It’s too late to catch up, but it’s a great time to leapfrog. Noted futurist Bob Johansen goes beyond skills and competencies to propose five new leadership literacies—combinations of disciplines, practices, and worldviews—that will be needed to thrive in a VUCA world of increasing volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. This book shows how to (1) forecast likely futures so you can “look back” and make sure you’re prepared now for the changes to come, (2) use low-risk gaming spaces to work through your concerns about the future and hone your leadership skills, (3) lead shape-shifting organizations where you can’t just tell people what to do, (4) be a dynamic presence even when you’re not there in person, and (5) keep your personal energy high and transmit that energy throughout your organization.
This visionary book provides a vivid description of the ideal talent profile for future leaders. It is written for current, rising star, and aspiring leaders; talent scouts searching for leaders; and executive coaches seeking a fresh view of how leaders will need to prepare. To get ready for this future, we will all need new leadership literacies.
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About the Author
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The New Literacy of Looking Backward from the Future
LEADERS WHO HAVE THE LITERACY OF LOOKING BACKWARD from the future can say
* I can see long-term patterns of change ten years ahead, beyond the noise of the present.
* I bring a futures perspective to every conversation.
* I believe that a futures perspective makes better decisions in the present more likely.
* I develop my clarity but moderate my certainty.
I grew up as a basketball player in Geneva — a very small town west of Chicago — in the basketball-crazy state of Illinois. I was a rebounder and was taught to "always look long" coming off the boards. "If the long pass is there, take it!" my coaches would say over and over in the spirit of the fast break. Since I was young, I've been taught to look long. When I finished my humble college basketball career at the University of Illinois, I started looking long beyond the basketball court, and it turned out I was better at it off the court than on.
I have been immersed in the future since 1968, when I was a student at the same divinity school that Martin Luther King Jr. attended, Crozer Theological Seminary — then in Chester, Pennsylvania. Ever since then, I have focused my life ten years ahead.
At Crozer, I was a research assistant for a conference on religion and the future organized by Professor Kenneth Cauthen, one of the first theologians to create open dialogues between religion and science. At that conference, I got to carry the bags (literally) for the world's leading futurists. I have a vivid memory of running out under the helicopter blades to get the suitcase of Herman Kahn, the founder of the Hudson Institute and the father of modern scenario planning. I was particularly moved by the title of his most famous books: Thinking about the Unthinkable. Looking backward from the future will help leaders think about the unthinkable and, increasingly, it will be important to do just that.
I remember going into Professor Cauthen's office and seeing a newsletter from the World Future Society announcing the formation of Institute for the Future in 1968. I remember thinking, that's where I want to work.
Five years later, that's where I was working — and I still am working there.
In between Crozer and Institute for the Future, I had another futures immersion experience at Northwestern University in an interdisciplinary PhD program. When I arrived, I imagined myself becoming a sociology of religion professor, with a focus on religion and the future. My program required that I take all the basic courses of any sociology PhD student.
My interests, however, stretched into the psychology, religion, and computer science departments; and at Northwestern, interdisciplinary work was encouraged.
While I was at Northwestern in the early 1970s, the predecessor to the internet, the ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), was just coming to life. I became completely enthralled by the implications of network connectivity for people, organizations, and the world. While my home sociology department at Northwestern still used computer punch cards, I was able to walk over to the computer center and interact directly — though crudely by today's standards — with one of the world's largest computers.
Jamais Cascio, my colleague at IFTF, likens futures research to getting a vaccination. You understand that there are dangers out there and you want to vaccinate yourself against them. To extend the analogy, looking long is like fitness training in addition to getting a vaccination. You should not only get the best vaccinations available, but you should also exercise to prepare your mind and your body for the future.
A ten-year futures perspective is built into our way of life at the institute. Looking long is using foresight to provoke insight and action.
Jeremy Kirshbaum, another IFTF colleague, likens futures research to earthquake forecasting. Earthquakes are inevitable but also unpredictable. We have lots of historical data behind them, but they are still unpredictable in their nature. However, we can identify zones where you shouldn't build your house out of brick. More importantly with earthquakes, there are readiness disciplines and resilience practices that we can use to prepare.
Figure 5 summarizes the new literacy of looking backward from the future. I first published the Foresight to Insight to Action Cycle in a Berrett-Koehler book called Get There Early (Johansen 2007), but it has evolved considerably since then.
In the first version of the cycle, I had arrows that went clockwise only. Over years of practicing, I've realized that this process can go either direction. Also, I decided that arrows were too symmetrical for the realities of foresight to insight to action. After you've had an insight, that insight might cause you to revise your forecast. After you've moved ahead with an action, your experience might cause you to revise your insight or your foresight. Making the future is filled with twists and turns.
Foresight, inevitably, links in some way to hindsight. Think of hindsight as our banks of prior knowledge. Hindsight includes experience, which can be both a source of insight and a burden. Hindsight can be a cognitive anchoring in the past, and it can be a stimulus for innovation. Hindsight can keep us from seeing futures we cannot imagine.
