Blast Off

I’ve just hit ‘send’ on the final manuscript for my next book: the final title is “To the Moon and Back: Leadership Reflections from Apollo”, and it forms the next in my series of Social Age Guidebooks.

This final illustration is for the back cover, and is the 14th original illustration that i’ve done for the book. Like all of the Guidebooks it is short, just over 12,000 words, and includes my own key learning or action points. I look forward to sharing this when published before Christmas.

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Silencing Voices

We live within busy systems: spaces filled with static, discourse, and noise. Through this fog we seek meaning: validation of views, membership and belonging, knowledge and clarity. But not all voices are equal, and not all voices are equally heard. We sometimes focus on how we can get people to speak out, to find their voice, but that term may be a misnomer: many people already have a voice, but it is silenced.

Silencing Voices

Within both formal, and social, spaces, voices can be silenced for many reasons, by many different forces. There can be a fear of speaking out, or an experience of speaking out and being drowned out by hostile echoes. We can lack the spaces to speak openly within, or have fear or consequence from how a story lands.

Forces such as these can lead us to silence ourselves: to take our voices into smaller, more granular, private spaces. Spaces owned by our own tribes and local communities. Safer spaces.

I spoke to someone yesterday who described his membership of a formal Community at work, but then immediately described a core group (his tribe), who he ‘knew’, and with whom he had a materially different relationship. These tribal units, held in reputation, empathy, and belonging, are often the spaces where our voices are most easily freed, but with the caveat that it may be because they welcome conformity, amplify existing knowledge, and validate their own opinions.

There are good, clear reasons why people are silent in noisy spaces, especially in situations where they are not simply amplifying an existing story: amplification is often a feature of aggregation, the rapid coalescing of views and narratives around a central story, and then the mechanisms by which that new narrative spreads. Without that initial aggregation, it’s hard to achieve amplification, and until you speak out, you do not know if views will aggregate around yours. So you risk exposure and isolation, both of which act as fearful social forces.

Perhaps when we consider the silent voices, we should distinguish between those that are drowned out, and those that simply never shout out at all. Self censured, not silenced. And we should consider those traits of Social Leaders that create the spaces, Social Capital, and support, for these voices to be heard.

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Ways of Working: Perspective Shift

A great many Organisations have a focus on future ‘ways of working’: sometimes expressed as a future culture, sometimes as specific digital skills, often as an approach to innovation or change. These programmes represent the normalisation of change, and the broad acceptance of the failure of domain based scientific management (excellent for utilitarian engagement, lacking insight into invested engagement), simple constructivist learning (an approach to ‘the building blocks of excellence’ that relies on magic and emergentism), and hierarchy alone (the formal power held within a job role, as opposed to the reputation based authority of the Community). These future Ways of Working are characterised largely in two ways: they are aspirational, and they are defined frequently as ‘not what came before’. In other words, they represent a dream, and a rejection.

Building the Socially Dynamic Organisation

We sometimes consider change to start with mindset, so to reject the past is valuable, but possibly more comforting that purely effective. I suspect that our future Ways of Working will not replace existing and legacy ones, but in a rather substantial sense will build upon them. More a case of ‘both’, ‘and’.

My own work uses the notion of the Social Age to describe our evolved context of work, our background ecosystem within which we live and operate: with such broad change in this foundational context of work, it’s no surprise that the evolutionary pressures are starting to drive first awareness (“it’s starting to feel cold”) and actual change (“we’d better migrate”).

The broad acceptance represents a new Dominant Narrative (a term i am using in my wider work around Storytelling to describe the common consensual delusions of ‘how things are’: for many years, the old context of work was ‘how things are’, but now, there is an open space, open for bold Organisations and leaders to define ‘how things may be’).

There are some notes of caution to be sounded: the very context of this evolved mindset (the Social Age) impacts how this approach to change is held and expressed: in a time of portfolio careers, and the emergence of journeyman leaders, graduating from the Trans-Nationals and emigrating through the ecosystem every 3-5 years, we see a general reinforcement of tribalism (intra-organisational) and meta-tribalism (inter-organisational), as well as totemicism (i hold the thing and so the thing becomes true e.g. much Organisational approach to agility, or innovation).

