Joel Barker, recognised as one of the best known futurists in the world, is legendary for being the first to popularise the concept of paradigm shifts in 1975.
His best-selling videos on the future, the first entitled “Discovering the Future: The Business of Paradigms” released in 1986 and the second in 1989 entitled “The Power of Vision”, have been watched by more than 100 million people. They were recognised by Industry Week Magazine as one of the most influential series of programmes in the business world.
His book on paradigms is a standard text in more than 100 universities and has been translated into 20 languages with Future Edge being listed as one of the most influential business books of 1992 by the prestigious Library Journal.
Describing a futurist to be someone who is paid to help people think about the future, Barker clarifies to The Leaderonomics Show that there are two categories of futurist. A “content futurist” tells “what” the future might be, while a “process futurist” is a person who talks about “how” to think about the “what”, and imparts ways to think ahead that enable people to see a broader vision of the future.
Quoting his programme entitled Innovation at the Verge as an example, he shares how we should go to a specific location where innovations happen but is underused to discover innovation and big ideas to create our own future.
“It is about innovations that are a combination of something and something different meeting at the verge. Once people understand this, they begin to see opportunities and realise that what you’re looking for may currently be so far apart, you wouldn’t think about them coming together as a package. But once they do, you will go ‘Oh sure!’” he enthuses.
Barker quoted an example of a German robot company that manufactured a robot with one powerful arm which could be used in a manufacturing plant for moving parts around. As the company was not offered very much, they wanted to sell it to a market that could pay them more and eventually pitched it to the roller-coaster businesses in theme parks.
“As soon as you put two improbable things together, you will think ‘that makes sense!’ and realise that putting two unlikely things together can be an incredible breakthrough and produce inconceivable opportunities,” he quips.
Innovation has become much talked about due to the ability of an innovative society to replace old jobs with new jobs, Barker stresses.
The former director of the Futures Studies Department of the Science Museum of Minnesota reveals that his other focus is on how to access innovations early for its long-term implication.
Sharing on a set of strategic exploration tools he developed to identify the long-term implications of change, he explains, “The tool called ‘the implications wheel’ creates and shapes the conversation. So you can, in a disciplined way, explore those implications and discover a larger area of negative or sometimes positive consequences that you had never thought about. Unless you have done the exploration, you wouldn’t be ready for it.”
Answering questions with paradigms
Being one of the most sought-after speakers in the world on the topic of change and vision, and having spoken to almost one million people around the world, Barker reveals that he was getting about 1,000 requests for 100 speeches within a few years after discovering the concept of paradigm while working with visionary thinkers in North America and Europe.
“As I was losing 90% of my clients who wanted to be my clients, I decided to make a film about paradigms to enable more clients to listen to this topic.” It turned out to be and still is one of the No. 1 business films in history.
Barker offers: “Paradigm is all about a shift in thinking. When I got into the film, I wrote down a couple of issues I wanted to address.”
“One is on why smart people make dumb decisions about the future.
“This can be answered with a paradigm. We all learn to see the world through paradigms, through rules and regulations that are in our minds and which influences our physiology,” he remarks.
“The reason why smart people are making bad decisions is because they are using old paradigms to try to see the new world, hence blocking their filters. Understanding this gave forgiveness to ‘smart’ people by making them aware of the real factor behind the erroneous decision.”
Another focus of his film was to open up space for paradigm shifters to be treated appropriately and attention to be given to their opinions, perceptions, ideas and decisions.
Barker opines that many countries are caught in the same web where they need to make a paradigm shift in order to get out of the rut.
“So long as you are aware of what you can do, it releases you. You would be able to claim that – OK, when I say what I was saying it was because of my paradigm, not because it is absolutely true. And then, you move on to explore another way to view a matter.”
In 2006, Barker was named one of the 100 most distinguished educators in the past 100 years by the University of Minnesota’s College of Education. He expresses his admiration for Malaysia and is impressed with the willingness of the people to keep trying things.
Describing Malaysia as “an innovative nation”, he adds: “I use Malaysia’s Vision 2020 as a model and I can’t name you another country that has been so specific and willing to put it on the line. That’s really courageous,” comments Barker.
Importance of vision
Subsequent to his revolutionary discovery of paradigms, Barker embarked on a corporate discussion on the second crucial component for organisations and individuals: the importance of vision.
Emphasising its importance, he says, “There’s an old saying – if you don’t know where you’re going, anywhere is alright to be.”
“Corporations and individuals without vision can’t measure the rightness of their action, except with one element – values,” Barker elucidates.
“Values are wonderful, but a person with values and no vision can still go around in circles. People with vision tend to be much more efficient in their use of energy and time.”
When you have a vision, the choice is in your hands to change it. “So even if you change direction, it’s part of the choice activity,” Barker muses.
Professing to be a strong believer that people who live their life by choice hold more power than people who “just wait and see”, Barker says that the latter hands off all power and capacity to the exterior, hoping someone cares about their future.
So, generate a vision about your future, even if it is wild and crazy, because that gives some directions and focus, Barker advises.
Barker’s nuggets of wisdom
• For a fresh graduate
Read more broadly than everyone else, as the future comes from interaction. Opportunities arise in places that you least expect. Once every three months, go to the magazine store, grab some magazines in areas that are not your area of studies.
Read and learn. You’d be surprised that often, there is information in there that is actually in your field of interest, or a possibility to be used on the verge.
• Advice for a CEO/business leader
You need to develop a powerful discipline to understand the potential long-term implications of the actions before taking them. It is going to be a huge separating skill in the 21st century, as the CEO would move into the future with more intelligence.
Without spending time on envisioning the long-term repercussions of an action before embarking on it, “you better hope what’s over the horizon is good for you”, he concludes.
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