Ade McCormack
Ade McCormack
Digital Readiness Institute

Ade McCormack is a former technologist who today advises leaders on transformational matters. Most recently, he has established the Centre for Leadership and Disruption Readiness to help organisations and societies adapt to an unknowable future.( .

He has written for both CIO magazine and the Financial Times as a columnist focusing on digital age leadership. His experience extends to around four decades and forty countries, across many sectors. 

Ade has written a number of books, including Biz 4.0: An anthropological blueprint for business in the digital age. He has also lectured at MIT Sloan School of Management on digital leadership and is an associate at the Møller Institute, University of Cambridge.

This article is by Featured Blogger Ade McCormack from his blog Ade McCormack. Republished with the author’s permission.

You are sitting there at work going through the motions in a meditative / zoned-out state, perhaps even enjoying the uninterrupted streak you are having in respect to getting things done. But then your boss drops by your desk and asks if you have time for a chat.

Here it comes

Your mind goes into overdrive. Is the merger going ahead and you have failed to make the cut? Are you about to be introduced to your new robot co-worker whose learning algorithm is sufficiently sophisticated to pick up your job in a couple of months, tops?

"Are you about to be offered the opportunity to lead the new shared service centre in a country best known for its high ranking in the global league for societal instability?"

Your boss asks if you would be happy to sponsor his charity fun run. The relief is palpable. You become aware of the adrenalin coursing through your veins. You cannot think straight for the next few hours. Soon the hormonal impact of this stressful encounter will subside, and you will return to the new-normal chronic stress levels associated with being an industrial era worker in the digital age.

Cognitive leakage at scale

Scale this up to all the workers in your, or any other, workplace and then multiply by the daily boss interaction velocity and you will be able to calculate the lost productivity and squandered cognitive capacity brought about by such encounters. Most workers today do not know what the future holds for them, and they don’t like it. It makes them fearful and this in turn erodes productivity.

"The problem is that the leadership similarly has no idea what the future holds."

In an increasingly hyperconnected world the only certainty is increased volatility and uncertainty. Much of my work involves helping organisations operate in this post-strategy world. Some leaders create an illusion that they have it all under control. Their forecasting endeavours are works of fiction.

It’s just an illusion

The issue here is not to have it all under control, that sleight of hand is a relic of the industrial era. Nor is it to inform your people that everything is under control; a ruse practised by many governments.

"In my view, the way forward is to talk with your people about the realities that come part and parcel with the digital age."

You need to have a talk about work and the future of work. And you have to explain that all that guff about careers spouted at the graduate job fair you attended way back is no longer true.

Time for radical candour

This will of course be a difficult conversation. It will require a high dosage of radical candour in respect of conveying the new realities. Governments will at some point have to explain to their citizens that they should expect long held social contracts to be broken.

"Businesses need to explain that they need a new type of worker. One who is highly adaptable and understands that the market does not de facto value experience, it only values value."

This conversation will officially herald the end of an era. But it will also herald the start of a new era where we all need to be smarter in what we do and in the value we create. For those that are up for it, it represents a liberating future. But if you and your leaders have no real understanding of how the world is changing then that is a conversation you cannot have. Over time, it will be the equivalent of you riding around the office on a rapdily growing elephant, with no explanation for this mode of transport and a tacit understanding that no one must query this.

It’s a downward spiral

This situation is only going to get worse. This will have health implications for your people leading to sickness and further loss of productivity.

"So when I say that we need to talk about work, I would suggest that the leadership has a frank executive conversation about the future of the organisation and its people."

This must lead to the development of new adaptable and innovative business models that can buffer the organisation against the market storms. Only then, will they be poised to have that conversation with their people. But keep in mind that each day the leadership defers the conversation, the larger the extent of the cognitive leakage the organisation will face. That said, if you leave it long enough, the ‘problem’ will go away. Unfortunately, that will also be true of the business.