It is revealing to notice that the word history has the word story embedded in it. Futures research is, in a real sense, storytelling about the history of the future — the present that hasn't happened yet. It was novelist Ursula K. Le Guin, an eloquent futures storyteller herself, who said, "Story is our only boat for sailing on the river of time" (Le Guin 1994).
Master storyteller Kendall Haven, one of the key players on a recent project to explore the neuroscience of storytelling, taught me that we all have our own personal neural story net that shapes our hindsight and our view of the world (Haven 2014). As we experience new things, we always run them up against our personal neural story net to see what fits and what does not. More open-minded people have flexible neural story nets that allow them to see alternative futures, while others are trapped in their old stories — no matter what new experiences they may have. Thinking systematically about the future helps us to loosen up, keep an open mind, and question our own assumptions.
But this is tough work. Leaders at innovative companies often try out new technologies too early, and their experiments fail. Years later, those same leaders are likely to remember their earlier failures when someone comes to them to propose use of a new technology. "We tried that years ago and it didn't work," they say — and they are correct. Yes, they tried it too early, but that doesn't mean that same innovation — or some variation — won't work later, when the timing is right.
Traditionally innovative companies often miss the biggest potential impacts of a new technology or innovation once it finally occurs. Innovation often involves timing. A failed technology in one period can become a giant success later on. Those early innovators often watch in frustration as later (often less innovative) companies get the benefit of a delayed innovation. Hindsight — even accurate hindsight — can limit foresight. It is dangerous to assume that what didn't work before doesn't work now. Often, what didn't work before does work now. Leaders need to keep their minds open.
Foresight is a plausible, internally consistent, provocative story from the future, with signals to bring it to life. Notice that story is recurring. Futurists tell stories of possibility about the future, as if they had some special access to it. Some foresight is quantitative, but even quantitative forecasts should be wrapped in good stories in order to reach wide audiences.
Foresight should provoke people, but with a tone of humility. One of the things I don't like about some futurists is that they seem to relish in making other people feel stupid. I believe that the best futurists provoke insights for others in a way that is both provocative and humble. The best futurists, like great leaders, both inspire and empower. The best foresight provokes insight for others. In my talks and workshops, I try to frighten people at the start but empower them by the end.
Having a sense of humor about the future is also important. Some futurists take themselves so seriously. The future is unpredictable, so it is imperative that we stay humble. Humility leads to a sense of humor, since future forecasts will often be wrong — or even right for the wrong reasons or right but in the wrong time frame. Often, the future happens in unexpected ways even if the overall direction of change is forecast accurately. Both humility and humor are important aspects of leadership, and a futures perspective presents opportunities for both. Studying the future can be fun.
When we do a custom forecast at Institute for the Future, we provide the independent outside-in foresight. We look at least ten years ahead at external future forces likely to disrupt a particular organization or topic. For example, we've done custom forecasts recently on external future forces likely to disrupt food security and another forecast focused on poverty. Our job is foresight, but insight is the responsibility of those who use our forecasts. We are not experts in their industries; we are not even experts in the present. We provide an outside-in perspective, but it is their job to listen for the future and allow themselves to be provoked.
Insight is an aha moment that creates a new pattern of connections in your brain. Creating insight is a lot harder than generating ideas. Ideas bubble out, but insight is rare. Ideas are wonderful, but they are easy compared to insight. Insight is often hard uncomfortable work. Consider Verlyn Flieger's insight about Tolkien, one of the world's great storytellers:
Turn, let us not forget, is the word Tolkien uses for the moment of change in fairy-stories, the moment of becoming. It is reversal, metanoia, felt before the mind can grasp it, before the apprehension of the happy ending and the consolation. (Flieger 1933)
The goal of futures thinking is to use foresight to induce the kind of head-jerking turn that happens as you read a great story or play a great game: an abrupt shift in your thinking. Once you have had an insight, you can't go back to your old way of thinking. Insight changes you. Ultimately, foresight is about sense making in a future world where sense is in short supply.
The way to evaluate a futurist is to ask if the foresight provoked an insight that led to a better decision in the present. The way to evaluate a fortune teller is to ask whether or not the foresight actually happened. Futurists should not and cannot predict the future. Instead, futurists should provoke insight.
Right after 9/11, I was asked by Walt Disney World to do a forecast of the future of fun in theme parks, with a focus on Walt Disney World in Orlando. Parents, especially right after 9/11, were very concerned about the safety of taking their kids into large crowds. The kids, however, just wanted to have fun.
Our foresight was that the fun would become increasingly important for everyone because of all the uncertainty in the world around us. The VUCA world, our forecast suggested, will make the shared experience of fun and fear even more important. Everyone wants to have immersive fun experiences, but parents will be very concerned about safety.
