On Holiday

I am looking forward to a break: what with the pandemic, the baby, and the toddler, as well as the small matter of work, it’s been a busy couple of years. Productive, but busy.

Whilst i’m off, the first full print run of ‘The Humble Leader’ will land, ready to distribute to the Kickstarter backers in August, and with a Second Sequence releasing afterwards.

These Are Me – The Identity Project’ has made a start, and i’ve got stories scheduled to release (as well as more interviews booked) right through to the end of Phase 1, at the end of the year.

Two new Quiet Leadership cohorts will kick off when i return, mid August, on early and late slots to suit global audiences. I have loved this work, and am often approached by people around the world who have taken part in a journey, all with their stories and insights to share.

I’m working on a new ‘Future Leadership’ programme, as well as revisiting the ‘Learning Science Guidebook’, and a few other projects bubbling along.

Social Leadership Daily will also be taking a break – it’s been a super engaged space, and although that community is still tiny, it’s my most active space! Clearly full of fellow travellers trying to figure out how to put Social Leadership into their everyday practice.

And as i said: i feel ready for a holiday!

The blog will return on 15th August.

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The Learning Science Guidebook V2

I’m about to head off on holiday, but before i do, some news on the ‘Learning Science Guidebook’. Those of you with long memories will recall this as a 2020 project that rather ground to a halt when i completed the first full draft. It was clearly not ready to publish, and my early reviewers suggested that i had accidentally welded two books into one, in a rather clumsy way… anyway, i felt so overwhelmed by the whole thing that i just backed away and let it sleep for a while.

In 2021 i revisited the illustrations and fell in love with it again, but still lacked the structure or energy to resurrect it. I knew that it really needed to be stripped right back to the ground and rebuilt – and now i’m about ready to tackle it. Or in fact, i have the writing partner to do so! More on this soon, but this will most likely be my first co-authored book, written with one of my best friends, who also happens to be a world class learning scientist! We spent a weekend kicking ideas around and are now looking to set ourselves a schedule and push forwards with it.

For now, i’m just sharing a little of our ideas for structural approach to the writing – as i say, the first manuscript got to version 21 before it toppled over… and now i’m starting again at v1… so this is very DRAFT ideas…

There is a SCAFFOLDING of structure in the hard ideas – what the research tells us about ‘how things work’, and ‘what to prioritise’. We have a list of ‘20 ideas’ from the research that will form a a foundation of that. I’ll share more on this in due course.

There is probably some TRANSLATION – where we may base our writing in the research, but build a more pragmatic, possibly simpler, language around some of it. I think our steer is that we are seeking to give insight and understanding, heading into action. Not abstract knowledge alone.

There is probably some CONTEXT around the modern Organisation – the desire to ‘unlock’ potential, and into some of the social collaborative aspects – this is probably a layer that we can weave around it.

And maybe some additional theory or IDEAS – which may lean more into some of my more recent work, shared on the Learning Fragments site – i think we should be unafraid to give our interpretation and ‘next ideas’ – so what would we do about this – in fact, this may be the best bit!

Finally: REFLECTIONS, with questions to ask yourself and your Organisation about the state of health and potential.

For now, i’m feeling pretty exhausted and ready for a holiday, but i will share more on this when i return. In August i think we will be able to share some of the timeframes and structure, and of course i will #WorkOutLoud on the development and production as we go.

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Identity: Turning Points

I’ve published the first five Identity Stories so far, and completed ten interviews in total. These are extraordinary stories from everyday people. Possibly because so many people are extraordinary if you find the space to listen.

It’s early days with this work, which invites participants to share the three identities that are most central to who they are. But even at this early stage, some things are clear.

People do not tend to share their work as a core identity, although around half explain how their core identities make them good at the work that they do. People tend to say that only a small number of people, if anyone at all, knows all of their identities. And identities are often born in a single moment.

When describing their identity, people frequently tell stories: stories of people who influenced the, or simple events that transformed them:

“…my older sister was a few years older, and we sat on blanket in front of the shopping centre selling old toys.

We were crazy existed about making some money! So two guys walked past in tank tops, probably thirty years old, just totally cool, with tattoos, quite drunk, and they walked past me like gods.

