Weeknotes #215

This week I did:

Went to Wales

I went to the beach, swam in sea, rode the fastest zip line in the world, jumped on underground trampolines.

I can tell you what or when, but not both

We talked about project plans. I made the point I’ve made before about it being impossible to deliver a scope that is fixed upfront in a timescale that is also fixed. You can either have fixed scope and flexible schedule, or flexible scope and fixed schedule. I can tell you what you’ll get but not when you’ll get it, or I can tell you when you’ll get it but not what it’ll be. Everyone agreed that we have to take a stance in order to make delivery more realistic. And then everyone moved on to talk about the next fixed scoped piece of work and it’s delivery deadline. I think this is another small example of the difference between an industrial mindest, where work is conceived of like manufacturing the same thing repeatedly, and a digital mindset that conceives of work as uncovering uncertainty and learning in order to create something new.

A stigmergy for the transformation of the third sector

I wrote a blog post about using a stigmergy for transforming the third sector so that it leads the shaping of society away from individualism and towards collectivism. A stigmergy is a bit like a strategy but rather than requiring centralised control it allows a self-organising system to emerge based on the responding to actions taken. It seems like a much better approach to achieving change in something as diverse and uncoordinated as an entire sector. The post also goes into the idea of the third sector leading a shift in society away from individualism and towards collectivism. (The problem of changing how we think about things rather than just the things we do is a whole other problem).


And I thought about:

Post-humanist philanthropy

I’ve read a few things about the origins and historic connections between Humanism and Philanthropy. And also how some of the issues we face in modern society can be traced back through the humanist thinking of humans as the dominant species (but not all humans, actually just white European males) and how that belief led to the environmental damage, inequalities in society, etc.. So I wonder what Post-humanist philanthropy might look like?

Thinking

I’ve been thinking methods and modes of thinking. We have lots of tools that help to guide thinking (ideation processes like Design Thinking spring to mind) but I think we’d benefit from being more explicit about the ways we think and so use those tools. I started with a list of words that seem related to thinking to see if this would help me some grasp some relationships but so far I just have lots of questions. Does ‘ways of thinking’ need a hierarchy to help explain how one way relates to another? Is ‘hierarchy’ one of the ways of thinking about things? Do we need to think different about different things, so consider Objects differently to Events? Is thinking really more about information (which Wolfgang Hofkrichner describes as a mediator between subject and object)? Or is information just the ‘stuff’ of thinking and separate from ways of thinking. It’s going to be a long piece of work.

The shift

I’m starting to get some grasp of how to explain what I mean when I talk about digital and digitisation, and it comes from expressing it as a shift away from industrialisation. So whether I’m talking about ways of conceiving of work as above, or how we explain business models, the same approach of showing the shift applies. The premise of my thinking then, is that this shift is occurring so how is it going to affect the charity sector and wider civic sphere?

Direct, discovery, define, design, develop, deliver. do

Over a year ago I started thinking about a linear process for running projects. I’ve started thinking about it again as part of the Fire Control problem where each step towards the goal helps to figure what the goal is. It isn’t quite a Big Upfront approach to project management that assumes we can know what will be achieved by the end of the project, but it follows a clearly phased process. Direct the scope of the project, discover the problems, define which problems to focus on, design the solutions, develop the solution, deliver it, and then do the work to operationalise the outputs of the project.

Personal websites

I’ve been interested in people’s personal websites for a while. Why do we have them (are they part of our digital identity), what do we use them for (recording thoughts in one place). Googling ‘why do people have personal websites’ just gives the usual articles about personal branding from the assumption that a personal website is all about work and career, which doesn’t seem very useful. So, I’ve started looking through the three and half thousand Twitter accounts I follow to see who has a personal website, how they use it, etc., to see what I can figure out. If I learn anything interesting I’ll probably write a blog post.


