Managing 21st century disruptive changes. Forget 3D, it’s about 3F

LInkedIn blog 3F ed

Managing 21st century disruptive changes is a challenge as innovations and futureNOW trends change the viability of existing industries and systems, and stimulate the creation of new ones.

Across communities and commerce, traditional attitudes and behaviours are being disrupted. Previous customer and community segmentations are becoming irrelevant.

And disruptive changes continue to come at us from all directions: digital and demographic, economic and environmental, cultural and commercial, and more. 

The volatility and variety of change raises more questions than answers. So it goes without saying that it would be foolish to rely on 20th century approaches to change management and innovation to help us withstand the negative impacts and harness the opportunities.

But that’s not saying we need more complexity.  To better manage 21st century disruptive changes, I’m suggesting three quite simple approaches.

The first is to consciously explore what it means to have three futures coexisting: The futurePAST, the futureNOW and the futureFUTURE. 

The futurePAST are those things that are moving from the mainstream to the margins.Think paper tickets; long term careers; stable business models; large supermarkets; retiring at 60; unsustainable supply chains.

The futureNOW are those things that are moving from the margins to the mainstream. Think mobile devices; living better longer; food as medicine; share/borrow/access stuff; selfie culture; curated retail; 

And the futureFUTURE is everyone under 15!  

The majority of businesses are always managing a combination of futurePAST and futureNOW practices: and, if they’re smart, keeping an eye of futureFUTURE customer behaviour. 

The second is an inquiry process which enables us to ask questions that lead to more questions before they lead to answers, rather than questions that push us into premature answers.

The third is to craft a 3F prototyping approach that utilises those aspects of all three futures’ approach to change, which are most likely to support resilience.

This combination will enable us to design and explore flexible solutions, the only sort that are viable in the face of ongoing disruptive change.

A couple of useful questions to begin are:

“Over the last year, what have I been surprised to see having moved from the margins to the mainstream?”

“Over the last year, what have I been surprised to see having moved from the mainstream to the margins?”


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Forget 3D it’s about 3F

Managing 21st century disruptive changes

Successful change management used to be about getting from the (one) present to the (one) future, albeit with many hiccups and a few wild swings. Like all good leaders and managers we implemented proven techniques and tools, learned as we went, and got there more or less in one piece!

But what if that approach isn’t sufficient for the dynamics of 21st century disruptive changes? What if we actually have to manage three futures – simultaneously? The futurePAST, the futureNOW and the futureFUTURE.

The futurePAST being those things that are moving from the mainstream to the margins; the futureNOW being those things that are moving from the margins to the mainstream; and the futureFUTURE, being the everyday lives of everyone under 15!

To misquote Einstein, questions are more important than answers

I got called “Miss Why” when I was at primary school, so I think I was born asking questions. Which makes me a good fit to offer advice for the uncertain times we find ourselves in. I’m not trying to be smart in suggesting that if you’re trying to manage change, then knowing how to keep asking questions, which lead to more questions before they get to answers, is more important than to try and get certainty prematurely.

The pressure to come up with answers runs the risk that we end up in cul de sacs, or the wrong way up one-way streets: half-way up a mountain there’s no safe way to get down from.

The future’s not a three-lane freeway that you can accelerate along straight off the on-ramp. It’s largely unmapped or vaguely mapped terrain, replete with mirages and wishful thinking. It’s best navigated by asking questions that enable multiple possibilities to be considered, and conjectures teased out. That let you imagineer what could be around a corner, downstream, or across the desert, and consider how to get beyond: Or whether to go there!

F1: futureNOW – from the margins to the mainstream

I’m one with William Gibson in believing that the future’s already happened, it’s just not evenly distributed, so let’s start with the futureNOW. Innovations always move from the margins to the mainstream, disrupting and transforming business as usual to varying degrees over time. We’ve developed strategies, frameworks and tactics to manage this. For example, in planning for implementation, we take into account the percentages who’ll be; the early adopters and early majority; the late majority to laggards; and the resisters.

