Fluidity: A New Organizational Literacy For Leaders

Fluid is often seen as the antithesis of permanence. When released from the confines of the predictable, it spills out in very unpredictable and nonlinear ways. Flowing from compliance to creativity, encompassing all that it comes in contact with as its borders expand and capacity is stretched.

Today’s individuals and organizations must have the ability and agility to make and remake themselves on an ongoing basis. We need to have much more fluid foundations. And while organizations and individuals must have deep knowledge in what they have been created or hired to do, that no longer serves as the ceiling, as much as it serves as the door.

Today’s organizations and individuals must be able move past the idea of depth, and learn and pull from an ever-widening width of resources. One trick pony experts will not have the breadth of resources to substantially keep pace with the level of information and learning that is now being created in our modern world. Both individuals and organizations must have the agility and ability to evolve themselves on an ongoing and ever-fluid basis. It is a current reality for relevance.

And it is not just fluidity as a new literacy for our individuals and organizations, it affects our teams, our leadership, our hierarchies, as well as our structures, processes and systems. We talk a lot about moving from silos to more collaborative environments, but still find ourselves siloed and boxed in to static structures and hierarchies that limit our willingness to better engage the talent, knowledge and capacity of those within our organizations. Our willingness to become more fluid is often contained and controlled by organizational structures, processes and systems that limit a more fluid approach that will enable us to push beyond current organizational borders and permanence.

This work will require organizations to equip their leaders with a more creative and innovative mindset, if we are to engage this landscape in a more fluid manner. If we are to better allow our organizations to grow and utilize the talent and knowledge that is already within. We still find that too many organization are more than happy to incorporate outside expertise than engage and grow the capacity of those within.

Fluidity requires a new kind of leadership mindset and organizational stance that better prepares our organizations to not only tap into the capacity that lies within, but pivot and shift to meet the demands of an exponentially shifting and changing world.

Fluidity allows leaders and organizations the opportunity to invest in the processes and systems that move against the ingrained nature of organizations to ground themselves in permanence, stasis and status quo. It allows us recreate and remake not only our perceptions of current organizational capacity, but how to push and move beyond those boundaries in a more constant, routine, daily manner.

But this idea of fluidity requires that organizations and leaders understand, when you unbottle it, it tends to flow out in often unexpected and unpredictable ways. Both organizations and their leaders will have to get used to this, which strikes against the predictable, linear and risk-free environments that we try so hard to create. In order to have this fluidity, to better engage the creative and innovative spirit of our individuals and organizations, we have to be willing to spend time suspended in the uncertainty and ambiguity that accompanies this process and work.

But willingness to do this will not only improve the capacity of our individuals and organizations, it will lead to the experimental and discovery learning that will drive us to deeper and better work.

“It is not the absence of hierarchy or the uniformity of decision-making authority that makes an organization fluid. It is the ability to shift and morph those things in the service of accomplishing more.”  -Jamie Notter When Millenials Take Over: Preparing For The Ridiculously Optimistic Future Of Business


The Turbulent Rise of Adaptive (Wicked) Problems

“Wicked problems tend to shift disconcertingly with every attempt to solve them.  Moreover, the solutions are never right or wrong, just better or worse.”  –Marty Neumeier The Designful Company

We have carried around this notion that design is just about the construction and or use of products, but what we are quickly learning is that design and design thinking is spilling over as an imperative ingredient in determining the creation of the systems, processes and structures that guide and fuel how our organizations work and operate.

Which is not to say that design was not a necessary component of creating effective organizations in the past, but rather, it has become a much more necessary leadership element to combat not only the expanding percentage of the disengaged…but the heightened rate at which new data and learning is being created. We have created a world in which what was seen as a best practice today, is often viewed as an obsolete strategy tomorrow. A turbulent and volatile pace of change that can lead to further frustration and deeper disengagement.

Which is why design thinking has become such a vital necessity mind-set and skill-set for today’s organizational leaders.

As we face these exponential increases in disengagement and data across the organizational landscape, we need creative leaders who can not only reengage the disengaged, but curate and converge this overwhelming pipeline of data into individual and organizational learning that cascades across the entirety of the organization.

