Thursday, 24 September 2009

The rain in Spain

I'm on the train to catch a plane to fly to Spain where the rain, I hope, stays mainly on the plain. We, the Dark Angels, will be in the mountains of Andalucia - where fellow writer John Simmons and I make our annual pilgrimage with a group of business people keen to refresh their writing skills.

Far from their offices, they will be immersed for five days in all that is new about a foreign land including, not least, a different language; one they may not know a word of, but from which we will ask them to translate, guided by sound, rhythm and tone alone.

This is a place of cork forests and olive groves, fierce sun and glossy black fighting bulls. Africa is a mere hundred miles away as the vulture soars. The civil war is still within living memory. There is much here to feed the imagination and we will encourage them to produce writing that brims with the colours and textures, the tastes and smells and sounds of southern Spain.

They will create poems and stories, they will write with all their senses engaged, they will discover things about themselves they didn't know. At the end they will go back to work having crossed a linguistic Rubicon. If we've done our job well we will have made it impossible for them ever to return to the corporate equivalents of rain, plain and train - the dreary monotones of so much modern business language.

Still warm from the Andalucian sun, our nine new converts we hope will flex their wings and join the crusade for a few more kind words.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Cherish the stories

There’s a wise storyteller called David Campbell who cuts a distinctive figure about Edinburgh with his kilt and ponytail. ‘Story is the lifeline of human consciousness,’ says David. ‘Stories do not argue. They speak to the heart.’

Smart organisations have discovered this. Stories, they realise, create a sense of belonging, and everyone likes to belong. So they use stories not just to win customers and supporters, but to enthuse and encourage their own people - stories of beginnings and endings, of everyday events, of great achievements and, occasionally, if they're very confident, of failures.

I like this one. The McIlhenny Company of Louisiana is on the skids. Tabasco sales have fallen year on year and the directors are holding a crisis meeting. Enter the tea-boy with his trolley. He sees the grim faces, the plunging graph, and asks what they’re talking about. Priding themselves on their southern openness, they tell him. I know what to do, he says after a moment. Tell us, they humour him. Easy, he replies, make the hole bigger. And they do.

Simple though it is there’s nothing trivial or childish about this story. It doesn’t even set out to make a point – it doesn’t ‘argue’, as David would say - though we draw our own conclusions from it about the value of honesty and the importance of listening. But it does tell of human struggle, of emotions like worry and relief; and so it should, because organisational life doesn’t just echo human experience, it is human experience.

For that reason alone, organisations should cherish their stories like all their other resources. ‘We cannot disagree with someone’s story,’ says David Campbell, ‘but we can listen, we can walk in step and thereby make a little contribution to widening and deepening the understanding between our brothers and sisters.’

At work, as elsewhere in our lives, what could possibly be more important?

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Human capital

I’m a latecomer to the superbly written White House drama series, The West Wing.

In the first series, the deputy chief of staff meets with a black senator who wants the government to start making reparation for slavery. As their exchange grows increasingly heated, the senator describes how his own grandparents were kidnapped in West Africa, transported in appalling conditions and sold onto a plantation.

Clearly discomforted, the deputy chief of staff suggests that the conversation would be better kept in the abstract. But the senator demurs, knowing his emotional case is a powerful one.

Most businesses, like public servants, are fearful of emotion. They like the abstract because abstractions take the heat out of uncomfortable realities. Shrinking markets, for example, seem somehow more palatable than fewer customers.

In certain circles ‘human capital’ is the latest term for employees; the people without whose talents and energy there would be no business. But if it comes to it, you can reduce your capital with an easier conscience than you can lay off your people.

Slaves, of course, were human capital in the most literal sense. It would be salutary for the people who coined the current term to reflect on that for a moment because, as Orwell so brilliantly demonstrated, you can enslave people with language, and particularly the dehumanising language of abstraction, just as easily as you can with chains.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Murder by process

"Viola Tors wanted more community involvement, public hearings, more transparency, a poll, an environmental impact study … She was a killer of wonderful ideas and like so many murderers, she used procedure as a weapon."

Viola Tors features in Liberty, the latest tale from Lake Wobegon by that wise observer of human foibles, Garrison Keillor. A member of her local Fourth of July committee, Viola hails from small-town Minnesota; but one suspects she would be quite at home in the offices of any one of those big organisations where, on any given day, following detailed consultation with partners and stakeholders, major strategies are being identified, designed and implemented in order to initiate short-life project working groups tasked with significant action plans.

Now these processes may be necessary, they may even be essential, but that doesn't mean they make for exciting reading. Expect people outside your organisation to be interested in its procedures and you might as well ask a perfect stranger to take an interest in the workings of your large intestine. Yet forests are felled in order that these rumblings of the corporate gut can be trumpeted to the world at large.

Behind them, more often than not, there are real people with real conviction doing real things, but you would never know it from the language. Indeed it’s sometimes quite hard to figure out what the organisation in question actually does.

And wherever the language of process is allowed to stifle the language of purpose, you can be fairly sure that somewhere not far off there’s the dismal sound of creativity being strangled. Viola Tors would be sharpening her pencil.