History is littered with personal and corporate examples of those whose failure to read the future proved costly and in some cases fatal. One example of a costly failure was the post War owners of Arsenal Football Club, the Bracewell-Smith and Hill-Wood families, relinquishing control of the club that they had owned for close on 40 years, prior to the explosion of global TV and commercial revenues.
Reading the future has become a key leadership and strategic competency. In reality though, it is less about knowing the future than it is about being ready for whatever that future is – building the capacity to adapt regardless. Mark Mullen, the CEO of Atom (a digital-only bank) said that when it comes to the future, given the degree of uncertainty, it is “more important that you engineer agility and flexibility into your business than it is for you to know the future”
Standing in the way of achieving this agility and flexibility is the stubbornness of old ideas. This stubbornness is both attitudinal as well as biological.
A stubbornness that is down to one’s attitude is normally underpinned by a refusal to learn; a belief that our current way of seeing and doing things is the ‘right way’ and therefore no need to change.
There are many senior leaders who whilst reluctant to ‘own’ these words nevertheless live by them as revealed by their actions, behaviours and decisions. American moral and social philosopher Eric Hoffer said that, “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists” This stubbornness of attitude is often cloaked in an arrogance that refuses to see a ‘better way’ and an immovability to anything that isn’t “their way”. This stubbornness has also been known to masquerade as ‘confidence’, ‘decisiveness’ and as merely ‘being assertive’. All good things, right? Well no, not if they are serving to prop up stubborn old ideas!
Unfortunately, it would seem that our brains also conspire to work against us in our desire to be ready for whatever tomorrow holds. Cognitive scientists tell us that our brains tend to filter out most of what we experience and only capture certain select focal points of interest that confirm our inherent biases. We forget most things in order to capture and focus on what we think is most important. The process by which this happens is cumulative and leads to patterns of thinking; the patterns developing through on-going connections in our brains known as synapses. With the passing of time these synapses become hard-wired and make integrating new information and experiences very difficult. These patterns constitute our mental models of the ‘right way to do things’ and they become instinctive, hard to detect and even harder to unpick or deconstruct. We cling to our ‘old ideas’ and beliefs because they have worked for us even when they are shown to be ‘wrong’ or irrelevant.
So, what can we do about this potential mental inertia, this stubbornness of old ideas in order to be more adaptable and ready for tomorrow?
There are three ‘first steps’ that we can take to help turn the tide:
- Become more aware of our own cognitive biases and mental models. This involves deliberate and intentional work. The easiest way to ‘see’ our unseen biases and mental models is when we find ourselves in very different environments from what is our norm.Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) said that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness” and certainly my personal experience supports this assertion. However, we don’t need to ‘travel’ in order to become more aware of our own limiting worldviews and biases.Most of us have enough access to diversity in our everyday lives to make this intentional work possible. We just need to be a bit bolder in reaching out, in exploring and in being more curious. We need to be willing to ask questions, explore the ‘why’ behind the behaviours and action we don’t understand and listen more attentively – a listening to understand rather than to reply.
- We can initiate experiments in ‘learning, unlearning and relearning’. These attempts become the ‘cognitive exercises’ that lead to us being future-fit. Last year I taught myself to write with my other (left) hand; currently, I am learning to ride a bicycle that has been reversed engineered – when you turn the handlebars left the wheel turns right and visa-versa.There are lots of fun things we can take on in order to exercise and reshape our mental models and biases: we can initiate new conversations, read different books, see different films, seek different news sources, change routines to name but some of the ways we can do this important work. By challenging the teams we lead to do the same we can create and enable a collective appetite, energy and accountability for learning, unlearning and relearning. It was futurist Alvin Toffler who said that “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”
- Be aware of and make allowance for the ‘efficiency paradox’. As General Stanley McChrystal explains in his excellent book, Team of Teams, building the kind of agility and adaptability we are talking about inevitably means an initial dropping off of efficiency and effectiveness. Responding to disruptive change almost always results in this diminished efficiency, at least in the short term. This is what is known as the, ‘Efficiency Paradox’ – things may well get ‘worse before they get better’.To effectively deal with disruption, we need to be willing to sacrifice our effectiveness in our normal, stable environments. It is important to be aware of this initial impact and there needs to be a willingness to tolerate it in the short-term – in order to procure the long-term gain.
We need to stop seeing disruption and change as always starting ‘with them’ – the ‘other’ and to start to see it as starting with ‘us’. We need to shift from being reactionary to being willing to disrupt ourselves first, understanding this as an on-going process and lifelong endeavour.
When we take these first tentative steps along this somewhat daunting pathway we are positioning ourselves to ‘read the future’. Smart leaders understand that building the capacity for change – challenging and blowing-up the stubborn old ideas that refuse to yield is a key responsibility of leadership determined to be ready for tomorrow’s world. Smart leaders both accept and imbibe this essential work but also ensure that their team does likewise.