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An organization: a place where we progressively learn to take responsibility for the whole

Not the cry, but the flight of a wild duck, leads the flock to fly and follow.

Chinese Proverb

I don’t know the provenance of this quote. I got it from @mr_gadget on Twitter. But I like it.

We follow when

  • We see someone move in a way that is not easily reversed.
  • When others copy.

Our reasoning, if we could call it that, goes something like this.

  • Whatever they have noticed must be really important – well really dangerous.
  • So I had better run too.

The ‘reasoning’ sucks. This is what is happening.

  • We are startled and our startle response unleashes a wave of adrenalin or noradrenalin and we have an overwhelming impulse to run.
  • And so we run.

When we think about what we have just done, we justify our actions by saying that there might have been danger. Well, we justify our actions by what Daniel Kahneman calls anticipating our future remembering selves. We don’t want to look back and say we didn’t move when we should have done. And of we are wrong, we can easily justify ourselves to ourselves because other people were alarmed too.  So running when other people run checks the boxes for the future remembering self.

Reacting in panic is a bad idea; keeping cover is a good idea

But really, some people are volatile rather than observant. They might react in alarm to just about anything and run straight into the jaws of a lion.

Basic military training is geared-up to teaching us not to start running every time we get a fright. We can learn something from the foot soldier. Our job is not to scamper about wildly in all directions but to remain under cover where we won’t get shot at.

My more exuberant character chaffes as the idea of taking cover. It smacks of fear and deprives me of what I like – wide open spaces with distant horizons. So let me develop that idea.

I am able to walk freely and joyfully in my wide open spaces, not because they are there – though that certainly helps.

I can walk in my fields because at a collective level we have institutions that keep us ‘under cover’. We have gun control (this is the UK not the US). We are relatively prosperous and you don’t get mugged (much) in the countryside. We have time (contrary to all the grumbling).

We have safe spaces and though we take them for granted, we keep them safe through collective action.

But can we be too safe?

Of course, people who have never lived in unsafe conditions might never develop any awareness of danger. They might even become rather silly and use their biological flight response for entertainment.  How can we design spaces so that we each have to do our fair share of being the proverbial sentry?  Can each of us ask “What lions and marauders do we look out for on behalf of the greater community?”

I think that is why children are given responsibilities early, in like: to take out the trash, to feed the dog. Thinking ahead and thinking broadly – well thinking – is what they are practising. When they have to take out the trash because we are too lazy to do it – that is different – we are using them as servants and not developing them at all.

Create environments where people increasingly take responsibility for the group

Yup, I think I got it. We will react like birds given half a chance. Many of us are bored so we are fascinated by the idea of mobilizing people with as little effort as a cry or an irreversible action. This cannot be our goal. This is what relatively mindless birds do.

Our goal, or at least my goal, is to create environments where people share the responsibility for creating a safe space and we start taking on responsibility in an age-related way – taking full responsibility for an important task to that we learn to think and not simply react like an impulsive creature.  So we start to take out the trash and start to think about the business of keep a place hygienic. And we move on and up, learning to weave many responsibilities together.

Good quote but a different conclusion! When the birds take off, I’ll sit tight. Rapid, panicky reactions are not what it is all about.

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5 questions to ask when we initiate an online community

A woman reading SMS messages on her mobile phone while standing on a bike in traffic.

Image via Wikipedia

Wise Web Developers from High Wycombe

I am delighted again by the wisdom that flows from High Wycombe. Paul Imre commented on my post about SwarmTeams and the exercise we did comparing soccer and work.

An online community as a rope

This time Paul used the analogy of a rope to think about a “social media community”. The rope becomes stronger the more we add strands. The rope has a past (so easy to forget) and the rope has a future when it begins to “think” for itself.

I think the first two points are useful to remind clients.

  • Ties with a community require constant participation – social media is a “hands-on” business.
  • A community has come from somewhere and is going somewhere.

How does the rope think? In two ways.

  • In a swarm – which for people not from UK is a social media community built up around an SMS system similar to Twitter – we communicate peer-to-peer – this is not unlike birds flying in a flock. P2P messaging allows us to follow the general direction of the flock, keep up, and not bash in to each other.
    • So we “think” by keeping in position by bouncing messages off the people immediately around us.
    • We also think, when gradual changes in what we do make the flock sweep and swoop across the sky.
    • This is what the pundits call low-level emergence. The flock looks as if it is intelligently following a leader. They are just following each other! And they are doing it without bashing into each other.
    • This kind of coordination would be particularly useful in a fleet of taxis for example, who could communicate where passengers are during rush hour.
  • The message board on an SMS system, that we can see by logging on to a computer, gives us the second level of thinking. The message board allows us to scan the overall pattern of the messages and make higher level changes – and any member of the swarm can do that. It is the equivalent of one of the birds in the flock saying “guys we passed that church half an hour ago – can we check our bearings”. My fleet of taxi drivers might scan the message board at the end of the day and observe, say, that it could be worthwhile having one person in a location to alert other taxis. For so many purposes, we don’t need a specialist to do this – we just need the message board and some motivated people.

