Learning Our Way through Uncharted Waters

Well, the election is over. You could say that we’re stepping into “interesting times.” I used to work with a CEO in the corporate world who talked a lot about needing to prepare for “right-angle turns” — changes in the environment where you simply couldn’t see around the corner, but you still needed to be prepared to act and adjust, act and adjust. That pretty much sums up, I think, what’s probably in store for us in the year ahead, regardless of your politics. The one thing you can predict is that what worked last year may not work now. It’s a time to re-think assumptions.

From a learning perspective, this change in the national political landscape provides a significant opportunity, if not a mandate, to bump up your game. That’s where the field of Emergent Learning really shines. Emergent Learning is literally about learning that emerges from tackling the real-world challenges in your day-to-day work — how to make thinking visible to each other and test it out, then bring what you learn back to your colleagues to help refine your shared thinking, and so on. It’s especially valuable when you can’t take your assumptions for granted.

My partners and I have spent a lot of years of research and practice in environments full of right-angle turns, in both the corporate sector and the social sector. We’ve also been long-time students of research into how complex systems adapt. The confluence of these has led us to advocate that, if you really want to adapt as quickly as possible, you need two things:  1) really strong line of sight, so that everyone knows what success would look like, and, at the same time — and this is important — 2) to make sure that everyone has as much freedom to experiment as humanly possible. It’s not a time for putting all of your eggs into a single strategy. Times like these in particular call on the wisdom of all of us — to stay the course in terms of your big goals and, at the same time, to be very deliberate about experimenting with new moves.

This also means is that it’s not a time to defer to a single source of expertise. In a complex environment, no one person holds enough perspective to be able to come up with a complete solution on their own. It really does “take a village.” At 4QP, we talk about the importance of seeing each other as ‘experts in equal measure.’ That it is about all of us, ideally including your grantees and partners, learning our way through these potentially challenging times together. This is hard to do, but essential in an unpredictable environment like the one we are facing in 2017.

It also means that our normal cycles for strategy, for grantmaking, for evaluation, are far too long to be useful in complex environments. I wrote a research report a few years ago, “A Compass in the Woods” that described this problem. Like ants looking for food, we need to be rubbing our antennae together a lot more often.

May you succeed in turning the unknowns that lie ahead into truly transformative opportunities to make a difference in the lives of the people you serve.

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