Ways of Seeing revisits a previous column, Fragments. In this new series, we’ll explore the processes of sense-making, knowledge production, and world-building in our memories, realities, and imaginaries as South Africans, inspired by the use of semiotics (the scientific study of signs, symbols, and communication systems within sociocultural contexts) in our business landscape.
Semiotics is growing in popularity among brand analysts as it’s “the most appropriate tool for understanding questions surrounding brand symbolism and meaning and the multiple and layered messages that underpin this meaning,” according to Chris Arning. More and more businesses are ‘tapping into culture’ to create meaningful communication, to develop human-centred design, to position themselves competitively in shifting contexts, and to cue concepts and ideas that resonate with specific audiences.
“Semiotics, the study of signs and cultural meaning, has been gaining ground in the world of commercial research.” This is the opinion of Cato Hunt and Clem McCulloch in Epic. Semiotics has long been making waves in the business world but what we see emerging is a distinctly corporate and commercial form. “Commercial Semiotics can be used to strategically answer business challenges, providing cultural context as to why ideas are in people’s minds in the first place,” writes Caroline Brierley in Illume Stories. “By deconstructing culture to determine underlying codes, [semiotics] tells us how meaning is created,” says Ashton Bridges in Kelton. “Humans make emotional decisions. Those emotions are often guided by subconscious interpretations of words and images. Semiotics can help decode those subconscious messages to sharpen messaging and branding,” notes Lesley Vos in CXL.
HIDDEN IN THE DARK. We often speak of insights as gems to be mined, nuggets to be unearthed, buried treasures to be discovered, as if researchers are miners, archeologists, or explorers, and the people and places from which we draw insight are mines, caves, or uncharted territory. In this sense, culture — learned behaviour, value systems, beliefs and worldviews — is imagined to be hidden, underlying, deep below the surface, fossilised, rather than entangled, enigmatic, and evolving.
Aren’t we colonising culture by hunting, excavating, and claiming it? By flagging it, moulding it, and putting it on display?
CASTING SHADOWS. Have you heard the saying, “Old sins cast long shadows”? What we do today has consequences tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. In the same breath, we’ve inherited processes and practices that came before. The ways in which we gather, collect, nurture and share insight shapes the stories that are told, the perceptions formed of people, the innovations and strategies that are made. Our thoughts, words, and actions matter.
Consider, for example, what comes to mind when we think of shadows. Often shadows are associated with metaphorical darkness, mystery, and the unknown. If someone behaves in a ‘shady’ manner, we question the honesty or legitimacy behind their intentions. The shadow economy is used to refer to ‘unlawful’ activities that operate outside of the formal economy and so are beyond state control or benefit. The shadow pandemic encompasses the gender-based violence (GBV) that targets women and girls. In psychology, the shadow self is a part of the individual that they’re either unaware of or choose to suppress and not make visible or known in order to control and contain a version of themselves and their reality.
In thinking about our use of insight, what assumptions, judgments, and preconceptions cast shadows on the work that we do? How might we change these narratives, perspectives, and choices?
SHINE A LIGHT. Jean Paul Petitimbert, semiotician and brand analyst, distinguished between two branches of semiotics — one of French origin, and the other emerging from an Anglo‑Saxon world.
He explains that, “for the French strand of semiotics, the purpose of an analysis is to dive inside signs (whatever their natures), to disassemble them, so to speak, and to take them to pieces in order to understand the internal logic at work between their different components, with a view to describing the mechanisms that produce meaning.” In this sense, a brand is built on internal logics, philosophies, systems and rules. The semiotician “bring[s] them to light” so that a marketer might maintain the brand’s identity over time and space.
The English variant of commercial semiotics tends to border on trend analysis. You have probably heard of codes being described as emergent, dominant or residual. This also involves a consideration for the intention and interpretation of signs and symbols, says Petitimbert. One branch of commercial semiotics focuses on the internal, the micro, and the specific, while the other focuses on the contextual, the macro, and the external.
In short, “[t]here should exist marketing research programmes proposing to use both approaches in order to get the depth and width of analysis respectively provided by each type of semiotic enquiry so that clients can make really thoroughly informed decisions.”
Originally published on Marklives.
What if our professional legacy is dismantle old ways of working?
If we have learned anything from this pandemic, it is that our sense of ‘normal’ was somewhat warped. While many long to return to ‘normal’, some say we are heading for a ‘new normal’, and others argue we should prepare for a ‘post-normal’. Just as a relationship cannot return to what is once was when a partner betrays another’s trust, or how a person’s status (and arguably their life) is forever changed once they become a parent, so too can businesses not fall back into old habits, outdated ways, or dead ideas.
