Sunday, October 18, 2015

Survival of the Fittest

Recently, I’ve observed a couple of organisations or three that are making a serious fundamental survival mistake, especially given we are now well into the 21st century: the century of discontinuous change. And, at the same time, I’ve met quite a few individuals who are also seriously ill-prepared for dealing with the world in which they live. Odd really because we’ve known the secret to survival for a long time.

Until the 1940s it was thought that organisms would always seek to stay in balance, called homeostasis, as a general principle of survival. I even learnt this as a trainee nurse in the 1970s, which goes to show how slow new knowledge can be adopted. This seemed to make perfect sense until along came a bloke with the seriously tongue twisting name of Bertalanffy. Among other important observations that he incorporated into what he called General Systems Theory, was the idea that this homeostatic rule was a fallacy. He reasoned that adaptation was critical to survival of species and that organisms, rather than just seeking balance, adapt gradually to changes in their environment otherwise they could never survive nor evolve. From a Darwinian perspective, it is impossible to see how evolution would work without adaptation, along with genetic ‘accidents’.

It didn’t take long for smart social scientists to apply the same principle to organisations. This was that organisations also need to be able to adapt to changes in their environment or risk becoming redundant. They need to be constantly scanning the external world to see what the latest trends and risks might be, to anticipate, and to have the agility to adapt. It is this last ability that is critical. Open systems are adaptive. Closed systems, on the other hand, are too intent on internal processes, policies, the manufacture of their current ‘widget’ to be looking outside or to the future. They tend to be controlling structures where decisions are made at the top rather than with the combined intelligence of the group. There may be a semblance of adaptive process but people within the organisation are not really empowered with information, a real contribution, and decision-making. In Simon Sinek’s parlance they are focused on ‘What’ rather than the ‘Why’ or even the ‘How’.

In an open system, leadership is focused on engaging people so that everyone is able to provide continuous feedback to the organisation from their interactions with the environment, people can express their expertise, there is freedom to move, people are trusted, conflict is managed constructively, expectations are realistic, and relationships are valued. Engagement makes an organisation agile-able to respond, like an organism, to toxins and to opportunities that enhance survival. Leadership is transformation and based on relationships, rather than transactional since the later, with its carrots and sticks approach is ineffective. Rewarding people with affirmations and punishing them with negative behaviour does not produce engagement. It is closed system thinking.

In my clinical role I soon learned that there are two types of people in the world when it comes to the ability to adapt. There are those who think that catastrophe will never affect them, that they are immune from bad things happening. Given this, like the closed system, they are not prepared when it does. They have not broadened their skills or developed contingency plans, the horizon is very short and they cannot see possibilities nor the options from which to choose. When things go wrong in their work or relationships, they have no room to move and end up compromising: stuck. Some people have personality characteristics that make change a difficult proposition, so they avoid even preparing for it.

This who have learnt or who have a more flexible personality are prepared for change: aware that anything can happen at a moment’s notice. They might be upset at the change but manage to find their way through it and come out the other end. They live in possibilityland and have skilled themselves in such a way that they can make choices from a number of options. Without the former there is no possibility of the latter.

In the words of the AC/DC song, ‘Are You Ready?’