Networks: An Engine For Scaling Learning And Innovation (Part 1)


“It is not simply the brightest who have the best ideas; it is those who are best at harvesting ideas from others.  It is not only the most determined who drive change; it is those who most fully engage with like-minded people.  And it is not wealth or prestige that best motivates people; it is respect and help from peers.”  -Alex Pentland Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread – The Lessons from a New Science

We live in a hyperconnected world, which in many ways has provided us a wealth of access and answers to the challenges that we face, while adding new complexities to an already complex world.   In the midst of this hyperconnected world, we are seeing the rapid rise of networks, both informal and formal, serving as engines for new learning and innovation.  The Stanford Social Innovation Review shares, “With the rise of new digital media platforms and social networks, people are absorbing information at a greater velocity and from a wider set of channels than ever before; they are also using that information in new ways.”  For which they add, “Leadership has become distributed and collaborative.  The new reality is that leaders don’t lead alone.  We are all part of a much broader problem-solving network, with many high-performing organizations and individuals-public and private-working on different parts or the same problem or even the same part of the same problem.  The most influential members of the collaborative are increasingly harnessing new technology to share ideas, get real-time feedback, and build knowledge for the field.  Leaders are no longer just steering their own ship; they are helping a network solve problems with the best and must current thinking available.”

It is in this hyperconnected world that we are just beginning to see new distinctions drawn between what some term as communities and networks (communities vs. networks).  While there are distinctions between the two, the better option is in enhancing and leveraging both for better access to greater learning and innovation.  This is best achieved by engaging the AND of both communities AND networks.  As Team BE of Wenger-Traynor state, “For most groups, however, the aspects are combined in various ways.  A community usually involves a network or relationships.  And many networks exist because participants are all committed to some kind of joint enterprise.”  So, while we’ve become much more accustomed to working in “communities” of learning and practice within our organizations, the digital transformation and this hyperconnected world has led to an exponential rise and engagement in both formal and informal networks to support and infuse greater idea flow and new learning into our organizations, leading to better innovative value for both our individuals and organizations.  As Alex Pentland shares in Social Physics, “In the last few years, however, our lives have been transformed by networks that combine people and computers, allowing much greater participation and much faster change.”  

In Learning to Improve, Bryk and his co-authors build on this idea of AND, drawing on the work of Douglas Engelbart in what he termed Networked Improvement Communities (NIC).  It is in this Networked Improvement Community that Engelbart has created an ABC Model for Continuous Improvement.  As Bryk shares in Learning to Improve, there are “three interrelated levels of learning” which serves as the basis for this ABC Model.

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.”

Level-C which is when learning occurs “across institutions.”

This idea of an ABC Model for Continuous Improvement and Networked Improvement Communities was cast over 35 years ago by Engelbart in his assessment and determination that the “complexity and urgency [of world problems] are increasing exponentially, and the product of the two will soon challenge our organizations and institutions to change in quantum leaps rather than incremental steps.”

The one thing to realize is that most organizations, even individuals for that matter, do not operate well in all three (ABC) of these learning areas.  Engelbart shares that “most organizations operate in at least two dimensions,” which is most often Level A and B.

Which is where much of our future work in networks lies, especially since Level C work is vital to improving the learning and the innovative work of our individuals and organizations.

As Engelbart shares, “Most organizations already have all three activities going on, but the ‘C’ activity is generally pretty haphazard and the ‘B’ activities suffer accordingly.”  Whether Engelbart or Bryk’s work in Learning to Improve, we see an emphasis on the importance Level-C.

As Bryk adds in Learning to Improve in regards to Level-C learning, “It is an especially potent form of knowledge generated as ideas are elaborated, refined, and tests across many different contexts.  The development of Level-C learning is not a simple, naturally occurring extension of Level-A and -B learning.  Rather it requires deliberate organization.  It is catalyzed and orchestrated by a network hub and relies on appropriate technologies for rapid communications about insights developing across distributed sites.  Operating in this way enables a network to accelerate how it learns.”  For which Bryk adds, “When individual insights are systematically pooled, collective capabilities grow.  Moving this to Level-C learning radically speeds up this social learning process.  When many more individuals, operating across diverse contexts, are drawn together in a shared learning enterprise, the capacity grows exponentially.”

