Predict the Future or Prepare for It?

Written by John Sipher   |  LinkedIn  |   Medium

At the end of the year it is customary for various publications to reflect on the past year and make predictions for the coming one. In the 2016 year-end edition of “The Economist”, Tor Garnett of the London Metropolitan Police outlined her view of the future in a series of articles highlighting “young prophets.”

According to Garnett, “Our command-and-control leadership style might be crucial during a crisis but it is failing to deliver both the radical innovation and continuous improvement that are needed to manage increasingly complex security risks and criminal threats. Moving away from the ‘leader as hero’ style to a ‘team of teams’ approach, as many lean manufacturing businesses have done, will be difficult but vital to our success.” 

This view that today’s changing environment requires a different type of leadership is one that is becoming more and more widespread. Bill Gates even included the book, “The Myth of the Strong Leader” on his 2016 must-read list. 

Garnett’s reference to lean manufacturing and creating a “team of teams” is what we preach at CrossLead, and are among the consistent themes that we are seeing in the recent literature of culture-change and business process improvement.

What are those themes?

Among other things, high-performing organizations create a sense of shared consciousness, encourage open communication, support short-term failure as part of a transparent process of trial and error, accept constant iteration, and allow ideas to flow from any part of the organization. The more an enterprise can share information, decide, iterate and adapt, the more successful it will be in a shifting environment. Attempting to predict the future and build a detailed plan is being replaced by nimble teams that “observe, ideate, iterate and repeat.”

The notion that effective leadership is no longer one of top-down command is the theme of “Team of Teams, written by CrossLead CEO Dave Silverman, former four-star General Stanley McChrystal, Chris Fussell and Teddy Collins. The book translates some of the lessons-learned from the war on terror to help business leaders adapt to the ever-changing business environment. According to the authors, it wasn’t until the counter-terrorism teams in Iraq changed their internal processes – sharing information in a radically new manner, and empowering teams with the context to make decisions farther down in the chain-of-command – that they were able to turn the tables on Al Qa’ida. While they didn’t know it at the time, the warriors of Joint Special Operations Command adapted the lean manufacturing methodology to the battlefield.

Tim Harford’s book “Adapt” reminds us that we have an inflated sense of what leadership can achieve, and that the modern world is simply too complex to analyze and predict with much success. As such, no leader or leadership team can fully learn, understand and dictate their way to success. Instead, as Harford puts it, “In the organization of the future, the decisions that matter won’t be taken in some high-tech war-room, but on the front line.” 

Leveraging his organization’s front line was the key to Pixar’s success in Ed Catmull’s popular book “Creativity, Inc.” about his career at the acclaimed film studio. He describes the effort to build a culture where ideas and input can spring from anywhere in the organization, and problems are shared in a transparent manner.

Jeff Sutherland’s influential book “Scrum” which outlines the way that many high-tech teams approach their tasks also looks to empower workers at the front line. Sutherland notes that great teams are cross-functional, empowered, and transparent. All work is visible to everyone on the team, and teams are encouraged to fail, iterate and fix problems early on in the process. These Scrum teams can move much quicker than those using the traditional waterfall approach to planning. The primary responsibility of the team leader (Scrum Master) is to recognize and remove roadblocks for the members of his/her team.

In his book, “The High Velocity Edge”, MIT’s Steven Spear agrees that systems are too complex to allow for prediction, and that successful organizations are those focused on fixing and improving their internal processes. High-velocity organizations solve problems immediately as they arise and do not seek work-around solutions. Instead, problems are tackled by the people directly affected, following the mantra – “See a problem, solve a problem, share what you have learned!” Likewise, low-velocity organizations are functionally oriented and characterized by silos – “you do your work and I’ll do mine.” Poorly functioning organizations tend to work around problems, thus imposing the same set of problems on themselves day after day. They get the job done but do nothing to ensure future success by the next person to encounter the problem.

It is not just the business literature that is harping on these same themes.

Recent research in the areas of neuroscience – the science of choice, bias and habit – is also yielding results that reinforce the viewpoint that top-down management is less than ideal. Instead, organizations need more robust feedback loops in order to process information and challenge the inherent tendency toward bias in each of us. The past few years have seen a number of influential books and studies in this area. Among them are Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow”, Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit” and work by Dan Ariely, Nassim Taleb, Malcolm Gladwell and others.

All of these recent insights reinforce the fact that forecasting is a fool’s game. As such, following a detailed plan without the means to ingest new information and adapt is a recipe for potential disaster. Kahneman explains that all of us are too overconfident in our ability to predict the future. We look at events in hindsight and forget that we didn’t see things coming. Even experts who “earn their living studying a particular topic produce poorer predictions than dart throwing monkeys.” Indeed, over 90% of drivers believe that they are above average. It is anybody’s guess how enterprise leaders view their own omnipotence.

At CrossLead we have embraced these lessons and have developed software to help organizations thrive in this post-command world. We do this through a communication platform that facilitates high levels of engagement, alignment, cross-functional sharing, and a means to highlight roadblocks.

For example, the literature suggests that simply writing down your daily tasks greatly increases the likelihood that you will actually achieve them. A Dominican University study found that writing daily goals led to a significant positive effect on accountability, and “those who wrote their goals accomplished significantly more.” This held true for those who documented weekly, quarterly and annual goals as well.

The Scrum framework outlined in the previously mentioned book by Jeff Sutherland is built on the notion that surfacing and sharing roadblocks is a key factor in the success of high performing teams. Similarly, Ed Catmull’s Pixar experience highlights the need to engage the collective brainpower of the group. 

Wouldn’t it be nice if others could see your list of tasks and roadblocks so that they can help where it makes sense? 

At CrossLead we have built a daily activities planner that allows a team member to outline their tasks for the day, link them to organizational goals, and highlight roadblocks to teammates and managers. In this way, organizations can more effectively tie strategy to execution, simultaneously encouraging collaboration and driving accountability. #All of these studies reinforce the fact that predicting and planning for the future is less profitable than building processes to change and adapt quickly.

Indeed, in Silverman and McChrystal’s “Team of Teams”, it wasn’t a dominating leader or a secret weapon that turned the tide in Iraq. It was something far less sexy, but far more important – an improved process of doing business.

Can we help your organization Share, Learn and Adapt?


John Sipher

John Sipher CrossLeadJohn is a Director of Client Services at CrossLead, in which capacity he leads client engagements and works with our clients on leadership, managing cultural change, and building cross-functional teams.

John recently retired after a 28-year career in the Central Intelligence Agency’s National Clandestine Service. At the time of his retirement, he was a member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service, the leadership team that guides CIA activities globally. John served multiple overseas tours as Chief of Station and Deputy Chief of Station in Europe, Asia, Southeast Asia, the Balkans, South Asia, and in high-threat environments. He has significant experience working with foreign and domestic partners to solve national security challenges. John also served as a lead instructor in the CIA’s clandestine training school, and was a regular lecturer at the CIA’s leadership development program. He is the recipient of the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal.

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