Leadership qualities tend to be timeless. It’s the reason why we spend so much time looking back through history at the women and men who led successful businesses, governments and social initiatives to pinpoint the common traits and skills that made them great. The thinking goes that, if we can emulate these women and men, we will be successful leaders too
However, something fundamental has changed.
Welcome to the 21st Century, a place and time that is certainly similar to the past in many ways, but one that is also extremely different as well. Throughout history, we have never seen the volatility, complexity and transformation that we are seeing today, and this sea-change has left us all feeling much less empowered and decisive than ever before. Just how rapid and chaotic is the change that we are experiencing today in comparison to the change we encountered in previous eras? As innovation pioneer Peter Diamandis has noted,
“The first technological steps — sharp edges, fire, the wheel — took tens of thousands of years. For people living in this era, there was little noticeable technological change in even a thousand years. By 1000 A.D., progress was much faster and a paradigm shift required only a century or two. In the 19th century, we saw more technological change than in the nine centuries preceding it. Then in the first 20 years of the 20th century, we saw more advancement than in all of the 19th century. Now, paradigm shifts occur in only a few years’ time.”
Of course, this exponentially accelerating speed and magnitude of change is not relegated only to technology. The unprecedented shifts seen in population decline, migration to cities, climate change, localized currencies, decentralized learning, experiential consumption, contingent labor, and many other drivers of change are radically altering the landscape of work, education, and our daily lives. This colliding and uncertain landscape has our collective heads spinning.
Enter today’s leader – an individual with an even greater need to grasp the nature and impact of change than all of those amazing women and men who made their mark on history. While many of the leadership gurus from the past were penning their legendary ideas about how to win friends and influence people, the environment around them was fairly constant. And the advice that they have handed down to us was formulated during a time when governments, industries, businesses and people reacted in a much more consistent fashion. However, this is no longer the case. Consistency is a luxury in a world where discontinuities and disruption are the new normal.
You can certainly search the web for recent articles on the most important skills that every great leader needs to succeed, and you will find many wonderful and proven qualities such as honesty, delegation, collaboration, empathy, creativity, communication, inspiration, confidence, problem-solving, driving results, and more. However, think about all of these leadership skills from the vista of a constantly changing world.
Honesty, empathy and communication are important, but how do we effectively promote a culture of openness, transparency and understanding when everyone is unsure of where our organization stands or where it is headed? When the world around us is in flux, these lines of communication and perception are in flux as well.
Collaboration and delegation are vital skills in any era, but who should be included in that collaboration, how do we successfully build and sustain that collaboration, and what are the most critical tasks that ultimately need to be delegated to ensure a thriving organization? When we are being bombarded by disruption and ambiguity, what type of talent do we need to cultivate in order to build adaptive and resilient teams, and what functions and responsibilities should we assign in order to safeguard our organization from becoming outdated and antiquated?
Creativity, inspiration and confidence are skills that we want everyone to have throughout our organizations, but how do we inspire people when we aren’t certain about our direction? How can creativity truly flourish when their is a lack of knowledge about unfolding landscapes of change, as well as the possibilities and opportunities that may exist just over the horizon? How could we hope to instill confidence in others when uncertainty grips our own hearts and minds?
Being a problem solver and driving results for the organization are crucial for producing quick wins and reaching long-range goals in business, government and social initiatives, but how do we do this when things are becoming increasingly complex? Are we solving the right problems and achieving the right results when today’s “unknown unknowns” are manifesting outside of our organizations and industries as tomorrow’s game-changing products, unique services and market-morphing innovations?
In many ways, today’s leader has no precedent or benchmark for the skills that will help them to navigate our emerging landscape of unparalleled change. Those who successfully lead humanity forward in the 21st Century will be the ones who write the book that redefines leadership in this brave new world.
So, how do we begin writing a new narrative about the most important leadership qualities needed in the unfamiliar confines of a post-normal terrain? Fortunately, the answer is not hidden in a stack of research articles that are awaiting peer review, nor is it yet to be discovered by some up-and-coming leadership guru. As a matter of fact, the “must have” leadership skill of the 21st Century is the direct response to effectively managing, harnessing and leveraging the constant change that is all around us. In order to combat fear, we demonstrate courage. When those around us are discouraged, we practice motivation. Likewise, when we are presented with a world of volatility, uncertainty and change, the answer should be simple: we need to learn the skill of foresight!
According to famed futurist Richard Slaughter, foresight – or futures thinking as it is called by some – is “the ability to create and maintain a high-quality, coherent and functional forward view, and to use the insights arising in useful organizational ways… foresight is not the ability to predict the future. It is a human attribute that allows us to weigh up pros and cons, to evaluate different courses of action and to invest in possible futures… the process of strategic foresight encompasses broadening our perceptions of what future possibilities may unfold and therefore, considering various situations beyond our normal line of sight.”
In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Think Like A Futurist To Be Prepared For The Totally Unexpected,” technology columnist Christopher Mims expounded on the importance of this “functional forward view” for today’s leaders:
“The art and science of futuring is fast becoming a necessary skill, where we read signals, see trends and ruthlessly test our own assumptions… Futuring is no longer just for futurists… Like the ability to make a budget or think critically, it’s a skill that anyone who has to make long-range decisions should, and can, acquire.”
Mims understands that foresight is “fast becoming a necessary skill” because, like the leaders who have to deal with the new landscape of ever-increasing complexity and change on a moment-by-moment basis, he knows that success means being continually adaptive and transformative. Being able to map “various situations beyond our normal line of sight” grants us the ability to pivot toward the future and create it in the here and now. And, once foresight has been adopted as a critical mindset and philosophy for both surviving and thriving in the 21st Century, then all of those timeless leadership qualities take on a new level of relevance and potential.
Foresight helps us to know where our organization is headed and allows us to map how we can successfully arrive at our preferred future. When this happens our intentions (honesty), understanding (empathy) and level of knowledge transfer (communication) are expanded beyond the boundaries of our personal biases and assumptions.
Foresight helps us to identify and nurture the capability to be flexible and multi-dimensional in the people around us. When this happens, our collaborative efforts will be open to more than the traditional ideas and practices within our limited scope of activity, and this clarifies the functions and responsibilities that we will need to delegate for both short and long-range success.
