Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Glowing together

You know the feeling when it happens. A kind of "aligned presence". You resonate with others on the same wavelength. You tune into each other's way of being and acting. You often start acting in unison.

Just like a choir singing in perfect harmony, a mother and child delighting in each other's smiles, a basketball team whose every perfect play seems to be controlled and co-ordinated by a magic force.

You see it sometimes when a politician, head of state, religious leader, star of stage and screen, or a power couple enters the room. Everyone turns. They seem to be larger than life, head-and shoulders above the crowd, glowing with a subtle, serene certainty, so comfortable within their own skins, and at ease with us, the crowd. They have a sparkle in their eye, a confident step, they smile easily. Not only do they attract our attention, but they attract us. It's as if every cell in our bodies is tuned to the same frequency.


Couples that operate this way seem larger than life. They seem  to "glow together" as if connected by invisible force fields. Where one amplifies the other. They exude a kind of abundant aura which is contagious to those that come close to them. They serve each other's interests, valuing the other, not only for what they can do alone, but what they are able to achieve together. They talk about the other, as if each new moment of every day is a brand new awakening, surprises to be savored, taste sensations to be enjoyed, worlds to invented and play within.

It's the exact opposite of the sniping and put-downs of couples headed for the divorce court, leaders whose charisma fades when they look out for themselves ahead of their people, and teams that focus on their own personal performance instead of serving the interests of each other. It's the exact opposite of football teams where every player is out for themselves. It's the exact opposite of the teacher who controls her class with threats, sarcasm and put downs.

A candidate for this kind of close connectedness is Broca's area of the brain, sometimes called the empathy centre, where the same mirror neurons fire off when we watch someone perform certain actions, as when we perform the actions ourselves.

"Glowing together" seems to be a feedback effect between the empathy center of our brains. I empathize with you, you with me, me with you. Like being in love....radiating "love beams", for all we are worth.

Interestingly, it is Broca's area where the speech and motor actions are orchestrated, which also makes sense, as speech is just another motor action, but a very complicated one, because the brain has to control how the lips, tongue, jaw, cheeks, larynx and lungs move/work together. What first began as a mother's smile, or words of warning, has developed into a series of automatic responses in which both gesture and speech play a role. They are often co-generated, one representing or emphazing aspects of the other.

The cerebellum may also have a role for it is here where fine motor tuning is managed. It's not uniquely human. Its a very old capability that we share with other species. We know that birds flock and fish shoal by following simple rules, such as maintaining a fixed distance from other birds or fish and making constant adjustments for changes in direction, so their heading is always aligned.

We also know that intra-group resonance is not unusual. Choristers listen carefully to each other so their voices resonate and harmonise with each other. The dance troupe co-ordinates not only by moving their bodies in-time/synchronization with with the music, but also by simultaneously observing and moving in unison with the movements of others. The football team anticipate each other and the ball's movements. They move into positions ahead of time where the maximum number of connections is possible.

So here is an experimental workshop to explore this idea:

1. Fix your gaze on a person somewhere else in the room and give them a really big happy smile. How did this make you feel when someone smiled at you?
2. Arrange for a member of your group to leave the room, and re-enter looking really happy. What were your first thoughts when this happened? How did it make you feel?
3. Arrange for a different member of your group to leave the room and re-enter looking really sad. What were your first thoughts when this happened? How did it make you feel?
4. What could account for the differences in your interaction with the happy and sad people?
5. Choose a song that everyone knows and sing it (and clap it together) together, with great enthusiasm. How did it make you feel when you did this?
6. Give examples from your own experiences of people "mimicking" the actions/gestures of others, recall when this mimicking occurs and what might have led up to it happening.
7. Give examples of any kind of animal acting in unison or resonance with another. e.g. birds flocking, fish shoaling.
8. Give examples of humans acting in unison or resonance with others e.g. singing in a choir.
9. What might acting in unison or resonance have to do with music?

Monday, November 16, 2009

An etiquette for peak team performance

Strategy meetings are the place where all the good and bad news is supposed to be shared, sifted, weighed, evaluated and converted to new knowledge. And for everyone to quickly agree to the best course of action under the circumstances.

Some meetings are leaderless, and roam randomly all over the place. Others have a chairperson, who allows people to take turns to speak. The etiquette we use to guide important meetings is often a throwback to our murkier, and more belligerent past, when we drew swords or guns to settle disputes.

David Kirkpatrick, writing in Fortune magazine, once famously said meetings occupy up to 70% of a manager's time, are too long and held too often. Few or poor decisions are made, 20% of the people do 80% of the talking, decisions are imposed by managers or they ignore the decisions taken by subordinates. Meetings lack focus, do not deal adequately with inter-personal conflicts and the minutes are rarely an accurate record of what was decided. They are also often very stressful.


So what is the difference between a great meeting where new knowledge is collectively created and agreed and one that leaves many people unhappy with the outcome? What are the rules of engagement?

Marcial Losada uses complexity theory to show that peak team performance is highly correlated with group connectivity as measured by the number and strength of speech acts between the members of the group. Group performance declines as the number of connections becomes smaller and weaker. High performance teams create new opportunities and the emotional connections including trust, sharing, mutual support and engagement. The members of poorly performing teams exhibit little enthusiasm for their tasks, do not trust each other and become cynical.

Whether we make robust connections with others largely depends on the meeting etiquette.

Some meetings employ an etiquette called monologue, a one-way kind of interaction which result in negligible intra-group connectivity. The after-dinner speech, oratory, the keynote and the boss telling you what to do. All are a form of monologue. Everyone agrees to listen while one person speaks. At the end of the speech, there may be time for questions where you, the listener, get to have a "say". Its' great for hearing from an expert, but useless for information exchange and developing affective, intimate relationships.

Then there's the discussion etiquette. One person speaks at a time, while others listen. Sometimes its a free-for-all, so that even before one person has finished speaking another interrupts to have their say. Often the quiet, reserved people do not even get a chance to contribute, unless you are from a Greek or Italian family where you are conditioned to everyone talking (and presumably listening) at the same time. The problem with discussion, is vital information may never get onto the table, or if it does, is shouted down by the loudest voice, or herded into a corner by the majority, and quietly or noisily strangled. Coalitions form of one group versus another. People who are not heard go off and politick, or refuse to accept the decision.

Fortunately, new, more integrative forms of discourse etiquette are emerging, which are both more respectful of all participants but more effective as a way of creating new knowledge. In the more democratic space of a workshop, polite turn-taking may be slower, but at least everyone gets to be heard. World Cafe and Open Space meetings are classics in this new space. Graduate management schools use a mix of syndicate and plenary sessions to exchange ideas. Participants work on an issue in small groups, then report their findings to the remainder of the group.

In schools there's a whole bunch of etiquettes for small group discussion, which result in high levels of cross connectivity between participants. The reciprocal teaching method is a repeatable process that involves four stages - questioning, clarifying, summarising and predicting - that is easy for students to follow and subsequently use on their own.  The Jigsaw method involves assigning different parts of a topic to each of several groups to learn, and then teach to others. Think-Pair-Share and Think-Pair-Share-Square from the cooperative learning stable encourage people to have conversations in pairs to achieve the maximum possible conversation for the entire group, then share the conversation with others.

In the electronic meeting world of Zing, the Talk-Type-Read-Review etiquette encourages conversations in pairs and the rapid sharing of ideas via a giant computer screen, following by a sensemaking step. It's an etiquette which employs dialectical discourse. Through a process of guided questioning and sensemaking/pattern detection, all the ideas are resolved into a higher level, overarching idea that embraces the broad spectrum of subsidiary ideas. It's the fastest and most effective way I know to create new knowledge together.

