I don’t know where I am going, but I know exactly how to get there.” – Boyd Varty

In September 2023, we had the privilege of hosting master tracker Alex van den Heever on our monthly beCOOL Community conversation.  This was an extremely rich conversation, exploring the synergies between our world of wayfinding uncertainty in business and the ancient practice of wildlife tracking.  Alex and his partner Renias Mhlongo are regarded as two of the best trackers in the world and run an academy where they train others in this ancient practice.

Tim Ingold defines Wayfinding (or Waysfinding as we like to think of it) as “Knowing as you go, not before you go”.  During our conversation, it became clear that such wayfinding is a core aspect of tracking, where you simply cannot know everything before you set out.  As Alex rightly pointed out, “there is always variability in nature, so uncertainty is part of the job”.  

Being a tracker might seem quite idyllic, and it might not immediately seem like business leaders and trackers have much in common.  However, trackers often face many simultaneous pressures: accompanying (often naïve) people into a dangerous and uncertain environment while under pressure to perform and provide specific sightings.

So how do they do it?

Alex shared the following process with us:

  1. Find the track

There might be hundreds of potential tracks to follow, trackers need to cut through the noise to find the spoor (track) that matters.   This requires discernment and patience. A trap here is a bias for action, i.e. not taking the time to assess all the possibilities before acting.  In business strategy, do we have the ability and the patience to cut through the noise to find the signals (risk or opportunity) that matter?   In our experience, the ever-increasing pace of the corporate context undermines our ability to make prudent choices. (find out more – slowness blog)

2. Follow the track

“Wayfinding rests on being in the present moment, staying still, and becoming calibrated to the signs.” – Spiller et al.

Trackers stay present to their Curiosity and employ all their senses to attune to the signs around them.  They are paying attention to the track on the ground and other signs, like broken twigs, bird alert calls, etc.  Here, a trap is to become hyper-focused on one thing (e.g. the track) and miss other helpful signs – or become so focused on the lion track on the ground that you forget to look up and blunder into a dangerous situation, i.e. the lion!  Alex made a distinction between focused and diffuse thinking, highlighting that we need both.

What signs are we attuned to in business as we engage in strategic waysfinding?  Are we scanning broadly enough, e.g., do we know what is happening on the edges of our industries?  Are we aware of weak signals?  Do we pay attention to “alarm calls” or ignore them?  Are we so hyper-focused on meeting targets that we miss risks and opportunities right before us?

3. Lose and regain the track

Trackers know that losing the track is inevitable.  When that happens, it is critical to be honest, especially with yourself.  Denial is the trap here, as it is impossible to get back on track when you can’t admit to losing it.

This is probably one of the hardest things for business leaders – to admit when they have made a strategic error and need to pivot or start again.  We live in a world where dominant narratives equate competence with being right or knowing.  But just like the trackers, if we cannot admit that we have lost track as soon as we realise it, we make it impossible to get back on track and make things much worse.

4. Close the gap

This is where the tracker’s knowledge and experience truly shine.  Animals like lions move much faster across the landscape than humans can. Often, it is impossible to catch up to them, so the trackers must find a way to close the gap.  To do that, they tap into their knowledge of the landscape and the animal’s behaviour, and they use their imaginative capacity to create a narrative of where the animal might be going and why.  Trackers shift from following the track in the present to a form of anticipation – they attempt to leapfrog the animal to get ahead of it.  For example, they might consider the direction the lions are travelling; they might know that the lions haven’t made a kill recently and remember a herd of Zebra that they saw the night before not too far away.  From this, they might create a narrative that the lions will likely be found stalking the zebra and decide to leave the trail and head over to where they last saw the herd.  It is a form of continuous hypothesis building, adjusting as new signs present themselves.  

Here, hubris is a trap – being overly certain and ignoring what is in front of you, e.g. I know these lions; they always drink water this time of the day.  

In business, how often do we employ our imagination?  Or do we perceive it as soft or immature?  And how often does over-confidence in our previous experience cloud our judgment?  Can we remain Open to new information?  

5. Encounter

Finally, if all goes well it leads to an encounter with the animal.  Master trackers practice gratitude and remain in wonder when this happens.  It can be easy for the ego to get in the way here, but a good encounter is never certain in the ever-present uncertainty of the natural world.  In business, do we practice gratitude and celebrate our wins, or do we allow our egos to get in the way?  Do we value the journey or simply chase the next target?

Trackers, and business leaders need to be comfortable with uncertainty, which means that they need to be COOL:

  • to COURAGEOUSLY make choices, follow a particular track or strategic path and have the courage to admit when they have lost the track and need to pivot.
  • be OPEN to a wide variety of information, to being in continuous change and uncertainty and to being vulnerable and admitting when things go wrong
  • to OBSERVE their own tendencies to hubris or ego so that they don’t become trapped.  AND remain situationally aware, observing the various environmental signs to enable them to track an animal or strategy effectively.
  • And finally, they practice LIGHTNESS – they don’t take themselves too seriously, they use their imagination as well as their knowledge, and they never lose their sense of gratitude, awe and wonder. 

If you'd like to join our free beCOOL community and be part of future COOL Conversations, sign up here.

Learn more about Alex and Renias here.

“...to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. And one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender…” - Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

During our fifth Community Connecting Conversation of 2023, we explored the gifts of getting lost and finding our way through the unknown. 

Recently, many are saying that we are facing a meta-crisis.  Meta-crisis, in short, is our inability to make sense of the many interwoven and potentially existential challenges we face as a species and who we are now in this “time between worlds”.  I resonate with this, as I (and many of my friends and clients) are experiencing a profound sense of having lost our bearings … of no longer being able to locate ourselves or familiar paths and signposts.  This can create a lot of anxiety, but if we can surrender to it, there are profound gifts in the “lostness”.

Getting lost allows us to learn to manage our nervous system responses IN the discomfort of the unknown, and to hone our wayfinding skills. Both of these are critical skills in today’s world where, more often than not, we have no well-worn paths or maps to follow not only in our physical or business landscapes but also in our inner worlds.  Sometimes, we need to get lost to find ourselves.  

