The Future And Our Mental Models

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“Digital technologies are setting down the new grooves of how people live, how we do business, how we do everything…”  -Jaron Lanier Who Owns The Future

Our mental models are often deeply entrenched in the “old grooves” and it is very difficult to lay down new tracks, even as the world around us shifts and changes at an alarmingly new pace and rate.

We are finding that we have not been conditioned, and very often we were not built (our mental models) to easily accept this type (accelerated rate and pace) of change we are currently facing and the uncertain future we find ourselves hurtling towards.  So we find ourselves recoiling a bit from these changes.  And yet, no matter how much we try to insulate ourselves from these changes, we end up like an ostrich plunging its head in the sand, standing there open and vulnerable while its thinking and vision are closed off to what is occurring…in our systems, organizations, and society as a whole.

Lack of awareness, lack of understanding, lack of connection to these changes, to these shifts, keeps us grounded in the known, in our own mental models of what we know the world to be and what we think and “hope” it will continue to be.  Inability to disrupt those mental models keeps us from “seeing” what is happening around us, from forecasting the present to the future, inevitably causing further disconnections in how we equip and prepare our students, our educators, our stakeholders, our systems, and our organizations for this very non-obvious future that is not just coming at us, but is already here.

We must not only be willing to disrupt our mental models, we have to begin to widen the way we think about the future and how these shifts will change our world, our society, the economy, and what work is and how we define and do work in the future.  Inability to begin to forecast and consider these changes, as well as shifting our mental models about how the world our children will grow up and into will be very different than the world we grew up in, will limit us in effectively preparing our children and our students to move into and through this exponentially shifting and changing future in a positive and successful manner.

As our generation moves forward in creating a future that is more globalized, outsourced, automated, and artificially (AI) infused, it very well looks as if we are going to need to prepare our future generations with the thinking and problem-solving skillsets to solve many of the societal issues and problems that can and may erupt from these shifts and changes created today.  

We can no longer be the ostrich in the sand, we have to begin to think differently so that we can provide our children and students the space to begin to consider the future that they will live in, and how to make it a better world for each and every one.  As they will very likely be responsible for providing many of the solutions and solving many of the problems that are being created today, in present times.

We have to widen and disrupt our often linear mental models about the future, as if we are to effectively build up the problem-solving and inquiry skills, creative and innovative, as well as divergent and convergent thinking needed in our students, stakeholders, educators, and organizations to approach these shifts and changes more effectively and more ethically, for the betterment of all.

The world we walked out into in the past looked very different than the world our children and students will walk out into in the future.  If we are unable to think different, we will not create the situations and opportunities for them to think different, to problem-solve in new, different and unique ways.

And if truth be told, we are not ready to do that yet.  We just aren’t.  In many ways, it isn’t even on our radar…

“People are gradually making themselves poorer than they need to be.  We’re setting up a situation where better technology in the long term just means more unemployment, or an eventual socialist backlash.  Instead, we should seek a future where more people will do well, without losing liberty, even as technology gets much, much better.”  -Jaron Lanier Who Owns The Future

 

 

 

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Selected For Status Quo

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“In most companies, managers are selected, trained, and rewarded for their capacity to deliver more of the same, more efficiently.  No one expects managers to be innovators.  Rather, they are expected to turn other people’s ideas into growth and profits.” – Gary Hamel The Future of Management

While we know the importance of the overlap necessary in today’s organization to hire those with both leadership and management skills, far too often we see that organizations are hiring for leaders and then only expecting managers.

While we profess the need for risk-taking, change, even organizational transformation from our leaders, it is supported only as far as it does not upset or cause disequilibrium to the current safety and stability of the organization.

Very often, the expectation of today’s leaders is founded in their ability and willingness to strive for constant organizational equilibrium.

In a time where change is served up in a constant, accelerated, frenetic, and even turbulent pace, we need leaders who can explore the unknown, and yet, far too often we hire and promote leaders only on their ability to exploit the known and do little to disturb the status quo and avoid disrupting our current mental models.

Too often we hire people on a platform of continuous creativity and innovation, and then engage them with expectations that fall more towards the roteness and standardization of compliance and implementation.

And yet, we can no longer have leaders that are selected only for their ability to support status quo.  We need leaders that see their work as creating and infusing the systems and processes that allow our individuals and organizations to become much more adaptable and agile, especially in a world that is moving at a much more exponential clip.

Leaders who can not only disrupt the individual and organizational mental models that we drag from the past into the present and future, but have the personal awareness and self-reflection to be able to disrupt their own mental models of what they determine as possible for the future.

We can no longer select leaders for stability and their willingness to uphold the status quo, without thinking or believing that we won’t entrench our organizations in sameness and future irrelevance.  

When leaders lack connection to networks that provide ongoing idea flows, when leaders fail to engage in experimentation and discovery learning, when leaders fail to see the need for new learning that allows for greater adaptability and agility, when leaders fail to create and design the organizational environments that allow for the divergent thinking that leads to more creativity and innovation, they eventually mire themselves and their organization in stasis and static ways of thinking, doing and working.

