27 August 2008

The Story of a Sign - Historia de un Letrero

The winner of this year's Cannes short film contest, and a beautiful story illustrating the importance of ground or context.

Thanks, Françoise!

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08 August 2008

Shake Hands All the Way to Beijing

I just received this from Avaaz.org:
Dear friends,

The Dalai Lama's Olympic handshake is circling the world, headed for Beijing. Click here to see more and join the call for dialogue!

As the Beijing Olympics begin, the world looks on with mixed emotions. It's a moment which should bring us closer together, and Chinese citizens deserve their excitement -- but the Chinese government still hasn't opened meaningful dialogue with the Dalai Lama, or changed its stance on Burma, Darfur and other pressing issues.

Even worse, extremists in China are promoting the view that Olympic activism like ours is anti-Chinese. We can't stay silent, but we also can't let our efforts be abused to divide people. So what can we do? The answer comes from the Dalai Lama himself, in an unambiguous gesture of Olympic spirit and friendship: a handshake.

It began in London, passed hand to hand by thousands of us -- now the handshake has gone online, and is criss-crossing the globe on its way to Beijing. All of us can join, Chinese and non-Chinese, and it comes with a promise: to hold ALL our governments accountable where they fall short, in Tibet, Iraq, Burma or beyond. We'll deliver our message in a bold media campaign in Hong Kong and around the world: Click below to see how the Olympic handshake started, sign up to join in, and watch it circle the globe --


The worldwide outcry has produced a little progress, but much resistance from Chinese officials so far. If we are to see advances not setbacks after the Games, we need to show both that our voices will never fall silent, and that our challenge is a positive one.

We have one last chance to reclaim the spirit of the Olympics, with the message of friendship and dialogue we share with the Dalai Lama. The more people join the global handshake, the more powerful our message will be when it hits the Chinese and international media. So let's forward this email on, encouraging everyone to join in. "One World, One Dream" is an ideal that's bigger than the Olympics -- it's time for citizens around the world to take it back.

With hope and respect,

Paul, Ricken, Ben, Milena, Graziela, Iain, Pascal, Veronique and the whole Avaaz team

PS For a report on Avaaz's campaigning so far, see:

In a representative survey of us from all over the world, 92% of respondents recommended we pursue this handshake instead of the often-suggested boycott -- there's a strong consensus that this is the way to get our message across right now.

For more about the Dalai Lama's support for the Olympics and positions on Tibet and China, see:


Avaaz.org is an independent, not-for-profit global campaigning organization that works to ensure that the views and values of the world's people inform global decision-making. (Avaaz means "voice" in many languages.) Avaaz receives no money from governments or corporations, and is staffed by a global team based in London, Rio de Janeiro, New York, Paris, Washington DC, and Geneva.

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05 August 2008

Shake the Dance, and Exhilaration

I indulged myself today by participating in a creative writing workshop facilitated by my friend, Chris Kay Fraser. She's a great facilitator, and a terrific writing coach. As I'm planning to do something creative and out of the ordinary in the actual writing of the thesis, I thought I'd invest a few hours and play. Throughout the session, she offered us prompts to engage in free-writing exercises that allowed us to "turn off our brains" and engage with the affective parts of our beings, and just write. Having spent the past four years in this particular environment, it's been a while since I've given myself permission to connect with a flow of consciousness. I'll share two of what flowed from today's session:

Shake the Dance
Shake the dance of joy and disturbance away from my complacency.
Shake the dance down to the root of being and up to the sky of existence.
Shake the dance of the world and bring joyous sunlight to all who desire enlightenment and lightening of spirit.
Shake the dance and bring a righteous noise to the deaf and a rousing sound to the voiceless.
Shake the dance for the leaden and jump them to the hilltops amidst the frolicking of children.
Shake the dance of the downtrodden and give them wings to free their spirits.
Shake the dance of the spirits who first inhabited our souls and gave us unity.
Shake the dance for everyone, and for everything, and for everywhere, and for all time.

