Global habit change. Now.

I am writing this in the midst of the early ‘lockdown’ response to Covid-19. I do not underestimate the gravity of the situation – my view on that has been both bearish and I hope empathic from the start. The impact of this virus is going to affect us all in very serious ways. But in this moment here I do want to spend time thinking about not the pandemic itself, but an interesting consequence unravelling in parallel.

Most of what I know about habits, I learned from Professors Karen Pine & Ben Fletcher.

I will butcher and simplify their academic research as professors and practitioners in pyschology to say that Karen and Ben identified that our habits are not isolated but each members of a web of many interconnected behaviors. And when wiggled and flexed through a sustained and deliberate effort as a web of habits, we as individuals discover an ability to make greater changes to some of the specific habits we wish to change in our lives.

In short, doing lots of things a bit differently to quite a few of our normal routines and reflexes created a space in which we could then change our smoking habit, our fear of leaving the house, our first response in an argument. Karen explains it clearly and eloquently with stories here at Meaning Conference.

Habits, though, are powerful.

As a I remember it from Karen and Ben as well as the work in books like Thinking, Fast & Slow, we outsource much more of our daily decisions to our body or lower ‘thinking’ functions than we realize, and conserve precious brain power as much as we can. Habits run most of our world.

Take a second to think about yours. How you respond to notifications on your phone. How you travel to work in the morning, y’know, when you did. How you get washed and dressed at home. How you respond to criticism, or worse, to praise. How you parent. How you collaborate. The traps you trip yourself into in meetings or family moments.

So with all that in mind, it strikes me that the response to Covid-19 is a globally synchronized habit change program for billions of humans. If habits run a good chunk of each of our everyday personal worlds, if we scale up to the societal and global level, is it too much to suggest that the same is true at national and international levels?

I propose that this is the largest simultaneous habit change event in the history of humankind.

Suddenly our habits and usual patterns of life and work have been utterly disrupted. The walk to work. The time apart from or together with children or partners. Who we can see and when. For those working from home, our whole working environment. Exercise routines. Diets. Every relationship. It isn’t uniform, by country, by profession, by age. But it is affecting very many of us right now.

At a global scale.

That wiggle room in the web of interconnected habits we all have has been – well – wiggled.

In history, as a non-expert I imagine that the changing of habits and of behaviors usually diffused through populations over extended periods of time. Often first unlocked by technology or (more powerfully, sometimes) through ideas.

I imagine that as the advent of the printing press catalyzed change in religion, in power, in communications, the spread of that took time – decades and centuries to exert its full influence. Habits then, maybe they changed quickly – I’d love to learn more. But I do guess that in general the spread was slowed by distance and the lack of connectivity.

What is happening today is spreading very fast. Both the virus itself and the chain of reactions in response.

Individually, as well as staying safe and healthy and sane, and as well as providing to family and to employers and to our community (it’s a lot, I know), we have the opportunity to consciously think about new habit creation and old habit disposal.

What new habit pathways do I want to lay down now during this time?

What old habits do I want to work on and leave behind?

And which habits do I see more or less of emerging around me? Handwashing. Videocalls. Distance-learning/telemedicine/worship/everything. The list of emergent behaviors here is fascinating.

We have this opportunity as individuals. In all of this change and chaos and uncertainty it is one of the few things we can control.

And we have this opportunity as leaders of teams and organizations, as policy makers, teachers, doctors, as providers of products and services, aid workers and entrepreneurs. To notice what is changing, and be conscious about what can and will change next.

Then zoom out from your life. See your street, your city, your nation and the world. And ask, what habits are going to change at scale in the world that emerges from this pandemic.

I see a changed landscape. I see people reevaluating their work, their lives. I see big phase change from this marker in history. Global habits are changing from this moment forward.

Maybe you’ve already noticed this happening. I’d love to hear if you have.

Augmentation

In the last few weeks I’ve joined the millions of people who need the support of something external to carry out their daily lives.

For me, it’s just reading glasses.

But getting my head around needing these, remembering to wear them, having to carry them around with me, has been a very unusual and disconcerting experience. (I’ve needed them for a while but ignored the need. Then I got them and hardly wore them. Then suddenly in SF a few weeks back my vision threw a hissy fit and I’ve been wearing them solidly at my desk since. And it feels better, easier, like it’s needed.)

