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You know, at one time, I used to break into pet shops to liberate the canaries. But I decided that was an idea way before its time. Zoos are full, prisons are overflowing… oh my, how the world still dearly loves a cage.”

Harold & Maude

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Bert:

You know, begging your pardon, but the one my heart goes out to is your father.

There he is in that cold, heartless bank day after day, hemmed in by mounds of cold, heartless money.

I don’t like to see any living thing caged up.

Jane:

Father?

In a cage?

Bert:

They makes cages in all sizes and shapes, you know. Bank-shaped, some of ’em, carpets and all.

——

Mary Poppins

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Nap time.

School.

Recess.

Classes.

Clubs.

Businesses.

Hierarchies.

9 to 5.

Zoo

Prisons.

Aquariums.

Bias.

Expectations.

Norms.

Cages. All cages. Our world, personal, society and business, is constructed cage by cage.

Not only do we put things in cages to ‘protect ourselves’, but often we are quite receptive to put ourselves in them. Well. That is an uncomfortable thought.

We find a variety of words & terms to call them anything but cages: boundaries or rules or systems or process or structure.

Why? Because referring to them as cages implies being trapped. And. Let’s face it, trapped is only good when it comes to others and ‘bad things’; not us.

That said.

This whole cage thing is business, us (our lives) and society.

Ourselves.

  • Professionalism

“The eyes of others our prisons; their thoughts our cages. “

Virginia Woolf

In “How to Speak Human” the author points out that at one point in the past having a profession demanded “being professional’ and the industry of ‘professionalism’ was beget. So not only did your skill dictate who and what you are but what you said, how you acted & what you wore dictated your level of ‘professionalism’. This may actually be the Rubicon where perceptions became as important as reality. Perceptions are addicted to cues, heuristics, labels, even buzzwords. But. Cues, heuristics, labels & buzzwords are simply bars on a cage. Ponder.

  • Productivity

Businesses, in general, are cages, but productivity in all its forms is the torture chamber of those cages. Daily output, hourly time management, deadlines, milestones, ROI, even sprints, are just miniature cages. We can try and blame Taylorism, but the truth is business likes these cages. Okay. Love. Business loves cages <as a corrolary: freedom scares the shit out of business>. These cages are built intended to find ways to constrict inefficient behavior (thinking & doing). All these cages constrict personal freedom, responsibility, choice, decision making, even thinking. Ponder.

“A cage went in search of a bird.”

Frank Kafka

  • Process (efficiency)

“By embedding a core set of behaviors in its people, and then giving them the freedom to practice them, its teams would be naturally motivated, proactive and ultimately successful. Principles rather than processes are what matters.”

Mike Walsh

Efficiency deserves a cage museum all for itself within the Productivity cage world. While productivity is a natural cage for business, efficiency is a prison. Its sole purpose is to squeeze out any freedom to maximize profit. Period.

This prison has a new warden – technology. And while we try and embrace the idea technology creates freedom the dark underbelly is control. Ponder.

  • Process and Systems

This is where technology comes into play.

“digital recognizes no digital business unit.”

Satya Nadella

We all know clever leaders will use algorithms, technology, to create a sense of decision making freedom all the while building a new cage, i.e., freedom to do what the algorithm says to do. The insidious part of this particular cage building is it represents an inherent belief employees will not do the right thing unless told what to do.

Leaders will use technology & algorithms to salve employee’s worst fear – uncertainty. In the past they demanded numbers & research & data to stifle creativity by suggesting those things ‘eliminated uncertainty’ <niote: they didn’t, at best they simply increased some probabilities>. Beware. Algorithms now loom as the new cage leaders will offer people as ‘certainty’. Ponder.

  • Power

The darker underbelly of this false certainty offering – power inequality.

Currently, an increasing share of the value of the world’s goods and services comes from the input of machines rather than people. Therefore, the riches of world’s production goes to the owners of the machines, rather than the workers. The 10 richest individuals have as much wealth as the poorest half of the world. Half owe their fortunes to information and communication technology. Technology is driving further concentration of wealth. Suffice it to say, the more leaders sell us on algorithms and technology the more likely we are being put in a cage, while they are free to fly. Ponder.

  • Structure (part 1)

Businesses love organizational structure. This structure comes in many shapes & sizes. While ‘hierarchy’ is the enemy du jour, I could argue that as soon as we name a model and attempt to ‘implement’ it we are in the process of building a cage (just ponder).

Regardless. Organizational design traditionally is framed in terms of exclusivity:

Should we build structures around products, markets, or functions?

Should we organize globally, regionally, or locally?

Should we have profits centers, divisions, departments, excellence centers, or any configuration to isolate specialty?

Should we centralize or decentralize?

As these questions are resolved, organizations are created in which there is much greater clarity because the structural choices eliminated, or at least minimized, the complexity (source: The Individualized Corporation).

Imposing simplicity on a world that is inherently complex comes at a cost.

In other words. This is the greatest organizational cage we never discuss: the simplicity cage. A business inherently seeks to cage complexity in a variety of somewhat creative ways all the while stifling the wings of freedom found in complexity. Ponder.

  • Structure (part 2)

It is possible Mike Walsh has framed this perfectly:

“Question of control. Do you design a perfect model of what high performance looks like and get your teams to conform to that ? Or do you give people the freedom to do what they think best?”

Which leads me to 2 business ideas pushing back on efficiency cages:

Conform or emergent.

Businesses of the future have a choice – invest in conformity or embrace in an emergent philosophy. This may sound black & white, but this decision, in my eyes, is an “in for a penny, in for a pound” type decision. I rarely take this stance. I do so now because half decisions will lead to half measures which will inevitably lead to no progress. I used to believe the pragmatic way was half measures; controlled autonomy, but I have increasingly shifted my view toward full shift. Ponder.

People management (motivation)

For years management has feared an individual reward system especially with the advent of collaboration and ‘team.’ This has led to a motivational cage designed to fit elephants & ants & eagles & aardvarks.

To be clear. Reward can be found in a variety of ways: titles, $, freedom, empowerment, selective leadership, intrinsic or extrinsic. And that’s my point. Most motivational cages are designed by limiting how people get rewarded. While I believe motivation, in & of itself, needs its cage redesigned, if connected to the ‘conform or emergent’ decision it’s quite possible motivation can be designed without a cage. Ponder that.

  • Personal (Maslow stuff)

Here is the truly crazy thing about us people <and why we seem to like cages a bit>. We find real freedom a little difficult to embrace.

No shit.

No boundaries … no ‘box’ … no fences … those things scare the shit out of us. Its part survival instinct (people just feel safer and more comfortable when we can survey the landscape and find a ‘good cave to find refuge in’, uhm, a cage) and its part fear (wasted opportunities, accountability for mistakes, lack of progress, etc.).

“Birds born in cages believe that flying is a disease.”

Alejandro Jodorowsky

So what do we do?

We build cages and climb into them day after day. And then we ask people to step into them with us and say “okay, you will now live in them too and it is good for us.” Now. The tricky thing is that not all cages have obvious bars. Because the cage you have put yourself in to live your Life may simply have bars called “hesitance’ or ‘fear’ or ‘not good enough’ or ‘not supposed to do’ or even ‘what is normal <or the social norms.’

These are cages & fences & bars we create for ourselves.

These are all things which actually make us willing … yup … WILLING to stay in the cage. These are all things that give us an excuse to play it safe because we see flying as a disease. And while I could put the entire blame on us, I will not. A lot is about conformity and fitting in. business & society create these unspoken demands to conform. Fit in or not be normal is the code. This attaches itself to our natural instinct to be part of a greater tribe/collective identity (something bigger than us). as with many things there are degrees (cult to situational team) but a cage is a cage.

I will note you end up living caged by some version of fear (although it can look an awful lot like ‘smart & comfortable‘ when inside the cage) and that, my friends, is not a life fully lived. Or maybe <less harshly> it is simply a life minimized by a cage.

Don’t worry. Here is the good news <albeit sad news>. If you choose to live in a cage, you will find a shitload of people in there with you.

“Caged birds accept each other but flight is what they long for.”

Tennessee Williams

—-

All of this actually creates some personal conflict, lets call it ‘human nature.’ While this cage is filled with a shitload of people, you will always feel some sense of restlessness <even though everyone in there has actually chosen to be in that cage>.

