Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Letting come and letting go

As one year passes, another begins to crystalise.

2015 is not clear enough yet for me to give you much of a preview, but I can tell you a few things about it.

I will need to let go of 2014 in order to let a bright 2015 come.

2014 was 'good' and had lots of good moments, it went as well as I might have hoped and more-or-less according to plan.  But I also slipped in and out of the one affliction that is a very real risk - mediocrity.

I have focused on establishing my work as a business, and validating that I can do so sustainably.  On this front I can tick off a successful year.  I made as much as I had hoped (and needed), still have cash in the bank, and did a bunch of good work.

On the other hand, I didn't do excellent work.  And I didn't do enough work - whether paid or otherwise.

I realised late in the year that I have little motivation for building a successful business.  I want to get by doing great work.  Well, I want to do great work - and I need to get by.

So when I look back at all the trial, error and tribulation of struggling through the establishment of a business, so so much of my time feels really hollow.  Do I want to spend my time reviewing value propositions, sales pitches and marketing strategies, week on week, month on month, year on year?  And then going out and doing them?  Hell no.

Aspects of the business I really like.  I love meeting new people, discussing their work, helping them to understand where they are at (and if there is anything I can offer to help them along), and getting a feel for what's happening in the world.  But doing this, from the base I have now, requires so much more effort that I really have so little patience with.

Realistically, even though all this dross might not be a big part of my model of business generally, it is part and parcel with it means to set up a solo consultancy from where I am now.  I am doing interesting and different work, from a unique background and perspective, which is hard to describe and even to understand and pin down myself.  I DON'T have a lot of the assets that many new consultants can draw on - years of experience in consulting (learnt from working under others), and solid professional networks based in work contact which, if not deep, at least has the strength of familiarity from year's of contact and reputation.  I am not published.  I have no PhD.

What this means is that I question - just because I can build my life around a consultancy business, does that mean that I should?

What I think this means for 2015

  • I am still in consulting for sure, but I need to orient my life around what is meaningful to me (doing good work), and not the business — but without returning to 2012-13 where I sacrificed my financial needs in the interest of chasing ideas
  • I need to let go of my ego-oriented ideas for work (my ideas, my business, my projects), where they do not serve me taking up opportunities in collaboration and service - opportunities which might not originate from within myself, but which nevertheless are effective avenues to do what is important to me
  • When I am going to lead something myself, I need to think big... while also being smarter about how to involve others in collaborative relationships (where needed).  I have hobbled all big ideas this year, in deference to the priority of my business.  And in the past, my grand ideas have been too personal and individual to live up to their potential.

This is all just thinking on the fly, so don't hold me to it.  But I'm sure there's something there.

See you in the new year!


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Gamification 4 eva; reading Reality is Broken

I'm sure I'm not the only one to confess an uninspired awareness of the 'gamification' fad.  So I owe a debt to whoever recommended Jane McGonigal's Reality is Broken, which totally changed my mind.

There is a lot to learn from games — about motivation, engagement, work, collaboration, and even the macro systems that define our behaviour.   First things first, though...

Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles
(McGonigal quoting Bernard Suits)

It makes sense when you think about it, but it totally threw my sense of what games are about.  Despite my own experience of gaming and play, I thought of games as playful recreation, as escapism or fun - perhaps at best a trojan horse for learning.  But not at all...

Games are work.  Engaging and unnecessary work, sure, but they're still work.

We have a seriousness bias in our society, which banishes games to the realm of frivolous leisure.  All the while, gaming is the most engaging, challenging and productive activity that many people ever undertake.  McGonigal doesn't go much into our weird social biases, but she does note that play and serious work aren't the opposites we make them out to be.  At a psychological and behavioral level, the opposite of play is actually depression.

So, with a few of my own myths highlighted and busted, I read on wanting to know more about what games are and how they function, across different areas I am interested in.

McGonigal describes four key traits of games - in other words, what makes them work:

  • goals
  • rules
  • feedback about progress
  • voluntary participation
I am going to reflect on some areas of application important to me.  If you want more detail on these traits, you should read the book!

As a self directed agent, motivation and engagement in my own work are an ongoing challenge.

McGonigal got me thinking: can I turn my task list into a set of voluntary missions?  Can I create feedback loops that create a satisfying sense of progress on a day to day basis?

I can imagine my whole task-planning approach being redesigned according to game principles and operating very differently, with a much greater buy-in for the work on a task-by-task basis.  No more procrastinating on Twitter or in my inbox.

