11 Questions you should be asking about the future today

In October I was invited to deliver the keynote presentation at the Shell HSSE Annual Conference in Amsterdam. At the end of the session some really great questions were asked. As these questions were retained I’ve taken the opportunity to share my answers here, as they are applicable for leaders and businesses across the globe.

11 Questions you should be asking about the future today

1. Do you believe the 6th world mass extinction event will include humans?

Doug Erwin, a palaeontologist at The Smithsonian Institute says: “If we keep things up long enough, we’ll get to a mass extinction, but we’re not in a mass extinction yet, and I think that’s an optimistic discovery because that means we actually have time to avoid Armageddon.” Here’s the thing, studies show that previous mass extinctions have involved the eradication of over 90% of the species alive at the time. So, if we were to, or are already experiencing the 6th Mass Extinction, then the reality is, human beings are already screwed. But, I agree with Doug Erwin, we are not there…yet.

This does not give us carte blanche to continue abusing the earth, her resources, ourselves and other living creatures. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. Because once

we hit the 6th Mass Extinction tipping point there is not going back. The breakdown and collapse of ecosystems and networks will happen very quickly. Trying to stop a mass extinction after it’s started would be like “calling for a building’s preservation while it’s imploding”

So, here’s the message. This could be a remarkable century, but it will not just happen we have to make it remarkable. It’s up to each one us to do our big bit or small bit to make the world we touch and influence a better place. This could be humanity’s greatest century – there are amazing opportunities and potential driven by incredible technological innovations – Equally it could be humanity’s worst.

There is still time we are not yet in the 6th mass extinction, but humanity’s future is balancing on a knife’s edge.  I’m largely optimistic that we can turn things around if individuals step up and use the power of business to do remarkable things. As Margaret Mead says: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

2. Ageing populations – we predicted this in the 1980s and still don’t have an effective response. How do we learn to unlearn and relearn so we can respond to future challenges before they become issues?

This question raises several important issues, to which there are at least three parts. If we are to learn how to unlearn and relearn then:

      1. First, we have to stop thinking in terms of only incremental improvement and allow the freedom to dream big and tackle big problems. Mega-trend challenges will never be addressed by chipping away at the block. We need paradigm shifts and big adventures. Read: We used to think big, here’s why we need to again
      2. Secondly, stop focusing primarily on the short-term and initiate projects and support a culture that drives longer-term benefits and results too. The problem we face is that politicians think only as far as their next term and company directors only as far as the next shareholder’s meeting, at best! To change this focus on appealing to people’s emotions rather than relying on facts and logic. Read: Why facts and logic are not enough to win your next big business pitch
      3. Allow the younger generation to have a louder voice. Many decisions made today about the future will not impact the leaders making the decisions. We therefore need to give representation to those who will be dealing with the fall-out if the wrong decision is made.

At a personal level, remaining curious is important. Reading widely and asking questions is a great way to unlearn. Invite diversity into your life, speak to people with different backgrounds and viewpoints to your own. Keep an open mind, challenge and constantly question your own perspective, watching out for personal biases. Recognise that when you think you know something, that’s when you have to look at things in a different way and unlearn. Because even if it feels silly or wrong, it’s important to try, you might just discover that as you mastered something, the world changed. Life-long learning and adaption is key to a successful future.

In summary, constantly look at things from different angles, dream big, focus on longer-term solutions and give the younger generations a voice in the decisions.

 

3.Do u think climate change is another force?

In my TIDES of Change model, climate change is viewed as a disruptive force is the E for Environment. Climate change, however, is only one of the many serious environmental disruptions facing companies and people in the 21st Century.

 

4. What do you think it will take for Shell to be the top of the Fortune Change the World List?

This is a really great question. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it does appear as if there is a desire to use the power of business at Shell in a positive way?

The challenge is to make this desire for profit and social benefit core to your business strategy and imbedded in the cultural DNA of Shell. Unilever, another excellent Dutch multinational, is a great example of a company which has made doing well, by doing good central to their strategy and everything they do.

