This article was subsequently published in Kantar’s BrandZ 2019 report. You can access it here.
“The destiny of our species is shaped by the imperatives of survival on six distinct time scales. To survive means to compete successfully on all six time scales.”
– Freeman Dyson, From Eros to Gaia, NY, Pantheon, 1992
Certain insights come to fore when we retreat from the immediate and allow ourselves to see beyond ourselves – beyond the scale of an individual. In this quote, Freeman Dyson exhorts us to look at humanity from six different scales – as an individual, as a family, as a tribe/ nation, as a culture, as a species and finally as the web of life on our planet. As we zoom out, we see humanity engaging with different kinds of threats and opportunities that play out over different time horizons – from momentary to years, to millennia to eons.
Me, you and every individual before us, is part of a celestial tapestry that has weathered near extinction events, loss of entire cultures, fall of kingdoms, wars and death. Humanity has thus far, survived. Can we go on though?
Humanity survived for a million years when it couldn’t affect nature globally, where cultures lasted for millennia and remained relatively isolated, where technologies took centuries to propagate.
But, Climate Change is threatening the ‘web of life’ as you read this. Culture is being flattened with globalization. The increasing complexity of modern economy is making livelihoods volatile.
These are unprecedented times.
The Anthropocene has been an era of accelerated change brought upon by humankind. The changes are at all levels and they are multiplying.
What brought us here, will tear us apart if it continues unabated. We need a fundamentally new approach to navigate ahead. Cybernetics, a transdisciplinary approach to study complex systems, perhaps has a valuable perspective that businesses can learn from.
Economy as a complex system
Businesses do not operate in isolation. They are affected by technological changes, environmental changes, demographic changes, sociological changes and so on. There are far too many interdependent & independent variables at play here.
As such, the first thing to recognize here is that predicting these changes and preparing for them is near impossible. There goes your silver bullet.
Secondly, every action has a reaction, which in turn has a reaction, precipitating in a feedback loop. In our case, the feedback loops manifest as regulations, cultural movements such as the current swing towards nationalism across the world, refugee crisis, drop in fertility rates and so on. If you look at these trends from a ‘feedback loop’ perspective, it might help in anticipating probabilities of change much better than most current linear models (though still with high uncertainty).
Thirdly, realise that businesses have a role to play in most of these issues. We can’t remain ignorant of our role in climate change for instance. Our ignorance and inaction will be at our peril. Businesses with long term view of their survival should work with governments to reign in businesses with short term view which might be polluting the planet, increasing inequality or threatening social order.
Lastly, realise that the rate of change especially with technological advancement will only accelerate. For a ‘constant change paradigm’, the organizational structure of businesses must fundamentally change to survive and thrive. Linear hierarchies can’t respond quickly enough. To respond rapidly, the organizational structure must allow for ‘emergence’. Emergence is the ability of a collective to do something that individuals couldn’t do on their own. Ants exhibit it when they navigate challenges to their colony or to source food, without a central decision-making body. They do so, by following a few simple principles encoded in their genes that guide their behaviour around certain stimuli.
There’s a lesson here. Organisations that institute simple principles which empower autonomous behaviours among its workforce can respond to new threats and challenges much more effectively. This is already happening to an extent with online tools that reduce much of the friction that defined business in 20th century – in raising capital (with Kickstarter), in communicating (with Slack/Whatsapp), in manufacturing (with 3d printers, Shenzhen supply chain) and so on. With on-demand manufacturing in Shenzhen, on-demand access to cloud with AWS, on-demand access to capital on Kickstarter/ VC, on-demand access to talent through gig-economy, anyone can respond to an emergent threat/ opportunity now and start an organisation.
It’s a brave new world out there. To navigate changes in these rapid waters, you will be required to take a few brave decision and pivot towards emergent organization, environmental consciousness and appreciation of the complex reality of the world. Thankfully, it has never been easier to pivot than now. Embrace the complexity, and pivot.
- It’s time to wake up and see businesses as part of the broader fabric of humanity.
- Realise that we live in an increasingly complex world.
- Which requires us to acknowledge our limits in anticipating future.
- But it does not mean we should not try. Embrace complexity and allow for uncertainty. Use the ‘feedback loop’ perspective to gain competitive edge over others who still use linear/ simplistic projections to define their business goals.
- Realise that we can remain ignorant about our role in climate change, at our own peril.
- Evolve from hierarchical structure to emergent organizational structure.