My son loves to draw: predominantly tractors and steam trains, but at two years old i’m allowing a limited repertoire. On holiday i few weeks ago i found myself rummaging around in a cupboard for some paper for him to draw upon, digging out a stack of computer paper to use.
Not the type of paper you feed into your printer today: neatly packaged reams of A4, but rather the older style: watermarked with strips of colour to delimit rows of text, concertinas of paper with sprocket holes down the sides, perforated to allow you to tear off the sides once the printer had disgorged them.
This is the paper i grew up with: an early form of recycling, my father would return from his College teaching with endless stacks of it for us to use.
As we drew trains, i looked down at the sheet in front of me: it carried a date, from when i was four years old, and streams of numbers and statistical analysis. I realise it was paper my father had used in his research, probably for his own PhD, back in the seventies.
Since my father died, i have found his shadows to be comforting: reflections through old books or cards. I found this to be the case here: a comfort that in some way the shadows of his research, the pinnacles of his academic work, acting still as the foundations for my son. There could hardly be a greater contrast than our scribbled red tractors and the outputs of an ancient stats package.
Half way down one sheet, almost obscured by our new train lines, i realised there was a word: written in black fountain pen, unmistakably my fathers handwriting, but strong and clearer than in his later years. A single word written against a set of numbers. ‘Transpose?’.
To transpose, to swap places. My father to me, me to my son.
When someone dies we are limited to the words that they wrote in their lives: this one word, written in haste, yet reaching out to me across those years.
I have it now, tucked between two books on the shelf in my new library: the words of my father, the drawings of my son. Each holding the other safe.
Sooner or later, someone will strike gold: our Organisational relationship with learning is being mined from many different directions, and one assumes that at some point we will hit the paydirt.
What are these directions?
We are evolving the TYPE of learning we do: with a general shift away from the CODIFIED, OWNED, and CONTROLLED, towards the CO-CREATED, DISTRIBUTED and EVOLUTIONARY model. This brings with it questions of VALIDITY, OWNERSHIP, and UNIVERSALITY. Also ACCESSIBILITY and EQUITY of access. That’s a lot of bold type already, and we’ve barely started.
We are evolving the LOCATION and TIMING of the learning we do: in general to be DISTRIBUTED, ONDEMAND, AUGMENTED or OVERLAID, CONTEXTUAL to time, space, and application, and even GEOFENCED or GEO–CONTEXTUAL according to where you are, what you are doing, and who you are with.
We are shifting to a model of INSIGHT that is partly learner generated, and partly AI or MACHINE led: SIFTING, PRIORITISING, CONTEXTUALISING and SHARING increasingly moderated by, or indeed initiated by the TECHNOLOGY. This shift not only alters the mechanisms of INSIGHT, but also (potentially) ACCELERATES both LEARNING and CHANGE – an understanding of how we learn indicates that learning is not a smooth and linear process, but perhaps one more of FRACTURE and REVELATION at times. There are also significant impacts of this human – computer relationship with regards to RESILIENCE, DECISIONMAKING and the moderation of FAILURE, possibly through PHASEDCOLLAPSE or moderated comms.
We are supposedly moving to a model of EVIDENCEBASED design, and DATAINFORMED response, although quality, application, and capability in this emergent space are themselves variable.
At best, these (and other) shifts are evolving (or torturing) or maps of the landscape of learning so far that we may be forced, before long, to reclassify or categorise it.
Perhaps Learning shifts into a more dynamic and cultural space, more so than an abstract and disaggregated one?
Or arguably learning becomes more an output of PERFORMANCE, or an inherently bonded aspect of it.
Certainly much of our vocabulary of learning is outdated, many of our structures of Organisational learning are outdated, and indeed perhaps our capabilities in the design and delivery, support and measurement of learning are, themselves, outdated.
That would make sense: in my own work i would consider that we are at an evolutionary stage of significant change: some systems will be repurposed, whilst others will remain vestigial. Redundant but still present. What matter most at this stage is not success, but motion: experimentation and a comfort with our own uncertainty as we learn.
