If Big Society is the answer, what is the question?

Eureka by Ben+Sam via FlickrMake yourself lucky, be happy, BS?

If you hang out with management theorists, you will know by now the essence of the prevailing zeitgeist.  Whether Richard Wiseman is talking about luck; whether Martin Seligman is talking about happiness; or John Seeley Brown is talking about edge, we have a common formula that is applied over, and over.

Following are some notes I made reading a paper by Keith Grint of Warwick Business School on leadership in local government.  He begins with a great question 🙂

If Big Society is the answer, what is the question?

Keith Grint of Warwick Business School asks:

If Big Society is the answer, what is the question?

The questions (I think) are

  • How do we do local?
  • Why is doing local better than doing central?
  • And, does ‘doing local’ work better than doing central?  After all, surely the whole idea of politics is to seize the commanding position and dictate terms?

To answer the how, why, what and whether of local

To answer the how, why, what and whether of local, at least to answer the how, why, what and whether of local using theory, we need to begin with the theory.   Let’s check our assumptions first.   At the same time, we’ll see that we are assuming, rather than proposing in scientific sense, that local is the “dog not the tail”.  (If anyone knows a non-dog metaphor that will work as well, please let me know!)

Once we’ve grasped, the idea that we are dog, and political change is the tail, then we want to know “how”.  And the task of popular writers is to explain the “how” well enough to stop people disappearing into the bottomless pit of despair and victimhood that is part of the self-story when we think of ourselves as the tail.  That Brits love the victim story is a different post.

Today, I’ll try only to explain how we start change at a local level which is what I think Keith Grint was talking about and what management scholars and their ilk can tell you a lot about.

The theory of act local

The theory of “act local: begins with some beliefs about leadership.  If you have differing ideas about leadership, nothing else I write will make any sense at all.  So, try these on for fit.  If they don’t fit, all else will be a logical exercise. If they do meld with your beliefs, you might find a sense of relief in the account of “lead local” that follows.

Two basic beliefs about leadership

Leadership is not air; it is the wind.  When leadership is there, it is there. We might be able to see it coming.  We might in odd circumstances be able to build a wind tunnel.  But for the most part it is ephemeral, situational and transitory.  Nonetheless we know it when we feel it and we know it when we see its effects.

Leadership is not a map; it is a place.  When you are there, you are there.  When you are not, you are not.  You are not a leader-in-waiting.  You aren’t leadership-material.  You are either leading right now in this place with these people.  Or, you are not.

One basic proposition about national leadership

UK’s future is not made in Whitehall.

It is made by us. Because leadership is like place and wind, the UK is made and led through our local squabbles and the place-by-place, moment-by-moment decisions we make where we are, where ever we are and whomever we are with.

So, how do we set about making UK’s future at local level?

So far so good – if we believe that leadership, of necessity, of its very essence, is a local, situational and transitory phenomenon with nonetheless real consequences, how do we act as a local politician?

One basic assumption about politics

Politics is about defining space.  Politics is about defining who gets to be here and who get to talk.

One basic proposition about leading the politics of radical change.

Cynically, party politics is a device for keeping us apart.  Defining history is about connecting with people we don’t normally talk to.

I’ll repeat that.  The politics of change, the politics of defining history, is about connecting, not with people like us, but with people we don’t normally talk to.

The nexus of leadership and politics

So, to pull together ideas about leadership and politics – we believe leadership is in its very essence local but nonetheless we have political structures which determine who is in and who is out – or in plain terms, who gets to be part of the conversation.

To set off radical change, we have to change who talks to whom.  Or natural instinct is to huddle with people with ‘common interests’.  Actually, we must do something else. We must expand the conversation to a ‘complete world’ of everyone who has an interest.

To take a stark example, if I were campaigning to reduce immigration (which I am not), the intelligent political approach would be to include the immigrants (and their employers).  That the campaigners don’t shows us that they aren’t really serious and that they will always be somewhat surprised by the results of their political initiatives.  They simply haven’t done the work of connecting people who have an interest.

Changing the future of our country, then, is changing who we speak to!

The “how to” of modern politics

And now to the “how to” because after all, the reason why I am writing this at all is because people think they are not able to affect the future of their country (preferring to whinge but that’s another post.)

Is politics viral?

Sometimes it seems that politics can be viral.

Take Egypt.  Wael Ghonim puts up a Facebook page at just the right moment.

But, was the page just timing or relevance?  Without being a historian of Egypt, I think the page became a lever on a fulcrum of wide-spread concern among people who have generally have neither need nor opportunity to speak to each other on a daily basis.

