States of Jersey: remnants of rust and relevance

I remember in an early episode of Band of Brothers, we see one of the young American soldiers taking a gun emplacement as they role into France: once the trench is secured, he drops a bag of dynamite down the barrel and we see it explode, rendering the gun useless. The image flickers across my mind as i stare down into the pit in front of me on the West coast of Jersey. Tortured steel lies rusted at my feet: a huge coastal gun, torn in half, it’s fifteen foot length burst open in the middle, with the sides peeled back like a banana.

Bunkers in Jersey

© Julian Stodd

It’s a scene at odds with the landscape surrounding me: rugged coastal walking, the waves crashing at the foot of the cliffs to my left, the scrub punctuated by paths and bushes to my right. Ahead of me, a broad circle of concrete sunk three feet into the ground, maybe forty feet across. At it’s centre, the remains of the gun. Four rusted rails that it would have been mounted on, then the barrel, thrown to one side and broken in half.

The steel is thick: maybe two inches, but heavily rusted. The rents in the metal that must once have been razor sharp and burning hot are dulled by time and seventy winters into no more than simply roughened edges. Today, the only heat is from the sun.

Photos of rusted gun in Jersey

© Julian Stodd

It’s incongruous: in my experience, in my world, steel has value. It’s rare to see such a substantial chunk of it left unclaimed, remote as it is. And, of course, this is no ordinary steel: it’s steel of memories, the fractured steel of Empire and defeat. Unconquerable steel of German might, wrought impotent by oxidation.

These giant guns are housed in museums these days, or held in pigment in sepia photos. The redevelopment of post war Britain took time, but in it’s path it swept away the tangible stains of war: the searchlights, the barb wire, trenches, uniforms and tanks. Not all of it: signs remain, but usually in each and concrete, not steel. No obvious guns.

I circle the pit, finding at one point a slope down, a subterranean doorway half filled with rubble overgrown by plants A control bunker maybe? Home now to rabbits and rubbish. The sunken pit fills my vision: later, as i fly out of the island, i look out of the window and recognise the coastline we are banking over. I can see the circle but this time the size of a coin, and juxtaposed with other, similar circles, forming a line down the coast. I realise that i would have been visible, even from this height, to someone staring down. Perspectives upon perspectives.

Steel and concrete are the bones of war. The concrete is everywhere: walls, bunkers, shelters. Along the coast, a series of blisters protrude from the sea walls: massive gun emplacements formed of poured concrete, the lines still visible where the days work ended and the next day began. Time has barely started to touch these structures: discoloured, for sure, and rusted where bare metal protrudes, but their skin is metres thick. Literally stone.

Observation tower in Jersey

© Julian Stodd

Indeed, often it’s the land that erodes around them: in Norfolk i remember the Pill boxes dotting the landscape, one particularly near our caravan, set back from the cliff top. When i visited last year, the cliff had gone, eaten away by the hungry sea, but the pill box remains, upside down where it must have tumbled down the cliff in a winter storm. I imagine in a hundred years it will still be there, but as the land retreats further it will be rolled around on the seabed, like a giant pebble. Polished by the sands.

And a Pill box is simply David to these Goliath structures.

Later that afternoon, i walk through the sand dunes, climbing the side of one. It’s a museum now and a coach bounces it’s way along a sandy track to disgorge it’s crowd of British pensioners for an afternoon of reminiscing and tea. I stay away from the crowd, stood on top of the mound, but something strange happens: as i stand there, buffeted by the wind, i hear something, like a distant tannoy, like a faint public service announcement, but emanating from the ground beneath me.

Exploration reveals the cause: an old air vent from the bunker emerges near my feet: through metres of concrete, the sound of Margaret and Ethel discussing their lunch is given a surreal and abstract quality. Juxtaposition of sound and space.

At another site, i enter a bunker, this one cleaned up and interpreted: six rooms in total, each in service of the ‘fighting’ room, the room at the front where the massive rusting gun still stands. One guard room, which has a machine gun port overlooking the doorway, two more for sleeping in, one for the extraction fan which circulates air (one can only imagine the noise and fumes when the guns fired) and one room for spent shell cases. A mini functioning fort, deep under cover, deep under stone.

