discussing the future of business & the obligatory mention of the past 2 years (pandemic)

“Embrace the present and invent the future,”

Karl Lagerfeld Chanel


“We all use the future to escape the present.”

John Green

It never fails that any time I am asked to speak about the future of work or even the present of work I am asked to discuss how the pandemic has affected both. I find it a little tiresome because it suggests the pandemic created something rather than simply affected what existed. And, yet, speak about it I must. So, this is my obligatory mention of the pandemic within the larger, more important, context of creating a better business model – pandemic or not.

I wish we would speak less about the pandemic as an event and more about how it applies to patterns. The lifeblood of any business is pattern recognition. Chasing events or momentary anomalies are simply fool’s errands. The pandemic was a change in gravity, nothing more and nothing less. The heavier became slower, those who could fly gained newer heights and joints which couldn’t bear the additional burden bent beyond use if not broke. Those are all structural things and important things to the survival of many businesses. Maybe more importantly the pandemic gravity affected all existing patterns THAT ALREADY EXISTED. I bold that to highlight its importance. True resilience in business is in minds, imaginations, creativity, thinking and applied intelligence – applied against pattern recognition. So, while we may worry incessantly over the structural issues, we may, instead, worry more about the intelligence of our businesses.

I am firmly of the belief AI is here and will improve overall intelligence of business {1}, people (and Life in general as a “lubricant” for bettering thinking and things). That said. We are creating a generation of people who are just more dependent upon numbers spit out by black boxes. That generation is compounded by an older generation who cares only about hollow ROI (therefore THEY only care about what numbers they can count). What this means is while judgement and qualitative thinking may be more needed than ever that type of thinking is valued less in today’s businesses and, maybe more importantly, taught less.

AI will only exacerbate/amplify the problem. To me this is an existential crisis of true thinking applied to business. We cannot be solely dependent upon numbers, or AI, to tell us what to do and, yet, we are not really investing a shitload of energy fostering qualitative thinking/judgement.

Which lead me to Waves (or Ages)

Waves, ages, even generational shifts, are simply patterns which have evolved to an extent they actually have an effect. I begin there because pattern recognition is usually the key to identifying what is important and what is not (or less so). And this is where I bring up Mike Walsh, author of Futuretainment{2}. He surprised me one day by saying “I’m sad to say I’ve not actually ever read Toffler”. I found it interesting because in Futuretainment he spends a number of pages on “To win the Game is to Change” where he discusses three main waves; technology, behaviour & business. Regardless. Today if you opened my copy of Futuretainment you would see a number of notes in the margins on those pages (258-263 if you want to read) mostly referring to Alvin Toffler thinking. Alvin Toffler wrote a book called “The Third Wave” in 1980 (and introduced the idea of facing a sea of change in his seminal magazine piece in 1965: The Future as a Way of Life) discussing exactly the same ‘waves’ (and more). Yeah, see the pattern? Anyway. I do believe change comes in waves. I have always chafed on the simplistic labels associated with ‘revolutions’ (agriculture, industrial, technology) as too tidy for, well, people.

“Questions are what matters. Questions, and discovering the right ones, are the key to staying on course. The wave of information threatens to obscure strategy, to drown out details and numbers, calculation and analysis, reaction and tactics. To have strong tactics we must have strong strategy on one side and accurate calculation on the other. Both require seeing onto the future.”

Gary Kasparov

From a business perspective the waves, or tsunami, of information combined with the waves of change create an environment to conduct business that is always in flux, i.e., purposefully showcasing agility and adaptability. This means intelligence, or learning, becomes the lifeblood of existence. Well. For a business focused on efficiency (or standardization) this creates significant challenges let alone is often a precursor to death as the world moves beyond their seeming stability. As Mike Walsh points out (p. 258, Futuretainment):

“one of the hardest things to do for anyone who runs a company is to ensure they are positioned for the next big wave which carries the latest trend. As we’ll as the possibility of not being adequately prepared, it is easy to do much too soon, when it is simply too early to be trying to change the market.”

This is the exact situation we are in today. The pandemic gravity shift not only increased the strength of the current waves, but threw in all the other things a storm includes: chaos, inconsistency, darkness/fog, uncertainty. In order to navigate your quest this is the context in which we need to discuss the future of business.

