We Live in Interesting Times (Andrew Clay Shafer)

In the midst of a pandemic, Andrew Clay Shafer and Ben Mosior talk transformation, hope, and civic duty. Recorded March 23, 2020.

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Ben: Hey everyone, this is Ben Mosior from the Hired Thought podcast. This conversation is with Andrew Clay Shafer and he and I got together back in March of 2020 to do a little bit of discussion around kind of context of transformation, but it turns out that was also right around when the pandemic, the COVID-19 pandemic was starting to really take hold in the United States. So this episode is a bit of a reflective moment in an otherwise chaotic circumstance.

Andrew’s been kind of a role model for me with organizational transformation and he’s given a lot of really good talks that I highly recommend. I’ll put those in the show notes. If you like what you hear today, definitely go check those out.  And with that, we’ll kick things off.

 Andrew: So how are you doing?

Ben: I dunno, I, I’m oscillating kind of wildly these days between despair, anger, sadness, and I like to think that usually the way that ends up is, I feel inspired.

Because nobody else is going to figure out how to work through this stuff. So, you know, I don’t know. I’m in it for the long term.   See you in two years.

Andrew: Yeah, that’s, that’s a, I think reality is going to be significantly reconfigured in a matter of months. Which is, we’re in a moment in time where by circumstance most of the world is being forced to have this shared experience,

As horrible as it might end up being, um, by the end of it.

But we we’re like forced to confront it.

it’s, it’s basically you have kind of operational posture about proactive prevention. And then you have, the, the reactive incident management. And at this point, we’re, we’re in an incident management mitigation scenario, especially in, in kind of like the Western world where if you look at what happened in Korea, they, they had an outbreak. Um, they definitely, had infections and they had some deaths.

But because of their, their posture with respect to outbreaks, in near memory, they’re, they’re 18 years removed from SARS outbreaks, going, going back to 2002. They, they were able to activate this kind of preemptive, proactive response, which was predicated on thermal checkpoints, fever clinics, and forced isolation so that they could remain, in, in a bit more kind of normal operating, structure and functions than I think you’re going to see in most of the, the Western countries.

Ben: Yeah. So they had the sensitivity to the narrative around SARS. So they were able to anticipate another situation like this. And frankly, we were able to anticipate this as well. It’s just, we cut off the heads of the, you know, the organizations that were supposed to do that.

Now, one might say that in the United States, who knows whether or not even if that those organizations were fully functioning, whether or not we would have been effectively able to deal with this like federalism thing, right? Like States are still States. I kind of view the United States more like an EU-like entity.

And so what do you, what do you think. There’s a decentralized versus centralized response thing here, and there’s the problem of collectivism versus individualism,


Andrew: I almost think the second is more important. And if you look at what’s happening in Europe, they, they weren’t, they weren’t any better prepared from a pandemic prevention proactive perspective to, to do this or handle this any more than the US was.

And. You know, I think Korea is probably the best model that we can look at where they had a significant outbreak, and then were able to kind of bend that curve to zero. I mean, I, I don’t know about anyone else out in the world, but I, I’ve, I’ve had a hard time not consuming as much, like information about COVID and this pandemic as I possibly could. And tracking this, I started having conversations with some of my friends in Asia as early as, you know, mid January about some of the stuff that they were seeing or preparing for. And then, and then just kind of watch that evolve over, over the last few months. It’s been, it’s been like standing on a beach that you could see the tsunami coming towards.

And there’s no high ground. And I was like, well, what are you going to do?  

Ben: We have this cynical frame, right? Nobody’s changing their behavior. And it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about enterprise IT, or if we’re talking about large wholesale response to pandemic conditions, right? Nobody’s changing their behavior or behaviors…

Andrew: Is that cynical, though? I mean, it’s a statement of fact, in some sense to me more than, than I frame it. I don’t, I don’t     necessarily believe that that’s cynical, like,

Ben: okay, okay.

Andrew: But the opportunity, but the opportunity is also to change your behaviors.