Leaders that can transform the current organizational landscape to keep pace with the velocity of change through improved behaviors, more agile action, and better designed processes and systems. Which will be vital if we are to expand the overall capacity of our individuals to handle the extreme shifts our organizations will face in the near future.

We have lived insulated in an organizational leadership vacuum filled with technical problems and challenges for a very long time, a time that is quickly coming to a close. The problems and challenges that are facing in today’s world are tilting the scales from the technical to the adaptive in very rapid fashion. Problems and challenges that Marty Neumeier refers to in The Designful Company as “wicked problems.” For which he adds, “The world’s wicked problems crowd us like piranha.”

It is this shift, from technical to adaptive, that will require a leadership mind shift not only in how we do our work, but the ways in which we support our people and lead our organizations…

We can no longer believe that the ‘best practices’ of the past are prepared to solve the adaptive problems and challenges we will face in the future. And face them we must, for the organizational structures and systems that we have in place will be ineffective in sheltering and insulating us from these problems and challenges.

The band-aids of the past will be ripped off quicker and quicker as we find that these adaptive problems and challenges become much more urgent and pervasive across our organizations. Until we are willing to approach them in new, creative and innovative ways, they will continue to plague, damage and diminish our organizational cultures and environments.

As Neumeier shares in The Designful Company, “Best practices are obsolete at birth; stability is fantasy, talent trumps obedience, imagination beats knowledge, and empathy trounces logic.” Which highlights the understanding that we live a new world, a new organizational landscape, that is shifting, changing and transforming at an exponential rate, which will require new ways of learning, new ways of thinking, new ways of doing, and new ways of leading. Especially, in light of this new breed of “wicked problems” that are infiltrating our organizations. For which Neumeier adds, “The only question is whether you can change…fast enough to take full advantage of it.”

And that is the question, can we? Can we effectively navigate the chaos to find the opportunity that lies before us?

And to do this we will need leaders who are social architects, leaders who can design and curate our way forward in a much more creative, innovative and effective manner. We can no longer work at the leadership Neumeier sees as, “getting better and better at a management model that’s getting wronger and wronger.”

We need leaders prepared to face the adaptive, “wicked problems” that continue to plague and conspire against individual and organizational capacity and growth. It is not just necessary, it is required for individual and organizational relevance in the future.

“We need systems thinkers equipped not only with strong leadership knowledge, skills, and abilities, but the emotional intelligence and empathy necessary to build the systems and cultures that can create the schools and districts that our students and teachers not only need, but truly deserve.”  –The Changing Face of Modern Leadership

Measuring Creativity And Innovation?

“Our future prosperity depends on the quality of our collective imaginations.” -Eric Ries

In his book The Lean Startup, Eric Ries shares the thought that, “When I meet with most entrepreneurial teams, I ask them a simple question: How do you know that you’re making progress?  Most of them really can’t answer that question.” For which Ries adds, “It’s not enough to just give it a whirl; you’ve got to give it a whirl with purpose and direction.”

Which is an interesting idea on how startups should operate. Especially when we tend to think of startups as these shifting, pivoting, freewheeling, innovative, and agile juggernauts. We have this idea that for an organization to be creative, innovative and agile, measurement and metrics would not only get in the way, but dampen and diminish the energy and flow of the organizational culture and environment.

Which runs contrary to how creativity and innovation actually work…

Creativity and innovation is not something we indulge because it sounds cool, rather it is the process of looking at new and novel ways to add value to the work and lives of those we lead at all levels of our organization. It is not an event, as much as it is a way of operating, doing and being.

It is about designing a better user experience, from the classroom to the boardroom.

And to do this, we need to determine not only if we are progressing with our work, but that it is providing value we intended to the user. Whether that value is in something that has been curated or created, the use or implementation of technology or tools, or even the flows,structures, processes and systems we have built up within our organization. Inability of any of these to add value to the user experience is not only a flaw in the design, but initiates frustration as the innovation is found to be useless, tedious, obtrusive or unnecessary.

And why shouldn’t this design of the user experience be the goal of education? Why aren’t we looking to design a better learning experience; from the learning spaces we create to the curriculum we curate value, rather than completion should be the focus of our work. The creator should always be working from the eye of the user.

