The Self-organising Disappearance

Self-organisation is one of the most common themes of the future of work. It is also the one most likely to disappear in the culture of organisations. Realising self-organisation takes more than new practices. Achieving sustainable self-organisation requires a focus on the culture of management and interactions.

The Self-organising Disappearance

Self-organisation is everywhere. Also, it disappears as fast as it is advocated.

Nobody was going to have a manager. Holacracy was going to bring self-organisation to all organisations but has ended up a niche practice at best. Agile is about enabling self-organising teams to deliver the projects they choose in the manner that best makes sense for them. However in many organisations agile is the way that project teams take orders in fancy new meetings. Open plan workspaces were to enable the new flat organisational models of the future but we just got the funky furniture and the negative impacts on productivity. Enterprise social was to enable widescale self-organising of collaboration but still we spend our time talking about the importance of senior leadership engagement. We could go on.

One issue is core to the failure of self-organisation in many of these approaches. We sold a new work practice that is predicated on a new culture of work, but we left out the culture change. The traditional management culture of efficiency, allocation, command and control embraced the new practices where required, but managed out the threatening and risky self-organisation. When culture is our expectation of how to behave in groups, that expectation will shape any fancy new process or practice.

In many cases, this was deliberate. Fearing that self-organisation was scary or difficult, advocates didn’t promote that element of the hot new practice. Leaving culture change to later is leaving culture change out entirely. In other cases, the scope of the implementation project was not wide enough to allow for sustainable change. Self-organisation doesn’t coexist well with traditional top-down budgeting, human resources and performance systems. Leave those out of scope and they will slow win back control. Many of the new practices were also complete systems that had been developed over time in a specific context. Imposing the practice without the context led to all kinds of inevitable adaptation opening the door to adaptation to suit traditional cultural models of management.

The Power of Self-organisation

Self-organisation is still a key part of enabling organisation to adapt in a digital age.  More businesses face the challenge of moving beyond the predictable repeatable process of work.  As they do so, they discover that top down process centric approaches to work are barriers to adaptation.

The pace of adaptation accelerates when organisations can engage all their employees in learning and initiating change. Self-organisational practices enable employees to quickly identify, test and adapt without waiting for management decisions to change processes, budgets, goals or team structures. Moving decision-making closer to the customer and closer to the edge of the business enables that decision-making to be more responsive to changing markets.

Importantly, self-organisation is also how organisations begin to tackle the pervasive lack of engagement and waste of human potential in traditional bureaucratic structures of management. Coordinating change in one’s own work enables a more direct line to purpose and the value of the work. It enables people to change their contribution to teams to better align to their potential and their growing capabilities. Our organisations come together to better leverage collective human potential. Once that was best done through the management of information and resources in a hierarchical bureaucracy. The challenge now is how we organise for the next level of performance in a competitive fast changing digital market.

Realising Self-Organisation

As noted above, there are many practices that foster self-organisation, but we often miss how they challenge our traditional management practice. Hierarchical decision-making, efficiency orientation, resource allocation through budgeting, inflexible processes and policy and tight metrics are how we ‘do business’. They are the cultural expectations we have of how things are done and they are rarely challenged or considered in organisations. It is for very good reason that any new change in an organisation is met with the questions “who authorised this?” and “do you have budget?”

Introducing self-organisation into your organisation should not be about throwing out the existing culture and incorporating another culture whole. That’s not how culture change works. People don’t embrace new cultural expectations because they are mandated. They are embraced through a process of adaptation, story telling and experience. New rituals are one part of that process but the practical experience of change is what is more powerful in shaping expectations.

Stepping into changes in the way management is done in your organisation also creates new risks. Existing management and their power structures will be rightly reluctant to embrace new risks and lose control of mitigating them at the same time. Organisations that want to move in the direction of self-organisation do so by building foundations for new ways of working that go directly to these anxieties in management.

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Here are a few starting points that we will explore in future posts:

  • Accountability & Alignment: Most organisations claim to have an accountability culture. Few do. Often if they do, it is a culture of individual accountability at the expense of collaboration and alignment. Successful self-organisation requires individuals, teams and the organisation to get used to a dynamic process of managing changing accountabilities and aligning work to strategic goals and purpose. That dynamic process is as much about peer accountability as it is top-down. Organisations need to get get used to new hard conversations. Accountability and alignment must work together to support self-organisation.
  • Measurement & Transparency: Letting people manage their work doesn’t mean ignoring that work. Improving the management of work and learning what works involves a commitment to measuring well and using that measurement for the improvement process. Another shock to most traditional organisations is that self-organisation usually requires increased transparency of performance information to support the culture of accountability and alignment.
  • New People Experiences: Many self-organisation efforts fail because employees won’t embrace the new freedoms of work. Why? Because traditional people experiences mean that these new freedoms are risky. Until performance, job design, remuneration, learning, working approaches and career paths support the goal of greater self-organisation employees will be sceptical to be the only ones taking risks.
  • Degrees of Freedom: Self-organisation doesn’t have to be total. Organisations should adapt their own approaches based on the demands of their market, organisation, business model and strategy. Enabling the right degrees of freedom for employees to create change aligned to strategic value creation is the start. Organisations can then adapt their approach as their culture matures into new ways of working and as the results are delivered.

Do for, Do With or Enable

When managing the value of collaboration or other future of work activities, it is critical that we enable employees to exceed our expectations.

As a marketer, I came across research in many domains that highlighted that people have diverse preferences for the experience of choice and control. Some people like things done for them, some people like things done with their active participation and decision-making and then there are those who want to do it all alone.

Do it For Me

The practice of collaboration is maturing across organisations. Community managers and adoption specialists increasingly understand that we need to move beyond ‘do it for me’.

In the early days when the technology was new people found prescriptive approaches useful. They still demand them in psychologically unsafe environments because following an order is a form of thoughtless safety.

There will always be some part of the population that has a preference to be told what to do. However, this group probably won’t be the source of your greatest value creation.

Do it With Me

The Value Maturity Model of Collaboration above recognised that co-creation of value is a key part of effective collaboration. Employees want to work with others to break the shackles of traditional management and create new value.

