100 Questionable Assumptions – 4

The Trickle-Down Economy

Concentrating wealth in the hands of a few increases the total wealth available to all

Too much food on not enough tables - ©Bard 2005Too much food on not enough tables – ©Bard 2005

When the total sum of wealth in the world increases, should we care about its distribution? We are all related, and everything is connected, so when the wealth of the world increases, the whole world is better off, even when only a lucky few benefit directly. Feeling left out and disadvantaged is just a narrow-minded, selfish reaction of the misguided ego that fails to see the bigger picture. A rising tide floats all boats, they say. And the trickle down principle works better when there’s more at the top to trickle down from. So let’s just keep slaving away at increasing the size of the pie, and not look too closely at how the slices are divided.

But if all the food of the world ends up on one table and the rest of the world is starving, does it really matter how richly stacked that table is? Does it matter how big the pie gets, when its parts are shared more and more inequitably? Does it benefit the world that a lucky minority can waste water on pools, parks, and fountains while the masses are dying of thirst? Is it right to boast of our fabulous cities and technological marvels while the rest of the world is turned into a wasteland to make those wonders possible? Does concentrated wealth really count as wealth, or it just another name for distributed poverty?

There is something deeply flawed about our current economic models. It all sounds really good in theory: in a free market, with all players having equal access and the freedom to choose, supply and demand, surplus and shortage, production and consumption will all balance themselves out in a dynamic equilibrium. The most deserving will get a bit more, the most productive will make the most profit, while the least productive and least deserving will get a bit less. But that is only fair, and much more fair than any centrally led economy or government-regulated system could ever be.

For a long time I have tried to believe this narrative, in spite of the plenty of evidence to the contrary. I wanted to believe the fundamental theory was sound and that a free market was – in theory – the best solution to our economic needs. I tried to explain the obvious failings of the system – the rising income inequality, the massive environmental damage, the overwhelming power of the wealthy elite over the poor majority of humanity – not as a flaw of the system but of the people running it. It had to be because of bad people, corrupt politicians, greedy businessmen, and criminal governments that the system refused to balance out. Surely, if we could find a way of weeding out the bad apples that were ruining the beauty of the free market, everything would work out OK?

An article in this month’s Scientific American, titled “The Inescapable Casino”, changed my mind. What the article claims, using fairly simple mathematics, is that the free market theory is fundamentally flawed. Even a truly free market, untainted by the distortions and machinations imposed by bad and greedy influences, will not move towards a balanced distribution of goods and value. Instead, small ‘errors’ of value exchange – where one party receives slightly more value than they should – build up over time. Once the value distribution is skewed, the unfair advantage of having received slightly more builds up over time, invariably leading to a lucky few owning almost everything, with only a few scraps left over for the rest. Instead of trickling down, the authors state, a free market tends to trickle up: shaving off value from the poorest to add to the increasingly disproportionate abundance of the rich.

For me, this insight changes a core part of my own thinking about our economic future. The flaws in our system have always been obvious to me, but I kept thinking we could correct these by limiting the damaging influence of the bad people involved. I was hoping that a free market without their distorting influences would be possible, so we did not have to rethink the entire foundation of our current economy. But I am coming to the conclusion this was a naive and idle hope. The system itself is fundamentally flawed. Even without ‘evil’ influences in it, it will never lead to a just and fair distribution of wealth and power.

But hidden inside this realisation is some (perhaps unexpected) good news.

It means we can change our focus. Instead of fighting the bad people and thinking up ways to limit their evil ways, we can turn our minds and energy to solving the real problem. Fighting evil people may give us the satisfaction of righteous indignation and moral superiority, it will not, however, solve our current problem of income inequality and massive over-concentration of wealth. It may smoothen the curve a bit, and soften some of the edges, but it cannot ‘cure’ a system that is so fundamentally flawed. We need to find a better system if we want to have a sustainable future. We need a system that is fair, balanced and equitable at its core.

So, let’s keep calling out bad behaviour and abuse of power where we see it. But let’s stop blaming bad people for all the problems in our world. They may be taking advantage of it but they are not the cause of our economy’s failings. The root cause is our economic system itself. Finding a better system should have our full attention and complete devotion. This is not a matter of winning a battle between good and evil. It’s a matter of finding a way of life that offers us a future.

