Wonderfully, Gloriously, Messy.

There was a time, not so long ago, when things were tidy. We could set an objective, create a plan, set milestones, and track progress all the way to a result we could assess against the target we had set ourselves. The stuff of KPI, ROI, and lots of other three letter performance-based acronyms.

We could allocate people and choose teams the same way. Resumés full of relevant experience, validated by psychometrics, supported by references. Business as Rubik’s cube. Twiddle with skill, get the right bits in the right place, solve the problem, move on to the next one. Stay out of corporate Jail (Special Projects). Pass Go. Collect bonus.

That was then, this is now and how quickly things change. Things were changing quickly enough anyway, but the pandemic seems to have moved us to warp speed and, as Tennyson observed in Morte d”Arthur

 “The old order changeth, yielding place to new. And God fulfils Himself in many ways. Lest one good custom should corrupt the world”.

The latest results of Robert Walters, a recruitment firm, posted on the BBC website give a hint a what is going on. Talent deserts. £150,000 starting salaries for recent law graduates. People moving jobs, particularly in tech, for salary increases between 15% and 50%. Real disturbance where the Great Resignation meets the demand for talent. Tidy, quickly replaced by Wonderfully, Gloriously, Messy.

What, I wonder, does that mean for us? Both during the current messiness, and whatever it might look like, whenever, and however, things look as the turbulence decreases (as it will, it always does,) even if we have no idea when.

In Tidyland, it used to be we could have a vision, set some goals, define a plan and take action, mapping as we went. But in Messyland, it doesn’t seem to work like that. The goals we set change our understanding of the vision, and the actions we take affect the goals we set, and the plan becomes that crumpled piece of paper to be found in the Boardroom bin.

Sunil Malhotra, a constant source of wisdom, posted the other day a quote from Krishnamurti that gave me pause:

“I do not believe in leadership. I think the very idea of leading somebody is antisocial, anti-spiritual.” 

The conventional wisdom during the industrial era has had it that if we learn leadership skills, people will follow. That was their job, and duty. Tidy.

As the old order changeth, perhaps it is less about leadership skills, and more about leadership qualities – integrity, character, consistency, courage, purpose – all of which feature in leadership courses, none of which can be trained. It is also that place where the science of data bumps into the more spiritual awareness of purpose. Our businesses, and their customers, are about far more than logic and relative utility. They buy not just what we make or the service we provide; they buy who we are and why we do it. Clever branding may fool them for a while, but in the end authenticity, like murder, will out.

For those that understand and harness these qualities however, messy is a wonderful place full of opportunity. They do not need linear, because they thrive on muddling through, in the confidence that what they see, sense, understand and wonder are in service of where they need to go, even when they are not quite sure where that is. They do not rely on performance appraisals as much as feeling grounded in what they are doing. More than a problem for managers one would think.( A passing thought – do algorithms get performance appraisals?)

As we get going in ’22, and watch with fascination and bemusement the complex unintended consequences of visa processes, well-meaning parties, and all manner of other decisions whose roots spread far and wide into areas we had not expected, I suggest we need to get comfortable with messy. And the best way to be comfortable with messy is to be wholly attached to, take pleasure in, and be curious about what we do. If we are, messy is a gift. If we’re not, it’s a nightmare.

There are those for whom this relationship is a given. They are those with callings, vocations, and other terms that denote love of what they do for it’s own sake as much as, probably more than, the money it pays. It’s about work as craft. I think of them as New Artisans, and together with a few others, I’m exploring who they are, where they are, and what they need to thrive because, in messy times, we need these creative souls.

Creative persons differ from one another in a variety of ways, but in one respect they are unanimous. They all love what they do. It is not hope of achieving fame or making money that drives them: rather, it is the opportunity to do the work that they enjoy doing.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Money has it’s limits. Individuality does not.


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