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Reflections, 24 January

The Floody River Derwent at Duffield Bridge 21 Jan. I’ve never seen it this high in 35 years.

Time to go from Preflections to Reflections. Three weeks into 2021 has provided more than enough material, and with floods to add to pestilence and Brexit, it all feels a little bit Biblical.

Mystics understand the root to the Tao but not its branches; scientists understand its branches but not its roots. Science does not need mysticism, and mysticism does not need science, but man needs both.

Fritjof Capra. the Tao of Physics.

Right now, I have to disagree. In a period of significant change mysticism and science do need each other. Both have something to add to the debate as we wrestle with climate change, inequality, biodiversity loss and pandemic. Any conversation that doesn’t bring humility and soul into the frame to counter our scientific and technological hubris won’t take us where we need to go.

I’ve found myself reflecting a lot on efficiency this week, and in particular on its shadow. On the face of it, who wouldn’t want efficiency? Doing more with less. Eliminating waste. Bringing prices down and doing it faster.

The thoughts that have been occupying me:

  • Our pursuit of efficiency, and the elimination of waste has easily taken us to a huge lack of resilience. The NHS right out of capacity based on forecasts rather than reality. Schools torn between competing short notice requests for being open, being closed, teaching online, safeguarding children, with not enough staff – and still being inspected regardless.
  • The spoils of efficiency are unevenly distributed. Skills are outsourced for short term gain, resulting in enriched shareholders and impoverished local communities.
  • Innovation and efficiency don’t get on at all well. Innovation is messy and unpredictable and thrives on instructive failure. Not at all efficient.
  • Process and improvisation don’t get on either. Process carries a hint of law about it, with the associated ceremonies and priesthoods of orthodoxy. Improvisation is rebellious and carries a hint of heresy.
  • Efficiency is a great servant but a soulless master. It has short term perspectives, and only measures what can be measured. It is of little use when the pressure is on. Efficiency feeds on complicated, but has a nervous breakdown when things edge over into the complex and systemic.
  • Efficiency gives power to managers. The change we’re in needs Leaders. All effective leaders are managers, not all managers are effective leaders.
  • The pursuit of efficiency can make us blind to reality. The demand by backbench MP’s to give a firm timetable for the exit to lockdown is a great example.

Efficiency is important, but it is not a panacaea, and has real limitations. Right now, it needs to take a back seat. What we need is improvisation right now to meet the short term needs and a focus on effectiveness over medium term strategy to come out of this aligned with what is emerging.

Following the science is important, but so is tending to our individual and collective soul.

We need both scientists and mystics.

What’s making me think


Sand Talk. Tyson Yunkaporta. For me, a startlingly provocative view from Indigenous Wisdom. Making me see things from another angle and making my mind ache. I’d really encourage you to read, or at least watch the video link in videos below. I think this is important, as well as humbling.

Falling Upwards. Richard Rohr. A somewhat renegade Franciscan Monk’s view of the world. An inspiring read. It’s been one of those reading weeks 🙂


Mary Bateson. A wonderful summary at of an extraordinary systems thinker who died earlier this month. Her wisdom will be much missed.

How to be Lucky. We can get in the way of serendipty. From Psyche Magazine,

What a robot thinks is important. Shaping Tomorrow’s AI forecaster. Food for thought.

Secrets about People. A short and dangerous introduction to Rene Girard. I really enjoyed this.


Stuart Brown on Play. I’ve always liked this. Well worth a watch in these times.

Another from 2015 and very current. The Myth of the Objective, and why greatness cannot be planned.

Tyson Yunkaporta on indigenous thinking and saving the world…….

What’s coming up.

I’m participating with some others in U.Lab 2x.. I want to find out how we help people to have the challenging conversations that these times needs. And by challenging, I mean challenging ourselves more than others. If it interests you, drop me a line.

Have a great week. These are important times.

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Artisans, Professionals and Risk Management

Photo by Kaboompics .com on

“Never put all your eggs in one basket” is a saying that occurs in one form or another in just about every language in every culture. The paradox is that for most of us in work today, it’s the opposite advice to what we have practiced. Work hard, get a good qualification, train in a profession and find a reputable company. Work, retire, and die respectably with minimum fuss.

Personally, I did the first bit and was lucky enough to find myself in a good job with a reputable employer which I quickly learned to really dislike. My family’s reaction when I quit was not pretty, but four decades later realise just how lucky I was. I have seen people I knew at the time retire into emptiness. They have grander titles and bigger pensions, but it’s no trade off.

