a continuation of twenty-five years of fun with bruce mau — the first 11 points

the cuteness of being, Jurong East kopitiam, January 2022

I have always taken great pleasure in looking over hedges, crossing bridges, and venturing into fields different from those that people tell me “are mine.”
This is how it came to be, for instance, that my approach to facilitation and teaching and Scrum and anything Agile that comes my way, has been influenced and colored and morphed and shaped by Bengali literature, conceptual art, Japanese crafts, design, modern architecture, music, art cinema, folk culture, songs, children’s games, drama, dance, theatre, photography, zen buddhism, ecology, biology, and much more. I have even taken lessons from permaculture, natural farming, and from the one and only One-Straw revolutionary Masanobu Fukuoka.

With all this churning my mind and soul, and in between extended stints as a trekking guide in Tibet, Ladakh and West China, just before the turn of the century, I was in Brussels leading a section of the customer service center at Mobistar (France Telecom). And there it was, on a blue morning, at my desk, looking for some inspiring ideas that I could share with my team at the occasion of our finally reaching the ominous year of 2K, that I came across an incomplete manifesto for growth (imfg)— created by the groundbreaking architect Bruce Mau (of OMA fame)¹. Beautiful and captivating. Playful, profound, controversial.

I have been heavily criticized for this. Colleagues and people in the hierarchy have said that my rhapsodic appraisal of Mau’s “anti-PMP” was very, very “business-unbecoming” — and more so for someone “in your position.”

Yet, there. I have been revisiting this manifesto ever since. I cannot help coming back to this most fascinating list of 43 points — and each time I do, I (re)discover new meaning.

It’s been twenty-five years, almost.

Here is my latest iteration.

1 — allow events to change you

I love the drastic switch of perspective in Mau’s opening line. We are so very used to being punched towards change — and having to enter territory that was changed by someone else, without letting us have a say in it, without even a letter of invitation. We are so gullible, aren’t we? And easily blinded — by the apparent glitz and glamour and display of knowledgeability played out by “change managers,” “change consultants,” “changemakers.”

They should know, we say. They are not us. They come and change and go and we are left in their pile of dung.²

Most often, it’s that “change processes” are being thrown at our faces, and there is no escape because we are tied to the steadfast pole of our role and our job and our mortgage. We are tied and surrounded by malicious outside forces acting upon us against our will. The management. The board. The consultants. The stakeholders. The climate. The pandemic. None of them we have chosen. All of them we are stuck with. And they keep rubbing it in. That we need changing. That we have the wrong mindset. A mind, set in the past. But the past is gone. Forever. So we need to change. We need to get that mind of ours un-set. And we need to make the rest of it change as well. We are accountable after all. It’s our life and our job hanging on the line here. We must make change the constructs of our minds, make change the structure of our organization, make change the ways we work, make change the products we make.

And then, Bruce Mau. Forget the change consultants and their faux-fundity, he says. You do not need to change. How about turning everything around? Embrace the change that happens, and merely allow change to change you?

Responsiveness to change does not mean that we have to act upon changed circumstances and make or do or organize things differently. It means that we have to be open and vulnerable and free from attachment to the idea of this is I or this is who I am. It means that opening the door for this vulnerability to enter the house of our selves, and doing-away with “ego,” will open us up, and create mind space, and facilitate our readiness to allow events to change us.

Because this is I and this is who I am are the wrong answers to the wrong question. We do, in fact, not “possess” the kind of being that we think we do. We are interbeings. Intimately connected to everyone and everything that surrounds us. As says Thich Nhat Hanh³ so pleasingly:

to be is always to inter-be

and we inter-are with a continuous flow of change.

And interbeing with change is the very essence of existence.

2 — forget about good

“Good is a known quantity,” is what Mau says of this, and that is precisely the point indeed. That good and known are just not good enough.

Be not mistaken. The “good” in “forget about good” is not a moral good. Mau is not discussing benign. The point about “good” in “forget about good” is more and better. In common practice, in life and at work, nearly all of the changes that we are keen to help make true, are changes intended to be changes for improvement only. Changes for more and better. Changes for imagined improvement. On our way to a faraway destination, the nature and details of which are firmly encrypted in our minds and imagination. It blinds us and we know it does. But look, there we are. And we assume (wrongly) that this is how evolution works too. Like in “survival of the fittest.” We think that change is always change into a better version than what was. We imagine that this is what evolution means: species, sort-of-consciously trying to get better, which in turn increases their chances of survival.

