Intent to Adapt: Part II

“Everything starts from a problem – but not everyone faces the problem in the same way.”  -via Juan Carlos Eichholz Adaptive Capacity: How Organizations Can Thrive In A Changing World

Mike Tyson used to say that, “Everyone has a plan…until they get punched in the face.”  The reality is, every individual, every organization, is going to get punched in the face at least one time or another.  The problem is, it is happening quicker and more often in today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world.

Change is accelerating, disruption is escalating, even our foundations are shifting…

As Peter Thiel shares in Zero to One, “Big plans for the future have become archaic curiosities.”  And it is not that strategies and plans have suddenly become useless, rather it is in the inability of our individuals and organizations to adapt when our “big plans” get “punched in the face” that often renders them ineffective to the new realities they are facing.

However, the ability of our individuals and organizations to adapt relies heavily on creating the capacity in which to do, so.  But, too often, especially in times of confusion and chaos, when capacity is lacking, and when adaptability and agility is most needed, leaders will turn to authority to fill that capacity gap.  Or as Eichholz shares in Adaptive Capacity, “The disequilibrium exceeded the adaptive capacity.”

In today’s VUCA world, we cannot believe that our individuals and organizations will be spared from the confusion, chaos and disruptions of a changing world and the adaptive challenges that arise within these shifting environments.  Or that the disequilibrium and tension that these environments create will be helped by leaders creating more structures, more rules, more hierarchy, and extending more authority, in fact, the challenges will become more exacerbated.

In fact, we need leaders who are much more engaged in strategic thinking, than strategic planning…

Leaders who are intentional in creating the organizational capacity to deal effectively with the disruption and loss that many of these adaptive challenges pose and impose upon our individuals and organizations.  In times of great upheaval, the organizations that are most effective and remain most relevant don’t turn to more authority, rather they have created the internal capacity that draws on greater levels of autonomy.

When leaders have a deeper awareness of the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity of today’s world, they understand that any “big plan” has a much greater risk being “punched in the face” at one time or another.  And it is not in if it will happen, but when and how?  Building the ongoing capacity and autonomy of the organization allows for not only greater clarity, adaptability and agility when that “punch” comes, but the ability to carry out the ‘intent’ of those plans in the midst of the chaos and confusion that arise.

So as we carry forward with the work of building greater individual and organizational capacity to better face the adaptive challenges of today and tomorrow, I leave you with these thoughts from Adaptive Capacity by Juan Carlos Eichholz…

“But leadership is difficult to put into practice because it involves challenging people instead of satisfying them, asking questions instead of giving answers, generating disequilibrium and tension instead of providing comfort and safety, allowing differences to emerge instead of pretending that they do not exist, involving people instead of giving them instructions, and, in sum, confronting people with the problem instead of facing the problem by yourself or simply ignoring it.  All of this must be done within a strong containing vessel, one that holds people together while they are living with the complexities and losses of adaptive work.”



Connecting Dots In Real Time

We’ve built the ship for efficiency, stability and sustainability…

The question now becomes, can we rebuild and recreate it for speed, agility and adaptability?

Have we noticed the world has changed, and not in subtle, but often exponential ways?

Are we aware that the speed and turbulence of change has and is accelerating at an unprecedented rate?

Can we see how disruptive this technological (fourth industrial) revolution has been and will be in the future?

In a world that often supports that tagline adapt or die, nothing less than organizational transformation is sufficient for survival in a world gone VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous).

We cannot bury our head in the sand and believe that the disruption that stands at our doorstep will pass us by unnoticed.  The shifts are too enormous to be ignored.

If we are not careful, if we remain more lethargic than proactive to the changes we do and will face, we may find our future mirroring the Parable of the Boiled Frog.  Or as Hemingway states, “gradually, then suddenly” may very well define the discovery of just how disruptive “1” degree can shift the environment in which we exist.

The ambiguity of today’s world is leaving us awash in anxiety.  Fear and uncertainty often makes us recoil from the plethora of unknowns we face, further entrenching us in status quo thinking and doing.  The permanence of the past is an illusion in today’s turbulent and accelerated world.

We can’t conquer the ambiguity and uncertainty that this new world creates, but we can learn to adapt ourselves to it. We can learn to parallel pace this heightened speed of change by becoming more agile, in adjusting quicker and more effectively to the shifts that it provokes in our individual and organizational lives.

