Why balance is the key to success - RSA

Why balance is the key to success


  • Creativity
  • Leadership
  • Philosophy

‘Mastery’, ‘autonomy’, and ‘connectedness’. These are ideas that some of you will have heard me talk about before.

I’m speaking about them again tonight at the Swindon spring festival. To help myself prepare I’ve written this post about why these ideas are central to success.

The things that drive us: mastery, autonomy, connectedness – or fatalism

An influential body of research in psychology, called self-determination theory, argues that human beings have three fundamental needs or drives: ‘mastery’, ‘autonomy’ and ‘connectedness’. This has an echo of the Freudian model of the personality divided into the ego (closest to mastery), the id (autonomy) and the super-ego (connectedness).

Another parallel is with our day to day motivations: a lot of the time we follow orders or advice, sometimes we simply do what we want, and at others what we think we should because of the kind of person we are and tribe we belong to.

Arguably, the key to a good life is to combine or balance these drives. But this isn’t easy, which is why there is also fourth way of being: fatalism in which we tolerate life being a lot less than we might hope.

Balance: what successful policies and organisations have in common

A few years ago, the futurist and organisational expert Charles Leadbeater FRSA looked at a range of exceptionally innovative organisations:

  • Pixar, the animation studio whose films have grossed $5.5 billion
  • FC Barcelona, the football super-club who have won 26 Spanish titles and 5 European Cups
  • Pratham, the social enterprise that has helped 35 million Indian children learn to read and write

He wanted to know whether they had anything is common. They did: an organisational form and culture which he described as a ‘creative community with a cause’. Such organisations are rare.

More often models of change based, respectively, on hierarchical expertise and control, on collaboration and shared purpose, and on individual autonomy and incentives continually clash against each other. It is estimated that 70% of organisational change strategies fail.

In 2016 the Centre for Public impact undertook a meta-study of policy success and failure around the world. They found that the best policies involved a combination of three elements:

  • first, policy design based on expert analysis and planning
  • second, legitimacy emerging from whether citizens understood and approved of the policy
  • third, implementation which, most of all, is about people are appropriately incentivised to act on the policy

A further analysis by the RSA suggested that the balance between these factors was a key element.

A recent comprehensive and largely positive evaluation of the Government’s Troubled Families Initiative identified as contributory elements the combination of the highly structure programme, a deep commitment to help messed up families change their lives and the incentives of an outcome-based payment by results system.

Similarly, an assessment of the successful London Challenge initiative that contributed to a transformation in inner London schools standards identified a benign combination of a strong data-led strategic framework, a determination to improve the outcomes of the most disadvantaged pupils and incentivising schools to be the best they could using a variety of new freedoms.

Sadly, these system-shifting policy successes are the exceptions to the rule.  

The ‘solidarity deficit’ caused by our economic model

The post-war decades in Western Europe and North America were highly successful, especially viewed from the standpoint of today. Nations, most of which had been ravaged by war, rebuilt their economies, increased living standards, expanded welfare provision and reduced inequality.

This was done by competent, reasonably confident and legitimate governments who sought explicitly to balance the dynamism of the market with the need for social solidarity and industrial partnership.

By contrast the creed of neoliberalism involves a deal between the hierarchical power of the state and the creative destruction of financial capitalism.

The promise was that if markets were allowed free reign and to spread to more and more parts of our lives the resulting economic growth would be sufficient to enable the negativities of capitalism to be somewhat ameliorated.

In this deal both the left version of solidarity, emphasising collective power and social justice, and the right version, emphasising nationhood, identity and tradition were seen as irrelevant barriers to progress.

The result has been the emergence of a ‘solidarity deficit’ in which these two versions of what has gone wrong fight it out in a discourse that is polarised and visceral. Meanwhile, a discredited and dysfunctional neoliberalism limps on without legitimacy and levels of social pessimism and anger continue to rise.      

We have to combine the three drives for success – or at least try

I hope you will have spotted the recurrent pattern in these very brief descriptions. Three forces, which we might call individualism, solidarity and hierarchy (as well as the fatalism that lurks in the background) are ubiquitous at all levels of human action. It isn’t easy to combine them but when we do things are more likely to go well. When we systematically fail even to try to do so things are likely to go very badly.

You may well object that my suggestion is based on combining very different types of ideas at varying levels of abstraction. This is true. I don’t want to argue that the pattern I suggest is true in some absolute sense, but that it may be useful as a way of understanding why things go well or badly.

There are, perhaps, three strengths to my approach.

First, it can enable us to connect the major forces shaping our society to our own motivations and experiences.

Second, it encourages us to see that there are strengths and weaknesses in each of these drives. It isn’t true, for example, that individualism is just about selfishness or equally that solidarity (which is the basis for tribalism) is all about social responsibility.

Third, because combining these motivations is inherently difficult and fragile it provides us with a simple way of recognising the inherent complexity of getting social things right and keeping them right.

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