A read through a typical management or personal improvement feed will reveal near infinite recommendations for steps you can take to improve your organization or self. Three words tend to be absent from this content stream and they are what take seemingly simple recommendations and navigate them through complexity: time, care, and attention.
Embedded within the torrent of content on productivity, innovation and self-development is a sense of urgency reflected in ‘top ten lists’, ‘how tos’ and ‘hacks’ that promise ways to make your life and the world better, faster; hallmark features of what has become our modern, harried age. These lists and posts are filled with well-intentioned strategies that are sure to get ‘liked’, ‘shared’ and ‘faved’, but for which there might be scant evidence for their effect.
Have you seen the research on highly productive people and organizations and their approaches, tools and strategies that speak to your specific circumstances? Probably not. The reason? There’s a paucity of research out there that points to specifics, while there is much on more generalized strategies. The problem is that you and I operate in the world specific to us, not generalized to the world. It’s why population health data is useful to understanding how a particular condition or issue manifests across a society, but is relatively poor at predicting individual outcomes.
Whether general or specific, three key qualities appear to be missing from much of the discussion and they might be the reason so little of what is said translates well into what is done: time, care, attention.
When words and concepts like lean startup, rapid cycle prototyping, and quick pivoting dominate discussion of productivity and innovation it is easy to find our focus in speed. Yet, there are so many reasons to consider time and space as much as speed. Making the space to see things in a bigger picture allows us to act on what is important, not just what is urgent. This requires space — literal and figurative — within our everyday practice to do. Time allows us to lower that emotional drive to focus on more things at once, potentially seeing new patterns and different connections than had we rushed headlong into what appeared to be the most obvious issue at first look.
If we are seeking change to last, why would we not design something that takes time to prepare, deliver and sustain? Our desire and impetus to gain speed comes at the cost of longevity in many cases. This isn’t to suggest that a rapid-fire initiative can’t produce long-term results. The space race between the United States and Russia in the 1950’s and 60’s proves the long-term viability of short-term bursts of creative energy, but this might be an exception rather than the rule. Consider the timelessness of many classical architectural designs and how they were build with an idea that they would last, because they were designed without the sense that time was passing quickly. They were built to last.
Care is consideration applied to doing something well. It is tied to a number of other c-words like competence. Those who are applying their skills to an issue require, acquire and develop a level of competence in doing something. Tackling complex social and organizational problems requires a level of competence that comes with time and attention, hence the research that suggests mastery may take as much as 10,000 hours of sustained, careful, deliberative practice to achieve. In an age of speed, this isn’t something that’s easily dealt with. Fast-tracked learning isn’t as possible as we think.
Care might also substitute for another c-word: craft. Craft is about building competence, practicing it, and attending to the materials and products generated through it. It’s not about mass production, but careful production.
Care is the application of focus and another c-word: compassion. Compassion is a response to suffering, which might be your own, that of your organization or community, or something for the world. Compassion is that motivational force aimed at helping alleviate those things that produce suffering and includes empathy, concern, kindness, tolerance, and sensitivity and is the very thing that translates our intentions and desires for change into actions that are likely to be received. We react positively to those who show compassion towards us and has been shown to be a powerful driver for positive change in flourishing organizations (PDF).
And isn’t flourishing what we’re all about? Why would we want anything less?
The third and related factor to the others is attention. Much has been written here and elsewhere about the role of mindfulness as a means of enhancing focus and focus on the right things: it’s a cornerstone of a socially innovative organization. Mindfulness has benefits of clearing away ‘noise’ and allowing more clear attention toward the data (e.g., experience, emotion, research data) we’re presented with that is the raw material for decision making. It’s an essential element of developmental evaluation and sensemaking.
Taken together, time, care and attention are the elements that not only allow us to see and experience more of our systems, but they allow us to better attend to what is important, not just what is urgent. They are a means to ensuring we do the right things, not the wrong things, righter.
In a world where there is more of almost everything determining what is most important, most relevant and most impactful has never been more important and while there is a push for speed, for ‘more’, there’s — paradoxically — never been a greater need to slow down, reduce and focus.
Thank you, reader, for your time, care and attention. You’ve given some of the most valuable things you have.
Image credit: Author
An attempt to innovate – do something new to produce value — is always fraught with risk and a high likelihood that things won’t go as planned, which can leave people jaded toward future efforts. Whether that metaphor of jade is one of a rock (static) or a plant (growth) makes all the difference.
Innovation is hot. Innovation is necessary. Innovation is your competitive advantage. Innovate or die.
You’ve probably heard one or all of these phrases or one of the myriad variants of them out there. Innovation is a hot word. To innovate is to transform new thinking into new value, but it is used euphemistically to represent all kinds of ‘hot’ things without appropriate framing. It’s not just doing something different, it’s about producing something new that improves on the situation at hand, even if the solution might actually be an old idea re-introduced.
A recent article for the online version of Harvard Business Review suggests that many companies are just giving up, ceding the ‘innovation’ space to large firms with a reputation for innovation. Why? One of the reasons cited is that the developing social and technological change has created a situation where “many firms seem to be unable to keep up with the pace at which this development is unfolding.”
The painful experience of failure
Another reason might be the problem of failure. Failure has become another cool word in the language of business and social innovation (even, government) to the point of being fetishized as something noble. The issue with failure is not just accepting that it can happen, but learning from it and acting on that learning. It also means understanding what failure is and whether an outcome is even best described in terms like “success” and “failure” . Too often in innovation, particularly social innovation, we actually don’t know what success looks like so how is it that we can use the term failure so readily?
Failure is a word with enormous negative cultural baggage. Despite all the positive rhetoric of failure, corporations, social enterprises and governments are judged on their ability to deliver what is expected of them. Expectations are really the key here. If you’re a corporation that promises to deliver a certain rate of return on investment over a specific time period, you’re going to be held to task for that. We can speak of failure positively all we’d like, but try explaining the ‘learning’ outcomes to a group of angry shareholders?
Politicians don’t get judged on their ability to manage complexity, they are judged by making and keeping promises — even if those promises are based on (overly) simplistic ways of viewing complex problems. As we entangle ourselves with more complex problems, the promise of a simple solution will be harder to come by. Yet, it’s that hope for the solution that is what ultimately gets us. As I once read in a newsletter advertising an online dating service in a very cheeky manner:
It’s not the rejection that kills you, it’s the hope.
It’s actually quite true. If you don’t expect to succeed, “failure” isn’t really that bad.
Lowered expectations, risk avoidance & path dependencies
When you’re jaded, you tend to lower your expectations. The analogy of online dating above is also an apt descriptor for ways in which lowered expectations changes the very game of innovation in real ways in people’s lives. As divorce rates approach 50%, it is becoming common that many people are starting over sometime in their 30’s and 40’s and trying, once again, to find love. What’s interesting in terms of dating is that, particularly if you’ve been dating a little, you face two big issues: 1) you’re a bit cautious about what you do or say because you know that things might not last and you want to conserve your energy and 2) you’ve become accustomed to the way you do things on your own.
The result might be less adventurousness, more conservative thinking about the choice of partner, a greater willingness to settle for what is, rather than what could be (risk avoidance). An established pattern of living might also predispose you to looking for partners who are a lot like you, which maintains a level of consistency (path dependence). An argument can be made that this is more about knowing yourself and your preferences than being set in your ways, but there is a fine line between that and resistance to change.
This is exactly what we see in organizations around innovation.
They have tried innovation before, it’s failed to deliver what they expected (because they probably set their expectations poorly, not realizing that the outcomes of innovation could be something other than they had designed for), and now don’t want to try. Or rather, they don’t want to try enough. This is why we see so many organizations trumpet themselves as innovative, when what they are really doing is the most basic, simplistic forms of innovation. Rather than a moonshot, they are looking to simply move the yardsticks just a little.
Plant vs stone
Jade is both a plant and a stone. A jade plant is a solid, semi-broad leafed plant that is well suited to dry climates and a variety of light situations, making it a great houseplant. It’s adaptive, easily transplantable and hearty. Jade, as a stone, is relatively soft and while it is also adaptable, once carved into a shape, it’s no longer going to change.
The jade / jaded metaphor is designed to consider the ways in which we approach developing our innovation potential. A jade plant is still firm, but flexible. It grows and changes over time, but isn’t as free flowing as others. The jade plant offers a useful metaphor for ensuring that lessons learned from past actions inform future strategy, but not to the point where the fear of risk calcifies the organization into a static state, unable to change.
A plant exists largely because it has a steady stream of nutrients, water, sunlight and a reasonable stability of growing conditions, yet conditions that can change and will change over time. This consistency as well as requisite variety (in systems terms) is what keeps a plant alive and thriving. The same is true for an organization. Ongoing, steady innovation, consistency over time and the occasional change in conditions to keep things on their toes (and used to adaptation) are all a part of what makes an organization or individual innovative. Build in a regular practice, become a mindful organization (or practitioner) and consider changes in the way you speak about innovation to yourself and others.
Bruce Lee would advocate that his students become like water. Innovators? They should become more like plants for that water.