Which leads me to the forced change of an Event

Business has been changing, or trying to change, for some time. Whether it be technology (digital transformation), organization design, systems thinking (scenario planning), dealing with uncertainty, gamification, democratization/autonomy, even the slightly misguided ‘purpose over profit’, or whatever, the business world has been limping along the path of change on a variety of dimensions and aspects. What the pandemic has done hasn’t changed anything, but rather amplified things – strengths, weakness, flaws and fragility. What the pandemic has done has sped up existing transformation (all aspects not just ‘digital’). What the pandemic has done has made the business world reflect upon business contextually which, inevitably, will lead the more insightful business people to reflect on business models and how that business, and its way of doing business, is interconnected with society, people and environment.

But at its core, the pandemic has amplified some larger foundational business narratives.

  • Will some existing industries find new energy?
  • Will viable businesses which had just enough fragile aspects to make it unsustainable be destroyed?
  • Will new viable businesses, less reliant on existing ways of doing business, be created?

Regardless of the questions, I would argue that all answers reside in institutional intelligence well applied and not in ‘fixing’ things because of a crisis/event.

** note: I believe everyone needs to reflect upon the fact that this pandemic has ‘forced’ (or compelled) some transformation which may inspire some misguided objective making (based on flawed problem analysis). Forced transformation, even if it simply amplifies existing initiatives/thinking, tends to create poorly thought out vectors of behavior. The truth is that more business people will see what they want to see and will inevitably take the lazy linear decision-making path.

Which leads me to ‘zero sum game or not’ (“all for one, one for all” or ‘one or all’).

Control, or a recognition that much of our own success is out of our control, is now obvious – glaringly obvious. This will most likely create, attitudinally, a bifurcated mindset – those who recognize the future is collective and those who see the future is ‘every person for themselves’.

The latter is a zero sum game (attributed to the mathematician John von Newman). The profit of one side comes at the expense of the other, i.e., there is a complete conflict of interest between people/parties/business enterprises. This means it is impossible to achieve a state of equilibrium. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that this same competitiveness gets applied to individual intelligence where “thinking” becomes a competition in the game of business. In Carse phraseology all of this is the ultimate Finite Game. On the other hand, maximizing, or optimizing, potential – of people and business – is not zero sum, but rather found in the equilibrium where not always winning does not equate to loss and most of conditions are more complex and dynamic, i.e., a cat’s cradle of connectivity rather than linear cause & effect (John Nash and the “Nash equilibrium”). This, in my mind, is using collective intelligence to create structural lift to the overall value of the business and its offerings – constantly. In Carse phraseology this is the Infinite Game.

This discussion becomes important as we discuss the intersection of humans and technology in business. If a ‘survival of the fittest’ human attitude is amplified by technology it actually creates the possibility, if not probability, for catastrophic consequences. I say that to remind everyone AI simply amplifies what exists. Needless to say, that is not good nor should it be the objective of technology in business.

This all is relevant to discussing where the business world today is because a business could survive the pandemic and, yet, still be embracing an old way of doing business. My belief is that if they embrace that thought 100%, they will eventually die. If they embrace portions of that thought and some new business model aspects, they could quite possibly be quite successful. And those who completely embrace a new model, and a new way of thinking, are not guaranteed success – now. The path forward is complex, not for the faint of heart and answers will be more likely emergent rather than formulaic. And it is quite possible within that last thought that the core of the Corporation of the Future business model resides: embracing emergence.

Which leads me to the idea of technology and humans working together to the benefit of a business is not a new idea. Drucker, Toffler and McLuhan, in the 1980’s and 90’s, all had thoughts about how technology and people could work together in a way, or ways, that would demand a different business model. Unfortunately, since that time “technology & people” has mostly consisted of putting computers on everyone’s desk or in their hands and asked them to do the same jobs just with a computer in hand. We treated technology as a tool, a capital investment, rather than an opportunity to actually rethink how business should be done. As time has passed the human side of the issue has increasingly become obvious, less engagement, more stress, less meaning, more efficiency, where the Taylorism of business was enhanced by this technology. People did not benefit and business got stripped of important value creation aspects – critical thinking, imagination, enlightened debate/collaboration. I would argue:

It’s time to flip the equation.

It’s time to look at a new business model in which people are at the center and technology augments them.

It’s time to look at a business model in which people’s potential is maximized, not their time.

It’s time to look at a business model in which results are an outcome, not an objective, of people engaged.

Which leads me to:

  • the arc of systems bends toward efficiency
  • the arc of people bends toward doing what is right

Therein lies the conflict in most business models.

To get business from where it is to where it should be will demand a new business model with a combination of a new attitude on how to approach business, a new business model where technology augments people and a way of doing business in which the skill sought is to think conceptually (use intelligence well), a new business model in which people closest to the decisions have the power, and the information, to make the decisions, and the job positions are not specialties, but part of connective energy that powers organizational effectiveness and productivity.

