Pulling the wings off flies: competitive instincts or mere distraction

I spent my childhood on a beautiful island with a tiny population called King Island. There being no established pre-school at this time* my Mum and some other ladies started their own, with Mum stepping up to fill the role of pre-school teacher. She tells stories of walking around the playground and looming up behind groups of little rosy cheeked kiddies embarked upon enthusiastic play. Mum says that she never realised until then just how feral and atavistic kids are; the little ones she saw were pretending to lock Granny in the oven or preparing to be eaten by wolves. If most of us think back to the playground we can probably remember a weird dark undercurrent that bubbled alongside our games and imaginings: I was obsessed with witches, and announced to my parents that I wanted to be a lady with long fingernails who slapped men across the face when I grew up; my sister cut the whiskers off our pet cat in the spirit of scientific enquiry. Other kids acted out even uglier instincts by bullying. Most of us, thankfully, grow past these behaviours.

This morning I read an article entitled ‘Don’t Try This at Work: How Entrepreneurs Sabotage the Competition’ by Dana Severson. In it Severson lists some examples of some things that people have done to stymie, backfoot or downright sink their competitors:

“A few weeks ago, Uber was once again accused of trying to sabotage their competition. According to Uber’s lead competitor, riding sharing service Lyft, 177 Uber employees booked and cancelled over 5,000 rides.”

Severson asks “Are these dirty tactics or just competitive spirits at play?” I would call them dirty tactics, while Severson doesn’t seem to directly condemn or endorse them and is, I feel, trying to create a light hearted vibe with the piece. He encourages his readers thusly: “If you’re the type of entrepreneur that appreciates a bit of competitive rivalry, you may enjoy their confessions below” and seems to strike an approving note when he writes “In the sport of business, competition is fierce, there are winners and there are losers.”

A diverse range of people get into business driven by a diverse range of reasons and personal motivations, ranging from necessity to opportunity and from desperation to inspiration to a spirit of adventure. For some, the business world will, indeed, offer an expression for a naturally competitive personality. If this competitiveness is also combined with the right set of skills and qualities then there is no reason why these sorts of people won’t succeed (and good luck to them if they do). Severson quotes businessman Mark Cuban as saying “business is the ultimate sport” and writes: “For people like him, being an entrepreneur is akin to quarterbacking a team to victory.”

While the businessman = quarterbacker analogy doesn’t apply to all of the business people I know, it is still a good analogy for some, granted. But the examples of behaviour listed in this article don’t remind me of the best kind of athletes. There is something heroic about great sports achievements (as long as they’re not tainted by bad sportsmanship or cheating) while the business people’s actions listed in this article are just sort of… mean.

You have probably guessed by now that I don’t approve of the entrepreneurs’ shenanigans listed in this article. In the greater cosmic scheme of things this won’t mean much. People who think as I do don’t need to read this article or blog to be convinced; people who think as the cunning entrepreneurs in this article do probably think people like me are idiots who deserve to have our schemes wrecked someday. I would like to think we lived in a world where people who were pure of heart and mind always prevailed and bastards got their comeuppance but we don’t live in that world: we have all seen appalling people live happy happy lives and good people suffer, and vice versa. And how we measure our rewards varies as well: if I did something mean to a competitor I would never sleep again and any profit that ensued would really turn to ashes in my mouth. But there are people out there who get a kick out of being mean, it does make them feel smug and clever. So the question of whether these actions is right or wrong, or whether you will ultimately be rewarded by them is a fruitless one to prosecute**.

But there is one question that I think really is worth considering. If you devote time, intellect, imagination, energy and even material resources to thinking up and then doing something mean to nobble someone else’s business, why not just devote these things to doing your business really really well?

From an 1882 book 'Golden Rays'; image sourced from the Reusable Art website

From an 1882 book ‘Golden Rays'; image sourced from the Reusable Art website

Imagine a little kid who has just discovered that a magnifying glass can be employed to burn ants on an anthill, and who is lying on his stomach engrossed in doing just that. You would be looking at a child who has applied a certain amount of logic and intellect and concentration, yes, so maybe not a stupid kid, but one who has turned his back on a whole wide world in which he might play at various things to do this one nasty act.

Just as this child becomes myopically focussed on this mundane act of cruelty, so devoting one’s self to acts of sabotage surely becomes another form of myopia. If you are obsessed with acts of treachery, what are you not being aware of in your business? If silly tricks are filling your head, have you been robbed of a broader or more creative vision for your enterprise? I guess what I am trying to say is that the things that have been offered up as example of competitiveness in this article, can also be seen as examples of a business owner being distracted from opportunities to make his / her business better. Why swap the opportunity to direct your talents towards innovation and making yourself unique for the furtive end game of bringing other people down? As Gary Hamel said “Out there in some garage is an entrepreneur who’s forging a bullet with your company’s name on it.”*** You can never know about or control the business activities of all of your competition, but you can control your own decisions as to where you focus your abilities and resources.

*a million years ago now…

**Even though I know I AM right!

***Going to have to write a blog one day about how macho the language of business is – all these metaphors from the world of sport or combat.

Darkly wise, rudely great

A short wild stumble through ideas about ideas, how they are used and where they come from.

 

Man: “… placed on this isthmus of a worldly state, a being darkly wise, rudely great.”

Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man.

 

Recently I attended a session of the Third Place Meetup Group for learning professionals. There was a small group of us, all from diverse backgrounds, chatting about this and that. One member had attended a Meetup group for people who work in developing virtual reality technology and he was talking about some of the amazing stuff they create and the variety of places in which it is used. A nice man, he somewhat blushingly and reluctantly(1) referred to the way that some virtual technology is finding a ready home in the porn industry. Of course, this started me off on a lovely train of thought about ideas, the seemingly higgledy-piggledy(2) ways in which they pop into our heads and the different ways and places they make it out into the world.

As my brain started rummaging around the “rag and bone shop”(3) of its storage banks it first dragged into the light a remembrance of a terrific blog by Jeff De Graff called ‘Innovation Starts in Dark Places’. “The most radical innovation in video streaming started in the pornography industry…Why does innovation often start in dark places? When you’re working in the fringes, the normal risks and rewards associated with radical change suddenly become different: you have a lot less to lose, but you can also gain a lot more.”

I then couldn’t get out of my mind a YouTube clip that I saw in one of my favourite current affairs blogs The Weekly Sift(4). In this clip, somebody had attached a camera to a drone and sent it into the middle of a fireworks display to capture footage that is breathtaking and very lovely. And yet drones have a certain notoriety about them that comes from their use as killing machines in war. I have often thought that this is a typically human thing to do, and is our curse and our blessing. We are cursed with the inventiveness to create a flying robot for remote controlled murder; and we are blessed with the inventiveness to look at this same machine and figure out that it can be used to film something beautiful and make art.

 

And this made me think of the quote “… the falling angel meets the rising ape…”. I felt I knew where I had seen this quote before – it was in a book by Terry Pratchett called Hogfather. I decided to make sure, though, and, not having the book with me threw myself on the combined resources of the Twitterverse to make sure. Philosopher Damon Young replied to my question with a tweet containing the beautiful quote from Pope “… placed on this isthmus of a worldly state, a being darkly wise, rudely great” which contained a similar idea(5).

 

So… in this blog so far I have rambled between quotes from poetry and fiction, discussions at Meetup groups, the blog of a thought leader in innovation, a current affairs blog, and a news story. Information and stimuli have been garnered from face to face conversations, Twitter, youtube, blogs and print media.

 

We all do this every day – our brains and instincts ping from a chat to an article to a tweet to a half heard news bulletin. Magpie-like, we collect concepts, impressions, and little bits of information. Ideas come to us out of a strange convex of need, opportunity, yearning, applied cleverness and primal instinct. The imagination is a bugger, really. It doesn’t care where it gets its stimulus from or how that might make its host (i.e. you or I) feel. It’s an amoral function. The images get splashed vividly across the screen inside our heads; if and how we manifest those impressions externally, and in what moral context, is up to the rest of our being.

