Designing a framework for thinking about society

For my own intellectual development in keeping up with modern times, it has become extremely important to understand the context of societal decision-making across an extended time horizon. What things are fundamental to maintaining and developing a modern standard of living? How do our decisions regarding matters of the day relate to the structures of a civilization that are not dependent on the context of the time in history that we currently inhabit?

How should a politician think about the structures that will always be around? Why is it important?

Though these are heavy questions, they all boil down to this: how do we define a standard of living at its simplest, and how do we go about making it real?

This is a very important pair of questions that will always be at the core of operating a society. If we cannot define a clear goal for a standard of living, it is impossible to devise a clear strategy for striving towards it. The purpose of this text is to convey my thoughts on measuring the standard of living of a society, on how to approach the design of a society at its simplest, and on how to consider the question of what services a society should provide at minimum.

With a clear definition of a goal, and how reaching it is measured, problems in societal leadership and management can be solved with more ease.

Considering what the world looks like now

To start, let’s take a step back.

Thanks to the rapid increase in media consumption that our modern society has faced during the past decade or so, ranging from the spread of smartphones to the services and content built on top of them, the skill of slowing down and taking a step back from the day-to-day has become more relevant than ever before in history. We’ve been washed away with real-time news and twitter-chatter, which has, in my view, led to the forgoing of political responsibilities to think across extended time periods.

This is not to say that it isn’t important to keep building a responsive working culture in politics and bureaucracy to serve our citizens better every day – quite the contrary, that is what we should be focusing on fully. However, responsiveness is hard to build efficiently into an organisation if clear priorities aren’t set on what to respond to in what order. Recent years have seen politicians fall prey to focusing on whoever is yelling loudest at them.

With a clear separation of duties between politicians and bureaucrats, and an understanding of why both play an equally important role in moving society forwards, we can be both long-term stable and short-term responsive. The separation of duties comes down to one of leadership and management, where politicians are the architects leading the design of a society, and bureaucrats are the managers in charge of building it.

Keeping this co-operation between politics and bureaucracy under control requires the design of a societal blueprint that can stand firmly across the test of time. Such a blueprint would allow politicians and bureaucrats to slow down, look at a common understanding of where society stands, and where it should be going. What would that design look like, and how would we go about framing it?

To design something, we need to give it a goal and build a strategy for how to commonly understand said goal, so that we can end up with a proposal of a design. In the next section, I present my thoughts on how to define a service level measure for a standard of living for a society, a pair of clear societal goals.

Afterwards, I present my design for a strategic blueprint for how a society could start going about making the pair of societal goals commonly understandable, and what services to start focusing on with full gusto. In time, that would allow for the construction of a political and financial strategy to fulfil promises made around those services, and meet the success measures they would be assessed by.

Redefining societal goals around clear measurement

In order for us to be able to draw out a design for a society that can stand the test of time, we have to consider how the moment we are living in now is similar to where we are from and where we are going. This thinking unveils the fundamentals of civilization – the parts of its operating mechanisms that will always be around in one form of another. It gives us something concrete to zoom back in upon when things get complicated in the day-to-day, and we need to focus our thoughts back on what’s important.

Fundamentals are important so that we have something to measure against across generations. If we can’t measure society, we have no way to define where we are in terms of standard of living compared to times of the past and the future.

They say GDP is outdated as a measure of a standard of living – and I agree. If we can define a fundamentally simple way of measuring a standard of living, one that actually makes sense in the context of the real life of a citizen, then we can start considering ways to strive towards better results from the present moment.

In my view, the functionality and service level of a civilization, my simplest definition of a standard of living, can be reduced down to two measurable factors:

  1. The financial sustainability of the supply-demand chain – the “time is money” argument: the supply time and accuracy of a good or service relative to when it was demanded and when it was demanded for
    • Example: a citizen is sick with a standard disease. How quickly is that disease cured?
    • Example: a citizen needs to get somewhere. How effectively does the national transportation infrastructure allow that to happen?
    • Example with an added quality measure: a citizen wants to invest time into an education. How quickly is a diploma constructed, and what is its worth in the job market?
  1. The moral sustainability of the supply-demand chain – the “money should be clean” argument: maintaining a net positive balance of externalities for society such that all costs are internalized by their creators, unless agreed upon separately as part of the political process, whereupon the cost is internalized by society
    • Example: an organisation gains a competitive advantage by illicitly bending environmental law. How fully are the costs allocated to shareholders?
    • Example: a municipality underutilizes the construction capacity it is provided by national infrastructure, such as a main railroad or highway cutting through town. How is the municipality charged by the higher governing body for access to infrastructure it is underutilizing, or is the municipality allowed to freeride on common goods? (this is happening at a cost of tens of millions of euros in Kirkkonummi, Finland, where I’ve been an elected council representative)
    • Example: an industry is protected for national security reasons, to preserve operative knowhow within a nation’s borders. How explicitly is this argument made in public by the politician in charge, and what is the cost-sharing agreement between society and the industry? Do the people agree with this protection, or would they rather trust neighboring states to provide a more efficient specialization of labor?

For me, a civilization is this simple. A standard of living is about removing the annoyance of needlessly laggard supply and not paying for the unsustainable actions of others. For me, Rawls’ justice as fairness in a society is realized through leadership focus on these two factors. In a society where I have reasonable delivery times for my reasonable demands, and am not unduly paying for the externalities of others, I believe I am being served justly and fairly by the state.

