Organisational Development consultant and research partner at Futureteaming
It’s a Thursday in late February 2020, and I’m walking the streets of my home-town, Stavanger, a picturesque city of white clapboard houses in SW Norway. The winter nights are long at this latitude, and there’s a cold north wind blowing, but that doesn’t stop people getting onto the streets for traditional late-night shopping. The restaurants are bustling. The bars along the waterfront are as packed and raucous as ever.
It feels strange for me now to look back on this “normal” winter’s evening in Stavanger and realise it was the last day of what might be called the “old civilisation” - the day before COVID-19 arrived.
The next day, February 28th, the first two positive COVID tests were reported at the Stavanger University Hospital – local people returning from winter ski holidays in Italy or Austria who had somehow become infected. They were the first of a growing number who finally brought world events home to our quiet corner of the planet.
Everybody knew about this deadly virus which had sprung up in China and was steadily infecting more and more people. But hey, China is a long way away, and we’ve read scare stories like this before that just seemed to evaporate. So up until February 27th , COVID-19 was a phoney war. But 24 hours later all that changed. People stopped going out…They began to keep their distance from one another…There was a sense of minor panic every time someone coughed in public. And then within a few days, the Norwegian government really brought the message home. No public gatherings. Explicit social distancing guidelines. School closures. Restrictions on foreign travel. Two weeks quarantine for all incomers from abroad. Now it felt like we were in a real war, the first one most of us had ever experienced.
As I write this in late May, pretty much the whole world has gone through this “first impact”, and the majority of the world’s population has been coping with some form of lock-down, to say nothing of the terrible toll of illness and loss of life. Overnight, life as we know it has drastically changed. Our social lives are curtailed, our scope for movement and travel hugely reduced. For many of us the ability to earn a living has become tenuous, or at worst has disappeared altogether. We find ourselves in uncharted territory looking for the leaders – and the leadership qualities – which will help guide us to a new stability.
And yet…if we’d taken more notice of certain commentators, we wouldn’t have been so surprised. Take Bill Gates, who in his 2015 TED Talk warned the world with great clarity that we weren’t ready to deal with a global pandemic. And further back still, since the 1980s in fact, sociologists have been telling us about the growing unpredictability of the modern world. How the impact of exploding world population, climate change, globalisation, new technologies, diversity, digitalisation, social upheaval and migration….all these and more have contributed to a world that is more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous than ever before. And this trend, called “VUCA” for short, is becoming steadily more severe.
So the COVID pandemic is but the latest, and most convulsive, revolution of this change engine called VUCA. We will recover, and hopefully can right some former wrongs in the world as we do so. But be sure - there will be “future shocks” at least as severe, to which we and the generations following us are going to have to adjust.
What does this VUCA world demand of us?
If we were to find one word that might sum up the response we need, that word could be “adaptiveness”. Rather appropriately, just like the creatures in Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”, if we are to survive as our environment changes, we must have the ability to adapt. We either adapt or disappear. Adaptiveness is an inherent principle of the evolution of species. And it applies equally in a host of other domains – including in business. As Leon C. Megginson said in reference to business domains, “...It is not the most intellectual of the species...(or)...the strongest that survives,...it is the one that is best able to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”
Adaptiveness has obvious relevance for our societies – for our entire civilisation, in fact. It applies to the physical infrastructure we have built around us. Our roads, our buildings, our water and power supplies, our sea defences – and of course our medical facilities. And it applies equally to the kind of organisations we rely upon – government, health services, police, military, businesses. And also, crucially, to the people in those organisations. To the leaders and followers. And that brings us to the kind of mindsets we all need to develop if we are to deal effectively – and constructively – with VUCA.
In FutureTeaming I’m fortunate to have colleagues around me who “live” at the frontline of adaptiveness every day. They work in fast-moving and sometimes unpredictable environments such as in aviation crews and police intervention teams. They have to lead routinely in high-stress situations, often with high public visibility, and are able to bring this direct experience into the realms of organizational development and leadership.
