Novelty: Moving Past Creative Complacency

“Surprisingly, novelty is even more important than stability. In a study conducted with a group of three hundred new employees, I found that the more frequently they experienced novelty in their work in the weeks that followed, the more they felt satisfied with and energized by their jobs, and the longer they were interested in staying with the organization. Stability, by contrast, did not seem to bring these benefits. When employees reported that their job felt “more or less the same every day,” their satisfaction suffered, and they were more eager to move on.” -Francesca Gino via Rebel Talent: Why It Pays To Break The Rules At Work And In Life

What is really interesting, when considering the outcomes of this study, especially in regard to leadership, is that most leaders are focused on the exact opposite of creating environments where novelty is frequently experienced. Instead, seeing the necessity towards focusing on providing greater stability and efficiency serves as a key to their managing role, particularly in the context of current times and the pervasive chaos and unknowns that have entered our organizational ecosystems.

But, before we go any farther with this conversation, let’s give a bit of space here to making sure that we have a good grasp on what novelty actually is, especially if it is as important as the study relays for increasing both engagement and retention, and ultimately, how that then can feed into greater creativity and innovation through an openness to experience and self-expansion.

Beginning with Google’s definition of novelty as being “the quality of being new, original, or unusual.” Or as Francesca Gino shares in Rebel Talent, “Novelty compels both humans and animals to engage with the unfamiliar.” But goes on to add, “And yet, while we are born with a strong drive to seek novelty, this drive fades over time. As we grow older, other desires take over, like wanting more predictability. The organizations we build and join reflect this reality.” So, so far, we are finding concepts connected to novelty such as the new, the original, unusual, and unfamiliar.

The farther we dig into novelty, the more that we see that it is a core component of creativity, and ultimately innovation. Or as Schweizer adds in The Psychology of Novelty-Seeking, Creativity and Innovation, creativity is “a concept which comprises two processes: novelty finding and novelty producing.” As Francesca Gino adds in Rebel Talent, “Novelty increases our job satisfaction, our creativity, and our overall performance.” As Gino advances, “Part of the explanation is that, in our brains, novelty and pleasure are deeply entwined.”

Which means, that unfortunately, when leaders are not making the novel and new more familiar to their work and organizational environments, it becomes something that feels uncomfortable and is often to be avoided. When leaders remain focused on efficiency, stability, and the known, we ultimately allow our individuals, as well as our organizations, to fall into ruts of familiarity, allowing routine, familiar habits, and comfort to take over.

Which may very well be why many adults struggle with creativity and seeing themselves as creative.

If we are more honest towards the reality of our organizational environments, from education to government, to business and industry, we could honestly say that we have often failed to create consistent spaces where the novel and new promotes the engagement to move us past creative complacency. Thereby, and often, entrenching our organizations in the status quo by failing to consistently incorporate the unusual and unfamiliar to spark more creative and innovative thinking and doing. And not just in failing to spark that creativity and innovation, but losing both an individual and organizational anticipation for what is to happen next. Without anticipation for what comes next, disengagement quickly follows, and creativity is diminished. Without that spark of anticipation for the future and what is to come next, we find our organizational environments entrenched in familiar routines and set habits grinding into rote ruts of stability that ultimately lead to individual disengagement and organizational stasis. Meaning, that without any opportunity on the cognitive horizon for the novelty that disrupts processes of sameness, both individuals and the organization settle in to the status quo.

Which beckons the question, why is this important if our organizations are working fine?

The questions is, are they? Are our organizations operating effectively, efficiently and just fine? Whereas, in fact, most research and studies show that many if not most of our organizations are struggling with engagement, retention, creativity, and innovation. For example, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) shared that, “According to a 2017 Gallup poll, three out of ten employees strongly agreed that their opinions don’t count at work.” For which CCL adds that the rise of remote work combined with the COVID pandemic has only done more to worsen the problem that had already existed. Furthermore, it is not just engaging and valuing opinions that is struggling through remote work and our current context, as Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft shared in a conversation with Adam Grant, “An internal analysis of Microsoft showed that when 60,000 people had to shift to remote during the pandemic, their networks got more siloed and static, and decades of research have shown that is bad for creativity and innovation, as you end up with redundant knowledge rather than fresh perspectives.” Another example that novelty and creativity are an organizational struggle. However, it does not end there, as a 2020 Gallup poll shares, “Currently, 36% of U.S. employees are engaged in their work and workplace. The percentage of actively disengaged employees is up slightly in the U.S., from 14% in 2020 to 15% through June 2021.” Disengagement is on the rise, organizationally. And it doesn’t end with engagement and retention, as Inc. magazine shares in Research Suggests We’re All Getting Less Creative and Scientists Think They Know Why, “A researcher at the University of William and Mary found that creativity scores began nosediving in 1990. She concluded that we’re now facing a creativity crisis.”

A creativity crisis that we can ill-afford to ignore or avoid…

The research and studies show that we are struggling, especially in the current context and times, in creating environments that spawn more openness to experience and self-expansion in an effort to not only increase engagement, but to move us out of our creative complacency. To create spaces and environments that expand our cognitive boundaries and lead us into novel opportunities that can instigate and amplify creative and innovative thinking and risk taking. As Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire share in Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, “The drive for exploration, in its many forms, may be the single most important factor predicting creative achievement.” Which takes leaders willing to intentionally create spaces and organizational environments where exploration, experimentation, and discovery learning can not only occur, but are encouraged, even when the outcome may lead to a failure. For, what we often forget is that is where the greatest opportunities for learning are garnered, both individually and organizationally.

Unfortunately, ideas of exploration, experimentation, discovery learning, and risk taking are seldom aligned to environments focused on stability. But that is the very place where creativity is spurred forward. But too often, those concepts come face to face with leaders and organizations focused on building steady environments of stability and equilibrium, focused on exploitation of the known over exploration of the unknown. And far too often, we are more than willing to feed this need for efficiency, sameness and rote routines and process. It is easier, more comfortable, and less messy. But in the end, do little more than to create cognitive ruts that play themselves out in organizational habits and processes that ingrain creative complacency.

However, while these opportunities towards openness to experience and self-expansion opens us up to more novelty, creativity, and innovation, it does not occur without intentionality. People have to feel safe to willingly disrupt creative complacency and ignite pockets of innovative thinking and doing. However, this does not happen without infusing our organizational environments with higher levels of psychological safety. It is difficult enough to lean in to self-expansion and an openness to experience in safe spaces, but it is exponentially harder in environments where fear and judgment are pervasive. Which makes trust and psychological safety that much more important to creating these creative and engaging environments. Or as Organizational Behavioral Scientist Amy Edmondson of Harvard shares when providing a definition of psychological safety as, “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”

And without that shared belief, status quo prevails.

To further promote novelty and creative environments through an openness to experience and self-expansion, Psychology Today puts forth three practices in How Openness to Experience Boosts Creativity and Well-Being to “Jumpstart” Creativity that can be considered as starting points:

Nudge the Edge of your Comfort Zone: Too often, when we avoid having an openness to experience and the new, we never find ourselves leaving our own comfort zone. We have to be willing to determine what our cognitive boundaries are and also then be willing to step over and past those boundaries. For it is in those spaces of the unfamiliar, unusual and unknown that we learn to allow ourselves to explore and experiment. Which move us into discovery learning that ultimately expands those boundaries and pushes us past stability and where we feel comfortable, and into new growth and learning.

Prototype over Perfection: Too often we wait and wait and wait for perfection to come, which it never does. So we wait until it is too late. We wait until action is now no longer a viable option. Rather, sometimes we have to put our thinking and ideas out on the table and let them find their own legs. In psychologically safe environments, we can be open with our thinking and ideas and allow for positive conflict to drive that thinking and those ideas to become even better, more creative and innovative.