Quod non. Turns out this isn’t so. Change, in fact, is purely a random process. And of all random outcomes, those that happen to be best suited for their environment at any given moment tend to have a bigger chance to last — given that all other factors remain as they are. But the environment keeps changing at lightning speed. What was most fitting yesterday might not be the stuff that’s best fitting today. In reality, what used to be a worse choice earlier might very well lead to a better choice later.

Take homo sapiens. Now science tells us that at first we were the wrong kind of Neanderthal. And this was before the Neanderthal turned out to be wrong kind of us.

Or take candles. And more candles. And better candles. I mean really, really “good” candles this time. With quality control. Candle-watchers. And even better quality control. Candle-watcher-watchers. And the watcher watchers’ performance managers. Candle-watcher-watcher-watchers. In a world without electricity.⁴

So we should forget about good. Changing to good is just not good enough. Good remains to be defined and redefined and re-redefined. Instead, we should explore, period. For better or for worse. Venture into the unknown. And see what happens. Who knows, perhaps the greatest breakthrough of tomorrow is hidden in what seems to be the worst possible version today.

3- process is more important than outcome

This is the line that irked my senior manager so — when I first came up with Bruce Mau and his nonifesto.

Surely you are joking, Mr Feynman?⁵
Surely it‘s the other way around?

But it isn’t. Outcome is random. Anything can happen, at all times. Because nothing at all has a single cause. The system is interconnected — and complex beyond comprehension. If we deliver with the outcome in mind, there are two serious mistakes that we make.

First is that single-mindedness for a certain outcome will make us deaf and blind to the possibilities that lie hidden in the unknown, and are perhaps within reach if only we wouldn’t pass them by.

The second mistake is worse. We cannot afford haphazard strokes of good luck. We need to more-or-less “know” where it all came from. We need to understand how we created the conditions for them to happen. The conditions matter a lot more than the outcome. Because the conditions are what makes us learn about how the outcome came about in the first place. The conditions are the soil, the compost. The outcome is a mere one single stalk, that happens to have grown up and now makes fools of us with the illusion of its perfection.

4 — love your experiments, as you would an ugly child

Since by now we have forgotten about patterns of change and transformation that always move toward good and better, see point 2, we are at liberty to live “joy as the engine of growth.” This means that exploration is free — and by and large, experiments, in whatever form or shape they might present themselves, and whatever their outcome, serve us with the pleasure of play-for-the-sake-of-play.

And since process is way more important than outcome, see point 3, the constant thrill and joy and excitement in life and work lies hidden in the hitherto forbidden fruits of ugly trials, nonsensical attempts, unashamed failures, and other assortments of leisurely pastimes.

Because what comes across to others as laziness and empty-headedness, might very well prove to be the essence of our future — the lesser wisdoms of being participant-observers of slightly riper age.

5 — go deep

Bruce Mau never said or explained a lot about this. But going deep we must.

Deep is when we keep going — however much stopping and joining “the ton” seems like an easier, way more attractive alternative. Go deep is going where ugly mistakes and failures are crawling and you’ve long done your utmost best to never go there and face them. Going deep is descending the stairs of your ego— and digging out and cleaning up the realm of all those long and ardent processes that never served us any better tea than the brew we already had.

But going deep is also not sailing waters too shallow. It is looking for oceans, where undercurrents bring life forms from far beyond the event horizon that we can perceive or even imagine. Going deep is living and working and thinking and loving with depth — and profoundly so.

at Les Rencontres d’Arles — Festival Internationale de la Photographie, July 2021

6 — capture accidents

The wrong answer is the right answer in search of a different question.

Accidental events are events that happen seemingly out of nowhere. But lo, upon deeper analysis (see point 5), accidents are no different from non-accidental events — and having a specific label that separates “accidents” from “non-accidental events” is altogether based on flawed logic.

In truth, and even if we have the hang of always wanting to know this one and ultimate cause, the very thing that triggered something into happening, all events that happen in the universe are “random.”

And what is “randomness?” — Random is when there seems to be a complete absence of any coherent structure of causality.

Let’s visit a piece of conventional buddhist logic to better understand what this means. In a series of very difficult lectures called Abhidhamma, it is said that events and phenomena are interrelated in four possible but distinctly different ways:

hetupaccaya: primary conditional relationship. one is the root cause of the other.
ārammaṇapaccaya: objective conditional relationship. one is the object, the 'placeholder' support for the manifestation of the other.
adhipatipaccaya: dominant conditional relationship. one inflicts a continued, sustaining influence on the other, after the other has come into existence as a result of conditions of a different relationship (like for instance the primary).
samanantarapaccaya: proximate, immediately contiguous causal relationship. the mutual arising of two events, of which one could not arise without the contiguous arising of the other.

Now what we call “random” is an event that has neither of these four possible relationships with another event — identifiable or not. Or so we assume. But as is so often the case, reality is not merely what “we assume.” This is why Mr. Feyman was perceived to be joking⁵ — and Eddington complained that there ought to be a law against the universe working in the way that Chandrasekhar claimed it did⁶. In most cases, the perceived absence of any form of causal relationship is not based on there being no causal relationships at all. In most cases, in fact, the perceived absence of any form of causal relationship is the unhappy by-product of there being simply too many of them.

And isn’t this precisely what we mean with complex systems? Mind-boggling structures that have lost all predictability — because we no longer manage to establish or identify conditions of dependent arising among the multitude of events that happen within them? Randomness does not mean that phenomena are not interrelated — it means that the interrelatedness of phenomena is so phenomenally complex that we, humans, lack the computational means to map the structure of relations and connections in such a way that it would be sufficient for us to pin down a cause for any event — let alone a root cause. Confronted with our sheer incapacity to understand the system, we have invented the word “accidental.”

Now, coming to terms with this incapacity of ours, and gaining the ability to “capture” accidents as we go along, has a most liberating effect. It frees us of our self-assigned mission in life to understand and document and control everything around us, ourselves included. And also, it delivers us from our urge to “have to manage” our environment, which is an expression of “us having understood” and “the environment needing our help” — a narcissistic stance in life if ever there was one.

picture by Eugenio Mazzone (lionsroar dot com)

7 — study

I love it a lot, where Bruce Mau urges us to “use the necessity of production as an excuse to study.”

Study is a routine — and in order to lead a wholesome life, we need the capacity to lean on certain routines. Routines can be wonderfully liberating — in the sense that they become unnecessary as we practice them.

In another piece here on Medium, I have written about some of the routines I practice in my life⁷. Much of this I have learned in the days that I was a monk in a buddhist monastery — an environment so deeply built on invisible routines that, to the incidental visitor, it looks either as if routines are all there is, or there are none at all.

The key thing about routines is that they become unnecessary as long as you keep practicing them — and their necessity pops up again as soon as you stop. Like mopping your house every morning. Keep doing it and your floor will always be clean. Stop doing it and your floors become dirty. Or your bookshelves. Keep dusting them and they will never be dusty. Stop dusting them and the dust will appear.

The same with study. Keep doing it and you will never feel that study is a burden. Stop doing it and you will be taught a lesson by the realities of life. The world has changed and you didn’t. You are getting out of touch.

8 — drift

Oh there. The idea of wandering aimlessly is hard to get across to people like us, who are constantly urged to have a purpose and go thither and focus. Harder still — with people who have set their minds on mindlessly following their influencer’s often quite mindless advice, for instance, to “always start with the why.”

I don’t know about Bruce Mau, but I have never ever started with the why in my life. Because if we start by asking why we inevitably will stop if we find that there is not really a why, or the why doesn’t seem to really matter very much, or the why doesn’t sound like being a big deal. The point is that we will stop. And will forever get stuck in stuff of which we can fathom the outcome upfront.

Starting with the why means the opposite of living with awareness about everything forever being in flux and constantly changing.

Try asking your beloved to start with the why.

The answer to why is why not — like the answer to how is yes.

So there. I remember a story that Rabindranath Tagore⁹ was fond of telling his students. How in his childhood years he was caught up with his private tutor explaining to him the water cycle with its seven steps and how his tutor kept repeating all these “eyshun” words so that he would learn them by rote and remember them forever.

Evaporeyshun. Condenseyshun. Precipiteyshun. Interceypshun. Infiltreyshun. Percoleyshun. Transpireyshun.

