On my Mind
In a week that has seen the normally submerged culture of our politics exposed, the “follow the science” approach to the pandemic heaved overboard in order to provide material for “hero headlines” and the scary stand offs between Russia and NATO I’ve found myself thinking about collaboration.
It’s another one of those words that often gets used carelessly, thrown into conversation as flavouring when we want to get something done with somebody else. It sounds collegiate, co-operative and easy – all friends together pursuing common cause.
I don’t think it is. In a society hallmarked by individualism, competition, and chronic uncertainty and a constant quest for “more,” renders us blind. I suggest real collaboration is a route of last resort for those who believe they can plan and forecast their way through life in a world that doesn’t work like that. Convening and collaborating is excruciatingly hard work, full of risk, and requiring courage and dedication by all concerned.
The most thoughtful work on collaboration I have encountered is from Adam Kahane, who has a long history of sitting in the middle of conflict, from the earliest days of South Africa’s transition under Nelson Mandela, to negotiations with South American Drug Cartels – all areas where, when not in the meeting room, the collaborators were often plotting to kill each other.
His basic proposition is that in getting what we want we have four options; if we have enough power to force our way on others then that is legitimate (not necessarily moral or ethical – that’s a different discussion altogether). If we don’t have that power, we have two choices – to put up with the situation we find ourselves in, or to leave the stage. If we can’t or won’t leave the stage, and we can’t put up with the situation, and we don’t have the force to change things, we’re left with collaboration, most likely with people we do not like or trust.
The basis of his approach to resolution is to ask a simple, but profound question – what might happen here? – not should, or want, but might. All options are open, from the generative to the destructive. With those on the table, there is then a choice – what do we want to happen? As this inevitably involves compromise, sacrifice, conflict and just about every other available emotion, it is hard work.
He brings it down to two strategies – power, and love. For him, collaboration is not about the creation of some appealing vision and trading, it is about something altogether more organic. It involves those concerned exercising their power, until it is exhausted, and their ends are not reached – at which point it becomes about exercising love – open, generous, compassionate, empathetic love in order to bring new possibilities into focus. These approaches alternate, like breathing in and out, making progress, inch by inch, until a new understanding emerges. I’ve put links to his work, and a video, further down this post.
The reason collaboration has been front of mind for me is not the dispiriting, even shameful and certainly embarrassing self-interest on display in our politics here in the U.K, but something altogether more important – climate change, and in particular, how do we collaborate with all the other entities who call our planet home?
Arguably, we have those who have the power to get their way in a quest for perpetual growth en route to extinction, but if we work on the basis that’s not the best idea, we have some serious collaboration on our hands, and to pursue that, we need our humanity to take centre stage.
Which is perhaps the major challenge. I read an observation during the week (which, irritatingly, I cannot now locate) that corporates offer us effective representations of the power of artificial intelligence. We have given them legal personhood, but not consciousness, with the result that despite a good understanding of the impact of increasing carbon emissions and other aspects of our extraction of finite resources over half a century ago, here we are today, with those responsible for continuing it pursuing their objectives regardless. It seems remarkably prescient of AI briefed by humans in pursuit of limited objectives.
So what, I wonder are we to do with our abundance of native, natural intelligence hard wired to our sense of wonder and awe? Even as AI gets more advanced in pursuit of the interests of a few, what are the rest of us to do with our heritage in the service of our children and the rest of the occupants of the planet? It seems like a good time to grasp the collaboration nettle.
The beauty of collaboration of course is that we don’t need politicians or corporates the way we used to when the sheer logistics of communication were different and a major constraint. Now, if we choose (and are prepared to take the risk and make the sacrifice) we can work with who we want, where we want, on what we want. We can make a choice to look after the small bit of the planet we find ourselves on, and those we share it with. We can use our original intelligence – cognitive, but also emotional and spiritual to make the connections we need.
Nobody has yet, to my knowledge, come up with how we generate artificial wisdom.
It is easy to go all Hippy on this, but I think what we face is fundamental. If we are not prepared to put up with what is happening to us, and we’re not prepared to leave, then we must collaborate with where the power resides – and that is the planet, not those who have temporary, fragile positions in society resulting from a century or so of the blind foolishness of planetary exploitation.
It starts with the small decisions we make. What to buy, who we buy it from and why, how we live, who we associate with. It’s about taking responsibility, and accepting that, whilst we do not know how this will turn out we have to start the hard work of long term collaboration in the belief that the effort will provide its own reward.
A particularly powerful post by Laurence Barratt caught my eye this week. Those of us who coach or mentor take risks when we practice. Like collaboration, coaching is not soft, fluffy nor easy. we have skin in the game, and the responsibility that involves.
The Monocle Book of Entrepreurs. Because that’s the direction we are all heading in, like it or not as technology does complicated better than we do. The future is complex and messy – ideal for humans.
Hope is not Optimism. Nor is it a strategy, but it is a powerful ally. Great article from Aeon Magazine.
Adam Kahane’s books are all worth reading, and I find “Power and Love” particularly powerful. Here’s a 20 min video that will give you an idea. I recommend the book.
There are less than 3% of ancient forests left in the USA. A beautiful 3 min video of people drawing attention to that.
In this celebration of one of Britain’s best-loved artists, the illustrator and author Sir Quentin Blake tells the story of his 70-year-long career in his own words and with his own pictures. Just Brilliant.(Needs BBC iPlayer)
My Book of the Month.
This is one of those books that contains enormous wisdom in just a few pages. A book for these times by an economist with a sense of humour.
“Good decision making is pragmatic and eclectic. Oblique approaches rely on a toolkit of models and narratives rather han any single account. To fit the world into a single model or narrative fails to acknowledge the universality of uncertainty and complexity.” Amen to that…