Reframing VUCA: What will it take for leaders to thrive in the next decade?

Futurist Bob Johansen talks about key principles from his new book ‘Full Spectrum Thinking’—which is the ability to make sense out of the future, across gradients of possibility, and take actions now to be a part of those possibilities

Founding Fuel

It's going to be a VUCA world in the negative sense—a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. But if we can flip that into a positive, we can make the world a better place, says Bob Johansen, a distinguished fellow with the think tank, Institute for the Future in Silicon Valley. In positive VUCA, volatility yields to vision, uncertainty yields to understanding, complexity yields to clarity, and ambiguity yields to agility. 

A futurist’s job is not to make predictions, he says, but to provoke other people’s insight and action and help them make wiser, more thoughtful, more humane decisions. The story from the future is a story from the future back. For example, “10 years out, it’s obvious we’ll have sensors everywhere. They’ll be very cheap. They’ll be interconnected. And some of them will be in our bodies. That’s just obvious. What’s not obvious is how do we get from here to there? So, if you think future back, you say, ‘Well, we're going to have ubiquitous sensors 10 years from now. What should we be starting now? What should we be prototyping?’”

Johansen was speaking at the Global Leadership Seminar, organised jointly by the Indian Software Product Industry Roundtable (iSPIRT) and IIM – Bangalore’s NSRCEL, which works with entrepreneurs. The session was based on his new book, Full Spectrum Thinking. It was anchored by Venkatesh Hariharan on behalf of iSPIRT and moderated by Prof Vasanthi Srinivasan from IIM – Bangalore.

Johansen was joined by Charles Assisi, co-founder, Founding Fuel, who added some of his real-life experiences to add an Indian perspective to the concepts Johansen spoke about.

A synopsis of the session:

What does a futurist do?

  • The first question you need to ask a futurist is, have you outlived your forecasts? … But, that's not the way you evaluate a futurist. That's the way you evaluate a fortune teller. The way you evaluate a futurist is, does his or her foresight provoke your insight? 
  • A futurist thinks about alternative futures.
  • Our job as futurists is to provoke other people’s insight and action and help them make wiser, more thoughtful, more humane decisions. 

Preparing for a radically VUCA world

  • It's going to be a VUCA world in the negative sense—a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. In positive VUCA, 
    • volatility yields to vision, 
    • uncertainty yields to understanding, 
    • complexity yields to clarity, and 
    • ambiguity yields to agility. 
  • I wrote Leaders Make the Future, and the 10 skills we need. But skills aren’t enough. It also takes literacies, or practices, or discipline. And that's the second book (The New Leadership Literacies). The third book is on mindset. And that's what we're going to talk about today.

Mindset and skills for the future

  • Dilemma flipping is the most important characterization of the next decade: A dilemma is a problem you can't solve; it won't go away. But you have to figure out how to win anyway, in a way that creates a new commons, a new reciprocity advantage…. In the dilemma flipping skill, you've got to like this space between judging too soon—that's the classic mistake of the prophet or the problem solver—and deciding too late—that's the classic mistake of the academic. So, you do need to decide, even in a VUCA world. But you've got to be careful not to decide too soon. 
  • Clarity is the most important way of engaging with the dilemmas. Clarity means, be very clear about where you're going, and very flexible about how you get there… In general, most companies do not have people who can see the future with great clarity. They’ve got to explore their way to that future with a kind of continuous refinement. 
  • Immersive learning, voluntary fear, and gameful engagement: [Voluntary fear means] you take [whatever] you fear, simulate it, game it, and then allow people to immerse themselves in it in a low-risk way to practice ways of responding. This is the root of war-gaming.
  • What we think of as video gaming today, 10 years from now, that's going to be the most powerful learning medium in history, because we have to learn in immersive, engaging ways.
  • Commons creating 
  • Maker instinct—that ability to make and grow things. 
  • Bio empathy—we need a new sense of affinity with nature and with biology, including our own bodies.
  • Rapid prototyping—fail early, fail often, fail cheaply.
  • Constructive depolarizing
  • Smart mobs that organize for public good.
  • Shape-shifting organizations: Hierarchy, command and control doesn’t work in the VUCA world, it only works in more stable, more predictable times. What we need is the ability for leaders to lead from behind, to be servant leaders to help grow the shape shifting organization where hierarchies come and go. Arrogant styles of leadership are not going to work in a large scale. You need strength, and you need humility.
  • Being there without being there: We have to be as good when we can't be there physically, as we are when we're working in person.
  • Create and sustain positive energy: Leaders need to be healthy—physically, mentally, and even spiritually in the sense of being grounded to face the VUCA world… We have to be agile, we have to be corporate athletes.

