Your next step: Thinking like a Futurist in 2014

It is that time of year again when everyone is having their say about the likely trends that will dominate or surface during the course of 2014. Recent editions of Time, Fortune and the Economist have all run lead articles looking into the crystal ball of 2014. It is as predictable as the post-Christmas High Street sales. Why, even You magazine is in on the act when a couple of weeks ago a journalist from You contacted me to ask what I thought might be consumer trends for 2014!

windowIdentifying and utilizing key trends to gauge, leverage and stimulate performance, readiness and conversations within your business is an important leadership function. Smart leaders understand the need to ‘look out the window’ and then interpret what they see into meaningful engagement internally. It is not as easy as it sounds nor is it as common practice as one might assume. I am constantly amazed at how many senior leaders I meet who really don’t have a systematic and coherent way of ‘looking out the window’. When they do, it is often only paying attention to a very narrow band as represented by the industry in which they perform. History teaches us that disruption (of our industry) often comes from unlikely sources –  from outside of our industry. Bob Seidensticker, in his book Futurehype, writes that, “The digital watch didn’t come from established watch companies, the calculator didn’t come from slide rule or adding machine companies, video games didn’t come from board-game manufactures Parker or Mattel, the ballpoint pen didn’t comes from fountain pen manufactures, and Google didn’t come from the Yellow Pages”.

Leaders need to cultivate the habit of paying attention to that which isn’t in their immediate focus or in their natural line of sight. External help to do this vital work is helpful but ultimately it is best served when it forms part of internal leadership practice and is something that expands beyond the ‘leader’s responsibility’. Internal ‘crowdsourcing’ the future – putting many ‘eyes to work’ is smart practice in today’s complex, connected and exponentially changing world.

That all said, what would be some ‘less obvious’ trends to track throughout 2014? Here would be just three that I think you would be well served to place on the radar:

1. New ways of connecting and working. Shifts are happening in both how we connect and work. Primarily two things fuel these shifts: rapid advances in technology and a generational approach or mindset that embraces these shifts.  A younger generation sees the relentless technological advances as ‘normal’ – they form the context in which they are growing up and so minimum adjustment is required. As a leader you need to pay careful attention to how the ‘rules of the game’ are changing when it comes to connection and working. Failure to acknowledge such and respond appropriately will have a direct impact on your ability to both attract and retain ‘talent’. Just the other day I spent a day with the newly recruited law graduates in a prestigious firm. None of them were making any use of the smart technology I know they had at their personal disposal. On inquiring about this anomaly I was told that they had been ‘instructed’ by a senior partner not to make use it! Simple fact is that using it would have been a far smarter way to simply record what they wanted from the day’s discussions and input. 

2. Multi-generational workplaces and markets. Long-gone are the days of a ‘one size fits all’ approach – to anything! Multi-generational reality inside and outside of our businesses is a complicated reality that smart leaders understand and embrace. The significance of this new reality is that different generations ‘see the world differently’. This impacts on their values and behavior which means that ‘everything changes’. So often I come across smart leaders who fail to grasp this and seem to continually want to recreate the world with what they are familiar with – the world that is ‘right’ for them and so by default, ‘right for others’. Again, think of the senior law partner referred to in the previous point! Generational Theory provides a powerful framework from which to ‘make sense’ of the generational paradoxes that abound. It doesn’t answer every question of course but nonetheless, is a good start in understanding the why, what and how to engagement across the generational gap. It is something that we in TomorrowToday have specialized in having had the undoubted privilege of presenting, consulting and teaching the theory in 44 countries – that is quite a footprint!

3. Shifting economic power. My elderly mother still refers to the ‘far East’. The new reality is that the ‘far East’ has now become the ‘near East’. The global economic epicenter is shifting right under our feet. It is moving eastwards. China, India and the other ‘Asian tigers’ will increasing dominate the global economic landscape. I am involved with several multi-nationals that are still struggling to fully interpret and integrate this shift into their organizational DNA. Naturally it is acknowledged in the operational and strategic components they adopt but the shift that is taking place will have deeper and more far-reaching consequences than merely demanding that we ‘have a presence there’.  Not enough is being done to fully equip ‘our people’ to successfully transition cultures and markets and I see too many merely trying (in a new context) to implement what worked in their previous context. It doesn’t. It is also not a subject that will be sorted by a half-day focus in some leadership development programme that we ask a business school to deliver. I do not see a serious engagement of how best to lead difference and harness diversity by companies where doing so is essential. To be honest, it isn’t always the company that is at fault here: business schools are woeful when it comes to delivering such programmes and these are the people to whom the companies turn to in order to engage with this challenge. There is both a lack of imagination and courage to do what is needed by way of experiential learning and the ‘messy’ process that this entails. I don’t mind stating it but one shinning exception to this has been my experience in the senior leaders programme run by Spar South Africa. More could take a leaf out of their book when it comes to a subject that will not go away quietly and will become increasingly important if your plan is to expand geographies!

Smart leaders spend time looking out the window. They make this a habit and have a systematic way for seeing, interpreting and applying. Business efficiency is no match for shifting context and as a leader you need to pay attention to both and understand the correlation between the two.

Now go ahead and do your job. Perhaps your next step should be one towards the window!

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