The Emerging Cognitive Tension Of A New Age

It is not only the emergence of the Exponential Age that we are witnessing, but the Age of Discontinuity. And what we will eventually discover in this emergence is that our ability to build more creative and innovative collective organizational capacity will will lie in our proficiency to hold these two opposable forces in constant cognitive tension…

For all intents and purposes, we have been gearing up for an Age of Acceleration. A time of breakneck speed in regard to change, be that individual, organizational or societal. And for some, at all three of these levels, it will be seen as a time of negative disruption and crippling chaos. For others, it will serve as a great awakening as this turbulent acceleration of change gains enough traction to tear holes of opportunity in the veil that shrouds us from an unseen and uncertain future.

Just as a snake sheds its skin, we will have to learn to discard structures and processes that become limiting in the scope of the mental models, understandings and skill-sets that will be necessary to lead effectively in this new age. Which will require us to become much more comfortable in this new skin, in acquiring new mental models, understandings and skill-sets that lead to new ‘best’ practices. In essence, we will have to become very adept at tolerating the tensions of conflicting and opposable forces.

It is no longer a matter of OR as much as it is one of AND. We can no longer think in terms of divergent OR convergent, as we must learn to move effectively between divergent AND convergent thinking and action. We must become much more skilled in the conversation of AND.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald purposed, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposable ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. Or should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” 

And it will not be enough to just hold opposable forces in cognitive tension, we will also have to learn what to keep and what to shed…

As Peter Drucker shares, “An organization, whatever its objectives must therefore be able to get rid of yesterday’s tasks and thus free its energies and resources for new and more productive tasks.” For which he adds, “During periods of discontinuous, abrupt change, the essence of adaptation involves a keen sensitivity to what should be abandoned – not what should be changed or introduced. A willingness to depart from the familiar has distinct survival value.”  

Which will become a real and necessary skill-set for leaders in this new age, this ability to determine what needs to be discontinued, not just what to start, but what needs to come to an end.

Which becomes a real mindshift for today’s modern leaders…

One of moving from sustainability to adaptability. As we move into this new age, much of what we focus on sustaining serves as an anchor dragging us down and away from adapting to these societal shifts and changes, often inhibiting us from acknowledging the opportunities that are opening up before us.

The shifts, complexities and sheer forces of change that will face us in this new age will require much more from us as individuals, leaders and organizations. Adaptation and a design-mindset will be paramount in creating future relevance.

Otherwise, we will find that the inability to adapt and change will unleash the AND of those same opposable forces that not only provide opportunity in the midst of chaos, but push those grounded and entrenched in stasis and status quo into the discontinuity of irrelevance.

“There is a great deal of evidence that suggests that when people are taken out of a familiar environment – and environment of continuity – their ability to deal with the future deteriorates rapidly.”  -Foster and Kaplan Creative Destruction: Why Companies That Are Built To Last Underperform The Market – And How To Successfully Transform Them


Designed To Fuel The Idea Engine

“The most consistently creative and insightful people are explorers. They spend an enormous amount of time seeking out new people and different ideas, without necessarily trying very hard to find the “best” people or “best” ideas. Instead, they seek out people with different views and different ideas.”  -Alex Pentland Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread-The Lessons from a New Science

There is no other option in today’s world. Organizations must learn. Individuals must learn. It is imperative for relevance in the exponential economy. It is vital for the adaptive challenges that we must face now and in the future as individual and as organizations.

And we must realize that this is a complimentary process. A push and pull at all levels if we are to create not only better engagement, but better systems for our individuals and organizations. Our future growth depends on our ability to learn.

Today’s leaders must acquire a ‘learner’ mindset in order to continually feed the creativity and innovation engine with an ongoing flow of new thinking and ideas…

But how often are we really truly feeding the system with new learning that cascades across the entirety of the organizational landscape? More importantly, how often are we just rehashing what already exists and trying to wrap it up in a new package? Or have we just become an echo chamber of current ideology, unable to see the future for the mental models of the past?

And how often are we really engaged in a divergent process of gathering new ideas and learning, while creating the processes and structures that bring those ideas to the organizational table?  

Or do we find that our idea tables are laid bare while our innovative engines run dry by the fear and judgment that exists across our organizations? Or do we find that our idea wells run barren from an unwillingness to engage in these processes and structures for the bureaucracy, hierarchy and command and control structures that proliferate and inhibit our systems?

If so, a bit of disruption and positive chaos may be necessary to rev up our organizational and even individual idea engines.  

Especially if that flow has run dry, leaving our organizations barren and void of the creative and innovative thinking necessary to push us effectively into an often turbulent and uncertain future. As Brafman shares in The Chaos Imperative, a bit of white space, a few unusual suspects, or the infusion of intentional serendipity might be necessary to provide the fuel to reignite our idea engines.

To provide the fuel to spark more creative and innovative thinking and ideas at all levels of our organization.

However, most organizations find that they are still mired in the silos and hierarchy that diminish and extinguish these opportunities for improved ‘idea flow’. Tearing down those obstacles will be a matter of leadership design, if we are to create the environments that allow for new learning and thinking to cascade across all levels of the organizational landscape.

Design, not happenstance will be required to spark this type of electric environment where our organizations work more like enhanced networks, mobilizing more quickly and more effectively to bring new learning to light and action.

It is in these networked environments that we allow more autonomy to effectively do what Pertland describes in Social Physics as having the ability to “harvest, winnow and sculpt” the ideas and thinking that allow our individuals and organizations to learn better and faster.

Which will lead our organizations to not only work better as systems, but become collectively more creative and innovative.  

