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.”

 

 

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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

 

 

Awareness In A Time Exponential Shifts: Skills Remediation In The Face Of Automation And Artificial Intelligence

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“We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come – namely, technological unemployment.” -John Maynard Keynes (1930)

In a time in which we face an abundance of fake news, it is becoming increasingly more and more difficult to know who or what to believe anymore…

And yet, clarity, coherence and clear understanding is vital to making sure we move into the future in a more effective and relevant manner.

Especially in the face of the many changes coming at us as individuals, organizations, and even society as a whole.  In a world of growing dilemmas and adaptive challenges, we have to make sure we are not only asking, but getting the questions right, if we ever want our solutions to be effective and our answers relevant.

So let’s begin by asking ourselves one of the biggest questions that is being considered in regards to the future of work…

Are the robots coming?  Or not?  Are we on the verge of a dystopian future brought on by a robot and automation apocalypse?  Or is this just another industrial revolution that will just require a time of difficult adjustments as we reskill and upskill to the creation of new types of jobs and work?  Is it just like the industrial revolution of the past?  Or is it different?  Very different?

Or is it a bit of both…

Especially when no one seems to agree.  The economists are more inclined to the business as usual attitude and approach, while the technologists tend to land on a much more disruptive scenario that seems to catch people by surprise in the level and speed of change that is soon to be thrust upon us.

The one thing we do know, it is a concerning and hotly debated issue across all of society, as we begin to think about the future we are creating for ourselves and for our children.  And no matter what side you fall on in concerning the changes we will face in the future, the one thing we can say for sure, the future is going to be different, very different.

Either way, it is something we need to be much more cognizant of and considering when we think about the future of our students and the future of education…

As the World Economic Forum shares in Accelerating Workforce Reskilling for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, To make the most impactful investments, education ecosystem stakeholders need to better understand what skills are readily available within the adult population and where the greatest skill gaps exist.  This needs to be completed with information about which skills are in greatest demand in the labor market and how to provide the appropriate reskilling pathways toward new employment opportunities.”  

For which they add, “Growing awareness of technological changes associated with the Fourth Industrial Revolution creates a new window of opportunity for concerted action for investing in the skills and potential of the workforce of the future for all ages.  A new new deal for lifelong learning is needed globally to provide dynamic and inclusive lifelong learning systems, to resolve both the immediate challenge and to create sustainable models for the future.”

It is in our understanding and curating of our awareness of these societal shifts and technological disruptions that we can better see not only the signals that are driving us forward into this automated and artificially infused future…but determine which of those signals which will provide the greatest opportunity for meeting the future needs of our students, as well as creating ongoing and relevant change that helps education meet those needs head on, in a more efficient and effective manner.

Yet, unfortunately, the World Economic Forum adds, “Despite the growing need for adult reskilling, opportunities for broad-based and inclusive reskilling are currently not available at the appropriate levels of access, quality and scale of supply in most countries.”

To add insult to injury, “Progress has been made in the access to greater amounts of low-cost digital training across many countries; but a cohesive system which addresses the divers needs of learners, dedicates sufficient resources, and brings together the right stakeholders in providing applied learning opportunities is still lacking.”  

Or as the Guardian adds in What Jobs Will Be Around In 20 Years, “Jobs won’t entirely disappear; many will simply be redefined.  But people will likely lack the new skillsets required for new roles and be out of work anyway.”

What the world is telling us is that our structures and systems are not adequately prepared to provide the capacity our people need to sufficiently meet these coming changes and disruptive factors we are and will be facing, at an individual, organizational, and societal level.

Yet, even in the face of these adaptive challenges, many educators will profusely disagree that it is in the role of education and educators to prepare students for the world of work, and that the aim should be squarely focused on creating students who have a lifelong love for learning.  For which I would wholeheartedly agree, except in the fact that is no longer enough for success in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.

We live in a world where continuous learning and upskilling must go hand in hand…

We live in a world where content is no longer the king and there are no extra points for being the “best rememberer” anymore.  There can no longer be this divide between content and skills.  It is not an either/or proposition, rather, now it is very much an AND World.

