Bill & Ted’s excellent workplace

Since 1989, the idea of our being “excellent to each other” has scythed its way like industrial detergent through the congealed grease of our thinking on work, management and leadership.

Nothing new here – the expression has appeared in numerous blog posts over the years and bubbled its way through countless after-five lager-lubricated conversations. Yet when we’re done proclaiming that its about all there is or needs to be, we still seem collectively a little nervous and embarassed that it could actually be the case. Especially as the script for the whole film was written by hand in just four days. There must be a more grown-up way of saying it?

Well, not really.

And then along comes an article that takes our inability to keep things simple right down to the Abyssal Zone.

Apparently “the new buzzwords on every workplace designer’s tongue are incubation, cross-pollination, symbiosis….” – who the heck are these people? If I ever see any of those words in a pitch, its over, there and then. All three together will merit a special outcome. I should add that if you are actually interested in this kind of thing, there is an excellent glossary of stuff you could raid here. Its where I found “Abyssal Zone”. Easy isn’t it?

So consider that if we design and create our workplace so that it supports us being excellent to each other, we actually have it cracked. It requires that we explain what being excellent means in equally simple terms, not those embarrassingly borrowed from deservedly far more complex disciplines to make us sound smart.

If our workplace allows us to respond to the individual and social needs of our colleagues and has enough of everything so as not to create tension in the exercising of our choices, if its reasonable quality, if it allows us to get a decent drink and eat something healthy, if all the tech works so we don’t vent our frustration on the next person to ask us a tricky question, then we have a place that helps us be excellent to each other.

That’s scary to a lot of workplace practitioners, thinkers and designers. Imagine having to admit that all of the energy and cash spent on research, experimentation and installations actually boiled down to a throwaway line from a goofy geek-flick. I wonder if its ever shown up in a pitch?

We’re people, not lichen or plants. We’re just looking out for each other, while hoping to stay happy, get better at what we do, and learn something useful in the process. Then everybody benefits, whatever fauxcracy happens to be governing our domain. We really should stop looking for the next scientific term to explain what happens between us. That’s actually far more embarassing than quoting Bill and Ted.


The idea of an unstructured event of some form that brings together work, workplace, social business and people-centred thinking emerged from the amazing connetctinghr, and is probably at least a couple of years old. Its logo owes much to conversation with (its creator) Simon Heath and Mark Eltringham, and the most recent atempts to make something happen with Doug Shaw and Perry Timms (to name a few) centred on the idea of a sort of open-mic session occurring simultaneously in London and Manchester.

But it was in a chance e-mail exchange with Perry about an event coming up next year that the idea of what workstock is finally landed: a pop-up event, a plug-in if you will, that happens at other events.

The closest metaphor I can think of is the Barbarians. All of those playing will for a fleeting moment don the luminescence of the shirt, but get to wear their own socks.

And so workstock makes its first appearance as an hour-long pecha kucha session at Workplace Trends on 15 October in London, featuring seven (yep) exceptional thinkers on work, workplace and social business. There may even be a few more to add, if they can make it. I will leave it to the organisers to tell you more, but for now here is a little more on workstock:

What it is

  • An ever-evolving idea – it has no form or structure, no organisation of any form – not even one of those altogether-modern fauxcracies that dig up old ideas and re-badge them
  • A trojan mouse – this post best describes what I mean
  • An invitation for anyone with an idea to get involved and take part – but please bear in mind it wont come chasing you, its up to you to get involved
  • Irregular – no programme, no timetable, no pressing need to exist at all – it just has to be right
  • Ephemeral – with an indeterminate life – either we’ll know when its done, or it just won’t interest anyone anymore (If it even does now, that may just be a little presumptuous)

What its not

  • A movement – the market for movements is more saturated than otter’s cravat, the planet really doesn’t need another one
  • A hashtag – the tag is the host conference or event that it supports, promotes and respects by using its hashtag
  • An industry-specific or multi-industry idea – because many of those taking part or who will take part don’t belong to anything or any specific industry, so that’s all irrelevant
  • A competitor – its not intended to replace or upstage anything or anyone, only to complement others
  • Disruptive – because that’s just such an over-used, lank term for safe, middle class rebellion
  • A vehicle for anything or anyone – the minute it threatens to become so, its over
  • A receptacle for an idea – the ideas are those of the participants, it has no “shell” phiolosophy of its own, and won’t be lobbying parliament anytime soon

So there it is. Or, rather, here it comes.


