WWWpeople, neither a specialist climber, sprinter or rouleur but all of the above as the need emerged. When Merckx retired from racing, he found new roles to fulfil in his chosen industry. First, manufacturing bicycles, developing a prestigious brand. Then working as a television commentator and as an advisor-cum-administrator for organisers of professional races, notably the Tour of Qatar.

Another to have followed numerous bifurcating paths in cycling has been Bradley Wiggins. He has enjoyed Olympics and World Championship success on the track as a pursuit rider and on the road as a time trialist. But he has also endured physical and mental shapeshifting in order to condition himself to win stage races too, including the Tours of France, Britain and California, the Critérium du Dauphiné and Paris-Nice. Like Merckx, Wiggins is seeking to challenge the coveted hour record, which requires yet another set of skills. He too is beginning to diversify as his own riding career draws to a close, setting up an eponymous professional team. Since his rise to prominence on the road with Team Sky, he has also carved out a space that brings together sport, fashion and music, revitalising the Mod meme, building a brand around the Wiggo moniker and the RAF roundel that was co-opted by The Who.

David Byrne is another to transcend the domains of popular culture and cycling. Best known as the frontman of the band Talking Heads, Byrne is also the author of Bicycle Diaries, his study of city life from the perspective of two-wheeled transportation, as well as a cycling column in The New York Times. He has enjoyed success as performer, composer, author, artist, photographer and filmmaker, winning multiple awards and collaborating with a host of luminaries in the fields of dance, opera and cinema. Byrne is truly polymathic in the context of the creative arts, but also has demonstrated his breadth of skills and business acumen too, founding the Luaka Bop record label and an Internet radio station, among other endeavours.

What unites all three of these examples is that they are people who alighted on an environment in which they could flourish – cycling for Merckx and Wiggins, the creative arts for Byrne – but rather than ploughing an ever deeper furrow in one corner of this landscape they opted instead to explore and map it. By so doing, they unearthed multiple opportunities to develop and express their own talents, discovering partners who could aid and abet, guide and nurture, along the way.

Infinite Loop

In Natural lessons, I cited the hedgehog–fox continuum that Philip Tetlock developed from his interpretation of Isaiah Berlin’s work. Tetlock recognised that no individual stays neatly within a single category. We have preferences and tendencies but, just like someone riding a bike, we are constantly making minor adjustments, little shifts, adapting to context. It is rare that anyone remains permanently at one extreme of a continuum. Merckx’s story, for example, illustrates this. He could be a track specialist, a climber or a grand tour contender at different points in time, in different contexts. It was impossible to pin a single label on him. So too Wiggins and Byrne, or Marc Eckō, Paul Smith, Grayson Perry, T. S. Eliot, Hedy Lamarr, Marie Curie or countless others.

The more I think of Tetlock’s continuum, the more I want to shape it, bending it through both space and time. The image that suggests itself to me is that of the infinite loop. Specialists on the left, generalists on the right, and meeting in the middle, where the loop crosses over itself, both hyperspecialists and polymaths – because polymaths can, of course, hyperspecialise. But they do so in multiple disciplines. The area that continues to capture my attention is that polymathic generalist curve to the lower right. I am fascinated by the opportunities and potential those who inhabit it can offer to the modern, networked, responsive company and the broader societies they service.

There is no question that expertise and hedgehog logic are appropriate in certain domains (i.e. hard sciences), but they certainly appear less fitting for domains plagued with uncertainty, ambiguity, and poorly-defined dynamics (i.e. social sciences, business, etc.). The time has come for leaders to embrace the power of foxy thinking.
— Vikram Mansharamani, All Hail the Generalist

Specialization discourages us from perceiving each other as complex, multidimensional, human beings and instead creates the illusion that we can achieve a definite understanding of each other simply through our majors or jobs.
— Maral Margossian, The Worth of the Polymath

What insights might physicists bring to international relations? What might plumbers bring to cardiology? Polymathism is a largely untapped force in business practice, but it’s also the future of problem-solving.
— Kyle Wiens, In Defense of Polymaths

These labeling frameworks help us, as consumers, navigate the world. Ideas, places, and things are labeled so we can make sense of them. Without labels, we’d be unable to tell a can of peaches from a can of beans.
— Marc Eckō, Unlabel