Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes
by Kenneth Mikkelsen

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In April 2012, Hans Joergen Wiberg presented an unusual idea at a startup event in Denmark. Wilberg, being visually impaired, had identified an opportunity to help blind people cope with everyday tasks. This relied on mobile phone cameras and connecting the blind with sighted volunteers. His simple idea caught on. Today, the Be My Eyes app pairs more than 30,000 blind people with nearly 400,000 sighted helpers globally. What if it were possible to equip modern leaders with a similar set of fresh eyes? What would they see? Could unexpected discoveries make them abandon current constructs of the world?


Leaders, like anyone else, are habitual beings that protect their worldview and the meaning they derive from it. Peter Drucker understood that better than most people. In Innovation and Entrepreneurship he dedicated a chapter to incongruities, the mental gaps between perception and reality. Drucker saw these gaps as an invitation to innovate. At its core, entrepreneurship is at about exploring such opportunity spaces to create something new, something different.


We live in unsettled times of economic, technological and sociopolitical change. No company, industry or nation is immune to evolving cultures. What is in question is how we can use the current culture shift to replace outdated industrial practices. History teaches us that cultural innovation is triggered by the creation of a new story. It is through the evaluation of what we hold dear and how we want to live that we can create better practices.


Study after study on meaning, engagement and purpose expose a strong disconnect between what employees want and what organizations are capable of providing them. Organizations, bound by the weight of tradition, can only compete with startups, if they are willing to departure from the old rulebook. Their leaders will not only have to ask if they are doing things right or whether they are doing the right things. They must also continuously ask a deeper philosophical question: what is right? The intention of exploring this question is not to arrive at a definite answer, but to stay curious and keep experimenting.


A serious obstacle to organizational renewal is a reluctance to look beyond the demands of the moment and seeing the bigger picture. To stay relevant and create new value, established organizations will have to do things in a different and better way. It is, however, lazy thinking to assume that adaptation merely relates to embracing new technologies or changing business models and processes. Climate justice group Movement Generation offers a useful way to gain a broader perspective by thinking in terms of shocks and slides.


Shocks are acute moments of disruption that take us out of our comfort zone and change our certainties and carefully laid plans. The collapse of the global economy in 2008 was such an event. The earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan in 2011 and caused the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster is another. The war in Syria and the subsequent refugee crisis also fall into this category.


Slides are incremental disruptions that play out over time. These are trends that we are aware of but find it difficult relating to. In this category, we find things like climate change, increasing inequality, technological advancements, urbanization and changing demographics. We know, for example, that the global population is set to hit 9.7 billion by 2050 and that more than a third of the world’s children will be living in Africa by that time. Artificial intelligence and virtual reality are other slides that will have a major impact on how we live, learn, work and, potentially, love.


Shocks and slides influence our values, perception and behaviors in profound ways. They break down our resistance to change and often serve as a catalyst for initiating obviously necessary reforms. Entrepreneurship is effective because of new applications of management that accommodate these changes, as Peter Drucker observed. In dealing with the shocks and slides, there are four shifts leaders of established organizations must focus on.


Mind shift begins with a willingness to adapt, by being open and ready to accept living with uncertainty. Acknowledging that there is more to a successful business than maximizing shareholder value is essential. It is by focusing on the pursuit of long-term goals, such as employee satisfaction, customer centricity and innovation that companies can leave a lasting legacy.


Skill shift addresses an urgent need for new capabilities. Skills like complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity will be in high demand, as indicated in a recent study by the World Economic Forum. In an increasingly automated world there is an urgency to look beyond traditional skills and training. Companies need workers that can adapt to changing contexts by being self-directed and self-motivated learners with a systematic approach to personal knowledge mastery.


Behavior shift relates to how the collective worldview in organizations is manifested in daily actions and decisions. With changing customer and employee needs and demands the expectations of organizations keep rising while the tolerance with improper behavior keeps decreasing. Shifting behavior is one of the most challenging tasks because of vested interests. When top managers, for example, are handsomely rewarded for short-term gain rather than value-creating investments it takes the whole organizational culture hostage.


System shift means rethinking how organizations operate. Focusing narrowly on optimizing existing structures, processes and policies will not suffice. Power structures take on a new form with the emergence of networked ecosystems. As careers become more fluid and contractual, people outside the organizational boundaries will want to work with companies that serve a higher purpose, treat them with respect and offer unique learning opportunities.


Without a grasp of the interconnected relationship between the shifts, leaders cannot manage them successfully. To deal with them is neither a quick fix nor a one-time task. It is through systematic, practical application and learning that people build the capacity to live, not just survive, in such an environment.


Liberation from ignorance is a precondition for a truly entrepreneurial society to find its shape. Progress can only occur in imbalance. Any action, at least temporarily, must destroy equilibrium. Organizations based on standardization and compliance might root out some irregularities, but in pursuit of control, the appetite for exploration and experimentation is often lost. This explains why people who need certainty are unlikely to make good entrepreneurs and why the best entrepreneurs rarely work for others. The true quality of entrepreneurs is their willingness to challenge the status quo, to break conventional norms and find new paths.


Organizations don’t transform. People do. Too often executives think change can be engineered without putting their own skin in the game. “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself,” Leo Tolstoy said. Leaders must find a new sense of maturity within themselves to address the ongoing culture shift with greater clarity and intention. Those who insist on digging deeper trenches to withstand the new reality will eventually reach a point where they can no longer see the evolving landscape in front of them. As a consequence their organizations will become obsolete. Unfortunately, there is no app to make up for such blindness.


About the author:

Kenneth Mikkelsen is a writer, speaker, business advisor and learning designer. He is co-founder of FutureShifts and co-author of The Neo-Generalist: Where You Go is Who You Are with Richard Martin. He can be found on Twitter as @LeadershipABC.


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