Is your organisation future-fit..?

“Leadership is the capacity of a human community to shape its future.” - Dr Peter Senge.

The traditional way of running organisations has run out of time.


Senior executives used to have time.

Time to explore and extrapolate trends in technology, politics, environment, economics, and societal values.

Time to interpret past actions and infer future intentions of current competitors and potential new entrants.

Time to formulate strategies and devise operating plans based on drawn-out data-driven deliberations.

Time to cascade operating plans down the organisation for execution.

Time to bring in management consulting firms to advise, guide or fill gaps in capacity, competence, or capabilities.

But as technology, globalisation, and demographic shifts fuelled the pace, complexity, and unpredictability of change, the available time for each cycle of the above got shorter.

And shorter.

And shorter.

Eventually, it was so short that by the time plans were rolled out, the world had moved on, rendering the plans obsolete.

The old ways had run out of time.

Senior executives still remain responsible for the future success of their organisations.

But they can’t secure that future by the ways of the past.

They can no longer make all the decisions.

They must now ensure that effective decisions get made, actioned, learned from, and iterated.


The new strategic imperative for top executives is to create a future-fit culture where sense making, decision making & action taking are ever more tightly coupled, rapidly and repeatedly iterated, deeply embedded, and widely distributed throughout the organisation.

Not all senior executives have yet realised that this is their main role and primary responsibility.

The global winners have.

That’s why Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Facebook have a combined market capitalisation of more than eight trillion dollars.

Your organisation may not be, or even aspire to be, as successful.

But to thrive in an increasingly uncertain and unpredictable world, it needs a future-fit culture.

The ideas, inspirations and insights in this channel can help.

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It’s easy to understand the above on a theoretical level.

And in theory there’s no difference between theory and practice.

But in practice there is.

Creating a future-fit culture means developing new attitudinal and behavioural muscles that enable, embed, and empower iterative sense making, decision making & action taking throughout the organisation.

The main barrier to developing these muscles is legacy embedded tacit knowledge that’s accumulated in the organisation over time

and which underpins current attitudes and behaviours rooted in, and systemically reinforced by, people’s mindsets.

When you begin to see an organisation’s culture as “the system of mindsets that forms and informs people’s awareness of the way we do things round here” you can identify the points of maximum leverage where relatively minor focused efforts lead to major systemic culture.

It’s vitally important that the identification of, and focused effort on, these leverage points must be done by people in the organisation and not outsiders.

The failure to focus precisely enough and deeply enough

is why organisations have grappled with, and mostly failed miserably at, cultural transformation for decades - falling foul of outdated axioms, attitudes and habits that have been deeply embedded in the subconscious of organisations over 100+ years.

Even though it’s dangerously dysfunctional, this legacy is so familiar, and seemingly ‘normal’, that it’s hardly ever recognised as problematic, hence remains unaddressed:

  • ‘Leadership’ = ‘top management’

  • ‘Senior executive’ = ‘decision maker’

  • ‘Decision maker’ = ‘leader’

  • ‘Culture’ = ‘shared values’

  • ‘Big consulting firm’ = ‘safe pair of hands’

  • ‘Best practice’ = ‘low risk’

  • ‘Digital transformation’ = ‘technology will save us’

  • “We need a transformation team - they’ll save us”.

  • “What gets measured gets done”

  • “Our people could never do that”

  • “You can’t change people’s mindsets”

  • “Culture change is complex, messy, and invariably fails”

Outdated perceptions like these perpetuate organisational mindsets, attitudes and behaviours that stifle, smother and strangle the emergence of a future-fit culture.

To make matters worse, the Human Resources, Learning & Development, Leadership Education, Management Consulting and related industries that emerged to support the traditional organisations of the past are part of the problem:

  • Although they often publish insightful analyses, their business models lead them to act in ways that anchor their clients to the past

  • They’re staffed by many well-meaning people who genuinely want to help their clients but can’t see how the way they ‘help’ actually hinders

  • In large part this is because of cognitive defences - or, in the more poetic words of Upton Sinclair: “It’s difficult to get someone to understand something when their salary depends on them not understanding it”.

The acid test is this: if it’s their people doing the heavy lifting of sense making, decision making, or action taking - even in subtle ways - then your people won’t build their sense making, decision making and action taking muscles that create a future-fit culture.

So, you absolutely must create conditions that enable, encourage and inspire the people throughout the organisation to see how it might change (sense making), choose how it should change (decision making), and enact and iterate real-world change (action taking) as an embedded aspect of their day-to-day work.

If you want to create a future-fit culture there’s simply no other way.

Getting people throughout the organisation to do the sense making heavy lifting turns out to be surprisingly easy.