It was just an epiphany of independence. Heavily tattooed, it opened my heart seeing these two free spirits walk past.”

Often these are the smallest of things, but which leave the lasting legacy. One interviewee, in a story as yet unpublished, spoke of how a random comment about her body led to a twenty year aspect of identity that remained hidden.

Some of these events are deeply traumatic, people have shared the experience of a father and brother committing suicide. Some of these stories are harrowing to read.

At other times, the features described seem almost trivial from the outside: without the context of ‘self’ it is hard to ‘feel’ what that person felt.

Some people describe how they carry their three identities aligned, how they are an ‘open book’, whilst for others the identities are kept separate, or even hidden:

“[There is a] tension between my inner identity as a magician and my other identity as a leader. I think my magical friends may feel some tension between my organisational and spiritual life, so i keep these identities very separate.”

“If that wall was publicly torn down i would have a really hard time explaining to people on both sides of the fence. On both sides of my identity, lots of people have stereotypes. With both sides you are left with the unthankful task of dismantling those stereotypes.”

Identity is often described in terms of boundaries or fences, separation of ‘space’, and i can feel people finding the language or paradigm to separate them.

“I suppose people would say ‘you must be institutionalised’, and i suspect i have some characteristics – but i do see myself as a person in society who happens to be in the military – because it works for me – the ethics and what people do – but i don’t see myself as primarily a military person. Rather i am a person in the military.”

My aim is to continue to share these Identity Stories, probably around 35 of them, through the rest of 2022, and then to take stock. If people are finding value in them, and if i can draw some kind of thread around them, then i will continue beyond then. But equally these interviews may just form a snapshot: i already find i can share these stories into broader work, and it gives insight into questions i have been exploring for some time: ‘what does it mean to belong’, and ‘which self do you bring to the system’. I hope you enjoy reading them as much i have have enjoyed, and felt privileged, to hear them.

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Leading at the Intersection: Challenge and Opportunity

Social Leadership describes a form of leadership at the intersection of formal and social systems: as our Organisations become increasingly blurred, multi-dimensional, with less distinction between the ‘owned’ and ‘influenced’, more permeable, fluid in organisation, or simply fearful or desperate, it’s likely that we will need to explore (or invent) new systems of power that will underly new forms of structure, or whatever will pass for structure in a dynamic model of organisation!

Our challenge will be to re-invent the Organisation from the ground up, because the context of Organisation is shifting so significantly.

The premise of the Social Age represents a new context, and as context changes, so too does everything else: not simply a new competitive pressure, but rather a new pressure on effectiveness. The things we did before may lack potency, or simply drive in the wrong kind of strength in an evolving system.

Our legacy Organisations were substantially (or are substantially) of an Industrial model: premised upon the notions of resource collection and manipulation, within networks of transport and education, habitation and law that are inherently tied to geography and the limitations of both transport and communication technologies. But the future Organisation will not be like this.

The opportunity is to re-invent and re-conceptualise the mechanisms of effect.

Probably through a disaggregation of the previously connected: task and role, leader and power, story and control, system and safety, process and scale etc.

It’s not that we will not need these things: we will need clarity, strength, system and control, safety, innovation, and change, all at scale. But the mechanisms by which we achieve these things will differ: in general, more fluid and reconfigurable – more negotiated than demanded. Fairer.

New structures, new frames of leadership, new Organisations.

Can we adapt what we already have? Yes, because the constraint is largely conceptual, not logistical. But also maybe not, because the constraint is largely conceptual not logistical. The Organisation will not look different, beyond the fact it may use space differently), but it will be underpinned by different models of power, and a different mechanisms of operation.

It sounds dramatic, and it may be. But that cannot be helped: the context of the Social Age is a paradigmatic shift: we so easily see the technology, but sometimes forget to track it forward into the sociology – to recognise that we are different – and hence so too will our be our entities of productivity, engagement, and effect.

This is our challenge. This is the opportunity.

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Launching ’These Are Me: The Identity Project’

Today is a soft launch for ‘These Are Me – The Identity Project’. This small scale qualitative research project explores our identity (or rather, our identities!), through interviews. The aim of this work is simply to collect these Identity Stories, and to look for common themes, ideas, insights, and differences.

