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.
Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding“, about the journey of returning a large estate to the Wild. The battless that were fought with both officialdom and neighbours is a testament to vision, character and determination and the book deservedly became a best seller.
We are strange animals, us humans. We have developed sufficient hubris to believe we are separate from and somehow superior to nature, that it is for us to own, and that somehow we can improve it. Our journey to a more deep seated truth is proving costly, painful and possibly terminal.
Our ingenuity is that we have the capability and creativity to interfere for profit. Whether it is extracting natural resources at a rate at which they cannot be replenished, or “regime change”, or our own welfare, we have a huge ability to bring about temporary change without really paying attention to the systemic costs of that change.
I think the same is also true of something as basic and vital as our basic form of communication. There are thousands of books listed on Amazon on something as fundamental as conversation, one of the defining attributes of humans. With a two year old in the house at the moment, I get a privileged view of seeing conversation develop. It doesn’t need any instruction, and it is awesome to see what drives his emerging conversation as his sense of his own identity develops, he explores the world around him and he works out how to describe it to us in terms that we respond to.
We do not need to be taught how to have conversations, we just need to have them. Over the past year at Originize we have been having conversations about what we notice going on around us, and bringing as much diversity as we can into those conversations. The results haver been both a joy and immensely powerful. Conversations with no set agenda, where expertise has no place, allows the human in us out and when we do that, remarkable things happen.
We seem to have done the same with Leadership. Scholars of leadership go back to Sun Tzu, Plato and of course. Machiavelli, but it is only really in the last few decades we have made it the subject of academic study. Since then we have had a torrent of books on the habits, traits, and characteristics of leaders, and apparently spent over three hundred billion dollars on leadership training in 2019.
You would think that, with a spend of that size, we would be awash with effective leaders. A quick glance around at who is shaping the World at the moment in politics, government and business would suggest otherwise. Very few of them list the study of leadership on their resumes, although many have chosen to write “just do what I did” books on the subject after the event.
I think the uncomfortable truth about both conversations and leadership is that we can teach them as much as we like, but unless we have something important to talk about, or something that matters enough to die for they are academic, not practical subjects.
I think they would both benefit from extensive rewilding. To be taken back their basics. And before leadership became a sellable training programme, those basics were made pretty clear. Sun Tzu emphasised intelligence, humanity, credibility, courage and discipline. Plato talks about the importance of “navigating by the stars”, vision and the importance of teaching. Machiavelli gets a bad rap – he could have done with better PR – but his insights contain real lessons. One my favourite quotes”
As in many things, Nicolo served up inconvenient truths with some flair. We value people who understand the thinking of others more than those who think for themselves, or as I think Richard Feynman put it “The problem is not people being uneducated. The problem is that they are educated just enough to believe what they have been taught and not educated enough to question what they have been taught.”
Which brings us to what I think is the heart of the challenge. If we take all of the above, it boils down to two things; Character and Purpose. The personal qualities to stand up for what we believe in for ourselves, and the spirituality to strengthen it with unshakeable purpose. Everything else is management.
When Isabella Tree and her husband were Rewilding the Knepp estate, it appears to have followed an almost alchemical process. First, they let it grow for itself. This infuriated all sorts of constituencies who accused them of “letting it go” and vandalism. Secondly, it adjusted, which involved being often temporarily overrun, variously by insects and wild flora and fauna until the third stage, where it has started to not only stabilise, but thrive, bring back wildlife and restore the health of the soil and the entire ecosystem. It has taken a couple of decades, and is still in progress. There is still much opposition from those who prefer recent tradition, but it is changing both attitudes and landscape.
Perhaps we might do the same with conversation and leadership. Left to it’s own devices, like the Knepp estate, it knows what to do and how to thrive, and we should interfere far less with it.
In a post Covid world, we need real conversation and genuine leadership, not synthetic alternatives.
One of the fundamental qualities of being human is the ability to have conversations. To harness the power of language via myth, story and metaphor and to act as a conduit to manifest imagination and creativity.
So why is it, I wonder, we keep them so captive?
I found myself considering this the other day when listening in to a conversation is a client’s organisation. The conversation had all the qualities of the M1 motorway. We knew where started, where it was going and where it would end up and even where the opportunities were for a quick coffee along the way. No chance of taking one of the exits to go and look at something interesting – we needed to get we were going as fast as possible.
