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Digital communications can benefit from the lessons and practice of poetry.
In May 1991, Dana Gioia wrote an essay in the Atlantic Monthly called ‘Can Poetry Matter?’ The article was a major contribution to a long-running debate on the relevance of poetry in a modern world that appears to run on prose. Gioia’s conclusion to this long running debate on the cultural significance of poetry and its practice was clear in his summary:
If poets venture outside their confined world, they can work to make it essential once more*
In 1991, digital had only just begun its progress to its current pervasive state. Gioia does not even reference digital journals and blogs which now reinforce his point on the niche audience for much modern poetry. We have learned a great deal since then on the practices of digital business and digital communication. Two decades of lessons in digital communication is still a small fraction of the lessons learned across the centuries of history of poetry.
Why Learn from Poetry? Isn’t it Dead?
Modern digital communication can benefit from a deeper understanding of the practices and art of poetry. In many ways, poetry has been practising to refine approaches that align to current challenges facing digital communication.
Capturing The Essence: Gioia gives a strong clue to one rationale when he defines his first rationale for poetry in his essay:
Poetry is the art of using words charged with their utmost meaning.
Digital communication always faces a poverty of attention. Extracting the highest value from expression and conveying as much meaning as attention will allow is essential.
Expressing the Experience: The mobility of digital communication means that messages no longer sit apart from any experience. Digital communications must help express, support and enrich the experience. Poetry has long battled with this same challenge of capturing, enhancing and enriching the human experience. There are lessons to be drawn in the relationship between poetry and the experiences that it captures and supports.
Poetry is an orphan of silence. The words never quite equal the experience behind them – Charles Simic
The use of poetry in ritual in human history is a sign to its power in experiences.
Leveraging Reflection: The practice of writing poetry requires observation of the experiences of life and reflection. Wordsworth described poetry as:
Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.
Similarly, Robert Frost wrote:
Poetry is when an emotion has found a thought and the thought has found words
Digital communicators can provide an important outlet from the busy pace of work. They can write from and help provoke a deeper reflection on the daily experience of work and life.
Engaging through Rythm & Rhyme: The first poets had no written poetry. Jorge Luis Borges once said
Poetry remembers that it was an oral art before it was a written art.
Homer was a bard who told his tales from memory and they were passed on in memory. Many of our literary techniques are echoes of ideas that go back beyond the Ancient Greeks to master poetry and rhetoric. Sections of Shakespeare’s plays on the page can be a struggle for a modern reader but put them in the hands of an actor who can work the structure and they sing with new meaning. Read poetry and you realise the power of the rhythm of words and rhyme structures to engage others and to support your own efforts to share the work. When much digital communication struggles to hold attention, leveraging rhythm and rhyme for engagement remains relevant.
Memorable & Memetic: Great poems and great lines of poetry are memorable. This memorability is often based in universality of the ideas. Keats said
Poetry should… should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.
The English language is filled with phrases from the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare or the poetry of the King James Bible. They are so common now we barely can trace their origins. The potential of digital communication is to find that central, shared, memorable idea, phrase or aphorism that can live beyond one reading and spread through your networks as its own meme.
Open to Experimentation: Since the beginning of human history, poetry has experimented with forms, rhythms, rhymes, assonance, visual and verbal representations of messages. The most successful forms like the sonnet, the haiku, rap or the spoken word jam were tested and refined before spreading around the languages of the world. Digital communicators have learned to measure their effectiveness using the new tools available. A breadth of experimentation will help ensure that digital communication does not become trapped in local maximums of performance like the listicle.
Bringing in the Whole Human: Communication is not just a process of the human brain. Poetry shows the ways we can communicate beyond recitation of facts and logic. We have already seen digital communicators begin to leverage visual imagery in new ways to reinforce messages. Poetry also earns its attention by reaching for a deeper meaning in what is often a brief form:
Poetry may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves. – TS Eliot
Emotion, experience, spirituality, beauty and more are opportunities for experimentation for effective digital communicators as well. Finding richer ways to connect with human meaning is always an effective approach to communication.