Society takes a mixed view of these structures: it’s an evolving process and, let’s be honest, they have plenty of time to conclude the process. They’re not going anywhere. Some are open to the public: museums, housing memorabilia, signed and made safe. These are the historic face of Jersey: an island at peace with it’s past. Some are tolerated: their doors and ports sealed up, sat on seafronts, in villages, by the side of roads, but distressingly at the heart of modern life. I have tea and scones next to one, painted white like the proverbial elephant in the room, squatting uncomfortably on the best seat. Some are derelict and distant, far from town, left to rot: their doorways, once sealed, are often broken open so teenagers can smoke and drink inside, comfortable amongst the dead pigeons and urine.

One has been converted to a fish restaurant. I am unsure how: they’re not the type of structure to knock a new window into and no matter how much light we pump in, there’s something about concrete that absorbs the heat, that deadens the sound. One derelict site, the only one i see, shows faint signs that someone tried to demolish it. Pockmarks on it’s skin, but mere teenage acne. Not one percent of the job done.

I find no appeal in exploring the dereliction: the dark doorways into underground history are not sinister, just incongruous. There was no D Day landing here, no valiant action: to my knowledge, no young men died in these bunkers. Just got bored, watching for the day that Liberation came. If anything, they are an expression of futility, a memory of different times.

Doorway to bunker in Jersey

© Julian Stodd

As i stand in the sun, think of the day there were built: a young man perhaps resting his hand on the freshly set concrete where my hand rests today: whilst my minds eye shows him in black and white, in reality the dirt under his nails was in colour. That’s the thing about history: we paint it into the past through fashion, media and language, forgetting that it was as real as our day today. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Away from the artefacts of war, the coastline is typical: cliffs, harbours, long beaches, tranquil bays. But tranquility that is hard won: almost every time i read about one of the piers or breakwaters, it’s a story of the sea washing away it’s predecessor. It’s a constant battle, erosion. Sometimes it happens fast, sometimes slow. But ever truthful, never ending.

At barely nine miles by five, Jersey makes up for in spirit what it lacks in stature: for eight hundred years a Crown Dependency, it’s part of the Great Britain, but separated by both water and government. A microcosm of it’s parent state, Jersey operates within it’s own rules: regulation, legal and cultural.

A sign proclaims that in my hotel, the surrender of the Germans forces was taken. They’ve probably redecorated since: the conference tables, water jugs and plasma displays are a ubiquitous token of modernity, lacking significance or locality. The reality of today displaces the significance of yesterday.

Seventy years on, the island continues to evolve: piers are washed away, the harbour expands, tourism prevails, financial services dominate. But evolve it must: the structures of today are the derelict concrete of tomorrow. What got us here may not get us there. The challenges for a small island in a global economy are not ones of territory: i cannot envisage anyone trying to steal the Channel Islands away from their protective neighbour, but rather of identity. As ubiquity steals our culture, the trappings of our heritage become simply museum pieces, remnants of a long lost past.

Flowers on Jersey

© Julian Stodd

It’s right to remember, to celebrate, to move on, but it’s naive to assume that the past glory guarantees a glorious future. In a globalised society, opportunities are not free, and when your land mass is limited and your population ever more mobile, we have to strive to remain relevant.

I’ve loved my time on the island and will definitely be back, but i suspect there are challenges ahead that will require more than just bunkers and hardware to surmount. The challenge of relevance and permanence in the Social Age does not just apply to organisations: it applies to countries too. As people’s primary identity starts to shift away from simple geographically defined boundaries, the boundaries of cliff and sea that defined our past may not guarantee the cohesion of our community in the future.

Posted in Adventure, Exploration, History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Layers of Storytelling

I’ve spent two days working with different organisations around Jersey, exploring how they can get fit for the Social Age: there are common themes. The need for agility, the need to transform culture, the need to drive change.

Layers of Stories

But change is elusive: not because it’s hard, but because it’s everywhere. Knowing where to start can be impossible. So why not start with a story?

I’ve talked before about layers of narrative: the three layers of storytelling within organisations.

First: personal narrative. This is the individual’s story of change. It may be a journal, a diary, a video blog, but it’s about the narrative of personal challenge and experience of change. It’s about how this week is different from last week, and what we expect to change next week. For me, the blog is my personal narrative. It’s where i #WorkOutLoud and share my story.

