Who still believes they don’t need adaptive-strategies?

A blog by Martin Erasmuson.

CS Monitor staff writer Peter Ford starts his today’s think-piece on the US election result with: “Suddenly, the world is flying blind”.  This statement is demonstrably not true.  Or more specifically his use of the adjective ‘suddenly’ in that statement MAKES the statement un-true.  In truth, the world has been ‘flying blind’ for most of this millennium, and probably much longer.  It didn’t ‘suddenly’ happen on the evening of Tuesday 8th November 2016 with the US Presidential election result. 

In 2013, following the 2008 financial crisis some pundits commented: “This is more than enough time to gain perspective, collect the evidence, apply some logic, and achieve a valid conclusion, so such crises won’t recur in the future”.  To which Forbes contributor Richard Salsman responds “Good luck with all that. Don’t hold your breath”.

And back to the latest (so-called) ‘crisis’, with headlines like that of the CS Monitor: “Dealt a surprise Trump card, the world tries to figure out a changed game”.  (I was hoping to get through this entire blog without mentioning the name that rhymes with ‘rump’ but contend I can get away with its use here based on journalist integrity in quoting a third-party source).

Let’s back the truck up.  For the last 300 years or so Western Culture has been dominated by the influence of Newtonian Science (the guy under the apple tree) that had its birth in the industrial revolution.  Newton’s model is one of independence and separation Abridged Newtonian Model (below).  It is a story that any Western person knows very well with its underlying construct that the entire universe and everything in it is like a magnificent, clockwork machine and, as with any machine we can, given enough analysis, understand ALL the workings of the machine and have control over it.  Newton’s model suggests that it is possible to identify all the various parts, understand how they interact, what the cause and effect relationships are and in understanding all those parts we can form an understanding of the whole.  Simple ah!  But hold-the-phone, it gets better; we can use that model to manipulate or engineer various parts of the ‘machine’ to achieve specific‘Policy or Strategic'  Outcomes.  And as fantasy’s go, this is all rather nice with one small; OK massive flaw; it is demonstrably bollocks (to use the British vernacular).

Flawed as the Newton Model is, that has not stopped us from applying it to every aspect of Western Culture: our concept of ecosystems, the solar-system and space, medicine and human physiology, how we developed public education systems, how we structure and managed our organisations and managed the people in them; and how we conceive, build and manage Knowledge Management Systems.

Our (so-called) Best-Practice approaches (more accurately ‘Past-Practice’) to planning and problem solving are typical of the Newtonian Model.  In New Zealand it drives virtually every aspect of Public Sector Planning and in particular our preoccupation with ‘Evidence-Based-Policy’.  The use here of the adjective ‘Evidence’ has similar connotations to the word ‘suddenly’ I referenced earlier.  Planners and policy-makers; and let’s include US & World Political Scientists, Commentators, Economists, and indeed Knowledge Management System Stewards) may take comfort by including the word ‘evidence’ in describing their respective worlds; but once you scrape-off the veneer you will typically discover that there are a whole bunch of assumptions underlying the policy/model/plan that have been treated as facts, rather than as best-guess estimates to be questioned and validated.  And thus, the ‘surprise’ with events like the US election result or the ‘crash of 2008’ with their 'independent variables' not factored into the model.

Basically, we’ve confused the word (policy, plan, model) with the thing itself, or what we commonly call ‘reality’.  Getting more specific, famous British statistician George Box (1919 –2013) reminds us that “essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful".

Anyone still having trouble with this concept, keep looking at any international news website and read stories like the “Dealt a surprise…..” one above until, as repugnant as it might be, we 'get' that the world changed without warning us.  (perhaps read my 'Coming Ready or Not' blog)  The lesson?  Unplanned, unforeseen, continuous, unrelenting change is the key underlying condition of today’s world; and that change will increase exponentially.

The good news; the sun will come up tomorrow (though to be fair that is an assumption) and more importantly, in my consulting practice I’ve not discovered yet an organization that didn’t, for the most part, already have the physical resources they need to respond to this continuous change.  What is typically missing is a process and culture shift centered around various adaptive-strategies, discovery-based-planning approaches and agile methodologies.  I’ve banged on about these in recent blogs so will not repeat myself here.

The great tragedy of our continued obsession with the Newtonian-Model and its manifestation in our policy, organizational frameworks and implementation approaches is that these can never support the innovation organizations need if they are to survive the uncertainty roller-coaster we find ourselves on; but more devastating is that such a philosophy leaves little room for those most human of all qualities: imagination, love, hope, passion, compassion.