Build Teams from Global Talent. The forced acceptance of remote teams has been an unexpected creative gift of the pandemic. Any business that hires only in its backyard will be at a real disadvantage compared to an organization that seeks out unique talent from a pool of literally billions of candidates. The new global team isn’t simply about offshoring blocks of work to low-cost labor markets. It’s about bringing together unique skills and experiences to collaborate to push ambitious new ideas in changing markets.
When it comes to designing the future of work, one size fits none. Discovering success isn’t about a hybrid model or offering remote work options. Individuals and organizations are looking for more freedom. The freedom to choose the work model that makes the most sense. The freedom to choose their own values. And the freedom to pursue what matters most. We reached out to successful leaders and thought leaders across all industries to glean their insights and predictions about how to create a future that works.
As a part of our interview series called “How Employers and Employees are Reworking Work Together,” we had the pleasure to interview Dan McClure.
Dan McClure is a System Choreographer, with over three decades of experience working as a hands-on advisor to leaders pursuing enterprise level innovation. He is a founding partner of Innovation Ecosystem, where he enables organizations that face messy disruptive challenges to break the status quo and build something new and impactful in its place. In this work, disruption is opportunity, so the last two years of the pandemic have provided a host of opportunities for Dan to support the reinvention of healthcare, develop strategic responses to climate change, prepare for future pandemics, create systems for trustworthy communications in crisis, and guide the transformation of organizations to deliver enterprise level innovation.
Thank you for making time to visit with us about the topic of our time. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today.
When I graduated from college, I planned to join the U.S. Peace Corps, go to Nepal, and trudge up and down mountains putting in new water systems. Unfortunately, that dream fell through due to a rather strange medical disqualification (an outie belly button). I ended up instead with a good solid job as a planning engineer in a large energy utility. It was the kind of stable position that my parents, who grew up during the 1930’s Depression, thought of as ideal.
I struggled though. I didn’t do well with routine or detail, and it wasn’t long before my performance and happiness suffered. Thankfully, about a year in, good fortune smiled on me. The US energy industry was thrust into a devastatingly disruptive wave of deregulation. In that chaos, I found a career. I was given a small innovation team and told to go figure out how a traditional utility, which had always moved at the speed of a glacier, could suddenly adapt to a newly competitive and changing world.
It was as if handcuffs had been cut off. I thrived helping shape new ways for the organization to work and found there were others who had the same energy and excitement for bold creative adventures. This realization that people and organizations can flourish by embracing tumultuous change, has guided my life and career in innovation ever since.
Let’s zoom out. What do you predict will be the same about work, the workforce and the workplace 10–15 years from now? What do you predict will be different?
It’s tempting to see the current changes in the nature of work as coming from the obvious disruption brought on by the pandemic, but I’d propose there are deeper, more fundamental drivers of change that began even before Covid upended things. This decade ahead is going to be an amazing time, with sweeping changes in almost every aspect of life, business, and work. In the years ahead, the foundations of what it means to be a successful business are going to change, and this will fundamentally shift the expectations in the workplace.
Well before the pandemic began, we were quoting Klaus Schwab, chairman of the World Economic Forum, who projected a Fourth Industrial Revolution of disruptions which would ‘fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation is unlike anything humankind has experienced before.’ Even if there had been no Covid19 crisis, businesses and society would still face repeated waves of change driven by new technology, expanded access to education, unprecedented urbanization, and global connectivity.
Much like the utility company that was my first job, businesses won’t be able to work in the same way as they face these inevitable waves of disruption. There will be very few 20th Century model organizations that survive the coming decade. Businesses, and by extension their employees, who focus on optimizing existing services or products will find themselves quickly driven toward obsolescence. This will be true across the spectrum of work. Restaurants, trucking companies, dentist’s offices, universities, and health care giants will all need to reinvent themselves during this decade.
These disruptions won’t be a one time thing. A business that reinvents itself to face one disruptive challenge will have just a few moments to enjoy its success before it has to plunge into another round of innovation. The workplace of the future will be within the organizations that can continuously redesign themselves. Specific jobs will be more transitory in a creatively adaptive organization because the opportunities that drive them will be increasingly short-lived. However, if we can adapt to this new dynamic environment the work available to us should be more challenging, creative, and original.
What advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?
There are two basic models for surviving change. In the first model, the approach taken by most 20th Century organizations, the goal is to be sturdy and robust. Robust organizations seek to defend their fundamental structure and purpose in the face of change. For them, future proofing means weathering the ups and downs of the market, changes in regulation, and new technology introductions.
Robust organizations thrive in change … until they finally reach a breaking point, at which point their walls come crashing down. Personally, when I talk to the leaders of robust organizations, I often find it hard not to cringe. They so clearly believe in earnest time proven strategies for holding on to the status quo. Unfortunately, they will increasingly face disruptive competitors that Paul Nunes and Larry Downes, authors of the Big Bang Disruption, describe as ‘entering the market simultaneously better and cheaper and more customized than the products or services of incumbents.’ The merely robust won’t survive the years ahead.
Fortunately, there is another future proofing strategy. It’s an adaptive, resilient approach, where organizations develop an enterprise capability for making fundamental changes in what they do and how they bring value to the world. Adaptive organizations are designed to reinvent themselves. This allows them to creatively respond to big threats and pursue radically different opportunities, rather than standing in the middle of the road hoping to withstand the impact of unavoidable change.
What do you predict will be the biggest gaps between what employers are willing to offer and what employees expect as we move forward? And what strategies would you offer about how to reconcile those gaps?
In industries that face disruptive change, organizational leaders hear two very different messages. On one hand, angry and worried employees see changes as a threat. When a major wave of disruption, like the pandemic, impacts their work and careers, they will seek to reestablish a foundation of pre-pandemic work practices. While this group may demand higher wages, more benefits, and a fairer slice of the pie, these demands are implicitly framed within the current business practices.
This focus is entirely understandable, but it misses the real danger to both the business and its employees. Unless an organization becomes creatively adaptive, there will be no business or jobs to argue over. The second set of voices, those of future-focused workers, see this challenge and expect the organizations that engage them to demonstrate this creative competence.
For an organization, demonstrating the ability to adaptat is not easy. In interviews, we have noticed that savvy candidates often spend as much time quizzing the company on their creative competence as the company spends assessing candidate skills. To make the grade, leaders must offer more than an isolated innovation lab or occasional hackathon. They need to build an enterprise that offers employees a nimble ship for navigating new opportunities.
We simultaneously joined a global experiment together last year called “Working From Home.” How will this experience influence the future of work?
This is a place where creative future focused companies can really take advantage of the changes emerging from the pandemic. For years the debate surrounding ‘work from home’ has focused on its value as a benefit, something that might improve work-life balance, create more options for parents, and increase employee satisfaction. These are ideas laid on top of conventional work practices.
Two years of working from home has set far more fundamental changes in motion. Initially the pandemic prompted some employees to relocate to places where they could be close to family and other support. As the disruption continued, the changes became more widespread and permanent. People began taking out-of-town jobs without any plans to relocate, and businesses found themselves forced to look further afield when hiring.
These structural changes won’t be easy to reverse, but that’s great. This is a fabulous opportunity for creatively adaptive businesses. With a de facto model of remote teams, companies can expand their talent search radically. Our work now routinely includes cross-continent teams that leverage superstar specialists chosen for their ability to support unique innovation challenges.
This can be a huge boon for both employees and businesses. Businesses can build teams filled with talent tailored to unique challenges, while employees will be able to find opportunities that truly value their unique skills and talents.
We’ve all read the headlines about how the pandemic reshaped the workforce. What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support a future of work that works for everyone?
It’s pretty clear that I’m really excited about this coming decade. Some people have called it the Roaring Twenty Twenties, and I think this captures my sense of the dynamic possibilities that lie ahead. At the same time, it’s naïve to think that accelerating and widespread change won’t be hard and demanding at every level of our life, work, and society.
People who are mid-career will face the need to let go of 20th Century jobs, and those starting their career will be offered few toeholds in what were seen as traditionally safe jobs. The automation of routine work will accelerate and spread change across ever more jobs and professions. Both truck drivers and dentists will be squeezed out, as will almost anyone else doing a job with predictable tasks.
