In my last post, I described nimble organizations as those with a sustained ability to quickly and effectively respond to the demands of change while delivering high performance. Constrained organizations, on the other hand, constantly inhibit their own efforts to implement change.

Today, clients struggle with perpetual unrest and ongoing change, and there is no terrain without vulnerability—only greater or lesser risk and liability. Constrained organizations see themselves as having to choose between two hazards: non-competitive order or hyper-unstable chaos. They fear that if they under-use their adaptation capacity, they won’t be able to keep pace with market demands that are growing increasingly dynamic and competitive. Yet, if they thrust more change on their people than they can effectively absorb, they end up with watered-down results, causing morale to suffer and people to lose confidence in leadership.

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Nimble organizations have a different perspective on the same two forces. They believe that between bedlam and calm resides a narrow realm where agility can be fostered. At the point where order and chaos most closely resemble one another, there exists the greatest possibility for broadening human capacity to adapt to instability and uncertainty.

Future shock happens when people can no longer adapt to the change load without beginning to slip on quality, productivity, and safety standards. Paradoxically, where future shock resides is also where nimbleness thrives. It is here, as future shock symptoms are only beginning to cause problems, that optimum agility can be attained before the cost of change overload becomes too great.

Nimbleness Resides Between Order and Chaos

As dangerous as future shock is, leaders of nimble organizations intentionally use it to help foster the agility they prize so highly. But how can something dysfunctional by nature be such an asset? To grasp the apparent contradiction of deliberately thrusting more change on people than they can deal with, it’s important to understand more about the struggle between order and chaos.

Order and chaos are competing forces caught in a synergistic dance. Each force represents a separate and powerful influence that acts to balance the impact of the other. The choreography between them reveals that they are counterweights to each other and inextricably bound together. Isn’t it fascinating that the nimble organization lives in the eye of such a storm?

For most organizations, the chaos of too much change doesn’t cause an immediate, noticeable explosion of symptoms. Future shock usually surfaces gradually. It is this progressive aspect of chaos that allows it to have an enabling relationship to nimbleness.

Any amount of future shock is dangerous, but in the formative phase, there also exists the potential for a great deal of flexibility. It is at this early stage of future shock that an optimum amount of agility can be attained before the cost of dysfunction becomes too great. Initial future shock precedes full-scale chaos and creates an environment where nimbleness can emerge.

Think of emerging future shock as if it were a potentially dangerous medical treatment that, if administered properly, could become a lifesaving remedy (e.g., radioactive material used to fight cancer; Warfarin, used to kill rats, given in small doses to humans as a blood thinner; polio and measles viruses introduced in small amounts to provide disease resistance).

If calibrated appropriately, certain adversities can be used to promote opportunity. The same can be said for future shock. Even in moderate doses, it can cause insurmountable blockage to an organization’s competitiveness, if not its viability. Yet, a lighter measure of too much change allows an organization to stretch its ability to adapt; the price for doing so does not exceed the gains achieved.

Next: The Contained Slide

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