What’s there when the lights go out


Just been creating another short ‘card’ on the website – called Into the dark.  It extends the thinking on tolerance of ambiguity, triggered by a conversation with my friends at AbyI and Tim Stanyon in particular around just how far tolerance of ambiguity needs to stretch.

It is easy to recognise (not necessarily easy to put in practice) the need to become more conversant with complexity and to understand how complicated situations vary from complex. It is much less simple to follow the thinking through and conclude that if we are in a VUCA world, if change is the new normal then maybe the idea of all those targets and budgets and plans is not such a good one. All those milestones and beacons might just be taking us down the wrong path. But without them what have we got? What does happen when the lights go out?

Two current commentators have very similar views on this. Dave Snowden in his Cynefin framework suggests that Probe-Sense-Respond is the appropriate journey in the complex domain. And in Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organisations, several of his case study organisations have no budgets, no targets. Instead they use their evolutionary purpose to drive direction and their staff to do the right thing.

For those used to the discipline of project management, strategic planning and management reporting this really will feel like the lights going out – and yet, these companies find the way to grow and prosper, even in times of financial stress.

What cannot be underestimated however is the radical nature of the thinking here – this is not something that allows for a half way house. And removing the planning tools and targets cannot be achieved on its own. Above all, it is critical to know (not just as leaders but across the organisation) which is the right direction. Whether driven by evolutionary purpose or some more tactical objective, creating an initial action and seeing whether it progresses before iterating further cannot be undertaken as an isolated action – it has to be part of a wider context.

The issue then is how many companies are ready for this shift in thinking – and how many will require the leverage of an external event – perhaps disruption in their market? More on John Hegel’s latest paper next time