Sensemaking Through Uncertainty

“Simply pushing harder within the old boundaries will not do.”  -Karl E. Weick

We currently find ourselves positioned in this valley that exists between “old world” and “new world” thinking. We aren’t deep enough down in the valley to realize that retreating to “old world” thinking is no longer a viable possibility, if necessary and needed. And we aren’t far enough along in the valley to have created some semblance of what “new world” thinking will look like if incorporated across the entirety of our systems. So, what we find ourselves facing in current times is an inevitable tension, the tension brought on by trying to resist the comforting pull of “old world” conformity, while wanting to push through the uncertainty, and even fear brought on by the tug of a newly emerging “new world” proposition.

In many ways, we know that we need a new map for the future, we just haven’t entirely figured out how or what it means to make a map of the unknown. Especially when our current mental models and mental maps tend to constrain vivid understandings of this  unknown space that sits beyond this valley in which we currently find ourselves.

Which is why it is vital that today’s leaders are taking more time to meticulously translate and create greater understandings across our systems of the change forces we are facing. As we sit on the cusp of a variety of disruptions, it is important that individuals and our organizations realize that no “present” map will be perfect in moving us through our current context or the many extreme uncertainties we are or will be facing, but absent any map, we will ultimately find ourselves void of the individual and organizational action that will be needed to move forward and create opportunities for ongoing progress and forward momentum. Absent of any map or narrative to guide us into the future, we may find ourselves slipping back quickly and safely into “old world” thinking. A retreat into the kind of thinking that can entrench us in an overwhelming sense of inertia and stasis, especially when it is accompanied by the uncertainty and sense of unknowing that runs rampant across our current circumstances.

Inevitably, any disruptive change we face will most often feel like a threat, bringing forth feelings of imminent danger and even fear, whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not. It is in the face of these disruptive forces that we can find ourselves acting in favor of status quo ways of doing and being, we can find ourselves acting in our own best interest, and we can even find ourselves even acting in ways that we can even find to be irrational in nature and deed. As Deborah Ancona shares in Sensemaking: Framing and Acting in the Unknown, “Times of threat and fear may reinforce existing maps and mental models, increase our reliance on old information, and inhibit action. Threat and fear area associated with rigidity, a need for direction, and erratic behavior – which work against effective sensemaking.”

In many ways, today’s leaders are going to need to begin to build up new competencies, one of which is being able to translate and convert change, even disruptive change, into an understandable and decipherable narrative. Providing people and their organizations both guidance and assurance in moving forward, even when all is not certain. Especially in the midst of these volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environments that can tend to be overwhelming and even debilitating towards a sense of action. As Ancona shares from Weick, Sutcliffe, and Obstfeld, “Sensemaking in such an environment involves “being thrown into an ongoing, unknowable, unpredictable streaming of experience in search of answers to the question, ‘What’s the story?'”

For which Ancona in her work Sensemaking: Framing and Acting in the Unknown, shares this story…

Brian Arther (1996)  gambling casino analogy to illustrate the kind of profound uncertainty we currently face that creates a great need for sensemaking:

Imagine you are milling about in a large casino wit the top figures of high tech… Over at one table, a game is starting called Multimedia. Over at another is a game called Web Services. There are many such tables. You sit at one.

“How much to play?” you ask.

“Three billion,” the croupier replies.

“Who’ll be playing?” you ask.

“We won’t know until they show up,” he replies.

“What are the rules?”

“These will emerge as the game unfolds,” says the croupier.

“What are the odds of winning?” you wonder.

“We can’t say,” responds the house.

“Do you still want to play?”

Which means that today’s world necessitates deeper awareness, awareness of your circumstances, awareness of your context, awareness of what is emerging amidst the current crisis or disruption, awareness of the threats, as well as internal and external awareness of how current reality are having impact on your individuals and how the dynamic and fluid way change is orienting and orchestrating itself within your organization.

For, in most instances, people and organizations don’t want to play. They don’t want to wait on what is emerging. Rather, they demand answers, before determining if they are even asking the right questions. In most instances, these uncertain and unknown environments drive individuals and organizations towards, often faulty, assurances and certainties.

Too often we are looking for the “right” answer to provide individual and organizational assurance to the current crisis or disruption that is occurring. Rather than stepping back to determine what is emerging in a world that is no longer the one that existed within our previously perceived mental models and maps. It is in being reflective and intentional enough to reframe our mental models in response to the uncertainty and unknowns that the current volatility of a shifted world has inevitably created upon our mental maps of the past. As Ancona adds, “Sensemaking is not about finding the correct answer; it is about creating an emerging picture that becomes more comprehensive through data collection, action, experience, and conversation.”

Which means, that without action in the midst of the current volatility and disruption, there will be no new learning, there will be no new ideas, and there will be no new thinking that allows us to begin to construct new maps and new mental models that can lead us more creatively, more innovatively, and more relevantly into these VUCA-infused environments. Constructing new maps and mental models allows to be more open to reframing our thinking towards the future, and determining more openly what is emerging amidst the current chaos that any disruption or crisis creates. It allows us to be open to seeing new connections that may have seemed non-existent previously.

In Sensemaking: Framing and Acting in the Unknown, Deborah Ancona provides 3 elements and 9 steps to better understanding and utilizing the concept of sensemaking as a leader, and as an organizational tool for moving forward through uncertainty and the unknown:

  • Explore the Wider System
    • Seek out many types and sources of data.
    • Involve others as you try to make sense of any situation.  Your own mental model of what is going on can only get better as it is tested and modified through interaction with others.
    • Move beyond stereotypes.  Rather than oversimplifying, try to understand the nuances of each particular situation.
    • Be very sensitive to operations.  Learn from those closest to the front line. What trends do current shifts portend for the future?
  • Create a Map of Story of the Situation
    • Do not simply overlay your existing framework on a new situation.  The new situation may be very different.  Instead, let the appropriate map or framework emerge from your understanding of the situation.
    • Put the emerging situation into a new framework to provide organizational members with order.
  • Act to Change the System, To Learn From It
    • Learn from small experiments. If you are not sure how a system is working, try something new.
    • People create their own environments and are then constrained by them. Be aware and realize the impact of your behavior in creating the environment in which you are working.

As a leader, responding to individuals and the organization by saying that we are moving into “unprecedented times” does little to enact a translation of that change or provide deeper clarity towards these uncertain, VUCA-infused environments. Rather, engage individuals and the organization in “sensemaking processes” that allow both individuals and the organization to begin to articulate, anticipate, and build new narratives, scenarios, and mental maps of the unknown being faced. Thereby, bringing a greater sense of coherence into uncertainty and creating opportunities for action that leads to new learning, new capacities, new competencies, and greater clarity.

While with any framework, realizing that all of the elements and steps are important, we must also remember to begin with a sense of what are our current circumstances and from building a deep awareness of our context. Too often we approach these processes in a linear fashion, step one, step two, step three, but it is also in realizing we no longer live in a step by step world.

Rather, context awareness leads to the social, organizational, and systems awareness to know where you are, where you have been, and where next steps may lie in moving forward in response to your current context and circumstances. Or as Karl Weick shares, “Sensemaking is about the enlargement of small cues.  It is a search for contexts within which small details fit together and make sense.  It is people interacting to flesh out hunches.  It is a continuous alteration between particulars and explanations with each cycle giving added form and substance to the other.”

It is seeing how these elements and steps work together within the system. To see a sense of interdependence in how they interact and fuse together to begin to provide some semblance of understanding to the current disruptive change and the uncertainty and unknowns that it is currently evoking.

Which is why it will remain important in moving into the future that leaders are able to determine and create spaces where individuals and the organization can begin to interpret and translate change. To begin to determine what the change means for them and their organization, under their current context and circumstances. It is in these spaces that mental models are shifted, thinking is reframed, and new maps and narratives for the future can be created with sense of collective efficacy and advocacy, that provides a starting point for moving forward into the unknown and through the current uncertainty that is being faced.

“As we try to map confusion and bring coherence to what appears mysterious, we are able to talk about what is happening, bring multiple interpretations to our situations, and then act. Then, as we continue to act, we can change the map to fit our experience and reflect on our growing understanding.”  – Deborah Ancona via Sensemaking: Framing and Acting in the Unknown


eLeading: Building Organizational Capacity And Alignment

“To build leadership, a company must be capable of reinventing its industry; to rebuild leadership, a company must be capable of regenerating its core strategies.  In this sense, it is not enough to get smaller and better; a company must also have the capacity to become different. But to ultimately be different, a company must first think differently.” –Hamel and Prahalad via Competing for the Future

It is difficult to look around and not be overwhelmed, almost mesmerized by the outright ferocity and speed for which this current crisis has upended and left our previous sense of normal in tatters. In many ways, we have watched our previously entrenched mental models of future expectations uprooted and defaced in a matter of weeks. For many, if not most leaders, any semblance of strategy for the future and next steps has brought everyone back [remotely] to the organizational table. Or as Peter Thiel shares in his work Zero to One, “Big plans for the future have become archaic curiosities.”

