Out of time

Our society has reoriented itself to the present moment. Everything is live, real time, and always-on. It’s not a mere speeding up, however much our lifestyles and technologies have accelerated the rate at which we attempt to do things. It’s more of a diminishment of anything that isn’t happening right now—and the onslaught of everything that supposedly is.
— Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock

We’re well past the end of the century when time, for the first time, curved, bent, slipped, flashforwarded and flashbacked yet still kept on rolling along. We know it all now, with our thoughts travelling at the speed of tweet, our 140 characters in search of a paragraph. We’re post-history. We’re post-mystery.
— Ali Smith, Artful

Five minutes later roots and fruits were abolished; the flower of the present tidily blossomed.
— Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

The 2016 film Arrival is a narrative of decipherment. Humans are intent on understanding the purpose of the recently landed aliens, which have appeared at twelve different locations on Earth. To understand, one requires language and communication. But one has to be mindful of the pitfalls of how language is interpreted. One person’s signifier does not always marry up with another’s signified.

In another recent film, Paterson, a Japanese visitor (Masatoshi Nagase) to the protagonist’s home town likens poetry in translation to standing under a shower wearing a rain mac. Nuance and beauty are lost. Misunderstanding is all too easy, which is one of the points on which humanity’s response to the aliens hinges in Arrival. Where some read weapon, others intend gift.

Arrival’s lead character, Louise Banks (Amy Adams), starts communicating with the aliens via single written and vocalised words. They respond with the occasional guttural noise, but primarily with ideograms. The first breakthrough for Louise and her colleagues comes with the realisation that these ideograms are complex combinations of words and phrases, which form full sentences and paragraphs.

The key discovery, however, comes when Louise alone encounters one of the aliens, nicknamed Costello. Where the linearity and structure of much human language is bound to time, Louise learns that the aliens’ language is non-linear. They are without the constraints of time as we perceive it. Her own fluency in their language unshackles Louise from the limitations of human time. With their language, she gains the ability to time travel, seeing into her own future and that of humankind. Past, present and future are simultaneously available to her. She is out of time.

In a starkly different approach to time, the citizens of Aldous Huxley’s futuristic 1931 novel Brave New World are slaves to the clock. Their happiness depends on it, rigidly following a routine of work and pleasure, both physical and chemically induced. These are rarely chosen, usually prescribed. Humans are produced in batches, and effectively have battery lives. They are created to fulfil designated functions, their own chemicals harvested once their use-by-dates have passed and their bodies have been incinerated.

Language – in the form of mantras, anodyne phrases, belief systems as sound bites – is imposed on the humans of Brave New World at different stages of their infancy and youth. This is achieved via hypnopaedia, a form of teaching through voice recordings heard during sleep. The citizens are conditioned to accept caste, brainwashed ideologically, and placed in thrall to the Fordian factory clock of Brave New World’s global society. Only those on ‘uncivilised’ reservations or exiled to island communities in far-flung localities like Iceland and the Falklands are able to escape the clock’s tyranny.

Out of time

All of which cultural musings stir up reflections on my own temporal conditioning and experience. From late 1999 to the end of 2014, I lived the life of a commuter. A daily four-hour, door-to-door round trip from home to office and back again. The same faces on the train, the same seat occupied. The same coffee routine. Days filled with meetings and largely pointless correspondence. An eating, vegetating and sleeping routine that was far from healthy until the weekend’s release.

To be honest, I never got used to it. From the period 1993 to 1999, I had been home-based, first as a research student then as a freelancer. Office and commuting life was a shock to my body clock, to my introversion, to my effectiveness. I disliked the way time was regimented and controlled. It disturbed my desire for reflection and creative quality, which I preferred to the produce-on-demand, quantitative busyness that I encountered in each of the public, private and non-profit organisations I worked for during the next fifteen years.

Financial considerations aside, the option to return to freelancing in late 2014 was an attractive one, not least because it enabled me to dedicate myself to activities I am passionate about: writing and editing, both producing myself and helping others to realise their literary ambitions. But there has been another side effect that is relevant to my ongoing exploration of time and memory.

Freelancing has taken me out of time, at least time as I had come to know it as a commuter. The experience is somewhat different too as a forty-something to that of my twenty-something self in the 1990s. The day, of course, remains topped-and-tailed by family routine: wake-up alarms, meals, dad-taxi services. But otherwise, as a writer and editor, I find that my work can be done at any time. Sometimes there are early morning flurries, at other times inspiration takes hold late at night or during a midday walk on the beach.

In many respects, I am always working. But I do not mean that in an onerous way. Reading a book is work; it is research regardless of the subject matter or genre. Riding my bike or standing under the shower or mowing the lawn are all part of ‘office time’; periods for reflection, sifting, testing out phrases, composing. My interaction with clients is asynchronous, only occasionally regulated by in-person meetings or video calls. These are with people dispersed around the globe, in Canada, Australia, Denmark, France, Romania, the US, the UK. Change the place, and the clock changes too.

Family life provides a loose sense of structure, as do project deadlines. But otherwise the commuter’s distinction between weekdays and weekends, morning work and evening work, all dissolve. Which raises questions about my post-commuting relationship to time. Is time as I experience it throughout a 24-hour period always linear? Or is it determined by my engagement with other people? At certain points bound to the clock, at others unbound from it?

Do I reconnect with linear time only when I have a meeting, a call, a train to catch, or as the scattered members of my family begin to return home? When I write, lost in flow, scanning both the fictions and facts of memory, blending fantasy and reality, what aspects of time am I navigating? Finally, to what extent is all of our perception of time entwined with both language and our communication with others?

My sense is that, as with Louise in Arrival, our experience and perception of time is multifaceted. It can be linear or cyclical or boundaryless. Our physical and mental conceptions of it can diverge. Yet through language, spoken and scribed, we can in some way anchor ourselves to it. We are both in and out of time.

Our conscious brains invent the concept of time over and over again, inferring it from memory and extrapolating from change. And time is indispensable to our awareness of self. Just as an author does, we construct our own narrative, assemble the scenes in a plausible order, make inferences about cause and effect.
— James Gleick, Time Travel

So emotion, fear, age, isolation, body temperature and rejection can all affect our perception of the speed of time, as does concentration, or ‘attention’.
— Claudia Hammond, Time Warped

Likewise the spinning wheel turns, cyclical time revolving to draw out the linear time of a thread.
— Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

Ambiguity detected

The appeal of the detective reflects a desire for resolution of ambiguity in a complex world. The narrative momentum, the reflection of the detective, the surprises and the twists, are all satisfying to us in this way. What I would love to see you explore is the morality and philosophy of the detective as the ‘one good purposeful person’ even when riding boundaries of social acceptance, pushing into the noir world and even playing the antihero. As much as we need the resolution of ambiguity, we need the satisfaction of detectives to whom we can look up in times of ambiguity.
— Simon Terry, Blog comment

Desire is the engine of life, the yearning that goads us forward with stops along the way, but it has no destination, no final stop, except death.
— Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking

It is human to clutch at simple answers and shunt aside ambiguous, shifting realities.
— Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking

In Together, his study of cooperation, Richard Sennett highlights a transformation in sociable behaviour that characterised the medieval era. Education and commerce witnessed the emergence of the professional, and with it a shift in ethics and behaviour from chivalry to civility. The aristocratic knight was usurped by the lawyer, the doctor, the banker, the merchant, as the Renaissance paved the way for our modern world.

