A Culture of Alternatives

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Some times transitions can be smooth, sometimes difficult. As a global economic community, we are in a difficult transition from the modern industrial age to what will follow. 

Modern organizations share a common assumption. This is true if you are General Motors or the old Soviet Union. Efficiency is the route to an economy of scale and scope.

The problem with efficiency is not what it gives us, the ability to do more with fewer resources. The problem is what it takes from us.

Robust, sustainable cultures are those that have many competing alternatives.

I'm not here writing to advocate for the free market as many conservatives and business people do.  The free market is an ideal, while inviting, it cannot exist while there are powerful institutional structures that can dictate the terms of the market. This is where we are now with the relationship that exists between Washington and Wall Street.

I'm also not here to simply denigrate governments as the overseer of efficiency on a global scale. Governments are important institutions for providing a basis for alternatives to grow and develop.

We are at a transition point because with the elevation of efficiency to its preeminent role, control over the economic and organizational systems of society must also grow.

Over the course of my lifetime, close to 60 years, I've seen the control of society grow to the point where virtually everyone of us is breaking some rule of efficiency every day.

I have been persuaded by Joseph Tainter's thesis that societies collapse when the diversity of alternatives diminish and a one-size fits all culture develops. This is the course our society has been moving along for the past 50 years.

I'm not making a political statement to say the course that the Soviet Union took should be instructive for us today. In many respects, their economy failed because they lacked alternatives. Central planning did not create a robust, sustainable society. It created one of fear, not just fear of impoverishment, but fear of those who control the institutions of society.

The United States is not the Soviet Union. Our histories and founding values are different.

What we do share is a belief in large, supra-national, global institutions guiding the course of society by persons selected by some criteria of elite status.

Whether that control is by law, or political coercion or moral condemnation, the effect is to create a culture of efficiency by removing alternatives that may fail, inconvenience some person or be financially costly.

Our society is no longer robust and sustainable because we are quickly squeezing alternative ways of doing things out of our economic system. As it has done so, it has also squeezed out the benefits of efficiency.

Is there an alternative course?

If Tainter is correct, then we are headed towards an economic collapse. If so, then alternative ways of sustaining society must be developed in parallel with our current system.

I see this, for example, in the rise of local buying initiatives. When farmers are connected personally to those who buy their produce, the relational conditions for an alternative economic culture grow. I hear more and more about bartering between people who have services to provide. And possibly, most importantly, I see it in local efforts to develop cultures of entrepreneurism that create both for-profit and non-profit organizations that provide alternative ways for local economies to function.

The Conditions for a Culture of Alternatives

For an alternative culture to develop three things are needed.

First, individual initiative.

This is what I saw a decade ago as the starting point for all leadership. Individual initiative focused upon creating impact. This initiative is about how people take personal responsibility for their lives and of their families and communities.

Second, community collaboration. 

Consulting with a wide spectrum of organizations over the years I see how institutions force collaboration upon people. It is often seen as a way the old institutional barriers are being brought down. Collaboration can certainly do that, but it must come from the collaborators themselves.

Third, open culture of ideas.

All alternative approaches begin as an idea that needs to be tried. Openness to new ideas, and a willingness to test and fail with those ideas is essential in creating a culture of alternatives.

The End of an Era and The Beginning of a New One

For the past 18 months, I've been writing about the end of an era of industrial capitalism and utopian progressivism. Each was born out of the Enlightenment hope for a better world. Each was a product of, or, reaction to the industrial culture that elevated efficiency as a core societal value.

That efficiency demanded institution control by those who were designated the leaders of the system. It worked as long as the means of production was limited to the industrial plant; as long as advanced education was limited to the few who could afford it; and, as long as the means of communication consisted of the distribution of the information that leaders wanted people to know.

Today, all that has changed. In many ways, the opportunities that we have today are like a return to a pre-industrial era, or as some would call it a pre-modern time. In the past, cultures of alternatives always existed. Today, they are found where people recognized that they must develop new ways of living and working to provide for their families and community. Then, it was understood as the culture of the frontier, today, as sustainable, local cultures. 

The frontier that confronts us now is a world of failing institutions. If we take the perspective of alternatives as a guide, then we'll see that all approaches have a life span. They begin, grow to maturity, and then devolve to extinction of irrelevance. We are in that third stage with the institutions of the modern age.

What will the next stage look like at maturity? It is anyone's guess. I am fairly certain, however, that we will see greater individual initiative, more collaboration and a renaissance of ideas. This is what a Culture of Alternatives will look like.


10 Assumptions about Change

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Change is embedded in everything. It is the subtext of every topic of conversation that I have. It is the core issue of every project that I do.

Our assumptions about change need to change.

First Assumption: Change is bad.

Change is neutral. It is needed in every aspect of life. Without change there is no life. Too much change too quickly can be destructive. Change functions on a continuum between growth and decline, even life and death.

Second Assumption: The Opposite of Change is No Change.

Staying the same isn't a very sustainable strategy. Yet, it seems to be the response I hear most often to the prospect of change.

Third Assumption: Manage Change through Attitudes and Behaviors.

This is a good approach to a point. It assumes that human beings are living in an environment which is changing and their response (attitudes and behaviors) is how we address change. However, I find that this is an inadequate approach to the management of change.

I can understand why these assumptions are the ones I encounter most. They are based on assumptions that are the conventional wisdom of the past century. What are those assumptions?

Fourth Assumption: Large, Global, Transnational Organization is the logical, progressive direction of human civilization.

