At the end of January 2020, I was on my way to Sweden to speak at a conference. We were aware of the novel Coronavirus outbreak in China, but it seemed contained and far enough away that we didn’t have to be concerned. On our way over, we spent time in airport lounges, had coffee and croissants for breakfast at Charles de Gaulle and wiled away our time watching people come and go. Very few wore masks. Everything was “normal”.
Two weeks later, on our way back to South Africa, things were different. There were known cases in parts of Europe, we were more aware, but not yet concerned enough to consider wearing masks. We stocked up on extra hand sanitizer and flew back home without much change in behavior. About six weeks later the world was in lockdown.
I think it is safe to say that for most of us this has been a completely novel situation. It is not a so-called Black Swan, Nassim Taleb’s (1) famous metaphor for a low-probability, high-impact event. It was certainly high-impact, but not low-probability. The World Health Organisation (WHO) tracked 1,483 epidemics in 172 countries between 2011-2018 and there has been significant epidemics every two to four years. In September 2019, the WHO put out a press release stating: “World at Risk from Deadly Pandemics” (2). They predicted “an outbreak equivalent to the 1918 influenza pandemic could kill an estimated 50 [million] to 80 million people… wiping out nearly five percent of the global economy.”
In the 2020 World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report (3), infectious diseases were cited as one of the leading risks. Covid-19 was not an unknown unknown, the only thing unknown about this pandemic were its exact timing, shape and impact.
Why then did we find ourselves entirely unprepared?
Since the end of the second world war, the world has experienced a period of unusual stability. Humans have never been comfortable with uncertainty, but previous generations who lived through the two world wars, the 1918 influenza pandemic and the great depression, understood uncertainty and instability as a normal part of life. Most of the people alive today have not had that same experience. As Diego Espinosa says: “We have outsourced our relationship with uncertainty to certainty merchants.”
Over the last few decades, a dominant narrative emerged that equates “normal” to stability, predictability and certainty. We acknowledge instability and uncertainty but see them as temporary states that we must endure until we can return to “normal”. That language permeates our news feeds right now: what is the “new normal”? what is the “next normal”? The question on everyone’s minds is “when can we go back to some form of normalcy” and what they mean is: When will things settle back into some form of stability, predictability and certainty?
What most of us (and I include myself in this statement) are struggling with, is accepting that the stability of the past few decades was abnormal and that the uncertainty we face right now is normal. This pandemic will not be our last, and the impact of climate change is an even bigger unknown. We need to reacquaint ourselves with uncertainty, and even befriend it.
I have been working in the field of applied complexity for nearly two decades. For most of that time, my message was seen as “interesting”, something to create some disruption and stretch people’s minds at corporate events. Decision-makers realized that the world is complex and sometimes uncertain, but their reality, although fast-paced and disruptive, was still pretty “normal” so they saw uncertainty as something they could choose to engage with, in a world with many certainties. The year 2020 has given us all a masterclass in uncertainty, complexity and non-linearity.
It has become abundantly clear just how entangled and complex our world is. Viruses (whether biological, digital or idea viruses) spread through our interconnected world at lightning speed. Our extreme focus on efficiency over the last few decades have led to over-optimized systems, whose brittleness was exposed virtually overnight.
For example, whereas in the past most organizations had some redundancy in their supply chains, now many companies found themselves reliant on single suppliers half a world away and suddenly inaccessible. Cities had less than a week’s food supply, pharmaceutical companies couldn’t access key ingredients to manufacture medication. Our striving for ever more profit and ever more efficiency has led to a near total loss of resilience.
Even if we were able to restore the ways and systems of the pre-Covid “normal”, it leaves us in a state of paradox. The very systems we depend on for our survival, the food production systems, economic systems, energy systems and transport systems we are so desperately trying to restore, are the same systems that brought us where we are. They are toxic, leading to the mass destruction of natural habitats that bring us into closer contact with wild animals, leading to greater potential for pandemics; pumping tons of pollution into the atmosphere, acidifying oceans, raising global temperatures. We are in a double bind, we are damned if we save these old systems, and damned if we don’t.
Whereas in the past we dealt with known and even unknown unknowns, we now find ourselves in the space of unknowable unknowns. We can no longer afford to be subject to old narratives and old meanings. We are in completely uncharted territory. In the words of Abraham Lincoln: “we need to think anew and act anew”.
In Part 2, we will explore the implications of this for leaders and decision-makers through the lens of the Cynefin™ sense-making framework.
The UFS Business School recognises the challenges posed to management and leadership by the times we live in. This has led to the design of our Future Fitness approach to management and leadership development.
The Core Idea – Future Fit Management & Leadership
- Our Value Proposition will enable decision-makers and leaders to become complexity- and future-fit.
- Focusing on meta-skills that will ensure adaptive capacity, and the ability to respond to increasing turbulence.
- With exponential change, technical skills and best practices have short-lived and limited value. Our programmes will aim to fundamentally shift how participants see and make sense of their contexts and equip them with meta-skills such as curiosity, learning agility, sense-making and adaptive intelligence.
Our view on Future Fit Management & Leadership
Being a Future Fit Manager or Leader will require the development of the following fitness areas:
Digital Fitness – For managers and leaders, the key to digital readiness lies in creating awareness and stimulating interest in and preference for the digital way.
People Fitness – Self-development and appreciation lies at the heart of appreciating the value and potential that lies in diversity.
Customer Fitness – Mindsets for growth and agility is required to keep the customer at the centre of all innovation and design processes as we adapt to an ever-changing environment.
Strategic Fitness – Doing the right things and doing them right.
Functional Fitness – Developing the required technical, managerial skills.
Complexity Fitness – The ability to take on a Complexity view on all the Fitness Areas discussed above. Complexity and sense-making as “new language”, enables decision-makers and senior leaders to ensure adaptive capacity, and the ability to respond to increasing turbulence.
Please visit the UFS Business School website for online programmes available, or contact Ansie Barnard: Barnardam@ufs.ac.za
As one of South Africa’s thought leaders in the applied complexity, Sonja Blignaut has teamed up with the UFS Business School for purposes of developing a range of short learning programmes in applied complexity and to facilitate the development of a Complexity View on a Future Fit Management and Leadership Development value proposition.
Sonja is a thinking partner for leaders, change-makers (individuals and teams) who need to lead in uncertainty; enable strategic agility and create future-fit organisations. She co-creates and delivers fit-for-context interventions to enable responsive and adaptive organisations.
Sonja also looks after the global Cognitive Edge network and is the South African partner for Prof Dave Snowden’s company Cognitive Edge for over a decade (Wales, USA, Singapore, UK, Netherlands, Brazil). She teaches locally and internationally on Complexity, Cynefin™ and enabling adaptive organisations. Sonja is certified in various individual and systemic coaching methods and a sought-after speaker, with experience at various conferences locally and internationally, including TEDx.
1. Black Swan. Taleb, N. 2007
2. GPMB Press Realease 18 September 2019
3. WEF – The Global Risks Report 2020
4. A leader’s framework for decision making. Snowden & Boone, 2007, Harvard Business Review
5. The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organisation and the World. Heifetz, R., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M., 2009.