Instead of asking “What can I do to stop feeling so anxious?”, “What can I do to save the planet?” or “What hope is there?”, people with privilege seem to be asking “Who am I?” and “How am I connected to all of this?”
It’s an interesting and very positive phenomenon. Not everyone calls it an identity crisis, but that's essentially what it is.
Viva the Crisis!
Public agencies from schools to water corporations and especially government departments (but also many larger private enterprises) are grappling with how they fit into the larger eco-system of structures. How do they reconfigure our sprawling, sclerotic institutions and businesses to fit a need that is ever-expanding and polymorphic; structures that privilege hierarchical accountability but are being asked to deliver shared responsibility and; cultural norms and artifacts embedded in what we call work that was but developed in an age of (white) male privilege and unconstrained growth but needs to also be accommodating and celebrating diversity and inclusion (see HERE to get a glimpse of the diametrically opposed organising principals that underpin reliable delivery and emergent creativity - they are NOT the same).
George Megalogenis recently wrote a great article in The Age where he pinned the seemingly sudden demand to actually apply the standards we have been espousing for decades on what he called a cultural recalibration. He was writing about the ever-expanding imbroglio submerging our government regarding the atrocious work-place culture and behaviour towards women in our federal Parliament, but the concept applies (and he meant it to apply) much more broadly.
We are experiencing a fundamental change in social expectations across the boards: social, environmental and increasingly financial governance.
What was ok in terms of behaviour, accountability and even fundamental organising principles ten years ago (or even 2 years ago) simply isn’t ok anymore!
Why is this happening? Why is it happening now?
Asking this is not (or not only) intellectual snobbery. The answer has real-world implications: if you diagnose the wrong drivers of change you will, invariably, diagnose the wrong response!
There are pretty much three levels to the answer. The level at which you or your organisation stops says a lot about your prospects (or at least the required approach) for transforming culture and structure.
One answer is external; one is internal and; the last is foundational:
It is a truism that things are getting more complex and getting more complex faster. It is equally common to identify this as the source of our organisational soul-searching. It is, but that's not much of an answer because it doesn't leave you with any scope for change - it's a bit like saying the sky is blue.... yes... and?
The truth is that complexity is a category of change we’ve been getting used to for a while now (a generation or two at least). Here's a deeper and more useful answer:
The study of evolutionary consciousness is a booming field and helps explain a lot - like why environmental policies are so challenging to implement and the rise of Donald Trump (if you want to read the latest and best, you simply can’t go past The Listening Society – a mind-blowing book). It also explains why we are having a cultural recalibration.
As people's levels of consciousness rise, so too does the scope of things they feel accountable for - otherwise known as their 'integrity'.
We've gotten used to thinking about integrity like it's a fixed value but of course it isn't, it too evolves and grows. As the level of consciousness grows so too does our level of integrity: we see deeper and further; we see links between things more clearly and ultimately; we feel accountable for them - for things happening outside us.
From an organisational perspective, what's important here is that groups of people (a country, a culture, an organisation) have an ‘ambient level’, like an 'average' level of consciousness. Some individuals in that group have higher levels, some lower, but the average is what defines the structure and operating culture of your organisation (see page 8 in my paper on Protecting the Bureaucratic Soul for how that maps onto bureaucracies).
As that the average level increases so too does the range of things people feel are not ok anymore (this goes some way to explaining the Cancel Culture phenomenon where people expressing values authentic to them are shunned by other people for whom those same terms represent different values).
The Crusades we quite literally fought as an ACT OF LOVE. That made sense at the 'average' level of consciousness in Europe at the time.
Luckily, the scope of what ‘love’ means has expanded a bit since then and we have to find other justifications for invading other countries and killing people.
Evolutionary consciousness is a really powerful explanation for movements like #metoo, XR (Extinction Rebellion) or Black Lives Matter the question for us is: if it is consciousness evolution, how to we support our people on that journey as we look at responding (and hopefully proactively engaging) with this profound shift in expectations.
But there is another, even way simpler explanation...
3. A deadline
Deadlines drive performance. We all know it and it is as true in the field of culture as it is in the field of productivity.
Without a deadline we all ‘faff around’. We talk a lot, take a lot of actions, say all the right things, but won’t deal with the really challenging stuff… until we HAVE TO!
I think that last year we collectively realised that now, we have to!
What’s our Deadline?
I was working with the WWF last week leading a foresight process exploring both the big trends and the weak signals impacting conservation and conservation agencies (weak signals are those hard-to-catch pre-trends that invariably catch us all blindside - like COVID!).
The time horizon for the exercise was 20 years but the consensus in this group of highly knowledgeable people was that:
we have ten years to turn make the requisite changes or be completely overwhelmed.
I won’t go into what ‘overwhelmed’ means because you already know.
In case there is any residue of vapid optimism it is worth noting that throughout history, most societies have failed to successfully navigate their relevant existential crises. The only difference between our current crisis is that, for the first time, it is existential for everyone, not just one society or one geographic area (see ‘Collapse’ by Jared Diamond)
So, we’ve got ten years.
We’ve said this before, but no-one was listening. This time we are because it’s actually true!
As a society, we haven’t really faced a deadline like this since the end of World War II. Post-war we eagerly imagined we’d never face one again.
Sometime in the 1990’s we realised that wasn’t completely true and entered a period of what Hanzi Freinacht calls ‘vapid optimism’ - the assumption that something will happen to fix things because the alternative is too horrible to countenance (the seminal insights we’re only now internalising were written in 1962 and 1970 respectively: Silent Spring and Limits of Growth. Both great studies in the importance of Futures Thinking!)
To avoid the looming deadline, we did what all good procrastinators do: we partied harder!
Last year brought home for many of us that our espoused values were not the same as outlived values (see a piece I wrote on this HERE). We did the work to align them at home, now we’re doing that work to align them in the public sphere!
I feel like this cultural recalibration is the ontological equivalent of rolling our sleeves up. We have collectively realised it’s time to get to work and now we’re getting our integrity in so we’re ready to do the really hard yakka…
Well, the deadline is imminent and it’s getting us into action.
In some ways, this is the simplest (if not the easiest) level to address. You call out the elephant in the room and engage in some good, old fashioned Truth-telling!
We do this work using foresight processes, but putting it our there and listening can sometimes be enough.
So, have you the courage to put it out there and see?
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