Understanding the value and importance of networks and the platform they provide for the acceleration of social learning is going to be vital to the future relevance of our organizations as we seek to improve both individual and organizational learning and capacity.  In a world of exponential shifts, the only true advantage to parallel pacing the speed of change that we are will be facing, will be found in how we enhance and improve our ability to learn, at pace and scale.

“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.”  Alex Pentland Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread-The Lessons from a New Science


In Consideration Of Continuous Improvement: Part I


“Now we need something Dramatically Different from “getting better” – from even getting “a whole lot better” – at what we did for a couple of hundred years.  Now we need train ourselves to play and Entirely New Game…a game called Re-imagine, in which the rules that define “better” no longer apply.”  -Tom Peters via Re-imagine! Business Excellence in a Disruptive Age

Since the early 1900’s, with the rise of Taylorism and the Principles of Scientific Management, we have focused our systems, organizations and individuals on maximum efficiency and standardization of best practices.  The factory model.  In many ways, it was the automation of the late 19th and 20th century, except the automation was of us, rather than the robots of the 21st century that are quickly beginning to take center stage.  It was a focus of efficiency…and for many years and in many ways it worked for what it was aimed at, ultimate productivity.

However, what we are finally beginning to realize is that what’s efficient isn’t always effective, and what’s effective isn’t always effecient.  What has served us well through the late 19th and 20th century is no longer effective for the world that we now live in.  The factory model of efficiency and the hierarchical, command and control style of leadership that accompanied it have lost relevance in a world that is changing, shifting and accelerating at a turbulent pace and rapid rate.

As General Stanley McChrystal shares in Team of Teams, “Over time we came to realize that more than our foe, we were actually struggling to cope with an environment that was fundamentally different from anything we’d planned or trained for.  The speed and interdependence of events had produced new dynamics that threatened to overwhelm the time-honored processes and culture we’d built.  Little of our transformation was planned. Few of the plans that we did develop unfolded as envisioned.  Instead, we evolved in rapid iterations, changing – assessing – changing again.”  For which he adds, “The environment in which we found ourselves, a convergence of twenty-first-century factors and more timeless human interactions, demanded a dynamic, constantly adapting approach.”  As he adds, “continual adaption had transformed it into a fundamentally new organization – one that functioned using distinctly different processes and relationships.”

What General McChrsytal shares in Team of Teams is a lesson that we must realize, and internalize very quickly.  A lesson of what served us well in the past, may well no longer serve us well in the present or the future.  And in many ways, it is those successes of the past that often entrench us and push us towards irrelevance in the future.  For which McChrystal purports, “We’re not lazier or less intelligent than our parents or grandparents, but what worked for them simply won’t do the trick for us now.  Understanding and adapting to these factors isn’t optional; it will be what differentiates success from failure in the years ahead.”

Which will require deep reflection as we determine next steps, both as individuals and as organizations.

We can no longer march along in a linear and predictable fashion and hope that it will be business as usual in the future.  We live in a time of heightened chaos urged on by the turbulent pace and nature of change, supported by accelerated obsolescence and discontinuity, which is leading to greater feelings of uncertainty, ambiguity and anxiety in the present and for the future.  Leading us as individuals and organizations to recoil back to the safety of status quo, of what we’ve always known and done.  What we fail to realize, in the midst of this upheaval and chaos, we will find signals of opportunity, if we are willing to brace ourselves to face the storm in which those signals are emanating out from.

And like many signals, they raise questions that we must consider.

What do we sustain?  Where do we need to change?  Are we adapting effectively to the pace of change?  Do we keep the current direction, or is a pivot necessary?  Are we future-casting and preparing for the shifts we will face in the future?  Are the outcomes we are chasing leading us to the vision we’ve determined?  Are we entrenched in status quo, or are we growing, learning and improving, both as individuals and as an organization?

It is in our questions and reflection that we find our way forward in a world that has shifted from technical problems to adaptable challenges.  It is where we find the willingness and agility to dig past the processes and structures that keep us entrenched in stasis and status quo thinking and doing.

As Atul Gawande shares in Better, “Betterment is a perpetual labor.  The world is chaotic, disorganized, and vexing, and medicine is nowhere spared that reality.  To complicate matters, we in medicine are also only humans ourselves.  We are distractible, week, and given to our own concerns.”  For which he continues, “The question, then, is not whether one accepts the responsibility.  Just by doing this work, one has.  The question is, having accepted the responsibility, how one does such work well.”