I sometimes think that the last few decades have domesticated us. We have been house trained into organisations. Whereas before the industrial revolution we had villages of co-dependent people who between them could grow, make or trade what we needed within a society defined by the local aristocracy and the church, we now have organisations people by others mostly with the same sorts of qualifications doing pretty much the same jobs. Management replaces the artistocracy, and shareholders the church. To switch metaphor, I could imagine a latter day tour guide taking us round the city that most of us live in. Over on our right, we have the accountants, and their more aggressive cousins, the lawyers. Please, don’t put your hands through the bars. Further down we have the exotic bankers and the consultants………

I think we are heading back to a time where we value will be derived from those who grow, make or trade again, and that raises an interesting thought. The late David Graeber talked and published around the notion of “bullshit jobs” -those jobs that were created as process and automation changed the nature of how our economy operates. The jobs that service the system, rather than create real value and vary from the expensive – commercial law, consultancy, and much of management etc all the way to fast food and fast hospitality. Much of the gig economy. Jobs, that in themselves rarely engender a sense of purpose or contribution for those doing them. Additionally, the jobs involved in our extended supply chains as globalisation and outsourcing became the order of the day. What happens if those jobs do not come back?

Today, there are no businesses likely to last long enough to commit a life to. The day of the corporate home has gone. With it goes much of the bureaucratic infrastructure, and it changes everything. There are no safe jobs anymore.

There is I suggest a strong correlation between these sorts of jobs and the ones we see under pressure now from both Covid and the latest iterations of technology. The old normal has gone.

So what we have now, for organisations businesses and ourselves is a new paradigm of risk. The old safe, of the safe organisation, the regular job and the qualfications have largely gone with it. All of these things – the organisation, the job and the qualifications will still matter, but their half life is becoming dramatically shorter, and the bullshit jobs much more tenuous. Safe is becoming who we are more than what we do. Our sense of direction, and our commitment to our craft, whatever that may be. Whether we grow, make or trade, our development is down to us, how we deliver, who we associate with and who we choose to serve.

Whatever we do, being a professional is no longer likely to be enough. we need to find and leverage our inner artisan, so that whatever may come down the line at us, we have something more than a qualification to hang on to.

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If you want security, become unemployable.

Amanda Gorman. Image: BBC News

In six minutes on Wednesaday Amanda Gorman became unemployable.

A 22 year old who mesmerised people of every age with fluency, passion and quiet dignity. She set the grounds for determining her own future by inspiring others. On her own. Nobody else wrote her script. She set her own terms.

Whilst nothing of course is ever guaranteed, if ever she needed employment, to work on the direction of somebody else, I’m sure there would be queues wanting to employ her. I think that’s unlikely though – if ever there was a person with a clear sense of direction, it’s Amanda,

Much of the narrative during the inauguration yesterday concerned healing division, and part of that was the topic of restoring the middle class through the creation of secure jobs. The end is laudable, although the means opens up an interesting debate. In a time of chronic instability, just how do we create secure jobs?

One route would be for organisations to prioritise their workforce over their shareholders, take a medium term view of prosperity, and include community as a critical stakeholder. Perhaps reinforce that through tax incentives. However, with a business culture that sees employees as safety valves, and that paradign built into everything from the way that management accounts are presented, to the teaching of business schools, that might be a very long wait.

Maybe there’s a role for unions. They however are in many respects the shadow side of shareholders, with their own agendas, power structures and politics together with a history of conflict based negotiation. Employees still remain passengers, dependent on others to determine their future.

Or there’s the Amanda route. The most challenging, but the most secure. Move beyond dependence on employers to being attractive to them as clients. We are all born with gifts, and given a lifetime to work them out. Our individual gifts are like a jigsaw – some pieces bigger than others, but all a necessary part of a whole, and that whole far bigger than even the largest organisation.

We all have a place. Amanda may turn out to be one of the corner pieces, and that’s fine. Our gifts are not a competition, it is a question of finding that piece of the picture where we fit, where nobody else quite does. If we understand where we fit, we have choices, and choices reduce dependency. Reduced dependency is as good a route to security as any I can think of. It is the route of the Artisan.

This decade and beyond suggests we need to pay more attention to that – for ourselves and others. Those of us who can see some of the bigger picture, through age, or privilege, or experience or all three have a duty to help those setting out. To teach and support, not exploit.

The best route to individual security is not to make employment a choice, not a lifeline. It’s hard, but if we choose to do it, something we can do within a couple of generations. To use the old adage, to plant trees in whose shade we will never sit.

On Wednesday we got an idea of America back, and it’s origins in a combination of self reliance and community. The rhetoric of statehood more than opportunism. Personally I’ve missed it.

We can all learn from it.