VUCA & Agile Leadership: Part 7

Part 7—Interdependence & Series Wrap-Up

In Part 1 of this 7-part series of posts we looked at VUCA, where the term originated, what it means, and how it relates to Agile leadership.  The speed and interdependence of events in today’s world will ultimately overwhelm the time-honored processes and culture we’ve so far built.  Once comforting constants are transforming into variables that defy predictability and challenge traditional models of leadership and management.

In this final installment we study three levels of maturity, interdependence being the highest, on four dimensions, and what it means for Agile leadership.  We’ll also close with a series wrap-up.

As we’ve explored in prior parts of this series, both a cause and effect of VUCA is the complexity of problems and systems in today’s world interdependence.  By way of review Systems involve components and variables.  More important, however, is the interrelationship between them.  Interdependence is important because it drives the number of interactions among components and variables up dramatically.  And because of these dense interactions, interdependence drives nonlinear change. It is the interdependence of systems, for example, that enable the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil to set off a tornado in Texas.

Forewarned is Forearmed

WARNING: This final part of this series does not make for a quick or casual read—there’s a lot more to this topic than you may think.  Just so you know…

The Maturity Continuum: Range and Dimensions

Willingly, or not, comfortable, or not, we live in an interdependent reality today.  Civilizations, cultures, and societies are complex, non-linear systems.  Economies, industries, and markets are complex, non-linear systems.  Governments, political parties, businesses, unions, churches, charities, and other organizations of all kinds are complex, non-linear systems.  Your family is a complex, non-linear system.

Whether we are talking about a person, or an organization, or a process, or a market, or a government, or whatever, there are three levels of maturity: dependence, independence, and interdependence.  Further, there are four dimensions on which maturity matters—a lot: physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual.

The reason you should care about the maturity continuum and these four dimensions is because complex, non-linear systems operate at their optimum when the people in them are responsibly independent and effectively interdependent.  Being responsibly independent and effectively interdependent is the mark of an Agile leader.

So, let’s begin by defining the four dimensions and looking at the difference between dependence and independence on each of them.  Then we will look at what it means to be interdependent.

Physical Maturity

Dependence means that one is reliant on another to get through life.  On the physical dimension, babies and young children, for example, are physically dependent (babies and young children are dependent on all four dimensions).  Depending on its severity and the recovery prognosis, a person with a physical disability so severe maybe temporarily or permanently physically dependent.

Businesses and governments can be physically dependent, too.  A country that relies on another country for its military defense is an example of physical dependence.  Financial dependence is another form of physical dependence.  A business, for example, may be dependent on tax incentives and/or government subsidies until it achieves market traction and self-reliance.  A government may be dependent on the government of another country for deficit financing.

Meanwhile, a person who is physically able to get around on their own would be considered independent.  It doesn’t matter if they can get around as well as anyone else; all that matters is that they can get around well enough to physically take care of themselves.  A company or government that is able to take care of themselves, neither dependent upon, or subservient to, another company or government would be considered independent.

Intellectual Maturity

On the intellectual dimension, those who cannot, or choose not, to read, to write, to think critically, to reason analytically, and to learn, are intellectually dependent.  For example, youngsters are typically intellectually dependent.  When a youngster expresses a political opinion, they are usually not expressing one to which they independently reasoned, but are mimicing the opinion of one or both of their parents.  Similarly, there are also adults who, for whatever reason, remain intellectually dependent.  A person who chooses not to read is no better off than a person who cannot read; it’s a self-imposed illiteracy.  For some adults, their political opinions are not ones about which they critically thought and to which they analytically reasoned, but are ones that they mimic from their favorite political figure, or political party, or political website or “news” program—they remain intellectually dependent and have abdicated one of the most important responsibilities a citizen has in a democratic republic.

Companies are intellectually dependent when their business depends on intellectual property developed by others, when they have no inventive or innovative power of their own.  Governments are intellectually dependent when their powers to govern are dependent on another country.  Colonies, for example, are typically dependent on the imperial power that “owns” them.  During the reign of the Soviet Union, Soviet satellite countries, like East Germany, for example, were intellectually dependent on the Kremlin.

Meanwhile, a person, a business, a government, who thinks critically and reasons analytically is intellectually independent.  A company that develops their own intellectual property is intellectually independent.  A government that makes decisions and choices based on facts and reason, rather than passion and/or political machinations, a government that figures things out rather than making stuff up, is intellectually independent.

