What now when we can’t predict the future but want a better future?


Seeking the normality we can’t have

The human need for comfort is emerging strongly now. We want our old ways of life back – but it is impossible because a small virus has actually changed the world and our lives – and our businesses and workplaces.

Even if a vaccine, treatment is found quickly, we are going to live with Coronavirus for a long period of time. Remember how and when HIV-AIDS emerged from Africa and came to our attention nearly 40 years ago? Since then, it has killed approximately 35 million people worldwide and approximately 38 million people were living with AIDS in 2018.

Coronavirus is different. Can it be tamed? Even if it can, will people all over the globe who have been impacted ever forget what has become apparent through the pandemic?

Our ‘normal’ had cracks in it

Coronavirus has opened our eyes to the many and varied ways in which our current existence has been misguided. We have seen supply chains that are fragile in a crisis, social justice issues like homelessness that need to be attended to in the name of public health, and flexible work arrangements that turned out to be possible when push came to shove. These are but a few of the issues in the spotlight.

Before moving on, let’s remember that in Australia, Coronavirus is at least the second catastrophe that we have experienced this year. Remember the once in 100 years bush fires that raged for months and devastated entire communities?  The drought before that. The floods after the drought. The water shortages and the fish kills. This is all a part of the rich tapestry of context for us in Australia. A huge risk is that we collectively forget what we have experienced, and we are lulled back into a comfort seeking sense that everything is OK. It is not.

Back to normal will mean more disruption

Humanity through the modern western culture has been arrogantly believing that we can control and exploit nature in perpetuity without negative consequences. We are gradually realising that we cannot.

Ecology scientists are now telling us again that pandemics such as that caused by the novel Coronavirus can be expected again in the future. That to save ourselves form this chaotic and socially (physically) distant future, we need to nurture the biodiversity of our natural environment. This expert advice supports that of climate change scientists who have also been telling us for years that we need to seriously alter the way we are living. We can of course, act on both fronts by shaping a  future that restores a different economy and mitigates climate change. The choice is ours and we have learned that our choices do in fact make a difference – we have individually and collectively flattened the curve.

That small directive to change our lives though, means a major shift in the way we go about doing things. It denotes a shift from exploiting and controlling nature for our species’ benefit (and a few individual’s benefit) , to nurturing the planet that supports us.

We know how to use this moment

Giving up the belief in control is essential but that doesn’t mean we are without influence. Clearly, we are influencing. Look around you.

We don’t know what this future will look like and due to the complexity of the system, we can’t even plan our way to it – beware those that want clear, linear steps or plan forward. That is a thinking trap when working in complex circumstances. (More about that in another post.) But we do know the essential elements involved in bringing a better future into being. You can use this ‘recipe’ on any scale – for yourself, your team, your business or your community. It is provided in greater detail in my new book (Big Little Shifts: complexity thinking for organisational change and adaptation) but here is a summary.

Seven starting points for leaders

  1. Start with yourself – you can’t and don’t know the answers. So, you need to turn to other people. Bring them together and hold them together for the long haul. That’s your job and role as a leader now.
  2. As you bring people together, help them appreciate their unique complexity as people with different strengths (talents) and passions. Let them work in areas they are most passionate about because that is where they will be most confident, creative and persistent.
  3. Help these people identify and clarify the future that they really want and express that in a values rich story. These values will guide you all. They may change as you learn more on your journey but it’s a great starting point. Better than an expression of the physical or tangible form in the future because that form is just one predetermined future founded on an assumption that we can control the future and bring that preferred solution into being.
  4. Experiment your way forward together. Invest heavily in supporting every individual, listening deeply to each other and when differences arise about what will work – turn to experiments to learn more about what does and doesn’t work.
  5. Put your faith in people. They are expressions of nature too and come with nature’s inherent capability to be creative. They will find a way; they just need belief in themselves.
  6. Invest heavily in social bonds and social capital within your community of people. It is the oil that greases everything and the glue that holds everything together.  You may disagree with someone’s view but it is easier to listen when you know them and their back story. It becomes easier to learn together.
  7. Continually broaden and deepen your perspective. There is always a much bigger context to be aware of. This is a path of ongoing personal development for you and others.

Its own satisfying reward

In my experience, when people are working together for a purpose bigger than themselves, a deep satisfaction and joy in the work comes into play. We move beyond our own petty egos and wants, and into a more purposeful and meaningful life. This is the opportunity that beckons us all at present. It may not be comfortable, but we will experience being alive, rather than living our comfortable, high consumption lives on autopilot. We will be shaping a better and more satisfying future for ourselves and our children.