Weird for me having to depend on something just to see properly.

Weird that if I left them at home, my work would be much harder.

As human augmentation goes though this is pretty pedestrian stuff, I know.

Two weeks ago I had a meeting in the same San Francisco office building where a Google Glass team is located. A guy had a pair around his neck in the elevator. A young woman had a pair on as she crossed the street as I walked away. As if it were normal (which soon it will be, in some parts of the world).

And then a colleague asked me to pick her pair up from our NYC office on my latest transatlantic trip. Sci-fi tipping into every day life.

All of this got me thinking about augmentation again.

Wearable tech has been hyped in the recent year as the big investable area. The new new. It makes sense to me that as the value that we get from the network continues to rapidly grow and the technology continues to rapidly shrink, we will all be augmented further – more than through glasses and pacemakers, more than by our companion smart devices and nearby screens.

For my own experimenting I decided to get one of those exercise band things too – a Jawbone UP at the advice of Drew Benvie and Stephen Davies.

It’s relatively humble experiment about personal data, about data and behaviour, and about augmentation.

The early signs are interesting. I walked further than normal today, because I was (temporarily?) more conscious of taking steps – the main currency the UP band takes note of.

I now have some data on my sleep last night, and my sleeping has been inconsistent with all the travel and time zones I experience at the moment. So that might be enlightening to observe.

But what is perhaps most interesting and indicative of the way things will go is plugging my band into my phone and seeing them talk to one another about my movements – me, the fleshy host, hot, stupid and inconsistent; them the cold robotic collectors of data, computing my movements, ‘motivating’ with colourful charts and smiley faces.

Me and the tech, as part of a little personal ecosystem.

So in the last few weeks I’ve found my every day self being a little more augmented. Both by need and by choice. And I find myself feeling that augmentation is an interesting part of the next phase.

And if all of this is a bit tame for you, here some further questions rolling around the back of my un-augmented brain:

  • What would it be like if my family all had this kind of data-gathering, and we shared our information with one another?
  • When will we go from wearing to hardwired, and why?
  • The feeling of becoming accustomed to a crutch, to something integral, is interesting – does anyone know of any models from academic research that describe this transition to ‘dependency’?
  • Can any of this help solve the great problems of our time and if so how?

Tearing ourselves apart?

I am generally an optimist. And I have believed and tried to spread the idea that we have the potential to use networks to positively transform the world.

But when I look at my networks today I feel that we are increasingly using our new-found connectedness to tear one another apart. (I could give examples, but you know and every day will see and experience your own – individual vs organisation, individual vs individual, organisation vs organisation etc etc).

And it makes me wonder which way we’ll go… We, as a species, as a global society.

Is this a necessary step on our journey towards some new kind of enlightenment where a readjustment has to happen? Perhaps all of this turmoil, challenge and stress is the energy required to fuel an important recalibration in how people and organisations relate?

This has been my hope, since reading Cluetrain, and ploughing my heart and energy into making large organisations more social and more human through the projects I involve myself in.

I do believe in lifecycles and phases. Maybe this is just the next stage, the ‘storming’ before a more harmonious ‘performing’ in the largest group setting, together, as a new global networked society.

But maybe it is not – maybe this raw networked debate is the start of a great schism, a global jigsawing of society into ever more distinct tribes who are newly mobilised in a new, networked, global context. Now the tribe isn’t just the local goths or petrolheads or city chapter of socialists or day-trading liberatarians – now these tribes are global, they are sizeable, and they can pool resources to achieve their goals. (At the extreme but certainly well within the possible, we can speculate about ‘smart crowds’ evolving towards the emergence of new communities with resources to compete with very large organisations or even nation states).

Maybe as we become more networked, we have the chance to be more polarised, to just find more people like us and more ideas that match what we already believe, rather than finding more difference or finding new perspectives, rather than compromising and blending and empathising.

Maybe we will just retreat into homogenous digital enclaves where we all think the same things, leaving only to attack – Clash of Clans-style – the opposition. Could that happen?

I still believe we have a huge opportunity. (I am an optimist!). We have this new superpower – the network. But I do wonder what we’ll do with it. The choices we’ll make. We, the people. Do we just need to learn-by-doing? To fuck up and fuck up and fuck up until we collectively appreciate the power we now have and how best to employ it to make the world better?

I wonder. I do.

Future of education: part 1

Like many people, I’m fascinated by how education is changing.