24-hour putty people

There has been a huge amount written about the benefits of storytelling in the organisational and commercial world, paradoxically most of it dank and lacking any vitality. So much of what people believe to be stories are not. Going beyond the “beginning, middle and the end” of our earliest years being made to sit in front of a piece of ruled paper and write something interesting to order, perhaps its the case that the components of a great story are also those of a fantastic workplace.

Steven James, prolific author and tutor of these things refers to a story as “a transformation unveiled”. Think about your workplace in that context for a moment. I should add that he also says “you don’t have a story until something goes wrong”. Again, you should be on the money, or you’re not being honest with yourself.

And so a story – and a workplace – should have the following….

A setting, an orientation – the context into which all of the characters are placed, and the reason for everyone and everything being there, wherever “there” may be. History, chance, co-incidence, or something else entirely. At this point we create our emotional connection, such that we want to stay with it. There has to be a reason to get out of bed in the morning, as there has to be to turn the page.

Characters – in which Steven James’ description of pebble people and putty people is wonderful. When thrown at a wall, a pebble bounces off – nothing happens to it, it remains the same. Putty on the other hand changes shape, and so we watch closely how, and want to keep throwing it. Forget traditional delineations in the workplace, just think about the pebble people and putty people you know, and how they interact.

Plot(s) – external struggles that need to be overcome, and internal struggles that need to be resolved. The workplace is an incredibly complex weave of plot, rendering it fascinating, frustrating and addictive. Perhaps too much of modern syrupy thought is directed at dissolving the drama in the human condition, flattening our emotional peaks until no more than foothills, stripping every fibre from our reflexes. Consider, perhaps people keep checking their e-mails not for the usual hand-wrung reasons, but because they need to know what’s happening. Because they “can’t put it down”.

Something unexpected – prompted by a discovery, something that will never be the same again. The reason stories are so often not stories is because nothing happens that changes everything, on whatever scale “everything” may be measured. In the workplace that could be reflected through the physical – features and aesthetics that alter the way we behave individually or towards others – or the personal – breakthroughs or accidents (beneficial, as well as negative) that bring progress, benefit or an altered state of understanding. Workplace design thinking has for many years fixated upon creating unexpected forms, and helping spawn the unexpected in us all.

A message – a lasting thought, idea or image, a visual or emotional imprint – conscious or unconscious – or a changed perspective. Something that means that while being absorbed in transformative events, YOU have been changed by the story. Just as the experience of our workplace renders us changed. The environments we create – physical and human – should leave us amongst other things more enlightened, more empathetic, more self-aware. They should help shape us – provided we allow ourselves to be shaped.

It may be time to rediscover the drama in ourselves, and in the environments we create. Because we won’t have a workplace until something goes wrong.

NOT the “living wage” workplace

At the other end of the spectrum from the previous post are a number of features of modern workplaces that may just not be worth the expense and bother, and actually mitigate against a better workplace for all: either we spend all of the money on the wrong things, or the frightening cost of the stuff we are told we “need” prevents it happening at all. Here are a few offenders:

The double-height reception – a feature that performs no function whatsoever other than making those attending the building feel small – the smaller and less significant the better, like characters in Orson Welles’ “The Trial”. This is usually accentuated by large, wasted open spaces occupied by a designer chair you are made to feel too “small” to sit at. The better option: make the reception part of the living, working space. Perhaps put it somewhere unexpected – let visitors see the workspace first – what you are all about – and then welcome them deeper into the space.

