Reboot

Sometimes, we’re so busy “doing” that we put “being” on hold. We allocate time to holidays, at some point in the future, to reconnect with ourselves and those who matter to us. Things that get in the way are submerged or ignored.

Until something like this. When we don’t really have a choice.

In the midst of all the hassle, and the concerns, and the worry we are being given an opportunity to reconnect and reboot. And we have a choice – either to ignore it, or to embrace it. 

As I write this, spring is making its presence felt. Snowdrops are done, Daffodils are at full pelt, green shoots everywhere. 

Tomorrow, it’s the Spring equinox, traditionally a time of renewal. 

As you find yourself with more time to occupy than normal – even if it’s only the time you don’t have to commute, here are five things to reflect on in this liminal space between stopping and restarting:

  1. Oneness. A review of our relationship with ourselves, and those around us who we live with and work with. The more settled that is, the more of our originality, our uniqueness, becomes available to ourselves and others. It something we can all feel and sense when we take time and just sit. Mindfulness and meditation is not a luxury. Right now, it’s an essential.
  2. Awareness. Of our surroundings, our markets, the nature of our job. Purpose. Meaning. What keeps us aligned with what matters to us. Use the time we unexpectedly have  to detect the seismic signals that precede personal earthquakes, and address them. 
  3. Resilience.  Things will not go back to normal. How we choose to engage with different is often a matter of the baggage we carry. Old ideas, old grudges, unnecessary purchases, useless habits. What’s emerging will present unexpected opportunity. Be ready to move to meet them.
  4. Boundaries. Many of us blur the boundaries between role and work,  work and home, home and self, self and others. These are important. Render unto work what belongs to work, to borrow from Julius Caesar. A sense of autonomy is vital to oneness and resilience, and keeping a sense of boundary is important to that. Good fences make good neighbours.
  5. Focus. Our lives and work are a series of finite games (determined by rules, sides, winners and losers, time frames) played within an infinite game (our pursuit of meaning and cause that is endless). The key to progress is having clear short term goals that sit within your own bigger picture.

These five categories are not a made up list of feel good. They are at the heart of our individual and collective culture. It is a list compiled by, in my view, one the greatest, but least know strategists of the last century, who compiled them by looking at the records of every great strategist in history, from Sun Tzu to the present day. Worth taking note of.

In the midst of what we are going through, there is a huge opportunity for us to take stock and maybe reboot.

They don’t come round often, and it may be a while to the next one.

A Matter of Horizons

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll

It seems to me this quote reflects where many people are right now. Waiting to be told what the future is so that they can go there. The problem of course is that we just don’t know. And that’s fine.

I was talking with Steve Done yesterday around how we saw people’s reactons to the current situation, and he compared to the idea of finite and infinite games, and the work of James Carse and Simon Sinek.

What does it take we wondered for a perfectly reasonable, rational, social person to turn into a shelf clearing, toilet roll hogging monster? Or someone with a balanced long term portfolio to panic sell?

The games we play

The world of most work is built around finite game thinking. Timeframes, scores, winners and losers, competition.

At the same time, the mindset of our best leaders is built on infinite game thinking – decades out, focused on creating something lasting.

Infinite game leaders recognise two things; firstly that this will pass. It is a shock to the system, but the vast majority of us will survive it. According to the ONS, roughly 75,000 of us die each year from respiratory diseases, out of the half million or so in total, so whilst Covid-19 will clearly have an impact, we need to get it into perspective.

Coronavirus is an existential threat to finite game mindsets – whether that is from a personal, or business perspective. From a longer term view, it’s a blip. We will get past it.

Horizons

Our horizons determine our reactions. If our entire raison d’etre is based on this years results, we have a problem. If however, like the Native American peoples we regard ourselves as the fourth of seven generations – shaped by the three generations preceding us, and shaping the three that follow us – our perspective changes. Covid -19 will not determine the destiny of my great grandchildren, should I be fortunate to have any.

On the other hand, climate change might, or how we handle the integration of AI into our decision making processes. Through this lens, the problem changes, and my concerns move away from short term competition and the drive to win, to how we support each other to ensure we get to play another game.

A New Game?

Maybe, just maybe Covid-19 is both signal and opportunity. We have been given a wake up call, and an opportunity to reflect on where we’re heading if we stay as we are.

