How Are We Preparing For The Futures We See Coming?

“It was such a lost learning experience, because the pandemic itself has been a great opportunity for students to figure out who they are and to question their assumptions about continuity, their ideas about identity, what it means to be a citizen and how to take care of the elderly. There’s so many beautiful questions hidden in this crisis that could have been woven into curricula to provide meaning to what we are going through. The issue is that education is all about planning and preparing students for certain markets and jobs, and only to a lesser extent about exploration. And by closing our eyes to the present, we end up being not prepared for anything. To bring education into the 21st century, we need to let go of that path dependency, and create more space for failures, pilots, experiments, and explorations.” -Loes Damhof, UNESCO Chair in Futures Literacy via Teaching Futures

In many ways, if feels as if we have worked very diligently to try and put the pandemic in our rear-view mirror, even at the risk of not learning the many lessons it has provoked and provided for us. We talk about a “new” normal, but that often serves as code for getting back as close as possible to some semblance of what we did or were doing pre-pandemic. To getting back to the “certainty” of the known. We talk about creating the individual and organizational capacity to lean into the rising complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity of these current times, while spending our time chasing the illusion of and assurance of certainty. We continue to probe at solving the expanding, and often unsolvable, dilemmas and adaptive challenges of our times with veneer, ready-made solutions, when we need to begin to focus on building the fortitude and capacity towards learning how to “manage” these challenges more effectively.

It often feels as if we are intent on trying to forget and put the pandemic behind us, rather than engaging in reflection upon and learning from the myriad of lessons that the struggles of what we’ve gone through have uncovered, projected, catalyzed, and/or has shown and unveiled to us over the last few years.

Maybe what we have to realize, is that in many ways, the pandemic has changed our image of the future. How we now think about it? How we consider it? How we picture and visualize it? Even how we determine our dreams, hopes, and possibilities of and for the future? While it is not always readily apparent to us, what we have come to recognize is that our post-pandemic image of the future is quite often challenging our pre-pandemic view of the future. And unfortunately, in this age of extreme busyness and accelerated change, we rarely have or take the time to intentionally engage in considerations of how, why, and what that means for us moving forward, both individually and organizationally.

Which engages the thought from Kees Van Der Heijden for us, both individually and organizationally, which he shares in his book Scenarios: The Art of Strategic Conversation, “The prime question to be addressed is whether the organization is well-equipped for the futures we can see coming?”

Which is a much deeper question than we probably consider upon first glance, of what is well-equipped and what do we see coming? How are we equipping ourselves individually and organizationally for these emerging futures? What competencies and capacities have we already built up, and what ones do we need to engage and expand? How are we rigorously scanning the horizon, both individually and organizationally to determine the weak and strong signals of what is coming? What kind of processes and systems do we have in place to sustain that work, decipher what those signals may mean for us individually and organizationally, and then have the internal and external network aptitude to spread that information to better prepare for the futures we see coming?

For which Epamindondas Christophilopoulos, the Head of Foresight and Tools at the Foundation for Research and Technology shares in What Is Futures Literacy and Why Is It Important? “We need to give people this skill to deal with a future full of uncertainties, and to emancipate them by helping them understand how we can anticipate and how we can use the future in the present to provide hope.” Which is effectively pushing us to move those concepts of – complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainty – from where we’ve hidden them in the rear-view mirror, and to place them out in front of us, in full windshield view for us to see and confront head on. To putting them right out there, front and center of where we are heading towards, knowing that in today’s VUCA world, they will be traveling with us anyways. And to add, this “skill” that Christophilopoulos is referring to, is our capacity to become more comfortable with the future and our ability to then anticipate the future in a way that is more futures literate.

Which, especially in discussing literacies, is not often a term that we are familiar with or have heard of in reference to literacies. And yet, we live in a world where the term “literacy” is expanding beyond what we’ve previously considered in terms of literacy. There’s digital, cultural, financial, and social, just to name a few. As well as futures literacy…

As there is not just one way to think about the future, just as there is not just one future.

It is when we consider the future or futures from a literacy perspective, we can find ourselves more open to visualizing how we approach the future and “use” the future as something that can be cultivated and learned. It is something that we can build capacity with, both individually and collectively.

As Riel Miller, Head of Futures Literacy at UNESCO shares, “Futures literacy helps us understand how the future is created, how we imagine the future to be, and what the impact is of imagining the future? Our ability to anticipate future outcomes tends to shape our choices, our strategies, and our long-term plans.” To add, UNESCO puts forth, “Futures literacy is a capability. It is the skill that allows people to better understand the role of the future in what they see and do. Being futures literate empowers the imagination, enhances our ability to prepare, recover and invent as changes occur.” To which Riel Miller adds, “Futures literacy helps us to be more sophisticated in how we use the future as a lens. It is a way of opening our perception and allows us to anticipate. Which provides us another way into resilience. To negotiating shared meaning. As we need to be more sophisticated in how the future is used by us. Uncertainty is a resource, not something we can eradicate.”

All of which is incredibly important to our current context and times, especially for our educational and societal systems, as we consider the future that is coming at us. The way that we’ve considered how the world works have become murky myths that are challenging our long-held assumptions. Especially as many of the rites of passage, rituals of change, even our mental models and maps that have guided us in our lives and within our organizations, systems, and society for so long, are either being reframed or are seen as crumbling pillars falling all around us. All of which are creating greater levels of uncertainty, broader breadths of unknowns, especially in how we view, envision, and anticipate the future. As Riel Miller shared previously, this will require us, both individually and organizationally, “to be more sophisticated in how we use the future.” That “sophistication” becomes more valuable, vital and important as these coming societal shifts accelerate change, expand complexity and ambiguity across our societal landscapes, and instigating a plethora of growing instabilities within our systems, as both the weak and strong signals on the horizon of our future increases the myriad of unknowns and scenarios that we must consider facing in both the short- and long-term.

So, if we are going to be able to support our students, families, stakeholders, educators, and educational leaders to anticipate the future, to be open to emergence and novelty in those futures, to lean into the complexity and uncertainty of our current context and times, then we have to be able to not only stretch ourselves cognitively away from our need and assurance for certainty, but to see this as a creative moment. An opportunity for imagination and innovation to take the front seat, especially if our images, visions, and narratives for the future are to be more preferable in realizing our collective hopes, than giving into our often dystopian fears.

Thereby, allowing us to use the future as a vehicle to drive us towards better decisions in the present, by being more “sophisticated” in how we consider and use the future, we can create new and more preferable images of the future we want and are willing to strive for, allowing us to backwards map those images towards improving the thinking, actions and decisions we are making in the present, both as individuals and as organizations. For it is that anticipation of, supported by a willingness to discover, explore, and experiment, driven by our individual and collective imaginations, that we see that there is no “one” future, but a myriad and diversity of futures constantly emerging, and the more “sophisticated” we are in using the future, the more apt we are to move towards those preferable futures we imagine and envision.

