Who is that exactly?

One of the most important questions to ask in any leadership conversation is “Who is that exactly?” Getting beneath the opaque references to people is important to bring real human impacts to the foreground in decision making. Human behaviour is richer and more complex than segmentation and averages can show. Importantly, a specific conversation about people can also surface other impacts, alternative approaches and bias hidden in decisions. 

The Opaque Other

Politicians love opaque phrases to refer to their opponents: ‘the 1%’, ‘big business’, ‘immigrants’, ‘refugees’, ‘special interests’, ‘leaners’, ‘those people’, and so on.  The value of an opaque phrase is that avoids the risk of conflict with the current audience and builds a sense of conflict with an Other that they use to unite that audience. Demagogues have been threatening audiences with an Other since politics began. In an age when sexism, racism and overt discrimination have become less acceptable, the Other needs to take on a more opaque form. Usually when confronted with specific examples or challenged to name who exactly they mean, politicians duck and weave to avoid being more specific. Who they actually mean can be quite surprising to the audience. 

The Opaque Other at Work

The same opaque conversations have drifted into business and social conversations too. It is not unusual to hear that a particular decision will have an adverse impact on ‘retention’, ‘a small segment of customers’, ‘stakeholders’, ‘some performance indicators’, ‘poor performers’ or even just ‘employees’. Behind each of those opaque phrases are real human impacts often on a scale that is far larger and far more important than the phrase indicates.

Asking “who is that exactly?” lifts the curtain on that obscurity and enables a better quality decision. Understanding specific individuals impacted can reveal unintended consequences beneath the averages. Percentages and other statistics are driven by real human decisions by specific customers. I have seen examples where organisations have approved decisions like changes to customer loyalty programs that have a forecast of a minor uptick in customer churn, only to discover later that it adverse impacted the most loyal and most profitable customers. The business impact was far worse than expected. 

Equally changes to organisational structures, processes, performance management, leave, flexible working and other HR policies rarely impact employees equally. While they may looks so in the data used for business decisions, real human employees are rarely fungible. To consider one example, a decision to ‘spill and fill’ a management role in a restructure had a devastating consequence on the business because of the experience that was lost as employees took their talents to market and the market lacked of talent to fill a sudden large demand for lost experience. Had people considered individuals in both the roles and the market first a better decision could have been made.

If you want greater collaboration and innovation at work then you need to get beneath consideration of the opaque bucket called ‘our employees’. Innovation and collaboration are different for specific employee.  They have different meanings, benefits and costs to different people. A successful strategy focuses on real individual employee needs to achieve the organisational outcome.

Turning your conversation to consider the specific people impacted and ensuring that you understand them well before making a decision is important in any conversation. Importantly this is also a key step to make sure the decision is inclusive and not divisive. The consideration may not change the decision but it will make everyone more aware of the risks and impacts. The consideration will also improve the quality of any engagement you have with impacted people as discussions move into implementation.

Asking the simple question “who is that exactly?” will help you to consider the complexity of real people.

The Internet of Humanity

An extraordinary technological opportunity confronts your business. Global communication networks have unprecedented reach and mobility. These networks can connect highly capable autonomous intelligent agents called humans. The potential of this technology could change your business, and even human society, in disruptive ways. 

Even more incredible the capabilities of these intelligent agents are not fixed. Equipped with a full range of sensors, motion and agile communication capabilities they are highly adaptive. They have been known to survive all environments on this planet and even near space. They learn from each other and can even collaborate without APIs to decide novel approaches to the challenges & opportunities in their environment. These agents are self-powering, purpose driven, upgrade automatically and operate entirely autonomously. 

Imagine the ability to discover, to explore and to make sense of the entire globe. Imagine the opportunities in global advocacy, creativity and collaboration. Imagine what your business could do if it connected humans. Just think of the novel products, the extraordinary experiences and the economic and social value you could create with the Internet of humans. 

We have the ability to leverage an Internet of humanity. We just need to better understand how they work.

The Normative Billiards called Culture

Roll one billiard ball at another across a smooth carpet and they will collide. The outcome will be determined by Newtonian laws of motion. As a result, billiards is a game of control.

Ask a person to walk towards another across a carpet and no matter how narrow the passage they will make efforts to pass each other, wordlessly navigating the changes in course to prevent collision through glances and body language. Human interaction is a game of influence, not control.

The difference in those two scenarios is that billiard balls operate in the grip of immutable physical laws. Human being operate in line with dynamic social norms. One simple norm is that you don’t collide with another if you can avoid it. 

Whenever someone offers you recommendations based on immutable human behaviour make the social norms explicit and consider how they might interplay. When you need to change behaviour remember that changing the carefully regimented process might be less important than changing the social norms. Any organisation will be composed of the interplay of many social norms, some explicit but many deeply implicit. 

