business

2012: Don't Predict, Influence

It’s hard enough to explain the past. But predicting the future? The older I get, the less I bother listening to anyone who claims to know what stock markets, world politics, or even the weather will be like more than an hour in advance. (I still do carry a naïve belief that sometime in the future, the Cubs will win a World Series, but we all need religion.)

That said, I am highly confident that one thing will demand more and more of our attention in 2012 and beyond: human behavior. Our economic, planetary, and even personal well-being rely more heavily on our everyday actions than on advances in science and technology. The most critical need today is what I call “accelerated diffusion of competence” to influence human behavior. In other words, we need many more people who are much better at helping people change for good. Consider the following indisputable trends and what role our behavior can play in influencing them.

1. Economic growth in mature economies will be sluggish. This comes as bad news for business owners and leaders who depend on a rising tide to lift their individual boats. But it presents a huge opportunity for those who know how to engage employees in ways that differentiate their enterprises from those of competitors.

For example, a custom-software house we’ve worked with in Detroit is growing at double-digit rates, while others in the area are declining just as fast. The key to its success? The founder created a culture of unsurpassed quality and customer intimacy from the ground up. The culture-shaping starts with interviewing job candidates in teams. Once aboard, employees don’t even get their own computers; management assigns them to work in twos; each pair shares a computer. Employees are also trained to raise sensitive issues with teammates and to hold others accountable. This distinct culture enables the company to surpass customer requirements, on time and on budget.

2. Chronic health problems will keep driving up health-care costs. Heart disease, obesity, diabetes, addictions, and a host of other conditions will afflict an ever-greater percentage of the population. Research will make it more obvious that while therapies can mitigate some of these problems, our capacity to shape our health habits offers the greatest promise of well being.

We’ve known for years that as much as half of what determines our health status lies in our own hands. Maintaining strong relationships, for example, inoculates against disease, strengthening our immune systems. Diet and exercise also serve as major predictors of acquisition and recovery from disease. While we thrill at the discovery of a new pill that might benefit 10 percent to 20 percent more patients than a placebo does, we stare at our feet (if we can see still them) when reminded that influencing our own behavior can have two to three times that effect. We’ll never improve our level of personal well-being—and subsequently reduce health-care costs—until we gain greater competence at influencing our own choices.

3. Technology will continue to feed impulses more than values. Smartphones, tablets, MP3 players, GPS-enabled gadgets, and ubiquitous Internet access will continue to feed and exploit the natural human proclivity toward immediate gratification. In 2012, we’ll become more acutely aware of the degree to which our lives feel more virtual than real—and our relationships, pleasures, and aspirations seem shorter-term and shallower.

While some will try to stave off these effects by taking Luddite oaths to eschew technology, others will create solutions that help us make electronic tools our slaves, not masters. Offerings that allow us to shut off texting in moving cars (Text Zapper, for one) or voluntarily block our own impulsive access to IMs and Internet surfing (Freedom and Anti-Social, for example) signify our realization that we are behaving in ways we don’t like. As the gap between gratification and happiness gets larger, entrepreneurs will step in and provide solutions.

4. Emerging economies’ growth will separate leaders from mere outsourcers. For the past couple of decades, business leaders have profited from a race to the bottom of the pay scales. Outsourcing or offshoring to the lowest-wage geographies has increased profit margins. In 2012 and beyond, as emerging economies see wages rise, the need for real leadership will increase. Ever-lower staff wages will no longer cut it for management. Rather, creatively engaging employees in producing value will prove the only sustainable solution. Leaders who lack this capacity will find it hard to compete.

5. Global challenges will continue to exceed the influence of national leaders. We see increasing evidence that climate issues, weaknesses in the international financial system, security threats, and other global issues exceed the capacity of any national-level political leaders to solve them. We’ll need unprecedented levels of international cooperation to create a world that serves our universal interests. This kind of cooperation will never happen until new kinds of leaders emerge—people who can imagine institutional forms and global-level influence strategies.

In the closing months of World War II, leaders like Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Henry Morgenthau who had this capacity organized institutions such as the UN, IMF, and World Bank, which developed shared ownership and solutions to cross-border problems. These leaders created international behavioral norms for human rights and economic citizenship. We need a comparable level of influence to take on the world-scale problems of today. It all starts with the simple human willingness to think beyond borders.

I’m not sure what will happen in 2012. But it’s clear to me that our destiny is contingent not on creating new stuff, but on influencing new habits—ones that create the health, wealth, happiness, environment, markets, and global relationships we all want most. That leadership begins with you. May we all make this kind of progress in 2012.

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