In many ways, we have to come to terms with the idea that we previously created our organizations to sustain, and now we must prepare them to adapt, continuously.

Today’s leaders will have to learn how to strategically disassemble the current organizational DNA that traps us in outdated and outmoded operating systems. Surgically removing the DNA that allows stasis, static and status quo ways of doing and operating to entrench us within and across our organizational ecosystems. Recognizing that organizations are tilted towards and designed for safety and stability, requires modern leaders to move forward from a deeper sense of intentionality, especially in creating the spaces and room for these cognitive shifts of change to be unveiled and explored.

To create spaces that allow individuals, as well as the organization, to push past our unconscious [or conscious] bias for the stability of past practices, towards the willingness to engage in the experimentation and eventual discovery learning that will allow our individuals and organizations to build upon “best” while moving us towards and into necessary “next” practices.

To provide individuals and organizations the capacity to continually adapt into the future in a more connected and relevant manner.

In VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) environments, where we find ourselves currently existing, the speed of change is often both turbulent and accelerated, which means that individual and organizational learning and adaptability must gain its own heightened and amplified sense of velocity, momentum and flow across the organizational ecosystem in order to parallel pace this acceleration of change. At all levels of the organization.

Which will necessitate a leadership reframe, a reframe in order to engage not only new ideas, but different ways of thinking, especially in order to effectively navigate and weigh the cognitive load created from the organizational tension and individual strain required from this heightened level and manner of parallel pacing change.

Tension and strain that will only be amplified under the current constraints of building up this capacity and creating a greater sense of alignment, remotely, or at distance.

Which will require from leaders, to begin to…

  • Reimagine how to engage ongoing organizational learning and capacity building beyond face to face spaces and arenas
  • Determine current capacities and capabilities necessary for the present, while focusing on which core competencies that will need to be added or expanded for the future
  • Communicate beyond current modes, to a more diversified multi-media approach, both internal and external to the organization
  • Tap more effectively into formal and informal individual and organizational  learning networks
  • Allow space for experimentation and discovery learning, creating opportunities to share the learning from those experiences, both positive and negative, in order to better scale and cascade creative and innovative strategies, practices and behaviors that are having positive impact and outcomes across the organization
  • Communicate and effectively engage the organization in determining new or changed targets, objectives and/or goals in moving forward, as well as creating ongoing opportunities to deepen individual clarity and responsibility around and towards those targets, objectives and goals
  • Provide space for individuals and teams to engage in continuous improvement opportunities for systems-wide inquiry, root cause analysis, question posing, problem-solving, and scenario planning
  • Engage individuals and the organization in future thinking and future narrative processes to support scenario planning
  • As the organization moves from “best” to “next” practices, allow the organization time and opportunities to begin to determine new and evolving metrics that allow for improved ways for measuring the effectiveness and outcomes generated by these “next” practices
  • Create a platform that can not only measure learning, but allow that learning to be channeled, transferred and ossified across and throughout the organizational ecosystem

As Hamel and Prahalad share in their book Competing for the Future, Strategic planning almost always starts with “what is.”  It seldom starts with “what could be.” However, current circumstances may and undoubtedly will require today’s leaders to reverse that statement, and begin to determine how to backwards map from “what could be” to “what is.” To begin to create scenarios and future narratives of change and transformation that allow us to push past entrenched mental models of the past, towards aligning our individuals and organizations towards new and emerging visions for the future. To determining a new, and hopefully better way forward.

“What was a core competence in one decade may become a mere capability in another.” -Hamel and Prahalad via Competing for the Future

Leading In A Time Of Complexity And Chaos (Part 2)

Whenever companies tackle complexity, they will ultimately find some individuals who seem less troubled by it than others. This is not surprising. People are different: some freeze like deer in the headlights in the face of ambiguity, uncertainty, complex roles, and unclear accountabilities; others are able to get their work done regardless. Companies need to locate the pockets of individual strength and weakness in order to respond intelligently. Although some people can deal with complexity innately, we now know that others can be trained to develop what we call “ambidextrous” capabilities – the ability to tolerate ambiguity and actively manage complexity. Such skills will enable employees to create and use networks within organizations to build relationships and help overcome poor processes, bridge organizational silos, or manage whatever value-creating pockets of complexity their companies decide to maintain.”  -McKinsey & Company via Putting Organizational Complexity in its Place

Organizational learning, capacity-building, and adaptability cannot afford to cease or stall in the midst of the complexity and chaos that accompanies any disruptive change.

Which, unfortunately, is the very thing that often happens.  

Especially as the constant tension and growing sense of complexity and chaos expelled from the current disruptive forces entering the organizational gates will tend to compel most individuals and their organizations to recoil back into the safety and cocoon of the known. To the safety of past practices and processes.

It is as natural an organizational reaction as the fight or flight response that has been deeply imprinted upon our individual DNA throughout the ages. As individuals and organizations find themselves face to face with these often disruptive and turbulent change forces, they can find themselves becoming more enamored with the past, while being equally determined to insulate themselves safely from those forces that are bearing down upon them and their organization.

Even to the point of it serving as an impediment and/or detriment to future effectiveness and relevance.

Today’s leaders, in the face of the current circumstances, must be even more empathetic to the learning gaps and needs of those within and throughout their learning ecosystem, as well as being more aware of how those learning gaps and needs are being attended to and fulfilled. Especially when the current circumstances are less than compatible towards ongoing growth and capacity-building.

Today’s leaders will have to be much more intentional towards the design of their systems and strategies incorporated, amidst the undergirding uncertainty brought on by the current complexity and varying forms of disruptive and adaptive challenges, in order to enable and support any type of sustained individual and organizational learning.

Which will require modern leaders to be much more cognizant of how those within the organization are determining to individually support their own learning and capacity, beyond any formal organizational structures, to adapt towards the disruptive change that is currently being faced. In the midst of growing complexity and chaos wrought on by change, individuals within the organization, when lacking clear objectives and targets, without being supported by an array of strategies and processes, will move beyond formal organizational networks to tapping into their informal networks. Which, while being supportive for individual capacity and adaptation, can add to the growing complexity and chaos inherent within the organization during this time. Which in turn, can take both individuals and the organization off-course.

As ideas and strategies crop up informally and begin to spread, especially during times of disruptive and turbulent change and adaptation, they often fail to scale in any effective manner across the organization. Most often, because leaders and the organization are unaware or unwilling to acknowledge informal networks and innovation that is scaling up within those networks.

When goals and objectives are not clearly communicated, when clarity and design are lacking or haphazard, instead of scale and spread, ideas and strategies that are showing worth, often fail to be vetted at the organizational core and find themselves relegated and siloed into pockets of positive deviance, most often pushed to the edges of the organization. Thereby, slowing opportunities for innovation to emerge, evolve and spread more efficiently and effectively across the organization in response to current conditions, diminishing individual and organizational agility and adaptation.

As leaders design for organizational adaptation in times of disruptive or great change, it will require an acknowledging of not only the organization’s formal networks, but the informal networks that are having deep influence on how individuals and the organization adapt in these VUCA-infused environments.

As MITSMR share in Designing Effective Knowledge Networks, “Knowledge networks are clearly vital to our connected world. Yet our research indicates that we, as leaders, must be thoughtful about how we design and manage them. Though much network behavior is emergent, the way network leaders catalyze action makes a difference.”

When leaders are more aware of how those within the organization are connecting with, accessing and utilizing both formal and informal networks, they will be able to see how that access is leading effecting pockets and patterns of new, novel and emerging innovation in the midst of the current change forces. Leaders can allow those understandings and knowledge to help them guide these pockets towards organizational goals and objectives. It will allow leaders to design structures and processes that effectively utilize that knowledge of what is emerging to determine more efficient and effective methods towards scaling and spreading those strategies and behaviors across the organizational ecosystem.

In effect, allowing the organizational edges and the organizational core to interact in ways that are more fluid, dynamic, and impactful. It is in this interaction between the core and the edges that more agile and adaptive mindsets and thinking are infused across the organization, providing a more positive response to the current disruptive change forces that are being faced.

As McKinsey&Co puts forth, “Executives contemplating a reorganization shouldn’t focus on formal organizational structures so much that they ignore informal communication channels and opinion leaders. By understanding the networks that employees use to get work done, executives leading organizational change efforts can harness, rather than bump up against, the power of invisible but highly influential webs of relationships.”