Even as the relevance of the knight and his chivalric code faded, though, the figure persisted as a cultural archetype. Tales of King Arthur’s court, for example, and the legendary adventures of its knights, particularly the quest for the Holy Grail, endure today. The ethics and philosophy of the early middle ages are not entirely lost, for they remain packaged in narrative form. The myth of the solitary hero is maintained even in an age where collaboration and cooperation are the norm.

Interestingly, concurrent with the shift from chivalry to civility was the democratisation of words. No longer was the written text the preserve of Latin speakers, monks and the clergy. The printing press enabled the dissemination of ideas to a wider readership. With the printed book, knowledge could be quickly codified and shared at an unprecedented scale, and in contemporary as well as archaic languages. Stories, like genes, had always been carriers of culture. Now, though, they could be written down and read by many people in diverse locations, not just verbalised and heard in communal assemblies.

In the middle of the 20th century, Raymond Chandler was a purveyor of words whose interests straddled the boundaries between the chivalric and the prosaic, whose hardboiled narratives exposed the darkness and corruption hiding behind civilised veneers. In his 1944 essay ‘The Simple Art of Murder’, Chandler focuses on a particular type of modern professional: the private investigator. Like Arthur’s knights, this is a figure who constantly embarks upon quests, for missing items, more often for missing people, thieves, kidnappers, blackmailers, murderers.

‘The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure.’ Chandler sets out the template for his own series of Philip Marlowe novels, in which the intrepid detective, time and again, ventures into the mean streets in service of both client and a personal sense of honour and morality. Yet, for all of Chandler’s protestations, there remains an impression that the detective is themselves tainted, their heroism a deceit, self-perceived and projected for consumption by others.

Detection

The lineage, extending back through Arthurian legend and on to Ancient Greece, does little to dispel this unease regarding the ‘heroic’ detective. Whether it is the myth of Oedipus, the first detective, the tale of the Fisher King or the story of Jake Gittes in Chinatown, there are shared motifs, common themes. The realm is corrupted, a wasteland requiring regeneration, with the central figure either implicated in its decline or impotent to effect change. Oedipus solves the Sphinx’s riddle, but commits the crimes of patricide and incest. Gittes uncovers Noah Cross’s criminality but is unable to bring him to justice, a passive bystander to the death of the woman he loves, herself the victim of Cross’s incestuous abuse.

Joseph Campbell’s hero adventure model, with its foundations in Jungian theory, suggests that each journey is one of self-discovery. We venture into the labyrinth and find ourselves at its centre. The Minotaur is our shadow, part of our identity. This applies equally to the knight’s quest as to the detective’s investigation; their curious pursuit, assimilation and assessment of clues.

Sometimes the Minotaur, the darkness, triumphs. In Angel Heart, for example, Harry Angel discovers that it is himself he has been seeking, that he is responsible for the horrific crimes he investigates. Similarly, in Memento, Leonard Shelby is the true object of his own search, his memories conveniently corrupted or discarded as he transforms into serial executioner. In Blood Simple, the venal private investigator Visser, enacts and fabricates crimes, falsely apportioning blame, murdering at will.

Even Chandler’s own creation, Philip Marlowe, becomes executioner in Robert Altman’s 1970s reworking of The Long Goodbye. His personal code of ethics have become so skewed, his sense of betrayal so intense, that he feels able to take the law into his own hands. A move echoed by Richard Bone in Cutter’s Way, even if he holds his dead friend’s hand to the pistol that murders the corrupt patriarch.

In many respects, the 1960s and 1970s shifted the game. Chandler’s knightly detective was shown to be out of time, an anachronism unsuited to a context of political intrigue and investigation, public inquiries, impeachment proceedings and warmongering. The establishment was rotten at its core, and the true detectives were shown to be investigative journalists, like Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, wielding typewriters and pens rather than guns.

A new pattern was revealed that continued through the subsequent decades, amplified in recent times by cyberleaks and whistleblowers. The more that is revealed, the more new questions arise. Answers obfuscate rather than illuminate. The simple is rendered complex. The detective is as ill-defined, as difficult to pin down as the mysteries they investigate. Lew Griffin both writes and is written, a fiction within a fiction. In Pynchon’s novels, his male detectives lose themselves in drug-induced hazes while his female investigators lead themselves to the edge of paranoia.

Yet, for all that, there is something appealing about this investigative figure. Or at least those who have ventured into the labyrinth and either conquered or integrated the Minotaur. Their thirst for knowledge, inherent curiosity, pattern recognition and sense-making capabilities, as well as their aptitude for narration, for working out loud, have much to commend them. What they lead us to in most cases, though, is not resolution of ambiguity but rather an acceptance of and comfort with it. They are not heroes, just regular folk, like you and me, deriving temporary and contextually convenient understanding of an ever-changing world. Civilians retaining a hint of the chivalric, the romantic, in the modern day. As ambiguous as the ambiguities they detect.

Ambiguity asks: Where is the border between this and that? … But ambiguity is inherently contradictory and insoluble, a bewildering truth of fogs and mists and the unrecognizable figure or phantom or memory or dream that can’t be contained or held in my hands or kept because it is always flying away, and I cannot tell what it is or if it is anything at all.
— Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking

The immediate result of this formal change is that the detective no longer inhabits the atmosphere of pure thought, of puzzle-solving and the resolution of a set of given elements. On the contrary, he is propelled outwards into the space of his world and obliged to move from one kind of social reality to another incessantly, trying to find clues to his client’s whereabouts.
— Fredric Jameson, Raymond Chandler

There’s no completion in patterns,
For patterns are constantly restitched in new patterns.
There’s no completion in history, which kneels
bare and mute at the feet of the future.
— Alan Lightman, Song of Two Worlds

Time capsule

All songs involve time, because music depends on time. Time’s a song against the clock.
— Ali Smith, Artful

The mind tends to find congruencies and links where none previously existed—not just in music, but in everything.
— David Byrne, How Music Works

We can also appreciate why pop music is time-bound and an occasion for nostalgia … Hearing a pop tune can take you back to a summer, or an evening, or an emotional state … Pop music, even the best and most enduring, dates itself, not just in the sense that you can read off its date, but in the sense that pop music directly engages sounds, looks, attitudes that are specific to a time and place.
— Alva Noë, Strange Tools

In the 1980s of my mid-to-late teens, there was a surge of interest in the music of my infancy spanning the late 1960s and early 1970s. This extended well beyond the Motown revival fuelled by Levi’s advertisements. My friends and I were discovering the music of The Doors and The Velvet Underground, albums like Hunky Dory and Sgt. Pepper’s, songs like ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ and ‘Walk on the Wild Side’.

