Adapting to the ‘blasted’ business landscapes
The landscape looks bleak for many businesses – we need to bring forward voices of marginalised groups to guide us to reimagine ways to organise
Some of the acts of greatest bravery, creativity and inventiveness come from environments which are hostile and unpromising – take Pussy Riot, a Russian feminist protest punk rock group, have gained international attention for their opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Or the way in which parts of Detroit, characterized by abandoned spaces due to economic decline and population loss have community members transforming these spaces into urban farms creating a vibrant urban farming movement. Or in the fact of economic collapse in Greece there has been a surprising growth in tech startups. Entrepreneurs, often facing limited job prospects have been creating vibrant tech scenes in economically blasted landscapes.
These activities will perhaps be of little surprise to readers of a book by anthropologist Anna Tsing called The Mushroom at the End of the World. In it, Tsing sets out the way that new complex, systems can not only survive but thrive in "blasted landscapes". It centres around the matsutake mushroom, which flourishes in seemingly unpromising cut-down forest landscapes, a metaphor to understand survival and success in precarious and ruined environments.
What can we make of this for the way in which businesses can operate in the difficult terrains we inhabit today? And what are the ways behavioural science can help inform this?
The blasted business landscape
What can we learn from this to understand the way in which businesses might succeed in the VUCA landscapes (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) we currently inhabit: The FT (hardly a publication known for its hyperbole on such matters) recently suggested that “the British economy is in a generation-long slough of despond, a slow-burning economic catastrophe. Real household disposable income per capita has barely increased for 15 years. This is not normal.”
If we go back in time and look for historical precedents, there is very little on this scale. Economic historians Nick Crafts and Terence Mills recently examined the growth in labour productivity over the very long run and the only period they find that is arguably worse than that we are now experiencing was 1760 to 1800. We are, it seems, indeed living in the blasted landscapes described by Anna Tsing
The past 15 years have been a disaster on a scale that previous generations of British economists could hardly have imagined with around 14.4 million people were living in poverty in 2021/2022. In terms of the business landscape, while some companies have seen a huge increase in profits, this is far from evenly spread. The Insolvency Service reported that 2,308 firms in England and Wales collapsed in August, which was 19% more than in August 2022 and higher than pre-pandemic levels. And it is not only small businesses either - corporate insolvencies increased by 71% from August 2021’s total of 1,347 and by 69% compared with pre-pandemic levels in August 2019 (1,365). One well known casualty is the retailer Wilko, which went into administration on 10 August ’23 and has subsequently collapsed with the loss of 12,500 jobs and 400 stores.
So what can businesses do?
It is against this harsh backdrop that we might turn to Tsing’s matsutake mushroom, to see if we can find possible routes for business survival and success in precarious and ‘ruined’ environments as she describes it.
There are certainly no shortage of commentators that consider businesses can, and indeed should, change. Many argue that hierarchical structures, with their rigid command-and-control dynamics, are increasingly obsolete and poorly-suited to the complexities of the modern world. Perhaps we can now see more clearly how traditional hierarchical corporate structures are highly effective in environments that are relatively stable due to their clear chain of command, consistency in processes, and efficiency in decision-making. These structures allow role specialization, controlled coordination, and effective risk management, making them suitable for scenarios where the landscape is known and predictable.
But the very characteristics that make them so well designed for these environments can also be liabilities in today’s more precarious business environment with the flip side of these systems built for predictability translate into rigidity and slow pace of change - precisely the opposite of what a blasted business landscape calls for.
Indeed, occupational psychologists such as John Amaechi are increasingly advocating for a shift towards more adaptive and decentralized models, reflecting a significant shift in thinking about organisational leadership.
The ADAPT approach
Much is talked about the way in which we are now living in a polycrisis environment – but of course many people have long lived in these sorts of harsh environments. Marginalized groups in society, often facing adversity and exclusion, have historically developed unique methods of self-organization and imagined alternative lifestyles that differ significantly from mainstream norms. This necessity to adapt and innovate outside conventional structures has fostered distinct, resilient communities with diverse perspectives and practices.