Right. And, and who knows what will reconfigure coming out of this, but lots of things that were, you know, “impossible” even a few weeks ago, all of a sudden people are like, “Oh yeah, that seems like completely reasonable now as an action,” right? It’s like we, we got away from, we were, we were forced to get away from, “Oh, what’s like this moderate incremental way that we can kind of change,” to like, “We better change.”

When, when I talk about changing behaviors in the framing of enterprise IT, you know, like I, I think much larger than enterprise IT, but, but that is sort of where my career thrust me. Right? It’s like, because that’s where I ended up. So, so to make it not cynical, and, and I, I hope that I do this when I’m talking to other people.

It’s not just that people aren’t changing their behavior. There literally is people who have changed and, and there’s a demonstrable competitive advantage. Right? So, so just in that kind of like narrow framing of enterprise IT where most of my, kind of talks about this have lived, you, you do have the, these exemplar companies who have done amazing things, and they do it in a way that is fundamentally different from the kind of “traditional” enterprise IT. And it’s so different in, in some sense, that it’s almost viewed as unbelievable. Right?

So when, when we first started talking about 10 deploys per day and the kind of, you know, beginning of like these devops things at Flickr. So there’s like a very famous Velocity Conference talk people. People thought that was not true. And anyone who would do that is irresponsible, where now it’s, it’s basically passe. So it’s not that people aren’t changing, it’s just like how fast. Can you take advantage of new information to catalyze the change that is demonstrably and provably better for all these other reasons? Right? So If you want to play a new game, if you want to get into the Pareto inefficient thing, it’s basically showing you, here’s this way that you could get things to be better for yourself and nothing would be worse for anyone if you could simply change X, Y, and Z. And, and, and that’s being thrust upon all of us right now.

Ben: So we’re pointing at the existence of exemplars, right? We’re pointing at, the Netflixes of the world. What have you and…

Andrew: South Korea.

Ben: Exactly. Yeah. but it doesn’t do anything for us to now say that South Korea exists. We are here though. So how… Changing behavior looks like, what? I know you can’t tell us what to do and you can only tell us what you’ve seen, but what does changing your behavior actually look like right now? Because the reason this is important to Andrew in my mind is that because of this instability.

It means we get to shape the transition. It means that thoughtful, purposeful action right now means we get to change what the game becomes. Now, whether or not we take agency in that process is a different question. Whether or not, we have the knowledge and the skills to do that is another question, but the existence of exemplars, I mean, maybe that gives us a desirable future state, but what are we literally doing now.

Andrew: So, so I think I understand, the, the framing and the question, and where you’re trying to take this. I think that the, in some ways it’s, it’s not the right way to frame it in the beginning, but I, I like how it ends.  and the reason I say that is we’re, we’re actually in the incident right now.

Ben: Yes.

Andrew: Right. So, so like doesn’t matter how well someone could have prevented an incident that they’re literally in right now.

And so all of the behaviors that you have to do in an incident to manage it, are… should never be confused with what you want to be the “normal.” Right.

Ben: Right.

Andrew: And, and I, I personally don’t know exactly how this ends or like what the reconfiguration looks like, but I will say this, the only way that we get a chance to reconfigure this as individuals is through our collective voice and by active political participation right so when you look at one of the things I like to talk about in kind of the context of of mapping or like strategy. And you know, one of my favorite games is chess. It doesn’t matter how well you understand the way the chessboard is set up, if you don’t have the, the ability to touch the pieces, if you don’t have the ability to move the pieces and, and the way that our our whole thing is set up, the only way that I see us getting things reconfigured in, in a more beneficial, more positive way, is by activating our collective political consciousness, and participating. Right?

So one of the things is, I think put us in this situation , not, not about, you know, distributed or collective or whatever, is like we, we literally abdicated our political responsibilities to allow, you know, and we could, we could describe why and how this happened over over decades, but we haven’t really been participating or driving this world in a positive way because we’ve all had, you know, some of you might be familiar with this metaphor of bread and circuses. Like we had enough bread, we had enough circuses and, and it’s like, okay. We’ll just let the, we’ll let the emperors do what they want.

Ben: so I’m going to point at urgency, right? How many times have you heard an IT leader say there’s no urgency about something, right?

