LIVING IN A VUCA WORLD – HOW TO KNOW WHAT MATTERS

Information pollution

One clear and obvious challenge to deal with in a VUCA world, is the volume and speed of new information we are bombarded with. Even though the vast majority of messages reaching us on our phones, laptops and televisions are irrelevant to what we are about, we tend to still give it our time and attention. It is the double-edged sword of progress: we love to be knowledgeable and informed, but it comes at the price of being distracted and often-times irritated as we scan through volumes of messages, the one supposedly as critical to our well-being as the next. In truth, this is a serious matter: an overload of information, researchers tell us, negatively effects quality decision making and the overstimulation of our brains can lead to  neurodegenerative disorders. What would be a healthy way of dealing with information pollution?

Losing integrity

We should keep in mind, as historian Daniel Boorstin says, ‘the fog of information can drive out knowledge.’ Our sense of integrity is tied to our sense of truth and meaning. The more random things we hear or read only in a sentence or two (or 140 characters), the less sure we become about the truth, meaning or value of it. The more we feel unsure about what to trust, the less integrated we feel. The less integrated we feel, the more everything appears to be equally important or unimportant. We need dedicated uninterrupted time to focus and evaluate what we believe we know, and to welcome and internalise new learning – or else we lose our positive energy.

Maintaining positive energy

‘Positive energy’ comes from knowing what we are really doing when we are doing what we doing. In other words to be mindful of how our actions are connected to what we are about, from the inside-out, what we value and believe. And if disconnected, to be aware of it in order to adjust and re-integrate.

Will anyone deny it that the world would be a much more beautiful place if we can share in each other’s positive energy? Two people can have the same job description, and one is holding a subtle or not-so-subtle life energy in doing his or her job, while another is holding a subtle or not-so-subtle negative energy while doing the exact same job. Are we not responding much more to one another’s energy than to their exact words or actions? Our positive energy is always the outcome from inside-out work – reflecting on and questioning our intentions, aligining with our vision, beliefs and values.

Living in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world can endanger what we have as positive energy, but it doesn’t have to be that way as long as we remain committed to live a life of integrity.

How to know what matters

As we navigate our way through the stormy and murky waters of a VUCA world, it would be helpful to reflect regularly on the following questions:

  • Am I true to myself, what I believe and what I value, in what I am doing now?
  • Imagining myself at the end of my life, will I be satisfied with the way I applied myself to

–         living a life of integrity?

–         my relationships with loved ones, friends and colleagues?

–         my work?

–         unlocking my potential through continuous learning?

TACKLING THE FUTURE HEAD-ON

Most of us have a love-hate relationship with change. In some cases, we welcome change with open arms; in other cases, we resist or try to escape it. We love it when the immediate benefits are obvious to us. We hate it when it is demanding something of us – when we feel it threatens our comfort zone, security or way of life. When we set our eyes on the future and want to do so in a sincere and meaningful way, not merely as an academic exercise, we also need to consider our emotional response to the accelerated change we experience in the 21st century and not only our rational views about the change.

From time immemorial, mankind had to deal with disruptions to their daily lives. The forces behind the disruptions or change they experienced, however, were simple and recognisable. They were mainly those experienced in nature and by hostile people competing for land and resources. Nowadays, with three industrial revolutions behind us, we can still feel reasonably comfortable because of our ability to reflect and learn from past experiences by identifying the cause-and-effect relationships. However, it is our shared experiences today that tasks that used to be obvious are no longer obvious anymore – drafting three- and five-year strategic plans now often feels like a waste of time. Everything is happening too fast, is too unpredictable and complex. And yet, we cannot be self-defeating, throw our arms up in the air or stop trying to apply our minds to what we are experiencing.

Our challenges because of change

Tackling the future head-on is strongly linked to change – how we respond to it and how we are part of it. It is interesting that when you would ask an audience “Who wants change?”, most hands will be raised. Without being provided with specifics, we assume that change will address our own needs or wants – new experiences, a bit of adventure, a better, more comfortable world to live in, etc. When we are asked “Do you want to change?”, only a few − if any − hands are raised. We assume that changing ourselves will probably dislodge us from our safe and stable sense of self and we don’t want to risk that. And yet, we all want to feel we have and will have value. We all want to feel relevant. So the obvious question is, if indeed we want change, who then will take the lead? Where do we expect such change will come from? The pope, the president, the governing party, the CEO, or just the non-specific ‘they’?