So what are the typical qualities of “adaptiveness”? What does an adaptive organisation look like? Here’s where we’ve got to so far...
First and foremost, adaptive organisations need a bedrock of psychological safety in their teams. Psychological safety is the essential foundation if we are to create the trust, openness and self-reliance we need for an adaptive organization. Without it, our teams lack the foundation of confidence they need to act and interact positively.
Second, we need to develop organizational structures and cultures which encourage adaptive thinking and behaviour within a stable supporting framework.
Third, we need a strong client focus if we are to combine all these adaptive qualities into high performance. Adapting to the changing needs of our client is essential if we are to stay relevant and competitive. This applies equally whether the client is internal or external.
Finally, we look for adaptive leaders who can move between leadership styles depending on circumstances, but whose main focus it is to nurture and develop the people around them to deliver the very best those individuals – and their teams – are capable of in complex environments.
Now we have a blueprint, but what can we do to develop and implement it in our enterprises? What can we do to build more adaptive people, teams and organisations? Of course, this depends on the specific circumstances, but here are key areas we focus on in Futureteaming.
We’re living in interesting times…facing an array of global challenges that no previous generation of humans has had to contend with. It’s a daunting prospect, brought home to us all-too-powerfully by the COVID pandemic. And yet…we are by nature an adaptive species. If we can meet the challenges of VUCA in a constructive, creative way then the human race has the biggest opportunity yet to build more just, free, efficient and bountiful cultures.
The time is upon us. Now is the time to prepare your organisation, leaders and people for the shift towards adaptiveness. It’s time for the adaptive organisation.
Jeroen was one of the Heads of Special Interventions (SGBO) for the Amsterdam Police Force. Currently he is (Gold) Commander in national police operations and consultant & trainer at Futureteaming.
My phone rings. It suddenly wakes me up after an exhausting 24-hour shift and I instantly focus on a nervous voice. The surveillance team has just confirmed the identity of an Eastern European hitman. Our next emergency assignment is to make a safe arrest while nobody gets injured or killed.
I quickly notify all team members to meet at the Police Headquarters and brief my intel to execute a professional arrest. As usual, this briefing comes with a back-up plan and emergency measures should things go wrong. Before stepping out into a warm summer afternoon I check if everyone is mentally ready.
This is one of those assignments to test if our training, practice, experience and emotional resilience are up to the task. Why? Our intel says this hitman will try to get away by all means necessary. He has killed (police officers) elsewhere before. So no room for error should he draw his gun.
Did we make the arrest? Yes, we did. Did we get away without a scratch? Yes, we did that too. Did the hitman get hurt? Let’s say he did not enjoy the whole experience altogether... Did everything go as planned and briefed? No, it did not. That’s exactly where this briefing made the difference!
Let me tell you what happened. On arrival, we only had a few minutes to get in position. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get close to his hide-out and we stood out in public wearing bulky body protection. Last but not least, we thought he would be by himself. Wrong again! The guy left his hide-out ‘the unexpected way’: joined by another potential hitman!
On their way out, only two of my team members were positioned along their escape route, with no back-up close by, so they initiated the back-up plan without delay. Walking towards the hitman and his partner – with their hearts jumping double digits – my two team members tried to act like cheerful buddies going for a stroll without paying any attention to the hitman in front of them. At the same time both team members saw us running like madmen in the back. When would the hitman notice us sprinting and closing in and how would they react?
Then out of nowhere….the hitman stumbles and in a split second, the two team members crash into both suspects and wrestle them to the ground shouting ‘Police, police, don’t move!’. Both men were arrested and taken into custody: success!
So, why is it so important for high-risk action teams – small groups of highly interdependent team members put together for a specific task, project or mission – to brief?