Full spectrum thinking 

  • It's the ability to make sense out of the future. Be very clear where you're going, the ability to find that clarity, across gradients of possibility, while resisting the temptations of certainty, the temptations of mindless categorization, the temptations of thoughtless labelling. 
  • When you look 10 years ahead, you always look at least 50 years back. So, it's basically 60-year swaths of time. Because almost nothing happens that's truly new. Almost everything that happens was tried and failed years before. What we currently call social media was prototyped in the 70s.
  • Resist binary categorisation: Categories aren't bad if they're accurate, and if they're fair, but so often they aren't. We particularly have to resist the binary categories because most situations are not binary. 
  • From certainty towards clarity: Our brains want certainty. But the future will require clarity.  So, our brains play against us. Our brains want to predict, to categorize…our brains are always looking for certainty… What we all need to do as leaders, as futurists, as entrepreneurs, we've got to know our brains better and understand better how our brains function and how to play into that in constructive ways… Essentially, we need to teach our brains new tricks… The best single source for this is the NeuroLeadership Institute out of New York. [CEO] David Rock has a concept called SCARF.
  • The forecast that came out of my book, The New Leadership Literacies, is that the future will reward clarity, but punish certainty. Sure, certainty gets rewarded in the short run—that’s why autocrats rise into power. But autocracy, fascism, isn’t scalable in this world, because anything that can be distributed will be distributed. 

The tools of full spectrum thinking

  • Unfortunately, our computing architecture, and our digital architecture, our way of thinking, boils down to zeros and ones. But those are yesterday’s tools. Tomorrow's tools are so much better. Big data analytics, visualization, machine learning, blockchain, which I define is distributed authority computing, gameful engagement—these tools are much more full spectrum. Ultimately, we're going to quantum [computing], but that's going to be beyond the 10-year horizon.
  • I'm so optimistic [because] the tools of full spectrum thinking are getting so good, so practical. You don't have to be a techie to benefit from these new digital tools. 

Why cross-generational learning is the most important change agent

  • [For leaders to get exposure to ideas] the kids they have around them are important. Cross-generational learning is one of the most powerful change agents for organizations now.
  • My definition of a true digital native is 25 years or less, in 2021. So, it's not the millennials; they didn't grow up digital. I'm interested in the kids that were starting to become adults in 2010. And that's a big threshold year because of the iPhone and the iPad. 2020 is going to be a threshold year too, because of Zoom, shelter in place, and so many things happening all at once.
  • I'm really interested in the 15 or less—we call them X Reality natives—that’s today's teenagers. They're growing up to very knowledgeable… and part of the reason why they have this advantage is they grow up as gamers.  For parents, there's reason to be concerned about today's video games—some of them are too sexual and too violent. But the medium is what I'm interested in.
  • The challenge is, how do how do we engage this next generation of young people? I'm really optimistic about them if they have hope. If they don't have hope, they become dangerous, they could get recruited by terrorist groups, they could be depressed, they could be suicidal, even. So there's risk around this but there's such great opportunity with kids.

Future back thinking: From foresight to insights that lead to action

  • Foresight is a future back story [looking back from the future] that includes signals to bring them to life. And we're big believers in the William Gibson insight that the future is already here. It's just unevenly distributed. We call those unevenly distributed futures signals, and they're all around. We have a global database of signals that we track.
  • Foresight is not a prediction—nobody can do that. It's a future back story that's plausible, internally consistent, and provocative. 
  • A futurist is a person who creates these future back stories, with signals to bring those stories to life. And the purpose of that foresight is to provoke your insight. 
  • An insight is so much more than an idea. An insight is an ‘aha!’, that creates a new story in your brain. Once you have that story, you can't unsee it, you can't go back. So, insight is precious, it is scarce. 
  • It's particularly useful to use foresight to provoke your insight that leads to your action, even if you don't agree with the foresight. The action is an agile way forward, expressed with clarity, and ideally, is a story because our brains are wired for stories.
  • The story from the future is a story from the future back. Right now, we don't do that. What most of our companies, particularly big companies, do now is next future, or present forward, or the horizon model. The horizon model is a good way of thinking about strategy and planning if you're in a stable, linear, more predictable world. 
  • Dilemma-flipping: What you need is just a flipping of the order—this is part of dilemma flipping. You need to think now, future next, or future back. You can still do the horizon model, just change the order. So, go horizon one, horizon three, and then horizon two. 
  • For example, 10 years out, it's obvious, we'll have sensors everywhere. They'll be very cheap. They'll be interconnected. And some of them will be in our bodies. That's just obvious. What's not obvious is how do we get from here to there? So, if you think future back, you say, ‘Well, we're going to have ubiquitous sensors 10 years from now. What should we be starting now? What should we be prototyping?’
  • Another example of future back thinking in business: The foresight is, 10 years out, organizations will be more shape shifting, less command and control. That's just obvious. The insight is, what we call organization charts [which are rigid, structured things], and even jobs, will need to be more fluid, more adaptable. And the action is, again, you’ve got to be very clear about the direction but very flexible about execution. This is what I mean by a shape-shifting organization.