To attain the level of adaptability and agility necessary to deal more relevantly with these exponential shifts and the new levels of complexity that accompany them, it will ultimately require us as individuals and organizations to engage in learning that: builds greater individual and organizational capacity, is more strategic and intentional, provokes intrinsic motivation, is continuous and evolving, leverages ‘best’ practices while engaging in ‘next’ practices, creates greater idea flow through the use of internal and external collaborations and networks, is based in a want for better, while being focused on the tenets and principles of continuous improvement.

Technology isn’t just driving innovation…it’s changing our mental models and disrupting the entire ecosystem of the future.

To keep pace in this new world, we will have to become much better in connecting dots in real time, and to do this, we will ultimately find that our ability to learn, and to connect that learning in new and novel ways, becomes our best advantage.

“Though we know far more about everything in it, the world has in many respects become less predictable.  Such unpredictability has happened not in spite of technological progress, but because of it.”  -via Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World

Networks: An Engine For Scaling Learning And Innovation (Part 1)

“It is not simply the brightest who have the best ideas; it is those who are best at harvesting ideas from others.  It is not only the most determined who drive change; it is those who most fully engage with like-minded people.  And it is not wealth or prestige that best motivates people; it is respect and help from peers.”  -Alex Pentland Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread – The Lessons from a New Science

We live in a hyperconnected world, which in many ways has provided us a wealth of access and answers to the challenges that we face, while adding new complexities to an already complex world.   In the midst of this hyperconnected world, we are seeing the rapid rise of networks, both informal and formal, serving as engines for new learning and innovation.  The Stanford Social Innovation Review shares, “With the rise of new digital media platforms and social networks, people are absorbing information at a greater velocity and from a wider set of channels than ever before; they are also using that information in new ways.”  For which they add, “Leadership has become distributed and collaborative.  The new reality is that leaders don’t lead alone.  We are all part of a much broader problem-solving network, with many high-performing organizations and individuals-public and private-working on different parts or the same problem or even the same part of the same problem.  The most influential members of the collaborative are increasingly harnessing new technology to share ideas, get real-time feedback, and build knowledge for the field.  Leaders are no longer just steering their own ship; they are helping a network solve problems with the best and must current thinking available.”

It is in this hyperconnected world that we are just beginning to see new distinctions drawn between what some term as communities and networks (communities vs. networks).  While there are distinctions between the two, the better option is in enhancing and leveraging both for better access to greater learning and innovation.  This is best achieved by engaging the AND of both communities AND networks.  As Team BE of Wenger-Traynor state, “For most groups, however, the aspects are combined in various ways.  A community usually involves a network or relationships.  And many networks exist because participants are all committed to some kind of joint enterprise.”  So, while we’ve become much more accustomed to working in “communities” of learning and practice within our organizations, the digital transformation and this hyperconnected world has led to an exponential rise and engagement in both formal and informal networks to support and infuse greater idea flow and new learning into our organizations, leading to better innovative value for both our individuals and organizations.  As Alex Pentland shares in Social Physics, “In the last few years, however, our lives have been transformed by networks that combine people and computers, allowing much greater participation and much faster change.”  

In Learning to Improve, Bryk and his co-authors build on this idea of AND, drawing on the work of Douglas Engelbart in what he termed Networked Improvement Communities (NIC).  It is in this Networked Improvement Community that Engelbart has created an ABC Model for Continuous Improvement.  As Bryk shares in Learning to Improve, there are “three interrelated levels of learning” which serves as the basis for this ABC Model.

Level-A which “represents the knowledge acquired by front-line workers as they engage in their practice.”

Level-B which is when “learning occurs across individuals within a workplace.”

Level-C which is when learning occurs “across institutions.”

This idea of an ABC Model for Continuous Improvement and Networked Improvement Communities was cast over 35 years ago by Engelbart in his assessment and determination that the “complexity and urgency [of world problems] are increasing exponentially, and the product of the two will soon challenge our organizations and institutions to change in quantum leaps rather than incremental steps.”

The one thing to realize is that most organizations, even individuals for that matter, do not operate well in all three (ABC) of these learning areas.  Engelbart shares that “most organizations operate in at least two dimensions,” which is most often Level A and B.