While these approaches to change management can give us useful guidance the danger is that they might lead us to assume that the new ‘state’ we’re managing towards is going to be constant. Not so. While across centuries every country and culture has had to manage change, what’s different about our futureNOW is the volume, variety, velocity, and volatility of change we face.

This raises the question of how much more disruptive will be the next generation of innovations or changes. For example, the driverless car is likely to generate more volatile and extensive disruptions than the electric car has. AI robots are going to create more disruption than programmed robots, not just in manufacturing but in being used to care for humans. Climate change is going to cause more frequent, extreme weather changes than our current systems and equipment can deal with. Healthier, longer-living baby boomers are going to cause more dynamic changes in housing, health and employment than are the current increase of 85 year olds who are living to 100 years.

Navigating the futureNOW through the futurePAST

Whatever the rate and speed of adoption, we actually have to manage the coexistence of the futureNOW with the futurePAST: things that are moving from the mainstream to the margins, or totally off the page! We have to accelerate for entry and slow down for exit, as well as maintain cruise control in-between.

The dynamic between F1: the PAST and F2: the NOW, each with its cluster of attitudes, behaviours, systems, investments, and products, is complex as the former tries to retain relevance and the latter tries to become the new norm.

Most industries, in fact, have to manage dual systems, and likely will for some time even though the economics of the futurePAST might be glaringly on the wrong side of the ledger!

Maintaining the futurePAST and investing in the futureNOW

The entertainment industry has to provide paper and virtual ticketing, a physical presence and virtual products. Professional entertainers and artists have to compete with reality TV stars and self-styled social media stars.

The commodity food industry has to manage supersize supermarkets and find niche urban locations: sell made-in-China commodities alongside organic, artisanal, and superfood products.

The established news industry has to manage newspapers and websites: mainstream and social media channels.

Fashion brands have to manage physical stores and online shopping; keep churning out seasonal offerings while creating new, more sustainable, supply chains.

Governments have to manage regulating taxis and regulating Uber: plan for city road tunnels and cycle lanes.

Logistics have to maintain existing fossil fuel supply chains and hubs while creating lower-carbon alternatives and distributed networks.

Risks and uncertainties in all directions

FuturePAST value propositions, business models and infrastructure have deeply embedded attitudes, behaviours, technologies, and economics: sunk costs, expense of change, habits, inertia, and resistance.

FutureNOW value propositions, business models and infrastructure have to be designed and built without the certainty of knowing they’re the right ones, or will be profitable. It’s not hard to think of a recent innovation that offered solutions for which there wasn’t a problem, so didn’t attract enough customers at profitable margins. Yes, Google Glass, I’m looking at you!

Conscious coexistence is the way forward

3F prototyping starts with acknowledging the need to consciously manage the coexistence of the futurePAST and the futureNOW, and forage in the emerging shoots of the futureFUTURE.

It continues with the development of questions that are analytic and intuitive; thoughtful and apparently foolhardy; targeted and seemingly irrelevant. Questions that lead to more questions before reaching possible answers.

The psychology and cognition that is human nature – we like to have certainty and we like to think we’re in control – means we probably have to practice designing questions that will lead to more questions rather than straight to answers.

But for how long?

How long any aspect of the futurePAST stays in its original or recognisable form will depend on the perceived and real benefits, the adaptive capacity of leadership and entrepreneurs, employees, officials, customers and citizens – and how much the pace of disruption is controllable. Where an innovation or trend strikes a real chord with people, whether its smart phones or 50 is the new 40 – the uptake is rapid and widespread: the futurePAST is quickly disrupted.

Most aspects of the futurePAST, however, will coexist with the futureNOW for as long as it takes leaders (political and business), owners, investors or philanthropists to decide it’s not viable or beneficial to keep on doing what “we’ve always done”: again, human nature suggests this could be some time. But they’ll be decisions that businesses and customers, and governments and citizens will have to take, eventually.

