Cutting edge – learning and change

The edge on a knife is important – it’s the sharp end (okay, side) where the cutting actually takes place. It needs to stay sharp, and keeping it sharp takes care and regular maintenance because it dulls quickly from use and corrosion.

The other parts of the knife – spine and heel, bolster, tang, handle – receive less attention. They change more slowly and require less maintenance but are more important in the long run: a sharp edge on a bad knife doesn’t last for long.

The person using the knife is more important again. They decide the important things: what and where and when to cut, and who or what we cut for. They keep the knife sharp or let it rust.

These things are true of most of the tools we use, and of our skills.

Cutting-edge skills – using the latest technology or media, understanding the thing that’s on everybody’s mind – will help you cut, but they’ll change relatively quickly, meaning that you’ll need to work on them regularly to keep them sharp.

Deeper skills last longer. Critical among these are structural literacy of the world in general and your field in particular, an understanding of systems and people, and communication and leadership skills. These skills – alloyed with curiosity and a commitment to learning – allow you to keep the cutting edge sharp and to help others to do the same. Without them you’ll have – at best – a sharp edge on a cheap knife.

Deeper still, ask questions of the person holding these tools: what will you use them to achieve, where, when, and who or what for? A good knife is worse than a bad one in the wrong hands, or in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It might help to work backwards from the cutting edge:

  1. Which skills do I feel pressured to acquire? Which activities do I feel the world is pushing me to do?
  2. How do these fit into the bigger picture and broader trends? If I don’t have it already, where can I acquire the structural literacy to be able to answer that question?
  3. Is this even a game I want to be in in the first place? How does it square with my values? What’s the hard and important part of the work that I do, and will this technology make a difference to that – is it signal or noise?

Kevin Kelly – what is technology?

Not just shiny new stuff

It was clear (at least to me) that technology was an extension of natural life, but in what ways was it different from nature? (Computers and DNA share something essential, but a Mac-Book is not the same as a sunflower.) It was also clear that technology springs from human minds, but it what way are the products of our minds (even cognitive products like artificial intelligences) different from our minds themselves? Is technology human or nonhuman?

We tend to think of technology as shiny tools and gadgets. Even if we acknowledge that technology can exist in disembodied form, such as software, we tend not to include in this category paintings, literature, music, dance, poetry and the arts in general. But we should. If a thousand lines of letters in UNIX qualifies as technology (the computer code for a web page), then a thousand lines of letters in English (Hamlet) must qualify as well. They both can change our behavior, alter the course of events, or enable future inventions.

A Shakespeare sonnet and a Bach fugue, then, are in the same category as Google’s search engine and the iPod: They are something useful produced by a mind.

A Shakespeare sonnet and a Bach fugue, then, are in the same category as Google’s search engine and the iPod: They are something useful produced by a mind.

We can’t separate out the multiple overlapping technologies responsible for a Lord of the Rings movie. The literary rendering of the original novel is as much an invention as the digital rendering of its fantastical creatures. Both are useful works of the human imagination. Both influence audiences powerfully. Both are technological.

Kevin Kelly – What Technology Wants (amazon)

If you haven’t read any of Kevin Kelly’s writing, check out New Rules for the New Economy (where in 1998 – the year Google was founded and seven years before Facebook) he set out most of the trends of the new ‘connection’ economy. Or read the opening chapter of What Technology Wants on Kindle and see if it tempts you.

No breakthroughs

The water breaks through because upstream – far enough up that there isn’t any stream – there’s a drip, drip, drip.

Enough drips to puddle, to pool and start to trickle and then to run: a rivulet, a stream to cool your feet in.

Further on* lakes, rivers, waterfalls, floods, torrents to burst banks and blow your socks off.

All it takes is gravity, time, and enough drips.

*in no particular hydrological order

Drucker on abandonment

Effective executives know that they have to get many things done effectively. Therefore, they concentrate. And the first rule for the concentration of executive efforts is to slough off the past that has ceased to be productive. The first class resources, especially those scarce resources of human strength, are immediately pulled out and put to work on the opportunities of tomorrow.

