Learning to See

Bluebells in Little Eaton 13:50, 19 April 2020

When I was young, I spent a time fascinated by photography.

Preoccupied with Technology….

It was in the days of dark rooms, messy chemicals and expensive film you could not afford to waste. My budget was twenty four photographs a week, and every shot I wasted an expensive and painful mistake.

I became really quite technical proficient, and could juggle aperture, shutter speed and ISO really well. I had good teachers. Technically, I wasted very few shots.

I retained an interest, but other interests intruded, cameras became better, and digital efficiency bade farewell to the expensive film problem.

It became easy to automate settings, and with no pressure on costs, plus the magic of post production and photoshop, the technical challenges became less interesting.

Fast forward several decades, and the interest is returning and I discovered something important.

….I Had Never Really Learned To See

It started with a really simple challenge. Some bluebells on my daily walk. Everything time I went past, they had changed a little. They looked different at different times in the day. They became obscured by the trees coming into leaf.

I’m grateful for digital technology. Back in the day, the photographs I have taken would have represented several months budget.

I still haven’t got the shot I want, and will now have to wait till next year. The difference is, I now know what to look for. I know the land, and the effect of the times of day.

I could fake it I guess, in post production; but to what end? The craft, the joy of it is in seeing the original. I think it’s a relationship.

It’s not just Photography.

As I walked up and down to the woods it struck me that maybe we have forgotten how to see important aspects of our businesses.

It’s easy to automate all the things that add human light and texture to a relationship.

When we automate a human interaction, we make it transactional. I know what you’ve bought, when you bought it, and how efficiently you were served, but I have no idea how you felt about it, why you bought it, or how it’s changed you.

Perhaps it becomes like Stock Photographs. One shot, a good average representation, used by lots of people in lots of different contexts. Efficient. Soulless.

Experiences become data points. We can analyse lots of different ways of looking at historical data in new ways, and become better at forecasting broadly what might happen in future in a particular set of cicumstances.

Versus a unique and memorable shot of a moment in time. An insight into who someone is, as much as what they did. A building block in an effective relationship.

The danger is that we categorise and generalise and in the process can lose the ability to see what is really happening. Algorithmic Groupthink.

We need to learn to see

Just about everything we expected this year to be, last year, has been upended.

Whatever our plans were, they were wrong.

The same is not true of what we hoped for our business or ourselves.

The circumstances have changed, giving us new opportunities if we choose to see them as well as removing the ones we had expected.

The longer we spend grieving about the changes we did not expect, the less time we have to notice the changing light and shadow of what is happening now and capturing the moment.

I, They, We.

I’m staggered and hugely uplifted by both the resourcefulness and the generosity of some, often small businesses at this time and equally distressed by the attitude is some whose sense of entitlement sets them apart.

The “I” crowd

Those who think “they” should be sorting this out.

Those who criticise the inevitable gaps appearing in a 10x event. Ten times demand for Zoom. Ten times orders for garden centres servicing people safe in their gardens. Ten times the requirement for PPE.

Those who think “they” should have provided for this, but who also want the low costs that have been one of the primary catalysts of many of the challenges.

“Just in Time” supply chains. Economically efficient, but fragile when things don’t go to plan.

Outsourcing to low cost areas. Great for cost and margin spreads, but not so good when infrastructure is damaged, or when local needs override contractual niceties.

“Shareholder Value” that combines demand for returns with transient loyalty. A sort of Investment “hit and run”

“They”

The other side of the coin.

Those who see their customers as data points with credit scores. Whose every statement reveals a system geared to the needs of the “I” crowd.

To be fair, it’s what we train people for. To be an efficient part of an economic engine.

We

The uplifting part of this current crisis. Those who don’t calculate, just do on a deep understanding that there is no “I” and “they” in a community, only a “we”.

“We” are filling the gaps, staunching the wounds, and improvising. The scrubhub crowd. The butchers, bakers and probably candlestick makers who have gone overnight to local delivery to people they know. The NHS volunteers.

Not one of them driven by a calculation, a proposal and an approval process.

And?

I wonder where this will take us.

The community spirit and idea of a “gentler America” evaporated within six months of 9/11 according to researchers. Will this be the same?

Maybe not.

For one thing, this will last for months, even years, not be an instant, shocking, episode. This will last long enough for people to recognise why it has happened. The pain and loss will be steady and chronic. There is no enemy, other than the one we have created through our choices.

For another, there are upsides. I have several people I work with whose teams are already asking what they can retain from how they are having to work. They don’t want to go back to the old normal.

Additionally, we are discovering who and what is really important. Who does what for who and why. What matters.

What we recognise more than ever right now is that each of us, our businesses and communities are centre stage in what’s going on, and our performance will be remembered, hopefully for a while.

Originizing is about becoming who you really are. To uncover the original behind the copy we are often encouraged to be.

It’s a good time to do that.

Honesty is not a Policy

What is happening right now is shining a huge spotlight on dishonest statements.

