NOW, NEXT, NEVER-NEVER
NOW: EVERYBODY KNOWS
Fourteen and a half years ago, I landed at Sydney Airport with a few suitcases and a lot of hope. Even before I got to my accommodation, the friend who picked me up took me to a nearby shop to get me set up with my own mobile.
“If you don’t have one,” she said, “you don’t exist.”
That was far more true in Sydney than it had been in Los Angeles, where I lived at the bottom of a canyon that had no mobile reception at all – something that never really bothered me.
And something I can’t imagine enduring today.
About two weeks after I arrived here some new friends invited me out for an evening of pub trivia – that was a fun new thing, and we came this close to winning the meat tray.
Pub trivia is a great mirror to show us how far we’ve come over those years.
In 2003 you relied on what you and your friends held inside their heads.
Today things are a little different. If you want to play pub trivia you’ve got to hand over all of the devices that we carry with us that serve to bring pretty much any information to hand almost immediately.
This is a huge thing, and yet it’s something we mostly just ignore.
Oh yeah, that’s right, I have ALL OF HUMAN KNOWLEDGE IN THIS SMALL DEVICE I HOLD IN MY HAND and well whatevs.
Weird. It’s just weird.
Everybody knows, these days. Yet everyone acts like nothing has changed.
But you know who hasn’t?
In 2018, when a child walks into the classroom for their first day of school, they have a very clear idea about where knowledge comes from.
Because every time mommy or daddy had a question, they saw them reach for that device, tapping away at it until they got an answer.
They’ve probably had some version of that device as well – and although it may not have provided all the answer for them, it certainly provided some.
So they know where knowledge lies. And when they’re placed inside a classroom environment that seems to have nothing at all to do with how they know knowledge works, they get a bit confused and frustrated.
Because what they know isn’t what they’re learning in the classroom.
And that’s not just true for those kids in their classes.
It’s true for all of us. Everyone everywhere.
We’re out in the world and when we need something we Google it; when we need to know something we look it up on Wikipedia; when we need to ask something we message it.
It’s all right out there – all the information and all the facts and all the people we know. It’s all out there all the time now.
And the kids know this. It’s the only world they’ve ever known.
For the rest of us it’s a bit different.
We remember a time when we had to struggle to find the answers.
We get a reminder every time we walk into the office.
Work practices are largely the same as they were thirty years ago, when computers first entered the workplace in great numbers. Yes, everyone uses them, and yes they’re all connected together — but the way we use these machines in our business activities is completely different from the way we use them in our lives outside the office.
We seem to live in two entirely distinct worlds. There’s the world of the smartphone and a global civilisation of connected knowledge; then there’s the world of office work and office tasks and office processes.
So how do we bridge that gap? How do we bring the incredible capacities we experience day-to-day into our work?
There are a few examples of how this works. For instance, it’s now well known that programmers who consult Google the most are the most productive programmers.
Why? Because they’re leveraging everything everyone else has learned and shared when they solve a problem. They learn from that sharing, then put that learning to work.
That’s not cheating. And it’s not copying. It’s how learning works now.
Twenty five years ago, when I was a software engineer, I would sit in front of a screen, surrounded by books with multiple bookmarks on multiple pages, each pointing to a particular fact I needed to keep in mind as I worked.
Today it could be tabs in a Web browser. Or bookmarks. Or Stack Overflow. Or Mozilla Developer Network. Or Slack. Or. Or. Or…
We have more ways to connect than ever before. That’s obvious. It’s also obvious that we feel compelled to connect. We want to reach out.
Once we’ve connected, we find something to talk about. Something we want to share. More times than not we’ll find we have something in common – because we’ve connected around a common interest. We already know what we have in common, and do a deep a dive, sharing what we know, and showing what we’re interested in.
Sharing follows connecting because the reason we’re driven to connect with one another is to share with one another.
Where sharing happens, people learn. Because no one knows everything, when someone shares something someone else is bound to learn something they didn’t know. Something they need to know.
What’s really changed here is that we’ve gotten good at the connecting and made the sharing persistent – with websites and Wikis and group communication tools like WebEx, Yammer and Slack.
When someone shares, it can live well beyond them and the people they shared with. When someone shares what they know with Wikipedia, everyone else on Earth has access to that sharing. Ditto Stack Overflow. Just sharing is enough to help someone later on learn something new.
As soon as you have sharing, you get learning. That’s the way of it. You don’t have to do anything at all. It just happens. People eagerly lap up what others have shared because it helps them with some problem they need to solve. We learn our way through to a solution.
That’s when we turn our learning into doing, putting into practice the capacities we’ve gained through the sharing of others.