Image Credit: Jade Plant by Andrew Rivett used under Creative Commons License. Thanks for sharing Andrew!
The concept of healing plays an integral part of healthy human development in many cultures, yet is largely unknown or misunderstood in its practice. If we seek to develop, evolve, innovate and grown as individuals, organizations and societies wisely we would do well to better grasp what healing is and how its done, by design.
To develop, is to heal.
That’s a bold assertion, but one that is integral to understanding how we develop ourselves, our organizations and our communities and societies successfully.
Social and emotional baggage is what we bring with us on our journey. It can create character and strength, while it can also can weigh us down if we take too much of something or unhelpful things. Healing is one of the ways we deal with things to ensure that what we pack on a journey is the most useful for where we want to go and who or what we want to become. Because every journey is different, what is useful or not is relative, which is why a ‘one-sized fits all’ approach won’t work.
For those in developmental psychology, developmental evaluation or any innovation-related field you’ll recognize this as the norm. But the means in which development takes place is often viewed as rational, logical and linear, despite talk to the contrary. Design thinking is a perfect example of this: it’s an approach that is, in practice highly unpredictable and non-linear, but is often taught as a straightforward method.
Healing across cultures
The traditional Western term for healing is defined around terms like making whole again, restorative, or therapeutic: terms that focus on a return to the status quo. There are other perspectives that view healing as a developmental concept focused on transformation that has greater utility for those interested in change-making. This perspective on healing comes largely from aboriginal contexts worldwide. This approach has been well-documented as part of the !Kung and Ju!hoansi peoples of central Africa, Fijian aboriginal tribes, and many of the First Nations in North America by Dr. Richard Katz. Katz has been interested in the ways in which the practice of healing supports community development and social transformation as well as serving as a vital part of the psycho-social and spiritual life of these cultures.
Within each of these cultures are a series of practices, tools, methods and approaches to healing that are employed by individuals as well as the collective society to not only address injuries and wounds, but use the experience as a means to growth and connection to the world.
The most obvious Western parallel is not psychological, but physiological. Consider muscle growth and development. For muscles to build, they must be stretched and worked in a manner that causes minor trauma to them. Without the traumas, no growth can occur. Healthy muscle development is partly conscious, but also involves the interaction with other muscles and can be a process that is designed (i.e., developing a weight training routine or fitness regimen) or not. One will yield a particular set of intentional results, while the other does not.
An old new design for healing
What Katz’s work does is show us how things are done elsewhere, but also points to how this process is similar across cultures and can be applied elsewhere. This is not about cultural appropriation, but rather an acknowledgement of some common ways in which people relate to the experience of healing that can be designed for different contexts, using local knowledge and wisdom from that cultural situation.
What might that look like? Katz’s work points to a few common characteristics that could form the basis for a healing context. If one were to design such a context, what might that include?
- Mind, body, spirit. No matter what the source of ill-health, dis-ease, or mental unwellness, the mind, body and spirit are all assigned a role, even if those roles might be uneven in their contribution to the problem and solution. Further, these three elements are not disconnected from the environment in which they exist. Personal problems are always, to some extent, social problems and vice versa. This acknowledges the systemic effects of the environments we create and the interconnection between mind-body-spirit and our world around us. This thinking is the forerunner to what we often consider as the psycho- and social determinants of health and the biopsychosocial model of health that is now widely applied within health sciences.
- Participation and engagement. The most central distinction between the indigenous approaches to healing that Katz has explored and Western ones is the role of the community in the healing process. Unlike Western allopathic approaches, the healing process is not viewed as the responsibility of the patient and healthcare provider alone, but the family, community and beyond. This perspective acknowledges that, if one is to believe that the environment is a contributor to illness and recovery, there must be engagement from that domain in the healing process. Across the examples that Katz explores we see the involvement of the community in the prevention, treatment, post-incident care and development and as one solid continuum of practice. Healing is social and therefore the benefits are accrued to everyone.
- Ceremony & ritual. This engagement through the healing process is guided through the use of ceremony and ritual. This is part of every healing practice, even allopathic medicine, but the role of these is made explicit. In this case, healing is a conscious act that is shared with everyone involved. In Western societies, we too often fail to acknowledge ‘developmental moments’ properly, because we’ve not built in the spaces to do this. I’ve written about this in other places looking at the role of mindfulness in developmental evaluation and how there needs to be spaces for that to be built into regular practice — through ceremony and ritual, if you will — for it to work, otherwise things pass by.
- Mindfulness / data gathering. The act of paying attention is a prime source of data in healing practice. This goes beyond the simplistic view of diagnosis, which is not an appropriate means of viewing a problem if it takes place in a complex environment anyway — see the Cynefin Framework for reasons why. These cultures are using sophisticated means of assessing situations that are highly social, involve much sensemaking and, in keeping with appropriate practice for complex conditions, using multiple means and methods for capturing data about the source and context of a problem.
- Wisdom. While healing is done in the present, the cause and consequence have some roots back to the past. All of the cultures that Katz spent time with drew on wisdom from the elders, understanding of the past, and how what happened before sets the stage for what is happening now to some extent. This is where baggage can come in, personal history (including genetics) and ‘institutional memory’ in the case of organizations or communities. While we may think something is long finished and wrapped up, that might not be the case and if we’re not aware of our history we might be doomed not necessarily to repeat it, but to create a future we don’t want.
- Artifacts. The tools of ceremony and healing involve artifacts. While we might think of things like the couch, the medical bed, or the white coat as artifacts, so too does any healing situation have theirs are means to connect to the process and support healing. Many people, regardless of their background, draw on indigenous artifacts like burning sacred woods such as palo santo, or sage brush or sweetgrass, or perhaps incense of different types. More Westernized models such as candles or prayers might be involved. Used out of context without skill, these artifacts may not have the full perceived influence, but they allow those healing to recognize the act of healing as it takes place, creating a sacred space among the ordinary, transforming a space like a home or office into one that is suited for healing, demarcating the intentionality of healing. Whatever the artifact, even a mascot (e.g., toy) these things can create a space of sacredness where one didn’t exist before if used consistently and respectfully.
- Ongoing practice. Healing is not something that just happens and goes away. While the ritual and intensity of the healing act might change, there is a culture of healing that is created, just as we would seek to create a culture of learning, evaluation or innovation in an organization.
- Positivity. Richard Katz’s 1997 book looking at the Kalahari Ju!honansi peoples was entitled Healing Makes our Hearts Happy. The book details how the act of healing is a positive force in the community, despite the many challenges and pain that is experienced at times. The process of coming together, sharing and working on the process of creating a world for their people, not just reacting to things as they happen, allows for something that Rumi called ‘unfolding your own myth’. It provides agency and focus and keeps the community attuned to what is and what it wants to be on a regular basis. The process of coming back from dis-ease or dis-ability and creating a stronger next step is something that is always done from a place of positivity. In tactical terms, this is acknowledging what we know from psychology that it is more effective to ask for what you want, rather than what you don’t want.
- Energy. The final piece is energy. This can take the form of some spiritual force, but also reflects an intensity and active engagement with healing. It’s not a passive thing, but something active that requires work and focus. The cultures Katz spent time with put this as a priority, not as a ‘nice to have’. How often have we decided to ‘just put things behind us’ not facing the real implications of something traumatic? I knew someone who lived with terrible emotional and social abuse who, upon leaving a harmful environment, decided to seek some therapy to work through the issues. This brought insight and clarity and that convinced her that only a few sessions would be needed and left therapy (the healing space), claiming she was all worked through that stuff and could manage on her own. Sadly, before long, that dark shadow from her past came back only not at a time of her choosing and only re-imposed the traumas of the past in a way that she wasn’t prepared to deal with. The process of healing requires a lot of energy and focus, but the benefits are enormous if they are sustained. Sustaining the energy is perhaps the hardest part.
- The role of the healer. Involved in all of the approaches explored was a healer (or two). These are usually wise, well-skilled, and compassionate individuals with expertise and experience in guiding the healing process. Like Western approaches, these healers bring tremendous assets to the healing encounter, but unlike them they are more conductors of the symphony — integral and important, but only one part of a larger whole. We are seeing more nurses, doctor, psychotherapists recognizing this, but more is needed. The healing approach is truly done from a systems perspective in many of these indigenous cultures, where the healer plays a critical, connected role, yet is impotent without the system’s engagement around her or him. This is also true for the self-as-healer. While we can do a lot, we can’t do it all on our own, no matter much we try.
Healing our perspectives on healing
This approach to healing is something that we can all engage in. What we need to do is find the means — personal, social, organizational — to fit into the context we live in. That’s not a simple task and the easy, simple – and wrong — approach is to simply copy the Indigenous cultures’ practices, tools and traditions. What is necessary is to create a healing culture that is appropriate to the context it’s used.
In a pluralistic, diverse, largely urbanized, secular, Westernized world, this is a challenge that isn’t easily addressed. It means getting to know yourself and the environment we work in. The ‘model’ of healing above may share common features with those of many indigenous cultures and, as Katz has noted in his forthcoming book, these are often connected deeply to healing practices that were overrun and buried by modern allopathic approaches to medicine — denying that these practices are part of all of our history to some extent.
