But What If We Don't Love Chaos?

ARTICLE | Feb 6, 2014

“What defines GenFlux is a mindset that embraces instability and that tolerates and even enjoys recalibrating careers, business models, and assumptions. Not everyone will join Generation Flux but to be successful, businesses and individuals will have to work at it.

This is no simple task. The vast bulk of our institutions—governmental, educational, corporate, political—are not built for flux. Few traditional career tactics train us for an era where the most important skill is the ability to acquire new skills.” 
—Robert Safian, Editor, Fast Company, January 9, 20121

When Fast Company magazine’s editor Robert Safian first coined the phrase “Generation Flux” some two years ago, boy did it resonate! Suddenly, the uncertainty, instability, and chaos people had all been feeling for at least a decade, including during and after the Great Recession, had a name. Generation Flux, by the way, is a buzzword and not a demographic designation for employees who work in a chaotic environment.

His Fast Company article and a follow-up one that was published in October 2012 did a brilliant job of showcasing the mindsets of people and hot, Flux-friendly, private-sector companies like Nike, Mashable, and Foursquare. But what about the rest of us?

What about the more, well, sedate institutions Safian mentions in his quote? What about established organizations whose employees don’t naturally love chaos and live fearlessly (perhaps local governments)? What about uncool, unhip, and frankly, scared-out-of-our-wits, old-school workers with kids who have to be fed and mortgages that have to be paid?

Don’t worry: There is hope for “reluctant fluxers,” too.

YOU CAN GET THERE

It’s true that we all need to work in new ways to keep up with the supercharged velocity of change that defines the global economy. And it’s true that leaders need to encourage a sense of urgency in the people they are counting on to carry out the work.

That sense of urgency, however, needs to energize, not paralyze. We want people excited about the future, not feeling like it’s some kind of alien universe. We need to let them know, in no uncertain terms, that they can get there from here.

Many people desperately need to hear this message. While globalism has opened infinite doors, it has also made decisions exponentially more complex. Markets, governments, and cultures are shifting. Technology is altering everything from the way we buy and sell to the way we communicate to the way we perceive the world. And all of this manifests in pure chaos—the dismaying sense that you can’t predict or control anything about your environment.

In other words, we can’t make long-term plans because market conditions change violently and rapidly. The goals we’re working toward won’t hold still. Yesterday’s “must-haves” aren’t even factors today. We struggle to communicate with team members who perhaps live miles away and perhaps speak English as a second language.

We’re not just playing one game whose rules we don’t know and whose boundaries are unclear; we’re playing many such games. No one knows who will get the prizes in the end, and for what. And when people don’t know what their next move should be, they shut down.

ADOPTING THE ADAPTIVE ACTION APPROACH

We think that less-adventurous organizations can move from where they are to where they need to be with an adaptive action model. Adaptive action is as simple as it is powerful. It is a cycle of three questions that are repeated again and again.

They are repeated in moments when a meeting goes off agenda, in hours when crisis requires rapid response, in days or years when plans are disrupted by unexpected events. Single people, pairs or teams, organizations, and whole communities have used adaptive action to thrive in flux-filled environments.

The three questions are simple, but not always easy: What? So what? Now what?

What patterns shape the current situation? What do you observe, see, hear, know? What is happening? What did you and others expect? What surprises? What builds or releases tension? What is working or not working?

So what does the pattern suggest for action and future opportunities? What do the patterns mean? What do others think or see? What might you do and what might be the results?

What are the interconnections that will cause ripples across these and other patterns? And, what do current patterns mean for how people work and spend time together?

Now what will I do to change the pattern? What information should I share? What responses can I expect to my actions? What alliances might I build? What future paths might appear? What will I do to see how patterns change when I take action?

These questions provide a lifeline for those who feel uncomfortable with flux but nonetheless have to work in a chaotic environment. Here are several reasons why adaptive action allows people to leverage uncertainty and thrive in chaos:

WHY CHAOS IS DOABLE

There are patterns in chaos. Once we learn to see patterns, we can take action that makes sense. We worked with an organization that was experiencing overwhelming confusion about a new service. But after applying the “three questions” exercise, it became clear that the problem boiled down to communication issues inside the player organizations—not problems with service, training, or user documentation.

Once the organization saw the pattern emerge, employees were able to say, ‘Oh, okay, this is the problem; this is what we need to change.’ Without that insight, they might have gone back to the drawing board and tinkered with the service provisions some more. This would have wasted time and energy and would have done nothing to tackle the root of the problem—and of course, these communication issues would have reared their heads again at some other place and time.

