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”:
- 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.