Courageously Face Uncertainty
As leaders, the past year tested our mettle in reacting to change. With so much that still feels uncertain around us, it is hard to know how to think about what is next. Just getting through the day has been enough.
But now, things are shifting. And with the world opening back up, the expectations on you as a leader have become even higher. You feel like so many people are looking to you for what is next? How do we back to work? What is our strategy for getting back to normal? How will we deal with the ripple effects from a global pandemic?
Fortunately, futurists have been working for decades on how to make sense of change and methodologies for moving toward the futures we want. While no webinar would ever be able to solve all your challenges, this session introduces you to a new mindset that can shift how you can build vision and strategy in the midst of uncertainty.
In this session, you will learn:
- What strategic foresight is.
- How you can begin using foresight in shaping your strategies.
- A collaborative game for thinking like a futurist.
In Moving Past Survival, Institutionalizing Imagination is Indispensable
For this simulation, you can still imagine that you are you. But instead of now, the year is 1916. And, instead of a mobile device, you are holding a rifle with bayonet. Instead of your home office, you are crouched low in a trench in Northern Belgium. About 100 yards to the East, your enemy is doing the same exact thing – hunched over and staring forward. Both you and your enemy dare not leave the seeming safety of the hole.
And so, you sit. And wait.
This posture should be familiar to you. During our recent crises, leadership of our structures, our policies, our companies and communities are prone to a collective survival mode. Survival mode looks like this: everything is urgent; no one can help you; decisions are reactions; everything is risky; good enough is good enough.
Given the present-day stress on families and communities, this survival mode is understandable. The issue is that, for leaders, there is little hope for change if you are resigned to entrenchment.
A Strategy for Getting Out of Entrenchment
To shift the collective consciousness of your internal or even external stakeholders, you can embrace a common futurist practice. If you can – even for a week – do this for yourself, you can begin to see possibilities that are not so hopeless as a trench. This technique is inspired by the archetypal scenarios of futurist Andy Hines at the University of Houston.
- Write a story about what the future looks like ten years from now. That trench story, the inevitable, is what you are going for here. Based on all of the assumptions and knowledge you have, write the story of your organization / community ten years from now. Then make a note of as many assumptions as you can identify. Examples: Growth of your industry, increase in viral pandemics. This story is your baseline vision.
- Rewrite two assumptions. Take at least two of the assumptions you made about the future and reverse them. The simplest form of this is to convert an increase to a decrease or vice versa. So, if one of your assumptions is a trend such as “housing prices increase,” then reverse it to “housing prices decrease.”
- Rewrite the story. Using your new assumptions, write an alternative future for your organization ten years from now. Make it interesting or resist the urge to jump to outcomes. Think through what could have happened to get you to this state ten years from now.
- Live into that alternative story. In this alternate reality, who is most impacted? How likely does this future seem to you? How plausible does this future state seem to you?
If you earnestly implement such a practice, you will be actively acknowledging the existence of alternative futures. That event on the horizon that seemed an inevitability is only one of multiple possibilities. It is an academic effort to understand this in abstract. It is a leadership effort to live into alternative scenarios and gather insight. In enfranchising your constituents, you can ask yourselves at least these two questions:
- What must we be doing now to enable the future we would prefer?
- What must we be doing now to reduce the impact of plausible futures we do not prefer?
On this basis, you can begin an action-oriented strategic plan with other stakeholders. The foundation of your plan will be from a position of very intentional imaginative work about the kinds of worlds we could see. You can begin to institutionalize imagination as a critical competency for facing what will be a world of increased uncertainty.
If you want to dig deeper and expose greater possiblity space, there are as many techniques for futuring as there are plausible futures.
It turns out that we were made for times like these
Remember (what seemed like ten years ago), back in 2019, when Amazon had the April Fool’s Joke of the year? It started with a Japanese Twitter account, Zozi009, who posted a drone-dispatching blimp bearing the Amazon logo. The airship hovered in front of a mountain range and then ominously floated low above a suburban sky. The drones buzzing about like giant bees from a retail hive.
By the afternoon, a spoiler was posted by the same account with computer-generated renderings of a Lockheed Martin hybrid airship. It was a hoax.
But in the hours between, there was a War-of-the-Worlds-like response. Much like the drones, the internet was buzzing with doomsday implications, memetic interpretations that sometimes included the “Imperial March” from Star Wars.
In short, people freaked out.