100 Questionable Assumptions – 3

Perpetual Growth

If growth is good, continuous growth is better, slow growth is bad, no growth is a disaster

Slow growth can be beautiful, too - ©Bard 2017
Slow growth can be beautiful, too – ©Bard 2017

When things grow it means they are getting bigger, stronger, more. The faster they do so, the better it is. Failing to get bigger, stronger, more – even for a moment – must mean falling behind in the race towards dominance. Losing that race means death. When we look at Nature, growth is a sign of health and vigour; of youth and potential. As long as things grow they thrive. So, with Nature showing us the way, isn’t it logical – natural even – that we humans strive for perpetual, ever accelerating growth?

Or is it? Most things in Nature do not grow all the time, but slow down, decline, and die. In Nature things have a natural limit to their growth, to keep the eco-system diverse and balanced. Only pests, diseases, and cancers don’t seem to obey this rule, and end up destroying the very environment that gave them life. Maybe ours is the choice between growing up or growing on: finding peace with our world or finding ourselves without a world at all?

What if bigger, stronger, more are not the dimensions we should focus our efforts on? What if there are other forms of growth we overlook? Growth in complexity, variety, experience, wisdom… Could it be that our obsession with material growth is blinding us to the real growth opportunities around us?

100 Questionable Assumptions – 2

The Mechanical Enterprise

An enterprise is like a machine we design, build, and operate 

Like a train speeding towards the abyss - ©Bard 2016
Like a train speeding towards the abyss – ©Bard 2016

An enterprise is very much like a machine. It is engineered to perfection. Powerful and unstoppable, if properly constructed if will fulfill the function it was designed for without hesitation or deviation. Like a train it will thunder down the track its masters lay down for it, squashing all that comes in its path.

If this were true, why do Enterprises so often surprise us? Why is there no guaranteed best formula for creating and running an Enterprise? Why can good companies turn bad? Why do winning Enterprises stop being successful?

Is it because the machine of Enterprise is being operated by humans and those humans are fallible, unpredictable, flawed? If that were true, the less human interference we need, the better our Enterprises would become. The perfect Enterprise would not need any human operators at all. The perfect Enterprise would be perfectly engineered to perfectly run without human intervention.

Or could it be that the reality our Enterprises operate in is not a mechanical reality? Could it be that the complexity of the Enterprise’s environment defies a full analysis, complete enough to robustly design the Enterprise for all the variables and variations it has to deal with in its existence? If that is the case, no purely mechanical approach will yield a workable Enterprise. Resilient, intuitive, intelligent, unpredictable people will always be needed to steer the Enterprise through the frothy waves of complex reality. The perfect Enterprise would be approximated but never complete. No design, however detailed and well-thought-out can capture all the possible variations branching out at every future moment. Without humans to give it life, purpose, awareness, and responsiveness it would remain a perfectly lifeless abstraction, incapable of sustaining itself in the real world.

There is plenty of reason to believe reality is too complex, chaotic even, to be fully predictable. Why then are we still trying to refine human action and human agency out of our Enterprises’ design and operation? Why do we keep thinking that less human control and influence equals more effective operations?

Isn’t it time to stop that train before it takes us over the edge of the abyss?

100 Questionable Assumptions – 1

This is going to be a series of assumptions I believe we should not always take for granted. They may be true sometimes, they may sound quite obvious, but are they always right? I am not claiming they are never true or useful, just arguing we should occasionally stop and question them. If we never critically examine what we assume about the world, how will we ever correct the flaws in our thinking?

1: Unlimited Wealth

If wealth is good, limitless wealth is infinitely better

Bard - ©2016
Bard – ©2016

Can you ever have too much of a good thing? If wealth enables people to do great and good things, limitless wealth should enable them to do an unlimited number of even greater and better things. But many great and good things are not happening in the world right now, whilst many deplorable and bad things are.

Why is that?

Is it because the wealthy are not wealthy enough? Are we limiting their ability to do all the great and good things they would do if only we let them grow even wealthier?

Or maybe wealth itself is not enough. Maybe wealth needs the human spirit to turn its potential into good. Maybe strong spirits with limited wealth can do great things, where weak spirits with great wealth do little good at all.

Maybe, when focusing on growing wealth, we are focusing on the wrong side of the equation? What would happen if we focus on developing the human spirit? If we encourage our children to be compassionate, fearless, strong, kind and caring before we teach them to be selfish, afraid, needy, greedy and aggressive? What would happen if we change the rules of the games our society plays by, so that wealth is not automatically equated with success, and money is not automatically equated with power over others?

