Now what? Standstill, regression or evolutionary development?
Some months ago I stumbled across a statement, which was given by a CEO of one of the largest enterprises in Germany, who said:”… Hopefully, someday in the near future, we will be able to laugh at how complex we used to be.” It was after an outburst of emotion, when confronted with a situation, which was too unbelievably counterintuitive for him and his board colleagues.
Today, many people desperately long for clarity and guidance about “How this is going to turn out.” Formal leaders (especially politicians) feel obliged to present a clear direction, give orientation and have THE answer. The promises, which are given in these circumstances sound like:”We will do everything we can, to re-establish the live, which we are used to!” What if, nobody can realistically promise anything about how our future looks like?
The systemic forces to stabilize the “current way”are strong
What if, by blindly doing that, we cement a system, which brought us to the point, where we are now? What if, the system we are used to has served its purpose and now it is time to “move on”? What if, the answer of how this “moving on” can be accomplished does not exist yet and still we have no other “healthy” alternative than collectively make it happen?
Isn’t it us, who re-enact this system every minute by what we think we must do? So, isn’t it us, who can decide to change the game? We can choose which parts we keep and where we want to choose a different path.
One lesson, which COVID-19 tells us, is that change can happen very quickly. Within days many aspects of our lives, which we took for granted, have been disrupted. Most of our systems are everything, but stable.
Let’s look at our enterprises: not everywhere, but mostly, we follow the paradigm of ever more growth in terms of financial results. The pro-claimed purpose vanishes, as soon as the objectives, which were communicated to shareholders, are endangered. The “machine” is rationally optimized and strained to an extent, where no buffer nor flexibility remains to look up and take a breath. “Heads down and pedal, pedal, pedal… otherwise we ll drain!”
What is it really, that threatens us?
Let’s look on the individual level: here the threat is becoming real for the vast majority of the population. The human-made, machine-like system, we are all used to, prevents us from reflecting deeply and we double down on every end, but seem to get nowhere. It depends, where you live on the planet, but in the worst cases letting go means, that you cannot feed your kids anymore. You find yourself in an existential crisis within days, if you are not already day-by-day.
Wealth and power is distributed very unevenly and those who objectively would have the opportunity to pause, reflect and “change the game”, feel no less forced to “deliver”. In this case it is not a physical, but a psychological, inner force.
What a dilemma?! What’s the way out?
Coming back to the CEO’s wish to turn back time: it will not happen. The world around us will not change and become less complex. We have to acknowledge our VUCA reality first and understand that the complexity only overwhelms us, because our collective “sense-making logic”is not complex enough to cope with it. We rely on “leaders” to explain a complex world in simple terms and create an illusion, where one “right way” exists. The world, where this was possible does not exist anymore – not since this generation. We still vastly think and organize, like our parents and grandparents did, who lived in a different world.
Give up the illusion to predict future
Now what? We see already signs of the future in action. Countries – especially the former Tiger states in Asia – show us, how to “act as a whole” during a crisis. “Post-modern” organizations show us how to handle the complexity and be in the “driver’s seat” as a collective – some people call this form of organization “business agility”. In both cases the results speak for themselves – COVID-19 is under control in Taiwan and remote-work is “the normal” since years for enterprises, which thrive. These organizations are able to “sense and respond” and most of them can relatively easy adapt to the situation. You can even observe, that values and principles of so called agile-lean forms of thinking have many similarities, with those of buddhism-inspired cultures. For such cultures “the right way” does not exist.
From where did such evolutionary more complex and therefor more successful practices and organizational architectures arise? It is interesting to observe, that in both cases the inner development of the individual and especially of the leaders’ mindset beyond materialism plays a very important role in such cultures.
Now let’s pick up the 3 alternatives from the title, some major directions, which we can take right now – as individuals, as teams, organizations and as society.
1) Standstill: we say, that what we currently experience needs to “go by” to come “back to normal”. We double-down on efforts, safe “system-relevant” industries, take up huge debts, tell people, that we can predict future, outperform competition and start to focus on “economic growth” again and maybe find ourselves in the same situation some years from now, when we get hit by the next symptom of our VUCA world.
2) Regression: we say, that we need to turn back time. We close borders, we stand by each other as nations, we instate a “strong leader”, follow “our ideology” of the right way, which seemed to work so well for our parents and grandparents – at least from distance. Most probably we will find out, that this is a very destructive path.
3) Development: We open up to our reality, let go of what we think is right and think about, what it is really, who we are? What matters for us? What is growth? What is success? Why are we here and how do we want to be with each other? Open up to sustainable transformation, find sustainable, innovate ways, which have not existed so far. We keep, what’s healthy for us, get rid of the unhealthy aspects of our current way and as a whole, we develop ourselves.
Follow your highest-possible self
Those of us, who are privileged enough and do not fight every day to physically survive, are asked to lead, experiment with new ways, where we learn to “act as a whole”. It is a new form of leadership, which shows up in every decision. Consider what is really valuable for us as a whole and have clear priorities, e.g. the following items in mind *:
- Impact over Profit,
- Consciousness over Rationality,
- Outcome over Process,
- Humanity over Advantage.
There will always be “leaders” who ignore or neglect reality. They maybe still focus on the items on the right in this very moment or wait to “switch back” as soon as possible. Remember this moment, when you choose your leaders, next time. What are the types of leaders do you want to follow?
For a human system of any size, I believe , that we need to be in a crisis first to go on the transformation journey. The crisis teaches us, what is the core of who we are. It gives us powers, which we never thought to be possible during “pedaling” in the hamster wheel. If this is not the time to reflect on that, when is?
So, here are some pieces of advice, which might sound very counter-intuitive to some people in leadership positions, but I strongly believe in during these times:
- Avoid to micro-manage the crisis, but let teams self-organize. Give direction, clarify the intention and ask your teams, what they need. Serve them!
- Involve people, who you think are not relevant in finding the solution. Especially the “troublemakers”.
- Consider, that the relationships, which were built over a long period of time, are of immense value. Don’t destroy them by massively laying off people in a panic reaction. Hold the space for your teams now, because there is a future and you will need them.
- Let go! Forget about competition, conforming with inhuman orders or your next career step now!
- Mindfully breathe for some minutes every day! Find your inner peace in the midst of crisis – unbelievably creative ideas arise from that.
- Be open and ‚hold’ different perspectives on this current situation in every conversation you have : rather than debating about ‚the right way‘ forward, listen to the perspectives of our conversation partners deeply. ‚The way forward‘ does not exist yet, but by integrating all voices of “your” system (true for organisational units of any size), you ll find higher level solutions
- This one is no advice, but an offer: Feel free to contact me, if you are in a leadership position and need a conversation partner during tough times. We are in this together.
* This is an invitation to refine this list, because it is for sure not complete.