We can either see this next few months as a looming disaster, or a time out in order that we can look upwards and outwards, not inwards.

At an individual level:

  • What time horizon do you have?
  • Why have you chosen that?
  • How would you explain your job to your grandchildren so that they are grateful to you for it?

Over the next few months, alongside the necessary work to get through, we need to reflect on this and decide, once we’ve survived this episode, why we’ve survived it.

You’re on stage. Smile.

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.

William Shakespeare

We’re all actors in our own play

Today, in a coronavirus, artificial intelligence, climate crisis driven environment we are all actors in an improvised play. We do not know what the next line to be spoken is, or where the play will end.

How then should we now behave?  Perhaps like an actor.

Few professions demand so much training and commitment and reward it with so little certainty, and so few prospects of security.

Most actors spend time between roles and they rarely just sit there waiting for work to turn up.

They know that there are others who can play the roles they want, even if they are convinced no-one else can play the part quite like them.

They spend the time, depending on where they are in their careers, doing everything from washing dishes to make ends meet, to immersing themselves in things from which they will learn. Sometimes they write. Sometimes they explore. At no time do those who last just cruise.

Most of us, me included, are operating at only a fraction of our capacity. We know we are capable of more, but experience huge resistance to developing our potential through a combination of fear of failure, to convincing ourselves our current comfortable life is something we deserve because of the work we have put in. 

What does your agent / employer think?

So how at any point should we rate our prospects? If investors had bought stock in our, how would that stock be valued? What would our price to earnings ration be?

Are they buying us for the prospect of growth, or for a safe, regular dividend on their investment in us?

If what we are doing represents real value, that value can be realised regardless of our current employer, our P/E would be high, and our shares in demand. 

If however all we are doing is providing dividend – a short term return on what we are being paid, then under pressure, our personal stock price is likely to collapse. 

What part do we want to play?

How might we think about our value? 

What is is that we understand, or access, or can do that is difficult to replicate?

How have we grown that in the last year; the last five years?

What are we exploring, and learning? How are we innovating ourselves?

It’s really easy to stall. Early success resulting in a comfortable income in comfortable company.

Reality is that very few of us are motivated by money on some sort of a linear basis. Those who study happiness think there’s a flattening off of the money motivation curve at around $75,000 a year. Beyond that, it’s as much about ego and power as it is about money, and the people motivated by that are a minority.

Being comfortable is a dangerous place to be. It’s ok when things are relatively stable, and business models last for a period of years. Until even quite recently, it was possible to fuel a moderate, comfortable career off the back of a good education and a large, recognised name employer.

Now, that’s dangerous. The career half life resulting from being a one hit wonder is rapidly reducing. Our past success is what the finance people think of as a sunk cost. It’s behind you, and no guarantee of future performance. 

What stage are you at?

Shakespeare talked of seven ages of man:

  • Stage One: Infancy
  • Stage two: Childhood
  • Stage three: Adolescence
  • Stage Four: Youth
  • Stage Five: Mid-Life
  • Stage Six: Senescence
  • Stage seven: Dotage

I think our careers follow a similar pattern, and that many of us stop when we get to mid life on an assumption that we can somehow stay there. 

I don’t think we ever could really, but now, in current and emerging circumstances, we certainly can’t.

So, what to do?

  1. Check in with yourself. How much are you learning from what you do versus how much is repetition. How youthful does your career feel?
  2. How much does what you do engage and excite you. (Clue: if it doesn’t, welcome to stage six, Sensecence)
  3. How much of what you do will be eaten away by technology?
  4. How are you developing the human side of you, your unique qualities, the part that cannot be replaced?
  5. What are you doing to explore new areas that challenge? Who are you talking to, who has your interests at heart,  who will challenge you?

Coronavirus is not a one off event. It’s a stage call. Are you ready?

You are enough. Start.

The more complex things become, the shorter our forecasting horizon becomes. 

Apparently, even the best, the “super forecasters” ability fails as they approach a year. Most of us can’t get much beyond three months.

Those who work on one of the most complex systems of all – the weather, can’t get much beyond a couple of weeks, even with the most powerful, sophisticated computers available. 