Right now, that’s more than a shame, it’s a problem. We don’t think a lot on the motorway. It’s familiar, and we have all the equivalents of SatNav and anti collision technology to keep us on track. There could be elephants dancing the conga at the side of the motorway and we probably wouldn’t notice.
The best conversations have no destination – they are explorations of possibility in pursuit of something not quite in sight, and we make the path by walking, not rushing down a motorway on cruise control.
Unfortunately, most conversations that take place in business seem to fall into one of two categories.
The most depressing is the controlled conversation, where the efforts are about advocacy and a form of verbal brawling. We know where it’s heading, and it’s just too difficult – and often dangerous – to differ too much. There’s a mortgage to pay.
The slightly less depressing one is a skilful conversation around a pretty fixed topic. It is dialectic, or the sort practiced by lawyers arguing a point in a contract. We still know where it’s going, it’s just a matter of who’s driving when we get there, and who gets to pay for the coffees in the rest break.
There’s a huge gap between these two sorts of conversations and the conversations we should be having right now. The ones we need to be having are seeking a destination, and that gets determined by asking questions we don’t already know the answer too.
They are open, not defensive. There’s lots of different views, and often argument – but in service of exploration. The etymological root of conversation includes “to turn with” and “the place where I dwell”. It has links to Volvere, “to turn” and the root of “evolve”.
We have a choice with conversations – we can use them to close down and defend, or open up and explore.
To be part of a free conversation requires confidence and humility, a willingness to suspend judgement and listen, and the capability to lead without being in charge. It needs those who can hold the space for others, not dominate it. It’s very different to what we have been told is efficient.
Right now however, we need to free our conversations. We need to bring in people we wouldn’t normally and those who see things differently and then listen to them with respect.
Conversations are thre most powerful tool of change we have. We shouldn’t keep them caged.
We know that any organisation that does not innovate is dying faster than it otherwise would. It is particularly true today, as we stumble our way out of Brexit and Covid19, and into the arms of climate change, AI technology encroaching into the hallowed turf of the professions, and other challenges. It feels a little like playing hopscotch in a minefield.
Organisations don’t have ideas, people do. and it’s here the challenge arises. Having an idea in an organisation as an employee is a bit of an adventure. All leaders of organisations want employees to be innovative and creative, but those around you do not. Having a good idea is more likely to create a schism with those around us, and intermediate managers, than it is to get us applauded. The majority of employees want stability and safety (otherwise, they wouldn’t be employees) and ideas are disruptive to the status quo. It’s ok for the leaders to have ideas, much more dangerous for employees.
If you have a great idea as part of your job, it doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to the organisation, and increasingly as job specs broaden as we seek to become more flexible, the organisation can probably stake a claim on any idea we have, at any time.
So where do good ideas come from, and where do they go? Elizabeth Gilbert has a line I like in Big Magic; we don’t have ideas, they have us. Ideas float around looking for a host. If they choose us, and we don’t do something with them, they go and find someone else. It’s an appealing image. More prosaically, ideas are the product of our complex relationship with our environment – our state of mind, who we mix with, our training, the culture we are part of and many other aspects. We can increase the likelhood of little ideas within an organisation, but the big ideas almost inevitably happen somewhere else.
At a time when all our futures rely on significant ideas that disrupt rather than improve the status quo, we have an interest in not just having them, but bringing them to fruition, we need a strategy:
If we’re an employee, then useful ideas for the organisation are incremental. Enough to improve things, but not shake them up. We progress by doing a good job at what we’ve been asked to do. It’s fine to disrupt other organisations, but not our own.
Big ideas rarely happen at work. They happen without being asked or sought, and they love serendipity. They happen with people we like being with, not the ones we’re paid to be with. They happen where we feel free to be ourselves rather than an avatar in a suit. Ideas are often born of laughter.
Remember a big idea is a responsibility. If you have one, and don’t do something with it, it will find someone who will. None of us want that.
The decade that we are in needs more big ideas than ever before. Improving the old normal will not take us where we need to be, only to more of the same – increasing inequality, climate damage, and organisational subservience. A gig economy for all.
We need a catalyst for our ideas. Somewhere serendipity can find us in the company of others who can help us catalyse it.
