Successfully Integrating People and Technology

My work is about helping groups come alive. There is nothing inherent about this work that requires digital technology, although I often find myself leveraging it in different doses.

The reality is that many people want to work with me because I know a lot about technology. They think it gives me a leg up in leveraging technology to support people work.

They’re wrong (despite what I’ve said in the past). It helps, but it’s not the primary reason I can do this kind of work successfully. The main reason for my success is that I have an uncomplicated relationship with technology.

Your level of technology literacy has little to do with how complicated your relationship is with technology. Lots of people who know a lot about technology end up worshipping at its altar, seeing the world through a tool lens that often distracts them from the goal. They’re the type of people who will lecture you on features or inner workings without actually addressing whether or not a tool will help you do your job.

Then, of course, there are people who don’t know much about technology because they are afraid of it. A lot of these folks are smart, high-functioning people who suddenly become paralyzed at the notion of interacting with a screen or keyboard. They are the ones who are defensive about their lack of knowledge, who preface every statement with, “I’m not a techie, but….”

Basing your identity around what you don’t know is just as insidious as basing it around what you do know. It serves as an obstacle to what’s actually important, which is having a learner’s mindset regardless of what you already do or don’t know.

The best tools have wonderful, magical properties, but at the end of the day, they’re still tools, and their job is to do what I want them to do. As long as you understand that, and as long as you approach your work with a learner’s mindset, you can be successful at leveraging technology to help groups come alive.

It’s a lot easier said than done, but it’s doable, regardless of how much you already do or don’t know about technology.

Somatic Computing

A few months ago, I sat down to a meeting with Kristin Cobble, Gwen Gordon, and Rebecca Petzel. We were all on our laptops, pulling up notes and sending off last minute emails. As the meeting was about to start, we all closed our laptops with a deep breath, looked at each other for a moment, then burst out laughing.

We had all noticed the same thing at the same time, and we had communicated that to each other nonverbally. Closing our laptops had completely shifted the energy of the room.

Space matters. It affects our bodies and their relations with the things around them, and there is wisdom and energy inherent in that.

Most of our interfaces with digital tools were not invented with our bodies in mind. They were created to serve machines, and for the most part, they haven’t evolved much. We’re starting to see that shift now, with mobile devices, with touch, and with gestural interfaces. When our technology starts to augment our body’s natural wisdom, we are going to see a huge shift in its power.

My friend, Anselm Hook, gave a great talk at AR Devcamp last year, where he explored the notion of developing software somatically (what he’s calling the “Slow Code movement”):

The technology we need to build these sorts of interfaces exist today, and I think we’ll see an inflection point soon. But that inflection point won’t come because of enterprise-driven markets, despite the opportunity that these interfaces hold. Those markets simply aren’t big enough. It will come because of games.

This is no great insight, but I think that many of us are remarkably blind to it, and it’s worth reminding ourselves of this over and over again. It’s no accident that Kinect — one of the most remarkable and successful research-driven products for personal computing — came out of Microsoft’s Xbox 360 group and not one of its other divisions.

Tech Literacy and the Joy of Dancing

My Nephew, Elliott, Dancing

My six-year old nephew, Elliott, is an amazing dancer. I’m sure genetics had something to do with it. After all, both of his parents are musicians. But what really makes him great isn’t his rhythm or his moves. When he dances, there isn’t a trace of self-consciousness or thought. He simply moves and radiates joy. I often watch a video clip of him when he was three, boogeying his little heart out, and it always brings a huge smile to my face. (I have no plans to share that clip here, but if you ever see me face-to-face, ask, and I’ll gladly show it to you.)

It makes me happy to see him enjoy himself this way, because I personally have a huge mental block about dancing. I didn’t always have it, or at least it used to be much, much smaller, but it’s grown into a veritable albatross over the years. When I put my learner hat on, I know all the things I should (or shouldn’t) be doing. Don’t think. Don’t worry about “doing it right.” Just enjoy the music, and let your body move.

