A Forward-Thinking Workplace

The Key to Successful Digital Transformation by Bill Fox

We live in a world of constant whitewater, where ever-increasing change, complexity, and disruption are the new normal. Many organizations struggle to adapt, using traditional ways of introducing and managing change, so what can we do to respond to this new reality with greater impact?

New times and challenges call for innovative forward thinking. Ultimately, we need to discover a better way forward by shifting the focus from managing change to living and working together in new ways. These new ways must allow us to sense changes early and adapt swiftly and intuitively. And, at the same time, they should leverage the innovative new digital technologies that are causing the need for change in order to help us connect and communicate more easily and engage in deeper conversations.

It’s time to recognize that managing change, following best practices, and working harder — and even smarter — are no longer enough and are failing us. These methods all keep us stuck living in the past. Stepping into the future requires us to interact with each other with an open mind, listening to every voice — ready to discover whatever is there to see and giving us the freedom to act upon what we discover.

“Change — real change — comes from the inside out,” says Stephen Covey, best-selling author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.1 Change starts with us. There can be no real and lasting change until we change.

This article highlights how to create a forward-thinking workplace culture that triggers and establishes transformation from the inside out.

We Are All Being Challenged in Today’s World

So many people and organizations today struggle to adapt and create the conditions that get people out of their comfort zones. Many organizations strive to be more innovative and engaged to fully respond to and benefit from the plethora of digital advances available today. Digital transformation heralds great promise and many benefits, but those will only happen if transformation truly occurs and lasts.

At Forward-Thinking Workplaces, we have hosted an ongoing global exploration and expansive conversation with 55 leaders and executives over the past 18 months. Out of those conversations (and my own work), many surprising insights and new approaches have come forth.

Most striking are the insights that point to the true nature of our challenges. These challenges are rarely mentioned or even addressed at most organizations, although they will undermine any transformation initiative; for example:

  • Many people still can’t say what they really think, feel, and act on every day.
  • People react largely and mostly based on their circumstances or own internal processes because we don’t realize how the mind works; those who do understand are impacted by circumstances to a lesser degree.
  • There is a lot of emphasis on finding and aligning purpose, but the issues of status, power, competition, and so on are ignored and still remain.
  • We’re unaware that almost 99% of our life runs on autopilot, which keeps us stuck living and working in the past.The need has never been greater to embrace trans-formation in innovative new ways to deal with the many very real and difficult challenges we face. Transformation has little chance of lasting success when we pretend these challenges don’t exist.

Why Do We Keep Implementing Change in the Same Ways?

We only need to look back at the history of workplace transformation and employee engagement over the past 30 years to realize something is wrong. Everyone talks about change and the need to transform, but we keep repeating a familiar pattern.

Over my career, I have witnessed so many workplace improvements and transformation initiatives that didn’t work out or last. I equate this to going to the edge of a 50-foot cliff and jumping when all you’ve witnessed are others ahead of you jumping away. As a result, you don’t see what they did before they jumped, what the landing area looks like, or what happened when they landed.

Many others share my experience. In a recent interview with Tom Thomison, cofounder of HolacracyOne,
he describes how his frustrations with traditional industry change methods led him to innovations in the workplace:

I tried, like most consultants and most business owners and entrepreneurs, with all the usual things — incremental improvements like business process reengineering, total quality management, higher-performance teaming, self-directed teaming, Lean systems, Agile systems, and Agile development... Inevitably, over about 18 months, all that goodness ... withered away and died.

It’s time to recognize the challenging place we find ourselves in today. Doing what everyone else is doing and what you’ve done before often doesn’t solve the real problem, is resisted by many (often for good reasons), and rarely survives a change in company management or an unforeseen event.

So Where Does This Leave Us?

Evolving the status quo in the traditional ways no longer works for most organizations. It’s no longer enough to work “harder, or even smarter,” says world-renowned transformational coach Michael Neill. When so many of us do just that, isn’t it time to explore what else might be possible?