I can also imagine a system of voluntary missions helping to map much better pathways through life.  I don't really know what this would look like IRL, but I do know that in my RPG gaming experience (including those without 'right' ways to go), creating a pathway does not come with the stress and nagging doubts of real life.  I imagine the unecessary nature of the challenges decreases the stress and pressure of picking the 'right' one - as does the capacity to return and take the other pathway if things don't work out (in many games, at least).

I'm wondering whether real life also has ways of blinding us to decisions about what we can do now, compared to what we need to hold off until a later date when we have levelled up and are ready for it.  It seams like game worlds enable a much clearer mental map of possibilities, and it is much easier for us to identify the 'adjacent possible', without being attached to that which is not (yet) possible.  In my experience, the biggest challenging with making something happen is loosening the grip on the wonderful big ideas, and spotting the opportunities in the present ('the adjacent possible') to make progress towards them.

Collaborative Practice
The mechanics of engaging work apply just as readily when people are working together as alone.  Perhaps even more so.

The book reinforced a few things I already knew: clear goals are important; ideally, people will voluntarily opt-in to a shared goal (in particular) and participation (in general), and explicitly acknowledge clearly defined shared goals to ensure engaged participation.

It also reinforced something I have come to feel but haven't etched in stone yet; goals are a much better anchor than purpose.  Clarifying and agreeing a shared purpose is impossible and unnecessary, because everybody brings their own motivations and purposes for participation.  The lumpy space of 'purpose' can be a challenge, but that does not mean it is bad.  As long as people have genuine buy-in for achieving a shared goal, motivations and purposes do not need to be welded together.

What I really like from the idea of collaboration as a game, is to take a step back from the seriousness of 'the work', to have a clearer conversation, and use game concepts to get specific about the goals and rules of the shared work (aka game).  I look forward to the opportunity to facilitate a process for people that agree that a 'game' might be the best way for them to do the 'work'.

Saving the World
The last third of McGonigal's book was how games can Save the World.  There were interesting ideas about games as a means for mass-participatory problem solving.

These are all good and well, but new problem-solving methods that don't shift the old systems only get so far.  They certainly don't Save the World from the currently unsustainable and damaging socio-economic-ecological system that we have established... which continues to create the biggest and scariest of our problems.

So I was a little disappointed McGonigal didn't take her ideas further into system-shifting ideas, especially since I think the opportunities are so clear.

My first thought is about how we might all live our lives.  A more sustainable global system will require, among other things, deconstructing consumerism at the individual level.  So far, (video) games have exploded as lucrative consumer products, just one more cog in this unsustainable system.  But it isn't that much of a stretch to imagine a world where games perform a different function - not filling our recreation time, but replacing our production time.  Games are work after all!

It doesn't even matter if these games are productive (in today's terms), because our current systems are so counter-productive and excessive, that in the absence of over-consumptive behaviour, we don't need to make so much stuff - and we certainly won't need people for it.  Many authors write about a near-future where human input to production becomes superfluous (as we are replaced by robots), causing a break down in the work-leisure consumption cycle.  When we no longer need to be whipped like slaves to make what the system needs of us, I can imagine voluntary work (i.e. games) making a positive alternative possible.

We may not be that far off - as they say, the future is already here (it is just unevenly distributed).  I would be very interested in analysis of the innovative workplaces we admire and envy (like Valve, Enspiral or Google) through the lens of games, and see how close we already are.  I can certainly imagine the whole of my own personal occupation being a series of games, missions and side-quests - once I've nutted out how to make that work for me.

The second observation is that we are all already playing the game of life... except that we didn't chose to do so.  The world we are in, and the systems that we have set up to make it that way, give the context for our participation... or in other words, they define the game that we play.  Because we are embedded in them, it is easy to forget that our systems are arbitrary, with no inherent meaning, and they do not need to be that way... there is no reason that we shouldn't change them, and if we do so, then everything changes.

This is a bit of old truth from systems thinking (e.g. Dana on leverage points), but reading about games made me look at it anew.

It made me think about the goals implicit in our society... be successful, make money, be liked, own things, be happy, be comfortable...

These are the kinds of implicit goals that govern our society.  It might not be easy... but they can be changed.

It made me think too about the rules in our society... do a job, vote, voice your dissent on social media, write a letter to the editor, follow the law, obey your superiors, use your non-job time to consume, leave everything that is not your job up to somebody else...

Hmmm.... do you want to play this game?  I don't want to play this game.  It's a shit game.



Thursday, December 18, 2014

A few lessons from the tribe

A few life lessons from my week long trip to Melbourne, reconnecting with the tribe...