“We can’t blindly accept what’s presented to us as normal,” said a participant at this year’s Global Business Anthropology Summit. Although it is a difficult sell convincing a legacy team of the changes needed – not just in practice but in mindset too – herein lies the promise of a better tomorrow. It is in the ritualised negotiation of ways of working that change manifests and sustains an organisation moving forward.
Living in a DELA world
Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter first formulated the term ‘creative destruction’ in 1942; a time nearing the 3rd industrial revolution and at the height of the Second World War. He described it as: "the process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one." While this is often associated with the development of capitalism, it could be useful in its application when thinking through our own ways of working today. Especially considering that we find ourselves at a similar pivotal moment; entering the 4th industrial revolution and situated in the middle of a global crisis.
We can apply the DELA framework to help us make sense of the story that is unfolding, and to shape our own narrative going forward.
Our world requires a deliberate dismantling of oppressive, exclusive, or passive practices, to allow for an emergence of improved, inclusive, and active processes. We need to commit to making shifts in our business spaces, realms of work, or spheres of influence; even if just incremental change, it matters. We need to break free from the constraints of normal.
This was originally published on Marklives
What if we viewed competition as a motivation, not a set-back?
First with your head, then with your heart
Counterfeit, imitation, fake. A nightmare for any brand, especially a small business that lacks the means to fight back. This was the reality earlier this year for a South African clothing brand. A family business spanning generations and built on the purpose of delivery bespoke apparel to an exclusive audience. This was not a contender in the same weight division as Nike, Adidas and the like. What seems to happen, as the brand gains popularity and prestige, it becomes more susceptible to imitation.
A futurist, Xolile Martin, had been offered a counterfeit of this local brand’s products. It was being sold in China Town malls and online platforms such as Facebook and Whatsapp. He alerted the brand of the fakes circulating at a fraction of the original’s cost. Understandably, the brand was shocked. The challenge seemed impossible to tackle. They decided to take a legal approach; warning its online audience of fakes, announcing their collaboration with authorities, and encouraging people to only buy through official channels.
Living in a DELA
The commodification, fetishisation, and appropriation of culture is a delicate, entangled, thorny problem. Essentially, brands create and shape culture – in terms of behaviour, values, aspirations, identity, and more. For those who are deeply rooted in legacy or have strong heritage connections, this requires further consideration and contemplation for how one disruption, change, or intervention could impact an entire ecosystem in which it exists.
We can apply the DELA framework to help us make sense of the story that is unfolding, and to shape our own narrative going forward.
Rather than fighting against something, brands have the choice to fight for something; to create a new consumption space, to tap into another audience, and to draw on localised trends. This is an opportunity to connect with people and ideas in a way that builds long-term relationships, calls them to action, and instils a sense of collective purpose behind a shared vision.
When things go wrong inside organisations, simply replacing one leader with another will not facilitate the systemic change needed. The corporate world is filled with predator-prey relationships where one benefits over the other. A colleague in a foresight-based writing programme, Fazidah Ithnin, shared a Malaysian proverb; it is like saving us from the crocodile and throwing us to the lions. How do we nurture the forest instead, creating an interdependent ecosystem for all involved?
Living in a DELA world
How does anyone obtain success these days? It is no longer a question of who you know, but rather who knows you. How do you build that reputation and network? Where do opportunities for growth, progress, and reward even come from? Is it worth the sacrifice we make just to be seen, heard, or considered?
We can apply the DELA framework to help us make sense of the story that is unfolding, and to shape our own narrative going forward.
We are quick to place the blame on leaders as individuals and forget that they operate in a bigger context that supported them in obtaining this position of power. By incorporating a culture of questioning norms and challenging the status quo, we can encourage organisations to learn and adapt as they go. Leaders are intended to be representative of the whole, and to guide the collective on a journey towards a shared vision. They are neither above nor outside of but very much part of the system. It would do a whole lot of good for businesses to function as safe spaces for taking chances, distributing consequences, and changing without pain or punishment. As a Eugenio Molini of GAIT says, we can start by respecting ourselves, empathising with others, and being considerate of the whole.
First published on Marklives
There was a time when the world was enchanted; entangled in living stories of mystery, magic and wonder. This was followed by the refashioning of modes of historical thought; the Age of Enlightenment. A time characterised by science, logic, and reason. The mechanisation and intellectualisation of life is believed to have led to a disenchantment of the world, as proclaimed by sociologist Max Weber. The world is becoming more explained and less mystical. Modern society seems to rationalise cultural practices and devalue belief systems, severing the link between humanity and nature, the real and imagined, the actual and the possible.
