Intent to Adapt: Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Connecting Dots In Real Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Disruption Is Near

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adapting To The Chaos And Complexity Of Change

“Creative destruction is a central force in any dynamic modern economy.  Firms that want to avoid creative destruction, need to strike a keen balance between exploiting known ideas and exploring the frontiers of new knowledge – between hitting their goals for today and making wise investments for the future.”  -Ertel and Solomon ‘Moments of Impact’

The advent of an exponential, entrepreneurial economy, the influence of the lean startup mentality, and a more innovative, disruptive mindset has shown us that our world has become a much more volatile, shifting and evolving environment than we may have realized.

Unfortunately, we are struggling to effectively prepare our leaders and organizations to handle the chaos and complexity that accompany the rate and intensity of today’s dynamic change forces.  As Ertel and Solomon share in their work Moments of Impact, “we still hire and reward people mainly for their ability to exploit known ideas.”

We are ineffectively trying to slow and contain the confusion that these shifts are causing by continuing to apply outdated and outmoded practices that are not matched to the task that towers before and ahead of us.  We are still focused on applying sustaining processes to adaptive challenges and continue to find ourselves perplexed by the frustration and lack of progress we fail to create as leaders or organizations.

We continue to allow our leaders and organizations to deal only in the known, while our evolving world continues to serve up more and more unknowns.  Or as Ertel and Solomon share, “Organizations that can’t muster the patience to grapple with the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity of our times are ultimately no match for the powerful gales of creative destruction.”

Until we shift our thinking and our mindsets as leaders and organizations, until we can learn to truly define the problems that we are facing, until we can learn to move past applying outdated and outmoded practices to new and evolving problems, we will fail to be effective or influential in pushing through the changes forces that we will continue to face now and in the future.

Whether it is Ertel and Solomon, Kegan and Lahey, or Klein…they have enlightened our leadership and our organizations to the understanding that the types of problems and challenges that we are now and will face in the future are no longer fixed and simply identified. They are much more intricate and complex and require different thinking, deeper understandings and new skill-sets. What they’ve shown us is that we’ve moved from a world of more static technical problems and challenges to one that is evolving more and more towards adaptive problems and challenges.

The world isn’t going back to what it once was before and until we truly wrap our head around what that truly means, then our leadership and our organizations will struggle to be relevant and effective in a world that isn’t waiting for them to get up to speed.

The Paradox Of Chaos

“Our philosophy is that the key to achieving competitive advantage isn’t reacting to chaos; it’s producing that chaos.  And the key to being a chaos producer is being and innovation leader.”  -Ed McCracken

We strive for order, both in our professional and personal life.  Without order, there would be mayhem and bedlam throughout our world.  We would live life in a perpetual state of turmoil and upheaval.  It would be a world ruled by confusion and chaos…and constant change.

However, we are beginning to come to the realization that there are limits on our ability to create and sustain that order.  Limits that are unraveling in the face of an unrelenting and accelerating pace of change.  The cocoons that once insulated our organizations in order, safety and routine now blind us from the disruptive forces that are bearing down upon us.

So we bunker down and work strategically to protect ourselves and our organizations from these change forces that look to disrupt all we’ve created.  We work methodically to build a long-term plans that lay out a safe and secure future for us and our organizations.  But there remains a problem with these fail-proof plans that we continue to promote as organizational insurance to a protected and productive future.  They don’t exist…

Or as Ed McCracken shares, “No one can plan the future.  Three years is long-term.  Even two years may be.  Five years is laughable.”

The problem is that we’ve approached the turbulence and unrelenting pace of change in today’s world as a threat.  We only see the destructive and damaging effects of the chaos of change.  We’ve narrowed our lens and only allow ourselves to see the negatives.  But what we do know is that every negative has a positive…

Which is the paradox of chaos.

While we know that chaos can often be volatile, disruptive and destructive.  What we fail to see is that same upheaval often creates the space for the new to take hold, to take root.  Chaos often creates the space and room for more transformative and innovative thinking and ideas.  A space that is often non-existent in the cocoons of safety and order that many organizations have worked so diligently to weave.

