Don't Let the Future Scare You
If you’re like me, every day you get some fear mongering information explaining how technology is going to take your job one day very soon and disruption of your industry is eminent. Inevitably, they’re right, to some degree, but no one knows exactly what or when change will happen. Besides, who’s to say you won’t like it when it does happen.
Crystal Ball Fog
Futurists of the 1950’s and 1960’s tried to envision what our lives would be like today. They were wrong in lots of ways. The primary reason they missed the mark was because they couldn’t foresee the many ways technology would be combined and leveraged to leapfrog progress.
We can reasonably foresee the direction things are heading, in the not too distant future. Like those before us, we can’t predict exactly when they will occur or the unforeseeable breakthroughs that will emerge. It means our thinking, plans, and organizations need to be fluid, now more than ever.
Machines Don’t Flex, Much Less Change
Today, everyone recognizes the need for organizations to change with the times, but most organizations aren’t built to be flexible. The industrial age mechanical design demands high consistency, efficiency, compliance, and conformity which are the building blocks for organizational rigidity.
People can and do change. Our ability to change is strongly influenced by our environment. We can future proof our businesses by adopting a different perspective on how to organize and operate them.
Adaptive Human System™
Today’s world is too complex and fast paced for the rigid industrial age approach to business. To survive and thrive through the days ahead, we need to embrace the roller coaster ride and go with the flow by taking an Adaptive Human System™ approach.
What Adaptive Looks Like at Work
While the need to adapt is abundantly obvious, the questions of how and what that looks like in daily work life are sure to follow. One thing you can do every time you encounter a problem, especially one that resurfaces repeatedly, is ask “Is this a technical problem or a complex issue?”
Technical problems are easy to spot because the desired outcome can quickly and easily be defined (i.e. this piece of equipment needs to produce a set number of parts per hour with zero defects). Easy, bring in the technical expert and put them to work or get out the manual do it yourself.
While technical issues can be very complicated, their results are clearly defined and the path to the desired result is repeatable. This is the default mindset traditionally taught in schools. Often, we try to use technical techniques on complex issues without success and never understand why things don’t work out as expected.
Complex issues are stickier, like a tar baby, they never seem to go away and the effort required to get rid of them to any degree can wear you down. No single “expert” will ever resolve a complex issue. Instead, you will need the widest diversity of perspectives possible to see the reality of the situation.
You can also take comfort in knowing that there is no one right answer to a complex issue. Instead, you’ll take adaptive action (make the best informed experimental nudges, wait and see what happens, learn from the experience, then modify your adaptive action and repeat).
Build Sensing Capability
Another critical adaptive capability is to embed a way to sense, seize, and reallocate resources in your organization to leverage opportunities and minimize risk. One way to exercise your organizational sensing muscle is to rotate the assignment to “share new findings and advances in other fields and industries with potential” in regular meetings. It can be a great way to liven up the last five minutes of any meeting.
Humanity at Work
Do you run a fear based business? It’s a pervasive and commonly overlooked problem.
Nobody cared about how employees felt at work until executives learned that there was a direct impact on profits. Suddenly, employee engagement became “a thing.” Oddly enough, employee engagement hasn’t materially improved over the 20 years that it’s been tracked and measured. Who says what gets measured gets done…
During that same time frame, lots of information about the human brain has come to light but hasn’t made it into mainstream business practices. For example, we know that when the brain is in fight or flight mode, it cannot process higher order thinking. Forget about effective communication, creativity or innovation, when people feel a survival threat (including to their lifestyle).
We also know that when the organization fosters internal competition, there will be no collaboration or genuine cooperation. People are essentially coerced to do what’s in their own best interest, even when it harms the organization.
Add to that the inherent cognitive biases and heuristics that are built into our brains, which prevent us from seeing reality and let us think we’re right when we’re actually very wrong, and it’s no surprise that so many things go wrong at work and so many businesses fail. If we want to see different results, we need to do things differently.
Bringing out the best in each person potentially has exponential effects on organizational performance, resilience, and innovation.