And with lever and fulcrum, as Archimedes said it would, the world moved.

The page was the lever.  The fulcrum was the concerns of many people partially connected and ready to be connected further.

Is viral politics enough?

Some people thing viral politics is enough.  I don’t think so.  We still have to do the ‘foot slogging’ of door-step politics. We have to build relationships painstakingly.  We have to build our coalition (woops, dirty word in UK).

Simply, if defining history is building new connections with people we don’t normally talk to, we have to build those connections.  We have to initiate the connections and we have to sustain them with repeated contact and mutual respect.

What’s more, we have to engage with people who not want to connect with us.  It might take a while to build the connections we need.  But of course we don’t mind if we really believe in the future we are imagining!

Is success assured?

Again, without being a historian, the Facebook page in Egypt came at the end of an era of making connections and making connections and making connections.  Wael Ghonim didn’t intend to start a revolution.  He put up a Facebook page, and while he wanted to connect with others, he had no idea how important those connections were to become.  The Facebook page might not have succeeded.  There had been many attempts to rally Egyptians.  This was the rally cry that came when the connections were enough.

Simply, change will not happen unless we believe in it enough to begin without any guarantee of success.  If we don’t believe in our people enough to begin, if we don’t believe that we are enough; we will never make enough connections and we won’t have the Facebook page, or whatever happens to be the lever in our movement that tips the final balance.

We never know exactly when the tipping point will be.  We have to begin in faith of our dream and our people.

And is one big viral event is enough?

Sadly, not.  A big viral event may give us a head-start.  A big viral event like Tahrir Square dramatically improves the self-efficacy of everyone takes part.  They will volunteer readily next time and won’t be easily put off by challenges.

But as one swallow only makes us think of summer, we need many successful events for active citizenry to be the norm.  Actually, we need many successful events to trust each other.  We need success to offset the disappointments and to build the momentum.

If we believe in the future that we say we want, we need to do the hard slog of building the connections and maintaining them over the challenges, triumphs, disappointments and tears of real world politics before we will be rewarded with deep and longstanding change.

So if you are banking on one big viral event, you will squander the benefits of the event, for benefits are huge but not enough on their own.

And should we wait for politicians?

I wouldn’t!   Old guard politics will produce more of the same.

What can you and I do?

What has to happen is you and I connecting to people we think are worth listening to.  No proclamation from Whitehall will ever make that happen.  This depends on whom we believe are worth listening to and whether we can be a****d to make the connections.

What we get back depends on what we are willing to do.  England, Britain, United Kingdom is us. If we want change and we haven’t changed something small today, we are simply talking BS (oh dear, what did I say?) 🙂

Change something today – get lucky!

The advice for starting change at local level is the same advice that psychologists will give you for making yourself lucky (and happy) (and indeed for giving up smoking or losing weight!)

The advice from psychologists is simply this.

Do something different today.  Drive to work a different route. Speak to the person next to you on the train.  Give up your seat for someone on the tube.

Mix it up.  Connect.  Connect.  Connect.

  • Complete your world by connecting with everyone you need to take part in the conversations you know are just waiting to happen.
  • Start to tell the collective story.  Start to tell the story of your collective .
  • Learn what other people want too.  See where you can help them and see where they are delighted to help you.
  • And, include the people you think you can’t stand (But talk to them later! Start with someone who is just new or different!)

How long will it take?

I don’t know for sure. Psychologists aren’t  hot on time.  But, the poets and gurus say you will see results in three months and life-changing experiences in a year.

Will you begin to lead locally?

What have you got to lose by trying?  You only have to talk to someone new each day and do something different like take a new route to work?

What will you gain?

A more interesting day for a start.

A life experiment second.

Maybe something bigger third.  The curious will go for that I think.

Resources

Leading questions: If ‘Total Place’, ‘Big Society’ and local leadership are the answers: What’s the question? Leadership February 2011 7: 85-98,

To get a copy of the paper, you’ll have to email the author Keith.Grint at wbs dot ac uk.

Sociology of Google, Facebook and Twitter’s success – and what’s next

molehills by h3_six via FlickrOur utilities have changed beyond recognition

In the last five or is it six or seven years, our lives have been transformed.  In a year or two, we might count banking crises and revolutions and seismic activity in the change.  Right now, I am talking about Google, Facebook and Twitter who have crept into contemporary live as assuredly as TV, running water and phones.

The ubiquity of new internet services and their ready availability to everyone – rich or poor, powerful or disposed – gives them the status of institutions. Google is now a verb.  “Google it!” Facebook is a noun.  “I am a bad Facebooker.”  Twitter has its own vocabulary. “RT” = “retweet”.

