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Reflections 20th June

On my mind this week.

The nature of growth has been on my mind this week as I’ve sensed small, but I think important levels of discomfort in many people I’ve talked to and in the media. It isn’t easy to pin it down to any one thing, but the theme has been around growth. As Bobby Kennedy said over fifty years ago, GDP measures everything except what is worthwhile.

We seem to have many schools of thought – those focused on wellbeing, on the environment, biodiversity, technology and a host of varied others. All are important, some critical, yet a sterile and outmoded view of growth seems to override them all. It operates in the same way as to how we used to deal with other languages by speaking slowly and loudly in English in the belief they would understand. 

It is over sixty years since C.P. Snow caused a storm when he wrote about “The Two Cultures“, in which he lamented the gap between scientists and artists and their seeming inability to communicate. It seems that whilst that gap has been closed a little, we have even more significant gaps now between those who see money as an end in itself and those who see it as a means to a much larger end. We have polarising debates around whether we go back to the office or work from home, rather than the much more considerable and more critical debate about the nature of work at a time of rampant technology. We need to cut back on unnecessary travel and tackle the increasing inequality of reward between those who own the capital and those who do the work. Instead, we have “too big to fail” corporations asking for taxpayer support for their unsustainable business models. 

There are much healthier debates around the nature of cities and who they are for – people who live there or the daily visitors staffing the increasingly unnecessary big offices; around regenerative agriculture and education designed for humans, not just businesses.

The big question, of course, is how we have these discussions when Corporations have become disconnected from the communities that host them yet dominate the political discourse through their influence. 

In the end, it is down to each of us to make small critical choices about who we work with, where we work, what we buy and the many, many conversations we have together about what matters. 

Big is past its sell-by date. Making small work is down to us.

Books I’ve appreciated this week.

Scale. Geoffrey West. A book on scale by a theoretical physicist. I’m finding this a surprisingly enjoyable read for such a weighty and important subject. Short version – scale is complex and not some panacea. We need to understand it and handle it with care.

Small is Beautiful. E.F. Schumacher. A classic and a timely read. Ahead of its time.

Turning to One Another. Margaret Wheatley. Everything by Meg Wheatley is worth reading. Inspirational and Sobering, her argument that the change we seek will come not from those who claim to lead us but from each other is powerful and was, like Schumacher, ahead of its time.

Articles.

The Two Cultures. A thought-provoking article in this week’s Economist revisiting CP Snow’s “The Two Cultures”. 

Seizing the Middle. From the FS blog. Somewhere between two opposing cultures is a middle—a good article on capturing it.

The Downside of Paying Attention. Psyche. Focusing carries a cost.

Speak your mind, and together we flourish. Another from Psyche. What we need is for each of us to turn up to the change underway.

Quote

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.” 

E.F Schumacher
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The signals we send

As we have become more and more skilled at marketing and PR have we forgotten that people judge us on what we do, not what we say?

That thin veneer of promises and beautifully crafted messages is a skinny and fragile veneer glued on top of the deep substance of what we actually and consistently do. My thought was triggered by the conservative party senior management reaction to thumping loss in a by-election that took them by surprise. Co-chairman of the party, Amanda Milling, said “the Conservatives would look at how they could regain their trust”, and “ministers needed to “shout louder” about Boris Johnson’s promise to “level up” the UK”.

Those of you that know me will be aware of my lack of enthusiasm for the party but putting that to one side, the assumptions made here are telling. “Regaining trust” is a major, long term exercise requiring consistency and a change in behaviours, and we all know changing behaviours is more than a decision; it is hard work that has to be supported by those around us to keep us on track. Then, “needing to shout out about promises” suggests an assumption that it is the message, not the substance, that matters.

I thought this reaction was an excellent example of a broader issue, from responses to reports on corruption and social care to corporate tax avoidance to policies on global warming. People in head offices remote from those affected by their reactions treating surprises that are, in reality, no surprise as a technical issue that a change in the message can correct.

In a series of conversations this week, we talked about the subject of “micro rebellions”. These rebellions seem unlikely to be about big revolution and placards on the street, but rather many, many small actions taken by people affected by broken promises and consistent egregious action.
Many small actions about many things eventually join together. But, whether it is politics, or business, or “working from home”, a tipping point will be reached where the people affected will disregard those carefully crafted messages and stop turning up.

Our actions matter. It signals character. Character and consistency are the foundations of trust. If we do not maintain them, we can hardly be surprised when the building we occupy in society starts to crack visibly.

In times of change, it is who we are, not what we promise, that matters. People are watching, noticing, and remembering.

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The Dream

I often find there’s a point in the waking up process where I find myself in a liminal “between” space, still in a dream but increasingly conscious of my surroundings.

As the sun rose over Widemouth bay this morning, I was still in a zoom meeting with people I worked with, doing the usual meetingy things, , when an idea asked to join the discussion. The idea said quietly, firmly but kindly, “you’re missing the point here; please bring me into the meeting.”
I pressed the “admit” button, but got a message saying, “you do not have authority to admit this idea to the meeting – you need administrator rights. Please contact the administrator.” The idea was explaining to me why we were missing the point all the time this was going on. We talked about working from home policy when we should have been talking about the nature of the work we were asking people to do. If we got that right, the idea said that where it got done would become a secondary issue.

I asked who had administrator rights. The Head of operations said “why”, to which I replied, “there is an idea that wants to join the meeting”.
“Is it on the agenda?” she said,
“No”
“Then I don’t see why it needs to come in, and anyway, I’m not the administrator”
“Is it a validated idea, does it have evidence of success, and how much is it?” asked HR. Anyway. I’m not the meeting administrator.
“Will it ensure we meet this quarter’s budget?” asked Head of sales.
“Is it GDPR accredited?” asked Head of IT. They weren’t administrators either.

I explained briefly what the idea wanted to talk about and got the response, “it’s not on the agenda – set up a meeting for next month and send round a position paper so we can come prepared to discuss it.

I turned back to the idea to explain this, but there was a message left in the waiting room saying it had someone else on the line who wanted to talk about it now, so she had to go and hoped my meeting went well.

I woke up at that point, irritated until, as I became properly awake I realised I don’t have to go to those meetings anymore. I can talk to ideas anytime and anywhere I like, and with people who will welcome it and know how to talk with it into the discussion.

Together, we can decide what happens next and with who.

I don’t miss meetings one tiny little bit, but I have learned to love conversations where ideas are made unconditionally welcome.