Dr. Bob Johansen, Author of Leaders Make the Future, on Thriving in a VUCA World

“I don’t have a particular future in mind, I just want to be sure there is a future.”

Bob Johansen

Story Update: If you want more from Dr. Bob Johansen of the Institute for the Future (IFTF), check out Futurist Predicts Reciprocity Will Be Biggest Innovation Opportunity in History.

IFTF is a Silicon Valley based, nonprofit think tank producing an evolving 10-year forecast using socio-economic, technology and demographic trends. The author of Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World, Bob Johansen postulates we are living in a VUCA world. That’s futurist speak for an environment of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. Bad news dear readers, he predicts things will get worse in the future.

Johansen claims there is both danger and opportunity in the VUCA world, and says leaders must learn new skills to survive and thrive. Is he on the mark? Johansen defines a forecast as a good story designed to provide insight and provoke action, so the measure of his foresight may be the degree to which we respond effectively. Let’s get together in ten years and compare notes.

Linda Golden, the Marlene and Morton Meyerson Centennial Professor in Business at UT Austin, says Leaders Make the Future is required reading for her students and essential reading for anyone interested in a better world and social profit.

Summary of comments made at a conference by Dr. Bob Johansen with the Institute for the Future. His presentation slides.

Reasons he does this work:

I am a forecaster exploring the human side of new technologies. The reason I do this is that I’m concerned about the future. I’m not here to advocate for a particular future scenario, and I don’t have a particular future in mind, I just want to be sure there is a future.

Today I’m here to provoke your thoughts about the future. I don’t predict the future, and you should be suspicious of anyone who claims to predict the future, especially if they are from California. (Laughter from the audience.) It is frustrating not to be able to predict the future, but you don’t have to accurately predict the future to be helpful. Instead, I hope to provoke some insight.

I always live 10 years out, and I try to avoid living in the present as much as possible. (More laughter from audience.) I want to focus on what it will take to thrive ten years from now.

The role of cloud computing in the future:

(Johansen showed a photo of a shopper in a food store with a visual display of product information on his/her sleeve.)

Consumer feedback and sharing of information will be everywhere. As you will look at an item from a grocery store a visual display on your arm, perhaps an organic light-emiting diode, will show ratings and comments, and information customized to you. You will be asked if you want to contribute to the rating. The rating will probably be controlled by someone you value.

When I show this to retailers it frightens them, because they have no control in this scenario. The iPhone was a dramatic step toward this future, but that is not where it will stop. There will be so much information flowing to you that filtering solutions will evolve over the next decade to help you customize and control the flow. An important decision will be who filters the information and who do you trust?

I know this scenario makes many of us nervous, we already feel overwhelmed by information, but reducing the information flood won’t be an option. The only choice you’ll have is what filters do you want and who do you want to filter it. There is business opportunity in this, because you (pointing to the executives in the audience) could become the filter.

Video as the medium of choice:

The younger you are the more inclined you will be to be video literate. Gaming will be the environment in which most of the innovation will play out. Video will be part of almost every brand strategy. Reverse mentoring is very important in the workplace as well. For those of you in marketing, this will be your life. This is where branding strategies will happen. Video will be used to provoke and engage. Vivid images and video displays that can be displayed anywhere will change marketing. Video displays will be anywhere, including on clothing. Amateur videos will mix and be blended with professional video.

Reverse mentoring, the younger generations teaching the older generations:

For those 25 years old or less, the definition of a generation is now about 6 years. The difference between a thirteen year old and a nineteen year old is significant. This world is rapidly changing…only the thirteen year olds are true video natives. The younger you are the better your video literacy. We will be mentored by our kids. From a marketing, hiring and talent point of view this is a big deal. Every organization must do reverse mentoring. The younger generation, for example, has media and communication tools that are better than what many companies have.

Where new technologies will come from:

It used to be that the military was a big driver of new technologies. Today, the best new technology is coming from gaming, and is slowly finding itself back to the military.