Foresight helps us to explore a wide range of near and far-term alternatives, possibilities and opportunities, meaning that the storehouse of creativity in our organizations will be amplified ten, a hundred, and a thousand times beyond what it is capable of today. Inspiration will become less about what our organization accomplished in the past – or even what our core strengths are in the present that allow us to be competitive – and more about the amazing things that we will be able to create moving forward.
Foresight helps us to pull the future into the present, and transition from a position of reactive disruption to proactive transformation. The “unknown unknowns” in other organizations become our “future maps,” empowering us to build strategy, processes and results that answer the grandest challenges of our time.
Are you ready to write your personal and organizational story of successfully implementing the must-have leadership skill of foresight? Kedge has helped companies large and small around the globe do just that since 2009.
Are you still unsure that foresight can empower you to create the future in a world of accelerating complexity and change? Then I invite you to explore The Futures School, our 3-day, project-based, hands-on certificate program that teaches participants the mindset and toolkit needed to successfully leverage foresight in their lives, businesses and organizations. The Futures School has being held in 20+ countries around the world, and has been heralded as one of the premiere foresight training programs. Our next cohort is being held April 4-6, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. Apply today!
Slaughter, R. (1995). The foresight principle . Westport: Praeger.
Can we be completely honest and transparent for just a minute? Doesn’t “strategy” often feel like a four-letter word? (I know that it actually contains more than four letters, but you get the point.) Doesn’t the thought of building strategy for your organization that is both practical and motivating make you feel anxious and even a little bit nauseous? Many of you may have answered in the affirmative, but do you know why strategy building and implementing business strategy can feel more like a roadblock than a highway to success? Do you know why many companies have a very hard time creating strategy that actually leads to outstanding results?
The widespread frustration that exists around strategic thinking and strategic planning has led to a proliferation of articles and books on the topic that claim to contain the magic elixir. As might be expected, many of these “strategy gurus” offer very different approaches and often seem to directly contradict one another. Some of these approaches will help you to find uncontested strategies in a “blue ocean,” while others help you to strengthen your existing strategies in the “red oceans” that are tried and true. Some modern practitioners believe strategy works best as an art or a game, while more traditional experts frame it as a war or a military campaign. There are even books that tell us that our strategy needs a strategy. (Do we actually wonder why the strategy experts in our companies are pulling out their hair!) How many of today’s leaders will admit that they have a dog-eared copy of “Strategic Planning For Dummies” sitting on the bookshelf in their office? And our list wouldn’t be complete without a seemingly endless collection of authors that pose the most obvious question of all: “What is a strategy?” (A great question, right?)
In today’s world, deliberate and simple planning are no longer sufficient in the face of accelerating volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) across all disciplines and domains. Could it be that the plethora of books, articles and workshops available on the subject of building strategy are a frantic attempt to somehow connect our traditional strategic practices to a rapidly changing reality? In my experience, leaders and strategists are struggling because those traditional strategic planning practices are outdated and antiquated. In order to create strategy that works in a world of complexity and accelerating change, I’ve pinpointed three critical questions that your business or organization must address.
1. Is what you’re calling strategy actually something else altogether?
Creating meaningful and effective strategy is hard, and takes a great deal of effort, time and resources. For this reason, many small to medium sized companies (and dare I say many large companies as well) will proudly share their strategic plan with me only to reveal that there is no actual strategy involved. To be sure, there are colorful charts. And bullet points. And organizational “pillars” or areas of focus. And those documents that they share with me definitely include the company or organizational mission, and even an extensive vision statement that expounds on the exciting goals that the company wants to accomplish. And all of these things look great, but they don’t equate with effective strategy that helps an organization to accomplish their mission, goals and vision. Strategy is a plan of action, or the method through which an organization achieves their desired outcomes or business model. Don’t mistake having amazing ideas with the purposeful and intentional ways in which you will actually be able to achieve your short-term goals and long-range vision.
2. Does your company or organization know how to build adaptive, resilient and transformative strategy?
As strategy guru Karl Moore noted,
“It seems the relatively stable world of my corporate career has gone the way of the dodo… the day of the 5 year and even 2 year plans has faded and emergent strategy is the reality in most industries that I work with. You must be much more fleet of foot, strategic flexibility (emphasis mine) is what we are looking for in most industries. The boundaries are more fluid now. For many, albeit not all, knowing what industry you are in is not as clear cut as it once was.”
In the landscape of Moore’s “emergent strategy,” we should hold tight to our long-term vision, but we must be willing to let go of our rigid and linear strategies in a moments notice if we hope to achieve those visions. Gone are the days when we could create strategy that would go unchallenged for long periods of time. In an environment that is much more transparent, convergent and disruptive than ever before, our strategies must contain pathways that allow us to respond to new trends or changes in values, and that promote break throughs to our company’s next stage of growth.
3. Is your company missing a critical step in the strategy building process?
Many companies today have learned that Strategic Planning can only be done properly once leadership has engaged in Strategic Thinking. Strategic Thinking can loosely be defined as the practice of gaining business insights and competitive intelligence before deciding on the specific plans that will make an organization most effective within its industry.
Though adding the insights of Strategic Thinking to your existing Strategic Planning processes is good, it’s not enough in an environment of exponential change. If Strategic Planning is the “what” of an organization’s strategy process, and Strategic Thinking is the “how,” then Strategic Foresight is the “why” that is so critical to success in a VUCA world. Strategic Foresight can be defined as the practice of exploring multiple alternative futures that cover a range of probable, possible, provocative and preferred outcomes. If today’s businesses are being disrupted from outside of their conventional boundaries – think of famous examples from the music industry (Apple), the automotive industry (Uber), and even the staunchly traditional industry of finance (Blockchain) – then we must intentionally look broadly across social, technological, economic, environmental and political forces of change before we attempt to think strategically about our areas of focus, and certainly before we build any plans for our specific organizations.
If you are stuck in the old practice of strategic planning, then you are probably intimately familiar with at least one of the questions listed above. If you fail to address any of these questions, you are likely to experience “strategic fatigue,” and that should definitely present you with a very good reason to be extremely nervous. Fortunately, the cure for strategy-induced nausea is simple. Determine in 2017 that you are going to differentiate your strategy from your vision, create strategy that is adaptive and resilient, and integrate the critical skillset of Strategic Foresight before you make any more plans.