Community managers must plan for this agile co-creation process. They need to leave activities and engagement open enough that it appeals to those whose preference is ‘Do it with me’. In this way, collaboration is an exercise in collective sense-making.

Enable Me To Do It

Much of what is said about generations is myth. However the highlighting of preferences for self-service and control in younger generations is an expression of the ‘I’ll do it streak’ in the whole community. The era now increasingly validates this choice and control and leaves us questioning the hierarchical command and control models of work and management.

Organisations need to enable the degrees of freedom for employees to do their own thing in creating value aligned to strategy. A key part of the approach to collaboration is deciding where these degrees of freedom are required and building employee capability to take advantage of it.

Independent action and agency is an important part of how people realise their potential. We come together in organisations to realise human potential more effectively than as individuals. Your collaboration plans should take account of all three segments – do it for me, do it with me and I’ll do it. This requires organisations to have a clear plan to align people around purpose, develop psychological safety and enable degrees of freedom in their employees.

Post #1000: How a thousand blog posts changed my life

I was pondering what to cover on the 1000th post on this blog. Rachel Happe responded to my query with an excellent suggestion of a topic:

So here goes a wandering meditation on what I’ve learned on a multi-year journey of blogging.

The History

First, a little history.  I began blogging about 4 years before I published my first external blog post. When I worked for a large financial services organisation, I convinced one of the admins of the new SharePoint site to turn on a blog site for me. My goal was to blog every day about something I had experienced or learned in the day.

At the time, it was the only one in the organisation and there were a few risks in putting my voice forward which I mitigated by keeping the audience small at first. That blog was soon magnified by the network reach of a growing Yammer network. Quickly, other executives, usually far more senior, started their own blogging.

I created my first external blog on the predecessor of this site on Tumblr (seemed like a good idea at the time) a year before I left that organisation, which is around 6 years ago now. Three years of practice internally had helped me refine my approach and I wanted to share more externally, not just to the closed community of an organisation. About 3 years ago, I migrated all those posts to this site on WordPress and have continued to post consistently since, still trying to post daily much of that time.

Discovering my Voice

The first lesson of this experience was discovering that I had my own unique voice. I also learned that I should embrace my own way of writing, focuses and messages as a strength.  Success came when I said my thing, not when I tried to ape others.

When I started blogging, I read many ‘how to blog successfully’ articles. I experimented with the advice, but my own voice prevailed. Ultimately, I rejected much of their advice. I found I couldn’t blog on only one topic. I couldn’t use SEO keywords. I couldn’t tie my posts to current events consistently. All those suggestions are great if you want your blog to be like others. I wanted to say my piece.

When I started blogging, I was trying to replicate some of the posts of those I admired. People like Stowe Boyd, Lois Kelly, Harold Jarche, Euan Semple, Jen Frahm, Seth Godin, Esko Kilpi, Catherine Shinners and Susan Scrupski were role models for me. However, if you look at the work of those remarkable bloggers you soon realise that I couldn’t copy them. The world doesn’t need clones. It needs diversity. I needed to speak in my own way and do my own thing. When I stopped copying and started being me, I enjoyed it more and the engagement lifted.

Discovering my Purpose

When I began blogging consistently I had no idea what I wanted to do with my career. Exploring my ideas and passions on the blog became a way for me to discover and refine my purpose.

Discussing ideas on the blog, led others to raise questions and make suggestions. Purpose doesn’t exist for you alone. Purpose is about the impact you have on others and the change you enable. Expressing my purpose and putting it into action in that way helped me to refine it through the work.

Putting my Intent in the World

Putting my intent into the world through the blog and through the social engagement that it fostered solved what I wanted to do next. When I saw my perspectives and ideas were unique, could add value and be valued by others, it helped me to develop the confidence to build a consulting practice.

The reputation fostered by putting this intent forward has led to work and speaking opportunities that helped reinforce my purpose and give me the chance to practice. The consistent practice of blogging has also been a way to refine and learn in that work.

Connecting with Communities

Blogging has been a path to meet others who share my purpose and to exchange ideas with them.  My practice on the blog led to a wide engagement with the Yammer Customer Network, meeting the Change Agents Worldwide community, becoming a leader of Working Out Loud week, joining the Yammer MVP community, engaging more deeply with Learning practitioners around the world, working with healthcare communities, joining the Responsive Org community and many more.

Blogposts became the topics of discussions on twitter chats and forums around the world that led back to new interactions and relationships that enhanced my practice and my networks. Not all of those interactions were situations where people thought my posts were right, but I have been lucky to largely avoid the ire of others for what I have said.

Reflecting, Learning and New Practice

In a busy world, time to reflect on what we do is a gift. Communities to share that reflection process are a blessing. Learning new ways of working and being able to share new ways of practising that work are the benefits.

Over 1000 posts, I have learned a lot about myself, my work, my relationships and my world. Some of the biggest and most personal learnings don’t show in words on this blog. They were side benefits of the work. Others are here but the personal learning has been spun into its organisation context and buried back into a richer and more human approach to the work I do.

This blog has a small audience. There are probably more posts, than consistent readers. It is not a numbers game. I won’t win any awards. There are many posts with only a handful of readers. I once found a post that only I had read. I blog mostly for myself. Many of my posts are a process of working out new actions or exhorting myself to improve my practice. Put that intent out there and it helps you to deliver against it.

A System for Daily Practice

To even go close to write a post every day, I had to build a system to enable that to happen. That system was built around a few key elements:

  • the habit of writing: I sit down most days with my first cup of coffee and I write. The coffee is the trigger and when I was a consultant and not every day was booked blogging was my trigger to start work. That’s how I start my day and my goal is to publish a post at the end of each writing session
  • working out loud: to publish in one session you can’t be a perfectionist. You have to embrace that the post is a part of a journey, not the end point. It also allows for you to revisit or develop posts later in further blogposts.
  • a format of a post: to publish in one session you need to have a simple idea, developed, supported and expressed concisely usually in around 500 words. Larger ideas are broken down into their components and played out over a number of days.  I’m not always the best editor of my own work but this length allows time for a few read throughs and amendments before publishing.
  • a pipeline of ideas: I take notes continuously on paper and online. I’ve always compiled long lists of ideas for candidates for blogs, even if it is just a title that I save in WordPress as a draft post. When I am stuck, I work through that list, edit an abandoned draft or use some of those ideas as inspiration for a new topic.
  • looking for connections: I accumulate connections that enhance the pipeline of ideas. When you have a post in the pipeline, you inevitably see other materials that are relevant and can be related. The connections are there, but we often don’t go looking.
  • inspiration: Picasso is reported to have said ‘inspiration exists, but it has to find you working’. I agree. The practice of writing daily made it easy for inspiration (or even suggestions) to find me.

