On Purpose

‘The same procedure as last year?’ Reflections on a turbulent year


“The same procedure as last year?” “Same procedure as every year!” This exchange rings in my mind from endless repeats of Dinner For One – a firm TV schedule favourite for New Year’s Eve, at least in German speaking countries – in which an aristocratic lady insists on having the same dinner celebration with all the same guests as every year, even though all the guests are, by now… deceased. The butler valiantly steps into the breach for those present only in spirit and sinks into an ever deeper alcoholic stupor, as he downs every guest's drink for every toast made.

The same procedure as last year is, of course, exactly what the government is desperately trying to avoid this Christmas, but possibly not with the hoped-for success. The pandemic is teaching us a lot of lessons, and many of them are lessons in systems thinking: The speed with which exponential growth can explode. The interconnectedness of our world. The fragility of just-in-time supply chains.

And of course, a core principle of systemic health: The health of the whole is dependent on its parts and vice versa; or, as it is sometimes expressed, we are only healthy if everyone is healthy. Martin Luther King understood this decades ago when he said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. And those advocating for vaccines to be distributed more evenly around the world have also understood this. It is no surprise that the new viral wave relates to a variant first detected in a region with low vaccination rates.
This principle holds not just in global public health and justice, but in economics and management too. The economy will only be healthy if everyone has the means to live a good life. Our organisations can only thrive if all their workers are able to work and live with dignity and meaning.

For us to avoid the same procedure next Christmas will require a different approach to vaccinations. One that recognises that, until everyone is vaccinated, no one is vaccinated. The challenge we need to overcome to make this happen is not a scientific, a technical or a logistical one. The challenge is a matter of values. We need to change from winner-takes-all to it-takes-all-to-win. 

And what holds true for the pandemic holds true for our bigger (difficult though that might be to imagine) challenges of climate change and inequality. If we don’t change what we value and what we believe, we will be stuck with the same procedure as every year. Another five years of this will push us beyond two degrees of warming and create millions more refugees and migrants, amongst many other things.

In 2020 we were all shocked by the pandemic. During 2021 we have had time to watch, listen and learn the lessons that an understanding of complex systems provides us with. The most important is that we need to change what we believe about the world and the values with which we make decisions. This is what we at On Purpose increasingly want to stand for. If we can, collectively, make real progress on this, then 2022 can be a momentous and hopeful year.

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With best wishes for Christmas and the New Year, Tom