essays & posts
We’re living through a rare thing: a teachable moment. Can a virus teach us about how life really works?
In our post-election hiatus here in Ireland, I’ve been struck by how little our current affairs media contributes to our political sense-making.
Initial sound bites – it’s a photo finish, a three-way split, an election that nobody won – quickly morphed into an unhelpful impatience at the time it’s taking to form a government.
Through a different lens the result might be interpreted as citizens exhorting politicians to integrate their differences, find a new balance and look beyond economic growth alone for a better way to define ‘progress’.
As well as time, integrating difference and finding balance requires nuance and skill. Those words may or may not describe the negotiations happening behind closed doors but they can rarely be used to describe our mediated public discourse.
Conversational ding-dongs are the order of the day, in large measure the result of the way journalists and producers choose to structure those conversations, and those choices reveal some unspoken rules.
Collapse complexity into a binary simplicity. Amplify difference and conflict. Put people into narrow boxes with simple labels and limit wriggle room. Ignore contradiction and ambiguity or treat these as negatives. Rarely take context into account or ask people about their deeper motivations. Don’t try to understand them or make them feel understood. Don’t help opposing sides explore their differences or work through conflict.
Fire questions like slingshots: What’s your position? How far apart are you? How are you going to close this impossible gap? Suck the complexity out of the conversation. Stoke bias and indignation in the audience. Cast yourself as a neutral umpire rather than an active participant in the process. Rub your hands as the proverbial hits the fan (good for ratings) and when it’s all over, consider it a journalistic triumph.
Weary of the Groundhog Day-ness of it all I find myself hitting the ‘off’ button or just tuning in less often. And it’s not just me. The Edelman Trust Index has been tracking public trust in four key institutions – government, business, NGOs and the media – for nearly twenty years. Its latest report shows that no institution is trusted and both government and the media find themselves in the ‘incompetent and unethical’ quadrant.
I believe these statistics and the public perception behind them are driven in large measure by the nature and tone of a public conversation which, distorted by these unspoken rules, doesn’t cater for complexity.
And it’s a microcosm of our wider cultural inability to work skilfully in complex territory.
The Story of The Machine
We live in an increasingly complex world. In the teeth of climate disruption, biodiversity collapse, the social impacts of stark inequality and the pressures of mass human migration – and now, a viral pandemic – we are arguably in the foothills of a defining phase in our evolution as a species. Our future is neither clear nor certain and whether we successfully navigate this crucible moment will depend on how we think about, talk about and work on complex issues.
Right now, in my view, we’re not up to the task. In fact, everything seems to operate within a deeply embedded story of simplicity and separateness. A belief that we live in an orderly, linear world where causes lead to known affects and that it’s possible to make simple links between actions and consequences.
I call this ‘the story of the machine’.
If you see the world this way you work with the assumption that everything is ultimately predictable, controllable and manageable. That all problems have answers; we just have to find them (or experts who have them). That if we can figure out the rules by which the machine works we can improve it or fix it, just as a mechanic tweaks the engine to improve the car’s performance.
When you’re driven by this story you spend a lot of time breaking complex things into smaller, more manageable parts and you focus on the parts.
A Stovepiped World
And that’s precisely what happens. A mechanistic story of how things work determines the approach to almost everything – from economics to education, transport to housing, medicine, farming, food production, media production – and it profoundly affects notions of how to organise, manage and change things.
People have been marshalled into straight lines and silos, territories carved out, walls heightened and doors closed. This bit’s ours. The territory beyond is seen as separate and disconnected while professional routines maintain the facade of order and control within these narrow bailiwicks.
Little surprise that the most intractable problems – homelessness, housing, flooding and so on – lie in the murky in-between places that belong to no one.
Unfortunately organisations and institutions aren’t equipped to work in the murky in-between. They have neither the spaces to integrate and coordinate action nor an appetite for the messy creativity involved.
So they mostly opt for neat ‘interventions’ with identifiable beginnings and ends and choose tangible ‘products’ such as consultant reports or training programmes over intangible processes where control must be loosened and outcomes are harder to predict.