The location of stories

Secondly: . Within an organisation, this is what happens within our communities. It’s where the ‘sense making‘ happens, where the cut and thrust of debate plays out. The co-created narrative is where opinion is formed and where communities of change gather their momentum. I’ve been exploring ways to capture this recently, the most exciting of which is through co-created magazines, where individual groups write their stories around a set structure. We can gather these magazines from around the organisation: common structure, but the articles written by each team. Then we can read them all, and construct the meta narrative: what are the common themes, where does the difference lie.

The Organisational Narrative is the cumulation of the individual and co-created, interpreted and contextualised by the organisation. In the Social Age, the organisations shouldn’t write the narrative and send it down to people: rather the organisation should listen to the teams and write the story from that

Storytelling is powerful: it’s about finding our voices and created a continuous narrative around learning and around change. By providing a structure, we can better facilitate that process.

Posted in Stories, Storytelling | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Microcosm

MicrocosmI’m working in Jersey and Guernsey this week: two islands off the South coast of the UK. Crown Dependencies, which means aligned with, but not governed by, the UK. Part of the family, but with separate identities and a unique culture. Microcosms in some way: every government department and function is replicated, but with it’s own spin.

Jersey has around a hundred thousand people, Guernsey somewhere over sixty thousand, and each is independent from each other. So here we all are, islands aligned, yet independent and proud.

It’s like looking at different organisations: they are made up of the same departments, often doing the same jobs, in the same market, and yet they’re strangely different from each other. Culture differs, shaped partly by environment, partly by the tacit knowledge and implicit stories shared within communities.

The islands identify as separate from the UK, much as Scotland or Wales identify as separate from England. But between Jersey and Guernsey, there is competition, expressed in myriad small ways. Perhaps it’s in the nature of islands to compete?

Defined as they are by a certain isolation, there’s no doubt that the geography can impact mindset: having grown up on an island, i sense the value of shorelines, the certainty of separation and identity.

Maybe a fractal view of society: communities subdividing into progressively smaller microcosms, each replicating the dynamics of the parent, but at ever smaller scale. There’s some native sense that the challenges in smaller societies should be easier to solve, but smaller does not necessarily mean more pliable: indeed, i suspect that in smaller societies our hierarchical, tribal and repetitional niches are more deeply entrenched, not least because there’s less space to manoeuvre.

I’ve spent time in the Hebrides before, where some of the islands i’ve stayed on have a populations of thirty of forty people, microcosms of microcosms. But still stratified by defined roles, gradients of power and delineated by coastline: the liminal separation of that which is controlled from that which is wild.

Perhaps it’s in our nature to organise in communities, whether the islands are surrounded by beaches, or simply the cliff-lines in our heads.

Posted in Ideas | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

From Aspiration to Culture: the erosion of values

A startup is a blank sheet: no systems, no process, no legacy. To some, it’s anathema: a lack of reference points, a lack of structure, a lack of support. To others, it’s freedom, a freedom they could never experience within a more established business. Startups can have a culture of agility, an inbuilt flexibility and willingness to learn. It’s easy to see the difference: new and young is agile, old and stale is lethargic.

Aspiration vs Culture

But the picture is far from that simple: the journey is complex, and the correlation between age and agility may be less rigid than we think. Culture is created in the moment, through our behaviours: it’s less about the aspiration, more about the execution.

It’s a journey from aspiration to culture, but where you end up is under your own control.

The reason we see an agile culture more as a function of startups is simply that we make it more explicit through the decoration: in a startup, everything is a conscious choice. The furniture, the website, the team, the documentation, all of it is created anew, all of it is, by definition, current. The aspiration is directly expressed in the execution.

In older, more established businesses, it’s much more make do and mend. Different iterations of systems, process and collateral exist. It’s harder to say what’s old and what’s new, plus there is the natural tendency of organisations to accrete.

Like stalactites dripping from the ceiling, organisations accrete ‘stuff’ over time: they try to cage complexity with systems, processes and practices, with technology and teams, attempting to fence off risk and encourage compliance.

But the experience of culture is the same in both: it’s how we are treated in the moment. The aspiration does not make the value.

A young business may certainly have the trappings of agility, may certainly talk the talk of a great culture, but it’s how we behave that actually creates the experience. Similarly, an older business may have none of the external signs of agility, it may be tired, drab and cracked in it’s decoration, but if you are treated with respect and with feeling, then it may have a great culture.

