Surviving And Thriving In A VUCA World: In Consideration Of Education In The Exponential Age


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Surviving and Thriving in a VUCA World: In Consideration of Education in the Exponential Age (ebook)


Leading In Uncertain Times: The Irrelevance Factor (Part 1)

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“A theory has only the alternative of being wrong or right. A model has a third possibility: it may be right but irrelevant.”  -Manfred Eigen

When you think of the current idea of the organizational model and how we work, be that in education, government, or business, in the historical scheme of things, is a model that hasn’t really been around for that long of a time.

For much of that time, the model has stayed pretty consistent, focusing on sustaining systemic efficiency, command and control leadership, a need for certainty and the avoidance of unnecessary risks, and very often choosing pride of product over support and commitment to people ways of operating.  It is only in more recent times that there has been this push towards more adaptive awareness and deeper focus on effectiveness over efficiency, a more human-centered and less cogs in the machine ways of operating, as well as continually looking to evolve and expand the user experience both internally and externally, and embracing uncertainty and risk-taking that leads to more discovery, experimental learning.

Shifts that have stemmed more from necessity than necessarily from want.  Especially as today’s accelerated, turbulent and often disruptive nature of change and societal shifts have changed expectations and brought forth this need for new ways for the organization and its leadership to operate and exist.

It is no longer enough to just focus on sustaining models efficiency, when  frameworks of effectiveness are now required.

In a world that is much more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, our organizations and leaders within must be much more aware of what they are sustaining.  What is considered relevant today, might and most likely will not be relevant tomorrow, and understanding this shift will allow our leaders and organizations to adapt more effectively to a changing world and uncertain future.  It does little to improve our systems and ways of working to be both more efficient and effective, if what we are focused on sustaining and adapting to has become or is becoming irrelevant in a world that is changing exponentially.

And yet, just understanding when our strategies, practices, processes, structures, systems and models have become irrelevant and actually moving to an action or actions that creates the necessary change or needed transformation of those are two very different lifts.  With one being much heavier and more complex than the other.

As Einstein is known for saying, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Which says two things to me; (1) the deeper the understandings we build around our organizational strategies, practices, processes, structures, systems and models, through ongoing learning and enhanced idea flows, the greater the chance that we make changes to our organization that allow it to be more efficient, more effective and more relevant to our changing world, and (2) you can only truly get to simple through full comprehension of the complexity that we are facing and that which exists and is inherent within each of our organizational ecosystems.

Understandings that eventually determine how adaptable and agile our organizations can and will become in the future.

For example, the digital disruption and/or transformations that we are currently facing serve as a tremendous example of (1) and (2) from above, in showing us just how complex the nature of change can be for us as individuals, leaders and organizations; and yet how important it is we find ways to communicate the need for change and/or changes to retain the relevance of our work in a simple and meaningful manner.

Too often we approach this work in a wrong or right manner, which undervalues the in-between and/or complexity of what we are facing as leaders and organizations.  It is no longer about whether a strategy, practice, process, structure, system or model is wrong or right, but rather is it effective?  And, is it relevant to the world that we are “now” living in?

Not the world that we used to live in…

Too often we try to implement change without taking into account the relevance and/or irrelevance of our current models.  Too often we approach change in an isolated manner, focusing on parts of the system without seeing the whole of the system, often leading to unintended consequences that do more to hinder than improve the overall performance of the organization.

You can’t move towards continuous improvement and effective systems change, if you are not willing to attend to the irrelevance of the current strategies, practices, processes and models that are in place.  That is not to say that progress cannot be made, just understand irrelevant parts can and will slow the process and in the end, weigh down the whole.

As for example, think of it like keeping outdated computers running on a systems network.  The computers still work for the individual user, but their outdated performance becomes a drag, ultimately slowing down the entire network for all users.  It is better for the overall performance of the entire network to remove those outdated computers, even though it may cause some inconvenience for individual users.

And yet, they remain on the network…

Unfortunately, many of our current strategies, practices, processes, structures, systems and models are disconnected from the future we are facing.  Much like the outdated computers, we stubbornly refuse to remove them from the network, knowing that they are slowing and dragging the entire system down.

