Medium 9781576754405

Get There Early

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These days, every leader struggles with a paradox: you can’t predict the future, but you have to be able to make sense of it to thrive. In the age of the Internet, everyone knows what’s new, but to succeed you have to be able to sort out what’s important, devise strategies based on your own point of view, and get there ahead of the crowd.

Bob Johansen shares techniques the Institute for the Future has been refining for nearly forty years to help leaders navigate what, borrowing a term from the Army War College, he calls the VUCA world: a world characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. As the institute’s ten-year forecast makes clear, leaders now face fewer problems with neat solutions and more dilemmas: recurring, complex, messy, and puzzling situations. Get There Early lays out the institute’s three-step Foresight to Insight to Action Cycle that will allow readers to sense, make sense of, and win with dilemmas. Johansen offers specific techniques, ranging from storytelling to simulation gaming, as well as real-world examples to help readers turn the VUCA world on its head through creative use of vision, understanding, clarity, and agility. This book offers hope for leaders facing the constant tension—a dilemma in itself—between judging too soon and deciding too late.

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11 Chapters

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1. Thinking Ten Years ahead to Benefit Today



The way you can go
Isn’t the real way.
The name you can say
Isn’t the real name.
—Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Ten-year forecasting provides a unique perspective—a futures context— that helps you create your own vision, for your own organization. Leaders can learn from many different sources of foresight, and this chapter provides a taste of varied approaches. Forecasting helps leaders break out and develop new “ways you can go.”

The Institute for the Future’s Ten-Year Forecast was begun in 1978, when Roy Amara was president of IFTF. The ten-year time horizon was an important choice. Looking ten years ahead, one can see patterns more clearly, even if the details are still unclear.1 To be most useful, a forecast should be far enough into the future to go beyond an organization’s normal planning horizon but not so far ahead that it becomes unbelievable, irrelevant, or too far out. Most of our forecasts focus ten years ahead, but our range for recent forecasts has been from three to fifty years. Our preference is for ten years.


2. Institute for the Future’s Ten-Year Forecast



The future is a life seen through the lens of possibility.
—Kathi Vian, IFTF’s Ten-Year Forecast Leader

Chapter 2 draws from Institute for the Future’s ongoing forecasts of the global business environment, information technology horizons, organizational shifts, and health trends to provide a base forecast for this book, a way to hold the complexity of this decade of dilemmas in your mind.

Our forecast is a plausible and internally consistent view of future forces affecting the global environment, thinking ten years ahead. What are the external forces that will shape the next ten years, with an emphasis on dilemmas that are important for leaders to consider? Our forecast visualizes a future: the global social and technological context within which leaders, workers, and organizations will be living ten years from now.

Any map, of course, is not the territory. A map is a representation of reality, but it is not reality. In fact, nobody really knows the reality of the future; we are all running on approximations, some better than others. The next decade is likely to be characterized by extreme dilemmas and bewildering twists in logic, so forecasting is especially difficult.


3. The VUCA World: Both Danger and Opportunity



The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.
—Abraham Lincoln, 1862 Annual Message to Congress

This chapter explores nasty challenges and intriguing opportunities of the VUCA world. The dangers are characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. But these same dangers create leadership opportunities that I describe in terms of vision, understanding, clarity, and agility.1

Many people, including some leaders, are already beyond their own personal capability to cope. The pain can be intense. While nobody can predict the future, you can prepare. You can’t escape all pain, but you can prepare your mind to engage with painful dilemmas. With a prepared mind, the chances of success are much higher, and the pain is more manageable, at least partly because you are expecting it. As Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”


4. What’s Different about Dilemmas?



Obedience to the law is the dry husk of loyalty and faith.
Opinion is the barren flower of the Way the beginning of ignorance.
—Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

When you come to a fork in the road, take it.
—Yogi Berra

This chapter helps you engage with the dilemmas in your world so you can get there early and compete in the present. The Foresight to Insight to Action Cycle is a framework for sensing and making sense out of dilemmas—even if you cannot fully understand or control what’s going on.

The biggest challenge for leaders is to learn to live with—even embrace— the tensions inherent in dilemmas. How can you prepare your mind to win when you are faced with dilemmas, to win what appear to be no-win games? Dilemmas disguised as problems are particularly dangerous. If you engage with a dilemma as if it were a problem, you may get there early, but you are not likely to win.

Most leaders understand the methods of problem solving very well; these methods have worked in the past, and they still work in some situations. For leaders, however, dilemmas have become more important than problems. This chapter will help you make the shift from problem solving to dealing with dilemmas. You need to figure out ways to succeed even when you cannot solve.


5. It Takes a Story to Understand a Dilemma



Study the hard while it’s easy.
Do big things while they’re small.
The hardest jobs in the world start out easy, the great affairs of the world start small.
So the wise soul, by never dealing with great things, gets great things done.
—Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

You need stories and storytelling to peel back the wicked complexity that was introduced in Part 1, to help you make sense out of dilemmas.

Whereas problems can be solved with data and analytics, dilemmas need stories. Throughout this book I use stories, including personal stories, case studies, and vignettes, to bring dilemmas to life.

Stories about dilemmas are not just stories; they are mystery stories. As the Tao Te Ching teaches, stories communicate “the hard while it’s easy” and “big things while they’re small,” even when the dilemmas involved are complex. The “wise soul” is the leader who is adept at listening for the unfolding tale.

A problem is a mystery that can be solved. Dilemmas, on the other hand, are mysteries that keep their mystery. Problem solvers strive to take the mystery away, but those who understand the truth of dilemmas engage in—even delight in—the mysteries and the continuous learning opportunities that they present. Data and analytics can be useful to help make sense of the world, but data and analytics are not enough.


