Death of the University: Exploring the Bastions of Quality

That nothing persists should be the foundation of our thinking: not nations nor mountains, beliefs nor blossoms. Everything that is built will erode and fail. Whilst the mechanisms of judgement may range from the erosive quality of sand and wind through to the corrosive qualities of markets and crowds, the outcome is the same. What was will no longer be. So why would Universities be any different?

It’s a popular topic: what, if any, higher education system do we need, and whatever our answer, who will provide it?

The conversation may be as simple as ‘McDonalds or Manchester’, ‘Aberdeen or Apple’, or as complex as ‘Guilds and Communities’. The system could remain almost entirely as it is, or become rapidly unrecognisable.

Certain pressures are clear: the time bound nature of higher education may be falling out of line with the continuous nature of learning in a rapidly changing world, the infrastructure of legacy may be unsuited to the global and agile trends of the present, talent is not longer bound to contract, and quality is no longer the preserve of the august.

And it’s not like the legacy system was perfect or fair, for all. I used to interview graduates for Learning and Development roles who were, quite frankly, terribly prepared for the world of work. They did budget courses that taught them to use software, at the cost of critical thinking and curiosity. And they often came to me under the delusion that they were an asset, when all i saw was foundation to build upon.

As ‘work’ becomes more fluid, it’s questionable to what extent Organisations will seek to grow talent (when one of their frequent complaints is that trained talent just leaves) when they can rent or hire it, or engage in it in more fluid and adaptive ways.

Accompanying any evolution in provision may also be an inequality of access, unless we guard carefully against it, especially against a background of unequal access. And as education correlates with productivity, health, and wellbeing, this is a significant issue.

I wanted to consider this debate through the lens of quality: if it’s an absolute structure, which may mitigate for the persistence of Universities, or a relative or transient one, which may lean towards the disruptors. The question is, essentially, is there anything intrinsic in the current system that would favour it persisting, or can all quality be learned, or bought, or replaced by something more relevant?

To begin, it may be worth considering how ‘quality’ is held, and i just introduced those two terms of ‘absolute’ or ‘relative’.

If i fly in an aeroplane, i expect that the magnesium alloys used in it’s superstructure are of an absolute quality, with their production monitored and continually assessed against metallurgical benchmarks and examined for stress and faults. Systems of training and monitoring, supported by both documentation and consequence, should keep me safe.

If i go out for dinner tonight, i also expect to have a high quality experience, but the arbiter of that quality is different: held not in x-ray analysis, but rather in reputation and market forces. If my meal is bad, i will not return, and i may warn you not to visit.

How would we measure the quality of a University? Well, unsurprisingly, there is a whole industry around this, which considers different scales: quality and volume of research conducted, job prospects of graduates, satisfaction with social life, quality of student accommodation, range and quality of facilities, international recognition and status of academic staff, history and reputation, and so on.

These are all good, but essentially internally self referential – measuring quality within a known system, against known competitors. They are less useful as we come to measure a University degree against an alternative.

For a castle, a ‘bastion’ is a structure of strength. Consider the bastions of quality.

If the bastion is employability, then employers offering development in situ is a significant erosive force on higher education: whilst historically possession of a degree may have been a gateway to employment, this may not longer be so often the case – and if that protection is removed, a fundamental strength of the University is fractured with it. If i no longer ‘need’ that credential to even get started, then it becomes more discretionary.

Increasingly we see employers also offering either payment for courses, or internal provision: as Universities have embraced the opportunity of the marketplace (despite their initial protestations) so too they become victim of it. When you impose a market, you erode legacy. Markets inherently encourage disruptors, especially when the bastions of quality are relative, not absolute.

Or to put it another way: if an 800 year old campus, and a large research staff is a bastion of quality, then it’s very hard to compete (at least for the next 799 years), but if it is not, then competition is easier.

Consider what quality can be bought: space can be bought for cash, buildings too. People can be tempted for cash, or more often for opportunity. Experience can be crafted for cash. It’s not innate to history.

Perhaps one of the greatest threats to Universities is their association with bounded time.

The idea that you go to school, to university, then onto a job. In their favour, University is an experience, but arguably not a unique one, or not one that is protectable and unique. Clearly what we learn from the Tech Teenagers is that ‘experience’ may equally be applied to employment. The campuses (itself an appropriation) of companies like Google and Amazon easily rival or exceed that of many Universities, with the benefit that they pay you to be there, as opposed to giving you a lifetime of debt.

For me this is one of the cornerstones of opportunity, or foundations of threat: can Universities evolve from time bound to continuous, from bounded opportunity to performance and opportunity improving, and probably from three year payment, to subscription or even results based reward.

And can they do that before being consumed from within?

This is a further challenge for the University: they have relied on academic standing to assume league table standing, but the currency of this is their superstar academics, and everything about the Social Age mitigates for a disaggregation of talent and structure. Essentially the very best academics may no longer need to decide which institution to be part of, so much as having the ability to assemble an institution around themselves.

To understand this we should look at the desegregation and distribution of manufacturing and retail infrastructure. Whilst a factory, a logistics network, and retail units used to be vital for organisations, alongside ability to innovate and exploit innovation, today this is less to. The individual with a great idea can access every aspect of production, without having to invest in the infrastructure of production: from 3D printing prototypes, through experimentation and testing, to building the domains of safety, to retail itself. Essentially one can be productive without and organisation, at great scale.

That’s a fundamental shift, a paradigm shift, and there is no reason it cannot apply to education too.

When you see a snake in the wild, you see it’s forked tongue darting rapidly in and out, as it samples the environment. We are in that stage now.

Education is not disrupted, but it is a space of rapid prototyping, and more importantly, a fracturing dominant narrative.

When i grew up, to go to university was the natural progression – whilst i may have considered the axis of ‘attend’ or ‘do not attend’, i did not have to consider alternative systems.

Organisations themselves fractured the Social Contract, so ‘career’ is no longer a one track pathway, and hence attraction and retention of talent, and hence capability, are more fluid affairs.

Combine that with a general shift to collective capability, whereby you hire both me and my network, we see great potential to disrupt, by offering access, network, insight, development, and perhaps crucially belonging.

Could we envisage a time where the Campus itself becomes desegregated from the institution, so that i have three years of University life, but without the teaching, instead combining a learning experience of work, with a social experience of connection? Or something more distributed, with labs and workshops geographically dispersed and sometimes co-hosted by employers. Or even the educational organisation, as one that is effective through learning and the ability to hold unbounded spaces to learn.

The future will not be the past: with significant questions over access, quality, relevance, and value, i think for Universities it’s far from certain. But equally what the future looks like is wide open.

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King of the World?