Awareness of these signals, of the slowing of our organizational networks due to outdated and irrelevant strategies, practices, processes, structures, systems, and models will be paramount to determining the necessity and need for change, and approaching and communicating the complexity of that change in a much more simple, transparent, and human-centered manner, will be vital to the continuous and effective improvement that makes our organizations more robust and relevant for the future.

Which ultimately evolves our organizations from one of sustaining the current, to one of adapting progressively to the future.



The 3I’s Of Change In The Midst Of Uncertainty: Innovation, Improvement, Implementation

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“The ability to not only endure but to invite, amplify, and exalt uncertainty, then reframe it as fuel is paramount to your ability to succeed as a creator.  Visionary innovation and creativity cannot happen when every variable, every outcome, every permutation is known and has been tested and validated in advance.  You cannot see the world differently if it’s already been seen in every possible way.  You cannot solve a problem better if every solution has already been defined.”  -via Jonathan Fields Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance

The brain thrives on certainty, and in uncertain times, even more so.  And we are definitely entering a time of deep uncertainty.  As Jonathan Fields would add from his work Uncertainty, “Disruption is the new normal.  Now, more than ever, you cannot lock down the future.”

And yet, we do little to intentionally embrace the unknowns that we are facing.  Instead, we do all that we can to provide a deeper sense of certainty.  Instead of looking for the opportunities arising of the current chaos, we recoil to the shell of cover that we hope will insulate us from the growing complexity that surrounds us.  We look for the knowns in the midst of a growing plethora of unknowns.  We tend to search out predictability in the face of doubt.  We heighten the value of quick solutions over the asking of bigger, deeper questions.

Inevitably, we try to predict, when we should learn to forecast.

And more and more we hear the growing chorus’ of…

“We are preparing ___________ for jobs that are yet to exist.”  

Which provides us some sense of semblance, safety and understanding for this unknown and unpredictable future we are currently facing.  A sentiment that makes us feel less anxious and a bit safer as the chaos and complexity of these times pushes in upon us.  It allows us move forward with a “We don’t know what we don’t know” approach and attitude.  Especially as we begin to realize that we are definitely working our way through very volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) times.

While at the same time, the concern with leadership and organizations during these chaotic times is the tendency to become very reactive and reactionary in the midst of upheaval.  Especially when the leadership or organization is neither forward facing or engaged in future thinking.

As Jonathan Fields puts forth in Uncertainty“The more you’re able to tolerate ambiguity and lean into the unknown, the more likely you’ll be to dance with it long enough to come up with better solutions, ideas, and creations.”

But we are struggling to dance with it.  We are avoiding the need to grapple with the variety of unknown forces pushing in on us as leaders and organizations.  For us to eventually get to where we can have better questions, better solutions, better ideas and better creations, we have to create environments for our individuals and organizations that move us past surviving and on to thriving in these VUCA times.

Especially when the necessity of change presents itself in the midst of the chaos and complexity of our current times.

As you consider the chaos, complexity and variety of unknowns that your leadership and organizations are facing, as well as the necessity and need for change that may be required…it may be worth your while to keep your eyes on 3 very formidable I’s during the process: Innovation, Improvement, and Implementation.

  1. Innovation – Begin by truly determining if the change that is being initiated is necessary and needed?  Is it adding value to the user?  Is it worth the effort for those the change is intended to support, as well as those implementing the change, and the organization itself?  Is the change going to be incremental or disruptive to the organization?  Determining and understanding if the change being initiated is relevant and worth sustaining in the future is vital to commitment now and then. As the quote goes, “All improvement requires change, but not all change is an improvement.”          
  2. Improvement – There are two sides to improvement in any change initiative.  First,  how will the change or innovation be an improvement to the user and the organization?  Second, how will progress of the change be monitored and measured?  It is in this process that it must be determined, through questions as opposed to moving too quickly to solutions, “What is the problem we are truly trying to solve?”  For any improvement or change initiative to be effective, determining the real problem that the change is trying to solve must be tethered out first so that it is getting at the root of WHY the change is necessary and needed in the first place.
  3. Implementation – Too often our change initiatives and efforts inordinately spend time focused on “strategic” planning to make sure that the implementation is perfected before moving forward.  Unfortunately, all of the “strategic” planning in the world cannot plan for every issue that occurs upon implementation, from infrastructure to resource concerns.  Instead of wholesale implementation, spend time in short cycles of experimentation that allow for learning.  Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) or Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA Loop) iteration processes allow for the necessary learning and or pivots needed for any change or innovation initiative to move towards full implementation in a much more effective manner, which benefits the user and the organization.

