Tuesday, December 30, 2003

“Because it’s there” 

Those famous words were of course Mallory’s response to a journalist’s question asking him why he was planning to climb Everest. I’ve heard it said that Mallory wasn’t expressing the need to fulfil some deep mystical urge; it was simply an exasperated response meaning “If you have to ask the question, you wouldn’t understand the answer”.

Mallory began his climbing in the mountains of North Wales. Some of the routes he pioneered, although technically not difficult by today’s standards, remain serious, committing routes not to be undertaken lightly. There’s an anecdote I read in a climbing magazine a while back that illustrates this beautifully: A party were climbing on Lliwedd; one of Mallory’s original routes. At nearly one thousand feet of rock face, it is a full day’s climb for an experienced party, and that’s if you don’t lose time by straying off route. The group had been away all day and were long overdue for return, so their friends judged it time to call out mountain rescue. When they arrived at the foot of the face and called out to the stranded climbers, half a dozen torches flashed in response – several groups, all marooned, but sheltering safely for the night half way up the rock face.

I’ve not yet climbed on Lliwedd – too serious an undertaking for me until I can notch up a little more experience on long multi-pitch routes. Maybe next year…

I know of no way better than climbing to dismiss all extraneous thoughts and anxieties; concerns about the past, fears for the future. Climbing demands total focus on the present; on the rock nine inches from your face, on the balance and power of your body, on the precise placements of gear to protect you in the event of a fall. I’ve never been very good at meditation; I find it so difficult to empty my mind of its clutter, but climbing is a superbly effective way of displacing all that internal chatter and replacing it with just a few powerful essentials for survival; essentials that expand to fill all consciousness.

You climb with your eyes just as much as with hands and feet – or fingers and toes – examining the rock, searching out its most intimate structures; a depression here giving just enough purchase for a toe; a pocket there big enough for two fingertips. Always seeking out the route – the sequence of holds and moves that can be joined together to create a vertical pathway to the top. The experience can be intense – all sense of time and place recedes in the face of the overwhelming need to find a solution. Just me and the rock and total focus on it; the roughness of its surface or the polish caused by the passage of previous climbers over the decades; the precise form of the constriction in a crack – will it securely hold a nut wedged in place for protection?; the micro-shape of a finger hold, finding just the right position of the fingertips for maximum grip; the loss of friction caused by dampness as it starts to rain.

Climbers soon develop a capacity for immense trust – you are quite literally placing your life in the hands of your partner at the other end of the rope. Sometimes that will be a close friend; usually in my case it will be one of my sons; sometimes though it will be a complete stranger. Unless you’re soloing (climbing on your own with no rope) you need a partner and it’s not unusual for people to meet up via the internet or via mutual friends and climb together having never previously met. That’s one of the delights of climbing – knowing that in spite of huge differences there is one vital thing at the core of your being that climbers share.

You learn to trust yourself as well. Like a Formula 1 racing driver who wins only by driving constantly on the very edge of his ability, so a climber is forever pushing the limits, never relaxed, nearly-but-not-quite losing adhesion or grip or balance or all three. Mind is stretched as well as body; climbers often refer to the mind games of keeping control when a corner of your mind is screaming out that now would be a good time to panic.

The one abiding memory I have of the first route that I led is a sense of the rightness of it all; of belonging. Every time before that I’d been second on the rope – following the leader, secure in the knowledge that if I fell, it would only be a gentle slip of a few feet, just enough to take up the stretch in the rope. This time though it was me out in front – I’d never been there before, but it felt right, a place that I was meant to be. That feeling has never gone – not for long, anyway. Going to the crags or the hills always feels like coming home. Yes, there have been occasional moments half way up a crag, several feet above the last piece of dodgy gear, no likely placement for protection in sight, no easy way up, down or sideways; muscles trembling, mind games at their most intense; times when Mallory’s words are forgotten and one overwhelming question fills my mind: “Why am I here?”

But for the rest of the time, everything about climbing feels right; feels perfect; feels that this is the way it should be. Smiling at the unmistakable chink of protection knocking against rock as it dangles from my harness echoing from the rock; delight at employing rarely-used muscles in the gymnastics of the vertical; laughing even at the pain of bare toes scrunched into tight-fitting rock shoes; revelling in the criticality of the ropework and belays.

Leaving the ground is like jumping into a swimming pool. There is a moment’s disorientation as one form of security vanishes and is replaced by another. Or like a plane at take-off, supported on the ground by wheels but in the air by wings, I am supported on the ground by two robust feet and legs, but on the rock by a delicate balance of fingers and toes, and a body permanently in tension.

Reaching the top is almost an anticlimax. Now the climbing is over; the top is incidental to the climb itself. Now it is the turn of my partner, waiting patiently at the bottom, shivering in the wind as he feeds out rope whilst I ascend. Now it’s my turn to shiver, the warming exertion of climbing replaced by enforced fixity of position as I’m held from behind by belays back to the rock, and held in front by the rope descending taught to my partner.

It’s been quite cathartic writing this. I was feeling a little cross with myself for having allowed circumstance to prevent me from joining Euan yesterday. But going back over past memories whilst I sit and watch the rain outside has been good. Perhaps some of that climbing focus has displaced those negative feelings. I’ve often felt that climbing is a superb whole-person exercise – stimulating and testing body, mind and spirit. Even just thinking about it, reliving the experiences, regenerates the benefits of that focus.

Mind games…

[Note to self - must learn to write more compact posts...]