This piece is a cautious addition to collection of work exploring the context of the Social Age: within that work i have previously addressed (amongst other aspects) questions of citizenship beyond nations, identity in online spaces, modes of belonging, the evolution of work, future visions of democracy, and the rise of the trans-national organisation (latterly the Socially Dynamic one).

The reason for the caution today is that this is a speculative piece, to try some new ideas, as i consider Elon Musk’s potential aquisition of Twitter, in the context of his broader economic and social authority, in the wider context of the Social Age.

The mechanisms of the aggregation of power through the feudal, industrial, and digital ages are well understood: control of land, control of resources, control of infrastructure, each of which types of power results in wealth and hence additional modes of power.

Society evolves to serve the dominant power: so patterns of habitation relate to agriculture, industry, education, government, and even recreation. Education systems evolve to feed labour requirements of organisational systems, that in turn feed social needs of earning, belonging, worth, self actualisation, and social safety, through mechanisms of credentials, salary, career, healthcare, and retirement.

This is all understood.

Historically we see individuals having great impact, generating great wealth and influence (Rockefeller), leaving a legacy of philanthropy (Gates), of oppression (Colston), of industry (Ford), of learning (Johns Hopkins), shadows running through culture, even government structures, and into generational power (Kennedy, maybe Trump).

Today what we see is similar, yet different. The techno overlords today (with exceptions) generate wealth an order of magnitude greater than the Barons of old, with influence that stretches beyond physical resource or geography. The potential for scale for the technologists is greater, the leveraged value higher, the resource cost lower, the constraint of technology more fluid, and the market larger and faster.

The rich get richer and a significant number fall off the other end.

This week sees the potential (likely) acquisition of Twitter by Elon Musk, through a combination of personal wealth and investment funds. The purchase of the ‘Town Square’ by an individual both staggering in his wealth and power, and global in reputation and reach.

The King of the World?

Musk has broad interests: from PayPal, in finance, through Tesla (self driving cards, and associated battery technology for home and industry, into national power systems), Neuralink (human/machine interfaces and enhancement), The Boring Company (national infrastructure and anything that needs a hole), Starlink (digital global infrastructure), OpenAI (artificial general intelligence) and, of course, SpaceX (manned spaceflight, cargo, mission to Mars, and interplanetary infrastructure). And Twitter: the Palace Court.

I should stress that in this piece i am not exploring the political dimension of this, beyond the impact of this on political systems per se.

Historically we could view that there was a contract, between citizen, within the State, with Government, and it ran something like this: pay your taxes, and government will keep you safe, build the infrastructure, and create space for culture.

Today, the picture is different, in almost every way. Whilst we still pay taxes, and ‘live’ somewhere, our ideas are global, as are our connections – so in a very real sense, our capability is increasingly virtual (or in the metaverse, as some would have it)

Culture is not global, but is in large part transnational, through media, but also human connection and dialogue.

The infrastructure we rely on is, in large part and increasingly either virtual, or hybrid, and our sense of belonging is more fluid, and probably multi dimensional, than ever. I wrote previously about being a ‘citizen of Apple in the State of Lego’, and was probably too conservative in my outlook. Things change ever faster.

This is not simply about technology ‘making things better’, or ‘making things worse’, so much as ‘making things radically different’. Today we can access more knowledge, but also more ‘sense making’ capability, we can be effective beyond Organisations, we can be wealthy beyond national currencies, and we can be cancelled without any law.

Musk has relished this, to a degree: a willingness to play up to and beyond the rules, but also with a clarity that ‘rules’ are often blurred in the execution, and another term for that fuzzy edge is ‘opportunity’.

Musk has an empire of incredible diversity and ambition, and it’s getting bigger. Part of this may relate to the move away from labour and into capital: whilst nations and organisations would gain some advantage from human scale, todays emergent and Socially Dynamic organisations are typically smaller, and less structured than their industrial counterparts and predecessors, and their effect is held in digital scale, not simply physical. Not in every case, but for some.

And possibly markets are ill equipped to place value upon these things: just look at the market value of Tesla, which is really a tiny company in the physical domain, and yet a monster in the financial one.

It’s worth remembering that whilst scales weight an absolute value, markets do not: they are systems of belief, and Musk thrives in a belief system.

King of the World?

Maybe. Do the scales ever tip? Nations are still, by precedent alone, defined by geography. But power, today, flows independently of that. Just because there has never been a State without geography before (allowing for some newly created States, or deposed ones), does not mean that there will not be.

I mean, when geography becomes just dirt, what’s to stop it? If you have followers, infrastructure, and belonging, can Organisations also provide safety?

Maybe: whilst none, to my knowledge, has gone to war, they have protected their ‘citizens’, (just look at – after a reluctant start – how Disney is taking on Florida). And of course the tragedy of the war in Ukraine has illustrated how brands are mechanisms of international power – indeed the surprise is that they were so ill prepared in many cases – Coke and L’occitane – to shoulder this power).

When your economy is bigger than a country, when your influence is greater, when you are more closely and broadly engaged in the world, and when people feel that they belong, can you simply buy the land?

Sometimes things are so obvious that we miss them entirely. One of the key lessons of the pandemic so far has been the irrelevance of geography, and yet Organisations obsess about a ‘return’ to the old. Because ‘space’ is ‘power’ and they are reluctant to admit that power has now fled space.

Just because a truth is inconvenient does not make it untrue.

Twitter is interesting because it does not ‘make’ anything, except perhaps belief, or culture, or truth. Perhaps it is a space that creates meaning – or that allows us to do so.

Perhaps it is an aggregator AND an amplifier. Perhaps it is a multiplier.

I had some sympathy for Jack Dorsey’s reported view, that Twitter is possibly too important to be held in any way except in common. Perhaps partly because we are trapped within national structure, we lack the governance structures or vision and understanding of the truly global.

Whilst infrastructure like the internet is ‘global’ in theory, it is nationally controlled and hosted.

Paradigms trap us.

The King of the World – maybe not yet, but never say never.

This is early stage #WorkingOutLoud, part of a broader body of work that explores the context and potential of the Social Age.

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What Gets Measured…

There’s a common expression and management dogma that ‘what gets measured gets done’, which may well be true – but we should not conflate that with thinking that what gets done is what needs to be done, nor that what gets measured has value.

Indeed: what gets measured is often that which we can easily measure, or easily understand to measure, and what gets measured is typically an abstraction, or subset, of a whole.

Measurement is a pill that may ease our pain, at the cost of our health.

This may be especially true when we are not clear what, exactly, needs to be done: we may know the outcome that we seek, but not the process or steps to get us there, or we may know one way forward, but not the paths that surround it which may, in fact, be shortcuts.

Measurement may be used to see the way forward, or measure what lies behind us: to differentiate between these two, which may be classed as diagnostic measurement, or assessment, is important, but not always clear.

