We live in the age of the missing elephant. The American psychologist Don Michael was first to point out the implications of a world of boundless complexity, rapid change and uncertainty for the familiar tale of the blind men who if they could only pool their knowledge would have recognised the elephant. No longer. In today’s world there is little chance that any of us will ever know more than one small piece of the elephant, and there are now so many different pieces, they change so rapidly and they are all so intimately related one to another, that even if we had the technology to put them all together we would still not be able to make sense of the whole.
The missing elephant
The world we have created has outstripped our capacity to understand it. The scale of interconnectivity and interdependence has resulted in a step change in the complexity of the operating environment. These new conditions are raising fundamental questions about our competence in key areas of governance, economy, sustainability and consciousness. We are struggling as professionals and in our private lives to meet the demands they are placing on traditional models of organisation, understanding and action. The anchors of identity, morality, cultural coherence and social stability are unravelling and we are losing our bearings. This is a conceptual emergency.
One very human response is to give up the struggle to make sense of what is going on and to lapse into short term defensive strategies or longer term despair. Another is to strive to regain the comfort of control and coherence by reasserting old truths with more conviction and urgency, stressing fundamentals, ignoring inconvenient information, interpreting complexity in simple terms.
These responses can offer temporary adaptation and will quell anxiety for a while. But they can also dissolve into maladaptive neurotic and even psychotic routines. However understandable and human these responses are, they are pseudo-solutions, ultimately doomed to failure.
Not all responses to challenging times are dysfunctional. It is possible to face up to challenge and grow with and through it. Changed circumstances can be seized as opportunities for creative engagement and rather than generating resistance, generate a step change in learning and growth.
IFF, the International Futures Forum, is an international and multidisciplinary group originally convened in 2001 to come up with some touchstones of theory and practice to support a transformative response to today’s powerful times and to restore effectiveness in action. The following pages describe ten of the strategies that have emerged from this work to date: ten things to do in a conceptual emergency.