Change: In the Defense of Poetry, Percy Bysse Shelley called poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ His point was that poetry is a way in which communities share and develop norms. Digital communication must play the same role in networks reinforcing the values and creating shared connection as new communities come together. Poetry has exploited its marginal place to push boundaries as Thomas Hardy pointed out:
If Galileo had said in verse that the world moved, the inquisition might have let him alone.
Equally importantly, Salman Rushdie laid out the challenge for the poet as follows:
A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep
No challenge is more relevant to digital communicators when the virality of a message now outweighs its accuracy or usefulness.
Adapting: Paul Valery once said ‘a poem is never finished only abandoned’. The same holds true of digital communications. The work should be adapted continuously based on feedback, performance and changing circumstances. The goal is enhanced effectiveness and continued relevance. Communication that is static is dead and abandoned.
The lessons above are but a few of thousands of years of the practice of poetry to engage the human mind and soul. Any digital communicator can learn from that collective experience. If applying poetry in digital communications seems unlikely, you can at least consider what poetry can do to improve your prose:
Yet, it is true, poetry is delicious; the best prose is that which is most full of poetry. Virginia Woolf
Always be a poet, even in prose – Charles Baudelaire
* This insight has an echo in Steve Blank’s startup maxim ‘there are no facts inside the building so get the heck outside’
I recently did a podcast with Tathra Street on making leadership safe for humans. Tathra has an series of interviews on the idea of Human Centred Leadership. In our 30 minute conversation, we discussed my leadership lessons, how work is changing, the demands of digital culture, working out loud and more.
The discussion was great but sadly the audio quality did not hold up to the content of the discussion.
Almost twelve months ago, I discovered the Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) Program when I found out that I had been nominated for the award. That nomination was a first step for Microsoft to widen the program to encompass people who worked to foster adoption of its products. The MVP Program has been longstanding as a way to connect Microsoft with the traditional IT pros who make up its base of customers, developers and partners. After a year of experience of the MVP program, I wish I had known about it a lot earlier. The benefits to me and to the organisations with which I work from the program have been fantastic. Most importantly of all, the MVP program has strengthened my connections to a community of incredibly smart, committed and professional practitioners who have shown me new and better ways to do what I do.
So let’s look at what a year of being a Microsoft MVP means. The MVP program is a recognition of contribution to the Microsoft community. Microsoft itself says:
“The Microsoft MVP Award gives us the unique opportunity to celebrate, honor and say thank you to top-notch technology experts who make outstanding contributions to their communities. These technology experts have an unstoppable urge to get their hands on new, exciting technologies and love to share their knowledge.”
The award which is for one-year term is a recognition of the quality and amount of work done and the value created by each individual for Microsoft, for its customers and for the individual’s own organisation. It lasts for a year because it is a reward for the work and that level of effort must be sustained and grow.
If we want to examine what it means to be a MVP we are going to have to dive into understanding and exploring the impact of that work. To save you the challenge of listening to me talk about myself, I asked a fellow MVP, Amy Dolzine of EY if I could feature her work and efforts this year. Amy works in knowledge management for EY where she is a Global Awareness Advisor and Enterprise Social Engagement, Research and Awareness Lead where she is responsible for designing, managing and continuously improving global initiatives that increase the firm’s adoption of collaboration and communication tools such as Yammer and SharePoint. By enabling real time collaboration and sharing of expertise her work at EY enables client service teams to deliver better client outcomes and create increased revenue opportunities for the firm. Amy’s work at EY and her past experience with other organisations leading Yammer implementations also makes her a global expert in social collaboration and someone that people around the world look to for expertise and insights on how best to develop the maturity of collaboration in their organisations.
