Cultivating Awareness

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“The key is how will you become aware?” -Otto Scharmer via Theory U: Learning from the Future as it Emerges

Awareness is a multi-faceted word or term. It can be defined as “knowledge or perception of a situation or fact” or “concern about and well-informed interest in a particular situation or development.” However, there are a variety of awareness’ as well, from self-awareness to social awareness, all of which are incredibly important. There is also the issue of raising or creating awareness, of creating a state of knowing, which is especially imperative in our current context and for the speed of which our teams, organizations, systems, society and world continue to shift and change.

While we understand the importance of deepening our individual, organizational and collective awareness, especially as leaders, we still hear things like “you just don’t know what you don’t know?” Which in many respects is very true and difficult. But in other ways, it can often feel as if some leaders are choosing the safety of not knowing, of the “you just don’t know what you don’t know,” mantra as a way of avoiding awareness, of utilizing ambiguity and uncertainty as a shield to ward off the heavy lift of what knowing and awareness can ultimately require of our leadership and our organizations.

But how do we become aware? What does it require of us to become aware?

As Francisco Varela and Otto Scharmer add, “Can this core process be cultivated as an ability?” And by core process, this idea of making awareness an ability. 

Of which Varela and Scharmer share are what Varela refers to as the “three gestures of becoming aware: suspension, redirection, and letting-go.” What Varela refers to as the core process,” which “is the basic ability through which each individual can actually access his or her experience.” A space where awareness is accessed and cultivated.

Varela shares in The Three Gestures of Becoming Aware that this cycle of suspension, of redirection and of letting-go reside at the “at the very core of what life is all about, as life is constantly in this process of reaccomodation.” However, what Varela and Scharmer want or look to add to this cyclical life process is the aim of “taking the core of this life and making it more explicit so that you can cultivate it and explore it in a more disciplined way.” To turn it into a disciplined process and cycle of creating awareness.

Let’s take a deeper look at the parts of this core cycle, of the three gestures of awareness, as they can be seen as growing increasingly important to our current context and in moving forward through greater levels of uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity:

  • SuspendingAs Scharmer would say, is “seeing with new eyes.” As he adds in Theory U is being able to “suspend judgments in order to see the objective reality” of what is being faced. It becomes about suspending habitual thought and judgment, which Depraz and Varela share in The Three Gestures of Awareness as a “basic precondition for any possibility of change…” Which is and can be incredibly difficult for leaders in a world that has accelerated the pace of change, a world that demands continuous outcomes, while multi-tasking a multitude of new and growing initiatives. In many ways, we have to create spaces for leaders where the very idea of suspension can be facilitated and accepted. As introspection is often not a space that leaders have time to become familiar with, especially in today’s change world. And for that reason, that lack of familiarity can breed contempt towards or uncomfortableness with the process of suspension and the feeling of slowing down that it may invoke.
  • Redirecting – As Varela and Scharmer add, “redirection is a gesture.” It is within that gesture that, “suspension creates a space, the new comes up, and then you can redirect.” As Scharmer adds in Theory U, redirection is where you can “let go of the old and start to connect with higher order intentions.” As Scharmer puts forth regarding redirection is that it “is about redirecting your attention from the exterior to the interior by turning the attention toward the source of the mental process…” As Varela and Scharmer share, we are paying attention in this gesture to what is emerging, to the new, and we are suspending judgment, and we redirecting that attention that is usually going outward toward the new, to that object, and turning it inward. It is here that Scharmer contributes from Theory U that “you help them redirect their attention from the object tot he process in order to help them view the system from a perspective that allows them to see how their own actions contribute to the problem at hand. It is at that point when people begin to see how they collectively create a pattern that at first seemed to be caused by purely exterior forces.” Without the suspension gesture, of becoming comfortable in that space of introspection, redirection does not occur. Which is why all 3 gestures of this core cycle are important and interconnected and ongoing.
  • Letting-GoIt is at the point of letting go that Scharmer adds that by “changing the quality of our attention by letting-go of old identities and intentions and allowing something new to come in, some emerging future identity and purpose.” As Varela and Scharmer put forth, “but the letting-go here is crucial, because it’s only when you don’t hold on to the redirection that you can again go back to suspension.” It is in letting go that Depraz and Varela invoke that idea of “receptivity to the experience.” It is in this cycle that we become more open to awareness and what is emerging.

All three of these gestures are part of an ongoing core cycle of becoming aware, and as Depraz and Varela share in The Gesture of Awareness, it becomes about the two inseparable aspects of abandoning the habitual and being able to become receptive. It is in these gestures; suspension, redirection, and letting go that Depraz and Varela describe that we are working with “two reversals of the most habitual cognitive functioning: a turning of the direction of attention from exterior to interior, and; a change in the quality of attention, which passes from the looking-for to the letting-come.”

Or as Scharmer shares, “each one of these gestures needs to cultivated.” It is in these gestures we begin to better cultivate awareness.

From Complicated To Complex

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“Complicated systems are highly predictable; complex systems are the complete opposite. Understanding the distinction between the two is necessary for organizations because, to date, they have mostly viewed the world as complicated and, therefore, something they can control. What is increasingly evident is that the world is, in fact, complex and unpredictable and we must accept and adapt to this to succeed.” -via Shoremount

Or as Uhl-Bien, Marion and McKelvey share, “We are transitioning from an industrial paradigm based on Newtonian principles of certainty to a new paradigm based on knowledge creation and uncertainty.” So the question then becomes, especially in the midst of the acceleration and the expansive emergence of deep levels of uncertainty across all levels of society, have today’s organizational and institutional leaders come to grips with understanding this deeply important shift?

For, what we have seen over recent times is the increasing rise of the dilemma, a dropping off of technical problems towards more and more adaptive challenges across our organizational and institutional ecosystems. Especially as these systems become much more interdependent and interconnected, both internally and externally.

A move from the complicated to the complex…

As this complexity increases within our systems, often it is often accompanied by more and more volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA). Often what we see in these dynamic environments, is a dynamic emergence and increase of VUCAness across these systems, especially when ideas and platitudes of certainty begin to wane and clarity and coherence are seen to be lacking.

As Jan Bartscht shares in 21st Century Leadership and the Way of the Successfully System, “A world made up of many interconnected, and interdependent, complex adaptive systems is a complex, uncertain and volatile world. Complexity, uncertainty and volatility are necessary consequences of a world dominated by complex, adaptive systems.” A world where the complicated has given over to the complex, a world where certainty has been taken over by uncertainty, a world where the unknowns have begun to outweigh the knowns. As the article What is the Difference Between a Complex and a Complicated System? shares, “For 300 years, the normalized worldview has seen the universe through the complicated lens. Rooted in the work of Newton and Descartes, this is the mindset of rational thought and deterministic relationships. But the world is not complicated; it is complex. Moreover, the pace of technological change and proliferation of information that we now experience is increasing the complexity of our global environment at a rate unique to human history.”