“Our people are our most important asset”

“We are totally dedicated to customer satisfaction”

“Beside you all the way”

Corporates who owe primary loyalty to shareholders can never make these sort of statements with any honesty. They owe their existence and prime loyalty to shareholders, and unless every employee, including the Board, have these statements engraved on their hearts, it won’t happen. It takes very few transgressions, by very few employees, to create enough exposure to make a lie of the statement.

Founder run organisations are often different. The soul of the founder runs through it, for good or bad, and there have been inspiring examples I have seen, from founders giving the business to employees as they retire, to those sticking by employees till the ship goes down. The lifeboat was not an option.

As individuals, we have nowhere to hide. We cannot have honesty as a policy.

We either are, or we’re not.

We may slip. Most of us do, more often than we like. But we know, and feel what we’ve slipped from. It’s visible to others, and they will forgive the slips when they know we’re trying.

The fragmentation that is being caused by Covid-19 will reposition many of us, by choice or accident.

If that happens, it doesn’t change who we are, and that is what matters. In the end, organisations of any sort are just assemblies of people around a set of assets.

We have a choice to regroup, to bring our real selves to the surface and brush off the compromises we may have had to make to survive in the organisations that are disappearing.

It will give us a challenge, but also an opportunity to choose again.

To be honest, to choose ourselves, and pay more attention to who we associate with and lend our talents to.

What matters most?

Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Oh Shit!

As we go through this challenging, slightly surreal period, it’s a good time to reflect on what matters most to us, and what we place that at the mercy of.

This period of restriction is forcing us to operate in ways we would not do voluntarily, from home working to working under stress in a biologically hostile environment, to not being able to work at all for a while.

It’s hard, both psychologically and for many financially. Its a massive change in our day to day habits, so we have choices.

We can resent it

We can blame other people for it.

We can blame other people for not sorting it faster.

Or we can take responsibility and learn from it.

Pareto

The 80/20 rule is a good reference point in most of the things we do. I’ve known this a long time, and despite that am still poor at applying it to my work. It’s just too easy to follow routines.

Now however, with our routines blown out of the water, we have a chance to reflect. Talking to many of my clients, and considering my own work, I’m struck (and a little personally embarrassed) by how much the current situation is exposing how much waste goes into the “normal” day to day, and how much we could be doing that we don’t.

Waste

  • Pointless meetings
  • Putting up with politics and unproductive behaviours.
  • Denial of issues that need to addressed. Elephants dancing round the room whilst we ignore them.
  • Avoidance – Coffee anyone?
  • Staying with the unproductive familiar rather than the potentially productive (but personally riskier) new.
  • Making journeys (including commuting) that could be done more effectively (and in a more environmentally beneficial way) from home or somewhere else locally.
  • The list goes on, and on.

Potential

  • Considering our reason for being here – what matters to us?
  • Thinking – properly, vs. blind doing.
  • Listening – much easier over skype or zoom than face to face.
  • Questioning – is this the best way?
  • Getting outside
  • Reading
  • Just wondering for a while.

I end up confident that 80% of what we do as routine adds little, and more likely subtracts from creating value for those who pay us – whether employers, or directly as clients.

We’re in danger I believe of living our lives the same way, with our real potential for achievement of what really matters to us dissolved in unproductive routines in order to satisfy other people.

Choices

I’m now doing on line what I would normally do face to face, and for the most part better (once I’ve adapted). It doesn’t replace face to face, but I’m convinced there’s a ratio – maybe 3:1 (remote vs face to face) that can work really well.

We don’t have to work the way we have been – most of it is habit.

There’s a form of diminishing marginal returns at work. Doing work we don’t enjoy, for people we don’t rate or organisations whose purpose we don’t respect, in order to earn money we don’t have time to enjoy.

We can do better than that.

The period of disruption we are in will last at least as long as it takes us to change a habit, so it’s a good time to be our own “lab rat” – to actively notice what we are doing, why we are doing it, what happens as a result, and what the alternatives might be.

Shockabuku

A swift, spiritual kick to the head that changes your reality forever

Grosse Pointe Blank, dir. George Cusack

I’ve observed that we rarely make the changes that matter, that really improve our lives voluntarily. There are too many reasons to moderate, to risk mitigate, to pontificate. The real moves come via a Shockabuku, something we can’t control and have to deal with, that brings out the best in us.

Covid-19 is a shockabuku.

We have an opportunity to rebalance what matters most with what matters least.

It would be a shame to waste it.

You’re on stage. Smile.

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.

William Shakespeare

We’re all actors in our own play

Today, in a coronavirus, artificial intelligence, climate crisis driven environment we are all actors in an improvised play. We do not know what the next line to be spoken is, or where the play will end.

How then should we now behave?  Perhaps like an actor.

Few professions demand so much training and commitment and reward it with so little certainty, and so few prospects of security.

Most actors spend time between roles and they rarely just sit there waiting for work to turn up.

They know that there are others who can play the roles they want, even if they are convinced no-one else can play the part quite like them.

They spend the time, depending on where they are in their careers, doing everything from washing dishes to make ends meet, to immersing themselves in things from which they will learn. Sometimes they write. Sometimes they explore. At no time do those who last just cruise.

