Working Towards Mediocrity

The start of the year’s cycle brings feelings of new beginnings, aspirations and resolution. So I thought this would be a better time than ever to share some reflections on the first year of Future Shift and the astronomical learning curve we’ve faced in the last 12 months.

A few years back, Howard T. Odum started my thinking about how ecological systems describe the things we as humans do very well. Odum talked about how the laws of nature can be used as a tool for criticising and ultimately progressing human society. There are two advantages to looking at things the way Odum does. First, he’s right that we are undeniably part of natural systems and their laws. Second, it gives us 3.5 billion years of experience to guide our actions.

I’ll be calling on some of the lessons from these past years of life to explore why Future Shift will be working towards mediocrity. I will share my reflections from the last year of building Future Shift and how this has led me to believe that businesses are best thought of as living systems.

Let’s look at forest succession. Succession here is the process of change in a forest like we see in the UK, from bare land to climax forest.

One: We start small.

All things must start small. If they start big, they’re prone to large imbalances because they require artificial, external forces to get there (like large amounts of investment for businesses or petrochemical-based fertilisers).

Two: We start simple.

This has been a big lesson for Future Shift in our first year. As much as we wanted to deliver every idea that came to mind we would find ourselves burnt out at our desks at 9pm with no focus on what simple things were the lifeblood of our business. It is simply a fact of nature that almost every complex system has been a simpler system before then and an even simpler one before that etc. etc. until you get to an idea (in the case of business) or a seed (in the case of a forest). For those in the ‘seed’ stages of startup development, I would practice simplicity like a mantra. Don’t get caught up in complexity but practice focus on the simple things. Complexity is a state that you will arrive at without knowing it – it’s a fact of nature.

I think of a Future Shift example of our internal consulting methodology and actually how that has become more simple over time rather than more complex. But I am wrong here. The simplicity that I’m talking about here is subjective simplicity i.e. how simple it is to me in my head. The methodology is still as complex as it was before I thought to be simpler, I’ve just managed to visualise something equally as complex in my head. This is the process of learning I suppose. The two diagrams below describe the same things but with vastly different complexities.

Three: We grow for a while, but not forever.

When the forest reaches the end of its growth, that is not the end of the forest. It’s just getting started. Climax forests are set to provide services to the entire natural world for thousands of years (unless someone comes along and cuts a third of all global forests in just a few hundred years). It’s a similar situation for businesses. Nothing is meant to grow forever, not even Apple dogecoin. There are limits that exist as laws of nature that will make sure that a single individual doesn’t grow larger than an entire country. Little can be said for our laws of humanity.

Steady state is the ultimate state of nature, and this is something that we (hopefully) get to think about at Future Shift within the next few decades. This is age old thinking for people, as well as nature actually. Adam Smith (considered the father of economics) was pretty sure that nations will settle at a steady state – just look at us now.

Four: Mediocrity.

I wasn’t sure whether to go with balance, equilibrium or mediocrity for the name of this final lesson from nature. Balance seems to be something that is achieved by people who are spiritual, equilibrium by the scientific but mediocrity, we can all do that. I for one actually excel at being mediocre at all sorts, and this extends to what I do in Future Shift. It used to stress me out, but the big difference between me in 2022 and me in 2021 is that now I’m being mediocre on purpose.

Let’s just clarify what I mean by mediocre. Doing things in a mediocre way means choosing the middle way. No extremes, straight down the middle. It means accepting that you are not going to be extremely good at everything as a default position which, for me at least, diminishes a lot of the dizziness of freedom I experienced in Future Shift’s first year.

My mediocrity argument is this: if you, as a person or business, do many things in a way that is neither extremely good or bad, you will before long witness your system achieve balance/equilibrium. This condition of granular mediocrity and systemic stability will enable the emergence of innovation.

In short, stable systems succeed. A good example of this in nature is in the recent episode of Green Planet, where David transports you to an ancient forest. This forest has been in equilibrium for millenia, free from biological extremes of any sort. The system is infinitely complex: every plant, insect, fungus and animal plays it’s part to ensure stability. The subject of the video below is the Corpse Flower. As you watch, notice it’s extraordinary complexities and remember: this plant is the product of a stable system, where every job by every ant, bacteria and orangutan is done with sincere mediocrity.

If anything you just read hit home, the Open University is giving away big plant posters in collaboration with Green Planet. Get one sent to your office to remember some of the lessons for our wisest teachers.