Once a citizen doesn’t have to live in uncertainty about the supply schedule for their reasonable life demands, and once a citizen can be confident that they are not responsible for the undue costs of others, then conditions exist for an individual citizen to take responsibility for their own life, again a goal of Rawls’ philosophy. For example, If we look at the rapid growth in demand of digital services across the past few years, then citizens seem to very naturally seek the removal of unnecessary friction in operating their lives, so that they can focus their time on what matters to them.

By looking at the world we live in today, the leap of faith to claiming that a society should optimize for service delivery time is not a huge one to make. In such a society, the societal machine is fully focused on working for the citizens as a whole, as it will be measured on how well it is actually serving them and what it is making them pay for. The individual citizen has no excuses when the system is running cleanly – providing what is needed for an egalitarian starting point in life and not misallocating costs. Initial definitions of what these needs are is discussed in the next section.

What makes a logistical philosophy of societal measurement so appealing is that the bureaucrats, the societal engineers who actually have to build politicians’ promises into reality, would end up having the final say on how they are measured. Politicians can always discuss what a reasonable time for service delivery is, because they listen to their constituents opinion, but bureaucrats know how delivering the service actually works. The co-operation between political leadership and bureaucratic management would have perfect conditions to blossom in.

Time is the least subjective opinion available as a measurement criteria, the easiest to compare relative to what a citizen was promised, and the most relevant for determining citizen satisfaction levels (no one wants to deal with a system any longer than necessary). Simultaneously, service delivery time can always be objectively compared with other societies.

Time will always be objective, once the definition of a reasonable time has been subjectively agreed by contract.

In short – time-based measurement allows for the co-operation of subjective opinions and objective comparison. It is metaphorical to the product engineers at the IT company my girlfriend works at, where the engineers count out their own estimates of engineering time for a client proposal, instead of having to work to a schedule sold by a salesman or project manager. Co-operation in determining delivery measurement criteria between sales and engineering is exactly the same as the co-operation of politicians and bureaucrats.

A design framework for society

What are reasonable, minimum-level demands for a citizen, and how quickly should they be supplied? How is individual sovereignty, the right to not pay for the unsustainable actions of others, unless otherwise agreed upon, maximized across time?

These are deep, underlying questions, the answers to which govern the progress of a nation – they are the underlying drivers providing the measurements for a determination of a standard of living, as discussed in the previous section. By considering the minimum building blocks of a civilization, we can begin to scope out a fair service level of a society towards its citizens:

At its most basic, a civilization is not too complex a system to consider. It starts with the obvious realization that the state of a society is the sum of its citizens and their perceptions of their standards of living, and how they project those perceptions in the decisions they make every day.

In the reality of today, perceptions of standards of living are as varied as the population – with no commonly understood scale of measurement, everyone is free to build their opinions of how good or bad life is according to whatever measure guides their thinking the most.

The capacity of individuals to logically project political and financial arguments across time varies greatly. Furthermore, the mix between learned and believed understanding of how a society works, and the capacity to see how an individual and a society are related as a function of each other, probably varies even more. The individuals that compose society are a full spectrum of capacity to make informed decisions, but all decisions will have an impact on the whole.

For this reason, it is imperative to simplify how we talk about a society so that it is understandable by a significant majority, but still functional for practical usage by the leading minority. At the end of the day, satisfaction will be determined by how objectively those serving and those being served can discuss measurement. This goal of shared understanding, in my view, centrally reflects Rawls’ opinion that it is the work of political philosophy to describe workable political arrangements that can gain support from real people.

The ultimate goal of this design for a societal blueprint is to begin working to create a common language for such a shared understanding between the leaders of society and those being led as part of it. What should be provided at minimum, and at what service level? Though it will likely take some time, I personally do not see it as too difficult of a job, rather as one that simply requires perseverance.

Introducing the components of the framework

The individuals that compose society will make decisions in financial life and in political elections that end up forming the following fundamental components. The goal is to show how a certain set of fundamental, existential markets rest on top of the foundations of society, and how those markets are a minimum baseline for a sustainable, fear-free life for any individual citizen.

Background processing: an individual is always part of a societal moral and academic “legal system” that governs the operative status of how the society thinks – what is the present state of the collective’s thinking from a moral and scientific point-of-view? This is coded in law and academia, which set the fundamental contractual conditions for how society as a whole thinks and operates.

Everyone comes from a cultural background that defines their morality and beliefs of right and wrong, and everyone has some educational background that defines their knowledge and learnings of what is sustainable and what isn’t, which guides whether they want more or less of that in society. Moral beliefs have been codified into the existing legal system of a nation and, to the extent of the capacity of the level of societal education in the past, this legal system, founded on morality, has been further balanced with educational knowledge. We will come back to how background processing works later.

Balance challenge number 1: Morality drives perceptions of what should be considered a reasonable demand and what shouldn’t. Knowledge drives perceptions of what can be considered realistic and what can’t. The existing background processing system is always based on a past-state analysis of balance, which needs to constantly be updated. How are beliefs and knowledge balanced in the system? What should be updated and what should be conserved in the background legal system that runs society?

Foreground processing: To work on balance challenge number one, a political and financial power system appears on top of the background processing system with the task of constantly updating the background processing system with new beliefs and knowledge. What is the probable future state of a society?

This can be seen via the exertion of political and financial power happening in the markets for media airtime and financial assets of whatever form. The political and financial media carry a huge amount of responsibility as to what ideas have the capacity to spread throughout society, and how political and financial debates are framed. We will come back to how foreground processing works later.

