I have ‘worked on work’ for my whole professional career. For the majority of that time, I have worked primarily in aviation. Unlike many in the industry my primary interest is not in aviation, any more than it is in any other activity. My primary interest is not even in safety. My professional interest is, and always has been, in work and people.
I grew up in a family business. My family, on both sides, were very much working class, though my parents were entrepreneurial and opened a market stall, which grew into a small number of shops and a small distribution business. My siblings and I were co-opted into this effort and this took up our Saturdays and holidays for as long as I can really remember.
I was the more sensitive and reflective of the older siblings, ill-suited to some of the work, though truck driving was enjoyable in later years. So, I was the first in our known family history to decide to – or be able to – enter higher education.
Being raised in a family business, at least of the sort that I was, is not something that I can recommend, and was not a choice. This upbringing did, however, give me an immense interest in work. And so it was clear to me, from teenage years, that I would study work. This was reflected in every subject choice through high school, college and universities.
Growing up in a family business also helped me to develop a particular capacity for observation from the edge. In a sense, my whole late childhood was an exercise in crude ethnography, though I never wrote up my observations. Some of these observations related to myself and our family dynamics, such as the confusing role transitions, blends and conflicts between life as a son, brother, and employee.
Of course, I was never really asked about my observations on work. No one was. Work was just something you got on with, under a particular power structure, with particular unspoken assumptions, and particular pressures. As an inside-outsider, I could see these, and in organisations of all sorts, insider-outsiders have a particular edge on seeing things from a different – less acculturated – perspective.
This made me think about the ‘outsiders within’. There are always people who are more naturally on the edge, of groups, departments, divisions, professions. They may be more interested in the edges, in the connections, and may be naturally drawn to connecting the disconnected. From the edge, they may not be fully accepted as a ‘true’ member of any particular tribe, and so may have relatively little power and may not be heard often. But they may be accepted into many tribes, as a guest, which may well afford them an understanding of the bigger picture, as well as the unseen within.
As Kurt Vonnegut’s character Finnerty said in Player Piano, “I want to stay as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.”
So in your organisations, who would these people be? What might they see from the edge that others don’t?