I first met Amy through her active participation as a leader in the Yammer Customer Network, which is now the Microsoft Tech Community. Amy demonstrates her leadership and passion in this environment, by actively sharing insights, asking questions, identifying bugs to be resolved and providing feedback to other community members and the product teams. I’ve been lucky to be a member of a number of communities this year where I have been able to leverage Amy’s practical insights. Having such a professional expert available to help you unravel challenges or support your ongoing work is invaluable. If she is able to provide this support to others, I can only imagine the value that she is delivering to EY client service teams as they go about the important knowledge work of collaboration that is critical to the client service of EY teams.
The ongoing sharing of her expertise extends beyond the tens of thousands of members of these communities as well. Amy is also active in blogging and sharing her insights in social media. Her blogposts on Linkedin throughout the year have always been insightful reflections of the opportunities of collaboration and experience she has learned working in the EY environment and beyond.
An MVP is expected to be out and about sharing their expertise at events in their communities and events that that Microsoft runs. These speaking engagements are always learning opportunities. They refine insights, help make new connections and provide opportunities to listen to and engage other practitioners in the field. Personal and organisation brands grow due to the quality of these presentations and I have watched Amy continue to promote the leadership of EY in the social collaboration space at many events during the year:
- YouToo Social Media Conference Kent State University, April 2016: External social media conference in its 9th year. Amy was the first speaker ever on the topic of internal social. As a result of sharing her work, Amy was able to create recognition for EY as a leader in the space. Importantly Amy helped a number of people at existing or future EY clients realize the value of working collaboratively and how it could help them make their companies more productive and engaged.
- JBoye: Philadelphia, PA May 2016: EY is a member of the JBoye organisation’s networks. They have 2 conferences a year, one in Philadelphia, one in Arhus Denmark. Because of her status as MVP and reputation, JBoye asked Amy to speak at an event about enterprise social. Events aren’t just about speaking. At this conference Amy developed industry connections by meeting John Stepper, author of Working out Loud and Susan Hanley, the author of many books on Knowledge Management and SharePoint. Amy has gone on to introduce these thought leaders to others in her network. Developing connections in the industry and bringing together people is a key part of the MVP opportunity.
- Microsoft Ignite Atlanta, GA September 2016: I facilitated this panel of 5 leading MVPs. The panel was a “from the front lines” kind of presentation about how to roll out enterprise social and received an enthusiastic reception with many questions and excellent feedback. What the audience valued was Amy’s ability, along with the other panellists, to bring practical examples and real world experience to the often daunting and abstract challenges of collaboration. Showcasing the value that a leading organisation like EY can do in this way and highlighting the ability of a professional like Amy to share this expertise reflects well on the firm.
- DogFoodCon Columbus, OH October 2016: At DogFood Con Amy presented two presentations on the business value of enterprise social and the value of building knowledge communities. Again these presentations showcased EY as a leader in social collaboration and shared practical techniques to advance other organisations work in these areas. Feedback on these presentations showed the continued development of Amy’s influence and her reputation as a leader in the space.
- Microsoft MVP Summit Seattle, WA November 2016: MVP Summit is the highlight of the MVP year with a week long summit with in-depth presentations about Office 365, Yammer and SharePoint. For MVPs this is a chance to get deep into the product roadmaps for key products, to learn about initiatives to come and to connect with each other. Amy also got the opportunity during this week to interact as a subject matter expert with the Yammer Product team as they ran a product hackathon. Taking her frontline expertise and sharing it directly with the product teams to shape their future roadmap is a key opportunity for an MVP and puts them in a great position to assist their organisation to optimise Microsoft’s product implementations.
Being an MVP gives you unique exposure to the work of other MVPs and also the Microsoft product teams. Throughout the year on a weekly and monthly basis there have been updates from the product teams and others in Microsoft on the roadmaps and other opportunities being considered and tackled. MVPs get privileged access to these conversations under NDA in exchange for their contribution to Microsoft’s thinking. It is a rich and valuable mutual learning experience with early warning and an ability to influence future product development highly valuable to Amy in her work.