P.S. You counted the number of letters in the word “strategy,” didn’t you?
In just a few more days, Donald J. Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States of America. As has been the case on every single day since the election took place, I have spent countless hours thinking about about what this presidency – born in an atmosphere of fear, anger, hate and authoritarianism – means for the future of the great American dream and experiment. During this time, I have also been reflecting on the less familiar but equally powerful lines from Emma Lazarus’ sonnet “New Collosus” which is emblazoned on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
It’s important to note that the famed statue that stands on Liberty Island in the New York City harbor was designed to resemble the Roman goddess of freedom Libertas by French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi. She was chosen due to her widespread representation in American culture at the time, especially on coins, in popular and civic art, and on federal and capitol buildings across the United States. Apart from the various allegorical symbols which adorn the statue, it’s important for us to ask why the early-American artists and Bartholdi himself chose for liberty and freedom to be represented by a woman? (Of course, Justice is also represented as a female, the Roman goddess Themis or Justicia, and is associated with other socially allegoric goddesses such as Astraea, Dike, Fortuna, Eunomia, Eirene, Tyche, and Ma’at.) Why is it a she who holds a torch whose flame is the imprisoned lighting? Why do her eyes command the New York City Harbor? Why do her silent lips cry for the tired, poor, homeless and tempest-tossed to be sent to her golden door?
In an essay from the National Council for Civil Liberties, writer Barbara Taylor offers a profound yet poignant answer:
“Marina Warner, in her excellent Monuments and Maidens, attributes this to Woman’s cultural Otherness, her ‘ancient associations’ with ‘outsiderdom, with carnality, instinct and passion’… As the more animalistic, the ‘wilder’ sex – the sex which must be ruled rather than ruling – Woman embodies a primal lust for liberty. The ironies are obvious: ‘No visitor, looking up at the colossus of the Statue of Liberty, imagines her appearance as a sign that women…enjoy privileged access to freedom.’ As an allegory of Liberty, Woman symbolizes a passion for freedom inherent to all human beings, while at the same time exposing the limits of liberty as an abstract ideal. What does liberty mean for women in a male-dominated world?”
What does liberty mean in a world such as Silicon Valley where women hold only 11% of executive positions, and often leave behind their love and passion for science and technology early in their careers due to being unmercifully harassed, violated and demeaned by the male-dominated culture? As Nina Burleigh states in Newsweek Magazine, “It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that a front line, if not the trench of the global gender war, is in Silicon Valley. In that sense, Silicon Valley culture echoes the Wolf of Wall Street culture in the ’80s and ’90s. But while Wall Street today seems tamer—thanks to lawsuits and diversity consultants in every corner—in Silicon Valley the misogyny continues unabated. A combination of that very traditional Wall Street wolf-ism among Northern California’s venture capital boys’ club and the socially stunted boy-men that the money men like to finance has created a particularly toxic atmosphere for women in Silicon Valley.”
What does liberty mean in the world of news, media, literature and entertainment where women are still largely portrayed as sex icons, and the male-dominated culture continues to sell the concept that a woman or young girl’s value is found in their beauty, youth and sexuality? According to Sifat Azad in the online magazine Mic, “… only 24% of news stories were reported about women globally in 2011. Women were the focus of only 19% of news stories in politics and government in 2010. Of the 84 news websites monitored by the Global Media Monitoring Project, 23% of newsmakers were represented by women in 2010. NPR reported in 2010 that only 26% of its news sources were women. This shows that men are not only largely in charge of the government and news in all aspects of society, but they also dominate the voices and news exposed to the broader world. Ironically, while women represent fewer than half of several fundamental media occupations, women have outnumbered men in statistics of journalism and mass communication graduates. From 1999 to 2010, women have consistently represented more than half of the graduates among journalism and mass communication Majors… Typically, female characters in film and television were not portrayed in leadership roles and were less likely than male characters to achieve their goals. Amongst the 10 top-grossing films of 2010, three of those films were considered “woman-centric.” Only 19 out of the 100 top-grossing films were given that title… Female characters were more likely to be depicted wearing sexy clothing, partially nude, and referred to as attractive in comparison to male characters. Girls and women from ages 13 to 20 had a 21.5% chance of being referred to as attractive opposed to 13.8% of women aged 21 to 30 years old.”
What does liberty mean in the world of governance and politics where women are shockingly marginalized, and where local, national and global policy often reflects a bias against the female gender. As noted by Equality Indicators at the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance, “Women comprise half of the U.S. and world populations but are highly underrepresented at all levels of government. (22.8% of national parliaments are women, 19.4% of the U.S. Congress is women, and 24.6% of U.S. state legislatures are women.) The consequences of the gender gap in political leadership go beyond issues of democratic representation. Studies have found that, on average, women elected officials introduce more legislation than men, and that they do so on a wide range of issues, from health and education to infrastructure and the environment. On balance, women elected officials have also been found to be more transparent, collaborative, and effective.”
And so, I return once again to pondering the future of a world in which the next president of the United States has displayed an unprecedented level of hate toward women. (Never mind his unbelievable track record on xenophobia, racism, bigotry, and countless other indicators of sociopathic behavior.) I think specifically about the future of my two daughters – ages 17 and 19 – who are on the cusp of entering the world of adulthood. What will liberty look like for them? Will they be inspired to pursue the wonders of science and technology, or will they walk away from their potential at an even younger age than today’s population due to a landscape of increasing hostility toward female intellectuals, professionals and entrepreneurs? Will they see themselves as builders of healthy social images and human development, or will they only ever believe that their true value is in being a play-thing for men to grab by the genitals whenever they feel the need or desire? Will they realize their inherent power to lead the world toward greater transparency, collaboration and effectiveness, or will they live under the oppression of even more anti-female decisions and policies?
