Conference: small stages

Good conferences create a range of stages for members of the cohort to try things out on. Workshops, seminars and meetings happening alongside the keynote and plenary sessions create value for presenters (a chance to meet interested people and try out material) and for the cohort (a testbed for discovering new ideas, finding new contributors and new speakers and leaders).

If you’re organising a conference, it’s worth being deliberate about making an on-ramp of smaller opportunities and chances for attendees to contribute.*

*The focus needs to be on contribution – opportunities for members of the cohort to share something valuable with peers, rather than to get on their own private soapbox or achieve five minutes of fame.

Attention hours

We often focus on the attention economy as it relates to life online, but it’s a helpful lens for thinking about the rest of our lives too.

Attention hours are a useful thing to count when thinking about how valuable an activity is, and how much time you might be wasting if you do it badly.

Ten hours of your attention preparing an hour’s presentation seems like a lot, but even if you only have twenty people in the room – twenty of the right people – and you do what you set out to do, you’ve just doubled your investment.

Attention hours also help us to see the value that we risk wasting with bad presentations. Even if your audience haven’t paid money to see you, they’re paying attention.

Some questions:

  • What could you achieve with twenty hours of your audience’s work? How about a hundred hours?
  • What could they – could you – buy with one hundred times their average hourly wage?
  • What will you do to make the most of this valuable opportunity? What will make it worth it for them, which will also make it worth it for you?

Peter Drucker on performance appraisals

Effective executives usually work out their own unique form of performance appraisal. It starts out with a statement of the major contributions expected from a person in his past and present positions and a record of their performance against these goals. Then it asks four questions:

1) What has he or she done well?

2) What, therefore, is he or she likely to be able to do well?

3) What does he or she have to learn or acquire to be able to get the full benefit from their strengths?

4) If I had a son or daughter, would I be willing to have him or her work under this person?
a) If yes, why?
b) If no, why?

This appraisal actually takes a much more critical look at a person than the usual procedure does. But it focuses on strengths. Weaknesses are seen as limitations to the full use of strengths and to one’s own achievement, effectiveness, and accomplishment.

The last question (4b) is the only one that is not primarily concerned with strengths. Subordinates, especially bright, young, and ambitious ones, tend to mold themselves after a forceful boss. There is, therefore, nothing more corrupting and more destructive in an organisation than a forceful but basically corrupt executive. Here, therefore, is the one area where weakness is a disqualification by itself rather than a limitation on performance capacity and strength.

Peter Drucker – The Effective Executive (from in The Daily Drucker)

Hard conversations

…aren’t supposed to be easy.

The person you need to have the conversation with might be a peer, a friend, a long-term colleague.

The conversations are uncomfortable in the planning, in the preparation and in the aftermath – often because they highlight your own weaknesses or lay you open to charges of hypocrisy or favouritism, however hard you’ve tried.

But avoiding the conversation will put an even bigger strain on you, your team and your organisation – and possibly beyond. Your reputation, your work and your impact will suffer.

In short: this is your job, and you have to have the conversation.

Have it as close as possible to when you discovered the problem. Prepare, speak clearly and directly, and don’t run away from the uncomfortable feeling of calling someone out or confronting something that’s wrong. Instead hold onto that feeling as a sign that you’re doing you job.

Do your job.

Joseph Conrad on art, writing and reaching your audience

All art, therefore, appeals primarily to the senses, and the artistic aim when expressing itself in written words must also make its appeal through the senses, if its highest desire is to reach the secret spring of responsive emotions. It must strenuously aspire to the plasticity of sculpture, to the colour of painting, and to the magic suggestiveness of music—which is the art of arts. And it is only through complete, unswerving devotion to the perfect blending of form and substance; it is only through an unremitting never-discouraged care for the shape and ring of sentences that an approach can be made to plasticity, to colour, and that the light of magic suggestiveness may be brought to play for an evanescent instant over the commonplace surface of words: of the old, old words, worn thin, defaced by ages of careless usage.

My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm—all you demand—and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.

Joseph Conrad – Preface to “The Narcissus

How, in your everyday work, in your next report or meeting, can you…

  • Appeal to the senses (to reach the secret spring of responsive emotions)?
  • Shape what you do so that the ‘light of magic suggestiveness’ may be bought to play over the commonplace surface of old, thin words – or actions and routines?
  • Enable with your audience (partners! friends!) to find there a glimpse of truth for which they have forgotten to ask?
  • Perhaps, better still – can you find that glimpse of truth together?

Seth Godin on leadership, generosity and charisma

You can say that charisma makes you a leader, but I believe that leading gives you charisma. And that changes everything: that you gain charisma through your generous acts of leadership.

You don’t need authority, you don’t need to win an election.

What you need is to act as if – to be this generous leader – and then over time, people ascribe charisma to you, and then you get picked.

Seth GodinSeeing the World Through a Different Frame on Big Questions with Cal Fussman

Value: more of more?

