Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

The Future of Work

August 21st, 2011

I was invited to give a talk at the Department of Labor last week in Washington, DC at the Future of Workforce Leadership event. Here's what I said:

(Image by James Jorasch)

It is my pleasure to be here today at The Future of Workforce Leadership. Thank you so much, Kristin and Vinz, for inviting me.

I should start off by saying, I love work. I started working when I was 13. I would babysit, paint, write, wait tables, tutor other kids, make things that people wanted, work in the general store assembling newspapers, selling beer to hunters and slinging scratch off lottery cards.

When I get into something, I get into it. And I’m into hard work. As a young person, I started from scratch. I never had a nest egg to lose. So I understand the basic challenge faced by many young people today, because I’ve lived it. I also understand that the global culture and economy were different then than they are now. The new circumstances require a new approach. According to The New York Times, 56% of 2010 college graduates had a job by the spring of 2011, compared with 90% in the 2006/2007 class.

As an adult, I’ve worked in many regions around the United States. I’ve worked on both coasts, and I have a lot of experience with the rest of the country, spanning from the Canadian border down to Mexico. I worked for six months in the post-Katrina Gulf Coast. I’ve worked across New Mexico and the Deep South. I’ve worked with educators in Iowa and social entrepreneurs in Detroit. I understand how people learn and work not just in the United States but in many countries around the world, and how they could learn and work smarter with the right leadership in what I call the Imagination Age.

The Imagination Age is a fleeting period of decades between two longer eras, the fading industrial era and a future era in which machines will surpass human intelligence. The research and development period of the Imagination Age was funded by foundations, think-tanks and companies, including IBM and ManpowerGroup. The Imagination Age, however, is no longer just a theoretical idea. Out of that highly collaborative period a framework for action has emerged. I’m here today to discuss that framework with you.

Because you are all in positions of leadership around innovation, my comments today will be focused on the leadership qualities required to succeed with this challenging mission in the next decade.

Engaging Others

The key to engaging others is to immerse them in a great story--a story with a mission, with interesting characters, a satisfying arc, delightful details and above all else, a chance for others to take part and shine. It’s difficult to know how to craft a great story. The debate about how to share on social media is only one small part of that challenge. In a larger sense, we are tasked today with the requirement to share our missions to attract collaborators. The stories have to be great and they have to be purposeful.

At Science House we have monthly pitch sessions. We fund early stage science, math and technology startups, so four or five founders a month pitch to us. In a few minutes, they have to communicate the story of the company--What is it? How will it market its products and to what consumer base? The first thing that grips us is the story.

Recently we were visited by a very young team in hot pursuit of funding for a medical gel company. The idea is that the gel, used in emergency situations, could stop bleeding more quickly and save lives. The tone at Science House is always respectful and friendly but we have an active business panel and some of the medical professionals at the pitch session went to town on these guys--ripping holes in various assumptions they were making about both the product and the reality of taking the product to market and eventually, into ambulances.

After the event we noticed that they were fuming, so we invited them to meet us for lunch the next week. Our entire Science House executive team attended the lunch, and we spent an hour helping the young entrepreneurs put their feelings into perspective and understand the path ahead. I’ve often been asked to give talks about so-called “millennials” and make recommendations for executives to deal with their constant need for feedback. This process isn’t a burden. It’s an honor.

It isn’t easy, and it can be time-consuming, but it’s how young people with passion and great ideas can best develop into productive, experienced entrepreneurs in a new global culture and economy. In engaging them, we learn what they’re thinking and we can tweak our own approach to creating a work environment that suits their mindset and needs.

The fact is that it’s hard to find the time to attend to such issues when the minutes, days and weeks get filled up with no breaks, even at home or on weekends. As long as you can feel your mobile buzzing, you’re still at work.

To thrive in this fast-paced, persistent environment, imagine yourself as a conductor.

You’re at the podium, at the edge of an illuminated semicircle filled with players and their instruments. Beyond all of you, in the darkness, is an audience--people who are there to see what’s going to happen because it involves them in some way. You’re playing for them, and you want them to emerge from the experience satisfied, to take a memory of that time with them into the future.

Ultimately, you want them to be moved, which will only happen if the players play well. It is your job to understand not only each section of the orchestra, each player and his or her contributions to the process, but the mission itself, the process as a whole, which is what binds you to the players and the audience. And this process is changing as the players are increasingly globally dispersed and not in the same physical space.

What is it that you’re conducting, exactly? It’s a process of creativity that permeates every aspect of your organization, including its ability to survive.

The good news is that creativity isn’t just a lightning bolt that comes out of the blue. There’s a process that can be followed to achieve results. The tedium of creativity, the steps that must be taken along the way, is where the action happens. This process can be brutal. A truly great modern leader understands how to help people get through it. Sometimes it’s a just a matter of taking someone to lunch, even if you have nothing but an ear to offer, and even if you expect nothing in return.

