Innovating Against All Odds: The Endlessly Adaptable Future of Work

Received wisdom isn’t what it used to be. The future will be made up of shades of grey where few things are certain and the best you can do to prepare is to be endlessly adaptable.

Against the backdrop of a socio-environmental crisis of such complexity and scale that its not yet fuIly understood, let alone fully quantified – some businesses aren’t just surviving, but thriving. How, against such odds, do they do it?

Dr Melissa Sterry – Innovation Against All Odds

I first came across Melissa Sterry when I attended a talk she was giving in late 2019. She was challenging the received wisdom that we would all live a lot longer in the future. ‘Babies born today would live to be 100’. This was the received wisdom that much of the conference was founded upon.

“How can we say this?” she asked. “When everything around us is changing so rapidly?”

She went on to explain the complex global disruption caused by events such as climate change and proposed that there are few guarantees about anything anymore.

A full two months before most of us had heard of COVID-19, Melissa gave the example of new diseases emerging with strains capable of igniting pandemics. The message was clear: the world we think we know can alter rapidly or even disappear.

Melissa has now authored ‘Innovation Against All Odds’ – the inaugural report in the #OpenForesightSeries. An independent work, it discusses developments in science, technology, design and society at large that are shaping leading-edge innovation worldwide. 

I’d urge you to read the report as it begs the question of how to navigate not one, not two, but many possible futures, each of which is distinct and, by nature, messy in its expression. More specifically, how might our businesses both large and small, established and emerging, plot a path through such complexity?

Welcome To The Post-Usual

This morning I spoke at a breakfast seminar on the post-Covid workplace. My contention was the current hot favourite – hybrid working – won’t be as successful as many think in the long term. History shows us that the end state is rarely that which is adopted first. The predictions of deserted high streets completely robbed of office workers, or of 24/7 fully remote teams who meet up on off-sites in Bali are extreme positions, and neither are likely to to become true. As the report makes clear, recent studies have shown that those that go to extremes lack the ability to process complex scenarios, and thus mentally default to expectations that fail to accommodate the complexity of reality.

As I say in my introduction to the Evolution vs Extinction section, we are all going to have to learn to live through complexity – moving from single-point solutions to directional systems innovation. The organisations that think change is something to merely react to, or to manage or control, may struggle to survive.

As Melissa makes clear, working with change is a symbiotic process that involves businesses being constantly alert to signals of change both within and beyond their industries, regularly re-evaluating the relevance of their model, operations, positioning, and talent.

From my perspective this requires all our organisations to adopt new mindsets as well as skill sets.

  • A place where work has just enough friction. Far from all the talk of safe spaces the most effective teams will have regular, intense debates
  • A place that has permission to be different. Where it’s allowable, even encouraged, to push back. Everyone should be ok with questioning assumptions and direction
  • A place that harnesses the ability to think and act experimentally. Where happy accidents occur as much as planned foresight

In a post-usual environment there’s no right way to do things or hard and fast rules. Best practice can’t be true. What currently works will often stop working in complex and volatile times.

In the seminar this morning I pinned my hopes for the future on a more enjoyable, ethical, equitable and sustainable world of work. We need to focus on the principles of the outcomes we want to achieve as much as the outcomes themselves. Innovating Against All Odds makes this point in a different way. That businesses of old were, largely, consumed only with the odds that they and their industries faced, today, responsible businesses consider the odds that we, all humanity, face. The most innovative of those businesses seek to understand those odds to the greatest extent possible, and to do all in their power to help not hinder collective efforts. How you do this isn’t as important as the act of doing it. There’s not a print-it-out and stick-it-on-the-wall methodology to follow here.

Received wisdom isn’t what it used to be. The future will be made up of shades of grey where few things are certain and the best you can do to prepare is to be endlessly adaptable.

The companies who thrive will be the ones who are change seekers and change makers, not controllers, managers or inhibitors. 