Monday, December 29, 2003

Mad dogs… 

Englishmen must be perversely attracted to outdoor conditions that wiser folk avoid. It is well known that, along with mad dogs and Noel Coward, we venture out into the mid-day sun; lesser known are the strange ways in which some of the more eccentric of our number get our outdoor kicks.

Take hills. The majority may, with unimpeachable logic if limited sense of adventure, avoid them altogether. Hardier souls will, perhaps with a certain degree of masochism, enjoy the exertion, as with heart pounding they arrive breathless and sweaty at a summit cairn to take in the view on a clear sunny day. Then there are the committed walkers, out in all weathers, heads bowed against the wind and rain, enjoying the ten yard visibility all the way to the summit…

Walkers usually prefer to avoid water but accept that in the UK that’s rather like avoiding touching the ground with your feet. But if you can’t avoid it, you can at least exclude it. Who then in their right mind would seek out the ravines formed by streams tumbling down the mountainsides, and attempt to climb the hills staying as close as possible to the centre of the stream bed?

Well, me, for starters.

Anyway, why should that be considered odd? Why should convention constrain human locomotion to upright bipedalism along pre-defined pathways? Any twelve-year-old would understand the attraction of the alternatives.

I used to help run a scout troop some years ago. The lads loved the freedom they had away from their parents when we went camping. We took good care of them, but we allowed them a lot of independence also. We supervised, but not with a heavy hand. Boys of that age (ours was an all-boy troop, not having any female leaders) have a natural affinity for the basic elements of earth, air, fire and water. If there was water, they were in it, be it a puddle or a pond; air, they’d be flying through it; earth – they’d be covered in it; fire – playing with it (we cooked over open fires wherever possible – it’s more work for them to manage and is a source of endless fascination - all scouts are pyromaniacs - and so keeps them out of mischief for longer).

But I digress…

There’s something instinctively attractive – perhaps to the twelve-year-old boy in me – about clambering up the rocky bed of a mountain stream. Picking my way from rock to rock in the middle of the slower running sections, scrambling up waterfalls (a lot easier than it looks as any horizontal surfaces of rock are washed clean by the force of the water, in spite of being surrounded by treacherously slippery slime); balancing on rock ledges around deep pools. Ledges did I say? Boots poised at slipping-point on invisible half-inch-wide toe-holds whilst fingers are plunged deep into soil, gaining whatever purchase they can on roots of grass or heather, inching round a rock bulge that threatens to nudge me into the pool beneath.

It was a photo on the wall of my study from a couple of years ago, of one of my lads half way up rocky, mossy gully in the Lake District, that reminded me of all this. That, and Euan’s trip to South Wales today. I guess he will have found himself in streams tumbling down the hillside whatever path he took. It’s been raining steadily all day in London, although if he’s lucky it will have been falling as snow over the Brecon Beacons. At 8.00 last night I still hadn’t quite abandoned the idea of joining him, but then I remembered my tax return hadn’t been filed, and the deadline for online submissions is tomorrow. So whilst Euan was being a mad Scotsman up a mountain, I was cosy and warm tapping keys here. But given a free choice, I’d rather have been out there demonstrating my total insanity…

Saturday, December 27, 2003


A body unpractised,
Sluggish limbs uncertain,
Nerve pathways atrophied through long neglect;
All the grace and elegance
Of a sack of potatoes.

Yet to the right music
This mind can dance;
Can leap and spin and bow and twirl,
Weightless as air; nimble as light;

Play the right notes
And this heart will sing;
This voice soar silently
In joyous, mischievous, magical melody.

For a timeless moment,
This spirit can leave mere reality
Far below, and rest
Breathless amongst the stars

Until the vision fades
And the bonds of belief
Assert themselves once more
Taking hold.


There’s a picture hanging on the wall, just behind where the piano used to stand. It’s a photo-montage, mostly close-up details of the inner workings of my old Broadwood White iron-framed overstrung upright. Wood, wire, iron, felt – a piece of craftsmanship from an age before Japanese production lines churned these out by the thousand. She was already old when we took her over from my parents, and she wasn’t new when they bought her, before I was born. My brother , sister and I all learned to play on her, as did our own children as she followed us around through house moves. Mechanically she was starting to show her age – suffering the effects of central heating shrinking the wood that held the tuning pegs so that she would no longer hold her tune – although her tone was as strong as ever.

Funny thing is, she only became a “she” when I got rid of her. She went to a good home, to a good friend with much musical talent in his family, and in the exchange of emails sorting things out, for some reason I started calling her Jo, short for Joanna, which of course is cockney rhyming slang for piano. It lent a mischievous touch of fun to the emails, talking about shipping the old girl around. Somehow the name and the gender stuck.

We replaced her with a piece of modern, characterless, mass-produced electronic wizardry, otherwise known as a Yamaha Clavinova. The sound isn’t bad (it is after all a sampled Yamaha grand) and the touch is tolerably like a real piano. In spite of its limitations, it has one over-riding merit - it has a headphone socket. Which means I can play late into the night when everyone else has gone to bed without disturbing anyone.

But it remains an “it” and will never be a “she”. I miss the old girl sometimes.

Friday, December 26, 2003

No such thing as magic? 

It would be a very dull world indeed without fantasy. I just finished watching the Henson studio version of “Jack and the Beanstalk” recorded a couple of days back. If you’ve not seen it, don’t assume too much from the title – when did Henson ever tell a conventional story?

I know fantasies tend to have ridiculous storylines and absurd characterisations, and yet... I often feel better for having watched them, so long as the actors have you believe in what they're saying.

