Creating Space For Emergent Innovation

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“Adaptive space is the network and organizational context that allows people, ideas, information, and resources to flow across the organization and spur successful emergent innovation.  It is not a physical space but instead is any environment — that creates an opportunity for ideas generated in entrepreneurial pockets of an organization to flow into its operational system.”  -Arena, Cross, Sims, Uhl-Bien via MITSloan Management Review How to Catalyze Innovation in your Organization

We often talk about the work of innovation being determined in the mindset, while approaching it in a much more physical than cognitive manner.  From strategic war rooms, to innovation and fab labs, incubators, accelerators, makerspaces, learning commons, as well as open, collaborative and co-working spaces.  And while these environments enhance our creative and innovative thinking, we still have to understand that the creation of the physical environment, without the deepening of the mindset, does little to invoke and initiate new thinking, new ideas, new systems and new actions that lead to the emergence of the truly novel and new for our individuals and organizations.

Or as Arena, Cross, Sims and Uhl-Bien share, “Emergent innovation occurs when entrepreneurial individuals within an organization incubate and advance new ideas for addressing needs and dynamically changing conditions.”

Which is our imperative as the work of professionals and the progress of our profession, to not only engage in and amplify what is considered as “best” practices, but to also create new knowledge, new ideas and new thinking that leads to our engagement of the “next” practices that lead us forward into the future.

It is in the informal, formal and intentional creation of these adaptive spaces that we provide the room for these new ideas and thinking to take form, to percolate and incubate in and across our teams and organizations.  In much the same way that Kotter’s work in Accelerate initiates the idea of a Dual-Operating System to create a parallel space and room for innovation to be engaged and infused into more static and hierarchical organizations and systems.

Or as Kotter shares, “Revolutionary innovation comes about when information from a variety a places that normally don’t collide do collide and a light bulb goes off.”  It is within this parallel space of hierarchy and innovation that an organization can determine the “Big Opportunity” that stands before them.

Or as Arena, Cross, Sims and Uhl-Bien put forth, “Adaptive space within organizations is fluid and can shift based on need.  Companies create adaptive space through environments that open up information flows and enrich idea discovery, development, and amplification.”

The creation of this adaptive space allows for an environment where new thinking and ideas have room to germinate, percolate and incubate.  But it does not stop there, for the diffusion and spread of these new and novel ideas requires diffusion of this creativity and innovation across and even beyond the organization.  For which necessitates these adaptive spaces serving as hubs and networks for continuous idea flows and idea pipelines, as well as the arena for intentional idea collision and remixes.  It is through these hubs and internal and external networks that the transmission and circulation of this innovative thinking and ideas are organizationally initiated and continuously diffused.  Allowing for greater awareness, promotion and availability for individual and organizational adoption.

Arena, Cross, Sims and Uhl-Bien add, “Adaptive space is needed to connect these divided channels and allow ideas to advance from the entrepreneurial (informal) to the operational (formal) system. Such adaptive space allows for networked interactions to foster the creation of ideas, innovation, and learning.”

It is within these spaces and the cross-pollinating of ideas across these networks that innovation begins to infuse itself into the normal organizational operating system and or systems.    Or as the Harvard Business Review shares in regards to Kotter’s idea of the Dual-Operating System“The new operating system continually assesses the business, the industry, and the organization, and reacts with greater agility, speed, and creativity than the existing one.  It complements rather than overburdens the traditional hierarchy, thus freeing the latter to do what it’s optimized to do.  It actually makes enterprises easier to run and accelerates strategic change.  This is not an “either or” idea. It’s “both and.” I’m proposing two systems that operate in concert.”

It is in creation of this adaptive space and systems that room for “AND” to not only occur, but to provide the organizational agility and nimbleness to move and capitalize on the innovative thinking and ideas that are growing and emerging in these parallel environments.  Today’s effective and healthy organizations are not only intentional in their design of these cognitive, as well as physical spaces, but allow room for what emerges within these spaces and processes to germinate, incubate, thrive and expand throughout these informal and formal networks so that innovation can actually diffuse effectively across the organizational landscape.