For it is not just clarity and coherence that seem to be lacking in the midst of the current context of heightened complexity, it’s realizing that the same thinking, the same processes, and the same behaviors and actions that led to viable solutions for the technical problems we previously faced, will be no match for the rash of adaptive challenges and dilemmas that we are beginning to encounter.

In many ways, today’s leaders will have to move from deftly providing solutions and certainty, to dealing with dilemmas that have no “right” answer, while managing the plethora of tensions that accompany those challenges. Which necessitates acclimating quickly to a new way of thinking and leading, toward a deep mindset shift that might possibly be at odds with the current organizational and institutional thinking of the time. As Rick Nason shares in the MITSMR article The Critical Difference Between Complex and Complicated, “When facing a problem, managers tend to automatically default to complicated thinking. Instead, they should be consciously managing complexity.” Which is and will be a difficult mindshift for today’s organizational and institutional leaders to undertake, especially as many have made their mark dealing in solutions and certainty. This will not only require high levels of individual and organizational learning, it will also necessitate the ability unlearn and relearn anew from both.

It is in realizing that complexity also requires a sense of adaptability, of being able to move away from the polarity of (either/or) thinking, to engage in (and) thinking. To not only seeing the system that you are working in, but being able to effectively manage the tension between the polarities and growing number of dilemmas and adaptive challenges that are erupting across our societal systems, without snapping back into the comfort of solutionitis and (either/or) thinking.

However, before this kind of thinking and change can occur, we have to become more familiar with our systems and the traits of ‘complicated’ vs a ‘complex’ system or paradigms. As seen below, Bartscht provides from 21st Century Leadership and the Way of the Successfully System a quick glance to the characteristics of  ‘complicated’ (Traditional Newtonian) and ‘complex’ (Emerging modern ‘complex systems’) paradigms:

Traditional Newtonian Paradigm 

  • Systems are complicated
  • Causation is linear, certain and predictable
  • Situations are stable equilibrium
  • Problems are understood and solved using reductionism
  • Performance is ensured by optimizing predictable linear processes
  • Communication and control flows through formal hierarchies

Emerging Modern ‘Complex Systems’ Paradigm

  • Systems are complex
  • Causation is non-linear, uncertain and unpredictable
  • Situations are volatile, dynamic and emergent
  • Problems are understood and dissolved by a ‘systems approach’
  • Performance is ensured by organizing harmonious alignment in non-linear interdependent feedback loops
  • Communication and control flow across large, interconnected networks

When leaders are able to recognize and determine whether they are working in a ‘complicated’ or a ‘complex’ system or paradigm, allows them to shift their mindset, to effectively determine if they’re working at solutions for technical problems, or working toward effectively managing dilemmas and adaptive challenges being faced by the organization or institution. Seeing this shift that will be incredibly important to today’s modern leaders, as recognizing the environment that they are working is vital to future relevance. Especially for a world that is changing in some very dynamic ways that are having great effect on our organizational and institutional systems. It is these deep changes and the uncertainty and complexity that accompanies them that is quickly challenging and unraveling the assumptions for which leaders have previously based their approach to leadership. As the thinking of  Plowman and Duchon is shared in Bartscht’s 21st Century Leadership and the Way of the Successfully System, “Conventional notions of management and leadership are based on an assumption of certainty: the world is knowable, systems are predictable, and effective leaders can rely on formulaic approaches to planning, control, and organizational problems.”

Assumptions of certainty that no longer exist…

It is in this realization, we see that conventional, Newtonian ways of thinking and leading, in many ways, are struggling to hold on to a sense of relevance and effectiveness as the complicated has become the complex. However, it is also in realizing that this is not a mindshift that is readily accepted or easily embraced. Leaders are often pulled kicking and screaming into these uncertain and complex environments believing that certainty and predictability will ultimately prevail, even has command and control strategies and hierarchical structures dissipate into irrelevance and ineffectiveness.

As Bartscht brings forth from Uhl-Bien, Marion and McKelvey, “The fundamental contradiction between the belief in a certain world and the reality of an uncertain world lies at the heart of the modern day leadership crisis.” And yet, even in the midst of the current context and crisis, remains a leadership crisis that fights vehemently, even in the face of its own relevance, against its deconstruction. For, in the same way our mind thrives on certainty, order and predictability, so do much of our approaches to leadership.

Ultimately, we will need to engage new and non-obvious thinking and strategies for building new understandings toward this exponentially changing world and the complexity that is emerging from it. As Bartscht shares from Gleick, Uhl-Bien, Marion and McKelvey, “The Newtonian paradigm cannot make-sense of complexity, chaos and volatility, the two paradigms are fundamentally incompatible.”

In many ways we exist at a crossroads, where something must eventually give…

A junction where the complicated and complex have come face to face, a crossroads where they come head to head in a world that is in the midst of its own massive upheaval that is spilling out in broad swaths of uncertainty that are spilling out across our societal, organizational, and institutional ecosystems. Understanding this dynamic will be vital for the future of leadership and building more effective systems across our organizations and institutions. As well as realizing how our organizations and institutions have truly become complex adaptive systems, and what has worked before, what has worked effectively in the past, may very well will not work in the future.

“For organizations to succeed in the 21st century, they will need the lens of complexity to embrace unpredictability: they must stop trying to build engines and start playing chess.” -via Shoremount

Paradigm Shifts: Seeing Systems Leverage Points

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“Let’s face it, the universe is messy. It is nonlinear, turbulent, and chaotic. It is dynamic. It spends its time in transient behavior on its way to somewhere else, not in mathematically neat equilibria. It self-organizes and evolves. it creates diversity, not uniformity. That’s what makes the world interesting, that’s what makes it beautiful, and that’s what makes it work.” -Donella Meadows Thinking in Systems: A Primer

No matter how hard we try to put our systems in a neat and tidy box, they always seem to spill out. Like a bad dam on a downhill stream, the water will find a new path, a new way around. Often in ways that we can’t predict or plan for, which we are learning firsthand and constantly in our current context. As Donella Meadows shares above, “the universe is messy, it is nonlinear, turbulent, and chaotic.” So, no matter how many constraints, controls, or parameters we put upon those systems to keep them neat and orderly, their complexity and nonlinear behaviors have a tendency to continually ooze out, surprising us, while upending our assurances, assumptions and predictions. Or as Donella Meadows reminds us, “We can’t impose our will on a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.”

The Stanford Social Innovation Review adds in their article Changing Systems? Welcome to the Slow Movement that, “System work is not about solutions; it’s about discovering and steering local pathways for change at a pace appropriate for our ability to learn and for what local communities can enact and absorb.” Much like that ineffective dam trying stop the flow of the downhill stream, we have to approach our systems with a new lens, reframing towards new perspectives. Moving from a sense of control, to one of flows. Seeing our systems as fluid and dynamic, rather than stagnant and stationary. We have to move our lens from the dam, and a focus on control, too seeing beyond the flow, and determining how to create the conditions to guide that flow. Especially under the circumstances and context that we currently find ourselves amidst and the possible paradigm shifts we face. The organizations that will remain relevant in moving forward are shifting their mindset to be more adaptive and agile, to moving from a sense of control to supporting flows. For which Margaret Wheatley adds, “The stream has an impressive ability to adapt, to change the configurations, to let the power shift, to create new structures.” 

