hold space for complex problems

Professor Lynda Gratton at the London Business School outlines five forces in The Shift: The Future of Work is Already Here, that will shape the future patterns of work.

“Technology (think 5 billion people, digitized knowledge, ubiquitous cloud).
Globalisation (think continued bubbles and crashes, a regional underclass, the world becoming urban, frugal innovation).
Longevity and demography (think Gen Y, increasing longevity, aging boomers growing old poor, global migration).
Society (think growing distrust of institutions, the decline of happiness, rearranged families)
Energy resources (think rising energy prices, environmental catastrophes displacing people, a culture of sustainability emerging).”

Work informs much of our relationship with society. It is common to ask new acquaintances what they do for a living. Our jobs are often the prime source of personal wealth. Many jobs provide benefits we could not otherwise afford. Too often, we are our jobs, and when that changes, on a large scale, society will change.

Work-Changes.001The changing nature of work will have ramifications across society. There are strong indicators that we are moving into a post-job economy, with routine cognitive work being continuously automated. Structural changes in jobs and the education needed to do work are already being felt. Is a university degree worth the debt load? Is backward-looking data – how well a degree prepares one for today’s work – a valid indicator to look forward into the next decade? Young people are less involved in the political process, even as current legislation affects their future. Where is the disconnect? But we need to first prepare people – individuals, families, communities – to be adaptable in dealing with technological and demographic changes, in a globalized, resource-challenged world.

Work-Changes.002Every one of the major challenges facing us is complex. But our organizations are not designed for complexity. Our education institutions do not teach an understanding of complexity. Our workplace training does not factor in complexity. While not all of our problems are complex, the simpler issues are being dealt with. We need to take what Clay Shirky calls the cognitive surplus, and use it to wrestle with complex problems. Understanding complexity must be part of any informed discussions on government policy or governance. We ignore it at our peril.

Work-Changes.003We already have many methods and frameworks to address complexity.

We can build new structures that promote whole, self-managing, and evolutionary organizations as explained by Frederic Laloux in Reinventing Organizations. Of course one model is not adequate, and there is more than one way to organize for complexity. Overall we should reinforce democratic principles in order to have organizations that can adapt to perpetual beta.

In addition to structures, we need new practices that helps us address complex problems. Cognitive Edge, based on the Cynefin framework, gives us tools like Sense-Maker to address complexity. Personal knowledge mastery is how individuals can take control not only of their own learning, but build professional social networks for knowledge-sharing and cooperation. Powerful visualization tools, fed by increasing amounts of data, can help people make sense of complexity and easily share new insights.

We have many tools, and a number of techniques to deal with complexity. What we need are structures to hold the space  so that our collective intelligence can deal with the wicked problems we face. Holding this critical space is a key role that government can play in the emerging complex network era.

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