This is the world we live in. VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) entered the lexicon nearly twenty five years ago, coined by those whose lives depend on working out how to cope with lethal complexity – the military. It’s come to the attention of the rest of us relatively recently. 

You get the idea. 

Planning is useful, but of limited practical use.

If we can’t forecast, we can’t plan. If we can’t plan, where is our security?

The answer is that it doesn’t lie in planning (it never has). We like plans, they offer us a sense of certainty. Neurologically, we apparently get a bigger dopamine hit from creating a “good” plan than we get achieving it. 

When we’re uncertain, confidence lies in being prepared for whatever happens, whenever it happens. That means having somewhere to stand.

Our company fails, today. Lehman style. 

We get made redundant, suddenly and unexpectedly. 

Our savings dissolve in a puddle of corporate incompetence. 

We get betrayed by a close friend. 

Or whatever else lies in the dark corners of our imagination.

What then?

We are sufficient and capable

We have been brought up to believe in our own insufficiency. That we need to find a safe employer, that other people are better than us, that we need to comply. 

Our ability is not dependent on getting qualifications, it depends on our curiosity and determination to understand whatever it is that is important to us. The qualifications are merely a currency that creates a competitive market and a ready customer base for those who create the qualifications.

Orville Wright never had a pilots licence. Steve Jobs never finished university. The world is filled with stories of iconoclasts who changed their world without permission. 

So what about us, in a world where the confidence horizons are so apparently short?

Self Reliance in not selfish

Like the classic instruction “fit your own oxygen mask before you help others to fit theirs”, we are at our best, most generous and most effective when we are self sufficient. 

Most of us, the 99% who have to earn a living, have been educated in an environment that encourages dependency. On  the state, on our employer, on the acceptance by us of others in power, (back to qualifications)

We can however choose who to depend on

I think Self Reliance depends on a number of “anchors” – people, ideas and values which are constant and help us navigate the turbulence, and the chaos ,when it arises.

  • An understanding of our reason for being. We are all unique, and have the talent and capabilities to make a positive contribution. It’s often not clear to us in detail, but we know it’s there. Knowing it’s there, and encouraging it to surface is enough.
  • Something to believe in. Something bigger than us, that will outlast us, and which harnesses and rewards our reason for being. It might be highly personal, like family, or a belief. Most great businesses and movement have started as a cause. The Wright Brothers and flight. Muhammad Yunus and Micro Credit. Jacqueline Novogradtz and Venture Capital for non profits. John Bowers and Audio.
  • People who believe in you. Those who know you have a reason for being, and will support you come what may. It doesn’t need many. One is enough. Batman couldn’t have been Batman without Alfred Pennyworth.
  • The confidence to start. Often I find that this the biggest challenge – in others, and myself.. Failure is always an option, and success isn’t guaranteed. When the cause is strong enough, it’s an acceptable risk. 

Where’s your cause?

It doesn’t have to be big – it just has to be important. I’ve seen cause in abundance in people fighting for the survival of a children’s nursery in a deprived neighbourhood. I’ve seen it in a decorated ex special forces soldier who dedicated himself to improving what he saw as a deep misunderstanding in business as to what leadership really means. I see it in Greta Thunberg.

There are two that really inspire me. Loris Malaguzzi, an Italian teacher turned resistance fighter who turned necessity into one of the most respected and inspirational early years education pedagogies in the world. A poem he wrote can still stop me in my tracks. 

The other, John Boyd.  Boyd was an obsessional. Arguably one of the finest fighter pilots of his generation, he was preoccupied with the waste that was generated in the design and procurement of aircraft, and with the way that strategy worked. He alienated just about all of the establishment, but backed by a few people who believed in him, changed the course of military strategy. (A Biography “the fighter pilot who changed the art of war” is one of my most referenced books)

We all have a cause out there somewhere that needs us.

Thriving

We can all thrive, but it’s not compulsory. It needs work and a degree of courage. 

As we move from the industrial era, with it’s reliable organisations and simple work relationships to something still emerging and altogether more complex, we need a new approach. 

We need to depend on ourselves, so we can help others. That other might be an employer, it might be your own business, a charity, or an idea wanting to be realised.

We don’t have to walk away from what we do, we just maybe need to consider why we do what we do, and why.