Other less crucial aspects could remain permanently, or be reinvigorated with a contemporary flavour, like the way hipsters and mainstreamers alike are embracing retrostalgia, and baby boomers are reliving their youth. Like the way values are becoming part of our contemporary currency, which we want to invest when we spend money as we become more ethical consumers.

What’s this F3: futureFUTURE?

Whether you’re in business, government or someone concerned for your community’s or family’s well-being, you also need to understand F3: those people living in the futureFUTURE: or, as they would put it, just living. Everyone under 15.

If you’re under 15 years of age, you were born into an always-on world. So why would you make a distinction between the digital and non-digital worlds, between culture and communications that you consume and share online and culture and communications that you consume and share in place? Between culture that you create and distribute for free and culture that someone else wants to be paid to create or distribute. You don’t think about being on social media, it’s just media. Full stop.

Why would you buy and own stuff when you can borrow, share or access it when you need? And you’re asking yourself, more and more, “do I need so much stuff?”

Why would you plan on working in the same job or career all your life when you’ve seen what’s happened to your parents’ generation’s occupations?

Why would you think you’d work for someone else when it’s so easy to start or join a start-up?

Why would you bother voting for a political party when you can start or sign a petition on what really matters to you, which goes around the world, or donate your money or time to causes that are meaningful for you – now?

You’re not an early adopter, you’re just living life as you’ve always known it. For you, it’s just NOW.

For anyone wanting to have you as a customer or supporter in the future, however, you are the futureFUTURE. They need to understand how your attitudes and behaviours in adulthood – in 10-15 years time when you’ve got an income – are going to be very different to those of your parents, your aunts and uncles, and their peers, when they were all in their 30s.

They need to know what is different about your world now, which will underpin your future attitudes and behaviours as a customer, employee, collaborator, competitor, or citizen. How that will affect their value propositions and business models, regardless of whether they’re F1 legacies or F2 innovations.

And – now – more questions!

I hope you now understand why, given the volatility and variety of disruptive changes we face, and the dynamics that operate between F1, F2 and F3, I’ve suggested you ensure your solution generation includes a well-supported process for asking questions that lead to more questions before consideration of possible answers.

As I’ve said, prioritising answers over questions runs the risk of solutions that steer you into a cul de sac, lead you the wrong way up a one-way street, or get you half-way up a mountain from which there’s no safe way down.

Whatever role you play – in the commercial world, government, or social entrepreneurship – you’ll be better placed to manage the coexistence and dynamics of F1 F2 and F3 by asking questions that enable stakeholders to consider multiple possibilities, explore some wild ideas, and then tease out the more probable ones to experiment with. This increases the odds that the answers provide the flexibility of solutions needed to remain resilient in the face of future F3 combinations.

Questions like:

  • Over the last year, what have you been surprised to see having moved from the margins to the mainstream?

  • Over the last year, what have you been surprised to see having moved from the mainstream to the margins?

  • How could these things affect what we’re doing, or planning to do?

  • What have you noticed young people doing that’s puzzled you?

  • What’s going to be normal for adults in 10-20 years time?

  • What if people started to do (add in your own thought)?

  • What if someone invented a way to do (add in your own thought) differently?

  • What if we no longer needed to do (add in your own thought)?

  • What could cause the numbers not to continue to move as they have before?

  • Why would lots of people want to do if it were possible (add in your own thought)?

  • Why wouldn’t someone want to continue to do (add in your own thought)?

  • What if our assumption about (add in your own thought) is wrong?

  • What might be true instead, now, or in the future?

Over the past decades we’ve seen changes in attitudes and behaviours that we couldn’t easily have imagined or forecast moving from the margins to the mainstream and vice versa. So a good way to prepare for 3F prototyping is to ask yourself:

  • Over the last year, what have I been surprised to see having moved from the margins to the mainstream?

  • Over the last year, what have I been surprised to see having moved from the mainstream to the margins?