The very ubiquity of internet services worry us. They seem to have taken over our lives.

The characteristics of new institutions

But of course, they have taken over our lives.  New utilities scare us because they reflect deep changes in society and our status relative to each other.  That is the point.

New institutions have three characteristics.

  • They bring us together in a forum – in a talking shop – on a massive scale.
  • They provide a “complete world” where everyone and every interest is invited.
  • They allow us to take part in history – indeed they allow us to make history.

Are we about to see even more new institutions emerge?

I have a deep sense that we are going to see changes in these central apps – not necessarily in technology but in whom they serve.

If we want to foresee change, indeed if we want the heady experience of being part of history, we have to  look at the world historically and socially with a keen eye.  Who is included in the “complete world” as of today?  And who is on the sidelines waiting to join in?

When we add a wider range of pressing interests to the mix, where will we see new institutions germinating and sprouting because people are looking for a forum where they can connect ever more widely to make history.

It is not the disaffected that matter so much in the emergence of institutions.  It is who wants to connect more widely.  Who wants to connect where they couldn’t connect before?  Who is genuinely interested in listening to other people who aren’t part of their current existence?

Further reading on the birth of institutions

Barbara Czarniawska.  (2009). Emerging Institutions: Pyramids or Anthills.  Organization Studies 30(4). pp 423-441. (History of the London School of Economics) [Download the full paper following link highlighted in yellow in the middle column]

Go students! But in solidarity

UK Uncut Demonstration 041210 by ucloccupation via FlickrThe ethics of Gen Y

I am puzzling over the ethics of our youth.  That’s not unusual, of course.  By an accident of history, I am a typical Gen Xer.  I drink water and carry a laptop. I’m highly independent and anyone not quite ‘up to it’ receives a glance of disapproval that is the hallmark of my generation.

Gen Y’ers elsewhere

I’ve also lived in a country where the Gen Y’ers clashed  magnificently with the old guard who reminded them constantly of history. “We fought for your privileges”, said the old guard.  “Toughs”, said the youngsters, “give us more. And NOW!”

Little emperors, indeed.

Student action in UK November 2010

The student action along Oxford Street of the moment are interesting.  So many students are not there.  We look around our universities and wonder.  Not even self-interest can get them out.

But self-interest has got some out.  Are they really ethical though?  Are they pouting because they have been excluding from the loot and pillage of the economy?  Or do they really care about a well run society and are they prepared to run society well in exchange for a fair and decent wage?

Solidarity is the ethical test of politicians

The test is in solidarity.  Let’s see what alliances are formed and let’s see how easily they are bought off.  How many of the leaders would join Top Shop tomorrow if given a graduate management position?

The test is in solidarity and I am hoping (against hope) that they will take the lead in mapping the issues that face the UK today.

But beware: Politics is about results not motives

But then an old politicial science professor said to me once: In politics motivation doesn’t matter.  Only results matter.

Unless students have a clear ethical position and  a map of the alliances they want to forge, they will find their energy quickly coopted to other causes.

It happened to other generations who were smug and complacent. It can happen to them too because that is politics.

We are waiting to see.  Hoping but waiting.  I hope their political science professors have taught them well.

We will not put our lives on hold because you want us too

hacia la diversion, con es fuerzo by fabbio via FlickrLiving with collapse

A long time ago, a British Professor visiting Zimbabwe goggled at our 15% inflation rate and said, “How do you cope?’

Twenty years later, 15% seemed like heaven. And coping had turned into a lifestyle. Oddly though, you can still attend an HRM conference in Harare infinitely more sophisticated than you will in London.  Lunch might be peculiar but ideas continue.

The power might go off repeatedly but a Zimbabwean firm has rolled out a 3G network.  Living in the UK, I have copper cables that were replaced twenty years ago in Harare and my mobile reception is so dodgy that I can’t use it for internet.

Running away from collapse

I left Zimbabwe and came ultimately to UK because I didn’t want to cope with those circumstances.  I had lived through Smith’s UDI and figured that “I had already done” war and sanctions.  It was time for alternative experiences.

A psychological model of collective responses to despair

Around six months before I left Zimbabwe, just after the Presidential elections, I tried to make a psychological model of what would happen.  I figured that everyone would make up their minds what they were going to do.  Then they would test their plan.  And after 6 months they would re-evaluate.

Of course, we had a definitive unambiguous event that marked a cross-roads.  Mostly we don’t have such a call for decisiveness and we procrastinate.

