Our world is changing in fundamental ways. The stabilising truths, rules, and systems of the past are melting away like icebergs. Our proven tools of the past just don’t work anymore. It is up to us to develop new capabilities to cope, adapt and grow. And to do it now.
The urgency of this change has been apparent to business leaders, policy makers, and committed citizens for some time. They have identified the need for new ways of doing business, leading organizations, and building communities. So, what is holding us back?
Part of the answer lies in the fact that awareness is not enough. We need more than just a new skill set. We are facing a multi-layered challenge that has to do with how we think, feel, and act. Changing only one aspect will not help us. Rather, we need an integrated, systemic approach including our mindsets, values, and skills. That is quite a mouthful, of course. And brings us the question of, where to begin?
Let us start with the simple fact that capabilities are learned. In contrast to innate talents, we acquire them through practice and challenging work. The positive message here is: Under the right conditions, we can get better at this. But better at what exactly? One way to look at this is to see how these capabilities help us to deal with one of the most pressing challenges of our time.
Complexity is here to stay
Our world is ever more connected. Economies, societies and systems become more and more intertwined. This results in an ever growing complexity on both macro and micro levels. New value chains are created, connecting assets, services and experiences. Companies are merging and whole industries are consolidating, creating even more complex systems. Global flows in ideas, people, and materials generate continuous challenges to routine and reason.
The old mechanistic system model and corresponding ways of working cannot cope with this kind of complexity. They are the brainchild of different and simpler times. While the old model assumes stability and consistency, the new normal is instability and flux.
Thus, constant change might be the defining factor of today’s reality. Things are less and less predictable, plans need to be adjusted, and objectives reevaluated. Our addiction to control, while never more than an illusion, becomes a major problem: it is limiting our ability to adapt. It constrains instead of empowers us. What we therefore need instead, are better ways to deal with uncertainty. And the anxiety that comes with it.
We can calm down, get excited, and eventually embrace uncertainty.
Learning to be curious
In very broad strokes, this asks for fundamental personal changes – from a control mindset into a growth mindset. Instead of asking "How do we become powerful masters of every situation?" we should ask "How can we become mindful stewards in constantly new situations?" How can we utilize abundance instead of managing scarcity? And in general: How can we ask more and better questions?
To do that, we need to unlearn old ways of problem solving where the goal was to have the answer as quick as possible. When we encounter new, unexpected problems almost every day, attentive curiosity might be the best stance. We have to train ourselves to abstain from offering ready-made solutions. Instead, the key to success is to reawaken our curiosity and see problems from a fresh perspective.
Leading with vulnerability
How can we help us and others to develop these capabilities? For a start, by creating an environment where everybody feels safe and included. Only if we feel psychologically secure, we can open up to new experiences. It provides fertile ground for creativity where you are allowed to experiment, make mistakes, and learn from others. This way, we can support diverse perspectives, unlikely collaborations, and conflicting ideas. We can calm down, get excited, and eventually embrace uncertainty.
As leaders, we must walk the talk. For example, just saying "I don’t know" can make a big difference. It not only shows others that it is actually okay to not know the answer. More importantly, we admit our vulnerability. We are putting away a false shield of professionalism and open up to learn something new. Acting as a role model in this way will change the organization’s culture interaction by interaction. And it becomes part of our journey to build the capabilities we so urgently need in our work and life.