My dad is a teacher, my brother is a teacher, my sister works in professional publishing – the books she commissions end up as textbooks in universities.

Education is family thing, I suppose, though I was hardly passionate about education when I was in it – scraped through with half-decent A-levels, dropped out of a half-decent university.

I particularly love the work of Sugata Mitra. I love the Forest Schools ideology. It’s interesting to me that the school I went to, a state school, is now an ‘Apple School’ where every teacher and every pupil has been given an iPad.

So it was exciting to be invited by Facebook to speak at The Sunday Times Festival of Education at Wellington College back in late June. Just that combination alone had my interested: Facebook + Education + Wellington College (very old, well established public school).

Just arriving was an experience – Katie Price (‘Jordan’) was being greeted by Antony Seldon, headmaster at Wellington and a proponent of progressive ideas about the importance of teaching happiness at school. Ellen MacArthur walked past and then David Willets MP (I think). Not my usual crowd – I grabbed sandwiches and ran.

What was most interesting was how Facebook had partnered The Education Foundation, who in turned worked with two UK schools – London Nautical College, a proper inner city state school, and Wellington, an extremely affluent leading private school, to use Facebook in the classroom.

Hearing those two teachers, and those two groups of students, explain how they had experimented with using Facebook groups to manage learning projects was cool.

It was very thought provoking.

These were my takeaway points:

– both groups had found it useful enough that they’d do it again – that was a surprise to me, particularly – if I’m honest – Wellington

– both groups talked about how quickly the kids (who were teenagers) moved on from ‘fiddling around on Facebook and getting distracted’ to cracking on with work

– the kids themselves expressed how they were sceptical that they would be able to use Facebook without getting distracted but had surprised themselves

– Last surprise: how the parents hadn’t kicked off either, again I would expect that to happen especially at Wellington – perhaps people are more open-minded than I expect?

Surprises all round…

What I took away was another sense of just how much education is changing and about to change more. Methodologies, tools, practices, expectations, it is really interesting. Terrifying and thrilling when I think about my two boys who are in school.

And Facebook’s goals are absolutely clear here: they are interested to see how their platform can be positively used in education by educators and learners, and they are open about that. I have a combination of emotions about that: caution, curiosity, excitement.

I guess this is just another piece of this great big shift that we’ve been thinking about and exploring together for a while now. Digital transformation in education…

Digital Transformation

I just wrote this and put it on the NixonMcInnes blog, because it is talking about the work that we do and want to do more of, our current mission I suppose.

But it belongs here, too, with you.

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We are at an interesting point.

The World Wide Web is nearly 25 years old. Google is about 15 years old, and Wikipedia about 12. Mobile phones have been commercially available since 1983, and there are now gazillions of them and not just in the developed world, of course.

This stuff has been around a while now.

Today Amazon no longer only sells books and running shoes – it now sells the building blocks of its own ecommerce infrastructure to others, it develops hardware in the Kindle and is developing an ecosystem all of its own. It isn’t sitting around, cosy in its little digital world. It is busy disrupting the status quo in publishing, entertainment, in digital infrastructure and in retailing,

Activists in Turkey, and before that in the so-called Arab Spring, now use digital networks to get videos, photos and notes about police or government brutality out to the rest of the world.

Here in the UK, an elite team called GDS is seeking to transform government digital services, attacking the highest volume transactional websites in the UK – spreading user-friendly goodness, bringing the best of digital practice to government departments, departments that ran the British empire for hundreds of years.

Communities that have never and will never physically meet raise funds for people in need on Reddit, through Kiva and to get projects off the ground via Kickstarter.

And my dad, soon to retire as a state school teacher after 30 odd years, has been given an iPad, as has every student in his school. What is education like in a world where every person in a classroom has a tablet at their finger tips? Where the greatest universities in the world publish their courseware on the web freely? (See also: Sugata Mitra).

This is the new reality.

You know this. So what. It’s all a bit yada yada, perhaps.

The point is this. We are at a point where digital practices, behaviours and business models are disrupting pretty much everything – education, business, politics, civil society, and so on.

And some organisations are natively digital – those we laud and congratulate loudly. “Well done Facebook!”, “Bravo, Twitters!”, “Go Mumsnet!”. And those guys are great pioneers.

