Back to Work

The holidays are over and its time to get back to work! The New Year will be pivotal for all of us in Wisconsin. Change is afoot and we need to be ready. We face three major issues – the Body Gap, an exponential change rate, and alignment around pragmatic actions. How we respond to these challenges will determine our destiny. We must avoid distraction, dig in, and take action to position Wisconsin for the future.

It’s a pivotal year. Change is accelerating and Wisconsin is at the fulcrum of some of the most critical transformations. The state is at full employment – yet we still need more workers. We’ve made workforce and technology investments throughout the state and made good progress – especially addressing the Skills Gap and putting people to work. Yet, there is much more to be done. Let’s live up to our “Forward!” motto and tackle the future. If we all engage, we can make meaningful progress on these key issues.

First, the Body Gap will impact the state more than any other factor. Wisconsin’s workforce is not projected to grow over the next two decades. Traditional approaches to training and recruiting will become less and less effective as more and more regions experience similar conditions. Future economic growth depends on more than just job growth. Instead, we will need to create transformational operational approaches that create growth without needing additional people. This is the first time we’ve faced this challenge since World War II. We were successful then…

Next, we must address an accelerating rate of change that already moves much faster than our ability to adapt. This situation calls to mind my two favorite philosophers: Thomas Friedman and my Dad. Friedman in his exceptional book Thank You for Being Late outlines the Astro Teller Curve that juxtaposes change against humans’ ability to adapt. Adaptiveness progresses at a linear pace, while technology changes exponentially. Friedman makes the case that the change parabola crossed the adaptiveness line somewhere around 2007. People and individual organizations can no longer keep up with the current rate of change.

This change creates a profound shift for our organizations as Guides supplant Experts as key leaders. In the past, Experts kept up with change, defined the environment, and set the direction for any action. Expert leaders made it comfortable for the rest of us because the success formula was simple: Just follow the leader! When the rate of change exceeded Experts’ ability to adapt, Guides became the most effective leaders. Guides identify and coordinate efforts in the midst of these changes, engaging experts at appropriate times. Success results from Guides finding the path through the woods; Experts building the bridges and tending to the snakebites; and the rest of us learning along the way, contributing to the overall effort.

The learning requirement brings us to my Dad. He said that learners are “constantly expanding the periphery of their ignorance.” That’s the boundary between what we know and what we don’t. As we learn more, that boundary grows geometrically, much like the circumference of a circle, exposing more of what we don’t know – our ignorance. Learning continues until we’re no longer comfortable with what we don’t know. In this new environment of exponential change, it’s critical that we continually expand the periphery of our ignorance in order to remain relevant. Embrace the unknown and find new ways to learn and explore. Make Dad proud!

No person or organization can address this changing environment alone. We must align our efforts and resources for maximum effect. We should be great at that! Our Wisconsin heritage is farming and mining and manufacturing – backgrounds full of pragmatism. We’re wired to solve problems. These new challenges require all our skills to create a bright future. The more we can engage and align to build pragmatic approaches, the more effective we will be.

These approaches have little to do with our personal philosophies. Philosophies are great fuel for discussions, but never solved a problem. We must set a practical course for the future. That means aligning with the economic and technological trends transforming the world. Wisconsin is in a strong position to face the future. Our universities, colleges, and technical colleges provide the strong educational base necessary to facilitate learning. Effective business leadership provides practical focus to initiatives. Our diverse economy across the state provides a broad perspective on business and social issues. Finally, Wisconsinites know how to get things done. These qualities allow focus and alignment to face the future.

Success depends on all of us engaging to create pragmatic change. We must embrace the constant learning necessary to remain current and relevant. That learning expands the periphery of our ignorance, so we must become more comfortable with ambiguity. This comfort positions us to search for the truth and what works. After all, we’re creating the future, not defending the past. If we do this correctly, each of us will always be a bit uncomfortable as our comfort zone stretches in unpredictable ways. Of course, part of the challenge involves engaging with and supporting the others on the journey with us.

Wisconsin leads the way in pragmatism. We’re rarely afraid of tough situations – tackling the toughest problems and then being ready to do it all over again. Together, we will make a better future for everyone. Accept the challenge! Make 2019 the year you made a difference in the state’s future.

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