I’m looking at identity not simply out of interest (although these stories have been fascinating to curate and to write), but because it sits behind many of the things we are interested in for the day to day running, and evolution, of the Organisation.

Identity relates to leadership: which ‘self’ is present, and how does it relate to other ‘selves’, how does group identity form, and how does it relate to our other identities, and are some identities more ‘real’ or authentic than others, and if so, what does that actually mean? In these stories we will hear how some people use their own Identity Story to create space, agency, or to advocate for others.

Identity relates to learning: our presence within different communities and spaces gives us access both to knowledge, and to ‘sense making’ groups. It is within these groups that we create ‘meaning’, our understanding of how the world works. So identity gives us access to knowledge, contextually, and also impacts how we make sense of it. Identity is also changed through learning, as comes out in some of these stories. In these Identity Stories we will hear how learning has been painful, liberating, and shared.

Identity relates to culture: as an expression of our shared action in the moment, the identity we bring (or the identity we hide behind) impacts both the creation, and experience of culture. In these Identity Stories we will meet people who shelter within culture, and shelter from culture.

Identity relates to change, even to Organisational change, as change is an act of violence against the ‘self’ within the system. Change fractures structures of power and belonging, although can also act as the catalyst for a new identity to emerge. These Identity Stories have change as a common theme – people sharing the changes in themselves, both through introspective self development, and through the imposition of change from outside.

At this stage i am not seeking to do any formal analysis of these stories (for example, through discourse analysis or sentiment analysis), but rather i am sticking to simple narrative reflection. I will be writing and recording some commentary to run around the stories.

For now, i hope you find as much interest, and perhaps value, in them as i have in recording them.

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These Are Me: Identity Stories

I’ve finished writing up the first two Identity Stories from the new research project. Both are quite different, and already fascinating. In this work i ask people to describe the three identities that are most central to their ‘self’ (all names have been changed). Both of these initial stories are from women: ‘Nancy’, who describes herself as ‘Woman – Creator – Explorer’, and Ari, whose three identities are ‘Climber – Woman – Humanitarian’.

Of course my sample size is very small, but already i find it interesting that both women have chosen ‘woman’ as a central identity – i wonder if this trend will hold, or if it will be the same across different gender identities (in the initial group i have both men and women, and several people who identify in different ways).

But their stories of ‘woman’ are very different: one is a story of nurture, and the other of oppression. One is almost ‘because of’, and the other ‘despite’.

“Just surviving as a woman, with a lengthy history of abuse, i inhabit this female body and inhabit a world that targets female bodies. We don’t value women or pay them as much. There is a certain sense of anger and pride: a sense of ‘f**k you’ in it. You put every obstacle in my way and despite that i kick ass at everything i want to do: it makes me more determined.” [Ari]

“If i think back to how an identity was formed – my identity as a woman – as i said i grew up in a female dominated family – and through my school and family experience i was always taught, or learned, that i did not have limits. If something needed doing, one of the women would do it: there was no ‘ask Tom to fix the car’. At school there was never a conversation about “i’m a girl and you are a boy and hence we do different things.” [Nancy]

Both these stories demonstrate and describe evolution overtime: neither Ari, nor Nancy, believe that they are the same person they were even five years ago, but both describe common threads – for Nancy there is a creative thread, and for Ari it is a humanitarian one (the term she chooses to describe her need to be kind, to connect, to hold people safely – to be compassionate).

In both these Identity stories these women choose to use narratives of misjudgement to illustrate their identity: when people have looked at them and dismissed them, or not recognised their intelligence or value.

“I remember one example of when i hid an identity: we were in a bar, travelling, younger, maybe in our thirties, with a group of young men, Masters degree candidates. I hid my identity as a mother, saying instead that i was a ‘Crisis Management Executive’, which fascinated them!

