January 25, 2021
We have a choice about how we want to work. Will we settle for the old paradigm of the corporation, or have we mustered the courage to create new systems that better reflect our needs and potential? At this time, of all times, I think we have. But we need to learn together what that means, and how to do it. We need to figure out how this new way of working works.
I’ve never been the type of person who likes to learn on my own, especially new things. I’m sure there is a level of self-judgement in there about needing to see others in the same struggle or adventure to gauge my own progress -- whether or not I’m ‘getting it’. Those who know me well have a good chuckle when I protest that I’m not competitive, but for me, learning in the company of peers motivates me.
Sometimes in a checkin round (a micro-practice at the beginning of a meeting or event), I’ll ask the question ‘what is the first thing you can remember wanting to be when you grew up’ as a prompt. In my experience, for almost everyone, that memory is clear and conjoined with a smile. (as an aside - I’ve asked this question in circles all over the world, and by far the most common answer is ‘a vet’) For me, (though not the earliest memory) the clearest was wanting to be a high school history teacher.
I was working in tech even before I graduated from university, and worked in that industry for most of my adult life. A series of events in my 40’s led me to go back to university and back to that original dream of teaching high school history. And geography, and outdoor education.
When I got my post-grad in secondary teaching and learning, I tried to get a job at a traditional high school in Christchurch, but had no luck - there were apparently too many history teachers and not enough physics teachers. I did, however, land a job at alternative education high school for teenagers who had been excluded from mainstream schooling for challenging behavioural issues. This school’s pedagogy was based on helping these young people build resilience through outdoor education, so this became an incredibly challenging variation on my dream job!
I learned so much from these young people about what I had taken for granted my entire life, having a supportive family, physical and psychological health, and to be honest, good luck. Most of these children did not have these advantages, or at least not consistently.
What they had seen and experienced up until then didn’t include the things I took for granted: the mountains, cooking food, sleeping in a tent or a hut. I don’t believe these things are a panacea of everyone, but it was such a wrench into a different reality for these teenagers that it had an impact. Being on a track and being tired, having to put one foot in front of the other, having to keep going in the rain, to get somewhere you’ve never been. If they’d been invited to do these things on their own, they surely would have told me to f right off. But doing it in the company of peers also motivated them. To do what they would have not done on their own, to have an experience outside of their normal experience.
Their experience is one of being told that they come from bad homes, have no potential, will be inter-generational dependants of the social benefits system. I don’t kid myself into thinking that we made a significant dent in that social strata, but we did hold up an option - an experience of a different way of living and being that we only created the container for, but that the students enacted for themselves.
Everything, actually. Those of us who are doing our work within a system that was created for us, by people that have nothing to do with our experience or potential, making assumptions about what we are allowed to become. For generations, business curriculum has been individualistic, privileged, and designed to perpetuate the systems that have been in situ for decades. Even the MBA definition is outdated: Master of Business Administration.
Mastering the administration of business still holds a level of sexy importance for sure. And as evolved as I may claim to be on my good days, there is still a little part of me that kinda-sorta wishes I’d have done one. But even saying that is funny - I wish I would have done an MBA so I can have it on my Linkedin to give myself what, more credibility? I don’t doubt that I would have learned something, but I’m much less certain that I would have learned much of anything that speaks to my needs and aspirations as a person who does not want to perpetuate the old/current system. Like the teens I taught, I didn’t find what I was looking for in the system, I had to move outside of it to see another possibility.
When I finally did my last day in a corporate job in 2015, I had no idea how much I would have to un-learn in order to make the space for the work I do now. Un-learn and re-learn. Stepping into the new possibilities for a livelihood that I discovered wasn’t so much about throwing the baby out with the bathwater as it was becoming aware that all I’d learned in 20 some-odd years of management and leadership hadn’t been a waste of time. The trick was to finally FINALLY see it for what it was and re-orient the practices.
So I started writing about what I saw, thanks to Seth Godin’s altMBA. The altMBA is a 5-week intensive experience of learning with a cohort and working with that cohort to produce and ship a project every week. Each week you also reflect on that learning and write about it. I had a lot to share - and apparently my reflections were valuable - so valuable that I was given the Perkins Award for the best body of work in my cohort of 100+ global participants.
The altMBA was a shocking experience for me in several ways - it shocked me out of the belief that I wasn’t an entrepreneur. It shocked me out of the belief that curriculum and learning outcomes have to be meticulously designed for them to work. It shocked me out of the belief that my pedagogical imperative as a teacher is to ‘teach to the test’. It shocked me how fresh and real a curated rather than a created curriculum brings. It shocked me how well technology facilitates self-managed peer-learning. It shocked me how much clarity I now had for the potential of this pedagogical approach.
I was shocked into action! Over the next year, I noodled away on a curated curriculum for what I call ‘Practical Self-Management’. It was a great way for me to parse what I was learning in practice with the organisations I was working with - to bring the elements of this new way of approaching work and leadership as an experience.
Let’s face it, however great and impactful storytelling is, it retains a glossy veneer until you get into the mud and weeds of the practice. And it’s even more difficult when what you are trying to learn to do is within the undeniable complexity of a human organising system. And it does look SO COOL on paper! Flexible roles instead of job titles! Explicit social contracts designed to build connection and possibility! Collective decision making where power and context are shared! Harnessing the collective intelligence of the entire group! And let’s not forget doing our own personal self-development in the context of our organisation!
