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

Colleagues and Co-workers

What is the difference between a colleague and a co-worker?

The practical difference is maybe that a colleague can’t fire you.

In these days of turbulence, authenticity and honesty is prized, even when it hurts.

The days ahead will be full of difficult decisions, and we will be swamped by lots of statements along the lines of “it has been a difficult and painful decision to let our colleagues go”.

Of course it’s painful, but let’s not add insult to injury by calling them colleagues. They had no say in the decision.

Beautiful Conversations

Conversations, at their best are beautiful things.

They are a dance of possibility as we pass ideas backwards and forwards, help each other shape them, notice things in the space between ideas and create the start of something.

In the search for efficiency however, we appear to have weaponised them. We treat them like processes, looking at value extracted versus time spent. Dialectic. Not a dance, so much as a tennis match, hitting with ever greater force as we look for weakness in our opponent.

There is a place for this. In stable conditions, with known rules, like the Law Courts, or a manufacturing process this type of dialectic is powerful – testing ideas and improving them.

However, in conditions of uncertainty when the reality is that none of us know what’s coming next, it’s dangerous. We create false certainty to bolster our case and make assertions based at best on assumptions, and at worst on manipulation.

Doubt is uncomfortable, but Certainty is absurd

Voltaire

It seems right now, we’re having far too many of these ugly conversations. Trading off the balance between saving the hospitality industry against the likelihood of a second wave; trying to restore an economy that was dysfuntional rather than using this shock to shape something new.

We have huge opportunity the other side of the pain that is now inevitable. It could be a great story, but it has to be crafted, not bodged.

To craft it we need to bring to it what makes things beautiful. Grace, Gratitude, Intent, Generosity and Courage.

We do not have time for the destructive power of ugly conversations

The Possibility Virus

We are the most creative, resourceful, inventive form of life yet seen on the planet of which we are part. It is what has got us into this mess, and what will get us out of it.

I have to confess to becoming quite frustrated by the constant stream of helplessness being unleashed by many sources in the media, and the attitude of businesses that have made billions for shareholders in recent years as they display various forms of learned helplessness.

a condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness, arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed. It is thought to be one of the underlying causes of depression.

Psychiatry

Whether it manifests as businesses whose future relies on continuing the damage they cause, or talented, unique individuals waiting to be rescued by one initiative or another, it underestimates us.

Of course it’s tough. On many counts. The old system that got us to here no longer works effectively except for a very few, who have already garnered more from it that they can reasonably use. We do not yet have any idea what the future will look like. Old data is of limited use and the future hasn’t arrived yet.

We are in a place between.

Every major change takes a similar form.

There is a place we are leaving to which we cannot return, Departure.

A time of reflection, insight, fear, and transformation. Liminal space, A place between.

And a point where we take our experience before, what we have learned, and emerge into a place where we integrate it with what we need to do now. Integration

Right now, we are in the place between.

Can’t go round it, can’t go under it, can’t go over it, got to go through it.

Playschool

We are at a point where we discover the real difference between resilience – an ability to get back to some form of where we were, and anti fragility – the ability to harness what’s going on and grow from it. Personally, as a Society and as a Species.

Money is only a tool, a servant. We have maybe forgotten that.

We need to think differently.

Risk is the wrong measure

For all of our lifetimes we have been operating in a system we thought was the way things are, rather than what it has been, a moment in time.

We have made a fetish of assuming it would continue by turning risk management and efficiency into mantras. Risk as a function of probability and impact, and efficiency as leaving nothing in reserve in pursuit of short term gain.

We have known about the possibility, indeed the inevitability of a pandemic, but have chosen to choose it wouldn’t happen on ourwatch. Oops.

We now have to invert thinking from risk to possibility. Same formula, different mindset.

There is a well known framework created by Dave Snowden in 1999, at the beginning of “VUCA”, that I keep on my wall

Cynefin Framework, Dave Snowden

It is similar to a much older framework – The Maori idea of turangawaewae, meaning a place to stand.

