Exploring what the future of work will look like combines imagination with a healthy portion of pragmatism: where we have been, where we are today, as well as where we want to be in the future. But more than a wish list or a recipe, it requires an emergent perspective that can envision what will be truly new and now in the future, and not just a hackneyed version of today’s science fiction.
The ability to do this successfully requires an openness to space and that’s not on a planetary or galactic plane. The inner spaciousness, in this context, is unfettered by the debris of bias, prejudice or projection. Unhooking expectation and assumptions from a visionary perspective is a bit like separating the molecules in water. Hydrogen and oxygen may still be present, but ice may not be a predictable outcome.
As I have discussed previously in these columns, within the realms of complex emergent phenomena, prediction is an assumption certain to make a fool out of the prognosticator. Now that may sound like a prediction in and of itself. And fool is often the least of the descriptions I have heard when I make statements about certainty. But I will make a distinction here: envisioning the future is different than predicting it.
The envisioning process includes an understanding of the current environment and conditions. But to access that vision a number of prerequisites are required. First, a willingness to allow oneself to not hold onto a given understanding of one’s current situations. And second, an extension of that willingness to simply sit in front of the blank canvas of one’s mind, and not run out screaming to the nearest tavern after experiencing fifteen seconds of that quiet, undistracted, blankness.
When we recently took Microsoft’s Envisioning team through our Meditation, Mindfulness and Innovation program, there were a variety of expectations and biases the team brought to our initial circle. There was also an overriding eagerness to test out the process.
Were there skeptics? Yes. Were they intransigent? No! These were highly creative and intelligent people, operating at the top of their industry. They had seen creativity emerge and breakthroughs occur. They had explored where that creativity came from, but they hadn’t attributed it much further beyond their cultural perceptions and mandate to deliver.
It should be noted that, that mandate was to build and maintain Microsoft’s ultimate showcase—The Envisioning Center—the world of work five-ten years in the future. It was where every dignitary that visited Microsoft’s Redmond, WA headquarters was taken and, and like kids at Disneyland’s World of Tomorrow, all left utterly amazed.
The day before our session began, we were taken on our second trip to the Envisioning Center to see the changes that had transpired since we had first visited, a few years before. One that particularly caught our attention was new technology that could assess age and temperament. We were told this was destined for the servers at such places as MacDonald’s and Burger King to better serve their customers moods and needs.
Both my colleague, Mark, and I, showed up happy (a correct assessment), but older than we actually were. I then discovered if I looked up, so the camera couldn’t see the top of my head and my neck was a bit stretched, the machine thought I was younger. It was a trick I intended to use later and often.
On our tour, we were brought before the workstation of the future. It looked like a blank drafting table, but it soon revealed itself to be a full-edge to edge screen that was progressively filled with different bits and pieces of written articles, images from the field, work-related information, live videos and Cortana, Microsoft’s ever-ready electronic assistant.
Seeing this field filled with every possible scrap of information that might be necessary to solve a problem, I asked our host, David Jones, if the screen could be left blank. It caught him by surprise. Hesitating only slightly, he asked for the reset which required an action in the back room by the wizards behind the screen. This was, after all, only a glimpse at the future. It wasn’t quite real time, yet.
What emerged the moment the worktable went blank was actually the vision of the future. From frenzy to still, from the canvas overpainted to an unobstructed, uncluttered space and openness. What I think we all discovered at that moment was that the future of work may be filled with technological assistance mimicking real life, but that real life itself did not have to be filled, but could instead be spacious. An environment that could be both inviting and open to what could not be clearly predicted.
Finding a new future is not like throwing a pebble into a darkened pool and hoping the best will ripple out. The blank canvas is a place that purposefully provides an opening through which a breakthrough can emerge, and of equal importance, that the breakthrough can be recognized and captured.
The next morning, the team assembled in a semi-circle around us. We introduced them to the basic practice of meditation and spent the rest of the day working and deepening that practice. What we knew was that we were giving these incredibly bright and articulate people the tools they would need to explore a different workplace of the future the next day.
When everyone had gather the following morning, caffeinated and fresh, we began with a brief meditation. Where yesterday there had been grumblings when we sat for eight minutes, today there was none after sitting for twelve. We then moved to a large round table in the room that could accommodate the entire team.
The day before we had identified some of the team’s current challenges, and now we had them pick one that was important to them. But as important to them as the challenge was, the critical aspect here was the process, something they could use and repeat once we left.
Prior to the brainstorming session, we had identified a person to be what we called the “Cuespotter.” This person’s job would be to mindfully pay attention to the conversation, looking for the cues that would precede something about to emerge. It was the Cuespotter’s job to capture what emerged by calling a “stop.” The team would then immediately halt their brainstorming and the idea would be captured. What became clear very quickly was that this team didn’t need one person to be a Cuespotter. They were all on the job. They discovered among themselves that whenever the brainstorm began moving too fast or became overheated, any of the resident Cuespotters could call a stop, and everyone would immediately fall silent, place their hands on their thighs, and sit/meditate for 90 seconds.
At one point, the person in the group who had been the most skeptical of the process the day before, called a stop. Everyone was a bit surprised by the immediate silence and the space. 90 seconds later, when the conversation began again, the person explained briefly why the stop had been called. Too much was happening too fast. The conversation reconvened. When it started going too fast again, this time the head of the Envisioning team called a stop. And the same process followed.
Each time they stopped and began again, they moved closer to their solution. But it was not until the youngest team member, the one with arguably the least seniority on the team, called a stop that the process shifted. As everyone at the table felt the silence, the quiet interconnection of the team, and how normal it all felt, a new possibility emerged through their spacious interaction.
What had surfaced was that the future of work was not always about being the smartest person in the room with the fastest ideas. It was more that the process of capturing creativity and innovation as it emerged increased the collective knowledge and wisdom of those at the table. It didn’t require being told. All that was required was to provide some space.
Were the Envisioning Team experts and totally enlightened after that morning exercise. Not quite. But they certainly felt the uplifted quality of their work. They also recognized there was much more to be learned and practiced.
Learning to be comfortable within the spaciousness of the blank canvas is not easy. It requires deep listening on many levels: to what others offer and to what emerges from one’s own space. It also takes practice. Sitting meditation without distraction takes lots of practice.
At the end of our session, one thing seemed evident; being able to pile more data, information and videos on a workspace table requires blank space, too. But then, what also emerged was that space was the future that was available now.