It’s worth also adding some subtext to what has been mentioned above with a personal note. I’ve met Richard Katz on many occasions. He was the mentor to a brilliant psychologist who mentored me and taught me many approaches to healing that I’ve had the privilege to work with and through in my work. Dick would always say: “speak about what you know” meaning that your stories are yours, not others and vice versa. Be humble.
Richard has lived and worked among healers his entire professional life and told the stories through his books at invitation of the communities he’s worked in. He fully acknowledges the cultural problems that this introduces, the timing and clash of worldviews they embody, the role of colonialism and the Westernization / sanitization / dramatization that often comes from Western scholars reporting on indigenous affairs and has been cautious about claiming anything about these communities worlds as his own. It’s a delicate situation and one that, when we engage in healing work, is one that needs discussion. It’s important to respect and honour the sources of our wisdom and knowledge and the means in which we come to know what we know.
Get in touch with what you know and may it help with your — and our — healing work, by design.
References of note:
Katz, R. (2017, forthcoming). Indigenous healing psychology: Honoring the wisdom of the first peoples. Healing Arts Press.
Katz, R., Biesele, M. & St. Denis, V. (1997). Healing makes our hearts happy. Inner Traditions.
Katz, R. (1989). The straight path: Ancestral wisdom and healing traditions in Fiji. Park Street Press.
Katz, R. (1984). Boiling energy: Community healing among the Kalahari Kung. Harvard University Press.
Social and emotional baggage is what we bring with us and, like the real thing, it’s all in what we pack, how we pack it and how aware we are of what we’re packing it for. And like the real thing, individuals and organizations can’t go on much of a journey without carrying some of it with us.
Social and emotional baggage is a concept that has been drawn from psychology to metaphorically represent the things — memories, expectations, experiences — that we bring from our past into our present context, usually in a negative, debilitating or otherwise limiting way. It’s something that is attributed to individuals, but may also fit organizations, too. But baggage is a part of any trip and looking at it as part of the journey might provide us better ways to use it, rather than ignore it.
Metaphors are useful ways to take what we cannot see or touch, but nonetheless are experienced as real and makes the concept more tangible. The metaphor of baggage is useful because we can look at it in many different ways.
Baggage is what we bring with us on our journey and, like real baggage, it matters what we bring, how much of it, and how amenable it is to being moved.
What’s in your carry-on?
Let’s consider what we might bring with us this journey of ours and consider what roles these items play in our lives and organizations. What’s going in our bag?
Clothing: Different outfits allow us to transform our appearance, to stand out or blend in, or express ourselves in creative ways (along with keeping us comfortable while avoiding the whole “naked in public” thing that’s a bit problematic in most cultures). Spare clothes provide us with the ability to envision ourselves in different forms. They represent our ability to adapt and to dream new futures. There’s a difference between having the latitude to transform and having so much stuff that either it’s not all that different or is so different, we lose our sense of who we are. When we’ve packed too much of anything, we get lost in choice and focus. If we don’t pack the right stuff, we lose our ability to adapt to changing conditions.
Toiletries: A basic toiletry set allows us to care for ourselves, maybe even make ourselves up a little. These are the things that repair the damage from day-to-day wear and tear on the body, heal, and protect ourselves from the wear to come and prevent future damage (hello, sunscreen!). We might also wish to make ourselves up a little sometimes, too (hello, lipstick or cologne!). If we pack too much of these things we can get vaingloriously trapped in what others might think of us and present a face that’s less authentic than our true selves. We might also be so focused on repair and prevention that we fail to recognize what’s in front of us in the present moment (the only moment when we can do anything to change the game).
Gifts: These are things we bring to others based on our experience and are shared best through acts of service, kindness, generosity and love. They may be souvenirs, stories, photos and keepsakes – things given and transported with care for others and might include sharing our knowledge (tacit and explicit) and experience with others through storytelling. Our fellow travellers benefit from our gifts, and so do we as they often bring joy to the giver through the giving. However, if we pack our bags with too many we may wind up looking more after others than ourselves. Our focus is on giving to others at the expense of caring for ourselves. Our bags only have so much room and gifts take up some of that room.
Memories & Experience: This is our past. This is the part that accumulates over time as we get older and experience the world. It builds on and continually adds to our carriage, meaning we need to consider how we pack it, what we choose to hold on to from this vast collection, and what we might want to discard. This is where wisdom resides. It’s also a seat of some of our biggest problems. If real healing — that integration of experience with understanding, reflection and growth through our social life — doesn’t take place, we might find ourselves with things in our bag that we’d thought we’d discarded, but didn’t. It’s like finding the scorpion that might have hid in your luggage from your tropical vacation as you go home. If we’re not careful and mindful about what we pack, we might let in things we thought we’d left behind.
Cargo: This last element is cartage from one space to another. This is the stuff we bring from one place to another that may or may not have any purpose. It’s ‘stuff’. It’s trivia, the news, pop culture, or the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life. It seems like this would be the easiest thing to disregard, but it’s not. It can take up a lot of room. Consider where you put your attention and what you consume in a day — your social media feeds, gossip at the office or the dog park, advertisements, broadcast media — and what you hang on to. This is the stuff that can make us lose sight of what we think is important, so it’s critical that we are mindful about what cartage we add to our baggage.
As my colleague Alex Jadad says:
Nothing really matters apart from what matters to us. Therefore, we must be very careful about what we choose to matter to us.
Packing what matters most
Our baggage represents a system. We create the boundaries by the shape and size of the bag (or bags) we choose to bring with us and all of what goes in the bag interacts (it all has to work together to fit). What happens when we pack piecemeal, we throw all of the stuff above into a bag and try and organize it. Sometimes we seek to bring more bags or getting a bigger suitcase; maybe that will work. But things don’t fit, it doesn’t go together. Or we find ourselves laden with luggage, slow to move, strained in the back and joints from carting it around…but at least we have our stuff, right? (if we can find it).
The problem with that ‘add more’ strategy is that, the more we have, the slower we are, the more encumbered, and the more confused. We add to complexity, rather than create simplicity. We need to design better.
The best packers are those who create extra space for things they’ll pick up along the way, put in things that go together (e.g., outfits that mix and match), and they determine their essentials ahead of time. They spend the time considering what is most important, most used, most necessary and organize around those things: they employ strategy (and they adapt their strategy along their journey). They know what they need, what they like, and what makes them comfortable, safe and happy on their journey. Why? They’ve paid attention and collected data to support that decision (e.g. through ongoing evaluation, reflective practice, mindfulness, personal therapy).
This is all about being mindful about our work and life. For organizations, there are things you can do to create mindfulness in the way you work to help understand the choices you make and their consequences. For individuals, it’s about doing self-development work and engaging in reflective practice — in work and life.
If we don’t know what’s in our bags, we might be surprised what comes out. The subconscious works that way: it will pop things out at times of its choosing when we are often not expecting it or desiring it. Subconscious processes work at the individual and collective levels — it’s not just a personal thing.
We are contributors to the story of our lives, but not the sole authors (despite what many seem to think). What has happened to us because of others matters as much as what we create for ourselves. It’s not about labeling those experiences as ‘good’ things and ‘bad’ things, rather dealing with the consequences that those experiences bring to our life in the here and now and asking if they are helpful or unhelpful to living the life we want.
Were you under appreciated by your colleagues or family? Bullied? Neglected? Think it’s all in the past? Replicate that situation in the present and see how you feel — it might not be all in the past. Abuse and neglect are common experiences at home and work and how we integrate that into our lives — or whether we do at all — can be a key factor in determining how we relate to the experiences in the present.
What about that project at work that got everyone excited and failed to deliver the value that everyone expected or felt promised? Is that going to temper the willingness to try again, to innovate or risk something new again? Organizations and teams might be tempted to ‘lower the bar’ to avoid disappointment, despite suggestions that an organizations’ settling for ‘mediocrity’ drives quality people away from work.
What about that romantic relationship that was perfect, but ended because it was too perfect? How is too perfect even possible, you ask? If you’re not accustomed to being loved and cared for you might find it very uncomfortable to get exactly what you want (and need) and find (invent?) reasons why the relationship won’t work and end it (or sabotage it so you don’t have to end it). The issue isn’t that you don’t aspire for this ‘perfect love’, it’s that you’re not used to it; maybe the only way you were loved before was through neglect, abuse, or simple disinterest and partner disengagement. When that changes, so does our narrative about what real love is all about and if we don’t ‘flip the script’ we’ll write the new story into the old one and that just won’t work. (And if you’ve not experienced this in romance, how about a job? A friendship? An opportunity at work? — self sabotage is very real and underexamined).
None of this is crazy-making: it’s just how some people deal with the intense sadness of not knowing how to be loved or to achieve real success.
Like anything in life: change challenges us and these experiences (fears, hopes, unrequited dreams, and victories) go into our luggage and often not by choice — or awareness. But knowing this can happen will help us understand our baggage and how our past and hopes for the future affect the present.
The temptation is to make some sort of judgement about baggage and assume its a problem. We bring what we need with us and that means that we each will have and will need baggage differently. What we wish is for it to serve us, not debilitate us or keep us from growing. Being mindful, reflective and careful about what we have already packed is another critical step.
The next is realizing that, like real baggage, we can re-pack. We can discard things, re-organize, re-prioritize what goes inside. It’s never too late, but it does require work. The best thing of all is that, when we reorganize our baggage we create more of what we want — what matters to us — and less of what we don’t want or others want for us. Our baggage is our asset if we allow it to be.
Reflective practice, healing (to be covered in a future post in more depth), compassion (because we all have things we wish weren’t packed for us in our bags – be good to ourselves), systems thinking (and design thinking — creatively considering how we pack, not just what we pack) and healthy social engagement are all ways to improve our relationship with baggage.
And that’s something to hang our hats on.
Happy, healthy travels.
Image credits: Author
Is what you do, where you work, or how you organize, beautiful? Among the many words used to describe our work lives the most neglected and maybe necessary might be described that one word: it’s time to take it seriously.
For those working in design one of the biggest challenges is getting people to understand that good design isn’t just about making things pretty, but making them better, more useful, more responsive, sustainable, and impactful. Good design is too often seen as a ‘nice to have’ than a ‘must have’ and is thus invested in accordingly.
‘Beautiful’ as a concept has it even worse. In my entire working career I’ve never heard the word uttered even once on a matter of professional importance by others. That’s a shame and it speaks loudly to our present situation where innovation is hard to come by, organizations struggle to attract and retain good people, and the battle for attention — of the market and our workforce — is maybe the biggest one of them all.
But beauty is worth a look, particularly because it is, well, beautiful.
A beautiful term
What is beautiful? Consider the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition.
beautiful |ˈbyo͞odəfəl| adjective
pleasing the senses or mind aesthetically: beautiful poetry | a beautiful young woman | the mountains were calm and beautiful.
• of a very high standard; excellent: the house had been left in beautiful order | she spoke in beautiful English.
Note two key features of this definition: pleasing the senses or mind and high standards. The first part might sound a bit hedonistic (PDF), but when you consider what motivates us at the most base level of existence: it’s pleasure and pain. We are attracted to people, experiences, objects and environments that generate pleasure. In an environment described above when attracting talent, eyeballs — attention — is so hard to come by, why would we not amplify beauty?
The second term is high standards. It’s not enough to attract attention, we need to hold it and to inspire action, loyalty and persistence if we wish to succeed on most counts. Quality is a competitive advantage in many environments, particularly in human services where the complexity associated with poor quality decisions, processes and management are potentially catastrophic. (Enron, anyone?).
An associated term to this is aesthetics, which is defined as:
aesthetic |esˈTHedik| (also esthetic) adjective
concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty: the pictures give great aesthetic pleasure.
• giving or designed to give pleasure through beauty; of pleasing appearance.
Aesthetics is the more active appreciation of beauty — the application of it in the world. Organizational aesthetics is an emergent area of scholarship and practice that seeks to understand the role of beauty in the organization and its implications. Steven Taylor describes organizational aesthetics through storytelling, outlining the way he came to know something through connecting his work with his senses. His story points to different ways in which organizational aesthetics is experienced and understood, but ultimately how its sensed. It’s that attention to the senses that really sets this field apart, but also how practical it is.
Organizational aesthetics are about practical realities of organizational life, brought to bear through our five senses, not just the mind. Strange that so much of what is produced in the literature and scholarship is so cognitive and devoid of discussion of any other sensory experiences. Yet, we are sensuous beings and most healthy when we are in touch (literally!) with our senses in our lives. Consider the cortical homunculus and you’ll know that we feel through a lot more than we often use in our work lives.
Organizational aesthetics is about using methods that tap into these senses and the qualities of physical, social, psychological spaces where they can be used more fully to contribute to more impactful, healthier and happier environments for humans to work and thrive. This approach is rooted in design and the hypothesis that, as human created (thus designed) constructs, the modern organization can design in beauty as much as it can design beauty away. Like design itself, organizational aesthetics is practical, above all.
Citing earlier work from Roozenberg & Eekles (1995) on the topic of design causality, Steven De Groot, from the Eindhoven University of Technology, points to the way in which design is a responsive means to helping an organization adapt.
By fulfilling functions a design satisfies needs, and gives people the possibility to realize one or more values. Transferring these fundamentals, the design of the organization needs to change as a consequence of changing roles and needs of the employees in this case.
Roozenberg and Eekles assert that form follows value and thus, as De Groot sought to explore, explicit value of beauty can produce beautiful organizations. The reasoning for this research comes from earlier studies that show that when organizations value and nurture beauty within them, employees are happier, their commitment increases and the organizational function is improved.
Dispelling beautiful myths
Despite the reams of research that has emerged from a variety of disciplines showing the connections between beauty and positive outcomes and experiences in organizations, there will be many who are still troubled by the idea of integrating the word ‘beautiful’ into the serious world of work. It may be tempted to rely on a few myths to deny its utility so let’s dispel those right away.
- Promotion of beauty is not denial of the ugly. Ugly is everywhere: in the news, on social media (spent time on Facebook lately?), and embedded in many of our global, social challenges. Embracing the beautiful is not about denying ugly, but drawing our focus to areas where we can create change. As I discussed in a previous post, good design is increasingly about reducing information overload and focusing on areas we can influence by creating positive attractors, not negative ones. It’s based on attention and human nature. We stop and remark on fresh cut flowers. We comment on a colleagues’ attractive new outfit or clothing item (“I love your new socks!”). We see something that is well designed and we admire it, covet it or just enjoy it. Beauty captures something of the most rarest of commodities in the modern age: attention. We won’t change the world by yelling louder, we’ll change it by speaking beautifully, better.
- There’s no single definition of beauty. Beauty is truly subjective. What I might find particularly beautiful is different than what someone else will, yet there is much evidence that there is also a shared sense of the beautiful. Pierre Bourdieu’s work on taste and taste-making (PDF) points to the social means in which we — fair or not — share perspectives to elevate ideas, concepts and artifacts. We are social and thus share social rules, tastes and ideas and that this might be done across cultures, within ‘tribes’ or tied to specific settings or groups, but there is always something shared.
- There are shared principles of beauty. What makes for a shared cultural experience is something that we refer to as simple rules in complexity studies. These are rules that may be explicit, unconscious or tacit that guide collective actions and shared experiences. It, combined with history (and something we call path dependence – a driver of stability and stasis in a system), is what allows us to have some collective appreciation of the beautiful. It’s why natural elements (e.g., plants) or use of certain colours can create a positive atmosphere and psychological experience within a setting even if those plants or colours are universally loved.
- There is plenty of evidence to support the case for making changes based on beauty. This ‘absence of evidence’ myth will take a while to dispel as people will see (or not see) what they want to. All I would suggest is that you take a long hard look at some of the research — in particular Steven de Groot’s doctoral work — and put that up against any other theory or program of research and explain how it’s less than — particularly given how young of a field it is. There is an entire academic journal devoted to this topic (and, like in any journal, not all the evidence is top-notch, but there’s good work in there and throughout the literature). Consider how management theory, a well-established area of scholarship, is already becoming ‘a compendium of dead ideas‘ given the paucity of solid research behind it and yet something like organizational aesthetics hasn’t taken hold? The battle is long, but adoption of some new, beautiful thinking is one that will pay off. I’ve not even started getting into the arguments for environmental and organizational psychology or design.
Change in a complex system is about creating, finding and amplifying positive attractors and dampening and eliminating negative ones (and in complex systems positive isn’t always good and negative bad, it’s about what the goals are in the system — what you wish to achieve within that system. In society, these are almost always socially negotiated, somewhat contested).
Attracting attention, ideas, and energy is one of our biggest social challenges at the moment and a huge barrier to change.
Everyone’s looking for a way to capture attention and hold it when there is a beautiful solution right under their noses.
“Everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike” – John Muir, 1869
Image Credit: Author
In a world awash in content and the resulting complexity that comes when it all intersects the viable options for how to manage it remain few. The Dutch De Stijl art and design movement might offer some lessons on dealing with complexity that we can apply beyond products to creating beautiful, functional, and effective services, settings and policy options.
Are you informed about the world? Chances are the answer to that question is both no and yes. There’s no question that you’re informed, the question might be more on what you’re informed about, to what extent, whether that’s of your interest (and relevance and need) and whether it’s an accurate (and useful) depiction of the world around you. That’s a much more complicated set of questions with a troubling set of answers. But one group (the Dutch) may have found some solutions… but we’ll get to that in a moment.
First let’s look at what we’re up against: data streams of distraction.
Data streams of distraction
Consider the many information sources we’re presented with daily.
