One of the upsides and downsides of the “shelter in place” due to the COVID-19 pandemic has been that I have a very short commute (walking down the hall). I used to listen to a lot of podcasts on my slow commute across Silicon Valley. I miss that, a bit (the podcasts, not the traffic). One thing I have been able to do is read more long-form – books!
Several books stand out to me with their astute insights about how we must adapt to the fluidity of our new world. Now, more than ever, we’re living in a VUCA world – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. The environment is changing rapidly, and the rate of change is accelerating.
Thomas Friedman calls out “3 M’s” of accelerators – Moore’s Law (technology), the Market (globalization) and Mother Nature (global warming).1 These changes are impacting organizations as well as individuals. In the context of these accelerators, Friedman promotes the idea of “dynamic stability” – where you only get a sense of stability by moving forward, like the balance you get by pedaling a bike.
Additionally, as 100+ year life spans become the norm in developed nations, the post-World War II three-phase lifestyle of “educate, work, retire” will have to change.2 A high school diploma or college degree earned at age 20 won’t be relevant 60 years later when you retire at age 80. How do we cope?
With Freidman’s concept of dynamic stability, it’s much more than learning to ride the bike and stay on the path (make changes to keep abreast of the market). That was step 1. We also have to increase our flexibility and resilience because, like it or not, more changes are coming. Tomorrow, the bike path becomes the Alpine climb of the Tour de France – we’ll need leaders who are great climbers to take the lead. The next day, we may be descending, and leaders with different skills will be in demand. Next week, the path may turn into a single-track mountain biking route and we’ll need to change both equipment and riders. This VUCA world presents an incredible opportunity for those willing to step up, but it requires cultivating ease with uncertainty.
Dr. Bob Johansen postulates that everything that can be distributed will be distributed – workforces, organizations, supply chains, etc.3 Adaptive, “shapeshifting” organizations will be the most successful. Consider a conventional army (or corporate entity), which tends to be hierarchical, command & control, and centralized compared to a special forces unit (or start up) that shapeshifts fluidly, grows from the edges with transient hierarchies and executes with agility.
One corporate example is the shift IBM underwent from selling mainframes to the emerging Watson / AI fluid-partnership business model. Other examples include Enspiral, a distributed network of social enterprise ventures, Consensus, an Ethereum blockchain developer and Prismwork, an agile consultancy enabling 21st Century Leadership. Key differentiators of these organizations is that anyone can propose changes (non-hierarchical) and they operate in a physically distributed manner.
Gratton & Scott make a case for lifelong learning and periodic renewal/restoration with a portfolio career. Each of us may need to shift between learning and leading multiple times to hone new skills as we create a dynamic career path. We’ll also need to build in periods of renewal for ourselves and our families to be able to take on the relentless pace of progress.
Which part of the “bike ride” is your specialty? How will you increase your flexibility and resiliency so you can shapeshift to adapt to our VUCA world?
1 Friedman, T. L. (2017). Thank you for being late an optimist’s guide to thriving in the age of accelerations. Penguin Books. Thomas Friedman is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, columnist at the New York Times, and author of The World is Flat and The Lexus and the Olive Tree. This book articulates three “M” accelerators – Moore’s Law, the Market, and Mother Nature. The pace of technology is driving businesses to seek “dynamic stability” – stability while moving, like when you ride a bike or paddle a kayak.
2 Gratton, L., & Scott, A. (2016). The 100-year life. London: Bloomsbury Information.
With lifespans in Western society extending beyond 100 years, how will we educate, work and retire? The first 2/3 of the book are about how you can afford retirement on a long lifespan, and the last 1/3 of the book asks questions about the implications to business, government, education, society, and environment.
3 JOHANSEN, B. (2017). NEW LEADERSHIP LITERACIES: Thriving in a future of extreme disruption and distributed everything. READHOWYOUWANT COM.
Over the next decade, today’s connected world will be explosively more connected. Anything that can be distributed will be distributed: workforces, organizations, supply webs, and more. The tired practices of centralized organizations will become brittle in a future where authority is radically decentralized. Rigid hierarchies will give way to liquid structures.