According to my dictionary, tensile strength measures the maximum load that can be supported without fracture when being stretched. I’m not sure how the metaphor arose this morning, but as I listened to the news, there it was.
I noted the Westminster cabinet fracturing and reforming to give us the same people in a different order in an insular village to which few of us seem connected. Survey after survey reiterating that people do not want the office to be the centre of their work-life. Global supply chains unravelling as political and commercial relationships come under pressure. It led me to reflect on what the lowest common denominator of these straws in the wind might be, and the answer is, I think, as straightforward as it is complex.
When our world was under more “normal” loads, we could stretch things. We had big organisations, extended supply chains, and remote connections controlled by technocratic managers to levels of efficiency measured to sigma levels of variability. We delegated relationships to HR and warm fuzzy statements in annual reports, along with other complex secondary topics like equality and climate change. Then we had covid, and the final element of incremental pressure that triggered a landslide of change that has brought relationships centre stage.
When this happens, I wonder about the smallest unit of relationship that can withstand this degree of change.? It seems unlikely to be the business workplace team, as these change too frequently for the sort of relationships that withstand severe pressure to form effectively. Indeed, business, in general, seems an unlikely place for cohesive teams when the greater purpose is something as fickle and relocatable as profit.
The public sector is different, as the goal is not profit, but service and money is a tool more than an end, as we have seen demonstrated everywhere from ambulances to volunteering.
Under pressure, the smallest unit is our personal network. The five people we are closest to, the fifteen we trust, and maybe another fifty to whom we can confidently reach out.
I think the pandemic may have changed the composition of this group. Fewer people from work, more locally, and I suspect more virtual in what is a significant, long term change that reflects my own experience.
Over the last eighteen months, technology in general, and Zoom in particular, has enabled me to connect with people I would otherwise not have met and build strong relationships with them around values, purpose and ideas. They are the critical building blocks of new ventures and ways of working and do not rely on structure, management, or even leadership. They are like those little Lego bricks left lying around by our children that we encounter in the dark suddenly and unexpectedly. We can create new structures from them, and they integrate easily into my local connections. Shared values do that.
I think they are the basic building blocks from which we might create Villages 3.0. Small, robust, resilient groups, loosely linked to each other attracted by shared values and purpose, can quickly build delivery entities. But, significantly, we can dismantle them equally quickly when their goal is achieved without losing the relationships that held them together.
Perhaps a greater chance of creating resilient local economies, strong connections and relationships, and less chance of the zombie organisations that stalk our High Streets trying to feed their debt.
As power moves from the top of hierarchies to the centre of networks, it is there that we need to pay attention. To build our relationships and connections with those who share our values, who have complementary skills, and whose own networks offer us the possibility of serendipitous connection.
It is, after all, how nature works and evolves.
Spider silk has a greater tensile strength than steel. We can weave our own webs.