Consider mine in no particular order, starting with digital : Email (multiple accounts), two course management portals, Instagram, Twitter (two accounts), LinkedIn, Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Whats App, comments on my website or Facebook company page, about 2 dozen apps (on my iPhone and iPad), myriad websites I visit, text messages and, oh yes, occasionally the phone will ring. Next, there’s physical magazines, books, radio or music streams and television, too. Looking out my window I see cranes and buildings and billboards from my downtown loft apartment (and hear birds singing, above it all).
I also encounter real-life human beings, too and they have things to share and more information for me. Funny, that.
This is based on what I choose to look at (even if some choices are rather constrained, such as knowing there is only one way to reach someone and that means engaging with a particular media form I intensely dislike — I’m talking about you, Facebook). Travelling through my day, others will approach and engage, I’ll encounter new things that present themselves and will be handed, shown, flashed or spoken to plenty of other information. The volume of information keeps growing with every encounter.
Then there’s the information stored in memory, the remnants of all of those other days, experiences, and a lifetime of events and information.
This will all happen in real-time, refer to present situations, the past, many possible futures, contain truths, lies, myths and be incomplete in parts all over. It is, in short, a perfect representation of complexity. And it’s causing us a lot of problems.
The term ‘information(al) overload’ has been coined to describe the exposure to too much information or data. Information overload and the design problems that information abundance provides has contributed to . Engineers, the builders of much of our critical infrastructure (including, ironically, information technology), know this firsthand and are growing in their concern over how they see that influencing their work. In 2012 the IEEE published a book (PDF) that looked deeply at the role of information overload where the authors note that information overload is not just when people seek new information, but when it information searches for them. The authors argue that:
Information overload “places knowledge workers and managers worldwide in a chronic state of mental overload. It exacts a massive toll on employee productivity and causes significant personal harm, while organizations ultimately pay the price with extensive financial loss”
Annual Reviews, an academic publisher of multidisciplinary research, was motivated to write a piece on information overload in their industry (PDF), noting the present problem is partly one of removing intermediaries:
“…the removal of the intermediary (typically the librarian, but sometimes the publisher) from the information seeking chain…means we are all librarians now, and have to behave like them—constantly reviewing and validating data.”
That takes a lot of work. Both of these works are from 2011-2012 and since then the continued expansion of broadband and mobile technologies, facilitated by cameras and cheaper access to technology, has only added to the amount of information available. The content generation capacity of the public has increased, the consequences are no different, and the solutions fewer.
Perversely, one of the strategies we use to battle overload is to throw more content at the problem as Tom Fishburne shows in this cartoon. We create greater complexity by adding more complexity. This is the tension. We want to add more information to clarify, rather than strip it away, and end up doing the opposite.
Yet, there may be hope and it is rooted in pragmatism and a desire for beauty: the Dutch design movement, De Stijl.
Designing away complexity: going Dutch
To the untrained eye (which, until a few weeks ago, was mine until I met Corrie van Walraven) the image above would suggest a modern styled home built in the last 20 or 30 years. Rietveld Schröder House, pictured, was actually built in 1924 and reflects a Dutch design ethos that’s continued through to today of keeping things clean, organized, efficient, flexible, and beautiful.
By many standards the Netherlands has shown itself to be an expert in complexity. Holland is among the most densely populated countries in the world, manages to grow food, survive and thrive in a physical environment that shouldn’t even exist (it is, after all , situated mostly under water). They’ve become masters of adaptation, because they’ve had to be. Dutch design reflects much of this and De Stijl is a perfect example.
Though Dutch design has had many facets and movements De Stijl remains popular partly because of it’s ability to create simplicity amid complexity while creating beauty. Beauty in a designed artifact means it has an evident function, but also elicits a positive aesthetic experience. As Steven de Groot’s research has shown, beauty does not only have intrinsically attractive qualities, but its presence in organizations can lead to higher productivity, employee retention and satisfaction, and overall institutional effectiveness.
Beauty provides an experience of positivity, generally free from confusion, and often clarity. It is lack of clarity and the presence of confusion that is what complexity often brings. Anything that can increase the first and reduce the second while remaining adaptive to the realities of complexity (e.g., information seeking you out) and the data stream is something worth paying attention to; that’s where De Stijl and examples like the Rietveld Schröder House provide guidance.
The house, pictured above, was designed to create a fluid, adaptive space that could configure to a variety of situations and evolve over time. It deals with the amount of content — people, furniture — adaptively, within the boundaries of its walls, in ways that preserve form and function, yet do not get bound too tightly to any particular model. Another distinction is that it is designed to provide the least distinction between the indoor and outdoor spaces. Thus, the design feels somewhat less visible through its simplicity.
Coherence within boundaries
What the De Stijl movement does well is integrate complex ideas together, beautifully, and subscribing to a design philosophy that mirrors Dieter Rams’ belief that we should design as little as possible. De Stijl is about creating coherence – beneficial coherence in complexity terms — within boundaries. It’s work doesn’t seek to integrate the outside and inside (indeed, the criticism of the Rietveld Schröder House is that it doesn’t integrate well within the neighbourhood), but it does exceptionally well within the boundaries of its walls.
What we can take from this is the emphasis on internal coherence within our informational and organizational spaces, because those are the areas we can place boundaries. Systems thinking is all about boundary setting otherwise the focus becomes incoherent. This means being deliberate about where we set up our personal boundaries, professional boundaries and learning boundaries, but in keeping with De Stijl, keeping those flexible and adaptive and always moving, yet in a system that strives for coherence. One of the reasons information overload happens is because we have too much to create coherence with and because we’ve lost what our intention was with the information in the first place.
So a takeaway is this: be intentional about what you’re looking for and what you use. Be mindful of the things that give you coherence in your work and life and create a learning space where you can adapt. Strategy and purpose can help determine this — connect to this. Use the principles of Dutch design through De Stijl to design the conditions that support meaning making.
And if you want a great example in the personal realm, check out another creative thinker with Dutch lineage, Leisse Wilcox, on how self-love through better personal, environmental and social design (my word, not hers) can make you a happier person. That might be the best design you can create of them all.
Acknowledgements: A big thank you to Corrie van Walraven for sharing with me a piece on the De Stijl movement that inspired this post. Corrie’s a great representative of how wonderful the Dutch are and her generosity of spirit and great job as a host is greatly appreciated.
Image Credits: Author and Rietveld Schröder House by frm_tokyo used under Creative Commons License via Flickr.
Today is International Women’s Day when the attention of one half of the world’s population is brought to the entire world, suggesting that maybe this day is best honoured the other 364 days as well. Time to consider how this might look.
People worldwide will be celebrating and honouring women as part of International Women’s Day (#IWD2107) and it’s hard to conceive of any issue that is more worthy of such recognition. The theme for this year’s day is Be Bold for Change (#BeBoldForChange) with a variety of resources and promotional campaigns set up to raise awareness of women’s issues worldwide; support women and men in advocating for positive, healthy change around sex and gender-based discrimination; and creating a climate of positive human development for everyone, worldwide.
Depending on your perspective, this celebration of women worldwide on International Women’s Day is either something to be cherished or viewed with discouraged puzzlement — and both reflect the enormity of the issues that women face.
Women make up more than half of the globe’s population, are most often charged with raising children, represent the highest percentage of caregivers in most societies, and yet are systematically excluded (at worst) or badly included (at best) from many of the levers of power to enable them to sit on par with men on many issues that matter to women. A simple and depressing Google image search of Fortune 500 CEOs will find a white male wall of images that would almost suggest that a woman’s presence is there by mistake. If this is the starting place, the end is surely worse.
The puzzlement comes not from celebrating women, rather from the fact that we still need a place to do it because it’s not part of the fabric of everyday life for far too many, despite it being 2017 (two years past 2015 as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau remarked on his gender-balanced cabinet appointments). Just as Black Lives Matter is a necessary statement (and movement) because, for many, the lives of black people are treated as if they don’t matter, we need to celebrate women because they are too often treated as if they are the furthest thing from celebration-worthy.
It’s not elsewhere
A look through many of the various campaigns and promotional material looking at advancing gender equity will find a very visible presence of images and foci on the developing world. While it most certainly the case that women in these regions face considerable gender-based disadvantages the emphasis on the ‘other’ parts of the world can take our attention away from what is happening closer to home. In Canada, the wage gap between men and women has actually increased in recent years, with women earning 72% of what men do.
Not only do women earn less, but they make far less gains than men and this is made even more so if you belong to a racial minority. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in the United States based on the current rate of change, a white women will need to wait until 2059 to achieve pay equity. For Black women, this stretches to the absurd 2124 and for Hispanic women it’s at the incomprehensible 2248. Yes. some women in the United States will need to wait for 230+ years to see their pay equal than of a man at the current rate of change.
And this is just on matters of pay. The issues women face are far deeper and beyond comment in one simple article such as this.
The point is that women are systematic disadvantaged everywhere and the solution space needs to take a systems perspective if there is any hope of making meaningful progress and making the rate of change something better than expecting something different in 10 generations from now. One of the best ways to ensure that women succeed is to engage the other half of the system: men.