Emotional Maturity

There is a concept called, “the social mirror.” The social mirror is society reflecting what they think of you.  It may or may not be accurate.  It may be like the convex and concave mirrors in a carnival’s funhouse that give you a distorted reflection of your physical self.  The social mirror does the same thing with your emotional self.  The social mirror provided by social media, for example, is a fun house mirror; it does not provide an accurate reflection of anyone.

Emotionally, a person who depends on what others think of them—depends on the social mirror—for their sense of self-worth is emotionally dependent.  They are either unable to discern, or choose not to discern, if that reflection is true, or is a distortion.  For example, if a person thinks that their reflection in a convex funhouse mirror is a true reflection of their physical self, and does not understand that it is a distortion, they will believe that they are fat, when, in actuality, they may not be.  And if the only reflections they ever see of themselves are from convex, funhouse mirrors, if they never or rarely see themselves in a true mirror, then they will soon come to be convinced that they are fat.  This places a profound importance on everyone having someone in their life who provides them with an accurate, not distorted, reflection of themselves.

The same is true with a business or government that relies on the social mirror for its sense of self-worth.  Interestingly, other emotionally dependent individuals, businesses and governments will deliberately distort the mirror by which they see themselves, and by which others see them, in order to satisfy their own neuroses or machinations for their sense of self-worth.  Individuals do this, for example, when their online profile or their resume is more “spin” than reality.  Businesses and governments do this when their marketing messages are more “spin” than reality. Many politicians and many companies have raised this form of deception to an art form.

Meanwhile, an emotionally independent person, business or government, forms their own, honest opinion of their self-worth.  The social mirror may or may not bear weight, but it is definitely not a deciding factor.  Rather, their sense of self-worth is garnered from the inputs they receive from those in their life whose opinions they value and trust, and from their own powers for honest introspection.

Spiritual Maturity

The last dimension is spirituality, and this one requires special clarification.  By “spiritual”, I do not mean religious—being spiritual and being religious are two different things.  A lot of people will say that they are spiritual, but not religious, and when you ask them what that means, you get the eyes of a deer trapped in the headlights.  By “spiritual” I mean that you have a set of values, that are based on sound principles, and you live by them.

Freeze that window for a moment because I need to point out that while all values are derived from principles, not all values are derived from sound principles.  Let me give you an example.

Imagine a lady walking down a busy city street clutching her purse.  Suddenly, a young man comes up behind her, slices the purses’ strap, and steals her purse.  He has two friends with him and the three of them run away through the crowd, passing the purse back and forth between them as they disappear in the cityscape.  Do these three young men value planning?  Yes.  Do they value teamwork? Yes.  Do they value speed? Yes. The trouble is that their values are not based on the principle that the fruits of a person’s labor belong to that person, which leads to the value of showing respect for the property of others.

OK, moving on.

The source of your values does not matter; it only matters that they are based on sound principles.  You may get your values from your religion’s scriptures. Great.  You may get your values from Mother Nature.  Great.  You may get your values from carvings on a pinball machine at a bus stop in Cleveland.  Great.  It doesn’t matter.  What matters is that you have a set of values, that they are based on sound principles, and that you live them—that you subordinate your mood and your conditioning to your values.  That, to me, is spirituality.

Now let’s talk about spiritual dependence and independence.  In Part 1 of this series, I asserted that Agile leaders are principle-centered leaders.  Well, being principle-centered and being spiritually independent are one in the same thing.  You’ll remember that I talked about stimulus and response, and that an individual’s single greatest power is their ability to choose their response to a stimulus.  The same is true for companies and governments—their single greatest power is to choose their response to a stimulus.

People who are spiritually dependent are ones who allow their response to default to their mood and/or conditioning (e.g., genetic conditioning, psychic conditioning, and/or environmental conditioning).

People who are spiritually independent are ones who do not let their response to default, but choose their response based on their principles and values.  Spiritually independent people are ones who are able to subordinate their moods and conditioning to their principles and values.

Spiritual dependence in a company or a government looks like this.  They have two sets of mission/vision/values statements.  There is the expressed one; the one that they post on their website, display in their lobby, and perhaps print on wallet cards for employees to carry around with their ID badges.  Then there is the operational one; the one by which they really conduct themselves. Often the spiritually dependent company’s mission/vision/values are situational.  During the good times, when the sun is shining (e.g., the next quarter’s EPS (Earnings per Share) is assured; the next political election is in the bag; etc.) the expressed version rules.  During the bad times, when storms of life have descended upon them (e.g., next quarter’s EPS, or the next election, is at risk) the operational version rules.