But the most fascinating question for me is what will it take for organisations steeped in and born from the last century or before to make a digital transformation, when their successes were born of old models and practices?

That’s hard. That’s interesting.

Is it classic reinvention story, like Lou Gerstner tells of his transforming IBM from hardware to services in Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? Can you achieve it through acquisition, perhaps, this digital transformation?

And in the end, who will make it? Now that’s going to be really interesting.

  • Will the US Treasury and the Bank of England move with the times, and will the dollar and the Euro still be suitable?
  • Will state governments resist a great atomisation, a fragmenting into digital tribes and physical small communities?
  • Will schools work more like co-working spaces?
  • And how on earth does an 80,000 person multi-national corporation transform when so much around it is in flux? Who will be on the inside and the outside, how will rewards happen, how will intellectual property be handled, what does leadership look like and who will the shareholders be?
  • And what is like to be a person or a team or an office in all of these places – what is like to have the ground moving under your feet, to have to adjust to things that are profoundly different to before, to be so challenged?

Digital transformation.

This is a big ask of us as individuals, with our habits and norms, let alone a big organisation.

Yet the challenge is we have to bring these large complex organisations with us. And what a great challenge to tackle, in service of a better world.

And it is tempting to divide these things – to see the rise of technology and the rise of a new business consciousness as two separate things, but I really believe that they are innately connected. That transparency, openness and the rapidity of the digital world is a powerful catalyst for the rise of employee ownership, for participatory leadership and new networked organisational structures. I guess that’s what Culture Shock is about.

That is what we’re up for at NixonMcInnes. To help positively transform the business world, with digital transformation as the catalyst.

Weekly ammo #12

Right, let’s do this. Four fresh Culture Shock-y items.

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What your culture really says – by @shanley

Oh man. This is so good. So so good. Please read all of it. It’s like an antidote to the sunny optimism that pervades my work and that of others, where there is only upside and no scepticism.

Check this out for an ‘ooof’ kick in the stomach:

 An economic and class-based revolt of programmers against traditional power structures within organizations manifests itself as an (ostensively) radical re-imagining of work life. But really, you should meet the new boss. Hint: he’s the same as the old boss.

I need to re-read this piece weekly, because I do blithely drink the kool-aid, I do include examples in my evangelical talks that I pick up with little research or sceptical interrogation. I do need to question much much more.

Hat tip Mark Higginson

Read it now.

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Up a creek, Pirate Party looks for a paddle – Spiegel Online

Ooops, another example I promote in my work, and touted only last week – but it seems that the German Pirate Party has hit a downward spiral.

I talk about the Pirate Party as vibrant example of how politics is being disrupted in the same way as business (and education, and science and government and so on) by networked, purpose-driven organisations with a new kind of DNA.

I still believe that, of course, but this is a very interesting snippet that relates to a big theme in Culture Shock of openness and transparency:

The party’s culture of open debate and transparency has, if anything, provided a powerful argument for the kind of discretion with which most parties go about their business. Hardly a week goes by without a brutal and public personal attack made by one Pirate Party member against another.

One to watch with interest.

Read it now.

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 Martin Sorrell on what’s next – HBR

I just liked this for the fact that Sorrell, a notorious and open micro-manager and self described ‘old fart’ describes his 162,000 person organisation as being in a state of anarchy. At our consultancy we believe that all organisations are spinning into a worldly state of affairs that is more anarchic than they have ever experienced or are indeed ready for, so good to hear Sorrell saying as much.

HBR: You’ve been quoted as saying that your business is in a state of anarchy. What do you mean by that?

Sorrell: There are four forces creating anarchic pressure. The first is what we call faster-growth markets—Asia, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Central and Eastern Europe. The second is new media: digital, search, display, video, social, and mobile. The third is the application of technology to our business, including unifying all the sources of data that our clients use. And the fourth is what we call horizontality, which means getting people to play together.

Welcome to anarchy.

Read it now.

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Before I die – another awesome Candy Chang project

Just love this project from Candy Chang – its purpose, its format and its open-source spreadable nature. (An instance of it has popped up in my city, Brighton).

Here’s how they open sourced the project with a toolkit – kinda Hexayurt-y:

After receiving many requests, we created the Before I Die toolkit and this project site to help people make a wall with their community. You can also download all files for free on this site to remix or create your own stencils. Thanks to passionate people, over 100 Before I Die walls have now been created in over 10 languages and in over 30 countries, including Kazakhstan, Portugal, Japan, Denmark, Australia, Argentina, and South Africa. Each wall is unique and reflects the people of that community. Each wall is a tribute to living an examined life.