Awareness of norms will help your effectiveness in change. We are human. We are not billiard balls. 

Weave the social fabric with leadership

‘Judgement & discretion are not features of software. They are the product of human socialization & experience’ – J Seely Brown & P Duguid

The biggest gap between strategy & execution is often found in the social relationships in an organisation. Decision making, learning, negotiating and alignment of people are rarely well done by machines. The human elements of strategy such as alignment, capabilities and the decision making of execution let us down.

John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid in their classic The Social Life of Information discuss the challenges that this ‘social fabric’ pose for our visions of legions of autonomous bots exchanging information. They note:

‘For humans, rules and goals bear a complicated relationship to the social fabric. Both may shift dynamically in practice depending on the social conditions that prevail’

That shifting is a sophisticated form of responsiveness. Much of the lament about the failure to execute top-down strategy can be explained by the diverse actors of an organisation needing to adapt the strategy to the social fabric of the organisation and its networks. Employees need to change the goals and the rules to retain relationships in their networks.

Top down strategy is rarely iterative enough to learn from these adaptations. Much top down strategy is short term, transactional and fails to account for the social relationships. They are assumed away or assumed capable of surrender to the higher order needs of strategy.

Simply asking why employees must changing the strategy to suit their relationships can reveal significant insight and opportunities to fine tune performance or realise greater human potential. Often it brings back in more stakeholders and more systemic and longer term issues the initial strategy assumed away. We ignore the adaptability of human social relationships at our peril.

Many evangelists of big data propose it as as a solution to the challenges of strategy. They see it will allow for better data and deeper analysis to overcome the inability to execute analytical dreams. Big data analysis already brings great power and insight. Yet it cannot overcome the social fabric of an organisation executing a strategy. Big data at some point must interact with this social fabric whether it is the assumptions and hypotheses programmed into the system or the decision maker who must use the output.

Big data will often make the challenge of integration into social fabric greater as its black boxes may not account for such simple things as human needs to trust, to learn, to explain, and to understand. Knowing where you are falling short is rarely the corporate challenge in strategy. The challenge is enabling human resources to respond.

We need to stop seeing the inherent humanity of the social fabric as a barrier to the perfect execution of strategy. This idea demonstrates echoes of the industrial era thinking that dominates management. A corporation of automatons would be beaten by human ingenuity simply because our social fabric is the engine of learning, creativity, collaboration, trust and adaptation.

The social fabric of an organisation is the source of competitive advantage. Social factors distinguish responsive organisations. Culture eats strategy for breakfast because of its ability to shape learning, creativity, collaboration, trust and decision making. Organisations need to work with and on the social fabric to optimise their performance. The more human organisation will sustainably outperform.

The technology we need to engage with the social fabric is leadership. Leadership can shape learning, creativity, collaboration, trust and adaptation in an organisation. Leadership is the engine of human potential.

In 2015, organisations need their leaders to play to the role of helping work with and on the social fabric of the organisation. Social factors in strategy can no longer be ignored or assumed to be overcome. These very factors are the heart of the human potential & adaptation that will differentiate successful strategies.

Celebrate Outcomes

The process is just a process. Often the process is one of many competing paths. Outcomes matter more.

In a recent conversation about customer experience, we were discussing the way people fixate on processes. Processes appeal to our industrial management mindsets. Processes are an engineering challenge of neat inputs and defined steps delivering an outcome in a mechanical fashion. Processes are so easy and alluring.

As a result we see troubling signs:

  • people compete for the beauty of their customer journey map. Have a look at Pinterest there are hundreds that are so gorgeous they reflect no real customer experience ever
  • organisations obsess about adoption over value creation because adoption is far more susceptible to a process
  • change management becomes an exercise of templates and measures rather than a series of changes in human relationships and mindsets
  • leadership is discussed an exercise in steps or processes to be managed rather than work to realise of the potential people in real complex circumstances 
  • measures, averages and other abstractions of the process mindset take precedence over human considerations.

Raising process to an exalted state devalues the complexity of humanity. The computer does not need to say no. Putting process over outcome leads to the outrage economy as people try to fight their way out of a narrow industrial mindset.

We need to focus on real human relationships. We need to allow for the mess and power of human emotions. We need to consider networks with learning, change and feedback, not just linear processes. Importantly, we can allow for human scales, learning and flexibility. Most importantly, we can allow for human conversations. That is the path to achieving the real messy and complex outcomes that we need.

Our organisations, our customer experiences and our relationships will be better for a broader more human approach.

Fragments of Human Stories

Even fragments of human stories engage us deeply. We don’t need to see the finished story. We only need to share enough to engage the imagination of others and draw the humanity out in our consideration of life.

