A Year Without Work

A Year Without Work

Early in my career I took a job in a department that was supposed to be delivering a major new product for one of our business partners. It seemed like a great opportunity. What happened next was that the deal was delayed and the delayed again. But we were already in training and so the organisation decided to leave us in this new area until we were needed. So after training was completed I was earning the most money I ever had (low bar at that point, we aren’t talking Jeff Bezos money) but had no work to do.

Technically there was some work to do, but I am an early riser and a quick worker which meant that most days I had finished my allotted work by the time I was actually supposed to start work. Leaving me a whole day of… Well, what?

It turned out pretty quickly that the team of 8 were part of something that should have been monitored and evaluated as part of a social experiment. We all reacted in different ways.

  • One person (low level of drive…) simply kicked back and relaxed so much they could often be found asleep at their desk with earphones in. Other teams complained and he didn’t care
  • Another took to professional gambling through their phone
  • Several of us started Fantasy sport leagues with multiple teams and competed against each other there. Or played the stock markets with imaginary money
  • One person was so bored they would get everyone else cups of tea or do favours for them… if the other team members would leave extra work for them. Yes, they actually worked for work to avoid having no work
  • I read everything that I could on the area of expertise so that subsequent training courses became a bit redundant because I’d put in such intense study that nothing was new to me
  • Tempers would flare and people would shout at each other – not because of the pressure of work but because of the lack of it
  • Other colleagues in the business hated us for the lack of work and we hated them for having work

I guess it taught me very early that for some getting out of work is bliss. Yet after a short period of excitement for most people there was a hunger to do something that had a value or was valued. We wanted to be productive. We weren’t saving lives, but whatever we did was going to be better than things we knew had no worth.

So whenever someone tells me that someone is lazy I’m tempted to suggest that you give that person no work for a year. There’s nothing more strangely useful in helping us see the perverse value we place on it. It’s also worth remembering that you can place 8 people in an identical situation and get 8 completely different reactions. We are curious beasts.

Compromise and Strength

Compromise and Strength

We often see strength as somehow inextricably linked to inflexibility. We ask people what they stand for. We don’t ask what they’d bend for or maybe where they would move or shift. What ground they would give.

If I know the ground you won’t move from then I know what you represent. I know I can join you there and have some certainty. We can stand on this ground together.

The system teaches its leaders not to shift. It teaches them to show people how they will stand firm. The worst things you can be are inconsistent or inclined to change your mind.

Mistakes are held over people and revisited.

The problem comes when people raised on that notion – and rewarded on those grounds – are asked to work together.

Because if you are the one in the right and if you are the one with principles then surely the right thing is for everyone else to compromise? To understand that what you are describing is what really matters.

Because what matters are the points of difference that you’ve articulated and recognition of your rightness – not a common objective.

We’ve just finished an election in the UK and when things have calmed down a bit (or time has healed or whatever happens next) there are genuine lessons available on group dynamics, group think, flexibility and collaboration.

Possibly more profound lessons than you’ll find in your next business book – because the stakes have been higher but the behaviour all too familiar.

For now some people will be jubilant and some distraught. We need to find a bridge between those groups – and it won’t be found by everyone standing firm. It will be through people remembering that they can move towards each other.

It won’t be identifying who you can’t work with, but who you might be able to hold out a hand to.

It can feel scary to leave the solid ground that makes you feel safe. But the will and ability to move allows you to find others.

If you don’t make that choice all you can do is hope they decide to come to you. You may find that’s lonelier than you’d like. Being right in isolation can bring little benefit except self satisfaction.

Why You Won’t Get Your Own Statue

Why You Won’t Get Your Own Statue

Synopsis: why a more distributed sharing of information might make people’s contributions less enduring, but more useful.

There will never be a statue made of me*.

There’s a high chance that if you are reading this you want get one either. I’m not suggesting that you reading this is the cause of that, but rather that it’s harder to warrant a statue these days. You were born in the wrong time to get a statue.

Estimates of the population of Ancient Athens put the number of men with civil rights (as in those who could ascend to fame/fortune, apologies to everyone else) at between 30-60,000.

So when you think of Plato, Socrates, Aristotle or Herodotus then their competition for fame and recognition was actually limited. Big fish in small ancient pond. Ancient Athens had about the same population as Scarborough**. I was always amazed that Aristotle was Alexander the Great’s teacher. That just seemed a ridiculous collision of famous figures. When you realise the finite pool of educators that would have been available to school Alexander from a population that small you start thinking that maybe Aristotle only got the gig as there was nobody else available. Anyway, I digress…

The chances of rising to statue level prominence in this world is constrained by a number of factors, but it would seem reasonable to assume you needed to live in a time and place affluent enough to have the time and resource to build statues whilst also, ideally, in a period with a relatively low population. Or you could rise to the absolute top in a dictatorial state and get to build statues in your lifetime. Most people reading this are automatically ruled out of the running based on those factors (if you are a world leader reading this blog or a time traveller please drop me a note in the comments).

We live in a time where people appear to be famous for 15 social media postings. There is perhaps even less permanence to recognition than ever before and possibly even less reason to it as well. When millions of people follow other people online for staged holiday snaps that those people use to try and get free holidays to take more staged snaps on… I’m not sure that feels statue worthy. But more people will be following those snaps than ever were exploded to the teachings of Socrates in his lifetime.

That obscene volume of shared content in the modern world leads to some interesting things in a professional space.

I’ve rated them from bad to good (in my opinion)…

  • A host of influencers that add nothing to the world’s knowledge – on some days you could read the average Linkedin feed and be stupider at the end of it. If some content is enriching there then there seems to be a lot that is impoverishing. If your problem was a lack of people telling you they are better than you because they are their ‘best self’ then that problem is now resolved for all time.
  • A bigger group of people able to share quality ideas than before. I make it onto lots of lists of influencers (of varying credibility, to be honest I’m on one for “Cloud Influencers’ and I can’t even persuade a cumulonimbus out for a drink). There is something remarkable about being on a list of 100 people in quite a niche area of expertise and technology being able to help make them all being contactable. I have no idea how differently my career might have progressed if the sharing of challenging ideas was so easy earlier in my career. We now share information and ideas around far faster and more efficiently than when one battered copy of In Search of Excellence*** was being passed around the office.
  • A community of ideas being shared. People accelerating their own development by learning with and through each other. I think this is an excellent thing. An inspiring thing. When I see students sharing their thinking and experience I think we live in a wonderful time. When I see experienced professionals doing the same I feel the same.

None of these people will get a statue. We are no longer in the time of a small collection of people bestriding a profession or area of expertise. And I think that’s a good thing.

A diversity of voices and thinking that can help shape things.


* this post came about because I passed a few statues in London and read the descriptions of people and realised their modern professional equivalents wouldn’t get a statue. I don’t spend large amounts of time pondering over whether I’ll get a statue. Getting stopped everytime I pass through airport security makes me feel special enough.

** this is lazy thinking. Obviously Scarborough’s population as quoted doesn’t include just males involved in the political system, so I’ve either underplayed the population figure for Athens or overplayed it for Scarborough – just to make a cheap point.

I’m writing this on public transport and the thought of flicking between apps to work out the actual figures means I can’t be bothered to do this work properly. I’m not sure that this is how all fake news is generated, but it’s definitely how fake news about the relative populations of Ancient Athens and Scarborough is created if you are using the WordPress app. I’m very aware of this. I’m an overthinker.

*** look it up kids. We thought Wang Labs was going to rule the world

On tonight’s performance…

On tonight’s performance…

One of the strangest things that I’ve seen throughout my career is the belief that people’s task based capability is somehow fixed or tethered to the moment. I’m not talking about growth or fixed mindsets of the individual (that’s for others to opine on…) – I’m talking about the mental ticklist assigned to others about what they can and can’t do.

It manifests most when we hire individuals or talk about immediate career moves. A conversation about what X can’t do. Or how job Y needs someone who can do a very specific thing.

Small things become insurmountable. The thing that takes a couple of weeks to learn becomes a reason – perhaps a convenient reason – to hire people.

And yet this reason only comes out sometimes.

Other times people are full of potential and ‘they’ll have no problem learning that’. I can’t help but think that sometimes chemistry/fit gets people a pass that others wouldn’t. At times that’s probably straightforwardly discriminatory – as much as we’d all like to think it isn’t.

