Nearly a quarter century has passed since Stephen Covey, who sold 20 million books and authored Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, cautioned against allowing the urgent to crowd out the important. He reminded leaders of the tremendous pull of the urgent demands of today and advised being more mindful of addressing the complex challenges of tomorrow. Covey’s wisdom and insight remain timeless, but the demands of our volatile and uncertain world have exposed an even greater vulnerability.
Now everything important comes shrouded in a veil of disruption, discontinuity, and a demand for quick action to calm the storm and satisfy the Street. There is great danger in treating these tumultuous dynamics as nasty interruptions to get past, rather than engaging them as powerful points of inflection and windows of opportunity for continuous learning and change.
Nassim Taleb, a former derivatives trader who became a scholar focused on what to do in a world we don’t understand, argues that attempts to wipe away unpredictability by imposing control and overlaying structure do little to smooth out the constant waves of disequilibrium. Indeed, these efforts merely create the illusion of stability while actually elevating the risk of obtaining marginal improvement at best, and failing at worst. The true answer lies in cultivating leaders and organizations that can see around corners, handle first-time conditions, and recognize the shortcomings inherent in applying the tried and true to new and more complex situations.
A prominent financial services CEO we know likes to use the metaphor of adapting to a corporate house that was once provided as part of his financial package. Despite the generous use of property and the provision of a sizable budget for customization, his family never succeeded in making it their “home.”
The design and layout they needed and wanted couldn’t be created on the old foundation. Nevertheless, he continued to invest in incremental “improvements” without confronting the foundational limitations that inevitably sabotaged his efforts. He told this story to caution us against rebuilding and reinventing the organization using the old foundation and urged us to reexamine our foundations (assumptions) regularly. At the same time, he gave voice to the concerns all were experiencing in letting go and moving in a new direction.
This simple metaphor conveys much wisdom about organizational stuckness in the face of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA). The demands for growth and immediate action can obscure the real solutions and block the pathway to reframing and transformation. Much is operating to keep incremental behavior in place. The global marketplace pressures CEOs to double down on maintaining some level of growth while continuing to meet analyst expectations. Accepting the vulnerability and risk that comes with letting go of conventional wisdom and prior success can be a daunting task for even the most robust of leaders and organizations. Witness how Dell and Blackberry are setting aside highly successful business models, in service of remaining viable and agile in the face of uncertainty, ambiguity, escalating financial pressure and relentless change.
But having the courage to shift is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the learning mindset required to deliver on the new promise. We see three critical steps: getting unstuck; building new capabilities and routines; and sustaining the changes.
Leaders and organizations are often stuck in patterns of behaving and operating that have kept them in good stead for years. Traditional approaches to development teach us to be successful by managing people, tasks and the business, but often overlook getting unstuck from approaches that worked in the past but no longer apply. Consequently, we develop models or logic about our world that helps us read the environment and act quickly. As the logic gets reinforced it becomes second nature, almost unconscious. It affects what we see and the choices we make. As long as the world remains the same as when the logic was built, the models work well. But in a volatile and uncertain world all bets are off!
One of the great business stories of recent times has been the turnaround at Ford, which along with the rest of the American auto industry had been stuck in an era gone-by. Alan Mulally, who had the decided advantage of not being a car guy took over in 2006. Through novel lenses and with fresh eyes, he could see what industry veterans could not. He countered the historical truths and givens and reengineered the way the organization worked. Ford had been discussing single platform designs for years, but couldn’t get unstuck from the unique requirements of different geographies. Mulally proposed the “world car” and kept asking “why” and “why not” while paring costs and increasing quality. Overcoming patterns of success (and stuckness) doesn’t happen by osmosis. It requires a disciplined, deliberate and systematic effort!
Our work suggests that the failure to respond effectively to powerful moments of inflection is symptomatic of an underlying gap in developing the readiness and agility required to learn (not just manage) our way through the risk and opportunity of new challenges. Unless we reexamine our foundations – the logic and assumptions we relied upon to operate our businesses – we should not expect to be successful in reframing them to meet the demands of a VUCA environment.
Developing new capabilities and routines on top of an existing logic won’t work. The VUCA landscape demands that you identify and own areas of stuckness and disengage from habits and models that were designed for a stable world. The process of learning to lead in a volatile world needs to be put in the hands of the leaders themselves. Begin by redesigning your leadership development model and expenditures to put ongoing experiences in the foreground as the ideal raw material for low cost and low lead-time learning while performing. Sustain this by teaching leaders the capabilities and routines to be self-directed continuous learners who are equipped to capitalize on new challenges for which the manual has not yet been written.
Stop trying to rework a foundation designed for a time gone by and start making experience really matter by weaving powerful learning and development into the daily routine of your organization. Reframe your business to relish new opportunities and threats coming from unexpected directions.
Kerry Bunker, Ph.D., Art Gechman, Ph.D. and Jim Rush, Ph.D. are founders of MEM Partners. Info@MEMpartners.com