Balance challenge number 2: Politics drives perceptions of an ideal society, and finance drives perceptions of an ideal operation. The operating state of the foreground processing system can always be measured by looking at the media and the financial markets, and by considering what narratives and ideas are receiving airtime and investments. Measuring the operating state of the foreground processing system is important, since it has the power to mold the future of the background processing system that we all fall back on. How are differing viewpoints balanced in the media, and what are the markets funding?

Individuals will always be impacted by the flow of mainstream ideas, and these will impact their decision-making. For further reading on this topic, I heartily recommend Social Physics, a book by MIT professor Alex Pentland.

The fundamental functional markets for existential needs: This is the end game for an individual citizen. As part of a pre-existent background processing system, with political and financial influence on the foreground processing system, an individual will always end up relying on the markets for existential needs. These will define what could, potentially, be considered as fundamental societal service level rights for citizens. These markets come in two forms:

  1. Functional markets for individual needs: no matter who you are or where you are from, you will always need the following from the marketplace: housing (construction), food and water (nourishment), the opportunity to increase your understanding (education), and the opportunity to be at your physical best (healthcare). After this, you don’t really need anything, but you will still be motivated to work, since we all want more in life – we aspire to experience all that life has to offer, be it in the form of travel, culture, sport – you name it. But aspirations have to wait for the basics to be in order.
  2. Functional markets for societal needs: no matter what the society, it will always need the following to allow the individual to function on top of it: the power to put things in motion (energy), a pathway to move things in (infrastructure), trustworthy domicile within society (security), and the building blocks of everything a society contains (raw materials).

There is rarely any reason to not invest into these markets, as the knowhow they require will be required generation after generation, and there will always be other societies in need of help with them. Indeed, it is absolutely silly that a highly-educated nation such as Finland is not investing heavily into all of these industries. But that’s a story for another time.

The main thing to note about the fundamental functional markets is that they are fully co-dependent on each other. A society is nothing without its individuals, and an individual is nothing without a society. At a core level, the supplies and demands that criss-cross these two pools of markets drive the economy and shape our reality, since we will never be able to escape the fundamental systemic nature of a civilization – as individuals, we will always be part of the whole. All the profit that these industries generate flow into the free market, where we all spend money on silly stuff like watching cat videos on YouTube and other things the free market generates.

Finally, considering the fact that the functional markets will always be around, they are industries that are likely to consolidate quite naturally. With a fair amount of competition, and a high amount of operative oversight, it would not take long for a certain standard of realistic delivery times to be set, and for the ethical standards of the industries to be set in stone. This would make sure that the existential markets would become the standard bearers for how industries measure themselves and how they operate without unduly externalizing costs – role model industries for those operating in the free markets.

How are the components led?

If we accept the nature of the fundamental functional markets as given – that is to say, we agree that they must always be around – then we must consider one step further about how those are operated in practice. That requires taking a step back and reobserving the background and foreground processing systems – in other words, that requires considering the main roles that these systems have in leading the operation of the eight fundamental functional markets, which will in turn be serving citizens.

To do so, we need to identify a final set of three fundamental functional markets that, essentially, govern the operation of the eight functional markets for individual and societal needs. The movement of supplies and demands of these eight markets will naturally be mediated by three fundamental interchange markets – logistics (operative prioritization, providing schedules for movement of goods and services), finance (investment prioritization, providing initial power for movement), and media (information prioritization, setting direction of movement). At their core, the interchange markets are time allocation markets – logistics considers what stuff moves first. Finance considers what investment proposal gets money first. Media considers what information the markets or the public need to know first about what will be happening, or what has already happened.

The power to prioritize, which the interchange markets control, will end up guiding the real-world operations of the eight functional markets that serve citizens and set their standard of living. Thus, it is clear, for obvious reasons, that the interchange markets should be governed through significant levels of societal transparency and understanding. There is a rumored secret, fourth market – the black market – but that is, by definition, not “officially” a part of society. We’ll leave the black market as a randomizing factor in a societal system.

I mentioned that we would return to the functioning of the foreground and background processing systems. Earlier, we considered their impact on the eight functional markets that directly serve citizens. Now, we can see that these eight markets are governed in practice by the functioning of the three interchange markets that prioritize the movement of goods and services, information, and investment finance. The interchange markets can be likened to the foreground processing system. 

In other words, the financial and political decisions that citizens make will, primarily, guide the functioning of the interchange markets, which will only secondarily impact the eight functional markets that serve the citizens directly. To reiterate, transparency of the interchange markets is really, really important.

So – what about the background processing system then? When the determination of transparency in the interchange markets requires more clarification, then unsolved issues will fall back on the background processing system. In other words, situations requiring further determination of transparency in the interchange markets will fall back on the judicial and ethical governing systems to answer the question: is this allowed or not, and are we pointing the finger in the right direction?

If one wishes to stretch their thinking a bit, then it is possible to see a conceptual link between a societal background/foreground processing system and Daniel Kahneman’s System-1/System-2 types of thinking. A society is a collective of individual thinking – is it not? – so it makes sense to theorize that a society’s way of thinking would, conceptually, look similar to that of an individual.

Just to note the obvious: the need for transparency is the foundation required for any legal investigation, criminal or civil – was whatever happened allowed or not, and are we pointing the finger in the right direction to assert potential blame? That’s what the courts are all about, at the end of the day. Here, we’re just keeping our focus on considering society through a market-oriented view.

Tying together a common blueprint

From the original design framework, we can now tie together a common blueprint for how an individual citizen’s decisions end up affecting the societal services that end up serving them directly. In practice, we’re looking at four levels of operation of how demands and supplies work together to eventually provide services for citizens:

A citizen has a demand, the legal system assesses whether it is allowed and reasonable, the interchange markets determine how to prioritize the demand, and the functional markets end up supplying it – either directly or through the auxiliary free market for non-essential goods and services. Finally, the citizen’s demand is met with a supply, and the difference in expected delivery time and realized delivery time will, primarily, guide citizen satisfaction.

