Creating a Company Culture That Can Survive the Future

*editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from an article written for the quarterly management magazine, the “Hernsteiner”, published by the Austrian Hernstein Institut.

On February 4th, Microsoft appointed long-time executive Satya Nadella as their new CEO, only the third in its 39 year history, and he sent out an email to all employees to introduce himself and share his vision for the future of the company. Of the many insights he revealed in that email, I found one to be particularly profound: “Our industry does not respect tradition — it only respects innovation.” That’s certainly true in the software industry where Microsoft is a dominant player, but it’s also becoming increasingly true in all industries now.

The sad truth is that today many companies and other organizations are having so much difficulty simply reacting to new trends and technologies that they have no time to innovate. Expectedly, many of them eventually fall too far behind and become insolvent. Gone are the days when major innovations took place during decade-long cycles. The dangers of not paying attention in todays’ world are significant and examples numerous. Without a solid plan, even the best intentioned executives find their companies becoming yet another example of what happens when you lack foresight. The problem is that staying current even in just your industry is becoming progressively more difficult as technology continues to advance and the rate of advancement itself increases.

While it’s impossible to future-proof your business, what can forward-looking leaders do to stay informed about the latest technology and trends impacting their companies and their industries? How can they move from frantically reacting to changes in the business environment to leading the way into uncharted territory?

The Importance of Unlearning
My esteemed mentor, friend, and fellow global futurist Jack Uldrich has taught me well the concept and importance of unlearning in today’s exponential age, and he’s in great company. Legendary futurist and author Alvin Toffler also believed unlearning to be profoundly important, writing “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Before we can even consider conquering the future, we must allow ourselves to let go of the past. This is much more difficult than it sounds. “Because that’s how it has always been done” has almost become an unfortunate mantra in many of today’s organizations. Unlearning also requires a large dose of humility. It’s not easy to admit that your years of success and experience may mean precious little when it comes to some new technology or operational process. Our preconceptions are often so ingrained in our decision-making that we don’t even realize that we are discounting new possibilities because of long-held (and now obsolete) assumptions.

It Starts From Within
One of the single most influential ways that a leader can begin to cultivate the attitudes and skills needed for their organization to continue to compete and win in the future is to create a corporate culture conducive to making fast decisions and responding dynamically to an ever changing market. Although many mission statements may claim this as a core tenet of their organization, this too often is not the case. Below are some ways to help foster the kind of culture that embraces change and recognizes opportunity instead of seeing risk.

• Hire Millennials, and be aware of significant generational trends. Those that were “Born Digital” have a much different perspective than many of the “Digital Immigrants” running companies and setting policy today. Use this unique perspective to your advantage by welcoming “Digital Natives” into your organization.
• Hire evangelists for each space that your company competes in. It’s not enough today to hire for experience and education. Passion is a key ingredient and a necessity now. People who are passionate about what they do professionally will be a huge asset, as they will be the first to spot new developments in their area. Now that almost all education and experience comes with an expiration date, hire for attitude and interest instead.
• Hire a “corporate futurist” or other foresight professional. Most large companies have armadas of attorneys and accountants, but few think of hiring a single foresight professional with the sole function of identifying ways that emerging and converging trends could impact their business. To me as a professional futurist, this seems crazy! Even if you don’t have someone with the title “futurist” in your organization, make it a priority and a job responsibility to think about the future.

• Commit to a true “open door” policy. Most organizations tout the ability of even their most junior employees to walk into the chief executive’s office with any idea or concern, but in reality this is hardly the case. It should be. Listen to your subordinates – they’re closest to your products and services and are likely most attuned to the changes happening in their area.
• Encourage candid feedback, both externally and internally. The future is arriving too quickly for politeness and formalities. Expect and reward honest feedback from both your employees and clients. This allows you to expose broken processes and procedures and begin to address them proactively.
• Restructure and remove bureaucracy to make your company more able to adapt and respond. Excessive levels of management both reduces your responsiveness to a fast changing market and repels the most innovative and creative of potential employees – both potentially fatal consequences and a good indication of an organization too mired in tradition to be competitive much longer.
• Empower employees at all levels to make decisions. You may be surprised how often your employees will “rise to the occasion” given the chance. A nimble organization allows for decision-making and accountability at all levels.
• Encourage dissent. Employees should be allowed to, and even expected to, voice their concerns or suggestions. A room full of smart people afraid to challenge an executive’s opinion will only produce that single opinion, but dangerously packaged as a consensus and debated conclusion.