Those last three words should sound familiar. They are the indicator of a term that Alvin Toffler called Future Shock. It is that rare dread that comes from feeling blindsided. This year, many feel like the tide of uncertainty has crashed repeatedly upon us. Disease, plummeting economies, civil unrest. How are we to lead organizations and communities in circumstances that leave little time for oxygen?
The Institute for the Future has studied the way that humans interpret crisis. You can leverage the three stages with your organization as a frame through which you deal with change together. Instead of trying to quickly solve or fight over the correct response, you can be overt about walking through these stage-gates with people.
(Note: These three stages were cited in a recent ABC-affiliate interview with Marina Gorbis, executive director at the Institute for the Future.)
Stage 1: Reaction.
Something disruptive is revealed. It will feel like it is crashing down on you like a mighty retail zeppelin from nowhere, but the truth is that it was always there – like infectious agents, racism, fragile economies. The future was always there and now it is being revealed.
In dealing with reaction, a useful strategy is curiosity. It is having courageous conversations about what is most scary or compelling. Refrain from battling over the correct point of view and remain curious. The more you can do this, the faster you can help people to move to the next phase.
Stage 2: Reset.
Humans start to make meaning of the change. On reflection, there are implications drawn and a narrative begins to form about “how we got here.”
In working through reset, a useful strategy is provoking or inspiring deeper curiosity. The point of the provocation is to reveal where there is agency. If yesterday’s choices got us to this place, what does that mean about today’s choices? If this is our new present-day reality, what could be some potential new realities we could shape? What else could be?
Stage 3: Reinvention.
A plan or design begins to formulate that creates a new basis for reality. It is not like the reality that existed before Stage 1. Action is taken to reshape systems that can better interpret the crisis that led to Stage 1.
In working on this phase, it is most useful to set down new principles for looking forward. What decisions must we make today to support our principles? What would be the signals that we are headed for the kinds of futures we want?
An example of reinvention:
Just this last month, a Stanford lab formulated a way in which drones could hitch a ride on public transportation to save on energy costs and better navigate crowded urban environments. Drone delivery went from the “Imperial March” to the “Are We There Yet?”
Humans were made for crisis and change. Creating capacity for change is making a business more human.
For an example of a leader who creates capacity for change, check out our Webinar with Polly Ruhland, CEO of United Soybean Board:
If you know of an awesome human who is helping a team / organization / community face the unknown, please send them my way. We are establishing a list of potential guests for a new webinar series.
A conversation with Polly Ruhland, CEO of United Soybean Board. June 26 at 1 PM Central.
You’re likely exhausted. The complexity of the challenges that we are facing as leaders and humans is fatiguing. How much present-day and future change can we honestly take on?
The deep challenges to our business, civic, and personal lives have pushed many leaders into a financial and existential crisis. What has been revealed, perhaps more than anything, is the need to become more familiar with the uncertain and exceedingly complex. How can you remain resilient in leading your organization or community when you are facing so much volatility?
Polly Ruhland, CEO of United Soybean Board, has a reputation for causing disruption — before disruption arrives. Instead of viewing uncertainty and volatility as negative, she deepens the change competency for the organizations and communities she serves.
If you attend this complimentary webinar, you will learn:
- How to increase your capacity for disruption.
- What change really looks like and what it involves.
- Why now is the right time to embrace uncertainty.
A Conversation with Dr. Benjamin Ola. Akande, college president, economist, global consultant, and visionary.
Beyond its danger as an infectious agent, COVID-19 has torn apart our plans for the future. It has laid waste to our projections for what we thought would be possible for 2020. Dr. Benjamin Akande will outline the forces that have the most disruptive power for shaping an organization’s future relevance and what you can do to turn constraints into possibilities.
This webinar will be largely interactive and feature a lot of Q&A. So come prepared with questions for a global economist and with the expectation that you will be provoked.
More about Dr. Benjamin Ola Akande:
Dr. Akande, a Nigerian-American citizen is a respected economist, scholar and global consultant to Fortune 500 companies and institutions in the higher education space in the areas of strategy, leadership development, corporate responsibility and market positioning. He served as a director of Ralcorp Holdings, Inc., a $5 billion publicly traded manufacturer of high-quality private food labels, including Post, and has consulted for corporations such as Anheuser-Busch, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Voith, SeaWorld, and many others.
With the experience to recognize when to take calculated risks and the confidence to make tough business decisions, Dr. Akande believes that the future belongs to those who can see it. He and his wife, Bola, a pharmacist and entrepreneur, have three adult daughters.