Moving forward with a common blueprint

Early on in this text, I mentioned the separation of duties between politicians and bureaucrats. At the end of the day, if these two groups of people operating society are able to share a common blueprint of what they are doing, what system they are running, and how they are measured, then it should not be too far-fetched to assume that society would run much smoother, and that standards of living would increase when focus is shifted towards service delivery time for the citizen.

Just to put things in perspective, this is what the business world would call “customer-centric thought”. I am, in many ways, not presenting anything new – just focusing on the societal customer, an individual citizen.

Leadership and management of the societal system would breathe more freely when every leader and manager understands what their role is as part of society, why it’s important, and how it is measured. That begins with understanding how a society works, which is what the blueprint above is for.

In a world with such shared understanding, bureaucrats would primarily be working to ensure the transparent and sustainable operation of the interchange markets and the functional markets, setting realistic service level goals related to them, keeping in line with the development of modern technology. Because of the importance of the provision of their services, the interchange and functional markets would have clear service level goals directly aligned with the citizens they are serving.

Politicians, on the other hand, would be working to ensure that the background processing system is stable, and that “outdated code” is being removed at a steady pace, keeping in line with the development of modern beliefs and scientific understanding. Politicians would also spend more time with the citizens they’re meant to be serving as, with a shared societal blueprint, there would be a significant increase in inter-party understanding and a corresponding decrease in the need for childish politicking. This frees up politicians’ time to focus on the citizen.

Politicians and bureaucrats would meet in public discourse, in conjunction with representatives of the economy and the media, to form a four-way “societal leadership team” that discusses who is doing what in the foreground processing system, and how their actions are helping progress towards common goals – the measurement of which everyone would understand. The societal public discourse would become goal-oriented towards the service level granted to every citizen, what it should be and how well it should function, as measured by delivery time and positive net externalities.

Defining service levels

So what are the common societal goals? The well-being of an individual citizen, ultimately, rests on the operation of the fundamental functional markets. They would become the logical place to deduce a minimum service level from, designing services based on these basic needs, and assessing whether things that go beyond the basics should be an internalized cost of society, or should they be left to the free market. Ensuring transparency of the interchange markets, and understanding what that means, would become a citizen’s duty.

This is what is happening today – this is, pretty much, how the world works behind the scenes – we’re just missing a common map, a mutual design blueprint, to compare our thoughts against.

Setting the definitions of an acceptable service level should become the talk of politics, and the concept of what is reasonable or not could be compared to the design framework. Does an individual really need some societal service, or is some existing service just nice to have, or perhaps even destructive to citizen motivation? Is the current level of transparency in the interchange markets acceptable? So on, and so forth.

Just some other new twists to the societal discourse: measuring based on time has an added benefit – only time is comparable across time! Future generations would be able to look at how their delivery times for fundamental services compare to those of previous generations, and maintain full objectivity. Is society slipping in time, or gaining in it? For me as a huge Formula 1 fan, time-based measurement comes very naturally – I’d love to see it applied to the functional measurement of a society.

With a common design for a societal framework that the majority would have no trouble understanding, society would start focusing on more concrete definitions of the things it actually seeks, with the goal of enabling its citizens to live happy and peaceful lives. I would posit that everyone would probably be quite quick to realize obvious things such as, just for example:

Everyone should have a home that is healthy to live in (within six months of becoming homeless)

Everyone should have access to physical and intellectual self-improvement (within a week of demand)

Everyone should have access to healthy food (within a matter of hours of demand)

Society should have reliable, speedy, modern infrastructure (to enable a set level of travel times)

Society should run on sustainable energy sources (to stop time running out on raw materials)

Society should feel secure (to start a time measurement of “days since last death in international conflict”)

And so on.

Why would everyone find these things obvious? What’s the point with making society as understandable as possible with a common framework?

Simple. The more someone has to lose, the less they’ll be willing to lash out at society and cause unrest. The higher the opportunity cost of setting out on a path of destruction in one’s life, the less likely it is to happen. All this requires is an understanding what one is part of as a citizen – if a citizen understands how society should look, and how that would be of personal benefit, then work towards that vision is infinitely more likely than without said understanding.

What’s the best strategy for ending terrorism, for example? Really easy. Invest heavily into the development and modernization of the existential markets in the Middle East, so that everyone can live a secure life. Make the opportunity cost as high as possible.

If we can agree on the basic necessities for living a life free from fear of one’s personal sustainability, then we can start working together on making it happen. All we need is a common map, a common way of measurement, and a shared societal design that we can all agree upon.

We need a blueprint for the future. We have all the data from history that we need to draw it out and start talking about it.

My proposal lies in communicating via the design framework above, so that we have something to point at and start comparing our thoughts against. Let the 21st century political debate begin!

© 2017 Jens J. Sørensen

Leadership in the 21st Century

This is my story about how I think about leadership in the 21st century. This is, at its essence, a story about the importance of the art and science of telling a story. The importance of this skill is particularly visible in leadership, where one is in a defined position of influence over others’ well-being. So, in short, I guess you could call this my Philosophy of Leadership and Why I Think It’s Important.

Organizations of the 21st century shouldn’t be led by either emotional, philosophical intelligence (words), or rational, scientific intelligence (numbers), alone. They should be led by both. They should be led by biological intelligence. As human beings, since we’re able to comprehend both languages , we are able to get a fuller picture should we choose to tell the full story of both sides of our thinking. This choice is in the hands of the leader.

