Catalysts – Weaving the Future

From Confused to Catalyst

Right now, we are facing multiple challenges that will yield a variety of threats and opportunities.

They are classic “Wicked” challenges – they are multi faceted, linked and adapt as they are tackled. There are no neat, packaged linear solutions, just agile actions from which we can learn through success and failure as we go.

Because they are multi faceted and complex, we need people who have variously the knowledge, the connections and the enthusiasm to solve them to work together, each acting as a catalyst for their own area. I wrote about why, and what they look like in earlier blogs..

In science, catalyzed reactions are typically used to accelerate the rate by which a specific chemistry proceeds. Essentially, the action of the catalyst is to provide an alternative, lower energy pathway for the reaction. For this to occur, the catalytic substance interacts with a reactant and forms an intermediate compound. In our case, the compound is a conversation.

So it is for us when it comes to catalyzing the future. The rate at which things are happening is not fast enough for us to avoid significant, even potentially terminal, challenges. We need to find ways of making then happen faster. We humans really don’t like change – we get used to things; we form habits and we find a comfortable place to exist. We really don’t want to move out of there. If we want things to change, we want others to change. We’re just fine as we are. 

The challenge is that we have over time become short term thinkers. In earlier times, when we were more connected to the natural rhythms of the natural world, we thought longer term. Native Americans had a basic rule to think of the impact of whatever they did on seven generations beyond them. Other indigenous peoples were similar. 

As the rate of change has accelerated, we learned to think shorter term. Three months, a quarter, is a long time in the corporate world. Twenty five years used to be the default period for a mortgage. When we harvest natural resources, from oil to forests, we calculate short term gains rather than think in terms of the aeons it took to create the “asset”. 

We have, over time, become separated from the natural world and each other. We have become stratified and disconnected and reached a point where we have a zero sum approach. Your gain requires somebody’s, or something’s loss. 

The result is that we have myriad opposing camps. Nations, Religions, Generations, and Worldviews. We hunker down in our areas of comfort and stand by to repel all who encroach on it – often, even if they are not a real theat, they just have is a different view.

We seem to have created something of a cultural tower of Babel, the narrative of which concerns the separation of a people all speaking one language into many different tribes all speaking different ones, and unable to communicate and progress together. Seems apt somehow.

Catalysts are to be found at the Boundaries.

Catalysts exist at the boundaries where different viewpoints meet. They translate.

My own quest in recent years has been to find a way of sitting at the boundary between those who value measurement and proof; people I termed “puzzlers” and those who value different, more intuitive and older ways of knowing, who I termed “mystics”. I wrote a short article on it here.

To summarise the challenge, it often seems to be the case that both sides want to persuade the other of the value of their viewpoint, whereas the real breakthroughs come when both sides accept the power of the others viewpoint and skills. 

I have found the insights that are created, and more importantly moved to action when these two viewpoints can be synthesised to be enormous. Whilst mystics generate deep wisdom, it is often the puzzlers, whose skills include real expertise in planning and execution who can accelerate the implementation of the insights at scale.

Puzzler and mystics of course are but two two categories. There are legions of others, including different generations, climate deniers and climate changers, capitalists and alternative economists, globalists and localists  – the list goes on, and on. 

Of course, they are not discrete. There will be subsets of each in other areas. There are both capitalists and alternative economists within mystics for instance, as well as within puzzlers. 

Because of the complexity, I do not see any “universal” catalysts. Catalysts are likely to exist within relatively small groups where their relationships and credibility allow them to weave their magic.

I don’t have any hard evidence of this, but find Robin Dunbar’s work on the size of effective groups valuable when thinking about this. His argument that we can only really hold a maximum of 150 effective relationships seems sound, and intuitively correct at a personal level given that being a catalyst is all about relationships.

There is also much we can learn from the world of conflict management. Although the debates I have witnessed between puzzlers and mystics have never ended up in physical violence, views are strongly and passionately held, and I have found work like Arnold Mindell’s “Sitting in the Fire” valuable reference material. I think there is much to learn here, and will be looking to talk to those engaged in this challenging field to see what might be learned.

