The five reads you need to plot the future

05 February 2021

By Christian Stadler

Here’s a shocker: it’s hard to predict the future. And in an age where disruptions have become more frequent the work of a strategist, who plots their organisation’s direction, has not necessarily become easier.

The late Clayton Christensen brought disruptive innovation to boardrooms, but I want to highlight a number of more recent releases.

 

1 Uncharted: How to Map the Future

By Margret Heffernan. Published by Simon & Schuster UK.

Former entrepreneur turned influential thinker Margaret Heffernan has little time for “exuberant forecasters” who she argues often get it wrong.

Instead she points to a more experimental approach that, for example, helped Nokia bounce back in the smartphone market.

If it is so difficult to predict what happens, we need to embrace ambiguity by experimenting with different approaches, bringing back scenario planning for alternative futures and start initiatives that inspire without trying to work out all the details.

She also encourages us to think more like an artist who is alert to the current environment without being constrained by it. This is a thought-provoking book and Heffernan is a masterful storyteller. Not only will you gain a new perspective but thoroughly enjoy the read.

 

2 Humanocracy: Creating Organizations as Amazing as the People Inside

By Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini. Published by Harvard Business Review Press.

Admittedly I was sceptical when I first heard about the idea to get rid of bureaucracy. Not because I love filling out forms, but simply because I could not see an alternative.

But it turns out there might be a way to create more entrepreneurial and adaptable organisations, ones more in sync with the challenges that await us.

This book is a manifesto for a human-centred organisation that can outrun change and adapt to any future scenario. The core idea is that bureaucracy infantilises individuals, forces them into conformity and discourages entrepreneurship.

Instead the authors argue that we need organisations that are fast, flat, free and fearless. Organisations like Haier with thousands of mirco-enterprises, or WL Gore where teams choose their own leader.

3 Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know

By Malcolm Gladwell. Published by Little, Brown and Company.

We judge others and fail to see how nuanced and complex they are – something we would never do to ourselves.

That easily leads to disaster as Malcolm Gladwell lays out by revisiting old stories (such as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s misjudgement of Hitler) with a fresh interpretation.

I see the book as a great companion to ‘Humanocracy’ because creating a human-centred organisation implies that individuals play a bigger role.

To unleash our staff’s full potential, we need to understand them and not rush to the wrong conclusions. If you want to plot the future, it pays to be cautious. As Gladwell puts it: strangers are not easy.

 

4 Competing in the Age of AI: Strategy and Leadership When Algorithms and Networks Run the World

By Marco Iansiti and Karim Lakhani. Published by Harvard Business Review Press.

This challenges established thoughts around scale and scope. Using companies like Ant Financial, Airbnb, and Amazon Marco Iansiti and Karim Lakhani explain how AI-driven processes are vastly more scalable and blur industry boundaries, thereby enabling massive scope increase.

This is not a book for techies but for managers struggling to make the most of ongoing technology shifts. It perfectly complements Heffernan’s focus on creativity, offering a very different vision of how to plot the future. One that embraces the ability of AI to make predictions.

5 Janus Strategy

By Loizos Heracleous

Plotting the future in times of great uncertainty means keeping the current business afloat while starting new initiatives.

Scholars have engaged with this dilemma for several decades but a practical guide for managers has been missing. Not anymore!

Heracleous proposes a refreshing solution for executives: embrace the paradox and develop an ability to look and act in different directions, much like Roman God Janus. How this can be done is brought to live through stories from NASA, Apple, Singapore Airlines and more.

What makes the book notable is the solid grounding in Heracleous’ research. He is in many ways a Janus himself: a scholar who works closely with winning organisations.

 

Christian Stadler is Professor of Strategic Management and teaches Strategic Advantage on the Distance Learning MBA and Executive MBA.

Follow Christian Stadler on Twitter @EnduringSuccess.

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