As the organization becomes more open to adapting their structures and processes to enhance their ability to learn, connect, and build-capacity in the midst disruptive change, complexity and chaos can become much more approachable and manageable. Allowing the organization to infuse and ossify the structures, processes, strategies, and behaviors that can effectively spread and scale the flow of ideas from these formal and informal networks into viable and effective organizational change.

As leaders become more open to recognizing the informal networks that reside alongside the formal networks in organizations, they will be better equipped to support the tension and pull of both networks while attempting to evolve and adapt in response. A recognition that will provide those within the organization a greater understanding of their role within the change. Creating a form of loose and tight within the organizational system and structures that allows individuals to flex and adapt more positively to not only current circumstances, but towards building the capacity and autonomy to meet the demands of the change.

“Executive embarking on a transformation can resemble career commercial air pilots thrust into the cockpit o a fighter jet. They are still flying a plan, but they have been trained to prioritize safety, stability, and efficiency and therefore lack the tools and pattern-recognition experience to respond appropriately to the demands of combat. Yet because they are still behind the controls, they do not recognize the different threats and requirements the new situation presents.”  -McKinsey & Company via Transformation with a Capital T

Leading In A Time Of Complexity And Chaos (Part 1)

“Embracing complexity will not make [our] jobs easier, but it is a recognition of reality, and an idea whose time has come.” -Dr. Richard Straub

If we hadn’t previously understood the turbulent rise in the pace of change in today’s dilemma-induced world, there is probably a very good chance that you have had to come to grips with it in very recent times. As the sirens of automation, artificial intelligence, as well as the rise of the robots and the new world of work captured our attention and narrowed our focus in the disruption it stood ready to wield upon society…the world showed us how complex and chaotic it could and can be.

It also showed us how incredibly flexible, and how fragile and brittle that we as individuals, as well as our organizations, can be towards disruptive change.

Through this disruption we have begin to discover the power and importance of both internal and external networks in moving forward more relevantly in the face of great change. We have ignited a willingness to accelerate individual and organizational capacity towards a goal. We have tapped into wider support systems and evoked greater levels of empathy across our educational ecosystems. We have had to overcome our bias towards change.

And we have struggled…

We have struggled with the ambiguity, uncertainty, and unknowns created by this current challenge. We have struggled with the complexity and chaos that it has created in our personal and professional lives, as well as the lives of those around us. And we have struggled with the gaps it has revealed in our systems.

As we reflect on the urgency of the moment…

We find that in many cases, leaders currently find themselves living at the zero to five hundred foot range as they attend to the urgency of the moment, the urgency of the crisis. However, in those moments when the urgency of the moment subsides, in that reprieve, it will necessitate that leaders intentionally allow themselves time to zoom out. Not zone out, but zoom out and expand their view, moving themselves to more of a ten, twenty, even thirty thousand foot view.

To intentionally breathe in the nuances and complexity of the dilemma, of the crisis that is currently being faced…

All too often, especially in the face of sudden or disruptive change, individuals and organizations have an embedded need, you might say an internal recoil mechanism, that automatically pushes them to return to the comfort of “old ways” of doing and being. It is in the midst of this recoil, that leaders need to recognize the recoil and intentionally support their individuals and organization in adjusting and adapting to this change. Leaders need to intentionally wrangle individuals and the organization away from this internal bias towards returning to the automaticity of status quo ways.

Which will necessitate that leaders have determined proactively how to provide the capacity and space to deal more effectively with this tension that will be felt, this tension between chaos and order, complexity and simplicity, urgency and complacency, between the linear and non-linear, between the predictable and the unknown…between “old” world and “new” world ways of being, doing and working.

Leaders will need to provide the necessary space for individuals and the organization to capture the complexity of the situation, of the crisis. A space and environment to wrestle with this new and evolving tension.  

As it is only in building a deep and overarching understanding of the complexity of the dilemma, of the crisis, as well as the entirety of the system, that we can actually begin to simplify that complexity towards more effective supports and solutions in moving forward more effectively.

It is in this space and environment, that individuals and the organization determine how to begin to become more adaptable, to realize where capacity has been created and where it will need to be built up, to sense how to respond in a more agile manner, and to truly understand if we are asking the questions that will drive us towards the root cause of the dilemma being faced in order that the changes initiated will allow for a more coherent and systematic sense of improvement, for individuals as well as the organization.

Leading in today’s dilemma-filled world requires the ability to see the entirety of the system, to then recognize and embrace the complexity of that system, while finding ways, often new and novel, to continuously improve that system, while simultaneously helping those you lead and the organization as a whole gain access to that same view.

While this does not take us entirely to where we need to be, it is a beginning. A place to begin the conversation at a deeper level. A beginning to becoming more acclimated to a world where leaders don’t have all the answers, but learn to engage in deeper and better questions. A beginning to leaders learning to become much more comfortable with the complexity and chaos that inundates our organizations, both internally and externally.

A beginning to a journey…

“Complexity deals with a world far from equilibrium and is creative and evolving in ways we cannot hope to predict. It points to fundamental limits to our ability to understand, control, and manage the world, and the need for us to accept unpredictability and change” -via Alex Trosiglio

The Dawn Of The Social Architect: Leading In A 5G World

“The machinery of modern management gets fractious, opinionated, and free-spirited human beings to conform to standards and rules, but in so doing it squanders prodigious quantities of human imagination and initiative. It brings discipline to operations, but imperils organizational adaptability.”  -via Gary Hamel The Future of Management

The new leaders of change must understand that they must be much more adept as serving as social architects. Creating environments that encourage both creative and innovative thinking, as well as constructing the internal and external learning networks that allow new knowledge and ideas to continuously flow into and throughout the organizational ecosystem.

They must be curators of creative ideas and thinking, provokers of possibility, seekers of awe, catalysts of curiosity and wonder, engaged in the ongoing emergence of innovation, and determined designers of the future.  

Today’s leaders must constantly be engaged towards building new value through both discovery and experimental learning, in order to mobilize, iterate, evolve, and then transform their networks and organizations forward in a much more relevant and engaged manner.

The problem is that many of our individuals and organizations are just now learning how to walk…in a world that has decided to move at a sprint. 

And that is a real tension that we are going to have to begin to deal more effectively with. Especially if we are going to begin to learn how to parallel pace a world that is much more in the throes of volatile and an often accelerated pace of change.

In many ways, a 5G pace of change.

A pace of change that requires not only a new way of thinking, but for that matter, a different way of leading. Which will necessitate new learnings, new competencies, capacities and skills, as well as new methods for engaging, communicating and cascading a new narratives and new visions for the future amidst the noise that perpetuates our modern organizational ecosystems.

In many ways, today’s leaders must become much more fluent in their ability to engage in “best” AND “next” practices to move individuals and organizations forward into the uncertainty and ambiguity of a much more non-obvious future that we are currently facing

Which will require:

  • Fluidity: much of leadership during the 20th century has been founded in and focused upon sustaining past and/or present successes. Often in very static and status quo ways. The vision was often focused on “sustaining” the present rather than seeing the need towards “adapting” for the future. A mindset that has often moved many an organization or industry forward into future with a unknowing bend towards irrelevance and/or discontinuity. In a world of dynamic change, today’s leaders and organizations need to be much more fluid towards adapting, and much less entrenched in sustaining practices, if they are to survive the constant tug of change over irrelevance. As Mary Catherine Bateson shares, “Fluidity and discontinuity are central to the reality in which we live.”
  • Adaptability: the 20th century was tilted towards and weighted down in a plethora of “technical” problems (which definitely kept many binder companies in business, as well as our leadership shelves filled). However the 21st century is showing us that more and more the world of leadership is now tilting towards and becoming awash in “adaptive” challenges. Challenges and dilemmas that will challenge our thinking and our ability to engage in deeper questions, in order to determine new solutions and answers to the root causes of those challenges and dilemmas that continue to plague our organizations and leadership. As Gary Hamel shares, “To build a capacity for relentless management innovation, you must be willing to ask, “What new management challenge, if mastered, would give us a unique advantage?”
  • Clarity: the linear and often predictable pace of change that spanned the changes of the 20th century, is now moving out of the way for the volatility and chaos that seems to accompany the 21st century. In the midst of this volatility and chaos, individuals and organizations are looking for more clarity and deeper organizational coherence. They are looking for leaders that can create that clarity and coherence in the midst of the chaos that surrounds them and their organizations. Determining and communicating collective commitment to stronger narratives and visions for the future, as well as rallying all stakeholders and focusing resources in support of these narratives and visions, will go far in creating that clarity and coherence for individuals and today’s organizations. As Bob Johansen adds, “Leaders are-and must continue to be-a source of clarity.  Clarity is the ability to be every explicit about where you are going, but very flexible about how you will get there.”
  • Systems: the 20th century often operated organizationally around hierarchies and command and control forms of leadership, usually in search of greater individual and organizational efficiency. Today’s organizations and leaders are going to need to move much less towards a bend on efficiency, towards a deeper focus on effectiveness. Creating systems, be that in structures, processes, or even behaviors, must rest on a foundation of effectiveness. Leaders must truly understand that all which is efficient isn’t necessarily effective, and that which is effective isn’t necessarily efficient. Being intentional in designing our systems for effectiveness, systems that are fluid, agile, and adaptive, as well as systems that are based in clarity and coherence, will allow us to have organizations that are primed for continuous improvement. Or as Peter Senge has put forth, “A vision without systems thinking ends up painting lovely pictures of the future with no deep understanding of the forces that must be mastered to move from here to there.”
  • Content, Competencies, Skills: the 20th century was a time when content, competencies and skills had this tendency to survive with a much longer shelf-life. In some ways, there were rewards for being the “best rememberer.” But the 21st century has shown us that there is no reward anymore for being the “best rememberer.” In many ways, knowledge has become much less of a commodity, and much more of a collaborative tool. Today’s world is looking for people who can connect new dots, new ideas, new thinking, in ways that creates new solutions and new answers to the growing number of adaptive challenges and dilemmas we are and will be facing. While today’s world will continue to require content, competencies, and skills, it is with the understanding that the shelf-life of those will be much, much shorter and will necessitate not only lifelong learning, but ongoing reskilling and upskilling. As John Hagel puts forth, “But now that success demands a greater number of faster-evolving skills, organizations will need to adapt. Across industries, organizations that embrace, nurture, and cultivate enduring human capabilities throughout their workforce will likely have a strategic advantage, because their people will have the mindset and disposition toward rapid learning that is required to thrive in an environment of constant disruption.”
  • Mindsets and Models: today’s modern leaders are going to need to be much more adept at blending. Meaning, they are going to need to be able to engage in deeper understandings of a variety of models and mindsets, without putting a stake in ground for just one mindset or model. But rather, be able to blend the best of those mindsets and models into new ways of acting and doing, in ways that best support the organizational culture and context. This will require new ways of thinking and new capacities to spread across the entirety of the organization. This will require organizations to move away from the compliance of implementation, to deeper learning towards the capacity and autonomy necessary to engage in “best” and “next” practices that moves us from a “program” mentality. Today’s organizations, to be effective, must move past “check box” ways of doing and acting. This will require a much higher level of capacity building, beginning with leadership, then cascading and scaling across the entirety of the organization.
  • Around the Corner (thinking): leaders in the 20th century were often looking at the horizon for next steps, while leaders in the 21st century are going to need to engage much more in “around the corner” thinking. Today’s and tomorrow’s leaders are going to need to move from reactionary short-term attitudes, towards proactive and a longer-term focuses. This is one of the struggles of leadership. It is not just about staying current. Rather, staying current is actually a disservice to those you lead.  Staying ahead of the curve and “looking around the corner” is a 21st century leadership imperative. It is about creating a mindset and environment in which the organization allows those you lead to begin to “see around the corner.” As Joanna Bakas shares, “What is holding us back is our inability to unlearn accepted paradigms, ways of doing and thinking.” Which means, to become more effective in “around the corner thinking” and then doing, will require some unlearning in our mental models and behaviors that trap us in the past.

Today’s leaders are going to need to find new ways to effectively amplify empathy, imagination, curiosity, creativity, and innovation across their organizations if we are to constantly turn toward future relevance, in a time when the speed of change is moving many organizations towards irrelevance, obsolescence and discontinuity.

“The biggest issue at stake in this emerging age is the ongoing tension between creativity and organization.”  -via Gary Hamel The Future of Management

In The Midst Of Uncertainty

“Humankind is facing unprecedented revolutions, all of our old stories are crumbling and no new story has so far emerged to replace them. How can we prepare ourselves and our children for a world of such unprecedented transformations and radical uncertainties?”  -Yuri Noah Harari via What The Year 2050 Has In Store For Humankind (Wired magazine)

We live in strange and often difficult times.

In the midst of these expansive networks and hyper-connection, our world is also flourishing with issues of growing disconnection and discontinuity, across our society, our systems, and even our organizations. Frustration and even dysfunction abounds in these arenas, as we attempt to solve today’s adaptive challenges and dilemmas by overlaying yesterday’s technical answers and solutions. We are slowly coming to the understanding that what solved yesterday’s technical problems, won’t do the same for today’s adaptive challenges and dilemmas.

In many ways, we find ourselves facing unprecedented uncertainty.

And while we are coming to the realization that the solutions which solved yesterday’s technical problems, are ill-prepared to handle today and tomorrow’s adaptive challenges, we still find that we are recoiling back to the safety of what served us best in the past. We find ourselves reverting to the sureness of “past” practices over the possibility of what may emerge through engaging “next” practices. Too often, we are choosing to entrench ourselves in the stories of the past over building new narratives for the future. And unfortunately, we are finding that the past has limited ability and promise towards providing us with greater understandings and certainty for this very unknown future we are facing.

As Yuri Noah Harari shares in 21 Lessons For The 21st Century, “At present, humankind is far from reaching any consensus on these questions. We are still in the nihilist moment of disillusionment and anger, after people have lost faith in the old stories but before they have embraced new ones.”  For which he adds, “Do you feel like running down the street crying “The apocalypse is upon us”? Try telling yourself, “No, it’s not that. Truth is, I just don’t understand what’s going on in the world.”

We find ourselves trying to make sense of this growing disconnection, discontinuity, and even dysfunction and discontentment that the current digital revolution is raining down upon us, by digging deeper into the known. We find ourselves craving certainty and seeking out societal and organizational anchors to grip on too in the midst of the uncertainties and ambiguity today’s world is currently serving up. Amidst this often chaotic and disruptive pace of change, we find ourselves seeking the safety of the shore, rather than searching out new possibilities beyond our current boundaries of understanding. We find ourselves choosing the safety of the known, over the uncertainty of the unknown.

We find ourselves rereading the “old” stories, over the opportunity to create “new” narratives. 

Or as Yuri Noah Harari puts forth, “We are consequently left with the task of creating an updated story for the world. Just as the upheavals of the Industrial Revolution gave birth to the novel ideologies of the twentieth century, so the coming revolutions in biotechnology and information technology are likely to require fresh visions. The next decades might therefore be characterized by intense soul-searching and by the formulation of new social and political models.”

Today’s world will require much more creative and innovative thinking, especially as we will be required to not only reimagine what already exists, but begin to imagine new methods for moving forward. We can no longer overlay those technical solutions upon our adaptive challenges and hope it will serve us well in moving more relevantly into the future. Rather, we are going to need to engage in the questions and environments that will not only provoke, but allow for new thinking and new solutions to arise. We will have to determine the opportunity that resides deep within the current chaos that today’s uncertainties and ambiguity has created across society, as well as within our organizational landscapes.

We need to find our compass in the chaos, which will require us begin to…

Engage Wonder, Curiosity and Creativity: As previous CEO of IDEO Tim Brown shares, “One of the greatest weapons that we have against uncertainty is creativity.  It’s how we forge something new out of it.” Seeing uncertainty as an opportunity allows for us to “forge something new” instead of recoiling back to the safety of the known. Wonder, curiosity and creativity allow us to venture out beyond our current individual and organizational boundaries, making uncertainty and ambiguity an opportunity for exploration and new learning.  For which Ronald Heifetz adds, “Conflict is the primary engine of creativity and innovation.  People don’t learn by staring into a mirror, people learn by encountering difference.”

Build Up A Greater Sense Of Tolerance For Uncertainty, Ambiguity And Not-Knowing: As Tim Brown of IDEO puts forth, “The right unit of exploration is the question, not the solution.  We tend to think we bring people together to brainstorm solutions. But unless you agree on the question, it’s very hard to get people to come up with solutions.” Too often, we move right into convergence, as we want a quick solution to the challenges and dilemmas that we are facing. Instead, we have to create space for divergent thinking, space for questions to exist without moving directly into solutions, space to suspend our need for the instant gratification of knowing. We have to be able to create environments where we can effectively lean into the unknown, to eventually allow new possibilities to emerge towards change and future transformations. We have be intentional and reflective in our willingness to fend off our brain’s natural craving for certainty.

