The Challenge of Ronin: Purpose without Context

Our purpose is in our work. Purpose is not an abstraction or an idea. Purpose is an impact you have on others and arises in the specific context of that work. The place to go looking to develop purpose or to put it into action is in that context and for benefit of a specific group of others.

The ronin of Japanese history were samurai who had lost their feudal masters. Without their place in a hierarchical society built around loyalty and respect, they existed in disgrace and wandered seeking work. Deprived of a feudal context, ronin lost their purpose.

Discussing writing blogposts on Twitter, Andrew Jacobs made the interesting comment that unpublished draft were like ronin – purpose without context.

That comment feels true of my many unpublished drafts. They didn’t make it to publication because something was lacking, usually a clear point and impact of the post but often the right environment for the post to be received. While time can solve one or other of these issues by chance, creating that match of purpose and context usually takes effort.

Much discussion of purpose at work is equally devoid of context. So many organisational purpose statements don’t describe the specific benefits to a group of people or even much guidance as to the work that bringfs that benefit about. Like a contextless draft, these corporate purpose statements roam from organisation to organisation in search of a work and in search of a master.

Employee engagement is specific not abstract. It exists for one employee at a time in the context of their work. If you want to influence engagement through a sense of purpose, you need to be specific enough to enable employees to discover the benefits of their work for the organisation, its clients and community.

I say discover advisedly. Purpose comes from within to benefit others. Purpose cannot be generalised or imposed. Each person will find significance in their work. The role of organisational leaders to help that discovery and alignment around shared benefits.

Posters aren’t a path to purpose. At best they are contextless drafts for employees. Without context we don’t understand or value the messages. The value of purpose for employees, organisations and their clients comes from the conversations in the work that bring meaningful context.

Purpose is in the work. Leaders need to start there and bring valuable conversations to light to provide employees with richer context on their work and help them find their purpose.

Only then can the ronin of the corporate world stop roaming.

Reciprocity

Who is giving and who is receiving?

Trust is reciprocal. Loyalty is reciprocal. Love, concern, generosity and goodwill are best when they are reciprocated. Human relationships power our lives and their run in two directions. With rights and responsibilities come obligations. Reciprocity is critical in community, in work and in life. Never forget that to receive, it is best to first give.

Wherever I roam in the future of work, I keep coming back to a few concepts. Concepts like:

  • Psychological safety from Amy Edmonson
  • PKM as Seek, Sense, Share from Harold Jarche
  • Push vs Pull from John Hagel and John Seely-Brown
  • Edgar Schein’s work on Organisational culture
  • Working Out Loud
  • Wirearchy from Jon Husband

All these concepts involve the concept of connection in networks and in particular the potential for reciprocity in relationships. I am a big fan of the potential of Wirearchy’s working definition of:

a dynamic two-way flow of  power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology

When we start to focus on the two-way flow we are drawn into a focus on human relationships and the critical role of reciprocity. We reduce othering and the mystery of the people with whom we are working. It is very hard to see people as widgets in a machine or the enemy when you understand them, their work and their context personally and, importantly, they understand yours.

In the work I have done in social collaboration, fostering reciprocity in organisations can play a catalytic role. Reciprocity doesn’t have to be mutual accountabilities leading to mutual trust, though that is the high water mark. Reciprocity begins when people begin to share context and information. Connection and transparency are foundations for reciprocity. Human nature kicks when a sharing of information about problems, needs or challenges occur. People want to help solve those challenges even if it is not their role or responsibility. Dynamic informal responsibilities and authorities to act are the result.

Wirearchies fix hierarchies. Turning flows around in your organisation and shifting from unidirectional to reciprocal will enable your leaders and your people to learn, to share, to solve challenges and to react more quickly to the market. Employee engagement is not an abstract loyalty to an organisational brand. Employee engagement exists in two-way relationships. Real employee engagement is based in a reciprocity of give and take and the sense that shared goals exist, people are respect and valued and each person can contribute and get work done purposefully. That demands a reciprocal give and take.

The Limen Within

The change is within us. We bring that to the world and liminality is that process of revelation. What we do with our change is up to us.