A shape-shifting, digital organization

  • A liquid hierarchy: The hierarchies are still there, but they come and go. It is a liquid hierarchy—that grows from the edges where diversity flourishes. It can't be controlled, but it can be guided. 
  • [The CEO] is not at the top anymore. You're at the foundation. And you are the source of clarity. 
  • [Given the short tenure of the CEOs and the pressure toward short term results] you need cross-functional teams. So, there is no single function that's most important to this.
  • Everything has to be digital. But it can’t be a separate digital, it’s got to be an integrated digital. Everything has to be savvy from a human resource and an organizational change point of view. 
  • For a company it’s too late now to do a digital strategy. Digital is too pervasive. Now what you need is a business strategy that includes digital, and everybody has to be digital, including the CEO… 10 years from now, we won't even have the word digital; the word digital will be gone because it's just so obvious.

Specialists vs generalists

  • In the VUCA world—the deeply digital, deeply scientific, very fast information changing world—specialization is very dangerous, because you don't really know quite what the specialization tracks are. 
  • In Silicon Valley, we use the term t-shaped people. You need technical depth, but you also need people that bridge that depth… [who can] think laterally or think across the top of the t as well.

IQ vs EQ

  • You need both, the IQ, the kind of core intelligence, in particular digital intelligence, and the emotional intelligence. That's why [you need] that ability to listen, to empathize, to understand.

Not tech vs humans, but tech plus humans

  • The supermind: [Referring to Tom Malone's new book, Superminds], what he says is, it’s true that if you look 10 years ahead, we'll have some automation, where computers will replace humans. But that's not the big story. The big story is humans and computers doing things that have never been done before. That's what he calls a supermind.
  • I don't like the term artificial intelligence—that’s the worst term for an emerging technology that I've encountered in my career. It's held up the evolution of symbolic computing by at least a decade. The term was coined 68-odd years ago now. There was a debate at the time, whether to call it artificial intelligence or augmented intelligence—they made the wrong choice. And it set up this really bad discussion of computers replacing humans, instead of how can computers augment humans? Superminds is a much more powerful idea. 

The future of democracy—can it evolve into something more sustainable?

  • The quick answer is, yes. Democracy needs to be thought of as a shape shifting organizational structure. What democracy needs to thrive is great clarity of direction. 
  • We need leaders with vision—go back to that positive VUCA. This is a time where vision gets disproportionately rewarded. You need understanding, we need leaders that listen, we do not lead need leaders that shout. 
  • The growth equation for democracy: The latest research out of Blue Zones [the project which looked all around the world at the places where people live the longest, healthiest lives, but die the quickest] is that people who have a purpose in their life tend to live up to seven years longer, they’re happier, they’re healthier. People with a sense of purpose in their lives, who also work for a purpose-driven organization, tend to live up to 14 years longer, and the companies tend to perform better. To me, that's the essence of the growth equation for democracy. (That’s all that we want—a long healthy life, but then die quietly in our sleep. In America, with our health care system, we're really good at heroically preventing death, but we're not very good at healthy living. We tend to have rather unhealthy lives and then very uncomfortable, extended deaths.)
  • Fascism is not scalable in this VUCA world. Because the fundamental forecast is, anything that can be distributed will be distributed. 

Social assets and equitable futures

  • This is in the front-end of full spectrum thinking. There are three big looming issues over the next decade: the rich – poor gap, global climate disruption, and cyber terrorism.
  • The pandemic has made the rich – poor gap much worse as it tends to affect poor people much more unfairly and much worse. It's hard to do a 10-year forecast where the rich poor gap gets better; it’s easy to do a forecast where it gets worse.
  • The pandemic links directly to global climate disruption too. 
  • Cyber terrorism is linked directly to the rich – poor gap.
  • So, in a real sense, the rich – poor gap links to everything that I've talked about so far. 
  • We're doing work with the state of California on the future of work. There's a lot of pressure now around the definition of a job, and how that links to health care and retirement planning and those sorts of things. Those are really big looming issues.
  • They are dilemmas. Within those there are problems that are solvable, but they're really big dilemmas that we just have to keep chipping away at.
  • There's quite a few efforts underway now in the business community to think about social assets, to think about social good, and to link that to strategy. But I do think there's some intellectual work to be done to try to think through social assets, not just financial assets, and how those are distributed, how they're tapped, and how we assess whether our societies are working or not. ♦♦♦

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About the author

Founding Fuel

Founding Fuel aims to create the new playbook of entrepreneurship. Think of us as a hub for entrepreneurs- the go-to place for ideas, insights, practices and wisdom essential to build the enterprise of tomorrow. It is co-founded by veteran journalists Indrajit Gupta and Charles Assisi, along with CS Swaminathan, the former president of Pearson's online learning venture.

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