The stream will find a way…

Or as Wheatley puts forth, “Water answers to gravity, to downhill, to the call of the ocean. The forms change, but the mission remains clear. Streams have more than one response…” Which means that today’s systems leaders need to determine how they are going to guide that stream? How they are going to determine the leverage points to guide and improve our systems, even in the midst of the complexity and chaos that we are currently facing? As Meadows shares, “A small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.” Which means that we have to become much more aware of what shifts, of what leverage points, can best guide our systems in moving forward, as we determine the possible futures we are determining to create.

Donella Meadows refers to these as “leverage points” or places to intervene in a complex system. Meadows, in her article Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System shares twelve places to intervene in a system, which she provides in increasing order of effectiveness:

12. Constants, parameters, numbers.

11. The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows.

10. The structure of material stocks and flows.

9. The lengths of delays, relative to the rate of system change.

8. The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against.

7. The gain around driving positive feedback loops.

6. The structure of information flows.

5. The rules of the system.

4. The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure.

3. The goals of the system.

2. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system – its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters – arises.

1. The power to transcend paradigms.

In education, as we begin to look deeper into our systems, especially as we consider such frameworks as continuous improvement, it behooves us to take a deeper view of at least a few of these “leverage points” and how they might be used not only for systems improvement, but in helping our systems become more agile and adaptable to a world that is shifting in some rather dynamic and exponential ways. Let’s review a few and begin to work our way up the “leverage” scale…

6. The Structure of Information Flows: we live in a time where networks are not only beneficial for information flow, they are beneficial for idea flows, and connecting our individuals and organizations both internally and externally. Which brings us into the work of Douglas Engelbart and the ABC model for continuous improvement through networks, of: Level A which “represents the knowledge acquired by front-line workers as they engage in their practice”; Level B which is when “learning occurs across individuals within a workplace”; and Level C which is when learning occurs “across institutions.” Unfortunately, most improvement models work only on the  A and B dimension level and struggle to move into the C level. For which Alex Pentland adds from his book Social Physics, “It seems that the key to harvesting ideas that lead to great decisions is to learn from the successes and failures of others and to make sure that the opportunities for this sort of social learning are sufficiently diverse.”

5. The Rules of the System: as Meadows shares, “As we try to imagine restructured rules and what our behavior would be under them, we come to understand the power of rules. They are high leverage points. Power over the rules is real power.” Which is why that the idea of transformation is much easier than the real reckoning of what it takes to bring about any type of authentic transformation. Which gets to the overcoming of the formidable statement of “this is how we do things here.” It is also part of why the transformation rhetoric that occurred at the beginning of the pandemic has slowly arc’d back slowly over time towards more status quo thinking.

4. The Power to Add, Change, Evolve, or Self-Organize System Structure: as Meadows shares, “The ability to self-organize is the strongest form of system resilience. A system that can evolve can survive almost any change, by changing itself.” All of which are an incredible heavy lift and struggle for educational institutions that have relied less on nonlinearity, adaptability, agility, and emergence, and much more on linearity, predictability, and certainty for the last hundred years. While this is a high-leverage point for system resilience, it is high-effort lift and will remain in the high-effort quadrant for some time as education looks to transform itself in the coming years.

3. The Goals of the System: as Meadows shares, “Even people within systems don’t often recognize what whole-system goal they are serving.” And unfortunately, too often in education we believe that the moral purpose of education is enough for everyone to be clear about the systems goals that are determined to drive the organization forward, and it is not enough. Goals need to be articulated, they need to have meaning, they need to be continuously repeated, and they need to be worth standing up for, if they are to create any type of “leverage point” for the system.

2. The Mindset or Paradigm Out of Which the System – its Goals, Structure, Rules, Delays, Parameters – Arises: as Meadows puts forth, “Paradigms are the the sources of systems. From them, from shared social agreements about the nature of reality, comes systems goals and information flows, feedbacks, stocks, flows, and everything else about systems.” Meadows also shares that “paradigms are harder to change than anything else about a system.” Which we are currently experiencing. A crisis does not necessarily equate into a paradigm shift, and the longer the arc of that crisis, the harder it becomes over time to make any type of consequential shift. What we often fail to realize is the deep resiliency of individual and organizational status quo and how deeply it is truly entrenched in most systems.

1. The Power to Transcend Paradigms: Meadows puts forth that, “There is yet one leverage point that is even higher than changing a paradigm. That is to keep oneself unattached in the arena of paradigms, to stay flexible, to realize that NO paradigm is true, that everyone, including the one that shapes your own worldview, is a tremendously limited understanding of an immense and amazing universe that is far beyond human comprehension.” Too often, and not just in education, we find ourselves tied to one paradigm, one framework, be that individually or organizationally. We are systems thinkers. We are design thinkers. We find ourselves in “vs” mindsets over “and” thinking. We tend to isolate rather than braid our thinking to begin to take us beyond the current thinking towards better strategies, concepts, frameworks, and even paradigms. Today’s individuals and organizations need to be in a constant reflective stance, rethinking and reframing, with an openness and willingness to disrupt current mindsets when new thinking creates the circumstances for and need to allow new thinking to invade those cognitive spaces. We can no longer afford to entrench our thinking in the known.

As educators look to improve systems and systems thinking in moving forward, awareness of Donella Meadows “leverage points” provides a starting point to determine how to begin reframing from a sense of trying to control our systems, to one that brings us towards being more open to guiding our systems forward in much more relevant and even transformative manner. It is in this stance, that emergence opens up new possibilities, and ultimately shifts our paradigms.

“The scarcest resource is not oil, metals, clean air, capital, labour, or technology. It is our willingness to listen to each other and learn from each other and to seek the truth rather than see to be right.” -Donella Meadows

Pulling Threads: Unraveling Foundations

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“The faster the car, the further the headlights must go.” -Gaston Berger

It is difficult to put into words the amount of pain, suffering, disruption and damage this pandemic has wreaked across society. It cannot be understated, ignored or denied. And yet, on other fronts, it has acted as catalyst for rapid, sweeping change. Riding alongside this pandemic has been plethora of panruption. We’ve watched business transformed from mortar to mobile. Education has moved from the schoolhouse to the homestead. Every facet of society has experienced or continues to experience some form of change or transformation, often in an ultra-accelerated manner. And for that reason…

Adaptability, agility and learnability through volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity under continuously shifting context and circumstances has become our current environment under which we are required to survive and thrive. 

It is the environment we planned for, but never truly expected to experience or ever arrive. But no matter, as it has become our current context, the one we currently reside within, both as individuals and as organizations. And for that reason, we are learning that our legacy mannerisms are limiting factors that tend to pigeon hole us and our organizations in past practices that have or are currently losing any semblance of relevance for the future. We can no longer define ourselves by where we’ve been or what we’ve achieved previously, as it has become imperative that we are able to adapt and reinvent our systems continuously in moving forward. It is the loop that we find ourselves and our organizations in. And we are finding it to be an incredibly heavy lift.

