Fluidity: A New Organizational Literacy For Leaders

 

Fluid is often seen as the antithesis of permanence.  When released from the confines of the predictable, it spills out in very unpredictable and nonlinear ways.  Flowing from compliance to creativity, encompassing all that it comes in contact with as its borders expand and capacity is stretched.

Today’s individuals and organizations must have the ability and agility to make and remake themselves on an ongoing basis.  We need to have much more fluid foundations.  And while organizations and individuals must have deep knowledge in what they have been created or hired to do…that no longer serves as the ceiling, as much as it serves as the door.

Today’s organizations and individuals must be able move past the idea of depth, and learn and pull from an ever-widening width of resources.  One trick pony experts will not have the breadth of resources to substantially keep pace with the level of information and learning that is now being created in our modern world.  Both individuals and organizations must have the agility and ability to evolve themselves on an ongoing and ever-fluid basis.  It is a current reality for relevance.

And it is not just fluidity as a new literacy for our individuals and organizations…it affects our teams, our leadership, our hierarchies, as well as our structures, processes and systems.  We talk a lot about moving from silos to more collaborative environments, but still find ourselves siloed and boxed in to static structures and hierarchies that limit our willingness to better engage the talent, knowledge and capacity of those within our organizations.  Our willingness to become more fluid is often contained and controlled by organizational structures, processes and systems that limit a more fluid approach that will enable us to push beyond current organizational borders and permanence.

This work will require organizations to equip their leaders with a more creative and innovative mindset, if we are to engage this landscape in a more fluid manner.  If we are to better allow our organizations to grow and utilize the talent and knowledge that is already within.  We still find that too many organization are more than happy to incorporate outside expertise than engage and grow the capacity of those within.

Fluidity requires a new kind of leadership mindset and organizational stance that better prepares our organizations to not only tap into the capacity that lies within, but pivot and shift to meet the demands of an exponentially shifting and changing world.

Fluidity allows leaders and organizations the opportunity to invest in the processes and systems that move against the ingrained nature of organizations to ground themselves in permanence, stasis and status quo.  It allows us recreate and remake not only our perceptions of current organizational capacity, but how to push and move beyond those boundaries in a more constant, routine, daily manner.

But this idea of fluidity requires that organizations and leaders understand, when you unbottle it, it tends to flow out in often unexpected and unpredictable ways.  Both organizations and their leaders will have to get used to this…which strikes against the predictable, linear and risk-free environments that we try so hard to create.  In order to have this fluidity, to better engage the creative and innovative spirit of our individuals and organizations, we have to be willing to spend time suspended in the uncertainty and ambiguity that accompanies this process and work.

But willingness to do this will not only improve the capacity of our individuals and organizations, it will lead to the experimental and discovery learning that will drive us to deeper and better work.

“It is not the absence of hierarchy or the uniformity of decision-making authority that makes an organization fluid.  It is the ability to shift and morph those things in the service of accomplishing more.”  -Jamie Notter ‘When Millenials Take Over: Preparing For The Ridiculously Optimistic Future Of Business’

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The Turbulent Rise of Adaptive (Wicked) Problems

 

“Wicked problems tend to shift disconcertingly with every attempt to solve them.  Moreover, the solutions are never right or wrong, just better or worse.”  –Marty Neumeier The Designful Company

We have carried around this notion that design is just about the construction and or use of products…but what we are quickly learning is that design and design thinking is spilling over as an imperative ingredient in determining the creation of the systems, processes and structures that guide and fuel how our organizations work and operate.

Which is not to say that design was not a necessary component of creating effective organizations in the past, but rather, it has become a much more necessary leadership element to combat not only the expanding percentage of the disengaged…but the heightened rate at which new data and learning is being created.  We have created a world in which what was seen as a best practice today, is often viewed as an obsolete strategy tomorrow.   A turbulent and volatile pace of change that can lead to further frustration and deeper disengagement.

Which is why design thinking has become such a vital necessity mind-set and skill-set for today’s organizational leaders.

As we face these exponential increases in disengagement and data across the organizational landscape, we need creative leaders who can not only reengage the disengaged, but curate and converge this overwhelming pipeline of data into individual and organizational learning that cascades across the entirety of the organization.

Leaders that can transform the current organizational landscape to keep pace with the velocity of change through improved behaviors, more agile action, and better designed processes and systems.  Which will be vital if we are to expand the overall capacity of our individuals to handle the extreme shifts our organizations will face in the near future.

