The tragedies and turmoil of the last few weeks reinforced in dramatic fashion that we live in a VUCA world – where volatility accelerates, uncertainty abounds, complexity prevents control and ambiguity creates more unknown unknowns with each passing day.
It is unsurprising that such an environment generates wanna-be leaders who promise stability, certainty, simplicity and clarity. We are trained to expect this from our leaders. This training begins in the first grade with the teacher at the front of the class and continues through to the organizational chart that guides the entities where we work. We are trained to expect our leaders to have the answers.
The problem is there are no easy answers in a VUCA world where inequity – whether measured by income, health, environment, safety, opportunity or whatever – persists.
The challenges and opportunities at the root of these issues cannot be solved by a single solution designed by an expert (even one who is “really smart,” with the “best words,” and excelled at “like the hardest … school to get into”). Going to the moon is a technical problem, as is, I guess, building a wall between countries. The answers to technical problems are knowable. In contrast, most of the critical challenges at the root of the turmoil that we see in our streets and feel in our hearts are adaptive in nature. The answers to adaptive challenges aren't clear, and indeed they only emerge through the interaction of stakeholders. Creating communities where all residents feel safe is an adaptive challenge, as is creating an economy where all residents have access to opportunity.
“The most common cause of failure in leadership is produced by treating adaptive challenges as if they were technical problems,” wrote Dr. Ronald Heifetz in his book The Practice of Adaptive Leadership. Technical challenges may require us to behave differently, but adaptive challenges force us to think differently – and even to believe differently. To develop solutions to adaptive challenges we must challenge our assumptions about what we think we know, and help others do the same.
When faced with adaptive challenges we need to expect inquiry from our leadership, not answers. Adam Grant, in his powerful book Originals, describes in detail how pushing for solutions too soon limits originality, creativity and ultimately restricts our ability to create enduring, positive change. And David Peter Stroh, in Systems Thinking for Social Change, writes of the benefits of starting with inquiry rather than advocacy.
Practicing inquiry is a profound acknowledgement that we don’t know the answers, and a confident assertion that together– despite the realities of living in a VUCA world – we can develop sufficient, shared understanding from which solutions will emerge. Inquiry is leadership.