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Posts on Jan 1970

Networks of Moonshine and Steam

The Golen Boys

I was working with the Consumer Council for Water this month in the heart of Birmingham. Part of the city centre is a building site at present and consequently one of my favourite statues is missing. It used to stand outside the old Register Office on Broad Street and is a gilded bronze statue of three men, known locally as ‘The Golden Boys’ or ‘The Carpet Salesmen’ after the partially unrolled scrolls they hold between them. They are in fact James Watt, Matthew Boulton and William Murdoch, and they are examining the plans of a steam engine, which they are famous for improving and developing.

The three men were part of powerful network who lived and worked during the latter half of the 18th century, a crucible for change when the skills of technicians and mechanics were fusing with the observations and knowledge of natural philosophers. In Britain, it became fashionable to be an amateur inventor and form discussion groups in homes and coffee houses. People like James Watt, Matthew Boulton and William Murdoch were no longer happy to contemplate the world, they wanted to change it. Their curiosity and the new knowledge it spawned was both empowering and subversive, but while politicians feared political revolution they sought the rewards of industrial revolution.

As this year is the bicentenary of James Watt’s death (1736–1819) and the 250th anniversary of his patenting of the separate condenser, which would radically enhance steam power and was fundamental to the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, let’s follow his journey into that network.

Watt was a skilled technician and instrument maker, as well as a theoretician, who understood the principles of hydraulics and hydrostatics, and the application of mathematical theory, but above all Watt loved puzzles and was insatiably curious, and that curiosity was fed by a diverse and expanding network of entrepreneurs, manufacturers and academics.

Born in Greenock, Scotland, his father was a shipwright, ship owner and contractor, while his mother came from a distinguished family and was well-educated. He was brought up as a staunch Presbyterian, which encouraged a self-sufficient, questioning approach, in which learning was seen as the key to progress. Like a number of other great thinkers however, he attended school irregularly and was instead educated at home by his mother.

Sadly, in 1753, when he was seventeen, his mother died and his father’s health began to fail. Watt travelled to London to study instrument-making for a year, then returned to Scotland, to Glasgow, intent on setting up his own instrument-making business. However, because he had not served at least seven years as an apprentice, the Glasgow Guild of Hammermen (any artisans who used hammers) blocked his application, despite there being no other mathematical instrument-makers in Scotland.

Watt was saved by the professors of the University of Glasgow, who offered him the opportunity to set up a small workshop within the university. It was here, in 1761, four years after opening his shop, that he began to experiment with steam after his friend and mentor, Professor John Robison, called his attention to it.

The University had a broken model of the Newcomen Engine (the first practical device to use steam to drive a mechanical apparatus) which Watt volunteered to repair. Having fixed it, he found that it still barely worked and so he tinkered some more and after much experimentation he identified the problem: about 80% of the heat of the steam was consumed in heating the cylinder because the steam was condensed by an injected stream of cold water. His critical insight, which came in 1765, was to condense the steam in a separate chamber, apart from the piston, and to maintain the temperature of the cylinder at the same temperature as the injected steam.

He soon had a working model, but the problem then was how to produce a full-scale engine. The principal difficulty was in machining the piston and cylinder, which was beyond the skills of the local iron workers. Strapped for resources, Watt was forced to take up employment as a surveyor for eight years, before finally forming his hugely successful partnership with the manufacturer Matthew Boulton, who owned the Soho Manufactory near Birmingham.

When Watt moved from Glasgow to Birmingham in May 1774, bringing with him his imperfect cylinder, he finally had access to some of the best iron workers in the world and the difficulty of the manufacture of a large cylinder with a tightly fitting piston was solved. Critically, this partnership also brought access to a dinner club and informal learned society of prominent figures in the Midlands, which included industrialists, natural philosophers and intellectuals.

This group met regularly in Birmingham between 1765 and 1813. At first called the Lunar Circle, the name arising because they met during the full moon, as it made the journey home easier and safer in the absence of street lighting, by 1775 it had become known as the Lunar Society. As well as Boulton and Watt, membership included: Erasmus Darwin, physician, natural philosopher, slave-trade abolitionist, and grandfather of Charles Darwin; Josiah Wedgwood, potter and entrepreneur, who founded the Wedgwood Company, and was also grandfather to Charles Darwin; and Joseph Priestley, natural philosopher, chemist, multi-subject educator, and liberal political theorist.

While members local to Birmingham were in almost daily contact, those more distant were in correspondence at least weekly and therefore a more loosely defined group can also be identified, covering a much wider geographical area. These included James Hutton, the Scottish geologist and physician; Benjamin Franklin, polymath and one of the founding fathers of the United States; and Joseph Banks, botanist and patron of the natural sciences, who famously took part in Captain James Cook’s first voyage.

What set them apart, according to the social historian Jenny Uglow, was that ‘their passionate common exchange was of a type that would never be possible again, until today, with the fast, collaborative intimacy of the Internet.’

There is little doubt that this network of friends and colleagues were an important part of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution that encouraged scholars and craftspeople to apply new scientific thinking to mechanical and technological challenges. Like others of their generation they gradually incorporated science and reason into their worldview and contributed to the intellectual shifts that made British culture in particular highly receptive to new mechanical and financial ideas leading ultimately to the Industrial Revolution.