Andrew: Uh, more than zero times. Yeah.

Ben: Change your behavior.

Why, right? Why would I bother changing my behavior? this is a moment where it’s going to be really clear who leaders are and who leaders aren’t. And on top of that, there’s, it’s a moment where it’s gonna be really clear how much your values are worth, whether or not they’re on a page on your website, right?

So in this moment, I’m expecting. Leaders to do certain things, even if they’re in the middle of the incident right now, to notice the focus and attention that we have on what we’re feeling and experiencing right now. How are they going to marshall that energy towards changing our collective behavior.

And I, I literally want to know how we’re going to no longer abdicate our political responsibility. And I can’t ask you to tell the future, but if your responsibility is to marshall the energy of the people in your organization, to use that energy on purpose in this moment, what are you doing? What are you thinking?

Andrew: So just because it’s the domain that have the most kind of exposure and experience with, I’ll drag it back to kind of the IT, you know, framing. In, in some real sense there are organizations who, because of the core business that they run, probably rightfully should not have urgency or they don’t, they don’t have the necessary urgency, right?

And so there’s, there’s this kind of mismatch where people are talking about, “Oh, you know, the, the, the Netflix and the, and the Googles and the, and the opportunity to create these, these like technical, digital experiences.” And then you have the reality of what we do and what we sell, right? And like, here’s our IT budget, and like, it’s, it’s this small part of like this big thing that we do, which involves real world, and factories, and distribution and, and all these things. And so for, for us to reimagine all of that in, in kind of like an urgent framing, is probably too much, right? Like we, we’re going to, we’re going to do these things this way and we don’t necessarily have something that forces us to change.

And with that framing, looking at what I’ve seen kind of as a pattern across industries and across organizations is when you start talking about kind of transformation and changing behaviors, there’s two pre-conditions that I’ve seen that create the necessary  impetus to, to be successful at transforming. And one of those is that you have someone who has both the social capital in the organization and the vision, right? So they can, they can touch the chess pieces. They have control of the, the chess board, and they have the vision for how they could play this game in a different way.

And so they come to, to, you know, get that support. They’re a leader in the true sense of the word and everyone sort of follows in that vision and brings that new vision to, to be reality. And that that’s, that’s successful or has been a pattern that I’ve seen be successful.

I’ve also seen that pattern, not be successful when they don’t quite have the social capital they thought they had and they get crushed as a rebel. And then, and then the second one, which is in some ways more relevant to, to the way you’re framing this, is when organizations are faced with an existential crisis, right? So when you’re in a business that can see the way that digital experiences will start to, to bend the dynamics and assumptions of how you’ve built that business over time. And, and you know, sometimes these businesses are a hundred years old, right?

So insurance, healthcare, or whatever is feeling certain things and they’re experiencing certain things, you know. And, and I’ll just take insurance as an example. Insurance is basically kind of having a pool of money and being able to build models and do math, and then like, you sell this thing and it’s, it’s not that it’s ever been really that differentiated, but you know, you have this distribution model and these sales models that allow you to do that.

You move into a modern, situation. Google has a lot of money. Google’s pretty good at doing math. Amazon has a lot of money. Amazon is pretty good doing math. Even Walmart has a lot of money. They’re pretty good at doing math, and there’s like signals that they could get involved in different aspects of health insurance, car insurance, you know, whether cars will even exist is like another question, right?

So you see these sort of edges change of where those opportunities and where those crises are, and, and so those industries kind of in a rolling fashion start to feel this existential pressure to change. And so you’re starting to see sort of meaningful changes in the, in those organizations that feel the existential pressure feel, the feel, the existential prices.

Ben: Yeah, that makes sense. And I’m going to push you on this a little bit because I think you, you have some  super secret ingredients that maybe people haven’t seen yet. Or maybe you’re, you know, you’re stuck like the rest of us, who knows? I think that the way you frame this is really helpful, right?

Do you have the social capital to harness the energy of the people, the hearts and minds, and the vision to actually be going somewhere worth going to, right? To actually long for a sea that’s worth longing for. And on the other side of this, there’s the existential kind of moment.

