Building Adaptive Capacity: The Rise of The Dilemma

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“The dilemmas of the future will be more grating, more gnawing, and more likely to induce feelings of hopelessness.  Leaders must be able to flip dilemmas around and find the hidden opportunities.  Leaders must avoid oversimplifying or pretending that dilemmas are problems that can be solved.  Dilemma flipping is a skill that leaders will need in order to win in a world dominated by problems that nobody can solve.”  -Bob Johansen Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World

In an age proliferated by the exponential rise of adaptive challenges and unsolvable dilemmas, we still find that our organizational environments and cultures remain awash in a sense of solutionitis.  In the face of these challenges and dilemmas, we see leaders and organizations inevitably switch to choosing veneer answers and short-term solutions, when, in fact, deeper questions and long-term considerations are not only what is needed, but are in their best interest for future relevance in a world aimed at accelerated obsolescence.

Too often we treat these adaptive challenges and dilemmas as problems to be quickly dismissed and solved, we jump to simplicity without gaining a full grasp of their complexity, we shape a solution without diving deeper to determine the depth of the challenge, and we continue to formulate our answers before we truly comprehend whether or not we are asking the right questions.

In a sense, we thrive on this want and need to provide certainty in a time of great uncertainty.

Unfortunately, the more we try to provide this sense of certainty to these challenges, the more we tend to jump into solutionitis mode.  And yet, what we find is that the more we work to engage short-term fixes to these dilemmas we now face, the more we create individual and organizational confusion, frustration, dysfunction and disconnection are created.

Rather, in the midst of these dilemmas and adaptive challenges, we must move from being solution-focused to opportunity-open.  

In the fog of this uncertainty, complexity and even chaos that arrives with these challenges, we must learn to be open to the new opportunities that they create for us and our organizations.  As Bob Johansen shares in Leaders Make the Future, “The challenge for leaders is to flip a dilemma into an opportunity.”  Or, for which he adds, “Dilemma flippers have the ability to make their way through hopelessness into hope.”

Which often starts when leaders building their capacity and ability to more effectively determine whether they are facing a problem, or a dilemma or adaptive challenge.  Understanding the difference between the two and engaging strategies and processes to approach them more effectively can lead to greater individual and organizational clarity and coherence in moving forward into the future.

Google shares that “the difference between a problem and dilemma is that problem is a difficulty that has to be resolved or dealt with while dilemma is a circumstance in which a choice must be made between two or more alternatives that seem equally undesirable.”  In Leaders Make the Future, Bob Johansen adds that “dilemmas of the future have the following characteristics: unsolvable, recurrent, complex and messy, threatening, confusing, puzzling, and potentially positive.”  While, Ronald Heifitz reminds us as we approach this work of dealing with dilemmas is that, “The single biggest failure of leadership is to treat adaptive challenges like technical problems.”

In Leaders Make the Future, Ingar Skaug from the Center for Creative Leadership, shares a few techniques in dealing more effectively with dilemmas and complex challenges…

  1. Stand in different places: I can change my point of view by turning the problem upside down.”
  2. Using lenses from other domains: If I am a scientist, I may visualize the dilemma from the point of view of a policymaker.”
  3. Ask powerful questions: I can immerse myself in possible scenarios and “what ifs.”
  4. Foster new knowledge: I can spend time with others who are impacted by this dilemma and understand their point of view.”
  5. Create an innovation journal: It can be public or private way to think through my questions.”
  6. Change the pace of attention: I can change the speed at which I approach the dilemma.”

In the end, greater clarity and coherence is created when we truly understand whether we are facing a problem or an adaptive challenge or dilemma, as well as being able to create the appropriate individual and organizational expectations towards the outcomes we are seeking to each one, which is incredibly important in times of greater uncertainty and complexity.

Which often starts by understanding that what worked in the past will not necessarily work in the future…and may just be the first step in understanding this tremendous and exponential shift from technical problems to a world now awash in dilemmas and adaptive challenges.

“Making the future starts with listening and making sense.”  -Bob Johansen Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World

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