Then we were surrounded by people making tough decisions but amiably accepting that we differed in our needs and values and might go our separate ways.

And we knew we were jumping out into the unknown.  We might find our new lives hostile but few of us left a path to return preferring rather to “shake the dust from their feet and not look back”.

The Zimbabwean diaspora and the Zimbabwean survival

So 3-4 million people left Zimbabwe.  I got on a plane.  Others walked and with no exaggeration, dodged border guards, swam across a river infested with crocodiles, cut their way through fences and threw themselves on the streets of cities larger than anything they had ever seen before.

But 10-11 million people stayed.  They were the old, the young, the sick and the infirm.  They were those who stayed to look after the old, the  young, the sick and the infirm. They were also those who had fought for the liberation of Zimbabwe and were continuing in their quest.  They were those who lived “outside” last time around and “had done that” and now took the alternative route. And there were the energetic and entrepreneurial who make a go of anything.

Zimbabwe has suffered. There is no doubt.  It is uncomfortable being there.  But it has survived.  And it is this survival that I want to write about.

People don’t curl up and die because the economists and politicians and pundits say they should. They pursue their ends as they see them. They experiment and revise.  They keep going.

So Zimbabwe didn’t die.  The currency shattered all records for inflation and it remained the currency of choice long after economists said it would disappear.  It has gone now but probably more because  of pressure on the German government by activists made printing it more difficult.

Simply, action matters; not theory and not prediction.  People will not stop living just because we think we wouldn’t be bothered in their shoes.

African universities don’t die either

I’ll make this point  again using another story.

A decade ago, I was part of a team reviewing the staffing situation in African universities for World Bank.  Briefly, the a priori thesis was that Africa suffered a brain drain.  Coopted belatedly on to the team, when I was briefed, I burst out  laughing.  “You can’t get rid of us,” I guffawed.

So how do universities run when they have bullet holes in the walls (one in our sample did) and  havelittle money to pay academics?

Yes, universities suffer from “not on seat”, a Nigerian expression that someone came in, left his jacket and went out to do his own business.  But despite one university paying its staff the equivalent of one chicken a month, staff kept pitching up, kept teaching, kept examining.  They keep doing what they do. I know it sounds improbable, but it is your theory that is wrong; not the world!

But maybe Western economies began to die

Today I came across another story in Global Guerillas that illustrates the point again.

Pick up any HRM textbook in UK, Australia or NZ, and it is all about smashing the unions.  Thatcherism was a dramatic struggle against labour power.  And Thatcherism won.  It liberated the economy from the tyranny of unions!

That  maybe so but smashing the “working classes”, or the middle classes as they are called in the USA, also concentrated economic surplus in the hands of corporates.  And we see the results now.  Oh, you might have drifted off when I put it like this.  Read on.

People don’t sit on their hands just because you told them they were worth nothing.  They carry on living their lives.  Instead of achieving their life goals by making more money by being more productive, they continued achieving their life goals and put their energies into other schemes – like second houses or just flipping their first. The goals stay.  The energy to progress is diverted.

We will not put our lives on hold because you want us to.  It simply doesn’t work like that.

A good system provides opportunities for us to achieve our own goals within a collective mutually beneficial framework.  We need a system where each of us can see a promotion on the horizon and has access to learning experiences and training that allows us to seek promotion.  As soon as the system says “nothing for you here”, we will divert our attention elsewhere but we won’t do nothing. Don’t say this is not possible; this is called HRM.  And don’t laugh.  Who hired the HR Manager you have?

Where will individuals put their energy in the UK now?

In a country as big and diverse as the UK, it can be hard to see what might happen next.  The choices are not obvious.

Certainly, at an individual level, the prize will go to those who envisage positive goals in depressing circumstances and who continue seeing opportunity while those around them become panicky and depressed.  But we will each do what makes sense to us at the moment that we do it.

At a collective level, it seems to me that we really must strengthen what Britain called the working classes.  And the best way to do that is for people who have power to limit themselves.

Instead of running around asking for 25%-30% indicative cuts, Ministers should be talking to everyone with power or unusually high incomes (and I include the unions and the local drug barons).  Ask them rather, what can you do to make the middle level guys better off. What can you do to free them up from worrying about housing and heating, food and chidren’s clothing?  What can you do to help them feel secure about their future (to aged 90) and their children’s future and prospects?

Those with power and resources must settle down those who will otherwise divert their energy where they must – looking after me and my own.  And the politicians must lead.

Instead of indicative cuts, come back to us with indicative solutions. Look us in the eye when you announce them.  If our eyes light up, you are on to something.  If we howl with laughter, deliver a sharp smack to your powerful mates.

