When I was responsible for developing new ‘knowledge products’ for a major professional services firm, we did it the old fashioned way. We identified all the content that was available and asked the practice leaders (the guys footing the bills) which content they wanted. We didn’t talk much with the front-line people or find out what jobs they did, or wanted to do, using knowledge. The practice leaders, ignorant of what was possible, told us, often, what they thought we wanted to hear. Then we went away and had fun designing sophisticated multi-functional Intranet websites and tools that would accommodate all this stuff, in the way that made sense to us as ‘information architects’. Then, we flooded their e-mails and newsletters with messages telling them what content was now available (messages few people read), and developed training courses and CBT to show them how to use the fancy tools we’d bought or built (training few people took). And we were surprised when most of our ‘users’ didn’t use or like the content or tools very much. Duh.
A recent article in Business Week (thanks to Paul Graham for the link) describes the importance of getting your new technology product approximately right fast, and fine tuning it once it’s out in the market. Traditional product developers would be aghast at such an idea, since it sounds hasty and unprofessional. But today, with the appropriate caveats (“this is still in beta”) it makes sense (and not just for technology products) because rapid iteration is the best way to perfect a product, and because customers are essential to that process.
As I’ve explained before, ‘finding a need and filling it’ entails finding the intersections of ‘jobs to be done’ and communities of people who do (or want to do) those ‘jobs’. This is illustrated in the need/affinity matrix above. This is not the way designers and marketers (“the customer doesn’t know what he wants”) usually think. Designers think in terms of features and benefits. Customers think in terms of the job to be done. They don’t want a 1/4″ drill bit (even if it plays iTunes music); they want a 1/4″ hole. It’s the jobs to be done that the entrepreneur should be looking for — jobs that existing products and services, for some reason, don’t satisfactorily do. (And a reminder: make sure you understand that reason — it can save you a lot of grief.)
Likewise, marketers think in terms of demographics. But these days demographics is no longer a good way to parse your market: The days when a product could be made for a certain specific homogeneous age group, cultural group, or gender are long gone. Our affinities — the people or communities with whom we share a particular need or want — are now extremely complex, and getting more so.
So you need to find the intersections of (unmet) needs and affinities. In the example in the matrix above, vendors have recently (in the last decade or so) discovered a need for decks and fences that require virtually no maintenance. People don’t have time to keep these structures looking beautiful. The solution the inventors came up with was moulded plastic (or wood/plastic composite) decking — no cracks because of thermal resilience and no painting because the colour is baked right in. The vendors discovered two main communities interested in such products — people with no time (or, if they were to be honest, lousy carpentry skills), and people worried about the newly-discovered health and environmental dangers of creosote and other wood preservatives.
Once they’d found the intersections, the next step was to develop a strategy canvas (this is a Blue Ocean Strategy term, but I’ll use Kathy Sierra’s intriguing ‘equalizer‘ metaphor to demonstrate it) that would differentiate, in the eyes of the identified customer communities, their product from traditional wood decking and fencing materials:
So what does this have to do with iteration and the wisdom of crowds? Well, as designers and marketers are quick to point out, the customer’s needs and wants are never that clearly articulated. They probably don’t know what they want or need (most of us are not very imaginative), especially if it’s something that hasn’t been invented yet.
The vertical axis of the need/affinity matrix is therefore initially fuzzy. Iteration clarifies it. Show people something that meets what they think they need, and with enough iterations, they and you together will hone in on what they really need that you can produce.
The inventors of plastic decking and fencing (back in the 1980s) didn’t do very well, because people couldn’t imagine using it. They couldn’t visualize it. The iterators like Eon and Trex who developed prototypes, installed a few free of charge so that customers and neighbours could see what they were getting, and kick the tires, and suggest improvements — those were the vendors who made money filling this need.
Likewise, the horizontal axis of the need/affinity matrix is also initially fuzzy. With less time available each year, customers were clearly clamouring for lower-maintenance products. But those customers probably would be loath to admit that, compared to previous generations, they just don’t have the skills to build, repair or maintain such structures. And who would have guessed, if they hadn’t done a lot of research ‘in the crowd’, that consumer concerns about health, safety and the environment would lead to an aversion to, and then a ban on, creosote and other toxic wood preservatives, throwing the entire industry into chaos? And what about people in struggling nations who don’t have electricity? Snap-together decking does away with the need for power tools. Tapping the wisdom of crowds entails interviewing and surveying as many people as possible to get a consensus not only on the need, but on the categories of customer, the affinity groups, who have that need. Such primary research (which requires wearing out a lot of shoe-leather) would ask questions on issues such as:
This is hard work, but as long as you have the time and passion for it, it’s not expensive. It will give you a lot of information about the communities of customers who will buy your product, and, by iteration, exactly what they would prefer to buy. That puts you light years ahead of traditional companies, who invent in a lab, design in a vacuum, andthen advertise to anyone who will listen and hope for the best.
March 21, 2006
March 20, 2006
It’s good to see a few other blogs coming to grips with the coming social and economic collapse of our unsustainable civilization, and talking in practical, non-ideological terms about preparedness for it. One of the best is Adaptation, a ‘zine and blog by Paula Hay, which Dale Asberry put me on to.
We will all face economic problems much sooner than we will face blackouts; we will lose our jobs and our homes long before the lights go out…Preparation effects which ignore economic issues will actually put any given community in a worse situation than had it not prepared at all…Ignoring economic issues as they relate to collapse preparation sows the seeds of community violence, both from within and from without. A community that sinks its energies into preparing for what comes after collapse, without considering the 15-20 or more years of economic hardship between now and the time when hand tools become necessary, is essentially committing suicide.
The basic problem is not that money, markets and commerce are evil. The problem is that these are currently structured to be tools of governance for the ruling eliteóin other words, money is a weapon used to keep the masses in check. We all know how this works: we work longer hours just to stay in place, which robs us of time and energy we would otherwise spend pursuing creative projects, athletics, education, politics, or even our own entrepreneurship. Entertainment becomes our shore leave, and ìstuffî becomes our reward for making it through yet another year with no reprieve, save our two-week vacation.
Economists admonish us that our doom-and-gloom is silly, because the Invisible Hand will save us from collapse. This is absurd on its face, and anyone with a shred of common sense can see why: hitting the brakes after we drive off the cliff will not save us from driving off the cliff. Markets are reactive, and are therefore not an appropriate hope where proactive strategy is required.
This is brilliant stuff, and it’s about time we started talking about it. But I have a few quibbles with Paula’s arguments, and they’re not minor ones:
In fact, I have argued that for many reasons, including the need to make the transition from industrial to post-industrial society, we need to be working now to actively disrupt the existing market economy and replace it will an economy that will be better suited (to put it mildly) to a sustainable, post-industrial world without oil. The four elements of that economy are: peer-to-peer information and exchange networks; local, natural enterprises; personal ‘radical simplicity’ sustainable living programs; and intentional communities. We need to start learning now how to live in a post-industrial society, so that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be prepared and will be able to establish the radically new infrastructure needed to make this economy work. In the meantime, these four elements will also serve us very well during the pre-collapse economic depression, perhaps as little as a decade away. And they’re good for the environment, and will make us healthier andhappier as well.
The key, as we are hearing more and more, is not utopian or dystopian disaster planning, but learning, and teaching, resilience.
