07 April 2011

On Utility and Incompetence

If it is not yet clear to you by now, I am more or less incompetent at many of the simplest things in life. Many things that seem simple and normal are often quite difficult for me. On the other hand certain sorts of things that are considered complex and even difficult are relatively simple for me. At least it seems this way. I wanted to say something about the 'utility' of my incompetence. It seems to me the case that for all of us our areas of greatest functionality often create some of the darkest shadows in our lives. There are various theories about this. It is also seems to me to be the case that areas of learned helplessness and incompetence themselves have strategic value for us. By this I mean that we strategically hold to these because they are actually beneficial to us in some ways. I have explored this in my self and with teams and leaders in many organizations. Let's call this 'ego utility.'

I was working with a particular team inside one of the larger multinationals. They were accountable for the global strategic development and implementation of IT for a large global business. This involved technology strategy and implementation in a variety of areas including communications, knowledge management, energy efficiency, safety, product/process innovation, and all the things you might normally associate with IT for a large complex business. It was about a 7 person team. In order to act on their responsibilities in these areas it was necessary for them to develop a comprehensive strategic view, not just for the business, or technology, but with respect to global trends and patterns that included a point of view on climate change, energy portfolio, socio-political market shifts, etc. I will say that having worked in many different parts of that organization this particular team had one of the most comprehensive and challenging strategic views in the organization developed considering a 50 year time frame and then backcast progressively into the near future. I say this to indicate that they were a highly effective team with the capacity for strategic reflection and decision making in the face of what many would encounter as overwhelming complexity and ambiguity. One of the pieces of work we did together was on ego utility and how that manifests in such a process of strategic development and implementation.

Initially the simple question we asked together was 'what are you known for?' 'What characteristics do your team mates count on?' My description of the results is overly simplified and meant to be illustrative. One person on the team could be counted on to be fair and dispassionate in decision making and leadership. They had a deep moral compass and sense of integrity. Another was deeply strategic and could be counted on to consider complexity both technologically and organizationally. A third was genuinely and consistently concerned with the well-being and connectedness of the organization and people. There were these simple sorts of profiles that came out very readily once the conversation was engaged and seemed almost self evident to the team. I asked the individual to first give their own assessment and then receive a like assessment from the team as a whole. After we had explored and detailed this out for all team members we then asked 'what are the unintended consequences of this area of competency for you?' Of course at first this can be a bit opaque and I reversed the process, asking the team to first create picture or profile of such consequences for all their team mates. You can imagine that this conversation takes a fair amount of maturity and reflective capacity to meaningfully engage. If superficially engaged it is worse than useless. This means that the reflections must really be grounded in examples and the patterns associated with those must be explored. It also means that the team must have the capacity to work with the sort of defensive contraction that can arise in the individual or team when delving into these sorts of areas. It must be safe, and only they can make it safe. In essence they must be able to authentically listen to one another and demonstrate that they are doing so.

Again, skimming across the surface of such a conversation, without recreating the depth of process and exchange actually involved (this took several days to do together, interspersed with some other activity), what would you expect as the unintended consequences, or 'shadows' associated with such ego utility? The simplified picture is something like this. The impartial leader often seems aloof and dissociated. He is capable of passion, but still always seems at a distance. In interpersonal relations the leader with clear strategic capacity does not feel trustworthy. Is he gaming us? Are we currently a pawn in some larger design? The person concerned with interconnectivity seems nosy and intrusive.

The reason we might call this ego utility is that our specific areas of competence can be considered as part of the transaction from which we are gathering evidence about our own value. If we explore this just a bit, we might discover that such a strategy is not only a survival strategy, but also our strategy for being loved, or rather to cope with the fear of being un-loved, un-seen, un-known, un-valued, since such strategies do not actually produce a condition of being loved. It is a strategy to cope with betrayal, abandonment, sense of oppression, etc. This does not mean that it is not or cannot be connected to or some aspect of a context of service. Such strategies often have a positive intent well beyond survival considerations. We ourselves might limit the scope of our awareness or attention to focus on such positive intent, deleting the dynamics of dependency and survival. This in turn creates a dynamic where responsibility and accountability become fairly difficult. Our context of service becomes a strategic ideology. We will 'make a difference' or 'have an impact' as ideology, deleting and excluding the shadowed aspects.

My own incompetency is not unlike this, though I leave it to you to piece that together. Secretly this is an update on the failure of Cabbage Day. (http://ifelthat.blogspot.com/2011/02/cabbage-panic.html#more)

My efforts to create Cabbage Day as an instance of a cyclic, organically occurring community event utterly failed. This failure has been very useful. It would have been nice to also have a cabbage day, but this is interesting as well. There was ample interest from a variety of people and organizations. There was ample cabbage. All of this was available in a decentralized, emergent sort of dynamic. There was no kitchen. Well there were lots of kitchens. There was no existing social fabric which had the participation of local kitchens as community centers occur with the same ease as the people and the cabbage. I could have 'made' a kitchen happen. That would have been fairly easy to do. I decided to let the day fail instead.

Why am I talking about 'ease?' Our current system of food production in the industrialized world requires 10 calories of energy to produce 1 calorie of food. Given that those calories come from a non-renewable resource, by definition this is not a sustainable system. (As I recall that is about 10BoE annually for a 2500 calorie per day diet.) Additionally, the financial economy is based on an abstract relationship to that non-renewable resource.