And read:

A Meta-Layer for Notes

Julian Lehr writes about notes and his “idea for a radically new kind of note taking app“. He talks about how the notes work in Hey (Basecamp’s email product), how postit notes are spatial in their relationship to the object they are about. He says that stand-alone note-taking apps are suboptimal and that, “Neither the creation nor the consumption of notes should be treated as separate workflows”. He talks about notes existing as a layer over all of the other apps that we use rather than within an app that is specifically for notes. I think there is an interesting assumption about what notes and note-taking is for which leads to the idea of surfacing notes in multiple locations as a means of connecting things. Are notes to right tool for creating connections? Does that make them a means of recording interest in something? Does the internet (and our brains) need more connections in this way?

Unlimited Information Is Transforming Society

Technology is blurring the lines between consumers and producers, amateurs and professionals, and laypeople and experts. We’re just starting to understand the implications. The articles starts by talking about how “the manipulation of matter and energy stands out as a central domain of both scientific and technical advances”, and talks through some of the big technologies of the last few hundred years (Electricity, nuclear power, space travel) before making it’s point that, “In the past the flow of information was almost entirely one-way, from the newspaper, radio or television to the reader, listener or viewer. Today that flow is increasingly two-way—which was one of Tim Berners-Lee’s primary goals when he created the World Wide Web in 1990.” It concludes rather abruptly with “For better or worse, we can expect further blurring of many conventional boundaries—between work and home, between “amateurs” and professionals, and between public and private.”, which seems only obliquely connected to the point that the internet is changing the ways information flows.

It’s interesting that the article talks about information and doesn’t mention data (John C Havens talks about data being the differentiator in changing society that we never had before in The Tech Humanist podcast). Information and data are very different things and conform to different rules, but both are greatly affected by the internet. Perhaps the unifying theme is not so much about what data or information is created but that its usefulness comes in how it flows around systems.

Four Ways of Thinking about Information

Wolfgang Hofkrichner’s paper describes four ways of thinking: reductionism, projectivism, disjunctivism, integrativism. I found some of the ideas on information complexity and simplicity, and unity and diversity quite interesting.


And read some tweets:

Changing your mind regularly

Ben Tossell tweeted: “strong opinions, weekly held is definitely a theme running a startup“. It follows the idea of ‘strong opinions, loosely (or weakly) held, but obviously changes it to suggest that the strong opinions should be changed with regular frequency. Avoiding the obvious issues with assuming that cliches contain insight, its interesting to think about what causes someone to change their mind frequently. If someone changes their mind because they’ve learned something new, we’d probably consider that a good thing, so then underlying this is perhaps something useful about ensuring a sufficient pace of learning so that you could change your opinion frequently and easily.

Work like we used hunt for food

Andrew Ruiz tweeted: “Work is probably the most rewarding if it resembles the way we hunt for food“. Which is interesting on a number of levels. Firstly, the only reason that any of us are able to do any work other than hunt, gather and grow food is because civilisation figured out ways to produce enough food. In fact the entire premise of society and its progression is that there is enough food to eat. Secondly, without getting too nostalgic for the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, the idea of hunting a woolly mammoth involving people working in teams towards a single goal, providing value to their community, celebrating success with a ceremony, etc., starts to sound like our modern ideal of work. And it contrasts with the industrial approach to work.

Notes on Weeknotes

Giles Turnbull wrote some tips on writing good Weeknotes. I particularly liked, “The best way to write weeknotes is as a genuine personal reflection of the week.”, mostly because that’s how I use Weeknotes. I’ve often thought whether I write a blog post about each of the things I include if I didn’t use the format and frequency to prompt me, and although I think I might I don’t think they would have the same self-reflective tone.

Towards a stigmergy for third sector transformation

Create a stigmergy, not a strategy

Sector transformation doesn’t need a strategy. A strategy requires a single coordinated vision and centralised control. The sector doesn’t need that. It needs different thinking. So, instead of a strategy, the sector needs a stigmergy.

A stigmergy is a “mechanism of spontaneous, indirect coordination between agents or actions, where the trace left in the environment by an action stimulates the performance of a subsequent action. Stigmergy enables complex, coordinated activity without any need for planning, control, communication, simultaneous presence, or even mutual awareness. The resulting self-organization is driven by a combination of positive and negative feedbacks, amplifying beneficial developments while suppressing errors” (Heylighen, 2015).