Let’s start with the architecture of the thought guiding this text:

The intelligence of biology, life, is exquisite. On one hand, evolution forces biological intelligence to optimize for sustainability at maximum effectiveness – using the simplest equation for maintaining existence, “f(x) = x”. Fundamentally, biological intelligence is perpetually driven by the emotionally told story of “it is what it is”, y = x. Maintaining existence is a really boring story – we’ll return to the concept of a story in stasis (maintaining existence) and a story in motion (explaining why) in just a bit.

Cyanobacteria, the oldest living thing on the planet, originated 2.8 billion years ago and is still just hanging out. Talk about a sustainable organisation! They started the story of life on our planet and figured out how to fight to survive, just enough, in order to watch the story unfold – by being just intelligent enough to not go extinct. They realised that, by sticking with the optimizing equation f(x) = x, they are their own, linearly predictable, reproductive fuel at all times, no matter what variable x (a conscious state of their being) is.

They accept everything, as long as it means they still exist. When you only have one success factor – existence – you either have to control the entire operating environment to remove randomizing factors, surprises (complete influencing power), or be willing to submit to and be capable of withstanding any destructive outside pressure that you might encounter (complete chaos resistance). Consider this paragraph in the context of the organisations of authoritarian regimes, for example, and you’ll start to slowly see how dangerous simply optimizing for existence can be.

Optimizing for maintaining existence is the equivalent of being the Supreme Leader of Cyanobacteria. If the Supreme Leader was a chaos resistor, then the message would be: “Accept everything that is. Don’t change things proactively – the less surprises, the easier this is. Exert just enough effort to not die.” If the Supreme Leader was a complete influencer, then the message would be: “Destroy all threats to existence.” It does seem like a good thing that we have bacteria in our bodies doing this kind of optimization to maintain our existence, but it does not seem a very good train of thought at the scale of global organisations, for example. 

Indeed, the only mathematically practical way to optimize for an existence maintenance strategy over time is to work in removing all surprises from the equation, no matter which mentality you do it with – chaos resistance (resistive power) or complete influence (influential power). This strategy will leave you with a one-dimensional story of maintaining existence. A boring story of digging towards zero waste, or remaining at just above zero.

Human beings will, generally, not be too motivated by this message – the question in the background function f(x) is “do we still exist?” and the binary success measure is simply “yes (x = 1)/no (x = 0)”.

In financial terms, this is the exact same thing as simply looking at the bottom line and not giving a damn about anything else. It’s simple, binary intelligence. That’s what the financial industry mostly does (so it is refreshing to see big funds, like the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund take an ethically active role).

The main point is this: if an organisation can’t communicate more than a story of how it is simply maintaining its existence, then it is a symptom that the organisation is fighting to survive. It doesn’t sound like a very fun or inspiring place to work, when the why part of “(why) an organisation is maintaining its existence” isn’t communicated. Stories without a why are in stasis – “an organisation is maintaining its existence” – but, with a why, the story is in motion – “why an organisation is maintaining its existence” followed by an explanation, with the explanation providing the motion.

Symptoms of stories in stasis, non-motivational stories, can be seen all around us. Just look at the companies whose level of leadership aspires no further than for increasing production efficiency and minimizing costs. They’ve lost philosophical intelligence and fallen back on one-dimensional, existence maintaining thought. That’s a sign of impending industry consolidation and a preparatory move for an organisation that has no idea what will happen next, signaling that it is starting to become defensive. It starts to argue towards simply maintaining existence – its story stops for as long as it takes for it to figure out what will happen next.

Organisations can, and should, understand their own acceptable conditions for maintaining existence. If the push for industrial efficiency is high, then an organisation should have pre-defined value-based backstops beyond which it won’t accept going, such as how it treats employees or the environment. It should awaken itself and its employees, as early as possible, if their industry seems to be heading into an existential war – and whether that is acceptable (a product being commoditized) or not (a competitor using unhealthy amounts of market power and becoming a monopoly).

It should also talk about the potential of its own death. If an industry operates ethically (removing societal arguments about externally caused price wars), and an incumbent simply can’t keep up, then it needs to talk openly to its employees, early on, about their options: fighting harder, being bought up, or entering controlled liquidation. No one benefits from being held on a pre-death leash of “Everything’s fine! We’re just going through a rough patch.” When confronted with realities, organisations might even strengthen and rebound out a love for the team – the brand.

From existential to aspirational stories

So, our hope for motivating employees towards the future lies at the other extreme end of the scale of intelligence, the aspirational end. To reiterate, the first extreme was optimizing organisational thought for remaining in existence. 

At the other extreme of intelligence lies the most advanced form of life on the planet – us, human beings. We have aspirations.

Let’s consider ourselves as evolutionary descendants of cyanobacteria. Let’s assume our story is, well, quite a bit different (to put it mildly):

“At our core, we as humans are just highly evolved cyanobacteria optimizing to stay alive. As bacteria, we quickly learned to reproduce, so that we could begin striving to last across generations in perpetuity. It’s just so simple why we made this learning investment: existence is just so worth it as compared to not existing. But we had to de-risk the organisation, because we were on the cutting edge all the time, and it was starting to become a pretty heavy burden. So, back in the day, when the planet was young, we figured out that it was a lot less risky to invest into existence as more complex species than it is as cyanobacteria. As more complex species, and especially now as humans, we can exert so much more influence over our operating environment. So, we continued making learning investments and, over time, learned to guide ourselves more and more effectively towards our aspirations – seeking to free ourselves from the heavy existential pressure of staying alive as bacteria, and learning to aspire towards becoming our true, individual selves (we really had to standardize as bacteria, so that we could work together at maximum efficiency. Individualism is much more fun – when everyone’s weird, you get to be weird as well!).

