Calling for Resilience: Skills and capacity preparedness for increasingly uncertain times

Floris van der Marel, Pauliina Mattila, Tiina Tuulos 

Developing Purposeful Innovation Fitness

Throughout this course we have received a wealth of knowledge and information from the crisis domain, inspiring us to think about our design innovation context. In particular, we were interested in translating our learnings around crisis into something practical for professionals. We decided therefore to develop a toolkit enhancing professionals’ capabilities to navigate challenges and uncertain situations, which we called ‘purposeful innovation fitness’. We have done two experiments with toolkits and captured insights that we gained from those experiments. 

In the following blog post, we will share our thinking and actions that have led us to where we are now. Additionally, we will put forth our current plans moving forward. We invite everybody to engage with us, by asking questions, critiquing our thinking, and adding any other comments, to continuously challenge each other and improve our work.

Crises Catalyse Change

The COVID-19 pandemic has been the context of this course, the trigger to rethink how we do things and the reasons behind our actions. It has catalysed a reflective process to improve our practice, not just for times of crisis, but for skills that are universally beneficial, that also come in handy during any other change or disruption. This is important because change will more often happen more suddenly, with local events – from disasters to discoveries – having an unforeseen global impact. Being better prepared for unknown futures is therefore increasingly important.

Crises and disruptions we see as opportunities for transformation. That is because during a crisis, the status quo is no longer valid, and everything that we thought could never be changed, suddenly can. Behaviour change theory teaches us that to shift your habits, the first step is to unfreeze current behaviour, then change it, and then refreeze it. In times of crisis, the first step has been done for you – your current behaviour, your skills and tools to deal with the world, are no longer adequate. Our aim is thus to support people with tools and skills that work especially when everything changes, to contribute to people’s resilience and so that they can push for meaningful transformations. 

Calling a crisis a context for innovation or doing things differently, does require conscious thought. Ilpo Kiiskinen, the Communications Director at the Finnish Red Cross, shared an important perspective and pointed out how education carries a high responsibility. In crisis situations, first respondents focus on saving lives through exploiting existing workflows and agreed processes. Doing something different in the middle of a crisis in the types of situations Red Cross is involved with, could carry catastrophic outcomes. People are often ready to take risks in other contexts and find ways to innovate and come up with new things inspired by the context and their previous experiences. For the Red Cross, everything has been explicitly designed to work in a crisis context, and the types of tools are universally beneficial due to the international, responsive nature of the organisation. Thus when something adverse happens, they already have the ways of working in place to act accordingly and navigate out of the crisis. They can still continue operating, and come out of a crisis situation faster. 

The context where Red Cross operates and the types of crises they encounter might not be similar to what professionals in other industries are faced with. However, we believe that ultimately the mindset and capability for preparedness to face uncertainty are equally important in all areas. Therefore, we focus on improving capability in organisations so that professionals can be creative, resilient with high levels of self-determination and agency while acknowledging their own responsibility for creating a sustainable, more socially just world. 

In our approach to this point in our project, we have designed has two main elements. The first element is supporting people to flip challenges they are facing into actionable opportunities. This enhances people’s resilience. The second element aims at pushing for meaningful innovation. By making our responses meaningful, aligned with purpose and values, the chance is higher people stay motivated and energised as they navigate ambiguity and uncertain times. Indeed, crises are excellent opportunities to make our professional environments more environmentally sustainable, more socially just, more equal. These elements combined enhance people’s purposeful innovation fitness. 

Ambiguous Futures: Scary or Promising?

We start by taking a closer look at what we understand a crisis to be. We see a crisis as a perception of a situation that causes some level of imbalance or turmoil rendering regular toolkits and ways of problem-solving useless. Simultaneously, we agree with Tedeschi (2020:128), that crises can provide an opportunity for transformation and ”usher in change that will be of value”. While navigating the crisis, opportunities present themselves to go beyond surviving and transform the world into a better one compared to before the crisis. Indeed, ambiguous futures are not necessarily worse than expected and predictable futures, as the old normal had numerous errors that can now be challenged.

This is where purpose and value-driven change comes into play. One of our main insights from the presentations and conversations during the course was that we need to not only be better prepared for unknown futures as a result of crises but embrace that the futures we’re heading towards are equally unknown, thus are free to be imagined in traditionally labelled ‘idealistic’ ways. Indeed, “crises lead many people to find deep value in their jobs, develop professionally, and grow personally” (Martela & Kent 2020:para 1).

