Reflections 27th February

Goldsworthy, Andy; Taking a Wall for a Walk; The Forestry Commission; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/taking-a-wall-for-a-walk-262275

On my mind this week

Dissolving Organisations

In her book “Big Magic” Elizabeth Gilbert floats the idea that we don’t have ideas; but rather that they are already out there looking for hosts. If they land with us, and we don’t do anything with them, they go and find somebody else. I like the imagery of that.

I think the applies to organisations. They spring into life on the back of a founders idea, and for a while are a hive of energy and creativity powered by that idea. They attract the people they need, and those people shape the business. The organisation is in effect a tool being used by those who are crafting the business. The founders and their teams are close to the market, they have emotional and financial ‘skin in the game.’ They think, and sense the business into existence in the way that a furniture maker works with a piece of wood via a relationship between wood, the idea of the maker, and the tools they choose.

And then, somewhere along the way, things change. The business becomes successful, attracts investors or gets acquired, and finds itself wrapped in everything from policies to vision statements that the founders never needed. The organisation morphs from being a tool used with skill and passion by the founders to something whose rôle is to maximise earnings for those not involved in the business. Employees morph from crafters to tools, and the organisation from servant to master. The energy of the idea goes to find someone else.

So what, I wonder might that imply as technology becomes more and more capable of doing the routine work done in organisations, from sales support to finance to strategy? Anything in fact that is data-driven. It seems probable that it will super empower a few skilled individuals, whilst replacing or further disempowering large numbers of those currently doing the day to day routine.

In the emerging dance between capital, technology and talent, all of which are highly mobile, what is the future of the organisation? I find it hard to imagine there will be much room for mediocrity; those that rely on an obsolete model of central control of both talent and strategy that is rapidly becoming unviable. No amount of HR panaceas will change that.

At a time when organisational lifespans are reducing (McKinsey believes that, in 2027, 75% of the companies currently quoted on the S&P 500 will have disappeared) and M&A has a notoriously high failure rate (HBS state that companies spend more than $2 trillion on acquisitions every year, yet the M&A failure rate is between 70% and 90%) it seems quite possible that organisations might become temporary projects to exploit market opportunities identified by capital, rather than the institutions we are used to. Corporations are simply to big, too complex, too focused on money to the exclusion of all else, and too clumsy to create what we need next.

The first hundred years of the industrial revolution was characterised by risk takers who mastered the new technologies that were emerging, and who invented, innovated and established markets for what they made. This first phase featured many new companies (there were over a thousand car companies in the USA in 1910) founded by creative artisans. The second phase was the consolidation of those businesses into a few behemoths, and the third phase, which we are in, is the decay of those behemoths in the face of not just new technologies, but the new realities of geopolitics and ways of working.

The combination of geopolitics, pandemics, technology and the realities of the stresses we are putting on the planet is creating fertile ground for a repetition of history, but this time focused on very different values.

So what might that mean for us?

What might we choose to master whose combination of intellectual, physical, emotional and sensate qualities makes technology something that will serve us rather than dictate to us, and which technology alone cannot compete with?

If we master such things, then who would be be willing to work for?

How might these game changers organise? It seems unlikely thay they will tolerate organisations who cannot move as fast as they do.

These questions are an ongoing conversation at New Artisans, where we are focused on the future of individuals more than organisations.

That still leaves the question of the future of organisations themselves.

One of the astonishing characteristics of those few organisations who have changed our world in the last decade – The Facebooks, Apples, Netflix, Alphabets and Amazons if just how few people they employed as they turned markets upside down. It seems likely that they were the vanguard, and that others sectors from healthcare to energy will follow a similar path, even if we don’t know precisely how.

This change, which has started, is difficult to predict in detail, but I think one thing is clear. If we want to thrive, we need to master something useful – somethingthat will empower us to do the work we want to do, with the people we want to do it with. To be part of the few.

Because we have a choice. We can either be the maker using the tools we have available to us with skill and purpose, or we can be the tool being used by somebody else.

Inspiring me this week.

The nature of ideas.

This is a twenty minute overview by Elizabeth Gilbert of her book. Food for thought.

Revisiting the idea of the Factory

As we witness the likely end of traditional factories, and the emergence of their digital successors, we can learn from the evolution of what is disappearing. I’m currently reading this book.

Actualised communities

I liked this article from Gatherfor which revisits Maslow’s hierarchy, and the influence of Indigenous wisdoms on his thinking. In particular, I find the idea that we cannot self actualise as individuals unless we are part of an actualising community. Powerful stuff.

Write letters you’ll never send.

I find conversations , of the sort we have at Originize, valuable in trying to make sense of what is happening. I also find writing letters trying to explain what I’m seeing ewqually valuable. I never post them, although fragments appear here, but they make a difference. I liked this article from Aeon that touches on this.

A Closing Thought

In the early years of the 20th Century, two houses were being built in Vienna. One by the Architect Adolf Loos, the other by Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein was aiming for technical, logical perfection, Loos adapted as he went. This extract from Richard Sennett’s “The Craftsman” has lessons for the way we develop our new businesses.

“Imagine that building an institution is like building a house. If so, you would want to build it in the manner of Loos rather than of Wittgenstein. Instead of generic perfection all at once you would want to make a particular structure that started as a sketch, capable of evolving. Inside this institution, you would want to solve the problem of enfilade as Loos did, inviting movement from one domain to the next. You would engage with difficulty, accident, and constraint. You would avoid resolving specific duties of people in the institution to the point where the duties, like rooms, became self-contained. You would know when it was time to stop institution building, leaving some issues unresolved, and you would leave intact traces of how the institution grew. You want an institution that is alive. You could not build this institution through the relentless pursuit of perfection; this pursuit, Wittgenstein knew, had rendered his house lifeless. Whereas building a school, a business, or a professional practice in the manner of Loos would make an institution of high social quality”

And a high five to Arthur Parry for catalyzing my thoughts from the week into this blog.

Have a great week.

My thoughts and prayers go out to all those in Ukraine dealing with the consequences of those who want things to stay as they imagine they were. The issues the rest of face in reality today pale into insignificance.


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