We really have to give a big up to our bacterial ancestors for showing up and starting to tell us the story of life and existence. They went through a lot of pressure to get us to where we are today!”

This is what’s so amazing and remarkable about human intelligence. It is our ability to tap into both extremes of existence – existential and aspirational – and flip the cyanobacteria story from “fighting to survive (don’t ask questions)” (existential story) to “figuring out how to live (and why)” (aspirational story, based on an existential story that respects past accomplishments and learns from them).

We can take stories in stasis and, utilizing our aspirations, set them in motion again.

Our aspirations, and how we talk about them in the modern age, shows that most of the younger generation has an aspirational mind-set – an existence in motion, as compared to accepting all that is and remaining in stasis.

Instead of just continuing the fight to survive as a group, to simply maintain existence, we’ve started to individualize and begun to aspire towards figuring out how to live our best possible lives and be our best possible selves, according to our own terms – not (only) those of societal norms. When fear of existence is no longer a relevant issue, humans begin to shift perception and optimize towards our aspirational motivations of being, towards the infinite range equation of emotional outcomes “f(x) = ?”

Our dreams are always, once experienced, ultimately defined for ourselves by the experienced emotional outcome. What does one need to do to experience the simultaneous emotion of peace and pride? Perhaps, as an example, lead a big project at work that led to organisational success (pride from accomplishment) and a significant bonus for the executing team (peace from financial security). In practice, we aspire to experience an emotion or a set of emotions.

There is value in your experience for others, as well. The value is defined by the story we live to tell, and the learnings we convey that can perpetuate to start new stories for those listening. Progress is all about setting goals, striving for them, and living to tell the tale of learning. Learning is the key word to ingest.

Note: if you understand this, you’ll realise that you get to define the guiding equation to avoid zero – say, for example, f(x) = x+1 – and the aspirationally variable goal ‘x’ in your life – say, for example, the ultimate choice of labeling existence with a “fight-to-survive burden” or with “an aspirational goal adventure”. Things don’t have to be as they are for you, as they do for a cyanobacteria that can’t influence its surroundings much. That one label is pretty heavy, but I’d personally prefer to consciously label existence with both, so that I’m left with the emotional outcome of feeling logical – of course work is sometimes a burden, but it’s all worth it when you’re working towards your goals and learning on the way. Leaders should really focus on that last sentence, and think about what they should be communicating to their organisations, and their individual employees.

Here’s the beef on leadership:

To speak to the new generation, of which I consider myself a front-runner, organisational leaders need to recognize their responsibility in communicating both sides of the story. At work, we naturally aspire to exist and ensure our paycheck, and the financial numbers depicting how we’re doing need to support that. But, even more importantly, we aspire to exist as better versions of ourselves and strive for pre-defined emotional outcomes – we want to be given the tools and potential to learn to someday take full charge of our own destinies.

So, we seek to become members of organisations projecting levered power to build a better, more sustainable world. Our employer-selection criteria are exceedingly high in comparison to those of previous generations.

In other words: the most forward-looking ones amongst us realize that large organisations need to actively do their part in building a better world, and we won’t settle for anything less than commitment to sustainable values. We respect the employee base that maintains our current existence, but only want them to hold us back by the necessary amount so as to not become a risk to organisational existence – such as allowing for over-investment into a risky new venture.

So, on the one hand, it is accurate to say that it is rational to talk about the numbers and ensure a baseline of sustainability, a financially optimized existence for the organisation. A leader must communicate an existential story of what the organisation must do to stay alive in the now and near future, and that boils down to the bottom line. Being alive is a prerequisite for changing the world for the better, so it’s good to not get ahead of oneself based on the purity of idealism – this is a lesson eager youths need to, and undoubtedly will, learnBut it needs to be said out loud – otherwise, eagerness will turn into cynicism and improved maintenance will turn into normal operations as opportunity-seeking eagerness begins to fade from the organisation’s emotional map.

So, on the other hand, organisational leaders must remember that it is important to talk about the emotions an organisation faces and our words explaining them, and ensure motivation towards a potential, aspirationally optimized existence for the organisation – even in the toughest of times. Cynicism is a cancer that will arrive and remain until an opposing force, aspirational eagerness, returns.

Leaders must communicate an aspirational story about the future, which the younger generation will one day have to lead. So the older generation does need to understand that, yes, the up-and-comers do need to have an ever-strengthening say in what direction an organisation is going in as time progresses, because the younger generation will have to take over one day and deal with whatever state things are left for them in.

The co-operation between elder realism and youth idealism will balance out as a “relatively understandable set of existential demands and aspirational goals”, if an organisation has good interpowerful and interfunctional internal communications. Interpowerful depicts relative influencing power of an employee within an organisation (on an organisational power scale) and interfunctional of functioning position within an organisation (in an organisational matrix)

So, to put it simply, communication needs to be ensured between leaders and subordinates – interpowerful internal communications – and between the different functions like marketing and finance of an organisation – interfunctional internal communications. Only a communications-network that integrates an organisation into one will be able to balance the existential demands and aspirational goals of the whole team.

This is what makes some organisations great to work in – everyone understands what’s going on and why. Understanding common knowledge provides an emotion of belonging – perhaps the most fundamental emotional derivative of existence. When people feel like they belong, they feel like they exist – a strong prerequisite for aspirational motivation, as discussed above. I can definitely recommend Emily Esfahani Smith’s “The Power of Meaning” as a book to introduce the “four pillars of meaning” and what they mean to organisational leadership in practice.

