A Place Between

“Liminal Space” Helen Terry

I think “scale” is one of those concepts that has been repeated so often it has become a mantra. We accept it as something somehow so virtuous and obvious we no longer think about it.  

Scale as a Religion

People make good livings by billing themselves as “scale up experts” and “growth coaches” based on the mantra.

Politicians worship GDP figures as though perpetual growth is a virtue. Quantity has become a badge of status, whether it’s money we cannot possibly spend, or the number of likes we get on social media. It ties to a “greed is good” mentality, even though we wouldn’t describe it that way in polite society.

It started sensibly enough, based on the “theory of the firm” by Ronald Coase, itself part of the movement that gave rise to the practice of scientific management. It was a major breakthrough, and transformed economic performance in the second half of the twentieth century. 

It was however a creature of its time. The conditions that made it powerful have been dissolved in a couple of decades by technology. The friction it was meant to overcome no longer exists to anything like the same extent, but the mantra is so embedded, we scarcely think about it. 

It reminds me in a way of phlogiston theory, developed in the mid 1600’s. It was supposed that the process of combustion generated phlogiston, and in a confined space the build up of phlogiston extinguished the flame. As a theory, it sort of worked for the incurious, and it took the best part of 200 years for it to be debunked in favour of combustion in a closed space is extinguished by what it consumes, rather than what it generates.

I can’t help thinking our approach to growth is the same. Our pursuit of it is consuming what creates it. Left unchecked, it won’t end well.

Not only is the theory of growth questionable, but so is the way we measure it.  

 “GDP measures everything expect what is worthwhile”

Bobby Kennedy

And still we go on. The wrong thing measured in a flawed way. No self respecting scientist would do it like this. GDP in its current form was created as a measure in the same era as Coase’s theory of the firm, and even its creator warned it was a limited measure and should not be used as an indicator of welfare.

It did however suit economists as a theoretical measure, and capitalism as a motivating indicator and so here we are.

Rethinking Scale

Scale isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. One of the most iconic appraisals is E.F, Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful” (Link below) and there are also are many common sense reasons to question it:

  • Scale is about volume, and volume thrives on commodity. Who wants to be a commodity?
  • Scale and democracy rarely work well together. Democracies at their best are small, unique and messy.
  • Scale likes stability, from stock markets to skyscrapers. Both are fragile to shock.
  • We cannot have meaningful relationships with any more than 150 people. What use are 2 million friends on facebook, other than ego?
  • The benefits of scale accrue to a few. The “Matthew Effect”. Not so good if you belong to the many.

Lessons from science

There is nothing either good or bad, other than thinking makes it so.

William Shakespeare

Scale is a feature of systems. It is neither good nor bad.

Ideas scale and viruses scale. Industries scale. The difference is that whilst there is an inexhaustible source of raw material for ideas and viruses, Industries consume very finite resources.

These resources may be natural; minerals, forests, coal, gas and the like. It has been estimated that would need several Earths  – four to six according to source – if we were all to consume like America. 

Or they may be the stuff of our humanity. Our attention, our potential, even our souls. We are encouraged to consume and compare our consumption against others. Its what our current economies depend on. A form of marginal dissatisfaction. An ever present need for more.

Science is showing us, from psychology on mental health to environmental science on climate change. The evidence is incontrovertible, and what it’s based on is what is already happening.

The impact of what might be, if we use imagination, should give us pause for thought.

Whilst we have had other pandemics, and other major disruptors, none  of them, not even world wars have dislocated the world in the way that Covid19 has.

It has exposed fragile supply chains for critical items and business models critically dependent on frivolous consumption – from coffee shops to cheap flights. 

It is emphasising the “froth” nature of our economy, and the fragility of its substantive base. Concepts of monetary value as more important than wellbeing, joy, fairness and meaning.

Like the proponents of phlogiston theory, we have our thinking unknowingly inverted. In the process of excessive consumption, we are not smothering our economies, we are starving them of fuel. Either way though we know the flame will go out unless we find a better theory to follow.

Lessons from Ancient Wisdoms

Whilst none of us can remember dislocation such as we are now experiencing, we have been experiencing major changes as individuals and small groups ever since we emerged as modern humans around 200 thousand years ago, and as larger groups in the 13 thousand or so years since we left the Savannah. 

Perhaps what is new is the never I suspect have all of us known what everybody else is going through at the same time. This is the biggest change we have shared as humanity in real time. 

We can not just learn from how those before us understood major transitions, we can access it. It is part of our heritage and DNA. We are here because out ancestors survived.

One of those wisdoms was how they dealt with transitions – of seasons, from child to adult, and as adults with death. Rites of Passage.

There were different traditions, all of which hold lessons for us. Generally, the experience had three parts – separation from what has been, liminality the “betwixt and between” of uncertainty, learning and insight and integration, emerging into the new holding the lessons of the past and finding new ways.

It feels to me like we entered a liminal phase in our economies and society a little while ago. It is time to take it seriously.

There are many communities who are deeply connected to these old ways. In age of “science” since the enlightenment it has been our habit to dismiss them. We shouldn’t.

Handling Liminality

In this period of uncertainty and widespread existential fear, we tend to run home to mama. We huddle with those of like mind. Scientists analyse the hell out of it. Coaches and Therapists huddle together sharing how they feel. The alienated share conspiracy theories. Hedge fund managers watch on and make bets. All of these groups believe they have the correct perspective, and cannot understand why the clearly uninformed “other” don’t listen.

