Meaning just doesn’t scale

Aidan Ward and Philip Hellyer

Tilting at windmills is still popular

Meaning and scale

In our world of cost-cutting and “efficiency” we try to scale things up. We do something we think is meaningful and then roll it out to apply to many people or to many situations or to many places. This scaling-up enterprise does not make good sense, if we pay attention. In the world of finance scale may be everything, and that is a measure of how poorly finance captures the meaning of value. In the world of relationships, when we try to do something more broadly, meanings change. Sometimes meanings are not even recognisable between the local and the more general. What we take to be the same thing becomes something completely different.

In my work exploring the meanings of organisational systems, this, historically, has been the place where managers and students of systems fail to follow. Their difficulty revolves around the notion of purpose and alignment. They cannot accept that what happens locally in an organisation can have a quite different purpose and weltanschauung than other parts of the organisation that use what the local part does in some way. They think everyone has to be on the same hymnsheet. (Which in turn implies that they think that everyone can be on the same hymnsheet…)

As we often do, lets look at how ecosystems work. Organisms in an ecosystem are not on the same hymnsheet. We are a bit prone to label the ecosystemic relationships as, for instance, predator-prey, or symbiosis, or parasitic, all of which imply binary focus on two species. When we get to more complex relationships we quickly get confused and lost. But if you think of the development of an ecosystem as endless complexification, this is not hard. An organism or two or three interact because they do. Their lifecycles and their interactions create potential ecological niches that other organisms move in to exploit. That is the complexification process, and it looks miraculous to us because everything is recycled, there is zero waste, and it all dovetails beautifully.

In this miraculous dovetailing, there is no alignment of purpose: in fact, arguably the notion of purpose does not belong or apply. There is no negotiation or design of the relationship between the newcomer organism and the existing system. Complexification is not by consent. This is more like the vibrant local economies of some urban centres: people find ways to make a living in totally surprising modes of existence. If that is not pretty it is often because of grossly exploitative metasystems like money systems and military repression that do not exist in natural systems.

My allotment vegetable patch is more productive than the same area of a farmer’s field growing vegetables. It is more productive because I can take care of the way many different crops and plants interact in useful and productive ways. Allotments don’t scale either.

Useful models

If complexification happens via continuous inventive interventions, our models to help us understand what is going on need to recognise local ways of being and their actual interactions.

Steve Whitla uses a curve to model the spread from high degree of shared meaning to a high degree of detail and accuracy.[1] Which isn’t to say that there’s less nuance at the shared meaning end of things, but that the detail is local to individual contexts, the truly shared portion being vanishingly small.

A simple example. I spoke with a small charity whose work was to defuse tensions on university campuses. Wonderful work. Typically, they would mentor the leaders of various religious societies, working with them to put on events that would get people mixing across sectarian divides. They got comedians to come and entertain people across religions and built ways to resist exclusion and narrowness.

Often, the nature of these students’ lives was to live at home in families that were both strict and suspicious of multicultural agendas and institutions. It was and is clear that a major eruption of religious/ethnic hatred could totally undermine if not destroy a university and what it stood for.

I explored with the CEO what that would allow her to do with her clients, the university administrations. And we came to the conclusion that a university might need to test its ability to cope with a major incident, in the style of a military exercise but with totally different values! Whereas the mentors have an interest in students mingling and understanding each other better, the university admin has to maintain the integrity of the university and discharge its duty to care for students as judged by parents and their communities.

So, the meanings available at the scale of a student religious society and the meanings available at the level of university admin are quite certainly different and quite possibly misaligned. Although that must be understood it absolutely does NOT mean that the work done by the mentors is anything other than invaluable in trying to manage the situation. You might also want to ponder the relationship between an identity card security system and these two contexts.

Another example of the illusion of scalable meaning is the standard operating procedure or business process. The real work is never standard, is always sensitive to the local context of each interaction. It’s well known that if, as workers, you want to bring a business to its knees, you don’t go on strike but follow the processes, robotically, in what’s known as ‘work to rule’. You don’t even need to go to any lengths of absurdity, simply stop filling in the inevitable gaps that arise in and between the official processes.[2]

Projection of meanings

I worked closely with a chap who thought he knew it all. The implication of his all-encompassing ego and hubris was that, in the spirit of Conway’s Law, all organisational solutions that he proposed had a vital role for a guru to be wise and to subtly direct operations and language and culture and learning. (Yes, I am clearly still a bit bruised!) What I learned the hard way was this: what people see in a situation is often a projection of their own needs and deficits,[3] and the more strongly they insist on it as being objective, the more likely it is to be a projection.

The particular issue that this chap could not grasp was the practical organisational implications of local autonomy. Basically, for him, autonomy was a great thing to have, but it would still need to be manipulated to suit organisational goals. People of all ilks, from small children up, learn so quickly when they are fascinated by what is in front of them. The implication of autonomy is that people will find local solutions to local problems that deal with all the crazy idiosyncrasies of people around them: if and only if that can be fun.

