Driving change

Every time I hear the word "driving" used in the context of business I wince.

It reveals so many misconceptions: that the person using it is in charge; that people can be driven like cattle; that there aren't consequences to using the word.

The false macho fools no one. The use of it distances those "being driven" and they disengage.

And then to solve this problem you set up an "employee engagement programme"!

What a shame that we appear to be losing the ability to have interesting, purposeful conversations with people about how we all respond to our challenges.

Resist!

I recently installed Windows 10 on my Mac. Don't ask, but it had to be done! This has meant me not only touching the Windows world for the first time in many years but also encountering Microsoft's attempt to design an operating system that works on both a touch devices and conventional computers.

My initial reaction was to recoil in horror. Everything seemed harder than it had to be, logic appeared to be an alien concept to the interface designers, and everything looked so damn ugly!

I knew deep down that a lot of this was to do with unfamiliarity and stuck with it. I kept clicking on things until I worked out how they worked. I looked up videos on YouTube to explain the hard bits. I'm beginning to find my way around.

But what I am also bumping up against is the corporate world and its use of computers. The insistence on standardisation and fitting in. This fetish with uniformity over effectiveness sucks you into an over complicated world of not quite right templates, rigid corporate style guides, and endless hours faffing around rather than thinking or communicating. It is a reflection of the cultures in which the technology is predominantly used. Better that no one says anything interesting or useful than that things look messy or individuated!

I remember when this culture first arrived at the BBC. Countless millions spent on delivering Microsoft Office to everyone so that they could sit in serried ranks, staring at their beige boxes, messing around with PowerPoint or beating each other up with email instead of talking to each other.

It is also a symptom of a wider challenge with technology generally, that people are so passive. It is being done to them. They don't assert themselves over their technology and get it to do what they want it to do. They don't assert their right to use it to say what they want to whoever they want.

Technology is just a tool, and it is our tool. Yours and mine. Not theirs. We need to make the effort to learn what we want from our tools. We need to keep things simple, effective, and personal. We need to be brave and assert our right to do so.

Death

I finally got around to reading Carlo Rovelli's Seven Brief Lessons On Physics. Wonderful, mind blowing book. In it though he expresses doubt that we will last as a species. Given how many species, including our own ancestors, have come and gone - and combined with our current self destructive activities - he's pessimistic.

While showing Penny how to do something online with our finances yesterday I made some comment about it being important that she learn how to do it herself as I won't always be around. She got upset.

I visited my parents at the weekend. They are both in their eighties. Mum used the phrase "when I'm gone" a couple of times in conversation. I have no idea how I will cope when they go.

Life is such an amazing adventure but much of its meaning is down to the fact that it is finite. It comes to an end. How we feel about this, and how this knowledge of our inevitable demise conditions our behaviour while we are here, matters.

And yet we struggle with thinking about it at all, hide it behind hospital doors, pretend it won't happen, and act as if life is a blank cheque.

I was going to make a joke about this, as we usually do, and call this post "A cheery topic for a Monday morning". I decided not to.

Zombie Documents

I remember David Weinberger once saying that "documents are dead". Would that things were that simple!

I watch people in business struggling with the persistent idea that documents are how we convey information. We still think of them as real things, formatted for reading on paper, stored in pretend folders, lying on pretend desktops.

Yes there is some stuff that still gets printed off, but nowadays is it more likely that the same content can be presented as a web site, shared as an editable Google Doc, or read as PDFs, ePub, and on umpteen different devices with different demands and formats. The result is a stressful mess for many people in business who write in one format then publish in another, mangle documents into PDFs - and don't even start me on forms written in Word that break when you try to complete them. There is also the ongoing issue of incompatible legacy formats which only seems to get worse.

The combination of these issues is why I do all of my writing in plain text. The tools are simple and lightweight, I don't get tempted to faff around with fonts and formatting instead of getting the ideas down "on paper", and I know I will always be able to open any text file on any computer.

Only at the very end do I think of formatting and where the text will end up. I am writing this, as I do all of my writing on anything but long form stuff, in Drafts, a wonderful iOS app that allows me to "send" the finished text to umpteen other apps in umpteen formats - and only once the writing is finished.

Being cruel to be kind.

Change in large organisations is such a perennial challenge. How do you bring about change across multiple business units, diverse cultures, tribal rivalries?

Real change calls on change at a personal level. Behaviours have to change and beliefs have to change with them, otherwise change is the proverbial lipstick on a pig.

Do you plant seeds, ideas that propagate virally, and allow people to buy in to the proposed changes at a deep and personal level? Or do you mandate change, throw out old processes and start again, forcing people to adapt or leave?

Most organisations fudge it somewhere in the middle. This just confuses people and saps energy. If you don't have time to follow the viral route is it better to be cruel to be kind?

On the death of a "real friend".

Very sad to read, via another blogging friend from the old days Garret Vreeland, of the death of Mark Wood, writer of the marvellous wood s lot.

I just referred to both Mark and Garret as friends - but I have met neither of them.