March 19, 2006
Innovation & Creativity Model ©2006 Dave Pollard & Meeting of Minds
(see explanation at end of this article)
I like the way Umair Haque’s mind works. His paper on the economics of peer production is masterful. Now he’s thinking about innovation. In the past, he says, good innovators started with the customer and asked who (has a need), what (could we offer of value), and how (could we produce this in a novel, differentiated way). Now, he says, perhaps the most important question we can ask is why we produce what we do. Asking why is not new, but asking really profound ‘whys’ can get you thinking about radically different, highly disruptive innovation opportunities. Umair offers these examples:
Coordination innovators should ask: why do we interact?
Brand innovators should ask: why do we need to attach social meanings?
Media innovators should ask: why do we need to mediate?
Makers of markets, networks, and communities should ask: why do we need the company?
Disruptive managers should ask: why do we need to control?
Strategists should ask: why do we need competencies at the core? Why do we need to compete?
If you’ve been a change advocate and reading these questions doesn’t send a little shiver of excitement up your spine, check your pulse.
The obvious answer to most of these questions is that at one time there was a need to do so. As I keep saying (yes I’m going to say it again) things are the way they are for a reason, and it is essential to understand that reason before trying to institute a change.
The less obvious answer to most of these questions is we don’t (anymore), and that of course opens up the more interesting question: If we stopped doing this, what might we do instead?
What excites me most about these questions is how they can be applied by entrepreneurs to disrupt an entire industry by asking these questions before the big, slow moving players in that industry do. What has always fascinated (and annoyed) me about books about entrepreneurship and how to start your own business is their assumption that the answer to all the questions above (and a bunch more I’ll get to in a minute) is not we don’t (anymore) but rather because the big companies have always done that so if we want to be (successful) like them we have to do that, too. So business books tell you you have to do lots of advance planning, create hierarchy, grow (or die), market your product through the media, achieve competitive advantage, etc. ad nauseam.
Here are a few more ‘why’ questions that challenge organizational orthodoxy:
HR innovators should ask: why do we have employees? Why do we have titles? Why do we ‘promote’ people? Why do we pay people based on seniority, rank or performance? Why do people not love working for us, so we have to bribe them with more and more money? Product innovators should ask: why does the producer design the products ‘for’ the customer? Why do we need people to ‘sell’ the product, if it’s so good?
Strategists should ask: why do shareholders get a vote? Why do we care about ‘shareholder value’? Why do we entrust a few executives to make all the critical decisions? Why do executives get more money and perks than anyone else?
Financial innovators should ask: why do we measure performance by profit and growth?
Now, if you’re a prospective entrepreneur, rather than asking these ‘why’ questions of your own organization, you could ask them of the industry you would like to disrupt. And if your answer is (after careful consideration) that these things are done because they used to be necessary or effective, but no longer are, then you could start asking yourself the obvious ‘what if’ innovation corollaries, such as:
What if we created a business by self-selecting our partners, all of whom would rank equally, and who would work in whatever role and as many hours as they choose, and be paid what they needed?
What if we co-created, co-designed, even co-manufactured our products and services with our (prospective) customers, so we wouldn’t need to sell, or market (the customers would market for us, by word of mouth), and so the distinction between customers and producers disappeared?
What if we measured success by the happiness of our partners and our customers, and by the innovativeness, sustainability and resilience of the enterprise rather than its profitability?
What if we designed the enterprise so it didn’t need to constantly grow to be healthy, and so that it used only renewable energy and produced no waste, no pollution, and 100% recyclable products?
What if we only borrowed what we absolutely needed to remain sustainable, borrowed it from customers rather than outsiders, and paid it back as soon as possible, so we were beholden to no one?
What if we had mechanisms to constantly tap the ‘wisdom of crowds’ by having our partners and customers and communities make all critical choices for us?
What if we used conversations exclusively, rather than written documents, to convey information, achieve consensus and make decisions?
What if, before it got too big and unwieldy, we allowed parts of our enterprise to organically split off into separate autonomous enterprises, as our (their) partners desired, so that the organization(s) would remain completely democratic, with all decisions agreed to unanimously by all partners affected?
What if our organization, and all the other entrepreneurial organizations daring to ask these innovative ‘what if’ questions, agreed to work collaboratively as a network instead of in competition, sharing information, capacity and resources freely, generously, and reciprocally, with reputation and trust rather than money being the currency of exchange?
This collaborative network of Natural Enterprises would collectively have enormous power, information, capacity for innovation, speed-to-market, and resilience, and none of the barriers that make traditional large organizations ineffective, un-innovative and inflexible. In a word, we would render the old corporate model obsolete.
But to do that we have to stop emulating these clumsy dinosaurs, and work together. We can start by asking some heretical why and what if questions.
in the falling dark (by bruce cockburn, 1976)
and the lights lie tumbled out like gems
a million footsteps whispering
earthbound while everything expands
light pours from a million radiant lives
I was listening to this song, from Bruce Cockburn’s 1976 album of the same name, last night, and was so struck by the extraordinary lyrics Ihad to share them. The photo is mine, taken last week.
March 18, 2006
Midday sandstorm in Artux, China, this week. Photo from People’s Daily.
Environment and Health:
China Premieres the Next Form of Ecological Disaster: China is now being wracked by sandstorms, due to its negligent land, water and soil management. These storms (see picture above) have hit several parts of the country this week and are spreading. Consequences: respiratory illness, further destruction of plant and animal life, damage to machinery. And you thought acid rain was bad.
Drug Risks the System Missed: An important article and table from Consumer Reports shows 12 US FDA-approved drugs that pose substantial health risks. If you’re using them, beware.
Global Meltdown: In this week’s New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert, author of the just-published book Field Notes from a Catastrophe, explains how scientists and simulations have vastly underestimated the future impact of global warming, specifically the impact of the melting poles and the resultant changes in ocean currents on coastal flooding and local climates.
Alberta Tar Sands Development Linked to Rare Cancer and Auto-Immune Epidemic: As if the environmental damage weren’t bad enough, health officials in First Nations communities near tar sands operations are now reporting an epidemic of auto-immune system diseases and an outbreak of an extremely rare and untreatable cancer. Thanks to Dale Asberry for the link.
Media Try to Pretend They Know What’s Happening in Iraq: An extraordinary series of articles by journalist Orville Schell running in Salon (part one, part two) tells how the media, for their own safety, are bunkered up in Iraq and unable to get any clear idea what’s really happening outside their concrete-and-steel ‘Bremer Walls’. Their hired Iraqi reporter surrogates are their only connection with the hell that is going on outside the compound, and the situation, they say, is much worse than it was even two years ago.
Democrat Ousted by Party Machine Lampoons Party: Democrat Paul Hackett, who was dumped by the party’s brass in favour of a more conservative candidate, participated in a hilarious parody on The Daily Show. Watch it on Crooks & Liars. Thanks to Make Them Accountable for the link.
When Satire Cuts Too Close to the Truth: The Daily Show did an ‘expose’ this week on the so-called ‘hunting’ that t*rds like Cheney engage in. The reporter visited a hunting ‘ranch’ where birds are bred and caged for life, selected his ‘catch’ from a menu, and then showed how the birds are buried under brush until they’re ready to be released for their two seconds of freedom before the ‘customer’ shoots them at close range. Horrifically unsettling. Criminal. Cruel slaughter as sport. And we claim to be civilized. I was so angry I couldn’t sleep for two days.
