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12 June 2013

New questions for an unpredictable future

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

I have been in California this week teaching a bunch of inspirational senior leaders about leading through a world that is increasingly complex. There’s a way all of these leaders know that much of their work is unpredictable and that they need to try things out, but the mind-set that goes along with our wishes for predictability are so strong that they can pull us along without our even noticing it. For example, we’ve seen clients be totally committed to innovation in a complex space, and then also totally undermine it with the way they talked about innovation and the questions they asked.

When an idea came up in a meeting, someone was sure to say, “We tried that and the results showed that sort of thing won’t work.” We’re guessing you’ve heard that sentence or one very like it in an organization near you (maybe you’ve even said it yourself—it’s hard not to).

And it’s not a terrible sentence. It’s a form of learning from past experience and it is designed to keep people safe and keep them from wasting energy chasing phantoms. Notice, though, that the idea that we can know “that sort of thing won’t work because we’ve tried it before” comes straight from the predictable-world mind-set. Collecting data, projecting forward from past experiences, these are all appropriate assumptions if you can judge the future based on the past. They are inappropriate for the unpredictable world. The questions that guide our thinking about innovation boundaries need to be different.

We can’t rely on old favourites like: “Did this work before?” or even, “What are the odds this will work this time?” These are excellent questions, and we can and should learn from them as we innovate. Too often, though, those questions are used to decide which innovations to actually pursue, and in that case these questions are likely to put you in the wrong place.

Rather the more helpful questions in complexity are, “How might this fail and how bad would that be?” And, “What could we learn from this whether it is successful or not?” And, “How might this shift the system in our desired direction, no matter what happens, exactly?” These questions are better ones to support decision making about which innovations to go after and which ones to leave behind. If it didn’t work before, that might be ok. If it doesn’t work this time and that means the organisation will suffer great reputational damage, that is not ok at all.

Because these are new questions and they can make people nervous, it’s even more important for the leaders to get their own minds—and orient their own mind-sets—around them. In the complex space, leaders have to communicate more than a message: they have to communicate a mind-set. What do you do when faced with an unpredictable future? Change your questions, or hope that the questions that got you here will get you into that new future space? Or are there crossover questions you have that work in both worlds? We’d love to hear more…

{The picture today was from a walk near where I was teaching this week. Unpredictable weather next to the sea, but predictably beautiful!)

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