Convergence Conversation: My Favorite Futurist, Ian Khan
There are people you meet in the course of your life with whom you feel an instant connection. These special people tend to have incredible amounts of positive energy, so it is hard not to call them your friend, even if you have only known them for a short time. Ian Khan is one of these people. The first time we met, Ian and I were both supporting John Schroeter with writing After Shock. As preparation for writing the Foreword to this excellent collection of essays by thought leaders and futurists, I interviewed Ian. Since then, our paths have crossed several times. And each time, we have shared our hopes for the future. I always learn something new about how the world works and how I think about it when we talk.
In this Convergence Conversation, Ian and I discuss what it means to be a futurist and how as technology advances, leaders must spend more time focusing on people.
The Makings of a Futurist
Deb: How did you become a futurist?
Ian: I’m proud to call myself a futurist, although I do not have an official designation and I haven’t gone through a specific program. I believe we all can be futurists with the appropriate education, experiences and mindset.
I was born in Kashmir and educated as an engineer in Southern India. I’m a nuts-and-bolts technology person. Early in my career, I worked in oil and gas and spent a lot of time in India and the Middle East. It gave me the opportunity to travel a lot, meet incredible people, and to work with many incredible companies. About 15 years ago, I moved to Canada to explore other options for my career, which is where technology became a real focus.
Working in enterprise technology exposed me to different technology advancements. I’ve always been curious about what else can happen but seeing how fast technology was changing really drove me to keep up with knowledge in different areas. I began to wonder what else I could do and what else should there be in life.
Fast forward again, I hit a point in my corporate career where I paused. I was working a lot, like anybody else. It was an incredible time learning and helping companies but there was a hunger to be more of an educator. I felt like I could do more to help companies and organizations excel in their journey of understanding technology or working with the technology. My purpose was calling me somewhere else. I had started a company as a side gig and was publicly speaking at events and conferences. I was presenting to tens and hundreds of people, giving keynotes and explaining the evolution of technology, the current revolutionary era, and what the future could hold. It was this work with associations and industry groups that opened an opportunity for me to speak at a TEDx event. Even though it was only a ten-minute presentation, the months of preparation were invaluable for helping me to articulate the future of technology.
At some point, my desires all came together. I was on vacation with my family and it was two o’clock in the morning. I was sitting alone on the hotel room balcony doing the Ikigai exercise, trying to figure out my life’s purpose. What do I love? What do I need? What does the world need? And so on. I concluded that I must be on my own and help others with the future. I wanted to be able to help people understand technology so they could unlock and open doors to go forward.
That’s a futurist — someone who opens up the possibilities of the future, whatever it’s the risk, benefit, gain, or opportunity. I believe all of us are futurists, whether or not we claim to be.
A futurist isn’t trying to predict. They are not Nostradamus. As a futurist, I want to educate and explain things that are going on and what might possibly happen. I try to get people thinking about what they could do. That’s what defines a futurist. I am a technology futurist because I like to stay in the technology lane, keeping technology at the center of my focus.
Framing Future Change
Deb: You have seven axioms for change (experiences, learning, collaboration, people, partnerships, accountability, and actualization). How did you come up with these and why?
Ian: The inspiration for this framework was purely my experience working with different organizations, observing industry trends, and seeing what’s happening around us. I condensed my own knowledge of study and understanding into the seven axioms of leadership that we need to live by and abide by, at any individual level of an organization.
I feel these things are important for all of us to be successful in today’s era, where distraction is so common, and our attention is split between so many things. Organizations need something beyond just technology to power them forward, we cannot ignore people. We cannot ignore partnerships and what we do as people with this whole network of enterprises and the wider world out there. I wrote about this in my book 7 Axioms of Value Creation. Since that book came out, I’ve realized we talk a lot about the future, but if you ask people if they are future-ready or if their organization is future-ready, the answer is no.
Today’s leaders need to understand the possibilities of the future, but they also must create future readiness. When I ask about future readiness the answer I usually receive is about technology, “we’ve got AI, we’ve got blockchain and we have the cloud.” That’s not what I’m talking about when I ask about future readiness. Technology is only one part of it. It’s a vehicle to take you from one place to the other. But where are you headed? You’re telling me that you’re driving a BMW but I’m not asking about the car. Where are you headed with the BMW? This disparity is why we developed a future readiness score to help organizations understand where they are and where they’re headed.
We’re all disrupted and challenged by change every single day. How do organizations actually know where they are and where they’re headed? There are many different metrics and KPIs to track that information about where we are today. But what I found missing was there was no metric to track future readiness – where we are headed or need to head.
