May 29, 2008

De-engineering the organisation

Thanks to Axel Albin of tinygigantic I have just discovered Meg Wheatley. I intend to write some more about her ideas when I have had more time to digest them, but after an afternoon of listening to interviews, watching videos and reading some of her articles I have a sense of of her as great truth teller and some one, who, without false optimism, offers a way forward through many of of the dilemmas that face us all. But for now here is a taster from an interview with Scott London:

"We really have to "de-engineer" our thinking, which means that we have to examine how mechanistically we are oriented — even in our treatment of one another. This is especially true in corporations. We believe that we can best manage people by making assumptions more fitting to machines than people. So we assume that, like good machines, we have no desire, no heart, no spirit, no compassion, no real intelligence — because machines don't have any of that. The great dream of machines is that if you give them a set of instructions, they will follow it.

I see the history of management as an effort to perfect the instructions that you hope someone will follow this time — even though they have never followed directions in their whole life.

When I spoke of "de-engineering" our thinking, I wanted us to realize that at bottom we are alive, we are human beings. We possess all of the attributes that somehow disappeared in the mechanistic way of thinking. At the organizational level, the same is true. You cannot give an organization of people a set of directions, a re-engineered business process, a new org-chart, a new boss, a new set of behavioral expectations. You can't just legislate that. It doesn't happen. Yet corporations were, at the time of the reengineering frenzy, spending literally millions and millions of dollars to develop new engineering plans for the organization.

The 70 to 80 percent failure rate of those re-engineering efforts was, for me, totally predictable. Some say it was even higher than that over the long-term. Wherever you are taking an engineering approach to human , you are going to get an enormous level of backlash and resistance and bitterness because people have not been included."

Posted by richard at 1:34 AM

May 27, 2008

Digital Revolution - eh?

Just finished watching a really refreshing interview with Russell Davies on the Joined Up Company's site. Watch it and nod as he talks about the importance of doing lots of small useful things, why big companies can't do them and how the real digital revolution lies in making products magical by using digital technology. You can see it here.

Posted by richard at 12:37 PM

May 23, 2008

Good Business

For some years now I have been urging my friend, Karen Mahony to write something about the business she set up in Prague with her partner Alex.

Back in 2003 when we were in another gloomy economic period I wrote a piece pointing people to her blog. I concluded:

"Karen is a master at identifying, creating and navigating networks. If you are hoping to create a space to do good work and make a comfortable living in the new economy - and yes there is a new economy, despite the bubble and bust - this may be the place to learn how to do it."

A couple of years later I wrote another piece that included this bit about Karen:

"I have often urged her to keep a record of her activities, because she is one of the few people who really gets network thinking. The businesses she runs with Alex - Baba Studio, The Magic Realist Press and Baba Store are wonderful examples of 21st Century businesses and if she were ever able to find time to write a book about how they have managed to achieve so much in so little time, it would be a great text for people who would like to build 'good' businesses."

Now at last, I am please to say that she is finally getting some of her experience down in text. She has taken some of Hugh MacLeod's rules from his "How to be creative" and is giving her own take on them. When I last looked she had got up to number five. She is doing roughly one a day, so I guess the simplest thing to do is to link to her blog. You can find them there yourself. Or, if you instist, you can start here.

Posted by richard at 2:04 PM

May 21, 2008

Waiting for the dead cat bounce

Regular readers may have picked up on the plans we had to sell our house on the hill above Crouch End over looking the valley to Alexandra Palace. When we began thinking of it we had a mixture of motives. Mimi, my partner, has increasingly felt the need to spend more time in Chile to be close to her mother. Our son, Ben, the digital native, is making his own way in the world and will soon be moving out. So it looked like a good time to make a change. And the slightly scruffy, friendly, bohemian Crouch End we moved to nearly twenty years ago is changing. Still very pleasant. Still with real shops like butchers, bakers, fishmongers, a hardware store and so on. But changing.

The signs are on the kerbside. It used to be Citroen 2CVs, Renault 4s and slightly battered Volvo estates. Now it is BMWs, Saabs, a variety of 4x4s and a scattering of Porsches, Ferraris, Maseratis, with the occasional sighting of a Bentley.

So it seemed time to move on.

