Marcus Borg on unending conversation

Where does the drama of history get its material? From the “unending conversation”* that is going on at the point in history when we are born.

Imagine you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before.

You listen for a while; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

Marcus Borg – The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith

*Borg owes this metaphor to Kenneth Burke

See also Clay Shirky and Niall Ferguson on networks

Champion, or Ways to Win (1)

There are a couple of types of champion:

Noun 1 A person who has surpassed all rivals in a sporting contest or other competition [as modifier‘a champion hurdler’ [OED]

This is the winner, the vanquisher of foes. We all enjoy being this kind of champion – as individuals (probably especially as individuals) and as part of a team (“We are the champions”).

There are good champions and bad ones – heroes and villains, magnanimous victors and churls – but champions are a good thing. It’s fun to strive for something, it’s motivating to compete, and more often than not we like it when someone wins.

It’s also fleeting (“This year’s champions”), and – if you think about it in the wrong way – sets you up for inevitable failure. Sooner or later, someone else will be the champion.

And the things that we can win definitively are rarely important, and rarely satisfying in the long run. They are small, clearly defined, rule-constrained, finite games*.

When we’re striving to win these games, it’s worth double checking what we’re burning up to get there – time, energy, materials, relationships, opportunities – and weighing carefully what we get in return, because ‘fun’ is really the main thing we get from being a champion.

In the morning, life goes on.

All the other rewards of being a champion – prizes, status, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are as winners, and what we say about everyone else – take their meaning from other games we play.

More on this tomorrow.

*See this post, or go straight to James Carse‘s Finite and Infinite Games

Easy for you

I love obstacle courses. A lifetime ago I was very-part-time in the army, and I remember a morning on an obstacle course early on in our training. It was great – a little group of us blizted the course and left the others far behind. And as I swung across the final obstacle and crossed the finish line our sergeant-major leant forward and spoke quietly into my ear.

“Wouldn’t it be good,” he said, “If those who found it easy helped the others, so that everyone finished faster?”

The soft option

Your desire to be generous to others is a great motivator to excellence: if you’re serious about ensuring that the externalities of your project are consistently positive, you’re going to need to be doubly good at what you do.

You need emotional energy and time to spare to listen well, to be gracious under pressure, to be the kind of employer or customer that helps your team or partners to do their best work.

It takes discipline to do this kind of emotional labour day in, day out. You need to be clear about what you’re doing and how and why, plan for it, and be deliberate about doing it consistently. You need to find ways to articulate your values to people inside and outside your project.

You need to be hard-headed about being soft-hearted.

What’s it worth? (2)

The way of thinking I described yesterday also applies to buying equipment, services and training in an organisation. The question isn’t simply “How much does this cost?” (which usually feels like a lot), but rather “How much is it worth it to us to have this problem solved?”

The obvious thing to look for is the gain in productivity that the new training or tool will bring: “What will this enable us to do, and is the gain worth the cost?” – if this isn’t clear, it’s probably not worth considering until it is.*

It’s sometimes less clear what a new tool will allow you to stop doing – will it cut several steps out of a process, need less maintenance, reduce physical waste, remove a bottleneck, stop someone from being interrupted to fix its problems?

Then there’s the inverse-opportunity cost of the new tool: what will someone from your team be able to do more of with the time and attention that’s freed up by the new asset? If the new tool frees up time to create assets, build connections, serve others, or run other important processes better, you might find suddenly that its worth several times its price.

Buy time. They’re not making any more of it.**

*And it’s essential to remember that the cost is more than the price – how much space does it take up, what support will it need, what maintenance to keep it working, what does it use up? – see Whole-life cost.

**With apologies to Mark Twain.

What’s it worth? (1)

$50 for a pair of jeans.
£100 for a pair of shoes.
£250 for a smartphone – if you’re thrifty.

The prices of these and many other things make me wince when I think about buying new ones, but they probably shouldn’t.

Imagine there was a toll booth just inside your front door, and you had to put money in a box to rent each of those items each day you used them. What are they worth? Would you pay a pound to have shoes on your feet for the day? That sounds like a good deal to me. How about putting a dollar in the box to be able to use your smartphone?