Then – if we’re wise – we share that solution with others, so others can learn from us, creating a virtuous circle of sharing, learning and doing that empowers everyone involved, makes everyone smarter and better at what they do – no matter what they choose to do.
That’s the way this works in our lives. It’s the reason pub trivia doesn’t work anymore. We’ve gotten so good at sharing with one another, and learning from one another, that we can grow our way into new capacities faster than ever before.
Everybody knows how to do this. We don’t even think about it. We just do it. And our kids seeing us do it, so they know how to do it, too. They learned it from us when they were very small.
This means that we are all getting a lot smarter a lot faster. This is great news – but it’s also challenging.
You’re now dealing with customers who know more, and learn faster than ever before. Keeping up with them means you have no choice but to learn alongside them, from them. And they’ll need to learn from you.
Which means you’re going to have to connect and share with them. And they’re going to connect and share with you.
Because the big secret of the 21st century – the elephant in the room – is that this is the learning century. It seems like its the sharing century, but that’s just prelude. Settling in and getting comfortable. Now that we’re all connected and all sharing, there’s only one place this can go – learning. Continuous learning, by everyone, from everyone, everywhere all the time.
This essential yet frequently ignored fact is already changing everything about how we work.
That’s bound to be both really exciting and a little terrifying.
Now that we know what everybody knows, we can take a look at where we want to go, and what sort of tools we have to get us there.
NEXT: UNFOLLOW THE LEADER
The more we share, the more we learn. The more we learn, the more we can do. To realise that potential, we need a bit of freedom.
Business walks a line between keeping everything nailed down – ‘business as usual’ and a centerless, leaderless, directionless amoeba-like state of chaos and confusion.
That tug of war centers around a dilemma: business as usual practices rote repetition. Nothing learned, nothing gained, just the same process over and over and lover again.
A business that’s wholly centered on learning empowers itself, but can’t do anything else – too busy learning and navel-gazing to do the work.
Most businesses opt for business-as-usual – after all, at least the work’s getting done.
But in a time when everyone is learning from everyone else all of the time, a business that isn’t as engaged in learning as its customers, vendors and partners is continuously falling behind.
Most businesses never see this coming until some shock arrives, they look up, and it’s too late.
Do you remember Nokia? Ten years ago they were the number one mobile handset manufacturer in the world. The future absolutely belonged to them. They couldn’t sell their handsets fast enough. The Nokia 1100 is still the single most successful bit of consumer electronics of all time – with nearly a billion of them out there.
But their customers were learning. And so were their competitors.
Eleven years ago, when Steve Jobs introduced Apple’s iPhone, Nokia laughed. It didn’t have enough battery. It didn’t have enough apps. It cost too much.
As it turned out, the customers knew better. By the time Nokia was ready to listen to those customers, it was already far too late. The smartphone was on its way to becoming the universal handset. Despite deep resources in design and user experience, Nokia never caught up. It couldn’t. It never learned how.
Nokia has been reduced to the manufacturer of ‘novelty’ handsets – this week relaunching the famous flip phone seen in the Matrix. A design that peaked fifteen years ago.
They never learned, never started to learn, and never wanted to learn.
That’s what business as usual looks like. And you could point to Kodak or Polaroid or dozens of other businesses that never learned, because they never wanted to learn.
Of course a business learns nothing by itself. It’s the people in the business who learn. Someone in Nokia must have seen this coming. Someone in Nokia was advocating for a huge change in product strategy. But that voice got drowned out by soothing calls for business as usual.
How does a business listen? That’s generally been considered the responsibility of the leaders in the business, the folks at the top of the org chart pyramid. That’s certainly how it always used to work – information flowed up, and direction flowed down.
But there’s a problem with that. It creates a condition known as the “burden of omniscience”. The leaders have to do all the sensing-thinking for the entire organisation. That works well enough when the rate of change is slow.
But when the rate of change is itself changing on an exponential, that stops working. Too much novelty produces a breakdown. Decision-makers get overloaded, paralysed, and fail in place.
That’s a fair description of what happened at Nokia.
Hierarchies do best in situations where novelty is low.
This isn’t that moment.
For as far out as we can look, it’s all accelerating change.
Hierarchies won’t work. They’re guaranteed to fail. From the moment they begin operations, they start falling behind. And they never catch up.
So what else might work?
People have been experimenting with alternatives.
The most interesting of these – and quite possibly the most novel – is a methodology known as holacracy.
Holacracy junks the hierarchy in favour of a flat organisation. People work in task-oriented teams, bringing the necessary skills and leadership to that team. So far, so normal. That fits in well with IAG’s Hub and Huddle. But that’s just the beginning. The teams themselves decide on their goals, priorities, and projects.