 

And that’s where the fun really starts. Coming up with ideas? Pfft! That’s the easy part – we are primed as a species to have ideas. But what dark wisdom or rude greatness do we apply to expressing them, developing them, to allowing each other to share ideas, to act on them, to use them to look after our own needs and / or the needs of others. How do we get the balance right?

 

When businesses talk about creativity and innovation it is the conditions that surround the realisation of these things, and the values that those conditions betray or reveal, that interest me. This is where the apes are separated from the angels, and where rising and falling takes place.

(1) And on behalf of the Sisterhood I gave a nod of approval at this

(2) Although there is much great work being done on how to create conditions and methods on optimizing creative thought; so if creativity cannot be controlled the capacity for creative thought in individuals, organizations, societies can be boosted and nurtured.

(3) With apologies to W.B Yeats, whose splendid “Rag and bone shop of the heart” line from the poem ‘Circus Animals Desertion’ comes to me so often and in contexts that poor old Yeats probably never envisaged.

(4) The Weekly Sift covers US current affairs. I really recommend it. It is beautifully written and contains some very insightful in depth analysis.

(5) Google search indicated that it probably was Pratchett who had written “the falling angel…” quote.

Communication in the workplace: knowing, seeing and being heard

“It’s great that people who know the site really well and look at it every day were able to spot these parch marks and recognise them for what they were.”

I read a lovely article online in The Guardian this morning about Stonehenge. Apparently a question that has bothered archaeologists for years is whether or not Stonehenge was built as a complete circle of stones by its original builders, or whether they left it as an incomplete circle as it is today. The article told how this question has now been answered as some new evidence has come to light and academics are now pretty sure that it was built as a circle.

The evidence was uncovered accidentally, and its discoverer was not an archaeologist but a Custodian who was working to maintain the grounds:

“When a hosepipe used to keep the grass green in hot spells failed to reach a broken part of the circle, unsightly brown patches began to appear. Custodian Tim Daw was fretting over the blemishes when he realised they matched the spots where stones would probably have stood if the monument had been a complete circle. Daw said it was a “lightbulb moment”… The professionals duly took charge. Aerial photographs were hurriedly commissioned… and the scorch marks on the western side of the Wiltshire site were mapped, and some of the brown patches indeed tallied with where stones would have stood if the circle were complete.”

I was thrilled to read this and I asked myself why. I find ancient history pretty interesting so there was always going to be that. But I think I also enjoyed asking myself which was nicer: that someone who was not an archaeologist was nevertheless perceptive enough, and knowledgeable and in tune enough with the site he worked on*, to pick up on such an important observation; or that his observations were passed so readily onto colleagues and then archaeologists who took his word that he had seen something that needed further investigation. The sharing of knowledge and perceptions lead to some very useful archaeological activity that yielded important new conclusions about this precious historic site.

Many people probably know of the (I think apocryphal) story of John F Kennedy visiting NASA for a guided tour. The president bailed up an employee who turned out to be a cleaner and asked him what he did there. Instead of saying “I clean”, he said something along the lines of “I’m helping to put a man on the moon”.

The cynic in me wonders if this wasn’t concocted as a cosy bit of business folk mythology to impress upon companies the necessity of having a good Vision and Mission statement that can be disseminated amongst the rank and file. But true or not, I do actually like the story. And I thought of it when I read the article about the Custodian at Stonehenge. That man’s actual duties might lie in the fields of gardening or maintenance, but he knew and cared enough about the place where he worked to be aware that the question of Stonehenge being a complete circle or not was a red hot one. He wasn’t just trudging about the joint like a mindless drone, oblivious to and uninspired by his surrounds. Furthermore, when he made his discovery there was someone else he could tell who “saw them and realised their possible significance as well” and ensured the message was passed along the line until it came to people who had the purview to actually investigate. So not only did these men know, observe and see, they were then heard.

