Category: Perspective

Responding to Change in a VUCA world

Greek philosophers are pretty good at pithy quotes. To illustrate, I give you this from Heraclitus of Ephesus: “Panta rhei”, or “everything flows”. Modern-day parlance has translated this into “the only constant in life is change”. 

21st-century change has taken Heraclitus’ observation a step further: change these days isn’t simply a constant. It also isn’t linear, incremental or predictable. Even before the current pandemic we were in a period of social, geopolitical, environmental and technological volatility and disruption. You may have encountered the acronym VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous), originally coined by the U.S. Army in the 1990s to describe the post-Cold War world (and more widely adopted across the leadership literature post 9/11 to describe a work environment characterised by the turbulent and uncontrollable unknown). It may be the circles I’ve been moving in lately, but it does seem that as an easy acronym it’s now entering the general lexicon as it becomes more relevant than ever to all of us. 

There are criticisms about the limitations of VUCA as a framework (e.g. cultural bias, ‘past its sell-by date’, convenient label for a challenging reality without adequate exploration of how we can respond to that reality, etc.), but rather than going off on a tangent I’m going to observe that there are some useful concepts that it offers us.

Change is volatile and complex. The changes we are encountering in our personal and professional lives are rapid, sudden and unstable. They’re becoming ever more dramatic, and moving at an exponential rate. In contrast to many of the complicated challenges you may have come up against in the past, complex problems don’t have logical solutions where an evidence-based approach and learned expertise are all you need. Instead, multiple interconnected variables interact in unpredictable ways and the relationship between cause and effect is blurred. We’re called upon to manage paradoxes and polarities, and if we’re looking for clarity and ‘right’ answers, we’re likely to be disappointed.

Change is uncertain and ambiguous. Changes are also unfolding in unanticipated ways – the context we live in is an evolving state of ambiguity. Like the iteration of fractals or a murmuration of starlings, you can’t predict how the system will change or what will emerge. Historical forecasts and past experiences are, increasingly, no predictor of the future, and planning is becoming an increasingly difficult challenge as the shape of things ahead becomes more and more uncertain. It can feel rather like an existential threat – many of us have a preference for safety and certainty, and when we can’t easily predict what’s going to happen, we have a tendency to predict hazard.

Unpredictability in complex and chaotic systems: (a) A murmuration of starlings (Image: © Wikimedia Commons/Tanya H.) (b) Chaos theory demonstrated through long exposure of a light at the end of a double pendulum (Image: © Wikimedia Commons/Cristian V.)

So, what to do? How do we make sense of complexity and our place in a volatile, uncertain and ambiguous world? How do we want to show up? Here are my thoughts on some of the ways we might respond, in both professional and personal contexts. 

Control vs. curiosity: Standing in inquiry

When there is no blueprint to follow, trying to control the future is an approach destined to frustrate. You may be able to predict broad-brush behaviours, but specific outcomes for specific situations are unknowable. Past experiences, paradigms and dogmas are all ripe for scrutiny. Rather than a focus on control, therefore, we need to respond in a different way – by cultivating curiosity. The answers we seek will change in place and time, but a discipline of inquiry will be a stalwart essential in helping us navigate the way ahead. 

What good questions can we ask? Here are some potential starters: 

  • In how many different ways can we look at the problem? 
  • What has thrown us off-course, and what can we learn from that? 
  • Are there any patterns? Exceptions?
  • What is the most important challenge we need to focus on?
  • What resources and influence are available to us? 
  • What values and guiding principles do we want our actions to align with?

 

You have come to the shore. There are no instructions. – Denise Levertov

Not Knowing: There may be no ‘right’ or clear answers

In the above context it’s also important to acknowledge and accept that there may be no ‘right’ or clear answers – the systems that we are part of are dynamic, and at any point in time there may be paradoxical tensions at play: short-term measures vs. long-term strategy; performance vs. wellbeing; the needs of the collective vs. the individual. This makes it critical that we are open to a diversity of views, helping us to expand our own perspective through constructive debate and dialogue.