The expertise built in these communities offers insights on how to live in adverse environment that we can draw on to build business practices for this blasted landscape. We have loosely organised these into an ADAPT framework, as set out below (note we use this to help organise but we strongly recommend exploring the original materials):
Agility - Queer theorist Judith Butler writes about the way that the very structures and boundaries that seek to enforce fixed, binary gender identities also enable resistance, subversion, and alternative configurations of gender that defy categorization. Through this, power and discourse are productive as they create new possibilities for reimagining identities and positions. If we apply this to business we can see that the possibilities for employees to push boundaries, creating modes of organization can surface through these very structures meant to rigidly contain them. Renegade groups can emerge, in a ‘skunkworks’ style, challenging status quo and rigid conventions of the organisation, to rapidly adapt to new emerging issues and opportunities.
Diversity – Black Feminism values listening to and uplifting marginalized voices within groups, what Patricia Hill Collins calls an "ethic of caring" whereby Black women practice empathy, express emotion, and understand personal uniqueness in others. As she writes:
"By using one another as sounding boards, Black women as sisters and friends affirm one another's humanity, specialness, and right to exist."
Following this Black feminist principle of seeing the basic humanity in every person, embracing an ethic of care means creating a workplace culture where people across all intersections of race, gender, sexuality, ability and socioeconomic class feel genuinely accepted, valued and supported. This can create environments that surface more perspectives allowing organisations to better interpret uncertain scenarios, solve complex dilemmas, and mitigate blind-spots that could lead to risk.
“We cannot understand disability without understanding the dynamics of working collectively and interdependently”.
This means embracing interdependence and forming coalitions across different groups who face the same concerns to jointly tackle issues of exclusion and oppression in society. Working in partnership bolsters capabilities and resilience to navigate risk and uncertainty.
Businesses can learn from this notion of ‘interconnected solidarity’ by constructing diverse business alliances as these have potential to facilitate innovation and manage risk through joint action - versus insularly relying on one dominant way of thinking. Activation for business then involves building strategic partnerships, ecosystems and alliances with other businesses, experts, and communities representing a diversity of backgrounds. This collective capability enhances resilience in addressing complex challenges.
“Feminism demands flexibility, an open mind, and progressive innovation.”
This reflects hooks’ assertion that societal systems and structures have an embedded bias privileging male traits and experiences while positioning feminine preferences and needs as abnormal or niche. If feminism were to only make incremental tweaks then given the power of existing male paradigms this would simply be assimilated rather than fundamentally reforming the dominant patriarchal models.
For businesses the lesson here is about boldly reimagining and reconstructing business practices and cultures to create more inclusive, equitable, and sustainable models. This is essential not just for gender parity but for driving the innovative and ethical business practices that needed in blasted landscapes.
Total Accessibility – Crip technoscience scholar Aimi Hamraie's view is that creating "accessible environments" by practicing "flexible designs and resourceful appropriations" enables diverse participation allowing marginalized groups to wholly engage.
This is a useful lesson for businesses as this approach means they can expand their market reach by catering to a broader audience, but also the challenge of universally accessible designs can inspire innovation. Of course, it also creates a more inclusive workplace, positioning the business to meet future market demands as population demographics evolve.
There is much that can be learnt from a careful reading of the bodies of knowledge for marginalised groups – after all if we are looking for inspiration for a world very different to that we are now in, are the current winners in the existing system really where we are going to learn from?
We have of course merely scratched the surface across many different bodies of knowledge as a provocation for finding inspiration on how organisations might succeed and even thrive in ‘blasted landscapes’. In some ways this reflects the Nicolas Talib and his theory of ‘anti-fragile’. He suggests that businesses should in fact accept and even embrace volatility, risks, stressors, and disorder rather than try to minimize it.
The question is often what this actually looks like – how we should organise to this effect. Many social scientists are calling for a radical change to organisational structures towards more agile, decentralized, and flexible organizational models. But in doing so we would surely do well to reference the huge bodies of knowledge from longstanding marginalised groups as they have so clearly examined how to operate and reimagine the world from a position of very challenging circumstances.
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