The world feels a more uncertain place. Twentieth century certainties have been crumbling under economic collapse, technology advancing faster than our cognitive abilities and outbreaks of intractable wars. Yet organisations — powerful collectives of people — continue to operate as though the world were a stable, predictable place: analysing, predicting and planning.
We’re designing ‘what to do in the event of fire’ posters while the building is burning.
Unsurprisingly, the topple rate of firms (the speed at which they lose their leadership positions) is increasing rapidly. “Public companies have a one in three chance of being delisted in the next five years … that’s six times the [topple rate] of companies 40 years ago.” [The Biology of Corporate Survival. Reeves et al (HBR) Jan-Feb 2016].
Firms today “die, on average, at a younger age than their employees .. Regardless of size, age, or sector”.
Our core weakness is that we lack an ecological metaphor to guide our action. The enduring mechanical metaphor continues to shape how we see our organisations, our world, even our own brains — as rational, information processing devices (interestingly, the metaphor of the brain as a computer is a reflection of the times we live in — other times had metaphors that made sense to them but that we ridicule now; as we will ridicule the computer metaphor in future). .
Mechanical is not biological, silicon is not carbon, manufacturing is not services. The former are closed systems based on an input-transformation-output model; in the latter the system is transformed by interactions in real-time. Our prejudice for the former is so strong we super-impose it on the latter — it gives us comfort, a sense of predictability, but it’s an illusion and a source of much suffering.
We live and operate in open, inter-dependent systems — everything that happens can affect us; often in bewildering ways.
At the heart of this ecological view of the world is the human (as ‘being’, not ‘resource’), who is (alas) unpredictable. This makes human networks (of customers, employees, citizens etc.) highly uncertain — the relationship between cause and effect in their actions isn’t clear; it’s deeply entangled in multiple interactions and becomes clear only in hindsight (which doesn’t lead to foresight).
The best we can hope for is ‘sufficiency’ — knowing just enough to be able to act. This requires a shift from trying to anticipate unpredictable futures to triggering awareness of what’s really happening now if we are to adapt to the challenges we’re going to face over the next few years.