I read good right wing papers but this is why I don’t vote for the right wing

Top ranking political online newspapers

If you are interested in current affairs, I highly recommend the Indian blog, The Acorn.  Always clearly & succincly written, you will get a daily editorial on international affairs on the sub-continenent that is informed and analytical.

The despair of the right

Dedicated as I am to reading their thoughtful and professional analysis, I’m not sure though that I can subscribe to their world view.

One of their themes is to dismiss the righteous and the cynical as being unable to engage in ‘real politik’.

Some time last week, they published a good parable about two fishermen.  One fisherman was virtuous, never broke any rules and did not catch enough food to feed his family.  The other was cynicial.  He knew that other people were more successful fishermen but never learned their skills.

Accept the challenge by the right

I think it is always useful for the pragmatic ,and even resolutely right-wing, to challenge liberals and lefties. We should take right-wing taunts as a reminder that sometimes we are lazy and use the notion of being right to avoid hard work and the anxiety of challenging  moral choices.  It is also true that cynics are lazy, if not feckless, and cover their lack of application with curmudgeonly commentry.

But don’t buy into their existential despair and ’emperor’s clothes’

I don’t buy the argument, though, that we have to cheat to meet our worldly needs and our reasonable worldly need for status.

Why can’t we simply decide to make money honestly?  Yup, I know they are calling the virtuous and the cynical as sour grapes. That is a reasonable call.  But I think ‘emperor’s clothes’ are worse.  Pretending that sour, rotting grapes are sweet and delicious is just as bad, as dismissing the victor’s grapes as sour.

How I know this is your emperor’s clothes and not my sour grapes

There has to be a middle way of defining a fresh ripe harvest and working honestly, with others, to achieve it.  I want a prize worth having.  Sweet delicious grapes, please.  You may be sitting on a bigger pile.  May be all your grapes are delicious.  But do you know, I don’t believe you.  You are so concerned with losing that you would lie rather than be seen to lose.

That is the real difference between the right and the left.  You want to win even when there is no prize.  It is so important to win that you will invent the race and describe a prize that doesn’t exist.  You say to us. Prove it.  Prove the prize doesn’t exist.

Hmm.  I don’t have to.  If the prize existed, you would be busy enjoying it.  You wouldn’t be trying to get my attention!

Show me the prize or race just for fun!

As for the left, we want the prize and we won’t compete unless there is one.  Yes, I know.  When we compete and lose, we justify our lack of ability by claiming there is no prize. Yes.  That happens a lot.   Right wing politics has its share of curmudgeons though.  Hegemony is rampant on the right.  But we wouldn’t be whining if we thought there was no prize.  It is up to us to go out and get it.

I want to see the prize first.  The lads and lasses that just want to race up and down for prizes that don’t exist can be my guest.   I might even join them sometimes for fun.  But I am not going to kid myself that they are doing anything more than that.  This is leisure activity. Not politics or economy.

Living with the compulsively competitive right wing

So indeed there will be fisherman who are unsuccessful and cover up their lack of success under the cover of virtue or cynicism.  But if the others are so successful, they wouldn’t give a jot about the unsuccessful fisherman.  They would not necessarily be callous either.  They would make the unsuccessful offers.  They would discretely ensure their children were OK.  They would even rein in any unfair practices.   But they wouldn’t be threatened by the unsuccessful.  Why would they?  They have the prize.  Or do they?

All they are doing is negotiating for a prize that they believe they would win.  I think this is what Warren Buffet calls being attracted by the terms of a sale.  “We want a race so we can win a prize.’

Sorry.  We aren’t going there.  First, the prize is too important and your racing takes up too much time.  Second, you won’t necessarily win and then you will whine.

We’ll aim for the prize.  We’ll even set up races and prizes so you can have fun.  But aren’t turning everything into a race to satisfy your compulsion to win (which you won’t necessarily do anyway).  We just aren’t going there!

Congratulations, America!

I sat up till 3.30am to watch the Health Reform Bill pass.  Congratulations, America!

For me, watching the House of Representatives in action was an education.  Even two years’ ago was it possible to watch American law being made across the ocean?  Maybe it was technologically, I don’t know, because it is only this year that the world holds its breath and turns to America to watch its every move.

I’d never seen the House of Representatives in session before.  I imagine most Americans haven’t either.