You don’t always have to see the future. You only have to clearly see the present. A lot of anxiety is generated when organizations prepare to compete in a future they can’t see. And while a certain amount is inevitable—and actually beneficial as it creates the urgency that drives action—anxiety can spiral out of control if the plans made aren’t firmly grounded in reality.

Adaptive action forces a brutally honest assessment of current resources and challenges. This reveals true potential for future success, while a blue-sky vision only frustrates and disappoints. Being honest about the present takes certain options off the table, but that’s a good thing. People tend to do better when we have fewer choices—this is why, for example, a small boutique is easier to shop in than a huge department store.

Some of the old solutions still work. You don’t have to start from scratch. Knowing that the entire system doesn’t have to be scrapped comes as a relief to less adventurous souls who are sufficiently overwhelmed about the new things they have to learn. The trick is to be able to see what fits with old solutions and what requires new. (That’s why we call it adaptive action.)

Traditional command-and-control in production and distribution are just as important as flux-inspired exploration and innovation in product design and customer service. The familiarity of the old ways soothes and reassures, which makes room for excitement about the new stuff.

You can still plan. You just need to plan for a month ahead, not a year ahead (and certainly not five years ahead). When you’re in flux, you can see some things clearly and others not at all. Planning processes must be agile enough to fit both. This means tight prediction and control for close-and-clear information horizons and broad-brush, directional planning for what is fuzzy and far away.

We teach people that if a situation is highly diverse, massively entangled, and dependent on history, then they have to use looser planning. On the other hand, if there are few moving parts and few changing forces, they can plan more tightly.

The pressure to find “the one true answer” is off. In a workplace defined by chaos, no single solution works in all places. The one thing we know for sure about complex systems is that no two are alike, and no one is the same moment to moment. Even if a structured solution worked for that one person at one point in time, there is no reason to believe that it will work in the future. You need a solution that’s flexible enough to allow for multiple paths to success.

Adaptive action fosters such solutions. Not expecting a single solution is both a blessing and a curse. Free from the fear of “getting it wrong,” one can experience the fear of “not getting it right.” Adaptive action is an antidote to both because it replaces right and wrong solutions with “best fit for current knowledge.” Adaptive action also helps you fail fast and learn faster. That’s a good thing, because once you realize what doesn’t work, you’re one step closer to what does work.

It’s okay to make mistakes. Our friends in agile IT management have addressed this nicely. They work in small cycles of adaptive action, so no one ever goes too far wrong. They hold continuing dialogues about what people see and learn, so each person gets the benefits of all. They explore surprise with an open but critical eye, so every mistake leads to learning.

These conditions can allow a team to move forward as fast as it needs to while limiting the amount if not the number of risks. When uncertainty is a given, and the future is unknowable, the only way to mitigate risks is to try something, see if it works, learn from the experience, and try again. Adaptive action is the only hedge against the risks of chaos.

You can give up your desire to win. Winning is possible only in finite games. With a single goal and scorecard, and clear rules and boundaries, you can build a winning strategy and compete for the prize. In the world of flux, goals, scores, rules, and boundaries change all the time, so it is impossible to win. Instead, you have to play an infinite game where the goal is to keep playing. Scorecards, rules, and boundaries adjust over time to involve everyone, including customers and competitors, in games of sustainable collaboration.

State-of-the-art technology, customer service, environmental sustainability, corporate social responsibility, global economics—all are infinite games. Yet finite games don’t disappear in the world of flux. Even the most flux-friendly person has a bank account and a place to live. The difference is that GenFlux always remembers that the finite games are played within the infinite ones.

World-class chefs know how to chop, and master artists clean their brushes—they know that the predictable games make the infinite ones possible. In this larger universe, the purpose is to keep the flux-inspired game going, and that requires basic skills of traditional play.

It is fun. Remember the most exciting and satisfying and fun thing you ever did? What made it fun? For most people, the delight comes from discovering new surprises and overcoming seemingly impossible odds. The world of flux is full of surprises and impossibilities, and with adaptive action you will play the game and rediscover the delight of discovery.

Working this way feels less like work and more like play. It’s not that you’re working any less; it’s that you’re invigorated and motivated rather than anxious, confused, and weighed down. Even the people who kick the hardest and scream the loudest when they’re dragged into this brave new work world will eventually admit that the change has been good for them.

Underneath our dislike for change, I think there is a part of humanity that wants to be challenged. There is real fulfillment in overcoming these challenges, in mastering new skills, in gaining fresh insights.

 

ENDNOTE

1 The online publication Fast Company ran a series about Generation Flux:http://www.fastcomany.com/section/generation-fluxhttp://www.fastcompany.com/3001734/secrets-generation-flux.

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