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


eLeading: Building Organizational Capacity And Alignment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which will require from leaders, to begin to…

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

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

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

In The Midst Of Uncertainty

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

We live in strange and often difficult times.

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

In many ways, we find ourselves facing unprecedented uncertainty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Accelerating Change And Transformation In Legacy Organizations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Facing The Future: Deeper Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Awareness For A New Age

“We are at the threshold of a radical systemic change that requires human beings to adapt continuously.”  

For which Schwab adds…

“There is one certainty: new technologies will dramatically change the nature of work across all industries and occupations.” -Klaus Schwab via The Fourth Industrial Revolution

In a world caught in the throes of dealing with deep, exponential change from what is often being referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution; today’s individuals and organizations are going to need to be much more vigilant in building their awareness of these dramatic and often radical shifts across society and their coming effect on the future. As we move deeper into the Exponential Age and further into the Knowledge Economy, we can begin to see these dramatic and radical shifts emerging and feel the impact they are having on us and the world around us.

And while it may remain, at this point, just a flicker on the educational radar, we know that something is different, we can feel the changes, even those we can’t see or are even aware of.

Especially in regards to the world of work, which is undergoing a plethora of changes and disruptions brought forth on the shoulders of an accelerated and often turbulent rate and speed of change, along with growing levels of globalization, the scaling of automation, and an evolving and expanding infusion of artificial intelligence across society.

In many ways, individual and organizational learnability, adaptability and agility, have become the new norms of the day.

However, as Srini Pillay, assistant professor, Harvard Medical School shares in the McKinseyQuarterly, “If you say to people, “You need to adapt,” but you don’t help them learn how to build a change-oriented mind-set, it doesn’t really help. In fact, it hurts productivity.”

Engaging that learnability, adaptability and agility often begins with creating the awareness that allows to set the stage for engaging that “change-oriented mind-set.”  

As educators, we have to begin to equip ourselves with a greater awareness of the changes in the world of work and skillset shifts that are occurring alongside and parallel pacing those changes, if we are to begin to better support and guide our students as they manage the growing complexities of college, career and work.

As Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management, at Harvard Business School puts forth in McKinsey Quarterly’s Getting Ready for the Future of Work, “We must view it as a race to develop institutions to support lifelong learning.  We need to move fast because we’re playing catch-up, and this is a much harder game to play; suddenly the numbers of people who need to learn fast are too big.”

As for these changes and shifts and the effect they are having on our individuals, organizations, institutions, and society as a whole, it is in seeing that our students will need much more college, career and work support and guidance as the reach of automation and artificial intelligence stretches outwardly and gains new and often unknown ground.

As Andrew Ng, Founder and Lead of Google Brain (Deep Learning) project, Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University, Co-Founder of Coursera shared in AI is the New Electricity, “Whatever industry you work in, AI will probably transform it. I think today we see a surprisingly clear path for AI to transform all of these industries. So I actually hope that whatever industry you are in, you’ll figure out how to leverage AI, because I think it will create new winners and losers in almost every category.” For which he adds, “If any of you have friends or children or whatever studying in a med school, AI is getting much better at reading radiology images frankly. So if any of your friends are going through medical school and graduation with a degree in Radiology, I think they’ll have a perfectly fine five-year career as a Radiologist.”

As Bob Kegan, William and Miriam Meehan Research Professor in Adult Learning and Professional Development, Harvard Graduate School of Education shares in the McKinsey Quarterly article Getting Ready for the Future, “The number of employees who are operating in more nonstandard, complex jobs is going to increase, while less complex work is going to be increasingly automated. The time it takes for people’s skills to become irrelevant will shrink. It used to be, “I got my skills in my 20s; I can hang on until 60.”  It’s not going to be like that anymore. We’re going to live in an era of people finding their skills irrelevant at age 45, 40, 35. And there are going to be a great many people who are out of work”  

For which adds, “What are we going to do about that?”

As leaders, especially in considering this very non-obvious future, we must begin to determine what changes, and what stays the same. Then, determine how to create the systems, structures, processes, and behaviors needed to move us more relevantly and successfully towards that future vision and the outcomes we’ve determined, if we are to better support our students, parents, educators, leaders, stakeholders, and communities in moving forward through the uncertainty and ambiguity of an unknown future.

In response to these societal shifts, our students will need new and different supports and resources to guide them into the future. However, without greater awareness of these changes and shifts and understanding the huge impacts that they are having on college, career and work, we will struggle to provide the guidance that students are needing as they begin to consider how to traverse this very non-obvious and uncertain future they are facing. It is also in understanding that this guidance and support is not just a good to know, but imperative in response to the following research and data provided from McKinsey’s Education to Employment-Designing A System That Works report:

  • Worldwide, young people are three times more likely than their parents to be out of work.
  • Seventy-five million youth are unemployed (including estimates of underemployed youth would potentially triple this number).
  • Half of youth are not sure that their postsecondary education has improved their chances of finding a job.
  • Almost 40 percent of employers say a lack of skills is the main reason for entry-level vacancies.
  • Fewer than half of youth and employers, believe that new graduates are adequately prepared for entry-level positions.
  • Education providers, however, are much more optimistic: 72 percent of them believe new graduates are ready to work.