Fantasy does more than just feed escapism. In fantasy worlds, good conquers evil (but only after a struggle in which all seems lost), true love wins through and more than anything else the impossible becomes possible, by dint of heroic effort and a bit of magic.

So in all seriousness, I reckon a dose of fantasy every now and then is a Good Thing. It creates new thought-patterns in our minds; patterns of possibility, excitement, right-ness, love. It lets our minds practice suspending disbelief – and unless we can do that, how does anything innovative ever come about?

And who says there’s no such thing as magic?


Jack over at Wiki Wednesday has been asking “Why do at least 80% of employees around the world believe their organisations do not make good use of their talents?”

In a one-line answer, I reckon it’s because at least 80% of organisations fail to address their employees deepest needs. And to expand on that will take a few more lines…

We pay more attention to the welfare of animals in zoos than we do to the needs of people in organisations. At least zoos make a half-hearted attempt to provide an environment that will satisfy some of the basic physical and mental need of their animals. Budget, space and the requirement to show off their charges to a paying public may intervene to diminish the effectiveness of these attempts, but at least the intention is there. What do organisations do to identify and fulfil the needs of their employees?

I’ve quoted Maslow before in questions like this and I think his hierarchy of needs holds the key to this issue. Take a look at what a typical organisation provides in this context:

Physical needs – The lowest, most essential level. Without these, you die. OK so most organisations get this far at least. They don’t kill off many employees by withholding air, water, food – do they? Think again. It’s only in the last 100 years or less that that the concept of the employer’s duty of care to the health and safety of employees has come to the fore, and even now many companies only pay lip-service to this because the law demands it. [Later edit: If you think I exaggerate, take a look at this chilling reminder, from Dave Pollard]

Security – Job for life? Forget it. We’re all at risk from takeovers, offshoring, corporate restructuring – all fuelled by corporate greed which puts the profit of the financial stakeholders above all else.

Affiliation – There’s a new acronym that’s crept into the language of organisational dynamics lately. FIFO – Fit In or Fuck Off. The corporation defines who you must be in order to fit in. Sure, you can belong here – just have this face transplant, put aside your identity, become one of us. Is that the kind of belonging we need?

Esteem – Wear the company badge, brown your tongue, sing the corporate song, dance to the corporate music – do all these and we’ll love you, and you can be proud of what you’ve become.

Self Actualisation – Pardon?

I know that thus far I seem to be answering a different question to that which was asked. Jack asked about talents; I’ve been talking about needs. Well, I reckon the two are intimately bound together. If Abe Maslow was right about needs and his hierarchy does indeed represent something more than just an academic abstraction, then human talents will have evolved to fulfil those needs and we all have within ourselves not only the set of needs but also the means to fulfil those needs, and by ignoring our needs organisations remove from us the outlet for our most deeply held talents.

I once built a simple extension to my house, mostly with my own hands. I dug drains, built footings, laid blocks and mortar, cut timber for the roof. It was a deeply satisfying experience. Doing something men have done from the earliest days of civilisation – by the labour of my hands, building a secure shelter for myself and my family. The satisfaction I felt went beyond the simple achievement (I’m no builder!) – there was something deeply rooted in the human psyche that was fulfilled by this experience.

The same holds at the higher levels. Our talents exist to satisfy those core needs. But personal, human needs are irrelevant to organisations that are driven by financial motives. So it’s hardly surprising that employees feel that their talents are under-utilised, to the point that all they feel is a dull dissatisfaction, being hardly conscious any more of these talents that have remained largely unused and unappreciated for so long.

I used to think it was just a question of reshuffling the pack – that overall the world had a matching set of talents and jobs and it was just a matter of fitting the right people to the right jobs. What I failed to realise was that it is talents and needs that are matched, and it’s between needs and jobs that there’s a disconnect which can only be resolved by abandoning greed-driven structures and the values that drive them. A world driven by monetarism leads inexorably to corporate greed, the subjugation of individual need and the deep unease so many feel with the way the world is going. Building a society where talents are employed to meet fundamental human need is going to require a ground-up rethink of what matters most to all of us.

Unexpected gifts 

Surprise presents are usually a surprise for the recipient, but well-planned by the giver. But strange things happen in cyberspace; it can work the other way round so that it's the giver who is unaware.

Three bloggers each got me a Christmas present. They didn’t know it; they didn’t buy anything, they didn’t hand over a wrapped and ribboned parcel. But thanks to Fred, I now have a book of Mary Oliver’s poems; thanks to whiskey river I have a book of Han-shan’s poems; thanks to Jon I have Fromm’s “Fear of Freedom” waiting to be read.

Thanks, bloggers. Your unexpected gifts are much appreciated.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Blogger's Christmas 

I got a bit gloomy earlier today, thinking how alike Christmases have become. It hardly seems any time since the last one; we’re doing the same things again this year as last year, and the year before that, and probably the same as next year as well. They all merge into one. Same decorations, same preparations, same angst over what presents to buy, same food, same ritual.

But it’s not quite the same. This time last year I wasn’t blogging; I didn’t even know what a blog was. Now at times it threatens to take over my life.

Since my focus has probably shifted a little too far into this brave new world, it may not be altogether a bad thing if at Christmas my attention returns to the material here-and-now of meatspace. But as I said, it’s not the same. There’s now a whole bunch of people out there who, without my realising it, have become a part of my life.

