Adapting Requires Pushing Past Procedures

“People taught to understand the system develop richer mental models than people taught to follow procedures.” -Gary Klein via Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making

In the movie Jurassic Park we are given visual to these incredible behemoth walls that were built as safety precautions to keep both the people visiting the park safe and confined within, as well as keep the dinosaurs and the danger they represented at bay. The problem is that at some point, like with all obstacles or walls that we create, the danger we are trying to keep out finds a way in. While those confined within discover that they’re going to need to move beyond those barriers if they are going to stay safe.

Which is the world that most organizational leaders live within.

Those walls are often the procedures enacted to create order and constancy within, while keeping the chaos and instability out. The problem with this thinking, which is prevalent in so many organizations, is that when we fail to allow people to learn and act beyond the procedures we inevitably diminish opportunities for continued growth and capacity. The overall effect of procedurally-driven organizations is that they will fail to have the necessary skill-sets or knowledge to work effectively outside of those procedures when needed most, when the danger has broken through or scaled the organizational walls.

If our mental models are grounded in procedures and implementation, we have effectively limited our ability to act with judgment and expertise. Which is especially limiting as we find ourselves more often than not forced to move past organizational boundaries into much more uncertain and ambiguous spaces pushed by the pace of change. Spaces where procedures and checklists are no longer valid, relevant or supportive.

Organizational leadership has become a much more complicated and complex proposition in a world that is more turbulent, volatile and uncertain. Which means we are going to need organizations, leaders and people that are less procedurally-driven and more proactive and adaptive in their thinking, decision-making and problem-solving.

Some see the boundaries of their organization as a wall, an electric fence to recoil from, while others see it as an obstacle to overcome and push past. A Mount Everest to scale. It is here that procedures and checklists no longer help or serve as a guide. Pushing past and through these unknowns takes a different type of leadership, a different type of mindset. One of a pioneer.

“Skilled performers need latitude to depart from procedures.”  -Gary Klein Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making


Welcome To The VUCA World

“In the age of VUCA World, the number one job of leaders must be to help organizations and society resolve adaptive challenges.” -Chris Ertel and Lisa Kay Solomon via Moments of Impact

Our world has shifted…

The problem is that too many people, too many leaders, and too many organizations are waiting for it to shift back. Unfortunately for those waiting, that world is not coming back.


Welcome to the VUCA World. Meaning that we now live in a time of much more volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. A shifted world where today’s leaders must learn to recognize that all four of these elements have become a very natural part of the modern organizational landscape.

Realizing this shift is going to be imperative to the future of our organizations and the people who help lead them. We have to come to terms with the understanding that the knowledge, processes, and skill-sets that led us effectively in the past will not effectively lead us forward into the VUCA World.

Or as Gary Klein shares in Streetlights and Shadows, “Our decision making takes on different forms when we are facing ambiguous, complex, and unpredictable situations.” Meaning that what has worked for leading our organizations previously and has been effective for a more traditional, well-ordered world, will not be as effective or even work in a VUCA World.

Recognizing this shift, initiates the realization that we’re going to need to prepare our leaders for a very different future. Today’s leaders will have to alter traditional approaches that concentrate on creating sustaining processes towards learning how to be adaptable in the face of situations and challenges that are much more volatile, unpredictable, complex, and ambiguous. Meaning that many of the rules, procedures and checklists that have served us well previously, may have begun to show their limitations and ability to be effective in this new world. Or as Klein persists, “We can’t rely on procedures to make decisions in complex situations.”

It is this idea of adaptability that will be important for the future of leadership and leading our modern day organizations effectively into the future.

To further understand the forces we face in this VUCA World, Ertel and Solomon purport in Moments of Impact, that we have two types of challenges that lay before us, those that are technical and those that are adaptive. Realizing the difference between the two will be a vital leadership ability.

Retell and Solomon help us define the distinctions as, “Technical challenges involve applying well-honed skills to well-defined problems” where “more traditional, hierarchical approaches to leadership work well.” Whereas, “adaptive challenges are messy, open-ended, and ill-defined” and “in many cases, it’s hard to say what the right question is – let alone the answer.”

What a VUCA World informs us of is that we are no longer working in the world of technical challenges, as we are facing the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity that comes with adaptive challenges. The problem is that many of today’s leaders are still utilizing the tools that worked effectively in dealing with technical challenges to help us solve and deal with what is now more adaptable challenges and we are finding that we are becoming less and less effective.

