26/11/2013 § 3 Comments
A wandering spaceman one day came across a blue planet. Awestruck with its beauty, she approached and saw how it teemed with life, holding billions of creatures of marvellous beauty and diversity. Filled with joy and delight, she decided to pay a visit.
Landing on earth, she soon encountered creatures called humans, walking around on two legs. These were the most extraordinary creatures she had ever come across. They were beautiful, complex, mysterious, creative, capable of great courage, wisdom, compassion and nobility. Yet equally, she observed, they could be selfish, dull, brutish and capable of great cruelty and wilful ignorance. They had produced great works and yet had fought each other and wantonly destroyed each other and their cultures.
At the time of this visit, there were an awful lot of these humans on the planet and this was causing more than a few problems. The humans simply weren’t very good at sharing. They had got used to dividing up the planet into pieces, staking claims to parts, using up all the resources and then moving on to claim more. In recent times they had become particularly fond of a dark liquid, the remains of ancient sunlight that had been buried deep underground for millions of years. Strangely, it seemed, they weren’t actually eating this (it didn’t appear tasty anyway), Instead they used it to move themselves about rather aimlessly, to make playthings or status symbols that they quickly threw away, to grow food for animals that they then ate (a highly inefficient process, the spaceman observed) and to preserve their bodies at a constant temperature when their bodies were anyway well able to adapt to changes in temperature. All very mysterious, the spaceman thought.
It appeared that in the past there had been humans who had managed to live in harmony with the planet but somewhere along the way the knowledge had been lost. The spaceman was struck by the contrast between the unity of the planet from space, with no boundaries visible, and the numerous social boundaries created by humans on the planet itself.
Being very clever, the humans had invented complex ways to organise themselves. The most complex and impressive were called corporations, which were used to manage the processing of the planet’s resources – the digging up, refining, distributing and converting into (largely useless) items. These corporations also disposed of the waste, burning it or burying it in large holes in the ground. Yet the humans were not so clever are all. They had applied the same principle in the design of these systems as they had when exploiting the planet’s resources – the principle of domination. Some humans, the majority in fact, were viewed as simply more resources, to be processed for the benefit of others, a small and powerful minority. These privileged few, bizarrely, were treated as “owners” of these human systems. The owned were thus, the spaceman noted, robbed of their essential humanity.
By design the corporations served their owners and those who the owners had appointed to run them, their foremen (the so-called “board of directors”). For example, they paid staff as little as possible in order to maximise what was paid to the owners, and they viewed the planet in all its richness as something only fit to be converted into abstract figures known as money. The planet burned for the rich man’s pleasure.
Meanwhile these “owners” were able to deny any responsibility for the actions of their corporate slaves, through a clever device called “limited liability”. Nothing to do with me, they said.
So powerful had these corporations become that they had taken over, in mostly subtle ways, the governments which had been set up to represent the mass of people as a whole.
The spaceman was for some time very critical of these owners and their foreman. How could they behave in this way, she wondered? Yet, looking more closely, the spaceman realised that her initial judgments were erroneous. They were not, she observed, any worse (or better) than other humans. They were not, for the most part, evil or willfully bad. They were simply blind, ignorant, unable to see the big picture – and this applied to the oppressed and to the oppressors alike. Both parts colluded, unknowingly, in maintaining this unfairness, this fundamentally unjust set-up. They all lost out through their inability to see the whole.
The spaceman went to a quiet place and sat for a while, in sadness at the waste she had witnessed. The poisoning of oceans, lakes and rivers, the despoliation of grasslands, pristine forests, the relentless destruction of life. The waste, above all, of human potential.
She touched despair. Could nothing be done to help these remarkable creatures to help themselves, she wondered.
After a while, she got up and created a space. It was a beautiful space, peaceful, calm, inviting. She sat down in the centre and waited. In time, a human came and sat in the space. One by one, others joined her. There came into the space rich and poor, black and white, young and old, tall and short, male and female. Eventually, when the space was filled, the spaceman got up and started to talk.
“Listen” she said “If you can only learn to get on with each other, to share this beautiful planet, then there is more than enough for all of you. And to do that, you need to learn to sit together, to think together, to be together without strife. You need to learn not to judge, yourselves or others. You need to learn to listen to your hearts, to the innocence of your children, to the wisdom of your elders, to the rocks and streams and trees. To the planet.”