This prompted the recollection of the following story from my book in the chapter on “real friends”:

Way back in the early days of blogging, when it was a much smaller world, I read a wonderful blog by called “wood s lot” by Canadian Mark Wood. Mark still does a remarkable job of curating fascinating content from quality sources around the web and I got a lot of value from his remarkable ability to spot interesting content. Mark didn’t blog much about himself but one day he announced that he was going to have to stop blogging because he wasn’t going to have access to a computer.

This was a real blow as I loved reading his blog and I found myself wondering why he wasn't going to have access. Was he going in to hospital? Was he running out of money? Was he about to be arrested?? I realised that I didn’t care what the reasons were - I just wanted him to be able to keep blogging. So I decided to set up a PayPal account and encourage people to donate money to enable Mark to buy a computer. I blogged about this and by the end of the day we had several hundred dollars in the account. I arranged for this to be transferred to Mark and he kept blogging.

I never did really find out the circumstances, and I never knew for sure that the money was spent on the computer, all I know is he kept blogging. So was this friendship? I don’t know - maybe is it something different. But it is not nothing.

Forms over substance

I recently had to fill in forms for two different organisations. Each form asked me questions that if I answered them truthfully contradicted each other. Both organisations just contacted me to say that I had filled in their form incorrectly.

How much organisational energy is wasted trying to force reality to conform to their distorted idea of how it should be rather than adapting to the real world they operate in?

The wonders of technology

It is all too easy to get caught up in the anti technology band waggon and forget what unbelievably clever devices they are - and how lucky we are to have them.

During our visit to Torquay at the weekend Apple maps guided us on our route down, avoided traffic build ups, and was, as is often the case, within five minutes of its predicted journey time over a nearly three hour journey.

I was able to use the amazing camera in the phone take great photos in diverse and sometimes challenging light conditions without even thinking about it. I was also able to film us paddling in and out if sea caves on our kayak trip.

I was able to use Ordnance Survey maps in the wonderful ViewRanger app to plan and track our sea journey.

I was able to video FaceTime my mum while I was sunbathing floating in the bay on the kayak. I could point out the beach and our hotel while bobbing gently on the waves, giving her a sense of being somewhere and doing something that she is unlikely to experience for herself.

And yes, horror of horrors, I was able to share some of our experiences on the trip on social media!

Cambridge Analytica is just the beginning.

It's been fascinating the number of people to whom the antics of Cambridge Analytica came as a surprise. I'm guessing there's a large overlap between them and the people who think that their demise has solved the problem. The media didn't help by describing what they did as "hacking". This wasn't some sort of marginal, one off bit of criminality - this was inevitable.

As the amount of data that is collected continues to increase exponentially the amount of trails and patterns we leave will likewise expand. The exciting and positive uses to which this data can be put will advance apace, but so will the nefarious uses.

The problem is that one person's exciting is another person's nefarious. Who gets to decide which is which? Who writes the laws that enforce these decisions? Who's keeping up and who is letting us down with their "I don't do technology" excuse?

If there is someone you know who is dragging their heels, and letting you down, feel free to point them at my [ideology of algorithms][1] article.

[1]; https://diginomica.com/2018/03/29/the-ideology-of-algorithms/

The rat race

On the odd occasions that I travel in to London during morning rush hour I marvel at the subtle jockeying for pole position that goes on on the station platform. An error of judgement could mean not getting through the door fast enough and not getting a seat so it's a life and death struggle.

I imagine the jockeying for position carrying on through the working day. I remember well the underlying worry about not keeping up, being overlooked, being left standing.

Is this inevitable? Is competition just part of human nature? Is it symptomatic of the drive that fuels progress?

Or is It a shame?

Patterns

I am currently playing with an app that purports to work out how I spend my time. It does do some clever stuff trying to work out what is work, what is commute etc. but given that I work all over the place, and often in cafe's, the patterns are almost meaningless. I could intervene and manually adjust times, locations, and activities, but life's too short.

Amazon are pretty good at working out patterns in my purchasing - usually too good as my impulse purchases show. But a recent purchase of a pair of fairy wings by one of my daughters on my account will cause mayhem unless I, again, take the time to manually intervene.

Both of these are frustrating but not the end of the world. They do however raise concern about the patterns I leave that are interpreted by others - marketers, insurers, governments etc. They too will be imprecise and subject to error and misinterpretation and with what greater consequence than a little inefficiency?

As A Man Thinketh

This is the title of a great little book that I read years ago that explains the way we create our experience of life through our thinking. We think we are responding and reacting to the world around us, but in fact we respond to our thinking about the world as we perceive it.

Two people can experience the same situation entirely differently. I always remember the story of two American soldiers held captive and tortured during the Vietnam war. One saw it as the worst thing that could ever have happened and suffered from his memories of the experience for the rest of his life. The other saw it as an opportunity to go deep inside and learn about himself and human nature. He went on to be very successful in later life.

Exactly the same situation, two different people, two very different responses.

Even when we look at our own responses to the situations we find ourselves in, one minute a new development can feel like a threat, the next like an opportunity. All that changes is our thinking. And it changes without us doing anything!