The 3I’s: Innovation, Improvement, Implementation allows individuals, leaders and organizations to engage a process around change that better supports the needs of those the change initiative or effort is aimed at benefitting.  Processes that allow for greater empathy throughout the process, to make sure that the change or innovation is truly benefitting user.  As well as providing a process and/or space where people can spend time grappling with and embracing the unknowns of our future, over continual amplification of the known.

As Jonathan Fields adds, “If everything is known and certain, that means it’s all been done before.  And creation isn’t about repetition.  Genius always starts with a question, not an answer.  Eliminate the question and you eliminate the possibility of genius.”

And while the brain thrives on certainty, to engage change leaders must create environments that allow people the time, space and processes to effectively grapple with uncertainty, especially in the face of change.  It is the only way that we will truly begin to create a tolerance for ambiguity in a time of VUCA.

“Whether you’re just looking to thrive in uncertain times or deliberately amplifying uncertainty in the name of creating better things and experiences, you can train your mind to not only handle the unease that comes from having to consistently act without having all the answers, but embrace and invite it as a signpost that what you’re doing matters.  Rather than grasping futilely after a sense of certainty that’ll never come, learn how to dance with the unknown.  It’s possible, it just takes a bit of work.  Then look for the opportunity that always goes hand in hand with upheaval.”  -Jonathan Fields Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance


In Exponential Times, Questions Matter

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“What if our schools could train students to be better lifelong learners and better adapters to change, by enabling them to be better questioners?”  -Warren Berger A More Beautiful Question

And it begins with us, the questions we are asking as individuals and organizations…

What changes?

What stays the same?

What is relevant?

What remains relevant?

What is irrelevant?

What falls into obsolescence and discontinuity?

What questions are we asking?

What questions do we need to be asking?

How will the current digital transformation effect education at all levels, across the spectrum?

How will we determine to prepare our students for a digitally disrupted world that is facing an unprecedented acceleration of change?

How deeply will the digital transformation effect the future that our students are walking out into? (Think of the next 5, 10, 15, even 20 years)

How do we prepare our organizations, educators, and students for the proliferation of data that is increasing and expanding exponentially and how to use it without becoming overwhelmed by it?

How will we prepare our students for a globalized future that is being outsourced and automated, as well as continually disrupted and enhanced by artificial intelligence?

How do we ensure that our students are being equipped with the knowledge, skills and abilities that provide them opportunities in a vastly changing future?

Are we constantly asking…

What is?

What if?

How might we?

Too often we want answers, not more questions.  We thrive on trying to create safe environments focused on predictability and certainty, while avoiding the questions and conversations that may invite in more volatility, disruption and uncertainty.

As Jeanne Liedtka shares, “Innovation means moving into uncertainty.  To foster innovation, we need to embrace that learning only occurs when we step away from the familiar and accept the uncertainty that inevitably accompanies new experiences.”

But how will we truly define our individual and organizational challenges if we are not asking deeper and better questions?  How will we begin to invoke greater learning and inquiry, if we lack the questions that invite that thinking into our organizations?  If we are not asking better questions, how will we know whether or not we are even solving the right problems and challenges?

Far too often we find ourselves and our organizations providing well-considered answers and solutions, only to find that they are in collusion to solving the wrong problems and challenges we are facing.  

Asking questions allows individuals and organizations to grapple with their current circumstances, promoting both individual and team thinking, learning, inquiry, autonomy and agency, which is vital to dealing more effectively with the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity that surrounds and infiltrates our organizations in today’s world.

