The Power of Pragmatism

Photo by Lisa Baker on Unsplash

I don’t plan what I blog to follow a particular theme, but sometimes, I notice one emerging. It is almost always of course something that has been hovering just below the surface, waiting for an opportunity to elbow its way into my consciousness, and it’s no less welcome for that.

This time last week, I wrote about “fit for purpose” considering how, in the interests of efficiency, we train and educate ourselves into relatively narrow areas of interest. On Sunday, I considered the idea of “dissolving organisations,” and the difficulty they have in keeping up with rapidly changing situations, owing to their natural desire for survival doing what they have come to know best.

If we train people, ourselves included, to thrive within organisations that our business ecosystem evolution is making obsolescent not just within our lifetimes, but increasing several times within our lifetimes, how do we respond?

It’s an uncomfortable question; we like certainty in our lives, and the organisations we work for crave it. Certainty allows us to plan, set strategies, confidently service debt and map out our futures.

The challenge is that certainty has always been an illusion that we tamed by telling ourselves stories about the future, and those stories are becoming ever more chaotic and frightening. Just as we have been taking climate change as something serious to be dealt with as we exit this phase of the pandemic, up pops a very disenchanted dictator with a nuclear button within reach who changes our existential timescales from decades to weeks. And, like climate change, it’s not as though we couldn’t see it on the horizon as this blog by Chuck Spinney points out (HF to Chet Richards, my best source of all things John Boyd, for highlighting it)

So how do we cope with this turbulence? My own view is a threefold approach:

Stop outsourcing our curiosity to others – whether they are running organisations, or the country. We have vast amounts of information available to us, and the cognitive and sensate abilities to absorb it, analyse it and select what’s important to us. We need to do the hard and uncomfortable work.

Validate what is important to us. We are all “Wilfully Blind.” I have found the best way to avoid that is checking them out with people we trust to tell us uncomfortable truths. It is what we have been doing at Originize for a couple of years now, and we know how powerful it is. This five minute video of Margaret Heffernan, who coined the term “wilful blindness,” says it more powerfully than I can.

Be pragmatic. Pragmatism is defined as”an approach that evaluates theories or beliefs in terms of the success of their practical application.” Pragmatism in organisations is difficult because, often, it means letting go of our pet theories, our roles, our beliefs and even our fears in order to take a step forward towards something useful.

Which brings us to the place data cannot reach. Our emotions, intuition and sense of direction. I know we are all supposed to have a clearly defined sense of purpose, and well defined values, but in my experience few of us do, and those that we do hold continue to evolve. At 71, I find my values have been pretty constant, although my articulation of them has changed the more I have had to test them, and as for my sense of purpose – that has changed as my experience and responsibilities have changed, and my short term priorities of paying mortgages and looking after family have been supplanted through my attention to my responsibilities for the world they, and my grandchildren are growing up in. I have no problem with that – I think we all have a better sense of direction than destination. The path is made by walking, as Antonio Machado pointed out.

These are strange, and if we allow them to be, frightening times. I was trained as an officer in the Royal Air Force during the cold war, when the language we are hearing now was everyday and I find it desperately sad we seem to be going full circle because those who lead have chosen dogma instead of a sesne of direction and pragmatism. The strong likelihood is that we will get through this, and return to the seemingly more mundane issues of running businesses in a time of the systemic collapse of consumption based capitalism. It is not, of course mundane.

The foundation of pragmatism is having a personal sense of direction. Not one given to us by others, not annual budgets or political rhetoric, one that is ours, and ours alone, informed by our heart and soul, neither of which have any respect for data.

We do not need an eight figure map reference, just that sense of direction, so that our senses can check what our logic is telling us, and enable the pragmatism of making our own path, by walking, one step at a time.

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