Thriving in the Modern World

“……..the single most common source of leadership failure we’ve been able to identify……. is where people, especially those in positions of authority, treat adaptive challenges like technical problems.” (Heifetz and Linsky 2002) .

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn”. – Alvin Toffler – Futurist (Borgelt and Falk 2007). ”

Surviving and Thriving in the Modern World

The key to adaptability in the modern world is not through some physical or intellectual advantage giving us a better chance to pass our genes on. In today’s complex and rapidly changing world, thriving and surviving is about being able to set aside our attachment to paradigms shaping how we see the world. It’s about seeing reality for what it really is, rather than how we may be perceiving it through the filters of our own experiences and stories. This article explains why adaptive change is necessary for organization and individual success and well being, what adaptive change is and how it differs from the way we tend to look at change today.

Systemic Change

Globally and particularly regionally, we are in the middle of increasingly rapid and profound systemic shifts in social, demographic, cultural, economic and technological conditions. These factors are both interlinked and coming at us all at once.   Companies are being required to do more with fewer resources in order to satisfy the material demands of Wall Street and other investors. In particular, unrealistic expectations of investors related to growth of their Asian and Chinese business put local subsidiaries and their employees under intense pressure. At the same time, young people in the region are relocating in droves to seek a better lives, following their dreams, going where the, often high pressure, work is. This further increases their mental overload and stress on the system as a whole. The talent crisis which is the region only exacerbates the pressure and, last but far from least, the advent of smartphones, videogames, social networking and the incredible amount of information being “pushed” at us, including information about all the things which we need to “have” in order to be happy, has created incredible mental overwhelm.

Impact on Individuals

The end result of the above is what has been called a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world. Our brains are now “wired” or conditioned to what The Potential Project calls the “PAID Paradigm”. Individuals are facing, simultaneously, a world of high Pressure, where they need to be Always-on, are “Information Overloaded and consequently highly distracted. For various reasons these circumstances of severe overwhelm create the conditions for a lack of mental effectiveness, loss of connection with longer-term goals and, ultimately significant drop offs in performance and mental health issues.

As part of this, we have given up on the incredibly valuable practice of reflection. It is known that periods of reflection are necessary to provide the space for the insights to occur which embed learning and create lasting change. It is during periods of reflection that we are able to review what we have been “up to” and whether we are on track with our goals, and whether our goals are in line with what we want to achieve, and plan the required adjustment if we are not. In modern Asia, what would have been reflection time is often taken up with such things as catching up with emails, obsessive addiction to (normally mobile) computer games or social networking like Wechat, Whatsapp, and the ubiquitous Facebook… “OMG.. I havent checked in for the past 3 seconds…”   any truly quiet time we get is not truly quiet! On the rare occasions we are not being engaged by external stimuli we find ourselves lost in rumination, worrying about the future or regretting something about the past. This continuous mental commentary is also, often, a distraction in itself and is not a truly reflective learning process.

In short, we are faced with Adaptive challenges. Individuals may be able to survive under such conditions but our ability to “thrive” or “flourish” is seriously threatened. In order to thrive we need to make skillful decisions in key moment of choice. To do this we need to keep a clear mind which is not afflicted by the perceptual distortion that the “overwhelm” described above tends to create.

The need for “Adaptive Agility”

The abovementioned conditions, particularly technological innovation, have contributed to a rapidly increasing rate of change in products and services. This is fueled by the consumer’s insatiable demand for further innovation and change. One obvious example of this the telephones which were being used in the mid-60s looked very similar to those in the mid-70s and the biggest innovation for a decade was the invention of “tone dialing” to replace rotary “pulse dialing”. These days people expect major innovation in mobile handsets (and tablets) on an annual basis !

All this is exacerbating the “adaptive” pressure on companies for continuous innovation and anticipation (or creation) of market needs. In such circumstances, corporate extinction can come quickly as agile and adaptive companies can survive, thrive and rise quickly. Look at how turnover of the Fortune 500 has been increasing over the past 50 years. Only 67 companies that were on the list in 1955 were still there in 2011 and more than 200 companies were lost to the list in the 10 years up to 1995. The average lifespan of a company on the S&P 500 list has decreased from 67 years in the 1920’s to under 15 today and some academics estimate that by 2020 half of the companies on this list will be ones we haven’t even heard of yet.

In order for organistions and individuals to survive and thrive in this tumult, they need to be agile. They need in particular to be able to keep clear heads and see opportunity and threat for what it is, without distortion due to being “stuck” in their own points of view. Companies who rigidly defend their point of view against the ebbs and flows of the market suffer rapid erosion of their market share. Just ask RIM (the makers of the Blackberry, which over a 15 year period went from nowhere to the market leader in handsets and back to virtual obscurity), Nokia or Motorola.

How do we create adaptive capacity? This is the domain of coaching for Vertical Development or what we at Transcend call “Transformational Coaching”.

