Escape Velocity

The 50th anniversary of landing on the moon took me to thoughts about escape velocity. For earth, a little over 11km/s, or Mach 33, or several times the velocity of a high powered rifle bullet. The energy needed to escape the pull of the familiar.

We are currently trapped in a numbers driven economic system, largely detached from considering it’s externalities – the unintended consequences of the headlong push for growth. Our escape velocity will be determined by what we value.

We have allowed ourselves to become limited by the gravity of an orthodoxy that may well kill us unless we escape its pull.

There are however signs, and not just from the likes of Extinction Rebellion. People closer to the centre of the current orthodoxy. Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever, is making a stand. So too is the head of Moore Stephens speaking at The European Court of Auditors – not a body I have previously associated with radical action.

Good though this is, it seems unlikely that this is where the leadership we need will come from. They have little to risk.

The real impetus, the energy needed for escape velocity will come from those who do have something to risk. Those who will do differently, from the outset. Who will view value as more than numbers.

Smaller businesses, individuals without the security of an established career.

Those for whom the risk of standing out is real.

Which is most of us.

Transition

“To live in the midst of an era is to be oblivious to its style.”

Spring Snow. Yukio Mishima

We are undoubtedly somewhere in a period of significant transition, though it is difficult to know how far in – The Begining? The Middle? It has been said that we don’t know we’re in the middle of a revolution until it’s over.

Wherever we are in it, it’s not like we couldn’t have seen it coming in some form. If we weren’t so busy trying to understand each piece as it makes itself felt – political rumbles here, business failures there, the social failures that lead to food banks in some of the wealthiest countries in the world – and we had stood still for a moment to join the dots of these changes, we wouldn’t be so surprised. We may not have been able to be precise as to the detail of change, but the trend would have come as less of a surprise.

What if we’re only just getting started? Whilst the change we’ve been seeing can be disorienting, I suspect it’s nothing compared to what is approaching us. The compound effect of artificial intelligence and concentrated wealth together with declining natural resources and increased population makes for a heady mix.

“When hierarchy is the order of the day, you are only as powerful as your rung on the organisational ladder of a state, corporation or similar vertically ordered institution. When networks gain an advantage, you can be as powerful as your position in one or more horizontally structured social groups”

The Square and the Tower. Niall Ferguson.

We are well into an age of networks, but only just beginning to see their power – not the populist stuff of social media, but of radical ideas and shared purpose.

This pattern has occured throughout history – periods of relative stability based on a currency of the time (from animals, to people, to land, to capital) interspersed by periods of rapid change as we transitioned from one to another.

In an age of networks, the power of a business sits at the front line, where the company meets the customer – in person, on line, or by reputation. Trying to operate the traditional hierarchy system most of us have been taught at business school, and in established companies is increasingly futile, and it changes everything.

Concepts like leadership and engagement become not desirable, but critical to survival. Awareness of the wider environment crucial, and the ability to think systemically, about second order effects, vital.

And the timing is now.

Waiting for best practice is likely to be fatal. By the time best practice is established, we are likely to be the history that is part of its evidence base.

Sitting in the fire

I’m always intrigued that those people and organisations who say they want change But really mean that what they want is for others to change.

Their own “elasticity” regarding change is often limited, for understandable reasons. They have a lot invested in the way things are – infrastructure, reputation, credit ratings; the list goes on. Incremental change is acceptable, but rarely enough. The end result is that product and organisational life cycles are reducing.

Change doesn’t much care about their sensitivities, and is moving faster, and more unpredictably than they are.

For a number of reasons, the word ‘dyad” has been cropping up for me a lot recently. A dyad is simply a pair, but the relationship between the pair is where it gets interesting. Harmonious dyads often seem not to cope with change very well. Vested interests. Old boy networks. They have similar world views, don’t conflict, and are invested in the same things. Sparks rarely fly, and on the occasions they do are quickly extinguished.

However, the nature of change means that they are unsustainable. No organisation can handle currently levels of highly charged complexity.

Conflicting dyads on the other hand, where the sparks fly and ignite, is where the real change happens. It’s uncomfortable, and means ‘sitting in the fire”.

You’ve got to have a really good reason for sitting in the fire. It’s uncomfortable, uncertain and you may get burned. On the other hand, the really good stuff gets forged there. It’s where the magic happens. Alchemy.

For a number of reasons, in my work, I have found myself recently sat in said fire, uncomfortably but determinedly. What was at stake was too important not to, and I’m fortunate that I have enough independence, and enough support, not to have to jump out because the mortgage needs paying. That’s a privilege, but also a choice.

The change is not instant, and sitting there feeling as though your nether regions are more than medium rare is painful for a while, until the fire works its magic and what needs to happen becomes clear.

Then, it’s something of a brand new day.

It’s not about winning or losing. It’s about creation. Relationships may change. People may see you differently, and indeed, you may see yourself differently. Brand new day. And whatever the weather, the sun is shining.

Here are some of the conflicting pairs I’m seeing right now;

  1. The needs of the individual and the needs of shareholder owned businesses.
  2. The power and potential of individual purpose and organisational needs for compliance.
  3. Conventional administration and bureaucracy versus artificial intelligence.

Each of these has enormous potential for productive change, but to do so, we need to get our backsides more than warm.

Alchemy requires Fire starters and Fire carriers as well as fire sitters.

Footnote. I’m reading Novacene by James Lovelock. He’s 100.

How can we not be in awe of somebody who thinks and writes with this clarity in his 101st year? An Alchemist if ever there was one.