Our lives are marked out by milestones: birthdays and graduations, anniversaries and seasons. Chapter markers on the journey.

I find myself at one of these milestones: not a birth or death, not an age related or educational one. But a milestone of books. I’m building a library.

The time has been upon me for some time to admit defeat: books in every room, boxed in the attic, and even piled on the floor. Lockdown only exacerbated the problem as a lack fo travel unleashed the curiosity to travel through books.

So: with some extensive building works to the house, i’ve liberated a room for books. A library. Which feels like a homecoming in itself.

I’ve always had a love of books, and my first work was in a research library. To read, to write, or of course to enjoy conversations with friends, all are best done within the comforting shadow of books.

But the space itself, whilst solving one problem, presents me with another: how to organise a library.

There are naturally any number of thoughts on this: i have a friend with the most amazing collection of books arranged by colour, circling her living room. More classically trained friends insist on alphabetical, or at the very least, by subject. I hear rumours of arrangement by size, by age, or by sheer favouritism.

I favour the eclectic, but with certain rules in place.

Some collections are intact: two full shelves of Terry Pratchett, one for Ursula Le Guin.

There is a shelf of books on the moon, in which i proudly include my own book on the Apollo story: it feels like a child sitting amongst it’s wiser uncles and aunts.

There is a tension as to whether to cluster the books that i have not read, but also a fear that to aggregate them in one place would be overwhelming. Perhaps better to hide my limitations in plain sight by spreading them far and wide.

Some books i adore: my first copy of The Hobbit, won as a school art prize, or Waterlog, by Roger Deakin.

There must be a small section for books that make me cry: Just Kids, by Patti Smith, and Insomniac City, by Bill Hayes, both of which are the most beautiful tributes to love and loss.

People who have influenced my own thinking significantly can claim a shelf too: the full works of Oliver Sacks, including one of the few books i cannot bring myself to read. He wrote Gratitude at the end of his life, and somehow i cannot bear to think that i will have read everything. Instead i am comforted by it’s presence.

Some books i detest, but still own: these feel like a medicine that i need to take, but want to hide away. Perhaps they will end up by the door, in the area of deepest shade. Other books are just beautiful as artefacts in their own right, deserving to be displayed face on, rather than tucked away.

Some books are old and tattered, much read as i am a reader who can return time and again to a favourite volume (i am currently reading Swallows and Amazons to my sone, as my father read it to me).

I suspect the act of organising a library is a never ending one: books come in and out of favour, ideas cause temporary collections to form, and then disperse (a stack of books on music theory and cultural significance the remnants of research for a book that is still stuck at manuscript stage).

The final consideration is height: at two years old, my son is now a factor in the lower shelves. So do i hide those valued books away, out of sight, or do i treat his desire to touch, to feel, to play and sometimes to damage, those books as a part of their journey?

One part of owning books is to recognise transience: my first edition of The Colour Of Magic, a tatty paperback that now sheds leaves every time it’s opened, is in such a state because it’s been read ten times over three decades. Perhaps the accidental creases and tears that my son adds to the collection are the foundations of his own relationship with books. And perhaps it’s better to sacrifice a few, because the real beauty of books is not in the pages and perfection, but rather in the stories that they carry into our lives.

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#WorkingOutLoud on ‘The Experimental Organisation’ – Draft Structure

In the early stages of writing, i like to create a more visual map of the book: this is ‘behind the scenes’ really, to help me identify the core narrative, and ensure i do not miss out anything obvious!

The reason i do this is because in my earlier books, i often wrote them as a series of essays – each of which maybe made sense in itself, but it was always difficult to stitch them together: this was, i kind of do the stitching up front, if that makes sense…

By the time this book is finished, i am sure this particular structure will be unrecognisable: partly because narratives evolves as you find them, and partly because the research will probably carry me in a particular direction. I am familiar with this process, and i think part of the confidence of writing over time is a comfort with one’s ability to be loose in structure, but not so loose that you lose the coherence of the story.

With this work, i am clear that i want it to be grounded in around ten case studies, and to point to practical frameworks or approaches that can be picked up. To that extent, this is more a practical guide than a theoretical study.

There is also a clear backbone to the work, in that my interviews are based in the IMAGINE Community, a community with dozens of global Organisations that come together to collaborate on shared challenges, and to find and share insight and experience.

