Updated: May 29
To be mortal is the most basic human experience and yet man has never been able to accept it, grasp it, and behave accordingly. Man doesn't know how to be mortal. And when he dies, he doesn't even know how to be dead — Milan Kundera, Immortality
Welcome to the Good Life Work Project 2021 Thought Leader. This article is a more extended read than usual and is intended to challenge your thinking around transformation and change leadership. At its heart is a MEGA SPACE Collider Blueprint for resilience and change leadership that has been 12 years in the making. I hope you find it a rewarding investment of time.
Immortality at the Happy Hog
My self does not differ substantially from yours in terms of its thought. Many people, few ideas: we all think more or less the same, and we exchange, borrow, steal thoughts from one another —Milan Kundera, Immortality
It is spring 1992; I am living in the United States, working as a Sales Manager at Moe's Music, sitting in the Happy Hog, a small coffee shop located in a strip mall in Virginia Beach. I have an hour before I have to be in work and I am drinking blackberry tea while reading "Immortality" by Milan Kundera, and I am about to be struck.
At the beginning of "Immortality", an older woman is at a swimming pool. As she leaves the opening scene, she gestures toward her swimming instructor with a wave of her hand. That gesture strikes her swimming instructor and the narrator as odd; it impacts them, creating an unsettling that makes the moment memorable - it survives beyond the time limitations of the event itself - moving the reader to consider what it means to be immortal.
Kundera's book was the trigger - the strike to my mind - that started my ongoing journey through complexity, resilience, mega spaces and colliders. I hope it unsettles and strikes you as much as it has me.
The quest for immortality and the perturbation effect
What does it really mean to be useful? Today's world, just as it is, contains the sum of the utility of all people of all times. Which implies: The highest morality consists in being useless —Milan Kundera, Immortality
our quest for immortality
influence, impact and unseen forces (perturbation)
We share an innate need to feel as though we are part of something bigger than ourselves. We want to believe that our contribution to the world has the required potential to be meaningful and valuable and that we are connected enough for that contribution to survive through time.
My argument is that, regardless of who or where you are, you seek to create objects and actions that others see as meaningful and valuable enough to pass on in the form of stories or objects that extend beyond your physical presence. In doing so, you extend your existence beyond your physical limitations, even if you cannot experience it and even if only fleeting in the wider construct of time.
From leaving your current organisation to take on a new challenge, or experiencing death at 101, your presence, your influence, will create a gravitational pull on others. The question is, will it be meaningful and valuable, and for how long? More importantly, how much of your influence is purposeful and how much is accidental? Like Kundera's woman at the pool, her gesture struck the instructor in such a way that she became part of his world, even though she does not know it herself.
As with Kundera's swimmer, the gravitational pulls that influence us daily are both known and unknown to us. Consider for a moment the impact of now-distant events such as 9-11, the influence and impact of the tragic events of that day are still influencing the way you and I travel today. We pass through the airport unaware of its power, but the strength of impact created by events 20 years ago shaping that queue at border control today.
Your strength of influence, or gravitational pull, depends on your impact on the world around you; the greater the scope and scale of meaning or value attributed to your contribution by others, the greater your influence and impact over time. My argument is that an enduring presence beyond your physical realm extends your existence and is in itself a form of temporal immortality.
More than likely, your impact, your influence on the world, like mine, is no more than a gesture, a wave in the mind of Kundera's swimming instructor that will disappear in a single generation. Our gravitational pull is relatively weak, perishing in our last surviving work colleagues' minds or the memories held by our last surviving offspring. Your challenge, like mine, is the same as any organisation that hopes to thrive over time. The challenge is one of awareness. We need the sensemaking capability that helps us consciously act to create a desirable influence that assists people in meeting their needs and our own. These deliberate desirable actions create the gravitational forces that have the potential to endure over time.
Then there are those whose gravitational pull creates a significant impact over time: Aristotle, Shakespeare, Austen, Tchaikovsky, Curie, Ghengis Khan, Hitler, Jobs, Thatcher. If they still live today through their objects and actions, can they be said to be immortal? Though their impact diminishes with time, it seems fair to say that their gravitational pull remains strong and will endure for generations to come. The only problem is that, though these people continue to strike us today through their objects and actions, they are all dead, which, from a business perspective, isn't a desirable state.
To endure, to thrive over time, and avoid being than a brief post-dinner anecdote whose reference is meaningless to those who did not share a given space or time - does Nokia mean anything to today's teenagers? - organisations need to nurture their connectedness and potential to achieve desirable - positive and meaningful - value over time.
Awareness of mortality brings fear of death, along with a freeze-flight-fight response. Those leaders with the awareness and appetite for the fight challenge their organisations to not go gently into that good night and rage against the dying of the light (apologies to Dylan Thomas). They continually challenge people to improve collective connectedness and potential, creating a perpetual state of change. To be successful, organisations need to continuously probe their environment to reveal the gravitational influences shaping their future. Organisations need people with the requisite competence, competency, and capability to probe for and sense change and quickly adapt to those environmental changes - I'll explain this further later. More than this, organisations need to manage and improve their gravitational influence - their connectedness and potential - continuously.
