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11 Jun 2020

Heather McGowan: We need to reimagine rather than return

Future of work strategist

You may be misdirected by all the bad news in the world to lose faith in the future. Ahead of her keynote address at the HR and L&D Virtual Innovation and Tech Fest, Heather McGowan, future of work strategist, author (and former Minister of Culture at Hyperloop Transportation Technologies), explains why human potential is a clear indicator that we are destined for new and improved versions of the world.


2020 might as well be called ‘The Year Things Had to Change’ but much of this year’s turmoil wasn’t totally unexpected – at least by leaders. Why do you think workplaces and economies haven’t been better prepared?

My latest book, co-authored by Chris Shipley, The Adaptation Advantage, starts with two quotes “human beings are a work in progress that mistakenly think they are finished” and “we have an ease of remembering vs. a difficultly of imagining”. I think those two quotes from Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert really sum up where we are and how we got here.

We are capable of more than we give ourselves credit but, unfortunately, we avoid doing so unless forced. In that way, the coronavirus has been an accelerant to our digital transformation, which is actually simply human transformation. We should stop and realise that inside of two weeks all learning organisations went online where it was technically feasible to do so and every company that could, immediately deployed a distributed workforce. That is tremendous and rapid adaptation at scale.


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How can organisations whose bottom lines have been significantly, negatively impacted by the virus focus on inspiring human potential instead of driving productivity?

With our myopic focus on efficiency we have come to see “human potential” and “productivity” as opposed. In this global pandemic coupled with a looming recession, we cannot win in the short or long term by simply cutting costs— it is a race to the bottom. Human potential is tapping into an individual’s ability to continuously expand their capacity to contribute to the organisation.


What do we need to unlearn right now?

Fixed Occupational Identity. We need to stop our myopic focus on occupational identity. We ask young children what they want to be when they grow up. We ask university students to select a major before stepping foot on campus. We ask each other “What do you do?” as our opening signal in social settings.

Our ability to learn, adapt, and create new value is hindered by our fixed view of ourselves. Job loss and change is actually, statistically, normal but we pretend it is not. Due to advancements in human longevity - coupled with a marked increase in the velocity of change - we will have longer and more volatile career arcs filled with more roles and we are not yet preparing for that. 

We need to help folks redefine themselves with resilient and adaptive identities. These identities need to be rooted in curiosity, purpose, and passion (why) with a continual pursuit of expanding one’s capacity through new skills and knowledge (how), so that what one does for work becomes simply the application of skills and knowledge at a moment in time.


What are you looking forward to bringing to the attendees of the HR and L&D Virtual Innovation & Tech Fest?

There is, understandably, a tremendous amount of bad news right now.  I want folks to zoom out from this difficult moment and see it for the inflection point it could become while realising that we have about 5,000 years of recorded human history and it really has been only in the last 70 years or so that we have made profound changes to improve the human condition.

We have lifted more folks out of global poverty, elevated more people into literacy, and for the relatively short period of time we have had the internet we have connected more than half the globe. How quickly we have responded to this virus is a signal that I want folks to see as evidence that the best days are ahead if we are both intentional and insistent that we can build an even better world. 


You can hear Heather’s keynote address, The Adaptation Advantage: Let Go, Learn Fast to Thrive in the Future of Work at the HR and L&D Virtual Innovation and Tech Fest.






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