Pursuing the Future: Learning Faster Is No Longer Enough

Flawless execution today is no guarantee of relevance tomorrow. The ability to quickly and continually change and adapt is a competitive advantage -- which is why companies like Jim Beam, Procter & Gamble and Zildjian Cymbals have led for hundreds of years while competitors have fallen by the wayside.

Pursuing the Future in Digital Time

In 1988, Arie de Gues wrote that, "The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage."

Back then, it often took 12 to 18 months from the moment a signal to change was received until it was acted on. For de Gues, increasing the speed at which leaders became aware of possible futures was crucial for thriving in a rapidly changing world.

That was of course, six years before Microsoft introduced Internet Explorer and 10 years before Google was even founded. Information wasn't necessarily plentiful much less instantaneous.

Today, waiting 12 to 18 months to recognize the need for change can doom your company to obsolescence. The ability to anticipate and execute change faster than your competitors is the only sustainable competitive advantage today.

Here are five competencies you will need at every level to thrive in a world where change is relentless and unforgiving:
  • Change awareness: The scariest change is the one just over the horizon that we never see until it is too late. The wagon trains that carried settlers to new territories employed scouts to ride ahead to look for and report on potential danger and new opportunities. Today's leaders must do the same.
  • Change readiness: We usually know that change is needed--or at least sense that something is amiss--long before we take action. Crisis pushes us to change. A compelling opportunity pulls us. There is nothing wrong with a healthy dose of perpetual paranoia about competitors known or unknown. But, the best organizations are fueled by a common vision to do something truly great.
  • Change urgency: Readiness without action is merely good intention. A lack of urgency is evident when changes die in the quicksand of endless study that masquerades as due diligence. It allows urgent yet unimportant activities to hijack energy and resources from changes that will have a multiplier effect. A bias for action asks "how can we" rather than assuming that change can't be done.
  • Organizational trust: Following others into the unknown has always required trust. But, continuous improvement, innovation, and empowerment require a nimble culture that uses honest mistakes as learning opportunities. That doesn't happen unless trust is a two-way street. The absence of trust causes everyone to protect their own interests even if it means that an opportunity to make important change is missed.
  • Volunteered accountability: What would be different where you work if every person at every level voluntarily did what they were supposed to do when they were supposed to do it the way it is supposed to be done? Accountability is ultimately ownership for problems, solutions, action, and outcomes. You see it when individuals and teams refuse to be a victim to circumstances beyond their control or blame others for their results. Imagine how that level of ownership for results would make it easier to surface, analyze, and implement change.

Do This Now

  1. Start with you. Your team will make proactive change a priority when you lead the way. Most people want to succeed, and they know that doing so requires everyone to continually improve. But, they won't think you are serious about change until you change.
  2. Invest time for you and others to scout the future. Awareness precedes readiness and urgency. Build time into your own calendar to think about and research the future. Several of our clients have created cross-functional "Scout Teams" to be find and return with new ideas.
  3. Use honest mistakes for learning. How many of the most important lessons you have ever learned came from honest mistakes. Your efforts to build trust and encourage accountability will yield exponential results when people realize that we learn from honest mistakes not punish them.

The best companies and leaders have always actively managed their future. In doing so, they are always on the lookout for what is next. Today, that means one of the most important things you can learn is how to change faster.

Randy Pennington is an award-winning author, speaker, and leading authority on helping organizations deliver positive results in a world of accelerating change. His keynote seminars and workshops are informative, engaging, and memorable. To learn more or to hire Randy for your next meeting, visit www.penningtongroup.com, email info@penningtongroup.com, or call 972-980-9857.

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