This year, that’s what we want Originize to be. If you want to help us build it, sign up. We’ll be sharing our ideas on having ideas, and doing something with them in the next couple of weeks, and starting.
As we teeter to the end of 2020 and into an uncertain 2021 I realised I’d seen it somewhere before. Around fifty years ago, with the film “The Italian Job”, which ends with the bus, full of gold, balanced precariously over the edge of a cliff following a crash, and Michael “Boris” Cain looking for an idea. Seems scarily prescient.
However, here we are. In the next few days (maybe) we’ll have some clarity on what sort of 2021 we’re in for. The Brexiter’s manic idea for us all, or something rather more pragmatic. Either way, we are in for a ride.
The challenge for me is that both Brexit and Coronavirus are distractions. Serious ones admittedly, but distractions. The real issues are not the (predictable but not accurately forecastable) surprise of the virus, or the knee jerk response of politicians in search of relevancy, but rather the serious systemic issues of how we live and work in a world being transformed by technology, climate and population growth.
We are at the end of an era as industry gives way to ecosystems, and short term gratification gives way to considerations of the conditions we are creating for those who follow us.
There is a rhythm to human eras. Around 250 years according to Sir John Glubb, a noted author, soldier and historian who researched this area. Each era starts with conquest over preceding eras, and ends with frivolity, decadence, a love of money instead of duty, an excessive reverence for celebrities, and reliance on cleverness rather than action. Margaret Wheatley refers to him compellingly in her excellent “Who do we choose to be?”
Whilst we might argue about the details, we are clearly in transition. The question we have to ask ourselves is “are we prepared to be passengers on a bus driven by others?”
The bus in question is the industrial model that defines the education of our children to be employed more than fulfilled, pursues the ideal of perpetual growth and lionises the shareholder model of wealth creation that distributes it increasingly assymetrically. Meanwhile the planet heats, technology claims the jobs we have been trained for, and we expose ourselves to the consequences of planetary stress from wild weather to viruses.
It’s difficult to look at the long term when our lives are so short – roughly ten generations to an era, and it’s what we have to do. We are the most creative species on the planet, although maybe not the most adaptable. Much humbler creatures, who were here before Sapiens and will be after can show us the way home on that.
We can, with a will mitigate climate change, though probably not the impact of technology. To adapt, we will have to be prepared to vacate many of the spaces we have trained for to AI and machine learning who will do it better, and focus on what we do, that they cannot, and that we need.
Connection. Meaning. Creation. Possibility.
As we enter whatever this new era turns out to be, the skills we learned in the last one become increasingly redundant and we have to be prepared to leave them behind.
The industrial era was complicated. Lots and lots of moving parts. If we could understand them, and how they worked we could tame them. We could keep them in cages, analyse them, and optimise them through best practice. Consulting thrived. Lean Six Sigma became a secular religion. It worked really well, right up until the the connection enables by technology turned our world complex. The problems escaped their cages and started to cross breed. The result? Lots of unintended consequences.
Complex needs us to work differently. To explore and probe what is going on to understand it, rather than “pigeonhole” it according to existing models. That means real collaboration, experiments, and frequent failure as we try to discover how this emerging era works.
It needs us to play the infinite game of staying in the game for those to follow, rather than try and win the finite game of our individual lives. If Glubb had a point, we’ve a lot of generations in front of us who need us to get a grip.
That means creating something we share that’s worth working, and taking risks for. Individually and Collectively. Something worthy of us.
It starts with us as individuals. We all have genius in us. We are all artists still. Becoming grown up may submerge it in an industrial system, but it doesn’t extinguish it. The next era needs us, the whole of us, to turn up if we are to work it out.
Turning up starts with conversations about possibility.
We are developing conversations about possibility here.
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.
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………….
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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”
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“
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.”
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.
It comes into existence and if it makes it past the early stages, blossoms, then declines, then dies and contributes to a new existence. It’s true of everything in the natural world.
We do not seem to think about organisations, and their systems in the same way. From businesses looking for government support because their model has bumped into current reality to politicians and bureaucrats prioritising their ailing and inflexible systems over the people those systems are meant to support, it seems we thinkthat because it worked last year, it must work this. The painful paradox of an education secretary worrying that students might get into a job they are not qualified for does not escape us.