While we may recognise the value of the practice of getting lost, often, our preference for comfort and convenience gets in the way. Nowadays, we seldom allow ourselves to get lost, instead relying on "certainty merchants" like GPS, recommendation engines and the like.  

Beyond discomfort, many of us experience extreme anxiety when we are truly lost. It can trigger primal fears from times when being alone and lost potentially meant certain death. In From Here to There, Michael Bond writes, “Lost is a cognitive state: your internal map has become detached from the external world, and nothing in your spatial memory matches what you see. But at its core, it is an emotional state. It delivers a psychic double whammy: not only are you stricken with fear, but you also lose your ability to reason.”

“90% of people make things a lot worse for themselves when they realize they are lost. Because they are afraid, they can’t solve problems or figure out what to do. They fail to notice or remember landmarks.  They lose track of how far they’ve travelled[…]”  Stress and anxiety affect the cognitive functions we need for wayfinding:   we ‘see the trees rather than the forest’. It is how most of us behave when we’re highly anxious: the big picture eludes us as our cognitive map disintegrates. A common problem faced by air ambulance crews is the inability of those making the emergency call to identify where they are or describe their location; no one gets smarter under stress.”

Mostly today, when we feel lost, we are not truly in an existential crisis, but our bodies don't know this. The same stress hormones that create the extreme responses Bond describes above happen to us when we feel lost and adrift at work. And the same confusion and inability to think straight can seriously undermine our decision-making. This is why developing a practice where we can literally build our wayfinding muscles is critical, not only for us, but also for our children.

In her wonderful book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes: 

“The word ‘lost’ comes from the old Norse ‘los’ meaning the disbanding of an army…I worry now that people never disband their armies or go beyond what they know.

Advertising, alarmist news, technology, incessant busyness, and the design of public and private life conspire to make it so. A recent article about the return of wildlife to suburbia described snow-covered yards in which the footprints of animals are abundant, and those of children are entirely absent. Children seldom roam, even in the safest places… I wonder what will come of placing this generation under house arrest.” 

Developing a practice of getting lost.

A person is traveling in a new city.
Image Louis Hansel, Unsplash

Despite all of the discomfort, we have all experienced the inspiration and unforgettable experiences that come from surprise encounters or discoveries off the beaten track. The best way to really experience a new place, like a city we haven’t visited before, is to get lost and wander for a while.  And the best way to a novel idea is to allow ourselves to get lost in thought, to allow our minds to wander.

When we allow ourselves to get lost, drift through a landscape, and open to the unexpected, we reconnect with uncertainty and go beyond our certainty merchants. This provides a space for our intuition to come online, for dots to connect, and for new perspectives to emerge.  This is true in life but also business … innovation more often flows from serendipity than design. 

“Maybe wayfinding is an activity that confronts us with the marvellous fact of being in the world, requiring us to look up and take notice …calling us to renew our species’ love affair with freedom, exploration, and place.”   - M.R. O’Connor

There is no recipe for developing a "getting lost practice"; it will differ for each of us, but we believe it starts with being and practising COOL, so here are a few COOL Wayfinding waypoints we explored.

  • Courage …  go beyond the familiar and “disband your army”.  Practice negative capability (“To rest in doubt, being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason."  ~John Keats ~
  • Openness … draw on multiple forms of knowledge, including intuition.  Be open to letting go and unlearning old “selves” and certainties.  
  • Observing … Pay attention to signs and patterns. Discover new waypoints.  Notice your triggers and emotional responses without judgment, and learn to calm your nervous system responses in the unknown.
  • Lightness … Hold your own assumptions and strong opinions lightly: recalibrate & make adjustments often … don’t be afraid to admit and make course corrections. Don’t forget to notice the beauty along the way.

We ended the session with this wonderful poem by David Wagoner.  We invited attendees to read silently and reflect on it for a while.  We extend that same invitation to you.

Stand still. 

The trees ahead and bushes beside you are not lost. 

Wherever you are is called Here,
and you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
must ask permission to know it and be known.


The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.


No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
you are surely lost. 

Stand still. The forest knows where you are. 

You must let it find you.

(Lost, by David Wagoner )

Continuing the series of posts on topics discussed during our COOL Connecting conversations in 2023, let's look at one of the most interesting topics we covered: Trust, Confidence and Complexity.   (If you haven't signed up to join our COOL community, you can do so here).

If complexity is all around us, and in fact, it IS us. It permeates and impacts almost every aspect of our lives positively and/or negatively. Many truths we think we know or take for granted are upended by complexity.

For example, let's think about Trust. It is a general assumption that we need to trust ourselves (have confidence) and others to form and maintain relationships and be successful. In his book Speed of Trust, Stephen Covey wrote, "Where trust is low, everything takes longer and costs more." In other words, Trust is a currency that powers our ability to get things done fast and effectively. 

What happens to trust in ourselves and others when we face complexity?

  • As a leader, coach or consultant, how do we instil Trust in our clients or teams when we don't have the answers and can't guarantee outcomes?
  • Can we trust our senses in a world of deep fakes and AI?
  • Do we still know how to trust, i.e., what to base our Trust on?

Let's first consider Trust in ourselves or confidence. Where do you usually draw your confidence from? For most of us, our confidence comes from our competence or expertise, i.e. what we know and our ability to deliver. So what happens in complexity where continuous change and emergence mean we are always on the boundary between knowing and not knowing, feeling competent and incompetent? In a world with intelligent machines, what value does our knowledge have? Sometimes, our past success and existing expertise become liabilities. 

How about trusting our own senses? Can we trust our eyes and ears in a world of deep fakes? Can we trust our judgment?  

Perhaps we need to learn to base our confidence on our ability to learn, adapt, find new potential, relate, empathise and connect.  

Now, let's consider Trust in other entities or people.

The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer provided some interesting and concerning statistics. 53% of participating countries agreed that they were more divided than ever. Perhaps most alarming, the results seem to say that we cannot trust people who don't share our beliefs and perspectives. In answer to the question: if a person strongly disagreed with me or my point of view, 30% of people said they would help that person if they were in need; 20% said they would be willing to live in the same neighbourhood and 20% said they'd be willing to have them as a coworker.   