The Boardroom – the most luxuriantly furnished room in the building with a table buffed with hair from a badger’s backside, rectangularly set to articulate traditional power structures, for the occasional attendance of a group who (with one or two exceptions) only work a few days a year for the organisation. The better option: the “Boardroom” can be any room. If the Board use a room that the rest of the employees use, it may also help them understand a little more about the organisation.

Marble – the “flares” of the architectural world, a finish associated with sophistication and taste as recently as classical times, it now just looks ostentatious and ridiculous. It is the ultimate symbol of bad taste and needless expense. Like flares, there are occasionally minor campaigns to reinstate its viability, but fortunately all fail. There really is no justification. At all. The better option: anything cheaper.

Lighting control systems – when you need diagrammatic instructions to turn lights on and off, when you’re presented with a choice of sixteen different scene sets, or when you need to wave your arms around to tell the energy-conserving “brain” that you’re still in the room but not engaged in aerobic exercise, you know you have gone too far. The better option: the humble, simple, binary bliss of a light switch. Maybe a dimmer, if desired. That and a sensible approach to turning stuff on when you need it, and off when you don’t.

Fibre tile ceilings – because who wouldn’t rather look at the gubbings they are they designed to hide, however unkempt, than the thing itself? Decades of ceiling design development have got us nowhere. The better option: nothing. Save us the cost, and the horror.

Sofas – not the informal panacea they are imagined to be – the most expensive, over-specified and under-used of office furniture items. They create too much intimacy for the environment, they are generally more difficult to sit in with a skirt on, and they don’t allow you to spread out your kit and “stuff”. But they’re always there, in the spaces between useful spaces, gathering cushions. The better option: a variety of tables, chairs (yes even comfortable ones), stand-ups.

“Designer” anything – finishes, furniture etc. Nothing quite says “total lack of imagination/let’s chuck some money at the problem” like a Barcelona chair in the lobby. “Designer” means there is already a significant mark-up attached to the reputation and marque that adds no value. The better option: design something and have it made locally, or find young, up-and-coming designers appreciative of the business, and help them grow.

Carpet tiles – protected from the scrapings of the street and any other route to the office by a doormat no bigger than you have at home is the safe harbour for a biological smorgasboard. Occasionally vacuumed properly, “cleaned” less than annually, you would be best advised not to bite it, even in the foulest rage. The better option: there are so many cheaper alternatives you can clean properly, that still look great years later.

Raised floors – probably responsible for most of the carpet tile sales the pinstriped world over, is the mask for the vermicelli of cables beneath the floor – you know, the ones that get yanked up into floorboxes that won’t close, or through grommets that are too small. The better option: decent wifi so you don’t have to flood-wire the Cat 6, and perimeter distributed power.

“Feature” anything – floors, lighting, ceilings, staircases, whatever. Because “feature” means taking out and discarding something that worked and replacing it with something much more expensive that adds no further functionality, and is usually much harder to maintain. Most people ignore it, and take it for granted anyway. The better option: work with what’s there, making small and low-cost modifications. Experiment, and make the ideas changeable – this will have far more long-term benefit.

The christmas socks – the collection of embarrassing attempts to make claims to cultural lightness, like fussball tables, climbing walls, slides, and meeting tables that double as table tennis tables. The modern equivalent of the poster that says “you don’t have to be mad to work here but it helps”. The better option: growing up a bit.

Creating a great workplace for all calls for deeper design thinking, not deeper pockets. Its time to explore it.

The “living wage” workplace

Faced today with another excruciating article complete with even more table-gnawing video of the stock-photo workplace of the future, it had me thinking about the baseline that most would recognise as reality.

If you needed to create a decent workplace with a feral pit-bull between you and the budget, what would be the “must haves” – the basic elements that comprise the “living wage” workplace? With an assumption (perhaps in itself dangerous) of the workplace meeting all legal compliance standards, here is the shortest list I could muster.