New Attention

I am much more attentive to the world around me, because I write consistently. I know I need to feed the pipeline of ideas, to research connections and to have material to share. When I see interesting work, I follow and I engage with those people because it helps me to learn.

Attention only happens with focus. The topics that this blog addressed helped me to focus on a narrower range of areas that I want to learn and to write. My reading and conversation tastes are eclectic, but focus helps me to find relevant gems in even widely divergent domains,

In an era where we are easily distracted, focus and attention is a gift. It is also the only way to get things done.


Writing is a humbling task. There are no perfect words and no perfect ideas. No matter how long or how well you do it, the next page starts blank. You can learn some tricks of writing, a pretty vocabulary and some flowery grammar, but you have to do the work.

The post of which you are most proud will be ignored. The post that was a late night rant of frustration will strike a chord with others. The perfect idea will seem stupid the next day. The post that took weeks will never be published because it never resolves the right way. There will always be spelling and grammatical errors. Jokes will be misunderstood. You will hate editing your own work. Whatever happens the next day you get up and write again.

Writing is a perpetual reminder that life is a process of mastery. We make each effort better than the last. We build on what we do and we learn and we do again. A little humility helps.


Writing a lot helps bring clarity. It helps you to express ideas in simple jargon-free language (mostly). It exposes when your own ideas, your expression, or your own goals are muddy.

With the tools available to us, it is easier than ever to write a lot and say nothing.  That is particularly the case when all you do is paraphrase others. Clarity of the value that you add and how your view is different is important. Sometimes people are craving a clear stand. Be brave enough to be wrong.

The ability to clearly express and simplify an idea in a single sentence so that you can share it with others is the greatest challenge. I know I have made a difference when someone finds that sentence and highlights it.


I am the beneficiary of much privilege. You can see the privilege in the assumption that anyone wanted to read my writing when I started.

The process of blogging and engaging with wider communities has helped me to understand that others don’t start from the same place or get the support that I got to write. I am now far more aware that my experience is not universal and that others need help to share their voice, to benefit from and to feel safe doing so. I can’t be aware of that and be neutral, so I see that as something I want to address in my ongoing work. If work is to be more human, then everyone needs to feel able to realise their human potential.



Post #999 – How to have Meaningful Work Conversations Online

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I invited suggestions for the last posts before the 1000th post on this blog and Cai Kjaer suggested the great topic of how to have meaningful work conversations online.

This is a topic that has been underexplored so let’s dive into a long post to breakdown some of the elements and suggestions how to improve the interactions in your community. I don’t propose that this is a comprehensive response to the topic. What follows is my tools and approaches for managing meaningful online conversations. If all you want is a short post with some tools for conversations online, jump now to step 5. Before we answer the question, there are a few preliminary topics to consider. 

Step 1: What’s a meaningful conversation?

Mark is right that a meaningful conversation could be widely interpreted. I interpreted Cai’s tweet as using meaningful in the sense of significant to the participants. That lifts us out of the realm of light weight information exchange or chatter and into the realm of conversations or collaboration. Because we are looking at conversations and collaboration, I will be using a range of concepts from adaptive leadership, effective conversations, coaching, collaboration and other domains to guide us in how to foster an meaningful discussion.

For this post, I will use a definition of meaningful conversation in line with the Value Maturity Model of Collaboration. A meaningful conversation is one that the participants or the wider organisation see as delivering value to them personally or to the purpose of their work. Value in this context is not limited to monetary value. It is value as the one or more participants or the wider community define it.

The value might be intensely personal or it might be something shared with others in the organisation.  These latter types of value include achieving an organisational goal that benefits external stakeholders, enabling an employee to grow and develop or helping a customer. Meaningful conversations are often those that create or deliver value to the participants in the conversation or to the beneficiaries of work. The conversation particularly will leverage the economic and non-economic drivers of value.

Step 2: What is your goal?

A successful meaningful conversation requires some kind of goal to measure success against. Something needs to change as a result of this conversation. Achieving progress in the change that you want to explore should be your goal.

Our organisations today already have many conversations without meaning, value or purpose. To have a meaningful conversation, you need to know the significance you want to deliver. Start with the end in mind is great advice and it applies in this context too.

The best goals aren’t capitalised nouns. They are specific changes to enable you to think about who best should be involved in the conversation and what kinds of value you might be looking to realise from a discussion. Starting a conversation about Employee Engagement in an online community is likely to be unproductive. Using employee input to design solutions to improve a specific pain point in the employee experience is much more likely to be productive.

The end should not be a specific predetermined outcome of the change. A meaningful conversation is one in which the participants have the opportunity to add value to the discussion in a generative way. Meaningful conversations are those where greater value is created than anyone expected going in.  If you know exactly what you want and you aren’t open to input, you aren’t trying to have a conversation, you are trying to deliver an order.

The goal should not be having the conversation itself. Conversations are great. However, in the work context people are busy achieving meaning and creating value. If you want to take their time, their input and leverage their potential, it needs to go beyond a conversation alone. Your meaningful conversation is only meaningful if it results in new value, new actions or new changes.

Step 3: Should the conversation be online?

Not every conversation is well suited to be online. There I said it. I’m not suggesting you start pulling out your ‘what to use when’ guides. I am suggesting you reflect before you start as to whether an online environment will be conducive to the participants, the participation and the value that you seek to achieve from the conversation.

Online conversations are often more asynchronous, lower bandwidth and less rich in context. We know participation can be an issue at many times but particular when the stakes are high. This means that they can be great for wider engagement, real-time interaction and less personal issues.

Online environments aren’t always a great environment for emotive issues, win/lose debates, situations that are highly stressful or where there is a large amount of context or confusion to address. One person’s speculation or thought leadership can feel to another like trolling. Meaningful conversations require participants who have trust and sensitivity to diverse others.