Mind-change

A hard, unsympathetic message you hear in this current 4th Industrial Revolution is “disrupt or be disrupted”. The time to rely on heroes and saviours who will shield us from – or gently lead us through − disruption has gone by. As the world becomes fully connected, more democratised and open to diverse ideas and influences, we are required to develop our independent and critical thinking. In other words, we need to embrace self-leadership. In leading ourselves more consciously, we develop our mind from a socialised mind to a self-authoring mind and onto a self-transforming mind (Kegan 2009). From being completely tuned in to the voices of authority figures and the collective, we develop ourselves to find our own voice and direction in an effort to write our own success stories. We then, hopefully, develop further to being willing to also listen to others for deeper understanding and with more self-reflection, which enables us to recognise the filters through which we formed our previous perceptions. To tackle the future head-on is not a task only for a few daredevils who are willing to take risks in order for the rest to follow in their footsteps. In the 21st century, change puts the magnifying glass on every one of us to be willing to develop ourselves for the challenges ahead.

Emotional and spiritual change

We are rational as well as emotional and spiritual beings. Tackling the future head-on and working through change can mess with our firmly-entrenched emotions, values and beliefs. We have already experienced the rapidly increasing accessibility of information and knowledge. We have experienced a diversity of worldviews, cultures, customs, beliefs and value systems. We probably have become less judgmental and less defensive, while those who reject change might feel threatened and become even more defensive.

However, to effectively navigate the stormy waters of change will require us to collaborate and trust others, which means that we must not only open our minds, but also our hearts. It will be difficult to effectively collaborate with others if we remain distrusting and cynical, saying one thing, but thinking and believing something else when we engage. Certainly, we carry the risk of being disappointed when we open our hearts to others, but in leadership, we expect to see both sides of trust: being trustworthy and being trusting. In true leadership, you don’t wait for others to reach out, you reach out first. For some of us, this probably means that we have to let go of whatever holds us in the grip of cynicism and fear.

Our relationship with technology

New technology brings with it change, and many of us probably also have a love-hate relationship with technology. It is easy to hate technology when we perceive it as something threatening, something that ruins the beauty and purity of nature or something that makes us too dependent on it – we quickly feel stress when it fails us. We love technology when it makes life easier or our work efforts more productive. In this love-hate relationship, we are not always sure if we should keep technology at a distance or open the door to it even wider.

Should technology scare us? Yes and No. If, for instance, it means that technology interferes negatively in our relationships, then yes, it should scare us. If it means that it facilitates connectivity and helps us the lives of others through conquering poverty, inequality or diseases, then we should praise it. The book by Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Brains , articulates what many of us feel uncomfortable with – how we can be enslaved and intimidated by technology at the expense of what we value as being good for relationships, where proper attention and concentration, focus and healthy living in general are important.

However, instead of asking whether technology should scare us or not, we should appreciate who is responsible for it in the first place. Be honest with yourself: it is obviously us. Even though technology could become a threat to us in a number of ways, we should remind ourselves that we remain responsible for what we have created and how we apply it in our private and business lives. In that sense, technologies are extensions of who we are and what we do with our abilities. They are amplifications of our power, but not separate living monsters to fear or fight. Where technology presents the how of change, humans present the why. Asking why we allow or encourage change and for what purpose we will apply it will ultimately determine our well-being and what we gain from the technology.

The 4th Industrial Revolution and our response

In a nutshell, the 4th Industrial Revolution refers to the dramatic social and economic changes that are the result of an array of technological breakthroughs and inventions, which have an impact on all industries. These include technologies such as the Internet of Things, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality and Big Data, among many others. It can be described as the revolution of digitisation and cyber-physical systems (a mechanism that is controlled or monitored by computer-based algorithms). This latest revolution was preceded by the introduction of steam power and mechanisation in the 1st Industrial Revolution; electricity and mass production in the 2nd Industrial Revolution; and the internet and automation in the 3rd Industrial Revolution.

In his book, Shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Klaus Schwab makes the important point that the 4th Industrial Revolution is much more than just a description of technologically-driven change. “We should not resign ourselves to the inevitability of default options … Debate values at all stages of innovation … The benefits include spreading prosperity more widely, reducing inequality and reversing the loss of trust that is dividing societies and polarising politics.” Ultimately, changes need to be human-centred or at least human-orientated. If there is no benefit gained for humans from technological development, then it should not be supported.

“Tackling the future head-on” should not be interpreted too simplistically. If it is interpreted as an encouragement to seize opportunities merely for one’s own success, then it is still old paradigm thinking. The challenges and opportunities experienced in the 4th Industrial Revolution are of a global nature and can only be treated as such. While there are opportunities for great advances in all industries, the world is also facing global threats and instability. Think about climate change, potential nuclear wars and social unrest due to high levels of inequality, increasing poverty and high levels of unemployment. The fact that the richest 1% own half the world’s wealth is unacceptable and a high risk to social stability. No nation can solve global existential threats on its own. No matter where you live and what work you do, collaboration will be key in responding to 21st century challenges.