The Social Fabric

The social fabric is a magic fabric
Woven from our obligations
Our debts unpaid and favours owed
For the balance of the greater good

Woven from our hopes and dreams
Our vision of a better future
Our memories of a glorious past
And the stories shared between us

The social fabric is a fragile fabric
That can be torn and shredded
By selfishness and greed
By secrecy and scheming

Ripped apart, unraveled
By violence and power
By divisiveness and hate
And the politics of fear

The social fabric is a precious fabric
It protects us with its cover
And is all that stands between
Our kindness and indifference

Without this cloth to dress us
We would be naked in this world
And face the icy Universe
Each one of us alone

Bard – 2019

On The Social Nature of Work

Have you ever wondered why so many people in your organisation are constantly stressed-out and on the edge of a burnout or fundamentally disengaged? Have you ever asked yourself if that is normal? 


Is it really the case that work is by its very nature hard, mostly unpleasant and a sacrifice we all have to make in order to make a living? Is work really no more than a sad fact of life we put up with because it pays the bills?

I believe there is more to work than that.

As long as we have existed, humans have come together to achieve things we could not achieve alone. Throughout the ages, we have tackled difficult, dangerous and unpleasant tasks together in groups, tribes and all kinds of organisations. We did not just do that for the reward. In fact, a lot of extraordinary work was done not for extrinsic motivators such as money, titles, status or power, but for intrinsic motivators such as being part of something bigger than ourselves, doing something meaningful, making a contribution, or in the words of President Kennedy: we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

They didn't build it for the money - ©Bard 2015
They didn’t build it for the money – ©Bard 2015

Humans like to work, and love to work together. It’s a deeply ingrained social drive. It’s part of what makes our lives meaningful and worth living.

Yet, that’s not what most workplaces feel like.

Because of our obsession with the economic aspects of work: money, value chains, productivity, etc. and how that makes us organise and manage the work we do, we are actually working against the natural drivers that engage and inspire people to do great work. Instead of helping people achieve their best and wanting more we make it harder.

But we can change this. If we recognise and embrace the natural drive that people have to get together and do great work we can tap into much more energy, creativity and willingness to explore and innovate than we do at the moment.

To do so we need to add a social perspective to our approach. We need to realise that organisations are not just there to produce economic value. Organisations are social structures, full of people with a need to participate, to feel proud, to have a purpose, to grow their potential and to contribute. 


It’s my mission to help bring this social perspective to organisations and show them how they can inspire and support their people to do great work and enjoy doing it.

It’s time to re-humanise work.

Making Your String of Pearls – Step 7

What Is Your Story – Chapter 14

Well-prepared and well-planned we are now ready to start the next leg of our journey. We shouldn’t expect everything to go exactly as planned; life seldom does. What we should do is regularly check our progress using the VIPs we defined for ourselves. This allows us to make adjustments as we go along. Staying on course while responding to the world evolving around us is a balancing act. Like walking a tight-rope, it requires considerable skill. A skill we will only get by actually walking that rope. We will fall off. Often at first, then less and less as we get better. As long we don’t see those falls as failures they are simply part of the learning process. We brush ourselves off, take a few deep breaths, and get back on that rope to try again.


Step 7: Making it Happen

As we walk our path we must stay alert to the obstacles and opportunities we encounter. There is truth in the old cliche that says that every obstacle is an opportunity. At the very least, every setback or challenge is an opportunity to reflect and learn. We often encounter resistance, push-backs and roadblocks at the beginning of a journey. Especially when that journey takes us far from the way we presented ourselves in the past. The more we deviate from what the world expects of us, the more the world will try to push us back. Back to where it’s comfortable – for the world. We should remember this when we encounter resistance and see it as a sign we are moving in the right direction. It shows that we are unmooring ourselves from the anchors that held us in place before.

However, we also need some discernment and judgment. Not all resistance and setbacks are signs of progress. Sometimes we are running into real, unforeseen obstacles. We may encounter difficulties we underestimated or did not see coming at all. Sometimes we may, in fact, have begun to veer off our ideal path. When our conscious mind fails to notice this our subconscious mind may be trying to signal us. It may be trying to tell us to pay attention and get back with the program. The way to find out what is actually happening is to observe with detachment what is really going on. What are the source and nature of the resistance we are running into? What is our own role in creating them? How much of a problem do they pose? What does our intuition say about the situation?

We can use our VIPs to estimate how serious the issues are we are facing. How much and what part of our desired progress is being blocked or slowed down here? Is that an essential part, or something we can postpone or move around? 