We first start thinking of making a move a the height of the property madness when people seemed to be shovelling suitcases of money at anything with a roof over it. We didn't do it then because Mimi, my partner, was busily getting qualified as a Coach and Mentor and the stresses of selling a house seemed to much to take on as well.

When we eventually got round to it, even before we approach an estate agent, we had a very good offer from a private buyer. A nice family, the kind of people one would welcome to take over a place that had been a good home to us. Sadly, the day before they were due to exchange contracts on their home, their buyer dropped out. So far as I know they still haven't sold.

After that we went to an estate agent, who found us an enthusiastic buyer. We also had found what could have been a small London base in an area we liked.

Plans seemed to be going well.

It looked as if we could sell our house and move in to our new base, all before we went on a trip to Chile for six weeks at the beginning of last December.

Then I began to feel a bit uneasy. Our buyer seemed to be dragging her feet. My unease was confirmed when I got a call from her asking if she could bring a friend to have a chat. It turned out that she had a younger brother who worked in financial services who had told her that she should ask for a ten per cent reduction. My estate agent said, "She's having a laugh". I politely declined her revised offer and as we were off to Chile in a few weeks took the house off the market.

When we got back from Chile we put the house back on the market, but the fizz had clearly gone and the collapse I had been anticipating for some time had clearly begun.

So what now?

Well there may be a dead cat bounce, that moment when confidence briefly returns to a market before it begins a much longer plunge. There are few tiny signals that this may take place. Some of the big boys are begin to buy some of what had been seen as the toxic bundles of mortgages in the belief that they may not be as toxic as most had feared. The Abbey and Barclays are busily building up market share in the retail mortgage market, which may prompt some of their rivals to move away from their current ultra risk adverse positions. The media may get bored with their sky is falling in headlines and move to a now is the time to buy line. Who knows, but if the cat does bounce and we get a reasonable offer, we may go ahead with something like our original plans.

And if the cat don't bounce?

This is where things get very purposive drifty.

The idea of selling the house was that it was an easy way of buying some financial and geographic freedom. Now we will have to get a bit more inventive and attentive to get to that place. And, curiously, now we have have had a taste of summer and accepted that we are likely to stay on here a while, this looks like a pretty good place to stay. It has been a good base for nearly twenty years, so a few more years here means that we can continue to enjoy it and may even generate some new possibilities we hadn't thought of.

You can then add into the equation the probability that from a pure investment point of view it almost certainly makes sense to hold on to our house for several more years. Even with quite a severe downturn (and this looks increasingly likely) the shifts I talked about at the beginning of this piece are changing the demographics and hence the values in this area. The kerbside doesn't lie. So taking a five to ten year view, what we have now will be worth a lot more in real terms than it is now or even was a few months ago.

So here we are, back to purposive drift. The house is still on the market. We know we want to create a state of greater financial and geographic freedom. How this will come about is still the unknown. We may still sell the house, (Anyone looking for a nice place to live, with a good long term upside, and prepared to make a sensible offer can do so here) Some other way of achieving the state we would like may emerge from an unexpected and unpredictable place - it's all a question of remaining open and sensitive to context, events and keeping the purposive in purposive drift.

And, who knows, the cat may bounce.

Posted by richard at 1:20 PM

May 17, 2008

Discovering the dead

I first started looking at obituaries back in the mid-seventies when I did some research on the influence of the security services on the media. What I discovered then was that obituaries were often more fact filled than things published during someone's lifetime and sometimes held key information that open up whole new areas of inquiry. But what really drew my attention to the form was a deliciously vicious obituary of Gerry Healey the leader of the WRP, which again was probably more truthful than anything written before.

Since then I have made it habit to scan the orbit columns when I buy a newspaper and as result have discovered all sorts of interesting people and ideas I might not otherwise have come across.

My latest find was the novelist and travel writer Michael De Larrabeiti, whose obituary appeared in the Independent. Apparently he was best known for his Borrible Trilogy, three children's books operating in similar territory to Roald Dahl and Richmal Compton, whose books my son adored. But what really intrigued me was the short biography on his web site tracing his trajectory from working class boy in Battersea to writer in Cotswolds, which seems to echo a journey made by a number of people I admire from a similar background in the immediate post-war years. The kind of journey I wonder whether people could still make now.

