Working Notes of a Practising Neo-Generalist (#12) — On being a ‘Time Lord’

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Blending the old with the new — Port House Antwerp, by Zaha Hadid Architects.

“If anyone can refute me — show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective — I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.” — Marcus Aurelius in Meditations, Book 6:21 (translated by Gregory Hays, The Modern Library, New York)

On being a ‘Time Lord’

“I will keep constant watch over myself and — most usefully — will put each day up for review. For this is what makes us evil that none of us looks back upon our own lives. We reflect upon only that which we are about to do. And yet our plans for the future descend from the past.” — Seneca in a letter to his older brother Novatus

In a recent post, Richard Martin, the co-author of The Neo-Generalist, wrote about, what he calls, ‘legacy thinking,’ which he defines as “respecting the past, acting in the present and serving the future.” As a ‘legacy thinker,’ one must look forwards and backwards at the same time, like the Roman god Janus, who symbolised change and transitions, such as the progress of past to future, from one condition to another, and from one vision to another. His true face is never visible because the present — in between past and future — in its temporal manifestation is but an intangible and imperceptible instant.

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Past, present and future — Aeneas carrying his father Anchises and his son Ascanius away from Troy. (Altar of the gens Augusta, Carthage; Tunis, Musée National du Bardo. Inv. no. 2125)

While working with organisations, also I am constantly travelling through these dimensions of time — looking at the past to unearth the organisation’s heritage, and learn from and build on what went before, while, at the same time, exploring its possible futures.

In On ‘plonk work’, I mentioned Peter Vander Auwera, who wrote about the notion of ‘patrimony’ of a building, which relates to the knowledge stored as inheritance material in physical objects. “The structure is not only the brick and mortar building itself, but includes the whole site, the landscape, the empty spaces, the social contracts, the tacit and non-tacit agreements of flow. It comes alive when people live in it, add furniture, decoration, color, organise their areas for work, for creativity, for reflection,” Vander Auwera writes in Can organisations change? Instead of breaking a building down, you can also try to respects and preserve its patrimony. Combine old with new — new structures, new flows.

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Messana O’Rorke Architects extends New York homestead, Ten Broeck Cottage, which dates back to 1734 and still bears signs of its Dutch colonial roots, with weathering-steel annex. (Photograph: Elizabeth Felicella)

The same principle applies to our organisations. Yet, when we are trying to change or innovate, we often only look ahead — into the future. We only see ‘the new’ — the next horizon — and forget about where we are and where we come from, and what happened in between. As a consequence, we create change and innovations that don’t belong — that aren’t in any way, shape, or form rooted. Instead, we should tap into the history of our organisations and peel away the many layers to expose their true identities — like stripping off layers of old wallpaper that hide the original plaster or brickwork.

But it isn’t just about rediscovering, it’s also a process of understanding what happenend and why — of learning, and, even more importantly, unlearning, because most layers of ‘wallpaper’ are made of our beliefs and assumptions, and all the things we simply take for granted. It’s a bit like the renovation of an 18th-century home in Upstate New York. The architects have revitalised the building’s original appearance, while adding a modern steel extension.

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Ten Broeck Cottage. (Photograph: Elizabeth Felicella)

This is, however, by no means an argument for preserving the status quo — the present — or bringing back the past in all its ‘glory.’ Far from it. It’s about finding meaningful ways to blend the old with the new, like in Ten Broeck Cottage. Understanding the building’s, or organisation’s origin and legacy, is a pre-condition for creating its future. Like architects, ‘change makers’ must be real ‘legacy thinkers’ — understanding the past, acting in the present and serving the future. Only then will we be able to realise meaningful change. To pull this off, though, one has to be a real ‘Time Lord.’

“A world in which time is absolute is a world of consolation. For while the movements of people are unpredictable, the movement of time is predictable. While people can be doubted, time cannot be doubted. While people brood, time skips ahead without looking back. In the coffee houses, in the government buildings, in boats of Lake Geneva, people look at their watches and take refuge in time. Each person knows that somewhere is recorded the moment she was born, the moment she took her first step, the moment of her first passion, the moment she said goodbye to her parents.” — Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams

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