Which brings us back to this idea of ‘continuous improvement’ and what that really means for us as individuals and organizations.  A concept that may have been focused more on efficiency, than it has been aimed at effectiveness.  In many ways, we have layered our ‘factory model’ way of thinking upon this concept.  It is this belief that if we work ‘harder’ then things will be ‘better’.  But that is not the reality we currently face, from business to government, and education.  As General McChrystal purports, “All the efficiency in the world has no value if it remains static in a volatile environment.”

Rather, we will need to not only work smarter, but very often, differently.  We are approaching a time where living in beta and constant iteration will be the way we approach our work.  A constant iteration of what sustains, what adapts, and what transforms.

However, first and foremost, this idea of ‘better’ and ‘continuous improvement’ requires a decision, a decision to become uncomfortable, both as individuals and as organizations.  For stretching ourselves towards this concept of ‘continuous improvement’ is not always a comfortable situation, as it requires learning, unlearning, relearning, shifting, adapting, and changing.  A beta mindset.

However, as mentioned before, just working harder will not necessarily get us moving towards a state of ‘continuous improvement’.

It will require AND.  Too often we find ourselves creating situations of either/or thinking that limit the AND that leads to our ability to improve and ‘plus’ our strategies, processes and organizational structures forward.  So, as we consider how to push forward towards ‘better’ let’s consider the AND of 3I’s that can support an environment of ‘continuous improvement’ in our organizations.

Innovation AND Improvement Science AND Implementation Science.

Unless we are going to continue focusing on efficiency and harder, then innovation will be necessary to moving us forward, in meeting the future more effectively.  However, better understanding innovation will allow us to move our organizations more effectively towards ‘continuous improvement’.  Too often, we associate innovation only with change, with the novel and new, when what we need to better understand is that innovation, at its best, is focused on creating value.  Innovation, when focused on value, not only improves the effectiveness of organizations to better support our individuals in their work, it allows us to remain more relevant moving into the future.

However, innovation is only point form which to start, for innovation alone is not enough to support this idea of ‘continuous improvement’.  We have to determine if the why, how and what of our innovative efforts is creating value for our people and our organization.  Which goes back to knowing what to sustain and where and what to iterate or change, as well as engaging our ability to remain agile and adaptable, to learn, unlearn and relearn.

Which brings the AND into our innovation efforts through the I of Improvement Science, providing us a framework to determine if our innovation is adding value to and for our people and our organization.  The Carnegie Foundation provide us with Six Core Principles of Improvement that can be used to support our innovative efforts through Improvement Science.

Which they share as:

(1) Make the work problem-specific and user-centered.  “It starts with a single question: What specifically is the problem we are trying to solve…”

(2) Variation in performance is the core problem to address.  “The critical issue is not what works, but rather what works…”

(3) See the system that produces the current outcomes.  “It is hard to improve what you do not fully understand…”

(4) We cannot improve at scale what we cannot measure.  “Embed measures of key outcomes and processes to track if change is an improvement…”

(5) Anchor practice improvement in disciplined inquiry.  “Engage rapid cycles of Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) to learn fast, fail fast, and improve quickly…”

(6) Accelerate improvements through networked communities. “Embrace the wisdom of crowds…”

These Six Principles of Improvement allow us to better determine the effectiveness of our innovative efforts, allowing us to be more agile, adaptive both as individuals and organizations in iterating our way forward more effectively.  Especially, if the goal of innovation is to create value and move us closer towards this concept of ‘continuous improvement’.

While Improvement Science provides a positive framework for iterating our innovative efforts forward, the I of Implementation Science is an AND that adds and plusses forward the idea of ‘continuous improvement’, especially in support of our innovative efforts.

As the National Implementation Research Network (NIRN) shares, “Implementation Science is the study of factors that influence the full and effective use of innovations in practice.  The goal is not to answer factual questions about what is, but rather to determine what is required.  In Implementation Science, implementation factors are identified or developed and demonstrated in practice, to influence the full and effective use of innovations.”  