Let’s say you wear those shoes three times a week for eight hours, and they last you a couple of years. That’s three-hundred-and-twelve days of use, at 32 pence per day – four pence an hour.

Jeans are cheaper still.

And the smartphone? Let’s say a very conservative two hours a day of some kind of use (in my case emails, whatsapp, podcasts, browsing, maps)… and at least two-years between phones (I’ve gone four years in the past, but my current phone is dying after two-and-a-bit)… that comes in at about 32p a day as well.* And that’s not counting the value of a phone even when you’re not using it – you’re contactable**, you can contact others, you have information at your fingertips, you can leave your address book, map book, reading book, audiobook player, newspaper and television behind when you go out…

That Moto G7power (amazon) would be cheap at twice the price.***

*DriverlessCrocodile’s Law: Many useful things cost about 32p a day. Your read it here first. Please write to me if this turns out to be true.
*Okayokayokay, you need to factor in the cost of data, but the point still stands.
**Not necessarily desirable
***And why not throw in a pair of JBL Endurance Run or Sprint headphones (amazon) while you’re at it? DriverlessCrocodile Podcast Guest Victoria Patience was right, they’re great… but I wouldn’t stump up the extra for bluetooth.



Machine. Ecosystem. (8) – classrooms as complex adaptive systems

Planning is essential in education, but it’s easy to fall into the habit of treating your session plan or presentation as a set of inputs for a machine: “If I do these things, and introduce this content, and prescribe this activity, this learning will result.”

But we know that groups of people, and especially groups of children, don’t work so predictably. The ‘perfect’ lesson plan a classroom is a Russian doll of one set of complex adaptive systems inside another inside another:

  • The rapidly developing minds of children or teenagers…
  • Nested in expectations and the social structures and groups-within-groups of kids-at-school culture…
  • In the classroom culture shaped by a particular teacher – who is themselves a complex adaptive system of body, thoughts and emotions…
  • Interacting with the wider culture of the school…
  • All interacting with cultures local, national and international…
  • And influenced by what’s going on at home, the weather, what they had for lunch…

In the face of this complexity, the first thing to do is recognise that what happens in our classroom is beyond our control, at least in the mechanistic sense of the word. Trying to impose precise control – of learning outcomes, of students’ behaviour – is a recipe for frustration and disappointment, if not damage.

The second thing is to start thinking about teaching and classroom management in terms of disposition and influence (and teachers can have a lot of influence):

  • How can I make it more likely that the people I teach arrive on time and ready to learn?
  • How I can I increase their disposition to be kind to each other, or to love this subject and to work hard?
  • How can I make it more likely that they’ll do X, rather than Y?

Go to work. Take responsibility. Do the hard work of building a classroom culture that gets your students where they want to go (hint: you might have to start by showing them where it’s possible to go).

But don’t beat yourself up the next time it snows, and the lesson plan goes out the window as the kids pile up against the window to watch the world turn white.

A butterfly must have flapped its wings in New York.

Machine. Ecosystem. (5) – Duncan Green on systems thinking and development

A ‘system’ is an interconnected set of elements coherently organized in a way that achieves something. It is more than the sum of its parts: a body is more than an aggregate of individual cells; a university is not merely an agglomeration of individual students, professors, and buildings; an ecosystem is not just a set of individual plants and animals.

A defining property of human systems is complexity; because of the sheer number of relationships and feedback loops among their many elements, they cannot be reduced to simple chains of cause and effect. Think of a crowd on a city street, or a flock of starlings wheeling in the sky at dusk. Even with supercomputers, it is impossible to predict the movement of any given person or starling, but there is order; amazingly few collisions occur even on the most crowded streets.

In complex systems, change results from the interplay of many diverse or apparently unrelated factors. Those of us engaged in seeking change need to identify which elements are important and understand how they interact.

Unfortunately, the way we commonly think about change projects onto the future the neat narratives we draw from the past. Many of the mental models we use are linear plans – ‘if A, then B’ – with profound consequences in terms of failures, frustration, and missed opportunities [when the plan is thrown out by unexpected consequences within the plan, or by things that were never in it]. As Mike Tyson memorably said, ‘everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth.’

