Shadows of Thought

I was searching for an image yesterday: i could see it in my head, and knew roughly when i’d drawn it, but could not quite find it. My keyword searches through the blog brought up a succession of progressively older articles, none of which contained what i was after. It was a reminded that image search is still a relatively inefficient feature of the system (as well as of my inefficient memory).

But what it did allow me to do was to take a tour of older thoughts: back through iterations of my successive truths, back into the origin of ideas.

#WorkingOutLoud is a methodology whereby i share my evolving understanding and (often) imperfect thinking, which includes my illustrations, which are all sketched, to reflect their impermanence.

I’m always struck by how some older illustrations still seem fresh to me, whilst others seem outdated or even forgotten. And the same is true of the articles within which they are held.

Our beliefs, our truths, are constructed to suit our understanding today. Based upon, inspired by, constrained or formed by, the things that came before.

This is partly why reading, watching, listening, meeting, reaching out to new people and new ideas is so important: to pollute, corrode, and fracture our certainty, to give us the disturbance and impetus to redraw and refine our thought.

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The Web

When we consider the Socially Dynamic Organisation, the notion of a ‘web’ of connection is easy to visualise, but probably incorrect. The Social structure of the Organisations is lumpy, clumped into trust bonded units, tribes, each of which may form a cluster within the network.

Whilst the formal structure is one dimensional, and relatively fixed, at least hour by hour, the social one is not: it is both fluid and multi dimensional.

This may give us a vision of a series of lumpy tribal structures, which are, in turn, bonded, perhaps through single points of connection, but this too is unlikely to be correct.

The points of bonding are not neutral, like threads, but rather magnetic, more likely to be connected into similar types of community. So some of the tribal structures may be closely bonded, and others, which co-exist alongside them, may lack connection at all.

This is part of what we seek to address in the Socially Dynamic Organisation: not simply more of the same connection, but rather an interconnection, which may require us to move between spaces of difference and dissent, or find ways to seek out new connection outside our normal community.

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Extending Capability

I had dinner with a friend last night, a climber, who described how her group would use a drone to scout out new climbing routes. They would use the drone to extend their capability: after trekking through snow, through undergrowth, off the well worn tracks, the drone allows them to reach further, to see the landscape through a different perspective.

I find this interesting as the people who built the drone would not have had this specific usage in mind when they built it: instead, they created a platform, with robust sensing capability, that can easily be repurposed to need.

You could use it to take video of your garden party, to film your new car, volleyball on the beach, or to inspect the storm damage on your roof.

The drone extends our reach.

It reminded me about the difference between generic and specific capability, and the ways that we seek to gain or develop these within Organisations, as well as the relative risks of each.

Specific capability relates to known challenges and existing needs: it allows us to be efficient, to optimise, to drive consistency and conformity. Generic capability is part of a platform that can be repurposed. We may not know how. And we may need both.

It’s reasonably easy to understand how we build specific capability, and perhaps more importantly it’s easy to measure it. Generic capability is harder to conceptualise (although easy to talk about).

For starters: what ingredients do we need within that generic pool? 

For me, this question reflects a background challenge for Organisations: to what extent do they seek to control?

A legacy of the Industrial Organisation is an innate sense that ‘we’ need to control ‘them’. That the Organisation owns the knowledge, the ingredients and the recipe.

And anyway: how would you build Generic capability?

I see this playing out this week at the ATD conference, as i walk through the sessions, and through the Expo: partly a space of consistency and control, partly a conversation focussed on creating space and unlocking potential. A Dynamic Tension.

But it’s worth thinking back to the climbers: a community using tools to serve purpose. Nobody told them what to do, and yet they did it, and perform better as a result.

Consider how that operates within your own Organisation: to what extent can people claim resource, tools, space, power, opportunity. And to what extent are they controlled?

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The world is changing, yet again. It’s almost like it turns in circles. We have started to convene, back within ‘real’ spaces for ‘real’ conversations.

And yet i do not want comfort.

When we come together i do not want to familiarity of old ideas, but rather the friction and fear of new ones.

I do not want an answer nor a story set in stone, but rather the ability to discuss, debate, to learn and to share.

I do not want safety, but rather uncertainty and the stumbling narrative of finding new vocabulary with which to shape and share new thinking.

I feel lucky to be ‘coming together’, but the point of it, for me, is to quest forward, not through dogmatic repetition, nor mindlessly waiting for insight to be dropped, but rather to explore, or possibly to create, the new.

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Building Culture

I’m off to Orlando today for the ATD Conference next week, where i’m sharing a session on ‘Building Culture’ with my friends over at Novartis. As i prepare for the session (it’s a long flight) i find myself thinking about that notion, about ‘building culture’ – to wonder what you build it with, what holds it together, and perhaps most importantly, who has to carry all the bricks.

