Imagination, Ethics, and the coming redesign of Capitalism
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Imagination, Ethics, and the coming redesign of Capitalism

The COVID19 crisis has, with stark relief, lit up the inadequacy of the many systems which surround us, and leaders in many organisations are finally realising that it is time to address issues other than the easily calculated bottom line. The choice before us is a simple one — try to return to “the way things were” or push through to create systems which actually serve us.

The fallout from the disease is going to be broad and deep-reaching. Estimates of intermittent lockdowns till well past the end of 2021 are now getting their hearing so even here, in crisis control, it is clear that what is badly needed is imagination — a chronic lack of which has got us to where we are. Stubbornly pressing on to return to how things were before the virus, will only get us back to that same point where our lack of imagination will be sure to lead to another crisis.

Without imagination, we are not going to be able to deal successfully with this crisis, or with any other crisis that is just around the corner. Without imagination we will try to force our way back, instead of visioning a world that could, and must, come to pass. This is true as much on an individual level as on a nation-state level but this writer is concerned with business, so let’s take a look at that a little more deeply.

As much as organisations resisted it, the process of change has been forced on us, and it is happening faster than even the most ambitious futurists ever dared suggest. People who work in this field called innovation have been repeating like scratched records, for decades, that change is inevitable, change is happening all the time, change is the only constant, change is something that you need to work with, not against, that change is fuel, not a reason to be terrified, change is the defining principle of our times…

Well, here it is. Change, in all of its awesome (primary meaning of the word) power. If you are not seeing this moment in time as a point of inflection, a shift in reality, you are kidding yourself.

So, what are you going to do about it? We are now faced with a situation where the old frameworks of thinking are no longer sufficient. Are we are likely to adhere to them regardless?

Every innovation manager on Earth will at some time quote the famous Einstein line that you can’t solve a problem with the same mindset that created it in the first place, without actually realising what they’re saying. It’s not that you’re addressing problems, it is that you actually have to change the mindset. And, as most psychologists will tell you, that is not an easy thing to do, not least because of our evolutionary history.

Once we emotionally invest in a mindset, then most of the time it’s actually a lot easier to deny the existence of other possibilities, and other other possible mindsets, than it is to address the fact that perhaps my mindset may be insufficient; not broad enough. Maybe I’m just not looking at enough things at the same time? We celebrate imagination but somehow have an innate fear, that what we might concoct once we start to imagine will force us to change. Ah, the terror of it!
Now it’s being illustrated to us very clearly that we have been suffering from a great deficit of imagination, and the reality brought on by that deficit is truly terrifying. Epidemiologists have been telling us for at least ten years, probably closer to 20, that the likelihood of a rapidly spreading and deadly pandemic was high. We have ignored that. The majority of healthcare systems on Earth are woefully underfunded, often because of “conservative” elements in politics concentrating on the cost of maintaining extensive healthcare systems.

How does that reflect on our collective ability to imagine scenarios and possible outcomes, and to prepare systems that are supposed to take care of us? Taking a wider view of this, how does that affect the long-term viability of markets and industries, when the people who make up those markets and industries are not able to work, to transact, to earn, and to spend with the same patterns as before? How is that possibly a parallel, a reflection, of industries and companies ignoring the broader picture?

The nature of sudden change has come into full view. The nature of innovation is such that what has been has zero guarantee of continuing beyond tomorrow, and the spill-over effects are everywhere. The CEO of a large Polish software company has found himself surprised that, after 95% of his staff went into remote work over the space of a few days, their productivity actually increased. “We did not have any systems in place to manage such a volume of remote work, but we have created them quickly.” Now he is not expecting all of his people to return to working at their offices whenever it becomes possible to do so. We can assume that this is not a unique, isolated case, and that there will be many leaders of “knowledge work” companies who come to the same conclusions. How will that trend affect everything from commercial real estate value to how office supply companies, catering businesses, and recruitment professionals adjust?
We now are faced with a situation where there are no clear ethical solutions, not because Ethics is somehow deficient in itself, but because our reality had been constructed devoid of any meaningful input from Ethics.

