Complexity and Personal Flexibility

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As our lives become more VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous), personal flexibility can be helpful as a coping mechanism. It gives us piece of mind and options.

Eventually, many of us will encounter certain life events like; retirement, moving countries, or ‘empty nest’ down-sizing. Such events might help us shed cost and excess physical capacity.  But not necessarily the life complexity we’d like to simplify.  How so?  We can anticipate that downsizing will likely be undermined, when complexity compliance acts as a brake. One simple example is that empty nest parents don’t stop being parents (or offspring of their own, perhaps ailing parents), just by downsizing their house, after the kids leave home.

So how can we achieve matching, so that downsizing and simplifying the complexity of our lives go together?

Using personal flexibility as a tool to alter the complexity before downsizing is one avenue to explore. On this, we can take inspiration from our own brains. Each night, our brains exhibit personal flexibility, in relaxing the body (reducing the complexity of physical activity) in preparation for sleep.

Another personal flexibility example is time flexibility – buying time to reduce complexity before we downsize. For example, hiring specialists to help us ‘get our affairs in order’ and simplify the maintenance time required.

Reducing complexity and downsizing together is another option. For example, we can build up a passive income portfolio, to replace the need for us having to work a 40 hour week, therefore downsizing the number of hours worked. And the complexity of handling a full-time job.

Regarding complexity, in the same way that households and wage earners have fixed & variable costs to pay for, (think of rent/mortgage payments and food bills respectively), complexity can also be described as fixed or variable. There is however no direct relationship between cost type and complexity type – you can have any mix of both. But in a VUCA environment, some combinations are likely to be more troublesome than others. For example, high fixed cost, high life complexity.

Some examples of fixed complexity in our personal life are as follows;

  • the number of family members in our immediate family group,
  • the number of places we can physically be at any one time,
  • regular bill paying tasks each month e.g. utilities and rent/mortgage.

Some examples of variable complexity in our personal life are as follows;

  • the number of key relationships and purchases we manage each month,
  • the range of improvements we try to make each month,
  • the range of disagreements or arguments we have each month,
  • the number of crises we face each month.

Personal flexibility thinking is about designing both costs & complexity to be as variable as possible, regardless of our (own perceived) level of expertise, other people’s dependency on us, our career success, or our bank account balance.

Why is variable complexity in our lives desirable? Fixed complexity doesn’t stay fixed forever, so by coping with variable, we can cope with fixed complexity (inevitably) becoming variable. Assuming fixed complexity may lead to complacency and stop us looking for improvements i.e. personal growth opportunities. Some types of fixed complexity in our lives may be an illusion. When the unexpected occurs, for example our teen or adult children bring home a partner and behave differently in the partner’s presence, this reminds us not to make assumptions.

Simon

Flexibility fuss

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The best is ahead of us when we create uncomfortable choices. When we settle into a comfortable rut, the World starts looking for an epitaph for us.

Play your cards well.  But keep a spare pack up your sleeve.

Flexibility stands, we run.

Style flexibility – celebs who put skin in the game. Believe they have a duty to entertain. Grab media attention, based on the celebs’ style.

Substance flexibility – emergency services workers who put skin in the game. Believe they have a duty to serve. Grab people in danger, based on the emergency service workers’ substance.

Simon

The price of flexibility

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If someone spends effort (time and money) to journey from a ‘one door’ environment (inflexibility) to arrive at a place of many doors, that effort (and the effort to open the door) is the price of flexibility. The value of flexibility is then realised after they open the new door. A simple example is getting an education.

Maybe as a society, we spend too much time trying to value what’s behind the closed doors. And forget to invest in the first part – the price of moving (back) to the place in front of the doors. It’s worth noting that this part is both easier to measure and clearer to see.

It works in reverse too. As someone specialises (in their career say), they progressively leave the ‘many door’ environment behind. However, as long as the value of specialisation exceeds the value of flexibility (often true in low risk environments), life is good.

Life gets more complicated when there is fog rolling in and you only occasionally catch a glimpse of a set of doors to approach. Or when the environment changes so rapidly, that there are new sets of doors appearing on a frequent basis.

The need for (career path) reinvention comes with environmental change (also true of parenthood, by the way). By continuing to invest in flexibility while you specialise (transferable skills, wider skills), the reinvention process is lubricated.

Reinvention requires more than just agility (reaction time & expertise in jumping paths). You also need to find or create a new door environment in advance. And it’s worth bearing in mind that making your own new door (self employment) can be more powerful and more liberating than standing in a vast queue outside the new door you choose, but don’t construct yourself.

What do you think?

If you find these blogs useful, please share with others too.

Simon

Reflections A-C

Ambition – pride and confidence become the legs for ambition to run on. However, too much speed is fatal. Too little speed means watching the world go by without us.

Anniversaries – rest the clock for a day to the feelings we had when we first met. Anniversaries are like fishing nets, dragging in time to nourish us. They make us untangle the moments we value the most.

