Take the long view

Systems scientists tell us that structure drives behaviour. We live in ‘business as usual’ structures that have grown up over decades, accumulating power, resources, attention and prestige. They have become dominant precisely because of their success. It is in the nature of powerful systems to argue for their own survival – and we are forced to act accordingly.


The fog at the bottom of the mountain
The fog at the bottom of the mountain 

Taking a longer view, we know that business as usual fades and new ways of operating, more fitting with the changed environment, eventually take over. The challenge is to introduce these new ways in the presence of the old. Simple innovation is not enough: it can too easily be captured and coopted by the failing dominant system to prolong its life. We need instead transformative innovation – innovation that paves the way to a different future.


In nature we find that time is an infinite resource, only physical resources are limited. But we operate on the opposite assumptions. Nature’s way of coping with uncertainty is to diversify, and every move is provisional. We tend to standardise, looking for short term economies of scale, and yearn for certainty when we should put our faith in learning.


In unknown territory we need a compass not a map, something to give us overall direction and purpose. We will find that compass not in the surface layers of change but deep in the culture where values live.


Expanding our view to include a longer timescale means we must also confront our individual mortality, imagining a world beyond our presence in it. We relish beginnings, innovation and growth. We shy away from endings, closure and withdrawal and do not manage them well: the closing of a factory, the end of an industry, the last days of a life in medical care. Might we find new responsibility in acknowledging the natural life cycle of birth, growth, death and regeneration?

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