It is a learning challenge. 

It is an adaptive challenge.

And it is an everyone challenge…

If we are going to engage the action and language of real transformation.

And it will require pulling threads, no longer just out of curiosity, but now out of necessity and need. Everywhere we look there are threads hanging, waiting to be pulled. But we know, once those threads are pulled, there is no going back once the unraveling begins. And that can be deeply unsettling, not only in the unknowns that lie behind those hanging threads, but the paradigm shifts that accompany them.

Pulling threads takes us into and opens up spaces that we’ve tended to avoid or even failed to acknowledge. We can no longer choose to neatly cut off these threads and move on. We have to prepare ourselves for the unraveling. We have to prepare ourselves and our organizations for what these unravelings will provoke, the reflection they will require, the learning they will necessitate, and the action that they will eventually initiate.

And at an even deeper level, it is also in realizing that the pulling of these threads will unravel the mental models and maps that we’ve all built up as individuals and as organizations.

Pulling threads also opens up new possibilities and moves us towards a variety of emerging futures, which will necessitate much more exploring of new learnings, new strategies and new thinking. For, if we are going to get to a point of truly doing different, we will have to learn to think different.

Here are just a few concepts, frameworks, tools and strategies to explore and threads to begin to pull…

  • Complex Adaptive Systems
  • Strategic Foresight
  • Sensemaking
  • Scenarios and Scenario Planning
  • Experiential Futures
  • Horizon or Environmental Scanning 
  • Strategic and/or Future Narratives
  • Emergence / Emergent Complexity
  • Identifying and Mapping Change Drivers
  • Axes of Uncertainty
  • Trend Analysis
  • Backcasting
  • Networks
  • Forecasting

We live in a time where no one concept, framework, tool or strategy will be enough to move us forward into these emerging futures effectively. Rather, it will require the braiding of these in ways that best supports individual and current circumstances and the context in which they reside. It will necessitate moving past either/or to and thinking, as well as understanding that we have to create broad agency within each individual as well as an anticipatory stance towards creating and moving from what we see as plausible to much more possible futures.

“It is important that the future be seen as a number of possible alternatives. Futures, not future.” -Eleonara Masini

 

 

A Time Of Awareness And Emergence

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“The creativity and adaptability of life expresses itself through the spontaneous emergence of novelty at critical points of instability. Every human organization contains both designed and emergent structures. The challenge is to find the right balance between the creativity of emergence and the stability of design.” -Fritjof Capra

Awareness in a world of accelerated and exponential change has not only become a necessity, it is a defining leadership skillset in the midst of today’s complex and often chaotic environments. For, today’s leaders must be much more cognizant of, and detecting of the often faint signals of innovative opportunities flickering out on the organizational horizons. Awareness of what is emerging, as well as what is preparing to emerge, and the impact of that emergence, often serves as a slim differentiator between ongoing relevance or future obsolescence.

Awareness of these emerging opportunities remind us that we are continuously introducing new and often novel elements into our complex systems, requiring greater creativity and willingness to lean more comfortably into growing levels of ambiguity and uncertainty. Which in turn assists us in gaining new perspectives and realizations that both as individuals and organizations, the path forward is growing less and less static, less and less linear, less and less certain, and less and less known. Which will ultimately require new behaviors, new skillsets, new capacities, and new thinking at all levels of the organizational ecosystem if we are to deal more effectively with the growing complexity that is arising from the continuous and often volatile change that it provokes. As Otto Scharmer shares, “The business that leaders are in today, is the business of transforming awareness… There is deep longing for more meaning, for connections.”

Which becomes especially salient in the midst of today’s modern complex systems where the capacity for emergence is ever present. Being proactive towards and having greater awareness of the signals arising amidst the growing complexity and chaos allows leaders and the organization to create the cognitive space to step back, reflect, and determine the innovative opportunities that are or may be emerging, both internally and externally. Which is vitally important as leaders and organizations become more and more reactive to the growing dilemmas and adaptive challenges that are quickly filling those spaces.

As emergence occurs, awareness allows for our systems to respond and even transform in new and novel ways, creating new thinking and even a new level of consciousness to arise, one that did not exist previously, allowing for adaptation across the organization. As Peggy Holman shares, “In social systems, emergence can move us toward possibilities that serve enduring needs, intentions, and values. Forms can change, conserving essential truths while bringing forth innovations that weren’t possible before.” For which she adds, “Emergence is a process, continual and never-ending. It emphasizes interactions as much as it does the people or elements interacting. Emergence involves also paying attention to what is happening…”

Building our awareness muscle allows us to gain a better vantage point towards determining what is emerging both now and in the future and to then be better equipped to engage and proactively affect that emergence positively across the organizational learning ecosystem. Especially as this is not a time of certainty, but one of emergence. A time of learning towards, more than learning from.

“What happens at the beginning of any creative process? Nothing! Creativity requires that we create space and wait for something to emerge.” -via Otto Scharmer

Sensemaking In The New Normal

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“Sensemaking starts with chaos.” -Weick, Sutfcliffe, and Obstfeld via Organizing and the Process of Sensemaking

Which is exactly where we are at, in the very midst of chaos. If not, it certainly feels like it. Inundated with a steadily increasing number of adaptive challenges, dilemmas, polarities, and unknowns to be faced.

However, be that as it may, today’s leaders can ill-afford to find themselves and their organizations immobilized by these circumstances and challenges. While the current volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity can feel just a bit overwhelming, it cannot be allowed to be all-consuming. Chaos cannot be incapacitating nor debilitating. Rather it must serve as a catalyst for seeking out new opportunities rising up and out from what many want to term as our “new normal.” Which will ultimately require new understandings, new thinking, new frames and maps, and new abilities and skillsets from our leaders and our organizations.

As we move deeper into dealing with the chaos of current times, it begins with the realization that we are and have been moving from a complicated to a much more complex world. In many ways, it is very reminiscent of the difference between dealing with a technical problem as opposed to tackling an adaptive challenge.

As author of It’s Not Complicated Rick Nason shares in Inc., “A complicated issue is one in which the components can be separated and dealt with in a systematic and logical way that relies on a set of static rules or algorithms.” Nason adds, “It may be hard to see, but there’s a fixed order in something that is merely complicated and that allows you to deal with it in a repeatable manner.” Whereas, according to Nason, “A complex issue is one in which you can’t get a firm handle on the parts and there are no rules, algorithms, or natural laws.” Nason continues that, “Things that are complex have no such degree of order, control, or predictability. A complex thing is much more challenging – and different – than the sum of its parts because its parts interact in unpredictable ways.”

Much like adaptive challenges and dilemmas, complex problems often don’t have an easily identifiable answer, and most often don’t have a set solution at all. Which requires a different approach from the answer view that we take to solving technical problems and complicated issues. In fact, a lot of organizational frustration and even dysfunction arises from approaching these adaptive and complex challenges with the same sets of frames, maps, and solutions that are applied to technical problems and/or issues that tend to fall more to the complicated. As Nason adds, the mindset needs to shift in regards to moving from complicated to complex with the approach of, “Think manage, not solve.” Which is a very different approach and mindset, but one that will be more and more necessary of today’s leaders for our modern organizations.

