Designing For Disequilibrium

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“In today’s world, change is inevitable.  And if you’re only striving for equilibrium – which is all but impossible – you will merely continue doing the same thing, year after year as the world moves on.”  -Chris Cancialosi via Forbes

Too often, we see variance and disequilibrium as a problem to be eradicated in our organizations, rather than an opportunity for change that comes through the experimental and discovery learning that leads to new knowledge.  Rather, leaders often spend their time striving for the safety of organizational equilibrium, stability and sustainability, especially in the face of a world in the throes of accelerated and volatile shifts, growing complexity, and very often, the chaos of constant change.  And yet, according to Porter-O’Grady and Malloch in Quantum Leadership, “In systems language, stability is another word for death.  Absolute stability is the absence of life.  The leader always walks a tightrope between stability and chaos, tending to favor the latter.”

However, only striving for organizational equilibrium, in a subtle way, emphasizes a sense of individual and organizational complacency that often leads to behaviors and mindsets that mire the organization in status quo ways of being and doing.  Instead of gaining more agile and adaptable ways of responding, the organization that focuses only on stability and equilibrium, instead tends to recoil from the constancy and volatility of change, forcing itself towards a much more insulated and polarized stance towards the change forces that we are all facing in today’s world.

Focusing only on sustaining forces keeps our individuals and organizations from engaging in and equipping themselves with those processes and learnings that lead to greater agility and adaptability.  As Gary Hamel shares in The Future of Management, “In the 21st century, regularity doesn’t produce superior performance.”  Which we may want to add, we exist, especially organizationally, in a world that is expecting its individuals to equip themselves with greater creative and innovative thinking in order to engage the critical and complex problem-solving skills that allow for the solving of problems and challenges that we have never experienced previously, in new, novel, and often unpredictable ways.

When we design and prepare our organizations with the understanding that perpetual volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (vuca) is becoming the new normal, we don’t try to exist under the “false” interpretation that we will eventually be moving back towards what we previously understood to be “normal.”  Rather than fighting for regularity, predictability and stability, the organization takes on a mindset that drives the mindset and accompanying behaviors towards seeing greater agility and adaptability as the new “normal” for moving forward.  There is no longer any false pretense of working towards an environment and world that no longer exists and, for the most part, is not coming back in the near future.

In many ways, the less disequilibrium individuals and organizations learn to deal with, the less effective they become over time, especially in world that is changing at an accelerated and often exponential rate.  When individuals and organizations continuously avoid the disequilibrium and instability brought on by the uncertainty, ambiguity, and complexity of today’s world, they become much more rigid and inflexible towards change, often acting irrationally towards change, choosing for and becoming more receptive to keeping the status quo in place, even when it is not in their best interest, even in the face of oncoming disruption and irrelevance.

As Heifitz, Grashow, and Linsky share in Leadership in a (Permanent) Crisis, “People who practice what we call adaptive leadership do not make this mistake.  Instead of hunkering down, they seize the opportunity of moments like the current one to hit the organization’s reset button.  They use the turbulence of the present to build on and bring closure to the past.  In the process, they change key rules of the game, reshape parts of the organization, and redefine the work that people do.”

For which Heifitz, Grashow, and Linsky add, “Keeping an organization in a productive zone of disequilibrium is a delicate task; in the practice of leadership, you must keep your hand on the thermostat.  If the heat is consistently too low, people won’t feel the need to ask uncomfortable questions or make difficult decisions.  If it’s consistently too high, the organization risks a meltdown: People are likely to panic and hunker down.”

In leadership, as in life, individuals and organizations must ride that tension between the necessity for both equilibrium and disequilibrium.  Move too far too one side and we find ourselves sliding into comfort and complacency, move too far to the other side and we find ourselves and our organizations saddled to unbridled chaos.  In many ways, equilibrium and disequilibrium exist in much the same manner as pioneers and settlers. As both are necessary and needed.  Without pioneers, we fail to discover new lands, without settlers, we fail to settle and move into those lands.

As Heifitz, Grashow, and Linsky share, “The art of leadership in today’s world involves orchestrating the inevitable conflict, chaos, and confusion of change so that the disturbance is productive rather than destructive.”

It is in engaging individuals and organizations around that conflict, chaos and confusion, rather than avoiding and recoiling from it, that our organizations not only gain the ability to adapt, but create the ongoing capacity to adapt in a much more adept and positive manner.  This does not mean that there will be periods of difficulty and discomfort, but rather, individuals and organizations learn to see these as opportunities for growth and change that moves the organization forward in a much more effective and relevant manner.

