Trend Lines Going Forward

Lemhi Dawn 4 9-16-04

It is hard to believe that the first decade of the 21st century is now history. It has not been the decade that most of us expected. It has been filled with terror, war, economic disruption, political disappointment, natural disasters that showcased governmental inadequacies, and the emergence of social media as a force. In many respects, it was a decade where society did not move forward, and little prospects for broad scale improvement in the near future. 

Andy Crouch, an insightful cultural interpreter, has posted his assessment of the 10 tends that marked the first decade of the 2000's.

  1. Connection
  2. Place
  3. Cities
  4. The End of the Marjority
  5. Polarity
  6. The Self Shot
  7. Pornography
  8. Informality
  9. Liquidity
  10. Complexity

I'm in basic agreement with most of what Crouch offers here. However, it raises questions for me.

If these are trends, then where are they leading us? 

What is the line that extends from the past through the present to the future?

What should we do in response to these trends?

These trends are markers or sign-posts of changes that have been long in development.  I see these trends leading forward in the following ways.

Connection / Place / Cities / Pornography / The Self Shot

This trend line is complex because it is a mixture of several converging ones.

The need ...

for relationship,

for rootedness in a place,

for a place of openness, discovery and genuine diversity,

for intimacy, and,

for a real understanding of one's own identity.

All these are converging. Each of these trends have their problematic dimension though:

Of the shallowness of online connection

Of the disconnection of people from the physical places where they live and work

Of the economic viability of both rural and urban environments that fail to create an environment for human creativity

Of the failure of the institution of marriage to be a viable form of human intimacy for large numbers of people

Of a religious and political culture that offers narcissism rather than human community as a basis for human purpose.

The End of the Majority / Polarity / Informality / Liquidity / Complexity

This trend line is moving fast away from the social conventions and institutions of previous generations. The status of elite groups and institutions once secured by a culture of common perceptions and simple approaches is under going dramatic change. One-size-fits-all, works-for-all, and is available-to-all is no longer reflective of the way the world works, if it ever truly did.  Instead, complexity is the structure of society. As a result, no single or generic approach works. Instead many different approaches can be effective. The key here then is to understand how complexity impacts us on a daily basis.

Donald Norman writes in Living with Complexity,

"The keys to coping with complexity are to be found in two aspects of understanding. First is the design of the thing itself that determines its understanding. Does it have an underlying logic, a foundation that, once mastered, makes everything fall into place? Second is our own set of abilities and skills. Have we taken the time and effort to understanding and master the structure? Understandability and understanding: two critical keys to mastery."

Questions that I have.

What is the underlying logic that explains the meaning of these trends?

What is the "design (of the thing itself)" of the time we live?  

What is the historical movement that helps us to gain understanding of the past decade, the past generation, and what we may expect of the next decade and generation.

My conclusion is that we are in the midst of dramatic period of unprecedented change. In order to understand these trends, we need to understand the assumptions that have guided human history for the past several centuries.

For example, beginning in the 18th century a shift began that impacted virtually every country. It was the shift from aristocracy to democracy. What may not be readily evident in this shift is the continuity that was maintained throughout these great historic changes.

I wrote about this shift in my review of Lucino Visconti's masterpiece, The Leopard. It is a picture of the change from the old aristocratic order to new world order of democratic progressivism. In that post, I include a long dialogue that the Prince of Sicily and the representative of the new modern, progressive government of Italy have. Here's a portion.

The Prince: I am a member of the old ruling class hopelessly linked to the past regime and tied to it by chains of decency, if not affection. I belong to an unfortunate generation straddling two worlds and ill at ease in both. And what is more, I am utterly without illusions.

What would the Senate do with an inexperienced legislator who lacks the faculty of self-deception, essential requisite for those who guide others? No, I cannot lift a finger in politics. It would get bitten off.

Chevalley: Would you seriously refuse to do all you can to alleviate the state of physical squalor and blind moral misery in which your own people lie?

The Prince: We are old, Chevalley. Very old. For more that 25 centuries, we have borne the weight of superb civilizations that have come from outside, never of our own creation, none we could call our own. For 2,500 years, we've been nothing but a colony. I'm not complaining. It's our fault. But we are worn out and exhausted.

Chevalley: But all that's over now. Sicily is no longer a conquered land, but a free member of a free state.

The Prince: Your intention is good, but it comes too late.

