Can We Be Saved?

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold

WB Yeats, The Second Coming
Somewhere out there

For some it feels as if things are breaking apart or about to do so? The 2020s have shades of the 1920s, but on top of political turmoil, nationalism, economic crises and stock market enthusiasms we have other monsters at the gates too. Can we be saved which in reality means can we find the wherewithal to save ourselves? I am an optimist enough to believe we can but a realist who can see the headwinds.

So what do we do when we are unsure if the world is breaking apart?

We accept the world is always in transition. Grieve the losses. We foster what works better now.

The Headwinds of Change

Economy: once a net, now a handful of holes.
Economy: what a man moves with
when, even in sleep, he is trying to save
all there is left to save.

Sandra Beasley, Economy

There’s a daunting list of the headwinds of change to address the monsters at the gates. Some of these headwinds like information bubbles & misinformation, income inequality and the breakdown of social connection are getting worse. Sectors of society can’t even agree on the utility of wearing a mask, let alone tackling climate change.

However, we must remember that news thrives on bad news. If noting else, humans are adaptable and long term fundamentals, like global lifespans, reduction in global poverty and so on, remain on an upward trend. The challenge is to sustain this into the next generations and give them more time to adapt. The headwinds are why we need to set to work now.

Adaptation

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.

Attributed to Charles Darwin. It is unlikely he said this or would endorse it.

If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.

Jack Welch. Definitely said it but look at GE since his tenure.

The above quotes are extraordinarily common in corporate thought leadership. They suggest that adaptation is the challenge. All an organisation needs to manage is its speed of response and it will survive and likely even prosper. So much work and effort has been invested in speeding up the hamster wheel as a result. That speed, complexity and the disconnections in our system are increasingly issues for organisations. Faster change can also be a faster path to the end, just ask all those clever ideas that rapidly scaled themselves beyond their capital trying to win a planned future raise.

Quoting Darwin brings the illusion of science and particularly evolution, but that quote ignores how evolutionary selection works. In evolutionary selection, everyone dies. It’s just that some mutations in the creation of the next generation enable some of future generations to continue with advantages. Nobody chooses to adapt. Nobody changes themselves. Nature supplies the change and the harsh and deadly selection process. As I have previously pointed out on the latter quote, it is no longer possible to outpace a connected global market.

Adaptation can be important at an individual level and some longlived organisations have undergone long and slow change to survive for generations and even centuries. However, many of our organisations are too big and too wedded to their current practices to adapt. Critically, many will not abandon or destroy their current model of success to do so. They lack the context to understand competition that threatens their overplaying of a past success, reliance on a fundamental process or overdependence on a core historical metric. Many individuals struggle with change for the same lack of perception asking “how can I need to change? I am doing it the way that always worked before”.

Foster What Works Now

There’s nothing to save, now all is lost,
but a tiny core of stillness in the heart
like the eye of a violet

DH Lawrence, Nothing to Save

We all die in the end so what should we do? Grieve for the losses. Foster what works better now.

There is so much that needs to be done it can be overwhelming. However, big solutions aren’t always the answer. We are tempted always to go for Moonshots (or Marshots). Our focus on scale, growth and speed suggests to us that there must be one magical answer that addresses everything. Life is more complicated than that. More importantly, the path forward is unclear enough that it’s not yet time to be boarding the rocket to Mars with any certainty.

Gall’s Law proposes that all complex systems evolved from small systems that work. It comes with the helpful proviso that not all small systems work. We won’t find one action that fixes everything. What we can do is start small, do what works and build forward from there.

If our organisations cannot adapt through these small changes, then at least the work on these transformations will enable us to discover others who think the same and develop an ability to build new organisations to leverage the learning. The Berkana Two Loops Model of Change is a powerful framework for how to consider this kind of large scale change in systems. This model reflects the likely scenario that a new system will grow from something small and replace the current system, instead of adapting the current system to the change.

Things feel uncertain, liminal and transitional at present. What we struggle to see is that the feeling is a good thing. Our world is never settled and secure. It is always changing. We are in a phase where that change is very visible and very needed. We should embrace the uncertainty and focus on the small steps we can each make to bring about a change for the better. Collectively those efforts will discover new paths.

…”What is strength for,
that has endured much, but to endure more?”

Marion Strobel, Growth

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