Written by Sarah Babb & Marguerite Coetzee
We lose our bearings in times of turbulence and have differing views of the future. Each with its own rewards and pitfalls. It helps to understand your future orientation to see how it impacts your choices and decisions now, sometimes limiting and sometimes liberating.
Where we are now and where we’re going
We are emerging from lockdown in differing ways, with a range of textures and feelings, as we are confronted by stepping into a profoundly new reality. There is a disorientation as to how we navigate, not even sure where our starting point is let alone where our final destination will be. Some leaders have a sense of grief, a nostalgia for what was, and a sense of loss. Others a sense of relief and guilt in returning to familiar places and familial contact. There are also those with personal quests to find a higher purpose, a seeking for the path into The Big Reset. And many leaders have not looked to far afield and are zoomed in on the immediate crises to be solved, controlled and acted on. Some keep their eyes cast down, their focus in, and their pace fast. This range of orientations is well captured by the notion of future orientations.
“In uncertain worlds, (future orientations) provide a sense of thickness or porosity to the threshold between present and future, holding the future at an indeterminate distance ...Orientations can make the future appear malleable ...or set in stone ...; they capture the rollercoaster of desires and fears that inhabit every one of us.” - Bryant & Knight
How we orient ourselves in time and space
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. In identifying what our future orientation is, we are able to overcome the associated barriers and to seize the resulting opportunities. Re-orienting ourselves in times of change enables us to build a positive and tangible relationship with tomorrow, today. As leaders then we can re-orient our teams.
We all have the capacity to orient ourselves in time, space, and thought. Orientation implies some form of navigation, relation, and inclination. Being disoriented means losing one’s sense of direction, feeling out of place, and being in a state of confusion. It is in grounding ourselves, assessing the situation we are in, and finding our bearings that we can be re-oriented. When we know where we are and where we want to be, we can figure out a way to get there.
Leaders, in particular, require a re-ignited sense of direction, purpose, and understanding in order to lead their teams through crisis and towards curiosity and creativity. Understanding and mapping future orientations assists leaders to craft alternate ways of viewing the future.
Why we stay in a holding pattern
Mindtraps, such as those identified by Jennifer Garvery Berger, cause us to stay in a holding pattern of seeing single stories, being comfortable, being right and being in agreement. Or we cling onto wanting to control the outcome as if we could force it, holding on with all our might to protect our ego and pride. Teams have collective mindtraps too, that could hold them back from seeing a more potentiality and hope.
It is therefore useful for leaders to see where they find themselves currently with their future orientations and mindtraps, and figure a way out. It is about stepping up to lead with greater ease and impact in complex times; to continue with creativity, courage, and curiosity. For yourself and your teams and communities. And to bed down ways of being future fit in all times.
South Africa’s story is one suspended in turbulence and this notion of uncertainty has rung true for decades. It’s not surprising, then, that Springbok Radio back in the day hosted a competition that asked listeners to decode the acronym: EGBOK. Just as the springbok transitioned from a symbol of separation to hope and then to unity, so, too, can we shift our national narrative and know that Everything’s Gonna Be OK.
The 1950s was a post-war era most commonly associated with a time of conformity and ‘traditional’ gender roles. Pop culture and mass media echoed messages of an ‘ideal’ society that largely excluded people of colour and fetishised domesticated women. It was during the Cold War that the term “nuclear family” was introduced to encourage American women to refuse a career and maintain their family instead. The US was introduced to commercial television, with a growing interest in and supply of soap operas. The target audience of these dramas, which were predominantly sponsored and produced by soap manufacturers, was assumed to be the typical housewife cleaning the house while she listened to the radio.
Meanwhile, South Africa launched its first commercial radio station: Springbok Radio. Similar to US TV at the time, its programmes were reminiscent of white suburban life. By the 1970s, it was making impressive strides (both financially and in listener popularity) yet, by 1985, Springbok Radio was operating at a loss and so it closed.
It’s often stated — with undertones of shame — that South Africa was one of the last countries in the world to get a regular TV service (which happened in 1976). Those in leadership positions prior to 1976 opposed its introduction as it was feared it would bypass parental control in the household and encourage behaviour not accepted by the state.