It is collective capacity that is built in these networked learning environments that allow our organizations to not only move past efficiency, but to become more effective and eventually create the collective impact that leads to deep influence. Allowing our organizations and all within to become more cognizant of their own capacity to effect change.

Eventually leading to more informed, more dynamic, more interactive, more vibrant, and more influential and impactful organizations. Allowing our organizations to become more fluid, less stagnant structures that enhance the ability of each individual and the entire organization to see not only their own growth, but how they feed, support and influence real impact.

“We are now coming to realize that human behavior is determined as much by social context as by rational thinking” -Alex Pentland Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread-The Lessons form a New Science

Designing The Ecosystem Of The Future

“Conventional beliefs only ever come to appear arbitrary and wrong in retrospect; whenever one collapses, we call the old belief a bubble. But the distortions caused by bubbles don’t disappear when they pop. The first step to thinking clearly is to question what we think we know about the past.” –Peter Thiel Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build The Future

One of the most difficult things we will have to do in the current role of  leadership, will be to effectively evolve ourselves and our organizations into the future. It will require us to untie ourselves from many of the mental models of the past that keep us mired and secured in our status quo ways of doing things and operating.

This idea that what has always been will always be…

In a world that is changing at an exponential rate, irrelevance to ‘what has always been’ erupts and expands its scope in a much broader and more encompassing manner. The turbulence of change can not only be paralyzing to action and change, it can cause us to recoil to past practices and mental models that provide a calming feeling of comfort and safety. And at the same time, unfortunately shielding us from the organizational dysfunction and irrelevance they are manifesting in their cradling cocoon.

We have to be able to move past those practices, structures and models that inhibit growth and experimental, discovery learning, to rethink, reframe and redesign how we will move into this new and often very uncomfortable future that is evolving and unfolding itself in real time.

We have to be able to consider the idea that Peter Thiel purports in Zero to One, that “Today’s ‘best practices’ lead to dead ends; the best paths are new and untried.” The creative and innovative thinking necessary for operating effectively in today’s societal landscape requires that we think different, operate different, communicate different, and lead different.

As Peter Thiel shares, “Far more important are questions about the future: is it a matter of chance or design.” It is with that thought, that we realize we are going to have to learn to design a better way forward. And how effectively we evolve into the future will be a matter of how effectively we design that very same future. How effectively we learn, create and innovate will be determined by the design of the organizational environments that we create.

In Warren Berger’s book Glimmer: How Design Can Transform Your Life, And Maybe Even The World, he shares that there are “key lessons for designing for emergence” which he defines as:

  1. Design your immediate surrounding (your ecosystem) in a manner that is self-sustaining and conducive to growth.
  2. Develop a strong, supportive relationship with the community around you.
  3. Keep learning.
  4. Keep creating and reinventing.

These 4 “key lessons” are valuable to keep in mind as we think of how we effectively evolve into the future as individuals, as leaders and as organizations.

How effective we are creating the future will not be a matter of happenstance, but a very intentional design of our systems. It is in this space and thinking that we begin to see and hear the glimmers of coherence and alignment. A new beacon of clarity that can actually drive us forward in a meaningful way.

“The most contrarian thing of all is not to oppose the crowd but to think for yourself.” –Peter Thiel Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future

Descaling The Uncertainty And Ambiguity Factor

We cannot conquer ambiguity and uncertainty, but we can learn to adapt to it as individuals and organizations. We can learn to exist more effectively in its arena of anxiety.

We exist in a time of misalignment. A time where coherence and clarity find themselves muted from a world in flux. A time of overwhelming change spurred forward by a renewed sense of pace and urgency.

A time when we find ourselves struggling to discover and decipher a ‘signal’ in an accelerated and all-consuming noise that has steadily determined to envelop us.

And in the midst of these turbulent and often chaotic shifts, we continue to search for some semblance of control. We look to reengage the stability and predictability that we fear we’ve lost to a world that is spinning more and more out of control.

In the oncoming rush of an unknown future, we look more and more fervently to the protective practices of the past.

Even in the midst of the disintegrating effectiveness of our current and previous mental and organizational models, we find ourselves determined to push them forward. Instead of moving into this new future with a thriving sense of excitement, we find ourselves entrenched in fear and apprehension, hiding ourselves from the opportunities that are willingly presenting themselves.

Instead, we hold tighter and pull harder on the reins that we hope to pull us back, than releasing to the mounting and unbridled momentum that lies before us. An opportunity for new beginnings and new awakenings of a new journey.

However, the unknown future that awaits us will require a shedding of the old and a cognitive cleansing of the mental models that often mire us in dread and trepidation of what is to come.

If we are to move through this window of opportunity, we must prepare ourselves to be much more agile and adaptable to the new…

Confusion and not-knowing will be a difficult part of this change process. We will find ourselves involved more and more in experimental and discovery learning. In as much as we will have to think, we will also have to ‘act’ our way forward.

What we will begin to realize, in the midst and swirl of the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of this new world that we find ourselves pulling back from, is exactly where the core of creativity and innovation transpire and ultimately exist. Not in the predictable past, but in the turbulence of this new future.

Which is the opportunity that awaits us when we learn to traverse through, rather than recoil from this foggy future that surrounds us.

Instead of fear and apprehension, we must see the opportunity that presents itself and stake our mental playground right in the midst of this chaos. Allowing this turbulence to create momentum for more creative and innovative thinking and ideas that provide a beacon, ‘a signal in the noise’ that pulls us through this murky and foggy future that lies before us.

It is here that we tip the scales of fear and alarm that entrench us in the practices and mental models of the past. It is here that we allow uncertainty and ambiguity to push us forward more effectively into this new and evolving world.

It is here in our open-mindedness to ideas of the new that we actively navigate a new path through this foggy future.