Originally a term was used in biology, and then the early 90’s saw the notion applied to other self-organising systems. Soon it became a useful model in a number of fields that attempt to understand self-organisation including artificial intelligence. A stigmergy offers an understanding of how to enable a self-organising movement to create change where no single vision for that change can either be agreed or coordinated. It offers a different way to consider change from our tendency to regard change as successful when everyone has agreed, actioned and conformed to the same change. It allows us to consider our notions of change more diversely and encompassing a range of actions, opinions and attitudes, to accept that perhaps change can be different in different circumstances but still be considered successful.

How can a stigmergy be created? Easy. Accept a diverse range of voices, opinions, ethics, values. Even those that at first glance appear in conflict with others. Don’t allow a single voice or opinion to dominate. Don’t look to leaders to make change happen. Avoid leadership in all it’s forms. Do lots of different things. Collaborate. Share. Co-create. Encourage everyone to look and listen to what is happening across the sector. Let simple, and even unconscious, ‘rules’ emerge from the actions and interactions people have. Let actions be seen by others, and responded to, creating feedback for the actors, and driving more action. From this others are inspired to act, to do their thing, sometimes in concert, sometimes in conflict. The positive actions, those that the sector accepts and amplifies through feedback loops gain ground whilst those attempts that fail become diminished and lost.

But…

Favour collectivism over individualism

Pandemic times have shown us that our society that prides itself on individualism (Hofstede, 2020). Every person that went to a crowded beach or didn’t wear a mask in a shop did so because they live in a society that, even if it doesn’t say so explicitly, values individual rights over collective responsibility.

Third sector people and organisations are no different. Individualism is ingrained in everyone one of us, every organisational strategy, every decision that each employee takes. It is how we have been trained to think. The Charity Commission’s rules on what makes a charity state that, “Your organisation’s ‘purpose’ is what it is set up to achieve… to be a charity your organisation must have charitable purposes only. It cannot have some purposes that are charitable and some that are not.” (Charity Commission, 2013). This tells charities that they have a legal obligation to look inwards, protect their own resources, focus on their individual mission. This is just one example (there are more) of the mindset that subtly compels organisations to prioritise their own (perceived) needs ahead of those of the sector, society or the whole world.

If the mission of all third sector organisations was to first ‘make the world better’; to save the planet, tackle the inequalities in society, etc… before then attending to their individual mission, then we’d see a very different third sector.

It’s easy to blame individuals. And why not, after all what is an organisation if not just a collection of individuals (Heath, 2020). But it’s important to remember that those individuals are as constrained by the systems of the sector and society and everyone else. Individualism is the problem, not the individuals. To think that change can be brought about by changing the individuals is to fall into Pirsig’s rationality trap.

Pirsig said, “But to tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government.” If the systems that created that individual remain then another, similar, individual will come to replace them.

The problem is not the individual charities and third sector organisations either, the problem is the individualistic thinking that occurs in them. The established organisations are not the enemy of the sector, they are as much part of and victim of the worldview that the dominant voices of our society hold. Charity laws express that same thinking. The theoretical models applied to our economy express the same thinking. Individualism is deeply ingrained in our worldview.

How can a mindset be changed to be collectivist? Not so easy. It takes decades or even centuries to change the worldview of a society, but if ever there was a time to start that change, it is now. Charities and third sector organisations can think about the needs of other organisations along with their own. They can develop innovation eco-systems that work together and share resources. They can collaborate. Sometimes they can make self-sacrificing decisions that are better for communities or the environment. They can partner with other third sector organisations that might need support. They can think about whether the notion of a charity as focused on a single charitable purpose is really fit for the future.

Go forth and spontaneously act positively

To change the sector is to change society. To improve the sector is to make our society better. To lead the way is not a small task. But the third sector has a huge part to play in creating a better world. It cannot be left to politicians and billionaires, so who else is going to do it?