Even the good ‘new jobs’ will be increasingly transitory. For example, Amazon is hiring delivery drivers at 18 dollars an hour near my home, forcing many other businesses to scramble and catch up to retain their workers. And yet all these new jobs could vanish in a couple thousand days once autonomous vehicles are rolled out.
Daniel Pink in his book A Whole New Mind, said “We are moving from an economy and a society built on the logical, linear, computerlike capabilities of the Information Age to an economy and a society built on the inventive, empathetic, big-picture capabilities of what’s rising in its place.” These are the skills that we need to help people discover and shape. As a society, we will need to create institutions that better support transitions between jobs, filling evolving skill gaps and taking the leap from opportunity to opportunity as businesses themselves change.
What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?
Imagine my arms waving in excitement. There is so much possibility in the years ahead! We shouldn’t romanticize the world of work that was built in the last century. Sure, lifelong careers with daily predictability and steady paychecks helped lift people to a new standard of living and radically improved their quality of life. But that shouldn’t limit our future aspirations to production lines, 30 year careers built on a narrow set of skills, or jobs that fed families but failed to draw on our more profound gifts and talents.
We live in a world with billions of educated creative minds capable of driving hugely creative change. Businesses that continuously reinvent themselves won’t need people who want to work in Adam Smith’s pin factory. Organizations will only succeed if they can draw more deeply on individual talents and passions.
Yes, this will create challenges for workers. Our new normal will require jobs and careers to shift throughout our lives. We’ll be asked to develop new skills, continuously rising to shifting new challenges, but our lives will have a chance to be richer and more rewarding due to these evolving opportunities.
When I applied to join the Peace Corps out of college, it was partly because I wanted to do something that would contribute to the world’s well-being. However, if I’m being honest, I was also terrified of the prospect of sitting at the same desk for 30 years, doing the same work year after year.
In the end, I didn’t end up building water systems in the mountains, but I did discover opportunities that were anything but boring and routine in companies that embraced transformation. For much of my career, I was an outlier. Yet, the future of work today is positioned to offer exciting, personally challenging opportunities to far more people. Talents that languished in cubicle jobs, will increasingly be needed and valued in organizations that have to dance their way into the future.
Our collective mental health and wellbeing are now considered collateral as we consider the future of work. What innovative strategies do you see employers offering to help improve and optimize their employee’s mental health and wellbeing?
Discussions over the last two years have justifiably centered on the stress that comes from the work from home pandemic jobs, the loss of jobs, or the stress of jobs where your health is at risk every day. These are real issues that need attention, but my focus keeps being drawn a bit further into the future.
I sincerely believe that making work better, by embracing unique talents and genuinely engaging people in challenging new opportunities, is good for the soul. Over the long term, meaning just a few years from now, the most important thing we can do for mental health may be to prepare for a new world of continuously creative business. To be well, workers will need the abilities and resources needed to pursue their ambitions, and support the needs of those who depend on them.
It seems like there’s a new headline every day. ‘The Great Resignation’. ‘The Great Reconfiguration’. And now the ‘Great Reevaluation’. What are the most important messages leaders need to hear from these headlines? How do company cultures need to evolve?
It’s probably not surprising that I’m less focused on the immediate turmoil surrounding the ‘Great Resignation’, and would rather ask ‘How do we create flexible, creative business cultures in organizations that need to reinvent themselves routinely?’ This isn’t easy, right? Leaders are asking existing employees to repeatedly let go of the status quo in their current work and persuading new job candidates to join a company that is intentionally embracing change.
Businesses need to offer a culture which legitimately respects ideas, experimentation, and broad-based change. Ironically, in our work with organizations trying to create this kind of culture, the greatest source of failure is often senior leaders who forget to bring themselves along on the journey. It’s sadly uncommon to see talk about new opportunities and change subverted by executives, who, in a moment of crisis, swoop down on teams demanding the structure, predictability, and authority that were part of their 20th Century management approach.
This is a lesson that leaders take seriously. In his recent book exploring how to ‘sell’ change, Loran Nordgren pointed out that ‘negative experiences are five times more powerful than equally positive moments.’ A single case of executive swooping can undermine a host of carefully crafted messages in support of a culture of change.
Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Work?”