There's nothing like the exhilaration of an audience's energy when I've got them. When I can throw an idea out to them, and they catch it, and hold tight as the idea's wings burst forth and soar to the top of the room.
People hold onto whatever part of the idea's back, or claws, or wings, or beak, or head, or even a single feather that they can.
And they soar together, the people and the idea. They soar high above their chairs, high above the floor of the room, and the stage on which I stand, and high above those left below, unable or unwilling to grasp the soaring idea.
Those above look down to where they once were rooted with minds filled with the weighty clay of convention. They look down with wonderment, and marvel at how much closer to the source of light and understanding they have come on the wings of a soaring idea.
And I am there, at the front of the room, looking up at them and smiling with the exhilaration of knowing that I have launched them skyward, to fly wherever the idea may take them.

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04 August 2008

The Department of Give-a-Damn

I had a conversation recently with one of my research participants. This person works for a relatively BAH organization where each person’s role is well-defined within the context of well-defined departments in well-defined divisions, all serving to further the vision, mission, and objectives of the organization, not the least of which is to make money for the shareholders. All in all, a pretty conventional, modern, business corporation. The problem for “Leslie” (a deliberately non-gender specific pseudonym that corresponds neither to the person’s real name, nor the person’s pseudonym in my research) is that Leslie’s role is not so well-defined. Don’t get me wrong: Leslie has specific job responsibilities. And, Leslie is among the top performers in the organization. But Leslie’s major contribution to the organization, one for which Leslie has been considerably recognized and rewarded, has been to Give-a-Damn.

Now, it seems to be endemic among employees of large organizations to not give a damn about anything that isn’t directly related to their job responsibilities (read: performance review and compensation). Often, as I’ve found in my research, that not-giving-a-damn is nicely expressed in terms that model the “transactional workflow” model that characterizes bureaucratic hierarchies: one department receives work from a “supplier” department, performs whatever process is appropriate, and passes the finished good or service to the next functional department in line. And that's the end of that. The individuals have no specific knowledge of what happens to their particular unit of work, or how it contributes (if at all) to the overall success of the organization. Nor do they... well.... give a damn about it. As another person so succinctly put it, “we are paid for what we are working on right now.” But this, in and of itself is not necessarily problematic. Assuming the organization’s objectives are well-defined, and the organization itself has had the appropriate functional decomposition, scope of control, and alignment of departmental objectives exercises performed, the entire thing should work like a well-oiled machine.

Sometimes, however, contemporary organizations operate like a machine whose oil needs changing. That’s where people who Give-a-Damn come in. They make connections among people who need to know about what each is doing, but don’t. You see, some folks don’t know what other folks are doing because the BAH design of the organization means they can’t know what the other is doing. Since there was no preconceived requirement for that particular flow of information, there is no information flow among those that should know - need to know - but don't. But, because Leslie Gives-a-Damn, and more importantly, understands the effects that the organization intends to have in its market among its (external) customers and suppliers, and also understands the internal dynamics of the organization itself, Leslie is able to make the necessary new connections among diverse individuals and departments, pretty much each and every day. And the machine continues to run, as if it were well oiled.

There should be a Leslie in every division. Someone whose job it is to Give-a-Damn. In fact, there could be a matrix management structure, with all the Give-a-Damners reporting up into a Give-a-Damn reporting structure. To parallel the reward-according-to-status hierarchy system for setting and measuring performance objectives and such, organizations can construct progressive levels that represent relative achievement, credentials, and business requirements for Giving-a-Damn: Associate Give-a-Damn, Junior Give-a-Damn, Give-a-Damn, Senior Give-a-Damn, Advisory Give-a-Damn, Vice-President Give-a-Damn, Executive Vice-President Give-a-Damn. It might even become a de facto requirement for the future Chief Operating Officer, President, or Chairperson to have experience Giving-a-Damn sometime in their career...

Or not. It seems to me that Giving-a-Damn is an emergent effect of individuals having a strong, reciprocal Socio-Psychological valence connection to the organization. Smaller organizational units within the larger organization that have similarly strong and reciprocal SP-valences can equally Give-a-Damn. If you care about your organization, and your organization demonstrably cares about you, then you’re likely to Give-a-Damn, much like Leslie does. In fact, much of Leslie’s own Identity valence is constructed along the lines of Giving-a-Damn.