Money Trumps Ideology in Bush Relations with Latin America: The NYT reports that Bush will no longer refuse to sell weapons of mass destruction to Latin American countries that don’t promise to indemnify all Americans from prosecution by the International Criminal Court. Of course, if they actually do prosecute Americans through the International Criminal Court, they will probably have to use those weapons to defend themselves from Bush.
Using Google More Effectively: Ten useful tips from last December by ‘pcguy’ Peter Grad: Using the ~,-, and * symbols, Google’s cache, phonebook and reverse lookup, the define, site:, and image: commands, and Google toolbars. Thanks to my colleague Gordon Vala-Webb for the link.
The ‘Equalizer Slider’ Approach to Innovation: Kathy Sierra at Creating Passionate Users tweaks the Blue Ocean Strategy‘s ‘strategy canvases‘ technique (using the model of sliders on an audio signal equalizer instead of a ‘canvas’) and adds some useful ideas on ‘finding new sliders’ (new ways to differentiate your business), such as borrowing from other industries, brainstorming and analogy. She and I still disagree on whether the best innovations start with customers (she says no, I say yes). Thanks to Dale Asberry for the link.
Quote for the week:
“The Abramoff affair is not just a Republican or non-partisan scandal. It’s simply the moment’s most visible excrescence of a truly national scandal: the fearful domination of private money over the publicinterest.” — Hendrik Hertzberg
March 17, 2006
|Here’s an inspiring message from organizational development consultant Roger Harrison on the occasion of his retirement from practice. It comes from the desk of Jon Husband, who had the occasion to work with Roger. It really speaks to the importance of finding meaningful work in one’s life.
A Time For Letting Go, by Roger Harrison
This paper is written for those who sometimes question the meaning and consequences of their work as consultants to business organizations and corporations.
In it I share the dilemmas which have caused me to falter in my commitment to our profession, along with the beginnings of a new vision of my own work. My intent is to provide a useful map of territory I have been exploring in my thoughts and conversations with others for about ten years.
What I have to say here is, I believe, coherent. It is certainly congruent with my own experience. Whether it is “true”, in the sense of being a useful map of the territory, each reader will have to decide.
The Consultant’s Journey
I began my career in 1956, when American busines organizations were at the top of the world heap. Their managers tended to be smug and self-satisfied, taking credit for the good times which had succeeded the disorganization of the Depression and the scarcities of World War II. I received my initiation into what soon became Organizational Development (OD) through participation in T-groups. I was inspired and uplifted by these experiences, and they embodied the ideals which animated most of my subsequent work. Most of my work since has been animated by three aims:
I have had many deep, passionate and stormy love affairs with business organizations. The storms have revolved around the painful contradictions I have experienced between the potential in my lovers for what is fine and good, and the meanness, blindness and impersonal cruelty that has so often been their actuality. The pain has also been fueled by my strong need to make a positive difference, and to see myself as a contributor to human progress and the betterment of working life.
In recent years, I have seen many of these lovers turn mean and narrow, as they struggle to survive and to acquire and retain what they think of as their rightfully-growing share of the world’s resources.
I have sadly come to think of them as addicts, struggling with increasing desperation to control their lives and to feed their addictions with growth, money, novelty, success. Like most addicts, they lie, cheat and steal to support their addictions; they live in denial of the consequences of their actions; and they turn ugly when confronted with their addictions.
Although I continue my love of business and especially of the people I meet in business, I am saddened by the power of these addictions to corrupt or render ineffective our best initiatives. Increasingly, that is the context within which we work (see Schaef, 1987, Schaef and Fassel, 1988).
Where We Are Now
Codependency is the process of supporting another’s addiction and sometimes joining it, turning a blind eye to the addiction, playing the addict’s game of denial and rationalization, and endeavouring to save the addict from the consequences of his or her destructive acts. Organizational Development (OD) as I have known and practiced it is often highly codependent, especially in its focus on ameliorating the consequences of the addiction.
I have done considerable inner work over the years, and some of it has freed me in part from my own cravings for success and recognition, love and acceptance, and for power and influence. I now tend to see both my own addictions and those of others more clearly. At the same time, the flaws in our system have become more glaring.
Put simply, our system isn’t working, and it isn’t getting fixed.
I want to take just a little space to set forth what I see as the larger social context within which I see our work as consultants taking place. I see us now as facing a great and inevitable turning, one being brought about by the unbridled growth to which we as the dominant world culture are committed.
The signs and signals of that turning are in what is ending in our society that we used to imagine we could count upon.
I mention just five that have impressed me, and about which I have found considerable agreement in audiences to which I have spoken on these matters.
There are other signs that have surprised and delighted me and have warmed my heart.
Because these latter developments are all counter-cultural, they are subtle, hard to track, and there is less agreement that they are actually going on. My own confidence that they are there and growing depends a lot on my mood and spirit from day to day.
However, these trends do form the basis for those paths which I believe have integrity and heart that may be followed in working as a consultant to business organizations today.
What I have to say about the right work for OD consultants is absurdly simple and, in my experience, devastatingly difficult. I propose that we:
I do not have space in this introductory piece to map this territory in a complete or detailed fashion, even to the limited extent that I am capable of doing so at this stage in my own journey. Rather, I shall focus on one key to awakening I have experienced recently in my own life: detachment, or letting go.
Awakening requires us to step outside the mental models which we share with our clients and with other consultants and to walk the lonely road of what Marsha Sinetar in Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics (1986) calls “social transcendence” .
By social transcendence I mean emotional independence or detachment from societal influences, even from other people when necessary: I call the monk one who has detached emotionally from a known, familiar and comfortable way of life in order to embark upon an uncharted inner journey. The monk responds to an inner call, reinterprets his or her basic way of being in the work – which might include reinterpreting the way he relates to others, work, marriage, Church or other organizational status, and even includes a renewed definition of himself or herself and one’s basic place in the scheme of things. (Sinetar, 1986, Pg. 5)
Most of us who practice organization development have always done this to a degree. What makes us valuable to our clients is in part our different ways of seeing and valuing.
For example, many of us have steadfastly held a mental model that organizations which liberate the human spirit will also be productive and economically viable. I think of that as a small and manageable difference from our clients.
However, when we come to believe that the organizations with which we consult are leading us to destroy the environment, perhaps irretrievably, and that both society and business are addicted to these destructive patterns, we have a larger problem of maintaining rapport and communication. The path I am advocating requires that we allow that problem to develop as we free ourselves from the denial and rationalization which validate and give meaning to the continuation of business and societal practices which are destructive of life on Earth.
Codependency or Detachment?
Probably most of us have read or heard quite a lot about codependency and about liberating ourselves from such destructive relationship patterns. Many of us are fed up with the constant repetition, perhaps in the same way we become fed up with bad news about the environment – not that it isn’t true, but that it is painful.
The task of separating oneself from the addictions of other individuals with whom we may be codependent is similar to that of separating from the addictions of our culture. It is a spiritual practice, and a demanding one.
There are lots of guides and teachers, books about liberating oneself from codependency (see for example, Beattie, 1987) and programs for helping one to do so, Al-Anon and other Twelve-Step programs being examples. They are relevant to the task of awakening. Based upon my own experience, I give below my understanding of what is required of us to awaken in relationship to the organizations with which we are codependent and in relationship to our culture.
