Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Pyramid. Or Pie Chart?

If you move through the Impact Investing world, you will find much reference to BoP.  This stands for "bottom of the pyramid".

Much political discourse in the US today is about our shrinking middle class and the hollowing out of the pyramid.

Why is there a pyramid?

I have been participating in an interesting thread on the Network for Sustainable Financial Markets listserv in which a participant has been sharing some research about what he calls complex systems thinking in a work setting. This research identified 7 levels of time horizon for forward thinking about the future impacts of our present choices. The research listed them from top to bottom, with the longest impact horizon representing the most complex systems thinking, as follows

Level 7   Beyond 20 Years
Level 6   10 to 20 Years
Level 5   5 to 10 Years
Level 4   2 to 5 Years
Level 3   1 to 2 Years
Level 2   3 months to 1 Year
Level 1   Up to 3 months

When I looked at this, I saw the levels more as Zones of Caring than the ranking implied in a vertical list, and spread them out horizontally, so that they came to look like a business organizational chart, with the different zones of caring being the specialized domains of specialized contributors to the success of the whole, and the job of leadership to balance and integrate contributions from the different domains.

Another listserv participant shared this story. He looked at the charts, top down, as originally presented. When his wife looked at them, she pivoted them to horizontal, as I had done. When his kids looked at them, they spun them around in a circle!

This inspired us to experiment with organizing the level/zones of thinking/caring about future impacts as a pie chart. See below.

I think this way of looking provides some interesting insights.

  1. It shows that each domain of caring about future impacts, each "slice of the pie" is important. If any are missing, the pie is not complete. If the pie is our prosperity, and any of the slices our missing, our prosperity will be incomplete: unstable and unsustainable.
  2. It also shows that the size of each "slice" comes at the expense of all the other slices. Time, effort and expertise invested in one domain of caring about future impacts comes at the expense of not caring, or caring less, about one or more other domains of future impact. What is the right balance? Who decides? Or, rather, how do we decide?
  3. It shows that all the domains come together at a point in the center. Each domain touches every other domain, even if just at the tip.  The integrity of the "pie" depends on all the "slices" fitting together so that the pie comes together, and does not fall apart.
  4. It shows that some domains abut each other, so they come together, or not, along the entire length of a seam, and not just at one single point in the center.  Is it significant that the very longest horizon "slice" abuts the very shortest slice? Do our longest term cares have to be woven in with our most immediate choices and actions, and vice-versa, in order for the "pie" of our prosperity to come together, and stay together? Is this the key to real, sustainable, prosperity?
The pyramid is one visual metaphor for the socio-economic relationships between people. The pie chart, above, is another. 

Which is better?

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