The people listened and sat quietly. After a while, one spoke “We’ve heard this all before.” he said. “Some have even tried it. But it doesn’t work.” “We can’t do it.” continued another. “It is our nature to fight, to be greedy, to seek to dominate each other and the planet. We know in the long run it doesn’t serve us but we can’t help it. We can’t change our nature.”
Silence returned for a while. Then an old woman spoke. “It is also our nature to be kind, loving and generous.” she said. Why can’t we simply choose that?”
A child piped up. “My granny is right. Can’t we listen to her? Please!”.
Eventually a tall man spoke, quietly but clearly. “What can we do?” he asked the spaceman.
The spaceman was about to answer and then stopped herself. “You know what”, she said. “I think you have to work that out for yourselves. I think that maybe that is why you are here. You have everything you need to get yourselves out of this mess. You all have the capacity to make a positive difference. Use it. And in doing so, simply in the attempt, you will find riches untold.”
“You live in a world of abundance and beauty, filled with wondrous creatures, of fabulous life in all its forms. If I could give you one gift it would be to see the world through my eyes. Your world is perfect – it is just your vision that is faulty”.
There was nothing more to be said. It was time to go. The spaceman wished the people well and took off, heading back to her home in a distant galaxy. She smiled to herself as she sped home at thousands of times the speed of light. “What a crazy bunch of mixed up people” she thought. “I wonder what will happen to them…”
13/11/2013 § 5 Comments
- organise – “form into an organic whole” (Oxford Dictionary).
For many years I have been interested in, nay fascinated by, organising and organisations. I feel I have something in common with Sisyphus who, in the Greek legend, was fated to spend eternity rolling a large rock up a mountain, only to watch it roll down again every time he approached the top. Likewise, just when I think I am on the verge of making a profound breakthrough in my understanding, I learn something that humbles me, that makes me realise how little I really know.
I am in good company. Great management writers including Peter Drucker and Charles Handy have acknowledged the awesome complexity of the subject. In the words of Handy: “The meeting of self and others, of individual, or individual institution, and the community, is probably the most complex issue of our time.”
So with that in mind, in all humility, I want to offer up here my integral model of organisational regulation. I call it integral because it draws together multiple ways of looking at organisations, and because it draws on the work of Ken Wilbur, who developed an “integral model” which he shared in his book “A Theory of Everything.” Without further ado, here is my model (click on it to see an expanded view):
The idea is that you can use this model if you want to make sense of, or seek to influence the behaviour of, a group of people. By looking at each quadrant in turn, you can form a picture of the organisation that is multi-dimensional. So for example if you want to understand why the UK banks have been behaving in the way they have, you can start by looking at the top left quadrant. This will lead you to enquire into the values, the inner drivers, of the individuals in the bank and particularly those at the top. Many people never get beyond this enquiry. But we have only just started.
Moving down to the bottom left, you might then enquire into the culture of the bank. What are the shared values, the shared norms? What world view predominates? What does the organisation as a whole consider most important?
In the top right I have placed governance (it is externally visible and it is about relationships between individuals). What rules, procedures and structures are in place? How does the bank make decisions, and how are they implemented? Who is involved? What checks and balances are in place? Who is accountable to whom? How does communication flow within the organisation?
Finally there is the bottom right: relationships with stakeholders, such as its investors, customers, suppliers, society and the planet. What systems does the bank have to engage with stakeholders, to listen to them, to understand their needs, to account to them for its behaviour?
The model can be quite revealing. One of the first things that is apparent is how people tend to get drawn into just one quadrant and disregard the others. People will insist that the banking crisis in 2008 was because of poor leadership. Others will talk only about the prevailing culture in the banks at the time, or about the need for better corporate governance. Our model is a reminder that life is more complex than that, and that we need to pay attention to all the quadrants. There are consultants who build entire careers specialising in leadership, or governance, or stakeholder engagement, or cultural work, and never understand where their part fits in, or even that they are only looking at part.