Furthermore, in realizing that our organizational ecosystems have become increasingly more complex, it is then understanding that the idea of “Sensemaking” will become a much more needed and necessary ability and skillset for traversing the volatile, chaotic and unknown conditions and contexts that today’s organizations and leaders are currently facing. As Deborah Ancona shares, “Sensemaking, a term introduced by Karl Weick, refers to how we structure the unknown so as to be able to act in it. Sensemaking involves coming up with a plausible understanding – a map – of a shifting world; testing this map with others through data collection, action, and conversation; and then refining, or abandoning the map depending on how credible it is. Enabling leaders to explore the wider system, create a map of that system, and act in the system to learn from it.” In many ways, sensemaking gives us a frame for making greater “sense” of the rising complexity across today’s organizations and organizational ecosystems. Or as Ancona adds in her article Sensemaking: Framing and Acting in the Unknown, “Sensemaking is the activity that enables us to turn the ongoing complexity of the world into a situation that is comprehended explicitly in words and that serves as a springboard into action. Thus sensemaking involves – and indeed requires – an articulation of the unknown.” Which takes us back to the opening paragraph and the need for leaders and organizations to not let the current VUCA context to paralyze them into inaction. Rather, it is in this willingness to attempt to articulate and map out the unknown that organizations can begin to become more adaptable and agile moving forward. Especially as sensemaking requires constant awareness of the organizational context and situational scanning to better move the organization towards action. Too often, especially in the midst of chaotic and disruptive times, organizations allow static processes and status quo thinking to entrench and insulate them, which will do little towards mapping out the unknown and engaging the organization in the experimental and discovery learning necessary for creating of these maps.

In fact, sensemaking, has seven properties that work interdependently for making meaning and creating coherence towards constructing new understandings, especially as the world around the organization becomes less understandable and more unknown.

Below we find a representation of the seven properties of sensemaking (italicized) provided by Laura McNamara from her article, Sensemaking in Organizations: Reflections on Karl Weick and Social Theory:

  • Sensemaking is a matter of identity: it is who we understand ourselves to be in relation to the world around us.
  • Sensemaking is retrospective: we shape experience into meaningful patterns according to our memory of experience.
  • How and what becomes sensible depends on our socialization: where we grew up in the world, how we were taught to be in the world, where we are located now in the world, the people with whom we are currently interacting.
  • Sensemaking is a continuous flow; it is ongoing, because the world, our interactions with the world, and our understandings of the world are constantly changing. You might also think of sensemaking as perpetually emergent meaning and awareness.
  • Sensemaking builds on extracted cues that we apprehend from sense and perception. Cognition is the meaningful internal embellishment of these cues. We articulate these embellishments through speaking and writing – the “what I say” part of Weick’s recipe. In doing so, we reify and reinforce cues and their meaning, and add to our repertoire of retrospective experience.
  • Sensemaking is less a matter of accuracy and completeness than plausibility and sufficiency. We simply have neither the perceptual nor cognitive resources to know everything exhaustively, so we have to move forward as best we can. Plausibility and sufficiency enable action-in-context.

It is also in recognizing, as Samdanis and Lee share in Uncertainty, Strategic Sensemaking and Organizational Failure in the Art Market, that strategic sensemaking necessitates and includes the ability of a leader to continuously “scan, interpret, strategize, act, and adjust” according to the chaos and constantly changing context that most organizations are facing. Which in today’s current volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environments, is similar to the Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act (OODA) loop frame that fighter pilots have utilized to make fast and accurate decisions while operating in these VUCA-infused environments. Or even the Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) cycle that we find utilized in most continuous improvement efforts across organizations. Engaging a variety of frames allows us to become more adaptable, more agile, and more able to adjust to constantly changing organizational situations and contexts. Or as John Boyd, the U.S. Air Force Colonel who designed the OODA loop for thinking in complex and chaotic situations adds, “We can’t just look at our own personal experiences or use the same mental recipes over and over again; we’ve got to look at other disciplines and activities and relate or connect them to what we know from our experiences and the strategic world we live in.”

Engaging sensemaking, creating maps, enabling a variety of frames, as well as engaging foresight abilities, allow leaders and organizations to begin to become much more aware of the signals on the horizon. Signals that may and can have great effect on our organizations, both in the present and the future. Which requires leaders and their organizations to constantly be aware of and always monitoring the horizon for signals (weak or strong) and engaging sensemaking strategies to determine what those signals may mean. It allows leaders and their organizations to be much more aware of what is emerging, both in the present and for the future. Which will not only require new maps and framing, but ongoing reframing as new learning, new knowledge and new data makes itself available and known. As Maree Conway shares in Foresight Infused Strategy, “The environments in which organizations now exist are moving so quickly that future outcomes can no longer be assumed. Because our worlds are mired in complexity, there are often no obvious choices. A different approach to strategy development is needed.” For which she adds, “The future is characterized by uncertainty, complexity, and much that we simply can’t yet know. Foresight has value because it allows us to acknowledge uncertainty and seek to better understand it, not to try and explain it away with predictions. Done well, using foresight moves thinking beyond the status quo and helps organizations prepare to respond to change proactively.” 

In the chaotic and often disruptive spaces of our current context, the future is constantly emerging in often unexpected and unforeseen ways, bringing new meanings, new interpretations, and new understandings toward this new reality we are experiencing. A space where our current maps, frames and mental models try to make sense of and guide us through our new reality, but often come up short and remain insufficient and lacking towards the challenges that we are facing and lie ahead.

As Weick, Sutcliffe and Obstfeld share, “There are truths of the moment that change, develop, and take shape through time. It is these changes through time that progressively reveal that a seemingly correct action “back then” is becoming an incorrect action “now.” And it is with that reveal that this new normal pushes us to acknowledge the insufficiency of our past maps, frames and mental models in overlaying them upon our current context. Maps, frames and mental models that must not only be updated, but  transformed toward closing the gap between that insufficiency of what was and the adjustments necessary to meet the new reality of what is emerging. As Weick shares from the properties of sensemaking, “People extract cues from the context to help them decide on what information is relevant and what explanations are acceptable. Extracted cues provide points of reference for linking ideas to broader networks of meaning and are simple, familiar structures that are seeds from which people develop a larger sense of what may be occurring.”

Which will be the leadership and organizational work for moving forward, especially in world overrun with too much information and data. We will all have to become much more equipped to engage in sensemaking in our organizations, as well mapmaking and frame braiding, out of which new narratives for the future can be created to guide our way. Or as Weick shares, “People enact the environments they face in dialogues and narratives. As people speak, and build narrative accounts, it helps them understand what they think, organize their experiences and control and predict events and reduce complexity in the context of change management.” Which will be paramount for growing complexity of today’s organizational ecosystems. 