I tend towards the view that Culture is co-created in the moment, through the actions of every individual, and held within both formal, and social, broader narratives. Under this view there are harder threads or foundations, but with broad variability of experience. Hard and soft effects.

Culture operates both at a cognitive level – what we think and how that thinking impacts us – at the behavioural level – what we do and permit others to do – at the collective level – what is acceptable to say or not to say – and even at the physical level of where we work, how we work, and the infrastructure that supports the work.

So culture is complex.

Perhaps not a ‘thing’ so much as an ‘experience’. And not ‘fluid’ so much as ‘flexible’.

It’s naive to imagine that we can fully ‘create’ or ‘control’ a culture, and yet equally if we are within it then we do influence it, both at a personal, and also structural level (if we use our role to buy a building, then people will inhabit that building and it will influence culture).

The ‘bricks’ of culture are perhaps ideas, held in stories, governed by behaviours, backstopped by rules, permeating through opportunity, fractured by dogma, limited by legacy, and held in belief.

The glue: possibly forces like trust and belief, perhaps need and fear, maybe belonging too.

Funnily enough, exactly the same forces as those that may limit or constrain it – ‘culture’ is as much the whole ecosystem as the corner of it that you enjoy.

Probably ‘cultures’ is a better term, layers of culture, some local and hidden, some global and hidden, others visible and odd shaped, and maybe one meta-narrative, one global thing we call ‘culture’. Perhaps, if the sub cultures hold enough commonality, that global feature is recognisable.

The journey to ‘build’ or ‘evolve’ culture is not hopeless, but it is hard, especially if our mindset is too rigid. I would imagine that the best efforts are those that create space for the building to happen, not those that seek to impose a structure upon the landscape.

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The Role of Women

We are at a stage, with two young children, where we are asked what our roles will be going forward. Who will be working, and who will be picking the children up from nursery, who will be ‘at home’ and who is ‘earning’, who will provide ‘daycare’ and who will do the laundry. As a family, we do our best to navigate this, as a team.

Alongside these domestic conversations, we have conversations about work, about career, about opportunity and desire. Work is important for us all, but navigating a career is a different experience for us both.

The ground that we walk over is uneven, and the reality is that for me there are fewer mountains to climb, or gates locked shut on my path.

I went to one of my favourite coffee shops the other day, where i was cheerfully greeted by the guy that runs it, who asked if it was a ‘daddy daycare’ day, because i had our daughter in the sling on my chest. He is a parent himself, and runs a successful business, which he started up in the midst of the pandemic, and i’m sure he and his partner have navigated these conversations themselves. But i’m equally sure that nobody asks my partner is she is ‘mama daycare’, because, as i said, the ground for us is uneven.

It’s not just the ground, but our perception of it. Whenever people ask me about family, i’m rather bemused. I just explain what we do, how we do it, and a kind of vague belief that everything will be ok. Meanwhile my partner is expected to ‘have a conversation with HR’ about her ‘plans to get back to work’ (as parenting does not count as ‘work’).

In parallel with those conversations are the ones about career – what time do we want to spend with the children, what time do we want to travel, what time do we want to study, and so on. Here, again, the ground is uneven. For both children i took time off work, but i did so in a different context: nobody talked about what i was allowed to do, and i don’t think anyone particularly judged me for it.

I spoke to a friend recently who explained, almost embarrassed, that she had wanted to go back to full time work as soon as possible, and that it was important to her to have her career on track. I could almost hear defiance in her voice. Whilst i had not needed to be defiant. I had not even considered it. i had no fear of judgement nor even awareness that judgement was on the table.

We talk about the roles that we play, and one simple narrative is that they are changing: that men and women can take equal roles in family life, that men and women can have equal opportunity in their careers, and that men and women can make these decisions as active choices. But in reality, this is typically not so. The context of our decision making is different, the pressures we are under to conform to certain norms are different, and the judgement on our actions varies too.

Not specifically because anyone wants this to be the case, but perhaps because collectively we have not made it not be the case.

There are simple aspects of language that embed this: we live near a fire station, and have always been excited to see the fire fighters out practicing. That is the language that we use: Fire Fighters, and that is the language that my son uses too. Until last week, when he insisted that he was a Fireman. When i corrected him, he got very angry and upset. He shouted at me that at Nursery they were playing Firemen.

These are the dominant narratives of our language: when i grew up, it was firemen. But as i looked out of my window last night, there were two female Fire Fighters practicing, and three male Fire Fighters. It’s no surprise that he is conforming to a narrative: there is good evidence that gendered language and notions of role are embedded by age three.

I am aware that even writing about the language that we choose to use in our own family may condemn us to be judged, for ‘trying to be right’ or trying to be ‘on trend’ or cool. What does language matter after all?

Language is what we use to think in, and to share our reality: and it forms the foundations of the forces that act upon us.

