Episode One Hundred and Sixty Five: They Don’t Owe You Anything; Awkwardly Specialised 

by danhon

0.0 Sitrep

I am covered in insect bites. Please send antihistamines.

1.0 They Don’t Owe You Anything

The culmination of over ten years worth of conversations about institutions and desperately, impatiently wanting them to grasp the potential of the future, to prepare for it and to lead and instead growing up and having a major shift in perspective.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (the astute among you will note that I’ve decided to spell out the organisation’s name as opposed to use its more popular acronym) occupies a peculiar part of the British psyche. For those who are public service minded, the Reithian ideals of Inform, Educate and Entertain were pretty much a defining mission statement of the potential and power of the internet in the mid to late 90s, never mind the early 2000s. A two-way communication network, open to all, with the potential to connect everyone. What better way to Inform, Educate and Entertain?

But of course it turns out that the BBC is, at 92 years old, only eight years off its centenary. And it turns out that the middle B, the Broadcasting, is pretty central to what it does, regardless of the remarkably forward thinking media-agnostic vision statement.

Institutions are built to do what the institution does, whether explicitly or implicitly. It’s hard to fault them for not doing that, it’s pretty much what their job is. Sometimes it’s easy to confuse job-with-method-of-doing-job – and from that we can pretty much draw a straight line to “the job of moving people around” to the fuzzy concept of “the job of protecting the way that we move people around”, irrespective of whether you agree on Travis Kalanick’s definitions of who gets to be the more-righteous mafia.

The realisation for me was back in the Six to Start days when we were working with Channel 4 to produce the online, interactive component for the show Misfits[1]. I remember being excited about the chance to work on the show – Howard Overman, the showrunner, had come up with a super-interesting premise: orange-jumpsuited teen ASBOs with super-powers. At the time, one of the things I was focussed on was the potential for the internet to bring a new kind of storytelling to people, and the chance to work with interesting and unique properties that also looked like that they were going to be successful was pretty heady. The thing was, despite *feeling* like we were the good guys – ie, we weren’t coming in like Digital Prophets and telling everyone they had to work with us and that they didn’t understand what they were doing and were doing it wrong anyway, it was perplexing, irritating and downright *frustrating* that it felt like we didn’t get as much access or interest from the production company. Of course, that made complete sense: Overman’s goal was to make a television show, not some narrative that would span multiple media and pull people in to a fictional world. He’d probably spent his whole life trying to get to the point where he’d be able to run his own show. And then here were a bunch of people trying to *distract* him from that. Of course he wouldn’t want to pay attention to us.

These institutions – organisations, businesses, the ones that have got their thing down, the ones that are just motoring away and *doing their stuff* don’t owe us anything. It felt different, ten, fifteen, twenty years ago when we were touching the internet and we could *see* the potential inherent in it, and we just wanted to get on with it. With the BBC, in the case of that particular institution it felt like we also had a duty to help it blaze a trail, to be an exemplar, to show the way where there was market failure.

Of course, there isn’t *that* much market failure now. Now, BBC News Online looks to The Guardian and the New York Times and The Atlantic and Buzzfeed and Reddit and 4chan and any number of online news outlets, or outlets that happen to provide news-like services, but otherwise look like single-bit communication channels, or look like social networks that just happen to carry “things that happen”.

This shift in thinking is, I think, the result of some personal impatience and looking at the last ten years or so and asking the question: can I achieve more inside a large organisation, or outside a large organisation? Both of course have their advantages and disadvantages. In theory, large organisations are able to marshall resources and whole teams, have budget and go forth and Do Things. But we know that they’re slow and that the *in theory* part only really becomes an *in-practice* part when just the right variables line up – executive remits, political cover, shit-shielding umbrellas – all of those things need to line up to enable a team to do good work that shows a way forward.

I started to feel like the large organisation was a cheat. A short-cut. For the impatient, a Faster Way of doing things. And they’d sell you that they wanted to do things a faster way, too: why wouldn’t they want to be innovative? But of course there’s a difference between *wanting* to be innovative and actually delivering on that innovation. And ultimately, it feels like no one can make and enforce that decision other than the executive leadership. Frequently, that leadership has other things on its mind.

It all feels a bit tilting at windmills, then. All a bit Innovator’s Dilemma. We know all the catch-phrases about how things are easier on the outside than the inside, how the grass is greener and so on. But institutions – *especially the majority of the ones we currently have* aren’t built to change quickly. They’re just not.

The counterpart is when you look at institutions that are, in some ways, responsive. Everyone likes to point to Toyota’s TQM and the “anyone can stop the assembly line” concept, but the detail is so often in the execution. It doesn’t matter if anyone can stop the assembly line if the only people who can proffer and effect solutions so that the problem doesn’t happen again are only middle or upper management. That’s not empowering people to fix things and to be masters of their own domain.

But then you look at companies like Walmart and Amazon *and* Toyota together and consider them a bit like this: those successful companies do do one thing, and it’s continuous improvement. There’s something that’s measurable – in Walmart and Amazon’s case it’s the bottom line, in Toyota’s I suspect it’s productivity and quality, but it feels like you get that relentless optimisation that is bound to help an institution at least *move* instead of ossify. There’s the concern, as ever, that your optimisation is in some way some sort of local maxima, and that what you’re actually doing with that relentless optimisation is Delling your way out of existence, teaching an entire country what your supply chain does and how to out-race you to the bottom of the market. You have to be sure that you’re optimising the right thing. But measuring and altering and then measuring again: that’s the mark of an institution that keeps moving. The question that needs to be asked is a broader one, though: are we doing the job we’re supposed to be doing, the best way that we can do it?

It feels like this: these institutions are performing a valuable role. But they’re doing what they were originally designed to do, and they were not necessarily originally designed to constantly adapt. That’s a *different* kind of institution, that requires a distinct kind of leadership that’s hard to import or grow in an institution that doesn’t otherwise support it or even need it. We who can see the future and desperately want to help them change? We may well just get frustrated at the pace, and may well find better success by showing them outside their institutions than inside them. They don’t owe us anything, but they can pay attention to us.

[1] Misfits – Wikipedia

2.0 Awkwardly Specialised

One thing that I’ve noticed is a sort of awkward specialisation for a bunch of people in their thirties who’ve grown up with the internet and worked in the industry. It seems like there’s not that great a title for people who’ve “done internet stuff” but who weren’t firmly in one camp or another. In other words, the mythical Design/Developer unicorn. Instead, there’s a whole bunch of people who sit firmly in that Venn diagram intersection who are *very good* at getting along with designers and developers, and are able to bridge that gap, and yet precisely because they *don’t* fit into one camp or the other are eminently unemployable. Because you’d much rather hire a unicorn, a designer/developer, than a translator, right?

Here is the thing about those people in the middle. Those people in the middle see systems and like to solve problems. They still see the power of the internet in helping to solve those problems, and to make things better. But they’re not specialists. They’re not designers and they’re not writers, they’re not developers and they’re not ops or sysadmins. Perhaps one way of looking at them is saying that they’re Product Managers (but not Project Managers). But they’re the people who help figure out what it is that you want to do, and help you do it. Regardless of the *title*, there’s still a need for the people who can keep it all in their head. Who understand enough about all the little bits – but who might not be able to implement them – that they have respect and trust to lead. Maybe that’s a thing.

12:44 am. Tired. Notes welcome, as ever.

Best,

Dan