Change at Work

The New Normal

To survive in a VUCA environment, we must re-conceptualize organizations and leadership

Bud Caddell, NOBL’s Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer, explains why, post-COVID, we’re never going back to how we were:

  • The world is increasingly complex. That is, it’s networked, and changes in one part of the system impact other areas. As a result, power is dispersed, and what’s worked before doesn’t always work now.
  • Old conceptions of organizations are not longer sufficient. Comparing organizations to machines or even organisms are limiting when the environment we live in is so dynamic.
  • We must revolutionize our concept of leadership. We must move away from the “great man” theory of leadership, to one that embraces coalition building and a focus on communities.

Read the Transcript

Bud Caddell:

Really excited about this topic. I want to get to our speaker who I know is waiting right now. I want to share a quick Food For Thoughts, though, as we go in. Hold this in the back of your head. Think about if you believe this to be true or not. Maybe this is early for this message in the morning but there’s no going back to normal. I hear a lot of conversation lately about when things get back to normal, when our businesses get back to normal and I just want to point out that there is no going back to normal. Likely VUCA, V-U-C-A, is familiar to a lot of people. It’s a way to describe the world that we live in. If it feels like there’s rapid change, many surprises, so many different forces happening at the same time and so many contradictions just about the present, that’s what we mean by a VUCA environment.

This whole concept was birthed in 1989. We have been talking about this for so long and yet when shocks like this happen, we’re still surprised. We still are grappling with trying to understand what’s happening and an inconvenient truth is the world is increasingly complex. I gave a talk on this in 2010 and it’s still so relevant, especially I find, to understand complex systems and if you’ve never heard that term before, I’m jealous because you have a whole new rabbit hole to go into. It’s just describing the world that we live in. There’s lots and lots of interacting agents or people, so borders are really hard to draw and really hard to enforce. Nonlinearity just means two plus two equals five. It’s multiplicative, it’s not additive. Conditions like culture emerge from those interactions.

Adaptation. The system itself reacts to what we tried to do with it and it builds countermeasures on countermeasures on countermeasures. There’s perpetual novelty. The past is a poor predictive tool for the future. And lastly, disperse control. Power is really exercise through coalitions, not mandates. In this new world that we live in where we’re hyper-connected, I like to say that the world is fat. Not fat. Flat. Flat, fast and warming by the day. A lot of these things are new norms there. It really challenges our metaphor for our organization. This is some work that Gareth Morgan did with organizational metaphors. We still, in our heads, think of organizations as machines where it’s like, Oh no, the machine just got shut down during this crisis and we’re going to bring it back online. That is a metaphor built for a completely bygone era.

We fundamentally believe that we live in this flux and transformation era where our organizations are always changing and the environments around them are always changing and the changes we make are always bouncing back and forth and ricocheting. I think it’s important to leave the machine metaphor behind and even the organism metaphor because the world is so defined by change these days. So just as our understanding of organizations must change, so must our view of leadership. My last point on this is we do need a revolution in leadership. I think our speaker is going to talk a lot about this, they’re going to talk about when leadership is tested. I think starting with a basic understanding of complex systems is highly important, but leadership needs to be perceived as a set of behaviors, not a single person. Please, let’s kill the great man theory, the great white man theory of leadership, and really start to think about coalition building and code switching between communities and developing leadership and engaging, enabling adaptation and other. So there’s a big shift in leadership that needs to happen, and I’m so excited for people to hear.

Published April 6, 2020

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