Except not me. In fact, i would rather it was me. But it’s not. It’s my friends. And i’m dreading every one.

Me Too

The last few weeks have seen the explosion of the Weinstein story: allegations of sexual harassment, and worse. An expanding narrative of the thing that everyone apparently knew: predatory men holding the power, exploiting young women. Assaulting them. Normalised abuse. Deeply unpleasant, but somewhat abstract. News on the television about a bad man, or bad men.

Until a few days ago: one of my friends posted a Facebook post, starting #MeToo. It was the start of an avalanche. Social media creates a democratised storytelling space, and social stories act as aggregating and amplifying mechanisms. Suddenly everyone can find a voice, and suddenly everyone does.

#MeToo is a mechanism for women to say that they too have been sexually assaulted or abused. But no longer any abstract woman. Women that i know. My best friends. And i’m furious about it. I’m furious about the men who did it. And i’m furious about my reaction to it.

I’ve recently been exploring aggregated cultural failure, looking at the notion that the action of an individual is important, but it’s the wider culture (of which i am a part) that permits the toxic behaviour to perpetuate. The fault of our normalised inequality is, in some sense, me.

My own reactions are predictable, and futile: when someone assaults your friend, you want to punch them on the nose. But when you see many of your friends saying the same thing, you realise that the challenge is endemic, and cultural, not isolated and specific.

There’s an article on the BBC website today, asking ‘when does flirting turn into sexual harassment?’. Possibly if you need to ask the question, we have a wider cultural issue.

The person who says #MeToo, however we feel about them, is simply a symbol of a wider, endemic, hidden problem. A cultural problem. The detestable behaviour of one individual, yes, but the wider culture that permits, condones, and perpetuates it.

For every story we hear, for everyone who says #MeToo, there are doubtless a hundred others who fear to share that story. This is a problem of the silent majority: those who are victims, and those who are silent observers.

I realise my empathy, sympathy, and anger, are of little use unless i add my action. But it needs to be meaningful action, not simply pseudo macho protestations of fictional or aspirational action. Because this is problem that won’t be solved by any number of punches on the nose. It’s a problem of power, normalised inequality, and, at heart, cultural normalisation and acceptance.

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The Scale of Social Systems: Tribes, and Tribes of Tribes

Formal systems scale forever: just add more teams, more hierarchy, more structure. Draw more lines. The largest organisations in the world are triumphs of formal structure: executive teams, functional teams, engineering teams, logistics and legal teams, distribution networks, innovation centres, and facilities management to keep the toilets clean. By contrast, Social Systems fragment: they can be aggregated at scale, as, for example, when we define a country, or a community, but their mechanism of scale is different.


If formal systems scale in one dimension (and they do: there is always a concrete link between one aspect and another), social systems scale in many: they are concurrently multi-layered, with the complexity that some layers contradict one another. They also scale in a granular aspect: whilst formal systems are linear, social ones are granular, meaning that the aggregated whole is made up of coherent smaller units. Units of bonded trust, pride, purpose, and intent. Tribes.

The Landscape of Trust is illuminating aspects of this: trust flows more easily horizontally than vertically, it’s held in strong social ties, and it probably includes aspects of cultural and ethnic conformity (meaning we are more likely to make new bonds that conform to existing ones: in other words, we grow our communities of strong social ties broadly within a frame that we know). So our primary tribe will have a certain uniformity, and that uniformity will likely colour which other tribes we engage within. The effects of conformity are pervasive.

How Trust Fails

One aspect i explore in Social Leadership is to build a broader understanding of our communities: which ones we should join, which we should leave, and which we should create afresh. But to understand that, we have to understand the mechanisms of joining, the notion of credentialing, and social acceptance. It’s clearly very different to join a cold community than a warm one: in this instance ‘cold’, meaning one where we have no first or second degree existing trusted connections, and ‘warm’ being a community where we do.

To recap some of the Trust work: a first degree of trust is an existing strong social tie, based on shared experience, values, and purpose. A second degree of trust is someone outside your network, but with a shared first degree connection, who effectively pre-credentials you to that community.

It’s easier to join these warm communities, but because of the nature (and bias) within our trust networks, we may carry that bias forward into a broader range of communities: so which we increase the volume of our connections, we don’t necessarily increase the diversity of views. Confirmation bias shows us this: more does not mean broader. It may mean a stronger confirmation of what we already have.