Or to put it another way: we may be experiencing the true foundations of change, or we may be experiencing a dynastic, self serving, short term, and futile period of noise that precedes widespread disruption as the older Legacy Organisations fail, usurped by emergent contenders unconstrained by dynasty and existing knowledge.

Hard to say which, possibly both. I do strongly suspect that many of our Organisations are feeling pain, but are some way away from the required level of pain to actually change: but should they wait for that pain to bite, they will be terminal.

The broad strokes that paint our new landscape are very clear: technology transforming the social landscape, rebalanced power between employer/employee, and also between client/customer/consumer. We see acquisition based models of adaptation struggle due to largely cultural colonialism, and we see startup culture amplified to disrupt at scale, because it’s able to draw power precisely from the thing that it opposes (which itself reflects a broader trend of the Social Age, towards oppositional power as opposed to consensus). Brands which hold power because they oppose established regimes draw precisely upon the same social infrastructure as the tribalism that is fragmenting society at large.

The cycle of communication has also shifted from asynchronous, through synchronous, towards a weird predictive and recursive curve, where press releases precede actual statements, and culture eats itself in descending cycles of narrative, all collapsing into some strange reality TV type experience of work as entertainment, and entertainment as actual work, all of which only open to the educated and wealthy, as market inequalities and Artificial Intelligences predate the ability to earn a living from both sides. The rich get richer, the poor get less, and everyone else whirls around in a maelstrom, awaiting a lottery win or redundancy, with possibly equal excitement about either outcome.

So will an evolved set of Ways of Working save us? Yes: as long as we don’t set them up in opposition to the old ones. And as long as we can really change. The first part may seem hard, but the second is intractable.

Friction - Dynamic Tension

What we need is a Dynamic Tension between different systems: freedom and control, stasis and change, rules and innovation, conformity and agency, domain and network, and so on and so forth. Both, and.

But the change is held in our ability to hold that tension, NOT to simply hold open a permissive space for it. There is a difference that is stark, and telling. Brave leaders can hold open a space to hear dissenting voices, but change leaders will listen with humility, and not respond with certainty.

If you had to boil it all down to one thing, it would probably be culture: cultures of certainty and safety struggle with ambiguity and doubt, but change will almost certainly require us to hold ambiguity, burn the fuel of risk, and celebrate uncertainty. At both an individual, and collective, level.

As usual, i feel that my own work represents an imperfect view of this, but i am ok with that, because every time i redraw the picture, the sketch gets clearer (in my mind at least: but that is a truth of the Social Age, that ‘meaning’ is found as a socially constructed artefact, built upon existing knowledge, new knowledge, and within Community, so my ‘meaning’ may be different from yours, but if we are in a space together, sharing and iterating, we may be ok in the end).

We need more Socially Dynamic Organisations, held in the Dynamic Tension between formal and social systems: able to hold uncertainty within strong systems of Social Leadership, open to broad and distributed models of storytelling, and holding a strong ability to listen to weak voices.

The Socially Dynamic Organisation will have a deeply held ability to ‘sense make’ and change, not through formal power and direct action alone, but by evolving the Dominant Narrative of itself. It will hold diverse invested engagement, not by demanding it through formal power, but rather earning it through social forces such as trust, pride, and respect. It will be deeply fair.

To state the rather obvious: an exploration of future Ways of Working is a good thing. Organisations will need to build broad digital skills, they will need to nurture and grow capability among diverse Social Learning communities, and transform their heavyweight structures to more nimble and agile ones. But they will also need to do so at a fundamental level, within a culture that reflects redistributed models of power, evolved storytelling, and building a true capability to change, all of which is much harder than simple aspiration and statement building.

Change is hard, not because of what we need to learn and gain, but because of what is eroded and given away: certainty, power, control, empire.

To build the future is a bold mission: one that requires a perspective shift, and a gradual disassembly of much that came before, but not everything. A Dynamic Tension, one that hold true to the best of the old, but which truly enables the space for a future to emerge. And it will be led by those leaders who recognise that their future foundation will be Social, not formal alone.

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Trends in Organisational Learning

I have been thinking about some broad trends in Organisational Learning, and sketched up this as a summary: it’s not intended to be definitive, but rather to indicate broad strokes, and to contextualise this as part of the move into the Social Age.

Codification: a big focus of Learning in legacy Organisations was to reduce complexity to ordered simplicity. What was it that people needed in order to be effective, and what were the ways to break that complexity down into constituent parts, to record it, and to push it into other peoples brains. Codification represented knowledge as a traceable and tradable commodity, and the primacy of systems that could capture and order it. Arguably this has been replaced by systems that can ‘find and sense make’ it: networks and communities, dealing in new types of knowledge that often defied simple codification.

Centralisation: centralised structures dominated early globalisation, with concurrent flows of stories outwards and back to the centre. But this reinforced cultural fragmentation and colonial models of growth, and has been largely eclipsed by distributed capability (driven by network effects) and fragmented capability (driven by outsourcing and cost cutting as markets adapt to need). The Social Age is represented by broadly distributed knowledge, and decentralised power, held in structures that sit alongside, not fully within, the parent Organisation. Sometimes i describe these as multi-dimensional: formal plus multi layered social structures.

Conformity: a broad view of learning used to be one of conformity, whilst today it may be more about diversity. Models of teaching and assessment relied on replication to move to scale, whilst today we rely more on social aggregation and amplification to carry to scale. In that sense, older models of learning and development were fully premised on a ‘push’ through the system, whilst newer ones rely on us pulling.

Infrastructure: once a mainstay of Organisational being, infrastructure is increasingly something deconstructed and eroded in the quest for agility. The heavyweight systems of the past were largely a feature of the maturity of coding, and the lack fo defined market, whilst today we see much more lightweight technology running on common backbones, or possible due to the increased portability of data. Essentially we exist in diverse ecosystems of technology that are increasingly social in ownership, and hence trusted further. One other point: legacy Organisations were often hampered by complexity: the pioneering technology they once owned now stagnated into improper models of data management and held within power structures that constrain change.

social Leadership 100 - Complex Collaboration

Collaboration: moving to the other side of the model, a real trend is towards collaboration, and Complex Collaboration. Collaboration is about operating with those people you know, doing the things you know how to do, whilst Complex Collaboration means interconnecting into capability you have no current access to, to face unknown, or radically complex, challenges. The co-creation that we seek as part of Social Leadership is a function of this, and it typically moves beyond individual Domains. Building the capability to collaborate at scale will often form a central theme of the ‘future learning’ skills that Organisations discuss, but in reality it often relates to overcoming constraints that are put into place by the Organisation itself.

Capability: i think there is an increasing focus on individual capability, and agency, at scale. The ability of the individual to progress the common story, but also to act as a meaningful weak voice in the system. So not mindless repetition, or unquestioning action, but rather capability built upon thoughtful and reflective practice. Again, this feeds into plenty of Organisational language about change: how we ‘build’ the skills of the new learner, when perhaps we need instead to think more about how we support, or act in service of, them.

Change: a common theme is the need for change, but sometimes lacking a recognition that the first thing we have to change is ourselves. The Social Age provides a foundational shift in the context of change itself: modern learning Organisations will recognise this and address inequalities of power, and create opportunity, accordingly.

Agility: the byword for change is ‘agility’, and i think a broad trend in learning is towards the knowledge, skills, behaviours, and ability to reframe, that define it. Agility is not necessarily a specific skill, but rather a capability of analysis, and fluidity of response. Sometimes i will describe it not as the ability to solve a problem today, in one way, but rather the ability to solve it again tomorrow in a different way. It’s about the experiential building of rehearsed capability, well suited to Social Learning, and simulation, based approaches to learning.

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Learning Science: Life Through a Lens – the Galileo story

As i draw to the end of the writing on the Learning Science Guidebook, i’m working on the summary and conclusions, starting with this story: it’s about how we may need to create our own tools, and share them generously. This piece is shared as part of #WorkingOutLoud: it is not complete work, but i hope of interest.

Galileo Galilei was a curious man. He was born in Pisa in 1594, to parents more interested in music than science, but ending up training as a doctor, because he could earn more.

Whilst studying for his medical degree, his curiosity got the better of him as he watched a chandelier swinging gently in the air currents of the room: he idly noticed that, no matter how far it swung, each individual swing seemed to take an identical amount of time, an observation that, a hundred years later, would be codified by Christiaan Huygens into a theory that ultimately ended up enabling clocks, of whatever size, to keep accurate time.

As time progressed, he gained widespread academic recognition, his interests, like the pendulum, swinging widely between astronomy, engineering, and physics. He also developed a reputation for building things: thermometers, compasses, and ultimately, a telescope.

Indeed, not just any telescope: he built the device that was first christened a telescope.

He built it not from curiosity alone, but through need: his desire to better understand the trajectories of the planets, the courses of comets, and the movements of moons. The tool that he needed did not exist, so he built it himself.

This is your challenge as a learning scientist: sometimes you can pick up a tool that is ready made, sometimes you have to make it yourself.

Sometimes you can look at the world through a lens that somebody gives you, and sometimes you have to grind your own new lens.

Through this module on Learning Science, we have charted a wide ranging course: i have given you one frame through which to examine the subject, and one lens through which to view it. I have shared my mental devices with you. But they will not be enough: from here on in, you will need to make your own.

And if you are to truly drive change, if you are to help build a more Socially Dynamic Organisation, you will need to share them too. A community, one which can support and drive us forwards, is not a thing we strive for: it’s a reward that we earn, and the currency we buy it with is generosity.

What Science Can Help With

As i said at the start of this module: science is not the answer, but rather the way that we will find answers. Or more accurately, the methodology through which we will push back our boundaries of ignorance.

Science does not just look at evidence: it builds it. Replication of results gives confidence. So science can help us to take steps forward.

Science can validate a theory, may even inform creation of new theories, but science is not, in itself, the overarching ‘meaning’. It’s the tool that we use to find that meaning.

A scientific approach will build rigour in our work: a scientific mindset will help us discerningly find value in the work of others.

Science can help to structure our doubt, providing us with the mental models to challenge fairly and effectively.

Science is not a barrier to hide behind, or a defence against dogma: a scientist is willing to be proved wrong, because being wrong is part of the scientific process.

What Science Cannot Help With

Science is not a weapon to be deployed to promote a truth: it’s a way for finding truths.

Science will not provide one view that lasts forever: it provides our best view, but inherent to the scientific approach is the mechanism and willingness to capsize our own dogma.

Science cannot displace belief, because belief is held separately from logic. But the two are not mutually exclusive: scientists can be believers, but they must recognise the difference between the two states.

Science cannot make an appealing idea true. And science cannot make a displeasing idea false.

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Words About Learning: Curiosity

Curiosity is garnering attention: its a proxy for change, a state of restless creativity, a permissive questioning of the status quo. A culture of curiosity is seen as something to be desired, when just a few years ago it would have been feared: the Organisation as a mechanism of conformity was the dominant frame, and curious souls were the enemy. As a thing, curiosity may be hard to pin down, but sometimes we can define something by exception. What is curiosity not?

It’s not what came before, it’s not derivative, nor explicitly a process in itself. Curiosity is not a closed mind or a set outcome. But can curiosity be equally distributed, and fairly rewarded? How will we separate restless curiosity from consensual delusion? And if we find it, will we lose something in it’s stead? Can a curious culture ever be safe? There are many question unanswered for those brave souls who seek to unleash the curious: be careful what you wish for, lest it become true.

Words About Learning is an occasional series of posts, two paragraphs apiece, written from airport lounges or desperate spaces, when the fear of not writing overcomes the fear of brevity.

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#WorkingOutLoud on the Prototype Community Diagnostic

i’m working this week on a Community Diagnostic, aimed to visualise a profile of a Community. The first iteration will have circa 100 questions, and is likely to be a rough affair, as it consolidates several earlier efforts. In these questions i am trying to do two things: firstly, to identify a range of views and, secondly, to calibrate between two responses to related questions.

For example, i will ask people if they feel they have enough time to participate in a specific community, but also ask them how they would rate the importance of ‘time’, ‘resource’, and ‘support’, as well as, separately, asking them if they believe that synchronicity of engagement is important for their community to be effective (essentially a function of time).

When i have a prototype version, i will run it with an open social cohort, and several Organisational ones, to test responses: i’m looking to identify which questions generate the broadest range of responses, as well as to generate data sets so that in subsequent versions i can move away from free text, and into lists.

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