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Traces, trails and the impermanence of organisings

trace-poem

Although I have experienced 10 leap years during my time on this planet, the 29th February 2016 was the first time I’ve intentionally marked the occasion by doing something to make the most of the ‘extra’ day.  A few weeks previously, whilst browsing Twitter, I came across a great guy called Doug Shaw who was organising an experimental adventure called Leap Day 2016.  The premise was simple – a bunch of people meet in London, head off to a number of suggested locations in order to see what we discover.  I’d never met Doug, I didn’t really know anybody else who was attending and I had no idea what was going to happen so it ticked the boxes as something that, once my mild anxiety had settled, I would ultimately enjoy.  And I did. Very much so.

One of the destinations that Doug suggested we visit was the Traces exhibition at the Tate Modern, an exhibition that describes itself as “a collection of works that capture making as gesture, the trace of an action.”  Whilst there were some exhibits I loved and some that I felt indifferent towards, my imagination was captured by the idea of traces as a metaphor for impermanence.  My mind wandered to images of contrails, the patterns of condensation left by planes in the sky, more commonly known as vapour trails.  Often, on a very clear day, the slowly fading contrail is the only evidence that a huge aircraft has passed by.  Depending on the speed, the altitude, the type and age of the plane, the trail is more or less pronounced.  Depending on the meteorological conditions, in particular the temperature and humidity of any particular patch of air, the trails may be only visible for a few seconds or may persist for hours, spreading across the sky to resemble naturally occurring clouds.  Eventually, no matter how prominent or dispersed, they dissolve and fade.

As the events of the 29th February drew to a close, the individuals of the group dispersed and the temporary organising we had come to know as Leap Day 2016 faded away. However, whilst the people had shifted into different patterns of interaction, a variety of traces lingered on.  A number of different thoughts, ideas, feelings and emotions that were triggered by the conversations from the day remained – contrails of meaningful interactions that would persist and fade at different rates over time.

I’ve suspected for some time now that many of the actions that take place in organisations (and life in general) are ultimately distractions to avoid confronting and accepting impermanence – the undeniable fact that, irrelevant of who we are and what status or identity we have in life, we will all fade and dissolve one day. If we hold true the idea that organisations are not things that are separate and different to the people within them and instead regard the people themselves as the live and vibrant organising, it means that our organisations are equally impermanent.  They are temporary patterns of organising.  Impermanent webs of relating that alter and shift moment by moment.  All that remains beyond the present moment we find ourselves in are the traces we co-create as we relate to and interact with others.  Traces whose persistence are determined by a plethora of factors, only a few of which are in our control.

Prolific writer, teacher and Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that our “original fear” of our own impermanence causes human beings to dwell in the past or worry about the future, distracting us from the possibilities of the present moment.  He suggests that when we look deeply at the seeds of this fear, instead of trying to hide from it, we begin to transform it.  A very gestalt-esque approach of changing through deepening our awareness of what is. Hanh encourages us to do this by reflecting on Five Remembrances.

1. We are of the nature of growing old.  We cannot escape growing old.
2. We are of the nature to have ill health.  We cannot escape ill health.
3. We are of the nature to die.  We cannot escape death.
4. All that is dear to us and everyone we love are of the nature to change.  There is no way to escape being separated from them.
5. We inherit the results of our acts of body, speech and mind.  Our actions are our continuation.  (Our human contrails.  Our traces)

I’m left wondering about a number of things.  What would happen if we took seriously the idea of incorporating the Five Remembrances into the collective awareness of our organisations?  What would happen if leaders and those in positions of power and influence went about their work knowing that the impact of their actions was fleeting, their durability and consequences unpredictable and variable?  (I’m aware that this could of course nurture ego/narcissism/cruelty as much as it could compassion/kindness/vulnerability dependent on individual and context.)  Would this deeper existential awareness help liberate us from the illusion of permanence, stability and all of the activities and actions we undertake to distract us from the impermanent nature of organisational life.  What resources and capacities would we liberate by gently letting go of our habits of dwelling in the past and attempting to anticipate and control the future? If we were to accept that all we can do is etch a slowly fading trace through the here-and-now interactions we have with one another, how would it effect the choices we make and where we focus our attention and energy?  My personal experience has been that, if I am not distracted by the resistance and fear that considering these questions can provoke, it is a wonderful way of bringing more meaning and possibility into the present moment.  A shift of attention that brings forth a greater personal resilience and determination to focus more of my energy and resources on interactions that really matter.

Meg Peppin was one of the people that I met on Leap Day 2016.  The poem she wrote whilst we wandered around the Alice in Wonderland exhibition at the British Library remains with me today – a persistent trace etched through an impermanent interaction.

You do not know if
what you leave behind
will weave into the world
and ignite beauty into our mind.


I created the image and the short poem at the top of this blog as part of the Leap Day invitation to represent our experience through art.

  1. A thoughtful and thought-provoking post.

    I think that pushing this idea forward about organizations can be so useful, especially for leaders. We so often have to motivate (or think we have to) by saying that we need to do this for the good of the company or for the team. But those things are abstractions–as you note. We are really doing them for *each other*–as a way of caring for each other. To me, that’s a heck of a lot more inspiring than doing something for “the company” or “the team”.

    Just an initial thought.

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