It’s important to note that Shell will never get onto the Change the World List if, doing well is left up to the CSR team or only seen as necessary for good corporate citizenship and compliance.

You can start at a divisional/business unit level and allow great results to cascade across the business. For example: The buyer and supply managers at Ikea who rely on more than 1,000 suppliers to help produce globally popular furniture, decided to widened the circle of suppliers to include the disadvantaged. They now buy textiles and rugs from an NGO in Jordan that employs Syrian refugees to produce the goods. Other initiatives include employing women entrepreneurs in India and female immigrants in Sweden. The projects was so successful at a business unit level that the concept and ethos has now been adopted by the wider business.

So back to how Shell can get to the top of The Change the World List (which would be a great quest in itself):

A. Begin by asking senior leaders the questions:

      • Why isn’t Shell on the list?
      • Why are there no petrochemical companies in the top 50 list?

Continue to ask these questions, in different ways until people begin to act. Plant seeds of inspiration, share information about the list and allow people to become aware of the remarkable things and results the companies on this list are achieving. You have to get other people thinking about how they can run the business differently and the story they tell stakeholders. Maybe you do not have control over company’s strategy but you can influence it with great questions, that get those in control to question and look at things differently. Importantly use questions that connect with emotions.

B. Become a social intrapreneur or identify, protect and nurture your social intrapreneurs. These are the people in Shell who are using the power of a quests to make the world a better place. I like to call them questers and Forbes Magazine says that they are your most valuable employees.

C. Run “What Sucks Workshops?!” Ask your team the important question: What sucks in our world of influence and how can we make it better. For example: Nights of darkness suck! So, Thomas Edison gave us incandescent lightbulbs. Germs suck! So, Fleming gave us penicillin. Walking, when birds fly, sucks! So, the Wright brothers gave us wings. Automobiles for only the very wealthiest sucks! So, Ford gave us the production line and the liveable wage. Inequality sucks! So, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela gave us equal rights. Cancer sucks! So, Marie Curie gave us radiology and X-ray machines.

When passion, commitment and energy is expended towards solutions that tackle what sucks most in your customer’s world, then innovations emerge which no one could have imagined. That is why, this seemingly simple question is so excitingly powerful. It’s not about developing a new product or a service, it becomes about solving a huge problem which if successful will have a real benefit.

Here, hopefully is your source of inspiration. The 21st century is full of “mega-sucks” and tons more “mini-sucks” just waiting for innovative intrapreneurs at Shell to strike out and find new ground. If you want to secure that next promotion, bonus or get Shell on to the Change the World List; then do what the great women and history have done. Starting with the question: what sucks in the lives of my customers and people important to me? Finding the solution will open the doors to incredible opportunities and deliver personal and societal rewards.

D, The next step to qualifying for the list is understanding how Fortune Magazine reviews The Change the World list recognises companies that have had a positive social impact through activities that are part of their core business strategy. These companies have annual revenues of $1 billion or more and are evaluated and ranked according to three factors:

 

      1. Measurable social impact: Fortune considers the reach, nature, and durability of the company’s impact on one or more specific societal problems.
      2. Business results: Fortune considers the benefit the socially impactful work brings to the company. Profitability and contribution to shareholder value outweigh benefits to the company’s reputation.
      3. Degree of innovation: Fortune considers how innovative the company’s effort is relative to that of others in its industry and whether ­other companies have followed its example.

5. Which companies are best prepared for the future disruption outside the IT industry?

The best way to prepare for the future is to create the future. In my talk, I mentioned that humanity has entered the Age of Quests. Like all the ages of exploration before, from the Renaissance to the Age of Discovery, there are no maps. No one has ever been here before. This is daunting because it makes us want to return to ‘dry land’ where we seek familiarity and fleetingly feel safe. Until the next wave of disruption hits. But equally this new age offers exiting new opportunities for those who are curious explorers. We are living in Kairos Time – pockets of exceptional, rare moments when we can seize opportunity. So, the companies who recognise this and are prepared to venture out and find new ground are the ones best prepared.

