Creating Catalysts of the Future

We are made from what came before.

We make ourselves out of the promises that lie ahead.

And we are always in the process of becoming.

Jacquline Novogratz. Manifesto for a Moral Revolution.

The elements of change build up, little by little and seem to be just minor changes on what was true yesterday. A piece of technology here. A changed relationship there.

They’re not, They are part of an altogether bigger picture of what next really looks like.

They grow as the old ways gently decay, until at some point they connect and bring the new reality centre stage. To manifest, they need catalysts. Always people, sometime events. 

Coronavirus is a catalyst. It has set things in motion. 

Now we need the people.

Not everybody can be a catalyst. Catalysts are rarely those in authority – their interests are more often protecting the status quo. 

Who are you?

Most of us have been brought up and educated to be part of a system that is now changing. We need to change with it.  To do that we need exemplars – those who show the way through practice.

We are all born with a unique path open to us. In addition to all that we learn, from our parents, schools and communities there is something else – something that only we can do. It can be difficult to explain.

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among  

things that change.  But it doesn’t change. 

People wonder about what you are pursuing. 

You have to explain about the thread. 

But it is hard for others to see. 

While you hold it you can’t get lost. 

Tragedies happen; people get hurt 

or die; and you suffer and get old. 

Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.

You don’t ever let go of the thread.

The Way It Is. William Stafford

In times of change, such as we face now, we need to hang on to that thread – our uniqueness is how we help others around us.

Our uniqueness is key to CatalyzingtheFuture

Who are you part of?

If I was to ask you “who do you identify with” how would you answer? 

Answers I have received include profession, cause, family, region more than nationality, generation but rarely employer. It’s a small sample and not scientific, but I found  it interesting. Individuals see themselves as, say Yorkshire or Londoner, and many “European” (sorry Boris) 

The relationship with employer often seems transactional, and in inverse proportion to the size of the business. People identify more with successful smaller businesses than large corporates.

Employee engagement, as measured by the metrics of Gallup and others is below 30%, and even this figure can be called into question. How do regard a measure  of an emotion taken at a single point in time as a reliable indicator when things change so quickly?

Who and what we feel we belong to matters. The name of the group, its language, how well recognised it is, how successful or otherwise it is all matter. Groups have both ego and soul, and both determine how their members navigate an uncertain world.

In Tribal Leadership, Dave Logan et al identified five “tribes” based on their view of themselves: The shape followed a normal distribution, with the majority belonging to tribes of “My life sucks” (25%) – the place of the disengaged, the “I’m great, you’re not” tribe (49%) – the place of the professions, sales and other successful and competitive players of finite games and then the “we’re great you’re not” tribe (22%) of sports teams and elite education.

At the opposite ends of the curve were the “life sucks” and “life is great” tribes – tiny by comparison, but important nonetheless because that is where change is triggered. Change never happens from the comfortable middle. 

The biggest, and most difficult transition is from “I’m great” to “we’re great”. From me to we. The future depends on we.

These tribes have their own symbols and language. They are exclusive. They stick together in self reinforcing echo chambers, competing within a system they understand and are often blind to the systems emerging that are different and rather inconvenient.

We all belong to tribes of some sort. They tend to be small  – fewer than 150 people “The “Dunbar Number” based on his research amongst communities over time. You can get a clue as to who your tribes are by looking at your most frequent contacts, or your social network, or the books on your shelf or Kindle. 

We’re at our best when we’re working with others who understand what we’re trying to do, share our values, and are prepared to help. We may have to do some “fitting in”, but we are able to be our true selves in the company of others. The more compromises we make, the less effective we will be, and catalysts need to be confident in being themselves.

Who we belong to matters because it determines how we feel as we face the change we’re in. It determines how we feel about ourselves. It determines how we process information, and how effective we are in handling change for ourselves and those around us.

Catalysts are quiet iconoclasts. People who want to change the system they are part of, not just accept it.

Catalysts help people cross boundaries.

Where do we find catalysts?

They are all around us, in our networks.