I felt different somewhere in here

Be the Change

Let me start with a quote so common as to have become a platitude about change:

Be the change you want to see in the world

commonly attributed to Mahatma Gandhi

One of the dangers of platitudes is that we stop considering them. We take them at first glance and know their meaning from overuse. Everywhere I look I see people going ‘yada, yada, if you become the change, blah, blah’. Let’s look more closely for a minute at the first word. That first word is ‘be’, not ‘become’. We are the change already. Our challenge is to live it. The resonance of the quote is that we have power in change, if we acknowledge what’s already within.

The Limen Within

I was asked a powerful question on yesterday’s post on liminal spaces. The question paraphrased was “Is the liminal space external to us?’ You can already guess my answer.

We are that space. The sense of transition, transformation and unease comes from within. When you look at lists of liminal spaces they are so diverse that it is hard to find a common element. The commonality are that they are places of reflection and movement. They are places that give us pause to reflect. The transformation of the limen is a psychological call to agency.

In that reflection we are likely to discover the changes that have already happened in us without noticing. We are the change before we even know it. Liminality manifests from within. In our busyness, we are the last to know.

Liminality, like our personal purpose, creeps up on us as we go about life, until we must rush to catch up with our own new being. We have an inkling before we know in the form of yearning. We make efforts to reconcile our external reality to our inner feelings, even ones we fail to fully understand. Self-sabotage is the outcome of doubt, not the cause. Anger, fear, hesitancy and procrastination are the outcome of reluctance to move forward, not the cause. Surprising success is the outcome of blithe confidence, much to our chagrin. Impressive competence is the outcome of newly won capability. All we need do is put it into the world.

We can be the change, because we are already there and our challenge is to reconcile the world to that change. Liminal spaces are our place for this recognition and where the transformation begins. The other side of a boundary or threshold we can appear anew and start the work. We will not share our change with the world unless we do the work. Seeing what we are is the start. Where we go from there is only up to us.

Liminal Spaces

Exploring Thresholds

This year has been a masterclass in liminal spaces. I set out to explore boundaries in 2020. Instead I have spent most of the year in several – physical, emotional, personal and organisational. The test of these thresholds will be the transformation to come. That change will require personal effort.

Liminal spaces are thresholds between worlds. Normally we pass through them without much thought. In a normal year, we are in constant transit through foyers, elevators, doorways, airports, staircases, corridors, and quiet empty spaces in the early hours of the morning. We don’t give these moment much attention but they are places of transformation and change. We enter as one life and leave as a part of another.

In 2020, lockdowns, algorithmic bubbles, virtual communities and the general disruption and hiatus of a pandemic has trapped us in the liminal zones – physically, emotionally and in our personal and organisational relationships. We have been given time to experience the uncertain and transforming spaces that sit in between. For many, this has been a source of frustration and fatigue. For others liminality is an opportunity for transformation, whether by choice or the demands of a fast changing world.

For those who understand that the difference between risk and opportunity is execution, 2020 has proven to be an extraordinary year of change. I have seen organisations take dramatic steps in thinking about the future of work, their digital processes and how they can deliver for and engage their customers. Many of these organisations are now rethinking strategy in light of a new appreciation of what can be done when the liminal phase is over. The butterflies that blossom from 2020’s hibernation will be extraordinary. Time in a liminal space can be productive and transformative.

However, nothing changes if we do not do the work to translate our risks and opportunities into change and better ways of doing things. Almost my first post of the pandemic was about the power of personal agency. That agency still offers us the promise of new worlds the other side of our current liminality. We will be dealing with the consequences of 2020 for years to come. The best way to manage those changes is to lead them.

Cognitive Load

There’s a detail in here that is important…

2020 feels like five years already and there are still months to go. One reason it has been a year of fatigue is the sense that there has been so much to process all the time. We are dealing with a feeling of cognitive load.

We started the year with monsters at the gates and we have dealt with a global pandemic and its losses, economic and social shocks in many and varied ways. Adaptability places a constant burden on our thinking. We need to remain alert to signals, to query the need for change, to decide and to act responsively.