It is in this space that we are able to ask questions, challenge our assumptions, and embrace the learning that lies in that chasm between our pre- and post-pandemic world. 

As the world changes, often in accelerated and in unanticipated ways, so do our considerations and assumptions, much of which are grounded in the past. Shifting our mental models and maps from the rear-view mirror to the windshield allows us to release thinking we’ve entrenched in a world that no longer exists, so we can begin to creatively confront the uncertain and unknown futures that now await us. And the more sophisticated we can be in that journey, the more open we will be to the emergence of the diversity of futures that lie down the road.

“If you feel that you’re approaching the future with fear, you have to come to understand where that fear comes from. We tend to have this inherent fear of uncertainty because we simply don’t like it, and not knowing can make us scared. Mind you, that holding on to one scenario, one image of the future, may give you security, but it’s a false sense of security. I think it’s important to see that uncertainty is a friend. It’s not something to be scared of or something to eliminate, it’s something to embrace. Not knowing means that there’s still a lot of opportunities. Always try to accept more than one idea of what the future could be, and remind yourself that it does not exist. So, whenever you’re confronted by this, ask yourself: Whose future is it, anyway?” -Loes Damhof, UNESCO Chair in Futures Literacy via Teaching Futures


A Time Of Awareness And Emergence

“The creativity and adaptability of life expresses itself through the spontaneous emergence of novelty at critical points of instability. Every human organization contains both designed and emergent structures. The challenge is to find the right balance between the creativity of emergence and the stability of design.” -Fritjof Capra

Awareness in a world of accelerated and exponential change has not only become a necessity, it is a defining leadership skillset in the midst of today’s complex and often chaotic environments. For, today’s leaders must be much more cognizant of, and detecting of the often faint signals of innovative opportunities flickering out on the organizational horizons. Awareness of what is emerging, as well as what is preparing to emerge, and the impact of that emergence, often serves as a slim differentiator between ongoing relevance or future obsolescence.

Awareness of these emerging opportunities remind us that we are continuously introducing new and often novel elements into our complex systems, requiring greater creativity and willingness to lean more comfortably into growing levels of ambiguity and uncertainty. Which in turn assists us in gaining new perspectives and realizations that both as individuals and organizations, the path forward is growing less and less static, less and less linear, less and less certain, and less and less known. Which will ultimately require new behaviors, new skillsets, new capacities, and new thinking at all levels of the organizational ecosystem if we are to deal more effectively with the growing complexity that is arising from the continuous and often volatile change that it provokes. As Otto Scharmer shares, “The business that leaders are in today, is the business of transforming awareness… There is deep longing for more meaning, for connections.”

Which becomes especially salient in the midst of today’s modern complex systems where the capacity for emergence is ever present. Being proactive towards and having greater awareness of the signals arising amidst the growing complexity and chaos allows leaders and the organization to create the cognitive space to step back, reflect, and determine the innovative opportunities that are or may be emerging, both internally and externally. Which is vitally important as leaders and organizations become more and more reactive to the growing dilemmas and adaptive challenges that are quickly filling those spaces.

As emergence occurs, awareness allows for our systems to respond and even transform in new and novel ways, creating new thinking and even a new level of consciousness to arise, one that did not exist previously, allowing for adaptation across the organization. As Peggy Holman shares, “In social systems, emergence can move us toward possibilities that serve enduring needs, intentions, and values. Forms can change, conserving essential truths while bringing forth innovations that weren’t possible before.” For which she adds, “Emergence is a process, continual and never-ending. It emphasizes interactions as much as it does the people or elements interacting. Emergence involves also paying attention to what is happening…”

Building our awareness muscle allows us to gain a better vantage point towards determining what is emerging both now and in the future and to then be better equipped to engage and proactively affect that emergence positively across the organizational learning ecosystem. Especially as this is not a time of certainty, but one of emergence. A time of learning towards, more than learning from.

“What happens at the beginning of any creative process? Nothing! Creativity requires that we create space and wait for something to emerge.” -via Otto Scharmer

Sensemaking In The New Normal

“Sensemaking starts with chaos.” -Weick, Sutfcliffe, and Obstfeld via Organizing and the Process of Sensemaking

Which is exactly where we are at, in the very midst of chaos. If not, it certainly feels like it. Inundated with a steadily increasing number of adaptive challenges, dilemmas, polarities, and unknowns to be faced.

However, be that as it may, today’s leaders can ill-afford to find themselves and their organizations immobilized by these circumstances and challenges. While the current volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity can feel just a bit overwhelming, it cannot be allowed to be all-consuming. Chaos cannot be incapacitating nor debilitating. Rather it must serve as a catalyst for seeking out new opportunities rising up and out from what many want to term as our “new normal.” Which will ultimately require new understandings, new thinking, new frames and maps, and new abilities and skillsets from our leaders and our organizations.

As we move deeper into dealing with the chaos of current times, it begins with the realization that we are and have been moving from a complicated to a much more complex world. In many ways, it is very reminiscent of the difference between dealing with a technical problem as opposed to tackling an adaptive challenge.

As author of It’s Not Complicated Rick Nason shares in Inc., “A complicated issue is one in which the components can be separated and dealt with in a systematic and logical way that relies on a set of static rules or algorithms.” Nason adds, “It may be hard to see, but there’s a fixed order in something that is merely complicated and that allows you to deal with it in a repeatable manner.” Whereas, according to Nason, “A complex issue is one in which you can’t get a firm handle on the parts and there are no rules, algorithms, or natural laws.” Nason continues that, “Things that are complex have no such degree of order, control, or predictability. A complex thing is much more challenging – and different – than the sum of its parts because its parts interact in unpredictable ways.”

Much like adaptive challenges and dilemmas, complex problems often don’t have an easily identifiable answer, and most often don’t have a set solution at all. Which requires a different approach from the answer view that we take to solving technical problems and complicated issues. In fact, a lot of organizational frustration and even dysfunction arises from approaching these adaptive and complex challenges with the same sets of frames, maps, and solutions that are applied to technical problems and/or issues that tend to fall more to the complicated. As Nason adds, the mindset needs to shift in regards to moving from complicated to complex with the approach of, “Think manage, not solve.” Which is a very different approach and mindset, but one that will be more and more necessary of today’s leaders for our modern organizations.

