Human evolution has programmed us to stop and notice things that move quickly. It's important to know that a bear is about to attack, but something like climate change doesn't often rank highly on our priority list. It's the same reason that news stories that don't develop are quick to disappear, in favour of fresher headlines.
The term 'VUCA' (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) remains a popular acronym to describe the world we live in. Although 'VUCA' originated in the late 1990s, it started being used in the world of business strategy in and around 2011. Does that still make the term valid? Is it still fair to describe things as volatile if they've been that way for 5 years?
One of the key features of this year is that it'll be remarkably similar to the year before. And an awful lot like 5 years before that. Perhaps it's won't even be that different from 20 years ago. Go back 50 years and things might start feeling a little more different, yet we'll still be using fossil fuels, transport systems will be much the same as they are today, and medicine will still be driven by vaccinations and clean water.
Most big things don't change that quickly. And that can be a problem when it comes to helping people envisage (and be part of) change.
Designers and architects always prefer to consider the thing they are creating by imagining it in its next-larger context. A chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in a street, a street in a city, and so on. The same concept applies to change, and ultimately, to time.
In his book 'The Clock of the Long Now', Stewart Brand introduces the idea of pace layers, crediting Brian Eno (amongst others) for influencing his thinking on intra-societal tiers that move at different speeds:
The surface layer represents the fastest moving pace layer: fashion and trends, changing all the time. As you move inwards, the layers become increasingly slower, with commerce, infrastructure and governance. Then, at a more glacial pace: culture. Finally, right in the centre, the slowest, unmoving constant: nature.
Consider a piece of change which might apply to us all one day - self-driving cars. The car/tech companies seem to have cracked the innovation to make self-driving cars possible, and will, no-doubt be able to be produced at an attractive commercial level. But now, they are having to contend with long, slow layers of infrastructure and governance. Once that's resolved, there's the bigger, slower challenge of culture that must be faced. It's widely reported that air travel has had the capability to be fully-automated for years now, but culture dictates that we need a real human being sat in the cockpit, to help ensure that everyone feels safe during their flight. How on earth will that translate to cars?
Drawing parallels to natural systems, the pace layers concept stresses the importance of the relationship between layers. More specifically, as Brand points out - the interactions between layers moving at different speeds serve to reach a natural equilibrium. Here's an example of how these layers might interact:
When managing change it can sometimes feel frustrating. Pace layers can help, in a number of ways:
- They offer an explanation as to why change can initially begin with a rapid burst, and then slow down to a crawl.
- They allow those who are managing/leading change to focus their energies on the borders between pace layers to help move things along.
- The concept can help translate the idea of fast vs slow layers to your industry/organisation/team. What will be the signs that we are about to move from a fast layer to a slower layer, and how will we handle that? Questions such as these can help individuals become more resilient and balanced in times of change.