In my last post, I talked about The Zone, that place where dysfunctional symptoms form and begin to have an adverse impact on productivity, quality, and safety. This is where an organization can learn to operate in a “contained slide”—functioning just short of losing full control, yet able to squeeze the optimum speed and agility from its reservoir of adaptation resources.

Competitive ice skaters must contend with pushing the limits of their speed when going around corners as well as the traction that occurs between the blade on their skate and the surface of the ice. There is an optimum point when pressing this boundary that produces what can best be described as a contained slide. This is when skaters rely on their abilities to read the subtle information gained from their senses and experience to accelerate or slow down so they only briefly lose their balance (chaos), but then quickly regain it (order). Just as the speed begins to exceed a skater’s ability to regulate further action, he or she backs off enough to reestablish control, and then presses on faster again.

To accomplish the maximum speed while maintaining balance, the skater will suffer some downside. The act of sliding means being slightly out of control, however briefly, which lowers efficiency and effectiveness to some degree. In addition, the risk of a minute miscalculation or momentary loss of concentration can produce a disastrous fall. The only way the skater can invest all his or her strength without irretrievably losing control is to find and stay within this elusive, but essential, contained slide.

The loss of productivity, quality, and safety at mid and high levels of future shock are simply too costly to justify. At the lower end of the future shock continuum, however, there exists a still dangerous, but nonetheless potentially beneficial, amount of dysfunction. At this point, there is an “acceptable” amount of dysfunction—some loss of control, but not too much, and not for very long. Any dysfunction is costly, but this level is tolerable because of the speed and agility achieved. Functioning in a contained slide makes it possible to push the edge of an organization’s adaptation envelope—the amount of disruption people can absorb before displaying unacceptable levels of dysfunctional behavior.

During the early unfolding of future shock symptoms, certain problems should be endured in order to amplify adaptation capacity. Leaders who seek the elasticity of a nimble operation know that, as risky as high levels of change are for an organization, they must flirt with the rim of chaos if they are to keep the organization competitive. With tenacity and thick skin, they must push themselves and the people around them to ever-advancing thresholds of adaptation by surfing the zone between order and chaos.

Push Past Comfort but Stop Short of Destruction

Leaders of nimble companies are always pushing their organizations beyond previous change boundaries, but only after taking some action to extend these limits (e.g., hiring more resilient people; better preparing current employees; eliminating peripheral, less critical initiatives that drain adaptation resources; getting ready to turn the inevitable resistance that surfaces during major change projects in an implementation). Regardless of the nature of their actions, before they press the adaptation envelope, these leaders enhance their organization’s ability to cope. In doing so, they establish the groundwork for attempting more change than has been absorbed in the past.

Leaders striving for a nimble status know that the only way to test the results of their efforts to increase change capacity is to cautiously but decisively thrust the system past its previous benchmark and into uncharted waters. Just as some losses are incurred with any investment strategy and a certain number of failures result from innovative solutions, the price for increasing nimbleness is always some level of future shock dysfunction. If the future shock jolt is too great, the current project will fail to meet its objectives, and the damage done to the organization’s absorption mechanisms will reduce the likelihood of success with future change initiatives.

On the other hand, if the boundaries of change are not seriously challenged on an ongoing basis, the organization will be unable to keep pace with the accelerating magnitude of the transition demands being imposed by a competitive market. Leaders must keep their organization in a never-ending contained slide, always pushing the limits of the adaptation envelope without losing control and falling into full chaos. This calls for inoculating companies with just the right amount of future shock to prevent a more lethal case of adaptation deficiency than they can survive…pushing just slightly past the point where people begin to display early signs of dysfunctional behavior.

Next: The Characteristics of Nimble Execution

Go to the beginning of this series.