Working with business leaders over the years, it seems that the relationship leaders have with the future is a key one. It underpins all their activities from day-to-day, ‘just in time’ challenges to capital investment and assumptions about talent shortages and ‘pipelines’.
However, the future is such a deeply embedded assumption it is often not brought to light in day-to-day conversation outside of the project review and calendar-planning processes. Yet those leaders who are in a deliberate dialogue with their team, customers and stakeholders on the future are better prepared – not at predicting the future, but in training themselves to engage with uncertainty in a more creative and practical way.
The management literature on high-performing leaders over the last few years consistently pinpoints comfort with ambiguity and uncertainty as key differentiating factors between outstanding and average performance in leaders.
So how do leaders and managers attempt to have a better and more deliberate conversation with the future?
Magnus Lindkvist, who was in London this week talking to global executives, asked the question, “when we use the words ‘in the future’ what do we actually mean?” He has researched the history of when the future was ‘born’ – he argues convincingly that HG Wells’ Anticipations in 1901 was a pivotal article and was the ascendancy of modern futurology. Lindkvist observes how futures can be used with equal affects for scaremongers as well as optimists.
His session took me back to a week-long workshop with general managers of a global consulting firm, which took the future into the practical realm – helping leaders start a conversation about the future with their team, customers and stakeholders.
The workshop, with Dr. Angela Wilkinson of the Smith School in Oxford, helped leaders have this conversation using some simple tools.
Wilkinson asserts that leaders always try to make life easier by operating on ‘Simplified Belief Systems’ (SBS). The world may be complex but humans need to operate in ‘bounded rationality’. This is helpful, but also the source of many misleading assumptions.
A leader’s role is to examine these simplified belief systems to support Drucker’s assertion that “the most common source of mistakes in management decisions is the emphasis on finding the right answer rather than the right question” (The Practice of Management, Heinemann, 1955).
Sutcliffe & Weber, in The High Cost of Accurate Knowledge (Harvard Business Review, May 2003), also comment that:
“The task of leaders is to manage ambiguity and to mobilise action, not to store highly accurate knowledge about their environment. The more effective way to improve the performance of a company is to invest in how leaders shape their interpretive outlooks.”
A useful exercise I’ve experienced is as follows. The facilitator asks leaders to draw three circles – one representing the past, one the present and one the future. Then they are asked to make a picture with relative sizes and how these relate to each other, asking: do they overlap and what order are they in?
The key here, of course, is the discussion that takes place after the exercise as to whether these assumptions are helping or hindering organisational growth.
Why is this exercise important? Wilkinson’s own research yields that, analysing 80 cases of failed strategies, 82% were due to misleading prejudgments. Her conclusion: the future is the playing field of power.
So with you and your team, what are your assumptions about the future? And what tools and processes are you using to take the bold step of starting the conversation with the future? It is a conversation worth having.
Steve Mostyn is Director at Steve Mostyn Associates. An experienced leadership development consultant and facilitator, Steve is an Associate Fellow in Executive Education at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, an Honorary Leadership Fellow at the Lancaster University Leadership Centre and a Visiting Teaching Fellow at Edinburgh Napier Business School and the Edinburgh Institute.
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