Future-casting and ‘who moved my desk?’

Sometime in the mid-eighties I listened to a presentation on cassette tape (those where the days) that unlocked something inside me. On the cassette Donald McGilchrist, who would become a friend and mentor some years later, unpacked his skilful thinking about global trends – a new concept for me. Ironically, analysing social trends has since become a bit of a trend!

But the art has evolved. In those days, the analysis was based to a large extent on the trajectory of the past and extrapolating into the future in light of current realities. Today, the sheer speed of change means that future-casting looks more like the work of a professional gambler …. analysing the myriad of possibilities and mixing objectivity and gut intuition to land on a prediction. (Coincidently, as I write this in a hotel lobby, the TV screen is blaring at me about Apple’s new TV technology – and I wonder whether it will ‘change the way we watch TV’.)

Future-casting has become more than an obscure intellectual past-time. The pace of business evolution has ushered futurists to centre stage and mainstream business media is constantly feeding leaders with ideas about what is ahead. In fact, understanding the things that will shape business for this year is now no longer good enough, we need to be preparing for the factors that will shape our business context next year and beyond.

This month’s Harvard Business Review includes its ‘breakthrough ideas for 2008′, referred to simply as the HBR List. It contains some fascinating insights. I want to comment on one because of its relevance to our business at Ergo Consulting.

In October last year, to coincide with an office move, we virtualized our team. This means we said to everyone, ‘there is no obligation for you to be at a particular place, at a particular time … unless of course the customer requires it or there is a face to face conversation you are invited to’. Our new place has no allocated desks, rather a number of different styled spaces (Hot desks, library, meeting room, kitchen/dining, outdoor area etc) While we might be on the front edge of this trend, we are certainly not radical. According to the HBR (for example), 40% of IBM employees have no official office.

Our experience has been a positive one. Although some of the team need to keep more typical business hours because of the customer facing projects they are on, the flexibility to work from home, in café’s, or wherever, means greater focus for those with some choice. We have installed a number of habits we call ‘connection disciplines’ to ensure that everyday people are connecting with each other and can be contacted at any time.

A parallel trend is to measure performance based on tasks and outcomes rather than effort and time. My experience is that while most managers agree with the principle of moving to an outcomes orientation, few are willing to bite the bullet and move to an approach that gives this more than lip service. Despite the benefits of providing incentive based on outcomes, it remains ‘safer’ to control effort within a time period. Counter to the hopes of managers, this custom has led to an extraordinary volume of ‘busy work’ … unproductive workplace activity that fills in the hours of the day but is undisciplined, lacks focus and is disconnected with the strategic imperatives of the organisation.

One of the other ‘ideas’ from the HBR relates to physical exercise and brain function. We can expect greater integration of exercise with workplaces. Improved brain function after physical exercise is clinically proven. Those of us who manage to do regular exercise know this is true. Board rooms with treadmills, mandatory exercise breaks during the day … who knows?

I think we are on the cusp of another industrial revolution. Two things will drive it … the first is the groundswell of demand for workplaces that allow people to operate as human beings rather than cogs in a machine. The second relates to the imperatives associated with moving to a society with dramatically less carbon emissions. (I was involved in a conversation on Friday that included a suggestion that our whole transport system would be radically different within 10 years … who knows?)

All this means that stability is an illusion and the effort to establish it is ultimately a liability. The future belongs to the agile and those who Otto Scharmer describes as ‘listening to the future as it emerges’.

(BTW … the HBR List contains some much more interesting ideas – peer to peer banking, cheating from honest people, appreciating the difference between competition and opposition … and stacks more.)

2 thoughts on “Future-casting and ‘who moved my desk?’

  1. I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Jason Rakowski

  2. I was looking at the HBR List when I had a spare hour to kill in a borders book store late last month. I should have bought it, but remained disciplined and but the darn thing back. I’ll be sure to revisit it now!

    As far as the virtual office goes, I’m stuck between thoughts. I’m finding i’m far too undisciplined to work from home/cafe/out. I can for different periods – but often I just end up being unproductive (to my mind). Funnily enough, I find it hard not to feel like I’m spinning my wheels at hq most days…except when doing busy work. Sigh – I am a good worker, I swear! I wonder if the working in a more time-bound office erodes your skill/ability to work better virtually? My hunch says yes.

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