I had an exciting conversation yesterday with Claire Burge, someone with whom hopefully I might get the opportunity to work in the near future. At the core of her business thinking is the concept of No Email. It’s a wonderfully simple encapsulation of a whole stack of thoughts that she has (many of which I share) about how we need to rethink the way in which we organise, communicate and operate within organisations. Email, along with many of the other technologies which are common currency within organisations, has become symptomatic of our enslavement to tech, rather than them being tools at our bidding. I love the description of email as being “the to-do list over which you have no control” (if only I could remember who’d said it…)

My rant yesterday about PowerPoint had some responses, mostly suggestions about how there are better presentation tools available these days (Prezzi, which I have used, and Sway which I have not). And that line of response completely missed my point: PowerPoint, Slides and Keynote are all fine to provide visual accompaniment to a talk: it’s the use of PowerPoint as a tool for creating reports that I object to on a number of levels. When you have massive multinational organisations collecting and distributing tens of thousands of data points in a bunch of slide decks, something’s gone wrong. My point was obviously missed by some, and I need to get better at making myself intelligible.

But in itself it’s an interesting example of how deeply these crappy tools with their crappy impact upon how we interact with one another have become embedded into our assumptions about how we work, and the tools that we need. Here, in a nutshell, is the challenge for “No Email”. It’s not about having no email: it’s about shifting the focus of work and workplace interactions so that they are rich, rewarding, useful, invigorating, creative, enjoyable, fun, enlightening, empowering, delightful, challenging, supportive, pleasurable, intelligent, timely, opportunistic, bridge-building, warm, and most of all human. Not demeaning and mostly a bit shit.

But in a world where we prize delivery over thoughtfulness, the risk is of developing a cargo cult (if you’re not aware of the idea of cargo cults, have a look here). Cargo cult thinking is the sort of thinking that attempts to make and organisation a bit more “Google-y” by putting a few bean bags in the corner of the office. Cargo cult thinking is the sort of thinking that believes you make your organisation more collaborative by rolling out Yammer. Cargo cult thinking is the sort of thinking that tries to become more successful in networking by hitting a score on Klout. Cargo cult thinking mistakes correlation with causality.

No email is a wonderfully simple expression of a fundamental shift in mindset. It’s an illustration of what a better working world might look like. But it needs to be protected from the cargo cult thinkers, who will turn it into their objective and will hit their deadlines by turning off the server at midnight. Cargo cult thinkers have already introduced Email-free Friday, and as a result inadvertently created unbelievably unproductive Monday.

One thought on “A bunch of cargo cults

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