And while Implementation Science has “Implementation Drivers” and “Improvement Cycles” (not covered in this article), they also have what they call “Implementation Stages” which are considered to be “dynamic” processes that exist within an organization as they move forward with their innovative efforts.

Which they share as:

Exploration Stage:  “taking the time for exploration saves time and money and improves chances for success…”  “Readiness is assesses, as well as created…”

Installation Stage:  “the function is to acquire or repurpose the resources needed to do the work ahead, effectively…”

Initial Implementation:  “when innovation is being used for the first time…attempting to use the newly learned skills…learning how to change to accommodate and support the new ways of work…”

Full Implementation:  “new ways of providing services are now the stand ways of work…leaders must continually adjust organizational supports to facilitate the work…systems continue to change…”

As NIRN shares, “Effective implementation bridges the divide between science and practice.  It is not just in developing these practices, it is in transferring and maintaining these practices in real world settings that make it a long and complex process.”

In closing this first look at the concept of individual and organizational ‘continuous improvement’, understanding how we connect dots and engage the idea of AND is what will allow us to continue to find ways to constantly and effectively get better.  It will not only allow us to innovate in ways that allow us to parallel pace the constancy and speed of change, but provide us processes and strategies that better support and determine if how we are innovating is providing ongoing value for our people and our organization.

Effectively determining what is necessary of sustaining and what will require transformation.

“Arriving at meaningful solutions is an inevitably slow and difficult process.  Nonetheless, what I saw was: better is possible.  It does not take genius.  It takes diligence.  It takes moral clarity.  It takes ingenuity.  And above all, it takes a willingness to try.”  -Atul Gawande via Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance

Stranded In The Future


Leaders are effectively preparing to leave people stranded in the future…by not preparing our organizations and the individuals within, for the coming turbulence of future shifts in the present.

As Thomas Frey, Senior Futurist at the Davinci Institute shares, “Humanity will change more in the next 20 years than in all of human history.”  Changes that we see accelerating forward more and more, faster and faster, day by day.  We find that we are definitely living in much more exponential times.  For which Frey adds to these coming changes, “Risk factors will increase exponentially.”  

The bells of change are clanging all around us, but it is up to us to determine if we are going to pay attention to their ringing.  A ringing that is becoming more incessant and accelerated as each day goes by.  Changes that are broad and deep in their scope and intention, especially in how the shifts are and will alter our world and how we live and work forever.  We hear of automation and artificial intelligence that is aiming at ending jobs in certain sectors, or of driverless cars focused on eliminating the necessity for ownership.

How these changes will affect us in the future is yet to be seen, be that positive or negative.  We just know that it will be different…

More and more, in the face of the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) that these shifts are creating, the more proactive we can and must be in preparing and future-casting our way forward, then the better prepared we will be to face these changes with greater awareness, adaptability and agility.

Which will be vital in preparing our organizations and people for the future, especially as we see the disruptive nature of the changes that lie before us now and on the horizon.

Whether it is in the next 5 or 20 years, there is this expectation that we are going to see big changes and shifts in and coming to our institutions and organizations, such as government, healthcare, education, as well as the economy and finance, work and jobs, basic services, technology, including automation and artificial intelligence, communication, transportation and delivery, manufacturing and construction, and even the foods we eat and produce.

The thing is that we cannot say how or when these changes will occur, or even if they will occur.  But preparing for these kinds of shifts and changes in rigorous in its proposition.  

Which means that being proactive in preparing assures that we are not being reactive and flat-footed when and if these changes do come.  As Hemingway says, “Gradually, then suddenly.”  Relevance is often lost when we find ourselves lulled into a sense of complacency during the “gradually” period, being left in a reactive and overwhelmed state when “suddenly” appears.

When our organizations and individuals don’t prepare for next steps in the present of the “gradually” then we find ourselves stranded in the future when the state of “suddenly” arrives, often in a volatile fashion.

We have to be aware that we are living in a very different world that is accelerating at a much more turbulent pace, which requires greater awareness, especially of our thinking towards our systems and processes if we are going to become and stay future ready.  Which takes not only a greater level of systems thinking, but design thinking as well.

There will always be fear and anxiety in considering the future, especially a future that is claiming such exponential shifts and disruptions, but having greater awareness and clarity of these coming changes will not only provide the urgency, but the proactive preparation to push past the uncertainty that often mires us in stasis and static ways of doing and being.