The question is, as a leader, how can you and I purposefully act to create the conditions - connectedness and potential - that allow us, our teams and your organisations or communities to thrive over time?
Consider this: if people and the objects they create (e.g. a strategy document) act to influence us, then why do so many change projects fail to map people and their objects as part of their stakeholder mapping process. In not doing so, they leave their projects vulnerable to unknown gravitational influences that lead to unintended adverse outcomes.
Immortality is about survival, survival takes resilience, and resilience means a commitment to continuous improvement.
As long as we live with other people, we are only what other people consider us to be. Thinking about how others see us and trying to make our image as attractive as possible is considered a kind of dissembling or cheating. But does there exist another kind of direct contact between my self and their selves except through the mediation of the eyes?" ―Milan Kundera, Immortality
Holling and Rogers
Resilience and the Limitations Barrel
The MEGA SPACE
To make sense of our connectedness and potential, we need to understand how the dynamics of our communities and organisations forces us to adapt, and to adapt we need to be supple or agile. If we are not learning agile, our connectedness and potential will diminish to a point where we will become obsolete.
Each of us is a self-determining agent that influences and is influenced by other agents, both known and unknown to us. Therefore, if you are continually probing your environment, you will find yourself in a constant state of emergence that cannot be avoided. If you try to avoid that fundamental truth, you will end up going the way of the Dodo and become extinct. Why? Because your environment consists of known and unknown agents with unknown connections and connectivity, which means you cannot reach a state of Nash Equilibrium. In this state, the optimal outcome is one where no other agent has the motivation to deviate from their chosen path after considering the choices of all other agents. You cannot know all the agents acting to influence your environment or their choices and, therefore, you cannot reach a state of Nash Equilibrium. In other words, you must become learning agile to survive and thrive. To stand still will result in only one state, death.
Continuous improvement contributes to resilience; which is an emergent state determined by your ability to deliver meaningful value over time - this links to Liebig's Law of the Minimum and our Limitations Insights Barrel, but more on that later. First, let me introduce you to the work of CS Holling and the Adaptive Cycle.
To be considered resilient, organisations need to be prepared to experience four states: exploitation, conservation, release and reorganisation.
Exploitation occurs when you or an organisation discovers a position of advantage, allowing you to reap the benefits created by scarcity or that or an early mover - think of the launch of Apple's iPhone or iPad. Understanding desirability - what brings meaning and value - improves the connectedness between the product or service and the community; it also evolves individual, team and organisational competence, competency and capability, which creates the conditions for conservation.
Conservation emerges from exploitation, linking to desirability and stability. For example, the greater the demand, coupled with lower numbers of competitors, the greater the stability (uninterrupted connectedness) and, therefore, the greater the conservation position. However, organisations can only achieve resilience if they anticipate disruption to their products or services' potential or connectedness (e.g. the emergence of competing or evolved products or services).
As with any successful product or service, the potential will change according to environmental disruptions - think alternative or evolved offerings. As the potential for a given service or product drops, you need to have the anticipatory awareness of the need for release, or creative destruction, and reorganisation, a state where your connectedness drops but your potential increases. When this occurs, you can make the jump to a new age of exploitation and conservation.
However, being human and part of an organisational community, you are part of a social system where resilience is determined by limiting beliefs, attitudes, skills, knowledge, experience and talent. As promised, here comes Liebig, and the Limitations Insights barrel.
Liebig Law comes from agriculture and states that the ability to exploit and conserve growth is not dependent on the system's total resources, but the limiting resource availability. Think of personal and team growth or resilience as being linked to competence (what you know), competency (how you deploy what you know) and capability (the ability to take what you know and how you deploy it and adapt it to non-routine circumstances). If you have the requisite variety of competence, competency and capability, you can exploit opportunities in your emergent environment. However, if your team lacks the requisite variety to match the environment's needs, you will experience challenges that turn into unresolvable problems that choke your team to death.
In the video: I developed the Leadership Barrel in 2012, based on ecosystem stability and Liebig's Law of the Minimum, where crop growth and health is dependent not on the total nutrients in the soil, but the least available nutrient. I transferred Liebig's Law to leadership and management development as a way to explain the need for continued growth and situational awareness. Since 2012, I've used this approach in organisations as varied as the Department for International Trade and BAe through to E.ON Community Energy and Laing O'Rourke, and I hope you find it useful.
Is your barrel full to the brim with TAKES (Talent, Attitude, Knowledge, Skills and Experiences) that allow you to lead or manage; all you have to do is turn on the tap when you need them? Or, is your barrel incomplete, where gaps in the planks lower your leadership or management yield?
