Consider the Risks of Global Networks and Build in Buffers

Connectivity is a fact of life in 21st Century economic, political, and social systems. We are now inextricably related to one another through networks that provide immense opportunities for leveraged scale and benefits, but which also expose us to the dark side of being unable to protect ourselves from the destructive actions of others over whom we have limited awareness or influence. 

Nassim Taleb has been examining these phenomena throughout his career. He is best known for coining the term, “black swan,” which identifies major unanticipated permutations of events upon these complex systems. A survivor of the Lebanese civil war growing up, he has been preoccupied of late with the responses around the globe to COVID-19. The pandemic has exposed the dangerous underbelly of global networks and “just in time” supply chains, which must be instructive to business and political leaders as we move forward to build the post-pandemic economy.

As Bernard Avishai reported from his recent interview with Taleb in The New Yorker, the pandemic isn’t a “black swan” but an event that reflects the dangers of global connectivity: 

“The great danger has always been too much connectivity.” Proliferating global networks, both physical and virtual, inevitably incorporate more fat-tail risks into a more interdependent and “fragile” system: not only risks such as pathogens but also computer viruses, or the hacking of information networks, or reckless budgetary management by financial institutions or state governments, or spectacular acts of terror. Any negative event along these lines can create a rolling, widening collapse—a true black swan—in the same way that the failure of a single transformer can collapse an electricity grid.

Covid-19 has initiated ordinary citizens into the esoteric “mayhem” that Taleb’s writings portend. Who knows what will change for countries when the pandemic ends? What we do know, Taleb says, is what cannot remain the same. He is “too much a cosmopolitan” to want global networks undone, even if they could be. But he does want the institutional equivalent of “circuit breakers, fail-safe protocols, and backup systems,” many of which he summarizes in his fourth, and favorite, book, “Antifragile,” published in 2012. For countries, he envisions political and economic principles that amount to an analogue of his investment strategy: government officials and corporate executives accepting what may seem like too-small gains from their investment dollars, while protecting themselves from catastrophic loss.”

When now looking at our efforts to deepen our efforts at What Matters, Taleb’s approach offers great wisdom: We need to create systems that include buffers, those protections that insulate risk factors and limit their ability to infect the entire system. We must do so while staying true to our Values and Intentions, especially:

Transparency: By demonstrating openness in our deliberation processes, we engender trust among those constituencies and partners who must take the risk, with us, to address concerns that are Upstream and which, most likely, do not seem tangible.

Integrity: We must constantly dare to question ourselves and be open to hearing criticisms and concerns from others. This discomfort is essential to navigate the inherent uncertainties of such times, and comes with a big dose of Humility. 

Communication: When in doubt, let people know what you know and (more importantly) what you don’t know. Share the burden of knowledge with others whose perspectives may inform your own. 

Inclusivity: Hear from all voices, especially those typically marginalized and feeling pain that may be caused by the actions of those with traditional privileges in the organization or community. This is a “long game,” and it requires resources that may not be immediately apparent. To insure those resources are available to solve emerging issues, an inclusive approach to problem-solving is a key value. 

Creative Flexibility: Consider options and ways to frame situations that have never been tried before. These are far more likely to emerge if Inclusivity is actually occurring, as this builds capacity for creative thinking. Facilitate processes that encourage divergent thinking, adaptability, and the capacity to defer judgment as long as possible. 

Compassion (and Forgiveness): Make a genuine effort to understand the pain being experienced in the present time, as well as the trauma triggered from past events by unanticipated crises being experienced in this moment. As you confront your own harm and pain, seek a path of reconciliation that may allow you to move forward and fully experience the opportunities of this new moment.

