Much of what we in TomorrowToday is to help leaders and companies ensure that they are asking the ‘right questions’ – something that can be uncovered by first asking, ‘what are the questions you should be asking but aren’t?’

Einstein is on record as saying that if he had an hour to solve a problem and his life depended on the solution, he would, ‘spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes’. Richard Feynman who in 1965 won the Nobel Prize for Physics said that he would rather have, “questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.

Asking the right questions is fundamental to navigating the complexities of our times. Asking and engaging questions is really a matter of culture and organizations that don’t have a culture of ‘asking questions’ are organizations that will soon find themselves running on empty. Ensuring that you have such a culture is another subject entirely and it is one where leaders need to be careful of making hasty assumptions. I have often chatted to leaders who assume that have such a culture when all the evidence suggests otherwise!

The work of a futurist is simply to, ‘intentionally build the capacity to see and understand the implications and meaning of change’. Here are four essential questions towards ‘thinking like a futurist’ and I would suggest are four questions that smart leaders ensure are being asked and engaged.

1 What is the context?

Context is essential to any leadership / strategic conversation. Understanding one’s context is like water to a fish…unavoidable and easy to take for granted. Subtle (and not so subtle) shifts in the context have to be discerned and reacted to, the quicker the better. One cannot just ‘keep swimming’ in the same manner and direction when the context changes and understanding one’s context is vital to ensuing the right responses.

Context has both a generic as well as a specific application. We are familiar with the broad generic contextual framework ‘VUCA’ – an acronym to describe a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. VUCA originates from the US Army War College who used it to describe the world in 2002. Another broad framework, and one that we in TomorrowToday repeatedly use, comes from research done by the East West Center (Hawaii) as to the impact of globalization. From the research we distilled four key features of globalization:

  1. Increasing inter-dependence
  2. Accelerating non-linear change
  3. Increasing complexity
  4. Increasing emphasis on difference

Understanding our context – from the over-arching meta-context to how it plays out within your sector / industry is an essential starting point in knowing ‘what needs to be done next’. Taking these (and other) helpful frameworks to shape strategic discussion as to the impact ‘on us,’ is vital leadership conversation. Understanding what you need to respond to is the first step in knowing how best to shape that response.

2 What is changing and why?

A 2017 survey done by Fortune magazine revealed that the biggest blockage to organizational change was an ‘insufficient understanding of disruption’. We know full well that ‘things are changing’ but we need to understand ‘why’ they are changing. In TomorrowToday we use the TIDES model to understand the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of disruption. TIDES (another acronym!) identifies five major disruptive change drivers namely, Technology, Intuitional Shift, Demographics, Environment & Ethics and Shifting Societal Values.

Of course there are many more that five disruptive change drivers but these five categories provide a very helpful framework in which to begin to understand the forces shaping our future. Paying attention to what is happening within each of these five key areas and asking the right questions within each area, will go a long way towards ‘future proofing’ yourself and your business.

3 What does (all) this means for leadership / our organization?

Understanding the prevailing context and the ‘what and why’ driving the change, positions you to now meaningfully engage in asking how best you and your leadership need to respond; it also throws light on what your organization will need to become in order to respond appropriately. There will no doubt be things that you are doing well and that need to be kept; there will also no doubt be things that you will need to discard and others that need to be created in order to adapt in ways that best position you for the challenges being encountered. In fact knowing what to keep, discard and create forms the essential building blocks that underpin all evolutionary DNA changes.

I am convinced that we will need to rethink much of our approach to leadership and organizations in the light of the contextual shifts taking place. The ‘rules of the game’ are changing at an alarming pace and this is what underpins the need to rethink much of our assumptions and practice when it comes to both leadership and organizational ‘design’. We need to find robust leadership models – like that of Adaptive Leadership, and ensure that our organizations are agile, nimble and responsive – in other words, are alive to the changes that are required. All this is far easier said (and said it has been!) than do. Former GE CEO Jack Welsh is on record as saying that when the,“rate of the change out there exceed the rate of the change in here (meaning your company), the end is in sight”. Seldom do I encounter companies that feel they are keeping pace with the ‘out there’ change. That is a concern.

Engaging with this question will require authentic and robust discussion. It will most certainly require courageous action and a leadership mentality that is open to receiving feedback; to learning and a willingness to be the change they wish to see. Assuming what has got you to the place you are will be sufficient to get you to where you need to be is perhaps the first assumption to be challenged; it will also most likely be a sobering realization to emerge from truly understanding the prevailing context and nature of the disruption you are encountering.

4 What do we need to do today to be ready for tomorrow?

There is little doubt that ‘tomorrow’ will require new mindsets and skillsets. Identifying what these are for you is important work. It is work that will shape your development and training initiatives as well as impacting what you measure. We know that curiosity, the need to experiment, asking questions, critical thinking, being able to understand and work with ambiguity and paradox, unlearning amongst others, are important attributes needed for tomorrow’s reality. If you really want such attributes to become embedded behaviours within your organization, you will need to find ways to measure them (and reward them). We get what we measure when it comes to organizational behavior. If all you do is to identifying these ‘new’ attributes and then speak about them, you will most likely fall short of actually ensuring that your team and people embrace them. Your metrics will need to account for the fact that these are the important things you need to help ensure that you are ‘future fit’.

In TomorrowToday we identified eight essential skillsets needed in the quest to be ‘futurefit’ (these form the framework for our online Future of Work Academy and our supporting keynote presentation). This would be a good place to start but then to ask yourself what it is you might need in addition to these eight things and come up with your own list. By identifying what you feel you need to succeed in tomorrow’s reality can energize and empower your people. It gives one a sense of responsibility for one’s own future and engaging in a participative manner with this question is something that can fuel a sense of excitement and energy throughout your business.

In conclusion:

These are four essential questions you need to be asking if you wish to be adaptive. They are questions that invite participation – don’t make the mistake by only trying to engage them as a leadership team; invite others into the process. As you engage each question it will immediately become apparent just how much work there is to be done as well as the realization that all these questions represent something of a ‘moving target’. That is OK and not something that should cause any consternation. These questions will, each in their own way, ensure that you and your leadership are ‘looking out the window’; are paying attention to what could disrupt and will significantly contribute towards builting a level of fitness in your thinking and practice that helps ensure you are ‘futurefit’.

Enjoy the process. It is serious work, very serious work… but it can also be fun!

TomorrowToday Global