Black Swans Can Inspire A New Era of Innovation

A black swan is an unpredictable event that is beyond what is normally expected of a situation and has potentially severe consequences. Black swan events are characterized by their extreme rarity, their severe impact, and the widespread insistence they were obvious in hindsight

Back in November I was listening to a talk from Melissa Sterry, the Design Scientist and Systems Theorist. She was challenging the conventional wisdom that a child born today would live until they were 100. “How can we say this?” she said. She went on to explain the complex system disruption caused by events like climate change and proposed that there was no guarantees about anything – as new diseases would emerge with strains capable of igniting pandemics. 

The nature of our connected world provides the ideal base for new entrants to spread and scale  – as facts, predictions, opinions and lies intermingle across all forms of media, creating viral opportunities to spread fear—and overrun the science that should guide communication as well as action.

My original post on risk probability admittedly downplayed the seriousness of COVID-19, and in the intervening weeks our entire lives have been turned upside down. Arguably we are living through a black swan event that will change the course of our lives.

Black Swan theory was popularized in a 2007 book by author and former options trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The book – written a year before the financial crash – focuses on the extreme impact of rare and unpredictable outlier events — and the human tendency to find simplistic explanations for these events, retrospectively.

Why a black swan? Well , for centuries people agreed that swans were – of course – white. That was until black swans were discovered off the coast of Western Australia in 1697 by Dutch explorers. The only reason people were convinced swans were white was because they’d never seen a black one.

Never confuse the absence of evidence with evidence of absence.

Taleb has recently stated that Coronavirus doesn’t fulfill the definition of a black swan. Indeed, pandemics have been at the top of national risk registers for decades and our culture is full of apocalyptic visions of the future , with zombies rather than viral infections admittedly . Some have argued that the correct metaphor for the crisis is a “gray rhino,” which refers to highly probable but neglected threats that have an enormous impact. It was coined by Michele Wucker,  who recently said “Given what we know about pandemics and their increasing likelihood, outbreaks are highly probable and high impact. I coined the term “gray rhino” for exactly such events: obvious, visible, coming right at you, with large potential impact and highly probable consequences.”

In terms of attempting to predict future disruptions on your business it’s useful to make this distinction:

  • High Impact, Highly Improbable Crises
  • High Impact, Highly Probable Crises. Coming right at you. 

And yet – out of this darkness can come a period of opportunity.

Wars and other crisis events can have beneficial effects on innovation and technological development. For example, wars tend to accelerate technological development to adapt tools for the purpose of solving specific military needs. And later, these military tools may evolve into non-military devices, such as radar or even the internet itself.

Additionally , the fact that we are now living in ways that are highly irregular to us , puts us in a far less passive and more creative state. We are experiencing a mass perspective shift that could lead to new thinking and new opportunities.

In this short video clip David Snowdon talks about the troubled Apollo 13 mission. Snowdon explains that for innovation to happen three conditions need to be in place: starvation, pressure, and perspective shift.  In terms of the current situation, we are being starved of our usual way of working and living, we have a pressure to maintain the services we provide and our perspectives have shifted towards self-isolation, limited social contact and the stark realities of covid-19.

As Simon Penny writes “perhaps during this time of isolation and slow living, we might gain a fresh perspective on what’s really important, and paradoxically our social distancing might actually bring us all closer together”.

In the past week I’ve spoken – actually spoken rather than text – to family and friends more than I have in the preceding year. I’ve spoken to neighbours who I’m ashamed to say I didn’t even know the names of.

When life returns to ‘normal’, we may never go back to living and working in exactly the same ways we did before. In fact it would be a collective failure if we were to do so. 

Whatever happens during the Coronavirus post-mortem we have to accept a couple of things:

  • We must getting better at preparing for high frequency, high impact events
  • We have to get better at understanding and reacting to exponential growth across complex systems.
  • We must understand that we’re all connected. In a globalised , perma-connected world we are all linked by increasingly close chains of acquaintance.

In the midst of a pandemic it’s sobering to be reminded that we can look after each other best by just thinking globally and acting locally.


 

Image by Alina Kuptsova from Pixabay 

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