In times of accelerated change, disruption and discontinuity, how we leverage these shifts and changes will determine our future relevance.

Which requires us to begin to ask very different questions: How do we prepare for a jobless future?  A gig economy?  A workforce possibly decimated by automation and artificial intelligence?  What do these changes mean for our organizations, institutions and the future of work?  How does it change the focus of education in preparing our students for this future?

Asking these questions not only allows us to get better at designing, iterating and test-driving our way forward into the future…

It allows us to not leave our people and our organizations stranded in the future.

“We are thinking about the future in a local and linear fashion…today we live in a world that is global and exponential.”  -Peter Diamondis

Test-Driving Our Future


“Today we are again in the early stages of defining a new age.  The very underpinnings of our society and institutions – from how we work to how we create value, govern, trade, learn, and innovate – are being profoundly reshaped by amplified individuals.  We are indeed all migrating to a new land and should be looking at the new landscape emerging before us like immigrants: ready to learn a new language, a new way of doing things, anticipating new beginnings with a sense of excitement, if also with a bit of understandable trepidation.”  -Marina Gorbis The Nature of the Future: Dispatches from the Socialstructed World

Today’s leaders will need to become much more adept at test-driving our future, continually preparing their leadership and their organization for a much more VUCA World, one rife with…

Volatility of change,

Uncertainty of the future,

Complexity of systems,

Ambiguity of next steps.

For many, test-driving our future in a much more VUCA World will feel a lot like hydroplaning, where there is this overall sense that we have lost traction and our ability to effectively steer, brake and and retain power of control has abandoned us, while we continue to accelerate.  Leaving us with this feeling that we are sliding uncontrollably into our future.  Conditions under which we will have to make crucial decisions that will have far-reaching ramifications for the future of our leadership and our organizations.

Which will require some counter-intuity in how we steer our leadership and our organizations into this VUCA future.

Especially in this state of emergence we currently find our leadership and organizational systems, structures and processes entangled and struggling to pull free from, one of efficiency and sustainability.  This emerging effort to escape the confines of more efficiency and sustainability, to a future squarely focused on greater effectiveness and adaptability.

In the midst of the changes and transformations we are currently and will face, we would be well to remember that efficient is not always effective, and effective is not always efficient, even though the gravitational pull of the past will tell us different.  Learning to become more agile and adaptable as leaders and organizations often runs counter-intuitive to the systems, structures and processes that were created for the institutions and organizations of our past and present.

Designing different will be a necessity…

As Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity is Near shares, “What we spend our time on is probably the most important decision we make.”  Which will require a much more proactive approach to the future, both as leaders and organizations.  We must become much more interested in the design of things; our systems, our processes, our institutions, our organizations, and how we allow new ideas to not only infiltrate, but engage us in experimental and discovery learning that influences the next steps of that design.

We can choose to continually look forward in a linear and predictable manner…or we can learn to engage an ‘around the corner’ way of thinking and seeing our way into this future.

Because we do have a choice…

We can choose to turn into the turbulence of this unknown, volatile and accelerated future, or we can choose decelerate and pull over to the predictability and safety of the past.  For many leaders and organizations, this is a choice that has determined a future of (gain) relevance, or one of (loss) irrelevance.

It is not only the pace and acceleration of change and transformation, but how these often exponential shifts effect how we lead and our organizations operate that makes us feel like we are hydroplaning uncontrollably into the future.  Especially when we realize we cannot predict this future, no matter how hard we try.

But we can begin fore and future-cast it.  

In the midst of the complexity and turbulence that this accelerated VUCA future produces, we can become much more adept at seeing patterns and determining the disparate dots that are in need of connecting, that will lead us forward in a much more effective and adaptable way.  Seeing these patterns and dots emerge will allow us to better question and accelerate past the conventional wisdom that often keeps us confined to the same lane and same speed that we’ve always traveled.

And it begins with awareness…

Awareness of these patterns is paramount if we are to ever consider how we will begin to parallel pace these shifts, if we are to become much more adept at connecting the disparate dots that surround us.  It will be those connections that will eventually lead us forward into the future in a much more creative and innovative manner.

Change begins with a thought, it morphs into an idea, and transforms with an action.

