Surviving And Thriving In A VUCA World: In Consideration Of Education In The Exponential Age

 

Click the link below for access to the ebook:

Surviving and Thriving in a VUCA World: In Consideration of Education in the Exponential Age (ebook)

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Leading In Uncertain Times: The Irrelevance Factor (Part 1)

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“A theory has only the alternative of being wrong or right. A model has a third possibility: it may be right but irrelevant.”  -Manfred Eigen

When you think of the current idea of the organizational model and how we work, be that in education, government, or business, in the historical scheme of things, is a model that hasn’t really been around for that long of a time.

For much of that time, the model has stayed pretty consistent, focusing on sustaining systemic efficiency, command and control leadership, a need for certainty and the avoidance of unnecessary risks, and very often choosing pride of product over support and commitment to people ways of operating.  It is only in more recent times that there has been this push towards more adaptive awareness and deeper focus on effectiveness over efficiency, a more human-centered and less cogs in the machine ways of operating, as well as continually looking to evolve and expand the user experience both internally and externally, and embracing uncertainty and risk-taking that leads to more discovery, experimental learning.

Shifts that have stemmed more from necessity than necessarily from want.  Especially as today’s accelerated, turbulent and often disruptive nature of change and societal shifts have changed expectations and brought forth this need for new ways for the organization and its leadership to operate and exist.

It is no longer enough to just focus on sustaining models efficiency, when  frameworks of effectiveness are now required.

In a world that is much more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, our organizations and leaders within must be much more aware of what they are sustaining.  What is considered relevant today, might and most likely will not be relevant tomorrow, and understanding this shift will allow our leaders and organizations to adapt more effectively to a changing world and uncertain future.  It does little to improve our systems and ways of working to be both more efficient and effective, if what we are focused on sustaining and adapting to has become or is becoming irrelevant in a world that is changing exponentially.

And yet, just understanding when our strategies, practices, processes, structures, systems and models have become irrelevant and actually moving to an action or actions that creates the necessary change or needed transformation of those are two very different lifts.  With one being much heavier and more complex than the other.

As Einstein is known for saying, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Which says two things to me; (1) the deeper the understandings we build around our organizational strategies, practices, processes, structures, systems and models, through ongoing learning and enhanced idea flows, the greater the chance that we make changes to our organization that allow it to be more efficient, more effective and more relevant to our changing world, and (2) you can only truly get to simple through full comprehension of the complexity that we are facing and that which exists and is inherent within each of our organizational ecosystems.

Understandings that eventually determine how adaptable and agile our organizations can and will become in the future.

For example, the digital disruption and/or transformations that we are currently facing serve as a tremendous example of (1) and (2) from above, in showing us just how complex the nature of change can be for us as individuals, leaders and organizations; and yet how important it is we find ways to communicate the need for change and/or changes to retain the relevance of our work in a simple and meaningful manner.

Too often we approach this work in a wrong or right manner, which undervalues the in-between and/or complexity of what we are facing as leaders and organizations.  It is no longer about whether a strategy, practice, process, structure, system or model is wrong or right, but rather is it effective?  And, is it relevant to the world that we are “now” living in?

Not the world that we used to live in…

Too often we try to implement change without taking into account the relevance and/or irrelevance of our current models.  Too often we approach change in an isolated manner, focusing on parts of the system without seeing the whole of the system, often leading to unintended consequences that do more to hinder than improve the overall performance of the organization.

You can’t move towards continuous improvement and effective systems change, if you are not willing to attend to the irrelevance of the current strategies, practices, processes and models that are in place.  That is not to say that progress cannot be made, just understand irrelevant parts can and will slow the process and in the end, weigh down the whole.

As for example, think of it like keeping outdated computers running on a systems network.  The computers still work for the individual user, but their outdated performance becomes a drag, ultimately slowing down the entire network for all users.  It is better for the overall performance of the entire network to remove those outdated computers, even though it may cause some inconvenience for individual users.

And yet, they remain on the network…

Unfortunately, many of our current strategies, practices, processes, structures, systems and models are disconnected from the future we are facing.  Much like the outdated computers, we stubbornly refuse to remove them from the network, knowing that they are slowing and dragging the entire system down.

Awareness of these signals, of the slowing of our organizational networks due to outdated and irrelevant strategies, practices, processes, structures, systems, and models will be paramount to determining the necessity and need for change, and approaching and communicating the complexity of that change in a much more simple, transparent, and human-centered manner, will be vital to the continuous and effective improvement that makes our organizations more robust and relevant for the future.

Which ultimately evolves our organizations from one of sustaining the current, to one of adapting progressively to the future.

 

 

At The Intersection Of Adaptive Leadership, Design And Systems Thinking

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“We can’t impose our will on a system.  We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.”  -via Donella Meadows Thinking in Systems: A Primer

We live in a world relentlessly pushed forward by the velocity, volatility, uncertainty, disruption, and disequilibrium of constant change.  As the pace of change accelerates, so does the shelf-life of our strategies, processes, frameworks, and systems.  The rapidity of change now requires an expanding and continuously evolving breadth and depth to our repertoire of problem-solving strategies and leadership skill-sets.  Yet, even in the face of this rapidity of change and the disequilibrium it creates, too often, we find ourselves as individuals and organizations siloed in and dedicated to only one way of doing and working.  In many ways, we continue to approach the problems we are trying to solve in very limited and one-dimensional manner.

If it worked before, we believe it will continue to work…even when it doesn’t.

In many ways, we fail to adapt, both as individuals and organizations, especially in the midst of this shift from technical problems to adaptive challenges.  As Heifetz and Linsky share in Leadership on the Line, “Indeed, the single most common source of leadership failure we’ve been able to identify – in politics, community life, business, or the nonprofit sector – is that people, especially those in positions of authority, treat adaptive challenges like technical problems.”

In the article, Becoming an Adaptive Leader, they share seven ways to know if you are facing an adaptive challenge:

  • The solution requires operating in a different way than you do now
  • The problem AND the solution require learning
  • The solution requires shifting authority and responsibility to the people who are actually affected
  • The solution requires some sacrifice of your past ways of working or living
  • The solution requires experimenting before you’re sure of the answer
  • The solution will take a long time
  • The challenge connects to people’s deeply held values

While it is vitally important to determine and distinguish between whether you are facing a technical problem or adaptive challenge, it is no longer enough without expanding, evolving and innovating the ways in which we will respond and react to these new and growing challenges.

It is at this intersection of recognition, that learning and improvement can exist.

It is at this intersection, where adaptive leadership, design and systems thinking meet, mingle and begin to coexist, that will eventually allow us to adapt and intervene towards  more improved problem-solving processes to today’s growing list of “adaptive” challenges.  To allow us to approach these challenges in a much more expansive and effective manner, both individually and organizationally.

Especially as we consider the phases or steps of each of these individual processes and frameworks.

Adaptive Leadership: observation, interpretation, intervention.

Design Thinking: empathy, definition, ideation, prototyping

Systems Thinking: interconnections, linkages, interactions

Visually seeing these three processes and frameworks together side by side, not only shows how similar each of these are, but how they can support and build upon each other, as well as fill in the gaps that one or the other may be missing.  In many ways, they are best served not as building blocks for each other, but as blending blocks that provide a more integrated approach.

For example, as design thinking may push to disrupt the status quo of doing and working, systems thinking fills in by allowing us to determine how that shift can and will affect the whole, while adaptive leadership presses forward to prepare us for how people will interpret and be affected by that change and prepare interventions for the push-back that will eventually come from the uncertainty and possible loss of that change.

It is also when you look at Peter Senge’s ideas on systems thinking and learning organizations…

  • Deep, persistent commitment to real learning
  • Be prepared to be wrong, reflecting on mental models
  • Gain a diversity of thinking and points of view, collective
  • Understanding the problems we are dealing with and gain some perspective on those problems

That we see not only the intersection, but how the coalescing and fusing of these three processes and frameworks for problem-solving and adaptive change support an environment that is constantly evolving and continuously improving.

It is at the intersection of adaptive leadership, design and systems thinking, we are able to engage empathy, allow for our observations to lead to deeper connections and interconnections.  To not only interpret those observations and connections, but allow them to better define the real problem or problems we are facing and to see how they link to the entire system.  While providing the space for ideation and divergent thinking that will provide more relevant solutions and prototypes to those problems, while trying to understand how people will interact with these changes and consider  possible interventions that will allow for us to overcome ingrained status quo habits and behaviors that impede progress and change.

