5 proven ways to lead in the Fast Lane

As published on Switch & Shift on January 22, 2015. Do you recognize the feeling that time seems to go more rapidly as you grow older? Apart from this psychological effect of time, something is really happening to time as well. According to Moore’s law, technological performance is doubling every 18 months and with it we are witnessing an exponential increase in environmental change.
You might be familiar with the legend about the inventor of the game of chess. The story goes that, upon revealing his invention to the emperor of India, the latter was so impressed with the game’s beauty and elegance that he allowed the inventor to name his own reward. The inventor asked for a pile of rice, composed by adding one grain of rice on the first square of the chessboard, two on the second, four on the third and so forth, doubling the number of rice grains for each of the 64 squares on the chessboard. After calculating the total amount of rice required, the emperor realized he made a crucial mistake: he would have to offer the inventor a pile of rice larger than Mount Everest, which would be more than the rice produced in the entire world!
The legend demonstrates that people have a hard time assessing the true impact of exponential versus linear change. It explains why most organizations, governments and leaders face huge difficulties adjusting to the increasing speed, not knowing how to adapt to ever more new and unforeseen events. Here are 5 proven ways on how to lead in the fast lane.
Most organizations, governments and leaders face huge difficulties adjusting to the increasing speed, not knowing how to adapt to ever more new and unforeseen events.

1. Look for a Bigger Pattern

In his 30-year history of the future talk, Nicholas Negroponte confided that “one of the things about age is that I can tell you with great confidence that I’ve been to the future.” It is indeed rewarding to take a step back, revisit the past and see the bigger picture. Whether it is cell structure, seed growth or human reproduction, nature maintains its growth through transferring patterns. In a similar vein, businesses can get a better sense of where the future is heading by uncovering self-repeating patterns and taking a step back from their here and now.
Think about the work of William Strauss and Neil Howe who identified a recurring generational cycle with 4 archetypes that repeat sequentially over time: ‘Prophets’, ‘Nomads’, ‘Heroes’ and ‘Artists’. Instead of thinking every single generation is unique on its own, they discovered recurring patterns across generations, allowing them to better predict the future generations’ behavior. Smart organizations increasingly focus their attention not so much on assembling more data, but on detecting patterns from and between data points. Just looking at the surging demand for data science jobs, it seems we are heading in the right direction.

2. Learn from the Edges

In order to create an environment where new practices, ideas and solutions can freely bubble up and flourish, it makes sense to allow the edges in your organization to thrive, either by directly funding it or by installing ‘permitted bootlegging’ and freeing up time for undirected innovation. For example, organizations can develop greater resilience in the face of the unforeseen by actively involving generations Y and Z in co-creating their future, being more entrepreneurial, unstructured and non-linear compared to other generations. Boyan Slat is a great example. At 16, Boyan came across more plastic bags than fish while diving in Greece. Still being in secondary school, he decided to dedicate half a year of research to understand plastic pollution. He eventually founded ‘The Ocean Cleanup’ initiative through crowd funding, fueling the world’s biggest fight against oceanic plastic pollution. Look for similar ‘movers and shakers’ at the edges of your organization and involve them actively in crafting your future.

3. Speed up your internal clock

Most organizations are still structured according to the pace of change that is typical for the industrial age. Yet, today’s networked age is outpacing and outwitting most organizations, making the plans companies have thoughtfully developed look foolish. The reason is simple: their inside clock speed is not in sync with that of their external world. A proven way to accomplish this is to put customers at the heart of organizations, allowing people on the inside to fuel faster cycles of discovery and development, to better keep up with the dynamics of their markets and to build greater resilience from that. Ducati, the famous Italian designer and manufacturer of sporting motorcycles, quickly understood the importance of building bridges between their customers and employees. Since about 10 years, the company collaborates with Ducati owners, prospective owners and brand fans, using its ‘Ducatisti’ communities. The communities help Ducati to establish a closer contact with customers, to better understand their changing needs and to co-create solutions for the future.

4. Disconnect to Reflect

One of the unfortunate consequences of our digitized world is that it pushes us to decreasingly use our brains. As Herbert Simon already predicted back in 1971, richness in information is leading to shortage in attention. Living in an always-on era where ‘continuous partial attention’ rules, people take a grasshopper perspective rather than a helicopter perspective. In his book BrainChains, neuropsychiatrist Theo Compernolle warns businesses for the detrimental effects of multitasking. Our continuous swiping, clicking, flipping and shifting through messages and screens demands so much of our brain bandwidth that it has no time left for deep reflection. While it sounds counter-intuitive, we need to disconnect our brain from time to time from the change that happens around us, in order to be able to better respond to that same change. It is no secret that Steve Jobs had the habit of taking long walks around the hills of Silicon Valley. So take that walk, just do nothing or use apps such as Freedom locking you away from the Internet so you can help your brain focus better.

5. Lead with Purpose

Within a sea of change, purpose is one of the few things that should remain stable over time. I just love this video in which Steve Jobs announces Apple’s new brand marketing campaign ‘Think Different’, sharing its corporate belief that “people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who actually do”. It was serving Apple since the start and to this very day it still is. Purpose touches the soul of a company and acts as a source of stability, recognition and inspiration for people. According to Simon Sinek, the very survival of the human race depends on the extent to which we can unite groups of people around a common purpose. When ensuring clarity on the why and not just the what, we grow the necessary trust in each other and boost our confidence to take risks, experiment and explore.

Want to know if you are ready to lead in the fast lane? Ask yourself the following 5 questions:

  1. Do you regularly take a step back to see the bigger picture surrounding change?
  2. Do you invest in learning from the people at your organization’s edges?
  3. Are you collaborating with different stakeholders outside of your organization?
  4. Do you take the time to disconnect and activate your brain for deep reflection?
  5. Are your people jointly united around a clear and compelling purpose?

Good luck and remember: time is not on your side!

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