The Future Has Come and Gone: You Just Missed It

03/23/2015 01:03 pm ET | Updated May 22, 2015

getty_144635413_970704970450018_52052The fundamental difference between leading and leading innovation is simply this: there is no data on the future where breakthrough innovation happens. Try guessing what will be the hot consumer electronics item in three years or what miracle medical treatment will emerge in four or what the newest fashion will be in five and you get the point. The future is highly variant and ambiguous. This is why the number one form of resistance to innovation is excessive data collection. Have you been to the meeting about the meeting? Have you seen the report about the report? While you were stuck in the planning cycle others were out launching meaningful experiments and moving forward with a reasonable sense of destiny.

No one can see the future. Even visionary director Stanley Kubrick had the astronauts bound for Jupiter call earth from a phone booth in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Innovation is a time bound form of value. It goes sour like milk. So, leading innovation requires building the bridge as you walk over it.

Guessing about how the latest gadgets will make our post-modern lives more effective or why the internet of things changes everything about everything is to focus on the trivial. Technology marches ever onward, aggression and avarice are sadly still part of the human condition and our relationship with our environment remains fragile and precarious as it has for millennia. Yes, everything changes: that's what doesn't change. But look beyond the obvious for the deeper, slower and wider patterns and you just might see how leading innovation will be substantively different in 2020.

For the first time, in 2015 there will be more Millennials than Boomers in the US. These Millennials, digital natives, inhabit a values driven democratic world that operates horizontally. They share everything from Airbnb to Zipcars. Conversely, Boomers, digital immigrants, have held sway for decades in a goals driven meritocracy where the best and brightest reap a disproportional amount of the riches and rewards. They have competed for everything from college grades to senior triathlons. Boomers have taken the innovations of the Great Generation that emerged from the Second World War and advanced them to their logical ends: hand held technology, non-invasive medicine, predictable financial instruments, global networks and the like. Millennials take a radical turn at this bend in the road where the very institutions that define leadership are quickly disappearing: family, company and church. They will not and cannot be lead in any way that resembles previous generations. It's time to rewrite the books on leadership.

So what are these big changes? Let's start with three that have already occurred and you probably don't even know it:

The End of Marriage: According to a recent New York Times article, over half of all births to American women under thirty now occur outside of marriage. When adjusted for levels of education and economics the numbers skew dramatically higher. Lest we believe this is simply an issue of a rising underclass one only need look to Scandinavian countries, which rank among the highest educated in the world with a standard of living positioned well atop of our own, to see the same downward trend for marriage among the young. Their society has not collapsed, their children are well attended and by most discernible standards they are prospering.

The End of Capitalism: Well before the collapse of the economy in America and Europe young people started cultural movements that shifted the center of balance from economics to social values. According to Pew Research, this change is creating an enormous generation gap between Boomers and Millenials that is still widening. This may be driven by worst employment prospects in almost a century and a renewal of the idealistic frontierism with the Old West being the New Urban Corridor. Former examples of blight are now shining lights for our youth--Brooklyn, Cleveland and Detroit come to mind. Look around and you can see signs of the new anti-commercialism everywhere: shared houses and cars, urban farm collectives and the end of intellectual property rights, etc. A recent issue of the Utne Reader was dedicated as a "Millenial Survival Guide" and filled with dozens of useful suggestions for living in a post-capitalist world. Pass the beer nuts comrade.

The End of Religion: Yikes! Where to start? According to the Washington Post, 25 percent of Millennials don't affiliate with a faith-based tradition, and almost twice as many don't belong to a church. A recent poll in the New York Times set off a maelstrom of controversy when it suggested that an increasing majority of Jewish youth no longer identify themselves with their religion. Adding to the palaver a Pew Research study suggests that an astonishing low number of youth believe in the existence of a God. While religious participation, affiliation and even belief are waning in the West--both post-Christian Europe and the Americas -- atheism is now among the fastest growing denominations, albeit an anti-faith.

If you want 2020 vision, you have to be willing to face reality without malice or prejudice. Our young are seeking new answers to their questions -- not ours. Perhaps marriage, capitalism and religion continue to work for this next generation but in innovative new ways and in new forms. Big ideas bring big change.

So what's the big so what? The very institutions that have defined how we lead in our modern world are being abandoned or morphed into new forms. We need to run a wider array of experiments to learn what really works and doesn't in the undiscovered country. We need to leave room for the stuff we don't know now. We need to start making up the new rules of leadership as we go along. Most importantly, we need look beyond the simple thingness of innovation to make sense of the emerging complex patterns that drive change and create growth.