The Fitzgerald Paradox

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

F.Scott Fitzgerald

It seems as though wherever we look at the moment, this quote applies.

The rate of change we are experiencing, the variety of options open to us, and the avalanche of different opinions showered on us means that we need to develop and access our first rate intelligence. This is not something we can outsource to another.

I suspect that in retrospect, this period will be defined as the end of an era. It’s difficult to know right now, as generally we don’t realise there’s been a revolution until its over.

All the signals seem to point to the end of an industrial era defined by structured organisations, hierarchies, nation states and relatively consistent “ways of doing things” and the start of something altogether more fluid. On the one hand, the types of job that have characterised the passing era are being increasingly disrupted by technology, and the human values that have often been suppressed for the sake of efficiency are becoming ever more important. We can’t write algorithms for love, purpose and meaning.

Right now, we have to be able to operate in both these areas. We are still dependent on the structures and practices of the passing era, at the same time as we are coming to terms with the emerging one.

In my practice, I often see some excellent work done in the creation of insight. These are often off site, and triggered by accessing those values that make us most human. However, when the off site finishes, those insights are almost always submerged as people go back into the workplace culture they were off site from. The people may have been on a personal journey, but the workplace didn’t tag along. The insights generated may stay with the individual but don’t make it into the workplace. Not infrequently, those who have experienced insight end up leaving in pursuit of somewhere or something that resonates more with their new found perspective.

We need to change that. We need to be able to hold these seemingly opposing ideas in mind whilst retaining the ability to function. If one idea or the other “wins” rather than collaborates we lose something – either our current performance, or our potential future.

I think the need is for “safe space” where ideas can be explored without being judged, and an opportunity created to synthesise new ways of operating that respect each of them.

It is not something that can we can “train” people in. It has to be owned, a product of that unique intelligence each of us has. It has to be nurtured and grown as we would a tender plant, or a young child.

The change is with us, whether we are ready or not.

We have choices to make, if we don’t want them made for us.

To borrow from Marshall Goldsmith, the operating models that got us here, won’t get us there.

Spirit of Schumpeter

Joseph Schumpeter was the Austrian Economist who made the term “creative destruction” famous. He was a thinker ahead of his time around business and entrepreneurship.

I wonder what he would make of today? Would he see the changes on the High St, and the increasing weakness of the big companies of the last century as they turn into zombies as a bad thing, or a good thing.

I suspect the latter. The moment we organise any business, we build stickiness and resistance to change into it. The only question is how long before it falls far enough behind the rate of change in its markets to become irrelevant.

We shouldn’t (though often do) have a problem with that. However, Nicholas Taleb suggests that the three biggest addictions are heroin, carbohydrates and a regular monthly salary. The first two are a choice, but the latter for most a necessity.

That doesn’t mean we can’t control it.

By developing a mindset of doing the best we can for an employer, but not being dependent. As Robert de Niro says in the film “Heat”; “don’t get involved in anything you can’t walk away from in 30 seconds”

If we’re employees, I think that’s a healthy mindset- it keeps us, and our employers, on our toes.

The trick of course is to be able to walk away. To develop the skills, contacts, values and awareness that makes our relationship with an employer one of equals. That means training, reading, discussing and above all thinking.

For destruction to be creative, it has to create way for something.

That something is an individual and team responsibility, because the destruction will arrive anyway.

And it’s a good thing.

Scary maybe, but good.

The Insight Famine

I suspect that one of the side effects of the austerity mindsets that have been encouraged in the last decade has been an insight famine.

When we’re cautious; when we cannot see or imagine the future clearly, we go into defensive mode. Reduce costs, stick with a slightly newer version of what we already know. Acquire and hoard rather than invent and share.

The creation of the worthwhile, the things that improve our world and the human condition are rarely done gradually. The breakthroughs are just that – breakthrough. Not improvements, not marginal, rarely guaranteed, often career threatening. We do them because they matter, not for a few extra bucks.

We have become incredibly good at efficiency, processes and systems, but poor at real breakthrough. In the West, the vast majority have seen little improvements in their incomes, and marked deterioration in their standards of living. The increases in earnings generated by efficiencies and systems have gone to a tiny minority.

Not, much as it would be satisfying to report because of some great conspiracy, but merely because of the systems we have built that hold us in thrall.

So, rather than create new we defend what we have. We demonise others, promote individualism, sow the seeds of fear of the other.

The problem of course is that it’s not sustainable. We can’t prepare for a famine by practicing starving. We’ve just about exhausted what has created our wealth for the last two hundred years, from the economic systems to the viability of the planet.

Breakthrough is never, ever safe, needs leaders who understand that and those of us that choose to follow them to accept the risks.

“If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance a whole lot less”

Eric Shineseki

To create the change we need, we will have to go right to the edge of what we know, what we trust, and what we find safe and step beyond. Deal with what we find.

I’m very aware that 75 years ago, my father and his friends did that.

With a bit of luck, we can honour their memory by not allowing a similar set of circumstances to evolve, but we will have to show the same level of moral courage and resolve to step into the unknown.

What is at stake is just as fundamental if we don’t.