I did this because otherwise i would have felt isolated or cut off from the conversations, in fact i fear i would not have been valued for who i was.” [Nancy]

“Through voluntary work as college i worked as a roofer for a charity: today i own my own home, i don’t have a husband to ask, and yet in the hardware store on numerous times some male employee will ask if i want help, and ask what my husband asked me to get. Women are remarkably capable: from complex emotions to complex engineering.” [Ari]

I now have almost a dozen initial interviews scheduled, and fifty people signed up for the first cohort. I feel that there is great value in this work – but i can only hope that i can tease it out! My aim is to publish the individual Identities Stories, plus probably a podcast and narrative that surrounds them, exploring common contexts and differences.

I am unafraid to fail in this work – it’s exploratory – it may just be an interesting spark, or it may weave more directly into other work. Time will tell.

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Learning: Broad Perspective on Capability

Today i am sharing another broad sweep through Learning, drawing together some of the more recent ideas i have shared. In this case i am trying to show a ‘start to finish’ train of thought, and the simple narrative is this: we probably need a range of design approaches to learning, based upon a fairly broad paradigm of outcomes. Essentially we most likely need some very specific capability (to do known things, in safe ways), coupled with a very general type of capability (to figure out new things, in unknown ways). One learning approach is unlikely to fulfil both needs, not least because they are paradoxical to each other.

Initially just focus on the left and right sides: what is our intent, for what outcome. I’ve previously explored this in terms of ‘Specific Capability’ and ‘General Capability’. A simple way to consider this is Starbucks: getting people to make the same cup of coffee in Heathrow Airport and Changi Airport requires a very specific and scalable capability, supported by both systems of control and technology. But to create a new experience of coffee drinking (e.g. innovation or evolution of a system) most likely requires creative thinking and both a more general and connective type of capability.

Specific capability will tend to be held in known domains (vertical structures of knowledge and of Organisations themselves) and in specific contexts, whilst general capability is most likely to be held within fluid domains of knowledge and agnostic of context.

[To relate this to my broader work, if you are following that, ‘Specific Capability’ and ‘Fixed Domains’ relate more to what i call the ‘Legacy’ or ‘Domain Based’ Organisation in ‘The Socially Dynamic Organisation’ book – their Intent is codified into structures of learning, knowledge, power and control. The General capability, and dynamic knowledge, relates more to the idea of the Socially Dynamic Organisation itself – my hypothesis is that we need more of the latter – in parallel with, or even replacing, the Domain Org]

In the centre part of the framework i’ve essentially bolted in the core Social Learning work – framed as the degree of structure, as well as the type of knowledge, and both the space that learning takes place within, and the mechanisms by which it is supported.

I could have phrased this differently, but in essence Social Learning as a term simply describes a subset of learning formats and approaches, as well as the methodology for sense making and the types of knowledge engaged with. I am showing a bias by indicating that there should generally be aspects of Social Learning in almost any context – but i balance that by saying that there should typically also be more formal and structured assets. Both things together give clarity and ambiguity (which we need), safety and scale (which we tend to need) and both general and specific capability – which we also need. But both things together also give us a headache through ‘Divergence’ and ‘Emergence’ – two terms that cover the messy nature of more social and collaborative models.

Divergence means learning is more individual and knowledge more contextual, and hence harder to measure except through qualitative judgement and effectiveness. Emergence may relate to innovative ideas beyond known spaces that can actively conflict with the existing systems (of power, knowledge etc – good in a start up – anathema in established Orgs).

There are probably three key elements to focus on here:

  1. Start with ‘Intent’, not solution
  2. Strategic, not tactical, consideration of Capability – what do you need, when.
  3. Diversify the middle – but recognise the need for comfort in divergence – and resource accordingly
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Learning Outcomes: Conversion, Abstraction, Rejection

It’s easy to imagine that Learning is all about positive and measurable outcomes, but that’s not necessarily always true. It’s possible that we can ‘learn’, and yet not think and act differently, and yet still carry some value from the experience, and that is what i want to explore today. How can learning deliver value, even when no value is apparent.

Let’s consider three outcomes: ‘Conversion’, ‘Abstraction’ and ‘Rejection’.