But this has not been the traditional way of how we have approached education. Input in, output out. We have traditionally spent more time determining a pacing guide than the learning environment and experience where it would be initiated.

Moving away from these traditional approaches will require not only more experimental learning, but delving much more often into trial and error, discovery learning. Requiring our educational institutions to learn how to become more creative, innovative and agile as organizations. Especially when shifting and pivoting has not been a necessary or prevalent part of our educational vernacular.

However, it is not enough to transform and evolve our work towards being more creative, innovative and agile, if we are unwilling to take that same trial and error, discovery learning mindset towards the metrics and measurements we use to determine progress, both individually and as organizations.

As our work evolves and transforms, so must our metrics and measurements…

Which means we are going to need to get more creative and innovative on how we set the metrics and measurements if we are going to do the creative and innovative work necessary to prepare our students for a rapidly shifting and changing world. Innovative work, bound by traditional metrics and measures, leads not only to deepening levels of frustration, but creates misalignment at all levels of the system.

In the end, the goal is not to determine if we can measure the creative and innovative thinking and ideas of our students and educators, but can we determine if growth and learning is actually occurring. And to tell you the truth, we just don’t need a rubric to tell us if that is or isn’t happening. If you really want to see if something is working, if value is being added, you have to go to ground level and see for yourself. Just watching, along with a few minutes of conversation can provide us a plethora of information and real time data.

Remember, we like to repeat the mantra that what get’s measured, is what gets done. But the funny thing about data, just like the questions we ask, is that if we are measuring the wrong things, if we are asking the wrong questions, don’t be surprised if we don’t end up with or where we expected.

I will leave you with this final Eric Ries quote from The Lean Startup, “Our educational system is not preparing people for the 21st century. Failure is an essential part of entrepreneurship. If you work hard, you can get an ‘A’ pretty much guaranteed, but in entrepreneurship, that’s not how it works.”

If we want to prepare our students and educators for this rapidly shifting and turbulent world, then we may need to become not only more creative, innovative and agile as organizations and individuals, but more creative and innovative of the metrics and measurements we determine to chart our path of progress.

Designing Ongoing Loops Of Influence

“We design our world, while our world acts back on us and designs us.” -Anne-Marie Willis

There are these two wonderful clips from Jason Silva from Shots of Awe where he discusses this idea of ontological design. Which Google describes as “the design of a way of being – not just creating crutch of the mind but rather facilitating the evolution of human capability. Systems focused on facilitating situated human cognition while expanding.” Which, as a definition, probably does very little to providing us a deeper understanding of what ontological design is and why it may be important.

Whereas, Silva takes us a bit closer to understanding just what ontological design is and why it just may be an important concept for us to consider and understand. Silva talks about how “we build the tools and the tools build us.” Which harkens back to the opening quote from Ann-Marie Willits article on ontological design where she imparts that “everything we design, in turn designs us back.”

The implications of that, which Silva shares in Shots of Awe is that “we are being actively designed by that which we have designed.” He adds “our thoughts shape our spaces and  our tools and our tools and spaces return the favor.” It is this active feedback loop that is not only transforming our world, but transforming us, and back again, over and over. As Silva shares, it is this idea of “circularity” that makes ontological design so important.

For that which is not designed well…

Just consider this quote from Costica Bradatan, “Just as you grow into the world, the world grows into you. Not only do you occupy a certain place, but that place in turn occupies you. It’s culture shapes the way you see the world, its language informs the way you think, its customs structure you as a social being.”  

So the more we think about this idea of ontological design, the more we see the importance of the spaces and things that we design, especially if they are designing us back. Poor design in turns provides poor systems and environments, often leading to frustration, disengagement and even dysfunction. Understanding this idea of ontological design and seeing its importance in our organizations may provide better reflection and insight into creating engagement in a world and workforce that has become more and more disengaged.

Especially in a time when we need to better ignite and extract the creative and innovative thinking and ideas of all our people. Maybe ontological design and reflecting on this loop of influence will provide us a more inviting path to creating the cultures and environments that engage and unleash the best of our people and our organizations.

“Our thoughts shape our spaces, we design the world, but those spaces return the favor.” -Steven Johnson via Jason Silva and Shots of Awe