References

Heylighen, F. 2015. Stigmergy as a universal coordination mechanism I: Definition and components. Cognitive Systems Research. Volume 38, June 2016, Pages 4-13.

About charitable purposes. 2013. What makes a charity (CC4). Charity Commission.

Heath. J. 2020. Methodological Individualism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Week notes #214

I did:

The future is asynchronous

I presented some discovery work I’ve been doing for the next phase of our online learning environment. It has been centred around user needs of accessing the platform, booking on sessions, and asynchronous session delivery. Thinking about asynchronous delivery, all the different ways we can support young people to achieve outcomes, is really interesting. It opens up so many more opportunities not only anytime/anywhere, but more importantly about how young people develop a sense of agency around their professional development.

Some thoughts on the Charity Digital Code of Practice

What might a digital charity look like in fifty years? What kinds of thinking models might be needed between now and then to make digital every part of a charity? “Becoming a digital charity offers new modes of operating. It isn’t just digitising existing ways of working, but completely transforming the business model and how they achieve their purpose. But its all about steps in the right direction. The Charity Digital Code of Practice can help charities think about what those steps might look like.”

Launched The Fire Control Problem

I launched my SMS course after the team at Arist helped me with a technical issue of their system not accepting UK phone numbers. Its one of those virtual world meets the physical world problems.

Its interesting to me to be using the process that the course describes in figuring out what to do with the course.

Things I’ve learned so far:

  • SMS learning is for individuals. It seems obvious but I hadn’t really thought about it. There is no sense of other people learning the same stuff like you might get from a more open platform like Twitter.
  • SMS is very one way. It doesn’t allow users to question or debate the contents, they have to take it at face value.
  • The concept of achieving uncertain goals rather than the usual approach of defining them first is a bit of a hurdle to get over, and if the user doesn’t grasp the proposition from the start the rest of the lessons might be a bit confusing.
  • The concept might lend itself to an exploratory approach of ideas rather than purely as a means to achieve goals.

Year 2: The revenge

I picked the modules I’ll be studying for the second year of my MSc:

  • Innovation policy and management.
  • Digital creativity and new media management.
  • Blockchain technology and its impact on innovation, management and policy.
  • Research methods in management.
  • Dissertation.

It’s going to be a busy year.


I thought about:

Culture eats strategy for breakfast

Catchy statement, sounds like it might be true, but how might you test it? It seems to me that if you were to describe what makes ‘culture’ and ‘strategy’ opposite to each other you might describe culture as more subtle, amorphous, vague, driven by story-telling, and strategy as objective, defined, perhaps more scientific or numbers-based. So, based on this, if an organisation is driven by its narrative rather than by insights, then it could be true to say that it is led by its culture and not its strategy. Another question is whether that’s a good thing or not. (And just to add another thought; “Systems swallow culture and strategy whole”.)

Testing vs learning

When launching a product, testing is about confirming what you know, learning is about being open to finding out things you didn’t even know you didn’t know. Both are important but learning is the most difficult because it can only happen with real people using the product.

The fear of digital

What is the fear of digital about? Is it the fear of being replaced, the fear of the new, of the unknown?

Stigmergy

“Stigmergy is a form of self-organization. It produces complex, seemingly intelligent structures, without need for any planning, control, or even direct communication between the agents. As such it supports efficient collaboration between extremely simple agents, who lack any memory, intelligence or even individual awareness of each other.” Maybe this is the opposite of strategy that I’ve been looking for.


And I read:

Remote work and the future of the high street

The high street is dying. Remote/home working as a result of COVID 19 is exacerbating this. But I think there’s an opportunity to do everything better.

Ross describes a town where, “Air quality is high. The local economy is booming. Social mobility is high and unemployment is low”, and essentially asks the question is it possible to have all of these things in the same place at the same time.

So, if I understand what he’s saying correctly, rather than office buildings being full of people from a single company there will be offices with people from lots of different organisations. These co-working spaces will bring people into town centres via environmentally sustainable transport and thus making town centres being convenient places for the kinds of tasks that you have to do in person, things like getting a haircut, banking, and frequenting a cafe or coffee shop.

