In 1963 Nobel Prize winner,Dennis Gabor observed: ‘Rational thinking, even assisted by any conceivable electronic computers, cannot predict the future. All it can do is to map out the probability space as it appears at the present and which will be different tomorrow when one of the infinity of possible states will have materialised … The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented. It was man’s ability to invent which has made human society what it is.’
Over 55 years later, in our VUCA world where volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity abound, this has never more pertinent than it is right now. We need leaders who can see a future that others can’t yet see and who have the capacity to communicate it with clarity and passion.
Clear and compelling vision is imperative because it provides us with hope, allows us to focus our efforts and provides us with something by which we can measure our success or at least progress towards. Ancient wisdom literature tells us that without a vision, the people will perish.
But how is it possible to have vision when the future feels completely unpredictable? This is the challenge that faces leaders across the board – to see through the confusion and contradictions and find a viable path forward that provides a clear sense of purpose for now, even if the means for getting there are constantly changing.
Although there are no magic formulas for creating a vision that engages hearts and minds, there are some sound guidelines that can help navigate the uncertainty:
- Use a long-term strategic thinking framework – Steven Johnson, author of Far-sighted: How we make the decisions that matter the most, notes that scenario planning can be an excellent way of overcoming our own tendencies to predict a future based on current trends. He recommends experimenting with an optimistic scenario, a conservative one and one from out of left-field to see what insights might emerge.
- Ensure a diversity of perspectives – As Thomas Schelling once commented, ‘there is a tendency in our planning to confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable’. And this is why we need diversity because what may be totally familiar to one person can shatter a paradigm held by another. Ground-breaking thinking and new solutions can then emerge.
- Start with UX in mind – User experience or UX is the new success factor for any design or strategy, and it includes employees as one of the most critical user groups to focus on. To create positive UX requires companies to acquire a deep empathy for the needs, wants and preferences of its customers as these define the way that users want to interact with your company and all it offers both now and in the future. Building empathy involves a willingness to suspend your own perceptions and beliefs and adopting an openness to really hear what your users want from you in an ongoing way.
Why should an organisation have to lose its way and surrender billions of dollars in market value before getting serious about change? A turnaround is a poor substitute for timely transformation. That’s why we need to change the way we change. The goal should be change without trauma —automatic, spontaneous, and reflexive. In a world of mind-flipping change, what matters is not merely a company’s competitive advantage at a point in time, but its evolutionary advantage over time.