The price we pay for efficiency.

“Have you noticed how nobody ever looks up? Nobody looks at chimneys, or trees against the sky, or the tops of buildings. Everybody looks down at the pavement or their shoes. The whole world could pass them by, and most people wouldn’t notice.”

Julie Andrews Evans

This morning on Radio 4, an executive from the hospitality industry insisted that the Government offer certainty about coming out of lockdown. This was someone who, I suspect, spends a lot of time looking at their shoes.

We are constantly surrounded by uncertainty, although it seems we have more than average now or at least it feels like it. Perhaps it’s because we have created business models and business mindsets that rely on certainty in the pursuit of efficiency. We have come to rely on predictable supply chains, interest rates, availability of cheap labour, even continued Government subsidy to extract value from what hasn’t happened yet. We look for returns today on promises of returns in the future.

What is increasingly clear is that the conditions that allowed us to work this way are rapidly disappearing. Established businesses, even well run ones, find themselves in liminal space between the complicated they grew up in and the complex they currently occupy. 

Whereas even a short while ago, they could analyze a situation, categorize it and apply a known process provided by trainers or consultants, today they cannot. They have to probe, experiment and create new approaches that they hope work. (for more, see Dave Snowden’s excellent Cynefin framework – he saw this happening a couple of decades ago). Put more simply, businesses with short term horizons got themselves hooked on efficiency and profits at the expense of sustainability, sacrificed curiosity and prudence and find themselves to borrow a metaphor, naked as the tide has gone out. The tragedy is that, much as they cry for help, few are worth rescuing. They were built for a different time, and their pursuit of efficiency has frozen them in that time, and they cannot cope with what is happening. The best we can do for them is palliative care.

The exciting part, of course, is the start of a new cycle. Exactly what it looks like is not yet clear, nor will it be for a while, but the signs are all around for us to interpret as we will. 

This is a time that rewards those willing to look up and see the new patterns emerging, whose curiosity and confidence outweigh the dull pursuit of efficiency and who are actively involved in making sense of it rather than relying on delegating it to others.

These people are curious, committed and connected. They are the dots, which we will see ended up joining to create the businesses and initiatives we need when we look back.

Even a few years ago, what seemed like safe harbours are now dangerous places to be as they convince themselves and those who they need that what we are going through is an anomaly. It isn’t. 

To navigate what is happening, we better keep the right company – curious people testing boundaries and sharing what they find having conversations about what they imagine and wonder. 


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