It’s not good enough. We exist because of the commitment of those who came before us to enabling our time here. We owe no less to those who should follow us, and have a sacred duty to get our proverbial shit together.

Not just by listening to each other, but by admitting individually and as societies we just don’t know how to handle this. All of us have parts of the jigsaw. None of us have the picture on the box lid.

This is a time for unlike minds and an absence of ego. We need the brilliance of modern scientific puzzle solvers and the wisdom of the ancients brought together to synthesise the picture on the box lid.

It’s a challenge. These groups speak different languages, operate in different worlds, and often regard each other with at best scepticism, if not outright hostility.

We are in a precious time. All things are possible

The wisdom traditions, as well as modern quantum thinking understands we are part of a much larger system. We are not separate to the planet, or the universe. We are part of it. And under duress, the larger system will have its say. This is not Gaia’s revenge, it is her tough love.

We need a new form of old leadership. The ideals of the warrior philosopher, the perspective of the alchemists, and the generosity of spirit of the different wisdom traditions.

It’s a tough ask, but do we really want to go back to where we were and where that was taking us?

A place to start…

We need to find a common place, where science and mystery traditions can swap notes with curiosity, not exclude with contempt. 

Here’s a few places where they meet. 

Science and Spirituality

Heros Journey

Uncharted

Who do we choose to be?

Small is beautiful

Try one, or more. Engage with the possible. What’s currently increasingly certain under current rules is not looking to be a good option.

Seasons and Cycles

Whether nature or business, we are governed by the need to adapt to cycles. We welcome each one, knowing there are things we need to do to profit from the next cycle.

Much as we might like it to be different, there is no perpetual summer, and we can’t go from spring to spring without doing the work in autumn and winter.

So why, I wonder do we think business is different? That with a bit of twiddling, we can live perpetually in summer?

The collapse of Thomas Cook is as iconic as it was inevitable. It’s easy to see in retrospect that it needed to recognise that it was autumn ten years ago, and that it was in winter five years ago, but the investors wanted to wear their shorts by the pool, and the managers, instead of telling truth to power, did their best to provide, probably knowing it was futile, but hey, it wasn’t their business……..

Itinerant gardeers can move elsewhere, but the land isn’t going anywhere, and nor are those who value it.

Right now, both meteorologically and economically, winter is coming. We cannot continue to sit by the pool as the climate changes, inequality increases and societies fracture under the pressure.

Perpetual growth on a planet with finite resources is an oxymoron, and their is nothing wrong (in fact everything good) to be done if we stop taxing the system in pursuit of the unneccessary for a while.

It’s a time to prune, dividends as well as trees. To sit together round a warm fire and plan for spring. We cannot make it happen faster, but we can be ready when it comes.

Winter is a season, not failure, and not a problem

Potbound.

It’s Spring. On the one hand I love it – the end of winter, renewal, growth everywhere. On the other hand, it can overwhelm me. Everything grows at once, and there is that sudden rush as we seek to bring our gardens under control. Despite the regularity of Spring, it still takes me by surprise. I had become used to Winter.

It strikes me that in reality, businesses are much the same – and that we can learn a lot from Gardeners.

Businesses have seasons. They sprout from an idea, grow, thrive and then wither.

Gardeners in tune with nature benefit. They do not try to ignore the seasons, they work with them. They variously take cuttings, grow seedlings, graft plants onto new rootstock. Create hybrids.

They fell, prune, and transplant.

They know how to look after the soil.

They know when to harvest, and when to plant.

So why is it in business, we don’t do the same? We often expect our idea to thrive as though it’s always Spring. We let the business grow, but in effect keep it in the same pot – a mixture of products, markets and locations, amplified by processes, protocols and the fertiliser of efficiency. – and the danger is, it becomes potbound.

As the business grows, so do the people in it – ideas, ambitions, confidence, networks. This growth needs room.

But far too many of us have let  let our businesses become potbound. People and ideas find nowhere to grow, so they wither whilst the main plant absorbs all the nourishment, until, inevitably, Autumn arrives.

I’ve often wondered why we are so resistant to letting businesses die back.

I guess there are lots of structural reasons – prime amongst which are that investors and bankers don’t like the idea of a pause in growth, even though that is necessary to gather the resources for the next stage of growth. As owners and employees we become dependent on the produce. We got used to perpetual credit and have become very poor at harvesting and storing so we can overwinter. We fell out of the idea of rhythms and cycles. Which is a mistake.

Generally speaking, we’re nowhere near as good at managing business cycles as gardeners are at managing the seasons.

In the industrial era, the main nutrients for our business was capital and fixed assets – machines and offices.They were easy to measure, difficult to move and could be kept in the asset register.They could be hothoused. They were difficult to transplant successfully – it was an expensive and risky process.

In the connection economy, the main nutrients for our businesses is talent – and that’s as mobile as dandelion seeds. It will take root anywhere conditions permit. It’s difficult to measure, and cannot be owned.

Traditional businesses are struggling in the connection economy. Everything they do is replicable. They are unwieldy, and have to resort to forcing growth through extracting every ounce of cash, even though the peak of their cycle has passed. They become hostages to the expectation of continual Spring.

Connection economy businesses on the other hand are flexible, and can find the space to grow because they are mobile. They experiment, hybridise and adapt. They can follow the seasons. There are lots of places in them for talent to grow, and talent has a choice.

After seven years of economic winter, Spring has arrived.

Time to cultivate your business.

If you want to know more about helping businesses thrive throughout the seasons, talk to us at the GrowHouse.