CEOs are struggling to embed innovation as a grass-root movement in their companies.
As a people strategist in the quest of human-centered workplaces that boost innovation as a company differentiator, I found the value of highlighting the linchpin between a confluence of generations in the workplace and organizations’ success in a digital disrupted world.
The following article, by Joan Michelson (@joanmichelson) for Forbes, states that putting aside assumptions about age permits CEOs to embrace the richness of different perspectives of the workforce. Across generations, workers are looking for purpose, challenge and autonomy. Creating a workplace culture where people feel they are accepted, can do meaningful work and can thrive is a must.
In the next article, Diane Fanelli (@Diane_Fanelli) writes for HR Technologist that creating an environment of trust, where employees do not feel negatively stereotyped because of their age, can be the first step to building a conducive environment for a productive multigenerational workforce -a great competitive advantage for companies that embrace innovation.
These 2 articles highlight 3 next action item that every CEO may take in the next 3 days:
Understand the demographics
Listen and acknowledge
You already count with an innovation lab in your organization, it is only a matter of unleashing the power of collaboration and crowdsourcing, to tackle your most difficult problems that are precluding to deliver the customer experience you promised.
Somehow, we think that, as leaders, we need to know everything, and then bestow this wisdom on those around us. We are afraid to show our foibles and concerned that others might think less of us if there is something we’re not sure of. We struggle to look good (and smart) at most, if not all, times.
But I think, and I’ve noticed through my own experience as well as through observing clients for quite some time now, that we are actually stronger leaders when we do just the opposite. When we show our foibles, let others know that there are things we’re not sure of, and let ourselves look not so good (or smart) at times, we become more powerful role models because we’re role modeling learning. And learning – and being open to learning – is a tremendous leadership skill.
When we admit our humanness and are willing to show that we’re willing to make mistakes, to learn and to grow, we offer those around us the opportunity to admit their humanness as well. When we push back against the misconception that a leader must be all-knowing and must have an answer in every situation, we make it okay for those around us to not have answers as well. And when we can admit that we might not have all the answers, we are more open to perspectives and solutions that might have been closed off to us.
I practice this willingness to not know with my clients as well. There are times when my clients ask for my opinion on a situation or my thoughts on what they should do, and while I may give them my perspective and thinking, I always preface whatever I say with the acknowledgement that I do not know their best answer and that I most likely could not know their best answer. I am not them. I am not as close to the situation (or people) as they are.
Being willing to not know – being willing to not have the ultimate answer – opens us up to curiosity, and curiosity opens us up to innovative approaches to complex situations and compassionate interpretations of tense relationships.
And when we can model this innovation and compassion to those around us, we model a powerful way to lead and a thoughtful way to be.
How have you expanded your leadership by being open to learning?
Your business needs it, you ask employees for it, you incent them to deliver it, but in the end, do you really get it? I’m talking about innovation. When the Conference Board queried CEOs in 2018, it found that one of their most important concerns was “creating new business models to adapt to disruptive technologies.”
Unfortunately, many companies, even those with innovative histories, struggle to keep up with the torrid pace of change in their industries. This past fall, for instance, Starbucks, an organization widely regarded as nimble and forward-looking, announced a restructuring, with CEO Kevin Johnson emphasizing the need to “increase the velocity of innovation.” Established businesses have trouble innovating for many reasons, including siloed structures, fuzzy strategies, inadequate talent, and not enough funding. “Softer” factors also come into play, for example, a team or corporate culture that fails to give employees the time and space they need to think creatively.
How do effective leaders overcome these hurdles? I’ve spent the past decade studying creative bosses, such as filmmaker George Lucas, hedge fund guru Julian Robertson, and fashion magnate Ralph Lauren, who not only innovate but also create work environments in which everyone else does too. When I advise leaders on how to bring some of the same behavior into their organizations, I emphasize that it’s OK to start small. And one of the first tools I recommend is a group exercise I call the “change notebook.”
Here’s how it works: At your next team meeting, pull out a pad of paper, turn to an empty page, and divide it into three columns. Each one corresponds to a question relevant for innovation:
“What is the existing practice/the recipe for success/the way we’ve always done it at our organization?” Jot your thoughts down in the left-hand column, including the key beliefs or assumptions underlying the practice. Then look critically at each of them and ask yourself if any are on the verge of becoming anachronistic or obsolete.
“What market shifts, external forces, or technologies might threaten the elements of our operational status quo?” List these in the middle column.
“What can we do about these impending disruptions you’ve uncovered?” For each one, use the right-hand column to note some preemptive action you could take. Sometimes you’ll want to tweak an existing practice to render it “disruption-proof.” Other times you’ll need to toss it out and start from scratch.
When a team at one of my client companies, a midsize insurer specializing in the automobile market, ran through this exercise, employees identified a number of operational “sacred cows” — practices like designing policy parameters based on past experience, selling to customers through independent agents, subcontracting with insurance adjusters to work with customers after an incident, and putting premiums into secure investment options. Threats to the business noted by the team included self-driving cars, the growth of Uber-type services, the rise of larger insurance companies offering “one-stop shopping,” the digital customization of policies for customers, a volatile investing climate, and the company’s increased vulnerability to bad publicity on social media.
Brainstorming actions to take, executives came up with a range of options, including studying self-driving cars and their implications more closely, creating new products and services for gig-economy workers, seeking out ways to tighten relationships with existing customers, scouring their network of independent brokerages for digital innovations they might exploit, and reevaluating the company’s investment portfolio for its resilience in the face of volatility. Whether or not all of these ongoing initiatives succeed, the exercise spurred team members to break out of entrenched mindsets, leading to far more innovative results than if they had remained passive.
As you experiment with the change notebook, you’ll find that your team members become progressively more comfortable exploring new ideas, including those that conflict with the status quo, and taking action to deal with looming change before it catches them unawares. Don’t just do the exercise once and forget it; make it a regular part of your team’s workflow. Devote 15 minutes to it at a weekly team meeting, filling in a new page of the notebook each week. Remind yourselves of potential disruptions you’ve identified in the past, and then work on spotting new ones.
Over time your team will gain more facility in the exercise. Due to the structured nature of these conversations, change will come to seem less chaotic and scary, and team members will become accustomed to talking through disagreements and tough issues. If my experience consulting with teams is any indication, you’ll also get group members in the habit of pulling themselves away from daily concerns to focus on the big picture. You’ll help them internalize the notion that change, not stasis or stability, is a fundamental quality of business; eventually, this sensibility will color everything they do.
It’s easy for teams and organizations to fall into a pattern of reacting to change. But why can’t you be the aggressive, proactive ones? You can. Follow the example of the world’s greatest bosses, and take an important step toward instilling a culture of creativity, growth, openness, and innovation that your team or organization so desperately needs.
Complexity, emergence, ambiguity, transformation, agility, etc., are words that have become more and more mainstream over the past few years. VUCA and #futureofwork are commonplace memes now. Organizations are trying to play catch-up as waves of technology take over our lives, work, attention, and energy. The human mind cannot keep pace with this change. Organizations are merely reflecting the confusion each one of us feels. There’s a scramble to “keep learning” — new skills, new technology, new business processes, new ways of interacting with the customers/consumers/co-creators. The learning curve seems endless; exhaustion and cynicism are replacing enthusiasm and enquiry. Fear of losing jobs to AI and Robots appear to be rapidly becoming a reality. Gallup’s Employee Engagement report is now well-known.What has all of this got to do with Organizational Learning? A great deal, I would say. And most organizations recognize this is critical; hence, the growing popularity of terms like “collaborative learning,” “continuous learning,” “agile learning,” “lifelong learning,” and so on. Against this backdrop of incessant change, advent of the uber-technology era, climate crisis, and socio-political upheaval, I would like to propose that organizations have to learn but learn differently. I propose a shift to “Transformative Learning.” This enfolds other forms of learning within itself but adds another dimension to the whole.Transformative Learning goes beyond the cognitive to integrate the heart, gut, body, and intuition. It is now scientifically proven that our gut and heart also have brains of their own, and send us critical information. However, our cognitive side is so over-developed that we habitually ignore what our heart is telling us and overlook our gut feel, often to repent later. Neither of these forms of sensing and sensemaking find a place in our current organizational setup. And this is to our detriment.Going back to the quotation above from Aftab Omer, there are two pieces which I feel are critical to shift from regular ways of learning to transformative learning — from information to imagination and from intended learning to emergent learning. For an in-depth understanding of Omer’s perspective, I recommend his article, Imagination, Emergence, and the Role of Transformative Learning in Complexity Leadership. In this piece, I’ll focus on the two aspects italicized above — imagination and emergent learning — and their relation to Transformative Learning.I have tried to capture the Organizational Learning shift that I am speaking about in a diagram below:
From Intended to Emergent Learning — Transforming how organizations learnThe lower two quadrants of the diagram illustrate the different forms of learning that typically take place in organizations today — this is Intended Learning. This kind of learning is based on information, knowledge (from the past), skills and competencies needed for the present, and learning programs designed to tackle the rise of new technology in the future. This happens through specific Training and different modes of Ongoing Learning supported by the organization and also driven by the learners themselves. This learning is crucial in maintaining business-as-usual, gives the organizations its competitive edge, helps to build new skills, and give rise to innovation. This kind of learning is perfect during conditions of stability and gradual change.But not when change is exponential, continuous, and ambiguous. When there are complete paradigm shifts and the world has to be re-envisioned. When the way we see ourselves and our relationship with the world around us need to be re-imagined. I recommend listening to this video by Tomas Bjorkman for a deeper understanding of these shifts.To deal with these shifts, we need to move from intended learning to emergent learning. Intended learning happens from a place of knowing and against a set of specific goals. Emergent learning happens from a place of reflection and sensemaking.In the upper two quadrants of the diagram above, I have shown some of the capacities and conditions necessary for emergent learning to take place. These are still very nascent ideas that I am mulling over even as I write.Imagination — In these times of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity, Imagination has a key role to play. I do not mean wild imagination here but the ability to envision possible futures even though the present situation is far removed from that possibility. (Man’s landing on the Moon was imagination once.) This kind of Imagination is a skill that requires honing and deliberate practice. It is aspirational in nature, sees and envisions new possibilities, and gives voice to what is wanting to emerge. (I have capitalized “Imagination” to distinguish it from imagination or wild flights of fancy and daydreaming.)Sensing and Sensemaking — The ability to “sense” is rooted in deep, non-judgmental, unbiased observation, feeling with all our senses, and the capacity to step back to see the connection between seemingly disparate situations, contexts, or challenges. “Sensemaking” is where Imagination and Sensing come together. It requires a leap of faith coupled with all that has been seen, heard, felt, and intuited. IMHO, in the VUCA world, organizations can no longer thrive without Imagination.Negative Capability — John Keats, the Romantic Poet, wrote about Negative Capability. And the words are as applicable today as they were during his times. I wrote a detailed post about it here, but I will repeat Keats’ quote:“The concept of Negative Capability is the ability to contemplate the world without the desire to try and reconcile contradictory aspects or fit it into closed and rational systems. …I mean NEGATIVE CAPABILITY, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason…” ~ John KeatsNegative Capability, as described by Keats, is a component of Imagination where we are willing to suspend judgement and immerse ourselves in the situation without a need to resolve it. If one can stay long enough with uncertainty and ambiguity, it is possible to reach a deeper place of knowing from where a more suitable and elegant solution emerges. I can think of no better capability to be cultivated, nurtured, developed, and honed in today’s organizations.Holding of Paradox — In our binary, “either this or that” approach, we forget to explore the space in between, the spectrum that holds all the interesting shades of grey. Or even the space completely outside of the spectrum. As Niels Bohr said, “the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” Staying with a paradox requires us to slow down, listen deeply, and be comfortable with contradiction and ambiguity. This is not a cognitive skill that one can learn from a training program or by reading a book. Its an inner state that needs to be cultivated with curiosity, patience, and perseverance.Not seeking Closure — The human brain has a deep-seated need for closure. We cannot live with incomplete stories. And this very human pattern plays out in organizational decision making, and especially so when there is acute pressure to adhere to a timeline. Yet, this is often the enemy of deep, transformative learning and keeps us stuck in our old patterns, repeating the same mistakes, and facing the same crisis. This requires us to train our minds and hearts to stay open, and cultivate curiosity, courage, and compassion. Otto Scharmer’s Theory U is a powerful process that can help organizations move towards building “Negative Capabilities”.Letting go of Linear Logic — The scientific, mechanistic, Industrial Era has essentially built in us a love for linear cause and effect. However, the complexity of the VUCA world no longer lends itself to linearity; instead we live in a world where “everything is connected to everything else”. This requires us to step back, widen our perspectives, let go of our need for closure, and sense into the bigger patterns at play. This calls for us to hone our pattern-sensing skills, look beyond immediate connections, and stay with a situation in a mode of open observation.Holding Space for Self and Others — Holding space calls for us to stay in a facilitation mode — one that is characterized by openness, non-judgement, an awareness of one’s inner state, and an ability to listen deeply. Organizations today are characterized by speed, efficiency, and accuracy. However, as I have written earlier, complexity and uncertainty require us to slow down. It requires us to go from rapid-fire action to observation, reflection, and thoughtful response when the time is right. Again, this is not a cognitive skill that can be acquired over a couple of training sessions. This is an inner state of being where we learn (gradually) to slow down, become mindful, and aware. And it takes relentless practice, support, and working with other individuals on the same journey.Generative Conversations — Otto Scharmer speaks about Four Levels of Listening that leads to Four Levels of Conversation. Those who are Coaches and Facilitators know the importance of Listening at Levels 3 and 4 (refer to diagram below). It is Empathic and Generative Listening that hold and create space for something new to be born. This kind of listening is rarely practiced in organizations. However, it is precisely this that can truly transform organizations and the individuals who are collectively taking this journey.