“To be a futurist, in pursuit of improving reality, is not to have your face continually turned upstream, waiting for the future to come.  To improve reality is to clearly see where you are, and then wonder how to make that better.”  -Warren Ellis


The Tipping Point To Transformation


“Our distributed technology infrastructure, however, is increasingly de-gridding not only our communication but also our social and economic landscapes, with value flowing not through centralized nodes but through many more much smaller nodes; us, individuals.”  -Marina Gorbis via The Nature of the Future: Dispatches from the Socialstructed World

And it is disrupting everything.

Or as Gorbis adds in The Nature of the Future, “We are quickly finding out that when we go from a centralized communications infrastructure to a distributed one, when we connect everything and everyone, the result is not just to make things faster, better, and bigger.  The social system itself acquires a fundamentally different quality: it becomes more diversified, more emergent, and often unpredictable.”

It is not just the acceleration of change, but the speed of how change is evolving itself that is becoming so disruptive to the world around us.  Every day, we are finding our idea of possible being shifted in incremental and exponential ways.  It is this constant emergence of the new, and not knowing who or where that shift will arise from, that is causing such volatility, unpredictability, complexity and ambiguity in how we now see and face the future.

It is not just the technologies themselves, but the possibilities they create, that is often unraveling our often static view of the future.  And each new possibility arrives with a plethora of AND’s, with both positives AND negatives.  Disrupting us professionally AND personally, as individuals AND organizations, internally AND externally.  And it is affecting everything.

Amazon Go, Google Deep Mind, IBM Watson, Driverless cars, Mass Personalization, Big Data, Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, Automation, Augmented Reality, 3D Printing, are just a sampling of how technology is not only changing our world, but how we live and work, from our institutions to our organizations, from government, to health, and education.  And it is the speed at which these technologies emerge and evolve, that is not only accelerating this change in our world, but inserting much more volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity into these shifts.

It is this disruptive nature and accelerated pace of change that is going to require our leaders and organizations to not only be much more aware, but more proactive in how we approach the future.  Too often we find ourselves and our organizations flat-footed, caught off-guard, and reactionary in our stance to these shifts.

As they say, “we shape our tools, then our tools shape us” is very appropriate for understanding today’s world. However, it is not just us, but our organizations and institutions, as well.  And it is changing everything.

The ongoing emergence of the new will require us as individuals, as well as our leaders and organizations, to realize that we have all become beginner’s in this new world.  Understanding this shift, tempering our expert mindset, will allow us to fully realize that our greatest asset moving forward, if we are to begin to parallel pace this turbulent pace of change, will be and remain our ability to learn.

It will be our tipping point for transformation.

“Shaped by technologies we are only beginning to deploy, the very underpinnings of our society and institutions – from how we work to how we create value, govern, trade, learn, and innovate – are being reshaped.  All the systems built on top of the distributed technology infrastructure – governance, education, manufacturing – are undergoing this transformation.”  -Marina Gorbis via The Nature of the Future: Dispatches from the Socialstructed World

Organizational Agility Requires Agile Leadership


“As change accelerates, so does uncertainty and novelty: future threats and opportunities are harder to predict, and emerging challenges increasingly include novel elements.  Further, with the globalization of the economy and the spread of connective technologies, it’s increasingly clear that we live in a diverse planetary village where everything is connected with everything else.”  -via Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs Leadership Agility: Five Levels of Mastery For Anticipating and Initiating Change

We live in a world that is constantly under pressure from the continual turbulence created by this accelerated pace of change and the volatility that it invokes, in our organizations, our leadership and our lives.

And it can feel very unsettling…

It’s as if everything we do, create and design now lives in a constant state of beta, especially as we discover what was urgent and necessary today has become irrelevant and unnecessary tomorrow.  Too often we find ourselves in a search for sustainability, in a world that now requires greater agility and adaptability.  Which makes the idea of continuous improvement that much more difficult in the future.  More and more we are finding that adaptability and agility are not just necessary leadership skill-sets, they are vital modern day organizational mindsets.

In the past we built the ship to sustain, now we must build it to adapt.

Unfortunately, in many ways our organizations tend to remain grounded in hierarchical ways of doing and being, steeped in traditional leadership focused linearity and certainty, so focused on providing the best answer that we have often lost sight of whether or not we are even asking the right question(s).  Reframing this will be necessary for the future of our leadership and our organizations.  Especially as Joiner and Josephs share in Leadership Agility we see that, “The pace of change will continue to increase, and the level of complexity and interdependence will continue to grow.”

