Opinion by Thornton May

Trending toward the unknown unknowns

Next-generation leaders will need to become masters at trend triage: Figuring out how much time and resources to allocate to which trends

rumsfeld

"Unknown unknowns" is a phrase made famous by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld during a news briefing on Feb. 12, 2002.

Credit: U.S. Navy, public domain

The world is one big trend — actually a billion interdependent micro-trends. We are surrounded by them. Everything that has more than one data point has a corresponding trend. Unsurprisingly, the media is obsessed with trends. Quality journalism is being buried under an avalanche of listicles enumerating trends.

As an IT executive, it is critical that you stay on top of the trends that really matter. Unfortunately, there is a trend toward executives spending too much time on unimportant trends. Next-generation leaders will need to become masters at trend triage: figuring out how much time and resources to allocate to which trends. 

The anger trend

Marian Salzman, a fellow futurist and CEO of Havas PR North America, told The Economist in December 2010, “Anger is the color of the zeitgeist, and anyone who isn’t tapping it risks appearing out of touch.” Looking at the political discourse in this election year five years later, it would seem Salzman was on to something. But do IT executives have to tap into that anger? 

Truth be told, for seasoned CIOs, a useful skill is not so much managing their own anger as it is managing the aggregate anger and disappointment of those outside of IT. 

It has always been thus. Since the first mainframe was installed, non-IT professionals have been perturbed — bordering on angry — about how much computing costs, how long things take and the functionality that is ultimately delivered. IT professionals for the most part have become quite adept at dealing with the anger of relatively uninformed constituents. (Perhaps people who think a CEO would make a good president should turn to CIOs instead.) 

A big part of a CIO’s success comes down to the ability to talk angry users off the ledge. Great CIOs have groomed formerly angry users into aggressive “expecters” — people who try to do more with technology but understand that the path forward is a process. 

Technology as part of product/service design

Several years ago, the head of marketing at a top business school told me that cup holders were a key part of the automotive buying decision. Today, I imagine, the far more critical factor is technology integratability — the ability of a car to integrate seamlessly with the technology that consumers use in their daily lives such as cellphones, mobile apps, wearable devices, cloud services and data storage. This bespeaks a trend that extends far beyond the automotive industry; products and services today have to be designed with external technology in mind. I call this full range/free range technology. 

We are not so far away from the day when every product sold and service rendered will come complete with a help desk and a mobile app. 

Historically, IT was responsible for procuring, deploying and maintaining the technology used in manufacturing and selling a product. Now IT has to have a hand not just in the technology inside the product but also in the full range/free range technology seeking to integrate with the product. 

That means IT has to be included in the design, execution and delivery of products and services. I expect that rotations in product/service design will become a core part of the career path of future generations of IT leaders. 

Uncertain futures

Uncertainty reigns. We live in a time of profound upheaval. Many feel a general sense of disorientation and worry that leaders and institutions appear to have lost their bearings. Many leaders are uncertain what will happen next and what they should do next. 

Before you start building bomb shelters in your back yard and stockpiling guns, ammunition and Spam in the basement, it is important that you realize that this is not the first time our species has experienced a “Boy, things are really confusing” moment. 

Uncertainty is not a new thing. Making decisions under conditions of uncertainty has been a defining characteristic of effective leaders throughout the ages. It was 82 years ago that American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr felt the need to share with parishioners his “Serenity Prayer”: 

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.” 

There are things we can control. There are forces that can be precisely modeled. I come back to the troika of knowledge states Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld set forth in a Feb. 12, 2002, Pentagon briefing: 

“…there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don't know we don't know.” 

One of the key trends to which all leaders need to allocate significant time and resources is this: Known knowns are becoming a smaller percentage of the knowledge set. The best path forward is to accelerate your ability to get smart about the things you know you don’t know and amplify your capacity to anticipate the unknown unknowns.

Futurist Thornton A. May is a speaker, educator and adviser and the author of The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics. Visit his website at thorntonamay.com, and contact him at thornton@thorntonamay.com.

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