For many our work has moved home. For others work has stopped entirely. Both bring new thoughts and attentions to our daily efforts. Finding space for presence and escape from this load can be well nigh impossible. Even our vacations are so circumscribed by anxieties and locational limits we just are us at home, working a little less.

Our experience of the year has then been overlaid with a gradual and at times dramatic loss of function in global political discourse. We have had to pay attention to the grandstanding, extraordinary behaviour, authoritarianism, populism, incompetence and lies in many corners of the globe. Worrying about the future of our society has at times been the lesser demand in 2020.

This cognitive load has real consequences. All the extra thinking, stress and concern helps explain our fatigue and the perception of the slow pace of the year. It help explains the anger. It is also a source of errors and failings. This morning I slept through an alarm. Yesterday I missed the start of a critical meeting. Things get missed. Messages are unanswered lost in the rush, the worry and the thinking.

The human brain is designed to filter out irrelevant details and focus our attention on the key risks that our ancient ancestors faced on the African savannah – sudden changes, occasional threats, the rise and fall of scarcity and abundance. We just aren’t built for a relentless overabundance of anxiety and inputs.

There’s no imminent change to our circumstances and these pressures. We will need self-care and community care to manage these challenges through the balance of this difficult year. We can all take steps to manage this cognitive load:

  • find time for presence
  • find time to create space
  • Make decisions to filter out some noise
  • focus on purposeful action over anxiety
  • reduce the load on others with simple communication and clear actions
  • reduce the noise for others
  • support people through their cognitive load
  • create community to provide comfort and counsel

Angry & Entitled

Ready to catch fire. Just add fuel.

On the weekend, a friend noted that they are experiencing so much joy from people across Melbourne as we come out from lockdown. The exceptions are mostly a category of people who are angry and entitled. That expression struck a chord with me as it is a pattern occurring more widely in our lives.

Entitled

We all have expectations, hopes and dreams. An entitlement is something further than a mere expectation. It is a right to see something occur. An entitlement is a literal privilege. As a status, entitlements come as of right without the trouble of effort or the need for qualifications like courtesy or ability.

I’ve lived a privileged life and I have very high expectations. At times I find myself drifting these expectations into entitlements. Surely I deserve success? Surely I should be recognised and rewarded? Don’t I get more respect? Life has a way of consistently reminding me that entitlements are rare and few. The obstacles are the work.

Yet around me I see increasing warning signs of entitlement. Some are familiar. Expectations that a voice has priority and is decisive in discussions, on issues, or in conversation. A lack of consideration of and courtesy in the work that others are doing to provide service, to support community or to keep the wheels of life turning. A focus on the individual and the personal over wider community obligations.

Some are much more dangerous. Cars that go through red lights, white lines and stop signs for the convenience of the driver. People that push in and won’t share space, a challenge in a time of social distance. People who think the rules of a community don’t apply to them or don’t extend to others.

We live in a network of social norms. Perceptions of hard fixed entitlements rarely accommodate the subtle mutuality and adaptability that make a community work. We must remember that rights come with with responsibilities. Any lawyer will tell you the worst client is one who has a point of principle to prove, because the absolutism of principle rarely reflects the parallel commercial, moral and social responsibilities. Those responsibilities are to others and entitlements exist in these complex webs of mutuality. What we can do and what we should do are different things.

Angry

The path from a sense of entitlement to anger is a short one. Once something is of right, then people defend a perceived injustice and do so fiercely. Social media has nicknames for those who angrily enforce their sense of entitlement, because the pattern is predictable. We regularly see the many forms of rage from road rage, to fury at customer service through to the trolling of social media.

The path to anger is not inevitable. It is a choice to react in that way. Viktor Frankl reminds us that between stimulus and response we have time for thought. We react angrily because we presume that others are infringing our entitlements. We react angrily because we presume a threat or disrespect. In most cases, others are surprised to discover we have any sense of entitlement at all. It is always worth questioning whether the expectations you hold are shared by others. In a diverse, distributed and fast moving world, fewer expectations are shared that you expect. You cannot presume a shared context. To paraphrase a famous aphorism, given the choice between malice and misunderstanding, it’s better to assume a misunderstanding.