Despite the late shift to TV, the impact of listeners transforming into viewers meant that less time was spent listening to the radio, and more spent on watching TV. This ultimately led to the end of Springbok Radio. Goodbye to The Adventures of Jet Jungle, sponsored by Jungle Oats and Black Cat; to the BP Smurf Show; and the Chappies Chipmunk Club. No More General Motors on Safari or the Castle Lager Key Game. Not one more Guess Who with All Gold or greeting the bride with Nestlé.
For some South African youth, 1985 was the end of their childhood memories; of gathering around the radio to listen to stories, music, sitcoms, news, and chat shows.
For all of SA, 1985 signalled the beginning of a crumbling oppressive system. The nation collectively held its breath and wondered what the outcome would be. Following Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 and the official political dismantling of apartheid, SA was allowed to participate in the 1995 Rugby World Cup — and won. Up until then, rugby and the Springbok team had been perceived as a symbol of division. As SA chased its dream of being a rainbow nation, the Springboks’ win transformed rugby into a symbol of hope.
In 2018, Siya Kolisi became the first black captain of the Springboks — born a year after Mandela was freed from prison but still carrying the weight of apartheid — and a year later he led his team to victory in the 2019 Rugby World Cup and rugby has become a symbol of unity.
The morning of the first day of lockdown, I was woken by a complete absence of sound. It felt like a scene from a budget sci-fi film.
The usual rumbling of a delivery truck outside our window wasn’t there. The call and response of people either side of the street was absent. The incessant hooting of taxis was gone. Even the overly vocal dog next door was silenced. Only the wind, like the hum of a distant ocean, found its way through a gap in the window frame. A dove swooped past and I felt and heard it, rather than catching a glimpse.
Soundscapes & fearscapes — sounds of life
Our acoustic environment is filled with soundmarks that make our immediate soundscape unique, compared to anywhere else in the world. These sonic facets of a community offer insight into the physical qualities of and social actors within a space. Similarly, stories and storytelling help us make sense of our surroundings, as well as how we imagine a future world and the people in it. Storytellers have the power to create a sense of fear or of hope in relation to future possibilities, as well as a notion of optimism or pessimism towards humanity and its ways of being.
On a Saturday in April 2020, a community of futurists and authors gathered virtually for a nine-hour symposium: Science Fiction as Foresight. Writer Karl Schroeder presented on theories of change, identifying six lenses through which we perceive change. Paraphrasing his definitions:
Conducting fieldwork in a pandemic isn’t only possible but necessary. Brands and businesses have the opportunity to be present and listen. Here are some innovative ways that researchers are exploring the world while staying home:
Each generation is born into a different time, with its own set of challenges, opportunities, and shared experiences. This temporal consideration — among many other factors — plays a role in how someone might respond to a crisis.
A global generational war is brewing over the novel coronavirus. Or so it seems. Some preach the severity of the situation (often older people), while others continue with life as usual (many younger people). There are even those who act in purposeful defiance, like attending corona parties. Where is the difference in reaction coming from? It boils down to three elements that are playing out in different ways: physical distancing, cognitive dissonance, and social solidarity.
Myopia: A forgotten past
On the phone with my grandmother, before South Africa officially went into a three-week lockdown, she told me to ensure I have the following:
2. A radio
My grandmother was born in a small Karoo town in 1931, and so was raised during the Great Depression and World War II. She’d lived through scarcity, uncertainty, and boredom. Her advice for covid-19 supplies spoke to the need for sustenance (food), information (radio), and entertainment (puzzles). She’d lived through this scenario before, and has been able to adapt. However, many aren’t, whether it’s not having a similar frame of reference against which they can make judgments, or not wanting to return to a state of limitation, or not being afforded the privilege of making drastic changes to their current lifestyle, or even simply not wanting to give up their freedom of choice.
We need to understand change from multiple perspectives, and not make assumptions. In times like these, brands and businesses need to consider multiple possibilities and prepare several solutions to meet the population’s new and varied needs.