It is at the intersection of these three forces that not only better futures are imagined, but the tools are provided to help bring those possibilities to realization.

“The main tenet of design thinking is empathy for the people you’re trying to design for.  Leadership is exactly the same thing-building empathy for the people that you’re entrusted to help.”  -David Kelley Found of IDEO

Future Thinking

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A recent survey study by the Institute for the Future, The American Future Gap revealed that, “The vast majority of people never think about the far future.”

As author of the survey and senior researcher Jane McGonigal adds, “The majority of people aren’t connecting with their future selves, which studies have shown leads to less self-control and less pro-social behavior.”  McGonigal adds, “Thinking about the future in 5, 10 and 30 years is essential to being an engaged citizen and creative problem solver.  Curiosity about what might happen in the future, the ability to imagine how things could be different, and empathy for our future selves are all necessary if we want to create positive change in our own lives or the world around us.”

So, if future thinking is shown to have positive benefits for us and society, then it might behoove us to consider learning ways in which a futurist may approach thinking about the future.

To think more like a futurist, let’s dig a bit into Dr. Joseph Voros’ work A Primer on Future Studies, Foresight and the Use of Scenarios, and to what he refers to as the three “laws” of futures:

The future is not predetermined.  Understanding that there are limitless and or endless possibilities for the future, is also in understanding that while the present does have bearing on the future, the future can and does remain undetermined by our current situation.  Or as Dr. Voros adds,Therefore, there is no, and cannot be, any single predetermined future, rather there are considered to be infinitely many potential alternative futures.”

The future is not predictable.  The future is not some process that keeps marching forward in a linear, predictable manner.  As Dr. Voros shares, “Even if the future were predetermined, we could never collect enough information about it to an arbitrary degree of accuracy to construct a complete model of how it would develop.”  And yet, in many ways, especially in our organizations, we continue to approach the future in a safe, linear, predictable manner, which is at odds with the velocity and acceleration of change in today’s complex world.

Future outcomes can be influenced by our choices in the present.  And while we are faced with infinite possibilities of how our future will emerge, that does not mean that we have no influence on that emergence, no matter the limitless possibilities it proposes.  For which Dr. Voros puts forth, “Even though we can’t determine which future of an infinite possible variety will eventuate, nevertheless we can influence the shape of the future which does eventuate by the choices we make regarding our actions (or inaction) in the present.”  Too often we remain cognitively unaware and immune to the power of seeing how we think and act can have great influence on this constantly evolving and emerging future, allowing our mental models to provide us with a predetermined approach to the future.

In A Primer on Future Studies, Foresight and the Use of Scenarios, Dr. Joseph Voros provides “four” classes of potential and or alternatives when considering the future.

Possible futures.  As Dr. Voros shares, “This class of futures includes all the kinds of futures we can possibly imagine – those which might happen – no matter how far-fetched, unlikely or way out.”  These fall into the class of might happen future.

Plausible futures.  These futures fall into the class of could happen” futures.    While possible futures are often reliant on future knowledge, plausible futures are driven more by “current knowledge.”

Probable futures.  These futures tend to fall into the class of “likely to happen” futures.  As Dr. Voros adds, they “stem in part from the continuance of current trends” and are “a simple linear extension of the present.”

Preferable futures.  Whereas, plausible futures fall into the class of what we “want to happen” futures.  The difference of preferable futures to the three classes of futures is that preferable futures are “largely emotional rather than cognitive” and the other three classes of futures are “concerned with informational or cognitive knowledge.”

In the end, it doesn’t matter that we think like futurist, as much as it matters that begin to spend time future thinking.

As Jane McGonigal shares, “Future thinking is one of our most under-developed skills sets.  It takes less than a minute a day, but studies have shown it can lead to improved health, better financial stability and much more.”  And yet, “The vast majority of people never think about the far future.”  Even though “Studies show the less people think about their future lives, the less self-control they exhibit and the less likely they are to make choices that benefit the world in the long-run.”

And while it is important to be in the present, it may be just important that we spend a bit more time thinking about our future.