Follow your Curiosities, Not your Passions: Curiosity is a catalyst, and a curious mindset provokes us to continually evolve through ongoing learning that leads to new knowledge, new thinking, new ideas, bending us to new possibilities. Curiosity takes us to places where passion doesn’t. It is curiosity that provokes us to move beyond our cognitive borders and dig deep into self-expansion, igniting our creative spirit. 

In the end, it falls to leadership to intentionally create the spaces and environments that not only allow for the ongoing introduction of the new and novel, and with that, invokes not only deeper individual and organizational engagement, but stokes greater levels of creativity and innovation.

Which often begins with the questions that leaders are willing to consider, ask and explore:

How do we determine to create spaces and environments infused with novelty, that allow for openness of experience and self-expansion that lead to more creativity and innovation?

Have we lost the anticipation for what is to happen next? If so, how do we actively reengage this?

Have we created environments that are creatively complacent? If so, how do we utilize openness to experience and self-expansion to engage the creativity to move us out of our cognitive ruts and status quo ways?

How do we create psychologically safe spaces where self-expansion and openness to experience can flourish, overcoming both fear and judgment?

In closing, when leaders introduce the novel and new, it pushes individuals and the organization out of their cognitive ruts, to not only invoke greater creativity and innovation, but a deeper anticipation for the future.

“Openness to experience – the drive for cognitive exploration of one’s inner and outer worlds – is the single strongest and most consistent personality trait that predicts creative achievement.” -Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire via Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind

Considering The “Default” Future

“You have a chance to reinvent the default, to make it better. Or we can maintain the status quo. Which way will you contribute?” -Seth Godin

  • How often do you consider the future that you are facing?
  • How often do you take time to question that future?
  • Do you consider the future from a singular or plural lens?
  • How often do you take time to imagine new futures?

The future is an interesting consideration, in that it is the future. It is not something that we can know, predict or count on. Rather, it is both uncertain and unknown, constantly evolving, emerging, and changing. But even in the midst of that ambiguity, without consideration, curiosity, imagination, we become much more accepting of the future as an unmanageable inevitability, rather than something we can have influence upon and design towards for even greater impact. If not careful, how we approach the future can do more to entrench us in the status quo than evoke new possibilities.

In other words, the future can become an accepted default…

And it is that default that we need to become much more aware of, both as leaders and as organizations, if we are going to effectively move towards the consideration of more preferable and possible futures. To add to the idea of the default, WhatIs.com shares, “In computer technology, a default is a predesigned value or setting that is used by a computer program when a value or setting is not specified by the program user.” For which the definition continues, “To the program requestor, to default is to intentionally or accidentally allow the reestablished value or setting for an item to be used by the program. Default pertains to something that is used when something else is not supplied or specified.”

More than we realize, that very same technology “default” definition can just as easily be applied to how leaders and organizations can often view and approach the future. Those “established value or settings” can very easily become the “default” specifications for how accepting we can become towards a preordained future. Unless we are intentionally taking a long-view, unless we are taking time and space to imagine new and more preferable and possible futures, and then proactively doing something each and every day that moves us towards achieving those visions for the future, we often find that we are living into that “default” future, both individually and organizationally.

Or as Jeff Hittner shares in What You Ought To Know About The Default Future You’re Heading For, “Your default future is what is likely to happen if nothing unexpected comes along. It lives at the level of your intuition, rather than at that place where you daydream about what’s to come, so it is rarely discussed or analyzed.” For which he adds, “The default future is one you have already written, without even realizing it. It’s the track you’re on, the automated treadmill that continues unless something drastically changes.”

When leaders and organizations become aware of how easily the “default” future takes over, it comes with the realization that those very settings and values that move us into the “default” need to be disrupted, through an act of creation or imagination. Or as Logan and Saffron share in The Three Laws of Performance, “The act of creating a new future displaces whatever default future was already there.” But that necessitates leaders building in the spaces and environments where that thinking and work can have room incubate, percolate, and develop. Where new narratives and visions can come to life. It requires asking, as Logan and Saffron share, “Does your default future have any space in it to create something new, or is all filled up? Rewriting your future alters how situations occur in the present. Doing so requires that we fully create a blank space and then make declarations into that space.”

Once awareness of the “default” is achieved, it will be in our willingness to question that future, that individuals and organizations can begin to disrupt the status quo and the “default” that we are often unconsciously moving towards. We can no longer readily accept the “default” future, if we are going to create new narratives and visions for the future, if we are going to create a better way forward.

We will have to be willing to disrupt the “default” future, if we are going to create new futures…

Or as Adam Grant shares in the Originals, “The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists.” More preferable and possible futures often arise out of the curiosity to explore whether “a better option exists.” Just know, disrupting the “default” and the status quo is not as easy as it seems. It is often met with deep levels of resistance. Or, as we all know, being original is very often closely aligned with with a willingness to serve as an outlier.

However, it is only when we are willing to disrupt and discover beyond the “default” that new futures are able to be considered and imagined.

“Learning and innovation go hand and hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow.” -William Pollard

Moving Into “Futures”

“Futures shape our perception. When we perceive through too few kinds of futures – such as goal-oriented project visions or probabilistic projections – we tend to pay closest attention to the phenomena and transformation occurring in our world that fit with those futures. However, when we stretch ourselves to look through several different kinds of futures generated for different purposes, we can see more aspects, pathways, and potentials of transformation, and opportunities for experimentation.” -Riel Miller via Demystifying Futures Literacy, A Key Skill For Climate Innovation by Nicolas A. Balcom Raleigh

When you think of the future, what do you think of? When we think of the future, why do we consider it in singular, rather than plural terms? Rather, why does it often seem that we’ve come to some forgone conclusion that there is this one “official” future that exists and we are all moving towards it?

While we may consider that there are many offshoots, there also seems to be this forgone conclusion that there is this one “official” future we are all striving towards, and we all seem to be on the same train. We tend to think of what we are all moving towards as “THE” future.

However, when we really begin to consider how we think about the “future” in this singular manner, we begin to see how limited the scope of that vision truly is. We begin to realize that this lens towards the future is loaded with our own internal premises, assumptions, speculations, perceptions, and visions of what that “official” future is going to be, without much consideration or question of what others think about that future.

In many ways, what thinking we do about the future, tends to be and stay an internal process.

And while it seems as if our organizations and leaders are ceaselessly creating new visions and vision statements for that future, it still, and may always feel a bit nebulous and uncertain. However, at the same time, for some unknown reason, it also tends to feel a bit known. Maybe that is because we expect the future to be just like the past. And maybe that is because, as Schacter and Madore share, “Recent studies have shown that imagining or simulating future events relies on many of the same cognitive and neural processes as remember past events.” Or episodic memory. For which they add, “Future simulations are built on retrieved details of specific past experiences that are recombined into novel events.”

Which means that many of our thoughts and ideas for the future are often retrieved from the past.

In many ways, by how we approach the future, it feels as if we expect it to be an ongoing iterative loop of upgrading the past, towards some idea of a “better” future. We tend to approach the future much like an iPhone; the basic function and feel of the phone remains similar or the same, while at the same time the phone itself and its iOS are receiving ongoing upgrades and improvements.

But how often do we question this assumption of an “official” future? How often do we turn a critical eye towards how we accept that one “official” future we are apparently destined for? How often do we open ourselves up to a wider array of possibilities for the future? How often do move our thinking from one future to the consideration of a variety of futures? Of realizing that there is no one “official” future and that a plethora of futures are emerging all of the time.