Much of my work at the moment is about understanding the complex and dynamic social systems that we exist within. Understanding how we form tribes, and then collective tribes of tribes is part of this exploration, and forgive my language but i am #WorkingOutLoud and exploring this myself. Specifically, the Socially Dynamic Organisation will have more broadly interconnected, diverse networks of strong social ties and trust. It will be cross connected, not simply hierarchically connected. That’s the context for this: if ‘more’ does not equal ‘more diverse’, then we will have to refine our skills at network building ever further, to build out more ‘cold’ connections, not simply warm and pre-credentialed ones. Indeed, understanding credentialing will become ever more important, something that probably sits within Social Capital in the NET model.

The NET Model of Social Leadership

One particularly fascinating aspect of ‘trust’ in these systems is the way it flows through first and second degree connections: if someone we mutually hold trust in introduces us, we may come with a pre-credentialed type of trust. So the flow of trust beyond our immediate tribe is not abstract of the current tribe, but rather may be preconditioned by it: this may reinforce the formation of broadly conformist meta communities, because we are unified within first and second degree trust networks.

There is an interesting exercise you can do to explore the effects of familiarity and confirmation bias: if you have lived somewhere a long time, you may think you know the area well, but walk out of your door, and follow a ‘left’, ‘right’ path: take first left, then first right, then first left, and so on. See how long it takes before you walk a street you don’t know.

When we move somewhere, we walk high level routes, setting out the broad sweep of geography, the high level relationship between ‘bus station’, ‘house’, and ‘restaurant’, and we fill in several alternative routes, but we don’t fill in every single route: we don’t need to, and our brains tend towards functional knowledge rather than expert. If you know how to get to the shops, there is no real benefit to committing every conceivable permutation to memory. So we think that we ‘know’ a place, but may just know one interpretation.

Communities are like that: confirmation bias shows us that people consistently overestimate the number of people that they know within a given community: because we only know the people who walk the same routes that we do.

Social Leadership 100 - Stories

Social Leadership is about understanding the broader map: engaging directly not simply in communities of conformity, but communities of difference. To understand the Socially Dynamic Organisation, we need to understand how social systems operate, and how they scale.

All organisations have social systems: when i talk about creating a Socially Dynamic Organisation, we are not undertaking the task of building it. Rather, we are undertaking the task of listening to it, of nurturing it, of engaging with it. The Socially Dynamic Organisation is not stronger because it grows a new capability, but rather because it manages to gain value from existing, but disconnected, capability.

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The Post Hoc Rationalisation Fallacy

I suspect it’s true that many organisations are highly successful almost despite everything that they do in the formal space to make themselves so. They are successful not because of hierarchy, rules, systems, or control, but rather because they are full of people who strive hard to make them so. People who collectivise into tightly bonded tribal units, exist within a network of trust and social consequence, and who have found pride in what they do. The system is successful in ways that it does not understand, but it seeks to understand it’s own success in visible spaces it understands well. And it convinces itself that this is the full picture.

The post hoc rationalisation of success

The formal system keeps going, not simply because it’s too stubborn to change, but partly because it engages in a type of post hoc rationalisation: we try to be successful, we see some success, therefore, everything we did to make us successful has worked. There is an assumption of cause that is simply not justified. And where measurement occurs, it’s often a measure of what’s easy to measure, rather than a measure of what really counts.

Perhaps it’s useful to think of ‘success’ in two ways: a formal understanding of the challenge, and a tacit capability embedded within the organisation. With formal learning, and rules based systems, you can achieve the former, but the latter, which is where true capability and momentum sits, requires us to accept that there is a second layer, a social aspect of the organisation that lies beyond that which we can easily see and measure, or at least can see and measure in a meaningful way.

I prefer to think of it like this: within the formal system, using everything at our disposal, we can create a scaffolding of knowledge, guidance, support, and space for experimentation, but we typically can’t ‘create’ capability or excellence. We can only create the space in which learning and effectiveness emerge.

Dynamic Tension

Within the tightly interwoven, tribal, and invisible social aspects of the organisation, at an individual, and collective level, we find true capability.

Our role, within the formal system should not be to rationalise our own brilliance, which almost implicitly reduces the role of community to servant, blindly following orders, but rather that of facilitator, enabler, grateful gatekeeper. Our formal roles should be ones of humility, not blind pride, or self congratulatory comfort.

