Opting for the difficult

Roughly 20 years ago I realized our current idea of civilisation could not be sustained. I imagine many have had similar insights. But also like me struggled with what do to and over time found that it is impossible to stop or redirect what can be seen as a supertanker on full throttle. And honestly maybe we also started to think that we were wrong. That this all might work out with the help of globalisation, international collaboration, technology, etc.

Today I’m glad I have at last shedded all such hopes, even if I hold a degree of openness towards possible miracles. But in general I have accepted that we are in the end state of this civilization. And this is paradoxically quite a liberation. It allows me to redirect my efforts and hopes in new, more fruitful, directions. 

At the core I am still a person that sees and needs to exist in a space of possibilities. So when possibilities seem scarce in and around our struggling institutions I now increasingly go for the outliers. For the small scale. For the local. For the community. For the human spirit. That is where I find hope and possibility today.

In a world running on steroids our old institutions act hard headed and will resist anything that seems to threaten their power and privileges. In the light of increasing complexity and uncertainty they tighten their command and control. Which is quite counter productive if they want to survive, and instead accelerates their disintegration. I’ve found this to be in line with how social systems tend to work when they get poisoned by ego, fear and power games. 

The easy (but soul threatening) thing to do is to play along. Not resist. Although it will still be tough work because those in charge will always want more from us. But the job in itself it is not so difficult. The truly difficult today is to take on the new possibilities that can be found at the fringes. Invite them and explore them. Test them. To bring people together, generate empowerment and build local trust and community. AND simultaneously defend these efforts against a variety of subtle and not so subtle attack and defence mechanisms from our institutions. 

I’m opting for the difficult. 

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Tom Peters – Still going strong!

In the last couple of weeks Tom Peters has put out some outstanding stuff in the domain of management and leadership. Maybe not new new new, but put forward in the context of today’s business world and in Tom’s unique style I would like to re-enforce his message – also to a Swedish audience.

So.

Message number one – The Speed Trap – READ IT. NOW. TAKE THE TIME ;) There is so much in this paper. Read it many times. Reflect. Apply. I believe Tom nails and expands brilliantly on a fundamental paradox of our times.

You may be aware he has a recent book out, The Excellence Dividend. I’m an avid Tom Peters fan, but must confess I have not yet read it. But it certainly is on my list.

Message number two – Summary of the Summary (of The Excellence Dividend) – Download the slides. Be happy there are only seven. Tom is famous for his HUGE slide decks ;) Read one of the seven slides a day for a week. Talk to your colleagues about each of them. Make commitments. Follow through. These slides cover the essence of WHY we exist as organizations and HOW leaders need to view their part of the work.

Do carry on reading if you’d like to know a little about my special interest in Tom’s work.

Tom Peters has been an inspiration for me ever since I came across his writing and thinking. I was in business school trying to figure out why it all felt so dated. At the time my dad was an executive at SAS and had met Tom several times and had books and pamphlets Tom had written. This was really something different than the boring literature we had in class.

After university I ended up starting a mail order management book store. The first book I imported to Sweden (cutting deliver times in half) was Tom’s Liberation Management. This is roughly 25 years ago and that book has meant a lot to me in many ways.

Tom is quite popular in Sweden and over the years we sold quite a few of his books. I later moved on to other endeavours but continued to read and follow Tom’s work. One of my reflections is that he has been remarkably consistent over the years. And also very productive! And energetic! And curious!

A couple of years ago I found Tom on Twitter. This added a new experience to his work and once in a while we’ve had a few exchanges. I really enjoy his keen observations and small outbursts. In my view he is still one of the more interesting voices in the the broad field of management and leadership.

And interestingly, when I am now rediscovering my interest in leadership and organisational culture that I started exploring 25 years ago, it is once again Tom who is an inspiration when I carry that work forward. As I see it there are timeless principles and practices that are getting ever more lost in this world of tech, data, money and metrics. It is like we are collectively forgetting that we are in the service of people.

—Jan

 

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Changing minds

Welcome to my blog ”Changing Minds”. I’ve been at it for a while, but there have also been gaps in my writing. Quite frankly the blog is a bit of a mess. I refuse to tidy it up as I want it to be a record of my thoughts and interests and how they have developed and changed over time. Even if it might be a little embarrassing. The topics are both big and small. Professional and personal. Serious and for fun. Specific and general. Just like life. Some of the content is fairly clear. Some of it is explorational and maybe even fluffy or silly. I would like the blog as a whole to mirror my personality.

I write in both English and Swedish. Filter posts by using the category menu. My most recent posts can be found below. A selection of my posts in English will also appear on my Medium account.

 

 

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Is ’sustainable’ the right word?

This is a question I’ve been asked a number of times lately. It has made me think. And I have come to the conclusion that it is the right word. Let me briefly explain why.

First and foremost ’sustainable’ is the established term we have used for a long time when we mean systems that are healthy and productive.

Secondly introducing a new term at this moment in time would risk confusion, and perhaps even lead us astray in the important work we have before us.

What seems to be considered problematic with the term ’sustainable’  is the view that no systems truly are sustainable. As far as I can recall from my studies in natural sciences this seems to stem from some confusion about how systems tend to function. In order to be sustainable systems do not have to be stable over time. They can be disturbed. But if they are resilient they recover. If they are not they collapse. A resilient system would be sustainable. A system that collapses would not be.

My understanding is that human life on Earth is a living system within a larger system we can call biological life on Earth. Our life style is making other systems collapse (species extinction). We are also disturbing the large system of life on Earth. But I seriously doubt we have the capacity to make this system collapse completely. We will kill ourselves before that happens. So the biological life system on Earth is resilient. Human life at this moment is on a track to collapse.

Some suggest that a better term would be ’harmony’. That we as a species should live in harmony with nature. I have no trouble with this term, but it lacks the quite solid groundwork done in the sustainability movement where relatively concrete definitions and action plans have been derived over the decades. Harmony in comparison becomes very fluffy and I fear it can serve as an escape hatch for doing the very specific work we know needs to be done.

So, I will stick to using the terms ’sustainable’. ’sustainability’ and ’sustainable development’. This wikipedia entry gives a good overview me thinks.

— Jan

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The Elephant in the Room

I was struck by something Yvon Chouinard said in this video I found on Youtube. At one point he says regarding sustainability that ”growth is the elephant in the room”. At first I didn’t react much but the phrase stuck with me and eventually started a quite vitalizing personal reflection process.

Sustainable human life on Earth is the most pressing issue we face. But not the hottest topic at social gatherings. Or in companies. Or in schools. Or even in politics.

We just don’t frame it that way. It makes us feel depressed. We want to be happy and joyful.

Guess what. Going extinct is REALLY depressing.

I believe we are in deep shit. I believe we are very successful at not dealing with this challenge. So, I share Yvon Chouinard’s pessimism on our future, but also his views on the few things that represent our hope.

The thing is, all these insights more or less came to me in the early 90’s. Which led me to start consulting on environmental issues in the mid 90’s. I read the fascinating and eye opening book The Limits to Growth, and a long line of other books as well. I really dug into the subject. I met Karl-Henrik Robert at The Natural Step and also participated in their training. I made myself committed to being part of the solution rather than part of the problem. For a while.

It seems I got distracted. I gradually lost my bearings during a longer period of time – almost 20 years. Sure, I did some of the obvious stuff. Recycled, reduced consumption, lightened my footprint and such but if I look at my professional life I did very little. I shared the occasional book or video clip, I would have sustainability as an important factor in my strategy presentations, but essentially I did not seriously put myself into the service of our future on Earth.

Now, I know this last sentence sounds pretentious as hell but I can’t find any other way to put it. And I’m thinking there is no other way anyone of us should be thinking about our contribution – with the exception of those that are most vulnerable.

So, a lot of suppressed thoughts and emotions caught up with me in the recent weeks and has made me pissed off at myself. I’m trying now to repent and do better. Daniel Quinn says we need to change our minds before we can make any useful changes in how we live. I believe this to be very true and Yvon Chouinard put me right back on track reflecting on the biggie of our civilization – growth.

Our obsession with growth is so sophisticated and embedded in our culture that we can’t see any other perspectives. Karl-Henrik Robert once said that GDP is a very good measure of how rapidly we are depleting the resources of our planet. Oh, the irony of this. Instead of constructing a measure that protects the resources we are so dependent on, we created something that encourages squandering.

When I look myself in the mirror I realize I am also guilty of pretending that all will be fine. Or maybe I should say I have been willfully blind. Telling myself things aren’t that bad. We will sort it out together. Why should I panic when no one else is, etc. But this behavior is exactly what is killing us. Boiled frog syndrome or whatever (I’ve heard this frog thing is a myth but haven’t bothered to check).

Anyway. Growth IS the elephant in the room. Big friggin’ humungous elephant. Almost all of us sense it. But we won’t talk about it. Because it makes us feel depressed and afraid. So we go on killing ourselves and instead try to focus on having a little fun while we do. Or we say to each other that we’ll deal with it later, we only have a couple things to attend to first….

Here is how I see our situation. In broad and slightly simplistic terms.

The embedded cultural idea of growth is a dead end. David Suzuki lays it out elegantly in this short video. There can be no such thing as sustainable growth. It is an oxymoron. What we can have is periods of growth and then retraction, like all other species. But we have found ways to fiddle with these mechanisms, keep feeding our growth and delay the consequences. But by golly, the consequences will haunt us. In our culture we have for some reason planted the idea of eternal growth as something necessary and attainable. We have somehow reached the conclusion that we are exempt from the laws of nature. But there can be no such thing as eternal growth. Period.

What we can have and should strive for is sustainable development. What is the difference compared to growth? I lend myself to the thinking of the late Russell Ackoff, systems thinker in the higher league. He said growth is the increase in size or number. Development is the increase in competence. This makes a lot of sense so I say let’s go for sustainable development and not growth. Any accompanying growth would need to be within the planetary boundaries.

I changed my mind about growth in the 90’s. I am convinced it is killing us. I just forgot about this for a while. Our survival, as I see it, is linked to development – increasing our competence. We do not need more things. We do not need bigger things. We do not need to be more humans on the planet. Yes, there is a case for uneven distribution. But let us then redistribute within our planetary boundaries, not continue to steal from future generations. This system is finite, and we have to deal with it.

I once again realize I have to push myself to initiate and participate in mind changing conversations and contribute so we collectively can get out of our bind. I want my kids to have a reasonable shot at a decent life. The way things look we perhaps only have 2-3 decades to change our minds and move in a new direction. We’ve had humans on the planet for a couple of million years. The last 10-15,000 marked a new course in our lifestyle – which fueled growth. The last 150 years accelerated this growth exponentially. But this is a bankrupt lifestyle. We are lending from the planet, from future human generations, from other species – and soon we won’t be able to repay our debts. If human life on Earth were a business, laws would force us to reconstruct our business or go belly up. I would at this stage prefer the option of reconstructing. We are not dead yet.

So, what will now come next? I honestly don’t know, but it must be different. And it must be sustainable. For the majority of people I think this is a daunting and scary process. Resistance to change will continue to dominate. Willful blindness will continue.

For some – including me – our predicament is a vast space of opportunity. We have a shot at doing something unprecedented. Humanity’s next great adventure is here!

 

 

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Separated from nature

Synchronicity is an interesting phenomenon.

I woke up today feeling a little gloomy and tired. After breakfast I found myself revisiting the works of Daniel Quinn. His most famous book is Ishmael – a book I read and decided to import and sell in the bookshop I owned in the first half of the 90’s. I sold well over 500 copies of the book which was quite a feat considering my store’s focus was business and IT literature.

Anyway, this morning I re-read ”If They Give You Lined Paper, Write Sideways” which was written by Quinn in 2007. It is an edited transcript he has with one of his readers and attempts to ”show” how he does what he does. There is loads of interesting stuff there and I tweeted a few quotes during the day.

In the appendix of the book he republishes an essay titled ”The New Renaissance”. I would like to urge you to read it. Maybe even a couple of times. This quote is so telling of Quinn’s mode of thinking:

”Nevertheless, I can tell you with complete confidence that something extraordinary is going to happen in the next two or three decades. The people of our culture are going to figure out how to live sustainably – or they’re not. And either way, it’s certainly going to be extraordinary.”

In the essay Quinn also states that our separation from nature is the most dangerous idea in existence. There is us and there is nature. If this does not change in our minds Quinn declares us doomed.

Now the bit of synchronicity. About an hour after I finished the book I started tinkering on my web site and tweaking the focus of my services more towards sustainability. I checked Facebook at one point and then this Huffington Post article showed up in my feed: ”Nature Connection Will Be the Next Human Trend”. It is an interesting read so please take the time. Not as sharp as Quinn, but in the same playing field.

The gloomy start of this day is long gone. I’ll go to bed with some contentment as one of the outcomes of today’s reading and writing is a newly formulated personal mission:

To make a real and positive contribution in the increasingly urgent process of making human life on Earth sustainable.

It is perhaps a bit lofty but hey that is me. This is what I will try to navigate my life towards in the decades ahead.

 

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It is never too late to change one’s mind

I know, I know. Just a few months ago I said I would be ditching my advisory practice for something new. But this seems not to be happening. At least not in the near future. So, it is back to business as usual.

Or rather unusual. This is because I have tweaked my mission and my offering in a few new and sharper directions. My hope is to make myself relevant for the most challenging issue we humans face – our survival as a species. We have two or three decades to make ourselves sustainable and organizations will obviously be at the center of the action. This is no kidding matter, we have some tough work to do together to get things in better order so our kids – literally – can have a future.

That said I hope we can make this important work fulfilling and effective. I will certainly strive to do everything I can.

Apart from assisting my professional clients my ambition is to create a few digital products that can reach a wider group of people. Also, I look forward to writing more on my blog and perhaps also start using video as a way of telling stories and building engagement. More about that later this fall.

One real change is set to take place though. I have been admitted to a 1.5 year university program in pedagogy that will qualify me as a teacher in upper secondary school. I will study in parallell with my regular work and look forward to integrate my learnings into my business. Or eventually morph my mission and business into a classroom environment. Who knows what the future holds?

— Jan

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Professional update

A couple of months have passed since I decided upon a shift in my professional direction. I’d like to share an update of where my process stands.

First of all thanks for all the encouragement I’ve been getting. It is both a trilling and slightly scary path I’m treading. Lots of interesting things are coming my way but nothing has yet materialized. Also I’m not exactly sure what opportunities to pursue. So I have decided to go slowly and keep things open as long as I can. One of my problems in life is I’m a little too eager to say yes to stuff. This is essentially good and has brought me much value, but in my present position I think it is wise to be a little cool and assess my options a little more than I usually do.

So what am I up to and what options am I considering this fall?

Presently I am doing a couple of client assignments. One is an investigation into job programs in a large municipality and looking for new approaches. Another is a culture development initiative in a fast growing online business. And I am also engaged in some think work around innovative organization models. So, I am fairly busy in the line of work I’ve decided to phase out. This in itself has generated some second thoughts because it is work after all and it is pretty interesting.

That said I have done a few things to generate options and pattern breaks for this fall. I have applied for a couple of university programs and courses. I have started to build an art/philosophy project that I will try to fund shortly. And I have entered a series of conversations that focus on long term work contracts.

A major insight is that I probably will not be closing down my company even if I chose to discontinue my consulting practice. The company as platform will be valuable in all different scenarios I’m looking at. If I chose to study I will be able to do consulting work on the side. If I take a long term gig I could just as well do it as a ”for hire” solution as signing a employment contract. And my art project would also benefit from having the company.

So, this is the status as I approach some vacation time in a couple of weeks. I will be working in July to complete the consulting assignments but also to work on my art project. In August I’ll be taking my kids to Mallorca for some sun, heat, swimming and good food.

Have a great summer!

–Jan

 

 

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Moving on

Dear clients, colleagues and business partners,

After over 20 years as a consultant and advisor I will be closing down my practice, effective by the end of August. This is not a decision taken in haste. It has marinated in me for some years and only during the Easter holidays did I finalize my decision. There is a lot I can share about this process but i won’t bore you.

Instead I’d like to extend a warm thank you to all my clients, colleagues and business partners these past 20 years. Thanks for having me onboard. Thanks for challenging me. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and insights.

I have been very fortunate to do interesting and important work. I have been allowed try new things. I have participated in some very innovative solutions. I have learned a lot and met world class leaders, thinkers and entrepreneurs. I have made many wonderful friends. I also humbly believe I have made some valuable contributions.

My next professional phase is not decided. I am in exploration mode and making myself available to the fabulous forces of the universe. (I have a Taoist outlook on the world.) Needless to say, I’m looking for work and open for exploratory conversations and suggestions.

Thank you all once again.

— Jan

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What does it feel like to be the CEO of a start-up?

I just love this question stated in Quora – and the response from Paul DeJoe.

Q: What does it feel like to be the CEO of a start-up?

A: Very tough to sleep most nights of the week. Weekends don’t mean anything to you anymore. Closing a round of financing is not a relief. It means more people are depending on you to turn their investment into 20 times what they gave you.

It’s very difficult to ”turn it off”. But at the same time, television, movies and vacations become so boring to you when your company’s future might be sitting in your inbox or in the results of a new A/B test you decide to run.