Preparing in the present…can keep us from being stranded in the future.

References and quotes from…

Voros, Joseph.  A Primer on Future Studies, Foresight and the Use of Scenarios.  2001. Thinking Futures: Designing Collaborative Conversations about the Future

McGonigal, Jane. The American Future Gap. 2017. Institute for the Future

The Future Will Be Very Different (Part 2)

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In March, responding to Mark Cuban’s comments to how Artificial Intelligence was going to change the workforce, the current Treasury Secretary, when questioned about Cuban’s comments, inferred that, “Artificial intelligence is so far in the future that it’s not even on my radar screen.  We won’t have to worry about how it affects the workforce for 50 to 100 more years.” (per Business Insider)

Which, for many, was a shocking comment, to say the least…

Especially in that it was in direct contrast to what was shared in December of 2016, in which the White House released two reports, Artificial Intelligence, Automation, and the Economy, which was a follow up to the Administration’s previous report from October of 2016, Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence.  A report that indicated that “as many as 47% of all American jobs could be at risk from artificial intelligence in the next two decades.”

The following was shared in regards to these reports…

“Although it is difficult to predict these economic effects precisely, the report suggests that policymakers should prepare for five primary economic effects:

  • Positive contributions to aggregate productivity growth;

  • Changes in skills demanded by the job marked, including greater demand for higher-level technical skills;

  • Uneven distribution of impact, across sectors, wage levels, education levels, job types, and locations;

  • Churning of the job market as some jobs disappear while others are created; and

  • The loss of jobs for some workers in the short-run and possibly longer depending on policy responses.”

To add, in an article shared by Gizmodo, “According to a study by the Center of Business and Economic Research at Ball State University, 5.6 million manufacturing jobs were lost in the U.S. between 2000 and 2010.  An estimated 85% of those jobs were actually attributable to technological change-largely automation.”

While CNBC shares, “The White House Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) ranked occupations by wages and found that 83% of jobs making less than $20 per hour would come under pressure from automation, as compared to 31% of jobs making between $20 and $40 per hour and 4% of jobs making above $40 per hour.”

And it isn’t only the threat of automation and artificial intelligence that is changing work.

According to a recent article from World Economic Forum, “The days of working for 40 years and retiring with a good pension are gone.  Now the average time in a single job is 4.2 years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  What’s more, 35% of the skills workers need – regardless of industry – will have changed by 2020.”

To add to that, on the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics webpage, “Individuals born in latter years of the baby boom (1957-1964) held an average of 11.9 jobs from age 18-50.”

The World Economic Forum Future of Jobs of Survey adds that, “On average, by 2020, more than a third of the desired core skill sets of most occupations will be comprised of skills that are not yet considered crucial to the job today, according to our respondents.”

To say we live in very interesting times would be an understatement.  While some find this new world exciting and filled with possibilities for change, others see it as tumultuous, chaotic, and even a bit scary.  But one thing we can say, is that after years of incremental change, we now stand on the cusp of some very steep and disruptive shifts.  Our individuals, our organizations, our systems, our governments, and even our societies are facing some very unsteady and uncertain winds created by the pace and acceleration of change in today’s world.

Winds that are heightening our awareness of the vast unknowns emerging from this future.

And awareness of what is emerging is vital to our ability to design a better future.  Otherwise, we will continue to create larger gaps and ongoing disconnects for individuals, organizations and our systems.  We can ill afford to be overcome by the urgency and plethora of technical problems, while barely sensing, let alone keeping up with the a whole new set of adaptive challenges that are arising.

We can ill afford to face this new and emerging future overwhelmed, unequipped and unprepared.

We can ill afford to…

  • Have a lack of awareness
  • A lack of vision
  • A lack of clarity
  • A lack of communication

We can be certain that content knowledge is no longer enough for success in a world and workforce that has shifted exponentially.  A world and workforce that is facing an uncertain future from what automation and artificial intelligence might do, might create, and the affects it may have on us, our organizations, our systems, our governments and our societies.

We can ill afford to wait for these uncertainties to become certainties.  We have to determine those “unknown” skills and abilities that will help prepare our generations to come for those “unknowns” and the “jobs that are yet to exist.”