Our formal leaders need to build their Social Leadership: reputation based authority, beyond the visible and controlled system. And our organisational structures should recognise capability outside the hierarchy, and be willing to recognise and thank it for what it achieves.

The Socially Dynamic Organisation will have this: a diversified strength of fantastic and adaptable formal systems, strong Social Leadership at every level, and a humility of action and intent, a recognition that our organisation should be nurtured as much as controlled, enabled as much as governed.

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Story Sharing: The Perils of Power

As organisations try to harness the power of communities, there is a real risk that they kill them. Well meaning, well intentioned, organisations, but ones who carry existing power dynamics into social spaces. I thought i’d try to illustrate that today, with an example of a learning community, and i’ll tie it into some other recent work on the projection and flow of trust (trust being a dominant force in social spaces).

Story Sharing and Co-Creative Dynamics

Once a learning community is coherent (with shared values and purpose), the members can be considered ‘in group’. I explored this dynamic recently, as an early stage #WorkingOutLoud post on group formation and the projection of trust. Within this coherent community, there is low social consequence, high permission to explore, clear remit to learn: it’s a learning space.

The Projection and Failure of Trust

Beyond this, we have a new feature of ‘near group’. The community will project trust a certain distance into this community, and will selectively share stories outwards.

How Trust Fails

Beyond that again, is ‘out group’: these are people who we may be linked to in a formal structure, but who fall outside of our social networks, outside our tribal structures. This is where we experience high dominance of formal authority, high consequence, low permission to dissent, low permission to fail.

We will share different stories in each of these three spaces: vulnerable stories internally, reflective stories may reach to near group, and perfected stories into formal spaces.

Where this becomes relevant is where aspects of the formal structure impose themselves into the coherent social spaces: much as i described earlier this week, the arrival of ‘strangers’ can damage the social dynamic, even knock it out to be incoherent again. We can kill the community, or more likely, drive the conversation out of earshot.

Story Listening

The people interloping into the social space are not bad people trying to wreck it, but typically good people who are curious about it, but that curiosity can kill it. A better approach is to curate storytelling channels, and the best behaviour for formal leaders is to develop their story listening skills, so that they gain a permission to be ‘near group’, and the community will choose to selectively share their story.

As with any aspect of the Social organisation, this is a delicate space: formal hierarchies tend to act as if they own it, and social groups have low permission to reject their advances. Which is why we need Social Leadership: reputation based authority that can be carried beyond the reach of formal power alone

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Aggregated Cultural Failure

This sketch is imperfect, but i’m trying to find a way to represent the aggregated effects of culture: how is it that cultures fail, when the individuals within them cannot all desire that failed outcome. It’s an exploration of the strange cultural effects of silent conformity, confirmation bias, and rifts in trust. Throughout this piece, i’ll reference a number of other pieces of early stage writing that may cast light on these effects, all part of a wider exploration of how our complex, dynamic, and opaque social systems operate.

Aggregated Cultural Failure

Individually, we have a moral compass, but it does not point to magnetic north: it’s influenced by our socio-cultural experiences, by our normalised views (on, for example, gender roles, wealth inequality, faith, etc), and, at times, it’s influenced by pragmatism and even aspiration. Broadly though, systems tend to be full of well intentioned individuals, even if their understanding of ‘well intentioned’ may vary. And yet systems at scale tolerate toxic behaviours. It’s that feature that i’m primarily interested in: how do high functioning systems tolerate this toxicity?

Ultimately, whilst the tolerance is held at a local level, it’s concurrently held at a community level, and it’s this tension that may let us understand the failure, because the pressures on each level are different. The Landscape of Trust work is influencing me here: people seem to rationally hold multiple, concurrent, and conflicting, versions of the truth, and we do so by holding it in different contexts. For example, i trust you in one context, but in another, when you are ‘wearing a formal hat’, i do not. I rationalise the two conflicting views (i trust you, and i don’t trust you) through projected context.

Landscape of Trust - Triangle of Trust

If i work in a team, where i see low level bullying, i have to consider the four elements of my ‘Triangle of Trust’, my individual values, my intention, my actions, and the impact i have. I may make a pragmatic decision to ignore it, i may take actions that prove ineffective to counter it, i may take actions that have no effect, or i may effectively address the issue. None of those outcomes are guaranteed, because cultural effects are cumulative, caused by actions and intent, but not determined in a direct correlation with either.

