The three Ts: the tidal waves, the tricky and the taboos

Written by
Changeboard Team

30 Apr 2010

30 Apr 2010 • by Changeboard Team

The future of work Challenge

Executives around the world are now facing a substantial schism with the past, which is so great that organisational architecture, people practices and skills and organisational culture will change possibly unrecognisably over the next two decades. This is not just about the impact of a low carbon society although that indeed will be key.

It's also about how the nexus of technology and globalisation will work together with demographic and societal changes to fundamentally transform much of what we take for granted about companies and work. For younger people, their work will change perhaps unrecognisably while those already in the workforce will be employed in ways that they can hardly imagine.

Whats clear is that crafting the positive future will require executives around the world to make some tough decisions and actions. However, to do this they need a deep understanding of the forces impacting organisations and work; a set of ideas and action-oriented tools about what they can do; and the will and courage to make this happen.

Hot Spots Research Institute

Between October 2009 and May 2010, the Hot Spots Research Institute has been spearheading one of the most fascinating experiments in co-creation ever conducted between management, academics and executives. A wise crowd of over 200 experts, executives and young people from across the world came together in the Future of Work Research Consortium. Their Challenge was to think, talk, share, argue and converse about the world of work they believe will emerge over the next two decades. They represent 20 organisations from around the world including Absa (the South African bank), Nokia, Nomura, Tata Consulting Group, ThomsonReuters, the Singapore Governments Ministry of Manpower, together with two not-for-profit organisations, Save the Children and World Vision.

The executives took the conversations to their teams and brought the thoughts from their wider community, from more than 30 countries. We worked virtually in an elaborate, shared portal and monthly webinars and live in a series of workshops in Europe and Asia.

We focused on finding answers to three questions:

- How will external forces, shape the way my company and its people develop over the coming decades?

- How best can we prepare for these developments in a sense to future proof the company?

- What can we learn from others about where to focus our attention and resources, what will be tough and what will be more straightforward?

The likely impact on the corporation

We anticipate the interplay of 5 major forces: technology, demography, globalisation, low carbon, society, will have an impact on most aspects of corporate life. The largest impact will be in the following 5 key areas:

 the way leaders are developed and behave
 the structural architecture and communities of the company
 the people practices and processes
 the aspirations and competencies of the workforce
 the culture and values of the business

Through our Big Conversation, we were able to identify the extent to which the needs of the future aligned with the competencies of the present. In taking a look at all the actions needed to be taken for the future we categorised them into three degrees of difficulty:

1. The tidal waves: inevitable, energetic, relatively well understood with good practice already developed in most companies.

2. The tricky: also inevitable, but not so well understood and requiring the creation of new competencies and practices to bring the action about.

3. The taboo: the most complex of the actions, more difficult to understand and often flying in the face of well established norms, practices and managerial assumptions.

The tidal waves

Lets start with the tidal waves. These are implications of the future, which will roll out with enormous force whether you like it or not. Take flexible working for example. The combination of technological advances and ever increasing globalisation means that many people are linked up with different time zones and can make choice about when and where they work. The 9.00 to 5.00 routine has been swept away years ago, and home working is rapidly becoming the norm. I know your CEO feels uncomfortable because he/she does not know what home workers are up to. But what we are talking about here is a tidal wave inevitable, forceful, and momentous. People want to work flexibly, technology allows it and it is becoming a choice which many expect. So keep up with the flow, adapt, learn and enjoy.

The tricky

Next are those changes which are inevitable, but tricky. What this means is that they are inevitable, but its not going to be easy to make them work. An example is virtual team working. The combination of globalisation and technology plus the need to reduce carbon footprints means more work will be done through people working virtually, and often in teams. Working virtually is tricky as our research has shown - see:

Some of the old rules of team working are not appropriate, and we are only just learning what combination of face-to-face and technology really works. Plus of course, the technology supporting virtual working is wobbly to say the least. What do you do when these changes like virtual teams are tricky? You experiment, run pilots, learn quickly, collect lots of feedback and adjust rapidly.

The taboo

So that takes us to the third category the taboo. Tricky is tough but actually, everyone knows the future is about working virtually and about working in teams. It's going to be hard to get there but there is a broad consensus around the place that we need to get to. The taboos, or the contested are those areas and issues which will be impacted by future forces but where there is currently no consensus about how they will develop.

Take executive pay for example. For decades, there has been a belief that the talents to be a CEO are very rare and the impact they make on corporate performance is very strong. Thats why, the argument goes, CEOs are paid on average 531 times the blue collar workers pay (up from 42 times in 1980). However, if we reflect on the five future forces globalisation for example is uncovering talent pools around the word, which no longer make these executive competencies rare. At the same time, social technology has enabled wise crowds to make the decisions only CEOs could have made in the past. Plus of course increasing market turbulence will impact on the control the top team actually have on profitability.

All these factors suggest that senior executive pay needs to change. Yet very few HR teams, or consultants, or CEOs are prepared to talk about this. This is an example of the contested because it is deeply embedded within the norms, values and power base of the company and as such is not amenable to easy conversion. So what to do about the contested?

Heres three suggestions:

First, take a dispassionate view of the subject. For example, David Bolchovers recent book Pay Check: are top earners really worth it is a no holds barred description of the data around executive pay and is a must read for anyone interested in the topic.

Next, begin a conversation, create a task force, create a buzz which surfaces the undiscussables. That might be as far as you get.

Or you could get to the third phase make a stand. The contested rarely change without this.

Reflection: questions for you

So, thinking about the future of work, here are three questions for you:

 What do you see as the inevitable tidal waves which have there own momentum?
 Where are the tricky areas which require more thought and experimentation?
 Perhaps most importantly what are the contested areas of your company?

Register to gain insights into the Future of Work

The London Business School Human Capital Network organises another top event on Monday the 10th of May at 7:30pm at London Business School (register here:

In the third masterclass of the London Business School Organisational Development Speaker Series, Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at London Business School, will give insights in the Future of Work and Organisational Innovation in the Next Economic Cycle. 

Lynda Gratton is a global authority on the people's implications of strategy. Lynda leads Hot Spots movement ( a management lab that helps companies, governments and non-for-profits to ignite organizational innovation. She actively advises blue-chip companies across the world and has published numerous books and articles.

Join the Furutre of Work conversation at

About Julia Goga-Cooke

Julia is a project manager with the Future of Work Consortium at Hot Spots Movement founded by professor Lynda Gratton. Julia has worked in communication and broadcasting for more than 20 years, mostly with the BBC.

Oxana Popkova

Oxana is a principal, organisation & people with Molten Group and a chair of the LBS Alumni Human Capital Club. Oxana advises companies on best practices in organisational effectiveness, talent management and learning & development. Oxana completed her MBA at London Business School in 2006.