Contemporaneous notes from the 2022 MODEM Conference at Sarum College, first speaker session.
Professor Margaret Heffernan is opening the conference talking about her book, Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future.
She was brought up as an Episcopalian in the US, and has attended a village church in the UK since she’s been here.
Uncharted came from an idea that got stuck in her head – a good test of an idea is whether if you ignore it, will it leave you alone? Experts in forecasting say that if we thoroughly use all the various sources of information and hone our predictions, the longest we can predict accurately is 400 days, and without thorough work, 150 days. But people still talk about a 5 year growth rate, or changes over the next 20 years. So forecasting is often about salesmanship, or way to stir up an argument, but it’s not reliable or helpful. And the way to get attention in the news cycle, is not to talk about the present but the future.
So Uncharted is an attempt to look at why it’s important to us, and why we keep failing at it, and what could we do that’s better, and especially within organisations.
One of the themes that crops up in mentoring CEOs of large global organisations, is that they would like to do lots of creative and interesting things, but they can’t without proving beforehand that it’s going to work, so they need a forecast or forecasting model that gets them to where they want to go. So despite having power within organisations, the risk prevents them acting, even though there is risk attached to not doing anything.
So they fall into the ‘status quo’ trap – we’re much more comfortable with the risk of doing nothing, rather than the risk of doing something.
For example, why did the UK go into the pandemic so badly, given that they had had a plan and a pandemic planning unit? Because two prime ministers had closed it all down in the name of ‘efficiency’, and given that we hadn’t had a pandemic for a long time.
So doing something outside the status quo is inefficient, and efficiency has been the driving principle since the industrial revolution. But efficiency will strip any capacity to respond in complex and uncertain environments.
It also shows a lack of imaginative capacity – it may not always be this way. And with the challenges at the moment, there isn’t any thinking around how to get out of the situation we’re in. By trying to control the world in looking for certainty, we end up losing our imagination. Technology and education are part of this process.
Wells Cathedral. How was it built? They didn’t have any architects, but the stonemason starts, knowing he won’t live to see the finished product, and has a vague idea of what it’s going to be. But he starts because he knows it’s worth it, even though he doesn’t know what ‘it’ is. And plenty of bits fell off gothic cathedrals, because they were experiments in building – ‘can we do this?’ ‘I don’t know, let’s find out!’
The ‘let’s try it and see’ mindset is hard to find these days. Booking holidays where everything is preplanned and controlled – even though the most memorable parts of holidays are getting lost, finding random restaurants in the middle of nowhere, etc.
Novelists will often sit down to write a thriller even though they don’t know what the plot will be. Why? Because it’s much more fun doing it that way – the excitement is in the not knowing, not the knowing.
Margaret and her husband started a project to visit all the cathedrals in England – they’ve done about 40 so far. He was interested in war memorials and how they were greeted, Margaret was interested in the architecture, and what they say about the spiritual health of the country. But what they became interested in was how radically different from each other these places were, which had nothing to do with the architecture. From the unloved and dead ones, to the social action focused cathedrals, to the tourist attractions that were stunning but felt spiritually confused, the ones where people just loved their buildings, the ones that made them feel underdressed, and the ones that felt like just art galleries.
It’s left Margaret feeling like the church is really confused. Some churches were just waiting for someone to tell them what to do, and ones that hadn’t waited but were just getting on with it. And in many of them, they were driven by the need to pay for the buildings, so they felt like amazing buildings that had once upon a time had something spiritual happening within them.
So the buildings become a huge problem for the churches, because that wasn’t what the church was supposed to be about. What would happen if the churches just gave up all the buildings and focused on the people? That would be a huge uncharted journey for the church to take – there’s a need for experimentation, for scenario planning, for asking the unasked questions. If we carry on the way we are now, what will we wish that we had been doing now?
How is the hunger for meaning, the hunger for spiritual things, being fed now? The business community can be asking surface questions, and ignoring the deeper questions, like why am I doing this work? What’s my purpose?
So post-pandemic, people have been doing a lot of questioning, soul-searching, and why isn’t the church able to help with this? Do the buildings get in the way?
CERN – a modern cathedral building project! Their faith – that the pursuit of knowledge for peaceful purposes is an intrinsic good. If we do something really well with great serious intent, we’ll find something – a fundamental article of faith. We believe it because we know that if we don’t, we won’t. A question they ask, ‘How will we know that the world doesn’t need us any more?’ The answer they have is: when great minds don’t want to work here any more.
As a leader, at what point will an organisation need a new leader?
What is the uncharted journey for the church now, what does the world need from us, or does it not need anything?