In September the United Nations Development Program published their ‘Human Development Report’ which described the state of play as being one of a ‘nagging sense that whatever control we have over our lives is slipping away, that the norms and institutions that we used to rely on for stability and prosperity are not up to the task of today’s uncertainty complex’. It went on to say that ‘for many, getting from point A to point B in their lives and in their communities feels unclear, unsure, hard – harder still when persistent inequalities, polarisation, and demagoguery make it difficult to agree on what point B even is and to get moving’.
The tagline of this astute commentary? ‘Uncertain times, unsettled lives’.
Four words that capture the essence of a year that started with the hope of emerging from the grip of the pandemic and is ending with two major nations frozen in an exhausting and senseless conflict. A conflict that has rekindled scenes reminiscent of WW2 with the liberation of a European city (Kherson) – whoever would have thought that we would see such images in 2022! It is a conflict that has had both far reaching consequences (the disruption to the global food supply chain) and one that invokes the unthinkable, the threat of deploying nuclear weaponry.
Author and activist, Arundhati Roy, said that historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. Prior to the pandemic, we seemed to believe that bulletproof strategic plans would be enough to see us through any disruption and illuminate our pathway into the future. The pandemic stripped that assumption bare and revealed our best laid plans for what they were: defenceless barricades against the irrepressible incoming tide. I am reminded of the 19th-century English poet, Alfred Edward Houseman, who wrote, ‘what shall I build or write / Against the fall of night / Shall it be Troy or Rome / I fence against the foam / Or my own name to stand / Before I depart for aye’. It was President Eisenhower who, drawing on his military background, understood the foolishness of reliance on plans when faced with uncertainty and unpredictability: “Plans are foolish, but planning is essential” was his provocation. As any military person knows, at first contact the best intended plans go out the window.
So, the pandemic forced on us a short-sighted focus, one imbued with a sharp sense of urgency on ‘sense-making’ – What has just happened? What is it that we need to do now? This sense-making will rumble on into the foreseeable future as we continue, with the vantage of hindsight, to make sense of the time from which we are emerging. For example, we are yet to appreciate the full extent of the mark it has left on a generation whose critical development period intersected with the peak of the pandemic. During COVID-19, more than one billion students lost an estimated six to twelve months of learning. In previous pandemics, such as the 1918 flu-pandemic, disrupted schooling, for those between fourteen and seventeen directly correlated to lower wages throughout their lives. A World Economic Forum report has described the pandemic as an ‘economic wrecking ball, with intergenerational consequences’. It will also be looked back on as the time that our understanding of how ‘work works’ was irrevocably changed.
2022 has seen us embark on the low foothills of such sense-making. We now find ourselves in territory signposted everywhere we dare to look, with signage that urges us to ‘rethink’ and ‘reimagine’ pretty much everything – ourselves, our work, our world. It is likely to be a limited-time only invitation but if there is to be a silver lining to the darkness that was the pandemic, this is it! In the midst of the prevailing brittleness, anxiety, and incomprehension, there is hope offered through the extended invitation to rethink and reimagine.
Let me recommend three books that will inspire and guide you in the challenging work that is rethinking and reimagining.
- Adam Grant’s excellent book, Think Again. Being a good thinker does not necessarily translate into being a good rethinker. Adam shows us why rethinking is essential to our future and how to build the capacity to rethink.
- Katherine Schulz’s thought-provoking classic, Being Wrong. Katherine argues that being able to admit being wrong in the present tense (“I am wrong” as opposed to, “I was wrong”) is the single greatest moral, intellectual and creative leap that one can make. Being able to acknowledge being wrong is the precursor to learning and change, both of which shape who we are and how we see the world. In Being Wrong, Schulz makes a compelling case not only as to why this is so important but also shows us how we can achieve it.
- Imaginable by Jane McGonigal. Jane is the Director of Games Research and Development at the Institute for the Future. In 2008 she was the lead designer for a six-week future-forecasting simulation called Superstruct. The simulation was set ten years into the future (2019) and mapped the full range of the economic, political, social, and emotional impact of living through a global outbreak of a fictional virus called ReDS, short for respiratory distress syndrome. Imaginable is a highly readable instructional manual as to how we can best prepare ourselves today for the uncertain and unknown day after tomorrow. It is full of practical and engaging exercises that one can do to become future-fit.
