Timing

I was going to write a post talking about Rome, Athens, Sparta, and then on the difference between short- medium- long-term planning, but on the road to my keyboard, I was attracted by a post shared by a FB friend member of a club I belong to since 1989, reposting something from John Cleese (yes, the Monty Python spirit is still there- once in a while, I rewatch “The Meaning of Life” :D)

I will share just the closing statement:
“And as a final thought – Greece is collapsing, the Iranians are getting aggressive, and Rome is in disarray. Welcome back to 430 BC.”

So, I am not the only one converging on Thucydides (albeit it was published in 431 BC)…

I will skip quoting the reminder of the post with the title “NATIONAL LEVELS OF ALERT – THREATS TO EUROPE From JOHN CLEESE” as you can easily find it online, and anyway it is the typical “British Cleese humour” making fun of mainly of everybody else but the British 😉

And, anyway, if you are really curious, you can have a look on facebook.com/robertolofaro (as I shared the post on my profile).

Therefore, back to my original intent.

First, an announce: as planned, from mid-September I will resume publishing my multilingual news digest- but, due to some time and connection constraints, the articles themselves will be shared on Wednesday and Friday morning, and Sunday evening (as anyway in my news sources usually early Monday newspapers are “quiet” or reporting just about sport, while some commentary and news releases are done on purpose over the week-end).

The digest itself will be out on early Monday mornings.

And, incidentally: I know and wrote that I am an unrepentant bookworm, and I noticed over the last few weeks that, again, while talking, I end up looking sounding like a Wikipedia page (in the past I would have said “adopting a Popper-esque approach” to explanations), i.e. referring to authors, books, etc.

It is not to show off, but just because my cross-cultural experiences since forever made me appreciate the usefulness of not assuming that everybody else has your own background, and that if you cite something that might be useful, it makes sense to give access to the sources so that those listening can make up their own mind.

If you deem too cumbersome to share the sources, skip the quote, and use simple rethorical devices to “lighten up” what you are saying, e.g. by using a paraphrase ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paraphrase ) or something that you know is a shared cultural reference.

So, I will try to enforce the same discipline that I try to enforce while publishing a book: and add references (preferably to Wikipedia- much criticized, but still useful with its links to other material).

And after the public service announce… let’s move back to “timing”.

Yes, this post will be structured around the number “three”, and also each one of the next two sections will discuss three concepts.

But before continuing… have a nice week-end: as usual, I post without re-reading, and will re-read only few hours down the road (part of my “writing exercises”).

Rome, Athens, Sparta

Let’s start with a self-quote (from my FB status update on September 9th):
“tonight I invited few people to follow me and watch UNCLE- the movie from the first TV series on joint management of commons. entertaining for all those involved, from the bursts of laughter at (foreseeable) pivotal scenes. and in the “one-two-three” spirit (it started at Checkpoint Charlie), the “two” (inspired by an old movie from Jarmusch, I think) was “screaming for ice cream”, and “three” will have to be something else 🙂 stay tuned, it will be entertaining ;)”

Again- on FB you will find the links to the movies that I quoted in that post: as people attending my training or brainstorming sessions since the 1980s know, I often quote movies, as quoting books is nowadays more a show-off than something that you do to raise the attention of your audience, while the latter is my purpose.

We live in a “visual” society, and that is just appropriate: globalization in past times was either in slow-motion (having enough time to build “cultural bridges”, e.g. by having a language shared between the elites or “perpetual travellers” such as merchants, military, and diplomats), or “fast and furious” invasions (whose immediate “organizational” side-effects usually lasted less than a generation, e.g. the ephemeral states created by Alessandro Magno or various “Barbarians”).

In both cases, the cultural side-effects might produce a long-running undercurrent of fear, social changes, or just plain rethinking of the “ordinary way of life” (think about the impact of Barbarians transplants within the Roman Empire due to the pressure from other Barbarians, or the demise of Carthage or Micaene).

John Cleese is the usual caustic Brit- and I lived there long enough to “absorb” some of the habits- albeit, as a citizen of the world (a.k.a. “foreigner everywhere”), I am more equanimous in my jokes, as my Latvian friends noticed in the 1990s: they had had experience with Italians that either continuously criticized Italy or said that Italy was the source of everything that was positive, no third option (“tertium non datur” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_excluded_middle ).

I have neither read the “50 shades” series nor watched the movie(s), and I do not intend to 🙂 Nonetheless, that reality is neither white nor black is a long-standing assertion shared by diplomats, negotiators, and all sort of people who have to straddle the boundaries between multiple organizations or societies.

