When Circumstances Change, Change Your Approach


Changing circumstances demand changes in approach. Clinging to the old ways can be dangerous.

The Praying Mantis in the Schoolyard

When confronted with a threat, a praying mantis has a set program of responses to take advantage of the advantages of excellent camouflage: freeze & blend in, sway like a leaf, run to the nearest tree. All these strategies work well in the normal circumstances of a praying mantis, the leafy greenery of trees.

However when the wind is blowing strongly and a praying mantis finds itself blown to the unfamiliar circumstances of schoolyard asphalt, none of these strategies work. It can’t blend in. Freezing exposes it to risk of being stomped. What it runs towards is not a tree. It is the leg of a small curious boy. In the end, it need a generous young girl to carry it back to the bushes to escape the growing crowd.

Change Your Approach

A praying mantis can’t change its approach immediately. Evolution will take a while to catch up with asphalt. It will eventually adapt as a species, but that doesn’t help any individual insect.

Your organisation isn’t programmed by genetics. When circumstances change, your organisation and its people can adopt new approaches, experiment to find new ways and learn how to succeed in the new environment. If your organisation is still responding to the new network economy with the same approaches and practices that worked in the industrial era, it can be as dangerous as outdated practices were to the mantis. Nobody will be generous enough to return your organisation to its preferred environment.

There is No Formula – Just Learning

Many managers find this discussion deeply unsettling. Advocates of the future of work are calling for change, but they are often either highly conceptual or discussing concepts that seem very alien to the circumstances in an organisation.

The abstraction has a reason. The future of work is being driven by a network economy where the right strategies are often emergent and adaptive. Adopting a new fixed formula is as dangerous as the last one. While we would like a formula (and many offer to sell one), the future strategies need to be learned for each organisation in its own circumstances in the network.  Change can’t be imposed it needs to be led one conversation at a time.

Creating a responsive organisation that can leverage the human potential to learn and experiment a way forward will take new techniques and new ways of organising.  Many of these techniques that are rising to the fore in discussion of the future of work and responsive organisations are ways to foster the emergence of a new better approaches for organisation using networks, rather than fighting them.  That’s why much of the conversation comes back to enabling people to learn and act in new ways:

  • Leadership: fostering the leadership capabilities of each person to leverage their insights and their potential to lead change from their unique position
  • Experimentation: Moving from exercising the power and expertise of a few to experimenting to learn together
  • Learning: improving the ability to understand the environment by focusing on tools to better seek out, share and make sense of information.
  • Work out Loud: aligning the organisation and bringing out latent human capabilities using techniques like ‘working out loud
  • Collaboration & Community: Networks route around barriers. Therefore you need to bring down the barriers within and around your organisation. Isolation is not a winning strategy in a period of rapid change.

The Firehose, the Bucket & The Sieve: Information & Value in the Network Era


The new network era quite evidently brings us a firehose of information, the ability to draw buckets of relevant insight and the need to sieve out relevant and quality knowledge. When we turn to value, we know it is rushing by but often we feel like we are holding an empty sieve. We need to rethink how we gain value in the network era.

Information: The Firehose, the Bucket and the Sieve

We are already aware of the impact of the network era on our access to information:

  • The Firehose: We are all experiencing information overload. The flow of data, information and knowledge is to great for anyone to follow in a meaningful way. The pace of change of that information in networks also stretches traditional techniques of gathering and using information. The hype around ‘Big Data" is a attempt to say ‘hey point the firehose here and we will find meaning in the volume’. Many big data initiatives will fail because the volume outweighs the value without clear goals and uses.
  • The Bucket: Most people cannot consume the flow from the Firehose so they resort to a Bucket. We search. We follow. We join communities. We turn the hose on and off to fill a bucket we can manage. All of these are personal knowledge management techniques to narrow our focus and draw a more useful amount of information.
  • The Sieve: Even with our Bucket, we need a Sieve to find the real insights, the actionable information that becomes knowledge and can develop into wisdom. Quantity is huge. Quality is variable. Significance can be scarce. The more efficient we are at recognising it the better. The value of working out loud is we can leverage others ability to find the significance with us.