Furthermore, in realizing that our organizational ecosystems have become increasingly more complex, it is then understanding that the idea of “Sensemaking” will become a much more needed and necessary ability and skillset for traversing the volatile, chaotic and unknown conditions and contexts that today’s organizations and leaders are currently facing. As Deborah Ancona shares, “Sensemaking, a term introduced by Karl Weick, refers to how we structure the unknown so as to be able to act in it. Sensemaking involves coming up with a plausible understanding – a map – of a shifting world; testing this map with others through data collection, action, and conversation; and then refining, or abandoning the map depending on how credible it is. Enabling leaders to explore the wider system, create a map of that system, and act in the system to learn from it.” In many ways, sensemaking gives us a frame for making greater “sense” of the rising complexity across today’s organizations and organizational ecosystems. Or as Ancona adds in her article Sensemaking: Framing and Acting in the Unknown, “Sensemaking is the activity that enables us to turn the ongoing complexity of the world into a situation that is comprehended explicitly in words and that serves as a springboard into action. Thus sensemaking involves – and indeed requires – an articulation of the unknown.” Which takes us back to the opening paragraph and the need for leaders and organizations to not let the current VUCA context to paralyze them into inaction. Rather, it is in this willingness to attempt to articulate and map out the unknown that organizations can begin to become more adaptable and agile moving forward. Especially as sensemaking requires constant awareness of the organizational context and situational scanning to better move the organization towards action. Too often, especially in the midst of chaotic and disruptive times, organizations allow static processes and status quo thinking to entrench and insulate them, which will do little towards mapping out the unknown and engaging the organization in the experimental and discovery learning necessary for creating of these maps.

In fact, sensemaking, has seven properties that work interdependently for making meaning and creating coherence towards constructing new understandings, especially as the world around the organization becomes less understandable and more unknown.

Below we find a representation of the seven properties of sensemaking (italicized) provided by Laura McNamara from her article, Sensemaking in Organizations: Reflections on Karl Weick and Social Theory:

  • Sensemaking is a matter of identity: it is who we understand ourselves to be in relation to the world around us.
  • Sensemaking is retrospective: we shape experience into meaningful patterns according to our memory of experience.
  • How and what becomes sensible depends on our socialization: where we grew up in the world, how we were taught to be in the world, where we are located now in the world, the people with whom we are currently interacting.
  • Sensemaking is a continuous flow; it is ongoing, because the world, our interactions with the world, and our understandings of the world are constantly changing. You might also think of sensemaking as perpetually emergent meaning and awareness.
  • Sensemaking builds on extracted cues that we apprehend from sense and perception. Cognition is the meaningful internal embellishment of these cues. We articulate these embellishments through speaking and writing – the “what I say” part of Weick’s recipe. In doing so, we reify and reinforce cues and their meaning, and add to our repertoire of retrospective experience.
  • Sensemaking is less a matter of accuracy and completeness than plausibility and sufficiency. We simply have neither the perceptual nor cognitive resources to know everything exhaustively, so we have to move forward as best we can. Plausibility and sufficiency enable action-in-context.

It is also in recognizing, as Samdanis and Lee share in Uncertainty, Strategic Sensemaking and Organizational Failure in the Art Market, that strategic sensemaking necessitates and includes the ability of a leader to continuously “scan, interpret, strategize, act, and adjust” according to the chaos and constantly changing context that most organizations are facing. Which in today’s current volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environments, is similar to the Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act (OODA) loop frame that fighter pilots have utilized to make fast and accurate decisions while operating in these VUCA-infused environments. Or even the Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) cycle that we find utilized in most continuous improvement efforts across organizations. Engaging a variety of frames allows us to become more adaptable, more agile, and more able to adjust to constantly changing organizational situations and contexts. Or as John Boyd, the U.S. Air Force Colonel who designed the OODA loop for thinking in complex and chaotic situations adds, “We can’t just look at our own personal experiences or use the same mental recipes over and over again; we’ve got to look at other disciplines and activities and relate or connect them to what we know from our experiences and the strategic world we live in.”

Engaging sensemaking, creating maps, enabling a variety of frames, as well as engaging foresight abilities, allow leaders and organizations to begin to become much more aware of the signals on the horizon. Signals that may and can have great effect on our organizations, both in the present and the future. Which requires leaders and their organizations to constantly be aware of and always monitoring the horizon for signals (weak or strong) and engaging sensemaking strategies to determine what those signals may mean. It allows leaders and their organizations to be much more aware of what is emerging, both in the present and for the future. Which will not only require new maps and framing, but ongoing reframing as new learning, new knowledge and new data makes itself available and known. As Maree Conway shares in Foresight Infused Strategy, “The environments in which organizations now exist are moving so quickly that future outcomes can no longer be assumed. Because our worlds are mired in complexity, there are often no obvious choices. A different approach to strategy development is needed.” For which she adds, “The future is characterized by uncertainty, complexity, and much that we simply can’t yet know. Foresight has value because it allows us to acknowledge uncertainty and seek to better understand it, not to try and explain it away with predictions. Done well, using foresight moves thinking beyond the status quo and helps organizations prepare to respond to change proactively.” 

In the chaotic and often disruptive spaces of our current context, the future is constantly emerging in often unexpected and unforeseen ways, bringing new meanings, new interpretations, and new understandings toward this new reality we are experiencing. A space where our current maps, frames and mental models try to make sense of and guide us through our new reality, but often come up short and remain insufficient and lacking towards the challenges that we are facing and lie ahead.

As Weick, Sutcliffe and Obstfeld share, “There are truths of the moment that change, develop, and take shape through time. It is these changes through time that progressively reveal that a seemingly correct action “back then” is becoming an incorrect action “now.” And it is with that reveal that this new normal pushes us to acknowledge the insufficiency of our past maps, frames and mental models in overlaying them upon our current context. Maps, frames and mental models that must not only be updated, but  transformed toward closing the gap between that insufficiency of what was and the adjustments necessary to meet the new reality of what is emerging. As Weick shares from the properties of sensemaking, “People extract cues from the context to help them decide on what information is relevant and what explanations are acceptable. Extracted cues provide points of reference for linking ideas to broader networks of meaning and are simple, familiar structures that are seeds from which people develop a larger sense of what may be occurring.”

Which will be the leadership and organizational work for moving forward, especially in world overrun with too much information and data. We will all have to become much more equipped to engage in sensemaking in our organizations, as well mapmaking and frame braiding, out of which new narratives for the future can be created to guide our way. Or as Weick shares, “People enact the environments they face in dialogues and narratives. As people speak, and build narrative accounts, it helps them understand what they think, organize their experiences and control and predict events and reduce complexity in the context of change management.” Which will be paramount for growing complexity of today’s organizational ecosystems. 

Or as Weick adds, “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.”

