In organisations, we need to bring the people with us if we are to succeed collectively.
This is particularly crucial when we are trying to develop a new vision and we know there is going to be change ahead.
Some people will be excited for change but many have their own ideas what that change should or could look like.
Therefore, paying attention to the process of how we bring others with us is critically important.
Pay attention to the process
In the recent Elevate podcast episode, Robert Glazer interviewed Dr Abdul-Malik Muhammed about how to bring positive change.
When we are stressed, we start leading from authority and focus on the outcomes.
The more stressed we are about the outcomes, the more we focus on them and don’t pay enough attention to the process how we involve others in getting there.
The truth is that we cannot force people to be inspired.
Because the way we make people feel in the process also determines how they want (or don’t want to) work with us also impacts on the quality of their thinking and doing.
We can, and should, hold people accountable for what they are supposed to in particular roles.
Paying attention to their feelings does not mean that we stop expecting that they deliver what they should in that particular role.
But being more aware of how we manage our interactions and process, how we aim to include them and look for opportunities to empower them, has a significant impact on their well-being but also on the quality of their ideas.
Having strategic dialogues that are inspiring and inclusive are key for the success of whatever future vision we are in the process of developing.
Questions to ask together about the future
Mark Johnson and Josh Suskewicz noted in Lead from the Future, that one of the key assumptions that must be discussed together is “the jobs to be done in the future”.
What does a sector look like in 10 years time and what needs is it responding to?
This includes about identifying in detail why people need a particular service or product and what assumptions can be made about how the sector has changed (e.g. introduction of new technologies, platforms, ways of delivering services, disappearance of sectors).
This discussion should be based on strategic prior research: reading “on the edges” research that is exploring new ideas, visiting Research and Development labs in companies or sectors that are trying to implement these new ideas, and reading broadly beyond your own sector and country.
Strategic discussions then with your team are much more grounded in examples that can inspire and ignite new questions and ideas.
Yet, the key is not to shut down too early the discussion on assumptions but rather provide a strategic starting point where the prior research can help in elevating existing hunches in the organisation.
This requires a “learning mode” and “diverge a bit to explore trends, and then, through debate and discussion, converge on a set of assumptions about the future. This demands a highly intuitive approach and intuition is fed by a diversity of inputs” (p. 84).
The most common fail at this stage is to think the process is complete and rush to make a strategy.
But Johnson and Suskewicz warn that this is in fact the very start of the process and not the end product.
Seeing emerging ideas and connecting them to right actions under a shared vision and strategy takes times as people also need time to reflect, debate, and discard those assumptions that don’t seem to hold.
Engage in View of the World Statements
View of the World Statements are the next step of visioning the future.
These statements articulate what the future context looks like and which assumptions must or should be true in order for your vision to flourish.
You can start by collecting twenty or thirty assumptions and then evaluate together with your team each for their impact and likelihood.
The aim is not to just agree but even “pressure test the outliers- things that are assumed to be unlikely but might reflect organizational blind spots” (p. 85).
Spending time on articulating these assumptions is crucial because they will guide your strategy development and the new directions that you take.
This is best done in an engaging way where people really are part of the process.
For example, Johnson and Suskewicz ran such visioning exercise for Deakin University in Australia where the university was trying to understand its vision and place in the future of higher education.
The room where the leadership group met had multiple scenario posters with multiple assumptions about what a future of higher education could look like.
After moving through the different scenarios in small groups and discussing each in detail, the participants were asked to divide themselves into optimists and pessimists and debate why a particular scenario or vision could or could not happen.
This exposed many assumptions that people held about what was possible and what was not, and gave space for the formulation also of new questions.
The participants were also asked to line up from the most optimist view to the worst case scenario and each to explain why they chose a particular spot on the line based on their views and assumptions about the future.
Exercises like this can open up discussion and identify outliers and blindspots that rarely come up in a normal conversation or email exchange.
Going against conventional wisdom is hard
Even if these kinds of exercises are increasingly talked about and available as people gain experience in these methods and future-back mindsets, implementing them across organisations and sectors remains difficult.
Part of the reason is that we are so accustomed to the conventions of the work place although now in the post-COVID shake up this is likely to change.
Visioning a future is hard as it requires a completely different mindset and way of thinking: it calls us to challenge our own assumptions, accept uncertainty rather than reduce it, and chart a path that most of us have not travelled so far.
But given the state of the world today and the many problems that conventional approaches have not been able to solve, shifting your mindset is going to be a key in personal and professional success.
Learning “abductive reasoning” that relies on piecing together incomplete knowledge and experiences can give us better capabilities to see around corners and spot inflection points before they happen.
Moving your team towards this type of thinking is likely to face resistance especially if they are wedded to the current structures and organisational identity.
But if we want to change things and see what possibilities lie out there through innovation, we need to change the way we think about uncertainty, future and how we get there.