Value: The Sieve

When individuals and organisations turn to look at value creation in the network era, it often feels like they are holding an empty sieve.  

Networks route around blockages and inefficiencies. Our traditional ways of capturing value from information often create exactly this. The information and media industries have led the way in this disruption of traditional value gates like copyright, access, etc. Getty images recent decision to let their photos be used for free in certain cases is a simple recognition that their content is already being used, reused and shared.

This disruption is already moving beyond the information industries as people use the opportunities of networks, information and analytics to route around other the methods of value creation in other industries.

Value: The Firehose

The huge valuations of a number of information sharing platforms in the network era shows the value that can be created and the speed with which revenue will shift from one industry to another. This is the firehose of value.  

However firehoses are hard to control and flick around. Some of these major players are already seen their world disrupted as the next wave of innovations arrive. The largest players need to be constantly evolving and acquiring to stay relevant in a rapidly changing environment. Like the railroads of the industrial era, some will fall behind and be over taken by better paths or entirely different approaches.

Value: The Bucket & The Sieve

Scale was the principle source of value creation in the industrial era.  Big data is an echo of the view that we should get big to reach big markets and make big value. The network may not agree.

Lean startups focus on a small bucket first. Draw a little water. Run some experiments and sieve out the insight and the value. Some of those experiments prove to scale. Many don’t.

Drawing a bucket takes clarity of purpose, an understanding of strengths and focused and aligned efforts at creativity and insight from everyone in the organisation. These are the first steps to create value in the network era.

If we stand with a sieve in the firehose and expect value we will be sore, disappointed and very wet. The test for each of us and our organisations is to understand what bucket of value we are seeking to draw and to experiment relentlessly to sieve out the new and better ways of working. We need to rethink our organisations so that they have the ability to act this way, to be responsive to the information and market opportunities around them. Scaled command and control won’t cope.

Responsive organisations that leverage human capabilities, networks and experiments are the starting place. The value creation of railroads in the industrial era was overtaken by value creation of those who used their networks to develop and distribute new products and services. The next phase of growth of the network era will see similar opportunities for value and job creation. 

People: The Firehose, The Bucket and the Sieve

Networks open up to us the exponential potential of people. We now have access to the talents of many more people than ever and the potential to create a firehose of value from collaboration.  Leadership is required to help those individuals to find purposeful domains, a bucket in which for people to collaborate to realise value.  Leaders also need to reinforce the direction, celebrate successes and help to discard the failures, creating a sieve for specific potential from all the possibility.

The transition will take leadership. Leaders will need to give up the apparent safety of scale and power to shift to a new more dynamic and empowering model. We will need new ways of working and organising people and the boundaries of organisations will be more fluid. Leaders will need to shift some focus from efficiency to effectiveness and start leveraging human potential to create value in networks.  

That is the work that will make work more human.

I am currently doing Harold Jarche’s PKM in 40 days program. This is the first post inspired by the activities in that program. I recommend it to anyone.

Danger on the Door

Too many of our organisations need ‘Danger’ written on the door. We need to remind Leaders that they must lead change to succeed in the a disruptive world outside. We also need leaders to work to make organisations a safer place for employees to realise their potential.


The Warnings of Network Disruption are Around Us.

Walk through any city and you can see the evidence of disruption from the technologies of the network era. That evidence needs to be a warning to all of us of the dangers of not changing our organisations to stay relevant to employees, customers and community.

In Burnley, a suburb of Melbourne near the railway station you will find this derelict building with grass growing on the roof, its windows smashed and concrete crumbling away. The Danger sign on the door is a warning to us all.