  • There are set plays and set speeches over 2-3 hours clustered in sections like halves and quarters or innings.  More like American football than European soccer.
  • A sub-leader for each side takes over and calls play allocating 1m, 45secs and even 15secs.
  • Most activity is mostly token asking for “unanimous consent to revise and expand their remarks”.  They change one or two words in this ritual.  Democratics say something like “this historic bill” and the Republicans say “this flawed bill”.  Then it appears the representative hands something to the stenographers.
  • Several Speakers (‘chairmen’) are used for short spells of half-and-hour to an hour.
  • The Speakers’ tone is cold, even hostile.  Language is passive. “The House will be in order.”   Time is strictly, adhered to.
  • When it is time to vote, Representatives are given 15 minutes to enter their vote electronically and CNN kindly gave a running score up on the screen.

Being the early hours of Monday morning here, I was struggling to stay awake and I think I missed a bit but I was there for the last, which was a bit more lively.

  • In short, there is no give-or-take or repartee as there is in the British Parliament.  The House didn’t even feel full.  Not for the Americans is there the Churchillian feeling of knowing something important is happening because the House is crowded.
  • Though prepared in advance and most people where repeating a liturgy “I seek unanimous consent”, the speechs were poor in diction, delivery and content.  I couldn’t see what purpose they served.
  • The on-the-spot decision making was done by the sub-leaders who manage their 15min ‘quarters’ scrupulously interchanging between one party and the other and trying to finish the quarter within seconds of each other.

Of course, you could predict which party someone belongs to with fairly high accuracy.  If they are not male WASPs, they are probably Democrats.  The Republicans have a few women.

How to tell a white male Democrat from a white male Republican?  Well if they are youngish, they are probably Republican (take note of that).  It they have untidy hair, they are probably Democrat (though there were two notable exceptions).  If they dress with a bit of eclan, then they are definitely Democrat!

The speaking style of the various groups also differs markedly.  Republicans rarely show any charisma.  Their persuasive tactic is that “I am right”, “you will see”, and “you are wrong”.

A few black representatives used some oratory.

And Nancy Pelosi allowed her face to express all her emotions.  I am so glad that I am female and allowed to give non-wooden speeches.  Yay.

For me, it was fascinating because it was new to me.  But it is dull.  Representatives are doing other work while they sit through the ritual.  It seems to me that some iphones fitted with the new card reader would dispense with voting in 30 seconds.  Gee, even university lecture rooms can process data that fast.

There you have it. Politics grinds on.

Congratulations, America! You made history.  Again.

And for god’s sake, make it work.  Can you affford not to?

We can afford what we create

The golden rule of economics and politics

It is all that we need to know really.  We can afford what we create.

Our plan of work tells us what we can afford

And from the golden rule ~ we can afford what we create ~ we have two other rules.

It is better to work with others than alone

None of us can create everything we want, or need, to afford.  It matters that we belong to a bigger group or tribe.

The collective to which we belong tells us what we can afford.  Our family, our company, and yes, the country, the sovereign state to which we belong, define what we create and our lifestyle.

When I am writing, someone is creating the electricity that powers this laptop.  While another person is making my washing machine (running in the background), I am looking for easy-to-understand writing on our economy that cuts through the obfuscation delivered by politicians.

The system matters.  Our place in it also matters.  But the whole,  the collective, is what we must keep our eye on.  Where we draw the boundary matters.  Because we can afford what we can create. Who is weBetween us, we create what we can afford.

Draw a circle around who we trust, and who lives and breathes because we live and breathe, and we have defined what we create and what we can afford.

If that circle is too small to define the lifestyle we want,  there is our first task.  Widen the circle. Widen the  magic circle of trust.

We need leaders who instinctively read that circle and work with our neighbors, suppliers and customers to widen our system.

Tell me what you are going to do.  Economics will follow.

The second rule that follows the golden rule is that value comes first.  We can check the economics afterward.

The clear writing economist, Ann Pettifor, makes this point well.

The central bank in each country should set the money supply to match the economic capacity of a country.

She doesn’t like using a household or small company as an example.  So let’s use a giant multinational.

When a giant company needs something done, and they are pretty certain it will work out, they put up the budget and let the managers and workers get on with it.  Money comes first in time.  But profits, and worrying about profits comes last.  Paying back the investors comes last.  We will recover our money provided we only put up the amount of money that the work was worth.

But we will never make money unless we have the money to bring a team together and get going.

The skill in managing, and financing, a major investment is understanding what venture is worth.

Before you tell me that business does not work like that.  It does.  Don’t confuse where you work with successful companies and successful public service.  I’ve consulted to them.  I’ve led in them.

I have two rules:

  • What do you want to do?
  • After you’ve told me, we’ll run the numbers to make sure it is economically viable.  If not, we go back to question 1.  What do you want to do? We begin with the value.  We begin with what you want to create.  Economics follows.  If you want to do it, we will back it.