As Chris Cancialosi shares in Forbes, “People who are able to view disequilibrium as an opportunity (rather than a threat) will be best suited to lead in today’s business environment because an organization that leans toward chaos is primed to find creative solutions to setbacks.” 

Today’s world is requiring of individuals and organizations new levels of learnability, agility and adaptability.  Insulating the organization in regularity, stability, and equilibrium does little to create the processes that will drive individuals and the organizations to greater levels of learnability, agility and adaptability.  When leaders fail to engage the tension brought on by disequilibrium, they end up creating future situations where individuals and the organization become both unwilling and unable to change, when change is necessary and needed.  It allows the organization to become ingrained in legacy practices and inflexible to change, in a world that is constantly changing.

As Heifitz and Linsky put forth, “In a chaotic period, when deconstruction is occurring at the same rate as construction or even faster, the dust of change makes it difficult for leaders to even see the goal.  Instead, they must read the signposts of change, explain to others what they mean, and engage these others in activities that will move the organization in the direction indicated by the signposts.” 

It is not enough for today’s leaders to ride the tension between equilibrium and disequilibrium.  Rather, those tensions must be used in a way that pushes both individuals and the organization towards the necessary urgency, understandings, and behaviors that lead to positive change that moves the organization more effectively and relevantly into the future.  Which requires a deeper level of awareness, agility, adaptability, and learnability, at all levels of the organization.

“The leader lives in the space between action and potential, anticipating the next step and translating the process for others.” -via Quantum Leadership 

 

 

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New Awareness For A New Age

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“We are at the threshold of a radical systemic change that requires human beings to adapt continuously.”  

For which Schwab adds…

“There is one certainty: new technologies will dramatically change the nature of work across all industries and occupations.” -Klaus Schwab via The Fourth Industrial Revolution

In a world caught in the throes of dealing with deep, exponential change from what is often being referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution; today’s individuals and organizations are going to need to be much more vigilant in building their awareness of these dramatic and often radical shifts across society and their coming effect on the future.  As we move deeper into the Exponential Age and further into the Knowledge Economy, we can begin to see these dramatic and radical shifts emerging and feel the impact they are having on us and the world around us.

And while it may remain, at this point, just a flicker on the educational radar, we know that something is different, we can feel the changes, even those we can’t see or are even aware of.

Especially in regards to the world of work, which is undergoing a plethora of changes and disruptions brought forth on the shoulders of an accelerated and often turbulent rate and speed of change, along with growing levels of globalization, the scaling of automation, and an evolving and expanding infusion of artificial intelligence across society.

In many ways, individual and organizational learnability, adaptability and agility, have become the new norms of the day.

However, as Srini Pillay, assistant professor, Harvard Medical School shares in the McKinseyQuarterly, “If you say to people, “You need to adapt,” but you don’t help them learn how to build a change-oriented mind-set, it doesn’t really help. In fact, it hurts productivity.”

Engaging that learnability, adaptability and agility often begins with creating the awareness that allows to set the stage for engaging that “change-oriented mind-set.”  

As educators, we have to begin to equip ourselves with a greater awareness of the changes in the world of work and skillset shifts that are occurring alongside and parallel pacing those changes, if we are to begin to better support and guide our students as they manage the growing complexities of college, career and work.

As Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management, at Harvard Business School puts forth in McKinsey Quarterly’s Getting Ready for the Future of Work, “We must view it as a race to develop institutions to support lifelong learning.  We need to move fast because we’re playing catch-up, and this is a much harder game to play; suddenly the numbers of people who need to learn fast are too big.”

As for these changes and shifts and the effect they are having on our individuals, organizations, institutions, and society as a whole, it is in seeing that our students will need much more college, career and work support and guidance as the reach of automation and artificial intelligence stretches outwardly and gains new and often unknown ground.

As Andrew Ng, Founder and Lead of Google Brain (Deep Learning) project, Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University, Co-Founder of Coursera shared in AI is the New Electricity, “Whatever industry you work in, AI will probably transform it.  I think today we see a surprisingly clear path for AI to transform all of these industries.  So I actually hope that whatever industry you are in, you’ll figure out how to leverage AI, because I think it will create new winners and losers in almost every category.”  For which he adds, “If any of you have friends or children or whatever studying in a med school, AI is getting much better at reading radiology images frankly.  So if any of your friends are going through medical school and graduation with a degree in Radiology, I think they’ll have a perfectly fine five-year career as a Radiologist.”

As Bob Kegan, William and Miriam Meehan Research Professor in Adult Learning and Professional Development, Harvard Graduate School of Education shares in the McKinsey Quarterly article Getting Ready for the Future, “The number of employees who are operating in more nonstandard, complex jobs is going to increase, while less complex work is going to be increasingly automated. The time it takes for people’s skills to become irrelevant will shrink. It used to be, “I got my skills in my 20s; I can hang on until 60.”  It’s not going to be like that anymore.  We’re going to live in an era of people finding their skills irrelevant at age 45, 40, 35.  And there are going to be a great many people who are out of work”  

For which adds, “What are we going to do about that?”

As leaders, especially in considering this very non-obvious future, we must begin to determine what changes…and what stays the same.  Then, determine how to create the systems, structures, processes, and behaviors needed to move us more relevantly and successfully towards that future vision and the outcomes we’ve determined, if we are to better support our students, parents, educators, leaders, stakeholders, and communities in moving forward through the uncertainty and ambiguity of an unknown future.

In response to these societal shifts, our students will need new and different supports and resources to guide them into the future.  However, without greater awareness of these changes and shifts and understanding the huge impacts that they are having on college, career and work, we will struggle to provide the guidance that students are needing as they begin to consider how to traverse this very non-obvious and uncertain future they are facing.  It is also in understanding that this guidance and support is not just a good to know, but imperative in response to the following research and data provided from McKinsey’s Education to Employment-Designing A System That Works report:

  • Worldwide, young people are three times more likely than their parents to be out of work.
  • Seventy-five million youth are unemployed (including estimates of underemployed youth would potentially triple this number).
  • Half of youth are not sure that their postsecondary education has improved their chances of finding a job.
  • Almost 40 percent of employers say a lack of skills is the main reason for entry-level vacancies.
  • Fewer than half of youth and employers, believe that new graduates are adequately prepared for entry-level positions.
  • Education providers, however, are much more optimistic: 72 percent of them believe new graduates are ready to work.

Which is why awareness is paramount and vital to supporting our students in navigating this very non-obvious future, especially regards to college, career and work.

Students shared in the same Education to Employment report, “Only about forty-percent say they would make the same educational decision if they could choose again what to study and where, and they rate themselves low on both general and job-specific preparation.”  For which they add that, “Some forty-percent of youth also report that they were not familiar with the market conditions and requirements even for well-known professions such as teachers or doctors.  Without this understanding, many students choose courses half-blindly, without a vision of whether there will be a demand for their qualifications upon graduation.” 

In closing, the report shared that, “Youth across surveyed countries said they were not well-informed about the availability of jobs or the level of wages associated with their course of study.”

While we will never have access to the tea leaves that provide us the insight of how to proceed in predicting and fool-proofing how we can better prepare our students for the future, it does not relieve us of building the awareness that allows us to better determine how to guide and support our students in determining their way forward into the future.  While we may not able to support in the necessary jobs creation that may be needed, we can begin to consider how content AND skills development can coexist in ways that better prepare our students for the changing world of work.  As well as creating our own individual and organizational capacity to provide guidance and support students as they consider their way forward in an unknown, ambiguous and very non-obvious future.

“Two related global crisis: high levels of youth unemployment and a shortage of people with critical job skills. Leaders everywhere are aware of possible consequences, in the form of social and economic distress, when too many young people believe that their future is compromised.”  McKinsey&Company Education to Employment: Designing A System That Works

 

 

The Slow Creep Of Disruption

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Very seldom does disruption just show up unannounced.  In fact, very often it has made its presence known far prior, only it just seems to be waiting backstage, gathering the support and momentum that will allow it to grab the headlines and then take center stage.

As an example of this slow creep of disruption, I walked into my nearby Sam’s Club yesterday and there was an obvious change to the checkout system.  From a ratio of eight cashiers and two self-checkout stations, they had shifted to six check-out stations and down to four cashiers.  While it may have caught me off-guard, it was not what many would consider disruptive in the least.  But for me, that shift from ten cashier stations years ago, to then eight cashier stations and two self-checkout stations, and now to six self-checkout stations and only four cashiers stations is, for me, a representation of the slow creep of disruption that we are currently seeing across society.  The type of disruption you don’t notice until it is already upon you and/or your organization.  The type of disruption that you may notice and recognize as occurring, but does not register as threat of deep change until it’s too late and/or urgency of change is required.