Step 4: Where online?

Just as not every conversation should be online, not every conversation should be public online. Reflect before you start on this meaningful conversation whether there are issues that might cause some people concern if this conversation is held publicly. We know that the best teams ensure that participants in discussion feel psychologically safe to participate and make contributions. You might want to choose a smaller group or a more private environment to maximise the value of some conversations.

Choosing the right place online will depend whether the conversation one that belongs in the inner or outer loop in your workplace, the culture of use of those tools in your organisation and the velocity of conversations and messages in those tools. It can be hard to try to have a meaningful conversations that requires though reflection and changing views while being bombarded with new messages, distractions and other issues. The culture in practice of your organisation and your own choices are the best guide to where it makes sense for you or the organisation. Don’t follow a ‘what to use when’ guide blindly for an important conversation.

Relevance of the place chosen matters too. Working out loud works best when it is a conversation about work in a relevant community with relevant people. The best place to have a meaningful conversation is where those conversations will be appreciated and people will want to be involved.

[We are the length of an average blog post and we have only just finished preliminaries. Great question, Cai. However let’s get to the ‘how to’ part of the answer]

Step 5: How to have meaningful conversation online

As I framed at the beginning of this post, this is not a definitive guide, but is instead a description of my practice in creating, sustaining and fostering these conversations. More work and research is required to build a complete picture of all that is needed. I would encourage readers to treat the following ideas as ingredients in their own experimentation, rather than a definitive recipe.

The Ingredient List

  • Have a Plan: Connect>Share>Solve>Innovate – The four stages of the Value Maturity Model can also act as a handy planning guide for meaningful conversations. Who do you need to connect? What information do you need to share? What needs to be solved? What can you do more, better, different or less?
  • When: The right conversation at the wrong time is the wrong conversation. Conversations need to be timely. That may mean having a meaningful conversation when matters are hot. It may also mean having a more reflective meaningful conversation at a later stage. The question is when is the best time for this discussion to occur. There may be no perfect answer and if in doubt start now because currency is often the best context.
  • Are you ready? If you are seeking to facilitate a conversation, your state of mind, confidence and readiness is an important part of the discussion. Your inner state will influence others even if you never verbalise it, even online. Reflect before you start and understand your doubts and uncertainties. Ask yourself how you might use them in the conversation explicitly rather than be undermined by them. Sharing your vulnerability in the right way can be an important part of facilitating a meaningful discussion.
  • Be Inclusive: Great conversations are inclusive. Focus on what capabilities are required to ensure everyone can contribute their capabilities to the conversation. Opportunity to participate is not enough. For truly inclusive conversations, you may need to engage diverse voices on how best to be involved and actively invite the participation for those who may not otherwise speak.
  • Create a Context: Conversations don’t happen in isolation. They occur in a context. Two or more people who don’t share a context won’t be able to have a valuable or a meaningful conversation. That context includes such issues as shared facts, the rationale for the conversation, power, authority, status, safety and so on. The context needs to allow for the culture of the organisation. One way to rapidly bring in a context and lift above dry facts is to focus on beginning your conversation with some storytelling.  Storytelling is the human way of sharing context.
  • Love and Power: Adam Kahane’s book Power and Love is a reminder that meaningful conversations take account of both power and emotions. If you don’t deal with both aspects in your meaningful conversation it will fall over. Ask people questions that engage their emotions and encourage them to share how they feel. Make sure you have engaged and involve those with power and explicitly discuss the issues power presents in your conversation. You don’t want an utopian conversation.
  • Call Bad Behaviour: if you get disruptive, trolling or other negative participation, you will need to call it out and encourage others to do so too. Don’t hesitate to discuss how to make the conversation more productive while the conversation is underway. Change course if there is a better way. You may need to exclude people if the behaviour persists after warnings. Sustaining a safe and constructive environment for the conversation is important. As you invited the discussion, it is your responsibility to keep it safe.
  • Defer Action: In every conversation, someone arrives too early with an answer. The more senior they are the more likely they are to believe that they have the answer and that they want to act on it now. Facilitators know to structure discussions to allow actions to be decided later. We find better actions when we have understood more by discussion.
  • Framework for Discussion: In the book The Communication Catalyst by Mickey Connolly and Richard Rianoshek, the have a conversation framework that I have found incredibly useful in high stakes conversations. That framework is to discuss in order people’s purposes, concerns, relevant facts and then agreed actions. Facilitating conversations in this order creates a process of alignment that helps people collaborate even where they have opposing views.
  • Manage the Disequilibrium: Adaptive Leadership reminds us that meaningful conversations are not easy ones. To foster a meaningful generative discussion, we need to encourage participants to feel unsettled, to reflect and to consider the system more widely. This means you will need to lean into some conflict and challenge to get people’s attention and shift them out of everyday transactional discussions. I know I am prepared for the disequilibrium when my fingers tremble at starting the conversation.
  • Jumpstart discussion: If you want to start a meaningful discussion online with lots of participants, it is valuable to have a few people you have invited in to get the conversation going. Mentioning people is one way to start this, but for really meaningful topics you may want to engage a small group of early participants to help set the tone and kickstart the discussion. Don’t tell them what to say, but do arrange that they will participate to make their own contribution. Give some thought to ensuring that this early group has some disequilibrium in it.  You will want disagreements and diversity of views. Watching a group of people engage in group think is not engaging.
  • Conversation meter: Mickey Connolly and Richard Rianoshek also have a tool in the Communication Catalyst called the conversation meter. It encourages participants to reflect on whether their contributions to the conversation are on a rising scale from Pretence, Sincerity, Accuracy to Authenticity. Conversations below Accuracy are unlikely to be effective. Conversations from Accuracy up improve in effectiveness.
  • It’s not A to B in one transaction: A meaningful conversation is a relationship, not a transaction. Don’t expect a meaningful conversation to be over and done in one interaction. Allow time for the conversation to develop over phases. Good generative conversations include new insights and ideas generated from pauses and reflection.
  • Questions: A good generative conversation depends on great questions. Ask lots of questions, especially early on in the discussion. Keep asking questions all the way to the end. One of the forgotten elements in modern workplace conversation is asking questions to confirm understanding and to validate agreements. These are critical to the value of a discussion. As George Bernard Shaw said,

