On passing the ball

As a teenager, I was not good at sport. I was neither strong nor particularly well coordinated. I didn’t see the point either. My family didn’t care, and the French schools I attended did not attach much value to physical prowess.

There were moments of shame and embarrassment when I was picked last for soccer or basketball team, or was first out on races and jumping contests. I could cope with it. I made it to the top bracket in some disciplines: 60m race, 400m race, disk throwing. They taught me that I had potential, if I could only play to my strengths. They were not popular, unfortunately, and we rarely practiced them.

Things changed in Grade 11, when we spent a term practicing volleyball. Fandom for a Japanese anime made me first interested in the game. I enjoyed its rhythmic structure. Each team is allowed three hits of the ball. Typically, the second is a pass to the front player, who jumps and smashes it over the net into the others’ camp.

I discovered I was very good at this middle touch. I was aware of the movements around me, precise enough in placing the ball, and happy to let a team-mate hit and score. My reputation as a good ‘passer’ quickly spread, and after a month, I was picked first in team selection.

I have not become a sports person. I neither watch, nor practice. There are many reasons for it. One of them is boorish worship of the last step. Score a goal, and you get all attention; passing the ball is hardly celebrated. Middle players are deploying complex strategies, interpreting complex patterns of movement in real time, building the ground for the final hit. Success is impossible without them. But kickers get the crown.

When good collective action, strategic passes and subtle decisions in the mid-field are discussed, replayed, and celebrated more than goal-scoring, then – maybe – I will start watching.

On lifespans

Most organisations present themselves sub specie aeternitatis – as if, once in existence, they should never stop to be. These abstract giants we serve seem to deserve more attention than us mere mortals. And so, when building professional relationships, we pride ourselves in weaving new webs of connection between these abstract constructs, companies, departments, organisations.

The model has a fatal flaw. Their lifespan may not exceed that of an average human being. When my grand-mother was born, Disney did not exist. When my father was born, Monash University did not exist. When I was born, Google did not exist. These institutions, solid as they seem, have a birth date – and as all living things, they will come to an end – maybe vanishing into thin air, or maybe transforming into something different, smaller, and insignificant.

It is tempting to treat humans – including ourselves – as pure transactional intermediaries between employers, social bodies, political collectives. It is possible to do so politely. But is it wise? Ten years from now, new structures will emerge – we don’t know what they will be yet, but we know they’re likely to be run by humans, maybe the same humans we neglected to bond with today, enamoured with the glitzier abstractions featured on their business cards.

What would it take to flip things around, and treat titles and collectives as no more – and no less – than opportunities to build new concrete connections with people?  Over the long term, this may prove a wiser use of our time. But oh – concrete things are so much messier than abstractions.

On meeting people

When preparing for a meeting, whether it’s a potential business connection or a date, it is tempting to think: what is it that I want from my counterpart? And what is it that I need to show them or tell them to get it? But presence has a funny way of surprising us, if we let her. And a simple conversation may reveal unexpected alignments and life-changing common paths ahead.

If we let her. This requires more than listening for the right cue to drop our set piece, meanwhile asking polite questions to build rapport. What shared experiences will trigger trust? Family? Geography? Similar taste in food or wine? Or a seemingly worthless but oh-so-worth-it choice of study major? There is no knowing in advance. Closeness will come in a flash, but first, there may be long, disjointed exchanges.

Often, lacking faith in the powers of genuine curiosity, we fall back on safer patterns. Let’s get to business. This is what I want. What’s your bottom line? What’s in it for you? What’s your price? The transaction might occur; the magic doesn’t. Goods, money, services, bodily fluids are exchanged: the parties can leave. But nothing new to the world has appeared. And frustration lingers.

Marketing will be the end of me

I just wrote on my facebook page that ‘I absolutely, entirely and completely hate marketing.’

There was a context to the statement. On the 5th of October, I’m co-organising an event at a Melbourne artistic centre, with a partner university. I am supposed to make a flier for this event, but had to postpone this morning, because I need to clarify the exact requirements of one partner, and wait for the logo of another. I’m not in touch with the marketing department of either organisations, but only intermediaries. Result, I am annoyed, in the dark, and cannot start this piece of work (hence time to write this blog post).

This is certainly not the first time I got annoyed at a marketing department. The basic premise is very sound: of course, partners put effort into a joint event, and should be fully acknowledged. However the practical details are where the devil hides – Should there be a logo? How big should it be? Where can I place it? Where do I get the right version? Is there a colour scheme? A font? A standard sentence I have to put in? In the same font, or a smaller font? Is there an approval process? Who approves? How long does it take? Multiply this by the number of partners involved, and you start understanding the problem, especially when you’re running on a piece of thread, like many cultural organisations do.

At a deeper level, I believe the problem is cultural. The tone used for all marketing matters, in my experience, is typically threatening and hostile. Things are generally ‘requested’, but the actual power relationship is left unclear, as much as the consequence of disobedience. Will the partner pull off because they’re not on the flier as they wish? Will they never work together again, no matter how good the event? Or will I somehow harm my contact person within the partner organisation if I do not handle marketing properly? Maybe marketing studies showed that leaving the consequence of disobedience to sheer imagination was a good and cost-effective compliance strategy?

As a result of this hostile ‘requesting’ culture, I have come to repeatedly experience partnerships which started from mutual shared goals and values as ones of mutual mistrust. Will I acknowledge partnerships? Will they hold their end of the deal? Is there a secret plot to undermine and threaten each other? This is poison.

