Work Together In Uncertainty

Future-Focused Leadership, The Future of Work

"Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming." David Bowie

Today, one of the greatest challenges facing leadership and c-suite teams is the ability to work well together in uncertainty.

We're hardwired to avoid uncertainty and yet, we know that the future is unlikely to be anything we're able to predict or plan for accurately. It also holds the greatest opportunity for novel and exponential growth if we can upskill and reskill ourselves and work better, together.

I was having dinner with some friends in London before the pandemic and one of them was telling me about how he'd just started doing his Masters in Space Law. I was intrigued - we have international treaties in place, why would a lawyer need to upskill and do a Masters to specialise in this jurisdiction - and why now?

At the time, I hadn't thought much about space's commercial future. Space Tourism hadn't yet kicked off and Elon Musk hadn't yet mustered a constellation of satellites to deliver much-needed internet access to Ukraine when Russia invaded.

He gave me two practical examples that stayed with me. The first is all of our data centres, which have a hugely negative impact on the environment. Why not run more of them in space? The second involves 3-D Printing organs to bypass the problem of long donor waitlists. One of the greatest challenges in 3-D Printing hearts and lungs is their incredibly delicate filaments, which collapse under the force of gravity on earth. Far better to do this in space.

Today, there are loads more examples and their legal contexts to wrap our heads around - we're living in a time where the line between science fiction and science fact is blurred. It can all feel rather befuddling if we just consider the pace of change and intense uncertainty here on earth in the last few short years.

The reality is, we’ll experience more change across the sciences, technology, the environment and society in the next 10 years than we have done in the last 100 and yet, very few leaders and c-suite teams are prepared.

Uncertainty causes acute stress

Uncertainty is really tough. Instinctively, we feel we need to go faster, do more, be more or simply retreat, all within the (dis)comfort of the known and familiar, which is futile and ineffectual considering the context we're living and working in. So why do we inherently dig in and behave this way?

In 2016, a team of researchers conducted a groundbreaking formal study to discover the relationship between stress and uncertainty. They found that uncertainty produces an acute stress response, which explains why we will do anything to avoid it. It also sheds light on why so many people are feeling the heavy mental and emotional toll of the last few years.

What if the antidote is being comfortable enough to have the wherewithal to do the opposite? How can we lower our stress response and find the mental and emotional space to slow down and get more relaxed about the uncertainty of not knowing? What will it take to stay curious and open to allow for things to emerge and evolve? How can we be more purposeful, intentional and decisive in our actions rather than jumping to stress-induced, often costly conclusions?

It’s easy to forget we are actively creating the future we're going to live and work in when we're just trying to keep up with what's in front of us, today.

Our Lenses on the World

The truth is, it's easier said than done. We go through life creating mental models or what I prefer to think of as our “lenses on the world”. These are informed by the way we’ve grown up and been schooled and trained, the myriad of life experiences we’ve had and the encouragement and criticism we’ve received in our personal and professional lives. By our highs and lows, by our wins and our losses. Human beings are complex and life is most definitely messy.

“We are prisoners of our own metaphors, metaphorically speaking…” R. Buckminster Fuller

These lenses or ways of making sense of the world contain our past and map our future. Our current thinking is deeply rooted in our bias for certainty and what has or hasn't worked well for us in the past, impacting all of our day-to-day decisions. The way we think about and perceive things changes our reality and how we experience it. It almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Take a moment now and think back over your life and career. Can you remember a defining moment or event that landed, took root and stayed with you, directing your thoughts, filtering your understanding, shaping your perception and the decisions you've made in the last day, week or month? I certainly can.

We all have so many of these, both conscious and unconscious, which also contain our blind spots, Achilles heels and our biases. Some still work brilliantly for us and others are inadvertently getting in the way of what we're striving to achieve today.

"As you see the future, so you act and as you act, so you become." Barbara Marx Hubbard

I love this quote from Barbara Marx Hubbard, the late Futurist, Author & Speaker. Her words clearly spell out the essence of what we need to focus on right now. And the good news is it's not some unreachable ideal or vast area of academic study. Each and every one of us has the ability to see the future differently, act differently as a result and lead from a better, smarter place.

Are our learning programmes fit for purpose?

This brings us to our approach to adult learning, which usually requires a good measure of unlearning! When we take a moment to map out what we actually know about what the next decade might hold, we appreciate we all urgently need upskilling and reskilling and some fresh new lenses. However, almost all of our current programmes are based on what's worked well for us in the past. Are they still fit for purpose?

From an upskilling and reskilling perspective, various studies indicate that we are far from where we need to be. A World Economic Forum (WEF) Future of Jobs report (2020 - 2025) indicates that by 2025, the time spent on current tasks at work by humans and machines will be equal. It also states that only 0.5% of global GDP is currently invested in adult lifelong learning.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), part of the WEF, estimates that 1.1 billion jobs are likely to be radically transformed by technology in the next decade. On an upbeat note, the WEF also predicts an overall net positive between job growth and decline...

"However, if current trends continue, outdated learning programmes will further exacerbate the skills mismatch in the future." WEF

It doesn’t have to be this way. We also have really powerful future-focused frameworks, models and tools and ways of making sense of the world. When coupled with "upskilling and reskilling", they deliver learning environments that empower leaders and teams to bridge the gap between today's business models and what's next.

This begs the question... have the leaders making the decisions about the future of their people and their organisations updated their own lenses on the world? Or are they, with the best of intentions, (to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, Futurist), driving into the future using only their rearview mirror?

If the last few years have been about "unplanned reinvention", now is the time for leaders and executive teams to be purposeful and intentional about equipping themselves to better navigate the future, together.

Vital lenses for today's Leadership Teams

When I first took a course in Futures Thinking and Strategic Foresight about five years ago, I instantly recognised that we all need a new way of understanding our world of work and the future. To paraphrase Einstein; I realised that the leadership thinking that got us here won't get us where we need to be! 

I also understood that we need to hone our abilities to be more comfortable working with ambiguity and dealing with paradox. We need to enhance our critical thinking capabilities and be more curious and collaborative, empathetic and adaptable, resilient and creative and so much more.

It sparked an enduring drive to learn more about futures thinking, systems thinking, sensemaking and complexity, agile thinking, innovative behaviours and how to use behavioural science to do the heavy lifting and empower us with greater self-knowledge, emotional intelligence and the ability to work coherently together - and to pass these learnings on to my clients.

Over the last five years, I've talked and written a great deal about the ways of being, thinking and making sense of the world, which equip leaders with the mental and emotional space and agility to make bold decisions, better understand their consequences and achieve their vision with much more confidence and ease.

Working with leadership teams to develop these future-focused lenses, I've also witnessed powerful shifts from leaders feeling overwhelmed, stressed and resistant to being open, excited and energised about the future. And their teams, cultures and businesses have benefited enormously. When we shift from a prescriptive, linear, old-school approach to better ways of making better sense of what's going on, we're able to act differently, individually and collectively, which is where the magic happens.

If you're interested in exploring this for your team or organisation, get in touch with me as we've now opened this up into a 6-part Future-Focused Leadership Masterclass, invite me to deliver a Keynote at your next event or get a copy of my book: Relevant: Future-Focused Leadership and take the journey with me.

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