Last March, one day before lockdown, I had a consultation meeting with one of my favorite clients – a brilliant CEO at a large tech organization.
Just a month earlier, he had launched the company’s new elegant headquarters, the board approved his new strategy plans, bonuses were practically on their way to the bank and he was happy. And then came Covid-19.
When I walked into his office, I immediately noticed that he looked older, tired and shocked. No wonder: for the first time in his life, he – an Ivy League graduate who always knew how to apply the right business models at the right time – didn’t know what hit him and didn’t see it coming. For the first time in his life, chaos could not be managed.
A world in disruption
Back in 2017, it was already becoming apparent that the world had gone crazy. “Disruptive Innovation” – innovation that creates new markets and disrupts traditional markets – had already emerged as a business model, as Uber shook public transportation and Airbnb took the tourism business by storm.
Gradually, disruptive innovation transformed into a world of disruption: no longer just a model or business but rather a multidimensional vortex of change that literally shattered all the premises that we followed religiously for the past century. Today it is becoming clear that what was will not continue to be, and that traditional management models adopted by most organizations in the world have become a thing of the past.
“What should I do?” the CEO asked.
“Read science fiction,” I answered.
His jaw literally dropped.
“Seriously?”, he muttered, “I hate that genre”.
Instead of answering, I referred him to a quote in a Harvard Business Review article by Eliot Peper, an acclaimed novelist and independent startup advisor. “Science fiction offers more than escapism. By presenting plausible alternative realities, science fiction stories empower us to confront not just what we think but also how we think and why we think it. Science fiction isn’t useful because it’s predictive. It’s useful because it reframes our perspective on the world. Like international travel or meditation, it creates space for us to question our assumptions.”
Now more than ever, our disruptive world has successfully managed to sabotage our naive belief that managerial conflicts can still be resolved by typically analyzing, characterizing and responding with pre-dictated behaviors and ‘correct’ answers. But that model which we all have been using where smart analysis plus disciplined behavior equals bonus in the bank – doesn’t work anymore.
Optimal management can no longer be found in orderly textbooks or existing models, but rather by challenging them and inventing new ones. That’s exactly what Science Fiction has to offer.
Between 11 and 70
I came across an excellent example for this in Orson Scott Card’s futuristic novel Ender’s Game. The book describes how humanity prepares to launch an attack on the Formics – an alien race that had attacked Earth and killed millions. After stopping the Formic invasion and for the next 50 years, young gifted children aged 11-12 are recruited to become commanders of a new fleet for this counterattack. Why recruit such young children? Because older children are already so captivated and programmed by their conceptions that they can’t come up with brilliant strategies to protect humanity.
An opposite approach can be found in John Scalzi’s book Old Man’s War. In a universe heavily populated with life forms, human colonists need to compete for the scarce planets that are suitable for sustaining life. They establish a hi-tech Colonial Defense Army, begin to recruit soldiers over 70 and replace their old bodies with young and strong ones. Why over 70? Because the galaxy is a complex place, and people under 70 aren’t wise or experienced enough to deal with humanity’s cunning enemies.
Despite the different approaches, these two sci-fi stories share a mutual idea: they both solve chaotic situations by inventing new, creative and unusual solutions never tried before. In face of the chaotic times we’re all experiencing, this is exactly what the business world needs.
“Just let your smart head fly”, I reassured the CEO before heading home. “Fantasy and imagination will free you from orderly strategic plans and give you the opportunity to re-invent yourself and your company. Try it, and the bonuses will follow.”