Riding the waves of a disruptive world

Dawna Jones is author of Decision Making for Dummies and an organisational and decision designer specialising in dealing with VUCA problems in organisations (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous). In particular Dawna leads “From Insight to Action”, helping individuals, teams and organisations escape from tramline thinking that can become embedded into business cultures.

We engaged in a dialogue on a range of subjects related to a VUCA business world in this podcast – Listen via Management Issues. The main topics we covered included:

1. How the VUCA environment demands structured improvisation as a core leadership capability. We may learn very effectively about improvisation through the study of improvisation in music such as in jazz. I typify the VUCA environment through my use of the term “wicked problems” which strategically speaking are ones where there is extreme uncertainty and volatility over both “ends” and “means”:

2. Some parallels between music and business : How dissonance in music relates to cognitive dissonance in business; whereas dissonance in music can be used for dramatic effect, cognitive dissonance in business can have a very high cost. Gerry Johnson’s model explains the costly effects of dissonance in business and a good case in point was Pfizer’s inability to detect the problems inherent in their “Exubera” inhalable insulin device, a mistake, which cost them a cool $2.8 billion. At the heart of this example is a failure of speaking truth to power.


3. How failure informs innovation success, including how the music artist Prince profited from mistakes and the mistake Richard Branson made when moving into the US market, competing against Coca-Cola. The story of Virgin Coke is covered more fully in Leading Innovation, Creativity and Enterprise and discussed in the interview.
4. How organizational structure can help or hinder innovation. Why we need to look towards biological models to help us design structures that encourage human beings to give their best performances and what can we learn from bee colonies in this respect.
5. Why constraints can help with innovation and creativity and why too many KPI’s can block progress. Conventional wisdom suggests that creativity should be unconstrained, but experience shows that some constraints restrict the area for “open search” when looking for solutions to “wicked problems”. When working with various companies on strategic retreats to tackle wicked problems I always ask the decision maker to specify any “real constraints” up front which a solution must meet. Without these known in advance, divergent thinking can be, at best, wasteful, at worst, completely unproductive in finding viable ways forward.

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