Taking Charge of Tomorrow: The Most Important Question in the World

October 31, 2016

For the last several weeks I’ve been making the case that you can improve the quality and productivity of your meetings with relatively little effort. Rethink the basics, offer a simple training workshop, and improve the way you measure the cost and quality of your meetings.

All well and good – but I’ve just realized that I’ve been thinking mostly about the “regular” meetings that happen in every organization and every business unit on a daily basis – the 20 million-plus meetings that take place every day in the United States.

That’s a lot of meetings, and a lot of organizational time and money.

But the meetings that really matter are those infrequent occasions when leadership teams actively explore their organizational future and chart new courses for their business. Those special meetings – often referred to as strategic offsites or retreats –  provide opportunities for leaders to stop, take a collective deep breath, and consider how their business could – or should – adapt to new or potentially different economic, technological, and social conditions.

I mention this because of a chilling (at least for me) observation by Gary Hamel and the late C.K. Prahalad in their powerful book Competing for the Future:

In our experience about 40% of senior executive time is spent looking outward, and of this time, about 30% is spent peering three, four, five, or more years into the future. And of the time spent looking forward, no more than 20% is spent attempting to build a collective view of the future… Thus, on average senior management is devoting less than 3% (40% x 30% x 20% = 2.4%) of its energy to building a corporate perspective on the future.
(Competing for the Future, p. 4.)

Less than 3% of leadership time focused on building a collective view of the future! That’s more scary than any zombie, witch, or ghost I can imagine (obligatory homage to Halloween).

The world today faces a future that is far more complex and less predictable than ever. And that future is filled with the risk of disruption in almost every industry you can imagine (think of digital music, digital photography, autonomous vehicles, virtual reality, the Internet of Things, and of disrupters like eBay, PayPal, Uber, Air BnB, Netflix, and YouTube, and spend a few moments asking yourself “What’s next?” and “What could that mean for my business”).

The only organizations that will survive into the future are those where constant and intense organizational learning is built into the fabric of everyday existence.

Yet, as Alan Webber pointed out over 20 years ago, conversations (and the meetings where conversations occur – or should occur) are at the very heart of organizational work and learning:

… the manager’s job [in the new economy] is to create an environment that allows knowledge workers to learn – from their own experience, from each other, and from customers, suppliers, and business partners…. The chief management tool that makes that happen is conversation.” (“What’s So New About the New Economy?” Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb 1993)

When I put those two insights together along with my favorite observation from author Rod Collins, that in this hyperconnected digital age, “No one is smarter than everyone,” I see a clear, compelling case for investing time in orchestrating leadership meetings that focus on the future – but not in the sense of predicting anything in particular.

Thinking smiling woman with questions marks above looking up on red sign isolated on white background

What if?

Rather, the most important question for leaders to ask themselves and each other, is “What if?” What if some as yet undiscovered technology completely changes the economics of our business? What if we expand our operations to Africa or South America? What if we find a cure for cancer? Or HIV/Aids? What if there were a massive nuclear meltdown in our state? What if there were a terrorist attack that wiped out all of Washington, DC?

I could go on and on with those kinds of questions. But I’m sure you get my point: if you are not asking questions like that of yourself and talking with your peers about the range of possible answers, you are in immediate danger of becoming the next Kodak, the next Blockbuster, the next Sony Walkman. You’ll never get meaningful answers if you don’t at least ask the right question.

The only way to survive the future is to ask “What if?” over and over and over again, and to ask it in open, candid conversations with your peers and with subject-matter experts. That is the question that matters, and those are the meetings that matter.

For a longer exploration of how to design and lead extraordinary meetings that enable you to take charge of tomorrow, order a copy of my most recent book, Making Meetings Matter: How Smart Leaders Orchestrate Powerful Conversations in the Digital Age (link is to the book’s page on Amazon.com. However, you should contact me directly for volume discounts). Or, as a first step, view a short video and download a free excerpt at this link.

And call me today (+1 510.558.1434) for a free exploratory conversation about how you can become a hero by designing meetings that prepare you for the future. Isn’t it time to upgrade the quality and the efficiency of all your meetings?

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