The 4th Industrial Revolution will disrupt and have an impact on all areas of our lives. In the new world of work, it is expected that many jobs of a mechanical, repetitive nature will soon be done by robots. It is estimated that close to 60% of all current jobs have at least 30% of tasks that could already be performed by computers. Furthermore, an expected 35% of skills will change across industries as new technologies, business models and markets develop. Instead of panicking about potential job losses, our response should be to focus on the capabilities that will be required in the new world of work, abilities such as creative and innovative thinking beyond the scope of a computer or robot.

Reskilling, “rewiring” our brains and generally re-inventing ourselves at the young age of fifty will become increasingly important to remain relevant in the working environment. It will be more beneficial to think in dynamic terms about the different roles we can play at work, contributing to work organisations or society, rather than to think of jobs in static or fixed terms. The idea of “best practices” will give way to more divergent thinking, experimentation and creative solutions in a rapidly changing world.

Leadership in a VUCA world

The acronym VUCA refers to what we have come to know as features of our 21st century world, which is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. When we reflect on and discuss leadership, these descriptors need to be central in our thinking of the context within which we need to lead. Similarly, discussing our readiness for the changes, forces or challenges experienced in the 4th Industrial Revolution, leadership has to be at the core of our thinking.

Leadership incorporates leading self, others and the change. Effective leadership requires balancing and developing all three leadership areas. In developing our leadership, we hope to remain relevant and influential, which leads us to revisit our thinking paradigms, or the lenses through which we view the world. If we recognise the patterns of our thinking as they were influenced by historical, scientific and socio-economic factors, we can match them with appropriate effective patterns of thinking for the modern world. This will highlight the shifts we need to make. One such shift is the move from convergent thinking to divergent thinking.

We use convergent thinking to analyse problems and break them down into their parts for closer inspection and to derive at conclusive judgment and decisions. It is linear and systematic. However, convergent thinking does not help us to come up with creative ideas, explore possibilities and allow ourselves the freedom to experiment. For that we need to develop divergent thinking. Improving our divergent thinking is what can help us facing the 4th Industrial Revolution. It helps us to see the connections between things, to be flexible, not obsessed with what is best, but why and how we should take creative risks. In the environment of the 4th Industrial Revolution, we are challenged to replace the need for knowledge perfection with the willingness to seize the unknown. Thinking about our education systems, this necessitates a mind shift where universities become the birthplaces of ideas rather than merely of degrees to show how much I know … we can always google instead.

To lead effectively in a VUCA world, you will find it helpful to be more curious rather than convinced; more responsive and even proactive rather than standardised; and more passionate rather than diligent. In a global study done by IBM, creativity, integrity and global thinking were identified as the top 3 leadership qualities for the new world of work.

Schwab emphasises systems leadership and explains that it is about a shared vision of change and actions that include all stakeholders of the global society. Ultimately, as effective leaders, we need to shift the structures of our social and economic systems in an effort to deliver sustainable benefits to all citizens, including those for future generations. The scale, complexity and urgency of the challenges facing the world today call for leadership and action that are both responsive and responsible.

Conclusion

An old African proverb states, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” The 4th Industrial Revolution brings with it a sense of urgency, meaning that we have to apply the principle of global thinking for relevancy. However, our sense of urgency should help us focus on how to connect, collaborate and co-innovate. This must never happen through frantic actions to save one’s own skin, one’s own position or company. Such actions, using technologies just because they were available would be counter-productive and short-sighted. We might succeed fast for a while, but such approach will not sustain us. Instead, we need to follow the advice by many successful leaders to integrate our ethics and values in our decision-making and apply our steps to manage change together and in the interests of the wider communities. Do not only ask if something is feasible, ask for what ultimate purpose will the change be applied.

From the above, it is clear that your commitment to the following will serve you well in tackling the future head-on:

  • Be resilient (adaptive and positive)
  • Be collaborative
  • Be ethical
  • Be creative
  • Be flexible
  • Be agile

Living in a VUCA world – How to be firm and flexible

Finding your place in a VUCA world is one thing, but navigating the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous terrain is yet another. Should one care at all? Is it not possible to avoid this VUCA world completely or only engage with it on one’s own terms; withdraw from the system to make your own living in nature – like the people in Ben Fogle’s TV series ‘Return to the Wild’? Is the alternative a life characterised by endless efforts to try and make sense of everything that gets thrown at us (from the latest ‘must have app’ to the latest news of looming natural, economical or political disasters), desperately trying to keep up with the pace that is set for us? Hopefully we have other options and hopefully we can apply ourselves to them in a responsible way.

How to be firm

It is easy to conclude that our only option is to go with the flow and give up on standing on or building foundations. There are simply too many examples of how the strongholds of earlier beliefs and ideologies crumbled to the degree that they obviously failed in practice or were reasonably questioned and proven wrong or misplaced. It is easy to become sceptical of everything, even you own thinking. Alternatively, to become a hard-headed, self-serving, reckless egoist in a position of power and/or wealth. No wonder there is a general feeling of desperation when it comes to leadership.

The challenge is how and when to be firm and how and when to be flexible. As we can see in the way the Brexit drama is unfolding, the margins of error are small. It is harder to know what we stand for than to know what we stand against. It is also harder to be open-minded and collaborative than it is to stay in love with your own ideas – particularly when we have invested so much of our ego in an argument.

How to be flexible

We can only know when and how to be firm if we also know when and how to be flexible. It is a balancing act in a real-life context. There is no perfect formula. The first hurdle however is a dualistic mind-set and worldview, and thus the illusion of perfection. The dualistic mind is essentially either/or thinking. It works for simplification but not for the subtlety of actual personal experience. With a dualistic approach we use words like right/wrong, good/bad, pretty/ugly, smart/stupid, winner/loser, not realising there may be a hundred degrees between the two ends of each spectrum.

A dualistic mind cannot process infinity, mystery, grace, suffering, sexuality, death, or love. All of which is very real in our experience of life. Seeing the world with a dualistic mind is easier because we rely mostly on what we were told and how we were trained in what is right, good, pretty, smart and winning. Letting go of it is hard because we have to think for ourselves. What do we truly believe? What do we truly value? What do we find meaningful?

To be firm and flexible requires knowing yourself, both the good and the bad, the strong and the weak, the confident and the vulnerable, the light and the dark. It requires authenticity and self-reflection. It requires self- and social awareness and the willingness to withhold judgment until such time that you, with a clear and calm mind, can lead yourself and others appropriately with both firmness and flexibility, comfortable with the paradox.

In the context of the VUCA world, as a rule of thumb, spend 10 minutes of reflection and contemplation for every 1 minute of checking your messages.

Living in a VUCA world – Finding your place

Living in a VUCA world – Finding your place

 Small community life

In a small community people typically have a big overlap in their frames of reference. They have the same or similar stories to tell about the past, they share beliefs and values, preferred food and drink, customs, and the kinds of sport and recreational activities they enjoy. For most of them, it is not too difficult to find their place in the community and not to bother too much about what they are becoming or the troubles of the world ‘out there’.

In smaller communities people tend to care more and have more time for each other. The reality of the 21st century world however is that small communities are dying out. From 16% of the world population living in cities in the year 1900, we now expect to have 68% of the world population living in cities by the year 2050. Furthermore, it is projected that 75% of the world population will be internet (the virtual world we live in) users by 2022.

An interconnected world

To find your place in an interconnected world is very different to what it was if you grew up in a small intimate community. From being on the inside where it is up to those from the outside to understand you and adapt to your way of living, you now find yourself on the outside, having to learn and adapt to many things new and totally removed from the life you knew. You now, exposed to this new world of information and influences, are forced to think where you stand and rethink where you stood. Thinking where you stand sounds easier than it is when the world is moving under your feet at pace. A position you took yesterday with conviction could easily change with new information today.

Living in a VUCA world is demanding … as life always was and always will be. Our challenge is to understand how the nature of the demand changes from time to time in shorter cycles.

Finding your place: Own your life

Amidst all of the typical daily rush, the bombardment of information and social media activity, work pressures and daily chores, it is easy to feel lost, bewildered and thinly spread … at least at times if not all the time.  To find your place you have to own your life. Your life is not your employer’s or boss’s life. Your life is not your friends’ life, nor your family’s life, and not even your beloved partner’s life. Owning you life in this sense is not about being selfish, arrogant and egoistic. In truth, it can be scary and daring. It comes with an uneasy sense of responsibility for all your decisions and their direct consequences. It takes courage. But lending your life out to others can destroy you and certainly will prevent you from reaching your own unique potential and thus fulfilment.