‘The greatest challenge in communication is the illusion it has taken place’

  • Explore Options: Questions can encourage people to look widely for solutions. Encourage people to explore the whole system in which they operate. Ask people for analogous situations and metaphors that might help foster new and different patterns of thought. Spend as more time on what can be done than on the barriers and historical issues. You want to help guide people to their degrees of freedom to act.
  • Don’t Panic: Meaningful conversations aren’t easy. Things can and will go wrong. You may want them to go wrong to cause disequilibrium and have reflection on why. Whatever you do, don’t panic if something bad happens. Pause, reflect, deal with it and move on.
  • It’s Never You: You want to have a meaningful conversation and nobody else does. Your meaningful conversation collapses in fights and name-calling. Someone tells you the great discussion was a waste of time and won’t go anywhere. People will attack you personally. Remember you are not the conversation. You are just the facilitator. Don’t take it personally. It’s never you. You are not your work. There will be other conversations and you can try again.
  • Work towards Value: Purpose, your goals of the conversation and the value that flow should be your guide in the conversation. There may be many byways and digressions but your role is to keep bringing the conversation back to these elements.
  • Finish with Action not more Discussion: You will learn more by doing. Make sure your conversation agrees some actions at the end and there are experiments to be run. If people can’t agree, then decide on some hypotheses to test in action.
  • Practice: The best way to have meaningful conversations online is to practice having meaningful conversations online. Engage people and learn by doing. The skills you develop across a range of online forums will help you to develop your skills in starting and managing these discussions. You will also learn to appreciate the best practices and things to avoid that you see in action.

Community managers getting to this point might reflect that what I have described above sounds a lot like community management. Do we really expect each employee or user to manage each conversation in this detail? Yes, if the stakes are high enough. If you want a meaningful conversation you must deal with the fractal nature of online communities. The large scale issues are reflected at a conversation level. Skilling up participants to support the wider group dynamics is a powerful part of highly effective communities.

Creating the right value in online communities requires people to manage the scale and value of conversations. Developing these practical skills is essential to organisations ability to learn and adapt. Most importantly, conversation are how we leverage the potential of the people in the organisation.

‘Markets are conversations’ – Cluetrain Manifesto

Nobody wants to be led

Leadership is a role and work. Nobody wants the boss but everybody wants someone to do the work. It’s your turn to do the work.

We commonly confuse the two meanings of leadership. Many people do so wilfully in pursuit of status. The human desire for social status takes priority over the hard work of leading. We need to accept that nobody wants the role, but everyone can do the work. Then we need to all get on with the work.

Nobody Wants to be Led

Having a boss or other hierarchical leader is overrated. Learned helplessness can be comforting for those who want to avoid conflict, anxiety and doubt. However, those negatives come find all of us and there being someone with the status of leader rarely helps.

A leader only makes a positive difference if they do the work. A leader who focuses on the status is a very bad thing. They will become focused on preserving and enhancing the status which means pain for everyone and makes the work a distraction.

Everybody Can Do the Work

The work of leadership is the work of encouraging others to realise their potential individually and with others. The work of leadership is not the hierarchical role of making decisions, allocating resources, having answers and holding power.

We all have the power to influence others to act, to learn and to grow. We all can contribute to the value of collaboration in our organisation. The work of leadership is hard conversation, creating tension, leveraging employee potential and creating valuable change.

This work of leadership is not without risks to us and to others. The work of leadership involves conflict with power and status. It also involves pushing against the system and all its inertia. The risks are not a source of our inability to act. They are just reasons why it may be hard and should shape how we act.

Do the Work

Having the ability to do the work of leadership is one thing. Doing that work without status is another.

People need to feel psychologically safe to make their contributions. People need degrees of freedom to make change doing the work.

Organisations need to invest in the capabilities and processes that support this work. Importantly, organisations need to ensure that the status of leader is not stopping the work of leadership – hard conversation, creating tension, leveraging employee potential and creating valuable change.

Unintended Consequences of Hope

Like many other change agents, I celebrated new social technologies as vehicles of change. We now see the unintended consequences of these changes. The challenge for their advocates is what to do next.

Unintended Consequences

As an economics student, I was fascinated by unintended consequences. So many policy decisions in government and business achieve differing or even opposite outcomes because they fail to account for systemic effects. For example, replace a community managed fisheries licensing regime with a national annual auction process for tradeable licences in an effort to make resource use more equitable and discover that your newly auctioned licences have become part of a portfolio of financial assets, the livelihood of traditional fishing communities is more precarious and the new asset owners have incentives to overfish the resource. Transactional solutions don’t always capture the richness of relationships and systems.

The Hopes for Social Technology

The hopes for social technology were that it would give individuals a voice and connection. That hope led to an assumption that making the world smaller and more connected would increase learning, understanding and community. Others hope that these tools would enable the voiceless and the powerless to make change. In Exit, Voice and Loyalty, Albert O Hirschman had described the potential value of voice inside systems as an alternative to the traditional economic alternatives of exit or loyalty.

From a transactional perspective, these goals have been largely met. Everyone has the ability to have a voice.  Global connection is far easier. Information flows are faster. Change has happened by people leveraging these new platforms to connect, organise and advocate.

Unintended Consequences of Economic and Social Systems

This transactional analysis of interactions on a platform assumed a neutral role of the platform itself. When the platform has algorithms and an economic model to sustain, then the platform grows power to shape outcomes to its needs. The platform is not neutral as it is seeking to grow and make money. Transactions occur in the domain of and the influence of platform capitalists. When the platform connects the planet and generates huge revenues, the platform is a power of its own. When voice is controlled, the only tool left is exit, leaving you voiceless.

Human social systems also play a role.  Human actors are not neutral economic bots. If everyone has a voice, then there is chatter. With chatter people need filters and social proof becomes an easy way to sort through the chatter. Next thing we know we have power law curves of influence with individuals running away with followership because they are in front. The quest for followership and a way to buy into this social proof system promotes a race to the bottom in the battle for attention. Drama, conflict and hacking traditional channels of attention like the media to build followership becomes the main game.

