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If You Want to Get There, I Wouldn’t Start From Here

In The Second Curve, one of Charles Handy’s many wonderful books, Handy starts by recalling a story of asking for directions whilst driving in the Wicklow Mountains in Ireland. He asked a pedestrian the way to a place called Avoca. The pedestrian described in clear detail how to get to a place called Davy’s Bar, and what Davy’s Bar looked like (bright red). The man checked that Handy understood. He then said “Great; well half a mile before you get there, turn right up the hill, and that will take you to Avoca.” Handy uses ‘Davy’s Bar’ as a metaphor for where many companies (and possibly some of our roles) are at: having missed the turn to the future, they are now in the parking lot of Davy’s Bar, looking back wistfully to the turn they missed.

I Wouldn’t Start From Here

Try more zero-based thinking, rather than incrementally improving from where we are now.

In my view, a key lesson from this story is: “Don’t try to reengineer Davy’s Bar to look like the future.” In other words, if we want to become fit to compete in the new realities of the 21st century, we should try more zero-based thinking, rather than incrementally improving from where we are now. Or, to use a line from a very similar but better-known anecdote about asking for directions, our advice to the corporate and governmental world is: “If you want to get there, I wouldn’t start from here if I were you.”

What this means in practice is that when we are reimagining our infrastructures, organization structures, talent pools, customer relationships, product portfolios and so on, rather than first thinking of next steps from where we are today, we need to start with a vision of what the situation would look like in, say, five years’ time, unconstrained by today’s realities. (Pick a time period that is far enough away that you can imagine substantial change, but not so far that too much is uncertain.) Only then think about incremental steps towards that future.

We need to start with a vision of what the situation would look like in, say, five years’ time.

For example, when we are thinking radically about the organization structure of the future, we might end up with a picture like the one on the right below. Don’t look at it too closely – just long enough for you to think things like: “What the …” or “That’s not a ...” or “How about the …” or “We couldn’t possibly …” . This structure is by no means right. Its purpose is just to try to give a sense of how different things could, and perhaps should, be. And in fact, organization structures should almost certainly not look the same for every business – there should be significant differences based on the nature of each organization and its key value points.

Organization structures may, and probably should, radically evolve

Organization structures may, and probably should, radically evolve

The same is equally true for all aspects of the organization, not just structure. We at Leading Edge Forum are trying very much to ‘sip our own champagne’ here, and the research you will see on cloud, anti-fragility, talent, risk, technology trends and disruption of the professions this year will attempt to take this ‘not starting from here’ angle, to ensure that together we stride ambitiously enough towards the best 21st Century Organizations.

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21st Century
Adaptive Execution
Assets/Capabilities
Identity/Strategy
Proactive, Haptic Sensing
Reimagining the Portfolio
Value Centric Leadership

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