They insulate in the known.

Today’s organizations can no longer hire leaders on their ability and willingness to only provide a sense of safety and stability.  We can ill afford to focus only on efficiency, in a time when effectiveness is vital to an organization’s focus and ongoing relevance.

As Beth Comstock shares in Imagine It Forward, “It’s easier to keep your nose to the grindstone, do what you are doing and do it well, than it is to lift your head up and figure out where you or your organization is going and what the future may bring.  It’s usually not until an organization is engulfed by chaos or, more simply, wakes up to a stark reality that it has been left behind, that it begins to seek a new way forward.”

For which she adds, “The research says 75 percent of people in advanced economies feel that they are not meeting their creative potential.  We’ve created legions of managers afraid to absorb new perspectives, unable to work without a script or respond quickly by letting go of strategies that no longer work and embracing new ones that do.”

As is shared in the Changing Face of Modern Leadership, “The shelf life of our ideas, skills, skillsets, frameworks, and systems now deteriorate at a much more advanced rate.  Under this new societal ecosystem, change and innovation has become the new fast and furious of our modern world.”  

We need leaders who can move past status quo ways of thinking and doing and prepare our individuals and organizations to be much more agile and adaptable to a world in the throes of accelerated change.

Everyday, both managers and leaders have an opportunity for impact, a chance to influence the future.  The choice can be made to play it safe and work our way into irrelevance, or to choose to break down the current walls of obstacles and mental models that keep us from determining a whole new idea of possible.

In the end, for better or worse, the choice is ours…

“Most managers see themselves as pragmatic doers, not starry-eyed dreamers.  In their experience, management progress is accretive rather than revolutionary – and they have little reason to believe it could ever be otherwise.  But as we’ll see, it can be otherwise, and it must be – the future demands it.” -Gary Hamel The Future of Management

Overlays And Stacking

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“You can’t paint a picture on top of a picture on a canvas.  You can’t write a sentence on a page that is filled up with writing.  You can’t create a future when there is already one coming at you.  Before anything is to be created, there has to be a space of nothingness.  The canvas must be empty; the page, blank; and the future that you were living into, somehow emptied out.”  Saffron and Logan The Three Laws of Performance: Rewriting the Future of Your Organization and Your Life

Much of what we do in the present, inevitably sets the stage for the future, and is driven by our past.

If an organization is going to truly transform, it has to begin to redefine the work of its leaders.  It has to teach itself to think different, if we are ever going to get to doing different.  Which means, we have to begin to move ourselves over from the world that we currently reside in, to a world that we talk of wanting to be in…

  • We can’t say we want better questions, when we place more value on coming to easy answers and quick solutions  
  • We can’t tout the benefits of collaboration, when we pit our organization against itself through competing and competitive attitudes
  • We can’t create environments of creativity, when we only celebrate a sense of compliance
  • We can’t see bright spots of innovation, when everyone is constrained to an agenda of implementation
  • We can’t build up towards greater agility and adaptability, when we are mired in bureaucracy
  • We will never get to differentiation, when only focus on standardization
  • We will never learn to enjoy the journey, if we are only determined to the destination
  • We won’t ever transform, when the only thing we ever discuss is reform

Unless we are willing to reflect deeply on our mental models and how they affect our present and future, those mental models will continue to pull and entrench us in practices of the past.  It is only when we are able to unlock ourselves from those mental models, that we are able to approach the present and future with a clean canvas.

Otherwise, much of what we do is based in and o overlays and stacking.

When we are unable to unlock ourselves from our mental models and clean the canvas, we not only continue to pull the past into the future, we spend our time overlaying and stacking upon that past.  Which means that we are often building upon a foundation that is often found to be outdated and irrelevant.

Or as Dalmau and Tideman share, “And with different kinds of problems or issues come different required modes of thinking, different approaches, different mental models.”

And we can say with precision, that we are in a time where we are facing very different problems and a very non-obvious future that will require different thinking, different approaches and definitely different mental models, if we are to face this very different and non-obvious future in a much more relevant, positive and successful manner.

We can no longer believe that we can overlay and stack our way effectively into the future.

In their book, The Three Laws of Performance, Saffron and Logan put forth that there are “three dimensions to this process of “blanking the canvas.”  It is when we are able to effectively move through these “dimensions”that we can begin to truly create the space for the emergence of the new.

  • “The first dimension is seeing that what binds and constrains us isn’t the facts, it’s language – and in particular, descriptive language.”  Far too often, we bind ourselves to the past and limit our possibilities in the present and future by our own language, both in what is said and what is left unsaid.
  • “The second dimension is articulating the default future and asking, “Do we really want this as our future?”  If we want our story of the future to have a different ending than the one that we believe has already been written, then we need to be able to create a new narrative, a narrative that takes us to where we want to go, to a much more desirable future.  This is a choice that is both necessary and required, if we want to change the direction of the future that we are currently moving into.
  • “The third dimension to creating a blank space is the most powerful: completing issues from the past.”  As Zaffron and Logan share, we can’t move into this new future, if we find that we remain tied to the past, a past that continues to exert influence on your present and future.  It is only when we free from that past, that we can begin to live into that new narrative of the future.