This is all music I still listen to on occasion, but to do so is not only to experience pleasure in the moment but also a double form of time travel. On the one hand, I am transported back to a period I can recall in only the most fragmentary of ways, the snippets of toddlerdom, which in the living I failed to entwine with music. On the other, to hear a particular song can carry with it a rich assembly of schoolboy era information about time, place and people: the context in which I first heard the song, the people who I enjoyed it with, films seen, gigs attended, appreciative discussions.

Re-hearing later music is more fixed in the personal timeline that takes shape in my mind. A song may draw to it an accumulation of subsequent memories, orbiting around it like electrons circling a nucleus. But there tends to be a primal association too. To hear Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’ or Elvis Costello’s ‘Oliver’s Army’ is to return to my pre-teen self pulling those first vinyl purchases from their sleeves. To hear New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ is to find myself circumnavigating a sports hall wearing roller boots, whereas U2’s ‘Bad’ is a passport back to Live Aid and a post-examination summer.

Blue Monday

It was novelist Michael Chabon who prompted these reflections. At a Guardian Live event earlier this month, Chabon spoke of the importance of both popular music and the senses to him, on a personal level and in the fictional worlds he creates. This is overt in the record-store setting of his 2012 novel Telegraph Avenue, but equally relevant to books like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Moonglow, his latest publication. Chabon described his favourite songs as a form of time capsule, the music and lyrics contributing but a part of the overall experience.

In Time Travel, James Gleick dedicates a chapter to the popular practice of burying time capsules. The interment of vessels containing contemporary items, artefacts and knowledge are intended for future discovery. It is considered a method for transmitting culture and historical traces into the future, a form of time travel that enables great expanses of time to be bridged.

This is Chabon’s contention for the song and other art forms. We bury packages in the recesses of our minds, comprised not only of impressions caused by sound, images and words but emotions and environment too. Hearing a song again, rediscovering a long-forgotten photograph, returning decades later to a favourite novel, all can have the effect of digging up those time capsules. They open up a treasure chest of memories. A starburst of sensations and recall.

The memories themselves are impressionistic, of course, a fusion of fact and fiction. They are samples rewritten, remixed to fit the story of our ever-evolving selves, our edited and polished personal narratives.

This can happen too with new encounters with cultural artefacts. For example, when I first read David Mitchell’s novel Black Swan Green, I was immediately transported back to the period of my early teens. I was born in the same year as Mitchell, and his description of a thirteen-year-old’s life in 1982-83 felt close to the bone. Not because of the main narrative, but because of the background detail concerning Thatcher’s Britain, the Falklands War and, above all, the soundtrack.

Mitchell’s fiction is filled with temporal motifs and characters who time travel, hopping from one novel to another, from one era to another. In terms of generic hybridisation and formal play, Black Swan Green appears the least experimental of Mitchell’s novels. Yet, for this reader at least, it still has the ability to open up pathways to other time zones entirely. The novelist as DJ, let loose in the archive of the reader’s memories.

When it works, what you get is not a collection of references, quotes, allusions, and cribs but a whole, seamless thing, both familiar and new: a record of the consciousness that was busy falling in love with those moments in the first place.
— Michael Chabon, Maps and Legends

Memory both is and is not our past. It is not recorded, as we sometimes imagine; it is made, and continually remade.
— James Gleick, Time Travel

Memory, even in the rest of us, is a shifting, fading, partial thing, a net that doesn’t catch all the fish by any means and sometimes catches butterflies that don’t exist.
— Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

Addendum: David Mitchell is himself a participant in a literary time capsule project. He has buried an unpublished manuscript in Oslo’s Nordmarka Forest. It will not be retrieved until 2114.

Ready to jump

This article was commissioned by Haydn Shaughnessy and published on the Hack & Craft News site on 2 November 2016. The challenge was to explore what happens when people take advantage of opportunities. My thanks to Haydn for permission to reproduce it here. The article forms part of my ongoing research into peloton formations. This is a metaphor for responsive, adaptive organisations, characterised by fluid leadership, agility and personal autonomy in service of the collective.

Treating an uncertain world as if it is predictable is for charlatans. Long-term planning is just a waste of resources and brain power. The surest route to catastrophic failure is not to act and not to take any risks.
— James Watt, Business for Punks

Distributed doesn’t simply mean decentralized; it’s not the principle through which alternative power centers emerge on the periphery of a system. Rather, when power is distributed, it is available thought the network. It is everywhere at once.
— Douglas Rushkoff, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus

Centralisation is mainly an idea of order; decentralisation, one of freedom.
— E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful

Sunday 11 September 2016. A diminutive professional road cyclist, Nairo Quintana, takes his place on the top step of the podium in the centre of Madrid. He has just secured overall victory in a Grand Tour race for the second time in his career. But things could have turned out so differently were it not for the spirit of adventure that Quintana and his teammates had demonstrated the previous Sunday…

Peloton formations
For all the focus on the individual, winning unique stages, overall races, classification jerseys and intermediate sprints, road racing is in fact a team event. It is played out against a backdrop of numerous interacting systems – competing teams, event organisation, municipal authorities for the host towns, policing, media embedded within the race, team cars, support vehicles, spectators on the roadside, weather, terrain, course routes and road furniture. The passage of the cycling peloton itself – that swarming mass of lycra-clad teammates and competitors – is complex and adaptive. The peloton formation, in its responsiveness and fluidity, serves as a useful metaphor for an aspirational modern organisation.

The peloton is characterised by constant shifts between competition, collaboration and cooperation. Leadership is always in motion rather than remaining static, a baton that is passed off and handed back again, determined by day-to-day and overall objectives for the team. Leaders become followers, servants become leaders, as the road flattens or climbs, as the wind strengthens or tarmac gives way to cobblestones. Emphasis is placed on time-bound actions and relationships; forming or chasing down a breakaway, setting up a sprint finish, helping a teammate make their way back to the main group after a mechanical failure.

Alliances of mutual convenience take shape and then shatter as competitors accommodate contextual shifts. Teams operate within loose frameworks, exercising personal and collective autonomy, as they amend their plans. Decisions are made on the fly, in recognition of changes in weather, incidents on the road, the health and form of colleagues, as well as in response to the actions of riders from other teams. The roles an individual fulfils are in a constant state of flux.

Members of a nine-man Grand Tour team, assembled for the annual editions of the three-week Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España, will assume a variety of responsibilities. Some will defend against breakaway attempts. Others will collect water bottles from the team cars. Some will shelter the day’s designated leader from the wind, while that leader will aim to conserve energy for the final sprint or climb, or for key stages later in the week. All, though, are alert to opportunities to break free from the peloton’s grip and enjoy a day in front of the television cameras. For several teams, lacking the personnel for overall victory, exposing your corporate sponsor’s logo to a global audience is the ultimate objective. Brand awareness leads to revenue; a sponsor’s income can translate into ongoing financial viability for the team.

vuelta-20
[Photo credit: Quintana ahead of Froome, Stage 20 of La Vuelta, José Jordan]

Serial masters
An effective road racer, with aspirations to win a Grand Tour, tends to master several disciplines. Invariably, they are extremely competent climbers, often to be seen at the front of the race as it reaches its highest slopes. Often they are highly proficient against the time trial clock too, the ultimate test in performance measurement. The very best are also characterised by their inner strength, their responsiveness and occasional opportunism.