Dystopia: An apocalyptic reality
Sohail Inayatullah’s framework for thinking about the future is useful in understanding where we are right now, and where we need to be to make it through a crisis. The framework is divided into six foundational concepts:
Utopia: An imaginary future
Oscar Wilde considered progress to be the realisation of utopias. Many literary and philosophical theorists believe that a utopia is more revealing of the time in which it was formulated than of what people actually imagine would occur in the future. If, today, people dream of a future where there’s an abundance of natural resources and an elimination of inequality, this is a reflection of our present reality where we experience shortage and disparity. What could South Africa’s utopia look like?
Play. It’s something we associate with childhood, somewhat carefree and careless. However, there’s more to it. Games usually have rules and rituals attached to them which make them far more complex than mere child’s play. Games are reflective of both the players and of the times in which they are played. Social life is reflected in play.
A successful crossword puzzle is ‘creative, clever, and current’. It is about exercising your brain, escaping from daily responsibilities, and passing the time. Ford, intentionally or not, recognised the value of connecting with consumers through something that mattered to them: leisure time. The multinational brand had been part of South Africa’s motor industry since 1923 — 10 years after the crossword was introduced. In the late 1950s, a local newspaper printed a crossword puzzle. The sponsored prize was a Ford Consol. My grandfather filled in the puzzle and, when he reached the final clue, he thought he would write a humorous answer to make my grandmother smile. What was it? “Mary would be really sad to lose this: L _ M B”. The answer he wrote? “LIMB”. He won the car.
With a young democracy, South Africa is in a state of transition, and rugby has been used as a tool before to unite a divided country. Since then, youth have questioned the breadth and depth of change. We find ourselves at this threshold again.
I thought it fitting that South Africa (a former British colony) and England would be battling it out in a modern-day form of war: rugby. These two nations are not unfamiliar opponents — in sport and in actual war.
Walking through the Saturday market in Franschhoek on the day of the 2019 Rugby World Cup final, it was easy to spot the tourists. They stood in stark contrast to a sea of gold and green jerseys. Dutch conversations and German accents were drowned out by South African music blaring from phones and cars hooting as they drove by with flags flailing from open windows. I found a table in a small restaurant with a TV. Behind me, an elderly couple proudly displayed their British identity and, to my left, a larger family also from England were making their presence known. Their confidence didn’t last long, as the Springboks won, and the British tourists snuck out of the restaurant, avoiding eye contact.
Conversations and media headlines that followed emphasised how ‘desperately’ South Africa needed this win: to instill a sense of national pride, to create non-political cohesion, and to enforce some kind of social transformation.
Lesson one: pick a side
It’s easy — particularly in the media, marketing and advertising industries — to want to tell feel-good stories, especially if surrounded by chaos and catastrophe. Many brands tend to avoid risk and play it safe by avoiding stories that might alienate them among particular markets; look at the polarised responses received by Gillette recently when it made noise. Alberto Brea identifies three types of brands: passive (sticking to the way things have always been done), active (encouraging engagement and co-creation with consumers), and neutral (lacking edge and purpose as they follow a linear journey).
“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” — Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor & activist.
Lesson two: stand your ground
Having a clearly defined brand purpose or positioning requires consistency in communication and behaviour. Knowing what we stand for, and where we want to be, helps us figure out how to get there. Whether it is providing a platform, creating opportunities, or crafting solutions, brands and businesses have the power to influence, shape, and change the course we are on.
“Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter” — Chinua Achebe, novelist.
Lesson three: share the glory
Many brands have access to exclusive resources and a large audience. They have the opportunity — and social responsibility — to create positive, long-term transformation. Just as the Springboks returned home and toured the country to share their victory and to recognise the role we all played, so too could brands and businesses distribute the glory.
“What we do is more important than what we say or what we say we believe.” — bell hooks, activist.
#ImStaying is a Facebook group that is said to have been started with the intention of countering negative narratives about South Africa. It is intended to create inclusivity in a seemingly divided nation, to chant an anthem: “I AM STAYING!” However, the very notion of having an option to leave, but choosing to stay, is rooted in privilege.
Most of South Africa is not afforded that choice and stay out of necessity or not having an escape route. I joined the group in its early stages, hoping to indulge in stories excluded from mainstream media. What I came to find instead was underlying tones of rainbowism, tokenism, and other forms of patronising, paternalistic, privileged posts. The group was also heavily controlled, preventing any ‘negative’ comments, discussions or debates. Following from my encounter with angry drivers, I typed up a post and submitted it to the group. For a week, my post was pending approval from the group’s admin, after which someone on their side deleted it.