My Own Story
I want to be clear that I am myself stumbling along this road I am mapping. I am not offering myself as a model of what I here advocate. I shall share where I am along that road, and something of the stages through which I have gone to get this far. In a way, this is a transitional epilogue to my recent professional autobiography (Harrison, 1995).
Melody Beattie makes the point that while we endeavour to detach in love, it is better to detach in anger than not to detach at all. My own detachment from business organizations began in anger and resentment, masked as reflection.
In the early nineties I was burned out and discouraged with the results of my long career as a consultant. I turned to my autobiography as some people turn to their journals, in an attempt to work out the meanings in my life. The work was fueled by th paradox in which I found myself. I was at the peak of my powers as a consultant, but my passions and values were less and less shared by actual and potential clients, It was increasingly difficult to find work that felt worth doing, in the sense of promoting the three values mentioned on the first page of this paper.
Like any good codependent, I took considerable personal responsibility for the situation in which I found myself, and I spent many pages in my autobiography analyzing my failures, paying less attention to my successes. What I felt, but didn’t say directly, was that I felt abandoned and unappreciated, and I resented it at the same time as I looked for its causes within myself.
I came away from writing the book feeling a whole lot better about myself, and worse about organizations. Their magic was gone for me, and I saw only the destructive part they play in our exploitative economic system. I resolved to disconnect from business consulting and devote myself to playing a part in healing the environment.
My wife and I moved at that time from the San Francisco Bay Area to a new home near Seattle, and I endeavoured to find clients among the many environmental organizations here in the Northwest. Many of these seemed in part to be mirror images of the corporations they fought – caught up in the struggle to survive and to win converts to their agenda.
They and the corporations used similar strategies and tactics, and perceived one another in similarly distorted ways. That did not disqualify them as clients, but their addiction to action was even stronger than that within corporations, and most were too busy surviving and fighting the enemy to accept the kinds of help I could bring. So here, too, I found myself with gifts to give, but few takers.
As I look back on these few years, I seem to have gone through a process of loss and recovery similar to that described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and others (Fink, 1967, Kubler-Ross, 1969). I began with feelings of loss and disillusionment which I found ways to blame on others. I endeavoured to replace what I had lost, without success. Following that I became despondent and deeply self-questioning for some months, a low-grade depression mixed with bitterness, which impeded my efforts to create a new life for myself here in the Pacific Northwest. My energy was low, I had some health problems, I couldn’t seem to commit to any one thing for very long, and my performance in doing the things I did commit to was very uneven.
All the while there was healing going on. Living close to nature here on Whidbey Island, I was moved to learn ways of consciously using the natural world for my own healing (Roszak, Gomes & Kanner, 1995), and that has worked for me to a degree I had not imagined likely. I have also worked with self-healing aproaches such as Reiki (Haberley, 1990) and the “MAP” process pioneered by Machaelle Small Wright (1994).
This story hasn’t ended, but there has been a turning. Eventually I found a new work with heart and meaning, a program we call Life on Earth, developed with my spouse and partner, Margaret Harris. As is typical of my work history (and that of many others in our profession) I am now offering people what I found I needed for my own healing. In this case, that is a relaxed and nurturing time in a beautiful setting, where participants can reflect on where the world is going and what part they want to play in its changes, and where they are guided in deepening their connection with the natural world.
My transition did not take place in neat, demarcated stages. Everything overlapped, and the pattern was a kind of wave motion – forward into the future and towards freedom and detachment, then pulled back and down into resentments, regrets and doubts.
Detachment, forgiveness of self and others, and letting go of the past have been the keys to my transition. I became involved with the development of Life on Earth in the spring of 1995, but as long as I was burdened with my feelings of bitterness and judgment towards business organizations, everything I did required great effort, and our successes were negligible. For example, we had to cancel our first workshop we offered when only two people signed up. By late summer of 1996, when I had in large part transcended my negativity, our next offering was greatly oversubscribed, and we continue to receive many expressions of interest in our work. Perhaps in the interim there had been a big shift in others’ readiness for what we offered, but the only thing I am sure was different was me. That change in me did of course have an effect on the promotional copy I was able to write for the workshop, but I find it hard to believe that what I wrote is that magical.
Anger, sadness and grief over what is happening to Earth have also been barriers to my movement. When we lived in the urban Bay Area, the destruction of the environment was something we read about or saw on television. Here on Whidbey Island, it is ever present, and personal. We round a corner of the road and come upon the wreckage of a forest, now reduced to a tangle of stumps and slash. Another day we hear the whine of chainsaws and the crash of falling trees near our home, and investigate to learn that a neighbour is clearing the timber from a piece of property and will sell the land for a housing site. For some time I was nearly immobilized by my feelings about this destruction. In time I learned to live with my sorrows without being disempowered. I was greatly helped in this shift by attending workshops with Joanna Macy, in which we learned to move safely into the grief, anger and despair we were holding at bay (Macy, 1983, 1991; Seed, Macy, Fleming, & Naess, 198! 8).
I learned not so much to release the sorrow as to embrace it as a necessary companion on my journey, an aspect of being awake.
I find now that I am moved again to find ways of contributing to the lives of people in business organizations, but, consistent with my having achieved some degree of detachment, my aims and expectations have changed.
I no longer frame my aspirations by the three bullet items given on the first page of this paper. I seek rather to provide opportunities for people to engage in dialogue about what is happening in the world and in their organizations, to find the courage to speak their truth, and to support one another in finding what has heart and meaning for each one.
Although my own path leads me to deepen my connections with the natural world and to work co-creatively with nature in search of truth and healing, I feel this can only be entered into when one is attracted to it. I have no expectations of changing the people with whom I work, nor of changing their organizations.
Both will be changed by the force of events, in ways we can only guess at.
My own hope is to support the learning and healing of those with whom Iwork, as they enter the great turning which I believe lies ahead.
March 16, 2006
The new Canadian minority prime minister Stephen Harper recently made headlines (here, anyway) by visiting and overnighting with Canadian troops in Afghanistan. When he spoke to the troops, with the press lapping it up, he said some things that I thought at first were deliberate deceit, or toadying to the US neocons who helped finance his campaign. He said (emphasis mine):
You have put yourself on the line to defend our national interests, protect Canada and the world from terror, and help the people of Afghanistan rebuild their country…Before its liberation, under the Taliban regime, Afghanistan often served as an incubator for Al Qaeda and other terror organizations. This reality hit home with brutal force on 9-11, when two dozen Canadians lost their lives suddenly and senselessly in the destruction of the World Trade Centre…Since that time, Al Qaeda has singled out Canada as one of the countries targeted for terror. And beyond the threat of terror thereís the threat of drugs. An unstable Afghanistan represents easy pickings for drug lords who would use the country as a safe haven for the production of heroin, which wreaks its own destruction on the streets of our country.
I was a supporter of Canada’s involvement five years ago in the overthrow of the Taliban, and I can tell you that for most Canadians this support had nothing to do with the ‘war on terror’, 9/11, or the ‘war on drugs’. We supported the overthrow of the Taliban because its theocracy — using money, arms and resources cynically supplied by the US to help them wage war on invading Russian troops — had enslaved its people, especially its women, and because we believe that the systemic brutalization and murder of its people by any government is repugnant.