I know diddlysquat about the workplace culture or structure of whatever organisation it is that maintains Stonehenge. For all I truly know it might be a vile place to work either as an employee or volunteer. But, having read this article, I like to think not. I like to imagine a work culture that allows everyone to buy into a pool of knowledge so that lateral thoughts and observations arising from ‘happy accidents’ can happen. I like to imagine a workplace culture where observations can be shared, heard and acted upon if need be. A workplace where a direct line of intelligent observation and focused action can be drawn between someone laying a hosepipe to someone taking aerial photographs for archaeological study suggests, at least, some good knowledge management and communication principles at play. This augurs well for future happy accidents to be capitalised upon, and for other “secrets” and ideas to emerge.

*I am not clear as to whether or not the role of Custodian is a volunteer one or a paid position.

On Problem Solving and Black Mould

“Most people spend more time and energy going around problems than in trying to solve them.” Henry Ford

It’s funny how the mind sometimes takes circuitous routes to bring us insights. While sitting up in bed this morning, eating bread and butter and honey(1), mucking about on Twitter, and feeling aggrieved over the state of my washing machine(2), I had an epiphany. I realised what it was that had gone wrong for me in a couple of my jobs, before this latest stint of freelancing and back when I was ‘working for the man’. In these particular jobs, I had whaled into my work thinking I was doing the right thing and, as I saw it, doing what exactly had been outlined for me in my position description and job interview. You can imagine my dismay (perhaps distress is a better word) when my efforts were met with hostility, overt and covert, and when I was upbraided by my employers for not being “nice”(3) to them.

This was not just nasty to experience, but surreal. I had tried to be a positive, hard-working and useful member of the team. I knew that I had made no false promises and had tried always to be diplomatic in my dealings with others, always keeping the focus on business, never ever being personal. In the strategies I was working to there were problems, big scary problems, problems that had not been alluded to during the job interview, induction or in the position description. But I was aware that I had described myself as a problem solver in my application (I always do as a matter of course because I am). So I assumed that the people who had hired me had done so, so that I could fix up these problems. Which I was happy to do because I’m good at it.

So the yells of dismay that erupted from my hirers when I pitched in and got to work were surprising. I was not the only one who was evidently in shock. The anger of my hirers was laced with a feeling of outrage and expressed in these bizarre complaints that I wasn’t being nice enough to them. It’s as if they wanted a surrogate Aunty or life coach, and not a professional (and unfailingly civil) manager or project manager cleaning up derailed and risky strategies.

But this morning I realised what the clash of expectations actually had been. I thought I had been hired to solve or fix problems. My employers had hired me to make the problems go away. I am used to thinking that these are the same things. But in the minds of some people who harbour unreasonable expectations(4) they are not.

***

To my mind there is a difference between A problem and THE problem. Most often people will be fixated on a problem – “Oh!” they say “If only we could have / buy / ditch / nobble ‘ABC’, then life would be perfect”. But actually, while ‘ABC’ is a problem, maybe even a major problem, these people fail to see that ‘ABC’ is actually caused by underlying problem ‘XYZ’. Even if they successfully manage to get rid of problem ‘ABC’ (and it will be difficult to do this if they don’t tackle problem ‘XYZ’) then good old problem ‘XYZ’ will manifest in the form of a new problem down the track, like a disease that manifests itself in one symptom or another. But you can have a devil of a time explaining this to people who have rusted on attitudes, or even selfish agendas, around blaming problem ‘ABC’.

Black mould. Get it in my bathroom once in a blue moon. Nasty stuff, and if left unchecked will spread, look like yuck, wreck the paintwork and even cause health problems. I keep it at bay by washing down my walls and ceiling with white vinegar every few months when it appears. Black mould is a problem, but it is not THE problem. The problem is that my bathroom is inadequately ventilated – has no fan and during winter it’s too damned cold to shower with the window open. And, layered below this, there is a further problem. I rent from a landlord who doesn’t want to spend money, so there is nothing I can do to improve ventilation. So, because I cannot address THE problem (i.e. lack of ventilation), I can expect to have to continue having to stamp out a problem (i.e. black mould) on a regular basis.

(1) REAL Yellow Box honey, bought from the man who extracted it himself from his very own bees.

(2) Broken and so, so ancient that it is beyond fixable.

(3) Yes. They used this word.

(4) And who perhaps have reason to feel a little guilty over their own work performances.