Another element of any anger to assess in such a situation is at whom are we really angry. Zen Buddhism counsels that anger is often a project of our disappointments at ourselves onto others. Like Frankl, Zen masters like Charlotte Joko Beck ask us to refrain from the instant emotional response and take time to let matters clear before we act. Asking “what am I experiencing now?’ in a moment of anger or intense emotion can provide suprising insights. I often discover that my anger is a reaction to my own failure to act – to prevent a harm, to communicate more clearly or to manage a risk. I am not defending a right. I am protecting a frightened ego from the consequences of its own disappointment.

Allowing distance and presence, seeking first to understand and focusing on communication before emotion, unravels the intensity of our anger. It also unravels our expectations and entitlements. We discover that connected in webs of mutuality what matters is not our perception or even our legal rights, but the foundation of shared understanding and the shared norms that follow.

Take Your Whole Self From Work

Work follows us into the bedroom

Our work follows us everywhere now. Evenings, weekends and vacations are accessible by and commonly interrupted by work. We need to consider whether it is time to take our whole self from work.

Of late, I have read a flurry of articles around bringing your whole self to work. Most people who have tried that have found their whole self is rarely appreciated. Whatever that expression is trying to encourage, the employee experience is usually different. Few workplaces are genuinely realms of inclusion. Before you ask the employee to initiate that sharing it is better to ensure that they are welcome to bring their whole selves. As long as the culture of work is a performative environment, our whole self is likely to be too far from the idealised norms to be appreciated there.

Work is hanging out at the park

The bigger issue about taking your whole self to work is that it further centres work. Work is meant to be the bit that delivers some sense of achievement and an income to support a rich and fulfilling life outside of work. Even if we put aside the relentlessness of the hustle bros, expectations of availability, responsiveness and work centricity are misaligned with the reality of our desire for a life.

One reason working from home has been such a trauma for many is that it has brought the work centricity deeper into the home, at the exact moment that enabling supports like childcare, schools, home care and wider family have been removed. Accomodating somebody’s life in a video conference when working from home is not allowing people to bring their whole selves to work. It is work invading a place that people used to go to escape work.

Work even follows us to the beach

In an era of mobile phones, instant messaging and chat channels, work doesn’t even respect the weekend or vacation boundary. Out of office responses are useful, but they assume that people won’t see their crisis as just urgent enough or a minor inconvenience to interrupt your much needed escape.

If the idea of taking your whole self from work sounds transgressive. It is because it is. We have reached a point where work is the norm, the expectation, the continuous presence and the centre. Anyone who has been between work, whether by choice or by accident, can describe the difficult conversations where people can’t process that you don’t happen to work at this moment. It usually involves long discussions of what you used to do, plan to do or could do to remove the disconcerting absence of work. Work is such a fixation that even when I explained to people that I was consulting, they would say ‘Don’t worry. It won’t last long’.

There is no way of being fully human without being fully stuck or event completely absent: we are simply not made that way. There is no possibility of pursuing a work without coming to terms with all the ways that it is impossible to do it. Feeling far away from what we want tells us one of two things about our work: that we are at the beginning or we have forgotten where we are going

David Whyte, Three Marriages

We have to take our whole selves from work so that we can see those selves and that work more clearly. We have to have distance to be able to bring new perspective to the most important work, creating a rich and fulfilling life despite all the challenges and obstacles. More work can be a path from disadvantage or an opportunity to build wealth. More work can be a vehicle for success or an opportunity to achieve long overdue recognition. For most people though more work is just the grind of more work. The more of yourself you put into work the return, financial or personal, is unchanged. By taking some distance, we can understand where we stand and what we need from our work. Then we can go back. What we choose to bring to work after we take our whole selves away will be more valuable to us and to our organisations.

Dislocated

Our CEO was last seen around here heading NorthWest

There was a meme that went around a few years ago highlighting that Airbnb was the most valuable accomodation service with no hotels, Uber the most valuable transportation service without cars, and so on. The point of the meme was an ongoing shift in our economy from asset ownership to services as the source of competitive advantage.

