On the road to…..?

We are in a time of unprecedented turbulence, at the conjunction of changes in geopolitics, technology, demographics and the universal existential threat to our environment. The status quo has gone absent.

We need to step into our own authority, to be the genuine author of our own lives.

In his introduction to “The Alchemist” Paulo Coelho identifies four barriers that stop us; firstly that we are told from childhood that everything we want to do is impossible; secondly that we will hurt those around us if we set off on the path we want to follow; thirdly the fear of the defeats we will encounter along the way and lastly the guilt and fear of realising what we have always wanted. (If you haven’t read it, put it on your list – it is a beautiful little book)

More prosaically, we talk about the path from dependence, through independence to interdependence. Each state is largely a choice, with the hurdles above looming in front of us.

The turbulence we are in is key. All of us in the West alive today have been brought up in conditions where dependence has been encouraged – reward for conformity. Dependence on an employer, or the state. Independence achieved either by climbing to the top of the pile, or becoming an outlier and abandoning the pile altogether. True interdependence largely countered by a culture of competition.

In the very near future we will find out who is right about the impact of Artificial Intelligence – those who say it will destroy jobs, or those who say it will create them. Whoever is right though, it seems sensible to hedge our bets.

To identify what it is we really want to do, or are prepared to commit to, wholeheartedly.

To seek mastery of something that gives us independence, and allows us to make a choice with whom, and for what purpose, we are willing to be interdependent.

To step into our own authority.

The end of Experience?

“Experience” has for a very long time been seen as a prerequisite for senior management positions. In many respects however, it is now a hangover.

Much of what was gained in “experience” is now subverted by easy access to knowledge and other people. Back then, people could make an entire career by eking out the knowledge from undergraduate training inside highly structured bureaucracies, supplemented by training on how to run the machine that was the organisation.

With knowledge doubling every day, the challenge we face is not to accumulate it, but filter it. Learning what no longer serves us, and holds us back in a previous era is as important as being able to identify the signal in the tsunami of noise that is presented to us daily.

The certainty and regularity we have all been encouraged to seek no longer exists. The gentle paddle in the boating pond has been replaced by constant grade 5 white water and we have to go with the flow.

The nature of what constitutes important experience has changed. Experience now is about our ability to handle grade 5 white water. To identify the signal amidst the noise, and to inspire and support those doing the paddling.

Looking around, many organisations are substantially run by bewildered boating pond paddlers, trying to lead and manage gen 3.0 talent with an entirely different worldview and set of aspirations. They are talented, mobile and driven by a welcome set of values around people and the planet.

The rate of change of technology, politics, and ecosystems of every sort means that valid experience in many areas can be measured in months. Anything more can suggest learning atrophy. We need those we work with to have one foot in functional excellence for what is needed today, with the other firmly planted in a curiosity about the emerging unknown which will power tomorrow.

It’s a tough call for those with mortgages and a career based on a different time, but being a tough call doesn’t make it something we can avoid.

I don’t think it matters whether we’re twenty or sixty. It’s not a matter of chronology, it’s a mindset thing.

Curiosity, confidence and a clear sense of purpose are the qualities that differentiate us from AI (for now at any rate).

Being curious and open to uncertainty is a choice we can make, and increasingly, a survival skill.

Be your own Guru.

John Boyd was a brilliant man, maybe even a genius. In my view, one of the most thoughtful and interesting strategists of the last few hundred years.

He had a line of advice; “Don’t treat me as a guru. Whatever I’ve learned is only a beginning”.

“Go be your own guru

One of his five key elements for an effective performance culture was mastery – he used the German expression fingerspitzengefuehle – literally “finger tip feeling”. A deep understanding of and empathy with your environment. An ability to sense things happening before they appeared, and take advantage of them before others noticed them.

I’ve taken that as a given for many years, but am noticing a shadow side to it, and need to listen to his advice.

To be my own guru. no matter how uncomfortable that may feel.

Boundaries. Mastery of your domain is vital if you are to lead, but in an age of ubiquitous connection, we need to recognise that domains have boundaries, in space and time. Boyd himself would recognise it – he was a master of air combat, instrumental in the design of the F-15, F-16 and A10, and a formidable fighter pilot. However, looking at air combat now, as drones, and alternative weapons platforms emerge, whither the traditional fighter pilot? (He covered his options, becoming a master strategist as he delved ever deeper into the subject)

If you’re a master accountant, lawyer, administrator, developer, manager it’s time to look around. Your domain’s boundaries are in sight, and AI and machine learning, let alone global access lie at the edge.

Looking around most media, including LinkedIn, advice is around how to be better at what you do, as though it’s permanent. There are thousands of people who will help you do it.

It builds a cocoon around us. Everything will be alright.

It’s really easy to become complacent. We become wilfully blind. 

Convinced that the years of experience we have, and the mountain of qualifications we’ve gained will assure us that tomorrow will be much like yesterday.

However, bit by inevitable bit, it won’t, until we bump, unpleasantly, into the boundary.

There’s an argument that creativity within a domain follows an inverted U curve. Our engagement, productivity and creativity increase rapidly as we immerse ourselves and gain mastery, but after a while, the trend moves down, and we find ourselves having to work harder, with less enjoyment, to produce what we expect of ourselves..

That’s when you know you’re at a boundary.

So, as professionals and managers we still need mastery of our current domains, but as leaders we need to know where the boundaries are.

Look around. Sense what’s happening. Be your own guru.