You know how it is when you go on holiday, meet a bunch of strangers, and you only realise when you come to part that in the space of a couple of weeks you’ve become good friends? It feels a bit like that now. Now that attention is turning back into the immediacy of friends and family for a while, I realise that there are others who have become friends since this time last year, or maybe will become friends by this time next year, but will have no part in the celebrations here in real-space. And that leaves a bit of a hole.

Have a good one, guys 'n' gals. At some point, my thoughts will be with you all. Happy Christmas.


[Later edit: I just read that back. It sounds rather Scrooge-like; I'm certainly not gloomy now, just had a mild touch of melancholia before. Just in case you get the wrong idea, I shall be enjoying Christmas as much as anyone!]

Monday, December 22, 2003

Jazz carols? 

I must have been infuriating at times as a child. Always wanting to know how things worked, taking things apart to see what was inside (even managing to get them back together again sometimes); bombarding people with question upon question until they refused to answer, knowing that every answer would inevitably spawn further questions. I can’t help but analyse things, so I suppose it’s only natural that I would be attracted by science and follow a scientific education.

However, that inquiring mind-set can’t be constrained within artificial subject boundaries. Although any involvement I have these days with things scientific is now just a passing interest - a relic from an earlier incarnation which I’ll bring out, when occasion demands, and blow the dust off – I still habitually look for underlying patterns and structures, forever asking why. If something works well, why does it work? What can be learned? What features can be identified and built on so that next time it works even better?

Yesterday afternoon we had our Christmas carol service at church (bear with me, there is a connection…). Saturday night I had spent a few hours at the church helping set up the lighting, trying to create a feel that wouldn't dominate the candles – cosy, warm and subdued - whilst being bright enough to read. Nothing over-elaborate, but we’re lucky enough to have a professional TV lighting director in our membership, and it’s amazing what can be achieved – when you know how, as he does - with some carefully chosen coloured gels, the existing uplighters, and just four extra lights borrowed for the occasion.

This wasn’t quite a conventional carol service – there are already plenty of them around, mostly intended for twice-a-year churchgoers who want their annual fix of Christmas tradition. We wanted to achieve something that would be at the same time familiar and fresh, presenting both the Christmas story and the human and spiritual context.

So what was that preamble about an inquiring mind all about? Like I said, I can’t help myself – I have to analyse. I know it’s not always helpful; I know real-life reasons aren’t clear cut; I know the risks in taking an over simplistic view; I know that real causes are often many and subtle, masked by easier-to-notice features; I know, intellectually, all of these things, and yet I still do it. So I wondered how it was that all the disparate parts of the occasion, both tangible – lights, decorations, music, drama - and intangible – atmosphere, message, the minds of all those involved - came together to produce such a coherent, meaningful and above all happy result. It was planned, of course, but in an ongoing, emergent way and not to the n-th degree. There was much hard work, but no whip-cracking. There was control, but by low-key networking, not by command. It succeeded brilliantly, although it was far from perfect. It was one of those occasions that, apparently, “just comes together”. People doing what was needed, when it was needed. And just in case you thought we were all a bunch of holies being insufferably nice to each other, it wasn’t entirely without its internal politics and “relationship issues” either. We’re all human, yet we can work together acknowledging and incorporating these issues.

It wasn’t until after the event, and after I started writing this, that I came across Chris Corrigan’s post of last Friday, quoting five principles from a paper “Playing the Live Jazz of Project Management”:

1. Plans are enabling, not constricting.
2. Aberrations are normal.
3. You work with what happens.
4. Order is emergent, not pre-defined.
5. Disorder is not chaotic.

The parallels between these principles and our “process” were striking. I think those guys at Project Jazz are on to something. And if nothing else, it lets me liken our carol service to jazz. Maybe an idea for next year…

Saturday, December 20, 2003


I just saw a beautiful sight.

A heron, master of slow flight, circled my neighbour’s garden pond, swung to face the wind, hung for a moment almost motionless, wings and body adjusting to balance against the little gusts of wind as he braked in the air above a tall hedge, checking out his landing spot, then dropped twenty feet in a slow-motion, precision-controlled, near-vertical descent, wings cupped for final braking to a perfect landing.

Complete mastery. Breathtaking.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Swapping heads 

Now here’s a little conundrum. Was yesterday’s post a wry sideways look at my situation or was it a thinly-veiled crie-de-couer? At the time, it arose out of frustration with the increasing incompatibility I feel between the person I need to be to do my job effectively, and the person who writes some of the better-received of these blog posts. Yesterday’s words on their own might suggest powerlessness and doom-and-gloom, which wasn’t exactly what I meant to convey. But of course you couldn’t hear the gentle self-mockery in my voice…

Nevertheless, I was seeing a distinct see-saw effect, with existence possible at either end of the continuum – conscientious employee or fledgling writer - but no easy way that those two states of being could comfortably co-exist. A term from my days as a scientist describes the situation admirably – “unstable equilibrium”. It’s just about possible to balance the pyramid on its point, but tip it ever so slightly one way, and it falls over, all one way or all the other. Yesterday it seemed to be tipping, and its weight was pulling it further into the conscientious employee mode, losing touch with the writer.

Now, before I dig myself into a hole, don’t get me wrong – I’m not stuck in a job of mindless tedium. I have a job that on the face of it should be interesting, varied and responsible. But I have to put on a different head to do it effectively, and its not easy to keep swapping heads.

Mythic Place 

Fred and Beth recently pointed me in the direction of the Ecotone wiki; writing about place. There's a bi-weekly topic, currently Mythic Place, so I thought I'd give it a go. Here's what resulted...