This little piece of history of the railway organisation is now redundant. Upgrades to more modern networked power and switching technology in the railway means that this building is no longer required as its functions are now managed better elsewhere in the network. With the building’s function disrupted, nobody needs to work here any more and the building is left to decay, except for the odd coat of paint when the graffiti gets out of control. 

The future of your organisation looks like this, if you don’t embrace the network era and lead the change required to keep your organisation relevant to customers and to your people. This building is one small warning that your organisation needs to be a Responsive Organisation.

Too Many Organisations have the Danger Sign on the Inside.

Many organisations are confident that their history, people, bricks, iron and concrete are good defences against a hostile environment. Leaders of these organisations do not face outwards to help lead the change required. Instead they turn inwards to shore up power and protect themselves.

Simon Sinek eloquently explains the dangers of this approach in his talk to 99U.  Leaders need to take up the challenge of realising human potential and making work a better place for people.

In organisations where leaders don’t work daily to realise human potential, the danger is not outside in the environment.  Danger reverberates around inside these organisations as big and little threats to safety, affecting employees and customers every day. These organisations need a Danger sign on the front door to warn employees of the risks of their work.

Start leading human potential.  Start leading the changes to your organisation for a network era. 

No organisation should have Danger written on the door.

Ask obvious questions

Recently I have posted on the benefits of asking different questions for strategy and innovation.  We also need to ask the obvious questions too.

Most of the time we are so busy doing that we skip over the obvious questions.  We need to ask more questions about how we work better and how we interact better.  

Obvious? Yes.  Done? Rarely.

We are at a point where changes in the way we work are surfacing all around us.  To better leverage these new approaches, we need to question assumptions and approaches that we have inherited. We need to relentlessly reflect on improvements in how we work.

That means asking questions that seem to have obvious answers:

  • Why is this important?
  • Who is the customer?
  • What is the problem?
  • Who is doing this task? Who is not?
  • What are we not doing?
  • Who do we engage? How do we engage better?
  • How do we better organise ourselves?
  • What would make the process better?
  • How do we go faster?
  • How do we make decisions better?
  • How do we learn together?
  • What does success look like?

The list of potential obvious questions is long.  Make a habit of quickly reflecting on the key ones together. You will be surprised what changes in approach and new benefits surface when you push against business as usual.

Asking these questions enables people to maximise their human potential in the work ahead.

5 Big Shifts – Chaos is Human

When you connect many people, you are reminded of a very human form of chaos. Things just cease to happen in the orderly way that you might expect. It is human nature:

  • to seek purpose,
  • to connect and share knowledge with others
  • to seek to make a difference.

Once we are connected, these natural human needs begin to take over reshaping efforts to structure relationships. 

Efforts to Control Chaos are Failing

So many of the ideologies and management approaches of human history have been efforts to control and shape these three natural human behaviours. They have been concerned to restrict their potential to drive change and create chaos. These ideologies rely on asymmetries of power and information to enforce their approaches.

Still solving problems of a pre-modern era, we still try to work against the grain of human behaviour:  

  • We seek to structure out the mess of human communication through silos, tools, meetings, formats which leads to a focus on the process over the conversation
  • We define teams, roles, hierarchies, discretion and decision rights with exacting detail down to the exact titles people can use to describe themselves and the social indicators in each role.
  • We specific processes in exacting detail in the hope that we can dictate exactly how that process will be best executed by each person in every case without discretion
  • We motivate people with top-down orders, objectives, rules, measurement, financial incentives and threats of exclusion  

Complexity, uncertainty and disruption are on the rise despite our best efforts. These techniques are increasingly seen to stifle innovation, to waste human potential and to frustrate motivation of vital talent.

Working with the Chaos

Human nature is not changing any time soon. Our technologies will continue to enhance our connection and opportunities for expression and collaboration. The potential for failure of traditional techniques will worsen with time.  