Until we are able to break free from our mental models and the pull of the past, we will continue to overlay and stack on a faulty foundation, one that often takes us towards a false future.  Breaking from the pull of the past and the binds that constrain and entrench us in past ways of thinking and doing, allows us to live more fully into that narrative of the future that is being created.

It is only when we break free, that we can live fully into that narrative of the future.

“For every problem, there is a future that’s already been written about it.  This future includes people’s assumptions, hopes, fears, resignation, cynicism, and lessons learned through past experience.  Although this future is almost never talked about, it is the context in which people try to create change.” -Saffron and Logan The Three Laws of Performance: Rewriting the Future of Your Organization and Your Life

Creating The Space For Cognitive Pioneering

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“In today’s dynamic environment, organizations need to be more liquid than static.  Yet many organizations stubbornly cling to outdated control models that will eventually lead to their demise.” -Michael J. Arena Adaptive Space: How GM and Other Companies are Positively Disrupting Themselves and Transforming into Agile Organizations

And disruptive it is…

As Michael J. Arena shares in Adaptive Space, “A study from Washington University shows that an estimated 40 percent of today’s S&P 500 companies will no longer exist a  decade from now.”

While Forbes adds, “At the current churn rate, about half of S&P 500 companies will be replaced over the next ten years. The 33-year average tenure of companies on the S&P 500 in 1964 narrowed to 24 years by 2016 and is forecast to shrink to just 12 by 2027.”

A disruption that requires not only an individual and organizational agility, but individual and organizational adaptability.  At the current rates of change, those entering the workforce in today’s world should plan on, at minimum, to face eleven-plus career restarts over their lifetime.

Adaptability?  Yes.

As Lynda Gratton puts forth in her MITSMR article Who’s Building the Infrastructure for Lifelong Learning?  “The traditional concept of a “three-stage life,” made up of three distinct periods of full-time education, full-time working, and then full-time retirement, is clearly untenable…”  For which she continues, “A more future-proofed concept is a “multi-stage life,” in which learning and education are distributed across the whole of a lifetime.”

Which does not even speak to the explosive rise of the Gig Economy across our society.  As the 2018 Global Human Capital Trends report from Deloitte Talent spotlights the forecast today’s executives for their workforce in 2020, which shows, “37% expect growth in use of contractors,” “33% expect growth in the use of freelancers,” and “28% expect growth in the use of gig workers.”  To give perspective to those numbers, the World Economic Forum shares, “Today, more than 57 million workers – about 36% of the US workforce – freelances.  Based on current workforce growth rates found in Freelancing in America: 2017, the majority of the US workforce will freelance by 2027.”  Or, as the Katz and Krueger study out of Princeton and Harvard relays, “The findings point to a significant rise in the incidence of alternative work arrangements in the U.S. economy from 2005 to 2015.”  

The volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (vuca) of today’s world is requiring us to think more, not only of the future, but FOR the future.  The accelerated, and often exponential changes we are now and will face means that we have to begin to be more proactive in how we consider what we are doing in the present, that will lead to better outcomes for our students and organizations in the future.

And yet, according to a recent national study conducted by Jane McGonigal, The American Future Gap, for the Institute for the Future (IFTF), relays that “The majority of Americans rarely or never think 30 years into the future, and many rarely even think five years out – a fact that can lead to poor decision-making in peoples daily lives and negative consequences for society.”  For which the study discovered that “more than a quarter (27%) of Americans rarely or never think about their lives five years ahead; more than a third (36%) never think about something that could happen 10 years into the future; and more than half (53%) of Americans rarely or never think about their lives 30 years out.”

Engaging in future thinking must become much more of a leadership ability and skillset, providing awareness and perspective for the decisions that are being made today.  As they will have great effect on the future.

Especially in education…

Especially when we consider the variety of future-casts being made for the year 2030 – a time in which today’s kindergartners will be walking out of our schools and facing the choice between career or college – in a world that many believe will have dramatically changed in many unforeseen ways.

While we cannot predict the future, we cannot either wait to begin to plan and prepare our  students, our educators, and our educational organizations and institutions for what many forecast as extremely dramatic changes to our world and the world of work.  We have to begin to consider what the world may look like for those students walking out into the world in 2030…students who are already enrolled in classes in our schools.

Building our awareness of the societal shifts that have already occurred, are occurring and are predicted to occur, helps us to be more proactive in supporting our students to be more adaptable and agile to these new and changing demands that are coming at them now and in the future.

For example, there are a plethora of sources that are not only providing insight into the effects of automation and artificial intelligence on work in the future, but the types of skills that may be desirable or sought after in the future.  For example, MIT’s Technology Review recently shared their forecast of skills that will be necessary and needed in the year 2030.  For which they have determined the following to be the “top five desirable future work skills” for 2030:

Judgment and decision making: Considering the relative costs and benefits of potential actions to choose the most appropriate one.

