New technologies evolve. Societies redefine themselves. Power structures change. Disruption unhinges the status quo and undermines the assumptions we base our decisions on. For a government, this could be the relationship it has with its citizens or other countries; for civil society, the way it expresses its needs. But for a business, it could be as simple as the attributes that make it successful.
“An underlying theme in my conversations with global CEOs and senior business executives,” says Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Director of the World Economic Forum, “is that the acceleration of innovation and the velocity of disruption are hard to comprehend or anticipate and that these drivers constitute a source of constant surprise, even for the best connected and most well informed.”
Outside the private sector, technological and societal changes are also placing pressure on public governance models, often perceived as rigid, short-term-oriented and exclusive. Thus, we need to rethink the way we make decisions in order to better manage disruption. How can we do that?
3 guiding principles
We are witnessing an increasing demand for agile, long-term and inclusive decision-making as a way to manage disruption.
Agility: agile decision-making is flexible and interactive. The fast pace of digital change means that annual or even quarterly strategy meetings in companies seem to lose relevance; regulators are not catching up with the development of emerging technologies. Agile management promises to keep up and adapt to change.
Long-term thinking: we too often ignore the long-term consequences of our actions. Climate change and migration are good examples of this. We have to make sure the decisions we take today still make sense in a potentially very different future.
Inclusiveness: whether political, economic or societal, inclusiveness is increasingly promoted as an imperative and as one of the most hopeful trends of current times, whether this arises from personal empathy or public manifestations of inequality, such as political uprisings, increased polarization and geopolitical tensions. Inclusiveness is vital in a world where complex and interconnected challenges call for a coordinated, interdisciplinary response. Inclusiveness and participation also implies accountability and responsibility.
All three principles make sense when addressed in isolation. Together, however, they raise questions. Can you plan for the long term and also be adaptable? Will inclusiveness reduce your agility and ability to make timely decisions? Perhaps the key is to move beyond these apparent tensions and highlight how the three principles could reinforce each other.
3 ideas to make these principles nurture each other
Imagine the impossible
If we look at disruptions such as technology or climate change, most of them have been around for a while. For example, the first artificial intelligence program appeared in the 1950s and one can argue that the concept itself existed much earlier. Sixty years is a reasonable time to think about the potential impact of this technology on our societies or businesses. However, as shown in the below visual, because the technology didn’t immediately pick up and perform the way we expected, we turned our attention to other things. As a result we are now taken by surprise, and under pressure to react quickly. In other words, what we lack is imagination.
If we imagine long-term possibilities, and keep the what-ifs in mind, we are more likely to be agile, and also in a position to create and shape change. If we don’t, we need to react fast. And we will only be reacting.
Control your pace
We need to take a nuanced look at speed. First, we must acknowledge that there is a price of speed. One of the risks is to lose direction and focus, which reduces our ability to see or shape the long-term consequences of our actions. Another risk is that we might not have the time to consult people that are affected by our decisions. Second, we need to define our long-term vision. Imagination of possibilities, as outlined earlier, can help us define a vision that prepares us for change. There will always be unexpected changes, but a long-term vision wins us time when we need to choose a direction at a crossroads.
Finally, to be agile, we need to identify in which situations fast decision-making are of the essence (for example when we want to seize the right moment to launch a product) and in which situations we need to take a step back and reflect, even when the world around us is changing fast.
We need to create new ways to include a diverse group of people and perspectives in our decision-making processes. There are two building blocks necessary for a diverse group of people to work together: a common agenda and social capital.
The Sustainable Development Goals are a good example of a commonly agreed agenda. As for social capital, bringing a diverse group together is not enough: we need to put mechanisms in place that allow for constructive debates and understanding of different views. The way we debate and give space to each other’s concerns needs to evolve to counter increasing polarization. Genuine inclusiveness means that we need to move from accepting diversity to seeking diversity, including cognitive diversity, i.e. the differences in our thought and problem-solving processes.
Including a diverse set of perspectives in our decisions will, in addition, increase our ability to imagine different long-term possibilities and thus enable us to make timely and agile decisions.
Integrating these three ideas creates a self-reinforcing, virtuous cycle between agility, long-sightedness and inclusiveness.
- For example, an agile mind can help us seek diversity and thus be more inclusive.
- Including more people and their perspectives in our decision-making processes can expand our understanding of different long-term possibilities, which better prepares us for change.
- Imagining long-term consequences helps us be more agile when change finally happens, as we have had time to prepare.
The other way around, a long-term vision can help us be more inclusive as we realize that current conflicts might be insignificant in a different future or that new actors might become relevant. Inclusiveness makes us more agile and agility means that we learn to control our pace and give space to long-term thinking.
Ultimately, our ability to better manage disruption is a question of attitude. Only with an open mind, will we truly be able to imagine different futures, control our pace and seek out (not only tolerate) diversity. This will in turn enable us to be agile, long-sighted and inclusive.
The ideas articulated in this post arose from discussions at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos 2016. Thanks in particular to team members Alex Williams and Diane Davoine.