Have we lost our ability to get caught up and carried away in a state of wonder? A counter-argument is that “enchantment never really left the world but only changed its forms” (Boje & Baskin, 2020). Do we remember what it is to be curious about the unknown? What is something in our everyday lives that goes beyond that which is shown and told? It could be argued that secrets are a form of enchantment, and the organisation (or work environment) a context in which secrecy emerges and secrets are contained. What are the contemporary currents of thought on the secret in a rapidly changing world (Manderson et al, 2015)? This paper seeks to explore the life of secrets in organisational institutions and structures; their purpose and potential.
Hidden in plain sight
Historical moment and geographical location are key determinants in what is considered acceptable behaviour when it comes to secrets and secrecy. Secrets are composed of subjective interpretations, organising principles, forms of knowledge production, circumstantial conventions, interacting players, inherent intentions, and elements of control. It is through secrets that we can create identities, negotiate intersubjective lives, regulate social interactions, and frame institutional practices (Manderson et al, 2015).
In the past, secrecy was associated with unfavourable notions of dishonesty, evasion, elusiveness, scandal, gossip, espionage, confusion, contradiction, betrayal, and repression. It was not considered common practice, or at least it was largely hidden from view and public knowledge. Keeping and sharing secrets later became attached to ideas of closure, intimacy, liberation, justice, healing, forgiveness, and contributing to change. Is the development of a secret not a form of knowledge production, and its circulation not a mode of knowledge sharing? By definition, gathering knowledge is a process of extracting, translating, and making visible that which is coded or hidden. A secret could be seen as a form of knowledge invested with value; an orchestrated construction of knowledge that guides engagement and therefore an understanding of truth and its interpretations (Manderson et al, 2015).
In applying Sohail Inayatullah’s Causal Layered Analysis method we can unpack the layers of secrets and the associated narratives used to make sense of secrecy. The very first layer, the litany, is the observed or obvious idea, second is the systemic causes or driving forces that create the conditions in which the idea exists, third the discourses and ideological assumptions that legitimise and support a worldview, and fourth is the layer of myth and metaphor that is linked to long-term history and emotive dimensions (Coetzee, 2021).
Instinctively, many of us would conjure up images of spilling the beans, letting the cat out the bag, dishing the dirt, or leaking confidential information when we think of telling a secret. In this sense, secrecy is the act of covering up, masking, disguising, or burying the truth. With a worldview skewed towards a negative secretive bias, it is easy to justify that secrets are kept or revealed in order to inflict harm, judgment, or power over others. The systems in which secrets are made, maintained, broken, and die then seek to prevent, diminish, or destroy a culture of secrecy. The act of telling, being silent, or omitting information is often looked down upon and even punishable in such a context.
How can we view secrets in a different light and even use them to our benefit? If we were to view a secret as a little enigmatic gem of multifaceted curiosity and sprouting possibility, we could imagine secrecy as a playground for innovative imagination and empowered freedom, and us the secret-keepers with child-like wonder. The little treasures and nuggets of truth, so beautifully wrapped in storied layers. We would come to realise the transformative power of the secret.
Like a thief in the night
Secrecy is not a form of solipsism - a self-centred or selfish act of benefiting, prioritising, or justifying the self. Instead, a secret is something that is partially known in order to attract attention and create an air of importance around that which is unknown (Bigo, 2019). In other words: content is strategically masked in order to announce its existence. Secrecy becomes an attractor; enticing those eager to know more. Attractor, in the way that Dave Snowden discusses the concept, is a phenomenon or pattern formation that arises when systemic conditions create possibilities adjacent to an existing situation or reality. As an attractor begins to resonate with those in a given context, and gain momentum, there is a structure and coherence that emerges. People and behaviours are nudged in a particular, intentional, prefered direction.
Using the STEEP framework we can gather and organise signals and insight relating to secrets and secrecy, here and now. Understanding secrets in context could help us map out possible scenarios for the future of secrecy and its place - its location and role - in the organisation. In the social realm we see trends around human development in the direction of re-enchantment, healthy forms of secrecy that enhance well-being, education and training around secrets as catalysts for change, and the role of secrets in identity formation, group belonging, and relationship building. In the technological realm there are dominant trends of connectivity and communication being shaped by and centred around data sharing and privacy. In the economic realm secrets become competitive commodities with a value that lives and dies in its circulation. In the environmental realm secrets are a resource once deeply rooted in our connection to nature; through myth, metaphor, folklore, and sacred knowledge. Secrets have become uncharted territories that some seek to explore and exploit. It brings into question the abundance, scarcity and sustainability of secrecy in today’s world. Finally, the political realm provides insight into the implications of secrecy in a globalised, polarised, and marginalised context. Protectionism and mistrust come into stark contrast with integration and social cohesion when secrets are regulated and used as weapons in conflict.
