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

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.”

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.


Designing The Ecosystem Of The Future

“Conventional beliefs only ever come to appear arbitrary and wrong in retrospect; whenever one collapses, we call the old belief a bubble. But the distortions caused by bubbles don’t disappear when they pop. The first step to thinking clearly is to question what we think we know about the past.” –Peter Thiel Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build The Future

One of the most difficult things we will have to do in the current role of  leadership…will be to effectively evolve ourselves and our organizations into the future.  It will require us to untie ourselves from many of the mental models of the past that keep us mired and secured in our status quo ways of doing things and operating.

This idea that what has always been will always be…

In a world that is changing at an exponential rate, irrelevance to ‘what has always been’ erupts and expands its scope in a much broader and more encompassing manner.  The turbulence of change can not only be paralyzing to action and change, it can cause us to recoil to past practices and mental models that provide a calming feeling of comfort and safety.  And at the same time, unfortunately shielding us from the organizational dysfunction and irrelevance they are manifesting in their cradling cocoon.

We have to be able to move past those practices, structures and models that inhibit growth and experimental, discovery learning…to rethink, reframe and redesign how we will move into this new and often very uncomfortable future that is evolving and unfolding itself in real time.

We have to be able to consider the idea that Peter Thiel purports in Zero to One, that “Today’s ‘best practices’ lead to dead ends; the best paths are new and untried.”  The creative and innovative thinking necessary for operating effectively in today’s societal landscape requires that we think different, operate different, communicate different, and lead different.

As Peter Thiel shares, “Far more important are questions about the future: is it a matter of chance or design.”  It is with that thought, that we realize we are going to have to learn to design a better way forward.  And how effectively we evolve into the future will be a matter of how effectively we design that very same future.  How effectively we learn, create and innovate will be determined by the design of the organizational environments that we create.

In Warren Berger’s book Glimmer: How Design Can Transform Your Life, And Maybe Even The World, he shares that there are “key lessons for designing for emergence” which he defines as:

  1. Design your immediate surrounding (your ecosystem) in a manner that is self-sustaining and conducive to growth.
  2. Develop a strong, supportive relationship with the community around you.
  3. Keep learning.
  4. Keep creating and reinventing.

These 4 “key lessons” are valuable to keep in mind as we think of how we effectively evolve into the future as individuals, as leaders and as organizations.

How effective we are creating the future will not be a matter of happenstance…but a very intentional design of our systems.  It is in this space and thinking that we begin to see and hear the glimmers of coherence and alignment.  A new beacon of clarity that can actually drive us forward in a meaningful way.

“The most contrarian thing of all is not to oppose the crowd but to think for yourself.” –Peter Thiel Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future

Learning From The Future: The Birthing Of A New Mindset

“Acceptable ideas are competent no more, but competent ideas are not yet acceptable. This is the dilemma of our time.” -Stafford Beer (1967) via Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity

It is really easy to say that the world has shifted in exponential ways and that the problems and challenges we will face in the near future will be much different than what we’ve faced in the past.

It is a much more difficult proposition to actually do something about it…

To change the thinking and mindsets that keep us continually overlaying the same (technical) strategies and solutions that are showing themselves to be no longer effective for the (adaptive) problems and challenges that are rising up from the aftermath of these shifts.

In his work Theory U, Otto Scharmer postulates that “There are two sources of learning: the past and the emerging future.” For which he adds, “How to learn from the past is well known: But how can one learn from the future?”

And how do we keep our people, our leaders, and our organizations from recoiling from the ambiguity and unknowns that this will work will imbue and create? How do we keep from using terms like ‘research’ and ‘best practices’ as limiting factors to keep us entrenched in reactive stances towards this emerging future?

Or as Scharmer shares, “We now wish to learn how to respond to turbulence and disruptive change with resilience and flexibility, how to sense and seize emerging future opportunities, how to tune in to the sources of ‘not-yet-embodied’ knowledge.”

It is not just that our mindsets have to change, our entire way of thinking in some ways is in need of an overhaul. The reflection necessary for this overhaul will be pivotal towards wrapping our head around how we will adapt effectively towards these societal shifts.

As we march emphatically towards these tipping points, awareness will be paramount in refraining from overlaying past thinking, as well as recoiling from the uncomfortableness of the ambiguity and unknowns that this work creates. Too often, we remove ourselves from this arc of transformation because of the intensity and difficulty required from the work and journey.

