The Future: And The Paradox Of Uncertainty

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“Stories of the past and the present can be based on facts, but a story of the future is just a story. The problem is that the stories we most commonly tell about the future simply extrapolate from the present.” -via Harvard Business Review

In the midst of difficult times, leaders who haven’t spent time leaning into uncertainty or the unknown, can often feel overwhelmed or suspended in a deep sense of individual and organizational disequilibrium. It is in this space, often to gain some semblance of stability, that leaders have a tendency to turn to or play on “inspiration” as their strategic card. It is where they determine to double down, especially when the uncertainty is overwhelming, to rally their individuals, teams and the organization as a whole.

Which might seem like a plausible and positive strategy at first glance. Especially since it seems to be so pervasive right now in organizations under the context of current circumstances.

However, in retrospect, what many leaders fail to realize is that “inspiration” in and of itself, especially in the midst of a crisis, is short-lived in its effect and usefulness. In many ways, it is like cotton candy at the carnival. It may taste good at the moment, and amidst all of the spectacle and excitement, but ultimately, it leaves you unfulfilled and empty. Inspiration, while good at the moment, is lacking any substance or long term substantive power to push those within and the organization as a whole through the difficult terrain of current circumstances. Of the formidable forces of what lies before us, and what also lies ahead.

In the midst of any type of deep disruption, difficulty or crisis, individuals, teams and organizations are often left reeling and rocking in the disequilibrium of the moment. Those same individuals and teams are looking for something more substantial from their leaders and their organization.

When leaders provide the 2C’s, when they are able to engage the AND of both compassion and competency, they can provide a sense of steadfastness in the face of the disruptive, crisis-created instability.

In crisis-mode, individuals are looking for their leaders to engage the compassion, empathy and understanding to truly see them, to see what they are going through. And yet, that is not enough, as they are also looking to their leaders to be equipped with the competency to not only effectively lead them and the organization through these current circumstances, but to provide opportunity to discover and find their own agency, to gain new capacities and competencies that bestow a sense of autonomy and ability to allow them to effectively problem-solve and make necessary and needed decisions at the front lines, when adaptability is most needed and required.

Effectively allowing them to lead up…

When leaders are equipped with both compassion and competency, individuals, teams and the organization as a whole feel more inclined to lean into the ambiguity, uncertainty, and unknowns during difficult times. Which is vital to any organization remaining relevant in the 21st century as each of those are both heightened and amplified by-products of existing in today’s complex, dilemma-ridden environments that most organizations exist within.

Braiding compassion and competency allows leaders to begin to create the team and organizational environment where people can begin to engage in the process of making the future a more tangible and visible space and place.

Which will be incredibly important, as both individuals and the organization they work within will have to be willing to build up ongoing capacity to move more effectively into this creative space. They will have to build in and continuously support the psychological safety that will allow them and their teams to engage in the messy methods and learning necessary to engage the thinking that allows the organization to move into the future in a more relevant manner. As it will require a real vulnerability and openness in order to begin the process of dismantling and unlearning the thinking, strategies, processes, structures, knowledge, and mental models that keep both them and the organization entrenched in practices that have often become outdated or outlived their viability and usefulness.

In many ways, people will be required to engage in rapid reframing to allow them to gain momentum towards parallel pacing our current context and circumstances. Especially, in current conditions, where change is often abrupt, accelerated, and non-obvious, the ability to pivot and iterate towards new narratives and scenarios will be paramount. Requiring not only the unlearning of outdated and outlived practices, mindsets and mental models that impede progress and constrain our view of the future, but will also necessitate the ability to accelerate the acquisition, spread, and ossification of new learning and knowledge, at scale.

Rapid reframing alongside this rapid infusion of knowledge will allow individuals, teams and the organization as a whole to begin to construct new narratives and new scenarios that open up new possibilities for the future. This dynamic interplay of rapid reframing and knowledge infusion will allow the organization to engage in a much more divergent approach to their scenario planning, opening up new avenues and unforeseen prospects for the future. Allowing people to connect often unforeseen dots to the opportunities emerging in this creative process of strategically designing  their way forward into the future.

