We talk casually, and with pride about the house we own, the car we own, the company we own.
There’s a Buddhist exhortation to be careful about what we own, because often it will end up owning us.
No matter the legal niceties, if we have used debt to buy what we “own”, we don’t really own it at all – we’re renting it. Our name may be on the title document, but we all have landlords – a bank, a finance company, a major client – all of whom we must satisfy in order for what we own to remain ours whilst we pay for it.
The same is true of the promises we make. As individuals, with people we know, we’re mostly reasonably careful. There’s a relationship at stake. As a business, it’s easy to be more cavalier. I wonder what the discount rate is on a Bank’s promise?
We are about to go into an extraordinary period. As the economy writhes, the promises – financial, and moral – we made will increasingly be called in, and our futures will be heavily affected by the way we honour them.
The inspiration for this blog came from a zoom call orchestrated by Richard Merrick last Friday called Setting Conversations Free. During the conversation the idea that our fears are holding us back cropped up a few times, and there were a couple of phrases from Roz Savage, one of the participants, that stuck with me. One was “flexing the courage muscle”, by this we were discussing if we are not used to responding to fear the “muscle” we use to cope with it atrophies, and when fear does crop up we don’t know how to deal with it. The other phrase was that for Roz “moments of greatest growth came from moments of greatest challenge”.
Before I had a horse to challenge (and educate!) me, I used to like to spend time in the mountains, and so I read a lot of old climbing books. One quote that has always stayed with me is this:
“And we come back to our daily occupations better fitted to fight the battle of life and to overcome the impediments which obstruct our paths, strengthened and cheered by the recollections of past labours and by the victories gained in other fields” – Edward Whymper,1871, First Ascent of the Matterhorn.
So it strikes me that being courageous/overcoming fear is a transferrable skill. There is saying that you should do something that scares you every day. We know the benefits of physical exercise for our bodies, so we make a conscious effort go to the gym, run, swim, walk etc. We know the benefits of mental exercise, we do puzzles, we read. However how often do we make a conscious effort to exercise our emotions?
If we want to exercise the courage muscle we don’t have to scare ourselves silly, the accepted figure for improvement seems to be 4%. Just doing something 4% beyond our current capability is enough to bring about an improvement. The key is to do 4% as often as possible, and not to be afraid of failing. Failing is how we learn, we are not born with a fear if failing, if so babies would never learn to walk, but as we grow up we are taught failing is wrong, and so we start to fear. We fear talking to strangers,expressing emotions, asking silly questions, all sorts of things.
The question is what can we do that will exercise our courage muscle that 4% so we become bolder day by day? What is that other part of our life that we can come back from “strengthened and cheered”. For me now, its riding my horse, but exercising the courage muscle could just be something small like asking something of somebody you are not all that familiar with, or speaking out where you would normally stay silent. Gradually you get bolder so when something unexpected and scary turns up in your life you are better equipped to cope with it, or you chose to accept that big challenge that will help you grow.
Just a moment ago, in the sixteenth century, Copernicus caused a bit of a stir.
He postulated that the Sun was the centre of the Solar System, rather than the Earth. Cue much huffing and puffing by Ptolemy and the Establishment. It was a Paradigm Shift. It was a revolution in the making.
Paradigm shift is a phrase coined by Thomas Kuhn in his book “The Copernican Revolution” and later developed in his ground breaking “Structure of Scientific Revolutions” in 1962.
I really like Kuhn’s idea – we’ll come to it in a moment – but what I notice is that what he so elegantly describes is mirrored in many other accounts of how things change, from Alchemy to Military Strategy and has real implications for us as individuals, right here right now.
A simplified version of Kuhn’s model goes through the following stages, from a start point he called “pre science” – when things are”unstructured” – we don’t have a model for them:
This is when we think we understand it. We have models, they replicate and they enable us after a fashion to predict. It allows experts to appear. It’s where consultants come from. Careers and enterprises are built, and there is a sense of “truth”. Stability.
This is when “anomalies” start to appear. We discount them as obvious mistakes, as “outliers”. We find ways of either isolating them or ignoring them. We conspire, unconsciously to become “wilfully blind“
The arrival of the Black Swans. Those events that are in retrospect obvious but which we allow to take us completely by surprise. We can no longer isolate or ignore them. We are forced to see. Our view of experts change. A time of huge uncertainty.
Out with the old, in with the new. A new way of doing things, a new way of seeing things. We have a paradigm shift and now have, for a while at least a new “Normal Science”
Rinse and repeat.
