It seems to me that as we gather more and more detailed data, the poorer we become at just observing. Along the way, we become attentionally blind. We do not see what’s around us.
I have a colleague who cannot make a group meeting today because he has a client who celebrates Beltane. It is an ancient Gaelic festival that celebrates a point halfway between the Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice. It originated in a time before clocks when we measured time not mechanically but by observing what was happening around us—the state of nature, growth, and seasons, and knowing more acutely than we do now that we are part of that. I think that’s a great client, and one who maybe has vision of a different order of magnitude to most businesses.
There are important lessons to be re-learned.
An Oak tree spends 300 years growing, three hundred years thriving, and three hundred years dying. In its first phase, it takes more than it gives back from its ecosystem. In the second phase, it grows and seeds, and in its final stage, it gives back more than it takes as it decays and feeds nutrients back into the system. Most things in nature do the same over different periods.
The same is true of us; although we have devised ways to put that into the background, we want to be able to take more than we give up to our last breath. The idea of putting things back is scarce. In previous times, it would have been the responsibility of elders, and the spreading of wisdom.
The same I suggest is also true of business. In the last fifty years, the average lifespan of a company has decreased by two thirds to less than twenty years. Although it’s uncomfortable, intuitively, we know that it follows the same cycle of growth, thriving and decay. If ever there was a time for business wisdom, it’s now.
A quick look at the High St shows companies that were dying long before the pandemic, either because they were stale or maybe hollowed out by debt and waiting for the lighting strike that the pandemic provided.
All of this is in plain sight, but we are so obsessed with measurement that we have forgotten how to sense. We use logic rather than sight, sound, or listening, even though the signals of dying businesses are all there, from mental health sanitised as engagement scores (much more clinical and less messy) to margin depletion to exit strategies based on a trade sale.
Growth opportunities can be equally clear, and unless the business in the early stages of success, it’s rarely about some version of more of the same or acquisition. It’s about noticing what’s going on around us.
Climate Change, Biodiversity loss, and AI are changing the game to a vast extent and opening up whole new opportunities that ride on the dynamic they are creating.
There are so many things that get in the way. Working with the same people, to tight deadlines, focused on efficiency. It’s difficult to see the scenery when we have our noses to the grindstone.
What is coming requires different habits to what is disappearing.