Being serial masters, the Grand Tour contenders seem better able to play what is in front of them, rewriting the day’s plans when necessary, gambling where they believe the calculated reward will outweigh the potential risk. Without that mastery and responsiveness, it is difficult to adapt to and rectify major problems. Even more so to take advantage of the serendipitous opportunity. Individual initiative will often be amplified and consolidated by the supporting actions of teammates.

At the start of the 2016 Tour de France, three riders were considered potential winners: Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador. This was founded in part on their own form and palmarès and, in particular, on the collective abilities of their respective Sky, Movistar and Tinkoff teams. It was expected that the big three would mark each other closely, with only injury, illness or individual opportunism likely to differentiate before their rivalry was played out on the most vertiginous of the Tour’s ascents.

As things transpired, all three came into play. Contador succumbed to the effects of crashes early in the race, while Quintana’s own performance was inhibited throughout by illness. This was exacerbated by Froome’s willingness to do the unexpected; to go against the unfair stereotype he bears of being a robotic rider in thrall to the data available on his cycling computer and the instructions received from sporting directors through his earpiece.

Froome is renowned for his sudden accelerations on the Pyrenean and Alpine climbs. Rival teams watch closely, preparing to respond, either accompanying him as he breaks away from the peloton, or neutralising his efforts. On stage 8 of the Tour, there was some relief as the summit of the Col de Peyresourde was attained with the leading group intact.

As Quintana reached for his water bottle, however, Froome attacked as the road dropped downhill, assuming an ungainly and uncomfortable position on the crossbar of his road bike. It proved to be a turning point in the race, laying the foundations for Froome’s overall victory, expertly marshalled and supported by his teammates over the remaining thirteen stages.

Vuelta a Espana - Stage 21
[Photo credit: Quintana takes the honours, Stage 21 of La Vuelta, Graham Watson]

Seize the day
At the start of the Vuelta a España in mid-August, the names of the same three contenders for overall victory were on everyone’s lips. New variables were in play. How well had Contador recovered from his injuries, Quintana from illness, Froome from his efforts at both the Tour and the Olympics, where he had medalled in the time trial event? How would the apparently weaker Tinkoff and Sky teams respond to the collective strength of the Movistar squad? How would Froome cope without his Tour wingman Wout Poels?

In recent editions, the Vuelta has become known for its challenging climbs and searing heat. The 2016 race had been designed with several mountain-top finishes that would serve as enticing canvases for the climbing artists. One stage, though, stood out in the final week: an individual time trial, which many believed favoured Froome. If other aspirants to overall victory wished to take the sting out of that particular day, then they would need to accumulate a significant time advantage.

In the Vuelta, time can be gained in two ways. First, by finishing ahead of your competitors, thereby securing a time gap over them. Second, by winning the stage or finishing high up on it, particularly on the more difficult climbs, thereby earning time bonuses. The rider who has the lowest overall time after three weeks is declared the winner of the race.

Teamwork becomes essential, therefore, as members of a squad sacrifice their own prospects of finishing high up on the general classification in order to ensure that a colleague does. Trust-based relationships and collaboration informed by a shared purpose define the dynamics of the team. Often, however, there is a need for this to be supplemented by cooperation with riders from rival teams. These temporary alliances are mutually convenient as the pursuit of distinct goals are benefited by working together.

The Vuelta started with a team time trial, which immediately disadvantaged Contador, as his underperforming team lost time to the other overall contenders. This recast him in the role of agitator, of opportunistic forager, seeking out ways to regain time and a spot on the podium, if not overall victory. His actions later in the race would benefit Quintana, who soon established himself as the rider to watch on the steepest of slopes, assuming race leadership by the midpoint of the Vuelta.

On paper, stage 15 looked like it would be short but explosive. Only 118km in length, from Sabiñánigo to Aramon Formigal, it had a lumpy profile, with three classified climbs, culminating in a mountain-top finish. With 112km still to race, and the peloton already on the first of the day’s ramps, Contador made the jump. His attack was marked by Quintana, and together they formed an alliance, each with two teammates alongside them, as they pulled away as part of the day’s breakaway. A gamble was rapidly translated into a race-transforming opportunity.

Froome was left behind, and as the day progressed found himself isolated without teammates from Sky. Meanwhile, Quintana’s own Movistar colleagues expertly disrupted attempts to chase down the breakaway. The events of the day were as much about Quintana’s own seizing of it as the work of his team behind him. Second place on the stage, a time bonus and Froome’s loss of over two-and-a-half minutes secured the temporal buffer Quintana required prior to the time trial. Froome’s phenomenal performance in the latter suggested what might have been, with the Sky rider clawing back two-and-a-quarter minutes from Quintana. But the latter and his Movistar team had effectively won the race on 4 September.

Peloton lessons
Stories from the peloton frequently demonstrate that it is about so much more than the individual. Network effects are key, both within the clearly delimited organisation of the team, and in the messier relationships and alliances with others in the peloton. The technical policies, rules and regulations of governing bodies and event organisers give a semblance of structure to the races. But the teams use them as creative constraints, operating more under flexible frameworks than rigid plans. Without responsiveness and autonomy, without the willingness to experiment, these teams would experience little success, letting one opportunity after another pass them by.

Paradoxically, life in the peloton is about both preparing and being willing to discard a plan at a moment’s notice. It is what Harold Jarche refers to as life in perpetual beta. Complexity cannot be dealt with in simplistic terms, uncertainty is a constant, and individuals have to be willing to respond to momentary context and trust their colleagues to follow their lead. How many organisations in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors do you know that operate like this?

Pelotons are able to function in the way that they do because learning and experience is embedded within them. Young riders are mentored by seasoned professionals. They learn through imitation, trial and error, developing both instinct and intuition, daring to experiment when the occasion presents itself. The sport is all about life lessons acquired on the road, the knowledge gained from numerous failures as relevant as that acquired through the occasional success. Teamwork provides firm foundations. But autonomy within loose frameworks, decision-making and accountability are all encouraged from early on. It is this crucial combination – individual action contextualised in relation to the collective – that the modern corporation, government agency and charity now need to learn.

Using vivid storytelling techniques, including themes, symbols, imagery, rituals, mantras and metaphor, and bringing them to life with imagination and flair, leaders create a sense of inclusion, connectedness and unity – a truly collective, collaborative mindset. It begins by asking Why? Why are we doing this? Why am I sacrificing myself for this project? What is the higher purpose?
— James Kerr, Legacy

To be a participant in a complex system is to desire to be both lost and found in the interrelationships between people, nature, and ideas.
— Nora Bateson, Small Arcs of Larger Circles

The collective is reflected in the individual.
— Faisal Hoque and Drake Baer, Everything Connects

 

Context shift

This article was commissioned by the CMI in Australia in 2015 and subsequently published as a white paper in July 2016.