Building awareness of these spaces, these dual-operating systems and networks allows us to create a better vantage point to determine what’s emerging internally and external of the organization to better prepare the organization in the present for the future.

Without these spaces and room for new thinking and ideas, very few organizations truly tap into the full capability of their people, leaving much of their adaptive capacity and ability to continuously improve both individually and organizationally unrealized.

So, the challenge remains in how to increase organizational learning through these spaces or parallel systems and networks in ways that increase the idea pipeline and flows, both internally and externally for not only greater innovative capacity, but the ability to diffuse and cascade that mindset at all levels of the organization for a better future.

“The value of networks and adaptive space is that they enable influential people to tell stories about an innovation they are championing in ways that echo across the network. As these stories spread, others are attracted to engage, and the network of those engaged begins to include critical stakeholders, therefore enhancing the likelihood of organizational support for the innovation.”  -Arena, Cross, Sims, Uhl-Bien via MITSloan Management Review How to Catalyze Innovation in your Organization


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


Click the link below for access to the ebook:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not the world that we used to live in…

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

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

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

And yet, they remain on the network…

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

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

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



Our Creativity Bias

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“As important as creativity has been in our species’ recent centuries, it is the cornerstone for our next steps.  From our daily activities to our schools to our companies, we are all riding arm-in-arm into a future that compels a constant remodeling of the world.”  -via The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World by Eagleman and Brandt

And yet…

Research and studies inform us that we have a inherent bias against creativity, especially in leadership roles.  As Heidi Grant Halvorson shares in her 99u article, The Bias Against Creative Leaders…

“Our idea of a prototypical creative person is completely at odds with our idea of a prototypical effective leader.”

While David Burkus follows up in his article from The Creativity Post, Why Do We Keep Creative People Out Of Leadership Roles? of evidence published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology by researchers Mueller, Goncalo and Kamdar that when they analyzed their findings on creativity and leadership…

“They found a negative correlation between creativity and leadership potential.  The employees were assuming that those with more creative ideas were less prepared to be leaders.”

However, the bias against creativity did not stop with leaders and leadership roles.  We actually harbor individual bias’ against creativity itself.  In a follow-up study led by Mueller it was found that “Participants said they desired creative ideas, but subconsciously rejected creativity.”  

For which Burkus adds…

“Perhaps the explanation for both studies is our preference for order and the status quo.  For an idea to be creative, it must be novel and useful.  For a leader to be creative, their ideas and methods must be novel and useful.  but if an idea is novel, it departs from the status quo or established order.  That same order is often used for evaluating whether the idea is useful.”

We know that our brains crave certainty.  And in the same way, even though we purport to be in favor of creativity, deep down, we still cling to order and the status quo.

As Eagleman and Brandt share in The Runaway Species

“This mandate for innovation is not reflected in our school systems. Creativity is a driver of youthful discovery and expression – but it becomes stifled in deference to proficiencies that are more easily measured and tested.  This sidelining of creative learning may reflect larger societal trends.  Teachers typically prefer the well-behaved student to the creative one, who is often perceived as rocking the boat.  A recent poll found that most Americans want children to have respect for elders over independence, good manners over curiosity, and would prefer them to be well behaved rather than creative.”

Which may be one of the reasons that our organizations deal much better with ideas of reform and incremental change, over disruptive, transformational and even exponential shifts.  Even though we love to hear the stories of the latter, we cling to the former.

If creativity is as important as we believe it to be for the future success of our individuals, organizations, and even society, as stated in the opening quote by Eagleman and Brandt, yet we inherently hold onto bias’ against creativity and creative leaders, then we will most assuredly continue to struggle to effectively move towards any type of deep transformation of our organizations and systems that move us beyond incremental changes that run in line with the current order of things.

And should not be surprised that we continue to march forward in a predictable, linear, status quo fashion.

“If we want a bright future for our children, we need to recalibrate our priorities.  At the speed the world is changing, the old playbooks for living and working will inevitably be supplanted – and we need to prepare our children to author the new ones.”  -via The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World

At The Intersection Of Adaptive Leadership, Design And Systems Thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adaptive Leadership: observation, interpretation, intervention.