Using the model, it is possible to make general observations about different types of firms and where they tend to be more developed. Professional practice firms, for example, tend to be well-developed in the top part (the “I) and particularly the top left, leadership, while paying insufficient attention to the culture they create or their relations with their stakeholders, including their junior staff. Cooperatives are strong on “We” – culture and relations with stakeholders. They are much less well-developed in leadership and governance.
In small companies, the left hand side, the “softer” stuff of values, tends to be more significant than the right hand side. Key individuals can make a huge difference to the way the organisation behaves. By contrast in a large plc, the right hand side becomes very significant, particularly the bottom right where the power dynamics between the board, investors, customers, government regulation and wider society come into play.
For those of us with more than an academic interest in the behaviour of organisations, this model can be powerful tool. It can help us to make informed choices about where to intervene in the system. If we want to influence an organisation, should we seek to introduce leadership training? Or is cultural work more pressing, or perhaps some tweaks to the governance? Perhaps all of this is required, plus some attention to stakeholder engagement.
Using a variant of the model, we can even map the state of evolution of the organisation, and chart a course of development:
You don’t have to agree with my labels. You can adopt your own preferred model of what an evolved organisation might look like, drawing on Maslow’s hiearcarchy of needs, or spiral dynamics, or whatever.
I want to add a spiral partly because I like spirals but mainly because it reminds us that each quadrant is closely related to, and interdependent with, the others. Improve the quality of leadership and you are likely to get better governance. Work on the culture and you will enhance stakeholder relations and raise the standard of leadership. And so on.
I will leave you with a couple of beautiful thoughts. Firstly, it doesn’t matter where you are on the spiral, life is about working with what you have and where you are. Secondly, the spiral has no end…
07/11/2013 § 2 Comments
I am advising several start-up ventures these days. This includes a wide range of organisations including small professional practices, ambitious social enterprises and networks of creative individuals looking to combine their resources and so become more powerful together.
One common theme I have noticed is that all these ventures are started with a gift, or indeed many gifts. There is the original gift of the idea, the inspiration, the burst of energy that moves the person (or persons) in a particular new direction. Then there are all the gifts that the universe subsequently sends their way – free advice (not all of it useful and some downright harmful, but gifted nevertheless), support, a listening ear, money even, perhaps simply a word of encouragement. It is gifts that enable the project to gather initial momentum, to break away from old patterns.
There is something magical about the exchange that happens when a gift is made. As Shakespeare noted in the Merchant of Venice about one form of gift, mercy, it blesses “both him that gives and him that takes.” The world of buying and selling, for value given and received, operates under different rules. The principal difference is that bargaining power comes into play. If you are really thirsty, you will pay a lot more to a seller of water than if you have recently drunk – in the market, if you don’t have enough to feed your family, you will accept a much lower price for your goods at the end of the day than you would at the beginning). Thus there is a very different tone to the exchange and there can be exchanges where both parties are left feeling worse off. This never happens with a true gift.
Many traditional communities operate purely in the gift domain, sharing freely of what they have without demanding anything immediately in return. They have learned to trust that their turn to receive will come and they take pleasure in the gift. The non-human world also works in this way – trees give freely of their apples, their leaves and their shade without question. “They give that they may live, for to withhold is to perish” as the poet Kahlil Gibran observed.
It may be that in some future age our society will rediscover the joy of a gift-based economy. That time is not now, and all businesses getting started need to learn to work with our dominant money-based system where value given must, more or less, equal value received. The move from operating on a gift basis to money-based system is a challenging and sometimes perilous time for any business. If the business has relied on volunteer contributions, and then starts paying one former volunteer, all the others will start to wonder whether they should not be paid too. People treat you differently if they suspect that you are motivated primarily by commercial gain (whether you are or not) and the flow of gifts dries up. Yet in our society this is a necessary part of growing up – for most organisations at least.
Conscious organisations, I believe, must learn to dance between these two different types of economy, as many communities have done throughout history. If within their own boundary they can establish a true gift economy where sharing freely happens, whilst engaging lustily in exchange and barter with the outside world, they have a decent chance of reaping abundant rewards.
07/10/2013 § 1 Comment
There were tears and tantrums on the way to school the other day. Lucas wasn’t too happy either… We had left home a bit late and I was intent on getting to school quickly whilst Lucas couldn’t conceive of passing the large horse chestnut tree near our house without stopping to pick up conkers. The inevitable clash of wills and priorities happened. We did get to school, we were late and it was messy.