In a practical way, we may apply this thinking at a few different levels: 

  • In our Project Teams, we need to be sure the integrity of the team’s work is protected through documentation (including version control), transparency of decision-making and inclusive deliberation processes, with continuous communication among team members and with other teams within the system being impacted. At every opportunity, deliver on promises and deadlines and be honest regarding when they are not being met so all can come together to determine how best to proceed… This is in contrast with a common practice to withhold such information until few options remain or the consequences of mistakes are already being felt elsewhere.
  • In the larger Organization: There are inter-dependencies that are both necessary and beneficial, yet there are risks that may be reduced by allowing “warnings” to be conveyed routinely, coupled with a shared commitment to understand emerging problems and address them without blame, finger pointing, or shame. This is akin to “pulling the chord” above an assembly line, made famous through Toyota’s “Kaizen” continuous improvement program and the specific “Andon” approach for signaling problems to others that should be addressed quickly and cooperatively. In fractal, interconnected systems, we may not fully appreciate the value of slowing things down, but to do so as part of a commitment to risk reduction can prevent disproportionate difficulties from overwhelming the system.
  • In the Industry or larger Community, it means that we examine the underlying assumptions built into our most robust and far-reaching systems and understand their current and future purposes. While they may have served us in the past, they may have evolved into systems that do not serve current needs. An excellent example is the role of police in ensuring public safety: There were very different priorities and dominant political voices in the 1990s than today, so those under-served and even oppressed by police actions are now being heard and understood by the privileged dominant culture in very different ways. Over time, police services (along with the criminal justice system) shifted from a community policing approach that had some commitments to rehabilitation in the 1970’s and 1980’s to a more militarized and punitive approach through the past 30 years. As a result, those with drug-related issues are prosecuted, rather than medically assisted, and those with mental health concerns are met with force and domination, rather than compassionate caring responses.
  • The future of public safety and violence prevention requires a re-imagination of these systems and their relationship to the communities being served, which includes coming to terms with uncomfortable truths about how racialized and marginalized communities in particular have been systematically deprived of basic human rights and dignity through this evolution. Making available resources to prevent and manage conflict, as well as restorative justice processes that can help people become “whole” in their lives as they go forward, will be essential buffers during this significant reconstruction of our public safety systems. 

As Nassim Taleb also points out, such approaches also require an acceptance of lower short-term profits on the part of businesses and investors (including those investing in public efforts). These lower initial returns are more than offset by reducing losses that are more likely to occur in fractal systems, so this risk reduction actually will result in increased profits over the long-term. In addition, if we keep in mind the “triple bottom line” previously discussed on this Blog, the social and political stability reduces the costs of significant upheaval and its associated relocation and restructuring efforts. If fewer of us live in the floodplain, for example, there will be reduced need to deal with the associated costs of increased flooding events that once were “one in a century” but which now occur every few years. 

Beyond Capitalism

In focusing on What Matters, it is crucial that we transcend previous constraints and parameters that limit our thinking about What’s Possible. Most of us have a tendency to view our own experience as “normal” and to extrapolate from our own realities to assume the “normal” for many others. This blind spot (previously explored in the Johari Window and Ladder of Inference discussions) is also true in our theories and practices in our workplaces and in the development of public policy: 

For example, as an American now living in Canada, I am acutely aware that my experience with the US healthcare system limited my understanding of how a universal healthcare system might operate, as it does in Canada. Furthermore, since our news sources are locally focused and biased, we often fail to receive information from other perspectives that might inform those blind spots. So when responding economically to healthcare challenges, we might not recognize options and opportunities that are well-established in other countries and regions, overlooking potentially beneficial responses.

It is like that with Capitalism. The dominant American model defers great amounts of power to large corporations and other private entities. Through public policy and regulations, there are advantageous tax incentives to such organizations that have resulted in the terrain we witness today. There are routine cycles of prosperity and depression (“boom” and “bust”), all of which are framed as normal business cycles. There are widening gaps between rich and poor, as well as accumulation of capital in small segments of the population, all reinforced by a cultural narrative that the resulting investment, employment, and “trickle down” benefits accrue to your overall quality of life. This privately controlled and highly individualized framing of Capitalism also accepts that there are very few “public goods,” where the government must provide service and production. It is also accepted that there are few costs that exist beyond the system — “externalities” — which are then minimized in our economic models and analyses. Unfortunately, these biases and omissions are not inconsequential; they result in significant failures of the system and, given the dominant role of the US in the global economic and political system, the impacts are felt throughout the world.

