Your View On 2021: Keith Coats

The new year is just around the corner and what a reality shattering 2020 it’s been. As we set our sights on 2021, we’ve taken a slightly different approach to the usual “Trends for the new year” or “The top things to consider” type of articles. In this Q&A series – Your View On 2021 – we spoke with a few engaging and bright professionals who share their views on 2021. And no, it’s not necessarily about defining trends. The focus is more on sharing positive views, (new) habits, suggestions and what they’re looking forward to in the new year. Cheers to a positive and healthy 2021!

Our second guest on Your View On 2021 is Keith Coats. In an animated conversation, he offered intriguing insights, compelling metaphors and wonderful tips. With so much valuable material to share, we just had to keep as much of the interview as possible. It resulted in a comprehensive long read which we hope you will find as inspiring as we did.

Keith is a partner at Tomorrow Today Global and helps audiences around the world to understand the necessary leadership response through a global context of change, complexity and uncertainty. His research and 20 years of international experience have helped him clearly identify the key-defining factors for a successful leader in the 21st Century as the ability to learn, grow and be adaptable.

Keith Coats, Director of Storytelling & Partner at Tomorrow Today Global












What are you looking forward to in 2021?
The turmoil of this period has offered us an opportunity to reset. I’ve been using a simple framework we developed to identify the impact of 2020 and how to move forward. The framework is built around four pillars: I, we, work, world. What does this mean for me, for us as a family or as friends, for our company and for the world?

I’m looking forward to being able to take a collective breath and have a sense of composure. It’s about understanding that things have shifted and then accepting the invitation that is on offer. The invitation to learn. The invitation to reset. The invitation to grow. The invitation to challenge old, orthodox assumptions that no longer work for us personally and in business. I believe we will emerge from this scenario that we’ve been through better, stronger and wiser. I’m looking forward to people exploring to see what all of those things look like for themselves in a personal context but also in a business context. New rhythms, new routines, new awareness’, new understandings, new empathy, that’s what I’d love to see.

How will or should leaders adapt in 2021 (and beyond) compared to 2020?
Peter Drucker once said: “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic”. So, what we don’t want to be doing in this idea of resetting is resetting into how the world once was. The world has clearly changed. We really need to get our heads around that. One of the principles of being adaptive is the ability to accept change and uncertainty. For some individuals, that’s much more work than for others.

“People don’t like change” is a phrase I don’t necessarily agree with. I believe that if people are convinced that change is good, then they would very quickly embrace change. When we talk about change, people inherently see: “What am I going to lose?”. Because we don’t address the loss of change, people and organizations are often reluctant to change. We don’t address “the loss of the team I was once part of”, “the loss of routine”, “the loss of expertise and now my voice is not going to get heard”, “the loss of my office”. There are so many levels at which loss plays out. The failure to address loss often means that in a change process people dig their heels in and as a result, we start to assume people don’t like change. This is reinforced in business with strategic plans. We plan for the future because plans give us the illusion of being in control. What I’ve observed COVID-19 do is strip away our understanding that we can plan our way into the future. We need to let go of this need to plan our way into uncertainty because you cannot plan your way into uncertainty. Drop that and say: “Now what? How do I orientate myself?”.

Proteus, the Greek God of the Sea, had a specific superpower. It was his ability to change shape meaning he could change his shape according to the adversary he was facing. I think that’s a wonderful metaphor for people and for organizations. We say to our clients: “Your best strategy is your structure. So, make structure your strategy.”

That’s a great metaphor Keith. The ability to adapt to change is obviously something people and organizations will always have to deal with.
Yes, absolutely. Regardless of what the next disruption will be – and there will be more disruptions; more pandemics, natural disasters, trade wars or real wars, economic crisis’ – stop trying to work out what it’s going to be and build a ready-made response. Be a Proteus to shape and shift whatever you face. That directly relates to organizational culture, leadership mindset, rethinking organizations, how we get decisions right, how we view authority and how we disseminate information. All of that philosophical shape-shifting at response can be rooted in very practical and pragmatic things in an organization.

We now have a new appreciation of trends that were already in play. Digital transformation is now more relevant than ever. Companies and sectors – especially the retail sector – have been warned for years about the increase in online purchasing. A second sector is education. We are leaving a world that was complicated. And when we understood that the world was complicated, we were working with the assumption that this complication was knowable, could be managed, could be ordered and could be predicted. We worked hard at building tools within our businesses that helped us control the world. Tools like strategic planning. We’ve realized that we’re not dealing with complication, we’re dealing with complexity. And the rules that govern complexity are fundamentally different.