So one part of this book is about this Community (which is actively experimenting in various areas), whilst the other part is about the members themselves.

There will be a thread that ties this to my broader work, specifically the Socially Dynamic Organisation: why do we experiment, how do we do it, and why does it seem that some cultures are better at it than others.

My aim is to work on this book across the second half of this year as one of two major research and writing projects, and i will share the insights as i go.

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#WorkingOutLoud on ‘The Experimental Organisation’ – Frames

This is one of a series of posts as i build out an initial framework for the book on ‘The Experimental Organisation’. In this piece i explore the question of ‘where’ we experiment, and introduce the idea of three spaces: one we know, one we can imagine, and one that is occluded. This is a heavy abstraction, but i’m playing with pragmatic language and ideas at this stage.

Our thinking is wrapped up in our context: a learnt set of knowledge, experiences, and ideas that both enable us, and trap us, in their perceived concreteness. We can visualise this context in three ways: our INTACT frames of knowledge, which govern our everyday action and thought, our DIVERGENT frames, which kick off from what we know, and take us into a space of imagination, but which are nonetheless recognisable. These are not our everyday space, bur we can imagine them being so. And finally OCCLUDED frames, which are not simply beyond imagination, but are shadowed by it. Perhaps these are the spaces that, when we finally see them, we think ‘why did i not think of that’? These spaces may be simple, but are hidden from us by our own existing thought.

In this illustration i explore how we probe each of these areas, and the role of experimentation in so doing. Perhaps we can say that we can choose to experiment within Existing frames, often to learn how to optimise our actions, that we can learn to adapt, through experimentation, in Divergent frames, perhaps in order to evolve. But that Occluded frames will most likely replace structures of the present, and are hence revolutionary.

Organisations will tend to visualise Adaptation and Evolution as the outcomes of Experimentation, and hence may be surprised by redundancy and replacement: essentially may be overwhelmed by the learning from their own experimentation, and hence may resort to control and dominance to prevent that outcome. All Organisations want change, but many recoil from change that they do not own or control.

To rephrase this again: we work in the everyday within existing frames, and Experimentation may help us to learn new ways to do this. To optimise our actions. This type of experimentation may be how we address specific pain points, or exploit visible opportunity.

Again, within our everyday work, we may imagine different spaces of operation, and the Experiments that we carry out here will help us to adapt: these experiments may be about discovery, about rapid prototyping, about trial and error, or exploring the boundaries of space. Essentially these are creative activities, but essentially bound up in the known.

The third type of frame is Occluded from us: it is unlikely the space of everyday experimentation, but instead is partitioned off into special spaces or exceptional units: it’s the space of the dark arts of seeing the unseen, but it’s a dangerous type of knowledge.

Disruption may come from this space: our competitors are most likely to outcompete us through optimisation of existing ideas, or exploitation of niches, whilst our disruptors are more likely to fracture our structures of power and insight by emerging form occluded spaces. They outcompete not because they are bigger and stronger, but because they are asymmetric and unconstrained.

In ‘The Socially Dynamic Organisation’ book i introduced the idea of the Porcelain Organisation to describe this content.

This is part of #WorkingOutLoud on the structure and ideas behind the new book.

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#WorkingOutLoud on The Experimental Organisation

With ‘The Quiet Leadership Guidebook’ and ‘The Humble Leader’ books both in production, my main writing focus now turns to the interviews for ‘The Experimental Organisation’. In this work i will be exploring how Organisations learn to change: specifically, how, where, and how, they experiment, and the communities within which this happens.

The initial interviews are all with members of the IMAGINE Community, a network that provides a collaborative structure and space to come together to explore and experiment across a range of global Organisations.

At this stage i am interested to understand the role of this Community, as well as the ways that these respective Organisations are able to experiment: for example, are their experiments small or large, long or short, controlled centrally or elective locally, where are their spaces and capability to analyse what is done, or with what consistency do they approach definition, and so on.

The IMAGINE Community is not specifically methodology led, so when it is described as a ‘trusted’ space, that trust must have been mutually decided upon by the group. It’s certainly not been imposed or gifted by system or process alone. And i’m also interested as to why, and how, this type of ‘external’ or exceptional space enables, or helps, people to explore and experiment. And whether it is scaleable or repeatable.

