“How do you know something is true? What is the meaning of truth?” I asked a group of friends who live in a different city to where I am, speak a different language at home than what I do, and have trained in a different field from what I have. “Truth is subject to change”, came a response, “based on knowledge and experience along the way.” Another friend interjected, “For me, it depends on the belief system and being able to prove it.” I found this negotiating of truthfulness intriguing. It was a demonstration of sacrificial logic at work; this accepting, favouring or discarding of truthful aspects. “We all have different truths”, she explained. “There’s an absolute truth based on your belief system.” This internal compass of truth seems to guide what we consider possible, probable, and preferable.
This got me thinking. How is truth communicated and interpreted? What are the faces of truth? How do we recognise disguised truths? Let us consider three such forms of truth in disguise: whistleblower, trickster, and scapegoat.
First, the whistleblower. In a world overly concerned with secrecy and surveillance, the whistleblower becomes an important figure. One that brings together notions of transparency and confidentiality, of heroism and disloyalty, of risky self-sacrifice and collective ethical short-comings.
The whistleblowing journey begins with an identification or perception of wrongness (Tran, 2011). In spaces, systems and structures where asymmetrical power exists, it is difficult to speak truth to power. Often truth-telling results in consequences for the truth-teller. The act of revealing or unmasking of information could be seen as a form of agency, but it could also subject the whistleblower to scrutiny. Whistleblowing is in many contexts synonymous with ‘leaking’ information, ‘snitching’ on someone, being a ‘traitor’ through the intentional escape of knowledge from the private into the public domain.
Next, the trickster. Agent of chaos, seeker of justice (Coleman, 2012). Tricksters, like myths, assert contradictions that question and confuse distinctions (Hyde, 1998). It is paradox upon which culture depends for its survival - its origins, liveliness, and durability - and it is the trickster that is capable of uncovering and disrupting the very foundation on which culture is based (Hyde, 1998).
It can be difficult to imagine a liminal character - someone who is both here and there, but also nowhere - especially in a context where binaries dominate our way of thinking. Dualities can be limiting if considered to be the only true states or forms of existence: distinguishing between right and wrong, sacred and profane, clean and dirty, male and female, young and old, living and dead (Hyde, 1998). A trickster does not conform to these polarities. Instead, it is an establisher of boundaries as well as a boundary-crosser. Provocateur and saboteur; dismantler of convention and occupier of in-between fluid space (Geismar, 2015).
Finally, the scapegoat. Originally referred to in Biblical terms, but often disassociated from religious meaning, the scapegoat is a symbol of blame. Seen as the ‘one who wards off illness’ (Girard, 1982), the scapegoat becomes a means to counterbalance the loss of autonomy that threatens the derailment of society (Eggen, 2013). It is the symbolic act of casting to the wilderness - literally or figuratively - unwanted and unwelcome transgressions in order to obtain peace, balance, and forgiveness.
The scapegoat is rarely truly to blame, but does the truth matter if the end justifies the means? Scapegoating could therefore be seen as a problem-solving mechanism; a tool for ordering society and as a factor in the social condition of survival (Eggen, 2013). It is “a mechanism by which rivals stay distant while enhancing group unity” (Eggen 2013). The scapegoat as a universally recognisable and relatable symbol could, arguably, make masked truths a necessary tool for us to interpret our lived realities, to consider our place in the world, and to navigate where we situate ourselves in truth.
Some concluding thoughts
At a glance, the whistleblower appears to render visible the edge - and the transgression thereof - in order to make a truth known and transparent for the benefit of a greater good. The trickster is more tricky to contain simply. It challenges dichotomies - perhaps best put as ‘creative destruction’ or ‘destructive creation’ - to disrupt accepted notions of order, edge, and truth. The scapegoat - acted upon rather than having the agency to act - is a sacrifice of truth that restores or maintains balance within defined edges.
Something that all three have in common is that they engage with disguised truths - whether directly or indirectly - as a form of edge-work; risky and radical behaviour that pushes the boundaries of what is said, done, and known to be true. How do we, as futurists, operate at the edge in a role that defies a distinction between true and false? More importantly, what is our internal compass of truth that guides what we consider possible, probable, and preferable? Whether we blow the whistle on falsehoods, trick a system built on polarising distinctions, or escape the trap of sacrificial logic - as futurists we have the obligation and opportunity to bring about change in line with our own truths.
