“If I carry on like this, where will I end up?”

“What will the world be like in a decade if this keeps happening?”

“Things developed like this in lots of other places – are there any signs of the same developments happening here?”

“Will this way of doing things work for our team of four? Would it work if we hit ten? Twenty? A hundred?”*

“What does the ageing population mean for my organisation?”

“If we keep getting bad customers like this, what will it do to our team?”

“What would happen if I stopped doing this for a week? A month? A year? Forever?”

“What happens to me when the best free resources in my area of expertise are available to everyone, in all languages, instantly?”

“Where are each of my team members likely to go next?”

Do you like your trajectory? Do you want to keep it, accelerate, or change direction?

*See also – Project phase, organisation size and specialisation

Godin’s triangle for change

Three things that you’ll need building your organisation and making a difference in the world:

1) The big picture

Do you understand the strategy? Do you understand the layout of the world? Do you understand how the game theory works, how psychology works, how interactions work? Do you understand the economy, technology, the revolution that we’re living in?

Medicine Ball Session

Do you understand from 10,000 feet what the smartest consultants and visionaries in the industry would tell you is the right answer?

Startup School, Ep1

2) Technical skills and execution

The second point of the triangle is: are you any good as executing on the strategy? … When you make a sales pitch, can you do it with authority? When you lay something out does the typesetting look any good? When you write code, does it run? These are tactics, things we can improve.

Medicine Ball Session

Are you good enough at writing, presenting, organizing, leading, hiring, raising money, and all those things to actually do the right thing?

Startup School, Ep1

3) Caring enough to get hit

Do you care enough to fail? Do you care enough about what you’re doing that you are willing to expend emotional labour to actually make change happen?

Medicine Ball Session

Do you care enough about the project to get hit? Because there’s a lot of that in what’s going on.

Startup School Ep1

Questions (2): what you do with the answer

You asked the question…

  • Are you going to listen to the answer?
  • What are you prepared to change if the it’s not what you’re expecting?
  • How are you going to put the answer to work?

If you’re not ready to do any of these things, it’s probably better not to ask until you are.

Old buildings

I love old buildings , and I usually feel a strange sort of curiosity mixed with nostalgia for the people and cultures that made them. Just in the UK I’d love to see the castle garrisoned by knights and squires, the barn full of hay and animals, the old mill humming, the Tudor pub in its heyday, the telephone exchange building at its historical cutting edge, the cathedral decked out in coloured paint, the rows of clerks in the bank, the WW2 airfield lined with Spitfires and Glen Miller on the gramophone…

Dead buildings – either ruins, or frozen-in-time museums and country houses – seem that much more evocative than the ones that manage to stay in use for centuries, which end up watered down and bastardised…

But that’s probably because we’re paying attention to the wrong things. We fixate on a neat snapshot of a culture at a moment in time, forgetting that these places grew out of a messy and dynamic culture just like ours, were disruptive (and probably disturbing) when they were built, and were evolving from the moment they were finished. We’ve always been leaving the village behind, and we couldn’t stay, and we couldn’t go back – even way back then.

Buildings stay alive and socially profitable when they stay relevant – when we keep them alive by changing them and use the old spaces in new ways – often new ways to achieve old purposes.

The alternative is a building’s slow and expensive death as the network of life around them shifts and ceases to nourish them, at which point they decay and disappear until those that survive become old enough and scarce enough to become interesting again, and the past that they represent is far enough away from us to be the subject of nostalgia and museums.

And all of this is true of our organisations, too.

*See also: How Buildings Learn (wikipedia) and Youtube

Motion sickness: change and stability

If you’ve ever suffered from motion sickness in a car or on a boat, you probably know that it helps to look at a fixed (or at least slower moving) point on the horizon. A stable reference point helps your body to make sense of the continual movement and to stay oriented and balanced.

Lunettes Seetroën - Inspired By You
These amazing glasses from Citroën contain rings half-filled with blue liquid to create an artificial reference point as your body moves. More on Cool Tools.

Rapid, continual change creates its own kind of motion sickness as reference points (people, places, ideas, institutions, traditions) disappear. It’s easy to feel rootless, unsettled and insecure. Karl Marx’s economics were wrong, but he wrote eloquently about the rapid social change brought about by the industrial revolution:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

Karl Marx – The Communist Manifesto

Some thoughts about dealing with rapid change

The faster things change or seem to change (we seem much more aware of change as we get older), the more valuable stable reference points become. Here are few ways of establishing or preserving ‘points on the horizon’ in the face of change:

  • Examine your uncertainty and unease in the face of change. What are you worried about? Are your worries well founded? Is the change disturbing because it’s change for the worse, or because it’s compelling you to “face with sober senses your real conditions of life, and your relations with your kind”? Face them – the better our science becomes, the more we need the liberal arts – that is, to know how to live as free people.
  • Guard relationships with old friends – people who knew who you were, remind you of who you are, and help you to see who you might be at your best;
  • Be deliberate about putting down roots in places that are important to you – move less, go deep;
  • Establish traditions – in your family, in your organisation – things you do together that remind you somehow of who you are, and what’s important. “People like us, do things like this.”;
  • Make room for quiet, disconnected reflection in your life – slow down, see what you think about, mull and pray.
  • Read old books, listen to old music and watch old movies. Share them with friends and children to create common reference points.
  • Ask questions – especially of people who have been around for longer than you have – absorb their cultural knowledge and the story of how things have already changed (a better view of change before you arrived on the scene is often helpful for making sense of – or feeling comfortable with – the change you’re facing now).
  • Stick around. Become a point of reference and stability within your family, town, organisation, network or scene.