Standing on the Sun
“In order to see the solar system as it is, Copernicus had to be standing on the sun.”
Richard Morley. MIT Physicist
Such is the nature of a paradigm shift.
Whether as individuals or businesses, I find it hard to see other than we are leaving model drift – the stuff of the 2008 financial crisis, the current Covid crisis and the hunger for “normal” – and heading rapidly into model crisis. Climate Change, Inequality and the idea of Singularity make that inevitable and necessary.
I think it means that each of us, in our own way need to “stand on the sun” and take a different perspective on what is happening. To lose that comfortable ability to blame someone else, and take responsibility for ourselves and those around us.
How might we “stand on the Sun”?
The fact is that the model we have been using is broken (there’s good argument that the sort of meta model that is our current form of capitalism, like civilisations, last around ten generations. That puts us in line for a change)
Our overriding abilities as humans is our ability to think, to imagine and to turn that imagination into reality. Of late, that imagination has been impoverished. If the best our imagination can do is to invent Collaterallised Debt Obligations, then we’re losing the plot.
So, how do we stand on the Sun? Quite simply, by changing the conversation. The more we do as we are bidden to “focus” “concentrate” and go for efficiency the less we see.
“Zero based” conversations that acknowledge that in many areas, we do not know, whether as a business, a team, or as ourselves.
With people you trust, who share your values, and who will explore possibility with you. Not about what is, but what might be. Ambition for what matters.
If you want to see what a conversation like this feels like, come and look at a tiny, but important experiment we are running at Originize.
It was a conversation with a wine merchant last week that got me to re-think my idea of balance and then re-reading a horse book helped me make the link with energy. The wine merchant was reflecting that there is a current thought in the wine world that if a wine is high in alcohol, so long as it is high in fruit, then it is balanced and therefor a good wine. He and I did not agree with this, instead being of the opinion that if you have too much alcohol and too much fruit then you missed the precision, focus, and the more subtle and delicate aspects of the wine. So this made me wonder if there is a similar truth of life, if we are balancing say too much work with more intense play are we not just weighing down the scales to the point where they become sluggish and we miss important bits of our lives, or eventually break the scales.
This led me of the description from Mark Rasid of how horses spend their energy , ” the most important part of herd structure and dynamics really boil down to two things. Keeping balance within the herd and conserving as much energy as possible – both as a group and as within each individual”. In general horses conserve their energy for what Mother Nature has programmed into them as being important. That is running away from predators. So again this made me wonder, as humans, should we look at what is really important to us and spend our valuable energy there.
So we can do two things: lighten the load on the balance, and only spend our energy on what is important to us.
I’d like to share with you one of the things that has become important to me over the last few months. I have been spending an hour or so, once per week, on a zoom call with seven other people, most of whom I did not know beforehand. We talk about what we have been noticing. These conversations are proving to be incredibly powerful. We all have different backgrounds, but an urge to share our experiences and observation with each other. Just recently we have been trying to describe this type of conversation, and one of the things about them is the energy that the group generates and how good and inspired it makes us feel at the end of the session. As a group we feel it would be incredibly selfish to keep this to ourselves, so for the next session we are inviting others to join us, though we are limiting it to 50 people. If you I are interested you can register via the link below.
All that coverage, all that income. Scaling is an industry. Growth Coaches, Scale up Experts. 1.3 billion items listed on Google.
Craft Coaching. Much less popular. 64 million listed on Google. Yet craft is where it all starts. Somewhere, right at the beginning of the product or service was someone dedicated to their craft. A scientist, a writer, an artisan chef. Somebody who created something original (for a brief moment)
The problem with growth is that is is as fragile as it is addictive, as we’re seeing right now.
Scale requires infrastructure and overhead. Factories. People who don’t create, but are part of a making machine. Operatives, not artists. Very humanly painful and financially expensive to unwind.
The moment we scale, we largely immobilize the product or service. When it has acquired structure, overhead, and marketing it becomes sluggish and can no longer adapt in the way the crafter who created it could help it do. We launch the product into the world and the world absorbs it and moves on to require something new. A sort of accelerated assured obsolescence.
iPhone from stunning innovation to commodity in a little over ten years, even with the genius of Apple marketing behind it.
I suspect there is an inverse law between craft and scale. Craft is a function of love and dedication; scale is a function of efficiency and measurement.