Posted by richard at 3:02 PM

May 16, 2008

May 15, 2008

Obsession by another name

Calling Mark Pesce's blog a blog is a bit misleading. He writes thoughtful essays. Essays that are worth reading very carefully and packed with ideas that deserve equally thoughtful reflection. This is one blog, like Grant McCracken's and Marc Andreessen's, where mining the archives carries rich rewards.

I give you this extract, that particularly took my fancy, from a post on Wikis as taster, but urge you to explore the rest of the site for even more intellectual nourishment:

"Everyone is an expert. From a toddler, expert in the precarious balance of towering wooden blocks, to a nanotechnologist, expert in the precarious juxtaposition of atom against atom, everyone has some field of study wherein they excel – however esoteric or profane it might seem to the rest of us. The hows and whys of this are essential to human nature; we’re an obsessive species, and our obsessions can form around almost any object which engages our attentions. Most of these obsessions seem completely natural, in context: a Pitjandjara child learns an enormous amount about the flora and fauna of the central Australian desert, knows where to find water and shade, can recite the dreamings which place her within the greater cosmos. In the age before agriculture, all of us grew up with similar skills, each of us entirely obsessed with the world around us, because within that obsession lay the best opportunity for survival. Those of our ancestors who were most apt with obsession (up to a point) would thrive even in the worst of times, passing those behaviors (some genetic, some cultural) down through time to ourselves. But obsession is not a vestigial behavior; the entire bedrock of civilization is built upon it: specialization, that peculiar feature of civilization, where each assumes a particular set of duties for the whole, is simply obsession by another name."

Posted by richard at 3:42 PM

May 14, 2008

Coming back from the shop without any milk

I have been meaning to get hold of a copy of Gary Marcus's "Kludge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind" ever since I read about it in Neuroanthropology. I may be wrong, but I suspect that there may be some strong connections to to some of ideas I have been exploring in purposive drift.

In the meantime (again thanks to Neuroanthropology) here is Marcus's take on why we often find ourselves doing something different (and often seemingly stupid) from what we planned:

"In the mental machinery that governs our everyday decisions, kluges abound. Take, for example, the scenario described in the beginning of the essay -- the fellow who forgets his errand on the way home. His problem is clearly not in finding his way to the grocery store -- it's in remembering to go in the first place.

The problem is that evolution failed to realize that remembering goals is not like recognizing objects. When your brain sees a lion, the thing to do is to decide, lickety-split, to get out of the way. Run first; ask questions later. We're programmed for just that kind of split-second decision; just about every creature on the planet is built such that it can identify things like predators and prey very rapidly. We're not programmed to remember precise episodes from the past. Why not? Because remembering the exact date on which you last saw a lion is not particularly helpful when you're trying to get out of the way.

Alas, evolution didn't have the foresight to realize that different kinds of tasks require different kinds of memory, and it used the same basic sort of memory for everything, not just for remembering what lions and tigers look like (in which general tendencies suffice) but also for cases -- like tracking our goals -- where a bit more precision would have been helpful. As a result, trying to remember what to do next can be a little like trying to remember what you had for breakfast yesterday: There are too many breakfasts and too many yesterdays for our biological memories to keep track of."

Posted by richard at 3:48 PM

May 6, 2008

Virginmedia: A postscript

I'd given up on getting through to Virginmedia's broadband support and was settling down to an afternoon nap (Yes, regular readers, the aftermath of the Bell's Palsy while much better still continues) when I heard a knock on my door. To my amazement it was a couple of guys from Virginmedia, who had come to install a new cable. Maybe there is hope for them after all. I'll keep you posted.

Posted by richard at 1:24 PM

A classic case of failure demand

I'm having one of those glorious consumer mornings.

It began with an e-mail I received last night:

"Thanks for getting in touch about an issue with your Virgin Media service.

Please accept my sincere apologies for the current issue you are experiencing.

I've checked into your account and found that my colleague attempted to call you at 14.40 on the date you stated but that there was no answer. If you are still having problems with the services, I'd suggest you call into our broadband support line as, due to our being a dedicated e-mail response team, I'm unable to arrange a technician visit by e-mail. To do this you'd need to call 0906 212 1111 (calls cost 25p/min+10p connection fee, costs from mobiles and other networks may vary, but in the case of a Virgin Media fault we always refund the cost of the call).