However, it is a phenomena we have seen throughout the ages…

Take the telephone, for example, “What use could this company make of an electrical toy?”  -William Orton, President of Western Union in 1876.

Or the television, “Television won’t be able to hold onto any market it captures acer the first six months.  People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”  -Daryl Zanuck, co-founder of 20th Century Fox

Or the computer, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”  -Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation

Or Google, “Google’s not a real company.  It’s a house of cards.”  -Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft

Or Netflix and Redbox, “Neither Redbox nor Netflix are even on the radar screen in terms of competition.”  -Jim Keyes, CEO of Blockbuster

Or Airbnb, “We have not seen a direct effect (from Airbnb) in any of our hotels.”  -Richard Jones, Senior VP and COO of Hospitality Ventures Management Group

It’s like the idea of the overnight success.  It is a slow creep that hits suddenly.  Much like in Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises in which they ask the character “How did you go bankrupt?” for which the answer comes as “Gradually, then suddenly.”

But even though we see it coming, it doesn’t always register, for a variety of reasons.  Whether it be that we don’t want it to happen, we don’t believe it will happen, or it seems improbable that it will ever happen.

Disruption often comes through a lack of awareness and/or willingness to see or acknowledge that change is occurring and then realizing it will most likely have an impact on our individuals and our organization.  Disruption is often in an unwillingness or awareness to prepare, for change is coming.

Too often, we don’t feel the necessity or urgency to or for change, either individually or organizationally.  We allow our past successes to serve as an imaginary insulator that tells us that we survived changes in the past, just as we will survive changes in the present and the future.  It is that “this too shall pass” attitude towards the disruptive forces knocking at the door and standing on the horizon that moves us away and disengages us from the proactive urgency that allows an organization to meet these headwinds of change straight on.

The slow creep of disruption always seems sudden when it kicks in, because that is usually the time when we begin entering the elbow of the curve, the time that we see the exponential shift, when we turn from the “gradually, to suddenly.”  Which often becomes our reality due to lack of awareness or willingness to believe, well before the curve or “suddenly” is upon us, that it this change is coming or even happening over time.

Instead of determining how external change can and often does require our own internal shift or change, we take a “baton down the hatches” approach to disruption and hope that it does not have effect on us or our organization.  Or, in many ways…

We try to insulate, instead of determining how to change and innovate.

Moving past our insulating and “baton down the hatches” tendencies to look towards finding opportunity in the midst of the chaos that often surrounds any type of disruptive shift is vital.  Vital that we use those change forces to fill, rather than deflate our sails.  Or as the quotes says…

“Not all storms come to disrupt your life, some come to clear your path.”

We must then begin to realize that change, often disruptive and accelerated, is definitely upon us and our organizations.  The lifetime of today’s Fortune 500 companies has dropped from 75 years in the past to 15 years or less in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environments.  Requiring a whole new level of individual and organizational agility, adaptability and learnability.  As Pierre Nanterme, CEO of Accenture shares, in example of today’s digital disruptive creep, “Digital is the main reason just over half of the companies on the Fortune 500 have disappeared since the year 2000.”  As Robert J. Shiller of Yale University adds, “We cannot wait until there are massive dislocations in our society to prepare for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

In many ways, there will be not only a period of initiating to the speed of today’s world and how quickly change occurs, but a time of new learning, requiring reskilling and upskilling, all preceded by a time of necessary unlearning.

As Mark Bonchek shares in the HBR article Why the Problem with Learning is Unlearning, “The problem isn’t learning: it’s unlearning.  In every aspect of business, we are operating with mental models that have grown outdated or obsolete…”  For which Bonchek shares that the process of unlearning has three parts:

  • First, you have to recognize that the old mental model is no longer relevant or effective.
  • Second, you need to find or create a new model that can better achieve your goals.
  • Third, you need to ingrain the new mental habits.

In this process of unlearning, Bonchek reminds us, “So as you being unlearning, be patient with yourself – it’s not a linear process.”  For which he adds, “In this time of transformative change, we need to be conscious of our mental models and ambidextrous in our thinking.”

Awareness and preparation are critical as we orient ourselves with the deep changes and exponential shifts that we see happening across society,  as well as the pace at which they are occurring.  As Gary Coleman of Deloitte Consulting shares, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution is still in its nascent state.  But with the swift pace of change and disruption to business and society, the time to join in is now.”  For which Meg Whitman, President and CEO of Hewlitt-Packard Enterprise adds, “You can always go faster than you think you can.”

