When Fast Company’s Robert Safian first coined the phrase “Generation Flux” a little over a year ago, boy, did it resonate! Suddenly, the uncertainty, instability, and chaos we’d all been feeling for at least a decade had a name. His article (and the follow-up published in October) did a brilliant job of showcasing the mindsets of hip young entrepreneurs (the type who wear trendy nerd-glasses and slouchy jeans) and hot Flux-friendly companies like Nike, Mashable, and Foursquare. But what about the rest of us?
What about more, well, sedate institutions? What about established companies whose employees don’t naturally love chaos and live fearlessly? What about uncool, unhip, and frankly, scared-out-of-our-wits old-school workers with kids we have to feed and mortgages we have to pay?
Don’t worry: there is hope for us reluctant fluxers, too!
It’s true that we all need to work in new ways to keep up with the supercharged velocity of change that defines the global economy. And it’s true that leaders need to encourage a sense of urgency in the people we’re counting on to carry out the work.
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However, that sense of urgency needs to energize, not paralyze. We want people excited about the future, not feeling like it’s some kind of alien universe. We need to let them know, in no uncertain terms, that they can get there from here.
Many people desperately need to hear this message. While globalism has opened infinite doors, it has also made decisions exponentially more complex. Markets, governments and cultures are shifting. Technology is altering everything from the way we buy and sell to the way we communicate to the way we perceive the world. And all of this manifests in pure chaos — the dismaying sense that you can’t predict or control anything about your environment.
In other words, we can’t make long-term plans because market conditions change violently and rapidly. The goals we’re working toward won’t hold still. Yesterday’s “must-haves” aren’t even factors today. We struggle to communicate with team members who live 7,000 miles away and speak English as a second (or third or fourth) language.
We’re not just playing one game whose rules we don’t know and whose boundaries are unclear; we’re playing many such games. No one knows who will get the prizes in the end, and for what. And when people don’t know what their next move should be, they shut down.
Helping less-adventurous organizations move from where they are to where they need to be is what I, and coauthor Royce Holladay, do for a living. We deploy our Adaptive Action model inside big corporations, slow-moving school systems and government agencies mired in bureaucracy.
Adaptive Action is as simple as it is powerful. It is a cycle of three questions that are repeated again and again. They are repeated in moments when a meeting goes off agenda, in hours when crisis requires rapid response, in days or years when plans are disrupted by unexpected events. Single people, pairs or teams, organizations and whole communities have used Adaptive Action to thrive in flux-filled environments.
The three questions are simple, but not always easy: What? So what? Now what?
What patterns shape the current situation? What do you observe, see, hear, know? What is happening? What did you and others expect? What surprises? What builds or releases tension? What is working or not working?
So what does the pattern suggest for action and future opportunities? So what do the patterns mean? So what do others think or see? So what might you do and what might be the results? So what are the interconnections that will cause ripples across these and other patterns? So what do current patterns mean for how people work and play together?
Now what will I do to change the pattern? Now what information should I share? Now what responses can I expect to my actions? Now what alliances might I build? Now what future paths might appear? Now what will I do to see how patterns change when I take my action?
These questions provide a lifeline for those who feel deeply uncomfortable with but nonetheless have to live in flux. Here are a few reasons why Adaptive Action seems doable as we seek to thrive in chaos and leverage uncertainty.
1. There are patterns in chaos. Once we learn to see them, we can take action that makes sense. For example, Royce and I worked with a company that was experiencing overwhelming confusion about a new product release. But after applying the “three questions” exercise, it became clear that the problem boiled down to communication issues inside the player organizations—not problems with the product design, sales training or user documentation.
Once the client saw the pattern emerge, they were able to say, “Oh, okay, this is the problem; this is what we need to change.” Without that insight, they might have gone back to the drawing board and tinkered with the product some more. This would have been wasted time and energy and would have done nothing to tackle the root of the problem — and of course, these communication issues would have reared their heads again at some other place and time.
2. You don’t have to see the future. You only have to clearly see the present. A lot of anxiety is generated when companies prepare to compete in a future they can’t see. And while a certain amount is inevitable — and actually beneficial, as it creates the urgency that drives action — anxiety can spiral out of control if the plans made aren’t firmly grounded in reality.