We have lived insulated in an organizational leadership vacuum filled with technical problems and challenges for a very long time, a time that is quickly coming to a close.  The problems and challenges that are facing in today’s world are tilting the scales from the technical to the adaptive in very rapid fashion.  Problems and challenges that Marty Neumeier refers to in The Designful Company as “wicked problems.”  For which he adds, “The world’s wicked problems crowd us like piranha.”

It is this shift, from technical to adaptive, that will require a leadership mind shift not only in how we do our work, but the ways in which we support our people and lead our organizations…

We can no longer believe that the ‘best practices’ of the past are prepared to solve the adaptive problems and challenges we will face in the future.  And face them we must, for the organizational structures and systems that we have in place will be ineffective in sheltering and insulating us from these problems and challenges.

The band-aids of the past will be ripped off quicker and quicker as we find that these adaptive problems and challenges become much more urgent and pervasive across our organizations.  Until we are willing to approach them in new, creative and innovative ways, they will continue to plague, damage and diminish our organizational cultures and environments.

As Neumeier shares in The Designful Company, “Best practices are obsolete at birth; stability is fantasy, talent trumps obedience, imagination beats knowledge, and empathy trounces logic.”  Which highlights the understanding that we live a new world, a new organizational landscape, that is shifting, changing and transforming at an exponential rate…which will require new ways of learning, new ways of thinking, new ways of doing, and new ways of leading.  Especially, in light of this new breed of “wicked problems” that are infiltrating our organizations.  For which Neumeier adds, “The only question is whether you can change…fast enough to take full advantage of it.”

And that is the question…can we?  Can we effectively navigate the chaos to find the opportunity that lies before us?

And to do this we will need leaders who are social architects, leaders who can design and curate our way forward in a much more creative, innovative and effective manner.  We can no longer work at the leadership Neumeier sees as, “…getting better and better at a management model that’s getting wronger and wronger.”

We need leaders prepared to face the adaptive, “wicked problems” that continue to plague and conspire against individual and organizational capacity and growth.  It is not just necessary, it is required for individual and organizational relevance in the future.

“We need systems thinkers equipped not only with strong leadership knowledge, skills, and abilities, but the emotional intelligence and empathy necessary to build the systems and cultures that can create the schools and districts that our students and teachers not only need, but truly deserve.”  –The Changing Face of Modern Leadership

The Acceleration Of Change

 

“Self-organization is not a startling new feature of the world.  It is the way the world has created itself for billions of years.  In all of human activity, self-organization is how we begin.  It is what we do until we interfere with the process and try to control one another.”  -Margaret J. Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers

Nature exists in a constant state of flux, as continuous change permeates the entirety of its environment.  It is neither driven nor controlled, as much as it is a natural consequence of adapting to its surroundings and the shifts that are occurring throughout its ecosystem.  Some of these shifts can be rapid and turbulent, such as a lightning igniting a brush fire, or slow and incremental as an animal adjusts to changes in the natural environment.

So, whether incremental or rapid and turbulent, change in nature is neither seen as event or something to be controlled.  It is not a linear, predictable mechanism to be turned on and off as much as it is a natural, evolving and fluid part of the ways things are and always will be.  And yet, throughout time, we’ve tried to turn change into an event, a predictable and linear process that we can control, regulate and maneuver as we wish.

Whereas in nature, as the environment shifts and changes, we see those in the ecosystem learn to adapt to the volatility and uncertainty in their surroundings if they are to survive, we often look to do the opposite in our organizations.  We put in place more restrictions, more structures, and more hierarchy.  We choose accountability over adaptability, in this hope that we can control the process and speed of change.

And we are finding that it is just not working…for our people or our organizations.

Especially as our world become more volatile, more uncertain, more complex, and more ambiguous.  As the world accelerates, change will become less and less predictable and linear, no matter how much control and accountability we add to our individual and organizational lives.  Change is exploding around us in an ever disrupting fashion, uprooting foundations that have remained steadfast for centuries.

We live in a world where change never sleeps…

Take data for example: for every minute of the day Twitter users send over 100,000 tweets, Instagram users share 3,600 new photos, WordPress publishes 347 new blog posts, Facebook users share 684,478 pieces of content, Google receives over 2,000,000 search queries, YouTube users upload 48 hours of new videos, and email users send over 284,166, 667 messages.  And that is just a drop in the bucket of the new data that is being created by minute, by day, by week, by year.  Change and the world around us accelerating at an unprecedented rate.

To believe that we can provide assurances and certainty through accountability and control mechanisms in the face of this acceleration is delusional at best.