So here is a workshop to explore better ways to meet in your organization, and to design/develop a new etiquette to achieve the high levels of interconnectivity, trust, sharing and mutual support that leads to peak team performance:

1. Describe the best/most effective meetings you attend in your organiztion. How are they organized? Who gets a say? In what order? What are the rules?
2. Describe the worst/least effective meetings you attend in your organiztion. How are they organized? Who gets a say? In what order? What are the rules?
3. What new meeting rules/etiquette could you adopt to a) ensure everyone is heard b) all issues are dealt with by the decision/plan c) the decision has widespread support and d) is a good fit with the emerging business environment?

# Losada, M. (1999). The complex dynamics of high performance teams. Mathematical and Computer Modelling, 30, 179-192.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Where did my old job go?

Ever wonder where your old job went? And why you can't get a new job with the same skill set? And you have to go back to college to learn new stuff at 30, 40 or 50.

It' not entirely the fault of Wall Street as Michael Moore suggests in his latest movie, Capitalism: A love story.

Sure, many companies outsourced jobs to Mexico and India, and the banking sector probably wiped out millions of jobs by scaring the daylights of each other so no one was willing to lend any money for anything any more. And like Moore said, they placed bets on top of bets using our money, until "values" soared 40% above the trend-line. So they created a recession on the back of a fake boom.

But the underlying cause is mostly YOU and ME. And the other 6,000 million people on planet earth who constantly choose to purchase new fangled gadgets and enjoy enhanced experiences like go-anywhere tourism, instant cuisine experiences from every corner of the globe, wireless commuting, multi-channel entertainment from your desktop and interactive everything.

All the instant personalized services we enjoy come at a high cost. The much simpler, easier to perform job you used to have compared to the ones you cant apply for any more are being designed into new technology that automates what you used to do.

Remember the Luddites, the British textile workers who protested against the advent of looms that automated their jobs as craftsmen in the early 19th Century. Or the farmers who flocked to the cities whose jobs were displaced by the tractor and the combine harvester at the start of the 18th Century. Or the acres of secretaries and typists whose work was wiped out by a whole bunch of do-it-yourself tools during the 1970s and 1980s. The work we now do using the computer, the photocopier and software such as word processing, spread sheets, databases presentation or artistic tools which are such an important part of all over lives used to someone's job.



In between paradigms our jobs seems relatively safe as incremental changes are made to our tools. But every so often comes a new wave of technology, that not only sweeps aside the jobs of the previous paradigm, but also further automates the work of earlier eras. Each new technology is a new combination of several earlier fields that eventually displaces both the ancestor tools in all of those fields and the expert skills needed to use them.



The new methods and technologies are hidden under the hood. The extra knowledge is built into the way they make the product or deliver the service, with fewer steps, using less or smarter materials, or knowledge in the form of circuits and mechanisms.

Much of our hedonism is made possible by a rapidly growing number of bright sparks from a country you thought was under-developed and a city whose name you can't spell. These kids possess a masters or doctoral degree or technical qualification in a field you have never heard about before. Our situation in the West is becoming more precarious economically simply because our kids are choosing easier subjects instead of the science and maths needed for this kind of work, and we are giving these jobs away to kids in China and India who are prepared to do the hard yards.

And although some of the places we thought were under-developed and may have religious and cultural rules that frighten the daylights out of the more liberal-minded citizens amongst us, and although their neighbors may live constantly with the fear of death from diseases the West mostly eradicated a century ago and the microbe infested water they have no choice but to drink, or may die from the fighting over some remote drought-ridden sandy/rocky wasteland for some obscure political reason. Many have TV, mobile phones, the internet, cars and the latest wireless technology just like we do.

The signs of an emerging Wisdom Age are already apparent. New jobs are being created daily to more wisely apply our knowledge to deal with climate change,energy production and consumption, the safety of foods and pharmaceuticals, fresh water and a good lifestyle for all.

It's no wonder we see the tools as both our salvation and the cause of our existential angst. Here's a few emerging fields to think about. Nano-technology, bio-materials,  systems theory, complexity theory, bio-mimicry, cybernetics, expert systems, robotics, knowledge creation systems, neuroscience, machine-machine communication, spiritual and ethical reasoning.

So here is a workshop to explore what might be emerging?

1. What could we mean by the "wise application of knowledge" and what this could help us do?
2. How could we use "old knowledge" more wisely, or be sure the "new knowledge" we are creating is really useful or reliable?
3. Brainstorm a list of emerging fields and how they could help humans work and learn faster, smarter or more wisely. e.g. neuroscience - design new methods to help people make better decisions fater and more reliably with greater trust between them.
4. Describe a new product/service that could be created by combining one or more of these fields with either each other or an existing technology. Nano-technology, bio-materials,  systems theory, complexity theory, bio-mimicry, cybernetics, expert systems, robotics, knowledge creation systems, neuroscience, machine-machine communication, spiritual and ethical reasoning and serve our needs for the "wise application" of knowledge.
5. Brainstorm a list of new tools, technologies and methods that you might like for to support what you want to do in a "wise application of knowledge" world.
6. Brainstorm a list of new jobs/careers that you might want for yourself or your children in a "wise application of knowledge" world.
7. Thinking about earlier job and tool paradigms, how could "wise application of knowledge" tools further enhance tools used in hunter-gathering, agriculture, manufacturing, information and knowledge work.
8. What's a project you should start today to reinvent your products or services or business, community or government agency for a Wisdom Age world? (5 word snazzy title, 25 word description).

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Boardroom and battlefield "wisdom workers"

There's some uncanny parallels between the skills we now require from chief executives and the modern soldier. In a sense, both are wisdom workers., the new kind of work we can expect to see more of in the emerging Wisdom Economy.

The CEO's job is hear all the information coming in from all the parts of the organization and work out how all the bits of the jigsaw fit together. Then  to act wisely and decisively, in the interests of the organization and its' stakeholders. Not just once, but thousands of times in a career.

The task is a process of dialectical integration, to fashion from the stream of inputs a model of reality that is as close to the "truth" as possible, to reach a new strategic position which embraces and is a good fit with all the data, not just some of the data that suits your politics or world view. This kind of reasoning is often a "game changer" because you discover how to embrace the cultural lens through which competing interests view the world into a single, unified system of thought. It's how knowledge is created and evolves.

Get it wrong as the CEO and your organization is a dinosaur, like Lehman Bros, or the corporate "walking wounded" like some motor car and banking giants that are 80% owned by the US government.


The modern soldier's job is to do the same as the CEO, to create new knowledge "on the fly" and to apply that knowledge wisely. In dangerous terrain or a suburban war zone, there's a stream of contradictory data coming into your brain from many sources at the same time. Your own eyes and ears. Your colleagues and an array of powerful sensors. You assess the data against a backdrop of "cognitive templates" learned over several years of rehearsal for this very moment. Except the reality is much worse, more intense, and more complex, by many factors.

Your lookout is giving you his or her opinion about the rapidly evolving situation. A stream of visual data may be arriving in real time from a predator drone operating overhead but the operator could be 10,000 miles away in a suburban operations center. And culturally out of tune with your situation. On the road ahead it's hard to tell whether you are about to be a Good Samaritain come to save a life or the target of another "insurgent" offensive.

Your instant decision will determine whether you and your buddies live or die, if your high-value target will be captured or escape or if his fellow house guests - mostly women and children - will die in his stead. If you make the wrong decision you and your unit could be featured on prime time news on CNN and Al Jazeera, the subject of an in-depth Commission of Inquiry about what goes wrong in war, the subject of a feature article by the New Yorker, the focus of a Presidential war-room briefing, or infamy.

