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.

Google Firestarters NYC

Last week I went alone to the first Google Firestarters here in New York.

It was great. Really great.

If you haven’t come across the programme, it’s a format for Google to spend time with agency folk, in particular planners. Neil Perkin curates it, and he is a genuinely great curator. That particular gift combined with the Google brand means that you get a very good quality of people. And planners are cerebral, smart cookies working in a creative services environment, whose job it is to be very up to date and who work daily with translating lots of input into big ideas. Ben¬†Malbon, Director for Creative Partnerships at Google, brought Neil and the Firestarters format over.

The topic was ‘the new agency OS’ – how do agencies need to be in order to thrive in this changed world.

The line up was outstanding:

  • Ian Fitzpatrick, CSO, Almighty
  • Johnny Vulkan, Founder, Anomaly
  • Noah Brier, Founder, Percolate
  • Spencer Baim, CSO, Vice Media
  • Sarah Watson, CSO, BBH

Over the course of the evening, a few things struck me:

1. This is the center of the world ūüėČ

Of course, I would say that now that I live here.

But what a line up. I have followed Anomaly distantly for years and loved their hybrid model, their venturing. Percolate is very hot, a startup¬†doing great things, so to hear¬†from Noah was exciting. Vice is obviously interesting and significant, BBH provide some blue-blooded pedigree, and Almighty I confess I hadn’t heard of, but I really enjoyed Ian’s opener. It just felt like a superb proper proper event lineup. It was a privilege.

There is something of¬†a¬†counterpoint to that ‘centre of world-ness’ I suppose. 3 of the 5 speakers were British, which was kind of thrilling and embarrassing at the same time. Made by Many got namechecked 2 or 3 times and Clearleft, fellow Brightonians, were referenced once – mainly¬†by Ian who was one of the Americans. So it was enlightening to me, and unexpected,¬†to see the British influence at the heart of American agency-land.

2. Code as a metaphor or proxy for culture

Ian from Almighty introduced this idea that there are ‘big’ small agencies and ‘small’ big agencies, and in fact what we meant by this was a short-hand for their shared code, their accumulated history, their ‘this is the way we do things around here’ through assumptions and convictions.

He used that to talk about stripping back code, about hiring people from different backgrounds and other related ideas, but just that core nugget itself is interesting to me as someone helping to rapidly grow a software startup – given the challenges that creates around culture and given how tech-centric a big part of our team are.

3. The OS and the Apps

Sarah Watson had the most idea-sy approach and I warmed to that, particularly as she was last up. What she did was took this question of the new OS for agencies and differentiated between the OS itself – the platform – and the Apps.

Sarah’s point, I think, was that the OS is like the agency’s culture. And that efforts to evolve or combine agencies often concentrate on the nuts and bolts, the process and teams, and not on the OS. And they founder, because the OS is what fundamentally advances or holds back – this is the stuff that governs who is allowed to speak, what is prioritised, valued and rewarded.

Again, for me it wasn’t so much about how well the detail of the idea was landed, but the idea itself. It was good to be reminded of the different elements at play in systems, and to sophisticate an organisational metaphor that continues to gain in momentum.

4. Getting back to big ideas matters

As I walked the 10 mins from Brandwatch in Flatiron to Google in Chelsea, I realised how little of this I’d done – feeding my brain – since I’ve joined just over a year ago. Understandably, it’s been full on execution-mode from day one.

And being back in an environment where the sole focus was opening up and playing with ideas was rewarding. And useful.

I hadn’t realised it, but I needed that. I have work to do that could easily be dealt with in a hands-on, bit-by-bit, executional way. Thanks to these guys talking about the bigger picture themes and issues in their world, I’ve now been reminded that getting back to the core of a problem, back to the underlying big ideas, is vital.

Looking forward to the next one. Thanks to Neil for the invite and Google and speakers for a great evening.

Blogs and newsletters I value

Every once in a while I get asked for a list of good blogs to read (for people interested in the stuff I am interested in, I assume).

I’m putting them here as an easy place to point people to and, y’know, to share.

