Einstein said “make a problem as simple as possible but no simpler.” This is a fine balancing act, especially dealing with a complex problem when you cannot know all the factors at play or see the interactions between them. The problem situation at one point in time is not the same at another point in time. Quick fixes rarely fix anything in the case of complex problems. The approach to strategy in response must be to build in the ability to allow for emergence; allow for inevitable revelations about the system you are working with that become apparent over time to shape strategy.
I have had firsthand experience with this recently in relation to my approach to The Slow Project and would like to share my reflections with you.
My plan for The Slow Project had always been centred on cycling around Australia, preceded by a learning and development phase. Because of its adventurous nature, the ride would have the benefit of increasing chances of gaining publicity for the project and therefore reaching more people. I was doing what I thought was Slow, keeping my head down and focussed on getting the crowdfunding campaign off the ground to enable me to do the ride.
But something wasn’t quite right. At first I thought my unease was due to financial pressures, however eventually I realised that it was because my strategies were incongruent. My theory of change was based around enabling people to experience Slow, while the ride was centred on awareness-raising. I want to go deeper with Slow, both in my understanding of what are Slow principles and practices and also in the depth of experience I can offer people. The ride was going to be too soon to allow this to happen.
So I have decided to really explore Slow in depth. I will head the US in July to do my own immersive Slow experience; retreating to a mountain and getting trained to become a Nature Quest guide (nature is the greatest teacher of Slow – lets discuss this soon ;)) and cycling around parts of America, discovering what is happening in terms of Slow and the sorts of things I am looking to do.
I will come back and focus on Slow in Western Australia. I will work on developing a range of Slow experiences and explore how Slow is being implemented in WA, especially the southwest. I’m still making some key decisions, but I am also looking at possibly doing a PhD because I think Slow and how to incorporate it into our lives deserves some serious inquiry. I am also considering cycling around the south west of WA as part of the exploration and eventually writing a ‘how-to’ type book on how to incorporate Slow into your life. Then possibly riding around Australia.
Lessons in Slow strategy
This realisation, just in the nick of time before I launched my crowdfunding campaign and locked myself in to ‘plan A’, was enabled by seeking other perspectives. During my work in stakeholder engagement, I developed a huge appreciation for the role that going out and putting your issue or idea in front of people who care or are otherwise interested can play in shaping the direction of a project. There is such magic in the posing of a question; even one that comes from a place of naivety to certain realities.
I also was reminded of the difficultly we have coping with uncertainty. When things are complex, we cant know all aspects of the problem situation, so sometimes the best thing to do is just sit with it for a bit longer and observe. This sounds easy, but often we’re driven to have things clarifying based on expectations we have on how things should be, frustration with the mental space all the ‘what-ifs’ take up and anxiety about the unknowns.
I already had allowed for some time to just let ideas for the project percolate but I had set myself a timeline and that initial exploration phase was meant to be over. I was craving the clarify. I just wanted to be able to finally get on with things! Especially for us creative types, having at least some boundaries to work within helps us focus. This was really driving me to get the crowd funding campaign done so I could focus on the delivery.
I had to remind myself of the fact that sitting with uncertainty is hard, and recognise that my perception of needing to get on with things was clouding my ability to critically thinking about whether or not what I wanted to get on with was the best thing to do in the first place.
Slow enables allowing for emergence
I am proud of my decision to extend the exploration phase and cope with uncertainty for a bit longer. Remaining flexible to allow for developments in thought or circumstance is an important element in strategy for complex situations. This recent experience of mine points to 4 ways Slow enables allowing for emergence.
1. One of our Slow principles is connection to self. I describe this as being centred, being present to and understanding yourself deeply. By implementing this principle and employing some reflective practices purpose enables you to move with emergence. Proximal stability before distal mobility is a Slow mantra; i.e. be centred and anchored before shifting with the outside world. Because my sense of what I want to achieve with The Slow Project has remained clear, once I realised that I needed to think more closely about how I was going to go about achieving that purpose, it was actually a simple decision to change the plan.
Simple, yes, but not without the difficulty of releasing expectations.
2. Release expectations about how things should be. When things happen that cause you a lot of internal friction, often the source is expectations you hold. Use mindfulness for a bit of self-inquiry as to what these expectations might be. I found this quite useful. Once I could identify what my expectations were it was quite simple to smile, realise that these expectations were not necessary and drop my grasp on thoughts of how things should be.
3. Invite external questions with willingness to let that change you and develop your ideas. For example after initially recoiling at the idea proposed by a few people at the co-creation workshop that I should write a book, the idea began to take root in my mind and has lead me to feel more favourably towards spending a few years exploring Slow in depth and doing a PhD
4. Have phases with clear decision points. Allowing for emergence sounds good in theory but to help that translate into practice I recommend breaking your initiative into phases and be clear about what decision you intend to make in the transition between each phase. This helps you be clearer about problem definition, generative and convergent stages of thinking which all require different approaches.