Is winter coming? A serious problem

Published by Tony Quinlan on

On the flight back from the Cultivating Leadership gathering, I finally watched Parasite. At one point, a ferocious rainstorm hits the city in which it takes place, and one of the members of a wealthy family comments on what a relief it is to have rain and how good it is for the garden. Cut to: the poorer family struggling amid the horrific effects of that same rainstorm on their situation.

The effect of any intervention – natural, accidental, manmade – depends on where you are in the system. And if you’re not listening throughout the system, you can’t know what effects you’re creating.

Let me give you another example – this time from real life. In January, I spoke at the Sitra Innovation Portfolio Sensemaking and Management Workshop in Helsinki. I spent the weekend beforehand staying with friends and family in the Finnish countryside.

In January this year, winter had not yet come to Finland. Little snow, higher temperatures than usual. There were various effects – as urban dwellers noted with approval – there was less disruption to traffic, it wasn’t as bitingly cold, life was just smoother than January tends to be. Good news right?

Not so much in the rural areas. Let’s walk it through:

  • No snow means a lack of the usual snow cover for winter crops. No cover means that when the sun (even the weak winter sun) comes out, those crops will get scorched – making life difficult for farmers. The effects of losing this crop may well be felt long after the immediate lack of winter has passed.
  • No snow also means that wildlife have access to grazing vegetation. So they’re not using up their bodily fat stores, which has an effect on their health – and on the meat that they then become in the Finnish tradition.
  • Access to grazing vegetation means that animals don’t then come to the usual feeding spots – because they can eat anywhere. This makes life difficult for those people who rely on hunting to make a living – in times of deep snow, food becomes an attractor for free-range animals that hunters use to provide meat to the local abattoirs and butchers.
  • At butchers and abattoirs, they are therefore seeing far fewer animals – down some 60% on normal years – and the meat they produce is fattier than usual.
  • Many workers are paid on a per-animal basis, so fewer animals means lower income for their families.

It’s easy from there to hypothesise about further knock-on effects: supplementary jobs, perhaps; lower disposable income leading to lower retail figures; social issues cropping up as families come under greater stress.

The point is that there are always multiple consequences in different parts of a complex system – many of which aren’t predictable. If you choose to intervene in one – you may not be able to predict the effects, but you still have a responsibility to monitor the system beyond your immediate horizon or interest – and to address negative effects resulting from your interventions. You’re not off the hook just because you didn’t know what would happen.

More importantly – you need to be monitoring the system and you need to be doing it at different levels and from different perspectives.

You need diversity of perspective if you’re working on a wicked, intractable, complex issue. Build your scanning system and watch for those voices you’re not hearing – they will have insights for you, but if you ignore them, they’re also the people who may get hit by your grand plan.