Shift from dealing with “constant change” to accepting “flux” as a normal state

“When businesspeople search for the right forecast—the road map and model that will define the next era—no credible long-term picture emerges. There is one certainty, however. The next decade or two will be defined more by fluidity than by any new, settled paradigm; if there is a pattern to all this, it is that there is no pattern. The most valuable insight is that we are, in a critical sense, in a time of chaos.”

Robert Safian, 2012 (Fast Company)

melinda flux waveOne of the defining features of our current reality and the future we’re stepping into is change: constant, fast, accelerating, disruptive, often chaotic change. Multiple interacting forces – mostly beyond our control – are at play to create this state of change: social, economic, demographic, technological, political, and climate.

This change poses a major challenge as we move into the future – from the individual level through to organizations to society to the whole globe. Dealing with such extreme change is not easy, as we’ve all experienced personally and witnessed second-hand. The refugee crisis sparked by the Syrian war and the struggle for individuals, organizations and countries around the world to deal with the fall-out of this crisis a good case in point. And yet, there is little doubt that thriving in the future will depend to a significant extent on our ability to adapt fast enough to the ongoing and sometimes dramatic changes in our context.

But is the way we think about change helping or hindering us with this adaptive challenge? As I’ve been thinking about this and having conversations with clients and colleagues about our experience of and stories about change, I’ve been starting to wonder to what extent our use of the word “change” might actually be hindering this adaptation. We tend to think of “change” as something to deal with, to manage so that we get through it to “the other end”.  And what do we expect to be there? At some level I believe we expect “not change”. Of course, the reality increasingly is that after one change there is just another change followed by yet another change. The problem, as I started to see, is that the undertone when we talk about “change” is always the idea that change is the deviation from a somewhat desired baseline of stability – maybe punctuated by a change here and there. We’re thinking of change as ideally like a series of beads on a string – but with lots of string of stability between the beads. In reality, what we have is just one bead piled on top of another, with little or no open string in between.

Maybe then our use of the word “change” might help create part of our anxiety about the future, leaving us frustrated when we experience change after change with little to no string of stability in between. In short, thinking “change” might leave us stuck in a mindset that is not particularly helpful as we move into the future.

So I’ve started to experiment a few years ago with shifting away from talking about dealing with change to talking about accepting that we’re living in a flux world. “Flux” essentially means “constant change”; yet, somehow, the word evokes something different in us than the word “change”. I continue to be surprised by the sense of relief, even acceptance, that people experience when they think about their world as a flux world. Making sense of our experience in terms of flux seems to evoke a different story about what’s happening – and words like “fluid”, “flow”, flexibility”  often come forward in the conversation.

It’s as if we’ve been standing on a rock pounded by waves, desperately bracing to retain our footing as wave after wave comes at us, leaving us with no time to rest or even breathe between waves. And then we realise that we could let go and float along with the movement of the water, that this might in fact be the smarter, saner option.

As with all metaphors, this idea of letting go of clinging to the rock and letting ourselves float through our flux world is not perfect.  But it does seem to spark some mindset shift that allows us to engage differently with the reality of change.

Once I started to use the “flux” word, I came across the word and concept in other contexts.  Maybe the most interesting to consider is Robert Safian’s thinking about what he calls “generation flux” – a group (non-chronologically defined) that have the attitudes and skills to help them thrive in our fast changing, chaotic world. You can read more about “generation flux” here – also check out this video of Safian talk about his ideas (We will come back later to the defining characteristic of generation flux.)

[I also learned that the Dutch are using the idea of “accepting flux” to deal with the impact of rising water levels due to climate change:  houses designed to float and shift along with the water level. Certainly an interesting contrast to attempts to build defenses against rising sea levels.]

My invitation to you is to experiment with shifting from thinking and talking about dealing with constant change to thinking and talking about living in a flux world. Then notice the impact of that shift in language. How does it change the way you feel about the future? What different images does it evoke in you? How does it change your thinking, the stories you tell yourself about change ahead?

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