Caveat: the following represents my personal views only.
Earlier this week I had a humbling opportunity to give an opening keynote at an event that also featured keynotes by Michael Bloomberg and Michael Dell. It was a chance to share some insights into how our world is changing exponentially, and what this means for the future of organizations, societies, and how teams of positive “change agents” work together.
After the presentation, several folks came up to me and individually relayed that the conversation about our rapidly changing world, was something that more people should be aware of and discuss. In my talk I emphasized the importance of public discussions regarding the opportunities (and challenges) as no one individual will have all the answers — there is no text book for where we are going — so I concurred that we need to be having these conversations. One caveat: I am a non-partisan senior executive so I do not wade into waters of politics. I do discuss science, strategy, and the nature of the changes we’re facing.
So, in the short space that follows, and perhaps in a format not as good as an actual face-to-face interactive discussion, I’ll attempt to share the main takeaways from that presentation on “Change Agents in our Exponential Era”. Comments, thoughts, and feedback welcomed below this is meant to be an evolving, shared conservation.
1. The Definition of #ChangeAgents
#ChangeAgents are leaders who “illuminate the way” and manage friction of stepping outside the status quo. Anyone can be a change agent, you do not have to wait to receive formal authority to do so.
We need more people willing to step outside of expectations because our world is changing rapidly, in several cases exponentially, and if all we do is meet expectations and the status quo — we will fall behind as organizations, as teams, and as societies.
That said, when you do step out of expectations, you will need to have a strategy for how you will manage the friction associated with stepping out of expectations because a lot of folks don’t like it when you step out of expectations. This is partly why reinvigorating existing organizations or teams can be so difficult, and yet so necessary.
2. Our World is Experiencing More Turbulence
This is a result of increasing velocity of transactions within organizations and globally, thanks in a large part to the internet and greater connectivity of markets and nations around the world. Our world seeing increasing volume and volatility of these transactions as well, in addition to an interesting paradox that the internet makes us both more transparent and challenges how one determines veracity based on information relayed digitally. Getting to “ground truth” can be difficult. When combined these are disruptive forces for how we traditionally organizations, to include the traditional form of top-down hierarchies which are very good at begin efficient and focused when an environment is known or predictable, but very bad at being resilient and adaptive when an environment is rapidly changing or unpredictable.
3. The Power of (Cognitive) Diversity
Science has shown that there are three empirically-tested strategies to adapt to changing or unpredictable environments. The first is increasing cognitive diversity. With crowds: diversity trumps ability — specifically, learned perspectives may limit the search space any one individual uses to reach an answer, even for “smart” individuals. Multiple individuals with varying perspectives expand the search space employed. A diverse crowd has more “tools” to apply. This is partly why market-based mechanism work, those with views different then the norm that are “more fit” than others can make a profit. That said, diversity works if everyone has same goal, such as “getting the answer right” or “seeing our quarterly goals get met”, and values this goal. If goal-related values of different groups are not shared, crowd may splinter into factions and in-fighting.
Effective #ChangeAgents as leaders will listen, learn, and help craft shared goals and shared narratives to bring diverse groups of people together.
4. Power of the Edge
Traditional organizations exist to harness worker output, usually via a top-down approach (note: by top-down I’m discussing the flow of directed ideas and management, not inductive vs. deductive approaches). Yet top-down hierarchies restrict opportunities for bottom-up information flows. Bottom-up information flows are less important when the environment in which an organization, team, or society operates is known or predictable. Conversely, bottom-up information flows become very important when the environment is rapidly changing or unpredictable. If an organization doesn’t encourage bottom-up insights, it is highly probable that the top could lose relevancy despite larger scope.
The top may “see more” across the organization, however they’ll be out of sync with the “edges” of their organization who are closer to the changing dynamics to include shifts in costumer, market, or global opportunities and challenges.
5. Power of an Ecosystem
By ecosystem I mean a distributed group of entities that you don’t have direct control over, ranging from organizations that complement but don’t directly compete with your organization or teams that remix and reuse products your team does and similar your team remixes and reuses products they do as part of horizontal partnership. Traditionally horizontal partnerships for the private or public sector were difficult. In the private sector, horizontal partnerships might eat into your profits or appear to be overt colluding; in the public sector, at least for the United States, the Founders intended there to be turf wars between different groups as a ways of implicitly implementing “checks and balances” to prevent the rise of a king-like individual. James Madison wrote in 1788 that “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition” as a way of ensuring checks and balances prevented too much power to be aggregated under the auspices of a single individual. The challenge is that this means for public service to work well (at least in non-dictatorships), coalitions must be built across disparate partner entities.
The good news is an ecosystem approach can help in a changing environment because any one individual’s (or team’s) perspectives and views may no longer be relevant; different views can better scan the environment.
In the last few years we’ve already seen examples of networked actors and networked cells being able to adapt quickly. Through chatter and conversation, new opportunities or challenges can be addressed through swarming and rapid mobilization.
There is no textbook for where our organizations or societies are going next with the rapid, exponential changes in technology and services possible as a result. The next seven years will see more change than the last 20 years combined in terms of network devices, data on the planet, and computational capabilities.
To me this presents a degree of excitement: how do we maintain those things we want to hold true to as individuals, as a nation, and as a world and also adapt to such rapid change? It’s worth noting that the words “expertise” and “experiments” both have the root “ex peria” meaning out of danger, and that the United States was born from an experiment in self-rule and over the last 240 years, “out of danger” came experience.
Closing Update: BloombergBNA has published the video of the talk, should you be interested.
Closing Question: What experiments with organizations and teams do we need to consider for the next 10 to 20 years ahead?