I’ll break down a review of Leaders Make the Future by:
- Introduction: Provide a brief overview of Leaders Make the Future‘s main points
- Arguments: Discuss the arguments put forth to make the points, focusing on the evidence for a) the main forces of change in the future and b) the best skills for leaders to develop to work well within the challenges our future presents
- Evidence Evaluated: While I appreciate the book’s ability to provoke forethought of what leaders need to do now to prepare for leading in the future, I also see a dearth of evidence that the proposed skill sets are the best way to flourish in the future.
- Response: While the future my be fraught with more VUCA and the skill sets outlined may be the best approach to flourishing in a VUCA world, the lack of evidence that this is the case limits the impetus for implementing focus and programs around the skill sets described. At this point, companies serious about preparing their leadership team for the future would be well served by seeking more data for what works or diving into what is working well for similar companies (or companies similar to where the want to be) and pursuing those. It may be that IFF or other organizations also have more data to substantiate the ideas presented here.
Leaders Make the Future provides the insights of Bob Johansen, Fellow and former President of Institute for the Future on how leaders can cope with changes coming over the next ten years. He indicates that the world in which leaders must operate will be increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) and that leaders need to apply vision, understanding, clarity and agility to move forward effectively.
There are 10 skills that Mr. Johansen suggest a leader ought to develop in be in the best position to respond to VUCA:
- Maker Instinct
- Dilemma Flipping
- Immersive Learning Ability
- Constructive Depolarizing
- Quiet Transparency
- Rapid Prototyping
- Smart-Mob Organizing
- Commons Creating
Now, Mr. Johansen waxes eloquently on what VUCA is, what these skill are and some real world examples of how folks have applied the skills. While corporations are often thinking of succession planning, bringing up the next set of leaders and guiding current leadership over the next 5 year horizon, Mr. Johansen’s reflections encourage you to think of how to develop leaders to be in the best position to manage macro change on the ten year horizon. So this isn’t about dealing with individual event projections but rather the direction of change and the skills to manage it. Leaders make the Future is worthwhile if it does nothing else than encourage that level of reflection.
One of the struggles I have with the book is that it is light on evidence for both its view on the direction of change which the future presents and the most effective means of working in the world that results from the changes. In other words, it does a lovely job of indicating that VUCA will increase, what that looks like and what he believes are the top ten skill-sets to work well within that world, but he provides little evidence for:
- VUCA has increased and will accelerate in the coming decade
- That the 10 skills highlighted help leaders respond better to VUCA.
For VUCA, he essentially indicates that
- It’s a VUCA world now
- There’s rapid, disruptive change all around us (look at all of the tech changes and their impact)
- Given our experience, the pace of disruptive change will only increase in intensity, resulting in more VUCA
While this seems reasonable, plausible, if you will, there’s little presentation of data to substantiate the claims. I’m not saying he’s wrong, I’m simply saying that he hasn’t substantiated his claim with data.
In terms of the effectiveness of the ten skills in leading through a VUCA-laced world, he, at most, provides anecdotal evidence of experience with a company or two. Adopting those ten skills as a focus would, for some corporations, be a large commitment. I would like more data prior to making that kind of investment.
So, I think at this point Mr. Johansen might say that he is trying to provoke thoughtful reflection on VUCA rather than telling us, for our company or personal career trajectory, that they are best for us. Since he’s simply trying to provoke thought, he doesn’t need to establish these points. (in the subtext, there’s also the fact the he’s from Institute for the Future and has some really big clients, so you should trust him.) Indeed he often does use the kind of language that suggest mere provocation:
A forecast is a story from the future that provokes insight in the present. Nobody can predict the future, but you can make forecasts: plausible, internally consistent, and provocative views of what you think could happen. The best forecasts provoke insight and invoke action. (p. xx)
Note: all quotes Johansen, Robert. Leaders Make the Future. San Francisco:
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2012. Print.
Notice he says plausible – that means it’s simply reasonable not that it’s more likely than some other outcome. I would have thought I would want to base the leadership skills that I want to pursue and establish competencies and goals related to them only if they were fairly highly probable to come into effect. In other words, this would have a practical impact if it is at least likely to help me in the future. Plausibility doesn’t have this weight. Now, if he really meant probable, then he needs to establish probability. if he means plausible, that’s such a weak standard that his views on the future are a great thought experiment but would not influence my decisions on how to best proceed into preparing for the future.