“The big idea is that if you want to change the world, you need to enchant people,” says Guy Kawasaki (2011). In the context of the organisation, disenchantment - in its capacity to explain away the mystery of things - has resulted in increased knowledge and enhanced social and material control, but also a greater impersonality amongst individuals. As the argument goes, according to Weber, rationalisation is responsible for many advances - technological and social - but it has also potentially dehumanised individuals as cogs in the organisational machine.
Traditionally, secrets differentiate between insiders and outsiders; those in the know versus those in the dark. Research has shown that secrecy has a binding and bonding effect. It is in sharing secrets that we establish our own identity, create a sense of belonging with someone else, and nurture a form of intimacy with those entrusted with a secret. Secrets are situated in relations; they build, sustain, and convey connection between people (Manderson et al, 2015). While secrecy may elicit suspicion, competition and exclusion, it can also foster alliance, transparency and collaboration.
We live in a highly globalised and mediated time. There is an increasingly complex relationship between public and private spheres. Sociologist Edward Shils asks: If everything is knowable and private life transferable into public spaces - what then is public life? What sense do we make of a hybridisation or of the invasion of private life into the public domain? On the other hand, sociologist and philosopher Georg Simmel claims that as societies become more complex, what is public becomes ever more public, and what is private becomes ever more private. Either way, secrecy further complicates and destabilises the dichotomy of public and private, internal and external, known and unknown.
Post-industrial worlds - those that depend more on services than on the production or manufacturing of goods - are heavily influenced by technology. The quantity or scale of data generated and captured, along with the rate or speed of data circulation is accelerated and escalated by technology. Secrecy comes into play in our digital and virtual impression-management and fantasy creation; living a highly digitised life creates the illusion that there is no space for silence and undisclosed secrets (Manderson et al, 2015). Some might say that technology has contributed to the death of the secret; that big data displaces and prevents the possibility of the secret. As data is collected, contained, and dissected, it becomes possible to govern, manipulate, expose, and monitor those from whom the data is taken. What if we choose to openly share our secrets? Social media provides a platform where private lives enter the public domain. Personal profiles become publicly curated archives of the self; supported by confessional media culture.
The appeal of a secret lies in its contextual relevance as well as the continuum of ignorance that it generates (Bigo, 2019). It is not a clear-cut distinction between ignorance and knowledge, but rather a range of knowing, not knowing, pretending to know, claiming to know, and feeling entitled to know. In Anthropology, gift-giving is seen to be a complex system of exchange that involves history, reciprocity, sentimentality, and obligation. Could the same be invested in the sharing of secrets?
Government and big business are carried out in secret. Whether its state secrets or trade secrets, there is commercial viability and financial risk mitigation inherent in the maintenance of ignorance, the privatisation of information, and the materialisation of the secret. According to Simmel, the value of the secret is intensified by the possibility of its betrayal or revelation. An unintentional consequence of this, however, is that it mobilises appeals for transparency (Manderson et al. on Erikson, 2015). Transparency itself can even be considered a commodity that often benefits the state, its citizens, private capital and urban rich (Nuttall & Mbembe, 2015).
Various academics, historians, sociologists, and others, seek to “re-enchant forms of modern capitalism that have separated people from nature, through the Cartesian/Newtonian worldview” (Boje & Baskin, 2020). According to these experts, enchantment resides in many living storied spaces. It is this interplay between space, secrecy, and story that enchantment can be found. In a way, organisational institutions and infrastructure - both physical and virtual - become sites of secrecy; its production, growth and decline.
There are moral, intellectual and epistemological complexities and implications inherent in secrecy. There is a politics and ethics of owning, exposing and inspecting things that are secret, honoured, and sacred (Manderson et al, 2015). This raises concerns around privacy, confidentiality, rights, care, anxiety, control, policy, legislation, and responsibility. Those who hold secrets wield power. Secrets can be used to reinforce power asymmetries, or they can be harnessed as a form of resistance and trigger for revolution. In a way, secrecy is capable of disturbing and redistributing power. Similarly, exclusion from knowledge “tracks the topography of power” (Manderson et al, 2015).
