The Circumlocution Office

Circumlocution, is appropriately enough, a detour from what I set out to look for in Little Dorrit.

A small little gang of us (let’s call ourselves the Moral Compass in Finance Massive for now) has been mulling over the future of banking while we’ve been mulling our Christmas wine. What happens, let’s say, when an American investment banker is also a Dutch civil servant? Even the Evening Standard on 21st November was asking itself about the City in a new age of moral capitalism:

Frippery has been abandoned. Companies are asking serious questions about their purpose and how they relate to others. Nobody believes capitalism is dead but it has changed.

The article cites the publication that week by the John Templeton Foundation of a Templeton conversation ‘Does the free market corrode moral character?’

It seems a strange and delightful coincidence that the crashing around our ears of material and capital assumptions should have happened on the very day that the Sparknow report on the relationship between museums, libraries, archives and business in London was launched. Smashing. I was already on the lookout for what I’m broadly calling ‘resilience’ or ‘cultural substance’ strategies – not CSR to spice up brand values, which I often find to have misplaced the cultural relationships into a place in the business where they can’t do much real day to day good. The mess of human and cultural encounter which triggers some raw and uncontainable emotion is surely essential to the formation of judgement, empathy and moral compass. Of course the measurable, sharply defined, tidied up targets for mobile phone component recycling or whatever are worthwhile, but how are the people whose conversations with each other and with suppliers and clients make up the swell, the meaning, the substance of to and fro, to act from a place of soul and substance if they don’t get their hands dirty and if their hearts don’t ache from time to time? To swell the coffers, surely you need to well up from time to time? So I’d offer that cultural strategy, or resilience, should place the archive, the history, the collections and traditions which are the heritage of the place into play as provocation, a key to employee engagement, a way to create interior monologue in the people, the place and ultimately the purpose.

The banking crisis has lured me back into the dark heart of the beast I left a long time ago. I suspect, with a pretty long background in derivatives, leverage and operational risk, I might understand a bit more than most about what’s gone on. I was playing with ideas of reinsurance futures before the crash of Lloyds. I was lobbying the authorities to make a case for portfolio insurance not causing the market crashes of the late 1980’s. We most certainly had it coming. And we had it coming because of all sorts of things I might write about another time. But the point is it has come. And it’s not all a story of Greedy Bankers. It’s a story of what’s gone awry at a much more fundamental level than that.

In any case, I find myself in the situation, for the first time in 13 or 14 years, of caring that banks care for themselves and their staff and those they serve in such a way that the insert themselves back into the role in society that my uncle, who was my bank manager, had in Hove, or Windsor.

So, very strangely indeed, I find myself willing to go back into the belly of the beast I came to detest, and see whether there are places there that I can put to work some of what I’ve learned about how organisations line up their internal and external conversations so that both come from a coherent, authentic and embodied place.

To that end, I’ve also started reading around debt, capitalism, moral capitalism, philanthro-capitalism, organisations as orchestrations of networks – to try and find the size and shape of the black hole, find it’s edges and then look at what’s needed to fill it. And in those wanderings, am reading Little Dorrit, following on from an article in the Guardian Review by Colin Burrows about what literature owes to debt. It traces the shift in the literary coverage of debt from being a lens through which to examine society to being a metaphor, in part because the nature of debt has become so complex that it’s difficult to put it at the heart of the writing.

The separation of the financial sense of credit from its various moral and social senses is the reason debt doesn’t figure centrally in fiction today. We have fictions about financial meltdowns and sudden losses of money. There is a vast number of films and thrillers about people who owe money to their drug-dealer or to the mafia. But debt no longer functions in literature as a subject through which to explore how people and societies connect together. The climax of Martin Amis’s Money is not a debt, but a loss of credit: John Self’s Vantage card is returned to him cut up into four pieces. Money treats money as the stuff that enables Self to be selfish, but it’s about how money comes from and returns to nothing, rather than about the ways in which debts link people together.

All of which leads me to the delights of the Circumlocution Office, which has little direct bearing on this blog, but which is the best description I’ve ever come across of beaurocracy sprawling, corrosively, out of control.