 So we are in an existential moment right now, right? I don’t think individuals in the United States in particular feel like they have agency in any meaningful container. Not, not a company, not a team. Barely a family unit. Right. I don’t think people really have, feel like they have agency at a large enough scale to be able to rally around something. And leadership is broadly absent at every level of this sort of government, local community, that kind of thing. I’m gonna, I’m going to assert this for a moment, right?

And then on top of that. Nobody’s coming to save us. There is no leader right now with a vision. There is no leader with broad social capital who could swoop in and save the day right now.

So let me pose this question, Andrew. If nobody’s coming to save us and we can’t even save ourselves. What’s the path forward? How does every individual in the United States becomes sensitized to this issue such that some small percentage of them start to notice that they could become leaders and actually create a new scope that is local enough that they could build that agency?

What is, what is the first step of changing our behavior in that regard?

Andrew: There’s so much there. There’s so much. So I don’t even, I don’t, I’m not sure where to start. I, I think that the, one of the example you gave, and, and, and I’m, you know, publicly a fan of Bernie Sanders, in, in some ways, like he came with a bit of a vision.

He got, he got some momentum, but he didn’t have the social capital in the, in the established power dynamics, and essentially got kind of blacklisted, from, from some of the conversation. Right. So there’s like, interesting dynamic there in parallel. I think the way that you framed it, no one’s coming to save us and we can’t even save ourselves.

You essentially said we’re doomed, which is like, okay. Mmm. And, and, and if you just look at the numbers. And model it out or whatever. Like there’s probably going to be some disruption and some death, but this isn’t the end of the world. Um, There’s been pandemics and there will be, kind of a, a re-imagining and a reconfiguration of this.

And, and going back to, this sort of political, civic duty, the, the whole idea, philosophical idea, of a functional democracy, in my understanding and opinion, is sort of predicated on activated, educated participation.

Ben: Okay. So what are the conditions for activated educated participation?

Andrew: Well, I, I’m not, I’m not sure there are conditions, and in some sense I would say that a lot of what we consider modern “experiences” is in some ways, maybe not by design, but, but certainly by function, taking us away from activated educated participation. Right? So it’s like the bread and circuses.

So the, the way that I would hope that people start to think about this. And I wouldn’t consider myself a greatest example for my whole life, but I’ve become more and more, um, understanding of the political process and trying to be more and more active. And I think we over-rotate onto, these like large scale events and, and, and, you know, the, the elections at the national level, when in reality there’s, there’s tons of civic responsibility on, on the local level, on the city level, on the county level, on the state level, that have a huge impact on how we and everyone else around us lives. And you know, again, kind of finding that tension between the collectivist and the individual. I think one of the things that I personally feel- I was a libertarian, like I was, I was part of a libertarian like college organization. Like actually the president at one point. And, and, like, I believe in, you know, my personal ability and like this liberty and all this stuff. And then as I, as I experienced more of life and I experienced more humanity, then I, I rejected most of those ideas, through, through my logic.

And I think those ideas have essentially been obliterated in the last few weeks in the United States. Because everything is connected, like the life that we have, no one’s an island. We’re, we’re all, we’re all kind of in this together. And so finding the ability to grow those connections… Like, like the framing of devops is basically, you have these humans, we’re trying to do this thing that’s meaningful to them and for, for a variety of reasons, they’re not communicating, collaborating, working effectively together.

And so if you just, if you just try to expand that system thinking to everything about all of humans and what we experience, then the more that we can have empathy for what other humans experience and make choices that will, kind of from this Pareto inefficient framing, not make it worse for them, you know, for, for not making it better for ourselves, then then like we’re going to have a better world. But it has to be built up locally, citywide, countywide, statewide, countrywide. And, and there’s no, there’s no way, just the way the, the scope and scale of this is globally, that any one centralized thing can, can kind of fix all of these things for us.

Ben: I follow that and what it helps me, actually, this is sort of sort of selfish, I am trying to figure out what, how to act as an individual, right? I, like, do this mapping thing and I sort of come to recently, know, that mapping is about what you can know together. And so I think if we can know things together, then we can start working on problems like this, but it requires kind of a fundamental kind of problem statement.

