Given the pandemic, political divisiveness, weather crises, and economic doom and gloom, it’s no wonder many of us have a hard time “seeing our world in anything other than an apocalyptic frame… because other framings seem inadequate or false.” In his article, Facing the Age of Chaos, futurist Jamais Cascio says, "Things are too strange, too out of control, too immense, and too fragile to even begin to imagine appropriate responses.”
Here's a response: don’t freak out. Throughout history, humans have felt the same way in the face of similar disruptions. We can’t throw up our hands in despair and retreat into our corners. With Cascio’s help, we can prepare ourselves—and our members—for unpredictable chaos instead of ignoring its possibility.
A new framework to face the chaos: BANI
You might have heard of VUCA, a framework for understanding and managing the Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. The U.S. Army War College came up with the VUCA framework in the late 80s to help “make disruptive processes understandable.” Cascio says VUCA is obsolete. It merely describes the “default condition” now, so “provides diminishing insight.”
We need a new framework to make sense of the chaotic and unpredictable world we live in now so we can develop “adaptive strategies.” He proposes BANI, which stands for Brittle, Anxious, Nonlinear, and Incomprehensible.
In this brittle world, what once seemed solid and reliable is “susceptible to sudden and catastrophic failure,” like an air traffic system shut down because of a damaged database file. Cascio says, “Brittleness is illusory strength” that can shatter at any moment.
The Irish potato famine was a sign of brittleness: “dependence on a single, critical point of failure… the unwillingness—or inability—to leave any excess capacity or slack in the system… the absence of a cushion for failure.” Brittleness in associations is seen in the dependence on a primary source of revenue or “golden handcuff” membership benefit, or relying too heavily on one resource, staff person, or volunteer chapter leader.
Change, lack of control, and uncertainty cause anxiety. You fear making the wrong move or making any move at all. Passivity and analysis paralysis set in. It’s tempting to sit tight and wait it out, like a cat hiding behind the sofa during a thunderstorm.
Anxiety can also lead to knee-jerk decision-making when you worry about missing the opportunity to act. You wonder whom you can trust. Can you trust your leaders to make the best decisions?
Nonlinearity happens when “cause and effect are seemingly disconnected or disproportionate.” There doesn’t seem to be any pattern or connection between actions and results. Why is a company’s stock price so high when it hasn’t sold anything yet?
“The consequences don’t manifest immediately, [there’s] a long lag between cause and full effect.” You put a lot of effort into something for measly results or make a small decision, like a rushed tweet, that causes a huge uproar. Nothing makes sense, which brings us to the I in BANI.
We can’t make sense of what’s going on. Decisions made elsewhere seem illogical. In an incomprehensible world, more information is sometimes counterproductive because it’s “hard to distinguish noise from signal.” Cascio describes this condition as “the end state of information overload.”
He points to AI as an example. “As our AIs become more complicated, learn more, do more, the harder it becomes to understand precisely how they make their decisions.”
Cascio says, “BANI gives name to the gnawing dread so many of us feel right now. BANI makes the statement that what we’re seeing isn’t a temporary aberration, it’s a new phase… It’s something that will definitely require a new way of thinking to explore.”
Adaptive association strategies for facing the chaos of BANI
How can your association—and your professional development programs—help members make sense of the BANI world? You can’t pretend to know what an incomprehensible future holds, but you can prepare to face what’s coming, so it doesn’t knock you and your members off your feet.
Help staff, volunteer leaders, and members to cultivate a futurist mindset. Offer educational programs featuring futurists and industry experts—an opportunity for sponsored programs.
Here are some strategies for responding to the elements of BANI.
Bendiness and Plan Bs for Brittleness
Build slack and flexibility into attitudes and processes. You want to bend, not break, under pressure. Don’t become reliant on any one person or thing.
• Allocate money to bring in expert help when necessary.
• Make backups a priority.
• Diversify revenue.
• Always do risk analysis and have a plan B.
Internally, create space for uncomfortable conversations about what cultural, operational, and governance weaknesses the association must address to move forward.
Offer programs on taking an agile approach to changing conditions. Schedule stress reduction and wellbeing webinars that teach members how to prevent and manage burnout.
You need organizational and individual resilience to battle brittleness—calm, confident leaders who anticipate the potential for setbacks and have the ability to roll with it.
Stability, certainty, and empathy for Anxiety
Become a source of stability and certainty for professionals dealing with anxiety—a reliable source of information who knows what members need to know. Offer learning pathways and credential programs that help industry professionals point their career in the right direction.
These tools will also help members take some control of their lives. Encourage people to focus on what they can control—thoughts, feelings, and actions they can take for themselves. They should invest in themselves and do what they can to ride the wave.
Everyone has different levels of adaptability, resilience, and comfort with change and uncertainty. Cultivate individual and organizational empathy, which only comes from understanding others. Schedule regular check-ins with staff and members so you can see things from their perspectives.
Gain empathy through data too. Relearn who your members and customers are after a few years of pandemic-induced disruption. Understand how their needs, interests, and aspirations might have changed and might still be changing.
Context and experimentation for Nonlinearity
Context helps people gain a grip when causes, effects, and patterns are hard to detect. It helps to seek the bigger picture for perspective when things are going haywire. Keep referring to your mission, purpose, and goals as a touchstone.
Your team and volunteer leaders need psychological safety to experiment. Create a system for proposing new ideas for processes, programs, products, and new ways to behave. Recognize and reward earnest attempts to experiment and make sure everyone knows that setbacks and failures are there to teach you something.
Transparency and strategic learning for Incomprehensibility
When the world doesn’t make sense, all aspects of your association and workplace must make obvious sense to members and staff. No secret handshakes, inside jokes and jargon, or old boys or girls network.
Don’t assume members know how things work, including volunteering, committee service, session proposals, or taking advantage of any benefits you offer. Spell it out clearly. Governance, processes, performance evaluations and promotions, job descriptions—make it all transparent.
Learning becomes strategic in a changing, senseless world. Staff, members, and industry professionals need help making a plan to improve and acquire new skills and knowledge. Don’t assume they know how. Give them the coaching and guidance they need either individually or on your website.
Prevent overwhelm by curating information for members—that’s a valuable benefit. Save them time by distilling what they need to know.
Your association must adapt as your members adapt. They continue to rely upon you for community, information, advocacy, and education, but you can’t be the same association you were pre-pandemic or back in VUCA times. Continue to reinvent yourself so you can continue to be indispensable to members and industry professionals.