Unit of One [Thousands]

I’m in New York, a unit of one: alone, but not lonely. I feel lucky: i get to travel, but i have a wonderful home and friends around the world. I’m sat in Irving Farm Coffee Roasters: it’s one of my favourite spots in the city. Independent, quirky, relaxed. It’s typical of the spaces i tend to write: unified by their social nature, in company, but left alone. This is my 997th blog post. I’m approaching a milestone, not just numerical, but in my reality. Writing has changed how i see the world and the ways i interact with it: i know that once i pass a thousand, i can never look back.

New York: unit of one

I walk the city, my backpack holds my iPad, keyboard and sketchbook, sweltering in the heat. They’re filming in Central Park. New Line Production trucks skirt both sides of the boundary road: trailers for actors and production staff, lorries full of kit, showers and food vans. It’s an army. My army is on my back.

I operate as a unit of one, but connected to thousands.

I’ve immersed myself in the Social Age: jobs, offices, colleagues, all things of the past. Today, i share, i collaborate, i partner, i learn. And i do so in the company of like minded travellers. Explorers in the new world.

New York Vista

Last night i ended up in an independent bar in East Village: tiny, space for a dozen people. As i sat reading, four people settled next to me, sporting hipster beards and high fashion. One had a waxed moustache, like Dali. They spread out watercolours, diagrams, photographs, set up their MacBooks and talked about theatre. They were organising a circus show of some sort: it was clear that this was an emergent group, four people coming together for a single performance, bringing their expertise, their skills, and their contacts, for one night. A community coming together to perform.

I loved it: hearing them solving problems, watching them work. Democratised, liberated, dreaming and free. And yet this is not a dream: this is the reality of the Social Age. We are liberated: democratised infrastructure, democratised communication, the release of creativity. We have more choice that we ever imagined, even if we don’t see it yet.

Skyscraper in New York

The Social Age is the age of communities: liberalised, open, cross boundary, sense making. Hire me, hire the community, is the message we bring to work. And, conversely, deliver poor service, act unfairly, and it’s both me and the community that will respond. It’s a rebalancing of the Social Contract, a shift to where brand is owned by the community itself.

To thrive, we need fairness, we need respect, we need humility and social leadership, we need equality and tolerance.

We need each other.

The good times are always punctuated by the bad: last night, walking back up Broadway, there was a couple, homeless. The guy was sat, cross legged, starting into space: the girl lying asleep with her head on his lap. He was holding her head, just staring, with a cup in front of him. They were far from the only homeless people here, but the pathos seemed different: i guess at least they had company. Some people here are utterly alone, utterly lost. I feel lucky, but sad: it’s no coincidence that last time i was sat in this very coffee shop i wrote about homelessness.

With opportunity comes responsibility: both individually and as an organisation or society. Intolerance and ignorance are no longer excusable. We might not be able to save the whole world, but maybe we can save each other. Maybe it’s the small steps that count.

New York

I’m encouraged by the level of interest in the Social Age (and, more importantly, how we can be ready to survive it). Everyone can see that things are changing, and what could be better than exploring it together, learning from each other. Some people change the world by breaking the rules, others because they never even realised they were there to constrain them. Ignorance may not only be bliss, it may be the thing that saves us.

Unintentionally, my writing often crosses into a kind of travelogue. I’ve written about Amsterdam, New York, Singapore and San Francisco at length, and other places in passing. Partly it’s about the learning we do as we change the location of our stories: the way that different places give different perspectives. Partly it’s because i enjoy the freedom: i realised early on that you have to write what you want to write, not what you think people want to read. You have to be yourself. It may be all you have.

As i walked south, down Manhattan, yesterday, i passed a gospel church in full flow: from the outside, i could hear nothing, just see in through the large glass doors, watching the choir, dressed in white, swaying and clapping. Like a window into someone else’s community. It’s looked like a happy one. It’s like that with every window we peer into: windows into different communities, only a small number of which we will ever belong to.

In some ways, writing is so passé: probably i should be doing a video blog, but there’s still something wonderful about words on a page, something persistent.

This is how it goes: build your personal narrative, share it, collaborate, learn. Capture the co-created narrative, share it, learn. Solve problems, share how, learn. Create spaces for ‘safeness’ and spaces for risk. Share what you learn, and do it in communities.

It’s not about getting it right first time: it’s about getting it more right than last time. Iterative, evolutionary.

The city constantly changes: each time i visit, buildings go up, buildings come down. It’s an unfinished symphony with an ever changing audience. Iterative, changing. Cities adapt to meet the needs of the moment, which is precisely what we seek to do in organisations and within our communities: staying relevant.

I walk the city as a unit of one, but connected: through technology, through common interest, through companionship and curiosity. A unit of thousands.

Brooklyn Street, New York

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Change or Churn?

As organisations try to change, they start with intent and move to action: it’s a process rather like throwing the engine into reverse on an oil tanker. You get a lot of churn. The water is thrashed into life: there’s a lot of noise and movement, but possibly very little changes.

Change or Churn?

I found myself asking this question of an organisation part way through a large cultural transformation programme: are you changing, or stuck at churn?

The churn is satisfying: it gives all the business and apparent effect of change, with one crucial difference. Nothing is really changing. We’re just busy.

I subscribe to a co-created and co-owned model of change, where we create the intent for change at the top and give permission throughout to shape what it looks like. There’s less churn, but more change. Maybe less apparent splashing, but more actual movement.

It takes a lot to engage in co-created change: because we relinquish some control of the story, even if we still own the narrative.

In the Social Age, we need organisations that are agile, reconfigurable, adaptable. And we need organisations that can do this without too much splashing: just purposefully and effortlessly adapting. True agility.

So ask yourself if you’re changing, or just contributing to the churn.

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What’s With Words?

It was with some pride that i first introduced myself as a writer, although it took a number of years before i stopped feeling too fraudulent. It was a badge, i figured, i had a reason to take. I write everyday, so i had the defence of addiction. Addiction to words i guess.

What's With Words

There are many facets of communication: we use words, sure, but also pictures, songs, dance, sculpture, and we colour our messages with music, with tones and meter, with rhythm and rhyme. We communicate in more than words, and yet at the heart of communication are words.

They’re like bricks: we can pick them up and play with them, knock them to the floor and start again, build them high and wait for someone to knock them over or just leave them in a box, gathering dust.

Somehow, words work: we put them together and find satisfaction in their juxtaposition. There are few things more satisfying than finding a phrase that just works.

Although if i had to name something more satisfying, it would be finding a phrase that somehow just doesn’t. Because whilst words are about beauty and flow, they can also be about schism and fracture. Sometimes it’s in the convoluted complexity that we find the greatest satisfaction.

I love poetry: partly for it’s freedom from expectation, but largely for it’s permission to play. Especially once we abandon rhyme: discovering internal logic and flow that has it’s own pleasure.

Writing in the Social Age is democratised to a greater extent than every before: it’s a voice to claim, like graffiti.

Graffiti: voice for the voiceless. Words stolen and pinned to walls.

Our imagination is a gift: i love the look in my niece’s eye when she warily looks at me and exclaims ‘you made that up!’, as if discovering a secret. Because to make stuff up is a secret joy: to create stories, to elaborate, to explore the illogic of fantasy.

Words carry power, but can be disposable: used with caution or wild abandon and shouted into the night.

I’m in deepest America: picking up a hire car late last night, they took pity and gave me a yellow Mustang convertible. So i drove, hour after hour, through the night, with the hood down, singing to myself. Throwing words out into the night. Because there’s a certain joy in broadcast.

We are careless with words: in organisations we steal their joy and sanitise them, we bloat and fray them until they lose their power. We appropriate them and try to nail them down, but somehow they always escape: it’s in the nature of words to evolve their meaning.

Nothing is absolute: the context provides the lens we read them through. And that lens is wider than we may think.

We use them everyday, but often cease to wonder what’s with words. Which are wonderful.

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States of Jersey: remnants of rust and relevance

I remember in an early episode of Band of Brothers, we see one of the young American soldiers taking a gun emplacement as they role into France: once the trench is secured, he drops a bag of dynamite down the barrel and we see it explode, rendering the gun useless. The image flickers across my mind as i stare down into the pit in front of me on the West coast of Jersey. Tortured steel lies rusted at my feet: a huge coastal gun, torn in half, it’s fifteen foot length burst open in the middle, with the sides peeled back like a banana.

Bunkers in Jersey

© Julian Stodd

It’s a scene at odds with the landscape surrounding me: rugged coastal walking, the waves crashing at the foot of the cliffs to my left, the scrub punctuated by paths and bushes to my right. Ahead of me, a broad circle of concrete sunk three feet into the ground, maybe forty feet across. At it’s centre, the remains of the gun. Four rusted rails that it would have been mounted on, then the barrel, thrown to one side and broken in half.

The steel is thick: maybe two inches, but heavily rusted. The rents in the metal that must once have been razor sharp and burning hot are dulled by time and seventy winters into no more than simply roughened edges. Today, the only heat is from the sun.

Photos of rusted gun in Jersey

© Julian Stodd

It’s incongruous: in my experience, in my world, steel has value. It’s rare to see such a substantial chunk of it left unclaimed, remote as it is. And, of course, this is no ordinary steel: it’s steel of memories, the fractured steel of Empire and defeat. Unconquerable steel of German might, wrought impotent by oxidation.

These giant guns are housed in museums these days, or held in pigment in sepia photos. The redevelopment of post war Britain took time, but in it’s path it swept away the tangible stains of war: the searchlights, the barb wire, trenches, uniforms and tanks. Not all of it: signs remain, but usually in each and concrete, not steel. No obvious guns.

I circle the pit, finding at one point a slope down, a subterranean doorway half filled with rubble overgrown by plants A control bunker maybe? Home now to rabbits and rubbish. The sunken pit fills my vision: later, as i fly out of the island, i look out of the window and recognise the coastline we are banking over. I can see the circle but this time the size of a coin, and juxtaposed with other, similar circles, forming a line down the coast. I realise that i would have been visible, even from this height, to someone staring down. Perspectives upon perspectives.

Steel and concrete are the bones of war. The concrete is everywhere: walls, bunkers, shelters. Along the coast, a series of blisters protrude from the sea walls: massive gun emplacements formed of poured concrete, the lines still visible where the days work ended and the next day began. Time has barely started to touch these structures: discoloured, for sure, and rusted where bare metal protrudes, but their skin is metres thick. Literally stone.

Observation tower in Jersey

© Julian Stodd

Indeed, often it’s the land that erodes around them: in Norfolk i remember the Pill boxes dotting the landscape, one particularly near our caravan, set back from the cliff top. When i visited last year, the cliff had gone, eaten away by the hungry sea, but the pill box remains, upside down where it must have tumbled down the cliff in a winter storm. I imagine in a hundred years it will still be there, but as the land retreats further it will be rolled around on the seabed, like a giant pebble. Polished by the sands.

And a Pill box is simply David to these Goliath structures.

Later that afternoon, i walk through the sand dunes, climbing the side of one. It’s a museum now and a coach bounces it’s way along a sandy track to disgorge it’s crowd of British pensioners for an afternoon of reminiscing and tea. I stay away from the crowd, stood on top of the mound, but something strange happens: as i stand there, buffeted by the wind, i hear something, like a distant tannoy, like a faint public service announcement, but emanating from the ground beneath me.

Exploration reveals the cause: an old air vent from the bunker emerges near my feet: through metres of concrete, the sound of Margaret and Ethel discussing their lunch is given a surreal and abstract quality. Juxtaposition of sound and space.

At another site, i enter a bunker, this one cleaned up and interpreted: six rooms in total, each in service of the ‘fighting’ room, the room at the front where the massive rusting gun still stands. One guard room, which has a machine gun port overlooking the doorway, two more for sleeping in, one for the extraction fan which circulates air (one can only imagine the noise and fumes when the guns fired) and one room for spent shell cases. A mini functioning fort, deep under cover, deep under stone.

Society takes a mixed view of these structures: it’s an evolving process and, let’s be honest, they have plenty of time to conclude the process. They’re not going anywhere. Some are open to the public: museums, housing memorabilia, signed and made safe. These are the historic face of Jersey: an island at peace with it’s past. Some are tolerated: their doors and ports sealed up, sat on seafronts, in villages, by the side of roads, but distressingly at the heart of modern life. I have tea and scones next to one, painted white like the proverbial elephant in the room, squatting uncomfortably on the best seat. Some are derelict and distant, far from town, left to rot: their doorways, once sealed, are often broken open so teenagers can smoke and drink inside, comfortable amongst the dead pigeons and urine.

One has been converted to a fish restaurant. I am unsure how: they’re not the type of structure to knock a new window into and no matter how much light we pump in, there’s something about concrete that absorbs the heat, that deadens the sound. One derelict site, the only one i see, shows faint signs that someone tried to demolish it. Pockmarks on it’s skin, but mere teenage acne. Not one percent of the job done.

I find no appeal in exploring the dereliction: the dark doorways into underground history are not sinister, just incongruous. There was no D Day landing here, no valiant action: to my knowledge, no young men died in these bunkers. Just got bored, watching for the day that Liberation came. If anything, they are an expression of futility, a memory of different times.

Doorway to bunker in Jersey

© Julian Stodd

As i stand in the sun, think of the day there were built: a young man perhaps resting his hand on the freshly set concrete where my hand rests today: whilst my minds eye shows him in black and white, in reality the dirt under his nails was in colour. That’s the thing about history: we paint it into the past through fashion, media and language, forgetting that it was as real as our day today. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Away from the artefacts of war, the coastline is typical: cliffs, harbours, long beaches, tranquil bays. But tranquility that is hard won: almost every time i read about one of the piers or breakwaters, it’s a story of the sea washing away it’s predecessor. It’s a constant battle, erosion. Sometimes it happens fast, sometimes slow. But ever truthful, never ending.

At barely nine miles by five, Jersey makes up for in spirit what it lacks in stature: for eight hundred years a Crown Dependency, it’s part of the Great Britain, but separated by both water and government. A microcosm of it’s parent state, Jersey operates within it’s own rules: regulation, legal and cultural.

A sign proclaims that in my hotel, the surrender of the Germans forces was taken. They’ve probably redecorated since: the conference tables, water jugs and plasma displays are a ubiquitous token of modernity, lacking significance or locality. The reality of today displaces the significance of yesterday.

Seventy years on, the island continues to evolve: piers are washed away, the harbour expands, tourism prevails, financial services dominate. But evolve it must: the structures of today are the derelict concrete of tomorrow. What got us here may not get us there. The challenges for a small island in a global economy are not ones of territory: i cannot envisage anyone trying to steal the Channel Islands away from their protective neighbour, but rather of identity. As ubiquity steals our culture, the trappings of our heritage become simply museum pieces, remnants of a long lost past.

Flowers on Jersey

© Julian Stodd

It’s right to remember, to celebrate, to move on, but it’s naive to assume that the past glory guarantees a glorious future. In a globalised society, opportunities are not free, and when your land mass is limited and your population ever more mobile, we have to strive to remain relevant.

I’ve loved my time on the island and will definitely be back, but i suspect there are challenges ahead that will require more than just bunkers and hardware to surmount. The challenge of relevance and permanence in the Social Age does not just apply to organisations: it applies to countries too. As people’s primary identity starts to shift away from simple geographically defined boundaries, the boundaries of cliff and sea that defined our past may not guarantee the cohesion of our community in the future.

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Layers of Storytelling

I’ve spent two days working with different organisations around Jersey, exploring how they can get fit for the Social Age: there are common themes. The need for agility, the need to transform culture, the need to drive change.

Layers of Stories

But change is elusive: not because it’s hard, but because it’s everywhere. Knowing where to start can be impossible. So why not start with a story?

I’ve talked before about layers of narrative: the three layers of storytelling within organisations.

First: personal narrative. This is the individual’s story of change. It may be a journal, a diary, a video blog, but it’s about the narrative of personal challenge and experience of change. It’s about how this week is different from last week, and what we expect to change next week. For me, the blog is my personal narrative. It’s where i #WorkOutLoud and share my story.

The location of stories

Secondly: . Within an organisation, this is what happens within our communities. It’s where the ‘sense making‘ happens, where the cut and thrust of debate plays out. The co-created narrative is where opinion is formed and where communities of change gather their momentum. I’ve been exploring ways to capture this recently, the most exciting of which is through co-created magazines, where individual groups write their stories around a set structure. We can gather these magazines from around the organisation: common structure, but the articles written by each team. Then we can read them all, and construct the meta narrative: what are the common themes, where does the difference lie.

The Organisational Narrative is the cumulation of the individual and co-created, interpreted and contextualised by the organisation. In the Social Age, the organisations shouldn’t write the narrative and send it down to people: rather the organisation should listen to the teams and write the story from that

Storytelling is powerful: it’s about finding our voices and created a continuous narrative around learning and around change. By providing a structure, we can better facilitate that process.

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Microcosm

MicrocosmI’m working in Jersey and Guernsey this week: two islands off the South coast of the UK. Crown Dependencies, which means aligned with, but not governed by, the UK. Part of the family, but with separate identities and a unique culture. Microcosms in some way: every government department and function is replicated, but with it’s own spin.

Jersey has around a hundred thousand people, Guernsey somewhere over sixty thousand, and each is independent from each other. So here we all are, islands aligned, yet independent and proud.

It’s like looking at different organisations: they are made up of the same departments, often doing the same jobs, in the same market, and yet they’re strangely different from each other. Culture differs, shaped partly by environment, partly by the tacit knowledge and implicit stories shared within communities.

The islands identify as separate from the UK, much as Scotland or Wales identify as separate from England. But between Jersey and Guernsey, there is competition, expressed in myriad small ways. Perhaps it’s in the nature of islands to compete?

Defined as they are by a certain isolation, there’s no doubt that the geography can impact mindset: having grown up on an island, i sense the value of shorelines, the certainty of separation and identity.

Maybe a fractal view of society: communities subdividing into progressively smaller microcosms, each replicating the dynamics of the parent, but at ever smaller scale. There’s some native sense that the challenges in smaller societies should be easier to solve, but smaller does not necessarily mean more pliable: indeed, i suspect that in smaller societies our hierarchical, tribal and repetitional niches are more deeply entrenched, not least because there’s less space to manoeuvre.

I’ve spent time in the Hebrides before, where some of the islands i’ve stayed on have a populations of thirty of forty people, microcosms of microcosms. But still stratified by defined roles, gradients of power and delineated by coastline: the liminal separation of that which is controlled from that which is wild.

Perhaps it’s in our nature to organise in communities, whether the islands are surrounded by beaches, or simply the cliff-lines in our heads.

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From Aspiration to Culture: the erosion of values

A startup is a blank sheet: no systems, no process, no legacy. To some, it’s anathema: a lack of reference points, a lack of structure, a lack of support. To others, it’s freedom, a freedom they could never experience within a more established business. Startups can have a culture of agility, an inbuilt flexibility and willingness to learn. It’s easy to see the difference: new and young is agile, old and stale is lethargic.

Aspiration vs Culture

But the picture is far from that simple: the journey is complex, and the correlation between age and agility may be less rigid than we think. Culture is created in the moment, through our behaviours: it’s less about the aspiration, more about the execution.

It’s a journey from aspiration to culture, but where you end up is under your own control.

The reason we see an agile culture more as a function of startups is simply that we make it more explicit through the decoration: in a startup, everything is a conscious choice. The furniture, the website, the team, the documentation, all of it is created anew, all of it is, by definition, current. The aspiration is directly expressed in the execution.

In older, more established businesses, it’s much more make do and mend. Different iterations of systems, process and collateral exist. It’s harder to say what’s old and what’s new, plus there is the natural tendency of organisations to accrete.

Like stalactites dripping from the ceiling, organisations accrete ‘stuff’ over time: they try to cage complexity with systems, processes and practices, with technology and teams, attempting to fence off risk and encourage compliance.

But the experience of culture is the same in both: it’s how we are treated in the moment. The aspiration does not make the value.

A young business may certainly have the trappings of agility, may certainly talk the talk of a great culture, but it’s how we behave that actually creates the experience. Similarly, an older business may have none of the external signs of agility, it may be tired, drab and cracked in it’s decoration, but if you are treated with respect and with feeling, then it may have a great culture.

Don’t get me wrong: many established organisations have frankly dreadful cultures, and many more have simply lethargic ones. It’s not that they are bad places to work, but neither are they excellent: not agile, not fluid, not permissive, not equal, and in the Social Age, ‘good enough’ is not enough any more.

Only the truly agile can hope to thrive: only the agile will survive the waves of change, and they will do so through having a culture and team fit for purpose.

But that agility, that culture is not automatically bestowed on the new startups: it’s consciously built and executed. It takes nurturing the same way that it does in any business.

Aspiration is where we want to be: culture is where we are.

There are predictable factors that erode aspiration into poor culture: pragmatism, lack of time, ‘just good enough’, solving for today. These things erode the soul of a culture. We start with vision, with idealism, with the desire for excellent, but all too soon the ground truth kills it. It’s the lived experience that shapes the culture, it’s the reality on the ground that takes it’s toll.

I’m working with some global organisations to change their culture: they want to fix it. So my message is always the same: fix it in the moment. There is no one lever, because the erosive forces are everywhere. We fix it in stages and build our community of change: co-create and co-own that change.

Aspiration is easy: culture is what we live. And to build the culture we want, we have to live the culture we deserve.

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