Efficiency and Flexibility; Uncertainty and Disquiet
Personal branding is one of the delights of the digital age. It should include, according to those who know, a strapline that honestly and memorably encapsulates your skills, values, abilities and qualities in a way that differentiates you from those around you. Have you got yours yet?
Thinking about a strapline crystallises one issue often associated with wisdom: namely rigidity and flexibility. As you, or your organisation, develop a strapline, you somehow fix yourself, like a moth neatly pinned in a display case. ‘This is what I am’, ‘This is what we do’, ‘This is what I think’.
Now, we would mostly agree that this a bad thing. People don’t like to be pigeon-holed. In Towards the Third Modernity, Alain de Vulpian shows how, in the late-1960s (the start of his ‘Second Modernity’) we in Western Europe actively began to turn away from a ‘mass identity’ (where we identified ourselves by membership of a church, trade union, political party, etc.) and began to seek an identity based on more personal beliefs and values.
The problem is that fixing myself like a moth is also quite handy. Life is very much simpler if I know where I stand on things like the French elections, biological washing powder, the use of the semi-colon, honesty and internet pornography. In fact, if I didn’t know these things, I’d never finish my shopping, writing, voting…
Mindsets and Maximising
While ‘mindsets’ like these help us get on with our lives – making us more efficient – they also get in the way of our lives – making us less flexible. If I’ve decided that I can’t sing, would make a lousy parent, am too clever for a job like that and too pretty for man like him, then I’ve closed down quite a few options. At an organisational level, it’s well known that this kind of thinking (‘we don’t serve that market’, ‘our core business is xxx’) gets in the way of innovation.
This desire to be efficient and to maximise (make the best use of our time, earn as much as possible) can be seen everywhere. Businesses need to do just one thing – or a few – very well and I need to focus on what I’m good at for my career. But efficiency leads to imbalance and, eventually, collapse.
Ecosystems and Efficiency
In nature – in ecosystems – the drive to maximise is constantly balanced. If the predator fox gets too efficient, there will soon be a shortage of rabbits for the foxes to eat and the fox population will die back. Nature abhors monoculture and prefers flexibility and diversity. The relevance to us? Well, in Money and Sustainability Bernard Lietaer argues persuasively that it’s the focus on having a single, ‘efficient’ national currency rather than multiple, complementary currencies that is at the root of all modern financial and monetary crises. He has the blueprint for a more flexible and sustainable approach that even quite small towns and cities could start using now. He claims it would resolve the Greek crisis very quickly.
By the same token, Bill Sharpe (in Economies of Life) explains that all economies put value on a single item or range of items – while, in an ecosystem, everything has equal value. This simple truth (that money is the currency of trade and art is the currency of experience) has profound lessons for anyone wondering how to encourage sustainability in a material world.
The Edge of Chaos
Another example of efficiency making us less flexible can be found in complexity science. The cardiogram of a healthy heart shows an irregular, wrinkly appearance, while a patient’s cardiogram just before a cardiac arrest would normally be consistent and regular. So, regular activity precedes (and probably contributes to) heart attack; unpredictability and variability are associated with health. As Lesley Kuhn shows in Adventures in Complexity, this can also be seen in organisations, where it gets combined with ‘mindset’ thinking. Edge of chaos thinking enables organisations to handle change effectively as they meet new situations flexibly. Chaotic edge thinking means organisations feel threatened by almost any change. Often this means a retreat to rules-based behaviour and old strategies, rather than a willingness to experiment.
Finally, Sandra Reeve in Nine Ways of Seeing a Body, reminds us that the Buddhist approach is to question whether each of us has, in reality, any fixed and determined self beyond the stories that we tell about ourselves. Her way of examining this is to look at the human body and to explore the variety of very different ways that we can see and experience it.
One conclusion to be drawn from all this is that dogma, fixed thinking, exclusiveness, inward focus, maximising efficiency and rigid mindsets threaten our society, our environment, our businesses, our sanity, our culture and our individual lives. While awareness of complexity, the bigger picture, context, consequences and multiplicity can open up options and the chance to make better choices. To act wisely, we must first be more wide-aware and wide-awake.
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