Sawubona

Our culture encourages external validation. School grades, better degrees, promotion, pay rises, likes.

It reinforces a dependency on other people, and often people we would not choose to be dependent on.

Its opposite is internal validation. The stuff of soul and self. The warmth that is generated from doing things we love, that we are striving for mastery in. The knowledge that in some small way, we are making a unique contribution to something that matters to us.

This contribution may never be externally validated, and that doesn’t matter. We know, and our community knows.

There is nothing wrong with external validation, unless it is sought at the expense of internal validation. If that happens, we hollow out and become some sort of zombie.

We are at an important inflection point when it comes to how we work.

The way most businesses are structured creates the conditions that encourage us down the zombie road. When shareholder returns are given not just priority, but near exclusive focus, we end up paying lip service to people’s internal validation.

We talk glibly about “engagement”, but it easily becomes yet another lag indicator like margins, and even if the intent is there we look at the metric not sense the emotion.

We use what psychologists term affective empathy (we get upset when employees get upset) but not cognitive empathy (identifying with and sensing how they feel)

As AI absorbs more and more of the routine work, perceived empathy and humanity becomes ever more critical at every level and boundary-employees, partners, customers and community.

Sawubona. It’s an African Zulu greeting that means “I see you.” It has a long oral history and it means more that our traditional “hello.” It says, “I see your personality. I see your humanity. I see your dignity and respect.”

It resonates rather more than “your call is very important to us”

Sawubona is not a “skill”, it’s a way of being in the world. If we want our businesses to succeed in the world that is emerging, we should learn from that.

The Business Weather

One of the quietest but biggest advances we have made in forecasting is the weather. A few years ago, forecasting accuracy was laughable beyond even a couple of days. Now, we can be pretty confident up to around five days, and get a useful, if less accurate predictions for up to a couple of weeks.

The difficulty comes of course from complexity. Chaos theory was triggered by the change in weather forecast accuracy caused by recording data at five rather than six decimal places. Driven by that realisation, and aided by huge advances in AI and machine learning, we are where we are today.

As the business environment becomes ever more connected, and as a result, ever more complex, we face similar challenges. Our ability to forecast is heavily foreshortened. We used to write five year plans; today five months is a challenge.

We have to adapt, and to do that I believe we need to look not to forecasting technology, but to ourselves. If we accept that our forecasts are at best short term templates, and not reliable, we have to look to how we relate to these forecasts.

If we stick to our traditional habit of making forecasts, setting goals, and going for them regardless we end up blind to the threats and opportunities that will emerge around us.

We need, above all else, to consider the human aspect. Hierarchies, formal processes, bureaucracies and the like do not serve us well. What becomes important are the depth and honesty of our relationships, a deep understanding and sensing of what is happening in the markets we serve, our agility – freedom to move with as little encumbrance as as we can manage; making sure those who need to make decisions – those at the customer interface – can do so without delay and lastly, a really clear focus, understood by all, as to what needs to be achieved.

If we do this, we can not only cope with complexity, but thrive on it. It requires though big changes in our cultures and structures. Old ideas of hierarchical status, rank and ego have to go, and purpose, ownership and personal commitment have to be central.

Things will not “go back to normal”.

We have to start. Each one of us.

Heft

I find it an attractive word. With its origin in Anglo Saxon, it is normally used in terms of weight, or effort but there is another very specific use in terms of animals and people, hefted, which is used to describe the relationship between them and the land they live on. Hefted flocks are those that are so inextricably linked with the land they live on that they cannot be relocated.

In the past, up until the industrial revolution, most of us were hefted to where we were born. A function of generations past living on the same land, and the interdependent relationships that developed, we were woven into where we lived. The movement of people from economic necessity as the economy moved from agrarian to industrial broke that bond for most of us.

I came across the term in “The Shepherd’s Life” by James Rebanks. A beautifully written account of life in the Lake District through the eyes of one remarkable man, it opens with definitions of hefted, and goes on to recount how it defines his life and the society of which he is part.

What struck me most was perhaps what we have lost. When our families lost that hefted relationship with the land they lived on, what did they cling to? Rebanks doesn’t mention purpose or values right until the end of the book, and then only in terms of discovering the power of what was already present. The society of which he is part didn’t have to go looking for them, they were part of who they are, and released through their everyday work. I suspect the idea that you might have to define purpose or make a values statement would be ridiculous to them

So, in our modern day search for purpose and values, perhaps we are starting at the wrong end. Maybe we discover our purpose and values by what we don’t do as we work our way through life (and sometimes from what we do and later regret). Maybe we are born with purpose and have our values inculcated whilst very young, only to risk losing sight of them as we allow ourselves to be shaped by the expectations of others.

And equally, perhaps the same is true of the businesses we start. They are rarely started for money, but rather in an attempt to bring something into being. The primacy of money comes later, in the involvement of others and normally at a point when we have enough money from a degree of success to meet or reasonable needs. I’m not talking millions.

I suspect one definition of hell is the realisation of the impact on others of decisions we may have made in the pursuit of money we don’t really need.

When it comes to how we live and work, I suspect those who are happiest are hefted to something important, even if they cannot articulate precisely what it is. It shows up in how they live their lives and deal with others.