Or as Weick adds, “The basic idea of sensemaking is that reality is an ongoing accomplishment that emerges from efforts to create order and make retrospective sense of what occurs.”

Shifting Our Individual and Organizational Stance

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“The “new” is disruptive. The “new” disturbs. The “new” requires change. The “new” is not easy.” -via Scaling Creativity and Innovation

Learning, especially deep exploratory learning that brings forth new ideas and thinking can be incredibly disruptive. As it can upend what we always thought, what we always considered, what we always believed to be foundational, steady and true. It can also dig deep into our assumptions, bias’ and theories that we hold tightly, too. Which is why learning often serve us individually and organizationally as a noun, when it should be engaged as a verb.

Learning should consistently be pushing not just for our involvement, but for our evolvement. In all actuality, learning at its basic core, preceded by a time of exploration and discovery, should initiate at its base, some form or sense of change, if not transformation.

But far too often, learning is a noun. It is engaged as a continuous exploitation of the known, safe and tame, far from thought-provoking or cognitively demanding or disruptive.

Whether individually or organizationally, we tend to create this image of who and what we are, a strong sense of identity that serves as a guide or a north star. However, that very same sense of identity can become a limiting and diminishing force, both individually and organizationally. Especially when new thinking, new ideas, new learning, and new knowledge are at odds with that very identity. When it makes us question who and what we were, and what we are. When the “new” is clashing with that core identity, we can become not only dismissive of, but outright opposed to that learning and what that learning represents to our established core identity.

Eons of leaders and organizations have had to face future irrelevance and obsolescence by their very denial of new thinking, new ideas, new learning, and new knowledge in the present.

However, be that individuals or organizations, we are slowly coming to grips with the understanding that sustainability can no longer be embraced over the adaptability that is now required of us all. Especially as that accelerated level of irrelevance and obsolescence has taken a greater hold on our present and coming futures.

Or as Jan Barstacht shares from Stafford Beer in Why Systems Must Explore the Unknown to Survive in VUCA Environments, “Once new things have been discovered and learned about, then the system must actually integrate this information into itself and use it to change its behavior. In other words, the system must allow the new discoveries to become part of its identity. This has significant consequences as a system is its identity.” For which Barstacht adds, “that the system must allow the new learning to change what it is.” It is no longer enough to gain or acknowledge the new learning, if that new learning has no impact.

Barstacht shares that organizations need to consider the “epistemic stance” of the organization or system, which is a term that refers to “how open a system is to allowing newly formed memories to change who/what it is” which “applies to any learning system, whether that is an organization or individual leader.”

Today’s leaders and/or organizations can no longer afford to entrench themselves in an “epistemic stance” that is aimed at preserving an identity that may be guiding the leader or organization toward future irrelevance or obsolescence. Neither can either ill-afford to dismiss new thinking, new ideas, new learning, and knowledge just because it is at odds with a leader’s or organization’s current “epistemic stance” and “core” identity. Rather, the leader and the organization must be able to learn to deal more effectively with the polarities exist between that organizational “stance” and identity, and new thinking, new ideas, new learning, and new knowledge, especially when they are odds with each other.

Rather, adaptable thinking and systems must replace traditional mindsets and fixed systems.

In today’s dynamic and often volatile times, leaders and organizations must remain flexible and malleable to an ongoing influx of new learning and new knowledge, while avoiding the rigidity and brittleness of entrenched and ingrained identities and mindsets. When identity overrides information, learning becomes an organizational noun.

“Complex systems that demonstrate the behavior of ‘willingly open yourself to explore the unknown to perceive the pattern that creates and connects complexity’ have the capacity to create the situational understanding they need to cope with VUCA environments.” -Jan Barstacht via Why Systems Must Explore the Unknown to Survive in VUCA Environments

Learning In And Through Times Of Crisis, Chaos And Disruption (Part 1)

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“The ability of organizations to successfully evolve is ultimately determined by the capability of their staff. Transformation of the organization is inextricably linked to the transformation of individuals and for that to be a reality, learning has to be at the core.”  -Peter Chase via Driving the New Learning Organization

In many ways, crisis, chaos and disruption are all around us, externally exerting its influence upon our individuals and organizations, while having dynamic impact upon our internal strategies, processes, networks, structures, and systems. Which means that evolving, be that individually and/or organizationally amidst these volatile, uncertain, complex, and often ambiguous (vuca) environments, can be a daunting, almost overwhelming proposition to say the least.

Meaning that too often, we find ourselves and our organizations recoiling back to the practices of the past and entrenching and insulating ourselves in the comfort of the known, especially when those strategies and practices have proved to be previously successful. However comforting that may be, we must realize that fixating on and celebrating the past, will ultimately limit our individuals and organizations, while simultaneously creating a passivity towards the future. A passivity that we can ill-afford to allow, as the past can no longer serve as a liability for the future. Especially in the midst of the current exponential and unprecedented shifts we are facing.

We can ill-afford in today’s world to continue to choose the safety of the known over the necessity to step out into this uncertain and ambiguous unknown that is hovering ominously above and all around us.

In fact, we can ill-afford to face the future with apprehension, fear and doubt. Rather we must approach it with sense of curiosity, with a new found willingness to grow, and to continuously seek out new learning and knowledge. We must create the individual and organizational mindsets that focus us on continuous improvement in order that we may override the complacency that fear creates, if we are to engage the necessary agility, adaptability and learnability required to overcome the overwhelming feeling that VUCA-infused environments can create, for both individuals and organizations.

However, learning (and unlearning), especially learning that leads to change and transformation in the midst of crisis can be more difficult than it sounds, even though it serves as the most promising way to move forward amidst any type of crisis, disaster or disruption.

As crisis expert Kenny Meesters puts forth in the Tillburg University magazine, “Can we learn from a crisis?” is a mantra we must be willing to authentically explore. A simple, but extremely complex question that we must continue to ask of ourselves, our leadership and our organizations. It serves as a defining question in today’s VUCA environments, especially when we know that learning serves as the vehicle that will drive us more effectively through these crisis-laden and disruptive environments. Which means, building up our understanding of the different phases of a crisis can provide a foundation for designing individual and organizational learning opportunities to be absorptive and effective for the future.  For which Meesters shares that, “You can divide a crisis into three phases.”

  • Immediate Response Phase – this is the phase that he refers to as happening immediately following the crisis, disaster, etc. It is a time of unity and support. “What you see is that people start helping each other to alleviate the suffering, there is understanding and solidarity.” It is also a phase that Meesters refers to as being relatively short.
  • Relief Phase – this is a somewhat longer and more complex phase, in which, “As time passes, interest starts to flag. It becomes more difficult to sustain all the initiatives that have been developed.” Meesters adds that this is a phase of time when the needs and far-reaching consequences become much more clear for the short-term and the long-term. For which he adds, “At the same time, the long-term impact also takes its toll; people become fatigued and energy runs out.”
  • Recovery Phase – Meesters shares, “In the recovery phase, unity disintegrates.” This is the phase where the crisis has ended and there is a need to get back on track. “In this phase, difficult choices have to be made.” This is the phase where those adaptive challenges, dilemmas and polarities become much more prevalent and visible. Not only is this the longest phase, it is also the phase where, “The unity that was abundant in the first phase disintegrates.”

