Last week, I had the privilege of being in a buffet of conversations about the most pressing leadership, organizational and social change issues of our time. From leadership and change in healthcare to nonprofit capacity-building work in Sierra Leone and Africa to a roundtable on the Canadian government’s military and peacekeeping missions abroad, I feel like I went around the globe and back in 5 days. In reflecting on the week, I have concluded that all of these conversations were characterized by 2 things: (1) incredible complexity and (2) A ray of hope.
Incredible Complexity: I KNOW, theoretically and cognitively that we are living in complex times. The buffet I consumed last week though reminded me in very practical sense, how these challenges play out in the field and the level of adaptability required to be successful in a world of high volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA). Every strategy for managing in this world came up across my conversations last week: strategic planning and flexibility, preparing for the expected and unexpected, working with specialists and generalists, efficiently mobilizing resources available in stock or just-in-time, the advantages and pitfalls of working with information technology and social media. A thematic from the dialogues and work I was part of could well have looked like Bennett and Lemoine’s HBR summary of strategies for a VUCA world. Yet, in every one of the conversations, someone raises a set of circumstances under which said plans do not work and the inevitable questions get asked: What else can we do when these strategies fall short? How will we know we are successful? And when we get it right once, how do we recreate and sustain the changes? I hear these same questions, over and over again. So much so that I have began to hear the echo behind the questions – the cry for certainty and certitude. These questions, are a guise for the closed question I believe underlies the repeated inquiries. As leaders and people struggle with VUCA conditions, we are in effect asking: Is everything going to be okay? We ask this, even though we know that no one really knows the answers, and indeed the answers are often unknowable and unpredictable.
A Ray of Hope: Thankfully, there’s always the one story, the one case, the one example where everything is indeed okay and where there is repeated and sustained success despite the complexity of the situations. In every context, from healthcare to military strategy, after the anxiety settles, someone asks: where is it working? What research and practice is showing, is that these outlier cases or positive deviants, whether individual or a small group, find ways to survive…and thrive…in spite of and even within the context of complexity. In every case, as we explored these examples, they became the ray of hope that opened up possibilities. It was as we looked at the outlier examples of success that action that transcended anxiety became possible. It was clear these examples were not meant to be ‘best practices’ or ‘case studies’ for direct replication – that rarely works in complexity. These cases became a nexus for encouraging people to learn and adapt what they will, or innovate other ways inspired by what is working.
So why do we keep problem-solving everything? It is how we are trained and in many ways how we are wired. I know there is a place for seeing the big picture and identifying the ‘challenge’ through the numbers and statistics. However, as Brookfield (2000) once warned, when it comes to complexity and working for transformation, we need to be aware that the critical perspective “can be the death of the transformative impulse, inducing an energy-sapping, radical pessimism concerning the possibility of structural change.”
There is also a place for plans and strategy and I can facilitate groups into creating those any day. When all’s said and done through, when it comes to complexity and transformation, my work is much more than delivering a well-crafted strategy. Once the plan is complete, there are still the questions and experiences I describe above. I continue to learn that what people need today in a world of complexity is hope. Hope in our human capacity to navigate through the unknown. Hope in our human capacity to develop new ways of thinking and working. Hope…and the reminder…that we can survive and thrive again, no matter the unknowns and uncertainties we face. Our human history, and the cases of success we can ALWAYS find, remind us that there is indeed that hope.
Brookfield, S. (2000). Transformative learning as ideology critique. In J. Mezirow (Ed.), Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.