Who was right? Well, I don’t want to take sides but have to say there was something incredibly endearing about Lucas’ sheer delight in the bounty of the natural world. And what at school could possibly be more important than that? School, like many of our large-scale human systems, has its own drivers, which rarely seemed to coincide with what feels natural and right for a child to do. Lucas wants to play, to run around outside, to climb trees to potter around with his Star Wars figures, to giggle with his playmates. He enjoys things like maths, reading and painting but at his own pace and a lot of his joy is taken away when he is crammed into a room and forced to sit down with 29 other children and learn together.
Like him, I want to rebel against our education system, even though I respect many of the teachers. It is a Procrustean system. In Greek mythology, Procrustes was a rogue blacksmith, a bandit who forced people to fit the size of his iron bed by either stretching them or cutting off their legs. Isn’t this what our education system seeks to do with our children? They enter the system as wildly different individuals and, like sausage meat, are fed through the system to come out all the same shape and size, all thinking the same. Those who are particularly interesting, thoughtful, lively or artistic tend to suffer the most from this process. Schools are packed with systems designed to persuade, encourage or compel our children to fit in, to conform. Bells to tell them when to work, when to eat, when to play. They get a gold star if they eat all their lunch (hungry or not – no wonder our children have so many food disorders). Their parents get warnings if they arrive late too often.
All this is understandable from the system point of view. If you sit in Whitehall and worry about value for money, then you want to maximise output (teaching time) and minimise input (teachers pay, and other costs like food). You want to minimise “waste”, like children not going to school, or classrooms not being full, or food not being eaten. So you issue directives designed to achieve these goals.
Having a centrally controlled and funded system has other effects. You need information at the centre in order to “manage” the system and so you compel teachers to spend inordinate amounts of time filling in forms. One school has an issue with a teacher abusing a pupil, and as a consequence all teachers are banned from touching a child, and barriers are set up to prevent other adults coming on school grounds. This is an unbalanced response to a valid concern, and It is one example of a case where issues that can be dealt with locally are over-regulated from on high.
This is industrial-scale education, and similar dysfunctionalities can be found in other centrally-controlled human systems such as the health service, police, highways departments and multinational corporations.
So what, I hear you ask? What do you want to do about it exactly? It seems to me there’s four basic stances you can take (they not necessarily self-excluding), shown in this matrix.
One is to effectively shrug your shoulders and say “What can I do?” This might be accompanied by a bit of denial “It is not that bad really” or avoidance – simply distracting yourself until time has passed. Or you passively resist (I have tried a bit of this) where you refuse to co-operate with the system but don’t actively engage with the challenge.
The second way is to try to fight the system, Write strong letters to your MP, to the teachers, you try to rally others to your cause. Or you blame individuals. I think of these first two options as negative, unconstructive.
A third way is to simply escape. Seek another school, another system (Steiner, Montessori), another country (Denmark, say). You don’t threaten the system but seek to minimise its impact on you.
The fourth way is to get creative. You seek to dance with the system, to hold onto what you know to be true while refusing to blame others. This may stretch to setting up a new school or an entirely new system.
It is clear where my preference is – to actively engage with the challenge. That’s where the life is – beyond denial or blame. It requires an honest look at both the system, with all its merits and defects (including acknowledging that what we have represents a significant step forward compared to the old system it replaced) and at ourselves. Do we have the qualities to take on this challenge and what is the best way for us as individuals to go about it? Should we leave it to others to creating new system and work at making the best of the current one.
I will let you know how I get on.
And do let me know what’s your way. How do you engage with this dance?
12/09/2013 § Leave a Comment
It’s been a good summer. I have spent lots of time outdoors, in the woods, by the sea, in good company. I had no real urge to write my blog, although occasionally I would notice it, calling to me gently, tugging at my sleeve and reminding me I still have stuff I want to share. It’s nice to be back.
One of the themes that kept coming up over the summer was the value of finding a new perspective. It was refreshing, after many months spent largely indoors (we had a long winter in the UK), to hang about outdoors, revelling in the long days and warm breezes. I loved spending time with my son, catching a glimpse of what the world looks like through his eyes. I also spent time hanging out with some trees, in a wood in Devon, and this was a profound experience.