A child’s-eye-view of the world tends to build by a process of accretion. New knowledge materialises in isolated chunks and is added into the picture where it seems to fit best, or sits on its own, uncertain of a place in the whole. Islands of knowledge form and grow as new pieces of the jigsaw puzzle are added; sometimes the islands join to create a new panorama of knowledge; sometimes also the ever-creative mind of a child fills in the gaps as best it can to create a self-consistent world-view.

I grew up in the outer suburbs of London; my view of the world centred on our own little corner of England. I knew our street, I knew the neighbouring streets where my friends lived and the park reached by a short-cut over our back fence. As I grew older I got to know the neighbouring suburbs as well. But knowledge of any real places much further afield had to be pieced together from fragments of largely second- or third-hand information – pictures in books, glimpses on black-and-white TV, descriptions in stories. I read a lot as a child and developed a particular fondness for two series of books whose stories took place against a backdrop of rural England. Thankfully they had few pictures, only a small number of line drawings, so visualising the landscape in which they were set was almost entirely down to my imagination.

So it was that, without only the sketchiest first-hand knowledge, I built myself a child’s-eye-view of the English countryside. A mythical landscape; an archetype; an ideal; a mosaic assembled from all of those idealised portraits reflecting the countryside as those authors wished it to be. My mythical countryside was an adventurous schoolboy’s dream – freely accessible woods to explore, trees to climb (with perfectly-spaced branches), fields to laze in; streams to wade through (just shallow enough not to come over the top of Wellington boots), traffic-free county lanes to stroll down, grassy hills to race up and roll down, all linked together by winding sandy tracks and pathways (no heavy, cloying mud here) with delights around every corner. Hedgerows with perfectly red berries; haystacks of soft, dry hay; a grass snake slithering into the undergrowth; a heron silhouetted motionless before a pond at evening.

Seasons in this land of make-believe were, of course, perfect. Snow came early in winter – before Christmas, naturally, and just the right consistency for perfectly-rounded snowballs - and stayed clinging to rooftops and trees until the spring, magically disappearing overnight without ever turning to dirty wet slush. Summer days were long, hot, carefree.

Occasionally now I’ll come across a scene that’s like a tile fallen out of my mythic mosaic and materialised in a hidden corner of the real world. A combination of light and colour, feature and form, creates a vista that triggers a recognition of that imagined land.

More often though, reality disappoints. Farmyards, for example, are paved in concrete, permanently awash with mud, littered with old chemical fertiliser bags. Farming is rarely a profitable business, and it shows – everything looks old, used, a little shabby, often with makeshift repairs. Farm outbuildings constructed in the cheapest, most functional materials – concrete blocks, corrugated sheeting. The peace of the countryside disturbed by the incessant drone of a diesel generator. Access blocked by rusting barbed wire.

My mythical countryside remains a dream, and always will. But perhaps the only thing really separating dream and reality are the cumulative and ever-present effects of our apparent need to dominate the landscape. It’s still just possible to see past the artificiality and decay that modern living imposes on the land, and to appreciate the natural beauty that inspired the myth.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Cause and effect 

Job dissatisfaction…
…diminishes commitment to work
…and the space fills with blogging
…and discovery of new ways of being
…resulting in the newly-found blog persona growing
…and the old, unsatisfactory work persona receding
…bringing greater self-esteem
…and consequent feelings of guilt about lack of commitment to work
…resulting in harder work
…and less blogging
…so that the fresh new blog persona recedes
…and the old, unsatisfactory work persona returns
…bringing with it the old, unsatisfactory ways of being
…so blogging diminishes further
…and dissatisfaction increases.

Now what?

Saturday, December 13, 2003

On quietness 

"The best way to find things out is not to ask questions at all. If you fire off a question, it is like firing off a gun - BANG, it goes, and everything takes flight and runs for shelter. But if you sit quite still and pretend not to be looking, all the little facts will come and peck around your feet, situations will venture forth from thickets, and intentions will creep out and sun themselves on a stone; and if you are very patient, you will see and understand a great deal more than a man with a gun does."
- Elspeth Huxley, via whiskey river

...I reckon the same principle also applies to finding things to blog about.

It’s all a matter of relativity 

Last night we had a wonderful evening out. In spite of living so close to London with its huge choice of musical and theatrical entertainment we don’t get out often enough to see a show, so it was rare treat to sit back and enjoy West Side Story. Familiar it may be, but it’s still one of my favourite musicals. A great show, intelligent music, superbly performed; only in this case it wasn’t in a major West End theatre that we saw it – it was at a local secondary school, performed by kids from age 11 to 18.

Remember when you were a kid; someone a few years younger than you was a “little kid”, hardly more than a baby; someone a few years older was a “big kid” – almost a grown-up. And that held true no matter how old you were, so from a seven-year-old’s perspective an eleven-year-old was like a giant, yet from the impossibly sophisticated view of a fifteen-year-old, that same eleven-year-old was still very much a child. There’s a similar categorisation comes into effect when you have kids of your own, as you look at other kids. Those younger than yours are little; those older than yours are big. So with ours being 17, 20 and 22, the kids on stage last night tended towards the littler end of the spectrum. Or they did to start with. The magical thing was, as the evening went on and we became more caught up in the performance, these kids seemed to grow and mature until by the end of the evening we had all but forgotten they were kids at all.

On the face of it, West Side Story has a lot going for it as a choice for a school production. The storyline and characters appeal; the main characters aren’t so different in age from the cast and the music is some of the best ever written for a show. But it’s a show built around powerful, elemental emotions; it’s no good just telling the story – those kids really have to be the story, able to deliver the emotional intensity; able too to keep it in check so that you can sense the power boiling under the surface, waiting to erupt. Not only that, but the songs and the music demand considerable technical competence from both cast and orchestra (just for the record, my daughter was playing flute in the orchestra).

Their success in carrying it off was stunning. So much so that I was far from being the only one who had surreptitiously to wipe away a tear on more than one occasion. Not because they were kids acting their hearts out; this was real emotional communication. Sometimes rough round the edges, but rough edges can be polished. The raw material was there in abundance.

I’ve no doubt many of those we saw last night have dreams of a career on the stage. Who knows whether in a few years time, we’ll be seeing some of these kids again when we manage one of our occasional visits to the West End theatres? But even if we do, I wonder whether the experience will be as meaningful?

What a wonderful thing, to be starting out with so much talent, so much energy, so many dreams. Almost makes me feel young again myself – but then I wouldn’t be Older and Growing would I?

Thursday, December 11, 2003

An extra in someone else’s movie? 

It’s several years ago; I’m at a management training seminar; the subject is virtual teams. The couple of dozen delegates sit motionless, all eyes to the front, totally absorbed in the originality of the ideas they’re hearing unfold before them – and fascinated by the skill of the presenter. Full of enthusiasm, he faces them, talking continuously and with much animation, moving between whiteboard, overhead projector and flip-chart, stopping briefly to sit with one leg hanging over the corner of a table, then restlessly moving on. The only time he’s in one place for more than a few seconds is when the constraints of the media demand it, as now. He stands beside the flip-chart; both he and the chart squarely facing the audience, yet he reaches round the side and writes, with speed and energy, all the while holding the audience firmly in his gaze and so unable to see what he’s writing – and the words he’s writing are a totally different set to the words he’s speaking; both continue to flow at the same relentless pace. Is this the original man with two brains?

No, it’s Dr Eddie Obeng, maverick management consultant. A few years ago I was fortunate enough to attend an extensive development programme which included several sessions like this one with Eddie.

His subject was, as I say, virtual teams, and the context was project management. Like all good consultants, Eddie had a four quadrant model and was talking about how the approach to running a project varied depending on which quadrant you were operating in. He took two criteria – did you know what you were setting out to achieve? and did you know how you were going to achieve it? – and used them as the axes of the model, with a simple yes/no category for each:




Do you know how to

do it?

What? - No

How? - Yes



What? - Yes

How? - Yes



What? - No

How? - No



What? - Yes

How? - No



Do you know what you want to do? >>>>>>>

I hope I’m not infringing any copyright here; as far as I can remember Eddie didn’t claim any special rights to the idea at the time, and in any case he’s well acknowledged here.

Traditional projects, where you know both what you want to achieve and how to achieve it, are easy to grasp and yield to traditional management methods. Eddie called these Making Movies – you have a script, a paraphernalia of movie-making, a director who knows exactly what he/she wants (and lets everyone else know it) – all you have to do is get on with it (setting aside trivial details such as budget).

But although you know what you want to achieve, you may not know exactly how to achieve it. These are Quest projects; like the search for the Holy Grail, you know what you’re looking for but have no idea where you’ll find it – you just have to keep on searching, turning over stones, asking questions.

Then there’s process-type projects. You’re not sure where you’ll end up, but you have a set of instructions to follow and something will pop out at the end. Like painting-by-numbers, filling in the numbered shapes on the canvass with the appropriate colour and, magically, a picture appears. Blogging might be a bit like this - a process without a defined end result.

But it’s the last category that is most interesting. You don’t know where you want to end up, you don’t even know how to set off, all you know is that you can’t stay here; it’s not the right place, you wont survive; you need to be some place else. So you stumble around in the fog until you hit upon something. And maybe that something gives you some kind of clue; you stumble around some more, finding more clues, and little by little coherence starts to emerge. You find links between some of the pieces – although not all; some are red herrings. But the more you explore, the more pieces of jigsaw you find and so the fog gradually starts to clear. Just a small clearing in the immediate vicinity at first; further away its still thick but close to there’s what looks like the start of a path. The secret with this kind of project is to keep on looking; keep moving around; keep trying new ideas; don't stay put. But at some point, to make progress, you have to migrate into one of the other quadrants - after all,as the saying goes, if you don't know where you're going, any path will take you there.

I had a narrow escape the other day. I nearly rushed off down a path that appeared out of the fog in front of me; I nearly applied for a job as “Manager, Performance and Accountability”. Thankfully, I came to my senses at the last minute. I had fallen into the trap of believing that the only options available were those that lined themselves up neatly and came knocking at my door. Extending Eddie’s analogy, I risked becoming an extra in someone else’s movie. So for the moment it’s back in the fog, but I keep finding clues; the fog’s clearing and it even seems I’m beginning to see a way ahead.

More “projects” than I like to admit, be they personal or business, fall into the fog quadrant. But I reckon blogging dramatically accelerates the whole stumbling around process; it enables clues to be found far and wide; maybe even allows you to explore several paths all at once.

I’m off to stumble around some more and see what I bump into…

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

The Journey

"One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save".

