I love paradox and today we’re living through one of the biggest paradoxes of all: at a time when we seem more divided than ever, we’re actually more united than ever.
What do I mean by that? All you have to do is take a cursory look through our media or our conversations when we come together as groups to see that we’re deeply polarized. We not only disagree with the views of the other side, but dismiss the people articulating those views as evil, sick or ignorant beyond belief.
So, how could we be united at the same time? It’s simple: we’re all united by deeply held fear and, if we take the time to really understand the source of the fears on both sides, we’ll discover that we can become even more united around an opportunity that can take to us to levels of achievement that we never imagined possible.
What's the fear that we're feeling?
The precise nature of our fears may differ depending on which side we’re on, but the underlying truth is that we’re abandoning hope and succumbing to fear as the dominant emotion that governs our lives and our behavior. And, by the way, as fear takes hold, it’s very natural for anger to surface as well. Anger is often fear in disguise.
On one side there’s growing fear that mounting performance pressure is diminishing opportunity on a global scale, that our jobs and livelihood are increasingly at risk, and that the privileged few are reaping rewards at the expense of the rest of us. The institutions that were supposed to support us are increasingly failing us. Our children will not be better off than we are but instead will likely have a more challenging time and have to make do with less. So, the fear is not just about ourselves, it’s about our children – what could possibly be worse than that?
On the other side, there’s growing fear that the institutions that we’ve relied upon for stability and prosperity for centuries are now under attack. We’re heading into a society of growing turmoil where no one is safe. We’re fragmenting into warring factions. The consensus that provided a solid foundation for all of our institutions is rapidly eroding. While minorities may be the first to experience the loss of safety, we’ll all be subjected to unexpected attacks over time. Rather than a society where rights and duties prevail, we feel that we’re rapidly shifting to a society ruled by the mobs of the moment.
So, we’re all feeling the fear. And, as fear takes over, a vicious cycle emerges. Fear feeds upon fear. Those few of us who are able to cling to optimism find ourselves increasingly questioning how we can be so comfortable and complacent when those around us are consumed by fear. Those who have only modest fear begin to feel it intensify as we find so many others sharing our fear. We become ever more united in our fear.
And, as fear takes over, we also begin to feel increasingly helpless. Events are beyond our control. We’re victims of circumstances. Fear becomes overwhelming.
So, can we shift from fear to hope?
If we let this dynamic unfold and spiral out of control, the outcome can’t possibly be good. But there's an alternative.
Humans operate from two basic emotions – fear and hope. No matter how fearful we become, there is always some small trace of hope that keeps us going, otherwise we might just as well end it all now.
How can we take that hope and nurture and amplify it in ways that will help us to overcome the fear that we're all feeling? The challenge and opportunity for all of us is to make the journey together from fear to hope. But, how do we do that?
We can start by focusing on three basic facts. First, as human beings we’ve been endowed with unlimited potential to be nurtured and drawn out – whenever we think we’ve reached our limits, someone comes along to show us that those limits can be overcome and new levels of performance achieved.
Second, the long arc of human history shows an amazing pattern of exponential performance improvement on a wide range of dimensions – reduction of violence, health and prosperity. For those who doubt this, check out some of the amazing charts here. Over time, more and more of the global population has been able to participate in this performance improvement. Sure, we’ve faced deep setbacks along the way, but in every case we’ve somehow found a way to overcome those setbacks and return to the longer-term trend of performance improvement.
Third, we’ve been dramatically supported along the way by technology innovation that has helped us to do more with less, culminating with recent decades of exponential digital technology performance improvement that shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, that digital technology is now spreading to other technology domains like 3D manufacturing, biosynthesis, energy production and automobiles, unleashing accelerating performance improvement in those areas as well.
So, there’s a real basis for hope. It’s not just a figment of the imagination. And it’s a hope that can unite all of us, rather than divide us. Who wouldn’t want a world where we’re all able to achieve more of our potential and do far more with a lot less, amplified by technology that augments our capabilities? Who wouldn’t want a world where our children will venture far beyond the limits that we imagined existed?
Acknowledging the challenges
But certainly we face a lot of challenges along the way. We can’t just assume that things will somehow work out. We need to act and we need to act together.
What are some of the challenges we’ll face in moving from fear to hope? Perhaps our biggest challenge is that our institutions have not yet adapted to the changing world catalyzed by new generations of technology. This involves all of our institutions – economic, political, educational and social. They're all operating on old, outdated models.
Our work at the Center for the Edge has focused on understanding the long-term forces that are reshaping the global landscape, something that we call the Big Shift. We’ve just released the latest update of our Shift Index that focuses on 25 metrics tracking the unfolding of this Big Shift. The key finding is that these forces have been playing out for decades and that there's a growing disconnect between the forces of change and our institutions that is leading to deteriorating business performance and increasing instability.