The next strategic debate will be how to marry marketing with product supply. Moving the value chain much closer to the customer.

One of the things we’ve learned in forecasting is that almost nothing is new. Most things have been tried and failed, and then comes an inflection point that allows them to finally succeed.

9781605090023LdrsMakeFutureCurrent forecast for the future:

(Johansen pointed out that the inside front cover of his book contains the current forecast from the Institute for the Future. Here is how to buy the book or an executive book summary.)

Main headings:

  • Diasporas: New Emerging Economies
  • Civil Society: What Will We Choose to Do Together?
  • Food: The Flashpoint for Rich/Poor Conflict
  • Ecosystems: Navigation of Life
  • Amplified Individuals: Extending the Human Body

Addressing unsolvable problems:

The future provides many dilemmas. These make us uncomfortable and we want them all solved but we have to resist making quick judgments. Leaders like the space between judging too soon and deciding too late. As a forecaster it is important to teach ourselves not to judge too soon. But you still have to decide, even if there isn’t a perfect solution. Many problems are unsolvable. They can be improved, but cannot be solved. If it is a dilemma, but you frame it as a problem that can be solved, then you are in trouble.

Thriving in a VUCA world (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity):

Most Americans are not prepared for the VUCA world. We want simplistic solutions, and the 24-hour news cycle just makes that worse.

Are we in a more VUCA world now than in past generations? Who knows? I believe one difference is the scale of the issues we are facing. The global climate disruptions, the pandemics, bio-terrorism, etc. Every generation has felt these threats, but we can argue that we have it worse than any previous generation, and the scale is now global. The divide between rich nations and poor nations may remain the same, or grow wider, but the difference is that now both the rich and the poor can see each other with HD-clarity.

The positive flip side of VUCA is Vision, Understanding, Clarity and Agility.

Different understanding of the consumer in society:

The word “consumer” is obsolete, instead we are “makers.” The maker instinct is prevalent in the rising generation who say “I am making the future.” Leaders use this, because they want to remake organizations. www.makerfaire.com is about consumer generated content. Makers do not like to be called consumers. Disney and Target calls them guests. But someone needs to come up with a better term for consumers.

One of the challenges for marketing people is to come up with another term for consumers, and to figure out how to turn attention into participation. This is the engagement economy. You want to increase the likelihood to engage, with high motivation and high simplicity. An example of engaging is www.instructables.

The biggest innovation opportunity for the future:

Cloud computing is the biggest innovation opportunity for the future. When John Gage of Sun Microsystems said “the network is the computer” that wasn’t yet true, but it will become true in the next ten years. The iPhone is the closest thing to it now, and networks will get better the more people use them.

We will refine the networks so they get better the more people use them. That is the problem with Facebook and Twitter, they don’t scale well. But new networks will come.

Superstructing is building (growing) over or upon another structure (life form) to erect (plant) upon a foundation (ecology). Superstructing rejects traditional forms of content security and boundary-based protections. Reciprocity is the currency of the cloud. The phrase used by Google is “combinatorial innovation.”

Will Dunbar’s Number increase? This was first proposed by Robin Dunbar who theorized about how many human connections human can maintain. Dunbar suggested a maximum of 147.2. The theory is that with cloud computing that number could get larger.

Superstructing the cloud will be the biggest innovation opportunity in the future. And it may be the biggest risk as well, but there is no way to stop the cloud. The only question is how do you make it work, how do you win?

This article was drawn from a session sponsored by the Supply Chain Management Center (SCMC) and the Center for Customer Insight and Marketing Solutions (CCIMS) at McCombs School of Business. Lamar Johnson, executive director of CCIMS and senior associate director of SCMC, is a retired executive with Procter & Gamble. He met Johansen during consulting projects with the corporation, and as a result of that association Johansen has been a speaker at events sponsored by the centers over the years. 

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