Fulfilling the promise of the digital age requires changing the way we think about leadership — and the essence of humanity itself.  An exclusive conversation with Fast Future’s Rohit Talwar.

rohit talwar, boss magazineIn the digital age, cautionary tales of tech gone wrong loom large. Entire industry sectors resisted the lure of digitization only to be dragged kicking and screaming into the fray. Too often, starry-eyed companies abandon wildly expensive investments in data and analytics when the results they expect don’t materialize.

The reasons for failure are as different as the management teams and companies themselves, but our expectations of digital technology pave the way for success or failure. How do we align those expectations with reality, and stay agile enough to move with the times? Is it even possible in an age where a handful of tech companies dominate the landscape, language, and thought processes of emerging technologies and society’s responses to them? Is there a mindset that leads more often to success?

We sat down with global futurist and award-winning author Rohit Talwar to get a better grip on these questions, and to gain insight into what we as leaders must do in this moment to create a viable future for the generations to come.

Expectations of Technology

The allure of the technology hype cycle beckons many firms to adopt the latest and greatest advancements. If we are willing to embrace change to make an initial investment, why is it so easy to reject it when expectations are unmet?  The rush to get instant information and insight to achieve business objectives often leaves a huge gap between what leaders think they want, what they think they know, and what they actually need.

“People expect massive results without necessarily being willing to make the changes in their behavior or to make the investment in learning about what these new analytical tools and digital technologies can provide for them, and how to think differently when you’re taking a data-driven approach. You don’t get the results you want because you don’t change your behaviors,” Rohit Talwar began.

“Big corporations in particular still use a lot of intuition and experience-based decision making, and that doesn’t chime well with something that just says let the data guide you. That really points to a couple of things. One, the need to understand the technology. There’s about $800 billion a year of IT projects that fail or go wrong, and over half of that is due to poor digital literacy.”

Who are the digital illiterates? “People who don’t understand the technology at the top of the organization where technology choices are made and sanctioned don’t understand the potential to change the way they do business. People inside the organization — managers and staff — don’t understand the technology, don’t know how to use it to full effect, and, finally, developers who don’t know how to make the technology work effectively for the organization or don’t understand what the organization really wants and ends up delivering a solution to a different problem,” he pointed out. “It isn’t just about having data and doing the analytics. It’s about changing the way we think.”

Adopting a New Attitude

rohit talwar, boss magazineMaking that change will require a fresh approach to organization building in the new world being created by advanced technology. “The new world requires us to acknowledge as leaders that we don’t get it. We don’t understand what’s going on. That’s the first sign of strength, which is to be vulnerable enough to show that.

“You’ve got to spend time scanning the external environment, you’ve got to highlight what you see as critical uncertainties, and you’ve got to engage the whole organization in this because if anyone in the organization doesn’t understand the way this is evolving, then they’re not going to be able to execute well. We also need to use the whole organization as a scanning resource that’s searching what’s changing in the world and spotting signals of change, coming up with new ideas. The problem is, leaders often get very frustrated when they hear their own people talk because they think they’re naive, simplistic, and ill-informed. The question is, ‘Whose fault is that?”’

The fault, not surprisingly, lies between the ears of today’s C-suite residents, who may have difficulties actually hearing what their workers are trying to tell them about change within their own organizations.

“If you give your high-falutin’ PowerPoint presentation on how you see the world, and differentiation strategies and new business models, and you say to the audience, ’What do you think?’ If someone’s first question is, ‘Will you still subsidize lunches in the company restaurant?’ you’ve got to realize that that is where they live. That is where they’re starting from. That is the shape of their world.

“Unless you start from there, you’ll never engage them, so we need a whole new model of leadership that we call extraordinary leadership. Extraordinary leadership recognizes that there is huge uncertainty about how the future will play out, and that there’s a huge lack of clarity about what the right choices are.”

New Leadership Techniques

Ordinary leadership can’t be the path to a better future, Rohit Talwar stressed. Leaders must take the notion of superficial empowerment to another, more intimate level. They must make an effort to embrace the creativity and skills of everyone involved in an organization and treat work as a welcome learning experience.

“Whether it’s just watching videos every day for two or three minutes, these 30- to 90-second videos that pop up all over the web now, showing examples of technological advances, new ideas, avenues of social development, new artifacts that can change our lives. Just having people watch two or three of those a day can really start to drive the learning agenda of people’s capacity to understand how the world is changing.

“There’s a real opportunity here to change the way we lead, and an imperative to do it because we need smarter organizations, and there’s a moral responsibility to get people to take ownership of their own learning so they can take the responsibility for their own future and keep learning and keep creating opportunities for themselves. That, to me, is the core of extraordinary leadership.”

The Human Touch

rohit talwar, boss magazineKeeping humanity at the center of our efforts to create that future can seem like an indomitable struggle at this time in the world’s history, but Rohit Talwar offered a simple, if challenging, first step.

“We need to get people talking to each other. We need to wake up and realize that if we are pursuing a pure tech version of the future, then we’re probably not the best people to run our business.

“We must also recognize that the two biggest tech firms, Amazon and Apple, are worth more than a trillion dollars each, which means that individually they’re worth more than Walt Disney, Bank of America, Hilton, Volkswagen, and tens of other companies put together to equal just one Apple or one Amazon.

“We have to recognize that there’s a fundamental shift going on. We have to make the leap to understand that going digital is only part of the future. What is going to make our organizations truly successful is being more human,” he said.

The key? The desire to know.

Being more human, Rohit Talwar added, “requires us to raise people’s curiosity, to get them to invest in their training and things like collaboration, empathy, self-management, soft skills, and things like their emotional intelligence. When we can raise all of that we are really going to stand out … really getting into a place where you can’t measure compassion love and empathy through return on investment.

“You can see the impact on people when they know how to relate better. I think that’s where we start to change this, person by person, business by business, moving toward a more human model of management and acknowledging things like mental illness. We have massive challenges around mental illness in the workplace, whether it’s violence, absenteeism, or the cost of treatment. Globally, it’s cost us more than $3 trillion. In the UK last year, 300,000 people quit work due to mental illness. These are massive challenges that drive us to rethink the way we operate.”

Rohit Talwar and his team at Fast Future are hardly cowed by these massive challenges. “There’s a difference between what we hope for and what’s about to be, but hope seems to be the main strategy that most people are clinging onto in the face of AI.  Then you see countries like Finland taking a very positive step of creating a national education program on AI that is free for everyone to access online. That’s taking a positive step and saying, ‘How do we take everyone with us and leave no one behind?’”

The digital age brings with it a promise of autonomy from a technological perspective – robots, driverless cars, drones – but the long-term societal impact of the desire for personal autonomy enhanced by these technological leaps has yet to be determined. On the margins of every developed nation are scores of workers disenfranchised by the long-standing methods of corporations and institutional systems; whether driven to the fringes by revenue projections or straightforward failures in leadership, when automation comes in, too often workers find themselves thrown out.

“People will be left behind. It’s hard to admit that we don’t have a plan for this, but we don’t,” Rohit Talwar said. “We have to have a fundamental principle that says, ‘What we want is a very human future, where we are enriching humanity in a digitized world, where we are ensuring that the choices we make put humanity first, put people first, and that our technology, our systems, our processes, our governance, is all there to maximize the benefit for the largest possible group of society.’ That has to be the model of democracy.”