For all our talk about ‘Communities’, it’s remarkably hard to find common factors that make their success assured, or their trust universal. They appear to be stubbornly social phenomena and hence more charismatic than programmatic, which may be a challenge for Organisations that wish to benefit from their presence.

Even in the early stages of this work, as well as the preparation that i’ve been doing beforehand, it’s clear that many Organisations are interested in the ability to ‘experiment’, but that there are about as many different definitions, or understandings, as there are people to ask.

Some Organisations seem to have all the right vocabulary, but little of the true behaviour, some have behaviour that is distributed at scale, but little structure, some have heavy structure, but little impact, and some appear to be highly agile without ever even trying.

The heart of this book will be the case study of the IMAGINE Community, as a collaborative venture, and case studies of individual Organisations and the approaches that they have learned that work for them. I hope that, with all of this, i can tease out shared and actionable ideas that people can carry into their own Organisations.

I’m aways struck by two things when it comes to ‘Experimenting’ in Organisations: everyone talks about it, but not that many organisational cultures manage to do it at scale. Some can do it as an exception, but in the everyday culture, they are too busy surviving to truly learn.

Some of the main questions i am looking to address include the following:

  1. What does it mean ‘to experiment’ – how they do it, what it gives them that they cannot find elsewhere, how they learnt to do it, and what it costs them?
  2. How does the ‘Imagine’ community work – as a case study, what can we learn, what has it achieved, is it replicable, what is the role of trust and structure, as well as storytelling and sharing?
  3. What is the role of structure, and with structure, what is the importance of control, or consistent approaches etc?
  4. What are the capabilities of experimentation, and are they intuitive, native, distributed, codified, or learned. And if so, how. And how do we find and access them.
  5. What are the costs of failure, and how are these costs extracted or paid? Do some Organisations have a better or different relationship with failure than others?

This is very tentative right now: the early interviews are really a listening space.

My aim is to weave this narrative as a natural follow on from ‘The Socially Dynamic Organisation’ book that i published last year, to move into the ‘how’ of the story.

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Looking Backwards, Moving Forwards

A playful reflection on the window of opportunity that faces our Organisations as they emerge, slowly, from the Pandemic imposed model of remote. This model contrasts ‘where we look’, with ‘where we are moving’.

Broadly, some Organisations are looking back: how can we drag things back to where they were before. Others are looking forwards: how can we maximise the opportunity of this disruption to become something new.

In parallel, some are actually moving forwards: making real changes, whilst others are, sometimes by default, moving back to old habits.

It’s possible to be looking forwards, but actually moving backwards. Conversely (or perversely) we may find ourselves moving forwards, but looking longingly backwards at the familiar world that is left behind.

To both look and move forwards is the space of great uncertainty, but also opportunity. To both look and move backwards may be comforting, but is surely also dangerous – unless i have misread the context of change. An alternative argument is that now is the very best time to move back to the legacy state, and let others do the costly business of learning and prototyping, before you move wholesale into the new reality that they build.

Looking forwards longingly, whilst the Organisation moves backwards around you is an illustration of constraint. Moving forwards whilst deliberately looking backwards is to pine for the past.

What the right answer is may not be clear, but what is clear is that to do so mindlessly, without at least taking the opportunity to observe where our hopes and behaviours are taking us, is naive.

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14 Questions About Belonging

We talk about ‘belonging’ a great deal: how we belong to communities, belong at work, or belong within a culture. But what does ‘belonging’ mean, and what happens when it goes wrong?

As part of a reflective activity, one may ask the following questions:

  1. What does it mean to belong?
  2. What do we gain from belonging?
  3. What is the cost of belonging, and which currencies do we pay it in?
  4. Can you endlessly belong, or is there a limit to how long you can belong for, or how many things you can belong to?
  5. Must you contribute to truly belong, or is it ok to simply sit, or consume?
  6. Can belonging be imposed upon you? And if so, can you escape from imposed belonging?
  7. Conversely: can belonging be taken away from you, or can you only ever choose to leave?
  8. Do you need permission to belong?
  9. Can you gift belonging?
  10. Do Organisations gain any tangible benefit if their employees also ‘belong’?
  11. Can belonging restrict or constrain us in any way?
  12. Are there benefits from being an outsider, and if so, do these outweigh the costs?
  13. Do you always belong with the same ‘self’, or do you curate a different self in different spaces?
  14. Can you invest too much in belonging to a particular community?