We need to work with human nature. Working with our human nature requires us to accept some fundamental shifts: 

  • Knowing to Learning:  We need to move from a view that experts have the stock of knowledge that they require. The model of knowing everything never worked. We need to embrace knowledge as a flow, constantly being enhanced, made relevant again and a part of a constant exercise of learning. 
  • Motivating to Inspiring: We need to engage around purpose and help people to see how they realise their goals and potential as part of collective activities and group goals.
  • Supervising to Enabling: Build people’s capability for more complex tasks rather than trying to simplify the tasks to make supervision, direction and measurement easier. Engage people in developing the ability to produce better outcomes that take them where they want to go.
  • Controlling to Engaging:  The role of leaders is not to direct but to shape the conversations to provide context for good decisions and ensure that all the stakeholders are appropriately engaged. Leaders also help the community agree the level of urgency for change and overcome change and collaboration barriers.
  • Inside-out to Outside-in: Understand the environment, community customer and other stakeholder views as you form your own. Create an organisation and people that engage with their communities. Be responsive.

No Island. Connected.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee. 

John Donne
Recently, discussing corporate culture and disruption, I was asked how is it that organisations cling to old views in the face of disruptive change.  How do people whose businesses are threatened still deny the need for fundamental change.  Many of these organisations cling to the past even when their performance has already begun to change for the worse.
As we talked familiar patterns of conversations in these organisations came to mind:
  • fad spotters who declare the inconvenient trend will is temporary or suits only marginal customers or competitors
  • past successes who can’t move beyond what worked before
  • boiled frogs that never don’t jump out until too late
  • safety first who fear loss and demand certainty, less risk, better proof or ROI
  • ostriches who see only what is convenient and celebrate variation as reversals of the trend
  • the wiser who know better than their colleagues, customers and competitors
  • premium providers who forget premium means more valuable and more relevant
  • technicians who see the great unravelling of the trend ahead because of a better technical solution or a flaw in the new technology
  • underlying performers who adjust away the difficulties to show sunshine underneath
  • tried & failed who know that their organisation’s failures define the limits of all future success…

I could go on this way.

One thing is common in all of these patterns: the individuals in the organisation have ceased to take inputs from their external environment. The organisation has become an echo chamber for business as usual views and any inconsistent information is discounted. 

The problem is easily rectified: engage people in the accountabilities of the real world –

  • start listening to customers and the community
  • start engaging with people beyond your own industry
  • start reading things you have not read before and 
  • start talking with people you don’t usually meet

No organisation can survive as an island.  An organisation that opens up to even the smallest amount of genuine engagement with its community discovers new insights.  This immersion and engagement will also drive to embrace new accountabilities for change.

Nobody can be an island.  We all need to be engaged in our communities.  Listening and engaging in the world outside the organisation is the surest first step to avoid the toll of disruption’s bell. 

Be Human 2: Telstra Digital Summit 2013 Takeaways

The Telstra Digital Summit 2013 had a group of exceptional speakers with Robert Scoble, Shel Israel, Brian Solis and Tapan Bhat all sharing their perspectives on digital transformation facilitated by Monty Hamilton and Gerd Schenkel of Telstra Digital.  In addition there were panels on Telstra’s digital journey and the experience of a group of Pollenizer start-ups.

What did I take away?

Be Human 2

Just like the recent Products are Hard Conference, the key theme of the day was a need to deeply understand human behaviour. Whether it was the impact of sensors on our understanding of customer action, big data, focusing on design for customer journeys or building communities, better performance depends on better understanding of human behaviour.  

We are reaching a point where the opportunity of technology to enable us will offer wide choice, our understanding of human behaviour will enable us to design our responses. Ultimately our ability to build and leverage human relationships with technology will be key to our success.

Be Relevant

Robert Scoble reminded us all that 3% response or click rates are 97% irrelevance rates. That 97% irrelevance is a large drag in a real human experience and our businesses.  We need to leverage our understanding and relationships with our customers to do better by being more relevant – personal, timely, trusted, insightful and offering valuable choices

Be Responsive

How we want to offer our product no longer matters.  We are no longer in a broadcast or distribution world. We are in a personal, engaging and much more human one.