Seek Out Opportunities For New Narratives And Possibility Framing: It is difficult to ignore the dystopian, jobless future narrative that seems to be endlessly forecasted for the future. We hear the stories of the coming of automation, augmentation, and the growing capabilities of artificial intelligence. However, we must never forget that we are the current creators and authors of our narrative, a narrative that our children and students will continue to write.  A narrative that is both ours and theirs to manufacture. We must never forget that we have the ability to design our future, for better or worse, and it is up to us to design that future in a way that is to be more equitable, ethical and human-centered. Which means that we must be able to look deep into the current chaos that often surrounds us and our organizations and be able to both discern and frame new possibilities for the future. Engaging individuals and organizations in a variety of scenarios, allows for the space and opportunity to determine how change can best be engaged and necessary transformations eventually achieved.

Openness To Emerging Patterns And Sensemaking: As Karl E. Weick shares, “The basic idea of sensemaking is that reality is an ongoing accomplishment that emerges from efforts to create order and make retrospective sense of what occurs.” Or as Bob Johansen adds, “Making the future starts with listening and making sense.” Our ability to learn and continue to learn allows us to continue to see the emerging interaction of that knowledge within our own context and how that knowledge interacts with the world around us. By expanding both the depth and breadth of that knowledge, we are then able to connect more and more dots, dots that are often invisible to us before that knowledge is engaged and acquired. Making those connections, both individually and organizationally, often allows for a sense of deeper learning to scale and spread, moving us more towards the reality of becoming and working within an authentic learning organization.

Move From Control To Emergence: According to Fritjob Capra, “The phenomenon of emergence takes place at critical points of instability that arise from fluctuations in the environment, amplified by feedback loops.” Too often, the idea and opportunity for emergence is buried under the weight of control, especially in hierarchical systems. Especially in those systems where processes are entirely focused only on predictable and linear outcomes. But in a world of advancing adaptive challenges and dilemmas, far too often the outcomes, especially in the midst of dynamic organizational complexity, are found to be neither predictable nor linear. In a time when creativity and innovation are often necessary skillsets and mindsets for relevancy in the future, environments of control will entrench us in the known, while ultimately limiting the emergence of new possibilities. Allowing for experimentation and discovery learning must be accompanied with a openness towards emergence, and seeing what naturally and authentically emerges from those processes. As shared in Leaders Make The Future“The challenge for leaders is to flip a dilemma into an opportunity.”

Cultivate Agility, Adaptability And Learnability: As Ronald Heifetz puts forth, “The improvisational ability to lead adaptively relies on responding to the present situation rather than importing the past into the present and laying it on the current situation like an imperfect template.” Moving forward requires an intentional reflection of and towards our mental models and how those mental models can impede future progress, both at speed and scale. Our mental models are important in our ongoing explanation of how we see the world, we just need to be more aware of the explanation that those mental models are providing. Reframing our lens towards those mental models can effectively allow us to unlearn and unbraid the thinking, as well as the behaviors, that keeps us tied to the past and continually overlaying that past upon the present and emerging future. Allowing new and ongoing learning to infiltrate those mental models allows us to stay both agile and adaptive in our thinking and doing, both as individuals and as organizations.

Assessing Risk, Experimentation And Discovery Learning: As Stefan Thomke puts forth, “Experimentation matters because it fuels the discovery and creation of knowledge and thereby leads to the development and improvement of products, processes, systems, and organizations.” Or as shared in Exponential Organizations, “Perhaps the attribute most critical to a learning organization is experimentation.” Experimentation allows individuals and organizations to generate a diversity of ideas and perspectives, as well as craft and create a variety of solutions towards change and the adaptive challenges and dilemmas being faced. It provides the environment and space for curiosity, for learning, as well as ongoing cycles of application and iteration. Being intentional with the experimentation process allows for better risk assessment towards the failure possibly being faced. Too often, experimentation occurs without an appropriate understanding or assessment of the risk involved. It is important, both individually and organizationally, that risk assessment is incorporated into the process of experimentation to determine the appropriate level or levels of risk that people and the organization will not only face, but are willing to actually engage in.

Clarity, Coherence And Communication: As Bob Johansen shares, “The future will reward clarity – but punish certainty.” It will be vital that leaders communicate in ways that create greater clarity and coherence across the organization. Communicating in ways that create greater clarity and coherence across the organizational landscape is much more difficult than we think, and an often underestimated leadership ability and skillset. Too often leaders believe that they have over-communicated, and very often, in reality, have under-communicated. Today’s leaders will need to master a variety of communication tools that allow them better scale and spread organizational clarity and coherence. As Bob Johansen adds, “In this world, leaders will need to be very clear where they are going, but very flexible about how they get there. Clarity is very different from certainty, however. Certainty is too brittle in a VUCA World, while clarity is required to make your way through uncertainty.”

Leading in the midst of uncertainty and ambiguity is easier said than done. Building up leadership, as well as individual and organizational tolerance and capacity to exist effectively amid uncertainty and ambiguity will be a necessary skillset and mindset for the future. Especially in a world that is being inundated with more and more adaptive challenges and dilemmas. In all actuality, we are best to remember, permanence and safety is an illusion…whereas, the future will require a greater sense of agility, adaptability, and learnability, as well as a willingness to engage in the experimentation that leads to discovery learning, under the guise of intentional and calculated risk.

As the Stanford shares, “Navigating ambiguity is this ability to recognize and persist in the discomfort of not knowing, and develop tactics to overcome ambiguity when needed. Ambiguity can arise in many places – within a project, a process, or within oneself. It’s important to put students in ambiguous situations and give them tactics to emerge from them.”

Accelerating Change And Transformation In Legacy Organizations

“Without evidence that the present is deficient in some way, motivation to innovate is lacking.”  -Amy Edmondson via Teaming to Innovate

We live in a world that is facing a plethora of digital transformations that are continuously shifting society, industries and our organizations. Shifts that span from incremental too disruptive and even volatile, from exhuming small industry changes to extinguishing entire institutions. Transformations, that unless willing to change, adapt, adopt, and transform, are taking their toll on legacy, or well-established organizations.

Legacy organizations can often lose their pioneering spirit in favor of a settler mindset, as we have seen with companies such as Kodak, Nokia, Motorola, and Yahoo, often losing their ability and willingness to remain adaptive to today’s changing world, inhibiting the level of current and future impact that can be created and sustained through ongoing innovation. As well as legacy organizations that met, when faced with an urgent need to innovate, adapt, and transform, companies such as Blockbuster, Radioshack, Borders, and Circuit City to name a few, were unable to make that transition or transformation in a manner that allowed for their future relevance or survival.

As Joanna Bakas shares in the article Why legacy organizations need to clearly separate their Performance Engine and Innovation Engine, “What is holding us back is our inability to unlearn accepted paradigms, ways of doing and thinking.”

Which is not only important for our legacy organizations in moving forward in a more relevant manner, but for the leadership that is guiding our legacy organizations towards those next steps into the future.

Leading in today’s more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environments necessitates creating organizational and team cultures that are embedded within and upon a foundation of trust and safety. It requires engaging the mindsets that allow for the curiosity, inquiry, critical thinking, and problem-solving to face these new challenges in new and novel ways, with the ongoing willingness and ability to reframe the lens to which we apply to those challenges in order provide a diversity of solutions that effectively expand our individual and organizational boundaries. It will also necessitate a willingness to become deeply reflective towards our current mental models in ways that allow us to break down and dislodge the thinking, perceptions, processes, frameworks, and systems that have become both entrenched and often irrelevant, in order that unlearning and new learning can exist. Today’s leaders will also need to engage the “around the corner” forward and futuristic thinking that allows for an ongoing flow of new ideas, new thinking, and new knowledge to be consistently infused into the individual and organizational networks in ways that allow for creative and innovative disruption to spread and scale in ways necessary to meet the growing adaptive challenges that the leaders of today’s legacy organizations are and will face.

Today’s leaders need to create an “organizational brain” that is better positioned and equipped for the accelerated pace and volatility of change and digital disruption that we are currently facing from our modern world. Effectively finding processes to break down those organizational inhibitors that keep us mired in stasis and “what we have always done” frame of mind, towards a focus upon and a better understanding of the “why” behind the deep need for ongoing learning, growth, and innovation. It is realizing that learning, growth and innovation are not just a “good” to have, but a real necessity for ongoing relevance, stamina and resilience necessary to stay effective in a world where today’s new quickly becomes tomorrow’s antiquated.