The companies outside of the IT industry who are best prepared because they are creating new markets, industries and opportunities to disrupt the future include: Dutch company Royal DSM, a global science-based company active in health, nutrition and materials; Unilever, JPMorgan Chase, Intuit, Intuitive Surgical, Monster Beverages, Memphis Meats and for a different, slightly quirky and inspirational story read about Casper Mattresses (because sometimes the most unexpected players can disrupt the most unassuming markets and create the future).

 

6. With the increase of information availability and social media we see a rise in mental health issues. Do you see a crisis looming and if so what can we do about it?

In my next book, MegaQuests of the 21st Century, which I’m currently researching and writing, this very question is being explored. Essentially the answer to the question is, yes, mental health issues will become a huge issue. What can we do about it? I hope to be able to tell you more soon so watch out for the new book out in 2018

 

7.How disruptive do you think catastrophe might be? E.g running out of rare earth metals or some other resource:

(Refer back to question 1.) I’m not convinced we will run out of resources anytime soon, as long as they are well managed. Oil is a great example. 5-10 years ago, everyone was talking about ‘peak oil’. I predicted that shale gas would upend the oil industry and provide the world with huge amounts of new untapped reserves. This proved correct with the States becoming a net producer of oil because of advances in shale gas technologies. I now understand that shale gas operations in The States are profitable above $50 a barrel. So, human ingenuity nearly always finds solutions for resource scarcity.

My concerns however, are more around food and water resources. We are polluting our oceans with plastic. We are over-fishing and creating dead zones in the oceans. These and other ‘megaquests’ will require seriously well thought out solutions.

 

8. Colgate Palmolive has a commercial that shows they have started a project to teach 1 million at risk girls to code. I used to buy Crest toothpaste. I now will buy Colgate. I tried to upload the commercial but you can Google it.

Excellent example, thank you, just shows the power of doing well, by doing good. Here is the link to the video you refer to:

 

9. In a world of digital sharing, how do you manage trade secrets and innovation that leads to competitive advantages

You don’t because you can’t. Today’s digital world means anything can be copied or fabricated, and it will get easier and easier to do so. Competitive advantage today and in the future, will come not from trade secrets but from people and network business models. Anyone can copy what Tesla is doing, in fact Elon Musk has made open source many of Tesla’s trade secrets. Because anyone of the major motor manufacturers can and are now designing self-driving cars, so it’s not the trade secrets and intellectual property that are the differentiator. This seems contrary to conventional wisdom. But what people often miss about great leaders like Elon Musk, is he is doing something bigger than just creating another product and the people who work and buy cars or energy solutions from him find the quest he is on inspirational. Of course, you need great products and you need great design, but competitive advantage is no longer secured here. As Steve Jobs said, unless you are making a dent in the universe why bother. Apple’s competitors were quick to copy their innovations, but what is more difficult to copy is the DNA to make dents in the universe, to make a difference and that is where competitive advantage comes from today and that is why Apple will become the world’s first trillion dollar company.

 

10. You seem impressed and optimistic about Shell’s capacity and prospects. Would you invest part of your retirement in our stock?

Get on to the Change the World List then yes. 

11.What career would you encourage for your son Leo? 

Another book I’m writing is: How to raise a moonshooter  and I hope to answer your question in more detail there. But for now, I’d encourage him to becomes a social intrapreneur in a company doing meaningful and remarkable things. My belief is big business offers an awesome platform for delivering meaningful benefits. The positive benefits of business, when we remove the perversions of the proper workings of capitalism, are huge. Business has brought millions out of poverty, made people’s lives healthier and better. By almost any indicator you care to use, today most people anywhere in the world are living better lives than a 100 years ago. There’s still a lot more we can do though.  If he is not interested in becoming a social intrapreneur then a career in data science and AI wouldn’t harm. Data science is going to be one of the sexiest and best paid professions in the future. I would not encourage classic professions such as law, accounting or medical practitioner. These careers especially at a lower level are experiencing significant automation and disruption.

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