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Reflections 25th July

What’s been on my mind this week.

I’ve been thinking about phase change this week. The sense of it has been present in conversations, in what I’ve been reading, listening to and watching. The idea of it has provided a thread that has connected all of them.

Phase changes that are brought about not by spikes in energy but instead through exponential change. From solid to liquid to gas, from emotion to energy, observation to orientation, and awareness to action. There is something of the alchemical about it. We find ourselves in a liminal space as the old slowly and reluctantly dissolves, whilst the new is emerging but has not yet taken recognisable form.

We know the “what” of the problems we face, from climate change to inequality, and it is the “how” of the way we address them that is changing. 

 I have always found that people are not resistant to change but resistant to coercion – even when it is as subtle as a “nudge”. A nudge is still somebody trying to get us to go in a direction they want, rather than a direction we have agreed to go together. At the opposite end to subtlety for those in power is the easy brute force of misinformation and propaganda; three-word mantras repeated at full volume on every occasion. The trouble is, it only works for a short time; eventually, people see through it, however subtle, if it fails to deliver what it promises. 

The subjects that are bubbling to the surface all suggest phase changes in addressing the challenges we face.

Firstly, hybrid working, not as an adaptation of what we have been used to, but as a bottom-up rethink of our relationship with how we make a living, who we do it with, and what happens as a result. 

Secondly, Feminine Leadership – not just as a gender issue, which, whilst vital, is only part of a much bigger idea, an archetype of inclusion, nurturing, collaborative approaches. The opposite of the militaristic metaphors of “business as war” so beloved by people who have never been in one. Feminine leadership is not a replacement – masculine leadership still matters, but the increasingly fluid, fractious, populist tone of much of our leadership needs more balance if the phase change underway is to take hold to our benefit.

Thirdly, Horizons. The short term, next-quarter-earnings, hard-metric obsessed paradigm dismisses what we feel and sense beyond profit and loss is fading rapidly. The idea of assessing the effect of what we do today on generations and the ecosystem we are part of, and depend on for our existence, is moving mainstream. 

Fourthly, Ambitions. Capitalism, which, if handled responsibly, has so much to recommend it, has blotted its copybook. The image of a handful of billionaires being in a race to spend ten minutes in space, from where they can get an astonishing view of the damage caused by the system that got them there, is abhorrent and has alienated, probably irreconcilably, my grandchildren’s generation. 

Fifth, Exchange. Blockchain is emerging in various forms to create currency, manage projects, and change the way individuals work together. It promises to undermine large organisations, from corporates to nation-states, and enable smaller, faster, more inclusive entities to work together. It is very early days, but it has moved beyond something fantastical to being a player.

There is, I think, a sixth. Provenance. I suspect one of the overarching themes here will be the structural changes we are facing. At the tail end of the industrial age, technology and globalisation allowed us to seek efficiencies by moving first manufacturing, then services, offshore. As a result, we saved more on production costs than we spent on management costs to support it, but that has changed. Not only have production costs increased, but the supply chains needed to disguise where supposedly local brands made their products and sourced their services are fragile and easily disrupted. Like a magicians trick, the illusion is revealed, and the magic is gone. I wonder about the future of managers who do not know how to make things.

These things are not blips, and if we take the time to be still and listen, we can sense it. That’s the good news because if we can feel it, we can do something about it. We know the “what” of the problems we face, from climate change to inequality, and it is the “how” of the way we address them that is changing. 

We are faced with the consequences of our past actions, and we cannot manage, market, or PR our way out of responsibility. We are at a point where we are accountable – for what we consume, where it is made, how it is made and the collateral effect of the processes we use to create it.

The late David Graeber might be smiling. We have passed peak bullshit.

Books that I’m finding Valuable right now.

Gathering Moss. Robin Wall Kimmerer. Her first book, “Braiding Sweetgrass” was a revelation and a joy in how it delivered stinging insights with a gentleness that makes them hard to ignore. I’m reading this one for sheer pleasure and will be interested to see what insights it generates.

Emergent Strategy. Adrienne Maree Brown. Strategy based on relationships as much as logic and with the natural world as much as our human world. We’re in that sort of time, where we need to openly challenge and either affirm, or let go, of our existing paradigms.

Web of Meaning. Jeremy Lent. I was grateful to have this recommended to me during the week. I have long been fascinated by a “language of the middle” that sits in between extremes and draws from both to create new perspectives without diminishing either. I’m interested in particular with the apparent opposing views of science and spirituality, and it is this Jeremy has written about. A new purchase (my resolve not to buy new books for a while is easily broken)

Resources I’ve valued

The Story of Work. The Economist. A review of Jan Lucassens history of work and our relationship with it. Also as a podcast. An excellent way to reflect on our relationship with something we take for granted.

