Nutshell: Mastering uncertainty: three skills we will need to be ready for the future of work

Written by
Future Talent Learning

Published
06 Jan 2020

06 Jan 2020 • by Future Talent Learning

The way to survive unpredictability is to equip ourselves with the skills to navigate it.​

Many people have tried to predict what the future of work will look like. The management writer Charles Handy talks of a future world made up of “creatives” (writers, artists, designers, thinkers), “custodians” (including planners, civil servants and those managing and operating automated services) and “carers” (especially those working in schools, prisons, hospitals and similar organisations). 

Silicon Valley likes to imagine a 'partnership' between robots and humans. Yuval Harari, author of Homo Deus, worries about a dystopian future in which many of us will be little more than serfs to an all-powerful artificial intelligence (AI). 

But, as Handy himself admits, these are little more than guesses. When we contemplate the future of work, the only thing we know for sure is that the relative stability that characterised the world of work in the last century has gone for ever. No more 9-to-5, jobs for life based on a specific skill; no more top-down hierarchies where bureaucracy worked and everyone knew their place; no more product lines and brands that reign supreme, seemingly impregnable to new entrants. The latest progress in technology, coupled with far-reaching global and social change, has changed everything.

Who would have thought, for example, that we would be happy to step into a stranger’s car rather than a licensed taxicab; that a certain “everything store” would be challenging the retail domination of the likes of Walmart, or that almost a third of us would actively prefer to work freelance than be full-time, permanent employees?

If the recent past has taught us anything, it’s that we face a future world of work that will be increasingly hard to predict. With the pace of change showing little sign of slowing down, it’s that not knowing that has itself become our central challenge, one that requires a significant shift in mindset and approach. The author Robert Greene believes that “the need for certainty is the greatest disease the mind faces”. Faced with that challenge, we’ll all need to develop strategies and skills to deal with an unpredictability that has come to define our working lives.

Human ingenuity: meet human ingenuity

For London Business School professor Lynda Gratton we have human ingenuity to thank for those smart new technologies, as well as the longer, healthier lives we now take for granted. But she also believes that, while human progress has risen to great heights, it has also brought with it anxiety about where we’re heading. That might manifest itself in personal fears about job redundancy or needing or wanting to work into our 70s; or it could be a matter of organisations and people simply not equipped to move beyond the certainties of the Industrial Revolution.  

Harari disputes any relationship between the automation we saw in the twentieth century compared with what we face today. In the move from agriculture to industry and then industry into a more service-based economy, people who lost low-skilled jobs were, by and large, able to move into other low-skilled jobs. Those eighteenth-century home-based weavers who lost out to mechanisation like the Spinning Jenny, for example, were – by and large – able to find alternative opportunities in the factories and growing towns and cities of the early industrial age. But it’s a much harder ask for low-skilled workers to make the transition into the high-skilled work required by more recent job market shifts. Re-skilling as a UX designer is unlikely to be straightforward for redundant taxi drivers or supermarket checkout staff. Harari fears the creation of a vast, global “useless class” with little political power or prospect of joining an upgraded elite of new-generation workers.

Apocalyptic stuff. But even Harari sees a glimmer of hope in one key, human trait: our adaptability. It might not be easy to change entire education systems or overcome our own psychological biases against change and uncertainty, but our potential to repeatedly reinvent ourselves is the one sure-fire way to “keep abreast of the algorithms”.

For Gratton, too, the very human ingenuity that has brought us to this point also provides the answer to the human progress conundrum. It’s our own ingenuity, focussed on uniquely human skills, that will provide what we need to help us navigate the way ahead.

Both, it seems, would agree with Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution claims that it’s not the strongest or the most intelligent who survive, but those best able to manage change.

So how, then, can we develop the adaptability and ingenuity we need to get comfortable with all that uncertainty and change, especially when we’re undoubtedly flat out just doing our day jobs today?

Towards ambidexterity

Handily, the Romans seem to have a god for every occasion. Janus, for example, was the god of doors and gates, more metaphorically the god who presided over beginnings and endings, transformations, transition and change. We know him best as the two-faced god who gives his name to January, the month where we move into a new year while simultaneously looking back at what’s just gone before. We tend not to know that he’s also generally depicted holding a staff in his right hand to guide travellers along the correct route, and a key in his left to open gates. Useful.

In a seminal Harvard Business Review article by Charles A. O’Reilly and Michael L. Tushman, Janus is invoked as a poster boy for what the authors call ambidextrous organisations. Like Janus, O’Reilly and Tushman believe that, to avoid the fate that has famously befallen the likes of Kodak or Boeing, organisations need to be able to look both ways, to make the most of what they’re doing now while anticipating what’s next.

Ambidexterity is about being able to exploit the present while exploring the future, to pursue incremental gains in one sphere (a new or revamped service for existing customers, perhaps) while pioneering more radical or disruptive innovations (a completely new line of business that has yet to be clearly defined). Crucially, what sets these ambidextrous organisations apart are their ambidextrous leaders who are able to understand and manage these seemingly conflicting needs, “combining the attributes of rigorous cost cutters and free-thinking entrepreneurs while maintaining the objectivity required to make difficult trade-offs”. Having a clear and compelling vision that is regularly and well communicated is also important, as it provides overarching goals that allow exploitation and exploration to co-exist.

Needing to be open to the new, but faced with the “forces of inertia”, ambidextrous organisations and their leaders find ways to renew themselves, to anticipate change and embrace uncertainty rather than get stuck in the same old same old. It’s an idea we’ll explore in several contexts as our curriculum unfolds, whether we’re looking at how we, as individuals, can harness ambidexterity to manage our own careers or how we might need to be fleet of foot when it comes to developing and implementing strategy.

Uniquely human

We might also, at this stage, take comfort from the seemingly counter-intuitive conclusions of a concept known as the automation paradox. It’s the idea that, the more efficient an automated system, the more crucial the human contribution of the operators: humans may be routinely less involved, but that involvement becomes more critical.

Back in 1983 psychologist Lisanne Bainbridge introduced what she called Ironies of automation. We know, for example, that automatic pilot systems have transformed the flight deck, but they’re not fool-proof. If they fail, we still want to be in the hands of pilots who can fly the plane themselves. This means that pilots these days don’t just need to know how to fly (and to keep their flying experience up to date); they also need to know how autopilots work, and how and when to intervene if the circumstances demand.

We can all relate to this in terms of our reliance on everything from pocket calculators to satnavs: harnessing even the simplest of tech makes us more capable than ever, but we need to guard against the perils of withdrawing entirely from the basic skills of map reading or arithmetic.

Automation is not just about replacing jobs and tasks; it’s also about redefining them and the skills we’ll need to succeed.

American psychologist Stephen Kosslyn asks us to consider the job of being a doctor. Diagnosing illnesses, he believes, will soon (if not already) be accomplished better by machines than humans; testing for disease plays to the data set interpretation strengths of machine learning. But that doesn’t mean that a human doctor won’t be needed when it comes to discussing treatment options with the patient and their family.

For Kosslyn, that’s because two fundamentally human characteristics are the “key ingredients of critical thinking, creative problem-solving, effective communication, adaptive learning and good judgment” that employers crave and will be increasingly important in future. First, the role emotion plays in communication, prioritisation and decision-making. And, second, our ability to take into account changing context. An automated barista might be able to make us a cup of coffee, but only a human bartender can shoot the breeze about what happened today down at the local supermarket. His advice? Focus not simply on how we interact with technology, but on how we can do the things that technology finds the hardest to understand and systematise.

Lynda Gratton also reminds us that, as machines become more advanced, the jobs that will grow in number (whether recalibrated or new) will require an emphasis on what she calls human skills. For Gratton, this puts a premium on more complex emotional skills, such as emotional intelligence and empathy, and more cognitive skills, such as judgement and decision-making.

Harari agrees, making the case that as jobs continue to emerge, change and disappear in a constant cycle of disruption, we’ll need increasingly to focus not just on the technical skills that equip us for work today, but also on the psychological and interpersonal skills that will enable us to reinvent ourselves over and again.

We’re going to look at three of these that we consider fundamental to the future-of-work challenge: curiosity, agility and resilience. We introduce them here, but we’ll also be looking at each in more detail.

The good news: three key skills we can all master now

We tend to think of qualities such as curiosity, agility and resilience as traits that a person either has or doesn’t have. But the good news is that – like Daniel Goleman’s emotional intelligence competencies – they are all skills that we can all learn, practise and get better at. Notice, too, that they’re the kinds of traits that have traditionally been called ‘soft’ skills, which reinforces what we know about the way the future of work will be different from how it is now.

The distinction of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills comes from the time when most workers did little more than operate machinery or complete process-oriented tasks such as financial control. It’s these jobs that are already starting to be done better, more cheaply and more efficiently by computers, and in the future, they will rarely be done by humans, if at all.

Instead, as Gratton and Harari suggest, we humans will bring value to our organisations through our proficiency in ‘soft’ skills: not just curiosity, agility and resilience, but also things such as active listening, communication, empathy and diplomacy. These are the skills that will be in demand when we enter that much-heralded working partnership with the robots.

Curiosity

Our first key skill speaks to a desire to keep on learning, to cross-pollinate our existing knowledge and insights with ideas from other disciplines. Read pretty much any book about great business leaders and we’re likely to be struck by how widely many of them read and how much they have committed themselves to continual study and investigation of the world around them.

In traditional workplaces, traditional careers were often built around three well-defined stages: education, work and retirement. That linear approach is no longer fit for purpose. As we live and work for longer, no job, no career or industry will remain unchanged in that time, which means that many of the skills we have when we start work will become less and less relevant as we progress through it. We’ll need to stay curious if we are to prevail.