Ask Difficult Questions
We must be willing to consider some hard-to-swallow possibilities if we are to truly be able to position ourselves for the future. Here are a few questions that I believe every leader should be willing to ask:
• What would it take for a start-up to compete with us (or even put us out of business)? Last year Instagram, a photo sharing app with only a few dozen employees, sold for a billion dollars US. Kodak, employer of tens of thousands and holder of the patent on the first digital camera in 1975, filed for bankruptcy. Kodak simply couldn’t imagine a world where film wasn’t the primary medium for picture taking and I certainly don’t think they would have ever considered digital photography apps like Instagram dramatically impacting their business.
• What technological advancements or trends could spell disaster for our company or product? It’s critically important to think about any possible scenarios here, regardless of how outlandish they may seem today. For example, what happens to the auto industry in a few years when fleets of self-driving cars are shuttling passengers to and from their destinations and few see the need to own a car themselves? This is an especially critical question if you are relying on a once expensive process to provide a barrier to entry for competitors and protect your market share.
• What parts of our operations can be automated, either by machine or software? Also, what impacts will the necessary move to automation have on your organization and its employees? What if you are forced to make redundant entire departments with little notice? For decades, automation has unwaveringly advanced in its slow “land-grab” of jobs that were once the sole domain of human workers. This trend is rapidly accelerating and many are predicting that we are soon entering an age of mass unemployment. Every day now jobs that “could never be done by a machine” are taken from human employees.
• Who could be our non-traditional competitors? In our mobile, global, and hyper-connected world, anyone can be a customer… or a competitor. Kodak certainly didn’t recognize smartphones apps like Instagram as being their competitors. Think about what you are actually providing for your clients and customers – not just how you are providing it. Can that end product or service be replaced by something completely outside your traditional competition?
• What about this business hasn’t changed in a long time? Everything will be impacted by rapidly advancing technology, so identify things that haven’t changed and think about possible ways that they could be disrupted. Plan for those possibilities and think of ways for your company to be the disruptor.

Planning for the future
Although most predictions about the state of the world more than a few years from now are little more than guesswork, we must continue to pay attention and consider the future when we make decisions today. Given this reality, what can be done to both prepare for and create the future?
• Strive to see opportunity instead of risk. Treat impending disruption as an opportunity to gain a significant advantage over less forward-looking competitors. Be willing to acknowledge that regardless of past successes or current market share, things are changing quickly now and we must always be focused on what possibilities the future may bring, however unlikely they may seem today.
• Don’t waste time and other resources optimizing operations that should be replaced instead. Maximizing efficiency seemed to be the goal of the last two decades. That’s fine as long as the process we’re so focused on optimizing is even still needed. For example, you could be creating the fastest newspaper printing process, when instead you should be focusing creating new opportunities in digital delivery.
• Learn to accept occasional failure as a cost of doing business in an exponentially advancing world. But, fail fast. With so much uncertainty, create an environment conducive to failure and recovery – learn from mistakes and quickly apply that knowledge to future endeavors.
• Remember, in the future change is the only constant, so find ways to embrace and adapt to that change, both personally and within your organization.

Today, we are so often caught up in the day-to-day responsibilities and unexpected demands of coworkers, employees, shareholders, and family that it becomes difficult to take time to step back and look at the bigger picture, and to recognize the trends and technologies transforming the world around us. Now, more than ever, this is no longer an option. It’s an obligation. Innovation doesn’t take a holiday and the world is changing too quickly now to be afforded the luxury of casual awareness or a delayed response. As a futurist, I’ve dedicated my career to helping others see what they’re not seeing, and I hope that you too realize the importance of envisioning the future when making decisions today.