Fluency of ideas: The ability to come ups with a number of ideas about a topic.

Active learning: Learning strategies – selecting and using training/instructional methods and procedures appropriate for the situation when learning or teaching new things.

Learning strategies: Understanding the implications of new information for both current and future problem-solving and decision-making

Originality: The ability to come up with unusual or clever ideas about a given topic or situation, or to develop creative ways to solve a problem.

For this is just the tip of the iceberg, as we can find many more of these future-skills lists from such entities as McKinsey & Co, Forbes, Fast Company, Inc., MIT, MITSMR, Institute for the Future, and World Economic Forum, just to name a few.

So, while we cannot predict whether or not these will be the desired or sought after skills of the future, we can most likely say and agree that the future will require new and changing skills.  Which will necessitate that the idea of being a lifelong learner has become a required skillset of the future, no matter what occupation or profession you choose.  Constant upgrading, retooling, reskilling, and upskilling will be necessary for the majority of occupations and professions in the future.

Which means that education can no longer place its emphasis on the ongoing accumulation of facts and the memorizing of knowledge as a preferred way forward into this future.  Today’s educational organizations and institutions will need to determine how to best blend not only content and knowledge, but skills into the curriculum.  It cannot remain as an either/or proposition, as it will require a mix of both.

It will require AND…

Building awareness and consideration of the future will necessitate today’s educational leaders to not only engaging individuals and their organization in future thinking, but in creating a new narrative for the future that provides a vision and a way forward in a more meaningful and relevant manner.  This narrative is vital to the future and the idea of creating better outcomes for our students and organizations.  It is the creation of this future narrative that will help avoid, what Steve Saffron and Dave Logan share in their book The Three Laws of Performance as the “default future.”

Or as David Trafford shares in his article Understanding and Improving Your Organization’s Default Future, “We all have a default future.  It’s the place we’ll end up if we continue on the same path and take no action to change that future.  If the default future is a desirable destination, then there’s no need to be concerned, just enjoy the journey.  If the default future is unacceptable, then effort and action is required to create an improved future.”

Today’s leaders need to build in space for that narrative and story to be created.  A space where thinking and ideas can incubate and percolate.  A space where future thinking is perpetuated and supported towards determining a better way forward.  It is no longer enough that we have creative and innovative thinking being supported and spurred forward in our individuals, teams and organizations…we need to create space for cognitive pioneering to be promoted for the benefit of moving into the future with greater awareness and relevance, for our students, our educators, and our educational organizations and institutions.

If we believe that we are moving, both as individuals and organizations, in the right direction for this very uncertain future that is accelerating at us, then we have nothing to do other than remain steady and keep the course.  But if we believe that transformation is necessary to avoid the current “default future” we are hurdling towards, then creating space for cognitive pioneering and engaging the environment that will allow us to move towards a new narrative, and a new story for the future.

As Michael J. Arena shares in his book Adaptive Space, “We are operating in a radically changing world and we are not equipped to respond to it.”  But respond we must, if we want to remain relevant in providing a vision that supports our students for their future.

In other words, this will be the work of organizational leaders, both in the present and for our future.

“Organizations are under assault.  If they don’t adapt, they will die.  We see this happening all around us.  We are in a time of tremendous transformation, unlike anything we have seen in over a century.  In this environment we need to do something that most of us have not been trained to do and our organizations have not been designed for: we must learn to adapt.” -Michael J. Arena Adaptive Space: How GM and Other Companies are Positively Disrupting Themselves and Transforming into Agile Organizations

Facing An Unknown Future

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For years, it has felt as if there has been this quiet undergirding taking hold across our society, as we consider the creep of automation and artificial intelligence upon jobs.  Especially as we begin to consider the possibility of a rather dystopian future, a world in which that same automation, as well as robots and artificial intelligence have left us jobless.  We seem to be facing this pivotal point in time where we are gearing up for an inevitable race against the machines.  For which Martin Ford, author of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment adds, “Potentially unlimited output can be achieved by systems of machines which will require little cooperation from human beings.  The result would be massive unemployment, soaring inequality, and, ultimately, falling demand for goods and services as consumers increasingly lacked the purchasing power necessary to continue driving economic growth.”  Or as the famous 2013 study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Micael A. Osborne at the University of Oxford have concluded, “occupations amounting to nearly half of US total employment may be vulnerable to automation within roughly the next two decades.”