We can afford what we can create

These are our questions.

What can we create?

Who do we create it with?

What is our potential that we are not using?

To find our potential: ask people.  What do you want to do?  When that is on the table, we’ll run the numbers.  If the numbers hold together, we back their plans.

The golden rule and Britain’s government deficit

Ann Pettifor puts this story in the context of Britain’s government deficit(which is large but not nearly as big as the bank bailouts).  She is standing for parliament but don’t let that dissuade you.  She writes clearly.  That alone is a good reason for electing her.

The collective, Britain, defined by the reach of the Bank of England and the reach of the pound sterling, has potential.   Fund it.  A simple message.  Fund what we can create.

The only question that I ask, and I’ll go to her blog now to ask the question, is how quickly will we recover the money?  I think I would like to see the numbers run by month, quarter and year.  Then I would feel more comfortable.

Then my trust would increase  Then the collective strengthens.

Sometimes economists (and lawyers and accountants) forget that everything they do depends upon us believing it.  Yes, the outer boundary is the reach of the pound sterling.   The real boundary is our belief in each other.  Some people call this belief ‘confidence’ but that is the wrong measure.

Confidence  is self-efficacy.  The correct measures is collective self-efficacy.  The question for that is “Do I believe that you will do better economically this year?” When we answer yes to that question, then we will boom.

But first the question of timing.  I must ask Ann that.

For now I am thankful for finding that quotation.  Simple.  Pithy.  We can afford what we create.

Followed by my two rules.

  • People matter.  Who is we.
  • We’ll check the economics after we have decided what we want to do.

P.S.  I googled “we can afford what we create” and I didn’t find any other reference to it.  Did Ann coin this phrase or is it a well known economic expression?

In politics, motivation isn’t important

In politics, motivation doesn’t matter

A political science professor once said to me “In politics, motivation doesn’t matter.”  I don’t think I have ever really understood that until I read the current Economist debate on “Who is leading the fight against climate change?”

Pro: Peggy Liu
“For Chinese people who see, smell and touch pollution every day, climate change leadership is closely related to personal health.” Read more

Con: Max Schulz
“China is not pursuing lower energy consumption per unit of GDP because of warming. It is pursuing it because it wants to be rich.” Read more

Does it matter why the Chinese reduce emissions. Surely if emissions are important then it is just important that they do?

How much credence do you give to motivation?

I’m trying to figure this out here.

I think that maybe when we feel out-of-control that we look for sound lasting relationships.

We are more likely to manage by outcomes when we have control.

What gives us a feeling of control?  Knowledge, a well-developed world view, the temperament of no-drama Obama, a willingness to accept that other people will act in their own interests?

Another spiral effect, I think. We trust because we trust.  And we don’t trust because we don’t trust.

Maybe when we worry about the motivation of others, we should stop and list all the factors that ARE under our control.  What can we count on?  How would we see the world then?

Am I on the right track?

Where are the system specialists in UK? The amber light for UK today

EPS

If you are an accountant or financier, EPS means earnings per share. If you are a staff manager or systems designer, EPS means events, patterns, systems.

Events, patterns, systems

Here we are in November 2009, a good year after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and two years after the run on Northern Rock.

Events

Each of those is an event. People on the front line had to respond. They stood in the queue to get their money out of Northern Rock. They carried their belongings in a forlorn cardboard box out of the Lehman building.

Events are about doing. What we do brings them about. What we do deals with their consequences, good or bad.

Patterns

Two banks going under (and later more) may or may not be part of a pattern. In this case, we have a pattern.

As soon as people made a “run” on Northern Rock, many of us will have asked, is the ea pattern? And if so, what shall we do about it?

Many of us sat down immediately to review the stability of our own banks. We checked out all the rules and moved our money about so all our eggs weren’t in one basket.

Patterns are about asking questions. Is a pattern emerging? If so, what are the forces behind the pattern? How will the pattern effect us? What does knowledge of the pattern allow us to turn it into an event ~ to do.

Systems

And as soon as we had moved our own assets to safety, we asked the next question: why? Why and how did we run our affairs so they led us to this peril? How was it that we missed earlier patterns and did not take evasive action earlier?

For ordinary people, systems are about pondering. And for some ranting and raving. Professional systems designers and staff managers review the information systems alert the people who “do” that something needs “doing”. We review the information systems that trigger, or failed to trigger, question. And we review the information we used to look for patterns.

Events, patterns and systems correspond to the three circles of managers.