We look at birds & cages and think.

And think a lot. And think a lot about the fact that a flock of birds in flight is perhaps the most expressive image of freedom. Oh. And they are not in a cage. And some of us think of the warning Sancho Panza gave Don Quixote …

“… there are no birds in the country except wild birds that are tamed and kept in cages.”

Wild makes us excited and scared just as cages make us feel comfortable and uncomfortable.

That is the Life paradox <or one of them>. Look. I am certainly not suggesting this discussion with oneself is easy. Ponder.

“Had I not created my whole world, I would certainly have died in other people’s.”

Anais Nin

  • Society

“You can’t go around building a better world for people. Only people can build a better world for people. Otherwise it’s just a cage.”

Terry Pratchett

—-

Society is just a maze of cages. Let me highlight two:

Factory mentality

Business cages inherently bleed into how we think about ourselves outside of work; especially in the productivity revolution. It’s almost like we started believing society would become easier, more efficient & enhance individual happiness the more construct we put to things. In other words, society started believing there should be a construct built to produce better, more well-rounded, people. Well. I believe we would all be better off if we simply ditched the whole idea of a ‘well rounded’ person. Maybe if we didn’t just think of individuals as some conceptual ‘unique’ and embraced the fact everyone learns at different paces and has a desire to learn things, well, unevenly we would start thinking of society as some collective and rather a collection of individuals who coalesce contextually.

The Joneses

Comparison is a motherfucker. And we would all be foolish to ignore the fact comparison, in some form or fashion, plays a role in our psyche. It is what it is, you just manage it as well as possible. That’s called “Life.”

If you look close enough it can appear we, all of us together, have built a society where in order to survive we must in effect build our own cages.

Huh? It sometimes appears that people have essentially caged themselves into having to conform to a rat race “being a winner is what counts’ system where they are required to spend the majority of their lives grinding their way through a shitload of joyless activities to earn whatever they need <and want> to support their existence <however they define existence … from survival to decadence>.

Boy. That was depressing to write.

Society, in relation to ‘cages’, is a mixture of human liberties which is actually a combination of “I” and “we.” A coexistence, a balance, of individualism and collectivism <pluralism>. A balance between selfishness and sharing.

Society tosses us mental cages like candy. Many of them look really appealing and some even taste good for awhile. Ponder.

Anyway. I think it would be silly to think none of us didn’t exist in some cage or another. We all do.

Many of us may chafe at that thought, but if we are really honest with ourselves, it is a Life truth.

That said. I do believe we naturally like cages as a society. Or, maybe better said, society naturally imposes some cages on civilization. The constraints seemingly suggest less conflict. It suggests safeness and calmness.

<sigh>

And, yet, we cannot really go around building cages for everyone all the time.

You just have to try and build a better world. And let better people <people just trying to be the best they can> roam that better world.

To do something like that you need to shed some cynicism <that everyone is selfish and it is a ‘me, me, me’ world.

To do something like that you need to shed some fear <that all risk will inevitably end up with bad results>.

To do something like that you need to embrace some hope <and embrace a little optimism>.

To do something like that you need to stop judging others a little bit more.

All of those things are simply decisions to open up a cage … or break the bars of some cage.

 

“… guests go to sleep.

May your dreams be blissful; forget that darkness falls on the cage we struggle in.”

Alexander Blok

In the end.

Here is what I hope. Despite the fact we are surrounded by cages and constantly being urged to reside in cages I hope that there will always be some wild ones nudging us to always seek to escape the cages.

Maybe not anarchy, but stretch the bars of the cages so we can see more and, well, be more. Maybe become more aware, or more enlightened, of what resides within the cages we have created … as well as what resides ‘with-out’ these same cages.

“So many people are shut up tight inside themselves like boxes, yet they would open up, unfolding quite wonderfully, if only you were interested in them.”

Sylvia Plath

You have to see a problem before you can solve it. And maybe, just maybe, we need some wild ones to show us the cages. And maybe, just maybe, the wild ones, the ones flying, make us not only aware of cages, but also flying. Ponder that.

Written by Bruce