Playing what isn’t there

Miles Davis created his unique sound by “playing what wasn’t there”. He had an approach that used notes as signposts, not as instructions.

In the industrial economy, we played the notes. A whole industry was developed creating business plans, business qualifications, and consulting offers based around this approach. It worked really well as long as the assumptions that they were based on – replicability, repeatability, and the mantra of volume, scale and market share held true.

But increasingly, it doesn’t any longer.

We have seen exemplars of failure from Kodak to Borders, and more recently the iconic Radio Shack. They were all playing the notes, but increasingly, no-one was listening.

As the orthodoxies of the industrial economy gives way to the constructive chaos of the connection economy we need different skills. Less orchestra, more Miles Davis. More curiosity, less compliance.

There are a number of trends emerging that will accelerate the rate of change:

1. What can be automated, will be. The rise and rise on intelligent algorithms replacing jobs, professions, departments, and even whole businesses. Anything that can be reduced to a process. Computers just don’t care how complex the process is, and smart people can write the algorithms.

2. The obvious foundation of any business in a connection economy is people – not as labour, but as creators. The balance of power is shifting away from organisations and towards individuals and groups. People are looking for organisations that help them create what they are driven to create, no longer just as “jobs”.

3. Medium sized businesses are likely to become the powerhouses. Big enough to matter, small enough to be flexible, and more likely to have people in them – owners and members – with real “agency”. A sense of place, purpose and ownership, and without the sea anchors of demanding shareholders with limited agendas.

4. Old labels – from “talent” to “innovation” and “sectors” are less and less useful. The nature of the changes taking place are too complex for them to be useful. Some of the major changes taking place are happening across entire industries, creating whole new concepts and linking people and ideas in whole new ways. Here are four of the top 12 (thanks to Roger James Hamilton)

– Digital currencies

– Crowdsourcing and crowdfunding

– Materialisation – 3D printing

– Virtual reality – gamified connection.

The combination of all these trends is creating a chaotic environment full of opportunity. with new rules:

– To paraphrase the conventional wisdom of politics – “It’s the people, stupid!” Connection and technology can realise peoples ideas, but it can’t create them. Although qualifications and experience still count, they are no longer the currency of success. Creativity and connection are.

– Business plans are still useful, but no guarantee of success. They are a reference point at a given moment in time, and no more. Awareness, adaption and improvisation on the move – the  characteristics of effectual thinking are key, as against the causal thinking that has dominated our business education and training for so long.

– Communities of purpose – groups of people with shared values in pursuit of common goals – is the new scale. Whether as small businesses, or small teams within corporates – they are where the leverage is. The job of the organisation is becoming one of supporting and getting out of the way.

So, in the middle of all this – the good, no, the great, news is that you as an individual have never been so important or so empowered if you choose to be.

It requires two things – pursuing something important, a job as a means to an end rather than an end in itself, and secondly, self belief and self development – constant learning. Genius is another one of those redundant labels – we all have aspects of genius within us, but it won’t show itself unless you give it the room.

The quiet revolution you’re in. Like it or not.

The interesting thing about revolutions is that nobody knows they’re happening until they’re over. Up to that point, we get worried about anomalies, and try to get things back to normal.

So it is with centralisation. We have seen it (or often chosen not to see it) in the rise of everything from Napster to the organisation of Al Qaeda. It has been written about by leading thinkers like Ori Brafman and Seth Godin.

Established organisations have chosen to ignore it, to treat it like an anomaly that will disappear as we get back to normal. It won’t, of course.

The major impact will not be on these organisations, with their bloated overheads and addiction to the industrial economy  models. Their shareholders will gradually desert them, and they will sink silently from view, the services and products they provided delivered by smaller, faster, more passionate advocates of the connection economy.

The real impact will be on those who choose to remain inhabiting them in the belief that they will be looked after, and that their position gained by being really good at what is increasingly obsolescent will secure their future. It won’t.

In his brilliant book “Orbiting the Giant Hairball“, Gordon MacKenzie tells the story of hypnotising chickens; how if you draw a chalkline on the floor, and point the chickens head at it, it will stay there transfixed. He makes the point that much of corporate behaviour is similar. Policies, rules, protocols, structures. Lines on the floor. He wrote the book in 1996. It’s one of the most insightful, funny, important books relating to business I have ever read.

The point is this. The organisation , even the best meaning one, cannot protect you in today’s (and tomorrows) uncertainty. In a connection economy, its about you and your connections. It’s about understanding, developing and loving your own unique talents. Those that cannot be replicated, or reduced to a job description, or a qualification.


It’s about your insight, creativity and genius. Your willingness to do work that matters, and take risks for. Then it’s about having a purpose, and connection to people who share it. Its about a sense of impact every day, on your own terms, not an annual appraisal on someone else’s. Giving yourself permission, not seeking it from someone else.

If you can do that within an organisation, that is a seriously good result. In any event, and wherever you work, treat it like self employment, because, in effect that is exactly what it is becoming. Huge opportunities, quite scary, joyous and more than a little chaotic. A chance to be you.

The near future belongs to networks of purpose. Decentralised, flexible, low overhead teams of people who share the characteristics of craft – “a marriage of head , heart and hand” in pursuit of  shared aims on things that matter to them. The days of “solutions” are behind us, and the requirement for originality with us.

The end of centralisation.

Enjoy the revolution.


Friday question #3. Play, leadership and work.

In a world of increasing complexity, a VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) I think we try to make our selves feel more comfortable by talking about “change management”, as though that somehow makes something essentially unmanageable less threatening. By believing we can manage it (as against develop a relationship with it – something entirely different) we think about it as episodic rather than continuous and largely random.

Our experience to date is nothing compared to what is coming, and our industrial era models of leadership, organization, marketing and employment are rapidly becoming counterproductive. The sort of attitudes, dispositions and skills we will need are beautifully outlined in Bob Johansen’s “Leaders make the future”, shown here (and here’s a link to one of his presentations at CCL)

Screenshot 2014-11-21 10.48.44

If you want to see these skills displayed with absolute Mastery, watch a group of five year olds playing, or go and talk with an early years education specialist, or visit If you want the theory, watch Stuart Brown’s TED talk. At GrowHouse Initiative we are building a whole approach around rediscovering and using these skills.

So, here’s your Friday question. When was the last time you played at work – I mean, REALLY PLAYED? If you can’t remember, you may want to try it……..