In other words, i may see bullying, it’s out of alignment with my values, so i intend to take action. I take action, but the outcome is not that the bullying stops. Because my intention, and even my action, are not deterministic of a social outcome: i may stop one particular instance of bullying, but i won’t make bullying something of the past at an aggregated cultural level. That’s why we see endemic bullying in the NHS, or some police forces: it’s an aggregated cultural artefact, not a deterministic relationship. It’s ‘many to many’, not ‘one to one’, or even ‘one to many’.

The real challenge in the example above is not specifically my intent and action (although both are important), but rather the wider cultural ecosystem in which those actions take place, and the way that others respond. Culture is a co-created artefact of aggregated group actions, so whilst i influence it, a lot of other people influence it more, because it’s a democracy where each action counts equally. That’s why leaders can’t eliminate bullying alone. And neither can the person being bullied (again, remember, we may be able to address a single instance, but not the pervading toxic landscape).

The Projection and Failure of Trust

In this recent work on ‘the projection and failure of trust’, i explored how ‘in group’ behaviours may perpetuate cultural failing, because the social consequence of standing up is that you stand out. I’ve also been looking at that, in a different context, in some other work on the ‘#TakeAKnee’ movement, the NFL protests against social injustice (or the imposition of fake patriotism, if you listen to the other view).

Culture is a perverse feature: the NHS has a challenge with bullying, but it’s full of amazing people who would never consider themselves bullies. How can this possibly happen? Within the formal structure, we typically take the view that the problem is the bully, but in a socially dynamic frame, we may take the view that the issue is the overall community that tolerates, implicitly, the bully.

This gives a different view of intervention: sure, we have to put the bully in the cross hairs, but not in isolation. We can shoot as many as we like, without draining the swamp. Instead, the way to inoculate against bullying is probably to build a culture where bullying is unthinkable, and where there is high social, as well as formal, consequence.

When trust fails, it doesn’t fail universally, like the tide going out, but rather fails in specific, often people centred, ways. I hypothesise that this is because it’s not held in a global structure, but rather in a diversified network of social ties, strong ties, that are what is directly impacted by the failure. So organisations grow in linear, one dimensional, visible structures, whilst trust scales in fragmented, tribal, invisible, multi layered, conflicting, dynamic, and pragmatic ways, which cross through the formal system. No wonder it’s hard to understand or influence…

Typical organisational approaches to toxicity are to counter it with rules, but rules are operating in the wrong space. You can probably use rules to pick off the perpetrator, but you can’t use rules to influence culture, because culture operates in a different space.

To really affect cultural change, we have to understand the interplay of rules and forces that permit, exonerate, or damp down, individual behaviour: social consequence, social authority, social capital, trust, pride, fear, and so on. And, on top of that, we have to understand how they aggregate into dominant cultural effect: so we have to look at forces that exert upon the system, but also as system wide effects. Culture is felt as a system wide effect, which, coincidentally, is why you can’t really change it with a targeted solution of, e.g., a leadership programme. Because it’s not the leaders who are fully to blame: it’s an aggregated blame for an aggregated problem.

Incidentally, i have focused on negative cultural effects, but i think it’s true of positive ones too: you can’t mitigate for innovation, or even fairness, because both are emergent features at scale of a high functioning system.

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Commuter Communities

I spend a lot of time on trains. As transport goes, trains are my favourite: mountainous Swiss railways, trundling and erratic rural English ones, the wonderful grandeur and quaintly outdated American system, they all give you both function and aesthetic: when you get bored of your book, the endless view rolls by, with a backdrop of ever changing characters to add flavour to the journey.

Commuter Communities

My local station is a 20 minute walk away, a typical Victorian relic, staffed these days by one person, part time, in a peak hours ticket office, although his days are surely numbered as my only interaction is to wish him good morning as i collect my mobile purchased ticket from a machine. But we do have a coffee shop.

Or, rather, we have a coffee van. This is a story about community, the community that has emerged around coffee. And if you’re looking for a foundation of community, coffee is as good a place to start as any.