Algorithmic thinking does not cope with reality very well. Trying to deal with anomalies such as we currently face based on historic data sets, context and thinking faces obvious limitations.
We humans on the other hand are brilliant at it. Not very efficient admittedly but hugely effective.
We are part of nature, and no different to it. We stumble around, try things, fail, try again and eventually succeed by evolving something new not bodging together something from bits we already have.
Much of what we built in the industrial age is now failing. We have bodged, until now we can bodge no more. Now, we have to deal with reality.
It offers huge opportunity alongside considerable inconvenience. We have to adapt, evolve and deal with the uncertainty and inefficiency then will require to create the foundations of whatever is next.
This is only a machine age if we just want to sit around and watch. If we want to create something beautiful, it’s an intensely human age.
If we had an “emotionometer” right now, today here in the UK it would be off the charts. We have thousands of students being graded on a basis cobbled together by people in difficult circumstances who appear to be slaves to a system.
There will be joy, heartbreak and anger. Why?
Of course it’s difficult. Covid isn’t personal, it’s an event and an indicator of how fragile the systems we design so carefully are. We cannot choose what happens to us, but we can choose how we respond.
How we respond speaks volumes as to our clarity of purpose, and thought.
Putting the system to one side for a moment, what we have is simple.
We have students who have put years of work and effort into passing exams they haven’t been able to take. Not being able to take them does not remove their effort, understanding or capability.
We have Universities and employers in need of the talent that is in the wings. Exam results help them select, but do not determine their selection. The real proof of a University or employer is what happens to someone whilst they are part of it. Good universities catalyse learning in students, and good employers harness talent.
If, for sake of argument, Universities have to accept students without the comfort blanket of exam results, it will change little except that for a year their performance tables might see a blip, but if they maintain standards, the output will be consistent, although their “conversion rate” might (and only might) fall. We might, just might, have fewer graduates at the levels forecast for one year. The system will be miffed.
It’s not as though we have no reference points. We have historic, if variable data, and real time assessments of professional teachers. We’re not guessing. It’s just like the harvest – sometimes the weather affects it. It doesn’t mean we refuse the reduced crop.
So what is going on here? What, in ten years time, will be the net effect of one year of disruption? For whose benefit does the system exist? Is it really this arthritic?
It feels like we have built a system to serve us which we are now serving. The servant has become the master. We have politicians floundering, and the high priests of education in a tizzy as they try to ensure the system is happy.
The education industry we have created is short of raw material this year, for a number of reasons, mostly culpable. We have capacity. We have reference points. We have need. It’s one year.
The worst that might happen is that some students get lucky, and get to go to somewhere they might not otherwise have got into. Getting through the course is then down to them. Getting in does not guarantee graduation, and as long as the Universities uphold standards (and don’t compromise to keep the system and their performance targets happy) little harm will be done.
Right now, huge amounts of effort, airtime and emotion are being expended over how fair the exam results are for our children who have not been able to sit formal exams due to the disruption caused by our reactions to COVID.
We are obsessed by how this years results might compare to last years results, or set a precedent for next years.
So, why I wonder does it matter so much? In the end, there are a finite number of University places, Apprenticeships and job openings, and the system will flex to allocate places. There is a market, and the market works.
The fact that relative to other years the grades may be an anomaly is of minor importance at a practical level, other than for those operate the machine and would rather use algorithms than make decisions.
Based on what? An assessment of years of work determined by a short exam, or by teachers who know the pupil, their character and the standards required?
For the benefit of whom? The pupil, the employer, our society, or for those who would like to pretend they are in control?
By 2025 the fate of those who are getting results this week will have been only marginally affected by their exam results. By 2030, they will be largely irrelevant. Talent will out, and is not determined by the lag indicator of exams, but by the lead indicators of purpose, vision, character, determination and the support we offer them. People will perform in line with our trust and interest in them.
We are heading into a future none of us can predict, and for which exams based on an arbitrary and industrialised education process are horribly poor indicators. Like GDP, our exam systems measure everything except what’s really important.
We are not components. Lets not treat our students as though they are. They are unique individuals.
I know that’s more difficult to scale and regulate, but I can’t get too excited about an education system for which this is a priority.
Exams are useful indicators, but when it comes to selecting people I want to work with, I want to talk to students, and the teachers who know them, not bureaucrats.