However, in recent years, there has been a bit of a circling back from that dystopian narrative of a future without jobs.  We hear more and more about the automation and infiltration of artificial intelligence towards tasks, more than entire jobs.  Which is not to say that this coming future will not face severe job losses in the face of automation and artificial intelligence, but the picture now being painted seems more focused on tasks and how work itself will change.  However, with this rising narrative of an augmented future, there is the belief that there will be an increase in new jobs, but jobs that are now requiring new skills and capabilities, where augmentation seems to be the more logical approach in moving forward.  Meaning that it is becoming much less of a race against the machine and more of a race with the machine.  As Erik Brynjolfsson, author of Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy offers, “What can we do to create shared prosperity? The answer is not to try to slow down technology.  Instead of racing against the machine, we need to learn to race with the machine.”  The only problem is that the amount and pace at which these new jobs are being created is being outpaced by the ability of today’s digital disruption to eliminate jobs.  For which he adds, “Technology is always creating jobs.  It’s always destroying jobs.  But right now the pace is accelerating.  It’s faster we think than ever before in history.  So as a consequence, we are not creating jobs at the same pace that we need to.”

Whereas others believe that the fear of a jobless future, one in which automation and artificial intelligence has taken the vast majority of jobs, is nonsense.  Much like other industrial revolutions of the past, we will have to deal with some initial discomfort to the changes that the fourth industrial revolution will place upon us, but much like the past, we will adapt and continue to move forward much like we have done in the past.  As David Autor, MIT Department of Economics and National Bureau of Economic Research shares in his paper, Why Are There Still So Many Jobs?  The History and Future of Workplace Automation is that “employment polarization will not continue indefinitely.  While some of the tasks in many current middle-skill jobs are susceptible to automation, many middle-skill jobs will continue to demand a mixture of tasks from across the skill spectrum.”  However, one thing that he says will continue is the “increased demand for skill workers.”  For which he shares in his paper The Polarization of Job Opportunities in the U.S. Labor Market, “But since the mid-1970’s, the rise in U.S. education levels has not kept up with the rising demand for skilled workers.”

So, with that said, whatever narrative you tend to agree lean towards, there are some trends or ideas that bridge across all three narratives that will be vital for some semblance of moving forward successfully in this very non-obvious future we are facing.

Continually prepare yourself and your organization for a VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) World:  We live in times of constant change, but what makes it different for today’s world is the speed, pace and turbulence at which change is now occurring.  We live in accelerated times.  Which is why VUCA thinking and a VUCA mindset allows an individual and an organization to prepare for volatility of change, uncertainty of the future, complexity of systems, and ambiguity of next steps.  As Lisa Kay Solomon shares, “VUCA isn’t going away.  Change promises to speed up, not slow down.  To thrive in a world where change is the only constant, leaders need to replace old thinking with a new framework.”  Or as Marilyn Ferguson, American Futurist adds, “It’s not so much that we’re afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it’s that place in between that we fear…It’s like being between trapezes. It’s Linus when his blanket is in the dryer. There’s nothing to hold on to.”

Continually prepare yourself and your organization for a future of perpetual learning:  As Kevin Kelly editor of Wired Magazine and author of The Inevitable shares is that we are “newbies” in today’s world and “You will be a newbie forever.”  As he shared in The Creativity Post, “In this new world, we are always in a state of becoming.  We live in the age of the present participle – words ending in -ing that mean the action is in process.  Everything is in a flowing, changing state.  This flux turns us into continuous learners.”  We are quickly moving out of a time where the ability to “know” is giving over to the ability to “learn.”  In a world that is changing at an accelerated rate, while knowledge is vital, the ability to learn and remain a perpetual learner is key to remaining relevant.  For which McKinsey and Company puts forth, “For workers of the future, the ability to adapt their skills to the changing needs of the workplace will be critical.  Lifelong learning must become the norm – and at the moment, the reality falls fare short of the necessity.”

Continually prepare yourself and your organization to remain adaptable and agile to the profound shifts that are to be faced now and in the future:  Our world has tilted.  We are now facing fewer and fewer technical problems and more and more adaptive challenges and dilemmas.  Challenges and dilemmas that do not have ready made answer or solutions, even if they have an answer or solution at all.  In a world of accelerated change, inability to remain adaptable and agile often leads to irrelevance.  As Bob Kegan shares, “Work will increasingly be about adaptive challenges, the ones that artificial intelligence and robots will be less good at meeting. There’s going to be employment for people with growth mind-sets, but fixed mind-sets are going to be more and more replaceable by machines”

Continually prepare yourself and your organization for AND:  It is an AND world…It requires both knowledge and skills to navigate more effectively now and in the future. Especially in a world that is unfolding, evolving and exponentially changing at a much more accelerated and turbulent rate.  Understanding the importance of both knowledge, skills, as well as continual upskilling and reskilling as well as perpetual learning, this weighing of AND, will allow individuals and organizations to remain relevant for the future.  As the OECD adds, “Ensuring that everyone has the right skills for an increasingly digital and globalized world is essential to promote inclusive labor markets and to spur innovation, productivity, and growth.”

Today’s world not only requires our ability to face these VUCA challenges and dilemmas, and it not only requires us to remain perpetual learners and “newbies” towards these challenges and dilemmas to better engage the questions and thinking that leads to better solutions, it also requires the collaborative environments, based in trust and psychological safety, that will move us, as individuals, teams, and organizations, forward more effectively and relevantly into this very different and non-obvious future.