Take some time.

What matters to you?

Who do you matter to?

What will it take to start?

When the office melts

For most of us, the “office” has been the centre of power. It’s been where  the politics and power plays mingle with the tasks at had and business models to create the complexity in which we work. We’ve become accustomed to it to the point where it just is. Present, but largely invisible.

I’m wondering what will happen as unexpected circumstances cause the “office” to melt. 

The news is full of large companies asking, even requiring, those who can to work from home. More anecdotally, many smaller companies are doing the same.

Although my sample is limited, it seems to me when I look at those who are able to work from home, a large proportion of them are either customer facing, or working on discrete, often innovative and interesting projects. They are working at the edge, and the edge is where what’s next happens.

Those who have to be in the office are generally part of the “business as usual” structures – the centre, not the edge. The centre is where we’d really prefer things not to change too much. It’s also where the resources are allocated to those at the edge.

Those at the edge are those who are creating the opportunities, and those at the centre are those who can enable them. Whilst there is often a conflict in the office, maybe when we are forced to deconstruct the office, things change. The complexity dissolves, and issues become plain. 

Those with resources need people who will do something with them to generate a satisfactory return. Resources on their own settle into entropy.

Those at the edge can see the opportunities, If the resources to realise them are not provided by the office, they will find them elsewhere. There are, in the end, far more organisations with resources than people at the edge who can see the opportunities.

It feels a little like a T Shirt I used to wear at University many years ago. The logo read “what if they threw a war, and nobody came”. Perhaps that’s what might happen if the separation of the centre from the edge continues., when we free people from the “office”. 

A gradual (or maybe not so gradual) realignment, and a change in the power dynamics.

Moreover, the surprise that is Covid-19 which is driving the current separation is likely to be followed by others. 

The impact of Machine Learning and AI in the office as they erode the routines of office life through encroaching into those areas where they are well suited, hollowing out those needed at the centre even further.

Reducing travel as we come to terms with the practicalities of climate change – trips into the office, conferences, unnecessary face to face meetings.

The winners will be those who have a sense of will – who can see where the needs are and connect to them using what ML and AI cannot – imagination, creativity, empathy and humour. The losers will be those who service the office.

The potential lesson for us all is clear. Whatever we do, it needs to matter to us. We need to understand it, be willing and able to shape it to create real value for others who will pay for it. Something that harnesses that in us which makes us smile as we deliver what others cannot.

Originality

Something we can use to grow.

When the office melts, just turning up is not a good strategy.

Originizing

The fourth generation

The North American Indians say that we are all the 4th Generation – shaped by the three behind us and shaping the three that follow us. If that’s true, we are at a significant turning point, with an awesome responsibility.

Even allowing for more recently arrived generations, the three behind us were shaped by a society created by the consequences of the industrial revolutions and two major, conventional wars. The three in front of us are being shaped by the digital technology, globalisation, connectivity, increasingly extreme inequality, the hangover from two hundred years of abusive extraction of the natural wealth of the planet, and the unknowns that will be generated by “combinatorial explosion” – the things that happen when complexities meet up.

The threats we face, whilst not certain, are scientifically and statistically robust. It’s not about the conscious button pushing choice of the cold war, and mutually assured destruction, it’s the opposite – destruction through neglect, hubris and complacency.

The industrial age was characterised by growth, albeit it interspersed with recessions / depressions. It required managing the economic model, not changing it. Where we are now means challenging choices, from how and how often we travel, our definition of growth, and reconciling the selfish pursuit of more with the fact that there is enough GDP on the planet to give every single on of us over $11,000 a year in income. 

Whilst a logistical and political nightmare, poverty has become a societal choice.

Where we are now calls for something altogether different. 

Originising

A made up word. Creating something original out of what’s available to us. 

In the industrial era, and its immediate aftermath, we have grown economies through the brilliant application of scientific principles, initially to manufacture and latterly to services. We  have become excellent at efficiency, systems, and optimisation. We teach the “right way” to do things, we celebrate case studies, and we educate our children based on these principles. She who gets the most qualifications generally gets the most financial reward. 

Our success in process design and automation exact a cost. We no longer do mental arithmetic. We use GPS rather than maps. We no longer service our own cars. We don’t grow our own food. We’re in danger of forgetting important skills. 