Pushing individuals and teams into these spaces, can be difficult cognitively and emotionally. Especially in the beginning. Which is why both leadership compassion and competency will be vital towards next steps. And it will require new leadership capacities, as this work is neither linear nor predictable, and often incredibly messy and uncomfortable. It requires us to cast aside past bias’ and assumptions that negatively constrain us in the present and limit the future narratives and scenarios that we are able to collaboratively construct and create.

As Hardin Tibbs adds, we must remember that, “One key to unlocking this puzzle is to think about the future itself in a different way.”  For which he adds, “This reframing of the future as a psychological space yields powerful insights. Not only does it tell us that the future is a much more confused place than we like to think, but more importantly, it recasts uncertainty as a fundamental source of strategic motivation.”

Which is the paradox of uncertainty that we often don’t realize…

Which is often at odds with how we think about the future. Too often we see the future as this wild animal racing at us, uncertain in how it will come at us. Will it be rabid or docile?  Will it come at me slowly or with rapid pace? Will it leave me be or attack ferociously? Can it be tamed or will it run wild? Will it sprint past me or grab me and carry me with it? All very good questions, but lacking in any certainty towards our current or future situation.

For that reason, we often find the ambiguity and uncertainty of the future, much like those questions, as a negative state, as it is something we can neither predict or control. Which is why a reframe of and towards the uncertainty of the future is important, especially in our current context.

As Hardin Tibbs adds, “But the intrinsic open-endedness of the future, its genuine indeterminacy, is precisely the thing that gives us the potential for improvement and development – whether personal or organizational.” Of which he clarifies, “Put another way, to act effectively we need as much information as possible but if we had full information we would be paralyzed and unable to act.”

What Tibbs is trying to get across is that a certain and determined future is not a positive; neither is it worth fighting or working towards, as we can do little to change or guide its course.

It is in the ambiguity and uncertainty of the future that we are actually allowed the realization that the future is neither pre-set or pre-determined. It is with that understanding that we realize the future will require us to strategically create the conditions that allow for a more positive future to emerge. That it is entirely up to us to begin to create the narratives and scenarios that can begin to bring those futures into being. Or as Tibbs illustrates, “This approach to the future provides a way of achieving psychological clarity about our understanding and use of the future. It also allows the future itself to be used as an integrating strategic framework.”  

Which then allows us to approach the future from more of a verb stance, being much less rooted in a noun approach. For it is in the midst of this ambiguity and uncertainty, where the verb stance allows us to consider the strategic construction and design of new futures and new possibilities, that a better future and a better world will be realized.

For our individuals and our organizations.

“Reframing helps people to become mindful of the frame they have been using to make sense of and intervene in the world, as well as what is left out of this frame. By rehearsing actions with these alternative frames, new and better options for action can be identified and contribute to a reperception of the present situation.”  -Rafael Ramirez via Strategic Reframing  

The Future Will Be Both Learned And Unlearned

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“The curious thing is that with these exponential changes, so much of what we currently know is just getting to be wrong. So many of our assumptions are getting to be wrong. As so, as we move forward, not only is it going to be a question of learning it is also going to be a question of unlearning.”  -John Seely Brown

We live in a time of deep fog, providing us murky views of a future clouded in ambiguity, uncertainty and a plethora of unknowns. A time proliferated by dynamic and competing tensions, amplified frictions pulling and tugging us through an ongoing reel of plausible and possible future scenarios and narratives.

In many ways, our current context feels as if we are reminiscing through Willie Wonka’s tunnel of terror boat ride. Much like the movie, for some, the tunnel proved to be an exhilarating joy to be experienced, while for other passengers, it was an expedition that proved itself to be an entirely terrifying event. A journey into the unknown that they could not wait too disembark from.

And only to make matters worse, as the ride accelerated, Willie Wonka continued to add to their growing unease with an ongoing litany of agitated and somewhat disturbed vocals…

“There is no earthly way of knowing which direction we are going?”

“There is no knowing where we are rowing, or which way the river’s flowing?”

“The danger must be growing, for the rowers keep on rowing, and they are certainly not showing, any signs that they are slowing!”

For many of us, it feels as if we are currently riding through Willie Wonka’s tunnel, not sure “which direction we are going?” Not sure, “Where we are rowing?” And definitely sure it is “Certainly not showing any signs that it is slowing!”