Daylight: as much of it as possible, from as many angles as possible. There is no artificial source of this gift that comes close to that which pours plentiful from the sky.

Temperature you can control. It certainly doesn’t have to be air conditioned (in fact bad AC is far worse than none at all), but you do need to be able to turn it up and down, and at the very least open a window when you need to.

A choice of spaces. You don’t need the full catalogue of over-designed adolescent dens with wanky names, but you do need three basic types – somewhere quiet and comfortable to focus, somewhere informal to meet and write stuff up on a wall, and somewhere a bit more formal to meet, with a door (because not everything is good for everyone to overhear).

Wifi/network that works. Nothing brings on randomly directed guttural anglo saxon like a signal as reliable and as like to stand up as England’s middle order.

Somewhere to put your stuff, with a lock on it. Your papers (you will have some), your purse/wallet, your gym bag, maybe your shoes. You all have at least one pair of shoes at the office, don’t you?

Access to drinks and food, creating at least the potential for reasonable quality. You could still make coffee that tastes like bisto and turn your potato into a white dwarf – but at least there is the possibility of you doing so.

Sanitary sanity. Toilets that are clean, warm, have hot water and soap, and allow you to dry your hands on something unique to you.

The opportunity to have an influence over the space. Often mis-cued as “personalisation” this could mean as a group, it could mean just you – it could mean just for the day, or for longer. But just so that you have some way of adding something so you create a bond with your space, however small.

Colour. If you check the cover of Dark Side of the Moon, there is a whole spectrum out there. It changes our mood, lightens our spirit. Not everything has to look as blandly bland as Apple store – they seem to like it, so leave them to it. Colour usually costs the same as lack of it too.

All of these are possible, with a little thought and a little cash. Does your workplace have them? If not you’re probably below the poverty line. And you shouldn’t be.

If we could do enough to get every workplace on the “living wage”, imagine what we could achieve after that?


Mything words

I read Monica Parker’s Guardian piece The five forces shaping the future of the workplace landscape” twice. Once in casual blog-surfing mode, and then again critically. What happened in between was the clanging realisation that the piece was studded with myths and unsubstantiated claims.

Now I need to say I think Monica is fantastic, and her work and motivation to improve the workplace for the clients of the D&B firm for whom she works is to be admired. But I actually wondered if Monica wrote the piece at all. If you put myths out there with such assurance, particularly in the “credible” press (if such a thing exits), you have to expect that they may be countered. I extracted at least a dozen, commented on below. I have probably never found so many in one short article before. Each probably deserves its own discussion, but here is a summary:

“People crave social areas that get them bumping into each other and sparking innovation”

That’s a designer myth, because imagining these spaces is far more interesting than the challenges faced in designing effective spaces to focus. Research consistently supports the notion that we spend at least half of our time in individual, focused activities (try the Gensler reports). Also check out the significant backlash against open spaces and the interruptions they perpetuate and the plethora of articles and perspectives on the role of introverts in the workplace for some of whom the idea of bumping into anyone at all brings on a cold sweat.

“Office environments that have too many fixed spaces, such as cellular offices and formal meeting rooms, are likely to restrict creativity”

There is absolutely no causal link between fixed spaces and lack of creativity. In fact the backlash against open spaces (claims just as spurious) cite the lack of fixed spaces as an impediment to productive work. It’s about balance, and what works. This link has some interesting supporting evidence.

“Spaces that are more organic and fluid will always yield better creativity, productivity and at the end of the day, efficiency”

Again, a myth completely without substance and supporting evidence. While such claims are often made in regard to creativity, how the statement got to link efficiency is a new and even more tenuous conclusion. It depends entirely on the organisation, what it does, and what it wants to do. While a funky, organic interior may make people “oooh” (in most cases momentarily), if badly designed it can be confusing, distracting, and even embarrassing, as many who have aped the Google “fruit salad” approach have found to their cost. But let’s not talk about slides.

“The statistics about employee engagement make for grim reading”

As the last thing I want to do is embark on another “engagement” odyssey, its best left to FlipChart Fairytales to explain what’s going on with engagement – backed with as many facts as you need. While you are there it’s also worth checking out the facts behind the myth of the homeworking revolution. Its also well worth reading this post by Stowe Boyd on engagement for a different angle.

“Flexibility in the way people work is often cited as the biggest non-remuneration benefit possible, and this is only increasing with the millennial generation in the workforce”

Myth double-dippings here, and a ritual sounding of the #generationblah klaxon. It depends entirely on who you ask, where they are, and how it’s asked. It is also confuses the “flexible workplace” and “flexible working” – while mutually supportive when applied effectively, two very different things. Most problematic here is the entirely spurious link between flexibility and millennials – it is more often the older generations in the workplace – those who travel and have children – who desire flexible working, not younger workers who are more interested in being in the workplace for the benefit of social contact. They have a genuine need, other than a supposed desire for its own sake.

“The two biggest cost centres in most businesses are people and property, and businesses need to start linking these two pieces in a more strategic and agile way to maximise both”

This myth just keeps on giving. Property people love to quote it but fail to clarify how misleading it is. Property costs are in most organisations dwarfed by people costs to the tune of a ratio of around 9:1. Having previously worked for a resources company I can also clarify that for organisations such as these, the costs of its assets and operations dwarf both people and property costs. Instead of “strategic and agile” links between people and property, we just need to design and build better, more effective and supportive workplaces. We could just say that, and do that.

Research part-funded by Hewlett Packard in 2004 found that the stress levels of an average commuter are equal to those of a fighter pilot or riot police officer”

This is a sensational myth. What the “research” actually says is that stress levels are “higher in extreme circumstances”. The researcher also stated that “it was not known if commuters risked damaging their health in the long term”. The overwhelming majority of commuting is not extreme. It is also of note that the research was part-funded by an organisation with a high stake in mobility. We should be as cautious of this when quoting as we do with anything sponsored by Regus.

“Anyone can tell that this isn’t healthy, but it also has a negative impact on the bottom line”

Actually the researcher concluded that he didn’t know if it wasn’t healthy. Humans are not as fragile as we are often portrayed. There is also no evidence at all to suggest that commuting affects the bottom line – either negatively or even positively. If commuters are getting work done on the 7.14 to Liverpool Street, ready to start the day productively, it could just as easily be argued that it allows for a positive contribution through affording time away from the distractions of both office and home. We can’t just diss it.

“Business leaders aren’t keeping up with the tools and technologies we use at home”

While it was true that there was probably a lag in recent years, many organisations have now caught up, are able to integrate various platforms, and are kitting their people out for the job. If you really need a PlayStation for your work, I am sure you could ask your boss.

“The move towards BYOD (bring your own device) allows for greater flexibility of choice around technology tools and empowers people to use the tools that they feel most comfortable with”

While that’s true in part, the darker side of BYOD is often overlooked. I have reflected on this in a previous post. It’s not the bed of roses it may appear to be. It also requires that you buy your own kit – bit of a drawback there if you haven’t got a grand to spare.

“trust crisis in the workplace”

Another unsubstantiated myth. There is no evidence to support any kind of claim to this, nor that the situation is any worse now than it was at any time previous. In many respects the trend towards practices like BYOD – quoted above – actually points to there being far greater trust than in previous decades (even if the small print requires the surrender of your first born if you leave your iPhone in the pub). In many respects, the more that people are able (and do) work in part away from the office, it could be argued that trust is at its highest ever level – without denying that there is still headroom.