Sometimes the "bad guys" look like you, or your grandmother or your girlfriend.  Sometimes they wear friendly uniforms. Sometimes they change their mind. What if the guy who delivers the mail today delivers a bomb tomorrow? What if the nice girl you were chatting up at the bar really hates your guts, because you are an American or an Australian or a Brit? Often the "bad guys" are "good guys" who don't believe what you believe. They are merely fighting to protect their families or their countries from you, the invader.

So here's a workshop that will help you build the kind of high-level cognitive templates required to make sense out of chaotic situations in the emerging Wisdom Economy. It helps to have a collective voting tool to rate each possible outcome by probability (0 = will never happen, 1 = certain) and (0 = no damage to 10 = total catastrophe). Begin the session by describing the situation/scenario.

1. What do we know about the situation?
2. What don't we know about the situation?
3. How does all the data fit together? What overarching concept embraces all of the data, so every bit of the jigsaw fits?
4. What are all the possible outcomes from the situation?
5. What could we do to avoid/overcome the dangers/risks presented by each outcome?
6. What are the consequences of each course of action to minimize/avoid the dangers/risks?
7. How could we re-frame "the game" so we see the issue from a higher level and we act unexpectedly but wisely?
8. What are the probabilities of each possible outcome?
9. What should we do? And do as the next best alternatives?
10. How will we know if we made the best decision?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Creative word collections

It works like magic. You paste your text into www.wordle.net and a few seconds later you get a picture of what you said.  The more often a word appears, the bigger the font.

It's a great way to analyze your texts. And see what the story is mostly about.

But there is a downside. When you look at texts this way, the magic somehow disappears. You discover that your cake is made from flour, salt, milk, eggs, shortening, sugar and baking powder but you do not get a cake. The combinations of two or more words that tantalize or excite the human brain, that communicate complex ideas with remarkable ease are downgraded to their constituent parts.

Those word pictures that excite our imagination dim. The lights go out. Our concepts become nothing more than a handful of grains of sand among the billions upon the beach of human creativity. We can see the edge of the water and the stretch of sand, but no swimming flags, no naked bodies glistening in the sunshine, no lifesaver in his elevated chair, guarding the beach.  The conceptual chutzpah, that audacity of lexical contradictions and extrapolations, vanishes before our eyes.

Look at what you get from these first three paragraphs:




Some words have their own personalities. They are sometimes exotic, at other time rich, tantalizing, mysterious or musical. Like beautiful flowers. Or a rainbow of colors. Or a gastronomical delight. Like Razzamataz. Exotic. Candalabra.  Hippopotamus. Incandescent. Esoteric. Serendipity. Zillion. Sequoia. Phatamasgorical.

Here's some fun workshop warm-ups based on the idea of making new combinations from interesting/unusual words:

1. Brainstorm a list of 4-5 words that for you are the most exotic or amazing. e. abracadabra, alchemical, mellifluous, then use them all in a story.
2. Brainstorm a list of words which have the same basic phoneme, but are not necessarily spelled the same way. e.g amaze, laze, phase, braise, gaze, then use them all to write a brief speech.
3. Craft a sentence where the words are alliterative, start with the same sound e.g. lighting loves luscious little leprechauns living lately in Lithuania
4. Use all of these words in the one story. Razzamataz. Exotic. Candalabra.  Hippopotamus. Incandescent. Esoteric. Serendipity. Zillion. Sequoia. Phatamasgorical.
5. If all words had their own colors, make a list of words that are "yellow".
6. Some words sound taller and bigger than others. Make a list of some skyscraper words. e.g. gigantic
7. Some words are musical. Make a list of words that have a nice sound, melody or ring to them. e.g. catatonic, whistle, fortissimo.
8. Craft a story using your yellow, skyscraper and musical words.
9. Using the www.wordle.net word collection (pictured), write a different story using the same words.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The wise organization

In times of accelerating change, the old top-down, command-and-control organization model is looking more and more like a dinosaur.

Change too slowly and new, faster moving competitors will wipe you from the face of the earth. Think what's happening to some of our biggest and most "blue chip" organizations like banks, airlines and motor car companies.

We've had all kinds of organization designs. The Matrix. The Entrepreneurial. The Machine Bureaucracy. The Professional. The Missionary. The Learning Organization. Even the Playful Organization, which I personally favor, simply because work should be fun.

But what about a wise organization design? It could be an organization that not only creates new knowledge constantly but wisely applies it in the interests of the entire community and not just the business or government agency. It's a new kind of organization we can expect in the emerging Wisdom Age, or its' economic equivalent, the Wisdom Economy.

And what if the strategic capacity was distributed throughout the organization so that all stakeholders -staff, suppliers and customers - were each responsible in some way for creating new knowledge, and the same people who make the decisions were responsible for implementing them? Not the flawed model where management decides the "what" and everyone else decides "the how". That's just command-and-control in disguise.

Instead it's like the connected knowing model of Parker Palmer, author of The Courage to Teach, where teachers and learners are equal participants in the process of creating new knowledge or refreshing old knowledge and making it relevant to day's new circumstances, helping to create the new wave of change rather than passively following the wave created by others.


The wise organization model distributes leadership and strategic and operational capacity throughout the entire organism. So leaders at every level knows how to do strategy, innovation, process redesign, quality improvement, marketing, sales, project management, stakeholder engagement, risk assessment and so on...and over time so does anyone/everyone.

It's an organization version of "the wisdom of crowds". Capability and knowledge creating capacity is like DNA - distributed throughout every cell, able to be acted upon, anytime, anywhere.

It's a design that closely approximates Mintzberg's missionary model, where people co-ordinate on the basis of belief, like a Kibbutz, a seminary or al Quaida. Anyone can and does step in to provide leadership as and when required. But it also transcends and includes all the other organization forms under the one roof, a kind of multiply flexible structure. much like an ecosystem or a brain.

So the organization can be incredibly flexble and is "able to turn on a dime", like a shoal of fish or a flock of birds.

So here is a workshop to try this out:

1. How might a "wise organization" operate differently from other organization forms. e.g. the machine bureaucracy, the entrepreneurial.
2. What roles/functions would a leader of a wise organization play?
3. How might strategy emerge and be shaped in an organization in which capacity was distributed?
4. What kinds of products/services might a wise organization offer and how could these be different to the present, mass market or custom-mass market products/services we have everywhere today?
5. What kinds of activities would be the best fit with the wise organization model?
6. What kinds of activities would be the worst fit with the wise organization model and why?
7. Make a list of some of the features of a "wise organization". What kinds of communication would you employ? How would you pay people. How would you involve the customers, the suppliers etc?
8. How would you start? What are the first 10 steps?


Saturday, October 3, 2009

Shrinkage or surgery?

When water, food and other resources become scarce in nature, do animals or plants cut off a limb to cope with the reduced circumstances or scale-down some systems so the organism uses less?

The answer is obvious. But many organizations choose to cut off a metaphorical leg or arm in an effort to reduce their need for nourishment and in doing so jeopardise the whole organism.



Better to shrink everyone back to a smaller footprint, reduce working days and lower pay until everything turns around. If the economy is down by 10%, then you shrink everyone's demands on the system by 10%, everywhere together at the same time.

Here's a workshop to explore the issue:

1. Describe what surgery/shrinkage your organization performs/is performing to cope with an economic downturn?
2. What are the consequences of your organization's economic downturn coping strategies?
3. What would you do differently and why?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Magical metaphorical landscapes

I love metaphors. They get me so excited. They take me on writes of fancy to the fun parks, wunderkammers and mystery destinations where my brain loves to play....with words. 

Writes of fancy is also the name of a new book I am writing with a friend about whatever ideas pique our collective curiosities.