Now imagine those explorers of earlier times and even recent times who have ventured out beyond the horizon in search of higher aspirations. They sailed off into uncharted waters with an open mind — ready to discover whatever was there for them to see. They didn’t know what they would find, but they intuitively knew they’d experience and discover something new in their search for a better life.

Now, we, too, find ourselves in uncharted and turbulent waters with many unknowns. Exploring is a way for us to step into the unknown to discover the better answers and better questions, insights, and wisdom that we need to move forward in the face of today’s challenges.

Discover Forward Thinking

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, forward thinking is “the act of thinking about and planning for the future, not just the present.” Most organizations today were formed and still operate based on industrial-age thinking. We rely largely on command and control and separating people and functions into parts or groups where each part is optimized. But in these times of rapid change and disruption, old-school thinking and ways of organizing ourselves are failing us. Today’s times call for adopting a more forward thinking mindset and approach that considers the present and future.

Exploring is a way for us to step into the unknown to discover the better answers and better questions, insights, and wisdom that we need to move forward in the face of today’s challenges.

We not only need to organize ourselves in new ways but also learn how to operate more like martial arts masters. Masters don’t know what they will face next, but they have trained themselves to be present and prepared. They are confident that they can handle whatever comes their way. We find ourselves facing similar challenges and need to do the same.

Learning to be more forward thinking is key to helping us discover how to live and work together in these new ways. Forward thinking creates a foundation for building a culture that can thrive today and tomorrow.

At Forward-Thinking Workplaces, we’ve identified 13 abilities (see Table 1) that are vital in becoming more forward thinking. This list suggests new ways of thinking and being that help people to be more authentic, aware, collaborative, and co-creative. Together, they bring an expanded sense of self and new ways of connecting that enhance our ability to interact with each other. Using these abilities, we become more active participants in co-creating a workplace where our voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally.

These 13 components didn’t arrive in a flash of insights or from a scientific study but rather from my own evolutionary growth and work over the past 17 years. An intention to have an impact on how organizations transform set in motion a series of life-changing events and experiences that revealed how to be a more forward-thinking and conscious participant in the unfolding of my own life and work. My life became my vehicle for learning.

What’s most significant about these changes and experiences is that they helped me connect and work with people in a new way. I found myself having more expansive conversations that helped propel changes and transformations that would occur naturally and almost effortlessly. Consequently, unexpected new insights, questions, and wisdom emerged in my work and conversations. Many leaders (and readers) of my work have noted that my interview collections have created a platform for new insights and wisdom. My conversations became a vehicle for discovering new and better solutions with others by creating a space for something new to emerge. By becoming more forward thinking and learning how to live and interact in new ways, people become more active and co-creative participants in the unfolding of their work and life.

In today’s world that’s full of turbulence and unknowns, the need for better answers and questions, insights, and wisdom is becoming ever more pressing. Creating a culture that helps people become more forward thinking and conscious is a necessary first step. It’s where real transformation must begin. There is enormous power — power that is largely undervalued and underpracticed — in helping people learn how to impact their consciousness to create change. As One Solution co-founder Mara Gleason has pointed out:

There’s really no juice for the squeeze in doing because doing is just a natural ripple out of a state of consciousness. And ... anytime someone takes a leap in their own personal understanding of their own mind or has their own shift in consciousness, they just do differently without even realizing it, and then things change.

Uncover the Forward-Thinking Workplace

An effective strategy for introducing forward-thinking ideas and approaches is introducing multiple new perspectives from inside and outside the organization. Such an approach helps ignite new thinking and uncover new solutions. Leadership expert and author David Marquet explains:

"As I’ve gotten older (and wiser), I’ve learned that most topics have multiple valid perspectives. A diversity of opinion allows me to see sides of an issue I’d missed, allows my organization to be more resilient when one approach isn’t working, and allows a more nuanced implementation of initiatives."

