Too many business books read like a first cousin of ‘The Joy of Cooking’: “Do you want to whip up an appetizing future? Then follow these step-by-step recipes for success, complete with tasty anecdotes to add some spice.” But two recently published books ditch that warmed-over approach. Both “The Visionary’s Handbook: Ten Paradoxes That Will Shape the Future of Your Business” by Watts Wacker, Jim Taylor, and Howard Means (HarperBusiness, $26), and “The Soul at Work: Listen, Respond, Let Go” by Roger Lewin and Birute Regine (Simon & Schuster, $26), argue that the old recipes for success no longer work. So how is it possible to secure the kind of future that we want for ourselves? By reveling in the paradoxes, contradictions, and tensions that define the present. “We live today inside a continuous collision of opposites,” write the authors of “The Visionary’s Handbook.” “This is a book about recognizing and living with those collisions: not avoiding them, because no one can.”
Coping with collisions is a central topic in each book. In “The Soul at Work,” Lewin, a science writer, and Regine, a developmental psychologist, present the basics of complexity theory and then offer a series of richly detailed narratives on how nine organizations apply that theory to the strategy and structure of their businesses. In “The Visionary’s Handbook,” futurist Wacker, business strategist Taylor, and professional writer Means go on a free-spirited romp through the economic and cultural landscape: They examine everything from why Oscar Mayer hot dogs cost so much at airport terminals to how the Discovery Channel outflanked National Geographic. Why do the authors of both books draw on such a wide variety of material for their stories? As Lewin and Regine write, “You can’t figure out what to do in the future by looking at how you did things in the past.”
The first book that Watts Wacker and his colleagues wrote together, “The 500 Year Delta: What Happens After What Comes Next” (HarperBusiness, 1997), grabbed readers and shook them vigorously. But “The Visionary’s Handbook” grabs readers by the hand and takes off running. The authors don’t just expound on the forces that are changing our culture; they offer exercises that can transform readers into forward-thinking provocateurs. Having success in the future, Wacker and his two colleagues write, means “managing the paradoxes that manage you.”
The first major paradox in the “Handbook” involves a challenge: living and working in the present and the future at the same time. The authors of the book dub this phenomenon “pressure tense” — a mode in which present and future combine, creating stress for those who are unable to juggle them both. How do you sustain a business while also planning to dismantle, cannibalize, and otherwise hack away at it in the coming years? Or, as the authors of the “Handbook” succinctly put it, “How do you bet on your vision of the future and allow yourself to survive in the present?”
One solution, they suggest, is to create something called a Fool Box — a space in an organization where people are free to pose any question or suggest any idea without fear of retribution. Those who step into the Fool Box (whom the authors like to think of as medieval-style jesters, offering up riddles, conundrums, and other twists on reality) can be employees or consultants. And, in a world of paradoxes, their purpose is to “embed contradiction in your organization by being certain that someone inside it is living outside it, beyond here and now, carrying your story line out five, ten, twenty years.”
The paradox of competition in the new economy is that rivals can spring from everywhere and nowhere at the same time. So focusing on existing competitors in similar industries is useless, because competitors that emerge from unforeseen, unrelated industries will often prove to be the most potent. Ten years ago, who in the financial services world would have listed a software company, Intuit (the maker of Quicken), as one of their potential competitors? “Your biggest competitor is your own view of the future,” the authors contend.
And sometimes your biggest competitor can be your own strategy. When Procter & Gamble conducted a study to determine what prevents merchandising from being effective, it discovered that the biggest impediment was too much choice — among its own products! By winnowing brands and simplifying product lines, P&G managed to stop competing with itself for consumers.
Several exercises in each chapter invite readers to think about how various paradoxes apply to their organization — and then to wrestle with those paradoxes. One such exercise asks readers to analyze how much they think and act in the future tense. Another asks them to “write the résumé of the person you want to be” in the future.
The final section of “The Visionary’s Handbook” gets specific about the future, charting changes in the ways that people will live, worship, relax, and travel. In the future envisioned by the authors, work isn’t just personal — it’s spiritual. “Every company today harbors people who view their jobs as their life’s work,” they write. “Undefined problems are for them the elixir of the workplace; unknown solutions occupy their waking and sleeping moments, whether they work on the assembly line or in logistics.” By the time you reach the end of the “Handbook,” it will be obvious that “no one is less ready for tomorrow than the person who holds the most rigid beliefs about what tomorrow will contain.”