Don’t get me wrong: many established organisations have frankly dreadful cultures, and many more have simply lethargic ones. It’s not that they are bad places to work, but neither are they excellent: not agile, not fluid, not permissive, not equal, and in the Social Age, ‘good enough’ is not enough any more.

Only the truly agile can hope to thrive: only the agile will survive the waves of change, and they will do so through having a culture and team fit for purpose.

But that agility, that culture is not automatically bestowed on the new startups: it’s consciously built and executed. It takes nurturing the same way that it does in any business.

Aspiration is where we want to be: culture is where we are.

There are predictable factors that erode aspiration into poor culture: pragmatism, lack of time, ‘just good enough’, solving for today. These things erode the soul of a culture. We start with vision, with idealism, with the desire for excellent, but all too soon the ground truth kills it. It’s the lived experience that shapes the culture, it’s the reality on the ground that takes it’s toll.

I’m working with some global organisations to change their culture: they want to fix it. So my message is always the same: fix it in the moment. There is no one lever, because the erosive forces are everywhere. We fix it in stages and build our community of change: co-create and co-own that change.

Aspiration is easy: culture is what we live. And to build the culture we want, we have to live the culture we deserve.

Posted in Culture | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Groundswell: waves of change

The Social Age is about amplification: but it starts with one. One idea, one voice, one story. Or, as Freddie said, One Vision. In this case, let’s think about how organisations change: so a vision of a better future.

Co-Created and Co-Owned change

Ideas accrete community: people with similar views, similar ideas, maybe people who disagree, but who want to be part of the community that finds what the real story is. As communities form, become coherent and grow, they iterate and sharpen the ideas. They form a perspective: like a political party with a manifesto, often covering more than one area. And they share the story ever more widely.

It’s like coral growing by laying down new structures and layers, ever wider and deeper. But it doesn’t have to be by accident: if you are the person driving the change, you can curate your community. Identify the people you want in it, find out who is aligned, influential, trustworthy, and actively seek their participation. One at a time: but if we choose wisely, we get more than one.

The co-ownership of change

Change does not rain down on us from on high, rather it’s stories are co-created and co-owned by the community. Or at least it is if you want it to stick…

Align our change story with that of amplifiers and we get an effect of momentum. Suddenly our reach is ever wider: craft your stories to be magnetic, co-created and let them be shaped by the community and we are suddenly in a space where exponential reach is attainable.

This is the space we need: critical mass to drive change. Start with the idea: build community, build commonality, allow the idea to iterate and grow and allow the stories to form. Build friends into the community who can amplify and contribute: remember, it’s co-created, not just our story amplified.

This is a model of organisational change in the Social Age: look at the work of the Healthcare Radicals in the NHS. Permitted to grow their communities, encouraged to shape the change.

It’s a model that works: drawing the organisation from the middle, not dictating change from the top.

Posted in Change | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Handshakes

Not the ones exchanged in meetings, where we gauge the strength of grip, the number of shakes and the dampness of the palm, but rather the ones between experiences. Working this week on the design of a programme for new starters in a global business, i’m struck by the need for ceremony, for gateways, for handshakes: how we we welcome people, how do we help them learn, how do we congratulate and recognise their achievement, how do we hand them over into the business.

Handshakes

It’s at transition points that things break down: the boundary between roles, between experiences, where things fall into silos instead of taking a holistic view. The friction of reality erodes abstract training.

We need to engineer in the handshakes: how will we welcome people onto induction, how will we celebrate their success, how will we recognise their pride.

By design, not by accident, in the manner of great choreography.

Posted in Choreography | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Story Machine

Stories don’t come from a machine: they come from people. They’re not stamped out of steel, but rather crafted around a campfire. Or in a corner. Or on the train. Or over Facebook. Stories are not available on demand, but often are born in awkward situations. Stories can last forever, or be as transient as the stranger you talk to at the bus stop.

The Story Machine

Stories live in writing, in words, through music, in poetry, they can be told in architecture, in touch, through whispers or a shout. They can traverse boundaries of language, geography, culture or disability, although sometimes they struggle to be understood between two people next to each other.

But stories have to be crafted, nurtured, developed and shared. Because if we don’t share them, what are they worth?

Stories don’t come from a machine: how do you find yours?

Posted in Stories, Storytelling | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments