Finding Your Campfire: Supporting Newly Remote Teams

I have curated a series of three webinars aimed at newly remote teams, which draw upon my wider work around Social Leadership, Community Building, Storytelling, and Trust. I will offer these on alternating weeks on European and US timezones. I hope that in some small way they will help those making the transition to remote work a little more smooth.

The shift to remote work is a disruptive one for many individuals and teams: the change involves uncertainty, fear, and opportunity, almost in equal measure. Without care, some people will be disadvantaged or left behind. It is easy for narratives to emerge from fear and doubt that can lead people to lack barriers and boundaries, or to despair and lack of focus.

The three webinars will take place on three sequential days, to cover the foundations of remote work, and the ways we lead, and participate, in these spaces.

Session One: Foundations of Remote Working – this will draw most closely on the ‘Landscape of Communities’ research, and will explore the ways that relationships change online, the diverse ‘sense making and support’ spaces we inhabit, the importance of tempo and the dynamics of social collaboration. We will also consider the central role of trust in all of this.

Session Two: Building Virtual Teams – will draw directly upon the Social Leadership work, and particularly focus on the role of social currencies, gratitude, vulnerability, and doubt.

Session Three is perhaps the most important: Finding Your Campfire – Being Together Apart – it’s about the importance of individual and shared (co-creative) storytelling, reinforcing team identity and momentum.

Doubtless this will evolve in the telling, but i am happy to be able to offer it freely to anyone who has been thrust into this space.

You can register for Webinar One [Foundations of Remote Working] here.

You can register for Webinar Two [Building Virtual Teams] here.

You can register for Webinar Three [Finding Your Campfire] here.

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Mending the Net: a Story of Culture

The past and the present, the old and the new, these are convenient ways to parcel out our time, to present separate and distinct narratives around what came before, and what replaced it. We use these terms both to describe the change we have experienced, and to outline the change that we aspire to. But what if the truth is a little less clear: what if there are few sharp dividing lines, but rather a simple tipping point at which we come to believe in a new truth? What if the ‘new’ is simply a patchwork of various ‘olds’, held together with some new thread, told as part of a new story?

Last week i spent some valuable time with a dear friend who works far up in the North of Canada, working alongside Indigenous communities that have had aspects of their past taken away from them: through both Colonial, and post Colonial periods there have been structural attempts to fracture language and, hence culture, to sever the links to the land, and to impose market economies and legal systems onto people whose belief systems do not neatly aline to the newcomers.

The result is an uneasy truce: groups who are restless, but detached from their heritage, their landscapes, and their sense of place. The result are communities with high levels of suicide and mental health issues, held in a space that does not lack money to resolve it, so much as imagination and vision. People who do not fit in a convenient modern space, and are an inconvenience to the narrative of Canada today.

My friend told me a story: she had been teaching a class when one of the community Elders had asked her if she could help. He was fixing up his fishing net, and needed an extra pair of hands. Whilst he worked, he explained how the nets needed tending to, and how this particular net was both very old, and very important. Indeed, this net had been part of the foundation of the modern village.

It got me thinking: the net, and the story of the net.

Nets are almost a metaphor for ephemerality: nothing but string, and yet so much more, almost impossible to draw, because the ‘thing’ that they are is the space that they divide.

A net is an artefact almost entirely define by purpose, with a purity that we often engineer out of systems as we refine them.

And nets are cultural artefacts because the knowledge to make them is typically passed on by generation, through those cold afternoons sat outside, observing, questioning, trying.

The knowledge of how to mend the net is, like much of the cultural knowledge that concerns the Indigenous Communities, not something that can be taken for granted: today my friend’s students learn how to hunt and trap, to skin and cook, but also how to use iMovie and write blogs, to make great music, and to do maths. But it’s a patchwork.

I do not know how to mend a net: conceptually, i get it. It can’t be hard. And yet i lack the lifetime of experience, and the generations of wisdom that sit behind the knot.

No problem, i might say: i do not need generational knowledge to tie the knot. I am pretty sure i can find it on YouTube. And indeed i may be right. I can learn to tie a knot. But can i learn to mend the net? The net that started life at the birth of the village?

Philosophers love a question like this: Odysseus’s boat lay on the shore where he had abandoned it, patched up every year with a new timber and some fresh paint. But still Odysseus’s boat. What makes the thing the thing?

Because to learn to patch the net is not just about knowledge: it’s about context, held within the story. Indeed, i asked my friend whether it was possible that the Elder asked all newcomers to help patch the net. Maybe the net was a proxy for the story of the village. Maybe the net was the vessel for the story.

But i do not know how to mend the net.

Culture is complex, and yet utterly simple: if you drive a pickup truck, eat a Big Mac, and wear Adidas, then those are aspects of your culture. If you lose the ability to speak or write your ancestors language, then that too defines your culture. The language itself is not culture, but the way that meaning is carried in words is. And different words may not carry the same meaning.

So i can learn to mend a net, but i cannot YouTube the experience of learning it with the village Elder. And even if my net is functional, it may not be culturally coherent.

I could carry the net to Toronto, or London, and tell the museum curator that it’s a valuable artefact. We could employ a researcher to identify traditional knotting techniques, and a specialist conservator to tie the threads. We could even pay for an authentic ‘village elder’ to fly in to run a seminar on ancient nets in our air conditioned theatre. And at the end we could display a fully functioning net within an inert gas environment, in a sealed glass case, where it would live for ten thousand years. But it would not be the net that founded the village.

Context, for culture, is everything. And the thing about context is that it is not purely about utility.

I could pay the villagers for all their old nets, throw them out, and give them all new orange nylon ones. Ones that do not break. But what would be lost? As utility grows, we lose something else.

But i do not know how to mend the net, and am not willing to learn: for me, it’s easiest to buy a new net. The net is not part of my culture. So i enjoyed the story, but i’m not willing to invest in carrying it forwards.

And should i ask others to do so? If we send the teenagers in a structurally impoverished village out to learn how to mend nets are we helping them to retain their culture, or are we creating a museum-piece of fragmented culture? And would they have been better off learning programming or Mandarin Chinese? If there is a cost of culture, who should pay it?

There is a reason that you and i drive pickups and wear adidas, or whatever our local flavour of that looks like. So by what right or expectation would we ask others to put up with less? Do i want to see people wear ‘traditional’ garments, speak old languages, and skin rabbits to make me feel better?

I guess it depends on the type of society we want: a homogenous one, given to us by Netflix, or a personalised one, gifted to us by our ancestors.

When things fall out of culture, they fall into history. And when history no longer has use for them, they fall to dust and ruin. Archaeologists can tell you about ‘ritual scatters’ of stones, which is a way of saying ‘we have no idea what this means, but it clearly meant something to someone’.

There is a difference between needing to mend a net, for utility, and having had the experience, at least once in your lifetime, of mending the net, especially if it is the net that your village was built upon. Because that’s the thing about culture: if we do not invest in it, then it is just someone else’s story.

I do not know how to mend a net, but i surely wish i had had the chance to sit and help to mend it. Because even though the net is not part of my culture, i feel that the stories it carries would enrich me.

Posted in Community, Culture, History, Learning, Social Learning | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Complexity and Belief

This is a #WorkingOutLoud post exploring complexity, and the role of belief: it relates to several broader strands of work that explore the social structure of Organisations, and the mechanisms of change.

At heart, Organisations are made up of components, which may be multitudinous, but are ultimately quantifiable: people, assets, systems. Complexity probably falls in the nature of interaction between those components, as well as the nature of behaviour of the component itself e.g. a chair always behaves in predictable ways, and i do not. Worse, the way that i am unpredictable is itself unpredictable: i may have a good day, or a bad one.

But as well as interacting on each other, some components project belief onto each other: individually we project belief onto other people (we trust them, dislike them, think they stand against us etc), and collectively (as e.g. a sales team) we project belief onto other intact units e.g. the legal team. We even project it onto geographies (‘head office’, the ‘nerds in IT’ etc), and abstract groupings of individuals (the ‘old boys club’, the ‘millennials’ etc). So complexity lies at the relationship of individual components, and also between aggregated (but aggregated in multiple layers) sets of components. With some of these relationships being predictable (my chair) and others being either unpredictable, or irrational, or rational by an alternative frame that i do not understand. Or a combination of all those things.

Belief is potentially a central component of complexity in that case, impacting it in a number of ways: firstly, belief may add to or amplify that unpredictable individual and group behaviour, secondly it may delude us that we understand complexity by imposing structures that ‘seem’ real, but are actually artefacts of our belief. Things we wish to be true and convince ourselves of.

Complexity is interesting, being a broadly used term that is, nonetheless, subjective, like trust, love, or meaning. And of course there is a difference between complexity, and things that we just don’t understand yet.

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What is Government?

An invention that comes in many flavours: from the direct rule of tribal councils, to the arms length nature of federal democracy. Something synchronous and pervasive, to something abstract and outdated.

Government but by whom?

Government has a core purpose to keep us safe. But also represents state sanctioned violence. It has a purpose to build infrastructure, to enable, but also regulates and taxes to control.

At best, our Governments are a story that we choose to believe in because legitimacy is an invested currency.

I find myself tugging at loose threads of thought: ‘globally local’ is something that keeps surfacing. How the local social forces of ‘line of sight’ conversation are now so utterly global, of how authentic storytellers command contextual authority, even of those whom they never meet in person, and how the gap between ‘government services’ and commercial ones exist in an ever widening breach. Whilst commercial organisations are grasping that utility is becoming experience, much government service holds onto the notion that power sits within the system, and opposition is inevitable, neither of which holds true.

In fact, power sits wherever legitimacy leads, and opposition is simply a force that holds us static when we most need to change.

My Canadian friends in this space are typically thoughtful and reflective, which prompts me to be the same. Perhaps it’s something to do with Canada being so intractably vast and fragmented, with less of a sense of the permanence and proximity we feel in the UK. I always feel there is a willingness in Canada to reinvent itself as a service of Government, whilst in the UK i feel more a demand for subservience.

Of course Canada is as imperfect as the rest of us, with a broad range of fractured solutions to the legacy of the indigenous tribes, some of which seems hopelessly mired between charity, blindness, and money.

The focus of my session today was a phrase i used recently in a different context: Organisations are entities of story and belief.

Nations are like that too: we must write the new story, and see if people will believe.

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The Responsibility of Organisations

I have been surprised to see so many people celebrating the life of Jack Welch, especially people from HR or L&D backgrounds. I’m sure he was a very nice man. Certainly a very rich one. And certainly successful, by one measure of success. But if part of the route to that success is to fire 10% of your managers annually, i would argue not a very nuanced, fair, or developmental one. Indeed, just the opposite. Which got me thinking about responsibility, and the underlying purpose of Organisations.

There are clearly multiple measure of success: you can generate profits for shareholders, you can provide opportunities for staff, you can be deemed to be deeply fair, you can do great good in the world. Money is the easiest one to measure, but that does not make it the most important, whatever capitalism tells us. And money is not mutually exclusive of the others, although it may require us to take a more balanced view.

Is wealth at the cost of fairness ever the right thing to do?

And if it is, then who will work the other end of the scale and build the society that we want to live within?

I’ve described this before in terms of understanding a core question: does society exist to serve the Organisation, or to Organisations serve society? I don’t mean that they exist as social enterprises, or charities, but rather that they act a corporate members of society, with appropriate restraint and generosity to make society function.

In this illustration today, i add to that the question of whether they are a net drain on society, drawing fairness out and away, or do they act for net gain: are they able to be financially successful, and also deeply fair, contributing not only wealth, but social good?

If you are thinking at this stage ‘just leave it to the market to decide’, then this writing is probably not for you. Because the market may well decide, but the market does not make the decision right. If fairness is a layer we add on, when we feel wealthy and fulfilled, but something we are willing to abandon when things are tough, then we are charitable, but unfair. Fairness is not about charity, not something to give away with discretion when we feel like it, but rather should be part of our core purpose, and something that we invest for long term gain.

But what about Jack: should he have sacrificed wealth for fairness?

What if the cost of that sacrifice was failure? What if the bloated GE at the start of his tenure would have failed without those cuts?

Partly that’s a disingenuous question: to wilfully fail is not fair either, not fair to staff or shareholders, or indeed wider society.

But the corollary of avoiding failure is not success at any cost.

It can be fair to make cuts, fair to lose people, and even fair to make money. But what may not be fair is to do those things beyond reason.

Cutting 10% of staff because that is your only sustainable option is one thing Cutting them because you think it’s clever, or because it makes you look like a six shooting hero is not.

Cutting staff because you don’t think they can learn, change, or contribute, is neither clever nor fair.

As i say: i’m sure Jack was a nice man. I’m sure he was almost a billion dollars a nice man. But that does not make him a hero.

If we rely on markets to make us fair, we will fail. Markets do one thing well: impose transparent value on a system. If i will pay you $10 dollars for it, then it is worth $10. But fairness is not a directly traded currency, and even where it is traded, it is more honorific than fiscal. And it may mean different things, and be worth different amounts, to different people.

I often play a game called ‘Coins of Gratitude’ with people, and they earn a coin to say ‘thank you’ for things that are important to them. Sometimes those things are huge: i remember one man spending it to his partner for her care when he had been ill, and one young man spending it to his grandmother who had funded his MBA in international development, helping him to achieve his dream of helping others. Other people are grateful for small things: like their dog, or chocolate. But all just earn one coin. The value of that coin is socially imbued, and unique to each person. Fairness is a little like that.

I can act however i like, but i cannot make you think it is fair.