Getting comfortable with being in a space of not knowing, and creating an environment in which we can inhabit that space with others, requires a few things of us. I think the following are particularly worth reflecting upon:

  • No man is an island. It can be difficult to admit that you don’t have the answers, but there is strength in vulnerability. How can we stand in inquiry together with others so that new and diverse thinking can be encouraged to emerge, and collaborative solutions to new challenges can be co-created? 
  • We may not always be able to plan for a desired outcome, but we can nonetheless seek to develop in ways that allow us to seize the day when opportunity presents itself. What can we do right now to shore up our capacity for resilience, whether personal or organisational? At a personal level, how can we orient our thinking towards an attitude of optimism, self-efficacy and healthy risk management, and how can we develop our capacity for persistence and flexibility?    

Experiment, fail

The curiosity that we need to encourage is all about an appetite for continual learning. Solutions to novel and complex challenges don’t come about through repeating what we’ve always done and reiterating what we already know – they need to emerge through seeking out new experiences and new knowledge and insight. Evidence-based methods need to be accompanied by an attitude to risk that involves encouraging experimentation and an agile, iterative approach: trying, failing, regrouping and learning, and trying again. Sometimes it also requires a leap of faith – jumping and not knowing where you’re going to land, but taking each step in line with your core values and principles, and trusting in the journey.

Traveller, there is no path. The path is made by walking. – Antonio Machado

Compassion and connection 

At the core of everything is the person. Any approach we take needs to embrace both the rational and the human: the values, emotions, the way our social and cultural history can bind us to limiting horizons for action. In the face of threat and pressure it is exceedingly easy to find ourselves being harsh and critical of ourselves, or judgemental and intolerant of others. 

Many of us find self-compassion a big ask. We may be able to show compassion to others, but then judge ourselves by a far harsher standard. Negative self-talk is common and perpetuates an unhelpful mindset. These are hard times, during which it can be hard to focus, see the bigger picture, and perform the way we may have been used to. These tough moments don’t need us to square up to them – they require us to be firm yet resolutely gentle with ourselves. I am dealing with a lot, and it’s ok not to be ok. What’s the best thing that I can do for myself right now that will help me get to where I need to be? Self-compassion is also vital in experimentation – we need to allow ourselves to fail.

That same compassionate-yet-firm approach also applies to the way we deal with others. When we’re stressed and there is no clear way forward it depletes our inner resources, which usually means we are much quicker to become irritated when other people don’t meet our expectations or frustrate our intent. Rather than reacting with intolerance, however, we can elect to respond with kindness, understanding and respect. Starting with kindness makes it far more possible to forge a connection through which we can jointly work to find solutions.

A discipline of inquiry, getting comfortable with not knowing, and a willingness to experiment can all take practice. I think compassion, though, calls upon something that is an integral part of our humanity; something that can be simple, straightforward and constant in the face of a volatile and complex reality. Henry James said: “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” We are all in this together, and a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world is a little easier to deal with when we place compassion at the core of us. 

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass, Quiet Space Ltd

Remember that sometimes not getting what you want is…

82686539-20C1-4426-A0EC-F3ECF4E00C9D

I believe in providence and serendipity.

As I work out my next career steps I’ve been applying for new part-time roles that might fit well alongside Quiet Space as part of a coherent career portfolio, and recently got news that I’d been unsuccessful in an interview for a job I’d really wanted.

Naturally I was disappointed, but I’d been satisfied with my interview performance and had pretty much expected the outcome. So by the time the news came, I think I’d already mostly moved on. In that context the prospect of exploring other opportunities has become exciting and liberating, for which I’m grateful.

Coaching others these past few years has been incredibly helpful for my own personal development, particularly in terms of my appetite for risk and attitude towards the unknown.

Embrace pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. That’s where the growth comes. It is stressful and scary and destabilising, but it is without a doubt worth it all. Everything will be all right. Things will take shape. At the end of this you will look back and be amazed to see how far you’ve come.

And through the rivers they shall not overwhelm you

 

I’ve felt several times over the past eight months like life was unravelling. Things falling apart; questioning maxims I’d thought I lived by; reevaluating lots of things about me and my relationships with various people. When I’ve lost ground in the past my faith has always been there for me but lately I’ve felt distanced from that too. It’s been an interesting time.