What is Vertical Development

Imagine that there is a skill you need to learn or strengthen. An example may be that, as an airline pilot, you need to learn how to use a new navigation system or, perhaps, learn to fly a different aircraft. It may simply be that you need to learn to drive. This kind of challenge is that which Ronald Heifetz of Harvard University calls a “technical challenge” (Heifetz 1994). The learning of new skills or the strengthening of existing ones, typically through, for example, training or reading followed by practice, overcomes technical challenges. Generally, once you have learned the skill, you become, initially, consciously competent (i.e. you are able to undertake the task but need to think consciously about it as you do it). With more practice and repetition your brain will gradually rewire itself so that, ultimately, you can execute the tasks almost on autopilot. Technical learning implies that the information needed to become competent is available from either reading or from some “higher authority”. All we have to do is do the work.

Much of our learning is of this nature. Where answers can be found in book, manuals or standard operating procedures. This kind of learning we call “horizontal learning” for reasons which will become clearer later.

Vertical development, as opposed to horizontal learning, deals with circumstances where we need not only to learn something new or strengthen existing knowledge, but more to change something about “how” we know things, how we see things and how we actually experience and make sense of the world.

Adaptive change is what’s needed to solve many of the challenges of modern leadership. Problems for which there are no tried and tested solutions. Where there is no spirally bound manual of SOPs to help us.

In order for this kind change to occur there we need to challenge ourselves to see the world as it really is, rather than how it may be perceived by our “pattern forming” mind. The key to adaptive change is being able to deal with paradox and complexity. To be able to hold what others may see as opposites as true simultaneously and to “integrate differences”, To not being defensive by disagreement but instead maintaining a receptive, even curious, attitude, even about ones own reactions to surrounding phenomena. To not being “subject to” such things as our impulses, desire, emotions, assumptions, beliefs, biases and “world views” but instead to be able stand back from and look at all of these as “object”. Once we are able to do this we then are able to make conscious choices about whether we continue to be in their grip or whether they need to be challenged. Vertical development, in a nutshell, involves helping to bring what we are subconsciously “subject to” into our conscious awareness. In this way, we can better bridge the gap between what we know and, what we do with what we know in key moments of choice.

We call this kind of change “vertical development” because it is analogous to being able to get above ones current view and see the overall contexts and conditions. For example, imagine that you are a young person who has spent all of your life in a small tribe in Papua New Guinea. Having only ever interacted with your own tribespeople, you may be totally oblivious to the existence of anything outside your immediate area. Imagine being put in a helicopter and being lifted above to a height where, for the first time, you were able to see that you were just one of many settlements around you. As you continue to rise, these settlements get smaller and smaller and the individual details, while they are still there and you know they are there, disappear from your immediate perception and you can just see the shapes of the settlements. As you go higher even these fade and you are now able to see the outline of the whole country and you then know that these settlements are part of an even bigger system. So on and so forth. As you get higher, you notice that there is an entire world with many different settlements and systems. Some of these look very different from your own in size and shape, and are illuminated !. As you go higher you are transferred to a spacecraft and see that even this sphere is just one of many… and so on.

Some people, of course, have these faculties “naturally” as part of their nature. The good news, especially given the conditions of the modern world, is that developing this kind of agility or adaptability, the process of “vertical development” which until recently was thought to be simply a function of age or experience (particularly “breakdown” experiences), can be accelerated through Transformational Coaching.

“Levels” of Vertical Development

Development proceeds as we encounter what Martin Heidegger called “breakdowns in obviousness” (Wrathall 2005). These happen when suddenly something which seemed obvious to us is not longer so. An example may be if we move to a new culture. Over time we realize that we may need to change the way we think and feel about many things in order to be able to be fully functional and successful. Breakdowns create openings for development as we realize that the ways we think about ourselves, others, our behaviours, beliefs and even values we have held on to are no longer serving us and may need to change. We may need to challenge elements of our “worldview”.

To some extent, and for some more than others, development is a natural process that is part of life. But until quite recently it was believed that a person’s “core character” is substantially fixed during the early teens (Kegan 1995). They can learn new skills but traits like emotional set points and the things that trigger various emotions (and why) don’t change. For the most part people get more and more entrenched in their points of view as they get older.

The great news is that, yes, you can “teach an old dog new tricks”.

Borgelt, K. and I. Falk (2007). “The leadership/management conundrum: innovation or risk management?” Leadership & Organization Development Journal 28(2): 122-136.

Heifetz, R. A. (1994). Leadership without easy answers, Harvard University Press.

Heifetz, R. A. and M. Linsky (2002). “Leadership on the line.” Harvard Business School Press, Boston.

Kegan, R. (1995). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life, Harvard University Press.

Wrathall, M. A. (2005). How to read Heidegger, Granta Books.

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