Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Power of Context

Context is defined as "the set of circumstances, or facts, that surround a particular event, situation, etc."
You can gain context by actively seeking it out to frame a situation or you can bolster your situational context through an osmosis like process of consuming seemingly unrelated bits of information and/or experiences. Planning is preparation before you are forced to prepare. Many people see the value in planning for known events and situations but relatively few people see the value in developing your situational context to prepare for unknown events and situations. I view situational context in a similar vain to planning and as I become older, and arguable wiser, I have taken a much more proactive approach in broadening my world view.
I remember my days at the Air Force Academy where I would skip presentations given by a wide variety of people on a wide variety of topics because I felt that their presentations had nothing to do with my reality at the time. My reality and their message weren't linearly related and given the demands of academics, athletics, military, and trying to maintain a personal life I chose to use my time in a different manner. In hindsight I should have taken in as many of the presentations as possible.
Ironically it was during my military career, and more specifically during my time in Iraq, that I learned context is everything. Problem solving in a deployed environment was challenging to say the least. It was that challenging environment that broadened my world view and caused me to place a premium on a maintaining a broad context. I believe that my deployed experience and complex, ambiguous problems in general have that effect on people because it is those situations that clearly demonstrate that most things are interrelated even if they are not linearly related.
The "butterfly effect" is a term that was derived from the concept that a butterfly across the world could flap it's wings and cause a hurricane on the other side of the world weeks later. The butterfly effect is really just an interesting way to describe chaos theory principals. It is used to illustrate that in a nonlinear system (aka life) the trajectory of any future action is dependent on the initial conditions. In other words, small differences at the beginning of a series of events can have large impacts and lead to big differences in the future state.
This is where I make the parallel to the power of context. Having a broader scope of knowledge and situational context will undoubtedly impact the way you make decisions. Those decisions could greatly change the outcome of a given situation. Operating in a stagnant contextual "vacuum" is not only impacting your ability to react to the unknown it is in essence denying the interrelatedness of life.
In my new position I attended a new session started called Insights for a Better World. It is essentially a presentation/discussion set to a normal cadence that is designed to shape and inspire our work. Going back to my AFA days I likely would have skipped it. There is plenty of work to be done on my current projects and in the short run it may even be a more valuable decision to use the hour elsewhere. The session was presentation on 'Citizen Influencers' and how systemic change in the new world is achieved not through traditional organizations but through groups of interconnected and influential individuals. Thinking linearly it could appear that the session doesn't really relate to my focus.  However, it was during that session that I was overcome by the power of context and how important it is in decision making, leadership, creativity, etc. The session helped to broaden my awareness of the world I am operating in and it just may influence me enough to significantly impact the success I have moving forward.  
Bottom Line: Context transcends a particular discipline and those who seek and soak in a broad situational context will undoubtedly have a competitive advantage across a range of endeavors moving forward as compared to those who don't.

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