There is a point at which the negative scale effect sets in. Research suggests there is a finite number of connections that we can manage effectively – with emotional resonance – and that is around 150. As an organisation, once we get above that the internal resonance reduces, and that will impact on clients. It’s hardly a precise measure, but more an indication of probability. Above a certain point, our connection to craft and our stakeholders starts to erode.
And there is no going back. Never again will an iPhone be a craft item in the way it was when Steve Jobs and the team synthesised it (invented is I think an overstatement). It has spawned copies in the time it has been around, some of which are, on an incremental basis arguably better, but the magic has now evaporated, and cannot be recovered.
Craft has magic. Faberge Egg #69 was no less magic than #1, and the collection is more valuable than the sum of the parts.
That’s because the magic of craft is a function of what goes into it. Dedication. love, obsession, detail, and the never ending pursuit of better for its own sake. A reflection of the soul of the artist who creates it.
We could, I’m sure scale Faberge Eggs, and indeed many counterfeiters have had a go.
If we succeeded the magic would be gone.
We are all Craftsmen and Women at Heart
I know accountants and lawyers who have a sense of craft – sometimes to be found in their profession, more often outside it. Our industrial business model does not make it easy. The ruthless pursuit of a six sigma error rate is not forgiving of foibles or artistic touches.
Outliers as bad, not interesting or inspiration.
That’s fine for commodities – I’d really like light bulbs that work every time and last for as long as they say they will (gentle sigh)
When it comes to the Lamp that carries the bulb however it’s different. We watched one being made for us in a workshop in Italy, one of three. The potter showed us the flaws that didn’t matter to anyone else other than him. That lamp is wonderfully unscaleable.
The people who run the recycling centre in Derby Raynesway have something of the artist.
Given what they do, the place is incredibly clean because they don’t stop cleaning it. They come and help empty your car, unbidden, with a smile. They are led more than managed (people like this need very little managing) by someone who understands and respects recycling, and the team that do it.
Covid-19 has reminded us of the vulnerability of thoughtless scale. It is going to cost us financially and socially as well as environmentally. It’s a lesson we might want to learn.
Craft to scale is easy. Scale to craft is virtually impossible. We lose much in transition.
Craft is eternal. Scale is temporary.
I guess its a matter of values, and what we want to do with our lives.
Last week I was chatting with my oldest friend and he made an interesting comment about what I’d written on emotions being contagious. In times of crisis if the CEO of one company takes a particular action then other CEO’s feel they have to follow suit, and if they don’t its only a matter of time before the board is asking why they are not doing anything. A similar pressure exists in the medical profession, it is always easier for a doctor to prescribe a course of treatment than to do nothing, and if the treatment fails then there is always the justification that the illness was too strong but at least a cure was attempted. As human beings I believe we have a strong tendency to take action. When I was searching my photos for one to go with this article I found it difficult to find one of not doing anything. The picture above is the closest I could get, and if you look closely at the ridge-line in the background you will see a tiny line of runners heading for Kline Scheidegg the finish of the Jungfrau marathon.
However not doing can be a most powerful strategy. It is different from doing nothing, Lao-tzu termed it Wu-Wei, not forcing, or not striving. It is not about stopping all actions, but rather it is about not being so engrossed in what should or should not be happening, that you miss what is actually happening. By seeing what is, it is possible to see what may be, and this in turn can lead the way to new and novel ways forward. It does require leaders to be courageous and stop doing and to take the time to observe what is going on.
As Covid lockdown restrictions are lifted and we again have the freedom to act, might it not be wise to take a moment of Wu-Wei to observe what is going on around us and maybe we can see an opportunity to act differently to our peers. It is actually by becoming better observers we make better decisions.
There are many aspects of Wu-Wie, for me as a horse rider I see it in my relationship with my horse, if I get too focussed on what should be happening I miss what my horse is trying to tell me, I miss the information that would allow me to get what I’m trying to do right, to overcome the block. In his book on softness Mark Rashid writes ” It’s not about what we do that starts us on the path to softness, but rather what we don’t do”. Covid has forced a lot of us to stop doing certain things, I hear a lot that managers have found that their staff don’t really need micro managing after all. So again now is a good time to look at what we maybe should stop doing that might make our lives better.
There’s the safe edge, and then there’s the scary edge. Like a black hole, threatening to suck us into that which we don’t understand and don’t control.
I’ve found that much of the time, I’ve been aware of the difference and can choose whether to go, or back off. I’ve got better at going as I’ve done more of it, and realised that the fear is largely illusory. That still doesn’t make it anything other than buttock clenching.
