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(written Aug 12 2020)
2020 – quite a year! As a parent, one of the most heartbreaking moments for me in these last months has been to see my kids trying to wrap their heads around the fact that grown-ups have no idea what’s going to happen. And I don’t mean 5 or 10 years into the future, I mean what’s going to happen in 6 weeks. Let me correct that — what’s going to happen in two weeks. Never mind. I mean this weekend.
Of course, we’ve always known that we only have today, and tomorrow is uncertain. But it’s never been in our face so much. My kids ask me what will we do in September. I say, “I don’t know”. And they just ask again. Until I say, “We actually don’t know” Because nobody knows.
Whatever will play out will be complex (referring to the Cynefin framework). Our life has become volatile, uncertain. Full of complexity and ambiguity.
Why self-governance now
We already know that centralized, top-down structures don’t do well with complexity and uncertainty. A centralized structure will lack resilience when the center fails. It’s oblivious to the information at the periphery. A top-down structure can’t possibly adapt as easily — just like a group of climbers all tied together. One falls, we all fall. That’s where we need decentralized self-organization. Instead of tying us all together onto one rope, we form pods, and we’re each part of several rope teams. Instead of waiting for an outside authority, rope teams can form as they’re needed. A resilient, interdependent web of relationships!
Many of us have been reading a lot about statistics and infections, testing, and early symptoms. We all depend on high-quality information. That’s why information has to be free and global — getting access to information everywhere.
At the same time, decision-making has moved to a more local level already. For example, school districts make decisions with a lot of impact, and those regulations differ from one town to the next. While patchwork is confusing, what’s true is this: local agreements have to respond to the local condition. It’s the only thing that makes sense.
Since things are so complex right now, time is really over now for simple answers. The phrase I’ve become most triggered by recently is, “why don’t you simply…?”. Because there’s no “simply”! It’s hard to operate in this interdependent, entangled mess! If you’re new to the topic of complexity, here’s a simple presentation about VUCA skills that I highly recommend.
Sociocracy is a tool that helps stay operable in complexity because it’s decentralized. You don’t need the big boss telling us simple solutions. You can’t draft a perfect 5-year strategy right now and implement it top-down. That would be pointless. Instead, it’s time to sense in all the different places and to feel our way forward, continually checking “Is this working? What happens when I do this thing? Or this?” It’s not just a better way. It’s becoming the only manageable way right now: many decisions in many places, incremental steps, and learning from experience, making guesses about what might be going on. Decentralized governance like sociocracy allows for that — like a flexible web that absorbs a shockwave more easily.
Sadly, for the last few months, my older kids have been in different stages and expressions of mental health crises. The more concerned I got, the shorter my fuse got. It wasn’t just me. The tone of some of my neighbors got rougher. People’s work got sloppier. Conflicts arose that could have been smoothened out.
And I realized: That’s what life is like when everyone is just a little more — or a lot more — under strain than usual.
I personally don’t think the strain will decrease any time soon. After covid, there isn’t a happy vaccinated utopia. Sure, there will be dancing again at some point. But the systemic issues and the tensions aren’t going away. Think climate. Think inequality. Think divisiveness.
So what’s coming will not be easier. More people will have fewer inner resources and more external strain. If we don’t want to fall apart, we have to up our game. Just like decision-making can’t stay centralized, empathy and emotional caretaking need to be accessible in a decentralized way. With needs rising, the model of “I have an issue, but I’ll only talk to my therapist about it” will be maxed out pretty quickly.
One of my kids learned DBT and CBT skills in recovery — and wow, she is becoming a great resource to me, coaching me through some tough moments.
One of my kids learned mindfulness practices and in his first-grade class, and he’s a great resource to us all. When I am upset, he tells me to pause, take a breath, and then imagine the smell of popcorn. It works. And it’s local, right here in my kitchen, for free!
This is the time to learn Nonviolent Communication, Acceptance and Commitment work, Reflective Listening, Restorative Circles, mindfulness practices — whatever it is, we’ll need it. All of it. This is not about finding the perfect tool. The time is now to get those good-enough tools into the hands of people everywhere. Disperse them. Blueprint, prototype, and make available. So they can be lived and used locally. If my 7-year old can be a resource, you can too!
I find that what keeps me running right now is not hope. It is purpose.
There have been many mornings where I was wondering what the point was in getting out of bed. Who would even know whether I showed up? What becomes more important now is how we’re connecting to ourselves and to what we care about. Sometimes I think it’s maybe all we’ve got. Now that the noise of ordinary life is gone, and the entertaining distractions are gone, that’s what remains: The people we love, the causes we care about.
In that way, the time crunch and crisis mode feel clarifying. Between all the to-dos that come with having a family and commitments, I want to have all my available time spent on meaningful work in the context of meaningful relationships. Because otherwise, I will run out of steam. I drop everything I don’t really want to do. I cut everything that isn’t moving forward. Shitty meetings have always been a waste of time, but now they are unbearable.
Those who are forced to attend a lousy meeting figure out a way to set up a screen next to the zoom camera, so it looks like they’re engaged while really, they’re playing Minecraft.
There’s a lot of talking about how workplaces have become more accepting of people having actual needs. The kid walking into the zoom call, the sick dog, worries about their parent’s health — people have always had a life in addition to the professional facade at work. But now you can’t ignore it anymore. It’s in our face, and it’s plain unrealistic to ignore it.
In the long run, my hope is that it will pay off to treat employees well, and command-and-control will have run its course. Temporarily, this shift might be eaten up because so many people are desperate to have an income. But it’s not a shift that can be ignored in the long run.
So when our work and a few other places are our only points of human connection, they better be worth it. The person you’re in a meeting with today might only have you as a point of human contact today. We’re it. We’re it, together and for each other.
Nothing is new. And yet, all is new. Uncertainty and complexity seemed abstract to me last year. Now it’s day-to-day business.
Decentralized governance like sociocracy isn’t an over-idealistic option anymore. In the same way, caring workplaces that meet our need for meaningful connections aren’t a nice-to-have now, and meaningful work isn’t a lofty goal. This is now real. And it’s time to show up for that.