Learning In And Through Times Of Crisis, Chaos And Disruption (Part 1)

“The ability of organizations to successfully evolve is ultimately determined by the capability of their staff. Transformation of the organization is inextricably linked to the transformation of individuals and for that to be a reality, learning has to be at the core.”  -Peter Chase via Driving the New Learning Organization

In many ways, crisis, chaos and disruption are all around us, externally exerting its influence upon our individuals and organizations, while having dynamic impact upon our internal strategies, processes, networks, structures, and systems. Which means that evolving, be that individually and/or organizationally amidst these volatile, uncertain, complex, and often ambiguous (vuca) environments, can be a daunting, almost overwhelming proposition to say the least.

Meaning that too often, we find ourselves and our organizations recoiling back to the practices of the past and entrenching and insulating ourselves in the comfort of the known, especially when those strategies and practices have proved to be previously successful. However comforting that may be, we must realize that fixating on and celebrating the past, will ultimately limit our individuals and organizations, while simultaneously creating a passivity towards the future. A passivity that we can ill-afford to allow, as the past can no longer serve as a liability for the future. Especially in the midst of the current exponential and unprecedented shifts we are facing.

We can ill-afford in today’s world to continue to choose the safety of the known over the necessity to step out into this uncertain and ambiguous unknown that is hovering ominously above and all around us.

In fact, we can ill-afford to face the future with apprehension, fear and doubt. Rather we must approach it with sense of curiosity, with a new found willingness to grow, and to continuously seek out new learning and knowledge. We must create the individual and organizational mindsets that focus us on continuous improvement in order that we may override the complacency that fear creates, if we are to engage the necessary agility, adaptability and learnability required to overcome the overwhelming feeling that VUCA-infused environments can create, for both individuals and organizations.

However, learning (and unlearning), especially learning that leads to change and transformation in the midst of crisis can be more difficult than it sounds, even though it serves as the most promising way to move forward amidst any type of crisis, disaster or disruption.

As crisis expert Kenny Meesters puts forth in the Tillburg University magazine, “Can we learn from a crisis?” is a mantra we must be willing to authentically explore. A simple, but extremely complex question that we must continue to ask of ourselves, our leadership and our organizations. It serves as a defining question in today’s VUCA environments, especially when we know that learning serves as the vehicle that will drive us more effectively through these crisis-laden and disruptive environments. Which means, building up our understanding of the different phases of a crisis can provide a foundation for designing individual and organizational learning opportunities to be absorptive and effective for the future.  For which Meesters shares that, “You can divide a crisis into three phases.”

  • Immediate Response Phase – this is the phase that he refers to as happening immediately following the crisis, disaster, etc. It is a time of unity and support. “What you see is that people start helping each other to alleviate the suffering, there is understanding and solidarity.” It is also a phase that Meesters refers to as being relatively short.
  • Relief Phase – this is a somewhat longer and more complex phase, in which, “As time passes, interest starts to flag. It becomes more difficult to sustain all the initiatives that have been developed.” Meesters adds that this is a phase of time when the needs and far-reaching consequences become much more clear for the short-term and the long-term. For which he adds, “At the same time, the long-term impact also takes its toll; people become fatigued and energy runs out.”
  • Recovery Phase – Meesters shares, “In the recovery phase, unity disintegrates.” This is the phase where the crisis has ended and there is a need to get back on track. “In this phase, difficult choices have to be made.” This is the phase where those adaptive challenges, dilemmas and polarities become much more prevalent and visible. Not only is this the longest phase, it is also the phase where, “The unity that was abundant in the first phase disintegrates.”

When leaders acknowledge these phases in the midst of a crisis or disruption, it allows for a more intentional design towards learning in these VUCA-infused environments that we find ourselves thrust into. In many ways, we can now begin to see these three phases playing out in various ways across the time span of this pandemic that we currently find ourselves in. Consider how the early unified (phase one) conversations of tipping point transformation have in some ways trickled down over time into (phase three) challenges and dilemmas of how do we actually just get our organizations up and running in a safe, effective and meaningful manner. Which is why change and transformation is difficult to sustain amidst a crisis, disaster or disruption. And why learning (new learning and unlearning) remains at the core of moving individuals and organizations forward in the midst of a crisis, disaster or disruption.

As organization theorist Bill Starbuck shares, we struggle to learn in and from a crisis as “the emotional aspects in cognition make it difficult for people to learn from events considered one-off exceptions or rare.” For which he adds, “reactions to the uncertainty include wishful thinking, substituting prior beliefs for analysis, biasing probability distributions towards certainties, searching for more data, acting cautiously, and playing to audiences.” For these reasons, today’s leaders will need to be much more intentional towards the design of learning in the midst of any crisis or disruption across our spaces, environments and systems; if we are to evolve more fluidly and relevantly into the future as both individuals and organizations. Otherwise, as we move through the different phases of a crisis, we will often tend over time to recoil back to the practices of the past and the comfort of the known. Back to the status quo ways of doing and being that preceded the crisis or disruption. Which will then require and necessitate a deep level of intentionality from leaders towards learning in and through these environments. Or as Hallie Preskill and Joelle Cook share in their article Learning in a Time of Crisis“Learning in times of crisis requires seizing opportunities for reflection that include creating spaces to think, slowing down, being mindful, and paying attention, creating new patterns of thinking, surfacing alternative interpretations, and creating new theories of action.”

For which Preskill and Cook turn us toward the work of Donald Schon in creating the time and space to engage in reflection across our organizational ecosystems. Or as Schon puts forth in The Reflective Practitioner, we should be engaging in three types of reflection. Reflections that can be utilized to support and intentionally design for engagement of learning in the midst of a crisis or disruption:

  • Reflection on Action – looking back on personal and group experiences to evaluate reasoning processes used
  • Reflection in Action – occurs as we watch ourselves in action
  • Reflection for Action – refers to the predictive process for forecasting how we will use what we have learned based on the previous two forms of reflection

Intentionally creating processes and designing safe spaces and opportunities for learning amidst a crisis will be vital and imperative work in guiding our organizations through VUCA-infused environments and to lead them in a more relevant manner for the future. When individuals and organizations are not learning and evolving on an ongoing basis, they dry out, often becoming brittle and fragile towards new thinking, new knowledge, change and ultimately transformation.

Learning provides the ability to wade through the complexity that accompanies any crisis or disruption, engaging individuals and the organization with the curiosity to search out the ideas and skillsets that allow us to begin to traverse through the uncertainty, ambiguity and unknowns that these situations inevitably evoke. In the end, learning (and unlearning) can allow individuals and organizations to begin to overcome the set-in brittleness and fragility that stasis and status quo ways of doing and thinking from the past. And to keep that past from entrenching our individuals and organizations in the future.