"If Trust is the new currency, we are heading for a global monetary crisis. Trust, the oil that moves the wheels of human progress, is seeping away from the very institutions that are at the vanguard of addressing the critical challenges humanity faces." - Vishal Patel.

Why is Trust seemingly eroding, and what does complexity have to do with it?

According to conventional wisdom (and ChatGPT), Trust is typically created and maintained by: 

1. Consistent, honest, and transparent behaviour

2. Meeting expectations and delivering on promises

3. Effective communication

4. Fair treatment and equal application of rules

5. Resolving conflicts in a fair and just manner

6. Protecting and respecting the confidentiality and privacy of information

7. Demonstrating empathy and understanding towards others

8. Shared values and goals 

Many of these factors become impossible in complexity.

• When dealing with unknown unknowns, we can only "know as we go, not before we go". This means we are wayfinding and experimenting. So mistakes, missed deadlines, unmet expectations, or broken promises are unavoidable.

• If our context is dynamic, what we think we know today may no longer be relevant or correct tomorrow. Sometimes, we must retract a statement or policy, change our minds, and pivot.

•Competing priorities and dilemmas mean we can't always be "fair", and some conflicts cannot be resolved. 

•Sometimes, we must act "obliquely", so being transparent and communicating openly is not prudent.

•Diversity and spanning boundaries are critical to our resilience. So, interacting and trusting others with different perspectives and values are unavoidable.

So, how, then, do we trust?  

Some other ideas we explored included the idea of Trust as an affordance, i.e. in the right conditions, an environment or relationship will afford Trust.  

  • Constraints - What constraints must be in place to create affordances for Trust?
  • Relationality/connection - what relationships are needed for "trust tagging" or the flow of Trust?
  • Time: Trust takes time; how do we scaffold it?  
  • Affordances are perceived directly, somatically, and psychologically. What is the role of intuition and gut feeling?

We didn't find definitive answers in our conversation (not that we expected to!), but we did explore the idea of defining simple rules or enabling constraints to scaffold or enable Trust. We considered starling murmurations as an analogy. Birds flock based on three simple rules: stay together (fly to the centre), match speed, and avoid collision. Murmerating patterns emerge when birds follow their nearest neighbour. Are there similar "simple rules" we can follow to help build and maintain Trust when the conventional ways are unavailable to us?

Two interesting heuristics emerged from the group. 

Beware of ...

  • Anyone who is "too certain". In complexity, you shouldn't trust someone who is sure they know what is going on and are certain about what will happen. Someone who is not curious or open to new information and lacks humility.
  • Anyone who shows up in ways that are incongruent with what they say. For example, someone who "speaks complexity" but isn't open to other perspectives or always wants to be right or in control.  

What are your trust heuristics? Contribute them in the comments below.

Join our free community.

If you're interested in exploring the topic a bit more deeply before we meet, here are some short links to explore:

https://medium.com/@sonjablignaut/trust-confidence-complexity-c0291bdc1ad9

https://gurwinder.substack.com/p/the-cure-to-misinformation-is-more?s=08

https://www.edelman.com/sites/g/files/aatuss191/files/2022-01/Trust%2022_Top10.pdf

Life is complex: an ever-changing tangle of joy and pain, failure and success, beauty and despair. Sometimes it sucks, like watching your mother fade away into dementia, or losing a beloved dog. Sometimes it is so beautiful it brings you to tears, like dancing with soul friends under a sky set aflame.

These last three years have brought a different perspective on complexity — a lived experience of “the full catastrophe”. While I am even more convinced of the need to make the wisdom of complexity available more broadly, I am increasingly frustrated by how we "mystify" it with big words and theoretical constructs.

Complexity is not new. And it’s not something separate from our lives. We all already know how to be in, and navigate complexity.  We also have a uniquely human ability to create pockets of order and predictability. And while this has led to incredible progress, our love affair with certainty and control has become a trap. Now, the challenges of our times invite us to reconsider, to reframe our learned dislike for complexity and reconnect with our innate ability to be dance with it — or as Jennifer Garvey-Berger and Carolyn Caughlin calls it: our complexity genius.

The last three years has been an excellent teacher … I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned during these exceptionally hard times.

1.    You can’t avoid complexity (and you don’t want to).

We ARE complex beings, embodied as complex organisms embedded in webs of complex relationships. We know complexity in our bones. Yes, our need for certainty, comfort and control has led us to create elaborately ordered structures that provide comfort and a measure of predictability. But we all know that raising children is not like fixing a car.

Deep down, we know there is no certainty except for continuous change.

And while there is truth to it that change is happening faster and faster, we face potentially existential challenges (like intelligent machines), and life can feel precarious … it is also true that humans are creative and adaptive; we know how to dance with emergence. Trying to opt out of the uncertainty only ends up creating more. And if everything was sure, how boring would life be?

2. Complexity is everywhere, but not everything is complex.

Think more granularly, i.e., tasks, problems or challenges I encounter (vs systems). Some tasks are routine and straightforward — I can just get on with it, e.g., if a hose pipe or tap leaks in my garden, I fix it. Some tasks are more complicated, but I can figure it out or refer to someone with expertise — like installing an irrigation system. Nurturing a garden ecosystem, raising children, navigating the death of loved ones, forming new friendships … these require learning, improvisation, experimentation and for me to show up in my full (in)glorious human complexity.

3. Mind your language.

Language helps us frame our world and make sense. New language can help us see the world differently, AND it can become a stumbling block. So, if the language and labels become hindrances, drop them. I have become increasingly aware of how our language de-animates our world. The nouns that flow from our need to name and categorise can strip out life’s essential ambiguity, nuance, and mystery. Once I label a tree as a pine or a beautiful bird as a pigeon, they disappear into familiar categories. Only suitable for logging, a pest or a nuisance. I don’t bother looking twice; I miss the beauty and potential to be more. Many opportunities for innovation are lost because we can’t see past our definitions and spot new and unexpected affordances offered by familiar objects or processes. The same happens with people and relationships — they become imprisoned in rigid categories. So, instead of labels, see if rich descriptions help — it’s not about getting it entirely right or finding a suitable category — it’s about changing our relationship to the problems and systems around us.

