Ambiguity and Emergence
Embracing “play” to thrive in the VUCA world
Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity! ~Sigmund Freud
Ambiguity leads to emergence! This fleeting thought crossed my mind in the middle of a busy day with enough clarity and suddenness to make me pause mid-stream. I made a note of it, telling myself that I will mull over it later. And here is the unfolding of that thought stream…
The dictum that we are living in a VUCA world has become so oft used as to lose all its essence and meaning. Nevertheless, it is the truth! The pace of change has exceeded anything that we may have imagined creating a strange kind of existential tension. As robots enter our lives, Alexa, the voice controlled speaker from Amazon goes mainstream, driver-less cars cease to be a science-fiction marvel, AI begin to replace humans, and many more digital wonders invade our day-to-day existence to forge a completely different meaning of life and living for many of us, Uncertainty and Ambiguity loom large. Our professional and personal lives are suddenly taking on whole new shapes we had not remotely envisaged nor prepared for. Should we cower in fear and scuttle into our shells, or venture forth courageously wearing the hat of a curious explorer, an intrepid learner?
Well, the corporate world is trying hard to gear up for this unknown monster called VUCA. But how does one “plan for ambiguity”?
Here’s what HBR has to say about Ambiguity in their article Leading Effectively in a VUCA Environment:
There are a few things we know about ambiguity; it is one of the leading causes of conflict within a business unit, impossible to diagnose from a singular perspective, and its second- and third-order effects are capable of dismantling an organization.
The description is apt enough. And perhaps also encapsulates the key reasons why we fail to thrive in an ambiguous environment. It’s mostly the third-order effects that dismantle organizations. And it happens because organizations forget to listen, collaborate, and remain true to their purpose. More on this later in the post.
Diverging a bit…
IMHO, one cannot plan but stay prepared to flow with ambiguity, play with ambiguity, immerse themselves in it. As I pondered this rather obvious point, another question raised its hydra-like head. Life in general is fairly ambiguous. Yet, we flow with it. Children thrive in ambiguity. They are the quintessential explorers of the unknown, Columbuses of their own little worlds. They instinctively know the mantra to thrive in ambiguity; it’s called PLAY. And from play comes learning; and from learning emerges their new realities. We go to design schools to learn about design sprints and the art of prototyping. Children build and break sand castles at will, destroying their own creations to come back and build again. Unfazed, unafraid! They are the quintessential prototype masters. It seems so effortless when we are children.
Then we grow up. We pass through the hallowed portals of many institutions that groom us, drill us, train us, teach us, test us, score us, and if they are successful, we come out as well-trained, homogeneous set of professionals. The unruliness has hopefully been ironed out. Hopefully, the curiosity has been dampened and the disruptive thoughts suppressed. We are deemed ready for the corporate world. And our collective ability to deal with or thrive in ambiguity has diminished! The corporate world thus far has thrived on processes, planning, and power. Ambiguities have always been ironed out, and quarterly and yearly projections and targets have been decided in advance. Top down cascading of goals have been the order of the day. Everyone has to merely follow their part of the goal, and rarely do those in the bottom few rungs know the big picture. The chain of command kept everything running seamlessly. The well-oiled machines of the corporate world ran beautifully sans ambiguity in the Industrial Era. Then came the Internet, the Social Web, and the digital revolution with its Cloud, IoT, 3D Printing, Robots, AI, ML… Borders and Kodaks vanished. AirBnB’s and Ubers cropped up.
Suddenly, the time-tested business models floundered. S&P’s report brought down the longevity of organizations from 75 to 15 years. Digital revolution brought with it a whole new set of paradigm shifts that the corporate world could not quite grasp. The new paradigms turned the age old business models upside down. Organizations that sensed the shift and could make the shift thrived. Some key factors that demarcated the progressive and successful organizations according to me…
Telling to Listening: The corporate world so far has thrived on telling its internal employees and its customers what to do, what to buy, and how to be. It has — for the most part — been a one-way monologue of laying down policies, stating rules, and selling the benefits of their myriad products and services. Then, the advent of the digital revolution turned everything on its head. Consumers became more powerful than the producers. Listening and sense-making became more important than telling. Social platforms democratized knowledge and organizations found it increasingly difficult to hide behind a facade of processes and policies. In an ever-changing and ambiguous environment, organizations that did not listen, missed the bus. They became completely irrelevant and failed to deliver what customers — both outside and inside — were clamoring for. They caved in and vanished. Organizations that listened reinvented themselves. And new entrepreneurial orgs appeared with an ability to tap into the unspoken, unimagined, and unmet needs of the customers. They had listened! Deeply! A case in point is Uber which has not only disrupted the cab service industry but will also impact the automobile industry. Today, I see no reason to own a car with Uber at my veritable fingertips.
Profit to Prosperity: When we take stock of the last twenty years, we see amazing innovation and growth along side mayhem and destruction ranging from war to collapse of economies and the environment. We see the iconic rise of the likes of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion alongside the rise of political demagogues. And we also see a collective rise of a different consciousness that wants larger social good and planetary well-being. We see, in this world of chaos, even as organizations struggle to make profit the traditional way, the call to move towards Purpose and Prosperity. Today’s employees — the millennial — and consumers are asking for more than profit. They are asking for purpose, for prosperity, for net positive impact on our Planet. I define prosperity as overall well-being — of the self, of the organization, of the community, society and the Planet. Driving top line and bottom line have brought us till here; but it is unlikely to get us much further. The need and cry for a more holistic and regenerative approach to how organizations operate is fast becoming a movement.
Market Share to Mind Share: As challenges become more and more complex, large scale, and global in nature — collaboration and co-creation will have to become the norm. I am not talking about partner organizations working together, but generative organizations who share their learnings freely for other organizations to replicate and apply. The reason I say this is because profit will no longer be about market share. It will be about prosperity and mindshare, about enabling deep changes, about stewarding a different future. Organizations today are on the cusp of change too…
Just as we moved into the Industrial Era and a whole new breed of organizations and corporations were born, we are again at another cusp. The old world is dying and the new is waiting to be born. Organizations that can step into this new world authentically and fully will be the ones that will capture the mindshare of the human race, bring about deep and profound economic and social changes, and give birth to a completely new world order. It may not happen everywhere at the same time, but it is sure to happen. The world is ready for it. And this revolution will be more profound than the invention of the printing press, the steam engine or the electric bulb. It will change the nature and order of human relationships, of our relationship with all sentient beings and our Planet.
Coming back to what I started the post with — ambiguity and its relation to the shifts. If we agree that ambiguity is the order of the day, it becomes clear why we need to listen deeply to remain relevant, to let emergence happen, and move towards creating a better world through collective sensing and sense making. More about this in my next post…
Ambiguity cannot be resolved through telling; it needs to be lived to be comprehended, for the hidden patterns to emerge, and for the unspoken to become felt needs. Ambiguity cannot be dealt with in parts. It has to be explored from divergent perspectives, through different lenses and heuristics, and felt in its entirety. Hence, a top down, hierarchical organization where information is filtered through the chain of command is especially ill-equipped to thrive in ambiguity. Only when the unspoken and tacit patters are seen and felt, sense-making happens and emergence takes place. And emergence leads to those seemingly small but powerful innovations and practices that disrupt the established order of things and make way for a better world.
Welcome disruptors, catalysts, and agents of chaos! For they shall rule the world!