But we have to ask, why do those things require lots of people to all travel to a location that is convenient for the hairdressers, banks and cafe owners, rather than the business travelling to convenient locations for their customers? The answer used to be obvious, because its more economically viable for the business and because consumer behaviour supported it. When people had no choice but to go to workplaces then businesses would open to provide for the needs of all those people in one place. Giving people a choice changes consumer behaviour. If everyone has a choice (and of course not everyone will) about whether to go to a town centre to work, will there be enough people to sustain that local economy? There will undoubtedly be fewer people, so what defines economic sustainability might be different to pre-COVID times, but will is be enough to drive cause low unemployment and high social mobility?

I think the nature of the problem, as with so many of the post-COVID-rebuild efforts, is one of tight or loose-coupling. In pre-COVID times town centres, and lots of other parts of the economy/society were tightly-couple. Tight-coupling is fragile and risky, it relies on stability throughout the system, it can’t accept too much drastic change. Tightly-coupled systems are like a house of cards, if one card shakes, those connected to it and connected to those that are connected to it feel the effects of that shaking. To create another tightly-coupled system of town centres, one where each part is reliant on all the others for its stability and success, would be to fail to learn from the shock our economy is going through. So perhaps Ross’ vision of town centres as nice places to work could be a reality, but depending on how it is built effects how long it lasts.

An example of the loose-coupling of town centres? Amazon is buying town centre warehousing space far more cheaply than it could of when high street property values were at pre-pandemic levels so that they can deliver across the surrounding town far more quickly than they could from warehouses farther away. Amazon know how to be loosely-coupled. Their warehouses don’t have any great reliance on the surrounding infrastructure and systems that make up a town. As long as Amazon can get vans in and out of the warehouse and have a steady supplier of workers (and if not they’ll bus them in from other towns), they are happy. Whatever happens in the local economy, Amazon can continue unaffected. That is loose-coupling.

The Hacker Ethic of Work

“In the hacker ethic of work, work has to be interesting and fun and, above all, must create value for the worker, the organization and for society as a whole. Workers also must have freedom to organize their work in a way that is more functional to reach their own goals and in the manner that best fits their needs and insights”.

Simone Cicero, who has written more recently about platforms and complex systems, wrote about the hacker ethic of work in 2015, describing it as in the quote above, as an approach to work that involves creativity and freedom. In our complex world, an organisation that is able to adopt the hacker ways of making things that are open and reusable, collaborative and co-created, agile and flow-based, and understand user’s needs can become market leaders.

For me, this article from 2015 and Ross’ article are connected by a thread that approaches work more from the side of the worker than the side of the organisation. Both seem to me to be asking for a change. They recognise a move away from the industrial concept of the worker as a tool to be used by the machines of business and towards the worker as a nodes in the complex systems that make up our economy, society, and environment.

Simone says, “as individuals living today we have a duty to face the future with the eagerness not just to see it happen but, rather, to choose to be part of it and give it a different shape”.

Industrialisation

Industry and its discontents“, a podcast by Seth Godin in which he talks about the system of industrialisation. He says industry craves productivity because cheaper wins but cheaper products require cheaper labour, which requires of people that they do morally questionable things to meet their short-term needs. This feels like one of the most important podcasts I’ve ever listened to and mentions many of the justification for moving away from the industrial mindset.

I see in all three of these the theme of society moving away from industrialisation and towards digitisation. The digitisation of society won’t provide some perfect utopia, it will be full of challenges, problems, inequalities, and unintended side-effects

It’s about legacy

“A “programme in which they repair stuff” shouldn’t be compelling viewing. It’s only made so because we hear people’s stories, and what the objects mean to them. And within each episode, we have the “will they be able to restore it? What will it look like?” arc of the chosen objects. We need to be clear that fundraising works best when we talk about individual stories, and what changes as a result of a donor’s support and our organisation’s intervention. This is how we make a connection.”

