When I made a visit to East Berlin a few years before the wall came down, my teenage eyes wondered about shopping and customer service.

To visit a bookstore near Alexanderplatz I had to stand in line. There were a handful of shopping baskets available, and they were mandatory, so you stood in line until someone left the shop and return the basket. I stood there for a while, and then with a basket could browse the shelves. There were less than ten people in the shop. While many more stood outside waiting.

Visiting a cafe with two others, the tables were all the same size, only the number of chairs at each table differed. We were three. A table with two chairs was free. Next to it was a man on his own, I remember he wore a leather jacket sipping coffee and reading a paper, at a table with three chairs. We asked if we could have a chair, and pulled it up to our table. “Na klar”, he said. We looked at the menu. No service came. We waited. No service came. I went up to the waitress and asked if she could take our order. No, she said, “you’re with three people on a table for two so you’re not getting served.” I was stunned. I tried logic, “look the tables are all the same size!”, but failed. In the end we returned a chair to the table with the guy in the leather jacket and asked him to trade tables. He picked up his coffee and newspaper (it was the 80’s remember), and sat at our original table, while we moved to his. Within seconds the waitress was with us to take our lunch orders.

For years I shared these anecdotes of how odd it all was during that visit to East Germany.

Fast forward 33 years, to our pandemic times.

In our neighbhourhood most shops have introduced a system of mandatory baskets. They use it to cap the number of clients in the store to the maximum they can accomodate within the 1.5m distancing guidelines. Outside others wait their turn.

From next week cafes and restaurants can open again, and I see and read how those here in town are arranging same sized tables out on the market square, varying the number of chairs to make it all work, and setting tables inside for specific numbers of people to stay within max allowed capacity.

After 33 years I need to retire my anecdotes from 1980’s East Berlin it seems. It wasn’t odd, it was avant garde!

East Berlin 1987
Walking down Friedrichstrasse in East Berlin, in 1987

Mooi woord van Karin Spaink, de nippertjeseconomie. Hier wat afschaven, daar een bochtje afsnijden, voorraden minimaliseren en alles just-in-time. Op het nippertje gaat alles goed. Meestal.

In complexiteitsdenken betekent een ver doorgevoerde efficiëntie wel het afbreken van veerkracht en wendbaarheid. Dat is niet zo erg voor heel voorspelbare zaken (als A dan altijd B), maar wel als complexe vragen zich aandienen. Ik spreek dan vaak over de broosheid van systemen. Broos omdat ze geoptimaliseerd zijn voor een hele smalle groep situaties, een heel specifieke niche. Broos omdat ze het niet meer aan kunnen, of erger nog, volledig in de weg zitten zodra er iets buiten dat spectrum gebeurt. Dan kieper je ineens van voorspelbaarheid in de chaos: heb je net in een paar jaar tijd de IC bedden in Nederland met zo’n duizend verlaagd (in 2017 hadden we er nog zo’n 2100, dit voorjaar net over de 1000) want dat is efficiënter, gebeurt er iets wat meer van je verlangt en wordt de zorg zo overbelast dat alleen drastische maatregelen het nog enigszins kunnen inperken.

Die chaos ontstaat uiteindelijk niet door de zich aandienende verandering, maar juist door de starre efficiëntie van je eigen structuren en systemen. Was je bij voorbaat al in het complexe domein gebleven, het domein van voortdurend waarnemen, bewustzijn van samenhangen en wederzijdse invloeden, en bovenal voortdurend situationeel schakelen, was ‘rolling with the punches‘ waarschijnlijk makkelijker geweest tot nu toe. Dat vergt wel op voorhand wat bewegingsruimte, dingen op reserve, niet alles op 1 paard zetten, maar op meerdere en zelfs ook tegenstrijdige paarden tegelijkertijd wedden.

Omdat je op die manier meer leert over de aard van de vraagstukken die je op wilt lossen, en een verscheidenheid aan oplossingen ontdekt in plaats er op voorhand eentje kiest en in beton giet. Energie overhouden om ineens van koers te kunnen wisselen, of een sprintje extra te kunnen trekken. Dingen achter de hand houden. Maar dat is, tot het nodig is, niet efficiënt op de kortere termijn.

