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The Future is Bright

Optimize Blog - May 20, 2015 - 0 comments

Predicting the future has long been the strategist’s nemesis. Rain dances and crystal ball gazing has been replaced by number crunching, modelling and late nights trying to generate some form of insight. However at times it seems a rain dance or crystal ball might yield just as good results as the modern approach. The simple fact is that reliable insights into what the future might hold are hard to come by.
We think that this is mainly to do with the complexity of the modern business environment. Simple problems often have one correct answer but creating insights into future threats and opportunities requires a much more complex level of understanding. All too often, we operate by trying to apply an excessively simple model in enormously messy circumstances.
Responding to uncertainty with analysis is part of the solution but by definition there is no outright certainty and therefore the strategist should pursue clarity. Organizations require leaders who know the way forward and offer some assurance of predictability.
Creating the future rather than predicting it requires moving from “managing the probable” to “leading the possible” and requires us to address challenges in a fundamentally different way. The temptation is normally to break up the elephant into bite size chunks – no bad thing in and of itself but rather than simply disaggregating complexities into pieces we find more manageable, we should also break out of familiar patterns and use a different approach that allows us to expand our options, experiment in low-risk ways, and take advantage of the possible.
Uncertainty can’t be solved by reading books on theoretical approaches and to be effective leaders we are going to have to adopt new habits and approaches to navigate complexity. In our experience, three such habits are required to lead an organization.
First ask different, non-standard questions. Second it is critical to take multiple perspectives and third, we need to adopt systems thinking. The third approach is key as it enables us to see patterns of behavior, and allows us to understand the connectivity and nuances within the environment. Leaders are best served when they get a wider, more systemic view of the present.
The problem is that we’ve been trained to follow our natural inclination to examine the component parts. We assume a straightforward and linear connection between cause and effect. Finally, we look for root causes at the center of problems. In doing these things, we often fail to perceive the broader forces at work. The more we can understand the special features of systems, the more we can create options to open up new possibilities.
One casualty of this approach may be our view of the traditional leader. The default model of a clear-minded person, certain of his or her outlook and ideas, is not consistent with the qualities required to succeed in the volatile, ambiguous and complex commercial environment that we find ourselves. In a complex world, we’re often better served by leaders with humility, a keen sense of their own limitations, an insatiable curiosity, and an orientation to learning and development.
We have come to understand that fluid circumstances require flexibility. An organization’s awareness of the very different requirements of leadership in unpredictable settings helps it select and develop the leaders they really need.
The world is neither simple nor static. It is patterned but not predictable. In the face of new challenges, relying on the traditional approach is no longer tenable. Managing and leading the probable is reassuring but leaves us more open to being blindsided. Understanding what is possible is not best served by traditional and static approaches, simple models, or sophisticated algorithms.
When we recognize that the future is different, complex, and uncertain, we can unlock solutions of immense creativity and power. By exercising three simple habits of mind, we can truly start to lead the organization toward the possible.

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