They say a dog’s not just for Christmas.
That’s the way I feel about forgiveness. It’s something I think about every day, not just at Christmas. It’s something I’ve been thinking about in the context of how relationships work.
One of the authors and thinkers I’ve been dipping into lately is Gregory Bateson, often quoted as saying:
A business is best considered as a network of conversations
Stowe Boyd referred to that quote some months ago in a post on the Future of Work in a Social World, and it reminded me that I must delve deeper into Bateson’s work. But park that to one side for now, I digress.
Regular readers will be aware that I’m a big fan of the Cluetrain Manifesto; I find it hard to believe that it is now fifteen years or so since the publication of the manifesto. Messrs Locke, Searls, Weinberger and Levine have my immense gratitude for making sure my eyes stayed open when they could have been in the act of shutting.
The manifesto is full of memorable phrases; one that has stayed with me “front of mind” is:
Markets are conversations
I’ve spent time talking to Doc Searls about this particular phrase, especially in the context of how conversations exist and flourish because of the relationships they represent. Which is why, borrowing from those sessions with Doc, I have been known to intone the mantra:
Relationship before conversation before transaction
Again, regular readers will also know that I’m a big fan of Peter Drucker’s work. He too is someone I can quote from frequently and at will; two of my favourite Druckerisms are given below:
No financial man will ever understand business because financial people think a company makes money. A company makes shoes, and no financial man understands that. They think money is real. Shoes are real. Money is an end result.
The purpose of business is to create a customer.
I’ve tended to take these four statements together as part of one holistic model. People buy from people, people sell to people. It’s people who do business, not brands, not organisations, not companies. People. Business is conducted as a series of conversations between people; those conversations take place because there are relationships between the people involved; those conversations can, when appropriate and relevant, lead to transactions. Markets are conversations in aggregate, taking place across a network or multiple networks. When those conversations take place, transactions ensue. What is real in those transactions is the product that is bought or sold, the service that is provided. That’s what’s real. Money is an end result, a way of portraying those transactions, and not to be confused with the transaction.
Everything that we consider business begins with a relationship of some sort. For decades, perhaps longer, we’ve lived with weak relationships between institutions and the customers they serve. In many cases the institution did not even know who their customers were; those that did get at least that far failed soon after; they recognised customers only via complex hieroglyphics bestowed by the institution: customer account numbers. But even they failed to evolve any further, refusing to view customers in the context of the products and services they’d contracted for. A rare few enterprises got to the point of knowing their customers as well as the products and services they’d acquired; but they had no sense of who their customers really were, in the context of their interests and preferences, their needs and wishes, their dreams and aspirations, their experiences and their intentions.
So the very idea of a customer relationship is one that was rudimentary to the modern enterprise until a couple of decades ago. No relationships. No conversations to speak of. But there were transactions aplenty, and so nobody cared.
That’s changed; businesses are finding that customers do care about the relationship, that they do care about the conversation. Capital that had been consistently invested in optimising back-end processes was now slowly being deployed into improving customer engagement. Into knowing more about customers. Into simplifying conversations with customers. Into reducing friction and latency between customer and company.
Investment was being funnelled into systems of engagement as well as systems of record, to use the phrases popularised by Geoffrey Moore.
[An aside. I have wondered about the recent statements about the centre of gravity of IT expenditure moving from the CIO to the CMO. I've been CIO at a number of institutions, and I think the construct is false. We should analyse IT budgets according to the sponsor for the investment and expenditure. Most of the time, the CIO is not the sponsor. For much of the past, the primary sponsor has been the COO or CFO. In capital market institutions, the "front office" would flex their muscles and insist on a reasonable dollop of the capital being made available to develop their business (in terms of new products, services, markets, customers) rather than have all of it driven by the "back office" of operations, finance and risk. In this context, what I see happening is that sponsorship is moving from COO/CFO to CMO/CEO, away from process optimisation to business growth, away from systems of record to systems of engagement. Which is not surprising, given the level of investment made in systems of engagement for the previous forty years].
Where was I? Oh yes, the shift of investment into systems of engagement. Into facilitating conversations between customer and business. [In fact, into facilitating conversations between customer and partner, customer and supply chain, customer and distribution, even customer and customer].
Which occur as a result of relationships.