When i look at the different context that my partner and i operate within, it’s so different that it can be hard to bridge it, conceptually, or practically.

We both face decisions, individually and collectively, but those decisions are framed and judged unevenly.

Either of us could choose to work (the work of family or the paid work of an Organisation), to study, to spend time with the children, or at events, but we are judged differently, and not just by others.

I am aware of the internal pressure that differs: i simply do not have to have a serious internal monologue about my worth, my value, my career, my opportunity. I have not been taught to do so by circumstance, and yet often women are.

We talk about roles: the role of women, the role of men, the role of the parent. But we do not treat them like the roles we apply for or are employed in at ‘work’.

Some opportunity is taken from women through structural inequality, and other opportunity is avoided at time from fear of judgement. But the judgement itself is different.

Inherently our ‘roles’ tie into our ‘power’ and our sense of ‘worth’. And it strikes me that we shuffle these cards differently, or more easily, dependent upon our gender, and we then play the game by different rules.

Our stated aims to level the field, to make the landscape flatter, are encouraging, but ultimately they do not change our internal narrative, and it’s that pressure, between the roles we are given, the roles imposed, and roles expected, and the roles seen to be ‘normal’, which is where we operate.

Nonetheless, perhaps our language is where we find answers: not ‘the role of men’ or ‘the role of women’, but ‘the role i take’ or ‘the role that i play’.

I write this in microcosm, as a personal narrative, but the issue is macro – the structure of power, opportunity, and reward, that we have constructed and inhabit, and leads, directly to other dominant narratives of today – the red hot issues of abortion and equal marriage in flames in the US, and the gender pay gaps wide open in the UK and elsewhere.

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Organisational Learning – Broad Shifts

How much value ‘Organisational Learning’ provides to an Organisation is an open question: not in terms of measuring activity, expenditure, or time, but impact (and notably whether there is a relationship between impact and the complexity of the systems that hold and support it. Or to put it another way: as the technology and context of learning become more complex, integrated, larger scale, does this directly equate to greater performance?

This is rather early stage thinking, but goes something like this: over the last two decades we have seen a fundamental shift in the design, provision, and expectations, of learning for Organisations. If we were to take very broad brush strokes, we may see the change across three areas, and through three phases.

Change has happened in the broader societal (ecosystem) CONTEXT of learning.

Change has happened in the ecosystem of TECHNOLOGY through which we design, consume, and track learning.

Change has happened in the METHODOLOGIES by which we structure, design, and support learning.

There is probably a common sense that each of these three things have become EITHER more complex in some ways (more technology doing more things), or at the least, less known and hence not yet optimised (collaboration and community, in the flow, on demand, augmented etc).

To give examples: as the notion of career has fragmented, so the onus of responsibility, the backbone, of personal development has shifted, into broader systems of provision and engagement. So too has engagement itself, into portfolio and fragmented careers. Opportunities for education have diversified and to some extent democratised, although still unevenly. Technology has fragmented, interconnected, diversified, and permeated everywhere. And learning is increasingly contextual, distributed, collaborative, dynamic, and individually contextualised.

So: three areas to consider – context, technology and methodology, and through three phases, which we could perhaps call ‘opportunism’, ‘fragmentation’, and ‘consolidating’.

Early change was opportunistic, often dependent upon emerging technology: so the scaling up of video, the inclusion of digital distribution, online testing, record keeping, and distribution via intranet etc. These deployments were often about scale (hit everything with the same thing on one day), about what was possible, and in some cases delivered radical returns (widespread ability to cut travel, or to drive consistency of message, or to launch new products and systems faster etc

Fragmentation as the second phase represents how these emergent feature and capability led approaches spread right out, leaving us with lots of ‘what can be done’ but often in different and even incompatible streams. And probably with an increasing skills gap: the capability to ‘do’ things was more likely to sit with vendors or suppliers, who were both shaping offerings and trying to leverage into business processes.

I could argue that this was a time of high spend and significant sub optimisation, friction, and waste, as we often saw where disconnected or incomplete approaches to implementation led to either zero return, or isolated excellence. A very mixed picture with increased complexity and cost, but a complex environment that was hard to measure and harder to drive predictable effects.

The third phase is possibly what we see now: some consolidation, not simply of supply, but also of capability – almost a mapping out of new business functions, alongside a significant up-skilling within Organisations themselves.

I could argue that today the dynamic between Organisations and vendors is evolved, or at the very least somewhat rebalanced – so there is pressure to sit within at least some common frameworks of data and interoperability, transport, and reporting. Not that this in itself drives excellence: conformity represents nothing more than conformity.

My description of these three phases is very imperfect, and i could easily pick holes in it, but as something of a narrative of the last twenty years it’s not completely without value.