Spiritual independence in a company or a government looks like this.  They have one mission/vision/values statement, and it is the one by which they live whether the sun is shining, or they are being pounded in a storm.  In fact, spiritually independent companies and governments will tell you that their mission/vision/values become especially important during stormy times because they are what guides them—when the storm is so bad that they can’t see what’s ahead and they know that they can’t trust their powers of prediction, their mission/vision/values is their compass.

Interdependence: The Highest Form of Maturity

Interdependence means that not only can you get along on your own, but if you collaborate with another party, the two of you can actually do better together than either of you could do individually.  Let me give you a naturally occurring example.  Take two pieces of lumber. On its own, Piece-1 can hold X-pounds, and Piece-2, on its own, can hold Y-pounds.  Added together, the two of them can hold X+Y=Z-pounds.  Now, put the two pieces together.  You will find that the total weight that the now combined pieces can hold is greater than Z-pounds.  By “collaborating” the combined pieces are more capable than the two individual pieces are added together.

In human society, interdependence will occur by choice or by force.

Interdependence by Choice

For a person, the best example of willful interdependence is marriage (or other analogous forms of committed relationship).  Theoretically, at least, the two married people are more capable physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually, than they would be on their own—the relationship is mutually beneficial.  Just like separating two combined pieces of lumber that are jointly bearing weight is impossible to do without adversely affecting their joint load bearing capacity, so is untangling a committed relationship that has been bearing some combined weight without adversely affecting their joint load bearing capacity.

Companies demonstrate willful interdependence, for example, when they create joint ventures to develop a technology that will benefit both but would otherwise be too onerous for either to develop on their own.  Another example is when two different companies decide to integrate their systems to provide a seamless customer experience (e.g., an online retailer and FedEx), with the expectation that they will cultivate more customers and revenue by working together than they would by working individually—the relationship is mutually beneficial.

Governments demonstrate willful interdependence when they enter into treaties, or other form of alliance, with another government.  The United States of America is, itself, an interdependent entity.  The European Union is an interdependent entity.  The World Trade Organization, the World Bank, the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the International Court of Justice (aka the World Court), the Paris Climate Accord, Interpol, arms treaties, these are all examples of interdependence at a country or governmental level.

After the devastation of WWI, followed 20-years later by the even greater devastation of WWII, post-WWII global leaders were looking for a way to stop such massive global conflicts from every happening again—a way that would be more effective, more reliable and more durable than treaties. Economic globalization was the answer because it creates an interdependence that produces economic results so far beyond what any one nation could do on their own, that no government would want to screw that up.  The reason is basic game theory.  The more one country has invested in another country, the more market opportunity one country has in another country, the less likely they are to go to war.  Since WWII, governments have deliberately been cultivating greater economic interdependence among each other because it stops global war. This is why American companies have manufacturing plants, sales and service operations, and administrative offices in Europe and Asia.  This is why European companies have manufacturing plants, sales and service operations, and administrative offices in America and Asia.  And this is why Asian companies have manufacturing plants, sales and service operations, and administrative offices in America and Europe.

And it has worked.  Yes, there continue to be wars, but they are far more limited and on a far smaller scale than either of the world wars.  It is true that globalization has caused unforeseen problems (e.g., how the economic benefit is shared; labor and human rights; etc.) thus the rules of globalization need amendment.  But it effectively, reliably and durably stops world wars, so we keep it and we figure out how to fix the rest.

All of these forms of willful interdependence add to VUCA.

Interdependence by Force

In addition to interdependent relationships into which one enters willfully, there are interdependent relationships into which one is forced. One can be forced into an interdependent relationship by market forces, business policy, government policy, and the like.

Examples of interdependent relationships into which market forces, business policy, and government policy force us is insurance, be it medical, vehicle or property insurance.  This is because your policy premium is based not only on your own performance, but also on the performance of everyone else in your cohort.  I don’t smoke, and I used to not care if you smoked as long as it was away from me.  But now I do care, because your choice to smoke is going to create otherwise avoidable health problems for you, and your additional, otherwise unavoidable health problems are going to cause my medical insurance rates to go up.  Same with the refined sugar that you choose consume, the exercise you choose not to get, and the diabetes that will inevitably result.  The driver of your medical insurance premium is not your personal health, or the size of your insured cohort group; it is the health of your insured cohort group.  It’s the same with car insurance, people who drive unpredictably and/or take unnecessary risks, have more accidents, cause more death and destruction, and drive up everyone’s auto insurance premiums. People who choose to construct their homes in areas that are prone to frequent flooding, wild fires, and storm damage, drive up home insurance rates for everyone.