6. Immersion: The Best Way to Learn in the VUCA World



Simulation builds calluses.
—Doug Campbell, U.S. Army War College

Immersion experiences allow leaders to learn rapidly and viscerally. Immersion helps at every stage of the Foresight to Insight to Action Cycle. It provides a way to get there early before committing to go there at all.

Immersion can help leaders experience a possible world of the future to get a feeling for what it might be like. Immersion helps you see things from different points of view to provoke insight. Immersion helps you try out different ways of being so you can develop your own agility.

Immersion experiences can help leaders extract strategic insight from their experiences. Immersion is a deeper way to learn than is reading, listening, or even seeing. Leaders get to dive in and learn in a first-person way without playing for keeps until they are ready.

I use a wide definition of immersion that includes simulations of reality, alternate reality games, 3-D immersive environments, role-play simulations, reverse mentoring or shadowing, theater, ad hoc immersion experiences, and case studies. My interest is in low-risk learning environments that help improve agility and readiness.


7. Sensing and Sensemaking



To have, without possessing
do without claiming,
lead without controlling:
this is mysterious power.
—Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

I’m particularly impressed with the power of small-group workshops to kindle creative thought. This chapter shows how to use workshops to draw out insight from foresight.

Stories and immersive experiences are very useful for leaders, but you still need to draw your own conclusions and create your own strategy if you are going to get there early and compete. Both sensing and sensemaking skills are needed. First, you sense what’s going on around you and what might be possible in the future. Then, you need to make sense of it all.

Sensing is basic to the “mysterious power” of leadership and the ability to “lead without controlling.” Do you sense accurately what’s going on around you? Are you sensitive to the right issues at the right time? Are you overly sensitive at the wrong times? Do you have good business sense? Do you have common sense? Are you sensible in your decisions? Are older workers sensitive to the wants, needs, abilities, and limitations of younger workers—and vice versa? Those who get there early are sensory wizards who are attuned to what is going on around them. Sensory skills and intuition are linked in most effective leaders.


8. From Insight to Action



Have deep roots, a strong trunk.
Live long by looking long.
—Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

In high school and college, my life revolved around basketball. I was taught from an early age that when I got a rebound, I should “look long” down the court. If a pass wasn’t possible, the next best option was to look for an outlet pass to someone on my team moving down court rapidly in order to get the ball to the goal early—ahead of the other team— at the other end of the court.

In basketball, it is always easier if you get to the goal with the ball ahead of your competition. By looking long, you can sense the play as it is taking shape. If you get there early with the ball, you score—unless you miss an easy shot.

Looking long in basketball is, essentially, foresight—but it is foresight in the moment, linked closely to action. Looking long gives you a better chance to get there early, ahead of your competitors. Looking long demands an ability to sense what’s out there, just as a basketball player senses the court and what’s taking shape. Looking long is built into any great strategy.


9. Flexing and Flexibility



Climbing the organizational hierarchy is no longer like climbing stairs in a stable structure. The stairs have become rope ladders, with managers clinging desperately for balance. Organization Man is changing into Spider Woman.
—Robert Johansen and Rob Swigart, Upsizing the Individual in the Downsized Organization

  Leaders need new abilities to flex in response to challenges they cannot predict. Among these are the abilities to use flexible organizational networks and to create new ones if necessary. Organizations must be flexibly firm—flexible, but guided by a firm understanding of their own beliefs, values, and responsibilities. This chapter introduces, describes, and advocates for flexing and flexibility—for both leaders and for organizations. Chapter 10 provides real-world examples of flexible firms.

  Economies of scale (where bigger is almost always better) are giving way to economies of organization, where you are what you organize, inside—and especially outside—your organizational boundaries. This chapter focuses on the organization of workplace and workspace, where dealing with dilemmas will actually happen.


10. Flexible Firms



Nothing in the world
is as soft, as weak as water.
Nothing else can wear away
the hard, the strong,
and remain unaltered.
Soft overcomes hard,
weak overcomes strong.
Everybody knows it,
nobody uses the knowledge.
—Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

This chapter builds on Chapter 9 and describes how the flexible firm is beginning to emerge. I include several real-world case studies of flexible firms and a vignette that stretches current experience into the future. This chapter gives a taste of what organizations and leaders can do to deal with dilemmas in creative and useful ways.

My purpose here is to bring the idea of the flexible firm to life. This chapter is only a beginning, of course, since the flexible firm is still being created, and new models are appearing all around us.

IBM realized that the world was changing. What had worked for the company in the past was not going to work in the future. As IBM’s hardware and software business declined, it began a dramatic transformation that has allowed it to become a different kind of company. While it still supports hardware and software businesses, it makes money off of services. It used to sell computers, but now it sells computer services. In order to go open source, you have to think with foresight and flexibility.


11. Foresight from Hindsight



All greatness is improbable.
What’s probable is tedious and petty.
—Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

“Improbable greatness” is, essentially, what we call innovation today. Any great strategy is improbable. Greatness often lies hidden in an experience, and sometimes it is only revealed in the context of action. This chapter explores how agile approaches to action can yield both success in the present and lessons for future success.

On the Foresight to Insight to Action Cycle, the activities between action and foresight are those of observation, measurement, induction, and learning from experience. What can we learn from our actions to identify new approaches for the future? Thoughtful foresight should include hindsight: our rule of thumb at IFTF is that you should look at least twice as far back as you are looking forward. For example, our ten-year forecasts usually include a twenty-year look back.

In applying the cycle to your own organization, you should periodically do a re-visioning (reconsidering your view of the future), based on your experiences in the field.



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