When I tell people that I am a futurist the reactions fall into two broad categories.
- “That is so cool” – to which my response is generally “can you go and tell my 15 yr old because he in no way thinks I am cool”.
- What the ****** is a futurist. That happened to me yesterday when I was sitting in the audience for the launch of a new Horizon Scanning tool that we are working on with the Department of Premier and Cabinet here in Victoria. The group in the seats behind me were saying “what is a futurist, there is supposed to be one here?” My general response to that reaction is : we help people think differently about the future so they can shape their strategy.
I like to show people the Futurist Meme from http://www.wfs.org/content/what-people-think-i-do-meme-futurist
because it is largely true from a number of perspectives and I do like to think that what I do is about helping people get a few more pieces of the puzzle about what the future might hold.
Because the future is inherently unknowable we need to take the possibilities that we see and put them into a forward strategy because while the world is highly uncertain, complex, and rapidly changing we still need to do stuff.
To do that we use the acronym SEX for strategy. Partly because it is easy for people to remember and partly because sex is sort of involved. Sex stand for Strategy, Experimentation, and eXploration.:
Strategy is about what we know enough about to create a hard, detailed plan. This can be the case even in the face of considerable uncertainty. For example if we look at agricultural research in the face of climate change there is a huge amount of uncertainty. Even if we put aside the arguments between those that believe in climate change being largely man -made and those that do not there is still considerable uncertainty in the macro models. Beyond that once we drill down into specific geographical regions the uncertainty is much higher. In the face of that uncertainty research into improving the water utilsation of plants is still very useful. If climate change does not occur then those plants will still be useful in areas that were previously too dry to grow them. If the actual regional outcomes are far different that the median models then the plants will still be useful somewhere, even if it may be far away from what was envisaged when the research began. Strategy is about creating a detailed, defined plan that fits how the organisation actually works rather than fitting the organisation to the plan. It is also about finding things to do that are successful in multiple forward scenarios.
The reality is that we live in a complex, rapidly changing and uncertain world. Most people respond to that by trying to create certainty through forecasts or spreadsheet models derived from MBA programs that give the aura of robustness. The reality is that in a complex, disruptive world there are many things that will blind side us. This is hard for many people to accept, and especially for the smartest people in the room who have a hard time accepting that they cannot know the answers, Or even if they do, they have a hard time admitting it to others. This is where sex comes in……
Species and ecosystems respond to inherent uncertainty in their environment by having diversity, and populations or ecosystems that do not have that diversity are very brittle in the face of change. That diversity is fueled in part by sex and the exchange of genetic material. The parallel in organisations is to have an exchange of ideas and perspectives that are driven into many small experiments and trials that we are continually putting in place at the edges. Then as the environment changes we have multiple, pre-made approaches and capabilities that can respond to the changes. This requires a cultural change that accepts and even rewards failure, and also accepts that we have to feel our way forward.
It is our strong view that this experimentation is best carried out via a group of organisations so that we get a variety of ideas and perspectives, and also share resources and risks in trying out things.
No matter how good our strategy is, and how well we are experimenting at the edge we also need to keep our eye out for what might happen. This allows us to change our detailed strategy as necessary but also inform our thinking and and design of experiments and trials. This exploration needs to be both lateral and vertical.
The science fiction writer William Gibson is famous for saying “the future is already here it is just unevenly distributed”. There are lots of new and different things happening in different industries, different cultures, different areas of expertise and different countries. I am also fond of the saying that “good artists copy, great artists steal” Get out and have a look at what you can bring back into your organisation or industry and change how things work. That is the lateral approach.
The vertical approach is about deeper understanding. It is about getting below the surface of trends or ideas and understanding what is really driving them. It is about looking at the drivers from the point of view of behavioural economics, metaphors, philosophy, etc and getting a deeper understanding. It is about dropping the stuff you see into thinking frameworks and models so you can understand more deeply than anyone else and design approaches and strategy that others have not thought about. It is at the heart of business model innovation.
If you work out a way to put all this together in a way that suits how your organisation really works then you can create an organisation that can strategise and feel its way to the future more successfully.
p.s. – next month we are starting a collaboration process on experimentation with a number of organisations, and yesterdays launch with Dpt of Premier and Cabinet is about a formal scanning model for exploration. If you are interested in either of those approaches contact me at email@example.com