Most of us react to how things are playing out for us. And once it’s in the past, we tend to think if the response and action we did were right. Do we wonder if things would have been better if we approached it differently? What if we can see the future? Surely this will help us to a great extent. That is the focus of our episode today with our guest Jonathan Brill. Jonathan is a futurist and an expert on resilient growth and innovation under uncertainty. He shares his knowledge and the tools he uses to help companies grow even through crises. He even wrote a book to cover all of these. Listen and know the future of you and your business!
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How To Respond To Changes And The Uncertain Future Of Your Business With Jonathan Brill
I’m always excited to pick people’s brains and to find out what’s going on in different people’s minds as to how they work smarter, what that means to them and what that can mean for you. In this episode, I’m super excited to have Jonathan Brill with us. He is a former global futurist from HP and he’s an expert on resilient growth and innovation under uncertainty. He helps Hollywood and corporate leaders envision and profit from more radical change.
His new book, Rogue Waves, shares decision-making and innovation tools that helped companies grow through crises and generate over $27 billion in new revenue across a range of different industries. He’s in demand as a thought leader, speaker and contributor to TED, Harvard Business Review and Psychology Today.
Jonathan, welcome to the show.
Thanks, Penny. It’s great to be here.
First, let’s talk about a futurist. What does that mean exactly?
There are a number of definitions. I became a futurist when I got my business card in HP. I thought I was leading their long-term strategy program and my card said futurist on it. What I do is help companies think about what are the range of possible futures and the small decisions we can make now to increase our optionality and potential when they happen. I don’t know if you noticed this, but things have been getting a little more disruptive.
We could say they’ve been getting more disruptive or that they’ve always been disruptive in different ways.
Both of those things are true. What we’ve done is we started planning on shorter timescales in our businesses. We assumed that the next segment or next timescale would be the same or similar to the last one, but as these scales get shorter and shorter, the likelihood of them being the same is smaller. When you think about it like Physics, Newtonian Physics works at the scale of humans, but once you get smaller, you see a lot more disruption. Things are a lot less stable when you start zooming in. That’s what we’re experiencing in our planning.
When you take a look at the 20th century, there were 400 major business shocks, economic shocks and natural disasters in the United States alone. When you take a look at that, about 27% of the time, we were digging out of what they call rogue waves. We see waves of disruption where you have AI, aging populations or whatever, but the question that we should be asking is what happens when those waves of disruption collide? How do we respond to that scale of change?
We spent over a quarter of the 20th century in those moments and spent about 45% of the 20th century failing out of those moments. These disruptions aren’t the edge case or the main case, and yet, we look at them and say, “We’ll deal with that problem when we get to it.” We’ll always be dealing with that problem.
I think that part of our challenge is that we resist our reality. We’re digging out because we refuse to see it coming and we refuse to change until it’s forced upon us, and even then, many companies are kicking and screaming in the changes that they’re making instead of embracing them and looking forward. Do you agree with that or disagree with that?
There are two ways of looking at this. The first is I generally agree with what you’re saying. Second, the challenge with the future is most of us don’t have a complete skillset for how to see it. There are many things we can’t know, but if you take a look, for instance, at Davos, where the European business leaders met for The World Economic Forum’s main conference on January 22, 2022, there was not a single agenda item about tensions in Eastern Europe. There were lots of agenda items about DEI, climate, human rights and automation, but nothing about the largest thing that could possibly happen that year in Europe, which is an upending of the European order and the challenge to the European system.
Things have been getting a little more disruptive recently. Click To Tweet
This is how things typically work. That’s not an edge case. If you take a look at the days before World War I, World War I started on Tuesday. On Saturday, the equivalent of the National Guard in Europe, that’s like the Reserve Forces, the cover of their newspaper in Britain was about their marksmanship and how much better they were at marksmanship than the French. This is typical.
If you get a little bit better at seeing the future, this is an opportunity for your organization because most companies and people are challenged at that and there are processes you can use to take advantage of those moments. It turns out that the companies that plan for that, take advantage of it and think a little more long-term tend to have significantly superior economic outcomes over time than the companies that don’t.
