Bandwidth and Friction…….

brain bandwidthWe have long been aware that the scarcest commodity today is people’s attention, and have adopted a variety of coping strategies – from “shouting louder” marketing, to fear generation, to interruption. None of them work for anything other than a brief, unsatisfactory and often counterproductive moment. One of the many unintended consequences is that trying to start something new, whilst maintaining a current activity is extraordinarily difficult. People just don’t have the bandwidth.

This lack of bandwidth directly affects engagement. Engagement requires us to have a strong and visceral connection between what we do, who we do it with, the outcomes we generate and what we value – and that requires having the bandwidth to cope with it. If we are overly focused on one area, and lose sight of the others, engagement is likely to erode.

Another are affected is collaboration. Collaboration has long ceased to be a novelty, and is a vital component of thriving in complex, volatile and uncertain conditions. It is not a “plug in”, but required a whole new way of working.

However, many businesses I see are trying to pile collaboration on top of how they work today. It means that people who are attention saturation point are being asked to attend yet more meetings. the end result is that things freeze up.

The case for making better use of our available bandwidth is overwhelming.


I find the best way (for me) to visualise it is as a flywheel. Getting it moving in the first place requires significant effort. Once it is moving though, the biggest enemy is friction,

For us as individuals, and teams, friction is created by anything that saps energy. Unnecessary reporting, micro management, keeping per projects going beyond their sell by date, fear of being judged, lack of confidence – the list is endless.

But not unmanageable. Becoming agile requires that we work differently. It starts with the right team – skills, trust, vision, commitment and is energised by the projects that inspire. It needs an outcome focus, rather than specific goals, so that we can change tack as needed without being held hostage by no longer relevant measures, and last but not least that we give people room to operate. Probably the biggest single source of friction in most organisations is an obsession with control and measurement. Both are important, but far too often clog up the system.

Removing friction is the equivalent of releasing a brake. Whilst we can’t do much about our individual and collective bandwidth, we can make far better use of what we’ve got. We can use the energy we generate to far better effect. we can keep up with the changing environment, and move faster than our competition.

If we want to thrive on what’s ahead of us, reducing friction is the single best thing we can start to do.







Engagement – a numbers game?

5s-numbers-game-3-638We can only be engaged with so many people.

Robin Dunbar calculated it at around 150, and although there is some argument around how social media impacts that, the core concept of meaningful relationships appears to hold good. We have limited emotional and attentional bandwidth, and we work best when we husband these resources.

Alfie Kohn, another respected academic, adds another angle. In his book, “punished by rewards”, he demonstrates that by giving people who have vocations, those who work for the love of what they do, “hard” financially based goals, we destroy their motivation. (as ably demonstrated by current state approaches to education and health).

Bring the two together, and we underpin what we already sense. Engagement is maximised in relatively small groups doing something they believe in that is bigger than them.

Despite all the efforts we may make, we will not create engagement in the middle of the distribution curve.  Logic and intuition seems to support the notion that in any group, there will be a standard deviation – a small number – around 1 sigma who will be very engaged, and similar number at the other end of the curve who are actively disengaged, with the majority, in the middle of the curve, happy to turn up, but who derive their satisfaction elsewhere,

Which brings me back to Professors Dunbar and Kohn. In a group of 150, If I have 10%, or 15 people highly engaged working with another 120 who are happy to turn up, that makes a good and effective team. I can cope with the 15 who are disengaged, mainly because social norms makes it unlikely they will stay. They are visible. If on  the other hand, my organisation has 15,000 people, then 1500 people are not so visible, and they become an embedded, and energy sapping  part of the culture. Much harder to identify, and even harder to convert or isolate.

I also suspect that the larger the group, the more diluted the sense of common purpose, and the weaker the “glue” that holds the organisation together. Far more likely to become a transactional, financially measured and focused organisation that will wax and wane rapidly. Great for investors with good timing, not so much for those interested in communities.

If we want to get something useful done, we should bear this in mind. Small groups, held together by a common purpose bigger than them, where everybody knows each other. Leadership and Management become intertwined, not  separate “disciplines”. Stuff happens.

In the end, engagement is a consequence of committed groups doing something they believe in with people who support them. It is transformational.

The middle of the curve? – that’s transactional. Little we do can make it transformational. not bad, just something to recognise.

Trying to turn transactional relationships into transformational ones is probably possible in smaller groups. In  large ones. it’s largely a mugs game.

Engagement is built at the outset, It cannot be retrofitted.




Engagement – local heroes

imagesI’m currently doing the North Coast 500. for those not aware, it’s a stunning tour of the North of Scotland, and very much worth checking out.

It’s important to me – Scotland is where I spent the majority of my youth, went to University, and spent time in some of the most stunning scenery in the world. It’s wonderful to be back, and reminds me that most of what we are looking for is right in front of us if we choose to see it; but I digress.

On the way north we called into a distillery ( well, shame not to) and I ended up talking with a number of the staff. It’s a lovely place, that produces iconic whisky, and is at the hub of the (small) local community. Tight community, beautiful product that they take enormous pride in. A recipe one would think for deep engagement. Yet.

It turns out that they were bought a few years ago by a corporate. Said corporate decided that the best returns were to be made by restricting sales of its most iconic product to Asia, where the best prices could be obtained. So far, all so logical, but there seems to have been an unintended consequence. Those I spoke to were truly proud of what they do, and derived huge satisfaction from the local recognition of their skills. This conduit has been removed, and their frustration, anger even was palpable.

Reinforces the thought that has to go into engagement. Separate people from those who admire what they do, no matter the commercial logic, and trouble beckons.