This was originally posted on the Association of Professional Futurists' blog
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
WAITING FOR REDEMPTION
As with every plot twist, a story usually has elements of foreshadowing that precedes the change and it also unfolds in seemingly unexpected ways. It also carries the characters through on a new path.
I wanted to capture the state of the world from an African perspective. A song by Johnny Clegg and Savuka came to mind: Dela. I recall in a radio interview once, Clegg explained the inspiration for the song as having come from the joy in seeing something beautiful when everything seemed so bleak — such as a yellow flower growing through a crack in the concrete pavement.
LIVING IN A DELA WORLD
Once we know where we are, we can determine where we want to be and figure out a way of getting there. In other words, we need to tell our own story.
In isiZulu, “dela” has paradoxical definitions which seem fitting for a narrative of our times: “to be satisfied” or “to have had enough” on the one hand, and to “abandon”, “give up”, or “sacrifice” on the other. In applying this perspective, we can answer the following questions:
• What are we satisfied with? (What do we have enough of?)
• What are we willing to sacrifice? (What do we need to let go of?)
I think I know why the dog howls at the moon
In ongoing conversations with friends and colleagues who’ve been employed by companies throughout lockdown, a shocking common thread emerges: they are like caged birds, confronted by their conditions of ‘captivity’, and longing for their freedom. Just as the caged bird sings in order to cope, many employees are performing beyond expectation — whether it’s to prove their worth to their employer, or to feel safe within the confines of certainty as the world around them unravels.
By applying the DELA framework, we can make sense of this observation. In short, businesses are trying to gain or maintain control over their people and profit in an increasingly unstable, unpredictable, and uncertain world. This trend is amplified by lockdown as more are working from home rather than in an office, making them less visible, accessible, and controllable. Several employers are applying outdated metrics of trust, and so employees are less motivated to produce meaningful work but are expected to be highly productive. This isn’t to say that ways of working need to be scrapped and entirely replaced, or that one approach is better and suitable for all. Some people perform better when given the freedom to self-govern, while others lack the self-discipline needed and so benefit from boundaries.
In letting go of the need to control our circumstances, to make visible people’s actions, to measure progress through profit, and to place limitations on what is possible or acceptable — we can find comfort in our rituals and routines, create open channels for communication, build mutual trust, and respect people’s freedom of choice.
In Hindu mythology, it is believed that the Earth is balanced on the backs of elephants, which are themselves supported by a World Turtle. Below that turtle? Another turtle. It is turtles all the way down. In complexity and systems thinking, it could be argued that a proposition requires justification, and the justification itself needs to be supported. No idea exists in isolation, no truth in a vacuum, no experience untethered from others. It is turtles all the way down.
By identifying layers of analysis, Causal Layered Analysis is a sense-making tool that explores the narratives used to make sense of the world. The very first layer, the litany, is the observed or obvious problem and resulting official future, second is the systemic causes or driving forces that create the conditions in which the problem or future exist, 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. In addition to developing an understanding of the world, it is used to “shape the future more effectively” and to “[create]coherent futures” (Inayatullah, 2017, p1). The intention is to map the present, unpack an issue critically, and create a preferred future reconstructed from alternative worldviews and from multiple perspectives. This leads to transformed futures that integrate difference. It is a combination of the pull of the future, push of the present, and weight of history (Inayatullah, 2017, p6).
Just as in the past, we currently find ourselves in a pandemic. How do we begin to make sense of the world we are in? “Epidemics are a category of disease that seem to hold up a mirror to human beings as to who we really are”; It reflects the relationship between people and their environment, raising questions about our ways of life (Chotiner, 2020). Metaphors are a way in which we can make concrete our imaginings, memories, and realities; they are devices with which we can play with concepts of time, blurring past, present, and future (Capo). Metaphors are meaning-making tools used in cognition and culture, shaping the way we act individually and collectively (Nerlich, 2020). In this essay I explore several dominant and emerging metaphors relating to the current pandemic, in the realms of society, technology, economics, environment, and politics. Each metaphor creates different realities, challenges, and opportunities.
