Preflections, 17th January

An Emerging Perspective

These are strangely exciting times. Our comfortable world has been knocked off its axis for approaching a year, and will remain tilted for the rest of 2021. Whether we think that’s exciting or appalling is a mindset. My own view is that it has been a very necessary nudge. We have been operating unsustainably for years. We’ve known it, and talked about it, but done very little.

As we move into this year, it’s a time for entertaining radical ideas, to play with possibility, and see what emerges. To move to the edge of what we do and think, because change never happens in the centre. The centre is comfortable and predictable. It’s where wilful blindness thrives and the habits driven by the heuristics and biases we have developed multiply and thrive.

So, as I go through January doing that, here’s a starter for ten.

The Creation of the Machine

The system we operate in was created in the early 19th Century. As trade grew and the old system of companies being created by Act of Parliament, like the the East India Company, became cumbersome and slow, we created the possibility of the limited liability company and enabled it in law. As a result we had an explosion of companies formed with all the rights of an individual, but none of the moral or societal obligations, including meetings its liabilities if it failed. It was designed to encourage innovation and growth, and was phenomenally successful.

Alongside this was the growth of the professions, as the Law Society and the Instute of Chartered Accountants were created, and the basic framework of the way we still do business was established. At around the same time, Universal Education was implemented, largely in order to feed the requirements of the businesses being created.

The Ageing of the Machine

Everything ages and falls behind, and today the structure that was created for innovation has morphed into something that is abused for corporate self interest. Shareholder interest dominates, and the structure is distorted. Major companies fail through egregious mismanagement, and those who depend on them are left stranded. This week we had insurance companies trying, and thankfully failing, to avoid obligations they had underwritten on the basis that nobody expected a pandemic (just what is insurance for I wonder?) Pandemics have been with us since the beginning of time. It seems that many insurance companies (laudably, not all) can cope with any unforeseen event as long as they’re given enough notice.

Another major consequence has been the relationship between employee and employer. The global population has multipied sevenfold since the framework was created, and business has globalised and been supercharged by technology. The social distance between average employee and the Boardroom has become a chasm, as has the distance between Boardroom and owners. We have more technocrats than leaders, and horribly disengaged employees.

Another consequence has been the design and intent of the education system. Universal education started in 1870 in England. Started in order to feed business rather than any altruistic intent, that has remained the intent, and has spread to higher education, with business courses the most subscribed, and the MBA the most sought after. The end result is a tendency to produce case study knowledge rather than original thinking. Menus of learned old solutions rather than critical thinking. (I sometimes think that the MBA is morphing into Meat Based Algorithm). The challenge is that we are educating our children to be experts in a world that will no longer exist when they are are old enough to exercise the skills they learned.

The Failure of the Machine

Every day now we are seeing the failure of the machine as people are laid off, whole tranches of businesses built on fragile notions of service go to the wall, and major businesses faced with accelerated obsolescence (Hospitality, Airlines, Oil) pleading for government assistance to deal with a problem that foresight, caution and investment would have mitigated, but the money for which has been paid out in dividends and bonuses.

Globalisation and the just in time supply chains it has created is retreating, aided by the fragmentation of societies in the West as middle class income has stagnated for decades, and technology eats into the comfortable world of the professions. The stuff of law, accountancy and education is increasingly being done, often better, by technology. The always fragile “social contract” is in tatters.

The world has gone way beyond complicated to become rapidly complex and unpredictable. The world has always been a system, not some sort of machine, and we’re learning that the hard way. Business leaders and Politicians bluster and procrastinate faced with a world their monofocal business skills have ill prepared them for, as the pillars they thought would endure visibly crumble.

Where does this leave us?

We have “shifting baselines”. We look at things in the context of the span of our own lives, and the changes we see. Looking at what is happening though from further back, through what we term “deep time” suggests the industrial era, and the social systems it has created, are a fleeting phenomenon. Civilisations apparently last around ten generations, or two hundred and fifty years. It’s two hundred and twenty since the beginning on the Industrial Revolutiom. Maybe that’s a clue.

We are the most creative species yet to inhabit the planet (as far as we know!). We invent, adapt, and create. Our history is shaped by the stories we tell ourselves, and then make happen. It’s time for a new story.

We have developed a debilitating mindset of learned helplessness, entitlement and risk aversion as the industrial model has fed and clothed us whilst degrading the planet to the point where it can no longer support us. We have become dependent on the notion of jobs, and of other people to create them. We have become consumers above creators.

It’s may not our fault, but it is manifesting on our watch, and if our successors are to thrive, we need to to ask ourselves some important questions:

  • How would you live your life and make a living if companies as we know them were illegal?
  • What do you know how to actually make? – music, furniture, houses………
  • Where does your current job compare to the late David Graeber’s definition of Bullshit Jobs?
  • Most of us are going to have to change the way we live and earn in the next decade, whether we like it or not. What do you want yours to look like?

The encouraging, but intially uncomfortable likelihood is that your organisation, your employer, and our current leaders are not going to provide the answer. Hierarchies are fine in times of stability, but useless in times of change.

  • To see our future, we do not to look up, we need to look sideways, to the local communities we are part of, and wider to those who share our values and skills.
  • We need to engage in real dialogue, with thought, debate and humility rather than search for superficial, easily consumed but ill thought through “solutions”
  • We need to think critically, and to work things out for ourselves in the company of others.
  • We have to take risks. If we’re intelligent about it, to take risks where failure won’t be terminal, but will stretch us to learn. Despite the books, nobody learns from success. It’s how we cope with our failures that define us.
  • We have to start before we need to. The best time to plant a tree was thirty years ago. The next best time is today. Small steps into the unknown, but steps nonetheless. We need to leave footprints for others to follow.

if you’re interested in talking with others about this, pop over to Originize and register. The bad news is that I don’t know what’s coming any more than anybody else. The good news is we’re going to start working it out anyway.

What’s catching my attention

The virus isn’t the problem. A provocative piece by Sunil Malhotra on the current state of affairs. One of my favourite thinkers who I’m priviliged to have as a colleagie on this journey.

Dilbert on entrepreneurs and experts, Three frames of wisdom. What a talent!

The Square and the Tower. Niall Ferguson. A great read on how what we’re in has panned out in history.

Prepare for Surprises. Energising and timely short article by Margaret Heffernan

Tyson Yunkaporta on Optimism. what we knew before we thought we knew everything,

What this year is starting to look like.

Every time I think what I’m going to do is clear, something happens to move it on. Sometimes something I read, more often people I talk to.

So I’m concentrating on doing more of that – meeting people and reading , and then joining people to people and ideas that help them in deciding what is next for them. It’s always a two way street – I learn at least much as I impart. It’s what we used to do before we became addicted to solutions.

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