A little bit extra

A few percent over or under makes a big difference in the long run.

  • A little bit less on your plate each meal – three times a day
  • The biscuit you don’t eat – twice a day, every day
  • The run you don’t skip even though you’re taking your kids to the park later and will get some exercise then anyway
  • The little bit of unassigned time that helps you catch up on emails and makes you feel in control of your inbox, rather than at its mercy
  • The tiny moment it takes to say hello to people properly and read the mood when you enter a room
  • The one-line email saying thanks that makes an exchange feel complete
  • The tip you gladly give when you’re not sure you should because it’s a better mistake to make
  • Allowing five minutes to put on your shoes

What are your little bit extras – to add and to avoid?

Peter Drucker on continuity and change

The more an institution is organized to be a change leader, the more it will need to establish continuity internally and externally, and the more it will need to balance rapid change and continuity.

Balancing change and continuity requires continuous work on information. Nothing disrupts continuity and corrupts relationships more than poor or unreliable information. It has to become routine for any enterprise to ask at any change, even of the most minor one: “Who needs to be informed of this?” And this will become more and more important as more enterprises come to rely on people working together without actually working together – that is, on people using the new technologies of information.

Above all, there is need for continuity in respect to the fundamentals of the enterprise: its mission, its values, its definition of performance and results. … The balance between change and continuity has to be built into compensation, recognition and rewards.

Peter Drucker – Management Challenges for the 21st Century (in The Daily Drucker)

In other words, the faster things change, the more valuable stability becomes. This is true for skills and routines, for cultural reference points, and especially for relationships. The hard part is seeing which things are most valuable: if you’re not careful, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

The Onion (2): a model for solving interesting problems

My first post about The Onion looked at interesting problems as systems of networked sub-problems, and suggested that our solutions will mirror this structure.

The Onion is also a good metaphor for the process of finding practical solutions: we work from solving the smallest problems in theory, outwards to technical solutions, before we finally build a (networked system of) practical solution that works consistently and at the scale we need.

1) Theoretical problem – theoretical solution

First we work out how – in theory – the problem might be solved. This might be a simple case of gathering information, because the theoretical problem has already been solved – as in the case for all the three problems above.

If the problem doesn’t yet have a theoretical solution, we’ll need to break the problem into smaller pieces, work out what’s missing, and treat the smallest unsolved piece as a new interesting problem. (see the example above: family health)

2) Technical problem – technical solution

Once we have a theoretical solution, the problem becomes a technical one: how do we apply the theoretical solution in the world, in this context, to make the solution actually work? The old saying about the difference between theory and practice holds true here. When we attempt to put our theory to work in practice we uncover buried assumptions and dependencies that make our theory impractical without major revision or lots of additional work to create the conditions in which it will work. So we have a choice: modify the context enough to make the theory work, or modify the theory to better suit the context. Often we do both.

Example technical problems:
Yikes, how to do I reduce the number of horrifically-bad-for-you things that my family eats on a regular basis?
In our context, what does a healthy diet look like?
Given that I can’t source organic kale in my neighbourhood, what are the alternatives?
How do I make kale-alternatives delicious?
Which components of a healthy diet are easiest to add to what we already do?
What habits can I encourage that will make it easier for my family to eat healthily?

3) Practical or scaleable solution

This is often the most overlooked part in solving an interesting problem: what is the ‘wrapper‘ of infrastructure and activity necessary to make the technical solution workable on an ongoing basis.

This is usually about the collection and coordination of scarce resources (time, money, people, other inputs) that are needed to solve the problem reliably.

The Onion (1): understanding interesting problems

This post is a sketch of a way of thinking about how problems work, and what we need to do to make our solutions (“the change we seek to make”) effective. It’s bit abstract – I’ll share a more concrete illustration in a later post.

We often talk about interesting problems as if they’re discrete units:

  • How can I keep my family healthy?
  • How can we split the atom?
  • How can we help more children learn to read?

But all interesting problems really consist of little clusters or bundles (or networked systems) of problems – we just can’t always see what the problem-network looks like until we’ve spent some time working in it.

We can work our way down the problem hierarchy, reducing complexity as we ask smaller (and usually more easily solvable) problems.

Example theoretical problem:
How can I keep my family healthy?
Example sub-problems:
What is a healthy diet? How can I make sure my family has access to it? How can I make sure that they eat it? What foods do they need to avoid, and how can I make sure they do?
What’s a healthy level of exercise?
What about emotional health?

In lots of cases, the sub-problems have sub-problems… and so-on.

We can also work our way further out too, from micro-problems to macro – for example, “How can I help other families to live healthier lifestyles?”

The onion

So we end up with a multi-layered set of nested-problems – ‘the onion’. And effective solutions will mirror this structure of solutions-within-solutions, with each layer creating the necessary conditions for the layers within it – more on this in an upcoming post.

*see also: the wrapper