Do-ers

On the front line are those that do. They need information to warn them of events and to manage events as they unfold.

Managers

One step back are managers. Their job is not to ask whether the doing is getting done ~ that is the job of doers. Their job is to look at patterns.

They might compile the information on whether the job is getting done and feed it to the frontline. But if the job is not getting done, they should ask whether the right information is being delivered at the right time.

System designers

A second step back are system designers ~ managers of managers. They neither control events nor deliver information directly.

They ask another question: will the system of doing, pattern detection and information give us the patten of events that we are able to manage?

Many people start to glaze over at this point.

What kind of work do you like to do?

Doing is busy and immediate

Most people work on the front line. They like it there. It is busy, active, sociable and very very immediate.

Good management works ahead of the action using information from days gone by

The old saying, though, is that without good governance, life is nasty, brutish and short.

Let me illustrate in everyday terms with the smallest act of good management. An irritation shared is usually quartered. When someone is carrying a heavy load, we stop to help. It takes us a few seconds and it makes a huge difference to easing their day.

When we have the right information at the right time and the right place, everyone is able to do more, more quickly. Manager might not carry the heavy loads themselves, but they will have alerted people that someone needs help, or found out whether the heavy load could have been broken into parts, or worked out whether it would be cost effective to get in some machinery.

Managers work ahead of the action by using information from days gone by. They still see what is happening. They see results and often dramatic results. But they are not doers.

Managers miss doing

In many organizations, managers come from the ranks of doers and they resent not being part of the old team. And they resent no longer having the thrill of immediacy. In some organizations, like universities, they resent the sharp loss of status because doers – those who do research – know that managers are unable to do.

In most organizations, managers also have the power to order, rather than advise, doers. Managers are also paid more.

Higher status & greater authority makes sense when we are unable to manage without first having been doers.

Increasingly though, it makes no sense at all for managers to be paid more than the people they manage. Take air traffic controllers, for example. They are unlikely to have been jet pilots. Air traffic controlling and flying planes are two different career paths which are learned and maintained separately. For very limited periods, air traffic controllers are able to give orders to pilots, but this is only a pragmatic arrangement. A system has been worked out where you “take a number and wait your turn”. Air traffic controllers are announcing the pilot’s turn ~ not telling them how to do their jobs.

We see instantly from this example that more people prefer to do ~ fly the plane ~ than control. That is how it should be. Nonetheless controlling is an important job for those who have the temperament to do it.

System designers are removed from the action but think up the system

And now you walk away, a little bored but satisfied that you understand it all. You’ve forgotten the system designers. Who thought up the system of air traffic control? Who investigates when something goes wrong?

Well, the third tier are widely despised! We don’t do. We don’t control. We are rarely seen until after the action and then only when things have gone wrong. We are the system designers and we come in two forms: the forensic – the after the event crew ~ and the designers.

Either way, our job is look at the system and ask whether it delivers a range of situations that are doable and controllable.

Obviously there are few of us. We aren’t needed every day.

The ongoing work of systems designers is seen more obviously in process plants. Highly qualified engineers design the plant and are on hand to advise when the process limps. When the system becomes luggable, or otherwise incomprehensible, the engineers are called in to reveal the more obscure ways of getting things to run smoothly again.

Design work is even more interesting because it is done ahead of time. Design work in human systems often attracts people who have a lot to say about the world. They don’t necessarily fit in well to systems work simply because the world rarely obliges us by doing what it is told!

Good systems designers are savvy. They leave plenty of room for the system to wrap itself round people and the way they do things. System designers have a good sense of side-effects, they have a sense of how long things take, and they understand the stop-and-go nature of human affairs.

But note, systems designers exist!  They’ve designed every thing you use. Banks. Post offices. Roads.

They check everything you use. There are engineers out there right now checking that the bridges are safe. There are doctors running medical “seeing ahead” to possibilities you cannot imagine. There are auditors checking businesses and banks to make sure your money is safe.

Where are the people who designed our systems?

What has puzzled me during the scandals of the last two years is that we haven’t heard much about the system designers – both designers and forensic investigators. I am not sure why we have this silence.

We are left with the impression that system specialists have been taken out of the system and the top level managers who are responsible for overseeing them haven’t being doing their job.

An amber light for the great system of the UK

For me, that is the greatest “system” amber light in UK today.

Why aren’t the system designers more visible?

Why don’t we point clearly to work units, to degree courses, to professions whose very job is to make sure life is doable and controllable?

Isn’t the lack of trust that people have in UK politicians precisely because they cannot see where decisions are made?

Who designs the system? Who checks that it is running? Point me to their offices!