The category shift – how current mindsets radically change in the future of work

posted on September 1st 2017 in Future of work & Innovation & Leadership & skills & Uncategorized with 0 Comments

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I love listening to music while driving. Every time I hire a car for a longer ride, I bring my own playlist. In April 2010 I went on a road trip through the Netherlands, one of my favourite countries. With my burned mp3-CD in one hand and the keys to a brand new (as the manager stressed) hiring car in the other I was disappointed to find nothing more than a USB-slot.

What happened: I listened to bad radio music for days, I felt outdated and ever since when I hire a car I always bring a CD and anything that works with USB and Bluetooth.

You will certainly agree that my reaction is completely understandable and logically. You too would adapt your audio devices to the new technology in a car if you had a similar experience.

Now imagine the hiring car is a company.

What I see is that most people stubbornly keep bringing CDs and some even bring cassette tapes to work. Have you ever heard the line “we’ve been doing this successfully for x amount of years now. There is no need for a change!”  – yep, that’s the person with the tape.

When it comes to the future of work, we will face way more complex problems than a CD which doesn’t fit into a USB slot. We have to completely alter our understanding of work-related ideas, products and processes to stay ahead.

But why do we have such a hard time with getting off the beaten path?


The psychology behind trying to squeeze a tape into a USB slot

Our brain isn’t made to keep in mind all the bits and pieces of information we come across on a daily basis. Yesterday’s coincidences won’t help us to master tomorrow’s challenges. What our brain wants and needs is stable rules. More and more of the same information and the same experiences are formed into rules, patterns and categories. Things like finding our way home, grammar rules or leadership styles are all based on patterns and sorted in categories. Our brain likes sorting known to known and same to same. This allows us to navigate easily through our lives without an exceeding consumption of energy, like being on autopilot. Basically, this is a good thing (imagine if you had to actively re-think how to tie your shoelaces every time you put shoes on!).

However, it becomes complicated when we face extraordinary situations or tradeoffs. The rules we know don’t apply; we can’t retrieve knowledge out of the categories we built; we have to question our mental models. We have to re-think, re-learn and adapt.

This is what happens in the future of work. There are whole categories that will undergo a complete shift. Old norms won’t match with new challenges.

Let me give three examples to make it clearer.


Work settings

Many knowledge workers already realize a change in their work settings. Flexible hours, home office, shared desks, distributed teams, flat hierarchy structures. Compared to industrialization, this seems quite fast forward, but actually it isn’t much of a change.

One of the most dominant yardsticks of our work is and remains time. Our work is measured in hours, to improve our productivity we use time management, we schedule meetings, we have a certain amount of vacation days and so on. Time is such a dominant way of measuring, that even solo entrepreneurs who have no obligations to any company or any superior keep on operating by this measurement.

Have you ever wondered how it can be that people all over the globe regardless of their skills and profession need exactly 8 hours a day to get their work done?


Have you ever realized that your personal feeling of accomplished work is more linked to time than to actual results?

The “results by volume” approach, which measures work quality by quantity, is one of the dinosaurs that hangs around in the vast majority of organizations even though it should have been extinguished years ago.

Shifting the category of “time” will demand a complete rethinking of your approach to work success in your organization.



When the work setting changes, people’s behaviour changes. Suddenly, certain management and leadership techniques that managers and leaders are used to and feel comfortable with just don’t apply anymore.

Even transformational and participative leadership, one of the more recent styles to emerge in the workplace, probably will be outdated soon because new talent doesn’t want to be led that way.

That also means leadership undergoes a category shift. If you saw my blog post about the new leadership style in the future of work, you read about the vanishing of characteristics that represent a leader: being the one who knows most and best, commanding tasks, ensuring results and performance, making decisions. These characteristics are part of an old leadership model and they are basically linked to tasks, which amount to what a leader does.

In the future of work, this perspective on leadership changes.

Most people think that leading is about leading a company. But that isn’t always true. You can lead just people. When leaders basically stop being the ones to command, what reason would an employee have to continue to follow them?

Leadership in the future of work will question not only styles but also personal beliefs about leadership.



When our work settings and the way we lead leave the well-established categories we had put them in, we will need a new set of skills to manage these new realities.

Skills, that will be very necessary, are the ones that enable us to navigate through an uncertain, fast changing and complex world. Being prepared for the future not also means being prepared for changes but for radical changes in even shorter time periods.

Breakthrough innovations will change whole industries. There will be jobs we couldn’t imagine to exist and challenges we won’t be able to solve with proven approaches.

One of the most important skills will be the ability to do the category shift. This means mastering your brain in a completely different way. It will take time and effort, which will be why only a few people will be able to do it. But those few will be the ones who will thrive in the future of work.


Are you interested in learning more about what skills will be needed in the future of work?

I am starting a series about the future of work skills for leaders that you won’t want to miss. The series will explore the- 10 most important skills to have and how to obtain them.

This series will be exclusive to subscribers of my FUTURE OF WORK newsletter. You can sign up by clicking here.