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Critical capacities for navigating in turbulent times

This article appears in the issue May/June 2018 [Volume 27, Issue 3]
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If there’s one thing about the future of which we can be certain, it’s that it will be extremely turbulent. Our forecasting research indicates that the coming decades will be characterized by deep, systemic changes. That’s in addition to the increasing speed and amplitude of the more familiar business and technology cycles. The changes will affect our underlying institutions—social, political and economic. The paradigm shifts they bring will challenge our assumptions and will make our lives less predictable, with greater risk.

Such periods are rare in human history and require a different kind of navigating capacity. KM’ers need to be on the front lines in helping to build such capacities, which are very knowledge-centric. Using a river-rafting metaphor, we have been in a relatively flat, predictable part of the river. But as our raft enters increasingly more dangerous rapids, our navigational approach needs to change.

To navigate better in severe turbulence, three critical capacities are needed: foresight, agility and resilience. Those capacities have always been fundamental to sustaining high performance in knowledge-based organizations. But during times of turbulence, they need to be operating at peak levels.

Foresight

Foresight is different from prediction. Prediction asserts the most probable scenario from a specific point of view. Foresight, on the other hand, recognizes multiple possible scenarios and charts a range of alternative paths. The idea is being able to quickly sense and respond to a variety of conditions as they emerge in real time, rather than betting on the occurrence of any one scenario. In essence, foresight is the capacity to scan your surrounding circumstances as changes rapidly unfold and to anticipate the consequences and implications for multiple possible futures.

The value of foresight increases in direct proportion to the amount of turbulence, both present and emerging. The greater the turbulence, the more foresight you need to understand the changing landscape and determine appropriate courses of action. Disciplined foresight requires clarity concerning which variables to monitor and what they might mean. Three such variables are trends, cycles and key events.

Trends reflect changes in critical factors over time. Some are in the early stages, such as blockchain-based accounting. Others are coming to an end, like many types of jobs, both skilled and unskilled. The danger is that our relative period of stability over the last 50 to 70 years has produced a set of trend lines that make it easy to believe they will continue forever.

The reality is that we live in a world that tends to operate cyclically rather than linearly. Foresight pays attention not only to the phases of the cycles we go through, but also to changes in frequency and intensity. We can see those changes happening already in technology product development cycles, market cycles, political cycles and so on.

Finally, good foresight effectively anticipates the implications of watershed events. From time to time, such events change the course of the river we are navigating. When several crises cascade in rapid succession, turbulence abounds, sometimes accompanied by widespread panic and disorientation. Increased foresight helps you recognize those conditions and anticipate alternative paths, so you can plan a rational response. Which brings us to …

Agility

The traditional hierarchy was designed for stability and control. However, in times of rapid and unpredictable change, desire for stability must give way to agility.

Agility is maintaining balance through flexibility and adaptability. Part of that balance is knowing your tipping point. For example, if you’re navigating rapids and sense that you’re getting ready to tip over, you compensate by shifting your weight and paddling in a specific direction. It is analogous in business to adjusting your tactics and rapidly reassigning resources.

Sensing, adjusting and adapting may need to occur in a matter of only a few seconds (such as in the financial markets). In general, systemic changes can take years or even decades to unfold. Agility applies not only in fast-moving markets, but in every sector dealing with changes in technology, public policy, regulation, climate and consumer preferences. Being ahead of the pack can result in significant competitive advantage. But you still need one more capacity when things go badly.

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