Sometimes we ‘assess’ what was done in the belief that it may diagnose the future state, which may be true in some cases, but not necessarily if conditions or context change. For example, when i’m sailing on a sunny day i may learn to use one set of sails, but that set of sails would lead to disaster in a storm, as they catch too much wind, or exert stress that would overwhelm the structure of the rigging or mast.

One useful reminder to self may be that ‘what gets measured’ is essentially a measure of what gets measured. Measurement gives us data, from which we may infer meaning. Sometimes with a high level of confidence, and sometimes as little more than a guess in the wind.

Measurement is somewhat totemic within the modern Organisation: we may gain power simply by demanding measurement, but measurement in itself is neither difficult nor useful – it’s a weasel word that may be transposed, biased, or simply incomplete or wrong.

Perhaps sometimes we say we want measurement as a proxy for the word ‘insight’ or ‘clarity’ – we wish to make decisions (rightly so) with more than simply optimism, dogmatic belief, or as simple guesses – but measurement, without a clear understanding of the wide range of methodologies and outcomes, may indeed be little better than a chalk pill.

One way to view it is this: start with outcomes – be they clear (we need ‘this’) or directional (we need something ‘new’) – consider whether what we seek can be understood before the journey, or whether it will be an emergent property OF the journey, and consider the basis on which we believe that the ‘measurable’ is a reliable indicator, proxy, or reflection, of the desire.

For example: imagine we wish to innovate a coffee shop. Will we measure our success against a fixed sketch of the coffee shop we imagine (green walls, 12 tables, $1,000 revenue a week), or against a reasonable range of outcomes (colourful walls, intimate vibe, reasonable revenue), or against a dream (a next generation coffee experience).

The first is an absolute measure, the quality of which depends on our ability to observe what is done, the second is absolute within a range, so we may be able to identify the scales (qualitative satisfaction with decor, quantitative number of seats and revenue – although they too could be qualitative measures of ‘enough’ and ‘intimate’), and the third is relative (different from what we have now, but in unknown ways – so we do not even (necessarily) know the scales.

In general, i would advocate using measurement as a sword, without waiting to be hit: build creative measurement into your proposal, whatever the subject. But equally recognise that the term itself is simply descriptive of activity, not quality.

You can measure failure as easily as success, possibly more so. And you can measure yourself to failure most easily of all.

Measurement is vital: as part of a more scientific approach to Organisational development, and as part of good practice to learn as we travel, but it is a sharp tool, to be handled with care.

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Socially Dynamic Structure: #WorkingOutLoud on Organisational Design Ideas

I’m revisiting work on the Socially Dynamic Organisation, which considers aspects of Organisational Design, formal and social structure, and mechanisms of collectivism, connection, productivity and effect. This is essentially a conversation about how we design, or redesign, our Organisations to be fit for the Social Age.

This is very early stage work still: today i’m reflecting on zones or spaces, and including the idea of a ‘Shared Table’, which in some ways brings in the conversation about geolocation and hybridisation of work – but again i feel no obligation to make this granular or complete today.

There are four key components of structure as represented here:

[1] A Structured Zone

[2] A Permeable Zone

[3] A Combining Space

[4] A Shared Table 

I’m writing in a Dutch coffee shop today, a feature of which is typically the shared reading table, an ideas i’ve shamelessly pulled into this writing. Shared space, not specifically of production, allowing both connection but also isolation ‘in company’.

Let me explore these in more detail. The Organisations that we redesign will involve a Dynamic Tension between formal and social structures, between the known and the unknown, the familiar and the strange. They most certainly will not be ‘replacements’ at a foundational level, but neither will they be ‘familiar’ at the structural one. A new type of Organisation for a new type of context of operation.

The ‘Structured Zone’ will most closely resemble the familiar: our production space, holding stability, governance, compliance and probably a host of other things. Interestingly though, perhaps not all the infrastructure, which is likely to be increasingly distributed through third parties, shared services, or even community or collectively held common services.

The ‘Permeable Space’ is about those aspects of the Organisation that no longer need to be walled (either CAN no longer be, or SHOULD no longer be) – which may include surprising aspects of knowledge, strategy, capability, that are no longer competitively isolated, or proprietary, or possibly can no longer be accessed on an exclusive basis, or through traditional markets.

The (possibly poorly named) ‘Combining Space’ is probably the biggest shift, in that it’s about rapid iteration WITHIN the structure – requiring rapid iteration OF THE structure. So to have a Combining Space requires a structure configurable to need – imagine one of those show spaces with moveable walls and rigging. An Organisational Structure like this.

The Combining Space thrives through disconnection from traditional structure of power and organisation – and possibly from the traditional structures of knowledge and capability. This may include internal marketplaces of problem solving.

There’s nothing specifically clever about putting INNOVATION here, except to note that it’s not about an Innovation Team, but rather a space for combination and connection – through diverse inputs – probably beyond or outside of the structure of the Structured Space of production. This will require models of recognition more closely aligned to the way that songwriting is recognised (after much pain) in the music industry. Less about individual heroism and insight so much as community and collective. This challenges all sorts of ‘norms’ about power, reward etc.

I’ve included in the Permeable Space both Strategy and Artefacts – which may more traditionally have been walled and hidden. Ideas of Open and Evolutionary strategy may be a natural consequence of the Socially Savvy CEO, the Journeyman Leader, and the Narrative Culture – where tenure is dynastic (as it increasingly seems to be) and the broad story is public.

The ability to create and host artefacts is a developmental need for many Organisations – not just artefacts of knowledge, but also of failure. Involving the creation of new Library or Museum spaces for connection and reference.

This may involve big data sets, creative convergence of human and AI problem solving, and capability to prototype parallel systems of ideas.

The ‘Shared Table’ is (perhaps) the new office – not geolocated working space – but perhaps the primary Cultural Forge. Here i would be experimenting with connection and structure that radically challenges traditions of space, segregation and power – so the main drive is diagonal and trans-domain connection. Highly fluid, shared ownership, non traditional rule sets and ownership etc. Possibly also hosting external and local community – or even hosted in the community. The Organisation as societal ecosystem, not squatting upon it. No gated campuses, but possibly a collegiate space. Needs more thinking.

We need broad and brave thinking about Organisational structure, which is largely trapped in post Industrial mindsets, as well as systems of power, and education, which reflect past needs. In an Information Age, and a Social one, the ‘where’ is less important than the ‘how’ our Organisations are formed.

It’s potentially a more transcendent model: not just a move beyond ‘place’, but a move beyond structure – not universally (we still have Structured Space – but in parallel with collaborative and unstructured ones.

This will challenge notions of what a ‘Job’ or role is, and what ‘Capability’ is, and how it is held and accessed. Greater social collaboration, collective capability, capability rental and investment, social models of reward and so on.