The business of change is changing

Change is constant. It is a commonly accepted aphorism. Life itself is a series of changes, whether the seasons of the year or the morphing of our own bodies as we age. But just as matter can evolve and change, so can ideas. Change itself can change too, our conception of it, how we respond to and manage it.

The first fifteen years of the current century have played out to a backdrop of social, political, economic and environmental upheaval. At the same time, we have witnessed accelerated technological advances in relation to communication, big data, workplace automation, healthcare, transportation and alternative currencies.

The Digital Age also has prompted us to reconsider how we organise ourselves, resulting in experimentation with different structural models. It has enabled greater collaboration, cooperation and partnership between companies, their customers and suppliers. It has raised questions about where and how work is conducted, the permanence of the employer-employee relationship, the value of the network, and the need for both individual and corporate agility and responsiveness.

Organisations recognise the need to modernise. More often than not, however, changes are currently tackled in traditional areas of structure, processes, roles and technology in project-based packages. Frequently, consultancies are commissioned to help affect the change. The near future requires a dual-operating-system approach that blends traditional methods of engagement with experimental and networked partnerships, comprised of workforces that transcend organisational boundaries but are united in common purpose.

Change specialists that traditionally have had a transactional approach to change are beginning to adapt their offering. The emphasis has shifted to ecosystems, platforms and partnerships. This entails a transformational approach to change, one involving mentoring and coaching of change agents, advocates and leaders, that ensures their long-term self-sufficiency. The approach is adaptive and context-based, rather than process-oriented and constrained by old methodologies. Business relationships are developing around small and frequent projects and experiments, rather than single, large-scale interventions.

Points for discussion and action

  1. Be prepared to change your business model, particularly if you have been reliant to date solely on leveraging intellectual property. Shift your focus on to service and long-term relationships.
  2. Focus on the transformational, preparing the way for others, transferring skills to them, mentoring and guiding. Leadership can come from anywhere, dependent on context. Help develop the capability to both lead and follow in your people.
  3. Work in partnership. Many who work with you will no longer be on your payroll. Suppliers, other businesses, freelancers and customers will become as vital to the delivery of your products and services as your own people. Build the platform and nurture the ecosystem.

Out with the old

It is a typical scenario… Motivated by the appointment of a new CEO and significant shifts in the legislative and regulatory framework under which it operates, an organisation initiates an extensive change programme. At its heart is a structural overhaul. Assistance is commissioned from change specialists with deep experience in organisational design. This most likely will be an external agency but may be a dedicated internal department in a large organisation. Weeks of interviews, meetings and workshops follow as the change specialists work through their well-proven methodology.

At the end of the engagement, the commissioning organisation receives a lengthy slide deck. The relationship has been purely transactional, the cost-per-slide highly expensive. The hard work – transformational change itself – remains to be done. But the organisation is flying solo now, with some graphics-heavy slides to serve as reference guides.

A rarer scenario… An organisation recognises that it needs to modernise. This is seen as an incremental, long-term endeavour that will need to be broken up into a series of projects. The programme will cover organisational purpose, structure, roles and responsibilities, location, infrastructure and technology. Even as the organisation transforms, it will need to continue with the provision of current products and services to its customers.

It too seeks assistance from change specialists. With one important difference. It starts small, focusing on one project only, which is treated as an experiment, a low-cost, low-risk Trojan Mouse [1]. One, however, that has the potential to promote a significant shift in the perspective of people working for or with an interest in the organisation.

While the outcome of the project itself is important to the commissioning organisation, so too is the collaboration with the change specialists. A trust-based relationship, leading to successful delivery and the transfer of skills and accountability to internal people, is likely to lay the foundations for a long-term partnership throughout the lifetime of the programme — and beyond.

The result is a transformational programme, a fluid, collaborative and cooperative exercise that is tailored for the needs of the organisation and its people. This is not a cookie-cutter or colour-by- numbers approach, but one that is responsive and adaptive. Together the commissioning organisation and the change specialists create a platform on to which they invite others from their network who have the requisite skills and experience to meet certain challenges, share knowledge, and assist the organisation in its evolution. They create a network of small pieces loosely joined [2] that is united in common purpose.

Why change change?

These are far from hypothetical scenarios. Although anonymised, they are based on real events, real experiences of the past decade. Why does the second scenario feel so compelling, so necessary today? What is it about the first scenario that strikes us as outmoded and unfit for the Digital Age? Why is it that the business of change is itself having to change? What is the background economic, political, technological and cultural context to these changes? What emergent trends have been detected and how should they be accommodated?

Nothing works in isolation. Everything is connected. The operation of a business is shaped and informed by the socio-political environment in which it exists. Opportunities and challenges are spawned by government policy, social movements, cultural events and technological innovations. This has been the backdrop of the last fifteen years. The false dawn of the dot-com boom nevertheless paved the way for great advances in digital and mobile technologies that have affected the way we do commerce, communicate with other people and organise ourselves. It has had an impact on how we collect and make use of data, how we manage and share knowledge, the way we run our businesses, our political and economic institutions, as well as the mechanisms via which citizens can question and challenge them. Digital currencies, changes in transportation and the automation of jobs that involve repetitive activities are only likely to accelerate things.

An economic crisis that has swept through most Western nations has prompted many to query the viability of practices in banking, government and industry that were prevalent for much of the previous century. Humanitarian crises, as a result of natural disasters, armed conflicts and the mass movement of refugees and economic migrants, have served to foment the calls for change. People are mobilising to find different, more effective, more people-centred approaches to getting things done.

In Swarmwise, [3] for example, Rick Falkvinge reflects on the emergence of the Pirate Party as part of the political landscape in Sweden and the effect this had elsewhere in Europe. In Networks of Outrage and Hope, [4] Manuel Castells documents the power of digitally-savvy social movements and the challenges they pose to the status quo, whether in confronting dictatorships in the Middle East and North Africa or physically blockading prominent financial institutions via the Occupy initiative. In Open, [5] David Price sets out some of the fundamental shifts that are developing in the education sector. In ReWork [6] and A Year Without Pants, [7] business leaders outline their approach to new working practices, adopted by dispersed workforces, that have been enabled by technological change. In Accelerate, [8] academic and consultant John Kotter outlines how these changes can be incorporated and built upon in established enterprises. This requires a dual- operating-system approach, accommodating experimental, networked change programmes alongside more traditional hierarchical organisational structures.

Many acknowledge the need for change but bump up against the constraints of cultural inertia. Their stories and the lessons learned form the backdrop to Jane McConnell’s The Organization in the Digital Age. [9] They have looked beyond the confines of their own organisations, connecting with like-minded change advocates, recognising the need for external influence.