Sleep, my dear Chevalley, a long sleep - that is what Sicilians want. They will always hate anyone who tries to wake them, even to bring them the most wonderful gifts. And between ourselves, I doubt whether the new kingdom will have many gifts for us in its luggage. Here, all expression, even the most violent, is a desire for oblivion. Our sensuality is a longing for oblivion. Our knifings and shootings are a longing for death. Our laziness, the penetrating sweetness of our sherbets, a longing for voluptuous immobility, that is ... death once again.

Chevalley: Prince, are you exaggerating? I myself have met Sicilians in Turin who seemed anything but asleep.

The Prince: I haven't explained myself well. I'm sorry. I said Sicilians. I should have said Sicily. This atmosphere, the violence of the landscape, the cruelty of the climate, the constant tension in everything -

Chevalley: Climate can be overcome, landscape improved, the memory of evil governments canceled. Surely the Sicilians want to improved.

The Prince: I don't deny that a few, once off the island, may wake up, but they must leave very young. By 20, it's too late. The crust has already formed. What you need, Chevalley, is a man who is good at blending his personal interests with vague public ideals.

The picture here is of the clash between the ideals of progressivism and the exhaustion of the old order. With the former there was a belief that the world's problems could be solved, and with the latter, a realization that even in the midst of change, there is not much that changes.

What we can see here is not the replacement of the aristocracy with a populist government, but rather the transfer of power from one kind of elitism to another. It is the elitism of modern democratic progressivism that is reaching the same point that the old order aristocrats reached two centuries ago. That exhaustion is the inadequacy of the ideas and values that inspired revolution to create a sustainable society in a highly complex context. Ultimately, what happens is the loss of the ideals themselves and the adoption of a formula that is designed to resist change and perpetuate the system.

This trend suggests other trends.

The end of institutions as a unifiying force in society.

Whether those institutions are political, religious, social or educational, they no longer command the loyalty or respect by people as they once did.  Instead, communities of causes have replaced them and is seen in Crouch's Polarity trend.

This emerging trend is really the mixture of several changes.

A shift from a global to a local perspective as locus of solution making.

The impracticality of one-size-fits-all approaches to solving social and econonic problems is reflected in the persistance of the recession in its many forms.  This a product of the growing complexity of society that responds better to small, local initiatives than those applied from a single source.

A shift from a national orientation to a relational one.

As I've written previously, online technology enables us to work with colleagues globally as if we are locally connected. National origin means less, and personal values mean more in this context of local collaboration on a global scale.

The emergence of belief as the common bond that unites people organizationally.

One doesn't have to look farther than the passionate advocacy of the environmental movement or the Tea Party movement to see how traditional institutions are being replaced my groups of people who form temporary communities to advocate for a cause. This puts institutional elites at a disadvantage as institutional integrity has been less about causes or beliefs and more about process and operational integrity.

These are some trends that I see, and see them as positive developments. However, there are aspects of these changes that I don't think are quite yet apparent, yet will bring a new level of disruptive change as they emerge.

Many of the governing assumptions of our time are based on social, political and economic philosophies that were born in the era of The Leopard. I'm convinced that the ideologies of capitalism, liberal progressivism and its socialist varient, and individualism will come to be replaced by new ideas that provide a way forward.  It is my impression that we think these are given, guiding assumptions of contemporary society. I'm not convinced that these philosophies represent the future, but the past. It is why I see the two political parties as regressive, rather than visionary.  As these ideologies lose their vitality and relevance, their advocates have become more divisive and defensive. In my opinion, this divisiveness is a sign of the fading viability of these social philosophies.

If I was a betting man, which I'm not, I'd wager that the future trends that we'll see emerging over the next few years are:

New organizational structures that are designed for shared responsibility and collaboration.

Values as the unifying force, not only in organizations, but in society.

New confederations of cities and organizations that circumvent the artificial constraints of state and national boundaries.

Lastly, what should leaders do to be prepared to adapt to these changes?

1. Develop the leadership capacity of everyone in your organization.

2. Build organizational community through an emphasis on and the operationalizing of the Connecting Ideas of the Circle of Impact - Purpose, Mission, Values, Vision and Impact.

3. Take time to develop an understanding of the logic of what is happening locally and globally. Test assumptions, and be positively self-critical. In other words, think for yourself by constantly seeking to develop your capacity to observe, think, assess and make judgments.

My wish for each of us in 2011 is that we find new strength of purpose, greater capacity for leadership, and an ability to make a difference that matters that changes our world for the better.  All the best to you in your leadership endeavors.

Quick Takes: Animated numbers may not be the whole story.

This TED presentation by Hans Rosling shows the power of visual images to present information.
Watch it. Its 20 minutes long.  You'll wish it were longer.