The first step in moving forward is understanding that most of our organizations now exist in this VUCA World. And from there, we can begin to determine the skill-sets and knowledge necessary to approach challenges from an adaptive, as opposed to a technical perspective.

“In our VUCA World, organizations need to find new ways of responding to adaptive challenges. They need to get comfortable with ambiguity and seek insight from a broader range of places. They need to continuously frame and reframe not only their answers but also the questions they pose. They need, in short, to approach strategy much less like mechanics and more like designers.” -Chris Ertel and Lisa Kay Solomon Moments of Impact

References and quotes from…

Ertel, Chris and Solomon, Lisa Kay. Moments of Impact: How to Design Strategic Conversations that Accelerate Change. 2014. New York. Simon and Schuster.

Klein, Gary. Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making. Massachusetts. The MIT Press.

Adapting To The Chaos And Complexity Of Change

“Creative destruction is a central force in any dynamic modern economy.  Firms that want to avoid creative destruction, need to strike a keen balance between exploiting known ideas and exploring the frontiers of new knowledge – between hitting their goals for today and making wise investments for the future.”  -Ertel and Solomon via Moments of Impact

The advent of an exponential, entrepreneurial economy, the influence of the lean startup mentality, and a more innovative, disruptive mindset has shown us that our world has become a much more volatile, shifting and evolving environment than we may have realized.

Unfortunately, we are struggling to effectively prepare our leaders and organizations to handle the chaos and complexity that accompany the rate and intensity of today’s dynamic change forces. As Ertel and Solomon share in their work Moments of Impact, “we still hire and reward people mainly for their ability to exploit known ideas.”

We are ineffectively trying to slow and contain the confusion that these shifts are causing by continuing to apply outdated and outmoded practices that are not matched to the task that towers before and ahead of us. We are still focused on applying sustaining processes to adaptive challenges and continue to find ourselves perplexed by the frustration and lack of progress we fail to create as leaders or organizations.

We continue to allow our leaders and organizations to deal only in the known, while our evolving world continues to serve up more and more unknowns. Or as Ertel and Solomon share, “Organizations that can’t muster the patience to grapple with the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity of our times are ultimately no match for the powerful gales of creative destruction.”

Until we shift our thinking and our mindsets as leaders and organizations, until we can learn to truly define the problems that we are facing, until we can learn to move past applying outdated and outmoded practices to new and evolving problems, we will fail to be effective or influential in pushing through the changes forces that we will continue to face now and in the future.

Whether it is Ertel and Solomon, Kegan and Lahey, or Klein, they have enlightened our leadership and our organizations to the understanding that the types of problems and challenges that we are now and will face in the future are no longer fixed and simply identified. They are much more intricate and complex and require different thinking, deeper understandings and new skill-sets. What they’ve shown us is that we’ve moved from a world of more static technical problems and challenges to one that is evolving more and more towards adaptive problems and challenges.

The world isn’t going back to what it once was before and until we truly wrap our head around what that truly means, then our leadership and our organizations will struggle to be relevant and effective in a world that isn’t waiting for them to get up to speed.

The Paradox Of Chaos

“Our philosophy is that the key to achieving competitive advantage isn’t reacting to chaos; it’s producing that chaos. And the key to being a chaos producer is being and innovation leader.”  -Ed McCracken

We strive for order, both in our professional and personal life. Without order, there would be mayhem and bedlam throughout our world. We would live life in a perpetual state of turmoil and upheaval. It would be a world ruled by confusion and chaos…and constant change.

However, we are beginning to come to the realization that there are limits on our ability to create and sustain that order. Limits that are unraveling in the face of an unrelenting and accelerating pace of change. The cocoons that once insulated our organizations in order, safety and routine now blind us from the disruptive forces that are bearing down upon us.

So we bunker down and work strategically to protect ourselves and our organizations from these change forces that look to disrupt all we’ve created. We work methodically to build a long-term plans that lay out a safe and secure future for us and our organizations. But there remains a problem with these fail-proof plans that we continue to promote as organizational insurance to a protected and productive future. They don’t exist…

Or as Ed McCracken shares, “No one can plan the future. Three years is long-term. Even two years may be. Five years is laughable.”