If leaders are unable to slough off yesterday, to abandon yesterday, they simply will not be able to create tomorrow.

Peter Drucker – The Effective Executive

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.)

Peter Drucker on Freedom

Freedom … is not the same as individual happiness, nor is it security or peace and progress. It is not the state in which the arts and sciences flourish. It is not good, clean government or the greatest welfare of the greatest number.

This is not to say that freedom is inherently incompatible with all or any of these values, though it may be and sometimes will be. But the essence of freedom lies elsewhere. It is responsible choice. Freedom is not so much a right as a duty. Real freedom is not freedom from something ; that would be license. It is freedom to choose between doing or not doing something, to act one way or another, to hold one belief or the opposite. It is never a release and always a responsibility. It is not “fun” but the heaviest burden laid on man: to decide his own individual conduct as well as the conduct of society and to be responsible for both decisions.

Peter Drucker – The Freedom of Industrial Man

You won’t agree with all of the above – I’m still mulling it over – but Drucker’s emphasis on choice and responsibility is spot on.

Most aspects of our lives, both personal and public, are products of choice. This isn’t the same as them being directly under our control (many of the choices belong to others), but we still have choice in how we act: what to accept, what to maintain and what to seek to change.

Homework:

Look for choices that you’ve been blind to up to now. Which parts of your life – including big, permanent looking things – could do with a review?

Maintenance of the status quo is a choice that we sometimes fail to notice. What are you maintaining as if you have no choice in the matter, when perhaps you should stop? What are you ignoring that you should choose to put more energy into maintaining?

What choices are you in denial about? What have you been choosing to accept that you could – should – choose to change? Small improvements that actually happen are better than giant overhauls that don’t.

Toolkit (v0.1)

My last post got me thinking again about the toolkit for making change and building a good future. What follows started out as the tail of that post but grew too long, so I’ve cut it off and put it here as a springboard to bounce off (or a wave to ride) later.

So here are some tools…

There are a set of practices and principles – many of them falling under the umbrella of normal ‘management’ – that are well-established and effective for running organisations. You will need to tailor them to your context, but understanding and applying them will make an enormous difference to your ability to build and run a sustainable and effective organisation. Drucker and Tom Peters are great places to start for foundational principles. Books like Financial Intelligence and 4DX are great for specifics.

There’s an overlapping set from the world of small business, startups and bootstrapping that will help you build the thing from nothing in the first place, and make it sustainable. The E-myth (which I’ve just discovered is available for a great price on amazon) is great for establishing operations (and overlaps with the previous category), as is Steve Blank‘s Startup Owners Manual (amazon) in combination with Alex Osterwalder‘s Business Model Generation (amazon). I’ll make a post of videos and audio by these people and put a link to it here.

There are resources for thinking about marketing in the deep sense – making something that people want or need and sharing it with them in such a way that they see its value and talk about it to others – is another overlapping area. I’d start with Seth Godin – probably This is Marketing (amazon) or Purple Cow (amazon) – and throw in Bernadette Jiwa’s The Fortune Cookie Principle (amazon) as another good starting point.

And there’s a whole load of writing about personal growth and effectiveness that really helps you to get these things done…

And about writing and presenting and using information (particularly the web) well…

And about thinking about culture, economics, networks and the future

And I’ve clearly gone down a rabbit hole, so I’ll stop here.

Peter Drucker on management as a discipline

If you can’t replicate something because you don’t understand it, then it really hasn’t been invented; it’s only been done.

When I published The Practice of Management fifty years ago [in 1954], that book made it possible for people to learn how to manage, something that up until then only a few geniuses seemed to be able to do, and nobody could replicate it.

When I came into management, a lot of it had come out of the field of engineering. And a lot had come out of accounting. And some of it came out of psychology. And some more came out of labour relations. Each of those fields was considered separate, and each of them, by itself, was ineffectual.