Still bricks and mortar, dollars and structure, but so much more than that.

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Kindness

One of my friends uses a ‘Kindness Chart’ with her children: each time they are kind, they get a star for it. When the jar is full, they get a reward. So far so good.

Yesterday she caught them at the chart, felt tip pen in hand, adding a few extra stars in. Presumably hoping that she would not notice the difference…

I like this: clearly they understand the importance of kindness, and also the joy of reward, so worked in tandem to cook up a plan to get there faster.

Turns out that humans (even small ones) are pretty good at subverting systems.

Today i am at a Clown conference.

It’s not my natural space: my clown like moments tend to be more accidental than planned. But then perhaps that’s true for these clowns too, because they are clinical clowns: healthcare professionals who use clowning in their practice.

So far, they seem kind, but i’m still acclimatising: to them, to here, to being together.

On Friday i will be on the stage, to perform, to share, to be seen. But today i am largely invisible, which is easier in the Netherlands because nobody (not even the clowns it seems) really tries to stand out.

I’m hanging out: listening, watching, tuning in. I don’t know anyone, so there are no familiar greetings: this event happens every two years, and it’s clear that many people here are friends, are connected, are (re)convening. So in that sense i am a stranger, albeit an invited one.

There’s something odd about the idea of a Clown Conference, like imagining them doing tax returns or washing socks. In theory i know it happens, but my engagement tends to be in the performance.

i often try to find a connection before i speak: it makes it much easier for me, which is no surprise, because it’s easier for most people. To be together, to be familiar, to be with friends, gives us a safer space to perform. Sometimes i find an excuse to walk out on stage before i speak, to see people, to be familiar, to find my feet.

I overheard one conversation: someone talking about their clowning in practice (if you are a regular here, you will know that i’m quite interested at the moment about the ways that we are ‘in practice’).

He described how he has his routines, his act, his performance, but that he calibrates it, he tunes into the space before he performs.

For many of these Clowns, the context of their performance is paediatric care, and in some cases palliative care. It’s harder to imagine a harder context, but perhaps that’s why, to these people, it seems such a vocational one.

He described his performance as if it were easy, but the calibration as a difficult thing: reading the room, reading the emotion, reading the energy. Tuning in.

Someone else told me a story this week: in a time of great upheaval within their own organisation, they called their manager, who was on holiday. They apologised, but said that they needed ten minutes, which they got. And they felt better. The ten minutes made them feel less alone.

Being together, understanding each other, being kind. A desire to fit in and be accepted perhaps, as well as a need to find our own identity in a crowd. These are part of being human.

Our humanity is not a layer that inconveniences formal systems, not a prize to be claimed, or a type of engagement to be demanded. It is the system.

Sure: we inhabit Organisations that look, and feel real – but they are not. They are made up, imagined to serve a purpose and a need.

As we reinvent our Organisations, as we evolve our systems, we should consider the human, the kind, the compassionate and fair, as the foundation, not something we bolt on or squeeze in.

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Holding Our Values

This week i’ve been exploring ‘values’, from both an individual and Organisational perspective. I’ve tried to break down the relationship between the narrative of ‘values’ and the practical actions that we take, and to consider whether it’s even possible to use the idea of ‘values’ in any meaningful sense. Today i will revisit this last point: what can we actually ‘do’ about values?

As i’ve written this week, i’ve found myself thinking ‘what if values are not real’. I’m unsurprised by this thought, because it’s probably driven by broader questions, such as ‘what is identity’ and ‘is there a self’? Maybe ‘values’ do sit somewhere in the centre of our ‘soul’, and maybe they do direct or inform our action. Or maybe they don’t. Neither neurologists, nor social scientists, nor religious leaders, can truly tell us whether there is a ‘self’ that sits in our heads or our hearts. Some would argue that all the conscious ‘self’ is is a story, a narrative told over time.

In that sense, values may be no more ‘real’ than the story they are held in within the moment.

But i’m not sure that’s a bad thing: is the ‘self’ any less real if it’s just a story? And are values any less real if we just conjure them up the narrative of the moment?

Where this leaves me is to think that perhaps we should be less concerned about the specific words of ‘values’, and more concerned to consider how we hold them. Both in thought and action.

Even a cursory consideration of what ‘values’ are would indicate that ‘values’ do not make us good, or better. As i shared before, almost everyone believes that they have ‘values’ and that their values are good – and yet nobody has trouble identifying people who have ‘poor’ values, or who ‘do not share’ my values. Hence the simple possession of the idea, or actuality, of values may be of little practical use.

So how do we hold our values? Are they in a basket, which we occasionally peer into? Or are they a filter, what we project our actions through? Or are they a foundation of stone, upon which we stand?

Or maybe they are a picture of our perfect self which we use as a mirror to hold our actions of the day up against?

Or perhaps they sit in the attic of our mind, slightly dusty. Or perhaps as an old issue of a favourite magazine: slightly out of date?

Perhaps we should ask if ‘values’ are something we need to be conscious of, to curate, and to clean out, or if they are universal and eternal?

If values are so broad that they have no useful edges that we can push off from, then can they be of much use at all?

Individuals tend not to publish their values: Organisations, by contrast, are obsessed with it. I started with my bank, and it took me one google search to find them:

Respect – Integrity – Service – Excellence – Stewardship

Well: those are all good words. But what do they mean, and who are they for? I’ve been with my bank for thirty years, so i consider myself an expert. And yet i cannot discern any meaningful way that those values have been ‘lived’ in my personal experience.

I remember the time i called them up and was put on hold, but they forgot to hit the hold button, and had a long conversation about the weekend before coming back to me to explain why their manager had said ‘no’.

I remember when they charged me a whole sequence of overdraft fees as a student, which they only stopped doing when the regulator told them not to.

I remember when, more recently, they got caught up in a global scandal, and fined. And i remember when their Chief Exec got both hired and fired, despite being a reasonably unpleasant man.

Overall, i am rather ambivalent about my bank. I would describe our relationship more as one of convenience than inspiration, and inertia on my part. They seem to love their values, but i cannot discern them at all.

So i looked elsewhere: what about the political party that governs the UK. I would hope that they have values, but it appears not. On first glance there appear to be a lot of statements of intent, but no page labelled ‘values’, and no search function either, so they appear to lack both values and good UX design.

I tried the Opposition party too, for good measure, who did at least have a page that told me i could find out about their values – but then i couldn’t actually find what their values were. But they definitely told me that they wanted the country to be better. Which is odd, because so did the other party.

None of this particularly inspires me to think that ‘values’ have much impact, beyond the aspirational, the feel good, or the self comforting. And yet here we are, all believing how important they are.