Image taken from The Global Risks Report 2019, The Global Risks Landscape 2019 (World Economic Forum 2019:5)

As can be seen in the above figure, there are several risks to our economies that can be identified. The increasing number of global risks increase the uncertainty and anxiety we might be feeling and the human aspects of global risks should not be ignored (World Economic Forum 2019). Risks can be managed and better coped with as we can “calculate the probability of particular outcomes, because we have seen many similar situations before” (Scoblic 2020:40). However, in uncertainty we struggle to even identify possible outcomes and as the new situations cannot be compared with our previous experiences (Scoblic 2020). As a result, we are seeing globally an increased amount of mental health problems and psychological stress as we feel “lack of control in the face of uncertainty” (World Economic Forum 2019:7).

Thus, as uncertainties prevail, risks continuously threaten our societies and organisations, calling for better preparedness. The key question is, 

‘What might be skills and capabilities that are universally beneficial during change and disruption, but also in times of balance?’

Experimenting with a Design-Driven Direction

Having experience coaching in the design innovation space, we explored ways to navigate ambiguity inspired by design approaches. There were several criteria we aimed for in our initial creation. We wanted to combine a variation of tools that firstly supported unpacking challenges and reframing them in certain ways to create change. Secondly, we felt it was important to increase people’s awareness that they can actually come up with solutions that they can advance without being dependent on others, or external factors. And lastly, we wanted the outcomes to be very action-oriented, immediately applicable. So our creation combines unpacking challenges and flipping into opportunities. 

We designed this as a short workshop, inspired by Martela and Kent (2020), who noted there is an interplay between goal setting, and acting and learning, where goals guide actions, but learning from actions guides goal setting. This is something we integrated into our experiments.

“We assume that our goals determine our actions. But the reverse is also true. Our small actions generate feedback that allows us to discover more meaningful goals.” (Martela and Kent 2020:para 6)

We have done two experiments with our aforementioned mission in mind. By no means are these the only options out there but this was our starting point to begin to learn and improve. Both experiments we designed to be conducted virtually. We’ve had the opportunity to conduct the first one, ‘From Challenges to Opportunities’, within this course and with others in our professional context. The second one, ‘From Vision to Action’, we experimented once with a leadership executive cohort. 

Transformational Learning for Agency

The approach we took was strongly influenced by our belief that these kinds of interventions, being workshops or training sessions, are not the final destination. To us, they are just the beginning of an opportunity to learn. We firmly believe the future of work is learning, where upskilling and reskilling people is the norm. One tricky aspect about this is that many professional environments lack appreciation of what you have learned – the results are what count. However, transformational learning doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and practice before the results start showing. 

“Transformational learning rarely builds up so smoothly. It does not just make us more knowledgeable. It reveals what mastery prevents us from knowing. It does not just refine our skills. It changes our perspective. And it is not just a matter of time.” (HBR, Gianpiero Petriglieri, 2014)

Indeed, transformational learning is messy, hard, difficult and ambiguous, hard to define where it might lead to and what the outcomes can be. To work towards this future, people benefit from getting support to bring it all together, to make sense of the ambiguity and to uncover opportunities for learning in the messiness. This has little to do with refining skills or learning new tools, it’s about taking a new perspective to something. This is the starting point for our experiments, to give people a new perspective. 

An important component of this new perspective is for people to enhance their agency. Agency can be seen as having the power to act, and we believe the power to be a social construct, continuously negotiated and renegotiated between people. Enhancing agency then is, on one hand, learning new skills, tools and mindsets to change things, but also becoming more aware of one’s existing agency, realising the power they have to do something. This dual understanding of enhancing agency is very much embedded in our approach: to realise existing agency, while expanding it.

“Agency thus involves not only the deliberative ability to make choices and action plans, but the ability to give shape to appropriate courses of action and to motivate and regulate their execution.” (Bandura, 2001: 8)

Additionally, we emphasise that even with little agency, small actions are worth taking. Every small action can result in learning somewhere, can influence somebody’s goal setting, and thus somebody’s actions. A first single action may not have a high impact, but it may trigger yet another small action, and another one, like a domino effect, accumulating to a major shift. Taking small actions is the main aim of our first element.