Firstly, – see Steven’s checklist in his last post – it has to do with clarity. Even if we know we might have to change the plan if the situation becomes VUCA, sharing information, setting boundaries for behaviour, talking through scenarios, and establishing roles is key. It enables all team members to quickly adapt to whatever we need to deal with (the hard part). If you like to watch movies about military missions or SWAT operations there is always this briefing scene. Tense and committed team members talking through the mission: that's the clarity and the “easy” part.
Secondly, a briefing is also one of the very few moments everyone’s together. As a leader, it’s a key moment to surface troubling emotions and from there, build connections and check if everyone has the right mindset. Only then are we fully ready for action and do our job leading by example: never ask the team to do things you are not willing to do yourself.
Besides my job with the police I study and research effective team connection, and briefings form the foundation for performance. Briefings are a fundamental strategic theme for the National Police at all levels, and research tells us that there is room to continuously improve the quality and execution. The same goes for briefings (and even meetings) in other organisations, where safety might not play a role but teams do operate in an environment where speed and collaboration are key success factors (e.g. agile teams in tech).
Most of the time it really comes down to the leader in charge to make the best of it. So what does being in charge mean? In my many years of experience I developed three rules for making sure me and my team check-in, connect with each other and focus on our task:
In my next blog, I will be talking about closing the feedback loop and how to make your team even more effective: the debrief!
Until then stay safe!
Co-founder Futureteaming & Pilot
With one last left turn, we parked the aircraft at the gate at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. After a record flight of almost 15 hours, relieved tourists from Bali walked off the airplane into a deserted airport surrounded by the largely grounded KLM fleet. We as crews are thoroughly trained for unexpected situations, but this flight covered some new terrain for everyone...
Because this flight wasn’t in the timetables, our crew had to plan and adapt on the spot. We would repatriate potentially anxious passengers and work with local ground staff caught up in their own COVID 19 measures. Moreover, during our 15 hours of flying time, events and protocols could change significantly, both at our destination, the countries we would fly over and at our home base.
With the senior cabin and cockpit crew – and going through my own mental checklist as captain – setting clear expectations and empowering the entire crew would be key for success. We would have to lead by example.
Priorities for this flight from Bali to Amsterdam:
300 passengers and our crew safely arrived back to Amsterdam. An agile mindset – on top of the normal way we work as a crew – made it all possible.
Today most organizations also find themselves in situations where normally high-risk/stakes teams operate: unpredictable, complex and with safety concerns for human life. We described this “rapid change” future in our book Feedback First, outlining the steps to take to create an environment of psychological safety and continuous feedback. We did not know how fast this future would arrive, but we can see that readers and clients who followed the steps weather the storm better, as they are able to think, adapt and innovate faster.
We also kept researching and improving our own thinking, together with different partners around the world. In February 2020 we finished interviewing 50 leaders across industries to understand their thoughts and strategies for providing safe environments for feedback and learning from mistakes.
Huibert Evekink and I want to thank the participants in the interviews and our contributing Partner companies for their hard work, especially Dave Roberts and Endre Løvås of PeoplewithE in Norway, Marisa Vara and her team at The Human Side in Spain and Telos Partners in the UK.
A special mention goes out to Jeroen Gerits of the Dutch Police. He has been an invaluable source of insights and support. His experience as a leader in high-risk environments and expert in VUCA teamwork was key in producing this checklist. We proudly consider him part of our team: thanks, Jeroen!
We take this opportunity to share a checklist compiled from their contributions and our experience in aviation and running Futureteaming. Feel free to use bellow attached list in your organization.
Let me finish by wishing you clarity, courage and a safe flight through the present storm!
We are very proud to announce a new partnership with YouseeU, to transform the way we train feedback.
YouseeU's new flagship platform "Bongo" leverages proprietary video and feedback technology to improve soft skills training at scale. Bongo lets learners demonstrate their knowledge and expertise through video workflows, which are completed asynchronously, and through a virtual classroom solution that enables face-to-face meetings in real-time.