Making and Measuring Impact
Deb: Does your future readiness framework have measures or metrics for the impact of an organization?
Ian: Not directly. It’s not one of the pillars in the assessment. Impact must be the entire value an organization seeks to create. Whatever the organization does, it has to stand for some kind of impact that it wants to create — some change it is creating. It is more than making money or continuing to exist. Impact must be part of the fabric of organization. The question is, how do they make this impact and where are they in respect to their journey of creating that impact?
Deb: It can be hard to identify the impact a company is trying to make when so many other things are vying for priority and attention. If a company has a legacy of thinking about itself as being the best at making or servicing widgets, for example, how does it adjust its thinking about impact? Is this where your concept of Think Loud and Think Big comes in?
Ian: I feel many people don’t live their life to the fullest. We’re constantly living under the radar of somebody, limiting our capacity to do more; and not because of more money. It’s more about asking what can I be, where can I go? What is the maximum potential that I can unleash from my existence?
I believe that about myself. I should be doing that. And I feel everybody should be doing that. The question is, how do you do that? You cannot do that by limiting your beliefs by saying to yourself that this is it for you. You can’t go beyond this because of the glass ceiling, because of the boss pressure, the peer pressure, the city you live in, the demographic, you live in the, you know, your race, color, creed, origin.
This perspective most likely has a lot to do with where I was born and raised. Kashmir is one of the most incredibly beautiful places in the world. It is truly amazing. But it’s gone through a period of dangerous civil unrest. When I lived there, it was caught in the middle of armed conflict between two countries that wanted Kashmir. The pressure from the two entities was crushing. Living in a pressure cooker environment for decades can place severe limits in your mind. When you leave your home, you literally don’t know if you are going to come back. There could be a shootout or a bomb explosion that could change everything.
My family lived in a very nice residential neighborhood. But when I was about 14, an anti-tank mine exploded about 500 meters from the front of our family home. It was around five o’clock in the morning when people were just getting started to head out to work or school. We lived in this incredible level of uncertainty. Living under these types of circumstances can really limit your thinking. You can start to believe you have no future or you can’t go anywhere. I had to push myself to think beyond the pressure cooker environment that I was in.
I am grateful for all the daydreaming or thinking about the future I did as a kid. I was trying to envision a different tomorrow for myself and for others, and it’s where the idea of Think Loud and Think Big comes in. How do you think about a different tomorrow despite the circumstances that you’re in today? You need to think loud and think big to envision a very different future than the one you think is destiny.
The Nature of a Futurist
Deb: Did you have people around you that encouraged daydreaming and future thinking or was it intuitive to you?
Ian: Some part of the futurist nature was in my personality. I was always curious — but for what purpose? I would think about things and try things to make change happen. I failed miserably many times, but I had to move forward and keep thinking there has to be a better way. I’ve got to chase something better. I can do better. Failure is not a problem. The idea is never limit yourself to a constricted mindset. You need to be ready to expose yourself, to be vulnerable and to take risks. This is what it means to think loud and think big.
Futurist Thinking for Organizations
Deb: Do you think leadership has a role in encouraging future thinking within their organizations?
Ian: I believe today’s leadership has changed from traditionally what we’ve known leadership to be 20, 30, 50 years ago. Technology has a lot to do with it. The mindset of the younger generation of employees also has a lot to do with it. We now have five different generations in our workforce. Sometimes this causes division and it is hard to balance differences. Leaders today have a tough job. It’s not easy to get everyone on board with a direction then get themand headed in the same direction as a team. Leaders need to be able to challenge themselves and help their stakeholders succeed.
The model of leadership has changed within my own organization. We’re not in one location. We are distributed across the world. I wish we could spend more time being face-to-face, but it’s not possible. I do my best to encourage free thinking and initiative. My business started as a virtual company. I think organizations are now beginning to embrace this new model, but to thrive, they will need to change their policies and the very nature of how work gets done.
Leaders are becoming bolder. They recognize that remote work is not a failure anymore. It can work. Even in some very traditional industries like accounting, where you absolutely could not work from home, it’s possible to be productive when working from home. To be future-ready, leaders must be on the lookout for things that are impacting their virtual workforce. They need a system to measure where things are going and metrics to watch.
Deb: What do you think are the big technology adoption challenges organizations are faced with? Where are the blind spots?
Ian: There are multiple challenges. Possibly an infinite amount. And there are major building blocks that need to be addressed. People and culture are two of the biggest challenges organizations face. We’ve got to get beyond being profit focused. Leaders must pay more attention to the people part of their businesses. Who are the people that are part of your business and why are they part of your business? Why are they there? Why are they your employees? Some industries are facing a challenge attracting the necessary talent they need for future success.