The thing is though, I think that sometimes we don’t get a choice. We find ourselves at some form of Singularity , and we have to come to terms with it. Psychologists call it Liminality. Mythologists term it The Call. It involves crossing a threshold, going over the edge. Once crossed, there is no going back.
We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh no! We’ve got to go through it!
We’re going on a Bear Hunt. Michael Rosen.
Whatever we term it, it takes us on a journey into the unknown. We will face unknowns, fears and unexpected joys, and moments when we really, really wish we hadn’t started until eventually we find ourselves on the other side of it and know ourselves differently.
Covid -19 is an Edge.
We haven’t had a choice. We couldn’t choose whether or not to be part of it.
Here we are.
Now we’re in it, and we understand we can never go back to “old normal”, whatever those who wish we could say.
We have choices.
We can try to go back, turn around in the white water and try to paddle back upstream,
We can close our eyes, complain, blame others and hope somebody else will sort it out.
Or we can take responsibility, despite the fear and uncertainty, and shape the experience we are in.
My Grandma used to say “Where there’s a will, there’s a way”. She was of course right. That’s a Grandma’s job.
This is a matter of individual and collective will.
Over the Edge – The Rollercoaster Ride
So here we are, whether we like it or not. We’ve spent the last three months listening to the “clunkety clunk” noise as we are pulled inexorably to the top of the first dive, and we can feel that knot of apprehension as we come to the point where up turns to chaotic down and beyond.
We have a choice. We can either shut our eyes,scream and wait for it to be over, or we can keep our eyes open, look around and understand what’s going on.
There’s a way of mastering the roller coaster.
Look at what is going on around you with fresh eyes. All of us suffer to some degree to “wilful blindness” – we sideline the difficult things and ignore the things we don’t like. It’s where the “elephants in the room” live.
It’s where we should start conversations, but don’t. We start them where they’re comfortable, and don’t threaten our status, our relationships, our territory, or our autonomy. We cling on to a sense of certainty and fairness, like those temporary periods of calm on the level parts of the rollercoaster.
Covid has introduced us to the first scary, but relatively gentle dive. What comes next – we’re not sure quite when or how – will be the equivalent of the double loop corkscrew thing. Probably, but not certainly, Climate Change. There might be one before that – a second wave, a destructive recession, or something else. We know the Climate Change ride is out there though, just not quite how we’re going to arrive at it.
That’s why we need to look around, to get a sense of what might arrive, look ahead to see if we can work it out, or for clues that it might be arriving.
To observe it, we need people who will keep their eyes open and face reality, as well as those from outside our own experience to help us. Physics and common sense tells us we can’t understand the the system we’re part of from inside it. We need a view from the outside. The “flat earther” in us needs a view from the space station.
If we have a better understanding of what’s coming up, we can better prepare. We can spot the parts that might be fun, as well as the parts where we check we know where the brown bag is.
We also probably want to know who’s in the same car as us. Who’s going to scream? Who’s going to help you notice? Who are you going to have fun with and who’s going to hold your hand when it all gets a bit much?
As we begin to get the hang of it, things change. We can anticipate, predict, prepare and no longer fear what’s coming. We can lead.
We can ride the roller coaster on our own terms.
Is this the rollercoaster you want to be on? Are you with the people you need to be with? Is this roller coaster a bit tame? Is there another that might challenge you more, with better views and new experiences? Where do you want to be?
Help those who don’t understand it like you yet. Reassure them, even while you’re still a bit scared. Tell them what you’re noticing. Go again, choose a bigger ride. Learn. Teach. Lead.
The Ride is not an Option
We are where we are, and we’ve a way to go yet. We can’t get off.
Once we understand what is going on, we can see the opportunities. The things we’ve been sidelining are real – the opportunities in a regenerative economy, simpler living, better living, the end of “more” as a virtue, a planet shared. Respect – for ourselves and others in a sustainable economy, because we can do it if we keep our eyes open.
We’re on the ride and there’s still time to choose which car we want to be in, and with whom, in order to enjoy the ride.
If we do, this will be hard work we’ll look back on with satisfaction.
I have been trying to win all of my life and in fact considering this fact, I’ve actually done quite well. I passed Royal Marines training with distinction, was promoted ahead of my peers, gained notoriety within the world of therapy quite early on and moved my way quickly to the top with a fair amount of ease.
