Uncertainty, Catalysts and AntiFragility.

“How did you go bankrupt?”
Two ways. Gradually, then Suddenly” 

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun also Rises

We can’t go over it,
We can’t go under it.
Oh no!
We’ve got to go through it!

Michael Rosen. Going on a Bear Hunt.

From local bonfires to global forest fire

What’s happening has been happening gradually for a while. Sparks falling onto dry ground. Things are changing beneath us. We are at that “betwixt and between” point, where one period ends and another emerges.

We have been obsessed with Science ever since the Enlightenment in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.  We have valued individualism and reason over community, and set in chain the changes that have brought us to now.

Along the way, we have had the second agricultural revolution, the first, second and third industrial revolutions, and introduced science into how we organize society, business and every other facet of our lives. We have increasingly drained our societies pf the benefits of the “commons” – things availalbe to all for free, from looking after our children to sport – in favour of privatising them to “grow” the economy. As though the only things that matter are those we can assign a price to.

Somehow we have lost touch with ourselves and the joy that business can create. We have dealt with the pressures we face by either moving towards autonomy at the expense of belonging, or favoured belonging at the expense of our individuality. We have been straining our root system. We have been coming adrift.

In becoming homo economicus we have grown but not evolved. By giving primacy to the economy we have become fragmented. We have not grown, but rather become potbound, having roots which fill the economic flowerpot, leaving no room for them to expand into other area of our society.

Some, a very few, have become autonomous “global citizens” wandering at will to source and engineer the best combination of intellect, skills and cost wherever they may be found and combined to maximise profit regardless of consequences to others, and build giant corporations which belong nowhere. Citizens only of a very small part of the supply and demand communities they have created.

Others, the majority of us, have focused on “joining” by sacrificing our individuality in order to fit in to the enterprises created by the global citizens. We have found belonging more locally with others who have also sacrificed autonomy in return for work, and share the same pressures on their identity. Willing hostages to the system we have created.

Whilst economies were growing, this problem did not really surface. Millions around the world were being lifted out of poverty, whilst unimaginable fortunes were being accrued at enormous speed by a very few. The middle classes in the West, after a century of steadily increasing fortune found themselves suddenly and brutally stranded in barren ground.

We have inadvertently created tinder dry conditions for business. And all it needed was a spark. Coronavirus is that spark.

People, like all forms of life, only change when something so disturbs them that they are forced to let go of their present beliefs. Nothing changes until we interpret things differently. Change occurs only when we let go of our certainty, our current views, and develop a new understanding of what’s going on. 

Margaret Wheatley. Finding our Way.

For all of us, our world has changed. In a moment. 

We have encountered what Margaret Wheatley describes. Some for better, some for worse. It has left very few of us unchanged.

Change at this level used to have the good grace to happen gradually across multiple generations. Now, it is happening suddenly, within a generation and the pace of change looks set to happen ever faster and more unpredictably as we cope with the complex effects of climate change, inequality, biodiversity loss and other byproducts of industrialisation as they combine and multiply.

“You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out”  

Warren Buffett

Unfortunately, a lot of us are, if not naked, then dressed pretty scantily. 

We have allowed ourselves to become dependent on a system we do not and cannot control. We have debts derived from education and housing, as well as day to day living for many, which make us dependent on jobs, which we work hard at even as they are moved around the globe, gigified or digitised. 

We spend so much time at work, we often depend on the workplace for our relationships and a sense of meaning and purpose. We offer our love to a job that rarely returns it.

So when the sparks ignite, it hurts.

As individuals, we need a new relationship with change.

Business – from Resilient to Antifragile.

Whilst it may be confusing and painful now for many, fires eventually burn themselves out. They consume the dead wood, and create conditions for growth.

Now is the time to get ready.

All the changes we have seen happen and that are continuing to happen only hurt because we didn’t see them coming. We were what Margaret Heffernan terms “wilfully blind”

“We know, Intellectually, that confronting an issue is the only way to resolve it. But any disruption will interrupt the status quo. Given the choice between conflict and change on the one hand, and inertia on the other, the ostrich position can seem very attractive.

Margaret Heffernan. Wilful Blindness

Coronavirus has brought us, if not 20/20 vision at least a kick up the backside to get our heads out of the sand. It has brought us a global, biological “time out” to look at what’s around us. Nobody has been unaffected. Uncertainty is  proving a great leveller.

It has brutally exposed the fragility of extended supply chains and economies overly dependent on service – ways of moving wealth around rather than generating it. 

It has shown us that both the office, and the commute to it is a habit that can be changed for many of us, and that meetings can be done far more effectively and much less painfully virtually.  There is no corner office on Zoom or Teams.

We have seen initiative and innovation in important, unexpected places.

We have a different view of the jobs that matter, and the people who count in a crisis.

We know who means it when they say “people are our strongest asset”

We have rediscovered our friends and family.

It has exposed poor leadership, and amplified good leadership. Good leaders have harnessed purpose to bring people together to defeat a common enemy and poor leaders have used their own uncertainty to blame other people for not dealing with it.

It has shown us, as individuals that we can be far more effective when being ourselves in the company of others when we don’t have to hide so much behind the mask we wear to the office.

It is in many ways an enforced dress rehearsal for what may be next as we face the linked, complex challenges to come. 