Metaphors are special language tools that open up spaces between concepts that we can then turn into technologies to grant us extra powers. Think the cartoon family, the Incredibles.

Shakespeare was a master of the art, contributing hundreds of new words to the English language. So was Einstein, who asked us to board imaginary trains and elevators to experience the relativity of the speed of light.

Advertising copy writers use metaphors to direct our attention to new-to-the-world features we might not otherwise recognize. Authors use metaphors to enrich their stories and connect us to their characters. Scientists use metaphors to explain their big ideas in "word pictures" we can easily understand.



Consider for a moment "metaphorical landscapes". What is it about landscapes that help us think about metaphors? Perhaps there are mountainous metaphors that raise rich concepts to new heights. Meandering metaphors that flow through your mind. Volcanic metaphors which erupt from time to time. Earthquake metaphors that shake what you believe to your foundations. Or even metaphorical autobahns which speed your new concepts to their destinations.

In fact, all language is metaphor. Linguist Guy Deutscher, author of The Unfolding of Language, shows that our language is built on the top of "a reef of dead metaphors", a living layer on the accumulated bodies of their predecessors.

We don't even know they were once metaphors. Audiences now erupt in laughter like volcanoes. Business tries to curb the power of the unions, like the bit in the horse's mouth designed to hold it back. Ground breaking ideas began with shovels. The offices of our internal political enemies leak like taps.

Here's how I go about playing with metaphors:
  • Start with a concept/situation. For example, a very large number of cockroaches scurrying around the kitchen.
  • Ask yourself what is another word for a large number/something that moves? It could be an army, troop, battalion, plague, river, torrent, waterfalls, shoal (like fish) or flock (like birds).
  • Try out combinations of these words with cockroach e.g. an army of cockroaches, a battalion of cockroaches, a torrent of cockroaches, a waterfall of cockroaches, a shoal of cockroaches.
  • Choose one of the metaphors that seems to work best and explore it more deeply using its' characteristics e.g. army - march, beach landing, storm the battlements, house-to-house fighting, insurgency, assault, attack, bomb, shoot. 
  • And here's the end result: An army of cockroaches stormed my kitchen sink and engaged in house-to-house fighting with the dish mop, the squeegee, the tea-towel, the dirty plates, the food scraps and the sink plug, then launched a final assault on the drain hole dungeon.  
So here's a workshop to explore the power, wonder and occasional insanity of metaphors:

1. State a current/issue/opportunity/problem. e.g. sadness.
2. Think of a weird/disconnected/absurd/wildly off the mark alliterative (first letter the same) word that is vaguely descriptive of the issue - sadness - and transform it into something new e.g. serendipitous sadness, silly sadness, stupid sadness, sensible sadness, sumptuous sadness, smiling sadness.
3. Choose one of your combinations of words and make a list of all the kinds of things the new combinations of words helps you imagine. e.g. silly sadness might suggest hosting a sadness party, or playing silly sadness games, or doing silly things to divert your attention, or realizing how silly it is to focus on being sad.
4. Now, thinking about your new word combinations, imagine/describe a new physical, psychological or cultural tool (e.g. attention diverter, sadness sponge, prizes for the silliest case of sadness) that would help you participate in that activity and the roles that participants might play, (e.g. sado-masochistic party hostess, sadness disposal technician, happiness games designer), and the rules of communication for these new activities, (e.g. zen transformation of sadness into happiness, sadness abandonment, sadness/happiness displacement process).

Note: You can even raise your metaphors to new heights, by piling metaphors on top of metaphors, the equivalent of Alfred Jarry's pataphorical thinking. e.g. Metaphorical sadness madness. Happiness-sadness spree. A flight of fancy in infancy from sadness to happiness? A delightfully disturbed romantic dalliance? Sado-masochistic Zen transformation that diverts attention from any kind of reality and hurts so much it is relatively enjoyable.

#Deutscher, G. (2005).  The unfolding of language. London: Heinemann.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Our Feigenbaum minds

Recent research suggests there may be a pattern to how our brains are becoming smarter in a partnership with the tools we have created over the past 50,000 years since our species migrated out of Africa. That's the good news.

The bad news (which could also be good news) is we may all be rushing headlong towards a chaotic stage of human development during which our brains, bodies and our tools will become transformed in startling new ways and faster than some of us can manage.

There have been five to six waves of revolutionary change which are reflected in the employment statistics. Right now agricultural jobs have almost disappeared and knowledge jobs are soaring. The changes have occurred as a result of a switcheroo to new kinds of technologies which automate the work of the previous cultural-technological period. It all began with the transition from the Hunter-Gatherer Era to the early agricultural societies around 8,000 BC.

Think technologies as whole ecologies with each new kind of tool being dependent on other technologies and human capabilities. For example, the motor car depends on the widespread and instant availability of gas, freeways and roads, services stations, traffic lights, mechanics and highway patrolmen and comes to serve shopping malls, drive-in restaurants and tourist destinations

The waves of change are arriving in ever shorter cycles, a typical period doubling cascade. It took 30-40,000 years for hunter-gatherers to become farmers, miners and builders. It was during this period that two human revolutions occurred simultaneously, the shift to growing crops and a shift to the processing and use of minerals to construct buildings and implements. It was to take another 8,000 or 9,000 years for human to become manufacturers on a large scale, and 200-300 years to switch to a society dominated by the computer, and just 30-40 years to raise the bar to a knowledge-creation society.


Except for an Agricultural period anomaly, the ratio of the length of each successive new cultural period to the previous period is remarkably close to the Feigenbaum number, 4.669, a fundamental constant that explains how and when chaos (and new order) emerges in complex adaptive systems. An explanation for this inconsistency is that two great waves occurred in parallel - agricultural and mineral processing/construction - whereas all the others occurred serially. On the other hand, time may not be the main factor, but something that changes over time. Three possible candidates are:
  • the rate at which language propagates or 
  • the rate at which "body parts" from ancestor tools are acquired, copied or adapted or
  • both.
The Agricultural era disparity can be resolved if we think of the Agricultural Era as two simultaneous tool-brain-work paradigms. If we separate the mining of minerals such as clay, iron and copper and the processing and use of these minerals in the construction of buildings from agricultural activities - tilling, planting, reaping - there is much closer agreement between ratio of the length of the eras, as measured in years, and the Feigenbaum number. Compare 4.669 with the actual average of 4.9.


Other research points to the power of the tool-brain-work hypothesis to explain human and brain development. Chater and Christiansen# show there is a symbiotic relationship between tools and our brains, simply because brains and tools develop each other. Language co-evolves with brains as a “complex and interdependent ‘organism’ under selectional pressures”  due to the survival of those members of the human species who use language to adapt to new circumstances.

They also show how words we invent to describe the functions of new tools also spread along with the adoption of the tools. When we learn to drive motor cars, we also learn about engines and tires, steering wheels and bonnets, fenders, speedometers, gear sticks and clutches. Which are so much different from buggy, sulky, reins, bridle, shaft and spokes.

Here are some words that entered the English language during 2009. They are associated with the environment, medicine, publishing, warfare and psychology. Some are instantly recognizable. Others are not. If the technology becomes widely adopted, so do the words. If the technology lives in a niche, the words rarely become popular.


The kinds of words we use, also determines how our brains work. It's hard to be a plastic surgeon using the language of an accountant. It's almost impossible to become a facilitator when you have learned to be a lecturer. But there is hope. Some horse and buggy drivers did learn to drive cabs, managers learned to do their own typing and most of us can operate a photocopier.

And even though human brains are plastic and we strengthen the most used synapses and prune the least used connections, it is difficult to make the switch to a new way of working or learning. This has huge implications for rapidly changing times, where each new wave of technology demands new kinds of words and new ways of organizing your brain.