Let me illustrate with a metaphor. Baking a cake is a linear, ‘simple’ system. All I need to do is find a recipe, buy the ingredients, make sure the oven is working…

Baking a cake is also a fairly accurate metaphor for the approach of many governments, aid agencies, and activist organisations. They decide on a goal (the cake), pick a well-established method (the recipe), find some partners and allies (the ingredients), and off they go.

The trouble is that real life rarely bakes like a cake. Engaging in a complex system is more like raising a child. What fate would await your new baby if you decided to go linear and design a project plan setting out activities, assumptions, outputs, and outcomes for the next twenty years and then blindly followed it?

Deng Xiaoping said, “We will cross the river by feeling the stones under our feet, one by one.”

Duncan Green – How Change Happens (amazon)

Machine. Ecosystem. (2)

Yesterday’s post laid out several reasons benefits of understanding your organisation as a machine.* But many of the important parts of your organisation don’t behave in predictable or mechanistic ways. Your team’s culture, for example, is a affected by, for example:

  • organisational history;
  • personalities on the team;
  • individual moods;
  • collective morale;
  • Team members’ stage of life and health;
  • interpersonal chemistry or rivalry;
  • changes in team members’ salaries or position;
  • ‘near’ factors like the closure of a favourite neighbourhood gathering spot;
  • the health of the wider economy;
  • government policy;
  • levels of outside interest and flows of money into or out of your sector

In short, your organisation is a complex adaptive system within the complex adaptive system of the economy and the world as a whole.

Unlike complicated problems, complex problems cannot be solved, only managed. They cannot be controlled, only nudged. This is the domain of the butterfly effect, where a small change can lead to something big, and a big change can barely make a dent. 

Aaron Dignan

Fruitful thinking

What this means is that trying to eliminate uncertainty or narrowly control outcomes is likely to be futile. Instead you need to ask which nudges will make your system more likely to produce good outcomes. You can think of projects and things you do as seeds with a chance of bearing fruit, and so widely – and position yourself to take advantage of opportunities that crop up in surprising places but seem to strengthen the system.

And as you think about the wider ecosystem and realise that you’re scarily dependent on ‘exogenous’ factors way beyond your control, you can think about how to nurture and protect the flows that you depend on, like flows of information or resources (including people and ideas) into and out of your organisation. How might building a network (for example) strengthen these flows, or tweak the system’s disposition in a way that’s in your favour?

*If you go deeper there are compelling arguments that even our machines are part of a living ecology – see Kevin Kelly‘s What Technology Wants and The Techium for jumping off point into this way of thinking

Vision. Positioning. Execution. (3)

Positioning

Being ready in the right place at the right time makes everything easier.

Sometimes you need to position yourself for a better view – to improve your vision – before you can position yourself to do. If you can’t see properly, you can’t decide.

Once you’ve got a decent view you can move to position yourself with respect to whatever’s coming, gathering the resources that you need and giving yourself enough time and space to use them.

Good positioning – creating time and space and being prepared – ends up looking like skill in execution, and it sort of is. It’s a skill of its own – the skill of making the most of what you’ve got.

The more I practice, the luckier I get

You can never see enough, never have all the information to be perfectly prepared – you do what you can with what you have. But the better your vision and positioning is, the better you’ll be able to respond to opportunities that come your way by pure, dumb luck.

Running to stay still

Once you’re in position, you might have to work hard just to stay there. Sometimes this is necessary – and keeping moving is almost always better than staying still – but if you find yourself having to run constantly just to keep up you might be playing the wrong game or need to think again about where the best positions are.

Some questions about positioning:

  • Where am I now?
  • Where do I need to be, by when?
  • How do I get there?
  • What’s my next step, and the one after that – and what will make it easier for me to take them?
  • What types of relationships do I need, and with who?
  • What skills and attributes will I need once I’m in position, and how will I develop them?
  • What resources?
  • What else do I need to know?
  • Who is in position already that I can learn from – or need to be cautious of?

(These are all questions about vision, too.)