The global community of MVPs learn from each other. Everyone in that network is looking to push the implementation of the technology to greater levels of effectiveness for their organisations. Amy gets rich connections and early insight into that work is an incredible learning opportunity and a platform for future collaboration opportunities as well.
I asked a few fellow MVPs what they had learned from working with Amy during the year. Their answers reflected my own perceptions and the respect with which MVPs are held in the Microsoft customer base:
“Amy is by far the most practical, value-focused strategist that I’ve seen in social collaboration. She has a gift for inspiring people with the vision and then moving them to roll up their sleeves and get to work realizing the benefits.” – Melanie Hohertz, Cargill
“Through Amy’s insightful and honest public contributions, I learned that EY is a leader in the emerging science of social collaboration. Not only have I gained a better understanding of Enterprise Social Networking and how it can help organizations through Amy’s efforts, I’ve also gained a great deal of respect towards EY as a company on the leading edge of modern business progress.” – Tom Kretzmer, Lubrizol
“Just a few moments of conversation with Amy showed me the heights my own organization could achieve through Enterprise Social Networking; continuing the conversation through this past year showed me that she is a leader to keep an eye on.” Becky Benishek, Crisis Prevention Institute
When you spend a year working alongside someone through communities and events, you develop a strong sense of their values, their approach to others and the way that they approach their work. We all know that these values and approaches are the bedrock of excellence in performance and ability to contribute to others. What comes across to me from my year working closely alongside Amy is her passion for making work and technology solutions better for the people in EY, her deep commitment and energy to making a difference and her generosity in creating, building relationships and helping others. This work is not without its frustrations. What I love about Amy is that she keeps these values front and centre as she tackles the challenges and the successes. Most organisations barely recognise that their people are making contributions to others in this way well beyond the narrow descriptions of their jobs and KPIs. I am pleased to know that EY is different and Amy is recognised for her passion, her contributions and her generosity.
I am incredibly lucky to have got the chance to know Amy better through the MVP program. Because of the work of Microsoft to celebrate her work and her ongoing efforts to share and help others, you get the chance to know her better too. If you’d like to become an MVP, the challenge is to think how you can make this kind of a contribution to others through your work.
As the end of November approaches, that time has come again when we must consider whether we have the right initiatives in place for ourselves and our organisations as we get ready for 2017. How are you transforming the capabilities and work practices in your organisation to make sure that your teams are more effective in their work?
Why is Work Changing?
The way we work is fundamentally changing under the influence of five main drivers:
- Pervasive Global connection: As internet connectivity has gone mobile, we now have the ability to connect with, to converse with and to see the whole system of our stakeholders any time anywhere.
- Automation: Digital technology has enabled us to automate simple tasks and string together increasingly complex processes and systems.
- Data and Analytics: As digital connection and digital automation expands so does our ability to gather data and analyse that data to provide insight and run complex algorithmic processes.
- Changing Consumer Expectations: As consumers are exposed to the potential of digital through consumer technology and consumer services, the businesses must meet disruptive and exacting standards for convenience, service, value and speed.
- Accelerating Pace of Change: Disruption, greater responsiveness to change and ever-shortening cycles of feedback are the new norm for business and our work practices must adapt to enable our businesses to keep up.
We have already seen great change in digital transformation.
Further dramatic changes in the nature of work are here but ‘not yet widely distributed’ to borrow the phrase of William Gibson..
2017 Future of Work Recommendations
With these pressures on the way we work, every business should have a focus on how it is changing the way its people work and the practices that will support ongoing transformation of work. Here are my recommendations on what work you should have on your backlog for the new year:
These five are in place in your organisation today. However, they may not be well understood, managed or serving your purpose. As you look to 2017 it is always worthwhile to ensure that the foundations are sound and well aligned.