And look, I’m not, I’m not actually saying that we’re doomed because if we don’t have agency to actually act now and nobody’s coming to save us, what this is, is an extraordinary opportunity. Millions of people are going to die. Right? That’s just the frank truth of it. And this is an enormous opportunity for us to do better things.

So as a problem statement, we have to be aware of the realities of the situation. Not everyone’s going to make it, but what can we work on together to actually gain agency to become more capable of designing, right? Whatever this future pathway is, not some ideal whatever, but to start moving and start learning from that movement.

And frankly to change our behavior,

Andrew: So I love, I love the mapping community and I love kind of mapping as an activity. Uh, one of the things I think is interesting, in conversation with, with some people in that community is what I consider like an over kind of rotation, an emphasis on the map that information and having that shared information is interesting. And kind of like an under, so that’s like a sensor, but you, you need to activate something. You need to, you need to take the actions…

Ben: You have to do something.

Andrew: You have to do something. And so like that’s where I think there, there’s a huge opportunity, is taking the information, and I’ll go back to the chess metaphor.

Like if you, if you have the perfect understanding of the best move, but you can’t make it, then like it doesn’t matter. Right? So, so what we, what we can do with this shared information is hopefully build coalitions of, not just understanding, but coalitions of action that can, that can start to make meaningful, things happen.

So, so getting to the point where we all agree there’s a problem is one thing, getting to the point where we all agree that if we could, you know, move this one, dynamic component, whatever, in a certain way, is another. Then being able to actually move it is, is where the magic happens. And I think that that’s like a huge opportunity, but also I don’t want to, minimize what some of those challenges are going to be, when you look at the larger power dynamics.

Ben: I believe that the mapping community right now, you know, it’s, it’s young, but it is a little bit over indexed on people who are sort of enjoying the theoretical understanding of mapping as a thing and like the knowing is the satisfying part for them. And that’s fine.

But it’s not actually going to change anything. So what I’m trying to do right now, and this is like a little impromptu plug, is I’m trying to create space for people to play and work together in order to do things. So, for listeners at home, if you like Wardley Mapping, if you like working on problems and actually turning it into action.

Then, um, we’re running events every week at learnwardleymapping.com/events come learn mapping, do group mapping sessions, work on things that matter, and then do stuff, do things. You’re going to mess it all up and that’s going to be fine. But do things. Change behavior. This is, I think this is how we turn knowledge into action is by actually putting it into the world.

I don’t think we’re doomed. Right. I do think we have a tremendous opportunity right now, and I’m grateful that you’ve helped frame the problem. Hope is the kind of thing that gets us through situations like this one, but it also can preemptively destroy our ability to stay for the duration, to stay engaged. And I, I want us to be thinking about hope in terms of what the next five to ten years look like and not what the next two to three weeks looks like.

So Andrew, I want to ask you, what right now is giving you the most hope?

Andrew: Interesting framing. I, I have three kids and you know, I, I’m in a, in a place that I’m, I’m pretty far from, you know, real community spread at this point, but I’ve been watching this all evolve, and to be honest, one of the things that gives me the most hope, and this might sound a little silly and certainly political, but just watching some of the energy around the Senator Sanders campaign and some of the personalities that are activated, and I believe that that is, that’s representative of a real collectivist movement to change things for the better in a meaningful way. So that that’s something that I’m hopeful for and that I hope, I personally hope, drives more and more of the conversation.

It’s, it’s interesting to watch the, the framing just in the last few weeks, change from how unrealistic Medicare for all was and how troubling it would be to figure out how to fund it, to watching, you know, literally trillions of dollars be vaporized at a whim and being forced to reconcile how healthcare for any individual is impacting the health care of every individual. and, and lots of what the, these proposals look like, in the larger scheme of the world, are actually quite moderate compared to to what other countries have adopted wholesale.

So that’s certainly something like, I believe if you think about democracy and individualism and all the rest of the things that Americans love to hold up as their values, that there is a, a world that we can build where democracy and, and the, the things that we create and experience are built by a community of people who are educated and healthy.

