Creating The Space For Cognitive Pioneering

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“In today’s dynamic environment, organizations need to be more liquid than static.  Yet many organizations stubbornly cling to outdated control models that will eventually lead to their demise.” -Michael J. Arena Adaptive Space: How GM and Other Companies are Positively Disrupting Themselves and Transforming into Agile Organizations

And disruptive it is…

As Michael J. Arena shares in Adaptive Space, “A study from Washington University shows that an estimated 40 percent of today’s S&P 500 companies will no longer exist a  decade from now.”

While Forbes adds, “At the current churn rate, about half of S&P 500 companies will be replaced over the next ten years. The 33-year average tenure of companies on the S&P 500 in 1964 narrowed to 24 years by 2016 and is forecast to shrink to just 12 by 2027.”

A disruption that requires not only an individual and organizational agility, but individual and organizational adaptability.  At the current rates of change, those entering the workforce in today’s world should plan on, at minimum, to face eleven-plus career restarts over their lifetime.

Adaptability?  Yes.

As Lynda Gratton puts forth in her MITSMR article Who’s Building the Infrastructure for Lifelong Learning?  “The traditional concept of a “three-stage life,” made up of three distinct periods of full-time education, full-time working, and then full-time retirement, is clearly untenable…”  For which she continues, “A more future-proofed concept is a “multi-stage life,” in which learning and education are distributed across the whole of a lifetime.”

Which does not even speak to the explosive rise of the Gig Economy across our society.  As the 2018 Global Human Capital Trends report from Deloitte Talent spotlights the forecast today’s executives for their workforce in 2020, which shows, “37% expect growth in use of contractors,” “33% expect growth in the use of freelancers,” and “28% expect growth in the use of gig workers.”  To give perspective to those numbers, the World Economic Forum shares, “Today, more than 57 million workers – about 36% of the US workforce – freelances.  Based on current workforce growth rates found in Freelancing in America: 2017, the majority of the US workforce will freelance by 2027.”  Or, as the Katz and Krueger study out of Princeton and Harvard relays, “The findings point to a significant rise in the incidence of alternative work arrangements in the U.S. economy from 2005 to 2015.”  

The volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (vuca) of today’s world is requiring us to think more, not only of the future, but FOR the future.  The accelerated, and often exponential changes we are now and will face means that we have to begin to be more proactive in how we consider what we are doing in the present, that will lead to better outcomes for our students and organizations in the future.

And yet, according to a recent national study conducted by Jane McGonigal, The American Future Gap, for the Institute for the Future (IFTF), relays that “The majority of Americans rarely or never think 30 years into the future, and many rarely even think five years out – a fact that can lead to poor decision-making in peoples daily lives and negative consequences for society.”  For which the study discovered that “more than a quarter (27%) of Americans rarely or never think about their lives five years ahead; more than a third (36%) never think about something that could happen 10 years into the future; and more than half (53%) of Americans rarely or never think about their lives 30 years out.”

Engaging in future thinking must become much more of a leadership ability and skillset, providing awareness and perspective for the decisions that are being made today.  As they will have great effect on the future.

Especially in education…

Especially when we consider the variety of future-casts being made for the year 2030 – a time in which today’s kindergartners will be walking out of our schools and facing the choice between career or college – in a world that many believe will have dramatically changed in many unforeseen ways.

While we cannot predict the future, we cannot either wait to begin to plan and prepare our  students, our educators, and our educational organizations and institutions for what many forecast as extremely dramatic changes to our world and the world of work.  We have to begin to consider what the world may look like for those students walking out into the world in 2030…students who are already enrolled in classes in our schools.

Building our awareness of the societal shifts that have already occurred, are occurring and are predicted to occur, helps us to be more proactive in supporting our students to be more adaptable and agile to these new and changing demands that are coming at them now and in the future.

For example, there are a plethora of sources that are not only providing insight into the effects of automation and artificial intelligence on work in the future, but the types of skills that may be desirable or sought after in the future.  For example, MIT’s Technology Review recently shared their forecast of skills that will be necessary and needed in the year 2030.  For which they have determined the following to be the “top five desirable future work skills” for 2030:

Judgment and decision making: Considering the relative costs and benefits of potential actions to choose the most appropriate one.

Fluency of ideas: The ability to come ups with a number of ideas about a topic.

Active learning: Learning strategies – selecting and using training/instructional methods and procedures appropriate for the situation when learning or teaching new things.

Learning strategies: Understanding the implications of new information for both current and future problem-solving and decision-making

Originality: The ability to come up with unusual or clever ideas about a given topic or situation, or to develop creative ways to solve a problem.

For this is just the tip of the iceberg, as we can find many more of these future-skills lists from such entities as McKinsey & Co, Forbes, Fast Company, Inc., MIT, MITSMR, Institute for the Future, and World Economic Forum, just to name a few.