Involvement in and access to cross-border communities like Corporate Rebels United, Change Agents Worldwide and Rebels at Work have served as the catalyst to change agency within established institutions. These networked connections have helped make organisations more porous, more receptive to external influence. A case in point is the extensive change programme being undertaken in the UK’s NHS. A white paper [10] written by Helen Bevan and Steve Fairman synthesises ideas from outside the domain of healthcare. This is already translating into the mobilisation of change agents across the many different bodies that comprise the NHS.

This change zeitgeist pervades everywhere. It extends beyond other sectors, other practices, to the business of change itself and the many change specialists, in companies large and small, that operate in this space. The challenge is how to stay relevant? How to let go of the tried-and-tested and develop a more bespoke approach? What are the factors that change specialists need to be taking into consideration to make them viable in the Digital Age?

Atomisation

We know that the application of an external agent – another chemical, heat, extreme cold – can have a dramatic impact on the composition of substances. Moving from solid to liquid to gas, the organisation of atoms appears more random and dispersed; harder to contain. External agents can have a similar effect on people and their organisations too. Government policy, regulation, court rulings, financial crashes and, most importantly, customer needs can all trigger change.

It is not a new phenomenon. The Hollywood film industry was affected by rulings in the 1940s that forced horizontally-and-vertically integrated monopolies to divest themselves of their distribution arms. No longer could a single studio control the whole life cycle of a film from inception to reception by the film-going public. They had to re-think a model that had seen them using only contract personnel to make movies and their own exhibition outlets to show them. The privatisation initiatives of the Reagan-Thatcher years and beyond similarly saw the fragmentation of large institutions, broken up into cooperative, frequently competitive, parts. British Rail, for example, gradually morphed into an assortment of public, private and non-profit bodies, focused on infrastructure, safety, regulation and services for both passengers and freight companies.

The NHS, on the other hand, has always been atomised, constantly shifting in shape, adapting to government changes, new policies, new priorities. Each body, whether health trust, GP clinic or civil-service institution, plays a role on a wider stage, is one node in a vast network of interrelated services. They have to be adaptive. They are constantly challenged to do more with less.

In the private sector, a responsive aptitude is responsible for a high degree of atomisation and diversification in what Nicholas Vitalari and Haydn Shaughnessy have termed The Elastic Enterprise. [11] Here companies like Apple and Google are constantly moving into new markets, adding to their portfolio of products and services. Apple, for example, has evolved from a manufacturer of personal computers to a major player in music, mobile telephony and wearables. Google has morphed from a specialist in web-based search algorithms to a business leader in advertising, mobile and transportation.

Both companies have created platforms – iOS and Android – around which entire ecosystems have been established. Business partners and solo app developers orbit around them, enjoying a symbiotic relationship with the platform owners. Meanwhile Apple, Google and other players are constantly on the lookout for new additions to their portfolios. As Dave Gray observes in his Medium article ‘Change is Changing’, [12] for such companies business change has become something that does not happen once in a while but all the time.

It is a shift that is replicated elsewhere, as outlined by the authors of Deloitte’s Business Ecosystems Come of Age. [13] It is also reflected in the high numbers of people now reported to be self- employed or freelancing. Organisations can no longer depend solely on those people who are on their own payroll. Instead they work in time-bound partnerships with suppliers, customers and freelancers to deliver projects. Small pieces loosely joined. Portfolios temporarily overlapping one another like Venn diagrams. They then reshape for the next initiative, working with those whose skills and experience are most relevant. It is the great challenge in a world of constant change: how to remain both adaptive and relevant?

Collaboration is not enough

In Playing to Win, [14] A. G. Lafley and Roger Martin recount how Proctor & Gamble entered into a partnership venture with another organisation. Both had an interest in the cling wrap and bin liner market. Clorox were seeking to consolidate after their acquisition of the Glad brand. P&G were exploring how to either position two new products or, alternatively, license out innovative technology. Rather than competing in this market, as they did elsewhere, the two companies opted instead to work together, with P&G following Clorox’s lead in the arrangement. In modern working practices, we have to go beyond simple collaboration to both survive and thrive.

The notion is core to Harold Jarche’s analysis of the networked Digital Age in his Finding Perpetual Beta. [15] With collaboration people work together towards a common objective. Often this collaboration is structured and overseen by an individual with managerial responsibilities. It is, at heart, a hierarchical endeavour. With cooperation, however, time-bound alliances can develop between people who may be pursuing different goals but can derive mutual benefit from working together. This is more representative of network operation, and does not preclude a reversion to competition as the context changes in which cooperation took place.

This is well illustrated by an example from the sporting world. In a professional cycling event, like the Tour de France, several teams compete. Each team is comprised of nine riders and will have different objectives for each day of racing, as well as for the overall three-week event. Within each team the nine riders and the support team of sporting directors, carers, mechanics and chefs collaborate towards the achievement of their daily objectives. But each day too will witness cooperation, as well as competition, between riders in different teams. This can be between riders in the breakaway working together until close to the finish line, or the different teams leading the peloton’s chase of the breakaway, or the riders who are trailing behind the main bunch working together to stay within the cut-off time, team and personal rivalries temporarily put on hold. Context and personal autonomy inform how these different partnerships form and play out.

As Jarche recognises, with cooperation there does not have to be an immediate pay-off. The benefits to be derived can be long-term. Relationships are the currency, with favours given and taken, social capital accumulated over time. It poses a challenge to those familiar only with traditional, transactional arrangements. How do they adapt to the service economy while remaining financially viable?

Leadership fluidity

The authors of a 2014 IBM report, Making Change Work, [16] recognise the need for leadership at all levels of the modern organisation. This notion of universal leadership capability is echoed by Vitalari and Shaughnessy. Leadership is no longer about job title, hierarchical position or stripes on the arm. It is governed by context. It is fluid, constantly in motion. Clorox, for example, can be the smaller partner, lacking either P&G’s scale or their research and development capability. Nevertheless, they can assume the leadership of a joint venture. The sprinter, who will be minutes behind and following the leadership of the climbers in the Alps, can then assume team leadership on the flatlands. The owner of iTunes can follow the lead of the artists who make their music available on its platform. The head surgeon at a London hospital can take the advice of a Formula 1 pit-stop team member.

The wirearchy principle, [17] formulated by Jon Husband and expanded upon by many others, suggests that knowledge, authority and power remain in a dynamic flow. In the right context – stepping however temporarily into a hierarchical role, exercising a specialism, drawing on and sharing one’s experience and expertise – an individual’s node may light up in the network. In that moment, at that time, they are required to lead. Others look to follow them. But then the context changes, and they are then expected to have the humility to follow the lead of other people. It is not a dismantling of hierarchy, rather it is a decoupling of any one person from a set position in the hierarchy. People step in and out of roles, as determined by circumstance.

