BY JOHN HAGEL
NOTE: previous blog posts are still available at edgeperspectives.typepad.com
We’re heading into a new decade today. It’s not just a new year, but a new decade.* It’s a turning point, a historic moment, and provides us an opportunity to reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re headed.
It’s all in the numbers
I believe in the power of numbers. I don’t think it’s an accident that the year launching a new decade has special characteristics. First, it repeats numbers – this is the first decade in over a millennium (remember 1010?) that does that, and the next one will not come for another millennium. That in itself is an important sign.
Second, the number it repeats – 20 – has special significance in the field of numerology. The number 2 is viewed as a symbol of collaboration, duality and partnerships. The number 0 is viewed to be the symbol of infinity and wholeness – it suggests the potential to achieve exponential growth in potential. The key message of the two numbers together – 20 – is that we can achieve exponential growth in potential by coming together, and not trying to do it alone or as part of a small, isolated group. And repeating this pair of numbers underscores the power of the opportunity.
And, finally, let’s not forget 20/20 vision. Perhaps this is the decade that will enable us to see everything much more clearly than we have before.
The decade we’re emerging from
This last decade, the 2010’s, has been a challenging one. Significant advances in human well-being have occurred across the globe, but the paradox is that few people choose to focus on, or even know about, these advances.
Instead, we’ve become consumed by the emotion of fear, something that I have written about here. The emotion of fear is completely understandable given the paradox of the Big Shift, creating exponentially expanding opportunity while at the same time creating mounting performance pressure in the form of intensifying competition and the accelerating pace of change.
Fear manifests in many ways. We live in cultures that generally view fear as a sign of weakness, so few of us are willing to publicly acknowledge our fear. Instead, we tend to express other emotions, like anger, anxiety or loneliness. But if we look underneath, we’ll often see that fear is the driving emotion, shaping these other emotions.
Fear can help to explain some of the dominant trends in the past decade. For example, surveys around the world are confirming the continuing erosion of trust in all our institutions – not just companies, but also governments, schools and NGOs. When we’re afraid, we find it very difficult to trust anyone.
This natural trend is amplified by a more fundamental issue – as I’ve written about here, our institutions are driven by an institutional model that focuses on efficiency and, in a world of mounting performance pressure, focuses less and less on delivering value to their stakeholders. We’re becoming increasingly aware that our institutions are designed to serve their own interests, rather than our interests. Erosion of trust is a natural outcome.
There’s a second dominant trend of the past decade – growing polarization. Across the world, we’re finding ourselves in opposition – often violent opposition with each other. Again, when driven by fear, we have a natural tendency to separate from those who are different and seek the comfort and support of those whom we perceive as sharing our interests. This natural tendency is reinforced by the growing reliance of all our political leaders on threat-based narratives – our enemies are coming to get us, we’re all about to die and we need to mobilize now to resist these enemies.
Underneath all this is a trend that isn’t unique to this decade, but has been playing out for the past three decades – it’s the trend of growing global connectivity, driven by the exponential improvement in price/performance of digital devices that can be used by individuals and the networks that enhance the ability to connect, especially the Internet. We can now connect to far more resources and people than would have ever been imaginable a few decades ago.
It’s that trend that helped spawn the paradox of the Big Shift mentioned earlier – exponentially expanding opportunity and mounting performance pressure. And it’s all that connectivity that has spawned all that fear. Connectivity can be overwhelming if we don’t know how to harness it to our advantage. The 2010’s will increasingly be known as the decade of fear.
The decade we’re heading into
So, what’s next? As we move into a new decade, we have an opportunity to move in a new direction, one that can help us make the transition from fear to the passion of the explorer. And that in turn can help all of us to achieve far more of our potential.
What would be required to make this transition? It certainly won’t be easy. Fear is a very strong emotion and can be very challenging to overcome. The mounting performance pressure catalyzing this fear isn’t going away – if anything, it will increase even more in the decade ahead.
