Practice Amid Disruption

What regular practice does is reduce the cost of failure and these costs are different in times of disruption.

Innovation succeeds because of regular, committed practice. It’s about consistency of effort and persistence. But what happens when we’re constantly being disrupted?

The Twenty Twenties will go down as among the greatest periods of disruption of all time. It’s not just from the most obvious direct effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, but more about the indirect ones: the ones that cascade.

Greg Satell wrote an entire book devoted to cascades as forces for change. While much of that book is worth reading for those looking to understand our present times as it comes to political actions and how small disruptions can lead to massive change. It — like nearly every other book on change and disruption — is not able to explain a great deal of what’s happening because what’s transpiring is a disruption in practice, globally.

Cascades are so powerful because disruptions anchor activities, networks, and structures toward particular patterns – in big and small ways. Like a waterfall, things cascade in a direction. These can be designed, which is what Satell’s book is all about.

What we’re facing now is like what Greg writes about, but also quite different — at the same time. One of the reasons – I believe – is the lack of practice.

Upended Practice

Practice is the regular, reflective activity tied to something of focus. It’s about showing up.

Much of Seth Godin‘s writing — including his recent book — is about cultivating practice. Deliberative practice is when we are able to perform, reflect, adapt, amplify, and repeat what we’re doing consistently over time. What the interconnections we’ve created are doing is upending the causal connections in the cascade. It’s not to say that cascades won’t happen, but they will be less obvious and maybe less powerful.

Cascades are about building new practices from disrupted ones. But what happens when those new practices aren’t able to hold? What if, as the headline above suggests, our normal is just the latest in a string of ‘normals’ (as this headline from the Toronto-based newsletter 12:36 points to in this article on the ever-changing pandemic normal and variety of policies that nearly upend things by ill-conceived design).

What are we showing up to?

The need to pay attention, be mindful, think in systems, and reflect on what we are doing has never been greater because it’s so difficult to do because of the interconnected, rapidly and constant change around us. We are losing our practice and thus our craft.

Innovation Resilience

Resilience is about ‘bouncing back’ from disruption and adapting to change on the fly. It’s also something we can (partly) design for. The emerging research on the effects of the pandemic and it’s myriad cascading forces suggest we are not innovating as much. Distance has — for reasons only speculated upon — limited our innovative activity. Lack of an ability to practice given the widespread instability in our markets, society, governments, communities, and other social systems is one.

It’s why measurement and focus on persistence and practice is so critical. Despite the disruptions, some form of persistence over consistency and output is likely the biggest marker of innovation achievement in times of disruption. It ensures that we create the conditions that mimic stability even when that isn’t possible. Persistence <=> resilience.

This is the experiment I’m running right now with clients, networks, and myself: understanding who and what is persisting and focusing on that over consistency, visibility, and productivity. What’s interesting is that — all biases and limitations acknowledged — it seems to be the factor that’s shaping the most positive outcomes and the ability to be resilient. If you can’t be persistent in your effort, it’s difficult to be resilient.

Without resilience, most innovations won’t succeed in times of turbulence. Resilience, requires practice. It’s all circular.

Photo by Michael Olsen on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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