Much of the book’s language suggest much stronger use of the information. It’s not just there to provoke, but to persuade us to a course of action. For example this future-jargon laced claim:
“Leaders will have to rapid-prototype their way to their new commons, using smart-mob organizing techniques that have the promise to become sustainable. These ten skills will give leaders a great chance to make the world a better place – in spite of the many challenges [Emphasis mine]
There are lots of other examples:
“It [the maker instinct] must be recognized, valued and nurtured if it is to become a leadership skill for the future. The maker instinct is key to making the future.” (p. 28) This suggests that the maker instinct is a key skill for leading into the future. This is a claim that is a call to action but where is the evidence that it is a key skill? Again, I’m not arguing that he’s wrong, I’m simply pointing out that he doesn’t support his claims.
“The maker instinct is basic and precedes all other skills that will be needed for future leadership.” (p. 29) It’s not just a thought exercise, it’s needed for future leadership.
Now Mr. Johansen could say that he uses strong language to provoke thought. In other words, making the claims with less force than “should”, “must” and “best” would not be provocative at all. That may be, but to seriously reflect and make decisions on these claims requires evidence. Moreover, it seems like he is trying to play both sides – here’s 10 chapters on what you ought to do but in the 11th I’ll just say they’re to provoke you so make your own list. The problem with that is he documents folks making decisions based on the insights he provides as a good thing. That really suggests these are action worthy ideas. Thought is not simply provoked; action is encouraged based on ideas appearing worthy of belief (plausible) but not established as probable or likely to help.
Most of the book is a call to arms to prepare for the future VUCA world by adopting and strengthening these ten skills. So while Mr. Johansen does very little to establish that the skills will help, his approach is that they do. Moreover, he doesn’t provide any evidence that the VUCA is increasing; I’m not saying it isn’t, he just doesn’t establish that it is. When Mr. Johansen does supply some evidence for a view, it tends to be anecdotal and even then doesn’t establish his point. For example he argues that people sometimes crave clarity over accuracy (with its attendant complexity). As evidence for this he gives the election of George Bush vs. John Kerry. Essentially, the argument is this: George Bush was decisive about weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq but wrong. People voted George Bush into office. Hence, people prefer clarity (and incorrectness) to accuracy. This reasoning relies on two presuppositions:
– the deciding factor (or what should be the deciding factor) in the election was the accuracy of Bush’s claims of finding WMD in Iraq and
– people perceived Kerry as more accurate albeit more complex.
Neither of these are established. If the handling of WMD is not a primary factor in the election or if people perceived Kerry as equally weak on accurate assessments then you cannot draw that conclusion from the election.
I augmented reading the book with listening to the audiobook narrated by Brett Barry. While Mr. Barry does a nice, clear, and consistent job narrating the book, the audiobook is a version back. The differences aren’t huge, but it does present some challenge.
So am I saying that the book is a waste of time? No. I think it can get us thinking about new approaches to leading and take into account how the world is changing and what that means to leadership. I simply would take his indication of where we’re headed and the best way to handle those changes with a grain of salt or seek the evidence.
One more bothersome aspect of his approach in the book is that there are some instances where he seems to proceed in ways contrary to his own advise on skills to use. In particular, he advocates transparency but his method of reaching his conclusions is opaque. We are presented his conclusions but not how he reached them. Now, that may be a very large book or may be done elsewhere. Then reference those places. He advocates bio-empathy but I see little in the production of this book that focuses on the environment. I understand that an ebook-only release may not have the reach of printed books but there are more green-friendly ways to produce the book. Where is the encouragement of groups and shared experiences (commons) around the book. His on-line presence, as far as I can tell, is quite light. Does he mean to direct folks to the IFF site. Google Hangouts to discuss? Live tweet sessions for shared experiences? While it would be unrealistic to suggest Mr. Johansen be a master practitioner of all of the ten skills he outlines, it would be encouraging to see how a principal advocate of these skills sets provides rubber-hit-the road examples of how they can implemented.
So, the book is a lovely thought-experiment but I would not, without additional evidence, commit resources and time to adopt it suggestions. I most definitely would not follow the example the company who changed their focus based on these provoking ideas: “One company, for example, was focusing on problem-solving and analytic skills – rather than the ability to win in a world of dilemmas… This company changed their recruitment criteria and their leadership development strategies.” (p. 187)