Read it now.

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Hope you enjoyed some o’ that.

And if you did, please spread word of Culture Shock!

On that note, I am grateful for this interesting and positive review by Simon Robinson – a consultant and lecturer in chaos and complexity theory, innovation, creativity and sustainability living in São Paulo, Brazil.

Onwards yeah? Will.

Modern slaves

After writing Culture Shock I went on a bit into a bit of a sofa-slouching-brain-resting phase: bought a PS3, developed a bad habit around Battlefield 3, and stopped reading business books.

I’m sort of still half in that phase. Still can’t get my head back into business books, for example.

Good things came of this slovenly phase. I learned a lot from getting back into video games and ended up writing this piece for Wired UK: ‘Modern business is a video game: a bad one’.

I’ve also been bingeing on the Game of Thrones books. Basically ‘fantasy’ Lord of the Rings-esque series, describing the rise and fall of elite families and their characters in a mythical world. Brilliant, easy reading for a geek like me.

(Sorry for the long intro here – I’m winding up to something interesting, I think…)

All of which is a long way of saying that I’ve been spending an hour or so a night in bed immersed in stories of a feudal world, with the hierarchies of old – from Kings and Queens down to filthy poor peasants and slaves.

At the same time, consolidation in the social media and social business sectors has continued. Many of our peers have now sold their businesses to bigger companies, all part of that natural ecosystem of business, where the entrepreneurs reach the end of their natural phase, want to move on to the next thing, and where incumbents want to buy in some of the sizzly new stuff. That’s all good: I’ve been really happy seeing people I like achieve their goals and more and more I can see the sense in this cycle.

In my head these two things have begun to relate: the fortunes of the Lords and Ladies of a fictional world and the accomplishments of entrepreneurs in my world.

And for some reason I’ve started to get this idea that most people are modern slaves, at work. Or at least, disempowered and mistreated peasants. (I know many people aren’t, but this is a dramatisation, mkay!?).

If we pretend that most people are ‘modern slaves’ at work, toiling away to produce the lion’s share of rewards for a small royal elite (shareholders and senior management), when it is in fact their work that creates the rewards, then I can’t stop thinking about employee ownership as the only way forward.

In fact, I’ll go further: I believe that within 15 years, all businesses will have a significant proportion of employee ownership (let’s say more than 25%). That’s probably wrong – if it were to happen, would probably be the greatest shift of wealth ever in the history of the world or something. But it’s just what I feel intuitively – no science included.

Entrepreneurs deserve a premium for taking risk and the act of creation and early growth. I feel that strongly, personally. And shareholders deserve a reward for their risk and investment. But it feels too much, too far skewed at the moment, to me.

I am conscious that this creates a dangerous expectation for me as an entrepreneur. Personally, despite what I’m saying I would like to do a traditional ‘exit’ at some point. I think it would be interesting, exciting, and a nice lump sum would be useful too. As for NixonMcInnes (where I don’t think that’s likely), I personally think that increasing the employee ownership from 5 of us (25%) to 90%-100% would be a brilliant outcome. So what I am saying isn’t free from hypocrisy, expectation-setting or whatever: I’m talking the talk – it remains to be seen if I (and others) can walk it.

But yes. There it is. When the millions go to the few founders and executives, and the rest of the organisation usually resembles a pyramid, with most people earning not very much at all, have we really come very far in the past thousand years? Outliers like John Lewis and other-brilliant-companies-owned-by-their-staff are just that – outliers, quirks. Isn’t that a bit weird?

Aren’t most people just modern slaves, when they are toiling for others?

And won’t that necessarily change as things are becoming more transparent, people are better connected, work tools are lower cost and more accessible, and more of us in the UK work in knowledge work where the product is the people?

I think so. That’s why this topic is in my book, and why we have Margaret Elliott speaking at Meaning 2012 about her experiences creating and scaling up successful employee-owned businesses here in the UK.

But now I believe in this even more – more than when I wrote Culture Shock, more than when I curated the original speakers for Meaning. Ownership belongs here, where it happens, not somewhere else – best of all, in the hands of the people doing it. In time, this will be irresistable.

What do you think?