Blog > The future belongs to those who can be flexible and adaptable

April 7, 2012

A special Insight report in the weekend paper is about the future of a baby born in Australia this year. Here’s what caught my eye.

“If current trends are anything to go by, today’s babies will inhabit a world in which flexibility and adaptability will be key. Their life trajectories will be whorls of activity spinning off into periods of retraining and reinvention. Their education will be interactive, ongoing, and probably much more fun than yours.

I’d argue that flexibility and adaptability are important right now.

Also in the weekend paper, is an opinion piece by Garry Lyon, a former professional Australian Rules Football player.

“I couldn’t help but think last weekend how important it is for football clubs, and their coaches, to have the ability to improvise, and be flexible in their planning as they embark on season 2012…I hope the spirit of improvisation catches on during matches…What we do know is that football constantly surprises, throwing up new challenges at every turn. The ability to improvise has never been more important.”

This talk of the need for flexibility, or agility as it’s sometimes called, adaptability and improvisation are all very well, but how do we develop these capacities?

We all improvise – life is an improvisation, as it comes with no user’s manual. We seem to be happy to improvise the small parts of our lives – or maybe it’s that we simply don’t recognize that we’re improvising. Yet when it comes to our work, improvisation is seen as something akin to recklessness.

It is possible though to learn to improvise more and to bring this to all of the facets of our lives. Even those in the most controlled professions can improvise within  constraints. Improvisation is not a synonym of anarchy or chaos. It exists within boundaries.

In many ways I’m not surprised when a group of capable, talented, professional people, when asked if they improvise, shake their heads. “I’m not an improviser,” they declare. “It’s not for me.” Jazz musicians, and comedy improvisors are probably what come to people’s minds when asked if they improvise. They probably think of improvisation as something performers do on a stage in front of an audience. Any wonder that most of us would say no to that.

Even these ‘professional’ improvisors practice relentlessly to build their capacity to improvise.

When watching a group of people improvising on the stage, here’s what I see: a high-performing team, seamlessly working with each other, each with a specific, if changeable, function, working towards the successful completion of a specified task, sometimes making mistakes that might give them pause, but rarely stop them in their tracks.

Sound familiar? In its various forms, this is how teamwork is often described to me in businesses and organisations. It’s how people wished their teams were.

Taking a group of people for an away day or two or even three or more, or suggesting they attend a training course to learn how to improve their teamwork is ludicrous.

Would you send a child to a camp to learn how to play the piano, expecting that when they return from a few days away they would be transformed into a pianist? Would you take yourself to a retreat to learn new habits expecting to be a changed person on your return?

You might return with a new perspective, new information, insights and inspiration. You might even return with a set of skills to practice and hone and develop.

And this is the point.

We never learn anything new without practice. I’ve already written about this here.

Building our capacities to be flexible, to be more comfortable with uncertainty, to trust our abilities to adapt, and to see the possibilities around us, don’t always come easily as we struggle to shed the legacy of an era of order, control and predictability. We need to be exposed to being flexible and adaptable, we need to learn the foundations of improvising, and we need to practice.

Just as a footballer will practice in the gym to build strength, and run to build stamina, we need to train to be more spontaneous. If we want to be more flexible and adaptable and able to respond when we don’t know what to do, we need to practice so as those skills become second nature.

These ideas fascinate and excite me. And I’m looking for others who are share an interest in how to develop our capacities to thrive in an uncertain future. I don’t think there’s any easy answers, no magic bullets, no next ‘big thing’. But I do believe there’s lots of new territory to explore, new skills to learn, ideas to share and connections to make. If you are also fascinated by these ideas, you might be interested in this.

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