The edge will find you

Icebergs fracture at theIr edges.

Landmasses erode at the coast.

Businesses change at their edges.

Despite that, most businesses respond to change by retreating towards the centre.

They focus on business as usual and take comfort in easily managed lagging indicators. Margins. ROA. Annual profit.

It’s easy to find comfort in wilful blindness, and to avoid the difficult and scary work that takes place at the edge, where there is no historic data, no best practice, and no maps because nobody else has been their either.

People operating in the centre don’t need leadership; they need effective management. Best Practice. The centre isn’t going anywhere.

Leadership is required at the edge. The place where there are varied, unproven options, all with a real risk of failure. Where people need to be inspired, to commit and do it anyway.

As change becomes faster and more complex, the edges get closer, and they will find us.

It’s a good time to look round. Who will follow you? Who might you lead?

Old Game, New Rules

For just about all of my working life, over four decades, organisations have held sway. They had the resources, the status, the networks and the power. When I left university, the conventional wisdom was to look for the “solid organisation”.

That makes it quite strange to suddenly realise that it’s changed. Quite disconcerting really, like the transition from winter to spring. One minute snow and Aga, and what seems like a few minutes later, shorts and grass mowing.

Organisations no longer hold sway. People do. It’s no longer about who you join, it’s who you travel with.

That makes for really new rules. Not adaptation. More like revolution.

Individuals can cope with this far better than organisations. Organisations want stasis, certainty, or at least change on their terms. It rarely works. Most change initiatives fail, and those that succeed rarely do more than keep them in the game.

I believe that means we need to reboot. The realisation that the organisation cannot look after us, for anything other than the shortest of terms, is disconcerting. It’s not that the organisation is malign (though I can think of several exceptions) it’s just that they are not capable. Culturally, structurally, spiritually. They have been designed to make money, and that is no longer enough.

We are in the age of the connected individual. Some of them, the Musks, Bransons, Rhen Zengfeis’, combine connection with capital to create new entities. Others combine connection with politics to develop power. Others combine connection with influence, from the mundane stuff of social media to the dark side of insurgency.

Some, do all three.

I think it creates an uncomfortable imperative for us. If we cannot belong to an organisation, what do we belong to? To what are we “hefted”? What, when all around us is uncertain, matters? Do we have a compass to guide us?

Then, do we have a community who we support, and who will support us? People at our shoulders?

If we do, then are as potentially powerful as anyone else, and we can make a difference to something that matters. If we don’t, we are in danger of becoming refugees, looking for somebody to help us.

It’s uncomfortable, but right now, inevitable.

The infinite game of business remains unchanged. The finite game of traditional organisations is melting beneath our feet.

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.