This assumption is captured most succinctly in the phrase "too big to fail." Yet, we do see failure, decline, possible disintegration and collapse of the world's largest and, at one time, the most progressive and prosperous nations and organizations.

Fifth Assumption: Stability, efficiency and maximumization of resources are the highest values of organizations.

What this perspective actually produces is vocational instability, economic volatility, social dislocation and the concentration of power and resources into the hands of the few.

Sixth Assumption: Urbanization, and the loss of an agrarian socio-economic culture, is the progressive and beneficial outcome of these historic trends.

While I am not an urban sociologist or economist, my on-the-ground observations is that increasing urbanization is more inefficient, is poor ground for the sustainability of inter-generational communal social structures, and increases the cost and demands of daily living. It seems to me that all these factors exist within a continuum where too little and too dense are not ideal for community or socio-economic sustainability.

Seventh Assumption: The above trends have disrupted natural cycles of growth by accelerating the process of change beyond what is now manageable under the assumptions of the past century. 

As an out-of-alignment wheel on a car spins more chaotically as speed and variation increase, so are the cycles of change increasing in speed and variability.

Eighth Assumption: Change is cyclical and we are at the end of a long cycle of the kind of growth in organizations described above.

From a contemporary context, is Greece's economic meltdown the anomaly or is it the canary in the coalmine?  Are we at the end of the era where large, global, transnational organizations can function?

Ninth Assumption: The future will be or should be like the past.

There are two assumptions here. One is if the past is prelude to the future, then what in our past should we have seen that would have helped us to predict the past decade of terrorism, war, political division and global economic recession?

It is helpful to read Professor Carroll Quigley's Oscar Iden Lectures, "Public Authority and the State in the Western Tradition: A Thousand Years of Growth, A.D. 976 - 1976” Quigley was a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University for over forty years. His perspective is unique, expansive and, I find, very insightful.

The other assumption concerns our nostalgia for past golden ages as Professor H.W. Brands of the University of Texas describes them. He describes that much of this nostalgia is focused on the decades between 1945 and 1965, the golden age of American political economy as he describes it.

... for Baby Boomers, this is the age of our childhood. There is this tendency of humans to look back to a golden age. If you quiz people, the golden age usually corresponds to their childhood.  They’ll say, life was simpler. Of course, life was simpler, you were 8 years old.

There’s this thinking of, if we could just get back to the way things were in 1950 or 1960, then all will be well. Part of it is this individual nostalgia.

But part of it is this historically anomalous position during this period from 1945 to 1965. Because in a fundamental way, the US was the only victor of World War II. The US was the only country that came out with a stronger economy than it went in. America’s principal industrial competitors were either gravely weakened, like Britain, or absolutely demolished like Germany and Japan. So, it was easy for the US to embrace free trade. Yeah, level the playing field because we’ve already leveled the industrial capacity of all our competitors.

The weakness of this assumption is that underlying it is a belief often held that our best years are in the past, not the future, therefore, what changes we experience today are taking us further away from the golden age of the past.

Tenth Assumption: Change is Structural, and cannot be adequately faced by just changing attitudes and behaviors.

The future is going to be different. The last stage of acceptance of this will be the recognition that many of the above assumptions are declining in validity. Yes, of course, as individuals we adapt to change by modifying our attitudes and behaviors. We also must adapt by changing the social and organizational structures that have led us to this point in history.

The indicators of structural change are already evident. They are awaiting application in theory, design and practice.  I'll write about them in my next posting.


To be a welcoming leader

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This week I had a conversation with Deanna Vogt on leadership. One of her questions was about the importance welcoming and hostmanship. Here's what I said.

“It's about relationships … they are the centerpiece of society, of life, the organizing principle of everything. … why connection is important …

Leaders create an environment of welcoming; create an environment to give, to contribute, to take initiative, to participate

welcoming lowers the barriers for leadership so more people can come in and practice leadership…

leadership starts with the individual’s initiative; not an abstract role defined by an organizational structure; more who the person is and how they express themselves through the structure; ...

this approach to leading starts with the leader being willing to let go of the results; to say – ‘I’m creating this environment, we have this purpose, these values and I have a vision, but don’t know how we are going to make it, where it is going to go; I leave it to you and I welcome you to come in and create what it really needs to be.’ … this is where welcoming and hostmanship come from …”

An environment of welcome is an invitation for people to contribute their best. As a leader, this may be a very attractive idea because you want people to be happy and productive. What you may not understand is that problem is not you intention, but the system of your business.

Creating an environment of welcome is not an efficient approach to running a business. People are not efficient. People, when equipped, enabled, and empowered, are effective beyond imagining.

Here's the truth that we face. Simply trying to run an efficient organization is a race to be the number 1 bottom feeder in your industry.

You end up treating your products and services as low cost commodities, and your people as interchangeable disposable parts.

You may protest that you care for your people. And you may, but the system you put them in penalizes them for being people and not machines.

Creating a welcoming environment has little place in a business organized to be efficient.  People have ideas, have emotional needs and require time to process complex social situations. And yet, they are the chief asset that businesses have to succeed in the new economy.

Years ago, management writer Peter Drucker contrasted the aims of efficiency and effectiveness."Efficiency is doing things right. Effectiveness doing right things."

You have a choice.

Choose to be a bottom-feeder or to be a leader. You can't be both. 

Be a bottom-feeder, and you may survive. Be a leader and you have a chance to thrive while everyone else simply tries to make it.

To be a welcoming leader is to create an environment where people are free to create their best performance every day.

It is just one of the practices of gratitude that you can implement to transform the environment of your organization into a place where people want to connect.