How uncertainty is an opportunity for more flexible and honest Organisation Development and Design
I started my year in an excellent way. I started it in a way that supports my counter rational sense that 2017 is going to be a good year. All around me, people seem to be filled with a sense of doom. Trump, Brexit and other stuff seems to create a discourse of disaster. I want to offer something I genuinely feel – a conversation of complexity. This doesn’t mean being polyanna-ish or blind to the many challenges we all face. But it does suggest that the world was always thus: full of uncertainty and unpredictability. Perhaps we laboured under the myth that there was a clear narrative and orderly process of change. But we have always known that ‘Events’ as the former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan famously said, have a habit of discomforting our certainties. So now we can face this uncertainty squarely, admit genuinely that we don’t know, and work from there, with skill and the attention to the relationships around us. That is what skilful change people have always done. Perhaps that’s why I feel so buoyant – because the time may have come for the agile, flexible and relational approach to change.
Can we design our future?
My year started with a workshop of doctoral students, presenting their work to a group of us. As a particular student finished her presentation, there was a silence in the room. She had raised a vital question and we were in awe of its implications. In short, she had raised the question about how impossible it might be to instrumentally design our future. It was an uncomfortable, difficult truth.
She had marshalled her thoughts carefully. It was a compelling argument, and it went, broadly like this: If much, even most, of our thought is driven by unconscious processes; if in fact cognitive dissonance suggested that we backfill justification for our actions selectively, choosing data to support our prejudices, then the idea of design, of intent, of plans and determination of our will may be a fallacy. Consider that the rules of chaos and complexity drive this mix and essentially you have got the inconvenient truth of our organisational life and perhaps the biggest challenge we face in 2017. We can’t know what will happen next with any degree of certainty. However we configure it, the world we inhabit is deeply unpredictable, unknowably odd and possibly totally bemusing.
Agility and truthfulness
Doesn’t this suggest that the work of anyone in OD, leadership development is essentially doomed to a pointlessness? On the contrary, we see this a a fabulously exciting opportunity. This is because our particular approach to organisational development and design, one that is more agile, flexible and honest, may have come of age.
In our view, it is possible to be skilled at working with the unknowable, complex and bemusing, with the type of skills that embody a generous, wise and flexible mindset. A mindset that recognises the willingness of the practitioner to embody the kind of change rooted in relationships they want to see in the world.
It is both a rational and an intuitive skill. It is based on an ability to relate, and also on the skill to aggregate data by looking beyond the obvious sources. It is rooted in an ability to think about how we think and stay in touch with our embodied reality. And it is also about a measure of humility – to accept that I don’t really know anything for sure, really. I may well be wrong about 2017 being a great year. But if we ‘move towards what we pay attention to,’ maybe I can have some influence on the outcome, and what have we got to lose by being optimistic anyway?
This is the work we are looking forward to doing in 2017. This year we are focussing on the possibility of facing the truth in organisations, where leaders don’t exists in a bubble of yes. We will be working on a practical method of agile, flexible change. And we will be continuing to refine and develop our methodology of organisational design, one that consistently adapts and flexes to fit the momentary, local, timely, changing realities that every organisation faces. Nothing stops. Everything keeps moving and changing at a pace. Design needs to keep up with that.
As a doctoral supervisor, I am constantly inspired and educated by my students. I am moved by their intelligence and this reflects the upside down possibility of the changing, flexing, motive, friable scene of business that is likely to increase its archness in 2017. We are delighted to meet that challenge, as a scary (or as exciting, when we remember to breathe) as it might prove to be.