My experience with my birth country (Italy) and birthplace (Turin) has been slightly unusual, as I had been moving every few years as a kid, and a couple of the relocations were really a culture shock: moving from the North to the South when I was to start elementary school, and back to the North after a couple of years.

Thereafter? I was more an observer than part of the environment, and that matched (or probably initiated- it is a chicken-and-egg issue) my attraction for cultural anthropology, the developmental history of societies, and how science and technology weren’t really “neutral” (a.k.a. politics- yes, also “politics of science”).

If you think through pictures, that makes easier to cross the boundaries between cultures, as you have to translate into words and concepts that are relevant to the culture that you are in now, instead of being limited by the verbal boundaries of the culture that you come from.

And mixing cultures exposes you to different ways of visualizing- since I moved back to Turin in 1972, I always liked to attend art exhibitions showing other cultures (also by influence from a couple of family friends who were involved in the art market, and carried me along to museums, vernissages, and operas).

I read a lot and watch movies and documentaries- but do not ask me to tell you the story of a movie: often, I remind that I saw it, remind what was for me pivotal (which does not necessarily match what others considered so), and few bits here and there.

If I want to remember a summary, I can open imdb.com; if I want to check the book, probably it is either on my hard disk or in my library or a public library, so why should I keep useless details that add nothing to my purposes of “remembering”, and can be easily accessed on demand (yes, I know that somebody else said so about remembering his own phone number- but that was a case of zilch empathy and egocentrism, also if I enjoyed and got inspired by his “scientific autobiography”: just ask his former wives).

In history, I remember that once a professor in high school tried to extract from me the dates referring to monk orders and their impact on society- and after a long “drilling”, she congratuled me for my historical knowledge (I was able to connect the monks to Japan in the XX century- don’t ask me how, I remember only the main “dots” that I connected), and joked about how I put everything in order, gave a visual representation, but did not quote a single date.

I met way too many people who can remember dates, names, and flaunt their “knowledge” by listing facts (and factoids): but those aren’t the lessons that I think should be learned from history.

In Italy, I wrote already in the past how an American colleague (and mentor) who lived in Italy for a couple of decades was tired of hearing Italians talking about the Roman Empire.

If you read my previous posts, you know that I agree: we routinely use the Roman Empire as a fig leaf to justify our current inability to leverage on that past to play a role that makes sense, instead of routinely tagging along.

“Being there, done that” might be acceptable for somebody in his/her 20s or 30s, not to as a guideline for a country.

Was there a Roman Empire? Yes, but wasn’t just “Roman”, it was something more, and was able to co-opt other cultures, integrates elements from them into a (more or less) coherent whole.

Moreover, it started more or less 2,000 years ago: and few centuries after its peak it fall apart, as it was so complex that only if everything worked as a clockwork it could deliver its benefits; the Eastern part continued for a thousand years more, but in a constant decay (being even invaded by us from the West, on the route to Palestine).

“Coherent whole” is the key concept: anybody who (as I did) worked across Italy since the late 1980s know that our country is anything but legitimate heir of the Roman Empire.

As I tried to post few days ago: we talk about the Roman Empire, dream about becoming the new Athens, but behave as a Sparta in its decline- you just need to read online commentary on Italian newspapers posted by Italians, and compare it with what is said on foreign newspapers, to see that there is a violent undercurrent that is anything but what is needed to build cathedrals (the typical example of long-term, multi-generation projects).

In Italy, since 2012 I heard more often the phrase “to have balls” than praise for our culture: a sign of primitive decay into a feral society, unfortunately uttered even by highly educated people.

When addressed directly, I usually reply that flaunting them while being in a group is just being an exhibitionist.

So, let’s set aside the dream of a Roman Empire, and let’s talk how to move from being a quarrelous failing Sparta to an Athens.

Long ago, I wrote that 60 million inhabitants raised in a country where you are surrounded by works of art and buildings representing a glorious past, with a scenic landscape, is certainly something that could be unique, and generate something more than restaurants and cafés.

My interests as a kid included architecture, and when I was toying with taking pictures and developing and printing them (I still have boxes of material, including photo paper), I was often told that my pictures contained no people.

My inspiration? Living in the North, then in the South, then in the North again, and comparing with books gave me an opportunity to appreciate the richness of our environment.

I would like to see less restaurants in city centres, and (as I said recently to a colleague moving there) what I liked most when I visited Barcelona was to see how the Barrio Gotico ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gothic_Quarter,_Barcelona ) hosted also start-ups : nothing is able to spur imagination and creativity than being surrounded by something (I do not care if it is a replica or original) that shows that you can reach for the sky- and that you are not the first.

Instead, in Italy I saw many “accelerators” and “incubators” whose architecture seem to have been inspired by the container area within the movie “I, Robot”, where out-of-fashion robots were sent to fall apart.

Moreover, I would like to see, at least within the “kick-starting” phase, less “vertical” parks, i.e. focusing just on one issue, and more cross-domain, as in the future the management of shared resources will require joining forces and inspiration across the field.

If you put together only watchmakers, there is a limited chance that they will create something that isn’t just a different watch.

If you wan to create the smartphones of the future (nobody knows yet what they will be), you need to have an idea factory able to straddle beyond the ordinary, e.g. an architect might see in a smartphone and its sensors something that associates the buildings that (s)he design with the environment, while a packaging designer might see in those building a place where furniture is delivered as a Lego(tm) set of components, and a logistics expert might suggest slight alterations that could generate significant savings, etc.

Yes, it is nothing really new, as we are starting to have buildings that are integrated with their environment, include gardens and energy production for self-sufficiency, are connected in a coherent whole à la Corbusier Ville Radieuse ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ville_Radieuse ), but it is still a “let’s get together and do something different, systemic”.

Instead, Italy has the opportunity to revive its towns and villages by creating “serendipity centers”, where companies and research activities in their early stages might share unexpected ideas, and then spawn appropriate “clusters” around, while still retaining the social element.

Otherwise, the risk is that even the most innovative incubator will lost its steam as soon as few successes outgrow it: a little bit like Google and others that are now trying to retain the “entrepreneurial spirit”.

If Rome was organization, and Sparta was compliance, Athens was entrepreneurial (and a little bit chaotic- read Chester A. Starr “Political intelligence in classical Greece”, and don’t ask Socrates).

Before Italy can turn into a new Athens, it has to recover the entrepreneurial spirit that we had for a while centuries ago, at a time when we exported diplomats, merchants, and… bankers.

If not… the foreign companies that are buying at discount prices our companies and real estate will probably be able to turn the country into a well-managed tourist attraction, and use the intellectual infrastructure to develop early-stage activities locally, moving them elsewhere when they become more mature.

And this brings about the last section about timing: the difference between short-, medium-, and long-term.

Yesterday, today, tomorrow

A small business digression.

I did not have a clue about double-entry accounting before working a on a programme to deliver a General Ledger to a bank (along with few associated systems) in Italy in 1987.

Until then, my “accounting” was limited to what I learned in politics to organize events, or in sales to sell computer software, games, books and compute my commissions ;), or to assess the viability of an offer.

Thereafter, from 1988 I worked repeatedly with CFOs, Financial Controllers, Sales Managers and Directors, and find myself doing plenty of number crunching, budgeting, budget control, and… auditing somebody else’s number crunching.

I know that most (myself included before working on it) consider accounting boring and avoidable- but I see it as the “logistics of financial resources”, akin to blood within the veins of a living being: too much too fast and you have troubles, too little too slow and… you have troubles.

The larger the body, the more complex and critical the job of the “heart” in pumping those resources around.

I know- nothing new here, just read “Leviathan” (also if I disagree with some of the assumptions of the author- I think that a republic, for all its weaknesses, is preferable to a monarchy, as at least you can replace those at the top without spilling any blood or disrupting social order).

Still, I had the opportunity of seeing first “tiny” operations, i.e. the activities in politics I told about, and the “minimal” activities on logistics while in the Army- it was more a matter of negotiations, as, from our perspective, we had no limitation on potential resources, e.g. for travel- but I am talking about 1985-1986, the times of a conscription army.

Then, I worked directly on the “helicopter view” on larger amounts.

I remember that my sense of career and money were defined by what I saw everyday in a banking general ledger: if you see hundreds of billions liras, i.e. hundreds of million euro, each day, with names attached, money becomes irrelevant, and career too: you start considering it just as a tool, not as a target (you will never be reach enough to match that), and career too sounds unappealing- what matters, is building experience to be then able to do something increasingly more interesting, and having the resources (directly or indirectly) to fund it.

Probably I was already inclined to that, due to my experiences as a bookworm in politics reading (“swallowing” would be more appropriate) about “big picture” amounts linked to policy (documents from Brussels), to be able then to “riposte” to skepticism from other kids representing the youth organizations of political parties.

It is actually were I learned how not to held a position: as my regional secretary rightfully criticized me, I was a hard-working, committed militant, but not a town secretary, as at the first resistance I took over activities instead of delegating and motivating people.

Actually, the first to benefit from that experience was an organization that paid me about 1 EUR a day, the Italian Army, as I was able to structure and delegate activities, and started my lifelong experience with “coordinating at a distance”.

The larger the organization, the longer the span of time since its inception, the more risk-averse it tends to become, moreover when none of the founders is around to keep leading (or “motivating”), and what you are left with is the interpretation of the interpretation of… you get the point.

As a physicist said long ago, our society lost the ability to see “results” that span across generations, our post-WWII society was built on a scaled-down “American (individual) dream”: we want it all, and we want it now.

Imagine if the builders of all the Gothic cathedrals had been thinking along those lines: none would have been built…

When Caesar went to the Northern border with the Germanic tribes, quickly built a bridge using his army, crossed into enemy territory, moved back, and dismantled the bridge, as somebody told probably the feeling on the other side was as if Martians had landed.

But those skills and abilities weren’t built on 12-months stints in the Army (as I did), but on rotating, lifelong careers that lasted decades, and transmitted knowledge from “batch” to “batch”, developing skills across generations.

As a kid, I was fascinated by a book about the Roman roads between Europe and Africa: just imagine what would mean to keep all those road in good order, and all the “postal” service used by the administration working.

Even today, look at how many people and activities are involved when something as “simple” as laying a new electrical cable is required: it requires, first and foremost, a coordination where each “work component” knows its own role, its own business, and can assume that everybody else too does the same.

The cultural shortcut that many in my country are identifying is something that I heard way too often over the last few years, e.g. complaints that the sons and daughters of servants went to study at the university and wanted to do something else.

I think that those coming from the “right” background have already a natural advantage, and wasting potential resources just to avoid losing pliant servants is sheer stupidity, akin to the plans that German nazis had for Ukraine and Russia post-WWII.

I think that we need our best minds and hearts joining forces to spur change and bring the country into the XXI century, and those “remedies” suggested are the best way to ensure that all the country is turned into a pliant servant to somebody else.

I am not talking about myself (at 50, with no qualms about relocating and no local connections left untouched from recent years, I am almost “location neutral”).

But I am talking about those that, according to recent reports in local newspapers, while attending the university, at a striking 60% are inclined to move abroad after completing their studies.

It might be a business, to train the workforce for other countries, but how long can that work, using the past accumulated knowledge to generate today’s qualified workforce for others?

Italian universities are notoriously short on attractiveness for foreign professors, also due to the endemic academic version of what I discussed above, i.e. sons and daughters of professors (or sidelined politicians) are overwhelmingly represented within the “tenured” ones.

Again, a matter of timing.

All this introduction was to actually (you guess it) talk about three components within the “yesterday, today, tomorrow” triad: human, financial, and intellectual (i.e. accumulated knowledge) resources.

When you think short-term, you are really implementing what was decided in the past, and this is also what I explained to my customers when I was asked to help “clean up” past mistakes, replace suppliers, recover negotiations, or even create business and marketing plans for new initiatives.

Your past constrains the resources that you can muster to cope with short-term demand, i.e. you are actually living the side-effects (or having the “degrees of freedom”) that you (or those you are succeeding) left for you.

As for today, you should consider that you are actually paving the way for tomorrow, and therefore making new choices thinking only short-term generates more risks for continuity than treating it for what it is: deliver now but look at the degrees of freedom that you are removing for the future.

Long-term becomes therefore not a matter of planning, but of choosing the guidelines and priorities for the future.

If you were to work with unlimited resources, you could do as some politicians, thinking only about this and maybe the next term do: build something that constrains the future, while increasing the degrees of freedom for the present.

When somebody is said to be a “short-termist”, (s)he is really trying to renege on past commitments (i.e. increase the degrees of freedom inherited), while fiddling with time- and in many countries were a “welfare state” was developed post-WWII, we lived on borrowed time and resources for a long, long time.

Many politicians got swayed by what I could call “econom-speak” (as in Orwell’s 1984 “Newspeak”- read the book, do not just look at the wikipedia page, it is just 112 pages long :D): they talk about “business”, “investiment”, but often forget to think about two dimensions: time, as in the short-/medium-/long-term triad, and resources, as in the financial, humans, intellectual triad.

It is worth thinking also about another dimension, “cultural heritage”, that is not made just of monuments, but a mix resulting from how you design and manage or steer (“social governance”) those components.

If you build a short-termist attitude in your society, you are actually pawning the capital accumulated in your past just to finance the completion of promised of your immediate past, plus the delivery of what will become tomorrow’s short-term (a.k.a. “today”).

Italy right now is doing just that, but, being a founding member of the European Union, the current rethinking of what it stands for might actually push it to reassess itself- if anything, just to be involved in steering change, instead of just floating along (as we did way too often in diplomacy since the Crimean War in the XX century).

A short-termist might be a pure opportunist, but even just shifting to medium-term implies assuming risks, making choices and, yes, disappointing friends while building a new rulebook with yesterday’s enemies.

Are we, as citizens and voters, ready for that?

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