  • Make something useful
  • For lots of people
  • Capture some of that value so that you can do it again

The more useful what you do is, for more people*, the greater the potential is for your organisation to be sustainable and successful.**

BUT you probably need to start by building something small first: the minimum viable product for the minimum viable audience.

*An resource or innovation that only exists in your head isn’t useful… yet.
**That is, if you get the wrapper – structure, systems, money flows – in the right alignment.

Canon: fences and trampolines

I’ve just spent a thoroughly enjoyable day at the first Jakarta International Literary Festival. I sat in on two Symposiums*: The Southern Common Themes Dilemma, moderated by Nukila Aman and featuring Legodile Seganabeng, Sharlene Teo, Intan Paramaditha, and Nukila Aman; and The Need for a Southern Canon, moderated by Stephanos Stephanides and featuring Ramon Guillermo, Hilmar Farid and Adania Shibli.

The atmosphere was friendly and inclusive, even if the themes were challenging, and the presentations were rich and thought-provoking.

Whose canon?

The idea of canon – the body of texts regarded as ‘core’ or ‘important’ – was central to the discussion:

  • Is a Southern Canon (in opposition to the Western one) even possible?
  • If possible, is it desirable?
  • Who shapes the canon?
  • Who gains from the canon, and who loses out?
  • What does a canon enable?
  • What are its dangers, and who might it exclude?

Who sets up the library of world literature?

Intan Paramaditha

Canon as emergent network

Ramon Guillermo shared some interesting research about networks of production and reception of South-East Asian literature between major cities, and I think this idea is fruitful with respect to the canon itself: canon as a dynamic network of texts and readers. Books gain prominence (‘become more canonical’) in the network through connection to readers and other books. Readers and writers draw themselves into the conversation by latching onto books, pulling themselves in and re-configuring the network as they go by drawing new connections between books and readers – often by the simple act of saying “you should read this – it’s great.”

No-one makes the canon. We can take a snapshot of it in time, but we can’t freeze it or control it (though people have tried, even succeeded – for a while).

Canon as fence

From the edge of the network, the canon looks like a fence. Connections – or rather, connections involving you – are few and tentative. It’s hard to be heard. There may even be influential voices talking over you, directing attention elsewhere, unpicking your connections.

There isn’t a way to ‘fix’ these voices – the very fact of their being so wrong from where we’re standing means that they don’t matter. The answer to being on the edge of the network is to strengthen the parts of the network that matter to you – your conversations, your books… talk to the people who get it, and not worry about the rest. If your contribution resonates – if it speaks to enough books and people in the net – it will route itself around points of resistance (like packet-switched data), tie you closer into the network and – either quickly, or slowly (it may be that someone else makes the connections for you after you’ve died in obscurity) – you’ll find yourself somewhere in the canon.** Other people may not like you being there, but that’s fine – it’s not for them (and they’re probably not for you).

It’s not for you.

Seth Godin***

Canon as trampoline

If the canon is simply the most visible part of the network of readers and books (and writers), its existence is inevitable for as long as we read and talk about books.

Stephanos Stephanides suggested that the advantage of a canon is that it gives us something to point at – a way of seeing the network, of drawing attention to how it operates that allows us to critique and deconstruct it.

He’s right: this is canon as trampoline, a net(of)work we jump on and push against, launching ourselves to places we wouldn’t – couldn’t – go in its absence. The harder we jump – diving head-first into what we love, stomping two-footed on what we object to – the further we fly.

Foundation. Launchpad. Cannon.

*The plural for this may be symposia, but it sounds ridiculous

**It’s worth remembering, though, that the canon excludes almost everyone – including most of those at the center

***Seth Godin has a lot of good stuff to say about getting books and ideas into the world.

Horse to water

If a horse is thirsty, if they know that water will help, and if they trust you, then all you need to say is “There’s water over there,” and the rest will take care of itself.

Nothing is as important as whether people want the change you’re working for, and whether they trust that you can help it happen.

Good jobs for smart people

“Seek out and develop talent.”

“Hire the best people.”

“Recruit people smarter than you.”

“Raise the average.”

Good advice from some of the best business thinkers out there – although Michael E. Gerber has pointed out that basing your business model on highly talented people is going to make it harder and more expensive to run (rocket-scientists and brain-surgeons are hard to find).

But the problem on my mind with all this is slightly different, and it’s this: smart people can get jobs elsewhere.

It’s far harder to build teams and organisations that open doors for the less-smart, or the not-yet-that smart, while avoiding lowest-common-denominator, bad work for bad pay.

Can we build organisations that work for ‘normal’ people, or people who are struggling – and help them to grow, and perhaps to move into (or on to) better, ‘smarter’ jobs as soon as possible?

The spotlight we need to shine on our talk of inclusivity and opportunity is this: Who do we work with? Who do we welcome in? Where do they end up?