Trialling Purposeful Innovation Fitness

Element 1: Challenges to Opportunities

We ran our first workshop with this course cohort, using online platforms Zoom and Miro. In short, during this workshop participants unpacked their challenges, took different perspectives using various tools, with outcomes being a set of actions to begin to tackle one of their main challenges. In the following sections, we’ll explain the flow in a bit more detail.

Flow

Screenshot of the Miro board for element 1

Participants had to submit challenges they were facing during this time as a pre-assignment. The first exercise in the workshop was to map those challenges on an axis diagram indicating the level of impact those issues were having on their life, versus how much influence, or agency, the participants had over changing those challenges. The participants then selected a challenge to work on, and did a temperature check, describing their current feelings towards this challenge. As a third exercise, we used the ‘five whys’ method to unpack and identify root causes behind that challenge. This we did, because quite often, what we face as a challenge is only at the surface level, and it is actually easier, or more effective, to try to tackle a deeper, underlying issue. In step four, we invoked a ‘question burst’, where participants brainstormed questions for each others’ challenges to complement their own perspective, looking outside their bubble, and unlocking something new and fresh. And then the following step was to flip their chosen issue into an opportunity inspired by those new, fresh perspectives, and formulate a design challenge. For this design challenge, participants then came up with several solutions and first actions to take towards those solutions. We finished off with another quick temperature check, to see whether people’s feelings towards the issue had changed with this exercise. To wrap up, we asked people to reflect on what they learned about their challenges, what they learned about themselves and what they learned about the process. 

Key insights

In the reflections, the participants shared that identifying and unpacking challenges  increased their agency, that they had much more room to actually do things if they just changed their way of thinking about them. Additionally, people felt that reflecting on their emotions was very helpful in identifying hindrances, and they mentioned that breaking the issue down by digging deeper made planning for action easier. Participants also expressed that bringing in other perspectives, in the form of questions, was surprisingly helpful. A discussion around the digital environment revealed that, although it is usually seen as an obstacle, it might, in this case, have supported nurturing a safe space for authentic collaboration, and participants felt they could share more than they would have face to face. One closing remark from one of our participants was that traditional responses to crisis or disruptions are fight, flight, or fright. She added a fourth one: “figuring it out”, which apparently we had supported with this workshop. 

Key insights element 1. From challenges to opportunities

InsightQuote
Identifying and unpacking challenges increases agency“We have much more room for action than we think, we just need to learn how to switch to a different narrative than the one we’re used to!”
Reflecting on emotions to identify hindrances“My challenge is more about how I feel about it rather than the actual practical issues.”
Breaking things down enables planning for action“I learned to break things down into key issues, values of others, and where I can have agency.”
Questioning supports unlocking new perspectives“I need to seek out others to gain other perspectives on issues.”
The digital environment created a safe space for authentic collaboration“If this was done in-person would it have been as effective or more awkward? I wonder if this online approach is actually better or a hybrid approach would also work?”
From fight, flight or fright to “figuring it out”“We got to talk through how uncertain times are now – it helped even on a personal level to just accept that this new normal will change how we behave and think.”

Element 2: Vision to Action

Based on the insights from the first session, we decided to develop a second session. To compliment the first element, which was around identifying current challenges that you are facing, we wanted to bring another perspective. People’s resilience had been enhanced, with these rapid responses to immediate challenges, now we wanted to add more future-oriented thinking, tapping into people’s sense of purpose, and working towards value-driven action.

We designed another element, which we labelled ‘From Vision to Action’ and incorporated visually distinct features to create a different experience. Whereas the first element was very straightforward, moving visually from left to right, going from challenge to opportunity like a waterfall, the second element was more of an organic flow, encouraging participants to explore and go back and forth between exercises. By doing so we intended to encourage more reflexive practice.

Flow

Screenshot of the Miro board for element 2

We started this session with people choosing one of the avatars of famous people or characters. As this session was done as part of a leadership course, people selected one that resonated with them when thinking of their leadership style. Participants shared this with each other, to break the ice. The avatar served as a way to overcome mental blocks many of us have when trying to describe how we see ourselves. The next two exercises targeted looking into the future, in this case, four years ahead. Participants were told to imagine they had achieved everything they wanted and were spotlighted in a cover story. We challenged them to envision what this cover story might say, what the core messages would be. Then, from these core messages, they could formulate their own leadership purpose statement. Inspired by a traditional ‘empathy map’, we asked participants to think about how other people would perceive them in 2024, using a ‘future self map’. This made the participants imagine a future situation where they have lived up to their values and how that behaviour would manifest, where and with who. A quick temperature check was incorporated here to prompt reflective practice. Once the future vision was mapped, we then flipped into action mode by asking the participants to consider one of the elements in their future vision that resonates with them and think about the steps towards achieving it. Participants filled an ‘action plan’ template with prompting questions about the required actions, resources, possible obstacles and enablers. Finally, the participants were invited to consider their circle of influence to open up their thinking about their agency and power they have to change things, followed by a final temperature check.