 The need to belong is a common one: we are social creatures at heart. But i suspect that much Organisational commentary about belonging, and ‘bringing your whole self to work’ may operate without a truly comprehensive willingness to explore the mechanisms, costs, benefits, and perils of belonging.

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#Fragments: Learning as Event – Experience – Work

These #Fragments posts are an exploration of core aspects of my work around learning (methodology and practice), where i am trying out new interpretations, frameworks, and ideas.

There is much talk of learning in the flow of work: the impact of new technologies, and adoption of new approaches. What you need, when you need it. Which sounds great, although from a complexity perspective also sounds a little like a recipe for disaster. Knowing what you need is great as an aspect of doing what you know you need to do.

I find myself veering more towards a perspective that it’s a case of ‘yes and’, not ‘old and new’. Learning as an event is very different from learning as an experience, and different again from learning in the flow of work. And we may need all three.

Events that are boxed out in time and space are abstract of our everyday reality, but for that reason exist outside our everyday rules and constraints. This may provide an inherent advantage over learning that is embedded in our workflow (with the opposite true as well, of course – learning in the abstract may forever remain abstract).

Event based learning may be understood in the moment, but not carried into application, whilst of course applied learning may be applied in one context, but fail to be generalised out into broader problem solving and intuitive capability.

All this may nudge us towards more socially collaborative, experience based approaches: learning that takes place over time, which may provide both abstract ideas and also opportunities for application. Arguably it’s less malleable than in the flow of work, but significantly more adaptable and adaptive than fixed assets. I guess that one could argue that ‘experience’ and ‘work’ are the same thing in any event, although that may be to bypass the increasing feasibility of micro overlays of contextual information through wearables and mobile.

A weakness of this view is that is also confuses, to an extent, the difference between pedagogical approaches, and simple logistical ones.

My sense is that a dynamic learning organisation will maintain aspects of event based learning, will engage in experiential learning, whilst also rapidly prototyping a range of the newer predictive and micro engaging learning technologies, whilst all the while keeping one eye on whether they are delivering ‘known’ capability faster (how to do the same things better), or more generalised capability and organisational quorum sensing to stress factors.

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Quiet Leadership: One Subject, Two Books

This summer i am publishing two books in parallel: ‘Quiet Leadership’ and ‘The Humble Leader’. Both explore the same topic, but through two different mechanisms, and this week both have moved into production, which is an exciting time!

Quiet Leadership is a new body of work that explores the Organisation as an ecosystem, and asks how our smallest of actions in every day impact the culture and system around us.

Through the first half of this year (and ongoing) i have been building out a global research project around four aspects of Quiet Leadership: Humility in our thought and action, Kindness as we grow through the system, Fairness in our leadership, and Grace in our learning and behaviour over time.

The Quiet Leadership book brings the early results across each of these areas, and is structured as a group reflective journey. I’ve been running multiple open cohorts through this work and it continues to evolve. The book walks through each of these four areas, and is based around 8 questions that you can use as the foundation of a conversation with someone else.

Whilst Quiet Leadership is my newest work, in some ways The Humble Leader is some of my oldest, having it’s origins in some work i did in San Francisco in 2012 around Social Justice. The Humble Leader is a guided reflection: it’s very short, and simply prompts a reflection across a number of core areas. I guess it is, primarily, my own reflection, but shared in the hope it will give others a structure to rebel against or build upon.

I’m publishing these in parallel, because they reflect not two sides of a coin, but two perspectives upon the coin: one is a group level discussion and journey, the other a reflection.

As ever, these bodies of work are imperfect: my own perspective and understanding evolves over time (some of the ideas in Quiet Leadership represent a clear third iteration of core ideas). But they act as an important marker in my work, before i pivot into a broader exploration of Organisations and Change in the second half of the year.

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Evolution of Context

Context is not static: held rather in a dynamic interaction with the things that flow through it. Stories are no exception to this: both formal stories, and the tacit and tribal folklore of the Organisation, these things flow through context, and evolve it.

This is one way of understanding why it can be so hard to find one ‘shared reality’ within large Organisations – because the quest for that reality evolves the context within which it is held.

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The Strength of Culture

The strength of a culture is held more within the smallest of individual actions than through tidal waves of aspiration.

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