I’m starting to finalise some of the structure around my reworking/graffiti of my core work on learning: on the plus side, i feel that i am finding the edges of this work, but on the downside, i am unsure it will result in a traditional book. I’m quite excited to consider potential non linear or more dynamic publishing structures: anything from a wiki to a mosaic of videos. I have a sense that this is more a collection of images or essays than it is a ‘coherent’ body of work – or to put it another way, if i were to try to write it as a book i feel it would be huge, but what i want is something digestible, shorter, and very practical indeed.
I have a sense that this work will be better shared incomplete and fragmented, than complete but outdated or unwieldy.
From here i will probably move into writing some sections – to figure out ideas on format and practical application. For example: will this be a publication (i almost said ‘book’…) based around 100 questions, or tips, or ideas, or a reading list, or a series of experiments etc. Or some of all of the above.
Anyone familiar with my legacy work on Learning will recognise elements, but also quite easily identify the more recent images: i’ve been increasingly interested in economic models (currencies and marketplaces of learning), social and organisational contexts (hence structures of power, consequence, responsibility and control) as well as the familiar questions of evidence base and e.g. reward mechanisms. In terms of technology i am most interested in aggregating, consolidating, analytic, connective, sentiment and sense making, etc, less interested in infrastructure per se, which is a problem largely solved.
With this iteration of structure i’ve moved away from iThoughtsHD and back into illustrations, as i feel this discipline helps me to capture the idea on a page.
I should stress that this is very early stage work still: for the nerds, this is the fifth iteration of this structure in the last six months. I could continue to play with it forever, but with a non linear or more adaptable structure, i have given myself three months to actually ‘publish’ something. Whether it is a foundation, or a complete body of work, i do not yet know.
Coming back from two weeks holiday, i wanted to jump back into writing with a perfectly formed idea: instead, i have only this. A sketch so imperfect that i am loathe to share it. It’s a sketch of a learning leader, which tries, unfairly or not, to draw out some of the tensions that may exist within us (personally), or culturally/organisationally (ecosystem). I’ve focussed on four aspects: knowledge, capability, curiosity, and adaptability.
Knowledge is about the things we already know: essentially is means us, up to this point in time. All our learning, experience, imperfections and all. It may go without saying that today i generally believe that i am the best ‘me’ i can be, but when i look back in five years time, i will see naivety and laughable ignorance. Knowledge is both my current state and prison, until curiosity, need or pain breaks me free.
Capability sits alongside this: dependent upon what i know, i frame a perspective on what i need to do: i either learn that myself or, in an organisational context, established partner or vendor relationships to gain access to it. These first two components take place in a rather static space: what i know that i need to do, and my direct or rented capability to do it.
Curiosity is a catch all phrase for the space i explore beyond the edges of my own ignorance: so even in our spaces of certain knowledge we tend to see curiosity at the edges. Although it’s worth noting that curiosity per se is not an answer, but rather an expression of the limits of our current context. E.g just because i can see an aeroplane in the sky does not mean i can fly.
Adaptability is another byword, in this case for change, or the things we need to change, electively or by imposition. Also, our actual ability to change.
These bottom two factors – curiosity and adaptability are both limited – by our imagination and context, culture and insight. As well as a host of other factors. These things are easy to talk about, harder to actually achieve.
The sketched internal frame indicates that we may find comfort, risk, pain or reassurance in different sectors, which may drive our behaviours. Perhaps this sketch is different for each of us.
Anyway: as i say, an imperfect sketch. You may note that in my work around learning over the last six months i have slipped between spidergrams, illustrations, and flowcharts, all as part of an overriding rework or rephrasing of some of my core ideas and work on learning theory and design in a modern applied context. Unfortunately (for me, from a pride perspective, and any readers, from an experience one) this work is still fragmentary. Next up i will aim to draw in some of the newer disciplines and areas of focus: aspects such as data and analytics, organisational design in a more fluid world, measurement, complexity, and further questions around social collaboration and the new nature of knowledge. Hold on tight as it may get more untidy before i find a path.
I stumbled back across my illustrations for the Learning Science Guidebook today, and experienced two feelings in rapid succession.
Firstly, i thought that some of the work actually looked quite good, and felt a renewed urge to get it out there. Then the second thought hit me: a reminder of why i have not published it yet: because the thread that holds it together still eludes me.