Which is where much of our future work in networks lies, especially since Level C work is vital to improving the learning and the innovative work of our individuals and organizations.

As Engelbart shares, “Most organizations already have all three activities going on, but the ‘C’ activity is generally pretty haphazard and the ‘B’ activities suffer accordingly.”  Whether Engelbart or Bryk’s work in Learning to Improve, we see an emphasis on the importance Level-C.

As Bryk adds in Learning to Improve in regards to Level-C learning, “It is an especially potent form of knowledge generated as ideas are elaborated, refined, and tests across many different contexts.  The development of Level-C learning is not a simple, naturally occurring extension of Level-A and -B learning.  Rather it requires deliberate organization.  It is catalyzed and orchestrated by a network hub and relies on appropriate technologies for rapid communications about insights developing across distributed sites.  Operating in this way enables a network to accelerate how it learns.”  For which Bryk adds, “When individual insights are systematically pooled, collective capabilities grow.  Moving this to Level-C learning radically speeds up this social learning process.  When many more individuals, operating across diverse contexts, are drawn together in a shared learning enterprise, the capacity grows exponentially.”

Understanding the value and importance of networks and the platform they provide for the acceleration of social learning is going to be vital to the future relevance of our organizations as we seek to improve both individual and organizational learning and capacity.  In a world of exponential shifts, the only true advantage to parallel pacing the speed of change that we are will be facing, will be found in how we enhance and improve our ability to learn, at pace and scale.

“It seems that the key to harvesting ideas that lead to great decisions is to learn from the successes and failures of others and to make sure that the opportunities for this sort of social learning are sufficiently diverse.”  Alex Pentland Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread-The Lessons from a New Science


The Disruption Is Near

“Every single job function we can identify is being fundamentally transformed. Even “old” industries such as construction are in the throes of disruption.” –David Rose via Exponential Organizations

In the midst of the chaos and disruption brought on by this new velocity and turbulence of change, the organizations that often fail to remain relevant going forward, are often those that choose to batten down the hatches and look to ride out the rough patches.  They look to insulate and protect themselves and the organization from these disruptive forces that are knocking at the gates.

Whereas the organizations that tend to remain relevant and even flourish, are those that are able to find the opportunity in the midst this same chaos and disruption.  They see possibilities where others see obstacles.  They approach these VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) times with a renewed sense of creativity and inventiveness.

Unfortunately, what many organizations have failed to realize in the midst of the upheaval brought on by this heightened pace of change, especially in today’s VUCA world, is that every organization, in every sector, be that education, government, or business, is ripe for creative disruption.  The question very often is not whether you will be disrupted, but how?  And in the face of this challenge, what we need to fully realize…is that we have a choice on that how.

So, if history has taught us anything, it has taught us that no one and no organization is immune or safe.

Or as Peter Drucker has shared, this is the Age of Discontinuity.

When we continue to pace everything we do in linear, incremental, and sequential ways of thinking and create our processes and build our structures to operate in this manner, while the world around us shifts to a much more non-linear, exponential manner of thinking and doing…something has to give.

Somewhere along the way the incoherence and misalignments become so incongruent that recovery is often no longer possible, irrelevance has already set in or has completely taken over and the only question left to answer is how long the organization can or will hang on.

Or as the Ismail, Malone and van Geest share in Exponential Organizations,

“One of the key issues in an exponential world…whatever understanding you have today is going to rapidly become obsolete, and so you have to continue to refresh your education about the technologies and about the organizational capabilities.  That’s going to be very challenging.  Rapid or disruptive change is something that large, matrixed organizations find extremely difficult.  Indeed, those who have attempted it have found that the organization’s “immune system” is liable to respond to the perceived threat with an attack.”

The problem is that the biggest threat to most organizations, is not the external forces at the gate, but our own inability to disrupt ourselves internally.  To build the internal ability and capacity to learn new, learn faster, become more agile and adaptive, to know when to continue the journey and when a pivot and shift is in order…or in other words, to be able to disrupt ourselves before the disruption is done to us.

Remember, the status quo will fight and push back every step of the way.

The one thing that we cannot do anymore is to allow ourselves to be caught unaware or choose to further insulate ourselves from these tremendous and overwhelming shifts that are now changing the very face of our societal systems, especially in light of how Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns and the digital transformation has shown us that, if anything, this new pace of change is doing more to accelerate and speed up than to slow down anytime in the near future.