I ask myself these questions because the inauguration of the 45th president is rapidly approaching, and I realize that he does not value the true meaning of liberty. I watched during his campaign as he promised to “make America great again,” and I heard his followers interpret those words as a rally-cry for some bygone form of liberty that they feel they have lost. But fear, anger, and an iron fist are not the equivalent of liberty. As Taylor stated,
“… in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she (18th century revolutionary feminist Mary Wollstonecraft) extended the argument: ‘There must be more equality established in society…[and] this virtuous equality will not rest firmly even when founded on a rock, if one half of mankind be chained to its bottom.’ So long as women remained subordinate to men, ‘convenient slaves’ rather than equal citizens, true liberty would be impossible. ‘Equality is the soul of liberty,’ Wollstonecraft’s acolyte Frances Wright wrote in 1829. ‘[T]here is, in fact, no liberty without it.’
It is for this reason – and many others that relate to defending the great American dream and experiment – that you will find me marching alongside a historic number of women at The Women’s March on Washington on January 21st, 2017 in Washington, DC. Already, over 100,000 women (and men) are expected to “join in diversity to show our presence in numbers too great to ignore. The Women’s March on Washington will send a bold message to our new government on their first day in office, and to the world that women’s rights are human rights. We stand together, recognizing that defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us. We will not rest until women have parity and equity at all levels of leadership in society. We work peacefully while recognizing there is no true peace without justice and equity for all.”
If you cannot attend the march in person, I hope you will support those individuals and organizations who make a difference everyday in not only assuring access to equal healthcare, education and legal rights for women in the U.S. and around the world, but who also promote the rise of women (and the feminine spirit) in science, technology, leadership, business, governance and across all levels and domains of society. If you do, then you will be empowering Liberty’s “primal lust” and “passion for freedom inherent to all human beings,” and you will exemplify her beacon-hand that glows world-wide welcome beside the golden door.
P.S. Isn’t it crazy to think that the metaphorical message of our last president was “Yes, We Can” (A message of forward-looking hope, transformation and aspirational change at its core) and the message of the incoming president is “Make America Great Again” (A message of backwards-looking recapture, authoritarianism and fear-induced separation from an increasingly globalized world)? As you may have noticed, I do not play well with fear as a motivator for platforms of non-emergent, artificial or manufactured landscapes of change, and I do not see “backwards” as a way to ever arrive a better future for all.
In 1973, renown design theorist and university professor Horst Rittel penned a treatise on an original concept that he called wicked problems. According to Rittel, a wicked problem differs from a regular problem in that the former is extremely difficult – or sometimes impossible – to solve due to its changing and complex nature. Rittel’s use of the word “wicked” does not refer to being evil, but rather signifies the complex convergence and interaction of various ideas, issues and agents that create extreme resistance to resolution. Each solution created for a wicked problem only reveals or creates more problems. In our environment of complex dilemmas in food economies, shifting concepts in work and education, technological disruption, economic distribution and disparities, shrinking job markets, political upheaval, class disenfranchisement, environmental collapse, and resource wars, almost every single issue has become a systemic and interconnected predicament with no obvious solution.
Today, most would agree that we live in a world full of wicked problems, and our leaders are desperately seeking to find meaning in the midst of increasing complexity. Does our current way of thinking about these wicked problems – one that was developed in a era when siloed disciplines, linear planning processes and risk management tools ruled the roost – help us to tackle a landscape where exponentially accelerating complexity is the new norm?
Our Industrial Age relationship with complexity was adversarial, to say the least. Organizational and economic gurus have positioned complexity as the enemy of efficiency, and have suggested various ways to simplify, avoid or even kill it. However, in this environment of constant change, such advice is similar to suggesting that we stop breathing in order to avoid the flu. One of the first things we tell clients is that if they attempt to kill complexity in order to successfully navigate their way forward, they might as well quit doing business altogether. Whether building companies, steering governments or achieving personal goals, attempting to avoid complexity isn’t the answer anymore. Rather, just the opposite is true.
In our world of defined by complex collisions, convergence and interconnections, we must recognize that it isn’t the rapidly changing landscape that is the real enemy of being empowered for the present and the future, but it’s actually our outdated mental maps that have their roots in a previous stage in our human development. What we need now isn’t better teaching on mindsets that were successful in a bygone economy. We need to shift our models. Businesses, organizations, innovators, and entrepreneurs need a new platform from which to operate. Instead of operating out of fear or a “fortress mentality,” leaders must harness, embrace and leverage increasing complexity as a matrix from which to realize new ideas, new services, and new solutions. When we adopt this view, we will begin to realize that complexity is actually the catalyst for the new discoveries that can solve age-old problems. In this new world of rapid change, we must learn to “dance with complexity” rather than attempting to kill it.
Think about this: When we mature through the various stages of life – from infant to teenager, and ultimately adulthood – we transition from simplicity to greater complexity. When scientists and explorers look through their telescopes across the vastness of the universe, they see increasing levels of complexity rather than greater simplicity. As it turns out, humans themselves are made up of a complex system of microorganisms – we are completely dependent on an interconnected and symbiotic relationship with all other lifeforms. Nature – in all of its manifestations – transitions from simplicity to complexity in order to achieve growth. Despite the tremendous problems we face, our world of expanding complexity is not a sign that we are collapsing, but is really an indication that we are growing!
Even though many professional and academic voices are beginning to sing the praises of embracing complexity for unparalleled growth, decades of vilifying this emerging condition due to our long-standing zeitgeist that is attuned to efficiency, short-termism and linear thinking have made popularizing this mental model extremely difficult. However, such resistance is normal, because old systems don’t give way to new systems without putting up a fight. Like humans themselves, growth and maturity is a living, breathing, and organic process, and is in turn often a very messy experience. In terms of our collaborative human development, we are still closer to being a species of immature infants or teenagers rather than mature adults. As we make our journey in human history from the mechanical and reductionistic practices of the Industrial Age to what many are now referring to as a Postnormal Age full of radical disruption and change, we can expect that transition to be just as messy as when an actual teenager struggles to become an independent and mature adult. However – with the right mindset and response -we have the possibility of transitioning into a new vista of abundance.
So, how does increasing complexity actually lead to a generative world?
A plethora of researchers and professionals are noting that complexity is the seedbed of unlimited human creativity. Knowing how to harness and leverage complexity can lead us to new perspectives around our grand challenges, and help us to reach our “big hairy audacious goals.” Much like an ever-growing canvas, accelerating complexity is giving us more space on which to paint an unending series of unique masterpieces. This is the reason why we often tell leaders that they must harbor a culture of “creative complexity” in their organizations by promoting intentionally serendipitous interactions through diversity and collaboration.