  • Fred Wilson‚Äôs blog – he‚Äôs a VC and writes about tech, life, business, investments, food, all sorts
  • Umair Haque – for the bigger picture. Legend.
  • Dave Trott, storytelling advertising bloke – smart witty blogs on advertising and life.
  • Alexander Kjerulf, my friend Alex sharing brilliant important items on happiness at work
  • Maria Popova¬†Brainpicker – she‚Äôs good on Twitter and I think blogging too
  • Stowe Boyd is excellent (and a great guy in real life, too)
  • Kathy Sierra is very cool – she‚Äôs clever and different
  • danah boyd / zephoria is incredibly interesting, pretty into¬†identity, privacy, digital culture
  • Neil Perkin‚Äôs Only Dead Fish weekly email newsletter is¬†excellent for marketing fodder
  • For mobile stuff, Benedict Evans‚Äô email newsletter
  • Velocity Partners – great¬†for content and B2B marketing
  • John Willshire – thinks differently, good occasional blog posts
  • Susan Etlinger¬†analyst at Altimeter Group is a smart, brilliant person – worth paying attention to
  • Global Guerillas – pretty different to these, about global resilience but fascinating

(Important aside: I’m noticing there are few women on my list, I dislike that.)

Do shout if something really good is missing.

Weekly ammo #12

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


What your culture really says Рby @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.


Up a creek, Pirate Party looks for a paddle РSpiegel 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.


¬†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‚ÄĒAsia, 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.


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.


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 Рa consultant and lecturer in chaos and complexity theory, innovation, creativity and sustainability living in São Paulo, Brazil.

Onwards yeah? Will.

The power of words

I don’t know much about language or the theory behind it.

I do though remember the idea that every word is in itself an idea.

And I was thinking about the power of language and the underlying ideas that live inside words.

So I’m wondering how we can consciously make that part of our power as we change business.

What is the idea or many ideas hiding inside the word ‘business’, or ‘progressive’, or ‘profit’.

Related: I went to a socialist party meeting in Brighton to expand my narrow horizons a little (I’d like to do more of that, hit me if you have ideas).

The thing that struck me was the language: speakers and question askers repeatedly used the words ‘workers’ and ‘struggle’. The ideas in those words don’t work for me, their whole required worldview wasn’t loaded in my brain so the words never quite landed. But they had a power for the people there. Maybe that’s more of a tribal thing?

I guess this is meat and drink to politicians and propagandists. The war over words like immigrant, terrorist vs freedom fighter. The ownership of the ideas in words. BRANDING.

‘Mutual’ is a word becoming quite fashionable in the UK at the moment. Although it is aligned with the Conservative Party in my head, I really like the ideas I have about that word. Mutual. Nice.

Here’s a word I struggle with in all of this Culture Shock / social business / conscious business context: employees. Are they ‘staff’ – bit lowly? ‘Team’ doesn’t really scale, or does it? ‘Workers’ see above (ugh!). Maybe they are ‘people’ ūüôā

What do you think?

The Better Business School

For a while I’ve had a hankering to establish some kind of centre of learning here in Brighton where we can gather, share and learn about new better ways to approach business. (And with a Wired Sussex hat on, we’ve had in parallel conversations with the University of Brighton discussions about how we could collaborate on something like this – but here I’m just thinking about what this could be like started from scratch).

This thing would be or lead to a school of thought as much as a physical school.

Where the learning blends the following influences:

  • Semco
  • Cluetrain
  • WorldBlu companies (inc. Zappos, Namast√© Solar, DaVita etc)
  • Rebuild21
  • Umair Haque
  • SeeStep / Conscious Business
  • Design thinking
  • Permaculture and systems thinking

I have been thinking it might be good to start with a summer school approach, a bit like

The buzz words and values would be along these lines:

  • Towards a sustainable world
  • Design – matters
  • Innovation – in all things
  • Peer learning – we learn from one another
  • Learning by doing – yup
  • Diversity – in the search for the best possible results
  • Open – in all things
  • Different – always and above all

It’s definitely not a CSR thing. It’s a business thing. A better business thing. The Better Business School?

New reading term: Selections/shares-per-page

Kindle and the meteoric rise of ebooks in general will change us. They will change what it is to read, like it or not – and I have a feeling that many of us will feel very protective about notions of traditional reading, given how precious the act of reading is to so many of us.

And of course they already are. One of things I am noticing is my innate collector/archivist/sharer coming alive in the Kindle features that allow highlighting and sharing.

I love how Kindle allows me to collect the best snippets from passages of books for future re-use as ‘highlights’, and how these are then saved to the web for my future browsing and re-use. It really is [pukey marketing word] transformational in how I am now reading.

You can say that this is nothing new.

