The power of the polymath

Sometimes I think there are too many TED talks out there nowadays – it becomes so hard to sort the wheat from the chaff. But I love this one. Of course, as a polymath myself I am biased, but I think Ella (who I know from the Do Lectures) makes a great case for why generalists are sorely needed (in a nutshell – cross fertilisation and holistic thinking).

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


Shameless Self Promotion

In November I will be co-teaching a course at the wonderful Schumacher College in Devon, with Patricia Shaw. It is about leading in the midst of complexity. It will bring together improvisational practise with complexity thinking and focus on ‘working live’.

I am thrilled about this because going to Schumacher back in 1997 and 1998 was a wonderful experience. I was on courses led by Paul Hawken, Fritjof Capra and Edward Espe Brown. I am amazed I have been invited back there to teach. I feel I am in exalted company. And it is something I have hoped for, dreamed of even, since I was first there. That will teach me to be patient.

So, have a butchers (to those unfamiliar with cockney rhyming slang this is short for ‘butchers hook’ i.e. ‘look’) and pass it on to anyone you think might be interested.

Many thanks.

Do Improvise

My new book ‘Do Improvise‘ is out.

I am very honoured to have been asked to be one of the first ‘Do’ authors and Miranda, who runs Do Books, seduced me into it with the beguiling brief ‘it will be rather like a Ladybird book’ (for those of you old enough to remember such things). It is shorter than ‘Everything’s an Offer‘ and I am curious to see what relationship the two end up having to each other. It feels rather like wondering how your children will get on when they grow up.

I am thrilled by the cover design (huge hat tip to James Victore and Do Books in general for persuading him to do the covers). As well as Miranda, and my wife Bea (who saved me as the deadline loomed) enormous thanks to Ronan Harrington who took great trouble to read it closely and suggest some changes, most of which we happily embraced.



Change as a skimming stone

I often come across people who want to change the world, or create ‘large scale change’. A noble aim indeed. Yet I wonder about this. To scale things we create systems and programmes that can be ‘rolled out’. Such roll outs almost always fail or falter, or produce unintended consequences that exacerbate the very issue they were aiming to address, or create a new one. The best programmed change (e.g. Positive Deviance) doesn’t seek to roll out solutions but allows people to discover things for themselves.

However, it seems to me that change (or changes) often happen in other, completely un-programmed ways. Like a stone skipping across the water, ideas and actions often leap and skip in unlikely ways, from one place to another. A doctor in Sussex tries something new that a jet lagged Canadian hospital CEO sees at five in the morning on a regional BBC news show which he mentions to his medical staff, which sparks off an inquiry that wouldn’t otherwise have happened. No one can track, or even see, the path the idea has taken. But does it matter?

I don’t think it does. I think I know when I am involved in something that is rich and fecund and that is going to give rise to all sorts of seeds of ideas, actions and initiatives that I will never be party to (like The Creative Tapas Experiment or the Do Lectures). That ought to be enough but I suspect that one of the reasons it doesn’t get much attention is because nobody gets the credit for this kind of change…



Does it scale?

Recently I have become very interested in the issue of scale.

In particular in the assumption that more, or bigger, is better (necessary even). This assumption is everywhere. Business seek more sales, more customers, more products and yet more growth. Pressure groups want more supporters, more people signing their petitions and making more contributions so they can get bigger still. Business schools and even alternative conferences want more talks on their web sites, bloggers and authors want more readers and so on. ‘Ah, but does it scale?’ is a question on every consultant’s lips. Success means achieving big numbers, and, big numbers means success. More is almost universally assumed to be merrier.

I question this. Or, to be more precise, I question that being able to scale is the only, or the most important indicator of worth. I have two problems with the idea that scale is necessarily good. First, in many cases it is self-defeating. We are subtle creatures, who both need and enjoy intimacy, connection and nuance. As organisations or endeavours (of any kind) grow the sense of intimacy and connection inevitably diminishes – for everyone involved – creators, staff, customers, suppliers, audience. As a result organisations introduce systems and processes, normally heavily automated ones (like computerised call handling) to substitute for intimacy, but these are a poor imitation and we feel the difference profoundly.

Or, as things grow, they simply become unwieldy. To take one specific example there are now far too many talks on TED for me to find it a good use of my time. The people than run TED chose to make it bigger (it wasn’t something they had to do) and that choice has consequences. Something is lost as the thing gets bigger.

The second reason is to do with complexity and requisite variety. Colin Tudge talks about this eloquently in the context of farming in his Do Lecture but I think the point is more widely applicable. Scaling implies that at some level there is a uniform, reproducible, standardised element. Software, as Microsoft conceived of it in their heyday, is the apogee of this approach. However, complexity doesn’t lend itself to this approach. If you want to create value in the system as a whole, instead of just exploiting the capital of the system for your own good, you need to be sensitive to local, micro conditions, you need a wide variety of options and possibilities to choose from and you need to pay close attention to what is unfolding and changing as it does so. Webs of tightly coupled interaction are anything but uniform, as nature shows us all the time.

So I don’t think scale is all it is cracked up to be. The diseconomies of scale, whether personal (alienation and depersonalisation) or systemic (soil degradation and resource depletion) are intimately connected to this obsession with growth.

I am convinced that more often than not (particularly in the longer term) the diseconomies of scale are as important as the ‘economies of scale’ that we hear so much about.  Our insistence on scaling up, coupled with the impatient way we go about it creates at least as many difficulties as it solves.  If we want to create an ecological economy (and if we can’t then I think we are toast) then we need to give up this monotonous insistence on size.  Again, ecology shows us the way – as Paul Colinvaux points out in the very title of his book ‘why big fierce animals are rare’.

I am prepared to admit that this dislike of scale could just be a question of personal taste.  Or it could be a handy post rationalisation for a personal failing – more than once I have been told (rightly, I think) that I lack the ambition, persistent or stamina to grow something ‘significant’.

Even so, I also think it is valid to suggest that there other ways to proceed and that backing off from a relentless focus on scale can be a good place to start. Scale isn’t the only way to create an impact.

For example, I recently held an event for fifty people called The Creative Tapas experiment. It couldn’t possibly scale. It won’t even be repeated at the same level of scale.  Yet it had an effect, of a different kind.  It acted as a catapult. It has created leaps and discontinuities in relationships amongst people who have known each other for years, created new connections, opened up new possibilities and given people a great gift of seeing what they themselves are capable of, given the right conditions. And those are just the things we can see a month on from the event.

The effects of that event and the experience it created will never acquire any visible scale. I won’t become famous or rich as a result. But the impact is there. And sometimes, I think that is enough.





The Introductor

I am very pleased to have been featured on The Introductor this week.

There are some fascinating people on this, I am thrilled to be in their company.  Sincere thanks to Ella Saltmarshe, who I met at the Do Lectures, for this.



Improv in ten

Dave Morrison does a wonderful and quick explanation of the improvisational way.

Makes me realise that the twenty minutes I got at the Do Lectures was a luxury.

Also, I particularly liked how he demonstrated ‘Yes And’ though, as normal, I do take issue a little with the implication that you should always say ‘yes’ (I bang on about this at some length in ‘Safekeeping’, Chapter 6′ of ‘Everything’s an Offer’).