- See the Drivers of Business Disruption. I keep coming back to this theme: The future of work is tied up in the future of organizations. There will be no predictable, secure 20th Century jobs because the businesses of the future won’t survive by bringing static 20th Century value to the market. This makes it essential to see the trends and changes reshaping what companies do. There are huge waves of change already happening, sweeping through industries with extraordinary speed. We need to see these transformative changes in business because they will drive changes in work. For example, a favorite pandemic era statistic came from a McKinsey study that found that the use of telehealth services increased by 16,000% in the first six months of the crisis. Healthcare won’t be the same once this rocket fast trend toward unbundling plays out.
- Study Businesses Embracing Complexity. There are commercial businesses, non-profits, and government organizations that creatively respond to the opportunities in disruption. They have not settled on a one size fits all response. Instead, organizations are embracing wildly original ways of creating value, restricting business, and leveraging talent. Many of these new practices aren’t yet part of management texts’ canon, so it is worth studying the examples of strategic new business innovation as they emerge.
- Build Teams from Global Talent. The forced acceptance of remote teams has been an unexpected creative gift of the pandemic. Any business that hires only in its backyard will be at a real disadvantage compared to an organization that seeks out unique talent from a pool of literally billions of candidates. The new global team isn’t simply about offshoring blocks of work to low-cost labor markets. It’s about bringing together unique skills and experiences to collaborate to push ambitious new ideas in changing markets.
- Create Roles for Choreographers. Throughout the history of innovation, organizations have created new roles when they face new creative challenges. For example, new roles for digital product managers and user experience designers emerged in the dot com era in support of digital product development. Once fresh and cutting edge, these roles are now commonplace and offer hundreds of thousands of positions worldwide. Today, the emergence of enterprise-level innovation and change is driving the need for the next generation of innovation roles. To support enterprise-wide ambitions for creative change, organizations need big picture thinking ‘choreographers’ who can work across domains and business silos. This is the role that I filled for years when working with organizations forced to deal with deregulation or other disruptive change. Finding and supporting Choreographers will become a necessary enabler for a growing number of organizations.
- See and Avoid Toxic Stability. Each of the prior points contributes to ambitious innovation in the face of widespread disruptive change. They help businesses and employees work together to thrive in a messy but exciting future. The final point is the headwind that blows against a successful embrace of change. There will always be an understandable desire for stability from both organizations and employees. As a result, it’s not uncommon for them to conspire in a toxic relationship that clings to the familiar and predictable. Strategies that reinforce a commitment to stability may be comforting in the short term, but they will work against the need to navigate the authentic challenges of reinventing businesses and workplaces.
I keep quotes on my desk and on scraps of paper to stay inspired. What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? And how has this quote shaped your perspective?
In the Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern, wrote: “The truest tales require time and familiarity to become what they are.” This is something that I have to keep reminding myself. It is tempting to look for clear-cut answers about how the future will work. This is what the status quo seems to offer us. Clarity. Certainty.
Yet, when we ask this, we make an unfair demand on a world that we’re still inventing. Amid disruptive change, the future isn’t clear. We need to accept that our best new tales will take time to be understood and evolve into what they can be.
In the meantime, there is often messiness and fog, which isn’t an easy lesson to embrace. I have years of experience doing creative change on a big canvas, and I still need to consciously step back and remember that the truest tales require time. As we create organizations and jobs committed to thriving in continuous waves of change, this may be a belief we all need to embrace.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He, she, or they might just see this if we tag them.
I read a lot of books about ambitious innovation. Some are non-fiction, like Ian Goldin’s book on the Age of Discovery which points to a host of possibilities in the years ahead. Others are fiction, laying out the sense of wonder and struggle that comes with pushing creative bounds. Tom the Builder, Ken Follet’s cathedral architect, comes to mind.
A few talk about personal journeys of creation and discovery. So, while a nod to uber innovators like Elon Musk might be in order here, I think I’ll point to a personal favorite, Elizabeth Gilbert. She rose to fame with her book of creative self-discovery, Eat Pray Love. However, she has written on several other subjects, including her book Big Magic, which explored the challenge of a embracing a creative mission. I’d welcome a good conversation about the will to push into messy uncertainty and the power of well-founded intention to do something bold and new.
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Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.