Preparing for Our Faster Future

Blog

January 04, 2017

Preparing for Our Faster Future

By Tom Dente

President and CEO

The international NGO sector enters 2017 with perhaps more uncertainty than in recent years, with new challenges to civil society, funding pressures, and the growing scale of the social problems we address.

Over the holiday break, I had the chance to read the book, Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future by Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, and Jeff Howe. The book highlights the growing complexity and volatility in the modern world that is compounded by the acceleration of disruptive digital technologies. The book illustrates nine organizing principles for navigating this time of faster change and rapidly shifting assumptions and conditions.

Among the nine principles, two seemed to fit the environment our sector finds itself in this new year.  The first, called ‘Compasses over Maps,’ highlights the need to embrace the fact that the ultimate paths to our goals may not be as easy to map out as they once were. In fact, the idea of mapping things out may be limiting. They write, “A map implies a detailed knowledge of the terrain, and the existence of an optimum route; the compass is a more flexible tool and requires the user to employ creativity and autonomy in discovering his or her path.” They point out that in a more unpredictable world, an organization may finish faster, explore alternative paths, and make good use of detours and unexpected circumstances when embracing the compass.

The second principle, called ‘Risk over Safety,’ points out that as the “cost of innovation declines, the nature of risk changes.” They go on to note that as “the cost of innovation falls, enabling more and more people to take risks in creating new products and businesses, the center of innovation shifts to the edge. This provides a host of new opportunities for people who were shut out of the old, hierarchical model.”  With innovation becoming cheaper, traditional, incremental approaches may become obsolete much faster while the perceived safety of the ‘tried and true’ becomes much more of a risky approach.

What can these principles, taken together, mean for those of us who are focused on ensuring organizational resilience and operational excellence within our workplace? I believe that as a community, we need to do more to share the many existing ‘maps’ we are using to reach our goals of operational and organizational excellence. Equally as important, we should explore how we share our ‘compasses’—the learning and adaptation that we are increasingly relying upon to reach our essential goals. In addition, with the cost of innovation falling, we should understand how operational capabilities and models can move more to the ‘edge’ and become part of new shared ecosystems to benefit all.

What could this future look like? In many ways, the continuation of trends we have seen over InsideNGO’s history: traditional operations moving from internal and siloed ‘back office’ functions to more integrated strategic capabilities to a future of shared capabilities drawn from broader external networks. With resources and funding for operations perhaps becoming more scarce, even as the needs for these essential capabilities grow, this movement may even accelerate.

Heady thoughts given the challenges we are addressing day-to-day. But as a network of expertise that evolves and adapts, innovates and changes, the InsideNGO community is poised to do what it has always done: combine generosity and creativity to define—and meet—the future.

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