A Bozo of a Baboon. Robert Sapolsky 2003. A provoking article by a neurobiologist on the perils of being an alpha male. Found in Edge Magazine and a great read in my view.

How to sharpen pencils. Yes, really. A nine-minute video by an artisan pencil sharpener. From Aeon Magazine. There is an artisan, a craftsman, in all of us no matter what we do, and finding that artisan in this phase change will be important. Watch over a good cup of coffee.

George the Poet. I cannot recommend this one highly enough. I think there is genius in it. A thirty year old rapper, spoken word artist, and philosopher takes on the thorniest topics with grace and beauty.

A Quotation

One of the biggest things holding people back from doing great work is the fear of making something lame. And this fear is not an irrational one. Many great projects go through a stage early on where they don’t seem very impressive, even to their creators. You have to push through this stage to reach the great work that lies beyond. But many people don’t. Most people don’t even reach the stage of making something they’re embarrassed by, let alone continue past it. They’re too frightened even to start.”

Paul Graham

This is a time for us to entertain the need to do great work, not ordinary work.

Have a great week.

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Tired of Maybe.

I suspect exhaustion, like insanity, has its roots in repeatedly doing the same thing whilst expecting a different result. This morning, the thought occurred when reading an email that referred to Mark Manson’s advice that “if it isn’t a F****** YES, it’d a NO”.

There’s a thread in many of the conversations I hear and articles I read that are long on “maybe” – maybe if we just hold on and improvise, things will go back to normal. But, I think that, increasingly, the majority of us, unless we’re in politics, recognise that is not going to be the case. So, it is time to apply the YES! Filter.

If we ditch the procrastination, there is a lot of space for yes. What we want from our work, what it adds to our lives beyond money, who we work with, and what that work does. 

It is recognising that we have choices and that those choices carry responsibilities.

Every business and every project is finite and the span is getting shorter. There is the initial energy and excitement and the security of funding until it gets to viability and assumes responsibility for its own survival. Then, there is then a period of relative performance until, inevitably, the overhead it incurs provides the entropy that causes it to adapt more slowly than its environment requires, and it expires. The average period of time for this is around seven years for most businesses. It is only the ones feeding off surpluses gathered in slower times that last a while longer.

This means that what we will be doing in ten years’ time will be very different from today and that unless we are preparing for that, even though we cannot know what it is, we are relying on luck.

Which brings me back to the “YES!” filter; if we are just getting by, waiting for a normal that is not coming back, we are wasting opportunity. There are many unfamiliar, even scary things emerging that will reveal those “YES!” areas if we embrace them. 

Adopting growth mindsets, being grateful for what we are being offered, and resisting the temptation to stay put until it all blows over. 

It is not a time to just accept what we are being offered, it is time to create what we want, because we have things to do for people down the road.

We are at the very beginning of time for the human race. It is not unreasonable that we grapple with problems. But there are tens of thousands of years in the future. Our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions, and pass them on.

Richard Feynman
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No time for sensemaking..

Steve Jobs famously said we cannot join the dots looking forward, only by looking backwards. And right now, there are an awful lot of dots to join.

There are many potentially significant changes taking place, and we do not know whether they are harbingers of what is to come or temporary phenomena. 

Just scanning the news this morning, there are articles on people leaving old jobs requiring commuting, and moving to ones that don’t. The project director of the Olympics opening ceremony resigns one day before it occurs because of comments he made twenty years ago, when we were less aware that everything we do and say will be available in digital perpetuity. Americans are reporting higher levels of wellbeing during the pandemic. Climate change is wreaking different sorts of havoc, from wildfires to floods. Supply chains are unravelling as a consequence of all of these things.

There is an alchemy to systemic change, and it feels like we are at the beginning of a significant disturbance. We find ourselves towards the end of the first stage, Nigredo, reducing the industrial era to its essential elements, and the beginning of Albedo, extracting what is valuable from it that will be needed for the following stage, Cintrinitas, as what is to come next starts to form. We are in a liminal space, betwixt and between, in a hailstorm of dots we cannot yet join.

In the midst of this, we have a rare and vital chance to step out of the day to day and reflect. What are we going to do in the short time we are here? What does our current work, and who we work with and for say about us? How does our work enhance our lives and those around us and, perhaps most importantly, remembering we are not separate from nature; we are nature. What we do to our environment, we are doing to ourselves.

Before we can grow again, we need to repair the damage we have caused to the planet and ourselves. 

It is not a time for analysis; it is a time for courageous conversations about what we can keep of our way of life and what we cannot if we are to emerge from where we are in better shape than we were entered it.