I wonder if there is a different way to look at values: not as the driver of intent and action, but rather as the measurement of it? Perhaps that we should understand our personal relationship with ‘values’ as the opportunity to learn how, and why, we deviate our actions from them. And perhaps for Organisations to share more stories about the specific actions that they take to reach those lofty values, and to share with humility the ways that they fail?

Or perhaps those conversations are too painful? Perhaps values are destined to remain a totem within our Organisational life: vaunted, discussed, shared, opposed or enamoured, but not necessarily truly examined or lived, at least in honest detail.

I wonder why we are so afraid to abandon the idea? Just because we cannot truly locate or find our values as a thing not does mean we are not kind, virtuous, honest or hold integrity. Just because they do not act as a weight upon our action, except in our own heads, does not mean that they are not really real.

It’s easier to view the world in black and white, in good and evil, in us and them. But perhaps the world is more truly grey, perhaps both good and evil, and perhaps just ‘us’ standing opposite ‘us’.

Convenient narrative are, of course, convenient, but that does not make them true.

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Six Seconds

As part of an expanding body of work around values, i want to use today to explore ‘values’ in action, around six seconds of detail.

The six seconds in question are length of time removed by Warner Bros from the new film in the Harry Potter franchise, ‘Fantastic Beasts’, at the request of Chinese censors.

It’s not a random six seconds, nor a violent one, but rather the length of time it takes for one of the leading male characters to say to another male character ‘because i was in love with you’.

To any Harry Potter fan, the dialogue is not revelatory: author JK Rowling herself confirmed almost fifteen years ago that Dumbledore, the Head Teacher of Hogwarts school, was gay. But this is the first time that a character in the franchise has explicitly acknowledged this fact, and it appears to have been one step too far.

I want to explore this six seconds of dialogue against the context of how global organisations hold their values, where they hold them, and how they are accountable in each direction: to their employees, to society, to censors, to the law, to shareholders and the market, and to the truth, absolute or otherwise.

I should stress that this is not an ostensibly campaigning piece: i have written before about how we share difference, and am unashamedly liberal in my views, but here i am more interested in the tensions of a global context, and how we hold values when the ground beneath our feet is uneven. And whether our Organisational pragmatism causes a fundamental fracture of flaw in the core narrative of the socially accountable Organisation.

Let’s examine a range of potential perspectives on this decision, starting with the money.

Global Organisations trade across differentiated landscapes: not simply geographically separated, but morally and ethically distinct, culturally different, legislatively different, and under different models of governance, government, religious freedom, and the social norms that underly it.

They tend to take a rather pragmatic approach, adapting their operations accordingly: so people get paid on different pay-scales, in different currencies, have different employment rights and employment contracts, protections and punishments, opportunity and reward.

It’s so easy to rationalise this that i will barely bother to try: we can say ‘someone in London will be paid more than someone in Manilla to do the same job because it costs more to live in London’. Which is true. But also belies the truth that global labour markets provide a real competitive edge by reducing labour costs to those Organisations willing to exploit that difference, and that the quality of life of those people in London is to some extent supported by the inequality of wealth and opportunity of those that work to serve their needs.

So Organisations pay differently between regions and rationalise it as normal, and an advantage, indeed an essential one. But what about gender? Focus on the gender pay gap in developed Western economies pressures them to (at least in a token way) to adapt, to strive to pay roles equally, and not to differentiate by gender. This is backed up by law. But do they carry that imperative back into those territories where it is neither backed by law, nor of such a dominant social shift? Or to put it another way, do they choose to get away with it when they can?

How many Organisations measure the gender pay differential not simply in country, but between territories, and act accordingly?

All this may feel a far cry from six seconds of dialogue, but let’s consider it through that lens of money.

Warner Bros makes money through the release of films. If they cannot release a film, they won’t make any money. Indeed, the calculus of viability of a film will likely require successful release in many different territories, across formats, at a range of price points. If they refuse the request of the censor in China, the release may be blocked, or restricted by age, reducing potential income. So why not make the change?

One view would be that there is no harm in making the change: the company is selling a product, and products typically can be adapted to different territories. If i make soap, i may use a different scent in different countries to represent whatever is popular. I may package that soap with different imagery, to represent local landscapes and imagery, and may differentiate the pricing too.

We could argue that there is no intrinsic integrity to a movie in one edited format (although fans of the Snyder cut may disagree): essentially the movie is just an asset that can be repainted as needed, chopped and diced, and sold in any way possible.

This is not simply a reasonable rationale, but a foundation of the industry: whilst i love going to see a movie, the point of the movie business is not explicitly art, so much as money, in many cases.

But are there broader narratives at play: Organisations do love to talk about values, and almost insist that you share them, especially if you are employed by them. So how could this play out?

What would happen if i worked for Warner Bros, and asked HR to edit out the words ‘inclusive’ from the staff handbook. Probably they would say no, for three reasons. Firstly, they are in charge, and i hold no formal power or sanction. Secondly, where i live in the UK, they are legally obliged to be inclusive. And thirdly, also where i live in the UK, the dominant narrative of society tends towards inclusion (albeit imperfectly), so they would have the advantages of the power dynamic, the legal framework, and the moral imperative.

Or at least, the moral imperative in the UK. In China it appears that the moral imperative may be different, which again relates to the varied global landscape that we inhabit.

In a BBC analysis, Warner Bros are reported to say that, despite the change, ‘the spirit of the film remains’, which indicates that from an artistic perspective, the same sex relationship was deemed important. But not at the cost of finance?

Of course, what we are really seeing here is the new colonialism of the import and export not simply of culture, but of values, and morality itself, and with it the decisions on how we engage: in opposition or through dialogue.

One perspective (and to be clear, i am sharing this to illustrate a point, not a personal view) is that it’s ok to drop the dialogue, because ‘the spirit of the film remains’. Including ‘an understanding the the characters share an intimate bond’. So the argument here is that we are engaging respectfully: still portraying the loving nature of the relationship, portraying homosexuality in a loving and positive light, but without actually needing two grown men to say that they love each other. One interpretation of this is that it’s a respectful way to engage in a delicate area, in a country that is changing, albeit slowly (homosexuality is at least now decriminalised in China). Another is that it sounds like the old US Military ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.

There is yet another perspective on this, and it relates to the Organisation itself (and this is the part of the conversation that Disney is likely most interested in right now): Organisations are responsible to markets, and global cultures, but also to the people that work for them.

I do not know the language that Warner Bros uses to their employees, about the value of every person and every type of love, but the likelihood is that words around inclusion, fairness, authenticity and honesty pepper their vocabulary.

And things like ‘authenticity’, and ‘fairness’ are judgements of the beholder, not an absolute measure of the thing itself. So will Warner Bros win if they make the cut, make the money, but lose the judgement of authenticity from even one employee. Or, indeed, from me.

It may also carry us into the conversation about just how, exactly, should inclusion carry us into action: is it enough to be passive, or should we strive for better?

To say ‘we are a values led Organisation’ is an easy narrative to hold, but in reality, a complex life to lead. Which values, and where, and at what cost?

And Organisations do not act in isolation: i too believe that i am a values led human. In general i believe that i am both nice, and good, as a person. I think that i am trustworthy, generous, and generally fair. But i will also happily watch the new Fantastic Beasts film, paying my money, and ignoring the debate about values. And i will sit there in my jeans that are made by cheap labour in China or Cambodia. And i will eat pizza with mozzarella flown in from Italy, contributing to global warming and ultimately flooding coastal zones. We are all ambiguous about the links between our values and action at times.

Possibly the trick is to make the implicit and hidden explicit and narrated: to ask ‘how should we operate’, and to keep decisions and the thought process behind it open and active.

Disney has struggled with a different example of this, in some ways a much harder problem, with their response to the so called ‘don’t say gay’ legislation which will ban teachers from discussing sexual orientation and gender issues in the classroom. Disney, an active contributor of political funds, as well as a major employer in the State, has remained silent or elusive on the issue, leaving it to their LGBTQ+ alliances to speak out and take industrial action.

How are values playing out here?

Clearly values are not keeping Disney safe. And, again, they tread a careful path: to come out against the Bill would be to speak against the legislature, and hence to move into opposition: Organisations are active political contributors to garner support for development and legislation that would favour them – so to make political enemies carries a cost.

But what is the cost of ‘betraying’ your own employees.

Warner Bros are caught in a debate that spans two continents, and is clearly differentiated between domains. Disney is caught in a debate on one continent, differentiated by social views within one domain. In the case of Disney, all the debate happens in the same legal, financial, and social space, so the only things separating the two sides is values.

I think this is a harder map to navigate (again, personally speaking it’s easy – do the right thing – oppose the legislation), and one with a potentially much higher cost.

Organisations talk about values because they believe that it’s the right thing to do, but one also assumes because it will somehow make them better, more efficient, more capable? I really don’t know, but it’s pervasive.

If they make decisions at the cost of those values, then is there any value left in values at all, or is the emperor really naked?

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The Illusion of Values

Today is a tour through ‘values’: the ones we hold ourselves, the ones that Organisations talk about, and the ways that they impact, or fail to impact, into our everyday action.

Most people believe that they have values, and if you ask them where they are located, they point to their heads. Probably unsurprisingly, most people believe that their values are ‘good’, but almost everyone is able to give an example of people with values who are ‘bad’.

Perhaps more surprisingly, given the strength of feeling that people have about ‘values’ in general, people often struggle to describe exactly what their values are, in ways that are more specific than some general and subjective words like ‘honest’, ‘trustworthy’, and ‘good’, and ‘fair’. Which, by coincidence, are probably the words that the ‘bad’ people use too.

I would probably describe the landscape of values like this: some things are absolute, and others are relative. I weigh around 74kg. The scale of kilograms is absolute: you can also weigh yourself in kilograms and we can compare the two. Somewhere on the outskirts of Paris i believe there is the actual ‘kilogram’, the reference weight against which, through a series of calibrated intermediaries, all other kilograms are measured. Or at least there used to be: i have a feeling there is an altogether more accurate approach used these days, but it eludes me.

You could weigh yourself in pounds and ounces, or even in rabbits and buses, but it can still be an absolute measure as there are conversions between these scales. If you can get the rabbit to sit still long enough.

Values, like ‘truth’ and ‘trust’, ‘pride’ and ‘fear’ do not work like this. They are subjective and relative measures. There is no central validation: instead, the validation happens within our own heads.

That’s not to say that we cannot share these things: we do quantify them, but through a slip of ‘qualitative’ measurement into ‘quantitative’ scales. So i can ask you how honest you tend to be, on a scale of one to ten, and you may say ‘nine’. Maybe i will say ‘8’, and you are more honest than me. Except that there is no calibration between our two perceptions of scale. Both are subjective.

Values probably operate more in this space: as beliefs, perceptions, ideas, which are shared, through language and hope more so than measurement and verifiable fact.

In this sense, values may not be a ‘thing’, in the sense that the rabbit is most certainly a thing. Rather they are a story that we believe in, but nonetheless, they act upon us.

In what i have said already lies the catch: values tend to be held in words, and behaviour, both of which are remarkably elastic. I may say that i am having a ‘good’ day, but that may mean a whole wide range of things. At the bare minimum, it may be defined by absence, in that nothing bad has happened so far. At best, i may have won the lottery.

Words are subjective, even if we believe they are absolute. ‘Truth’ is a good example of this. In general, two people arguing about ‘truth’ both believe that they are right. And, weirdly enough, they may be. Precisely because ‘truth’ is subjective.

Let me give you an example: i am a manager of two people, and i make one of them redundant. I choose person [a], and say that i have made a good decision. That is true. For me. For person [b] this may also be true. For person [a] it may not be true. Certainly i have made a decision, but it’s bad, from their perspective. I am right, and so are they.

Imagine that person [b] paid me $10 to chose to keep them, and make person [a] redundant. Now: in my heart, i know that i have made the decision for the wrong reasons, because my action is at odds with my values (assuming my values are honesty, integrity, etc).

So now i know that i have made a bad decision. Person [a] who is now out of work also knows that i have made a bad decision. But person [b] knows that it’s a good one. Unless their values are also ‘honesty’ and ‘integrity’. But perhaps they have a child who needs extra tuition, or medicine, and they need the job to support that. So they know they lack integrity in one dimension (bribing me), but have it in another (responsibility towards and care for a child). So now they have made a good decision, with a bad outcome, but still believe that they made the right choice.

Imagine they tell me about the child: now i may also rationalise my action as ‘good’. In fact, person [a] may discover this and revise their decision too. Or they may feel that my acceptance of the bride negated my ‘good’ action.

As you can gather, if you are still following along, values are tricky creatures. More elusive than the overweight rabbit.

Where do we find our values, and are they eternal?

In general, people will talk about ‘inheriting’ values from parents or guardians, as well as picking them up from others as they grow up. They also typically describe a key role of a parent as being to ‘instil’ values in children, something i feel acutely myself as i keep reminding my three year old to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.

But equally many people describe the influence of others, beyond their family, on their values over time. People they respect and admire, role models and mentors.

On interesting feature in the conversations i’ve been holding around values is that the majority of people believe that they are fluid, but articulate how their values have expanded or improved over time. Nobody has said that they think their values have got worse, and nor do people tend to believe that they are a bad influence on others.

This probably speaks to the inherent optimism of the social self and systems: that we tend to believe that we are good and virtuous actors in an imperfect world – but that we do not tend to accept or own up to our role in that imperfection.

