Looking Past Greece’s ‘Tea-and-Cake-or-Death’ Elections

If you haven’t seen Eddie Izzard’s tea-and-cake-or-death sketch, it’s a 2-minute must.

In concept, it covers the same ground as the famous Monty Python ‘Life of Brian’ crucifixion scene:

- “Crucifixion? Out the door, line on the left, one cross each.

- Er, no freedom actually

- Oh I say, that’s very nice. Well, off you go then.”

Both capture humor from the utter obviousness of the insight: if there’s any chance of another option, who is going to choose the grim one?

This is obvious to everyone, except European, IMF, and other international creditors who were somehow expecting voters in France and Greece to choose austerity. And you don’t need to be Nostradamus to know that in any future election where austerity is twinned with, well anything else, the else wins. (In the recent UK local elections the “let’s take our medicine” Conservative — Liberal Democratic coalition was also soundly spanked.)

How does the tea-and-cake-or-death insight help us think about how things will turn out for Greece and the rest of the euro zone, and all the companies and investors whose decisions hang on the outcome?

The principle is this: fixed points are footholds in complex, unstable foresight situations. They are what allows us to contain the permutation of outcomes, and the more there are, the more we can reliably narrow the future.

And now we know what voters will do in every election. So, assuming democracy is maintained as the political system (a calculated safe assumption) we have a fixed point.

What’s uncertain is what the creditors will do. But even in this, there are only two outcomes, given a moral consensus to avoid mass unemployment, right-wing extremism, starvation, or worse: either (1) rich European nations and the global community dilute (forgive) most of the debt, as they have already partially done for Greece, in the attempt to provide a reasonable basis for unburdoned new growth; or (2) the dam bursts and Greece leaves the euro zone, possibly followed by Spain and Italy.

Yes or No

This is another way of saying, do the creditors have the will to force the issue, yes or no?

Nobody knows what will happen. When faced with a genuine uncertainty, it’s futile to chase the chimera of the “right” prediction. In a company or an investment house that has exposure to the euro zone, responsible leadership would create a scenario of each of the two creditor actions, and expected knock-on effects, and work out strategies and hedges for each case.

The Greek situation throws up another principle of astutely managing the future: being hyper alert to when terms of reference or terms of engagement really change. An attempt to impose such a reframe is going on right now, as President Hollande, Chancellor Merkel, and José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, yesterday urged the Greek electorate to consider the June 17 election not as a vote about austerity, but as “a referendum on euro membership.”

This gives Greek politicians a way to find common ground with their voters who remain solidly in favor of euro membership—but it stands or falls depending whether the creditor threat is credible, and is seen to be credible, which is the irreducible uncertainty of the situation at present.

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The Car on the Sidewalk and Other Reversals

The future will be full of surprises and reversals. Can leaders and decision-makers get better at seeing them before they happen? Or better at themselves instigating and managing such reversals, in pursuit of social or financial benefit?

Exhibition Road The Car on the Sidewalk and Other Reversals
Exhibition Road, London. Picture: The Guardian

A fun and instructive example is the ongoing developments in Exhibition Road, a kind of ‘museum mile’ in London, where the distinction between road and sidewalk is being abolished to make way for a car, bike, and pedestrian free-for-all.

Have the city’s planning wonks finally, truly, verifiably gone mad?

Since the automobile first reared its fearsome fender, road-management wisdom has always been that pedestrians are safest when kept separate from 5,000lb of moving metal.

Evangelists for livable urban areas usually clamor for pedestrian-only streets; or failing that, bigger, better-marked walking, running, and cycle lanes from which drivers are banned.

But pedestrian-car segregation has its own systemic effect. It means drivers are less likely to expect people in front of them, and so less likely to be vigilant and more likely to speed.

Exhibition Road planners say making the street a mixed area makes drivers anticipate something crossing their paths at all times.


The mixed-use-street idea is not new: it was pioneered by town planner and traffic engineer Hans Monderman in the Netherlands in the 1980s and 1990s. According to a Guardian obituary, Monderman “succeeded in challenging many long-established assumptions about safety and the relationship between pedestrians and traffic…

“Monderman pioneered an approach that respected the driver’s common sense and intelligence instead of reliance on signs, road markings, traffic signals and physical barriers. He recognised that increasing control and regulation by the state reduced individual and collective responsibility.”

The jury is out on how effective mixed-use streets are; or exactly where they are most effective.

But the leadership lesson is clear: all decisions and resulting directives rest on foundational assumptions. The more robust these underlying assumptions, the better the decisions.

