Bob Johansen is a ten-year forecaster from the Institute for the Future and he has been making 10-year forecasts for over 40 years. When I first encountered individuals who claimed to be forecaster or “futurists” at various management conferences, I was extremely skeptical. I did not see how you could predict the future and I thought they were just charlatans out to make a buck by making slick presentations to gullible publics. As Johansen says, however, forecasting is not prediction and this is an important distinction. And forecasting is not about stating what THE future will be like, but to describe possible futures, given certain current trends and a whole lot of imagination and creativity. At this point in time, I do not think that forecasting is about creating fiction, but there is certainly imagination and creativity involved.
In Leaders Make the Future, published in 2012, Johansen talks about possible futures as well as the leadership skills required to navigates, as well as create, those possible futures. While the book title highlights that those skills are required in an uncertain world, Johansen talks in the book about the VUCA World, a world characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. The term has been around for nearly 30 years and the world has certainly been somewhat volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous for even longer than that, but Johansen states that the extent to which it is so is worsening and will keep worsening for the foreseeable future.
It is interesting that many people still see the world as a place that ought to be stable, predictable, simple and clear. When change occurs, these people may be greatly disturbed but try to reassure themselves that the state of chaos created by the change will only be temporary and is bound to be followed by another era of stability, a new equilibrium. And I certainly see this in my current work environment. We are in a process of reorganization that has been forced by rapid market changes, of a scope and scale than our best business planning people could not foresee. While we have some expectations of volatility and instability (we are in a resource industry), many people are greatly distressed by the lack of predictability of that world.
Recently, some of our leaders were talking about the efforts that are being put in place to find the best way to secure the company’s future in these new market conditions. Someone said “we don’t have the answers yet” which suggests that there are answers to be had and that they will find it, and not the people listening to this communication. Preferable language might have been to talk about prototyping a new form of organization, with the expectation that it will not be THE answer. Very different expectations would come out of that… Instead we talk about optimizing end-to-end processes with specific people in charge of the process blue-printing these changes, and “we will keep you informed”. What about capitalizing on employees’ creativity, mob-sourcing possible solutions, engaging as many people in the process and fostering the kind of sense-making that leads to greater engagement? Instead we get something that looks very much like top-down control, even though we are told we are trying to do something different by considering end-to-end processes instead of local process optimization. What I read between the lines is that we are trying to create an organization that in the end will be resilient enough to navigate the VUCA World, but I am not sure that we are taking the best possible means. Well, let’s give it a try…
As usual, I resort to my own method of handling change, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity… “when in doubt, read a book”… It helps me find ideas and words to translate my own experience and make sense of it.
Reading Johansen has so far been both thought-provoking and reassuring… There are ways to take on change and exercise leadership in the VUCA World.
Johansen, Bob. Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2012.