The Future Is All About Uncertainty

When developing an online leadership course back in 2017, the focus was on the uncertain future that was unfolding. The course took A Journey Through The Looking Glass – a metaphorical expression that means: on the strange side, in the twilight zone, in a strange parallel world. It comes from the Alice and Wonderland literary work of Lewis Carroll, where he explores the strange and mysterious world Alice finds when she steps through a mirror. I have always found this to be a perfect metaphor for our times. Every time the looking glass has appeared, the world has experienced a Tipping Point. While I firmly believe a Tipping Point is coming, the impact is likely a question of severity.

In thinking about the emerging future, the course reflected on the uncertainty that we can expect, and the challenges it represents. It attempted to create a compelling reason to reflect on what this means for society, organizations, and leaders. In telling the story, the course stressed the need for resilience and adaptability in the face of rapid shifts and extreme events. Fast-forward to 2020 and the pandemic is one of those extreme events. The pandemic is succeeding where story-telling failed. The dialog emerging around resilience and adaptability is one of the few positive outcomes from COVID-19. In a recent ZDNET Article, author Daphne Leprince-Ringuet describes a recent Forrester report on the topic. She starts the article with a story:

When walking along empty city streets during lockdown, a common sight was the “Closed for refurbishment” sign sitting in the front of restaurants and shops. From repainting the walls to replacing decades-old furniture, many venues decided to make the best of the situation by finally carrying out the much-needed works they had been comfortably ignoring for years.

Comfortably ignoring for years. The same applies to the critical need to prepare for uncertainty. The new report warns that every company should take a similar approach and overhaul their processes and prepare for the next ten years. The focus of the report mirrors the focus of the 2017 online course: the 2020s are looking to be ripe with uncertainty, and the winning businesses will be those that can adapt to any type of unexpected emergency. I described the Convergence of multiple facets of our world, and how this convergence likely shapes the future. Disease, extreme weather, and geopolitical instability are examples of those facets. This convergence combined with that of science and technology create this uncertainty.

The Forrester report draws the same conclusions: organizations must radically redesign their priorities. Where business used to be all about efficiency, the guiding principle for the next ten years will be agility. According to Forrester analyst Laura Koetzle, who co-authored the report, “The supply chains we’ve designed over the past decade are made to be efficient. But in an environment where things are changing quickly you need to be able to change without it being prohibitive, and this might mean being less optimized for some time.” She says what should have been obvious before the pandemic: “The companies that make themselves more flexible to respond to whatever the next systemic shock is will be far better off.”

As described in my Post yesterday, remote work is a hot topic. The article focuses here as well when it stated that one of the smartest decisions for leaders right now is to improve their adaptability by encouraging their remote workforce. If we assume that COVID-19 type shocks will be more common-place, then as the report states, it is easy to see why companies that introduce a permanent “work-from-anywhere” ethos will fare better than others the next time a global shock comes around, and displaces the office once again.

Let’s hope that where story-telling failed, reality drives action. The future after all is all about uncertainty.

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