That folded page corners, pencil scribbles in the margins or accumulated notes in the front and rear covers can do all of this in a no-fi way. But the ease, the share ability and aggregation of the web make it a significantly more exciting opportunity for me at least.

Reading Umair Haque’s book (which as a long-term Haquite and reader, I didn’t want to rush into) I have found myself highlighting insanely frequently – at times one or two excerpts on every page, page after page.

This is not anything to aspire to. I only highlighted a few passages – if I remember right – of Neal Stephenson’s gorgeously occupying ‘Anathem’. But there is something of interest when a book activates an unusual frequency of highlighting or sharing.

Sorry to be so prosaic but perhaps there is a future metric here, not something to aim for but something to one and learn from in the digital publishing world…

Average shares per 1,000 words (shares per mille / SPM)?
Highlights per book reader?

(Yes, Kindle already has a setting which can highlight popularly highlighted passages in the text of a book, but personally I found that annoying as a reader, and from an observer’s viewpoint that feature is more contextual and buried *in* the experience. What I am thinking of is the contrails that are written across the sky, left behind the actual consumption and seen publicly and widely.)

So is this something that Amazon will include in book listings too, given their incredible track record as a pioneer in the revealing of data as a powerful social commerce lever?

Reviews, ratings and, coming soon, highlights and shares.

Certainty fucks me off

I had a conversation last night, in a pub (drunk) that about where we each ‘come from’.

It was good-natured banter, but I’ve realised this morning what it was that got my goat. Certainty really fucks me off.

The gist of this banter was that I look a bit non-English, whatever that means, and this friendly guy was trying to guess where I was from (which is fine), and what pissed me off was the certainty that I was or wasn’t something. How can we know? How can we absolutely belong or come from somewhere? (This guy thought he was ‘English’, which when pressed he considered himself to be ‘Anglo-Saxon’, which is pretty funny).

Anyway, that’s not the real nub of it for me. This isn’t about nationality – it’s about certainty.

The last conversation I had that agitated this same sense for me was about humans as rational beings.

In this conversation a mate of mine was staunchly advocating the idea of humans as being frequently rational – making rational decisions, thinking sensibly, thoroughly, rigorously.

I think that’s bollocks ūüôā Personally I believe that even when we’re making ‘rational decisions’ or ‘being rational’, that we’re not at all. Utter guff! But this friend was utterly convinced of the certainty that we are often rational.

I just don’t get certainty. I can’t seem to tolerate it. It doesn’t fit with what I see and have experienced in my limited quaint little life.

What also excites this intolerance in me is the religion of Science, and those espousing a kind of fundamentalist atheism, both of which seem to be all the rage in my world of otherwise likeminded left-leaning liberal folk.

I really appreciate and admire the work of science and its huge contributions to the world we live in. That’s all good. And I agree that lots of religious stuff is silly, oppresses millions of people, is the banner and excuse for war and unnecessary pain, and mostly doesn’t make any sense. But there’s a kind of certainty – sometimes – that I can’t bear.

Won’t there always be things that elude or surprise us? Can’t we only really know stuff and account for it once it’s happened (Black Swan kinda thing)? Doesn’t history tell us that we have a track record of convincing ourself of stuff and then later finding out that we were, in fact, completely wrong? Isn’t the world always going to be partly unknowable?

For me, certainty is the preserve of haughty pompous fools and can fuck right off ūüôā

Technology and our expectations

Instagram provides filters and tidy borders that make his photos look much richer and warmer and better than they really are.

Call of Duty provides prediction code and auto-aim that makes her aim and positioning better than they really are.

Karaoke bars provide clever stuff that makes my rendition of Eye of the Tiger less awful than it really is (and even then it’s still shockingly bad) ūüôā

Spellcheck – for the most part – lessens the awfulness of people’s spelling.

As technology seeps into every facet of our lives, what will these enhanced abilities and invisible helping hands do to our expectations of how good we are at stuff really?

As a parent I see the resilience and fragility that come with learning, with trying, the tears, the ‘I’m rubbish’. It seems healthy, good.

So what it will be like to *not* know you’re rubbish? To cruise around propped up, prompted, auto-corrected – all wrinkles smoothed out.

Will there be clanging moments where lords and ladies of technology suddenly reenter the physical world and find they can’t fix the tap, mow the lawn, cook a meal, drive the basic car?

Will there be different classes of people, new strata in society – those that tech, those that fetch and fix? Will it be symbiotic or will one class of people dominate and bully the other?