In this case, the assumption that greater safety is achieved by separation of vehicle and pedestrian is being challenged, and may turn out not to hold up at all for specific city areas.

Where assumptions are weak — or become weak over time due to changes in technology or values or market needs — poor decisions follow.

Leaders who don’t identify and regularly revisit the assumptions that underly their past decisions abdicate the ability to manage reversals and transitions when required. And will be surprised and blindsided when others initiate them.



 The Car on the Sidewalk and Other Reversals
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Tradition beats back the future as William marries his ‘American’ princess

kate middleton arms 300x231 Tradition beats back the future as William marries his American princess

Kate Middleton's new coat of arms

Tomorrow’s wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton dominates the airwaves around the world, and even Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kantor has an HBR blog post offering business insights thereto, including that it is an example of the coming of the “experience economy,” where people pay for the chance to participate at particular times, and expenditures on goods and services come in bundles tied to particular events. She councils how the “soft stuff” and “joy factor” can offer big audiences and revenues; romance and ritual matter…“sentiment sells.”

Fair enough. To this, permit me to add a thought or two about how the fact of the royal wedding can improve out judgment of future business environments and opportunities.

First, in the race to the future, leaders should never underestimate the power of traditionalism and continuity –particularly in changing times. Business leaders may be tempted to view the latest gizmo or the new lifestyle choice as the future. But this would be thinking poorly about tomorrow. Yes, new things get adopted all the time, and real and rapid change happens, but at the same time the broad market also has a vast, seemingly unquenchable, appetite for tradition.

The point is, the two are closely correlated. The faster society and technology moves the more people cling to apparent past certainties and traditions.

If you’d looked at the future of the British monarchy anytime through the turbulent, democratizing 20th century you might have be tempted to say it must soon be phased out, given the estimated $65m-a-year cost to the taxpayer (not including the spiraling cost of security.) You would think that the public would tire of upper-class toffs prancing around from polo matches to garden parties, wearing Chloe and drinking Krug at their expense.


But, in fact, no. The British monarchy is as popular as ever. There is some truth in the view that royalty is good for UK tourism. But mostly the monarchy survives because the public wants vestiges of the past as it peers at the changing future and the steady erosion of tradition and other fixed points from middle class lives.

A handsome military prince, a girl in white, a horse-drawn carriage, a bishop, a cathedral … is a psychological balm for most of us, even if we are, or more exactly because we are, viewing it all streamed on an iPad.

In industry foresight, we call this a “counter-trend.”

Another counter trend at work here is marriage itself. The figures are clear that people are marrying later, if at all, and staying married for a shorter time. William and Kate represent a minority: the number of weddings that are a first-time marriage for both parties is down to 150,000 a year, 35% what it was in 1940. That’s the trend. So the royal couple and their public ritual affirms publicly what most ordinary people are denying or denied privately.

The point not to be missed is the middle-class compromises most people are making drives counter-trend nostalgia for what once was, and marketing campaigns or business units, if not entire companies, can be built thereon – not only on traditionalist revivalism specifically, but on any strong counter-trend.

American Dream

Finally, the wedding of Prince William to “commoner” Catherine Middleton shows us how, despite all its apparent protestations, the UK is yet still Americanizing faster than one might think, and not just in splurging on cheap Chinese imports or putting university education on a pay-to-play basis.

Kate is very much an “American” princess, in the sense of being from a self-made family. Her mother was a flight attendant, her father too, before becoming a flight dispatcher for BA. (Rumor, hotly denied, is that Prince William’s friends used to snigger “doors-to-manual” among themselves on Kate’s arrival, in reference to her parents’ profession.)

But then “the American dream” could and did happen: The Middletons hit it rich with an online party supplies company (Party Pieces), were able to send Catherine to the right schools, and the rest is history.

 Tradition beats back the future as William marries his American princess


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Political Will Key to Anticipating Outcomes for Egypt, Libya, and Beyond

Picture 3 201x300 Political Will Key to Anticipating Outcomes for Egypt, Libya, and BeyondAs the 24-hour news caravan moves on from Cairo to Libya in search of the next news fix, I’m reminded how poorly the media caravanserai thinks about the future: in this case, what real changes (if any) the fall of Mubarak may cause in Egypt, or in the political and business environment in the Middle East, or the world at large, going forward.

That a 30-year despot was toppled by people-power is without doubt a good outcome story for those with broadly democratic and civil-liberties biases. But the breathless pundits have been quick to call the Tahrir Square events “the ‘Berlin Wall’ of the Arab world.”

Is it? The Tahrir Square revolt tells us there is economic hardship and rumbling social discontent in Egypt, and that the populace is emboldened, but it doesn’t tell us much about the future.

