Tools: Understanding wyrdness

“It’s like a Möbius loop: the inside is the outside is the inside, and whilst there is a boundary of a kind between them, there is also no boundary – the boundary between them blurs. Every time contains every other time; every point contains every other point, ‘the interweaving of everything, everywhere, everywhen, everyone’.”

One of the concepts we’ve found most useful in practical work is also one of the weirdest – literally so! The modern word ‘weird’ comes from ‘wyrd’, the old Nordic concept of fate: ‘weird’ is often thought of as an adjective, but strictly speaking it’s actually a noun, describing both an experience and a concept in its own right – the experiences we call ‘weird’, and the experience which is the wyrd. The big difference from the better-known Greek concept of fate is that whereas the Greek version implies that each person’s fate is fixed, predestined, the Nordic concept of fate states that we always have choice – but there’s also always a twist, leading to an experience which we don’t expect and often don’t want!

Nice idea, you might be thinking, perhaps, but what on earth has this got to do with business? The short answer is “a lot” – but we’ll admit that it’s not always easy to explain…

One aspect is that it provides a solid theoretical and experiential model for understanding Murphy’s Law and its corollary Inverse Murphy. Most of the time, in business, we might really want Reality Department to be like the Greek idea of fate – predictable, pre-ordained – but the reality is that it isn’t. By accepting that the unpredictability of Murphy’s Law is natural, the way things really are, we can save a lot of energy, and avoid a lot of frustration, by learning to work with the weirdness – and in the process change apparent problems into real opportunities.

The Greek idea of fate says that each person’s life is a single thread, vaguely interlinked with other lives by a cross-warp of chance; the Nordic concept of wyrd takes the same ‘thread of life’ metaphor, but instead describes a life not as a single thread in a flat fabric, but as a pathway of choices through a weirdly twisted knotwork. By failing to see the choices, or refusing to acknowledge that they are choices, we’ll find ourselves stuck in weird loops, time after time – and that’s certainly all too easy to see in many businesses. A lot of our work, in fact, consists of exposing these hidden choices, and making it possible to recognise them as choices. (It’s part of the reason for the ‘xio‘ name and our logo.) At xio, we use the term ‘systems synthesis‘ to describe a process of identifying hidden choices in the design of an existing system, and re-structuring system requirements to address them: but underlying that process of assessment and re-synthesis is an understanding of the true wyrdness of business realities.

The concept of wyrd also helps to explain the sheer panic that some people get into when facing even a minor change – or the extreme resistance some people present to change, which is probably much the same. At the precise moment of change, there’s what can only be described as a moment of insanity, when “I can’t” and “I can” are equally true. In fact, in that moment, everything, and nothing, is experienced as true. And that really is frightening, because for that brief moment the world is utterly unpredictable. The word ‘panic’ actually derives the Greek god Pan, whose name literally means ‘the everywhere’: in panic we’re trying to get away to anywhere but here, but everywhere is already here, so there’s nowhere to go, nowhere to run… that’s a feeling that’s definitely frightening, for almost everyone. Yet with awareness, it’s a feeling that need not last more than the briefest of moments: and if ‘everything, everywhere, everywhen’ coexists within that moment of panic, so does every possibility, every opportunity – so by learning to trust it rather than run from it, we can also learn to use it to advantage. And that’s certainly worthwhile for any business – especially one whose market is subject to constant change.

There’s a lot more about wyrd at the personal and interpersonal levels that has real implications for business, but that’ll do for now. You’ll find more information on the concept of wyrd and its practical use in two of my (Tom Graves’) books, parts of which are available on-line on the TomGraves web-site: Positively Wyrd (about wyrd at the individual level) and Wyrd Allies (about wyrd at the inter-personal level).

Related pages