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Friday, January 26, 2020

How to Make Problems Work for You

Thanks to an article in the Toronto Star, [link] I came across a book by Professor Thomas Homer-Dixon from the University of Toronto. His book is called The Upside of Down; Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization. Despite the title, it’s actually quite a hopeful book.

Professor Homer-Dixon sees the current state of our world as untenable in the long term. But he isn’t simply a doom-monger, prophesying the end of civilization or the extinction of the human race. He certainly foresees some kind of breakdown, but looks to the middle ground between the (untenable) status quo and the (catastrophic) collapse of intelligent life on earth as a source of hope. I’m not going to rehearse his ecological and scientific arguments—you can read the book for yourself—but I will borrow some of his ideas to apply to similar mounting stresses in the business world today.

Just as the world has become extensively interconnected, so a disastrous breakdown anywhere will spread to all (like the rolling electricity blackouts that have affected North America and Europe in the recent past). Organizations have become internally and externally dependent on one another. Computerization and centralization of data mean that a single computer glitch (hardly an unusual event) can bring a massive organization to a standstill. Externally, organizations and markets are so tightly linked together that an economic downturn spreads around the globe faster than any virus—and has equally negative effects.

By shutting down the natural change processes, we risk a build-up in tensions whose eventual release could be more than we, and our commercial and political systems (or our world), can handle.
The professor actually sees some degree of breakdown as a positive outcome that may be what it takes to break out of inflexible systems and substitute better ones. In his view, the worst that can happen is that the “revolutionary” breakout is shut down by conservative forces before real change can take place. The penalty for such actions is that the next breakdown is likely to be more violent and upsetting. By shutting down the natural change processes, we risk a build-up in tensions whose eventual release could be more than we, and our commercial and political systems (or our world), can handle.

Organizations are, as a rule, very conservative places. Change is difficult and slow, and must always struggle to overcome both apathy and strong counter-measure by those who defend the status quo. By blocking off the middle-ground of reasoned change, such organizations leave themselves only the extremes of no change at all or catastrophic breakdown, leading either to extinction or revolution.

If you think this is overstating the situation, consider how few of the household name organizations of even a decade ago are still with us. Most have either been swallowed up in mergers or acquisitions—usually brought on by dismal results or impending collapse—or have disappeared altogether. And if today’s corporate behemoths look impregnable, so did their predecessors in their day.

In my experience, rather few people or organizations are ready to consider significant change without some strong sense that to do otherwise will be far, far worse. Most hold out against it as long as they can. That s why so many discover, too late, that the opportunity to save themselves—however painful that process might be—has passed, and only catastrophe, revolution, or voluntary extinction remain.

We mistake stubbornness (which refuses to budge) and complacency (which refuses to listen) for resilience (which means bending and shifting whenever the alternative is to break altogether).
There seems to be an innate desire in many people to avoid change of any kind. Despite all the evidence that the future, just like the past, is comprised of equal parts of volatility, surprise, and unexpected reversals of fortune, we cling to the insane belief that this time things will be different. Our institutions, our ways of thinking, even our future plans, will somehow manage to remain stable. We mistake stubbornness (which refuses to budge) and complacency (which refuses to listen) for resilience (which means bending and shifting whenever the alternative is to break altogether).

Here’s what you can do to make the problems that life brings work for you:
  • Slow down, spend time watching and thinking, and open your mind to the widest range of options that you can envisage. Rushing down the current path, eyes wide shut (as most people and organizations are doing), simply gets you to the point of catastrophe faster.

  • Be imaginative. Stop assuming things cannot be different than they are.

  • Accept that breakdowns and problems will always occur, and that the future is unknowable. Try to concentrate on becoming more flexible and resilient. Work out what can be sacrificed, in what order, before you have to accept defeat. Stop treating the status quo as anything other than a temporary state that deserves no particular reverence.

  • Try to keep pace with external changes as far as you can. That means being ready to accept new ideas (even if they seem risky) and let go of old favorites (however dear).

  • Reverence only creativity and the power of rational thought to preserve you from the consequences of your own folly.
Organizational histories are packed with examples of complacency and short-term thinking gone horribly wrong. It seems that groups of people have the potential to act even more stupidly than individuals do—especially when status and influence are at risk. That’s when you need rules, norms, and corporate cultures strong enough to expose the stupidity and force people into acting smarter.

We live in a complex, interdependent, continually changing world. Our current, Hamburger Management style of management thinking ignores this in favor of simplistic answers, short-term profit, and a cult of frantic busyness. It is amazing that so few people see the disconnects and the looming disaster it foretells.



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