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The raw material of change

Photo by Regiane Tosatti on

We often have a curious approach to change. We involve people from outside the business to bring along a template and force people into something that doesn’t fit through several terrabytes of PowerPoint slides, much broadcasting of encouraging slogans, and powerful incentives. A sort of HR “shock and awe”.

We do it like that because we are impatient, and want measurable change quickly and efficiently. It doesn’t of course happen like that. Change happens at it’s own pace, takes its own direction and will not be told. If we force it into a template, its rather like casting a pot rather than throwing it. It’s fast, cheap and fragile, with no direct human involvement. The first sign of frost and it cracks.

If we want to harness change we have to work with it in the same way an artisan potter works with the clay. The relationship is tactile, and is a form of dialogue with the raw material. The end result is strong, unique, and beautiful. What results is a form of collaboration – part what the potter envisaged, and part what the clay wants to be.

I don’t think it matters whether the raw material is clay, wood, or people. Change is an art form and a similar collaboration – part what the designer wants, and part what the material wants, with every result unique.

Mass production templates are fine if we want disposable cheap commodities that we are willing to abandon. If, however, we want to have something of lasting beauty we need understand the raw material, respect it and craft it. We need to get hands on and involved, and be accountable for the results.

Change is more powerful than we are.

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The Volvo Effect

I liked Volvos when I was a young, which was about as uncool as it was possible to get in a world of testosterone fuelled desire for Maseratis, Ferarris and E-Types. There was something about its uncompromising approach to safety above design or performance. You got the impression that it could get hit by a meteorite, and all it might need was a respray. I never had one then, although I did recently – a Volvo S90, about the size of a small apartment, and a wonderful car. I really liked it, but then came over all ecological. When they go electric, I’ll most likely go back.

This though, is not about cars rather than about unfashionable priorities, and a commitment to an ideal. Volvo’s principles were clear and they did not compromise them in order to attract more customers. They set out their stall, and accepted that there were those who didn’t like them. Then, as they learned, they started making cars more people wanted, They combined aesthetic and performance appeal with the bedrock of their safety values, and have become a major brand sat alongside Mercedes and BMW on equal, and I think superior terms going forward. It is I suspect easier to add performance to safety in people’s minds than it is to add safety to performance.

Let’s move along to Climate Change, Equality, Employee health and Covid 19. There are I think many parallels. There are companies out there who have been taking these issues seriously for a while, not because they are fashionable but because it’s part of who they are. People like Patagonia, Xero, Riverside Organic and many smaller, local companies not in thrall to an obsolete “shareholder value” ethic.

It is clear that Covid19 is only the start of the material impact of the change we’re in. Covid itself is here to stay, and whilst we will mitigate it’s impact it is a reminder that the planet has its own way of mitigating the damage we cause. We cannot afford to go back to thoughtless mass travel, particularly when we know there are good technology based alternatives. We cannot afford thoughtless consumption and inequality if we are to leave an ecosystem for our children to appreciate and enjoy.

This opens up whole new horizons for enterprises to marry genuine values to new offerings, from currencies (Seeds rather than Bitcoin) to businesses to politics. We will not get there in one go – like anything organic they do not present themselves fully grown, but evolve as they grow. They rarely end up how we think we will when we set out, but importantly, like Volvo, they carry the essential DNA of their values into whatever they become.

I think the same is true of us. We are not the children or the servants of the organisations we work for. We have a choice. Not immediately maybe – the ties of mortgages, debt, and a consumer lifestyle are powerful, but they are still choices. We need to get our heads round that. Several generations of industrial culture are deeply embedded.

Covid19 has shown us how we can adapt when we need to. It would a shame to stop now, when we are already moving. Healthy people on a healthy planet is not a tag line, it’s a necessity.

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Artisans, Administrators and Attitudes to Risk.

Image: Wired

Risk is always about probabilities and appetite. In part it’s determined by personal attitude, but in an industrial society probably more often by the role we fill.

Administrators and bureaucrats are paid to be risk averse, and for them the appearance of risk is a black mark. They may have a hands off relationship with risk – it is unlikely to affect them physically – but it’s occurrence on their watch is likely to lead being appointed to the equivalent of paper clip administrator in some far flung outpost of the organisation that few have heard of. We do not want administrators to take risks, we want them to extract every last ounce of efficiency from what we understand and believe we can control. An administrator with an appetite for risk will have a very short career and most likely a spectacular finale to it.

For an artisan however, risk is lifeblood. They are not interested in doing more of the same. whatever they do they are always pushing at the edges of what they understand – whether that is what they create, how they market it, how they price it, or who they work with (or for). Every aspect of what they do is governed by wanting to do it a little better, all the time. They are not interested in “Unicorns”, but they do know that if they can improve by 1% a day, in a year they will be thirty seven times better than they are today. The price they pay is risk. It might not work, and in fact it might blow up in their face. Artisans understand that.

And there lies the difference. The administrator is better served in the short term by efficiently managing something that declines by one percent a day, even though the converse applies – in a year, there will be nothing left, and that is someone else’s responsibility. It’s “not their fault”

The artisan accepts the risk in pursuit of what is important to them.

Right now, we are too often led by those who want to administrate the way out of the pandemic. The signs are often clear, and often expressed in money. The defence I heard this morning on the school meals fiasco is that “we’ve allocated £15m to the programme” – as though the money, somehow, knows what to do.

If we glance behind the populist rhetoric of our politicans, and listen to those who understand the physics of pandemics, it’s clear that restrictions will be with us until at least the end of this year, and very likely next. Certainly on a reducing basis (not allowing for spikes and mutations), but with us none the less. For us, as individuals it is not a case of adapting, it is a case of rethinking how we work and who we work for.

It is difficult to conceive of a large artisianal organisation. Once a business has more than a hundred employees, the administrators emerge as a vital element. The end result though in times of volatility is that the organisation will move more slowly than its environment, and that will only go one way. Speed is the only variable.

Whether we like it or not, the future will remain uncertain. it represents risk and opportunity. How we engage with that is a choice.

Administrator, or Artisan?