Skills that Singularity Hub share as; critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration across networks and leading by influence, agility and adaptability, initiative and entrepreneurship, effective oral and written communication, assessing and analyzing information, and curiosity and imagination.

Or as CareerBuilder would add as; adaptability, self-motivation, networking, self-awareness, and computer coding.

And the Institute for the Future’s 10 Skills for the Future Work of 2020; sense-making, social intelligence, novel and adaptive thinking, cross-cultural competency, computational thinking, new media literacy, transdisciplinary, design mindset, cognitive load management, and virtual collaboration.

“According to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey, The State of American Jobs, found that 87% of workers believe it will be essential for them to get training and develop new job skills throughout their work life in order to keep up with changes in the workplace.”

Which gives an entirely new meaning to the idea of lifelong learner…

Creative, innovative, imaginative thinking will always be valued, but we are finding that its value is expanding in an age of increasing automation and artificial intelligence.

Engaging and infusing skills and abilities into the educational world of content, better prepares our next generation for a world that is shifting and emerging through a fog of uncertainty and unknowns.  While we can never predict the future, greater awareness does allow us to forecast and better prepare for whatever is to emerge…

“However much change you saw over the last 10 years with the iPhone, over the last 20 years with the Internet, over the last 30 years with with PC’s, that is nothing.  Nothing!  Things are getting faster, processing is getting faster, machines are starting to think, and either you make them think for you or they will take your place and do the thinking for you.  That could be problematic for many people.”  -Mark Cuban via CNBC

Preparing Our Students For The Future

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In a world fueled by unknowns, how do we prepare our students, our people and our organizations for the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA) of a world that is changing and shifting in an accelerated and often exponential ways?

What kind of knowledge and learning will be necessary and needed to traverse the future?

What types of requisite skills and abilities will be deemed valuable for the knowledge economy, amidst exponential times?

What competencies, capacities and capabilities will prove to be relevant in a world driven by accelerated obsolescence?

And the answer is…

We don’t know.

We are neither soothsayers, oracles, psychics or fortune tellers.  We cannot predict the future, and for that matter, those who have tried have shown themselves to have a pretty poor track record for being correct.

However, that does not mean that we should not be much more attentive to and aware of the signals in the chaos.

Signals of opportunity, signals of change, signals of coming shifts.  

We need to not only be much more aware of our own “point of view” of the future, we should also be searching to determine the signals amidst the noise not to predict, but to better forecast the future.  Seeing the importance of those signals, especially in a world that is unfolding in much less linear and predictable ways, better allows us to forecast and prepare for what may come.

A world where gradually quickly turns into suddenly.

However, in the midst of today’s fake news and exponential changes, it is becoming more and more difficult to determine who and what to believe?  It is becoming much harder to see the signals for the noise.

For, are we facing an uncertain future where machines have taken the majority of our jobs?  Or are we just in the midst of another industrial (digital) revolution which will just require some time for adjustment?

On the one side, technologists profess staggering upheaval, even a possible dystopian future with the possibility of millions of jobs being lost to automation and artificial intelligence.  Whereas, economists ride the other side of the wave, saying that this time is not like any other major change or shift of the past where new jobs will be created over time and push us through this disruption positively.  While others profess less of a race against the machines and a race with the machines, as the automation and artificial intelligence will eventually take over work that is considered deadly, dirty, dangerous, and or rote and boring, while augmenting our capacity to do our work more efficiently and effectively.

But whatever side you fall towards, we still must say that it is difficult to believe that everything is going to be as it was, especially when several countries and a plethora of leaders across the world are expounding the need for a basic universal income (BUI) just to counter the current decoupling of productivity from employment as a strategy to avoid future economical collapse.

So while we can’t predict how this will play out in the future, the more aware we are, the more agile and adaptive we can become in forecasting and facing whatever changes which may spring from this current disruption.

The best thing we can do for our students, our people, and our organizations is to increase our awareness, search out those signals in the chaos, and look to better prepare ourselves for a much different future.

We can begin by looking at how the very idea of work is changing, and what impact will those changes have on education?  