It's not so much that we should try to control the thoughts that appear in our heads. That never works. The more we resist a particular thought the more we concentrate on it and the more strength we give it. This is the Buddhist definition of suffering, clinging to or pushing away thoughts we like, or don't like. We waste so much time and energy fretting about the thinking that we made up!

Our thoughts don't represent reality, and they arise and change without us doing anything. The trick is to learn to watch this happening. If we do this the noise naturally reduces, our racing thoughts slow down and possibly even stop. The calm, relaxed feeling that emerges is our natural state. It's when we feel most contented. It's when our best ideas come to us. It's always there. We just forget.

"I don't often get to have conversations like this at work"

It has become clear over the years that even having an occasional conversation can make a difference. After meeting with me people have often said something along the lines of "I don't often get to have conversations like this at work". A couple of times recently our brief conversation has even been described as "life affirming"!

I don't claim to have any formal coaching credentials but I do have many years of experience both as a senior manager at the BBC, and also subsequently working with clients, of helping people think through their problems. These might be to do with technology, but as often as not they are more about organisational and cultural challenges within the workplace.

I have decided to offer hour-long conversations, either face-to-face (if in the London area) or by phone, as a new part of my business. If you feel that an occasional such conversation would help you do please get in touch.

Night and day

I was unfortunate enough earlier tonight to catch a glimpse of Jamie Cullen being inflicted on The Queen under the guise of celebrating her birthday.

This prompted a very different memory of seeing Oscar Peterson play live many years ago. Incredible virtuosity but also powerful simplicity, an ability to fill the auditorium with sound but also to break your heart with his sensitivity.

For such a big man, he even managed to make the grand piano he was sitting at look small, he managed to make you feel that he was a gentle giant soothing your soul with his haunting melodies.

Unforgettable.

Zombie Media

The more the media persist in portraying us as victims of technology the more apparent it is just how out of touch they are.

Each time they interview some technology expert as if they were an alien from another planet. Each time they ask in doom laden tones how that expert feels about destroying civilisation. Each time they say the word Twitter with that special, sceptical, "I wouldn't touch it with a barge pole" tone of voice that they adopt.

Each time they treat us as if we are the ones who are stupid they hammer another nail into their coffin.

The truth

I often hear people express nostalgia for the days when we trusted the media to tell us the truth. They contrast the apparent simplicity and clarity of those days with the messiness of a social media world of fake news.

But those days never existed. Simplicity never existed. Clarity never existed. We were just protected from the messiness of real life and spared the effort of working things out.

“It is impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances; too many gestures, which could mean this or that, too many shapes, which can never be fully described, too many flavours in the air or on the tongue, half colours, too many.” - Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

The past is a fiction - even the recent past.

Least worst options

I am aware that I can sometimes appear overly critical of large organisations. Because I am asked to help with things that are wrong with them it is easy for me to lose sight of what they achieve.

I am also very aware of the constraints they place on the people who work for them, and the high price those people pay in return for the stability they seek. But at the same time those people get the chance to make a difference in the world through the power and scale of the organisations they work for.

Maybe large organisations are the least worst option for both society and the individuals who work for them?

Or are they a temporary and distorted blip in mankind's history of getting things done?

My inner geek

Was let out when I attended an event yesterday that followed on from the Internet Of Agreements Conference in London. Yesterday brought most of the speakers from the conference, many of them developers of Blockchain related products or services, getting together to work out concrete next steps around online identity - how to make it secure, how to manage it, who gets to manage it etc.

The session on key semantics was a stretch but also a blast from my geekier past. This session, led by Vinay Gupta, was tackling the challenges of private and public key encryption, the challenges posed by some of its history, and how to do it better going forwards. Getting my head around GPG, HTTPS again and remembering FOAF and OAUTH was fun.

One of the things we discussed, and a recurring theme of mine, was that more people from less technical backgrounds than those in the room, need to be brought into these conversations as soon as possible.

Sliding doors

If any of you have seen the great film Sliding Doors you will appreciate this story of my very own sliding doors moment. 

Just after the war my father did his National Service in the RAF, working on radar which was just beginning to be fitted in planes. He was stationed in Kinloss, on the east coast of Scotland, and one day he was crossing the runway, about to board a Lancaster bomber. As he neared the bomber he heard his senior officer call him back, having decided to assign him another task that day.

That bomber sadly crashed on Ben Eighe in Torridon, killing all of the crew. The wreckage is still up there. 

I have climbed Ben Eighe but if his Senior officer hadn't changed his mind Dad would have been in that plane, he would have been killed, I wouldn't have been born, and I wouldn't have been on that hill beside the wreckage.

A paradox

It is through my social media platforms that I learn about how mitigate the consequences of people tracking my data. I am better informed about how it works and what to do to protect myself from it. It is also through those platforms that I am able to join with others concerned about this tracking and achieve a mass influence to do something about it.

Deleting my accounts would cut me off from this knowledge; it would not protect me from people using my data, (which is gathered in way more places than just social media); and it would limit my ability to fight back.