A Warning to Leaders: Turbulence is not the Danger
Flying into the small South African regional airport of Port Elizabeth recently I was reminded why it is I hold to the wisdom, ‘the bigger the plane the better’! As we were tossed around by the not-so-clear-air turbulence in the small twin prop plane, flying seemed so unnatural. Man was meant to walk the earth and had no business being found in a tin tube at 27 000 feet. During this shake-up (and down) I was reminded of one of Peter Ducker’s quotes – one that I repeat often and believe implicitly: “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence, it is to act with yesterday’s logic”.
Drucker was right.
Yet so often I find that we ignore this insight and when the going gets tough it seems we become even more reliant on experience, past solutions and the battle cry is to work harder…something that often results in simply doing more and more of the ‘wrong thing’. Yet somehow looking back brings a sense of security, familiarity and even control.
This reliance on old logic is entrenched in business school curriculum and forms part of the very DNA of how we learn in such settings. It stemmed from Harvard Business School introducing ‘case study’ as the methodology of choice, something that was quickly mimicked elsewhere by those involved in business and leadership education. The problem is that case studies focus our attention in the wrong direction!
Rather than be looking back for tomorrow’s solutions, we need to be looking forward. We need to know how to learn from the future. Last week my sister-in-law who is undertaking some stringent formal business study, contacted me with some questions concerning a strategy assignment she was working on. The case study was based on a retail example lifted from the 1990’s. How can this be helpful in shaping strategic thinking capable of engaging with the challenges being faced presently? It seemed crazy to me that in trying to engage in strategic thinking there would be reliance on a case study rooted in such a remote context.
The reason for this being nonsensical can be explained by Ron Heifetz’s framework of ‘adaptive leadership’. Adaptive leadership suggests that as a leader you are increasing faced with adaptive challenges that can be defined as ‘knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do’. In responding to an adaptive challenge new learning is required. This stands in contrast in what Heifetz terms, ‘technical challenges’. In a technical challenge the problem can be defined and the solution is known. In this context past solutions are relevant. Of course problems being faced by contemporary leaders can involve a mixture of both adaptive and technical challenges – and usually do have elements of both. But, distinguishing between the two is vital if progress is to made and trying to solve an adaptive challenge with a technical solution is to add fuel to the fire.
Turbulence, rather than have us reaching backwards, should act as the catalyst to probe forwards. Turbulence invites searching questions and the opportunity to step back and see things differently. Why then is it that so few companies do this when the pressure is on? Well, the simple answer is that for the most part we haven’t been programmed to do so. We have shaped strategy and response to crisis around detailed measures and plans and when the context renders these redundant, we don’t seem to know what to do. How much ‘open discussion’ takes place in your Executive or management team? What would be evidence of new learning in such forums? What are you doing differently from two years ago? How attentive are you to drivers such as technology, demographics, societal value shifts to name but three? Engaging the future is to be asking the right questions and building a process that will support collaborative responses.
Turbulence is something we best get used to for I think it is the ‘new normal’. Thinking we can navigate such times using yesterday’s logic will result in doing more and more of the wrong thing. We know the right words: words and phrases such as, re-engineering, adaptive intelligence and ‘out the box thinking’ yet, more often than not, our business environments don’t reflect such realities. These remain mere concepts, lofty HR terminology and are given lip service rather than determined engagement. Innovation is often outsourced and seen as an event rather than being something internal, part of our corporate DNA and understood as a process.
I can hear people reading this mumbling about how important experience is and this sounds very much like I am saying experience has no place in tomorrow’s solutions. Not necessarily. But I do want to suggest that in a world of exponential change, experience has never counted for less than it does now. So often I am part of conversations where current behaviour is lamented (in the light of ‘how things once were’) and all this usually reveals is a worldview trapped and held hostage by the past.
There will always be insights that we can glean from what has gone before but we need to start to understand what it means to learn from the future. This is the real challenge and what it will take to be competent in a world of adaptive challenge. This needs to start in the design and execution of business school curriculum and methodology; it needs to reflect in the boardroom and in leadership forums; it ultimately needs to translate into practical mindsets and behaviour – at all levels in our organizations.
Best fasten that safety belt. Turbulence is the new normal and our response? We need to honour the past but we need to know how to learn from the future. Too many leaders are focusing only on the turbulence, not realising that they’re trying to face the future using yesterday’s logic. That might explain a lot!