This Strange Intimacy

With hearts good and happy, making
Life’s old hurt leave off its aching-

Hearts that crave no other’s pleasure,
But the days by duties measure;

Antonio Nicos Blanco, Intimate Prayer

Pervasive social media can generate a strange intimacy. Without any effort, as simply as opening an app, we can be thrust into participants in the daily adventures of others. We know and follow the daily duties of strangers. We share their meals, the adventures and their emotions for better and for worse.

This intimacy makes us more vulnerable to the intrusions of trolls, the obsessive and the vexatious. The sharing we experience as a deepening of connections can be weaponised against us. Intimacy can be turned to make barbs cut deeper. This intimacy can also be used to spread mis-information and suck the unwary into frauds, manipulation, and conspiracy theories.

The profound intimacy of lyric poetry makes it perilous because it gets so far under the skin, into the skin.

Edward Hirsch, The Immense Intimacy, The Intimate Immensity

Social media’s intimacy is getting deep under our skin. Linkedin hacks our perceptions of careers and success. Instagram hacks perceptions of lifestyles, fashions, food, imagery and body image. Tiktok plays with music, dance and trends. Twitter and Facebook manipulate stories, images, information, relationships and politics.

We can use social media to find our unique tribe. To find people who speak so to our heart that we clasp near strangers to our chests as long lost companions. We can find people with whom we share an unbelievable intimacy because of unity of mindset, interests, networks, and passions. We can deepen ourselves into the intimacy of our own unique bubble.

Whether this intimacy is good or bad is not determined by the platform. The choices and outcomes depend on us. We can use social media to find collaborators who will help us change the world, people to work with or to find partners for the adventures of life.

Intimacy unhinged, unpaddocked me. I didn’t want it.

Diane Seuss,

Social media can be a tool of engagement and communication. It can also be a vicious hack of our attention for advertising revenue, a manipulation of endorphins for addiction, and a simulation of friendship with artificial connection. The owners of these platforms will continue to invest to make them more engaging, addictive and intimate (Metaverse anyone?). They are far less concerned with their impact on social fabric.

The challenge we face is to be discriminating users mitigating both the ego returns and the need with the perspective that life goes on best off these platforms. Use social media to find your community and then engage them on and off your platforms of choice.

Communication is NOT Collaboration

We are deep enough into the wide scale adoption of hybrid-working, chat tools and video conferencing to draw some conclusions. One thing is now becoming abundantly clear: 24×7 access to high-bandwidth and high velocity communication is not going to deliver collaboration.

Two and a half years on from the beginnings of the Covid pandemic, our workplaces are multi-dimensional hybrids – days, hours, locations, working styles and more. The tools of digital work that had long existed are now in widespread adoption with most organisations combining the traditional email and telephony with chat, video and other tools of digital work. Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Slack have been household names and there is a long list of competitors in use, but little revolutionary.

Before the pandemic, it was important to remind organisations looking at a digital workplace project that there was a difference between communication tools and effective collaboration between employees. The last two years have confirmed this experience. The rush to supply tools to meet, to stay connected and to do work does not guarantee collaboration.

There are many reasons why complaints about colleagues and collaboration in organisations are on the rise. We have lost some social muscles in the last years and the fragmentation, smaller bubbles and algorithmic information mean connection is harder. There are also real stress, trauma and mental health issues flowing from our recent experiences.

Three issues are most problematic in my experience:

  • Clarity: Are your teams really aligned to the same goals? Do they express those goals in measures and rich stories that everyone understands? You can’t collaborate without shared or aligned goals at least in part. Minor misalignments where people think they understand fast moving communication are far too common
  • Context: Do your teams share the same context of information in their work? In the volume of communication, it is easy to lose the context of information. For example, I was invited to join a regular meeting, there was a clear logic to each meeting but I couldn’t ever quite predict it. It took far too long for me to realise an agenda and documents were shared in a Team in Microsoft Team that nobody ever mentioned. Lacking context can mean you cannot understand other’s work or communications. Context was always going to be an issue at this time.
  • Cohesion: Relationships and moods post pandemic are brittle. Bringing people together, holding people together and striking compromises is harder than it seemed before. We have lost social muscles.
  • Complexity: Agile, iterative, parallel, hybrid, distributed, global, connected, faster, more data-driven, digital, automated – all the adjectives we use to describe our world of work make it more complex, not less. These elements can make even the simplest collaboration into a complex systemic change exercise.

