The Spark Blog

An occasional series of thoughts and reflections on the role of narrative in organizational change, branding and knowledge work

systems vs bodies

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Victoria relates Archbishop Welby’s recent speech on good banking back to Sparknow’s work with causal layered analysis: shift the deeply hidden narrative layers and everything else follows.

On Wednesday night, Archbishop Welby was giving the keynote at the third in a trio of debates on ‘The City and the common good: what kind of City do we want’.  These have been organized by the St Paul’s Institute, You can hear the Archbishop talk for just under 25 minutes here and read the twitter feed under the hashtag #commongood. It’s a good listen and a good skim and there are more events to follow.

The thing that sung out for the Sparknow partners (all three of us were there), was the challenge to the metaphor that governs the way we are all thinking about banking. We need to move, he says, from a metaphor of system to a metaphor of body if we are to make any progress in shifting to the kind of banks we want to have.


photo | JohnConnell

If I dent my car, I’m annoyed, it makes a dent in my wallet. That’s it.

If I dent my body, it hurts. The organisation, the bank, must be felt as a body, not a system – or rather, a human, self-correcting, self-learning system.

For as long as we distance ourselves from the human in banking, we will be unable to make progress.

This leads straight back to the CLA-lite workshop on the future culture of financial instititutions in the UK Sparknow ran with The Futures Company and Wendy Schultz last October.

Causal layered analysis (CLA) is a proven method for holding a layered conversation that extends and disrupts conventional assumptions. It allows potential shifts in values and worldviews to be identified.

In brief, a causal layered analysis is a way of enquiring into complex phenomena and generating perspectives on possible futures. You work together down through the four layers, and then back up again:

1 | water cooler (‘litany’): what is the noise that bubbles on the surface?

2 | systemic perspective: what lies underneath the noise?

3 | worldview: what unconscious underlying assumptions are at work?

4 | metaphoric level: what hidden metaphors are at play?

In its full form CLA moves from the superficial and visible to the subtle and profound identifying the different layers (and different timescales at which those layers shift), probing deep perspectives and mental structures. Then it explores inflections and disruptions: what shifts at the metaphoric level might ripple back up through the layers to shift worldview, systems, and the day-to-day buzz.

It was a minute experiment, those few hours on a sunny October afternoon, but it did yield, as our top insight, a shift in metaphor not far from the Archbishop’s challenge:

“Change the lens and look at this world through different metaphors, for example the lens of biology, organic systems, epidemiology and contagion, to find new understandings and possible disruptions.”

The underlying message is the same: understand fragility, and the complexity and vulnerability of the monocultures we have reduced ourselves to, and shift the metaphor radically. This is the only way to shift the other layers.

The aspirational worldview (the third layer down of the causal layer) of banks achieving their social purpose once again can only be achieved by a shift at the level of metaphor, to a much longer, deeper slower cycle of  time we operate in.

In the long now Stuart Brand has it that ‘commerce’ is the second layer down of five layers of time (fashion/art, commerce, infrastructure, governance, culture and nature) and we’d argue that in these conversations about banking for the common good we are probing beneath Brand’s commerce layer and down to the culture layer, one layer above nature: this is where the shift in metaphors needs to happen.

If we, collectively, shift our metaphor from system to body, we then re-examine the worldviews (many of which have been talked about since 2008), in a way that restructures our approach to systemic layer with intelligent and thoughtful regulation, governance and controls set in productive opposition to innovation, to contain and encourage it and make sure it is reponsible innovation, striking the Archbishop’s balance between liberty and constraint). This will change the daily buzz of news, activity and exchanges which makes visible the day to day manifestation of these deep shifts.

Speaking in response to the Archbishop was Anthony Jenkins, CEO of Barclays. His response centred around Help the Heroes, recruitment, three-hour ethics training sessions and a three-day ethics jamming session across the whole organization, with references to the values of Barclays’ Quaker heritage. All of it felt well-intentioned, but it operated only patchily at levels below those of the water cooler, system and worldview, and never really penetrated the deep layer of metaphor from which the cultural shift needs to come if it is to be lasting and meaningful. 

This, we agreed afterwards, is the fundamental shortcoming in most of the cultural change programmes we are aware of.

One of the people at the CLA we ran was Richard Bronk, author of The Romantic Economist, in which he says:

When metaphors become buried…and cease to be questioned, there are two inevitable dangers. The first is that there may be important distortion and deficiencies in our vision and analysis because of the structuring effect of the conceptual and logical framework implied by the metaphor… The second danger is that when a metaphor hardens into one of the implicit and unquestioned metaphors of everyday or specialist language, it starts to have an impact not only on the way we see social or market reality but also on the way we structure that reality through our behaviour and the policies we advocate.

So Sparknow would argue, with force and conviction, for the Archbishop’s challenge to be taken up. Banks (and regulators and everybody else) are not a system or part of a system, they are a body or part of a body, and they need to work through the consequences of that commitment to the fullest possible participation if they are to change, and in changing restore trustworthiness.


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