Customers will have the ability to pull and to choose.  We will be designing our paths of choices that will be triggered by customer actions.  Instead of pushing out to customers, the questions is what paths we offer to lure them in informed by our understanding of their customer behaviour. When they come in, we will need to deliver to them the best of our network of capabilities. That requires a fundamentally more responsive organisation

Trust matters

Human nature revolves around trust assessments.  It came up again and again during the day.  Businesses need to see building deep and trusting relationships internally and externally as a key part of competitive success. Remember trust demands internal and external alignment, real capabilities and consistent delivery.

Design and Learn for Scale

Fixed mindsets, static knowledge and narrow focus may offer comfort but run high risk in times of volatile change.  Leverage the scale opportunities of the new global network economy.  Most of all design your activities to learn and grow at scale. Australia is a small market and Australian businesses have the talent and potential to reach far.

We don’t know where we are going

From big companies to little startups, the comment was the same.  The outcome cannot be predicted: Jump off a cliff and build the plane on the way down.  That will demand a significant improvement in your organisations agility, engagement and trust in people to deliver before you hit the ground. Command and control, hierarchy and meetings won’t save you.  To borrow a Telstra phrase used in the day, you may need to invest early in ‘a few long poles’ to establish connections and options to accelerate your responses later.

Disclosure: I received a free ticket to the summit and a copy of The Age of Context by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel thanks to Telstra Digital.

Your Organisation. Your Movement.

One of the busiest posts on this blog is How to Start a Change Movement. People are increasingly recognising and preparing to adjust to the increasing pace of change in the world.

However, there is a bigger issue that is also surfaces when we reflect on the need for people to collaborate to bring about change:

Our organisations only exist to drive change.

Organisations exist to fulfil a purpose, to make a difference, to better meet a need, to help customers and communities and to make more from less. These are all change.

There is no successful product or service that does not deliver change for the customer. The bigger the changes created for customers and the community the more likely the organisation will succeed.

We can lose the change focus of our organisations in the complexity of our goals, processes, structures, budgets and day-to-day challenges. We can assume that doing our job, doing the same things and surviving to the weekend is the point of the organisation.

Every organisation must be a change movement. We need to use the elements of great change movements to make our organisations more responsive. Without continuously creating some better form of change for its customers and community, an organisation quickly loses its reason to exist.

Next time someone suggests that an organisation doesn’t need to change, ask them to reflect on what it is that the organisation does in the world.


Trust is critical to successful organizations. While it may be an example of our ability to acquiesce in functional stupidity, trust accelerates decision making and reduces transaction costs in teams and organisations. Arguably the boundaries of trust shape the size and structure of our organisations. Without trust there can be no effective engagement of employees, the community or other stakeholders.

A recent insightful analysis on trust in organisations highlights three elements of internal trust in organisations:
– vertical interpersonal trust – trust in direct superiors
– lateral interpersonal trust – trust in peers
– impersonal trust – trust in processes and systems

As we consider changes to the shape of our organisations and their systems to leverage disruption and create more responsive organisations, we must remember to balance the demands of each of these forms of trust. A shift from hierarchical autocratic management may reduce the demand for vertical interpersonal trust, but it will increase the need for the other two forms. Agile team based work can increase lateral interpersonal trust, but will also place demands on impersonal trust through changes required in systems and processes.

Changing the way we work will require us to strike a new balance between these three forms of trust with all the participants in the system. It will have ramifications for trust externally as these three models are reflected in our relations externally as well. Trust can’t be imposed. It must be earned in action, capability and credible intent.

As we adjust our organisation models, we will need to take our whole system into a new balance of trust. Impersonal trust, trust in the systems and processes we use, will be the critical component to that process of engagement and adjustment.