Café society – one person’s caffeine arrival is another person’s great escape. Offering coffee on sublime time and a five-finger response to a one-finger world. Express expresso expression.

Career planning – is like skating on ice. You can only go in a straight line for so long. And even then, the surface ahead is of uncertain strength.

Comfort zones – personal comfort zones are footprints in a circle, that slowly become one foot in the grave. Opportunity zones are paths leading to the horizon, that lure the human spirit on a quest.

Computer gaming – if Einstein had been a modern day, patent office clerk, would he have spent his time playing online computer games, instead of reshaping the field of physics?

Conflict – warring countries are like athletes fighting on the starting line, while other countries go on to win medals and fame. National progress relies more on inventors and teachers. And less on soldiers.

Conservation – global warming needs cold air solutions, not hot air discussions.

Twin strands in your job

Just as twin strands make a rope stronger, is it smart career management to seek out twin-role jobs? One form of these is doing a combination of department & project roles, to build different kinds of skills and experiences.

Another form is to line-manage several functions. How can this be achieved if you have qualifications and work experience in one function only? Volunteer for short term tasks that give you that broader function exposure. Offer to take an oversight role of another support function in addition to your core one. In your next organisation, apply for a wider role.

As some organisations rationalise their senior management team, they’ll then want managers with wider functional experience. As people get promoted, more functions will inevitably come under their remit. Either way, the twin-strand form of business flexibility comes into its own.

Simon

Comfort Zones and Personal Flexibility

If a person’s comfort zone is basically their attitude projected onto physical space and time, then personal flexibility might be a useful device at both ends of the projection.

At the source end, flexible thinking can work on attitude – sometimes we surprise ourselves at our own bravado, patience and tenacity. Feeling good, we might offer up a extra patience, a random act of kindness, or generosity. Or have an epiphany, and make a paradigm shift accordingly. One example of this is going from being a (romantic) relationship partner with a fear of dying, to becoming the parent of a new born, where you would literally die to save them from dying (apologies to the relationship partners who already think that about their partner).

Meanwhile, flexible provisioning works on time and space. If we change the range of resources available in our environment, make the timing of their availability more under our control, or alter the resource capacity, our comfort level can quickly change too.

A tyrant or bully has a comfort zone that exists in the space beyond and below the moral high ground. Their comfort zone can be countered by action to change their attitude (changing their incentives, imposing penalties, or threatening retaliations). Or by altering resources in the environment they seek to dominate. For example, downplaying the value or lending out the resource to another strong party in the short term.

If the bully is inside our own heads, a similar personal flexibility approach might apply. Therapy and friendship networks can help on attitude. Medication and smaller steps (to progress) can influence the resources available.

Ultimately we need to keep shifting our comfort zones. If only to cope with ongoing change and uncertainty. And to grow as human beings.

Simon

Personal Flexibility and Cycling

Over Easter, I was lucky to go on a 140 mile, 3 day cycling trip with some friends, around the south of England. And I learned some interesting things about personal flexibility that I’d like to share.

The first example was on the train, travelling down to the start point of the ride. I got chatting with one of the other cyclists, a fellow parent. I asked what his school age son wanted to do after finishing secondary school (high school). The dad’s approach was to encourage his son (who like many kids, didn’t know what he wanted to do after graduation) to take subjects that would simply help him keep his options open. This has two aspects, taking a wide range of subjects. And taking some universally useful subjects like English and maths (literacy & numeracy heavy). In short, more doorways beat fewer. And some doorways serve as portals to bigger worlds.

Once we all assembled to start the ride, it was obvious that the amount of cycle luggage varied from one cyclist carrying everything for every eventuality (resource versatility), through to another travelling light to conserve energy (event versatility). Both are forms of personal flexibility, just emphasising different types.

Another example once the cycling trip had started in ernest was the relative positioning in the riding group i.e. each rider staying fluid and flexible to help the others as needed. And to chat to different members of the group.

Some of the cycle route involved smooth road-riding in designated cycle lanes, or along disused railway embankments. Other sections however involved descent down bumpy, gravel-heavy tracks. It dawned on me that those of us who coped best had previously done broader preparation (road riding and off road riding) i.e. choosing to move forward by moving further out of your comfort zone to widen your coping skills for situations you might encounter.

One night on the trip, we camped and all 4 of us chose a different shelter approach. One chose a large tunnel tent. I chose a simple basha (tent fly), hung between two trees. Another slept in a tiny minimalist tent for one. And the fourth, unhappy with his tent, slept in the open, next to the campfire instead. Most importantly, it wasn’t a resource competition and we weren’t critical of each others shelter arrangements, Each person simply observed alternative shelters, while making their own as comfortable and effective as possible. At the campsite, we also had to improvise with the materials at hand.

On the trip, when the subject of road user behaviour and planet-friendly transportation came up. It struck me that to have an informed discussion, you really have to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, before you critique things from your own perspective.

Thanks for the flexibility insights and the adventure guys!

Simon