By combining our CLEAR+CALM method with YouseeU technology, Futureteaming can now offer effective online mastery of feedback: 24/7, on-the-job and cost effective.
Talk to you soon!
We asked our new partner Diederik Vincent – founder of Spring Training – to reflect on years of experience and survival in organisations.
1. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
Managers don’t have all the answers and solutions; problems are too complex to be solved by one person. Innovation starts with the ability to question the status quo and reflect on better ways of doing things. Only then we can begin to create alternative solutions and improve performance.
2. Collaboration Across Networks
Multinational corporations are having their teams collaborate using digital tools and networks. Understanding colleagues from radically different backgrounds and communicating effectively is what we need to be prepared for.
We live in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world. Traditionally our education and mindset have been designed for routine and the following of procedures. We learned how to do something once, and then we did it over and over. Today learning means we have to be agile and adaptive to new situations of disruption. We have to master new skills "on demand" and discard the ones that are no longer required.
Business leaders are struggling to find employees who seek out new opportunities, ideas and strategies for improvement. Most organisations have not been designed to inspire doers and innovators. How do we teach employees to lead, encourage them to take the initiative and empower them to solve global challenges?
5. Leading by Influence
Future leaders will get things done by influence, not "command and control". Effective influencers are both good listeners and communicate the purpose and goals of the organisation in a clear and inspirational manner. Future leaders need to connect & communicate to create high-performance.
6. Natural curiosity
Curiosity is a powerful driver of new knowledge and innovation. Everyone is born with a ‘child-like’ sense of awe and wonder’ to explore and experiment. Later we are learned to follow the rules:"things should be done this way, not that like that!"
It takes imagination to envision breakthroughs and then go about executing them. Most organisations consistently spoon-feed information and regulations instead of empowering employees to ask questions and seek answers. Inquisitiveness and thinking "outside-the-box" need to be promoted with the same level of importance the organisation gives to processes and procedures.
Creating future success
Unfortunately, I see a stark contrast between these six survival skills and the focus of Learning & Development in many organisations. Many times L&D provides a training catalogue to prepare the organisation for future success. De danger of employees acting like the little orchestra on the Titanic arises.
It’s time to give new solutions to changing organisational development needs and to be future role models ourselves.
THE TERM ‘PSYCHOLOGICAL safety’ expresses the idea that members of a team trust each other and feel secure to give feedback, without fear of committing professional suicide.
To make sure that this feedback keeps flowing, it is the responsibility of the team leader to create and promote a "feedback-safe" environment.
Here’s how it works, using the acronym SAFE to make it easier to remember:
• Setting boundaries.
• Activating feedback.
• Failing better.
• Empowering the team.
Unfortunately, SAFE leadership styles are not all that common. In his article The Bad Influence of Aggressive Bosses Manfred Kets de Vries shares strategies how to avoid becoming victim – or even copying the bad behaviour – of a toxic manager:
1. Build a support group to share experiences and monitor your own bad behaviour.
2. Build a political network inside the organisation to influence the departure of the boss.
3. Document specific incidents to build a case.
Manfred ends the article with a quote from Marcus Aurelius: " The most complete revenge is not to imitate the aggressor".
As Sabine Hansen Peck wrote in our award winning Feedback First book : "Ken Blanchard said that "feedback is the breakfast of champions"I personally believe this is true and more importANT than ever. In a world which is changing so fast, receiving hones and constructive feedback is paramount to be able to adapt and stay relevant. At Amadeus we have been working with the CLEAR+CALM model as it sets the foundation for an agile and transparent culture".
By its very nature, hierarchy dramatically reduces the desire of those lower down to speak up and those higher up to listen. In many organisations,it is a basic survival strategy to inflate the degree to which you agree with your superiors.Managers reinforce this behaviour by, unconsciously, looking for an endorsement of their views, rather than honest questioning or critical feedback. The danger with flattery is that it cuts them off from the facts.