Initially it can seem that the intent to produce the greatest return from the least effort is variously lazy or avaricious. When such efforts are directed simply toward self gratification or abstracted from the natural, cyclic systems in which the effort may be taking place, this might be true. It is odd to consider how lauded avarice has become. It is currently a moral good. The good prosper. Prosperity is conflated with maximization and consolidation of profit. The expression of selfhood is the ability to consume. I am not suggesting this, but why not laud laziness instead of avarice? More to the point is a contemplation of how we understand 'effort' and 'return.'

I could have fixed the kitchen question with money. The artificial financial economy is based on the non-renewable resources. Fixing it this way is a participation in that system. I could have fixed it with heroic efforts. Such heroics do not necessarily create a sustainable social fabric and may even prevent such a fabric from naturally arising. Such heroics often invest in cyclic crisis, etc. I could have 'fixed' it in any number of ways. Almost all of those ways occurred for me as consistent with the system generating the conditions we might be trying to address with such an event. So, I simply let the cabbage day fail in a flurry of incompetence. Other people had very successful cabbage days and have reported to me on these. Of course I was somewhat embarrassed by my own evident incompetence. I am sure that such flagrant incompetence destroys what 'credibility' I might have... which is to say I look bad. I do not pretend that such things are not important to me. I would say that instead I have developed a certain ego utility about looking good while I look bad, as you may see demonstrated in this post about my failure. I am not particularly uncomfortable with my incompetence. Clearly I had a choice. I could have looked heroically good, in all likelihood. Instead I have been Foolish... though for the most parts Fools do not comment directly on that... so not altogether Foolish... well, unless doing the non-Foolish thing while pretentiously claiming to be Foolish, could be considered...


So, Cabbage Day victoriously failed. Yay! I am sneaking up on what happened as a result of the failure, but it is hard, since it did not happen as a 'result' of that failure. I want to be very clear that my intent was to have a Cabbage Day as the beginning of a cyclic community and food preservation activity. In order to understand something about this as an emergent phenomena it is important to understand this. I was doing an experiment. The experiment had to do with the manifestation of such a day, while minimally engaging any of the processes or models that made an 'effort' at organizing such a day necessary. This is from the point of view where such activity 'should' already be a naturally occurring aspect of local community. The results cannot be meaningfully understood as some form of linear causality. It was not my intent to manipulate some set of results into place by strategic failure and incompetence. If reading this you set out to that, the results are likely to be unpleasant. Such a manipulative effort is by nature violent since it requires some degree of objectification with respect the people you imagine you are manipulating. Furthermore, it is not sustainable in any sense because even if successful the continuation of such a result will require ongoing manipulation, which means ongoing application of force. This exhausts the system, erodes interconnectedness, and destroys resilience. It also traumatizes the system, the natural response to which is disintegration, rather than emergence or coherence. I hope it is clear what I am saying here. The experiment is ongoing and the results are unknown. The process is an emergent one, rather than a predictive one.

So what has happened?
  • The local Botanical Garden has decided that it would like to host a cyclic event of this nature.
  • This came about through conversations between people locally involved in food initiatives and the Botanical Gardens, really having nothing to do with me in any way at all.
  • The Botanical Gardens is considering training a team of volunteers that can run the kitchen and facilities on weekends. (Previously all weekend activities required rental.)
  • The proposed permaculture site currently being considered in a faculty community collaboration in a near by town also wishes to host such an event. (Again, nothing to do with me.)
  • Much of that is occurring in relationship to the question of missing fabric for the kitchens. (Only related to me as a result of my communicating my failure.)
  • Food Safety is another missing piece and several people have spontaneously offered to become certified in Food Safety Inspection, adding to the capacity of the social fabric involved. (Interestingly this can be done by taking a low cost on-line course that grants a 3 year certificate good in almost every county in the state.)
  • People are spontaneously volunteering to to 'host' days related to various crops
  • 'Hosts' are considering how to integrate community food preservation with areas of local abundance and the emergent local gleaning activities
Some things I imagine will happen since the structure for this was already in place for the glorious failure of Cabbage Day:
  • Local organic farmers will be involved and contribute
  • Local agencies serving diverse populations will be involved (creating an event that naturally integrates across socio-economic, ethnic, and generational boundaries)
  • Immediate distribution of preserved food will be enacted in a way that demonstrates and helps to build social fabric
  • Schools will be involved (which includes family participation)
I still imagine that in addition to direct skill building with respect to preserving any specific crop that such events would involve music, celebration, shared meals and a forum for further naturally emerging self organization in the community. I cannot emphasize strongly enough that I am not making any of things happen. I am also not unrelated to there happening. One of the things I feel this emphasizes is the importance of 'loss of face' in an emergent learning process. Our expertise and competence; our deeply valued functionality are in great part integral to the pathology we are now collectively living. The notion of initial failure through a kind of non-violent non-cooperation is really almost unthinkable. From a mechanistic metaphor perhaps it would be useful to consider it this way. The key to the Japanese quality revolution of the 70's in 80's in manufacturing was failure. So called 'kaizen' relies on a continuous and robust relationship to failure. One of the places this was first done was in the manufacturing lines for the light Honda motorcycles. They would periodically run the entire line over spec and see what failed. Based on the failure they would then redesign. with regard to the Cabbage Day the constraints had to do with minimally engaging, or even "fasting' habitual ways of organizing and 'doing' that are a product of the industrial era, even while working within a structure defined by those. Since our pathology of utility is deeply grounded in all those ways of 'doing' this is effectively running outside of 'spec.' Clearly it is impossible to accomplish anything without engaging those self evident ways of 'doing.' In the presence of necessity or a crisis, even more so.

I am out of time for now. A topic of another piece might be about how we celebrate failure and the 'boredom' associated with things like the apparent absence of the stimulation provided by heroism. I hope you all are well and thriving during this very strange period on the planet.

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