When, as leaders and organizations, we engage a diversity of voices in considering “THE” future, we realize that “future” is not, and cannot be sufficient, for the considerations and narratives that emerge from those conversations. Too be sufficient, future must become futures, if we are to realize the full potential of the possibilities that exist. It necessitates that our individuals, leaders, and organizations begin to become much more acquainted with and aware of being “futures” literate.

Especially if we are going to create a future that is much more inclusive, equitable, and hopefully, much more preferable.

And just like building up other forms of literacy, building up our “futures” literacy abilities will require engaging in processes and scenarios that allow the organizational community to consider a much wider variety of futures, from the probable to the improbable, if new possibilities are to be pondered, contemplated, and examined.

Which, as was touched upon previously, in regards to episodic memory, will necessitate deep reflection upon and consideration of how the past constantly influences the future and how our mental models and maps may need updating and reconfiguring moving forward. Or as Nicolas Balcom Raleigh shares in Demystifying Futures Literacy, “In parallel, developing an interest in exploring less comfortable kinds of futures such as strange futures, improbable futures, and radically transformative futures is helpful to developing futures literacy. These more unusual forms of futures help us move beyond preparation and planning purposes for suturing to also engage change, creativity, and novelty.” For which he adds, “Futures literacy is a capability about expanding how we engage with our models of the future. It invites us to use different conceptions and ideas about the future as lenses for interpreting, understanding, and seeing anew our world and ourselves in it.”

Which is an incredibly important and salient point in how we approach futures literacy and becoming futures literate. Futures literacy is a capability and/or competency. It is something that we acquire and build up when we spend time with and in it. It is a literacy, and like any other literacy, requires time and effort to build up that futures literacy muscle. And it is also in understanding that is needed more now than ever in the midst of our complex and often volatile times to better prepare us for the non-obvious futures that are emerging and coming at us, in an often accelerated and unexpected manner.

Which is why it is essential for us and our organizations to lean more into using and building up those futures literacy muscles in our people, our leadership, and our organizations if we are to gain greater capacity in using this literacy to better prepare us for anticipating and using the future for better outcomes. As Balcom Raleigh shares in Demystifying Futures Literacy:

Futures literacy calls for:

  • Paying attention / being conscious when we use futures;
  • Being reflective about the futures we use (our ideas, images, conceptions, and sentiments about the future);
  • Being able to switch between different types of futures (e.g., probable, desirable, strange, transformative, etc.) for different purposes (e.g., preparation/planning or making sense of emergence);
  • Most importantly, it involves looking at our changing world through these many futures – for future and for emergence – and spotting opportunities to try something you didn’t realize you could try before.

When we raise our awareness towards the understanding that we are no longer marching towards one “official” future and, in fact, a variety of futures are constantly emerging around us in expected and very unexpected ways, we become much more open to searching out the diversity of thinking about those futures that exist in our organizations. Bringing that diversity of thinking to the table allows us all to become much more aware to that variety and new possibilities of futures that could and should be considered in preparing our organizations for the future. By building up our individual and organizational futures literacy capabilities, we can begin to lean into those voices and explore the possibilities it will bring forth.

“This plural form, futures, carries in it the idea that at any given point in time there is potential for many different futures and people today have a role to play in creating which one ultimately materializes.” -Nicolas Balcom Raleigh via Demystifying Futures Literacy, A Key Skill for Climate Innovation

Will We Need To Rethink Better?

“If organizations continue to reference paradigms and social stories from the past during a time of rapid change they fail to grasp what really matters to the society that is emerging.” -Helen Halford via “Build Back Better” – Used Futures as the Cornerstone for the New Normal

In many ways, today’s leaders are having to create a new vocabulary, new understandings, and come to new realizations to not only comprehend how the world is changing, how quickly those changes are coming, but also in realizing that what worked in the past no longer necessarily works or is even relevant as a lens and frame for how those changes have shifted our systems, our organizations, and our world as a whole.

What we are learning is that the past is no longer serves as a sufficient guide, model or map to effectively lead us into the future that we see evolving and emerging…

And yet, the question then becomes, are we ready to determine a new narrative? Are we able to create a new story? Can we make the mind-shift as leaders and organizations to move from pushing incremental reform in order to quell the current wave of growing uncertainties, to holding space for the thinking and ideas needed to provide exponential visions of change that can move an organization towards transformation?

Which will require leaders and organizations to begin to distance themselves from the idea of “Building back better” towards shifting to the thinking that allows us to consider how we can “Build back different.”

As Helen Halford shares in Build Back Better, “In a context of significant disruption, an organization’s failure to use strategies for deepening before making decisions about the future can lead to reactive behaviors and a missed opportunity for lasting change.” For which she adds, “Adherence to the story of building back better instead of creating from the future makes long-term social transformation unlikely. With well-meaning intent organizations unconsciously revitalizing an old story could respond to the litany of crisis by building back familiarity and stability…creating a recognizable version of the past.” As she continues, “As we go about creating a new, equitable, diverse and resilient society we must ensure we have untethered ourselves from status quo.”

Which is not an easy proposition, be that for leaders or organizations…

As returning to status quo, especially in the midst of a crisis, such as a pandemic, promises feelings of comfort, of progress, of returning back to some semblance of “normalcy” of what existed before everything became much more complex and uncertain, both professionally and personally. But what we often fail to realize, the assumption that we continue to make, is that if we return back to how is was before (pre-pandemic), that these heightened levels of complexity and uncertainty will fade away and “normalcy” will return.

Unfortunately, complexity and uncertainty aren’t going anywhere, and what the status quo and “Building back better” instead of “Building back different” only promises leaders and organizations a future that has already been “used” up, one that is no longer relevant, viable, or in the current context, even preferable for the future that the organization is moving towards.

Think of it like this…

“Building back better” is comparable to remodeling an old house (reform), whereas, “Building back different” is comparable to deconstructing that house in order to construct a whole new building (transform). Which is a whole different level of thinking, requiring new models and maps.

As Maree Conway shares in Thinking Beyond the Status Quo to Deal with Strategic Uncertainty, “When we plan for the future, however, there is an often unspoken assumption underpinning thinking that the future will be an extension of the present as that type of status quo provides a level of certainty that humans crave. Thinking beyond the status quo is essential if organizations are to develop strategy that truly prepares us for the future that our strategic decisions today create.”

Which will require leaders and organizations to not only be strategic in their thinking about the future, but also the assumptions that are being made about that future, how those futures are being anticipated, and how those assumptions and anticipation will have effect on the decisions being made in the current context, in the present.

Part of this strategic thinking will require a deep reflection of how the past, the models and maps that have been constructed over time by both leaders and the organization, can and does influence that thinking, and can constrain and control how the future is framed, limiting opportunities for being open to what is emerging and what affect that emergence may have moving forward towards determining if deeper levels of learning, change and even transformation will be needed and necessary.

Which makes strategic thinking and reflection a vital part of the process towards “Building back different” for both leaders and organizations.

As Conway puts forth in Thinking Beyond the Status Quo to Deal with Strategic Uncertainty, “Strategy is about the future, not today, so the thinking that underpins strategy development needs to be futures focused, not stalled in the status quo of today. Because the future is highly uncertain and cannot be predicted or known to a degree where data can be produced, the human proclivity for certainty means the value of thinking about the future is dismissed, and the focus of strategic thinking remains on the status quo.”

If we are going to be able to move from reforming to transforming, to move from “Building back better” to “Building back different,” we will have to become much more aware. Aware of how much of what we consider for the future, of the ideas that are informing that future, are often projections pushed forward from the models and maps that have been constructed from both the past and the present.