As Columbia University Business School senior vice dean Katherine W. Phillips states,
The fact is that if you want to build teams or organizations capable of innovating, you need diversity. Diversity enhances creativity. It encourages the search for novel information and perspectives, leading to better decision making and problem solving. Diversity can improve the bottom line of companies and lead to unfettered discoveries and breakthrough innovations. Even simply being exposed to diversity can change the way you think. This is not just wishful thinking: it is the conclusion I draw from decades of research from organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers.
Going one step further, INSEAD emeritus professor of organizational behavior Linda Brimm reinforces the idea that complex environments lead to greater creativity when she says,
Some respond by seeking simplicity and, as a result, either revert to the stable status quo (which stunts growth) or ignore problematic aspects of the change to make the decision easier (but not necessarily wiser). Both coping mechanisms are counterproductive. To kick off a successful change effort, you must embrace its complex dynamics.
Northern Arizona University Professor of Science Education Jeffrey W. Bloom sees complexity as being even more closely connected to creativity. As a contributor to the book A Critique of Creativity and Complexity, he stresses the critical nature of diversity in giving rise to complex systems that in turn foster creative ideas and possibilities.
In all cases, creativity is evident when ideas interact, change, and give rise to new ideas. Without diversity, the emergence of new ideas, new forms, new species is greatly limited. Without diversity, adapting and adjusting to new conditions are hindered or prevented. Without diversity, complex systems have no material for change.
Jennifer Gidley – educator, postformal psychologist and president of the World Future Studies Federation – agrees with Bloom’s assessment that complexity is a critical element in creativity. In addressing the need for increased practices of wisdom in 21st Century educational models, Gidley notes,
Wisdom is creative, complex and integrative. Wisdom does not follow the straight and narrow, but meanders, pauses, plays with multiple options and looks around corners—curious for surprises… Multi-modal approaches to learning are very important in developing the multiple perspectives needed for wisdom to grow—as are some surprising and unexpected concepts… Wisdom is about waking up to multiplicity. Waking up—to our own presence and the presence of others. The complex wisdom embedded in the art of education demands being awake in every moment.
A perfect example of complexity’s exponentially-expanding role in cultivating creativity across the drivers of technology, society and culture is the ongoing development of the World Wide Web. Created in 1989 by computer scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee as a means for people to connect across the Internet, the World Wide Web is now used by approximately 3.5 billion individuals on a weekly basis as a means to conduct business, access education, and purchase everything from household goods to personal entertainment. Looking beyond these extremely profound but basic functions, Berners-Lee saw a much greater use for the web than simply being an information highway for the masses. Addressing the deeper purpose and potential of the web, he famously stated in modern-day prophetic language,
The Web as I envisaged it, we still have not seen it yet. The future is still so much bigger than the past.
With each passing day, this quote becomes more and more prescient. Today, most of humanity cannot fathom the potentially profound changes that are at our doorstep through web-related advancements such as the Internet of Things – the ever-growing network of cars, homes, office buildings, furniture, clothing, and every other physical object you can imagine, all-connected and speaking to one another through the use of sensors, software, and smart technology; Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence – the ability for computers to learn without being manually programmed through the use of pattern recognition, predictive analytics, and complex algorithms, as well as a whole host of sentient technologies and cognitive models that impact consumption, education, online search, digital assistants, drones and self-driving vehicles; or Computer-to-Brain Interfaces and Intelligent Amplification – the direct communication between an enhanced or augmented human brain and any external computational device, including the use of information technology, neuroprothetics, cybernetics and genetic engineering. Even if his quote about the long-term potential of the web was made without any knowledge of these emerging technological and human developments that have a direct connection to the evolution of the internet, one concept that Berners-Lee might have been visualizing was the idea of a “global brain” that was popularized in the early 20th century by the French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Expounding on the works of French philosopher Édouard Le Roy and famed Russian scientist Vladimir Vernadsky, Chardin perceived that the entire universe matures through greater complexity, which in turn produces increased consciousness and burgeoning creativity. He reinforced this idea through his work on the “noosphere” – the emergence of a sphere of thought that connects all human minds and encircles the entire earth. The rapid acceleration of cyberspace and digital worlds has advanced this sphere of complex thought, fostering a huge jump in the intentional evolution of humanity. In this sense, Berners-Lee’s world wide web has become an integral element in the rise of a “global brain” and one of the greatest inventions in human history.
In the next installment of Wired For Next, we will be talking about the rise of Sobotics (social robotics) and their impact on business and society.
4. A Critique of Creativity and Complexity. J.W. Bloom (p. 202)
Over the past several years, many organizations have told us that they see the long-term value of foresight and futures thinking, but are unsure of how to translate that skill set into immediate action and outcomes. This is where I inform them of the ultimate value of foresight: it’s ability to create the future today. This can mean introducing brand new ideas, strategies and innovations for the organization to implement, as well as ways in which the present strategies and models can be modified and expanded for higher order development, benefit and organizational purpose that has yet to be realized (or even defined).
Still, for many who are stuck in the old mindset of the destructive equation that reads: NTP (near-term planning) + QW (quick wins) = OS (organizational success), it can be hard for them to understand how futures thinking and foresight helps to foster better executives, adaptive businesses and industry-leading organizations. Let me see if I can help you to get off of that outdated and antiquated hamster wheel that only results in building brittle structures.
But first, I need to say something that may seem initially counterintuitive. Do you want to be a leader who knows how to navigate the volatility, disruption and complexity that has no end in sight? Then listen carefully:
Developing a practice and culture of intentionally and purposefully exploring the future in your organization is the KEY to successful strategy, innovation and growth IN THE SHORT TERM.
If that statement doesn’t seem a little strange coming from someone who specializes in helping organizations to map the future, then please read it again very carefully. That’s right – I said that Futures Thinking produces successful short-term strategy and innovation. “But I always thought that foresight was only about preparing for the future,” you say? Au contraire! Futures Thinking and Strategic Foresight is about guiding us successfully into the future as it unfolds, emerges and grows, and that future starts RIGHT NOW. That is why you will often find us saying that you must “Discover The Future and Create It Today.”