So as you consider your organizational response, because a response is and will be necessary if you are to avoid irrelevance, I will leave you with these words from Ismail, Malone, and van Geest from their work Exponential Organizations

“History and common sense make clear that you cannot radically transform every part of an organization—and accelerate the underlying clock of that enterprise to hyper-speed—without fundamentally changing the nature of that organization.”

‘Intent’ To Adapt

“In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”  -Dwight Eisenhower

We now live in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world.  A world that has often found itself reeling in confusion from the rising complexity that surrounds and seeps into our personal and organizational lives.  Dealing with this VUCA world requires a tremendous cognitive shift from a focus on sustainability to one of adaptability.

It is no longer just a matter of being willing to change, but the agility to shift, pivot and change course as new data and information makes itself more available.  

Which has shown itself to be a very difficult proposition for many of our hierarchical, command and control, and often methodical, predictable, linear organizations that find themselves entrenched in forcing rigid structures and implementing deeply-defined processes.

We often find ourselves so steeped in creating and controlling the path, that we lose sight of the goal and destination.

Our world has shifted from one of ‘technical’ problems to one of ‘adaptive’ challenges…which necessitates engaging all levels of the organization in the learning and knowledge that promotes people to act with much more insight and autonomy.  Autonomy that is grounded in a deep understanding to the outcome and end goal, while acknowledging the need to modify and adapt when necessary and needed to better carry the organization to that destination.

An outcome that the Army has termed ‘commanders intent’.

An ‘intent’ which Pascale, Millemann and Gioja refer to in Surfing The Edge Of Chaos as, “Under this construct, combat units are encouraged to improvise and initiate, but always within the larger structure of the Commander’s Intent.  When that intent is clearly communicated, fighting units can exploit opportunities that arise, or regroup when things don’t go exactly as planned.”

For which they add, “If this information is properly managed, soldiers on the front lines are able to make decisions in real time.  Given the right tools, they can exploit opportunities and improvise in highly advantageous ways.  This competitive advantage is squandered if one conforms to the traditional Army doctrine of first running all decisions past headquarters.”

The problem with many organizations, is that we refuse the autonomy for those on the front lines to make the necessary decisions to adapt in functional, positive ways…and yet, the ‘commander’s intent’ is neither explicitly shared or known by those doing the front line work.

Inability to clearly provide ‘commander’s intent’ while withholding autonomy not only inhibits individuals and organizations from taking advantage of adaptive situations that allow the organization and individuals to grow in positive ways, it ultimately diminishes the collective capacity of the whole.

As General Gordon R. Sullivan shares in Surfing The Edge of Chaos, “The competitive advantage is nullified when you try to run decisions up and down the chain of command.  Once the commander’s intent is understood, decisions must be devolved to the lowest possible level to allow these frontline soldiers to exploit the opportunities that develop.”

In today’s VUCA world, the more we equip our people to better adapt to the challenges and problems that they face in real time, the greater the organization functions at all levels, increasing the collective intelligence, wisdom and capacity of each individual and the organization as a whole.

Or as Chad Storlie shares in Harvard Business Review, “Good Commander’s Intent allows employees and teams to adapt the plan using improvisation, initiative, and adaptation to reach the original plan objectives.”


Unlearning: The Construction And Deconstruction Of Our Mental Models

“To learn better mental models we may have to unlearn some of our existing ones.”  -Gary Klein Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for Keys to Adaptive Decision Making

If we are going to begin a discussion around mental models, we should possibly begin with a short understanding or idea of just what are mental models?

According to the Business Dictionary, mental models are…

“Beliefs, ideas, images and verbal descriptions that we consciously or unconsciously form from our experiences and which (when formed) guide our thoughts and actions within narrow channels.  These representations of perceived reality explain cause and effect to us, and lead us to expect certain results, give meaning to events, and predispose us to behave in certain ways.  Although mental models provide internal stability in a world of continuous change, they also blind us to facts and ideas that challenge or defy our deeply held beliefs.  They are by their very nature, fuzzy and incomplete.

The world is complex, as are our systems.  And as the depth of this complexity increases, we find ourselves, either consciously or unconsciously, creating mental models to help us navigate our way through the convolution created from this complexity.  Mental models that are formed to steer us through this much more intricate and complicated world that we are now facing.