Another example of an interdependent relationship caused by market forces, business policy, and government policy is banking.  People deposit money with a bank and earn an interest rate, X%.  The bank uses the deposited money to make loans, for which it charges the borrower Y%, where  Y>X.  Banks will make loans totaling more than the sum of their deposits.  If enough borrowers default on their loans, banks may not have the funds for depositors who want to withdraw their money.

In the U.S., examples of interdependence caused by government policy are many.  Pretty much all forms of infrastructure are interdependent systems: roadways and rules of the road; railways; airports, airways, and airspace; shipping ports and lanes; the electrical grid; oil and gas pipelines; the air waves; and the internet. Other examples include: common currency; the military; interstate commerce; fiscal policy; monetary policy; trade policy; and the list goes on.

I would also argue that the economic well-being and quality of life that your and my children and grandchildren will enjoy will be impacted as much by the educational and economic opportunities afforded their generational cohorts as it will be by those afforded to them alone.  It’s the difference between having 10% of a 100-pound pie, and having 5% of a 1,000-pound pie—focusing exclusively on my own kids’ and grandkids’ education and economic opportunities may enable them to claim a larger piece of the pie; but expanding the focus to also include the entire generational cohort will enable the whole pie to grow.

Interdependence by Self-Infliction

Not to be overlooked, there are complex, interdependent systems that we inflict upon ourselves.  I give you the U.S. Tax Code.  I would also argue that it’s understanding is immune to both linear and nonlinear thinking.  It is so afflicted with a lack of integrity continuity that you cannot assume that the rationale that led to the tax code affecting one particular kind of legal entity will then logically apply to other similar legal entities.  While it may be possible to explain an individual component, the overall system can only be described and cannot be explained.  Given the number of variables and the density of interactions, should you ever encounter a person who predicts that if we make change-A in the tax code, it will produce result-Z in the performance of the economy, you should run away fast and run far. This is the kind of prediction that can be made only by someone who operates on speculation rather than information, and/or seeks to manipulate rather than persuade, and/or has overdosed on political testosterone.

Interdependent Systems Are Complex

Interdependent systems are complex—not simple, not complicated, they are complex.  As explained in Part 4, complex systems, interdependent systems, involve billions of variables.  More important is the fact that the variables are interrelated. Thus, the number of interactions between components increases dramatically.  Because of these dense interactions, complex systems exhibit nonlinear change.

Remember our chess example. It is rule-bound (like the finance industry), the number of pieces is limited and the way each piece can move is specific to that piece (like financial instruments). But they are interdependent—what happens to one piece changes the relationships with, and the behavior of, the others:

  • There are 197,742 different ways for the players’ first two turns to transpire.
  • By the third move, the number of possibilities rises to 121 million.
  • Within 20-moves, it is just as likely that you are playing a game that has never been played before.

A small change at the start of a game (such as pawn to A3, rather than A4) can lead to a very different result—just like the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil can cause a tornado in Texas.

We Live in an Interdependent Reality

In the next several sections, we’ll look at some real-life examples of how pervasive interdependence is in modern society; examples will involve, economics, infrastructure, and constitutional rights.

Economics and Interdependence

Our global ecosystem that we call “the environment,” is arguably the largest and most complex of complex interdependent systems that occur naturally.  Whereas, economies may be the mother of all complex interdependent systems that are human made.  Let me give you an example of economic interdependency in real life.

Just after his State of the Union Address in January 1995, President Bill Clinton’s economic advisors warned that the Mexican economy was imploding from debt.  The peso was headed for an all-time low and the country needed to be rescued.  If not, migrants would flood into the United States and drug cartels would flourish in the chaos.  America’s economy would take a hit if its third-largest trading partner imploded.  Mexico’s failure would spook markets in other developing countries, whose leaders would then retreat from their slow adoption of free market systems, and those emerging markets represented 40% of the market for U.S. exports.

