A Boxing Day Reflection

On my mind.

If one thing has characterised the last five years here in the U.K. it has been an addiction to “push”. Hustle.

Dissemble. Lobby. Pursue growth through any and all means possible. The tools of propaganda – simple, emotionally laden messages designed to leverage fear. Take Back Control. Get Brexit Done. Get Boosted Now. No dialogue. Push.

The push culture has found its way into most of what we do, from business to charities. From “promotions” to “pity pleas.” “Nudge” units in Government. And whilst social media does contain little springs of clear thought it is more often dominated by a torrent of push that makes it more akin to an open sewer. Not a good place to seek guidance or support in a time of transition.

There is of course a limit to the powers of push. We become inured to it, and as ever more hyperbole is used, our indifference to it increases. Like the story of the little boy who cried “Wolf,” the intent of those making the noise becomes ever clearer, their reputations more ragged, and our appetite for information not pre-loaded with commercial or political guile ever greater. In a discussion this week, a thoughtful colleague likened it to shouting into a cave. Perhaps, in 2022 we can stop shouting into the cave, and instead light a candle in a quiet corner of it.

Rather than abuse technology to interrupt people, use it to create quiet, thoughtful places that people can find if they wish. Pull rather than Push. Invite rather than Insist. Curiosity, exploration, and humility in search of what we seek together, rather than the raucous hubris of “seven steps to greatness” or “leadership lessons from the greats” or some such. The equivalent of growing and cooking our own food, rather than buying a ready meal based on a “cost optimised” widely copied recipe. Space for authentic craft in pursuit of purpose, rather than training in preparation for compliance.

Push in search of rapid growth relies on scale, automation and the crude impersonality of “relationship management.” It uses the language of “today” and “performance”. Pull seeks connection and common cause, accepts natural rates of growth, values people more than process or profit, and uses the language of  the “overmorrow” – the day after tomorrow in search of long term prosperity over short term gain.

Commercially, of course “Push” is much more attractive for those in search primarily of money. Technology is a godsend – it amplifies scale and keeps customers at extended arm’s length through batteries of algorithms, scripts, and call centres. Terms and Conditions tame responsibility, and gig contracts keep social responsibility at bay. “Build and Sell” strategies provide great rewards for a few, and the opportunity to use success to “rinse and repeat” in other sectors,

“Pull” on the other hand is hard work. It relies on a day to day, one-step-at-a-time building of reputation. It demands consistency and an avoidance of the easy option. It carries no guaranteed returns. It means being “on the hook” to customers to whom you matter. It grows at a rate that is natural for it, free of the artificial fertiliser of growth consultants.

Relationship are central to a “pull” organisation, which automatically limits growth when you are expected to know your customers without relying on a database. The likelihood is you, and those who work for you will make a good living, but never have your own spaceship. Understanding “enough” is critical to “pull” organizations.

So who, in their right mind, would create a “pull” enterprise?

The same people as always have. Artisans. People for whom the quality of the work they do is the work. Those for whom the appreciation of their customers is the primary KPI, the contribution they make their mission, and the money they make a recognition of the value they create for people they know.

I started my 2021 blogs with a post titled “Welcome to the year of the Artisan.” A year on, there has been no sudden artisanal revolution, but I think the sentiment was right. A year of hybrid working has put a distance between the average organisation and those who work for them that seems unlikely to be recovered, and the “great resignation” continues to evolve as a mass realignment with work continues.

There are no courses on becoming an artisan, no “seven steps” books (I wonder if Steven Covey ever realised the burden he put on the number seven?). Becoming an artisan is like becoming a teacher or an artist. It is a vocation. You cannot train someone to want to become an artist – it comes from a much deeper place. The skills we can train, the curiosity, and the desire for mastery we cannot.

2021 has created the conditions for artisans to escape the compliance of corporations and head for control of their lives. Artisans are emerging. I know this to be the case. In two years of online conversations about what matters, I have found artisans in every sector, from accountancy to zookeeping, and from individuals in large corporates to administrators in charities. They are everywhere, just waiting, like so many chrysalis, to reveal the butterfly they are.

As we enter 2022, I think the appeal, and importance of an artisanal mindset becomes ever more important. Anyone who is following the debate on ethical artificial intelligence, and who has listened to Al Russell delivering this years Reith Lectures will sense the incursion of AI into every aspect of our lives where machine learning can either help us, or replace us, at work.

The very things that make work efficient – analysis, process, specification gives AI everything it needs. AI trains itself at mind spinning speed. AlphaGo Zero – the AI that beat Kie Jie – the top ranked player of Go in the world spent forty days playing itself without any human input. Forty days versus a human lifetimes work. And we are only at the beginning; if it can do that, Balance Sheets, Sales Proposals, Marketing, Routine legal texts, and much else that is the routine life of an average business office seems unlikely to present a challenge, leading to massively reduced costs and much faster cycle times as the slow and expensive human processing is largely removed.

I can’t help thinking that there’s a place for Maslow’s hierarchy of needs here. In his excellent book “Transcend” Scott Barry Kaufman divides the needs neatly into those that are about security, and those that are about personal growth. I suspect that whilst the security elements of our existence shown in this diagram from his book are very open to being picked up by AI, the growth elements – exploration, love and purpose will remain far more resistant to incursion by technology.

It asks the question then, of how will be build the very human, connective qualities of exploration, love, and purpose into the work we choose to do? Will it bring the arts and humanities agendas more to the forefront, as the jobs demanding STEM subjects become more concentrated into fewer, more highly qualified, and specialised people? How might we use technology to maximise the amount of energy we can put into exploration, love, and purpose whatever the nature of our work?

Moving “pull” to the centre of our work will require effort – it flies in the face of ten generations where it was increasingly side-lined in favour of the skills needed for industrialisation. It suggests many aspects of our education and training sector may face radical re-alignment as our humanity becomes a greater factor in much of our “non– transactional” commerce. Dan Pink was maybe quite prescient when he wrote a few years ago that “to sell is human.”

But perhaps, above all, is the fact that we just don’t know how this shift will pan out. It is too unpredictable to plan, and so complex that it could follow many different directions. So maybe the biggest change will be to the conversations we have, as we seek to understand what is happening around us as this transition gathers pace. A move away from the efficient, agenda driven, time constrained performance focused meetings to exploratory, agenda free, curiosity driven deep dialogues grounded in relationships, humility and vulnerability that will shine a light on the changes we need to embrace.

How big a change will that be? How will we start? What is the risk of not trying?

I don’t know either – but the question is important enough for me to make it my main focus for 2022.

In the meantime, I wish you a peaceful, quiet, reflective and joyous run up to the end of this year, and our first tentative steps into the tough challenges of 2022.

A challenge is tough when it is complex in three ways.

A challenge is dynamically complex when cause and effect are interdependent and far apart in space and time; such challenges cannot successfully be addressed piece by piece, but only by seeing the system as a whole.

A challenge is socially complex when the actors involved have different perspectives and interests; such challenges cannot successfully be addressed by experts or authorities, but only with the engagement of the actors themselves.

And a challenge is generatively complex when its future is fundamentally unfamiliar and undetermined,

Such challenges cannot successfully be addressed by applying “best practice” solutions from the past, but only by growing new, “next practice” solutions.

Excerpt from: “Power and Love: A Theory and Practice of Social Change” by Adam Kahane.

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