Back to the Future

Despite the recent vogue for futures thinking, the further out we look, the more problems there are in predicting or planning, as the current economic crisis demonstrates.  Crystal balls have clouded over and normal reception will not be resumed for some time yet.  

 In times of crisis there is a natural but dangerous tendency for time horizons to shrink and for the focus to be on survival in the here and now and the immediate future. Attendees at the recent Jobs Summit in Manukau had to operate inside a two year time horizon set by the government, which will conveniently coincide with the run-in to the next election.

Faced with first a surreal and now a very real crisis, which has revealed seismic cracks in the capitalist egg less than two decades after the Berlin Wall came down and the flags of the market economy went up in some unlikely countries,  people in leadership roles feel the need to do something, and do something quickly.

With varying degrees of gusto and confidence political leaders around the world are propping up financial institutions ranging from the venerable to the venal and providing transfusions to whole industries, even if the consequences don’t appear to be thought through.  For their part, business leaders  are busily engaged in downsizing, rightsizing and circumcising their workforces and taking other cost-cutting steps to demonstrate action. 

Whatever the Summit may achieve, in the end it is individual organizations from across the private and public sectors that have to find their own way through rough economic seas and make tough decisions.  Perhaps the best we can do is to recognise the inevitability of turbulence and equip ourselves, our colleagues and our organisations to be agile, flexible, responsive and adaptable as the unknown unfolds.

In the natural environment the analogy is that we need to enhance biodiversity and encourage locally robust ecosystems because this will give the best chance of creative adaptation to new and unpredictable circumstances. For both public and private sector organisations this means encouraging diverse approaches, fostering creativity and innovation and developing collaborative skills, including action planning and reflective learning.

 This puts the focus and onus on each work team in each organisation to adapt in its own way to rapid economic, technological, and social change.  

However, just when there is a premium on innovation which saves money and makes money, there are severe psychological pressures on those who are supposed to be innovative. This is especially so in companies that have restructured or are about to do so. In what was definitely not a text book case study one American company recently texted DCM to its culled pink-slippers.  Some  hapless recipients even incurred the text cost.

 Sometimes the redundancy axe falls on the very people who have the experience and the thinking skills to help navigate an organisation through the turmoil.  Those who remain employed have to pick up other roles and falling morale and job uncertainty work against the very kind of risk-taking that innovation entails.

 Precipitate action, without truly engaging the people who will be affected in one way or another, is literally counterproductive to the long term viability of organisations.  Beware of premature exhortation.

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