That’s where holacracy is different. Because there is no head anywhere. Instead, there is a focus on iteration, adaptation, and self-organisation.
If those sound familiar, that’s because they’ve been introduced to business via agile methodology. holacracy takes agile and applies it not just to a single team or a single project, but to the entire business as an entity. The business continuously evaluates itself against its goals, priorities and projects – each of which emerge from the individuals, teams and leaders within the business.
This probably all sounds a bit mystical, as if it all ‘just happens’. Nothing could be further from the truth. There’s a real cost when a business abandons hierarchy – it has to spend a lot more time focused internally: listening, learning and adapting. Speed loses out to flexibility. And while leaders no longer bear the burden of omniscience – because there is no hierarchy – that burden falls on everyone in the organisation, each of whom need to self-manage their awareness, their learning, their capacity building and their team participation.
That’s too much for some folks.
When Zappos – the online shoe retailer and highest-profile practicioner of holacracy – offered employees an opportunity to depart the organisation for a more traditionally structured organisation (with a substantial departure package), nearly one fifth of the company’s employees accepted.
They wanted out, they wanted the kind of work they’d always been taught to expect. They did not want responsibility.
And fair enough. We weren’t taught that we were going to have to be responsible for our own decisions. We weren’t told that we would need to lead ourselves.
So those folks will go on to another job where they’ll be successful within a hierarchy.
For as long as that hierarchy lasts.
Another company took up and then abandoned holacracy. Medium – the popular blogging site moved beyond the methodology at the end of 2015, reporting it became difficult to coordinate efforts at scale.
Trade offs: Speed versus flexibility. Coordination versus resilience.
We like to believe the future is going to be perfect. But it isn’t. It comes with compromises, just like the present. We trade one set of compromises for another.
And if that’s true, then why change at all? Why not stick to our knitting? After all, everything is chugging along nicely: Profits are being declared, bonuses earned, share price steady. It looks like smooth sailing.
But we know that’s not true. We know that we’re all inside a moment when everyone is getting smarter faster than ever before – inside and outside the organisation.
Going backward is not an option.
So what does going forward look like? Is the entire massive organisation of IAG going to destructure into an endless number of teams, each with their own sets of technical and leadership skills, all operating more-or-less independently toward goals arrived by some sort of consensus mechanism?
It all sounds very chaotic. But that’s only because we’re projecting forward. If we walk the distance, and look at the path from here to there, it’s a lot less confronting.
Right here, right now you’re at the end of a week that’s been designed both to amplify your capacities and to relate those capacities to the rest of IAG.
Over the next few years you’ll be diving deeper, growing your skills, while at the same time gaining more capacity to make decisions that drive your future.
You’ll set priorities – daily, monthly, quarterly, then annually.
Will there be direction? Yes. But less and less of it will come from above. More will come laterally – from peers and teams.
Within three or four years, the majority of the decisions that focus your productivity will be made by you, in concert with your peers, your team, and the other teams you work with.
It’ll be a slow transition, as you become more tuned to your own capacity to drive the decisions that focus your productivity, and as you come to tune into the needs of others for your unique capacities.
This highlights the biggest change in how we’ll see ourselves and our skills. We already value “team players”, but too often that’s been code for someone who can take direction well.
The team player of the 2020s is someone who can lead and follow – simultaneously. Someone who can listen and focus – simultaneously. Someone who can hold their own goals in mind while in pursuit of the goals of the entire organisation.
And you can see why one fifth of the employees at Zappos walked out. Why Medium walked away. It’s not just asking a lot. It’s asking a lot different.
And we’re already busy enough. Business as usual keeps us fully loaded keeping things humming along.
This is the big trap between now the next – there’s never a ‘right’ moment to transition away from business as usual into something that’s both more natural and much more unpredictable. There’s always a great reason not to change.
Until there isn’t.
A lot of companies and a lot of jobs are going to fall into that trap. Business as usual in a world that’s rapidly becoming anything but usual. Because there was never a great moment to get started on those changes.
On one side of this spectrum you have Zappos, who have embraced the next so hard they’ve driven some of their employees out of the organisation. At the other end, Nokia, so convinced of their ability to print money they never wondered when or whether people would accepting it.
Pretty much every business sits somewhere on this spectrum. Pretty much everyone working for a living does, too.
And that’s the key thing to remember, as now becomes next and we all learn how to unfollow the leader as we become leaders — of ourselves.
You’ve spent the last week loading up on the sorts of skills that can help you migrate away from business as usual and into business unusual. You’re connecting, building up the networks of sharing and learning – and now it’s time to take translate all of that into practice.