I had been negotiating with a potential government client for some time. Then, as frequently happens in Australia, the political landscape shifted. That caused ripples of change to reverberate throughout the circles of government. Departments heads were replaced. Whole departments had to be reshuffled. Decisions were put on hold and initiatives were cancelled while budgets were frozen. It seemed that a promising start to my existence as an independent consultant was being nipped in the bud.

After venting my frustration to some friends (I am only human) I did an exercise of detached observation. How important was this setback in my current journey of becoming a writer and public speaker? The work would have been interesting and the income always welcome. But the contract was not exactly crucial to the realisation of my ambitions. In fact, this delay could be a blessing in disguise.

Working with large government clients can be very demanding and time-consuming. Things tend to get complicated. A lot of time often gets taken up by the formal and organisational aspects of the work, rather than the work itself. What starts as a part-time assignment can easily become a full-time job.

My stated goal was to work just enough to have time to develop my writing and thinking. Maybe taking on a potentially large contract at this time would get in the way of me achieving that goal? Since the writing was my first priority, would it be a mistake to rush straight into contracted work?

After some introspection, meditation and consultation with my partner, things became clear. The delayed negotiations were not precious time lost, but precious time gained. It was giving me time to write and develop a clearer, stronger story to show to the world. That clearer story would give me a better position to resume the negotiations later. It would be easier for me to focus the contract on my core competence and the things I want to be known for. It would give me time to make sure the client was serious about their commitment to the changes they asked me to facilitate.

In the end, the setback caused by the change in government turned out to be a great opportunity for reflection and exploration. It gave me the chance to explore some of my fears, worries and doubts. It made me reconsider where I needed to put my energy and attention to live my story as I intended. And it helped me to refocus and get back with renewed energy to writing this book. Which was, after all, the number 1 priority on my list. 


Obstacles and resistance can be very helpful tools to help us refocus and realign our course. But what happens when we overcome all obstacles? When we successfully push through the resistance we encounter? When our VIPs show we are exactly on course, does that mean we are living our life’s purpose? Does that automatically mean we are getting closer to living our perfect story?

Not necessarily. There is another pitfall we could be walking into when things are going almost too well to be true. That’s the danger of localised optimisation.

Imagine a group of explorers looking for the highest mountain in a certain area. Their mission is to keep going until they can’t go any higher up. If they can see the entire area, this would be easy. They can plot a course to the highest peak and make their way there. With limited visibility – such as fog or darkness – the situation becomes more complicated. When they can only see a few meters ahead of them, their sense of progress is limited to their ability to keep going up. But this can mean they end up climbing the very first hill the come across and then getting stuck. Every step forward is taking them down. With the next peak out of sight, how can they know there are any higher peaks to climb?

It's high, but is it the highest? - ©Bard 2017
It’s high, but is it the highest? – ©Bard 2017

When things are going well on our journey, there is a risk we are getting stuck on a local hill. That is partially a problem of visibility. It’s hard to see into the future and the next hill to climb may not be easy to spot from where we are. But it is also a matter of comfort and uncertainty.

Having reached a peak gives us a sense of achievement. Our VIPs show we have made progress. We are visibly better off than before. We are closer to our goal. That sense of achievement brings a sense of comfort. We feel good about what we have accomplished. It feels good to be on target.

From that point of comfortable achievement, every move would seem a risk. We could be moving backwards, or away from where we want to be going? Why would risk it? Why would we trade this comfort for the uncertainty of another journey?

Even if we can see the contours of an even higher peak in the distance, uncertainty will hold us back. We are OK where we are now. That other peak may be higher but it will be hard work to get there. Before we can get to that next achievement we may have to give up some of what we have achieved already. We may feel uncertain about our ability to get to that next mountain altogether. Why would we risk losing the good things we have achieved for a goal we may never reach?

This combination of comfort and uncertainty can get us stuck. I am not saying there is anything wrong with finding a local optimum and staying there. That is everyone’s personal decision. I would be the last one to deny people the comfort of having reached a nice local peak from which to admire the view. But if we are committed to a journey of discovery and development, we must from time to time challenge ourselves. We must dare to look beyond our current view to see what we are not achieving and not learning by staying where we are.

Obstacles and setbacks can be great opportunities for reflection, exploration and learning. Times of achievement and easy progress can distract us from growth and development. The art of continuing our journey lies in keeping a detached perspective. Hardship and glory are both passing moments we should not get stuck on. We observe them, learn their lessons and then move on. There is always more to explore and more to learn. There is always a new story to discover, just beyond the horizon.