“It is rather well-established that in VUCA environments, organizations do better if they self-identify and commit to being a learning organization. In fact, co-creative and collaborative organizational learning has been defined as an imminent requirement in a VUCA world.”  -via Strategic Management: How and Why to Redefine Organizational Strategy in Today’s VUCA World

Stories, Scenarios, Exploratory Talk, and Futures Thinking

“The stories we tell ourselves are powerful.  The mind constantly tells itself stories of the future.” Peter Schwartz via The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World

The future can seem like a very scary and non-obvious proposition, especially in today’s world. A world where the present seems almost as unpredictable as the future. Where current conditions find us mired in deepening levels of complexity, intensifying and amplifying the fog that surrounds and insulates our view for the future, often pushing today’s leaders into much more reactive, and far less proactive stance towards the future.

Which, especially in uncertain times, is not the stance or steps best taken.  

Today’s leaders must be willing and competent in engaging their people, their organization, and their stakeholders in the creation of new stories that open up a variety of new possibilities for the future. Today’s leaders need to be able to facilitate conversations that move our people, organizations, and stakeholders openly and effectively into the chasm that stands between, and effectively allow people to grapple with the tensions that exist between reality and imagination. It is in that space and process that we can begin opening up new perspectives, continually iterating and reframing the lens to allow people to see across the spectrum of thinking that exists between moving from a dystopian to a utopian future.

To allow people the space to lean into the uncertainty of current times through the exploration of new stories, new narratives, and new scenarios that open us all up to a much more strategic approach to engaging a diversity of thinking and voices that provide multiple, intentional steps into the future, rather than fixating on one point, one future.

As Peter Schwartz shares in The Art of the Long View“Scenarios are stories about the way the world might turn out tomorrow, stories that can help us recognize and adapt to changing aspects of our present environment.  They form a method for articulating the different pathways that might exist for you tomorrow.” For which he adds, “Too many people react to uncertainty with denial.  They take an unconsciously deterministic view of events.  They take it for granted that some things just can’t and won’t happen.”

In the face of uncertainty, instead of exploring new stories, new scenarios, new narratives, and possibilities for the future, leaders can turn inward, engaging a more insulated approach and focus that can lead to embracing an illusion of a future certainty. Isolating themselves and the organization from the divergence of thinking necessary to move away from the fixed thinking that removes the multiple perspectives necessary to provide a much more open, adaptive and agile mindset towards an often volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous future.

Choosing convergence over divergence. Singular over multiple. Reform over Transform. Incremental over exponential.

Or as is Pierre Wack shares in The Art of the Long View, “he was not interested in predicting the future.  His goal was the liberation of people’s insights.” However and unfortunately, far too often, we find that leaders and organizations are less interested in the liberation of new thinking, new ideas, and new scenarios for the future, as they are in chasing the illusion of certainty down the rabbit hole of predicting the future. Taking their people, organization, and stakeholders with them. As Schwartz infuses, “managers prefer the illusion of certainty to understanding risks and realities.”

To get to the divergence necessary to engage in new stories, new scenarios, and new narratives for the future, will ultimately necessitate leaders creating an environment where we are psychologically safe to cognitively move from the ever-present “presentational” talk and into the often missing concept and modeling of “exploratory” talk in our spaces.

Or as Douglas Barnes shares in Exploring Talk for Learning, Exploratory talk is hesitant and incomplete because it enables the speaker to try out ideas, to hear how they sound, to see what others make of them, to arrange information and ideas into different patterns. The difference between the two functions of talk is that in presentational talk the speaker’s attention is primarily focused on adjusting the language, content and manner to the needs of an audience, and in exploratory talk the speaker is more concerned with sorting out his or her own thoughts.”

Creating space for exploratory talk to exist will allow us to begin to play with this idea of new stories, new scenarios, and new narratives for the future. To engage our people, our organization, and our stakeholders in “sorting out their own thoughts” towards these scenarios for the future. To allow us to move our thinking from plausible futures, to more possible futures.

Or as Douglas Barnes adds, “Another powerful intervention is by creating more space for the informal conversation, by creating events and systems of events through which views can be exchanged outside the pressure of immediate decision making. This type of intervention needs to be carefully designed to ensure that it helps the balance between integration and differentiation, and doesn’t drive the system into one of two pathologies.”

Too often, our spaces are focused on “presentational” talk, quick solutions, convergence, and decision-making. A problem-solved over a problem-explored mindset. Very seldom do we create the environment where “exploratory” talk will allow new ideas and new thinking to be explored, allowing us to discover how new futures are emerging from our conversations as we seek new possibilities. To move past conventional wisdom and into discovery learning. Whereas, “exploratory” talk moves us out of the presentational “final draft” modes of interacting that pervade the majority of our organizational meetings, time and spaces. “Exploratory” talk invites us to lean into new ideas, new thinking, new possibilities, and new futures. “Exploratory” talk provides the opportunity to explore possibilities with information from our context, seeing what can and cannot be done with it.

So, as we consider the idea of engaging “exploratory” talk to engage our people, our organizations, and our stakeholders in new stories, new scenarios, and new narratives for the future, Kees Van Der Heijden adds from his work Scenarios, that this idea of scenario planning for engaging futures thinking should include these crucial elements:

  • The aim of changing mental models of decision makers
  • The need to understand predictability and uncertainty
  • The need to take existing mental models of the decision makers as the starting point
  • Creating a refraining of the issues involved, through the introduction of new perspectives

Which will not only require shifting mindsets for some of those involved in the process, but being very reflective of how not just others, but our own mental models can impede process towards uncovering new possibilities for often undiscovered and unimagined possibilities for the future.

For which Van Der Heijden adds, “Scenarios become meaningful only in the context of an understanding of the “organizational self.” It is in that realization, of coming to terms with our true organizational self, that deeper understandings of our context provides the impetus for engaging the scenarios and scenario planning  that allow our people, our organization, and our stakeholders to truly imagine, through a diversity of voices, multiple paths. Paths that allow our people, our organization, and our stakeholders to lean into the future in a more adaptable and agile manner.

Or as Schwartz injects, “Stories have many advantages. They open people to multiple perspectives, because they allow them to describe how different characters see in events the meaning of those events. Moreover, stories help people cope with complexity.” For which Schwartz adds, “Stories are about meaning; they help explain why things could happen in a certain way. They give order and meaning to events – a crucial aspect of understanding future possibilities.”

As we move into this process, as we create the psychologically safe spaces and environments where new stories, new scenarios, and new narratives for the future can be discovered, and allowed to evolve and emerge, we also have to realize that we have a bias towards rejecting the new. We have a instilled tendency to dismiss those ideas, thinking, and plans that do not match up to our mental models of not only the past and present, but how we believe the world works.

This is something that we will not only need to understand and come to grips with in the process, but will require a deep intentionality towards not dismissing new ideas, thinking, stories, scenarios, and narratives for the future that confound us. In other words, we have to be willing to breathe in the disequilibrium that new creates, especially if we are to truly begin to move into new possibilities and new futures. Especially if we are going to be open to the futures, derived from a variety and divergence of voices, that will begin to emerge from and through the scenario planning process.