In a place between, we are in the chaos space. Our approach has to be to cling to our sense of meaning, our own individual purpose as our compass, try things and adapt. Darwinian evolution at its best. The survival not of the most fit (for the old place) but of the most adaptable to fit into the new place, wherever that is.

Agility, not as a model for consultants, but as individual practice, for real.

Release the Human

Nietzsche tols a story about a Master and his Servant, and how over time the servant subverted the master thinking he could do a better job. It didn’t end well.

We have been going down the same path, believing that systems, AI, processes would make us more efficient in an economy somehow frozen in time. There is of course, no process, no AI that will sort out where we are now. Covid is a symptom as well as a problem. We have created an economy where other symtoms are available, and waiting their turn.

This is a time for humans. For those unique qualities we have. For our ability to work together.

Together

“If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far go together”

African Proverb

This is a well known, and well worn saying. That doesn’t stop it feeling true.

Now is the time to choose who you’re together with. Not as a herd to shelter in the middle of, but as a small group (rule of thumb – five as a leadership group, no more than 150 in total) to do something meaningful.

Look at your LinkedIn Group, and ask yourself how many of them you have had a dialogue with in the last three months and what the relationship is. Are you hanging on them, are they hanging on to you, or are you doing something together?

This is a precious moment, where none of us know. That gives us the opportunity to entertain the possibility of doing something new.

For the short time we are here, we are here for a reason.

What’s yours? The possibilities are many.

Move.

Learning to See

Bluebells in Little Eaton 13:50, 19 April 2020

When I was young, I spent a time fascinated by photography.

Preoccupied with Technology….

It was in the days of dark rooms, messy chemicals and expensive film you could not afford to waste. My budget was twenty four photographs a week, and every shot I wasted an expensive and painful mistake.

I became really quite technical proficient, and could juggle aperture, shutter speed and ISO really well. I had good teachers. Technically, I wasted very few shots.

I retained an interest, but other interests intruded, cameras became better, and digital efficiency bade farewell to the expensive film problem.

It became easy to automate settings, and with no pressure on costs, plus the magic of post production and photoshop, the technical challenges became less interesting.

Fast forward several decades, and the interest is returning and I discovered something important.

….I Had Never Really Learned To See

It started with a really simple challenge. Some bluebells on my daily walk. Everything time I went past, they had changed a little. They looked different at different times in the day. They became obscured by the trees coming into leaf.

I’m grateful for digital technology. Back in the day, the photographs I have taken would have represented several months budget.

I still haven’t got the shot I want, and will now have to wait till next year. The difference is, I now know what to look for. I know the land, and the effect of the times of day.

I could fake it I guess, in post production; but to what end? The craft, the joy of it is in seeing the original. I think it’s a relationship.

It’s not just Photography.

As I walked up and down to the woods it struck me that maybe we have forgotten how to see important aspects of our businesses.

It’s easy to automate all the things that add human light and texture to a relationship.

When we automate a human interaction, we make it transactional. I know what you’ve bought, when you bought it, and how efficiently you were served, but I have no idea how you felt about it, why you bought it, or how it’s changed you.

Perhaps it becomes like Stock Photographs. One shot, a good average representation, used by lots of people in lots of different contexts. Efficient. Soulless.

Experiences become data points. We can analyse lots of different ways of looking at historical data in new ways, and become better at forecasting broadly what might happen in future in a particular set of cicumstances.

Versus a unique and memorable shot of a moment in time. An insight into who someone is, as much as what they did. A building block in an effective relationship.

The danger is that we categorise and generalise and in the process can lose the ability to see what is really happening. Algorithmic Groupthink.

We need to learn to see

Just about everything we expected this year to be, last year, has been upended.

Whatever our plans were, they were wrong.

The same is not true of what we hoped for our business or ourselves.

The circumstances have changed, giving us new opportunities if we choose to see them as well as removing the ones we had expected.

The longer we spend grieving about the changes we did not expect, the less time we have to notice the changing light and shadow of what is happening now and capturing the moment.

Imperfect with perfect timing.

We are in a time of stories. 

Stories we tell each other about what is going on and about what we believe will be.