My interviews with over 100 leaders, executives, and top practitioners over the past seven years have revealed some surprising insights. These insights and strategies came about through a deliberate intention to uncover what’s behind the work of successful leaders and organizations.

By becoming more forward thinking and learning how to live and interact in new ways, people become more active and co-creative participants in the unfolding of their work and life.

Initially, this work occurred through the interview series 5 Minutes to Process Improvement Success, which asked industry leaders and practitioners for their best improvement strategy. That series was followed by the current series, Exploring Forward-Thinking Workplaces, which asks six questions (see Table 2) intended to explore how we can create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally. Typically, we often ask additional clarifying questions, but each interview follows the standard six-question framework.

While interviews with industry executives and thought leaders are common and often reveal fascinating insights, what has been unique in this case is the approach. An intention is held for each interview to uncover the deeper strategy or wisdom behind a particular approach. We ask reflective questions that don’t favor one approach or philosophy over another.

The result is an interview that captures innate knowing and wisdom. The interviews uncover perspectives that typically are not heard, solicited, or encouraged in a business setting. At Forward-Thinking Workplaces, we have found it useful to leverage these conversations, insights, and overall themes to trigger engaging conver- sations that uncover their own more workable solutions. As encode.org partner Dennis Wittrock explains:

"It’s a beautiful opportunity for people to sense what’s next. The very act of being asked elicits knowledge you didn’t know you had. The very act of being listened to is very valuable to create a new context and let new insights emerge, and let these nuggets come to the surface.

Create the Forward Thinking Workplace

In our increasingly connected and fast-changing world, it has become more difficult to have quality conversations. As our digital technologies advance, we find ourselves increasingly reliant on technology to communicate with each other. It’s so easy and fast to connect with almost anyone by sending a message or email. However, the downside of all these easy and fast ways to connect is that the quality of our conversations has suffered. Many of these new technologies are not allowing us to engage in deeper conversations that connect us human to human. We’ve lost touch with the enormous power of having connected conversations.

Perhaps no one has been more influential in helping us understand the power of conversations to impact organizational success and the quality of our work than Judith Glaser, CEO of the Creating WE Institute. In her book Conversational Intelligence, Glaser writes:

"To get to the next level of greatness depends on the quality of our culture, which depends on the quality of our relationships, which depends on the quality of our conversations. Everything happens through conversations!"

My work has repeatedly demonstrated the power of connected conversation, where we listen to each other from a state of not knowing. The person speaking feels free to express their innate knowing; listeners truly listen and open themselves up to learn something new. Everything starts and happens through a conversation. It allows us to uncover innovative new solutions and unlock our shared wisdom. Unfortunately, most of us are not having conversations in a way that unlocks this hidden potential.

The “Exploring Forward-Thinking Workplace Conversation Canvas” offers a blueprint for engaging people in higher-quality conversations to create something that works for everyone. An anonymous quote we received at Forward-Thinking Workplaces validates this point:

This conversation invites and allows whole beings to show up; like whole food, whole beings are more nutritious to the system they exist within.

We See the World We Describe

In conclusion, it’s important to highlight a crucial principle that runs through the forward-thinking approach: “We see the world we describe.” American Leadership Forum Founder Joseph Jaworski explains:

"It is through language that we create the world because it’s nothing until we describe it. And when we describe it, we create distinctions that govern our actions. Put another way, we do not describe the world we see, but we see the world we describe."

So many conversations in today’s workplace focus on content, not context. We start with problems or decisions, and the conversation quickly devolves into “my way or your way” instead of new possibilities and solutions that work for everyone. We’re all so busy running around with our heads filled with content that we don’t take the time to engage in a deeper conversation. Our autopilot keeps us choosing the least-action pathways. We often take the easy and known path.

We have all largely overlooked our opportunity and ability to create something better collectively. The forward thinking approach equips us all to have the bigger conversation to solve our most vexing workplace challenges and create a workplace where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally.