Led by data, algorithms and AI? by Bill Fischer

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Julia Kirby Senior Editor, Harvard University Press

David Weinberger Senior researcher, Harvard’s Klein Center for Internet & Society
Miriam Meckel Founding publisher of ada, the platform for digital life and the economy of the future, at Handelsblatt Media Group
Charles Édouard Bouée Founder and Managing Partner, Alpha Intelligence Capital; former CEO, Roland Berger
Alex Adamopoulos Chief Executive Officer, Emerging Limited

Commentary in italics

Drucker Forum 2020

Imagine a world where it is acknowledged that unknown unknowns  are the primary triggers of economic and social change; where literally everything is recognized to be an “accident” (in the statistical sense of having a finite probability of occurring); where humans and machines coexist on teams where work has a high-knowledge content, immersed in unprecedented volumes of data; and where organizational and contextual complexity can only become more complex.

Think of this: not “uncertains”, but “unknowns,” and not just one of them, but many; clearly the panel is raising the stakes here in the unknown, it hard to be well-prepared for anything that happens, so familiarity is no longer something that we can rely upon. Think of what this means for expertise, know-how, assumptions and predictions. This is a highly nuanced description of what work in the future could look like: torrents of high-knowledge content, with complexity not only taken for granted, but accelerating; how well-suited are our present organizations, or leadership styles, for such a situation?

 What would leadership look like?  What would working in such organizations feel like? Would we insist that social interaction requires maintaining such leadership attributes as empathy, humility and presence? How important would it be that leadership’s possesses Emotional Intelligence? How would decision-making change; would it be better informed, more analytical, faster? 

This depiction, offered by our panelists, is fast becoming our world today, and provides a daunting challenge to us as leaders, followers and the shapers of leadership practice. In fact, two-thirds of our session’s participants saw such changes already being a part of the reality of today’s leadership challenge at the opening of our panel’s discussion, and were comfortable advising that leaders “should be checking analytics on a daily basis.”

This is a sobering call to ask “how analytical is present-day decision-making?” Does it even come close to the data-intensive decision-making that our audience envisions? Do we even have the data? Can the organization in its present form even respond to such decision-making?  

Even more reassuring was that none of our participants suggested that this be done “rarely.”  Fortunately, our panelists were not only creative in their portrayal of what could, left untended, be seen as a dystopian future, but they were equally inspired in their suggestions as to how leadership could be reimagined to adapt to these new requirements.

Recommendations for reimagining leadership involved changing both the prevailing metaphor for organizational design, and the metaphor for workers as well. Acting on the comment that “If you believe that human conversation is the greatest form of intelligence ——, then you need a culture that is open to all sorts of digression.”

I am a big fan of conversations as the engines that move ideas, but I have to confess that I’ve never thought of them as the “greatest form of human intelligence, but now that this panel raised it, I am in agreement. And digression as a source of organizational advantage; wow!!  Now, how to operationalize this?

 Not surprisingly the session threw the traditional pyramid over for the more appropriate network metaphor, and followed-up with a bevy of other recommendations, including:

• Thrive in a world of unknown unknowns, by adopting unanticipation as a replacement for conventional strategy; 

Unanticipation” is a stunning term. It means consciously conceding that in the unknown it is futile to pretend that we know what we are doing in advance, and so we need to rethink how we go about appraising our competitive environment and responding to it .

• Adopt the network as an organizing approach to get more and better ideas to respond to as a way of operationalizing unanticipation, promoting distributed decision-making, within the context of a supportive infrastructure; 

• Don’t insist on rules, instead follow the e-gamers’ willingness to allow users to change the rules, but capture and understand those changes; 

Why not “crowd source” rules on the fly, as the situation changes? After all, we all perceive the world differently, shouldn’t we be including such different perspectives in our setting of decision parameters?

• Treat each network member as a sensor of weak signals of impending change (remember that in a world of unknown unknowns, you might not even be able to know what signals you are looking for);

There is probably nothing novel in employing sensors as a metaphor for how a network might function, but it is precise enough to begin to think about how that role would be played out, and how those signals would be distributed to the rest of the network.

• Welcome distractions, insist that your network remain open, inclusive and;

 How would I change my day, and my team’s talents, if distractions were welcome?

• Don’t wait for the environment to explain to you what change might look like, be   experimental in the ways that you search out possible paths into the future. This was illustrated by the employment of minimal viable representations as pretotypes that allow us to interpret weak signals in a more tangible fashion, to move faster and be more daring in searching out the future; 

• Use all of these initiatives to bring more data into the leadership space, and prepare leaders for dealing with such an inflow; 

• Encourage conscious and explicit probabilistic thinking among those in leadership positions; 

• Curate serendipity, it is simply too important to be left to chance. Create conversational networks and experimentation that raise the odds of such unplanned opportunities;

• Prize leadership curiosity over predictability;

 Name three CEOs for whom “curiosity” is an apt descriptor? What would a curious leader, or organization, look like, act like?

• And, above all, make sure to cultivate organizational and leadership mindsets and structure to maximize the likelihood of adapting gracefully to continuous surprise .

I added “gracefully” as an adverb, because it’s not just about responding, but responding with grace.  And, that most likely means sharing the response actions with a larger group of people in a synchronized fashion, while all the while believing that anything that happens is an accident!

About the Author:
Bill Fischer is Professor of Innovation Management, at IMD, Lausanne, Switzerland.

This article is one in the “shape the debate” series relating to the fully digital 12th Global Peter Drucker Forum, under the theme “Leadership Everywhere” on October 28, 29 & 30, 2020.

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