In the wake of BREXIT referendum and the DOW’s drop by over 600 points, executives and markets around the world are reeling to make sense of what this level of uncertainty and instability means for them.
5th July 2016, a blog post by Johann Berlin, CEO, North America, TLEX Sports
In the wake of BREXIT referendum and the DOW’s drop by over 600 points, executives and markets around the world are reeling to make sense of what this level of uncertainty and instability means for them. Black Swan events like this provide a harsh wakeup call that the days of perfectly predicted strategy, project plans, 3-ring strategy binders, and hockey stick growth curves are over. With globalization expanding markets into diverse cultures, and with technology speeding the pace of change and facilitating the exchange of ideas, the world is far too complex and dynamic for long-term and fixed strategies to be built upon static market research.
Employees and leaders are being forced to adopt emergent methodology. This change can create both threat and opportunity – depending on how we respond to it and how resilient our organizational cultures. The agility needed to survive and thrive runs counter to traditional corporate training and MBAs. We have been ingrained with the belief that we will succeed if we figure out the market (as if it’s a static thing), set a plan, and deploy our resources towards that strategy. Mastering more emergent approaches begins with deliberately and intentionally cultivating mindsets and cultural norms that can learn from imperfection and incompleteness, can lean into uncertainty, creating space for new insights and strategies to emerge.
From my experience helping companies navigate the people side of change disruption, I have found the growing trend toward organizational redesigns around talent and engagement are important, but not enough. A shift towards emergent approaches requires cultivating mindsets and cultures of trust, which can thrive in the space of opportunity and uncertainty. Building this trust requires a mix of approaches that can be used in different situations.
Create space for imperfection
These events can disrupt our perfectly symmetrical view of the world. We can no longer believe the neatly crafted stories about our businesses that we pitch to investors and our clients. Some research suggests that we care more about what people think than what facts or data suggest – which may explain why the BREXIT referendum passed in the first place. When the future viability of the company rests on adapting to change and innovating breakthroughs, breaking these tendencies in our ideas can be difficult, particularly when there is a breakdown of trust.
The fear and pain of rejection can turn strategizing and ideation into a play of creating and managing perceptions. In order to preserve our credibility, we would rather present an idea that is similar to another or iterate off a recent strategy than risk coming across as half-baked in our thinking. The more we trust and value the polish of our strategies, the less nimble we can be in testing, generating and adapting strategies to changing information. We may also miss seeing unintended or unpredicted patterns, or discard or dismiss valuable information that could serve us along the way toward our goal or create new innovations.
Emergent approaches require team members who are willing to be (and encouraged to be) vulnerable enough to risk exchanging rough ideas as they are still forming. In a recent Google study to identify how to create the “perfect team,” they found that single most important dynamic on an effective team was psychological safety. According to the study, we are “reluctant to engage in behaviors that could negatively influence how others perceive our competence, awareness, and positivity.”When team members feel safe to admit mistakes, partner, and take on new roles, they are more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates. Psychological safety on teams can allow for learning or growth mindsets that can play with ideas, collaborate and iterate off them, and let them either fail fast or evolve into something more powerful.
According to Louis Gagnon, serial entrepreneur, President of TPG backed Ride.com, cultures can be driven by desperation or by aspiration. In his experience, culture can either foster or hinder the capacity toward emergent and iterative approaches. Underlying desperation-driven cultures is a fear of losing our job, losing a promotion, a bonus, status, or privileges, of being judged, of being inadequate or rejected. As a result, team dynamics are closed, driven by (sometimes hidden) agendas and politics. “Do not throw me under the bus” is common parlance and “watch my back” is a way to survive. Because employees are in survival mode, vs. moving towards creation and the future, projects need to be tightly managed with strict accountability.
Aspiration-driven cultures are grounded in a desire to make great things, to achieve a purpose, to be part of something bigger than oneself. This type of culture drives authenticity and explicitly encourages risky behavior. “Do not meet your goal all the time because it means you are not stretching,” Louis used to say to his team. “You own success. I own failure.” This type of psychological safety can allow us to lean into the uncertainty – necessary for the adaption, innovation, and risk inherent to emergent and iterative approaches.
Wander into new ideas
In our increasingly complex and unpredictable world, we are called upon to act and decide based on partial and biased information. The less comfortable we are with uncertainty, the more anxiety will cloud our capacity to process information, prioritize, and decide. To avoid the discomfort of not knowing, we may default into planning, comforting ourselves with a false certainty. There may be a unexpected tools that we have had since we were kids that can help – like daydreaming. According to Scott Kaufman, Scientific Director, Imagination Institute at UPenn and author of Wired to Create, we are most likely to create when our brain is in delta mode.
“The greatest creative ideas don’t come from obsessive seven-days-a-week constant focus on a problem. Managers and employees need to understand that creative insights are not going to come from such conscious deliberation. They come from integration with more free-floating ideas and emotions that arise during leisure time, daydreaming, recollection of memories, and other connections to your own internal world,” says Kaufman.
We can become so focused on getting something done for the sake of getting it done that we miss the opportunity for new and divergent thinking. The stress of time pressure and steep deadlines creates a sort of tunnel vision that may limit the very divergent and creative thinking we seek. There is a time to focus and a time to let our minds rest in meditation or wander into the unimportant or irrational, if we want our minds to diverge from our usual patterns of thinking to allow strategies to evolve and emerge. By allowing ourselves to become familiar with this free-floating space, we can become more able to tap into uncertainty in the context of our work.
Biohack Fear and Anxiety
We don’t want to optimize to survive; we want to create conditions for people to thrive. Because we dislike uncertainty, it is critical to provide tools to the counterproductive anxiety it can create for employees. Similar to the way biometrics have emerged in professional sports, many leading companies are bringing restorative approaches to their leaders and teams, to override or “bio-hack” different stress response or behavioral tendencies. This is not just through wellness and HR departments. Dr. Emma Seppala, Director of Research for the Stanford Center for Compassion and Author of the Happiness Track says there is a growing trend of companies and C-Suite executives who are turning to approaches like meditation to increase focus and memory, encourage divergent thought, and increase emotional stability. She points out there is a growing body of research that suggests that meditation has the potential to decrease anxiety, and boost resilience and performance under stress. There is also some evidence through brain-imaging research that suggests that meditation can help strengthen your ability to regulate your emotions.
It is this growing evidence that moved Peter Cooper, Founder and Managing Director of a $10 billion investment fund, to start a daily practice that includes meditation, yoga and a sequence of breathing techniques called Sudarshan Kriya. “Meditation has helped quieten my “busy” mind. This has helped me to quiet the noise and navigate through the pressures of money management by lowering stress/anxiety and increasing my ability to focus on what really matters.” Peter points out. Being a good investor requires open inquiry, and being able to glean real time observation to have emergent patterns, often not the one’s being talked in industry circles which are often influenced by groupthink and recency bias. Peter shares “Meditation can be gap that help you step back and observe, not predict.”
As a global director of TLEX Institute, I have found it essential to cultivate mindsets and cultures of trust that can thrive in that space of opportunity and uncertainty. Emergent cultures that can foster innovation and breakthrough require intentionally breaking down unhealthy norms or tendencies. Just as with breakthroughs in business and technology innovations, the process won’t be pretty or clean, and will require an iterative approach to shaping and adapting the cultures and mindsets to seek new opportunities out of disruption.
Johann Berlin, CEO, North America
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