For the same reason I, and I think most Canadians, would support intervention in Darfur, to protect at least some of the people from the genocide that is occurring there today with the full knowledge of the indifferent governments of affluent nations including Canada. Our duty in Afghanistan, in my view, was to help oust the Taliban, then quickly reestablish the rule of law and reconstruct sufficient infrastructure to allow the people of Afghanistan to look after themselves, and then help keep the peace.
We have done none of these things. The attempt to achieve ‘regime change’ in Afghanistan, like the war next door in Iraq, has been a near-total failure. The so-called government of Afghanistan that Harper met for photo-ops with, is in fact only the government of Kabul, the country’s capital city. The rest of the country remains in the hands of the war-lords, now hugely enriched by the explosion of the poppy heroin business, which neither the ‘coalition’ nor the so-called ‘government’ has any power to curtail. In much of the country these warlords are sympathetic to the Taliban, and no doubt some of the heroin wealth is being funneled to them.
The idea that Canadian troops are “protecting Canada and the world from terror” is laughable — they are protecting the new Karzai regime from losing Kabul to the same thuggery and anarchy that still prevails in the rest of the country. The idea that Canadian troops are helping reduce the “threat of drugs” is equally preposterous — drugs are now the mainstay of the Afghanis’ economy, far more than they were under the Taliban. And, worst of all, the idea that Canadian troops’ role in Afghanistan is “peacekeeping” is belied by their mounting, intended casualties and heavy “counter-insurgency” activities — you cannot “keep peace” until you have won it in the first place.
So my view is that we tried, but have failed, to intervene in a sufficiently positive way in the lives of the people of Afghanistan to justify our continued presence there. We were naive to believe that this country, which has been down-trodden and abused by an endless succession of foreign invaders and domestic opportunists, could manage its own affairs if we simply removed the leaders of its latest gang of despots. This is one of the poorest countries on the planet, horrifically overpopulated relative to its carrying capacity, its environment utterly destroyed by overgrazing, bombing and chemical poisons, with no viable industry except the cultivation of poppies. And while that poppy industry might, in better circumstances, be harvested for medical purposes instead of drugs, the combination of intractable lawlessness and utter lack of economic infrastructure makes such a dream impossible.
If we stay, we are looking at decades of incessant civil strife and insurgency — and the distinct possibility that the people might prefer a relatively-benign but forceful dictatorship able to achieve a reasonable degree of peace, even if that dictatorship had a religious fundamentalist philosophy, provided it was not too brutal and doctrinaire at enforcing it, rather than a fragile democracy constantly struggling with civil war. If we leave, we are inviting civil war. The best of a sad lot of alternatives is, I think, to leave and to invest the money we would otherwise spend on military activities on infrastructure that could actually help the country become a little bit better place to live — education, health care, sustainable agriculture, water treatment, even markets for the poppies that would see them used for pain medication instead of drugs. We are, alas, not ‘big enough’ to admit failure, and to be honest to the world about it.
While progressives might nod at such a strategy, to Harper and those of conservative mindset such an idea would be shocking, unthinkable, even treasonous. My reading of Lakoff (and the fact that I know quite a few conservatives) has led me to understand that, while 80% of Canadians favoured our involvement in removing the Taliban from power, probably only 2/3 of that number favoured it for the humanitarian reasons I did, while the other 1/3, the 27% of Canadians who see events through a conservative worldview, favoured it for the ideological reasons that Harper spouted in his speech to the Canadian troops. We overwhelmingly agreed for utterly different, irreconcilable reasons.
This is why, when the opposition NDP and some Liberals want a debate now on Canada’s continuing role in Afghanistan, Harper will not even consider the possibility. This is the guy who, after all, wanted us in Iraq as well, for the same ideological reasons rejected overwhelmingly by Canadians. He really believes (what I see as) the nonsense he spouted to the troops. Facts about the impossibility of imposing democracy, about the horrific state of continuous siege in most of Afghanistan after five years of foreign occupation, about the ineffectiveness of everything we have tried to do, about the overwhelmingly military (rather than humanitarian, peacekeeping or infrastructure-building) role of the West in Afghanistan, about the drug epidemic from the resurgence of Afghanistan’s heroin production that is devastating many of the former Soviet republics — all bounce off Harper and conservatives because they do not ‘fit’ with their paternalistic worldview.
In the US, at least, there is a third view that is neither progressive (“let’s get out and try doing something different that maybe won’t make things any worse”) nor conservative (“let’s stay the course and work to keep the world safe for democracy from terrorists and drug czars who hate freedom and who want to kill or defeat us”). This third view is that of the materialistic, fatalistic, thrill-seeking, don’t-give-a-damn rugged individualists who now make up a small majority of the population.
What would their take be on all this? They wouldn’t care. They’re cynical enough to doubt that any of the reasons given for Middle Eastern adventures were honest ones, by either side. They loath and distrust the information media — regular and alternative — and are bored by them. They’ll watch CNN only for entertainment, when there is something visually exciting happening. They don’t know what’s going on, and don’t want to know — they are uninterested in making it their business to have an opinion on anything they think they can’t influence, and which will encourage those who do have an opinion to try to manipulate them with lies and distortions.
I find such views very disturbing, but I understand them. Even the neocons, with their recent rants about the dangers of isolationism, are beginning to pay attention to this real silent majority. What is especially troubling is that we have botched our attempts to intervene in the affairs of people in other countries — politically, socially, and economically — so badly that we have given astonishing credence to this third view. Were it not for Western meddling in the lives of the people in the Middle East — from the crusades to our more recent arming and other empowerment of the Saudi princes, the Saddams, the Taliban etc. — would those countries be better or worse off than they are today?
Harper’s buddies at Talisman Energy, in the process of exploiting Sudan’s natural resources, helped finance the genocide in Darfur. That was not their intention, of course, just one more unforeseen consequence of globalization. The third wave argument, which is never articulated, is that in this complex world it doesn’t matter what we try to do — in our ignorance, zeal, paranoia and oversimplification we are as likely in any well-intentioned act to make matters worse than better. Given the disasters inadvertently perpetrated by every type of organization with money and power in the history of civilization, maybe that explains the enduring popularity of anarchy as a political and philosophical persuasion.
I’ve deliberately written about Afghanistan in this article because it is a less emotional subject than Iraq. But as you have probably guessed, what I’ve said about Afghanistan could apply equally to Iraq, Iran, or any other country, or for that matter to efforts to solve solutions to our domestic problems. I know these sound like strange ideas coming from a guy whose blog is about trying to save the world (and I’ll be a progressive until I die), but sometimes it never hurts to take an honest look at what’s really going on in the world, and why, and notget too caught up in our orthodoxies. “First, do no harm” isn’t a bad approach to any intervention.
Cartoon by Stuart Carlson, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
March 15, 2006
|It’s been a long day, it’s dark out, and you’re in a hurry to get home. You’re driving along, paying attention to the road but also thinking about what you’re going to do later. Suddenly, out of nowhere, someone darts out from beyond your peripheral vision right into your path. A dull thud. You don’t even have time to swerve. You stop the car and back up. Then what? You get out of the car, of course. You assess the situation, and if there is any injury you call 911 immediately. You stay at the scene offering whatever help you can. Even if there are no witnesses. Especially if there are no witnesses. You do this even if no one is hurt, or no one seems to be hurt. If you know emergency techniques you apply them. If the victim is an animal or a bird, you know exactly what to do. Anyone who would flee the scene of an accident they were party to must have been either drunk or driving without a license, right?