Optimize for teamwork between and amongst organisational layers, across all necessary function and power positions and relationships.

That’s the mantra of a 21st century leader. To set up an organisation as what is effectively a communications network, optimizing for an exchange of information that aims to balance between reaching the rational existential demand goals and the emotionally aspirational supply goals of the organisation. “Why we need to stay alive and learn to work as a team, now and in the near future, so that we can start becoming what we want to be as an organisation, and begin projecting our aspirations into reality.”

Once employees are able to understand both stories, existential demand goals (how the world works) and aspirational supply goals (how we want it to work), and their own function’s contributory role to the organisation’s goal and their personal power position within reaching it, the organisation will have the opportunity to strive towards balance. This will allow employees to build the ability to self-navigate as their organisational role grows over time.

Over time, balance between the now (executing current strategy numbers to stay in existence) and the future (using aspirations to guide word choice of future strategy), based on understanding the past (learning and telling the story), is sought for.

A note on that last point: moving towards the future requires understanding the past, meaning you need to understand how your strategies have worked in the past (how and why their outcomes materialized) and be capable of telling the story to others of what you’ve learned (to reiterate, recount stories about your past strategies and convey understanding about why they did or did not work). If you can systemically learn to tell the story of what you’ve learned (and are learning) within an organisation, then your ability, as a team, to build forward-looking strategy, is greatly strengthened. You then understand your organisational strengths and weaknesses based on historical (and real-time) fact – something most can’t do! It is possible to measure organisational well-being much more accurately than it used to be – so do it. Again, learning is the key word to ingest.

To conclude:

The 21st century leader sees that it’s great to aspire to set just the right level of difficulty into a strategy. Success in outsmarting oneself, successfully executing on a more difficult strategy than what’s been done before, is a source of great pride. The leader will project a more evolved version of leadership and intellect to the world, and build the organisation’s reputational equity – it’s trusted brand.

Moreover, considering the potential societal externalities of an organisation’s functioning, and striving to remove all the negative ones, will allow a leader to take their pride to the next level. The challenge is great, but so are the rewards. Indeed, the possibility to tell a story of success with a societally clean conscience, a societally trusted brand, is the key to building the sustainability of an organisation – a true “hero of a leader” level goal to aspire towards. 

If the art and science of sustainable leadership, telling a new story about what it means to be a leader, promulgates throughout society, it would not surprise me if the first corporate organisations to last a millennium are already amongst us. Religious organisations have lasted millenia, political organisations are starting to reach the age of a millennium, and some family-owned companies are already centuries old. Needless to say, these are all aspirationally-led organisations.

Why not try to be your own hero at work and be part of building a sustainably-led organisation? Be a 21st century leader and start building the big picture story – the potential success stories of yourself and your teams, of the balance between your emotions and your rationality, of your current existential realities and the proposed paths towards aspirational goals. There is no reason not to, except the excuses you’re telling yourself about why it isn’t possible.

Of course it is – nature is bad-ass in how awesome it can be with the right amount of self-confidence.

Welcome to the gates of the organisation of the future. Start building your organisation’s collective, biologically intelligent, story.

© 2017 Jens J. Sørensen

Suomen tarinasta

Suomi aloitti eilen 100. vuotensa itsenäisenä, omista asioistaan päättävänä kansana. Pääasiallisesti kansa kantaa vastuun siitä päätöksestä, mitä tarinaa se itselleen päättää kertoa. Itsenäisyyden läpikantava tarina määrittää kansan psyykkeen perustukset, joten kyse ei ole pienestä asiasta.

Kaikki kansat kertovat itselleen tarinaa siitä, kuinka heidän olemassaolonsa on kunniallinen ja oikeutettu. Suomen itsenäisyyspäivänä oli tärkeätä huomata, että tuntuva osa kansasta keskittyy edelleen sodan ja sotasankareiden kunnioittamisen kautta sodan arvista toipumiseen. Itsenäisyyspäivämme assosioituu vielä erittäin vahvasti siihen äärimmäiseen hintaan, joka rintamalla on itsenäisyyden säilymisestä jouduttu maksamaan.

Sodassa maksetun hinnan kautta määrittyy monelle iso osa olemassaolomme oikeutuksesta. Menneisyyden kautta haettu oikeutus omalle olemassaololleen itsenäisenä kansana on luonnollista silloin, kun ei nähdä nykypäivän työn merkitystä tulevaisuuden olemassaolon oikeutukseen. Tämä on puhtaasti tarinallinen puute – kun ei tajuta mitä ollaan tekemässä nyt, keskitytään siihen, mitä tehtiin ennen.

Tarinallinen puutteemme on merkittävä. Nykyään todellisuutemme on se, että katsoessa Suomea ulkopuolelta meistä kerrotaan tarinaa maailman tilastoja johtavana maana, joka näyttää monella saralla esimerkkiä muille. Ketään muuta eivät sotamme kiinnosta.

Onko jokin muuttumassa meidänkin ajattelussamme omasta tarinastamme? Tulevaisuuteen katsovaa, maailmasta vastuuta ottavaa tarinaa tuotiin eilisissä Linnan Juhlissa esille esimerkiksi Madventuresin Rikun ja Tunnan, Tasavallan Presidentti Tarja Halosen ja toimittaja Anu Partasen toimesta.