The Circumlocution Office was (as everybody knows without being told) the most important Department under Government. No public business of any kind could possibly be done at any time without the acquiescence of the Circumlocution Office. Its finger was in the largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart. It was equally impossible to do the plainest right and to undo the plainest wrong without the express authority of the Circumlocution Office. If another Gunpowder Plot had been discovered half an hour before the lighting of the match, nobody would have been justified in saving the parliament until there had been half a score of boards, half a bushel of minutes, several sacks of official memoranda, and a family-vault full of ungrammatical correspondence, on the part of the Circumlocution Office.

This glorious establishment had been early in the field, when the one sublime principle involving the difficult art of governing a country, was first distinctly revealed to statesmen. It had been foremost to study that bright revelation and to carry its shining influence through the whole of the official proceedings. Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving—HOW NOT TO DO IT.

Please note, Gordon Brown. To tackle the moral compass, the resilience, of the finance sector (and of London where the sector matters so much) is to tackle only part of the problem of the abdication of personal responsibility at every level in citizenship, government and business.

It’s a ramble, not very penetrable to the passing reader, but at least it upholds my commitment to myself to go exploring and parks what I’ve been thinking about somewhere I can find it again.

2009 is going to be very very interesting indeed.

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The Fallen

The Fallen was on BBC2 on Saturday night and it was privilege to watch. A tribute to British soldiers who’ve been killed in Afghanistan. The makers were almost invisible and inaudible as the brothers, sisters, parents, brothers-in-arms, commanders, wives of the fallen told their stories. Stories of individuals were spliced together with silence chronological rollcall, pieces of documentary and news, collections of shared moments of terrible grief, of funerals, the shrines left behind, the moment the news broke and so on. The smallest echo of background music tied things together, and at the end the voices and music fell silent and all you heard (and saw, then only heard) was the chipping of the stonemasons carving a memorial and that sound cut through to the very grieving of the soul.

As tributes, rituals and acts of memorial go, this was an honest testimony that reached beyond any private grief and brought the incredible acts of bravery of these young men and women right into a place where you had not choice but to listen, and look and feel, and feel fully what it means to live in this amazing, muddled democracy of our, and how we trash that privilege daily. It also showed how much we need private and collective rituals of remembrance.

I was very much reminded of Tony Parker , an oral historian who died in 1966, who gave his work and life over to making room for the voices of the marginalised and invisible. I first came across his work when I read a review of ‘May the Lord in his mercy say a prayer for Belfast’ and then tracked down everything I could, about lifers, lighthouse keepers, people who lived in a towerblock in North London. He had a way of being present and invisible and of just lightly twisting the words and shape of the stories so that there were small and shocking moments of surprise and realisation. No manipulation here, but a marriage of the best of raw voice and the honing that a storyteller can bring to it to help it be heard.

I was also reminded me of an as yet unblogged experience I had when I went to see Black Watch (which I did blog). This was Steve Mcqueen’s Queen and Country

Steve McQueen's tribute postage stamps

Steve McQueen's tribute postage stamps

Steve McQueen, in collaboration with 136 families whose loved ones have lost their lives in Iraq, has created a cabinet containing a series of facsimile postage sheets, each one dedicated to a deceased soldier.

\The simple brilliance of the idea of stamps as a container for remembrance, used as political statement about how little we seem able to honour our dead is something I’ve been carrying with me.

There’s a French word, aider, which we don’t but should have in English, which means to be an accomplice in something simply by witnessing it. Aiding and abetting should have that meaning. It’s the job of the teller, the artist, the author, the actor, I think, to create spaces of witnessing from which we cannot step back. The privilege of access to an audience brings with it the responsibility to engage that audience in witnessing and becoming responsible both for themselves and for what they see over which they can have some useful influence.

This is something I feel strongly and have still, frustratingly, fully to bring to bear in my own daily practice. But I will never give up trying.

Postcard stories, the sound of silence

What a cracker of a Guardian Weekend this weekend. Two themes whose ghosts hover behind everything we do.

First, small stories, most especially those that fit on a postcard. For years, Sparknow has been playing with postcards as a way of carrying the stories at the edges of organisations back to their heart or telling tales that move from place to place. We’ve even written a paper on postcards as a way of folding organisational time and place to create new adjacencies and hold onto the spirit of the personal. Yesterday’s Guardian had an article about Michael Kimball’s life story postcards which delighted me. In it, the journalist wrote:

I can testify to what Kimball calls “the unexpected intimacy” of the Postcard Life Stories project, which includes a blog of the biographies. Recently he wrote my life story. It felt like being exposed, but also strangely satisfying; the postcard doesn’t sum up my life, but what got me to where I am now. It’s a snapshot of a moment. There’s a strong sense of hope and joy in it that, while I don’t identify with it every day, makes me feel happy when I read it.