Finding your place: Neither be bigger nor smaller than you are

Listening to others, what people tell you, what you read and watch, there could be many reasons why you would want to be bigger than you are. ‘Bigger’ meaning more talented, more wealthy, more influential, more powerful, brighter, slimmer, stronger, prettier, etc. Whether we want to see or hear it or not, ‘the world’ is ceaselessly telling us and showing us the best of the best that is out there, the stars of the world earning recognition and admiration. The truth is, as long as we are still comparing ourselves to others, we can’t find our place and we struggle to be grounded.

As scary, unsafe, intimidating and harsh as the world can be, there could be many reasons why you would rather settle for the smaller version of yourself. ‘Smaller’ meaning self-diminishing, safer, lower goals, lower aspirations, self-doubting, giving up, hiding, standing back, stop dreaming, following the crowd, etc. If so, it is tragic. From time to time you need to cut out the noise, hype and unrealistic expectations that media creates. You need to reflect on the real potential in yourself and what you own yourself to make the best of life and the opportunities you have.

As we often remind one another, we only live once. Let us then not be intimidated or overwhelmed by the VUCA world. Let us own up and find our own place, neither wanting to be bigger nor smaller than who we are.

Meaningful living : Wonder

Life has a way of squeezing out the sense of wonder we had as children. Can you still remember how you became immersed in the storybooks you read – those stories that you could read over and over again because they were so real to you? Or lying on a blanket in the still of the night and watching the stars in awe, without thinking much? The belief that life is good, and that good people and good things triumph over bad people and bad things was natural then. As we age, harsh realities and disillusionment, can easily lead to apathy and cynicism.  Apathy and cynicism threatens to smother the sense of wonder in us completely – and with it the belief in, and hope for pure truth, everlasting good, and meaning. Read More

Meaningful living : Happiness and gratitude

Imagine a person who never expresses gratitude. You most probably will be thinking of someone who either sees life similar to a board game where everything is determined by the roll of the dice, or someone who believes that whatever good there is in his life is entirely the result of his own intellect and efforts. If we see life as coincidence or something that we somehow deserve and are entitled to, we will have difficulty in understanding gratitude and its place in our lives. Imagine a world with only self-absorbed, arrogant and cynical people. Can it be a world of true joy, abundance, goodwill and meaning? Read More

Meaningful living and overcoming selfishness

How empty would our lives be without love, receiving it and giving it?

‘Love’ is a soft word – too soft for many. They feel, ‘if we allow softness in our lives we will be exposed and left behind’. “Soft” is weak, and so is love’, according to them. Love means to be gentle, kind, compassionate and forgiving, whereas success requires being forceful, domineering and uncompromising. Yet, behind the facade of self-sufficiency and bravado, those who are uncomfortable with the concept also dearly want to be loved like everybody else. Their viewpoint is, however, understandable. The world is a scary place so that self-protection for survival comes naturally. Was it not for the love of our parents, caretakers or others that reached out to us, we would not have known anything but the need to protect ourselves from the real or perceived dangers of life.  Read More

Meaningful living and the power of faith

Smoke, nothing but smoke. [That’s what the Quester says.]
    There’s nothing to anything—it’s all smoke.
What’s there to show for a lifetime of work,
a lifetime of working your fingers to the bone?
One generation goes its way, the next one arrives,
but nothing changes— it’s business as usual for
old planet earth

The good news for the Quester in Ecclesiastes is that he presents meaningful knowledge. What he says is a true and honest reflection of life. It resonates with us. It carries weight, and, as such, it points to something important. The fact that we can think and can express our observations and experiences of meaninglessness in a meaningful way suggests the possibility of spiritual sight. If human beings were absolutely devoid of meaning, they would not be conscious of meaninglessness. In some way, and for some reason, we can compare what we see and experience with something that is different, an image of perfect truth and meaning. Our inner being has knowledge of a homeland to which we want to return to.  Read More

Meaningful living and the power of vision

Meaningful living is not a fixed or static state. It is a journey to a meaningful destination. We  have clearly not arrived at any state of perfection. We, as well as everything around us, are in constant change. And the question is: change to what? As we make our choices in response to ever-changing situations, our lives evolve. Are we in the process slipping further into meaninglessness or are we progressing towards more meaning?

Meaninful living is to strive for meaning. Striving for meaning requires nothing less than ceaseless work on oneself and refining of one’s personal vision.

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Giving recognition

As fulfilling, exciting and creative as work sometimes can be, it can also make us intense, stressed, deeply fearful and self-absorbed. This would typically happen when we see everything from the perspective of competition for scarce resources and opportunities. We want desperately to be recognised but we don’t recognise others. We want praise but don’t praise others. Read More