Well, maybe not. In Toronto we have recently had a rash of hit and run accidents involving injured people. Police have no idea why the hit-and-run rate seems to have spiked. What is even more surprising to police is the number of witnesses who flee the scene and don’t offer testimony later. After all, these people didn’t do anything wrong, so the excuse that they could be facing long prison terms, life disruption and the fury of the family and friends of the injured doesn’t apply to witnesses.
In LA, they’re experts at this. With 9000 hit-and-runs a year, they have a lot of experience, and what they tell us is troubling: The rate of hit-and-runs is rising, despite crackdowns on unlicensed and repeat inebriated drivers. Those who flee the scene almost never come forward later. And the few who do all say the same thing: “They say they were scared and they didn’t know what to do, and they panicked and they fled.” Witnesses flee even faster, presumably rationalizing that someone else will have seen the accident or happen upon the scene soon and stay to deal with it. They don’t respond to rewards offered later — presumably because they don’t want to admit they didn’t stay in the first place.
To what do we ascribe this behaviour? The obvious answer is “Because we think the chances of getting away with it outweigh the responsibility and penalties for staying.” We are risk-averse and motivated by the perceived relative penalties and rewards for different behaviours. We make a snap judgement. “If I stay, my life will be ruined, for sure, even though it was an accident and probably wasn’t my fault. If I run, there’s an x% chance that I won’t get caught, in which case the only downside is a lifelong guilty conscience, and a y% chance that I will get caught, in which case the consequences won’t be significantly worse than if I stay and face those consequences for certain.” As long as x% is greater than zero, this is a no-brainer. Even if you factor in the possibility that staying might mitigate the extent of injuries, that is unlikely to change your mind — it might make you ‘anonymously’ report the accident, but would be unlikely to motivate you to stay. After all, it wasn’t your fault.
I’m just speculating here, since I’ve only witnessed one accident* and that was my own (perhaps I’m not very observant — most people I know seem to have witnessed many — or perhaps the witness’ dilemma is why I’m not very observant?), but doesn’t this instant risk/reward calculation make more sense for an explanation than the assumption that hit-and-run drivers are cruel, irresponsible, evil cowards? What additional penalties for ‘leaving the scene of an accident’ could change this snap judgement?
Complexity theory says that if you want to change behaviour, you need to change the attractors (incentives) and barriers (disincentives) for different behaviours. What if we changed the law to say that if you stay at the scene of an accident you will get automatic immunity to all criminal charges you might otherwise have faced for the accident? You will still have to face the mental anguish, of course, but then you probably will face that anyway, knowing in your own mind what you might have done and perhaps even embellishing it to worst-case scenario in the absence of information. Such a law change would probably infuriate the victims and their loved ones, but ultimately the law is (or should be) less about legislating morality and justice than in achieving desired outcomes. What is less clear is whether lawmakers would ever have the courage to enact such a law. I wouldn’t hold my breath.
If they did, this would change the mathematics of the snap judgement we make at that horrific instant, which would then become: “If I stay, I will have to face a lot of anguish and perhaps anger, but no chance of legal consequences, even if I should be judged partly at fault. If I run, there’s an x% chance that I won’t get caught, in which case I’ll probably feel at least as bad as if I stay, and a y% chance that I will get caught, in which case the consequences will be significantly worse than if I stay.” This time it’s a no-brainer in favour of staying.
That will work for accidents with potential criminal consequences. It might also work, more modestly, to encourage witnesses to stay at the scene. It won’t work for accidents that have only moral consequences. In countries like Canada that have pathetic, non-existent animal protection laws, for example, the snap judgement after hitting an animal will remain: “If I stay, I’ll probably face anguish, anger from the owner, and perhaps desperate helplessness at what to do, even though it was an accident and probably wasn’t my fault. If I run, there’s an x% chance that I won’t get caught, in which case the only downside is a fleeting guilty conscience, and a y% chance that I will get caught, in which case the consequences won’t be significantly worse than if I stay and face those consequences for certain.” In this case it’s still a no-brainer for fleeing, unless you’re a person of exceptional courage, honesty, and/or preparedness (I hope never to find out whether I am such a person).
The answer to this, of course, is for lawmakers to have the courage to enact meaningful animal protection laws. I’m not holding my breath for that, either.
* I was once in a car with people who witnessed an accident. In the 1970s in the UK I was in a car (this was during my hitchhiking days) driven by a couple who witnessed a single-car accident on an expressway against a guard rail (I was watching the scenery in the opposite direction). My hosts stopped and pulled over to the left shoulder of the expressway, as the victim staggered out of his car, face covered with blood, and begged the driver not to report the accident (it would have been a repeat DUI accident that would cost him his licence and his job). We drove him to the hospital and my host lefthis business card with the admitting nurse.
Photo from Mariposa County (Calif.) fire department online archives.
March 14, 2006
|Jorg Said:||What Happened Next:||Hanna Said:|
|The outside deck of a country inn, with a huge green canopy tent, like the ones used in weddings, with stars painted un the underside. Wall murals and sculptures present the deck as a kind of tropical jungle. Beyond the tent it is raining. Only four of fourteen tables are occupied — four adults in riding gear are at one, a couple with two young children are at a second, and two singles, Hanna and Jorg, each with a dog in tow, occupy two small tables at opposite ends of the deck. Jorg is listening to an iPod by headphones, and dancing among the tables near him; The two children, Hanna and the two dogs are all staring at him.|
|Pretty smooth, mister. Merengue, right?|
|(gasping) Hah! Not even close. Zoukous. Las Cuatros Estrellas de ZaÔre.|
|Jorg beckons to the little girl, inviting her to dance with him. She turns and hides her face shyly in her mother’s arm, but peers back to see what he is doing.|
|Have a way with the ladies, too, I see.|
|(dancing again) I shine too bright — it causes women to play hard to get. Hiding behind shades and paper fans. (He looks at her through spread fingers.) I always get come-hither looks from a safe distance.|
|Yeah, sure, from behind Mom you mean. I’d guess that’s more for your safety than theirs.|
|A waiter arrives with Hanna’s salad, and then takes Jorg’s order and a drink order for the horsie group. He exits back into the inn.|
|(looking at her salad) Your puppy is going to be disappointed. I bet he’s not a vegetarian.|
|(sarcastic grin) I brought her stuff — organic meat loaf. (she puts a plastic bowl down for her dog) Your dog looks kind of envious. (then questioningly) Genie’s willing to share.|
|Xena always has ‘chicken au chien’ — the chef makes it specially for her. (stopping dancing and looking at the dogs) Can we let them check each other out?|
|(she beckons with her head) Sure. You can come too. No sniffing though.|
|They both untie their dogs from the table pedestals. As Jorg walks over to Hanna’s table, both dogs are pulling hard on their leashes to meet each other. Tail wagging and butt-sniffing ensues, and the leashes get immediately tangled.|
|(laughing) Now that’s the kind of gusto that all females should use to greet each other! (looking up at Jorg) — Hanna, hi.|
|Jorg. Nice to meet you both, and that appears to go for Xena too.|
|(raising eyebrows) Xena, eh? No Amazon leathers for her? Can I trust her with Genie?|
|(haughtily) Xena named after the tenth planet of our solar system, not the lesbian cartoon character.|
|(skeptically) Uh huh. (pause) So if Xena has her own special dish, I presume you’re a regular here (she scowls to herself for saying this). (recovering) How’d you discover this place — we just stumbled on it on our way back from a Bruce Trail walk. (nodding at the jungle decor) Seems kind of exotic for a country inn. I was expecting tea and scones.|