“The culture of presenteeism in particular is killing our companies and the notion that people need to be seen working undermines autonomy and is supremely demotivating”

We are into the wildzone with this one. Presenteeism is itself a mis-coined expression, it actually means attending work while unwell – it’s explored a bit more here . As to the notion that it is “killing our companies” this is entirely unfounded. There are a myriad of environments where presence is fundamental to effectiveness, and where there is no impact on motivation – in fact, entirely the opposite. The arguments earlier in the article point to the need for people to be with people – allowing it both ways is the intricate challenge workplace designers face.

Some of these myths may one day transpire to be true in part. Until such time, we need to ask the question, offer insight, challenge assumptions, and bring in those who may be able to take the debate further.

Have I mythed anything else?




Thanks to Thomas Aquinas, it was once fashionable amongst philosophers to make assumptions about a “state of nature”, a time of innocence in which humanity was naked at first base. Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Montesquieu and Hume all deployed it.

I considered a while ago on the blog that the features of Stone Age society – the state of nature - were common to the aspirations of the more radical social business thinkers.

Of course basing ideas of present condition and future development on a framework that could not possibly be known was like building towerblocks on quicksand.

But perhaps the approach has some validity in considering work and workplace issues we face today. In reverse. Suppose we offer the craved ideal of any given situation as a state of nature, and consider whether it would hold, or would morph over time into the reality of today.

For example, we decry silos, and claim that only when we tear them down will we be truly productive.

If all professions were therefore solidified into one mass, were all hewn from the same base rock, would they in time fracture, find their own corners? Faced with increasing complexity, would each start to consider that their knowledge and weltanschauung was unique, that only they understood one another, that their collective interests differed from the rest of the collective? Would they start to erect barriers to entry, to establish tests of validity?

We scorn the waste and damage inherent in the daily commute and claim that more people should be working from home or remotely, and are bombarded by statistics showing happier more productive employees when allowed to do so.

If everyone worked in their own homes, connected by an always-on hyperbandwidth hyperlinked hyperhighway with virtual presence, would the isolation and lack of satisfaction of our senses and blurring of our humanity create a radical suggestion of physically meeting? And experiencing the benefits of this contact, would those early adopters start to consider it a little random, and that they would be better meeting with those with whom they had something in common, like either their profession or their employer?

We lambast developers, architects and designers for creating self-serving workplace structures that fail to consider the physiology and psychology of occupants.

If all workplaces were once entirely designed and created around serving the needs of their occupants (“all about people”), would those tasked with envisioning them consider, in their frustration, physical and technological challenges to this brief? Would they find deeper expressions of the aesthetic that served no purpose at all other than beauty, and would they create barriers to functionality in an attempt to disrupt, provoke, rebel?

We scorn leaders who refuse to listen, who interfere, who fail to motivate and develop their charges.

If all leaders were once innately generous, free spirited souls who got out of the way and stayed out of the way, who communicated with honesty and openness, would some start to consider shortcuts to their goals? Would ideas of control and direction begin to permeate that curtailed freedom, withheld information, no longer tolerated failure from experimentation?

It is a perspective worth considering as a means of testing what we desire. We are always looking for the alternative, and more than ever celebrating the cult of disruption. Yet at reaching the ideal, will the disruption whither? Or does it remain a force for the opposite?

If we started with what we wanted, would we get what we’ve got?


The Big Convolution

Yesterday we saw the release of the latest developments in the Beyond the Workplace (#btw) initiative, now re-christened with Conversation added (#BtWC) thereby proudly sharing its acronym with the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. It was proclaimed that workplace is no longer about bogs and bog roll – and so it could just as feasibly be Beyond the Water Closet. Or perhaps given the conversational theme, Beyond the Water Cooler. Oh the fun you can have.

BIFM’s news item on the subject was flatter than a steamrolled pancake, hardly the stuff to have anyone dialling into the future of work and workplace for a robust chat. It was also preciously short of any idea at all what it meant, or what happens next.

