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From Chaos to Clarity of Purpose

January 19, 2020

Do you like a world that’s orderly, where at work you know what’s about to hit you–basically a predictable environment?

Or do prefer the unknown, never quite sure what each day will bring, and not just at work but your personal and family time?

Older folks will remember the comedy show Bob Newhart. In one episode Bob and his wife, Joanne, are going to take an impromptu vacation. Joanne discovers Bob secretly planning the trip in the middle of the night. Your faithful correspondent also pleads guilty! My wife, Sue, of 43 years is far more spontaneous, like Joanne Newhart.

On a serious note, especially as it relates to how we react to unforeseen and largely anticipated events, the ability to become change agents is one of the greatest competencies each of us can development.

This is important stuff. Why?

For example, Gen Y (23-38 years of age) have been hammered due to constant corporate downsizing, offshoring to countries that are hungry to succeed, and technology advancements in communication and production. Older workers have faced the same, though in a different context. The one common skill you can develop and continually strengthen is that of being open to change and not attached to a particular outcome.

British management thinker Charles Handy talked many years ago of “Discontinuous Change,” that change happens in unpredictable bursts. Others since then, including author Nicholas Taleb approached the topic from another angle, using the Black Swan metaphor. However, Handy is down to earth in explaining how to deal with relentless, unpredictable change.

Let’s face it, organizations are messy beasts. They’re constantly evolving to the latest management fad or the new CEO’s vision of the future. It doesn’t matter whether the CEO or president has it right; he or she probably doesn’t. If you work in the public or non-profit sectors, the same applies. As an employee, be prepared for things to go off the rails. Be ready for the “We weren’t planning for that event” response from senior management. Or the whoops moment due to taking one’s eye off the ball.

 In contrast to conventional thinking, working in a volatile environment can be both exciting and mentally stimulating, the latter providing resume-building experience. Younger generations are encouraged to not follow the Baby Boomer risk-averse approach to careers. Indeed, more young people are creating their own businesses compared to Gen X and especially Baby Boomers.

The evolving and often messy management structures in which people often work, typically masquerading for participative leadership, are a turn-off to the human condition. Yet we keep coming back for more. Boomers (the youngest of whom are now 53) linger in the labour force for a variety of reasons, including financial and an ingrained sense of needing to be wanted. Gen X (39-52) is steadily working its way up a management ladder created a century ago, one reinforced by Baby Boomers who obediently followed their parents. Gen X just wants Boomers to retire and to get out of the way. Please!

Gen Y was devastated by the 2008-09 Great Recession and financial meltdown, and has been trying to figure out where it sits in a world of upheaval and mounting global competition. All the while they’re dealing with massive student loan debts and insane housing costs. This was not the storyline to which they subscribed.

As Rafael Gomez, associate professor of employment relations at the University of Toronto, puts it bluntly: “It just took that final knockout punch of the Great Recession to tilt everything away from easy progression up the socio-economic ladder for new labour market entrants or for someone who had lost a job in a displaced industry.”

As citizens in democratic countries, we tend to lose sight of how messy democracy can be. Yet it produces longer-term sustainable outcomes embraced by citizens. And the same applies to the private sector. The alternative is either a complete state-run economy, of which that story had a very bad ending (eg, former Soviet Union), or what some have called (politely) state-run capitalism in China, a country that is rapidly becoming a surveillance state of strengthened totalitarianism.

The beauty of un-predetermined results is the concept of being open to outcome, and which is accompanied by quickly adapting to the change. And from this will emerge the true purpose.

Don’t let the past stand in the way of your future.
– Charles Handy

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