No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.John Donne
Bells were tolled in 17th Century England to mark deaths and to share the news with the whole community. In that pre-industrial era, community connections were embedded into the work and life of towns. Each death diminished the community and given the mystery of disease, might well be a warning to all. Nobody worked or lived alone. Being isolated at that time was a punishment akin to a death sentence.
As much as we might reinforce individualism in our society today, the last few months are a reminder than nobody lives and works alone. Nobody is an island. Our lives and work exists in chains of connection too. Remove those connections and our work stops or is impeded. Individuals may be able to sustain personal productivity for a while but without the connection to others over time motivation, inspiration, knowledge and capability declines. We might be able to continue our lives longer but only by depending on the work of others to support our communication networks, to pack and deliver our needs and provide other essential services.
For over a century, it has suited our organisations to divide, to simplify, to measure and to standardise our work such that it feels separate and distinct. However, all the efforts to bring machine efficiency to our work don’t exclude the human connection inherent in our working lives. This division and simplification depends on certainty and predictability to work. Yet the greatest challenges we face today are complex and uncertain.
All our work is part of and shapes a continuous community whole. A century ago, Mary Follet described community as a process. Follet describes the process of continuous evolution of purposes, ends and means when people come together in community. We don’t need people to subjugate themselves to others, to goals or to process. We need people to contribute their talents and capabilities.
We are capable of creating a collective will, and at the same time developing an individual spontaneity and freedom hardly conceived of yet, lost as we have been in the herd dream, the imitation lie, and that most fatal of fallacies the fallacy of endsMary Follet, Community as a Process
Whether, we hear them or not the bells of community shape our ability to deliver our purpose, our collaboration and the value of our work. We work on the mainland or at least an archipelago. Nobody is an island.
Creating Value is Always Collaborative Work
We need to recognise that the highest value in our work and our lives is collaborative community work. We have organisations and government exactly because there is more value we can accomplish together in community than alone.
The highest value challenges aren’t changes that you can order or solve with brute force or heroic action. We don’t solve big challenges, complexity and uncertainty on our own. We need to share, discover, learn and adapt together.
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever hasMargaret Mead
Addressing these challenges requires the best of our human knowledge, talents and capability in community. Importantly, as Follet notes above, addressing these challenges also brings out the best in us and creates new opportunities for others to realise their potential through community. We must ensure that our work and our lives are diverse and inclusive and that we are tackling systemic barriers to people participating in realising their own and collective potential.
When we fail to do so, the bell tolls for all of us.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhereMartin Luther King