Levels of ListeningBecause none of the capabilities mentioned above fall within the typical parameters of tangible, quantifiable, and measurable, they fall off the organizational radar. It’s well-nigh impossible to measure inner growth. Organizations desiring to step onto the path of Transformative Learning need to let go off the old paradigms, and embrace the new in the space of learning.
To unleash productivity, innovation, and growth in the 21st century, we must realign discussions about the future of work to recognise the importance of aging and longevity – unprecedented, accelerating trends that are reshaping economies, societies and individual lives around the globe. Human history has never seen such a dramatic demographic transformation, with a billion over 60 – doubling by mid-century – lives reaching 100 as a matter of course and a world that has more old than young. This megatrend opens an opportunity to power historic prosperity, but only if employers and others across global society lead innovative strategies to transform the future of work for the era of longevity. As the World Economic Forum put it over a decade ago in their seminal Peril or Promise, the paths are clear and stark.
Despite the wide-reaching impacts of aging and longevity, conversations about the future of work typically focus on other trends. These are certainly important, but they’re not the whole story. Digitalisation is changing how we work – new tools enable virtual work, and artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies drive automation that is creating, disrupting and changing how we work and at what. There’s also an ongoing transformation of who works, as women have entered the workforce in huge numbers and employers focus on diversity and inclusion. Additionally, new types of enterprises are changing what work people do, with the rise of new industries like home care and new work models like the gig economy. Twentieth century manufacturing is being replaced by 21st century services.
Each of these reflects a broader trend in society, yet expert discussions still too often ignore perhaps the most fundamental shift in today’s world. This is population aging – a historic shift that impacts nearly every aspect of life and is only now picking up speed. As S&P Global warned in their equally prescient report about the same time as WEF’s, “No other force is likely to shape the future of national economic health, public finances, policymaking [and markets] as the irreversible rate at which the world’s population is aging”.
Though this demographic shift has often been framed as an economic and workforce challenge, it actually opens up a number of opportunities. According to Aegon’s global survey of more than 16,000 people, nearly 70% of respondents envision working in some capacity later in life – transforming the traditional retirement model to create a new period for productivity and income. In fact, OECD countries could realise a cumulative USD 2 trillion long-term increase in GDP if they raised the employment rate for those over 55 to match that of Sweden, the best in the OECD.
Research has found that these older workers bring different perspectives, important institutional knowledge and valuable mentoring skills. They can drive innovation and help to design products and services for the massive “silver market” of older consumers. And by extending their careers, they can support the fiscal sustainability of public and private institutions. Moreover, as the data around activity and healthy aging accumulates, working longer is also good for people’s health, and therefore societies’ exploding health costs.
However, there are several barriers to this longevity opportunity. To shape the future of work through the lens of aging, employers and partners in government must implement forward-looking responses to address three challenges.
First, while a growing number of employers recognise the demographic shift, few are actually taking action. Workplace policies that support later-life employment – new and creative benefit structures and innovation on work itself, such as phased retirement and new roles for older workers – have been adopted by some innovative organisations, but remain relatively rare.
Second, ageism is widespread in both the workplace and society. According to Deloitte’s global survey of business leaders, just 18% said that age is viewed as an advantage at their organisation, and 20% see it as an outright disadvantage. This reflects ageist attitudes across society, where it’s often assumed – falsely – that a 70 year old should not be working, is a drag on their employer and is taking the job of a younger person. Wrong, but a persistent myth.
Third, our underlying societal and policy structures are not aligned with aging and longevity. Consider education: currently, our institutions support learning until our early 20s, but then stop entirely. In the era of longevity, we need new models to support lifelong learning. And we need to reinvent a number of other social structures, including work and retirement, healthcare delivery and housing. In short, we need a new social contract.
Employers can overcome these challenges, and there are rich incentives to do so. Leaders in this area will tap into an underutilised, valuable talent pool, reach a huge consumer market and realise key competitive advantages. In the near future, not having an aging strategy – guided by principles for the multi-generational workplace – will seem as outmoded as not having a digital or green strategy.
The opportunity – for employers, policy-makers and society – is to design a new social contract that aligns to our 21st century’s demographic realities. Reimagining the future of work in light of aging, and then translating that vision into concrete changes, is an essential step forward.
We need a new conversation about aging and the future of work – including voices like yours.
How do you think work, jobs and careers will change as a result of aging and longevity?
What are the most important changes that employers and employees can take?
What are the wider social and policy efforts needed to realise the economic potential of longevity and the silver economy?
What are the most important opportunities and challenges for workers, employers and other stakeholders?
Where does the balance stand between employer and employee responsibilities for action?