Connecting everyone means connecting everyone. The traditional arbiters lose their power over discussion and debate contributing to an erosion of trust. Rumours and falsehoods circulate as facts in communities susceptible to their comfort. Connecting everyone also means giving voice to those intent on hurting, harming and humiliating others.  Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’ holds, but the arc of the troll is short and it bends towards injustice. Long term change becomes threatened by short term human concerns like fear, pain, self-interest and uncertainty. Instead of drawing individuals out into the world, social interaction increasingly feels like it has become an industry of narcissism, narrow communities and inward-looking discussion. The bubble replaces the globe.

In face of these unintended outcomes, it is no surprise that hope crashes into negativity and despair. Some partisans are now arguing to abandon hope and adopt the tools of those abusing the systems.

Return to the Hope

Changing systems is not impossible. However, transactional solutions won’t be enough. You can’t wish influence, fame-hunters or trolls away with a feature change or an algorithm tweak. Each new transaction change likely leads to new unintended consequences. The time frame won’t be short as we need to learn again into that ‘long arc’.

To create this change, we need to remember the principal issues are issues in human systems. We will need to use all our tools of human and social influence to create change. That includes both the good natured tools of love and the tools of power, as Adam Kahane’s Power and Love reminds us.

Exit from the worst behaved platforms and communities is one part of the puzzle. We will also need a greater focus on community norms. Violation of community norms will need enduring consequences. Shame, ostracism, boycott and exclusion are tools that will be of growing force. Loss of authority and influence is a consequence that will eventually restrain the economic and social returns of misbehaviour. We need a little order to contribute to change for the better. In a game of no rules, the lowest common denominators will win.

We may also need to continue to foster and scale experiments in new better ways. We cannot assume that current systems will lead the changes themselves.

Over the weekend, I saw a letter E.B White wrote in 1973 , a time of much social, economic and political turmoil, reminding us to hold our hope and keep working. That letter reminds us that

As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness…

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.

Edmund Burke is claimed to have said that ‘the only thing necessary for evil triumph is for good men to do nothing’. Burke’s era is different to ours, but the essence of his and EB White’s advice holds true, our systems will not get better unless men and women engage with them and seek to create change for the better. That will not be by applying one quick fix, but by creating an ongoing and growing community of action and change.

Accelerating the Value of Collaboration

Value Maturity Model red phases 170519

Accelerating the value of collaboration remains the key issue for many organisational leaders.  The Value Maturity Model of Collaboration and the extended tools and practices that it has shaped have been a useful guide to adoption practice for leaders and community managers.  It has also inspired a range of other applications of the ideas including its use by Swoop Analytics to shape the analytics leaders and teams can use in these networks and a range of extended applications by others, including this recent post by Harold Jarche on its application in leadership.

The model is now approaching its 5th anniversary. As our understanding of collaboration in organisations grows through growing global research and practice, there is value to revisit and update the implications for the models we use to foster adoption and accelerate.  This post recaps the high-level themes from my latest work on application of the model and highlights the directions of my future work and research.

Connect: The Rise of Purpose and Psychological Safety

In five years, adoption practice and the related customer success focus of the technology vendors has changed dramatically. ‘Build it and they will come’ is unambiguously dead. Value is now a regular part of the conversation for organisations and adoption is often aligned to strategy. Value to the employee is increasingly an important element of planning.

The core elements of the Connect phase are largely well understood and have matured and begun to be codified into workshops, governance guides, playbooks and roadmaps for new solutions. What remains a challenge is that much of the focus reverts to technology and narrow use cases instead of a focus on people and value creation that people can deliver for the organisations strategy. At senior executive levels, strategic alignment remains a core issue in organisations.

Organisations are increasingly focused on the role of purpose for engagement of employees and as a guide to alignment for value. However, there remains a lot of confusion as to what purpose is and how to leverage it.  Just like collaboration, purpose cannot be imposed. Purpose is a process of discovery and alignment for the individuals in any group.

We have discussed since the beginning of the model that the Connect phase is a time for people to find ways in the organisation to connect their personal purpose to the shared purpose of the organisation. The better organisations design the Connect phase to enable people to reflect on and discover connections and alignment around purpose the stronger the foundations are for the community that develops. Collaborative communities can also play a key role in engaging a wider organisation in reflection and discussion around shared purpose.

It would be hard to miss the recent discussion around psychological safety in organisations. The work by Amy Edmondson and others to highlight the importance of psychological safety in teaming and collaboration puts real rigour behind many of the adoption challenges organisations face with these solutions. Five years ago unsafe organisations were full of people asking ‘Why should I share? What are the risks? What happens if I do something wrong’.  You find those same questions in the laggards today. If it is unsafe to share or take any risk, employees will not do so, no matter how nicely you ask.

As Dr Jen Frahm recently highlighted our control oriented cultures and cultural uniformity can create real issues for the safety of employees. High performing networks are those with high diversity and where people share more of themselves without the risks of being forced to do so.  There is much more work to do to make this commonplace and to enable all leaders in networks with the skills to foster and lead in this diverse environment.

Psychological safety is not something that organisations announce. The culture of the organisation in practice will determine the perception and expectations of safety Creating that practice requires leaders and teams to have active conversations about work, failures and appreciation. Amy Edmondson has highlighted many of those steps in her book, The Fearless Organisation. Collaborative communities are great places to foster this leadership practice and spread it to the wider community.


Share: Working Out Loud in Every Day Work

The principal difference between a network that is solely a tool of employee communications and a productive network is the existence of a consistent practice of working out loud, sharing work in progress with relevant communities to foster learning and collaboration. Working out loud changes the nature of a network. It removes the social media feel and it helps employees find the relevance of the community to their work. It still surprises me how many organisations are focused on collaborative communities but don’t include work in their plans. You can see plenty of consultant’s approaches to social networking that leave work out too.

Many networks have working out loud. I have discussed before that by drawing discussion of work and awareness of work into the network, working out loud enables the transition to the Solve stage. As we have demonstrated through International Working Out Loud Week year on year, working out loud takes many forms and is increasingly practiced around the world.