Questions cause us to consider our future, as much as our current circumstances.  Questions allow us to move our thinking away from a predetermined consideration to more possible and preferable contemplations of the future.

Inability of individuals and organizations to endure the uncertainty brought forth and raised by our questions, will inevitably serve as the gatekeeper that locks us in status quo ways of thinking, doing and acting.  Or you might say, if we remain unable to ask what if, we will stay forever entrenched in what is.

“Questions challenge authority and disrupt established structures, processes, and systems, forcing people to have to at least think about doing something differently.”  -Warren Berger A More Beautiful Question


Our Creativity Bias

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“As important as creativity has been in our species’ recent centuries, it is the cornerstone for our next steps.  From our daily activities to our schools to our companies, we are all riding arm-in-arm into a future that compels a constant remodeling of the world.”  -via The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World by Eagleman and Brandt

And yet…

Research and studies inform us that we have a inherent bias against creativity, especially in leadership roles.  As Heidi Grant Halvorson shares in her 99u article, The Bias Against Creative Leaders…

“Our idea of a prototypical creative person is completely at odds with our idea of a prototypical effective leader.”

While David Burkus follows up in his article from The Creativity Post, Why Do We Keep Creative People Out Of Leadership Roles? of evidence published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology by researchers Mueller, Goncalo and Kamdar that when they analyzed their findings on creativity and leadership…

“They found a negative correlation between creativity and leadership potential.  The employees were assuming that those with more creative ideas were less prepared to be leaders.”

However, the bias against creativity did not stop with leaders and leadership roles.  We actually harbor individual bias’ against creativity itself.  In a follow-up study led by Mueller it was found that “Participants said they desired creative ideas, but subconsciously rejected creativity.”  

For which Burkus adds…

“Perhaps the explanation for both studies is our preference for order and the status quo.  For an idea to be creative, it must be novel and useful.  For a leader to be creative, their ideas and methods must be novel and useful.  but if an idea is novel, it departs from the status quo or established order.  That same order is often used for evaluating whether the idea is useful.”

We know that our brains crave certainty.  And in the same way, even though we purport to be in favor of creativity, deep down, we still cling to order and the status quo.

As Eagleman and Brandt share in The Runaway Species

“This mandate for innovation is not reflected in our school systems. Creativity is a driver of youthful discovery and expression – but it becomes stifled in deference to proficiencies that are more easily measured and tested.  This sidelining of creative learning may reflect larger societal trends.  Teachers typically prefer the well-behaved student to the creative one, who is often perceived as rocking the boat.  A recent poll found that most Americans want children to have respect for elders over independence, good manners over curiosity, and would prefer them to be well behaved rather than creative.”

Which may be one of the reasons that our organizations deal much better with ideas of reform and incremental change, over disruptive, transformational and even exponential shifts.  Even though we love to hear the stories of the latter, we cling to the former.

If creativity is as important as we believe it to be for the future success of our individuals, organizations, and even society, as stated in the opening quote by Eagleman and Brandt, yet we inherently hold onto bias’ against creativity and creative leaders, then we will most assuredly continue to struggle to effectively move towards any type of deep transformation of our organizations and systems that move us beyond incremental changes that run in line with the current order of things.

And should not be surprised that we continue to march forward in a predictable, linear, status quo fashion.

“If we want a bright future for our children, we need to recalibrate our priorities.  At the speed the world is changing, the old playbooks for living and working will inevitably be supplanted – and we need to prepare our children to author the new ones.”  -via The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World

Exploring “What If” With Our Systems

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If the brain thrives on certainty, we must intentionally create environments and situations that both allow and force us to engage and grapple with uncertainty…if we are to gain the capacity that pushes us towards change that leads to transformation.

For transformation to occur, to really occur, we have to begin to create organizational environments where the willingness to ask “what if” moves us from greater awareness, to collective action around and toward a better vision for the future…

For this is much deeper than just risk-taking.  