We’ve felt that satisfaction too. Flash fiction has some of the same qualities. I’ve noticed too that posting a photo to facebook with a note on it has something of a sloppy postcard quality to it. I was ‘ere. Wish you were here. Reminiscencee work has a nice technique where you imagine a picture or a snapshot of a moment that lives with you and you seek to describe the picture to someone in such a way that they could be there too. That’s nice. No onus to tell a story. The marriage of story, with it’s plots and twists and turns and surprisings and unexpecteds with the wry smile or banality or breath taking scenery of a postcard with a meaningless message on it is an interesting thing to play with. For us it’s always been about the umbilical chord that holds the experience and ties it, however, lightly, back to the teller, while the teller invites you into a world that they’re experiencing. I’m rambling. It’s late, but I didn’t want to pass it by. Kimball doesn’t pass up anyone’s request, which I think is also a lesson in a organisational context:

I don’t want anybody to feel as if their life story isn’t interesting enough. I have found that everybody’s life story is interesting if you ask the right questions.

I think his blog will be worth a good look later this week.

In the same magazine, Sara Maitland writes of her addiction to silence.

Chosen silence can be creative and generate self-knowledge, integration and profound joy; being silenced can drive people mad.

My assumption had been that silence was monotone; that it would be very pure, very beautiful but somehow flat, undifferentiated. But the more silences I encountered, the more silent places I inhabited, the more I became aware that there were dense, interwoven strands of different silences. Silence can be calm or frightening, lonely or joyful, deep or thin. There is religious silence; a self-emptying silence, and romantic silence – what Wordsworth called the “bliss of solitude”.

The qualities she hears in silence are of course Cagean

Being silenced does drive people mad.

We come across a lot of silenced people in an organisational context. And not much silence in the thrumming of the organisational timetable and the need to be heard (even while silenced) or be disappeared from the political structures. We’ve tried to weave more a more small silences into the work that we do, or encourage silences within the telling of, and listening to, stories. Non-interruption. Room to draw breath. Moments when nothing happens. I’ve always thought that you know when you are learning a language not when you can hear the words but when you can hear where one word ends and the next begins.

That is to say, you can hear pause.

At the next Golden Fleece in Washington in April 2009, I think there’ll be some work around the silence in which story takes place, but meanwhile I’m remembering a bit of a book that Jeannine Brutschin sent me last year The Way of Council which has a lot of merit. It tells of one council meeting where the son could detect nothing going on but somehow a decision was arrived at. The father, when asked, told the son that the decision had been shaped in the unspoken stories present in the council.

We imagine that the narratives of work can be seen and heard at our peril. They must be sensed and there needs to be room for that sensing.

There needs to be silence

‘Yes we can’

Not many of my words today, mostly Barack Obama

This is a fabulous example of using history to spring the future in leadership storytelling. It runs from 15:20 – 17:40 on the CNN Youtube. I don’t know how to extract the clip, but here also is the transcript. Just look at/listen to what he does in those 2:20 seconds. Through the eyes of one witness, a true witness, he gives us the sweep of history and of change over a century which puts the change of the next century into it’s right place. The past as a lens for the future. You can smell and touch and feel the past and the future in this speech. And look at his gorgeous Ciceronian rhetoric, simple repetition and reinforcement to grow the space of understanding, which any fule kno works every time. (I should add that it’s 345 words. 2 minute 20 seconds out of 29 minutes or so, so a bit under 10% I think, 345 words, something to bear in mind when planning your own Presidential acceptance speech, or just the story you are going to tell to your team tomorrow.)

This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations. But one that’s on my mind tonight is about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. She’s a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election except for one thing – Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.

She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons – because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.

And tonight, I think about all that she’s seen throughout her century in America – the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can’t, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can.

At a time when women’s voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot. Yes we can.

When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs and a new sense of common purpose. Yes we can.

When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved. Yes we can.

She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that “We Shall Overcome.” Yes we can.