You feel guilty when you’re doing something you like doing outside of the company. Only through years of wrestling with this internal fight do you recognize how the word ”balance” is an art that is just as important as any other skill set you could ever hope to have. You begin to see how valuable creativity is and that you must think differently not only to win, but to see the biggest opportunity. You recognize you get your best ideas when you’re not staring at a screen. You see immediate returns on healthy distractions.

You start to respect the Duck. Paddle like hell under the water and be smooth and calm on top where everyone can see you. You learn the hard way that if you lose your cool you lose.

You always ask yourself if I am changing the World in a good way? Are people’s lives better for having known me?

You are creative and when you have an idea it has no filter before it becomes a reality. This feeling is why you can’t do anything else.

You start to see that the word ”entrepreneur” is a personality. It’s difficult to talk to your friends that are not risking the same things you are because they are content with not pushing themselves or putting it all out there in the public with the likelihood of failure staring at you everyday. You start to turn a lot of your conversations with relatives into how they might exploit opportunities for profit. Those close to you will view your focus as something completely different because they don’t understand. You don’t blame them. They can’t understand if they haven’t done it themselves. It’s why you will gravitate towards other entrepreneurs. You will find reward in helping other entrepreneurs. This is my email: paul@ecquire.com. Let me know if I can help you with anything.

Your job is to create a vision, a culture, to get the right people on the bus and to inspire. When you look around at a team that believes in the vision as much as you do and trusts you will do the right thing all the time, it’s a feeling that can’t be explained. The exponential productivity from great people will always amaze you. It’s why finding the right team is the most difficult thing you will do but the most important. This learning will affect your life significantly. You will not settle for things anymore because you will see what is possible when you hold out for the best and push to find people that are the best. You don’t have a problem anymore being honest with people about not cutting it.

You start to see that you’re a leader and you have to lead or you can’t be involved with it at all. You turn down acquisition offers because you need to run the show and you feel like your team is the best in the World and you can do anything with hard work. Quitting is not an option.

You have to be willing to sleep in your car and laugh about it. You have to be able to laugh at many things because when you think of the worse things in the World that could happen to your company, they will happen. Imagine working for something for two years and then have to throw it out completely because you see in one day that it’s wrong. You realize that if your team is having fun and can always laugh that you won’t die, and in fact, the opposite will happen: you will learn to love the journey and look forward to what you do everyday even at the lowest times. You’ll hear not to get too low when things are bad and not to get too high when things are good and you’ll even give that advice. But you’ll never take it because being in the middle all the time isn’t exciting and an even keel is never worth missing out on something worth celebrating. You’ll become addicted to finding the hardest challenges because there’s a direct relationship between how difficult something is and the euphoria of a feeling when you do the impossible.

You realize that it’s much more fun when you didn’t have money and that money might be the worse thing you could have as a personal goal. If you’re lucky enough to genuinely feel this way, it is a surreal feeling that is the closest thing to peace because you realize it’s the challenges and the work that you love. Your currencies are freedom, autonomy, responsibility and recognition. Those happen to be the same currencies of the people you want around you.

You feel like a parent to your customers in that they will never realize how much you love them and it is they who validate you are not crazy. You want to hug every one of them. They mean the World to you.

You learn the most about yourself more than any other vocation as an entrepreneur. You learn what you do when you get punched in the face many many times. You learn what you do when no one is looking and when no one would find out. You learn that you are bad at many things, lucky if you’re good at a handful of things and the only thing you can ever be great at is being yourself which is why you can never compromise it. You learn how power and recognition can be addicting and see how it could corrupt so many.

You become incredibly grateful for the times that things were going as bad as they possibly could. Most people won’t get to see this in any other calling. When things are really bad, there are people that come running to help and don’t think twice about it. Tal Raviv, Gary Smith, Joe Reyes, Toan Dang, Vincent Cheung, Eric Elinow, Abe Marciano are some of them. I will forever be in their debt and I could never repay them nor would they want or expect to be repaid.

You begin to realize that in life, the luckiest people in the World only get one shot at being a part of something great. Knowing this helps you make sense of your commitment.

Of all the things said though, it’s exciting. Every day is different and so exciting. Even when it’s bad it’s exciting. Knowing that your decisions will not only affect you but many others is a weight that I would rather have any day than the weight of not controlling my future. That’s why I could not do anything else.

Paul DeJoe, Ecquire.com

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