Now, I’m not saying that short-term thinking leads to success. Remember, I already told you that NTP+QW=OS is an outmoded and broken way of thinking and acting in today’s landscape of increasing exponential change. What I am saying is that thinking proactively about the future leads to taking action with both far-reaching and immediate results. As a matter of fact, if your foresight efforts aren’t leading to immediate action plans, implementation of strategies with direct impact, improving processes today and creating innovative ideas that feed straight into your R&D, then a vital part of your Futures Thinking framework is missing. And this brings me back to the visual at the beginning of this article.
If we think about the future being divided into 3 horizons – near-term (Horizon 1), mid-term (Horizon 2) and far-term (Horizon 3) – then we can also begin to categorize our scanning efforts (i.e. our practice of intentionally looking for and monitoring trends and patterns of change) into those same 3 horizons.
H1 covers our Environmental Scanning efforts, or the ability to find the immediate trends that are impacting our organization and the things that are keeping our leadership awake at night. If you have traditionally used the phrase “Environmental Scanning” to encompass all of your scanning efforts, then this distinction will be of great value to you. You see, somewhere along the line, the word “trends” became equated with the future. In reality, the reason that you know about trends is because they are taking place today. Trends are all about what is happening right now. Yes, they have direction that tell us something about where things are headed, but they already exist. Is this helpful? Very! We must know about the trends if we are going to be successful in the present landscape and understand the direction in which the world is headed. However, these are also things that should already be in your strategy and innovation plans. Everyone is looking at these same trends. They do very little by themselves to help us become transformative, build industry leading strategies and innovation, and create the future today. For this reason, Environmental Scanning is just the starting place in good Futures Thinking and Foresight that produces immediate results and success.
H2 covers what many call Horizon Scanning. If Environmental Scanning is surveying the mountain that is right in front of us (remember, trends are today), then Horizon Scanning is looking to the mountains that are in just in the distance. From where we stand today, these mountains look much smaller than the one right in front of us, but in reality they may be much larger. It’s not only about making sure that we have enough resources to make it over those mountains once we get there (i.e. adaptive and resilient), but about bringing those mountains to the forefront so that we are the ones who are being disruptive, transformative and aspirational in our actions today.
H3 is what we call Speculative Scanning. This important scanning practice is the most ignored and completely misunderstood part of Futures Thinking in organizations today (especially by those who are stuck in the obsolete mindset of short-term planning being a viable practice in our world of disruption and complexity). This horizon and mode of scanning is the most important part of a healthy foresight practice because it helps organizations to properly define the future-empowered ideas and concepts that will make it into today’s successful actions and outcomes. It is this practice that seems most counterintuitive to leaders, but the one that also directs growth, purpose, goals and immediate plans. Do you want to break the cycle of short-term planning that is only building an increasingly brittle organization? Then it’s imperative that you grasp the practice of Speculative Scanning.
In Speculative Scanning, the futurist leader and foresight practitioner is looking for provocative futures and far-reaching breakpoints of change – emerging possibilities and alternatives that result from the collision of of today’s environmental and horizon scanning efforts. These possibilities aren’t identified through fanciful brainstorming exercises, but rather are the result of pattern and cluster development – the convergence of trends, shifting values, implications and the subsequent landscape of change that follows. (Want to know how to create pattern and cluster maps from quantitative and qualitative scanning? It’s a huge part of what we teach at The Futures School. We would love for you to join us!) Once identified, it is the tension between this H3 speculative scanning and your H1 environmental concerns and findings that help to adjust and clarify the H2 intelligence that is vital for your immediate strategies, models and innovations. This practice transforms your nasty habit of short-term planning that is based on your “illusion of certainty” into short-term action that leads to both immediate and far-reaching success.
In other words, without speculative scanning and inquiry, you never really know if your environmental and horizon scanning is on-target or off-base from what is really coming in terms of converging influences and emerging landscapes. And it is these far-reaching landscapes (they aren’t really all that far away) that are quickly bringing disruption and transformation to all that you think and do today.
So, let me give you a new equation for success in our world of constant change and accelerating complexity: H3 ÷ H1 = H2 (A). In other words, when we are conducting good environmental and speculative scanning, we can identify those “next order” changes that we must act upon for both short and long-term success. Being speculative – whether in strategy, design or large-scale development – is a non-negotiable for leading the way in the here and now.
According to Amazon, you are most likely familiar with the concept of generations in the workforce or “generational warfare” all too well. When you search for books on their website using the phrase “generations at work,” you will find over 39,000 entries. And yet, with all of that information at our fingertips, we still don’t know how to effectively manage the clash of generational differences in our organizations.
Now, just when you thought that you had successfully memorized the human bingo card of Boomers, Xers and Millennials, along comes an emerging landscape that will either have you jumping for joy or throwing your hands up in despair.
Whether you are aware or not, today’s traditional understanding of generations in the workplace originates largely from two popular theories. The first was developed in 1923 by sociologist Karl Mannheim in his work entitled “The Problem of Generations.” (Yep, the issue was framed as a “problem” a long time ago.) His seminal work on generations noted the following:
Besides noting that generational distinctiveness is dependent on the pace of social change, Mannheim also stated that members of a particular generation were stratified by their physical location, culture, and even class, and this stratification caused members to see the world differently and lack generational homogeneity.
The second theory comes from William Strauss and Neil Howe, and was popularized in their books Generations (1991) and The Fourth Turning (1997). Basically, the duo stated that a generation was:
Both Mannheim’s and Strauss/Howe’s generational theories seemingly do a great job of explaining socio-cultural change and differences in the eras leading up to and through the Industrial Age. But do these generational theories work as well in the present environment of constant change and the emerging landscape of increasing complexity?
To begin answering that question, let’s take a quick look at three “post” concepts:
Postmaterialism is an idea developed by Ronald Inglehart in the 1970’s that recognized the growing shift away from material goods to values that centered around autonomy and self expression. Though this could very well denote the shift to a new generation, these values have been impacting all age groups as manifested by the trends of personalization, authenticity and creative collaboration.
