Thinking about forgiveness and relationships and work and pleasure

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].

Facilitating conversations.

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.

Human beings.

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.



8 thoughts on “Thinking about forgiveness and relationships and work and pleasure”

  1. I’ll have to forgive you this sentence JP!
    “We need to learn how to model all this in business. Because that’s what makes us human”

    Modelling initially sounds oh so close to an accountants structure/stricture and I expect that is not really what you meant to say. There again “because that’s what makes us human” what to model? That sounds like you are talking about modelling as a prerequisite for being human. Surely that is one of those transactions later in your classification well beyond the human being as the initial point from which all things emerge.

    I have just finished reading Confucianism and Democratization in East Asia by Doh Chull Shin. Interestingly he drew the contrast between Eastern and Western thinking:
    “…Westerners who seek to understand the world analytically and exclusively in terms of categories, East Asians find meaning holistically and integrally by examining various relationships among the world’s components.
    This mode of comprehending events is often called circular reasoning or correlative thinking. It contrasts strikingly with the logical or causal thinking, which is commonplace in the West.”

    The juxtaposition of Confucianism and Democratization is fascinating as neither actually has all the answers but aids both in a greater understanding. What Shin did not assess was the validity of the democratic structures and processes in the West – a question unanswered.

    But it seems to me that the assumption that the “democratic” West has all the answers and should be a goal for everyone on the planet is open for debate – much as you set out in your blog posts.

    Correlative Thinking seems to me to be very much part of the networked world be are now entering and might help scope the new agora.

  2. Tim, my bad. I didn’t construct that sentence well, so I’ve changed it. The humanity was not in the modelling but in the ability to make sacrifices, to forgive, to forget. See if you prefer the new version.

  3. The internal drivers of customer interactions have been COOs so far. COOs view customer contact centers as ‘cost centers’ to be driven by optimisation around metrics such as Average Handling Time etc. The entire process of customer interaction thus seeks to commodotise the customer interaction and script, package and outsource it.

    How many companies are willing to break the mold is the moot point. How many companies have cost structures that will allow them to break the mold is the issue in question.

  4. JP, thanks for your Christmas reflections, which spark two trains of thought in me. Relationships is the first one. Your thesis is so true that, thinking along similar lines, I’ve predicted that Gen AA or AB will actually look back at the industrial age, in which human work was encapsulated within products and scale reigned supreme, and regard it in disbelief—because I perceive that people are “repersonalizing” the economy and its institutions. They are using digital social tools, which can give us scaled, individual interactions. People in industrial, urbanized nations chose material wealth/low prices and gave up personal treatment, but the trade-off has greatly weakened. This is a crisis and opportunity for CMOs, CDOs and CEOs: marketing is impersonal, and people want personal treatment (crisis). However, they can use digital to serve and empower people, and stop selling to them, which can transform relationship between (product) providers and users. I hypothesize that, in hyper-efficient markets, “marketing” is no longer needed because the network connects people and tools (products, services). I riffed longer on this in “Digital Transformation’s Personal Issue” []. Would love your thoughts on this hypothesis.

    Forgetting and forgiveness. I think I have a different understanding of the two actions, so I’ll offer this. First, reading between the lines, there are people and machine/institution threads. Speaking of people, I think forgetting and forgiveness are independent of each other. To me, forgiving is recognizing an action and offering grace. It is not forgetting. If I do something to someone that hurts him/her, and I am sorry for that, the person can offer grace and understanding, which bonds us so poignantly. S/He can, alternatively, forget the incident, which may be convenient for both of us but loses the power of deepening our relationship. The grace of recognizing, understanding and empathizing with my transgression is a deep bond. This is deeply personal.

    Forgetting and forgiveness is a different ball of yarn when it comes to institutions, and it’s so timely in the era of machine data, big data, ubiquitous computing, etc. Since institutions and machines aren’t human, they don’t have the same capacity for grace, but they can, as you suggest, adopt rules that “forget” (expunge) data. I love this idea. I think the rules would be highly dependent on the social context. Someone’s “greenwashing” is someone else’s transformation initiative. Governance would have to be transparent. In general, I think this could work in many contexts, as long as transparency and governance were rigorous; it would be all about setting and honoring expectations. I’d love more of your thoughts on this.

    Merry Christmas!

  5. Hi JP,

    Your Christmas reflections struck a real chord with me – as I get older, I realise how important forgiveness is (I kind of wish I’d had the patience to listen to people telling me this when I was younger – but clearly I knew better then!)

    I thought, along the same lines, you might enjoy this (slightly long) quote by Sir Geoffrey Vickers:

    “Every contact you make with a human being (or even an animal) is an experiment and a dangerous and therefore important experiment. It is dangerous because it can never be repeated. However serious, however trivial it may be, though you will afterwards make many others, perhaps more unusual, more intimate or more complete – that chance will not come again.
    Human contacts are dangerous, too, because they matter so much, and no one knows how much they matter. Even the most trivial meeting makes a difference, slight but lasting, to one or both. Intimate contacts make heaven and hell, they can heal and tear, kill and raise from the dead.
    These contacts are the fields on which we succeed or fail. I believe that they matter far more than anything else in life. What we are is written on the people whom we have met and know, touched, loved, hated and passed by. It is the lives of others that testify for or against us, not our own.” (reference

    Whilst you are researching Bateson, you should maybe take a look at Vickers too – he’s another splendid fellow!

    Thank you for continually making me think.

    Happy new year to you and your family!

  6. JP, Many thanks for the thoughtful blog. The combination of the Drucker quote at the beginning (“no financial man…”) and your concluding parpagraph…

    “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.”

    …really struck a chord with me. (I’ve always wondered is that phrase “struck a chord” comes from Checkov’s Cherry Orchard. I don’t want to look it up because I really want it to be true.) I work at the Grameen Foundation and are trying to find sustainable models for poverty alleviation. A lot of our work is in agriculture these days. As I obsess on how to model this, it seems true to me that we must learn to value something beyond profit – we must learn to respect our humanity. I believe we must learn to realize love with the same rigor as we applying to realizing revenue and I am hopeful there is a very practical way to do this. Most of our measurement of success concentrates on aggregation at the node – how much is the node able to collect. We now have very advanced models for networks and network health. I think we can apply this knowledge to understand the health of a community and then attribute value to node relative to its contribution to the network.

    Anyway, many thanks for the excellent post. Here is a video of my 7 min talk on this sunject at the last SoCap conference. I hope it is not unwelcome.

  7. Thanks for the video link, Steve, will take a look shortly. Good to hear about your work at Grameen, let me know if I can help.

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