What did it say? It went something like this: “There is a theory in the social sciences that all the world’s problems can be traced back to three institutions: patriarchy, capitalism, and white privilege. What can we do to tackle these challenges and create the South Africa we all belong to and dream of?” Admittedly, I asked this question in the hopes of sparking a conversation but came to realise that this group isn’t the platform for confrontation, observation, or reflection. Here are three lessons for brands.
Lesson one: look for signs
Frustrated with the “toxic positivity” of the group, local artist David Scott of The Kiffness revealed that many of the people on the page were expats living abroad; they had, in fact, left (read the full story here). Scott has since created his own group, called #ImSlaying, in which people share comical photos and stories of themselves succeeding in life.
The original group should not be disregarded or completely discredited, because it exists for a reason. That reason might be that consumers of media are searching for other narratives, communities, and outlets.
False hopes are more dangerous than fears — JRR Tolkien, author
Lesson two: map the journey
South Africa faces the challenge of several legacies, of patriarchal power structures, of capitalist systems that create exclusion and invisibility, and of privilege that favours the few. We have been through this journey before. Coming from a highly racialised past and moving to democracy, younger generations have since called for the fall of sugar-coated reconciliation.
Knowing where we come from and what we have been through can help guide where we are going.
A generation which ignores history has no past, and no future — Robert Anson Heinlein, author
Lesson three: change direction
If we imagine transformation to follow the shape of an S-curve, it becomes easier to anticipate, prepare for, and shape change. A time of growth is often followed by a transition in which the old is discontinued, and the new emerges (read more about the Sigmoid Curve here).
It could be said that SA is currently in a state of transition, transformation, and uncertainty. What we do now will impact our trajectory going forward.
Where the fog is thickest, begin — Marty Rubin, author
A group of four men gathers on the pavement. A local gets nervous: “This might be the start of another protest,” he says. I am parked near an abattoir, and see a small truck transport some sheep in that direction —lambs to a slaughter, literally. The ocean air in Saldanha feels like salt on an open wound. Everything is stained a rusty red thanks to the steel factory, the town’s lifeblood.
It’s been months of talks and tension around the construction taking place in the area. Some even claim there’s a construction ‘mafia’ who behave in a destructive and aggressive manner, while others say these are agents of change ensuring the economic upliftment of emerging local contractors. Construction projects are disrupted — and often prevented from continuing — until an agreement can be made regarding stakes in the project.
With varying perspectives and differing visions for a preferred outcome, the situation could very easily become messy. The construction industry — as a complex system undergoing change — requires transformational leadership to see it through (read more here).
Simon Sinek wrote a book called Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. In it he demonstrates how assumptions impact behaviour; the difference between manipulation and inspiration; how confidence can lead to certainty; how trust emerges from an alignment of values and processes; and the importance of listening and communication.
However, leaders don’t assume one identity or role, and often struggle or fail to lead their team through transformation. Liz Wiseman, in her book Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, identifies several leadership types which she categorises into “multipliers” vs “diminishers”:
Lesson 1: start with why
Change management often fails because of poor execution of a change or misdiagnosis of the problem. A potential starting point is first to sense the situation. From there, a convening question may be crafted to reveal the current narrative of the system and to tap into people’s will. After defining the scope of the problem, tools may then be deployed to help make sense of the situation and guide the approach towards a solution.
Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts — Winston Churchill, politician.
Lesson 2: develop the how
Lesson 2: Develop the howThe behaviours and attitudes that foster change are those that raise collective awareness of change, explore alternative methods to managing change, provide access to information about the change, and have flexible structures and processes.
If you can’t change your fate, change your attitude — Charles Revson, philanthropist.
Lesson 3: determine the what
Being a change agent requires a level of awareness and state of reflexivity. It’s important to listen to different perspectives and consider different sources of information in order to gain a holistic view of a situation, issue or solution. The overall aim is to craft a new trajectory towards a collectively defined vision through self-transforming patterns.
The acknowledgement of a single possibility can change everything — Aberjhani, author.