Just as the coming of automation and artificial intelligence is creating a greater need for augmentation between humans and machines, education must begin to close the chasm that lies between content and skills.  Just as the world of work is now requiring more human and machine augmentation, education needs that same connection between the need for knowledge and the future ready skills and skillsets that allow for greater opportunity for success in the future.

Closing this divide will be vital, as getting students ready for automated future is going to be a very different proposition…

Inability to have a greater awareness of these shifts and what they mean for society and the future of work is effectively preparing students for a world of remediation beyond school.

As the World Economic Forum shares, “In the United States, 63% of workers have indicated having participated in job-related training in the past 12 months, yet employers are reporting the highest talent shortages since 2007.”  

Even with ongoing reskilling and upskilling, workers are finding that they remain in need of skills remediation to even begin to keep pace with the shifts that are changing our world at an exponential pace.

Today’s students are walking out into a world of work that is much different than the world that many of us grew up in.

A world that is shifting and changing at an accelerated and volatile rate.  A world that is seeing a constant diminishing of jobs due to the expansion of outsourcing, globalization, automation and artificial intelligence.  A world of work which now sees more and more people needing to find comfortability in taskification, freelancing and the gig economy, which has become the preferred-choice for both a primary and supplementary income for over 113 million people (via McKinsey Global Institute).

Much of our past notions of the process how work looks in society is being wiped off of the societal map…

A world in which people will now have to be much more adaptive as they will most likely work 11+ jobs in their lifetime.  A world of work in which the average life span of Fortune 500 companies has dropped from 75 years to 15 years or less.  Leading us to seeing the need for our students to be more agile and adaptable as they will be required to move more and more, from job to job, in the face of these changes.

A world of work in which we are now able to more precisely predict the chance, as well as the percentage of a job being possibly being automated in the future, allowing us to better provide considerations and rationale towards future choices of employment and pathways to pursue.  For instance, according to The Future of Employment, the chance of automation stands at the following percentage for the following jobs; 99% for telemarketer to 89% for a taxi driver, just to name a few.

It is also a time when ideas like Universal Basic Income are being actively explored by countries and companies as a possible and foreseeable safety net for a world digitally disrupted by automation, artificial intelligence, taskification, and the gig economy.

As Stanford University academic Jerry Kaplan writes in Humans Need Not Apply, “Today, automation is blind to the color of your collar.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re a factory worker, a financial advisor, or a professional flute-player: automation is coming for you.”

And yet, our unwillingness or inability to become much more aware of these shifts, what these shifts may require of our students in the future, and the creation of the necessary pathways to provide them the skills to be more career and future ready, not only diminishes their window of opportunities for success in this new and changing world, but assures them that they will walk out into this world already in need of skills remediation..

More, now than ever before, we need to seek out those skills that make us both marketable and uniquely human, such as the 4Cs (creativity, collaboration, communication, critical-thinking), as well as empathy, compassion, and emotional intelligence.

Once again, it is an AND World.  A world in which education needs to be considerate of the closing of the chasm between the need for both “hard” and “soft” skills.

Seeking out those future skills and skillsets, such as those provide by the Institute for the Future, the Singularity Hub, or even MITs Top Five Desirable Future Work Skills, for example:

  • Judgment and Decision Making
  • Fluency of Ideas
  • Active Learning
  • Learning Strategies
  • Originality

As well as including entrepreneurial skills, design and systems thinking, and leadership skillsets, will in the end, not only support our students more effectively through their educational career, it will also help them to be more career ready for an unforeseeable and very non-obvious future that they are soon too face.

The more we search out those skills that serve and support our students to move into the future more effectively, the greater emphasis we place on expanding our awareness of what our students will need for a very non-obvious future, the better prepared we will be to see how those skills can and should be infused into today’s  classroom to better prepare students for tomorrows world.

“The changing nature of work will bring to the fore a societal debate about the role of people in the workplace and what it means to be career-ready.  Reflecting this debate, the K-12 sector will no longer push students toward post-secondary options that might not adequately prepare them for the new world of work.  Instead, education at all levels will prepare learners continually to reskill and upskill and to know how to partner constructively with machines.” -via KnowledgeWorks Redesigning Readiness

 

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.

 

 

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