Conversion is an outcome where someone designs a piece of learning, an intervention or asset of some sort, with a specific outcome in mind – but i, as the learner, take something else entirely different away from it. Not what was intended, but something else nonetheless. So i learn something, but definitely not what you had wanted me to learn. Imagine. you read a book: a book with an agenda, which wants you to take away it’s message – but you reject that message. It annoys you, or does not hold true in your context. But within what is said, you do find a truth – something you can carry into a different context. So you convert it. Perhaps i could have called this ‘re-contextualisation’, or even ‘re-purposing’ as an alternative.

Abstraction is where i do not actively take away anything specific, but rather i abstract something of the learning from the context it was given in, and i hold it in stasis – i do not necessarily agree with it, but nor do i reject it. Possibly it does not hold true in my current context, but i do not reject it outright. We may hold a whole shelf of these things, against a time when we can reexamine them against future contexts or truths. Possibly this is part of the cognitive process by which beliefs change: not in one go, but when a point of fracture or fragmentation occurs – at which point, if we have a range of other inputs to consider, perhaps we find (or construct) our new truth.

Rejection is where i hear what you say, and stack it up against what i already know to be true, and on balance i reject it. This one may be a long shot, but there is an argument that by rejecting something i reduce the possible space of alternative views – so i do create a new future context for learning. We could perhaps again consider this with a simple answer of political views: i may listen to what someone says, and reject it, but that reduces the space of my future exploration – so arguably this is part of learning too.

I think it’s valuable to consider these, if only to broaden our perspective on what ‘learning’ actually is: certainly if an Organisation invests in the creation of assets and structures of learning, it typically does so to achieve a desired outcome – and at minimum that outcomes is likely to include the desire to change how people think, the knowledge they hold, or the behaviour that they exhibit. But we should be open to the idea that there is more to it than that, and that sometimes (perhaps as part of a broader approach to capability) we may wish to actively engineer some ambiguity into our learning design.

So we may want people to think – but not feel the need to judge their thought. And we may want them to act, but not through prescriptive pathways. Essentially we may simply be satisfied with the disturbance itself. There is something to be said for destabilising a system, because into the cracks may fall new thoughts or contexts that can act as a future foundation.

I’m not particularly proposing that we aim for ‘purposeless’ learning, but equally we should recognise the validity of any of these outcomes, and be open minded as to how we may, on occasion, with to engineer in a broader space for learning that we may imagine. Especially if we are focussed on areas of conviction, belief, mindset, or even innovation, complex change, or resilience. Areas where the known thinking, and structured pathways, may be more a hindrance or fragility than an asset.

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Learning: The Harbour and The Sea

People quite often ask me why my Organisation is called ‘Sea Salt Learning’, and the answer is quite simple: we are connected, around the world, over the water, but the voyages across these seas can be hard. And some of them we have to make alone.

Sometimes our role is to hold safe the harbour: to build and maintain the walls, and to run the harbour-side tavern! Sometimes we help each other to prepare for the voyage, but eventually, we have to leave the harbour mouth and feel the first swell of the open sea.

If we are lucky, others will be within sight: whilst we each have our ship to pilot, we sometimes sail in an flotilla, a group of individuals heading in a similar direction.

At other times we are reliant on nothing more than our own wit and talent, plus the good fortune that we hope to carry into the storms.

But eventually, we hope to make it back into harbour, where we share our stories, safely in the calm, sat by the waters edge.

So Sea Salt Learning was built to be a harbour, but with one eye on the open sea!

I love this way of looking at learning: from safety into the storm.

You cannot learn to sail if you always remain in harbour, but you cannot endlessly travel the high seas without coming into the port.

I think the sometimes we mistake the act of helping people to prepare for a voyage, with the idea that we can make the voyage for them. But that’s not how we learn, or how capability is built.

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Learning Ecosystem

Just a fragment of thought here: i’ve been working today on a view of Learning Ecosystems – the sketch i’ve done here is not what was in my head – so i think i am trapped by my previous thinking – this is closer to the various previous ‘learning glossaries’ or the Learning Map that i’ve shared here.

I will expand some of the ideas in this across subsequent posts, and i hope rework this image to be closer to what is in my head.

I have used this for a Learning Fragment, which you can find here.

So today is just early stage #WorkingOutLoud

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