Treading the Line Between Courage and Stupidity

Yesterday’s attempt at a satirical post on ‘How to Depress an Enterprise Culture‘ has triggered some interesting responses through both public and private channels and I have been reminded of something that my Dad once said to me,

It is a thin line between courage and stupidity.

I never thought of the post as ‘courageous’ but nor did I intend it to be a ‘stupid’ wrecking ball in a professional life that depends to some extent on working with the public sector and its partners.  My judgement was that by holding the mirror up I might provoke some reflection and the possibility of innovation as we move into an austere period for those of us interested in the role of enterprise and entrepreneurship in developing cohesive and effective communities.

Phil Kirby (@philkirby) is perhaps on the money when he says,

this is too close to the truth. There has to be a fraction of fiction for it to count as satire….Never a good idea to tell the truth so bluntly.

I suspect he maybe right in professional and corporate terms.  I have previously been warned, politely and through ‘diplomatic channels’ that ensure ‘sources’ remain anonymous, that making comments about public service providers and funders that are less than fully complimentary may be harmful to my ability to work in that sector.

I think this is fascinating and sad in equal measure.  Public sector agencies that tweet and maintain facebook pages about their workshops and services but NEVER enter into a dialogue.  Who think that they can ‘protect’ their brand by closing down dissenting voices instead of working with feedback and advocating their position.  Who take private disgruntlement at a blog post but never choose to post a comment to put forward their perspective or constraints.  Who believe that they can pursue ‘world class’ by engaging yes men and women who will never risk pointing out the apparently naked emperor.

A regeneration professional was also in touch about the post, privately, saying,

I agree with 75% of what you say. As an employee of a consultancy to RDAs/Business Links etc I don’t really have freedom to say so. Corporate life.*

Clearly they have taken a different stance in weighing up the risks and rewards of speaking their truth – of following their path, wherever it may lead.  I find it deeply ironic that so many enterprise professionals are ‘pragmatic realists’.  They deal with things the way they are, do the best they can given the limitations and demands of funders, and are willing to put professional integrity and the possibility of doing ‘good work’ in thrall to paying the mortgage.   They are ‘reasonable’ men and women who adapt themselves to the world.  Who subjugate personal values and beliefs in order to effectively carry out the work of the system, to follow orders. I think such ‘reasonableness’ holds enormous risks – not only to our enterprise culture but to our personal humanity and self-esteem.  To our ability to forge communities of work and life that recognise and value us for who we are and who we are becoming and not simply as a willing pair of hands.

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

George Bernard Shaw

Diminishing ourselves to fit in with a ‘corporate world’ is surely a sign of malaise both in our own development as a human being but also in the modus operandi of our employer.  This is the methodology of unreconstructed industrial bureaucracy. Not of a modern, knowledge based service industry working in a wired up world.

I have written before about enterprise being the emergence of identity.  A process for becoming more fully human, of the development of potential.   It is a process for the idealist.  One who sees a difference that they wish to make and sets about making it.

“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” – GBS again…

I find it deeply ironic that so many working on enterprise culture have taken the opposite path.   To bite their tongues, to hold back their truths and to do the bidding of funders, wherever it may lead, while encouraging others to take the plunge into entrepreneurship.

* The 25% difference in opinion was around the fact the enterprise and incubation centres are not always poorly utilised and that loan and grant schemes can be effective.  Now I agree with both of these points.  Enterprise and incubation centres in places that have vibrant enterprise communities can work brilliantly.  I have yet to see the success replicated in areas of multiple deprivation.  In such areas the centres are usually half empty, or social objectives are quickly relaxed  to appeal to a more affluent target group who can help to pay the rent.  If you know of an incubator or an enterprise centre that is working well and sustainably, serving primarily those who live in deprived communities, I would love to hear about it.

Grants and loan schemes can also work well.  My point is that they should not be managed by the same organisation, or under the same brand, as the organisation providing the coaching advice.  Several reasons for this:

  • Some (sometimes many) clients will be attracted to the coaching service by the allure of cash rather than by the possibility of transformation.  This distorts the coaching relationship, discourages disclosure and makes progress difficult.
  • Loans and grants are just one source of finance for the would be entrepreneur – the coach and their parent organisation needs to be free to help the client explore all funding options and not simply refer them to an in-house solution – especially when adoption of the in-house solution forms part of a ‘payment by results’ contract with a funder.
  • Organisations that provide loans and grants are seldom loved in poor communities.  They are a place of last resort.  Requests for support are either turned down or, if accepted, result in obligations and repayment terms that again frequently lead to a degree of tension that is not helpful.  It is hard to be coached by someone who has lent or given you money.

A funding service does need to be there, and it needs to be well managed, but in my opinion it should not be managed by the same provider who runs the coaching service.

And as I sit here about to press the publish button, I am reminded of another old saw of my Dads,

When you find yourself in a hole – stop digging

3 Replies to “Treading the Line Between Courage and Stupidity”

  1. Great post Mike. I think my point was simply about satire; there has to be some slight inflection of the truth, a small but significant exaggeration of the actuality for it to count as satire. Satire is a fine chisel. Sometimes what you need is a shovel. Keep digging.

  2. Definitely keep digging.

    I agree with the separation of funding and coaching.

    So far my main underlying concern goes to the very heart of entrepreneurship in deprived / disadvantaged communities.

    I am reminded of a conversation I had with the Director of Housing about a council estate in Barnet north London after a local community shop had closed.

    Her view was to try and encourage a Waitrose to come into the vacant unit in the shopping centre. Suppressing laughter and remembering my time working for 20 years at Marks and Spencer, I tried to explain why it was pointless trying to get such retailers to come to such locations – no demand.

    I pointed out the local newly relocated Further Educational College plonked next door at a cost of millions and the fact that the gates from the college to the shops were now locked as a security measure.

    I described how each day around 100 or more staff cars drove through the college gates with drivers on incomes averaging around £25k each and then drove out again 6 to 8 hours later without spending a penny in the local community.

    The college had its own shops, catering facility, swimming pool etc designed to generate revenue for the college not the community.

    A business needs customers. If 60% of the local community are on state benefits where is the local demand for anything – how can a viable local business come into being, let alone survive without artificial support from the activities Mike so ably describes.

    How can we create a local demand or encourage a local business that is not dependent on local customers for its success?

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