Olemmeko vihdoinkin tajuamassa, että jumalauta – mehän ollaan aika tajutonta jengiä ihan tänäkin päivänä? Veteraanimme tekivät korkeimman tason sankarityötä asettamalla henkensä uhatuksi rintamalla, mutta ei Suomen itsenäisyyttä sotien loppuessa sementoitu. Ei työ loppunut silloin, kun hengenvaara oli ohitse.

Silloin päästiin vasta vauhtiin.

Sodat mahdollistivat sen, että seuraavat vuosikymmenet päästiin matkalle kohti maailmantilastojen huippua rakentamalla yksi maailman johtavimmista hyvinvointivaltioista. Onko olemassa parempaa ja kunnioittavampaa lahjaa menneen historiamme sankareille kuin se, että hyväksymme itsemme sellaisena kuin olemme ja sisäistämme ymmärryksen siitä, että Suomi edustaa nykyään maailman paratiisia? Eikä vain omasta mielestämme?

Eikö ole aika päivittää tarinamme fokuspiste menneisyydestä tulevaisuuteen?

Kuka kertoo tarinaamme - vanhat vai nuoret?
Kuka kertoo tarinaamme – vanhat vai nuoret?

Valtava määrä kansainvälisiä tutkimuksia sijoittaa maamme kärkikastiin asioissa, jolla on tuntuvaa merkitystä kun tehdään esimerkiksi sijoituspäätöksiä – muun muassa yhteiskuntarauhassa ja turvallisuudessa, instituutioiden toimivuudessa, koulutuksessa ja elämän laadussa. Kaikki tämä siitä huolimatta, että itsenäisen elämämme ensimmäiset vuosikymmenet sisälsivät sisällissotaa, ääriliikkeiden kumoamista, Neuvostoliittoa vastaan sotimista ja hyvinvointivaltion rakentamista agraariyhteiskunnan lähtökuopista. Sotien jälkeinen aika ei ole järin pitkä kun tarkastelee historian aikajanaa.

Jos ajattelee Suomen tarinaa kokonaisvaltaisesti, niin sehän on ihan totaalisen kreisi. Eihän meissä ole monessa mielessä niinkuin yhtikäs mitään järkeä.

Kovimmat uhraukset on uhrattu eikä kunnioitus sotia kohtaan ikinä katoa. Mutta onko enään niin tarpeellista, tai edes perusteltua, keskittää tuntuva osa kansallisesta tarinastamme siihen, että nykypäivään päästääkseen edellisten sukupolvien piti tehdä suuria uhrauksia? Eikö olisi ihan yhtä perusteltua alkaa rakentaa poliittisen johdon toimesta tarinaa siitä, mitä nykypäivän lähtökuopista on mahdollista saada aikaan tulevaisuudessa?

Muistakaa tilastot – en puhu pehmeitä. Rakentamamme yhteiskunnan arvo maailmalle on kylmää, todellista faktaa. Me edustamme valtaosalle maailman kansasta tulevaisuutta, sillä he pyrkivät samoissa tilastoissa samoille sijoille kuin missä me olemme jo.

Me edustamme heille rauhaa. Luottamusta yhteiskuntaan. Älykkyyttä olla aidosti huolissaan heikoimmistamme. Todellista “American Dreamia”, jossa kaikilla on mahdollisuus edetä elämässä – ainakin suhteutettuna vastaaviin mahdollisuuksiin muualla. Tottakai meilläkin on vielä paljon töitä, mutta vertaamalla itseämme muihin voimme huomata, että olemme jo pitkällä etumatkalla.

Hyvinvointiyhteiskunta on tuote, jota meidän pitäisi antaumuksella antaa muiden kopioida. Tehtävämme on sijoittaa Suomen ykköstuotteeseen, hyvinvointiyhteiskuntaan, jotta sitä voidaan alkaa viedä maailmalle kovemmalla painolla kuin koskaan ennen historiassamme. Samalla oma yksityinen sektorimme saa entistäkin paremmat edellytykset omalle pitkän aikavälin menestykselleen, kun tarjolla oleva työvoima on maailman parasta ja elämäänsä luottavaisinta.

Kun elämään voi luottaa, kukaan ei lähde sotimaan. Sijoitukset hyvinvointiyhteiskuntaan ovat pitkän aikavälin sijoituksia maailmanrauhaan.

Sotatarinat ovat todella arvokkaita jotta muistamme, miksi menneeseen ei ole syytä palata. Niiden tarinoiden ansiosta maksan tänään mielelläni valtionlainan korkoja järkevistä hyvinvointiyhteiskuntasijoituksista. Vaihtoehto olisi se, että otan tietoisen tulevaisuusriskin maailman valumisesta takaisin sotaan kun maailman kärkijoukot päättivät tulevaisuuden menneisyydessä (tänään) olla edistämättä rauhan työtä.

Me olemme nuo kärkijoukot. Maailmanrauhan sissit, jos vielä hetken leikitään sotatarinoilla. Me lennämme Top Gunia.

Tarinamme rakennuspalikat ovat meidän. On meistä kiinni, mitä tarinaa itsellemme kerromme, ja on sen myötä meistä itsestämme kiinni, miten näemme itsemme osana koko maailman yhteiskuntaa nyt ja tulevaisuudessa. Eikö meidän ole juuri nyt, tilastojen huipulla, suurempi syy kuin koskaan ennen luottaa itseemme täysin?

Itsenäiset kansat päättävät omasta tarinastaan. Minä haluan päättää tarinasta, jossa hyvinvointivaltion kehittämisen ja viennin kautta edistämme maailmanrauhaa. Se on minun tulevaisuuden Suomen tarina.

Mikä on sinun?

© 2016 Jens J. Sørensen