“The future is surprisingly indifferent to our preferences”
Last week I was in Helsinki for the Nordic Business Forum 2018 where the theme of the conference was Strategy, Peak Performance, and Artificial Intelligence. It was an impressive lineup of speakers with a headliner everyone was excited about: President Barack Obama. Across all the different talks and conversations, three themes stood out for me:
- “From the edges in” over “top-down”
- Humanity over technology
- Small experiments over big change initiatives
“From the edges in” over “top-down”
One of the most tweeted quotes of the conference was from Gary Hamel who said: “The future is surprisingly indifferent to our preferences.” In his keynote, he declared with his famous energy and enthusiasm that the reason companies so often miss the future (Nokia, Microsoft) is because people at the top of organisations have the most emotional equity invested in the past.
He talked about the fact that most companies are a monopsony — if you have an idea, there’s only one seller so you have to go up the chain of the command to get it done. The world, he said, is becoming more turbulent faster than organisations are becoming more resilient. So essentially, what got us here won’t get us there.
President Barack Obama in the closing session of the conference echoed these thoughts when he talked about how he started out in grassroots community building. “Change happens from the bottom, not from the top,” he said. If I could be so bold as to challenge Obama, I’d say: let’s move away from the pyramidal hierarchy metaphor altogether. I prefer Chuck Blakeman’s way of putting it: from the edges in. Don Tapscott inspired us to think of leadership like a murmuration of starlings — a natural phenomenon that fascinates leadership and organisational thinkers because it so beautifully demonstrates how birds are able to maintain group cohesion in highly uncertain environments, and their perfect dance between the individual and the collective.
It was exciting to hear speakers across the two days of the conference reinforcing the value of a decentralised, radically transparent organisation where leadership is distributed. To me it strengthens a sense that we are seeing the rise of the self-managed organisation. Some organisations, like W.L. Gore, have been doing this for a long time, but it’s exciting to see behemoths like Haier, with its 4,000 self-managing micro-enterprises, reinventing themselves with such great success.
Humanity over technology
Despite an emphasis on AI at the conference, we kept hearing about the importance of humanity over technology, and particularly how leadership needs to change. Don Tapscott talked a lot about the second era of the internet and how technologies like the blockchain will facilitate a citizen-owned dynamic identity.
But he also talked about the notion of trust, sharing with us this great definition: “ Trust is the expectation the other party will act with integrity.” Andrew McAfee highlighted that although we are seeing exponential advances in technology, there are certain human traits AI will never be able to surpass such as complex social skills. He concluded by saying that in the future, machines open up new territory but minds and machines explore it together.
If our organisations are going to be flatter and with more distributed leadership, then we all have some unlearning and relearning to do. Sheila Heen talked about best practices for creating a high accountability, low blaming culture. The first is to assume joint contribution, in other words acknowledge that each of us plays a part in a system (or relationship) not working. The second is to take responsibility for your part early (and not for theirs). And finally, make requests for what you’d like others to change.
Humans, however, are flawed and we heard a lot about the danger of our cognitive biases if they go unexamined. Don Tapscott had this to say:
“Paradigm shifts involve dislocation, conflict, confusion, uncertainty. New paradigms are nearly always received with coolness, even mockery or hostility. Those with vested interests fight the change. The shift demands such a different view of things that established leaders are often last to be won over, if at all.”
Andrew McAfee warned us about the “Hippo” (highest paid person’s opinion) phenomenon that can distort decision-making, and Gary Hamel had two pieces of advice for leaders:
- Be humble — treat everything you believe as a hypothesis that is forever open to disconfirmation
- Spend a month a year traveling to a place where you can be surprised by the future
Small experiments over big change initiatives
“Strategic planning is an oxymoron,” Gary Hamel declared, “like airline food.” So how do we build evolutionary advantage in our organisations, then, if not from the top? Again, speakers at the conference were pretty united in championing the power of the crowd (a “coalition of the willing”) and small experiments as opposed to big change initiatives. In my interview with him for the Leadermorphosis podcast, Hamel elaborated saying these experiments should be: “revolutionary in intent, but evolutionary in the doing.” In other words, don’t blow up what’s already there but build on what you have in an experimental manner.
It seems we need to retire the old archetype of the leader as charismatic captain of the ship. As Amy Cuddy told us: “Confidence is a tool to invite others in; arrogance is a weapon to push others away.” Yet she also explained that power is not something to shun or be afraid of. Our sense of power affects our feelings, thoughts, behaviour and physiology. We should want people in our organisations to feel powerful. Achieving presence is the name of the game. Cuddy defines presence as: “Being attuned to and able to access and express your authentic best self.” Imagine if everyone in our organisations was able to embody that?
So in summary my three takeaways from Nordic Business Forum 2018 were:
- The future won’t be made from the top-down, but from the edges in
- Developing human capabilities will help us partner with technology to explore new frontiers
- And we need to reimagine leadership and approach change with an experimental mindset: revolutionary in intent, but evolutionary in practice