Phoenix rising: Creating a 'future fit' business

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Today, we find ourselves called to operate amid increasing complexity, volatility and system stresses.

What lies ahead for our leaders, managers and entrepreneurs is an increasing proliferation of "non-normative" ruptures across our interwoven socio-economic, corporate and political operating system. Burgeoning debt crises, fragile world economies, volatile stock markets, vulnerable global supply chains, increasing stakeholder tensions, widening socio-economic disparity, climate change, refugee crises, disruptive technologies and increasing ecological challenges are just some inter-related issues heralding a new way of doing business.

As director of the Institute of Statecraft, Chris Donnelly notes the rate of change we are going through is comparable to what happens in war time. Klaus Schwab, executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, echoed this by noting that we live in a time of great promise and peril, a time of simultaneous breakdown and breakthrough.

Put simply, business-as-usual is no longer an option. And yet so many of our leaders and managers find themselves entangled in a business logic that keeps us inured in our business-as-usual mindset, holding us back from placing the new steps of change so vitally needed for our organizations to become future-fit.

A recent report (PDF) for 21st Century Statesmanship Global Leaders shows "executive myopia" is endemic at senior management across business, government and the third sector: short-termism, reactive aversion and systemic fear, internalized focus on cost-cutting rather than out-of-the-box thinking, cognitive overload and dissonance, top-level reluctance blended with anxiety, frailties and fatigue. 

This report is by no means the exception, with its findings complimenting a range of research from across the globe, all contributing to a rich-picture of a widening and deepening "complexity gap" as leaders hold on to an outdated logic while seas change.

At a time when we need to courageously transform our ways of operating and organizing, we find ourselves entrapped by the very logic that created our problems in the first place.

This is not to undermine a number of positive developments taking place on complex global leadership issues such as the U.N. Global Goals campaign and the COP21 agreements in Paris a couple of months ago, where a variety of non-political stakeholders helped secure a constructive outcome.

Yet, the cold reality is most of our leaders — across government, corporate and non-profit institutions — are struggling to cope with current conditions. Things are set to get yet more complex, uncertain and challenging. As management guru Peter Drucker once famously noted, "In times of turmoil, the danger lies not in the turmoil itself but in facing it with yesterday’s logic."

This age of uncertainty demands new ways of operating and organizing: distributed, networked, anti-fragile, flourishing firms of the future.

This "new norm" reaches well beyond orthodox organizational logic by seeding wholly new ways of doing and being. It is a liberating transformation which happens at all levels of our culture: from the everyday meeting protocols designed for control transforming into more collaborative methods such as hackathons, swarms and open space technology; to top-down control-based bureaucracy transforming into locally attuned teams of people empowered to adapt to ever-changing conditions within their sphere of operation.  

Enter myriad organizations thriving amid uncertainty by applying living-systems logic: on-line retailer Zappos; healthcare provider Buurtzorg; bank Triodos; artists' copyright agency Vaga; chemicals manufacturer Scott Bader; global network of social-enterprise community centers Impact Hub; multimedia provider Sounds True, to name a few.

Running our organizations in more natural, more alive, more creative ways is not some futurist utopian vision; it’s happening as you read this article. It’s gone mainstream, and we all ought to begin to embrace it or we soon shall be yesterday’s news.

Gone with the winds of change are the artificial certainty and mechanistic linearity of command-and-control cultures and "human resource" management, revealing a fresher, purposeful, altogether more human approach to our ways of working.

To aid this transformation, here are five important areas for leaders to focus on in these transformational times:

1. Communication

To commune with others; to really listen and share with our peers and stakeholders within and beyond the organization by creating collaborative networks that do more than just brainstorm by having the remit to prototype the future.

2. Innovation

Within the organization, "accelerator skunkworks," "incubators" or "innovation hubs" operate like cocoons in stealth mode (Google X, for instance) where bright out-of-the-box innovators across an organization can engage in entrepreneurial explorations. With the support of the organization, they can invest in these prototypes, and test them out before the activities are either spun off or integrated into the main business.

3. Diversity in the boardroom

Yes, we need more diversity and inclusiveness in terms of age, sex and race, but also in our ways of thinking. We need to bring in non-conformists that provoke and cajole with different perspectives and insights. This can be achieved through inviting a wider range of non-executive directors, having a greater variety of external advisers and using innovative forward-thinking consultants and coaches beyond the traditional mainstream consultancies.

4. Sense of purpose

As Paul Polman noted, we need to cultivate our inner-compass, develop our own coherence within ourselves, take time and energy to embark on a process of "knowing thyself" so as to understand our deeper sense of purpose beyond our ego-personas and acculturated masks. When we align our outer actions with our inner sense of purpose, we allow a deeper creative impulse and authenticity to flow through our work. Ditto for our teams and stakeholders.

5. Time and space

Taking personal responsibility for our work schedules and recognizing that the continual busyness and stress actually undermines our ability to think out-of-the-box and sense our inner compass. Each of us can be more effective at managing our diaries, creating blocks in our schedule for "systemic thinking" where we can reflect, pause and learn to tune in to our more intuitive awareness and authentic, soulful selves.

There is no sustainable transformation without leadership. Leadership enables us to traverse our own thresholds while helping others traverse theirs. The root of the word leadership is leith, which means "to go forth and cross the threshold," to let go of old ways while allowing new ways to take root.

After all, we humans are innately creative, passionate, convivial, collaborative, social, loving creatures. It’s about time we started to live up to our name of homo sapiens (wise beings) by metamorphosing our organizational logic towards the wisdom of life.

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