Increasing VUCA’ness (VUCA: Volatility; Uncertainty; Complexity; Ambiguity) divides the world into 2 camps of people, companies and futures. The agility-advantaged-minority and the agility-disadvantaged-majority. The agile and the fragile.
It’s not easy to cross the gap, because it embodies:
2 Kinds of Simplicity
There are 2 kinds of simplicity, as captured by Oliver Wendell Holmes:
“I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity but I’d give my life for simplicity on the far side of complexity” (Oliver Wendell Holmes).
This tells us that there are two types of simplicity. We will call these:
- Stupid Simplicity: This is simplicity this side of complexity, which ignores that complexity.
- Elegant Simplicity: This is simplicity on the far side of complexity, which embeds that complexity.
How often do we hear someone using the KISS principle, saying something like, “Can’t we just Keep It Simple, Stupid,” sometimes just quietly in his or her head and sometimes verbally in the room! It is usually followed by something like, “Let’s just focus on this year’s budget goals,” maybe continuing with something like, “and then future years will take care of themselves.”
Einstein and Mencken had their own way of saying the same thing:
“Everything should be made as a simple as possible, and no simpler” (Einstein).
“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong” (H. L. Mencken)
2 Kinds of Complexity
There are also 2 kinds of complexity, as captured by Peter Senge:
“The reason that sophisticated tools of forecasting and business analysis, as well as elegant strategic plans, usually fail to produce dramatic breakthroughs in managing a business—they are all designed to handle the sort of complexity in which there are many variables: detail complexity. But there are two types of complexity. The second type is dynamic complexity, situations where cause and effect are subtle and where the effects over time of interventions are not obvious. Conventional forecasting, planning and analysis methods are not equipped to deal with dynamic complexity. The real leverage in most management situations lies in understanding dynamic complexity not detail complexity.” (The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, Peter Senge, 1990)
The saying “the devil is in the details” is certainly still very much the case, more than ever before. However, with the increasing speed of business and the accelerating pace of change these days, we have had wave after wave of dynamic complexity washing over us. So I also suggest to you that “the devil is in the dynamics.” Think about it. We live in a 24/7/365 blur of a world. Everything has become real time, online all the time. It’s a flat world of hyper competition and a level playing field, especially if we have had to lay off some employees and everyone is wearing multiple hats, serving multiple projects, clients, opportunities, change initiatives, sites, and roles. We are constantly managing a portfolio of plans and replanning on the fly in response to moving goalposts and reshuffling priorities. Traditional approaches to managing our attention span through time and priority management don’t work very well anymore, with the challenge becoming much more like an ongoing, dynamic process of triage.
It’s kind of like the difference between American football and British football (the real football!). In American football, we have a defensive team or an offensive team on the field at any one time, and each is paying attention to the detail of its role in that moment. In soccer, we have one team on the field at all times, ebbing and flowing between playing defense and offense, all at the same time—and defense can become offense with one long pass down the field. It’s not that there isn’t dynamic complexity to American football, which clearly there is; it’s just that soccer (or something similar like basketball or ice hockey) involves a different and greater mix of dynamic complexity.
2 Kinds of Skill
Theses 2 kinds of simplicity and complexity create the reality that there are 2 kinds of skill, as captured by Connolly & Rianoshek:
“It is very possible that you already possess the leadership and communication skills that meet the challenge of static conditions. They have been honed since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The dynamic skills are unusual, and developing them fully requires considerable personal interest. Static conditions are based upon predictable challenges. The crucial variables are known. Although no business challenge is completely static and unchanging, some are definitely more static than dynamic. Dynamic conditions are substantially unpredictable. Many times you cannot safely predict the commitments, capabilities, and actions of customers, investors, employees, and competitors. In those times, leadership and communication must be more dynamic than static. The guiding principles for leaders are dramatically different. In dynamic situations, the static imperatives cause damage and create waste rather than value.” (The Communication Catalyst – the fast (but not stupid) track to value for customers, investors and employees. Connolly & Rianoshek, 2002)
This tells us there are 2 types of skills:
- Static Skills
- Dynamic Skills
Applying static skills in dynamic conditions is a stupid-simple approach to detail complexity but not dynamic complexity. We need elegantly simple approaches of dynamic complexity for dynamic conditions.
2 Kinds of People, Companies & Futures
This tend to divide the world into 2 camps.
- The agility-disadvantaged-majority who are stuck in stupid simplicity for dynamic complexity, which becomes a self-fulfilling/self-defeating prophecy, vicious cycle and downwards spiral. Their’s is a future of fragility.
- The agility-advantaged-minority who are leveraging elegant simplicity for dynamic complexity, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, virtuous cycle and upwards spiral. Their’s is a future of agility.
There are many other dimensions we will explore on which we can divide the world into 2 camps, but these are the main ones for now.
How do you cross the gap? By understanding agility as a 3D challenge and driving a different conversation.