The “A” List for Leaders
Early on in “The Soul at Work,” Lewin and Regine make a perceptive comment about how language influences our view of the world. We use words to describe the world, and we add a negative prefix to indicate an exception — “real” versus “unreal,” “controlled” versus “uncontrolled.” But, argue these authors, “most of the words we use to describe the dynamics of the world are in fact the exceptions, not the rule: namely, ‘linear,’ ‘stable,’ and ‘equilibrium.’ In fact, 95 percent of the world is nonlinear, unstable, and far from equilibrium. It reflects a lot about our psyche, and the way we have assumed things to be, not as they really are.”
Tossing aside such assumptions, Lewin and Regine offer a guided tour of the world of complexity science. Then they follow it up with a series of case studies and finish with some observations about how all of this applies to the work of leaders. “Companies whose management is guided by complexity science are organizationally flat and promote open and plentiful communication and diversity,” write the authors. “Complexity science argues that these properties enhance businesses’ capacity for adaptability, thus giving them a cutting edge in these fast-changing times.”
What does that mean for managers? In an unpredictable world, companies that treat their employees as people with ideas, rather than as interchangeable parts — companies that know how to listen, that don’t punish experimentation — will win. That’s where the “soul” of the book’s title comes in: Such organizations enjoy a deeper connection to their employees than traditional firms do. “The collective soul at work is a journey of aligning individual abilities and values with the collective, shared purpose, an unfolding identity that is constructed and reconstructed continually by the people who are part of the system,” Lewin and Regine write.
Like Wacker and his colleagues, Lewin and Regine recommend embracing chaos and anticipating surprise. Any other stance, they believe, requires too much effort and is ultimately futile. Chaotic times, after all, are often preludes to reinvention. And surprise, the authors contend, “is the currency of adaptable change, as the business environment constantly shifts and predictability is difficult.”
Later chapters of “The Soul at Work” focus on the leadership tactics that work best in this new environment. One such tactic requires leaders to display “the three As”: They must be allowing, accessible, and attuned. They must allow for contradictions, uncertainty, and ambiguity, and they must allow new things to emerge — even when those things are unexpected or unpleasant. They must be able to “shut up and listen,” and they must often be willing to take huge leaps of faith in the abilities of their people. Sometimes they must even create chaos deliberately, as when the people who formed St. Luke’s (the London-based ad agency that is one of the book’s nine primary case studies) decided to abandon their old ways of working so that they could create the ideal organization. Chaos forces everyone in an organization to ask, “Who are we, what do we stand for, and where are we going?”
And those questions are never outdated.
Fast Company readers are deeply familiar with the eye-opening insights of Harriet Rubin. As a contributing editor, she’s traveled the world to report on her encounters with remarkable thinkers and leaders, from filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola to social scientist Helena Cronin. As an FC columnist (“Living Dangerously”), Rubin has captured lessons from a wonderfully diverse group of people, including acting coach Harold Guskin and technowizard Dan Mapes.
Now, in a new book, she sets her sights on one of her most fascinating subjects yet — herself. “Soloing: Realizing Your Life’s Ambition” (HarperBusiness, $23) is a smart, funny, and touching account of Rubin’s personal journey — from her lofty position at Doubleday/Currency, the book imprint that she created, to her self-reinvention as a writer, thinker, and Web innovator. But the real power of her book lies in the lessons that it offers to anyone who’s on a journey of professional growth and self-discovery. If you’re traveling down your own road to the future, let this book be your guide.
For leaders and change agents who are too busy inventing their future to read about it in these books, here are a few glimpses of what lies ahead (and some ideas about how to get there).
What do you want to be when you grow up?
Watts Wacker and his colleagues say that Steven Spielberg, Jasper Johns, and John Elway have one major thing in common: From a very young age, they all knew what they wanted to do as adults. As a result, they “could imagine themselves so clearly in the future and thus make their futures live in the present [that] they all also rearranged their realities to fit where they wanted to go. Failure was never failure for them; it was just another step on the road to success.”
Where do you want to go tomorrow?
One reason why big companies have trouble creating their future is that they don’t know where they want to go. Consider the case of Kodak. Although the company’s mission is to increase both the use of images in general and the relevance of images in people’s daily lives, you have to read 40% of Kodak’s 140-word mission statement before you come across the word “image.” Write Wacker and his colleagues: “Fail to say what your real mission must be, and you in effect deny what gives the company meaning to those who work for it.”
The new new things
Some scientists who study complexity call that phenomenon the “edge of chaos,” a term that is not likely to endear them to businesspeople. But Lewin and Regine describe it in less alarming terms. Complexity, they argue, is the point at which an organization “will experience perpetual novelty [and] constant surprise as new patterns of behavior ceaselessly emerge.”