Constant Disruption: Continuous Adaptation

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Constant Disruption: Continuous Adaptation

Big environmental problems from every direction are hemming in high consumption economies and societies. We tend to nod in agreement before going on with the activities that consume our lives: messages to answer and mortgages to pay.

But the flip side of economic growth and development is that it encroaches on all other forms of life, plus inert resources in the ground. We can’t do that much longer. We have to stop neglecting the systems on which all earthly life depends, but we don’t know how without stopping our economic party, so we keep looking for magic that will let us save nature and save our high-consumption ways of life at the same time.

This strategy is not working. We know it’s not working. Force of habit and big system inertia keeps most of us doing what we’re doing. Transforming into totally different systems and ways of thinking is possibly humanity’s supreme challenge of all time. Savvy betters are selling short our ability to adapt and are buying long on disaster, wagering that only a savage remnant of humanity will survive the 21st century because people can’t change that much quickly enough.

Nafeez Ahmed and E.O. Wilson summarize our predicament and issue dire warnings from different perspectives. They howl that it’s time to close the bar, but transforming to a totally different way of existence is so unimaginable that we prefer to have a few more drinks and stay in our stupor. How do we stop the party and cure our hangovers?

To be effective, this transformation must be civilization wide, but it has started in only a few places. Most of us barely notice ongoing experiments with minimal consumption, local economies, and recycling. If we do, they make no sense to us.

The primary transformation has to be of us: our habits, values, and mental models. We have to do that to transform the processes by which we live, and which constitute what we now call economies. We might borrow from a few of the very best lean “transformations,” which develop people through their learning to improve processes. However, civilization wide transformation is a much bigger deal than development inside a company.

Suppose we had a mushy social objective of living well, while reducing consumption of fossil energy and raw minerals by 80%. Impossible you say. Maybe not, but it drastically conflicts with the deeply embedded paradigm of endless growth. Actually pulling that off will be major league transformation.

First we have to appreciate the scope of the problems. We are culturally conditioned to concentrate on narrow objectives: win the game; grow the business. To do that, we want to be efficient. Operating businesses specialize in “core competencies.” Many hone them though Continuous Improvement, widely practiced in work organizations under various banners: total quality, lean operations, customer intimacy, and so on. But Continuous Improvement presumes defining a targeted future state (or performance measures) to set a direction. Attaining an imagined ideal state is impossible, but we know whether we are winning or losing. Given our mindsets, without this people don’t know what to do. In management speak, the organization isn’t “aligned.”

A transition goes from one state to a defined end state, like when implementing new software. You are “there” when it is debugged, operational, and everyone is skilled using it.

A transformation may be a series of transitions, progressing from one target to the next. Continuous Improvement is more like this: an endless journey until something like a new product ends the journey and another begins. A related type of human transformation is military basic training. The trainee becomes a different person – at least for military purposes – by immersion 24/7 in military basics.

Continuous Adaptation implies versatility reacting to surprises and anticipating changes that have detectable forewarning patterns. Targets, if any are set, keep changing as the environmental milieu changes. This ability has been termed shape-shifting and other buzz phrases. In nature Continuous Adaptation is evolution, the interplay of all organisms feeding on each other and perturbing each other. Evolution may be fast or slow, but mankind pushes its limits. If individual species go extinct faster than new ones can evolve, the natural system – all life – runs down, its heat dissipating into entropy.

We can’t disrupt nature faster than it can adapt to us, lest we dissipate our own food supply. That’s a simple idea, but it does not fit our mindsets of eternal progress favoring humans.

Continuous Adaptation Mindsets

To get into Continuous Adaptation, we need to break at least three habitual thinking patterns of transactional industrial society.

  1. Human-centered thinking is that everything is here for our taking with no consequences. Much innovation in business and elsewhere is motivated by increasing convenience, expanding human capabilities, or creating more adventurous human experiences. All of these consume resources, and we are seeing consequences.

An extreme example is that driverless vehicles are expected to generate about 100 gigabytes of data per second. All driverless vehicles on the road would amass 5,800 exabytes of data a year. If all of it was packed in Amazon tractor-trailer mobile data centers, they could form a convoy 11,000 miles long. Even Big Data gobbles enormous amounts of energy and disrupts big swaths of nature.

  1. Narrowness of vision and focused thinking patterns blind us to connections and relationships. We can become much better systemic thinkers, but we are bandwidth limited. We can’t know everything and make all connections. Tunnel vision narrowness, called linear thinking, is the source of daily problems in human organizations.

For example, companies struggle internally to work across functional silos. In academia, “gothic spires” of deep specialties don’t communicate. Business competitiveness narrows vision. We sit on intellectual capital, trade secrets, and competitive strategy, while market promotion of thousands of narrow visions drowns us in messages, ads, and infomercials. We swim in this stuff, unable to find a “wisdom lifeboat” in which we can integrate what it means. Too few forces in the commercial world promote collaboration on broader concerns, like environmental crises. Once aware of this, you realize how collective narrowness is sweeping us away to oblivion.

  1. Short-term thinking is endemic. Wall Street quarterly earnings reports are the usual business example, but even basic compound interest projections stunt long-term thinking. In a transactional society inquiry tends stop at a transactional boundary. For example, how many consumers ask where their shoes came from? And businesses prefer to sell and forget; no long-term commitments, no unending responsibility. Obviously, when long-term consequences are serious, we have to overcome this.

What to Do

Everybody can educate themselves, but that’s far from taking collective action. If they point toward Continuous Adaptation, companies and other work organizations can migrate toward being Vigorous Learning Organizations. Those become more mission driven than profit driven, and much more flexible – adaptive. If you are deep into lean thinking, imagine what that could do. Many of the conflicts between ownership and other stakeholders begin to melt away. Who puts up the money (capital), and who gets the most money fades into secondary consideration.

Start by developing ourselves as individuals and by developing our organization to meet challenges outside the historical objectives of business.

Then we must address the issues. The most serious ones should not be deferred any longer. To get into Continuous Adaptation, Compression Thinking (always subject to revision by experience) is a guide. Intent has to translate to action, and no more than practicing the Precautionary Principle makes a big difference. Stop creating new problems for nature and let it start regenerating.

Such actions put effectiveness before efficiency. Attach your company to a community. A community wants to survive. It’s not intended to be efficient except in conservation of resources. (Explain an efficient children’s playground.) Companies supply efficient projects that promote effectiveness and conserve resources.

Effectiveness is long-term survival of all life, letting humans enjoy quality of life without flagrant consumption. This huge shift in mindset will be continuously adapting.

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