In the 1980’s, emerging market sovereign debt (debt owed by a government) traded in slow private transactions.  By the mid-1990’s, global transactions moved at the speed of light.  Markets that tanked in one place could unsettle countries on the other side of the planet.  Problems in countries with currencies most American’s wouldn’t recognize can quickly become the reason that American’s start losing jobs, whether it’s Greek debt weakening U.S. trading partners in Europe, or the collapse of the Mexican peso, the British departure from the European Union.  Nearly 60% of the American economy is tied up in foreign trade, which means millions of U.S. jobs and families are linked to the undulations of the global market. (This is but one reason why anyone saying that trade wars are easy to win is a simpleton applying linear-thinking in the complex, nonlinear, interdependent world that is global trade—nobody wins a trade war.)

Seventy-nine percent of the country opposed the Mexican bailout according to a Los Angeles Times poll.  From the left, then Congressman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) told Treasury Secretary Rubin in a House hearing that he should “go back to your Wall Street friends, tell them to take the risk and not ask the American taxpayers.”  From the right, Republican commentator and presidential candidate Pat Buchanan called the Mexican loan, “daylight robbery of the nation’s wealth. [It is money] the American taxpayers will never see again.”  Needless to say, Clinton’s political advisors thought that bailing out Mexico was a terrible idea.

Clinton placed his bet on an uncertain policy, and supported his economic team’s recommendation to give Mexico a $25 billion bailout.  Congress refused to support the move.  Clinton responded by creating his own route.  He used emergency executive powers to lend Mexico money from the Exchange Stabilization Fund—a clear stretch of the president’s executive powers.

In the end, Mexico borrowed only half of the money it was offered and paid back its loan three years early with $1.4 billion in interest, $600 million more than had the money been invested in U.S. Treasury notes.

Infrastructure and Interdependence

In today’s world, at least in the world’s developed countries, most infrastructure is interdependent.  For example, because the creation and maintenance of a system of roadways is too expensive for one person to afford, and because it is useful for the system of roadways to extend beyond the geographic boundaries of any one individual’s use, because even if you don’t personally use the roadways they are still valuable to you because the goods that you consume are delivered using the roadways, every country’s system of roadways is an interdependent system.

Elements of the system may be the responsibility of different levels of government (e.g., US highways, state highways, county highways, and city roads) but all are governed by consistent rules of the road.  In the U.S. for example, there are conventions in the roadway’s construction related to the allowed load limits (e.g., interstate highways carrying eighteen wheelers, heavy construction equipment and missile carrying military vehicles are built to different specs than a suburban street), there are conventions in roadway signage (e.g., “STOP” signs are always octagonal, red, and the text in upper case).  There is also a protocol for when two vehicles meet at an intersection.  The protocol for an intersection regulated by automated traffic signals is different than that of an intersection regulated by stop signs, and there is even a protocol when vehicles meet at an intersection that is without either traffic signals or stop signs (usually, right of way goes to the one that arrived at the intersection first; if vehicles arrived at the same time, then right of way goes to the vehicle to the right).

The point is that there is a protocol which everyone is expected to follow in order for all to mutually benefit from the use of roadways that could only be built and maintained through collaboration. And as such, although the U.S. is a democratic republic, no one has a constitutional right to drive on whichever side of the road they choose, or to only obey the traffic signals that they choose.

The same is true for air space and waterways, communications networks, stock exchanges, the electrical grid, banking’s automated clearing house, the food supply chain, just about every supply chain, water systems, sewage systems, flood control systems, and so on.

Constitutional Rights and Interdependence

Born and raised in the U.S., I was taught that my individual rights are essentially unlimited; they are bounded only when they began to interfere with another person’s exercise of their rights.  Because these boundary conditions are gray and fuzzy, not crisp and clear, one of government’s jobs is to create and enforce regulations to clarify those boundaries, to make determinations in those cases when those clarifications are insufficient, to take corrective action in the form of judgements when violations occur and to take preventative action in the form of updated regulatory language to keep the violation from recurring.

This goes deeper than it appears at first glance.  For one thing, this definition of the limits of one’s rights means that you are obliged to care as much about the rights of other people as you do about your own.  For another thing, as societal systems become more interdependent, those boundaries begin shrinking.  For example, one does not have the constitutional right to dump their private sewage in the nearest body of water.  You route your sewage to the city sewer system, if one exists, or you build an on-site septic system per the city’s building code.