We have to recognize that permanence is an illusion that today’s VUCA World no longer affords us or our organizations and willingness to proactively adapt and remain agile is necessary to create ongoing relevance.  In most organizations, we continue to try and converge to simple solutions too quickly.  Instead, we must learn, especially in the face of the turbulence created by this accelerated pace of change, to inhale the complexity and spend more time wrestling with big questions.  Which will require today’s leaders to remain learners, focused on enhancing, evolving and engaging new skill-sets and capacities.

In Leadership Agility, Joiner and Josephs discuss that “in turbulent organizational environments (leaders) exhibit four mutually reinforcing competencies:” 

Context-setting agility improves your ability to scan your environment, frame the initiatives you need to take, and clarify the outcomes you need to achieve”

Stakeholder agility increases your ability to engage with key stakeholders in ways that build support for your initiative.”

Creative agility enables you to transform the problems you encounter into the results you need.”

Self-leadership agility is the ability to use your initiatives as opportunities to develop into the kind of leader you want to be.”

As we consider and design our way forward, both as leaders and organizations, the more we enhance our leadership skill-sets and capacities the greater our ability to parallel pace the accelerated pace of change we are faced with in today’s world, the greater our ability to adapt and remain agile in the face of the turbulence created by today’s VUCA World.  The greater our relevance in a world focused on discontinuity and obsolescence.

Which is why consideration of the four competencies above increases our ability to evolve more fluidly into the future, both as organizations and leaders.

“To develop organizations that are effective in anticipating and responding to change and complexity, we need agile leaders – not just at the top but at all organizational levels.”  -via Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs Leadership Agility: Five Levels of Mastery For Anticipating and Initiating Change

All Aboard The VUCA Train: Using The 8A’s Framework To Ride These Rails Of Tension


“In these troubled times, many leaders are judging too simplistically.  Others are deciding too late and paying a price for their slowness or lack of courage.  Such leadership responses are understandable, but they are also dysfunctional and dangerous.”  -Bob Johansen Leaders Make The Future: Ten New Leadership Skills For An Uncertain World

Knowing this does not necessarily make leadership any easier in today’s VUCA World.  Or as Bob Johansen adds, “If you are not confused by current events, you are not paying attention.”

And the more we do pay attention, the more we find that we are crawling out of a hole that was previously enveloped by a severe focus on efficiency and predictability, a world where we saw constancy and linearity as positive processes to overcome the technical problems of our day.

Unfortunately, the farther we continue to crawl from this hole, the more we find our leadership and organizations have been thrust into a very different world, one that has been overtaken by exponential shifts and unsolvable adaptive challenges for which our linear and predictable processes of efficiency are no longer useful or effective.  A world marred by new levels of chaos and complexity where the solutions to these challenges lay far beyond the veneer options of “Googling it” or dropping down a “what to do” binder from high above.

Or as Jeremy Gutsche shares in his book Better and Faster, “It’s the opposite of painting by the numbers.  There are no numbers.  And sometimes there’s no paint.”

Inability to recognize these shifts, often leaves our leaders and organizations riding the hamster wheel, spending inordinate amounts of time providing the right answers to the wrong questions.  We live in a world where we have to get much better at understanding the complexity and the depth of the challenges that we are currently facing, especially if we are to get our people and organizations to a place of creating greater solutions.

While we cannot predict this future that is whirling at us in a much more accelerated manner, we can begin to do the work that allows us to forward-cast both an individual and organizational “point of view” for the future.  One that pushes us past the current chaos, beyond the voluminous noise, chatter and turbulence created by this increased pace of change, so that we may better focus our filter to the array of options and opportunities that lay hidden in this vast unknown we now face.

Inability to push past the complexity of the present, inhibits our proactive proficiency towards designing our way forward into the future, which often leaving us mired in a foggy, murkiness, held back by mental models that keep us entrenched in our past and present.  In other words, inability to future-cast and engage ‘around the corner’ thinking is often a hardline to irrelevance in today’s VUCA World.  To overcome this hardline, we will not only need to engage new learning, abilities and skill-sets, we must also look at the processes and drivers that allow us to engage a much more future-focused mindset.