And remember, when you get pulled into someone else’s story, even if it’s just for a cameo, you need to make it memorable.

James Jorasch came with me so I made him a lapel rose out of pipe cleaners left on the tables to make us all a little more creative.

Make Changes in the Business Environment

Kristin and Vinz are going to make suggestions today that support the changes that need to be made in the business environment in order to move these ideas forward. In the meantime I can share with you an experience I had this week with a group of students at the American Museum of Natural History.

These kids are interested in working with technology, as programmers, designers or researchers, and are already looking for opportunities.

Do you remember making shoebox dioramas as a kid? Clumsily cutting out paper sharks to glue to the cardboard ocean? Those amazing little boxes are only one aspect of the multimedia approach to learning available to today’s children. Each camper chose an animal to resurrect an ancient, extinct creature and then focused on hyperspecializing in that animal’s behaviors, colors, flocking habits and texture.

The students at the Museum of Natural History eventually created a digital version of the animals they chose to represent. Science House worked with the Museum to create this virtual environment. First, however, they made simulacra on paper, out of clay and out of pixels. They did sophisticated research, not just from the Hall of Origins at the Museum but also out in the field, on a dig, where some of them found shark’s teeth and other fossils.

And then they taught multiple generations of their families what the animal might have been like based on conjectures, facts and inferences. Yes, this was a virtual summer camp. But virtual doesn’t mean dehumanizing. It doesn’t mean separate from reality. Today we are beginning to recognize the value of play in making sense of an increasingly complex world.

The program was designed to foster collaboration, not just between people but between people and technology to create a new understanding. The modern work environment also requires this balance.

Each day, one of the instructors said, the campers stood a little closer together in the pictures. Their imaginations had been sparked for science, technology, engineering, creativity and mathematics, but also for each other. They were engaged. By the end of the two weeks they knew stories about each other and about animals that had gone extinct millions of years before they themselves were born.

I interviewed some of the students at the end to learn that their perspectives had been radically changed as a result of the experience. Now that they’ve seen what learning and work should be, they won’t be willing to settle for less.

“I never thought I’d have a chance to get work experience at my age,” a thirteen year old boy told me. “This is what I want to do for a living, and now I know it’s possible.”

So how can you start to create the work environment in which they will be able to make a living?

Successfully Cultivate the Future Workforce

For the last couple of years I co-directed a project called Imagination: Creating the Future of Education and Work. My collaborator Joshua Fouts and I started off in the Cajun region, Lafayette, Louisiana, at a building called LITE. This building is completely out of place in its setting. It looks like an illuminated, futuristic egg. LITE is a $27 million virtual immersion facility. We were there to observe, record and participate in a week-long digital workforce camp for kids.

The kids had a mission: form teams and create games with social value around important issues such as obesity, police brutality, health, safety and unemployment. At the end of the week they would present to an auditorium filled not only with peers, parents, local celebrities and policy-makers, but also a panel of game industry professionals who were being flown in from Austin, New York and the Bay Area to critique the games created by each team.

The pressure was extremely high that first night. Nervous anticipation and raw fear hung in the air at LITE, just as it does any time any time a thrilling, high-stakes challenge arises. Just as it should in this room, as we discuss the characteristics demanded of a modern leader. Except nobody is going to grill you at the end of this event and pick apart your technique, your execution, your delivery. In Louisiana, these kids, led by visionary educators including Spencer Zuzolo, knew what lie ahead for them at the end of the week if they failed.

At first, they had no idea how to form teams for an activity unrelated to sports. Kids in the public school system in the United States are more or less educated the same way everybody in this room was, with an industrial age model that completely overlooks the collaborative nature of the emerging global workforce. The pitch session looming at the end of the week created a buzz as the kids worked with their teams and the guidance of the well-staffed program into the night.

Finally, the big day came. A team took to the stage to introduce themselves and the role they’d each played on the team. They pitched their environmental game, which included a level called Whack-a-Nutria. A nutria, for those of you who have never had the pleasure, is a giant river rat.

The panel came through with pointed questions. How could the team be sure they weren’t violating the copyright of a better known game, Whack-A-Mole? The student responded calmly with an astonishingly simple yet multifaceted argument about copyright law and fair use.

When the time came for them to rise to the occasion, despite their fear and excitement, they did it like champions. They set an example for the rest of us to follow. All we need to do to create the workforce of the future is watch them and listen to them. They will show us how they work. They will tell us. And in return we should offer them opportunities to develop their stories, to study math, science, engineering and technology, to practice creativity, and above all, to be the change they want to see in the world. If we are successful, they will be too. We owe it to them and to the future of humanity to dedicate ourselves to the mission at hand.

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Categories: future of education, future of work, policy shift, weadership

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