At the time of this writing, we are in the midst of a global Coronavirus pandemic—a deadly virus is circulating throughout the world like wild fire.  One of the most dangerous and characteristics of this virus is that one can be infected by it, and thus will spread it, even though they, themselves, show no symptoms (i.e., they are asymptomatic), and this asymptomatic condition can last as long as 2-weeks.  To deal with this virus, using the best science available at the time, some government bodies have instituted social protocols, rules of the road, if you will, to slow the virus’ spread and minimize the toll it will take not only in terms of life and death, but also in terms of stress and strain on medical facilities, equipment and personnel, on businesses, jobs and economic security, on the supply chains and the people who operate them that deliver essential goods and services.

For example, among other means of spread, the virus can be spread by infected people simply breathing, coughing, sneezing, laughing, or otherwise exhaling on other people.  The best defense would be for everyone to simply lock-down and quarantine in-place for 2-4 weeks.  Of course, this solution is viable only in authoritarian countries (e.g., China) or in places where cultural norms put a higher value on one’s duty to their society than self (e.g., South Korea, New Zealand).  In places where neither of these is the case (e.g., the U.S.) other ways and means to mitigate the virus’ spread must be developed and broadly adopted.

While scientists and public health policy experts are continually learning, and their knowledge is constantly improving, it has been determined that after people just staying away from others, the next best defense is people keeping a safe distance from each other and wearing a face covering to guard against the times when they cannot maintain a safe distance.  While most face coverings will not protect the person wearing them from inhaling infectious particles emitted by others, they will protect others from infectious particles that might be emitted by the wearer.  Accordingly, one of the social rules of the road mandated by some government bodies is wearing a mask that covers both the nose and the mouth.

Admittedly, these new social protocols really cramp many people’s style, and some are rebelling against them on the grounds that they violate their constitutional rights.  As stealthy as this virus is (remember, you can be infected and spreading the virus for up to two weeks before you experience any symptoms), and as deadly as the virus is (in the U.S., the virus killed more people in its first 3-months than were killed in the entire Vietnam War), some people are refusing to wear a face covering, contending that the government forcing them to guard against endangering other people by wearing a mask violates their constitutional rights.

I am not sure what constitutional source they would cite in support of their contention, but I would bet next week’s grocery money that they can’t cite one—not in any of the Constitution’s 7 Articles, nor in any of its 27 Amendments.

During WWII, before the advent of automated weapons systems, when the dropping of bombs from airplanes and the firing of torpedoes from submarines was a manual exercise relying primarily on visual contact with one’s target, a number of U.S. coastal communities imposed night time blackout rules as one measure of defense against night time enemy attacks, like those that Germany conducted against London and against shipping traffic in the North Atlantic.  What do you suppose would have happened if a citizen in any of those coastal communities chose to not follow the night time blackout rules based on the argument that they are a violation of their Constitutional rights? Not complying with the order to wear a facial covering during a deadly global pandemic, where people who can be asymptomatic for as long as 2-weeks and will carry as much of the virus in their nose, throat and lungs as those who are symptomatic, thus representing as much of an infectious threat to others as those who are symptomatic, is no different.

We live in a society of high interdependence.  No matter what kind of legal entity you may be, a business or a nonprofit, or an individual, your rights have hit their boundary whenever they begin to interfere with another entity exercising their rights.  Whether you’re a bank dealing in toxic assets, or an individual refusing to wear a face covering during a deadly, stealthy global pandemic, one does not have a constitutional right to take action that creates risk beyond themselves, thus endangering others.

Interdependence and Your Children’s & Grandchildren’s Futures

Given the existing level of interdependence in our society, and given that the occurrence and strength of interdependence in our society is increasing, I think it is safe to hypothesize that the economic well-being and quality of life that our children and grandchildren will enjoy will be impacted as much by the educational and economic opportunities afforded their generational cohorts as it will be by those afforded to them alone.  It’s the difference between having 10% of a 100-pound pie, and having 5% of a 1,000-pound pie—focusing exclusively on my own kids’ and grandkids’ education and economic opportunities may enable them to claim a larger piece of the pie; but it is the success of the entire generational cohort that will enable, or inhibit, the growth of the whole pie.

Things Not to Expect from Interdependence

The goal of interdependence is for two or more parties to achieve more benefit working together than they could realize on their own, and interdependence can do this.  However, it is also important to note three things you should not expect from an interdependent relationship or system:

  • First, there is an important hierarchy to these maturity levels; one cannot be interdependent until they have first achieved independence. So, don’t expect anyone to make the leap straight from dependence to interdependence, without a stop at independence.
  • Second, interdependence does not guarantee an endless flow of uninterrupted mutual benefit.
  • Third, interdependence does not guarantee happiness.