Design Thinking: empathy, definition, ideation, prototyping

Systems Thinking: interconnections, linkages, interactions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Future Thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References and quotes from…

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

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

That World Doesn’t Exist Anymore…

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“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 technologies and about organizational capabilities. That’s going to be very challenging.”  -Salim Ismail Exponential Organizations

Working one job until retirement…

(According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average time in a single job is 4.2 years and individuals born in the latter years of the baby boom (1957-1964) held an average of 11.9 jobs from age 18-50.)

The lifespan of Fortune 500 companies…

(According to BBC News, the average lifespan of a company in the S&P 500 index has decreased by more than 50 years in the last century, from 67 years in the 1920’s to just 15 years today, according to Richard Foster from Yale University.  He also estimates that by 2020, more than three-quarters of the S&P 500 will be companies we have not heard of yet.)

Big organizations are responsible for the main creation of new jobs…

(A recent study by Harvard and Princeton economists showed that 94% of net job growth from 2005 to 2015 was in ‘alternative work,’ defined as independent contractors and freelancers.)

The skills that got you here, will keep you here…

(A World Economic Forum report found that 63% of workers in the U.S. say they’ve participated in job related training in the past 12 months, yet employers are reporting the highest talent shortages since 2007. On average, by 2020, more than a third of the desired core skill sets of most occupations will be comprised of skills that are not yet considered crucial to the job today, according to the respondents.)

Phone Booths…

(According to Google, the number of mobile phone users in the world is expected to pass the 5 billion mark by 2019. In 2014, nearly 60% of the population worldwide already owned a mobile phone.)

According to The Telegraph and Business Insider here are few more things that technology have made obsolete in today’s world…

  • Printing out photographs
  • Getting film developed
  • Movie rental stores and VCR’s
  • Record stores, buying CD’s
  • Fax machines
  • Backing up your data on floppies or CD’s
  • Long-distance charges
  • Phone books, dictionaries, encyclopedias
  • Checking a map before or during a car journey
  • Dial-up Internet
  • VHS Tapes

Not to consider the jobs that no longer exist due to technology and the current level of digital disruption.  The jobs and the percentage of work that we continually hear about as being on the verge of being replaced by automation, robots and artificial intelligence in the near future.

As an example, Fast Company shares these 10 jobs that will likely be replaced by robots…

  1. Insurance Underwriters and Claims Representatives
  2. Bank Tellers and Representatives
  3. Financial Analysts
  4. Construction Workers
  5. Inventory Managers and Stockists
  6. Farmers
  7. Taxi Drivers
  8. Manufacturing Workers
  9. Journalists
  10. Movie Stars

For which, Martin Ford shares, “The impact that accelerating progress has on the job market and overall economy is poised to defy much of conventional wisdom.”

Of which Ford adds, “Technology is not just advancing gradually: it is accelerating.  As a result, the impact may come long before we expect it…”

Preparing for this automated, augmented, artificially intelligence infused future is difficult to imagine, let alone prepare effectively for, both as individuals and organizations.  So the objective then becomes, not to try and predict the future (which is impossible), but to try and forecast and determine those signals for the future that are arising from the chaos of the present.  It is in understanding…

Preparing our students for an automated future, is a much different proposition.

For which I will leave you with this excerpt from The Economist (Economist Intelligence Unit-EIU) report sponsored by Google, Driving the Skills Agenda: Preparing Students for the Future, “It is also a safe bet that most Americans will need to acquire new knowledge and skills over their work lives in order to earn a good living in a changing work world.  In this context, the nation’s challenge is to sharply increase the fraction of American children with the foundational skills needed to develop job-relevant knowledge and to learn efficiently over a lifetime.”

For what we are learning and realizing more and more, is that the world we grew up in, the world that we so easily recognized, may no longer exist anymore…

It is in realizing what changes, AND in what stays the same, that we can more effectively support our individuals and organizations in moving more successfully into this new and unknown future.

And also realizing that human aspirations such as love, compassion, caring, understanding, resilience, empathy, imagination, inventiveness, creativity, emotional intelligence and awareness tend to continually stand the test of time.

Or as Faisal Hoque and Drake Baer share in Everything Connects, “We have to assume that everything we think is right today will be wrong tomorrow.”