Most organizations are very adept at utilizing the past to guide present efforts, but struggle to engage the organization in deep and expansive thinking towards not only the future, but futures. Reflecting upon and updating our mental models and maps allows leaders and organizations to ensure that their expectations for the future are not grounded and entrenched models and maps erected from thinking grounded in the past. Or as is shared in Foresight for Challenging Environments, “The imagined future was only possible once the reality of the past extended had been acknowledged. A new present could be created.”

Awareness and reflection allows leaders and the organization to determine the disconnects between the past, present and the future, especially towards what is emerging, both internally and external of the organization. Being strategic, allows leaders and the organization to hold space for the openness to determine how that emergence will have impact, both in the present and future, and what that means in transitioning towards towards those futures.

“Learning based on the past suffices when the past is a good guide for the future. But it leaves us blind to profound shifts when whole new forces shaping change arise.” -Senge, Scharmer, Jaworski, and Flowers via Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future

Anticipating The Future: Imagination And The Long View

“One of the things nearing extinction is the art of longing. As in wanting something you cannon immediately have. If anything positive is to come from the situation the world finds itself in, it is my great hope that speed, instant gratification, and over stimulation are swapped out for longing, imagination and relational connection. For a child or teenager to sit thoughtfully and ponder what is to come, to hope for or envision something amazing, to dream of a place or a future.” -Brian Transeau via A Stitch in Time? Realizing the Value of Futures and Foresight

In today’s world, education and educators are going to need to do a much better and more proficient job of articulating a future that students can begin to envision and anticipate…

Take a minute and let that settle in and percolate.

We live in a world where that has become increasingly important to achieve and even more difficult to provide. We’ve entered a time when the rising tides of ambiguity and uncertainty have made the “future” a much more opaque and unknown proposition. Much like a broken down and ‘out of order’ escalator, our linear and known processes and structures of the past and present are no longer working efficiently, effectively, or find themselves to be viable for the future that is currently moving towards us, often in a turbulent and volatile manner

Which is adds to the importance of what UNESCO shares from their work on Futures Literacy. “Without images of the future that inspire hope and foster collaboration there is a high risk of despair and war.” For which UNESCO continues, “The malaise of poverty-of-the-imagination must be overcome.” Poverty of the imagination. A concept or lack thereof that we are going to need to consider deeply moving forward if our individuals and organizations are going to be able to bring their full selves and thinking to the process of creating more inclusive and better futures.

UNESCO proposes that, “Democratizing the origins of people’s images of the future opens up new horizons in much the same way that establishing universal reading and writing changes human societies. This is an example of what can be called a ‘change in the conditions of change.’ A potent transformation in what people are able to know, imagine and do.”

Unfortunately, in many ways we have replaced our proactive sense of curiosity, wonder, imagination, and amazement with world that is now inundated with a passive acceptance of instant gratification based in Google searches, personalized algorithms, artificial intelligence, in an on-demand environment. We have to come to realization on how we begin to close the imagination gap that keeps us from the realization of more inclusive and better futures and leaves us mired in outdated mental models and maps. Or as futurist Peter Scoblic shares, “One of the conclusions that I’ve come to in my research is that imagination is a woefully undervalued strategic resource; and what organizations can benefit from tremendously is the institutionalization of imagination.”

In many ways, not only is it getting more and more difficult to envision the future, it is getting harder and harder to anticipate it…

It is no longer enough, as individuals and organizations, to just ask what we want to be? Anticipation requires of us that we have to be willing to ask of ourselves and our organizations where we want to go? We have to be willing to release from the short-termism in thinking that pervades the majority of our current contexts’ in order that our individuals and organizations can begin to proactively engage a long view for the future.

As Laszlo Zsolnai puts forth, “Decision-makers who strongly discount things in space and time are interested neither in the solution of long range ecological and human problems, nor in the global impacts of their activities on the natural environment and human communities. Discounting the future impacts of present generations is ethically indefensible because it renders extremely low weight to the interest of future generations.” In other words, an unwillingness to proactively consider the future and how the decisions and actions of our current circumstances has weight and bearing upon that future, is effectively showing an unwillingness to consider our future generations and the world that they will be inhabiting from us and what kind of world we have chosen to make for them. We cannot and must not release our responsibility in the present for creating a better future for those that will come after us.

We cannot choose to defer that future to our future generations…

And yet, we cannot choose to fully define that future for next generations through linear thinking, considerations of certainty, and singular narratives. Rather, we are going to have to be willing to open ourselves and our organizations to the emergence of a variety of futures and a diversity of narratives as we consider taking a long view towards the future.

Or as RSA shares in their paper A Stitch in Time? “A crucial challenge to strategic foresight relates to the idea of legitimate futures. It asks the questions whose future is it? and who has the power to decide about that future?”

It is not enough that we are engaging a long-view for the future, but a long-view that is more inclusive. Or as RSA adds, “By centering goals in our formulations of the future, we are “colonizing the future with today’s idea of tomorrow.” We see organizational vision or mission statements setting our this future in today’s corporate language, but it can only ever be shaped by today’s context and thinking. It is this challenge that anticipating emergence seeks to address. To make sense of, and engage with, emerging complexity we need a different mindset and approach.”

And as Roman Krznaric describes in RSA’s A Stitch in Time? “We have colonized the future. We treat the future like a distant colonial outpost devoid of people, where we can freely dump ecological degradation, technological risk and nuclear waste, and which we can plunder as we please. The tragedy is that the unborn generations of tomorrow can do nothing about this colonialist pillaging of their future.”

Creating more inclusive futures will not only necessitate a diversity of voices and narratives, but engaging the voices and narratives of those that have been long marginalized and often remain at the edges of these considerations and conversations. If the goal is to create better futures, it will not be founded in a command and control stance. For the goal is to create, not conquer the future that our future generations will inhabit. For it is position of creation, not a control and a conquering attitude and stance, that will then allow for emergence, and openness and acceptance of that emergence, in the forming and considerations of those futures.

Or as RSA puts forth, regarding emergence, “If we anticipate emergence, we seek instead to make sense of, and change, the present. We remain open to the emergence inherent in complex systems and, rather than trying to control them, work with them to make sense of the present. As a result, we do not try to structure the future because we are no longer constrained by probability and desirability.”

There is no one future, rather there are futures. Futures that are constantly evolving and emerging. Futures that are often difficult to see, making it even more difficult to anticipate. However, no matter how non-obvious the future is that we are marching towards, we have to create the narratives that not only take a long view towards those futures, but engage an environment that allows both individuals and our organizations to take a more anticipatory stance towards those futures.

“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.” -Noam Chomsky

Becoming Futures Literate: Updating Mental Models, Maps And The Cognitive De-Colonizing Of The Future

“The question is not how to cope with a universe that seems to be getting more complex, but how to improve our ability to take advantage of the novel emergence that has surrounded us.” -Riel Miller via Futures Literacy: Embracing Complexity and Using the Future

It is difficult to deny the amount of complexity that has risen and been levied down across society and our systems over the last year. This was not a disruption, it is much deeper than that. In many ways, it was a widespread societal shift that affected everyone, both personally and professionally. It not only changed how we look at the present, it cast a long shadow on how we would visualize and approach the future.

We went from preparing for, to being thrust into the midst of VUCA.

Or environments that had become more volatile, more uncertain, more complex and much more ambiguous. And yet, it wasn’t just the vast VUCAness of the last year, but the disequilibrium of the unknowns and veiled future that the last year brought with it. An all encompassing disequilibrium that spread virally across all areas of our lives, which will continue to linger and ultimately have long-lasting effect on the future for all of us. For it is far easier to talk about finding the opportunities that exist in the midst of the disequilibrium created from crisis and chaos, than it is to actually discover and engage it positively and productively. Meaning that, especially as the arc of a crisis extends, both individuals and organizations slowly turn away from the tipping points of transformation and the unknowns that accompany it and begin to look furtively for a return to the safety of what was, of what felt comfortable, of what was known.