Turn to these networks of sharing. Learn from these networks. They provide the capacity to move from now into next. This is where empowerment and leadership grow. This is where the organisation finds its way out of business as usual and into something that’s both focused and lateral.
And remember to keep feeling these networks, sharing everything you’re learning. If you stop sharing, you stop learning, and if you stop learning, you start falling behind.
Somewhere between the next and the never-never – fifteen or twenty years from now – we’ll all be spending as much time learning the next thing we’re going to do as we do on the thing we’re skilled up for today.
I can tell you from my personal experience as a futurist this is already true for me. I am constantly learning, just to keep up with my clients, and – with luck – staying a little bit ahead.
Weeks like this, where you focus on building your capacities, learning the next thing – they won’t be so rare going forward. They’re going to be an essential part of your professional practice – both for the organisation itself and the people within that organisation.
This is how an organisation that has moved away from hierarchy manages itself. Learns from itself. Develops its goals. Maps out a plan. These won’t be coming from some room at the top. They’ll be coming from moments like this – when everyone gets the chance to have a think.
The past decade has shown us just how well we can share and learn with one another. We need all of that, and we’re going to need to get better at that.
We’ll have some help.
So far we’ve been framing things in purely human terms: how we can help one another. But there’s another story here: how the machines will help us.
It’s is widely believed that machines will simply put all of us out of work. But when you actually ask someone who’s an expert – as I did, when I spent time with Dr. Ken Goldberg, who chairs the robotics program at the University of California, he simply laughs the idea off.
This is not about us versus them, he’s careful to caution. It’s about us with them.
To give you an example we’re all familiar with – we all learned long division in grade school. And once we learned it, we never did it again. Because we have calculators – and have for forty years.
Has this made us obsolete? Or has it meant that we can spend more time doing the kind of work a calculator can’t do a few thousand times faster?
This is where Goldberg takes issue with any idea of a ‘Singularity’ – where the computers just step in and take over. Because it’s never been like that — nor is there any indication that it could ever be like that.
He likes to refer to ‘Multiplicity’ – where there are a range of human and artificial minds working together to solve problems.
That’s certainly reflected in the world we’ve created today. We use all sorts of tools that help us learn, and support our understanding.
There’s every reason to believe that will be the way the world will run well into the never-never.
The nature of those tools has already started to change. Every interaction we have with them changes them. They learn from us. That’s already true when you use Google or Facebook or Alexa or Siri.
Somewhere out on the way to the never-never, the idea of a personal assistant fuses seamlessly with the search engine and the tools we use to share and learn.
What does that look like? Artificial intelligence is all about pattern recognition. These systems work to anticipate our needs to learn and grow our capacities, working to make that as seamless for us as possible.
If you wonder how, consider that every time you type into the search box on Google or Wikipedia or Stack Overflow or Slack or Yammer or — well, pretty much anything — you’re signalling what you think is important. What you need to know. What you want to learn.
These systems listen and adapt and help you to feed that thirst for knowledge.
Right now we have to do that on our own, but in the never-never, it’s a partnership. The machines help us along into greater capacity. They become indispensable as we manage all of the demands of these new, non-hierarchical organisations. They help us listen. They help us coordinate. They help us achieve our goals.
Just as it’s difficult to imagine running a modern business without spreadsheets or email or Slack, it will be difficult to run a mid-21st century business without artificial intelligence: anticipating, assisting, gently pointing in the direction of travel – keeping us on task and moving toward our goals – both as individuals and across the whole organisation.
That’s another big reason why this future is about multiplicity – there are going to be lots of goals – yours, your team’s, your business’ – they’ll sometimes converge and sometimes conflict. And behind each of these goals will be a unique set of intelligences that have been trained to reach those goals – even when those goals conflict. Especially when those goals conflict.
And again, that’s not just true inside the organisation but everywhere outside of it, as everyone has their own artificial intelligences working hard to help them learn and focus and reach their goals.
There’s no center anywhere. There’s us, and our partnerships, in a true multiplicity where it grows progressively harder to know where we end and they begin.
We’re already well on that path.
Don’t believe me? Next time you stare down into your smartphone to find out where your next meeting is, or learn from what a colleague has dropped into an email, remember that this is the scaffolding for multiplicity, and we’re already so deeply drawn into it that it’s become difficult to look away.
What you see when you look into that screen is already largely organised by artificial intelligences. We provide the content, they provide the context. That’s the partnership in 2018, and it’s only going to get better as we learn from it, it learns from us, and we learn from one another.
So we come back to where we started, here in the now – and this now has all of the elements we need to succeed well into the never-never.
We have the tools. We have a path forward. It’s time to lead ourselves – together.