But the large goals were still eluding me… you know, the ones that truly mattered to me.
My goals and ambitions, like yours I’m sure, have developed over the years as I have matured and become older. My calling if you will, has now taken the form of a mission statement that reads ‘facilitating lasting positive change within 100 million lives across the world’. A great statement however, as you know, it’s one thing to talk and dream about it but it’s another thing actually doing it. The truth was in fact that in the early days, I wasn’t getting anywhere close to reaching this dream and this was for one reason and one reason only… I didn’t have my toaster plugged in.
A lesson on toasters… you stick a piece of bread in the slot, you push down the lever and in a few minutes time… you receive a tasty piece of toast. But what if the toaster wasn’t plugged in? What if the electricity was somehow being blocked from flowing through the toaster? How long will it take you to get the desired effect if you were rubbing rocks together? A tricky and time consuming affair I’d hazard a guess!
I, like a huge amount of people in this world, was working without my toaster being plugged in. In other words, I was forcing, I was trying, I was even hoping but without being connected… I was getting virtually nowhere.
But connected to what? Electricity powers toasters but what powers us as human beings?
Well, it depends what your beliefs are… a theologian would most likely say God. An agnostic might simply say energy. An atheist might say thought power or consciousness and well the rest… they don’t quite know what to call it!
I don’t believe that the name really matters… the thing I do believe that’s important is that you become aware that it’s real.
No-one on this earth can do anything of any great significance unless they are connected… you must be aware and plugged in to your source if you are to truly fulfil the desires you are capable of.
How do plug yourself in?
The wonderfully simple fact is that you already are… you just need to take the time to recognise it.
Last week at the stables where I ride the owner commented that four of her lessons had lost their jobs this week, and as she does’t teach that many people, that represents quite a high proportion. The reason seems to be that companies are now being asked to apply for the second furlough grant and are realising that as they come out of Covid 19 their business will not be what it used to be. This seems typical of the nationwide picture. So there are going to be a lot of people suddenly wondering what to do next. There is going to be a need for good leadership, but whom will these people follow?
When a horse is taken out of the herd, and is feeling insecure and afraid they also look for leadership. That leader is often us. One of my favourite horse authors, Mark Rashid, talks about how horses choose a passive leader, ” …before a horse (or person) can be considered a passive leader, it must first exhibit the qualities that make it desirable to be chosen. Those qualities are, quiet confidence, dependability, consistency, a willingness not to use force.” These four qualities are what make the horse trust us, (passive leadership does not describe how the leader behaves after they are chosen, but how they are chosen in the first place).
So this got me to wondering do humans have and innate need for leadership? If so what qualities do we desire in our leaders for us to choose them?
Susan Scott wrote in Fierce Conversations, ” In any situation the person who can most accurately describe reality without laying blame will emerge the leader, whether designated or not”.
So as we emerge from Covid 19, and the demand for leadership is greater than ever, we need to choose our leaders carefully. It is going to be critical that we have given though to the qualities we want from those whom we choose to follow, and that those leaders show that they have a firm grasp of our reality.
Where do we go when we understand volume and scale are losing their lustre, and when the mantra of constant growth becomes recognised for the absurdity it has always been?
When we can make or replicate almost anything, anywhere, and replace even the most complicated routine professional skills from legal drafting to medical scan analysis using technology?
To the spaces between. From woodworking, to food, to clothes.
Not so much the high end of luxury brands, but the beautifully made everyday. The locally bonded whiskey. The denim made by masters in a Welsh village. Coffee sourced with purpose. Accountancy software made for people. Things for which there is often a waiting list, and people happy to wait.
What if the jobs we did were like that? One client at a time, done with care, attention and pride that makes us feel good, feeds our soul and contributes to the success of businesses of people we know.
That generates new knowledge, new ideas and beautiful concepts. Services that work and products that last rather then feed the need for ever more recycling?
If there’s an upside to Covid-19, perhaps its that it has demonstrated to us just how much we don’t need, and given us the time to value what we do.
Of course, not everything can be like this – but more can.
Challenging, joyous conversations about what we could do together to create wonderful services and products that matter to people we know, rather than grey ones about why we’re missing budget selling things we’re not proud of to people we don’t.
Whilst the gaps are being exposed in the old economy, it is opening up opportunities in the new one and we all have a possibility to go there.
It is risky, with nothing guaranteed but worth going for.
On the other hand, relying on the old model hasn’t worked out so well.
We all have a choice. A future we accept, or one we create.