Question 110 of 365: Can we change from the outside?

Question 110 of 365: Can we change from the outside?

Smith-Corona Classic 12
Image by mpclemens via Flickr

Advice is a funny thing. It is often sought, often misheard, often rejected, often obnoxious, and often invaluable. This is all at the same time, mind you. Whenever I am asked to give advice, I know that there is very little chance that the changes I am advocating for will be followed as I have voiced them. I find myself looking in on effects of my advice from the outside. Much of the time, I don’t have to deal with the ramifications of my advice. I usually just get to jump from that conversation into another one where I won’t be around to see the effects of everything that I have contributed. And yet, the subtle pressure that I have provided, does seem to resonate and have an effect.

If I were going to describe the effect it would be like this:

I bought a Galaxie Twelve Smith-Corona manual typewriter. It is one of the best purchases I have ever made. It has a ribbon that never ends and that can be almost infinitely wound and never get old. Every time that I rest my fingers on the keys, I know that I am about ready to make serious damage. I really pound on those keys, and you have to. To get the type to show up correctly, you have to mash down hard as if each finger was a fist with enough fury to push the letters into being. The sound of each striking key is metallic and harsh. It is loud as it cascades off of my office walls.

I get people coming into my office all the time asking me what I am doing with a typewriter. They are flabbergasted that someone “like me” would actually use such an antique. Then they see the margins set and the paper pulled in correctly, and inevitably they want to know what I am writing about. I never get this question when I am typing on my computer. While I could conceivably be doing a great number of things with my computer keys, I never get asked what I am writing about. Somehow, the computer in a public space is private and the typewriter is not.

I am affecting not only the paper itself, but everyone who may sees it and hears the sound of its creation. Essentially, I have demystified the process of writing by inviting other people to come and observe and take part. I am taking away the unholy veil that seemingly is in front of our every act at work. As my fingers are continually cushioned by the oversized keys and as the page moves upward showing that I am actually accomplishing something, I know that the effect I am creating for myself and others is one of reinvention. By making edits and contributions in such a way, I am telling myself that it is okay not to engage in the same sorts of technologies and circumstances that are created for me. It is appropriate to question my level of comfort with any given task. It is also okay to completely reject the conventions and make sometime more concrete than abstract, more real that virtual.

I think that all of my advice boils down to pretty much the same thing, anyway. It is all about demystifying the work that you are doing and making it more real. When I advocate for using Google Docs rather than trading around word documents it is to make sure that people can see what one another are thinking and work together towards a common goal. It is about establishing the same expectations for everyone within a given project rather than hiding the fact that some people do more work than others. When I advocate for using a backchannel at a meeting or conference it is to demystify the way in which we process information. It is to ask everyone to participate in something that they could easily let happen to them. And, when I advocate for creating online spaces to ask big questions, I am attempting to capture learning. I want it to be visual and memorable.

I do not have some silly brand of advice to change the way that organizations work or to improve the working environment for all stakeholders. If we did nothing else besides demystify our work for others, we would be well on our way to creating better environments and organizations. If we were able to describe our purposes and our processes to the outside world (or even to our coworkers), there would be much more ability to relate and work together. Yet, somehow many of us function on the hypothesis that if we shared our secrets, everyone would be able to do our job. We want to perpetuate the myth that knowledge is still the only kind of power worth having.

Connections are the power that we should be pursuing. They are the value that we should be providing to those we work with. The wonder of a network is not in the content that is currently there, it is in the content that is coming because of the connections that have been established. The spaces that we inhabit whether online or physically should only be judged by how many connects are visible and how much work can be transmitted via those connections.

So, here is what I think makes the most sense:

  • Create online spaces for collaboration where people can see just who contributed and what their connection to that shared knowledge is.
  • Create physical spaces for connection where people share stories about their work.
  • Create both physical and online spaces for disruptive behavior (like typing on a typewriter) so that our expectations can shift beyond what it is that we need for the given moment and think about just how we can grow.

And that is how I propose to demystify my work and change from the outside what is going on in ideas and places that I will never fully see realized.


  1. jacquelinecahill

    I enjoyed this posting, and I really like how you summarized your main three points in the end. I find the smartest, most innovative people will go to any length to hear the ideas…not worry about the digital tool. I have given my students assignments at times and had 20 questions (while anxiety and stress increases for them) regarding the technology. I have learned that sometimes the best graphic organizer is simply a pencil and piece of paper…once the idea is concrete for them they can move forward to learn and input their masterpiece into technology. The end product…they learned the content, the technology, improved their self-advocacy skills, problem-solved, and shared…there is a lot to be said for a typewriter or a pencil and paper

  2. I couldn't agree more.

    I think our job can be to help them engage in the content by whatever means
    make the most sense for them. I think that having that kind of flexibility
    is something we expect as adults (or at least I expect it), but there
    doesn't seem to be that expectation as children.

Leave a Reply