4. Think of yourself as always waysfinding.

In familiar places, we find our way using familiar landmarks and pathways. In unfamiliar places where others have gone before, we follow a map, a GPS or someone’s storied directions. When we are in uncharted places where no one has been before, we follow our intuition; we look for patterns; we find co-journeyers and reconnect to ancient wisdom. Ironically, sometimes the best way to perceive the new is with forms of knowledge we deem outdated or irrelevant. The key to remember here is that we are always finding our way; our context determines how we do it.

5. Keep moment(um).

Complexity (or maybe we should just call it life) is constantly changing. It is dynamic, and so we need to keep moving. We move from moment to moment, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, always taking time to pause for an ‘um’ to catch our breath. Sometimes we encounter dead-ends and need to backtrack; sometimes, we will find unexpected beauty and tarry for a while. Sometimes it might seem like we are aimlessly drifting, but that’s ok too. The key is not to get stuck for too long.

6. Getting lost is a beautiful practice.

Have you noticed how we never allow ourselves to get lost nowadays? We always have a GPS or a charted route. Yet, we all know that the best way to really experience a new place, like a city we haven’t visited before, is to go off the beaten track and get lost for a while. So, in safe environments, I try to switch off my GPS more often to allow myself to get lost, drift through the landscape, and be open to the unexpected. This practice helps me reconnect with uncertainty to go beyond the certainty merchants. When I do this, my intuition comes online, dots connect, and new perspectives emerge. So instead of ruminating on that tough work challenge, allow yourself to get lost, let it simmer, and you may find unexpected paths forward. It might seem inefficient, but it’s often much more effective.

7. be COOL

·       Choose to be Courageous and stay with the trouble for a while — allow yourself to get lost;

·       Choose to be Open to the unexpected and the slightly messy and ambiguous;

·       Choose to Observe from different perspectives and to Observe yourself as the Observer and how you are part of it all; and

·       Choose Lightness — to see the beauty in it all, to not take yourself too seriously, to allow yourself some joy in the midst of it and to connect to your imagination.

8. be Human (again)

  • Feel your feelings. Be curious. Laugh. Connect and value others. These are things AI can’t do.
  • Learn to regulate your nervous system responses. Cultivate a breathing practice, reconnect with your body, and move more. Turn anxiety into creative energy.
  • Don’t try to go it alone; find a tribe — but make sure it’s diverse. It’s the quirky ones, the mavericks among us, who can help us find new ways.
  • Develop a strategic relationship with your intuition. There’s a reason Einstein said,

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

It’s high time we remember the gift.

So, finally … when I am stuck in a tangle or I feel overwhelmed, I try to remember:

  • I’ve got this! Being human is about dancing with tangles — I’ve done it hundreds of times in many different contexts, and I can do it again.
  • It might feel overwhelming, but there is always a way forward — pause, re-orient, and keep moving one small step at a time.
  • I’m not alone. We are all walking each other home as we navigate the beautiful complexity and beauty of this life.

I love using metaphors and analogies to help make complex ideas accessible. “It’s hard to survive in the jungle if you were trained in a zoo” or a variation “It’s hard to respond to a jungle if you are structured like a zoo” has been particularly effective to help people understand the difference between complicated and complex contexts.

I believe it resonates because it aptly describes not only two different kinds of systems, but also explains much of our lived experience in modern organisations. Many of us are keenly aware of the mismatch between most organisations, which if we are honest, resemble zoos, and the messy jungle-like nature of the markets they try to serve.

Let’s explore the differences between a zoo and a jungle and some implications.

Zoos are unnatural, ordered environments where animals are kept safely in enclosures (some closely mimicking the animal’s natural habitat), grouped according to specific categories. Zoos have their place; they play an essential role in the conservation of endangered species and in education. However, they are not resilient, and they are fundamentally different contexts when compared to natural ecosystems.

In the controlled zoo world, life is pretty predictable: enclosures or cages are cleaned regularly; animals are fed once or twice a day; even breeding is controlled. The enclosures keep animals apart (much like silos in modern organisations), so there is no need for animals to be alert and situationally aware as they’d be in the jungle, as there is no immediate threat to their survival. There is no predator-prey dynamic here, no competition for resources: so complacency and lethargy soon set in. Animals born in captivity who have been habituated to this context will not last long in the jungle.

How does this relate to the business world?  Do our work and markets fit into neat categories or are they more like messy tangles?  Are our environments closed to outside influences and controllable and predictable, or open, hard to control, and unpredictable?  After the last two years, I doubt anyone would disagree that the world we live in is much more jungle than zoo. However, the typical large organisations still resemble zoos (or we try our best to make them so).

Even with the disruption of large-scale remote work during the pandemic, little has changed. The silos are still there; the control mechanisms in some have increased, not decreased. Predictability and homogeneity seem to be the ideal we strive for: controlled environments with neat, orderly categories and functions and people who behave in similar, desirable ways (aligned to our list of values on the wall). When these configurations (let’s call them silos) become problematic, we try to find different configurations, i.e. we restructure and create new silos rather than embracing a more jungle-like messily coherent web of relationships.

As many companies expect their people to return to physical offices now, interesting dynamics have become visible. One clear pattern is that many people have become “rewilded”. They have tasted the freedom of life outside their zoo cubicles, and they have no desire to return. Companies with hybrid mandates are losing key staff and find themselves unable to attract talent. Companies like Airbnb, which are fully remote, are inundated by job applications, while others (even the likes of Apple) struggle with disgruntled and resentful employees.

Looking back at what happened in 2020 at the height of the pandemic, we simply took the zoo and made it virtual. We never went to the trouble of rethinking and redefining work, structures, incentives etc., for the jungle. We ended up with a virtual, distributed zoo.