Stories we tell others about ourselves. Stories we tell ourselves about us.

 Stories are works of art, not logic. Where science and mystery meet. They are where our Muse lives.

In the headlong rush to efficiency, we have tried to commoditise stories. We have structures, courses, graphic support. Marketers can think stories belong to them. They don’t of course.

There is no such thing as an efficient story.  Goldilocks and discovery of perfect porridge.? Jack and the genetically optimised beanstalk?

Stories are wonderful because they are always imperfect, and inefficient. They require effort, and multiple visits to get the best out of them.

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen. “Anthem”

Stories work because they leave us room to insert ourselves into them, flaws and all.

They offer us a glimpse of an alternative to where we are, and the possibility of redemption.

And Good Company

In “How many friends does one person need” Robin Dunbar offers valuable insight.

No more than Five for a leadership team, Fifteen for a management team, One hundred and fifty people for an effective organisation unit. We cannot meaningfully integrate more than 150 people into our lives. remeber their names, notice their lives, think about them. More than that and we end up in the vast expanse and shallowness of social media. Connection in name only.

Anthropologists understand story.

Jim Rohn, a coach, has asserted that we become the average of the five people we most associate with. Psychology and neuroscience as well as intuition back him up.

Now, more than ever, with vast swathes of all media either complaining about whose fault Coronavirus is, or offering digital equivalents of snake oil, choosing who we associate with is important.

I notice that those who shout loudest often have no “skin in the game”, but are quite happy for you to trade yours and watch – either for attention, or money, or both.

The people to associate with are those who value you for who you are, understand that they don’t know the answer, but will by your side as you find out together.

In the Right Surroundings

We get the most out of great stories in the right surroundings. The surroundings bring context, atmosphere and shared experience. 

Who ever listened, rapt, to a great story huddled round a radiator?

Fires, crackling and flickering, give us a shared focus and bathe us in warm light. They keep the spirits our our doubt at bay. They are sociable and memorable. Precious moments in time.

Great stories, like great leaders, are merchants of hope.

As we sit here, socially distant we do not have to be socially isolated. What people see of you as you Zoom or Teams away speaks volumes. Not only how you’re dressed, but what’s behind you. It shows what interests you, and where you’re comfortable. Clever “green screen” backgrounds are efficient, but as evidently false as a Bank’s marketing promise.

Turn up as who you are, where you are like it matters and you’re pleased and relaxed to be in the company of others. You don’t have to impress. You just have to be real.

At an Imperfect Time

There is never a perfect time; only perfect timing.

If we can balance real pleasure in the moment being lived, whilst accepting its passing we can start to do some good. 

Whether we choose to see the present time as one of looming danger, or emerging opportunity, we are right.

The difference is the stories we tell ourselves, and the company we keep. 

Imperfection presents us with a perfect opportunity.

Do one thing in pursuit of your story. Today. Perfect timing.

Insight to Action?

Insights

These are interesting times. It seems to me that we are moving out of something of a “phoney war” represented by a combination of fear and novelty to something altogether more substantial.

As the reality of furloughs bite, redundancies become real, and the sheer boredom as we go into a fifth week of seemingly unending lockdown, many people are seeing their world differently.

Whether it’s the time to reflect, the forced change of habit, or the requirement to innovate their lives, insights worm their way into consciousness.

Maybe the commute that was part of the routine is seen for what it is – around 20% of or workday spent like a sardine practicing, and 12.5% of our waking hours.

Maybe the fact that working from home is much more feasible than we imagined.

Maybe the realisation that along with the banter in the office, there is also the politics and the unending meetings.

Perhaps the idea that there is a better way – as yet indeterminate, but a possibility making its presence felt.

Two futures?

These few weeks are important. We are in a liminal space – a time of “betwixt and between” between our previous routines, and a new set once this particular crisis passes its peak.

The easy route, to a future given to us by others is to go with the flow and accept what comes.

The alternative route, to give your insights room to grow. To nurture them and watch them grow like the nature outside your door right now. To explore possibility. To entertain the idea of a second future, driven by you.

To start becoming what you are capable of.

