The Arrow of Time

After two hundred and forty years, Debenhams finally shuts its doors today. It seems pretty poignant – it has tracked, more or less, the arc of the industrial era from its start, through its peak, into decline, and now it’s ending from being a bastion of the High St to its final days as an unloved cash cow. Everything has a cycle. The arrow of time is pretty unforgiving. We build new layers of existence on top of the old.

Not that long ago, it used to be that the span of a business and the span of a career were relatively aligned and complementary. Qualifications and compliance enabled a comfortable one of two company working life, a decent company pension, and relative certainty, whether we were miners or merchant bankers. That has disappeared within my working lifetime, and as yet, no pattern has emerged to replace it. We find ourselves in a place of complexity and what often feels like chaos.

It’s a sobering realisation that we have no control over the arrow of time. We are at a point where the old is dissolving no matter what we do, and the new that is emerging plays by different rules. We cannot step quickly from one to the other and thrive. The number of technical “transferable skills” are limited and decreasing. We have airline pilots doing Amazon deliveries. It takes years to train as a nurse, let alone a doctor. What do we do?

Take a deep breath. The end of this arrow arc is nobody’s fault, even if we like to choose scapegoats. There is no shortage of hubristic politicians and business people to choose from, but their failure is a lack of leadership more than the management of what has been ending. The arrow of this cycle has been heading to the ground for a couple of decades or more. It has been evident to an increasing number of people for whom it is inconvenient but whose short term interest lies in convincing us the arrow will turn miraculously back upwards. Getting angry with them is a waste of energy.

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality.  To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” 

Buckminster Fuller

New arrows are waiting to take flight, and our job is to help release them. That means less fretting over what is dissolving and more attention to the emerging and the new skills, human and technical, we need. It’s easy to feel that what is happening right now is unfair, but it achieves nothing other than keeping us stuck. We need a new model. It will not be built by those whose interest lies in keeping the old model on expensive life support.

Businesses and organisations for whom money is a necessary lubricant to achieve something more than shareholder value are already building that model, supported by followers who share that idea of “more than money”. Our best bet is to support them by learning the skills and taking the risks necessary to help them succeed.

Times may be difficult, but we can still make choices.

Note. “Arrow of time” heading taken from “who do we choose to be” by Margaret Wheatley

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