Using accounting again as an example, businesses are having a problem attracting accounting talent. First of all, there aren’t many people who are entering into accounting school. Those who do become accountants are not wanting the same type of hours as the past. They don’t want to work an 80 hour week. They want to work 40 hours and go home and have balance in their life. And that’s how it should be. We shouldn’t be overworking ourselves to death.
Today’s organizations must understand the pulse of their employees and create a culture where the mental, financial, and physical well-being of people is very important. This is key. If you take care of your employees, they’ll take care of your customers.
Technology as a Panacea
Deb: Do you see businesses thinking about their technology adoption to also be a part of solutions to systemic hard problems humanity is facing?
Ian: It depends on the organization. Larger, more established companies are more accepting of the idea of leveraging technology to do many different things — not just drive efficiency in business processes. I believe there is more thought being brought to questions about how companies can improve people’s life, health or wealth. Smaller businesses struggle with these bigger aspirations. Many of the smaller businesses are just focused on staying in business. They’re trying to balance their books. They don’t have the time to take a broader perspective, even if it might actually help them with growth. Some education needs to happen to help small business leaders balance between today’s urgent issues of staying in business and longer term thought on how to position for a better future. They need to be coached on how to be future-ready.
I’m currently building a platform where there can be more one-on-one mentoring or peer groups created to help each other. There is a growing need for a peer group approach for small businesses to collaborate and learn from each other. Small businesses don’t have the resources to try a bunch of things that may not work. They need to be much more diligent with investments. If they can get help from others’ mistakes or successes, they might end up pointed more effectively in positive directions of future readiness.
Faith and Future
Deb: Are you a spiritual person? Is this something that guides you in business and in leadership?
Ian: That’s a great question. I was on a radio show yesterday and an audience member had a question about spirituality and the future of technology. I really couldn’t answer that question. They asked me, “do you think spirituality is going to benefit because of what is happening in technology?” I said I have no idea but I hope so. Maybe technology can help us learn more about ourselves and understand more of who we are. If so, I believe this will have a positive impact on our businesses.
But to answer your question personally, yes. I am a spiritual person. I believe there’s a creator. I have my beliefs and things that I believe are right and wrong. But, I’m also a practical person who believes that despite what people’s spiritual and religious beliefs are, we all should be striving to be better people. For example, we should be striving to not pollute the environment or to do things that are not good for all of us. There is a common spirituality that we all can develop as people; as humans and as inhabitants of the planet. I believe there needs to be more awareness around this common good for humanity. We can each still have our different religious beliefs or gods we believe in but together we can also believe in supporting each other to make the world a better place.
Deb: What is your greatest hope for the future?
Ian: Irrespective of where technology is going or how innovative we become, I hope that if some external entity like aliens looked at us from afar, they wouldn’t say our species was a mess. That they wouldn’t say, “look at these guys, they’ve completely destroyed their home. They are leaving their planet in spaceships to inhabit other places in the universe because theirs is unlivable. They’re fighting with each other and killing each other. All they can do is create destruction.” I don’t want humanity to end up this way.
I think we can do much better. We can solve a lot of problems if we just care about each other. There’s a stat somewhere that says something like, 99% of the world’s wealth is held by 1% of people. Even if remotely close, this is staggering. Many people are just poor. Half of the world lives on less than $2 a day. It is mind-boggling. There is so much inequality. More people in the world have cell phones than have sanitary facilities. Two billion people in the world do not have access to fresh, clean drinking water. I believe if we change our thinking, someday we can be disease-free.
At a level of consciousness where we all care about each other we can solve some of these hard problems. Our approach should be, hey, if you’re in pain, I have a solution for you, or I’ve got these resources to help you address that pain. Whether it is financial, economic, or technological, I . I feel we can build a peer to peer system, like a blockchain (I can’t ignore making the reference) to help each other. We can be there for each other, no matter where we are in the world. And collectively, we need to be there for each other. It can lead to a better future for everyone. But it’s easier said than done. We have a lot to overcome.
Ian reminds us the importance of becoming future-ready, both as individuals and as organizations. To avoid the imminent and lasting detriment to our business climate brought on by the changing forces within it, we must rebalance the energy and focus we place on technology and humans. And as we do, we must readjust our thinking and subsequent actions about the purpose of business and the organization mechanisms we create to deliver on that purpose. Ultimately the call to action must give preference to a human-centric perspective to create a better future for all of us.