|All organic, fair trade, and mostly vegan. The chef’s a neighbour of ours…|
|(subtle facial expressions are traded as he says ‘ours’, but they both notice them)|
|…mine and Xena’s, and he has a very sophisticated menu — I think he sees his job as educating us country peasants about cuisine, and healthy and conscientious eating.|
|Well, good for him. After the hike, a salad was fine for me, but this is pretty fancy — edible flowers and lots of veggies — really good stuff.|
|All from the garden right beside the inn. No chemicals, no artificial fertilizers, no pesticides.|
|So what did you order, “chicken au humain”?|
|(shaking his head) Strictly vegan. Terrine de las Diosas — fresh local veggies, nuts and chick peas in a tamarind and coriander sauce. Exquisite. If I could afford it I’d eat here every day.|
|They look at each other. Genie and Xena are sharing Genie’s meat loaf. Awkward silence. Jorg looks away first.|
|(smiling) This section of the trail is spectacular. Genie and I have walked eight sections now, most of the route between here and Owen Sound.|
|(he puts his headphones over one ear, unties the leash from Xena’s collar and beckons her over as he starts to dance again) Come on, Xena, show our new friends your stuff.|
|On a signal from Jorg, Xena twirls in a circle clockwise, then counter-clockwise, then gets bored with the exercise and lies down facing Hanna and Genie as the waiter brings drinks to the riders.|
|I only went on the Bruce Trail once. I got lost and decided it wasn’t for me.|
|(incredulous) You got lost on a trail.|
|Well, that’s the thing, you see. I got bored staying on the trail and trying to figure out what those funny white bars meant on the signs and trees, and kind of wandered off into the forest. Good thing it was a warm night. The next day I just kept calling out until someone answered, and followed their voice back to the trail. Definitely not for me.|
|Hah! I bet you never coloured inside the lines either. Maybe if you’re bored it just means you don’t know how to pay attention. We saw some amazing sights this morning. Come here and I’ll show you how to read the blazes — those white bars — on a trail.|
|How about you show us after lunch? Xena and I both learn better by practicing than if someone just tells us something.|
|You kidding? Genie and I have already put in three hours today. She’s just got short little legs, you know. Besides, you don’t have the proper footwear for trail walking. (looking at the weather) Or rainwear.|
|Hey, if I can dance Zoukous, I can walk a trail. I’m a natural born pedestrian.|
|(pause) Hmmm… OK, we’ll try it for another hour or so. If we follow the Bruce to the west from here we can circle back along the Humber Valley trail. You promise to stay on the trail this time?|
|(holds up his hand) Promise.|
|Good, because there’s some nasty stuff Xena could get into too if you wander away from the path. You don’t want to know what it’s like treating a dog who’s eaten poison ivy.|
|Scene two. On the trail. Still raining lightly. Hanna wears a rain poncho. Jorg has his shirt tied around his waist and is just wearing cutoffs and boots. He’s demonstrating some African dance moves. They walk together along the middle of the trail. The dogs, on leash, are sniffing opposite edges of the trail.|
|What I don’t get is why people who have just met have to act so cool and casual. Why can’t we be more like dogs and children and show honest joy and delight in someone right from the moment of meeting?|
|Well, if you’d come up to me and licked my face at the bar I’d have left, and you’d have a black eye.|
|(motioning to the two of them together) Yet here we are, only an hour later, as if we’d known each other a lifetime.|
|Even dogs check each other out, sniff, circle around each other.|
|I still think it’s a game. For some reason we have to show people we’re not effusive, ’nless they think we’re desperate or something. It’s a sad reflection on our society.|
|I dunno — I think this is pretty spontaneous. A walk in the forest with someone you just met is a rather intimate act, don’t you think? I said yes to you on the basis of instinct, chemistry — Blink. The dance, or whatever that was we were doing together back at the restaurant, was just a way of quickly substantiating our mutual intuition to get together, testing it. That’s not a game.|
|So if I were to tell you that all I can think about right now is the thought of having sex with you here in the forest, that spontaneous statement, that honesty wouldn’t tear it?|
|You really aren’t very observant, are you. Take a deep breath, smell the forest and the odours my body is giving off — the rain helps trap them around us, like a cloud. Look at my eyes, the dilation of my pupils, the facial cues, the body language, the way my arms keep brushing against you. You’re horny strictly in programmed response to what my body is telling your body. You’re just blurting out what our bodies have been screaming to each other since the moment we met.|
|(pause) So why aren’t we doing anything about it?|
|Hanna stops walking, leans with her back against a tree, one foot propped back against the trunk, and wipes her face with her sleeve. Jorg stops and faces her. The dogs look back, perhaps wondering why they’ve stopped.|
|Because we live in a complex society with a lot of rules that keep us from doing a lot of damage to each other. One or both of us may have made commitments to others that would make such an act very harmful or hurtful, a betrayal. In an ideal world, we’d have the blanket spread under the trees and having a lot of fun by now. But it’s not an ideal world.|
|(pause) Well, in my case, not only have I made no such commitments — (makes flapping motions with his arms, drawing curious looks from the dogs) I’m free as a bird — but much of the female population will tell you I am incapable of making any commitments.|
|Well I am and I have, though if I were to tell you what they were, you’d probably be shocked and lose interest in the whole idea.|
|(pause) Try me.|
|Hanna starts walking again, ahead of Jorg, so he has to hurry to try to catch up, but ends up walking a few steps behind her.|
|I live in a commune, of sorts, with five wonderful guys, we’re in a shoegaze band — I’m the lead singer. They’re also struggling artists, and as the only left-brainer in the group, I’ve accepted the role of organizer. I love them all, I’m committed to them absolutely, and I would never do anything to hurt them or betray them.|
|(pause, thinking) So what’s the problem? If you’re not sleeping with one of them on an exclusive basis…|
|I’m sleeping with all of them on an exclusive basis.|
|Jorg stops, and as Hanna walks on the gap between them grows.|
|When I say I love them I mean I love them, body and soul. The six of us have worked out a relationship that gives each of us exactly what she or he wants. Do you have any idea how special that is?|
|(mutters) Pretty special all right. (louder) Wait up.|
|He runs to catch up to her, grasping her arm and then taking her hand.|
|So let me get this straight. You can’t have sex with me because you’ve taken a pledge to five other guys. You really think none of them has ever fooled around (he grimaces at this choice of words) when you weren’t around?|
|They haven’t. Not because I wouldn’t let them, but because we just work. It’s hard to explain. It’s just chemistry. We’re around each other 24/7 and we never get tired of each other. That’s what makes it so magic, and why I would never do anything to endanger it.|
|You mean, like sleeping with me.|
|I’d love to sleep with you! It’s not that simple. If we have sex you’re not going to want to just walk away and never see me again.|
|How do you know? A lot of women seem to think that’s my definition of the perfect relationship.|
|God, can’t you ever pay attention to what’s happening, live in the moment? Feel the electricity here. Listen to your body. If we were to make love, you could no sooner walk away and leave it at that than fly to the moon. (pause) And neither could I. (pause) This kind of chemistry is addictive. You can’t just stop at one act. So that complicates things, you see. (she is crying, but almost imperceptibly)|
|They walk along in silence. He’s still gripping her hand tightly.|
|So if we made love, I would have to become your seventh, which means we’d have to make sure the chemistry is right between all seven of us. No jealousy, no instinctive loathing. These guys would all have to accept me as one of them — as one of you.|
|(she laughs through her tears) Hey, you do get it. I’m impressed.|