It’s a cliche, but nonetheless true, that “familiarity breeds contempt”. I prefer to phrase it differently, that familiarity squeezes out life, but it is the same thing. I find that if I view the world through the same eyes from which this Patrick thing has looked out at the world for the last 50 years, it can easily look rather dull, predictable and lifeless. It becomes a world to be managed and controlled, and sometimes to be feared, to run away from. But as soon as I change my perspective, the deadening fog clears and the world becomes alive with new meaning, new possibilities and new adventures to be had.
Use a telescope to look at the stars, or a microscope to look at the back of your hand. Quieten your mind, open your heart and truly listen to another human being. Sit in the woods and wonder what it feels like to be a tree. All these are ways in which we can get a new perspective.
This can get addictive. It’s such a thrilling feeling to gain a new perspective that it is tempting to chase it. In a vain attempt to permanently escape the deadly dull feeling of over-familiarity, we change something external in our lives — move jobs, move house, change our partner, leave the country. But this only lasts for a certain amount of time, doesn’t it? Sooner or later we end up behind the same old screen again, a bit older and wiser perhaps but still filtering everything we see through familiar thoughts, fears and prejudices.
Yet there is always hope. Rather than big steps, we can just try little ones, day by day, moment by moment. We can go to a cafe to work rather than to the same old desk, walk a different way home, switch off the familiar drone of Radio 4 and scare ourselves silly with the depth of the silence. Try it!
And maybe, just maybe, if we can keep doing this we will eventually find that we don’t need to go anywhere or do anything to shift our perspective, to break out of the shell that encloses our being. We can simply be and connect with the sheer wonder of the universe of which we are a part, marvelling and delighting in the beauty, magnificence and craziness of it all.
I have a feeling it is going to be a great autumn.
28/06/2013 § 2 Comments
My six-year-old son is a nightmare to manage. For a start, he simply can’t remember some important things. How many times have my wife and I reminded him to flush the toilet, not to eat with his fingers, to tidy up his paper aeroplanes, to tidy his clothes and shoes away, to use a plate. He’s brilliant at remembering some things (“daddy, remember that you promised me this morning that I could have an ice cream this afternoon”) while things that are peripheral to his vision, but important to me, he can’t seem to retain.
He is also challenging to communicate with. If he’s upset about something, you can sense it because his whole body expresses it, but he won’t talk about it unless you patiently sit with him and peel back the layers.
He is demanding, noisy, messy, irritating, makes no contribution to the family finances, leaves doors open and is constantly challenging.
He is also an absolute delight. When he giggles, it dissolves away all my cares. His innocent way of seeing the world makes me believe that anything is possible. His joyful engagement with life is a constant lesson to me. His high regard for me (he is only young, bless him) constantly calls me to raise my game, to do my best not just for him but for all. His vulnerability brings out the caring side of me, driving me to work hard to nurture and protect him. He is a ray of sunshine who lights up our house.
If he were a member of my team, by conventional measures I could hardly justify keeping him on. What’s his contribution to the bottom line? Well directly, nothing at all. In fact he takes up a lot of management time, not counting weekends. What does he bring in? He brings in mud from the garden, sticks, stones and precious found things discarded by others. But no money. No customers. Is he doing anything productive? Well, he makes at least 10 paper aeroplanes every day. He whittles away with his knife on bits of wood. He creates colourful drawings. Does that count? No, I didn’t think so. I suppose I could try to explain to my boss how much more joyful, exhilarating and rich life is when he is around but in the world of management this doesn’t cut the mustard.
He is the chilli in our chilli con carne, the fizz in our champagne, the yeast in our loaf. He brings a wildness – something uncontrollable, unpredictable and very much alive. It is in us too but more hidden, and he calls it out.
It is perhaps this exuberance, this sense of the wild and free, that is most sadly lacking in our workplaces today. In the drive to become productive, to contribute to serve the needs of the economy, we fail to serve the needs of human beings and, as an inevitable consequence, the needs of the non-human world, the needs of life! All workplaces need at least one Lucas, whether they contribute to the bottom line or not. Our workplaces are sadder and drabber places without them.