Friends working in the non-profit and cultural sector – I have questions for you:

a) Have you ever had a bad experience with the marketing department or requests of a partner organisation?

b) Would you agree that strict marketing standards, multi-layered approval processes, and general marketing hostility, when you’re running joint events on a piece of thread, add a much unwanted burden to everyone’s life?

c) Is there any place that already lists ‘annoying partners’ – organisations that are difficult to work with, because they not only impose bizarre marketing requirements, but also use hostile bureaucratese?

d) Should we league to change the culture – and start from a basic expectation that established organisations should not make life difficult for small non-profits, and prioritise support to mutually beneficient events, rather than imposing hostile approval systems and marketing standards?

Space sharing, time sharing: future of work, or existing models?

Our current (but changing) mindset is to think of work in the following way. Full-time work, dedicated work space, and regular daytime week hours are correlated. Work occurs Monday to Friday, 9-to-5, in a particular dedicated space and for a particular organisation. Anything  outside these spatial and temporal boundaries is either non-work or not-really-work.

We seem to be moving towards a model where work is more often part-time, with flexible hours, for multiple organisations, and occurring at different locations. However, this is by no means a new phenomenon. Let’s look at these very common professions – to quote a few:

  • Doctors and nurses may work more during the day, but 24 hour and week-end presence is required from some at least.
  • Teachers spend about one third of the time in front of a class, and two thirds preparing classes or correcting papers – which occurs in all sorts of settings, including offices, cafes, public transport or bed.
  • Cleaners typically work when others are not around, and pretty much everywhere.
  • Hospitality workers are flexible – a typical ‘daytime’ restaurant will open from 10h30am to 11pm – but start at 6 or 7am if they serve breakfast. 
  • Drivers – whether of trains, buses, trams, taxis, planes or trucks – work 5am to 12pm, and sometimes round the clock. A number of people in the transport industry will be around to support them.

When we think of new models for work – whether it’s part-time allocation, flexible work hours, or work outside the office – let’s not forget that these very common professions have been doing exactly that for years. These are by no means marginal phenomena, and maybe there’s something we can learn from them.

Please, feel free to share reflections here!

Acknowledging weakness

I’m now evolving more and more in a world of (social) entrepreneurs. After years in academia, I enjoy its optimism, energy, and let’s-do-it attitude. But I also find it – sometimes – harsh and heartless.

The main element I stumble upon is a contradiction between rhetorics and attitude regarding failure and weakness. Everyone acknowledges that failure is part of success and setting a new risky venture demands not only time and intelligence, but also consistent emotional strength. Yet most people I come across in this world – more particularly their online persona – seem to wear a constant plastered smile on, as if real hardships happened only to others, but they were somehow exempt for the rule. Success is duly celebrated and broadcast, but failures, mess-ups or radical moments of doubt are hidden under the carpet.

I believe that fully acknowledging weakness and failures – your own, and that of others – is an important form of entrepreneurial wisdom, and essential to developing a healthy culture. From the classics, I learnt to suspect hubris. At the very least, sharing stories of rejection and mistakes, or simply reflecting on hopelessness and dark days, would not only allow us and those around us to better accept and survive them, but also – maybe – avoid the worst of them.

I’ve been thinking of designing a ‘share your failure’ event – and as I wrote this post, launched a message on the Hub Yammer group to test interest among the community. We’ll see what the response is. I’m curious.

The cost of low-trust: low efficiency

Last night I was invited at a dinner with Chinese people – entrepreneurs, angel investors, a TV producer. Too many conversations entangled for me to perform at my best – but my seat neighbour, fortunately, was considerate enough to speak slowly, repeat, and listen to my broken Mandarin.

At some stage – after much baijiu toasting and spicy thin sliced beef, our conversation rolled on Chinese workers’ efficiency. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘I did hear, and observe, that Chinese workers are not efficient – but is there a cause?’ – ‘No trust’, replied my seat neighbour.

We then started pulling it apart – though my limited language skills, unfortunately, did not allow us to go quite as far as I would have wanted. If two people are joining in a business deal, or a work agreement, but there is no trust between them, then haggling will start: ‘you pay me first – you do the job first – no you first.’ This haggling, in and of itself, is a loss of time. And because it is not guaranteed that the pay will come – why do the job well? And because it is not guaranteed that the job will be done, why set aside the money to pay, or why offer good pay?

I proposed a piece of theory that I developed earlier: trust is the most fundamental element in any professional relationship. In a trusting environment, staff and partners are selected based on their competence – because everyone, a priori, can be trusted. In a low-trust environment, trustworthiness trumps competence: I’d rather have someone do the job slowly to a low standard, rather than pay for a competent person to do nothing, or worse. And trustworthiness comes with personal connection, habit, long-established networks. Hence nepotism and guanxi plays, and hence a perception that, ultimately, who you know matters more than what you know.

Lack of trust extends outside of the workplace, to doctors, teachers, politicians and the media – none of these, according to my seat neighbour – and others who since had joined our conversation – would be trusted here. This is not just a China story. We should take it as a warning, but also see the need and opportunity: Australia has built a relatively high level of trust. What happened? Is it replicable? And is there something we can do to help Chinese businesses, groups or councils increase the level of trust, and – to some extent – mitigate the negative consequences of this situation?

I will be thinking about this question further – and would very much welcome your thoughts!