In a former career (nearly 30 years ago) I trained as a geologist.
Years of peering through microscopes in palaeontology laboratories taught me one cold, hard, fact.
Organisms who fail to adapt to changing conditions soon disappear from the fossil record.
They become extinct, not just because they were unable to adapt quickly but because other organisms adapted faster and more effectively than they did to thrive in the new prevailing environmental conditions.
Their inability to change sufficiently to exploit new opportunities records their former existence as echoes in the fossil record.
History documents which organisms failed to adapt and those who did and continued to expand and thrive.
We are not suggesting that modern humans are about to become extinct (Although Donald, Vladimir and many others might have other plans).
However, while our brain structure has remained the same for the last 35,000 years or so, the demands of work environments we operate within have changed drastically, in a very short space of time, the last twenty years or so.
What we now refer to as the fourth industrial revolution.
In this revolution, it is not so much what is done that is the challenge for our minds, but how it’s done.
The challenge is that businesses and leadership face, how to adapt thinking within a very short time frame to survive and thrive.
The nature of work has changed in such a drastic way that that the way we think, and process information has not been able to change with the same speed. In effect, there is a cognitive chasm between what is required by complex work environments and the way we currently think and behave.
As humans much of our thinking is aligned to environments that don’t change or that change slowly or predictably. The new VUCA workplace is not that place.
“Working in and with uncertainty, is the new certainty” – Coaching Leadership Pty, 2019
What are different ways of thinking and being we able to embrace now that can overcome our innate hardwiring for a love of linearity and certainty that does not serve us when we need to operate within complex adaptive systems?
The mass extinction of the dinosaurs at the Cretaceous/Jurassic boundary will be just as unforgiving to leaders and businesses as markets will be today.
There is one harsh truth that operates within highly complex environments, adapt or dis out.
The risk of clinging to current ways of thinking and behaving is that we may become no longer relevant, think. Nokia, think Kodak.
What we need to overcome
Here’s the thing, like it or not, we think in what are quite simple and mostly automatic terms.
Our brains like to order people and events in simplistic and biased ways.
Not because we consciously think to do this intently, but because it’s easier and faster for our brains to do so.
For a large part of our day, we operate in an automatic mode, not questioning or thinking too deliberately about how or why we do things.
We know that when we apply simplistic thinking to complex issues things can go wrong.
For the most part, when we attempt to fix complex problems with simple solutions, unexpected unfavourable outcomes usually occur.
When we pull on one side of a complex adaptive system, think of a spider’s web, we never quite know or can predict what the effect will be to other parts of the spider web (the system) and how it might respond.
Think about the wonder of antibiotics; many of us are still alive due to these lifesaving medications.
When they were developed, they were hailed as a miracle, no one at that time predicted that their future use would lead to even more virulent forms of bacteria.
When we make changes inside complex systems, the unexpected outcomes can arise.
Sometimes however simple solutions do have a place, think climate change and the solution of reducing CO2 emissions, this is one example where there is a simple solution to mitigate what is a complex issue.
However, simple solutions are usually the exception rather than the rule.
There is much evidence that the application of simple and linear thinking is rife in leadership and businesses today.
Rewind to the royal commission into banking and recall how leaders who set targets to sell products contributed to employees acting dishonestly to reach these targets.
No one thought to predict that setting sales targets would result in selling deceased people financial services or products they obviously did not need.
However, these are the challenges we face in working within complex adaptive systems.
The bad news is the way we currently think, and lead others is not enough to adapt, thrive and flourish in the unfolding new world of work.
The evidence for this?
Again, the banking royal commission, this where most of our most successful Australian banks and insurance companies ended up.
These were not untrained, uneducated people who had no idea what they were doing.
However, their lack of capability from a systems thinking perspective led them to create strategies and leadership practices that end up damaging the very thing they intended to grow, their organisation.
How do we change?
Now the good news.
There is a way to think differently that does not require us to time travel to the future so that our brains can evolve further.
We can learn to think and behave in a different way that can compensate for our natural inclination to simplify and make a mess of complex situations by applying simple solutions.
The hard part is that it takes some sweat and commitment.
“We cannot solve our current problems from the same level of consciousness uses to create them” – Albert Einstein
The change does not come from acquiring more information, and it comes from how from we process and act on the information we already possess.
It’s called vertical leadership development.
The goal of vertical leadership development is to create greater perspective-taking capacity in leaders.
The process of vertical leadership coaching is to challenge the assumptions we hold about ourselves and the world we operate in so that we are better able to make more creative rather than reactive choices.
Vertical leadership development is about meeting the adaptive challenge of living and working with ongoing change and uncertainty.
A situation most of us have not been trained to deal with.
This leadership development approach helps leaders to increase perspective-taking capacity and meet challenges in a head on in an adaptive way.
The approach is based on Robert Kegan’s stages of adult development.
It consists of three key elements: –
- The what – Heat Experiences – The leader is exposed to new complex issues that challenge and disrupt long held habitual thinking and ways of operating. In these situations, leaders come to the realisation that their own current cognitive tool kit is inadequate to get the job done. This creates the insight that a new way of conceptualising the problem is required. This first stage Initiates change.
- The how – Exposure to new perspectives – The coaching journey exposes the leader to people with diverse opinions, backgrounds and ways of seeing the world. The purpose of these new relationships is to challenge current mental models and show leaders that there are multiple ways of seeing a single issue. Coaching is combined with mentoring relationships and team coaching as a means to expose leaders to diverse viewpoints and leadership capability.
This second stage enables change.
- The who – Elevated Sensemaking – Coaching focuses in helping leaders to integrate this new perspective taking capacity. Making sense of these new perspectives and experiences from more a more elevated stage of adult development. Overtime a more sophisticated world view emerges.
This third stage integrates change.
Many of us understand it is not others that hold us back in our own leadership journey, mostly we tend to get in our own way of developing to meeting more complex challenges.
A key part of this development enables leaders to develop greater levels of emotional regulation.
One of the critical questions we ask leaders to keep front of mind when talking about their emotional responses within the coaching conversation is “do you have them (emotions/reactions to events)
Or, do you they have you?
Gaining this insight is one of key drivers of change in the developmental journey.
We know from the coaching psychology research literature that leaders who have greater emotional regulation and emotional agility deliver better outcomes.
Notice we said agility, better emotional regulation is not about becoming an unfeeling robot.
Greater emotional regulation and agility is about knowing when to be empathetic, when to be kind, and when push hard on the pedal.
It is in developing context based emotional agility to adaptive challenges that leadership growth occurs.
Allowing leaders to respond more creatively and adaptivity to complex challenges.
What can you do next?
You as an individual or as a business need to decide if you can risk staying the same?
Change is hard but worth the effort.
And we feel it’s time for you to determine if you need and want to evolve?
What is your other choice?
We would love to talk to you about continuing to adapt and thrive!