2017 was a special year for me. I decided to disconnect from corporate life for a yearlong sabbatical focusing on art creation, and reflecting on the possible role of artists to enable structural change in organisations.
Over the last 10 years or so, I experimented creating immersive learning expeditions, but I wanted my work to progress and resonate at a level beyond the conscious. I started a research on high quality change, ill-named “deep” change, and I subscribed as a painting student at the Royal Art Academy of Ghent.
It found it a good moment to condense my sabbatical thinking into a couple of levers that could enable high quality advancement for a humanist future.
Trend-1: High Quality Connections
Any change or advancement happens between human beings, in the relationship, in the connection and exchange. The quality of our human connections is indicative of the quality of emerging change. But what is a high quality connection? My good friend Tom Laforge (@TomLaForge) described it as “one where information transfer is rapid, reliable, and noise free”.
Noise free that is of intrinsic motivations such as prestige, reciprocity, self serving bias, power games, etc.
High quality connections work like non-verbal direct connections between two brains, tapping into the unconscious of the soul. In that sense, art can be a noise free communication between the artist’s resonance with (sur)reality and the mind of the receiver.
A humanist future requires a high quality connection where information transfer is rapid, reliable and noise free of intrinsic motivations such as prestige, reciprocity, self serving bias, and power games. A high quality connection is a direct connection of minds and souls.
Trend-2: Respect for the collective unconscious
A lot of change initiatives only scratch the surface of the systems they try to change. They are tactical, short term and full of platitudes. I would like to suggest an almost Jungian analysis of organisations and ecosystems.
Trained as an architect, I have been (and still am) seduced by the term “Patrimony” and the respect of patrimony and the ability to combine patrimony with contemporary. Early feedback suggests that the term patrimony may not be the best. It contains the Latin “Pater” and makes people think of something “paternalistic”.
In an earlier post, I already suggested that the Dutch word “Erfgoed” maybe captures it better. “Erf” means inheritance, value that can be transmitted across generations. “Goed” stand for “good”, both as 1) something tangible, an art-i-fact and 2) something good, of value, of worth, wealth and culture to be carried forward.
Patrimony is structural memory carried forward from previous generations. Like Jungian humans, also organisations may have an ego, a conscious, a personal unconscious and a collective unconscious. Patrimony is about the collective unconscious.
To have fully humanistic organisations, we must be prepared to interrogate and influence at the level of patrimony. And combine patrimony with contemporary. Not as a shock or provocation, but more like adding milk to coffee (with thanks to Niels Pflaeging)
The same applies to straight and curved lines. As a non-practicing architect from the seventies, I was trained in straight lines. That’s what my hand had internalised. When later in art academy I was doing live model drawing, I could sense how unnatural natural curved lines were to my hand, and probably also to my brain. It reminds me of an intro of an art exhibition by art curator and critic Hans Theys, who described the straight lines in coffee bars along a high street in Borgerhout, an area mainly populated by Muslim immigrants: tables, chairs, lights: all were straight, hard, and women de-facto not allowed. What a nightmare it was/would be to live in a world that was only designed by men, without (internalised) curved lines.
Humanistic advancement will flourish only if we develop our ability to see, sense and share the patrimony and curved lines of our organizations, institutions, and ecosystems. It’s Jungian in the sense that the maturation happens when we are able to internalize, accept and incorporate the organizational collective unconscious of cross-generational heritage, symbols, memories and narratives. Including the suppressed shadows, memories, and femininity of our organizational patrimony.
Trend-3: Coherence of narrative, motives, and governance
As described in trend-2, patrimony is stored memory of the underlying structure of an organisation. Culture as recorded know-how. To advance humanistic organisations we need to advance this structure. Structure is more than organisational structure like hierarchies or non-hierarchies. The structure is about coherence between narrative, motives and governance (with thanks to Jean Russell @nurturegirl).
Narrative: John Hagel has written a lot about the difference between stories and narratives. A story is well, a story: with a beginning, middle and an end, tied together by a plot. A narrative has a sense of purpose, has a call for action, and can rally humans to a new destination. I would argue that a good narrative moves an organisation beyond “building to spec”. I remember a narrative of a small family business that was specialised in building and restoring old baroque organs. Their humanistic ambition was not just to have developed mastery and craftsmanship in building organs to spec. No, their ambition was to create an instrument that would give the musician an extraordinary musical experience.
Motives: John Haidt has written a whole book about it (“The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom), describing the motivations of the rider and the elephant. The unconscious elephant is motivated by reciprocity, prestige, self-serving biases, power, hypocrisy, arrogance and entitlement. To be truly humanistic, we need to appreciate another level of motivation, the motivation of “we”. Here we are in the territory of motivations such as care, tradition, craftsmanship, beauty, proportion, sacredness, and infinite games.
Governance: we are slowly progressing on the spectrum from centralised to centralised to distributed governance. The traditional metaphor for change is the “Castle & Sandbox” metaphor of separating core and innovation activities of organisations. I have come to realise that we need another metaphor that is based on that of cities. As Geoffrey West pointed out in his research, Cities never die, even when more complexity is added. It would make more sense these days to think in terms of distributed, networked governance, organised like “Kasbahs”, a web of innovation and advancement initiatives, transparent to all, and governed by self organizing mobs. This is however not a call for the “gig-economy”, as many gigs are piece-mealed shit-jobs, driven by non-human algorithms, leading to a precariat experience of work.
To advance humanistic organisations we need to advance their coherence between narrative, motives and governance.
Trend-4: Everything important has to do Aesthetic, Moral and Spiritual advancement
During my sabbatical, I had the luxury of visiting many art related expositions and retrospectives. I have been particularly struck by the beauty ànd the intensity of work from artists like Dries Van Noten (celebrated Belgian fashion designer), Rem Koolhaas, Winy Maas and Ricardo Bofill (renowned architects), and the urban (packaging) projects of Christo and Jean Claude.
Why are they heroes? For one because of the high quality work they produced, the intensity of their work, and the high level of preparation in everything they do. Advancement in aesthetics has a lot to do with it. But there is always a dimension of moral and spiritual advancement as well.
For a better humanistic future, everything important will have a dimension of aesthetic, moral and spiritual advancement.
Trend-5: Structure drives everything
Deeply influenced by the work of Robert Fritz on structural conflict and structural tension, and that structure drives everything, I have become dissatisfied by the responsive reaction in many organisations that can be summarised as “what problem are you trying to solve?” It is too solutionist, reductionist to my tasting, and I prefer Robert’s suggestion of the creative orientation of the artist/creator who is not solving a problem but develops mastery to create what she really wants.
“Structure drives flow drives behaviour drives culture drives change”
Like changing/influencing the structure of a building or a riverbed, we can influence the high quality information flows in organisations. These changed flows lead to different behaviours that on their term drive culture. In the end culture drives change and advancement.
It would be great if we could create a baseline for humanistic advancement and track its progress over generations, driven by structural interventions. A new sort of humanistic index based high quality connections, respect for the collective unconscious, a coherence between narrative, motives and governance, all powered with a desire for aesthetical, moral and spiritual advancement. In other words: growing better, not necessarily bigger.
Any of the trends described could evolve in a good or bad direction, but as an optimist, I chose for the path of “advancement” vs. the path of decline and degradation.
Peter Vander Auwera.
You can follow Peter’s work, insights and impressions on his blog.