Designing For Disequilibrium

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“In today’s world, change is inevitable.  And if you’re only striving for equilibrium – which is all but impossible – you will merely continue doing the same thing, year after year as the world moves on.”  -Chris Cancialosi via Forbes

Too often, we see variance and disequilibrium as a problem to be eradicated in our organizations, rather than an opportunity for change that comes through the experimental and discovery learning that leads to new knowledge.  Rather, leaders often spend their time striving for the safety of organizational equilibrium, stability and sustainability, especially in the face of a world in the throes of accelerated and volatile shifts, growing complexity, and very often, the chaos of constant change.  And yet, according to Porter-O’Grady and Malloch in Quantum Leadership, “In systems language, stability is another word for death.  Absolute stability is the absence of life.  The leader always walks a tightrope between stability and chaos, tending to favor the latter.”

However, only striving for organizational equilibrium, in a subtle way, emphasizes a sense of individual and organizational complacency that often leads to behaviors and mindsets that mire the organization in status quo ways of being and doing.  Instead of gaining more agile and adaptable ways of responding, the organization that focuses only on stability and equilibrium, instead tends to recoil from the constancy and volatility of change, forcing itself towards a much more insulated and polarized stance towards the change forces that we are all facing in today’s world.

Focusing only on sustaining forces keeps our individuals and organizations from engaging in and equipping themselves with those processes and learnings that lead to greater agility and adaptability.  As Gary Hamel shares in The Future of Management, “In the 21st century, regularity doesn’t produce superior performance.”  Which we may want to add, we exist, especially organizationally, in a world that is expecting its individuals to equip themselves with greater creative and innovative thinking in order to engage the critical and complex problem-solving skills that allow for the solving of problems and challenges that we have never experienced previously, in new, novel, and often unpredictable ways.

When we design and prepare our organizations with the understanding that perpetual volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (vuca) is becoming the new normal, we don’t try to exist under the “false” interpretation that we will eventually be moving back towards what we previously understood to be “normal.”  Rather than fighting for regularity, predictability and stability, the organization takes on a mindset that drives the mindset and accompanying behaviors towards seeing greater agility and adaptability as the new “normal” for moving forward.  There is no longer any false pretense of working towards an environment and world that no longer exists and, for the most part, is not coming back in the near future.

In many ways, the less disequilibrium individuals and organizations learn to deal with, the less effective they become over time, especially in world that is changing at an accelerated and often exponential rate.  When individuals and organizations continuously avoid the disequilibrium and instability brought on by the uncertainty, ambiguity, and complexity of today’s world, they become much more rigid and inflexible towards change, often acting irrationally towards change, choosing for and becoming more receptive to keeping the status quo in place, even when it is not in their best interest, even in the face of oncoming disruption and irrelevance.

As Heifitz, Grashow, and Linsky share in Leadership in a (Permanent) Crisis, “People who practice what we call adaptive leadership do not make this mistake.  Instead of hunkering down, they seize the opportunity of moments like the current one to hit the organization’s reset button.  They use the turbulence of the present to build on and bring closure to the past.  In the process, they change key rules of the game, reshape parts of the organization, and redefine the work that people do.”

For which Heifitz, Grashow, and Linsky add, “Keeping an organization in a productive zone of disequilibrium is a delicate task; in the practice of leadership, you must keep your hand on the thermostat.  If the heat is consistently too low, people won’t feel the need to ask uncomfortable questions or make difficult decisions.  If it’s consistently too high, the organization risks a meltdown: People are likely to panic and hunker down.”

In leadership, as in life, individuals and organizations must ride that tension between the necessity for both equilibrium and disequilibrium.  Move too far too one side and we find ourselves sliding into comfort and complacency, move too far to the other side and we find ourselves and our organizations saddled to unbridled chaos.  In many ways, equilibrium and disequilibrium exist in much the same manner as pioneers and settlers. As both are necessary and needed.  Without pioneers, we fail to discover new lands, without settlers, we fail to settle and move into those lands.

As Heifitz, Grashow, and Linsky share, “The art of leadership in today’s world involves orchestrating the inevitable conflict, chaos, and confusion of change so that the disturbance is productive rather than destructive.”

It is in engaging individuals and organizations around that conflict, chaos and confusion, rather than avoiding and recoiling from it, that our organizations not only gain the ability to adapt, but create the ongoing capacity to adapt in a much more adept and positive manner.  This does not mean that there will be periods of difficulty and discomfort, but rather, individuals and organizations learn to see these as opportunities for growth and change that moves the organization forward in a much more effective and relevant manner.

As Chris Cancialosi shares in Forbes, “People who are able to view disequilibrium as an opportunity (rather than a threat) will be best suited to lead in today’s business environment because an organization that leans toward chaos is primed to find creative solutions to setbacks.” 

Today’s world is requiring of individuals and organizations new levels of learnability, agility and adaptability.  Insulating the organization in regularity, stability, and equilibrium does little to create the processes that will drive individuals and the organizations to greater levels of learnability, agility and adaptability.  When leaders fail to engage the tension brought on by disequilibrium, they end up creating future situations where individuals and the organization become both unwilling and unable to change, when change is necessary and needed.  It allows the organization to become ingrained in legacy practices and inflexible to change, in a world that is constantly changing.

As Heifitz and Linsky put forth, “In a chaotic period, when deconstruction is occurring at the same rate as construction or even faster, the dust of change makes it difficult for leaders to even see the goal.  Instead, they must read the signposts of change, explain to others what they mean, and engage these others in activities that will move the organization in the direction indicated by the signposts.” 

It is not enough for today’s leaders to ride the tension between equilibrium and disequilibrium.  Rather, those tensions must be used in a way that pushes both individuals and the organization towards the necessary urgency, understandings, and behaviors that lead to positive change that moves the organization more effectively and relevantly into the future.  Which requires a deeper level of awareness, agility, adaptability, and learnability, at all levels of the organization.

“The leader lives in the space between action and potential, anticipating the next step and translating the process for others.” -via Quantum Leadership 

 

 

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