Some 5 years ago, Ysolda, a friend of mine, adopted a dog from Spain: Poppy. Poppy was very sweet and on arrival in Holland Ysolda created a weekly habit of taking Poppy to dogtraining in an Amsterdam park. Poppy learned the commands Sit!, Lie! Roll over! Paw! and was given a dog treat every time she did something right. And after a while she was a very well-behaved doggy: she listened, followed and obeyed.
So I was watching this whole process and thought to myself: I would also like to have a dog! Of course I had to figure out how to deal with work and dogsitters and so on, but in the end I decided to adopt a dog from the animal shelter in Amsterdam.
And there she was: Raider. The cutest most adorable small doggy you have ever seen! She was still a puppy, with her small pointy ears standing upright as if she was curious to meet me. She wasn’t even able to bark yet, so she made funny squeaky noises. Too sweet. So I adopted her and took her home with me.
I Googled 'dogtraining in Amsterdam' and registered for a training in the park behind my house. On the first day of training Els, a very tall woman with a bodywarmer, welcomed me and Raider and invited us and all the other owners and dogs for the first exercise: walking on a leash.
Now as I said: Raider was still a teeny tiny dog so I had bought like this pink and soft puppy harness for her. But whatever I did: she was fighting and wrestling and she absolutely refused to get into the harness.
The second exercise was crawling through a tunnel. I swear: in the end I just pushed Raider inside the tunnel, lay down at the other end with dog treats, trying to seduce her to walk through, but to no avail: she was petite but stubborn as hell. Third exercise had something to do with walking over a seesaw-like construction with planks but I'm not sure because we missed it thanks to the tunnel-fiasco.
Anyway, at the end of the course Els and her bodywarmer walked towards us and I whispered in Raider’s ear: ‘ok, either she’s kicking us out or she’s giving us extra homework, brace yourself’.
Els was quite hesitant I noticed: ‘Well, Anna, uhm, I don't know exactly how to tell you this but, uhm, Raider…’
I interrupted her and said ‘I know, I noticed it too, it didn’t go very smoothly this afternoon…’
‘Yeah, well’, she said, ‘that too, but uhm, there’s something else: you do know that Raider is not a dog, right?’
‘Say what? What do you mean she’s not a dog?’
‘Yeah’, said Els, ‘uhm, Raider is a cat…’
And this is exactly what I see happening in organisations all of the time. We are completely used to dog problems. Dog problems for which we can send people to training, to teach them all sorts of tricks and train them to listen, follow and obey.
Listen to what is presented as truth.
Follow what theories and principles tell them.
Obey the authorities and experts.
In fact, what does dogma mean? ‘(A) principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true’. We treat dog problems DOGmatically.
Cat problems however, are of a completely different nature. Problems like digital transformation, sustainable development, income disparity, you name it, they really are like cats: they are fickle, unpredictable, complex and you never know what’s what. Trust me, I have a cat at home. One moment she’s content and purring while having her belly scratched and the next she is in full attack mode. In the organizational world we call these cat problems VUCA problems: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. And more and more organizations nowadays are recognizing that they are dealing with vicious and wicked VUCAts.
But what happens when an organization that is used to dealing with DOGma problems is confronted with a VUCAt? The VUCAt gets sent to DOGma training of course! But there are some problems with this, like I learned the hard way when I brought Raider to Els's training.
VUCAts do not listen when you tell them they should ‘Sit!, Lie! Roll over! Paw!’.
VUCAts don't follow your theory and principles on how to crawl through a tunnel.
VUCAts don't obey your orders, heck, if anyone is giving anyone orders it’s them giving orders to you!
So instead of bringing your VUCAt to DOGma training, to learn to listen, follow and obey, we could instead see what happens when we focus on un-learning first.
Unlearn to immediately jump to action, but first figure out what the problem needs.
Unlearn to unleash your standard knowledge on the problem, but first figure out what the problem needs.
Unlearn to adopt prepackaged plans and programs to roll out in the organization, but first figure out what the problem needs…
Now that I come to think of it: this has many resemblances with what has always annoyed me in our conventional schooling system. We have created DOGmatic schools. Which kind of sucks if you’re a cat. Part of the cats really can't fit in so that’s already quite unfair, and then there are cats who do their best to squeeze themselves into that dog harness, trying to suppress their cat skills and fake some dog skills.
If you ask me: this is not only completely unfair for the cats but it is even stupid. For the VUCAt problems we need VUCAt skills. VUCAts, like all cats, are stubborn, autonomous, not afraid to fail (admittedly: having nine lives helps), resilient, independent and they don’t care about others’ judgments. Instead of building a system in which to develop and grow these wonderful skills that we need for our VUCAt problems, we put all the cats into a DOGmatic system and teach them to lose their VUCAt skills. We put these cats on a leash, we push them through tunnels and we lure them across the seesaw, all the while promising them dog treats instead of finding out what really motivates them. Not the brightest idea I think.
So I want to propose one thing: the next time you are confronted with a problem, you first stop and think: Is this a DOGma problem or is it a VUCAt problem?
If it’s a DOGma problem then go to training, get into gear, find the beaten track on the beach, follow what others painstakingly have figured out before you and learn from it.
BUT: if it’s a VUCAt problem you first sit down. Take that VUCAt on your lap and figure out what is needed. Dive into the complexity of it all. Invite other disciplines to help you with their insights. Work step by step so you can check whether you are still doing the right things.
But you first have to stop and figure out: Is my problem a dog or a cat? 'Cause after all there won't always be some Els around who can tell you the difference.