Thriving in a Changing World

Published: 24 Apr 2018

Leaders CLimbing

Science fiction writer, futurist and author, Arthur C. Clarke once said, “If by some miracle, a prophet could predict the future, exactly as it was going to take place, his predictions would sound so absurd, so far-fetched that everybody would laugh him to scorn.” Sadly, he’s right. We can’t predict the future, but it’s becoming more and more important to scan the horizon for disruptive change anyway. There are five key skills that we all need to add to our workplace toolkit if we’re going to survive the turbulent times that lie ahead.

We live at a remarkable moment in human history. The promises of the technological developments of the past few decades are now on the brink of delivering real change in every aspect of our lives, from renewable energy to cures for diseases. We’re living longer than any human beings ever have, with more than half of all children born this year set to live past one hundred years in age, due to gene therapies like CRISPR, medical robotics and personalised medicines. New materials, like graphene, are about to change the way we build things, and 3D-printing will change manufacturing. Virtual and augmented reality is just taking off, with the imminent arrival of real-time, always-on versions in our glasses or contact lenses. Natural language processing now allows for real-time translation and brings AI into our homes. Driverless cars are just a few months away from being a reality, and probably a mere decade or so from becoming compulsory in some cities and motorways around the world. And, in case that’s not enough, there are now serious plans in place to colonise Mars.

In the world of sports, the next few years will see genetic modifications of human beings, robotic-assisted athletes, gene and stem cell therapies to help recovery from injury and medications customised to individual DNA. 3D printers will change how we make sports equipment. New e-sports will continue to grow in popularity, and real-time technology added to older sports - initially to aid referee decision-making, but also to enhance the viewers experience from VR to immersive tech.

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It can be a bit breathtaking. Even more so when these changes move from interesting hyped-up conversations to real disruption in your own industry and life. There are very few companies that haven’t experienced disruptive change in the past few years; and all of us will experience even more in the next few. Most of this has come in the form of unexpected (and unwanted) competition. Whether its a small startup nibbling at the edges of your business, or some new technology or digital platform that aims to revolutionise the way your industry works, no company is safe from disruption these days.

So, how should we handle this? What is the appropriate leadership response? How do we build adaptability and innovation into the DNA of our businesses so we don’t get caught out by the future? There are at least five skills and habits that can help us:

1. Switch on our radars

As Arthur C. Clarke said, no-one has a crystal ball that can show us the future. But right now, all we need to do is look around us at the emerging technologies to gain a glimpse of the future. Think of driverless cars. A few years ago, this felt like a futuristic conversation, with a delivery date sometime in the 2020s. Now, we expect driverless cars legally on some roads during 2018. The technology and legislation are changing faster than anyone could have imagined. It doesn’t take a lot to realise that the real value of driverless cars only comes when every car on the roads is driverless. Then every car can communicate with every other car, and between them, the cars can create the most efficient and safest traffic pattern right now. We can’t predict an exact date countries and cities will start to make driverless cars compulsory, but we can predict it’s likely to happen. And then we can think about all the industries that will be affected: insurance, panel beaters, traffic officers, taxi drivers, cybersecurity experts, construction (because we have to convert all the parking spaces into something else - we won’t need them), regional airlines (because people will drive a few hours rather than fly short distances), and so on.

Switching on our radars means that we take some time out of our work lives to look at the emerging trends, and track the disruptive forces in the world around us. Being surprised is not good for business. Switching on our radars requires us to change what magazines we read, subscribe to some new YouTube channels, watch a TED video a week, follow top thinkers, engineers and futurists on social media, or whatever you feel you need to do to make sure you get out of the bubble of your industry and start looking more at the horizon of change in the world around us.

2. Be more curious

When we look up a bit from our own industries, we also need to become more curious, and ask better questions. Many of us have a model of leadership where the leader is one who has the answers. Your experience, your length of time in the industry, your expertise, all qualify you as the one other people come to for answers. And yet, this is not true today. Many established businesses and leaders are getting into trouble precisely because they are not looking for new ways, for better ways, for unexpected ways to deliver their products and services. In a time of turbulent change, it’s better to have leaders who have questions that are difficult to answer, rather than leaders who have answers that are difficult to question.

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3. Experiment more

This leads to the most important thing leaders can do right now, and that it is to create a culture of experimentation in their organisations. Any organisation that does not experiment constantly will not survive the next ten years. Many leaders focus too much attention on the “big ticket” innovative ideas - big experiments with new products, services or markets. These can be very costly and risky, but they don’t develop a culture of experimentation in the business. Instead, we need lots of smaller, easier experiments on the go, all the time. These should be fairly contained, temporary shifts in company policy, systems or procedures that allow us to try out new ways of working, learn lessons quickly and cheaply, and make small changes regularly. We should experiment with how we run meetings, office layout, communications, office hours, virtual working, dress code, sales techniques, or whatever other ideas your team can come up with. Of course, some of these experiments are not going to work, so we need to learn how to embrace failure (yes, not just “accept” or “tolerate” failure, but actually “embrace” it). There isn’t another way to get from where we are today into an unknown future.

4. Listen to different voices

We can’t just keep relying on the “old” voices in our industry. We need to listen more to those who maybe haven’t had much of a voice in the past. This includes women, minorities and millennials. It includes outsiders to our industry, and looking for what’s happening elsewhere. It means looking to other countries and regions, too. It’s too easy for those who have been in an industry for a decade or more to be trapped by their experience. And the more successful you’ve been, the more you’re in danger of this happening.

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5. Identify limiting orthodoxies

Which leads to the final tool in the future-focused toolkit, and that is the willingness to question your entrenched habits of thinking and action. Industry benchmarks, best practice and standards are the enemy of innovation. We cannot be held back by them, and need to develop a willingness to question the “received wisdom” of our past.

No guarantees

These five tools are deceptively simple. None of them is anything special in and of itself. But together they form the basis of the DNA of the companies that are proving to be innovative, and they are the secret to the success of challenger brands around the world. There are no guarantees, but to be successful in the next ten years, these five skillsets and habits are the best starting point.

Legendary CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch, as he was heading to retirement said, "When the rate of change out there exceeds the rate of change in here, the end is in sight.” These five tools will help you and your organisation fire up the engines “inside” your business and make sure you start to move at a speed that will help you match what is going on “outside”. This is leadership’s most urgent task right now.

 

This article was originally published in the 2018 edition of the WFSGI Magazine which can be viewed here.

Written by Graeme Codrington, Futurist, Author and Speaker on the Future of Work, CEO, TomorrowToday Global.


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