Communication is the vehicle. Collaboration is the work. Don’t confuse the two. The first is possible if you have the right media. The second depends on culture, people and practices. The reason organisations consistently need change and adoption to support their collaboration goals is not because the communication tech is hard. The hard but most rewarding part is always the people in the teams.

No Heroes

Change initiatives of any scale are hard work. We make them harder when we decide to be heroes.

Repeat after me:

  • The System is working perfectly as intended
  • The System is designed to beat any individual, however heroic.
  • You don’t always need to change the System. You might just need wiggle room.
  • Change in the System takes a team, stakeholders and influencers. You cannot succeed alone.

Be clear on what your goals are in seeking change. Don’t assume the system is broken or that others share your goals. Build a coalition of supporters and teammates. Seek only the change you need for your goal. Be kind to yourself.

You need a change. Nobody needs heroes. Nobody wants to become a martyr to their change.

Distance

The true artist is not proud. He unfortunately sees that art has no limits; he feels darkly how far he is from the goal; and though he may be admired by others, he is sad not to have reached that point to which his better genius appears as a distant guiding sun.

Beethoven, letter to a young pianist, 17 July 1812

No matter how hard we work the distance to our potential remains. Mastery is not the pursuit of an end but merely a race after an ever vanishing star.

There is an old joke of a man who stops a stranger in New York and asks ‘How do I get to Carnegie Hall?’ The stranger’s reply is ‘Practice. Practice. Practice.’ However, it is often the case that even with carefully considered practice we never reach our destination.

Practice reveals new levels of performance, artistry and mastery that are yet to be attained. Ancient cultures, religions and professional guilds often work on opening up new levels of knowledge to practitioners as expertise developed. Reaching too far ahead could become daunting or dangerous by not having built the right experiences or foundations. The learning experience was mediated through a gradual opening of knowledge and practice.

In our modern impatience, we may have jettisoned the idea that all knowledge and experience must come in time through practice. Aren’t we just one Youtube video away from perfection? Yet, knowledge and experience is not all transferred digitally and instantly. Mastery demands practice and experiential learning. New levels of practice still open new vistas of potential.

We may not all have the genius of Beethoven. We can share and recognise his frustrations. We can all pursue that ever-distant guiding sun.

Negative Self-talk

Talking yourself out of success is easy. We have thousands of thoughts of our shortcomings ready for the purpose. Talking yourself into action on the key steps to your goals is much harder.

Shifting from self-talk to friend-talk

As we go about our days, we think about our work and judge our actions. At times this can be part of a constructive and reinforcing learning dialogue. Too often though we are lost in negative self-talk. In an increasingly digital world we can get lost in our own heads.

We project how hard things are or will be. We turn out behaviours, changeable on a whim, and make them immutable characteristics that mean we cannot succeed – cautious consideration becomes a lack of ambition, a reticence to promote oneself becomes shyness, a lack of energy becomes laziness and so on.

Our self-talk shapes our efforts and our resilience in pursuing success. I have talked myself out of great opportunities because self-talk shattered my confidence. Knowing how to pick the moments that you are undermining yourself and change the dialogue is key. Friends and colleagues play a key role in helping us test our self-talk against reality and in resetting our efforts.

Nobody needs a permanent critic that they can’t shake. Self-criticism can be a healthy part of learning. Make sure it is measured and that you are providing yourself with constructive and realistic feedback.

Accountability, Responsibility, Ownership, & More

Great organisations align responsibilities, accountabilities and outcomes. Your issues with accountability might be about lack of clarity of responsibility and lack of alignment to outcomes instead.

Every time I see a RACI matrix, that artefact of complicated organisations, i have to remind myself the difference between Responsibility (who does the work) and Accountability (who is on the hook and makes the decisions) in those tables. One reason that these concepts sit poorly with me is that they don’t seem to make sense. Why don’t the people doing the work get to make the decisions? Hang on we usually hold the people doing the work to account.

Great work occurs when responsibility and accountability are aligned and when the teams doing the work take ownership of not just the work but the outcomes. Great work occurs when people care.