Most of us, me included, are operating at only a fraction of our capacity. We know we are capable of more, but experience huge resistance to developing our potential through a combination of fear of failure, to convincing ourselves our current comfortable life is something we deserve because of the work we have put in. 

What does your agent / employer think?

So how at any point should we rate our prospects? If investors had bought stock in our, how would that stock be valued? What would our price to earnings ration be?

Are they buying us for the prospect of growth, or for a safe, regular dividend on their investment in us?

If what we are doing represents real value, that value can be realised regardless of our current employer, our P/E would be high, and our shares in demand. 

If however all we are doing is providing dividend – a short term return on what we are being paid, then under pressure, our personal stock price is likely to collapse. 

What part do we want to play?

How might we think about our value? 

What is is that we understand, or access, or can do that is difficult to replicate?

How have we grown that in the last year; the last five years?

What are we exploring, and learning? How are we innovating ourselves?

It’s really easy to stall. Early success resulting in a comfortable income in comfortable company.

Reality is that very few of us are motivated by money on some sort of a linear basis. Those who study happiness think there’s a flattening off of the money motivation curve at around $75,000 a year. Beyond that, it’s as much about ego and power as it is about money, and the people motivated by that are a minority.

Being comfortable is a dangerous place to be. It’s ok when things are relatively stable, and business models last for a period of years. Until even quite recently, it was possible to fuel a moderate, comfortable career off the back of a good education and a large, recognised name employer.

Now, that’s dangerous. The career half life resulting from being a one hit wonder is rapidly reducing. Our past success is what the finance people think of as a sunk cost. It’s behind you, and no guarantee of future performance. 

What stage are you at?

Shakespeare talked of seven ages of man:

  • Stage One: Infancy
  • Stage two: Childhood
  • Stage three: Adolescence
  • Stage Four: Youth
  • Stage Five: Mid-Life
  • Stage Six: Senescence
  • Stage seven: Dotage

I think our careers follow a similar pattern, and that many of us stop when we get to mid life on an assumption that we can somehow stay there. 

I don’t think we ever could really, but now, in current and emerging circumstances, we certainly can’t.

So, what to do?

  1. Check in with yourself. How much are you learning from what you do versus how much is repetition. How youthful does your career feel?
  2. How much does what you do engage and excite you. (Clue: if it doesn’t, welcome to stage six, Sensecence)
  3. How much of what you do will be eaten away by technology?
  4. How are you developing the human side of you, your unique qualities, the part that cannot be replaced?
  5. What are you doing to explore new areas that challenge? Who are you talking to, who has your interests at heart,  who will challenge you?

Coronavirus is not a one off event. It’s a stage call. Are you ready?

When the office melts

For most of us, the “office” has been the centre of power. It’s been where  the politics and power plays mingle with the tasks at had and business models to create the complexity in which we work. We’ve become accustomed to it to the point where it just is. Present, but largely invisible.

I’m wondering what will happen as unexpected circumstances cause the “office” to melt. 

The news is full of large companies asking, even requiring, those who can to work from home. More anecdotally, many smaller companies are doing the same.

Although my sample is limited, it seems to me when I look at those who are able to work from home, a large proportion of them are either customer facing, or working on discrete, often innovative and interesting projects. They are working at the edge, and the edge is where what’s next happens.

Those who have to be in the office are generally part of the “business as usual” structures – the centre, not the edge. The centre is where we’d really prefer things not to change too much. It’s also where the resources are allocated to those at the edge.

Those at the edge are those who are creating the opportunities, and those at the centre are those who can enable them. Whilst there is often a conflict in the office, maybe when we are forced to deconstruct the office, things change. The complexity dissolves, and issues become plain. 

Those with resources need people who will do something with them to generate a satisfactory return. Resources on their own settle into entropy.

Those at the edge can see the opportunities, If the resources to realise them are not provided by the office, they will find them elsewhere. There are, in the end, far more organisations with resources than people at the edge who can see the opportunities.

It feels a little like a T Shirt I used to wear at University many years ago. The logo read “what if they threw a war, and nobody came”. Perhaps that’s what might happen if the separation of the centre from the edge continues., when we free people from the “office”. 

A gradual (or maybe not so gradual) realignment, and a change in the power dynamics.

Moreover, the surprise that is Covid-19 which is driving the current separation is likely to be followed by others. 

The impact of Machine Learning and AI in the office as they erode the routines of office life through encroaching into those areas where they are well suited, hollowing out those needed at the centre even further.

Reducing travel as we come to terms with the practicalities of climate change – trips into the office, conferences, unnecessary face to face meetings.

The winners will be those who have a sense of will – who can see where the needs are and connect to them using what ML and AI cannot – imagination, creativity, empathy and humour. The losers will be those who service the office.

The potential lesson for us all is clear. Whatever we do, it needs to matter to us. We need to understand it, be willing and able to shape it to create real value for others who will pay for it. Something that harnesses that in us which makes us smile as we deliver what others cannot.

Originality

Something we can use to grow.

When the office melts, just turning up is not a good strategy.