E80pxtreeveryone’s been very grumpy this week. Is it the rain?
A strategy session this week with a particularly delightful and smart team got into grumpy territory. The team got stuck on not being smart enough, on not having been quick enough to spot something that had been going on in the business.

Strange, because it wasn’t true.

We unraveled a most fantastic chain of thinking.

It all started with one person reporting a feeling familiar to so many of us after a tough meeting.  You know that mental ‘slap’ you feel as you think of exactly the right response?  That excellent response thought that arrives approximately 7 minutes after you have left the room?

The French call it ‘ l’esprit d’escalier’ (my team called it ‘wit delayed’) describing how the perfect response (mot juste?) occurs as you leave by the stairs.

I think this disguises what has actually happened.

I don’t think it’s slow thinking or delayed wit.

I think it’s the fact that another meaning beneath what has been said to you has had to be weighed alongside the apparent surface message. I think this ‘esprit d’escalier’ happens when a seriously forked tongue conversation has been going on. Who wouldn’t need a few minutes to reconcile the un-reconcilable? Who wouldn’t need a few minutes to excavate the unreasonableness beneath the apparent reason?

It would be easy to blame the inexorable increase of general obfuscation in business speak. (Why say ‘how does this look to others?’ when you can ask ‘what are the optics here’? (!))

But an article about evolutionary science that I happened to have read offered us another lens with which to view what might have been going on. And seemed to help the team get to a less self-flagellating conclusion.
EO Wilson is the world authority on ‘eusociality’. He knows everything, as in everything, about ants. And natural selection. He and Richard Dawkins fell out spectacularly over the validity of the selfish gene theory to explain post Darwin thinking.

Unhampered by any relevant expertise I’m going to back the venerable Mr Wilson.

He notes two conflicting forces working for survival in all of us, at two levels. The individual level and the group level; the altruistic force and the selfish force.  He tells us that a selfish force trumps an altruistic force within a group, but that an altruistic force trumps a selfish force amongst groups. The tension is constant – if we move too far along a selfish line individually, our ability to survive as a group will dissolve – yet if we move too far along an altruistic line as a group, we will all be eaten by another group.

Doesn’t this constant and alternating tension between group and individual survival sound as if it could be operating at an organizational level? So many ‘forked tongue’ conversations are essentially about this interplay. Might that be why sometimes unreasonableness seems to lie beneath reasonableness in tough business conversations – the tension between the selfish and the altruistic, the group level and the individual level? Perhaps that perfect response on the stairs appears delayed because it is a response to a genuinely complicated exchange, involving the identification of these opposing forces.

The team concluded that they were as smart as can be.

Quite right.

Within groups, selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals but in the selection of other traits of individuals that are interactive with other individuals – social traits – then groups of altruists defeat groups of selfish individuals,” Wilson explains. “In a nutshell, individual selection favours what we call sin and group selection favours virtue.

From ants to organisations?


Penny Hunt and Change Chemistry logo image

Splashed through the delighting deluge and made it to the café. We were all in the Truman Show that day – completely at the mercy of whatever the Christof / Ed Harris producer character felt like throwing at us with his machinery and hidden cameras.

Safe now with an espresso.

I’m seeing everything through the lens of technology at the moment. It’s because of a strange coincidence yesterday.Penny Hunt's drawing of cafe culture and the wisdom of effective listening

In this very café a heart-stopping drama unfolded. The beautiful girl of a couple of weeks ago (her interview went brilliantly by the way) appeared to have lost a child. Shock. Fear. Cries to curdle a cricket bat. Primeval cries.

But the loss wasn’t a child.

The loss was her ‘phone.

Has it happened to you recently? I mean – since the addiction really took hold?  I could see her point of view (lets talk about empathy another time).  My own experience, but days earlier, had been of a stricken sinking feeling on realizing that the ‘phone was on the kitchen table while I was at the ticket barrier. The wrong side,the commitment side. By the bottom of the escalator I had fast forwarded through the stages of grief – denial, anger, negotiation, intense sadness and then finally acceptance (Uncannily like the quick change of weather forms in the Truman show, come to think of it). Except the last stage still wasn’t real. Acceptance took longer. I felt naked and lost and cut off. Part of me, a very important part, was missing.

What is this all about?

In Philip Pullmans Dark Materials the characters’ daemons are physical representations of part of the soul.æmon_(His_Dark_Materials) There are now online quizzes where you can identify what animal form your daemon would take.

Clever Mr Pullman. So it turns out they’re not just animals but also fruits – apples and blackberrys.

This sense of loss is profound. Something really is happening to us, fast.

We now spend 1 in every 12 waking minutes online in the UK

The University of Maryland researched attachment to our devices as long ago as 2010 and heard from students asked to be without their phones for 24 hours phrases like ‘ most horrible experience in my life’, ‘lost part of myself’. 70% quit the study.

So while wonderful opportunities and connections and inventiveness are unfolding and made possible by our new daemons, we also develop the characteristics of addiction, and lose access to other parts of ourselves.

During my day of ‘phonelessness, I experienced the strange but dimly-remembered sensation of thoughts leading on to other thoughts, rather than being interrupted by the urgency of attractive new stuff on the ‘phone. I know I became more attentive to the people I saw that day, too. The listening, the conversation, the connecting, got richer and better.

In the café the drama was still full of energy, but gradually reaching that acceptance stage.  Our heroine was twitching but settling into her chair in a ‘that’s how it is’ way.

What are you going to do?” asked her companion
I guess we’ll just talk” she answered with the first laugh of the exchange.

So the listening and connecting began.