Instead, we need leaders who can both support and challenge their people and their organizations in this new and dynamic world that is shifting and shaking the foundations that we have stood on for centuries.  We need leaders who have the depth and width to connect dots amidst the chaotic frenzy of new information that is blasting towards us at a phenomenal rate.  We need leaders who can utilize the acceleration of change as opportunity to engage it’s momentum to propel us past the paralysis of uncertainty that can overwhelm and control us and our organizations.

We need leaders who can push through the anxiety and fear that has been created by the velocity of change that is accelerating throughout today’s world.  It serves as the difference between creating significance or falling into irrelevance…

“In a time of exploding change – with personal lives being torn apart, the existing social order crumbling, and a fantastic new way of life emerging on the horizon – asking the very largest of questions about our future is not merely a matter of intellectual curiosity.  It is a matter of survival.”  -Alvin Toffler

Hacking Innovation

 

“Life is trying things to see if they work.”  -Ray Bradbury

The idea of creativity, innovation, even intentional disruption and chaos, must be grounded in a cyclical mindset.  Unfortunately, we still tend to view them as an event, from the lens of an occurrence, a destination. Rather than an infinite loop of hard work and dedicated perseverance.

Let’s be clear, when we continue to perpetuate the myth and idea that creativity and innovation are the work of those born with the special ‘gene’ or as the ‘lone genius’ toiling away in obscurity, we diminish the determined effort and collaborative spirit required for this work.

We have to continue to view creativity and innovation as a journey, rather than a destination.  And the more we take on that journey…

Which takes us back to the cyclical mindset necessary in approaching creativity and innovation.  Which, for all intents and purposes, means that we are not only trying to better engage creativity and innovation as individuals and organizations, we are working to disrupt and hack our own understandings and creative and innovative efforts, simultaneously.

Which means we are constantly working to disrupt our own learning…as well as our best work.

The more we open ourselves up to the new, the more dots and unusual suspects we have in our arsenal to connect.  The bigger our arsenal, the more ideas we have to cross-pollinate, and the more opportunities we have to hack our own idea of creativity and innovation, both individually and organizationally.

For example, here a few dots to consider…

In a recent article issued from Big Think and Singularity University on a study they did around the practices necessary for “true leadership in the age of exponential disruption” they found that “experimentation, feedback and autonomy were important and essential to fostering disruptive innovation.”

Which are three dots that may be worthwhile for us to consider in regards to our creative and innovative efforts.

For today’s leaders, these dots are important to acknowledge and understand as they look at their own creative and innovative work across their organization.  To determine not only if “experimentation, feedback and autonomy” exist, but how does it exist, in what type of environment, and is it creating the returns that is leading to momentum and progress?

The more we dig in to creativity and innovation, the more we see that it is not event work.  It is not ‘destination’ work, it is ‘journey’ work.  It is deep, it is wide, it is challenging, it is constant, it is collaborative…and it is as exhilarating, as it is difficult.

“You need chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star.”  -Friedrich Nietzsche

Radical Reframing: From Resistant Reform To Creative Innovation

 

“Schools reform.  Businesses innovate.”  -Peter Senge

There is nothing interesting, exciting, engaging or appealing about the idea of being reformed.  Very few, if any, interpret the idea of ‘reform’ as a positive approach to change and organizational transformation.  In fact, we most often infer it to be a punitive process put upon us for expectations not met.  It does little to motivate us towards a new, dynamic and vibrant vision of the future.

In a time that next steps will be crucial in determining our ability to remain relevant, reframing our story, our narrative, will be vital to setting our expectations in and around the changes necessary and needed to remain significant in a world where insignificance and irrelevance arrives in a swift and devastating manner.

To do this work is going to require some rather difficult and uncomfortable shifts.  It is going to require some radical reframing and purposeful perspective shifting that rubs abrasively against the status quo and the conventional wisdom of the day.  It comes face to face with the ‘what we’ve always been’ and ‘how we’ve always done things’ mindset that pervades the mentality of many of our organizations.  It requires us to not only question our current thinking, but our habits, behaviors, structures, processes, expectations

Radical reframing requires us to place an honest and reflective lens on how we perceive our ability to move from today’s current reality of possible, to tomorrow’s willingness to achieve what was previously considered impossible.

As Brene Brown often shares that we must be willing to dare greatly…however, we must also be willing to dare differently.  To do this daring work, we are going to need to reframe our perception of just how able an organization is to alter and change itself in dynamic and transformational ways.