The result is that organisations are still caught in outdated structures and linear, reductionist ways of thinking that don’t enable the effective flow of value or the collaboration that complex challenges require. One effect of this is high levels of disengagement and burnout, zoos might be safe and predictable, but they are not particularly inspiring and motivating. In these contexts, jungle dynamics often play out inside the enclosures, with internal politics and power play. A cynical view of the current push for a return to the office is that many senior managers miss the physical “trappings of status” like preferential parking spaces and corner offices. It’s hard to see “who’s who in the Zoo” when we are all reduced to little blocks on a Zoom screen.

The reality is that the fast-changing and dynamic context we now operate in requires engaged and empowered workers across all levels of the organisation. Decision-making is no longer limited to the C-suite; the role of senior leadership has shifted to curating contexts where better decisions can be made by those closest to the decision context.

In addition, we need people to bring their creative selves to work. The challenges we face require imagination, curiosity, and diverse perspectives. Instead of focusing on getting people back into their controlled enclosures, leaders should focus on creating enabling environments where people can show up with :

Courage to challenge the status quo; Openness to learning and unlearning new ways of thinking and working; the ability to Observe and respond to emergence; and the Lightness of play, imagination, and curiosity.

Innovation. It is a word that features on almost every list of values in the corporate world. It has long been a "holy grail" in business, and yet very few companies consistently get it right.  The word has become so hyped that it has almost become meaningless. For many, it is synonymous with breakthrough invention and perpetual novelty, creating the false impression that it is the domain of creatives or design thinkers, i.e. that only some people are able to innovate.  This in turn has led to “innovation units” or “business of tomorrow” spin-offs that create unhealthy "us and them" cultural dynamics in organisations.

The assumption that creativity is a necessary pre-condition for innovation has sparked lucrative industries focused on creativity and design thinking training and "creative disruption" processes to help people "think outside the box."   However, when one looks at stories of actual innovation, it becomes clear that creativity and innovation are sometimes related, but not always.  Both tend to emerge together when circumstances are conducive.  This means that catalysing innovation has a lot to do with the context and that we should therefore focus more of our design and leadership efforts on curating conducive environments.

This raises the question: what does a conducive environment look like? There is no single correct answer, but there are signposts and clues when we look at patterns in stories of innovation.

  1. Being present, Open and Observant is key to innovation.

"There'll always be serendipity involved in discovery." – Jeff Bezos

Imagine Van Gogh's Starry Night without the beautiful deep blue sky. Suppose a color maker in Berlin didn't try to skimp on costs by using cheap ingredients to create a cochineal red batch. In that case, Van Gogh may never have had a stable synthetic blue pigment to paint with. Before the accidental invention of Prussian Blue, the only other options available to artists were either too expensive or unstable fast-fading vegetable dyes. Prussian Blue (named for its place of origin) became an instant sensation in the art world and fashion industries.

Similarly, microwave ovens came about because a radar technician noticed a chocolate bar melting in his pocket while working on a radar magnetron. And antibiotics were discovered because of a messy laboratory and a dirty petri dish.

From Penicillin to Prussian blue paint to Microwave ovens, many of the great inventions we take for granted today came about by accident.   Such serendipitous events or "happy accidents" can happen to anyone, even the most uncreative among us. However, we need to be present and aware so that we don't miss the opportunity when it presents itself. Suppose Alexander Fleming had simply washed his petri dish without paying attention to the dead bacteria inside. In that case, we might never have had penicillin.

How do we create conditions for noticing?

  • Ensure there is sufficient slack in the system: our over-focus on efficiency has effectively eliminated all the slack or redundancy from our work contexts.  If people are rushing to meet unrealistic deadlines or drowning in work, they will not have the capacity to present or notice patterns or anomalies. Efficiency at all costs is the enemy of learning and innovation, yet it is so entrenched as a best practice that it takes courageous leadership to create the space for the inefficient slightly messy environment where innovation thrives.
  • Encourage people to pursue learning in non-work-related fields. Steve Jobs' calligraphy classes were instrumental in Apple's famous design innovations. The more diverse knowledge people have to draw from, and the broader their networks, the greater the chances for serendipitous discovery.
  • Increase the cognitive diversity in your teams, including neurodiverse people. We need the productive tension of different ways of seeing and thinking; otherwise, nothing new can emerge.
  1. Curate the conditions for Courageous spontaneity, improvisation, and bricolage.

"Great innovation is built on existing ideas, repurposed with vision". — Jake Knapp

Breakthrough innovations most often come from combining two ideas that everyone sees every day, but no one has put together (yet). — Gary Hoover

Innovation is not always about coming up with something completely new or novel. It is often a long slow evolutionary process of incremental improvement or adaptation. But there is another kind of innovation called exaptive innovation or radical repurposing: finding new or unintended functions for existing capabilities or products.

Exaptation involves a 'pivot' from one function to another without a lengthy and costly development process. It often happens during times of crisis, when we are forced to be resourceful (for more of this, see no 3). Think, for example, about the repurposing of dive masks as respirators when people were dying because of equipment shortages in hospitals during the pandemic.  We don’t need a crisis in order to enable this kind of innovation though.  Again we need the ability to notice, but we also need to curate contexts where our innately human abilities of curiosity, imagination, and playfulness can flourish.

Someone who exemplifies this kind of resourcefulness is the 1980s television hero MacGyver.  He was a bricoleur: someone able to construct or improvise something useful with whatever materials are immediately available.  Every episode challenged MacGyver to save the day, often armed with only a swiss army knife (or paper clip) and some junk lying around.  Granted, it wasn’t very realistic, but still inspiring!

Practical ideas to consider:

  • Design interventions that force the spanning of organisational boundaries. Ideas for repurposing often occur when we encounter a need or a capability that exists in another area.  If we never cross the boundaries of our silo or community, we may never know what is available for repurposing.  One way that we are working with clients to achieve this is the creation of cross-silo learning pods where people from different teams learn together on our complexity fitness course.
  • Often, people are inhibited by a perceived lack of permission to “be silly at work”. We can all be curious, imaginative, and playful, but unless we perceive it as acceptable, we will not.
  • Encourage Lightness as a way of being.  Laugh together, play together, meet outside in nature instead of the office and appreciate beauty together.  We already use the language of play: we talk about playing with ideas, budgets, strategies, and scenarios.  It's time to start playing in the real sense of the word.
  • Create budgeting policies that enable safe-to-fail experimentation. Repurposing (and other kinds of innovation) depend on the ability to try and learn.  Define what safe-to-fail means in your particular contexts and align budgeting and performance management policies to ensure governance systems don’t discourage innovation.
  1. Never waste a good crisis.

"Never let a good crisis go to waste" – Sir Winston Churchill.

In a crisis, restrictive rules and old ways of doing things often fall away because of necessity. A window of opportunity opens up where things are possible that usually would not be. An excellent example is the extremely rapid transition to remote work at scale at the start of the pandemic. Organisations all over the world managed to shift entire workforces in 3 to 5 days without change management plans, special leadership interventions - “It just happened”.  People were trusted to figure out the best way to do things, and restrictive policies and processes fell away.  Innovation happened it had to.

Suddenly assumptions and policies about who could work remotely fell away, and we just made it happen.   Necessity is the mother of invention (as the saying goes).

According to Dave Snowden, time pressureresource starvation, and a shift in perspective are pre-conditions for the emergence of innovation. A crisis forces us to find creative solutions to urgent or even existential problems.

A few years ago, Cape Town was in the unenviable position of being the first major city to face the unthinkable: "Day Zero" – the day the taps run dry. In the face of such a dire situation, everyone, from students in university labs to entrepreneurs and ordinary people, came up with innovative ideas and experiments to save water.

One Capetonian wrote this reflection in a Facebook post: "The conclusion I've come to is that convenience not only robs us of creativity, it makes us complacent and unaware. The inconvenience of running out of water has literally woken people up. Woken them up to how much they waste, and ingenious ways to save. The inconvenience of this crisis has woken us up to our creative potential to solve the problem".  

Thankfully the city managed to avoid Day Zero, and many of the innovations remain.

While it's not feasible to manufacture a crisis to stimulate innovation, we can make sure we prepare to make optimal use of that brief window of opportunity to do things radically differently.

  • Make the deployment of an innovation team part of your crisis response planning. So when you deploy crisis response teams, other teams are deployed simultaneously, tasked with looking for opportunities to innovate.
  • Document the decisions and actions taken during the crisis. These often spontaneous actions offer clues to removing barriers to innovation even in normal circumstances. We usually forget to document in the heat of the moment, so make this a formal role to ensure it gets done.
  1. Don’t limit innovation to a unit or area, Open it up - democratise it.

Sometimes the best ideas emerge from people we wouldn’t normally pay attention to.  New joiners, who are able to see the company with fresh eyes, blue-collar workers who work “at the coal face”, call center agents who speak to clients all day long, and even janitorial staff who often know more about the actual company culture than HR does.  Instead of limiting innovation to a select few, create the conditions where ideas and communication can flow more easily: from the edges of the organisation, between silos, and even from the outside in.

Here are a few practical things you can think about doing.

  • Instead of employing consultants when the need arises, co-create solutions internally. For example, when an urgent need exists to cut costs, involve the entire workforce in experimenting with new and innovative ways to save. This will save a lot of consulting fees and mitigate the risk of unintended consequences of implementing draconian top-down cost-cutting measures.
  • Create a view of the organisation focused on flows, not things.  Organisation charts focused on units, roles and hierarchies often hide the flows that make the organisation work (or not).  Focus on finding barriers to flow and eliminating them.  These could be unhelpful policies, unfit structures, or cultural norms … a key role of leadership in complexity is to enable flow.

We in summary: to intentionally create the conditions for innovation focus on curating COOL environments where people are free to show up with Courage, Openness, Observing, and Lightness.  It may sound simple, but it runs counter to much of the prevailing business practice.  However, in today’s disruptive world, we no longer have a choice ...

... the waves will keep coming, we need to learn how to surf.

In the two decades that I have been working in the field of applied complexity, I have seen it go from an obscure academic term to something that pervades conferences, business magazines, and consulting offerings. However, very little embodies what complexity philosopher Edgar Morin would term "lived complexity."  

In a paper written in 2008, he asserted that a real understanding of complexity could only come from an internalised intersection of intellectual knowledge and lived practice. He warns against a split between theory and practice and what he calls pseudo complexity thinking: approaches and people who define themselves in opposition to linear reduction approaches but do not consistently live complexity. Pseudo complexity is especially pervasive in the consulting world, where too many consultants brand their offerings with complexity language. However, a reductionist paradigm that believes that we can fully know our reality and that we can map paths into the future definitively still informs their practices.   

"They display all the distinctly reductionist habits of expecting to come to "know" the problem and objectively find the "right" solution by dividing the problem into discrete elements to be tackled by experts who "know" how to do it. Any range of solutions can be tried because, if they go wrong, they can be reversed with little consequence for the system. They will expect, consciously or unconsciously, that once the "real" solution is found, the problem will go away, and they will now have an "evidence-based" decision that can be applied again should "the" problem emerge again. "(Rogers et al, 2013)

(A heuristic I often advocate to my clients: if anyone promises to "simplify" your complexity or "future proof" your organisation, you need to beware.)

This is especially problematic as the world needs practical ways of applying complexity thinking now more than ever. All is not lost, however, as all human beings already have a lot of lived experience in complexity, although we may not use that language. As we negotiate city life or traffic, or social complexities in families or friendships, especially as we raise our children, we effectively engage complexity. We also tend to forget these skills when we enter the workplace.

In a peer-reviewed 2013 paper I co-authored, we attempted to make explicit some tacit heuristics that we collectively cultivated over many years of working in complex systems. We framed them then as habits of mind. (Text in italics below is all from that article)

Habits of mind to thrive in complexity

"A habit of mind is a pattern of intellectual behaviour that leads to productive actions. Habits of mind are seldom used in isolation but rather in clusters that collectively present a pattern of behaviours."

We identified three inter-dependent habit clusters or frames that we consistently apply when navigating complexity. Almost a decade later, it is interesting to see that our thinking still holds and how these relate to our COOL meta-skills.  

