Effortless Beauty

A Murmuration of Starlings.

It turns out that what drives us is not that much different from what drives every other organism on the planet – and probably beyond.

We crave connection to others – to be part of a group, at the same time as we crave autonomy – the freedom to make our own decisions.

Resolving this paradox has determined our survival and our contentment since the earliest times.

We cannot survive, even now, on our own. No matter how independent we think we are, we’re not. We cannot survive without the help of others. Isolation is terminal.

On the other hand, if we choose belonging at the expense of being ourselves, that’s as bad – survival as subjugation. A wasted life barely worth living.

We know when our lives are beautiful – things are in balance. We experience receiving and giving as part of something that makes our lives worthwhile. That may sound very kaftan, but reality is we all know and revere those all too brief moments that are like that. Just because we can’t measure them, or predict them it doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

If Starlings can do it……..

Starlings do not have a head office, or HR departments, or policies. They just hang out with other starlings, work in sync with those next to them and be themselves in that context. Behaving in this fashion confuses predators, who can only pick off those who are separate from the murmuration. Independence has its price.

Next most vulnerable are those on the edge of the Murmuration, so everybody takes turns at being at the edge, rather than the safe middle. Leaders and managers please note,

The end result is awe inspiring to behold. A defintion of beauty, created by birds being themselves with others, just doing their thing. No plan. No Strategy.

Given that every living organism on the planet comprises pretty much the same elements, just arranged very slightly differently why are we so different?

Or, if starlings can do this, why can’t we?

Organisation

The answer of course is that we can. We have spent around 99% of the time we have been in our current sapien form on the planet in groups of 150 or less. The indigenous people we have left still do. They know those around them as well as they understand their surroundings and although there are differences in status, there is no organisation chart, and certaintly no HR. They flex their structures in much the same way as starlings murmurate – instinctively, according to need and threat. They self organise.

I’m intrigued by what is happening in many organisations at the moment. For the last four months, I’ve watched many organisations cope not just well, but thrive as they’ve used the power of the internet to effectively “murmurate”. Often, driven by the disruption that Covid has generated, combinations of Zoom, WhatsApp and other tools have linked those who do to others who do in getting things done whilst managers look on in a state of bewilderment trying to take credit.

The boundaries between our organisation, suppliers, clients and others become very porous and left alone, stuff just gets done. I wonder what would would happen if we sent managers on holiday, and suspect that without a need for mostly needless control, the answer would be more of better.

Balancing autonomy and belonging.

Perhaps a difference between good leaders and good managers is that the leaders create worlds of shared significance, and managers resource it. Emotional resonance and operational support. No direction, no control, no permissions in sight. Organisationally, we not me.

One of the things we are learning in the small experiment that is Originize, is that conversations around what matters to uncover shared significance can weave magic.

We are diverse groups – puzzlers and mystics – all doing our own thing who meet together, once a week, with no leader and no agenda to talk about what we’re noticing – in our businesses, in the wider world, with each other. A small group within a larger murmurating flock of those who balance autonomy and belonging. Neither subjugating or being subjugated.

Just hanging out improving each others lives.

Beautiful Businesses are possible

I’ve long been a fan of Alan Moore’s work. I love the immediate tension between beautiful and business – when was the last time you read “beautiful” in a business plan or strategy, or heard it mentioned in a weekly management meeting?

Yet, I believe it to be increasingly not just valid, but essential. If we can balance beautiful and business by balancing autonomy and belonging, we can create remarkable organisations that create real value for everybody involved.

As it becomes increasingly clear that whatever we’re going into post Covid, it’s not where we were, it seems a positive aspiration. To enable those around us to be themselves whilst hanging out together doing stuff that matters.

Less planning and effort, more doing and enjoying.

We can learn a lot about effortless beauty from Starlings

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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.

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.

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.

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 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.