The Future is Now!


November 27th, 2019

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by Simon Newitt & Cindy Cox

Looking at the data from the 2019 Roffey Park Management Agenda one thing leaps out more than any other, and that’s just how day-to-day the most pressing challenges faced by managers and HR leaders across sectors and industry seem to be. Issues of managing workload, boosting morale and balancing operational issues with developing and delivering strategy feature highly. There is no doubt stresses are high and the impact on wellbeing real. There can also though be no doubt that the ‘running to stand still’ experience of management presents a real risk for organisations that need to be readying themselves for the future.

Much has been written on the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the coming technological revolution that is and will blur the physical, digital, biological and ecological spheres of our lives. While so many of its outcomes are unknowable we can at least confidently predict that it will radically reform even our most basic assumptions about work and, with that, what it means to be human.

‘The speed of current breakthroughs has no historical precedent. When compared with previous industrial revolutions, the Fourth is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace. Moreover, it is disrupting almost every industry in every country. And the breadth and depth of these changes herald the transformation of entire systems of production, management, and governance.’

Klaus Schwab, World Economic Forum (2016)

The historic moment clearly presents both an existential threat and opportunity for organisations and leaders regardless of sector or industry, yet little of it appears to be currently occupying the minds and ‘to-do’ lists of leaders. One wonders what the causes and consequences of this might be.

Respondents to the Management Agenda identify ‘recruiting the right staff’ (73%) as their most pressing current organisational concern, with ‘mental health’ (65%), ‘developing effective managers’ (63%), ‘employee engagement’ (62%) and ‘managing the human aspect of change’ (60%) making up the top five issues. When asked to consider the future, ‘recruitment’ (50%) remains the most urgent issue, with ‘retention of key employees’ (49%), ‘managing a multi-generational workforce’ (47%), ‘mental health’ (46%) and ‘encouraging innovation’ (44%) also featuring prominently. And as far as current leadership challenges go, the clear winner is ‘managing workload’ (43%), with ‘maintaining staff morale and engagement’ (33%), ‘managing change’ (29%), ‘balancing operational and strategic pressures’ (27%) and ‘recruiting the right skills and experience’ (26%) also a concern.

The most obvious thing about all these responses is that they seem embedded in the priorities of the present; in the everyday operational pressures, tasks and busyness that characterises contemporary organisational life and management practices. In the context of a transformation in the world of work what could this data signify? Is the future so unknowable, so uncertain and frightening that we seek a kind of cognitive refuge in the present? Or are we simply distracted and overcome with the volume of things that need doing here-and-now to lift our heads up and peer intentionally into the future, however much we may want or need to? Either way it’s worth offering a provocation, because in an overwhelmed present what happens to the quality of conversation and interaction in working life? What happens to our timelines and horizons? And what happens to the capability of individuals, teams and organisations to stir themselves and ask deeper more challenging questions about what’s coming and what it means?

Going even further, what happens to our individual and collective sense of humanity when pressure is applied and sustained in the present moment?

Acknowledging that some of this ‘now’ pressure is very real doesn’t mean we can’t also challenge how much of it is simply felt to be real. Because it is also possible that a deeper set of individualised drives around competence compulsion and status anxiety – expressed through a ‘suck it up’ performative assumption about leadership and management – keeps us embedded in the present, and, ironically, shackled to the past. Perhaps, if no generation ever solved the challenges of the one following, we should be looking to younger, less senior colleagues to help shape organisational strategies and futures?

We find ourselves at the uncomfortable learning edge of the coming revolution, not yet sufficiently adapted in our behaviours and mindsets to cope with the pace and nature of change, but critically aware that the ground beneath our feet is unstable. In this scenario the biggest risk is that humanising potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution to reimagine work, organisation and leadership through a human-centred effort will be lost because so many of us aren’t able to look-up, face into the future, and realise it’s here, now.