  1. Openness 

"Openness can be described as a willingness to accept, engage with, and internalise the different perspectives, even paradigms, to be encountered when dealing with diverse participants in an interdisciplinary situation. An open frame of mind requires conscious acceptance that notions such as ambiguity, unpredictability, serendipity, and paradox will compete strongly, and legitimately, with knowledge, science, and fact. In essence, it means that while navigating challenges of a complex system, one holds one's own strong opinions lightly (Pfeffer and Sutton 2006) and engages as both facilitator and learner. "

Some of the specific habits of mind/practices that promote patterns of openness include:

  • Hold your strong opinions lightly and encourage others to do the same.
  • Embrace emergence: Be prepared for the intervention of surprise, serendipity, and epiphany.
  • Cultivate curiosity — learn to "stay in inquiry" and be curious (vs. assuming, judging, and jumping to conclusions)
  • Value diversity: Encounter every person with equal respect, listen to and acknowledge their specific needs, knowledge, and ways of knowing.
  • Set direction, but be open to not having specific goals or outcomes.
  • Be open to both/and options.
  • Expect ambiguity or paradox: Accepting these as legitimate can often avoid unnecessary conflict.
  • Accept that consensus is often impossible in complexity, adopt an experimental approach rather than forcing agreement to a single approach or solution.
  • Accept others as co-learners, not experts or competitors.

2. Situational Awareness (Observe in COOL)

"One of the critical differences between complexity-based and reduction-based thinking is the importance of context and scale in complex systems. Each issue or system attribute can appear quite different, and interactions have different outcomes under different contexts and scales. Spatial and historical context are very important, but so too are the different participants' value systems and how they lead to different outcomes. An awareness of the complex context in which an adaptive challenge exists and of how it changes in time and space is critical to effectively navigating through it. In essence, one must cultivate a state of anticipatory awareness and constant mindfulness."

Habits of mind/practices that promote patterns of situational awareness include:

  • Consider the importance of relationships and interactions between entities, not just the entities themselves.
  • Be aware of contingencies, scale, and history.
  • Surface organising principles and values that bound decision situations and help keep decision-making consistent from one context to the next (vs. Setting rigid rules).
  • Reflect often: formally, informally, individually, and collectively.
  • Cultivate diverse feedback mechanisms and networks — avoid echo chambers

3. A healthy respect for, what we term, the restraint/action paradox. (Links to Courage in COOL)

"Leadership and decision making in a complex system constitutes a balance between the risks associated with practicing restraint and taking action. On the one hand, if the context requires it, one must consciously practice restraint and create space that allows the emergence of ideas, trust, opportunity, and even epiphany to loosen the tangled problem knot. There is a strong need for a certain slowness (Cilliers 2006) in taking time to allow emergence to unfold. On the other hand, one needs the courage to take action in a mist of uncertainty because, in a complex system, the consequences of our actions are never entirely predictable, and no matter how good our knowledge, there is never an objective "right" decision. This paradox is critical to successfully fostering and practicing adaptive leadership by being conscious of and comfortable with this paradox."

Habits of mind/practices that promote patterns of healthy respect for the restraint/action paradox include:

Decisiveness/willingness to act under tension

  • Encourage courage. Cultivate an awareness of the natural inclination to avoid discomfort and have the courage to push beyond it and seize the "just do it" moment.
  • Embrace provisionality: When we have to decide in the apparent absence of the necessary information, accept that it is likely to be imperfect and that it will be provisional at best.
  • Do not be afraid of intelligent mistakes. Mistakes lead to learning.
  • Avoid paralysis from the natural anxiety response to uncertainty. Accept that there is no one right place to start or end. Take the next best (fit-for-context) action that makes sense here and now.
  • Act small and local. If possible, avoid large, system-wide interventions. One certainty in complexity is that any action can (and often does) lead to unintended consequences.

Restraint under tension

  • Embrace liminality and avoid premature convergence — avoid being too quick to make judgments and choices.
  • Avoid overconfidence to take action in a data-driven "predict and act" mode.
  • Allow the "seeds of action" that you've sown time to germinate. Resist impatience and the need for an instant response.
  • Keep options on the table long past their apparent usefulness. Many will find context later in the process.
  • Know when to rest. Open and participatory engagement exposes vulnerabilities, requires humility, and takes energy.

These three frames of mind are interdependent, with openness as the most critical one of the three as it can enable or constrain the others. To some extent, adequate situational awareness is not possible without openness to diverse perspectives. In a complex system, one cannot afford a one-sided view. Knowing when to act and when to practice restraint depends on one's awareness of changing dynamics in the system, but it also requires openness to the unexpected.

In this paper, we didn't touch on Lightness (the L in COOL). In retrospect, that was a serious oversight. Lightness brings playfulness, the ability to hold our egos lightly enough to try and learn (and sometimes seem foolish while doing so). It also brings humor and appreciation of beauty, a highly needed restorative balm when we feel overwhelmed by the complexity we face.  

References:

  • Rogers, K. H., R. Luton, H. Biggs, R. Biggs, S. Blignaut, A. G. Choles, C. G. Palmer, and P. Tangwe. (2013). Fostering complexity thinking in action research for change in social-ecological systems. Ecology and Society 18(2): 31. http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-05330-180231
  • Cilliers, F. P. (2006). On the importance of a certain slowness. Emergence: Complexity and Understanding 8:106–113.
  • Morin, E. (2008). On complexity. Hampton Press, New Jersey, USA.

Introduction to Poetry - by Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem

and hold it up to the light

like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

 

I say drop a mouse into a poem

and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room

and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski

across the surface of a poem

waving at the author's name on the shore.

 

But all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

 

They begin beating it with a hose

to find out what it really means.

 

This poem perfectly illustrates an attitude that I describe as Obsessive Certainty Disorder. Individuals can suffer from it, but where I am seeing it more often is in organisations. While I am being a little cheeky in coining the phrase, I am in no way minimizing the debilitating impact that anxiety disorders like Obsessive-compulsive disorder can have on the lives of individuals suffering from it. One of the reasons I found it apt to create a shared acronym is that Obsessive Certainty Disorder is also linked with anxiety and the need for control. And it, too, has devastating consequences, especially when it comes to organisational responsiveness and innovation, not to mention wellbeing.