Rage against the dying of the light
Using scenario development we can formulate stories of future possibilities. What are the hidden futures of an organisation as it relates to secrets and secrecy? If we were to map a line of uncertainty and a range of impact, we could develop four potential future scenarios. On the horizontal axis: a continuum of invisibility and visibility; from concealing to revealing. On the vertical axis: a movement between imagination and rationalisation; enchantment and disenchantment.
Let wonder be reignited
What can be learned by inviting collective and self-reflection around secrecy (Manderson et al, 2015)? Imagining and building futures, of course. Boje and Baskin (2020) make a critical distinction between enchantment by design and enchantment by emergence. Enchantment is characterised by organic participation, not of mechanical observation (Berman, 1981). Some (Max Weber and Friedrich Nietzsche in particular) view Enchantment as a time of superstition and unreasonable fear. Others (such as Morris Berman, Thomas Moore, and George Ritzer) view Enlightenment as the elimination of wonder and meaning from the world, and an introduction of alienation and destruction of the self. Many agree that the dominant narrative of modern life “no longer holds forth the wonder of an enchanted world” (Boje & Baskin, 2020). Enchantment by design refers to how the individual’s experience is shaped by the groups’ dominant narratives (Boje & Baskin, 2020). Enchantment by emergence is a deeply personal state of wonder in which individuals are able to be both caught up and carried away (Boje and Baskin on Bennett, 2020). What will our organisations decide?
Lessons for organisations
This article was written for IFR
What if we light a spark of change and spread it through an organisation, making new with fire something old and dying?
The trap of simple stories
In a recent series of exploratory sessions hosted by management consultancy Cognitive Edge, a conversation about simplicity and simplification was brewing. Essentially, when faced with the unknown, we tend to simplify. It is easy to gain control in this way — or at least the illusion there of. But at what cost? Sonja Blignaut, complexity and narrative consultant and thinking partner, raised a point about the mindtraps identified by Jennifer Garvey Berger, leadership coach and author. The mindtrap in question was that of simple stories, “when our instinct for a coherent story kills our ability to see a real one”.
Simple stories simply don’t work in complexity. Humans are complex beings, we operate in complex systems, and we live in complex times. So why do leaders often claim clear connections between cause and consequence? For example, if employees are looking to get raises, promotions, bonuses or other forms of rewards and recognition, they are often provided with an unobtainable, seemingly simple path to progress. However, the metrics used to measure their performance don’t take into consideration all that they do beyond their job descriptions; they ignore the complex inner workings of an organisation that can’t always be captured in words or on paper; and they reduce an intricate human being to a mere cog in the machine. Progress is near impossible.
Danger of the single story
It’s been 12 years since TED released Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Danger of a Single Story. Her wisdom continues to ring true. The stories we tell hold power. “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person,” said Adichie in this talk.
We need to be careful not to flatten several stories into an overarching, generic one. This is how misunderstanding and miscommunication happen. In a business setting, it’s equivalent to limiting people to an identified role or strict set of responsibilities against which they are judged and their progress determined. Stories should also not be one-sided; they need to be collective, collaborative and ever-changing. In the corporate world, this means having open and honest conversations across departments and domains.
Living in a DELA world
There’s a term in isiZulu that captures the idea that, if something happens too easily, it’s suspicious. It’s too good to be true. Quick fixes and simple solutions are not sustainable in complexity. Umlilo wamaphepha: paper fire. When you light a newspaper, it goes up in a brilliant burst of flames but it’s short‑lived.
We can apply the DELA framework to help us make sense of the story that’s unfolding, and to shape our own narrative, going forward.
How do we ignite a spark of change and spread it through an organisation? According to Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge, it’s not about creating better versions of old things but rather implementing symbiotic strategies. Take a small aspect of something that already exists and make it new — this makes change more attractive and less threatening.
Originally posted on Marklives
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Do we choose to embrace change and the opportunities that come with it or do we resist and defiantly continue to do things as we have always done? The former invites possibility and risk while the latter invokes predictability and comfort. It is human nature to seek control and consistency, at least to some degree. It is also part of the human condition to desire growth and movement, at least to some extent.
It is often argued that this was necessary for our survival as a species. Consider the power of cooking with fire (or electricity); to remove disease and bacteria, to enhance flavour, to alter texture. Consider the transformation that occurred when nomads settled and tamed the fauna and flora around them; no longer needing to travel into unknown territories to secure food and water. Look at how far we have come: from hunting and gathering to growing and rearing, from trading and buying to discovering and engineering. Where to next?