|I’ve studied a lot about intentional communities, and how they work, and why they’re usually pretty small. (pause) I suspect they’d all be so jealous of having such a smart, clever-spoken, fast-dancing, trail-walkin’ kind of guy in their midst that it’d never work.|
|Well, believe it or not, they’re all buff, and you’d have to get rid of that saggy belly or you’d make us all nauseous. (she notices his pained expression) Don’t get your feelings hurt, Lief is a fitness trainer, he’d get you whipped into shape in no time. But I think your getting used to sharing me with five other guys, and our girlfriend Yael on weekends, would be too much for your head to handle. Which is a shame, because I really like you, I think I could love you as easily as falling off a log.|
|They stop walking, turn and face each other, holding each other’s hands, and embrace. Jorg kisses her on the forehead.|
|So are we understood?|
|I get it. Your dance card is filled. I just get to spend time chatting with you while the band’s on break.|
|They resume walking. Camera pans back as they walk into the distance. As the rain stops, the sun briefly peeks through a fast-moving cloud and hits the camera lens, turning the pair into silhouettes against the glare.|
|(pause) You live with a guy named Leaf? What, does he rustle in the wind?|
|Lief. L-I-E-F, silly. She elbows him playfully.|
|And what about this Yael? What does she do during the week when she’s not cavorting with you guys?|
|Stop! She’s our backup singer. During the week she works as a CPA. And she’s way too young for you. Now you see that blaze on the tree, the fact that the top mark is to the right of the bottom mark means we have to turn right here…|
|Fade to black.|
March 13, 2006
|Things are the way they are for a reason. I know, I keep saying that, but it’s important. Politicians and economists don’t get it: They react to events, and rather than study why these events happened, they invent (for the benefit of their own consciences and those of their political supporters) a simple cause for the events that ‘fits’ with their worldview. More than a desire to mislead, this is a manifestation of intellectual laziness and a complete misunderstanding of complex adaptive systems — which, because they reflect human behaviour, underlie most events that require or provoke political or economic reaction. Complex systems can never be completely understood — too many variables, constantly changing and interacting. They must be probed, not analyzed, and with enough continuous effort by a lot of intelligent, patient, relatively unbiased people, a partial understanding of why things are the way they are will start to emerge. Such humility is, of course, beyond the capacity of the vast majority of politicians and economists.
Likewise, business ‘leaders’ don’t get it: They tell other people what to do, tell them what they want done, and bring in consultants and experts to help them ‘effect change’ in their organizations. They cannot fathom that most of what happens in their organizations is workarounds developed by front-line people to make things work in the organization despite the inept and usually inappropriate advice of management and professional advisors who only think they understand what is really going on and why. Organizations, too, are complex adaptive systems, and it takes a lot of probing and study to even start to understand why things are the way they are inside them, let alone begin to change them. Of course, managers can effect change by firing all the front-line people and bringing in cheaper recruits, or offshoring or outsourcing or automating their jobs, but that change is unlikely to be the change management wants, because the main ingredient will still be people with complex human behaviours.
I don’t mean for this to be an advertisement for more study of complex adaptive systems — I’ve advocated that many times in these pages. What I want to do is make it a bit of a game, that I call ‘Secret Messages’.
Here’s how the game works: Suppose you want to understand the cause of world poverty. You might start by hypothesizing overpopulation, or inequitable distribution of natural resources on the planet, or ignorance, or political despotism. But if you probe enough you will probably conclude that there is plenty of resources for 6.5 billion humans today, provided we don’t care about leaving any for future generations and all of the other creatures that inhabit this planet with us. So then you decide (as many have) that it’s a problem of distribution of resources, and that the real problem is a lack of distribution infrastructure (trains, markets etc.) That’s a more complicated explanation, but it’s still not a complex one. Now suppose you ask yourself what motivation their might be for people to deliberately work to ensure that the distribution of resources in our world was grossly inequitable, without being too obvious about it (in fact they might even argue, as many do, that the ‘war on poverty’, a simple metaphor for a complex problem, is being ‘won’). Now you’re getting into the realm of the complex. If you jump from the initial simply-stated problem or surprising situation to a complex hypothesis about what, at least in part, underlies it, you have a Secret Message, telling you about something that lurks deep beneath the surface. What’s interesting is that this huge jump in thinking often has huge intuitive, intellectual appeal. It can be, and can come across as, quite clever. And it might even teach people how to think about complexity.
That’s how you play Secret Messages. The best way to show this is with some examples. Here’s one to start, drawn from the famous book about complex systems called Freakonomics. The Secret Message is shown in italics.
The Secret Message behind the dramatic drop in urban crime rates in the US starting in the 1990s: In the 1970s Roe v. Wade finally made legal abortion available to poor urban women who previously neither had access to abortion nor used reliable contraception consistently.
This hypothesis (in complex systems we have to settle for compelling hypotheses, since with an infinite number of variables involved, absolute proof of causality is impossible) utterly enraged both conservatives (who tend to believe that more police, capital punishment and tougher sentences were the causes of the crime rate drop) and liberals (who tend to believe that better gun control, better education and more human approaches to inner city poverty were the causes of the drop). But even Malcolm Gladwell, whose hypothesis on this subject in The Tipping Point was seriously undermined by the Freakonomics hypothesis) acknowledges the Freakonomics hypothesis has great validity.
What follows are some problems, mysteries, and surprise successes that are complex, simply stated, followed by my Secret Message hypothesis about complex human or natural behaviour that might underlie it. It’s up to you, dear reader, to decode the message — or rather, to follow the complex trail that leads to the hypothesis. Or not — you may just find them amusing, interesting or provocative. I’ll settle for that. It’s as close as I can come to the cleverness in Hugh Macleod’s business card cartoons (like the one above) since I’m neither as witty nor as artistic as he is. If you find my Secret Messages merely cryptic or annoying, that’sfine too — this game isn’t for everyone.
The Secret Message behind the success of Google: It only has to *look* simple.
The Secret Message behind low voter turnout: People know when there’s really no choice. The Secret Message behind the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan: You can’t impose democracy (i.e. rule by the people) *on* the people.
The Secret Message behind both Monsanto and Guantanamo: The enduring message of Dr. Frankenstein: technology without conscience is monstrous.
The Secret Message behind the success of Skype: We need to talk.
The Secret Message behind the success of the anti-smoking movement and the failure of the environmental movement: Fear drives people to act only when it’s personal.
The Secret Message behind technophilia (the belief that technology will save us): Even atheists need a religion.
The Secret Message behind the resurgence of religious fundamentalism: When people feel threatened, everything gets reduced to ‘us vs. them’.
The Secret Message behind the success of self-help books: We all want to say we tried.
The Secret Message behind the success of brands: Everyone wants to belong.
The Secret Message behind world poverty and the disappearance of the middle class: In a world of abundance, people can’t be controlled.
and my favourite from last year:
The Secret Message behind our tolerance of atrocity: When you can’t imagine, you can do anything.