If you were born 30-40,000 years ago your brain would have been programmed for an hunter-gatherer world which is a quite different to the way kids brains work today. Kids arrive Knowledge Age-ready, simply because the tools, the language and the ways they are used just happen to permeate the environment into which they are born. The computer. The Internet. iPods. Facebook. Games. And global connectivity.

That's why Industrial Age teachers are boring Knowledge Age-ready kids with lectures, no conversation and limited or no access to the tools they use in their home lives. Their brains are stuck in the language and methods of a bygone era.

The problem is that new waves of technological change are arriving in cycles which are shorter than a human lifetime (or working life). We are having to reinvent ourselves several times to continue to earn a living. And we could now be headed for really serious trouble. Because in complexity theory terms, when you get to the fourth or fifth bifurcation in a period doubling cascade, the system becomes totally chaotic.

On the other hand, we might be able to discover how to navigate our way through the chaos to a new kind of order and develop a new dynamic between our brains and our tools. Perhaps we might join forces with our tools and become a single species, a process which has already begun with the invention/creation of synthetic body parts and the manipulation of genetics to create quasi-cellular life.

So here's a workshop to explore how this process happens and what might be coming next:

1. Here's a bunch of words that appeared in the dictionary in 2009. Explain the origins of one or two words that you recognize and guess the origins of one-or two words you have never heard before. Carbon footprint,  cardioprotective, earmark, fan fiction, flash mob, frenemy, goji, green-collar, haram, locavore, memory foam, missalette, naproxen, neuroprotective, pharmacogenetics, physiatry, reggaeton, shawarma, sock puppet,  staycation, vlog, waterboarding, webisode, zip line.
2. Why do you think some words have spread and are recognizable and others have not spread and we dont know what they mean?
3. Here's a list of technologies that were invented during earlier periods of human development. e.g. horse and buggy, grammaphone, sailing ship, terrace house, castle, book, newspaper, typewriter.  Choose one of these words and brainstorm words associated with that technology. e.g. book - cover, page, typeface, preface, contents, read
4. Here's a list of recent inventions. Choose one and brainstorm words associated with that new tool. Twitter, mobile phone, computer, global positioning system, condominium, skyscraper, submarine, jumbo jet.
5. What technologies did you grow up with and what did you do for entertainment/fun?
6. What technologies do our children grow up with and what do they do for entertainment/fun?
7. What technologies did our grandparents grow up with and what did they do for entertainment/fun?
8. What kinds of things do our grandparents have difficulty doing or understanding in today's world?
9. If there is a pattern to our brain development which parallels the changes in our tools, what might be coming next?
10. Here are three choices to discuss/analyse. The waves get shorter and human society becomes chaotic and disintegrates. A new higher-level kind of order emerges from the human-tool system. Human society spins its wheels and stays where we are right now. What do you think will happen and why?
11. What can we do to help prepare society for tomorrow's world, especially to change the way we learn and what we learn?

#Christiansen, M.H., & Chater, N. (2007). Language as shaped by the brain. Retrieved April 13, 2008 from the Santa Fe Institute website, http://www.santafe.edu/research/publications/workingpapers/07-01-001.pdf

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Our "trigger-happy zombies"

What if our brains were unable to automate the simplest activities? So every moment of every day was complex and confusing? What if every day we pushed the porridge up our nose at breakfast, or forgot how to clean our teeth, use our computers, drive the car or read a book? What if we had a Groundhog day every day?

Fortunately, thanks to the orchestration functions of our frontal lobes, especially the left, we are able to automate most functions involving thought and action.

Our brains routinely invent “kinetic melodies”, those automatic motor and speech routines that help us perform very complex and co-ordinated actions with little cognitive effort.

But sometimes this "trigger-happy zombie" does stuff for us we later regret, a fraction of a second before we become consciously aware of it.

We automatically lock the car with the keys inside. We blurt out words that wound or tell a truth we wish to conceal. We "mispeak" our accomplishments. We embellish a story with new details when swept up into the logic of the narrative. Or we make split second decisions that endanger the lives of others.

Without thinking about it consciously!

Here's a fun warm-up for a workshop:

What's the worst thing your "trigger-happy zombie" (your left frontal lobes) has done for you automatically and what were the consequences?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The new wowsers

The new "wowsers" in the state where I live are the Authority responsible for issuing drivers licences. Recently they raised the requirement for supervised instruction of new drivers from 50 hours to 120 hours.

Over the years the Authority has developed great policies to help reduce the road toll. But the latest requirement defies good sense and fails to be good policy because people now "cheat" the system. It's easier to get a license to fly a plane solo, a much more complicated task. Forty hours is all that is required.

The original concept of wowser was a person whose believed their view of morality gave them the power to deprive others of their rights to "sinful pleasures" such as alcohol, drugs and sex. A form of righteousness, the belief in "being" right, no matter what.

The issue has always been how much "social control" versus how much "individual responsibility". Often it is difficult to strike a balance between the two.

But things go off the rails when the new laws are unnecessary or do not work. Then we need to closely examine our rationale and together - across the political, moral, social or religious aisle - work out whether there is a better way.

It's very easy to accidentally become a "wowser". It often happens when no other solutions appear to be available, especially when a society is in transition, when change is accelerating, like right now. Or when the policy horses have bolted and there is a tendency to over compensate and use new prohibitions to put a band-aid on the problem previously created. Sometimes, policies take a long time to travel through society, like the indigestible meal you wished you never had. The effects are so remote from the cause it's not obvious what to do.

For example the strategy of setting tax incentives for investment in blue chips and property instead of business innovation and social entrepreneurship has led to investment bubbles in businesses that have refused to change their ways in the face of accelerating change. The oversight of a school system designed for the Industrial Age that bores our children and equips them for jobs that no longer exist has resulted in a growing pool of unemployables. Or failing to provide support to young families, so babies/toddlers develop the rich language skills that program their brains for success - being read to, joint activity, playful and conversation - before they get to school, means many people are behind the eight ball within 3-4 years of starting out on life.

A recent survey of young people shows many are faking their log-book entries because the task is impossible to achieve. Their parents do not have the time to supervise their driving and the cost of 120 hours of professional driver training puts a driver's licence on par with a university degree.

Any game player will tell you that when the game is "too hard" people give up playing, or subvert the game. Its the same with learning activities. If you were to drop a 5 year old into a calculus class they would soon be bored and boisterous. When we ban drink and drugs, people find ways around the law, to do what is banned anyway. It just goes underground. So from a psychological point of view the new law makes no sense.


It's the same with being tough on crime. There is not much evidence that these kinds of policies reduce the incidence of fraud, rape, murder, robbery, drug dealing or drug taking. But being tough on crime is a great strategy to get yourself elected as the sheriff or the district attorney. Lock someone up and there's a queue ready to take over the drug dealership or the robbery and fencing jobs of those inside.

In America some 2.3 million people are in prison out of a total population of 306 million, which is one in every 113. It's costing Americans a small fortune, money that might be better spent on early childhood, school education and encouraging entrepreneurship in the young and talented, to deal with the problem before it becomes an issue.

In marked contrast, the Australian prison population is just 24,000, out of a total population of 21 million, which is one in every 875. If Australia jailed people at the same rate as the USA 185,000 people would jave lost their liberty. On most measures of public safety, locking up far fewer people, does not make Australia less safe, although politicians are following the American trend, and have locked up 50% more people in the last five years, even though there is no evidence of an increase in crime.

The real test should be "what works?"