Concentration of wealth has been a long-standing barrier to addressing these flaws in the system. In his 1949 essay, “Why Socialism?,” Albert Einstein wrote: 

“…Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of smaller ones. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society...”

Externalities: A Fatal Flaw 

I have previously alluded briefly to “externalities” and the opportunity to address them in the triple bottom line. What are externalities? Why do they represent a fundamental flaw in our usual forms of Capitalism? How might we re-conceptualize Capitalism and create a new economic system that addresses these critical failings?

Externalities are those costs not integrated into the valuation of products and services in the economic system. A common example is pollution: If nobody is held accountable for the cost of dumping garbage into a river, then its consequences are not addressed and there is no incentive to clean it up. That’s fairly obvious, and most people recognized this flaw, but there was no mechanism to address it until the 1970’s.

But there is a more insidious aspect to how Capitalism fails to deal with externalities: Because the costs aren’t addressed in this current transactional space, they are passed down to others in the future to address their consequences. Those pollutants leach into the ground, affect the water table and the future costs of remediating it so it can be used for an economically valued purpose. The carcinogens that result from toxic runoff (a non-point source) belong to nobody as well, so the health care consequences that accrue to sick individuals or entire communities (recall “Love Canal”?) become a burden for those future recipients. While the companies or farmers who caused the problem are only held accountable by the Environmental Protection Act and similar legislation of the past 50 years, the system inherently avoids addressing such issues.

Furthermore, we have the aforementioned issue of Public Goods. This has at least two dimensions that are worth noting. First, there is the “Tragedy of the Commons,” the natural consequence of over-consuming natural resources that should be held in common. This concept was first offered by the British economist William Forster Lloyd (1833) and popularized by American philosopher and biologist Garrett Hardin (1968). Hardin updates the idea of the traditional English meadow being grazed by sheep, with each herd owned individually and nobody owning the Commons. The sheep naturally overgraze until the entire Commons is stubble, and the resource is destroyed. The Public Good is what we share in common but which is not owned, like the air around us, the oceans, outer space.

The other type of Public Good identified by economists is the natural monopoly; these are certain services that cannot be developed and delivered by the private market, whether due to excessive barriers to entry (e.g., costs), scale, or risk (e.g., much basic research). Public transportation systems, public education, and interstate highways and bridges, for example, needed to be federally funded because of these factors. They have little “Return On Investment” in most cases, so they are left to the public sector for the “profit” of the Public Good.

In most of the world, public health care is seen this way. While there is room for private corporations to provide a wide range of services, healthcare is viewed as a basic right, and the economic system is seen as the wrong place to defer such a critical responsibility. 

Social democracies do a far better job than the U.S. of internalizing the externalities and recognizing the intrinsic nature of certain Public Goods. But even there, the U.S. is limited by a preoccupation with Independence that obscures a greater need and reality: Interdependence (see previous post, “A Declaration of Interdependence.”) We need to reframe our system so it transcends Capitalism, fosters Interdependence, and creates spaces in our economy to recognize a far more significant role for Public Goods.

Reflections on returning to work in the midst of a Pandemic

  by Lisa Z. Webne-Behrman, Ph.D, C.Psych.

I’m pleased to welcome my Partner in What Matters, Lisa Webne-Behrman, as a Guest this week! Her insights and experience are most welcome at this unique time…

After four months of working remotely, many businesses are preparing to have staff return to their usual offices. This is causing anxiety for many, uncertainty regarding how clients and customers will respond, and organizational stressors as both leaders and staff members attempt to grasp concrete plans in the face of deep uncertainty. 

Living things seem to naturally desire movement and growth.  My indoor and outdoor plants move toward the light with what seems like a strong desire to produce, to perform, to do.  We are in the throes of a worldwide event compelling us to consider how we “do” our work, why we do so, and in what manner we will reopen our physical places of employment.  We reflect on these important questions in the midst of the Pandemic from a position of incomplete information about the future and not a small degree of current chaos, adding significantly to the complexities of the problem.  Given this, and the need to plan, produce, and do, the following guidelines are offered with humility and as a place to start:

A.  Create a framework for re-opening.  Share the information with all involved in a concise and clear manner.  Provide the broad strokes without getting too stuck in the weeds.  Procedural details of safety are of course important, though try not to lead with this detailed information.  Convey the basic framework including:

  • Affirm the Values and Intentions that form the foundation of the framework; 
  • Name the broad phases of reopening; and 
  • Clarify the criteria required to identify progress and determine when to move from one phase to the next.  More on this below.