It is embracing a willingness to move past the constant exploitation and amplification of the known, of what we’ve always done, in order to intentionally engage with the unknown and explore uncertainty.  Spending time in this arena, grappling with thinking and ideas beyond our current awareness and understandings, allows us to stretch and even unlearn the frames by which our current mental models are held in place.

For this is where new learning and new knowledge is created.

As individuals and organizations, we need to both explore and engage more “what if” questions that require us to create the mental scenarios that allow us to anticipate, forecast, and even prepare more effectively for the future, and what the future might require of us and our organizations.

We have to approach “what if” collectively…

What if we knew that we were going to be facing a possible dystopian future with automation and artificial intelligence causing major job displacement and economic upheaval, how would we decide to change our organizations and systems?

What if we knew that our current way of operating as an organization would be determined irrelevant and would face major disruption in the next two years, how would we decide to change our organization and our systems?

What if we knew that the content and skills we were teaching our students would be determined to be disconnected towards helping them find future success in a quickly changing world, how would we decide to change our organizations and systems?

What if we knew that the only way to thrive effectively in the future as individuals and organizations, required ongoing and continuous learning and change, how would that change our organizations and systems?

What if we knew that the way forward for individual and organizational success in the future required greater emotional intelligence, empathy, creativity, inventiveness, curiosity, how would we decide to change our organizations and systems?

What if we knew what the future would require of us and our organizations, would we be willing to change ourselves, our organizations, and our systems?

It is in our questions, much more than our answers, that we truly begin to determine a vision of what transformation may look like, both individually and organizationally.

And yet, what we often fail to realize, both individually and organizationally, is that even when we know the dire outcomes of an unwillingness to change, when we know that status quo thinking and doing will lead us into eventual irrelevance or worse…we still cling to the known, of what we’ve always done.

Too often, the fear of the unknown keeps us grounded in the irrelevance of the known.

Framing the future in fear is not going to create the change necessary to move us and our organizations forward more effectively.  Rather, we need to create new frames, new scenarios of a much more positive future, by allowing our “what if” questions to paint a picture of what we could become, of a better way forward, and a better future for us all.

In the end, always remember, if we never ask what if…we will always be left with what is.




My TEDx Experience

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“When you take risks you learn that there will be times when you succeed and there will be times when you fail, and both are equally important.”  -Ellen DeGeneres

I want to begin this piece by truly thanking Greg McWhorter @gmcwhorterVVUSD Phil Harding @pharding2 Matt Penner @mattpenner and Michael McCormick @ValVerdeSupt for the tremendous work they do to improve the profession of education for educators and students, as well as their ongoing positive support and encouragement they’ve provided me along my own journey. 

So, let’s set the stage…

I grew up with an unhealthy fear of public speaking, an almost paralyzing problem that would have me looking for any escape route available when the faintest possibility that I may have to get up and speak reared its ugly head.  As a student, when a presentation assignment required it, I would most assuredly find a way to be absent or sick on that day.  A ritual of avoidance that followed me into my college days.

Which followed me just as relentlessly into my adult life and career.

As an educator, I learned to come to grips with this fear in the classroom, however it did not stop me from finding the need or excuse to exit the room when it was apparent that the moment or occasion may be warranted in a meeting or professional development situation.  This is not to say that I felt comfortable with these avoidance behaviors, rather I was unable to find any relief or remedies from the debilitating anxiety and fear that public speaking arose at my very core.

As I moved from the classroom into administration, the need arose more regularly and in larger arenas.  I was slowly becoming more adept at handling these opportunities, which is not to say that knowing I had to speak to a large crowd at an upcoming date did not make the in-between time any less anxiety-riddled, often bringing on deep levels of stress and shortness of breath.

Yet, over time it got better and better.

Jumping to current circumstances, public speaking has become a large part of the work that I do, both in and outside of my regular day job.  Now, this is not to say that the shortness of breath and moments of deep anxiety do not still exist, but I have found ways to cope much more effectively, even as the events and opportunities get bigger, including my first keynote opportunity this year in front of several hundred educators.