If there's anything else we can help with, please let us know."

So this morning I tried to ring. Nobody picked up the phone. I rang again. And so on.

In frustration, I composed a reply to the e-mail I had received:

"Would be great to follow you advice and ring the broadband support line, unfortunately there seems to be nobody on the end of the line. (I started trying get through shortly after 9.00, it is now nearly 10.15. Meanwhile I have had another weekend with no broadband connection and no on-demand services on the TV.

My biggest frustration is that this has been going on for months and one of your smart, very impressive young technicians identified the problem months ago - the way we are wired up to your main box in the street means that we do not get a strong enough signal. This was confirmed by another bright young man who came last week. The problem seems to be that while you have some very able people on the ground their messages are not getting through higher up so that the necessary corrective action can be taken.

The absurdity of this is that not only do you end up with a frustrated customer, who is beginning to wonder why he is paying Virginmedia over £1200 a year for a sub-standard service, but it is also costing you money in terms of calls to support (when I can get through) and unnecessary technician visits."

And received this reply:

"IMPORTANT - your e-mail has not been delivered.

To contact Virgin Media, please complete the contact form on our web-site http://www.virginmedia.com"

Am I surprised when I see this in last Sunday's Observer:

"Virgin Media, in which Richard Branson holds a £240m stake, said in February that year-on-year losses increased from £88m to £163m, as a result of higher interest charges. Virgin Media's new chief executive, Neil Berkett, who took over from Steve Burch, said the company was concentrating on improving its broadband offering and reducing 'churn' - the number of customers leaving."

Not really.

Posted by richard at 9:45 AM

May 1, 2008

Be careful what you throw away

Be careful what you throw away

Many years ago I lived on the edge of Islington nearest to the City in what some claimed was the smallest house in London. It had a kitchen about the size of my current kitchen table, a bathroom that was not much bigger, another reasonable sized room downstairs and upstairs there was one large studio room, with a huge window overlooking the gardens at the back.

The kitchen was largely free of paper. The bathroom usually had a couple of books, a newspaper and some magazines in it. But the other two rooms were piled high with paper, books, magazines and newspaper clippings.

Sadly, my partner Mimi doesn't share my enthusiasm for paper and when I moved in with her to the depths of Hackney most of the paper had to go. Her argument was, "You can always find it in a library."

This I discovered was untrue.

When my then colleague Liz McQuiston was researching her book "Graphic Agitation" she would often mention that she was looking for a particular copy of an underground magazine without success and I would remember it sitting in my collection - a collection tragically dumped when the College I had donated it to decided they would clear the room where it had been archived to make more teaching space.

Even now I still get flashbacks to that collection. I was writing a piece about the Sixties and how at the time I had been pretty snotty about much of what going on and wanted to reference a piece written by Raymond Durgnat, which I knew once had but no longer did. I remembered that he was being critical about much of the sloppiness in thinking and execution that characterised many in the underground or alternative society. The bit that stuck in my mind went something to the effect of, "There are two ways, the easy way and the hard way. The easy way isn’t easy and the hard way is bloody hard". Of course, I haven't been able to find it on-line, so, for the moment, it remains an echo in my memory.

(Curiously, the point I was trying make in the unfinished piece I was writing was that although I was snotty at the time, in retrospect the period I think of as being the Sixties, which ran from some point in the mid-Sixties to somewhere in the mid point of the Seventies was more fruitful and productive than I had realised while it was happening. Durgnat and I may have been right to feel critical of the sloppiness, but what we failed to recognise was that the sloppiness was the price for the festival of ideas and possibilities that was being generated. I guess I, at least, was taking that for granted only to see the fear of freedom generated by the festival take over as economies fell into the phenomenon we called stagflation. As the fear took over, categories hardened, people moved back to old positions and the conceptual and creative space contracted. And yet, if we look carefully we can see much of the world we live in today had its origins in the ideas and experiments of that time. It's just that some of that took a long time to work through the system. Reading through the various looking back at Sixty Eight pieces that are popping up now, I am struck by how much of the important stuff has got lost or forgotten and what has remained is essentially superficial and transitory. Perhaps this is another example of "be careful of what you throw away. (To bracket within a bracket - I have a very strong sense that if you were to look at that time like the waste from an old mine you would find that there was still much valuable ore amongst the rubbish that while not realisable then would now seem fresh, doable and pertinent to the world we face today))

But to return to my narrower theme. Now we are in the process of trying to sell our house - it seemed like a good idea a year or so ago - I am again under instructions to dispose of at least some of my accumulated paper. In the process of throwing away some magazines, wrapped in plastic at the back of a cupboard, thinking if I haven't looked at them for years I might as well get rid of them, I discovered a copy of the very last New Society.