Learn foresight practices to shift your mindset from futurist Jake Dunagan
As of this writing, we are nearing one million cases of COVID-19 globally. And we are told this is only the beginning. The global pandemic has shaken our public health systems, our collective sanities, our businesses, our livelihoods, and our identities. Already, we are running out of words for “unprecedented.” Who could have foreseen this level of crisis and its attendant uncertainty?
It turns out that you could have. Or, at the very least, you can, today, adapt a mindset for interpreting and understanding the unknown. For decades, there has been a discipline that helps leaders to have courage even in the midst of volatile circumstances. That discipline is strategic foresight.
Join us for a conversation with accomplished futurist Jake Dunagan, director at the Institute for the Future. Through his practice of design futures, Dungan has helped leaders of organizations and communities to experience simulated alternative future realities. Through experiential futures, leaders uncover new insights, create flexible strategies, and build teams that are better adapted for change.
During this webinar, you will learn:
- Practices to unlock a flexible mindset for adapting to crisis.
- How to encourage your colleagues and teams dealing with uncertainty.
The webinar will also feature a Q&A section during which you can ask a futurist, well, anything you have always wanted to ask a futurist.
A Conversation about Facing Uncertainty with Tech Entrepreneur and All-Around Bad Ass, Matthew Porter, CEO of Invisibly
Everything is changing. Every. Single. Thing. At. Every. Moment.
And if you are a leader, more people are looking to you for answers. All of this is happening in the context of your own life, health, and family facing uncertainty. What are we to do to lead in these times?
We asked Matthew Porter, CEO of Invisibly, to share how he remains courageous in the face of a global pandemic. Porter is an accomplished tech entrepreneur who sold his first company, Contegix, in 2016. He is a deeply devoted husband to his wife who works in healthcare and a father of three. Porter is an ultramarathoner who competes in 100-mile events despite a multiple sclerosis (MS) diagnosis five years ago.
During the webinar, you will learn:
- How can you set priorities in the midst of chaos?
- What are the practices that you can begin doing today to remain strategic in uncertainty?
- What are the long-term implications that leaders should anticipate?
The story usually goes something like this:
When Columbus arrived on the coast of what would become the West Indies, the first peoples completely ignored his crew. Ostensibly, this is due to the ships being so large and so foreign to any experiences that the native people had, that they could not perceive of what was happening. The ships were invisible. It was not until the explorers approached the shore in longboats that the natives would react with fear and weapons.
Depending on which motivational facilitator is presenting, sometimes the explorer is Magellan or Captain Cook. Sometimes the location is Australia or South America. The story, it turns out, is apocryphal. It is, at best, an embellishment intended to carry the weight of metaphor.
Ships: Obvious stuff you cannot see.
Explorers: People who have mastery of the stuff.
Native People: You.
The point that the motivational speaker attempts to make is that our consciousness is so filtered that we sometimes miss what is obvious or right in front of us. And that you, listener, should wake up to new realities because the explorers are coming to take your native land. Insert artificial intelligence, autonomous cars, robots, holograms, etc.
That is an excellent life lesson. However, two things are troubling about the account and the telling of it as such. One is that it is impossible to know if the native people could not “see” the ships. That is, we do not have an account from the native perspective on what was happening. The second troubling fact builds on that point: the scenario makes the native (and the listener of the story) out to be deluded or, at best, incompetent.
Try this decidedly less colonial version:
Since it is impossible to know if the native people saw the ships, a more plausible explanation for their behavior may be that they were busy. They were working to survive. They ignored anything that did not pose an immediate threat.
That feeling — being ignored — likely feels familiar. Because if you are a person of vision, and the sort of leader who has the wherewithal to construct mighty ships, you may have felt the sting of being either ignored or attacked when you reached the shore.
Since this metaphor has not been completely beaten to death, here is the lesson: if you are seeking to do anything important in this life, you are likely to be traveling into uncharted waters. And just because you have not gone there before does not mean that there are not already hordes of people who are working there in their day-to-day survival. And your survival in that world depends upon your ability to have empathy for their lives, their mental models and their needs. Your ship impresses no one. They must know first that you care for them. So perhaps the most fitting description would be:
Ships: Your awesome idea that everyone ignores right now.
Native People: The people with whom you must build trust and empathy if you hope that they will care about your ideas and not destroy you on the shore.
Challenge questions: How willing are you to first seek out and understand your audiences (internal and external) before becoming enamored with your ideas? What steps can you take to learn the mental models of the audiences that you try to reach? (Note: Here are some resources if it seems like your people just “don’t get it.”)
Also, if you are just morbidly curious about the roots of the story, this is the best account I can find.