Areas of action: the role of men
It has been heartening to see an outpouring of support for #IWD2017 from men, something that is notably different from past years. Too often celebrations of diversity, resistance, or change involve the group most disadvantaged, but not enough from those whose power is challenged, yet whose involvement is necessary for systemic change to happen. Men need to play a big role in the change. This is not a ‘what about me’ kind of statement from men, but a realistic assertion that systems change cannot take place without engagement of the different parts in the system and that means involving both sexes in the change process.
The matter of violence against women is one of the areas where men’s involvement is critical and starting to attract greater engagement from men. One of the attractors used to draw men to this issue is through sport. Breakaway is a soccer (football) themed online game designed for boys (and girls) aged 8-15 to educate and illustrate issues of gender-based violence. Using sport and the things that boys are interested in (like video games, playing with friends) is a clever means of upending the usual approach of simply telling people about the harms associated with gender-based violence and hoping something changes.
In Canada, many of the Canadian Football League teams have programs aimed at their fans to raise awareness of and prevent violence against women. This is providing a more constructive counter to the horrible displays of gender-based violence from football players in the National Football League in the United States in recent years. Games like Breakaway and the integration of sport leaders into the conversation starts to change the dialogue around who commits violence, what the norms are around violence, and provide positive examples for young men to follow in living a life violence-free.
Changing the narrative: A systems perspective
The matter of women’s rights, freedoms, and opportunities is not simply solved due to the conflation of social, economic, geographic, and historical factors that have shaped the institutions and norms that surround sex and gender-based discrimination. That knotting up of issues is the hallmark of a complex system and thus, if we are to make substantive progress for women (and humanity, at large) on these issues the matter is better served by taking a systems approach. A great place to start is recognizing the complexity of the matter.
Attractors are forces that draw in (or repel) energy — attention, information, enthusiasm, focus, commitment, and more — and finding those that will attract both men and women (whether together or apart) to women’s issues is key. The use of sport and games as a means of attracting men is one example. Many men and boys engage in sport for creativity, recreation, social connection, and skill development and channeling those positive qualities toward inclusion of, respect for, and support of women and their rights is one way to scaffold from one issue to the next.
Engagement of thought leaders, opinion leaders and micro-influencers can also be a tool by shifting the norms, content and tenor of the discussion. These individuals are those that are on the pulse of trends, reflecting social aspirations, or simply provide direct means to cut through the clutter of the mediasphere to deliver a message. This is not just about celebrities, but those who are listened to. This amplifies a positive attractor within the system and draws more men (and women) into constructive conversations and actions.
An attractor-based approach to systems change also requires engagement of diversity within that system. This is another reason to consider the micro-influencer: someone who is a big deal in a small(ish) social space. These might be people on Instagram or within a community of practice or a local champion that has a committed, devoted following or engaged audience. These influencers speak to niche populations, issues, contexts and media forms that resonate with small segments of the population, deeply. That deeper engagement is what will propel people to make substantive changes in their behaviour, speak out, and further push change forward rather than a wide, thin engagement strategy. This last point speaks to the role of evaluation in all of this.
Evaluating the revolution
Social change is only thus because something happened that was different than was before. The only way to tell if the present is different than the past is to evaluate (compare) and potentially to attribute what happened to something that was done. But evaluation is more than social accounting, it’s also about gathering and using information to make things better and more impactful as things unfold. We don’t want to wait until 2059 to see if whatever efforts were put in place today will lead some women to pay equity. We might (and hopefully do) want to see things amplified so that this target date is brought closer to us.
The way to do this is to develop an evaluation strategy that clearly describes what is happening, what efforts are being developed and employed to support change, articulate a theory of change, and then create a series of strategic data collection measures (*that might not all be quantitative) that can be deployed at a system level and various smaller levels within the system to monitor and evaluate what kind of change we are producing. This allows us to ensure that whatever positive attractors we have are amplified and reinforced and those that are negative are disposed of or dampened. This can only be done if we have the feedback mechanisms in place and that is what evaluation delivers.
As we recognize the strengths and wonders that women bring to this world every day and the struggles they face, let’s consider how we can build on this energy and create attractors that can last beyond a day, a month or season to being something that is part of the fabric of life every day. That would be truly something to celebrate.
Posted on December 2, 2016
Change may be the only constant and, beyond wet babies, few of us welcome it. Foresight is about looking ahead to what change(s) might be coming to help us prepare, but that doesn’t help much if we don’t know where we are right now.
Last night I had a wonderful conversation with some foresighting peers, all fellow alumni from the Strategic Foresight and Innovation MDes program at OCADU. We were coming together to talk about what we, as ones with training in the foresight theories, methods and tools that help people consider possible futures, can do to help and heal the world in the wake of Donald Trump’s election and the social collisions that have come with it.
Trump’s election was an example of where the foresight community — like pretty much every other scholarly field — failed. Few, if any, saw it coming. No matter your slant on the media coverage, 18 months ago no one was talking about the Trump presidency in serious terms – hardly even Donald Trump, himself.
Even after securing the Republican nomination his candidacy was seen as taking on the impossible. Now, it’s the unpossible.
Today we have someone going on a campaign-style crusade against his opponents after he’s won the election. It’s as if the presidential outcome was never decided. No one saw that coming, either.
Or…you get the picture. There are a lot of things that have been missed by very smart people with powerful tools, theories and resources and it’s happening a lot.
This is less about bad foresight as much as it is a lack of insight into the present day and the present moment and the human beings who inhabit it. It might be time to bring psychology into foresight and that begins with understanding how people live their lives day-to-day and what they think, feel, pay attention to, and gravitate to (and away from).
Putting difference in context
To see the unpossible we need to start going deeper into the heart of human life.
While many laud the accomplishments of the maverick, the inspired trailblazer, or the wonders of diversity, the truth is that we are wired more tightly to sameness than difference. (Like it or not). Difference and change are two things we humans don’t have innate attraction to at a macro level, yet it is the hallmark feature of the cosmopolitan, modern (and certainly Western) world. Complexity is about diversity, change, instability, and non-linearity — the very things we humans have trouble with and yet we keep making systems that are ever-more complex making for a paradox of epic proportions.
Take the Syrian refugee crisis as an example of difference in-the-world. Canada is taking in over 35,000 refugees and has a commitment to maintain a slightly reduced level of refugees (from all over the world) for the foreseeable future. This pales in comparison to what other countries such as Lebanon or Turkey have taken in, but shames its larger neighbour to the south.
These new citizens bring new ideas, energy, culture to a country that has more than enough space, plenty of relative wealth and a population who are willing and able to help. Syrians (like so many refugees) have experienced horrors and more human suffering than anyone should have to endure.
While these new Canadians are contributors, they also require resources to help them settle. For many, it will be some time before they integrate into Canadian life enough that they no longer require government or charitable assistance. In the meantime, this group is hungry to work, to study and to create a life for themselves in their adopted home. The problem comes when there are others already here who also want to work, study and create a life for themselves and can’t do it to the levels they want and who might see the scarce resources being further reduced by these newcomers.
If I am a Canadian without work, how happy should I be that we are committing to providing 35,000+ people who are also looking for work with a place in my country? If I’m waiting for healthcare treatment, how is this going to affect me? How might I feel when I see that these newcomers get food, shelter, community support, job training and programs aimed at supporting them to integrate when I don’t believe I can get anything like that and I’ve been here my whole life? When has the Prime Minister ever come to welcome me to anything? If I was a refugee from another place just a year or two earlier, why didn’t I get this treatment when I arrived?
These aren’t just Canadian questions. They are being asked in Germany, Lebanon, Turkey, England, Jordan, Sweden and anywhere there is a perception of scarcity of resources (which is pretty much everywhere).
This is but one example. The humanitarian impulse that many people feel when looking to help those in need is why Canada and so many nations around the world have stepped up and taken in these Syrian ‘strangers’ as their new friends, neighbours and family with open arms. It’s heartwarming and represents some of the better angels of our nature. Yet, this doesn’t make the concerns that someone who is already settled here any less legitimate. This is that part of the equation that is easy to miss or dismiss when we see resistance to change or opposition to these kind of initiatives.
The psychology of difference
For those who identify as a progressive or liberal, opposition to change, diversity and global integration is often labeled as ‘small-minded’ at the least, racist at the worst. Certainly there are elements of that which can reside within what might be considered ‘conservative’ movements, yet it’s unfair to use these labels to describe an entire worldview. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt recently commented on the pull between globalist and nationalist thinking, pointing to the way worldviews about change and stability help us understand the rise of Donald Trump and other radical candidates. His analysis an application of moral psychology provides what may be the most powerful explanation of why we are seeing the ‘unpossible’ become possible.
As a caricature for illustration, liberals are biased to see positives in change while conservatives are biased toward promotion of stability. When change is constant and stability is comforting, this dichotomy is not easily resolved, if at all.
Psychology can help us in other ways when looking to the present and future of our world. One is to consider the cognitive biases that we hold when we bring a worldview that sees change and stability, globalism and nationalism, unity and diversity in everyday life.
