The Lifelong Learner: How Alvin Toffler Shaped the Future
Alvin Toffler, the namesake and founder of Toffler Associates passed away on June 27, 2016. The news spread quickly across the globe through social media, press coverage, and personal reflections. Many of the conversations centered on the impact of his bestselling books. While it’s true his impact on the general population was in large part promulgated by books like Future Shock, The Third Wave, and Powershift, it was the people behind the books – not the books themselves – that transformed how individuals, businesses, and governments think about the present and future.
Born into a small family of immigrants in 1928 Brooklyn, Alvin saw the transformative power of observing, questioning, challenging, and thinking about the world early in his childhood. He admired and emulated writers like Steinbeck and London. He had an uncle who worked for a book publisher and who fueled his love for knowledge. Alvin went on to earn a degree in English from New York University, where he met his wife and business partner Heidi. In her, he found a shared curiosity and drive for understanding. After college, the two moved to the heart of industrial America where they worked on production lines in order to gather real world knowledge of people, organizations and industrial mass production.
Alvin translated his experiences and insights into an early career in journalism. But he extended his passion and pursuit of knowledge, questioning, and thinking into a lifetime of influence.
The Creation of Toffler Associates
In 1996, along with business consultant Tom Johnson, Alvin and Heidi co-founded Toffler Associates. The team had a specific intent to be something different. Toffler Associates would embrace the ideas of the Third Wave. They would engage experience and their understanding of what it takes to thrive in the Information Age to help clients around the world to secure their future in a global environment that was changing and becoming increasingly complex at an accelerating rate.
The core values, behaviors, and intent that drove the trio to form our firm remain our driving passion and ‘why’ to this day.
Toffler’s Core Values
I had the great good fortune to know Alvin Toffler for much of my adult life, and to see firsthand how his passions and methods are mirrored in his namesake firm’s core values and approach.
One: Engage in diversity and give in to curiosity
Alvin never seemed to be in a rush. He knew how to slow down to create time to observe, learn and reflect. He would take the time to go deep on ideas and topics, to truly engage people to understand their perspectives, experiences and points of view. It was by investigating, reading, conversing, and challenging beliefs that Alvin reached some of his most groundbreaking perceptions and possibilities.
Alvin saw that time was accelerating. It continues to do so exponentially every year. Organizations find themselves in a hyperconnected, disintermediated environment where barriers are dissolving and change is happening at the speed of light. Executives and leaders often ask how to make decisions faster. As Alvin showed us, the better question may be how to decelerate in order to observe, learn, and reflect so we can peer into the future and consider possibilities.
No doubt, agility is vital to survival. Ironically, creating the space to do the deep thinking gives leaders an advantage in that endeavor. Toffler Associates embraces the value of diverse thinking and curiosity. We help our clients to build expertise in the dynamics of change by engaging in orthogonal thinking, questioning, challenging, and considering diverse concepts, industries, and possibilities – we help them to create time to think and decide the best way forward.
Two: Make a commitment to connect
Journalistic tendencies were always part of how Alvin interacted with others. He had an ability to connect with everyone, from presidents of countries, CEOs of global companies, and military commanders, to the waitresses, taxi drivers, and hotel clerks he met while traveling the world. Many of these interactions went deep. He was judicious, asking deeper and deeper questions motivated by a genuine interest in people and their perspective and understanding of the world around them.
His interest in learning was not fully satisfied by such interactions. The Toffler home remains full of books and articles from sources ranging from the New York Times to international publications that he would read and annotate every day. He created full taxonomies of concepts gleaned from varying sources in order to build connections and spot a larger meaning that could inform a view of the future.
In the work we do helping commercial and government organizations architect a better future, we engage a similar exercise. Today’s challenges and opportunities are incredibly complex. They can’t be solved from within the confines of a situation, organization or industry. We do exhaustive interviews of everyone across the larger ecosystem to gather a broad range of perspectives. Our internal research initiatives are broad and extensive. With the intelligence gathered, we cross-connect perspectives, knowledge and ideas to reveal how activities, networks, people, problems, and decisions impact one another.
Three: Speak truth to power
It takes a great deal of courage to speak openly and directly about what you believe to be true. Having a framework for assembling and organizing an exhaustive amount of knowledge enabled Alvin – as it does Toffler Associates – to provide fully informed and unbiased counsel.
Years before the breakup of the bells, AT&T enlisted Alvin to construct a report about the future of the industry and their business. After spending a year interviewing, researching, and processing every piece of information gathered through his research, Alvin concluded that change would come to AT&T – and faster than expected. While the company didn’t heed the warning initially, it ultimately gave them a head start to take action as they saw governmental pressure begin to build.
The sense of hope and a solid framework with which he approached the AT&T counsel guided much of the other messages Alvin would share through his books and talks. This same mix of optimism and methodology continues to influence how we advise clients with confidence in the value of speaking truth to power.
Four: Be a lifelong learner
From reading every day to conversing with all kinds of people as he and Heidi traveled the world, Alvin was a consummate learner. Today, those kinds of people walk the halls of the Toffler Associates offices. We are eternal students. We immerse ourselves deeply in our client organizations and in their larger ecosystems. Through interviews, reading, sharing, connecting, debating, and considering alternatives and what if’s, we shape the contexts and insights that inform innovation and transformations.
Change is happening faster and faster – and it’s going to be amazing
Alvin had a humility born of curiosity and a desire to understand others. He saw a knowledge revolution taking hold and created our firm to be purpose driven. As we mark the 20th anniversary of this eponymous firm, Toffler Associates continues to extend his curiosity, passions, and commitment to the organizations we support.
We do that by engaging the core values that made Alvin who he was as a person, writer, and futurist. He believed firmly that every challenge had a solution, and that by taking the time to question and think comprehensively, the team and our clients can illuminate the best way to architect a secure future.
Like Alvin, our team exists to help organizations understand, plan, and adapt. That’s the truth and touchstone as tied to the Toffler name as our firm itself. We are proud to be his namesake, we are honored to carry on his legacy.
From here, we look forward. In a subsequent post, we will share some of the ways we continue to carry Alvin Toffler’s torch and employ the systematic methodology of practical futurism to help today’s leaders architect better futures.
Alvin Toffler’s work changed our view of tomorrow and formed the foundation of our firm. To learn more about his legacy, follow the link below.