Bonfire Blogs #5

This is the sixth in my series of blogs on the ‘Bonfire with Soul’ course I did courtesy of Duke Stump and the Do Lectures late in 2020. This is about the fifth of the twelve principles that Duke shared and illustrated through a 15-minute video synopsis and then a 45-minute video of a call between Duke and an exemplar of that principle.

This time it is about creating enough space for serendipity to emerge amongst all that strategy.

‘The Beauty of Not Knowing’

“Our goal is not to create magic but to create the conditions for magic to happen.”

Duke Stump

The tension between planning and winging it feels like one of the constants of my professional life. I like to plan, I like to know where I’m going, and yet… I like to also have agency and I don’t like situations in which planning has already strangled all the opportunity for autonomy… Whilst a totally blank page or a totally open stage is intimidating, I also resent being stuck in a level of detail that seems to thwart creative opportunity.

To people who seem to be able to spontaneously act on the moment I probably appear like a buttoned-up stick-in-the-mud and to people who like to plan meticulously I likely appear as a shabby and disruptive troublemaker. Nonetheless, I’ve always thought that space between the two was not just pragmatic but important somehow and in recent years I’ve also thought it was a rich creative space; the blank page lacks places to start from (unless you have the self-confidence or bravado to simply unpack your head onto that waiting page in that moment) and being faced with a complete document denies the space to add anything (unless you have the authority to strike down or force gaps in the existing plan) which can be demoralising, but the space between those points has ‘starting points’ to build from and ‘spare parts’ to work with – and that to me is a richly creative space. Creativity is connecting, innovation is about assembling the scrapyards of existing insights into new combinations – it’s never about plucking an idea straight from the aether.

Michael Sheen brings that rich gap between the plan and the possibility vividly to life as a creative space in his Do Lectures conversation from 2019 – just watch the last 90 seconds (from 58:30 to the end) and you’ll see what I mean. Watch the whole thing and amongst other things Michael talks about actors who constantly wing it as disruptive and disrespectful of the work they’re performing and meticulous planners as providing lifeless performances.

On this principle Duke invites us to welcome uncertainty into our process, make space for serendipity, and be willing to let go of the plan.

“How can we bring in inquiry and curiosity into strategy?”

Duke Stump

Plans can be straitjackets, they drive out uncertainty, which can be desirable I know, but it makes us and our organisations inflexible and potentially brittle when change happens. If we’re able to flex and bend to circumstance we can adapt.

Two particular bits of academic theory jump to my mind here that I often champion to my students; firstly Saras Sarasvathy’s Effectual Logic or Effectuation, secondly the concept of the Reasonable Adventurer as developed by Roy Heath and later Colin Jones.

Effectuation is a heuristic (or set of educated guesses) that Sarasvathy suggested expert entrepreneurs use to make decisions. To use an analogy, when cooking a meal they don’t find a recipe, buy ingredients and equipment, and then follow that recipe, they simply look around their kitchen cupboards and fridge and assemble something from what they have. The principle of effectuation doubles-down on working with what and who you have to hand, controlling and stressing about only what you can control, managing risk through making small affordable losses, and using failure and feedback to learn quickly. Whilst there is a place for planning, strategy and causal reasoning in an attempt to predict the future my students often find effectuation both liberating and intimidating because it encourages them to just act from where they are and create with what they have. The idea that entrepreneurs don’t know where exactly they are going, but have a process for finding the most viable options along the path resonates with this principle of finding beauty in not knowing.

The Reasonable Adventurer is a concept for modelling successful graduates developed by Roy Heath at Princeton back in the 1960s but embraced by Colin Jones an Australian academic and entrepreneurship educator as a model for entrepreneurial graduates from his programmes. One of the six tenets of being a Reasonable Adventurer is a ‘tolerance of ambiguity’:

“The ability to view life as a series of interruptions and recoveries.”

John Dewey

Not knowing is something to be embraced; being able to suspend judgement until sufficient information is gathered, but still being able to act in the meantime. For the entrepreneur ambiguity is really valuable because that uncertainty is likely to deter others who prefer more definitive outcomes, so the entrepreneur has an opportunity to create an opportunity by taking a calculated risk before everyone else arrives.

“What if all you’ll ever have is what you have right now?”

Maggie Doyne

The case study this week was Maggie Doyne, the founder of the BlinkNow Foundation. Her story is an amazing one – a teenage backpacker who started a shelter and a school for Nepali orphans and now runs an NGO. The short version (5 minutes) is pretty powerful and the whole 23-minute version even more so. Maggie has lived out the principle here, following her curiosity, defying expectations and plans, and pulling together the resources she had to do something amazing. Luck is defined by how you open yourself up to opportunity, how you frame what happens to you, how you learn from and manage ‘failure’ and what you do next.

“To know is to be in prison, to not know is to be free.”

Duke Stump

So how can we court the unknown, to open ourselves up to possibility and serendipity? First, don’t throw away all the plans, but open them up whenever you can, share them, create places and spaces within the plans for people to interact with them and adapt them. Hold them lightly enough that they can be changed and adapted to the circumstances.

Also, lift your eyes up from the page so that you can see how your map needs to be interpreted in what is always a shifting landscape. Maybe the path has shifted, maybe the weather is preventing or allowing particular routes, maybe there is something interesting that was not marked on the map but piques your curiosity…

Planning is only one skill that helps us anticipate and make the most of the future; Improvisation is the other.

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