Which is why awareness is paramount and vital to supporting our students in navigating this very non-obvious future, especially regards to college, career and work.

Students shared in the same Education to Employment report, “Only about forty-percent say they would make the same educational decision if they could choose again what to study and where, and they rate themselves low on both general and job-specific preparation.” For which they add that, “Some forty-percent of youth also report that they were not familiar with the market conditions and requirements even for well-known professions such as teachers or doctors. Without this understanding, many students choose courses half-blindly, without a vision of whether there will be a demand for their qualifications upon graduation.” 

In closing, the report shared that, “Youth across surveyed countries said they were not well-informed about the availability of jobs or the level of wages associated with their course of study.”

While we will never have access to the tea leaves that provide us the insight of how to proceed in predicting and fool-proofing how we can better prepare our students for the future, it does not relieve us of building the awareness that allows us to better determine how to guide and support our students in determining their way forward into the future. While we may not able to support in the necessary jobs creation that may be needed, we can begin to consider how content AND skills development can coexist in ways that better prepare our students for the changing world of work. As well as creating our own individual and organizational capacity to provide guidance and support students as they consider their way forward in an unknown, ambiguous and very non-obvious future.

“Two related global crisis: high levels of youth unemployment and a shortage of people with critical job skills. Leaders everywhere are aware of possible consequences, in the form of social and economic distress, when too many young people believe that their future is compromised.”  -McKinsey&Company Education to Employment: Designing A System That Works

Building Adaptive Capacity

“When people look to authorities for easy answers to adaptive challenges, they end up with dysfunction. They expect the person in charge to know what to do, and under the weight of that responsibility, those in authority frequently end up faking it or disappointing people, or they get spit out of the system in the belief that a new “leader” will solve the problem.”  

“In fact, there’s a proportionate relationship between risk and adaptive change: The deeper the change and the greater the amount of new learning required, the more resistance there will be and, thus, the greater the danger to those who lead. For this reason, people often try to avoid the dangers, either consciously or subconsciously, by treating an adaptive challenge as if it were a technical one. This is why we see so much more routine management than leadership in our society.”  -Heifetz and Linsky Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading

Which is one of the greatest challenges that stands before our educational organizations and leaders at this very moment in time…

The understanding that we have made a radical shift from technical problems to the amount of adaptive challenges and dilemmas that we now and will face.

For this reason, it will be in our ability to create greater organizational and individual capacity that we will be better equipped to face and come to terms with these rising adaptive challenges and dilemmas that are coming at us.

However, before moving any farther forward, let’s take a moment for Heifetz and Linsky to create a deeper understanding around what separates, or serves as the main difference between what is seen as a technical problem from which we view an adaptive challenge and/or dilemma.

“What makes a problem technical is not that it is trivial; but simply that its solution already lies within the organization’s repertoire.  In contrast, adaptive pressures force the organization to change, lest it decline.” 

To add, what separates a “technical problem” from an “adaptive challenge” is that there are no absolute answers to adaptive challenges and/or dilemmas. Whereas, while a technical issue may be difficult, we answers to those problems. Answers exist, be that from internally or externally of our organization.

Whereas, with adaptive challenges, there are often no set answers to solving the dilemma. Very often, they require deeper questions and the willingness of individuals and the organization to grapple their way forward. Or as Heifetz and Linsky add in Leadership on the Line, “We call these adaptive challenges because they require experiments, new discoveries, and adjustments from numerous places in the organization or community. Without learning new ways-changing attitudes, values, and behaviors-people cannot make the adaptive leap necessary to thrive in the new environment. The sustainability of change depends on having the people with the problem internalize the change itself.”

Facing our adaptive challenges and dilemmas require our ability to constantly create and build up our adaptive capacity. Which means that new and ongoing learning, as well as engaging greater agility and adaptability, has to be built up across and at all levels of the organization.  Which means…

“Just tell me what to do” can no longer be an unwritten motto that sweeps across the entirety of our organizations.  

Instead, learning has to become the new constant, with a focus on deeper questions, not easy answers.

We have to learn to become more agile and adaptable, both as individuals and organizations. And we have to be able to stand longer under the weight of big questions.  In other words, we have to learn how to grapple…

We have to learn to be able to grapple in the face of uncertainty, in the face of accelerated change, in the face of unknowns, in the face of the adaptive challenges and dilemmas we now face, as well as those in the future.

Unfortunately, as Heifetz and Linsky share in Leadership on the Line“In the face of adaptive pressures, people don’t want questions; they want answers. They don’t want to be told that they will have to sustain losses; rather, they want to know how you’re going to protect the from the pains of change.”