COVID-19 has been labelled a plague. Both in religious terms – the uncontrollable mass spread of an unhealable disease – and in biological terms – a zoonotic transmission of disease from rodent to person. What results from this narrative is mass hysteria from those who fear the worst, an aura of shame around those infected, and the rise of body politics to control the contaminated and to contain the contagion. People become zombies trying to survive an apocalypse; it is the end of days. Like previous plagues, this pandemic is explained as either being a punishment for those who have wronged – morally, if from a religious perspective, or ethically, if from a biological perspective. Either society has transgressed to the point of no return (from a religious perspective), or particular populations are blamed and reprimanded and old prejudices are perpetuated (such as judging China for consuming particular animal products). The symbolism of the plague is used “to convey the suffering of the suffocation and atmosphere of terror and exile” (Zaretsky, 2020).
If we were, instead, to view the pandemic as an opportunity for revolution or renaissance – to revive or renew our world – we could see the virus as triggering a turning point in history. This narrative establishes an element of empowerment, freedom, and consent. People become agents of change, contributing to the speed and depth of the transformation. The crisis becomes a catalyst for change, enabling us to dismantle old systems of superiors and subordinates. We are in this together. In viewing ourselves as global citizens in a shared process of being and becoming – with access to communal knowledge, collective consciousness, and an evolving social commons – we are presented with an invitation to transform wicked problems into wicked opportunities (Eggers & Muoio, 2015).
An example of this is the call for an African Health Organisation that embraces – rather than undermines – traditional medicine from the continent (SABC News, 2020). It is not to say that WHO should be replaced or dominated by THO (Traditional Healers’ Organisation), but rather that a collaborative relationship be formed to develop new approaches to crises. It is about leveraging Africa’s strengths, not straining its weak points in favour of a homogenised, westernised method (Senbanjo, 2020).
If all the world’s a stage, as Shakespeare proclaimed, then we must be on The Truman Show. It is as if someone has hit the pause button; everything has slowed down. “Collectively we are witnessing a global phenomenon that has people everywhere staying home, slowing down, and witnessing a global pause during this pandemic” (Devaney, 2020). While we seek to digitalise everything – the way we work, socialise, learn – prospects of compromised privacy and enhanced monitoring of our online lives becomes a growing concern: “the rise and spread of digital surveillance enabled by artificial intelligence” (Wright, 2020). This brings into question the agency of the individual and the authority of the state. We have long observed the growing power of media in swaying or formulating opinion, as well as gathering data and information for commercial or political benefit (Confessore, 2018). Viewing the virus as a glitch or technical error seems to justify ‘rebooting’ the system. In this narrative, AI will save us, even if it is at a cost.
“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next one” (Roy, 2020). This suspended moment, from this angle, becomes a time of transition; a liminal space between reality and a dream-state. It becomes an opportunity to take a breath, put future scenarios on hold, experiment with possibilities, consider the legacy we want to leave behind, and take in the present moment, before we are transported into the new world. Doing so requires decentralised and autonomous control, as well as open source products and collaborative platforms as we co-create futures.
An example of this is the vast number of online conferences and symposiums – often made freely available to all with internet access – that have erupted from all parts of the globe. While we may have put our personal lives on pause, we are far more globally connected than we ever were before. Just look at the global foresight summit hosted by FFWD titled ‘The Great Pause’. There were attendees from over 100 countries and speakers each with a one-hour timeslot over a 72-hour period.
When a severe storm approaches, with little time to think or react, an instinctual response it to act quickly; to take shelter from the rain, and consider the cost of destruction after you have secured your safety. Every moment counts. Similarly, in a ship rescue, there are often those who want to contribute, but are unable to and can create confusion. Pandemic shock brings about collective trauma, crisis capitalism, and imagination paralysis (Klein, 2007). It is easy to decline into a bleak state of despair and dysfunction when in a disaster. Some are more vulnerable than others – we are not all in the same boat or equipped with the same tools to navigate Lightning bolts of disruption and tidal waves of change. Some make it to shore while others are rendered invisible amidst the throws of vicious and virtuous cycles that deepen inequality.
In a state of emergency, a utilitarian approach is often taken to ensure the immediate survival of many, even if extreme measures need to be taken. However, “once the Hammer is in place and the outbreak is controlled, the second phase begins: the Dance” (Pueyo, 2020). If we view the pandemic as a dance and the future as our dance partner, it becomes a give and take relationship of synchronisation, harmony, and collaboration. People are no longer captives to the captains of their fate, but rather dance to their own tune and choreograph their own routine.