- Mary Oliver

Saturday, December 06, 2003

Running on autopilot 

I’ve been feeling oddly ill-at-ease for the last week or so, and couldn’t figure out why. Disconnected, running on autopilot, remote from experience; definitely a few cards short of a full deck. I’ve been bouncing half-formed ideas around my head trying to figure out the cause of the malaise; I started writing blog posts several times but abandoned them every time - the words kept falling into one of a number of stereotyped patterns, running away with themselves, finding their own course like heavy rain falling on a dusty hillside.

But I think the penny has finally dropped. It’s this blogging business, or rather the effects it has.

I had grown used to living in a rut. It may not have been perfect, but after a while you don’t notice the imperfections; it’s just not quite uncomfortable enough to warrant changing anything. Hankering after things that are out of reach only makes you dissatisfied, so after a while you build a high wall so that you can’t see them any more and that way you don’t get so dissatisfied. You don’t notice the rut, because everyone living your side of the wall has their own rut. Life goes on, day follows day and we all get a little older, a little more sure that our reality only extends as far as that wall, but since we do those things together, no-one really notices. And so the wall gets a little higher, a little thicker.

But then along comes blogging and it starts knocking holes in that wall, through which you can glimpse exquisitely tantalising thumbnails of the view on the other side; it creates links, threads that pass through those holes and start to exert a tug that’s almost physical. People, places, ideas, challenges – suddenly they’re all around in glorious technicolour and by contrast this side of the wall is grey, shabby, lifeless, dull.

So what’s been knocking those holes?

Well, for starters I’ve been particularly drawn to blogs that are, in at least some sense, rooted in place; places that have an attraction for me. Shelley’s pictures and the wonderful tales that go with them; Chris’ accounts of life on Bowen Island; Fred’s idyll from Floyd county; Beth’s view of New England; Chris’ traveller’s tales from Pinole county. Their words have an immediacy that no paper-bound account will ever have; when Fred says there’s five inches of snow on the ground, I know it’s there right now. The words don’t describe something that once was but is no more; they describe current reality and that’s as like to words on paper as a live animal is to a dead one. Being able to experience place so closely through the words of these bloggers, I realise the extent to which the immediate environment in which I live is discordant with so much that I value. In my ideal, I’d live somewhere where I could walk out the door and be in open countryside within a few minutes. Wilderness within reach would be good, but I’d accept any space hasn’t been totally subjugated by man’s hand.

I’d put to the back of my mind the thought that we could, if we chose, live somewhere else – tucked away there at the back, out of sight although not entirely forgotten, the idea wasn’t causing too much trouble – not until I opened the cupboard, blew the dust off it and looked at it again. Fellow bloggers, you did too good a job. Your writing painted a picture I could recognise, whose attractions created a desire within me, drawing me into themselves…

Then there’s another set of ideas that have long lain dormant, and are now reawakening. I always knew there was a better way – organisations have lost their way and are hopelessly sub-optimised, chasing ineffective, incoherent and contradictory goals. Once, I was passionate about generating change, about helping people wake up to the power they have within themselves for betterment… but the brick wall was hard, and my head hurt. I found a few that shared a dream that a new spirituality might enter business – and by that I mean that values would shift away from shareholder profit and monetary ROI towards values built around the welfare of this planet and all of its occupants. At the time, this seemed no more than a dream, but more and more people seem to be thinking along these lines, and more to the point, doing something to bring their dream into reality. People like Jon Husband, Dave Pollard, Flemming Funch, all create a vision of how things might be in organisations and beyond if we founded our thinking on relationships of wholeness, learning, collaboration and mutual support. This contrasts so starkly with the little corner of organisation in which I work, still stuck in the dark ages of mid-20th century management practices.

And another thing that’s taken a few more bricks out of the wall. I value community – or claim to. And quite by chance I’ve stumbled across a wonderful community of bloggers in North East Ohio. Then there’s the unexpected new discoveries, such as Zen Buddhism. I may be a committed Christian, but that doesn’t mean I don’t recognise wisdom when I see it, and there is so much wisdom to be found in Zen.

And finally, there’s new friendships. The strengthening bonds that cross all boundaries.

A reawakened yearning for open spaces and wilderness; a reminder of purpose; new discoveries, new friends - all of that produces a strange response in me. If you’ve ever suffered significant trauma, you may know the experience of running on autopilot. Those occasions when, in the face of massive upsets to the system, you just keep going, machine-like, getting on with those things that have to be done. Something knocks the ground from under your feet; the bedrock on which you stood disappears; sense of balance is lost, proportion is distorted; all around, the world continues as before but you’ve lost connection to it, senses blocked, floating in a nether-world of unreality and remoteness. I’d be trivialising those real and intensely painful moments when life seems to shatter, if I said that that’s what I’ve been feeling this last week, nevertheless it’s something along those lines, albeit with less intensity – and I’m afraid that’s the nearest my inadequate words can get.

But at least now I’ve named the demon. It has some form, not just a shapeless blackness casting its shadow over everything I see and touch. It has boundaries, limits. If I can see it, I can start to deal with it.

I said earlier that all of my scribblings this week attempting to catch what I was feeling were wide of the mark. Well, maybe not. Maybe something was connecting my subconscious to my fingers in a way that my conscious mind didn’t understand. This now seems rather apt:

“Trouble up ahead. The status quo is already out of balance. I may have tipped it that way myself – perhaps in an unconscious attempt to create disequilibrium and force movement. But whether from unconscious intent or not, the tipping point is not far away”.

And even this, clumsy and, quite literally, over-wrought:

“Experience, did I once know you?
I feel I’ve seen your face before,
Yet we pass in the street with barely a glance of recognition.
Did we once laugh and learn and love together?
A memory stirs; a passion turns in its sleep.

