By Graham
Posted on: 2012-08-16 Futurproofing

2050, the future we want to have

I believe we are at a crucial crossroad. How we in the world of enterprise, from individual consultant, non-profit, social through to typical multinational, deal with the paradigm changes coming with the coming resource limits, climate change and economic crises will create either a positive, viable future that we want; or the one we would not wish on our worst enemy.

Below are the key pillars needed for the world of enterprise, all forms of enterprise, to effectively create the future we want.

  • Distributed, full-spectrum leadership.
  • Effective dialogue processes.
  • Economic sense based on a viable future system
  • Engaging all stakeholders
  • Behavioural change.

Once a year the Karoo desert in South Africa is transformed into the greatest flower show on the planet. The annual rains arrive and soak into the barren desert. Soon the first lonely shoots emerge, lost in the expanse of desert. A few days later the desert is a carpet of flowers.

Most people never see the first shoots, their struggle to survive alone, and their gradual increase. Most people only ever see the desert, and then a magic carpet of flowers.

As we journey to the future we want to have in 2050, the decade when today’s 20-somethings beginning work will retire, it may feel that we are still in the winter desert. But, if we look more closely we will already today see many early shoots of the future we want. Shoots of the business pillar in the future we want. The more we connect and nurture these shoots now, the faster we will have the future we want.


A recurring theme today is the dearth of leaders capable of leading in today’s turbulent context. Many have tried, many are still trying, but few are up to the task using the leadership approach that delivered success before.

One central element of leadership is transforming a number of individuals into an organisation. An organisation that enables extraordinary results to be delivered by ordinary people. By maximally harnessing individual strengths while making individual weaknesses irrelevant.

The quote of Drucker: “the greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic” is very relevant. It says clearly we need a leadership logic, attitude and behaviour right for the future, which is very different to what delivered success in the past.

The hierarchical business leadership model that has got us this far is still needed, but is not enough to create organisations fit for a sustainable 2050. Hierarchical leadership (and organisation) works well when

  • the external context is changing slowly,
  • there is time and data enough to understand what to do;
  • and so a relatively static organisation, leadership hierarchy and set of roles can be defined.

Today’s business context is changing fast, complex or even chaotic in the Cynefin sense, so there is neither time nor data enough for right decisions based on analysis and statically hierarchical leadership.

We need to add in distributed leadership; a dynamic hierarchy. This is defined more by the commitment of the followers to the external need and the task immediately at hand; and following whoever is best able to lead just in this now for one more step.

One success model for this lies in our own body. When our environment is slowly changing the cognitive brain is in charge. When something changes quickly though; be it opportunity or threat, whichever part of the body best suited takes over ‘leadership’

Our intelligence rests on distributed leadership, rests on how well connected our brain cells are. They all work together coherently without any single brain cell acting as overall leader.

What makes this work are structured communication protocols. The brain cells neither gossip nor debate with each other; nor do they strive for simplistic consensus. They do though communicated coherently in the right way for the external context they need to deal with.


Communication and Dialogue

Dialogue makes organisations work; or fail to work. Most of us today still use the default protocols of command, debate, (useful where right vs. wrong, or power, is appropriate) or social chat, (useful for social bonding). None of these is sufficient, but all are still needed, for our journey to 2050.

The good news is, we have dialogue protocols much more like the brain’s protocol between brain cells. For organisational purposes, these include Appreciative Inquiry, Holacracy, Scenario Planning, Future Search. None is the single answer, fit for all purposes, but the challenges of rapid change and high complexity can be better addressed using the most appropriate mix.

In tetraLD we are beginning to use these. It is easy going beyond what used to deliver success, but where we have managed, it has enabled us to be far more adaptable to our changing context; and far better at unlocking the strengths each of us has.

Dialogue is really a set of tools that enable a group of people deliver output way beyond the best any one person could deliver. And just as with the brain, the better we are able to connect with each other, the more distributed leadership can do what individual leadership cannot.


Makes economic sense.

This is at the centre of getting useful change to happen at a systemic scale. To create the future we want, economic sense must, though, mean sense looking forwards, not sense looking backwards.

For example, the subsidies and externalities in the fossil fuel sector (of which most of us are unware) hide the economic sense already here in renewable energy. (One of the shoots in the desert; wind turbine electricity is already cheaper in Germany than the peak spot price, and their reactive power capability has kept the grid up when a power outage has loomed.)

Economic sense looking forwards for energy implies that the price of renewable energy is the lowest economically sensible price. Anything lower, based on fossil fuels, is akin to an investor investing with a negative RoI continuously. Bankruptcy will follow!

The B9 shipping project*, for small freight ships and based on wind-power technology already used on the water, is another shoot in the desert. One that makes economic sense looking forwards in terms of energy.

The biggest challenge is imagining what economic sense means long before that future system is complete. Where the few elements can only become fully viable when more elements of the future system are present. This is where full-spectrum distributed leadership is needed, with dialogue processes connecting the fragments of the future that each sees, to co-create a more complete image of what the viable future system can be. (Read my blog here on the role of the new breed of 1% knowledge workers, or knowledge meshworkers, in this:

Engage everyone

Issues that affect all of us can only be addressed when each of us is part of the solution. To make a system more resilient, connect it to more of itself. Both statements, often repeated by Margaret Wheatley, lie at the heart of nature’s resilience. We are learning from nature how to apply these principles in our business systems. (Read also the above blog on knowledge workers.)

Engaging everyone takes care of change resistance, one of the biggest bogeymen in organisations today.

Of course you do need to use a fit-for-purpose dialogue protocol to avoid traps, like a zero progress compromise. Fit for the purpose means getting action that delivers a change that works just well enough to take one step forwards, not an attempt to create the perfect end result.

Again, we only need to look around us for shoots. The South African transformation and the role structured dialogue protocols played (e.g. Mont Fleur, truth and reconciliation commission, etc.). Or very recently, whether you agree or not with their objectives and actions, the organisational and distributed leadership behind the occupy movement, the Arab spring, and much more.



Our context requires us all to change what we do. In our lives in general, but especially in how we earn a living. There are new types of work appearing, old ones disappearing, on our journey to the sustainable future we want to have. To get there we will, in the next 10 years, need to completely retrain, or at least upskill, most of the people in the world’s organisations. Especially the leaders!

Fortunately we now have a very good idea on how to accelerate performance development, i.e., behavioural change in organisations. This is the focus in tetraLD, another shoot in the desert I’m nurturing.



As was said at the end of the Tomorrow’s Company conference***; the future is already here, it’s just not well distributed yet. Also clear is that nothing will happen while we wait for “them” to lead us to the future we want to have. We are them; we need to lead, each of us in our way in our sphere of operations.


This leadership hinges on scanning for, recognising and connecting with the other shoots around us. Looking not for the only “right” answer; just looking for what works as a next step. Just as nature does. And we must do it together. Just as nature does. What Business User Group 2050 is doing.



* B9 Shipping, http//

** Ed Holton,; and our performance+ suite with Ed inside,