Six Sigma thinking isolates outliers, and the pursuit of scale homogenises offerings. The average quality of what we make and do today has never been higher, nor the relative cost lower. It is really difficult to buy a bad new car, and equally difficult to spot meaningful differences between them. Cars are at anything other than an ego level, are a commodity. The same is true of most manufactured goods. 

The commoditisation of services is taking longer, but is accelerating rapidly to catch up. There is no discernible difference between banks, insurance companies, energy companies and regrettably, political parties. We have already turned most MBA degrees into instructional based templates. We start assessing our children against obsolete criteria at age 2, at the same time that machine learning and AI is rapidly encroaching on the skills we are trying to teach them. We prize “solutions” over creativity, and safe conformity over radical experimentation. 

We seem to be encouraging a race to the middle in pursuit of an unsustainable short term economic prize.

We need to step away for a moment.

Nature, which has after all been around a while, doesn’t do optimisation, or efficiency. It adapts, on a continual basis, with a simple goal. Survival. 

Those who study his work insist that Darwin didn’t talk about the “survival of the fittest” (that was a convenient reinforcing translation for those who found themselves winning in impossibly short, temporary time frames), he talked those who fit best to the changing ecosystem. Those who fit best, rather than the fittest. Nature doesn’t stand still. It has different time horizons to us. Depending on which version you choose to take, there have been between 250,000 and 650,000 generations of human. Claiming success based on a handful of generations over the industrial era within our family, tribe or nation is probably a little premature.

Over that time however we have reached, or are getting pretty close to several peaks and a number of troughs. Peak extraction, Peak Population. Peak Stuff. A mental health trough, a sustainability trough, a social stability trough. 

We are at a point of choice. We can continue to follow current orthodoxy, or we can recalibrate. Remember how to value those sources of insight and joy that link all generations. A work of art. Something beautifully made. The example of a life of purpose. The sense of peace to be found in an old building. A sense of place amongst the generations. 

To be ourselves, not who others want us to be.

To Originise ourselves.

So far, so ideal. But how to start?

Start Small.

In a world characterised by scale, quick wins and short term wins it’s easy to end up adrift and almost out of sight of what’s important. 

small is beautiful. Leverage the magic of compound interest. Small changes to important small things quickly add up, and when they link, things change.

Work in Increments.

Little things.  Turn and try swimming upstream, against the current for a while. Think independently, as only you can. Experiment. 

Remember Galileo 

“you cannot teach a man (sic) anything, you can only enable him to learn from within himself”

Change some habits. 

All of us fall into habits that help us navigate our lives via the line of least resistance. They become almost invisible, but we know they are their. We are reluctant to change them, even though they bcome uncomfortable. We resist. 

However, remember resistance is your friend, whether you’re working your body, mind, or business. Follow Steven Pressfield’s advice

Be yourself

In the words of Oscar Wilde. 

“be yourself, everybody else is taken”. 

Good advice then, even better now. When we are encouraged to conform, to behave in ways convenient to others, we become unexceptional, or worse, exceptional in an area of little importance.  

We become increasingly undifferentiated in what we do from the technology that can (partially, but enough to matter) imitate us. 

Each of us is a unique entity. There has never been one the same as us before, nor will there be in future. Each of us is a tiny part in a huge system, but with the possibility to make a difference – like the flap of a butterfly’s wing causing a hurricane. Most of us will not cause a hurricane, but we might cause a gust somewhere important. 

Maybe this decade will be different.

We’re only a couple of months in, but even so I sense a difference. The power of scale, from politics to technology is faltering. With the drama of Brexit receding from theatre to uncomfortable reality, other issues are emerging, from dissent over post Brexit European budgets, to closure of borders due to corona virus, to disruption to supply chains, to a much belated start on meaningful local actions on climate change which will impact our accustomed habits such as travel, and food. 

Scale and automation thrives on stability and continuity, and that is going to be in short supply for some time. Meaningful change seems much more likely to occur at local levels, driven by small groups in the context of their local needs.

If it’s true we become the verge of the five people we most associate with, now is a good time to choose.

Changing before we have to gives us more choice, and more time to practice. 

If there’s a storm coming, remember when Noah built the Arc.

Before the rain.