A future-focused toolkit
We define a futurist as someone who intentionally builds the capacity to see and understand the implications and meaning of change. We unpack this definition in a presentation or workshop, looking at 7 key skill areas.
The last two decades have been preparation for what we’re about to experience in the 2020s. We have now developed the key building blocks for deep change, including cell phones and digital communication networks, the Internet (and now the Internet of Things), robotics, artificial intelligence, automation, quantum computing, augmented reality, the blockchain, regenerative medical options, and many other disruptive technologies and mega forces. All of these have also fuelled deep structural changes in politics, economics and society itself. Every aspect of our world is currently in flux.
Now, we look ahead to the 2020s and a decade that will see us using these building blocks to deliver real and tangible improvements to the world we live in, each of which will bring significant change to our lives as the digital era begins to mature. In a world so dominated by disruptive forces, exponential change and unprecedented uncertainty, our organisations need eyes and ears everywhere to ensure we are not taken by surprise or left behind. The ability to think like a futurist, therefore, needs to be distributed as widely as possible throughout our organisations. This requires each of us to develop at least seven new skills:
1. Switch Your Radar On: A radar looks beyond what we can see with our naked eyes; it looks beyond the horizon. In business terms, we need to spend some time with our teams looking not just at what comes next (our current reporting period and our next budgeting and planning cycle), but at what happens after that as well.
2. Be More Curious – Ask Better Questions: Management guru, Peter Drucker, said: “If you don’t ask the right questions, it doesn’t matter what your answers are”. Most of us believe that leaders are the people who have the answers. But actually, leaders these days need to be much better at asking the right questions.
In fact, we all need to be better at doing this, and our organisations need to encourage and enable us to do so. Asking (great) questions is fundamental to the learning process as well as building the capacity to be adaptive. Questions are the gateway to challenging existing realities and orthodoxies; questions are the means by which we find a ‘better way’ to do things and yet, in spite of all this, they are often not welcomed and can even carry a degree of risk for the questioner. Wealth managers of the future must learn this for both management and client engagement purposes.
3. Collect Sense-Making Frameworks: To make sense of a complex world, we need to develop shared vocabulary and frameworks with our teams. These frameworks help us to connect dots, see the ripples of the cause and effect of disruptive change, and then anticipate the implications of these changes across all of the systems that we live and work in.
4. Embrace Diversity: Have lots of different opinions and lots of different viewpoints on the same issue. Diversity is not just about race and gender – it’s also about personality, experience, academic achievement, age, language, ability/disability, sexual orientation, religion and more. The more diversity you build into your system, and the more confident and competent people feel in expressing their unique viewpoint and insights, the more they can contribute in disruptive times.
5. Unlearn and Relearn: It was the futurist, Alvin Toffler in his seminal book, “Future Shock” who wrote (way back in 1972 by the way): “The illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” He’s absolutely right.
If change is disruptive and exponential then merely building on past experiences is not good enough. In a world in which the challenges that we are encountering are nothing like those previously encountered, the past offers little help in finding solutions – tomorrow’s challenges will not be solved by yesterday’s solutions. Unlearning means recognising that not everything one has learnt is useful for meeting current and future challenges – it is the ability to ‘let go’ of past formulas that may have brought about success and recognition, but will prove a liability to moving forward. It can be summarized by the phrase, ‘what got us here won’t get us there’.
6. Develop Automation-Beating Skills – the 2020s will be characterised by increasing automation of the workplace, our tasks and client relationships. But computers will not be able to do everything that needs to be done. We can compete and thrive in the era of automation, not be trying to keep up with the machines, but rather by seeking out those things that computers can’t do and developing our skills as humans. This includes the ability to be adaptive, to deal with complexity, to be creative and exhibit intuition and empathy, our understanding of human emotion and irrationality, entrepreneurship, curiosity, sense-making and storytelling.
7. Experiment more: Building a culture of experimentation is one of the most important building blocks of success right now. Companies that do not experiment will not be here by the end of the 2020s. We need to create a culture that experiments – not huge big experiments that could blow your business up, but a culture where everyone in the business is experimenting all the time with small things. We need to encourage and require our staff to experiment all the time. They should be looking for things that are frustrating, irritating, time-consuming, baffling, and they should try other ways of doing them. This obviously means we have to become more comfortable with failure. Some experiments will produce great results, others won’t, and we need to be happy with that. More than merely accepting it, we need to build systems that actively encourage it.