While I will not say that my first inclination isn’t still to look for a way out of the opportunity when they arise, I have come to a place where I am much more willing to push through and not allow this fear to turn into future regret, of opportunities found and then ultimately lost.

Which takes us to now…

One of the greatest driving forces for squelching my avoidance of public speaking, was the way it debilitated my ability to bring ideas to the table.  I don’t want to be able to speak to be a speaker, rather I want the opportunity to have a voice at the table of transformation.  To be engaged in the discourse that leads to positive change and collective impact for individuals and organizations.  Unfortunately, for years, my fear was removing my voice from being engaged in that space.

So when I received a call a short time back to see if I was interested in taking part in a TEDx event, I was humbled, overwhelmed, and thankful not only to be a part of the event, but to even be considered.  So even though fear was gently tugging away at the back of my mind, I thankfully accepted the invitation.

However, sometimes we have to be aware of what our conscience is telling us as well, and sometimes it is more than the fear of speaking, or even public failing.

My gnawing conscience was trying to tell me that I was already on overload at work.  Not only were the last few months a heavy lift that had left me feeling cognitively drained, the upcoming time to the talk was filled with an even heavier lift and trainings.  However, it was just not something you say no too (or do you), as the opportunity may never come around again.  So you push through.

Arriving backstage…

Arriving that Saturday morning, after a week of very little sleep, mentally heavy trainings out of town over the last few days and the wear and tear of travel, I was still feeling energized, albeit a bit scared and definitely wound tight.  But here was a chance, a chance to engage ideas that I am deeply passionate about, ideas that I believe are worth sharing.  But I also new the relentless pace of the last few months had left very little time, physically or cognitively to plan for the talk, which had me very nervous.

On the stage…

The thing that we often forget, is that we always see the big opportunity as the game-changer, but sometimes the big opportunity doesn’t play out as planned, or envisioned.

Sometimes you crash and burn…and learn.

So here are a few of my take-aways from being in the TEDx moment, when it crashed and burned:

  • I allowed fear to overrule my better judgment.  Instead of getting out there and providing an authentic talk, I created a presentation.  I let my speaking bias’ get in the way of the indicators that were warning me that I was not approaching the process in the best way possible.  I tried to choose perfection over authenticity, and it just didn’t work (and not because the slides delayed).
  • I was so focused on relaying the intent and the message, that I lost my ability for connection (and let’s be honest, maybe the fact that it was being recorded did have a bit to do with it).  I found myself pushing, trying too hard to present this perfect message, when I should have been  focused on the story, which cost me not only the opportunity for greater connection, but greater overall impact.
  • I missed the “in the moment’ opportunities for engaging what was happening (which I know I attribute to being filmed).  Unfortunately, especially since I did not take the opportunity to use it as learning moment, a fly followed me out on to that TEDx stage, and it continued to relentlessly pursue the back of my head and face throughout the talk (which made me think of the HD film that it was being captured on).  So instead of using the fly as a story touchpoint, I tried to become more focused, leading to more frustration as I felt the message of what I was trying to engage slip through my fingers.

In the end, I allowed my focus on an outcome and the urgency to achieve that outcome to make me blind to what the environment and the indicators were telling me.  But that does not mean that I am not grateful for the opportunity, in fact I probably learned more than if it would have went off without a hitch.  It has allowed me an opportunity to be reflective, to reach into my core for resilience, and it has taught me a variety of lessons.  And it has made me much more aware of being open to listening to those indicators and of blindspots that we are all open to as leaders and learners.

Leaving the stage…

While there is a deep level of frustration and cognitive devastation as you walk through the curtain, the one thing I do know is that the level of connection I failed to achieve on that TEDx stage, will come forth in my day to day work.  For, it is in our failures, that we are able to gain the empathy to support those around us who are dealing with the same struggles.  And while I will probably never guide people to the link for that talk, the lessons learned, and how I will share them with others, will carry on much longer than the impact of any successful talk.

“Failure isn’t a necessary evil.  In fact, it isn’t evil at all.  It is a necessary consequence of doing something new.”  -Ed Catmual via Creativity, Inc.