The best performing networks don’t see working out loud as an extra thing that they do. They don’t have dedicated working out loud processes, groups, tags or feeds. The goal is for everyday work to occur on the network. The organisation exists for the purposeful work and so should the collaborative network. Work is designed to be open, to be narrated, to have input from others and to allow others to contribute to the goals. When that is the case, value creation accelerates quickly and employees quickly understand the value of changing their work to be more collaborative.

Solve: Enabling Degrees of Freedom

All business is about change to create new value. Most traditional organisations are established with so many layers of control, process and policy that change is difficult. Employees and customers are expected to put up with or work around, partial solutions, broken things and poor outcomes. In every senior management conversation, fixing these issues and delivering the efficiency and effectiveness outcomes that follow is a key topic of discussion. Senior managers tear their hair at the silly little issues standing in the way of performance but the culture of fear and lack of freedom to act differently is why these issues persist.

When we import concepts from social media into our organisation collaboration, we can become overly focused on hierarchical power and fame. Organisational collaboration is not a power or game. Organisations don’t need influencers. They don’t need heroes who share their thought leadership or highlight issues for others to solve. They need the work of change to address the real gaps and to solve issues as and when they surface in the flow of work.

We have had a rush of discussion of alternate organisational models, like holacracy, agile and more, many from the start-up world, that endeavour to address these issues by fostering discussion of tensions and accelerating change. However, we have also seen that implementing these models in a traditional organisation meets real challenges. They are often an entirely alien experience of organisational leadership, interactions and decision making. The same managers who talk of the importance of trust also struggle to deal with the vulnerability of trusting.

My recent experience is that we should be focusing instead on the degrees of freedom employees need to realise the organisational strategy, make change and create new value. Degrees of freedom are the magic ingredient in a collaborative community. Instead of adopting an alien culture wholesale, we can enable employees to begin to create agile change one degree of freedom at a time. This is a key theme of my current research and practice.

Leading collaborative networks encourage these degrees of freedom in the themes of discussion that they pursue, in the examples that they set and the leadership that they foster. Organisations release the real or perceived constraints with approaches from a Fix it group to encourage all employees to take ownership of change to Invitations to remove policies. Organisations create more value this way from enabling front line workers to represent the customer to more elaborate innovation programs, collaborative networks should be enabling every employee to contribute to making the organisation better. Organisations enable greater changes by tolerating their rebels and giving them the tools to start movements.  That means more than just chatting. It means the freedom to do themselves and experience the personal rewards of influencing others and achieving a better way of work.

Innovate: Scaling Agency and Agile Change

Organisations exist to enable us to realise human potential individually and as a collective. That goal of greater effectiveness is widely demanded by employees but translates in management speak into strategic value creation, innovation, agility and change management. To break free of the innovation labs model of value creation we need to be able to scale employee agency and sustain agile change aligned to strategic outcomes.

We lose sight of this often in our focus on efficiency. We need to escape the Four Horsemen of the Organisational Apocalypse and build organisations that give employees agency, scale that agency into teams, communities and networks and leverage agile models of change. Digital transformation and the competitive environment demand that change but it is a direct challenge to deeply engrained management values and traditional concepts of leadership and power.

When we consider agency and agile change we must recognise that these must be supported by new systems and new capabilities. The freedom to act without the systems or capability to do so is no freedom at all. Organisations that want to realise the potential of employees will need to focus on how they support the development of these capabilities and systemic approaches to capability development that ensure agency results in effective change.

Conclusion: Ongoing Work Accelerating the Value of Collaboration 

Almost five years ago, when I wrote the first post on the Value Maturity Model of Collaboration, I thought the challenges of adopting social collaboration would largely be completed over the next two years. Five years on, we have learned a great deal but we still have only begun to scratch the possibilities of realising human potential, working together in better ways and finding new sources of value.

I underestimated the cultural challenges, overestimated the technology and the willingness to change traditional models of management. We have in many cases chosen to put new tools to the service of old values of management. What I have realised in the years since is that the process is one of mastery, not achieving perfection. We are working in the realm of culture, community and people, not technology. That means we will always be learning and coming together to do better. The greatest collaborative communities will be those who accelerate the process to realise more value for participants and the organisation.

Moving to a Digital Organisation

Moving to a more digital organisation is about choosing the ways of working that will fulfil your strategy. As tempting as it may seem, there’s little to be gained copying the structures or models you have found elsewhere.

On Friday, I had a conversation with leading HR professionals about their organisations transformation towards more digital ways of working.  The conversation was focused on what steps HR professionals can take to help assist this transformation. A key first step was to understand what we meant by a more digital organisation.  Digital maturity is an ongoing process.

What are your goals?

Different organisations are competing in different markets and facing a wide range of challenges and opportunities.  Becoming a more digital organisation can mean a lot of things: radically transforming to digital only, becoming digital first, adopting services approaches, improving customer focus, speed and agility or even just managing a digital channel team more effectively.

The goals of any change should be to help accelerate or make more effective the organisations creation of value towards its strategic goals.  Each organisation has its own strategy and goals.

What does digital mean to you?

An outcome of that strategy will be where the organisation sees digital ways of working:

  • the digital team manages a channel to market
  • digital interactions are a way to engage and learn from customers and other stakeholders
  • We use digital product management approaches to manage digital products and channels
  • We use digital product management approaches to manage all products and channels
  • We use digital product management approaches to manage customer propositions
  • We see our business as a series of digital services and platforms
  • We are looking at new digital ways of working across the whole organisation

The model chosen will shape any changes to ways of working.

What are the dimensions of change?

Structure is the most obvious lever that HR can pull to make change in organisations. The temptation is to see the change to digital ways of working as a decision about structure.

While structure may be important for other reasons, particularly signalling changes in power or other elements of culture, there are a wide range of other dimensions that need to be considered in any change to digital organisation models.  These dimensions commonly include:

  • Strategy alignment and the strategy execution process in the organisation
  • Decision making, resource allocation and power
  • Work Practices and models
  • Cultural elements like psychological safety, autonomy,  growth mindset, risk appetites, etc
  • Capabilities to support the above

What’s the best model? Your Own

Many HR teams see the transformation to new digital ways of working as finding a different model that has been successful in an organisation and copying that.  The broken photocopier model doesn’t work because both:

  • the model is rarely copied in full or effectively; and
  • the culture and goals of the two organisations differ

Instead of moving from model A to a totally distinct model B. The challenge for HR teams is to start to iterate from model A to model A1.

