Learning In And Through Times Of Crisis, Chaos And Disruption (Part 1)

“The ability of organizations to successfully evolve is ultimately determined by the capability of their staff. Transformation of the organization is inextricably linked to the transformation of individuals and for that to be a reality, learning has to be at the core.”  -Peter Chase via Driving the New Learning Organization

In many ways, crisis, chaos and disruption are all around us, externally exerting its influence upon our individuals and organizations, while having dynamic impact upon our internal strategies, processes, networks, structures, and systems. Which means that evolving, be that individually and/or organizationally amidst these volatile, uncertain, complex, and often ambiguous (vuca) environments, can be a daunting, almost overwhelming proposition to say the least.

Meaning that too often, we find ourselves and our organizations recoiling back to the practices of the past and entrenching and insulating ourselves in the comfort of the known, especially when those strategies and practices have proved to be previously successful. However comforting that may be, we must realize that fixating on and celebrating the past, will ultimately limit our individuals and organizations, while simultaneously creating a passivity towards the future. A passivity that we can ill-afford to allow, as the past can no longer serve as a liability for the future. Especially in the midst of the current exponential and unprecedented shifts we are facing.

We can ill-afford in today’s world to continue to choose the safety of the known over the necessity to step out into this uncertain and ambiguous unknown that is hovering ominously above and all around us.

In fact, we can ill-afford to face the future with apprehension, fear and doubt. Rather we must approach it with sense of curiosity, with a new found willingness to grow, and to continuously seek out new learning and knowledge. We must create the individual and organizational mindsets that focus us on continuous improvement in order that we may override the complacency that fear creates, if we are to engage the necessary agility, adaptability and learnability required to overcome the overwhelming feeling that VUCA-infused environments can create, for both individuals and organizations.

However, learning (and unlearning), especially learning that leads to change and transformation in the midst of crisis can be more difficult than it sounds, even though it serves as the most promising way to move forward amidst any type of crisis, disaster or disruption.

As crisis expert Kenny Meesters puts forth in the Tillburg University magazine, “Can we learn from a crisis?” is a mantra we must be willing to authentically explore. A simple, but extremely complex question that we must continue to ask of ourselves, our leadership and our organizations. It serves as a defining question in today’s VUCA environments, especially when we know that learning serves as the vehicle that will drive us more effectively through these crisis-laden and disruptive environments. Which means, building up our understanding of the different phases of a crisis can provide a foundation for designing individual and organizational learning opportunities to be absorptive and effective for the future.  For which Meesters shares that, “You can divide a crisis into three phases.”

  • Immediate Response Phase – this is the phase that he refers to as happening immediately following the crisis, disaster, etc. It is a time of unity and support. “What you see is that people start helping each other to alleviate the suffering, there is understanding and solidarity.” It is also a phase that Meesters refers to as being relatively short.
  • Relief Phase – this is a somewhat longer and more complex phase, in which, “As time passes, interest starts to flag. It becomes more difficult to sustain all the initiatives that have been developed.” Meesters adds that this is a phase of time when the needs and far-reaching consequences become much more clear for the short-term and the long-term. For which he adds, “At the same time, the long-term impact also takes its toll; people become fatigued and energy runs out.”
  • Recovery Phase – Meesters shares, “In the recovery phase, unity disintegrates.” This is the phase where the crisis has ended and there is a need to get back on track. “In this phase, difficult choices have to be made.” This is the phase where those adaptive challenges, dilemmas and polarities become much more prevalent and visible. Not only is this the longest phase, it is also the phase where, “The unity that was abundant in the first phase disintegrates.”

When leaders acknowledge these phases in the midst of a crisis or disruption, it allows for a more intentional design towards learning in these VUCA-infused environments that we find ourselves thrust into. In many ways, we can now begin to see these three phases playing out in various ways across the time span of this pandemic that we currently find ourselves in. Consider how the early unified (phase one) conversations of tipping point transformation have in some ways trickled down over time into (phase three) challenges and dilemmas of how do we actually just get our organizations up and running in a safe, effective and meaningful manner. Which is why change and transformation is difficult to sustain amidst a crisis, disaster or disruption. And why learning (new learning and unlearning) remains at the core of moving individuals and organizations forward in the midst of a crisis, disaster or disruption.

As organization theorist Bill Starbuck shares, we struggle to learn in and from a crisis as “the emotional aspects in cognition make it difficult for people to learn from events considered one-off exceptions or rare.” For which he adds, “reactions to the uncertainty include wishful thinking, substituting prior beliefs for analysis, biasing probability distributions towards certainties, searching for more data, acting cautiously, and playing to audiences.” For these reasons, today’s leaders will need to be much more intentional towards the design of learning in the midst of any crisis or disruption across our spaces, environments and systems; if we are to evolve more fluidly and relevantly into the future as both individuals and organizations. Otherwise, as we move through the different phases of a crisis, we will often tend over time to recoil back to the practices of the past and the comfort of the known. Back to the status quo ways of doing and being that preceded the crisis or disruption. Which will then require and necessitate a deep level of intentionality from leaders towards learning in and through these environments. Or as Hallie Preskill and Joelle Cook share in their article Learning in a Time of Crisis“Learning in times of crisis requires seizing opportunities for reflection that include creating spaces to think, slowing down, being mindful, and paying attention, creating new patterns of thinking, surfacing alternative interpretations, and creating new theories of action.”

For which Preskill and Cook turn us toward the work of Donald Schon in creating the time and space to engage in reflection across our organizational ecosystems. Or as Schon puts forth in The Reflective Practitioner, we should be engaging in three types of reflection. Reflections that can be utilized to support and intentionally design for engagement of learning in the midst of a crisis or disruption:

  • Reflection on Action – looking back on personal and group experiences to evaluate reasoning processes used
  • Reflection in Action – occurs as we watch ourselves in action
  • Reflection for Action – refers to the predictive process for forecasting how we will use what we have learned based on the previous two forms of reflection

Intentionally creating processes and designing safe spaces and opportunities for learning amidst a crisis will be vital and imperative work in guiding our organizations through VUCA-infused environments and to lead them in a more relevant manner for the future. When individuals and organizations are not learning and evolving on an ongoing basis, they dry out, often becoming brittle and fragile towards new thinking, new knowledge, change and ultimately transformation.

Learning provides the ability to wade through the complexity that accompanies any crisis or disruption, engaging individuals and the organization with the curiosity to search out the ideas and skillsets that allow us to begin to traverse through the uncertainty, ambiguity and unknowns that these situations inevitably evoke. In the end, learning (and unlearning) can allow individuals and organizations to begin to overcome the set-in brittleness and fragility that stasis and status quo ways of doing and thinking from the past. And to keep that past from entrenching our individuals and organizations in the future.

“It is rather well-established that in VUCA environments, organizations do better if they self-identify and commit to being a learning organization. In fact, co-creative and collaborative organizational learning has been defined as an imminent requirement in a VUCA world.”  -via Strategic Management: How and Why to Redefine Organizational Strategy in Today’s VUCA World