But no matter how we try, what we now find is that the mental models and maps that have accompanied and taken us up to this point, are seemingly no longer effective to take us forward effectively on the next leg of this journey, of our next steps into the future. When we really take the time to reflect, we find that those very same models and maps are grounded in a past perspective that is no longer viable or even useful to move us forward through the futures that we see emerging. Much like our technology and their operating systems, our mental models and maps require updates to remain relevant and effective.

It will remain difficult to parallel pace the accelerating rate of change using cognitive operating systems that have become outdated, or even obsolete.

The more we are willing to update our operating systems, and those models and maps that are often entrenched in the past, the more prepared we become to “use the future” to better prepare our individuals and organizations in the present. Too often, we do more to “accept” than we do to “use” the future. The narratives and design of the future that we are engaging in within the present, will ultimately have bearing on whether we become “accepting” of what we’ve determined to be probable or plausible futures, or if we will determine to “use” the future in ways that move us towards working for more preferable and possible futures.

Futures that our students will one day inherent…

Which will necessitate that we become much more aware and literate in and of how we determine to “use” the future, if we are going to then create futures that are more inclusive and inviting of multiple narratives and considerations of the futures that we want for our future generations. Which will require a diversity of voices, a diversity of thinking, a diversity of lenses, and a diversity of input, ideas, and visions of and for those futures.

Rethinking and reframing of how we approach our processes will be needed and necessary…

As Jim Dator shares in De-Colonizing the Future, “The crucial difference, then, between a better-or at least livable-future and one of catastrophe and chaos seems to be the ability of people to make appropriate decisions in sufficient time. We need people who are motivated, informed, sensitive, to the values and perceptions of others, and within political structures which facilitate relevant action.” For which Dator puts forth as part of the Futures Project, which was, “(1) To alert people to “the future” as an area of necessary and proper concern to themselves; and (2) To encourage people to gain greater control over their future by providing them with: ideas and metaphors; information; access to information; channels of communication; opportunities to unlock their imagination and creativity concerning desirable and feasible futures; and political structures which facilitate their realizing their desired futures.”

Which is incredibly important, for if we are to begin to look at de-colonizing the future, we have to be much more open to the diversity that was previously discussed and much more open to hearing and engaging multiple truths and perspectives towards the future. When voices are limited, so is our imagination and openness towards the future. Which ultimately limits our ability and willingness to gain a greater awareness of what is emerging, be that internally or externally of us individually, as well as our organizations and our systems.

When imagination is limited, so are our visions towards these futures.

As the Futures Centre shares, Decolonizing the Future would include some of the following considerations:

  • Challenging cultural definitions of time and “the future”
  • Challenging our mental models and unlearning cultural norms that benefit a hierarchical worldview
  • Accepting that we don’t have all of the answers
  • Redefining who is an expert and defining expertise in a more inclusive way
  • Creating spaces for marginalized and underrepresented people and voices
  • That this is an ongoing journey that requires both learning and unlearning, as well as acknowledging the roles we play and privilege we bring in our exploration of futures

In many ways, beyond what has already been shared, we have to engage in what Riel Miller puts forth in Futures Literacy: Embracing Complexity and Using the Future, which is the idea of engaging in “rigorous imagination.” As Miller adds, “The challenge is to find practical ways to use the future as part of the process of discovering and creating the present.” It is in this space, a space open to discovery and creation, that we can begin to consider not only better futures, futures that are more possible and preferable, but that we find ourselves and our organizations becoming better prepared through (foresight) to make the decisions in the present that support intentional design towards those more preferable and possible futures. It is in this space that we begin to become more futures literate, emerging both as a skill-set and as an action-orientation.

“The danger is that formal, preconceived sources of inspiration, intended to enable discovery, are all too often exactly what snuffs it out. By insisting and imposing the patterns, words, and ideas of the past on the present, the new and not-yet-meaningful cannot be invented and brought into our sense-making processes. Exploration is not about the paths not taken – which are only the possibilities of the past brought to life by the present. Instead, it is about futures unimagined and hence a present that does not yet make sense.” -Riel Miller via Futures Literacy: Embracing Complexity and Using the Future.

Strategic Foresight: Anticipating And Preparing For Emerging Futures

“But our paradigms are changing, it has not gone unnoticed. Some people call it a Fourth Industrial Revolution, there are other names for it, but we appear to be in a transformative moment. Where are we prepared for this? Where are we not prepared? What do we need to develop? Who do we need to network with?”-Dr. Amy Zulman Strategic Foresight and Shifting Paradigms via The Convergence

The consideration of a variety and diversity of emerging futures, in many ways, has not and continues to not be a mindset that we currently embrace. We tend to be locked in to the linear, very often to an antiquated map that keeps us marching towards one, often ill-contemplated future. We have a difficult time disrupting that internal model. We tend to perceive the future as something that happens to us, that comes at us haphazardly, rather than approaching it as what we do in the present, the design of the decisions we make now, will having utmost bearing and shape on how those futures eventually evolve and unfold.

Which will require us to replace short-sighted perspectives in favor of embracing the long view…that we may disengage “event” thinking towards accepting the endless journey of “continuous” learning.

It will require a greater sense of awareness, anticipation, and imagination, as well as deeper levels of foresight if we are to effectively begin to equip ourselves with the vision, learning, understandings, and capacities to strategically design our way forward. For, it is with that awareness, anticipation and imagination that we are able to become more introspective and reflective of moving past linear thinking and incrementalism, to being able to consider a diversity of futures emerging. Thereby allowing ourselves the willingness to initiate a variety of scenarios, from probable to possible, that allow us and our organizations to better prepare for what will emerge from a context that is continually contending with growing levels of ambiguity, uncertainty, and the need for constant and ongoing adaptation.

Which means that strategic foresight can no longer appropriately serve us well as “event” planning, but must integrate itself into our organizational thinking and processes. Especially as the deep work within our organizations continues tip the scales from the complicated toward the complex.

As Dr. Zulman shares in the opening quote, it will require many more questions from us and our organizations, and not just veneer questions. But the willingness to ponder, engage and wrestle with deep and difficult questions, without defaulting to the quickest or easiest answer(s). We are in a time when we must willingly lean into our most challenging spaces with an openness to learn and grow. We can no longer use ambiguity and uncertainty of outcomes as an excuse to default to the safety of the known. Rather, we must determine how to allow ourselves as individuals and organizations the space for discovery and experimental learning to drive us through the ambiguity and uncertainty that is littered across those spaces, if we are to move towards better outcomes, towards better futures.

Foresight, when used strategically, prepares us to loosen our etched in mental models and maps that entrench us in linear perceptions of how the world works and how we believe it will continue to work. We have to be willing and open to the provocations that the current levels of ambiguity and uncertainty are asking of us to tolerate, both as individuals and organizations, if we are to begin to navigate these dynamic environments in a much more meaningful, effective and relevant manner. Which will require us to let go of the past, to let go of overlaying those outdated models and maps of how we see the world upon the present, thereby distorting and often hiding new possibilities of what can and will emerge in those future spaces.

  • We have to let go of the idea of one future, to recognize emerging possibilities.
  • We have to let go of the idea of certainty, to recognize the need for clarity.
  • We have to let go of the idea of the future happening to us, toward a willingness to anticipate and design our way forward.
  • We have to let go of models and maps that keep us entrenched in the past, for updates that open up new possibilities for the future.