As far as the business goes, I'm doing alright.  I'm doing pretty reasonable things in a sensible enough fashion (and making money at the kind of rate I could be expected to).  Things seem hard work because... well, establishing onesself is hard work.  And as glossy as hindsight is, I haven't taken any pathways that were bad options at the time

That said, there are a bunch of things I need to tweak, bottlenecks that are holding me back; like getting clearer on my 'brand' (which I am doing bit by bit already!), having a much more compelling story of what I am about (which I knew, but which I think I have drifted away from this year), and being open and flexible with opportunities to work with others, and to serve others and others' causes.  These are things I 'knew' but that are hard to embody, and it is great to be reminded of how others have gone through these things

I'm not the only one who is over the 'making change' thing.  I was reminded that ego isn't a bad thing, it is just a part of how we function... so of course it is too simple to say 'changemaker ~ ego = bad', which is how I simplify things sometimes.   Still, there is something there, and there are many others out there who are thinking about how to participate in a world in transition.

It is time to get better connected with a '4good' tribe here in SA... many good people here I know, and there are now emerging networks and means to connect, but few of them I catch up with any regularity.


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Reconnecting self, purpose and practice

A few days from my next Melbourne trip, thinking about my story and what I hope to get out of my trip.  The post I wrote after my last trip seems a pretty good place to start.

I have been telling people that I go to Melbourne to keep connected with people and practice... I have solid professional networks there, I say, especially of people doing similar work and who 'get it'.  This is easy to grasp.

Really, more than anything I go to Melbourne to keep connected to my self and to my purpose.

This is a challenge of integration, certainly... but at the moment it involves grappling with two different areas - a sense of the world, and a sense of me in it.

So as I head to Melbourne, this is where my head is at; these are the challenges I hope to make progress on.

The changing world
So many people are chipping away around the edges of a transition in how we work and collectively realise our futures... but none of us has nailed where we find ourselves, or what our journey might be.

There are some definite patterns... many many people touching on what I have started calling the 'ego control status power complex', and trends towards a more participatory way of being.

My tone has changed somewhat since May, partly from thinking about the fact that we are always in transition.  But the sense of unease is the same.

Is it even possible to understand the world well enough to feel like I'm 'doing the right thing'?

Maybe I just need a way to convince myself of the validity of some convenient heuristics?

Who am I?
It has become a catch phrase of mine, that we should always strive simply to 'participate well'.

Trying to embody this myself is an interesting experience.

I have realised I have little interest in the success of 'my business'.  My business is (at best) a vehicle to do good work.  Perhaps it also plays into my own need to be successful and important.  But the business itself?  I have very little interest in it, so it's little surprise to have found myself with periodic motivation gaps.

Stepping beyond the trashed assumption that I should be 'building my business' as a priority, I am getting clearer on what I really need to do, to do better work while looking after my own sense of self too.  Slowly.

I haven't been open enough about potential ways forward, nor have I been honest enough about the wisdom of running a consultancy from where I am (smart, skilled and flexible; but lacking key resources like professional networks and track record).  I am getting by along this pathway, because I have asked 'can I do this', and proven so far that yes I can — but that doesn't mean that it is the best path, and I'm not sure I have been asking the right question.

I also need to be much more vigilant getting out of my head and my business.  I know full well that 'good work' is done in the real world, with others, and while I have been doing this, I'm not sure I have prioritised it enough.


Participating in a world in transition

When thinking about 'change', it is easy to forget that the world is changing.  I know I do... I assume we want to be part of creating change in how the world works... which is nonsense.  It is easy but misleading to project the status quo forward (with a few variables of change, like population and economic growth), rather than think about ever evolving trajectories and constant transformation.

The future will be different!  Congratulations Changemaker, change is guaranteed!

And yes, some of the trends are very promising... like the shift towards participation from consumption.  And the related trend towards decentralised organisations and institutions (like Bitcoin) - a trend which might seem trivial or fringe in some cases, but has potential to revolutionise democracy, civic participation and the economy in ways beyond our imagination.  (Though some do a better job than others of having a crack at it.)

When we think from this angle, it is clear we shouldn't be trying to make change, but working out how we can participate best, to help realise emergence of the best possible future.

Yes, I am parroting Otto Scharmer.

It therefore makes more sense to
  • focus on global trends and transitions (rather than understanding problems that need fixing)
  • think in terms of the threats* and opportunities around emergence of the kind of future we want to see
Nevermind changemaking.  Change is a given.  We need to understand how best to participate.


* I am worried, for instance, about the threat that corporate interests will learn to 'play the game' better and faster than anyone else, stewarding a new system which realises few of the potential benefits of changes, simply making it more difficult to uproot entrenched power and address socio-ecological pathologies (e.g. Uber).