How to Act

Here I put together all the principles we have learned about how to act as safely as possible  to advance the organisation.

A core principle of complex systems is that every action has unintended consequences.

This means that the outcomes are unknown until we act. Since the outcomes are unknown, so is the risk.

We can make approximate guesses of risk to help guide us in choosing options if it makes us feel better, but mostly it is theatre. It tells us nothing about what is going to happen when we do a thing once.

(OTOH, understanding systemic risk is useful: a known problem, a known exposure to harm. There is value in mitigating those to increase resilience. Different kind of risk: a risk of possible failure in an unknown one of many future moments versus the “risk” of an outcome of a single action.)

When we act, it is better to focus on responding to a current need or problem, in the pursuit of value, (or less usefully, we can work on future needs rather than current ones), than focusing on what the risks of action might be. We don’t know (except in hindsight when blaming people).

To deal with that lack of knowledge of risk, we move forward in small experimental increments. Fail well: fail small, fast, early, and often. Surface the systemic risks through failure, with experiments designed with the minimum blast radius.

This means our patterns of action should be to iterate, increment, experiment, and explore. And to reflect and adjust on every iteration.

By addressing systemic risks identified in experiments, we increase resilience.

By adjusting our targets frequently, and improving the way we work, we increase agility.

The consequences of this unknowable aspect of complexity are volatility, uncertainty, complicatedness, and ambiguity. Our real world is complex – only our models aren’t.

The VUCA nature of our world is increasing rapidly. our simplistic approximations no longer hold. It doesn’t matter how successful our ways of working have been in the last half-century of relative stability. What got us here won’t get us there.

To advance, even to survive,  in such an environment  requires adaptability. Adaptability to our VUCA world comes from resilience and agility.