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The Future of the Future: Learning fast to stay relevant in a flat world

This article appears in the issue May 2006, [Vol 15, Issue 5]


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This is the first entry to our new column that will present ideas and challenges from leading thinkers and practitioners on "the future of the future." The intent is to raise awareness and attention on this important and timely topic. If we are successful, we will prompt and provoke our readers to participate in a manner that leverages our collective intellect and creates some new knowledge in the process.

If you've read The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman, you are acutely aware of the impact globalization is already having on the world economy. Markets are constantly changing. In a world where a new entrant can leap-frog market leaders in a single bound, people need to learn fast from everything they do to stay relevant and ahead of the competition. U.S. Army company commanders are beginning to do just that, performing successfully on missions they have never been trained for and where the enemy changes its tactics on a daily basis.

Just as those leaders are learning to adapt and innovate at the speed of change to succeed on the battlefield, so must business leaders and knowledge workers of the future learn to innovate and adapt if they are to succeed in the global marketplace. Observations gleaned from the Army company commanders community of practice provide us with some insights on what is required to effectively "lead on the edge": increased self-awareness, adaptive leaders, fast learning processes and leveraging global know-how through communities of practice and passion.

Increased self-awareness--Admitting to yourself and others what you don't know is not easy. Attempting this in many organizations is a sure-fire way to limit your upward mobility. However, when you do understand what you know, admit what you don't know and realize you don't know what you don't know, you open up the floodgates for new knowledge to flow to you from others. You begin asking questions you were afraid to ask and challenge assumptions that never seemed right in the first place. "What if" and "Why" become a routine part of your language.

Adaptive leaders--The ability to adapt quickly to new situations is part science and part art. The science part involves tapping what's already known about a particular environment, training, deliberate planning and preparation. The art part is about considering new possibilities, walking through new scenarios and asking fellow team members "what they would do if." That gets everyone thinking, generating ideas and options to put in their back pockets if and when the need arises.

Equally important, these mini-rehearsals provide a leader with clues on how his or her people will think and act in different situations. Plus, the leader is modeling the behavior that he or she wants others to emulate. Let's face it, most of us only embrace what we see the leader do, not what we hear the leader say. Leaders on the edge also develop an appreciation for shared leadership. Leadership by a single person is not sufficient when faced with a complex, rapidly shifting environment. Leadership that is shared enables a team to swarm and adapt at the speed of change demanded from a level playing field.

Fast learning--Learning before, during and after everything you do must become routine. With routine comes speed, and learning with speed delivers high performance. The results of methods such as peer assists (learning before doing), action reviews (learning while doing), and after action reviews (learning after doing) are well-known. If you are not applying those techniques in your projects and teams, now is a good time to start. But fast learning is not just something you do with your team. You can apply those tools to yourself every day to accelerate your own pace of learning and performing.

Here is a checklist of simple questions to guide you for fast, individual learning:

To "learn before doing" at the start of your day or any activity:

  • What is supposed to happen today?
  • How will I know if I'm successful?
  • What knowledge do I need to get what I want done, and where can I get it?
  • What help do I need?

To "learn while doing" in the middle of a task or activity:

  • What was supposed to happen up until now?
  • What has actually happened?
  • Why are 1 and 2 different?
  • What can I learn and do about it right now?

To "learn after doing" at the end of the day or a task:

  • What stands out for me that is new or different?
  • What should I repeat next time I do this, and why?
  • What should I do different next time, and why?
  • Who else may be facing similar challenges and might find this useful?

Communities of practice and passion--A lot has been studied and said about communities of practice. In companies where they are making a difference (and there are a lot less of these than we are lead to believe), results are being measured by incremental performance improvements (good thing) and number of hits on a community Web site (unsure thing). Where a community has developed a powerful identity and passion exists for the profession or practice, a step-change in performance results. In those communities, people develop courage to become more self-aware.

The Army company commanders community is one of those. It is comprised of members who care as much for each other's success as their own. It is a virtual place for leaders on the front line to ask for help, challenge their relevancy, learn and test out ideas. Communities of passion are rapidly institutionalizing new knowledge across the Army institution in ways never before possible. They are helping build self-aware, adaptive leaders who learn quickly from each other's latest experience.

Learning and performing at a rate equal to the speed of change in the battlefield is a requirement for survival today. For business leaders and knowledge workers, global marketplaces are the battlefields of the future. Learning fast to stay relevant needs to start now. Try one of the tools from the checklist above and let me know what happens!


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