The Leader’s Role: To bring the future to life
My stock answer is, “we bring the future to life”. Many leaders drive forward with their gaze firmly fixed in the rear view mirror. We are taught how to navigate the future by looking at the past, the favourite means of doing this being case studies. Business schools love case studies and so we go backwards in order to go forwards. Not only does this make no sense, it is dangerous. Peter Drucker warns us that the danger of turbulence is not the turbulence but rather, the use of ‘yesterday’s logic’. This is not to say that what has gone before is of no consequence. It is important to look back and have a sense of the journey traveled but the past cannot provide answers for the present and especially for the future. It is when we look to the past to make sense of the present that we limit possibility. Somehow we need to be able to learn from the future. So, the real challenge is: just how best can we do this – how do we learn from the future?
Think like a futurist. The discipline of Futures is to create helpful frameworks that enable engagement with that which is not yet. There needs to be a curiosity with what sits behind the veil that separates the present from the future. There needs to be a willingness to lift that veil and scope what it is that we might have to deal with and having a framework in place is helpful in this challenging work. In TomorrowToday we use a framework we call, TIDES. It is an acronym for five areas that you need to scan in order to meaningfully and intelligently engage with the future. The five areas are: Technology, institutional change, demographics, the environment and shifting societal values. We have successfully used this framework in our work with business schools and clients around the world.
Ask the right questions. It is said that the mind works best in the presence of a question. Meg Wheatley wrote that, ‘all intelligent action starts with good questions’. Asking the ‘right’ questions provides the gateway to your future. It sounds obvious yet I am amazed at how seldom I encounter questions at an executive level that inspire such engagement. Most the questions I hear relate to business efficiencies and whilst these are important, they are not the type of ‘gateway’ question that lead to the future. Finding the right questions to ask is easier said than done but a good one to help create the question agenda would be: ‘What is the question we should be asking, but aren’t?’
Know where to look for answers. Having decided on the best questions to be asking we then need to know where to look for the answers. Search software makes data collecting easier and more efficient than ever. Whilst in London recently I was at a presentation by Oracle in which their latest search software was being described – it was designed to locate unstructured information from random data points in response to specific search inquiries. This takes data mining to a whole new level and business intelligence needs to be applied to questions that lead us to our unexplored future.
Be willing to make mistakes. At a software launch I attended recently, the byline was, ‘right first time’. Whilst this makes sense in the context of applying new software solutions it doesn’t help if applied to navigating the future. Mistakes will be made, the trick is to learn from them, not repeat them and limit the damage they may cause. There was a subway poster that caught my eye that stated, ‘Not all who wander are lost’. That is sound advise to those willing to explore. Explorers wander and if ‘lost’ merely know where not to go next time.
It is a mindset more than anything. Recognizing the importance and the need to be ‘future-focused’ starts with having the right mindset. There needs to be a curiosity about ‘what could be’ coupled with a willingness to question ‘what is’. There is the well knowing saying that states: ‘Don’t fix it if it isn’t broken’. This is Industrial Age wisdom and whilst there may be occasions when it is sound advice, more often than not, it isn’t good advice. How often have you heard it used in defense of the status quo – given as a reason not to change things? If we are to thrive in the future we need to cultivate the right mindsets in appropriate areas throughout our organizations. We need to embrace disruption and learn how to live with change and uncertainty. This is a vital part of a successful organization’s DNA and developing it can be exhilarating work.
This morning I had breakfast with a friend who has been in the CEO hot seat of a large South African company for the past four months. ‘What have you learnt in this time?’ was my question. “The first thing” he replied, “is that it is all about team”. After explaining what he meant by that he then added, “actually the first three things have been team, team and team!”. It always comes back to people. Any business is made up of three aspects: strategy, operations and people. All three need to be integrated and aligned but perhaps the most difficult to get right for most leaders is that of people. Farming out responsibility for this aspect of your business to ‘HR’ and then stepping back and focusing elsewhere is a major mistake many in leadership make. If you wish to successfully navigate the future then you have to be mindful of the people and intentional in your actions. You have to know their fears, their dreams and their aspirations. Leaders and companies that successfully bridge the present to the future develop an acute awareness of their people. Ultimately you might be able to find the pathway and set the GPS coordinates but it is the people who will have to walk that road as you make your way into the future.
Savvy leaders understand the need to ‘bring the future to life’ for those they lead. They find ways to consistently help their organizations look forwards rather than backwards. In TomorrowToday we thrive in helping construct and navigate that pathway. It is who we are; it is what we do best. We wouldn’t have it any other way!