I think inevitably there is a degree of aspiration around values: in part the values we speak tend to describe the self we hope we can be, and often describe the ‘other’ that we would like to encounter. Again, few people would hope to befriend the untrustworthy, unfair, or unjust.

So what use are values? In one rather bleak assessment we could say that they are aspirational and self congratulatory beliefs that are held within our own heads, or collectively within socially bonded structures.

But there may be a more positive spin: if beliefs are aspirational, or represent intent, then they also may act as social signalling, which could enable others to calibrate their thoughts, actions, and response against ours. In this sense, clearly demonstrable values, values which shine through our behaviour, may influence others in a positive way.

We could take one final view on this: the systems view. Most of us can observe, or describe, systems that we have been part of that we believe are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Many people can describe the culture of an organisation they were part of that was excellent, or toxic. People can describe good and bad leaders, and good and bad teams.

So is it likely that bad people make bad leaders and form bad teams or, as seems more likely, are there just ‘people’, who, collectively, and as individuals within a collective, exhibit contextually different behaviours that appear to be good or bad?

In other words, are good and bad people fundamentally different, or just different in their thoughts and behaviours in the moment?

My current best view on this is that people tend to conform, and it is conformity that leads to variability and potentially toxicity (as well as excellence, of course), because it removes the ability to hear dissent, and becomes harder to course correct. So good people make small compromises, to belong to environments that are not perfect, but not terrible – and then over time the gap widens, but they never unhitch themselves from the space. So good people drift into systems that drift into toxicity, all the while believing that they maintain their values.

Systems describe ‘values’ as part of their overall narrative of culture, but tend to do so in rather deterministic ways: to say ‘these are our values’, when in fact they are simply words, or aspiration, and often without the ability to explore or position ‘self’ in ‘system’. In other words, we tell people the answer and then ask them to repeat the answer, but we never ask them the question.

And if we do discover dissent, we treat it as heresy: this is, perhaps, a hangover of the paternalistic organisation, which holds conformity and obedience above diversity and capability.

We talk a good talk, but collapse back to naive behaviours under pressure.

I share this as a fragmentary thought on values: a much used term, but perhaps little understood, beyond the initial and convenient interpretation.

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Controlling the Narrative

As a reminder, the blog is, for me, a primary ‘sense making’ space, and first space of reflection: what that means in practice is that it’s a space of uncertainty and the development of new ideas and the vocabulary that we host them within. With that in mind, today i am exploring the dynamic relationship between narrative, space, and action, and how each may be shaped, owned, or controlled.

So in the spirit of reflection, let me start with this: our views of how the world works are held within Dominant Narratives. An example would be a coffee shop (we understand that you go there for a hot drink, that you order, that you ‘sit in’ or ‘take away’, and that at some point you need to pay for the drink), or a disciplinary meeting (we understand that someone who holds power is reprimanding us for somehow transgressing a boundary of power, and that we may mount a defence, but there is a possibility to be punished).

Another example would be the phrase ‘housewife’, which may conjure up an image of a woman who does not go ‘out’ to work, but looks after a family or home. It’s possible that the last example almost triggered you to action: if i had said ‘does not work’ we may have found ourselves challenging that statement. Because the Dominant Narrative of women in the workplace, and in domestic settings, is evolving. Conversations about gender parity, equality, equity, fairness, power and control are all very much of the moment.

All of this tells us two key things about Dominant Narratives: [1] they are only ‘dominant’ for as long as a majority of people believe them to be and [2] they do change over time. But not always easily.

Dominant narratives do not simply relate to behaviours and places: my previous examples include beliefs and power too. In general, the context of the Social Age challenges many of these narratives too: for example, you may go to a disciplinary meeting, but you can Tweet about it, or even covertly live stream it, or you can attend but then crowd fund a defence against outcomes, and so on.

All of this is really to explore the ways that narrative shapes how we think (the role of women in the home), behave, and act, and the places that we do so.

We use a language of ‘controlling the narrative’, and in the case of Dominant Narratives it may appear that the narrative controls us. In a very real sense, whilst narratives are not ‘real’ in a quantifiable physical sense, they nevertheless act upon us in real ways – or to put it another way, although beliefs are just stories, we change our behaviour as a result of those stories.

Let me use some slightly more extreme examples: there may be men who believe (at the pub, with friends, after a few drinks) that women should, indeed, stay at home. But they may not hold a long conversation with their mother or sister to say the same. Behaviour may tend to be moderated, or impacted, by context, and specifically the types of consequence held within different contexts. Similarly, space itself may provide a context: people act differently in an office, a court room, and their bedroom.

So narratives may be held contextually, either consciously or subconsciously. Some people believe that they know how other people should be treated, but do not wish for that treatment for themselves or their family, so they direct the narrative outside of their tribal structure: so refugees should not be a ‘drain’ on the state, even if they, or their family, themselves claim benefits.

Narratives may control, or provoke, behaviour: a woman being told by the state that she can be paid less than a man for the same job may rightfully (and righteously) organise a protest or a strike.

In parallel though, that woman may feel that she belongs to a global movement, or national body, that is fighting for equal rights, and draw strength, resource, and comfort (or indeed anger and support) from that entity.

All these things relate to narratives: ‘dominant’ ones, emerging ones, individuals ones, and collective ones.

Let me return to the question of narratives, spaces, and action. Clearly there is a relationship, but what is it. Can someone truly ‘control’ a narrative, and if so, what exactly do they control?

There is debate at the moment as to who, precisely, is controlling the narrative in the war in Ukraine: is it President Putin, throwing systems off balance through ambiguity, hyperbole, threat, and violence, or is it President Zelensky, with a narrative of the underdog, courage, moral superiority, humility, and trust?

This is a matter of great importance, if narratives act upon us: for example, the reluctance of NATO to supply planes to Ukraine is partly in response to the narrative from Moscow that there will be unspecified, but hinted nuclear, responses.

Inherently there is nothing unusual in narratives playing out against one another, it’s just that it’s so starkly apparent in the Ukrainian war.

Language always matters: calling the war ‘Putin’s War’ is an attempt to provide space for ordinary Russians to align themselves with NATO, or a pre-emptive excuse to sue for peace should Putin fall, essentially tying the sanctions to the emperor.

Narratives come in different flavours: descriptive, oppositional, personal, authentic, and so on. There is value in understanding the ways each of these operate, and coalesce.

Again, if i return to Ukraine, the narrative of human rights abuses is measured in numbers of victims, each one an additional tragedy. By contrast, Putin’s narrative is in terms of empire and destiny, within which one life does not seem to figure. These are not different aspects of the same story (although them may inhabit the same narrative space) but rather competing narratives, each battling to negate the other.

We see that the majority of Organisational narratives work at the level of system, whilst compelling human ones operate at the level of one face or life.

