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Weekly Research and Commentary on the Future of Business and Technology.

The Future is Already Here, We Just Need to Embrace It.

Apr 16, 2024

I recently had a conversation with Sam Johnson, EY’s Americas Vice Chair, Markets & Accounts, and he made a poignant observation: when it comes to preparing organizations for the future, we tend to approach new world problems with old world tools. It’s a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with, but I also believe that many of the “new world” approaches we need aren’t actually new—we just don’t use them. As a young leader at Pearson once said, “It’s not complicated, it’s just hard.”

Organizational Structures: A Case Study

Take organizational structures, for example. Leaders today crave more fluid, adaptable structures that can thrive in a world of increasing uncertainty and ambiguity. The truth is, we’ve had these structures for decades in the form of chaordic systems, a concept devised by Dee Hock.

For those unfamiliar, chaordic systems are a blend of chaos and order, designed to be flexible, self-organizing, and adaptable. They operate on a set of guiding principles rather than rigid hierarchies, allowing for rapid response to change and fostering innovation. Hock originally deployed this model at credit card payment juggernaut VISA with great success.

I experienced the incredible power of chaordic systems firsthand during my time at Mozilla. You can even argue that large parts of Amazon are built on these principles. Yet, despite their proven track record, chaordic systems remain largely unadopted in the broader organizational landscape. Why? Because they require us to fundamentally rethink how we operate and make decisions—a daunting prospect for many entrenched organizations.

The Future is Here, But Unevenly Distributed

Science fiction author William Gibson famously said, “The future is already here - it’s just not evenly distributed.” That statement perfectly encapsulates the challenge facing businesses today. The solutions we need to thrive in the new world often already exist, but they remain confined to pockets of innovation and experimentation, are used only in overlooked markets, or simply misunderstood.

To truly prepare for the future, we need to get better at identifying and scaling these proven approaches. We need to be willing to challenge our long-held assumptions about how organizations should function and embrace new models that prioritize agility, adaptability, and resilience.

The good news is, we don’t have to start from scratch. We can learn from the pioneers who have already blazed the trail, like Dee Hock and the chaordic systems he championed. We can study the success stories of companies like Mozilla, Amazon, and many more, who have built their organizations around these principles.

The Path Forward

So yes, new world problems absolutely demand new world solutions. But let’s not fall into the trap of assuming that “new” always means “novel.” In many cases, the answers we seek are already out there, waiting to be embraced and scaled.

The real challenge lies in overcoming our resistance to change and having the courage to reimagine how we work. It won’t be easy, but the alternative—clinging to outdated models in a rapidly evolving world—is a recipe for obsolescence.

The future is here, and it’s time we caught up to it. Let’s start by dusting off some of those “old” new world solutions and putting them to work in service of a more agile, adaptable, and resilient future. The tools are there—we just need to pick them up and start building.