A couple of years go, a blue minivan turned up one morning, with a coffee machine in the back, and a cheerful soul offering to sell you some vital morning refreshment. Today, the blue van is still there, but decorated now with stickers, and pasted on coins and notes from around the world. There’s an awning on the back, seats, a table of snacks, community notices, and, of course, a community.

There’s the coffee man himself, plus his partner, with an infectious laugh, and ever present smile. There is the Polish man, who talks to me about the importance of stout shoes, and tales of long winters, working on a rig. There’s the man who will become a father any day now, and the woman who always puts sugar in her green tea. There is a collection of characters. There is a community.

I am an interloper: sometimes i travel once a week, but often it will be a month or two between visits, and yet he invariably remembers my ‘usual’ order, and takes pride in looking down the line and reciting his anticipated trade, “black americano, latte one sugar, tea, tea, hot chocolate”.

There are many types of community: this one is a transient affair. Nobody lives here, nobody works here, we just all pass through. Even the van is gone by lunchtime. But there is a shared schedule, a shared routine, and as we take an ethnographic stance, to understand the role and purpose of communities, that shared experience must be something to stick a pin in.

There is something about charisma, or possibly i could use the Social Capital language of the Social Leadership work: possibly there needs to be a nascent effort and willingness to reach out, to make contact. This early momentum of communities is an important one: organisations need to shift the mindset away from ‘control’, towards enablement and facilitation.

Rituals are also important: both the meta rituals of wider culture (the morning coffee), but also localised, conversational, and gifting aspects of culture. This morning i was given the coffee to take onto the platform to give to the Guard. So i was actively pulled into what is clearly a routine, and given a task to fulfil, a role to play, no different than if i’d be cast in a play.

This is actually important from a whole Performance perspective: the Guard took the coffee, precisely because i was taking a known and assumed role. If i was simply a stranger, with no contextualising frame of ‘morning coffee’, and no known context of the coffee van, he would not have taken (or certainly not have drunk) the drink.

I remember last time i was in Austin, on a blisteringly hot day, out for a walk, when i walked past a food truck selling milkshakes: someone from the truck grabbed me and gave me a drink, saying that it was spare, and free, but i didn’t drink it. I felt suspicious precisely because they fractured the known script of ‘pay for drink’.

There is an interesting aspect of the coffee van culture that it is oppositional, much like Donald Trump, in it’s application of power: there is a constant dialogue against ‘the powers’, be it the council, or the railway company, even though at a local level, relationships with the Guard are clearly great. The unifying power of dissent is another notable feature of community coherence and sustainability, perhaps not all communities, but certainly some. And some invent an enemy where no true power exists.

Yesterday i shared the experience of my niece, who explained how a community was killed off by new members joining. Possibly ‘transient’ cultures are inherently more resilient, as they shape the time bound, location situated, context, and can recruit and contextualise new players into pre-existing, established, and understood roles.

The Social Age is a time of massive, interconnected, radically complex, co-dependent communities, held within a lose structure of formal and social systems. One of our core competencies as both individuals, and organisations, must surely be to understand the underlying dynamics, to be able to create the conditions for community, and to thrive within such spaces. Perhaps coffee will help.

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My niece described her Guides group to me at the weekend: she talked about how it had been small, and had high levels of engagement, but that recently it had grown in size, and that something had been lost. More people did not mean a more active, engaged, and friendly community. In fact, it meant the opposite.

The Projection and Failure of Trust

Why would this be? Are more people not better? Possibly two key factors come into play: the initial group formed in one go, so they had shared experience, building shared values, whilst the newcomers entered a coherent community, so experienced high social consequence for engagement. I’m visualising this through two key pieces of writing about ‘trust’ that i’ve shared recently.

The very coherence of the initial group may have led to the lack of engagement from the new group, whilst the presence of the new group disrupted the trusted space of the existing one. The result: constraint, stagnation, and possibly the disruption of death fo a community. Or possibly the conversation just moved elsewhere.

I’m finding the investigation, into the Landscape of Trust, as well as the wider dynamics of socially connected systems, to be fascinating. I doubt we can model or predict the behaviour of complex, multi dimensional, social systems. But we can consider the conditions into which they may emerge, and the methods by which we can help them to thrive. So we can consider now how we can own and control them, but rather how we can enable them, and facilitate them to thrive. And that will involve learning how they form, are shaped, or destroyed.

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