A Fragment of a Richer Story

Browsing the poetry section of a second-hand bookstore in regional Victoria, I came across a volume of the poetry of Matthew Arnold, the 19th century poet, bound in dark green leather with gold leaf. The spine showed the volume had been well read.


Opening the book I found a dedication which stopped me, brought a rush of emotions and made me reflect on the story of those who had handled the book before.


Just over a century ago, as the world descended into the Great War, Ralph received this gift and the love of Doris. We don’t know their story or their relationship. The author of this dedication might well have been be a mother, a sister, a friend or a lover. What happened to Ralph and Doris is currently a mystery to us but the inscription and that date soon after the start of WWI engages our imagination, our emotions and our concern.

From the short fragment of Arnold’s poem Immortality we gain a brief insight into the mind of the author of the inscription. This fragment of a message 100 years later engages us in the rich challenges of human life.  It confronts us to reflect on a world torn with strife, obligations of honour and duty, the need for effort and for faith, the love between two people and the real fears of mortality that confronted them. This message transmitted through the inside cover of a book engages us in the turmoil of the Great War and asks us to reflect on the human fears and costs that surrounded it.

Create & Share Human Stories

Perhaps another hint to us lies in the line immediately before the text chosen for inscription in Arnold’s poem:

“…the energy of life may be
Kept on after the grave, but not begun;” 

We can start, we can take on challenges and we can share our rich human stories in our one life, but only then. We often forget to reflect on this human detail.

Abstractions like life, success, history, war and work are comprised of these individual human stories, can be aggregated to a level where the humanity is lost in numbers, events and outcomes. We must remember as we deal with the abstractions to make an effort to bring forward the fragments of human stories and consider them each in their unique light.

Our stories engage others deeply, even as uncompleted fragments. They speak to our time, our place, our relationships, our conflicts and our challenges.  As an experience that is real and tangible, stories like these help us to reflect and to learn. These are needed skills when we are learning what it is to be human struggling with the challenges of our unique moment in time.

We may never know more of the story. However encountering a fragment of a story like this makes it harder to forget the human efforts & sacrifice of others.

Lest we forget.

The Outrage Economy


I was brought up to take the good with the bad, to be polite at all times and always see the other person’s position.

I have spent a lifetime unlearning this upbringing. I have been forced to learn the fine art of outrage.

The Outrage Economy

We now live in an outrage economy. Outrage is the only engine of action in many service organisations:

  • want escalation of a slow process? Resort to outrage
  • want a variation in narrow rules? Resort to outrage
  • want the service you paid for? Resort to outrage
  • want to be heard? Resort to outrage
  • want attention? Resort to outrage at scale

Outrage now powers basic interactions. Organisations have taken customer service flexibility away. Employees are constrained, optimised and disempowered. In many cases this means that they are unable to do their jobs. They need customer outrage to be able to escalate, to loosen processes and solve recurrent issues. The only way to get something done is to invoke the customer retention or a complaint resolution process in response to customer outrage. I have even been invited by customer service employees to express greater outrage so that they could help me better. For example “What I am hearing is that if we don’t solve this for you now, your business with us will be at risk. Is that correct?”

This pattern of interaction means organisations are training their customers to resort to outrage with ever increasing speed. You don’t want to go through the IVR again so you had better get outraged now and hope the team leader has more power. If it going to take outrage to fix a process, why not get outraged now.

If the only channel of service that works is social media, then I will rant there first. Some organisations even have pre-emptive outrage on social media with customers complaining about service processes before they start. Social media seems to be the only place many organisations care about their reputation with customers.

Stop the Escalation of Outrage

Nothing goes better because of outrage. Outrage only destroys value. Outrage weakens relationships and destroys brands.

Let’s start looking for ways to solve issues without requiring customers to rant and complain. There are a few simple steps:

  1. Understand how your processes actually work for customers in interactions: Processes that make sense around the board table often fail in human interactions. Requiring a warning that the warranty will be voided if an item has been used inappropriately might be wise when taking an item for repart but it may also sound like a criticism or a threat to a frustrated customer who just wants the item fixed. Follow issues back from the frontline to those distant places in the organisation that cause them.
  2. Give your people the power, resources and support required to do their jobs: You measure their performance. Do you spend as much time measuring how well you support their interactions with customers? In an age of global integrated logistics, does it make sense that you only move things between your locations once a week? If a morning of flights are going to be delayed by fog, advising customers is great but have you planned how you will manage the situation? If calls are unusually high, is it time to put on extra staff or suggest alternatives to resolve the issue? Enabling single point resolution is more than designing a narrow question that a customer must answers yes to confirm that you have solved their needs.
  3. Give your people the discretion to empathise and delight customers: It is really hard to be outraged at someone who is allowed to be human.  Empathy can be the second most important element to de-escalating the situation for an outraged customer. Let your people apologise for genuine errors. Move beyond the platitudes because otherwise we know your aren’t really concerned about our ‘inconvenience’. Give them the freedom to do a little more than needed to fix things pre-emptively.

An organisation that cannot respond to its customer needs fails the sole reason the organisation exists. If your customers are getting even slightly outraged it is time to learn how to become more responsive.

Disruptive Purpose & Emotion – Experience Design


Disruption is often presented clinically as a rational economic & technological process. Often the only consideration of emotion referenced is the emotions in the reactions of those disrupted. Focusing only on the rational misses a lot. Remember Clayton Christensen, who did much to create disruptive innovation’s present focus, began trying to understand companies that seemed to the traditional participants they undermined as irrational entrants to markets.

We can open consideration of disruptive opportunities to a wider range of influences and inspirations. We must not forget the opportunity to design for emotion, passion and purpose. There is much disruptive potential in the design of new and better services and many opportunities to make work and life more human in the process. 

The Emotional Opportunity at Disrupt Sydney

At Disrupt Sydney 2014 in the anti-panel, an unusual theme rose from the synthesis of the morning’s insight into ongoing activities in digital disruption. A recurring theme was the power of emotion, experiences and purpose. We reflected that perhaps as discussion of disruption matures from a focus on technical wizardry, there is a rise in the elements that make disruptive forces more human.

Disrupt Sydney’s keynotes and short talks had laid a strong foundation for the rise of this theme of human emotion & purpose.  Maria Ogneva had spoken of building community and movements, stressing the pragmatic needs for common purpose and human interactions. As Maria noted community is a human activity. Community is not a use case or a feature. Paula Bray had shared insights in the use of digital in the Powerhouse Museum to create new open conversations and experiences. Ruben Martin had described the potential of sharing human intent and developing solutions to bring people together around intent. Equally the compelling Mya Dellow, aged 13, had described the potential of Minecraft to engage students in education because of its open, creative and addictive nature. Most dramatically, Marc Sagar had wowed the audience with a demonstration of Baby X, an intelligent toddler simulation. This latter talk reinforced the value of emotional interaction and the high bandwidth of personal human communication. 

With this wide range of inspirations, the anti-panel played a key role by empowering the audience.  Participants needed time to synthesise, connect and learn with others on their experience of the morning, to reflect on their own emotions and to connect what they had learned to their personal purpose. The anti-panel was a learning experience.

Experience = Purpose + Process + Emotion

As the focus of disruption shifts to the disruptive opportunities in services, it must increasingly account for emotion & purpose, two very human characteristics. The disruptive services will succeed or fail on their ability to unite a customer purpose with a process of interactions and associated emotions to create something unique, memorable and compelling. Creating community through new services requires an even deeper focus on the purpose, the interactions and the emotional journey.

Best practice is no longer to plan for optimum efficiency in a process or a product. Efficient solutions will always be outperformed eventually. Many providers of efficient services never give any thought to the purpose their customers are fulfilling. That is their loss. If their logic never moves beyond the purely rational drivers of efficiency, then real humans will move on to the next better solution to their purpose, a little dissatisfied that their human needs were met so narrowly and so blandly. 

Design for a Human Experience

Better practice is to design for a human experience that enables a purpose and shapes the emotional value of that experience. A diverse market of consumers will have differing purposes and experience differing emotions. There is an incredibly breadth of opportunity to engage them through emotion and purpose.

Some consumers will care about your values. Others will want to know that you have treated your employees or the environment well. You may not be able to satisfy them all. The way the design of your service or solution outperforms in this challenging but human domain of competition is the foundation for something truly disruptive. That radical disruption is to design for human experiences.

By adding human purpose and emotion to our normal focus on process, we start to make work and our lives more human. In addition to focusing on the opportunities at the bottom of markets, we should focus on that which lies in the bottom of our motivations and decision making. There is a much richer opportunity in making experience design more common in services.

It is by imagination that knowledge is “carried to the heart” (to borrow again from Allen Tate). The faculties of the mind—reason, memory, feeling, intuition, imagination, and the rest—are not distinct from one another. Though some may be favored over others and some ignored, none functions alone. But the human mind, even in its wholeness, even in instances of greatest genius, is irremediably limited. Its several faculties, when we try to use them separately or specialize them, are even more limited.

Wendell Berry’s Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities http://www.neh.gov/about/awards/jefferson-lecture/wendell-e-berry-lecture

I will say, from my own belief and experience, that imagination thrives on contact, on tangible connection. For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it. By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.