Which will require not just continual investment in strategies and structures that allow for the sustaining of best practices, but engaging in the experimental, discovery learning that moves us and our organizations into next practices.  It will be those mindset shifts that will allow our individuals and organizations to continuously improve and evolve more relevantly into a very non-obvious future.

“Status quo – you know – is Latin for ‘the mess we’re in.'”  -Ronald Reagan

Organizational Agility

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“Leaders who are unwilling to capsize their current world view, whether that be their mindset or their ideas of what was, what is, what can be, and how we will get there, will lack the necessary agility to avoid future irrelevance.”  -via The Changing Face of Modern Leadership

Permanence is an illusion…change is the constant.

Ours is a time of constant tension and disequilibrium as the pace, volatility and turbulence of change accelerates in often unpredictable and disruptive ways, expanding the dilemmas and uncertainties today’s leaders and organizations will and must face.

Agility and adaptability have become the new normal.

It is no longer just a matter of being willing to change, but having the agility to pivot and shift course as new data, new information, new learning and new knowledge makes itself available in response to a world experiencing these accelerated, turbulent and dynamic levels of change.

As the saying goes, what was true today, may no longer be true tomorrow.

What we have to begin to realize and recognize is that our organizations were built for and operated in a time of much greater stability.  The steady pace of change allowed for more static, hierarchical structures and linear, stable processes that provided for more permanence and vertical alignment.  Even strategy, planning, decision-making and organizational learning flowed out at a very different pace and scale.

Whereas, today’s agile organizations must still retain some semblance of stability, while still operating and moving in a much more dynamic manner at all levels of the system.  We are seeing a swift shift from permanent and linear structures and processes, to the need for more transparent and networked ecosystems, where knowledge and learning flows cascade across all levels of the organization, allowing for greater autonomy and faster iterations towards the speed of decisions through enhanced feedback loops.

McKinsey&Company shares that “Such an agile operating model has the ability to quickly and efficiently reconfigure strategy, structure, processes, people, and technology toward value-creating and value-protecting opportunities.  An agile organization thus adds velocity and adaptability to stability, creating a critical source of competitive advantage in volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) conditions.”  For which McKinsey&Company adds…

“The agile organization is dawning as the new dominant organizational paradigm.”

In many ways, when considering our organizations as becoming more agile, we have to be aware of how we are building up the cognitive agility, strategic agility, and operational agility across the organizational system, in order to become more agile and adaptive.

Cognitive Agility – requires constant reflection upon our mental models and a willingness to examine our own leadership decisions, assumptions, and biases on an ongoing basis.  Which also necessitates staying open to feedback, new learning and knowledge, as well as retaining a willingness to disrupt our own thinking upon our current realities and possible futures as new data and information makes itself available.

Strategic Agility – is defined on Google as the ability of an organization to “gain advantage by capitalizing on new innovations.  If a new technological advancement is made,” an organization “with strategic agility is able to quickly take advantage of this change.”  For which they add, is the organization’s “ability to remain fluid, changing and updating operations as innovations become available.”  In other words, it is the ability to adapt quickly.

Operational Agility – is defined on Google as an organization’s “ability or capacity to find and seize opportunities to improve operations and processes, within a focused model.”  As McKinsey&Company add, “putting in place systems to gather and share the information required to spot opportunities and building processes to translate priorities into focused action.”

Cognitive agility allows us as individuals, leaders and organizations to be open to new opportunities, new learning and new knowledge that can improve the efficiency, effectiveness and future relevance of those in the organization, as well as the organization itself.  Once we are open to these opportunities, strategic agility allows us to search out and capitalize on those opportunities that allow our individuals and organizations to evolve and adapt into the future in a more efficient, effective and relevant manner.  As we become open to and willing to search out and seize these new opportunities, operational agility provides the ability to create the systems and processes that turn those new opportunities into actual organizational realities.

In a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA), fast changing world, today’s leaders will need to engage all three abilities and agilities (cognitive, strategic, operational) to move more positively and relevantly into the future, as individuals and as organizations.  For far too often, we have become so comfortable and enamored with the safety of the known, that the current chaos of modern times has uncovered a brittleness towards more agile and adaptive action and change, which we will need to overcome.

As the Center for Creative Leadership shares, “Organizations of the future will be more agile and adaptable, structured in open, dynamic and networked structures to facilitate innovation and change, and leaders would adopt a more consultative approach in driving direction, action and communication.”

