Unstuck

The state of being stuck is depleting. When we are unable to move, to stretch our talents and actualize our potential, we become frustrated and demoralized. Like car wheels spinning in the snow, our ruts grow ever deeper as we exhaust our resources  yearning for change.

If our individual stuckness is a condition, then our collective paralysis is epidemic. As individuals we may feel restless and underutilized, but as we expand our lens outward, the implications become even more profound. When people are underutilized their talents go untapped. But when the systems that are designed to develop, support, and connect talent to the bigger world, are themselves stuck and out of alignment, our communities become dangerously compromised. And since the world and surrounding contexts in which we live and work continue to change at an accelerating rate,  vulnerabilities become further strained, necessitating increasingly more resources to hold it all together.

Despite what we tell ourselves, stuckness is not an inherently temporary state. Instead, it becomes its own point of stability, making our lack of movement increasingly difficult to budge. Because it exists across so many levels and systems from micro to macro, change does not automatically transfer or morph into larger areas. And as we become increasingly frustrated with our state of stuckness, anger and emotion can exacerbate our patterns, resulting in polarization of perspectives and further deepening our collective dysfunction.

But the good news is that change is within reach. The very condition of being stuck offers directionality for getting unstuck.  And the fact that our condition manifests itself at so many levels, translates into multiple access points and lenses through which we can redesign. At the individual level we can identify points of fragility and leverage, re-engineering our approaches for greater movement and alignment. Or instead, we can begin by envisioning a more nimble and actualized version of ourselves, then working backwards to make the necessary tweaks and adjustments. Or conversely, we can begin with our larger systems or social infrastructures, imagining fully functioning communities and societies and identifying the associated processes and structures that would allow us to thrive and contribute.

This exercise of mapping upwards and downwards, from macro to micro, will lead us through multiple paradigms and domains. From education to healthcare, to workforce and social support structures, all systems interconnect and weave to create the communities we seek to build, and the individuals who will live in and support them. Since our stuckness does not exist in isolation, but instead permeates virtually every facet of society, we need to be maximally flexible in our solutions. Luckily, there are so many toolkits and paradigms from which to choose. From engineering and architecture, to technology and computers, cognitive science, business and strategic planning, and even spiritual realms, each offers a unique perspective and agenda.  But collectively they all embrace the idea of shaping and redesigning structures and processes to actualize goals and potential. And through the mere act of broadening our lens to look at stuckness in its entirety, we gain access to the full range of design metaphors. Let’s face it, we can no longer rely on the art of specialization for our future viability.  Instead, we need to knit these frameworks together toward a maximally robust and powerful approach.

Clearly, it’s hard work ahead, but do not be daunted. The benefits of nimbleness and flexibility are far greater than we could ever imagine. Whether you are focused on your own professional growth, or building healthier businesses or communities, we all have a part to play in a much bigger system- either one that is strong and robust or deeply dysfunctional.  And as we ready ourselves for the year ahead, we should ask what the world- our world- would look like if we were all unstuck, moving within our full range of motion, with not a drop of talent wasted or untapped.

Adaptive Agency: A Profile Worth Embracing

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As the challenges facing our communities grow deeper and more complex, we require innovative solutions that are effective and scalable.  And although we have embraced the importance of innovation in technology and STEM fields, these sectors- even if fully developed- will not be enough to address the full scope of humanitarian need.

Clearly, we must expand our focus on innovation and problem solving to include all fields and disciplines that touch our communities, especially those most vulnerable.

And while specialization is of course necessary to prepare individuals for specific fields, we would benefit greatly from professionals who embody a holistic commitment and readiness to contribute to the greater good.

By visioning this general learner profile and unpacking the associated attributes we can allow for diverse and specialized preparation programs while at the same time working toward a shared vision and goals. 

Through my own professional and community efforts I have developed a profile that I refer to as “adaptive agency.”  This incorporates the Piagetian notion of adaptation that speaks to the dynamic nature of learning through interacting with one’s environment and making successive refinements to existing schemas; and also the notion of agency that speaks to one’s sense of competency and empowerment to make meaningful change.

If you agree that we need individuals across all fields and disciplines with high levels of adaptive agency, then the following component skills and dispositions must be cultivated.

  • A sense of responsibility and competence with regard to identifying  and working toward solutions and responses to large-scale issues and problems
  • A sensitivity to communities and cultures and an ability to reflect on one’s efforts and impacts within broader contexts
  • A broad array of problem solving and critical thinking skills as well as theoretical and disciplinary lenses that can be applied toward innovative solutions and approaches
  • An understanding of assessment, evaluation, and research to help test hypotheses, refine approaches, and share findings toward greater impacts

Although certain civic and service-based organizations, especially Rotary, celebrate and support adaptive agency, the profile is neither widely embraced nor actively cultivated through our current education systems- both at the Prek-12 and higher education levels.

If we are serious about reaping the benefits of adaptive agency, then we must start young.  School-aged children are enthusiastic, empathic, and notoriously confident in terms of their skills and abilities to be successful.  And as they become older and more cognitively sophisticated they can incorporate agency within academic and professional paradigms as well as experiential learning opportunities. 

To be clear, cultivating and even measuring adaptive agency (or some variation of the construct) is in no way difficult or costly, nor would it present any systemic challenges that could not be overcome.

The only real obstacle is getting leaders to recognize the importance of agency and innovation within the broad contexts of community development and sustainability and the need to cultivate the necessary skills and dispositions.

Perhaps organizations such as Rotary that already understand the importance and potential impact of adaptive agency can emerge as catalysts for the broader conversation.  Doing so would in turn increase our own adaptive agency as Rotarians.