When we consider how power is attached to narratives we see some of the most interesting effects emerge: individual stories can act as aggregators or amplifiers of power. We see this with the tragic story of George Floyd, whose death led to an aggregation of action around a cause and an amplification of the narratives of police brutality and structural racism.

So can a narrative be ‘controlled’, or is it simply ‘won’? Is it a valid strategy to seek to control a space, seeing as how we understand that control of a narrative can cascade out into broader power and potential?

Perhaps we can consider this in terms of narrative tracks, like pathways that lead through the forest. If we get locked into one track, then one person is always going to be ahead of the other. But what we tend to see is that attempts to fracture or own a narrative can take us off down other paths, or out in entirely new directions. 

In other words: narratives can not only be ‘owned’, but also derailed, diverted, or possibly appropriated.

Whilst we instinctively feel, or sense, that we are either empowered, or constrained, by surrounding narratives, it’s remarkably hard to articulate the rules by which that power or control is exerted.

What seems certain is that neither the volume of the narrative, nor the supposed intensity with which it is shared, will guarantee it’s adoption. This is why neither church, State, Organisation or society changes at the will of those in charge alone. There is always the narrative as broadcast, and the narrative as heard, and the response to the narratives, held in a countervailing story.

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Confusion, Cascades and Combinant Effects

Whilst attributed to Gene Kranz, Mission Controller for Apollo, the quote ‘Failure is not an option’ was actually penned by the screenwriters of the 1995 Apollo 13 film. Kranz just liked it so much that he claimed it back for the title of his autobiography.

In ‘To The Moon And Back’ i wrote that failure is not only an option, but possibly the most likely one. Systems tend towards both overconfidence in their stability, and a lack of imagination around the many ways that they may fail.

There are very few things that we can say with absolute certainty, but ‘all things must pass’ is one of them: all organisations fail, eventually, and all systems too. Not even beliefs are immune to the corrosive effects of evolving culture.

But how do things fail?

Today is a short reflection on that: three mechanisms of failure.

One mechanism is simply ‘Confusion’. Many things happen at once, and we do not spot them all, or we do not connect the dots, or we mis-categorise those things. Sometimes things happen in different parts of a system, causing local clarity, but organisational confusion, because the parts are not connected or, more likely, are connected in the wrong ways.

The funny thing about confusion is that we are not always aware when we have caught it: it may be masked by confidence, where we believe that we hold understanding but are, in reality, confused.

Confused yet??

Confusion may be held at different levels, and within different systems: for example, all of our sensors may be functioning, and yet at a decision making level we are confused. So we may have all the data, and all the great people in the room and even the correct context for assessment, and yet confusion reigns.

Sometimes because we lack imagination: the ‘answer’ is there to see, but it does not match up against expectation, or it stretches the elasticity of our belief system too far, and so hence we ignore it, or it is too wide to comprehend.

Sometimes confusion is deliberately injected into systems: to flummox or hoax, to distract or deny. Either from outside, as an act of malice, or even from inside as a matter of indolence or neglect.

Confusion is catching: possibly from external systems or narratives, or the adoption of intact narratives that then confuse internal ones. Markets work this way: as structures of belief and hope more so than logic and prediction.

Confusion may not cause failure, but may mask it. It’s not a force that can be avoided as by necessity we must be ‘confused’ to learn, we must be ‘confusted’ to change: confusion may be a key component of the spaces that we experiment within.

Perhaps best to consider that we must understand our relationship with confusion, and how it relates to confidence, or overconfidence, and hence what is the cost of carrying confusion?

Cascades are something else: cascade effects happen when one failure impacts a subsequent layer of the system.

Cascades are a mechanism by which seemingly minor failures end up fracturing the system itself: whilst no one failure is considered catastrophic, the result nonetheless turns out to be so.

Understanding the principle of cascading failure is one of our mechanisms of resilience: if you are able to break the links, you may avoid failure. This is one aspect of failure, complexity and control that i am particularly interested in, because it may be quite a low tech thing to do.

The rush to action, through confusion, with certainty, may cause a cascade to occur, or extend. Something as simple as introducing delay, time, space, or gateways, may help to avoid it.

Alternatively, we can consider how the system itself is engineered: to be monolithic, or inherently fragmented, or to include crumple zones.

A monolithic system may be highly controlled, efficient, and effective. A fragmented one may be interconnected, but divergent, and controlled more through influence than directly. And crumple zones can be areas that collapse easily, taking energy or momentum out of failure.

An example would be agency workers: organisations that employ some people on contracts, and others through agencies, have a built in capability to react to the market by ‘collapsing’ the agency work. You see, none of this is particularly clever or complex in itself. The engineering of the organisation is something to consider with care.

In ‘The Socially Dynamic Organisation’ i talk about more diverse ecosystems and structures, Organisations that are lighter weight but more heavily interconnected, and more resilient through design, not mass alone.

Cascade failures may run not simply through formal structures (like staffing and fixed costs) but through knowledge itself: belief in the integrity of a market, reputation damage to a key individual, or social accountability of the Organisation itself.

Worth also noting that cascades of failure typically do not run in a straight line – not least because we seek to avoid those weaknesses as they are visible: rather like a crack propagating through glass, they can zig zag wildly, and the very connection of disparate, disconnected, or seemingly unrelated elements is where the weakness lies.

Combinant effects are catalysts or additive in nature: they may be part of, or the trigger for, cascades, but the sum is more than the parts. The best way to consider combinant effects is where two elements, in isolation, are innocuous, but together produce hitherto unseen effects. There is a notion of critical mass here, or a tipping point: you cannot spot the risk when the elements are isolated – indeed we may have tested individual elements of the system and demonstrated their safety – but together they cause a failure.

Combinant effects may be entirely unpredictable, or the cost of prediction may be prohibitive enough to prevent it occurring with any regularity, or they may be predictable but hidden within confusion, or occluded within existing frames of certainty.

In retrospect, combinant effects may give an illusion of being obvious, but that is the key benefit of hindsight.

An example would be the sinking of the Oceana cruise liner: all the mechanical systems were tested, and all the human systems were trained, but in the event, a part was missing (leading to flooding) and the captain was missing (frozen up in shock) and hence the system failed – famously it was the entertainers who stepped in to save the passengers.

The failed part alone should not have caused disaster, and the Captain existed within a hierarchy which should have been resilient, but together they produced shock and failure.

Perhaps one way to understand this is as ‘cascades’ running through low level systems and ‘combinant’ effects amplifying shock through systems, so the two may run in parallel. And, of course, generate confusion.

If you are interested in Failure, Complexity and Control, i am running an Open Workshop in June, as well as the free download of the book ‘To the Moon and Back – leadership reflections from Apollo’.

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