Yes Egypt is the bellweather of the region. And yes, it has gone through a cataclysmic moment. But the future is all about momentum. Can we expect momentum? Is there reason to anticipate follow through? Can we expect the “fast-forward” button from now, or is it going to be the pause button that defines outcomes?

The fall of the Berlin Wall fall was symbolic: the symbol of Eastern bloc demise – a crack in the national prison that held back human aspiration. But it was also more than a symbol. In reality, on the ground, the political will that sustained the Wall was gone by 1989. Tricky as it was, and still is, the then West German government had a stake in and a will towards reintegrating the East. The situation went into fast-forward mode.

Egyptian protesters have dislodged a few boulders, and shaken a few certainties. But what is the political will in Egypt and among its Western allies going forward? That’s what will tell us about the future.

Head chopped off

The army is in charge, but the army is more closely allied with the ruling elite than the common protesters. The elite has had its head chopped off, but it can easily grow a new one. The issue it will highlight – as we have already seen – is stability, raising the specter of (a) chaos or (b) Islamists, or both, to stoke the military and cow the population.

Genuine chaos is in fact a high likelihood. Whenever the glue of power melts, and power (over the future) is up for grabs, agencies and interests will contend for it, seeking to win absolutely while the chips are in the aire, or to be in the best pre-pax position when they fall. A merry-go-round of tottering regimes, interspersed by chaos, or even a Lebanon-style multifaceted civil war between army, ruling elite, Islamists, warlords, students, etc., is surely a more-than-possible scenario.

The deeper story, as many have pointed out, is the economic, infrastructural, and civil weakness that defines Egypt, whoever takes over. It has a young and growing population, a stalled economy with chronic high unemployment, inequitable wealth distribution, poor local and regional governance, and corruption.

This is why it should not be believed that any party or interest can deliver a new future. Without considerable change at the grassroots, democratic fanfare, would be just that — fanfare.

So if the political will in Egypt is both fractured and hamstrung, what about outside interested parties and the West?

Friendly dictator

What will be future-defining is whether the US and its allies drop the “friendly dictator” policy — propping up corrupt despots because they are externally benign (and better than the Islamic alternative.) If they keep this up, the outcome for Egypt and the region is a fractured “pause” situation, no matter what blather about democracy, elections, human rights, new constitutions, makes the airwaves, from Hillary Clinton down.

But if, by some albeit unlikely turn of events, the external political towards Egypt was reshaped to transcend self-interest and neglect; and starts to support quiet, consistent, financial and non-financial development of the mechanisms and institutions of civil governance, backed by education and micro-loan economic stimulus – then the future is on the move and business managers should start realigning their thinking towards stable long-term growth for the region.

 Political Will Key to Anticipating Outcomes for Egypt, Libya, and Beyond


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Wikileaks welcomes diplomacy to the future

The world is has been changed by the exposure on WikiLeaks of hundreds of thousands US diplomatic cables laying bare the behind-the-scenes manuevering and perspectives of US diplomats and their allies.

The leaks created predictable dismay at the State Department and beyond, along with gritted-teeth promises to bring perpetrators to justice, and there is enough outrage and embarrassment in high places that this kind of action will no doubt go forward.

But, from a foresight perspective, it’s just “noise.” It is not the future. There can be no muzzling in the digital world. Just like we nod and smile when China tries to keep a finger in the Internet dyke, we should nod and smile at these diplomatic machinations to hold back the electronic tide.

A long time coming

This kind of upset has been a long time coming for the diplomatic community. Over the last 20 years, most industries and organizations have been forced to adapt to a world where instant copying and distribution of digital content means that electronic information is soon, if not instantly, freely available in the public domain. That is, an electronic document is effectively a public document no matter what anyone says or does.

Some have learned the hard way. Media companies slow to imbibe this new reality, from Encyclopedia Brittanica to Blockbuster, have gone to the wall. The music industry has fought a long fight against unsanctioned electronic redistribution, a fight it must ultimately lose. Police departments have found out that any time “policing” is going on, someone with a cell-phone is videoing it (digitizing it), and next thing that’s in the public domain too.

So now its US (and global) diplomacy’s turn to learn the digital lesson: if it’s digital, it’s in the public domain — already, or soon.

There are of course good arguments for secrecy. The sensitive baby-steps of international agreements need privacy protection. Leaking information may embarrass partners, scupper deals, put lives at risk, or compromise counter-terrorism. This is all true.

But to wag fingers over this is like EMI saying: “creator incentive is compromised by copyright violation.” True, but there go mp3s, zooming around the Internet.