Gratton predicts a future ‘career’ as being one built on many “mini retirements”, moments of retraining that will equip us for the next phase of work. Employers will increasingly be looking for Google-like versatile learning animals, defined by our curiosity and willingness to learn as much as by what we already know. There will be times when we’ll need to upskill in an existing role; at other times, we may need to reskill and move on to a completely different type of work completely.

As the idea of a job, even a career, for life becomes just a hazy memory, work now is about portfolio work, project-based employment and multiple careers. And curiosity will be the key to thriving in it. 

Agility

The second essential for success in this unknowable future is agility. We are used to admiring agility in companies: the swift pivots that start-ups make when their product tests badly or the market changes, or the speedy response of colleagues when our team faces a sudden crisis. But agility will have to become the norm for most of us as individuals. As the pace of change of work increases, and we can expect to experience more flux and many more transitions, we will have no choice but to make multiple pivots of our own.

This may involve multiple changes of status. We may sometimes be an employee, sometimes a contractor. We may be part of a cross-functional project team rather than a functional department. We may sometimes work flexibly – part time, from home, job sharing – or take a complete career break. The ways in which we can add value to an organisation are proliferating, and we’ll need to develop agility to manage them.

This will not be easy, especially as our careers advance. It takes humility to go back to square one and retrain in a new area of work. We may even have to be managed by someone younger than us who already has the skills and experience we lack. But humility is easy to achieve once we let go of our love of status. And learning something new can in itself be a hugely enjoyable activity.

We can also increase our agility by widening our network outside the bubble that many of us live and work in. We know now as a fact that diverse teams come up with better ideas, but we often exist in groups that are surprisingly homogenous. Seeking out new contacts and acquaintances and hearing their views – what Herminia Ibarra calls outsight – gives us a huge opportunity to pivot our entrenched ideas and develop them.

Resilience

The third skill we will need to develop is resilience. Resilience is a kind of emotional and psychological insurance that we can develop to make future shocks survivable. The Stoics, a group of philosophers in Ancient Greece and Rome, felt that resilience was one of the most important skills a human can cultivate. They knew – better perhaps than we do – that life is fragile, changeable and unpredictable. Arch Stoic Marcus Aurelius’ view on the Imperial Rome-era plague tells us that he would have been saddened, but not especially alarmed, by our own COVID-19 pandemic.  

Stoicism embraces the idea that, rather than pretending setbacks won’t happen, we should assume they will and develop an attitude of calm and fortitude to face them when they do. The coronavirus crisis has given us the opportunity to develop our personal resilience in doses. As the future world of work unfolds, we will need to develop more.

We cannot predict the jobs that will make up the world of work, even in just the next five to 10 years, but the good news is we don’t need to. Instead, we can focus on developing the human skills that will stand us in good stead when the world evolves around us, armed, Janus-like, with the ambidexterity to anticipate and manage transitions and change alongside the here and now.

Technology and globalisation will continue to change work radically. But, with the right skills in place, we humans will have a chance to remake work too: into something that is fulfilling, pleasurable and empowering, that truly draws on our human skills. Vincent Van Gogh told us: “Normality is a paved road: it’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it.” Here’s to more flowers in our working lives – while we leave the drudgery to the machines.

How to cultivate curiosity, agility and resilience: some ideas

Curiosity

  • Broaden your inputs. Browse different shelves in the bookshop, break out of your Netflix bubble, read a different newspaper, socialise with people who are different from you. 
  • Set yourself ‘blue-sky thought’ experiments such as “how can the way a beehive works help with a structural problem I have with my team?”. 
  • Treat everything as a potential source of inspiration.
  • Challenge your preconceptions. Who sees the world in a different way from you? Could you argue their point of view?

Agility

  • Look again at your current role. How could you shape it differently? 
  • Where is the variety in what you do? Could you find new challenges that take you just a little outside your comfort zone?
  • Where are you joyfully using your strengths and where is what you do less fulfilling? Can you offload the less fulfilling tasks to make space for something new?
  • Give yourself shorter deadlines and see how faster decision-making works. 
  • Learn a new (non-work) skill to rediscover the incredible human ability to adapt.

Resilience

  • Consider how you are already resilient by reflecting on crises you have already faced and survived. You did it then by drawing on important resources, both internal and external. Make a list of them and consider how you could expand it. Chris Johnstone’s Find Your Power is an excellent source for ideas.
  • Start to see the future as unknowable, rather than expending brain power trying to picture it, and try to accept that crises will happen; they may be tough while they last, but they will be survivable.
  • Read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations for some surprisingly modern observations of life and how we can feel more at peace with its unpredictability from a 1st-century Roman emperor.

 

 

Test your understanding

  • Describe how organisations and individuals can become more ambidextrous.
  • Explain how the automation paradox might affect the work of a doctor.

What does it mean for you?

  • Consider your own working environment and career aspirations. How might developing one of our three core skills – curiosity, agility and resilience – help with future-proofing your own career?
  • Choose one of our cultivation ideas and make a plan for how you might try it. Remember to reflect on its impact.
 

 

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