Even Grown-ups Grow
We used to think that once we reached adulthood we were fully baked. Now we know that the human brain continues to change throughout our lives. Organizations that actively stimulate learning opportunities every day will reap the greatest rewards because their workforce will have essential skills when the need arises.
Every business regardless of size or budget can foster developmental avenues for its people. It stimulates employee engagement and retention. It can be as simple as adopting Action Learning styled meetings. Information on Action Learning is widely available and easily adopted. Not to mention countless shoestring options.
Google, for example, offers in-house training by its own employees on a wide range of topics. Sharing learning benefits everyone. We always put more effort into our own learning when we know we will be teaching it to others.
What businesses need is for people to openly collaborate, genuinely cooperate, and effectively handle conflict, but it rarely happens throughout an entire organization. There are too many conflicting interests at play, like turf wars, empire building, and status quo seeking folks.
To achieve the desired behaviors, you have to create an environment where the social norms motivate people to act appropriately. It has to be a conscious part of your Adaptive Human System™ design.
Building your corporate collective intelligence will require making changes. One thing to keep in mind is the mental complexity of the people in your organization. Where do they fall on the following table?
Form of Mind
% of Adults
Unable to see the perspective of others.
Devoted to something larger than themselves.
Feels empathy for others, and takes the wishes and opinions of other into consideration when making decisions.
See multiple layers of every issue and can hold very different perspectives simultaneously.
Source: Jennifer Garvery Berger, Changing on the Job: Developing Leaders for a Complex World
Every person’s brain is uniquely wired and directly impacts how they see and respond to the world. With this in mind, we can begin to organize and operate our businesses in a way that brings out the best in each person and simultaneously raises the organization’s ability to adapt at the rate of change.
Your Business is a Living System
You can’t treat your business like a machine. People aren’t plug and play. You can’t force a “best practice” cookie cutter on you organization and expect to get top notch results.
Every business has it’s own strengths and quirks. What works for one won’t work the same way for any other business because the internal dynamics and capabilities are unique to any business, at any given point in time. Every person is unique, therefore every combination of people is different, producing variable results.
When you embrace the living system concept, you can optimize your organization’s performance though its primary drivers: true purpose (the real reason they exist) and lived values (regardless of the posters and slogans on the walls).
Warning, without genuine clarity of purpose and alignment with lived values, your system may drive in multiple competing directions. Sound familiar?
Culture emerges from the interactions and true purpose of a living system. That’s why you can’t dictate or directly control your culture. Your employees are agents of your system. They will self-organize in order to carry out your true purpose, with or without your guidance. Inevitably, the interactions of your living system will lead to unintended consequences..
The structure and design of your system influences its behavior, which is why you want to consciously define its boundaries. Your system design must include feedback loops so you know how the system is performing and when it needs adjusting.
One of the many benefits of living systems is that they operate effectively using simple rules. When employees follow simple rules, each person can adapt to their specific circumstances in the moment, while still supporting the larger system. This approach is both flexible and empowering, contributing to high employee engagement.
Your opportunities are wide open. The first step is deciding what you want your future to look like. Even better, the burden of deciding on that future doesn’t have to rest on one person or a select few. It can be an organization wide effort.
Appreciative Inquiry is and effective tool for exploring your future state and ensuring success of the resulting change effort. Information is readily available on this approach, as well as others.
Systems tools abound. No matter how deeply rooted or challenging your problems may be, you have lots of options. Many approaches are intuitive and can be implemented quickly. The idea is to make the smallest change with the largest impact.
Organizational Future Fitness
If you’re fearful of the future, your instincts are trying to tell you that it’s time to evolve, upskill, and gain a higher perspective. Think of an Adaptive Human System™ approach as nutritional health for your business’s future readiness. There will always be problems, challenges, and road blocks, just like there will always be opportunities, revelations, and breakthroughs. Embracing this approach helps you to see the hidden forces at work in your organization so that you can optimize them to achieve the best results, regardless of what the future brings.