We are struggling, struggling to determine where the present is taking us and what future awaits us at the other end of this tunnel and ride we are on. While, at the very same time, each of us is perceiving the journey in our own way, through our own lens, our own mental models, activated by our own context and circumstances.

As any disruptive change will effectively do, it is amplifying the tensions of our times…

In the midst of any disruption, change does not always come at us in ways we expect or have time to prepare for. Many disruptions can be disarming in their often abrupt arrival, requiring deep reframing and adjustments to our mental models so that we can just begin to make sense of the current circumstances and context that we now find ourselves thrust into. Which means, if we have allowed our mental models to exist in stasis, to be structured in static understandings based in outdated and often irrelevant frameworks, we might find our current circumstances and context to be overwhelming, to say the least.

In many ways, in regards to our mental models, we can unfortunately create our own personal fog that internally confines us from cognitively connecting and from building deeper awareness towards the external changes we are experiencing and the disruptions that may very well be coming for and at us.

When mental models become entrenched, change is something we insulate from, rather than lean into…

In today’s world, one of accelerated and often disruptive change, we have to continually tune and retune our mental models. We have to create the cognitive “beta” space that allows us to continuously involve ourselves in iterating our mental models to our context, our circumstances, and the myriad of factors that are having deep and dynamic influence upon that environment, physically, emotionally, and cognitively. Which takes us back to that idea of competing tensions…

Especially the competing tensions of knowing and not knowing, the tension between learning and unlearning, and what that tension requires of us.

We live in a time when our mental models are constantly being challenged, which means we need to constantly challenge our mental models. We have to engage our own internal talk towards allowing us to continuously question our current understandings and assumptions, and not allow us to entrench in those same understandings and assumptions. Which, will undoubtedly require an intentional willingness to consciously reflect, provoke, inquire, investigate, alter, and revamp our mental models.

On an ongoing basis…

And to complete this cycle (ongoing and iterative), we must be willing to not only learn, but also create cognitive space for new learning by intentionally unlearning the knowledge, behaviors, understandings, assumptions, and misconceptions that are not only no longer useful or valid, but tend to keep our mental models suspended in the status quo, hurtling towards future irrelevancy.

It will only be through this cognitive intentionality, combined with a greater awareness towards present changes, as well as a forecasting of possible disruptions that loom on the horizon…

That we can begin to determine our learning voids, as well as a unlearning needs.

It is this iterative cycle of learning and unlearning, of ossifying and chipping away, that we can begin to mentally move in much more agile and adaptive ways. It is in these cycles of learning and unlearning that we become much more open too engaging a variety of lens’ that allows for a diversity and divergence in our thinking and how we frame both change, and even disruption. It is in this cognitive space that we allow new possibilities to be considered. It is in this space where we allow new insights to color our lens and provoke new frames of connection and understanding. It is in this space that we create opportunity for our internal and external worlds to learn to parallel pace each other.

And it is in this space that new interpretations of the future can be imagined moving forward…

It is in this space that we not only evolve, but allow for a much more authentic emergence of our mental models that open up new capacity towards the future. It is here that our capabilities are stretched, new core competencies are discovered and determined, ultimately moving and shifting our mental models into a more adaptive and agile state.

It is in this space that learning and unlearning take on a new importance.

“We must be willing to sit on the edge of mystery and unlearn what has helped guide us in the past but is no longer useful.”  -Robert Wicks

 

Leadership Challenges: The Tensions Of Our Times

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“Do we still remember the question we are trying to answer?  Or have we substituted an easier one?”  -Daniel Kahneman Thinking, Fast and Slow

We really have to consider, what questions are we asking, of ourselves and of our organizations? And more importantly, what questions do we really need to be asking, but still aren’t? And if we aren’t asking any questions, why not? What is keeping us from asking the questions that we need to be asking, especially in the face of the current crisis we are facing?

In short order, what we’ve come to realize, is that there is no playbook for a pandemic, there is no binder for adapting effectively under uncertain circumstances, and there are no easy answers for pushing through the disequilibrium created by a crisis.