The more you impose a framework, the more the meanings of pedagogues and administrators get imposed on the situation. Recent research finds that even the abstract thought that a teacher might, at some future point, want to measure what a student has learned is enough to seriously inhibit the learning itself. And you already know that I don’t think teachers know what students should be learning anyway. Since projected meanings are hell to deal with, it is better not even to go there. Just say no in a gently serious way!

Certainly, in the Viable Systems Model, that is, according to the model for systems to be viable in the first place, autonomous systems are made of autonomous systems. I can probably admit to having many parts of my mind that are interestingly discordant with each other: I am already a system of systems. When I join a bunch of others to do something, that is a further composition of systems that I hope are each viable and autonomous otherwise we are into groupthink and various unhealthy forms of alignment. And what we have sketched above consists of this bunch of people doing one thing with its own local meanings interacting with other groups doing other things to build complexity and potential. It doesn’t always work and it has to be allowed to fail.

When my colleague wanted me to unpack the VSM for him he always got stuck at the same point: what if this bunch of people want those autonomous systems over there to behave differently? Its like all those diversities: ethnic diversity, diversity of sexual orientation, neurodiversity, social system diversity, language diversity etc. that mysteriously collapse into some government minister knowing how to “educate” them all. Why doesn’t everyone just laugh? It is so easy to throw the baby of meaning out with the bathwater of knowing better!

Scale and meaning

Returning from France the other day we stopped for lunch with a friend in Normandy. The lunch included a squash and cucumber salad from the garden just outside the window, and a selection of cheeses produced by neighbours. Needless to say, it was delicious and so welcome. Another French friend surprised me by needing to go to the supermarket to get exciting items like loo rolls. She explained that in her Paris flat she never gets the car out and will only buy food at local shops, so when she was out and about visiting friends in the car she needed to stock up.

To understand these situations fully you would use a technique like Nora Bateson’s warm data labs. You would need to understand the web of completely particular relationships involved. But it is easy to see that neither of these situations scales: there is just no way to get the value in the situation if it is scaled up. It is almost as if the source of much of the value is resisting the economic and managerial dogma that scale is to be celebrated and pursued. Scale is for loo rolls, period.

There is no idyll here. The French neighbours in both little stories are not necessarily pleasant or reasonable or helpful. But place is place, and idiosyncrasy and downright oddness are what place is built on. Idiosyncrasy is the practical working out of autonomy in a place where it is possible to express one’s quirks, where suburban marshalling into sameness happens less. Some of those cheeses were heaven but one for instance had lots of hay sticking to it and apparently tastes very different at different times of year.

Scale and time

I had a discussion with a person from BAE about warships. Apparently as things were then, when a new warship is ordered and built, the contract says that after 25 years of a projected 50-year life it will need a full refit. To facilitate such a refit there must be full knowledge preserved about the current systems, so that they can be upgraded as necessary. It turns out that this is impossible. After 25 years none of the designers and engineers involved in the original design are available or if they are they no longer know how things work. The documentation in all its glory is as undecipherable as the systems themselves. This is the gap between local meaning at the time and the interpretation of the historical material when time has elapsed.

The same effect happens over space/geography when there is any attempt to apply uniform regulation. Philip points out that the provision of a shed with walls on three sides for the comfort of smokers obliged to smoke outside has very different implications in Finland and in Spain, even though the regulation is “the same”.

So, meaning is inescapably created by particular people at a particular time in a particular context. The ability to evoke that meaning with other people in other times and places is fraught, and may be more in the domain of the novelist than the producer of technical documentation. Everyone at some time wants to believe differently and everyone has to find out time and again that this piece of ancient wisdom remains true.

Trying to recreate the context of a past time or another place in order to understand the meanings that held then is the business of historians and social geographers. We can simply note that such things are never settled as fact and remain in a state of perpetual challenge especially if they resonate with crucial meanings in the present.

We can even observe the creation of this effect. If we try to document how meanings change over time as the situation changes what happens is that we fail to notice significant changes. That is a weasel statement, because the significance that we fail to notice often only becomes significant later, even thought the event if you like occurred earlier. You only have to try and write an honest diary to observe this effect. Or even to read old diaries and ask yourself if they were honest. Truly everything real is in the relationships that give meaning to people, and all real work involves understanding how those relationships change when we act.

[1] Steve recently gave what Alec Sharp called the best presentation he’d ever seen. Here’s an article he wrote: http://meaning.guide/index.php/2017/11/13/meaning-curve-need/

[2] A recent example from Virgin Trains: the platform guard at Euston station insisted on seeing ‘the original’ PDF of my electronic ticket, because scanning the same barcode from a screenshot was clearly insecure and prone to copying. Nevermind that you and I could share the same email account, or that I could have arranged the travel for you, or forwarded you the email, etc etc. I wonder what he would have done if I’d presented a printed copy of the same PDF ticket. I wager it would have passed without comment.

[3] In a projection, of course, we see things in other people that if we recognised them as coming from ourselves would be unacceptable.