Sight, did I once ache at the beauty you showed me?
Was I once enchanted by the colours, the forms, the kaleidoscopic variety?
Now structure degenerates, shape without form,
Variety mutates to dull repetition,
Novelty lies smothered under familiarity.

Possibility, your garden lies fresh, sparkling, intoxicating;
Humming with energy; alive, warm, sensuous;
Vibrant with the power of life, growth, regeneration.
Your door closed, this greyness Is.
Yet your door opened.
To find a path through…
To feel the pain of looking…
Or to slam it shut and so resolve the question?”

Friday, December 05, 2003


It'll stay quiet on here for a couple of days as I'm away on training course. Just grabbed a couple of minutes to find some network and see what's going on - and there's quite a lot I'd like to get involved in but it needs thought and time and... oh, and my head is far too full of stuff that flys around and wont stand still and I can't get it down on paper... Half a dozen attempts scribbled and abandoned last night... Feelings gone offline as well as this laptop...

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Collaborative learning 

Great post from Stuart Henshall, using the metaphor of jazz musicians to describe how collaborative blogging might contribute to accelerated learning; he's thinking in the specific business context of knowledge management, but I think the idea may have wider application. Not sure about the commercial aspects, which seem to indicate a potential that might run counter to open source philosophy, but then I may not have understood his model fully.

"This type of community is like a great jazz club. Infectious, Ingenious, Interactive, and Integrative, playing in an information rich world that demands elegance, simplicity, transparency and clear notes on the solutions employed. We accept in joining that 'all of us' are better than any one of us in creating new sources of value. Band members would be here to collectively harness our intelligence, collaborate and have some serious fun while doing it.

This means that no one can grab it, no one person can put their arms around and everyone must nurture it. That makes it Chaordic. You can empathize with us, and appreciate the collective intelligence within. It's collaborative, emergent, with enough structure to encourage self organization but not enough to signal a fixed agenda, or the next topic. We know where we are starting but not where it might lead us. It's about connecting, It is about flows. It is about curiosity. Ultimately it is about better questions and learning faster. Our tools will be conversations and dialogues. …. We begin with a small group, and begin building on it with a global perspective".

Lots more in the original post. I confess I haven't thought the detail through; I just caught a whiff of the potential being sparked off here.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Guilty secrets? 

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away... No, sorry, wrong intro...

Once upon a time, not long after the dinosaurs had rolled over and become rodent meat, there was an ancient ritual in offices known as the Tea Break. Come 10:30 in the morning, work would cease as desks were abandoned and the entire workforce made their way to the canteen (remember them?) for a “cuppa”. Note the title – Tea Break. Coffee, in those days, was a flavourless muddy liquid made from a dull brown powder, believed only to be drunk by intellectuals and Americans. (In deference to my transatlantic friends, I’ll refrain from further comment at this point, and simply note the raised eyebrows amongst some of my less enlightened compatriots that the use of words “intellectual” and “American” so close together in the same sentence may cause. It must in any case be said that the Americans had parallel ideas about tea and the English).

It mattered not that, with no caffeine intake before 10:30 am, no actual work would be done until at least 11:00, the time by which the morning’s dose would have taken effect and the workforce made their leisurely way back to their desks. No, the purpose of the first hour and a half of the euphemistically-named “working day” was to review the TV programmes of the night before, express opinions about the latest indiscretions of politicians/sportspersons/celebrities, and generally catch up on the gossip.

Those days are, of course, but a distant folk memory. After all, with today’s work ethic, who could survive until 10:30 without caffeine? And, thank goodness, at least we now have decent coffee available (so maybe we do have something to thank the Americans for). So, to keep their workforces in a state of constant caffeine-induced hyperactivity, canny employers now provide endless supplies of caffeinated beverages on tap. It seems the most effective way of achieving this, short of installing an intravenous drip at each workstation, is to provide a small kitchen area immediately adjacent to the work area. That way, the staff can get their fix with the minimum down-time.

It was in such a kitchen a couple of days ago that I was chatting to a guy I’d not met before. Conversation turned, as it does when you’ve no other common ground to explore, to the work each of us was doing. It turned out he was a consultant, working with some quite senior members of the organisation, and not unnaturally a little reticent about divulging the details of his assignment.

What interested me though was not the secrets he might or might not have been hiding, but the body language he was using.

To begin with, he had been entirely natural, open, friendly – hands by his side, in his pockets, or gesticulating in the classic palm-open indicator of having nothing to hide. Yet as soon as he began to talk, even in the vaguest of terms, about his current project, his hand moved to his mouth as if to hide the words, and stayed there, fidgeting about his lips. Nothing else changed – the voice was as easy-going as ever, the words still fluent and relaxed – just this one give-away. I was so intrigued, an evil streak in me prolonged that line of questioning just to observe his response. All the while, his hand stayed by his mouth, just as though he were trying to mask the words, until someone else happened along and the conversation moved elsewhere.

At this point in the analysis I realise that if I draw the obvious conclusion then I’m in danger of encouraging you to be mistrustful of people who talk with their hand in front of their mouth, which wasn’t my intention at all. For one thing, I’d much rather encourage trust than mistrust, and for another, generalisations are never “true”. Nevertheless, it remains an interesting observation of this particular piece of human behaviour – something I’d heard about before, but not noticed quite so graphically demonstrated.

And if nothing else, it shows that coffee breaks are by far the best time for tapping into the grapevine.