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.

Inefficiency – the antidote to surprises.

Everything in and around us changes constantly. By the time you get to the end of this sentence, around 50 million cells in your body will have died and replaced. Our entire bodies are replaced every seven years.

We don’t notice. It’s normal.

Twenty percent of businesses fail in their first year, fifty percent by their fifth year and seventy percent by their tenth year. Fewer than 25% of FTSE companies have made it through the last forty years. Most of the knowledge you are using today will be obsolete in five years.

We don’t notice. The rate of decay is normal. We don’t notice it often until it’s too late. Our business becomes irrelevant, our resume tired. Normal is a seductress.

Normal has a half life

People’s reactions to the impact of Coronavirus have been instructive. Universities wanting government subsidy because how they do what they do has been obsolescing, and the virus has exposed that brutally. A confectionery manufacturer who has done an exemplary job of using their online channel to support sales that have been lost from their shops – but who stated that “they are now moving back online”. Like the internet doesn’t do viruses. People finding themselves writing resumes and only now discovering how hollow they seem.

The half life of normal is getting shorter.

The monoliths that relied on economies of scale had fifty good years. Those who developed effective technology monopolies – Microsoft, IBM had thirty good years, Facebook may have twenty.

Thirty years ago, you might have had to have two careers in your lifetime at most. Those setting out today will likely have more than ten.

The very best forecasters – the “superforecasters” run out of steam at about 400 days. The rest of us average around 150.

150 days. Maybe that’s the half life of normal.

We used to do five year strategic plans. We still do annual budgets. They remain useful exercises in thought, but can be worse than useless. They can lull us into a false sense of security.

Because we’ve done them, we implicitly believe them. Psychologists call it priming. It is easy to become wilfully blind. We see what we want to that supports our plans, and ignore the inconvenient stuff.

The half life of normal is continuing to reduce until normal becomes meaningless.

Inconvenient is the new normal

There’s an important line in Margaret Heffernan’s book “Uncharted”, (and in an excellent 15 min recap on Jericho Chambers Webinar.)

deal with the just in time, and prepare for the just in case.

Margaret Heffernan.

Coronavirus is an event it was easy to forecast generally, but not specifically. We have known, with confidence a pandemic would occur, just not when or where it would originate. The same goes for earthquakes, global warming events, terrorist strikes, mass population movements and a range of other life changing occurrences.

When they happen, they trigger a whole cascade of subsisidiary inconveniences to our way of life – some minor, some life changing.

We get angry at them, and look for someone to blame.

Right now, imagine you’re in government, tasked with providing PPE. A year ago, the idea of stockpiling PPE “just in case” would have had you laughed out of the room in times of budget restraint. Today, not having done so is costing lives.

If there is anybody to blame, it’s all of us who have conspired to let those in charge make these decisions, and to allow the short term performance of the economy to triumph over our long term wellbeing.

Think about it for a moment – there is a whole queue of other events waiting for us. We know they are there, but cannot plan for them – we can only prepare – make the best guesses we can, and ensure the things that matter – doctors, nurses, those who run our infrastructure, and others who are not “economically efficient” have the spare capacity that is needed when they are called on to save us from ourselves.

Of course it’s hugely inefficient. But so is inconvenience, and what is causes.

Inefficiency is our friend,

We can learn to love it. Preparing for uncertainty means cutting ourselves, and our businesses, a little slack. Being deliberately inefficient.

  • Time to think the unthinkable.
  • Doing things because you can, not because they make a return.
  • Time to enjoy “being” as well as a slave to “doing”.
  • Looking after ourselves – ensuring we have the capacity to handle shocks, physically and mentally.
  • Accepting that whilst we could earn more, maybe we don’t really need more.
  • Understanding that the idea of a minimum wage is a license to exploit, and that a CEO being paid 300 times the average employee, whilst taking no personal risk, is an obscenity.
  • See people for who they are capable of becoming, not where they are right now.

When I lived in Switzerland, all of us had a significant shelter in the basement, which we were required to keep stocked with a month’s worth of essentials. We used to laugh about it, and at how inefficient it was when building. Maybe not so much.

Switzerland has embraced uncertainty by building it into their culture.

We can do the same.

  • Credit cards are for emergencies – nor everyday living. The clue is in the name.
  • Banks do not lend because they like you. Loans are high risk exercises in times of uncertainty.
  • Working long hours doing something you don’t really like, in order to be able to afford two weeks a year getting away from it is not building resilience.
  • Being wrong is not a sin, it’s a price paid by those who are trying and taking personal risk.

Humanity is chronically inefficient. It’s where the art, creativity, music, laughter, love and joy come from. Revel in it.

Sawubona

Our culture encourages external validation. School grades, better degrees, promotion, pay rises, likes.

It reinforces a dependency on other people, and often people we would not choose to be dependent on.

Its opposite is internal validation. The stuff of soul and self. The warmth that is generated from doing things we love, that we are striving for mastery in. The knowledge that in some small way, we are making a unique contribution to something that matters to us.

This contribution may never be externally validated, and that doesn’t matter. We know, and our community knows.

There is nothing wrong with external validation, unless it is sought at the expense of internal validation. If that happens, we hollow out and become some sort of zombie.

We are at an important inflection point when it comes to how we work.

The way most businesses are structured creates the conditions that encourage us down the zombie road. When shareholder returns are given not just priority, but near exclusive focus, we end up paying lip service to people’s internal validation.

We talk glibly about “engagement”, but it easily becomes yet another lag indicator like margins, and even if the intent is there we look at the metric not sense the emotion.

We use what psychologists term affective empathy (we get upset when employees get upset) but not cognitive empathy (identifying with and sensing how they feel)

As AI absorbs more and more of the routine work, perceived empathy and humanity becomes ever more critical at every level and boundary-employees, partners, customers and community.

Sawubona. It’s an African Zulu greeting that means “I see you.” It has a long oral history and it means more that our traditional “hello.” It says, “I see your personality. I see your humanity. I see your dignity and respect.”

It resonates rather more than “your call is very important to us”

Sawubona is not a “skill”, it’s a way of being in the world. If we want our businesses to succeed in the world that is emerging, we should learn from that.