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We thought we’d be in our post-pandemic world by now. Is this the new normal?
Half of us feel unable to plan for the future.
This sense of uncertainty is unsettling and disruptive. For businesses and organizations, the inability to plan and the feeling of helplessness in the face of uncertainty affects their leaders, employees, and customers. It has a tangible impact on how they run their businesses. It decreases their ability to act effectively and makes innovation more difficult. Meanwhile, the door opens for disruption and talent loss.
It isn’t just COVID, but the pandemic makes the landscape more complex. The workplace has changed. So has the world.
Leaders at all levels need a fresh take on how to approach the future and how to lead into it to prepare themselves and their teams for a next normal where certainty is off the table and moving forward means working with the flow without blowing in the wind.
In September of 2021, BetterUp Labs launched research building on the “prospection” work of Baumeister, Seligman, and others to understand what characterizes an effective future-oriented mindset and what we call a Future-Minded Leader.
The good news? The findings show that the skills associated with future-mindedness can be learned and improved, and those who practice these skills tend to be more successful, happier, and less stressed and lead more successful teams.
One finding, that future-mindedness drops off in companies over 1500 employees, highlights the imperative to cultivate this mindset. While much has been said about the agility and innovation of startups relative to larger organizations, when we consider the powerful impact of Future-Minded Leaders, this research suggests that the most valuable start-up behaviors for larger organizations to cultivate might be those of future-mindedness.
Being future-minded is a mindset that balances optimistic action with thoughtful pragmatism in order to imagine and envision possible futures. It is a form of preparation to ready ourselves for what comes next.
Future-mindedness is optimistic. It isn’t that the world is rosy, that positivity is the answer, or that “everything will just work out.”
Action-oriented optimism includes:
- Deliberately looking for upside and possibility and orienting toward finding opportunity.
- Having confidence about our ability to take action and shape outcomes.
Future-mindedness is pragmatic. This means acknowledging that unknown events beyond our control will likely change the situation and thinking through what that might look like.
Thoughtful pragmatism includes:
- Creating space to reflect and question what could change to upend a plan or invalidate the current goal.
- Considering how you might respond and what happens next.
The future-minded are flexible to change, skilled at planning, imagining outcomes, setting goals, and executing flexibly. People high in future-mindedness also tend to be high in resilience, self-efficacy, cognitive agility, and optimism.
Traditional approaches aren’t sufficient to prepare leaders or their teams to move forward when decisive answers aren’t available. As a result, many organizations are stuck, waiting for clarity, hanging on to tools, assumptions, and conventional wisdom that no longer serve them.
While uncertainty has always played a role in strategy, the past two years have made it clear that many tools and models no longer apply. Consider the Fortune/Deloitte CEO Survey of early June: 53% of CEOs said that the business effects of the pandemic would be over by the end of 2021. Three months later, only 11% of CEOs surveyed believed that was true, with 35% saying by the end of 2022 and 31% saying “not for the foreseeable future.”
This isn’t a knock on CEOs — but it reflects the inadequacy of a predictive approach to the future. Many are trying to speak with certainty while uncertainty dogs their every step.
The biggest challenge I face as a CEO is maintaining forward momentum with an exhausted global workforce and continued labor and supply chain challenges daily.
Deloitte's CEO Survey, Fall 2022
The speed, scale, and complexity of change has also made it difficult to innovate at a time when innovation is critical. Entire industries digitized business models overnight, and many organizations continue to adapt and retool around changing restrictions and work arrangements. Companies are trying to keep up with the changing expectations and needs of their customers — and employees — as we collectively face new challenges to health, happiness, and productivity. Moving too slowly risks losing talent and customers to more agile competitors.
Yet, at just this moment when teams need to be trusting each other, taking ownership, experimenting — leaders stressed by the inability to find solid footing may be becoming more reactive and threat-oriented. The natural reaction — exert more control — slows responsiveness and creates a situation where employees are burned out, not doing great work, and looking for the exits.
How future-mindedness helps organizations
Whether it’s planning the return to the office, securing talent amid historic quit rates, or serving customers amid complex supply chain issues, businesses have to recognize new information and be ready to adapt, recalibrate, or reconsider.
Future-mindedness helps in two ways. It orients us toward opportunity rather than threat and improves our ability to act effectively. Future-mindedness provides a way to approach the future with agency and a clearer picture of what we can, and cannot, control. It reduces the negative aspect of surprise that tends to result in thrash and denial, readying and steadying us to be less reactive when things inevitably change.
Without an emotional reaction, teams can move faster, see possibilities, let go of what isn’t working, and work together better.
Future-mindedness isn’t crunching through every possible contingency or relying on corporate strategists to do scenario planning. It is a practice of holding space in our minds and in our way of operating on the day-to-day for a slew of possible outcomes. This becomes an essential skill for every member of the organization, not just the C-suite or strategy group.
You need to plan the way a fire department plans: It cannot anticipate where the next fire will be, so it has to shape an energetic and efficient team that is capable of responding to the unanticipated as well as to any ordinary event.
Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel
The impacts speak for themselves:
- In addition to powerful benefits to individual performance and well-being, when a leader is high in future-mindedness, the benefits radiate out to their direct reports.