Let’s begin with creating a greater awareness of the types of jobs that currently exist both now and in the very near future.  Consider some of these… 3D Platform Technical Evangelist, Data Scientist, Neuro-Implant Technicians, 3D Software Engineer-Scene Layers, Virtual Reality Experience Designer, Urban Farmers, just to name a few.  The greater awareness we have of the types of jobs that exist, the better able we are to prepare our students for the opportunities that lie beyond graduation and our academic walls as they look to pursue their passions and success for the future.

And it’s not just job titles that are changing, but the skills and abilities required by some knowledge economy organizations, which includes but not limited to: knowledge of HTML, CSS, JavaScript, C++, Python, 3D tools such as Maya, Revit, AutoCAD, experience with SCRUM, as well as knowledge of Agile development methodologies, are just a few of the skills being requested in entry level job posting by those knowledge economy organizations.

While the Institute For the Future shares a variety of other skills for the future that they see as being important, which would include: sense making, social intelligence, novel and adaptive thinking, cross-cultural competencies, computational thinking, new media literacy, transdisciplinarity, design mindset, cognitive load management, and virtual collaboration.

And it doesn’t stop there, alongside those skills, consider these capacities and competencies requested on entry level positions from such organizations as ESRI, CA Technologies or READYTALK: “ability to work in a fast-paced team environment that sparks ingenuity and encourages innovative ideas,” “work within agile processes for short cycle, fast-paced delivery,” “take on complex goals that push the boundary of the possible,” “solve and articulate complex problems through application design, development, and exemplary user experiences,” “support continuous learning and continuous team improvement,” “coach other leaders and managers on the role of a servant leadership within the Agile organization,” “strong interpersonal, written, and oral communication skills,” as well as the “ability to effectively prioritize and execute tasks in a high-pressure environment.”

So as we talk of lesson design, room design, even system design in education, the previous statements of workforce requirements inform us (signals in the chaos), that we are going to have to begin to have a much deeper discussion around environment design.  Today’s work environments are requiring much different skills-sets, capacities and competencies than what we tend to engage and create in our classrooms and schools.

So we must begin to ask ourselves, do our classrooms and schools prepare students for that type of environment?

While awareness doesn’t change everything we do, just as it doesn’t allow us to predict the future…it does allow us to not only forecast what is to come in a much more adept manner, it allows us to better determine the skills, capacities and competencies, as well as environments necessary and needed to better prepare our students, our people and our organizations for this digital disruption and the future.

In the end, it begins by understanding what does change, what doesn’t change, what remains, and what transforms.  This is not an either/or proposition, it is a matter of embracing AND.

So in closing, consider these words from study by The Economist Intelligence Unit (supported by Google) on Preparing Students for the Future…

“It is no longer sufficient-if it ever was-that teachers are well versed in their subject.  They must recognize that the skills a student acquires through learning are as important, if not more so, than the content, and be able to incorporate opportunities for the development of problem solving, collaborative, creative and communication skills into their teaching.  These skills cannot be taught in isolation but must be present across the curriculum, embedded in the fabric of how teachers teach.”

Positive Deviance: Scaling Internal Innovation

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“The faraway stick does not kill the snake.”  “Positive deviants in your midst are the stick close at hand – readily accessible and successfully employed by people just like us.  No need for outside experts or best-practice remedies that may work over there but won’t work here.  No need for deep systemic analysis or a resource-intensive assault on root causes.  Just discover the closest stick and use it.”  -via Pascale, Sternin and Sternin The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems

We have this strange fascination and fixation with and on external expertise…

Going to have a conference?  We need an outside speaker.

Have a tough problem to solve?  We need an outside consultant.

We continually act in our organizations, institutions and systems as if the best thinking, ideas and answers lay outside of our walls.  We work on this unconscious belief and bias that to gain the best knowledge, we have to move beyond our own organizational walls.  Even when those external “experts” have only a very veneer understanding of the context, obstacles and barriers for the adaptive challenges that your organization, institution or system is facing and the problems they are trying solve.

Whereas, Richard Pascale, author of Surfing the Edge of Chaos and Positive Deviance would believe that we need to act and respond much differently, as organizations, institutions and systems.  We need to taken an entirely different approach if we are scale up our creative and innovative efforts to attending to the adaptive challenges we face.  Pascale would declare, “Exploit positive deviance.  Don’t begin with imported ideas from the outside or even from above.  Try to find what’s cooking within the system.”  