There is probably something to be said about the current state: we are clearly a long long way from optimisation, and indeed likely to see considerable further, and possibly ground breaking, fragmentation, of both learning technologies and the structural Organisations that they operate within. Possibly this is a transformation through waves of change – fracture, evolution, consolidation, and further disruption.

This latter piece is one that is often missed by experts and incumbents (who may believe themselves to be one and the same thing) – so we see disruptors, and judge change on their success. So people say ‘social may fail’ because Facebook may fail. But Facebook, whilst a big player, is not the domain itself. Possibly every major tech player today will fail, and yet will will inhabit a technology moderated future, in a metaverse, online. The easy lesson to miss is that just because a company or technology, or social norm, fails, does not mean that the old will come back. We are already disrupted and won’t become less so.

But so what: where are we today. Have we derived value?

It’s a hard call: we certainly do things that are different, within a different context. So learning today is less constrained by the landscape (it’s easy to create, distribute, and measure), but possibly more constrained by cultural context and imagination.

We can do more, but may not truly know what we should be doing.

Of the areas, ‘methodology’ may be the weakest to have evolved, which is perverse, as in many ways it’s the one we should have been able to change most easily.

Social context just happens, technology happens at cost, but methodology is more intellectual and creative, and in theory can happen cheaper and faster. The ‘what’ we do about learning design and implementation, and ‘how’ we do it.

This space still feels fragmentary, and operating in downstream areas, when in fact it should probably be more strategic and holistically connected up.

To some extent this may mean that the learning culture of an Organisation should be more readily recognisable, and distinct, when in fact it often is not.

If i were to squint, i would say that we should start with the Learning Function itself: there has been such a significant shift, broadly characterised as being from ‘creation, ownership and distribution’ of learning, to ‘facilitation, connection, and contextualisation’ of learning that some legacy aspects of talent, structure, leadership and development are in need of attention.

It’s always useful to remember that the way that we individually learn (from an evolutionary perspective) has not changed in those twenty years.

There are probably some really top level elements to consider, about whether Organisational learning is about knowledge, about individual capability, about ‘known’ capability, about exploration, about collective capability, about consistency, about prediction or connection, and so on. What is the point of learning/a learning function/learning technologies/specific measurement/systems/rules etc.

What are we trying to do, and are we learning what we need to do to do it?

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The Power of a Leader

I’ve been revisiting the Social Leadership ‘Power and Potential’ enquiry framework today, as part of a session exploring ‘the point of a leader’.

Is the role of a leader to put energy into a system, or to create space for others to find energy?

Is the role of a leader to give direction, or help people to find it?

Does the power of a leader sit within a formally defined role, in opposition to a formal system, or simply in the belief of others – or somewhere else?

Is the role to enforce rules, to deal with transgressions, or to find excellence and opportunity?

Or all of these things and more?

Will leadership be held in both formal and social contexts by one person, or by various people in different parts of one system?

I guess we could ask ‘has leadership become more complex’, or was it always this complex – has the context or ecosystem changed and hence that nature of what we need has changed. Or not.

I suspect that ‘leadership’, whatever that means (or as Donald Clarke would say, despite it having no meaning at all) is perhaps not a ‘thing’, so much as a space, or a bundle of needs, that may be met by a formal type of power or system, or a social one. We are quite literally a different type of leader in different spaces, and maybe the specific capability we need is the ability to diagnose context, and to draw upon varied types of power?

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Small steps make progress: writing is one way to document the journey. To take ideas, to work and rework them. To find vocabulary and evolve it. Sometimes to make up words, or make words work differently.

To write is to question, explore, and map, sometimes all three within the space of your own thoughts. To imagine both present and future. And to document what you see.

Writing is not about certainty, but certainly about the quest for it. A story of the journey. Shared.

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I’m running a workshop today around belonging: a value that we calculate for the varied spaces that we occupy, and which, when present, appears to give us something tangible and desired.

We seek to belong, but exactly what we belong to varies: simple things like genetic links, payment, and location do not in themselves guarantee that we feel we belong. People may be related, yet disconnected, may be paid, yet not feel they belong, and be together in body, and yet apart in culture.

Belonging is clearly a feeling, not a contract, and perhaps an investment, as well as a cost. By belonging we gain something, and yet lose something else. To belong will require us to conform, or behave, in certain ways.

Much language of the aspirational organisation revolves around belonging: how we should be at home at work, bring our whole self, or find the space to be trusted and fair. And yet what do we think we gain when people belong?

Can you run a successful organisation if people do not feel that they belong within culture? What, tangibly, does belonging give us, as individuals, or Organisations?

Most likely it acts as a catalyst, lubricant, and moderator, of individual action: we behave differently when we feel that we belong.

But that feeling should be a reminder: just because i feel that i belong, does not mean that you do, and from the outside, i may never know.

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