The situation in which many businesses find themselves right now is instructive. Entire industries are clutching, hanging on to the old way of doing things, desperately trying to figure out how to preserve their market position, how to make sure that once this disease has passed they can get back to the way things were just as quickly as possible. We can be sure that this kind of thinking is not going to do them any favours.

Crystal ball technology has been lost in the mists of time, but it is clear that those industries will find it very difficult to adjust to this new reality if the leaders of those businesses continue to insist on trying to return to how things were six months or a year earlier. We have walked through a door with one-way hinges, and it is not going to let us spring back into the old reality.

A complete system redesign is required, and we cannot afford for it to take a century. It needs to happen within a couple of decades, if we are to still have a civilisation in another generation or two. There is a ton (or even a tonne) of work ahead to make sure that what we actually build following this current dreadful event has resilience and is built on principles of social inclusion and ecological restoration, rooted in Ethics.

Ethics is a funny thing. The answer that comes up most often when you ask corporate leaders the simple question, “what about ethics?” is “yes, ethics is very important, and we must must think about it.” Full stop. At business school, Ethics may be mentioned as something worthwhile and important, and please do read some of the books by the Ancients sometime, and now let’s everybody get back to those rational decisions and spreadsheets.

So if we are finding that Ethics can’t help us with answers right now, it is because for a very long time we have not been asking the right questions, only a very narrow range of the easy ones.

We now are faced with a situation where there are no clear ethical solutions, not because Ethics is somehow deficient in itself, but because our reality had been constructed devoid of any meaningful input from Ethics, over decades if not centuries. Lipservice paid to Socrates’ relationship to Truth is not the same as delving into challenging definitions of the phenomenon and how it relates to your own life and business decisions.

And this goes back to the question of imagination. How do you even come up with a list of difficult questions if you can’t imagine where to look for them? More to the point, how do we come up with that list, before those questions arise and kick us in the proverbials? It is certainly easier, intellectually and emotionally, to drive for a return to the “normal” and a lot of people in business will now push very, very hard for just that, without realising what very slippery slope they’re on.
Unless we ask those hard questions – of reason, and belonging, meaning and true purpose — we will just keep sliding down that slope every time another so-called Black Swan comes and slaps us in the face with its wing. Except, this particular crisis wasn’t even a Black Swan, because according to Taleb’s definition it could, and has been foreseen; it’s just that it was too hard to think about the questions it brought up, so it was ignored. (Sounds like a lot of “innovation management” that has gone on in companies I have known, without being too pointed about it…)

A dreadful paucity of imagination has ensued in too many places and areas of endeavour, as a sort of pathetic default setting. We have been great at implementing, planning, executing, strategising… Wondering what colour we will repaint the superstructure of the Titanic once she has completed her maiden voyage. We have been concentrating on the obvious, instead of looking at the important and the likely surprising. It’s easier that way, of course, and anyway, “they’re not paying me to think beyond my brief.”

Which is why our reality is now on the table, and up for renegotiation.

A redesign of Capitalism is necessary, if we are to preserve a level of sanity in our society, going forward. We truly have arrived at a crossroads and we must choose the way forward consciously. The system itself is in urgent need of an upgrade, and a rework of the core architecture is way overdue, to use software parlance. If we skip the important and attend instead to the obvious, we will not be reaching deep enough.

The initial designs will be prototypes in need of rework, it will not be uniformly distributed, of course, it will be patchy and halting to begin with, but there are now enough voices that are loud enough, finally asking “How can we build a more sane society and how can business be a part of that process?” Business can, and must, be a force for good, otherwise it will become a grimmer version of its recent self.

We have never known what tomorrow might hold, yet we’ve usually imagined that it would be much like today. No any more. We are given a once in a century opportunity to take stock of this great discontinuity of assumptions, and build a better world. This is as terrifying as it is exhilarating. On our watch, the Future is being remade and it is evidently a plastic thing and we can stretch it in a myriad ways. If I may go full Aristotle on you: “the future which is known, cannot be changed, and the future which can be changed, cannot be known.”

Will we accept whatever comes along without much critical thinking? Or should we expend effort to build a future that we actually want?