It seems that, over the last couple of decades, we have somehow conflated scale and speed. We are obsessed with unicorn businesses, exponential growth, and serial entrepreneurship, where we seek growth for growth’s sake rather than building something worth building.
As with almost everything, the natural world of which we are but a small part (eighty per cent of the world’s biomass is vegetation. Humans are a rounding error) points the way. Forests will not be rushed. Forest fires clear away deadwood and enrich the soil for the growth to follow, but we don’t get instant fully grown trees. We can apply artificial fertilisers to the soil for a while, but the soil will still become exhausted and will take years of being left alone to recover. We can exploit natural resources from forests to oceans for a while, but as we now understand, nature bats last.
I’m part of a global discussion group. I have watched on, fascinated as this group of highly bright and committed people have gone from a small cohesive group to a fragmented and divided crowd as they have sought to scale, all triggered by different understanding of one simple word.
Growth needs firm foundations and a recognition that there is a natural, sustainable rate of growth. In the case of a forest, it is the time spent in the understory, growing slowly and building strength ready for when a gap in the canopy appears. In the case of a group of people, building trust and understanding to be prepared for when the stress of rapid growth occurs. Peter Drucker said that it takes twenty years to establish trust and five minutes to destroy it. Business literature is full of learned articles on how to hack confidence to increase performance. I’m with Drucker. It’s challenging to build trust when we’re busy arguing.
In the last decade, we have shredded trust. From the process of globalisation to the financial crash of 2008/9 and its lack of consequences for the instigators, to the huge increase in inequality that sees a few people looking on from space at crises from climate to refugees, we have lost connection and found ourselves with partisan, populist politics dominated by charlatans.
We are in a phase change as the industrial era fades away, and whatever is next forms, and we cannot rush it. Clearly, we must move quickly to stop doing what we know beyond doubt is causing the problems we face, but we cannot through some technical sleight of hand make them go away. We cannot do “instant forests”, and we have to stop seeking scale based on consumption. We need to read the memo.
What happens now or doesn’t will be determined by trust. In ouselves and each other, and in the power of nature. Our extraordinary capabilities as humans is based on our ability to imagine, collaborate and communicate, and without trust we will find ourselves bowling alone.
Trust starts small, and grows slowly until it reaches a critical mass, then it performs miracles. It is trust, not technology that will lead us out of the hole we have dug for ourselves, and we must start building it, conversation by conversation, in small groups, letting it grow naturally.
The pandemic has been a brush fire, rather than a forest fire, but it has still cleared away enough deadwood for us to see what is going on around us.
What we do now is down to us, starting with building trust in those immediately around us by having conversations about what matters to us. The rest will follow.