Four years ago at this time I was building a third module of a leadership program for the beautiful folks who run Wikipedia and their other associated sites (now we’re running our fifth cohort of a leadership program with their leaders, but these ideas are from the first time we were ever with them). Talk about an organization facing constant change! First of all their context is always changing—it’s astonishing how much change they’re exposed to on a daily basis. Of course the whole internet world is changing dramatically as mobile platforms extend throughout the world. And then there’s the content of their sites as the whole store of human knowledge and information changes by the minute (the Wikipedia entry on the Boston Marathon bombing was generally the best and most up-to-date gathering of information I could find anywhere on the web). And their readership is growing with now 500 million unique page visitors a month and 21.3 billion monthly page views. 21.3 billion. That is a number I can’t even get my head around.
And because of this growth—in the content of the site, in the popularity of the site, in the number of sites (Wikivoyage is the newest of the 12 Wikimedia websites)—the organization is changing too. They’re nearly 150 people who manage and lead this community of 80,000 some volunteers and millions of users.
So this is a group of leaders that knows a lot about change. And at the same time, they’re still human, and humans don’t think about change that well. We especially don’t think about change that well in an uncertain and evolving world. We make sense of the future by looking back at the past and connecting dots that are obvious in retrospect but impossible to see in the present.
The Wikimedia leaders, looking back on the past, will see a relatively coherent and sensible story, where one change led to the next in a fairly coherent way. But the future is necessarily incoherent. We don’t know what will happen next, where the black swans await. Does this mean it’s futile to try and make changes to adjust to an uncertain future? Surely not. Surely it’s better to work on both creating the future you want and also being open to flexing to the future as it emerges.
William Joiner and Stephen Josephs call this “Leadership agility” (in their excellent bookof the same title). And theorist-practitioner Bill Torbert writes, “In ten longitudinal organizational development efforts, the five CEOs measuring [uncommonly high levels of leadership agility] supported 15 progressive organizational transformations. By contrast, the five CEOs measuring at [more average levels of leadership agility] supported a total of 0 progressive organizational transformations.” Something about supporting people to change in an uncertain world seems supported by this notion of leadership agility (or what Torbert and I both think of as more advanced adult development).
This leads us to a little bit of a bind for the Wikimedia leaders and for all the rest of us, struggling to lead change in a complex and unknowable world. It’s possible we may need to be uncommonly developmentally complex to do this well. But developmental complexity takes years to grow, and some organizations seem to be directly fighting against its growth (in part with the push to be busier and get more done that I talked about in my last blog). We’ve been working on tools and approaches leaders can use to support change even without these new developmental capacities, but we also support people to grow in new ways too.