Picture this. If we were to continue on our current trajectory – of complex food supply mechanisms, of placing strain on food chains, and of an uneven distribution of food surplus and shortage in various parts of the world – where would we be in a decade from now? What could be the future consequences of past causes and current conditions? What would be the impact on our people, planet, profit, power, and processes? Let us unpack each of these.
Here’s some food for thought. Yes, food sustains us in its material form and in the literal sense, but it is also imbued with symbolic importance. Food can connect us to people and places through ritual, belief, and knowledge. Beyond its capacity to provide us with nutrients and indulgence, it is a source of creativity and expression. Food can be a form of differentiation as well as a means of bringing people together.
Much of our modern life depends on food. Some of the biggest concerns that plague us are about food: whether we have too little or too much of it, and how our consumption impacts beauty, aging, and hunger. We entangle food with identity, belonging, responsibility, memory, inspiration, and so many other facets of what makes us human. What would be the social impact of a food chain break down?
The Earth gives and it takes away. Ranging from abundance to scarcity, from diversity to homogeneity. Our relationship with the environment is a constant push and pull, give and take. It is no secret that climate change is upon us and that we play a role in it. How long have we explored and exploited what nature provides? How many ways have we tamed land, air, sea, and everything in between? We draw lines between public and private spaces, between rural and urban settlements, and between nation and neighbour. We cycle from birth, growth, life, decline, and death. What happens if we break the chains? What would be the environmental impact of a food chain break down?
Perhaps another domestication is that of value. We trade, exchange, and purchase items and services of value. Time is money; both of which can be saved, spent, and wasted. As people settled into villages, towns, and cities, there was a shift from agrarian practices for local subsistence purposes to large-scale farming for profit. No longer needing to simply feed your immediate family, but transporting food across vast distances to generate an income. Markets have become intricate in their workings; whether formal industries or informal economies. These are complex food ecosystems; entangled and emergent.
Individuals, communities, businesses, and nations have responded to food trends in diverse ways. Fairness seems to be the dominant narrative of our times; treating animals with kindness, food labourers with dignity, and respecting the food itself. With the rise and fall of poverty and affluence, how do we ensure accessibility and affordability of food across time and space? What would be the economic impact of a food chain break down?
Perpetual globalisation is met with countering trends of localism and individualisation. Regardless of who we are, we all seek some form of control when it comes to our food; self-sufficiency in sustaining our food intake, long-term and reliable food security, and self-sovereignty over our food-related decisions. How do we counterbalance uneven power distributions over the regulation of food? Wherein do we find justice for the starving and the marginalised? Do we go off-grid and ensure our own survival, or do we trust in and rely on those in power to protect our food chains? What would be the political impact of a food chain break down?
Not only do our food chains face fragmentation, so too do our supply chains. Industrialisation has driven our need for speed and scale. The rate at which technology is advancing will surely revolutionise our food experiences several times over. We have innovated in ways that would be near impossible to fathom only a few decades ago. How does one begin to explain renewable energy in farming, 3D printed food in restaurants, futuristic kitchens blurring the lines between human and technology, or even the idea of a zero-waste lifestyle? What would be the technological impact of a food chain break down?
One can imagine that at the initial point of impact – or rather our first realisation that the food chain has broken down – would be met with attempts to prevent further deterioration within, in relation to, and outside of the food chain. Essential food services would be of top priority, followed by the improvement of supporting services. As the dust settles and we find our footing again in the aftermath of a post-normal world, we would then reflect on what was, observe what is, and imagine what could be.
However, there is no need to wait for such an occurrence to happen. We can get ahead of the curve by looking for wild fluctuations in the behaviour and interactions of our food system’s variables. We can draw inspiration from similar wildcards. After all, history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes, it is said. What sustains a food chain and what causes it to break down? We have much to gain from change – more to lose if things stay the same, but even more to learn along the way.
Originally posted on APF
What if we shift from a parasitic-type interaction to a mutually-beneficial symbiotic relationship?
From enlightenment to entanglement
Organisations are like forests. At first, it was assumed that trees operated in isolation — much like employees in silo roles or departments —placed in a competitive environment, seeking space and resource. Because it was assumed that they functioned independently, it was accepted that they were indifferent to one another — both trees and employees, that is. Ecologist Suzanne Simard uprooted this naïve notion.
She found that, in addition to conflict, there’s also negotiation, reciprocity and even selflessness. Much like an iceberg conceals its mass in unseen depths, so do trees in a forest have hidden elements. In particular, there are underground mycelium networks, a tangled web of roots through which communication and resource transfer occur. Enchantingly, the forest behaves as a single entity. So, too, should an organisation.