One bias or mode of thought is attribution theory— taking one thing and ascribing qualities from it to another. In the case of a Trumpist United States that positions difference — Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, other countries’ trade policies — as a threat we can find examples of how this thinking plays out. It might be easy to look at what is the most obvious — people who are new, dress differently, speak differently, believe different things, and look different — as the culprit. After all, when things were good — when “America was Great” — these people weren’t here and this situation didn’t exist. Simple cause and effect, right?
Of course, we know that the ‘good old days’ were rarely ever as good as we make them out to be. This is because of a collection of other cognitive phenomena.
Hindsight bias is a way of confirming present feelings and thoughts based on seeing the past through a distorted lens that allows us to say things like “I knew it all along”. Nostalgia is a form of hindsight and allows people to reflect back on positive feelings and experiences in life, but also to connect to simplicity, which is why we remember simple, but strong feelings (love, fear, conviviality) but lose the details of just what was said or the specifics of an encounter. It’s the feelings that matter most.
A quote attributed to Toni Morrison is particularly apt here:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Finally, confirmation bias takes these thoughts and reformulates them into the present, which is a way of saying that we fit our memories and thoughts from the past to fit our current belief system.
Understanding time and change
Change is always relative. The parable of the frog in the boiling pot is a good one to illustrate this. We might not perceive the water getting too hot until it’s too late because change is so persistent, yet gradual. The distresses we find in modern life are the ones that often promote loneliness, disconnection and separation from the natural world. These are all things – communion, connection, engagement with nature — that promote wellbeing and comfort.
Difference can be a source of inspiration, new ideas and innovation, but it can also be a source of distress because of this perceived separation from the stable. When I’ve had traditions, practices and a way of living that has provided comfort for me my whole life and, in a time when I need comfort more than ever, am having trouble seeing those things that once brought me comfort in everyday life, how am I going to feel about difference? To what might I attribute this difference, this change to? The answer sometimes comes in the form of racism, sexism, sexual discrimination, and ethnic nationalism.
Trump and others are capitalizing on the fog that comes with memory and our self-selection and editing of history in our minds. What we long for are those feelings associated from earlier times and those feelings are connected to the simplicity of the practice (as we construct it in our memory). When you recall your day to a friend or loved one you summarize: that’s how memory works for you. You don’t speak of the day in terms of how your brain actually functions moment-to-moment with the gamut of feelings, thoughts, memories you have at any one time because you’d sound like a lunatic with all the chatter, contradiction and stream-of-consciousness going on. That’s your memory at work in bringing clarity to the chaos of a waking moment.
The distress, discomfort and dissatisfaction with all of this change is reasonable and legitimate. The manifestation of those feelings into hatred is not. Add in our bias toward in-groups — however we personally define it — and the reaction that we are seeing isn’t surprising at all. We are forward-oriented beings, we see things moving ahead and when social or economic situations force us backward by having less — friends, social engagements, money, buying power, security, stability — we don’t handle it lightly.
Time plays many tricks with our mind whether we view it as being in abundance, scarcity or even relate to it at all in the moment.
Light on our shadow
Add in another feature that we often overlook: our darker, shadow side. Jung spoke about the importance of the shadow and using it to understand the light. We all have a shadow, that darker side of our nature that emerges in times of stress or when we least expect it.
The human shadow is that part of the self that revels — even momentarily — on revenge**. How often have we, in fleeting moments (or even longer), wished ill-will on someone else? That person that cuts us off on the way to work; the clueless person who stops at the top of the escalator in a busy shopping plaza; your cousin who always takes more than his share at family dinners; queue jumpers; the telemarketer who interrupts your quiet night at home to sell you something; the sports fan who cheers for your team’s rival and revels in your team’s defeat; the person that votes for the candidate who’s not yours.
Why are revenge movies so appealing to so many? The Revenant wouldn’t be much of a story (although a glorious testament to the Alberta mountain landscape, which is well worth seeing on its own) if we didn’t, at some level, relate to the characters’ desire for revenge. It feels good. And it makes many of us recoil in horror and deny it when we consider it as part of us.
I experience this all the time and I’m not proud of that. I’ve not met a person yet who hasn’t confessed (when pressed) that they feel the same way. It’s part of being a human being.
Seeing the unpossible is about seeing ourselves as humans, not just fellow citizens who we think ought to mirror our own personal ideals. Humans get scared of change, they are overwhelmed with information, have few tools at their disposal and even less time and energy to apply those tools, and they are willing to seek comfort in anything that holds the promise of making life simpler.
If the present and future will be shaped by humans, then we need to add our humanity, including the ugly parts of it, into the mix. Consider that when you make your predictions, generate your models and envision the world ahead and also ask yourself whether you’re comfortable getting a little darker in your outlook on life right now.
Only by seeing us as humans can we imagine what seems unpossible as possible.
** A fun way to soften the harshness of thoughts of revenge on others is provided by the Canadian comedy troupe Kids in the Hall.
‘Post-truth’ was named the Oxford Dictionary word of the year. No fitting word reflects the strangeness of 2016 with the exception of unpossible, a word I made up and in a post-truth world might as well be as legitimate as many of the arguments being made about the most important things of the day, which is why we need to rethink how and what we pay attention to.
When I was a little kid I was absolutely fascinated by ships in bottles (and still am). To me this was the embodiment of the impossible made possible. I’ve been shown how its done, read about it and still can’t really believe it despite seeing many ships in bottles over my lifetime. Gothic boxwood prayer beads are in the same category: they are both of the world and otherworldly at the same time. Brilliant stuff.
These are creations of human ingenuity, craft, patience and beauty.
What we have started to see in the social world are acts that are equally implausible to comprehend, yet lack all of these qualities but share one feature: creativity.
It may be time to examine what creativity means and what its impacts are because what might have been harmless chatter is now becoming big business and its transforming our world in ways we never could imagine and ways we might not really want.
In short: we are creating the unpossible.
Truthiness of fiction
Writing in Salon, Erin Keane reminds us that it was ten years ago that the concept of ‘truthiness’ was first floated out by Stephen Colbert and went on to become the 2006 Word of the Year by Mirriam-Webster. Keane reflects on the genesis of the word and how it articulated how a feeling of something being true could override the availability of evidence to support its existence without necessarily creating an entirely new reality.
With truthiness, though, we still recognized that truth exists, just that it could be overridden and bent to serve our own emotional purposes.
In a truthy world the absence of clear evidence didn’t mean that something didn’t exist if our feelings suggested that it might. Hence, we had an assault of Iraq and search for weapons of mass destruction based on a feeling that someone like Saddam Hussein would want to deploy them if he had them (which might have been true, but he didn’t have them and there was no evidence to suggest he did so it wasn’t true).
Now, those logical or hypothetical — if unproven — suppositions matter less. We’ve taken out ‘facts’ from the middle of the equation separating truth from fantasy.
In the US election, ‘fake news’ sites outperformed ‘not-fake news’ sites. In other words: those peddling fictions about the world drew more attention than those who sought to share what actually happened in the world. Except, what also actually happened was that people were reading, maybe believing, but certainly sharing and endorsing these made up stories, which were once referred to by names such as ‘lies’, ‘propaganda’ and ‘slander’. Now, it’s called reporting in a post-truth environment.
When the head of a news organization that promotes people who believe there ought to be a cap on women and girls in science and attacks citizen movements focused on social justice like Black Lives Matter is promoted to the role of chief strategist for the White House to serve as a representative of the people in strategy, that is post-truth at work. **
The Tardigrade is perhaps the most remarkable animal on the planet. They can survive in temperatures close to absolute zero and over 150 degrees centigrade. If resilience had a mascot, it would be the tardigrade (pictured below — with credit to Bob Goldstein and Vicky Madden).
While the effect of an election on policies and practices from healthcare, environmental protection, human rights, and safety and security may be wide-reaching and last beyond the term of office for most politicians the response can’t simply be to ‘toughen up’ and accept what’s being done, even if it is done under the banner of electoral legitimacy. Resilience is not about just absorbing shocks, but also about adapting to prevent the shocks from coming, to lessen their intensity, and also about systems change wherever possible.
The tardigrade is an expert on resiliency. It is as if it decided that, rather than plan for the best-case scenario, it figured out what the worst case would be and developed itself for that context first. Even if the tardigrade doesn’t encounter absolute zero temperatures that much in the world, it is ready for it.
Resiliency in social systems requires the same thinking.
In the US election and Brexit vote we saw politicians, pollsters and the media all get it wrong: they didn’t assess the mood and mindset of voters accurately. More importantly, voters may not have voted for what they are getting, but against what they got. In that case, what they ‘got'(i.e., had) was a sense of falling behind, perceived unfairness, absence of connection between their social world and the one talked about on TV or in government, and isolation from the economy, society and a world they thought they knew and were promised — something that built up over decades.
The voters wanted something different than what they had, but they may not have understood what they might get from this difference.
Foresight, in hindsight
Strategic foresight is a discipline that combines creative thinking, data, and planning together. It’s a burgeoning field of practice-based inquiry that offers an opportunity to explore various hypotheses about possible futures. We cannot reliably predict the future, particularly in complex systems, however it is possible to anticipate events based on trends, forecasts and signals that emerge from the data we have about the past and present when applied to the planning for the future.
