Thursday, April 30, 2009

Leading in an Interconnected World: Black and White is Out, Wild Cards and Probabilities are In

The “revolutionary physics” of our world can’t be managed by thinking in black and white. Are we convinced yet?

The relentless onslaught of “surprises”, such as the Mexican swine flu, underscores that big brains are needed. Not just among leaders and managers. All of us. Whether we like it or not, we are being forced to anticipate, adapt and act speedily in the face of surprises and work harder and smarter on the anticipation part.

Educators have long recognized that the world is in dire need of and has a severe deficit of adaptive learners. The May-June 2009 Futurist has devoted almost the entire issue to anticipating and preparing for “wild cards”. As a backdrop, it reports that the Association of American Colleges and Universities is highlighting more than ever that critical reasoning and integrative thinking must be at the top of the skills list for all graduating students. While always an important goal, the drumbeat is getting louder.

Putting this into the context of leading and managing, we need a rapid escalation in the numbers of leaders and managers who are “adaptive”. These are men and women who can function well when conditions are not optimal or when situations are unpredictable. They can get on with the task demands when the problems are messy and require “thinking out of the box”, improvising and negotiating with others to seek out shared interests.

These capabilities are inherent requirements in high risk jobs in societies around the world. Military personnel, firefighters, police, airline pilots and paramedics, for example, know they must “think on their feet”, value the team and loosen up on hierarchy. Now, the rest of us must get on with adding “adaptive leadership” to our tool kit.

Where does one start? Based on what we know from leaders who succeed in the long run, the first step is to be open to this way of being. Not all of us have “open personalities”. Barack Obama does. George Bush did not to the degree necessary given the situations he faced. Openness is correlated with curiosity, creativity and love of learning. These can be cultivated. Messy situations provide perfect places in which to practice.

The dynamic forces of our world societies today better suit a leader like Barack Obama. He’s an outsider. He embraces “geeks”. He doesn’t separate the world into winners and losers. He’s on the lookout for what works. He’s ready to listen and learn. He knows he will be held accountable for mistakes that occur on his watch. He doesn’t fight unpredictability, he embraces it. He understands and works with probabilities.

Joshua Cooper Ramo expresses this way as a “quantum view” coined by the famous physicist Niels Bohr. In his book, The Age of the Unthinkable, Ramo describes the signal for activating the quantum view when you face something strange and “mad” in your environment such that your mind says, “Are you kidding?”

Ramo likes the gardening analogy for leadership used by Friedrich von Hayek in his acceptance speech for the 1974 Nobel Prize in economics. Hayek was quite disconcerted with our simple treatment of complex phenomena. He urged us not to try to bend history as “the craftsman shapes his handiwork, but rather to cultivate growth by providing the right environment, in the manner a gardener does for his plants.” To do so requires a revolution, letting go of our view as architects or builders controlling a system to gardeners cultivating a living ecosystem.

From a leader-manager vantage point as well as a citizen of the world, “wild cards”, surprises, messy situations and probabilities become the welcome drivers of change.

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