This future organization, structurally, is grounded upon technology which augments its people. Structurally it has layered technology components to augment people:

  • People own their data and plug it into an organization
  • The organization has a technology platform using AI/algorithms, to maximize individuals by tapping into their surface skill sets (the obvious ones) as well as the potential skill sets (hobbies, ‘half skills’, untapped skills, emergent skills, etc.)
  • The organization has a data ‘pool’ of organizational knowledge to tap into
  • The organization can tap into the cloud to augment, supplement, complement the combined organizational/individual knowledge.

** Note: I envision individual privacy is protected by the organization when interacting with the cloud. I envision that accumulated skills & knowledge BY the individual increases the owned personal data which can get unplugged if the individual leaves (it becomes their own institutional knowledge)

This organization, strategically, is grounded in a deterministic strategy augmented by emergent strategy. This strategic understanding is important because it separates unfettered chaos from a strategically smart quest.

The deterministic strategy is the plan to bring resources to bear to impose the will, and vision, of the institution against the industry. This is the backbone which ensures focus and the consistency necessary for efficiency and coherence necessary for increasing continuous emergent activity.

The emergent strategy demands situational awareness – how the industry & actors within it have matured (attitude, perception, products) over time in order to assess unfolding opportunities in relationship to the movement of the industry itself. Categories are not stagnant and consumer perceptions of competitors shift, emergent strategy is dependent upon probabilities assessment and probabilities cannot be effectively assessed without awareness of past and present features of the opportunities.

I believe the future of work will thrive with an effective organizational infrastructure where people will continuously reskill, teach, & apply skills, i.e., people will use the model (thrive within it) versus the current transformation mindset in which an organization has a vision “how do I transform my organizational infrastructure, including digital, to maximize people within the organization (augment & expand their potential to deliver the vision).” The latter is about extracting productivity and the former is about having potential emerge and create productivity. The latter is about building an organization to efficiently meet a specific market need and the former is about constructing an organization capable of effectively meeting opportunistic market needs. The efficient versus effective is important.

** Note: some people may want to apply “agile” to this idea, I avoid it when possible. I apply ‘emergent’ instead as I believe agile implies reactive while I believe emergent is a quasi-proactive idea in meeting opportunities. Emergent demands agility but being agile is reactive.

In the end.

The basis of my business model thinking revolves around some key thoughts:

  • We know optimizing emergent and deliberative strategy thinking increases organizational efficacy
  • We know optimizing standardization and de-standardization maximizes organizational efficacy
  • We know complexity is inherently expansive (expandable) and complication is inherently reductive (restrictive)
  • We know any hope of optimizing complexity demands conceptual thinking skills over causal/linear thinking
  • We know everyone is capable of conceptual thinking (or grasping concepts) as well as capable of some polymath characteristics (not suggesting everyone be a polymath just that everyone is capable of being some degree of generalist and business tends to discourage that)
  • We know that utilizing all resources (people, capital, $, supplies) maximizes investment in resources (know inherently that a closed loop system – nothing wasted/all waste is a resource to be reused – optimizes organization)
  • We know the importance of the Lean principle “optimize the whole” is not a Lean principle, but rather the true objective of a business
  • We know that business is of, and within, society (but have ignored that connection in the pursuit of ‘business is business’)

In the end, because this is my obligatory nod to the pandemic, the pandemic did nothing to disprove anything I have suggested to create a better business nor the fact that where we are today in the business world is in the wrong place.


{1} note on AI. I use AI to discuss algorithms and machine learning, not automation or robotics. the truth of the pandemic and automation, not discussed enough in my mind, is that it has shown businesses where humans are either replaceable by automation or reflect possibly fragile aspects in the overall business. Business, as business does, will react in their own best interest and will, in my predictions, over-automate and de-human their businesses. Lots of jobs will be lost and lots of people negatively affected (and no “re-skilling” will solve that). Inevitably, in my predictions, business will recognize they went overboard on automation, that humans actually provide ongoing structural value creation, and will head out and rehire people. That is most likely going to happen in a future where you and I will not benefit.

{2} note on Futuretainment by Mike Walsh. First. It is a beautifully designed book holding some wonderful thinking. Second. The thinking has held up quite well for a book published in 2009 discussing the Future. It is within that thought I’d like to make a point about change. For all the talk about the ‘massive change’ we are encountering I find we continue discussing the same things for quite some time before they actually change. It is true not all change is created equal, but the future is usually quite consistent in that it forewarns us of most of its features for years in advance – if we pay attention.

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Written by Bruce