I said three books, but I am going to add another.
- This one is close to home as one of the authors, Tamryn Batcheller-Adams is part of our TomorrowToday team and together with my friends Prof Jules Goddard and David Lewis of London Business School, produced a masterful book titled, Mavericks: how bold leadership can change the world. Their message is grounded in global research and offers both hope and a model as to how large organisations can realise and unleash the type of mindset and behaviour (that of the maverick) that is essential for 21st Century success. Interestingly, General Jim Mattis, who also served as the US Defence Secretary, makes a direct link between ‘the maverick’ and the ability to be adaptable. Mattis said, “Because maverick thinkers are so important to an organisation’s adaptability, leaders need to be assigned the job of guiding and even protecting them, much as one would do for any endangered species” Many large organisations hanker after being able to emulate the innovative maverick DNA of younger, energetic start-ups and yet, for obvious reasons, this seems as achievable as hoping a net will hold water. Mavericks shows that not only is it possible (for a large organisation to harness the maverick DNA), but also how to achieve this.
So there, you have an early Holiday Season reading list… one that could transform your 2023!
2022 saw the world population odometer tick over to 8 billion. It is a significant milestone as the global population has grown exponentially and is due to peak (according to the UN) in 2080 at 10.4 billion. Eight counties are driving this growth, five of them are in Africa: Tanzania, Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Egypt. The remaining two are the Philippines and Pakistan. This is an important demographic, one that points to future opportunity, challenge, and a sense that the ‘world as you know it’ might be shifting to one which is less familiar and will take intentional effort and learning to ‘get to know’ and appreciate. Migration has dominated news cycles in certain parts of the world during 2022. We are seeing early signs of ‘climate migration’ – people being forced to flee increasing uninhabitable parts of the world due to climate change. This trend is set to increase. To cope with the current rate of migration cities are needing to build 13 000 buildings every day and will be required to find ground space the area size of New York City every month until the year 2060. If it seems daunting it is because it is daunting. Our societies are under extreme stress with the burden of this future shaping reality. And like climate change, it is not a problem we can ‘wish away’ or choose to ignore. There is no ‘planet B’ and these challenges demand our attention and engage us all.
2022 saw the first images from the James Webb telescope that, after decades of planning and building, was launched on the 25th of December 2021. The James Webb will allow us to look back 13.6 billion light years. A ‘light year’ you ask? Well, one light year is 5.9 billion miles. That is some distance! When I was with a group of Boeing engineers in Seattle recently, I asked them what the impact of James Webb on our understanding of the Universe might be. One of the engineers ventured that the James Webb would have a bigger impact on our understanding of things than did quantum mechanics! If you’re interested in what we as futurists term ‘SoCs’ (signs of change), then watch this space as we rewrite our understanding of our universal context. 2022 also has provided another ‘back to the future’ moment with the November launch of Orion, which is NASA’s prelude to planting yet more footprints on the moon.
So a year that has seen a political turnstile installed at 10 Downing Street; the oldest ever US President; a war that takes us back to times we thought were consigned to the black and white of history; the rumblings over the precarious future of Taiwan; China isolating itself from everyone including itself; a largely ineffective Climate Summit (with the exception of some commitment to bailout those most impacted by climate change – I for one am not holding my breath on this one, excuse my cynicism); the pealing back of Roe vs Wade in the USA fuelling the growing political uncertainty and divide in the ‘Land of the free’, to the opening of the inspiring Museum of the Future in Dubai which provides a tantalizing glimpse into our tomorrow. Then there is the currently unfolding (at the time of writing) of the unlikeliest of all FIFA World Cups – the showpiece of the world’s most popular game. A spectacle underpinned by corrupt decision-making, an extended middle finger to environmental concerns, and a concerted ‘sportswashing’ of basic human rights. It is a depressing backdrop to any football lover such as myself!