In a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world, radical reframing and purposeful perspective shifting is not just a need to be filled, it is a necessity, a deep-dive to allow our organizations to remain relevant and significant in a very unpredictable and turbulent world of change.

The problem is, when organizations need radical reframing the most, during these volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous times, is when we tend to recoil the most from this purposeful perspective shifting.  It is when we tend to focus in more and see less.  We find ourselves trapped by our lack of ability to see beyond our current circumstances, situations, challenges and problems.

And which is why in times like these, we choose reforming when we should be transforming.

The more we look deeply at the situations, problems and challenges that lay before us…the more that we realize that everything is ripe for innovation. 

Pockets Of Intentional Disruption

 

“How can an organization encourage innovative ideas and allow them to move through the system? The answer is that you need to create little pockets of chaos within the larger organization.” -Ori Brafman ‘The Chaos Imperative’

Rigid, regimented routines and strict, controlled structures still epitomize the majority of our modern organizations.  Our time is proficiently planned, programmed and agenda-ized for the greatest efficiency.  Even if there were a little left over, it sure wouldn’t be wasted on fanciful ideas of imagination, curiosity and creativity.  Those ideals live in the land of the dreamers, not the doers.  Remember, if you can’t weigh, measure, or account for it…well, you know the story.

Unfortunately, our organizational talk seldom seems to match our organizational walk.

Let’s be honest, in most instances the mantra “think different” sounds great…until someone does.  We love the concept of creative, innovative thinkers, until we come face to face with their ideas.  Especially when they push up against the power and pull of the organizational status quo.  That’s when it gets real.  That’s when it no longer seems easy or sounds as good.

If we believe that we are going to create more creative and innovative organizations by being more open to a few ‘out of the box’ ideas that get bantered around in a meeting, then we will find ourselves deeply deceived.  We will find ourselves “all aboard” a slow train to insignificance quicker than we ever imagined.

If not already…

Building more creative and innovative organizations will require some very intentional shifts.  We are going to have to infuse some pockets of creative destruction and disruption.  And that won’t be at all comfortable, but very necessary in a world that is finding ways to take what is new today and make it irrelevant by tomorrow.

The problem is that we never think it is going to be us until the rug gets pulled out from under us. Until it is too late…

In a world that is looking to upend the latest and greatest, you have to be willing to constantly disrupt your best ideas, and your best work.  Welcome to the exponential economy.  It’s a new world and it’s shifting…daily.

Without some deep dive changes and intentional shifts, our organizations will ultimately become the graveyards where good ideas go to die.

Adapting Requires Pushing Past Procedures

 

“People taught to understand the system develop richer mental models than people taught to follow procedures.” -Gary Klein ‘Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making’

In the movie Jurassic Park we are given visual to these incredible behemoth walls that were built as safety precautions to keep both the people visiting the park safe and confined within, as well as keep the dinosaurs and the danger they represented at bay.  The problem is that at some point, like with all obstacles or walls that we create, the danger we are trying to keep out finds a way in.  While those confined within discover that they’re going to need to move beyond those barriers if they are going to stay safe.

Which is the world that most organizational leaders live within.

Those walls are often the procedures enacted to create order and constancy within, while keeping the chaos and instability out.  The problem with this thinking, which is prevalent in so many organizations, is that when we fail to allow people to learn and act beyond the procedures we inevitably diminish opportunities for continued growth and capacity.  The overall effect of procedurally-driven organizations is that they will fail to have the necessary skill-sets or knowledge to work effectively outside of those procedures when needed most, when the danger has broken through or scaled the organizational walls.

If our mental models are grounded in procedures and implementation, we have effectively limited our ability to act with judgment and expertise.  Which is especially limiting as we find ourselves more often than not forced to move past organizational boundaries into much more uncertain and ambiguous spaces pushed by the pace of change.  Spaces where procedures and checklists are no longer valid, relevant or supportive.

Organizational leadership has become a much more complicated and complex proposition in a world that is more turbulent, volatile and uncertain.  Which means we are going to need organizations, leaders and people that are less procedurally-driven and more proactive and adaptive in their thinking, decision-making and problem-solving.

Some see the boundaries of their organization as a wall, an electric fence to recoil from, while others see it as an obstacle to overcome and push past.  A Mount Everest to scale.   It is here that procedures and checklists no longer help or serve as a guide.  Pushing past and through these unknowns takes a different type of leadership, a different type of mindset. One of a pioneer.

“Skilled performers need latitude to depart from procedures.”  -Gary Klein ‘Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making’