Have you noticed how strange it feels to say “Happy New Year” this year? 2021 has already presented us with so many upheavals. We feel a sense of resignation almost, not the usual celebratory fresh January feel. We are resigned to the resurgence of the pandemic and social distancing and various restrictions continuing. We perhaps feel weary of global politics and local shenanigans. But what may glimmer through for some, is the sense of hope. Hope that the vaccine will break this pandemic as it gets rolled out across the world. Hope that we will be able to move freely again. Hope that the economy and business will be resuscitated. It is this sense of hope that we want to foster in our teams and businesses. Hope is one form of a future orientation that supports us to re-focus and re-energise. We witnessed Amanda Gorman light up the stage at the inauguration of President Biden on the 21 January. To have a sense that new is possible and that our efforts will see us through and bring a brighter future, is liberating. This article explores two capacities essential to thriving into 2021: Future Orientation and Generative Learning.
I recently facilitated a team alignment session with a group that had just scraped through a year of retrenchments and business uncertainty. And they now have a rekindled hope. They can see a way forward for themselves and their team. It was so touching to see the eyes light up and the energy lift in the team. When there is no future orientation it is easy to be sucked into the daily vortex of pressure, confusion and fear. When there is a future orientation it provides some momentum to keep moving and to imagine a better way.
Future orientation is one capability that can be fostered in teams. Anthropologists Rebecca Bryant and Daniel Knight  explored the ways in which our temporal orientation – our relationship with the future – influences our present decision-making and imagining of what’s to come. They identify six types of future orientation we face, not all of which are positive such as expectation and speculation. We limit our thinking if we project the past onto the future and if we are too sceptical or stuck or trapped in the current ways. As people, teams, organisations and cultures we inherit different perspectives to the future. Where there are limited expectations or stuck views of the future we find it hard to make bold moves or be courageous or take risks or innovate. This is different from when our future orientation is of hope, anticipation or potentiality. Understanding this helps you understand why you may feel stuck or why you may feel agency to create a better alternate future. It may be your orientation to the future.
Understanding this helps to see where a team’s patterns have not served them in challenging times. And we can foster this capacity of a future orientation of potentiality and hope, which carves the way forward for teams to engage in managing ongoing change and complexity. Understanding where you start with helps. Then it is not about polly-annerish naïve optimism and motivational speeches. But it is about solid grounding in where you are currently, realistically and to acknowledge the journey you have been through, and to co-create alternate ways towards a shared future. That we have a sense of direction, agency and capacity to move in a new desirable direction. And to trust that we have consolidated our learning and insight and capacities to keep doing this- sense where we are, redirect, re-focus and re-energise. Hope is knowing we will get through this and that we will make it.
Figure 1: Diagnostics of a team on future orientation
A future orientation helps track and be alert to pending threats and opportunities. So another key capability is constantly sensing and reading the context, to be able to craft alternate scenarios and futures and be able to collaborate to get there. 2020 has taught us that we can adapt at lightning speed, so we can trust our capacity to change. A key question now is how do we sustain this change? How can we enable ourselves to be adaptive on an ongoing basis? And can we thrive in generative learning and in generative contexts, and not just survive?
Generative learning and leadership
There is no doubt that those organisations who have learnt quicker have been able to respond quicker – pivoting processes to produce new products, new services and innovative solutions. Evidence and data driven insight becomes useful when this can be interpreted and when changes can be made and decisions taken easily and quickly. Having an open mind and curiosity and an appetite to try new things are key to learning. And this is enabled through a culture and organization processes which enables prototypes, failing and collective learning, and an ease to act. The pandemic has highlighted learning capacities as key for individuals, teams and organisations to survive and even grow in these times. Digital transformation has been fast tracked with a customer focus and this has meant an empathy and openness to adjust to changing needs and demands. Speed in response has been key to capturing some market share and then constant innovation, service and improvements have retained clients. This requires collaboration in learning and responses from across the business. And collaboration requires trust, inclusivity and psychological safety. This is a conundrum as we fear trying and failing and appearing weak when we face vulnerability and of losing employment in tough economic times. For those that are holding onto old ways, they are exposed quickly and are less able to hide as organisations move at a fast pace. Diverse perspectives drive innovation and diversity, equity and inclusion is higher on the agenda as organisations seek to meet talent demands and employee engagement.
Generative leadership creates a context for ongoing learning and innovation, whereas traditional leadership alone sets the vision and solution. The generative leader enables collaboration, and shared insight as to the problem or opportunity, then supports self generated prototypes, moving to amplify those that support the purpose.  These leaders are adaptive and work with emergence and linking the entrepeneurial innovations with the operational networks to assist with infiltration into the organization.  This is way more sustainable than setting up a key dependency on a few. And it will mean wiser decisions as the intelligence and sensing of more are drawn on.
We want to work in a culture that embraces all talents and perspectives to continually learn and adapt. The pandemic has also sharply reminded us of our humanity, partly as we our touched by grief and suffering and by those frontline workers soldiering on, and as we reconnect with the importance of family and love and compassion. Also as we work alongside those that may be succumbing to stress, anxiety or depression, we reprioritise health, connection and communication in our lives and with our workteams. Many are relooking at what is important in their work and purpose is revisited. The term eudaimonia talks to the “quality of life derived from the development of a person’s best potentials and their application in the fulfilment of personally expressive, self-concordant goals (Sheldon, 2002; Waterman, 1990; 2008)”.  Each of us afterall seeks to belong, to have meaning and to have a sense of a future with that organization. We can achieve a sense of wellbeing at work, where we are supported in looking to a future horizon, and to learn and feeling safe and supported in a team and with leaders who care and have a strong sense of purpose and strategy for the business to get to that desired future. We want to know where we are going and how we can each get there, at least for the now, and knowing we have a strong sense that we can learn and adapt as we go. And that this learning and adaptation will be ongoing. Then we can rest a little more easily at night. Then it may be a year we can find our ‘happy’ alongside amidst the turmoil that 2021 is bringing.
- If we do not have a healthy orientation to the future we block our hope and agency to create innovative new ways forward
- We can build two capacities to support us to be with constant change with greater ease and insight. These are holding a constructive future orientation alongside generative learning: the first sets a direction for us and the second enables us to move forward
- Understand where you, your team and leaders may have traps or blockages in these and you can unleash greater energy, motivation, connection and momentum in your lives.
- What is exciting is that these are capacities that stay with you, and they grow, as you move into more and more perplexing times. You will feel a greater ease and confidence that you can keep navigating a (better) way forward.
- We can build our organisations and work culture to inculcate futures thinking and generative learning to see us through all manner of changes into the future
 Bryant, R. and Knight, D.M. 2019. The Anthropology of the Future. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
 Bushe, G.R. (2019) Generative Leadership, Canadian Journal of Physician Leadership, 5.3, pp 141-147
 Uhl Bien, M & Arena, M (2017) “Complexity Leadership: enabling people and organisations for adaptability”, Organizational Dynamics, 46, pp 9-20
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs
of such a terrifying hour
but within it we found the power
to author a new chapter.
To offer hope and laughter to ourselves.
So while once we asked,
how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?
Now we assert,
How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?
Amanda Gorman, Inauguration speech 21Jan 2021
HOPE in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as joy that things are going well or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not because it stands a chance to succeed.
HOPE is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.
It is HOPE, above all which gives the strength to live and continually try new things.