Our new pandemic world throws up a new source of competitive and strategic change. Organisations are beginning to recognise that location isn’t what it once was. We are in danger of being dislocated.

At the beginning of the industrial era, entrepreneurs created factory towns to have a dedicated community of employees, to develop unique skills and capabilities in their employees and to preserve intellectual property. From that location they sent product out to the world.

Despite the major shift from manufacturing to services, organisations still think in factory town terms. A new campus is still a marquee project for a CEO and in Australia we have been through an era of heavily investment in collaborative office spaces, mostly for property savings but under a veneer of innovation, collaboration and human capability. Location is a source and a gathering point of human capability, even if that location is a financial centre trading in global markets or an innovation hub like Silicon Valley intent on enabling the world to collaborate, work and live digitally.

Organisations are now challenged to think about where the best capability lies for their strategy, not where their organisation may be located. Effective strategy has always been about the best development and use of human capability. Now this capability can come from a global market. This is not offshoring where organisations engage in labour arbitrage, or the gig economy where organisations seek to shift the risk of business volatility to contingent contractors. This is an explicit recognition that, subject to the limitations of remote work, you can hire anywhere and get the best capability. If your organisation has global ambitions, one has to question why your human capabilities are limited to the supply in your own town or that which will move to your town.

How did Airbnb, Uber and the like become household names? They presented novel solutions the limitations of marketplace services for accommodation and transportation. They aren’t perfect but the delivered a compellingly differentiated proposition to scale globally. The barriers to remote working and its issues are problems for organisations to solve to leverage the best global capabilities to deliver their strategy. Many organisations are already deep into experimentation, investment and development of new models of hiring, of work and of capability. There is new strategic advantage and new level of performance that organisations can achieve if they are able to work with their people and develop new and better ways of working.

Remote and flexible work is not a temporary or short term fix to a pandemic. Things will not go back to 2019 business as usual. Organisations seeking competitive and strategic advantage should be exploring the opportunities and new solutions and new ways of working for our dislocated world of work.

Digital Exhaust(ion)

Do you know the moment when relief and tiredness merge into one experience? The moment before you realise that this new achievement is not the crest it is a shoulder on the ongoing climb. Take a pause to look back and celebrate what we have done. Then we must go on.

I wrote earlier in this pandemic about the challenges of fatigue. Across many domains we are now seeing that fatigue play out. Here in Victoria, we experienced a rollercoaster 48 hours where it briefly looked liked our reopening from lockdown would be delayed by a new outbreak, only to experience two days of no cases or deaths and the announcement of the new path out of lockdown. Devastation turned to doughnuts.

In the intervening 24 hours of disappointment across a range of connections, you could see the impact of the fatigue. Everyone is tired of work, of restrictions, of their narrow relationships, of lost sleep, of lost dreams, of grief, of worry for friends, family, colleagues, community and more. We needed hope and change, just like we needed to do all the work to make that hope and change possible.

This is not a small voice
you hear.

Sonia Sanchez, This is not a Small Voice

One benefit of blogging through the last nine months has been to be able to look back on the rollercoaster journey and the reiteration of themes of hope, love, poetry, connection, frustration, remote working, collaboration, community, loss and work. Sharing all that has also fostered critical interactions, conversations and support that has helped me through this journey so far. That digital exhaust is a record of the exhaustion we all feel. However, it is also a record of all that has worked, all we needed to do together and the work that still lies ahead.

We are exhausted. However, the pandemic is not over, our organisations still need to continue to change and adapt. There are great big global challenges and small personal ones that we still need to address together. The hope, today as ever, is that we can come together and start to do that work.

Earlier in the pandemic, I referenced Emily Dickinson’s Hope is a thing with feathers a great deal. Let’s go back to Emily now for the current air of celebration and the rowing in Eden yet to come:

Wild nights – Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile – the winds –
To a Heart in port –
Done with the Compass –
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden –
Ah – the Sea!
Might I but moor – tonight –
In thee!

Emily Dickinson, Wild Nights