While in the meantime the skies had turned black and gusts of wind had rushed through the treetops before it had started to rain — first the thick and seemingly hesitant drops, the kind of drops that do pluff pluff pluff on the heat-baked sand and stay on top of the surface for a very short while, like a glass marble, only to unwind and disappear in an instant, vanishing into the thin air of the humid heat that wavered over the boiling hot grains of sand. And Tagore, young and equipped with an as yet still untamed mind, driven by a childlike inquisitiveness and a relentless curiosity in anything that happened in the natural world, looked up at the branch of a pipal tree not far away from the study window, and there, on a gently fluttering leaf, saw one of these miraculously shaped, multi-colored, glass-like little balls of water, kept in shape and held together by strong, covalent bonds, using shared electrons to keep the hydrogen and oxygen atoms in their respective molecules, which in turn were kept together in droplets by a play of cohesion and surface tension — and everything was so marvelously wonderful, and Tagore watched how the drop on the leaf gently rocked from left to right as if it were on a jungle swing, until it finally reached the tip, where it hesitated, as if clinging on for dear life, until it finally lost contact and made the journey down.

Drift. Let your mind drift away. On clouds of imagination.

ficus religiosa — the pipal tree

9 — begin anywhere

This line is actually not Mau’s. It is John Cage¹⁰, who tells us that not knowing where to begin “is a common form of paralysis.” And it is Cage too, urging us to begin anywhere.

The logic behind this is a simple one. In a complex system like the universe, or human work processes, or human relationships — where the mechanics of causal conditioning are often too manifold and too messy for us to discern or understand, it remains forever unclear where everything we do shall be heading to. Now if the end result cannot be known, and we accept that every event, in turn, must be among the causes of yet something else, this means that the beginning of that something else is messy too. Therefore, like all events in the universe, our human endeavors are built on messy sources and go their own messy ways toward their own particular messy bunch of messy possible outcomes.

Then, where to begin? Why wait until we know?

Begin anywhere.
Drift (point 8).
Capture accidents (point 6).
Go deep (point 5).

10 — everyone is a leader

How far ahead was Mau when he came up with this. We must stop dividing our communities into “leaders” or those having a so-called “high potential” for “leadership” — and “followers”. Why is it that we keep seeing hierarchies in everything we are and we do?

Some will say that we are merely building a replica of a “natural system” — where wolves follow the leader of the pack, or roosters fight among each other till “order” is achieved, non-leadership roosters are neatly chased away or killed, and all hens allow the remaining rooster to mentally and sexually assault them from dawn till sunset.

But notice how the given examples are always carefully chosen to suit the outcome that has been stated as an apriori, that leadership and hierarchy are the natural state of affairs. Why is it that nobody ever refers to societies like termites, ants, or bees? Or shoals of fish? Or flocks of birds?

In fact, leadership is an attribute open to every human being. It simply refers to taking ownership of what we do, taking matters into our own hands, walking our way, being accountable, being aware, being mindful, disentangling ourselves, and practicing the art of letting go.

If we do all of this, any one of us, alone and together, growth is bound to happen. And when it does, we must ascertain that it has space to emerge. Space — for us to be able to embrace whatever it is that grows. And it is in the arms of this embrace that leadership shows its true face.

leading the way in a painting by Zao Wou-Ki, Aix-en-Provence, July 2021

11 — harvest ideas. edit applications

This is captured beautifully by Bruce Mau himself:

Ideas need a dynamic, fluid, generous environment to sustain life.
Applications, on the other hand, benefit from critical rigor.

Produce a high ratio of ideas to applications.

Key concepts in ideas are dynamicfluid, and generous — where dynamics are to be understood as forces or properties which stimulate growth, development, or change within a system or process — and the basic advice for ideas is to let these dynamics flow generously.

Applications, on the other hand, are actions of putting something into operation. This is about us intervening in a system. With, to say the least, a fair number of possible outcomes, none of which we can be certain of upfront. Nor can we be certain of what any of these outcomes might be contributing to further down the line.

So where ideas can run like water from a tap left open — applications should be handled with care.

After all, we have only this one planet of ours to live on.
Care and kindness are key.

Francis Laleman

a husband, father, painter, writer, learner experience designer, workshop facilitator, educationalist, agile coach. author of “Resourceful Exformation” (a book on learning and the facilitation of learning) available from Amazon. based in Singapore.

About New Culture

New Culture is a online magazine by Culture Monks

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