A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change. Yes we can.

Bridges & ditches

I walked up the footpath at the back of our land yesterday, to see the weather from a different place. The water was roaring down the stone gullies that have been dug out through the land, and hurtling down the path too. It is unstoppable.

Gullies running in orange alert weather in the Ardeche

Gullies running in orange alert weather in the Ardeche

At dinner with the neighbours last night we talked of the bewilderment of the summer tourist, who can make no sense of these great dry stone beds, with absurdly high bridges constructed over them. You need to winter here to understand, and then this Orange alert is making for weather rare even for the vrai Ardechois, born and bred to it.

We spent a long time, too, foraging for the right translation for combler la fosse, which in French is to fill in a ditch, to close a gap. In it’s context I went for building bridges, so with a twist of reconciliation, but in the dictionary afterwards it seems more likely it’s to bridge a gap. I wonder if there’s anything in the French effort to actually fill the gap, while the English blithely construct a bridge over it and leave it there? How high a bridge then.

Fred, who runs a supermarket near Toulouse, was talking about how easy it was, right from the beginning of the year, to detect the change in buying habits, although the sharp swing away from brands came in about May. Danone yoghurts down 9%, where before it was 3 freezer shelves stacked with President butter to one own brand, now it’s 2 and 2. Own brands have been winning out over the grandes marques for quite a while. For Fred, that’s fine, so long as he’s tuned early to the changes and can change his buying.

I was thinking about this in respect of some work on future story exercises I’m working on with Anecdote just now. Shawn, delightfully, uses William Gibson (science fiction writer)

The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed

Fred can see the future in the changed distribution of butter in his freezers, one tiny image which pretty much conjures up a whole picture of crumbling economies. Of course, for organisational visioning you’d like the picture to be rosier, in one way. But it is rosy too. The own brand comes into it’s own.

I wonder whether there’s something too in the ditch versus bridge difference. We’ve been imagining future stories as a way to build a bridge from the future to the present, using present anecdotes (Gibsons we’re calling them) about future signs as part of the construction materials. Perhaps we need to be thinking about filling in ditches, combler la fosse, rather than bridging a gap. Or perhaps we need to build very high bridges indeed, knowing that the winter rains will wash away lower ones.

What’s a coffee cup worth

I’m just fiddling around waiting for supper to cook (standards tumble when it’s just me, all frozen, from the packet etc) and listening to a fascinating edition of Night Waves about behavioural economics which is just about to disappear of the iplayer which is why I’m tucking it in now.

My old markets and exchanges stuff has surfaced over the past few weeks with the friability of capitalism and the questionmarks now over whether a price discovery through a market mechanism is all it’s cracked up to be. More of that another time. I have views, she said darkly.

The behavioural economists (who’ve just got onto neuro-economics as I write) are talking though about something that matters a great deal for knowledge transfer and knowledge valuation. Here are two prisoners-dilemma-ish things on value which read across nicely to the whole question of illogic and the tug of feeling that affects action.

Two sets of people go to a place. The first set are offered a free coffee cup and at the end of the meeting sessions, the givers offer to buy it back off them at a price of their choosing. The second set are offered the chance at the end of the sessions to buy a coffee cup. It turns out that those selling back their gift want about twice the price as those offered the chance to buy a cup they weren’t given. It’s to do with ownership, possession, attachment, a bird in the hand.

Someone goes to the theatre, and on the way drops a £20 note. Someone else goes to the theatre and on the way drops the theatre ticket, priced £20. The firs person is much more likely to cough up for another ticket than the second.

Now let’s pick that up and drop it into the world of knowledge, and all sorts of interesting things about the circumstances in which people will transact or exchange start to get interesting.

I have to go and eat my readymade meal now, but there’s plenty of interesting work here about the emotions and feelings attached to value.

More on price discovery and value to follow. There’s much more to say.

The homecoming

Well, I’ve decided to come home for a bit and get settled into my own nest. I’ve discovered that blogging at Sparknow is great, but I need to meander more wildly and experiment with stuff.  So I’ll blog a kind of fortnightly letter to Spark and use this, now The Mattress Factory, for me to play in.

I’d better start by heading off to read some Bachelard to get me in the mood. Dwellings. That’s where I fancy starting. I think it’s The Mattress Factory that’s started me off. More soon.