In reflecting on the growing importance of leaders in legacy organizations, especially those leaders who can effectively “think around the corner,” here are 4A’s that could and should stay in continuous consideration through any change or transformation process:

  • Agility – too often, the complexity of the challenges and problems we are facing pushes leaders to entrench and insulate, in a belief that a greater certainty, predictability and safety can be created for the organization. However, agile leaders and organizations see and use the current velocity of change as an opportunity, rather than a deficit. They acknowledge the tension that exists between stability and adaptability, which necessitates ongoing updates to their processes and systems. It is in recognizing that there is a definite need to engage risk, while remaining strategic towards that need and, in effect, enabling the organization to remain agile in the face of these tensions, and it requires today’s leaders to view agility from a cognitive, strategic, and operational lens.
  • Adaptability – necessitates the need for experimentation, for discovery learning, in determining how shift our attitudes and beliefs that allow individuals and the organization to not only internalize, but to move more relevantly into these new environments, dilemmas, and challenges they are being thrown into, which can feel a bit disruptive, both individually and organizationally. But, as Heifetz and Linsky share from Leadership on the Line, “adaptive work creates risk, conflict, and instability because addressing the issues underlying adaptive problems may involve upending deep and entrenched norms.” Which is the deep work of today’s leaders, for which Heifetz and Linsky add, “thus, leadership requires disturbing people – but at a rate they can absorb.”
  • Action – needs to serve as an individual and organizational orientation, otherwise, without action, very often our institutional norms lead us more often than not towards innovation theater. We talk about it, we think about it, we discuss it, we learn about it, we plan for it, but we actually do very little of it. Inability to move towards action, to engage an action orientation as individuals and organizations, will do little effectively move us towards any form of transformation, except as serving as a vision without a vehicle.
  • Adoption – as Denning and Dunham share in The Innovator’s Way, “Innovation is the art of getting people to adopt change.” In many ways, it is not enough to allow individuals and organizations to adapt to the changes they are facing, if it does not change how they think and do. It is not enough to just allow individuals and organizations to “absorb” this change, if we constantly and consistently find our individuals and the organizations recoiling back to the safe and familiar. Today’s leaders, if we are to become more successful with innovation, must create the processes and systems that engage the attitudes and beliefs that allow for adoption of the change to occur, and sustain.

It does not end here, as there are many other A’s to consider…

Such as “ability” and whether the skills and tools are in place for change or transformation to effectively engage and sustain. Or “attitude” and whether our beliefs will allow for individuals and the organization to truly adapt and adopt towards the change or transformation initiative. As well as “avoidance” and whether our bias’ and fears will keep us entrenched in the known of what we have always done and been. It is also in being able to “acknowledge” and even accept our current and often brutal reality, if we are able to move forward in a more positive manner. It is also realizing that past “accomplishments” and “attainment” can serve as success indicators that keep us from seeing the need for any change or transformation.

In closing, any change or transformational effort is a heavy lift, and for legacy organizations, it can be even heavier. Being “aware” allows leaders to recognize the resilience and stamina that will be required not only of leadership, but of all individuals and the organization, if the initiative is to have any real and lasting impact.

“Society has a grand immune system designed to suppress new ideas. To keep the water running and sustain life’s other necessities, society’s natural resistance to ingenuity surfaces in the form of doubt, cynicism, and pressure to conform. It takes tremendous endurance to survive such resistance.” -Scott Belsky via The Messy Middle: Finding Your Way Through The Hardest And Most Crucial Part Of Any Bold Venture

“Even if you do possess the single-minded focus necessary to pursue a particular idea, your journey forward will be full of battles. Whether you work alone or with a team, you will become mired in the challenge of staying productive, accountable, and in control. These journeys are physically and psychologically exhausting, and the road is littered with the carcasses of half-baked ideas that were abandoned or surrendered along the way. It is a tragic truth that most new ideas, despite their quality and importance, will never see the light of day.” -Scott Belsky via Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming The Obstacles Between Vision And Reality

Building Deeper Understandings (Series): The Cycle Of Vulnerability

“Employees, as well as leaders, long for certainty. Formerly, securing a position in an organization meant getting employment for a lifetime. This is no longer true. As organizations face more challenges than ever before, employees face more uncertainty, particularly about the security of their jobs. As a consequence, they experience additional stress as well as feelings of isolation. In struggling to find a new vision, they become frustrated and often panic. What they should do instead is learn to tolerate and respect the discomfort of their uncertainty and thereby unleash their creativity in the interests of organizational change.”  -Porter O’Grady and Mallach via Quantum Leadership: Building Better Partnerships for Sustainable Health

We can ill-afford to take veneer approaches to the thinking, ideas, learnings, strategies, concepts, systems, that we believe will be necessary as leadership understandings and skillsets in creating momentum and moving our educational organizations into the future in a more relevant, more transparent, more sustainable, and more innovative manner.

  • We cannot tell people to be creative and believe it will just happen…
  • We cannot tell people to be innovative and believe it will just happen…
  • We cannot tell people to be vulnerable and believe it will just happen…
  • We cannot tell people that we are going to create capacity and believe it will just happen…

And yet, very often, that is just what we do.

As leaders and learners, we need to create much deeper and more transparent understandings of vital concepts that will allow us to create and build the spaces and environments, as well as the learnings and understandings, that will allow us to actually move towards the engagement of those ideas and concepts in ways that not only deepen our understandings, but allow for the necessary and strategic action that leads towards the relevant change, improved outcomes, and increased value for individuals and the organization that create and scale positive momentum. Especially, if we have determined those ideas, learnings and understandings to be both important and vital to our future success.

If this is to happen, we have to become not only much more strategic and intentional, but much more curious and inquisitive, both as individuals and organizations. It is not an either/or proposition, as if individuals are not learning, then the organization is, for the most part, not learning, and it is in our willingness to stay curious and inquisitive that learning engages and occurs, both at an individual and an organizational level. For, it is in that willingness to learn, to grapple with new ideas and thinking, that the boundaries of the known are expanded and capacity is created across the organization.

For, in the end, we will continue to struggle to engage and scale what we do not understand.

Just as creativity is not best initiated by continuing to tell people to just “be creative,” either is approaching the idea of risk and risk-taking with wide-eyed abandon. And since risk will be required of all leaders and organizations in both the present and the future, it is in realizing that taking a risk is also a matter of being intentional, being strategic, and understanding that some form of failure is always inherent in the risk. Which deepens the understanding that in the knowing that the possibility of failure exists does not exonerate us from the need for risk to be taken, but being open to approaching risk in a much more intentional manner and approach the risk strategically in ways that can mitigate the risk to much lower and acceptable levels. It is also in determining proactively in how to respond if failure occurs, both individually and organizationally, and how the most important residue of that failure, the learning, will be gleaned from the process to determine the “learning gap” from where you are and where you wanted to be and to best determine next steps in moving forward.

Risk not, want not.

For, we will be best served by the ability and manner in which we facilitate our way forward and how we engage our people and organizations in the design the future, which will require greater clarity and a more coherent and transparent approach to how communication occurs and positively spreads between individuals and across our organizations. Especially in a time when we are shifting from more technical problems to more and more adaptive challenges, when leaders can no longer have all the answers, in a time when the quality of our questions ultimately leads to the effectiveness of our solutions.

Which means that today’s leaders must get much more comfortable with growing levels of uncertainty and not-knowing, and the deep feelings of vulnerability, openness, and even risk that the unknown ultimately has the ability to create.

As Brene Brown shares, “I spent a lot of years trying to outrun or outsmart vulnerability by making things certain and definite, black and white, good and bad.  My inability to lean into the discomfort of vulnerability limited the fullness of those important experiences that are wrought with uncertainty: love, belonging, trust, joy, and creativity to name a few.” For which she adds, “Vulnerability here does not mean being weak or submissive. To the contrary, it implies the courage to be yourself. It means replacing “professional distance and cool” with uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. Opportunities for vulnerability present themselves to us at work every day. More importantly, Brown describes vulnerability and authenticity as lying at the root of human connection. And human connection is often dramatically missing from workplaces.”

Which makes vulnerability less of a feeling and more of a leadership skillset for today’s leaders, especially as Harvard Business Review puts forth the, “alarming fact that 70% of employees are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” at work.  As a consequence, they are “less emotionally connected” and also “less likely to be productive.”

Vulnerability is owning up to the very idea that we can’t know it all, we can’t, don’t and won’t have all the answers, or will be able to fix every problem. Which can be very conflicting for a large portion of leaders. It is also in recognizing that there is no shame in that, rather it serves in the first step of owning our own willingness to grow, to evolve, and to continue to learn and adapt in a much more authentic manner.

