Cycles within cycles

It’s customary at this time of year to do some kind of review: what’s happened in the past annual cycle, hopes and intentions for the next.

[Sometimes these reviews can be a bit too predictable in their over-focus on prediction? As Forrester enterprise-architect Brian Hopkins put it in a nicely ironic Tweet this morning, “I predict that the volume, velocity and variety of tech predictions will require #MapReduce to analyze by Dec 2012.”… 🙂 Hence, uh, no predictions as such here: apologies if that disappoints you… 🙂 ]

For me, though, it’s been an interesting exercise to explore cycles within cycles, and the often urgent need to avoid the ‘gumption trap‘ of what Johnnie Moore terms ‘the Tyranny of Excellence‘:

We flounder when we over-react or repress failure. … [O]rganisations flounder if they set up procedures and practices that appear to be about excellence but are more about being in denial of our variability and complexity as human beings. Efforts to make meetings a guaranteed success quite often just lead to the repression of doubt or criticism. …

The risk is that we set impossible standards for ourselves and then get demoralised by not reaching them. The demand for perfection makes us hypercritical and we fail to appreciate what we are actually achieving. When we lose that sense of reality, ironically, we’re more likely to fail or perhaps to give up altogether.

(‘Flounder‘ seems a painfully-accurate metaphor there: a flatfish whose eyes have both migrated to the same side of the head, able to see only one side of the story… But I digress… – return to the story.)

That gumption-trap of floundering can be particularly destructive for those of us who have distinct peaks and troughs in our work-patterns. For example, looking back, I did quite a lot last year: amongst other things, I presented at three very different enterprise-architecture conferences, edited two books, and wrote coming on for two hundred blog-posts on enterprise-architecture and related themes – often three to four thousand words or more each, adding up to the equivalent of several entire books. And I spent a fair bit of time travelling for work, too: a longish stay in Australia, a shorter one in Brazil, and a couple other brief trips as well.

Yet there were distinct patterns in all of that. All of the conferences happened in the first half of the year, as did all of book-editing and most of the travelling; by contrast, most of the blog-posts were in the second half of the year, with a lot of intense work on themes such as metamodels, service-architectures, management-structures and ‘really-big-picture’ enterprise-architecture, and, currently, on tools-ideas and SCAN for sensemaking. Every now and then there would be a definite slump, a kind of ‘mini-burnout’ – I’m in one now, as it happens, where I’m struggling to get much of anything done at all, and on previous experience may well go on for another few days yet.

Within each day, there are definite cycles too. For me, my peak creative-time is usually in the mornings: best time for writing, anyway. The less- creative time in the afternoons tends to get used for editing, for doing diagrams, for – oh joy… – all the administrivia that our ‘sensible’ business-world currently requires. Sometimes in the evening I find myself back in the creative space; sometimes not.

If I try to force myself to do creative work in the off-cycle, I risk ending up doing no work at all, because the all-too-predictable feeling of failure can trigger that gumption-trap of floundering. Just to make things worse, as Paul Graham warns in his classic 2009 essay ‘Maker’s schedule, manager’s schedule‘, one interruption during that creative-time – or even just the threat of an interruption – can destroy creative productivity for the entire day: which again reinforces that sense of failure.

[The mindsets of ‘makers’ and ‘managers’ really don’t mix – a fact I’ve been discovering to my cost whilst living in the same household as an elderly person who needs every day’s activity to be regimented hour by hour on a rigid timetable, and who now literally cannot cope with any significant change of plan… Not fun, I can tell you: and seriously damaging to creativity, too… 🙁 ]

And everyone has their own cycles, all of them somewhat different; and often those cycles will change over a lifetime, too, as the lethargic teenagers who can’t get out of bed before midday will change their habits when they become the parents awoken by a crying child at three in the morning. Daily cycles, yearly cycles, the cycle of a lifetime: cycles within cycles.

Yet what happens within most organisations? That’s right: we design systems that assume that people are machines, that they always work exactly the same all the time, in a measured, certain, predictable way. Or that they’re creative geniuses, every possible moment of every possible day.

And we then wonder why it doesn’t work.


And then punish people for failing to work to our expectations. (Or teach them to punish themselves for ‘failing to meet expectations’, which comes to much the same thing.)


So perhaps it might be a bit more wise to create organisational architectures that actually respect the fact that people are people? That they do each have their own cycles within cycles within patterns within flows within feelings, each subtly or strongly different? That some people indeed do not and cannot give their best work on a ‘manager’s schedule’? That that so-popular Taylorist attitude that regards people as second-class machines is perhaps a guaranteed path to mediocrity and poor performance?

Perhaps it might be more wise to respect people for who they are?

Strange idea for many managers, I know. But perhaps it’s the one that works?

And perhaps a reason why we really need to remind those managers that sometimes the best service they can provide to the whole organisation is to keep out of everyone’s way – such that the people who do actually make things can get their work done on their own natural schedules, rather than the ‘manager’s schedules’ of unusable, fragmented, discombobulated time?


Just reflecting on the passing year, the passing day, the passing time, that’s all.

[Update: as is so often the case, a perfect Tweet came up between writing this and checking Twitter – this time from Michelle James:

  • CreatvEmergence: We need workplaces where people can engage and express more of their whole creative selves, not a reduced fraction of themselves

Expresses the point just as well as all of the above, really, and a lot shorter, too. Oh well. 🙂 ]

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