When leaders acknowledge these phases in the midst of a crisis or disruption, it allows for a more intentional design towards learning in these VUCA-infused environments that we find ourselves thrust into. In many ways, we can now begin to see these three phases playing out in various ways across the time span of this pandemic that we currently find ourselves in. Consider how the early unified (phase one) conversations of tipping point transformation have in some ways trickled down over time into (phase three) challenges and dilemmas of how do we actually just get our organizations up and running in a safe, effective and meaningful manner. Which is why change and transformation is difficult to sustain amidst a crisis, disaster or disruption. And why learning (new learning and unlearning) remains at the core of moving individuals and organizations forward in the midst of a crisis, disaster or disruption.

As organization theorist Bill Starbuck shares, we struggle to learn in and from a crisis as “the emotional aspects in cognition make it difficult for people to learn from events considered one-off exceptions or rare.” For which he adds, “reactions to the uncertainty include wishful thinking, substituting prior beliefs for analysis, biasing probability distributions towards certainties, searching for more data, acting cautiously, and playing to audiences.” For these reasons, today’s leaders will need to be much more intentional towards the design of learning in the midst of any crisis or disruption across our spaces, environments and systems; if we are to evolve more fluidly and relevantly into the future as both individuals and organizations. Otherwise, as we move through the different phases of a crisis, we will often tend over time to recoil back to the practices of the past and the comfort of the known. Back to the status quo ways of doing and being that preceded the crisis or disruption. Which will then require and necessitate a deep level of intentionality from leaders towards learning in and through these environments. Or as Hallie Preskill and Joelle Cook share in their article Learning in a Time of Crisis“Learning in times of crisis requires seizing opportunities for reflection that include creating spaces to think, slowing down, being mindful, and paying attention, creating new patterns of thinking, surfacing alternative interpretations, and creating new theories of action.”

For which Preskill and Cook turn us toward the work of Donald Schon in creating the time and space to engage in reflection across our organizational ecosystems. Or as Schon puts forth in The Reflective Practitioner, we should be engaging in three types of reflection. Reflections that can be utilized to support and intentionally design for engagement of learning in the midst of a crisis or disruption:

  • Reflection on Action – looking back on personal and group experiences to evaluate reasoning processes used
  • Reflection in Action – occurs as we watch ourselves in action
  • Reflection for Action – refers to the predictive process for forecasting how we will use what we have learned based on the previous two forms of reflection

Intentionally creating processes and designing safe spaces and opportunities for learning amidst a crisis will be vital and imperative work in guiding our organizations through VUCA-infused environments and to lead them in a more relevant manner for the future. When individuals and organizations are not learning and evolving on an ongoing basis, they dry out, often becoming brittle and fragile towards new thinking, new knowledge, change and ultimately transformation.

Learning provides the ability to wade through the complexity that accompanies any crisis or disruption, engaging individuals and the organization with the curiosity to search out the ideas and skillsets that allow us to begin to traverse through the uncertainty, ambiguity and unknowns that these situations inevitably evoke. In the end, learning (and unlearning) can allow individuals and organizations to begin to overcome the set-in brittleness and fragility that stasis and status quo ways of doing and thinking from the past. And to keep that past from entrenching our individuals and organizations in the future.

“It is rather well-established that in VUCA environments, organizations do better if they self-identify and commit to being a learning organization. In fact, co-creative and collaborative organizational learning has been defined as an imminent requirement in a VUCA world.”  -via Strategic Management: How and Why to Redefine Organizational Strategy in Today’s VUCA World

 

Stories, Scenarios, Exploratory Talk, and Futures Thinking

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“The stories we tell ourselves are powerful.  The mind constantly tells itself stories of the future.” Peter Schwartz via The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World

The future can seem like a very scary and non-obvious proposition, especially in today’s world. A world where the present seems almost as unpredictable as the future. Where current conditions find us mired in deepening levels of complexity, intensifying and amplifying the fog that surrounds and insulates our view for the future, often pushing today’s leaders into much more reactive, and far less proactive stance towards the future.

Which, especially in uncertain times, is not the stance or steps best taken.  

Today’s leaders must be willing and competent in engaging their people, their organization, and their stakeholders in the creation of new stories that open up a variety of new possibilities for the future. Today’s leaders need to be able to facilitate conversations that move our people, organizations, and stakeholders openly and effectively into the chasm that stands between, and effectively allow people to grapple with the tensions that exist between reality and imagination. It is in that space and process that we can begin opening up new perspectives, continually iterating and reframing the lens to allow people to see across the spectrum of thinking that exists between moving from a dystopian to a utopian future.

To allow people the space to lean into the uncertainty of current times through the exploration of new stories, new narratives, and new scenarios that open us all up to a much more strategic approach to engaging a diversity of thinking and voices that provide multiple, intentional steps into the future, rather than fixating on one point, one future.

As Peter Schwartz shares in The Art of the Long View“Scenarios are stories about the way the world might turn out tomorrow, stories that can help us recognize and adapt to changing aspects of our present environment.  They form a method for articulating the different pathways that might exist for you tomorrow.” For which he adds, “Too many people react to uncertainty with denial.  They take an unconsciously deterministic view of events.  They take it for granted that some things just can’t and won’t happen.”

In the face of uncertainty, instead of exploring new stories, new scenarios, new narratives, and possibilities for the future, leaders can turn inward, engaging a more insulated approach and focus that can lead to embracing an illusion of a future certainty. Isolating themselves and the organization from the divergence of thinking necessary to move away from the fixed thinking that removes the multiple perspectives necessary to provide a much more open, adaptive and agile mindset towards an often volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous future.

Choosing convergence over divergence. Singular over multiple. Reform over Transform. Incremental over exponential.

Or as is Pierre Wack shares in The Art of the Long View, “he was not interested in predicting the future.  His goal was the liberation of people’s insights.” However and unfortunately, far too often, we find that leaders and organizations are less interested in the liberation of new thinking, new ideas, and new scenarios for the future, as they are in chasing the illusion of certainty down the rabbit hole of predicting the future. Taking their people, organization, and stakeholders with them. As Schwartz infuses, “managers prefer the illusion of certainty to understanding risks and realities.”

To get to the divergence necessary to engage in new stories, new scenarios, and new narratives for the future, will ultimately necessitate leaders creating an environment where we are psychologically safe to cognitively move from the ever-present “presentational” talk and into the often missing concept and modeling of “exploratory” talk in our spaces.

Or as Douglas Barnes shares in Exploring Talk for Learning, Exploratory talk is hesitant and incomplete because it enables the speaker to try out ideas, to hear how they sound, to see what others make of them, to arrange information and ideas into different patterns. The difference between the two functions of talk is that in presentational talk the speaker’s attention is primarily focused on adjusting the language, content and manner to the needs of an audience, and in exploratory talk the speaker is more concerned with sorting out his or her own thoughts.”