Agile Leadership & Interdependence

While the leadership lessons involving interdependence are many, there are three that rise to the top.

Don’t Let the Appeal of Simplicity Seduce You

Don’t Let the appeal of simplicity seduce you into applying linear thinking to nonlinear systems or problems.  Because interdependent systems are complex systems exhibiting nonlinear change (ref: VUCA & Agile Leadership: Part 4—Simple v. Complicated v. Complex), applying Newtonian, clockwork, linear thinking is a recipe for disaster, which may be quick and merciful, or slow and painful.

You may have heard the quote, “No battle plan lasts beyond the first shot,” attributed to a variety of military leaders from various countries; the quote recognizes that war is a complex collection of interdependencies.  Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman was acknowledging the folly of trusting in the certainty of one’s predictions and applying simple linear-thinking to the complex nonlinear conditions of war when he said, “Every attempt to make war easy and safe will result in humiliation and disaster.”  Feel free to replace “war” with the name of any other complex, interdependent problem or system you like—the point still stands.

For example, while linear, Newtonian, clockwork theories, concepts, models, methods and tools may be effective in leading change in an organization’s complicated product development, manufacturing or other business processes, they are disastrous when attempting to lead change in the organization’s complex, interdependent, nonlinear culture.  This is because business processes may be simple or complicated, but are not complex, thus they exhibit linear change.  Meanwhile, an organization’s culture is a complex, interdependent system, thus exhibiting nonlinear change.  Further, because every organization is one big ecosystem, if the new business processes and the culture are not in harmony, those new business processes will ultimately fail.

Albeit a different kind, families are organizations, too.  Families are an ecosystem of family processes and family culture, and the same organizational change rules apply.  The same rules apply when change, be it a nudge or a full-on assault, is instigated by you or someone else, to any system that is complex, that is dominated by interdependencies, that is an ecosystem.

Agile Leadership Requires Advanced Maturity

Agile leadership requires a level of maturity where one is not only responsibly independent, but is also effectively interdependent.  One should not necessarily expect, of themselves or of others, to be at the same maturity level on all four dimensions; people do not grow and progress in a way that promotes such evenness.  In fact, a person may never progress from one maturity level to the next on a particular dimension.  For example, there are veterans whose disability is so severe, so beyond current technologies capability to mitigate, that they will be physically dependent on a caregiver for the foreseeable future.  However, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually, they operate at the highest levels.  This is OK; this creates exactly zero deficit in their leadership potential.  Frankly, I worry more about people in leadership positions who are intellectually, emotionally and/or spiritually dependent.

Agile Leadership is Whole-Life Leadership

You may be wondering why I spent as much time as I did on the existence of interdependencies in areas beyond a business context; why I provided examples that ranged from macro-economics to family life.  This is because Agile leadership is not something that you turn on when dealing with professional matters and turn off when dealing with personal matters.  VUCA does not recognize personal v. professional boundaries; for example, the VUCA conditions characterizing macro-economics affects all aspects of life.  As I trust you are well aware, Agile is not something you do; it is something you are.  Agile is not a program to be implemented; it is a set of principles and values to be inculcated and actualized.  Accordingly, Agile leadership is something you are all of the time—because it is principles and values based, Agile leadership is whole-life leadership.

VUCA & Agile Leadership: Series Wrap-Up

In Part 1 of this series, we discussed VUCA, its origins, and what it means for Agile leadership.

In Part 2, we introduced the Toffler Curve, which provides historical context for today’s VUCA conditions, the disruption it creates for humans and society, and what it means for Agile leadership.

In Part 3, we reviewed the movement of bits and atoms, how the multi-modal hyper-mix they enable is a primary driver of VUCA, and what it means for Agile leadership.

In Part 4, we distinguished between problems and systems that are simple, complicated or complex, noting that complex systems are where VUCA lives, and what it means for Agile leadership.

In Part 5, we learned the story of “the Butterfly Effect” as a scientific example of VUCA at work, and what it means for Agile leadership.

In Part 6, we learned about Price Factor Equalization, a business example of VUCA at work, and what it means for Agile leadership.

Finally, in Part 7, we explored the three levels of maturity on four dimensions of life, and we dove deep into the highest form of maturity, interdependence, and what it means for Agile leadership.