By the way, want to know why Leslie called me today? Over the past number of months, both Leslie’s direct manager, and the organization as a whole have been sending signals that they don’t Give-a-Damn very much about Leslie, and others in Leslie's organizational milieu. It's not that they don't like Leslie, or don't appreciate what Leslie does (as demonstrated by the pretty good salary bump Leslie received at the last review). It's more like organizational apathy towards the people, and maintaining a tight focus on bringing in those results for stockholders - just the type of negative SP-valence energy that causes a person to question why it is that they work So Damn Hard. So how much longer do you think Leslie will Give-a-Damn, and effectively contribute to oiling what is a rather squeaky machine?

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01 August 2008

When Bureaucracies Fail

Recently, I suggested that bureaucracies and collaboration are mutually exclusive because of the basic premise upon which bureaucracy is built:
Bureaucracy, theoretically, is built on the assumption that it represents the ideal flow of information through a structure that is specifically engineered for competence, rationality, objectivity, and legitimacy – the right information being provided by the right people to the right place at the right time. Any given person, simply by virtue of occupying their office (by which I mean their legitimized role, function, station, or location) in a bureaucracy is socialized to believe that if they have sufficient information such that no gaps are apparent, then they necessarily have complete information upon which to act.
And when they don't have complete information, but think they do, what we have is the clichéd failure to communicate. A case in point has just occurred right here in the City of Toronto, where it is no surprise, I suppose, that today's Star reports:
It's a classic case of the city's right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing. Toronto hotelier George Friedmann is locked in a legal dispute with Toronto's real estate department over rent arrears on the city-owned St. Patrick Market on Queen St. W., near John St. At the same time, the city's Exhibition Place has given Friedmann and another caterer a multi-million-dollar contract to provide services at the Allstream conference centre that's to open next year in the former Automotive Building.

It begs the question [Side rant: No, it doesn't beg the question. I wish people, and especially reporters and editors, would get this right!] : Shouldn't somebody check if a company has other dealings with the city, particularly if there's a dispute? Apparently not. And lack of interdepartmental communication is nothing new.
Accurate and timely information flow works perfectly in a bureaucracy if and only if all instances of required information are anticipated beforehand, together with their respective requirements for information confluence in time and place. This, of course, is all but impossible, especially in a complex and complicated organization like a big city. Let's face it: when information bureaucracies were all the rage - say, about two hundred years ago, process and procedure things were a little more straight-forward. But even when bureaucratic management was effectively codified into the 20th century management lexicon by Max Weber, it remained problematic, especially in large organizations.

As regular readers might guess, I'm moved to wonder how a Valence Theory conception might possibly address this short-coming, even in an organization that chooses to remain solidly rooted in BAH-ness. After all, I am suggesting that Valence Theory of Organization can account for both BAH and UCaPP organizations, providing a wider range of guidance and options for decision-making in all types of organizations.

In this case of Right Hand v. Left Hand in the Matter of City Real Estate, the approach of the purposeful organization is to accomplish the objective of ensuring that, "we should know when somebody is not up to date with the city. These types of things should be co-ordinated," according the Councillor Mike Del Grande. In a Valence Theory conception of organization, the important information would have to do with the nature and strengths of the various relationship connections that exist - Economic, Socio-Psychological (which I'm considering changing to affective), Identity, Knowledge, and Ecological - among the organization's members. By focusing on the natures of the relationships among particular members of the valence organization, rather than on attempting to anticipate all possible procedural missteps in accordance with the principle of minimizing human judgement, there may be a better opportunity to catch such operational faux pas.

I am not an information architect, so it's not my place to propose a data structure that could appropriately accommodate the richness of mapping valence relationships in complex organizations. Perhaps David Weinberger's assertion that Everything is Miscellaneous, or Derrick de Kerckhove's contention that we are in the Era of the Tag, can provide guidance to those who would put some of these ideas into operation. Nonetheless, it is incidents such as this one in Toronto that demonstrate that we are at the limits of bureaucracy's effectiveness, even as its underlying assumptions are repeatedly challenged.

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