For years, I resisted ownership as a concept at work because I had seen the concept abused far too often. Ownership of customers does not exist. Ownership of resources should not be used to block others. Ownership of projects must not used to resist collaboration and stakeholder inputs to the detriment of the work. However, a sense of deep commitment and ownership of the outcomes of work, lightly held to allow for changes, is a much more important part of success.

Organisations love accountability. Usually, in the manner of pushing accountability down the hierarchy. They hold those responsible for the work accountable while letting those accountable escape review. Power is like that. Uniting accountability and responsibility lays the foundation for genuine mutual accountability, not as parent-child in a hierarchy of power but as peers.

When organisations describe their accountability problem, it usually traces back to a few causes. Many can’t move passed an unwillingness to have hard conversations, an all too common problem. Much more commonly what is described as an accountability is a lack of clarity and alignment between accountability and responsibility and a genuine alignment to outcomes.

Procedure

Bureaucracy was the solution to an evil. The Bureau was a procedural solution to the untrammelled corruption and abuses of the autocratic state. We have restrained the world with prolicy, process and procedure. We have also created a new evil to fight, particularly as we enter more procedures into digital systems.

Kamil Galeev, a commentator on Russia recently posted a thread on the procedural nature of the Russian state. The key takeaway of the thread is that as a fully bureaucratic state what matters in Russia is not legality or even sense, what matters is following the procedures.

This procedural mindset is not constrained to renegade pariah states like Russia. A key message of the Australian Institute of Company Directors in recent years after many corporate scandals has been to remind boards that the critical question is not ‘what can we do?’. The key question is ‘What should we do?’. Too many organisations have so deified procedure that they lose the ethics of the actions in rote following of procedure. We need to act with greater care.

As we moving into an increasingly digital economy, the danger of pure proceduralism is something all organisations must consider. Just because you can build a purely digital exception free process does not mean that it is wise or ethical. Examples abound where such processes either fail customers completely, fail to provide equality of access or produce absurd and inequitable results.

Digital systems are not always as transparent as they should be and without human feedback poor interactions can continue endlessly. I tire of websites that force logins but don’t realise their login procedures don’t always work. These sites get in their own way ejecting eager customers and mostly seem unmoved by the ongoing poor experience. They clearly aren’t aware of what their data could tell them.

This digital bureaucracy is particularly the case in organisations where policy and procedure has accumulated over generations in response to breakdowns and exceptions. The byzantine nature of these processes makes any human progress nearly impossible and create huge costs for digital systems and their users. Far better to provide a human with discretion to apply sense in pursuit of sensible goals.

Bureaucracy is a human tool. Bureaucracy is a tool we should deploy to human ends. When it breaks down we should allow ways to fix it or improve it or stop all together. Keeping sight of our goals and choosing the right amount of policy and procedure is an important management task. More policy and procedure is not always the best option.

Care

Add yourself

to yourself.

Now you have someone.

Rae Armantrout, Care

Care. It is a simple admonition. One that may seem odd to need to reinforce. However the nature of our work and our organisations have so many ways to erode our care and concern for ourselves, our work and others. We need to engage the heart again and care.

At the easy end of the spectrum is caring for others. Organisational processes and policies have a habit of generalising people, de-individualising them and alienating us from the specific human colleague. This mechanical processing that treats people like widgets is an outcome of our bureaucratic preferences. Bringing care to each individual interaction, each decision and each action is a start of allowing the human back into our lives. We need to see the individual and address the individual needs to truly care for others.

At the mid point of difficulty is retaining care for our goals, purposes and concerns. These goals must be to deliver for others to have enduring meaning and to reinforce our concern for others. Building this intrinsic motivation is far more powerful than external rewards. Organisations put so many barriers and distractions between us and our concern to make a difference for others. We need to strip back our concerns and focus our care for what we can collectively achieve for others.

So many people to whom I speak are exhausted. We need to care for ourselves. I have listed this last because it is what we think of last, but it should come first. To be of value and care for others, we need to ‘put on our own mask first, before attending to others’ in the words of the inflight warning. Taking time to assess, understand and address our concerns must be part of our everyday routine.

Care often feels like the part of our working life that is easiest to let go. Great teams work to care for themselves, own their goals to benefit others and show deep care for all around them in every interaction. Letting go of care when things get difficult is a mistake. We are better to double down on our care and concern and work through that to better times.

