“If organizations continue to reference paradigms and social stories from the past during a time of rapid change they fail to grasp what really matters to the society that is emerging.” -Helen Halford via “Build Back Better” – Used Futures as the Cornerstone for the New Normal
In many ways, today’s leaders are having to create a new vocabulary, new understandings, and come to new realizations to not only comprehend how the world is changing, how quickly those changes are coming, but also in realizing that what worked in the past no longer necessarily works or is even relevant as a lens and frame for how those changes have shifted our systems, our organizations, and our world as a whole.
What we are learning is that the past is no longer serves as a sufficient guide, model or map to effectively lead us into the future that we see evolving and emerging…
And yet, the question then becomes, are we ready to determine a new narrative? Are we able to create a new story? Can we make the mind-shift as leaders and organizations to move from pushing incremental reform in order to quell the current wave of growing uncertainties, to holding space for the thinking and ideas needed to provide exponential visions of change that can move an organization towards transformation?
Which will require leaders and organizations to begin to distance themselves from the idea of “Building back better” towards shifting to the thinking that allows us to consider how we can “Build back different.”
As Helen Halford shares in Build Back Better, “In a context of significant disruption, an organization’s failure to use strategies for deepening before making decisions about the future can lead to reactive behaviors and a missed opportunity for lasting change.” For which she adds, “Adherence to the story of building back better instead of creating from the future makes long-term social transformation unlikely. With well-meaning intent organizations unconsciously revitalizing an old story could respond to the litany of crisis by building back familiarity and stability…creating a recognizable version of the past.” As she continues, “As we go about creating a new, equitable, diverse and resilient society we must ensure we have untethered ourselves from status quo.”
Which is not an easy proposition, be that for leaders or organizations…
As returning to status quo, especially in the midst of a crisis, such as a pandemic, promises feelings of comfort, of progress, of returning back to some semblance of “normalcy” of what existed before everything became much more complex and uncertain, both professionally and personally. But what we often fail to realize, the assumption that we continue to make, is that if we return back to how is was before (pre-pandemic), that these heightened levels of complexity and uncertainty will fade away and “normalcy” will return.
Unfortunately, complexity and uncertainty aren’t going anywhere, and what the status quo and “Building back better” instead of “Building back different” only promises leaders and organizations a future that has already been “used” up, one that is no longer relevant, viable, or in the current context, even preferable for the future that the organization is moving towards.
Think of it like this…
“Building back better” is comparable to remodeling an old house (reform), whereas, “Building back different” is comparable to deconstructing that house in order to construct a whole new building (transform). Which is a whole different level of thinking, requiring new models and maps.
As Maree Conway shares in Thinking Beyond the Status Quo to Deal with Strategic Uncertainty, “When we plan for the future, however, there is an often unspoken assumption underpinning thinking that the future will be an extension of the present as that type of status quo provides a level of certainty that humans crave. Thinking beyond the status quo is essential if organizations are to develop strategy that truly prepares us for the future that our strategic decisions today create.”
Which will require leaders and organizations to not only be strategic in their thinking about the future, but also the assumptions that are being made about that future, how those futures are being anticipated, and how those assumptions and anticipation will have effect on the decisions being made in the current context, in the present.
Part of this strategic thinking will require a deep reflection of how the past, the models and maps that have been constructed over time by both leaders and the organization, can and does influence that thinking, and can constrain and control how the future is framed, limiting opportunities for being open to what is emerging and what affect that emergence may have moving forward towards determining if deeper levels of learning, change and even transformation will be needed and necessary.
Which makes strategic thinking and reflection a vital part of the process towards “Building back different” for both leaders and organizations.
As Conway puts forth in Thinking Beyond the Status Quo to Deal with Strategic Uncertainty, “Strategy is about the future, not today, so the thinking that underpins strategy development needs to be futures focused, not stalled in the status quo of today. Because the future is highly uncertain and cannot be predicted or known to a degree where data can be produced, the human proclivity for certainty means the value of thinking about the future is dismissed, and the focus of strategic thinking remains on the status quo.”
If we are going to be able to move from reforming to transforming, to move from “Building back better” to “Building back different,” we will have to become much more aware. Aware of how much of what we consider for the future, of the ideas that are informing that future, are often projections pushed forward from the models and maps that have been constructed from both the past and the present.
Most organizations are very adept at utilizing the past to guide present efforts, but struggle to engage the organization in deep and expansive thinking towards not only the future, but futures. Reflecting upon and updating our mental models and maps allows leaders and organizations to ensure that their expectations for the future are not grounded and entrenched models and maps erected from thinking grounded in the past. Or as is shared in Foresight for Challenging Environments, “The imagined future was only possible once the reality of the past extended had been acknowledged. A new present could be created.”
Awareness and reflection allows leaders and the organization to determine the disconnects between the past, present and the future, especially towards what is emerging, both internally and external of the organization. Being strategic, allows leaders and the organization to hold space for the openness to determine how that emergence will have impact, both in the present and future, and what that means in transitioning towards towards those futures.
“Learning based on the past suffices when the past is a good guide for the future. But it leaves us blind to profound shifts when whole new forces shaping change arise.” -Senge, Scharmer, Jaworski, and Flowers via Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future