Especially, if we are going to be truly open and willing to determine and explore new futures for our people, our organizations, and our stakeholders.

“To operate in an uncertain world, people needed to be able to reperceive – to question their assumptions about the way the world works, so that they could see the world more clearly. The purpose of scenarios is to help yourself change your view of reality – to match it up more closely with reality as it is, and reality as it is going to be.” “The end result, however, is not an accurate picture of tomorrow, but better decisions about the future.”  -Peter Schwartz via The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World

In-Between Stories: Old World vs. New World

“It’s all a question of story. We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The Old Story – the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it – is not functioning properly, and we have not learned the New Story.”  -Thomas Berry via Creating Better Futures

Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity (VUCA) become amplified in those environments where we find ourselves in between stories. Before a new narrative surfaces. Before a new vision for the future is realized. In that space where “old world” and “new world” clash, but before a victor emerges and a direction is determined.

Or as put forth in The Changing Face of Modern Leadership, “We lead and live in tense and volatile times, amidst a collision of “old world” meets “new world” thinking. It can be seen as a perplexing and disorienting time for those leaders who have comfortably remained within and relied upon a neat and orderly way of viewing our world and our organizations.”  

A time and space that can and will create both individual and organizational disequilibrium, especially as the complexity of change forces explodes forth in a relentless and much more accelerated manner. Dismantling our mental models of the past, in order to create room for new visions of the future.

Which will be necessary under the escalating rise in dilemmas and adaptive challenges that will test our leaders and stretch our organizations, often to their capacity. Requiring leaders to deepen their own capacity and competency for better understanding these forces, along with a deepening resiliency towards keeping our individuals, organizations and systems from recoiling themselves back into the perceived safety of the past, of the known, of what existed before change arrived.

Which is an ongoing and formidable task in its own right.

What we will have to realize in moving forward, is that there will not just be one point, one idea, one narrative that can and will lead us into the future. We will have to change our thinking and our discussions towards our future thinking. Or as Eugene Eubanks, Ralph Parish, and Dianne Smith share in Changing the Discourse in Schools, we will have to move from Discourse I to Discourse II thinking.

For example, here are a few of the discourse shifts they share:

Moving from singular truths to multiple stories; from the change process to the desired circumstances; from improving what exists to changing something significant; from symptoms to causes; from the familiar to the uncomfortable; from information transfer to knowledge creation; and from reproduction to transformation.

Which will not only require the ongoing deconstructing and reconstructing of our mental models, but shifts and reframes in our thinking and mindset.

Which is why a variety of narratives, or scenarios will be necessary for moving us and our organizations more relevantly into the future. And not only for the reason that the future is not predictable and cannot and will not be predicted, but for the very fact that it has become much more non-obvious in its direction and the speed and agility in which it now allows itself to shift and change. Remaining agile and adaptable to the future will require planning for a variety of scenarios, a variety of narratives, from today’s leaders and organizations. Or as Jay Ogilvy shares in Creating Better Futures, “Therefore, in thinking ahead over the long term, as a sense of responsibility demands, we need to think about several possible futures, not just one. We need a strategy for all seasons, not just one.”

Creating a variety of scenarios for the future will not only necessitate a variety of perspectives, and a diversity of thinking, but a score of voices and a multiplicity of stakeholders, all aspiring to a better future.

“Fresh thinking about the future calls for alternative scenarios based on new assumptions that differ from the old, not just quantitatively but qualitatively. A coherent set of qualitatively new assumptions amounts to a new paradigm, a new way of looking at something we thought we knew.”  -Jay Ogilvy via Creating Better Futures

The Future: And The Paradox Of Uncertainty

“Stories of the past and the present can be based on facts, but a story of the future is just a story. The problem is that the stories we most commonly tell about the future simply extrapolate from the present.” -via Harvard Business Review

In the midst of difficult times, leaders who haven’t spent time leaning into uncertainty or the unknown, can often feel overwhelmed or suspended in a deep sense of individual and organizational disequilibrium. It is in this space, often to gain some semblance of stability, that leaders have a tendency to turn to or play on “inspiration” as their strategic card. It is where they determine to double down, especially when the uncertainty is overwhelming, to rally their individuals, teams and the organization as a whole.

Which might seem like a plausible and positive strategy at first glance. Especially since it seems to be so pervasive right now in organizations under the context of current circumstances.

However, in retrospect, what many leaders fail to realize is that “inspiration” in and of itself, especially in the midst of a crisis, is short-lived in its effect and usefulness. In many ways, it is like cotton candy at the carnival. It may taste good at the moment, and amidst all of the spectacle and excitement, but ultimately, it leaves you unfulfilled and empty. Inspiration, while good at the moment, is lacking any substance or long term substantive power to push those within and the organization as a whole through the difficult terrain of current circumstances. Of the formidable forces of what lies before us, and what also lies ahead.

In the midst of any type of deep disruption, difficulty or crisis, individuals, teams and organizations are often left reeling and rocking in the disequilibrium of the moment. Those same individuals and teams are looking for something more substantial from their leaders and their organization.

When leaders provide the 2C’s, when they are able to engage the AND of both compassion and competency, they can provide a sense of steadfastness in the face of the disruptive, crisis-created instability.

In crisis-mode, individuals are looking for their leaders to engage the compassion, empathy and understanding to truly see them, to see what they are going through. And yet, that is not enough, as they are also looking to their leaders to be equipped with the competency to not only effectively lead them and the organization through these current circumstances, but to provide opportunity to discover and find their own agency, to gain new capacities and competencies that bestow a sense of autonomy and ability to allow them to effectively problem-solve and make necessary and needed decisions at the front lines, when adaptability is most needed and required.

Effectively allowing them to lead up…

When leaders are equipped with both compassion and competency, individuals, teams and the organization as a whole feel more inclined to lean into the ambiguity, uncertainty, and unknowns during difficult times. Which is vital to any organization remaining relevant in the 21st century as each of those are both heightened and amplified by-products of existing in today’s complex, dilemma-ridden environments that most organizations exist within.

Braiding compassion and competency allows leaders to begin to create the team and organizational environment where people can begin to engage in the process of making the future a more tangible and visible space and place.

Which will be incredibly important, as both individuals and the organization they work within will have to be willing to build up ongoing capacity to move more effectively into this creative space. They will have to build in and continuously support the psychological safety that will allow them and their teams to engage in the messy methods and learning necessary to engage the thinking that allows the organization to move into the future in a more relevant manner. As it will require a real vulnerability and openness in order to begin the process of dismantling and unlearning the thinking, strategies, processes, structures, knowledge, and mental models that keep both them and the organization entrenched in practices that have often become outdated or outlived their viability and usefulness.