We can no longer think in incremental ways, in a world of exponential change.

We have to be much more open to scanning the horizon to determine what the future is trying to tell us, of how it is looking to inform the present. But it is also in understanding that foresight is not about predicting the future. This is not crystal ball work. Rather, it is about rigorously studying and searching out both the weak and strong signals and determining what those signals are telling us? How those signals can support us in making better decisions in the present?

As Joern Buehring shares in Foresight and Design: New Support for Decision Making“Strategic foresight is about scanning the environment for new events and drivers of change, and then applying appropriate techniques to anticipate the evolution of change, their consequences on the organization, and the responses, or decisions, most suitable in dealing with uncertainty.”

Foresight will not only open us up to those signals, it will require us to reframe, reset and create new maps and models for the future that is unfolding before us.

As we are seeing, when our mental models our grounded in a historical context of the work we do, of the services and support we provide, and when that context is confronted by the disruptive changes we are facing in the present, we find ourselves and our organizations moving from complicated territory and into deep complexity. From which, we can either choose to hide ourselves in those models and maps of the past, or determine ourselves and our organizations too much needed updates for an exponentially changing world. But sometimes, we choose to close the curtains to these changes, pretending that they don’t exist. Choosing to hide in the familiarity of the past, over the growing uncertainty of the future.

However, Dr. Zulman shares in Strategic Foresight and Shifting Paradigms a historical perspective about the military that is very important to all of our organizations moving forward, and especially education. Dr. Zulman asks this question of the military, “What is the proportion of war-fighting that the military has done as compared to the amount of disaster-relief and other work it has done in the past year?” For which Dr. Zulman adds, the point of the question is that the discourse and the narrative of what the military has historically done, what has been their purpose from the beginning, has that in some ways changed? Is that actually what the military is actually doing most of the time now?

Which means, that if the primary activity of what an organization has historically done is actually changing, does the organization itself realize that change? Do the individuals in the organization realize that change? Or does it push forward unrealized and unrecognized of this shift?

Which is incredibly important for education in this moment, is taking stock of where we are, what we provide, and recognize or realize if we are in the midst of a paradigm-shift? Or better yet, has that paradigm-shift already occurred and we have not recognized how our work has and will continue to change?

Which are questions that educational organizations and educators are going to need to ask of themselves moving forward, if we are to effectively remain relevant as organizations and institutions in support of our students and stakeholders. We are going to have to determine if we are in the midst of or have already undergone a paradigm-shift, and strategically speaking, if so, how can engaging foresight then allow us to determine what the signals of this paradigm-shift is it relaying to us from the future, that we may better prepare our students, parents, stakeholders, educators, educational leaders, and educational organizations for this non-obvious and exponentially changing future we are heading towards?

“The future, rather, is as yet unformed. It is open to our creative imagination, to our ability to innovate and to design new things, not only open to technological innovations but also to the invention of new human character, new ways of life, new social arrangements, and even new cultural values.”  J. Rudkin via Designing Foresight and Foresighting Design: Opportunities for Learning and Collaboration via Scenarios

Cultivating Awareness

“The key is how will you become aware?” -Otto Scharmer via Theory U: Learning from the Future as it Emerges

Awareness is a multi-faceted word or term. It can be defined as “knowledge or perception of a situation or fact” or “concern about and well-informed interest in a particular situation or development.” However, there are a variety of awareness’ as well, from self-awareness to social awareness, all of which are incredibly important. There is also the issue of raising or creating awareness, of creating a state of knowing, which is especially imperative in our current context and for the speed of which our teams, organizations, systems, society and world continue to shift and change.

While we understand the importance of deepening our individual, organizational and collective awareness, especially as leaders, we still hear things like “you just don’t know what you don’t know?” Which in many respects is very true and difficult. But in other ways, it can often feel as if some leaders are choosing the safety of not knowing, of the “you just don’t know what you don’t know,” mantra as a way of avoiding awareness, of utilizing ambiguity and uncertainty as a shield to ward off the heavy lift of what knowing and awareness can ultimately require of our leadership and our organizations.

But how do we become aware? What does it require of us to become aware?

As Francisco Varela and Otto Scharmer add, “Can this core process be cultivated as an ability?” And by core process, this idea of making awareness an ability. 

Of which Varela and Scharmer share are what Varela refers to as the “three gestures of becoming aware: suspension, redirection, and letting-go.” What Varela refers to as the core process,” which “is the basic ability through which each individual can actually access his or her experience.” A space where awareness is accessed and cultivated.

Varela shares in The Three Gestures of Becoming Aware that this cycle of suspension, of redirection and of letting-go reside at the “at the very core of what life is all about, as life is constantly in this process of reaccomodation.” However, what Varela and Scharmer want or look to add to this cyclical life process is the aim of “taking the core of this life and making it more explicit so that you can cultivate it and explore it in a more disciplined way.” To turn it into a disciplined process and cycle of creating awareness.

Let’s take a deeper look at the parts of this core cycle, of the three gestures of awareness, as they can be seen as growing increasingly important to our current context and in moving forward through greater levels of uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity:

  • SuspendingAs Scharmer would say, is “seeing with new eyes.” As he adds in Theory U is being able to “suspend judgments in order to see the objective reality” of what is being faced. It becomes about suspending habitual thought and judgment, which Depraz and Varela share in The Three Gestures of Awareness as a “basic precondition for any possibility of change…” Which is and can be incredibly difficult for leaders in a world that has accelerated the pace of change, a world that demands continuous outcomes, while multi-tasking a multitude of new and growing initiatives. In many ways, we have to create spaces for leaders where the very idea of suspension can be facilitated and accepted. As introspection is often not a space that leaders have time to become familiar with, especially in today’s change world. And for that reason, that lack of familiarity can breed contempt towards or uncomfortableness with the process of suspension and the feeling of slowing down that it may invoke.
  • Redirecting – As Varela and Scharmer add, “redirection is a gesture.” It is within that gesture that, “suspension creates a space, the new comes up, and then you can redirect.” As Scharmer adds in Theory U, redirection is where you can “let go of the old and start to connect with higher order intentions.” As Scharmer puts forth regarding redirection is that it “is about redirecting your attention from the exterior to the interior by turning the attention toward the source of the mental process…” As Varela and Scharmer share, we are paying attention in this gesture to what is emerging, to the new, and we are suspending judgment, and we redirecting that attention that is usually going outward toward the new, to that object, and turning it inward. It is here that Scharmer contributes from Theory U that “you help them redirect their attention from the object tot he process in order to help them view the system from a perspective that allows them to see how their own actions contribute to the problem at hand. It is at that point when people begin to see how they collectively create a pattern that at first seemed to be caused by purely exterior forces.” Without the suspension gesture, of becoming comfortable in that space of introspection, redirection does not occur. Which is why all 3 gestures of this core cycle are important and interconnected and ongoing.
  • Letting-GoIt is at the point of letting go that Scharmer adds that by “changing the quality of our attention by letting-go of old identities and intentions and allowing something new to come in, some emerging future identity and purpose.” As Varela and Scharmer put forth, “but the letting-go here is crucial, because it’s only when you don’t hold on to the redirection that you can again go back to suspension.” It is in letting go that Depraz and Varela invoke that idea of “receptivity to the experience.” It is in this cycle that we become more open to awareness and what is emerging.

All three of these gestures are part of an ongoing core cycle of becoming aware, and as Depraz and Varela share in The Gesture of Awareness, it becomes about the two inseparable aspects of abandoning the habitual and being able to become receptive. It is in these gestures; suspension, redirection, and letting go that Depraz and Varela describe that we are working with “two reversals of the most habitual cognitive functioning: a turning of the direction of attention from exterior to interior, and; a change in the quality of attention, which passes from the looking-for to the letting-come.”

