Cranes in the sky

Well, it’s like cranes in the sky
Sometimes I don’t wanna feel those metal clouds

Some time ago, I found myself reflecting on Solange’s song ‘Cranes in the Sky’ at the end of a strategy project. Sometimes the best way into something is at an angle; not through the Excel sheets and the PDFs and the ‘lessons learned’, but through a feeling, a stray thought, an analogy, a song or an image which reminds you somehow of the matter at hand.

In a 2017 interview with her sister Beyoncé, Solange explains where the song came from:

“Cranes in the Sky” is actually a song that I wrote eight years ago. It’s the only song on the album that I wrote independently of the record, and it was a really rough time. I know you remember that time. I was just coming out of my relationship with Julez’s father. We were junior high school sweethearts, and so much of your identity in junior high is built on who you’re with. You see the world through the lens of how you identify and have been identified at that time. So I really had to take a look at myself, outside of being a mother and a wife, and internalize all of these emotions that I had been feeling through that transition. I was working through a lot of challenges at every angle of my life, and a lot of self-doubt, a lot of pity-partying. And I think every woman in her twenties has been there—where it feels like no matter what you are doing to fight through the thing that is holding you back, nothing can fill that void.

I used to write and record a lot in Miami during that time, when there was a real estate boom in America, and developers were developing all of this new property. There was a new condo going up every ten feet. You recorded a lot there as well, and I think we experienced Miami as a place of refuge and peace. We weren’t out there wilin’ out and partying. I remember looking up and seeing all of these cranes in the sky. They were so heavy and such an eyesore, and not what I identified with peace and refuge. I remember thinking of it as an analogy for my transition—this idea of building up, up, up that was going on in our country at the time, all of this excessive building, and not really dealing with what was in front of us. And we all know how that ended. That crashed and burned. It was a catastrophe. And that line came to me because it felt so indicative of what was going on in my life as well. And, eight years later, it’s really interesting that now, here we are again, not seeing what’s happening in our country, not wanting to put into perspective all of these ugly things that are staring us in the face.

Sometimes it’s so hard to face the real issue, what the strategist Richard Rumelt might call the crux or the kernel of a situation. Our anxiety about facing up to the truth causes our attention to slip away from harsh reality; we seek comfort in makework that seems to gird us.

A particularly popular form of this makework is clinging to the numbers, as if quantifying a situation makes it more solid or more real. I’ve heard Oxford’s Rafael Ramírez call it eau de credibilité, a quantitative spritz that you apply to material to make it seem more substantial than it really is. As James McMicking of the UK’s Aerospace Technology Institute once put it, “We can manage by numbers, but we can’t lead by them.”

The great Jerry Ravetz is even more acerbic, writing in his 2018 essay “Heuristics for Sustainability Science“:

For modern European civilization, the clarity and objectivity of mathematics sets it aside from all other sorts of knowledge. From Descartes onwards, mathematics has stood proud in contrast to the other disciplines; for him theology was irrelevant, philosophy futile, the humanities full of uncertainty, and the practical disciplines merely crafts. One of the most chilling passages in our intellectual tradition is the section of Descartes’ Discourse on Method […] where he first praises and then assassinates the humanist curriculum. Then by a miracle he discovers geometry: clear, certain truth. Many practitioners who nowadays receive emotional security from the belief that their spreadsheet will tell them precisely what to do with a project or company are living with the consequences of Descartes’ desperate grab for certainty.

Like the endless construction Solange observed on the Miami skyline, not dealing with what was really going on; like the personal distractions she enumerates in her song; we allow ourselves to get caught up in makework that distracts us from the truth and anxiety of the issue at hand, and the decisions we might have to make in order to deal with it.

As Rumelt says:

Serious strategy work in an already successful organization may not take place until the wolf is at the door — or even until the wolf’s claws actually scratch on the floor — because good strategy is very hard work.

There are ways to address this problem, to mitigate or perhaps even sometimes eliminate it: approaches which attend to emotion, perception, and frames of reference, which let us consider what we are allowing ourselves, or not allowing ourselves, to see; foresightful approaches which use the distant vantage point of imagined futures to let us reflect differently on the here and now.

Such reflections may cause us to consider not just what we need to do but who we need to become: the problem that “you see the world through the lens of how you identify and have been identified at that time” applies to organizations and communities just as much as individuals, and the inevitable limits of each lens become blinkers and blindspots.

It can be hard to step back from the energy and bustle of makework, the feeling of reward developers had as they saw condos shoot up over Miami. It can be hard to relinquish the sense of doing something which comes from setting cranes against the sky, or commissioning reports, or generating material that we think will gird or justify our strategic decisions.

But sometimes, to really perceive and understand what is going on, we need to step back. We need to refrain from activity, reflect on our roles, our purpose, the reality of our context, and listen out for the honest truth of our direction of travel.

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