Strategic foresight is a relatively young discipline, yet it holds much promise in aiding our ability to be resilient in the face of adversity and guide our actions to prevent problems and amplify those factors that can generate solutions. The result are ‘evidence-informed imaginations’ like the one that my colleague Peg Lahn and I did on the future of the neighbourhood in a growing city like Toronto, Canada. Ahead of legislation curbing the way high-rise building were built, we anticipated massive problems for Toronto’s high-rise condominiums based on the data we gathered and scenarios we developed. Falling glass was largely an ‘isolated’ incident 5 years ago and soon became a massive problem across the city and will continue to plague these buildings that will likely need to be completely ‘re-skinned’ in less than 20 years due to their reliance on poor design choices based on the city’s climate.
Our work bucked the trend toward optimism in condo development toward evidence-informed pessimism. Neither optimism or pessimism are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, rather what’s key is creating the kind of storyline that fits evidence, emotion and provides a narrative for what might happen. In doing so, a strategic plan can develop the kind of performance measures and monitoring and evaluation plans that help detect whether a particular scenario is starting to play out in the world. If so, it’s possible to correct things before they get problematic.
Strategic foresight combined with resiliency and systems thinking can be a way to envision the impossible as possible to prevent what becomes unpossible.
Consider what systems you’re working in and ask yourself if you’re seeing all (or many of) the pertinent possibilities and how they might play out. This is where fiction can be an asset, not a symptom, related to a larger issue. If you want some initial foresight into the current state of affairs in Western politics — from Le Pen in France, Farage in the UK, Hofer in Austria, Wilders in the Netherlands, Trump in the United States, Kellie Leitch in Canada — dive into Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 classic “It Can’t Happen Here” .
The unpossible can only happen if we collectively create it.
** I struggled with the notion of even linking to this content, but also feel that I’m contributing to an echo chamber if those views aren’t seen and experienced, even if it’s just a small dose.
If we are to address truths — hard ones, complicated ones, ugly ones — we need to speak with truth and not pretend these voices aren’t there or comment on them if we are unwilling to expose ourselves to some of it in its original form and not solely filtered through other perspectives. One of the issues we face is that too often we (humans) speak about groups we know nothing about from any source that came from that perspective.
It is poetic irony on many levels that weeks after Leonard Cohen releases his album about the threat of death that he passes on, mere days after we saw the least poetic, most crass election campaign end in the United States with an equally dramatic outcome. This points to art, but also to the science of complexity and how we choose to approach this problem of understanding– and whether we do at all — will determine whether we choose to have things darker or not.
A million candles burning for the love that never came
You want it darker
We kill the flame
Canadian-born and citizen-of-the-world poet, literary author, and songwriter Leonard Cohen passed away last night and the words above were part of his final musical contribution to the world. It is fitting that those words were penned at time not only when Cohen was ill and dying, but also as we’ve witnessed the flames of social progress, inclusion, and diversity fall ill.
Donald Trump is the president-elect of the United States, a fact that for many is not only unpalatable, but deeply troubling for what it represents. A Trump presidency and the social ills that have been linked to his campaign are just the latest sign that we are well into a strange, fear-ful, period of history within Western democracies. His was not a win for ideas, policy, but personality and as a vector for many other things that simply cannot be boiled down exclusively to racism, sexism, celebrity, or education — although all of those things played some part. It was about the complexity of it all and the ability for simplicity to serve as a (false) antidote.
No matter what side of the political spectrum you sit, it’s hard to envision someone less suited to the job of President of a diverse, powerful nation like the United States than Donald Trump using any standard measure of leadership, personality, experience, personal integrity or record of public conduct. Yet, he’s in and his election provides another signal that we are living in complex times and, like with Brexit, the polls got it very wrong.
We are seeing global trade shrink at a time when globalization is thought to be at its highest. We are witnessing high-profile acts of hatred, discrimination and abuse at at time when we have more means to be socially connected across contexts than ever before. We are lonely when the world and connection is at our fingertips. It is a time of paradox and when we have so many means to cast light on the world, we seem to find new ways to kill the flame.
It is for this reason that those who deal with complexity and seek positive social change in the world need to take action lest things get darker.
Complexity just got real
The election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote are two examples that should serve to wake-up anyone who seeks greater accounting of complexity in the making of social decisions.
This is not about voting for a Republican President or for citizens wanting greater control of Britain, it’s about understanding the premise of which those decisions were based on. The amount of cognitive dissonance required to assume that Donald Trump has the qualities befitting a leader of a country like the United States is truly astounding. And just like Brexit, the theories and models proposed post-event by the same people who predicted the opposite outcome pre-event will be just words, backed with too little understanding of complexity or why things actually happened.
Those who understand complexity know that these simplistic explanations are likely to be problematic. But that doesn’t make us better people, but it does mean we have certain responsibilities.
Complexity rhetoric vs science
For those who rely on complexity science as a means of understanding these kinds of events its now time to start matching the science to our rhetoric so we can back up the talk. In crude, but truth-speaking pop culture parlance: “This shit just got real“.
As complexity and systems thinking has gained attention in social science and policy studies we are seeing much more attention to the idea of complexity. Yet, the level of rhetoric on social complexity has overwhelmed any instances of evidence of how complexity actually is manifest, emergent, harnessed, or accounted for in practical means.
This isn’t to say that the tenets of complexity for understanding social systems aren’t true, but rather we don’t know that it’s true for sure and to what extent in what situations. I write this as a true-believer, but also as one who believes in science. Science is about challenging our beliefs and only if we cannot refute our theories through our best efforts can claim something is true. Thus, if we can’t show consistently how the principles of complexity are employed to make useful choices and inform the documentation of some of the outcomes related to our actions based on those choices, we are simply making fables not flourishing organizations, communities and societies.
Showing our work
Without something more than rhetoric to back our claims up we become no better than a politician claiming to make America great again because we’ve got great ideas and will be the greatest president ever because we have great ideas.
This is not about reverting to positivist science to understand the entire world, but about responsible practice in evaluation and research that allows us to document what we do and explore the consequences in context. Powered by complexity theory and the appropriate methods, we can do this. Yet, too often I hear reference to complexity theories in presentations, discussions and papers without any reference to how its been used in real terms (and not just extracted from some other realm of science like bee colonies, natural ecosystems and simulation models) to influence something of value beyond serving as an organizing framework.
Like little kids in math class: we need to show our work.
How did complexity manifest in practice in this case? What methods were used to systematically document the process? How does this fit / challenge the theories we know? These are questions that are what responsible scientists and evaluators ask of their subjects and its time to do this with complexity, regularly and often. No longer can we give it the relatively unchallenged ride it’s been given since first being introduced as a viable contributor to social theory about 20 years ago.
The reasons have to do with what happens when we stop trying to understand complex systems.
Evaluators and social sciences’ new moral imperative
As the US election was unfolding I became aware of some prescient, wise words that were uttered by former US Supreme Court Justice David Souter speaking at a town hall prior to the last election. His words were chilling to anyone paying attention to the world today. In the quote and interview (see link) he says on the matter of government and democracy:
What I worry about is that when problems are not addressed, people will not know who is responsible.
His words are not just about the United States or even politics alone. The further we get from understanding how our social, economic, political and environmental systems work the more we all become vulnerable to the kind of simplistic thinking that leads us to someone that embodies H.L. Mencken’s mis-paraphrased words*:
There is always an easy solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong
It is our duty as scientists and evaluators to show the world the work of the programs, policies and initiatives that are aimed at changing systems — no matter what that system is. We need to be better at telling the story of programs using data and communicating what we learn to the world. It’s our role to show the work of others and to let others see our work in the process. By doing so we can make a contribution to helping address what Justice Souter meant about people not knowing who is responsible.
And like Mencken’s message, our answer won’t be one that is all that neat, but we if we approach our work with the wisdom and knowledge of how systems work we can avoid Mencken’s trap and avoid presenting the complex as simple, but we will go further and illustrate what complexity means.
It is our moral duty to do this. For if not us, who?
People do understand complexity. Anyone with a child or garden knows that there is no ‘standard practice’ that applies to all kids or any years’ crop of vegetables all the time in all cases. It’s evident all around us. We have the tools, theories and models to help illuminate this in the world and a duty to test them and make this visible to help shed that light on how our increasingly complex world works. Without that we are at risk of demagogues and the darker forces of our nature taking hold.
We have the means for people to see light through the work of those who build programs, policies and communities to illuminate our world. In doing so we not only create the candles as Leonard Cohen speaks of, but the curiosity and love that keeps that flame burning. We can’t kill the flame.
And we could use some love right now.
Thanks Leonard for sharing your gifts with us. I hope your art inspires us to reflect on what world you left to better create a world we move to.
*Mencken’s original quote was: “Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” Alas, this doesn’t make as pithy, Powerpoint worthy comment. Despite the incorrectness of the paraphrased quote attributed to Mencken, it’s fair to say that in many organizations we see this as a true statement nonetheless.
Image Credit: Shutterstock, used under licence.