Understanding and recognizing today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) World reminds us how quickly things are changing around us.  But it is our ability to learn, in the face of this VUCA, that we are able, both as individuals and organizations, to remain adaptable and agile to these new demands and dilemmas we are now and will face.

If we are not engaging the future thinking necessary to at least try and imagine what the world will be like for today’s kindergartener by the time they graduate…then it will be incredibly difficult for us to even consider how to begin to prepare them for a non-obvious future and an exponentially changing world.

Positive Deviance: A Bright Spot Intervention

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“At the core of a Positive Deviance intervention is the recognition that significant innovation cannot come through reliance on outside experts who, from their hierarchical command and control position, tell the insiders what to do.  Such a tactic in no way evokes the natural capabilities of the system in leveraging the already effective practices of positive deviants within the system.”  -Goldstein, Hazy, Lichtenstein Complexity and the Nexus of Leadership

While the term “familiarity breeds contempt” may be too strong an example for the purpose it is trying to provide here, in some ways it most fitting.  We have this tendency not to honor and value the thinking and work of those closest in proximity to us.  We are often unable or unwilling to see the expertise sitting amongst us.  We like to believe that the answers to the most difficult problems we are trying to solve, are always beyond us and our current circumstances.  We don’t like to believe that those among us are able to solve the issues that we ourselves seem to find unsolvable, at least in our current circumstances.  It is an issue that we see playing out all the time, all around us in our teams, organizations, systems, and work…

  • We have a problem in our organization, let’s hire an external expert.
  • We need to build more capacity and engage in professional learning, hire a consultant.
  • We’re having a conference, we need to find an outside keynote.

Which is not to say that we don’t need to be tapping into external networks for greater, more expansive learning and idea flows, but not at the cost of continually devaluing the ideas and expertise that surrounds us in our teams and organizations.  Especially when that outside expertise does not come equipped with the same understanding of the context and access to which these problems have arisen and continue to preside and plague us and our organizations.

Unfortunately, for this very reason, we continue to fail to spread and scale the insights and ideas that can actually lead to solving the most difficult, stubborn and often intractable problems that afflict our leadership and organizations.  By remaining aligned in our thinking to an attitude that “no one can be a prophet in their own land,” we constrain the capacity for our own people and organizations to solve our own problems, in ways that are already working.

And yet, it is that very thinking which keeps us from noticing the positive deviants or bright spots that exist, often unnoticed and unrecognized in our organizations.  Those individuals who have access to the same resources and supports as everyone else, but who are actually pushing the needle, moving those mountains, and getting positive results towards those very problems that the organization has found to be too difficult to solve.

While they may not be prophets per se, for they often don’t even recognize or even notice how their actions and behaviors are progressing them positively against the odds, they are our greatest resource for solving many of the adaptive challenges we are facing.  In recognizing these bright spots, and in taking the time to watch and learn from them with a much more empathetic lens to determine what they are doing differently, we gather better solutions to moving forward in a much more positive manner.  In fact, we not only increase our own learning and capacity, but create the opportunity to scale and spread those ideas and thinking across our organizations.  As Richard Pascale and Jerry Sternin share in the Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems, “Invisible in plain sight is the community’s latent potential to self-organize, tap its own wisdom, and address problems long regarded with fatalistic acceptance.”

For which Pascale and Sternin add, “Positive deviance is founded on the premise that at least one person in a community, working with the same resources as everyone else, has already licked the problem that confounds others. This individual is an outlier in the statistical sense – an exception, someone whose outcome deviates in a positive way from the norm.  In most cases this person does not know he or she is doing anything unusual.  Yet once the unique solution is discovered and understood, it can be adopted by the wider community and transform many lives.”

Positive deviance is both an intentional and internal approach to solving our organizational problems, issues, and challenges, which inevitably pushes back against the idea that “no one is a prophet in their own land” and “familiarity breeds contempt.”   It works on the belief that there are bright spots within our organizations, positive deviants that are having real success towards those problems we’ve deemed intractable, even though they have the exact same access, training, and resources.  The same everything as everyone else in our organization, and yet, they are finding success and achieving positive outcomes.  Instead of moving towards an external source of expertise to solve these challenges, positive deviance intentionally turns towards engaging an internal problem-solving approach.

What Pascale and Sternin share in regards to positive deviance is that, “The basic premise is this: (1) Solutions to seemingly intractable problems already exist, (2) they have been discovered by members of the community itself, and (3) these innovators (individual positive deviants) have succeeded even though they share the same constraints and barriers as others.”

Which makes the spread and scale of these ideas and thinking easier and quicker to assimilate within the organization, as long as we move past the no prophet and familiarity mindset and stance.  Seeing that these solutions are being provided by those within the organizational group and community working with the same resources as everyone else, provides the ability to moving past excuses, to the understanding that we can solve our own problems and challenges, and in fact, we already are.