The problem is that we’ve approached the turbulence and unrelenting pace of change in today’s world as a threat. We only see the destructive and damaging effects of the chaos of change. We’ve narrowed our lens and only allow ourselves to see the negatives. But what we do know is that every negative has a positive…

Which is the paradox of chaos.

While we know that chaos can often be volatile, disruptive and destructive. What we fail to see is that same upheaval often creates the space for the new to take hold, to take root. Chaos often creates the space and room for more transformative and innovative thinking and ideas. A space that is often non-existent in the cocoons of safety and order that many organizations have worked so diligently to weave.

Leaders are failing to see the other side of chaos and the opportunity it creates in their organization.

Rather than planting the seeds of transformation and innovation in the spaces created by chaos, many leaders and organizations continue to work feverishly to fix and repair these holes and voids of order that the forces of disruptive change create. We continue to recoil into the cocoon of safety and order, rather than pushing through to unleash the butterfly of transformation that lies within.

We remain fixated and focused on restoration, when chaos can provide us an open door to transformation and innovation.

“The things we fear most in organizations – fluctuations, disturbances, imbalances – are the primary sources of creativity.”  -Margaret J. Wheatley

Leading The Modern Learning Organization

“The most intriguing leadership role in culture management is one in which the leader attempts to develop a learning organization that will be able to make its own perpetual diagnosis and self-manage whatever transformations are needed as the environment changes.” –Edgar Schein via Organizational Culture and Leadership

Mounting pressures and the intensity of change has levied new and different requirements upon today’s modern organizations. A slow burn, decelerated and reactive stance towards change is a recipe for implemented irrelevance. Today’s organizations are going to have to proactively engineer and design their future. Unfortunately, relying on current and past assumptions, practices, models, mindsets and even traditions will not suffice in a world that is determined to perpetually disrupt itself.

The past tended to presume that our organizations would be pushed in one way or another forward into the future. Unfortunately, that future no longer exists and the free pass into it no longer applies for any organization. We live in a world where everything is ripe for disruption and innovation. And for that reason, the free pass has evaporated. If you want to be a relevant force in the future, then you are going to need to create the organizational significance, worth and value that makes others take note and notice.

The future is there for those willing to take hold and invent it, it just won’t be given freely.

Understanding the shifts occurring in our modern world brings the realization that the rate of everything has been altered exponentially, from the creation and dissemination of information and data to the time allowed to internalize and react upon it. The actual act of learning is being transformed across the whole of society. Learning has not only become an individual and organizational imperative, the speed at which we are being required to do it has altered itself immensely. Speed, not time, to acquire new learning has become the ally to effectively handle the shifts facing today’s modern organizations.

Or as Edgar Schein shares in Organizational Culture and Leadership, “As the problems we encounter change, so will our learning method change.” Which begets the question, are our individual and organizational learning methods changing? Or do our organizational structures, systems and models remain entrenched and grounded in stasis and status quo? We must begin to ask ourselves, are our modern organizations evolving and transforming proactively or reactively to the shifts we see occurring in the world around us?

These are difficult and complex questions that are not accompanied with any easy answers, but questions that we must continue to ask of ourselves and of our organizations. Especially, if our aim is to truly transform our organizations into authentic learning ecosystems.

What is most important is to begin, to take action towards creating and building up these authentic learning ecosystems that evolve our organizations forward into the future. Which will require not only shifts in how we learn and engage, but individual and organizational mindshifts towards the assumptions and practices we apply to our work.

As Schein adds, “The only way to build a learning culture that continues to learn is for leaders themselves to realize that they do not know and must teach others to accept that they do not know. The learning task is then shared responsibility.”

All that is predictable and linear is being efficiently wiped off the organizational landscape. Today’s leaders can no longer believe that they have all the answers and ideas to effectively lead a modern organization into the future. It will require developing the trust, relationships, and collaborative efforts, both internally and externally, to push forward through these most turbulent and uncertain of times. It requires learning at ALL levels of the organization. To push forward creatively and innovatively into the future will not be the work of an individual, as much as it will be a collaborative effort that spans the entirety of the organization.

“As the world becomes more complex and interdependent, the ability to think systemically, to analyze fields of forces and understand their joint causal effects on each other, and to abandon simple linear causal logic in favor of complex mental models will become more critical to learning.” -Peter Senge via Edgar Schein Organizational Culture and Leadership