A Guide to the Present

Finding orientation in an age of disorder

As we settle in to the new reality that is our “Corona”-crisis, what we need is “orientation.” Everyone I know and see seems lost — including me. We have no obvious goals or clear answers to the challenges we face. We don’t know how the economy will develop, or how people are going to respond politically and socially. We don’t even know yet what problems we need to work on (with the exception of short-term crisis management). Our situation is novel, as we’ve seen nothing like this before and and have few reliable guides to give us direction.

My job as a coach and organisational consultant is to explore with my clients how their world works, and to develop strategies together with them for innovation or problem-solving to respond to it successfully. It is a humbling task, as the changes in our environment had already been happening so quickly that “best practice” solutions for the interesting problems don’t exist. Our job is to delve collaborativey into “unknown unknowns,” and to do so in such a manner that all of us can handle the challenge without triggering ourselves emotionally or socially into taking unconsidered action. Holding the space for the process becomes the key to success, as we work to bear the uncertainty while we examine our situation, and trust that what we need will emerge from our interactions.

Wicked Problems

The shift which the crisis brings with it has made our exploration processes even more uncertain, and has increased the demands on people’s self-regulation capacity dramatically. Gone are the days when one could imagine a goal, set one’s sails and through competent seamanship be relatively sure that one would navigate to one’s destination guided by a pre-determined plan. Our problems now are “wicked,” subject to multiple causes interacting with each other through environmental and political filters and amplified through networked feedback effects in supply chains and the media. That means that our challenges are no longer reducible to clear goals, and that their solutions, if they exist at all, are non-obvious and only emerge in the doing.

What everyone in the crisis right now would love to have is a plan, a direction and some certainty of outcomes. Many people have reached the limits of their capacity to hold their uncertainty, and so restiveness and blaming are spreading like the virus itself. But the idea that someone could have the right answer, and that through action and hard work things will just go back to how they were before is wishful thinking, which we need to move beyond as we set about creating the future that is to come.

There is a certain comfort in knowing that solutions are “easy” once we find them. As soon as we understand the problem, we can focus on goals and getting things done, as the vast and efficient supply chains and production process we have built in the last decades testify.

But that’s not where we are yet. The challenge is to become good at the exploration process itself through which we come to solutions. Until recently, exploration has been more the exception than the rule. Despite the fact that we have done lots of work with design thinking and agile development, it has tended to be a discrete initiative, an investment in an innovation or dealing with a particular problem, but always with the goal of returning to a stable— and efficient — environment afterwards.

We need to accept that exploration will become our new normal. Our daily lives will not just be about doing problem-focussed design sprints and sprint plannings, but about learning to manage the space in which a constant psychological and social process of exploration takes place. The reinvention process we have been applying in exceptional cases has suddenly become a standard for our baseline reality, and few of us have developed the capacity to contain uncertainty which we need to do such exploration on a constant basis.

Disorientation

The typical response to the complexity behind wicked problems is disorientation. A contact at one large company I recently spoke to told me that managers are acutely aware of the disruptions they are facing. What they lack is the emotional and social capacity to address them.

They’ve become aware that they need to be good at experimentation and iterative delivery, managed by their teams without excessive top-management control. The examples provided by tech companies and start-ups with agile organization are inspiring to behold, they say. But even those managers in their company who create the agile teams, provide the social office space, and shift from goals to customer stories in an attempt to copy best practices, find that their people remain sceptical, that their business customers are confused by the new approaches and delivery modes, and that the results — while not any worse — are no better than they were before.

Muddling through

We are muddling through, which is likely the best we can do for any great transition like the one we are in. But the uncertainties this collective phase of our lives brings with it trigger fear, and with it the irrationalities we are seeing in politics, in our thinking, and in our communication in our social networks. Stress levels are maxing out, as the disorder which is spreading through the breakdown of traditional systems of interaction takes its emotional toll.

I find that what is most unsettling to people is the way uncertainty upends our habits. To experience how the learned responses we fall back on to manage our lives become unreliable has a deeply disturbing effect. It undermines our confidence in ourselves, and at a deeper level can trigger doubts about our self-worth. In a company it can cause managers to respond to failing business models with strategies to prove their efficacy and value, by sacrificing the collective learning process to short-term crisis management which can rob the company of its future. Unease and fear colour our perceptions and undermine our decisions — with predictably poor results.

Learning to deal with the unknown

So, while we cannot know what is ahead of us, we can develop and learn strategies to deal with what we cannot know. In the face of our ever more obviously unpredictable reality, the attitude that I find works best is not one of control, but of curiosity and involvement, and the most successful behaviour is not the attempt at prediction, but that of exploration. Prediction and control are skills we need to master, as we still have ordered systems challenges to which they are best applied. It is just that they are not sufficient by themselves anymore for us to find our balance in our constantly shifting reality.

Curiosity and Exploration

Curiosity and exploration are not natural to the way the vast majority of us have been raised, or how we have learned to perform and survive in business, society or politics. Especially in harder political and business environments, mistrust is preferred over trust, and power and control over innovation and self-regulation. While we cannot know what we will face next year or even tomorrow, we can build the capacity for curiosity and exploration which enable us to deal with whatever we face productively in the here and now. It starts with understanding how to overcome mistrust and control.

For individuals this means that we become life-long learners, driven by our capacity for self-reflection and growth. For our organisations this means that they become the learning systems which Peter Senge envisioned decades ago, animated not by short-term profits and the goal of shareholder value maximization, but by a culture of customer intimacy and innovation which is the deeper source of long-term success which Peter Drucker points to. In both contexts it involves overcoming the dysfunctions created by mistrust and control.

The principles and processes are similar for micro and macro systems:

How a person learns to regulate his or her emotions, thinking and behaviours in the face of uncertainty effectively is similar to how an organism the size of an organisation regulates itself in a complex social, political and market environment successfully.

Both come down to a dramatically increased capacity for self-regulation in the face of disorder, and an understanding of post-traumatic growth as we learn to respond well to the collapse of our old world. Its basic principles are trust and involvement.

Creating the Future

The future belongs to those who are capable of conscious evolution and growth, able to develop strategies which allow them handle the challenges of the world that our species is creating. How we build the capacities we need can be learned from many disciplines. In future posts I will focus on those I have the most experience with:

  • somatic and developmental psychology
  • agile organisation and work methods
  • organisational development and governance
  • leadership philosophy and behaviour
  • communication

It is possible for everyone to learn to deal with uncertainty better than we have in the past and, by developing better strategies, solve many of the wicked problems that at the moment look intractable, whether in ourselves, in our businesses or in the world. When we look at how that works, we build the capacity we need to flourish in our wickedly complex new reality.