It has been some year!
For as many things as I have touched on, there are countless others of great importance, significance and that will shape our collective futures. William Gibson said that ‘the future has already happened; it is just unevenly distributed’. 2022 bears testimony to that reality.
But what of 2023? What might we need to be and do, to be part of the solution and not a contributor to the many obvious problems?
Here is what I want to work on, and it might just strike a chord with you. Much of it is taken from the insightful writings of Brene Brown. I plan to try and live every day being a little more curious, compassionate, and connected. I want to find the courage as Brene puts it to, ‘speak my mind by telling all of my heart’. There is a lot to think about in that loaded little statement. I want to cultivate daily time to think about such things believing, that as I do so, it will lead to intelligent and impactful actions. Can I find the discipline and courage to evaluate each day by putting to work the ‘A, E, I, O, U’ principle? What have I Abstained from? Have I Exercised? What have I done to nourish myself (the ‘I’)? What have I done for some Other person? What have I learnt – what has been my ‘University’? A simple enough personal checklist but one that potentially invites intentionality and contributes to the development of wonderfully beneficial habits.
As I gaze towards 2023 and as we consign 2022 to history, I also think it is worth mentioning that one should beware of underestimating the residual stress and impact of the past few years. The measure of the pandemic has seen burnout being identified as the number one issue within corporates and society at large. This won’t dissipate anytime soon. The World Health Organisation (WHO) officially have added ‘burnout’ to its International Classification of Diseases. One major global survey, supported by the Harvard Business Review, found that 85% of those surveyed across 46 countries said that their physical and mental well-being had declined because of overwork and stress during the pandemic. So, be sure to acknowledge and deal with the fallout at both a personal and collective level. Tamryn, (referred to earlier re: Mavericks) is the psychologist on our team and she has been kept extremely busy with her Stress & Burnout workshop. If this is something you would like to know more about for you and/or your team, please do get in touch with us. Tamryn has worldwide experience in dealing with urgent and important topics.
Let me sign off by dabbling with Greek mythology. Proteus was the son of Poseidon, the god of the sea (who was also the overseer of water in general, earthquakes, and horses…quite a portfolio that!). Our friend Proteus had two very cool superpowers: Firstly, he knew the truth about the past, the present, and the future (something that would be of enormous benefit in the work we do at TomorrowToday I might add!). But (there is always a ‘but’ isn’t there!), to get that truth, you had to defeat Proteus in battle and that brought into play his second superpower: He could shift shape at will. He could transform himself into a mountain, a lion, a wave, a fire…anything really and so you can instantly appreciate just how formidable that made him!
So why this foray into Greek myth?
Well, I think that organisations should stop always trying to specifically anticipate what is around the corner (just accept that there is some disruption lurking there) and instead, work on building the capacity to ‘shift-shape’ instantaneously. To be like Proteus. What might this look like for you and your organisation? If you see this as a quest – and following a quest is nothing more or less than being an asker of questions – then what are the questions you should be asking but aren’t when it comes to building this kind of adaptability?
Again, this is exactly what we do and so, if you would like to have a conversation just let us know. I hope that you reflect on 2022, it yields some valuable insights and perspectives; ones that will serve you, (and those who travel with you,) well for that part of the journey we tag ‘2023’. Christine Caine wrote that “Sometimes when you’re in a dark place you think you’ve been buried when you’ve actually been planted”. Let’s together do our utmost to turn the darkness of the past years into new growth – to rethink and reimagine.
To borrow a tagline from my grandsons’ favourite TV show…’Stay safe, be wild’. May love, life, and learning mark your 2023.
Keith Coats is a founding partner of TomorrowToday Global and leadership specialist. He is now based in Cape Town, South Africa having relocated from London towards the end of 2021. Keith works with blue chips companies and in multiple business school leadership programmes worldwide helping senior leaders prepare today for the challenges and threats of tomorrow…and sometimes, the ‘day after tomorrow’.
In 2022 Keith’s travel has included working throughout the UK, the USA, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Germany, Switzerland, Singapore, and of course, South Africa.