Such as incorporating the 8A’s Framework as a process to initiate future-casting and push our leadership and organizational thinking forward…


AWARENESS:  We begin with “awareness” and gaining a greater perception of how the world has and is changing.  Realizing the pace and turbulence of change is accelerating is paramount to seeing how the current digital transformation is disrupting our world in exponential ways, both in our personal and professional lives. Awareness of these shifts and how they are changing the world now, will allow us to better future-cast towards the changes to come.

AND:  It is no longer an either/or world, rather it has quickly become an “and” world.  The quicker we learn to ride this tension of “and” as leaders and organizations, the faster we will move from a focus on efficiency to one of effectiveness.

AMBIGUITY:  We live in a world that is no longer certain.  Yet, many of today’s leaders remain focused on creating a sense and semblance of safety and permanence throughout their organization.  However, if today’s VUCA World has taught us anything, it has taught us there is no permanence in a world focused on “accelerated obsolescence.”  So, we push forward with more linear and predictable ways of approaching our work, which does more to create greater uncertainty and incoherence than clarity, especially as our people and organizations lay witness to a world speeding up and quickly moving past them.  Today’s leaders need to focus more on capacity-creating if we are to better equip our people and organizations to grapple and grow a greater tolerance for the increased “ambiguity” that is invading this VUCA World.

ADAPTABILITY:  Creating “adaptability” will be founded in our ability to create environments of learnability in our organizations.  As times change, so do the abilities and skill-sets that once defined us as individuals and organizations.  This ability to learn, unlearn and be reflective of how our mental models push in on these processes will be vital to how effectively we can adapt to the exponential shifts inherent in a VUCA World.  Creating this environment of constant learning and “adaptability” will be a defining ability and skill-set of today’s modern leaders.

AGILITY:  Many of today’s organizations operate like the Titanic, unable to see the obstacles that they are facing and too late to turn once they are finally recognized.  Modern organizations are not only going to need to be much better at adapting to a shifting world, they will need to operate in a much more agile manner.  Moving to the opportunities that rise out of the complexity and chaos of a VUCA World will be paramount to ongoing relevance.

AMPATHY:  Organizations and their leaders must not only be much more aware, but much more vigilant in their efforts to amplify empathy across and at all levels of the organization.  The VUCA World requires a village and an “all hands on deck” approach to this work.  Gaining greater levels of empathy, especially at the leadership level, creates the relationships and trust necessary to allow our organizations to move much more fluidly through these 8A’s and the VUCA we are facing in today’s world.

ACCELERATE:  As the pace of change accelerates, especially in the midst of this volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of this world, so must the pace of our organizations and leadership.  This is not to say we can parallel pace this acceleration and exponential shifts that are gripping our societal ecosystem, however, we have to begin to be much more strategic in how we move our organizations forward into the future.  We are going to have to become much more fitter and cognitively stronger to survive this amplified pace that the VUCA World is serving up to our systems.

AWE:  Our leaders and organizations not only have to find the opportunity amidst the current chaos and complexity of this world, they must also engage a vision that moves their people and organization forward.  A vision that inspires awe and how being a part of this work and vision ultimately allows us to be part of something bigger and greater than ourselves.  Finding these opportunities and spaces where “awe” can be created will not be easy, but necessary in moving our organizations and people forward in a much more relevant manner and way.

And while these 8A’s will not provide us the ability to predict the future, they do provide a framework for our leaders and organizations to forward-cast a future “point of view” that makes our approach to designing the future both accessible and actionable.  It is a much more proactive approach to how we will determine to ride this VUCA Train that we’ve all received a ticket to ride.

In most organizations and systems, we have been determined to converge to simple solutions much too quickly.  We have to learn to inhale the complexity and chaos that this new world is creating, which will allow us to better engage and wrestle with the big questions and challenges that currently are and will be facing our organizations.  In the midst of this upheaval, our first response is to look to create order.  Instead, choose to make your first step towards finding the opportunities that lie hidden in this vast new unknown.  It is only in this proactive approach, that we will ultimately design a better future for our people and our organizations.

“Organizations are often blind to emerging complexity, characterized by unexpected opportunities and disruptive change.”  -via Theory U: Leading From The Future As It Emerges