The result is wall-to-wall analysis. And precious little change.
The powerful lens of science has long since unravelled the threads of that old story and revealed a deeper truth, something mystics have intuited all along: everything is connected. (Think: Coronavirus. Cancelled sporting and social fixtures. Falling share prices. Ruptured supply chains. Fewer folks ordering Corona beer…) Wherever you look, through a microscope or telescope, you’ll find systems within systems within systems.
As we try to combat Covid-19 there can be no doubt that we urgently need a new story. One that accepts the world as a living system
If you work with this story, you make very different assumptions. You assume that life is complex and that you cannot ‘know’ it in any definitive way. Nor can you control or manage it in a conventional way. Instead of reducing complexity to simplicity by taking it apart you go in another direction entirely and focus on the relationships between things. And you learn to work skillfully in that space.
In many ways the multiple crises confronting us and our inability to resolve them or even discuss them intelligently, are the inevitable consequence of a clash between the way people think life works and the way it actually works. The fairy tale of the machine has crashed headlong into the reality of living systems.
The fairy tale of the machine has crashed headlong into the reality of living systems.
Bureaucratic structures and routines render us powerless and when things go wrong the search is on for a single cause or culprit.
Beneath the discouraging pattern of blame-and-defend is the sound of impotence. Everyone’s stuck. Public discourse is a cacophony of SOS signals from countless sinking ships. ”It was a systems failure”… “The system’s broken”… “We need joined-up thinking”…
And we do.
But our institutions are not equipped to work systemically. Most don’t have the cultural apparatus – the vocabulary, skills and processes necessary to work on systems as a whole.
The Epidemic Beneath the Epidemic
Among my fellow living-systems practitioners, I hear deep frustration at the absence of systems practice everywhere: the UK climate change assemblies focusing on developing policy rather than co-ordinating action; the US donor that’s asking how much food to ship to Africa, not how to work with local people to prevent recurring famine. The focus is on the small picture. The part.
And the institutional and cultural momentum behind this way of working is massive.
The trouble begins even before the work begins. Pre-existing templates decide the terms of reference – the norms and standards that determine how projects get designed and resourced, who gets recruited, the methodologies and practices judged to be ‘legit’ … all of it suffused with deeply embedded, unquestioned assumptions.
One consultant puts it this way: “People are invested in the status quo because the status quo is paying them. If they don’t do anything different there are no grounds for criticism, because it’s what everyone does. What everyone does is basically a failure, but … so what?
Another friend whose work on sustainability with the United Nations amounts to “looking for levers to pull within the existing system” describes this work as “life-sucking”.
This is the epidemic beneath the epidemic of failure.
Joined-up-thinking requires joined-up-practice. This is the meta-shift of our time, one that requires a new mind set and skill set: learning to think like a system by working as a system.
Joining the Dots
If we want to change whole systems we’ve got to think and work as whole systems. Nobody can think non-linearly. None of us is that clever. The only way to think in a systemic way is together. Joined-up-thinking requires joined-up-practice. This is the meta-shift of our time, one that requires a new mind set and skill set: learning to think like a system by working as a system.
Responding to Covid-19 is an unexpected lesson in whole-system collaboration. It’s teaching us about the true relationship between people, the economy and our environment. How vulnerable globalisation has rendered us. That we will overcome the threats to our civilisation together or not at all.
It’s also demonstrating how quickly we can mobilise when we decide to. The importance of solidarity and collective action on multiple fronts. How to experiment and share learning at speed. We’re capable of bigger and faster change than we’ve given ourselves space to imagine. We just have to get out of our own way.
Big progress is made when people innovate locally, all pushing in the same direction, trying to address the same problem in their own way, in their own place. When the current crisis has passed, can we build on this moment?
Apple’s Steve Jobs said creativity happens when you join the dots.
What if the role of policy makers, institutions and organisations of all kinds is to convene systems of change around complex issues that no one can solve alone?
What would public conversations sound like if people were not pitted against each other in mortal combat around marginal differences but invited to engage their combined intelligence in exploring complex problems that can only be progressed by the whole system?
This Essay was originally published by The Business Post.
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