Old Game, New Rules

For just about all of my working life, over four decades, organisations have held sway. They had the resources, the status, the networks and the power. When I left university, the conventional wisdom was to look for the “solid organisation”.

That makes it quite strange to suddenly realise that it’s changed. Quite disconcerting really, like the transition from winter to spring. One minute snow and Aga, and what seems like a few minutes later, shorts and grass mowing.

Organisations no longer hold sway. People do. It’s no longer about who you join, it’s who you travel with.

That makes for really new rules. Not adaptation. More like revolution.

Individuals can cope with this far better than organisations. Organisations want stasis, certainty, or at least change on their terms. It rarely works. Most change initiatives fail, and those that succeed rarely do more than keep them in the game.

I believe that means we need to reboot. The realisation that the organisation cannot look after us, for anything other than the shortest of terms, is disconcerting. It’s not that the organisation is malign (though I can think of several exceptions) it’s just that they are not capable. Culturally, structurally, spiritually. They have been designed to make money, and that is no longer enough.

We are in the age of the connected individual. Some of them, the Musks, Bransons, Rhen Zengfeis’, combine connection with capital to create new entities. Others combine connection with politics to develop power. Others combine connection with influence, from the mundane stuff of social media to the dark side of insurgency.

Some, do all three.

I think it creates an uncomfortable imperative for us. If we cannot belong to an organisation, what do we belong to? To what are we “hefted”? What, when all around us is uncertain, matters? Do we have a compass to guide us?

Then, do we have a community who we support, and who will support us? People at our shoulders?

If we do, then are as potentially powerful as anyone else, and we can make a difference to something that matters. If we don’t, we are in danger of becoming refugees, looking for somebody to help us.

It’s uncomfortable, but right now, inevitable.

The infinite game of business remains unchanged. The finite game of traditional organisations is melting beneath our feet.

Seasons and Cycles

Whether nature or business, we are governed by the need to adapt to cycles. We welcome each one, knowing there are things we need to do to profit from the next cycle.

Much as we might like it to be different, there is no perpetual summer, and we can’t go from spring to spring without doing the work in autumn and winter.

So why, I wonder do we think business is different? That with a bit of twiddling, we can live perpetually in summer?

The collapse of Thomas Cook is as iconic as it was inevitable. It’s easy to see in retrospect that it needed to recognise that it was autumn ten years ago, and that it was in winter five years ago, but the investors wanted to wear their shorts by the pool, and the managers, instead of telling truth to power, did their best to provide, probably knowing it was futile, but hey, it wasn’t their business……..

Itinerant gardeers can move elsewhere, but the land isn’t going anywhere, and nor are those who value it.

Right now, both meteorologically and economically, winter is coming. We cannot continue to sit by the pool as the climate changes, inequality increases and societies fracture under the pressure.

Perpetual growth on a planet with finite resources is an oxymoron, and their is nothing wrong (in fact everything good) to be done if we stop taxing the system in pursuit of the unneccessary for a while.

It’s a time to prune, dividends as well as trees. To sit together round a warm fire and plan for spring. We cannot make it happen faster, but we can be ready when it comes.

Winter is a season, not failure, and not a problem

The Business Garden

Gardening and natural world metaphors abound in business, and provide a solid link to the systemic, rather than a mechanical approach to understanding change.

A new dimension was added for me last night as I overheard a comment on “Gardeners World”;

There is no garden without a gardener”

It struck me that one of the things we maybe do not pay enough attention to is how we lead and manage through this lens of gardening.

We cannot lead a garden, and our efforts to manage it are at best heroic. Gardens will not be commanded, nor will they behave. They are subject to lots of variables, not least weather, and as gardeners we have to work within the constraints that appear. At our very best, we influence. What we end up with is beautiful, but rarely conforms to a precise plan. To create a beautiful garden, we have to dance with the elements.

The same is increasingly true of business. The days of command and control, of five year plans, of a compliant workforce and the protection of national boundaries are far behind us. To create a beautiful business we have to dance with the elements.

Which brings me to the gardener. Every beautiful garden has a committed, sometimes fanatical gardener at its heart. Someone who works with it, understands and learns from failure that is beyond their control without losing heart, and measures success by the beauty of the garden, not the number of visitors it attracts. A beautiful garden is a creation that stands alone in its own right.

Perhaps if we thought about businesses in the same way, with the same level of ownership and commitment and determination to create something worthwhile, we might avoid some of the destruction that arises from catastrophic failure.

As I write, some 150,000 people are having holidays ruined by the failure of Thomas Cook. A business founded nearly two hundred years ago on a simple premise of helping people see the world. That’s a great vision, and has echoes of the garden about it.

It has been brought down by a combination of circumstances, some predictable, some less so but at the heart of it seems to be an absence of the beautiful idea on which it as founded in favour of shareholders who were happy to take the dividends in the good times but not commit to it when the weather turned bad, and banks who seem not to be able to see past the numbers. To be fair – that’s their brief, but when we lose a business like this, and affect people’s lives as a trip wire event, rather than managing it through a bad season, I think it diminishes the reputation of business.

A gardener would have handled this differently.