Leaders are failing to see the other side of chaos and the opportunity it creates in their organization.

Rather than planting the seeds of transformation and innovation in the spaces created by chaos, many leaders and organizations continue to work feverishly to fix and repair these holes and voids of order that the forces of disruptive change create.  We continue to recoil into the cocoon of safety and order, rather than pushing through to unleash the butterfly of transformation that lies within.

We remain fixated and focused on restoration, when chaos can provide us an open door to transformation and innovation.

“The things we fear most in organizations – fluctuations, disturbances, imbalances – are the primary sources of creativity.”  -Margaret J. Wheatley

Leading The Modern Learning Organization

“The most intriguing leadership role in culture management is one in which the leader attempts to develop a learning organization that will be able to make its own perpetual diagnosis and self-manage whatever transformations are needed as the environment changes.” –Edgar Schein ‘Organizational Culture and Leadership’

Mounting pressures and the intensity of change has levied new and different requirements upon today’s modern organizations.  A slow burn, decelerated and reactive stance towards change is a recipe for implemented irrelevance.  Today’s organizations are going to have to proactively engineer and design their future.  Unfortunately, relying on current and past assumptions, practices, models, mindsets and even traditions will not suffice in a world that is determined to perpetually disrupt itself.

The past tended to presume that our organizations would be pushed in one way or another forward into the future.  Unfortunately, that future no longer exists and the free pass into it no longer applies for any organization.  We live in a world where everything is ripe for disruption and innovation.  And for that reason, the free pass has evaporated.  If you want to be a relevant force in the future, then you are going to need to create the organizational significance, worth and value that makes others take note and notice.

The future is there for those willing to take hold and invent it…it just won’t be given freely.

Understanding the shifts occurring in our modern world brings the realization that the rate of everything has been altered exponentially, from the creation and dissemination of information and data to the time allowed to internalize and react upon it.  The actual act of learning is being transformed across the whole of society.  Learning has not only become an individual and organizational imperative, the speed at which we are being required to do it has altered itself immensely.  Speed, not time, to acquire new learning has become the ally to effectively handle the shifts facing today’s modern organizations.

Or as Edgar Schein shares in Organizational Culture and Leadership, “As the problems we encounter change, so will our learning method change.”  Which begets the question, are our individual and organizational learning methods changing?  Or do our organizational structures, systems and models remain entrenched and grounded in stasis and status quo?  We must begin to ask ourselves, are our modern organizations evolving and transforming proactively or reactively to the shifts we see occurring in the world around us?

These are difficult and complex questions that are not accompanied with any easy answers, but questions that we must continue to ask of ourselves and of our organizations.  Especially, if our aim is to truly transform our organizations into authentic learning ecosystems.

What is most important is to begin, to take action towards creating and building up these authentic learning ecosystems that evolve our organizations forward into the future.  Which will require not only shifts in how we learn and engage, but individual and organizational mindshifts towards the assumptions and practices we apply to our work.

As Schein adds, “The only way to build a learning culture that continues to learn is for leaders themselves to realize that they do not know and must teach others to accept that they do not know. The learning task is then shared responsibility.”

All that is predictable and linear is being efficiently wiped off the organizational landscape.  Today’s leaders can no longer believe that they have all the answers and ideas to effectively lead a modern organization into the future.  It will require developing the trust, relationships, and collaborative efforts, both internally and externally, to push forward through these most turbulent and uncertain of times.  It requires learning at ALL levels of the organization.  To push forward creatively and innovatively into the future will not be the work of an individual, as much as it will be a collaborative effort that spans the entirety of the organization.

“As the world becomes more complex and interdependent, the ability to think systemically, to analyze fields of forces and understand their joint causal effects on each other, and to abandon simple linear causal logic in favor of complex mental models will become more critical to learning.” -Peter Senge via Edgar Schein ‘Organizational Culture and Leadership’