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What happens when “Science” gets lost?

There is something understandable, and at the same time repellent about the Government’s defence of its performance in the pandemic that it was “following the science”.

It is understandable because the pandemic was new, complex and fast, and repellent because it displays a weakness based on a fear of failure. It promotes management over leadership, when we need leadership.

Steve Jobs’ early mentor, Mike Markkula, advised him to follow three principles. The first two were empathy and focus; so far, so good. The third was to impute. What a great word. As Shane Parrish describes it, “what does something signal when you first see it? What does it imply?”

This is where leadership begins, and management ends. Imagination, judgement and risk taking. No evidence, just balls.

Right now, science doesn’t know. We are in a time of the “unknown unknowns.” We need all our senses.

Stephen Hay pointed me at Tom van Gelder’s work. He identifies our twelve senses:

  • our body: the senses of touch, of life, of movement, of balance
  • the external world: smell, taste, sight, temperature
  • the immaterial, spiritual world: hearing, speech, thought, ego

Not a mention of science. 

Science is a gift and a powerful ally, but it has its limits. It is not something we can hide behind. In today’s conditions, when science gets lost, our humanity has to step up. We need to dance with the immaterial to sense our way forward.

It is scary, the stuff of leadership. That is why it is hard to do, and why we respect it. It is not a qaulification, it is a quality born of effort and integrity.

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The beauty of constraints

“All you have is what you do, everything else is in your head”


One of the constant effects of social media is a continuous exhortation to push our boundaries, stretch ourselves, and accept no limits. But without the support of people we know, who are there to catch us when we stumble or cheer when we hurdle, it’s a dangerous game. There’s a fine line between risk-taking and recklessness; it’s a fact that online gambling depends upon.

Constraints are our friends. They define the finite game we are playing today in the context of the infinite game that is life. Once we identify a boundary, we have something to push against. Lev Vygotsky termed it “the zone of proximal development”, or ZPD. It defines that area of maximum learning just beyond what we are comfortable with and what might break us. Learning, after all, is not a leap; it’s a relentless climb.

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by huge challenges, from climate change to politics, to personal issues. The answer is not to “accept no limits” but instead to set our limits beyond what we are comfortable with but can see. Compound small achievements.

Progress is determined by what we do, not what we worry about. 

One foot in front of the other, every day, in the company of friends. 

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Going Bonsai

When “big” is struggling to cope with the shocks sent their way, I’m intrigued by the idea of “bonsai businesses.” Businesses that are perfectly formed yet small enough to handle. It’s just a metaphor, but the Bonsai in my study keeps my attention.

When Heinz glibly tells us to get used to paying more for food, and large businesses are forming disorderly queues in Westminster to persuade the government to intervene in all parts of the extended, fragile business ecosystem they have created, I wonder where all is this might end up. It’s a fascinating thought experiment.

Ever since I worked in the food sector, I have been very conscious of provenance, particularly source and quality. I have an unforgettable memory of being told how much extra margin we could make using “mechanically recovered meat” in products. MRM is a process of stripping the final remnants of meat of a carcase using heat and pressure, which I will not describe further in deference to your breakfast. It was not just the product itself I found repellent; it was the mindset behind it. 

If we were prepared to put this into the product, what other corners might we cut? One of the essential questions I have always carried with me is whether I am prepared to tell my children and grandchildren what I do. This failed by a very, very big margin. This type of thinking, though, is a consequence of a scale mindset. The additional margin is tiny, and making a return of the expensive equipment required high volumes, and preferably not knowing any of your customers personally. 

My local butcher wouldn’t even think of it. He knows where his meat comes from – from local farmers he knows personally, and his added value products – pies and the like are also made locally by people he knows in small units. His reputation is critically dependant on local custom, and whilst he is more expensive than the supermarket, he makes an excellent living. He also will not be affected by shortages of HGV drivers, import challenges, or a shortage of cheap foreign labour. 

If I work at it and am prepared to consume less but better, I can ensure that I am aware of the provenance of the majority of everything from my shoes and clothing through my food and many other items. It means changing my habits and assumptions and means I will be supporting a forest of bonsai businesses, dramatically reducing food miles and recycling money into my local economy. 

It is, of course, a hugely privileged position that many people would find difficult to follow, but the principle is sound, and the question becomes, how do we make it more accessible? 

When we are told that we have to accept highly marketed mediocre products because their big, extensive ecosystem based on lean six sigma thinking isn’t working, it’s probably time to rethink. 

All around us right now are bonsai businesses that need our support. They do not have dividend hungry shareholders or head offices, egotistical nomadic executives, and hordes of efficiency consultants. Instead, they do what they do because they choose to, with pride, and get satisfaction from knowing their customers. They provide community glue.

We cannot replace the big businesses that the cosy relationship between business and politicians has created overnight. Still, we can make choices and give people with an “MRM mindset” pause for thought. I find the idea attractive.

It’s a big small step, going Bonsai.