Some may remember Tony Blair’s “Big Conversation” from 2003, a puzzling ‘does my bum look big in this?’ (Matthew D’Ancona, Sunday Telegraph) and insecure reflection complete with website and textline. It eventually all fizzled out leaving us with the ASBO as its main policy contribution, which transpired to be as popular as a fart in a spacesuit.

It failed because it’s actually an incredibly difficult thing to do. It’s hard enough getting a quality conversation in a room with ten people. Just try any LinkedIn group you care to mention with no-one listening other than for the pause of breath that is the segue to their sales pitch. It reflects as fundamental the vast difference in understanding we all have as to what “conversation” means and entails.

For many years, the small conversations have been spreading like cracks through broken glass – the “small pieces loosely joined”, as Euan Semple puts it, that have yielded ideas, insight and in some cases just thoroughly inspiring connection. That there has been no conscious effort – or need – to solidify them into something we can name (or heaven forbid, charge for) has been its power. It shouldn’t work, but it does. The big initiatives invariably appear as they though they should work, but don’t. The irony is that had these small conversations not been going on for many years, proclamations such as yesterday’s would not have been possible.

I am drawn back to Peter Fryer’s metaphor of Trojan Mice, brought to my attention by Euan. Small ideas and practices, unleashed to see where they run and what results. Inexpensive, loosely planned and numerous. And as we know, elephants are afraid of mice.

Suddenly beneath the proclamations of BtWC, and the rounding up of anyone and everyone with a passing interest, significant and grandiose expectations have been created without a tangible aim. The hashtag has already changed, the movement is now a conversation. Without foundations, it is already vulnerable. It all reminds me a little of the pasture bloat scene in Thomas Hardy’s novel “Far From the Madding Crowd“. There’s a lot of clover being munched.

The power of small to succeed is enormous. The potential of enormous to fail is enormous.


Towers, bunkers, bags: a Virtual Cuppa with David D’Souza

First published in OnOffice magazine, and reproduced given all of the talk about silos with the much-heralded first leviathan-to-leviathan conversation between the CIPD and BIFM.

NU: You’re “in HR” and I’m “in Workplace”. Silos. Everywhere we look in the farmyard that is the corporate world. Still. Which is amazing considering the credence that has been attached to “collaboration”, that favourite son of interaction. In the workplace tower/bunker/bag (the three types of grain silo) we have been ever-increasingly drawn to design and create spaces for interaction for the last decade, mindful that silos are a “bad thing”. As they haven’t gone away, tell me, from your tower/bunker/bag – will they ever? Or is it just an over-romanticised fantasy?

DDS: That’s an easy one. I work “in HR” and as spring arrives I anticipate we will all move to a glorious new dawn: a period where everyone spends their time completing performance reviews, following a coaching model slavishly in every conversation and running around in sunkissed fields. If this doesn’t come to pass (somehow) then I’d suggest we reflect on why silos are there in the first place. E effective communication doesn’t necessarily mean the end of personal agendas and poor incentivisation. We get mistrust within our own families, it’s slightly idealistic to suggest we can eradicate it from companies by moving to a flexible space. I’m not sure open plan kitchens ended teenagers feeling misunderstood or reduced divorce rates (the ultimate silo).

NU: So before we consider how we might break down silos – the fanciful corporate dream – should we ask whether they might actually be a good thing? Have silos actually helped organisations, maintained structure and strength during testing times, provided a sense of belonging and purpose to individuals otherwise liable to alienation and drift? And so are we actually seeking to destroy something beneficial that we will only miss when gone?

DDS: I don’t think they’ll go – so I don’t think you need to worry too much about missing them. The Tribes that we feel part of in a workplace help give us a sense of identity, of belonging and of reassurance. Humans are programmed to find common ground with others and to ‘herd’. Whether that is a positive instinct or not is a question about the nature of humanity… but the one thing we have learnt about workplaces is that, whilst they can bring out the worst in us, we never stop being us.

NU: Anthropologically and agriculturally we are – therefore – stuffed? Into silos?