Vulnerability, especially for today’s modern leaders serves as part of a lifelong journey to growing and evolving, as well as serving as necessary and needed skillset and competency. As Porter O’Grady and Mallach share in Quantum Leadership, there are “seven cycles” to this journey of vulnerability for leaders, which would include the following:

Becoming Vulnerable – requires today’s leaders to become much more comfortable in dealing with and residing in the uncertainty and unknowns that exist in today’s world and moving today’s organizations forward into the future. It is in understanding your strengths, as well as your weaknesses, and the limits of your capacity and how to not only be aware of those limitations, but not allow those limitations to hinder or diminish your ability and effectiveness as a leader. Realizing that we all have limitations and that there is no roadmap for the future, necessarily invites in a sense of vulnerability, which today’s effective leaders understand and learn to work effectively with that tension that exists between knowing and not-knowing.

Taking Risks – today’s individuals and organizations can ill-afford to not engage in creative and innovative thinking, but it is also in understanding that creative and innovative thinking leads to ideas that will ultimately require taking a risk. Inability to take a risk, will ultimately diminish the creative and innovative thinking that needs to occur in organizations for a better approach to designing their future and moving forward. However, to be effective, today’s leaders must also determine how to effectively approach and engage in risk-taking that minimizes the possible negative effects or outcomes on individuals and the organization that risk can create. Which requires leaders to take a much more proactive and less reactive stance, both in the engagement of the risk as well as the final response to the outcome of the risk. As Porter O’Grady and Mallach share, “Risk-disposed leaders motivate others by showing what can be done, not merely by sermonizing about opportunities. They also need to exhibit candor and vulnerability, to identify value in marginally successful efforts, and to allow others to take risks and experience success and failure.”

Stretching One’s Capacity – every individual and organization has boundaries, those borders where the known and unknown intersect. A place where both peril and possibility co-mingle. It is in moving past those boundaries, in stepping out into the unknown, that we engage new learnings, new ideas, new thinking, in which new capacities are built, allowing for us to not only stretch beyond our current individual and organizational capacity, but past those borders that confine current capacity.

Living the New Reality – too often, especially in the midst of the uncertainty, unknowns, and even chaos that surrounds any type of change or transformation, we find individuals and organizations recoiling back to the safety and comfortableness of the known. Even when the known can be perilous to creating a more relevant future. Allowing individuals and the organization to gain a handle on this tension created by the change or transformation, to provide some sense of equilibrium in response to the disequilibrium created by the shift, can help to avoid this ongoing recoil to the status quo. Which is why it is vitally important that leaders create an environment where individuals and the organization can feel safe to “adjust” to the disequilibrium and tension created from this change or transformational initiative. Which includes opportunities for experimental, discovery learning to be engaged, as well as space to share what is working and/or not working. As Porter O’Grady and Mallach add, leaders must be able to “encourage vulnerable behaviors,” “accept that unanticipated outcomes will occur, both positive and negative,” and work towards “coaching others to sustain the new knowledge,” while keeping individuals, teams, and the organization focused on the “original purpose.”

Evaluating the Results – in any transformation, we often allow our mental models of the past to leverage too much bearing on the change in the present. Our mental models can inhibit our ability to frame our outcomes in ways that are more relevant for the future, often keeping them grounded in our past. If we are going to move towards the vulnerability of more creative and innovative thinking and ideas to push new possibilities, then we often have to be just as creative and innovative in the way that we determine our metrics and what results and outcomes we are aiming to achieve. As a leader, seeing an outcome, especially when it is less than expected, as an opportunity, a learning gap, allows individuals and the organization to not only find safety in taking risks, but to see the outcomes of those risks as opportunities for new learning. Especially if we are going to make better decisions on next steps into the future, while realizing that this process is an ongoing iterative cycle of ongoing discovery and learning.

Cherishing the New Knowledge Gained – as with any learning cycle, we often step out of the cycle either too soon or before the cycle has run its course, thereby limiting the opportunities for learning from both the anticipated and unanticipated results. Utilizing the learning gleaned from the cycle to better determine next steps in staying the course or determining a needed pivot to close the current gap between the present reality and the outcomes of the original aim. In going through this cycle, the vulnerability to being open allows new learning to be gained from each cycle outcome, allowing our individual and organizational boundaries to be stretched farther and further through this iterative cycle, pushing individuals and the organization beyond the current level of the known.

Begin the Cycle Again – as Porter O’Grady and Mallach put forth, “at the end of the vulnerability cycle, the challenge is to identify what was valuable and what was problematic and begin the process again with the next opportunity or challenge. Repeating positive efforts is as important as avoiding negative results.” Which is foundational towards the becoming of a true and authentic learning organization, rather than continuing the fallacy of acting as a knowing organization.

It is in this ability to remain vulnerable in the face of the growing complexity, uncertainty and unknowns we face as leaders and as organizations, that we allow for the creative and innovative thinking that engages the experimental and discovery learning that pushes us and our organizations to new levels of capacity, allowing us to stretch beyond the current borders of the known.

“Frustration and fear typically fuel the search for certainty, a search that wastes significant time and effort. In any organization, situations and relationships are usually too complex to be predictable, and therefore a degree of uncertainty is unavoidable. If fear of the unknown is allowed to rule, the result is organizational inertia and continued reliance on past practices. Despite believing in the need for change or in the savings to be gained from a new technology, leaders place too much emphasis on the failure of past innovations and sit back and do nothing.”

“By admitting you are uncertain and not all-knowing, by being willing to put aside long-standing mental models, you open yourself to the possibility of incredible growth and rewards.”  – Porter O’Grady and Mallach via Quantum Leadership: Building Better Partnerships for Sustainable Health

Engaging The Entrepreneurial Mindset: The Extra “E” In STEAM

“Not everyone can be or even wants to be an entrepreneur, but everyone should want to be entrepreneurial.”  -via Inc.

This idea of being entrepreneurial is not a new concept, rather, it is one we have been discussing for years. However, it is a concept that is beginning to be discussed in educational arenas more often, as of late. So, before moving forward, let’s spend a minute in grounding ourselves in clarifying the difference and understanding of being an entrepreneur, as opposed to being entrepreneurial. Especially as this differentiation can be supportive in determining why it may be important for students and for their future when we also consider the differences between “following your passion” and “turning your passion into your profession.”  

So, let us dig in and dive a bit deeper…

According to Enterprising Oxford, being entrepreneurial is “not just about starting a business, or spinning out a company from research. It’s a mindset, or a way of thinking.”  Whereas, Google shares that an entrepreneur is, “a person who organizes and operates a business or businesses, taking on greater than normal financial risks in order to do so.” And, for educational purposes, we may want to focus a bit more on the entrepreneurial than the entrepreneur side of things.

Which is a difference that we have to become much more cognizant of, as well, especially as the world of work continues to shift and change, often in some very exponential ways. As McKinsey&Co shares in their paper Education to Employment, “Leaders everywhere are aware of the possible consequences, in the form of social and economic distress, when too many young people believe that their future is compromised.” Which, for many students and young people, a future compromised is exactly how they feel. A future that is becoming much less obvious, and much more ambiguous and uncertain. For which McKinsey&Co add, “The journey from education to employment is a complicated one, and it is natural that there will be different routes. But too many young people are getting lost along the way.”

In a time of deep digital disruptions, automation, and an infusion of artificial intelligence  with growing capabilities that are putting their stamp on both our personal and professional spaces, especially in the world of work, just telling people to “follow their passion” can be a recipe for disaster towards their future success. As example, no one wants to engage in an extra twelve years of education and the possible educational loans that accompany that education, in order to become, let’s say a radiologist…to then realize that there is a very good possibility that there will be only a limited future in that profession due to its high probability for automation. The goal of a postsecondary education for most students is to provide opportunity for a more stable opportunity towards a professional pathway, not as a gamble that can possibly leave them underemployed or unemployed, while saddled with educational loan debt. Or, as McKinsey&Co put forth, “Only half of youth surveyed believe that their postsecondary education had improved their changes of securing employment.”  Which often means that today’s students have to have a much deeper understanding of the education to employment pipeline, of the system. They need to have a much greater awareness of the path and the outcomes it is leading them towards, than just moving forward on the mantra of “follow your passion” as a pathway to their future.

As Entrepreneur shares, “It’s not enough to just have a good idea and get a little traction. Real change requires a more ambitious canvas.”

While, having two sons that are in the midst of considering and determining their pathway, I am finding the importance in instilling skillsets and a mindset that is much more entrepreneurial towards their future. Which allows them to “follow their passion” while engaging in the skills, skillsets, and mindset that allows them to better determine how “following your passion” can actually lead to better outcomes and a better future for them. By honing an entrepreneurial mindset, they are engaging in the thinking and skillsets that will help them allow that passion to fuel their determination towards seeing how their passions have both niche and wider opportunities for their future. Or, if that passion may need and or require a bit of reframing, a change in perspective, or a different lens in order that it is actually leading them down a more successful path for their future.

