Three month update: spanning between institutional efforts at systemic change.

My three month anniversary of leaving Forum, starting something(s) is approaching. I wanted to reflect, and change my ‘pinned’ tweet to be about what I’m doing now (not what I was just doing). So, below are the insights, lessons and reflections. What I’m doing now is on the ’now’ page (which will be in-sync for a few months and then…not).

Let’s start with I’m still not sure how to give a short description of what I’m doing. My purpose remains being part of a generation that puts global society on a sustainable footing. My diagnosis remains that our global natural and social systems are overwhelmed, and we need to be a global ‘innovation function’ so those systems are coping, and people have access to what they need to choose their own lives. For me, contributing to that global innovation function is through supporting institutional efforts to shift the macro patterns and dynamics of our lives.

All that remains cogent and verified-through-experience (so far) but it ain’t short. Pity the person who, at a party, asks me, “so, what do you do?”.

That said, there is a common theme to a lot of what I am doing: spanning between institutional efforts at systemic change. I’m starting a new institutional effort in the Cabinet Office, I’m contributing many others in ways small and large. Sometimes I am the ‘straightest’ person in the room, bringing a dose of realism. Sometimes I’m the most radical, talking of the need to hug trees and whatnot. Sometimes I’m bringing concrete expertise and analytical rigour, other times taking people for a walk in the park so they can rant. But always connecting people with ideas, ideas with people, people with people – and people with themselves.

Now, all this has two consequences. First, because I am spanning between institutions, I am rarely of those institutions. Basically I have no status power, at all. Now, in a modern organisation you rarely scream “just do it!”. But if you have the more senior status you know that you have that trump card, eventually, and everyone else knows it too. The knowledge that ultimately I carried the can, and could go “whatever you say, this way”, distorted conversations. None of that now. My ‘power’ comes from the spanning – being able to ask questions that others dare not, bringing a perspective which is not trapped by the current proto-group-think, connecting people in ways they cannot, and so on. It has value, but it’s all informal. I suspect it also relies on certain Sotic distance (see below).

Second, I am working on the operating conditions for a sustainable footing. My hope had been to be engaged on the context in which business and others make choices, taking a step up from mostly working with individual companies. (That can be fine but has limitations.) Each effort is its own experiment in shifting the ‘landscape’ in which specific sectors, nations, businesses or people try to succeed. In the jargon of industrial policy, each strand is changing (trying to change) the horizontal ‘framework conditions’.

I find myself taking part in conversations which ask: what institutions do we need for the challenges we face? In the UK these carry an extra part “…for the UK to be succeed after living the EU”. Whatever else has come from that vote, there is no hiding place for us. The need for the UK to engage with its future proactively is now overwhelming. Who knows, we might actually do it.

The biggest surprise so far has been people doing my business development for me. I’ve had useful approaches through LinkedIn. (I know, incredible!) I had thought I’d need to update my website (I have plans, honest!) but its not been needed as a shop window so far. I’m very grateful – and very surprised – by how keep putting me forward for things. Long may it continue.

The successes have allowed me to have dumb-bell risk profile. This is an idea I have taken from Taleb’s AntiFragile. His argument – in a brilliant-if-cantankerously-repeititive book – is that, because shocks are inevitable, we should try to design our lives, our institutions and our society to thrive from shocks. Not just ‘survive’, but thrive.

One way to do this is to have a number of low-risk activities, which do well pretty much whatever, and a number of high risk ‘moonshots; which are unlikely but tremendous. That makes for a two-humped risk profile (or ‘dumb-bell’), quite different from trying to de-risk the moonshots (Taleb argues modern risk management brings everything into the middle, which seems safe but actually means the best available is mediocrity).

Now this approach has downsides. There is definitely some crowding out. There are only so many hours in the day, and so many days in the week. i can’t do everything I’m enthused by (damn!). The urgent can crush out the important.

This also makes things more chaotic. I hate letting people down, and missing deadlines. But sometimes that deadline is not the most important thing. So, I have to say no. Also, I’m doing things that are right at the edges of my capability: on institution-building, on designing and acting to be a systemic innovation function, on influecning where I have no status power. So, I do feel overwhelmed a portion of the time. I’m overwhelmed with exciting opportunities and learning – but that’s still being overwhelmed.

All this has coincided with the biggest dislocation of the global – and local – political order since, well, at least the fall of communism. Chaos and being overwhelmed are the default for many progressives at the moment. Well, that’s double-so for me. What a time it is to be alive!

Therefore, I am trying to be stoic. All may turn to dust. (For Taleb, Stoics are Buddhists who say ‘fuck you!’.) Already, two “dead-certs” – with tremendous impacts and worth tens of thousands of income – died before they left the gate. For me it’s about being free fro the tyranny that everything needs to succeed. Last year I was tremendously affected by Shambhala: The Way of the Warrior, which makes a similar point this way:

“Being free, in this case, means simply…we can uplift ourselves in order to work with reality in a dignified and humorous way. If we begin to perk up, we will find that the whole universe—including the seasons, the snowfall, the ice, and the mud—is also powerfully working with us. Life is a humorous situation, but it is not mocking us.”

Does all this mean I am committed to having a portfolio forever? No. After 13 years in one place with one mode, it’s a time for exploring. But if the right thing came along which required my full attention, it would get it. (I suspect that ‘right thing’ – if it exists – would have the qualities of spanning.) Until then portfolio is going very fine.

So, what am I actually doing. Well, here’s the current list. I organise it according to branch – more detail here on my ‘now’ page (warning: might have been updated if a few months after writing this post):

  • Executive (working for an organisation, not always paid);
  • Advisor / affiliate (providing insight from outside an organisation); Policy (working on policy analysis);
  • Social entrepreneur (setting something up from scratch);
  • Field-building (making connections and general percolating).

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