I abandoned this work around a year ago, overtaken by excitement with Quiet Leadership (which, by contrast, was easy to write): time has given me a better perspective. Last year i felt overwhelmed that i was not bright enough to ‘think’ my way out of the challenge, this year i feel confident i can read my way out of it: it’s not that the book is bad, it’s just that i have more to learn before i can tell the story.
And that’s ok: part of #WorkingOutLoud, or indeed our broader leadership and practice, is to always ask whether we will use our own uncertainty, failure, doubt, or ignorance, as a shield, or a sword.
To use my own ignorance as a shield would be comforting, but ultimately i will just be hiding behind it. To use it as a sword is to use the sharp edge of my ignorance to cut into the dark. To be unafraid to use it to learn.
There is no shame in that: i would rather never publish this work, but feel that i am gaining better understanding myself, than publish it as an act of pride. Perhaps that is a feature of age.
I already have fifteen books, and i am reasonably comfortable that some are better than others. If you ask me which, i will be ok to tell you. I’ve built my raft, but it’s a long way from a boat.
Some things just take time, and even though this work is incomplete as a body, it still helps me in my practice: the thinking that we do stays with us and sometimes pops up in other and unexpected places or ways.
For me it is a reminder to welcome and even celebrate our own ignorance, especially if we use it as a sword.
If Organisations describe their cultural transformation as a journey of 10,000 steps, then Quiet Leadership is the first three of those, but the ones that you take today. Quiet Leadership is a model of leadership through the smallest of actions, but the actions that impact on those people closest to you, or deepest in the shadows.
This body of work describes nothing large, dramatic, or revolutionary: instead it is a gentle reflection on those forces that act upon us hour by hour, day by day.
The humility with which we act, the shadows that we each cast, the kindness we experience, the fairness that surrounds us, and our individual ability to reflect and correct our course or actions as we go.
But it is about how, through our individual action, we create space and connection for those around us to lead quietly too: to create culture at scale through small acts of reflection.
Some things are concrete, whilst others are wisps of ideas: confusion may arise when we confuse the two. One reason for this confusion is the elasticity of the language that we use to describe things. Some words mean a thing, whilst others mean a space that a thing may exist within!
Take the word ‘Chair’: most of us would agree that it is a thing that you sit on. Mostly they have four legs, although three will suffice. Or occasionally two. But you definitely sit upon it. There is a core concept of a ‘chair’ that we can probably all agree on, and hence the word suffices in day to day use. But what about the table: if i sit on it, does that make it a chair? Some people may say yes, others would say no. And probably no amount of logic will change either of our minds.
A table is at least a piece of furniture: what about a grassy forest knoll: if i sit on that, is it a chair? Or is the ground simply something that chairs (or tables) may sit upon? You can carry pretty much any concept to absurdity.
Closer to our Organisational homes, the notion of a radial concept may help us to understand forces like fairness, trust, or power. They are used often as if they are a ‘thing’ (like a chair), and yet in practice, they are often more like tables or grassy knolls: subsets of a shared reality that make perfect sense to me (because i’m sat upon it).
The elasticity of understanding may sound like a bad thing, and yet in many ways it’s a feature of language and meaning that allows us to operate efficiently (or indeed, operate at all). Yes: chairs may be covered in velvet or crocodile skin, have three legs or six and may indeed be made out of logs on the forest floor, but for all practical purposes, if i offer you a chair, you do at least expect to be able to sit on it.
The trick may be for us to understand, to diagnose, when we are operating within a shared conceptual understanding, or when we are operating within the outer layers, where our shared view may be incomplete.
Radial understanding may be why, within Organisations that articulate a common language of culture, in reality we see widely divergent expression: they are all ‘describing their chair’, and yet in different, regionalised, divergent versions of the truth. All of which are elastically connected to the broadcast central concept.
This is very early stage #WorkingOutLoud as i conduct the initial research for the book on ‘Experimenting Organisations’. So early stage that it may barely be worth reading, but i am finding it useful to rapidly iterate the structure of my thinking in service of finding something that ‘works’. This illustration is the fourth draft, the first one worth sharing, and illustrates an idealised ‘experimenting’ process. Maybe… i’ll talk you through the narrative, with the caveat that i know how incomplete it is.