New Society was a great quirky weekly magazine (originally seen as a kind of social science equivalent of the New Scientist) which featured some great writers such as Reyner Banham, Colin MacInnes, Laurie Taylor, Peter Hall, John Berger, Angela Carter, Ray Gosling, George Melly, Simon Frith, Colin Ward and others I will remember after I have posted this piece. (New Society also has a special place in my heart because as well as opening up my young mind to ideas and people I might not otherwise encountered, it also was the first place I was published - a very short piece on the ferment in art schools going on at the time - somewhere in my piles of paper I still have a photocopy of the cheque I received - so, thank you Paul Barker, one of New Society's great editors, for my very first commission.)

It was seeing Michael Young's name on the cover that saved me from consigning this very special copy to the bin. It was Michael Young, who suggested the idea for the magazine to Timothy Raison, who had found the New Scientist. (A gem that that I have just discovered as I write in a fascinating history of the magazine by Steve Platt in this last issue.) I shouldn't have found this surprising for Michael Young was one of the most extraordinary social entrepreneurs, whose list of achievements makes the mind boggle - go and see for yourself.

However, it wasn't Michael Young's role as a social entrepreneur that saved this copy from the bin. It was his work as a sociologist, in particular some of his later work on time. As regular readers will know, one of my current pre-occupations is with the nature of time, particularly the Greek idea of Chronos and Chairos, which can loosely be translated as clock time as opposed to the right or appropriate time. So I was anxious to re-discover Michael Young's thinking on this matter.

What I had forgotten was that in the article in new Society Michael Young was not just talking about time, but also biology - as the blurb accompanying the article read, "Michael Young has been credited with being the first to propose a magazine called "New Society". If he is right in his new book that there is going to be a unification of the social and biological sciences, the magazine which in due course replace New Society will eventually be named "New Society and Biology""

Which, curiously, brings me to the roots of this piece. The other day I was flattered to find this web site recommended by Daniel Lende of Neuroanthropology along side Grant McCracken's This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics, which regular readers will know is an old favourite of mine and three others that were new to me, Open Range Anthropologist, The Restless Mind and Experientia.

With a little superficial digging I saw that Neuroanthropology was concerned about crossing the boundaries between cultural anthropology and the neurosciences:

"In general, cultural anthropology has not kept abreast of new research in the neurosciences so that our theory of culture does not sufficiently take into account what we now know about the brain. A more open exchange is likely to produce a cultural anthropology that is not only more scientifically plausible, but also much more scientifically engaged with those interested in cultural variation (although they might not call it that) in a host of fields."

So Greg Downey and Daniel Lende actually seem to be pushing forward the enterprise that Michael Young was advocating at the end of the Eighties. A link I wouldn't have seen if that copy of New Society had been put in the bin. Which, of course, was what got me thinking about, "be careful what you throw away". (A further question comes to mind, would I have then gone on to explore the site in so much detail had I not made that link? Maybe. But, certainly, having made that link encouraged me to explore the site in detail and to my delight found a cavern of riches, filled with ideas, suggestions and stimulating stuff, which will keep me busy and thinking for quite a while.)

Writing this piece has also surfaced some thoughts that have been bubbling around in my mind for a while. Back in the Sixties I thought of myself as a radical and I guess I still do. When we look around at the world there is clearly much that needs changing, but our hunger for change should be tempered by some humility and empathy. Our bright, clear visions for a better future too often do not take account of the seeming messiness and complexity of our world. In our eagerness to implement change we should pause occasionally and consider whether there maybe something valuable that in making our changes we are throwing away. So to all of us who see ourselves in the business of change I would extend this warning, be careful what you throw away, it may be more important than you imagine.

Posted by richard at 1:08 PM