I’ve been working with a lot of clients lately who all seem to be in a similar space. Work is just crazy, and won’t let up. It’s not merely ‘busy’ – it’s something more. It’s not just a volume problem, it’s a complexity problem, and navigating a way forward is harder than ever. As someone said “all the easy problems have already been solved. Now we’ve got to solve problems that we’ve never faced before.”

Sound familiar?

This state is what I call the ‘boiling point’.

Think of water. Before the heat’s on, water will quite happily just sit there, maybe moving around a bit, but essentially unchanging. When you put the heat on, you get movement. If you’re a liquid water molecule that enjoys the relative stability of being ‘water’, you’ll get uncomfortable as things heat up. Maybe you hope that everything will to go back to ‘normal’. Except the heat’s not letting up. It’s around 99 degrees now. What to do?

Of course, what happens is that water transitions to steam. It’s still water, but with new qualities.

I see a lot of leaders in systems that are nearing boiling point. And they’re mostly operating with ‘liquid water molecule’ mentalities – ways of making sense of the world that work in relatively stable times, but not so effective when things are approaching boiling point. A new way of thinking is needed.

So how do we create that? Here’s what I find works for people:

  • The first step is to name the assumptions and beliefs you use to make sense of the world. For example, you might assume “to be a respected leader, I need to have all the answers.” Of course, this assumption can both help and hinder you.
  • Second, ask yourself how well is that assumption serving you? If you assume you need to have the answers, a downside could be that you constantly have a line of people, and a pile of emails, waiting for you to provide people with the answer. How well is that assumption serving you?
  • Third, try on some new beliefs and assumptions for size. For example, “If I give other people the opportunity to take responsibility to come up with their own ideas, we’ll get better solutions.” Make it an experiment. Test it out for a couple of weeks. What difference does it make?

You don’t know until you try. It’s this ‘probe – sense – respond’ approach that we need to adopt if we’re to make sense of, and navigate through, the complexity we face.

Buckminster Fuller said “If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don’t bother trying to teach them. Instead, give them a tool, the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking.”

So, here’s a useful tool that I use with my clients to help identify their assumptions that might hold them back. It’s called ‘Immunity to Change’, developed by adult development thought leaders Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey. Try it out and see what happens.


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