So, I hope that we can reimagine a society where the foundation of economics is predicated on an educated, and healthy group of individuals that, that not necessarily are completely collectivists. Like I, I enjoy being individual. I enjoy having some measures of freedom, but, but I’m, I’m empathizing with the, the lowest and, and the highest members of our society in a way that I’m, I’m willing like, I, I would fund, tax the crap out of me, like healthcare for all, and like, educate everyone. Like why, why would you, if you’re moving into a world where you actually believe knowledge work matters, and this kind of work matters, why wouldn’t you want the most educated people to, to be the ones driving that?

We live in interesting times. And the reality is that the historical moments, if you go back through through time, we read about them far removed in time, most of them probably were not very pleasant to experience firsthand.

But, but humans have, have gone through bad things before, and we have, some measured capacity to be resilient and re-imagine, um, lots of these things. So what we have basically taken for granted as realities about economics, as reality, reality about money, currency, ownership, all of these things are, are social constructs.

There’s no objective truth to the majority of those things and we are kind of at a unique time where we could potentially re-imagine aspects of that in a way that’s beneficial for all of us.

Ben: Yeah. There there’s no better way to realize how much is made up than spending time with executives.

Andrew: Yes.

Ben: So on a, on a more lighthearted note, I had a personal curiosity.

And, you every talk you have given, you begin with a little bit of your background and your sort of biography. And then you always mentioned that you’re so narcissistic that you have your own logo and. I want to know what’s behind that. I think what I want to know, what led you to make a logo and what it means to you?

Is that something you’d be open to sharing?

Andrew: So, I mean, on the spectrum of narcissism, I mostly say that as a tongue in cheek, but I definitely have an individualist streak and you know, some, healthy feelings about my own capabilities. You know, over over time you kind of come to a figure out who you are, hopefully.

And so, so I designed a logo and there there’s, there’s sort of like a longer version of it, but it’s essentially a drop, like a, a raindrop. And there’s kind of a, a stylized or idealized Yin-Yang inside of the, of the teardrop. And then the, the, the raindrop teardrop or whatever is, is creating ripples.

And so there’s, you know, there’s a bunch of symbolism and I won’t, I won’t necessarily, go through all of my thinking and how I got to that. But it’s basically like balancing these, these elements and these forces of light and darkness and then, and then having this kind of cascading rippling impact and that, that’s sort of like the.

The, the, the first level explanation.

Ben: That’s amazing. Thanks so much for sharing and I really want to express gratitude for you being willing to share your time with me today and talk through this stuff. I’m, I’ve always wondered a lot of the, the kinds of questions that you answered today, and it’s, it’s really helped me understand a lot more about how you think, but also, honestly, it has given me hope because I have been sitting here, thinking about all the…

Andrew: In the flames

Ben: in the flames, thinking about all the stupid little sticky notes on my Kanban board and like, do any of these matter? Does any of this work matter? And I think you’ve helped me see how it matters. And you’ve also given me hope for what we can do to take the next few steps in the future to create our own leadership.

Andrew: We create meaning, right? Like that’s one of the things humans do. It’s, it’s the, the fact that everything’s made up doesn’t mean it isn’t meaningful. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t mean things. Right. And, and, yeah, one of the things that gives me hope is like me creating meaning. I like these things. I do, the motivations I have, you know, I, I don’t, I don’t pretend to know everything. I, I’m, I’m curious, but I genuinely want people to have nicer things. And that’s what motivates me. And that’s what gives my actions meaning, and so that’s what I keep trying to do. And I also wanted to express gratitude for having me and sharing this time with me. And, and I really appreciate and love watching some of the work you’re doing and the energy you’re putting into the mapping community.

Ben: That means a lot. Andrew, thanks so much. In closing, I’m going to quote something that I’ve heard Cat Swetel say. “Just cause nothing matters doesn’t mean you can’t care about stuff.” So I care about things and I care about you and thanks for being here.

Andrew:  I think to a flaw, I probably care too much sometimes, but well, one quick takeaway, everyone stay safe, protect yourselves and your family.

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