Using Swarms at Conference

I also thought Paul’s question about when the “rope starts to think” takes us to something I commented about on the NLabNetworks blog – why didn’t we use social media more at the conference? It struck me that DMU had brought together a wide range of people from Leicester and wasn’t energetically linking the strands or developing a group that was “thinking”. After Bucks08, Paul came up with the analogy of a “dam” which stores potential. Toby Moores of Sleepy Dog wasn’t so taken with the image of “blocking”. But a “dam” is what we made when we put 150 people in a university building for a day. It is a pity that at the end of the day, we just let the water out. We should have at least used the water to turn a turbine or two.

The Swarm technology can be used to that effect. By capturing the tweeting for that group, we might be able to move up to another level of emergence where we see patterns, generate other contacts, etc.

So what are the five questions?

1. What will we do to add more “strands to the rope”?

2. Where did the community come from and where is it going?

3. What peer-to-peer decisions is the group making to “stay in position”and how are we going to join in?

4. How can we form an overall picture of the conversation and reflect it to the community so everyone can contribute to the group thinking?

5. How have we enhanced our future by joining and supporting the conversation (or did we just let the water run out – changing the metaphor, I know!)

Thanks Paul. Great heuristic.

Added this a few days later: What voices do you hear?

Social Media, HR and Member-driven Communities

Social Media is dominated in a fair degree by marketing. I am particularly interested in HR and communities like universities where customers and suppliers are the same people. If you would like to collaborate with me, or work with me commercially, please drop me comment. It would be good to expand the network of people interested in HR and social media in the UK.

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Hope and the great chasm

Do we really achieve more when we hope?

Alex from alwaysnewmistakes asks whether hope is responsible to achieving more than we think we are able.

3 perspectives on hope from 3 gurus

I think of three gurus.

Sun Tzu

I think of Sun Tzu, the famous Chinese General (Sun Zi if you are used to modern Mandarin).

He counsels us that battles are fought or won before they are started. He advises to pick our battles wisely and to only engage if the probabilities are with us.

To fight in the “hope” of winning is to court disappointment.

David Whyte

I think of David Whyte and his story of coming across a frayed rope bridge across a canyon in Tibet and freezing in terror.

I am not sure if he ever used the bridge. The point is that

  • often we are not happy with where we are
  • we are reasonably clear where we want to be (over the other side),
  • and we look at the gap between where we are and where we want to be, and our stomach lurches. In terror not hope.

The contribution of positive psychology and positive organizational scholarship is how to move forward when we feel the absence of hope – or when we feel puke-making terror.

The trick is to “Start close in, not with the second step or the third, but with the first thing”.

Starting with the ground beneath our feet is also called recrafting, appreciative inquiry, and building the bridge as you walk on it.

Our ability to stomach, rather literally, the original fear and to look at what you can do rather than at what you cannot do, is key.

Would I call it hope? Building hope, I think.

In my last post, I suggested ways of structuring to contain the terror of people around you.

Sometimes we have to start with ourselves. We can’t think let alone lead when we are paralysed with fear.

And if this sounds excessive, it is not. Even when we write a paper at uni, when we give your first lecture after the summer break, we can  freeze in fear.

We could also be facing a cashflow crisis, or the loss of your biggest customer through no fault of your own, etc. etc.

Things happen, to real people, and real people contain the fear and start “close in”.

With immense self-discipline, because they are fortunate to understand the mechanisms of hope, and that hope is grounded in what we can do.

Complex systems

The third guru, or set of gurus, are the people who work on generative psychologies.

Some of this work is very technical stuff on how we can produce more together than when we work alone.

Great advances hardly ever come from having the right answers up front. Great advances usually come from having enormous faith in the system.

Birds seem to fly in a flock by following each other and taking care not collide.  From those simple actions we get a flock.

leadership is when we pose a question (much as Alex has done for me here) and through engagement with the question and each other, we draw out answers we couldn’t have imagined. It can be done alone ,but we do so much together.   Alex’s point about synergy.

Great leaders

  • have a sense of what is possible (get across the canyon)
  • they contain their own terror
  • start working to establish the next step, usually on the basis of what we have in hand and what we are good at doing
  • and then they work with the group to work out what to do next.


  • Their belief in the ‘followers’ and customers and employees in business, must be massive. They must believe that the solution will emerge from the interaction.
  • must believe in the quality of people around them.

So is hope essential?

But it is not ungrounded.

  • It is so grounded that we can build the bridge forward.
  • It is so grounded, it is credible and infectious.
  • It is so grounded, we learn as we go with others with us on our journey.

Thanks, Alex