I used to run design thinking events with international students. I would take them through a guided process, to find new ways of building intercultural connections in their environment. In the divergent phase, I saw radical ideas emerge – real original stuff. Then time came to select one idea and pitch. It was just a pitch, low stakes, not a lifetime commitment. Yet students would always pick the safest cliché – ‘Food brings people together.’
We commonly confuse two types of strategy. The first identifies the best way to reach a goal, given a set of constraints. I call this shallow strategy. The second – which I call deep strategy – questions and refines the goal itself, and the constraints.
For-profit organisations, in their immense majority, never reach the level of deep strategy. The goal is a given – make money. Corporate Social Responsibility, B-Corp charters and other ESG frameworks are only stricter sets of constraints. We’re still in shallow strategy. Make money while meeting a few sustainability criteria.
In my experience, not-for-profits and charities are the only structures that engage in deep strategy. Yet even there, even on the board, discussions often get stuck in the shallows. You know, those tedious discussions, where the goal is far from clear, and someone raves at length about the best software to use.
Apollo, God of oracles, was known as loxios, ‘oblique’. He revealed truth indirectly. The same applies to the Christian God. We have not a revealed book of truth, but the Gospels – four elliptic narratives about the life of Christ.
If we seriously believe in a God creator of Heaven and Earth, maker of all things seen and unseen, could that God not have chosen to engrave his commands in letters of fire, and held them floating in the sky above Jerusalem, for all to see? No, God decided that he would reveal himself indirectly – and let us free to believe – as a matter of deliberate design.
This may be the most valuable insight I got from my two years in preparatory class. My French teacher was having a rant. ‘People speak of literature, and schools, and the Humanities, as if all this was ‘not the real world’. You hear that all the time. It’s not the real world. And yet here we are,’ he said, pointing his finger to the ceiling, then out the window, ‘I’m paid good money to teach you, we’ve got a huge library full of books on top of us, and this is prime real estate in the heart of Paris. I call this the real world.’
There are two main forms of charity work.
One is remedial. It aims to reduce suffering, right here right now. It’s homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and blood donations. It’s firefighters and emergency room doctors.
The other is preventative. It aims to prevent suffering, at some point in the future. It’s public health, social work, and education design. It’s risk management, culture, and governance.
The second is impossible, unless faith and hope complement pure charity.
From the age of 18, I’ve had a Greek quote from Heraclitus on my desk: ‘ἐὰν µὴ ἔλπηται, ἀνέλπιστον οὐκ ἐξευρήσει, ἀνεξερεύνητον ἐὸν καὶ ἄπορον.’ In my translation: ‘As for what is beyond hope, it will not manifest unless you hope for it. It’s not something you just stumble upon already made. It has no shape of its own.’