How does one get into that new way of thinking? I’m busy digging out and I’ve got all these fires to fight. With the Great Resignation, I don’t have enough people to even do it. How does one shift their focus to looking more into the future, considering also all this stress and everything that’s going on?
I wrote a book about it. It is conveniently called Rogue Waves. I wrote it because there are lots of processes, techniques and tools to do this, but they weren’t in one place. They’d be in some national defense or intelligence, colleges, curriculum or in the depths of some DevOps project management tool kit. They weren’t all in one place. If you want to learn how to do it, that’s honestly the best place.
Give us a teaser, something to have us understand what kinds of tools and things are in the book and something that we could walk away with and say, “I’m a little better because I can see into the future now.”
The top level of the book has three sections. The first is about awareness. If you think about any change, no one’s going to change unless they know why they have to. If you’re the captain of a ship, you better make sure that the people in the engine room know what’s going on the sea so that they can innovate and move along with you. We talk about the ten major trends that will shape this coming decade. No matter what causes the next rogue wave or whatever the seated event is, these other ten trends will collide to shape it.
Before you go on, let me ask you something about that first piece with ten trends to shape this decade. Is that research that you’ve done? How did you come up with these ten?
We did about three years of research when I was the Global Futurist at HP. We spent about $15 million of work not just on this, but other topics where we were trying to figure out how do we set this organization up on Fortune 50 for the next decade. I’ve given you the best practices and what we know about the future because there are plenty we don’t.
Let me talk to the people who are reading. You spent about $15 million in three years collecting this data, so anybody who’s not going out to buy this book, I’m sure it is way cheaper than doing the research yourself or having to put in those years in the time that’s spent. I’m in the midst of reading it right now. I’m diving in and excited. Go ahead. What’s section two?
Section two is about behavior change. It doesn’t matter if you know the tsunami is coming if you don’t know how to get off the beach. The question is, how do you do that? There are five steps. Unfortunately, I’m a consultant, so I like acronyms. We’ve got the ABCs of resilient growth, and then we’ve got the rogue method.
There are five steps. One is reality testing. How do you understand what’s happening now? If you make any projection into the future off of the wrong baseline, you’re going to get a wrong projection into the future. We talk about what those tool kits are to see the future. We talked about that a little bit earlier that most companies and most people don’t have all of them. There are four, and to get all four, you need four Master’s degrees. You need to figure out how to work with them more effectively in your company.
The second piece is about observing systems. It’s about understanding not just your organization and how your organization does operates, but how does it fit into the larger ecosystem in which you operate. We talk about toolkits for doing that. We talk about generating the range of possible futures. We talked about reality testing, observing systems, and generating possible futures.
Going into 2020, most of us didn’t understand that you could have a company like Zoom that did 26 times growth or a company like AMC Theatres that did 96% worse because all the theaters closed. Both of those are possible futures in any given year, so how are you going to respond when that level of disruption occurs? The fourth is about uncoupling threats and opportunities. What are the smallest shifts and processes that you can make now to increase your optionality and your potential moving forward? It’s about nipping off the possibility of truly destructive things happening to you or to your organization.
The last is about experimentation. In many companies that I go into, I do innovation assessments. What I see is that they try and do more of what they’re good at as opposed to diversifying their innovation so that they’re going to have success no matter what future unfolds or which experiments are successful. What I try and do is help organizations think about experiments as a portfolio like you would stock market investments. Tesla’s a great investment, but it would be insane just to have all your money in Tesla. You want to have a diversified portfolio and the same thing with how you innovate in your organization so that no matter what succeeds or fails, you end up with the outcomes you need.
Then, the last piece is about culture change. How do you create a culture that’s capable of having these conversations about a future for which we don’t yet have enough data? When you take a look at 10-Ks or annual reports, what you see when you look at the risk assessments of senior managers is almost always, they’re over-focused on things that have happened in their careers and their industry as opposed to things that have happened in the world.