Which means that leading adaptive work, leading people through adaptive challenges and dilemmas, and creating adaptive capacity, will be both the greatest and most difficult work that any leader and organization will ever embark upon.

Creating adaptive capacity to face the challenges and dilemmas of today’s modern world is difficult work, to say the least. It means going against the norm of most leadership.

We hire leaders to provide a sense of stability, a sense of safety. Whereas, the work of building up the adaptive capacity of an organization requires provoking that safety, of pulling people out of the comfortable, of unentrenching them from the status quo ways of doing and being that they come to know; which can mean difficult days ahead, and very often spell disaster for any leader.

But that is what is required, if adaptive capacity is to become both the individual and organizational objective.

This is deep work. It forces individuals and organizations to move past a veneer way of working. It requires depth of trust, depth of relationships, and a depth of understanding around their values and vision. It takes a willingness to be vulnerable. It takes a willingness to face loss. It takes a willingness to become and stay a learner. And it takes a willingness and want to get better, each and every day.

It is in that space, in that willingness to grapple both as individuals and organizations, that adaptive capacity is created and sustained.

I will leave you with these words from Heifetz and Linsky from Leadership on the Line and a question…

“Generally, people will not authorize someone to make them face what they do not want to face. Instead, people hire someone to provide protection and ensure stability, someone with solutions that require a minimum of disruption. But adaptive work creates risk, conflict, and instability because addressing the issues underlying adaptive problems may involve upending deep and entrenched norms. Thus, leadership requires disturbing people-but at a rate they can absorb.”

What are you willing to disturb?

Preparing Our Students For The Future

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

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

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

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

And the answer is…

We don’t know.

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

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

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

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

A world where gradually quickly turns into suddenly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

The New Liquidity Of Learning

“In the industrial age, companies did their utmost to save themselves time by increasing their efficiency and productivity. That is not enough today. Now organizations need to save their customers and citizens time. They need to do their utmost to interact in real time. Real time is human time.”

“So in order to run in real time, our technological infrastructure needed to liquefy. Nouns needed to be verbs. Fixed solid things became services. Data couldn’t remain still. Everything had to flow into the stream of now.”  -via Kevin Kelly The Inevitable: Understanding The 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future

As we consider the depths of the shifts and disruptions that the current and coming digital transformation is levying down upon and across the entirety of our societal landscape, from every industry to institution, we must also be very aware of the cognitive shifts and disruptions that are occurring simultaneously in reaction to this transformation.

From learning to literacy, we see our digital technologies emerging a variety of new literacies across the learning landscape, which according to Wikipedia would include “21st century literacies, internet literacies, digital literacies, new media literacies, multiliteracies, information literacy, and computer literacy,” to name a few. And not just literacy, but the very act of learning itself, from how we access it, to how we interpret, utilize, engage, and even repurpose it.

In his work The Inevitable, Kevin Kelly discusses how digital technology has disrupted and changed the music industry, from the actual product down to the very notes themselves, which he conceptualizes around this idea of “liquidity.” The interesting thing is when you put this same lens of “liquidity” on learning, instead of music, we can not only begin to envision the impact of these new literacies, but how learning is, could and will change and evolve forward in the future.

Let’s sample a bit of how this concept of “liquidity” works with the idea of learning by repurposing some of Kevin Kelly’s quotes (in bold) around this idea of the “liquidity” of music and how it could be used to stretch our idea of learning…

“Once something, like music, is digitized, it becomes a liquid that can be flexed and linked.” –via The Inevitable

Once something, like learning, is digitized, it becomes a liquid that can be flexed and linked.

“The superconductivity of digitalization had unshackled music from its narrow confines on a vinyl disk and thin oxide tape.”  -via The Inevitable

The superconductivity of digitalization has unshackled learning from its narrow confines of the book and written page.

“Now you could unbundle a song from its four-minute package, filter it, bend it, archive it, rearrange it, remix it, mess with it.”  -via The Inevitable

Now you can unbundle the written work from a text, filter it, bend it, archive it, rearrange it, remix it, and mess with it.

“What counts are not the number of copies but the number of ways a copy can be linked, manipulated, annotated, tagged, highlighted, bookmarked, translated, and enlivened by other media.”  -via The Inevitable

What counts are not the number of texts, books, and blogs, but the number of ways they can be linked, manipulated, annotated, tagged, highlighted, bookmarked, translated, and enlivened by other media.

These are just a few of the examples in the ways we can begin to consider how not just literacy, but learning itself can be “liquified” for the future. Especially in a time of shifting from consumption to creation. As Kevin Kelly shares in The Inevitable, “Liquidity brings a new ease to creation.”

As these exponential shifts and disruptions continue to spread across the societal ecosystem, we can no longer believe that it will have no effect on the future of learning.

In the words of Kevin Kelly, we will need to begin to…

“Think of the world flowing.”