The connectivity of things
Perhaps the greatest achievement of the internet – and, perhaps too, its greatest threat – is the way it has connected us. Looking back at the laborious correspondence of the times when I was having written battles with my father about the girl I intended to marry I observe that, in between the high drama of intermittent squabbles, life continued as per normal. The battle was drawn out but the pace allowed some reflection and the process of putting pen to paper was often calming.
My observations about connectivity began earlier than that. They were the product of the seasons and the often predictable rhythm of agriculture. As I have said before, I learnt a great deal from the farmhands I worked with. Although some of them were illiterate they were all highly educated in the sense in which that word should be used. They needed no degree to relate the weather to the crops or the spread of DDT-based* weed killers to the disappearance of field birds.
I learnt, also, that the less educated, and in particular those with what I call narrow educations, understand the connectivity of things less well than those with broader backgrounds. Perhaps this is obvious. For thousands of years humankind went about its short life with a dedication to repetitiveness that demonstrated a weakness in our ability to learn from our mistakes or to connect good outcomes with good inputs. We were unable to perceive relationships. Then our brains grew.
The more I learn about people who come to me for mentoring and coaching the more I realize that what we call creativity is not a simple learned skill or a practiced behaviour but a courageous determination to associate cause and effect in a meaningful and productive way. And that leads me to understand better the connectivity of things. Our increasing ability to do this is humankind’s greatest gift. Perception, Explanation, Re-evaluation, Transformation (PERT). We do it all the time and need to do it more.
A simple example of this is the way we deal with subordinates. You are their boss and both of you are aware of that. Gorilla-like demonstrations of your position are unnecessary and certainly counterproductive. They lead to lower effort, lack of interest or, at its extreme, to sabotage. But do managers also know that a cheerful, interested and caring treatment of subordinates leads to loyalty, commitment and endeavour beyond what could be expected? If they do, do they practice it? Smaller issues can have much wider results. For example, whole businesses are put at risk because of thoughtless treatment when firing people for their incompetence.
You can test your ability to connect things quite simply. Start with the obvious – clouds in the sky, rain to follow, take umbrella. Move on to increasingly difficult relationships – a glass of water and your ‘in’ tray; a reflection in a mirror and a cup to tea. Make the distance between the things you are trying to connect greater and greater. Reach the point where you’re trying to connect President Xi with a concrete railway sleeper in the frozen north. You’ll get the idea.
Once you understand the game, try it as you go through your normal working day. Relate the way your employees are working to the conditions under which they work and the bosses they have to cope with. Observe the openness or covertness of their behaviour. The world is not full of industrial spies but any employee can easily become the conduit for leaked data. Ask Facebook.
Remoteness of connection does not decide relevance. Great data churns bring decision-making to a better science but sensing is an art computers have yet to conquer. I know very well when someone ‘walks over my grave’. Inevitably I soon learn the reason for the feeling. A friend or family member have met some disaster. Needs and feelings can be connected without social media.
In short, everything is connected to everything else and we make the best of our talents when we recognise and try to improve our ability to do so. The great leaps of science and discovery come more from the David Attenborough side of our natures than from Seoul / Pyongyang summits.
When we know what is important the focus of our lives invariably turns towards others.
It is a gesture of continuity more needed today than ever before in humankind’s history.
*”The insecticide DDT was classified as probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A), based on sufficient evidence that DDT causes cancer in experimental animals and limited evidence of its carcinogenicity in humans.”