Over the edge into 2021

As we teeter to the end of 2020 and into an uncertain 2021 I realised I’d seen it somewhere before. Around fifty years ago, with the film “The Italian Job”, which ends with the bus, full of gold, balanced precariously over the edge of a cliff following a crash, and Michael “Boris” Cain looking for an idea. Seems scarily prescient.

However, here we are. In the next few days (maybe) we’ll have some clarity on what sort of 2021 we’re in for. The Brexiter’s manic idea for us all, or something rather more pragmatic. Either way, we are in for a ride.

The challenge for me is that both Brexit and Coronavirus are distractions. Serious ones admittedly, but distractions. The real issues are not the (predictable but not accurately forecastable) surprise of the virus, or the knee jerk response of politicians in search of relevancy, but rather the serious systemic issues of how we live and work in a world being transformed by technology, climate and population growth.

We are at the end of an era as industry gives way to ecosystems, and short term gratification gives way to considerations of the conditions we are creating for those who follow us.

There is a rhythm to human eras. Around 250 years according to Sir John Glubb, a noted author, soldier and historian who researched this area. Each era starts with conquest over preceding eras, and ends with frivolity, decadence, a love of money instead of duty, an excessive reverence for celebrities, and reliance on cleverness rather than action. Margaret Wheatley refers to him compellingly in her excellent “Who do we choose to be?”

Whilst we might argue about the details, we are clearly in transition. The question we have to ask ourselves is “are we prepared to be passengers on a bus driven by others?”

The bus in question is the industrial model that defines the education of our children to be employed more than fulfilled, pursues the ideal of perpetual growth and lionises the shareholder model of wealth creation that distributes it increasingly assymetrically. Meanwhile the planet heats, technology claims the jobs we have been trained for, and we expose ourselves to the consequences of planetary stress from wild weather to viruses.

It’s difficult to look at the long term when our lives are so short – roughly ten generations to an era, and it’s what we have to do. We are the most creative species on the planet, although maybe not the most adaptable. Much humbler creatures, who were here before Sapiens and will be after can show us the way home on that.

We can, with a will mitigate climate change, though probably not the impact of technology. To adapt, we will have to be prepared to vacate many of the spaces we have trained for to AI and machine learning who will do it better, and focus on what we do, that they cannot, and that we need.

Connection. Meaning. Creation. Possibility.

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

Pablo Picasso

As we enter whatever this new era turns out to be, the skills we learned in the last one become increasingly redundant and we have to be prepared to leave them behind.

The industrial era was complicated. Lots and lots of moving parts. If we could understand them, and how they worked we could tame them. We could keep them in cages, analyse them, and optimise them through best practice. Consulting thrived. Lean Six Sigma became a secular religion. It worked really well, right up until the the connection enables by technology turned our world complex. The problems escaped their cages and started to cross breed. The result? Lots of unintended consequences.

Complex needs us to work differently. To explore and probe what is going on to understand it, rather than “pigeonhole” it according to existing models. That means real collaboration, experiments, and frequent failure as we try to discover how this emerging era works.

It needs us to play the infinite game of staying in the game for those to follow, rather than try and win the finite game of our individual lives. If Glubb had a point, we’ve a lot of generations in front of us who need us to get a grip.

That means creating something we share that’s worth working, and taking risks for. Individually and Collectively. Something worthy of us.

It starts with us as individuals. We all have genius in us. We are all artists still. Becoming grown up may submerge it in an industrial system, but it doesn’t extinguish it. The next era needs us, the whole of us, to turn up if we are to work it out.

Turning up starts with conversations about possibility.

We are developing conversations about possibility here.

Standing on the Sun

Seti

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.

Everyday Revolution

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:

“Normal Science”

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.

“Model Drift”

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

“Model Crisis”

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.

Model Revolution

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.

4:30 – 6:30pm UK time tomorrow afternoon. You can register here.

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.

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.