The world is unknowable, unordered, unpredictable and suddenly the tools that worked very well when we understood the world as complicated, at best our blunt instruments, are completely redundant when dealing with complexity. It’s like trying to compete today in tennis whilst using a wooden racket. Now that’s what I’m excited about. I’m starting to see leaders and businesses recognize this and are now asking the right questions. They’re having the right conversations, as precarious as those conversations are, but they’re on the right track towards discovering: “Ok, how do we work as a business in a world that is complex? What are the new appreciations, the new rules that govern?”.

When we talk about accepting change and uncertainty, it’s not about holding on to the past and trying to cling to a world that is complicated but transitioning to saying: “Ok, the world is complex. How do we govern?” Science underpins this. Quantum theory tells us that the world is interconnected, relational and complex. Forget the Newtonian physics that governs the old way of thinking, working and ruling. This sort of message can be played out at a scientific level, at a philosophical level and at a very pragmatic level: “What does this mean for how I manage, for how I lead?”. I think that the new appreciation around complexity and what it means to lead and live in a complex world is where the answers are.

To further unpack what you just explained about complexity, what do leaders then need to change in their approach?
A simple question to leaders is: What are you learning? Alvin Tofler said: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn”. This applies to a leader: what do you need to learn right now? What do you need to unlearn? That’s probably going to be more difficult for a senior leader. And what do you need to relearn? That’s an agenda for 2021 that should and can keep your team busy for months just defining those three things.

This current disruption is a learning opportunity and learning is ongoing. There are four aspects of what constitutes adaptive intelligence – and this comes from marine biology based on research by Gunderson and Holling – not just consultant make up stuff. Their research is rooted in evolutionary biology. The four aspects they defined were (1)  accepting change and uncertainty, (2) being a learner and inviting learning, (3) embracing difference, and (4) giving away control. These four elements can be applied to businesses big and small, any individual, no matter what their position or responsibility. If you want to be adaptive those are the four things you need to orientate yourself around and ask yourself what do those mean for yourself and your company?

A lot of management and leadership tools are rooted in the Western mindset. Whereas from my perspective working across the globe, I pay close attention to the differences in approach and interpretation. Asia has different philosophical soil. It’s more collective, it’s more communal than the individualistic approach that dominates large parts of Europe and large parts of North America.

A lot of the work we’re doing right now is helping leaders obtain a fact-based world view because our world view is skewed. And if your world view is skewed and you’re using the wrong terminology like East vs. West, developed (countries) vs. developing (countries) and things like that, you then run the risk of making bad strategic decisions. As a side note, when we hear terms like “developing” and “developed”, we should get away from those labels because they aren’t helpful. Luckily, the UN recently dispensed with “developing” and “developed”.

Can you tell us a bit more about one of your projects we should be on the lookout for in the new year and the changes you foresee for your industry in 2021?
It’s not necessarily one of our projects as we tend to focus more on projects from our clients such as Boeing, Credit Suisse or London Business School programs. As far as our sector of leadership development is concerned, I see a very different model emerging. Because here’s what’s going to happen: when people eventually get back into the classroom for an executive education program – for example London Business School – and you offer the same thing in the same way and style that you did prior to COVID, people will be sitting in the room thinking: “Why have I come all the way across the world to sit in a classroom when you could have been doing this while being at home or at the office?”

The expectancy of what will be delivered and how it will be delivered is going to change dramatically. It’s a change that educators need to get their heads and hearts around. There will be a more hybrid model – a mixture of online and in person. Obviously, we all know now that not everything can be done online. A large part of it can be done online but not everything. There are certain conversations where you need to be able to look a person in the eye, be physically in the same room and hold that conversation. So, what to look out for: very different leadership development models.  New ideas, new thinking, new methodologies, new models emerging around how we prepare leaders for tomorrow’s world.

Any recommendations for 2021?

We all learn differently. Our routines have changed. I normally take on average 140 flights a year. I haven’t been on a plane since March, so my entire work rhythm has completely changed. And I’ve embraced this change. One of the serendipitous discoveries in that change in work routine for me is more time to read. I’ve always been a keen reader, but I’ve had more time to read and digest things and not just read on the fly. My tip is to get a hold of books that will nourish your soul. Get hold of books that will feed the mind. Read for example Factfulness by Hans Rosling and The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton. Travel will resume but I think it will be done with a new appreciation. Appreciate the gift of being able to travel. Going to different cultures and different settings. And in order to enhance that appreciation, read De Botton.

Finally, on a personal level, what type of changes in your habits or approach to work/life balance are you looking to continue into 2021?
I’m experimenting with seeing. As I walk around, I can see things that are very familiar but are still unfamiliar. So, am I really registering what I’m seeing? An example is a house in our neighborhood I’ve walked past I don’t know how many times. The other day I walked past it and noticed something that I’ve never seen before but was so obvious. I was amazed!
I’m building habits where I can think, where I can reflect and for me, that’s walking and reading, it’s pausing. It’s not being so caught up in all the familiar digital distractions we’re all too familiar with. Build habits and focus on habits that work for you.