So, perhaps we can think of what we are talking about as the synthesis of many related minor conflicts; many small groups each with a mediator who helps them understand each others views and make forward progress. Each is hugely valuable in its own right, but to make progress at the rate we need to, how might we bring them together?

Catalysts are rarely the heroes of the piece. They are the people who ask the questions. 

  • Van Phillips, a young man who lost his foot in a boating accident. “If they can put a man on the moon, why can’t they build a decent foot”. The end result was the Flex Foot prosthetic now used by paralympians and others.
  • Henry Dunant, a Swiss who asked why we didn’t use times of peace to limit the damage caused by War. The end result was the Red Cross.
  • Percy Spencer. American Engineer working on the magnetrons that powered radar. “Why did my candy bar melt”. End Result – the Microwave.

Simple questions have always driven change, from Copernicus to Quantum Physics. We remeber the inventors, but rarely those who originally asked the question.

Catalysts ask important questions of people.

Connecting Catalysts

We are facing something rather more than “a little local difficulty”

  • How do we stop our ecosystem collapsing?
  • Do we have to have poverty?
  • How do we replace what we take from our natural world?

We are in search of a way of accelerating the changes we need to make to survive, before it either becomes too late , or more likely the damage we suffer is far greater than it needs to be. 

Change is fractal. Big change is made from lots of similar, smaller change. It is inductive – big behaviour change is made from lots of small change, not the other way round. Behaviours create cultures, not the other way round.

Enter the Catalysts. 

Each of us small catalysts will be effecting change in a small group. It’s hard, invaluable, irreplaceable work driven by a combination of purpose and commitment.

We can’t all be Seth Godin, but we all have our own small Tribes. The task then, is how to support each other. To bring those  we connect to each other together in a such a way that Serendipity gets to come to the party. People who never thought they’d get on, finding themselves doing just that.

This is where the power lies. connecting small. The seductive idea of the ability of infinite connection to lead to infinite scale based around a small number of people just doesn’t work. Dunbar is right.

Much is made of influencers on social media, but for the most part, they deal in shallow, transient matters and personally, I don’t much care which fake airpods you want to have validated. 

Catalysts are bringing together people who wouldn’t normally mix. Holding space. Creating room for important discovery, and turning discovery to execution.

To get the change we need, we need to connect the Catalysts. To link measurers to mystics to generations to cultures to fr profit to non profit to ecologists to capitalists to………….

Weaving change

The fabric of the change we crave is made from the warp of ideas and the weft of differences. 

The driving force of evolution relies on three things. Identify, Information and Relationships. Who we are at heart, what we notice, and who we talk to. 

Catalysts are the Weavers of change.  People who notice and then do. The fact that they may do small doesn’t matter. The do, not watch. 

Right now, the internet is their loom, and the dialogues they are building are the shuttles.

Real dialogue always starts small. Today’s stock markets grew out of conversations in coffee shops three centuries ago. The Impressionists movement grew out of artists who couldn’t get their work displayed at the Salon in Paris because it wasn’t considered “proper art”. Punk Rock grew out of frustration with the excesses of Rock that were suffocating originality, and Live Aid out of the failure of the conventional charity establishment to deal with huge, unexpected, immediate, existential needs. Every single one of these started with a conversation between a small group of curious people who cared.

Catalyzing the Future

Weaving change starts with dialogue. To get dialogue. We need to meet. 

If you are a catalyst, or want to become one, join in at Originize, and/or

Catalyzing the Future. 30th September. Pro Bono. Lots of work by catalysts for whom dialogue matters as a way of shaping next.

#Foresight #Agility #Resilience #Antifragility #Humanity

Published by Richard H Merrick

Complexity and volatility create enormous opportunities for those willing to go beyond the boundaries of "business as usual" to explore the edges of their business. I am an entrepreneur, a coach, a creative thinker, and above all, an explorer of possibility.

%d bloggers like this: