Reality

Everything has a cycle.

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.

The Machine Part Fallacy

Photo by Flickr on Pexels.com

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.

The negative scale effect..

Scale is so alluring.

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.

We can choose.

Scale is a conscious decision.

Can’t go round it…….

We are always on the edge of something.

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.

Eyes Open

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.

Balance

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.

Choose

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?

Do.

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.

If not, get in a stock of those brown bags.

Possibility

Leonardo Da Vinci from 1492 .

Are we seeing a return to craft?

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.

If we start in the right place. With conversations about possibility.

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.

A Time for Artists

The time was, only a few months ago that the economy was still considered stable enough to pay us in anticipation of us doing the work .

An employment contract, a supplier contract, it was all based on our record of delivery. Defined jobs, with clear specifications, in a marketplace that was familiar.

Of course, the first harbingers were there, for those who chose to look. The easy outsourcing, the gig economy, reliance on low margins and the satisfaction of regular dividends. Nice. Better not to look.

The Lure of Continuity.

Getting the message across was difficult, and it always has been. When the Impressionists first started out, they could not get their work displayed in the Paris Salon, because it was not considered “Proper Art” by the establishment, who did of course, know. Later, the Beatles could not get record deals “four boys with guitars, really?” the list, we know in retrospect, goes on.

“The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C,’ the idea must be feasible

Reaction to Fred Smith’s proposal for what became Federal Express.

Over time, we built an economy predicated on staying the same.

Of course there would be product innovations, and occasionally disruptions, but the market would accomodate them, and those who understood the way the market worked would always win. Bankers, Consultants. Lawyers and others.

Oops

In 2013 David Graeber wrote an article on “Bullshit Jobs”, followed in 2016 by a book of the same name. In it he argued that a large proportion of jobs were “bullshit”-adding no real value to the economy, and even less to the lives of those who did them.

He included Bankers, Consultants, Lawyers and others.

He was easy to dismiss. A renegade and an anarchist even if he was a recognised if controversial academic. Even if he was at the heart of the Occupy movement, and coined the term “The 1%”

As we look at “Essential workers” and the dreadful toll on jobs caused by Covid-19, it appears he had a point.

The huge amount of noise and demands for subsidy are in those areas that he identified as bullshit. By no means all, but enoough to make the point. Jobs that are, in effect hosted by those parts of the economy that create value, rather than just move it around. The part that the Physiocrats, the precursor to modern neoliberal economists, called “sterile”.

No Time for Templates

Art is about seeing things differently, and finding ways to explain that. About reframing, and paradigm breaking.

In the world of puzzlers and mystics, it’s time for the mystics. Logic will not see us past this crisis, or tackle the ones emerging, it is the mystics – the language of artists.

This is no time for templates, from powerpoints to consultants business models. they were built for a different time, by smart people and used parrot fashion by those didn’t. Leadership Books written by those who defined their style in retrospect rather than in advance on values and beliefs.

A Time for Artists

This is a time for originality, conviction and the pursuit of what really matters. A time for the long game of beautiful businesses our children and grandchildren will admire for what they did at this time, not the short term obsession with ugly, unsustainable returns.

We were born original, and only became standardised through education, training and habituation in more stable times.

What we need now is the artist in you.

To be paid for what you create that only you can do. To make a difference to what next. To not watch passively and hope others will sort it.

Nobody is going to resue you

Ta’mara Leigh

If you want somewhere to explore that possibility, join the discussion at the Originize Project

I, They, We.

I’m staggered and hugely uplifted by both the resourcefulness and the generosity of some, often small businesses at this time and equally distressed by the attitude is some whose sense of entitlement sets them apart.

The “I” crowd

Those who think “they” should be sorting this out.

Those who criticise the inevitable gaps appearing in a 10x event. Ten times demand for Zoom. Ten times orders for garden centres servicing people safe in their gardens. Ten times the requirement for PPE.

Those who think “they” should have provided for this, but who also want the low costs that have been one of the primary catalysts of many of the challenges.

“Just in Time” supply chains. Economically efficient, but fragile when things don’t go to plan.

Outsourcing to low cost areas. Great for cost and margin spreads, but not so good when infrastructure is damaged, or when local needs override contractual niceties.

“Shareholder Value” that combines demand for returns with transient loyalty. A sort of Investment “hit and run”

“They”

The other side of the coin.

Those who see their customers as data points with credit scores. Whose every statement reveals a system geared to the needs of the “I” crowd.

To be fair, it’s what we train people for. To be an efficient part of an economic engine.

We

The uplifting part of this current crisis. Those who don’t calculate, just do on a deep understanding that there is no “I” and “they” in a community, only a “we”.

“We” are filling the gaps, staunching the wounds, and improvising. The scrubhub crowd. The butchers, bakers and probably candlestick makers who have gone overnight to local delivery to people they know. The NHS volunteers.

Not one of them driven by a calculation, a proposal and an approval process.

And?

I wonder where this will take us.

The community spirit and idea of a “gentler America” evaporated within six months of 9/11 according to researchers. Will this be the same?

Maybe not.

For one thing, this will last for months, even years, not be an instant, shocking, episode. This will last long enough for people to recognise why it has happened. The pain and loss will be steady and chronic. There is no enemy, other than the one we have created through our choices.

