Brace for Stormy Seas

You think that the complexity and speed of the modern world is fast enough? Are you already concerned that your organisation is struggling to keep pace? Well, if Tyler Cowen, Professor of Economics at George Mason University is correct, then we have only just started.

The BBC posted a video on its website entitled Is Innovation at a 100 year low?’ where he briefly outlines this idea. Mr Cowen’s argument is that in the first half of the 20th century there was massive social and technical change that impacted almost all of our lives; cars, planes, radio, television, medicine, the start of the computer age, the rise of mega-companies. Over the last couple of decades or so, while the internet has emerged, there have not been other innovations that have changed society. We have better cars, larger planes, more television channels viewed in higher resolution televisions, yet larger organisations, better phones that enable us to watch cat videos. These may be progress, but they are not changing society.

The claim is that societal innovations come when groups of smaller innovations enable a larger change to happen. This means there are periods of slower change, followed by a period of large change. Mr Cowen thinks we are currently in one of those slow periods. This video really made me stop and think.

In my professional life I advise organisations on how to be more effective by harnessing Agile, Lean, design and innovation thinking. I have been warning people that in 10 to 15 years I think there will be big changes in organisations, yes because of innovation, but mainly as to really change organisations you need leaders with the right mindset and in 10 to 15 years there will be generational change in organisational leadership. Organisations that can adapt to a rapidly changing world will need to be very different from today’s. This restructuring and repurposing is only possible when those in leadership positions have a world view that sees reason and benefit in change. Those in power now are not keen to dismantle the system that has benefited them so much. However, those people who have grown up through the impact of current business practices, of climate change, of the years of austerity, of transparency and instant communication were too young to benefit, are not so keen on the status quo and want to change it.

In the wings we currently have robotics, artificial intelligence, Elon Musk shaking up the transport and energy sectors, trials of universal basic income and increasing polarisation of political parties. What if these are the things that, together, will create a societal change, if we are at last on the cusp of a period of fast change?

How will your organisation cope when we really enter a period of change?

The next thought I had was what happens if the slow period ends before we get this change in leadership mindset? In this case we will have organisations trying to operate in a new world without leaders who can envision a new way to be. How many established organisations won’t just be struggling to change, they will be struggling to survive? The time to think about lifeboats is not when you hit the iceberg, but when you are designing a ship to sail in dangerous waters. We could be about to enter very dangerous waters indeed, so we need to be designing our ships now.

I believe that to survive the impending storm, organisations will need to be increasingly flexible and fleet of foot; to be Adaptive Organisations.

Adaptive Organisations continually change themselves to their environment, and I hope to cover them in more detail in future articles. An initial step could be to undertake scenario planning to explore possible futures and assess potential impacts on your business.

Image: Jeremy Segrott from Cardiff, Wales, UK - Stormy seas at Porthcawl, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57212757

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