HR must start to think digital in its ways of working too. HR can run a series of agile experiments to loosen the degrees of freedom on the dimensions above in pursuit of the organisation’s goals. Small iterative steps will deliver a new model that is consistent with the organisations purpose, allows employees to have agency in the changes and evolves the culture in constructive ways.  The outcome of the successful experiments will build the organisations own future model.


The Four Horsemen of the Organisational Apocalypse

The global networked economy presents new challenges for our organisations and brings about dramatic changes. We need to be clear that the tools of the past may not serve us well in the future. Four past tools are so deeply engrained in our thinking that they are carried into our organisations without discussion.  These four are the four horsemen of the Organisational Apocalypse.

I’ve been following the changing discussion in organisations for some time. I was a passionate supporter of the Responsive Organisation Manifesto.  I was at Disrupt Sydney when Adam Pisoni launched the concepts behind the Manifesto. In my own work and own practice I have seen the challenges traditional organisations face when adopting new ways of working to meet the needs of the digital economy. I have also been surprised at how many new practices, like agile, lean startup, design thinking, flat organisations, and so forth, are repurposed to suit the demands of the Four Horsemen of the Organisational Apocalypse.

The four horsemen of the organisational apocalypse are:

  • Obsession – Shareholder Value: Shareholder value is a measure of organisational performance. Make it the sole measure of organisational performance and you will have a negative effect on those that the organisation needs to survive: customers, employees and the wider community. Alienating these critical elements of success in the interests of shareholders opens the organisation to all kinds of threats and weakens loyalty and engagement in the networks around the organisation. The focus on shareholder value at all costs sets up organisations for short term thinking and creates the danger they will be disrupted by someone with new measures of success.
  • Efficiency – The Machine Mindset: Management has long strived to see the organisation as a machine and to manage it as a machine with a linear process of inputs leading to outputs. That machine focus has made people an uneasy fit and since FW Taylor we have worked to make people fit the machine model. People don’t work like machines. We need our organisations to recognise this and seek to leverage human capability not replace it.
  • Reductionism – Oversimplification: Data and Analysis is useful when it leads to new ways of understanding the world. Data and analysis for its own sake or for the the wrong goals creates risks and can limit our ability to understand the world. If we allow our simplification to interfere with a human engagement with our world, then our organisations will be more fragile.
  • Control – Hierarchy: Any management model where most of the people have no say, no power and no autonomy and people are divided into silos of goals, information and activity will be suboptimal. Even if the smartest and best people are at the top, a hierarchy will be at risk of being outperformed by the networks around it. The danger is that hierarchical power reinforces itself and reduces the responsiveness to threats.

Individually each of these approaches creates some risk for organisations.  Working together they create huge dangers for our organisations. The greatest danger is that when these values become unquestionable the organisations literally cannot see the risks that they create. Take for example shareholder value, how many organisations have dismissed a new competitor on the grounds that they were loss making?

Let’s examine some of these interplays:

  • Control + Reductionism: Organisations delivering the emperor’s new clothes of simplistic solutions where everyone has doubts it will work but nobody has the power to stop the project.
  • Shareholder Value + Efficiency: Value cost savings over revenue growth. Maximise the extractive nature of the organisation at the expensive of effectiveness, social value and purpose.
  • Efficiency + Reductionism: Ignoring systemic effects or wider complexity can cause widescale environment, social or even effectiveness issues. So much corporate policy is counterproductive because it fails to understand and influence systems.  These two values are also at the heart of much of our corporate obsession with speed.
  • Shareholder Value + Efficiency + Control: Humans are unpredictable because they have the potential to create their own change. Remove humans and replace them with controllable and predictable machines. We may have created corporations to harness the potential of collaboration between humans but for many the goal of the corporation is humanless, but fragile.
  • Shareholder Value + Efficiency + Control + Reductionism:  Dumb and fragile organisations that are out of touch with their systems and environments and often can’t see their way to a new way of working.

Most digital disruption is not solely the outcome of technology transformation. Most digital disruption is the result of new businesses being created that challenge these values with new business models and new economic models. Not every disruptor challenges every value but increasingly we are seeing new players who look to leverage wider measures of value, effectiveness, distributed leadership and systemic understanding of their organisation, its customers and its business. If you are clinging to the Four Horsemen of the Organisational Apocalypse in a traditional organisation you will not see what is coming. Resilience in a fast-moving digital and global economy requires us to question the values at the heart of our organisations.

Culture Isn’t Fixed in Reality

Many people treat their organisation culture as a historical legacy or some fixed reality. Your organisational culture isn’t mandated by history or by the present. Culture can be a real constraint to performance but it isn’t fixed or necessarily grounded in reality. Because culture is an expectation, it can definitely be changed when you give the community reasons to change their expectations.

Culture is a series of shared expectations of future behaviour of a member of a community. Expectations create and sustain your culture. These expectations are shaped by observation but they are more likely shaped by narratives, perceptions, biases and the expectations of others in the community. There are plenty of examples in history of where expectations have become widely divorced from the reality of the circumstances.

Expectations aren’t always real or founded in any history or present circumstances. Historical narratives in organisations are often carefully crafted myths that don’t reflect well on what really happened. The history has been developed to reinforce the current expectations, not record reality. In some cases, our assumptions and cognitive biases are so strong that we don’t even see the extent to which the organisational cultural expectations are inconsistent with what is going on right now.  How many senior executives relentlessly repeat that ‘people are our greatest asset’ while valuing other things more highly than their people. At times, you can wonder if the public discussion of culture is more performative than normative.  That discussion of culture better defines how things should appear to be than how they actually are manifested in behaviours in the organisation. Such a consequence can create an even greater disconnect from the cultural expectation as shared and behaviours as experienced.

The key point is that expectations can change. The people who change those expectations are the community of people in the organisation. Culture cannot be imposed, but it can change as these expectations adapt to different circumstances and to differing cultural values.  Nobody is fixed with a culture from history or present circumstances. The right leadership, narratives and conversations will enable new expectations.