The prefix “re,” to anew again, suggests the motion of “undoing.” In this single unit of language lies the most important approach that we – as leaders, as organizations, as nations, as humans – can employ as we determine strategies for the distant and immediate future.
“Re” is the only sound approach when, despite loud evidence and urgent calls for attention, our wickedest challenges are not being adequately addressed. Our systems have proven durable but not effectual or adaptable. Traditional management thinking has left organizations ill-equipped for a world where innovation is required for survival. Governments are dysfunctional and policy can’t keep pace with change – technological, social, or climate. We need to rethink, reimagine, reset.
As a species, we have all but done ourselves in. Can we undo? Many intelligent people will tell you it’s too late, that we are heading for a world beyond recognition or repair, and we should learn to live with the idea that human civilization is as mortal as the humans that comprise it. There are other intelligent people who recognize all the same risks and vulnerabilities as the first camp, but who believe that through aggressive innovation, humanity can transcend. A balance of the two schools, a measured mode of somber optimism, paradoxical as it may be, is the tone of “re.” Accept that we’re drawing the arch to our own conclusion, but stay ambitious; keep hope that we’ll reorient.
The “re” approach to strategy definition involves reflecting inwardly and telescoping outwardly – locating our senses of place and space amidst the changing contours of our environment – illuminating our core, examining the systems we operate within, reading the signals, and speculating on the shapes that lie ahead.
Today, living on the legacies of outdated social and economic systems, we fail to adequately distribute resources. We distrust our institutions, including automotive, internet, food, energy, and financial companies; the same organizations we entrust with our safety, privacy, health, security, and wealth. We fall short in our efforts to achieve, to uphold, to even grasp at the idea of a fair and equitable society. Critical infrastructures – bridges, dams, and electrical grids – are aging and growing increasingly frail. We’ve lost control of any handle we might have had on the environment; now we question our ability to sustain the species.
It’s time to seriously contemplate our beliefs, dispose of our dogmas, examine the origins of our assumptions, and test them across a wide range of possible futures. That radical renewal is necessary should not be up for debate.
If we’re declining, it is because of what we’ve done, not the new things we’ll try.
Honesty can be difficult. Rigorous reflection may expose our fragilities. Acknowledging our shortcomings is uncomfortable. Plunging in and taking stock of uncertainty might make us feel vulnerable. But, when we come to terms with the nature of our challenges and the realities of our weaknesses, we emerge better prepared and more resilient.
“Re” is the space between what is done and what could be. How did we get here? What materials are we working with? What do we have in our war chest (or survival kit)? Now – where are we going?
What got us here was in large part the perilous shortsightedness of quarterly capitalism. We’ve been sensing the world on limited time horizons. Despite their early signals being readily perceptible, many of the impending threats we’re now faced with were simply not on our strategic radars. Building a better capacity for anticipation entails imagining many research-based scenarios looking 30, 50, 100, 1,000 years forward. These exercises enable us to contemplate the long-term consequences of our actions, and ultimately make better decisions. As we draft and redraft, we begin to understand our roles and our actions across a variety of possible scenarios. It’s a process that enables us to plan preferable futures, and plan for unfavorable ones.
The “re” approach to strategy determination involves employing methods that put purpose to art, practice creativity strategically, support imagination with research, and match realism with ambition. Tomorrow is going to look nothing like today. “Re” affords us the privilege of being deliberate about how we enter into a volatile and uncertain world.
What do you do when you recognize that you’re irrelevant? Deep unlearning. Un-commit and open up – courageously break from convention. It’s time to shed ideas that no longer serve us and admit that big shifts are taking place. Incrementalism is over. Now it’s about fundamentally restructuring our systems. Transformation is going to happen on a scale and at a pace far beyond what we’re accustomed to.
Efforts to successfully attain our lofty new objective will be mass and concerted. As in a concert, success depends on the orchestration of many independent players working in step, each responsible for handling their unique instrument, performing separate yet harmonious parts. Like conductors, leaders will have to prioritize the desired aggregate effect – the music – over any individual, to say nothing of their own egos. Mobilization at this scale and complexity will require precise clarity of purpose and elegantly communicative gestures. Entire organizations will need to be rewired; our stories will have to be more inspiring. More attention will need to go to contemplating our ethics and morals as we move through unfamiliar territories.
If we have found ourselves in a race between extinction due to human induced climate change and survival endowed by technological innovation, then who are you? What’s your purpose? Are you doing the right thing? Should you exist? Do you have long-term vision? Think about this: What is your strategy for 2020? Why isn’t it your strategy today?