Key insights

From participants’ reflections, we could confirm it was easier to connect meaningful actions in the present with the future vision once they had laid out the vision. Mapping the future vision enabled them to articulate their leadership style and embrace it, bringing personal purpose and values to the forefront and making it explicit. Furthermore, there was a lot of discussion on how to be adaptive, yet not to change. Despite staying true to one’s values and being an authentic leader, one must adapt the leadership style to different contexts. The table below outlines the main insights gathered from the reflection. 

Key insights element 2. From vision to action

InsightQuote
Thinking about future vision enables more meaningful actions in the present“To put emphasis on my leadership mindset. Think about who I am and embracing that in my leadership style and making sure I stay authentic and true to myself”
Bringing personal purpose and values to the forefront and making them explicit. 
How to be adaptive, but not changing. Be authentic. 
Design approach gives tools for participants to action on issues or create change. “Reminded me of what I already know, but don’t necessarily action or set time aside to reflect, plan and make changes”
Opportunity to create a stronger connection between vision and actions.“Definitely made me think what kind of leader I want to be in the future”
Recognising what impact you have on other people. We don’t operate in a vacuum. 

Considerations for Future Development

Mastering the Switch

Looking at these both experiments and their outcomes, we can argue that design approaches are useful in times of crisis or turmoil, whether it is to better understand the current environment and challenges or to create clarity around a future direction. Design approaches draw equally from our creative and analytical capabilities, and especially building our creativity enables us to imagine scenarios and opportunities for the future and thus make uncertainty less daunting. Furthermore, design approaches support creating future directions as anchor points, identifying actions towards that and gaining confidence to pursue these. Another important confirmed assumption is that many people can influence much more than they might realise. Lastly, we’d like to emphasize that small things can have a big impact. Even becoming more aware of the words we use to describe our futures, guides us towards different directions and qualities, informing our daily (inter)actions.

We found a common element in future skills being able to ‘master the switch’ (a term coined by Dr. Jon Hopwood). By switching we mean comfortably shifting your mindset or approach to perceiving the problem. One type of switch is flipping between taking an inside-out versus an outside-in perspective. In the first perspective, you use your own values as a starting point, exploring how they might influence the outside world, and in the second you identify what’s happening around your environment and explore how to adapt to that. Mastering the switch can be seen as being able to do both almost simultaneously. This is relevant in times of crisis, as there is a clear outside trigger pushing us to adapt, but this does not mean that we should leave our core values behind. Another perspective change is zooming in and out, referring to the ability to take a helicopter view, seeing the big picture, and making connections with details and everyday actions. This activity enhances understanding the rationale for doing (the why), seeing the context (what) and taking action (how). A third perspective switch we identified, relates to long and short term thinking. This switch is between recognizing current challenges and identifying small actions to tackle them while taking a visionary perspective and steering every action in that direction. The last perspective change we identified is switching between divergent and convergent thinking, a common principle in design practice. This is a matter of moving from dreaming freely and postponing judgment, to create a large variety of options, to challenging and critiquing your ideas, to make choices and create a selection. 

During our discussions, one of our participants mentioned the value of “events and event-driven ways of thinking”. We feel this indeed provides another perspective switch, that between working alone and together. You need to both take time to get to the bottom of things for yourself while having the social accountability to stop you from spiralling or disappearing in a rabbit hole. Balancing meetups to negotiate, share, learn from each other, with individual preparation and reflections afterwards is another switch to master.

Establishing Psychological Safety

In our discussions, several participants emphasised how safe they felt during the workshop. They realised how powerful it was to have people from multiple time zones, that had never met before, who were all very deeply engaged in thinking about issues, values, and repositioning themselves in terms of dealing with risks and uncertainty and coming up with a game plan. They were surprised how vulnerable they dared to be, and thoroughly enjoyed other participants helping them unpack and rethink their ideas. 