Announcement: Fashion Industry and Training

I am happy to announce that I have been retained to provide training services for a great new project that aims to help up and coming fashion designers develop their new design businesses.

Highly regarded designer, stylist and entrepreneur Chitra Mangma has put together a great program of workshops, panel and mentoring services to help a select intake of newly graduated fashion designers:

  • Identify their target market,
  • Create a brand,
  • Plan their business,
  • Understand how to organise and plan their collections in order to work in with fashion industry trends and cycles.

Participants will be exposed to training and advice that is supportive, comprehensive, practical, and especially tailored towards their industry and creative personalities.

The first run of this program of training will happen over a number of weeks in November 2014; we are grateful to Moreland City Council for providing funding for this November program which will take place in Brunswick and will be focussed on local designers. My part will be to provide three workshops that will focus on marketing, branding and planning.

The program we run in November will be our first, but we certainly do not want it to be our last. Both Chitra and I are really passionate about working with young creatives; we believe that it is essential to help and encourage them to set up professional practices that can allow these new designers to sustain their vocations and contribute their unique creativity. We gain inspiration from working with emerging talent and enjoy the challenge of helping creative practices negotiate the business world.

If you would like to know anything more about this project then check out the event page here. Please feel free to leave a comment below or contact me at dangerousmeredith@outlook.com or on twitter @DangerousMere .

Finding common ground with those we don’t understand

I saw this morning a tweet from consultant Jeremy Scrivens* which struck me as being very true:

“For every natural #strength or #talent, there is a corresponding struggle which comes out most often in relationships with opposite talents”

It is easy to feel a natural flow or harmony with people who are similar to us, who employ similar processes to manifest similar talents. And it is just as easy to misunderstand, sometimes unconsciously and sometimes wilfully, folks with different personality types, different talents, and different approaches to things. These people may jar on us as we probably do on them and the “corresponding struggle” that I assume that Jeremy was alluding to in his tweet can emerge, sometimes productively but often disruptively, occasionally even nastily.

God forgive me, I have been as guilty as anyone of making a hasty judgement and thinking dismissively of others because the differences between us have seemed to be so impenetrable, although I have tried very hard not to let this show as outright rudeness.

But I have also, at other times, enjoyed very harmonious and productive working relationships with people who were radically different to me in background, talent, skill, and methodology. When this happens then I and that other person have been aware of our differences as complements, not obstacles. It is a relief, then, to have that other very different person who is able to step up when your own limitations come into play, and nice to know that you are sharing this burden in the same way so as to benefit them and whatever project it is that you are both working on. Any “corresponding struggle” that then takes place between two different natural talents or strengths might manifest more enjoyably and creatively as an intellectual tussle that refines or hones ideas. Having the privilege to observe at close quarters a trusted colleague with quite different abilities to yours can yield fascinating perceptions and stimulate new trains of thought or ways of doing things.

In my past I have, at times, found myself in a role where I had to be the go-between (to put it crudely) between people who were quite different, either because their attitudes towards a certain issue were polar opposites, because they were different personality types or because they were from a different work culture (say, an artist trying to talk to a bureaucrat). Sometimes I was able to help the two parties negotiate their way towards common ground and thereafter a way forward together, and sometimes not.

Over the years the pattern I have noticed for when people (myself included) have been able to work with radically different others has boiled down to this simple thing: where the two people share personal values then they can find a way to work together, and then to even build a rapport. Where folks place their own bloody egos or ambitions first then any opportunity to find shared values around the quality of outcome for a project and / or the way you treat other people will be obscured and lost; jostling for position and defensiveness colour the working relationship.

The trick is to develop a workplace culture and work processes that allow people the time and space and focus to dig down and find out what values they have, and what common ground they can share. The challenge here, perhaps, for people who manage businesses, people or projects is to examine the way their workplaces function, be honest about any obstacles that are in place, and then be willing to change, perhaps innovate, to clear them.

*Jeremy Scrivens is a very nice man and a “Work Futurist & Social Business Culture Catalyst – Helping Enterprises to build positive, kind cultures to engage, collaborate, innovate & grow social business”. I got that description off his twitter account. Or you can check out his website here.

