Reflections 30th January

On my mind this week


Origin: Abstrahere. Latin. To drag away, detach, pull away, divert.

I’m not quite sure what triggered it, but as I reflected on what is happening around us to our businesses, communities and politics, the idea of abstraction kept surfacing. The sense that we are continually deconstructing things in order to focus on their parts, often in to make them more efficient.

I think the trigger may have been the purchase of Raleigh, an iconic local bike brand, by KKR, of “Barbarians at the Gate” fame. Raleigh was founded by Woodhead and Angois in Nottingham in 1885, and is one of the oldest bicycle companies in the world. After being acquired by Frank Bowden in December 1888, it became The Raleigh Cycle Company, which was registered as a limited liability company in January 1889. By 1913, it was the largest bicycle manufacturing company in the world.

Abstraction has seen it pass through many hands, most recently Dutch company Accell, until finding its way into the hands of KKR. There are of course many reasons, from circumstance, poor management and financial opportunism but the end result is a local company abstracted to a brand name with a history but little local substance.

The same is true of course for just about all large organizations. Scale and abstraction go hand in hand as efficiency and access is achieved through complex supply chains that optimise costs. The result is that we rarely see or understand the substance of the brands we buy. We access a small part of a long chain of linked processes, so we do not have a relationship with a bank, or a supermarket, or a car manufacturer, but rather a customer services agent (or more likely an algorithm), a local distribution centre, or a sales and servicing hub. There is no substance to the relationship.

This is not some nostalgic whinge, but more a recognition of the inevitable consequence of the search for growth, and the resultant concentration of power and wealth in a few large organizations. We are a long way from the entities that own the creators of what we buy and use. The question is more one of the degree to which a business can be abstracted before it loses the substance of its identity and becomes virtual, and no more than a temporary story that is easily changed or discredited.

I suspect that we have already seen the start of this, as ever longer and more complex supply chains encountered a combination of the pandemic, and a catalyst of a badly parked boat in the Suez Canal. Almost instantly just in time processes failed, containers found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time and shipping costs have soared by over 500%. In parallel, the mindless routine that was commuting has for many dislocated the relationship with employers as working from home has moved from contingency to practice, and the basis for working with people we may never meet in person, in an organisation with no corner office.

The beauty of abstracts is that we can read into them what we want, but that’s not so good if you’re a highly abstracted brand trying to sell a story that in reality has little substance. Which is, of course, a wonderful opportunity right now. we can do better, and create something tangible.

Synonyms of abstraction include “mind’s eye,” “delusion” and “chimera.” Antonyms, their opposites, include “tangible”, “restoration”, “observation” and “attention.”

This seems like a good time for us as individuals, and businesses, to be in the business of putting substance back into the stories we have created. To be accessible, identifiable, knowledgeable entities with agency and commitment. The polar opposites of models that tell us that “our agents are unusually busy right now” at three o clock in the morning, or who clearly have no enthusiasm with the company they work for. It is not a time to be working for those who regard employees leaving for higher pay disloyal, but regard making people redundant sensible business.

Pay is called ‘compensation” for a reason. It’s what you get for giving up what you could otherwise be.

Along the journey to abstraction, relationships became engagement scores and data, when in fact they are the “special attractors” around which new constructions form in the chaos that the pandemic has catalysed.

This is a really good time to own your work, rather than rent it. To be a New Artisan, as for things that matter, virtual will not do.


I think one of the challenges as we abstract businesses to achieve scale is the proportion of noise to signal, or bureaucrats to makers. Abstraction creates advisers, consultants, managers, and others who do not actually make anything. Often they are filling what David Graeber described as “Bullshit Jobs”

I think perhaps the opposite of the Bullshit Job is the New Artisan, and as comparison, here is an example of what I think is a philosophy with absolutely no added BS, and a joy in its own right.

Pivotal Mental States

At a time when we need to be open to thinking differently, I liked this article from Aeon Magazine.

An Idea that is following me around…

Technical Debt

John Morley brought up the subject with me in one of our regular calls, and it has triggered a train of thought. (From Wikipedia) – In software development, technical debt is the implied cost of additional rework caused by choosing an easy solution now instead of using a better approach that would take longer. As with monetary debt, if technical debt is not repaid, it can accumulate “interest”, making it harder to implement changes

It’s not just software, is it? In fact, I suspect software is a minor issue. I think we incur this type of debt every time we choose a PowerPoint template, a consultant’s “Growth Solution” and almost anything where we apply something without understanding – really understanding – how it works.

We operate in complex system environments. Every action we take has consequences, and the less we understand the possible implications of what we are doing, the more those consequences are going to surprise us.

A Quote that resonated

“The nature of illusion is that it’s designed to make you feel good. About yourself, about your country, about where you’re going – in that sense it functions like a drug. Those who question that illusion are challenged not so much for the veracity of what they say, but for puncturing those feelings.”

Chris Hedges

Changes in the Air

Alongside Carsington Reservoir, Derbyshire

One of the joys of where I live is that you can take a different walk every day for a year. Today, as we approach the end of Janury, I walked round Carsington Reservoir and detected a schange in the air. Hard to describe, and no data, but a real sense of something stirring, not at all abstract.

We can choose what comes next for us, whatever happens.

Have a great week.

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