Creating space for exploratory talk to exist will allow us to begin to play with this idea of new stories, new scenarios, and new narratives for the future. To engage our people, our organization, and our stakeholders in “sorting out their own thoughts” towards these scenarios for the future. To allow us to move our thinking from plausible futures, to more possible futures.

Or as Douglas Barnes adds, “Another powerful intervention is by creating more space for the informal conversation, by creating events and systems of events through which views can be exchanged outside the pressure of immediate decision making. This type of intervention needs to be carefully designed to ensure that it helps the balance between integration and differentiation, and doesn’t drive the system into one of two pathologies.”

Too often, our spaces are focused on “presentational” talk, quick solutions, convergence, and decision-making. A problem-solved over a problem-explored mindset. Very seldom do we create the environment where “exploratory” talk will allow new ideas and new thinking to be explored, allowing us to discover how new futures are emerging from our conversations as we seek new possibilities. To move past conventional wisdom and into discovery learning. Whereas, “exploratory” talk moves us out of the presentational “final draft” modes of interacting that pervade the majority of our organizational meetings, time and spaces. “Exploratory” talk invites us to lean into new ideas, new thinking, new possibilities, and new futures. “Exploratory” talk provides the opportunity to explore possibilities with information from our context, seeing what can and cannot be done with it.

So, as we consider the idea of engaging “exploratory” talk to engage our people, our organizations, and our stakeholders in new stories, new scenarios, and new narratives for the future, Kees Van Der Heijden adds from his work Scenarios, that this idea of scenario planning for engaging futures thinking should include these crucial elements:

  • The aim of changing mental models of decision makers
  • The need to understand predictability and uncertainty
  • The need to take existing mental models of the decision makers as the starting point
  • Creating a refraining of the issues involved, through the introduction of new perspectives

Which will not only require shifting mindsets for some of those involved in the process, but being very reflective of how not just others, but our own mental models can impede process towards uncovering new possibilities for often undiscovered and unimagined possibilities for the future.

For which Van Der Heijden adds, “Scenarios become meaningful only in the context of an understanding of the “organizational self.” It is in that realization, of coming to terms with our true organizational self, that deeper understandings of our context provides the impetus for engaging the scenarios and scenario planning  that allow our people, our organization, and our stakeholders to truly imagine, through a diversity of voices, multiple paths. Paths that allow our people, our organization, and our stakeholders to lean into the future in a more adaptable and agile manner.

Or as Schwartz injects, “Stories have many advantages. They open people to multiple perspectives, because they allow them to describe how different characters see in events the meaning of those events. Moreover, stories help people cope with complexity.” For which Schwartz adds, “Stories are about meaning; they help explain why things could happen in a certain way. They give order and meaning to events – a crucial aspect of understanding future possibilities.”

As we move into this process, as we create the psychologically safe spaces and environments where new stories, new scenarios, and new narratives for the future can be discovered, and allowed to evolve and emerge, we also have to realize that we have a bias towards rejecting the new. We have a instilled tendency to dismiss those ideas, thinking, and plans that do not match up to our mental models of not only the past and present, but how we believe the world works.

This is something that we will not only need to understand and come to grips with in the process, but will require a deep intentionality towards not dismissing new ideas, thinking, stories, scenarios, and narratives for the future that confound us. In other words, we have to be willing to breathe in the disequilibrium that new creates, especially if we are to truly begin to move into new possibilities and new futures. Especially if we are going to be open to the futures, derived from a variety and divergence of voices, that will begin to emerge from and through the scenario planning process.

Especially, if we are going to be truly open and willing to determine and explore new futures for our people, our organizations, and our stakeholders.

“To operate in an uncertain world, people needed to be able to reperceive – to question their assumptions about the way the world works, so that they could see the world more clearly. The purpose of scenarios is to help yourself change your view of reality – to match it up more closely with reality as it is, and reality as it is going to be.” “The end result, however, is not an accurate picture of tomorrow, but better decisions about the future.”  -Peter Schwartz via The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World

In-Between Stories: Old World vs. New World

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“It’s all a question of story. We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The Old Story – the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it – is not functioning properly, and we have not learned the New Story.”  -Thomas Berry via Creating Better Futures

Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity (VUCA) become amplified in those environments where we find ourselves in between stories. Before a new narrative surfaces. Before a new vision for the future is realized. In that space where “old world” and “new world” clash, but before a victor emerges and a direction is determined.

Or as put forth in The Changing Face of Modern Leadership, “We lead and live in tense and volatile times, amidst a collision of “old world” meets “new world” thinking. It can be seen as a perplexing and disorienting time for those leaders who have comfortably remained within and relied upon a neat and orderly way of viewing our world and our organizations.”  

A time and space that can and will create both individual and organizational disequilibrium, especially as the complexity of change forces explodes forth in a relentless and much more accelerated manner. Dismantling our mental models of the past, in order to create room for new visions of the future.

Which will be necessary under the escalating rise in dilemmas and adaptive challenges that will test our leaders and stretch our organizations, often to their capacity. Requiring leaders to deepen their own capacity and competency for better understanding these forces, along with a deepening resiliency towards keeping our individuals, organizations and systems from recoiling themselves back into the perceived safety of the past, of the known, of what existed before change arrived.

Which is an ongoing and formidable task in its own right.

What we will have to realize in moving forward, is that there will not just be one point, one idea, one narrative that can and will lead us into the future. We will have to change our thinking and our discussions towards our future thinking. Or as Eugene Eubanks, Ralph Parish, and Dianne Smith share in Changing the Discourse in Schools, we will have to move from Discourse I to Discourse II thinking.

For example, here are a few of the discourse shifts they share:

Moving from singular truths to multiple stories; from the change process to the desired circumstances; from improving what exists to changing something significant; from symptoms to causes; from the familiar to the uncomfortable; from information transfer to knowledge creation; and from reproduction to transformation.

Which will not only require the ongoing deconstructing and reconstructing of our mental models, but shifts and reframes in our thinking and mindset.

Which is why a variety of narratives, or scenarios will be necessary for moving us and our organizations more relevantly into the future. And not only for the reason that the future is not predictable and cannot and will not be predicted, but for the very fact that it has become much more non-obvious in its direction and the speed and agility in which it now allows itself to shift and change. Remaining agile and adaptable to the future will require planning for a variety of scenarios, a variety of narratives, from today’s leaders and organizations. Or as Jay Ogilvy shares in Creating Better Futures, “Therefore, in thinking ahead over the long term, as a sense of responsibility demands, we need to think about several possible futures, not just one. We need a strategy for all seasons, not just one.”

Creating a variety of scenarios for the future will not only necessitate a variety of perspectives, and a diversity of thinking, but a score of voices and a multiplicity of stakeholders, all aspiring to a better future.

“Fresh thinking about the future calls for alternative scenarios based on new assumptions that differ from the old, not just quantitatively but qualitatively. A coherent set of qualitatively new assumptions amounts to a new paradigm, a new way of looking at something we thought we knew.”  -Jay Ogilvy via Creating Better Futures