So, while we cannot predict whether or not these will be the desired or sought after skills of the future, we can most likely say and agree that the future will require new and changing skills.  Which will necessitate that the idea of being a lifelong learner has become a required skillset of the future, no matter what occupation or profession you choose.  Constant upgrading, retooling, reskilling, and upskilling will be necessary for the majority of occupations and professions in the future.

Which means that education can no longer place its emphasis on the ongoing accumulation of facts and the memorizing of knowledge as a preferred way forward into this future.  Today’s educational organizations and institutions will need to determine how to best blend not only content and knowledge, but skills into the curriculum.  It cannot remain as an either/or proposition, as it will require a mix of both.

It will require AND…

Building awareness and consideration of the future will necessitate today’s educational leaders to not only engaging individuals and their organization in future thinking, but in creating a new narrative for the future that provides a vision and a way forward in a more meaningful and relevant manner.  This narrative is vital to the future and the idea of creating better outcomes for our students and organizations.  It is the creation of this future narrative that will help avoid, what Steve Saffron and Dave Logan share in their book The Three Laws of Performance as the “default future.”

Or as David Trafford shares in his article Understanding and Improving Your Organization’s Default Future, “We all have a default future.  It’s the place we’ll end up if we continue on the same path and take no action to change that future.  If the default future is a desirable destination, then there’s no need to be concerned, just enjoy the journey.  If the default future is unacceptable, then effort and action is required to create an improved future.”

Today’s leaders need to build in space for that narrative and story to be created.  A space where thinking and ideas can incubate and percolate.  A space where future thinking is perpetuated and supported towards determining a better way forward.  It is no longer enough that we have creative and innovative thinking being supported and spurred forward in our individuals, teams and organizations…we need to create space for cognitive pioneering to be promoted for the benefit of moving into the future with greater awareness and relevance, for our students, our educators, and our educational organizations and institutions.

If we believe that we are moving, both as individuals and organizations, in the right direction for this very uncertain future that is accelerating at us, then we have nothing to do other than remain steady and keep the course.  But if we believe that transformation is necessary to avoid the current “default future” we are hurdling towards, then creating space for cognitive pioneering and engaging the environment that will allow us to move towards a new narrative, and a new story for the future.

As Michael J. Arena shares in his book Adaptive Space, “We are operating in a radically changing world and we are not equipped to respond to it.”  But respond we must, if we want to remain relevant in providing a vision that supports our students for their future.

In other words, this will be the work of organizational leaders, both in the present and for our future.

“Organizations are under assault.  If they don’t adapt, they will die.  We see this happening all around us.  We are in a time of tremendous transformation, unlike anything we have seen in over a century.  In this environment we need to do something that most of us have not been trained to do and our organizations have not been designed for: we must learn to adapt.” -Michael J. Arena Adaptive Space: How GM and Other Companies are Positively Disrupting Themselves and Transforming into Agile Organizations

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Facing An Unknown Future

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For years, it has felt as if there has been this quiet undergirding taking hold across our society, as we consider the creep of automation and artificial intelligence upon jobs.  Especially as we begin to consider the possibility of a rather dystopian future, a world in which that same automation, as well as robots and artificial intelligence have left us jobless.  We seem to be facing this pivotal point in time where we are gearing up for an inevitable race against the machines.  For which Martin Ford, author of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment adds, “Potentially unlimited output can be achieved by systems of machines which will require little cooperation from human beings.  The result would be massive unemployment, soaring inequality, and, ultimately, falling demand for goods and services as consumers increasingly lacked the purchasing power necessary to continue driving economic growth.”  Or as the famous 2013 study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Micael A. Osborne at the University of Oxford have concluded, “occupations amounting to nearly half of US total employment may be vulnerable to automation within roughly the next two decades.”

However, in recent years, there has been a bit of a circling back from that dystopian narrative of a future without jobs.  We hear more and more about the automation and infiltration of artificial intelligence towards tasks, more than entire jobs.  Which is not to say that this coming future will not face severe job losses in the face of automation and artificial intelligence, but the picture now being painted seems more focused on tasks and how work itself will change.  However, with this rising narrative of an augmented future, there is the belief that there will be an increase in new jobs, but jobs that are now requiring new skills and capabilities, where augmentation seems to be the more logical approach in moving forward.  Meaning that it is becoming much less of a race against the machine and more of a race with the machine.  As Erik Brynjolfsson, author of Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy offers, “What can we do to create shared prosperity? The answer is not to try to slow down technology.  Instead of racing against the machine, we need to learn to race with the machine.”  The only problem is that the amount and pace at which these new jobs are being created is being outpaced by the ability of today’s digital disruption to eliminate jobs.  For which he adds, “Technology is always creating jobs.  It’s always destroying jobs.  But right now the pace is accelerating.  It’s faster we think than ever before in history.  So as a consequence, we are not creating jobs at the same pace that we need to.”

