We are creatures who love certainty in an environment that never provides it. We build ourselves little shelters – of words, organisations or ideas where we shelter from the reality of the constant change and evolution that is the natural world. For the most part, it works; our lives are short enough to support this illusion, but now and again, something happens, and we get to glimpse reality and understand we are never in control.
Now is such a time, as we find ourselves face to face with what is happening to our relationship with the planet.
That despite all our efforts, we never really own anything, and control very little. The best we can do is surf the wave of what is unfolding and be grateful for the privilege.
I came across this poem by Margaret Atwood, and it captured what was on my mind much better than anything I will write today, so can do no better than to introduce her words to you;
The moment when, after many years
of hard work and a long voyage
you stand in the centre of your room,
house, half-acre, square mile, island, country,
knowing at last how you got there,
and say, I own this,
is the same moment when the trees unloose
their soft arms from around you,
the birds take back their language,
the cliffs fissure and collapse,
the air moves back from you like a wave
and you can’t breathe.
No, they whisper. You own nothing.
You were a visitor, time after time
climbing the hill, planting the flag, proclaiming.
A Brand is a promise – of quality, of delivery, of attention. A Brand is organic – it grows, thrives, declines, gets hollowed out and dies.
In times of rapid and complex change, we know that we can only deal effectively with change at the edge, coming into contact with morphing realities. Despite that, most of our organisations still want to “manage” change from the centre.
It reminds me of a scene in the wonderful 1969 film “Monte Carlo or Bust”, where the car, driven by the hapless Dudley Moore, careers over a cliff and the imperious Peter Cooke, pointing over to the left, instructs him to “land over there.” It’s a perfect metaphor for much of what we see in highly centralised organisations at present.
Perhaps, in the current conditions, Franchises are an excellent example of what happens when the centre decides what happens at the edge. In the coffee shop, the people on the front line, or the fast-food outlet, or the coaching business picking up the pieces when the unstoppable force brand they have signed up to meets the immovable object of an unforecast major challenge.
Waiting for the cavalry to ride over the hill can be a very long wait.
The good franchisors (and there are some) take the hit and support their franchisees. The poor ones go to lunch ’till it’s over. Owners are different. Their situation is no more straightforward, but at least they have agency and can act.
There is a point in the evolution of some brands; when they run out of ideas, it pays to retain power at the centre but push accountability to the edge. Get others to take the real risks, but with limited authority to take action.
It struck me last week during the elections. I’m sure where I live is not unusual, but all the publicity and PR was for parties where decisions are made a long way away on the different planet of Westminster. Trying to find out anything about the person, the local candidate who bought the franchise, was next to impossible. They ask us to buy a brand promise featuring celebrity people who like big stages, and who have little to do with the day to day of local politics.
When it comes to rapid change, I think we want to work with people who know what it’s like where we live and who have the courage and commitment to take action as needed, not wait for permission from somewhere far away.
We all belong to something that we feel part of. Sometimes it gets submerged underneath the day to day, but it’s always there.
The origins of the word are rooted in “to be fitting, to be suitable”. It is an idea far beyond the simple idea of simplex “ownership”; it is duplex, mutual – belonging to each other as part of a greater whole.
When I was young, I was fortunate to have a Grandmother straight out of a book of Archetypes – all baking, white hair and unconditional love – who told me to be careful about what I owned, in case it turned round and thought it owned me. It was counsel around debt and a long time on, I’m grateful for it. When we buy something by incurring debt, we incur an unforgiving obligation, and it’s easy for the obligation to direct our lives. Mortgages are one thing, but debt for short term consumables entirely another. Like most of us, I know, I’ve been there.
I thought bout it this morning as I listened to the news about the formation of a football super league. It triggered a thought about a “chain of belonging” and complex consequences. Football clubs are a great example. They all bear the name, and a nominal association with a place, although they are owned by people who have no connection to that place, with for the most part, players who have little history with that place. Go far enough back up the “belonging chain” and we find the dominance of money – in this case J.P. Morgan, whose roots are in a place where football is a minority sport. This is business, and as long as we don’t conflate it with clubs belonging to a place, it’s fine.
Emotional belonging though is different. Emotionally, the clubs belong to the fans, although they have no say in what happens. It’s rough when we belong to an idea that has no investment in us. The consequences of a business decision will ripple all the way down to club sport and affect real people all the way down.
And so we get to a business decision – why form a super league? As far as I can see (and I am no expert on football) it’s because the clubs are owned by their debt, required when the club was bought, and extended by the needs of cash flow to pay for players and marketing, all of which stayed whilst fans were forced to stay away during the pandemic.
Short form answer; the clubs do not belong to their notional owners, they belong to the debt.
For football clubs, read all businesses. It’s why I love working with owners, and despair of working with those who are at the bottom end of a belonging chain where shareholders and debt are at the top. At least real owners have the capacity to make difficult decisions for themselves,
It makes me realise how fortunate I am. My obligations, incurred with gratitude, are to my family, my friends, and my community in that sort of order. I have no obligation to money. It is a cold, lifeless thing without personality that is useful for transactions. Giving it power over us, either as debt or as aspiration, just creates a Zombie. Zombies have only one intention, and it’s not about our wellbeing.
We all belong and what to matters. It defines out health, feeds our soul and shapes our short lives.
As my Grandmother said. “Be careful that what you own does not really own you”. I’m grateful to her.