DDS: There is a growing view that organisations should be flexible, fluid and adaptable – I’d argue that sometimes strength comes from resilience and independence. And silos give you pockets of true independence that can provide that – there is a reason we have a House of Lords. Whatever you may think of the contents of that House…well, we all know how it should work.

NU: If the over-stated desire to break down silos might in itself be dangerous, so perhaps we have lurched too far towards space designed to help break down silos, in the same way as we have forsaken the need for individual focus and steamrolled the needs of introverts. If silos provide pockets of beneficial independence, our space needs to respect and support that. Perhaps it’s time to stop trying to forcibly extricate human beings from their towers/bunkers/(bags), and to work with them instead?

DDS: I think the conflict has always been that the attractiveness of ‘no silos based Utopia’ has never been realised. We’ll never understand the downsides, as we won’t achieve it, so we’ll continue to strive for it.

NU: Wait, I will go and get the Dead Horse. We keep it handy for the “paperless office”, and any mention of “collaboration” or the “war for talent”. [*No horses were harmed in making this Virtual Cuppa].

DDS: There’s a great line by Dylan reflecting on the unachievable: “Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial, Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while”. I like playing the thought experiment of imagining complete openness and whether people would enjoy that. I hazard they may not, but we’ve been striving for it all my career. It may be that what we are striving for is less the destruction of silos and more a reduction of backstabbing. I’m all for a reduction in backstabbing. Although since the world is sometimes a harsh place you might argue the ability to deal with it shows the organisation can reflect its customer base.

NU: Thanks for the chat Dave. Now, after you……


Vanishing point

In further mulling on last week’s calling of “beyond the workplace” (#btw) – which officially ends today – I replied to a comment on the previous post that a new metaphor was required to bring about a transformation (to what, has yet to be articulated). It nudged me to finish this half-written post, as the underlying idea has some relevance to those involved.

I am indebted to Stowe Boyd for enlightening me in the ways of the science-fiction writer and (original?) cyberpunk Bruce Sterling’s Futurist Principles and Viridian Design, an avant-garde “bright green” design movement focused on addressing climate change, that ran 1998-2008. One of his Principles that stands out for me is that of Planned Evanescence.

I had to look up evanescence, it was a word that sparkled. It means the process of turning to vapour, of disappearing altogether.

[My chemistry teacher at school told me that making something vanish was impossible, and if we ever achieved it in class we would be going into business to make a fortune. That sounded like quite a challenge, and one that I haven’t given up on entirely].

Sterling’s interpretation is that:

“a product will be driven off the market, within a known time-frame, by some purported improvement. The Viridian principle of “Planned Evanescence” extends this practice by demanding that the product and all its physical traces should gracefully disintegrate and vanish entirely”

That we build in evanescence, fully expecting even demanding that complete disappearance is a composite part of our creation – that this is the only viable and sustainable proposition.

Supposing we extend this to our ideas. None of our ideas have planned evanescence, we inherently expect them to last forever. We introduce ever more, the landscape overcrowds, and as a result we get progressively more unsighted. Our greed for the new – innovation, creativity, fresh understanding and insight – blinds us.

Therein lies the struggle – many new paradigms are the repackaging of existing, what I have previously called “knew” ideas. We find that hundreds – sometimes thousands – of years have passed and that what we consider a new perspective was once a common understanding to those in togas.

Perhaps if our ideas contained a planned evanescence instead of our pretending that we are gifting them for eternity, we might be better able to think clearly, and more ably know that a new idea is in fact new. That also demands a collective courage to admit that an idea is finished forever, and to let it vanish – not bury it under a heap of reinterpretations, just in case.

Sterling’s most famous statement is “the frontier of the future is the ruins of the unsustainable”.

When our ideas, too, are unsustainable, we need to let them go. Evanescence is a word that still sparkles. I haven’t finished with it yet. But when I do, it’s over.