A busman’s holiday

We went walking in the Scottish Highlands last week. The idea was to take a holiday: to get away from organization design stuff, book writing, work pre-occupations, and all the normal business as usual of life.

Holidays are supposed to make you more productive when you get back to work, because you've had time for rumination, reflection, mind-wandering and all the rest of the reasons we read about that tell us taking a holiday is a good thing

Whether or not it's actually true I'm not sure, and neither are others . Maybe I'll find out during the coming week when I re-enter the digitally enabled networked world: not easy to be part of in the areas we were walking.

Although it was the Scottish Highlands which is mainly sea, sky, wild open green and/or rocky spaces – very different from an office in central London, I didn't find myself quite free-wheeling away from organization design stuff.

Like the man we met at Loch Achaidh na h-Inich who told us he was a professional prawn fisherman, also fished for fun (which is what he was doing when we met him), and went to the River Severn for fishing holidays, I found myself continuously placing my holiday experiences in relation to organizational design approaches. It turned out I was on a busman's holiday.

That sounds ridiculous but here's several reasons I couldn't – or, some who shall be nameless said, wouldn't – escape.

The first day, we walked past numerous info boards telling us the history of the area we were walking in. Many, in fact most, of them detailed aspects of the Highlands history of clan conflicts and other fights between various factions over territory and resources, power struggles, wealth disparity, seizing of resources, and so on.

In a small snatch of internet access I managed to get, I looked up what I remembered of Louis Pondy's theories of organizational conflict. His classic paper categorizes 3 types of conflict: bargaining conflict (competing for scarce resources), bureaucratic conflict (conflicts in the vertical dimension of a hierarchy), and systems conflict (lateral conflict amongst the parties to a functional relationship). Yes, they were all reflected in the clan conflicts. So the next day I found myself pondering methods of reducing conflicts through design work.

Second, we walked into Plockton. It's a village with 350 people (now). Here's a snippet of its history:

Originally called Am Ploc, the settlement was a crofting hamlet until the end of the 1700s. As in so many other parts of the Highlands this all changed when landowners found it was possible to make much more money from their estates by letting their land to sheep farmers: and to make room for the sheep they simply cleared the crofters from the land, people who in many cases had lived there for generations. Many had little choice but to emigrate, and Plockton soon became a port of embarkation for those displaced during the clearances.

In the early 1800s the landlord, Sir Hugh Innes, decided he could increase the value of his estates further by giving tenants cleared from inland areas an alternative to emigration: instead they could resettle in a new fishing port he developed under the name of "Plocktown". New streets of houses were built, many with small crofts, pieces of land that the residents could use to supplement the income they derived from fishing. This was the era of the "herring boom" and Plockton rapidly grew to accommodate over 500 people, many living two families to a cottage.

But the herring boom simply ended when the fish changed their migration patterns, and the area was also severely affected by the potato famine of the late 1840s. Before long Plockton became known as Baile na Bochdainn, or "village of the poor". It saw a resurgence following the arrival of the railway in the 1890s, but large-scale fishing never resumed.

Since then it has had more ups and downs – being used as a location for a TV series turned it into a victim of its own success. But now it appears to be a thriving tourist location with upmarket gastro pubs serving haggis, neeps and tatties in tasteful arrangements, a high school with 300 pupils and a well organised community .

Plockton's story, mirrors many organizational ones, and triggered in my mind questions on agility, adaptability, and thriving. I wondered why is it Plockton is thriving and other villages with similar histories aren't?

There's an interesting blog on community thriving by Bettina von Stamm here. She discusses a range of factors that seem to need to be in place to enable a community to thrive. Several of them Plockton has. Her piece is related to cities but she wonders if the same factors are applicable to networks and organizations – so the following day found me musing on engendering thriving organizational communities.

Third, we spent time (in various pubs, sipping wee drams) reading print books: a wonderfully relaxing way to end a day's walking. I was reading John Le Carre's novel, Absolute Friends, even then I couldn't stop myself highlighting – not in a library book in case you're wondering – the paragraph, 'Promotion, Teddy, I would say, is in inverse proportion to knowledge. … The butler knows more than the lord of the manor. The lord of the manor knows more than the queen.'

And on the next page, 'in a mammoth bureaucracy obsessed with its own secrecy, the fault lines are best observed by those who, instead of peering down from the top, stand at the bottom and look up.' Yes, a reinforcement worth bearing in mind when I'm trying to help sort out what's going on in a customer journey that isn't working optimally.

When I next logged on I reached for Barry Oshry's work on Tops, Middles, and Bottoms, and Frederic Laloux talking about Reinventing Organizations.

So, a complete break in some respects, and not a break at all in others. Do you take busman's holidays? Let me know.