What I learned from coaching people to navigate the relentless, uncertain waters of change
“It has been my experience, that you never get out of the rapids — the feeling is one of continuous upset and chaos.” — Peter Vaill
Permanent whitewater is the new normal.
In a relentlessly changing environment, the complexity of problems is increasing faster than our ability to solve them. Trying to play catch up breaks people down and burns them out.
The dynamics in our work lives create unexpected undercurrents, but also pose unforeseen opportunities — that’s the beauty of permanent whitewater.
To thrive, we must embrace its perpetually changing, uncertain nature.
Mastering permanent whitewater
Dealing with continuous change results in a crisis of fatigue, fear, and loss of control. Fighting what we can’t control is exhausting — your team needs to be energized emotionally and mentally so they can lead and perform at their best.
“I’ve learned that we must behave more flexible at work — I thought we were collaborating, but we were just scratching the surface.”
— workshop participant
There are three steps to lead in permanent whitewater, as I explain in this webinar.
1. Embrace uncertainty:
In his book Managing as a Performing Art, Peter Vaill introduces the metaphor for the uncertainty and turbulence that shape business dynamics: permanent whitewater.
We must embrace uncertainty, not as something temporary, but permanent.
As Vaills explains:
“Most managers are taught to think of themselves as paddling their canoes on calm, still lakes. They’re led to believe that they should be pretty much able to go where they want, when they want, using means that are under their control.
(They think) disruptions will be temporary, and when things settle back down, they’ll be back in the calm, still lake mode.”
But, as the author explains, we never get out of the rapids — We will always experience continuous upset and chaos.
When you realize the river will never be calm, uncertainty feels less threatening.
2. Read the waters:
Though whitewater feels random, it’s chaotic — It’s mostly composed of patterns. If you stop and watch a river or waterfall carefully, you can notice that some patterns are quite stable.
Whitewater is formed when a river generates so much turbulence that air is entrained into the water body. It creates a bubbly, unstable current — the foamy water appears white.
Whitewater is exciting but also risky — You can drown in turbulent waters, smash a rock or get stuck in river features. You must learn to read the waters before you jump into them.
Training helps us understand the different patterns and rules to navigate permanent whitewater. Like in any space, to thrive in an uncertain reality requires formal training.
However, formal training is not enough — We must experience the challenging waters first hand. Through play, teams can test the rules, break them, and mend them.
Playing allow us to get used to practice and gain confidence in a safer space before we jump into more dangerous waters. Ken Gergen calls it ‘Play with Purpose’ — a spirited way of deeply, but safely, exploring patterns that create significant impact in the long run.
I remember that, before my first Level 5 rafting experience, the instructors made us row against a strong waterfall. The water kept coming towards us, creating a strong force that bent the raft and put our spirits to test. It prepared us mentally and physically for the ‘real action.’
Destigmatizing change in our daily lives starts by changing our attitude — fun makes permanent whitewater feel less threatening.
To thrive in whitewater, organizations must develop a human, adaptive, and innovative culture.
Emotion → Mindset → Behavior
Teams must learn to manage their — individual and collective — emotions so they can reframe their mindset and, only then, can adopt new behaviors. The following is the framework we apply at Liberationist.
Enduring change happens from within. Self-awareness is key — the more you know yourself, the more you can lead yourself and others.
By increasing self-awareness, we can identify the emotions that are at play. We can choose which ones we want to avoid, and which we want to use on our favor. Addressing our relationship with fear helps us understand why we resist the unexpected and also prepare for it.
Self-awareness help us shift from fear to fearlessness.
Managing our emotions is critical to stop resisting reality. Instead of fighting the uncertain waters, we learn to embrace their nature.
An adaptive mindset requires letting go of perfectionism and expectations. We learn to focus on paddling — what we can control — not on trying to change the reality of the whitewater.
Instead of trying to dominate whitewater; we need to allow it to become. Focus on what you can control — the input, not the outcome.
To thrive in whitewater, great leaders tap into the humanity in their organizations. They see and liberate the best in others by creating a safe space for experimentation. Playing is not only permitted, but encouraged.