But if i act fairly towards you, you will know it.

So fairness is contextual, judged in the receipt, and rarely traded, existing beyond money.

To pick on someone who has just died is an unfair target, and both ignominious and belittling of me. But equally to idolise someone who achieved their great success at a great cost to fairness may be deemed morose as well. So i will forgive others if they will forgive me.

Of course, the status and fame of the hero is itself a socially traded currency: you cannot buy your way to the top.

At the end of the day, we will have to invent and narrate the Organisations that we want, if we are not to be caught in service of the Organisations that we deserve.

We will have to invest fairness if we want Organisations to be fair.

And we will have to put down our heroes of old and fine some new ones who have earned the respect that we invest in them.

We can be wildly successful by being wildly fair. And certainly we do not have to write people off to be successful.

So consider the Organisation you inhabit, and ask where it is responsible: to you, to shareholders, to wider society.

And ask if it is draining, or acting for societies gain. Is it successful to serve: to create opportunity and act as a force for good, to reinforce and refresh society through progressive approaches to labour, to environment, and to reward? Or is it successful just to make money by selling out people?

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Prototyping the Community Builder Certification

Today i kicked off the ‘Community Builder Certification’ programme: it’s the latest of my Social Leadership programmes. It’s a 12 week facilitated online journey based around three elements: IDEAS, which is the underlying research and frameworks, TECHNIQUES, which are practical tools to use in a Community, and running your own EXPERIMENT. As this is a prototype programme, it includes some well developed work (the Social Leadership framework) as well as some completely new thinking (the Community Star work, and the 5 Day Experiments). I would normally expect only around 40% of a prototype programme to make it through to the final version, which means that these first cohorts can be pretty fun and chaotic as we find our way.

I enjoy the Certifications for two reasons: firstly, they are good for my personal discipline, compelling me to take aspects of my work from ‘idea’ into ‘practice’, which is where you really make a difference and secondly because these early cohorts are invariably populated by the most ardent Social Age explorers, which makes them safe and creative spaces for me to fail in (for which i am eternally grateful).

In line with this rather flexible philosophy, i’ve also shared this structure with the group, even though as we start the course, it is still incomplete: the first six weeks are the ‘content’ sessions, and the following five are the ‘experiment’ ones, with the final weeks being our shared learning and legacy. Again, this fluid approach allows me to adapt the shape of the second unit according to how we get on in the first: specifically i think that we may want more time to rehearse and practice the two main tools, so i can add a layer of that into the second phase.

I try to build these as examples of Scaffolded Social Learning in practice, which means that they contain almost no ‘answers’, but rather my role is to draw a thread through the collaborative input of the Community itself. The social co-creation of meaning (built out of both the formal ‘knowledge’ that we put in, and the social experience of the cohort) is very much what Social Learning is all about. Plus: the ‘rehearsal’ is part of the learning, so by graduation, the Explorers have ‘done’ what they learn.

These things are not perfect: some people hate the lack of structure, and sometimes i find i am unable to keep the experience coherent. I am far from the best facilitator, so we end up burrowing down rabbit holes and chasing interesting kites. But then again, what is ‘learning’ if not about curiosity? What you learn may be less important than the fact that one is open to learning: recognising that we do not have all the answers already is part of the humility of Social Leadership.

I will #WorkOutLoud on both the design, and to share the experience, as we go. The second cohort will kick off in May, giving me time to really work the ideas and experience through before then.

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The Learning Science Journey

I have completed the main illustrations for the Learning Science Guidebook (*i think): there are twenty three of them, and i finished up by redrawing four of the original ones that i had initially shared on the blog. This is not unusual: most of my work iterates fast, and the early sketches really represented me finding the visual style and approach, and helped to give the idea some shape.

I’m trying to walk a fine line in the Learning Science work: in line with all of these books, it is not a set of answers, so much as a space to explore, with the right guidance and support. The Guidebook represents my current understanding, and efforts to sketch out a useful journey, but i am aware that it will not be right for everyone.

This is one of the central challenges of #WorkingOutLoud: your work rarely represents perfection (if such a thing exists) but is rather an evolving story which one tries to improve over time. I am comfortable with imperfection, as long as the story is as strong as i can make it with my current understanding. The only time i get frustrated is when people point out faults with glee: i share it to be wrong, not to convince anyone that it is right. Within a community, when we help it other to do better, it should be with generosity and pride.

The illustration here maps out the journey that the Guidebook takes: to construct your personal discipline. I think that this is right: we can be given formal job descriptions and take formal courses, but the art of learning is to create your own style. Evidence based, fluid and adaptive over time, unafraid to be wrong, but working towards being better.

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