It reminds me of the X Factor or The Apprentice. A bewildering reasons of people to put people through that varies week to week.

  • I have to go with the performance in the sing off/this week’s task
  • I have to look at the whole of what people have delivered in previous weeks
  • I have to think about who could be a recording artist/my business partner
  • I can’t see that star potential/hunger
  • I have to listen to the public/Karen

The reasons seem clear and fair in isolation but mask the lack of consistency – seemingly fair in the moment, yet unjust in the round.

We talk about unfairness in hiring processes, yet people’s progress through their career is impacted by that day to day assessment of potential, performance and capability too.

People’s talent deserves better than a talent show.

What is left out

What is left out

Synopsis: if someone isn’t sharing then balance your choices between reasoned intuition, patience and respect.

I really enjoyed reading Speak Up by Megan Reitz recently and I was lucky enough to meet her last week for an all too brief chat. Speak Up focused my thinking very much on the barriers to sharing within organisations and the power dynamics at play. Very short version: I get told less because I’m the boss.

Most people (I would think) have had situations where they know something is troubling someone – but when you ask them directly they either misdirect, say it is fine or say it isn’t impacting them (when you know it is).

Some of you, in leadership or HR positions, will have had the dreaded ‘You can’t tell them I told you’ tip off. This is the one where you know something is wrong but you can’t tell the person you know it is wrong – and you therefore can’t ask explicitly.

For instance imagine I’ve been told that Brian has reduced my new starter to tears. But the person who told me says I’m not supposed to know.

‘How are you settling into the new role?’


‘The x team here can be a bit tricky to build relationships with here…

‘Nope, I’m fine’

‘And I know that Brian can be a bit sharp with people…’

‘Nope. I’m fine’

Then we face the crossroads. We can either

i) press further

ii) confess we know about the incident with Brian

iii) respect that whilst we aren’t getting the truth we are getting what the person wants to give us

I know over my career I’ve definitely taken all three paths. And the only thing I can think of is that I’ve used my professional judgement each time.

Except for path 3. I don’t think I’ve let things lie as often as I should do. My impulse is to think that as soon as things are out in the open we can deal with them, but we have to respect who owns information and who owns the right to share on their terms. If the person wants me to know then I can create the conditions for it. It’s an assumption on my part that I should know.

I remember years ago a conversation about redundancy and someone in the HR team offered up the information, in a group setting, that someone else would accept voluntary redundancy if offered. Whilst giving voice to the other person’s thoughts they also took that person’s power over when and where to use their own voice away. The truth came out – but not in the way it should.

So it’s never easy. But maybe the truth just needs to appear in other ways.

Power, Pragmatism, Politics and Principles

Power, Pragmatism, Politics and Principles

Synopsis: a pondering on why good people often have to do bad things and why ambition probably corrupts more than we think.

I’ve a had a couple of conversations with people recently about their careers and they’ve been adamant that they weren’t ambitious – they just wanted to make a difference.

What’s interesting is that we know that if you are ambitious to make a difference then you need the opportunity to make that difference. And normally that needs power (influence, agency). We’ve become accustomed to ambition being synonymous with greed – but it doesn’t have to be or shouldn’t be. And the pathways to monetary success and influence are probably quite similar.

I’ve been reading Power by Jeffrey Pfeffer and it is basically a ‘How to be successful’ book. I’m a big fan of his earlier work and I’m hating this book, but not because it isn’t good. The book is probably the most effective guide to gaining and retaining power that I’ve read. It is clear on everything: choosing which areas to work in, how to stand out, how to identify competitors for promotion and see them off. And how to retain power.

And it leaves a supremely bad taste in the mouth. It leaves me genuinely conflicted.

This book answers all of the ‘How’ but none of the ‘why’. It is the kind of book you’d want to lend someone if they wanted a successful career – whilst realising that if they followed the lessons in it they would probably become the type of person you would hate to see succeed.

We all know and understand there are rules of work. We all understand that some of them are unpleasant. We are still locked into a cycle where the practical advice you might give people about career management would turn them into the type of people that you hope would never lead a team.

