April, 2016

Does your idea pass The Chilli Test

Front foot, Improvement No Comments

At the end of the Fifteenth Century the America’s were accidentally (re)discovered as a world of tremendous resource, including maize, potatoes and tobacco – products that have altered lives around the world. However, part of the story is of a two–way exchange between the old and new worlds with chickens, bananas and coffee going the other way too, for example.

And all this was in addition to the older trading routes into Asia and Africa. At the time Columbus was trying to find the western route to the orient, the price of black pepper from Asia was at an all-time high and the Ming vase trade was starting to inspire the wealthy and their local potters in Europe.

We think that we live in a connected, global world. I was in rural Malawi recently I was struck how many people who in many ways live life ‘off the grid’ have smart phones and how 3G is pretty ubiquitous – with WhatsApp replacing SMS. A recent National Geographic piece outlined how a little up the Rift Valley the Maasai are using this technology to enrich their lives, to meet a need.

Whilst the speed and scale of these changes is breathtaking, I think we have to go back 500 hundred years for the most remarkable story of ‘spread’ (not the sort you have on toast – but of knowledge).

One of the discoveries in central America was the humble chilli. These days we see spicy chilli’s everywhere: in European, African and Asian cooking – as well as in dishes from its home continent. I think it is probably the most ubiquitous of ingredients. It literally connects the world, cuisines and diets.

What is maybe surprising is it took only a few decades from discovery to global domination. At the time it was discovered many could not afford black pepper to liven up their dreary meals. Spicy hotness was a luxury. All of a sudden there was a new, cheap form of heat and flavour. This product spread the world. And it wasn’t just a spicy idea, but a ‘sticky’ one too – the product is still totally ingrained globally.

At the airport shop in Blantyre, Malawi there were only a few products for departing visitors to spend their remaining Kwacha on – from nuts to ‘Puffs’. One of the goods was Nali Chili Sauce: made from birds-eye chilli’s it is dubbed “Africa’s hottest sauce”.

So the chilli travelled the world. It dominates. It is possibly the most global product . Why?

It met a need. It offers the spice of life – cheaply.

So, does your big idea meet a need? Is your ‘change programme’ (or political view or belief system or business offer – or blog!) going to help others live and improve their lives? Is it affordable or does it have a burdensome cost? Will people want to ‘steal with pride’? Is there are a pull?

Or are you just pushing like mad?


Being Human in The Age of Extremes: Pausing to see the other side

Front foot, Improvement, Reflect No Comments

What makes us human?

  1. The ability to tell stories that make sense of our lives?
  2. The (potential to have a) conscience?
  3. The way we organise to do ‘projects’ from farming to hobbies to start-ups?
  4. But also ‘othering’ – that is the way we pretty naturally like to put all we see and meet into groups and make those good or bad, helpful or harmful, right or wrong, hero or villain. ‘The other’ is frequently given less positive characteristics, though sometimes (for example in the case of celebrities, especially national treasures), they have a sort of saintly halo.


This final characteristic or seeing putting something in a neat box and labelling it positive or negative extends to the black and white thinking we see in the anxious debates of our age, including:
• Refugees and migration
• Junior doctors strikes
• Nationalism in Europe and the US
• Trident
• The Union
• The various issues and groups who Donald Trump targets
• Trophy hunting
• Sugar tax
In all of these a circle tends to be put around those with a different view and then there is a judgement that makes them and their ideas wrong.  We see it from our Facebook pages to Front pages.

The news media and social media coverage of all these stories polarises views. Advocates of a particular viewpoint tend to sound as if the argument is very clearcut; they know the answer – and it is in their direction.

So if being human means we have a tendency to seek tribal certainties, what makes us civil is, I believe, stepping back from quick scapegoating…seeing the other side, disagreeing well, looking at what is fact from the story and considering the alternative stories.

However, I agree that in a way I risk ‘circling’ those who are certain and making them wrong! Yet, this desire to see the other side is more of a habit I practice than a belief; a discipline more than a personal value. I find it as easy to label and judge as anyone else, but reckon that learning to challenge those tendencies (as I look for information to challenge my assumptions and confirmation bias) is pretty important in my life and work.

And the more I think about the stuff that occupies the pages, screens and chat in my life the more nuanced the ideas seem. I realise ‘IDK’: I don’t know.

As I explore the gospel of doubt in the age of anxiety I discover I need to continually practice ‘holding my beliefs lightly’. Yet, I regularly need to form a view and make a judgement. I need to vote. I need to advise a client; to call time in a meeting. I need to act.

So what makes us human? Pausing. The potential of a momentary pause to consider; what else might be.


Further reading:
Meaning of Life is a project
National treasures
• Projection, scapegoating, splitting
WITOS and perspective managment assessment
• From other peoples skin (shoes, eyes)
Holding our beliefs lightly
• The Gospel of Doubt and questioning the ‘bricks’ on which our beliefs are based
The Age of Anxiety


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