That’s an overview of what’s in the book. I know that first, you got to be aware and it depends on where somebody is, but could we pull out and just dig into one strategy? I’ve got a futurist question for you.
We talked a little bit about reality testing. It’s the first step in that method. When you’re trying to understand what’s happening, there’s a simple way to get the most information as fast as possible. It’s what I call the REAL method. What is your reconnaissance method going to be? Whenever you’re looking at a new situation or new space, the first question is, what is the question if you answered it would shrink the search area or the search universe the most? Start there. It’s not necessarily the easiest question.
Give us an example. I love what you’re saying and it’s getting people to think, but it might also feel a little abstract. If you give us an example, people will be able to connect to that.
I’m thinking of a specific example. This is the simple thing that’s at the top of my head. I’m throwing an event in Vancouver. I’ve spent very little time in Vancouver. I’ve never thrown an event there, so I’m trying to figure out where’s the best place to throw an event or how do I throw a good event? The first question is how far people will go from their hotels to the event. We discovered two blocks is probably the maximum. That has shrunk my search area for how to throw a good event from all of these possibilities down to these couple of blocks.
Within that couple of blocks, the next question has become, “What’s the food available? What’s the experience available and what are the costs of these things?” That helps shrink things even further. My point is that a simple idea of what’s the one question that will shrink the search area the most helps us focus our time and effort.
If you just get a little bit better at seeing the future, this is an opportunity for your organization. Click To Tweet
In this case, I ended up finding that the Vancouver Lookout, which is the observatory on top of the tallest building in Vancouver. It was available for $300 an hour, which is, in the world of event management, super cheap. It’s because they’d been closed since COVID and they didn’t have any bookings. It’s normally a tourist attraction. My point is by shrinking things, I was able to find those very specific nuggets that I would’ve never even considered before if I was looking at the whole city.
I’m a huge fan of the power of questions. Questions are underutilized in getting to the right question. I’ve heard it before. Maybe other people have heard that it’s not about having the right answer, but it’s about having the right question and that is going to be so much more powerful in narrowing down our focus and getting clarity. Your overall thing is what’s going to influence people to show up. As you said, distance is one of them. Then, you can ask that question to narrow it down. I agree.
People, when you’re thinking about your businesses or anything that you do, it is coming up with a number of different questions to identify and narrow down your scope and focus. What you’re saying is it makes it so much easier to go from 1,000 choices and opportunities to the question that helps you narrow it down based on your goals to just a few.
I would add to that because it’s easy to get into questionitis as well. I’m a researcher. I love researching questions. The second thing to ask is, what would change my opinion. Would answering this question change my opinion? I spend a lot of time answering questions that don’t impact decision-making.
I do a lot of work for senior executives and they always want to know more. They’re making a bet that they can’t walk back from, and yet, typically, the logic of these things is pretty basic that getting more information isn’t going to help them make a better decision. There are what you don’t know and what you can’t know. They often get confused between the two.
There are what you do know. Also, what people do is they don’t always take a look at where they really are and get clarity on where they are and what they do know.
There’s a simple tool for exactly that, and this is one of the second things that I do probably even before I start figuring out what’s the search area. It’s looking at knowns and unknowns. Simply making a four-box model where you’d draw an X and Y axis and you say, “What do we know that we know? What don’t we know that we don’t know? What might we know that we’re unaware of? What can’t we know?” If you want to figure out where your priorities are, that’s a simple way to get started on understanding when you’re in an ambiguous place.
What can’t we know?
It’s a counterfactual question. One of the powerful questions is to ask what we can’t imagine. Another powerful question is, what’s the worst idea we could have? These questions help us shrink the types of things we haven’t imagined yet.
To give people an understanding of that, take your event as an example. What can’t you know around this event that you’re planning?
Thanks for your focusology. I can’t know what the COVID guidelines are going to be on the day of the event. I’ll know a lot more probably two weeks out than I do now, but we’re pretty sure that the regulations will change, and I can’t know what those will be.