This intervention of positive deviance pushes progress forward in two very meaningful ways, (1) by moving from a knowledge to a behavior focus.  It engages these bright spot ideas and solutions not by telling and providing the knowledge, but through doing and learning new behaviors and practices.  Positive deviance focuses on learning by doing to scale and spread those bright spot solutions, and (2) there is a shift from putting the focus on what’s wrong in the system that we need to fix, to one of what’s right and how to engage, scale, and spread those positive solutions across the entirety of the organization.

However, before an organization or system can fully tap into what these positive deviants or bright spots are doing different, we must first define and identify what are the common practices that already exist within the organization and system.  Without identifying the common practices and behaviors that already exist, it will be very difficult to truly determine what these positive deviants are doing differently and why it is leading to successful progress and outcomes.  The ability to determine what a positive deviant is doing differently that leads to better outcomes, then allows a leader, an organization, or a system to begin to engage and amplify those practices and behaviors across the ecosystem.  As Pascale and Sternin share in Positive Deviance, “Until we determine what everybody is doing today, we can’t spot the exceptional and successful strategies.”

In Fast Company’s 2000 article Positive Deviant by David Dorsey, Jerry Sternin shares that there are eight “steps toward adopting positive deviance as your change program”

  1. Don’t Presume That You Have The Answer – too often, believing we have the answer to the problem closes us off to a diversity of thinking and ideas, keeping us from truly seeing the how and why positive deviants are having success in solving the problem.
  2. Don’t Think Of It As A Dinner Party – As Sternin shares in the the article, “Everyone in the group that you want to help change must identify with the others in the group.  Everyone must face the same challenges and rely on the same set of resources to come up with answers.  If group members don’t see themselves as working on identical challenges with identical sets of resources, then positive deviance won’t work.”
  3. Let Them Do It Themselves – This is not a top down process, but rather one of discovery and testing out of these solutions within the group to see how those processes and behaviors work for them in their group.
  4. Identify Conventional Wisdom – As Sternin adds in the article, “Before you can recognize how the positive deviants stray from conventional wisdom, you first have to understand clearly what the accepted behavior is.  Establish what it is that most group members do.”  It is difficult to truly determine what is different, if you don’t have a baseline for what is the same.
  5. Identify And Analyze The Deviants – It is in defining the conventional wisdom of the group, that the positive deviants will emerge.  It is in defining the common that the uncommon begins to become more apparent.  It is in this process that the invisible become visible.
  6. Let The Deviants Adopt Deviations On Their Own – Sternin defines this step as critical, “Once you find deviant behaviors, don’t tell people about them.  It’s not a transfer of knowledge.  It’s not about importing best practices from somewhere else.  It’s about changing behavior.  You design an intervention that requires and enables people to access and to act on these new premises.  You enable people to practice a new behavior not to sit in class learning about it.”
  7. Track Results And Publicize Them – Provide a space for results to be shown, let people see how results are achieved, which will allow the group to become interested and curious about them and how doing things differently led to these results.  Then celebrate success.
  8. Repeat Steps One Through Seven – For which Sternin adds, “Make the whole process cyclical.  Once people discover effective ways to deviate from the norm, and once the methods have become common practice, it’s time to do another study to find out how the best performers in the group are operating now.  Chances are that they’ve discovered new deviations from the new norm.”

In simpler terms, Pascale and Sternin in their book, Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems, share how the following 4 steps are important in moving towards the Positive Deviance process:

  1. Define the problem and desired outcome.
  2. Determine common practices.
  3. Discover uncommon but successful behaviors and strategies through inquiry and observation.
  4. Design an action learning initiative based on findings.

For which they also provide 4 characteristics of the Positive Deviance process:

  1. It is generative.
  2. It is based on strengths and assets.
  3. It is not expert driven. Community members provide culturally appropriate expertise.
  4. It is embedded in the social context of the community.

Ultimately, finding the positive deviants and bright spots in the system is both an unconventional and intentional act.  It requires moving past conventional wisdom of the day, past the external experts, and truly determining what is happening successfully (already) within the organization or system, why is it happening, how it is happening, and in what ways can we scale and spread it across our teams, our groups, the community, and eventually, the entire organizational ecosystem.

Or as Pascale and Sternin share, “Positive deviance?  An awkward, oxymoronic term.  The concept is simple: look for the outliers who succeed against all odds.”

 

 

Discovering Emergent Innovation In The Educational Ecosystem

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“Innovative organizations regularly change the ‘rules of engagement’ with ideas, isolate and define problems in new and unusual ways and look harder for plausible solutions.” -Emergent Innovation: A New Strategic Paradigm via The Journal of Strategic Leadership

What we often fail to realize is that innovation is already occurring across our organizational landscapes on an ongoing basis.  Whether or not we are open to recognizing it is a very different story.  Pockets of positive deviance exist, both individually and organizationally, providing new ideas and novel solutions to the problems that endlessly plague our organizational ecosystems.

