Two young fish are swimming along, past an older fish, swimming the other way, who nods and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?”
The two young fish swim on for a bit, when one looks over at the other and asks, “What the hell is water?”*
The WTF Moment
Every day we see something similar. We talk to people, either on our ThinkWTF podcast or when meeting to chat about how to thrive in these crazy times. It’s that moment when you sit back and say to yourselves,
“WTF do I do now?”
I am sure you know what I mean. I know I have had more than my fair share over the year. I am sure you have as well.
The Calm, Mechanical Waters of Change
Change has always happened, but it was easy to manage. There were a lot of pauses between the moments of change. It made things a lot easier and we could predict things with more certainty.
Our strategy was to stay the same. We created some form of competitive advantage. We then designed a system to defend our position, to hold the territory.
There was a clean logic to this approach. It was all very mechanical — and natural. It easy to break things down into their independent parts and to manage each part in isolation. It was easy to do this when change was not moving at warped speed.
The Machine That Broke …
When things broke, we fix them. When wanted to make things more efficient, we improve them. When things did not work as planned, we had time to redesign them.
It gave us the illusion of control over our domains and our perceived ability to manage our future. It was easy to create a change strategy to stay the same.
And it worked. We got here, didn’t we!
The Disruptive Waters Change
But things changed. The calm waters of our two friendly fish turned into rapids. I am sure the two fish asked the same question we are all asking now: “WTF is going on? Everything’s Changed! WTF do we Do?”
What has changed for us is the speed of change. It started moving at breakneck speed. We even gave it a new name: Digital Disruption.
And it’s causing chaos. We see strange things happening. Just as we tweak some part of our business, another pops up in pain. That is if we have the time to even fix the broken parts, let alone to play around and redefine them!
So, what does it mean?
It means we have to stop looking at our business as a machine of independent parts. It means need to start seeing a dynamic system, operating in bigger, faster system of change. It means we need to see our business as a network of inter-related relationships, that move in relation to each other.
And it means we need to change our thinking to start solving problems in the way an open system does.
An Adaptive, Self-Organising Living System
Everything is a system and we need to start seeing everything as a system. From the way we think. to our families. The traffic we travel every day. The markets we operate in. The business we work in. Everything. And every system is different.
Quantum Physic is one of the purest open systems that we can observe. It shows us how the world works, in a beautiful, simple, and clear way. It’s a good starting point — and don’t worry — this won’t get all dancing wu-lu from here. But here are three critical characteristics that are important:
- Identity, which provides purpose. It defines the systems focus. It provides the limits of go, no-go zones and shapes your growth. I like to think of this as the strategic intention. It’s more action orientated than vague visions and values. It’s less about a 5-year plan and more about the framework that defines behaviour. It gives you boundaries. Intention built on a real customer problem and your internal capacity and ability.
- Information and the flow of information. An intelligent system is one where the information flows to every point. Compare a traffic jam to a flock of birds. The latter has perfect flow, working in unison. The previous has information breaks and blockages and causes massive frustration and waste. We see this payout in organisations. When leadership makes decisions with limited information, things break. Staff perform better when they can, respond and adapt to free-flowing information.
- Relationships: Nothing in a system exists in isolation. Everything moves, connected to everything else, in a meaningful and relevant way. Understanding the systems’ behaviour gives you insight into the relationships. Understanding this behaviour in this context is a key management tool. It’s the opposite of the static, mechanical model. . .
How To Manage the Open, Living System
The three points show us that structure follows identity, information and relationships. It gives us an insight into why a static fixed, inflexible structure goes bust today. It’s a matter of time.
The dev world has birthed the idea of agile. It’s expanded into a process like the lean startup, design thinking methodologies. But please, let’s not get caught up in labels like agile, lean, design thinking.
Rather you need to look deeper at the principles. You need to understand what they mean to you within the context of your system. This will allow you to adapt your organisation in a way that is unique and different. It will allow you to thrive.
What’s The Future, What’s Your Future?
As Einstein is famous for saying “If you want to change the results, change what you do.” And this is what our environment is there for. Adapt or die!
Here are three practical ideas to get you started:
- It’s about the customer. Not you. Focus on their real problem.
- It’s about small, adaptive teams that can change their structure and purpose. This is based on the problem they are solving and their ability to receive information.
- Be patient and don’t panic. This is about understanding networks. You need to learn how to think differently. And this may be the hardest part!
Now, over to you!
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*David Foster Wallace was invited to speak to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College on a subject of his choosing. It was the only such address he ever made. I have simplified his wording a bit, but go read the book. It’s brilliant.
Originally published at michaelcowen.co.za.