Less anchors, more reefs

Less anchors, more reefs

February 5, 2021

Anchor organisations, anchor institutions, community anchors. I think I first heard the term ‘anchor institution’ in an NHS England workshop three years ago. “First developed in the US, the term anchor institutions refers to large, typically non-profit organisations like hospitals, local councils, and universities whose long-term sustainability is tied to the wellbeing of the populations they serve.” I remember at the time kind of agreeing with much of the general premise, but something bugged me, and it’s bugged me ever since.

What is an anchor?

Google anchor and (apart from a rather nice platform for podcasting) you’ll get something like “a device, normally made of metal, used to connect a vessel to the bed of a body of water to prevent the craft from drifting due to wind or current.” As a climber I’ve used a different type of anchor, one which allows the use of ropes for “ fall protection; primarily fall arrest and fall restraint” , or put simply to prevent me from hitting the ground if/when I fall. And I can tell you, because I’m not dead, they work. I’m sure fishermen and sailors would say the same when their boat didn’t drift into rocks while they slept. Marvellous things anchors.

But, notice the language, prevent, arrest, restrain. That’s what anchors are, they are there to provide safety, to maintain control. Nothing wrong with that, except when we are thinking, wanting, real social change.

Let me ask you a couple of questions

Is the height of the tallest redwood tree more or less than 1,200 feet?


What is your best guess about the height of the tallest redwood tree?

These were actual questions asked by Daniel Kahneman (he of thinking fast and slow, good book, recommend). He found that the average guess was 844 feet. Yet when he asked the first question of

Is the height of the tallest redwood tree more or less than 180 feet?

The average response to the second question was 244 feet.

This is called anchoring or anchoring bias. We do it all the time, and it’s used within sales all the time. Two t shirts. One is £15, the other is £18 but reduced from £35. The second t shirt is more expensive but we are anchored by the £35 initial price, and so now it seems cheap, and you are more likely to buy the more expensive t shirt.

And I think these two things, the language of control, mixed with the anchoring of this thinking has been what has bugged me about “Anchor Institutions and organisations” all this time. Language matters. By taking this approach we anchor ourselves in what is, rather than what could be. We define our boundaries and expectations by the institution rather than the people and communities, rather than what is possible.

So what if we thought less about anchors and more about reefs.

About 25% of the ocean’s fish depend on healthy coral reefs which provide shelter, food and places to breed. Coral reefs exist because of a symbiotic relationship between coral and algae. Within the ecosystem of a reef, the coral, algae, and sea creatures all naturally work towards a balanced, healthy system. The reef doesn’t prescribe what to do to the fish, it just creates the conditions. The reef doesn’t claim attribution, it doesn’t claim credit, it just creates the conditions. The reef creates the conditions for life, and life thrives. And even when the outside environment changes, reefs are resilient, together.

And yes of course, sometimes reefs grow from anchors, but only when we let go.