So here's a workshop to explore whether some of our laws/policies make sense or not:

1. What overly onerous examples of the law or policy position you or know about?
2. In what ways do these extreme prescriptions achieve a useful outcome for society? Give examples.
3. In what ways do these extreme prescriptions achieve a less than useful outcome for society? Give examples.
4. What might be a better/creative/sensible way to achieve a useful social outcome?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Discourse and dissipative systems

In 1984 Prigogne and Stengers showed that complex systems like hurricanes and ecologies depend for their survival/stability on the flow or dissipation of energy or matter through the system.

It's not immediately obvious, but human social networks are dissipative systems. They depend for their vitality on the richness of the conversations that flow through them, not just verbal conversations but motor activity as well.

Conversations take on many forms ranging from physical interactions such as gestures which are partners in speech and the special cases of bodily communication such as fisticuffs, lovemaking, war, theatre or dance. A social group with no conversation or interaction is by definition no social group at all.

A recent study of student discourse in secondary school classrooms using a team learning system showed the richness of the discourse depends on the kinds of questions teachers ask and in what order.

Closed questions, and questions about stuff beyond our expertise can be conversation killers. All you get is Yes, No, Maybe, Blue or Dunno. Yet sometimes Yes can be a response to an invitation for more interaction. To go somewhere nice for dinner, play baseball or playfully roll in the hay.

Open ended questions kick start your personal Google into action, performing far better than any search engine. Our frontal lobes orchestrate multiple searches in rapid succession. So when we think motor cars we might recall brands (Ford, Toyota BMW etc.), parts of a car (engine, door, wheels, etc.), types (utes, pick-ups, station waggons, 4-wheel drives etc.) or people we know who drive cars (the person who nearly ran into you last week, taxi, truck and bus drivers).

Conversation becomes exciting when collectively we create new combinations of ideas that solve human problems and which foster more human interactivity, which is the discourse equivalent of great sex.


Here's a directed graphs analysis of a rich question where the participants in a conversation stimulate so many "remindings"/"rememberings" in the minds of others, that the system undergoes a structural change....from a group to a team. The blue dots are ideas, the red dots are people who generated no ideas and the black dots are people who generated ideas. The direction of the arrows shows whose "rememberings" were influenced by others.

When we become a top performing team teams/effective groups, it's a shift from chaotic connections to a higher level of organization. Through a process of forming, storming, norming, performing and when it's all over, adjourning.

Everyone is listened to. Leadership is distributed. And we become very creative. Which is what happens to great football and basketball teams, families where the children thrive as well as the best orchestras and the most renowned theater troupes.


So here's a workshop that helps your collective frontal lobes go "gangbusters" and quickly share vital information about each other. Interview each other in pairs, then record and introduce each other for each question:

1. Expectations: What outcomes do you expect from this session? New learning, new perspectives, commitments or relationships.
2. Work: What is your current work? The skills you have, the organization you work for, your learning, travel, highlights.
3. Leisure: What are your interests? Hobbies, sports, games, entertainments, pastimes, leisure, pleasures, community activities)
4. Beliefs: Describe your opinions, beliefs, heroes, archetypes, and political aspirations.
5. Values: What is important to you? What are your personal ideals? What motivates you?
6. Family and Home: What is your situation? Single/married, children, where you live, lifestyle, growing up, early memories.
7. Dislikes: What makes you unhappy, angry or concerned? What you would like to change about the world, your job or your life?
8. Likes: What do you like about your job, family, employer or the world?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Guilt, sarcasm and other psychological tools

If you ask people to brainstorm a list of emotions, guilt is almost certain be on the list along with blame, shame, love, happiness, fear and anger.

It's a learned emotion. We feel guilty when our actions may diminish the lives of others. We also feel collective guilt for what our forebears may have inflicted unfairly on others, or when some in our community act unreasonably and we do nothing to stop them.

Some people use guilt as a tool. To make people feel guilty in order to change the way they act, to dissuade them from a course of action or encourage a different course of action.

When mother says, "Dont take the last piece of toast. Jane has not eaten yet," her words are designed to stop you in your tracks, to feel "guilty" for diminishing Jane's enjoyment of life.

Your mother is using guilt as a tool to extend her power over you.

In Interactivity theory#, we think of tools as extensions of human brains. As Damasio shows brain cells are unlike any other cells. They are not only themselves but they also represent other cells. And represent the objects/tools we hold in our hands or speak with our larynx or express with our face.

Tools give us the power to do stuff. Language, gestures, symbols and signs are the basics. We use them routinely in our daily interactions with others.

Primary tools are physical. They include the sword, the motor car and the computer. Secondary tools are psychological. They include methods, processes, questions and instructions. Tertiary tools are cultural. They are complex constellations of tools that deliver power at a distance or over a wide area such as the road network, systems of government, global corporations or armies.

Some people use psychological tools in the same way they use swords and guns. For example, sarcasm is a tool that uses humor in the form of cutting remarks or words that mock, wound or subject the person to contempt/ridicule. It comes from the Greek σαρκάζω (sarkazo) meaning to "tear flesh".

Most tools are used jointly with others and often involve a disproportionate use of power. For example, when a person uses a sword on another. The sword-bearer kills or mains and the victim is injured in the process. The words killer/victim describe roles which represent a power imbalance.

Most often, in a civilized society laws, rules and regulations determine how we collectively use shared tools so that power is generally distributed equitably amongst the users for their collective benefit. For example the road rules are designed to help us automatically decide who can turn or cross and the order, speed and direction in which we can safely travel.

Interactivity theory explains how humans and tools evolve in a symbiotic relationship, like the algae and polyps of a coral reef. Most of the time we make minor improvements to the tools and gain incremental enhancements to our powers.

But every so often, as if by magic, our tools undergo a rapid transformation to a new kind of order, with hundreds or thousands of times the power of the old tools. Think horse and buggy to motor car, or sail to steam ships, or carbon paper to photocopier.

When the new tools arrive, our old ways of doing things don't work any more, so our old jobs become extinct, and new kinds of jobs begin to appear.


Here's the Interactivity model we use to analyse these changes in human activity systems:

* Humans use tools in joint activity to extend their power and capability:
* in order to play a set of roles, for example, teacher/student facilitator/participant, that is determined by
* the rules of how tools are used, which in turn determines
* the relationships that develop between the participants as each pursues their individual, and occasionally collective interests, which results in
* a change in activity that may either be incremental (both negative and positive) or transformational depending on whether
* the activity is consciously directed towards individual/collective aspirations OR spontaneously emerges as a result of unconscious collective activity e.g. from group -> team or from horse and buggy tool system -> motor car tool system,
* which determines whether the culture is diminished, persists or is transformed.


Which brings me to the point of this story. Over the course of the last 10,000 years since we were hunter gatherers we have been reluctant to give up many of the old ways of doing things, including using psychological tools to manipulate others by causing emotional pain, which harm rather than build relationships.

Usually, participants in human activity systems exert power differently and play disparate roles. When one has more power than the other we see win-lose outcomes such as occurs when a person makes another feel guilty to cause them to change their intended activity.

Guilt as a tool is a one-sided attempt at exercising control over another. One person plays the role of the aggressor/oppressor and the other the role of the victim. The rules of use of the tools are similar to the use of a sword...a unilateral action, in which case the relationship is diminished and the activity system regresses to a lower functioning state. A Win-lose situation.

If the victim chooses to retaliate, and plays the aggressor, the activity system enters a chaotic state where anything may happen, until it is resolved in some way. A potentially lose-lose situation, where the group may regress to an earlier stage of development such as feudalism, or if the dispute broadens, like a strike or war with collateral damage, we may even revert to anarchy. A Lose-Lose-Lose situation.

But when individuals choose to further both their own interests and the group's interests there is the possibility of alignment, a win-win outcome, or if the outcomes benefit the wider community, a win-win-win result. In which case you would not use guilt as a tool, because it does not help foster these kinds of outcomes.