Introverts, extroverts, and the art of hubbing together

I have set myself the challenge, this calendar year, to create some training to help organisations boost their ability to be innovative (I will leave the specifics till a future date). I am drawn to do this because I have, in one way or another, had a long history with people who were creative and innovative. The process of winkling an idea out of someone’s head and into tangible form has long fascinated me; of a darker, unhappier fascination have been those elements that kill or enfeeble a promising innovation and how, perhaps, these can be dealt with.

Innovators come in all shapes and sizes and accordingly require a diversity of conditions in which to operate. And yet, somehow, as a society we have a set of assumptions about the ways that creative thinking and / or innovative activity evolve and manifest that are a bit ‘sameish’. I just read a terrific article on The New Republic website (www.newrepublic.com ) by Elizabeth Winkler called The Innovation Myth: Why You Can’t Engineer Creativity with ‘Innovation Districts’. I think that innovation districts and hubs have their place, but I think this piece has some ideas worth considering.

It highlights the popular idea that group activity can produce great ideas and then great innovations, that the collaborative process rules. The article then goes on to offer opinions and evidence that this is not the case, that sometimes collaborative processes can stifle creativity. As an introvert with a long history of being creative and innovative (and being around others of the same ilk) I let out a hearty cheer when I saw supporting quotes from Susan Cain’s splendid book ‘Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’! I also loved this quote from Steve Wozniak:

“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me—they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee. If you’re that rare engineer who’s an inventor and also an artist … Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

Now, I have worked with some people who have very extroverted personalities who absolutely love to work as part of a group, and find the cut and thrust of the group dynamic to be a springboard for ideation and effective innovative process. But not everyone is cut from the same cloth; some of us, like Wozniak, require solitude with the same urgency that extroverts require the dynamism of a group. In my own work and creative history there have been plenty of times when I have been compelled by well-meaning colleagues or managers to participate in group activities – workshops, training sessions, rehearsals, brainstorming sessions – and I have done so through gritted teeth and with a sinking heart. These things have left me often exhausted and uninspired, sometimes anxious and disorientated.

More positively and happily, I have willingly accessed groups for company, to test material or iterations on an audience, to provide a bit of fun, or, importantly, to develop networks to support my projects. But my richest creative thinking and most effective innovative grunt work has always happened when I have been alone. I am not the only introvert I know who is like this.

Innovative districts or even single hubs can certainly provide the positive benefits I outlined above to people like me (and Winkler alludes to this in her last sentence). They can certainly be a source of creative and innovative insight and activity for my extroverted brethren. I view the evolution of the co-working movement with great satisfaction, and think that it brings some exciting possibilities and lovely values into the business world. You can’t “engineer creativity” in these, or any, physical set up. But you can use innovative hubs to generate opportunities for creative insight for extroverts.

And there’s the nub: we need, as a society, to understand that creative thinking and the potential to realise that with innovative outcomes can be available to everyone; it’s a defining feature of the human species. But we need, also, to understand that the path to doing this is different for everyone. It is not the sole purview of those who function well in jolly group settings.

All my life I have surprised people without meaning too. It’s why I call myself Dangerous Meredith. I think people see me as a quiet and assume maybe that I’m a bit dull, somewhat passive, a reliable workhorse and perhaps a potential yes-man. But then I rouse myself out of a reverie and pop certain ideas into the conversation, or go ahead to do stuff that I think is useful but which other people find startling (perhaps even threatening to their perception of the status-quo). As an introvert I have often felt locked out of society’s approved mechanisms or forums for generating or articulating ideas; in group settings my ideas are shot down in flames for being strange or are not heard at all.

What people like me need is a pathway into accessing group support when we have finished our solitary work in our hidey-holes, and when we are ready and able to articulate what the hell it is we have been doing. I don’t have a problem with innovation districts existing, even though I do fully understand the dubiousness that Winkler seems to be expressing in her article. But I just hope that whoever is designing them remembers to leave a pathway open (physically, culturally, socially) so that us outliers can visit and share.