As John Stuart Mill observed in the following century, ‘It is hardly possible to overstate the value in the present state of human improvement of placing human beings in contact with other persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar.’

And that is as true now as it ever was.

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A personal perspective on Network Leadership and why ‘restless persuasion’ matters, by Mike Peckham

Keep Persuading

Almost as long as I have been a consultant I have been told that the world is more uncertain, volatile and chaotic than it has ever been.  Thirty years ago in 1989 I can recall Tom Peters[i] invoking, indeed goading, us to ‘thrive on chaos’ and how everything was moving at an exponential rate.  Bennis and Nanus (1985)[ii] term VUCA or a world of volatilty, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity has been dusted off and is being used to describe the world we live in.  Indeed, there have been ever increasing challenges from management guru’s to face ‘wicked problems’ and to live in the ‘Age of Unreason’[iii] etc.  I have no doubt that if you are reading this you will be able to recant any number of book titles or aphorisms that broadly say the same thing.

The paradox for me is that if we have been saying this for at least the last 30 years, shouldn’t we just stop sensationalising it and say – ‘this is the business reality and move on’.  Business leaders today know that this is the case and don’t see anything other than the need to get on in a world that has a tempo and rhythm that they have adapted to.  The Hungarian scientist Hans Selye’s[iv] first used the term ‘general adaptation syndrome’ to identify three distinct stages as the body and brain adapt to stress, moving from alarm to resistance and ultimately, without adaptation, exhaustion.  In the long term, if we don’t adapt we become exhausted.  However, our bodies can become habituated to higher levels of stress. Arguably people working ‘in’ business have adapted but people working ‘on’ business are still in the stage of alarm and resistance?

Network leadership isn’t a response to a new business reality, it’s not a consultant inspired fad but an uncovering of a way of working that has existed below the surface of organisations as they struggle to make sense of how to act.  As our impatience grows and we push the world to speed up, to collapse boundaries and become more interconnected and interdependent it is imperative to know how to act.  Network leadership provides an answer.

David Goodhart’s (2017) book ‘The Road to Somewhere’ was the first to identify the tribal lines of the ‘anywheres’ and the ‘somewheres’.  The educated ‘anywheres’ dominate the social and cultural debate and are defined by their portable career and educational achievements, whilst the ‘somewheres’ are defined by the location they are rooted in.  The rise of political populism could represent the first two stages of the ‘general adaptation syndrome’ – alarm and resistance and a demand for heroic leaders to save the day.

The ‘heroic’ leadership model, in which we pin our hopes and aspirations on a single omniscient and omnipotent individual to lead the way, becomes problematic when the challenges are bigger than a single brain can cope with.  Network leadership is an alternative model that draws on a web of connections to get things done.  My understanding of network leadership is a result of working closely with hundreds of leaders across organisations globally, working closely with them through organisational change and upheaval and observing what enables them to act and mobilise those around them.

So how do I define and characterise ‘network leadership’?  Network Leadership is the ability and capacity to bring together people, ideas and resources to solve problems, create opportunities and deliver for a constituency.  Network Leaders recognise that they don’t know the answer but those around them do; that they don’t own all of the resources to deliver for their constituents but others within their network do; that their power comes from the ability to work across boundaries; to connect ideas with action and people with resources.  They are net contributors to their network in terms of connecting, energising and mobilising others to act.

In the overly simplistic characterisation of leadership styles, heroic leaders are defined by their sense of destination; the trinity of ‘vision, mission and values’ capture what they do, where we are going and how we will behave towards each other.  The network leader works in a more subtle way informed by purpose and belief; open to possibility and opportunity; working without authority but being influential; prepared to shift and reconfigure in order to deliver.

Network leadership is not to be confused with distributed leadership, it’s not diluting the authority of the leader across others but using singular authority to enlist others in their sense of purpose.  Network leaders have a mental ‘manifesto’ that describes what they believe in, what they stand for and what they are trying to achieve.  Mission, vision and values is replaced with manifesto thinking informed by a sense of restless persuasion.

Network leaders at the top use their power to bring people together from across, within and between organisations.  Assembling cross hierarchical groups to solve problems, re-forming them as a project unfolds; always being open to possibility and opportunity.

Network Leaders within organisations have an intuitive grasp of the social system within their organisation: how decisions are made, how resources are allocated and who determines who is listened too.  They are frequently the ‘go to’ people; the problem unlockers and are sought out for their advice.

Network leadership challenges the orthodoxy of the conventional schools of leadership by asking leaders to think about themselves in relation to others; inside and outside their organisation, over which they may have no authority; to ensure purpose and values are of equal importance and present in all they do.  ‘Restless persuasion’ is how network leadership is executed day to day.

[i] Peters, T., (1989), Thriving on Chaos: Handbook for a Management Revolution

[ii] Bennis, Warren; Nanus, Burt (1985). Leaders: Strategies for Taking Charge.

[iii] Handy, C., (1995), The Age of Unreason: New Thinking For A New World

[iv] Seyle. H., (1956) The Stress of Life. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1956, ISBN 978-0070562127

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