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.