Whereas others believe that the fear of a jobless future, one in which automation and artificial intelligence has taken the vast majority of jobs, is nonsense.  Much like other industrial revolutions of the past, we will have to deal with some initial discomfort to the changes that the fourth industrial revolution will place upon us, but much like the past, we will adapt and continue to move forward much like we have done in the past.  As David Autor, MIT Department of Economics and National Bureau of Economic Research shares in his paper, Why Are There Still So Many Jobs?  The History and Future of Workplace Automation is that “employment polarization will not continue indefinitely.  While some of the tasks in many current middle-skill jobs are susceptible to automation, many middle-skill jobs will continue to demand a mixture of tasks from across the skill spectrum.”  However, one thing that he says will continue is the “increased demand for skill workers.”  For which he shares in his paper The Polarization of Job Opportunities in the U.S. Labor Market, “But since the mid-1970’s, the rise in U.S. education levels has not kept up with the rising demand for skilled workers.”

So, with that said, whatever narrative you tend to agree lean towards, there are some trends or ideas that bridge across all three narratives that will be vital for some semblance of moving forward successfully in this very non-obvious future we are facing.

Continually prepare yourself and your organization for a VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) World:  We live in times of constant change, but what makes it different for today’s world is the speed, pace and turbulence at which change is now occurring.  We live in accelerated times.  Which is why VUCA thinking and a VUCA mindset allows an individual and an organization to prepare for volatility of change, uncertainty of the future, complexity of systems, and ambiguity of next steps.  As Lisa Kay Solomon shares, “VUCA isn’t going away.  Change promises to speed up, not slow down.  To thrive in a world where change is the only constant, leaders need to replace old thinking with a new framework.”  Or as Marilyn Ferguson, American Futurist adds, “It’s not so much that we’re afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it’s that place in between that we fear…It’s like being between trapezes. It’s Linus when his blanket is in the dryer. There’s nothing to hold on to.”

Continually prepare yourself and your organization for a future of perpetual learning:  As Kevin Kelly editor of Wired Magazine and author of The Inevitable shares is that we are “newbies” in today’s world and “You will be a newbie forever.”  As he shared in The Creativity Post, “In this new world, we are always in a state of becoming.  We live in the age of the present participle – words ending in -ing that mean the action is in process.  Everything is in a flowing, changing state.  This flux turns us into continuous learners.”  We are quickly moving out of a time where the ability to “know” is giving over to the ability to “learn.”  In a world that is changing at an accelerated rate, while knowledge is vital, the ability to learn and remain a perpetual learner is key to remaining relevant.  For which McKinsey and Company puts forth, “For workers of the future, the ability to adapt their skills to the changing needs of the workplace will be critical.  Lifelong learning must become the norm – and at the moment, the reality falls fare short of the necessity.”

Continually prepare yourself and your organization to remain adaptable and agile to the profound shifts that are to be faced now and in the future:  Our world has tilted.  We are now facing fewer and fewer technical problems and more and more adaptive challenges and dilemmas.  Challenges and dilemmas that do not have ready made answer or solutions, even if they have an answer or solution at all.  In a world of accelerated change, inability to remain adaptable and agile often leads to irrelevance.  As Bob Kegan shares, “Work will increasingly be about adaptive challenges, the ones that artificial intelligence and robots will be less good at meeting. There’s going to be employment for people with growth mind-sets, but fixed mind-sets are going to be more and more replaceable by machines”

Continually prepare yourself and your organization for AND:  It is an AND world…It requires both knowledge and skills to navigate more effectively now and in the future. Especially in a world that is unfolding, evolving and exponentially changing at a much more accelerated and turbulent rate.  Understanding the importance of both knowledge, skills, as well as continual upskilling and reskilling as well as perpetual learning, this weighing of AND, will allow individuals and organizations to remain relevant for the future.  As the OECD adds, “Ensuring that everyone has the right skills for an increasingly digital and globalized world is essential to promote inclusive labor markets and to spur innovation, productivity, and growth.”

Today’s world not only requires our ability to face these VUCA challenges and dilemmas, and it not only requires us to remain perpetual learners and “newbies” towards these challenges and dilemmas to better engage the questions and thinking that leads to better solutions, it also requires the collaborative environments, based in trust and psychological safety, that will move us, as individuals, teams, and organizations, forward more effectively and relevantly into this very different and non-obvious future.

Understanding and recognizing today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) World reminds us how quickly things are changing around us.  But it is our ability to learn, in the face of this VUCA, that we are able, both as individuals and organizations, to remain adaptable and agile to these new demands and dilemmas we are now and will face.

If we are not engaging the future thinking necessary to at least try and imagine what the world will be like for today’s kindergartener by the time they graduate…then it will be incredibly difficult for us to even consider how to begin to prepare them for a non-obvious future and an exponentially changing world.