The Giving Tree
As with any network or community, there are nodes, links and interactions.
In a forest, older trees use their height to protect young saplings from harsh weather. They’ve even been shown to reduce their root size so as to make room for their growing offspring. Trees are even capable of sending warning signals to alert their community of approaching danger. When a tree dies, they pass on their knowledge and provide sustenance for the next generation of trees. Not only does this demonstrate their ability to recognise their kin and distinguish between threats, it shows how they depend on one another for survival.
Arguably the biggest threats to forests are deforestation, erosion, and fire. What is the equivalent to these in the world of business? What do we fear and how do we respond? Will our network protect us from unemployment, demotions and burnout?
Living in a DELA World
Sometimes, we get so caught up in the minor and finer details — focusing on what’s right in front of us — rather than taking a step back and noticing the bigger picture. We forget that each of us plays an integral role in the operating of the whole. We can apply the DELA framework to help us make sense of the story that is unfolding, and to shape our own narrative going forward.
If too many trees are removed from a forest, it could reach a tipping point and the whole system becomes at risk of collapsing. So why is it, when we find ourselves in a state of confusion — such as a global pandemic — that we remove the pillars which sustain an organisation? Rather than drawing on collective knowledge, insight and resource, we reduce, retrench and rewind.
Simplified forests lack complexity and so they’re even more vulnerable to collapse. What can we learn from natural ecosystems in the way that we conduct business and respond to business challenges? How do we more effectively communicate with one another and depend on each other for survival? Certainly, hierarchies have created clarity of authority and control but they also leave little room to breathe and grow.
It's in letting go of confusion that we open up a world of possibility; through curiosity, we turn our fear into motivation. We can explore new ways of working — within the safe space of an integrated system — with the freedom to innovate beyond simply surviving the here and now. Interdependent relationships create balance, connection and community, rooting us in an entangled network.
What happened to the journey, the one where a career was an unfolding process?
It’s the journey, not the destination
It’s rare to find such an operation in present-day workscapes; it’s more likely that an individual will enter into a position they desire. There’s very little room to move or improve here — chances are the organisation is hiring to replace, rather than upskill to promote.
There’s an element of familiarity and trust that comes from looking within, as well as possibilities of jealousy and homogeneity among colleagues. Looking outside could bring in diversity of skill and mindset but also requires taking a chance on the unknown (more pros and cons here).
Be a unicorn in a field full of horses
How many employees have been placed in t-shaped talent moulds? The expectation that each person should “reach across disciplines, provide support in a number of situations and [have] an extraordinary expertise on a particular subject”? How about square-shaped? “What’s better than knowing a little about a lot and a lot about a little? Knowing a lot about a lot.” Or even tree-shaped? Expansive skills rooted in a depth of knowledge. How many job-seekers have been stuffed into unicorn costumes (not literally, of course)? The illusion of rarity and value. It’s no longer enough to show promise and potential; we now, apparently, need to be these mythical, magical beings.
A counter argument offered says “unicorns don’t exist. Instead, look for sea otters… Why sea otters instead of unicorns? Because they are rare (and currently endangered), but if you look hard enough and create the right environment, you can find and nurture them.” Not a fan of sea otters? How about a zebra? “Zebra companies are both black and white: they are profitable and improve society. They won’t sacrifice one for the other.”
In short: it’s a zoo out there.
Living in a DELA world
In this mystical world of make-believe, where the perfect employee, employer, and organisation exist, how do we, mere mortals, respond? We can apply the DELA framework to help us make sense of the story that’s unfolding, and to shape our own narrative going forward.
Because of the rate and extent at which the world of work is changing, it often requires that we adapt in unexpected ways. We need to be imaginative and innovative. Craftsmanship, expertise and specialisation take time — time that we don’t necessarily have if we wish to keep up and stay relevant.
However, some level of depth and extent of breadth is needed to remain adaptable and resilient. In trying to place constraints on ourselves or people we work with, we restrict the potential of what might have been. How do we know what is needed or who is best suited? How do we evaluate and measure probability? What if the reward of fulfillment outweighs the risk of playing it safe? What if we let go and let ourselves and others be?
In letting go of the fragile and fragmented systems on which our organisations are built and people are employed, we create an environment in which interdependent, fulfilling relationships can surface and be sustained. Shifting from expectation (something ‘will’ happen’) to anticipation (something ‘could’ happen) makes us more open to change.
Letting go of our human need to control and predict the unknown, we can add a little magic and mystery to our work lives.
“Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
So wrote William Butler Yeats in his poem The Second Coming. It is the idea that the very foundation on which our world is built is collapsing. There is a systemic unravelling. This inspired the title of a book by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart. The story is set in a moment of rupture; the introduction of British imperialism to a traditional Nigerian community. It was a time in which change and continuation were in conflict. Should the old give way to the new? Some embraced change while others resisted. Does the opportunity of new extinguish the value of old? Significantly, the author raises concern for the need for mastery of traditional methods of farming. Do they have a place in this modern world of machine, malice and mass-production?
We too are on the edge of chaos. Life as we know it hangs in the balance. Some claim that humanity is on the brink of collapse. Others reckon that our current way of life will disappear and be replaced by something drastically different. In complex systems, cause and effect are not linear, static, nor simple. Any ecosystem is an intricate network of actors, interactions and environment. Similarly, the food chain is a web of interdependence.
A food chain connects all living things within a given environment based on their dependence on one another to grow and function. While co-existence may seem ideal, it is competition that is the driver of evolution and innovation. Much of the world is based on this principle. It is the top-down pressures of predators, and bottom-up limitations of prey – not just in the animal kingdom, but in our own – that sustains us and keeps us moving forward. In theory, evolution either creates or destroys species. It is more than ‘eat or be eaten’. Those that prove weaker either become extinct or they adapt in order to survive. Are we prepared to change our ways to avoid a breakdown in the food chain or will we be our own demise? In our striving for ‘better, faster, more’ we have forged a double-edged sword. In our endeavours to eliminate disease, we create it. In our attempts to avoid threats, we generate them. What if we adopted instead a more inclusive, regenerative, circular economy? One in which we sever the ties between human progress and our consumption of finite resources. Could we shift the chain reaction already in play?
Our food supply chains are under threat by the over-complexification of the food industry and an over-simplification of our understanding of cause-and-effect; generating a constellation of problems. On the one hand are forces that reduce the supply of food. On the other hand, are forces that increase the demand thereof. Naturally occurring factors include: water shortages, soil erosion, and extreme climate phenomena, amongst others. Human causation comes in the form of population growth, diet change, rising prices, and others. Forces of nature and human action are not mutually exclusive. Our behaviour – whether accidental, neglectful, or intentional – interacts with the environment in which it occurs. We find ourselves in the Anthropocene; the human epoch. It is an era of human-influenced disruption. We have the power to light a spark, fuel the fire, engulf the world in flame, extinguish the embers, and regenerate life from the ashes. We hold the power to prevent, solve, or accelerate the food crisis. What will we choose to do?
Experts anticipate a global disaster by 2030 owing to the confluence of three significant shortages: food, energy, and water. Specifically, what caused the looming food crisis? What are the underlying drivers of change? Why and how are things changing? Here is a basic example of cause and effect in the food chain: the death and disappearance of bees. Not only do bees extract pollen to produce honey, plants rely on pollination in order to form seeds and fruit. Something as simple as the decline of the humble honey bee has resulted in a potentially catastrophic imbalance. Despite bee colonies collapsing and a reduction in pollinating capacity, there is a rise in demand for pollinator-dependent crops. Without bees, how would we ensure food security? How would ecosystems maintain their diversity? What would that world look like?
We can trace current conditions back to several sources. If we consider cause and effect in the social realm: regions in which women are disempowered often see a rise in population growth as they lack the agency to make their own decisions and to make more informed choices. An increase in demand beyond the potential of food supply creates an imbalance in the food chain. In the technological realm we see emerging innovations that could transform the ways in which we extract, produce, distribute, consume, and dispose of food. However, these are not accessible to all. So-called developing nations struggle to escape the established linear model of ‘take, make, waste’. This leaves the globalised food industry largely stuck and skewed. In the economic realm we see that a rise in affluence often results in a change in diet. The wealthier one becomes, the more meat is consumed. If not meat, the more organic, healthy, and expensive one’s diet usually becomes.
How do we ensure equity and fairness in access to quality food when poverty persists? If populations become more economically empowered, how do we reduce the harmful impact of meat production on the natural world? What could be the impact of a vegetarian movement? What of a vegan revolution? In the environmental realm the exploration and exploitation of natural resources for food gains tend to depend on unsustainable methods. How do we begin to restore resource abundance, reduce scarcity, and protect genetic diversity? In the political realm the uneven distribution of power in international relations has at times created marginalisation and mismanagement in the food world. How do we reconcile a problematic past as we look forward to a more fruitful future?
Originally published on APF