This week I visited Salisbury Cathedral and was struck by the beautiful font in the nave and the reflections in the water.

This life has got to be about something beyond yourself. Something bigger than you. Not necessarily God, if that isn’t part of your belief system. But as humans we naturally seek meaning, purpose and connection. What am I doing this for? For whom am I doing this? Who’s got my back?

How long is forever

D6B308BF-AAE3-481A-A02F-62B9146BDC81

“How long is forever?” asked Alice. “Sometimes, just one second.” replied the White Rabbit.

There are dreams lasting but a moment in which everything is suspended in eternity.

Get more of those moments. Don’t be afraid to dive deep with someone. Love intensely. Make that connection, take that leap, embrace the now. It’s all we have – the past is gone, and the future is promised to no one.

Through the eyes of a child

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
– Little Gidding, T.S. Eliot

I grew up in Singapore but have now spent more than half my life in the UK. When I go back to see my family, the place is simultaneously familiar and strange. I’ve learnt that the best way to appreciate things is to look at them not just as a visitor but like a child, valuing the wonder of it all.

This world is waiting for you to see it from ever-new perspectives and to keep discovering it, as if for the first time.

A message of hope

IMG_1412Whatever your faith, Easter brings a universal message: that no matter how dark the day, there is always hope. For all your Good Fridays, may there be an Easter Sunday. Wishing you peace and joy.

Perspectives

IMG_1579Learning to view a situation from different perspectives can be a game changer. What we see isn’t usually the whole picture – shifting position helps us make sense of much more of the world and our relationships.

International Happiness Day 2019

Copy of Nelson Mandela

It’s International Happiness Day today and I was searching for a good quote to post. I rather like this one from Eric Hoffer, who was an American moral and social philosopher. I like it because I think happiness can be yours right here, right now, regardless of your life situation. I believe happiness is a choice. If you’re constantly searching for it, then you’ll be blind to the fact that perhaps you had it all along. It was just waiting to be discovered.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

International Women’s Day 2019

Ever since my career break I’ve been much more prepared to tell people what I really think. When something’s important and you can make a positive difference by speaking out, you shouldn’t keep quiet. People may see you as difficult, but as long as you remember respect for others first and foremost, that matters not a jot.

For International Women’s Day I thoroughly recommend this book by Caroline Criado Perez. Today is relevant for all of us. The journey to gender equality and fairness needs to be of critical importance to everyone, not just women. Everyone has a responsibility to do what they can, however small, to make the invisible in our society visible and to help the silenced speak.

Happy International Women’s Day, everyone. Keep being prepared to stick your neck out.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

World Book Day 2019

IMG_1174

It’s World Book Day today, which I discovered at 7am this morning when I received a WhatsApp message asking what my daughter’s classmates were wearing to school for World Book Day.

Oops.

Lucky my kids are quite chilled out about dressing up. The little one went as Tinkerbell from Peter Pan after we raided the dressing-up box. The bigger one announced he was going as a generic Muggle from Harry Potter. I approve of sensible people.

Anyway, as I was saying, World Book Day. In the interview that I’ve just done for the Warwickshire Business Podcast I was asked about books I would recommend – I thought I’d post about the ones I mentioned as well as a few more. Here they are, with pithy synopses.

1) The Power Of Now (Eckhart Tolle) – All we have is this moment. Don’t spend your one precious life pre-living the future or re-living the past.

2) Not Knowing (Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner) – There’s power in the uncertain. There’s magic in letting go of the need to control the unknown.

3) Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway (Susan Jeffers) – You can always handle it. Really. The things that scare us lose their power when we steadily look at them and realise that much of the fear is in our minds.

4) Mindfulness (Mark Williams and Danny Penman) – A really good primer if you’re just starting to learn about mindfulness.

5) Mindfulness (Christophe Andre) – Mindfulness, made exquisitely beautiful through art.

6) I Love Me (David Hamilton) – Learning to love yourself will open more doors to you than almost anything else.

7) Man’s Search For Meaning (Victor Frankl) – Your head is bloody but unbowed. You can’t always avoid suffering, but you can always choose how you are going to respond to it and what meaning you are going to find in it.

Pick one, read it, love it forever.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd