As part of its Centennial celebrations, IBM held a conference in New York in September - THINK: A Forum on the Future of Leadership. The two day THINK Forum brought together leaders from government, business and academia to discuss the future of leadership from a number of angles, including the changing nature of the corporation, the importance of systems thinking, leading in times of deep structural changes and bringing science to leadership.
After the Forum, I spent some time reflecting on what I had heard in the various talks and panels. Lots of different opinions and points of views were expressed. But, I believe that an overriding message kept coming through loud and clear: to make progress in addressing the very complex problems that we all face, we must leverage the power of rational thinking.
Several speakers pointed out that the world is no longer just connected via the Internet, as we have been saying for the past fifteen years. It is now becoming hyperconnected, given the proliferation of smart mobile devices and sensors all around us. In such a hyperconnected world, changes now propagate and build on each other faster than ever, rendering just about all private and public institutions increasingly unpredictable and harder to manage.
But, a number of speakers also pointed out that our ability to understand the world around us is directly related to the tools at our disposal. And, we now have an array of highly sophisticated tools that, when properly used, can help us make sense of all that complexity. In particular, just like centuries ago telescopes enabled us to peer into the sky and better understand the universe and our role in it, information has now become a similar such tool, enabling us to now peer into our highly complex world and help us understand what is going on.
The importance of information-based evidence, experimentation and learning was a recurring theme in many of the talks. But, in particular, it was the direct focus of the session on Bringing Science to Leadership, a provocative juxtaposition of two major disciplines not usually associated with each other.
One of the panelists in this session was IBM Fellow David Ferrucci, principal investigator of Watson, IBM’s Question Answering system that earlier this year won the Jeopardy! Challenge against the two best human Jeopardy! players.
Ferrucci compared the computational patterns in Watson with leadership in a complex, uncertain world. He said that when you solve problems with Watson, there isn’t a single solution, there isn’t one way of attacking the problem. Rather, you have many alternatives and you are not sure which will work because you are operating in such an uncertain space. Watson uses a statistical approach, pursuing these alternatives in parallel, assigning to each a confidence factor and then selecting the answer most likely to be right, if there is indeed such an answer with a relatively high confidence factor.
Leaders generally face this kind of environment when they are called upon to make tough decisions. They don’t have exact information, they have lots of uncertain inputs, many experts weigh in, each often taking a different perspective. Leaders are then challenged to look at that broad space of alternatives, break down their initial biases that come from their narrower experiences, combine and balance the huge reservoir of inputs at their disposal, evalute the most promising alternatives amids all that uncertainty, and finally decide how to proceed.
Another panelist, MIT professor Tom Malone, talked about the research that he and his collaborators are conducting on collective intelligence. In their work, they are trying to understand if there is such a thing as a general cognitive ability for groups, and if there is, whether you can you measure it like you do with individual IQs. They studied a number of groups, and found that there is indeed such a cognitive ability for groups which they call collective intelligence. This means that just like with IQ measures for individuals, there are statistical ways of predicting how well groups will perform on a wide range of tasks.
They discovered that collective intelligence is only weakly correlated with the average and maximum intelligence of the individual members of the group. Rather, they found that a higher collective intelligence is primarily based on three key factors: the group members’ ability to read each other’s expressions; the evenness of participation, that is, how well all the group members are engaged in the deliberations as opposed to one individual dominating the conversation; and the proportion of women in the group, which might be a corollary of the previous two factors. In this recent article on his research, Professor Malone said:
“Intuitively, we still attribute too much to individuals and not enough to groups. Part of that may just be that it’s simpler; it’s simpler to say the success of a company depended on the CEO for good or bad, but in reality the success of a company depends on a whole lot more. Essentially what’s happening as our society becomes more advanced and more developed is that more things are done by groups of people than by individuals. In a certain sense, our intuitions about how that works haven’t caught up with the reality of modern life.”
The third member of the panel was Harold Schmitz, Chief Science Officer of Mars, Inc, the makers of M&Ms, Milky Ways, Snickers and other well known chocolate products. Schmitz said that in the 1980s, a fungal disease wiped up the whole cocoa crop in Brazil, where cocoa was first discovered. Since little research had been done on the cocoa crop, people did not know the reasons for the disease and how to prevent it in the future. That left the whole cocoa ecosystem vulnerable to some catastrophic future disease that could affect the whole crop around the world, including millions of farmers in the equatorial regions where the crop grows, as well as companies like Mars.
In 2007 Mars decided to sequence the genome of the cocoa tree in order to develop the fundamental platform for conducting research and better understanding the nature of the crop. It formed a partnership with IBM, the US Department of Agriculture and other institutions. In September of 2010, Mars and its partners released their preliminary findings and made it available in the public domain so everyone could now conduct the necessary research.
Schmitz said he learned three key leadership lessons from this collaboration. First, we are dealing with an unprecedented scale of complexity. Second, we have to deliver breakthrough insights and solutions so researchers have something concrete to build on. And finally, we all have a duty to bring an ethical view to solving such complex and important problems, which Mars and their partners did by putting the results of their cocoa research in the public domain.
The Bringing Science to Leadership panel was moderated by Joi Ito, a well known technology entrepreneur who was recently appoint Director of MIT’s Media Lab. In this blog written for the THINK Forum, Ito observes that the explosion of ideas and low cost of collaboration all around us, is prompting a great deal of innovation, “but also a complexity, speed and capacity for amplification that makes the world a difficult and dangerous place for many organizations and human-made systems designed for a slower and simpler era.”
“The cost of planning, predicting and managing rapidly changing, complex systems often exceeds the cost of actually doing whatever is being planned and managed. In fact, it can be often easier to try something and iterate than to try to predict the outcome and manage the risks. Most great ideas as well as dramatic failures have been unpredictable and are only obvious in hindsight. (Don’t get me wrong: foreknowledge and planning are useful and, often, necessary; they’re just not sufficient.)”
“In such a world, leadership hinges on the ability to master a broad set of skills and character traits necessary for fostering a robust system, including courage, flexibility, speed, values and a strong vision and trajectory. It’s more important to have a strong compass than a detailed street map since the map is probably outdated and wrong.”
In his remarks to the THINK Forum audience, IBM Chairman and CEO Sam Palmisano's framed the keys to be a successful leader in the 21st Century:
“The first key is to take advantage of the powerful new capabilities we have available. Seizing upon an instrumented, interconnected and intelligent world enables any organization to take waste out ... to give customers and communities what they want ... to organize work differently.”
“The second key is to see yourself not only as a fierce competitor, but also as a broad collaborator. Don't get me wrong: Competition is essential as a spur to innovation. But in a world of increasingly interdependent systems ... the Wild West of competition needs to be complemented and tempered by far more collaboration across old boundaries. Across academic disciplines ... and industries ... and nations ... and even among competitors.”
“The importance of collaboration applies very much to individual leadership styles. The old model of the heroic superman is increasingly archaic. The most active and successful leaders today see themselves as part of global communities and peer groups. They listen as much as they speak. They are hungry to learn from other people, from colleagues and communities ... even people they will never meet in person.”
“Finally, you need to manage for the long term. This is something we've thought about a lot at IBM — especially as we approached our centennial. We've asked ourselves: What is it that enables an enterprise or institution to survive and thrive through decades, much less a century?”
“You need to confront difficult questions, such as: How does an organization outlive its founder? . . . How does an organization deal with the inherent tensions among its constituents? . . . How does the organization respond to relentless commoditization? This is an acute issue for the tech industry - but it actually applies in any field, from commerce to public services.”
“But it's not just about what you create. It's also about what you leave behind. History is a bone pile of enterprises, cities and societies that had great first acts, but were unable to achieve a second. Why? In most cases, it is because they couldn't break their emotional attachment to what had brought them success in the past.”
Leverage analytical thinking and tools, embrace collaboration to address highly complex problems, and have a strategic vision to serve as a compass into the future. These were the recurring themes that we heard throughout, and that made the Think Forum such a great celebration of leadership and rational thinking.