And none could say what difference it made
that she came lacy-aproned every day
to raise a pale arm and wand away
those unseen motes from a window shade,
or stroke the rigid backs of certain books
with a soft cloth, and others with soft looks.

Don Barker, The Caretakers

Secret Success Rules

Every profession has its secrets of success, the rules of success that are rarely discussed. These rules are obvious if your family has always worked in that occupation. If you are new to an industry or profession and don’t have family of friends to help out with guidance, it can take years to understand what is required to be done for sustained success.

Ever worked away hard at something and wondered why success doesn’t follow. Often you discover later that others had insights into better ways to work or a better understanding of success. In our professions and our organisations, the unspoken rules of success can be hard to glean. We rely heavily of insights from relatives, friends, mentors and bosses to separate out the rules.

Law firms tell young lawyers that the secret to success is billing. Busy young lawyers working for senior parntners is good for their wallets. It’s not your secret to success which is build your own practice with clients and particularly the ability to win clients, to make rain. Winning clients demands unbillable time making connections, building profile and promoting yourself. Many young lawyers who bill a lot for others only discover the importance of winning clients later when they start to go for partnership. What you are told and what you should do to succeed can be very different.

In one large organisation, you couldn’t succeed unless you were a mate of the big boss. Nobody discussed it but it became obvious over years. In another organisation, there were critical roles you needed on your resume to be promoted. Heaven help you if you were a lateral hire. It wasn’t discussed, but if you made enough friend they would let you into the secret eventually. In another organisation, everything was factional. Joining the right faction at the right time was all that mattered.

Organisations relentlessly tell us that they are meritocratic and that performance is the path to career success. However, our organisations are filled with humans, rich in society, culture, bias and prejudice. Merit Is mitigated by all kinds of secret rules.

Cracking secret rules can be hard if you aren’t born into the knowledge or invited it. Networks play a key role in unraveling these secrets. Take the time to ask people about their career paths. Ask people what you should do to get ahead and what they are doing. Focus on why. Mentors can play a key role in revealing the hidden paths of power and success.

Interplay

Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

Mike Tyson

No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main enemy forces.

Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke, the Elder
Your next word depends on theirs

With whatever you find you create your glad games, I spend both my time and my strength over things I never can obtain.

In my frail canoe I struggle to cross the sea of desire, and forget that I too am playing a game.

Rabindranath Tagore, Playthings

We like to think we have control, that we can plan and that our plans are executed. Nothing is further than the reality of our lives at work and at home. We are stuck living in an interplay of forces. Rather than cling to an illusion of control we need to embrace the work of play.

Management gurus specialised in simple catchy easy to execute recommendations, Five key steps or the One Thing you need to do. These ideas look great in a book, an infographic or a Ted Talk. Yet they never quite work out. In a networked world of real humans we live in a series of nested ‘if then’ statements. We don’t act. We react. Our first intentions rarely hold beyond the first ‘punch in the mouth’.

Throw away the lights, the definitions,
And say of what you see in the dark

That it is this or that it is that,
But do not use the rotted names.

Wallace Stevens, The Man With the Blue Guitar

We can try to fight for our sense of control with ever more elaborate plans. We still lose out consistently to the dynamic, fickle, and emotional world of people. Only when we embrace that we are dealing with humans do we begin to understand that everything is interplay. The forces are many and varied. We should plan for open options and the creativity of our response. The better we respect and react to a context, a conversation or a curiosity the better we will perform. Paths outperform plans. Options have value. Conversations communicate and inform us.

Because we accept interplay, we can start to see the power of play. What you set out to achieve in a complex networked and dynamic world of humans is far less than is possible. The worst you could possibly do is achieve it alone. Embracing play brings forth the creative potential of people pushing against each other. By playing in the moment with another we must respect their intentions, contributions and their efforts as peers. The game demands it.

the music 

silk makes settling 

across a bared 

neck

Rita Dove, Scarf

So much of the richness of life and relationships comes from the power to surprise, the interplay of forces beyond our control to create the unexpected. By accepting that our human peers are not inert widgets we can leverage all their contributions. We can explore the new options created and surfaced through interplay. Lean into the play and enjoy the messy beauty of what might be.