B.  Identify criteria that are easily understood, identifiable to all involved.  The criteria guide the process. In this case with reopening, we move forward as specific criteria are met.  In some cases, they indicate the need to slow down or even reverse course.  Developing specific criteria also pits the problem against observable and agreed upon metrics as opposed to a group of individuals/ leadership/ managers.  

C. Develop markers or signposts that signify desired outcomes relevant to the specific work being done.  Signposts let you know where you are (… next signpost up ahead, “Twilight Zone”).  For example, I work at a social service agency with a fairly large community mental health component that might find it useful to develop signposts related to the variables of content and time.  Signposts also need to work in concert with the established criteria per B above: Assuming specific established criteria are met, ~20% of staff may have the option to work in the office beginning August 1, 2020 continuing to offer remote tele-health services. Tele-health services will continue to be offered remotely (from home) and will be further reviewed by October 1, 2020. 

D. Address this time as a complex transition, with focus on managing the stages of transition (following Bridges).

  • Communicate regularly with staff.  
  • Provide information that addresses real needs in a calm and caring manner.  
  • Seek input and listen well.
  • Acknowledge that the framework and next steps are being developed in the midst of a crisis vs. re-building following a crisis.  As such, transition plans to re-open and return to work are being developed while squarely planted in the “Neutral Zone”, a place of uncertainty and some murkiness. Name it.
  • Manage the Neutral Zone, this period of ambiguity and uncertainty, with
    • Create space for feeling unsure…it’s normal.
    • Identify some meaningful short term goals.
    • Maintain supportive connections with colleagues.
    • Help each individual understand how they might positively contribute to the change moving forward and the importance of their role in the organization.
Bridges Transition Model | William Bridges Associates
Bridges’ Transition Model

E. Capitalize on the creativity of the time. It seems that the combination of novelty and necessity sparked some creative approaches to our work that we can capture and further continue moving forward.  As we approach the return to work conversations, make room to discuss the opportunities this time has also afforded.    

Reopening our workplaces is a critical challenge we need to address. Let’s do so by acknowledging the uncertainty that exists while also clarifying our collective purpose, with meaningful communication, and respect that people should be provided specific frameworks and options. This may offer us a chance to get it right.

A Declaration of Interdependence

I enjoyed a recent conversation with my friends and frequent collaborators, Darin Harris and Steve Davis (see www.journey of collaboration.com for a series of excellent courses on facilitation, leadership, and fully engaging groups to reach their potential). Darin brought along a brief video illustrating the interdependence of the economy, showing the simple (yet fundamental) lesson that when we make a purchase at the store, it is not merely an “independent economic decision,” but one reliant upon many others in a variety of places, who in turn depend upon us to make those purchases to keep them employed, healthy, and whole. Darin even commented that perhaps we should celebrate “Interdependence Day.” I totally agree.

The Myth of Independent Work

In our workplaces, we like to think of ourselves as independent workers, and most compensation systems reward us (or not) based upon individual performance. Managers do performance reviews one by one, even in situations where we recognize that those individual contributions rely upon a supply chain of talent to get the job done. We may even compare ourselves to one another and have feelings regarding whose work is recognized, whose is overlooked, whose retention is prized, and whose efforts are “essential” in various ways to the organization. Personally, I feel that I am highly independent in my approach to work, and I like to focus on my personal skills and knowledge as being important to the ultimate outcome of my efforts.

Certainly, our individual efforts are important, but we are products of a myth regarding our independence within the workplace and the economic system. It is an illusion that we passively accept, as the framing of such reward systems is actually a result of our hierachical, bureaucratic ways of organizing our efforts: Our work is actually quite interdependent, where there is a mutually reliant network of workers whose contributions are all essential to the final product or service being offered. We notice this, to be sure, and may even sing platitudes to such relationships, but we still accept the initial underlying assumptions that drive our behaviors.

We are also fond of saying we have “work teams,” but we often use this term euphemistically. Teams are truly interdependent entities. While some groups call themselves teams, they are actually composed of members who work very independent or one another, barely communicating or coordinating with one another, and where their work products are evaluated separately and individually. Other groups are characterized by hierarchy and dependent relationships; these are not truly teams; they exist in service to the leader’s priorities (it’s “Jim’s Team” or “ABC Leadership Team”). Success is measured in terms of how well the group advances the leader’s agenda, which is often externally defined and assessed, and where the group’s power is defined in relationship to the hierarchy and bureaucracy.

In contrast, true teams are composed of interdependent members, where their full skills and talents are aligned in service to a shared mission to which they are fully committed, and where their success is evaluated collectively. In my work over the years with businesses, public agencies, and community groups, I’ve tried to help them sort out the qualities of effective teams that are necessary in order to forge these interdependent relationships. And it has often been a key moment of insight in this process when groups come to grips with their shared identity: Are they truly teams? Do they really aspire to be interdependent? If not, what is their nature and how well does it achieve their collective vision of who they seek to be?

In my mind, all businesses and organizations need to have these conversations if they are going to survive and thrive in this uniquely challenging time. They need to be resilient, adaptable, and nimble to notice how to use their shared talents to respond to the unique challenges of the moment. As discussed in What Matters at Work, the time has come to create “next level organizations” (as Laloux calls them in Reinventing Organizations), where the people, processes, and structures of the organization are aligned to facilitate interdependent relationships in service to a greater good. The current economic system largely fails to properly capture the value and power of such arrangements, failing to transcend our individual contributions in any sustained and meaningful way. It also fails to account for the genuine role of “public goods” in the economy, which would be more fully realized once we accept the premise that our higher nature is one of Interdependence, rather than Independence.

A Declaration of Interdependence: What Type of Society do we Seek to Become?

For those of us living in the US and Canada, this is a week of national identity and a celebration of Independence. Yes, we celebrate the freedoms to choose our life paths (though with widely varying privileges to do so), to earn a living and to express ourselves as fundamental rights (again, this varies widely in both countries). But is this what we should be seeking as the greatest expression of who we are and should be as a society? I suggest that we should celebrate and aspire to a Declaration of Interdependence. We hold these truths to be critically important (if not self-evident):

  1. That all people, animal and plant species, and other life forms are mutually reliant upon one another on this planet, and that we as People of Earth are uniquely responsible to the sustainability and healthy expression of Life;
  2. That all people, as guardians of this precious planet and it’s fragile resources, are dedicated to its protection in ways that further its diversity and viability so future generations may benefit from its bounty;
  3. That we, the current generation, devote ourselves to creating social, political, economic, and spiritual institutions that recognize the paramount nature of Interdependence and commit our lives in This Time to fundamental reforms of current institutions towards that end;
  4. That we use the opportunity of This Moment to engage in deep examination, reflection, and actions that address fundamental, systemic deficiencies in our current societies to redress those factors that discriminate, oppress, and suppress the opportunities for all to participate fully in determining the nature and direction of our societies.

There is more to declare, I expect, but first we must accept these core principles, listen fully to one another regarding how we experience our lives together, and then determine where we each have power, influence, and Will to get things done. But we have to start somewhere, and this seems like a good place to begin at this time of national celebration. There is a lot to do.

USING THE “OUTCOMES IDENTIFICATION EXERCISE”

This excerpt from What Matters at Work seems to add nicely to previous discussions about conflict, collaborative negotiation, and decision-making. I hope you find it useful to read — then give it a try!

A key challenge occurs when we are invited to engage in longer planning, policy-making, or conflict negotiation processes without being adequately prepared to do so. One important contribution that you can make as a member of a group considering such efforts is to help group members first clarify What Matters, by identifying those things that reflect their values, Intentions, and expectations of one another in their work together. A simple process that we have utilized with great success is the “Outcomes Identification Exercise.” I initially came across a variant of this activity in the Pfeiffer group facilitation Annual in 1987, and we have adapted it to work with dozens of work units, community groups, and leadership teams preparing for strategic planning. 