Opportunity-based narratives. So, what do we do? First, we need to acknowledge the fear – too many of us are still in denial. After all, if fear is widely viewed as a sign of weakness who wants to look weak in a time of increasing pressure?
We’ll be much more willing to acknowledge our fear if we realize that it’s a key barrier preventing us from addressing the exponentially expanding opportunities that are also on the horizon. We need to shift our focus from the threat-based narratives that dominate our discourse today to opportunity-based narratives that can inspire us to act in spite of our fear.
As an optimist, I believe this new decade will finally see the rise of opportunity-based narratives that can help all of us to make the journey from fear to the passion of the explorer. The exponentially expanding opportunities are simply becoming so attainable with far less effort and far more quickly that we’ll find it harder and harder to avoid seeing them. And, when we see them and become inspired by the opportunities ahead, we’ll see that our fear is holding us back from acting more boldly.
Small groups focused on impact. But opportunity-based narratives will not be enough. We’re going to need to come together in small groups where we can build deep trust with each other, enough trust so that we can feel comfortable expressing our fear and asking for help from others.
These small groups will help us to find ways to begin making an impact as we come together, inspired by the opportunities ahead. As we begin to make impact, it will give us more confidence that we can make a difference and that we need to overcome our fear to move forward.
We’ll never eliminate the fear, after all we will be venturing into territories that have not yet been explored. But we’ll find that the passion of the explorer motivates us to act in spite of the fear, because we are so excited by the opportunities ahead and because we have the support of others on the journey.
Networks. These small groups will be the key units to help us all begin the journey, but networks will help us to scale impact and inspire even more passion as we see the progress we’re making go exponential. We’ll finally find a way to harness all the connectivity that has shaped our recent decades so that it can help us address the true potential of the opportunity-based narratives that inspire us.
The opportunity-based narratives that will have the greatest impact in the decade ahead are ones that frame huge opportunities – e.g., integrating the marginalized into our expanding economies, producing more value with less resources and far less impact on our environment, harnessing the diversity that defines humanity to produce even more creative products and services, and fostering wellness so that we significantly increase the longevity of everyone.
The risk with such big opportunities is that they can quickly be dismissed as fantasies that are simply unattainable. Even if small groups can achieve some impact in their local context, the opportunities inspiring this action can seem overwhelming relative to the impact that is being achieved.
The key to inspiring even more commitment and bold action is to be able to quickly show accelerating impact. That’s where networks become key. We’ve all heard of network effects – the power of the network is that it can unleash exponentially expanding value and impact. And, guess what? The digital infrastructures we have been deploying and enhancing over the past several decades can provide connectivity on a global scale in ways that are accessible to a growing majority of the world population.
These networks will be explicitly designed to help small action-oriented groups learn faster by connecting them with each other. They will be key to addressing the big opportunities framed by opportunity-based narratives. They will help to reinforce our belief that we can accomplish far more when we come together. They will nurture the passion of the explorer that will help all of us to overcome our fear and take bold action because of the motivation to find ways to increase impact.
Movements. For those of you who have followed me, you’ll recognize that I’m talking about the emergence and growth of movements. I believe all of this will unfold in the decade ahead. I believe we are being inexorably pulled from the Fear Decade into the Launch Decade, a decade when we will launch ourselves into exponentially expanding opportunity for everyone.
This isn’t just a new year, it is the beginning of a new decade. It is truly an opportunity to reflect and reassess and, most importantly, to act in new ways that will help all of us to achieve more of our potential. Let’s come together and launch movements that will change the course of human history, for the benefit of all.
* Yes, I’m fully aware that technically the next decade doesn’t begin until 2021 but, come on, everyone believes that the new decade begins in 2020. This gives us an opportunity to drive change one year earlier – what could be wrong with that?
NOTE: previous blog posts are still available at edgeperspectives.typepad.com