A couple weeks ago I stumbled across this tweet from @JaneMCummings that shows @HelenBevan speaking at a conference, although I couldn’t tell you which one because her hand covers the hashtag! I missed the conference title, the detail and the context, but the image stuck with me and I kept coming back to it. The slide that Helen was speaking to contained this information:
I shared the image again yesterday with the comment that I felt social media provided a perfect climate for troublemakers. The discussions that followed (publicly and privately) focused on language, whether radicals turn into troublemakers (and vice versa), what the end result is of each approach, the difficulties of one or two troublemakers and radicals with little self awareness who consequently use social media as a platform to shout about their mission or themselves, and also the observation from @Ray_Chandler that social media presents the same climate for both. I’ve been musing on what Ray said and while the environment is shared I think that what I’ve noticed on twitter as it becomes more mainstream is that there is less room for dissent or challenge, or that some people quickly personalise that challenge.
As someone who started their professional life as an academic it was inherent in my training, and I guess my identity, that challenge and critique was welcomed, well not just welcomed but necessary. One of the reasons that I blog is to offer something for people to comment, critique, disagree with. Yet increasingly what I am noticing on social media platforms, already disadvantaged when it comes to debate due to the overly concise formats, is a complete lack of nuance, and increasingly people unwilling or unable to engage with those who hold differing viewpoints. This really concerns me, so much of the potential value of social media lies in connecting with people, those who challenge our views, as well as support us. The radicals referred to above. My concern is that increasingly the troublemakers are coming to the forefront, shouting loudly, causing virtual headaches, drowning out the voices of quiet leadership, and doing it all under some belief that disrupting the current state is always necessary and helpful.
So where does this leave us I wonder? Am I claiming that social media is just full of troublemakers? Is there ever an advantage to having troublemakers in our midst? When do we need to disrupt things and when do we need to focus our energies elsewhere? To answer these questions I went back to some of the studying I did on an OU MBA module last year. Focusing on Innovation, Creativity and Change it both challenged and reaffirmed a lot of what I’d read of my own accord previously, and lots of what I’d observed within organisations I had worked with or in. There is stacks readily available on models of innovation and change, google and wikipedia both make good starting points. I’ll not try and condense an entire module into one blog post but instead I’ll focus on one model of change, Lewin’s, because it is really simple and easy to understand.
Lewin argued that for change to occur we had to move from being frozen, to unfreezing, to freezing again (often referred to as re-freeze). This is often conceptualised as how you would turn a block of ice into a cone, or other shapes, of ice. See scrappy visual below that offers my thoughts on what you may feel and most need at each stage of the change:
So what role could the trouble makers usefully play? If we are looking for disruption where best to place it? My gut sense is that there is room, and value, from disruption in that first stage. If people are unaware of a need to change then something needs to kickstart them into action, to show them an alternative, to raise their eyes from the grindstone to the horizon. If people are happily stuck in a constant state of solidity, ignoring the need to change, then great, let’s disrupt things a little. I can see room for complaints and anger as a motivator in helping people understand the need for change:
When it comes to the later stages though, once people are committed to making a change, once the ice is in the pan and on the fire, do we really need more trouble and disruption? Once people have agreed to change, leaders are leading, visions and goals are set, people are starting to create the moulds and the new futures, this is where I think trouble makers can do the most damage.
Unfortunately as anyone who has ever tried to make jam knows, if you take your eye off the boil, in a matter of seconds you can ruin the whole batch. You go past the boiling point and that beautiful promised jam will reach a state where despite your best attempts and trickery, it will never properly set. The optimists amongst us would of course swiftly re-designate this as compote, or make sweets, or put it to other uses, but those we promised jam to will be disappointed.
In non-culinary change something similar is at risk of happening. If troublemakers are demanding attention, constantly complaining and generally being disruptive, the end result is that leaders who have to focus on them, will take their eye of the metaphorical water and it’s at risk of boiling dry. Assuming they answer the first round of challenge and save some of the water, the next challenge is getting agreement about the shape of the moulds. Where this was previously agreed of course our trouble makers with their own agendas can’t let that be either, they need to make it about them, so they complain more, state they don’t like the shape of the mould, and if only they had been involved earlier. Finally (because I’m an eternal optimist) if we assume the moulds are formed and there is still some water left, there is hope. Except of course in a worse case scenario, the metaphorical troublemaker won’t let things lie. Instead of just leaving the water to freeze, they keep opening the freezer door, pulling out the tray to check whether it’s set yet, all the time delaying the process and of course risking disaster again.
Notice the changing needs and feelings in the above sketch, where trouble makers are added to change. I think it’s important for all of us to ask whether we are being usefully disruptive, after all I’m not one for conforming for conformings sake, or whether we are just being obstructive. Whether we are supporting change or supporting our own egos. Whether we talk of shared goals, and bring people together to achieve those, or whether we talk of our own endeavours and our own wants and wishes.
Years ago I heard Paul Hodgkin of Patient Opinion talk about wanting to channel feedback to move people from being angry patients or relatives to useful agents for change – those may not have been his exact words but they’re what I remember and tell myself now. At the time I was quite angry and quite exhausted, having been living with my Dad’s illness for a couple years and experiencing first hand the best and the worst of the NHS. I’ve returned to Paul’s comment time and time again since then. If I hadn’t heard him speak that day I suspect I would have just got more and more angry, more and more centred on me and my Dad, more and more focused on the problems and the ‘unfairness’ of cancer robbing us of a future with my Dad. As it was that statement alone scared me, it made me realise how dangerously angry I was. As a result I was inspired to continue blogging, to channel feedback positively, to look for opportunities to bring people together and to connect with people to share experiences, I started using social media as a channel for sharing and connecting and developed the most immense virtual support network. This continues to this day as I connect with people worldwide who stumble across my personal blog and the stories of Dad’s illness and death.
So why this reflection. To observe that we all have the capacity to be trouble makers and radicals. In fact we can probably all be both on a daily basis. I hope that by reading this far you’ve had chance to reflect on your own experiences, to consider whether you are really supporting change or causing trouble. Maybe the next time you are about to type a complaining tweet, blog about your displeasure, or talk loudly to those who see the world as you do about how right you are, you’ll just try to step into the shoes of the person receiving that negative energy. Also I think it’s worth reflecting on whether you are bringing people together to create energy around bright futures and new ideas, or whether you’re a self appointed spokesperson for the negative complainers. Everyone has a voice, and it’s important that all opinions are considered, but remember we’re arguably now in a position where confirmation bias has never been more readily available to us. The tools are available to bring people together and give everyone a voice, the next time you start to cause trouble on behalf of someone else, consider whether that is appropriate. It was very deliberate that I blogged my experience of my Dad’s illness, not his. I didn’t consider it was my place, or actually possible to do that. I think the same needs to go for leadership online, bring people together, support them to have their own voice, but consider where and when this is best shared. We would all like to see a fairer and brighter future, so we need to work together to create that, not pull apart.
This post has evolved through a number of iterations this weekend and I hope where I’ve got to is a balanced critique and not a ‘down with the troublemakers’ rant, but I would, as ever, really value your input and feedback.