Are we nearly there yet?

For those of us interested in the nature of change, this is a fertile time.

It’s a though a whole bevy (what a great collective noun!) of black swans have taken flight (when they become a wedge – another great metaphor) and are heading right for us.

Our individual and collective reactions vary, but in general we tend to be negative. We see them as a potential threat, and hope that somehow we can stop them arriving – as though where we are now is where we really want to be.

We’d actually like other people to take care of it for us, whether its climate change, technology change, our politics or Brexit.

The inconvenient truth is that this is a system. All of it. And we’re part of that system. We have a duty to ourselves, and the communities we are part of not just to have a view, but to exercise it. We’re hugely privileged to live in what is still a democracy, no matter how bent out of shape it may have become.

What is clear is that these swan are coming in to land, and it behooves us to be ready. Depending on our mindsets, there will be as many positives (which we may not yet see) as there are negatives (most of which we see, and make up a few more for good measure)

What seems certain is that there will be significant change. I suspect, to switch metaphor, that it will be like a forest fire. It will take out old wood and dead wood to create room and nutrients for new growth. Parts of it will be frightening for us. It already is, because it’s something that is happening rather than something that is going to. We’re in the middle of it.

There’s lots we can do. We can not hope it will go away. We can not wait for somebody else to deal with it.

We can take action, no matter how small. Drive less, fly less, use technology, learn new ways of doing old habits, reduce unconscious dependence on chindogu. Use our imaginations. Refuse to be afraid. Do more than talk about it.

What we face is a great challenge, but that’s what, as humans, we are designed for.

Boundaries

We all operate within boundaries – some imposed by our social and contractual relationships with others, most imposed by us on ourselves as a result of our own forces of resistance.

“Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.” 

Stephen Pressfield

I suggest these boundaries are not static – they expand or contract depending on how you feel, what you’re listening to, who you’re mixing with.

The more our status is threatened, our sense of uncertainty increased, our sense of autonomy threatened, our relationships pressured and our sense of fair play offended, the tighter those boundaries become. Like a noose around our effectiveness.

The thing with invisible boundaries of course is that we have to go beyond them to know that they are there, and we can only do that by leaning into the discomfort of crossing them.

Many of the tools we use to become efficient, and to cope with ever increasing workloads, tighten our boundaries. Systems, protocols, templates are all ways of keeping us within boundaries. The intention with which they were designed are almost always good, but are very specific to a set of conditions at the moment in time they were created. Time and circumstances have moved on since then. They can now keep us contained in the safe bur mediocre middle, where safe is an illusion waiting to be shattered.

The person we don’t engage with because of the assumptions we make. The idea not expressed because of the fear of ridicule. The stand not taken for fear of being marginalised. The list goes on. We all have our own that alk beside us every day.

Meaningful progress is rarely safe, or comfortable but the alternative is stasis and entropy. Extinction of our job or business – or society.

If you’re not often uncomfortable a lot of the time, testing your boundaries, the world will leave you behind.

Stranded on the summit.

To make the changes we need to not just survive, but thrive together, we have to go beyond what we know and be guided by what we believe in, our intuition, and our insight.

It’s difficult, because we’re used to proof. A solid business case. Someone to blame if it goes wrong.

We’re used to lionising those who succeed, and castigating those who fail, even when what has been as stake is little more than profitably rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

We’ve entered a period where to progress we need to go into the unknown and be prepared to fail in the pursuit of something worthwhile, whilst we gain the knowledge that will be the platform for the next decades of growth. (hint; people will be more important than systems)

Which brings me to an issue I see. Most of our training around innovation, creativity and leadership is formulaic. Designed for what we have been doing, not what we need to do. It is well delivered, professional, often expensive but has short time horizons. Its’ usefulness also has a short half life in periods of rapid change.

The capabilities we need to develop are significantly different. They address what is emerging but not yet clear, and focus on different values to the financial ones that have brought us to now. They are varied, developmental, often experiential and address more distant time horizons. They are not always expensive, or at this stage profitable for the providers.

This seems to generate a conflict. These two approaches speak different languages. They have different goals. Each can regard the other with disdain, as either too mundane, or too flaky. We need to resolve this conflict.

(Note – there is evidence of this changing. Attendance at Burning Man and some other settings includes senior leaders from a range of organisations – but we’re only making the tiniest of scratches in a very hard surface.)

We need a bridge; a common language. Otherwise, we get people to deep insights whilst exploring the unknown, and leave them stranded without any way to bring it back into the current mainstream. We can do the work, take them to the top of the mountain, but then leave them there.

The key is delivering insight, often to people who will resist it because it requires new thinking, new habits and new measures all of which are unfamiliar.

It places real loads on leaders who will require very different skills from those we teach in the mainstream.

It requires those of us delivering new ways of seeing to generate insight with a real responsibility to be not just guides, but Sherpas. To go along on the journey, share the load and the risk. To know not just the techniques, but the territory.

(and a High Five to David Chabeaux, who gave me the mountain metaphor. I like it a lot.)

Getting to the top of the mountain is dangerous, and the view is wonderful from there, but as any mountaineer will tell you more people die on the way down than on the way up.