I start with the MOTIVATION to experiment: are we experimenting around pain points, or native curiosity. Need or desire. I feel that an Organisation that experiments well will understand it’s own motivation, and potentially ensure that it experiments broadly, as well as in depth.
Related to this, but shown separately for now, is the CONTEXT of the experiment: part of the flow of work, as an exceptional activity, within a dedicated unit, or distributed broadly around the Organisation. This relates to cultural factors and ties back to motivation.
Finally, i added BIAS as a conditional factor: do we have an understanding/narrative around how our current context and understanding biases what we seek to explore. E.g. a bank, with expertise in current regulation and shared product categories may need to articulate it’s own bias as to the shape of future innovation and market.
In my conversation so far, DEFINITION is one of the variable factors: a small number of Organisations formally define experiments in a standardised structure, whilst a larger number devolve it, or are happy with ad hoc structure, at least in the early stages.
As a side note here: at which point we impose structure and oversight is again a broad variable. Some impose it from the start, others when it starts to impact budget or scale, and yet others never standardise structure or even reporting.
I’ve added two other elements here: LEARNING OUTCOMES, and GOVERNANCE. Learning Outcomes i am less sure about, because it restricts us to purposeful learning (more so than just ‘wading in’), but in an Organisational context, it feels important. Some of the more structured organisations i have spoken to tend to formally define learning objectives, and none reported this as arduous. Knowing what you hope to learn: arguably this box could have related to HYPOTHESIS, but it’s worth noting that (contrary to a more scientific approach) some Organisations at least never formalise a hypothesis, sometimes settling instead for Design Questions alone – or Objectives they hope to explore. Pedants can argue as to whether this truly counts as an experiment, but i am tending towards a view that if it is inductive, or deductive, reasoning at heart, it counts.
ACTIVITY is self explanatory: and to state the obvious, Organisations that experiment are pretty good at actually getting into action! It may be worth mentioning that there are plenty of Organisations that never actually get to the start line, or never do so at scale. They run small numbers of high profile experiments, but largely lack capability to rapidly experiment dozens of times. I suspect because culture constrains it.
I have found interesting in the interviews that some Organisations have very clear approaches to ESCALATION. Not simply when things go wrong, but often when they feel analysis can be stronger if a broader perspective is taken, or that learning will be more useful if carried higher and spread more widely.
Similarly, defining explicit STOP CONDITIONS may be a sign of maturity around experimentation: immature approaches see Organisations scaring themselves when the unexpected occurs – almost a defining feature of experimentation at scale and speed!
SENSE MAKING and ANALYSIS are pretty obvious, although again there is clear differentiation between those Organisations that see these as specific, or indeed certifiable, skills, and those that rely on intuition alone.
Again, a small number of Organisations describe structured approaches to sharing: less mature ones take divergent and intuitive approaches. So potentially both types of Organisation learn from experiments, but in one the learning has the potential to be global/systemic, whilst in the other it is more likely to remain tacit and tribal.
Finally: INTERCONNECTION is about where the capability sits to conduct the meta analysis across a range of experiments. Almost a story of how we find the needle in the haystack: time, expertise, resource, are all important here. LOOPING is simply a matter of good practice; every time you complete an experiment, your last sentence of the story should be ‘and this is where i will look next’.
I will continue to iterate and share this work as part of #WorkingOutLoud. As a reminder, the book on ‘Organisations that Experiment’ will be based around case studies, alongside whatever frameworks i can conjure up. I intend to do the primary research through this year, and publish next summer.
Global warming presents us with the threat of flooding: as the icecaps melt, the water levels rise around the world, with coastal cities facing ruin. The concept is easy enough to understand: as the ice melts, the sea rises, much as a tap fills a bath. Except that sea level rise does not quite work like this. The meltwater does not evenly flow into every harbour and bay: instead the impact is far worse in some places than others.
One reason for this is gravity: the polar ice caps are so vast that they have a gravity all of their own, literally ‘holding’ water close to them. As the icecaps diminish in mass, so too does their gravity.
I found myself wondering yesterday if ideas are much the same: so vast that they exert a force upon us that keeps us close, and yet as they melt, they suddenly turn to nothing, and belief flows away from them.
As you are stood upon the ice, everything may seem fine, right up until the point that your feet get wet.