Addressing the Problem Problem.

On Wednesday, I wrote about the “problem problem,” -that we are poor at spotting real problems because there is more money to be made from addressing symptoms.

Since then, I’ve been thinking, talking and listening with people about the implications and ways in which we might address the real problems – because we have to. Symptoms are rarely benign, and at some point will manifest the underlying cause, most likely when we are least ready for it. We are out of time for procrastination

The list of examples of symptoms manifesting right now is too long for this post. They range from climate change, when we’ve known about the causes for half a century, a plague of mental health issues caused by the toxic cultures we have developed in our businesses and wider society, and inequality caused by a mutated and gamed form of shareholder capitalism. The problems include our education system that prepares our children for a world of work that will not exist when they grow up and public services that we have transformed into “markets” for customers who cannot afford them. 

The trouble of complexity, of course, is that we cannot analyse it because it changes in response to anything we do. So complicated becomes complex, which becomes wicked on the road to chaos. Our industrial model has become well and truly VUCAD up.

But whilst we may not be able to analyse the problems in detail, we can at least look for a moment at a few of the glaringly obvious, gloriously inconvenient causes.

For me, right at the top of the list is leadership – or rather, the lack of it. We spend over $350 billion a year on leadership training to minimal effect. It’s not because of inadequate people – it is because the cultures we create make authentic leadership almost impossible. The exercise of leadership requires two key things – authority and autonomy. However, in our large organisations, that rarely exists at any level. Even the CEO’s, during their ever shorter tenures, are constrained by anonymous, often activist shareholders and reduced to career, more than company long term strategies.

Further down the leadership chain, everything from processes to policies turns even the most promising leaders in Gullivers, tied down by the minutiae of internal policies and external regulation. Those who lead in areas where the risk they face is real and present, from the military to the emergency services, do it best – authority is delegated to the level nearest the danger, who are given the authority to act. Not so in business, where interference is not only top-down but often sideways. Potentially good leaders are often turned into, at best, inspirational managers.

There is, of course, a good reason for the interference. Left to their own devices, the ethics of many large businesses make them myopic and self centred in pursuit of profit, such that we have to legislate for what, under different circumstances, but would be taken care of by values. As I say, not just complex, but wicked. Smaller, more accountable, better led units might well mitigate a lot of that.

Also high on my list is the nature of organisations themselves. We give them legal personhood but neither consciousness nor legislated lifespans. We humans may have to face the reality of only eight or so healthy decades if we’re fortunate, whilst Jamie Dimon speculated recently that JP Morgan will outlast the Chinese Communist Party – a thought and comparison to make the blood run cold.

Businesses, and indeed most organisations, change more slowly than their environment, so they crave the stability and predictability that we know is illusory and it causes them to age. Many of them become zombies, dead long before they fail, raining symptom after symptom upon us in their frantic search for eternal continuous growth.

So what might we do to address these issues? If granted one wish, it would be that our business world would embrace the concept of wabi-sabi. This Japanese notion – of the beauty of impermanence, incompleteness, and imperfection is eloquently explained here by John Kuzava. 

Seeing as that is unlikely to happen, I’ll go for three more practical (though still incredibly tough to implement) ideas. 

The first is to make organisations far more granular and create networks of smaller, more genuinely autonomous units linked together around a common purpose, but with far more local authority to work in greater harmony with their staff and communities. Give leaders a chance to lead, and make powerful head offices a thing of the past.

Secondly, put the notion of the primacy of shareholder returns firmly behind us, preferably through legislation to bring business externalities firmly internal, so that those corporations that strip mine communities (and the planet) of their assets with no penalty can no longer do so.

Thirdly, strengthen audit requirements around certification of business as “going concerns.” Companies have natural life spans (even J.P. Morgan, Jamie). So when the data points to terminal illness, put them out of their misery to make room for those growing businesses in the understory. Manage the business ecosystem in the same way a forester manages a forest. 

Bring the power back to communities and away from tax-efficient but socially destructive behemoths. Create the room for humans to grow and the natural world to start to recover. Embrace the concept of enough (for all) rather than impossible riches for a few. I’m not talking equality, but I am talking human equity.

All of this will not be brought about by some enlightened leader on the road to Damascus; instead, we will bring it about through our choices. One decision at a time, one after the other, day after day.

Our addiction to unnecessary consumption is just that; an addiction, and we have to deal with it in the same way—one day at a time.

The symptoms we face are like individual small forest fires, linking up to create a conflagration. It is already too late to stop that conflagration, but maybe we can mitigate it, and of course, it serves a purpose. Like forest fires, it clears away dead wood and creates room for healthier growth.

We are at a choice point. The size of the conflagration is down to each of us, and we can make a difference.

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