That’s because they’re positioned to do it well and, even though it’s typically not seen, do a lot of it already:

  • they’re the ones actively performing most of the value creation activities

  • they experience most directly what’s working well and what isn’t

  • they’re in closest, often continuous, contact with customers

  • they usually include multiple generational cohorts viscerally in touch with evolving and emerging societal trends

Getting people throughout the organisation to do most of the action taking is similarly straightforward.

That’s because they already do most of the action taking that creates organisational value anyway.

It’s in the decision making domain where organisations encounter most challenge.

Decision making has traditionally been the preserve of senior executives who’ve often invested much of their sense of self worth in being ‘the decision maker’, ‘the expert’ or ‘in control’.

Many react to the notion that decision making must become more deeply embedded and widely distributed throughout the organisation with shock: “But if that happens, what’s my role?”

This role identification has often been actively reinforced as senior executives have been drawn deeper into codependent relationships with partners in big consulting firms:

  • To achieve their year-on-year sales targets, consulting partners needed the senior executives to repeatedly hire large numbers of their bright but inexperienced junior consultants.

  • To cope with the overload of doing too much of the decision making, senior executives repeatedly resorted to relying on external ‘strap-on’ consulting brainpower.

By 2016, these codependent relationships had fed the growth of the global consulting market to a gargantuan $250Bn

in annual billings. That’s a big beast to keep fed…

When you begin to involve more people throughout the organisation in decision making it inevitably disrupts existing power structures and challenges people’s often cherished beliefs, perceptions, and practices.

Understandably, this can trigger strong reactions and powerful emotions that people can find hard to handle.

As a result, organisations typically exhibit sophisticated immune systems to defend against interventions and skilfully avoid the culture change that’s vital to the future.

The failure to focus precisely and deeply on the underlying foundations of these often subtle defences is why 70%-90% of transformational change programs fail.

That’s a shocking enough statistic on its own - but all the more so when it’s admitted by the very people that typically lead these programs for major client organisations.

That’s a serious self-indictment - the consequences of which I’ve seen repeatedly over the past 35 years when helping organisations throughout Europe, Asia and the USA tackle these issues in focused, pragmatic ways, for and by themselves.

I first got drawn to this line of work whilst working for one of the world’s leading open innovation labs here in Cambridge, UK.

We helped organisations around the world achieve success by harnessing the business benefits of the physical sciences, including semiconductor and optical physics, biotechnology, and advanced manufacturing.

We were often hired when a competitor had unexpectedly launched a new product or production process and our client needed to respond in record time.

We helped our clients significantly reduce time to market not only through our leading edge science and technology capabilities but also through our skills at working with their people to break down barriers in their organisation and increase cooperation and collaboration between often siloed activities in Marketing, R&D, Manufacturing, Sales, etc.

One day a long-standing client said to me "We like working with your people more than with our own people. You couldn't come and make our people behave more like your people could you?"

That fateful question launched the career path I've been on ever since.

From 1995 onwards I’ve been centrally involved in the organisation learning movement and served with Peter Senge and Arie de Geus on the global leadership team of the Society for Organisational Learning (SoL).

A 30+ year meditation practice combined with practical application of insights from the spiritual wisdom of ancient India has proved pivotal in understanding and addressing human behaviour in organisations.

Visit my website 11 to find out more about how I help clients, how it works, and what to avoid.

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Michael Polanyi wrote extensively and insightfully about tacit knowledge as ‘skilled behaviour’. His 1958 magnum opus Personal Knowledge exposed the inadequacies of the rigid empiricism and rule-bound logic that still plagues organisational theory and practice.


Chris Argyris and co-author Don Schon highlighted the role of skilled incompetence - the habitual attitudes and behaviours that compel organisations to repeatedly create results that they don’t want.


This 7 minute video describes how to achieve maximum leverage for systemic culture change.


If you’re theoretically inclined, this paper by Donella Meadows provides powerful insights into where to find the maximum leverage in any system.


Hence the slightly disparaging but wickedly accurate nickname for inexperienced junior consultants: “brains on sticks”.


This is why consulting firms use one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter, so-called ‘best practice’ methodologies: it allows them to deploy large numbers of inexperienced junior consultants with minimal supervision from the partners, freeing the latter to do more selling - aka ‘rainmaking’.


The brand leader, McKinsey, made this admission here. Note they say: “We know, for example, that 70 percent of change programs fail to achieve their goals, largely due to employee resistance and lack of management support” not “We know, for example, that 70 percent of change programs fail to achieve their goals, largely due to them being led by firms like McKinsey”.


I’ve typically been engaged by clients who’ve previously hired big consulting firms to ‘help’ with cultural transformation and experienced first hand the toxic impact on their own people - and therefore the culture. Duh.

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Based on 35+ years' hands-on experience of what works - and what doesn't - when creating a future-fit organisational culture


Geoff Marlow

35+ years' hands-on experience of what works - and what doesn't - when creating future-fit organisational cultures