The Future of the Future:
An opportunity for real change

This article appears in the issue April 2009 [Volume 18, Issue 4]

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In today’s economic climate, it’s clear more than ever—traditional business models no longer work. They are too slow and impede the flow of knowledge—the exact opposite of what is needed to succeed in a turbulent, high-risk economy.

In the Enterprise of the Future, we are forming new business models that allow organizations to learn and innovate at a rate equal to or faster than the speed of change in the market. It’s like having Jedi reflexes when everyone else is still trying to figure out what’s going on.

Too many components of the economy are in a downward trajectory. While there is very little we can do about the global situation as a whole, we can use it as an opportunity to pause and reflect on how our own organizations operate. At the very least, we need to momentarily halt the process, introduce some serious changes and reboot. Here’s a partial list of specific transformations, any one of which will introduce a new way of doing business that will help propel you forward.

Just pick one and do it. Hammer it home. Don’t stop until the transformation is complete. Then do another one. Resist all temptation (including Luddite rebellions) to revert back to the safety and comfort of the old ways. It should be obvious by now there is no safety and comfort in anything. When the economy recovers, and recover it will, you will be well positioned to move ahead of the pack.

Transformation 1

Make the move from hierarchies to networks once and for all.

Hierarchies can stay in the background, but the social networks and value networks must become clearly visible and brought to the foreground. We can never really "know what we know" until the network knows itself. That’s where the essential knowledge is hidden, the knowledge that is needed to respond to the huge challenges we face. The org chart for the Enterprise of the Future looks a lot more like a digital fuzzball than a hierarchy.

Action: Pull back the curtain and bring full transparency to your social and value networks.

Transformation 2

Make the cultural shift from silos and knowledge hoarding to openness and knowledge sharing.

Even after the network sees itself, nothing happens until knowledge flows freely across the connections. It’s ironic that resistance is greatest at the very time when knowledge sharing is needed the most. The common objection is, "Why should I share what I know when I may not be around tomorrow?" The answer is that in many ways a lack of sharing is what got us here, and it only continues to make a bad situation worse. The problems we are facing are complex and demand collective brainpower coupled with strong leadership.

Action: Find a do-or-die reason to break down the silos. Communicate it so that everyone clearly understands the serious personal consequences of not sharing and collaborating.

Transformation 3

Move from slow, random learning to a systemized approach for fast learning.

The success stories of after-action reviews and other lessons-learned techniques have become mainstream. Yet, except for the U.S. Army and a few other organizations, the knowing-doing gap remains wide. The excuses run the gamut: not enough time, little or no incentives, etc. But one reason you might have to cut costs and lay off people is because you’ve been spending 30 percent or more of your project dollars correcting repeated errors. Developing a culture of making mistakes once would go a long way toward addressing budget concerns.

Action: Formalize and habituate learning before, during and after a task or project. We all know how to do that. So why isn’t it getting done? Find out and permanently remove the barriers (hint: use the do-or-die technique mentioned above).

Transformation 4

Become fixated on systemic improvements rather than point solutions.

During a crisis, you are likely to be faced with extreme pressure to "do something." Although Band-Aid solutions may temporarily stop the bleeding, they often cover up the more serious underlying problems. An enterprise is a complex adaptive system. So why do we insist on looking at only one or two pieces at a time?

Action: Look at the system as a whole. Keep asking, "Why, why, why … ?" until the real reason for a problem is revealed. Dust off those old systems thinking books and look for tell-tale signs of limiting factors, snowballing effects (a.k.a. vicious cycles), delay effects, shifting the burden, focusing on external conditions over which you have no control, etc. Maximize your agility by challenging deeply engrained assumptions that are constraining your ability to respond to change.

Transformation 5

Move from saying, "That’ll never work here," to "Let’s find a way to make it work."

It’s both safe and easy to say no. In fact, it’s the only response— other than "Let’s discuss it offline"—that unempowered people are permitted to give. Whatever happened to that old expression, "Where there’s a will there’s a way"? With a billion minds to tap into, there can be no more excuses. Finding a way to make it work means assembling the best brain trust possible, collectively solving problems and coming up with new ideas.

Action: Don’t cancel the annual office party just because things are bad. Set up a system whereby anybody who says, "That’ll never work here," pays a hefty fine. At least for the first year, you should have collected enough money to host a bash that would make even the most seasoned Hollywood executives blush.

We’ve known about the need to make those types of changes for a long time. Unfortunately, it often takes a major economic downturn to shake things loose. When it looks like everything is grinding to a halt, the best source to turn to for a bailout is the hidden brain trust you neglected when times were great. As a knowledge leader, you should do whatever it takes to re-engage that brain trust.

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