Or as Scharmer shares, “each one of these gestures needs to cultivated.” It is in these gestures we begin to better cultivate awareness.

Complicated To Complex

“Complicated systems are highly predictable; complex systems are the complete opposite. Understanding the distinction between the two is necessary for organizations because, to date, they have mostly viewed the world as complicated and, therefore, something they can control. What is increasingly evident is that the world is, in fact, complex and unpredictable and we must accept and adapt to this to succeed.” -via Shoremount

Or as Uhl-Bien, Marion and McKelvey share, “We are transitioning from an industrial paradigm based on Newtonian principles of certainty to a new paradigm based on knowledge creation and uncertainty.” So the question then becomes, especially in the midst of the acceleration and the expansive emergence of deep levels of uncertainty across all levels of society, have today’s organizational and institutional leaders come to grips with understanding this deeply important shift?

For, what we have seen over recent times is the increasing rise of the dilemma, a dropping off of technical problems towards more and more adaptive challenges across our organizational and institutional ecosystems. Especially as these systems become much more interdependent and interconnected, both internally and externally.

A move from the complicated to the complex…

As this complexity increases within our systems, often it is often accompanied by more and more volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA). Often what we see in these dynamic environments, is a dynamic emergence and increase of VUCAness across these systems, especially when ideas and platitudes of certainty begin to wane and clarity and coherence are seen to be lacking.

As Jan Bartscht shares in 21st Century Leadership and the Way of the Successfully System, “A world made up of many interconnected, and interdependent, complex adaptive systems is a complex, uncertain and volatile world. Complexity, uncertainty and volatility are necessary consequences of a world dominated by complex, adaptive systems.” A world where the complicated has given over to the complex, a world where certainty has been taken over by uncertainty, a world where the unknowns have begun to outweigh the knowns. As the article What is the Difference Between a Complex and a Complicated System? shares, “For 300 years, the normalized worldview has seen the universe through the complicated lens. Rooted in the work of Newton and Descartes, this is the mindset of rational thought and deterministic relationships. But the world is not complicated; it is complex. Moreover, the pace of technological change and proliferation of information that we now experience is increasing the complexity of our global environment at a rate unique to human history.”

For it is not just clarity and coherence that seem to be lacking in the midst of the current context of heightened complexity, it’s realizing that the same thinking, the same processes, and the same behaviors and actions that led to viable solutions for the technical problems we previously faced, will be no match for the rash of adaptive challenges and dilemmas that we are beginning to encounter.

In many ways, today’s leaders will have to move from deftly providing solutions and certainty, to dealing with dilemmas that have no “right” answer, while managing the plethora of tensions that accompany those challenges. Which necessitates acclimating quickly to a new way of thinking and leading, toward a deep mindset shift that might possibly be at odds with the current organizational and institutional thinking of the time. As Rick Nason shares in the MITSMR article The Critical Difference Between Complex and Complicated, “When facing a problem, managers tend to automatically default to complicated thinking. Instead, they should be consciously managing complexity.” Which is and will be a difficult mindshift for today’s organizational and institutional leaders to undertake, especially as many have made their mark dealing in solutions and certainty. This will not only require high levels of individual and organizational learning, it will also necessitate the ability unlearn and relearn anew from both.

It is in realizing that complexity also requires a sense of adaptability, of being able to move away from the polarity of (either/or) thinking, to engage in (and) thinking. To not only seeing the system that you are working in, but being able to effectively manage the tension between the polarities and growing number of dilemmas and adaptive challenges that are erupting across our societal systems, without snapping back into the comfort of solutionitis and (either/or) thinking.

However, before this kind of thinking and change can occur, we have to become more familiar with our systems and the traits of ‘complicated’ vs a ‘complex’ system or paradigms. As seen below, Bartscht provides from 21st Century Leadership and the Way of the Successfully System a quick glance to the characteristics of  ‘complicated’ (Traditional Newtonian) and ‘complex’ (Emerging modern ‘complex systems’) paradigms:

Traditional Newtonian Paradigm 

  • Systems are complicated
  • Causation is linear, certain and predictable
  • Situations are stable equilibrium
  • Problems are understood and solved using reductionism
  • Performance is ensured by optimizing predictable linear processes
  • Communication and control flows through formal hierarchies

Emerging Modern ‘Complex Systems’ Paradigm

  • Systems are complex
  • Causation is non-linear, uncertain and unpredictable
  • Situations are volatile, dynamic and emergent
  • Problems are understood and dissolved by a ‘systems approach’
  • Performance is ensured by organizing harmonious alignment in non-linear interdependent feedback loops
  • Communication and control flow across large, interconnected networks

When leaders are able to recognize and determine whether they are working in a ‘complicated’ or a ‘complex’ system or paradigm, allows them to shift their mindset, to effectively determine if they’re working at solutions for technical problems, or working toward effectively managing dilemmas and adaptive challenges being faced by the organization or institution. Seeing this shift that will be incredibly important to today’s modern leaders, as recognizing the environment that they are working is vital to future relevance. Especially for a world that is changing in some very dynamic ways that are having great effect on our organizational and institutional systems. It is these deep changes and the uncertainty and complexity that accompanies them that is quickly challenging and unraveling the assumptions for which leaders have previously based their approach to leadership. As the thinking of  Plowman and Duchon is shared in Bartscht’s 21st Century Leadership and the Way of the Successfully System, “Conventional notions of management and leadership are based on an assumption of certainty: the world is knowable, systems are predictable, and effective leaders can rely on formulaic approaches to planning, control, and organizational problems.”

Assumptions of certainty that no longer exist…

It is in this realization, we see that conventional, Newtonian ways of thinking and leading, in many ways, are struggling to hold on to a sense of relevance and effectiveness as the complicated has become the complex. However, it is also in realizing that this is not a mindshift that is readily accepted or easily embraced. Leaders are often pulled kicking and screaming into these uncertain and complex environments believing that certainty and predictability will ultimately prevail, even has command and control strategies and hierarchical structures dissipate into irrelevance and ineffectiveness.

As Bartscht brings forth from Uhl-Bien, Marion and McKelvey, “The fundamental contradiction between the belief in a certain world and the reality of an uncertain world lies at the heart of the modern day leadership crisis.” And yet, even in the midst of the current context and crisis, remains a leadership crisis that fights vehemently, even in the face of its own relevance, against its deconstruction. For, in the same way our mind thrives on certainty, order and predictability, so do much of our approaches to leadership.

Ultimately, we will need to engage new and non-obvious thinking and strategies for building new understandings toward this exponentially changing world and the complexity that is emerging from it. As Bartscht shares from Gleick, Uhl-Bien, Marion and McKelvey, “The Newtonian paradigm cannot make-sense of complexity, chaos and volatility, the two paradigms are fundamentally incompatible.”

In many ways we exist at a crossroads, where something must eventually give…

A junction where the complicated and complex have come face to face, a crossroads where they come head to head in a world that is in the midst of its own massive upheaval that is spilling out in broad swaths of uncertainty that are spilling out across our societal, organizational, and institutional ecosystems. Understanding this dynamic will be vital for the future of leadership and building more effective systems across our organizations and institutions. As well as realizing how our organizations and institutions have truly become complex adaptive systems, and what has worked before, what has worked effectively in the past, may very well will not work in the future.