Which, is actually taking an entrepreneurial mindset towards the mantra of “follow your passion.”

With that in mind, let’s look at some ways that we can engage a more entrepreneurial mindset for our students that can positively support them for their future:

  • Create Your Space“following your passion” is also in being able to see how that “passion” has a future and then determining how to define that niche and begin to create the future for yourself. We live in a time where and entrepreneurial mindset provides the impetus to create your space that brings others to your passion, allowing you to see a space for that passion, and how that passion can be turned into a profession that can flourish in the future.
  • Challenge Conventional Wisdom – part of joining together creative and innovative thinking with problem-solving is the willingness and ability to challenge the conventional and or status quo was of thinking and doing. To do this requires today’s youth to spend much more time determining and then asking both deeper and better questions, which has not always been the focus of a traditional education, which is often answer-focused. It is in those questions, in seeking out problems that need solving, that students can reframe from focusing on obstacles and become more focused on seeing possibilities.
  • Step Into Uncertainty – when we begin to focus on questions more than answers, we finding ourselves slipping into unknown territory, one that is filled with more uncertainty than certainty, which can be uncomfortable. Persisting in these spaces is quite difficult and requires high levels of persistence and resilience to push through our constant want for stability and safety. Building up this tolerance for ambiguity is vital in a world that is becoming more complex and volatile under the accelerating pace and rate of change.
  • Amplify The Message – today’s students need to know how to communicate effectively, both written and orally. And they need to be able to communicate in this manner in a variety of arenas. Being able to communicate in this manner, is often referred to or known as being “purple people,” as they are able to communicate in a tech space (red) just as effectively as they are able to communicate in a leadership space (blue).
  • Engage Strategically – whether getting down to the root cause, being able focus down to the core of a problem, or determining how to engage in calculated risk, it needs to be engaged in a strategic manner. Using data, incorporating evidence, determining best practices, or even engaging in experimental and discovery learning, doing so in a strategic manner is paramount to making stronger choices that lead to better outcomes. It is not enough to just see the problem, if you are unable to strategically approach the problem in a way that leads to better solutions and improved outcomes.
  • Pivot As A Strategy And Process – too often we try to follow the “garden” path and find ourselves caught up in an endless loop of sameness, entrenched in the known. And then wonder why we never gain new ground or achieve greater success. Instead, determine when a pivot is necessary and needed, in order that it moves you to new places, new destinations, new outcomes. We cannot believe that following the well-worn “garden” path will take us any other place than what we already know. Those unwilling to pivot, often remain on the “garden” path and continuously wonder why it is not taking them “anywhere” different. Individual agility and adaptability is often in knowing when that pivot is necessary and needed.
  • Everyday Better – understanding that learning has become an everyday way of existing, moves the idea of learning from an event to an integrated way of existing. It is in understanding that there isn’t really failure, but learning, more learning, new learning, that leads to new starting points, helps us see the journey as just a part of living, growing and evolving. Knowing that learning is now a necessity for a world that is constantly changing and evolving, allows students to view learning as a process, rather than an event or an end point.
  • See The System – today’s students, especially in a world that has become more connected, more networked, and much more collaborative, need to see not only from a systems view and how all of those systems connect and interact, but how to work more effectively within those systems. Especially in a time when those systems and platforms provide much more opportunity for their entrepreneurial mindset to be engaged to the benefit of seeing how “following their passion” can lead to better outcomes for their future.
  • Curiosity, Confidence, And Courage – building up a sense of curiosity, confidence, and courage will allow the above skillsets to be engaged with not only more positivity and willingness, but in a more meaningful manner. When students run into obstacles, instead of giving up or losing hope, curiosity, confidence, and courage provides them the push forward to find the possibilities that often lay just outside and beyond those obstacles.

While not everyone will end up being an entrepreneur in the future, being entrepreneurial can provide students the skillsets and mindset that can provide the learning that will allow greater access to a world of work that is changing and shifting in some very exponential ways. It is not just in “following your passion” but in determining ways to make “following your passion” actually work towards a profession that can lead students towards a more positive and meaningful future. And as Reid Hoffman shares, “Society flourishes when people think entrepreneurially.”

“All humans are entrepreneurs not because they should start companies but because the will to create is encoded in human DNA, and creation is the essence of entrepreneurship.”  -Reid Hoffman

Facing The Future: Deeper Learning

“If you don’t reinvent yourself, change your organization structure; if you don’t talk about speed of innovation – you’re going to get disrupted. And it’ll be a brutal disruption, where the majority of companies will not exist in a meaningful way ten to fifteen years from now.”  -John Chambers, Executive Chairman of CISCO

We live in a world that has always had to deal with change, a world that is constantly evolving. Yet, it is in recent times, that these cycles of change have begun to accelerate at an astonishing rate, pushing us into new and often unknown environments that are becoming much more turbulent, much more volatile, and much more uncertain towards this new pace of change. And it is not just the speed of change that is evolving, but the level of connection through our many networks and platforms that is allowing change to  infiltrate, disperse and diffuse at such a heightened and rapid rate across our individual, organizational, and societal ecosystems.

Unfortunately, especially in the face of today’s modern pace of change, that we find our organizations struggling, as they are still learning how to engage effectively to these connections, platforms and networks; learning how to create the environments and spaces where the novel and new have opportunity to percolate, incubate, and exist. Which means that many of our organizations are not only struggling to parallel pace the new speed of change, but find themselves spinning into irrelevance as they struggle to unentrench themselves from the command and control, hierarchical structures and systems that have mired them in continual sameness, often inhibiting their ability to stretch beyond their current level of the known.

Rather, it is those organizations that have created environments and spaces where the novel and new, where creative and innovative thinking and doing can actually infuse from the edges into the core of the organization, that are actually able to create some semblance of relevance through the creation and support of networks that enhance organizational idea flows and provide the platform to diffuse those new ideas and new knowledge across the organizational learning ecosystem.

These organizations are moving from static and solid structures towards more fluid and integrated systems. Organizations that are able to take advantage of experimentation and discovery learning in response to what is captured from their internal and external networks, creating the learning and knowledge that expands their organizational boundaries farther and farther into the unknown, in more confident, effective and relevant manner.

It is in this work, that our individuals and organizations learn to become much more agile and adaptable towards change. It is in their ability and willingness to engage in “deeper learning” that our individuals and organizations will learn to access the knowledge and learning that will enable them to better approach and solve the problems we are facing in not only more effective, novel and new ways…but to move to a place where we are connecting the disparate and disconnected dots that will be needed as we move farther away from those technical problems and more towards the adaptive challenges that truly shaping our modern times.

While continuously curating new knowledge and skills and working towards the idea of lifelong learning is now a necessity and requirement for today’s individuals and organizations, it is also not enough. It is imperative that we are developing that knowledge, learning and skills in a way that it is also transferable. Where we are consistently building up our fluency towards that knowledge, learning and skills in ways that it becomes automatic and easily transfers towards helping us solve the problems and challenges we are facing. We engage in deeper learning in an effort to create more fluidity to applying our knowledge and skills, building more comfort and automaticity to transferring that knowledge to new situations, which will become more and more imperative to our work as individuals and organizations as the complexity and chaos of a world in the throes of constant, relentless and accelerated change pressing down upon us. As the National Research Council’s Education for Life and Work puts forth, “Part of deeper learning is that the knowledge of the learner is organized and stored in a way that is easily retrievable and useful. It is efficiently coded and stored. And it is not just stored, but it is accessible and useful towards solving new and or unknown problems.”

For which Mehta and Fine add from In Search of Deeper Learning, “The generation of students coming of age today will be asked to navigate, survive, and, if they can, help to heal the world they have inherited. Schools will need to do their part to develop skilled, creative, educated, informed, and empathetic citizens and leaders – the kind of people that our economy, society, and democracy demand.”

If we are going to become much more effective in not only dealing with the accelerated and turbulent pace of change and this definitive shift from technical problems to adaptive challenges, we are going to need to push into deeper learning, not only for the future of our students, but for the future of our individuals, leaders, and organizations. Especially as we work to build up the knowledge, the capacity, and the competencies that will allow our individuals and organizations to move more effectively into this very uncertain and non-obvious future we are all facing.

“The new social contract is different: Only people who have the knowledge and skills to negotiate constant change and reinvent themselves for new situations will succeed. Competency in twenty-first century skills gives people the ability to keep learning and adjusting to change.”  -Ken Kay, Chief Executive Officer EdLeader21