To Think into the Future , We Must Begin Questioning the Past

The greatest barrier most organizations have in moving into the future is their inability to recognize how their present thinking and practices — regardless how progressive — remain largely trapped in the distant past.

Moreover, because organizations, and the people that lead them, are typically so focused on tangible processes and bottom-line results, there is often little time or tolerance for stepping back to think about their thinking. This includes considering how that thinking obscures their perception of pressing obstacles and opportunities.

For example, today our world is increasingly defined by networked communications or exchanges. These are typically non-linear interactions of complex interdependent systems and individuals.

This is very different from the industrial era, when business transactions were more predictable and direct. However in a networked economy, coherence and effectiveness in business depend on the ability to discern context and sense the emergence of novel patterns.

But even with a relentless focus on market dominance and innovation, contemporary business thinking remains deeply anchored to the sequential logic and predictability of Newtonian-era thought.

As a result, managers and those working under them feel tremendous pressure to steer clear of creative practices or problem-solving that fails to clearly demonstrate how Point A connects to Point B in order to create Outcome C.

The source of this limited, sequential thinking can be traced back to business’s continued allegiance toward the classical economy theories of Adam Smith. In his book The Third Industrial Revolutionthe Wharton School’s Jeremy Rifkin points out that Smith’s thinking followed the same commitment to logic and predictability favored by Isaac Newton.

This prompted Rifkin to write that

Anxious to ground their musings in the mathematical certainties of physics, Adam Smith and his contemporaries argued that just as the universe, once set in motion, acts automatically like a well-balanced mechanical clock, so too does the marketplace. (p. 194)

Today, this commitment to a mechanistic model of human action stifles innovation and prevents business from recognizing any option or opportunity that lies outside familiar, time-worn mindsets.

To successfully innovate and move into the future, contemporary organizations must learn to take the same kind of brief look backwards as Rifkin. Businesses and those that lead them have to develop the skills to recognize how the sequential logic of Newtonian thinking continues to influence and constrain their thinking.

This recognition, in turn, can inform a growing awareness that linear, mechanistic thinking, while still needed, is only one mindset in a much broader array of diverse thinking styles organization now need to effectively navigate challenges today and those on the road ahead.