Limiting resources brings me to Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety which I'll discuss further in the next section. But, first, I want you to consider the influence required to form a community that has the potential and connectedness to deliver meaning and value over time. To achieve this, leaders need to seed a MEGA SPACE, as set out in the blueprint offered at the outset of this article. There are far too many influencing concepts to cover here. Still, inside the MEGA SPACE, you will see the gravitational pull of influencers such as Scharmer's Theory U, Spiral Dynamics, Covey's Trust Waves and Self-Determination Theory:
Meaning: Desirable products and services are created by design through an understanding of what people find meaningful and valuable and why
Entanglement: Close synchronisation with the environment through connections and connectivity within and between communities
Goals: FAST (Frequent, Ambitious, Simple (think, micro-experiments) and Transparent) purposeful actions informed by an applied understanding of the variety required to exploit and conserve growth
Autonomy: a motivated community of people energised by autonomy, connectedness and competence, trust and sponsorship
Sharing: Community learning built on a selfless and generous sharing of data, information and knowledge
Personal development: Individual learning stimulated by an environment that triggers the right amount of challenge stress [to release neurochemicals that intensify focus and strengthen social connections]
Agility: The collective ability to rapidly and continuously sense and adapt to signals for growth, conservation, reorganisation, and release
Curiosity: Open mindsets that encourage questioning of unsettled feelings to expose contradictions, doubts, dilemmas and possibilities, allowing for release and reorganisation
Exercise: Productivity, engagement and satisfaction enabled by recognition of the connection between mind, body and soul (physical and mental challenge and wellbeing)
Fitness means finding, stretching, breaking and redefining boundaries
To be absolutely modern is to be the ally of one's grave diggers ―Milan Kundera, Immortality
MEGA SPACEs create the conditions for success, but an organisation's ability to rapidly sense, anticipate and act - exploit, conserve, release and reorganise - depends on colliders.
One of the most influential and underused laws in business today is Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety. Ashby was a cybernetician and developed a law that, fundamentally, states that variety absorbs variety. In other words, for an organisation to be resilient, to deliver meaning and value over time, it must equal or exceed the variety in its operating environment. We baked Ashby's into the Good Life Work project DNA, and you can see an example of its application in the way we approach Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
In organisations, operationalising Ashby's law requires a purposeful approach to team formation or the swarming of collective intelligence around organisational challenges or opportunities that we call BASKET-R colliders.
A BASKET-R Collider is a diverse swarm of Beliefs, Attitudes, Skills, Knowledge, Experience and Talent that bring Resources to converse, collaborate, challenge and confirm decisions and solutions.
Colliders create an unsettling, a questioning of reflex beliefs and attitudes that are too tightly bound to exploitation and conservation, failing to anticipate or respond to the need for release and reorganisation. The conversation, collaboration, challenge and confirmation process baked into colliders is purposefully designed to create an unsettling that leads to powerful purposeful actions.
The collider provides the energy to power the MEGA SPACE and allows the organisation to thrive over time. As long as the collider is active within the MEGA SPACE, the organisation has the competence, competency and capability to exploit, conserve, release and reorganise over time.
Caveat Emptor: Colliders in action - Google baulks at an inconvenient truth
Google "programmed to fail"
Unintended consequences from turning a blind eye
Organisations need the powerful and purposeful conversations created by colliders, but leaders have to be ready to embrace the disruption created by such spaces.
A person finds it distasteful to hear his life recounted with a different interpretation from his own ―Milan Kundera, Immortality
An excellent example of such discomfort from disruption is Google, who formed a collider-esque team co-led by Timnit Gebru to explore ethical artificial intelligence.
Gebru is one of the most high-profile Black women in her field and a powerful voice in the new field of ethical AI, which seeks to identify issues around bias, fairness, and responsibility ―Washington Post, Dec. 23rd 2020
Gebru and her team were encouraged to challenge thinking in the field, with Google leadership promising transparency and sponsorship of their work. Gubru authored and published a paper that ran counter to Google Research's position on artificial intelligence - you can read the MIT Technology Review's overview of Gebru's paper.
Jeff Dean, head of Google's Artificial Intelligence, reportedly felt that the article lacked congruence with the company's beliefs and attitudes towards artificial intelligence. He asked for Gebru to remove her team's name from the research. Gebru refused, the paper was published, and six weeks later she was fired.
In an internal memo that he later posted online explaining Gebru's departure, Dean told employees that the paper "didn't meet our bar for publication" and "ignored too much relevant research" on recent positive improvements to the technology ―Washington Post, ibid
To turn a blind eye to a known challenge to your position is to invite unintended consequence and adverse outcomes. Surely, such unintended consequences have the potential to stress the company's potential and connectedness. I wonder what Google is doing to monitor the risk, or perhaps it is just turning a blind eye. As a change leader, what do you do when faced with inconvenient truths?
The moral of the story is best summed up by DaVinci ―The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci (Richter, 1888) - XIX Philosophical Maxims. Morals. Polemics and Speculations:
Blind ignorance misleads us thus and delights with the results of lascivious joys. Because it does not know the true light. Because it does not know what is the true light. Vain splendour takes from us the power of being.... behold! for its vain splendour we go into the fire, thus blind ignorance does mislead us. That is, blind ignorance so misleads us that... O! wretched mortals, open your eyes.
Have you been struck?
If you have been struck by anything in our 2021 Thought Leader and would like to collaborate or partner with us, contact firstname.lastname@example.org