Far from the public gaze

As already evident, first response of the authorities will be to try to shore up the system. The Secret internet Protocol distribution (SIPDIS) electronic archive will disappear or be ushered behind much higher security, access clearances will be hiked, and tougher followup and penalties for official secrets violations will be enacted —to make it safe for diplomats to go back in the water. That is, back to the 19th Century gentlemanly art of a quiet word here, a confidential nudge there, far from the public gaze.

But electronic information cannot be contained, and to think that it can is to live stupid. We inhabit a world where the electronic machinations of diplomacy and national interest can be sent anonymously to a drop box at any time. If the forces of national interest close down the current actors and Web sites, others will open (broadly supported by the quality news media.) Digital capabilities cannot be withdrawn and the thought of an anonymous electronic drop box cannot be unthought.

The writing is on the wall, and it says: “This Writing is On Everyone’s Wall.”

So we should anticipate that the public going forward will have a much greater visibility into the diplomatic process no matter what diplomats want or think is best.

The issue for senior government leaders is to choose their response path. Do they, as expected, act furiously to preserve the past; or do they embrace the future of their sector and perhaps even exploit the possibilities in it? Not everything should be made public, that’s what “top secret” is for. But for the rest, bringing the public into a high-quality, two-way sense of what is being done in its name could bear fruit of real political grounding for diplomatic initiatives, therein greater legitimacy.

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The Banking Industry is Gifted a Reliable View of its Future

I recently got caught in front of a video on the Future of Money shown at the banking industry conference, Sibos (SWIFT International Banking Operations Seminar) in Amsterdam.

 The Banking Industry is Gifted a Reliable View of its Future

Source: tradefinance-jobs.com

I’d give the video a miss. It’s Gen-Y dude-immersion to the like, max, and what co-producer Venessa Miemis has to say is much more effectively communicated on her site, which is:

“All the decisions about where I spend my time, attention, and money say something about me. For example: I buy organic food from local farms and products and services from local businesses —(I believe in building resilient communities by supporting local economy.) I have a garden, I fish, I hunt, I brew beer— (I find empowerment, gratification, and joy from understanding where food comes from and how to get it myself.) I recycle—(I understand that we live on a planet with finite resources and I want to reduce my impact.) I don’t shop at Wal-Mart. – (I prefer not to buy products that were produced in a country where people’s labor had to be exploited so I could “save” a dollar.)”

The well-identified trend to ethical consumption is at work here, but Miemis is actually expressing a far bigger consumer trend that in industry foresight workshops I call “identity-building consumption” (which may or may not be ethical.) Ref: “All the decisions about where I spend my time, attention, and money say something about me.”

Miemis continues: “Now, what does my bank say about me? Nothing.”

How might a bank go about articulating customer identity?

“Transparency… All I know about the way my bank works is that I deposit my money there, and then they take that money and go make money off of it. Where is that money going? Where is it being invested? Can I have control over how you use my money? Can I set a standard of where I allow you to invest my money, so I can be proud to say my money is being invested in green technology, or local initiatives, or anything that I care about?

“Intelligent Investing Opportunities… Show me opportunities where I can micro-invest in things I care about. Recommend ways I can save money on the things I already buy regularly. Show me how I can leverage my network and invest with a whole swarm of people. (Think Groupon for investing.) And then make each of these investments a part of my digital identity. I WANT people to know. I’ll wear it like a badge. Give me a service that empowers me to invest intelligently and in a way that represents the ethics I believe in, and I’ll tell everybody about it. This information will become part of ‘Social Credit Score,’ which will be more important than our current credit scores one day.

“Social Network Analysis for Co-Production Opportunities… There are a lot of people out there who want to cooperate and collaborate in order to manifest something together and make their lives and the world a better place. How do we find each other? Could a BANK help hook us up and then provide us with the information and resources we need to take an idea to action? Could we display projects we want to work on that are socially responsible and environmentally sustainable, and the bank links us to the investors that can help actualize it?”

Miemes rails against how at Sibos her “Innotribe’s” manifesto was met with no more than a polite “there-there” pat-on-the-head from gray-haired bankers. That’s to be expected. But if there is a solid principle in industry foresight, it is that the next generation wins in the long run (and the long run is becoming shorter.)

Retail banking, like just about every other retail industry, is being sucked with new generations into Web 2.0, the “Social Web.”

And the Social Web is, fundamentally, a self- (and group) identity-building and identity-expression machine.

So the banking sector has to prepare for a near-term future where it plays an active role in the identity construction and identity articulation of its customers. Here they are shown some important ways to do it. That is, they have been gifted a blueprint of the future of their industry.

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