No wonder most people look at a list like that and either make fun of it or run screaming. I have a sneaking suspicion that many people look at that list a little wistfully and think - what if? What if this is possible?
For every trauma or hurt we’ve felt in the workplace, we’ve also experienced moments of joy and flow - of the wonder of a collective creating something akin to magic. The problem is, in most organisations, those moments occur more by luck than judgement. The other pattern I’ve noticed is that it is never the entire team that sees it at once - and too often it’s one lone soul in the organization who senses the ‘something else’ or ‘something more’ and acts on that impulse by seeking stories or others outside the organisation.
I guess it was the teacher in me (or the saver of lost souls?) that knew I wanted to share what I was learning. The first impulse was to start a meetup, which I did, hoping that an in-person learning community was possible. For many reasons, it wasn’t.
During the Euro summer of 2016, me and some colleagues from Enspiral gave a series of ‘Open Enspiral’ Workshops - a look into these crazy practices of self-organisation. It’s our facilitation practice to make our learning participatory and fun and inclusive, if only for a 2-3 hour session. They were a hit, and everyone asked how they could go deeper - how they could practice together. And so the Practical Self Management Intensive was finally launched. OK, the website was launched!
Although I was on my way to becoming an entrepreneur, and working within a collective of entrepreneurs, Enspiral, neither myself nor my colleagues (at the time) were experienced marketers of virtual learning experiences. So the website sat there, but no one clicked.
At the Enspiral Summerfest of 2017 around 150 people from many countries convened in Wellington, including a Brazilian named Ian Borges. Ian had just begun a collaboration with Ricardo Semler on a project called Leadwise, which was on the hunt for education collaborators. We’d found our marketing partner!
I’m no Seth Godin. I don’t have decades of mastery as a marketer and a huge fanbase. Plus, the curriculum I’m interested in isn’t always easy to articulate. The body of knowledge is emergent, and sometimes un-organised. Because of this, I decided that rather than simply sending out weekly prompts for the cohort to self-organise around, utilizing zoom to host live learning and work sessions would add a level of context and practice. It was almost an afterthought that by coming together twice a week that the micro-practices of self-management would in and of themselves validate the programmatic decision for live sessions.
Articulating a ‘way of being’ is folly until you experience it. When I talk about a check-in or proposal-based decision making, it might as well be a different language - certainly in the world of business education. Populist business media tries to articulate ‘new skills required in the future of work’ but give very little context or guidance. New skills like ‘comfort with ambiguity’ and ‘dealing with complexity’ sound like they should have a how-to or ‘for dummies’ manual. In my experience, it’s not that simple, for one main reason: Many of us have forgotten how to listen. In a traditional business context dominated by extroverts, the skill of ‘finding an opening’ and crafting a perfect argument has taken us away from the skill of dialogue and coherence building.
My colleague Bryan Ungard from Decurion Corporation describes deliberate development as ‘coming together to do something we don’t quite know how to do yet’. That perfectly illustrates the learning hypothesis of the Practical Self Management Intensive. It’s not comfortable! In every cohort, I hold my breath for the participant who gets super anxious with the ‘lack of clarity’ of the first assignment, because it always happens! It makes me happy though. Comfort with ambiguity.
The five weeks of the course are broadly themed, and each week participants self-organise after the Monday session with their weekly team to plan how to delve into the weekly assignment, and get it to a state they can share back with the group on Friday. Most weeks, 30-45 minutes of the Monday call is in conversation with a special guest - an individual whose work has a particular resonance or practice around the weekly theme. The generosity of these guests is so important, and also to broaden the perspectives of the theme - we are not the experts, but we curate humans and artefacts that add color and texture to the learning.
Another element of the altMBA that’s woven in is the practice of weekly publishing what you are learning and seeing. Just as the special guests add perspective, dozens of participants have written about their journey weekly, and every single one adds more grist to the practice and an open-source library of experience.
In September 2018, the decentralised blockchain studio ConsenSys engaged the team to create an internal version of the Practical Self Management Intensive called SO (self-organizing) 101. Eight cohorts and over a hundred people participated in this internal version, to much acclaim. Although this experiment has come to an end, it showed that this pedagogy can easily translate to internal education.
Greaterthan (our company) has many consulting clients globally, and accompanying organisations as they create their next iteration is work we love. However, it’s incredibly important to us that we are sharing all of what we are learning in these real-world situations, and to do that through our public educational offerings. Sometimes a couple of people from the same organisation join a cohort, but more often it’s just one person - the one I described above - that sees that things can be different and wants to learn how to start. It is the mix of participants from all types of organisations, all cultures and ages and geographies that gives the course it’s potency.
During 2018, I co-produced a book called Better Work Together: How the power of community can transform your business. This book is a collection of stories from Enspiral, the collective that is my community. Anthony Cabraal, the initiator of the project, always envisioned Better Work Together as a container for more than just the book - but rather as a collective environment for learning together.
In March 2019, Practical Self Management became a flagship course of the Better Work Together Academy. And, as a pedagogy, the principles of what we’ve learned over the years of live, synchronous learning coupled with project-based self-organised work is a foundational principle of the Academy.
As we move through 2020, everything is suddenly different, my words can’t express what we are individually and collectively thinking and feeling. But not too far below the surface, I sense we are all thinking ‘we don’t have to go back to the way it was’. And maybe, just maybe, now is the time to start not only imagining, but practicing something new, something aspirational and practical.
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