“The power of a bold idea uttered publicly in defiance of dominant opinion cannot be easily measured. Those special people who speak out in such a way as to shake up not only the self-assurance of their enemies, but the complacency of their friends, are precious catalysts for change.

Howard Zinn. You can’t be neutral on a moving train

All points in a network are not equal.

Whilst networks may have a centre, the real power sits outside of the centre in places of what technically are known as “betweenness centrality”. These are people who are highly connected to others – the “superconnectors”, then those who are highly knowledgeable, and connected to ideas and information – the “Mavens”, and the “Influencers” – those people who other people take note of as examples and follow. (One of the most readable accounts of this remains Malcolm Gladwell’s “Tipping Point”)

Whilst Catalysts can be found in many places, they are more often than not low profile. They do not have big egos, and prefer to live in the background. They are givers who loke to help others.

They do the hard work of bringing the influencers, the mavens  and the superconnectors into the same space as that which they are looking to catalyse, and then get out of the way to let the magic do its work.  

They are the Producers more often than the Directors, the Consigliere rather than the Don, the Adviser more than the Politician. They understand people and systems and have a clear sense of what they want to see in the world. 

Jacqueline Novogratz is a catalyst, and her book “Manifesto for a Moral Revolution” is a call to action from someone who has done the work. Greta Thunberg is a catalyst, as someone who sat down outside her school, on her own starting the work.  Tim Berners Lee is a catalyst, quietly creating the basis for the internet; the biggest transformation of our times. 

Catalysts prepare the ground for entrepreneurs. They highlight the gaps that entrepreneurs move into.  

Catalysts are alchemists. They inhabit the space between what is and what will be. 

You will find them at the edge, on the boundaries with one foot in the known and the other looking for a foothold in the unknown.

What makes Catalysts different?

We believe that the Universe comprises 95% “Dark” energy and matter we don’t understand. We go about our lives in the understood reality of the other 5%. 

Most of us in business live our lives in the same way. We compete over the 5%. Catalysts have one foot in the 95%, and bring small parts of it to our attention. 

Catalysts see differently. The image at the head of this blog is a piece by Dale Chilhuly. He sees differently – literally. He lost an eye in 1976, which turned through necessity from front line glassblower to observer. Seeing the whole production picture rather than a part. Along the way, he became an icon. Epiphanies rarely occur in familiar surroundings. Catalysts move beyond the familiar.

Seeing is one thing. Perception is another. Understanding differently is key. This the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, a woman who broke through medical and gender barriers through understanding differently. She was a formidable feminist. She saw nursing as a science and a profession, she used ground breaking innovation in statistics. When we understand differently, we have little choice but to do differently.

Catalysts drive through fear. In March 2003, when the enthusiasm in the West for the Gulf War was high, Natalie Maines, lead singer of The Dixie Chicks made an off the cuff remark: “I’m ashamed the President of the United States is From Texas”.

It didn’t go down well. It changed her career. Even after the mood music had changed as the folly of the war became clear, music stations avoided her. 

She said

“I feel a responsibility to do it now. I didn’t realise how quiet I was being. But it’s exhausting to keep doing it. You feel like you’re fighting an uphill battle. But, it’s just not in me to shy away from things I truly  believe in. I’m not afraid” 

We’re seeing much of the same now as current day catalysts bring change forward through speaking their truths. Going against the grain of respectable convention. Unafraid.

Becoming a Catalyst.

We are all potential catalysts, and It’s not for the faint hearted. It’s not about heroism, or ego, or fame, or money. Its about making a difference to something that matters to us.

As we understand who we are, what’s important to us and as we appreciate what we see that others don’t, the catalyst in us beckons. 

What we do about it is down to us.

A Time for Catalysts.

Whatever age we are, no matter where we live and no matter what we do we cannot avoid noticing what is around us. 

We read about it, feel it, react to it emotionally and experience it. In our hearts, we know that we are entering a new era of awareness, and that it brings with it opportunity and responsibility.

The time is now.

Being a catalyst is a choice.

Catalysts are more effective when they link and work together. I’ll write more about that later this week.

In the meantime, have a look at Catalyzing the Future. It’s where other catalyst are heading.

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