“For organizations to succeed in the 21st century, they will need the lens of complexity to embrace unpredictability: they must stop trying to build engines and start playing chess.” -via Shoremount

Paradigm Shifts: Seeing Systems Leverage Points

“Let’s face it, the universe is messy. It is nonlinear, turbulent, and chaotic. It is dynamic. It spends its time in transient behavior on its way to somewhere else, not in mathematically neat equilibria. It self-organizes and evolves. it creates diversity, not uniformity. That’s what makes the world interesting, that’s what makes it beautiful, and that’s what makes it work.” -Donella Meadows Thinking in Systems: A Primer

No matter how hard we try to put our systems in a neat and tidy box, they always seem to spill out. Like a bad dam on a downhill stream, the water will find a new path, a new way around. Often in ways that we can’t predict or plan for, which we are learning firsthand and constantly in our current context. As Donella Meadows shares above, “the universe is messy, it is nonlinear, turbulent, and chaotic.” So, no matter how many constraints, controls, or parameters we put upon those systems to keep them neat and orderly, their complexity and nonlinear behaviors have a tendency to continually ooze out, surprising us, while upending our assurances, assumptions and predictions. Or as Donella Meadows reminds us, “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.”

The Stanford Social Innovation Review adds in their article Changing Systems? Welcome to the Slow Movement that, “System work is not about solutions; it’s about discovering and steering local pathways for change at a pace appropriate for our ability to learn and for what local communities can enact and absorb.” Much like that ineffective dam trying stop the flow of the downhill stream, we have to approach our systems with a new lens, reframing towards new perspectives. Moving from a sense of control, to one of flows. Seeing our systems as fluid and dynamic, rather than stagnant and stationary. We have to move our lens from the dam, and a focus on control, too seeing beyond the flow, and determining how to create the conditions to guide that flow. Especially under the circumstances and context that we currently find ourselves amidst and the possible paradigm shifts we face. The organizations that will remain relevant in moving forward are shifting their mindset to be more adaptive and agile, to moving from a sense of control to supporting flows. For which Margaret Wheatley adds, “The stream has an impressive ability to adapt, to change the configurations, to let the power shift, to create new structures.” 

The stream will find a way…

Or as Wheatley puts forth, “Water answers to gravity, to downhill, to the call of the ocean. The forms change, but the mission remains clear. Streams have more than one response…” Which means that today’s systems leaders need to determine how they are going to guide that stream? How they are going to determine the leverage points to guide and improve our systems, even in the midst of the complexity and chaos that we are currently facing? As Meadows shares, “A small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.” Which means that we have to become much more aware of what shifts, of what leverage points, can best guide our systems in moving forward, as we determine the possible futures we are determining to create.

Donella Meadows refers to these as “leverage points” or places to intervene in a complex system. Meadows, in her article Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System shares twelve places to intervene in a system, which she provides in increasing order of effectiveness:

12. Constants, parameters, numbers.

11. The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows.

10. The structure of material stocks and flows.

9. The lengths of delays, relative to the rate of system change.

8. The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against.

7. The gain around driving positive feedback loops.

6. The structure of information flows.

5. The rules of the system.

4. The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure.

3. The goals of the system.

2. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system – its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters – arises.

1. The power to transcend paradigms.

In education, as we begin to look deeper into our systems, especially as we consider such frameworks as continuous improvement, it behooves us to take a deeper view of at least a few of these “leverage points” and how they might be used not only for systems improvement, but in helping our systems become more agile and adaptable to a world that is shifting in some rather dynamic and exponential ways. Let’s review a few and begin to work our way up the “leverage” scale…

6. The Structure of Information Flows: we live in a time where networks are not only beneficial for information flow, they are beneficial for idea flows, and connecting our individuals and organizations both internally and externally. Which brings us into the work of Douglas Engelbart and the ABC model for continuous improvement through networks, of: Level A which “represents the knowledge acquired by front-line workers as they engage in their practice”; Level B which is when “learning occurs across individuals within a workplace”; and Level C which is when learning occurs “across institutions.” Unfortunately, most improvement models work only on the  A and B dimension level and struggle to move into the C level. For which Alex Pentland adds from his book Social Physics, “It seems that the key to harvesting ideas that lead to great decisions is to learn from the successes and failures of others and to make sure that the opportunities for this sort of social learning are sufficiently diverse.”

5. The Rules of the System: as Meadows shares, “As we try to imagine restructured rules and what our behavior would be under them, we come to understand the power of rules. They are high leverage points. Power over the rules is real power.” Which is why that the idea of transformation is much easier than the real reckoning of what it takes to bring about any type of authentic transformation. Which gets to the overcoming of the formidable statement of “this is how we do things here.” It is also part of why the transformation rhetoric that occurred at the beginning of the pandemic has slowly arc’d back slowly over time towards more status quo thinking.

4. The Power to Add, Change, Evolve, or Self-Organize System Structure: as Meadows shares, “The ability to self-organize is the strongest form of system resilience. A system that can evolve can survive almost any change, by changing itself.” All of which are an incredible heavy lift and struggle for educational institutions that have relied less on nonlinearity, adaptability, agility, and emergence, and much more on linearity, predictability, and certainty for the last hundred years. While this is a high-leverage point for system resilience, it is high-effort lift and will remain in the high-effort quadrant for some time as education looks to transform itself in the coming years.

3. The Goals of the System: as Meadows shares, “Even people within systems don’t often recognize what whole-system goal they are serving.” And unfortunately, too often in education we believe that the moral purpose of education is enough for everyone to be clear about the systems goals that are determined to drive the organization forward, and it is not enough. Goals need to be articulated, they need to have meaning, they need to be continuously repeated, and they need to be worth standing up for, if they are to create any type of “leverage point” for the system.

2. The Mindset or Paradigm Out of Which the System – its Goals, Structure, Rules, Delays, Parameters – Arises: as Meadows puts forth, “Paradigms are the the sources of systems. From them, from shared social agreements about the nature of reality, comes systems goals and information flows, feedbacks, stocks, flows, and everything else about systems.” Meadows also shares that “paradigms are harder to change than anything else about a system.” Which we are currently experiencing. A crisis does not necessarily equate into a paradigm shift, and the longer the arc of that crisis, the harder it becomes over time to make any type of consequential shift. What we often fail to realize is the deep resiliency of individual and organizational status quo and how deeply it is truly entrenched in most systems.

1. The Power to Transcend Paradigms: Meadows puts forth that, “There is yet one leverage point that is even higher than changing a paradigm. That is to keep oneself unattached in the arena of paradigms, to stay flexible, to realize that NO paradigm is true, that everyone, including the one that shapes your own worldview, is a tremendously limited understanding of an immense and amazing universe that is far beyond human comprehension.” Too often, and not just in education, we find ourselves tied to one paradigm, one framework, be that individually or organizationally. We are systems thinkers. We are design thinkers. We find ourselves in “vs” mindsets over “and” thinking. We tend to isolate rather than braid our thinking to begin to take us beyond the current thinking towards better strategies, concepts, frameworks, and even paradigms. Today’s individuals and organizations need to be in a constant reflective stance, rethinking and reframing, with an openness and willingness to disrupt current mindsets when new thinking creates the circumstances for and need to allow new thinking to invade those cognitive spaces. We can no longer afford to entrench our thinking in the known.

As educators look to improve systems and systems thinking in moving forward, awareness of Donella Meadows “leverage points” provides a starting point to determine how to begin reframing from a sense of trying to control our systems, to one that brings us towards being more open to guiding our systems forward in much more relevant and even transformative manner. It is in this stance, that emergence opens up new possibilities, and ultimately shifts our paradigms.

“The scarcest resource is not oil, metals, clean air, capital, labour, or technology. It is our willingness to listen to each other and learn from each other and to seek the truth rather than see to be right.” -Donella Meadows