Think of these words that Scharmer imparts in Theory U, “We have to abandon our conventional ways of reacting and operating. We have to deepen our attention to and wonder about the world. We have to ben our habituated beam of attending to the world and redirect it onto its source – the blind spot from which we operate moment by moment. We have to connect to this source in order to tune in to the future that is seeking to emerge. It is a quest.”

We can’t always put into words or create a visual of what is happening…but we can feel that the future is pressing in with a deep urgency and intensity, birthing forward new ways of thinking, doing and being. And it is shifting our world in exponential ways…

At this point, there is no avoiding, so we can either decide to spend our time reacting to these shifts…or we can proactively determine a call to action to design this emerging future.

“Today’s problems no longer yield ready-made solutions” and the job of leadership has “changed from a tool user to a toolmaker.” -via Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity 

Adapting Our View Of Complexity

“Don’t try to make it too simple too soon.  First, absorb the complexity of the situation, then start looking for simpler perspectives on it.”  -Geoff Bellman

It’s no longer enough to understand that today’s world is becoming much more intricate and complex.  We have to come to grips with the idea that this complexity is providing a whole new set of problems and challenges that are beyond what we’ve been able to face and technically conquer in the near past.  More and more adaptive problems and challenges are arising out of this complexity and promoting change in a much more rapid and unexpected manner.

It is no longer enough to just react to these radical shifts and changes, we have to learn how to adapt in much more agile and proactive fashion.   We have to learn how to detect and connect the obscure and hidden dots that were much more visible in the technical and analytical world that we faced in the past.  And we have to do it better and faster, especially as today’s technologically viral world has the tendency to coalesce and transform these dots into unforeseen challenges in rapid fashion.

As Stephen Haines shares, “Technological advances and global communications have shaped today’s dynamic environment, and in order to be successful, living systems—including you as an individual—have to adapt.”

We can no longer just focus on the parts and believe that we will create a well-functioning and healthy whole.  Unfortunately, we still tend to approach the whole with an analytical, linear (parts) mindset and wonder why we continue to find ourselves blindsided by the unexpected and unanticipated outcomes.  We continue to find ourselves baffled and bewildered by a myriad of unpredicted effects from decisions and directions made through a limited scope and short-term view.

Unfortunately the analytical, linear approach we take to our organizations does not prepare us for the adaptive challenges and problems that will continue to confront us in today’s complex, VUCA world.  In fact, the complexities facing modern organizations is anything but neat and well-ordered.  Rather, they are messy and uncertain.  Which is disrupting the current approaches and leadership ‘best’ practices that have served us well in our organizational past.  Methods that are no longer sufficient or effective towards the adaptive problems and challenges that we are and will be facing in the near future.

This is not to say that drawing simplicity out of the chaos and turbulence of complexity is not a significant focus, but inability to see the complexity from a 30,000 foot view will continue to alienate us from a holistic approach towards the complexities of today’s changing world.

Think of it like this…

If we continue to pull the tops off our weeds (while still leaving the roots), then we shouldn’t be surprised when the same weeds keep coming back time after time after time.

Building more structures and processes without understanding and creating better systems will leave us with the same roots (challenges/problems) that have continued to plague us over time.  We continue to try and fix parts and believe it will provide a more fine-tuned whole.  Unfortunately, in most cases, it creates a whole that functions less effectively.  The more we tweak the parts, without having a deep understanding of the whole, the more havoc, challenges and unexpected problems we initiate across the system.

We need to push ourselves back from the short-term considerations that get in the way of long-term success.

Pulling back from this complexity heightens our sensitivity and awareness to how the parts and whole interact in more effective and interdependent ways.  When we are able to see the dots and how they interrelate, we make better systems decisions.

We need a view that allows us to push through the noise, chaos and turbulence that is created from the complexity that encapsulates today’s modern world.  Which is not an easy task.  It takes a wider, deeper approach.  A different way of thinking, especially if we want to achieve different results and outcomes.

Today’s leaders will be responsible for cutting new paths through the noise created from the complexity that blocks and shrouds us from creating stronger and more effective systems.  Paths that are no longer linear or predictable.  This new way of pioneering will require us to embark on unknown paths and engage in unforeseen journeys.  Which will lead to new views and a new pace to deal with the uncertainty and ambiguity that we will face along the way.

“You can’t ignore the complexity of the world.  You have to navigate it and build on it—then simplify it and then find its holistic and integrated core essence.”  -Stephen Haines