Which is why, unfortunately, much of our Type-A (Answer-Driven) leadership often finds itself ill-equipped and ill-suited for the ambiguity that arrives with the adaptive challenges we currently, and will continue to face in the future. The solution-nature of Type-A (Answer-Driven) leadership ill-affords itself the time and or space to ask the necessary questions, as well as engage the strategic stance needed to determine what is truly emerging amidst the chaos of the crisis.

In the midst of this dilemma-driven complexity, leaders have a tendency to become solution-focused, rather than question-centered. Which is unfortunate, as solutions tend to provide a sense of security, a sense of safety in the midst of chaos and calamity that these challenges can evoke. Even when that sense of security and safety is false. Answers placates. Solutions soothe. Which ultimately diminishes the creative and innovative thinking that is needed in the midst of these situations. It narrows our focus and converges, rather than diverges our thinking.

While solutions placate, questions stimulate and summon up the new thinking, new ideas, and new strategies and solutions that are needed to effectively meet the current challenge or crisis being faced in a much more open and diversified manner.

However, as answers tend to placate and solutions soothe, questions can create dissonance and evoke tension. Which means that leaders will need to learn how to allow themselves to stand steadfast in the midst of these growing tensions that these challenges elicit. In many ways, it necessitates that leaders become much more aware and intentional in effectively traversing the tension and chasm that stands between fast and slow thinking, between action and strategy. To walk this thin tightrope between order and chaos, knowing that moving too far to one side or the other has the real possibility for negative ramifications, often plunging our organizations into even more difficult circumstances.

Awareness and intentionality towards these tensions, though, can allow leaders and organizations to move more effectively in the chasm or space that separates each side from the other. Or as Peter Senge adds, “The key to success isn’t just thinking about what we are doing, but doing something about what we are thinking.” And vice-versa. It is in becoming much more comfortable with the uncomfortableness that these tensions place on our organizations and our leadership, both now and in the future.

It is in our willingness to exist in the midst of these tensions, to engage in the questions that they provoke, rather than solutions that placate, that we can ultimately begin to provide space for new thinking, new ideas, and new learnings to emerge.

We have to step back and ask ourselves what is emerging in the midst of this crisis? What are we learning and how are we evolving in response to this current challenge? How will these new understandings and learnings that are emerging give rise to the core competencies and capabilities that allows us move forward more effectively and relevantly into this new future?

Especially when we are facing a world that no longer resembles the world in which we lived in just a short time prior. Especially when our mental models are continuously pushing us back to a past that no longer exists. Or as Peter Senge shares, “Like a pane of glass framing and subtly distorting our vision, mental models determine what we see.”

Which will require new visions for the future.

Meaning that we will have to determine how we build up organizational learnings, effectively cascade new idea flows, and determine how to engage new capacities at scale, often through environments that no longer resemble past practices, processes and procedures. We will have to move to support our individuals and organizations in evolving in ways that allow them to shift and adapt more adeptly, to ideate and pivot more fluidly, and respond more aptly to the accelerated rates of change that continue to shift and shake the very foundations of what we once considered to be societal pillars.

When we come to the realization that the speed of change has not only accelerated, but has surpassed our ability to parallel pace it, we will also move towards the understanding that our ability to learn faster and to connect that learning in a myriad of new manners is vital to our individual and organizational futures. It is in that space that we can then begin to push our individual and organizational thinking towards a greater sense of inquiry, curiosity, creativity, and innovative behaviors that allow new questions and ultimately, new and novel solutions to emerge. Effectively, allowing not only new knowledge to spread through our internal and external networks, but ossifying itself in new ways of doing and being, thereby creating environments where new knowledge can not only be consumed, but also created.

Leaders who can learn to effectively manage these tensions, will better prepare individuals for organizational environments for a future that is more ambiguous and uncertain. In the midst of these tensions, individuals and organizations can learn to push past the lid, the lid that often binds us to future obsolescence, especially for those unwilling or unable to learn faster, connect quicker and wider, shift in a more agile manner, and eventually adapt more appropriately to context in constant flux.

“Through learning we re-create ourselves. Through learning we become able to do something we never were able to do. Through learning we re-perceive the world and our relationship to it. Through learning we extend our capacity to create, to be part of the generative process of life.”  -Peter Senge