It could be another variant.
That opens up the range of possibilities. It also helps me focus on what’s the most important.
As I work through it in my head, I challenge the audience to see if that’s what they understand. I talk about the idea of being a focusologist, and it is to understand what we can control and what we can’t control. It sounds like there’s a little bit of that in there as well. What we can’t know is what we can’t control, so we can’t really worry about that. We need to look at what we do know and what we can extrapolate on, and those are the things that we base our decisions on other than the things that are outside of our control or we can’t know. Am I getting that right?
I think about it a little bit differently because my thesis is slightly different. There’s a lot of focus and project management on ignoring the things you can’t control because you can’t control them. My argument is in a world of disruption. Do not ignore them because you can’t control them. It’s far more likely that you’ll be disrupted than you’ll be the disruptor. What you want to understand is what that range of disruption is likely to be as a business or your finances, or your operations. Is your external environment, strategy, sales demands, and so on able to respond to the range of possible disruptions or range of possible threats or stressors?
When those things happen, are you able to take advantage of them? You can apply the same thing to your customers, by the way. They have the same challenges. What would happen to them? Can you provide value to them? If you have a lifeboat and everyone else is still capsized, that’s a high-value moment for your company. That’s a high-value opportunity to provide value to customers, so how do you be there in those moments?
We’ve seen people with factories change what they’re producing to take advantage of what’s needed. Maybe it was Ford or one of the car companies that started to produce masks, ventilators, and other things that were needed. That would be an example of pivoting quickly and taking advantage of the opportunity.
When restaurants closed, a lot of alcohol producers started making alcohol-based hand sanitizers.
Would you consider that to be flexibility?
A good stress question is, “What would happen if our current market went to zero tomorrow?” I have a friend who’s got a small family farm and they ship to 800 of the top 1,000 restaurants around the world. One of the questions we asked was exactly that, like, “What would happen if those restaurants didn’t exist tomorrow? How would you pivot?” We spent a number of years looking as a backup pocket idea of how would we pivot to shipping to consumers. Guess what happened in the spring of 2020?
It’s far more likely that you'll be disrupted than you'll be the disruptor. Click To Tweet
They went through this exercise before 2020. Lucky them.
We didn’t know it was going to be COVID, but we knew that was a good question to figure out where the stress points would be. They shipped more vegetables by weight in 2020 than they did in 2019 coming out of COVID. They now have two markets. They’ve doubled their size as a result of this moment that stressed so many of their competitors and pushed many of them out of business.
Let’s take a quick shift. We’re almost out of our time. I want to ask you a question that I ask everybody else. I’m curious what the futurist says, and then, I have a futurist question for you. As a futurist, what is your definition of productivity and why?
Historically, it would be what’s called labor productivity, which is how much has earned per hour worked? The challenge in times of disruption is that it’s not really a good metric. The question is how much of your time or how many of your assets will become more valuable when the world changes.
What I love that about that question is nobody answers the same thing anyway. Regardless of whether it’s in disruption or not, it’s one of those things that vary. We’re human beings. We’re not machines, so those definitions vary greatly. That’s why I think that’s interesting. Here’s my futurist question for you. I’ve been talking to a couple of different futurists, so I’ve been thinking about this. AI and robotics are also creating disruption with the way that our new generations are having new experiences and that’s having them think about education and the workplace differently. It’s going to be a very different future of work.
I know I’m putting you on the spot. I’m going to give you a minute to think about it. There was a statistic that I saw. I can’t remember the number, but let’s say there are hundreds of jobs now that nobody could even imagine many years ago. There are new titles and new things that people are doing. It’s a job to take videos and travel around the world. You get paid for that. If I gave you a minute to think about it, what’s a job or two that you think based on where you think the world is going that will exist tomorrow, meaning in 10, 20, 30 years, or whatever timeframe you want that doesn’t exist now? It could be a new industry that’ll pop up or an industry that exists that will be completely different.
Healthcare is going to be completely different in the coming years because of what we’re learning about genetic programming in biotech. You can see a world in the coming years where people are customizing your DNA and updating your DNA while you’re alive to improve your health. This is already starting, but it’s pretty geeky stuff. This is going to become a mass-market issue and it’s going to be one of the major industries on the planet.
How do you think we’re going to pay for it when, let’s say, all this AI and robotics take over many of the different basic jobs? Will companies get fatter and people get poorer, or will other jobs in the workforce appear so that people can pay for this mass-market DNA?
That is a huge and complex question.
I know. It’s so unfair for me to ask you that right here. I realize that.
The first thing to ask is whether companies are getting fatter in the ways that we suggest. In the 1970s, there was a thing called the financialization of the economy. It’s when we stopped trading on gold and started printing more money to try and stimulate the economy moving forward. A lot of the money that we print to stimulate the economy ends up in the stock market, and we don’t want that money to come back into the real economy. Otherwise, the cost of milk, goods, and the inflationary pressures that we’re seeing now happen.
When you take a look at the growth of companies, their valuation has increased, but it has increased because we want to put that in place and we don’t want it to get into the real economy. That would be my first thing. I don’t know if that’s how you’re describing the growth of companies, but it is how it works. The second is that there are taxation regimes. How do we get that money circulated to provide more government services? We’ll probably get to see a lot more of that.
Do you think there would be more government services?
I think that we’re going to see growth in government. The last piece you talked about, AI and robotics, we’re going to see a lot of that, but we’re also going to see an aging population. The population in the United States is older for the first time in the history of the country. That means that we’re going to have fewer workers. You were already talking about the Great Resignation. That was a lot of the people at the end of their work lives saying, “I don’t need to rebuild my dentistry practice at age 64. This is enough.”
I thought there were a lot of Gen Z years or Millennials that were also like, “Nah.”
We’ll see. There are a lot of people at that end of the spectrum who have had professional services businesses. My point about that is it wasn’t about Gen Z or those people. It’s that we’re going to see a lot of people coming into the workforce needing to do more productivity per hour to keep the machines of the economy running. A lot of what robotics and AI are going to do is not replace jobs, but increase the efficiency or, by some definitions, the productivity of those individuals.
Thank you so much for sharing your perspective. I’m starting to think about it and question and let my brain roam read some different things. I’m excited to dig further into your book. Where’s the best place for people to find you?
That’s fantastic. Thank you for being here.
Thanks. It’s awesome to be here with you.
Also, thank you all for being here. I hope we stimulated you a little bit to think about things differently, ask some new and different questions, and go back and ask your team those questions. I know you’re busy and you’ve got a lot going on, but you see that we don’t know. There’s a lot of uncertainty out there and there are a lot of things that are changing.
Take a lunchtime once a week and talk about things. Put that little framework up with the four quadrants and go through some ideas. Ask for silly things that could happen in the future and explore, because your team that you’re working with has a lot of different perspectives, and because you think one way about where the future is going and what you know about the marketplace, you’d be surprised at the gems that come out from your team.
Also, people support what they create. If they have a part in creating something that could be a future option, there would be much more options to be a part of it when they were part of the ideation. That’s up to you guys. Bring it back to your teams. Think about it, journal about it, read about it and make sure that it is a part of your future planning because you want to make sure you have a future. I’ll see you in the next episode.
About Jonathan Brill
Jonathan Brill is the former Global Futurist at HP. An expert on resilient growth and innovation under uncertainty, he helps Hollywood and corporate leaders envision and profit from radical change. His new book, Rogue Waves, shares decision-making and innovative tools that have helped companies grow through crises and generate over $27 billion in new revenue across a range of industries. He is an in-demand thought leader, speaker, and contributor to TED, Harvard Business Review, and Psychology Today. Pick up your copy of Rogue Waves on Amazon, get tools to futureproof your business at jonathanbrill.com, and follow him on LinkedIn.