There’s another, more subtle, challenge. We’re going to need to recognize the cognitive biases that inevitably come with fear and work to overcome them together. When we're gripped by fear, we have a natural human tendency to magnify perception of risk and discount perception of reward. We tend therefore to shrink our time horizons. We then fall into a zero sum view of the world where one can only win at the expense of others. And, in that mindset, trust inevitably erodes.
Perhaps our biggest challenge will be to resist the temptation to dismiss the other side. Instead, we need to respect that both sides in this divided world have legitimate fears and that those fears need to be addressed, rather than dismissed. On the one side, we have a fear that our institutions are no longer serving us and, in fact, are increasingly becoming obstacles to our well-being. On the other side, we have a fear that, if our institutions collapse, we will descend into world of chaos and violence. Those fears are not unfounded and they are not incompatible. We will only be able to make progress if we hear and respect the fears that appear to be dividing us and realize that in fact they could bring us together.
And we need to question our current views on where the answer lies. One side will need to resist the temptation to block the flows of people, products, ideas and money that they see as creating mounting pressure. The other side will need to let go of its view that our existing institutions are the best way to respond to the mounting pressure.
What's the quest that can unite us?
Rather than simply attacking our institutions, or conversely, simply defending them, we need to come together in a quest to redefine them. Redefine them to reflect the new context of a rapidly changing world, so that our institutions can continue to support us, helping to turn mounting performance pressure into expanding opportunity for all. As I’ve written elsewhere, we need to transform our institutions from a model of scalable efficiency to scalable learning.
How can we do that? What we need is a movement. As I’ve written elsewhere, successful movements are built on a compelling opportunity-based narrative and mobilize people with a distinctive form of organization.
Powerful movement narratives focus on an opportunity that’s somewhere out in the future. They’re realistic about the challenges and obstacles that need to be overcome in order for the opportunity to be realized. That’s why the opportunity isn't guaranteed to materialize, but instead calls for all of us to act together in order to ensure that the opportunity is achieved. These narratives are a powerful call to action and help to overcome the passivity that we tend to feel when consumed by fear.
Opportunity based narratives can be very effective in overcoming all of the cognitive biases that we tend to experience when overwhelmed by fear. But to be effective, they must be accompanied by action, action that demonstrates in tangible ways that those cognitive biases may not be correct. In this context, the action that has the greatest impact is likely to be small moves that, if smartly made, can yield quick results and set big things in motion over time. If we focus on moves that require massive resources and long lead times before any tangible results are achieved, the cognitive biases are likely to take over and undermine these efforts.
Those of you who know me will realize that I hold little hope that institutional transformation can come through top down, “big bang” initiatives. Instead, fundamental change comes from scaling the edge, building parallel institutions that can quickly demonstrate growing impact from fundamentally different approaches.
This approach to transformation is tailor-made for the emphasis on small moves, smartly made. It’s also very consistent with how successful movements organize. Rather than adopting hierarchical command and control structures, successful movements are all organized around small, local action groups , typically 10 – 15 people, who work together to achieve impact in very different contexts. These action groups are united by a loosely coupled network that enables them to seek help from others and to observe and learn from the diverse actions of each group what actions can achieve the greatest impact. This aggregation of small, local action groups is a powerful form of organization that I've called creation spaces.
So, if we’re serious about institutional transformation, let’s come together in small action groups in our local communities and focus on how we can start to build the kinds of institutions that will be necessary for us to achieve more of our potential. What’s the minimum viable institution that can quickly demonstrate impact? How can we scale those institutions rapidly to expand the potential impact?
For example, how might we create and evolve new learning institutions that approach learning as a life-long endeavor to create new knowledge in sharp contrast to conventional educational institutions that focus on transfer of existing knowledge in return for a certificate? Or how can we build businesses that create environments to encourage everyone (not just employees, but business partners and even customers) to learn faster together in order to achieve more of our potential? Or how can we establish and nurture local community organizations that connect more effectively with marginalized portions of our population and help them to build on the strengths they already have to create a more prosperous life for themselves and for their families?
And, to really make a difference, let’s make an effort to reach across the divides that appear to separate us today and bring together people in our action groups so that we can start to discover common ground. We need to demonstrate that, by coming together, we can achieve far more impact than if we stay isolated in opposing camps.
We’re far more united than we would believe – and we have the potential to become even more united, if we focus on the real sources of our fears. If we focus on opportunities that can unleash our hope rather than remaining prisoners of our fear, we'll discover common ground that can help us all to shift from fear to hope and, in the process, achieve an impact that most of us would never have imagined possible. We just might be able to evolve institutions that help all of us to achieve more of our potential.