I’m fascinated by fundraising, as a discipline, a sector and a practice. I think, because it seems so unique. It only exists in the third sector. Things like HR and Marketing, as interesting as they are also, exist in every sector. So, Richards newsletter, and his post about The Repair Shop are like little peaks into the world of fundraising and the mind of a fundraiser.

Because of the way my brain works, I struggle to understand the things Richard talks about, things like love, legacy, restoration, and I guess the connections that storytelling creates. I can conceive of fundraising in a transactional way as a value exchange between three parties; the donor, the charity, and the beneficiary, and how is differs in nature from a commercial value exchange between two parties and adds to fundraising’s uniqueness, but how it actually works in practice is a mystery to me. Is it just marketing by another name? Is it sales, or should it be? Perhaps what I’d like to understand is more about the approaches fundraising uses to fit it into my mental models for the shift from industrial to digital.

Oh, and he mentioned my tweet about what a strategy needs to express in his email newsletter, which was a complete but nice surprise.


Some people tweeted:

Salaries in charity job adverts

There is a claim (I see it mostly on Twitter, from which you can draw you’re own conclusion) that putting the salary in job adverts helps to tackle the gender pay gap. I was interested in where the idea comes from, how robust it is in theory, and whether there is any research or evidence, so with a bit googling I tried to track it down.

There is a press release from the Young Women’s Trust that states, “Employers should stop asking job applicants how much they earn and include salary details in adverts to help close the gender pay gap”. The press release goes on to mention the salary history/wage equity laws that have been introduced in the United States that make asking a candidate about their current/previous salary illegal but doesn’t mention salaries in job adverts again.

I couldn’t find any research that concludes that including salary details in a job advert has any affect on the gender pay gap (I’m not suggesting that it doesn’t exist, just that I didn’t spend very long looking for it). There is some research that says following salary history bans employees received “increased pay for job changers by about 5%, with larger increases for women (8%) and African-Americans (13%). Salary histories appear to account for much of the persistence of residual wage gaps“. And I there is some research that shows that “when there is no explicit statement that wages are negotiable, men are more likely to negotiate for a higher wage, whereas women are more likely to signal their willingness to work for a lower wage. However, when we explicitly mention the possibility that wages are negotiable, these differences disappear completely.

Looking it at from a complexity point of view of course its impossible to know what action will have which result so we can’t say that having salaries in job ads won’t contribute to tackling the gender pay gap, but based solely on what I’ve seen, we can’t say that it will either. Perhaps it is better instead to focus on a wider commit to better hiring practices across the the charity sector.

Also, I’ve seen concerns expressed about how we go about making change happen. If naming and shaming charities on Twitter (and actually, organisations don’t tweet, real people probably with the words ‘social’, ‘media’ and ‘executive’ in their job title do) is the default means to get them to change their practices, then what does that say about the charity sector?

But, here’s the interesting question: in a world of misinformation and easily swayed opinions, if something feels like the morally right thing to do but is based on growing public opinion and not on firmly established research and viable hypothesis, is it still the right thing to do?

Architecting organizations by designing constraints

Simone Cicero tweeted “A new approach to organizing is slowly establishing itself. This new approach is essentially small-scale, emergent and outside in, and doesn’t aim at simplifying complexity but at rhyming with it. This approach is based on architecting organizations by designing constraints.”

This is intriguing to me because of my interest in modes of organising within the three spheres of society. If Simone is seeing a new mode in the market sphere, one that conforms to more modern, perhaps non-newtonian, concepts from complexity science, then I’d like to understand more about it.

Is the market unsympathetic?

Justin Jackson tweeted “The market is unsympathetic to your passion. You can build whatever you want, but ultimately you’re beholden to the market and what it wants. Without customer demand, you don’t have a business.”

Yes, in the most obvious way, as we understand markets as unthinking mechanisms of capitalism, they have no sympathy for what any individual puts their time and energy into. But the reverse doesn’t seem to be true. Markets do need people who are passionate and invested in what they build and how they build it because without that passion nothings gets built and the market has nothing to be unsympathetic about.

Fake Grimlock replied: “LEARN PASSION FOR THINGS PEOPLE WANT. IT THAT SIMPLE.”