It is yet another challenge to the change specialist. It highlights the need to establish relationships throughout an organisation, building communities, developing and recognising leadership capability within others. To only have a relationship with the occupant of the corner office or their colleagues in the executive team is to inhibit the effectiveness of any change initiative and to harm the potential for long-term partnership with clients. The NHS change programme that Bevan and Fairman highlight seeks out and celebrates the rebels at the edge of the organisation, harnessing their energy and enthusiasm to establish a network of change activists – agents, advocates, leaders. The potential negativity of dissatisfaction and complaint is rechanneled, manifesting itself instead as transformational leadership, forward-looking rather than regressive.

Beyond financial capital

At the root of a transactional relationship is the idea of financial capital. I offer you a product or service. In exchange you provide me with money. It is cold, clinical. It is the model that has dominated, certainly in Western society, at least since the Industrial Revolution. But as the trappings of industrialisation are being reviewed and challenged, from environmental impact to banking systems and scientific management practices, so alternative systems, some ancient, some modern, are being assessed. Bartering, the exchange of goods and services for other goods and services, is one alternative. So too reputation-based trade, where both parties rate one another – whether on auction sites like eBay or on transportation and accommodation services like Uber and Airbnb.

It used to be the case that companies built their business model around the exploitation of their intellectual property – patents, trademarks, publications, consultancy methodologies. In the Digital Age of networked interactions, platforms and partnerships, now social capital plays an equally important role. We develop dependencies on trust-based relationships. We create spaces in which others can earn our trust.

When Apple launched the iPhone, they introduced iOS, an operating system that had evolved from their work on the Mac. It was a walled garden, containing a small number of apps developed by Apple itself. The decision to introduce a software development kit and allow third-party developers to create their own apps for iOS changed the game. An ecosystem developed that involved the platform owner, thousands of developers and millions of consumers. Many of the apps required no financial exchange. Social capital was established first, and ensuing relationships ultimately created revenue streams.

P&G could have licensed their methods to Clorox, exploiting their intellectual property as they had done in the past. Instead they entered into a partnership with a competitor. Financial exchanges followed after a social capital foundation had been laid, with P&G extending its stake in the Glad brand. Within five years this was a billion-dollar business benefiting both organisations.

Social capital can help enable knowledge to flow, it can strengthen industries as they establish connections with other sectors, exposing themselves to other ideas. In The Checklist Manifesto, [18] for example, US surgeon Atul Gawande relates how he turned to people in the construction, aviation and finance industries to learn lessons that could help him and his colleagues reduce incidences of post-surgery infection. This was not about financial exchange, it was about relationship building, support and empathy. Ideas from one industry cross-pollinated with ideas from another to affect practice and foster change in yet another.

The change specialist is ideally positioned to have a similar cross-pollinating effect across numerous industries. When their focus is on social capital before financial capital, they serve as bridges between multiple industries, multiple nodes in this networked world. The change specialist becomes the connector in the business of knowledgeable networking. Through partnership with one organisation, they benefit many others.

 

References

[1] The term Trojan Mice was coined by Peter Fryer. It gained broader currency as a result of Euan Semple’s Organizations Don’t Tweet, People Do: A Manager’s Guide to the Social Web (Wiley, 2012).

[2] David Weinberger, Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web (Basic Books, 2003).

[3] Rick Falkvinge, Swarmwise: The Tactical Manual to Changing the World (CreateSpace Publishing, 2013).

[4] Manuel Castells, Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age (Polity, 2015, 2nd edition).

[5] David Price, Open: How We’ll Work, Live and Learn in the Future (Crux Publishing, 2013).

[6] Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, ReWork: Change the Way You Work Forever (Vermilion, 2010).

[7] Scott Berkun, The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work (Jossey-Bass, 2013).

[8] John Kotter, Accelerate: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster-Moving World (Harvard Business Review Press, 2014).

[9] Jane McConnell, The Organization in the Digital Age (NetJMC, 2015). http://www.organization-digital-age.com

[10] Helen Bevan and Steve Fairman, The New Era of Thinking and Practice in Change and Transformation: A Call to Action for Leaders of Health and Care (NHSIQ, 2014). https://www.england.nhs.uk/improvement-hub/wp-content/uploads/sites/44/2018/09/Change-and-Transformation-White-Paper.pdf

[11] Nicholas Vitalari and Haydn Shaughnessy, The Elastic Enterprise: The New Manifesto for Business Revolution (Telemachus Press, 2012).

[12] Dave Gray, ‘Change is Changing’, Medium (April 2015). https://medium.com/the-connected-company/change-is-changing-f29e2826a703

[13] Eamonn Kelly, et al, Business Ecosystems Come of Age (Deloitte University Press, 2015). http://dupress.com/periodical/trends/business-trends-series/

[14] A. G. Lafley and Roger L. Martin, Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013).

[15] Harold Jarche, Finding Perpetual Beta (Jarche.com, 2014). http://jarche.com/2014/12/finding-perpetual-beta/

[16] Hans-Henrik Jørgensen, et al, Making Change Work… While Work Keeps Changing: How Change Architects Lead and Manage Organisational Change (IBM Institute for Business Value, 2014). http://www-935.ibm.com/services/us/gbs/bus/html/gbs-making-change-work.html

[17] Jon Husband, et al, Wirearchy: Sketches for the Future of Work (Wirearchy Commons, 2015). http://wirearchy.com/wirearchy-the-ebook/

[18] Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right (Profile Books, 2010).

Pace

Whether his little brain be quick or slow,
Man everywhere quakes at the mystery,
And looks up only with a trembling eye.
— Charles Baudelaire, ‘The Pot Lid’

When things happen too fast, nobody can be certain about anything, about anything at all, not even about himself.
— Milan Kundera, Slowness

We have all been too quick to make up our minds and too slow to change them.
— Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner, Superforecasting

A few years ago, on the morning of a friend’s wedding, I went for a bike ride in the wine country to the south of Dijon. Returning back to the city on a circuitous route, I had one of those rare moments when I experienced flow. It is a memory I return to often, a raft of stillness highlighted in the frenetic maelstrom of modern life. I visualise a gentle incline curving through an agricultural landscape, climbing towards a small village atop a hill. Everywhere I look is yellow and green. Rich perfume wafts from the crops that surround me. At my back is both the sun and a light breeze, inducing pleasurable early summer sensations on my bare legs and arms. The act of pedalling feels effortless. Man, nature and machine are at one.

When I first rediscovered a love of the bike as I approached my forties, there was too much focus on the paraphernalia of cycling, the right kit, the measurement of distance, climbs and, above all, speed. Meandering through my forties, those obsessions have fallen away. I am content with the single bicycle I own now, that sees me through all twelve months of the year. I am more interested in the journey than the destination, and anything that measures has been discarded or hidden away. If I need to know the time, then I have to fish my smartphone out of my back pocket. That device is referred to more often for navigation as I venture down the path less taken, or note-taking as the mechanics of the body free up the mind to craft the phrases and paragraphs that end up in my writing.

