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Is Flexible Consistency an Oxymoron

By Gail Schaper-Gordon, Ph.D., Vistage Chair

A year ago (Feb. 2011 Newsletter), I wrote about a “Fridays with  Vistage” webinar with noted futurist Davie Houle entitled The Shift Age: Positioning  Your Company for 2011 and Beyond. His premise is that the Great Recession we have just experienced was not just a very disruptive period  but a “reorganizational recession,” like those that preceded the transitions to  the Industrial Age of the 1960s and the Information age in the 1980s. He  believes that we are transitioning into a new period — the “Shift Age” —characterized by three fundamental, interrelated forces:

  • The Flow to Global
  • The Flow to the Individual
  • Accelerated Electronic Connectedness

Houle recently continued  this conversation with the Vistage community in another webinar and will be  speaking at several of the Vistage All-City Events that will be held around the  country this year. He has a remarkable ability to envision the future by being  keenly aware of the driving forces that are disrupting and transforming  everything around us today. The title of his new book and webinars is Future is WOW! — reflecting how rapid change has become such a  constant in our environment that we no longer experience Toffler’s “Future  Shock”(feeling disconnected and suffering from shattering stress and  disorientation), instead we respond with excitement and eagerness as new  technologies, new opportunities, are developed.

Living in what Houle calls  the Transformational Decade (2010 – 2020), we are moving into an Age where  everything is shifting and the rate of change cannot be projected linearly but,  rather, exponentially. The speed of change is now 10 times as fast as it was in  1011, meaning the amount of change that occurred in the last 1000 years will now  occur in the next 10 to 100 years!

As an example, there were 3  billion cell phones by the end of 2008; by the end of 2011, there were 5.3  billion cell phones, in a world of 7 billion people. With that, communication  is not longer connected to place; and by 2015 90% of the communication will be  by video. We now have two realities to manage, the physical and the screen.

Houle warns us that the  only way to lead our companies through this Transformational Decade is to  transform our companies, so that they do not fall behind the rest of the world.  To “transform” means that we must be prepared to change the  “nature, shape, form, and character” of how we do business.

Houle’s message — and the  leadership and management skills he outlines — are shockingly similar to the  traits listed in this month’s Fast  Company article about “Generation Flux”:

  • Adaptability
  • Resilience
  • Collaboration and on-going reorganization
  • Recognizing the change of trust and authority
  • Ability to have and communicate a vision (Vision trumps planning)
  • Ability to lead the “Morph Corp”

The traditional hierarchical organizational  structure — with structures and processes built for Industrial Age efficiency —  will find it difficult to adapt and change as quickly as needed to survive.  “Legacy thinking” — wanting things to go back to the way they were, expecting  an orderly life — is out. Those who will be successful must be future-focused  and cannot be sentimental about the past.

That sounds right to me and, at my mature  age, very exciting; but I’m also working with many organizations that are  struggling with this concept. After laying off people to meet economic  challenges, adjusting to the “new normal,” and changing how they do  business, there’s often little institutional knowledge and standardization in  practices to ensure continuity. I think many of these organizations are still  suffering “Future Shock;” they find it difficult to keep themselves  and all of their people moving as quickly into the future as they need to. I  believe William Gibson was right when he said: “The future has already arrived.  It’s just not evenly distributed yet.”

As Dev Patnaik, cofounder and CEO of the strategy  firm Jump Associates, is quoted in the Fast  Company article: “In an increasingly turbulent and interconnected  world, ambiguity is rising to unprecedented levels. … Most big organizations  are good at solving clear but complicated problems … but faced with  ambiguity, their gears grind to a halt.” The systems and structures of large  organizations typically aren’t designed to deal with ambiguity. Too many established  policies and procedures can make it difficult for organizations to change. But can  organizations survive without them?

With the exponential rate of change, and the  tremendous amounts of ambiguity we already face, it’s difficult to predict the  future of our businesses. Nevertheless, when business leaders don’t communicate  a clear vision to their employees, the workers each respond to changes at their  own rates, and in their own ways, causing even more chaos and disorganization  within their organizations.

So first and foremost, I believe that CEOs  and managers must take the time to assess where they are and where their  organizations need to be headed. They then need to share this insight and  foresight with their leadership team, who can thus support and communicate this  vision throughout the organization.

Secondly, CEOs and managers must have  systems in place to provide accurate, real-time data that lets them know the status  and trends of key performance indicators for their business at all times.  Leaders of businesses and other organizations need to be using the data that  helps them best see into the future and identify what changes need to be made  today, in order to keep headed in the best direction for the future.

Driving a business needs to be like driving  a car. The windshield is big and allows you to see where you are going, all  that lies before you. The mirrors are small and let you see what lies behind  you. If you keep looking back into the mirrors instead of out the front  windshield, well, you know what will happen.

Next, CEOs and managers should create  policies and procedures that facilitate alignment with the vision — the future,  not the past — “living documents” that will be continuously  evaluated, revised, or adapted by teams of people who will use them to achieve  the desired business results and to teach, train, and manage the people doing  the work of the business.

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