Relationships. Which is where my interest in the role of forgiveness comes in.
Relationships make the world go round. I’m very tempted to quote John Donne here, so I will.
No man is an iland intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the Main; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
What a beautiful poem. … because I am involved in Mankinde. The sooner we learn that we are all involved in Mankinde, the sooner we will begin to solve the problems we’ve been unable to deal with thus far.
Relationships are between human beings. Irrational, unpredictable, given to a diverse array of desires, prompted by a diverse array of motives.
Human. Warts and all.
One of the most beautiful things that makes us human is our ability to forgive. And to forget. Two conscious acts. Acts born of true relationship, “covenant” rather than “contract”. [In a contract relationship, when something goes wrong, the question is "who pays", how is recourse to to be obtained. In a covenant relationship, on the other hand, when something goes wrong, the question is "how shall we fix this?"].
The act of forgiving takes place within a relationship. It is a conscious act that requires sacrifice by all involved. It is a conscious act that all involved to make themselves vulnerable. It is a conscious act which requires and involves trust.
It is difficult for me to explain human relationships (or for that matter even begin to understand them) without emphasising the importance of the vulnerability, the sacrifice, the trust of forgiveness. Of forgiving, and of being forgiven.
I have been forgiven much. And I have forgiven much. I am privileged and blessed to have a good family where forgiveness is practised; to have friends and colleagues where this continues to be true.
So when I think about designing systems that enable conversations to flow and grow, to become more effective, I think about the role of forgiveness. In order to forgive, I must be able to forget. What does that mean in today’s world? In time to come, part of the act of forgiveness may well come to include the ability of the forgiver to expunge the record of that which has been forgiven. How many times have you seen a conversation go nowhere fast, when age-old transgressions are dredged back up? That’s not the sign of forgiveness, that’s not the sign of a healthy relationship.
Our ability to forgive is an integral part of our humanity. As we build frameworks that enable better conversations, we need to understand, and design for, this ability to forgive.
That’s why I spend time thinking about the teenager’s “right to be forgotten” and what that would mean. How the official record is sometimes expunged of entries, how convictions are “spent”. How people are “pardoned”.
These are all instruments of human engagement, at work and at home, for business and for pleasure.
There was a time when institutional memory was a constant, when attrition was low, when people stayed in one job all their lives. So when a person “took a bullet for the team” the others remembered, not just when it happened, but for years to follow. They were the institutional memory. Today, when it is more common for people to change jobs regularly, institutional memory is weakened. The conversation-enabling frameworks we build are going some way towards solving this problem, by allowing institutional memory to be persisted, archived, searched, retrieved.
That’s a good thing.
Similarly, our ability to turn parts of the conversation into social objects that can be rated, reviewed, commented upon, enhanced, augmented, shared and re-shared is fundamentally a good thing. Our ability to have that conversation asynchronously as well as synchronously, face to face as well as remote, these are also good things. Our ability to embed that conversation with images, documents, sound, links, that too is good, as conversations get enriched. And the metadata that is available for all this allows us to glean rich insights, see patterns we could not have seen earlier, improve our planning assumptions, understand root causes of problems better.
Transaction costs drop dramatically as a result, as we find it fast and easy to find the right person, the right product, the right company, the right service, the right anything. Not just find it but negotiate to acquire/bond/engage with it, with the knowledge of what our network thinks of it (whatever it may be).
There are many things that are made more effective as a result of technological advances. But to remain effective they need to bear in mind that in the end it’s all about us.
Connected by a series of relationships.
That emerge in a network of conversations.
Some of which lead to transactions.
Some of which are represented by the end-result of money.
We have to remember we’re human beings. And as human beings, one of the most powerful things we do is to have covenant relationships, not contract ones.
Covenant relationships have tacit components to do with trust and sacrifice and vulnerability and forgiveness.
We need to learn how to model all this, this ability to trust and to make ourselves vulnerable, this ability to sacrifice, this ability to forgive, in the systems we design to conduct business. Because those abilities are what make us human. And business is conducted between humans.
In weeks to come I will be spending time looking at “incomplete contracts” from this perspective. Feel free to share your wisdom and learnings and experiences with me, using whatever channel makes you comfortable; I promise to reflect everything I learn in succeeding posts.