For the past eight years I’ve been boots-on-the-ground either as a practitioner or in support of practitioners who were trying to bring about change within their organizations, often from a tech first perspective. They’d identified connection, collaboration, engagement and productivity efficiencies as the rationale for these efforts. Some talked to tech analysts, pundits, consultants. They’d read books and case studies. Some even got brave enough to talk to their employees and customers about what they needed and fought through the corporate mechanisms to try to answer a piece of that call.
We chanted encouragement in the background, patted each other on the back and commiserated when the behaviors didn’t change. How could they when we were simply talking about technology? Those bemoaning their 20 percent adoption rates chalked it up to a bad integration, feature set, project management or worse, let our cynicism take over and insist change will never come, that we are doomed to dysfunction -- or even worse, that it’s just tools. It really doesn’t matter if they use them or not, as long as the paycheck comes on time.
I keep going back to the same place: Until an organization can demonstrate authentic and consistent change in behavior, there is no way a change initiative will be successful -- technology driven or otherwise. It’s very chicken and egg, I get that. And time marches on. Organizations will hemorrhage budget and worse yet, people, in their efforts to be better though efficiencies.
But when you look to the reality of humanity -- our motivators, our capacity for truly facing tough issues -- taking brave and naked steps has been omitted from the required workplace skills. We bar through best practices, through highly focused and rarely understood measurement, through scientific efficiency boosters that miss the human element of loose and messy necessity. And the cycle continues. Binary thinking and dissociative behaviors are still lauded in business practice. We’re still taking diet pills and not really addressing why we’re overweight in the first place.
We can do better.
Parallels Between Enterprise and Entertainment Worlds
I relocated to San Francisco in 2011 to work with Moxie Software as their director of collaboration strategy, and in my second year here I became deeply ensconced in the arts community. It happened the way that many unexpected things happen in life: I had a friend who was bummed after a break up. I encouraged him to do things that gave him some joy before the relationship and ended up with him at a late night club watching the most insane live variety show I’d ever seen. I was amazed. I went back the next week, and the next. I had discovered a hyper local node of an international network of performers. I learned some profound things about relating and work through my relationship with this network.
These artists make up a deeply interconnected, interdependent network. All they do is work out loud, yet they face the same business issues we do: life and death decisions, money to worry about, the familiar hierarchies, leaders, mentors, winners and stragglers. They do a ton of this through social tools and even more face to face. I kept drawing the comparison to boardrooms and lunch rooms I’d spent so much of my career in.
The big differentiator is access to vulnerability and a culture of strength through vulnerability. Euan Semple and I talked a lot about vulnerability in episode 21 of Shift (you can hear more about our perspectives on the topic there). What’s important in the appearance of vulnerability in this culture is the power it can yield. The ability to relate through that vulnerability is amazing. Things move so much faster in the entertainment world, and in many ways, I think it is in part because of that wholeness of expression. There is so much unreal on stage there’s not a lot of patience for the obfuscation of reality we tend to operate with in corporate business. My experiences since moving to San Francisco have reinforced my beliefs about organizations, collaboration, bureaucracies, power structures and about our interdependence as humans and organizations of humans.
The City as Cooperative, Collaborative Network
A little about the state of San Francisco. Many folks don’t own their homes. Certainly not most artists. Rent here for a 622 square foot studio loft with parking and pets runs about $3000 a month if you’re really lucky --not to mention the general cost of living. Transportation and food aren't cheap here. Sustainable jobs are not plentiful unless you are skilled and connected enough to operate within the tech world. If you've read the news lately, you might have seen one post or another that highlights how disenfranchised those outside of the tech sector are becoming. I have a handful of dear friends who are both tech and artists. We tend to apologize after disclosing our professional lives.
In my own life, every week brings news of a new departure of a friend or acquaintance. Long time residents are being evicted so their homes can be converted into moneymaking condos. There are a lot of opinions and accusations flying around. A metric ton of binary thinking driven by fear on either polarized side of the argument. Artists, the very bottom of the financial food chain, are our canaries. And they are leaving the coal mine in droves.
I’ve talked to a number of San Francisco tech organizations this year. In these conversations I always ask, "What’s your take on the situation? What are you doing to navigate this part of the relationship with the city and the culture?" More often than not the answer was "we’re teaching kids to code" which, while smart and well intended, misses the point of sustaining a deeply sought after culture.
Assimilation isn’t relating. The thing is, in a very tiny handful of ways mindful folks are doing the work of trying to turn the binary argument into a rich conversation. This city and its inhabitants are an organization that can benefit from the surfacing of its cooperative, collaborative networks and I believe this to be a model for cities and organizations around the world.
Which brings me to my next endeavor in helping organizations face change. I am focusing my efforts on the development of a non profit that will bring needed assistance, education and relationship opportunities to artists and businesses (tech and otherwise). The model is one of a participatory cooperative, where the network learns to sustain itself through the assets it shares. We’ll be offering education to help artists develop skills that make it easier to stay in the city they love, and businesses the opportunity to develop meaningful relationships that will help their ability to relate and contribute to the city they love.
I’ve always believed that a more socially focused business can change our world for the better. Now I’m putting my money where my mouth is. Until an organization can demonstrate authentic and consistent change in behavior, there is no way a change initiative will be successful, technology driven or otherwise, and that’s what we hope to accomplish. At some stage in the game there may be tools, but our real focus is to relate. It’s what I’ve dreamed of for eight years and I’m excited to be doing the work.
I’ll be writing more about the construct of this social business and others like it in posts to come.