Sunday, October 04, 2009

Where would we be today?

Written some time ago, 22 July 2004, for another blog. It carries the theme of my last post 'False ceilings' nicely. Enjoy.

Fear of the unknown both intrigues and yet holds back the development of mankind. We are at a number of moral intersections with so many new technologies. Going forward has risks. Risks that we don’t fully understand or can even be sure of. We can speculate, but we can’t be sure. So what do we do?

When da Vinci first invented the flying machine to when the Wright brothers first flew one, do you think they considered the profound affects of their work? Do you think they timidly explored their ideas, or do you think they just did it? When the first seed was first sewn, when the first doctor made his first incision, or when the first injection was first administered… do you think any of these happened with a full understanding of their actions? Mankind has developed from taking risks we don’t fully understand, and at every set-back we’ve improved our understanding and moved forward again. Were we creating irreparable damage, were we furthering mankind?

When Babbage set about inventing the first computer, I somehow doubt he was too worried about potential risks. Once the first valve-operated computer was built, the Americans put it to work to predict the trajectory of a bullet: to build a better weapon, to be a better killer. Today’s computers help us to work out from the wound of a slained victim the trajectory of that bullet: to capture their killer, to build a better defence. A double edged sword full of risk and potential yet we still harness the power of the computer and move forward for the benefit of mankind. The same cannot be said about all technologies.

When NASA first set about exploring the moon we faced risks, not fully understanding them, we did it anyway. We landed on the moon. As long as the risks were contained, NASA kept going. Yet at the first ‘visible’ setback, ‘fear’ shot to the forefront of the public’s mind, leaving the progression of mankind in its wake. We now nervously send people in to space. We cautiously step out in to the new frontier. The space programme has in the last 25-years, only now started to regain ‘some’ momentum with the possibility of Mars being a rich resource for mankind. Our own moon, sitting upon our own doorstep, remains a vastly unexplored entity.

We have seen what can be achieved in less than 25 years. Where would we be today if the momentum of the space programme never died down? Imagine if we faced everything with intrigue and not in trepidation? Where would we be today? Dig up the sceptics of da Vinci’s flying machine and take them on a flight to anywhere in the world. Dig up our sceptics in 100-years from now and take them on a flight to the stars. Apply this to genetic science and nanotechnology. Where would we be today? Where would we be in 25 years?

False ceilings

The sky's the limit. Well, even that sounds a bit restrictive in this day and age. Are there really any true limits? If there was ever a saying that was due for an overhaul in modern culture, this is the one. Yet even if we chose the moon or the stars as limits it wouldn't be long before even these would be deemed as narrow minded.

The question we should ask ourselves about limits: Why do we feel compelled to set them?

In the workplace we rarely focus on the skies, unless you're in the air force, instead we talk about glass ceilings. Arbitrary heights within an organisational structure which we feel are fixed. A point in the hierarchy which we cannot go any further.

A call centre operative has no business bypassing their team leader, let alone the supervisor or floor manager. Heaven forbid that such an individual could compare notes with the CEO.

Bizarrely it works the other way round too. Our own ceilings become the floors for others. A CEO feels compelled to respect the boundaries others have set and has no position to engage with anyone below his or her senior management team.

And happily the call centre operative and the CEO remain forever detached. The true reason for what happens when a call is received is buffeted by hundreds of glass ceilings or floors from the ears of a CEO. As is the true reason a CEO is compelled to drive a particular strategy, distilled and filtered through the layers, to reach the operative in a light and palatable way.

The ceilings appear to serve a purpose. One which prevents the many interacting with the few, and vice-verse. A self protecting mechanism to ensure everyone remains focused on what they are meant to deliver for the organisation. Blissfully unaware of any truth of reason. Time and money are well spent. Each other protected from scrutiny, protecting our own imaginative constructs.

The fact and beauty about glass ceilings is that nobody else can see them but you. And the cold hard truth is that the only reason this is so is because you put them there. And what's more... they aren't real. They are fake.

Looking through the glass, do you notice who is on the other side? What is holding that ceiling in place? If you stood back from it all, would you be able to see how many ceilings you have installed? No one else is to blame.

To break through ceilings, and the skies, past the moon and the stars, we have to recognise them as the self manifested limitations that we pose upon ourselves and make available for others to exploit.

Opportunities have afforded all of us to be in the positions we are. Whether good or bad. And yet opportunities are not finite. They are in plentiful supply, waiting to be snapped up. Exploitable to those that dare try.

Sadly the reason why we accept false limitations is that we become complacent. Happier where we are. Taking the easy road. Setting up our own barriers to keep ourselves insular. Protected. Defining strategies for keeping ourselves exactly where we already are. Right here. A comfortable place for not just us, but everyone else too.

Why work harder or smarter? Why learn new ways around obstacles? We believe we all have the tenacity and drive to do better. Yet when faced with an equal, your self appointed ceiling's protector, an individual just like you or me, set with their own self-harmonizing strategy, we choose to back down. Why speak up? Why challenge? Why try to remove that ceiling? No one wants their comfy, secure place in the world to be disturbed.

It's easy to see why someone else would protect their own position in your imaginary tower. If you challenge their position in your tower of false ceilings, they too will need to go poking around in their ceiling rich environment. Rather than do this it is much easier to help encourage your own self-doubt and promote your delusion as a reality.

You'll either realise this now and do something about it, or you will console yourself by finding others who have put in the same self-imposed false ceilings to compare notes. You will either break through, or you will snuggle up underneath.

The CEO, protected by their personal assistant. The senior manager protected by their management teams. Middle and junior managers protected by their supervisors and team leaders. The call centre operative protected by their peers. A seemingly endless list of false ceilings or floors that you have chosen to see. False ceilings that if removed expose areas which you feel are full of challenges that you may not cope with. Filled with uncertainty and contempt for your being there.

Ask yourself, who are the ones that make it higher in an organisation? The ones that remain confined by their glass ceilings, or the ones that chose not to see them in the first place?