Rebooting expectations to connect and lead in more meaningful ways

Sep 21, 20227 mins
Diversity and Inclusion

Bob Johansen, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future, the California–based non-profit think tank steeped in futures studies, speaks about spectrums of thinking and the importance for IT leaders to think future back.

Bob Johansen, Distinguished Fellow, Institute for the Future
Credit: IFTF

With over three decades helping organizations around the world prepare and shape the future, Bob Johansen, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future (IFTF) and author of 10 bestsellers, breaks down purpose when it comes to the future of work, the importance of compassion and empathy as the pace of AI and ML accelerates, and being able to have as much flexibility and agility when planning for the long term. But as a futurist, Johansen is always in a position to spell out that he and others at the IFTF aren’t fortune tellers. “The way you evaluate a futurist is does our foresight provoke your insight,” he says. “So we are not here to predict; we are here to provoke.”

In one of his bestsellers, Full-Spectrum Thinking, he drills down into “officing,” which is the way we work, rather than offices, which is where we work. “What’s next is what we call the officeverse,” he says. “The kind of any time, any place world.” Seeing that remote working continues to be a pressing issue still finding its footing after nearly three years in beta testing, the work surrounding feasible solutions seems to compound as time goes on, with some intending a full return to office while others have forged the company future on remote models. So the question remains when, as well as why, do you want to go back to the office.

Among the spectrums of choice he details, including purpose and outcomes, CIOs, CEOs and other top executives have to be in the business of cultivating community. “This is really the future of diversity, equity and inclusion,” he says. “We think of it as the spectrum of belongingness.”

This echoes some existing sentiment, especially around D&I, for instance, but the discipline of success lies in not only thinking 10 years ahead but also walking it back to the present to account for progress—a model that has given the IFTF a consistent track record of successfully forecasting futures. “I think the most important thing for IT leaders right now is that ability to think future back,” he says. “So if you can look 10 years out and work backwards, that will help you develop your clarity, but moderate your certainty.”

So whatever your model for longevity is, the question you should ask is whether or not you’ve lived your forecast.

Johansen spoke to Dan Roberts, host of the Tech Whisperers podcast, during CIO’s recent Future of Work Summit about the art of forecasting, not predicting, and remaining agile through transitions that test the balance of humanity and technology.

Here are some edited excerpts of that conversation. Watch the full video below for more insights.

On the purpose of offices: In the midst of the COVID-19 shutdown, people were asking, and are still asking, when can we go back to offices. As we did our research, however, the basic question to start with is why have an office at all. What is the purpose of the office? This is applying full-spectrum thinking to the question. We should talk most about what is pressing now, not just for CIOs, but for heads of real estate, HR and, most importantly, for CEOs and top executives. The basic question is all about purpose and intent, and the spectrum spans from the individual to the collective. The next is about outcomes. So if purpose is about intent, outcomes is about results. What are the results you are seeking? And the spectrum here runs from profit—like shareholder value—to prosperity, which is really thinking larger about stakeholder value. So outcome is particularly important and really interesting in the business field now. You see more businesses asking not just shareholder value, but stakeholder value. What is the impact of a company on the larger society?

On compassion: When you think digital and IT people, we moved from a world that was largely analog to one that’s almost exclusively digital. But we’re moving back to a world that’s digitally analog, with things like big data visualization. It’s not full circle because we’re not going back; it’s like a spiral going out. But the more digital we become, the more we have to think in full-spectrum ways across gradients of possibility and not just either/or. So another spectrum is cultivating community. This is really the future of diversity, equity and inclusion. We think of it as the spectrum of belongingness.

On agility: How can we choose more stable organizational structures and become more dynamic and responsive? I teach at the Army War College and I get to meet three-star generals and talk about strategy and leadership. And in the military, what they say is if you want to be agile, flexible and shape shifting, you have to be clear where you’re going and flexible how you get there. I don’t have a military background, but I was at the graduate school for the army with a group of senior Deloitte partners and some CEOs the week before 9/11. And they introduced this idea, the VUCA world: Volatile, Uncertainty, Complex, and Ambiguous. I got intrigued because it’s a very good starting point for understanding the next decade. I’ve ended up flipping VUCA into a positive and I’ve realized that looking 10 years ahead, volatility yields to vision. So while vision will be disproportionately rewarded, uncertainty yields to understanding, complexity yields to clarity, and ambiguity yields to agility. So that is really the positive VUCA: Vision, Understanding, Clarity, and Agility. To me, that’s the foundation of leadership. I think the most important thing for IT leaders right now is that ability to think future back. So if you can look 10 years out and work backwards, that will help you develop your clarity, but moderate your certainty. Because I can assure you, this future—this VUCA world—is going to reward clarity of where you’re going, and flexibility in how you get there. But that same future is going to punish certainty. And here there is a temptation—in the IT field or in engineering—to go for problem-solving. Go for the answer you already know. And that can often get you in trouble. So you want to be clear you can’t be certain. And we have to learn to thrive in that world.

On metrics: It’s been said a lot that data is the new oil. And there is some sense in which that is right, but it is not just data. It’s data analytics and the use of context and human judgment to decide. The good news is we have all these tools for data visualization and volumes of data—about our own bodies—to help us make healthier choices. The bad news is, we don’t know what to do with all the data. So in a real sense, it’s not just big data, it’s analytics, visualization, and coming up with more analog ways of engaging and more full-spectrum ways of engaging with data. Data is really important but it’s going to be data in the sense of spectrums of choice, not in the sense of it being the answer. Because often the deeper you go into the data, the more complicated it becomes. The best leaders I know are saying you end up deciding with maybe 60% or 70% of the data you wish you had. That you can’t wait until you know what you are doing is right.