The inspiration, well…for this week’s growth inspiration, comes from Singapore, a country that has proven to be a fertile ground to explore what Lim Siong Guan, the country’s former Head of Civil Service, calls the unknown unknowns.
An introduction first…Lim Siong Guan was the Head of the Singapore Civil Service from 1999 till 2005. He held various positions in Government before taking on the Group managing director role in Singapore’s Investment Corporation in 2007, the country’s Sovereign Wealth Fund. He is a Professor of public policy and the author of The Leader, The Teacher & You: Leadership Through The Third Generation.
In his foreword to the book Mastering ASEAN-Novation, he shares a story of a friend of his, who he meets years after they attended the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School together. He asked what his friend was now doing. His friend replied that he was going around schools setting up robotics clubs. Robotics clubs, of course, are not a new idea. Many schools have them, and many wished they had them. So how would his venture be different? Well, his friend explained, first thing he did was to teach the students social responsibility. In other words, even as they built robots, they had to be able to answer the question of why is what they are doing socially responsible and good for society. Next, he taught them how to cope with failure. No one starts something new with the idea of failing. However, everyone needs to start conscious of the possibility of failing. Everyone needs to have a deliberate perspective on how to cope with failure.
Lim realised that a failure to learn from the past is often so avoidable if only we were humble enough to acknowledge and learn from our past failure, or we were smart enough to learn from the slips and failures of others. A failure to adapt to the present is often also avoidable if we were to recognise that all policies and practices are the best that could be with the resources and circumstances at the time they were introduced. However, situations change, the desires of people change, the possibilities of technology change, the demands of the market change. It is possible to adapt to the present if we were humble enough to accept that what we are doing is no longer the best that we can do.
A failure to anticipate the future is the most important reason for failing. Put another way, a failure to anticipate the future is ultimately a failure of leadership. It is to fail to prepare for survival and sustainability.
With this in mind, how can we prepare for the future when the future is not only uncertain, but is also increasingly unknowable?
In a world of Known Knowns (the kind of future we like to sentimentally think about as an extension of the past), we seek to understand the future in terms of predetermined elements — those aspects of the future we can be reasonably certain about. The world of Known Unknowns is the world of scenario planning. Popularised over the past two decades, this is where we learn from the past what we cannot control for the future but believe we can plan for the diversity of possible futures. We can develop, for example, a strategic plan that is not optimised to any particular scenario, but can work reasonably well irrespective of which scenario transpires – today, as we increasingly face Unknown Unknows, such well-meaning plans often get ‘stuck in the middle’. And hence we now have to contend with the world of Unknown Unknowns.
Winning in a world of Unknown Unknowns demands that we pay attention to a different set of attributes than we normally tend to do – and this bring into our discussion the role of Culture. In the words of Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter of the Harvard Business School, said differently, “Culture is a leading indicator” An enterprise on a journey to develop a winning culture will define the values and behaviours which it believes it needs to have in order to win – in the future. It would decide whether, for example, we need humility, openness of mind, and goodness of heart to succeed, and these become the centrepieces for the future organisation.
Reflecting on Lim Siong Guan’s observation, it became clear to me how important it is to develop an anticipatory capacity within our organisations. How central that is to our ability to navigate new terrains and safeguard our organisations and ourselves from risks we did not know existed. The role of leaders in modelling the way we want our organisations to become cannot be over-emphasized. What a privilege it is to lead in these extraordinary times.
Have a good weekend everyone!
Saar Ben-Attar (Chief Instigator)
- Liminal Thinking by Dave Gray, a beautifully-written book on becoming aware of the unknown unknowns in our thinking.
- Seeing around corners: How to spot inflection points in business before they happen, by Rita McGrath
- Navigating ASEANnovation:The Reservoir Principle and Other Essays on Startups and Innovation in Southeast Asia, by Yinglan Tan and Paulo Joquiño
Adapted from Lim Siong Guan’s Foreward to Navigating ASEANnovation, by Yinglan Tan and Paulo Joquiño.