Riskier? – almost certainly.

Transformational? – very possibly.

Exploring

These few weeks are precious. They will come again, but almost certainly without warning and not when you’re ready.

There will be more events like Coronavirus. Maybe another pandemic, maybe an impact of climate change, perhaps the impact of technology. we can be generally certain that these events will happen, but not specifically when – which is why we ignore them.

Not a good idea.

I don’t this is a blip. It’s a rehearsal.

Action

Instead, we can learn from what is happening to us and prepare:

  • Make a list of what’s been bad about this crisis, and what you’ve valued in it.
  • Write down what you’ve learned about the importance of what you do. Is your job the coffee, or the capuccino froth?
  • Consider how you have been treated by your employer during this time. Some have been exceptional; more have not.
  • Write a letter to yourself from your future self five years from now, explaining why you made the decisions you are about to make, what happened next, and the surprises that took you to where you are.
  • Explore possibility with those you trust.
  • Give yourself options.

We cannot predict the future, because it hasn’t happened yet

Margaret Heffernan

We all have a choice of two futures. Use this time to compare them.

Baggage

We’ve all seen the part of the film where the aircraft is losing height heading towards a mountain range. Everything surplus to requirements is thrown overboard in the hope that enough altitude can be gained to clear the range.

Welcome to the average Board Room right now.

Unless you’re the pilot, the navigator, an engine, or fuel you’re baggage.

It is, as they say, not personal. It’s for the greater good. That may not be a lot of consolation. (I say this with some feeling, As a healthy 69 year old, If I get the virus, I may have very limited options. It’s a weird feeling ceding control)

But we can decide – if we can’t make ourselves critical to survival, make a parachute.

  1. Be clear about what you want. You are unique, and in the right place, with the right people, will make a difference that lasts. 
  2. Use this time to learn something new and relevant to your ambition. Company training is for the company’s benefit, not yours. 
  3. Make your own map, rather than rely on the on you’ve been given. If you do end up leaving by the cargo hold door, have an idea of where you want to land.
  4. Understand your options. We lose sight of the landscape when we don’t have time to look out of the window. Become familiar with the territory you’re passing through.
  5. Build your network around point 1. Find those people you want to travel with, and who can help you with points 2-4.

You might end up on a journey you hadn’t planned. That doesn’t stop it becoming an adventure.

A Different Sort of Growth?

Forest fires are a necessary natural phenomenon. Whilst they are short term destructive and frightening, they clear the way for new growth.

Right now, in the midst of the inferno, we may want to remember that. It has important messages for us if we choose to recognise them.

We have not been adapting to what we are experiencing in technology, in demographics, in climate change anything like fast enough. We have been trying to make it fit us, rather then recognise the scale of the forces at work, and fit us to them.

We have been clinging to the raft of failing business and economic models that suit a very few, are tolerated by far more than should, and disadvantage many.

In the middle of accelerating change, we have been losing essential human connection and have reached an inflection point.

Coronavirus has been a catalyst.

In the UK, millions of us are affected. Around the world, billions. The obvious flaws in our systems, from infrastructure, to the funding of essential services, to the assymetry of the way we recognise and reward people have been laid brutally bare.

We have been subject to multiple forms of wilful blindness, and groupthink. That somehow, the headlong pursuit of efficiency to fund “shareholder value” was sustainable.

The immediate reaction amongst those who observe, rather than do – much of the press, the consulting firms, and politicians has been to allocate blame on the back of some form of retrospective wisdom.

Whilst all this is going on, those who we really depend on, the doers, those in the healthcare sector, those who keep essential infrastructure functioning from delivery drivers, to supermarket shelf stackers, to those who volunteer have just been getting on with things. Adapting, improvising, relentless.

We are recognising the deadwood – the things we can’t currently have, and are realising we don’t miss – celebrity culture, pointless products, expensive coffee, fast fashion, meetings, commuting………

Maybe the seeds that will grow once the deadwood has been cleared (along with far too much live wood) by the fire of Coronavirus wil be new perspectives based upon clarity.