In many ways, people will be required to engage in rapid reframing to allow them to gain momentum towards parallel pacing our current context and circumstances. Especially, in current conditions, where change is often abrupt, accelerated, and non-obvious, the ability to pivot and iterate towards new narratives and scenarios will be paramount. Requiring not only the unlearning of outdated and outlived practices, mindsets and mental models that impede progress and constrain our view of the future, but will also necessitate the ability to accelerate the acquisition, spread, and ossification of new learning and knowledge, at scale.

Rapid reframing alongside this rapid infusion of knowledge will allow individuals, teams and the organization as a whole to begin to construct new narratives and new scenarios that open up new possibilities for the future. This dynamic interplay of rapid reframing and knowledge infusion will allow the organization to engage in a much more divergent approach to their scenario planning, opening up new avenues and unforeseen prospects for the future. Allowing people to connect often unforeseen dots to the opportunities emerging in this creative process of strategically designing  their way forward into the future.

Pushing individuals and teams into these spaces, can be difficult cognitively and emotionally. Especially in the beginning. Which is why both leadership compassion and competency will be vital towards next steps. And it will require new leadership capacities, as this work is neither linear nor predictable, and often incredibly messy and uncomfortable. It requires us to cast aside past bias’ and assumptions that negatively constrain us in the present and limit the future narratives and scenarios that we are able to collaboratively construct and create.

As Hardin Tibbs adds, we must remember that, “One key to unlocking this puzzle is to think about the future itself in a different way.” For which he adds, “This reframing of the future as a psychological space yields powerful insights. Not only does it tell us that the future is a much more confused place than we like to think, but more importantly, it recasts uncertainty as a fundamental source of strategic motivation.”

Which is the paradox of uncertainty that we often don’t realize…

Which is often at odds with how we think about the future. Too often we see the future as this wild animal racing at us, uncertain in how it will come at us. Will it be rabid or docile? Will it come at me slowly or with rapid pace? Will it leave me be or attack ferociously? Can it be tamed or will it run wild? Will it sprint past me or grab me and carry me with it? All very good questions, but lacking in any certainty towards our current or future situation.

For that reason, we often find the ambiguity and uncertainty of the future, much like those questions, as a negative state, as it is something we can neither predict or control. Which is why a reframe of and towards the uncertainty of the future is important, especially in our current context.

As Hardin Tibbs adds, “But the intrinsic open-endedness of the future, its genuine indeterminacy, is precisely the thing that gives us the potential for improvement and development – whether personal or organizational.” Of which he clarifies, “Put another way, to act effectively we need as much information as possible but if we had full information we would be paralyzed and unable to act.”

What Tibbs is trying to get across is that a certain and determined future is not a positive; neither is it worth fighting or working towards, as we can do little to change or guide its course.

It is in the ambiguity and uncertainty of the future that we are actually allowed the realization that the future is neither pre-set or pre-determined. It is with that understanding that we realize the future will require us to strategically create the conditions that allow for a more positive future to emerge. That it is entirely up to us to begin to create the narratives and scenarios that can begin to bring those futures into being. Or as Tibbs illustrates, “This approach to the future provides a way of achieving psychological clarity about our understanding and use of the future. It also allows the future itself to be used as an integrating strategic framework.”  

Which then allows us to approach the future from more of a verb stance, being much less rooted in a noun approach. For it is in the midst of this ambiguity and uncertainty, where the verb stance allows us to consider the strategic construction and design of new futures and new possibilities, that a better future and a better world will be realized.

For our individuals and our organizations.

“Reframing helps people to become mindful of the frame they have been using to make sense of and intervene in the world, as well as what is left out of this frame. By rehearsing actions with these alternative frames, new and better options for action can be identified and contribute to a reperception of the present situation.”  -Rafael Ramirez via Strategic Reframing  

The Future Will Be Both Learned And Unlearned

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“The curious thing is that with these exponential changes, so much of what we currently know is just getting to be wrong. So many of our assumptions are getting to be wrong. As so, as we move forward, not only is it going to be a question of learning it is also going to be a question of unlearning.”  -John Seely Brown

We live in a time of deep fog, providing us murky views of a future clouded in ambiguity, uncertainty and a plethora of unknowns. A time proliferated by dynamic and competing tensions, amplified frictions pulling and tugging us through an ongoing reel of plausible and possible future scenarios and narratives.

In many ways, our current context feels as if we are reminiscing through Willie Wonka’s tunnel of terror boat ride. Much like the movie, for some, the tunnel proved to be an exhilarating joy to be experienced, while for other passengers, it was an expedition that proved itself to be an entirely terrifying event. A journey into the unknown that they could not wait too disembark from.

And only to make matters worse, as the ride accelerated, Willie Wonka continued to add to their growing unease with an ongoing litany of agitated and somewhat disturbed vocals…

“There is no earthly way of knowing which direction we are going?”

“There is no knowing where we are rowing, or which way the river’s flowing?”

“The danger must be growing, for the rowers keep on rowing, and they are certainly not showing, any signs that they are slowing!”

For many of us, it feels as if we are currently riding through Willie Wonka’s tunnel, not sure “which direction we are going?” Not sure, “Where we are rowing?” And definitely sure it is “Certainly not showing any signs that it is slowing!”

We are struggling, struggling to determine where the present is taking us and what future awaits us at the other end of this tunnel and ride we are on. While, at the very same time, each of us is perceiving the journey in our own way, through our own lens, our own mental models, activated by our own context and circumstances.

As any disruptive change will effectively do, it is amplifying the tensions of our times…

In the midst of any disruption, change does not always come at us in ways we expect or have time to prepare for. Many disruptions can be disarming in their often abrupt arrival, requiring deep reframing and adjustments to our mental models so that we can just begin to make sense of the current circumstances and context that we now find ourselves thrust into. Which means, if we have allowed our mental models to exist in stasis, to be structured in static understandings based in outdated and often irrelevant frameworks, we might find our current circumstances and context to be overwhelming, to say the least.

In many ways, in regards to our mental models, we can unfortunately create our own personal fog that internally confines us from cognitively connecting and from building deeper awareness towards the external changes we are experiencing and the disruptions that may very well be coming for and at us.

When mental models become entrenched, change is something we insulate from, rather than lean into…

In today’s world, one of accelerated and often disruptive change, we have to continually tune and retune our mental models. We have to create the cognitive “beta” space that allows us to continuously involve ourselves in iterating our mental models to our context, our circumstances, and the myriad of factors that are having deep and dynamic influence upon that environment, physically, emotionally, and cognitively. Which takes us back to that idea of competing tensions…

Especially the competing tensions of knowing and not knowing, the tension between learning and unlearning, and what that tension requires of us.

We live in a time when our mental models are constantly being challenged, which means we need to constantly challenge our mental models. We have to engage our own internal talk towards allowing us to continuously question our current understandings and assumptions, and not allow us to entrench in those same understandings and assumptions. Which, will undoubtedly require an intentional willingness to consciously reflect, provoke, inquire, investigate, alter, and revamp our mental models.

On an ongoing basis…

And to complete this cycle (ongoing and iterative), we must be willing to not only learn, but also create cognitive space for new learning by intentionally unlearning the knowledge, behaviors, understandings, assumptions, and misconceptions that are not only no longer useful or valid, but tend to keep our mental models suspended in the status quo, hurtling towards future irrelevancy.

It will only be through this cognitive intentionality, combined with a greater awareness towards present changes, as well as a forecasting of possible disruptions that loom on the horizon…

That we can begin to determine our learning voids, as well as a unlearning needs.

It is this iterative cycle of learning and unlearning, of ossifying and chipping away, that we can begin to mentally move in much more agile and adaptive ways. It is in these cycles of learning and unlearning that we become much more open too engaging a variety of lens’ that allows for a diversity and divergence in our thinking and how we frame both change, and even disruption. It is in this cognitive space that we allow new possibilities to be considered. It is in this space where we allow new insights to color our lens and provoke new frames of connection and understanding. It is in this space that we create opportunity for our internal and external worlds to learn to parallel pace each other.

And it is in this space that new interpretations of the future can be imagined moving forward…

It is in this space that we not only evolve, but allow for a much more authentic emergence of our mental models that open up new capacity towards the future. It is here that our capabilities are stretched, new core competencies are discovered and determined, ultimately moving and shifting our mental models into a more adaptive and agile state.

It is in this space that learning and unlearning take on a new importance.

“We must be willing to sit on the edge of mystery and unlearn what has helped guide us in the past but is no longer useful.”  -Robert Wicks


Leadership Challenges: The Tensions Of Our Times

“Do we still remember the question we are trying to answer?  Or have we substituted an easier one?”  -Daniel Kahneman Thinking, Fast and Slow

We really have to consider, what questions are we asking, of ourselves and of our organizations? And more importantly, what questions do we really need to be asking, but still aren’t? And if we aren’t asking any questions, why not? What is keeping us from asking the questions that we need to be asking, especially in the face of the current crisis we are facing?

In short order, what we’ve come to realize, is that there is no playbook for a pandemic, there is no binder for adapting effectively under uncertain circumstances, and there are no easy answers for pushing through the disequilibrium created by a crisis.

Which is why, unfortunately, much of our Type-A (Answer-Driven) leadership often finds itself ill-equipped and ill-suited for the ambiguity that arrives with the adaptive challenges we currently, and will continue to face in the future. The solution-nature of Type-A (Answer-Driven) leadership ill-affords itself the time and or space to ask the necessary questions, as well as engage the strategic stance needed to determine what is truly emerging amidst the chaos of the crisis.

In the midst of this dilemma-driven complexity, leaders have a tendency to become solution-focused, rather than question-centered. Which is unfortunate, as solutions tend to provide a sense of security, a sense of safety in the midst of chaos and calamity that these challenges can evoke. Even when that sense of security and safety is false. Answers placates. Solutions soothe. Which ultimately diminishes the creative and innovative thinking that is needed in the midst of these situations. It narrows our focus and converges, rather than diverges our thinking.

While solutions placate, questions stimulate and summon up the new thinking, new ideas, and new strategies and solutions that are needed to effectively meet the current challenge or crisis being faced in a much more open and diversified manner.

However, as answers tend to placate and solutions soothe, questions can create dissonance and evoke tension. Which means that leaders will need to learn how to allow themselves to stand steadfast in the midst of these growing tensions that these challenges elicit. In many ways, it necessitates that leaders become much more aware and intentional in effectively traversing the tension and chasm that stands between fast and slow thinking, between action and strategy. To walk this thin tightrope between order and chaos, knowing that moving too far to one side or the other has the real possibility for negative ramifications, often plunging our organizations into even more difficult circumstances.

Awareness and intentionality towards these tensions, though, can allow leaders and organizations to move more effectively in the chasm or space that separates each side from the other. Or as Peter Senge adds, “The key to success isn’t just thinking about what we are doing, but doing something about what we are thinking.” And vice-versa. It is in becoming much more comfortable with the uncomfortableness that these tensions place on our organizations and our leadership, both now and in the future.

It is in our willingness to exist in the midst of these tensions, to engage in the questions that they provoke, rather than solutions that placate, that we can ultimately begin to provide space for new thinking, new ideas, and new learnings to emerge.

We have to step back and ask ourselves what is emerging in the midst of this crisis? What are we learning and how are we evolving in response to this current challenge? How will these new understandings and learnings that are emerging give rise to the core competencies and capabilities that allows us move forward more effectively and relevantly into this new future?

Especially when we are facing a world that no longer resembles the world in which we lived in just a short time prior. Especially when our mental models are continuously pushing us back to a past that no longer exists. Or as Peter Senge shares, “Like a pane of glass framing and subtly distorting our vision, mental models determine what we see.”

Which will require new visions for the future.

Meaning that we will have to determine how we build up organizational learnings, effectively cascade new idea flows, and determine how to engage new capacities at scale, often through environments that no longer resemble past practices, processes and procedures. We will have to move to support our individuals and organizations in evolving in ways that allow them to shift and adapt more adeptly, to ideate and pivot more fluidly, and respond more aptly to the accelerated rates of change that continue to shift and shake the very foundations of what we once considered to be societal pillars.

When we come to the realization that the speed of change has not only accelerated, but has surpassed our ability to parallel pace it, we will also move towards the understanding that our ability to learn faster and to connect that learning in a myriad of new manners is vital to our individual and organizational futures. It is in that space that we can then begin to push our individual and organizational thinking towards a greater sense of inquiry, curiosity, creativity, and innovative behaviors that allow new questions and ultimately, new and novel solutions to emerge. Effectively, allowing not only new knowledge to spread through our internal and external networks, but ossifying itself in new ways of doing and being, thereby creating environments where new knowledge can not only be consumed, but also created.

Leaders who can learn to effectively manage these tensions, will better prepare individuals for organizational environments for a future that is more ambiguous and uncertain. In the midst of these tensions, individuals and organizations can learn to push past the lid, the lid that often binds us to future obsolescence, especially for those unwilling or unable to learn faster, connect quicker and wider, shift in a more agile manner, and eventually adapt more appropriately to context in constant flux.

“Through learning we re-create ourselves. Through learning we become able to do something we never were able to do. Through learning we re-perceive the world and our relationship to it. Through learning we extend our capacity to create, to be part of the generative process of life.”  -Peter Senge

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