11 April 2011

On 'no', growth and resilience

I have mentioned elsewhere the art of saying 'no.' Earlier this year I was in a dialogue on this where I was asked about my views. We spoke about about this together for some time and I suggested some of the basic things:
  • be clear about the commitment that serves as a context for saying 'no'
  • say 'no' in a way that honors the commitment of the person to whom you are responding
  • recognize the general condition wherein the systemic inability to say 'no' undermines the authenticity of any 'yes'
  • act to enable authentic choice in the system
  • make room for others to meaningfully say 'no'
  • etc.
I wanted to cover another dimension of this. It has to do with resilience. One way to think about resilience in a system has to do with the space in the system. The ability to say 'no' can create space in a system. Th inability to say 'no' can eliminate space. This is pretty straightforward. Maybe in the system of human interactions there is some value such as 'efficiency' 'growth' or 'performance' being optimized. Requests are framed with respect to this value. The value even becomes a matter of morality. Saying 'no' to requests in such a system is then experienced as a moral violation. Naysayers are traitors, or some equally negative value with respect to the social contract. Even when we do not ourselves agree with the morality at play, we may feel our survival is at stake since we feel this morality. 'No' will be punished.

Let me give a few examples. At the time of the first US invasion of Iraq I was in a conversation with some of my friends. They were asking me about the war. I felt (and feel) there was no basis for the war at all. Their condition was that they felt it was not desirable, but unavoidable. Really? They could think of no alternative, therefore it had to be done. It was necessary. The absence of an immediately apparent alternative does not constitute necessity for me. Instead that condition is deeply mysterious. That mystery, and therefore even the possibility of an alternative, cannot even be contemplated from within the moral inability to say 'no.' It is self fulfilling and creates a condition in which there truly is no alternative.

Recently in the food group here we were revisiting the question of organization. In that conversation people basically advocate for electing leaders and modeling something about a modern corporate structure, organizationally and financially. The argument for this is that unless we do this we will miss opportunities. We will be unable to interact with other organizations. We will lack credibility. This has to do with saying 'no.' What if instead it were simply the case that we did not do those things... or at least simply recognize we may not be able to? Would that mean that there was nothing meaningful for us to do?

Consider Craigslist. All sorts of criticisms are possible, and it is a very interesting organizational example. I am not certain this is still the case, but within the last year or so it was the largest internet service on the net. It was larger in terms of transactions, throughput and such than the next three largest services combined, which include things like eBay and Amazon. Do you see ads for Craigslist anywhere? Do they have a 'push' model? No. People come to them with all sorts of plans and offers for how they can optimize their business. I mean, come on, the interface looks like something from the 1980's. Their consistent response is 'no.' The owner says he likes his modest home. Why does he need more? The commitment of their model has to do with enabling local, face to face, interaction. Essentially they are supporting local community. From within that context they consistently say 'no' to the countless offers they receive to help them maximize and consolidate profit. Are they 'missing opportunities?' I don't think so, but many people would disagree. apparently they also do customer management through Haiku.

We tend to judge the value of our endeavor by it's growth, from within a particular model of growth. One proxy in that model is of course maximizing profit. Secondarily we might espouse something about some set of values. Part of the model is the belief that if we are not growing we cannot serve these espoused values. This is often also a zero sum game, such that we can only grow at some expense to someone some place else. I spoke with a good friend of mine recently. My friend was telling me about their recent business endeavors. Currently they are partnered with a group of like minded people, collaborating to provide services to people who are doing good in the world. I know that is a very general description. It is much more specific than that, but that specificity is not completely relevant.

When they began they spent a great deal of time reflecting on what that meant. How would they recognize such efforts? If these services were going to a business, how would they choose with whom to partner? I should say, these particular people are very savvy. There is nothing pollyanna about them. They have been doing the work they do for most of their adult lives and are very experienced and mature in the undertaking. They are among the best people on the planet at what they do and what they do is consistently intended to make a benevolent contribution.

So, for a time they are consistently engaged in this deep reflection. Then they began to grow. Managing the growth displaced the reflective capacity, simply by requiring so much time from each and all of them. I wonder how much work they have declined as a result of the reflective process? I wonder where they have successfully said 'no?' Their system is now less resilient than it was. The only way to produce the appearance of resilience is to involve more people, in order to serve the growth model. Mostly, that does not work. Will the addition of more people allow them to successfully recover their reflective capacity as a community? Unlikely. Are they hiring people to reflect or to grow? Do they understand there own value as reflective or in terms of growth, within and serving a system of profit maximization... even if and as they are trying to change something about that system? Is the reflection a value to itself, or a means to an end?

I really like and deeply respect these people I am just now talking about. They come to mind and heart frequently. I am grateful to many of them for the profound ways they have contributed to my life. They already know all these things I am suggesting. They are smart, smart, smart. They are among the smartest most skilled people I know. I also only have a superficial understanding, having spoken with a couple of them on a couple of occasions.

That said, it seems to me a recurring pattern. It seems to me a pattern that requires a kind of fragmentation and chauvinism to enact and maintain. Are the particular people involved chauvinistic? I do not think so. I do not even have some prefigured view that they should go do something else, or do what they are doing in some other way. It is not like that. I more or less have a negative amount of money in the financial economy. We all do, though the illusion of localized profit tends to obscure this in the industrialized, financial economies. If I felt like I could participate in the financial economy, without participating in environmental destruction, mass extinction, enslavement, institutionalized famine, death by preventable disease, toxification of food and food systems, organized and scaled murder, etc., etc... well, I might consider it. If I felt like it was possible to shift the financial economy from within it, I might work to do that.

I am not saying no one can do this. I don't think I can. Well... I could participate. I know this because I have done so and am even pretty good at it. I seem to be more concerned about how I am still doing that and learning to stop, rather than with successfully doing more. Many of the best people I can think of get co-opted in the process of such participation, even when incredibly well intentioned, experienced and thoughtful. I have lived some decades of my life inside of that. I now get co-opted in the attempted non-process, even in writing this.

I feel people could feel judged and even attacked in some way by my expressing all this. That is not my intent in any way at all. I am just wondering if when the immediate opportunity to grow in a familiar way presented itself, whether my friends, collectively and individually, considered saying 'no?' If considered and not enacted, what were the specifics of that? Did they consider it deeply enough for any sort of emergence? I plan to ask them some more about this.

I am thinking about how one might organize (or self organize) with respect to this consideration and will write some more on that later.

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