  • A different understanding of value, based on human contribution more than shareholder value or an obsession with economic growth beyond that neccessary for a healthy economy.
  • An unscratchable discomfort with the rewards to those placing bets on the result of this fire, at no risk to themselves and which generate rewards that are huge multiples of the average of those who are taking the risk of stepping forward to deal with the fire.
  • A recognition that some of the things we have been forced to do – the working from home, the reduction in travel, the huge funding of infrastructure and social cohesion are necessary components of supporting a planet supporting a population three times the size at the time I was born.
  • That excessive growth and scale are not unquestionable virtues. The weakness exposed by extended supply chains, an over reliance of automation, and the failure to fund the things that protect us all at the expense of that which rewards a few.
  • That the industrial revolution is over, and the extractive business models that it gave birth to are obsolete.

A Different Sort of Growth

As we get past the peak of this, and “return to work” I rather think we will find important changes underway. We have seen the best and worst of how companies have reacted. From the likes of Aviva, who gave blanket permission to qualified healthcare professionals in their teams to go help the NHS, no questions asked, on full pay, to those who with billions in their reserves cut their costs (people) and went to the Government to ask for help.

I’ve been particularly impressed by the commitment of small businesses, those without big reserves, to improvise in order to look after their people.

And the people who just turned up. The taxi drivers doing free delivery, the postmen dressing up to add an element of cheer, the people who care. In the first world war, people talked about lions led by donkeys. Perhaps our modern equivalent is givers led by takers.

As the millions of the displaced start back, perhaps there will be enough who say “not like that again” to make a change. To start a movement.

Talent, Compassion, Craft and Commitment deserve better. Better recognition, better reward, better leadership. To be recognised for what they contribute, not hired for the least that can be offered.

Chaos theory offers the idea of “special attractors” – particles that other particles are attracted to as chaos moves to structure. In our case, they are the new leaders, recognised by their actions far more than their qualifications. They are the people who do. They are not a part of a hierarchy, they are part of a community committed to something worthwhile.

People who see growth in a multi faceted way. The growth of people, of capability, of resilience and yes, economies, but economies in the service of people rather than the other way round.

Choices

We have choices to make as the fire subsides.

  • To choose ourselves, those we work with, and who we follow rather than waiting in line to be chosen by others.
  • To forget work / life balance, and choose life.
  • To not go back to where we were, but learn the lessons from who really led us out of the fire.
  • To choose balanced, not assymetric growth.

I think that if there is one message to be taken from this crisis, it’s that it’s people who count.

We are part of the world, not separate to it and have a responsibility to manage what we create, including technology. We’d forgotten that, this was a reminder.

We need to make personal choices.

Because there will be more fires.

Honesty is not a Policy

What is happening right now is shining a huge spotlight on dishonest statements.

“Our people are our most important asset”

“We are totally dedicated to customer satisfaction”

“Beside you all the way”

Corporates who owe primary loyalty to shareholders can never make these sort of statements with any honesty. They owe their existence and prime loyalty to shareholders, and unless every employee, including the Board, have these statements engraved on their hearts, it won’t happen. It takes very few transgressions, by very few employees, to create enough exposure to make a lie of the statement.

Founder run organisations are often different. The soul of the founder runs through it, for good or bad, and there have been inspiring examples I have seen, from founders giving the business to employees as they retire, to those sticking by employees till the ship goes down. The lifeboat was not an option.

As individuals, we have nowhere to hide. We cannot have honesty as a policy.

We either are, or we’re not.

We may slip. Most of us do, more often than we like. But we know, and feel what we’ve slipped from. It’s visible to others, and they will forgive the slips when they know we’re trying.

The fragmentation that is being caused by Covid-19 will reposition many of us, by choice or accident.

If that happens, it doesn’t change who we are, and that is what matters. In the end, organisations of any sort are just assemblies of people around a set of assets.

We have a choice to regroup, to bring our real selves to the surface and brush off the compromises we may have had to make to survive in the organisations that are disappearing.

It will give us a challenge, but also an opportunity to choose again.

To be honest, to choose ourselves, and pay more attention to who we associate with and lend our talents to.