Ik had ooit een manager die het verschil niet zag tussen efficiënt en effectief. Dat is het begin van broosheid. Want het verbeteren van de opbrengstenkant heeft altijd meer ruimte in zich dan wat is te winnen met het beperken van de kostenkant, want die heeft een harde ondergrens die meestal vrij dichtbij ligt. Een van die opbrengsten is handelingsruimte, en juist die wordt in de nippertjeseconomie vaak drastisch beperkt.

Het maakt een veelheid van onze systemen broos, doordat we de onderlinge afhankelijkheden tussen allerlei zaken uit zicht poetsen en negeren, om op ons specifieke stukje van een vraagstuk efficiënter te kunnen zijn. Omdat ze geoptimaliseerd zijn voor druk uit een bepaalde richting maar niet uit een andere. Zoals een been wel goed kan tegen belasting van bovenaf, maar niet goed tegen torsie en draaien. Broos omdat we in een nippertjeseconomie leven. Mooi woord.

Conspiracy theorists, or those with fringe opinions all are ‘snowflakes’ at heart, judging by the consistent accusations of being censored they make. You are not being censored, you merely don’t have your expectations met. The expectation that platforms won’t care what you publish, as they will care if it hurts their bottom line in some form. The expectation that your opinions will be amplified in the outrage machine. You are not being censored. You may be denied the use of someone else’s channel and infrastructure, you may be told you’re not welcome on someone else’s turf. You can still say whatever you want, and put it online on your own dime. You can’t demand anyone else paying attention though, or have attention automagically arranged for you in the walled garden of your choosing.

It reminds me of a group of protesters in my hometown some years ago. For about two weeks they were on the front page of the local paper almost daily, with photos and all. Towards the end one of them tweeted “we’re not being heard”, and I answered “you’re heard plenty, it just doesn’t automatically mean people agree and do as you wish”. I’m probably still blocked. Which ironically is how they confirmed my point precisely. They heard me, but didn’t agree, so I got ‘censored’.

Lack of amplification and attenuation are not censorship.

A public sector client announced last week that working from home will be their default until September 1st for certain, and maybe until January 1st. I can imagine why, there is no real way to house their 1600 staff under distancing guidelines, and the staff restaurant (that usually caters to some 1200 people in 90 minutes each day) has no real way of accomodating people for lunch in meaningful numbers. Three similar organisations in a different part of the country announced they would keep working from home until January.

I wonder how this may shift modes of working over time, now that centralised working is replaced by distributed working. When will public sector organisations realise they now have eyes and ears on the ground everywhere in their area, and put that to good use? In our experience not ‘going outside’ for real stories and feedback from directly involved people often reduces the quality of choices and decisions made, as observations get replaced by assumptions. This is true for any type of larger organisation I think, but now we all of a sudden have turned them into a distributed network.

If you’re in a larger organisation working from home, do you have a notion of where all your people are, and is that geographical spread a potential instrument in your work?

May 4th is Remembrance Day in the Netherlands. Shortly before 8 the national ceremony at Dam Square in Amsterdam is usually attended by thousands, filling the square. The entire population observes 2 minutes of silence at 20:00hrs.

But this 75th Remembrance Day is not just silent for 2 minutes, but was eerily silent throughout. An empty Dam Square with just 6 people attending (the King and Queen, the PM, Amsterdam’s Mayor, a representative of the armed forces, and a member of the May 4th /5th national committee). Standing 1.5 meters apart.

Where each community in the country usually has their own local ceremony, none took place this year. The King gave a speech on that empty Dam Square, where normally he doesn’t, talking about how we are currently voluntary relinquishing some of our freedoms, while remembering when that freedom was taken by force and we fought to get it back. This is the weirdest Remembrance Day in memory.



In deviation from the usual flag protocol for this day, which calls for flags at half mast from 18:00 until sunset, today the protocol asked for flags at half mast from dawn. There were more flags flying than usual in our part of town.