Scanning the Future: 21st Century Management

Is your organization ready for the 21st Century? Do you understand the increasing pressures on organizational structure and management? Is your organization’s design and leadership approach ready to face these demands? These are the questions twenty-eight senior executives from the U.S., Colombia, India, Oman, and Thailand addressed as we worked together to leverage old and new strategies for their organizations and careers. The occasion was Northwestern University’s 21st Century Management executive program. The phrase, “scanning the future” is drawn from the last segment of my sessions.

I promised the participants additional readings (building on my earlier, Summer Reading List), and hope others will add to what I have here via the comments. I’ll also include the pre-readings we used to prepare for each segment.

The Demands on 21st Century Organization

In this segment we worked through the pressures on organizations today and in the future. These included (vast simplification): globalization, artificial intelligence, disintermediation, freelancing, and education. Earlier in the week the group had discussed the pace of marketing and strategy change, the value of mindfulness, our networked society, and multi-generational workforces.

We started with Leadership Is More Than Interpersonal Skills, a short Harvard Business Review blog post focused on what I mean by demands on the 21st century organization and how this puts pressure on you to lead with all your resources -- not just your interpersonal skills -- all of your human, technical, and organizational resources.

Additional Reading:

Designing the Agile, Connected Organization

We used the case, WL Gore: Culture of Innovation (makers of Gore-Tex), to take on the questions of organizational design and control in the 21st Century. Slide-deck version. Note that WL Gore (and Nucor Steel) are famous examples of light-weight management -- in companies designed in the 50s & 60s. Zappos’ work with holacracy is just a current visible version.

Additional Reading:

From the hyperspecialization article:

This ability to distribute computer-based jobs to a vast army of workers doesn’t only make old tasks go faster; it enables the completion of a whole new class of time-critical tasks. Consider the search for Jim Gray, a well-known computer scientist who disappeared at sea in his small sailboat in 2007 and was never found. When the news of his disappearance reached his colleagues, they realized it would not be impossible to search the 30,000-square-mile patch of ocean in which Gray’s boat just might still be afloat. Over the next few days near-real-time satellite images were relayed to thousands of Mechanical Turk workers and volunteers for close examination. Such an effort could not previously have been imagined—and suggests many other possibilities, from scanning for suspicious activity in an office building’s overnight video feeds, to translating headquarters communications simultaneously into many languages, to responding quickly to a potential client’s complicated request for proposal.

We see this approach now in the vast application of volunteers to natural disasters, solving complex business analytics problems, and more. The freelance marketplace continues to diversify even as heavy weights Elance and oDesk join to form UpWork. The “gig economy” is in the news this week in the US presidential campaigns.

Leading the Agile, Connected Organization -- Execution on 21st Century Practices

In this segment I had the opportunity to share some of my current work on Lead by Letting Go. We started with a case on LinkedIn, looking to gain value from whatever LinkedIn does -- for example, with their recent purchase of online education company,, rather than solving the typical case. We looked to let go of 20th century boundaries and processes, while holding tight to our performance standards, relationships, the value of education, and the laws of our particular organization’s “physics.”

Staying with the ideas of leveraging modern technologies and organizational relationships, we looked at the article The Third Wave of Virtual Work, before reading the case -- LiveOps: The Contact Centre Reinvented. The case follows the American Red Cross as they dealt with over one million people displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Whether or not your industry works with call or contact centers, it’s interesting to consider how to work with “instant on” capabilities. LiveOps is just one example of 21st century organizational forms built on a freelance economy. Uber, Lyft, Mozilla (Firefox), Freelance Physicians, Amazon Mechanical Turk, and many many others, offer options to traditional “balancesheet” employees.

We used light-weight experiments as a key tool in this segment. Tom Chi’s “doing is the best kind of thinking” video was a great opener and we followed it with examples from Intuit.

Additional Reading

Scanning the Future

Our last segment was short, but critical. We discussed execution and especially the role of data-driven processes. We focused on iterative change throughout the session (the world moves too fast for long periods of planning in many settings, note the Tom Chi quote above) - but here we applied it toward scanning the future. Marissa Mayer’s “Data is apolitical,” video as well as Scott Cook on Intuit’s global expansion, emphasized the role that evidence-based management plays.

The task for the participants was to design a scanning process for themselves or their organization. Whether personal, team, or organizational, we all need a process for staying aware of our challenges and opportunities. One of them was wise enough apply the technique, “leverage your network,” to turn the first step of their process on me, asking for additional readings -- and thus this post. I’ll now do the same with you: What have we missed? What readings, videos, and links should I be using to prepare for future sessions? What other materials would be excellent follow-ons to the material here?

Our Future Together

Join us for a future session of 21st Century Management. Dates are available in December 2015 and May 2016. The focus on agile, connected, execution makes it especially powerful if more than one member of an organization attends. We had several groups with three or more members and it felt like they had unique opportunities for leveraging their experience.