Oct 23 2006

Intuitive clocks

Published by at 5:49 pm under Communities of practice

I used to use The Economist as a measure of how busy I was. Ever since I began reading it in 1989, I’ve always read it from front to back, one issue after another. I’ve chuckled at myself, comparing myself to the Joseph Conrad character who lived in the Congo and opened up an issue of The London Times every day from a bale of newspapers brought up the river by boat — very methodical, never peeking further down into the bale to find out what happened in the end. And I’ve always felt a bit guilty whenever I skip articles (or whole sections, like finance and economics, which I have found less interesting than the rest of it). So last night I finished an issue and today I am two issues behind.

But now I have a new intuitive clock to measure how “behind” I am: blog reading — and writing! What fun! (Although it might be productive to turn a clock around to give myself positive strokes about how much I’ve read and how much I’ve learned from reading, in daily life I find it a useful spur to focus on what I want to read or accomplish that I haven’t yet got to.)

I’ve been thinking a lot about intuitive clocks — how we set them up for ourselves and how we use them, either individually or in communities. I think that communities of practice come to have intuitive clocks that keep them in synch. Here are some questions on the subject that I’ve been thinking about:

  • During a conversation we all have a sense of time — that the conversation has more time to go or needs more time. How do we do that? As leaders, how do we read that clock precisely?
  • If the sense of time is shared — there’s some kind of shared clock, somehow — the conversation seems more satisfying because we’re “in synch.” How can we make the clock more visible to more participants?
  • Experienced community leaders develop a sense of pace — knowing when it’s time to push and when it’s not worth it. What clock are they using?
  • In very organized communities of practice, such as Toastmasters, an elaborate set of progress measures tells members and leaders “what time it is.”

One thing that seems clear is that articulating an important question is a way of offering an intuitive clock against which a community’s conversations and activities can be measured. Of course, the person who offers the question needs to have a certain amount of status and respect for the question to be considered and it has to be articulated in a way that makes sense to the community. And a good question is a good clock only for people who speak the same language — so it may not make much sense to people outside a given community.

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