It’s an incredibly sad thing that – whilst there are plenty of exceptions of good people succeeding – anyone with a hint of pragmatism will understand what I’m talking about.

Broadly power is still linked to politics and playing the game – not to excellence and intent. From Old Boys clubs through to hugely undiverse tech design teams we still face the challenge that it’s about comfortable fit and playing the game – not about getting those people that want to make a positive difference into places where they can. As long as we ask people to play that game it will corrupt them as they do.

We create comfort with everything that people shouldn’t be comfortable with. Erosion of value and values through constant compromise.

Maybe it isn’t as bleak as I paint here. Maybe you can think of counter examples. But the research sits in my favour – and I think most people’s experience does too.

A final note: My guess is that people who have read this far will fall into a few brackets.

  1. Everyone needs to toughen up – there’s nothing wrong with money or ambition. It’s business
  2. I recognise these things in colleagues, but not me. I have integrity and only ever do bad things for a good reason.
  3. I’ve never done anything wrong and have risen to the top simply by excellence

I can respect the honesty of the first position.

I can respect the intent of the second position (you may or may not be fibbing to yourself)

If you are the person in the third position then you just might be the once in a generation chosen one. Or it might be a bigger fib.

And if you need another bracket then let me know that.

I hope the world treats you well. Just remember that excellence, sadly, isn’t enough for many to get what they deserve.

It’s not a meritocracy. For far too many people it’s a Poundshop House of Cards. And you can’t tell people not to play politics when it’s still about the politics. But that doesn’t make it right or pleasant or any less of a compromise.

Chatting up chatbots/Everybody Lies

Chatting up chatbots/Everybody Lies

Synopsis: As more and more HR functions start to make use of chatbots to answer queries HR teams have to address a problem that didn’t used to exist: what happens when someone is mean to something that isn’t conscious?

Yesterday I was chatting to an HRD about a possible change in their structure and approach. It’s a bit of my job that I really enjoy. And we were talking about their adoption of chatbots for volume queries and how that was changing the shape of what people need from the function.

Then she said “And you should see the things someone is writing to it. I think they think they are dating it…”

Which got me thinking about to what extent we police/investigate/worry about actions that have no impact on the organisation (beyond the waste of time to type nonsense to a chatbot). Actions that might ‘speak to character’ but otherwise do no damage. You can’t hurt the feelings of a chatbot and you can’t harass it as it can’t feel distress. But you can be disturbingly odd.

I’m reading Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz and it is fascinating. He uses Google search terms to get a more honest picture of the world than is available through asking people in polls or surveys. He uses this to address a wide range of questions from ‘Was Freud right about us fancying our parents?’ (apparently) to ‘What percentage of the US population is likely to be gay?’ (he estimates it as twice the ‘official’ figure – which is food for thought).

People reveal more of themselves online than if asked elsewhere – if only because of ‘social desirability bias’, our desire to give answers that we feel we’d like to associate with our character or for other people to. But on Google we have an incentive to reveal more of ourselves: we get information in return. Maybe it’s the same with chatbots.

So here are some things I’ve been thinking about.

  • A common search query for Alexa is to ask what ‘she is wearing?’. If someone asked your chatbot that would you be concerned? Would you take action?
  • Should you ethically even be looking at queries that people might think are anonymous? How clearly would we need to label the nature of the interactions?
  • If someone threatened violence against a chatbot would you consider that worrying enough to intervene?
  • If someone asked for information about a human colleague through the chatbot in a sinister/odd way would that be enough to act? ‘Can you give me the home address for the Amy who is sexy and sits in procurement?’
  • Would your employment policies currently cover aggression towards anything other than a human or damage to property? Would you even know without checking? There’s a recent example of complexity in this area with a suggestion that AI should be able to own a patent. Is it misuse of IT equipment?
  • Do you not have enough stuff that real people are doing/not doing with other people to be getting on with?
  • Could chatbot enquires reveal anything about organisational culture?
  • Will people ask (more regularly) questions that they sometimes feel worried about asking HR? For instance ‘What was my notice period again?’.

Anyway, just some thoughts. I’m off to be nice to Alexa.

This isn’t what a chatbot looks like, but I had very few photos available to me in the WordPress free section… Rob McCargow will love it.