Navigating your way through complexity in a rapidly changing, information-saturated world

I just received a notice to upgrade one of my software programs from version 7.9.1 to the latest – version 7.9.2.  You know the drill, as it happens almost daily. Log in to your computer and you’re almost immediately confronted with the latest upgrades. ‘Click here to download the latest version.

I appreciate the software publishers continually improving their products.  That’s part of what I expect for those monthly fees. However, it is more complex than it seems.

Every one of those upgrades and minor improvements should be studied, and if it requires some change on my part – a new feature, for example, or a change in the way one part of the program works – then I should review that, practice it a time or two to make sure I’ve gotten it, and then change the way that I use that program from here on out. That’s how it would work in a perfect world.

What’s More Important?

But I have other things to do that are more important than this.  If I spent all the time I should spend on keeping abreast of the updates on the software I use, I would probably become the most efficient computer user around, and, as a result, the most unproductive executive on the planet.  Not only can I not afford to invest the time to learn the new detail, but I don’t use half of the existing features on the software that I have been using routinely for years.  I still have trouble putting someone on hold on my cell phone to take another call, for example.

Software, and its growing complexity, is just one of the more ubiquitous manifestations of a characteristic of our times – every aspect of our jobs, our businesses, and our lives are changing rapidly and growing more complex.  Richard Swenson, writing in the book, “Margin” had it right when he said:

“The spontaneous tendency of our culture is to inexorably add detail to our lives:  one more option, one more problem, one more commitment, one more expectation, one more purchase, one more debt, one more change, one more job, one more decision.  We must now deal with more ‘things per person than at any other time in history.”

If that were true in the year 2,000, when the book was published, imagine what it is like today. The pace of change has increased, the growth in complexity has increased, the amount of information has exploded.  Today’s environment makes Swenson’s observation in the year 2,000 seem like the good old days.

Unprecedented Times

Everywhere we look, we see rapid change and growing complexity.  I wish software were the only example.  But look around.  I could cite thousands of examples, but you already have a sense of the extent to which our world is changing.

The pace of change is so great that it is unprecedented.  In the course of human history, there has never been an extended time when changes have occurred so quickly and universally.  The greatest challenge for all of us is to navigate complexity and thrive and survive in this turbulent environment.

Threatening Implications

Our ability to effectively manage this pace of change in our businesses and our lives will be the single biggest challenge we face for the rest of our careers.

What happens to our businesses if we don’t manage change effectively?  Will we go the way of Enron, Woolworths, Arthur Andersen, and General Foods and fade into oblivion?  Or, more likely, will we struggle in mediocrity for decades, never reaching the potential we have and wasting years of time, effort, and money to move forward very little?

And what happens to our careers if we don’t keep up, or get in front of, the waves of change that transform our industries and our jobs?  Will we find ourselves in middle age wondering what happened while we apply for an entry-level job in an emerging industry?

It doesn’t take much imagination to foresee a frightening future for the industries and jobs on which we have depended. Just a little bit of quiet reflection will uncover our greatest long-term challenge – effectively managing the pace of change in our businesses, our careers, and our lives.

It Won’t Work

As we think deeply about how we can handle this change, some things should become quickly apparent.

The solution can’t be temporary. For example, we can’t expect to create a new product and have that be our savior.  The window of time in which that product must be viable and profitable is shrinking daily.  More important than the new product is the capability necessary to continuously create new products.

We can’t expect to Google a solution. And a lasting solution will not be found in a sound bite or a two-minute free video.  All these are temporary, superficial solutions to transient issues.  We need something more substantial.  Something that will help us survive and thrive for more than just a day or two. There is no “25 words or less” solution.

We can’t think that an event or transaction will be the solution.  Going to a seminar may help, but more important is nurturing the discipline to continually learn and adapt.

Solutions

Our solutions should be characterized by systems, processes, capabilities, habits, and disciplines which can be intentionally embedded into our character and built into our corporate culture.

Our solutions should be characterized by systems, processes, capabilities, habits, and disciplines which can be intentionally embedded into our character and built into our corporate culture. Rather than ricocheting from one urgent issue to the next, our long-term strategy should be to develop capabilities at a deeper level. Our focus should not be just on the result, but rather the processes and capabilities necessary to achieve that result.

If we go with the flow, follow our emotions, and react to the brightest star or the loudest voice, we’ll be jerked from one fleeting moment to another, and find ourselves exhausted at the end of the day, with nothing substantial having been accomplished.

Sails and Keels

Here’s an analogy that may help you conceptualize a solution for your business and your career.

Do you know how a sailboat works?  What is the mechanism that allows it to make progress and actually sail toward the oncoming wind? Common sense says it should not be able to do that.

The secret is in the dynamic tension between two opposing forces.  On one hand, the keel of the sailboat consists of hundreds (or thousands) of pounds of weight fixed to the bottom of the boat.  It makes the sailboat much heavier than it would be without it, and thus holds it down. A sailboat with only a keel would be dead in the water, unable to move in any direction.

On the other hand, it is also equipped with a set of sails.  These flexible sheets extend high above the boat and capture the energy of the wind. A sailboat with its sails in place, but without a keel, would be tossed about, capriciously sensitive to every ebb and flow of breeze. It certainly couldn’t make any intentional progress because it would be subject to the vagaries of the wind.

Magical Navigation

However, when you equip the boat with a keel and a set of sails something magical happens.  The force of the keel to hold the boat in place works against the force of the sail to drive it onward, and the sailboat becomes steerable, moving forward at multiple angles to the wind and almost directly into it.  It is the dynamic tension between the forces that hold it back and the forces the move it that allow it to be steered and moving in intentional directions.

That same idea can be applied to our professional lives and our careers. There are forces that hold us back and keep us on track and opposing forces that drive us forward. The forces that hold us back provide stability and support and anchor parts of our business and lives in unchanging commitments.  The forces that move us forward provide energy and power to change and adjust our efforts.

Managing a business or a career through these turbulent times requires the intentional acquisition and manifestation of certain disciplines, character traits, and practices that act like keels.  They hold us down and provide stability in a chaotic world. At the same time, we need to build disciplines, competencies, and processes that act like sails for our lives and businesses.  These provide us the ability to act quickly and power us forward.

Five Keels

I’m proposing these five keels that we should intentionally build into our characters and our corporate culture if we are going to successfully navigate these chaotic and turbulent times.  These are processes, principles, and character traits that hold us down.

Six Sails

And, on the other side of the ship, I’d propose these six sails that empower us to move forward quickly and intentionally.

If we are going to navigate through these complex, rapidly changing times, we need to build these sails and keels into our organizations and our personal character.

Over the next couple of months, I’ll be drilling deeper into each of these keels and sails.  Stay tuned.

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