Crisis as catalyst. Risk as renewal. Classical strategic planning is based upon the assumption of a slowly changing future. That assumption is wrong. Climate change, technological innovation, resource shortages, and rapid social change demand a new context for how we plan our lives.
The U.S. Army War College calls this the “VUCA Context“; Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. VUCA conditions lead to a shift in how we understand and enact strategic planning. They create a crisis in how we govern and manage organizations.
“Seeing the world as a ceaselessly complex and adaptive system… involves changing the role we imagine for ourselves… from architects of a system we can control… to gardeners living in a shifting ecosystem that is mostly out of our control.” (Cooper, 2009).
VUCA and its consequences demonstrate that complexity and crisis themselves are the new context for governance and design. This is uncomfortable.
Complexity and collapse, volatility and transition – these will be the defining themes of our decade. Adapting to these conditions requires a re-orientation of our strategic goals and a re-evaluation of the methods we use to accomplish them. Dealing with transition can produce fear, resistance, and anxiety. As a result, many organizations are retreating from the future. Speaking about urban planning, for example, Isserman (1986) writes that,
“We have lost sight of the future… creating increasingly feeble, myopic, degenerate frameworks that are more likely to react to yesterday’s events than to prepare the way from here to the future.”
The effects are habitual blind spots in many modern organizations, making it difficult to discuss or even think about issues of critical change.
Thankfully, there are a range of useful tools for addressing long term planning under uncertainty. These include design, scenario planning, futures and foresight, role playing, red-teaming, collective intelligence, crowdsourcing, and experiential learning to name but a few.
The challenge for 21st Century professionals is to successfully apply these tools – and the lessons they produce – in the context of stiff organizational resistance and political fear.
Our job should be to facilitate events, initiatives, and environments that help institutions understand and prepare for rapid transformation under conditions of surprising, disruptive change. To do so, we must take actions that recognize the difficulties and contingencies of our situation, yet offer tangible solutions for moving beyond them. Such actions are inherently creative, uncertain, and emergent.
In order to inspire hope, they must be focused on the positive opportunities which such changes provide. Hope is vital because, without such hope, we are doomed to transactional meaningless or, even worse, the cowardly operationalism of “I was just following orders.”
Like gardeners, we must use our tools to cultivate a larger awareness of the patterns of change around us and use our tools to plant seeds of hope in pragmatic, effective ways. Like designers, we must use these seeds to demonstrate new ways of thinking, acting and behaving under radically changing conditions that offer tangible improvement and inspiration.
Our goal is to use creativity and inspiration to move beyond paralysis and towards complexity, to seek out uncertainty and change with the same vigor and drive we have traditionally reserved for maintenance of the status quo. If transition is the goal, then design is the method, the future is the direction, and inspiring actions are the result.
Let’s create the future together.