Postdisciplinarity is gaining popularity as social scientists and professionals from across domains highlight that the exponentially accelerating changes in technology, social innovation and organizational practices are leading us into a world where boundaries and silos fail to serve human development. A growing number of conferences, businesses and academic programs are touting a postdisciplinary approach with each passing year.
Postnormal is a framework developed by scholar Ziauddin Sardar that describes the unique aspects of the turbulent, ambiguous and volatile world in which we now find ourselves. Based on the concept of “post normal science” in which “facts are uncertain and values are in dispute,” the postnormal economy is characterized by an atmosphere of chaos, complexity and contradictions that cause “normal” to evaporate.
Each of these “post” ideas loudly proclaim that we have entered an era of exponential complexity, accelerating transformation and increasingly shorter intervals of change. So what does this mean for generational theory? Let’s ask Mannheim, Strauss and Howe.
Mannheim: “Whether a generation succeeds in developing a distinctive consciousness is significantly dependent on the pace of social change.”
If Mannheim could have seen our postmaterial, postdisciplinary and postnormal world, what would he have to say about the pace of change and the ability for a distinct generation to form?
Strauss and Howe: “A generation is the aggregate of all people born over the span of roughly twenty years or about the length of one phase of life.”
Twenty years? Maybe that concept worked in the 1990’s. However, twenty years in today’s environment will see more technological, social and governmental change than the early adopters of generational theory could have imagined taking place in a century! In such a world, how can a distinct generation only emerge every twenty years?
If generational theory as it is practiced today is to be believed, then we will have new generations popping up every few years. Soon, we will have 10 or more generations existing simultaneously in the workplace. Thankfully, this is not necessarily the case. As we enter a new era of increasing complexity and change, a postgenerational cohort is emerging. Empowered by open-source systems, peer-to-peer architecture, social media, blockchain software, collaborative consumption, participatory cooperativism, decentralized autonomous organizational models, mesh networks, mirror cities, flux innovation and augmentation technologies, this “Post Gen” cohort is transcending workplace warfare and the generational divide by connecting around like-passions, virtual and digital communities, human-centric solutions and crowd-sourced innovation. Post-Gen can be seen in the development of new educational models, business platforms and transdisciplinary endeavors to solve big world problems.
In other words, we are entering an era in which the rules around traditional generational theory do not apply. The new “Post Gen” landscape is blurring the lines between distinct generations in terms of experiences, values and activity. The reason that you are continuing to experience generational warfare at work is most likely due to your antiquated organizational and leadership models that do not reflect the environment of convergence, meshing, and the “unsiloing” of ideas and interaction.
If increasing complexity scares you, then our new landscape of change is your worst nightmare. However, if the idea of trading generational warfare for a postgenerational transformation gives you hope, then this new world of increasing complexity is better than 39,000 books combined!
Kedge Principles Yvette Montero Salvatico and Frank Spencer were recently in Amsterdam to present a workshop on our Wicked Opportunities® Foresight Framework with the Dutch Future Society. Click here to check out the post-workshop video to hear about the importance of Futures Thinking and Strategic Foresight in our new world of business, organizational and social development.
Are you ready to move past the frustratingly outdated models of incremental and linear activity and dive deep into the tools and methods that help leaders and organizations seize and leverage today’s landscape of complexity for untapped opportunities? Then make sure to register for The Futures School, the premiere interactive and project-based program that empowers participants with the critical skills of Strategic Foresight and Futures Thinking for a new era of change. The next cohort is May 2-4, 2016 in beautiful Miami, Florida, and seats are limited!
Since the dawn of time, humanity has been evolving through the use of technology. It’s a part of what makes us human. It’s in our nature to leverage technology in order to adapt, advance and transform. In turn, our technology has been evolving as well, thriving and often leapfrogging through its symbiotic relationship with humanity.
“Wait a second,” you say. “Technology is relatively recent invention. It’s not like people who lived centuries ago had electricity, automobiles or cell phones.” To the contrary, technology has always been with us. And all along that co-evolutionary journey, we have leveraged technology to grow and thrive as a species (and vice versa). As a matter of fact, the popular refrain that the “robots are coming to take our jobs” and leave us without any reason to exist is summarily false. Over time, technology has always created more jobs than it has destroyed, even while pulling us toward greater realms of technical, intellectual and emotional skills.
One definition of the word “technology” is “the sum of the ways in which social groups provide themselves with the material objects of their civilization.” In the early days of human existence, the technologies we discovered and created helped us to avoid existential risk, such as the use of fire for heat, cooking and safety. Later, technology provided us with the means to create community and safeguard the growth of our species, as was the case with the creation of roads, farming tools and aqueducts. And as the positive feedback loop of human advancement and technology has unfolded, this symbiotic relationship has been slowly moving us from a collective mindset of short-term “fight and flight” thinking to a long-view mentality in which navigating and creating the future is being moved to the foreground of how we operate as a species. I like to say that we are being “wired for next.”
As someone who works to promote futures-empowered strategy and innovation in organizations, the growing popularity and adoption of virtual reality strikes me as having the potential to exponentially accelerate our collective futures-oriented perspective. Through this technology, the ability exists to be fully immersed into alternative narratives or visions of the future. As one reporter stated, “People feel present in a virtual environment, or world, in which there are no rules: gravity can be suspended, senses can be manipulated and avatars can be inhabited.” As a matter of fact, newly-formed Penrose Studios is working to do exactly that. Staffed by VR content technologists from Pixar, Oculus, Disney, Google and Dreamworks, Penrose is creating “heartfelt stories in immersive worlds” where “viewers could wander around.” Far beyond being used to develop new forms of entertainment, VR will allow humanity to discover, explore, map and create possible futures. These immersive stories of the future can help us to suspend disbelief, break free from the “official future” of our present assumptions, and build strategies, innovations and models that are adaptive, resilient and transformative. In other words, VR is a perfect example of how technology can foster a greater expression of humanity rather than strip away all that makes us human.
Our technology can certainly have a dark side – or more accurately, we can use technology for less than moral or ethical purposes – but here’s hoping that the “virtual futurity” on the horizon empowers us to take a giant step forward in being “wired for next.”
