Organisational Futures: Four Critical Lessons

Main Image Credit Courtesy of Breanne Pye/US Army.

Amidst increasing societal, economic and technological change, there are four critical lessons that an organisation needs to adopt to be fit for an ever-more complex and uncertain future.

It happened once again. As soon as the commanding officer thought that he had cornered the rag-tag Al-Qa’ida insurgents who had been blowing up vehicles in Baghdad, another detonation went off in an area he had never anticipated. The elite US Joint Special Operations Task Force found themselves losing to an enemy that, by traditional calculus, it should have dominated. General Stanley McChrystal, then Commander of Joint Special Operations Command, which had overall command of the Task Force, describes the problem that faced the coalition in Iraq after the initial 2003 invasion:

Over time we came to realize that more than our foe, we were actually struggling to cope with an environment that was fundamentally different than we’d planned or trained for. The speed and interdependence of events had produced new dynamics that threatened to overwhelm the time-honoured processes and culture we’d built.

There can be little doubt that the velocity and all-pervasiveness of technology have led to changes that are not only redefining strategic concepts, but also the very nature of the structure and purpose of organisations. As General Robert Brown –another commander who had experience in Iraq – recently noted at a RUSI lecture, organisations have to move away from ‘Command and Control – which is a very hierarchical system where things go up and down the chain – to Mission Command’, which he described as telling people what you want them to achieve and what the risks are, rather than telling them exactly what to do. Brown said that organisations also need to recognise that the greater the strategic uncertainty, the less valuable are material solutions and the more valuable are cognitive capacities.

The implications of such changes are slowly finding their way beyond the military into government more generally, and the private sector. The importance of fostering anticipatory and adaptive capacities is recognised more and more as essential for dealing with the portents of increasing societal, economic and technological change.

Towards that end, there are four critical lessons that an organisation needs to adopt to be fit for an ever-more complex and uncertain future: first, it must promote and enable an ethos of creativity; second, it must commit to regularly exploring the longer-term future as part of strategic planning; third, it must tear down organisational and inter-organisational stove pipes, which restrict the flow of information to vertical lines of control; and, finally, the organisation must empower decision-making at appropriate levels.

In so many ways, proximity to a problem can be the source of innovative solutions. As Professor Eric von Hippel found during his landmark research into innovation in the 1970s, ‘Approximately 80% of the innovations judged by users to offer them a significant increment in functional utility were in fact invented, prototyped and first field-tested by users of the instrument rather than by an instrument manufacturer’. In other words, user innovation is often central to innovations and innovative practices. For that reason a growing number of organisations, frequently in the tech sector, promote and enable all employees in their corporations – at every level – to present ideas that they feel are needed to achieve corporate objectives. It is this commitment that enables an ethos of creativity.

An organisation that is open to ideas from those who form part of it is often one that understands the importance of exploring plausible longer-term futures. For example, too often horizon scanning is confused with efforts to predict what the future might hold. On the contrary, horizon-scanning is more about having a sense of the ‘what might be’s’ than what will be. It enables organisations to sense-test the resilience of their systems – their anticipatory and adaptive capacities. And, as became evident in the US Project on National Security Reform, horizon scanning brings to the fore a range of new areas of possible interest – from technology to new forms of collaboration, from societal possibilities to risk options.

Yet, the ethos of collaboration and horizon scanning will have limited impact unless the full capacities of an organisation reflect all its present and potential competencies. All too often, as we can clearly learn from past challenges, there is a deep reluctance among management to remove the ‘stove pipes’ that inhibit the exchange of ideas and findings. The fear of diluting expertise, perceived systems of control and institutional defence mechanisms are among the many justifications for maintaining departmental, intradepartmental and interdepartmental barriers.

There can be little doubt, however, that in an age where change is ever more rapid, where uncertainty has become a kind of institutional leitmotif, interaction within and across organisations has become a vital means of integrating, enhancing and accelerating response. Ultimately, there is an institutional trade-off, where the incentive for vertically arranged expertise is countered by the speed and effectiveness of collaborative action. To demonstrate the importance of the latter, though, it is essential to show impact in ways that are both clear and quick.

This is particularly important and evident in times of crisis. As demonstrated by the School of International Futures’ ‘Lean and Agile Foresight’ programme, integrated approaches offer quick ways of thinking and responding to crises. Yet, the effectiveness of integrated approaches in so many instances also depends upon where decisions are made – at what level, and by whom.

In that context, there is a new leadership paradigm emerging for organisations in the increasingly networked and interdependent global environment. This paradigm reflects what leadership expert Simon Western has called ‘the eco-leaders’. They reframe the form and purpose of organisations. Connectivity, distributed leadership, ethics, sustainability and leading adaptive networked organisations are all core to the task of the eco-leader. As with the innovator, so, too, with the decision-maker, the leader will recognise that proximity to the problem in hand should generally determine who makes the decision. Above that decision-maker is a leader, a leader who in so many instances is principally a mentor.

All of these ideas are by no means new, but they are also too rarely implemented. Too often financial concerns are focused on the immediate, not recognising that the sorts of benefits that can result from these four key issues help in both the immediate and longer term. That said, there is a growing recognition that governing now for the long-term should no longer be ignored. More and more governments in developed and developing countries are making efforts to enhance their adaptive and anticipatory capacities to prepare for the future. For example, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, adopted by all UN states, reflect governments’ growing appreciation of innovation, and the need for longer-term speculative thinking. These trends are positive, but they still need to be monitored. For there are some very specific global risks that may well arise if organisations fail to heed the four critical lessons. 

Randolph Kent is Director of The Futures Project at RUSI. 

Catarina Tully is Co-Founder of the School of International Futures and Founder of FromOverHere, a consultancy providing strategy and foreign policy advice.


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