- Teams led by someone high in future-mindedness have higher performance. They are more agile, more engaged, more resilient, and take more risks as a team.
- These teams are also more innovative. Practicing future-mindedness opens up space for imaginative, opportunity-oriented thinking, and Future-Minded Leaders create the environment for innovative teams to thrive. They focus on possibility. They imagine the team forward and backward with curiosity. They ask questions about what assumptions make a plan work and consider how events might cascade.
- Finally, those high in future-mindedness are more committed. The data show that people high in future-mindedness can see a future for themselves at their organizations, with lower intentions to leave by a margin of 33%. Cultivating this mindset will be an advantage for companies to retain in-demand talent.
Where are the future-minded and what gets in the way?
While the ability to imagine and plan for the future is innate, people aren’t equally skilled at practicing it. And while the future-minded can be found across industries and functions, it isn’t prevalent. Only 2% of people are at the top of the future-mindedness scale, and 82% have significant room for improvement.
The prevalence of future-mindedness varies significantly between the highest and lowest industries, suggesting an opportunity to gain advantage for some — and an imperative to keep up for others — by cultivating future-mindedness. Unsurprisingly, R&D functions showed higher future-mindedness, but Human Resources and Legal ranked notably lower than other functions (download the full report for more discussion and findings).
This begs the question, why isn’t future-mindedness more prevalent?
The finding that future-mindedness increases with company size — but only up to 1500 people — is suggestive of how the skills associated with it develop in an organization and what organizational factors get in the way.
Consider how in a small company, an employee has line-of-sight to everything, and they are more aware of dependencies and possible obstacles and outcomes. As the company gets a little bigger, employees still have line-of-sight, but they also have more resources and ability to act based on what they see. When the company gets bigger, employees no longer have visibility into events or dependencies, the link between their work and larger outcomes is broken, and they lose some sense that their actions matter.
Our work and work environment — the culture, the way leaders (or systems) support information-sharing and risk-taking, the nature of goals and guardrails — all affect whether individuals are developing the skills of future-mindedness.
If we look at how Future-Minded Leaders think and plan, we can see where a large organization’s culture and management practices might get in the way of practicing future-mindedness.
- Envisioning: Generating possible futures requires taking time and asking questions. It means challenging ourselves, our team, and our data and not converging on a single option. What if this boundary or assumption was no longer true?
What gets in the way? If activity, efficiency, or having answers are paramount and full schedules are the norm, there isn’t space for exercising imagination or holding multiple possibilities. In a hierarchical culture where individuals defer to rank and expertise and information is guarded or data is inaccessible, curiosity isn’t welcome.
- Exploring: Considering what could go wrong requires acknowledging what you don’t know and admitting the possibility of failure. Thinking through the repercussions of potential events starts with bringing in a more diverse set of perspectives and not doubling down on existing ideas, expertise, and investments.
What gets in the way? If the culture is risk-averse — due to the nature of the work or punitive performance management — people won’t expose weakness or uncertainty to others or commit to a course of action without someone providing a high level of certitude. In competitive environments, revealing potential failure points means losing budget to other projects, and people will “defend and sell” rather than seek perspective.
- Navigating: Holding and considering an array of outcomes every day and responding to change effectively requires timely information, visibility beyond the organization, and latitude to make decisions, change course, and adapt.
What gets in the way? In a culture focused on short-term results, task completion, and efficiency, people will have a harder time orienting around outcomes and impact on customers rather than on timeline. In hierarchical organizations, relevant information may not be shared and decision-making may be slow.
These are just some ways larger organizations may be discouraging the development of future-mindedness. For companies that aren’t intentional about their systems for bringing people together and cultivating diverse perspectives, hybrid work arrangements may be making it worse.
What can organizations do to ratchet up future-mindedness?
What can be done? In addition to identifying and mitigating obstacles, here are easy ways for leaders to start making space for people to develop future-minded skills in their work.
- Encourage collaboration. Working in a team fosters higher levels of future-mindedness than working alone. Depending on others may build our muscle for thinking through consequences and understanding sphere of control.
- Ask the science-backed “floodlight question.” Making a practice of asking “What’s the worst that could happen?” primes our imagination and opens us to the range of possibilities.
- Seek diversity across teams, and in planning. One of our most significant biases may be underestimating how many other perspectives there are and how different they are from our own.
- Create time to reflect. A vital part of future-minded leadership is getting better at using inputs from the past and present to calibrate our own biases and shape better futures.
- Train managers on alignment and strategic planning. Encourage managers to be transparent about their planning challenges and to practice communicating the possible future in ways that build clarity and alignment with others.
- Use coaching and community to strengthen future-minded leadership skills. Coaches can offer guidance to cultivate resilience, optimism, reflection, and goal setting, and serve as a reliable sounding board to explore ideas and uncover blind spots.
For more on how each of these tactics can help develop and support future-mindedness in your organization, see the full report.
Future-mindedness is something everyone can benefit from, and organizations benefit when more of their people have it. It starts with leaders. Leaders set the tone and model the behavior, but they’re also the ones to make space within the work for the practices that strengthen future-mindedness.