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Leading Transformation in a World of Uncertainty

Whether creating a disruptive business model, developing a radical innovation, or executing a cultural makeover, leaders know that their job is to drive organizational transformation to keep pace with today’s rapidly changing world.

They also know that the odds of success are against them.

Often, however, it is not the inability to solve technological or strategic problems that causes companies to fail. It is the human problems associated with change, such as fear, habits, politics, and lack of imagination, that frequently block efforts to innovate.

But if we could understand the psychological and cognitive biases that stymie innovation, couldn’t we do a better job at overcoming these barriers?

In our book, Leading Transformation: How to Take Charge of Your Company’s Future, we outline a new process rooted in an emerging field called behavioral transformation, which focuses on understanding how innovation and transformation actually happen in organizations.

The book is divided into three steps to help overcome the behavioral limitations that stymie innovation most: envisioning the future, breaking down resistance, and navigating unknown territory. The first step, envisioning the future, is necessary for all transformational efforts, and it is also one of the hardest. But with the right tools, it doesn’t have to be.

Innovation’s Antibody: Incremental Thinking

One of the biggest limitations to organizational innovation and transformation is the human tendency towards narrow thinking, or seeing only incremental improvements to the status quo.

In contrast, we admire innovators like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos precisely because they dream bigger, dare bigger, and inspire those around them to change the world.

When we interviewed Musk and his team at Tesla, what surprised us most was how Musk’s vision to change the world to a renewable, electric vehicle future had infected everyone at the company. Engineers, assembly-line workers, and even custodians felt that they were changing the world through their work, not just making cars. One leader told us confidentially, “We don’t have the best engineers in the world, but they believe in what we are doing so much, we can do amazing things with them.”

The question then becomes, how can other leaders achieve a similar type of impact and help their organizations break free of incremental thinking? We suggest using strategic narratives and science fiction as tools for radically re-envisioning what is possible in your organization.

Using Science Fiction and Strategic Narrative to Envision the Future

For centuries, stories have opened our eyes to what is possible, suspended our disbelief, and stirred our hearts into action. Stories are one of humankind’s oldest and most powerful tools.

The power of story has its roots in evolutionary psychology: recent neuroscience research reveals that stories release a rush of neurochemicals that can literally sync people’s brains with one another and motivate action. When used properly, a story can help people see the future and transform them from adversaries into advocates working hard to create that future together.

As a transformational tool, science fiction and strategic narratives inspire us for several reasons.

First, they encourage us to imagine—even demand that we imagine—a different but possible future. Second, good science fiction takes into account the human elements of technology and change and wrestles with their implications. Thus, the good stories are less about the technology and more about the human problems that technology reveals or solves.

The resulting story in a strategic narrative involves a protagonist, a dilemma, and a resolution, all built into a narrative arc that gives us reason to believe. What matters most is finding a way of storytelling that overcomes your audience’s natural resistance to change and to thinking bigger about the future. In the book, we outline how to create a strategic narrative and then how to choose the right medium to tell your story, for example, by creating a comic book.

Together these elements—the abilities both to see further and to ask what problems can be solved—can help organizations and leaders break free of the biases that trap them in incremental thinking and instead open up to envisioning valuable new futures.

To create the future we desire in today’s complex and uncertain business climate, we need new tools and approaches to help leaders overcome the incrementalism, biases, and fears that hold back positive change and transformation.

Ultimately, transformation is about learning to envision the future you want to create, and then finding the right tools to help you take charge of the future for your organization.

Image Credit: gst / Shutterstock.com

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