Listen for a word: absolutely (and its kin: exactly, precisely, of course, no doubt, without question, totally, undoubtedly, clearly, utterly). How often do you hear it used in daily speech? Probably more than in the past. Why? People are longing for a sense of control in – a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world – a world where absolutes are in scare supply. Using ‘absolute’ language gives us a temporary sense of control, and, perhaps comfort. These are not bad things. Actually, comfort and control are good and necessary things. We’re just unlikely to achieve them in ‘conventional’ ways or by mere language manipulation.

Some, or even much, of what used to make sense doesn’t seem to work anymore. Problems (puzzles), for example, can be described by data and solved by analytics, proven practices and trusted tools. Yet none of these ‘solutions’ will ferret out the truths, threats and opportunities buried in the dilemmas of a VUCA world. That takes a story.

There are two ways to share knowledge with people: you can push it out to them or you can pull them in with a story. Stories provide familiarity in chaos, so they tend to reduce stress and are easier for the brain to absorb and remember. Stories integrate multiple objectives and formats and cross cultural and transgenerational lines; they are more holistic. And, stories are memorable because they form an emotional connection with the audience. When the audience ‘joins in’ the story, it becomes their story. They are less tempted to try and ‘solve’ a story (in an environment that doesn’t lend itself to solutions) and more likely to engage it and see themselves as a part of it.

It also takes sensemaking (to be aware of and understand the context of those dilemmas you face) and agility (allowing for course corrections as strategies and decisions play out).  This is not about predicting the future. It is about engaging your creativity and the creativity of others to be better prepared for that uncertain future that is invading your present at an ever increasing rate. Don’t try to predict (make a statement of something that will happen) the future. Most predictions end up being wrong anyway. Rather, interrogate the future, allow it to provoke you and be inspired by it. This is developing foresight; preparing your mind.

Sensemaking involves keeping an open mind – try to resist judgment and stay curious – long enough to figure out what’s going on; even if you don’t like it, even if it offends you, even if it doesn’t match your view of what should be. Use that ‘irritation’ the way an oyster uses a grain of sand and produce a pearl of understanding and insight. Note that this can be hard work: most leaders have developed a bias for action. Good! Action is great, unless it’s the wrong action. As American author Upton Sinclair has noted,

It is hard to get a man to understand something when he is being paid to misunderstand it.

In Other Words…

“The only man I know who behaves sensibly is my tailor; he takes my measurements anew each time he sees me. The rest go on with their old measurements and expect me to fit them.” ― George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman

“Learning to let go should be learned before learning to get. Life should be touched, not strangled. You’ve got to relax, let it happen at times, and at others move forward with it.” ― Ray Bradbury

“It is the obvious which is so difficult to see most of the time. People say ‘It’s as plain as the nose on your face.’ But how much of the nose on your face can you see, unless someone holds a mirror up to you?” ― Isaac Asimov, I, Robot

“It would be possible to describe absolutely everything scientifically, but it would make no sense. It would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.” ― Albert Einstein

In The Word…

“A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” – Proverbs 18:2

In Linked Words…

Your scary future, Part 7: how do you find comfort in an uncomfortable world?
Your scary future, Part 6; flexing and all that jazz

Your scary future, Part 5; the necessity of a prepared mind

Your scary future, Part 4: the lady or the tiger?
Your scary future, Part 2: what kind of problem do you have?
Your scary future, Part 1