An example of this is South Africa’s declaring of the pandemic as a national disaster and focusing on providing food parcels for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, and relief funds for the financially-strained businesses. However, in its efforts to contain the spread of fear, to perform damage control, and to ‘flatten the curve’, its extended lockdown has come across as Draconian, or unnecessarily harsh. Many citizens argue that instead of moving to the dance phase of its strategy, leadership is repeatedly hammering the same nail. Or so it seems. While the spread of the virus is relentless – particularly across the nation’s informal settlements and informal economy – leadership has put out fires elsewhere. In banning the purchase of alcohol during lockdown, the country has seen a significant decline in alcohol-related casualties (including car accidents and domestic violence). The pandemic does not operate in isolation, nor is it linear in its movements. It requires a hammer and dance approach to respond, adapt, and anticipate shadow crises, chain reactions, and satellite events.
Countries declaring the pandemic a national disaster are putting into place regulations and measures of control – such as providing tax relief, setting up temporary housing, responding to distress signals, and offering financial aid – to minimise damage. The virus in this narrative is perceived to be a disruption caused by natural processes beyond human control, but owing to destructive human influence. Thousands of years ago, communities the world over acknowledged the interconnected relationship between nature and culture. If there was turmoil or conflict in society, it would appear in nature – drought, fire, disease. Nature was seen to be this self-reproducing entity, not to be disturbed or exploited. It is only more recently that the western world made this ‘discovery’ – the Anthropocene. The disaster metaphor paints a picture of humanity as victims or survivors, volunteers or philanthropists.
While disaster management is a necessary temporary measure in extreme circumstances, there needs to be a journey of healing following the experience of loss, pain, and grief. It requires consideration for both movements on the surface and the undercurrents below; how deep do these problems run? Life in pandemic – like a river – has moments of slow calm and quick turbulence, clear shallows and murky deepness, free-flowing paths and diverging streams. Developing a dynamic map with which we can navigate uncertain terrain, anticipate obstacles, and plot strategic directions would make us explorers – not survivors – of a new world, connecting with others along the way.
An example of this is how “New Zealand has offered a model response of empathy, clarity and trust in science” (BBC News, 2020). Instead of identifying an enemy and establishing a plan of attack, New Zealand encouraged unity and working together. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s message stayed consistent and clear: “Be Strong. Be Kind”, and so the country was a given a map with which it could navigate the course of the river it found itself on.
Many the world over seem to be at war. They are united against a common enemy, fighting for a common goal: eliminate the threat to human life and national security, even if it is by violent or aggressive means. In this narrative, citizens become soldiers. It is their duty to fight for their country, protect its borders, and obey orders from power-wielding leaders. Often these power dynamics go unchecked, restrictions are enforced unquestioned, and harm in inflicted unnoticed. As many nations go into what has been termed ‘lockdown’, one cannot help but feel criminalised. Curfews, restrictions, bans – it starts to feel a lot like imprisonment.
If we were to rather invoke the idea of a game of chess, we start to see the virus as a challenge, rather than a cage. In applying logic and strategy to develop a game plan, people enhance their mental mastery and are better prepared for future scenarios that may emerge. As players, people alternate between seemingly unassuming moves, taking risks, and making strategic decisions for the end-game – before taking on the next challenge.
An example of the war metaphor is US President Trump’s naming the ‘China virus’ a public enemy which must be defeated. Increased border protection, rising nationalism, and enforced hero-narratives make it difficult for people to fight back and remain autonomous. When it comes to thinking things through in the form of a game of chess, we can apply Inayatullah and Black’s (2020) definition of foresight as “the capacity to anticipate tomorrow’s problems and [to]act today”. They argue that COVID-19 is neither a black swan nor a zombie apocalypse; it was neither unpredictable nor a total surprise. Instead of focusing on what was missed or unseen, we should, they urge, prepare for the next pandemic.
“The main point is that narrative, how we describe the world structures our possibilities, what options we can see, what is possible for us to create” (Inayatullah, 2020). Many of the dominant pandemic metaphors encourage destructive discourses and promote ideas of separation or superiority. The emerging metaphors in this essay are proposed as transformational alternatives that promote interconnectedness and a process of change. There are different ways of seeing, framing, and being in the world. The language we use and the metaphors we apply, shape the way we experience reality, imagine possibility, and take on responsibility.
Originally published on JFS