Of course, all journeys ultimately have a destination, often a deadline too. These can add a little creative constraint and are often helpful. But the path of obliquity, while moving towards that destination, is often far more interesting than that of directness and speed. The journey can be physical, actually moving through space and time, or it can be mental, venturing into the mindscapes of imagination, reflection and memory. The path tends, therefore, to eventually bend back on itself, leading to home, or to the self. Astride my bike, heading out from Whitstable, I can visit the coast, climb up on to the Downs, head for the woods or find my way to the nearby city of Canterbury. Walking along the beach, I can plug in earbuds and listen to music or interviews. Either option opens up the possibility of physical wandering and mental flâneurie. Both have the effect of slowing and expanding time.

Twenty's Plenty
[Photo credit: Pace of Life, Richard Martin, April 2015]

While writing books, I find that I spend almost as much time walking as I do sitting at my desk, chained to a keyboard. Walks along the seafront present me with the opportunity to listen to and absorb the recordings of interview material. They help me shape ideas, discovering ways to express what I have been grappling with while looking at that blinking cursor on the screen. They offer extended periods of reflection, allowing for the creative mash-up of ideas and insights from the different books, articles and blog posts I have read; the fusion of fiction, poetry, art, science, business and sport. The ability to go slow, to wander and ponder, enables the discovery of intriguing synergies and connections. I doubt that stasis, under the pressure of having to write quickly, would have the same effect.

Long periods of slow motion and fluid thinking are punctuated by short bursts of rapid writing, followed by further reflection and intermittent editing. It has a rhythm of sorts, a destination and deadline too. Prevarication is balanced by discipline; Daniel Kahneman’s slow thinking (system 2) counterweighted by fast thinking (system 1). Changes of pace are made to match contextual shifts. But always there is a tendency to gravitate back to the slow pace – reading a book or two, visiting a gallery, going to the woods – allowing ideas and memories to assemble themselves into some kind of meaningful order. All of it corralled by the act of wandering. It is the nourishment of a leisurely meal enjoyed in the company of friends and family rather than the quick fix of a fast-food snack.

Much that I write I understand to be in conversation with other ideas, other publications, other people. Unhurried discussion is opened up when we choose to click on that publish button. The writing is always in motion, slowly finding its way to new readers.

To defeat the ill effects of urgency, then, we need two types of tools: those fostering greater awareness of our situational need for closure at a particular juncture, and those that keep the consequences of decisions salient at the right moments.
— Jamie Holmes, Nonsense

If we make the speed of light the constant, then time slows down the faster we move, lengths contract, and masses increase. We enter the world of special relativity.
— Gary Klein, Seeing What Others Don’t

Walking is the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found.
— Frédéric Gros, A Philosophy of Walking

Because of this at this moment I know
something of the future, how it will
give itself to us slowly, its reticence.
— James Sallis, ‘Trying to Surface’

The continuum

Multa novit vulpes, verum echinus unum magnum / The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog one big thing.
— Desiderius Erasmus, Adages

We are tornadoes that pick up fragments from the most varied historical and biological origins. This makes of us—thankfully—fickle agglomerations that maintain a fragile equilibrium, that are inconsistent and complex, that can’t be reduced to any fixed framework that does not inevitably leave out a great deal.
— Elena Ferrante, Frantumaglia

Edges involve extremes. Edges are borders. Edges are very much about identity, about who you are. Crossing a border is not a simple thing. Geopolitically, getting anywhere around the world in which we live requires a constant producing of proof of identity. Who are you? You can’t cross till we’re sure. When we know, then we’ll decide whether you can or not.
— Ali Smith, Artful

The Greek poet Archilochus observed that the hedgehog knows one big thing but that the fox is curious about many things. His anthropomorphic distinction between specialism and generalism appealed to the Renaissance scholar Erasmus who included the idea in his Adages.

Isaiah Berlin popularised the concept further as he assessed the writings of Tolstoy and his Russian compatriots. He recognised the distinction between personal preference for one tendency and the lived reality of its alternative.

Philip Tetlock applied the hedgehog and fox distinctions to expertise. He realised that there was a continuum between the two. Nothing was black and white. Hybridisation was possible. Context was important for determining where one found oneself on the continuum.

The hedgehog and the fox

But the hedgehog and the fox only told part of the story. The extremes of the continuum are the domains of the hyperspecialist and the polymath.

The continuum as line

Given the shape of the Earth, a straight line will eventually lead back to its starting point. To chase the horizon is, eventually, to return home.

When the continuum is transformed into a circle, therefore, the hyperspecialist and the polymath find themselves nestled alongside one another. Initial surprise gives way to understanding: the polymath, in effect, is an individual who hyperspecialises multiple times over. They are serial masters.

The continuum as circle

The line and circle, however, misleadingly suggest some form of step-by-step progression. The reality is more complicated than that. As the context shifts, so does the individual. We experience hyperlinked, disjointed travels on the continuum. Sometimes we specialise, sometimes we generalise, regardless of where our preferences lie. The Möbius strip or infinite loop better reflect the experience.

The continuum as infinite loop

The neo-generalist is an inclusive term that incorporates all the different types that appear on the continuum: the specialists, the hedgehogs, the foxes, the renaissance men and women, the multipotentialites, the multi-hyphenates, the jacks of all trades, the Pi-shaped, the comb-shaped, the T-shaped (even if they are often miscategorised, misunderstood*) and the polymathic generalists.

The specialist–generalist continuum

In The Neo-Generalist, Kenneth Mikkelsen and I explore how those with a preference for polymathic generalism nevertheless find themselves in constant and restless motion, responding and adapting to context. We illustrate our argument with stories drawn from interviewees, historical figures, business, activism, science, sport, the military, art and popular culture.

You can see how these various musings provide a theoretical foundation for our exploration of neo-generalism in chapter two of the book. Our personal stories are mapped to the specialist–generalist continuum in chapter three.

‘This isn’t just an ordinary up-and-down lift!’ announced Mr Wonka proudly. ‘This lift can go sideways and longways and slantways and any other way you can think of! It can visit any single room in the whole factory, no matter where it is!’ … ‘The whole lift is made of thick, clear glass!’ Mr Wonka declared. ‘Walls. doors, ceiling, floor, everything is made of glass so you can see out!’
— Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

I can’t think of a single philosophical reason why sameness should be valued over variety or incremental changes over great leaps.
— Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking

To have a home is to have a biography. A narrative to refer to in years to come.
— Deborah Levy, Swallowing Geography

* A T-shaped person, is often a specialist (I – hedgehog) who has been given a manager’s hat. Invariably, this is the only way they can achieve promotion and greater remuneration. They should not be confused with the comb-shaped (WWW – polymathic generalist). The T-shaped usually incline more towards specialism than generalism. Their knowledge and experience enable them to manage and instruct others in their area of expertise. However, as they embrace leadership responsibilities, becoming more involved in the development of other people through mentoring and coaching, or assuming cross-organisational responsibilities, they venture into generalist territory too. This is why, in The Neo-Generalist, we argue that it is necessary to reposition the T on the specialist–generalist continuum.