For which McKinsey&Company adds, “Agile organizations consistently exhibit five trademarks. Which include a network of teams within a people-centered culture that operates in rapid learning and fast decision cycles enabled by technology, and a common purpose that co-creates value for all stakeholders.”

Especially in a world where yesterday’s disruption is today’s normal and tomorrow’s antiquated.  We need individuals and organizations that can constantly adapt and remain agile to today’s new pace of change.  Organizations that can grow and evolve in the midst of the tension and disequilibrium brought forth by today’s VUCA environments.  And for those reasons, we just might be well to remember…

A beta world…

Very often requires a beta-mindset.

Selected For Status Quo

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“In most companies, managers are selected, trained, and rewarded for their capacity to deliver more of the same, more efficiently.  No one expects managers to be innovators.  Rather, they are expected to turn other people’s ideas into growth and profits.” – Gary Hamel The Future of Management

While we know the importance of the overlap necessary in today’s organization to hire those with both leadership and management skills, far too often we see that organizations are hiring for leaders and then only expecting managers.

While we profess the need for risk-taking, change, even organizational transformation from our leaders, it is supported only as far as it does not upset or cause disequilibrium to the current safety and stability of the organization.

Very often, the expectation of today’s leaders is founded in their ability and willingness to strive for constant organizational equilibrium.

In a time where change is served up in a constant, accelerated, frenetic, and even turbulent pace, we need leaders who can explore the unknown, and yet, far too often we hire and promote leaders only on their ability to exploit the known and do little to disturb the status quo and avoid disrupting our current mental models.

Too often we hire people on a platform of continuous creativity and innovation, and then engage them with expectations that fall more towards the roteness and standardization of compliance and implementation.

And yet, we can no longer have leaders that are selected only for their ability to support status quo.  We need leaders that see their work as creating and infusing the systems and processes that allow our individuals and organizations to become much more adaptable and agile, especially in a world that is moving at a much more exponential clip.

Leaders who can not only disrupt the individual and organizational mental models that we drag from the past into the present and future, but have the personal awareness and self-reflection to be able to disrupt their own mental models of what they determine as possible for the future.

We can no longer select leaders for stability and their willingness to uphold the status quo, without thinking or believing that we won’t entrench our organizations in sameness and future irrelevance.  

When leaders lack connection to networks that provide ongoing idea flows, when leaders fail to engage in experimentation and discovery learning, when leaders fail to see the need for new learning that allows for greater adaptability and agility, when leaders fail to create and design the organizational environments that allow for the divergent thinking that leads to more creativity and innovation, they eventually mire themselves and their organization in stasis and static ways of thinking, doing and working.

They insulate in the known.

Today’s organizations can no longer hire leaders on their ability and willingness to only provide a sense of safety and stability.  We can ill afford to focus only on efficiency, in a time when effectiveness is vital to an organization’s focus and ongoing relevance.

As Beth Comstock shares in Imagine It Forward, “It’s easier to keep your nose to the grindstone, do what you are doing and do it well, than it is to lift your head up and figure out where you or your organization is going and what the future may bring.  It’s usually not until an organization is engulfed by chaos or, more simply, wakes up to a stark reality that it has been left behind, that it begins to seek a new way forward.”

For which she adds, “The research says 75 percent of people in advanced economies feel that they are not meeting their creative potential.  We’ve created legions of managers afraid to absorb new perspectives, unable to work without a script or respond quickly by letting go of strategies that no longer work and embracing new ones that do.”

As is shared in the Changing Face of Modern Leadership, “The shelf life of our ideas, skills, skillsets, frameworks, and systems now deteriorate at a much more advanced rate.  Under this new societal ecosystem, change and innovation has become the new fast and furious of our modern world.”  

We need leaders who can move past status quo ways of thinking and doing and prepare our individuals and organizations to be much more agile and adaptable to a world in the throes of accelerated change.

Everyday, both managers and leaders have an opportunity for impact, a chance to influence the future.  The choice can be made to play it safe and work our way into irrelevance, or to choose to break down the current walls of obstacles and mental models that keep us from determining a whole new idea of possible.

In the end, for better or worse, the choice is ours…

“Most managers see themselves as pragmatic doers, not starry-eyed dreamers.  In their experience, management progress is accretive rather than revolutionary – and they have little reason to believe it could ever be otherwise.  But as we’ll see, it can be otherwise, and it must be – the future demands it.” -Gary Hamel The Future of Management

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

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.