But maybe none of this applies to you.

Frog In The PotMaybe the work under your stewardship isn’t $90,000 of meetings, managerial controls, reviews, revisions and rework, and $10,000 of actual work.

Maybe the problems you need to resolve, maybe the opportunities you need to pursue are relatively predictable, arise with sufficient notice, come at a comfortable speed, and give you ample windows of time to address them.

Maybe the dynamics of your environment are comfortably manageable.

Maybe reality shows proper respect for you, your predictions and your plans.

Maybe when you make your plans, God doesn’t laugh.

Or, maybe you’re the proverbial frog in the pot of water of slowly increasing temperature.

Key Take-Aways

Today’s is a VUCA world, and the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity is only escalating.  The rate of change and the disruption it creates for humans and societies is no longer accelerating up a line of ever-increasing slope, we have gone vertical–change and its accompanying disruption is now environmental. VUCA conditions permeate all of modern life and society; it is inescapable, and it affects your whole life, not just your work life.

Not to be cute, but anyone who thinks they understand what’s going on doesn’t understand what’s going on.

VUCA is a new norm.  But, and this is a huge but, VUCA is also an opportunity for those who learn how to operate in it—those who are Agile leaders.

VUCA conditions are characterized by complex” problems and systems involving billions of variables.  More important is the fact that the variables are interdependent. Thus, the number of interactions between components increases dramatically.  Because of these dense interactions, VUCA conditions exhibit nonlinear change. It is these dense interactions among innumerable components and variables that enable “the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil to result in a tornado in Texas.”

Improving the quality of life and economic well-being of those under your stewardship, be they a team at work and/or your family at home, under VUCA conditions requires Agile leadership

Agile leaders have learned from history and their own experience that their powers of prediction in VUCA conditions are extremely limited.  Thus, the Agile philosophy that responding to change is more effective than attempting to predict or prevent it, that trusting in your ability to respond to unpredictable events is more valuable than trusting in your ability to predict them, being change adaptive, even late in the process, and doing all of this at a sustainable pace to produce results of value quickly and frequently, is well suited for operating in VUCA conditions.  This is not to say that “being Agile” is an excuse to not plan, because the value of planning lies, not in the plan, but in the thinking that occurs in the process of developing the plan.

Agile is to VUCA what Judo is when confronting a larger and faster opponent.  Just like one experienced in Judo will use their opponent’s size and speed to their own advantage, so too will one experienced in Agile will use VUCA conditions to their advantage.

To be effective in bringing the Agile philosophy to bear in real life:

  • Agile leaders are principle-centered leaders. With Agile principles and values being a subset in an Agile leader’s superset of principles and values, a principle-centered leader is able to subordinate their moods and conditioning to their principles and values.
  • Agile leaders have achieved a level of maturity such that they are responsibly independent AND effectively interdependent.
  • Agile leaders are servant leaders, not just in their work, but in whatever endeavor they might be engaged, in their professional life and in their personal life.
  • Agile leaders recognize that their “customers” are anyone who depends on your work to do theirs.
  • Agile leaders don’t chase customer requirements, this is a prescription for irrelevance. Agile leaders create customer requirements to which would-be competitors will have to respond.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, one must first be Agile in their personal leadership before they can be Agile in their organizational leadership.  Being more direct, one cannot be an Agile leader of other people’s lives until they are an Agile leader of their own life.

Closing Agile Leadership Lesson

Thanks for hanging in there through all 7-parts of this series; we hope that you’ve picked up useful knowledge commensurate with the effort.  But there is one last lesson we wish to share.

We’ve worked hard to teach what VUCA is and how it affects Agile leadership, but the most important thing we have tried to explain is why VUCA exists and why it means what it means for Agile leadership. And this brings me to that lesson.  Among the principles by which Agile leaders live is the one that says, “Leaders always start with why.”  It is rare that addressing the “why” question can be done in a tweet or a blog post; sometimes that takes a full article, or 7-part series of articles, sometimes more, but if one doesn’t start with why, then the what and the how just don’t matter.  So, our parting lesson in this series is, “No matter what you are seeking or doing, always start with ‘why’.”

By sticking with us through all 7-parts, you know that in today’s VUCA world, Agile leadership is the foundation for improving the economic well-being and quality of life for those under your stewardship be it at home or at work.  Just as importantly, you also know why.