Instead you might use a tool such as "love" or "fun/play", and ask others to join with you to collectively do/create/pursue something new, to "bake a bigger cake" together, and so benefit from the "joy" you feel together, when you get to play with the new possibilities.

So here's a workshop to explore how the way we use tools can enhance who we are and our relationships with others:

1. Aspiration Horizon: What do you aspire to become/be doing that is fun, brilliant, joyful?
2. Tools: What tools are you using to deal with the issue/problem/opportunity. Think about physical (products, machines, tools), psychological (methods, processes, techniques) and cultural (large scale systems e.g. army, multi-player gaming world)?
3. Rules: How are you using the tools? Think about the rules of use both in terms of verbal communication (unilateral monologue, random dicussion, empathic dialogue, integrative dialectic) and gestural communication (e.g. smack in the face with a fist, warm embrace).
4. Roles: What role have you chosen/has been selected for you by the rules of use of the tools?
5. Relationships: What are the consequences of the choice of tool, rules and consequential role and the effect on others with whom you have (or would like to have) a relationship?
6. Analysis: To what extent is your use of the tools aligned with others (colleagues, suppliers, shareholders, competitors, family members, friends, research subjects)?
7. New aspiration: What could you now aspire to become/be doing that might better meet your needs/other needs so that your collective use of the tools is aligned and resonates rather than interferes with each other. i.e a team rather than a group.

#Findlay, J. (2008). Learning as a game: Exploring cultural differences between teachers and learners using a team learning system. Doctoral dissertation, University of Wollongong, Australia -- Wollongong.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Crazy new world

This week British futurist Rohit Talwar published a list of tomorrow's jobs and asked colleagues and clients for comments.

Among the list were vertical farmers to grow hydroponic crops in cities. Personal entertainmment programmers to develop highly targeted/personalized news and entertainment services. Baby designers to personalise the characteristics and features of your unfertilized "child". And nano-medics to help repair worn-out cells with atomic scale replacement devices.

Sounds like science fiction? Not really. Just think back one hundred years. Eighty percent of farm production fed horses for transportation, electricity powered only 5% of factories and 10% of homes, the first “computers” were not due for another 40 years, and the internet was incomprensible. At the start of the 21st century, electricity, the motor car, the computer and the internet have totally transformed our lives.


U.S. labor statistics for the past 100 years tell the dramatic story of economic and social change. Hunter-gatherer jobs are now non-existent. Agricultural and mining jobs have plummeted from 20% to 3%. Industrial jobs have slumped from 31% to 19%. At the same time, services work has stayed static around 40% whereas knowledge careers has risen from 10% to 36% of total jobs. 

Yet one in six Americans will leave school this year unable to get a job because they can not read, write or count, use a computer or work in a team with others. And armies of highly qualified engineers, scientists and technicians in what were some of the world’s poorest countries are starting to create and implement new theories and ideas at a faster rate than the "more advanced" Western powers.

The world is changing so fast, that radical new ways are now necessary to make sense of what is happening. Newly created knowledge, powerful new technologies and ways of connecting people are driving many of our largest and most respected firms to extinction, along with a raft of familiar products, services and jobs.

The current chaos, is not just an economic problem, but is symptomatic of a major transformation of society that is underway.

Over the past 10,000 years since we were hunter-gatherers, human society has been transformed at least four times, as a result of a powerful partnership between the tools we create and the human brain. During this time, our genes – and our brain design - has changed less than 0.1 per cent but our tools have become an evolutionary juggernaut....from grunts, flints and spears to a myriad of languages, jumbo jets, movies, television, global corporations and the internet.

Four big waves of change are crashing down on top of us in quick succession. The last remnants of the Industrial Age. The recent Information Age. The newly emerging Knowledge Age. And a new era characterized by the wise application of knowledge. Most organisations are able to handle incremental change, which occurs between the major transitions. But few have developed the necessary skills to navigate the chaotic transitions.

With each new wave of change, we use our new knowledge to create new tools that are more powerful and knowledge intensive that ever before.

The new tools automate the work of the previous period AND further automate the work of earlier cultural/tool periods. It works as a kind of knowledge multiplier effect that ricochets all the way back through the system.

Here's a workshop to explore the possibilities:

1. Choose one of these new technologies. Nano-machines and atomic/molecular level manufacturing systems. Connected machines. Brain-machine interfaces. Direct genetic manipulation of all kinds of life. Replacement body parts. Personalised experiences delvery. Biologically manufactured foods. In what ways could you imagine/forsee how these technologies will change the way we work/learn/live?
2. Describe a new kind of job/career that the new technologies will make possible/necessary?
3. Who will be the new haves and the have nots? Who will be umeployable/no longer useful?
4. Which old kinds of jobs will the new tools and jobs make redundant.
5. What are the possible alternative consequences for society as it is currently organized? Its structure, way it makes decisions,
6. What kinds of changes do we need to make to education/learning in order to prepare people for this new kind of world?
7. What kinds of changes will we need to make to the political/administrative/judicial system to govern our new ways of living and interacting?
8. What kinds of changes will need to make to business, government and community production/delivery systems that feed, clothe, entertain and generally sustain/enrich human life?
9. What will be the biggest threat to human society?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Certainty and mystery

Want a quick answer to a problem? Go to WolframAlpha.com and use this "computational knowledge engine" to give a unique/definite/correct answer to a closed, finite, factual question. What's the wavelength of blue light? How far from earth to the sun? What's the probability of a Royal Flush in poker?

It will save you stretching the neurons, going to the library or rummaging through Wikipedia. And probably ruin Trivia Nights at the pub.


Despite its' fancy new name, this kind of technology has been around for yonks. It's call an expert system, a carefully cultivated database of factual information, computational rules and questions framed in natural language, rather than the more formal language of computer programming. In this case, the designers have created a web portal to access the software that drives the system instead of a software application resident on a stand-alone computer.

But there's a problem with this kind of knowing. It's totally boring. And in the same way that any lengthy bout of conservative or radical politics often leads to its polar opposite it's likely that an era of absolute certainty will lead to a thirst for mystery. And where do you find more mystery? By expanding the range of possibilities. By inventing new worlds, new denizens of these worlds, and new relationships between the participants, no matter what the species.

Our brains are designed to deal with uncertainty, to struggle to make sense out of what we don't know and what we don't know we don't know. New concepts and new ways of seeing the world.

When danger lurks or a new problem presents for which we don't have an instinctive or automatic response the right frontal lobes take control. Our own personal Google helps to find stuff from all over the brain, as well as the latest updates from our senses. And it very helpfully creates brand new solutions.

Once we get it right the left frontal lobes take control and play automatic routines for us so we don't "go bananas" and live a groundhog day every day. Routinely dealing with the same complex problems over and over again. Like WolframAlpha.com.

Curiosity about mysteries may well be what drives human cultural evolution. Psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi argues that humans have evolved from ancestors who survived because they became skilled at inventing and exploring and were thus able to deal more successfully with the unpredictable. The discovery of novelty engages the brain and evokes a pleasurable experience and that without the motivation for enjoyment there would be no evolution of culture.

So here is a workshop to explore the mysterious?

1. Describe what for you is a mystery?
2. When you discover a mystery what do you feel? What do you want to do?
3. What happens when you start exploring the mystery and get stuck? When it becomes too hard to solve?
4. How do you feel when you solve a mystery? Immediately? A few minutes later? The next couple of hours? The following day?
5. How could you re-invigorate your life using mysteries just a bit out of reach?
6. How could you tackle the really obtuse/remote/complex mysteries, the ones that cause you to become frustrated/bored the first time around?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Mirror neurons, leadership and play

Great Kung Fu masters, virtuoso musicians, impressive orators and talented opera singers become brilliant by practicing ‘the moves” so what they do and say is fluent and automatic.

