The history of business is the rise and fall, ebb and flow of corporate empires. Likewise with the ideas that drive business. From 'scientific' management to e-commerce, systems theory to connectivity, six sigma to globalisation.
What's next? Few know, and the experts suffer from what I call 'the problem of experience': with too much invested in today's knowledge and realities it's hard to see the next change or discontinuity. It's strange that we use the expression 'disruptive technologies' - mobile communications and the internet for example - as if what we had was perfectly cosy and comfortable, and then some pain-in-the-neck geeks go and mess it all up with a new way of doing things.
This is why continual re-thinking is critical to survival and success in the 21st Century. Bill Ford of Ford Motors captured this honestly in 2005 when he said, "The future arrived quicker than we expected." It always does, and the winners are those who are awake and have one eye open to changes on the horizon, while the other is vigilantly focused on running today's business effectively.
Whatever new theories, strategies, or technologies come along, the one constant is that whatever we regard as self-evident or fixed now will be upturned, swept away, and buried by an avalanche of change. This is not the same thing as saying 'the only constant is change', a cliché well worth a re-think. From the field of quantum physics, the most advanced scientific way we have of knowing the ultimate structure and dynamics of creation, it's clear that what underlies all apparent change is non-change. A unified field that gives birth to all permutations and variants of the physical universe while remaining essentially unchanged in its own nature. The laws of nature don't change.
That's why re-thinking at the highest, most strategic level doesn't just mean coming up with better and different solutions to familiar problems - although you can at least keep yourself swimming with the tide by doing this - but is all about exploring what in life, business, and the environment is eternal and changeless.
'Managing the changeless' has to be top of the leader's agenda in the new millennium.
What do I mean by this? What underlies an organization's success over the years is not just efficiency (the optimisation of resources and people) or effectiveness (doing 'the right thing at the right time'), but the perpetuation of a successful culture. Still the best business book on this theme is Built To Last by James Collins and Jerry Porras, which describes how culture building, based on a set of underlying values, is the prime work of the leader. They attack the myth of the charismatic leader (hard to do in an age suffering from celebrity-itis) and the notion that you need a great idea or product to build a business on.
The metaphor they use is that of clock-building vs. time-telling: a brilliant leader may be able to tell the time, but a more successful one will help people to build a clock that allows anyone in the organization to do so for themselves. If this seems too abstract, Collins and Porras explain this with the use of well-researched corporate examples. They describe how, for instance, a Hewlett-Packard or a Johnson & Johnson have transmitted their consistent values and norms, unchanged through several generations of leaders, new inventions, turmoil, and unexpected competition in their markets.
Those businesses that have kept a particular ethos and values alive have been able to adjust themselves better through turbulent change than those who have focused on merely reacting to outer change.
Managing The Changeless
This is one example of what I mean by 'Managing the Changeless'. More profoundly, the next step will be to find out what in human consciousness is unchanging, the laws that govern the way we think, create, relate to others and our physical environment. Winston Churchill was prescient when he said, "The empires of the future are the empires of the mind." My own experience is that in the deepest moments of meditation you remember that underneath apparent change and the fluctuations of thought and emotion is a changeless, silent sea of self. The part of yourself that is eternal, that may look at the world through the lens of changing eyes, brain, and body, but is essentially the part of you that has always been. That just is.
So what? It means that thought rooted in the more changeless aspects of oneself has wider vision and is less rocked by the tides of external change. This is what is meant at a deeper level by 'Thought Leadership". If Einstein remarked that we only use 20 per cent of our brains (probably an over-estimate for most of us) then how can leaders hope to shape a more brilliant future for themselves and their organization without exploring the inner field of life? The inevitable changes in the external, phenomenal world will always sweep away the structures they create, as waves do a child's sandcastle.
Paradoxically, to enter the new millennium successfully, leaders will have to draw on the ancient, most timeless knowledge we have about human nature contained in subjective forms of mental development. You may recognize the idea of identifying yourself with the changeless as not unlike the Biblical injunction to build your house on rock rather than shifting sands. As well as being good architectural advice, this is really about grounding your mind in that which is eternal and undying rather than the ephemeral.
The biggest re-think of our times will be the liberation of human consciousness, which science is increasingly pointing to as a field of all possibilities, and its application to society, work and commerce. Oil, natural gas, and minerals may be limited, but what's continually underestimated is the limitless capacity of the human mind to solve problems, even those of our own making.
That's why, donning my hat as a sometime futurologist, I'm happy to predict that if we and our leaders are serious about exploring the full potential of our minds, the world is in for a very good time. The fact that this is an unfashionable view makes the contrarian in me realize that it's probably right. Re-thinking is not a fad or topical management slant on reality - in its highest form it's the mechanism by which we truly can 'invent our own future.'
Tomorrow depends on how we think today. Get off the wheel of managing change, explore more deeply what is changeless beneath the shifting sands of life and business, and we are on the right track.
Originally published: Fri 08 Sep 2006