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Getting Uncomfortable with Creative Tension

It’s been a few weeks since the ATD conference in Denver, and I’ve had a chance to reflect on the flood of new information and ideas that ensued. For me, the overriding refrain from the conference was “creative tension.”

Ann Herrmann-Nehdi best described it in her session when she said we’re now in the era of “and,” which she described as “moving in both directions at the same time.” It requires a significant shift from either/or thinking to both/and thinking. Imagine a rubber band being pulled in two directions at once. If you pull too much, the band will snap, and if you don’t pull enough, it will collapse.

This “and” concept refers to these current times as one of predictability and instability, reflection and action, freedom and structure. In order to respond to this VUCA world (that was a new term to me—it means “volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous”), L+D professionals need to be agile thinkers and in turn, help others to become more agile. ASAP.

ATD president and CEO Tony Bingham emphasized the shortage of skilled workers as a threat to corporate growth and the urgent need to accelerate the employee development process. “To do that, we’re going to need to adapt,” said Bingham. He emphasized the importance of delivering learning to the new generation joining the workforce—the Millennials—in a way that they are most receptive. This generation wants to learn on-the-spot, when they need it. This means on their ever-present mobile devices. As one Millennial described it, “I want to learn just in time, not just in case.”

John Kao’s keynote on Tuesday continued the theme of both/and thinking. Kao illustrated his points about innovation by tickling the ivories, demonstrating how Jazz is a creative tension between structure and freedom. Innovation, he said, is also the intersection between creativity (freedom) and rules (structure). Jazz musicians also jam with one another, and their diversity of styles is their strength. Kao also illustrated this point with the four main cast members of Star Trek and the MBTI, stressing that the diversity of thinking styles kept the Enterprise going.

So what does all of this mean for L+D professionals? It means we all need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Laugh in the face of ambiguity. And, as Ann Herrmann-Nehdi said, “Focus on where you want to be and let go of how you get there.”

Herrmann-Nehdi had some tips on how to adjust to this new world of agile thinking:

  • Focus on where you want to be and let go of how you get there.
  • Use humor as a way to cope with ambiguity and tension.
  • Learn how to manage your own mental processes.
  • Create a “stop doing” list. (Also suggested by Monday keynote speaker Jim Collins.)
  • And lastly, allow yourself to get uncomfortable.

So, here’s to getting uncomfortable in this brave, new VUCA world.