Purpose: Be clear on your personal purpose. Look for that purpose in the work you do. Clarify the shared purpose in your organisation. Don’t impose a purpose designed around the leadership table. Discover the purpose through the stories and the work that bring your organisation together.
Strategic Value: What value are you trying to create to fulfil your purpose? What kinds of value matter most to your stakeholders? When do they know you are creating value? What measures tell you that you are achieving your goals?
Networks: To compete in the network era, your organisation must be networked. How are you bringing people together to connect, to share, to solve problems and to respond to the networks around your organisation? The technology matters less than the connection, the behaviours and the shared purpose. Are you clear on the strategic value of your communities, are they well supported with sponsorship, investment and community management so as to accelerate their value creation?
Culture: Move beyond words on a poster. Move beyond generic platitudes. Move beyond an agglomeration of individual team cultures. What specific values are shared across your organisation? Why do these help fulfil your purpose? How do those values translate to expectations about behaviours in and across your teams? Is the culture in your organisation effective for your purpose and the value you are seeking to create? How do you personal role model the behaviours you expect from others?
Employee Experience: Are you working somewhere that values the employee experience and is adapting it to changing work and changing roles in the organisation? How have you aligned your employee experience to your desired customer experience? Does your workplace create rich value for employees and enable them to express their potential in fulfilment of purpose? Does your employee experience work as well for the one-hour temporary contract worker as the long term employee? Does it work equally well for all levels of the hierarchy and all corners of your network?
Personal Effectiveness: Four Key Future of Work Practices
These four personal practices are enablers of the future of work. They enable an individual employee to deliver greater value in their work by responding to the opportunities and information in their environment. Agile and adaptive they empower employees to continuously improve and innovate.
Working Out Loud: Sharing work in progress in a purposeful way with relevant communities will accelerate learning, sharing and feedback cycles. Start working out loud now.
Personal Knowledge Management: Learn how to turn the personal information flood into effective sense making, learning and sharing. A critical skill to make sense of complexity and to leverage networks for learning.
Adaptive Leadership: Enabling the rebel and the change agent to lead more effectively in any system. Improving understanding, influence and the increasing the breadth of leadership techniques to create collective change in any system.
Experimentation: Move beyond the limits of your expertise. Learn by doing. Resolve uncertainty through action. Shorten cycles of decision making and feedback to increase personal effectiveness.
Organisational Effectiveness: Scaling & Accelerating Change
Organisations are made up individuals. These four practices of organisational effectiveness scale and accelerate the personal practices through a focus on design of systems for connection, learning and adaptation.
Open Collaborative Management: Middle managers are often those who find a change to digital ways of working most threatening and disrupting. Open up the work of management. Move management from planning, allocation and control to facilitation, alignment and coaching. Shorten cycles and improve the performance value of feedback. Foster the role of managers as network navigators and brokers. Management can be a critical point of leverage in achieving more open, more collaborative and more effective work.
Scalable Capability Development: Turn each employee’s learning into a contribution to scalable system for delivering strategic value. Create Big Learning systems that scale learning around strategic capabilities for the organisation’s success. Coordinate your learning agenda as an agile change program. Curate the capability building of your teams, leveraging learning from peer communities and leverage social learning to bring 70:20:10 and a performance-oriented approach to learning to life at scale and in the workplace.
Effective Networked Organisations: Take advantage of the networks in and around your organisation to rethink your business model and organisational design choices. Break the centralised/decentralised binary and move beyond hierarchy. Enable autonomy, foster alignment and improve effectiveness for purpose. Skill your teams to achieve effectiveness in the wirearchy. You don’t need to purchase a new management system. You need to adapt your approach to managing knowledge, trust, credibility and results to your purpose, culture and community.
Agile Innovation & Change: Adapt to the changing needs of the environment and stakeholders to deliver new value. Accelerate innovation and change through new approaches and by putting in place the systemic support for employee-led innovation, change and transformation to a more responsive organisation.