It’s silly. I’m fearless about so many things in life, and I generally don’t care about looking stupid. And I’ve been able to let go at times with certain people or in certain situations. But for the most part, my fear of dancing is debilitating.

It’s not about my relationship to my body. I’ve always loved sports, and I’ve always held my own on the court or on the field, even though I’m a mediocre athlete.

A big reason for that is that I’m hyper-competitive. Another reason is that I developed a basic literacy for sports at an early age. I can run, throw, and catch. I can dribble and shoot a ball with both my hands and my feet. More importantly, I have a basic feel for how to play team sports, how to move without the ball, how to use my body to create space. I can play several sports serviceably, and I can pick up new ones easily.

The bottom line is that I’m sports-literate. My body speaks sports fluently, and so I’m able to play without thinking, to express myself joyfully through sports.

I’m lucky to be literate in a lot of things, and I find joy in all of them. But I also feel lucky to be grossly illiterate in other things. Foreign languages, for example. And dancing. I’m lucky because it makes me understand and appreciate the value of literacy and the level of effort required to develop everything from basic proficiency to virtuosity.

That brings me to technology.

I have a gift with tools. It’s a huge advantage in this day and age, especially as a knowledge worker. I know that I can figure out how to use almost any tool quickly and skillfully. When I work with clients, I’m often able to adapt my processes to use the tools they’re already familiar with. I also know how to build my own tools, which means I can build things to do exactly what I want them to do, and I can speak fluently and familiarly with other tool-builders. I can do all of these things without letting my technology lens blind me.

On this basis alone, I can offer way more value to organizations than most consultants in my space. I consider the Blue Oxen philosophy and approach to be a much more significant differentiator, but even without that, I’d still be able to separate myself from the pack on the basis of my tech literacy alone.

I don’t expect my clients to have the same level of literacy. I adjust my expectations, and if tools are to play a heavy role, I focus on being a coach and supporter. I don’t let my clients create an artificial hierarchy based on what they think they don’t know.

My project teams, however, are another matter. High-performance teams always have some Shared Language that they speak fluently. When one of those languages in which your team is fluent is technology, it expands your possibilities. Frankly, it also makes the work a lot more fun. I’ve worked with a lot of teams that have had that baseline level of tech fluency, and it’s always been a magical experience.

However, it’s not always possible to have that team-wide fluency. In those cases, as with my clients, I adjust my expectations. The difference is that I still hold my teams to higher standards of performance, and that makes me less patient.

Right now, I’m working with one of the top three teams I’ve worked with in my eight years at Blue Oxen Associates, and I’d be surprised if it didn’t take the top spot by the end of our project. We also happen to have mixed levels of tech literacy.

I am more than happy to accept this, because everyone brings unique skills in other areas. More importantly, we have a shared fluency around our principles and approaches to collaboration. Frankly, that’s made us vastly more effective at using tools than many of my previous teams where we started with a higher level of tech fluency.

Needless to say, I am having an incredible amount of fun working with these folks. Still, I find myself getting frustrated every once in a while by the different levels of tech literacy. We occasionally have to slow down to get people up to speed on things that seem trivially easy to me. I know it’s an unfair response on my part, but I can’t help feeling impatient.

At times like these, I think about dancing. I think about the fear that even the thought of dancing evokes. I think about how I’ve felt when friends and loved ones, who are great dancers, have patiently danced with me when they almost certainly could have been having more fun dancing with others — a mixture of appreciation, but also guilt, misplaced or not.

I think about all of these things, and I feel my impatience drift away in favor of empathy and appreciation. I think about how everyone on my team is pushing their boundaries, setting aside their discomfort and even fear because of their hunger to learn, to improve, to perform. I think about how they encourage each other patiently and without judgement, creating a space that’s safe to try, to fail, to learn, and I feel deeply humbled.

Then I think about Elliott dancing, how he radiates joy without fear or shame, joy that’s contagious. I think about the innocent wisdom that our children share with us when we are smart enough to pay attention, and I hope beyond hope that Elliott and his little brother, Benjamin, never lose that wisdom and that unbridled joy.