3 Essential shifts that leaders need to make to lead effectively in a changing world

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In the course of my work I am often asked the question, ‘what do I / we need to do in order to thrive in the future?’ Of course that question comes in multiple formats but essentially that is the nub of what is being asked.

escalator-828620_1920As somebody who writes ‘Futurist’ under ‘Occupation’ on any immigration form, I shouldn’t be surprised at such questions. In fact, that response to ‘occupation’ has met with some interesting reactions. Recently, on entering through Heathrow the immigration official was stopped dead in his track when he focused on my answer in the occupation column. His brow creased, he looked up at me long and hard, went back to check his original reading, then focused again on me before asking, “Futurist hey, so can you tell me who will win the premier league then?” I didn’t know whether or not this was a test or an attempt to get some inside information and thought about saying, “well I can tell you for certain that it won’t be Arsenal” but thought better of it (you have to be careful in such uneven power situations). Instead I informed him that I was a futurist and not a fortune-teller.

He seemed disappointed and waived me through.

So, what should a leader / organisation pay attention to in order to be, what we in TomorrowToday term, ‘future-fit’?

I believe there are 3 essential shifts that are required in the mind-set and practice for both leaders and organisations. In fact, these three shifts form the very core of our newest leadership framework and presentation, ‘Future-Fit Leadership’.

Let me set them out for your consideration and try to provide you with some practical ‘first steps’ towards the embracing of each of the steps. Of course I don’t pretend to suggest that these are the three definitive steps in ensuring being future-fit, but I would argue they represent an excellent start in such a quest.

Leadership Shift #1: From strategy to culture

Almost every leader I have the privilege to engage with believes that dealing with the challenges of the future is a matter of strategy. Get the strategy right and the rest will follow. This is hardly surprising given the huge emphasis on strategy in any leadership development pathway. What leader hasn’t had the word drummed into them and who hasn’t had to read Porter on the subject? Put the word ‘strategy’ into any sentence and it is sure to immediately get the leader’s attention.

Of course strategy is important but the way in which strategy is formatted – the formation and execution of strategy, makes it too slow and cumbersome to keep pace with an exponentially changing business environment. There needs to be a switch from a reliance on strategic plans to an onus on strategic thinking – at multiple levels throughout our organisation. This ‘strategic thinking’ – both the permission and the ability to do so has everything to do with organisational culture.

Creating the environment in which our people have the permission and means to think strategically and act accordingly is all about creating a cultural setting that fosters this and makes it possible. Culture can be a complex subject but four clear ways to understand your organisational culture would be to examine how you make decisions; what structure you have; how you gather and disseminate information and how you incentivise or motivate your people.

Those four key areas of your business (and what takes place within each of them) will reveal a great deal about your organisational culture. It was Peter Drucker who said that, “culture eats strategy for breakfast” and I would add to that, ‘every morning’! Your culture will determine whether or not you have the nimbleness, the agility, the resilience and the courage to thrive in tomorrow’s world. Such things are more a matter of culture than strategy. Your strategy as to how you go about marshalling your resources and focus your endeavours is important but it cannot give you what it will take to adapt to future challenges.

Adapting to a constantly changing landscape requires a cultural fitness rather than a strategic fitness. The latter without the former will mean that your attempts to be strategically ready for the future will constantly be challenged, undermined and thwarted by those tasked with implementing the strategy.

Key assumption to be challenged:

Our strategy will be sufficient.

Key question:

What kind of organisational culture do we have?

First step:

Deepen you understanding as to what is organisational culture. Perhaps speak to a cultural anthropologist or read Leading with Cultural Intelligence by David Livermore or Edgar Schein’s excellent book, Organisation Culture and Leadership.

Leadership Shift #2: From technical to adaptive

As a leader you face unrelenting and daily challenges. It is important to distinguish between ‘technical’ challenges and ‘adaptive’ challenges. One of the biggest mistakes is the recurring theme of treating what is essentially an adaptive challenge as a technical one. Very simply, an adaptive challenge can be described as ‘knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do’. In other words, as a leader you encounter a challenge unlike anything you have seen before. In this instance, experience is of little use and looking to experience to meet the challenge might actually make it worse. An adaptive challenge demands new learning at both defining the problem stage as well as when it comes to finding a solution. This makes learning an essential ingredient in being future-fit as leaders are facing an increasing number of adaptive challenges.

In a technical challenge you know exactly what the problem is, there is a solution and the leader applies the solution to the problem. Of course this isn’t to imply that technical challenges cannot be difficult or complex – they are often both.

What is important is that the problem can be identified and when dealing with technical problems, experience can be very helpful.

Adaptive challenges are often met by doing ‘other important work’ – work that doesn’t actually help us in dealing with the adaptive challenge at hand. When this happens it is called ‘work avoidance’. Watch out for it as it masquerades as the work that is needed to solve the problem when in fact it isn’t.

Adaptive challenges usually involve a ‘loss’ of some kind. In leading through change it is important that as a leader you identify the ‘loss’ being experienced. It is a critical part of successfully moving forward and engaging all the stakeholders.

When you are not making headway on a problem the chances are high that you are treating an adaptive challenge as a technical one. In such an instant this kind of comment is usually heard: “A year ago we were having this same conversation”

So, if you can identify such a scenario (a current problem in which you are making no headway) consider the following:

Key assumption to be challenged:

If we keep working hard on this problem we will solve it.

Key question/s:

What is really going on here?

What is it we need to learn?

How will we achieve that learning?

Who needs to be involved in this conversation?

What could be our work avoidance?

What is the loss being experienced?

First step:

Identify a problem on which little or no progress has been made and then apply the above questions to the problem.

Leadership Shift #3: From certainty to curiosity

The sobering reality is that ‘certainty’ is in short supply today. An obvious example is the recent Brexit decision that has thrown the future of the European Union into question and nobody really knows what will happen going forward.

The further one looks down the road the murkier the picture becomes. Futurists believe that 73% of our ‘tomorrows’ will be shaped by what is called, ‘novelties’.

‘Novelty’ in the Futurists’ language means events that cannot be foreseen or predicted – or doing so is highly unlikely. This new contextual reality poses a real challenge for leaders who like to be certain and who rely on strategic plans to take them into the future. Detailed planning in such a scenario makes little sense, not unless you are prepared to shred your plans at a moments notice!

To be curious about the future is far better preparation for the future than to be certain. It starts as a mind-set that then needs to find expression in leadership behaviour: Behaviours such as asking questions, being open to new learning, tossing out the out-dated and unhelpful practices of ‘benchmarking’ and ‘best practice’ and challenging your current business assumptions. There are many others but these would constitute a good start in developing the DNA of curiosity. It is DNA that will be needed to successfully engage with the future.

Key assumption to be challenged:

Our strategic plan will be sufficient to navigate and unlock the future

Key question:

What are the questions you should be asking but aren’t?

First Step:

Plan to have your next team meeting offsite and at a location to which you merely provide GPS coordinates or some or other cryptic clues. Be there when your team arrive and discuss their reactions to this change. Perhaps have them get there individually or in pairs and take different routes to the destination.

Your destination could be part of the point you are trying to illustrate such as a museum coffee shop or some other place that helps to underscore your point.

Have an agenda that invites rethinking through aspects of your business plan or views as to the future. One good question might be to ask: “When it comes to the future of our business, what keeps you awake at night?’ Avoid getting immediately pulled into operational concerns and a ‘fix-it’ mentality. Stay with questions, ideas and curiosity. The ‘right venue’ will help incubate this conversation.

If the world has changed, leadership has to change. The world has changed!

 

Future Fit Leadership

 

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