For another, there are upsides. I have several people I work with whose teams are already asking what they can retain from how they are having to work. They don’t want to go back to the old normal.

Additionally, we are discovering who and what is really important. Who does what for who and why. What matters.

What we recognise more than ever right now is that each of us, our businesses and communities are centre stage in what’s going on, and our performance will be remembered, hopefully for a while.

Originizing is about becoming who you really are. To uncover the original behind the copy we are often encouraged to be.

It’s a good time to do that.

Who’s got your rope?

Most of us find ourselves in something of a hole right now. The depth may vary, but whatever that may be, we want to get out.

At times like this, we need somebody to throw us a rope, but because there’s a temptation to accept any rope that comes our way, we need to take a moment to consider who is throwing the rope and why. Unless we’re in imminent danger, it is time well spent.

1. A sponsor. Someone who believes in you and what you’re doing, who wants to help, and is willing to take a personal risk to do so. They may expect some sort of return, but that is not their prime motive.

2. A peer group. Those who see the world in a similar way, with similar values and want to help each other. Shared ideas, maybe shared risk in pursuit of something deemed important.

3. The rent seekers. Those who see an opportunity to profit from the situation. Those who will throw you a rope, and charge you by the inch (and often will increase the charge the further up you get.

Finding the first is part serendipity, partly the investment you have made along the way in building real relationships.

The second is something you can create if you’re willing to invest time and effort. It’s mutuality in action. A source of help and inspiration, and a chance to give as well as receive.

The third is often the easiest to access if you have assets, as it’s those that comfort them.

I listened to a lender speaking on Radio 4 this morning. I’m in the business of staying calm, but he tested me to the limit. Full of how the Government should help and effectively guarantee him both safety and margin in the current situation. Not somebody I would ever want on the support end of my rope.

I do believe that the current situation will lead to new opportunities to leave behind the money above all else, “me first” paradigms that characterised where we were when this crisis kicked off.

We have seen, and are seeing ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The people who would throw you a rope and be happy when they get you out of the hole.

We are also seeing the others.

We can come out if this crisis in better shape than we went in, providing we choose carefully whose rope we grab onto.

What matters most?

Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Oh Shit!

As we go through this challenging, slightly surreal period, it’s a good time to reflect on what matters most to us, and what we place that at the mercy of.

This period of restriction is forcing us to operate in ways we would not do voluntarily, from home working to working under stress in a biologically hostile environment, to not being able to work at all for a while.

It’s hard, both psychologically and for many financially. Its a massive change in our day to day habits, so we have choices.

We can resent it

We can blame other people for it.

We can blame other people for not sorting it faster.

Or we can take responsibility and learn from it.

Pareto

The 80/20 rule is a good reference point in most of the things we do. I’ve known this a long time, and despite that am still poor at applying it to my work. It’s just too easy to follow routines.

Now however, with our routines blown out of the water, we have a chance to reflect. Talking to many of my clients, and considering my own work, I’m struck (and a little personally embarrassed) by how much the current situation is exposing how much waste goes into the “normal” day to day, and how much we could be doing that we don’t.

Waste

  • Pointless meetings
  • Putting up with politics and unproductive behaviours.
  • Denial of issues that need to addressed. Elephants dancing round the room whilst we ignore them.
  • Avoidance – Coffee anyone?
  • Staying with the unproductive familiar rather than the potentially productive (but personally riskier) new.
  • Making journeys (including commuting) that could be done more effectively (and in a more environmentally beneficial way) from home or somewhere else locally.
  • The list goes on, and on.

Potential

  • Considering our reason for being here – what matters to us?
  • Thinking – properly, vs. blind doing.
  • Listening – much easier over skype or zoom than face to face.
  • Questioning – is this the best way?
  • Getting outside
  • Reading
  • Just wondering for a while.

I end up confident that 80% of what we do as routine adds little, and more likely subtracts from creating value for those who pay us – whether employers, or directly as clients.

We’re in danger I believe of living our lives the same way, with our real potential for achievement of what really matters to us dissolved in unproductive routines in order to satisfy other people.

Choices

I’m now doing on line what I would normally do face to face, and for the most part better (once I’ve adapted). It doesn’t replace face to face, but I’m convinced there’s a ratio – maybe 3:1 (remote vs face to face) that can work really well.

We don’t have to work the way we have been – most of it is habit.

There’s a form of diminishing marginal returns at work. Doing work we don’t enjoy, for people we don’t rate or organisations whose purpose we don’t respect, in order to earn money we don’t have time to enjoy.

We can do better than that.

The period of disruption we are in will last at least as long as it takes us to change a habit, so it’s a good time to be our own “lab rat” – to actively notice what we are doing, why we are doing it, what happens as a result, and what the alternatives might be.

Shockabuku

A swift, spiritual kick to the head that changes your reality forever

Grosse Pointe Blank, dir. George Cusack

I’ve observed that we rarely make the changes that matter, that really improve our lives voluntarily. There are too many reasons to moderate, to risk mitigate, to pontificate. The real moves come via a Shockabuku, something we can’t control and have to deal with, that brings out the best in us.

Covid-19 is a shockabuku.

We have an opportunity to rebalance what matters most with what matters least.

It would be a shame to waste it.

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.