All of the ways that the system we are part of has been changing whilst we haven’t been looking can help us when we acknowledge and harness them. 


We can choose

We can use technology to help us “spot the dots” we can bring together and catalyze.

If we see technology as an enemy, consuming jobs that can be automated, we’re right. If we see it as a powerful tool to harness to be ourselves, and connect to others as who we are rather than a role description, we’re right. 

We can choose the information we consume. 

We can create echo chambers to reinforce our biases and fears, or we can create small vibrant communities where we pay attention and listen to people whose views we do not understand to find common ground and new ways forward.

We can paddle around in the sewage of misinformation and manipulation that is much social media, or we can ride the white waters of knowledge and courses available for free or near free from people who are the top of their game.

We can automate the parts of our job that are begging for automation to make room for the rich conversations we can generate with other humans about the things we can’t automate. 

We are all artists. We can rediscover that.

“All children are born artists, the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up

Pablo Picasso

We can start businesses. We can write, or sing, paint or code.

We can choose, consciously, who we associate with. Evidence suggests we become the average of the five people we most associate with, and an American friend told me “it’s hard to soar like an eagle if you’re surrounding yourself with turkeys”. A sobering thought. We see the world not just through our own eyes but the eyes of those we associate with.

Both mystics and puzzlers agree, from different standpoints, that we create our own worlds.

We have lots of opportunities to create the world we want out of the debris.

Catalyzing the future

Shockabuku. A swift, spiritual kick to the head that changes your reality for ever

Grosse Pointe Blank

Coronavirus has been a Shockabuku.

Most of us now see the world at least a little differently, and have choices to make. 

All the important elements that were present when the flames caught  – skills, money, connections, ideas are still there as new growth. We can nurture them, and transplant them to more fertile ground.

We can resolve the challenges we face and deal with the conflict and change to grow individually and contribute our unique abilities to whatever comes next.

There are no solutions, no “best practices” and there is no normal, but here are some things to think about.

  • We are entering a time of increasing uncertainty, and none of us have the answer. Together with others though, we can chip away at it. It needs those who will lead, by example.
  • The most powerful thing we can become is ourselves in the company of others who help us become that, and whom in turn we help to be themselves. This is a time for generosity of spirit
  • The challenges we face are going to create whole new industries. They require, and will grow very different cultures. We have the seeds of success. We need to create the conditions for them to thrive
  • We can access pretty much anyone, or anything, pretty much anywhere. We can create what we can imagine. We don’t need anyone’s permission. We are enough as we are.
  • We do not see reality. We each create our own interpretation of what’s real. We get to choose.
  • Participation is not a choice. We’re all in the game. We’re all players, not spectators
  • ◆ The future belongs to those with “skin in the game”. People who take responsibility for what they do. Accountable to those they work with.  We all have a part to play.

We’re entering an extraordinary time. For many, perhaps even most, it will not be easy for a while. We’ve been brought up an educated to expect perpetual more, and we know that is not sustainable. It’s a big shift. It will conditions for real growth for those who choose to lead.

Catalysts and Antifragility

All the conditions exists for an exciting future, if we can just join the dots. 

We are past resilience – we are into antifragility. Using the power of this shock to grow.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” 

Steve Jobs

Catalysts are those who find the dots, and bring them together. They harness Antifragility. We may not know precisely how they will join, or what shapes they’ll make, but catalysts trust that they will. 

Catalysts are those who lead in times of uncertainty. They are able to create worlds of shared significance for people. They do not sit in corner offices, they are to be found at the edge, looking for the dots –  the shoots that are beginning to push through, often unseen by those busy avoiding blame for the fire.  They are concerned for every aspect of their world – the people, the products, the ideas. Meaning  is important to them, and they have a sense of purpose. They know what matters.

I am of course describing every one of us. 

Steven Pressfield writes elegantly about “The Resistance”. The voices in our head that tell us it can’t be done, or that we’re not good enough to do it.

The introduction to The Alchemist. Paolo Coelho tells us that there are four obstacles we face to becoming who we can be:

1. We are told from childhood that everything we want to do is impossible.

2. We believe that if we do what we want to do, those who love us will not love us anymore.

3. We are afraid of the defeats and trials we will face on the way to what we want.

4. As we get to within sight of what we want, we do not believe we deserve it, and abandon it.

All of these pressures are likely to be familiar to us (it’s certainly true for me), and overcoming them is no small task. We can’t do it through intellect – we have to walk the path. That takes determination and patience.

Being a catalyst requires courage,  practice, and a fair amount of falling off. We find others doing the same. We form communities. We get the hang of it in the end, and when we do………

The truth is, we are faced with enormous challenges, and even more enormous opportunities. We need catalysts to help them emerge. We need you.

Catalysts are very human, because when it gets to complex, even chaotic, nobody does it better..

It’s what we do best. As ourselves, with others, discovering how, in pursuit of things we believe in.

There’s never been a more important time to be a catalyst.

There are no courses, no training. Becoming a catalyst is as easy as it is challenging. We have to notice what’s going on around us, explore it fearlessly with others, and step into the uncertainty to do work that matters.

There are people doing just that, on September 30th, at CatalyzingtheFuture. Would be very good if you joined us.

#Foresight #Agility #Resilience #Antifragility #Humanity

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