Why then do we expect our corporate leaders and teachers to be able to perform a complex management or teaching role with minimal rehearsal?

Why do we teach the theory of facilitation and leadership but not the "kinaesthetic" practice of orchestrating/organizing others in a live setting? Why do many universities train their teachers on-line or via lectures? How come many teachers go into the classroom to use a new technology after a quick read of the manual?

Orchestrating the mouth, tongue, larynx, cheeks, fingers, hands, legs and other muscles to perform complicated roles can be as complicated as learning to drive a motor car, for which we need a license to drive. In the State where I live, new drivers are required to have 100 hours of practice and keep a log to prove it.

The new routines we learn are what the famed Russian neuropsychologist, A.R. Luria calls “kinetic melodies” - templates for different combinations of speech and motor actions. Like a player piano roll for the human brain. And it takes time to sequence, orchestrate and automate complex speech and motor actions associated with each new role we choose to perform.

The key to success is considerable rehearsal, in front of a full length mirror, before a small and supportive audience or through the reflective eye of a video camera.


Much of this has to do with “mirror neurons”. These same neurons fire off in the brains of humans and monkeys when they watch an action and when they perform the same action.

This part of the brain helps you form a theory of mind about what the other person might say or do in response to what you say or do. So when you are dealing with a class of 20 or 30 young people or an audience of 50, it can become a very complex "hall of mirrors".

Mirror neurons are located in Broca’s area of the brain. They are adjacent to the motor neuron area where, says David McNeil, author of Gesture and Thought, "inputs from the right hemisphere, the frontal areas and the posterior regions of the left hemisphere...converge”. McNeil says “mirror neurons complete Mead’s loop in the part of the brain where action sequences are organized – the two kinds of sequential actions, speech and gesture, converging... It is damage to this part of the brain that makes it difficult to sequence actions into a new kinetic melody for the “orchestration of movement”.

This same part of the brain may also be involved in the orchestration of collective play, where children imitate or play at being mothers and fathers, cops and robbers or doctors and nurses, and as Vygotsky shows, perform as if they were “a head taller”. We now know that mirror neurons have a role in empathy and may also be implicated in autism. If a person is unable to form a strong or memorable image of another person’s actions as they perform a new role (how they deal with conflicts, help each other, develop good relationships, etc) they may be unable to imagine how their actions will impact on the other person.

So here’s a workshop to practice a new role.

1. Working in pairs, choose a new role to perform e.g. policeman, orchestra conductor. Watch your partner perform in their new role. Report back. What did they do and say?
2. A new role for you. Thinking about a new role that you wish to perform in your organization, community etc, describe in detail the “language game” for that role (words, phrases, concepts, theoretical relationships/connections between concepts)?
3. Thinking about a new role that you wish to perform, describe in detail the “gestural language game” for that role (movement, gestures, demeanour, stance, actions)?
4. Describe a situation in which you will perform your new role. What will you say and do?
5. Now each person will perform their role for a buddy. The other person makes notes about the performance and identifies the types of errors that the person makes (Think about previously learned speech/gestural routines, inner speech to guide your activity, the ideal speech/gesture) .
6. Write a new performance script using inner speech as the basis for guiding what you need to say and do.
7. Practise the speech/moves repeatedly until the motor/speech routines (“kinetic melodies”) become easy to do and you don’t have to consiously think about performing the role.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Connecting the silos

Creating new knowledge is now critical to organization success. It's about getting our different parts of the jigsaw to fit together as a single unified whole, so what we do is perfectly attuned with the market/technological/social trends.

The issue is that many of our organizations still think success goes to the winners of the competition for resources, power and influence. So we fight to make sure our idea wins, even though it's not the complete story. We try to treat pneumonia as if it was a head cold.

Some of us find it hard to make the switch to new ways of working/thinking, particularly if the new world that is emerging looks very different to the one we know so well. New words and concepts. New technologies. New methods. New kinds of relationships.

Like the transition from water to ice, the shift from dinosaurs to mammals, or the demise of the horse and buggy and its' replacement by the motor car, freeways, shopping malls and service stations.

Complexity theory offers a rich explanation of how these changes occur. We now know that not only do physical, chemical and biological systems undergo periodic transformations to a more organised state through a process of auto-catalysis, but laws of complexity even apply to human social systems, how groups become teams, relationships develop and the human brain learns.

So what if we used this knowledge about transformational change to design better meetings, corporate retreats and organization-wide conferences?

Biologist Stuart Kauffman uses the example of random graphs to show how systems change the way they are organised at critical moments. Random graphs are vertices or nodes (“buttons”) connected by links or edges (“threads). He asks you to imagine a large number of buttons, say 10,000 lying on a floor. The buttons are randomly connected in pairs, two at a time. Pick up any thread when there are few threads connected and you are likely to pick up a new pair of buttons every time. Pick up any threads or buttons near the transition point and you are likely to pick up most of the buttons, in a complete assemblage. The system changes state when half the buttons are connected.


As the diversity of people and their separate goals in the system increases, the ratio of reactions also increases. But only if they are in the same "test tube". The number of catalysts in the system rises above a threshold at which time the likelihood of collectively autocatalytic sets in the system becomes almost guaranteed. The organization begins to act as a single athletic entity rather than a motley collection of warring tribes or fiefdoms.

We now have the tools to do it, to increase the adjacency between people so the contagion can spread. Web2.0 technologies allow everyone in a meeting room to give instant feedback to a presentation. The corporate retreat is no longer a one-way series of presentations by divisional teams. Instead it can be a lively real-time conversation between hundreds of people. People who rarely get together. People who even more rarely have input to each other's work. People who only discover what others are doing via their manager, a very old and inefficient co-ordination mechanism from the days of Taylorist scientific management.


Now we can instantly share our thoughts and feelings about ways to take advantage of our respective strengths and resources. We explore how we can do more together than by acting alone. We help each other iron out the bugs in projects. We minimise the distrust and suspicion about what others are doing and how it impacts on our work. We achieve greater organization flexibility. All at the same time.

Imagine 50-100 or so people at such an event. Perhaps 5-10 teams. It is an approach we use to help coordinate and orchestrate the activities of cross-boundary teams. Each team has responsibility for some aspect of the organization's activities. We use it with marketing/sales teams responsible for different, but vaguely related products, sometimes with overlapping customers, so they help each other make more sales, more strategically. We use it to help teams that deliver different aspects of a major construction, defence or information systems project to integrate complex systems that must work perfectly together. And we use the method to help the functional divisions of an organization - finance, marketing, sales, production, distribution and services - bring every piece of information to bear on an issue.

It's similar to what the great systems thinker Stafford Beer conceptualized as "syntegration", the simultaneous synthesis and integration of ideas and interests.

Here's how it works:

After each team presents, we ask the audience to discuss and capture their comments via a large screen that makes the ideas instantly visible to everyone. Just one-minute per question:

1. What was great about the plan/proposal/project?
2. What improvements/enhancements could be made to the plan/proposal/project?
3. What could we contribute to the plan/proposal/project?

At the conclusion of all the presentations, we brainstorm a list of the top 10-15 REALLY BIG issues/opportunities. We spend just one minute brainstorming ideas to deal with each issue. Just 20 minutes in total. The most effective meeting the organization will hold this year. By the time we return to our hotel rooms there's a copy of what we said in our mailbox. And on Monday morning we have new relationships to explore and a plan to continue what we started.

4. Describe an issue/opportunity that needs to be/could be addressed.
5. What ideas do we have for dealing with this issue/opportunity.