Unfortunately, especially in times of change, we fail to allow space for the emergence of that innovation.  Most often, we lack the will or ability to engage those novel and new ideas and solutions in constructive ways that spread and scale at any level.

In most cases, we find organizations sporadically searching out external consultants and ideas, hoping to ride the promises of the quick wins and quick fixes that abound within the ecology of education.  Rather than taking the time to recognize the possibilities and bright spots that are already emerging within and across the organization.

And while we can see the success that these positive deviants are creating within the system, we avoid those novel and new solutions for the fear of the disruption,  disequilibrium, and instability that those ideas have power to create across the organizational landscape.  Or we look to find excuses to the “why” and “how” these bright spots are determining ways towards creating success within the system, with the same resources and support.  As they often say, it is difficult to be a prophet in your own land.

Especially, in the midst of the chaos and turbulence that erupts in times of great change, we spend little time in recognizing the innovative opportunities that are emerging.  Rather, we spend more time recoiling back from the volatility that ensues from these disruptive forces, insulating the organization in a facade of safety and stability, predicated on the comfort of static, status quo processes and structures.  We find ourselves resorting to reactive actions, rather than engaging in proactive feedback loops.

Rather, we spend minimal time and provide little to no space for the emergence of the novel and new.  Let alone the recognition of the positive deviance spread across the organizational landscape and how to effectively engage the learnings of those bright spots within the organizational ecosystem in an effort to scale up the innovation that is emerging and emanating from those bright spots.

To engage this emergence, Goldstein, Hazy and Lichtenstein share in their work, The Complexity and the Nexus of Leadership, four phases that “operate together to bring about adaptive emergence.”

Those four phases they include are Disequilibrium Conditions, Amplifying Actions, Recombinations, and Stabilizing Feedback.

Let’s take a quick look into each of these phases and how they support emergent innovation:

Disequilibrium Conditions: for emergent innovation to take hold, there must be a level of disequilibrium that is occurring within and across the organization.  It requires moving past “the use of models of stability” and “enforcing top-down structures” that protect and insulate organizations from the discomfort that change is creating, and recognizing the novel and new ideas and innovations that are emerging through this disequilibrium.  Too often, this disequilibrium is too uncomfortable to tolerate, pushing both individuals and the organization away from what is emerging and the implications of that emergence.  Organizations that are able to push through the discomfort, open themselves to what Goldstein, Hazy, and Lichtenstein refer to as “opportunity tension” which allows for leadership to “engage, plan, pursue and capitalize on the potential.”

Amplifying Actions: as Goldstein, Hazy, and Lichtenstein share, “As disequilibrium increases, most organizations will see an increase in stress and tension, as well as an increase in in experiments in novelty.”  Unfortunately, in the midst of this disequilibrium, leaders will look for ways to de-stress and stabilize the system, instead of increasing their innovative efforts to push forward into this change with more effective ideas and solutions.  Leadership will often look fervently to past practices to keep the organization locked in linear and predictable processes and structures that provide some sense of stability.  As Goldstein, Hazy, and Lichtenstein add, leadership needs to learn to “live with-and-even-embrace-the discomfort of disequilibrium, encouraging experiments and amplifying successes in whatever form they may come.”  Which is a reason that many organizations never reach a state of change, as they tend to recoil back in the face of the stress of this instability.  As the authors add, “As stress and intensity grows, the system approaches the possibility of a state of change.”

Recombinations: Goldstein, Hazy, and Lichtenstein share that, “Once a critical threshold is crossed, the system’s inertia has been overcome.  The organization now enters a period when it can be influenced by forces for emergent order.”  What is vital to this, is the understanding that individuals and the organization must push through the disequilibrium brought on by these change forces, rather than giving in to the discomfort and recoiling back to the safety and stability of what it has always known, what it has always done.  It is in this phase that individuals and the organization can be driven by the learning that accompanies ongoing experiments in novelty and determining how that learning can move the organization forward more effectively and relevantly.

Stabilizing Feedback: as Goldstein, Hazy, and Lichtenstein put forth, “Finally, new emergent order, if it is indeed creating value, will stabilize itself in order to retain this increased capacity.”  For which they add, “As this stabilizing process takes hold, the system finds the appropriate ways to position itself for overall sustainability in the ecology.”  It is at this point that change truly takes hold in the organization and moves from the novel to a new way of operating and working.  It is where the innovation diffuses across the organizational ecosystem.

Understanding these phases of emergent innovation better prepares our individuals and organizations to withstand the disequilibrium and instability that can often accompany the change of the new.  It provides a framework for pushing through the discomfort that is often at the core of embracing emergent innovation and the organizational change accompanies it.

“Emergent events are driven by an entrepreneurial opportunity that pushes the organization outside its normal ruts and into taking new directions.”

Very often…

“A state of disequilibrium or instability…led to an unexpected outcome, namely, the emergence of the unexpected.” -Goldstein, Hazy, Lichtenstein via The Complexity and the Nexus of Leadership: Leveraging Nonlinear Science to Create Ecologies of Innovation