As Pascale shares in a Fast Company article on positive deviance, “Real change begins from the inside…”

So, if what Pascale says is true, and that this concept of positive deviance is a better path to scaling the creativity and innovation that already exists in our organizations, institutions, and organizations, then it just may be important for us to determine what positive deviance exactly is?

In his work, The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems, Pascale communicates that “Positive deviance is founded on the premise that at least one person in a community, working with the same resources as everyone else, has already licked the problems that confounds others.  This individual is an outlier in the statistical sense – an exception, someone whose outcome deviates in a positive way from the norm.  In most cases this person does not know he or she is doing anything unusual.  Yet once the unique solution is discovered and understood, it can be adopted by the wider community and transform many lives.”  For which Pascale adds, “From the positive deviance perspective, individual difference is regarded as a community resource.”

Which is a very different mode of operating for most organizations, institutions and systems, which have tended to focus much more on efficiency, standardization, and when needed, external expertise.  Instead of pushing outliers to the fringes or diminishing their success, positive deviance seeks out these outliers and looks to learn from them, to determine why they have exceeded the status quo while only having access to the same resources and facing the same obstacles and barriers as everyone else.

One problem is that too often, instead of trying to learn from these positive deviants and determine why they have been so much more successful, as well as what could effectively be scaled from that learning, we tend to remain unaware, uninterested, or unwilling to give credence to how they are overcoming obstacles and barriers.  Instead of pulling the outliers into the core, organizations continue to push them to the fringe, failing to learn from or scale what these bright spots could contribute to and for the organization, institution or system.

As they say, sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees…well, in some cases, being caught up in the underbrush keeps us from seeing how tall some trees have grown.

For these bright spots to not only be noticed, but engaged in a positive and transparent way, will take leaders with greater organizational understanding, empathy, engagement and transparency.  Especially, as Pascale adds, these positive deviants are “Invisible in plain sight.  Invisible positive deviants often “don’t know what they know” (i.e., don’t realize they are doing anything unusual or noteworthy).  Living alongside peers, they flourish while others struggle.  Also invisible in plain sight is the community’s latent potential to self-organize, tap its own wisdom, and address problems long regarded with fatalistic acceptance.”

We not only get stuck in our ruts determined by our own behaviors, we allow our mindset and mental models to continue to drive those behaviors forward, long after they  have used up their effectiveness, which is a big factor in pushing our unwillingness to accept the “expertise” that exists internally in our organizations, institutions and systems.  It is those same mindsets and mental models that remain a feature in why many of our biggest problems and adaptive challenges seem to plague our organizational communities consistently and continually.

As Pascale adds, “Once the community has discovered and leveraged existing solutions by drawing on its own resources, adaptive capacity extends beyond addressing the initial problem at hand, it enables those involved to take control of their destiny and address future challenges.”

So, not only does engaging the positive deviance that resides in organizations, institutions and systems help us in attending to and solving the problems and challenges we are currently facing, it also allows us to scale up the learning from those bright spots in ways that better supports solving future problems with internal capacity, rather than relying on external expertise.

Positive deviance is not just about scaling up those bright spots who are succeeding, it is showing the organizational community that the capacity to solve their own problems exists within, and at this very moment someone within the organizational community is providing solutions to those very problems and challenges that we are struggling to solve.  It is this mindset, this reframing of our mental models, that allows the organizational community to move past this ongoing fascination with external supports and expertise that continually diminishes the internal capacity and commitment that exists within.

Once we allow our organizations, institutions and systems to fully realize the potential that resides within, to understand that we have the tools and the internal “expertise” to better solve our own problems and challenges, we will not only move away from trying to outsource our solutions to an external parade of professional problem-solvers, we will begin to create the capacity and commitment to find our way forward in a much more meaningful, impactful and relevant manner.

“Leadership can use the tool of positive deviance as social intervention that helps social systems identify and amplify novel experiments that have previously gone unnoticed, but whose problem-solving and opportunity exploitation potential can be unleashed.” -Goldstein, Hazy, Lichtenstein Complexity and the Nexus of Leadership

Or as Pascale puts forth…

“The solution is just waiting to be uncovered and amplified.”