Simon Terry provides consulting, advice, speaking and thought leadership to global clients through his own consulting practice, and as a Charter Member of Change Agents Worldwide, a network of progressive and passionate professionals, specializing in Future of Work technologies and practices. The focus of Simon’s practice is assisting organizations to transform innovation, collaboration, learning and leadership.
Working Out Loud surfaces the hard, the difficult and the uncertainty of work. The value it delivers begins with what we usually hide. Transparently sharing work in progress reduces the stress of uncertainty.
When you see the work around you in the form of polished artefacts, the performance of others can be intimidating. The glossy output gives no signal of how hard it was to put together, how much effort was involved or even the doubts and uncertainties of the creator. We can feel like others are so much more talented and accomplished because they don’t share our doubts and uncertainties about work.
This morning on the radio a musician, Emma Louise, was telling the story that her big surprise when she meets other musicians to talk about work is the discovery that everybody is uncertain about what they are doing. She described the relief in knowing she was not alone in her doubts.
This is not just a challenge for creative arts. In many workplaces one of the commonest forms of stress is the pressure to hide one’s own doubts and uncertainties about work. Nobody else is sharing any doubt so your own feels wrong. Hidden behind all the artefacts is a whole lot of confusion.
Working Out Loud brings work in progress out into the open. While it will raise anxiety at first to share one’s shortcomings, doubts and concerns, my experience is that it is exactly like the conversation that Emma Louise describes. Others emboldened by openness and vulnerability will admit their own doubts and concerns. Soon we find out that those we most admire and are most intimidated by have a little part of their work where they are just ‘making it up as they go along’. Collaborating together to support one another, to share skills and to close gaps is a powerful way to tighten a team and reduce the intimidating barrier of perception.
If you are concerned to admit that you don’t know the answer through working out loud, remember sometimes nobody knows. You may just have to find the answer together.
We don’t need to be told that work is busy. Pressures are everywhere. Finish one task or one meeting and there is a good chance that the next few challenges are piled up ready to go. We rarely get the time to reflect as we power through our work, unless we allocate time or are forced into reflection by the questions of others.
Without reflection, we all struggle to focus and question our priorities, our relationships and our performance. The value of coaching is that it can create this space in our work week and help make our work far more effective. The power of questions from others is that they force us to reflect, to consider a wider perspective on our work and can break the patterns that form in our busy thinking.
Great leaders coach. They know how to ask simple questions of their teams that foster reflection on goals, priorities, alignment of work and the effectiveness of work. Creating a supportive coaching environment in a team enables people to reflect on how to improve more often and more effectively. Great leaders encourage peer coaching too.
Peer coaching is a powerful technique and one that can happen in the flow of work. Taking the time to ask each other “How did we do? What can we do better or different next time?” is all that it takes to create more reflection in our work. We don’t work alone the insights and observations of others can help us become more effective. Working out loud, purposefully sharing our work with our peers, invites our peers into our work and facilitates this reflection.
In the coaching work that I do, I find asking the simple questions clarifying goals, the situation and opportunities to do things differently creates a space for a new and powerful conversation. The time invested can have dramatic returns by clearing blockages, building new collaborative networks and focusing the effort of work. Often the improvement opportunities are obvious when someone has time to reflect on how they can do things differently.
An added benefit of the time to reflect through coaching conversations is an increase in accountability in organisations. Regular coaching conversations with a leader, a coach or peers, create personal accountability to translate improvement opportunities into action. Knowing that someone will ask “what have you done differently?” helps us reflect continuously on how well we are delivering on our plans.
Reflecting with the support of others is the heart of learning and performance improvement. How are you fostering a coaching culture to benefit your performance and the performance of the teams around you?
Simon Terry is a coach and consultant who helps individuals and organisations to make work more effective. Reach out to discuss how more coaching can foster reflection for you and your organisation.