It is often useful at times of conflict and struggle, where there is a desire to move forward with planning or change efforts that have been stymied by relationships that have run aground. By clarifying the desired outcomes each participant seeks from work, and then noticing and affirming ways current efforts contribute to such intentions, members begin to learn (or re-learn) things about one another that can transform their energy and commitment. Once again, by focusing on strengths and assets within the group, the stage is set for important work that has otherwise eluded them. 

Process Overview

(Note: While this is primarily designed for a group sitting together in the same room, it is easily adapted to a virtual platform that allows for small group breakout discussions)

Facilitator’s Opening Statement: 

“A key challenge facing people who need to work through conflicts together is a lack of clarity about what they need. Their expectations regarding how those needs are met, and the relative priority of these expectations, is at the heart of this exercise. By clarifying desired outcomes from their work together, participants can begin to build an agenda that addresses those needs in practice.”

Step 1: Silent Brainstorming 

Individually, each participant should ‘brainstorm’ a list of responses to the following question: “What outcomes do I desire from my workplace?” 

An alternative question may be: “What expectations do I have from my work with my co-workers?” 

Take 5 minutes of quiet time to write down as many answers as possible to the focus question.

Step 2: Nominal Group Sharing

Going around the circle, each group* member should identify one desired outcome to share with others. The facilitator should record these responses on flip chart paper. Go around the circle a couple of times… if a ‘desired outcome’ has been previously stated, participants are encouraged to identify other items from their personal lists. People may “pass,” if preferred. After completing 2-3 turns around the group, the facilitator should ask members to review the flip chart list and identify any other items from their personal lists that they now feel are important to add to the group list.

*At the end of this step, the group’s list should contain 12-15 items. This assumes 5-7 members per group; if working with a larger group, it is advisable to break into subgroups.

Step 3: Hear What Has Been Noticed

Elicit feedback from group members regarding the characteristics of the desired outcomes they now observe. Ask them (if not otherwise noted) to notice the relatively significant role of procedural and relational needs (See Lesson 21) identified in these lists. [If you have a few sub-groups, it may be helpful to have people ‘wander around’ and view the other lists before making these comments.]

Step 4: Affirm What Matters

Ask each person to reflect upon the group list that has been generated, as well as their personal lists. Then ask each group member to take 3 minutes to compose two statements:

   A: “One desired outcome I am working to achieve is _____________.”
This is very important to our work group because _____________.”

   B: “I know that (someone else in the group or work team) is working to achieve (another desired outcome). This is very important to our work group because _____________.” 

Encourage group members to elaborate fully with these statements. Then, when all are ready, have people share them with one another, each in turn around the table.

*Again, small groups may be desirable. However, there is tremendous power in the experience of hearing people share these statements within the larger group. The facilitator should determine which approach is best in this situation. 

Step 5: From Ideas to Action(Optional

Building an action agenda often flows from the listing of desired outcomes in Step 3. You may return to this list and ask participants to identify [with check marks or colored dots] the “top 3” items on the collective list that should now be acted upon by the group. After people are polled in this manner, the group should identify those priority items that now appear to be meaningful and actionable for the group, and set aside time to address those items in the best possible way.

NOTE: Since this exercise may be used as a training exercise, moving ahead to problem-solving may not be appropriate within this meeting. On other occasions, however, it is a natural next step.

Challenge: Use the “Outcomes Identification Exercise

WHO: Solo/Group        

WHY: To apply this process to a meaningful issue. 

HOW:

Step 1: Identify a group of colleagues that wants (or needs) to engage in a meaningful problem-solving process. This may be due to workplace challenges or difficulties, or it may come from a genuinely positive desire to improve their work together. Set aside 90m for this conversation and facilitate the steps of the process outlined above – you can do this!

Step 2: Follow the steps outlined above.  

Step 3: Later, (a) journal your insights and questions, then (b) discuss with a Coach or Mentor (perhaps someone engaging in this Journey with you) the power of the process and the results of the experience, and (c) reflect upon your own Values and Intentions and how they align with doing this work for you.