This psychological safety was attributed to the facilitation, which was intentionally gentle, with clearly formulated prompts along the way of questioning things yourself and opening them up. This was made easier because participants had been put in smaller breakout rooms, with four participants per facilitator. This allowed brief one-on-one discussions, about things they normally would never talk about. According to the participants, there was something about the method and approach that was both collective and kind of introspective that worked really well. Although the exact magic sauce remains always a mystery, the overall framing and the work put in preparing this workshop was clearly effective.

Another mentioned aspect contributing to people’s psychological safety was everybody’s willingness to learn and be present. People were open to being questioned, as one participant shared, even though questioning can often be considered an intrusive, or offending, activity. One of the things that supported this workshop being successful and people willing to be vulnerable, we felt, was the anonymity between the participants. Participants shared in their reflections also, that when you ask a friend or when you ask a colleague, they’re invested in the relationship, your thoughts and actions may impact them. This being a group of people from various domains in different countries who very likely will never work together, created a bit of openness about everything, because it didn’t matter. It wasn’t worth pretending or getting offended. There were no ulterior motives or complex backstories, it was just about the challenges presented and the questions that sparked. As we run these sessions more often for professional development teams, we are interested in exploring how we might establish this in other environments as well.  

Making it Stick

In our workshops, we embraced principles around reflective practice. We did this both ourselves, and we encouraged our participants to do the same. Discussing our approach with the guest lectures of our course, revealed that there was an interest in reflective professionalism and that they were also working on identifying several skills to make this successful, in particular when collaborating with people with different disciplinary backgrounds. This opened up our thinking to how to make reflections most valuable, what the right amount of time is between action and reflection. There is a need for immediate reflections during the workshop for sure, and we often send out reflective surveys two weeks after the workshops, for thoughts and ideas to settle, and maybe to have been actioned. We are aware this nudging to reflect also impacts the transfer of learning because it reminds the participant of something that they engaged in, challenging them to bring it to the forefront, which might impact how they apply it or take action. But is that enough time? Is that too little? Is it too much? This is yet another area interesting area worth exploring. 

Where to next

We are planning on continuing the project by firming our direction and building more detail into skillset and toolkit that promotes innovative behaviour with a strong value-base. We intend to build something that can work outside of the crisis context as turbulent phases in professional and personal life are omnipresent. Also, as the reaction to a crisis is perception dependent, we position this toolkit in any challenging condition. 

In practical terms, we aim to experiment more in different contexts to see what skills seem to be universally relevant. Particularly we plan to design workshops in a hospital context, which is linked to Floris’ PhD topic. Our focus is to better understand how we can include purpose-driven behaviour and what are those skills and tools missing in current design thinking context, yet important for added resilience. In addition, we aim to strengthen our findings from the previous experiments and we’ll do so by reaching out to the people who have been involved and ask them what worked and what didn’t in the experiments. Other questions remain open, such as any hindrances that participants experienced post-workshop. We aim to follow the participants’ progress in advancing some of the actions they identified in the workshops. For example, if they had identified a purpose-driven direction, how have they advanced their situation towards that, what are the unexpected things along the way?

Ultimately, we keep asking ourselves important questions. What is the world we’re trying to create? What are we aiming to achieve by developing and offering this toolkit? What kind of impact may it have on the world? What enables or hinders us from proceeding? What is our particular purpose individually and collectively? How might we support the world to grow into a better one? There will be a lot of introspection within our team and we’ll use that to guide our thinking and advancing our research. 

References

Bandura, A. (2001). Social cognitive theory: An agentic perspective. Annual review of psychology, 52(1), 1-26.

Martela, F. & Kent, D. (2020). What to do When Work Seems Meaningless. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved 28.8.2020. 

Petriglieri, G. (2014). Learning Is the Most Celebrated Neglected Activity in the Workplace. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved 11.9.2020

Scoblic, J. P. (2020). Learning from the Future. How to make robust strategy in times of deep uncertainty. Harvard Business Review, 98(4), pp. 39-47.

Tedeschi, R. (2020), Growth After Trauma. Five steps for coming out of a crisis stronger., Harvard Business Review, 98(4), pp. 127-131.World Economic Forum (2019). The Global Risks Report 2019. Retrieved 11.9.2020

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