The insight that came out of this custom forecast was that a theme park had to be a place where kids could be safely scared. Walt Disney World offers an experience that is extremely safe but still scary in a way that kids love. Certainly, Walt Disney World — particularly EPCOT — is able to turn this insight into action. We never know exactly how our foresight inspires insight and action — there are always many variables — but the link between foresight, insight, and action seems clear in this case.
IFTF did a custom forecast for Procter & Gamble in the early days of biotech. Our forecast was that biotech would disrupt P&G, especially the detergent and hair care businesses. I presented this custom forecast to the CEO and his global leadership council. Their insight at that meeting was that none of the top people had enough biotech background to make good business decisions about this emerging future that we forecast (and which has now happened).
The action that came out of that combination of foresight and insight was something they called the biotech reverse mentoring program: we paired the top twelve people at P&G with young P&G biotech scientists. Each pair met about once a month for a year. The leaders from the executive floor went out to the labs — often for the first time. The young scientists went to the executive floor — often for the first time. The scientists were never the same afterward — and neither were the executives. The scientists had a new appreciation of the decisions that the executives faced — and this was a particularly difficult period for P&G. The executives understood the basic science at a deep-enough level to understand the forecast regarding the impact of biotech on their businesses. A. G. Lafley, one of those executives, went on to become one of the most successful CEOs in P&G history, and his mentor became one of P&G's leaders in sustainability. The biotech perspective that began with this mentoring program was spread through a community of practice and is now embedded in P&G's strategy. Foresight had provoked insight that led to action — with very good business results.
The purpose of ten-year futures thinking is to come up with a way forward, expressed with clarity and ideally as a story. The best way to lead in a disruptive world is to be very clear where you're going, tell a great story about it, and then be very flexible about how you bring that future to life. In the military, this way of thinking and acting is called commander's intent or mission command, but I like the term clarity a lot better for business or other non-military organizations.
Collective moments of insight — when people come to the same realization together at the same time — are often the most powerful. Foresight is a wonderful way to provoke insight even if you don't agree with the forecast. You can argue with any forecast, but it is best to resist the temptation. Some of the best forecasts will be those you don't like. The most useful approach is to assume that foresight is plausible, internally consistent, and provocative. What are your insights, given these external future forces? Repeat the process with an alternative forecast if you are not satisfied with the first.
The reason you look long is to develop the perspective necessary to come up with a good plan of action, a way forward, expressed with clarity and ideally as a story. The big lesson is to be very clear where you're going, but very flexible how you get there. Action should animate you. That's the basic discipline of looking backward from the future — but still acting now.
Trends consultancies and the business press tend to start from today's world and work a few years out. Some of these consultancies focus on fashion or fads, which are short-term shifts in preferences or behavior. In contrast, I'm suggesting that leaders leap ahead and focus ten or more years ahead, then work backward to identify opportunities today — given the external future forces of the next decade. Anyone can do this, not just professional futurists. In most fields, there is so much noise in the present that it is very hard to get a clear view of what's going on or where things are going.
At IFTF, we call this process Forecaster's Haiku. A haiku is an artfully concise Japanese poem of three lines and seventeen syllables (five, seven, five). It involves considerable art to create headline summaries for each forecast that are provocative without turning people off. The headlines also need to be familiar enough to be understood without sounding like the same old thing. While our foresight is focused ten years out, the insights and actions that result will be designed to inform current decision making.
For some forecasts, we literally use haiku as a discipline for pulling out the essence of a forecast. For example, we did a 30-year forecast on the future of food security recently. One of the big themes was what we called the programmable world, where digital innovation comes to the world of food science. Here is the haiku we created:
When physical is programmed
Like digital world
Figure 6 is a summary of the shift toward looking backward from the future.
Looking backward from the future will require many skills. In Leaders Make the Future, I identified ten future leadership skills that I believe will be required for leaders to thrive in the future. Two of these skills — clarity and dilemma flipping — will be particularly important for looking backward from the future.
Looking backward from the future will help you find your clarity.
Excerpted from "The New Leadership Literacies"
Copyright © 2017 Bob Johansen.
Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Twisting Toward Distributed Everything 1
1 The New Literacy of Looking Backward from the Future 15
2 Moving Toward a Future That Rewards Clarity-But Punishes Certainty 27
3 The New literacy of Voluntary Fear Engagement 37
4 Moving Toward a Future of Gaming for Grit 49
5 The New Literacy of Leadership for Shape-Shifting Organizations 61
6 Moving Toward a Future of Distributed Authority 77
7 The New Literacy of Being There When You Are Not There 93
8 Moving Toward a Future That is BEYOND Being There 105
9 The New Literacy of Creating and Sustaining Positive Energy 117
10 Moving Toward a Future Where Leaders Are Body Hackers 131
Conclusion: What Leaders Will Need to Do 141
Future Readiness Self-Assessment 149
About the Author 173
About Institute for the Future 175