Here's the problem: in organisations where this kind of OCD is rampant, they often work very hard to rid the organisation of the very things that would enable creativity, adaptability, and innovation.  

For example, organisations value certainty and stability so they stamp out tension, paradox, and risk. They want answers, not questions; compliance and conformity, not curiosity. They optimise for efficiency and thereby remove slack, boredom, and play i.e. the conditions for learning. It is not only innovation that suffers; these conditions also create dehumanising workplaces and burnout.

Leaders say they want transformation, engagement, innovation, creativity, and agility. However, their actions and the environments they create say otherwise i.e. that what they actually value is stability, sameness, safety, certainty, busyness, and consensus. There is no capacity to tolerate ambiguity, no "blurring" allowed where newness can emerge. Questions and ambiguities are treated the same as Billy Collins's poem: tied to chairs and confessions (or easy answers) beaten out of them. 

The reality is that creativity is often born in discomfort, i.e., amid tension, boredom, confusion, and ambiguity. Children make up new games when they are bored, employing their imagination to turn ordinary things around them into something new and extraordinary. But in our constantly busy and distracted world, not even children get to be bored anymore. Modern adults can't tolerate the uncomfortable feeling and discomfort of being bored, so we think we're our children a favor when we stick a tablet in their hands to keep them occupied. 

We've all become seduced by the need to be constantly distracted or busy, undermining our creativity and sense of meaning. My friend, Jesko von den Steinen, who used to be a clown in Cirque du Soleil says: we need to be "in tune with boredom"; we must see it as a signpost that something new needs to emerge. We need to sit in it, not run away from it.

The cover of the September edition of the Harvard Business Review celebrates curiosity. In a piece on the business case for curiosity, Francesca Gino lists multiple business benefits, including increased innovation, better decision-making, and increased collaboration. Still, she then writes: "In a recent survey I conducted of 520 chief learning officers and chief talent development officers, I found that they often shy away from encouraging curiosity because they believe the company would be harder to manage if people were allowed to explore their own interests. They also believe that disagreements would arise and that making and executing decisions would slow down, raising the cost of doing business".

Curiosity stirs and is stirred by ambiguity. This is something good artists know. Some of the best paintings are ambiguous; they are open to interpretation. Good playwrights play with ambiguity and conscious abstraction. They leave breadcrumbs and innuendo, allowing the viewer to fill in the blanks. They always leave something for the imagination. Ambiguity and abstraction force the brain to make connections and stimulate curiosity, but in today's business world, we want everything to be practical and clear; we want easy answers.

This is the crux of the problem: Innovation often lies on the other side of messiness – amid ambiguity, uncertainty, tension, and risk. Sometimes it emerges in the presence of the so-called "inappropriate or silly" – in imagination, play, and serendipity. Sometimes the best ideas come to us when we are bored or while daydreaming. We welcome none of these in our serious and sterile (but predictable) work environments.

"We run this company on questions, not answers." ~ Eric Schmidt, Google

It's time that, in a world where most CEOs list innovation as a top priority, they stop ridding their organisations of the conditions where innovation might emerge. Leaders need to adopt the stance of curators, curating contexts where people can be COOL: where they can show up with Courage to ask questions; Openness to unlearn and encounter different perspectives; Observe their context and themselves through new eyes; and practice Lightness through play, imagination, and maybe even a laugh here and there ...

 

What a year this week has been. If a pandemic and looming climate change weren't bad enough, now we have the trauma and the socioeconomic ripple effects of war (and possibly a looming world war). It is becoming harder to answer what used to be a simple question: how are you doing? One of the best answers I've heard came from one of our clients who responded with a telling analogy: it's like popping corn in a pot with the lid missing.

It feels never-ending … COVID, floods, fires, unrest. And now a war. Here in South Africa, we have the prospect of our fuel prices doubling with knock-on effects on basic costs of living; already crippling rolling electricity blackouts, affectionately (NOT!!) known as"load shedding", and an economy teetering on the brink. Pop …Pop … Pop … and there is no way to predict what will pop next.

For a large part of the world population, this is nothing new - life without privilege and a continual fight for survival have always been tenuous. They may frown when we talk of the VUCA world, for them, it is just their world. But for those who have lived more sheltered and privileged lives, a new anxiety-provoking dawn has arrived. In the large organisations we work with, people on all levels are anxious, stressed, and fed up. For them, on top of all of this, people need to navigate the complexities of hybrid work, returning to the office, retaining talent, innovating, receiving feedback … Pop … Pop … Pop …

Covid, while traumatic and challenging, came in semi-predictable waves. The war, on the other hand, seemed to happen literally overnight. I, for one, am experiencing not only profound fatigue in the present but also "future fatigue." Suddenly thinking about the future is simply depressing and exhausting - it is tough to imagine a better future than the present.

So what can we do? While I have no answers to specific dilemmas, one thing I do know: we need to shift from fatigue to fitness. Like an athlete who practices in preparation for a marathon, we need to prepare for the uncertainty and disruption we face in an unknown future. We need to become Future Fit, Change Fit, and Complexity Fit. It starts with practicing COOL:

  • Courage - to face the unknown, let go of the familiar, stand up for what we believe is right, set boundaries, and practice self-care.
  • Openness - to engage with difference without judgment, bridge divides rather than widen them, face reality, learn and unlearn, and find space in ourselves that is open to hope even in these dark times.
  • Observing - noticing and becoming more aware of our external context and internal responses. To pro-actively look for and notice ambiguity and multiple perspectives; to zoom in to the detail and out to the systemic whole. Observing reality from multiple perspectives, in order to be "response-able" not simply reactive. 
  • Lightness - last but not least. When darkness feels overwhelming, we cannot afford to lose sight of beauty and what makes us human. To laugh, play, imagine, make music, connect, this is where we can reconnect with being human, trust our hope, replenish and recalibrate.

If you and your team need to reset, reconnect and replenish, get in touch to learn more about our COOL Team Re:Set workshops.

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