Leadership paradigms inform decisions. As a result, leadership decisions inform policy. Therefore, it is reasonable to investigate whether the quality of decision-making by African leaders is sufficiently sophisticated, given the complexity of challenges facing the continent. One of the key dimensions of high quality decision-making is the extent to which such decisions are futures-based. This may seem self-evident, but the pervasiveness of reductionist (characterised by segmentation and sub-optimisation), positivistic (lacking vision beyond what is immediately apparent), past-based and short-term decision-making is evident from current challenges, once considered to be viable solutions.
Part of the explanation for such flawed decision-making may be paradigmatic in nature, i.e. influenced by the lens that a leader has on the world; shaped, quite patently, by past experience. Herein lies a classical paradox of futures-based decision-making: the experience of the decision-maker is based on the past, while the systemic consequences of the decision can only emerge in the future. For this reason, leaders often oscillate between embracing and disregarding the future. The matrix below shows four possible responses by decision-makers to insights, based on their paradigmatic preferences.
Fig. 1 The time-based support/opposition matrix
In Quadrant 1 the leader prefers the past to the future, and defends it based on tradition and the culturally established support for (dated) practices.
In Quadrant 2 the leader opposes an idea that is also from the past based on the view that it is antiquated and irrelevant for the current time.
In Quadrant 4 the leader dismisses a futuristic idea based on the view that it remains unproven and untested.
In Quadrant 3 the leader embraces a futures-based idea on the notion that it is novel and innovative.
It is clear from the matrix above that it is not the time-based source of the idea that drives many decisions, but indeed whether the leader simply is attracted to the idea or not. This is often referred to as the axiological paradigm, i.e. a frame for decision-making based principally on whether the decision-maker likes the idea or not. Naturally such preferences are often silent paradigmatic consequences of the quality of cognition (thought processes).
For decisions to be considered futures-based, they must be made not only for the future, but indeed based on a range of probable futures. The nature of futures interrogation provides clarify for the multi-futures perspective. Among the tenets for sound futures-based thinking, one may include:
- The future cannot be predicted – at least not with complete certainty.
- Futures is an exospective science – i.e. we must examine not only the content but also the systemic context of the risk or opportunity at hand.
- A spectrum of multiple, past-complimentary futures (explorative & normative) is always possible and the entirety of a selected future is never inevitable, despite current ‘facts’.
- The future is studied within a complexity paradigm, i.e. even problem definition is inherently problematic, and any attempt at solution will be experimental and heuristic, i.e. characterised by trial and error. It is therefore critical that the future is continuously studied.
- The same future may be achieved in multiple and an increasingly expanding array of ways, not only previous ways.
- Exploring the future moves beyond ontos (essence, definition and meaning) to telos (purposiveness), i.e. all decision-makers have needs and expectations from the future, which must be made salient in the interest of both awareness and transparency.
- That means that the future is, at least partially, subject to collective decision-making.
- The observer alters the observed once a decision is made, and probably earlier in the inquiry. That means that, once (and only if) the future is explored, the decision-maker is able to influence it optimally.
- Therefore the quality of cognitive processing (conscious thinking) will impact the quality of the future.
- By exploring multiple partial views, options for alternative futures may be generated.
- It is not possible to go back. Not even to basics. The reason for this assertion, despite the large number of so-called back-basics programmes across the continent, is the impossibility of the burden of proof: the decision-maker who uses basics must prove that
- there is consensus on what exactly the ‘basics’ are,
- those particular basics are universal; not only his/her perception, and
- the same basics that enabled success in the past (the only time in which those basics existed) will be the exact same basics that will enable a future time.
This last burden of proof is clearly impossible if one accepts the generally held truism that change is constant and, in addition, accelerating. It is for this reason that futures-based decision-making is a central leadership competency in the knowledge era.
Distributed leadership within this context must mean that leadership is networked in the very DNA of the decision-making process. This implies a shift beyond mere delegation of implementation once leaders have decided. It must extend to:
- the identification of leadership priorities
- the selection of a spectrum of viable futures
- the design of plans characterized by a high probability of success within that range of futures
- The creation of policy that serves not the problems of the past (a time that cannot be revisited) but the opportunities of the future (the only possible time in which decisions may come to life).
Cross-sectorial design in the knowledge era is therefore no longer optional in the decision-making process for leaders. The systemic reality of the future landscape suggests an interwoven kaleidoscope of societal challenges that will not organize themselves based on outdated paradigms and taxonomies. In practical terms, this means that, not only should leadership decision-making be representative of multiple sectors, but because of the inherent contagion present in all futures, all decisions by senior leaders will have to be tested against the complexion of the future; not the relative simplicity and segmentation of the past.
The implications for policy are significant. Incremental tweaks to existing (not to mention long-tenured) policy are unlikely to produce the creative, breakthrough results that Africa now demands. Legislation in the knowledge era already has a reputation of lacking (or at best lagging) innovation. This while the nature of policy suggests a platform on which future exploits may develop. In the era of accelerated change, policymakers will have to examine possible futures, not ‘proven pasts,’ when deciding on the complexion of the requisite regulatory and incentivizing frameworks.
In the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the innovation agenda is most salient in Goal 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure. The call for new thinking is clear from Targets 9.5 “encourage innovation” and 9.b “technology development, research and innovation”. The exponential (rather than the past-oriented incremental) nature of the agenda is reflected in targets such as 9.2: “significantly raise” and “double its (industry’s) share in least developed countries” as well as 9.c “significantly increase”. The systemic demands are reflected in target 9.3: “integration into value chains and markets” and 9.4: “make them sustainable”. Target 9.a calls for “resilient infrastructure development” while 9.b also represents the call for “ensuring a conducive policy environment”.
One may, with reasonable justification, investigate the extent to which the SDG 4: Quality Education, elucidates the development of futures-based thinking for senior leaders. The main focus appears to be on education at preprimary, primary and secondary levels, although target 4.3 does make reference to university. Target 4.4 offers enlightenment here with reference to “entrepreneurship”, supported by Target 4.7 which encourages “knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development” – an inherently futures-based competence. Nevertheless, it is the view of this author that much of the professional development needs of Arica, such as high quality management and leadership, will be met in continuing professional education, probably highly subsidized by industry.
In order for the policy maker of the future, then, to advance the agenda of Africa in a futures-based way, a series of questions may be used by leaders to reflect on the quality of their decision-making:
- Which of our obsolescent habits have precipitated current trend breaks?
- How do we discern the noise-to-signal ratio?
- Does our generation have a futures project, and how could we create the idea environment?
- How do we overcome an apparent lack of political will (akrasia) and develop humble courage?
- What are we learning from our skunkworks through Experimentation and Rapid Prototyping?
- Of what are we the harbinger, i.e. the shining light of things to come?
- Where are we the vanguard or bellwether across sectors, i.e. what are we signaling to future generations?
- What should we be designing as evidence of our leading anticipatory competence?
Patently, Africa has been shaped by its past. But we should guard against exceptionalism, as this is clearly true for all continents. The quality of leadership decision-making by leaders in Africa is critical to the future of the continent. Leaders may significantly enhance this leadership competency by advancing their ability in and orientation towards thinking processes that are futures-based.
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African Union Commission. Agenda 2063 – The Africa we want. United Nations. 2015.
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Foresight Methods: A Guide to Easily Accessible Toolkits. IDS. June 2016.
Mostert, M. Future blindness – an index of bias for leaders. Human Capital Review. Johannesburg. January 2016.
United Nations General Assembly. 70/1. Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for
Sustainable Development. Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 25 September 2015. (Available: http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/).