However, once they integrate it into their organizational strategy and processes, they also tell me that they feel like a key element is still missing.
I agree with them that design thinking is a fantastic way to rethink, redefine and reframe problems and solutions, and then I have the privilege of showing them the critical missing element from their design-enabled strategy, innovation and organizational development: Futures Thinking!
Traditional design thinking processes follow a cyclical five-step framework (depending on the source, the number of steps vary):
These steps help organizations to break free from the insulated, bias-laden and linear way of tackling a problem or creating effective solutions. Or do they?
Interestingly enough, futures thinking has promoted similar approaches to problem-solving, strategy development and innovation for at least six decades (and potentially longer, depending on whom you ask). Unfortunately, foresight practitioners have generally failed to understand the power of futures thinking to “design the future” – creating tangible action and outcomes – or they have only desired to leverage foresight and futures thinking to inform and inspire the “front end” of organizational development and processes. However, futures thinking has a far greater application than simply taking a “30,000 foot view” or serving as the annual keynote to get the crowds excited about the latest technological advancements. In reality, futures thinking helps us to “empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test” in a much more holistic, emergent and transformational way than is possible without it. Since futures thinking begins with the future in mind, it allows us to pull ourselves to new possibilities and opportunities in a way that brainstorming and visioning processes grounded in the present cannot achieve. Further, futures thinking can even help organizations to pull the future into the present, completely elevating and reframing the design process far beyond the confines of today’s most impactful ideas.
In recent years, foresight professionals have expanded the futures thinking toolkit to include a wider range of methods, infusing the design process with greater creativity by examining multiple alternatives that can lead to unexplored ideas – the hidden gems that are sought after in design thinking. Not only have practitioners created new ways of using “future landscapes” to uncover unforeseen and untapped possibilities, but a host of methods have arisen that help social and organizational leaders to look at the world through a holistic, systemic, and transdisciplinary fashion. These tools create an environment that is conducive to new ways of thinking about the future before attempting to engage in the traditional design thinking process: how it might unfold, how to recognize opportunities and breakthroughs in business and social innovation before they arrive, and how we can intentionally design the future in order to reach the aspirational changes we envision.
As the 21st Century begins to unfold, a new business, economic and social operating environment is emerging and evolving. Likewise, our design thinking and futures thinking practices must evolve as well. For this reason, Kedge developed a new approach to foresight known as the Wicked Opportunities® Foresight Framework.
This framework allows leaders, organizations and practitioners to:
When we think about design – whether in terms of aesthetics or functionality – there is an embedded understanding of its ability to impact not only the present emotions or actions of those who come in contact with it in terms of organizational development and success, but also the long-term view of everything from political thought to social evolution – even the power to shape the ‘big picture’ of entire cultures or generations. For this reason, design thinking really requires a foundation in the dynamics of futures thinking to be most effective in reaching its full potential as a tool for creating in our age of uncertainty and complexity. Futures thinking develops the long-range outlook that is necessary for the type of design that is needed for life in the 21st Century: adaptive, resilient, and transformational.
P.S. The Wicked Opportunities® Foresight Framework is the foundation of what executives, professionals, innovators and entrepreneurs learn during the 3-day cohort of The Futures School. Visit our website to become a part of a TFS cohort in Miami, Florida or Sydney, Australia in 2016!
And of course, he’s gotten a lot more right than he has gotten wrong.
But this one is a doozy!
The statement that “complexity is your enemy” is completely and unequivocally WRONG! Not only that, but it’s dangerously WRONG.
I understand and sympathize with why Sir Richard Branson would utter such a terrible quote, and why many would buy it hook, line and sinker. Our long-standing Industrial Age mentalities have taught us that complexity and complication are the same thing. And it’s easy to think and act in ways that we are used to, as well as define the world in the same way that we always have. (Of course, it’s also lazy.) But complexity and complication are not even CLOSE to being the same thing, and for those who will succeed in the 21st Century, this will be one of their biggest discoveries!
You see, complication is something that we do to ourselves, and it is actually a byproduct of the mechanical and linear worldview that stems from the increasingly outdated and antiquated Industrial Age.
On the other hand, complexity is the natural order of the universe, and accelerating complexity is a sign of maturity in all living things. Furthermore, properly understanding and leveraging complexity is the means to true organic and transformational innovation as we move forward in human development. Shunning and killing complexity will cut us off from the greatest innovations that have yet to be realized, and is actually a reason for the existence of many of our present-day big world problems.
Saying that “complexity is our enemy” is a sure sign that we still need to transition our mindsets to a new era of organizational and social growth that plays by a new set of rules. And I’m sure you’ll hear many more amazing people tell you to kill complexity, but remember…
Complexity is your best friend!
Update: Since I first wrote this post, several people have asked me if I might be misconstruing Sir Richard Branson’s quote or taking it out of context to make a point.
Let’s assume for a moment that the quote can be generally interpreted two ways:
1. Branson is talking about innovation. He is saying that it’s easy to make a complicated idea for a product or experience, but it’s much harder to make something that is simple but works extremely effectively at solving a problem, addressing a need or introducing a new concept.
2. He is talking about leadership, organizational models, etc., and nothing that many leaders have a hard time either boiling down complicated processes for management and employees or creating simple processes that are effective (and that do not contain a ton of unnecessary steps, forms, connections, committees, meetings, etc.)
I would agree with Branson on either of these points. However, complexity is not the enemy, but rather the emerging catalyst for amazing new ideas, experiences, services, models, etc. Complexity is where collaboration takes place, convergence reveals new discoveries and breakthrough to unexplored capabilities arises. Complexity and complication are not the same animal at all. If you have experienced a time when simplicity has pushed you or your team forward, then that means you were unraveling complication. However, real growth comes through creative complexity, pattern development and emergent dynamics. Simplicity can strengthen what already exists. Complexity brings ideas into existence. Don’t confuse the two. The war against complexity is a losing battle for companies that plan on succeeding inside the new landscape of the 21st Century.
As I already stated, I’m sure that Branson was mistakenly equating complexity and complication. But this is a mistake we can no longer afford to make. Today’s leaders must learn the skill of harnessing and leveraging the growing environment of complexity for grand solutions and aspirational transformation. My next post will drive this critical skillset home.