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The Way We Think is Key to Navigating Unknowns


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Organisational Thinking in a VUCA World


In a VUCA world where rapid and unpredictable changes are the norm, traditional ways of doing things are increasingly becoming less effective in attaining organisational goals. Not having full visibility of the future and no precedents to take reference from entail that organisations (and individuals) need to embrace innovation, flexibility, and continuous learning. They must also be able to anticipate and respond to emerging trends and risks, and to collaborate with others to address common challenges.


But what exactly does it mean to embrace change in a VUCA world? For a start, it means refraining from using a “one-size-fits-all” approach to solve all problems. More often than not, the type of approach that would be most appropriate for one situation may not be effective at all in solving a different problem. Thus, knowing when to switch up your approach to problems can make all the difference in your effectiveness as a leader and individual.



Dialectical Versus Linear Thinking


Carrying this out successfully requires knowledge of the various modes of thinking. For instance, linear thinking refers to having a systematic and analytical thought process that follows a known step-by-step progression – similar to a straight line. On the other hand, dialectical thinking calls for seeing a situation from multiple perspectives, comparing and contrasting various solutions before deciding on the most appropriate course of action to take. In contrast to linear thinking, dialectical thinking does not adhere to a predetermined set of plans; it adapts to the circumstances of situations as and when they change. Here’s one example of dialectical thinking at work: Speaking Up and Keeping Silent.


“We don’t have to challenge everything, but we should be open to articulate feedback or offer our opinion, with a common goal in mind. People are open when feedback is given bilaterally.” On the other hand, “We certainly don't wish for people to shoot from the hip, jump to conclusions and start criticising without respect, context and good faith.”


How the Cynefin Framework Can Aid Problem-Solving


While dialectical thinking may seem advantageous over the more traditional linear way of thinking, the reality is that every leader needs to have both types of thinking in order to make effective problem-solving decisions. Crucially, they need to be flexible enough to rotate between each type of thinking based on the needs of the specific situation at a certain point in time. The Cynefin framework developed by scholar David Snowden in 1999 is a problem-solving tool that illustrates this perfectly. It guides leaders to classify their situations into five domains – complex, complicated, chaotic, obvious and disorder.


The Cynefin Framework | aAdvantage Consulting

(Image credits: Harvard Business Review)


Simple Contexts: “The Domain of Best Practice”

In simple contexts, everyone is able to see the right course of action to take. Leaders sense, categorise and respond – they assess the facts of the situation before making a response based on previously-established practices. In organisations, the onboarding process for new employees often falls into the simple context type. There are clear steps and established best practices to follow, such as completing paperwork, introducing company policies, and providing orientation sessions. In other words, the decision-making process is well-defined in simple contexts.


Complicated Contexts: “The Domain of Experts”

In complicated contexts, there is at least one right answer. While there is also a clear relationship between cause and effect, analysis or expertise is required to discern it. Thus they need to sense, analyse, and respond to these situations. An example to illustrate this context type is the implementation of IT Systems in organisations. When implementing complex information technology systems, most organisations require the expertise of IT professionals and consultants. These experts analyse the requirements, design the architecture, configure the systems, and ensure their integration with existing infrastructure. Their specialised knowledge and skills are crucial in successfully navigating the complexities of IT implementation, an area in which the other members of the organisation may not be as proficient in.


Complex Contexts: “The Domain of Emergence”

In contrast to complicated contexts in which at least one right answer exists, complex contexts more often than not do not have a right answer. This is also the domain which most situations faced by leaders fall in, where unexpected major changes in the organisation bring a series of unpredictable back-and-forths. Therefore, they must probe, sense and respond – meaning they must be patient enough to allow the right answer to reveal itself. In product development, for instance, developing new products or services in response to market demands involves attention to multiple variables such as customer preferences and evolving trends. Thus, organisations operating a complex context such as product development need to embrace an iterative and adaptive approach by first conducting customer research, prototyping, and testing to gather feedback. As patterns and insights emerge, they form the basis on which product and service offerings are refined.


Chaotic Contexts: “The Domain of Rapid Response”

In chaotic contexts, not only is there no right course of action to take, but there is arguably also no point finding one since there is no clear relationship between cause and effect. Instead, leaders must act, sense and respond to change chaotic situations into complex ones that have more easily identifiable emerging patterns. For instance, situations in which crisis communications are employed can often be characterised as chaotic contexts. During times of crises, organisations must swiftly respond to mitigate risks and ensure business continuity. Natural disasters, cyberattacks, or reputational crises can throw an organisation into chaos. Therefore, in such chaotic contexts, leaders need to make quick decisions, mobilise resources and communicate effectively, and restore stability to the organisation.


Disorder

Aside from the four main contexts of the Cynefin framework, the disorderly context applies to any situation in which it is unclear which of the other four domains is predominant. When entering a new market or industry, organisations often face uncertainty and ambiguity. There may be a lack of clear market dynamics, customer preferences, or regulatory frameworks. In this context, organisations need to first gather sufficient information to move into one of the four more defined domains, be it through research or strategic exploration.



Applying the Cynefin Framework


By categorising a particular situation into one of the five parameters, the framework helps leaders select the type of thinking that would be most effective in moving the situation forward. For instance, dialectical thinking would be more appropriate for complex, complicated and chaotic situations where parameters are less familiar. On the other hand, linear thinking would be most suitable for when parameters are known or more easily accessible, usually in ‘obvious’ situations.



Does ChatGPT think?


Although digitalisation has indisputably introduced much more uncertainty for organisations, it has also produced useful tools that help leaders navigate unknowns. Perhaps the most popular tool yet is ChatGPT, which has aided in performing various natural language processing tasks, including language translation, text summarisation, and question-answering. As an AI language model, ChatGPT does not "think" in the same way that humans do. It processes language based on the patterns it has learnt from the vast amount of data it has been trained on. However, unlike linear thinking which follows a straight and predictable path from one point to another, ChatGPT can generate responses based on a complex analysis of the input and its training data. In this sense, ChatGPT's thinking process is non-linear, but rather multi-dimensional, which have certain implications for leaders who employ ChatGPT to help them navigate change.



Conclusion


Navigating the unknowns of a VUCA world requires everyone to adopt a flexible and adaptive approach to problem-solving. This involves understanding the different modes of thinking, including linear and dialectical thinking, and being able to switch between them based on the specific situation. As we continue to navigate the uncertainties of the digital age, it is clear that a multi-dimensional approach to thinking will be key to success.


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