I have a question about what he is showing.  If you have read The Black Swan, you'll know that Nassim Taleb challenges the value of Gaussian bell curves as accurate representations of certain kinds of data. Based on what I understand of his critique, the problem is the assumption that averaging data is meaningful.  The problem with it, according to Taleb, is that bell curves don't account for radical difference. 

If you remember, about 6.5 minutes into the presentation, he begins to talk about the worlds wealth.  Interesting topic of discussion.  His bell curve is set up to visualize the population of the world ranging from income of $1 per day to  $100 per day.  It would appear that this is a classic bell curve decision.

Taleb writes about the value of Powerlaw curves that Chris Anderson popularized in The Long Tail. So, what I want to know is what if he extended his graph to include those individuals who make $1000 and $1,000,000 per day.  What I believe we would see is a tall head of those who earn between $1 and$100 per day, and a long tail of those whose annual income is between 7 and 9 or even 10 figures.

Rosling's point is that there is no longer a difference between the global have's and have nots.  However, I'd suggest that today, there is still a gap, and that gap is growing.  I don't have those numbers, so my assumption is mostly anecdotal.

Here is why I think Taleb is on to some very important insight.  This isn't about numbers but more a philosophical outlook that affects us personally and socially.

The Gaussian bell curve is about finding the average in a data set. Powerlaws are looking for extremes.  The extremes of large numbers and the extremes of small ones. If this makes any sense, it will lead us to understand that the underlying assumption of the bell curve is that society is governed by what is average.  Here's Taleb addressing this issue.

The traditional Guassian way of looking at the world begins by focusing on the ordinary , and then deals with exceptions or so-called outliers as ancillaries.  But there is a second way, which takes the exceptional as a starting point and treats the ordinary as subordinate.

Taleb's point concerns probabilities and those rare events that catch people unawares. He believes that bell curve thinking excludes the possibility of these rare events for the sake of making what we know more certain.

Note once again the following principle: the rarer the event, the higher the error in our estimation of its probability - even when using the Gaussian ... the Gaussian bell curve sucks randomness out of life - which is why it is popular.  We like it because it allows for certainties! How? Through averaging ...

I interpret this to mean that we are conditioned to look at life from the vantage point of the average.  We look at people as to how they fit into some average norm or convention, rather than looking at each person as one with unique gifts, talents, personality and experience.  The former way was a conventional way of treating people when the work they performed did not require creative thought or interaction with others. 

As the world has become more complex, the development of people to perform at a higher level has made it necessary to look at talent recruitment, training and retention as a key strategic endeavor of corporations in the 21st century.  As a result, people development takes on a much more significant role in modern organizations.

This is what I saw twenty years ago, but didn't have the perspective to understand what I saw. It goes to the notion that a company needs to be a "community of leaders" (hence the name of my business, Community of Leadership) which means that each person has a responsibility to take personal initiative to act to forward the work of the organization. It means that the structure of the organization be such that people are free to be creative and to take initiative.

So, what I find in Rosling's animation is a clever distraction. We think we have seen the way the world really is when it really is quite different. There are extremes on both ends of the bell curve that are not factored into Rosling's animation.  How many times during school were our grades averaged by taking out the lowest and highest?  In essence, squeeze out the variability and you have something that is easily quantified and, something safe and secure, predictable and certain.

I'm with Taleb that life is far more random that we give it credit. If we see its randomness, then we see the extremes, and see the potential impact that those extremes can have on us.

What are you to do with these rambling thoughts?

First, read Taleb.  I have been slowly reading him all summer.  His perspective is validating and clarifying ideas that I've had for thirty years. This is not some shallow 10 points to success book. It takes time to think through a perspective that is so at odds with conventional wisdom.  And if it helps, read him, take notes, and think about how you can speak about what you see there.  When you do, share it with someone. If you have no one, send it to me, I'll post it.

Second, identify those talents that are uniquely yours, and begin to development them.  My guess is that connected to that talent is a passion for something that will be the guide to the talent.

Third, take the people who work with and for you, and begin to talk with them about how their work and contributions are a form of leadership.  If you need a tool to help you discuss this, then download my Leading in Times of Transition diagrams, and use the Circle of Impact chart (page 3) as a guide.  Simply put, leaders initiate in the dimensions of Ideas, Relationships and Organizational Structures.

Bottom line. Question numbers. Because someone has made a decision to limit their scope. That decision is based on assumptions. Test assumptions. Think for yourself. Help your people do the same. Look for the extremes, for at the extreme are opportunities that those committed to mediocrity will never find.