Improvisation is a necessary skill to navigate whitewater — teams must be able to think on their feet to solve unexpected problems. Creativity is a meta-skill for the 21st Century — It can no longer be limited to a few. Organizational play requires safe spaces in which to break the rules, make mistakes, and recover — and the freedom to try it over and over.
Mistakes are lessons to discover what doesn’t work so we can then uncover what will work.
The human side of whitewater
We recently facilitated another how to lead on permanent whitewater workshop, in partnership with Chicago Ideas. It was an open session with executives from various organizations.
Here are some of the key insights based on participants’ feedback.
1. Vulnerability makes us stronger
You can’t transform a team or organization without going through a personal transformation first. Personal development is the foundation of leadership development.
The more we embrace our vulnerability, the more we can jump into the unexpected with an open mind. Usually, when practicing self-awareness exercises, people reactions are extreme — they either challenge themselves or become over defensive.
Arrogance is an ineffective defense mechanism. Some participants try to justify what they already know to present themselves as experts in front of others. At the end of the session, these are the ones who learn the least — Luckily, they are usually a minority.
Intellectual humility is essential to experiment and deal with unknown waters.
2. Leading is a team sport
When the water is shaking your raft from one place to another, you have to act with speed and determination. There’s no room for a command-and-control approach — Every teammate must make decisions in the heat of the moment.
To thrive in permanent whitewater requires turning the whole crew into change agents — to democratize leadership, as I discussed at this conference.
Everyone has the ability and responsibility to lead.
3. Pause to find the pattern
Keeping our mind calm is essential to observe and reflect. We’ve been trained to be constantly in a rush. We associate being busy with effectiveness and productivity. However, speed without purpose is pointless — failing fast is not enough; we must fail smart.
Mindfulness allows us to become more present and wiser. Instead of running from one meeting to another, from one fire to the next, we must approach chaos with a calm mind.
Even within craziness, there’s a logical pattern — find it.
4. People feel safer with strangers
Every time I start working with a new organization, I cannot stress this enough: If you can’t build a safe space, don’t expect people to become more innovative.
In open workshops, people come with a more open mind than when attending in-company ones. Executives feel more comfortable to experiment and make mistakes in front of strangers. “My boss would never let me do this,” they always tell us.
Building collective trust is not just necessary, but vital — leaders must model behavior.
You cannot navigate uncertain waters with people you don’t trust.
5. Get wet before entering the river
When we try to change everything, we end changing nothing. Small changes can create a larger impact, in the long run, than large ones —They usually generate more resistance than adoption.
That’s why I like to equip teams with simple tools and methods they can implement within their everyday practices. Microstructures are less complex processes and dynamics that dramatically shape how teams collaborate and make things happen. They can help redesign brainstormings, meetings, feedback, problem-solving, participation, and accountability. Rather than bringing new practices, start by improving existing ones.
You have to go small before you go big.
6. Get ready to fall off the boat
One of the participants said that innovation is only good if it succeeds. That for me is a red light. Of course, innovation that doesn’t create results is useless. But, perfectionism and innovation don’t get along very well.
You never know what’s going to work until you implement it. Purposeful play is finding the balance between results and experimentation. Playing without caring about the end result is a waste of time and resources. But, expecting every experiment to work is approaching innovation with a perfectionist mindset — The reason many companies “innovate,” but fail to launch their innovations.
If you don’t want to fall off the boat, forget about thriving in whitewater.
7. Go with the flow
My first experience on a level 5 river was exhilarating. At some point, we had to plunge down a 30 ft waterfall. When we were reaching the edge, it felt threatening.
But there’s a technique to everything. If you know what to do, and are confident about it, there’s nothing to be afraid of. Actually, the less you resist, the more you’ll succeed. Sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true.
Going with the flow is less dangerous than fighting the brave nature of whitewater.
We went all the way down that waterfall. It was exhilarating and fun — nobody fell off the boat. The best lesson to lead in business whitewater I learned it by navigating real river rapids — focus on what you can control — the input — not on what you can’t.
You can’t control whitewater — go with the flow.
Learn more about leading in permanent whitewater. Watch this video.