In order to understand who we are, we need to understand the culture that we live in. Over the past three or four generations, we have transitioned from a culture where we were subjects to powerful institutions to where we became captives to a culture focused on consumer products. And now, we are on the cusp of a third cultural transition. The following selection is from my short book, Seeing Below the Surface: The Brokenness of Modern Organizations.
When a book or essay appears in print, it is never all that could be said. It is a distillation and essence of the whole topic.
For my short book, Where Did Trust Go?, the instigating moment was a question from a Nairobi businessman. He asked me following a presentation to his group last February,
“What are we to do about corruption in government and business?”
At that point in time, I did not have an answer. I do now. It is found in this little book.
Let me describe what I see that led me to write. Let’s look at this through the lens of the Circle of Impact in terms of three problems.
None of us see below the surface of things. We fool ourselves into believing that we understand what is going on, when we only see the shiny surface of things. As Paul Simon wrote in his great 1960s pop hit, The Boxer, “People believe what they want to believe, and disregard this rest.” If seeing is believing, then we only believe in the appearance of what we see, not the substance of it.
The structure of the modern organization is collapsing. It is crumbling from within. The structure is no longer adequate for the fast-paced world of change that we live in. In many respects, its persistence is an act of denying reality.
Professor Joseph Tainter describes collapse as “a rapid simplification of an overly complex system.” It happens because societies become good at solving problems. As a result, greater complexity occurs. What does this complexity look like?
In September 2018, after Circle of Impact was published, I hit the road to promote sales of the book. I spent the next year talking to people standing in bookstores, sitting at bars, in laundromats, parking lots, and hotel lobbies. These conversations went something like this.
“Oh, so you are the author of this book?”
“What’s your book about?”
“It is a book for people and organizations that are in transition.”
Then they would give me a surprised look and say, “Oh. … Well. … That describes me.”
Then a conversation would happen where they would tell me a story about who they are, their life experience, and why they felt they were in transition.
I found that people first feel that they are in transition. But they lack a way to talk about it. This feeling rises deep from within themselves. This is especially true if they have either worked in an environment described above where they are simply hired to perform specific tasks or have been out of the workforce for a while taking care of family needs, whether children or elderly parents.
Of all the ways that I could describe the book, speaking about transition resonated most significantly with people. This isn’t just personal. It is also something happening to our society, our communities, and every organization within it. It is a global reality felt at the most intimate level of our lives. It is also clear that some people are better suited or prepared to make transitions in their lives, while for others it is a very tough, hard experience.
Communities are under great stress. They are the places we live, work, love, and experience the full range of life. We each need to think deeply about our relationship to the place we live. Where do you participate? What is your contribution? What is the difference that matters that you make?
This is what Stephan Abrams a honored friend and I talk about on his podcast, The Jackson Hole Connection.