And it is in the midst of this complexity, that we find ourselves searching fervently for more simplicity.  A search that both allows and forces us to build mental models that are often either imperfect or incomplete.  Mental models that can shield us from the inadequacies and blind spots that we are creating within this process.  Shielding us from faulty perceptions and thinking.

Inability to reflect upon those blind spots can inhibit and diminish our ability to evolve and lean more effectively into the change necessary and needed to move more relevantly into the future.

Accepting that the world and our organizations are not only complex, but changing, growing and evolving living systems, provides a strong rational for why our mental models must remain under constant reflection and transformation if they are to better equip us move forward more effectively in the midst of this complexity.

Which gives a strong foundation to why today’s leaders must be learners.  And not only learners, but adaptive learners.  We have to not only be willing to exist in a constant state of learning, but to continually reflect upon and revisit past learning, analyze the relevance of current learning, while still initiating new learning.

A constant deconstruction and construction of learning.  A state of unlearning and relearning.

Or as Gary Klein shares in Streetlights and Shadows, “Rather, we suspend our belief in the old mental models so that we can learn new ones.  Our content knowledge is reorganized or re-deployed.”  Or as he adds, “People usually have to lose faith in their old mental models before they can seriously consider new ones.”

Change is reflective of the world that we live in, it is often difficult and complex, but constant and necessary.  And if we are not careful, our mental models can not only impede that process, but entrench us in irrelevant practices, processes and perceptions that hold us back from turning the corner on transformation.

A caterpillar can only inch along in an incremental manner; it is only in its willingness to transform itself into a butterfly that freedom and flight into the future are achieved.



Disruption And The ‘Genetic Drift’ Of Modern Organizations

“People who lead frequently bear scars from their efforts to bring about ‘adaptive’ change.  Often they are silenced.”  -Richard Foster Creative Destruction

Below is a very important story that gives account to the demise and extinction of the dodo bird.  Important in how it how correlates to what is facing today’s modern organizations, from business, to government and even education.  No one or organization is immune to this ‘drift’.

According to ‘How It Works’

“While debated hotly by scientists, the dodo became extinct for three reasons. First, before humans arrived on Mauritius – an island in the Indian Ocean where the dodos had evolved – they had no natural predators and as such were easy to hunt by travelers looking for food supply.  Second, the humans who landed on Mauritius brought with them numerous foreign animals not native to the island such as pigs, dogs, and macaques, which are reported have frequently raided the dodo’s nests to take their young.  Finally, as more and more of Mauritius became colonized so that its natural resources could be harvested and exported, habitat loss severely reduced the territory in which dodos could successfully live and reproduce.”

What the story above fails to reveal, in regards to the eventual demise and extinction of the dodo bird, is that at one time they had the ability to fly.  But over a long period of time, living undisturbed by predators, as well as having easy access to food that had fallen to the ground, the dodo bird lost both its need and ability to fly.

It became comfortable…

It is this lost of flight, this ‘genetic drift’ that made the dodo bird vulnerable to predators.  Which wasn’t a problem, until humans landed on Mauritius, at which point it was too late to change or adapt.  It was too late to adjust to save itself.

The problem is that this same ‘genetic drift’ happens in today’s modern organizations.  

We find that we hide in our successes and insulate ourselves from change for so long that when the real need for change comes along, we are unable to adjust in agile and adaptive ways.  We find that we’ve lost the ability to shift or change, often leading to this ‘drift’ into irrelevance.  In which our organizations go the way of the dodo bird, unable to cope or compete with the predators that are disrupting the current state of things.

The question then becomes…

Can we enable our individuals and organizations to become more adaptive in how we look at change?  

Can we learn to recognize our ‘drifts’ and how to correct them effectively before they lead us down a path of irrelevance?

Can we learn to correct our ‘drifts’ before they embed and entrench themselves in our individual and organizational DNA?

Far too often, our successes and not our failures lull us into a state of stasis and status quo, allowing ‘fixed mindsets’ and ‘genetic drift’ to settle in.  And when change is needed, we often find that it is too late.  The damage is done and the losses become irreparable.

In the end, we have to recognize that organizations have an embedded need to recoil to the safety of the status quo, which requires ongoing disruption to build collective and adaptive capacity…

If we are to avoid the fate of the once thriving dodo bird.