You can’t do carpentry, you know, if you have only a saw, or only a hammer, or if you have never heard of a pair of pliers. It’s when you put all of those tools into one kit that you invent. That’s what I did in large part inThe Practice of Management – I made a discipline of it.

Peter Drucker – from Frontiers of Management in The Daily Drucker

Understand the tools (make them if you have to). Build a tool kit. Make it reproducible.

I have mixed feelings about this quote from Drucker. On the one hand, bringing together a set of reliable tools for making effective non-profits or social enterprises is exactly what I’m trying to do with DriverlessCroc. On the other, a lot of the things that make these organisations effective in their contexts are very hard to reproduce – often apparently serendipitous combinations of people and resources in the right times and places, with combinations of vision, skills and technology that aren’t reproducible because they haven’t happened before – and might not again.

The point, I think, is to learn which tools are out there and how to use them so that you can be more effective at the creative, unreproducible work that only you can do in your context. Use the tools to make a new tool for change: your organisation.

I’ve posted a few thoughts about what some of these are here – more to come soon.

Goldilocks

I’ve made yogurt a couple of times a week for the last two years, and quickly reached the conclusion that it’s not rocket science.**

I use powdered milk (much easier in Jakarta), get the temperature of the water roughly right, put both it into the (unwashed) container that held the old yogurt, put that in an insulated box and pow, seven hours later you’ve got yogurt.

Near perfect results with minimal variation. Twice weekly, every week, for two years. It’s Easy, yo.

Except this week.

Now it’s the rainy season. It’s raining in a way that it hasn’t done for a couple of years, and suddenly it’s cool at night (well, 27 degrees instead of 31), and I’ve discovered that the last hundred or so good results have had more to do with me happening to live at an ideal temperature for making yogurt than my expertise.*** What worked effortlessly before, and produced good results, suddenly just produces sour milk, or curds and whey.

The context – which I’d never really even noticed – has changed, and if I still want yogurt, I’m going to need to do things differently.

Goldilocks

In the same way, the success of our organisations (impact, culture) is always to some extent dependent on factors that are beyond our control. This is simply how life works – and responding to these conditions is part of what will make us successful.

The danger comes when we forget that there is a context, and that it can change. We fail to realise that we’re living in a Goldilocks moment****, and base our (charitable) business models on assumptions that will no longer work for us when conditions (including our users) change.

We need to keep an eye on the future, and do our best to understand what’s changing and why, and respond accordingly.

Just as importantly, we need to base our models on things that change more slowly, or not at all. Fundamentals like staying focused on a clear vision and deeper goals, integrity, an attitude of service and investing in people, showing up and getting things done, communicating well, having a good handle on the money, and even being prepared to close things down when the time comes.

It’s also worth spending time thinking about the ecosystem that you’re part of, and how you can build assets that you can control that will create the factors you need to succeed. At the centre of your assets will be a history of excellent work that helps others to flourish, founded on relationships of trust and affection. These assets will stand you in good stead when Goldilocks moves on.

** I mean, how much did people know about rockets when they started making yogurt?

*** It’s still pretty easy, just not effortless

**** the current burst of interest in and funding for literacy education in Indonesia might be an example of this

Giants – all sizes

Whose shoulders are you standing on?

Greats and GOATs

There are giants who loom large for us all: the Greats who laid the foundations and those who shook them – men and women who broke through and shaped the world.

In a sense, who made us.

There’s no need to name them – we know who many of them are, and we learn more about them as we go. And besides, there are too many to name and most are far away.

Small Giants

And there are the smaller giants: smaller people who stand tall in our eyes because they stood close. They gave us a boost, helped us see, carried us before we could walk or when we couldn’t walk any further. I won’t name these because I can’t – or rather, I can only name some of my own.

Grow in Stature

Whose shoulders are you standing on?

What will you do to help others stand on yours?**

Happy New Year – have a giant 2019.


** You could start by asking:

  • Where am I standing?
  • Who’s standing with me?
  • Which way is up for them?
  • How can I give them a leg-up?