If you’re in a position of leadership today, then you’ve definitely experienced what it means to be “environmentally challenged.”
Normally, this phrase refers to the frustration of being too small or too tall in a world made for “normal” people. Maybe the shelf is too high for you to reach, or you are constantly hitting your head on the light fixture hanging from the ceiling.
These problems are definitely annoying, but are not nearly as frustrating and frightening as the environment and challenge to which I’m referring.
Today’s CEOs, executives, directors and business managers are living in an environment that is changing, shifting and morphing faster than any we have ever experienced. Foundations are being shaken, industries are becoming porous, and strategies are obsolete before the ink dries on the company memo.
(Of course, if you’re still using paper and ink for a company-wide memo, you should really visit the 21st Century.)
In order to avoid being an “environmentally challenged” leader, you must find ways to lead that do not depend on strategies and operations that were established in a previous era or that even rely on benchmarking today’s traditional industry-wide best practices. And since leading without any mooring or guidance would push anyone to the brink of madness, we must find a new field of vision for successful leadership in the 21st Century.
Fortunately, there is a way to leverage our environment of constant fluctuation to create a new breed of successful leaders. However, this requires leading from beyond the vista of the “here and now.” This act of “leading from the future” is actually a much more effective way of creating transformational strategy, innovation and processes than any attempt to unearth answers from the “known and familiar” of business and organizational development, because recognizing the alternatives on the horizon allows us to harness changes, transitions and disruptions for greater development and opportunity. When we lead from the position of multiple possibilities that can emerge in the short and long range future, we are incorporating the skill of adaptive, flexible and resilient leadership that is critical to success in today’s business landscape.
Let me give you 3 ways that you can begin leading from the future right now:
1. Cultivate a Culture That Celebrates Complexity
Contrary to all of the management advise that we received from industrial era business gurus or the antiquated organizational theories that hinge on the practice of simplification, our global future is one of exponentially accelerating complexity. The practice of siloing industries, segmenting knowledge and partitioning talent will get your business killed faster than you can say “creative disruption.” Todays’ leader must learn to go far beyond embracing complexity, but must also redefine our environment of growing convergence, meshing and elaborate connections as desirable. Rather than lamenting the destruction that complexity brings to our beloved systems and strategies, leaders need to boldly pursue the new ideas and untapped potential that is created by the growing canvas of multifaceted intersections and collaborations. In an article on the value of embracing complexity, Harvard Business Review editorial director Tim Sullivan had this to say,
When information is diverse and aggregation and incentives are healthy, you get very good answers to problems. That’s what nature is doing, and that’s what we have to learn to do more effectively… Scott Page [the author and University of Michigan professor] has shown that diverse groups are better at making predictions, for instance. Cognitive diversity—intentionally putting together different points of view that will challenge one another—is essential for hiring and for building teams… it’s important to constantly learn and expose yourself to diverse points of view. But it’s work to do that. I mean, there’s a central joy in it, but it’s work. It means you must allocate X% of your time. Typically the work is reading, but it’s also speaking to people who are interesting and exposing yourself to realms that you’re not familiar with. (1)
Our future of ever-increasing complexity means that our teams, our knowledge, our practices, and even our pursuits must be more diverse and variegated. In order to lead today, we must be able to dance with complexity.
2. Develop a Workforce Where Futures Thinking is Rewarded
This doesn’t mean that all of your organizational talent must identify as trained futurists who are well-versed in foresight-oriented tools and methodologies. What it does mean is that futures thinking should be seen as an organizational philosophy that undergirds everything from HR to management, from R&D to finance, and from strategy to legal.
When you encourage those who you lead to practice the critical skill of futures thinking, you empower them see beyond the problem in front of them to the solutions, opportunities and undiscovered possibilities that have never been considered. Developing a futures thinking workforce fosters an atmosphere of creativity rather than a paralyzing climate of fear and stagnation. Futures thinking places the organization on an path toward aspirational goals and desired outcomes rather than working to keep the present operations and processes afloat. And futures thinking employees make the entire organization resilient and responsive – a vital characteristic for businesses in our world of fast-paced change.
However, all of these benefits will only be realized if you as a leader are committed to leading from the future, and this means that you spend your time and energy developing the courage and passion to be transformational in your thinking and actions. A few years ago, a CEO from a multinational company gave a presentation at a well-known conference in Europe. In his talk, he noted that the present level of change and complexity was overwhelming, and that he was waiting for things to return to “normal” before he made any new investments for the business or hired any new talent. One of the conference attendees stood up and shouted, “You’re the CEO of the business. I thought it was your job to lead the company into the future, not wait for the future to unfold and then react to it? Isn’t it your job to create the future?
The truth is that “normal” is not coming back. The world is undergoing a fundamental transformation in the way business, government and society works. In order to be a successful leader in such a world, you will have to unlearn how to plan from the present in exchange for designing from the future. Once you begin doing this, you must then transfer that same way of thinking and creating to everyone in your organization.
3. Move Beyond the Push of Forecasting to the Pull of the Future
Many of today’s leaders mistakenly believe that they are “future-ready” because their company does competitive and business intelligence, regularly develops a 5-year strategic plan, and even commissions a yearly trend report and analysis. However, nothing could be further from the truth. In actuality, each of these common business practices are leftovers from a previous era, and do very little to help you lead in a landscape of entirely new perspectives and approaches. At worst, these practices lead to short-term thinking, linear and incremental advancements and risk averse cultures that fail to understand the deep shifts that are underway and seize the opportunities that come from a holistic view of the future.
When leaders only think about the “push of the future,” they become tied to the present-day trends that attempt to predict life in the short-term. When CEOS, executives and entrepreneurs shift their focus to leading from the “pull of the future,” they transport themselves and those around them to a place of ongoing discovery and creativity. In this way, they move away from competitive intelligence (knowing what your competitors are doing now) to future intelligence (knowing what your competitors and disruptors are thinking about doing next); they move from the brittle environment of short-term forecasting and linear incrementalism to thinking and acting from a place of simultaneous multiples that results in long-term adaptiveness, resilience and transformative growth; and they move from being tossed about by the waves of uncertainty to creating the aspirational futures and desired outcomes.
It has been said the the future is not just a time, but is also a place that is full of people, things and activities. In our world of volatility and complexity, leaders must learn how to inhabit those future landscapes and beckon those who follow into the possibilities and opportunities that exist.
Would you like to learn how you can lead from the future? Join a growing lists of CEOs, executives, entrepreneurs and innovators who have attended The Futures School, a 3-day certificate program that empowers participants with the critical skills of Strategic Foresight and Futures Thinking for a new era of complexity and change.
Image: Martin Curda/VR Union
Frank Spencer is the Founding Principal and Creative Director of The Futures School. He holds a Master of Arts in Strategic Foresight from Regent University. He has worked on Strategic Foresight projects for companies such as Kraft, Mars, Marriott and The Walt Disney Company. Read more.